December 8, 2016

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Life and death are meeting points on the same circle. That truth came to producer Nick Hook during an acid trip last year in Paris. Since the early 2000s, Hook’s roles have included producer, studio engineer, player, and DJ. But after losing two close friends on the same day, he’d reached an acute turning point in his life. It was time he release an album of his own. A purist of the full-length format, Hook is also a humble Midwesterner who believes music is for everybody. Nick Hook’s debut album, Relationships, out on Fool’s Gold, is a sonic time capsule written and recorded almost exclusively at his coveted Greenpoint, Brooklyn studio. Though still working out of this studio, he currently faces the threat of eviction with zen-like anticipation.

The sheer amount of guest features on Relationships can look a bit unsettling at first: Prefuse 73 and the late, DJ Rashad next to 21 Savage and Father? But Hook has long been working behind the scenes and building bonds. From playing in bands such as Cubic Zirconia, to producing for Azealia Banks and Young Thug, Hook practices a non-judgmental approach with music. This mindset is the driving thesis behind his collaborative album with British producer Gareth Jones, Spiritual Friendship. Hook views Spiritual Friendship as a companion album to Relationships, with the former more ambient, and the latter tailored toward sub-bass seekers.

Relationships starts with the sour hiss of a ground wire, followed by the power up yawn of a Mac. They’re familiar noises that work to subtly represent the meshing of analog and digital, which defines Hook’s music, or what he calls “a true hybrid of old and new.” He refutes making music on a screen with your eyes, he’d rather turn knobs and catch accidents. Hook Skypes me during his European tour from a comfortably sized Airbnb in Madrid. Between responding to messages on his Tinder, we talk about his background, death, and making music in between. —Evan Gabriel


How’s it going?


Nick Hook: Good man, I’m in Madrid, Spain. I just got my weed card in Spain, so I’ve just been smoking. I went to see Picasso’s “Guernica” today. I’ve just been out wandering around, chillin’.


That’s where you did Red Bull Music Academy, right?


Nick Hook: Yeah, and I haven’t been back since, so it’s just been flashback city, pretty intense, but in a good way. I was supposed to go on tour with Kevin Gates but he went to jail. I literally found out about it on Pitchfork. So I had like 15 shows that diminished to four, but I’ve already booked my travel. And I played here on Friday and everyone was mad cool, so I was going to go to Portugal but I was like, ‘fuck it I’ll stay here.’ So I got this sick Airbnb for like $60 a night, and then I go to Bucharest on Friday, I’m there until Monday. So I’ll probably have another chapter of my novel written by then.


Funny, you mention Bucharest at the very end of the album, on the hidden track of “The Infinite Loop.”


Nick Hook: That’s my boy Mike B. The whole album is a concept album about last year. We were together on Super Bowl Sunday when both of my friends passed away, so I asked him to give me a skit. That part was just so magical. It kind of retold the story in a cryptic way.


What have the last few weeks been like, since Relationships was released?


Nick Hook: I just went on a 5 week van tour in the U.S. I just want to be out there as much a humanly possible. Even though I’m not twenty-three-years-old, I still felt like this is my debut album. It’s so cool because now I can just grab a kid’s phone and put my album on his Spotify. My first band was signed to Warner Brothers and we toured for like a year and a half straight.

Albums can come and go so fast these days, and I believe in this album. I realize how hard it is not only to break an album but a lot of kids 28 and under don’t even give a fuck about albums. This could be the gateway drug. You hear the Tribe album. I feel like there’s still a place for albums if you can show a kid you can roll up a joint and take them on an excursion.


Definitely. And you really presented a fully conceived album on Relationships.


Nick Hook: I feel like I just made that album. I feel like someone could come shoot me but at least you know what I’m about. I finished this album three separate times. The first real version was done in January. So I’ve played this album for like 500 people front to back. I got so see how people responded to all the peaks and valleys and iron out all the spots. The song with Spank Rock originally has Afrika Bambaataa on it, and I played Bronson the demo and he just shrugged his shoulders. Because I thought it was sick. As an engineer I’ve watched rappers. You need to get them out of the chair in the first 8 seconds, it’s like a rodeo dude. But I know this album is ready. If it can get through my studio it can get through to the world.


On Instagram, you mentioned that Relationships wasn’t really planned, that it came together after you took acid in Paris and realized you had a story to tell. What is that story?


Nick Hook: I [hadn’t been] making an album. When my dude died he basically owned my studios, and he died without a will. And he let me move into these studios for free for three years because he saw the me that I could become. So I took some acid last year in Paris and was like, I could use the Rashad tracks as beginning and end. The acid told me life and death are the same thing. Something has to die for something to live. It was uplifting in the beginning.

The way I saw it in my head was like, I’m just on earth for now, but I’ll meet up with you guys later. It was never going to make a great album unless I aced that last track because not only did I have to look myself in the eye but I had to make music on the behalf of a person that wasn’t living anymore. And we knew each other well, so I couldn’t really cut any corners for the first time in my life. The universe kept giving me all these songs, like the one with Novelist.

Pretty soon I just locked myself in a room for six months, then another six months for clearance issues. One day Bambaataa got accused of sexual abuse and I had to decide. I wasn’t there, I’m not judging the guy, but I didn’t want to be a part of the conversation because this is my album. It was a hard decision, he was cool as fuck when we worked together, you know? The whole album was crazy. Even some of these songs didn’t come together until the last day on mastering. My sound’s rugged. It’s hard to leave shit that’s vulnerable sometimes.


Collaboration is so integral to this album. How do you approach that process?


Nick Hook: My mantra is just be in the room with good people. Like with moving to New York. It’s all been a complete accident. Every year I’ve thought my career was going to be over. The path of the universe led me to New York. The thing about New York is that you can’t suck. Moving to New York was the next phase of like, if you’re going to do this you better be fucking doing it, because DJ Premiere could walk in. Being a producer is all about making someone believe that you can get the final result. If you destroy that process from the beginning, that’s when they get behind the booth and clam up. And what you’re really trying to do is get them to go cosmic in there.

Really it comes from them feeling like you don’t give a fuck the whole time, you know? It’s amazing because production has no beginning or end. No two people are the same. It’s like basketball man; when Durant starts bricking in Game 7, it’s not because he sucks. It’s because his mind’s racing. That’s why I just read and study. Phil Jackson is like my life coach man.


I think the listeners appreciate that.


Nick Hook: I was at RBMA and they threw a bass guitar at my hands with Bootsy Collins in the room. It was the most sink or swim moment of my career and I aced it with flying colors because I just went the fuck in. Some people get it. Novelist gets it. Junglepussy wants a guitar in my hand. The more younger kids come over the more I realize they want to hear Fela Kuti. We’re all doing a lot of wild drugs.


What initially got you hooked on music?


Nick Hook: The first thing I loved to the bone was Appetite For Destruction by Guns N Roses. Then the next thing that shattered my brain open was The Chronic by Dr. Dre. A lot of the stigma of hip hop or electronic was that it wasn’t real music. So as a young suburban kid from St. Louis who thought instruments were cool. When I was 13 I thought Dr. Dre laid all those instruments himself. I remember reading a Spin Magazine and seeing Nirvana. When I looked at Nirvana, that was the first time someone looked back at me and say, we’re pretty normal motherfuckers. If we could do it you probably could. So that day, I was like, ‘I’m gonna cop a guitar.’ I’ve spent every day of my life inhaling inspiration because it’s what fuels me to be a good person to others. That’s what I need to survive.


Can you tell me a bit about growing up in St. Louis?


Nick Hook: I had a desegregation program in my school. So we were in a middle class suburb. But from age 5 to 18, 40% of my school was inner city black kids bused out for a better education. So from age 5, we were listening to rap just as real as we were listening to heavy metal. We were teaching kids how to take bong hits and they were teaching us how to roll blunts. Honestly, until I was 25 and I moved to New York, I thought the whole country was like that. I thought that everyone grew up with black people.

As my career progressed, [working] with Azealia or Killer Mike, they would understand [me]. A lot of white people try to act black. They would ask me why I talk like this. That’s another thing that’s impacted my career in a big way. Because once, like when dudes from the hood realize it’s all good, that breaks a layer of ice that I feel like a lot of white producers will never know how to break. Again, black people can tell when white people tense up around them. Not in a good or bad way. But it’s a normal person. Talk to them like it’s your parents or your best friend.


Do you ever miss the simplicity of the Midwest compared to the grind of a New York or L.A.?


Nick Hook: I don’t miss my life in St. Louis. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see the patterns of the business and how certain people use artists. I know that now I could move to Detroit and build a castle and never work again in a weird way, but the magic of New York is, last year I engineered most of Action Bronson’s new shit. So to get that energy of him walking in that door everyday and being in that frenzy to finish, I think that helped me get over the hump. Or El-P saying, ‘why don’t we go work with Zack de la Rocha tonight?’ But there are pros and cons to everything.

Part of my reality is that I could lose my studios any day, I still could get a phone call any day that, ‘you gotta be out tomorrow.’ But I’ve let go of the fear that that can be a bad thing but more like, what’s next? I could move somewhere with my career in a certain place. Your money goes further in Detroit. Who’s to say I couldn’t build a studio with a yoga studio and a coffee bar, a bar, and another crib for bands to fly out and record albums. I’ve spent 14 years in New York, and when I moved here I made a deal that when I leave I’d have to leave on my own terms, it would have to tell me it’s time to go. It’s been almost 19 months since Dust La Rock and my dude passed. I’ve changed so much. Part of it was quitting drinking. I’d be kind of a pussy to pull out now. I feel like no one really knows I’m dope yet. I’m still building my skill set. I’ve thought about going to Mexico City this winter and only playing piano.


Wow.


Nick Hook: You know Pharrell is just looking people in the eye. He’s already got his communication down. If I just unlock that weird chord grid, I spend the rest of my time building a studio or buying synths. I know if I just spend that time, I know I could do it, because it’s only been progressing the whole time. True to any other career I know, there is nothing more uncertain than the music business. You could climb a corporate ladder in an hour if a song goes viral on accident. That’s what I’m most excited about; keep putting in the work that fuels you and it usually turns around and fuels someone else in that way.


When did you move to NYC?


Nick Hook: I moved to New York April 1st, 2004. I had started accumulating gear, and L-VIS 1990 asked me to produce this record. I got fired from my job, but I somehow convinced my boss to give me unemployment checks, and I bought two oz. of weed because I knew I could flip it in New York for triple, I left my ex-girlfriend now at home because I didn’t even know if the shit was going to last two months. That’s when I started to realize; you really don’t know what’s to come. Then you start to see your friends pass away. Now it’s like, am I even going to wake up tomorrow? I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve watched it with Rashad. I’ve watched it with Dust. I’ve watched it with so many close friends.


It really calls for being present.


Nick Hook: That’s where psychedelics really come in. As a dude growing older, you look at yourself and see yourself not being fully present. For me it’s been understanding that. If I’m looking at my phone right now, I’m being a bitch to you. Garreth for the first time was like, ‘you’re not here with me right now.’ And I realized, ‘fuck, I’m with a legend of life and he’s calling me out on that.’ Last year I changed my number. And you start to see the silence. Garreth always says that distraction is the original sin.

Last year I unfollowed everyone on Instagram, muted 100% of my Twitter and quit Facebook in 2012. Picasso didn’t have a phone. Think back to the things you really admire. James Brown. Really before 2002. No motherfuckers had cell phones. Was art better? We can’t say yes or no. But Picasso produced a great amount of work. You see why they went out to the country to even erase more distractions. This shit’s all mental man. I don’t even remember the question.


Exactly!


Nick Hook: But that’s what I’ve been practicing in life. You know yourself in life, your dividends, limitations. That’s where I can’t judge you. That’s what’s so exciting. No one can master music. If you did you would be on the level of Bach or Mozart.


A standout track for me is “All Alone.”


Nick Hook: If you’re truly going to pay tribute to something that means that you can’t rip it off. A lot of kids maybe just emulate instead of study. On “All Alone,” to me when you use a LinnDrum that reference is Prince automatically. But also we were playing guitar and referencing New Wave and obviously using some new shit because that’s where something becomes truly yours.


It’s crazy ILoveMakonnen did that in one take, walking from the booth to the window.


Nick Hook: He didn’t even write it to that music. I flipped all the music. It was a keyboard line he played. It sounded like circus music. For some reason I’ve always seen Makkonen as our Morrissey. That’s what El-P taught me. No music is sacred. I just looked at the “Guernica” today. You can still see Picasso’s old pencil marks. I’ve seen El change shit an hour before mixing. A lot of it I think is for him to see if he can beat himself. But I knew that vocal was magic. He made that up on the fucking spot. To show those emotions. Oh my god, those are real words about real things. He understood pop structure innately. It was fucking, just magic of lightning striking.


What was working with 21 Savage like?


Nick Hook: It was sick. It was after 3 am. We were all out of it, but I could tell he wanted to rap. He was like, make me a beat. I made a beat as fast as humanly possible. I could just tell he wanted to get in the booth. What I’ve learned with production and engineering is if you approach a rapper at the wrong time for wanting to get in the booth, they might not ever fuck with you again. Because they might think you’re thirsty. But I could tell he was hungry. And I knew that vocal was fire. But I knew the beat wasn’t. So when I went back to Detroit, Skywlkr is my boy for life—have you seen Danny Brown perform?


I have.


Nick Hook: I love when Skywlkr goes on and plays 10 Waka Flocka songs and just looks like Fraggle Rock. So when I went out there I had the vocal and was like, ‘why don’t we try and make something that you’d play right before you went on?’ So that was the mindset, because there was this extremely energetic vocal about getting your dick sucked.


In your XLR8R column, you wrote ‘the hardest job in all of this is making someone feel 100% comfortable around you when you are tracking.’ How did that apply to working with Young Thug? He seems so much larger than life.


Nick Hook: Now I know the look of people when a song has potential. They look up and sideways. He was already larger than life. From the second I met him I was like, oh this dude’s going to be famous. I think he’s still scratching the surface. There’s no reason he can’t be as impactful as Prince to me. He did his part of the “Rap Monument” in one take and was like, that’s done. It was the weirdest shit I’d ever heard.

Now with the ability to blow up off one song, these kids don’t even know what full albums are. So they go on the road and they get combusted by fame. That’s why you see Thug and Kendrick okay, because their only safe place has truly been in the studio. You’re safe in there. When the going gets rough don’t go out, get in the fucking studio. I’ve tried to build my studio like that. If you need to call up six hookers, I’m not judging. If you need to be sober, if you need to light a candle. That’s why Led Zeppelin records came about because part of creation is truly letting go. For one person that might be the Bible. For someone else that’s crack and hookers. It’s crazy out here. There’s only so many of us left that know the folklore of the record. Because it’s been passed on. You can’t roll a joint on an MP3.


You mentioned your novel. Are you still working on it?


Nick Hook: I lost my journal but I wanted to write a book called Share Everything You Know because I wanted to dispel the myth that this game isn’t for everyone. If you use Fruity Loops or a $50,000 modulator, I could tell you why neither is better or worse than each other. That’s why my studio is the way it is; a true hybrid of old and new. Young Thug doesn’t care what kind of synths I have. He cares if the beat’s knockin’. It’s kind of what Kanye has been on: fuck being cool and you can be anyone you want. I wish he could deliver his crusade in a different matter. Maybe if he took some shrooms and went to yoga. But he’s a kid from the Midwest too who probably thought he could never do it.


Any final thoughts?


Nick Hook: In this political climate all I can hope to do is use my music to bring people together as I always have. And never preach to it but maybe someone says, damn I could be like that because he ain’t really shit. That’s what Nirvana told me. These guys in regular clothes. Sometimes I’m the artist on the forefront. Sometimes I’m the engineer for Bronson with my mouth shut. You can switch hats, as long as you drop the ego at the door. For me it comes from playing sports. The only job is to get it done. If you can look the person in the eye and say we did this, that’s all that matters because you’ll probably do it again. Someone asked me how much I paid for the feature on “Old English” and I was like, ‘nothing fool.’

This was the only world that really described the album. A lot of people think I don’t do shit. I put that picture on Instagram because I knew when said Pitchfork dude or you writes about it, I didn’t put all those names up there. I wanted to look people in the eye and say, ‘this shit’s real.’ If you’re going to judge it, at least know it’s real as a motherfucker. When you look at that tracklist you laugh. I always knew it would plague my soul if someone thought it was fake. It took two dudes dying for me to show the world what I do on a day to day. I need to stop being so humble and come out and say this is us.


I love the cover photo. I picked out a Trouble Andrew and a Cousin Stizz sig.


Nick Hook: Stizz that was the dude that I introduced Fela to for the first time. And I just watched him react. I knew then that the hope is not lost. The studio is becoming this weird hall of fame that everyone feels they need to come and bring their best work. There are spirits floating around in that motherfucker for sure. I mean Bernie Worrell, and DJ Rashad’s name on the wall. Like there is something to live up to. This is an art.