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Producing Is More Than Just Beats

Dallas' Sikwitit's music has gone viral and been featured on TV shows, but his journey is only just beginning.

by Hady Mawajdeh 5 Jan 2017
Sikwitit

Dallas producer Sikwitit has had an enviable start to his career. He’s performed with rap superstar Lil Wayne, produced viral beats for hip-hop magazine XXL and his music was featured on the Showtime series “Power.” He’s also earning recognition locally - for his documentary "Sound Collectiv #DallasUp" and for winning the Dallas Observer's award for "Best Producer."

 

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled

Video: Dane Walters

Inside  EMP Recording Studios in Arlington, Dallas producer Sikwitit prepares for an evening of work with Dallas rapper Bobby Sessions and 17-year-old producer Brown Royal.

“Right now, we’ve already kind of got the beat laced, but we wanted to revisit some parts of it and get it in a good place for Bobby to finish writing to it, so that we can record him,” says Sikwitit.

Just before they kick things off, Sikwitit queues up a ridiculously long commercial featuring famed producer DJ Khaled promoting McDonald’s “Dollar Menu.” The trio recites the words to the commercial and laughs.

“This is something we do before we work together,” says Sessions. “I do not endorse McDonald’s or the ‘Dollar Menu,’ but if you can be as passionate about a topic as DJ Khaled is about this ‘Dollar Menu,’ you can pretty much do anything.”

Sikwitit shouts out, “Khaled for President!”

This is all in a day’s work for a couple of North Texas’ rising stars. Sessions pulls out his cell phone and begins rapping over a beat that Sikwitit and Brown Royal put together for him the last time they worked together. He usually comes into the studio with previously prepared raps that he wants to use for specific tracks. Sikwitit and Brown Royal discuss drum beats and samples that  they want to work into the track and suddenly the sounds are flying.

“It’s all about understanding the purpose of what you’re trying to do,” says Sessions. “That’s why picking the right producer is so important. I’m making the producer responsible for the sound that’s going to accompany my message and it has to be right, because that could stop somebody from killing themselves.”

Sessions’ music has a message. So yes, he does want a track that will make a listener bob their head, but it also has to be good enough that he can still inspire people who may be dealing with struggles in their life.

“If I have a message I want to get across, nobody wants to hear a tape of me rapping a cappella,” says Sessions. “People are drawn toward sound. That’s why I work with Sikwitit. He understands the responsibility of making sure people hear whatever my message is.”

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Dallas rapper Bobby Sessions cuts up in the studio (Producer Brown Royal in back) Photo: Dane Walters

That’s exactly the job of a producer, making sure people get the message. Sikwitit’s mentor is Larry Griffin Jr. – better known as Symbolyc One or S1.  He lives in North Texas and has worked with Jay-Z, Kanye West and Beyoncé. He says people don’t really know what a producer does. Usually, people mistake a producer for a beat maker.

“Being a producer is being able to put the right artist on a beat,” says S1. ” It’s creating the right hook, making sure the mix is good, making sure the vocal production is good so that the vocals sound right.”

A producer sees a song from creation to publication. It’s a skill S1 thinks Sikwitit has.

“I see great things happening for Sikwitit,” says S1. “He just gets it. He’s got talent, but he understands that there’s so much more than that to being great. He’s persistent and eager to grow and I think that’s going to make him great.”

Going from beat maker to producer is a graduation process. And Sikwitit graduated in 2009, when his hip-hop group – Tha Citiznz – got the opportunity to open for Lil Wayne in their hometown Corpus Christi. At this time, Lil Wayne was probably the hottest rapper on the planet. He had several songs on the Billboard Top 100 and he had just discovered phenoms Drake and Nicki Minaj. This was, of course, a big deal for Sikwitit.

“I felt like we had propelled into this whole situation on a more professional level,” says Sikwitit. “It cause me to say, ‘OK. If people are asking us to be a part of something this big…that must mean that the music is actually quality and good.”

Sikwitit began to take music even more seriously, even though it was his job with a video production company that paid the bills.

“I remember doing it before I went full time and I was still at a regular 9 to 5,” says Sikwitit.  “It was my passion. I used to think ‘I can’t wait to get out of work, because I am going to stay up all night and work on my craft.’”

Eventually, he decided to quit his job to focus on his dream.

“Straight up, I was afraid. I didn’t have a lot of money saved up and it was a struggle, man,” says Sikwitit.

And the struggle was real. He quickly ran out of money and began to collect unemployment. He even got food stamps.

“Every month I questioned whether I should go back to work,” he says. “It got to the point where I was three months behind on my rent, they were about to shut off my lights and it was just a lot of things going that were going wrong and I just didn’t have the financial means to help me keep going.”

But finally, in 2013, four years after he hit the stage with Lil Wayne and months after he quit his job, his projects began to pay off.

“Literally like in a week’s time, all in the same week, I had placed a record with Sno tha Product, I had placed a record on the hit TV show “Power” with 50 Cent and I had also placed a record on a beer ad with Tecate,” he says.

Those placements fueled his dream. And in 2015, he was invited to iStandard’s prestigious Battle of the Beats competition. He competed against 1,500 other producers, and he won. He says he couldn’t have done it without a belief in a high power.

“Faith, for me, is everything. I’m a believer in God. I believe that my talents and gifts come from him. And I believe that every opportunity I’ve ever had in my life has been an opened door because of him,” he says

Sikwitit credits faith with providing him strength on December 26th, 2015. That’s when tornadoes tore through the Rowlett neighborhood where his family lived, destroying his sister’s home and his car.

“We were trying to salvage whatever we can,” says Sikwitit. “I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get around. And I thought, ‘Man, this year is totally shot.’”

But somehow he regained his footing and 2016 turned out to be his most successful year. He was named Dallas’ best producer by “Dallas Observer.” His beats were chosen by hip-hop magazine XXL for their “Freshman Cypher” videos. Those videos have had nearly 30 million views. He released a documentary shining a spotlight on the producer scene in North Texas. And he was nominated for a DOVE Award, which recognizes Christian music. He says it’s like a fairy tale story.

“I’m not winning Grammys. I’m not having hit records on the radio yet – and I did say yet (laughs) – but I just enjoy my journey and I see the constant growth I see the progression and I’m 100-percent happy with that. I can’t complain.”

 

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How does North Texas affect the production of your art?

For me living in North Texas as a producer is extremely beneficial, because I live in a really big market. A lot of people are really interested in the L.A., Atlanta, and New York music scenes, but for me this is my big city. I come from a small country town, so to be here I think it’s really beneficial. It’s my dream city.

Is there anything about Dallas/Fort Worth that sets us apart musically?

Yea! I definitely thinks so. I think every coast and each music hub kind of has a set feel of music whereas Dallas is so broad in what we bring to the table. We’re able to touch a lot of different styles of music and I think that really helps cultivate who we are musically and who we are as individuals and creatives.

Have you quit your day job?

In 2013, I was able to quit my day job, but it was due to some really bad circumstances… I just decided that I wanted to get into my craft and get into doing my own thing. I had been helping for years to build their businesses and fulfill their dreams that I felt that it was my time, so May 2013 I was just able to say, ‘Hey! I’m done. I’m walking away.’ And from then on I was working full time as a producer.

Was that scary?

There’s definitely some fear – I mean straight up I was afraid, cause I never done anything like this before. I didn’t have a lot of money saved up. I had to depend on some unemployment for some months and I even got government assistance for a little while, to help me get through the tough times. And it was a struggle, man. It’s one of those things that in the process of it all you feel like, ‘Man can I do this? Am I really going to make it?’ But I think I just stuck to my guns, because I had made up in my mind that it was something I wanted to do.

Do you recommend this action to friends?

Hahaha! That’s weird. I don’t recommend just jumping out there. In retrospect, looking at my situation I could have had a little bit better of a plan. So if anyone were to ask me, ‘Should I go full time?’ I would say make sure you have a game plan, because I don’t encourage you to just quit. There’s a lot of struggle. A lot of trials that you’re going to have to face in order to make this thing work. So you really have to believe in yourself and make sure you have some sort of game plan for what lies ahead of you.

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Can we travel back to 2013 and can you tell me about some of the struggles you faced?

Every month, I questioned whether I should just go back to work. I was on Craigslist looking for work. I kept on checking out the scene to see if there was something that I should go do. And it got to the point where I was three months behind on my rent and I was about to have my lights shut off and my car was like the biggest piece of junk that you could think of. I didn’t have A/C or heat. I didn’t have defrost, so you can imagine what it was like during the hot and cold seasons. My window didn’t roll down on the driver side of the car. My headlights were always going out, so it just seemed like there were a lot of things that were going wrong and I just didn’t have the financial means to keep myself going. So there was definitely some struggle there and obviously pressing through and getting my first big check for music helped me pay my bills, but it was a struggle. The struggle is for real.

Well when did that happen? Tell me about the first big paycheck.

I hadn’t landed any big placements yet. I had already worked with Sno the Product, but the song was still iffy and we didn’t know if the song was going to come out. Then literally all in one week, I had gotten placed on a record with Sno the Product, I got a record placed on the hit TV show “Power” with 50 Cent and I had also placed a record on a beer ad with Tecate. I remember that I was struggling so bad. I couldn’t pay my bills. I was trying not to ask my parents for money and I remember being so stressed out and I went to check my mail and I thought to myself, ‘More bills. This is so crazy.’ But I opened my mailbox and saw this envelope from my publishing company Spirit Music Group and gasped and thought, ‘I’ve never gotten anything from Spirit before. This could be a check!’ (laughs) So I opened it and it was a check. I don’t want to disclose the amount, but it was enough to help me catch up on three months of rent, lights and all my bills. And I just remember crying. It was so real, because I thought finally this has paid off and I am finally getting something for all of the hard work I’ve been putting in. The recognition is nice. It’s amazing to say my music was featured on Sno’s record or on “Power,” but to actually see some money attached to that… I felt like this was working.

Sik, when your job is something that you love it can be hard to maintain balance in your life. You can feel like you’re always working, even if you’re just out for the evening. So how do you maintain balance?

It’s really tough to keep balance in my life when it comes to my music and viewing it as a job. I remember doing it before, when I had a regular 9-to-5, and it was like my hobby. It was my passion. I used to think ‘I can’t wait to get out of work, because I am going to stay up all night and work on my craft.’ And that’s exactly what I would do. I would get home around 6 pm and work until 4 am and then get up and go to work, but now that it’s my job, and it’s something that I do for a living… it can be a struggle. You know, we have this mentality where when we say “job” we think of working for the man and that can help us build up an internal rebellion that’s like ‘AAAAHHHH! I don’t want to go to work!’ But for this, I had to really train myself and remember that in this job, I am the man. I had to tell myself, ‘This is my baby. This is my business. This is my company.’ I just had to start look at it like that. So it took a while for me to find the balance. It was stressful, but I needed to find a way to pull away from time to time. Now I take it in spurts, and I designate certain times to work and I designate certain times to handle other parts of my business.

When did you actually begin to think of yourself as a producer?

I think I started considering myself  a producer back in 2009. That’s when my craft was getting really good. I was working with a lot of really close friends and I was part of a rap group, so I was producing our group and other local artists at the time. So yeah, 2009 is when I knew that I was good enough to have a full vision for a record and to see it through to completion.

2016 has been a very successful year for you. Would you say that you’re creatively satisfied?

I am extremely satisfied with 2016. Funny story though – at the beginning of the year, my family was it by a tornado. My sister’s house was demolished, my car was totaled and things had really gotten off to a rocky start. That had really gotten me shaken and preoccupied, so it interfered with a ritual that I have where I reflect upon the last year and plan for the next. Instead of planning and stuff, I was with my family trying to salvage whatever was possible following the tornado and I was trying to get around without a car and I thought the year was totally shot. I really thought this was going to be my worst year of all time and I needed this to be a successful year. But I just kept moving and working and told myself that it was going to work out. And guess what? It’s been so amazing. Not only did I do the XXL stuff, but I got nominated for a Dove award which is practically a Christian Grammy, I was able to do a celebrity beat battle with big name producers like Focus and Warren G and I can’t even… I look back at the beginning of the year and I am in awe. It’s like a fairy tale. I’m not winning Grammys, I’m not making hit records that play on the radio yet – notice I said yet – but I am enjoying my journey. I see the constant growth. I see progression. And since I’ve gone full time I have been on a steady incline and I am 100% happy that. I can’t complain.

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With success comes sacrifice. What have you had to let go of or give up to pursue your craft?

It’s very hard to maintain a social life outside of work. I’m at clubs or events and it all seems social, but it’s all work for me. Just to go out and to have a drink with friends or hang with my family or have a relationship with a woman is really very, very, very difficult, because all of those things require time and energy. That means I have to make a decision about whether I want to put my energy. Do I want to put it toward friend time OR do I want to put that energy toward my craft and make sure that I am setting myself up for success? So that’s been the biggest sacrifice.

Is it worth it?

It’s worth it… It’s almost like the red pill/blue pill situation from “The Matrix.” You’ve got your normal life and you’ve got your career. I miss my normal life. I miss being able to hang out and to be free and do whatever I want with my friends and family. But I have always felt like I was destined for something great, so when I look at my life and weigh the options, I think that if I go the “normal” route that I am always going to have this void. So while I am pursuing this career and I feel successful, I actually feel accomplished and fulfilled. And my hope is that all of that other stuff will eventually catch up.

What makes you different from other producer?

What makes me different? Dang! I wish I had been able to prepare for this one. I guess I would have to say that it’s not just about the music for me. I am driven by people. I love people and giving back. I think that music is just an introduction platform for what I want to do with the rest of my life. So I am looking long term. I am not just the sort of producer that wants to be in the studio all day every day focusing on the music. I look at what my music can do. Where can it go? How can it touch people? What doors can it open? I’m definitely trying to perfect my craft, but I am also thinking about where my music can take me. Where will it channel me and how can I affect people? Right now, the music is what’s impactful. I put myself into the music and that’s how I impact people. But I am getting to the place where I can actually go out and speak publicly and hopefully that has an impact on people. So I think overall I think I am different, because I thinking about the many ways I can make an impact through my music.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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