Read the full interview on Flaunt.com!
Hip-hop would not be where it is without the major players behind-the-scenes. From songwriters to producers to engineers, every song and every project is created with teamwork at the forefront. Insert Jeff Bhasker, who’s worked very closely with Kanye West on four of his albums: 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, and Donda.
But that doesn’t even begin to cover Bhasker’s long list of accolades and achievements. Hailing from New Mexico originally, the producer and songwriter has taken home 5 Grammy trophies, for his work on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town,” Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” fun’s “We Are Young,” and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.”
With his diverse musical palette and ability to transcend genres, Bhasker is a true student of the game, effortlessly making history as he collaborates with all the elites of the music industry.
With this in mind, it makes even more sense when Kanye West asked him to come on as the musical director of his Glow In The Dark Tour, an opportunity that arose after Bhasker was asked to fill in last-minute as a keyboardist.
Flaunt caught up with Jeff Bhakser in Los Angeles to discuss his background in music, learning how to produce, working with Goapele, Kanye’s most slept-on song, doing SNL with Young Thug, his solo projects, advice for aspiring producers and composers, and more!
For those who don’t know, who is Jeff Bhasker?
Jeff Bhasker is a Grammy award-winning superproducer from Socorro, New Mexico, whose father is from India. He’s lived in LA for 15 years now. Jeff Bhasker is a pianist. Jeff Bhasker loves modernism and Igor Stravinsky. Jeff Bhasker grew up on jazz and wanted to be a jazz pianist, that’s what turned him on to music, period. Jeff Bhasker’s mom was playing those jazz chords and I was like, “what is that?” That got me going.
Your dad was a doctor. Were they okay with music when you first started?
Not necessarily. It’s something I did on my own. Like many Asian families, you’re supposed to become a doctor or a lawyer. Follow education. Particularly Indians, it’s very education oriented, but that’s something I did on my own. We loved listening to music. I was listening to Rick Dees’ weekly Top 40, but it wasn’t something necessarily that my dad encouraged me to pursue.
How did you learn how to produce? I know you went to Berklee.
When I started out, I wanted to be a composer. A jazz arranger and classical composer. At the time, it’s when computer MIDI arranging tools, even ProTools and recording tools, started becoming more powerful and used. It allowed me to try to make my little compositions, because I learned on my own. I went to Berklee, but I was also self-taught.
I feel like it was innate in you.
Yeah, that’s how I explored it. I learned most things by ear. Recording was a way for me to compose by ear in a way, because I could just record it. I could play it and record it, and play it back. Rather than write it, have someone play it, it was such a big process. It’s how I got into overdubbing. A lot of my production approach is an arrangement. But it’s a recorded arrangement and I can refine it until it’s perfect. We always try to make it not exactly perfect, but leave some of the flaws in there and make it feel natural.
Would you say Goapele was your first big placement?
I met her in Boston and started recording some of her songs for her. It was my first time producing something. She and her brother went on and did Sky Blaze, released this album that ended up being an indie hit. So yeah, you could say that was my first big placement in a sense of it was successful. It was really inspiring to see them go on and do that.
In your opinion, what’s Kanye’s most slept-on song?
That is a good question. It’s hard because he’s such a scrutinized and beloved artist. People know so much of his music. Let me say, maybe “Lift Off.” I’ll tell you something about “Lift Off” that really killed me. In the mastering process, or I don’t know how it happened, there’s those interludes. “Lift Off” is supposed to be this magnificent, orchestral bomb, like the Olympics right? And the way it’s mastered, it comes on so wimpy. It’s this little intimate group interlude, then it comes on so soft. I don’t know if that has an effect on the listener or not, but it should be overwhelming. For it being Kanye, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé, I feel that song was slept-on. It’s magnificent music and it got passed by a little bit.
How was it doing Saturday Night Live with Young Thug? Love your guys’ song “Love You More.”
Amazing! Especially after COVID, to get out there and do a TV show, and they killed it so hard. Gunna killed it so hard. Travis [Barker] killed it so hard. Nate’s [Ruess] always killing it. It’s so great when you can feel a camaraderie. It came through on the performance, there’s a connection between the people doing it. Especially, they chose that song and rolled with it. It’s such an intimate and emotional song. It doesn’t rely on big loud bangs and booms. It’s a real heartfelt emotional song that I’m so happy to hear it’s connecting with people.
What are you focusing on next?
So, I’m going to re-release my Billy Kraven, Born on the Fourth of July project, which is on SoundCloud. It was a collection of songs that was the blueprint of the “Jeff Bhasker” sound, and some of the things that influenced 808s and Heartbreaks. I played that for Kanye and he was like, “mmmm, we could use that.” There was a synergy of what I was bringing there, then I built on that. I’m going to re-release my — similar to Taylor’s version, Jeff’s version of a lot of the songs that I’ve written over the years for Rihanna, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, and do a new version of those that include me singing.
I don’t know if a lot of people know, like Beyonce’s “Party.” I did all the vocal demos for that so it’s going to be really fun to bring those versions back into the world with some new twists and reinvent them a bit. I have a new album called Ashes and Ghosts that’s going to be a new set of material that’s a lot more piano-based and minimal. Like a jazz and modern classical music aesthetic, but with the likes of — I’m not going to say any names and keep it a surprise, but the newer generation of rappers and artists. It’s a modern jazz aesthetic that’s their voice.
It’s reminiscent of the way Lee Morgan’s trumpet sounded compared to Clifford Brown’s trumpet, or John Coltrane’s saxophone versus Sonny Rollins. The way these guys rap and have their own voice, but over this modern sounding music. It’s getting back to trying to tap in more directly to my spiritual artistry without any boundaries of “is someone going to like this?” Just really focusing on my art and my practice. A practice that’s not based on wanting a result, wanting a Grammy, or wanting a #1; but doing something that I think is great.
What advice do you have for producers or composers who want to do what you do? Not everyone can say they’ve done all that you’ve done!
Man, I never thought I would do all that I’ve done. I just wanted to be a session keyboard player in LA. I thought if I could do sessions and make a living, I’d be good. That’s a complicated question. I want to say don’t stop believing in yourself and do you. It’s also a two-way street. You gotta listen to others. You gotta put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
I noticed how hard Kanye worked once I got with him. I thought “oh shit, this is the level?” You gotta dedicate yourself. Have a practice. Maybe that’s a good way to boil it down: have a practice. Have a plan, and execute your plan. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to execute it perfectly, but stay on that road. Set your goals, make a plan, and start working towards it. Because the seeds you plant are the seeds you will sow. If you’re planting mediocre crops or you’re in circles where everyone says, “you’re so great! You’re great” — you don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. You want to be the dumbest person in the room, learning from people. Keep your mouth shut and keep your ears open for a while.
There’s that part of it, then speak your voice too. I’m not the master of anything and I have a long way to go of figuring out what it is I want to do, but all those things are so important to really think about your goals and what you really want. Because if you don’t know where you’re aiming, you’re going to have a tough time getting there. It’s not just, “I want to be rich, successful. I want to win Grammys.” For me, when I want to write a song, I want to write a song that’s going to change someone’s life. What is the real value of what you’re doing? Not the reward or the award. What is the value of what you do?