New Jersey-born Ramon Ibanga Jr., otherwise known as Illmind, may not be a household name, but the stable of artist who lean on his production chops are. Over the past decade, the Grammy-nominated producer, writer, artist, and entrepreneur has built an impressive resume producing for the likes of Kanye West, Drake, J. Cole, Dr. Dre, and G-Unit; J. Cole's "Love Yourz," Drake's "You & the 6" and G.O.O.D. Music's "Champion" are among his hits.
Something of a tech patriarch among fellow producers, Ibanga's Blap Kit sound packs helped transform access to beat-making, and are all over the radio today, cropping up on the latest albums by everyone from Meghan Trainor to Ariana Grande to Anderson .Paak. When he's not producing as Illmind, you'll likely find Ibanga in the studio working with rising songwriters and producers within his creative music group, Roseville.
Ibanga recently sat down with Noisey Radio on Beats 1 to talk his studio process, his plans for 2017, and how Timbaland's 4 AM calls transitioned into a mentor-friendship between the two super-producers. You can listen to the episode here, and keep reading for an extended version of our conversation below.
Noisey: Give us an introduction—who is Illmind?
Illmind: I'm a music producer, musician, audio engineer, artist. Just an overall creative person. I just so happened to choose music production as my outlet. I've been doing it for a minute, probably going on 15 years, started really young. I was always fascinated by how people make the music and who's responsible for putting music together. So the art of music production is what I live and breathe every day, and that's who I've become today.
You worked with everyone from Little Brother to Bobby Shmurda to G-Eazy, Drake to Kanye. The list goes on. So what's your favorite record that you've produced in the last four to five years?
Sometimes it's really hard to answer that, because I'm the type of producer where I get excited about whatever most recent thing I'm working on, and I think that reason is because I try to out do myself every time. It might be a cop out, but literally I was starting a track earlier before I came here and that is my favorite track, because I'm in the middle of working on it. But to really answer your question, I would probably say "Love Yourz" from J. Cole, because that was one of those records where we didn't know what to expect with it. We knew it was a special record. I didn't know that "Love Yourz" would become the embodiment of Forest Hills 2014, and after it came out just seeing the different reactions of people and how it impacted their lives and everything, that's what hit me with it. Just knowing that I helped create a record that really impacted people on a very deep level. That's one of the main reasons why I do music. I'm humbled by that.
That's a standout record, people love it like you said, and reacted to it very emotionally. What came first on that production?
I got to shout out Cardiak and Critical for co-producing that with me. I remember it was really late at night, probably 1 AM, and I had my headphones on. I was just making beats and going through piano riffs and I heard that piano riff. So I just decided to make a beat for it. I knew it'd be an emotional track. I knew it had to be something where the subject matter of the track had to be something impactful or important or something that people could relate to. I didn't know who it was going to be for. Then my man Matt called me from over at Dreamville and said, "Yo Cole is working, he's asking about you, what's up?" That was one of the first tracks I sent him, I sent him a bunch of other shit too, and a couple days later he hit me back saying, "Cole said hold that." Fast forward, he cuts a demo to the record and I fly out to LA and lock in with him to finish it. When I walked in there, he played me the rough version and I was just like, "Yo, I think we got something special here," and this was early on in the album process.
Is that generally your process? It seems like you have a lot of different ways of making production. At that time you were doing a lot of stuff at your house and going into the studio and vice versa, right?
Yeah, I think it's sort of changed now. Back then, I made that beat in 2013. Around 2012 to late 2014 I was sort of in this space where I was just making beats, which is what producers do. We sit there make beats and we try different things and sometimes we're doing slower tempo stuff, sometimes upper tempo. Doing it that way you're kind of shooting it blindly and just making stuff from emotion, which is great. But lately for me I'm kind of programming myself to put myself in a particular creative space and stay there for while. So as of late, I've been focusing on one-off vibes and projects. The day of me just making beats randomly are kind of dwindling, I guess.
I know not every beat you make you love, or every song you work on with an artist doesn't necessarily get to come out. What unreleased material have you worked on with an artist that you really hope comes out someday?
Honestly, I don't even believe this to be true for myself, but I believe some of the greatest music ever created is somewhere sitting on a hard drive. Imagine what Kanye's hard drives look like, Dre's massive hard drives. So I believe there's amazing music that we've yet to hear, and unfortunately we're not going to be able to hear it all. There's a lot of music on my hard drive that I would love for people to hear. An example is that I did this project in January of last year. This was after the holidays and I'm back in the studio, I have this blank canvas and I'm ready to create something, and so I decided to create this project where I'm not following any formats, it's just me going in and creating in the moment. I kind of like to compare it to Jackson Pollack, this painter where his style is that he has a blank canvas and a bunch of colors and he'll just splatter random colors and different paint techniques, and he'll just do it in the moment. It doesn't make sense necessarily but he's living in the moment and doing it, so this is sort of my Jackson Pollack audio project. I only played it for a few people, I finished it and had a hell of a lot of fun doing it, and I kind of did that for myself. So hopefully that comes out if and when it makes sense, but I'm kind of excited for people to eventually hear that one.
Let's talk about blap and Blap Kits. How did that all start?
Blap Kits are basically drum kits for music producers So if you're a music producer, there's this culture where you find sounds and different tools to be able to produce music. It started with the old beat machines, the SP12 or and the MPC, where you had drums loaded up, and then [came] the culture of digging for drum samples and chopping up snares and kicks to use in your production. So long story short, one day in 2011 I woke up and I was like, man I wish I had some J Dilla drums. I used to always go to his records and jack his drums and manipulate them, so one day I was like yo, I wonder if there's producers out there that would want an Illmind drum kit, so I thought of the word "blap." It's a term that derives from the Bay Area, that's what they call beats. I took some of my drum sounds from older production that I had on my ASR 10 keyboard, which is like the old joint from the 90s. And I was just like let me take 30 snares, 30 kicks, 30 hi-hats and some percussion sounds, put them in a zip folder, and then sell them on my website.
I posted it on my blog, at the time Twitter was still kind of new and I think I had around 1,000 or 2,000 followers. So I tweeted it, I emailed it to a couple of people, and that's it. Before I did this I was like, what's the price I'm going to charge for this? In my head I had $20, reasonable price. So I did it, and I woke up the next morning and see almost like $2,000 in my Paypal account. I'm like, yo what happened, this is making real money, this is crazy. So I realized there was a demand for it, and at the time there really weren't any music producers putting out their own kits. The culture of music production was, if you have drum sounds, you don't share them. Like DJ Premier is not going to put his snare out on "Moment of Truth." So I was kind of the first to say, you know what, a producer on my level at the time, let me just do it. So it became successful and from there it clicked in my mind that this is a business, there's a demand for this, this is inspiring people. So then I migrated to an official website, Blapkits.com, and five years later it's become pretty much the number one source for drum sounds, kits, sample loops, and it's really helped spark a culture of producer drum kits. I'm not going to take credit and say I was the first one to do it, but I'm not going to let anyone refute that I was the first one to bring it to the mainstream level and make it OK. It's great it kind of blew up into this thing, and now the sounds are everywhere. Pretty much what you hear on pop radio, rhythmic radio, you'll hear a Blap Kit in there somewhere.
What was it like when you heard a record use one of your kits. What was the record and what did they use?
I think probably the biggest one like oh this is on a big album was on Drake's album NWTS, there's a blap kit on "Furthest Thing," I think it was Blap Kit vol. 4. Shoutout to my man Jake One who produced that, it's the second half of "Furthest Thing." He used like a sweeper sound and I think a kick drum. I heard it and he didn't tell me he used it, I heard it and was like, oh ok that's cool I wish I had half of a royalty point for that [Laughs], but it's all good. I guess that was a proud moment for me. Like wow, not only are upcoming producers using it but some bigger producers are using it too, and they're ending up on albums. From there it just appeared everywhere. You can hear it on Meghan Trainor's new album, Ariana Grande's new album, it's all over Anderson .Paak's album Malibu.
Blap kits have transcended into other genres. Has this allowed you to work with other producers in other genres as well?
Absolutely, I think the drum kit business kind of opened up my fan base in a way where it's like, ok there's producers out there that may have not known me for my music but have heard of the kits and have used the kits and found out the person behind the kits, they find out it's me and it kind of creates an introduction of who I am to them. From there they do their research and they're like oh he did this record or this record and then that kind of creates a synergy and it's definitely opening up doors and it allows me to see what producers do to this stuff it's kind of like a mutual respect thing. And there's producers out there that are now starting to release their own drum kits and I love it, it's great. It's feeding into the producer community it's allowing us to have tools and to be able to share each other's sounds and I think it's healthy for music.
You've said in the past that you're afraid people are going to sound like Illmind. What's your reaction to that now? Do you think there are people out there that sound like you or similar, or do you think everyone took the sound and made it their own?
I think most people take the sounds and create their own thing. The conversation of a producer copying the Illmind sound I don't think is a fair thing to say because I'm influenced by a lot of things. All producers are influenced, and I believe that if you're creating music from the heart, there's only one you. So as long as you're being honest with yourself, then no one can duplicate that. I'm making music from my heart so I know other people can't do what I do, and if they are hearing what I'm doing they are a couple years or months behind because what I have on my hard drives has nothing to do with what you hear now from me. So however you want to interpret it it doesn't bother me, I don't think it's that big of a deal. I think people are definitely inspired by my sound and I'm humbled by that, and if they want to use that as a template to find themselves then I'm fine with that. I did the same thing with Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Dilla. I studied for them, emulated them, and then I found my own sound.
You helped produce G.O.O.D. Music's "The Morning" featuring Kanye West, Common, Raekwon, Pusha T, 2 Chainz & Kid Cudi. What was it like working with that many artists at that caliber?
That song was definitely special I remember it clearly it was august 2012 and I'm at home in New York, Kanye and all of them are in hawaii and so I get a text from my man Rhymefest. Shoutout to Rhymefest because he was really one of the ones responsible for putting two and two together. So Rhymefest hits me up, like "Yo that track you sent me I think Kanye wants to use it for this pusha t joint." Pusha T gets on it and they're doing their thing, then he texts me a couple hours later like yo i think we're going to make this a posse cute we got everybody in here, Raekwon, 2 Chainz, Cy, Common and this joint is turning out crazy 'll let you know wassup. Then I get a text from him saying, yo I think Kanye wants to put this on cruel summer mind you cruel summer's drop date I believe was like September 2012, so this is like a couple weeks before super last minute. I get another text from my man Che Pope over at good music like yo Ill I think we're using one of the joint for Cruel Summer. I'm bugging out already and this is a day before my birthday and the next day I get an email from this representative at Def Jam and they hit me up and are like hey just got word you produced a song on the Kanye joint I need your publishing splits, attorney information and all of that. So I connected the dots looped in my attorney and we made the track happen just as simple as that they were over there doing it and it was a track that I did probably a year and a half before that, that beat was done in like 2010 or 2011. Obviously there were some changes made to it because Kanye is a producer and I believe Travis Scott did some stuff on it too but a lot of it was intact so that's how that came about and I guess that was an early good birthday present to myself. I just think it's so interesting because they were so close to the release date but they were still able to pull it off so shoutout to Ye, Good music and the whole crew. Rhymefest told me when they were in the studio they didn't know who did the beat they just felt it and did it. I wish I was there for the creative process but they got busy on it.
How important is collaboration to your production process?
It's everything I believe music is to be made with people you get to a point as producer where you're in your room or the studio or in your mom's basement and you're creating music by yourself which is what most of us do but you get to the point where it's like man I want to and need to feed off of other people's energy and that really goes back to how music was made back in the day. Before the MPC and before laptops and mini keyboards it was James Brown with a band. So there was a key board guy guitar guy, someone on bass, on drums, tambourine, and a microphone, So what james brown would do is his band would be in there zoning out and literally improvising and feeding off each other and James Brown would just walk into the room while their jamming, the mic would be on record and that would be how they would come up with records. When I heard that story it just made sense to me like that's how music should be made in the moment feeding off of other people's energy so as a producer at this point in my career I'm all about collaboration and I go out of my way to collaborate and for me the goal is whatever song I'm working on to make it the best song possible. So I'll go above and beyond to make sure that song is right, if I'm working on a track and I feel like I'm not the right person to do the drums I'll send it to people or bring people in to try different things and make the track better. I'm not afraid to share my cut of whatever publishing ends up happening I don't really care about that during the creative process.
We've talked a lot about wanting to champion today's music producers. What are some things you and your team of producers at Roseville are doing to achieve that goal?
The success of the Blap Kit and drum kit business has really given me and the team and opportunity to tap into the producer community a little bit more, so for the past few years I've done workshops. That's one thing that I've been doing and we did two workshops in New York, one in LA and Boston so we're planning on expanding the workshop to a global level it's basically just spreading awareness of what music producers of today should know about and a lot of it is basic stuff like if I get a placement what do I do? Do I need an attorney do I need a manager and if I do where do I find one? What is publishing? What's a publishing deal? What do royalty points mean? What happens if I sample? How much money can I make? Where can I make money? These are all kind of basic fundamental questions that you'd think most music producers would know about but 90% of the producers don't know anything about this stuff so just from my experiences, failures and mistakes in the past I'm kind of just utilizing what I learned over the years to spread awareness. I write this stuff on my blog, I'm doing workshops and I like to rant about this stuff on my social media pretty often too so anything that I can do to spread awareness I'm definitely going to do.
Who was the first person that empowered Illmind? Who's the first person that gave you positive feedback and made you feel like they were teaching you something that made you realize you were on the right path?
I never really had a person or particular role model to really learn the ropes from and at times I think back and wish I did but at the end of the day for me a lot of it was just sort of trying things, screwing up then learning from my mistakes and then adopting this mentality like damn I hope the next producer doesn't have to go through that. Then I got to the point where it was like man I want to let everybody know what my experience was so they don't have to experience the same thing. So for me I never really had a mentor to really learn from but more recently I've been back in forth with Timberland he hit me up a couple years ago on Instagram and he became a fan of my music and he'd call me every once in awhile literally out the blue. One time I was in Miami and he was calling me at four in the morning or I'm in Brooklyn and he'll just call me during the day and we'll talk for hours. He's one of the guys I look up to but any time I talk to him it's like a cleansing experience because he's dropping so many jewels to me and I'm thankful for that so shoutout to Timbo. He's probably more recently like the closest thing to that.
You've been an executive producer or many occasions. When you have a solid body of work and are trying to narrow it down how do you determine what stays or goes?
With my experience of executive producing, it's a lot of brainstorming it's a lot of feeding off of the artist and the people involved maintaining a level of excitement with everybody. When you're stepping in as an executive producer you're not the boss it's more just like let's all collectively do this together and your role is to take initiative on certain things. With Andy for example he's a blast to work with and he's become a really good friend of mine over the years and working on the Uncomfortable album with him it was easy because not only is he the homie but the people involved were mega talented and cool, and Reach Records were cool with putting everything together so that was cool and easy beeing able to go in there and create the entire canvas together. It's the difference between coming in a producing one song which is like going in and painting a tree on the bottom right corner of the painting. As opposed to coming in and having a blank canvas and painting the entire painting with other people so that's kind of how I can describe executive producing a project.
What else is coming up next as far as continuing to empower the producer community?
Continuing to put out more kits I just dropped three amazing drum packs and kits if you go to Blapkit.com you can check those out. Setting up some more workshops getting my podcasts back up and running, I have a podcast called blap chat and it's you guessed it one and a half hour podcast on everything music production. So continuing to do blap chat, more workshops, kits and cool one off tidbits for the producer community. But definitely a lot in the works right now just trying to end the year right and go off into 2017 hard.
Can we expect another solo Illmind project soon?
I've dropped beat tapes before but I've never released an official Illmind album, I'm definitely officially just now starting it in my mind so right now I'm just putting ideas together and brainstorming the different artists I want to bring in but definitely expect that in the future, I don't want to say 2017 or 2018, it could be next summer or 2020 but I'm finally in that space to do an ill mind album. Aside from that still working with a bunch of people there's placements that'll happen in a lot of different places in 2017 some I don't know about yet but I know are coming. And some stuff recently this Hamilton mixtape, I'm all over that mixtape I produced a record with Nas and Dave East, I produced a record on there with the Roots and Common, co-produced a record with Kelly Clarkson and I also have my own little interlude on that project so that and then the Disney stuff. Disney just dropped a movie called Moana which is the number one movie in the nation right now it's a Disney Pixar movie and I produced a song on the soundtrack called You're Welcome featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jordan Fisher and it's also the closing credit music for the actual movie so go check out the movie Moana so I'm doing a little bit of everything so next year should be exciting.
Kwele Serrell contributed to this story.