Interview: Vic Mensa on the Production Choices Behind "Victor"

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images.

Vic Mensa wears many hats. His contributions to hip-hop extend beyond his music—he actively engages in social issues, using his platform to advocate for change and raise awareness. With his unwavering dedication and innovative approach, Vic Mensa continues to leave an indelible mark on the industry, captivating audiences worldwide with his unique blend of artistry and activism.

With the release of his highly anticipated album VICTOR, he has kicked off a captivating new chapter of introspection and self-awareness. This transformative journey was born from the ashes of a profound personal and artistic crash, both literal and metaphorical. Through the raw and emotive tracks of the album, he fearlessly confronts his flaws and embarks on a soul-searching quest that delves into the depths of spirituality. Amidst this artistic odyssey, he rediscovers himself and nourishes his connection to his Ghanaian heritage. The album is a vessel for his growth, as he weaves together poignant lyrics and captivating melodies that resonate with listeners on a profound level.

In recent years, Mensa has made waves beyond his music: one of his notable endeavors is co-founding the Black Star Line Festival alongside his friend Chance the Rapper. This one-day free festival turned heads as it attracted a staggering 52,000 attendees and received extensive international media coverage. He also founded 93 Boyz, which holds the distinction of being Illinois' first Black-owned cannabis company. What sets this venture apart is its mission to allocate a portion of the profits towards initiatives aimed at benefiting communities that have historically borne the brunt of unfair cannabis laws.

Mensa's diverse pursuits exemplify his unwavering dedication to both artistic and social endeavors, establishing him as a formidable presence. This deep-rooted passion for the creative process has always been an integral part of his musical journey. From his early days as a member of the indie rock band Kids These Days to his critically acclaimed solo projects, he has proven time and time again that he is not content to be just another rapper on the scene.

The album VICTOR had not yet been released at the time this interview was conducted. Mensa provided fascinating insights into his increased involvement in the production process. He also offered a glimpse into the invaluable experience he gained from collaborating with legendary producers throughout his career, and how that continues to shape his approach to making beats and collecting gear. Mensa also expressed his affinity for cutting-edge technology and discussed how AI can benefit producers who sample. He also shared a few recent discoveries on Reverb and hinted at the possibility of releasing a beat tape in the future.

"Ble$$ings" from Vic Mensa's new album VICTOR, featuring Ant Clemons and D Smoke.

You said you bought some stuff off Reverb, you care to share what exactly or what you’ve been keeping your eye on lately?

I'm looking on Reverb right now—I've gotten some synths and probably some guitar pedals. pedals. Sometimes I like to run synths or a Wurlitzer through guitar pedals. I love outboard gear. I just love analog synthesizers. For real. Drum machines, all that shit. I haven't had all my things in one place in a while because I haven't really had a home base studio in that way for a bit, but when I did, it was just fully geared.

You don't strike me as an artist that really even needs a home studio. It seems you're always making things wherever you're at. Am I right on that?

Yeah, but I also like repetition. I do love to go back into the same space to create because I find that the memory association of a space impacts my creative process a lot. When I have positive associations with a space and I know I've channeled a spirit in there, then that sits with me and comes back to me. The same is true if there's a space that has a really negative association with me, then it's a little harder for me to rock in there. So I do love to be writing my shit in the same studio where I've written other shit that I love.

You got VICTOR dropping in a couple of weeks. To my understanding, you're getting more into the production side and going beyond the mic. What's that been like and can you share a little bit about your beat making process?

Honestly, man, I've been producing for a long time. I produced things on my debut tape, on the Innanetape. I just didn't highlight it or publicize it and really produced the whole time through. But on this album, there's more of the joints that I particularly produced. On albums before, I would always be deep in the weeds of the production process but it might just be a lot of post-production and transforming a beat that I rapped on from somebody else and completely changing the tempo or the drums or the replaying the sample and combining things in that way. But there's just a few more records on this album that I produced primarily.

But what's that been like? That's been fun. Like I said, I'm always making beats, that's a constant process for me. But I think a lot of times in the past, I haven't given my beats the same respect that I've given beats from other producers. A beat from another producer that I love, I might write to that same beat four times or something before I catch what I really liked. On this album I was doing that a bit more—just really giving some of my production that chance and treating it with reverence and writing it and rewriting it and reproducing it.

How does your production relate to your actual songwriting? Is there always a song in your head with the beat or sometimes, you're making beats and you're not even worried about the end result?

Nah—I ain't going to lie, I see producers who every time they make a beat, they're freestyling to it and strangely, I'm not really that way. I could have hella fun just making beats all day and I'm not even really writing songs to them. But that's also something that I'm addressing and changing because like I said, I want to be on my own beats more. So coming at them from a song perspective every time is conducive to having more of my own production.

On my albums. I do a lot of sampling though. So sometimes I'll chop a sample and I'll be like, "Oh, this is what the hook could be on here. This is what the flow could be like." But other times, I'll be completely zoned into the production and won't even consider what the song could be.

I like asking rappers who produce that question because you do get answers that lie on one side or the other. Have you tried the new Serato Sample yet?

I haven't used Serato Sample in probably seven months—I don't think I've used it this year, but you know what I have used a lot is Serato Studio and the new stems features in Serato DJ. My DJ sets these days have been straight live production—I'm pulling an acapella from that dancehall song "Rum and Red Bull", putting it over the instrumental of "Doo-Wop" by Lauryn Hill, live in Tokyo in 1999, and shit is sounding bananas. You know what I mean?

I got one that's just a beat that I was working on that's just fire—I take an instrumental from Destroy Lonely's No Stylist that's still got 808s but I take the drums out, then I replace them with the drums from "Redbone" by Childish Gambino. So it's a ragey Playboy Carti-type beat but with these staggering hip-hop drums. Shit sounds like some futuristic Dilla because it's so off tempo, but when it catches, it's nasty.

That's exactly why I asked you about Serato Sample. Because they added that stems to the plugin now. It's a game changer.

It sounds like having Serato Sample in my Ableton would just be a little bit of a sweeter spot for those moments of creativity. That function has honestly changed the game for me because I was already using different plugins to do the digital stem out on the fly. To be able to really just do it in an improvisational way is way different because it's freestyling. I don't have to be like, "Oh, I want to take this song and put it into the program and wait for it to process and then reimport it." It'll just be, "What's in this tempo? What would work right now? I got a minute and a half or I got 15 seconds to figure this shit out." Sometimes when the pressure's on, when you actually live, it just makes some fly shit come. That's the nature of improvisation. It's really fun to feel like you are producing in an improvisational way, you know what I mean?

"Blue Eyes", from Vic Mensa's 2023 album VICTOR.

Let's go to the other side of the coin on AI. What do you have to say to producers that are using AI voice generators and stuff like that to recreate artists?

Bro, I got a dude who replayed samples on my album and maybe this is how he did one of them actually—he is a wizard. He replays and recreates samples for people and he'll use a James Brown AI voice to re-sing the vocal part of an old soul sample and it's fucking bananas. It's such a game changer because we've gotten to a point in culture and in the music business where sampling is super expensive. It's become very taboo amongst A&Rs a lot of the time. They're always like, "Yeah, send something in but no samples." And that's a tough place to be at for hip-hop because hip-hop was rooted in sampling. But the exorbitant fees that now come with sampling discourage a lot of people. It's a catch-22 as an artist because you're like, "Man, I want to sample the records that I love." That's how so many of the hip-hop records that we love came to be, because somebody was sampling the songs they love.

I either don't have the budget or want to pay for it, so let me just go sample some royalty free shit off Splice, but Splice soul samples ain't smacking the same way that the goddamn Jimmy Castor Bunch is—it is just not. There's great stuff on [Splice] too, for sure, and I use that shit too, but I don't want to see sampling phased out. So AI has actually been giving us a possibility in a way to reduce the price of sampling a bit because we can basically recreate those ideas and at least, not pay for the master side of it.

That's such an interesting perspective. I've heard so many different perspectives from different generations of hip-hop producers over stem-separation tech.

Oh, it's love man. I believe in using technology as a tool and weaponizing creativity and not rejecting change and evolution. I think that whenever we start to view the vessel as being the issue, that we're being delusional. Think of religion: so often religion has been weaponized and used for evil, but it is not because religions are inherently bad or one is worse than the others because human beings have a propensity towards exploitation or abuse. We can't just say that Islam is the root of the problem or Christianity is the root of the problem when the problem predates all that shit. AI is not the root of the problem. People will misuse and abuse AI for sure but that's because people are looking for a way to finesse it, and that's just human nature. To reject AI as overarching technology is, I think in my view, to be a little shortsighted.

Back to the album for a second. You worked with Thundercat on the lead single. What was that like?

Oh man, Thundercat is my boy. I made that song sampling Virgil [Abloh]'s last Louis Vuitton film, Amen Break. It's got Saul Williams in it—who's another good friend and collaborator of mine—and so I was just in awe over how Virgil used him as the lead character. I heard this moment in there that it was only eight seconds long and I was like, "Ooh, that's heat." There was a guy wearing a red Louis Vuitton puffer hoodie in a synthetic forest. And so I took that part and I looped it and in Ableton, when you loop something from a video, that piece of video keeps replaying. So this was one of those moments when the moment I made the beat, I also had the mic on already and I just started freestyling the melodies and one of the first things I said was "strawberry Louis Vuitton" probably because I was looking at this dude in a red LV hoodie while it was on loop.

I chopped that up, changed the tempo, started to freak the drum break, warping the sample and changing the pattern of it a bit. I had my Moog set up already, so I just added a low growling sub bass sound off of my Moog Voyager and also added an outer space, P-Funk-type bass sound to layer it and just give it some weight and that's pretty much the entire beat.

It stayed like that and I didn't do too much more to it. I probably added some piano, some live piano layers and some guitar here and there but then, I always had this vision of Thundercat being on there because the laid back soul funk style of it made me think of Thundercat. And when he eventually came to Chicago on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he came to the studio and he laid down that bass and sung the bridge. I think it was actually at Chicago Recording Company. It was Chance's studio session low-key, but he wasn't there yet. So I was like, "Man, I'm over here, record Thundercat over here. I'm saying, I don't know what y'all got going on."

And yeah, I think they were maybe preparing for one of his shows but we did that. It's that. That was another one where it was, I was like, "Man, I'm really going to give my song to Chance." Because I had the hook and I had the beat first. Then I wrote a verse and I didn't really like it, so I came back and tried another verse, wasn't really feeling it, took it somewhere else, tried a different verse, and it was maybe on the third or fourth time that I tried writing the verse that I really got something that I loved.

The official video for Vic Mensa's "Strawberry Louis Vuitton", featuring Thundercat and Maeta.

I want to touch on Virgil for a bit. Were you ever able to be in a studio or music making setting with Virgil?

The time that really comes to mind for me is London working on The Life of Pablo. And it was so cool because I remember Virgil would almost have his whole own rooms in the studio where he would be putting together his own things. So I vividly remember a song from that album and Virgil had Skepta in there doing a verse that I don't think ever made it onto the album but that was in Virgil's room, that was his prerogative. Because I remember having this conversation with Skepta about how they were banning grime music, and this was before Skep came into the American consciousness for real. And it was like he was still in a moment when there was just a lot of banning. They were banning a lot of their music or just holding them back in England.

And yeah, I just remember just thinking, "Man, Virgil is really on a different page." I had a lot of peripheral moments where I learned things like that from him. And I had my conversations with him too but I think I honestly learned a lot more just from seeing the things that he did and whether it was up close or from afar, just watching.

In my opinion, I don't think it celebrated enough how much of a gear-head he was. I mean, of course he was a DJ, but he was very much into gear. I don't know if you were familiar with the collaboration that he did with Teenage Engineering—that DJ controller that they made—but to me those were some of the first days of what we have now with all these stem separators and I'm sure he would've appreciated some of the tech that's out now.

Yeah, man—didn't he have a special Serato Pioneer mixer!?


That joint was so crazy.

Yeah, I definitely think that if he were still around, there would've been an official product that he designed. Whether it would've been a DJ controller or some drum machine synth combo.

Yeah, man. No, that's fresh. I mean, I definitely went through a gear moment and learned about a lot of those things just from being in that camp. I really studied Mike Dean's setups before I even knew him too. And just implemented the Juno-60 and the 106 into my setup from being with Mike Dean and dove into the Moogs, and I think the first Moog I got was the Sub Phatty. Then I got a Subsequent 37, which I couldn't figure out, so I sold that bitch and landed on the Moog Voyager. And I was rocking with the Prophet-12 for a while, butI couldn't figure it out. Ended up with that Prophet-6. That is the one that made more sense to me, you know? And some of the Oberheim stuff and just working on the MPC 2500 and MPC 2000. At a point in time, I had all that shit in one studio.

Man, it's funny you mentioned Mike Dean—one of the common things I hear with kids, some of them may have not heard of Moog before, but they know the logo and they know it from Mike Dean.

That's my favorite instrument man. It’s the Moog. Mike Dean is probably the one that made me fall in love with the Moog.

Yeah, that's what's up. What's it really like in a studio session with him?

Geez. Working with Mike Dean is like being with a stoned mass scientist. Mike works fast though. You take a song to Mike for some post-production or even mixing, he is knocking that out. It's clockwork, you know what I mean? It's, he'll try this, a layer, the Moog with the Juno with the X, Y, Z. Put some guitar on it, some bass on it. He doesn't second guess or labor things. He is not super cerebral about it, you know what I mean? Obviously, his end product is genius musically, you know what I'm saying? But really it's just smoking dope and playing his shit.

Yeah. Without spoiling all the details, man, is there another star line of producers on the new VICTOR album aside from yourself that you're working with?

So my guy Bongo, by the way, he executive produced the album. He's a Nigerian producer living in LA. Super dope, multi-instrumentalist, just super musical. He's also ill with the clothes, melodies, everything, lyrics. He is just a great producer and he executive produces the album and definitely some of my guys are on there, like Thelonious. Thelonious Martin's got one on there, which was one of my favorite joints. It's Bongo and it’s me. I mean, it is far less producers on this one than on other projects because I was just going into it and I was like, "Man, I want to try really locking in with one producer in a way that I haven't done in a long time." You know what I'm saying?

I'm really going to look at this album as the album that you really took control of your production like you've been talking about. But can we expect any full beat tapes, any DJ mixes from Vic Mensa down the road?.

Yeah, man. I actually, I got a mix. I have a DJ mixed out on NTS right now. I did that with them a couple weeks ago. I was thinking about doing a lot more mixes though, because I DJ a lot. It's just, if you are there in person, then you hear it but I want the world to hear those more. So that for sure. I would definitely love to do a beat tape too, you know what I mean? I got so many beats that I know I'll never use that. I should make a beat tape.

Hey, the world will definitely appreciate a Vic Mensa beat tape. I think that will be dope, man.

I'm definitely going to do that. That's a dope ass idea. I know I've thought about it in the past, but I'm going to do that shit. That's a great idea.

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