LA native Sydney Bennett started making music as a teenager, eventually connecting online with Tyler, The Creator and joining up with his Odd Future collective. Producing some of the crew’s early tracks and serving as their tour DJ, Bennett – who adopted the name Syd Tha Kyd – traveled the globe as OFWGKTA and became an international sensation. Nevertheless, she still longed to make music of her own, prompting her to leave the group and instead dedicate her focus to The Internet, a collaborative electronic soul project she’d started up with fellow Odd Future affiliate Matt Martians. Their first album, Purple Naked Ladies, surfaced in 2011, but it was 2015’s Ego Death that made the largest impact, even garnering a Grammy nomination.
The Internet’s music is certainly closer to Bennett’s own tastes than OFWGKTA ever was, but her role as the band’s sweet-voiced, androgynous frontwoman means that she’s positioned to influence a whole new crop of listeners. In this excerpt from her lecture at RBMA’s Bass Camp Bonnaroo 2016, she discusses her first studio, the lessons she learned from Odd Future and the independent efforts she’s made in search of success.
I actually just heard recently that your uncle was a producer in Jamaica. Who was that?
His name is Mikey Bennett, he’s a reggae producer. It’s my dad’s brother. Growing up, I would go to Jamaica every few years and just sit in the studio for a full week. It was dope. It’s what made me want to have a studio.
You started building out your own studio pretty young, right?
I think I was 14 when I got a laptop, and it had GarageBand on it. I was like, “Oh, what? What is that?” I bought my first microphone. It was an AKG C1000 – small diaphragm condenser, not good for vocals – but I didn’t know any better, so I got it anyway. I got the cheapest phantom power box, I got the cheapest audio interface I could get and built the studio in my bedroom.
Tell me a little about that studio. What kind of music were you making at the time?
I started out just trying to produce on GarageBand, but I sucked real bad (as we all do in the beginning, usually). I got real discouraged, but I told my play brother, Ty, who was rapping, “Oh, yo, I can record you rapping on this. Let’s do something.” That’s when I started building my studio, just trying to make him sound better. Then my focus became engineering and mixing and just trying to make my little $300 sound bigger.
Obviously your group’s called the Internet, but you really got your start working on the internet, right? Before that, though, who were some of the people you were recording?
I think my first client other than my brother was this kid named Tallent. I was charging him eight dollars an hour to record in my room. He kept coming back, then I went up to ten dollars an hour. Actually, I found out later on my neighbor around the corner had a studio. I ended up stealing a couple of his clients because he wasn’t that good of an engineer. My first clients were just random people around LA. I had it on my Myspace like, “Yo, $10 an hour for studio time. Come through, mix your shit.”
We honestly wanted to release [The Internet’s] first album for free and not perform it ever.
When Odd Future started coming over, when you made that connection, did that push some of the other groups away?
Yeah. By that time I had moved my studio from my bedroom to my guesthouse. My cousin was living in the guesthouse when I built the studio originally, and then he moved out, which gave me the space to expand. Then I had a full one bedroom apartment as a studio, which was not connected to my house, but part of my house. It was dope. I had hella privacy, and as soon as I moved into there, that’s when Tyler and them started coming through. I did focus a lot more on them. For one, I wasn’t charging them, because I was a fan. I was like, “You know, this is my gift to y’all for being dope and doing something different. Don’t worry about it, I got you.” In exchange for that, they gave me part-ownership of their label when we got a deal.
How did you discover them?
I found out about Tyler and them on MySpace, and then my brother was always hanging out on Fairfax [Avenue in Los Angeles], which is where they used to hang out a lot. He met them and started hanging out with them. I was promoting my studio on MySpace, so I booked a session with this random kid from Pasadena. He happened to be friends with Hodgy, so he brought Hodgy to the studio with them. Me and Hodgy ended up clicking more than me and the other dude... I guess he went and told Tyler and them that there was another studio in the city. Their studio, I guess, had just shut down.
I walked out of my house one day – I was about to go to In-N-Out Burger – and there was like 12 people just standing outside the house. This wasn’t necessarily scary, because that’s usually how my house is. I just didn’t know any of them. I was like... Then I saw Tyler, and Tyler’s like, “Hey, can we use your studio?” I was like, “All 12 of you?” I was like, “Yeah, well, I’m about to go get some food, if you guys are down to wait until I get back.” When I got back they were still there, and we went up to the studio and started recording. I think we did “Seven” that day.
Y’all were in the back room recording stuff, making noise on your own. What was it like transitioning into having a pretty big manager and a great team behind y’all?
Looking back on it, it was big. In the midst of it, it didn’t feel as big as it was. It wasn’t until really yesterday I looked back and I was like, “Wow! A lot of that happened really fast.” Because the way I’m doing it with my band now is completely different. I learned a lot from that experience and I have carried it with me. It was definitely a transition. It went from just us to, like, there’s a middleman between all of us sometimes, and we started spending less time together. The only problem with that was that we stopped working in house. Once we got signed I moved out of my house, because I was having teenage issues with my mom. It really wasn’t my fault, looking back.
You know, I’m gay, it’s weird. It was one of the things. She has no problem with me being gay, but she had a problem with me dressing the way I do at first. She’s cool now. Me and my mom were not seeing eye-to-eye. I got an advance, I’m like, “I’m moving the fuck out.” My dad was like, “Well, if you move out you can’t keep the studio here.” I was like, “Well, fine.” I took the studio with me to my apartment. Nobody from Odd Future wanted to come record at my new apartment. I don’t know why.
We had budgets at that point, so they were like, “Well, we got budgets, we can just go to a real studio.” I was like, “Alright, sure.” Then that whole essence of us all being in the same room all the time went away. That, if anything, was the biggest transition. It wasn’t even about the management, the lawyers and the label. It was all of us.
When you guys first started out as the Internet, was it you and Matt [Martians] just producing tracks with the idea in mind of having it as a full band?
We didn’t have the idea to have a full band. We honestly wanted to release our first album for free and not perform it ever. Just drop it on some low-key underground OF shit. Just the people who really cared – that would be for them. I played that for a manager, and he was like, “What? Nah, this is special, blah blah blah.” I was like, “Oh, well, cool, alright, well, if you say so.” He was like, “Nah, you guys should release this on the label, because you own a part of it and you have a deal and you might as well.” I was like, “Alright, I guess. Is it going to make it hard?” He was like, “I mean, you have a deal, just do it.” I was like, “Alright, well, cool.”
I learned a lot of great things from [Odd Future], but one of the mistakes that they made was that we didn’t stay together and we didn’t communicate.
Was that recorded in your apartment?
Yes. I recorded “Love Song -1” on the floor. I was really upset that day. I was actually probably crying when I was recording that. I was going through my ex. I cared more than she did. Of course, tables always turn, but at the time I was really heartbroken. I felt like she hated me for no reason. I started making that beat at my desk. For whatever reason, my computer was tripping. You know how sometimes you record some keys and the sustain just keeps going? I’m over here crying because I had the song in my head already, so I’m just trying to make the beat so I could record it. Bruh, I had a breakdown. I pulled the keyboard out the computer, I threw it across the apartment. Went ham, had a breakdown, started crying. Then I grabbed my laptop, because I had Reason on my laptop, too, and then I just started the beat from scratch on my laptop. I did it on the floor. Recorded on the floor.
The reason it’s so short is because by the time I was done, I was like, “I ain’t got shit else to say about this bitch, fuck her.” That’s how I feel.
Tell me about some of the people who really influenced you to be so experimental on that album.
With that album we were listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder and George Duke. George Duke’s Feel. That album in particular, we just had that on repeat. Matt is a huge Jamiroquai fan. I didn’t get into Jamiroquai until I started hanging out with him and he started putting me on to them, so we were listening to them. We were listening to a lot of Amy Winehouse. We were experimenting with psychedelic drugs, so naturally we were like, “Okay, this sounds like Stevie Wonder if he was on acid or something,” because it’s just quirky. You know what I mean? That’s honestly just a true testament to me and Matt’s bond and what we can both bring to the table.
Matt, when he does solo shit, his shit is very quirky and very leftfield. If you don’t understand music you’re not going to get it. You know what I mean? Me, my style is a little more straightforward. What I liked about him was that he was able to have this going on over here and all these hi-hats over here, but there’s different hi-hats over here and then there’s chords over here, and these chords are low-key in a different key, but they kind of work. Maybe one note is off, because he doesn’t really know theory like that. When we got together I just tried to make sense of his chaos, and that’s what we ended up with.
Is working with a band partially what you would attribute to the progression of The Internet and what the new album sounds like?
Yeah. It’s funny, because with the new album we kind of went back to our roots. On the first album we’re using more electronic drums. The band plays such a huge role. I would not be sitting here if it weren’t for them; that’s honest. We’re all best friends. No lie. Dead ass, like, I only really kick it with them. I have some friends outside of them, but for the most part we be kicking it. We don’t even be kicking it and making music, we just be posted just talking about how we feel about life. We’re really close. We’re really close-knit family. It’s the reason we’ve been able to stay together so long.
Even Tay Walker, our original keyboard player, he went solo. He opened up for us on our last US tour. You know what I mean? We just trying to keep it in the family. I think that’s what I learned a lot from Odd Future. I learned a lot of great things from them, but one of the mistakes that they made was that we didn’t stay together and we didn’t communicate. We never had meetings. Everybody had issues with everybody else and wouldn’t talk about it. Now, ain’t none of that going down in my shit. Uh-uh, I don’t play that.
On the new album, you got a track with Kaytranada. How did that come together?
We ran into him so many times during festival season. I did a DJ set in Montreal and he was there, just chilling backstage. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I became a fan of his shortly after. Then we saw him at South by Southwest. It was just like, “Man, love your shit. We got to work.” Then, didn’t talk to him for months. Did another festival with him in Croatia. When you’re so far from home, with somebody that you know from home, it’s that extra special bond. That was the time where we actually exchanged info. When we got home, he sent me a folder with 20 beats. I picked two. The first one that I wrote was “Girl.” The second one that I wrote is on his new album. It’s called “You’re the One.”
You didn’t start off as a singer. How did you take the steps to get to a point where you could be like, “I’m a singer. I’m a vocalist.”
I don’t even know if I’m there yet. I grew up watching American Idol. My mom’s ear is really good. She be hearing every off-pitch, and she’ll make a face or she’ll point, you know what I mean? She’s one of those. It was hard. The thing is, I always agreed with her. I knew. We were on the same page. Like, “I know mom. Thanks. I know it was flat. It’s okay.”
We did a US tour the end of last year. I had hired a new vocal coach because I felt like I wasn’t good enough still. I felt like I needed to sing bigger and better and whatnot. Man, that tour was so hard on me. That tour was so stressful. I lost my voice by the end of the tour. I got home, was trying to record, couldn’t record nothing because I was just doing too much. I was trying to be somebody else. After that tour, I was like, “Fuck this shit. I’m just going back to how I used to sing.” It’s the easy shit. The shit that’s easy for me. My whole world opened up. Just do you.
You started out in the studio in your backyard, doing things like that. It kind of seems like you were given a path to follow and you followed it and it got you here, but are there times you just thought, “Man, this thing ain’t going to happen. I quit.” What can you say to artists where the path isn’t as direct?
I can honestly say I’ve only really felt that way once. That was back in the OF days, before OF blew up. We had put out a few albums in a span of six months or so. None of them had gotten us any more followers, any more fans. Nothing. We were all sitting there. Tyler sat down with me, and he was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I should quit or if we should just stop or what.” I was like, “We going to figure something out.” You know what I mean? But I felt the same way. Mind you, we were 16, 17.
Looking back, it was like, “Man, we got so much time.” But at that time, we’re like, “I don’t want to really go to college if I don’t have to. I’m trying to figure this shit out now.”
What I did was I started sending press releases from myself. I bought a website. I designed it to make it look like a FADER or Pitchfork. I tried to make it look like a blog. Better yet, LAx Paperboys. You remember? I tried to make it look like that. I based my whole shit off of their website, where I tried to basically make it look like Odd Future was signed to a branding company, a firm, to make people take us more seriously. “They with somebody now.”
We was like, “Man, these other people is getting on all the blogs. These blogs ain’t posting our shit. Why not?” One day I got a press release from Wiz Khalifa. I was like, “Who the fuck is Wiz Khalifa? This is how it works?” These people send emails to these blogs to say, “We just dropped some shit.” I spent a couple of days online. I went to all the blogs that I could find. I went to their contact sections and took down all the email addresses. I made the website. I made it look like they were signed to some serious shit.
It was just me. I looked up press release templates, I made press releases. I think the first press release I sent was for Domo Genesis’ first album, Rolling Papers and FADER posted it. I was like, “Wow, it worked. Damn. Okay, cool. We’ve taken a step up.” After that, everything kind of spiraled.