The Beat Conductors: Drakeo’s Engineer, Navin Upamaka

The Beat Conductors returns with a look at Navin Upamaka, Drakeo The Ruler's go-to engineer.
By    March 5, 2018

Photo by Jelani Jumal.

Miguelito never learned a thing in college.

It’s easy to miss Navin Upamaka in the shuffle of Drakeo the Ruler’s “Big Banc Uchies” video. The engineer keeps a low profile, quietly working in the background while the foreign whip crasher draws the attention. He’s most noticeable in the opening scene, hunched over the console as Balenciagas slide across dead postmaster generals behind him. “Big Banc Uchies” is full of quotable lines, from Arkansas insults to warranted Maserati slander, but Navin’s memory latched to one absent from the cut. “At one point,” Navin tells me dragging a cigarette outside his Valley studio. “He threw that pile of money on top of my computer and said ‘Make sure this mix sounds like Benjamin Frank-a-lins.’ It was surreal, my most vivid memory working on Cold Devil.”

Originally from Ohio, Upamaka began working with Drakeo two years ago. It marked the partial culmination of an odyssey that began after he forfeited his scholarship to Miami University and moved to California to spend a few foggy, psychedelic-saturated years at UC Santa Barbara. “I was just a fucking idiot in college looking to try new shit,” he says, now from the vantage point of his thirties.

Between experiments he found space to write a thesis on the nature of time (comparing theories of Wittgenstein and Chomsky), and picking up an obsession: “I got fooled [into engineering] by friends,” he tells me laughing. Gifted in the sciences, engineering quickly became a creative outlet that neatly matched his skill set. “I started in college but before that I was in jazz ensembles playing guitar. Someone showed me production through computer programs and that got me into engineering,” he explains. “I didn’t exactly know what a compressor was, but I knew physics—even though I didn’t initially understand how its principles applied to music. So I started studying. If I don’t understand something, it’s an itch I need to scratch. This one’s lasted about seven or eight years.”

After college, he moved to Los Angeles, recorded rappers, and established a client base out of Echo Park’s Bedrock L.A. Within a few weeks he was introduced to Desto Dubb, a very talented L.A. rapper and networking conduit. “He’s kind of an ambassador in the city,” Navin says. “He knows everybody and is a fun, lovable human being. I took to him right away and he started bringing artists around. Drakeo happened to be one of them.”

Only trying to scrape up enough money for ramen bowls and car insurance, Upamaka charged very little to record artists. “It’s actually really funny,” he says, “I didn’t care who you were or how much buzz and money you had, it was $25/hr. It killed Drakeo to give me only $60 at the end of the night. I was just trying to earn clients. It worked though because he kept coming back.”

Those early sessions at Bedrock produced I Am Mr. Mosely 2 (IAMM2), Drakeo’s 2016 release. The video for “Having Fun” was even shot on the premises one night between recordings. “I don’t give a shit what rappers say in the booth,” Navin confesses. “I’m just making sure it sounds good and not getting bogged down in the wordplay. Drakeo stood out to me right away though, because one of the first things we recorded was the hook: ‘Killers on standby, they ready to shoot a baby.’ I thought, ‘Okay I’m listening now. What the fuck is going on?’”

That song would later appropriately become “Shoot a Baby,” which retrospectively reveals an aspect of Drakeo’s development. “He was very much about shock value back then,” posits Navin. “And it worked. Shit, it caught my attention. I remember playing it in the car for my mom and she just inhaled and said, ‘What are you getting into?’”

Now Navin says Drakeo is harnessing his wittiness, slang, and “endless well of references” to build a world that’s engrossing but ultimately indifferent to who understands it. It’s little coincidence that Navin studied Wittgenstein in college and now helps serve as a conduit for Drakeo’s language-game—a term used by the philosopher to describe context-specific speech. For Wittgenstein and Drakeo, terms don’t need strict definitions to have meaning. If you’re a player in that language-game it’s already understood.

“His comparisons and lingo exist as they are and don’t rely on jarring his audience now,” Navin says. “It’s like he’s taunting, asking ‘Come try to understand what I’m saying.’ Hell, in the studio we didn’t even know what ‘flu flamming’ meant when he first dropped it on us. I feel like I’ve followed Drakeo on this arc by refining his sound to enhance this experience as best I can.”

Comparing IAMM2 to Cold Devil proves Navin’s thought. The vocals are sharper in their recent work, standing prominent in mixes to highlight repurposed terms and novel phrasings. This clarity took time as Navin adapted The Ruler’s dynamism. “[Drakeo’s] voice sits in a different range than most rappers. It gets scratchier throughout the night and changes in frequency,” he explains. “Recording him is the hardest part, but if you’re active about that process you can tame some of the crazy raw aspects of his voice. Most people you can set up a chain and assume it’s good for them, but his shit is not that way.”

He’s also made steps to accommodate Drakeo’s unconventional and morphing rap structure. “The first verse starts when the shit drops,” Navin points out. “That was his new way of doing it with this record and I even got caught forgetting. After the verse I would ask if he’s gonna do another one and he would just laugh. That’s what he wants, to subvert expectations and have you saying, ‘Why didn’t he do a second verse on that track?’ He’s smart and knows how other rappers do it. It’s all calculated.”

After the verses finish on Cold Devil, beats stutter out of control, warp into minimalist interpretations of the originals, and fade out to center focus on Drakeo’s post-verse shit-talking. “That was fun,” Navin tells me. “It became free-form at the end of the tracks. I really showed no compassion to the beat. I’m gonna twist it as hard as I can at certain moments and, just as you’re about to get bored, the beat will drop back in. I didn’t want anyone to skip once the shit-talking started, that was the whole purpose.”

For him, these soliloquies needed to seem digestible to enhance Drakeo’s image of the smooth villain. He’ll touch on high speed chases, scoreboard stealing, and armory inventories with a nonchalance that makes it feel authentic. Navin’s desire for a complete listen bled into the song transitions too, many of which were also expansions of previous work. “Shoot a Baby,” for example, has a light reverb on the end to fade it out. It works, but the effect is more robust on “Flu Flamming,” which isolates the air around the drums and sizzles them into the next track.

A few songs later, the ending claps of “Fools Gold” extend and briefly echo beneath the opening synth line of “Bulletproof.” “We didn’t want a weird gap between songs,” Navin says. “I’d already put bookends to make them puzzle pieces that would work during the later stages of the project. I knew this project was going to be a coherent piece of work from the first night.”

Maintaining that he’s only a “catalyst,” Navin seeks to bring Drakeo’s vision to life without “diluting or bastardizing it.” He takes this seriously, as most of his tweaks accentuate effects already present. For “Out the Slums,” he lays a delay on a single line of the hook to deepen the already sinister timbre of Drakeo’s voice (“In Cavalli but I came out the slums/ On Rodeo but I still got my drum”). The change is so brief that it feels natural. Navin pushes these subtleties because of his freedom. After all, Drakeo typically offers little-to-no input on post-recording changes. During the Cold Devil sessions the two exchanged less than ninety words.

“I’ll ask him if he likes this or that and he doesn’t respond,” Navin says. “That would probably freak most engineers out, but I know if it’s a yes or no. If there’s a real issue, he’ll be vocal about it.” He says Drakeo was adamant about the drums knocking hard at the start of Ketchy the Great’s verse on “Pippy Long Stocking.” The rough mix didn’t have the boisterous pop of the final version. “Everyday, right when he woke up, he would remind me. I kept telling him I agreed and would do it, we just haven’t gotten to it yet. He must have told me over twenty times.”

While reflecting on their work, Navin becomes energized. He describes Drakeo’s arc as measured and mythological, factoring in calculated subversions of flow standards and spontaneous moments of lingo creation. Cold Devil was recorded in under two weeks, but Drakeo had been scheming for nine months in a cell before that. “Drakeo obviously knows how to rap,” Navin says. “I think being locked up gave him time to think about his approach. I knew he was gonna be coming in hot that first day out. I told everybody to get out of his way.”

Drakeo harnesses that fire to uniquely chilling ends. The structure of Cold Devil is unpredictable in both rhyme schemes and mixing. Words bleed into the following lines to start fresh concepts, beats trickle into oblivion, and Drakeo veers between it all like he’s chuckling in a GLE coupe. “He’s decided he’s gonna fuck up how people think about his music,” Navin explains. “He’s a jokester more than anything and defying your expectations makes him laugh the most.”