Interviews

Doc McKinney Bridged the Gap from 90s Trip-Hop to The Weeknd's 'Trilogy'

On the 20th anniversary of Esthero’s 'Breath From Another,' the man behind The Weeknd reflects on his career.

by Corinne Przybyslawski
May 15 2018, 2:09pm

“I always say that with Abel’s thing, I’m known as this R&B producer, but prior to that, I wasn’t,” muses executive producer Doc McKinney, as his signature Lennon glasses reveal a modest glint in his eye from beneath their translucent green lenses. His warm and leveled tone is laid-back and unaffected—though far from apathetic, as he mulls over the undeniable impact that his opus, House of Balloons, had on Toronto since its release 7 years ago. As one of the most intense collaborations of his career, his work with Abel Tesfaye onset the city’s R&B renaissance in an unprecedented span of 7 months—but McKinney began laying his sonic fingerprints over the musical fabric of the city long before The Trilogy’s critical acclaim gave rise to The Weeknd as he’s known today.

Doc McKinney recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of his work as a producer on Esthero’s Breath from Another—a clamorous, yet organic trip-hop record that embraces an expansive instrumental palette, and peppers in every limb of McKinney’s broad taste which he’s calibrated over the course of his career. “It was funny because Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene lent me guitar pedals for that record,” he recalls. “I had Evan [Cranley] from Stars doing horns on it. There was a great cast of musicians.”

Recorded in 1998, Breath From Another is a record that draws equally from Gangstarr and Mobb Deep as it does from My Bloody Valentine and Bjork, but McKinney lightheartedly insists that he didn’t necessarily know what he was doing at the time of its recording. “I was actually trying to be the next DJ Premier,” he laughs. “I’m a massive Jodeci fan and massive Mavericks fan, so to me it sounds pretty consistent in the music I do, where it sounds like a very conflicted mix kid that’s trying to figure out his identity, or trying to get everyone to just get along.”

Although McKinney now divides his time between Toronto and Los Angeles, he grew up in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and has seen firsthand how the energy of a great artist can consume a city. What Drake and The Weeknd culled from and for Toronto recalls the “Prince effect” he witnessed living in the Twin Cities. “People would be getting off the Greyhound dressed like Prince, coming from wherever USA,” he tells. “Watching that impact of what one artist was able to do—bring people from sunny parts of the United States to a freezing cold place like Minneapolis to hopefully get a glimpse of him or baptize themselves in Lake Minnetonka and become great.”

While some may argue that The Trilogy went on to hold the city’s musical identity in a chokehold for years to come, McKinney believes that its impact is often oversold, as a result of the critical acclaim the record fostered. “There was always great music here, but when I moved here it seemed like such an impossible feat for the number one artist of the world to come from Toronto,” he recalls. “I feel like it’s weird because there are so many other people here that were doing crazy shit. For me, T-Minus—he also set the tempo of the sound. There’s a lot of credit that could go other places.”

Distinguished by his fervent aversion to the notion of any industry standards, McKinney privileges naturally-occurring ideas as they come, as opposed to edited takes in the modern style. While his foray into DAWs began with Cubase, the self-described “hip-hop head” cites his first production tool as an MPC60. “Fortunately, I’m not the best musician, so it comes out sounding like me almost every time,” he adds.

His east end studio, which he shares with Toronto-based producer Frank Dukes, is riddled with boutique vintage and analog synthesizers, including a Prophet and a classic Wurlitzer. Working almost exclusively in Ableton for sessions, he relies on Push for his craft and makes a conscious effort to remove any computer screens in his creative process, citing the guitar as the foundation for his recordings. “I have this pick up by a company called Fishman, and there’ve been various ones throughout the 20-some years I’ve been using it,” he details. “It basically relays the frequency of the note and converts it into a MIDI message, and then sends it over Bluetooth, so it just appears like it’s actually a keyboard, so when I play guitar, I can play any instrument—which is cool.”

25 years of experience in the industry have instilled McKinney with an unparalleled patience, and it’s his unique ability to take the backseat that separates him from modern producers. Relating the role of an executive producer to “method acting”, McKinney asserts that objectivity is more of an asset than the contemporary school of recording might think. “I do not make artists’ visions. The artists that people care about that I’ve worked with have a vision,” he affirms. “I, 99% of the time, am going to be dreaming within their dream.”

Photo via Instagram

Much of McKinney’s expertise as an executive producer is the result of his natural inclination towards organic collaboration—a skill that he fostered at 17, during the early days of his career as a band member for various groups. His ability to mould himself to a dynamic range of personalities without compromising their voice or integrity is the distinct skill that underwrites Doc McKinney’s chameleonic success. “Writing music, there’s a lot of vulnerability, especially when you’re trying new stuff. Being brave and courageous and doing different things, the artist really has to feel like you understand them,” he tells. “I’m not saying I’m anyone’s therapist, but it’s the same type of thing that they say, where you’re taking on that energy.”

With so many personalities at work in the recording process, consistency is often easily compromised, and this compels McKinney to relate the modern production styles to line cooking. “Today’s world, people are just like it’s a McDonald’s thing, where people are just coming through the studio for a day, half a day, people sending out beats or whatever,” he notes. “It’s not the same thing as actually moving in with somebody and realizing that they pee on the seat, you know what I mean? It’s not until month three that you start realizing that this person is really starting to annoy you.”

Although his discography only seems to have room for artists who eventually go on to become “greats”, McKinney keeps it simple. With a calm and collected outlook on the industry, he relies on a vibe to guide his ear, and if the connection is authentic, he’ll indulge the opportunity. “You shoot for these things that you love. For me, it’s always been the character of the voice, first and foremost, and then the lyric—the perspective. They may be tied, as far as the thing that I’m initially intrigued by, that catches my ear, but I mean, I just try to find great storytellers,” he concludes. “They don’t even have to be honest.”

Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter .