Interview: Frank Ocean Producer Malay on Making Albums in a Singles Era

Best-known for co-producing and co-writing much of Frank Ocean's Channel Orange and Blonde, James Ryan Ho, who produces under the moniker Malay, is a rare talent. He's an excellent multi-instrumentalist and an engineer who can craft unique sounds, but above all, he's a collaborator who will move mountains to help an artist realize their vision, sharing all of his expertise without letting his own ego get in the way.

In the studio, he's flexible and quick, switching from instruments to plugins and back to find a vibe and lock in. Maybe it takes hours of loops for the artist to write a verse. Maybe ideas for a hook and a bridge need to be simmer while a new song is started. Maybe it all comes pouring out at once, maybe it takes two years.

Photo courtesy of Malay.

When tracking Zayn Malik's Mind of Mine, they recorded all over the place—sometimes in a tent—to find the right mindset and sound for the former One Direction singer's solo debut. As Malay tells us below, he's recently been hard at work with Lorde: flying to New Zealand often, before the pandemic hit, to work on her upcoming album.

One of the many striking things about Channel Orange, Blonde, and other records Malay has worked on is how cohesive they sound—despite being made in different environments, including tracks from other producers and co-writers, and involving a mix of sonic textures, from effects-laden guitars to warm keys to aggressively mixed and remixed vocals.

At the start of their working relationship, during the writing sessions for Channel Orange, Malay and Frank Ocean would listen to album artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, and Malay's childhood favorite Pink Floyd for inspiration, committing to make a statement worthy of the greats. Something akin to what Frank sings on "Sweet Life": "The best song wasn't the single."

Below, Malay tells us how he goes about making an album experience in the age of the single, and how he works the many strains of his music-making—from beatmaking to classic chord progressions—to create a cohesive whole.

We started the discussion at the early days of his career in the early 2000s, when hip-hop producer Jake One—tired of running into copyright issues with samples—hired Malay to create original music that Jake would then re-work into beats.

John Legend - "Green Light," co-produced and co-written by Malay

What did working with Jake One teach you about songwriting, beatmaking, and composition?

I looked up to him as, to this day, one of my favorite hip-hop producers in general. Just growing up in the Northwest, I really didn't have much connection to anything outside of the local scene. I was playing in bands at the time when I met Jake, so I wasn't necessarily focused on trying to make beats per se, so that was really new—the idea of just make tracks and give them to people. I didn't even realize that was a thing.

He was 100% sample-based at the time, and through friends we connected on [the relationship that] I was a musician and he needed some help recreating samples, because he was running into a lot of issues either with clearance or copyright issues. So that's what I first started doing with him: First, replaying samples, and then it turned into me creating live beds of music, which a lot of people do now I think. Instead of doing a whole beat, I would make something that sounds like it was a 1960s, broken-down soul loop or something, like an eight-bar loop. Then he would chop that up, and we would kind of be co-producing songs in that regard.

That turned into meeting more people around the Seattle area, just local guys where it'd be like, "Hey, would you want to get in and record some songs over your beats?" Because then I started making some of my own tracks. So Jake was my first entrance into that scene of being a beatmaker/track maker/producer working with the top-line artist.

I imagine that was quite the education, going from the song-based, chord progression–based songwriting to beatmaking. Merging those concepts seems to be something you've expanded on greatly over the last decade.

Even though I had no success initially for a long, long time, with the connections I made with working with Jake, I moved to New York City in the early 2000s, and that was my first, I want to give this thing a go. I remember back then it was a thing where if you knew somebody, they'd send you to the studio, and you'd play your beats for whoever was there. It could be artists, it could be other producers, or whatever it was...

I remember at the time everyone would play basically just a two- to four-bar loop. That was the beat. That's what guys did. They'd just sequence either on an ASR-10, or MPC, whatever it was, and you'd just have literally a beat CD. So you'd just skip through the beats. I mean, you heard 30 seconds.

So I remember my thing was: I would build my beats with intros and drops, and that would get a lot of response at the time. Like, Oh man you made a chorus part. Initially, I was doing it more because I thought it was going to get me some placements or success [laughs], but it ended up being a lot of hype in the room. But at least at the time I realized early on that—I think just anybody, even music people, it gets boring to hear the same thing. So that alone, even building tracks on my own, I would always try to find little avenues to surprise people.

Frank Ocean - "Super Rich Kids (feat. Earl Sweatshirt)," co-produced and co-written by Malay

What I've read about the way you've worked with Frank Ocean: You sit down and start playing, catch a vibe, start to create a track. He starts to write, while you work on the next part. That kind of building process—do you see that as a progression from those Jake One and New York beatmaking days?

Yeah, absolutely. Because like I said, the whole shopping beats and stuff never really panned out for me. So in the meantime I would just meet local guys in New York—I met some guys from Jersey I was working with a bunch—just a crew of hip-hop guys. I don't know what it was, but I was just never interested in trying to give them beats and have them rap on them. It'd almost be like, Oh, let's try to write. Let's tell more like an autobiography of your story.

Let's get to this notion of creating an album experience out of all these snippets—where things were recorded at different moments in time, in different locations, with different equipment, sometimes with lots of other songwriters and producers—but you still make a unified statement of an album. How do you do that?

For me, the artists that I've been fortunate to work with, a lot of them already have a vision in mind. It could be almost impossible to explain the vision with just words or on paper, but it's just the connection you make with that artist. Sometimes it could just be a feel, and it's just instinctually knowing when to push and when to pull, when to give and take, when I'm working with these artists. Just from early on, even people that no one will ever hear of, people that I would work with, it became more interesting to help somebody tell some sort of story than just be focused on one song.

What you were saying early on, where we live in a world where people just put out singles. A lot of these songs, you break down the lyrics and you look at the artist's career—and you're like, is there any cohesiveness happening right now? Is everything just of the trendy moment and then we just move on with it? Is music becoming that dispensable, where it's almost like you went to your favorite fast food restaurant, and, "Oh you guys aren't doing the chalupa anymore [laughs]? No, we've got this gordita crunch thing now." It's just becoming this mess of kind of unimportant music.

So that's why I tend to try to work with an artist that I feel like there's a deeper message. Not to sound corny, but maybe there's something that they're trying to leave behind more than just bland recyclable pop music, or whatever. So it's kind of a weird answer and a long answer for your question.

Frank Ocean - "Self Control," co-produced and co-written by Malay

But in any situation—no matter who's involved, if there's 10 other producers or if I'm forced to work with gear I'm not used to—sometimes it can spark things. If you're creative yourself, I'm sure you get to a point where you've got your setup and it's really comfortable, and you'll find yourself hitting a brick wall because maybe you're too comfortable. I grew up where I didn't really have a lot of gear, and you force yourself to be creative and work with what you have.

So it's nice sometimes, even to the point where now I feel like I have a lot more access than I've ever had as far as getting into certain studios or certain gear. Sometimes I try to force myself now to only use a couple things, or try not to use any plugins, or just little things like that I just set boundaries on myself just to remind myself: You can do so much with nothing. Because sometimes when you have all the gear in the world you just make trash.

It's cool when it's like I have this guitar, the worst guitar ever, it's some Ibanez with the G-string broken, it doesn't even stay in tune—I would never play Ibanez personally, it's not my thing [laughs—but you'll show up to a studio, and you're like, "You got a guitar?" And it's like this '80s Floyd Rose or some shit. "Damn, this is all you got?" But then you go for it, and boom, you find yourself not really playing normal guitar parts on there, because you can't, because it's too out of tune or the intonations are off, so you'll just sample little notes or stacking weird things—and that never would happen if you just showed up with your regular Gretsch White Falcon that's perfect every time.

Malay shows how he makes beds out of guitar sounds in this Mix With the Masters clip.

So when you're talking about the relationships you have with certain artists, collaborating on that deeper level—why do they choose you? What is it about you and the way you work that makes them seek you out for that type of collaboration?

Through the years as I've gotten more successful in my own career, I'll meet a lot of these hitmaker guys. And I think I just fell in line with people that really are trying to chase something ultra creative or they have a challenging vision; they find me easy to work with because I'm really there to help mold that and maybe take it to something a little further.

Whereas there's a lot of producers that do a certain thing really well, and it's like, you're going to go to this guy because they do all the up-tempo—anything over 120—that's what they do. They're going to give it to you, they've had 20 Top 10 hits in the last 10 years, and that's what they're going to do. So if you want that, you go there, or this guy—he does all the trap stuff.

So it's difficult if you're an artist who says, "I've been listening to a lot of '70s soul music," and some of these kids are like, "I've never even heard of these artists." How are you going to have reference points if somebody like Frank is saying, "I've been really into Gerry Rafferty lately"? [But with me and him] we start looking at how he was doubling his vocals, or looking at all this other stuff. Sometimes if somebody's just a track maker—they're not really interested in something from the past, they're just trying to make it smash now [laughs].

As I get older—it's funny, it doesn't feel like it, but I've been in the game so long now—I always find myself like the OG, where I'm talking about stuff from the '80s, and now the '90s is considered old school, used to be like the '60s and '70s stuff for the samples. You'd be like, "Oh, you know where they sampled that from?" I've always been a music fan first, before I even was a musician, so I was the nerd that would look up through all the credits and find out who the musicians were and the producers. That just became a part of my era of being a music lover, where we did have access to either vinyl or CD artwork, and you'd look through the credits.

So it's an unfortunate dying artform now, just the artwork itself, where kids don't get that access. Some of the streaming services are bringing up the writers and producers, but you know what I mean, it's not quite the same.

And it's still slow coming. It's harder than ever, in some ways, to figure out who did what.

The worst part of it is really the musicians right now. You know, I'm fortunate to work with guys like Matt Chamberlain, the drummer—these guys are legends, and a lot of these kids under the age of 25 that I'll work with, I'm like, "Oh yeah, Matt Chamberlain." They're like, "Who?" Where, me growing up, if you said his name, people would be like, Whoa. I'm hoping that we figure something out soon to help that and change that, because sometimes, you're right, it's hard to find out who did what anymore.

To get back to the album-creation process, where there's all these different moving parts—different writers, parts of songs that were made in different eras all in the mix. When you're trying to unify it, is that something that comes out of mixing? Are there certain techniques you use to make all these things sound as if they were of one body of work?

At that point it's just kind of a feel thing. It's nothing that you could really explain as just a technical thing. I'm sure I have a lot of audio habits that I do—there's a lot of presets that I have set up on my Pro Tools session, as far as [for example] when I'm doing background vocals, I'll always drop it into this bus with this set of plugins... I have my zero for everything, you know, my master bus, all the way down. That doesn't mean that I don't tweak things a ton, but it's just part of the workflow, right?

So that alone, that's already putting it in my little space. So if I'm getting files from other people, I'm usually dropping it into my session and my workflow, so I'm sure that has something to do with it just on a sonic level and just my sonic taste. I love the low-mid area—I'm not afraid to filter a lot of stuff out and let the vocal live.

A lot of the artists when I'm working these full projects, it's really their voice that connects everything. If you were to mute and go through the instrumentals on all the Frank Ocean stuff, it's super eclectic—the music, a lot of it, it doesn't connect at all. You could really [listen and say] there's no way that this should be with this, but it's just the subject matter, the feel, the vocal...

And like I said, with those artists, I'm usually just finding a way to support them. It's not really like a mix trick or anything, it's just allowing that space so it's vocal-driven. And you can be pretty complicated with the production, but it's just making sure that there's always that space. Because most of these artists that become legacy artists, their vocal tone alone—as soon as they start singing something you know who they are. I feel like a lot of pop music now, you'll hear something, and everything is so processed the same way, you have to look it up, like, "Who is that?" I don't even know who the artist is. But if you hear, like, Adele singing, you know it's her right then [laughs].

I get the sense your stuff is pretty well-mixed before you send it off to a mixing engineer. So what's your relationship with them? Are there a couple you go to all the time?

With the Frank stuff specifically, there were some mix engineers involved throughout both those processes [on Channel Orange and Blonde]. We would all end up finishing together. Obviously I have the technical knowledge to be able to actually use the equipment, not that he doesn't, but still, it'd be us sitting together.

It's so hard to quote-unquote "mix" his music, because mix engineers—a lot of them are mixing hundreds of songs a year, they're going off their instinct, and most of the guys at the upper levels, they're mixing radio music, and that's why they have so much success. Not that they're doing anything wrong, but it's really challenging to take a Frank Ocean song and be like, Let me apply my radio formula—it's never going to work.

So on Blonde, Tom Elmhirst [Adele, David Bowie, Lady Gaga] was involved quite a bit, but still we would get stems from Tom, and we would still tweak it—[Frank's] just such a unique artist in that way. Most of my stuff outside of Frank though, Manny Marroquin, fortunately, has been mixing I'd say over 90 percent of what I do.

Frank Ocean - "Nikes," co-produced and co-written by Malay

So the two of you have an understanding.

With Manny, he was one of my first fan-out moments back when I first did John Legend's "Green Light" back in 2008. I was living in Atlanta at the time, and I got a chance to come to LA to meet Manny while he was working on the song, and I was a fan of him, you know what I mean? So for us to have developed a great working relationship and friendship all these years later, 12 years later, just crazy. I mean, that's why I'm at Larrabee—he owns Larabee—so we built the room here together.

Manny is a very transparent mixer in the sense of: He can work on John Mayer, and he can also work on Linkin Park, and he can also work on Rihanna, and he can work on Red Hot Chili Peppers. He doesn't really have a go-to sound. He mixes for the artist or he's mixing for the song. So it works really well for me, because when he hears the roughs of what I'm doing, he's trying to help bring out the emotion, and I think he understands most of the time what I'm going for.

There's been a few situations where I'm working with a mix engineer, and they're just saying give me raw stems, completely unprocessed. I'm like, "OK, we've been working on this song for two years, are you sure you want to do this?" Not that I'm trying to be cocky, but it's just difficult to look at it purely from a technical standpoint when I'm not making music that way. So you'll get [the mix] back—and it's not just me, the artist will be like, "What the fuck happened?"

This guy didn't want to listen to the rough, they just wanted to approach it completely raw—and I'm sure that works a lot nowadays, you get beats from kids with top-line parts from a vocal producer, and it's just applying this kind of radio/Spotify attitude of mixing super hot and clean and bright, and that can work, but as you can tell, a lot of stuff I work on sometimes can be a little bit more in-depth than that.

It can ruin the whole vibe if they take out the reverb that you selected, or take out the delay that you selected.

Right, exactly. So yeah, with Manny, I'll just give him my sessions as-is, and he'll have a reference, and then he'll start with that. He runs it through his SSL and everything, but still, if I have like a whole bunch of background vocals processed a certain way, he's not going to recreate that, he's just going to start there. Then if he needs to add some sparkle, or do whatever he does, that's on his end, but it's just a different attitude. That's why Manny's so successful though—he's been in business since the early '90s, still mixing hits now, and super-artistic stuff, because he has the attitude of I'm just mixing purely for the emotion, and the music. Not, I'm trying to put the Manny Mariquin stamp on it every time.

Lorde - "Sober," produced by Lorde, Jack Antonoff, Malay, and Kuk Harrell

What are some projects that you have going on right now? Is there anything you can share that'll be coming out soon?

I don't know about how soon, but I've been heavily on the new Lorde project. Before the madness started, I'd been going to New Zealand a lot. I met her on the 25th hour of Melodrama, the last album, and I ended up working on a bunch of the songs. She was already to the point where I think they might have even felt like they were done, and then she was like, You know what, it's not ready, and called in a bunch of people to just try different things and throw different things at it. We just happened to connect, and she liked my ideas of what I was bringing to the table.

So this time we actually started from zero together, which is really unique and fun. But like I said, she's another one of those, like a Frank Ocean, where she has an insane vision, and she is not going to compromise whatsoever. So that's why I said it could be some time, especially because of the pandemic, and she's in New Zealand.

But in the process, I ended up working with this band called Six60 out of New Zealand, and I had never heard of them, but there, I went to their concert, and they do shows there with 60,000 people, stadium shows. It's insane, and I don't even know if they could sell out the Troubadour in LA, but I just fell in love with the guys, and they're half Maori guys—the Maori are like the local natives. So I'm already working on more stuff with them.

They're so big that it's unbelievable. The album that I did in the process when I was working with Lorde [2019's self-titled Six60], they came out here for literally three weeks and we did an entire album, and it's still—all their songs are on the Top 10 of New Zealand still, from that album, and it came out in October. They're just so big there.

There's some new artists that I've been developing and working on that hopefully, in the next—I mean, the pandemic slowed a lot of stuff down, but there's some things that I'm personally working on, and developing that I'm really excited about.

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