Internal Editor Aditi spoke with producer Payton Johnson, CC ‘21, on breaking into music, Columbia’s influence on his projects, and how his cultural identity connects to his beats.
The hip-hop community at Columbia is very much alive, and Payton Johnson is one of the many talented members at the forefront. From being a Board member of the Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop (CUSH) to co-hosting a show on WKCR to collaborating with other student artists under the name buddy.not.bud, Johnson continues to immortalize the presence of hip-hop on campus.
Despite the pandemic, Johnson has made impressive strides as a producer. Through sending beat files back and forth for collaborations and competing in beat competitions online, he has found several ways to keep the creative energy alive.
Bwog had the opportunity to interview Johnson on his latest beat tape titled Sankofa, the evolution of his work from when he began at home in Denver to here in New York City, as well as what we can expect from the talented artist in the future.
The full transcript of the interview can be read below.
Bwog: How did you get into producing?
Payton Johnson: I got deep into music in middle school. My friend started a rock band and we were trying to do hippie stuff. And then, by the end of middle school, we started collecting records. We would go every weekend to Wax Trax, our record store back in Denver. That’s how I got into producing because I was getting all these records, and I was like, “Oh, there’s people actually flipping this, that’s crazy.” So that’s how I originally got into producing, sophomore year of high school.
How did you learn to flip records like that yourself?
I remember for my birthday, my dad got me a machine that’s still my beat pad that I use, so that’s just what I used to chop stuff up. Originally, I used to actually use a little portable record player that has a USB on it and I used to flip stuff off there.
One of the consistent things that I noticed throughout all of your tracks on Sankofa is that you have really cool added vocals like the French voice in “Arthouse” or the singing in “World Was Mine.” How do you find these samples?
A lot of people call it digital digging. Since everybody’s in quarantine right now, it’s hard to go to a record shop but I still use sites like Discogs, which is a huge one. I use this every day. That’s a website where you can catalog your whole record collection and also lookup records. I can look up a record and see who’s playing guitar, and then go to their discography and see who was playing on the album.
When you’re producing a track, is it a process where you think of an idea for a sound and then you immediately try to create it? Or is it more of finding a sample online and realizing, “Oh, shit, I can do something with this”?
I usually will find a sample first. But then I almost always, at least recently, start with the drums of the song if they have them. Sometimes they don’t. I don’t know why I do that—I just feel like if I can come up with some really cool, dope drums the song will be cool, but there have been times where I start with a sample and then try to lay drums on top of it and it just doesn’t work. So yeah, find the sample and then I do the drums first and lay those on top.
How long does it take to produce one track for you?
Last night I was hanging out on Discord with a friend from Denver and I probably knocked the song out in 30 minutes to an hour. What I’ll do is I’ll make an eight-bar or four-bar loop, and we’ll just listen to it for hours. So even before the whole structured song is on a project the song is pretty much done. That takes hours usually.
And is this a daily grind? What’s your routine?
For sure, it’s every day I’m trying to make a beat. It’s interesting because I’ll put out projects, then make a couple of beats that are pretty cool, and then for a month probably, I’m like “This is trash, I can’t make anything.” This has happened after every project, even after I put out Sankofa. Luckily, I’m out of that now but yeah, even when it’s trash I try to do it every day.
That was one of the other things I wanted to ask you—do you ever go through “producer’s block”? And how do you get over that?
I go through it all the time, honestly. One way I get over producer’s block is through this record collective I started back home in Denver, EST FUGO LLC. It started with my homie James Powers whose producer name is Funk Shui. We’ll jump on Zoom or Discord every week and play beats back and forth. So if I’m having a week where I’m like, “Dang, I ain’t got nothing, all my stuff is trash” just to hear him and his beats is really dope. We’ll just be talking about beats, he’ll tell me to try this or try that. Having that community to try to build beats definitely gets me out of producer’s block.
I was looking at your other work and I saw that you had a project with Funk Shui, and you also worked on Exit 11 with Fat Westbrook [Farrell Garcon, CC ‘21], both amazing projects. How do you decide who you want to collaborate with?
For me it’s getting to a point where I’m really looking for collaboration. Originally, I was just trying to make beats, see if anybody liked them and then we can go from there. But now I’m looking for collaboration. In terms of Farrell, Fat Westbrook, this project happened two years ago. He knew I made beats and we both lived in John Jay so he was like, “Hey, you got some beats” and he came through to see records. I played him some and he was like, “Okay, these are crazy.” It’s super dope to see that project out and doing well. And then my homie James, Funk Shui, we’re both from Denver but we met on Instagram probably six, seven months ago, during the pandemic. We have never met in person. We do all of our music over Zoom, and then just send files back and forth. I’ll be doing the drums or a sample and then he’s like, “Yo, this is crazy. Send it over.”
Has the pandemic impacted the way you work for your personal projects, too, or just shifting how collaborations work?
We’ve been in it for so long, there have been so many changes. For example, right now I’m really trying to make a shift from SoundCloud to Bandcamp. I have a lot of music on Apple Music and Spotify, but I think I have 130 tracks on SoundCloud. Quarantine has really made me want to establish a community on Bandcamp where you can sell your merch at the same place where you’re having people listen to your music, and it’s more centralized. That shift is something that came out of quarantine, for sure.
That makes sense. I think the community on Soundcloud has always been amazing, but the more I’ve read into it, the more I see the artists on it don’t get paid enough or don’t get enough credit which is really difficult. What has your experience been navigating the different platforms? How was the process of getting your music out there?
I use SoundCloud to send my music to Apple Music and Spotify. SoundCloud has been great for the most part, because you can upload your music, like Bandcamp, instead of sending it to get reviewed. Apple Music has been chill. Spotify has been, oh my goodness. With the sample clearance, if they can tell that it’s straight from a movie or TV show, they’ll take it off. Spotify is also notorious for messing up release dates. I submitted my project maybe two weeks in advance, which is what they say. I don’t think Sankofa came out on Spotify until a month after. It’s so bad. That’s one of the reasons I really want to get on Bandcamp because Bandcamp marries the two: you can get money, but you can also upload real quick, you’re in control, and you can actually get good money. Sankofa has 1000 listeners on it as a project. And I made 33 cents off of that, so this is like, come on.
You started sophomore year of high school. So now I’m wondering, as a senior, what influence has Columbia had on your growth as an artist?
CUSH is the first club my friends and I interacted with on campus. They were on Low Steps our freshman year doing a cypher and we walked past and thought “Yo, this is crazy.” Now on the Board, I got some of my closest friends who I’ve met through CUSH and really bonded with. We’re just talking about music all the time, from the jump that’s my crew. They’ve had a huge influence on my music and I’ve loved sharing music with them. There’s a huge community, especially alumni that are really cool people that are always listening to new music. There have been a lot of people in CUSH that have been super inspirational in terms of doing music on campus and being there in the same studios, listening to beats.
Has CUSH altered your style of music in any way?
CUSH definitely made me want to make beats that I can see myself playing in front of people or beats that really would get people moving. Rather than just chopping something up and thinking “Oh, people are gonna listen to this in their dorm rooms” actually having something that’s interactive, something that’s not just a loop. Don’t get me wrong, loops are cool but something that is able to change and move with the audience. And WKCR has had a huge impact too. Introducing me to new folks and New York City, CUSH and WKCR have both been super inspirational.
Who would you say, celebrity-wise, is your creative inspiration? And how have they influenced your work?
Knxwledge for sure. He’s really who got me into producing, he’s the one who made me want to make beats, especially in terms of lo-fi music. Knxwledge has some songs where, and this isn’t a diss, but I’d think, I would never put that loop out because I will always try to be a perfectionist and get everything clean and trim. And just to hear him do it and hear how dope that sounded, it really made me brave and more bold in terms of the sound I’m going for. Not trying to sound like somebody else, but just go after whatever the song is telling me to do.
Sankofa is your latest project. What does Sankofa mean?
Sankofa is a word that comes out of the Twi language in Ghana. It basically means looking back to move forward, this idea that your past is essential in terms of your future. I thought that was dope on just a Black note; especially this past year, I’ve taken a lot of classes about the African diaspora, and I’ve done a lot of soul searching in terms of me as a Black person so I thought that was cool. I always try to do something very Afrocentric for at least my covers or my album titles. But then also the idea of me as a record collector, the idea of me going back in history through record stores and then flipping that, and making new music out of it that nobody’s heard. So that term resonated with me a lot.
How has your identity impacted the music itself?
This is me being influenced and inspired by WKCR members who do this all the time, but including speeches from prominent Black figures. I have a Stokely Carmichael interview that I used in the background as the video for a beat I put out. I still sample a lot of speeches, a lot of TV shows, interviews with prominent Black figures whether they be activists or just rappers, producers, folks like that. Also in terms of the samples, I sample a lot of music from around the world, but especially funk music, soul music.
In the final line in your song “Differ” you include a sample that says “I just want to describe my style as different.” If you could describe your music style in one word or a few what would it be?
I would say I’m always trying to do something different and new. I feel like in the past I was just trying to make beats, but now I’m really trying to explore my identity of being from Denver, Colorado, and being around these musicians and these artists, most of them being Black, in the city. Like, what would it sound like for us to make a soundscape of Denver? You have East Coast and West Coast hip-hop, but Denver’s story is still yet to be told. I would definitely say something different, new, and a signature that can be a stamp on the city.
So when you’re creating your music, you’re really trying to draw into Denver, your hometown.
For sure. There’s a song two beat tapes ago called “Kolorado.” That’s one of my favorite tracks. There’s a scene in Atlanta with a guy who’s trans racial where he’s like “I just feel like a 35 year old white man in Colorado sometimes.” This is an example of me sampling some shit about Colorado. There are a bunch of Easter eggs and even explicit references to Denver in my music.
How would you compare the hip-hop scene in Denver to New York City?
In New York, it’s established. In Denver, it’s so gentrified so in terms of a hip-hop community it’s hard to work together. There are so many people moving out of these neighborhoods, for example like me. Now it’s time to come back and rebuild those linkages. I think that’s a big difference— don’t get me wrong, there’s still gentrification in the city but it’s a whole different story in Denver.
How would you describe your soundscape? Have Denver trends or New York trends made their way into your music?
In terms of my new stuff, that’s New York inspired. I think my stuff is really, I don’t want to say grimey, but it’s not mainstream. I would say it’s alternative hip-hop or lo-fi.
Is there any completely different route of music you want to test?
I played guitar in that middle school band. I want to get an audio interface I can plug my guitar into. I’d love to do more work with live instruments, and I recently made a few beats that have no samples in it. I’ve been having fun exploring that.
Who would be your dream person to collaborate with? Whether it be another producer, or if there’s a rapper you think your particular sound would match really well with?
My favorite artist is definitely Earl Sweatshirt by far. I feel like I’d have to come with some heat though. Knxwledge of course, and KAYTRANADA is another one.
What track of yours are you most proud of?
Huh Risin, for sure. There’s a producer from TDE [Top Dawg Entertainment] named Cal Banks and he was on Instagram live listening to people’s beats and I remember being mad nervous thinking, “Oh, shit should I send him a beat?” So I sent him a link to my SoundCloud and he said, “Hey, bro, rule number one, industry people won’t open up your links to SoundCloud. Send over the mp3 and I’ll check it out.” So he’s still on Instagram, and I’m like “Shit, okay” and sent over the mp3 of the song real quick. And he says, “Okay, buddy.not.bud let me check this out” and he listens to it. Then he just says “Yep, okay” and ends the song and goes to the next so I’m thinking “Oh, shit. I don’t think he likes it. I don’t think he fucks with the song.” But then, after he listened to probably five songs from different people, including mine, he was like “Yeah buddy.not.bud, that shit was the best song out of those five.” I was super hyped about this beat in particular. That was my first time getting that validation from somebody in the industry. Dude works for TDE, that was crazy.
That’s insane. Have you had other experiences like that with any of your other songs?
For sure. Splice is a website that a lot of producers use. You can get samples from them, different plugins for your software. They had a beat competition type deal where you make a beat with these pre-selected sounds. The sounds were chosen by Nothing Neue, who’s a beat maker in Brooklyn. He was one of the judges, with Dom McLennon from BROCKHAMPTON. So I made the beat, I was mad nervous and they played my song I think second to last. I didn’t even know if I did this right but they were like “Yo, this is dope.” That was super cool and then Dom McLennon said, “Yo, this is crazy. You could put this out right now.”
What can people expect from you in the future?
I have about 20 songs that are at least finished, so I’m going through and categorizing them saying which ones are the best ones, which can be throwaways. I’m trying to put out my personal project around the end of March. I also have a collaboration with a rapper back in Denver named the Prophet Elijah Muhammad, he’s my homie Omar, but we’re trying to do a project by the end of March. My friend James and I are trying to do another beat tape soon too.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Image via Payton Johnson, AKA buddy.not.bud