Photos by Justin Staple and Andreas Brauning
Twenty-four-year-old Sonny Corey Uwaezuoke, who you may know better as Sonny Digital, has produced all your favorite club bangers. All of them. You know the digitized voice that cuts in at the beginning of songs like iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” or Future's “Same Damn Time” and says “Sonny Digital”? That's his tag, not just a warning that you're about to hear a fire beat. The Michigan-born, Atlanta-raised producer has become one of the key architects of this generation’s trap scene, working with artists like Gucci Mane, Future, 2 Chainz, and Young Thug. He scored the breakout hit “Racks” by YC in 2011, which established the featured artist Future as a star, and Sonny has since landed a Grammy nomination and a platinum plaque for his work with iLoveMakonnen.
Sonny Digital’s production catalog pretty much speaks for itself, but he is not one to boast about past collaborations or accomplishments. The young producer prides himself on creating with new, often unheard artists. He recently sat down for an interview with Noisey Radio on Beats1 at the VICE LA office to explain his process. “I’m trying to open up a door for producers to get through the door and get shit poppin' because I know how easy it is to do a production deal,” he explains. “I know how one project can change a lot of lives, so I kind of want to be that guy because I understand from the other side too.” Some of his recent production includes music with up-and-comers of the moment Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage, and he also collaborated with Texas rapper Dro Fe on the recent mixtape Narcowave 3.
Although he's become one of the most sought out producers in the industry, Sonny has also kept his sights on his longstanding pursuit of performing as a rapper. In late 2015, he released a track with 50 Cent, “I’m The Man,” which became a bit of a cross-over hit, even landing a remix with Chris Brown. In his interview for Noisey Radio, Sonny speaks on his ambitions of becoming seen as a solo artist and how the recent death of rapper and friend Bankroll Fresh had an influence on his self-expression through rapping. He's got two new projects on the way, and there's more ideas on deck, including a possible collab tape with Southside called Sizzle Digital. With the announcement of his upcoming Sonny Rolling Grams of Wax Tour, it is clear that the rapper-producer has no plans of slowing down any time soon. Listen to the Noisey Radio segment here and, for an extended version of the conversation, read on.
Noisey: You are one of the artists directly responsible for the global emergence of the trap sound.
Sonny Digital: It’s a couple founding fathers, but I’m one of them. Well not founding fathers, but rediscovering the sound and rebuilding the sound and stuff and bringing it up to where it’s at today.
Who are some of those other founding fathers?
Metro Boomin—he moreso took our sound and took it to the left for his generation. He’s like a founding father for this generation at this time, but he bridged the gap. The space wasn’t too big between old and new, but he bridged it. The people who were in my realm were Lex Luger, Southside, KE on the Track, D. Rich.
Was TM88 out that time as well?
He was. He was around. But you want to know what’s so crazy? I used to see TM in the club all the time. He was with Waka and Brick Squad and all that. I used to see TM in the club all the time before I knew he was a producer, and every time I seen this nigga he would just be fighting in the club. I didn’t think he did anything else but fight because he was just big. Literally every time fighting in the club. I don’t even know how I found out that he made beats, but one day we linked and then that was history.
When did you start making beats?
I was about 11 or 12. I started making beats, but I didn’t really realize what I was doing it for. I started making beats because I was rapping first, and it’s kind of hard to find beats online. So it was like let me try to learn how to do it, and then I went and downloaded FruityLoops myself. One of my friends showed me the program, and then I started messing with it and started doing it. My cousin was in Michigan—that’s where I was born, and a lot of my family is there. My uncle went up there, and he brought my cousin back down. And he used FruityLoops and stuff, so I had picked up a lot of stuff from him during that time. That was a long time ago. I try to tell people the way it happened for me was very different because I started very young, so it didn’t start out like I was really trying to make something happen with it. I was just doing it for fun.
What was the first track where you felt you should take this seriously?
It just kind of happened, but the first initial track that I can say that put me in the game was “Racks on Racks.” That was the first one that allowed me to get in the game. I had been putting in work prior to that, too, though. That was like a good five, six, seven years of work before that shit popped off. People don’t see that shit, though, they just see it straight from “Racks.”
Were you surprised about the global dominance happening with the sound?
Considering all the work that niggas put in, not really. But it was cool that it finally happened when it happened. I had already been making money from it, too, though, so you can make a stable living if you’re actually good at something no matter if you’re the biggest at it. If you’re good at it you can make some money on it.
What was it like putting “Same Damn Time” together in 2011? Future was not the star he is now by any means.
That was both of our second song that stuck. It was also more like our show and prove song that showed we could stick and stay. You can come with one, but they want to see another one. At first when that shit came out I didn’t like the record. But then I went to the club and saw how the people were reacting to it, so then I was like, “oh, this shit is crazy. We really need to go crazy with this.” But that record was so early on in everybody’s career that it never even went up for sale as a single. It never got to really reach its full potential selling wise. That song did well, but it didn’t go gold or platinum even though it potentially could or should have.
Did you know Future was going to be a massive star back then, or was it just like you guys working on a song?
I didn’t really know. I was just fucking with people who fuck with me, and he was cool, and we had already made a hit together. I was starting to understand his sound was something new. It was brand new. No one had heard that shit before, so I was still absorbing and soaking that shit in. I fucked with it heavy because Rocko just happened to be my favorite rapper, and he did the stuff with Future where he had signed him back in the day. That was a part of the reason why I was fucking with Future that day too because it was like, “dang I wonder why Rocko rocks with him.” I didn’t really understand it at first, but now we see where it went. It made sense, and it was easy to work. And the people loved it, so it was like fuck it let’s keep going.
Now you're working on your project where you're rapping. Did you ever step away from that?
I didn’t, but the producing really overshadowed it because of what it did and where it took me. I’m just good at all that shit, so I just really couldn’t stop it. I've got more beats than songs, so imagine just sitting there with a lot of beats: You’re going to rap over some shit, and then if you get a response you’re going to keep on doing it. I don’t even get on my own beats all the time, but it’s a plus right now because people will pay more attention to it. But if you go back to my MySpace right now—I never took the track down—it’s still a song up there with me on it. My cousin actually produced the beat. It’s not even a rap song, it’s a song with me damn near singing on it. It’s hard. It still fits into the times right now. But that’s just showing you how far back I’ve been doing it. From that time all the way up until now I had steadily always been dropping records or doing verses on other people’s things, so people who know me from back in them days they’re not really surprised.
I feel like me being producer was really a doorway to get to another place. Bu to me in my lane, if I stayed being a producer, that would put a ceiling on my career. Whenever you talk Sonny and stuff as a producer, we’re going to talk about everybody else that comes along with Sonny. We’re going to talk about Sizzle, Metro, TM88—and then at that point it becomes a hierarchy about who’s hotter and people start putting it in that form. Which is cool, I want it to be like that, but I want people to let me go be an artist, too. I don’t have to be number one, but I also want to be on your list as a top artist because I can do that, too.
Is the new projects your beats, or are you reaching out to other producers?
What I’m going to do is two projects. One will have other people’s beats on it, probably, with some of mine. And then I’m going to do a full project with all my beats on it. But the project before then is an outlet for other people to get through because I’m doing this shit, too, for the producers. I’m coming from a producer standpoint, so I know how it is for a producer. Waiting on major artists to do your songs and you never know when they’re going to drop and shit—don’t worry, Sonny is here, he’s going to do all your shit and send it back to him you can put it out whenever.
I put this song out a year ago on Soundcloud just me: produced by me, recorded by me, mixed by me, vocals by me, 100 percent me. I just wanted to put out a song that was a 100 percent regardless of what it does. If it sold one copy it would be profit. It did pretty good for me, but then people were like, “this is Sonny the producer. We don’t know him as an artist. We’re not trying to hear this shit. We want to hear some more beats type shit.” That just comes from people not knowing I had already been doing this shit. I was like “I know this is a fire ass son, but they’re acting like they don’t like it.” I’m not going to cry about it, though.
Talk about “50 On My Wrist.”
I went to China on my birthday. We got to Shanghai, and I had a show on my birthday, March 5, and it just so happened the nigga Bankroll got shot and killed. He was the homie. That was my patna and shit. What I was trying to express, I couldn’t really do it through making beats and shit. It had to be a combination of me making beats and me rapping. That’s kind of how I got how I was feeling out without being too emotional. I was doing it through the music. All the songs that I made and put out, it all came from those emotions because it was like, damn, it was so random. It was on my birthday. It was real weird. So I went home, and I had a lot of beats that were made, and I just went down there and it made me want to make music. “50 On My Wrist,” everything was freestyled in the crib. A bunch of songs came out of it. I really did a whole fucking album, but I fucked around and just put the songs out one by one. Just imagine I got back from China on a 72 hour trip—most of it is flying, then some of it is being in China being a tourist—come back home and the whole city's mad, then it’s my birthday, so it’s a whole lot. It’s just a whole bunch of emotions.
Talk about the influence of Bankroll on your life.
It was really unexpected. You never really thought about something happening, and Bankroll was really the homie. People don’t know we were cool even before he started blowing up. Him and my patna D. Rich—he’s like one of the dudes I look up to as far as producing and stuff—would work together real tough. That’s what they was doing, and it kept me comfortable because it was like my boy D.Rich has got somebody who fucks with him and he doesn’t have to worry about all these other rappers and shit. Bankroll was actually a nigga he was coming up with and was going to go through with. That shit is just crazy because it was going so smooth.
Let’s end on a high note: What is the biggest one of your singles that goes off the hardest when you’re doing one of those Vegas shows?
“I Don’t Sell Molly”: That shit clears the club, bro. That shit goes so dumb every time. It doesn’t matter where we’re at. Another song is “Red Opps” by 21 Savage. A lot of people don’t know I produced that. I didn’t put my tag in that shit, but I produced that one and that song goes dumb everywhere, every time. And “Same Damn Time, but those are closer to what’s going on right now. “Same Damn Time,” that’s stuck in history.
Kwele Serrell is a writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.
Justin Staple is a producer for Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.