Interview: Harry Fraud

The Brooklyn-raised beat king, producer for Action Bronson, French Montana, A$AP Mob and more, dishes on his unique production style

Broadcasting live from New York City, Peak Time is Red Bull Radio’s dynamic digest of the freshest new tracks, breaking music news, in-depth artist interviews, cultural commentary, event coverage and more. In this excerpt from his interview with Vivian Host on Peak Time, the eclectic beatmaker Harry Fraud reflects on the evolution of his style and his role in shaping the sound of modern rap in New York.

Courtesy of Harry Fraud

You’ve been working with French Montana since 2009. What is your relationship like when you guys are in the studio?

Me and French been working together for so long and developed our sounds so much together and are just so close as people that I think in the studio we’re pretty effortless. We don’t stress ideas or anything too much, we just let things flow, and we’re usually, 99.9% of the time, happy with the outcome. But it’s just always good vibes with us. We’re two laid-back guys. We not getting too crazy or anything in the studio. We just like to chill, make music, have fun. Keep a good spirit.

Going into this new record Jungle Rules, does he ever tell you, “I want a beat like this” or “I want this album to sound this way”?

We have developed our sounds so parallel with each other and have been working for so long that he don’t even really need to say it. But I know I want to give him at least one record [that’s] kind of an uptempo party record, like “Bring Dem Things,” and then I want to give him a wave record like “A Lie.” I know what our pockets are. And of course we always pushing to find new sounds and new textures and stuff like that, but we’re kind of on some ESP vibe. It doesn’t have to be that talked about. We just feel it out – I think that’s a good collaboration. It’s when you just vibe on that level where you don’t necessarily have to be so contrived with everything.

Good music is about a feeling. As soon as you start to try and plan things out too much, shit never comes out how you want it. I’m more of a purist in that sense. I don’t really think that’s the way to do it. It’s like “Oh, we got to make a joint at this tempo for these people,” and it’s never going to come out how you want it, you know?

French Montana - A Lie feat. The Weeknd, Max B

I was reading that you almost always get in the studio with everybody that you’re working with, instead of doing this thing that a lot people do, which is give someone a beat, they fly in the vocals in some other studio and give it to you on the internet.

For me personally, I don’t really feel like I get effective records that way. Of course there’s those times where certain artists like to be literally by themselves in the studio with just the engineer, and I could respect that that’s their creative process. But I’m kind of “old school” in the sense of, I think a producer is the person that actually puts the record together and makes everything happen. Now you got a lot of beat-makers that make a lot of beats, but they’re not producing a record. They’re just sending a beat, and that’s right in part of the record, but I don’t really think that’s producing in the traditional sense of the word. There’s so many great producers that never programmed a drum or looped something up. They just put their sauce on it.

There’s something to be said even for the guy that stands in the back, just knows what sounds good and says “loop that part” and “do that.”

I think those are some of the best guys. I’ve heard about plenty of sessions with Rick Rubin where he doesn’t get off the couch in the back of the room, but when he drops the jewel it’s like, “Oh yeah. That’s what we needed.”

You’ve been known for sampling and flipping a lot of unusual things, stuff like Grizzly Bear and indie-rock and things that don’t necessarily make their way into rap music all the time. What’s your go-to when you’re trying to get a new sound?

I’m one of those people that my Spidey sense is always on. I’m always listening to my surroundings. At least three times a week I’ll send my engineer a screenshot of a Shazam from when I’m in the coffee shop or in Kmart or wherever I’m at. If I hear something that I like I take it. The last few years what I’ve really been working on is developing live instrumentation that lends itself to the sonics that I already like in samples, but trying to take it to that next level. “Let me bring in this amazing horn player. Let me bring in this amazing keyboard player.” I have access to so many talented people and it’s just about putting it all in the pot and mixing up something that I like. I think that’s part of studying sound. You start to figure out, “Well, I like this because they compress so hard or they EQ this way,” and then trying to lend that to my techniques and bringing that out in my own stuff.

Especially with hip-hop, you get the best result when you’re pinned in a corner.

When you were first starting out as a producer, what producer’s work was a revelation to you?

When I was coming up I loved Havoc so much. I loved Alchemist so much. I loved Organized Noize so much. For me it was about hearing real musicality, but then understanding how to curate the best parts of the source material and put it into these loops. I started out as a DJ, but I got tired really quick of just scratching, and so I would start to beat juggle and make blends and stuff. Through that, when I would be putting two records together or beat juggling a record with a breakbeat, it would turn into this new beat and I was like, “Damn. I just want to make this, but figure out how to make it.” So, my pops is an amazing guitar player, and he always had 4-tracks and drum machines and shit like that around the house. I just started putting together like that, just fucking around.

I remember the first beat tape that I made was Clockwork Orange samples from the movie looped up with drum breaks. It was terrible, but it was me figuring out “How does this actually come together?” Because at that point you couldn’t just Google “how to make a beat.” You had to figure it out.

I think there’s something special about starting off with different gear where you actually have to physically do it. Being limited, but you get the sense of, “This is actually how this works.”

Yeah, and it’s not that I try and limit myself now, but I don’t want a million options. I want a few options, and let me take those and make it work and get creative with that. I feel like now we got access to every keyboard sound and every drum sound, and sometimes I feel like I got too much shit to go through. I like to have a little bit of a challenge of “Let me take this and make it work my way,” as opposed to just running wild, because I don’t feel like you always get the best result with that. I feel like especially with hip-hop, you get the best result when you’re pinned in a corner and have to make something dope out of not that much shit.

French Montana - New York Minute feat. Jadakiss

I think that’s true of a lot of the classic hip-hop records when you hear the story. They made it in 30 hours overnight, ten tracks, somebody’s MPC was half-broken.

That’s the story of my life. First song I ever had that really started to move was “New York Minute” with French and Jadakiss. I used to do beats only on the MPC 2000, but I didn’t have a zip drive, so I would have to save everything on floppy drives. On floppy disk it’s only like one-and-a-half meg, so one beat would take up like 12 disks and you’d have to load them and load them. So we’re doing “New York Minute” and we’re going to track it out. I walked in the studio to track it out and the sequence was corrupted on my disk. I literally had to program right there. We had 300 hours worth of studio time. We had to get it done right there, so I had to reprogram the whole beat real quick and then track it out in 45 minutes. It was hell but, you know, came out good.

Every time I hear a Harry Fraud beat I’m like, “It’s a banger, but it’s a whimsical banger.” I feel like you make whimsical bangers, and I think you’re really instrumental in starting this new age-y spa vibe that’s gotten really, really huge, especially in trap right now. Like, using more wavy, aquatic sounds and not having everything have to be so hard constantly.

I think that’s the Aquarius inside me. It just puts me in a water vibe. I like things that sound like water or sound underwater. I love ambient vibes and just catching that part that makes your little hairs on your arms stand up, and then taking that and making a beat out of that. It might not always be the most high energy thing, but chord changes and progressions and textures translate universally. There’s a reason why people love the same songs and people gravitate towards the same things, and it’s because of that unsaid musical thing that’s like touching your spirit inside. I always look for those types of things and then – not in a negative sense – just try and exploit them.

I know that you listen to a lot of stuff other than just rap music. What are some things that are not hip-hop that you listen to? Either those comfort tracks that you’ve listened to your whole life or just something you’re listening to recently.

I got a million. I listen to so much stuff, classic rock to dancehall. I’m a maniac for dancehall music, I’m a maniac for reggae music. Like, ’90s dancehall. Shabba, Barrington, Cutty Ranks, shit like that, and then with reggae, all the way, Yellowman, Toots, obviously Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, the regulars. Then with rock & roll, I’ve just digested so much rock & roll my whole life. From Zeppelin to Tame Impala and everything in between. Obviously in the ’90s, Nirvana changed my life. Alice In Chains changed my life. Pearl Jam, all those bands, I love them so much. The same time I was getting really into hip-hop in the mid- to late ’90s was the same time I was getting really into rock & roll so heavy, and it was kind of like these two worlds that would just run together, but not really intersect yet. Now everything is mixed. There’s rock songs with programmed drums on it and there’s hip-hop songs that utilize rock riffs and all that stuff, which isn’t new, but I feel like now there’s no real genres, whereas then my hip-hop friends would be like “Yo, why are you wearing a fucking Nirvana t-shirt?”

For you to expect New York to sound like 1995, why would we want to do that?

It’s a really open time in rap, where I feel like anything is open for sampling. You hear the weirdest reference points and beats, everything from the clothing to what rappers are listening to. I think actually A$AP Mob has had a huge hand to bring that open-ness vibe outside of New York to the rest of the world, but was there ever a point where you were making a beat and the person you were making a beat for is like, “Man, what?”

All the time. Me and French, that’s like our main thing that we have fun. I’ll come pull up on him and he calls my computer The Book of Eli. I just pull out the computer and hit him with five bangers and then he’ll be like, “Oh yeah,” and he’ll pull out his phone and hit me back with some. We’re always diving in. People always want to know what I’m sampling and for me that’s part of the fun. When I was coming up I was such a hip-hop purist. I would be like “Nah, I’m not sampling anything that’s not 20 years old” and “Nah, you got to take the drums from a vinyl” and all this crazy shit. I tell everybody, as soon as I let go of all that is when I got dope, because I just shook off all the boundaries. I was just like “Why am I going to put rules on this?” There’s no rules. This is art. There’s no rules to art.

Action Bronson - Let Me Breathe

When I look at all the tracks that you’ve produced together, one of the things it made me reflect on was how much you’re tied into this current era of New York rap. Working with Action Bronson, French Montana, the A$AP crew, down to Sean Price, Smoke DZA, Joey Bada$$, everybody. How much do you think about being a part of the legacy of New York rap? Or do you try to not think about it?

It means a lot to me. I hate that people are like “New York fell off” because I just feel like “No, we didn’t.” At a certain point everybody has to evolve. It’s like if you play sports, right? Basketball right now is not how they played basketball in 1986. So for you to expect New York to sound like 1995, why would we want to do that? That’s lame to me... This is a mutual thing for us to shine the light on each other and show “Yo, I’m a producer. This is a fly artist from New York. I’m going to make a million bangers with them and we’re going to fuck shit up and then I’m going to turn around to this other artist that I like from New York and we going to make a million bangers and fuck shit up, and it’s about me curating that.”

But at the same time, I don’t think the world is regional anymore. We have the internet. Everything is instant. So I think it’s important. If we weren’t using all those influences and everybody didn’t just meld everything together, then what’s the point? Why do we have all this access if we’re not going to use it? So I think that it’s important for me to be recognized, but at the same time I never want to be one of those dudes that’s like “Nah, New York sounds like this,” or “You got to do this.” No, you don’t. You can do anything you want.

It seems like the sound of New York, especially right now, is just the sound of growing up in New York. Everybody I interview that grew up here is so open-minded – you go to Union Square, you can hear ten different kinds of music. All the rap cats I know are going to raves and crazy metal shows.

I was that kid that was 15, using substances, sneaking into techno parties and then the next week sneaking into a heavy metal show downtown. We didn’t even think like that. It was cool to go hang out with people that were completely different than what you’re used to because you got their influences. That’s what makes this city so special. We got everything. We got every type of person. Every type of music. Every type of vibe. There’s no boundaries to New York.

By Vivian Host on August 2, 2017

On a different note