Interview: Creating Music With No Boundaries Is The Key To Success for The MIDI Mafia
When it comes to compelling stories, there are few that can compare to the MIDI Mafia’s journey to the top of the music industry. Dirty Swift and Bruce Wayne were originally signed to Elektra as artists, but struggled to find a sound that they felt would work for them. So, instead of taking years off to find this sound, they decided to put it to the side and focus on production. With all of their attention turned to production and songwriting, they were able to produce some huge hits such as “21 Questions” by 50 Cent. More recently though, the MIDI Mafia was able to find that sound that they were searching for courtesy of the hard work they put in. They’ve not only become established producers, but they’re now artists who have been featured on TV shows such as “Jersey Shore”. YouKnowIGotSoul had a chance to speak with Dirty Swift of the MIDI Mafia about the history behind their work, their chemistry with Frank Ocean and also some of their upcoming placements including “Scared Of Beautiful” by Brandy.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk to me about the makings of “21 Questions” by 50 Cent. How did that opportunity come about?
Dirty Swift: Yeah, that was our first Midi Mafia credit. Me and 50 Cent had a mutual friend who was an A&R at Universal. He was like “Yo I’m trying to sign this guy 50 Cent” and I was like “You mean the dude who did ‘How To Rob’?” He was like “Yeah, he just got out of the hospital and he’s on his comeback trail. He’s doing his mixtape so give me all the beats you got.” I basically gave him everything we were working on and a couple days later, I got a call back with everybody in a conference call. They were like “Yo, this song ’21 Questions’ is going to be on the album. It’s crazy!” They played it for me over the phone. This was probably about a year before he did the Shady/Aftermath deal. At the time, I thought he was going to go to Universal, so I kept working on him. We did a lot of stuff on mixtapes. Then he announced his deal with Dr. Dre and I was like “Oh shit!” At that time, I didn’t know whether Dre was going to come in and produce the whole album. They were like “Nah, ’21 Questions’ is definitely going on this album.” Matter of fact, I got an original version with 50 Cent singing it, it wasn’t even Nate. Dre put Nate on it and the rest was history. “In Da Club” came out and then “21 Questions” kind of just built on radio naturally. I don’t think it was supposed to be the second single, but it just got so big that it became a number one song worldwide.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The song that introduced me to you guys is the remix of “Officially Missing You” by Tamia. Talk to me about the approach with that song.
Dirty Swift: What’s funny about that song is that we did it obviously for the States, but it didn’t really get a lot of play down here. I didn’t realize how big it was in Canada though. It was sometime after “21 Questions” came out, I went up to Canada and I was talking to somebody. They were like “Oh you’re producers. What have you done?” I was like “50 Cent’s ’21 Questions’” and they were like “That’s crazy!” Then I was like “I also did this Tamia remix for ‘Officially Missing You”’ and he was like “Yo, you did that? That’s crazy!” I was like “How do you even about that?” He was like “That’s on the radio all the time!” I turned on the radio and yeah, there it was. Basically, our approach with that remix was that we were at Elektra at the time and Sylvia Rhone had kind of given us everything to remix. We had good connections on the radio to get stuff played on our own without the label. They were using us for that too. She was like “Do something with this.” It was like a ballad, the original had the guitar and it was real slow. We were like “What can we do with this?” The concept was: “What if she was on the subway in New York? How would it sound? How would you do that on a subway and how would you make it Hip Hop? Who would rap on it that would make sense on a subway?” We put that all together. We were like “We’ll get the paint buckets, that’ll make the beat.” We actually had a guy come in to play the paint buckets and then we kind of chopped it all together and programmed the beat. We had a guy on the paint buckets, a guy on the guitar and the sound of the change in the cup. That’s how it used to be on the subway in New York. You’d walk down and people would drop quarters in. Basically that’s what it was. Then it was like “Who can rap on the subway that would make sense?” We called Talib Kweli and it just came together. It’s actually one of my favorite things we’ve ever done because we didn’t really care. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, we just said “Let’s just do this concept where we’re all on the subway.” That’s kind of what it was. We added a few other instruments, but whatever you see on the subway is how I wanted it to sound. So, we put the subway noises and everything. It kind of turned out. I didn’t know how it was going to be received, but it did really well in Canada.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Yeah, the song was huge in Vancouver as well!
Dirty Swift: I had no idea it was that big in Canada until I was up there a few times. People know me more for this song than anything else up there.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’re originally from Canada as well right?
Dirty Swift: Yeah, I’m from Ottawa.
YouKnowIGotSoul: R&B isn’t too big up here and we’ve had a chance to interview different Canadian artists such as Melanie Fiona. They felt like they couldn’t stay in Canada in order to be successful because of the way music is over here. Do you feel the same way?
Dirty Swift: I think at the time, especially during that 50 Cent period, it was like you had to be where it was at. I was like “I could stay in Ottawa or try to go to Toronto”. I used to be in this group way back in Ottawa and a lot of stuff happened with that. We made a lot of contacts in the States, and I was like “Look, I might as well go and see if I can make something happen in the States. If not, I’ll always wonder if I could have made it there.” That was my attitude, so I went to New York with an MPC under my arm and tried to hustle and contact as many people as I could. At the time, that was the only way to do it. There was no internet like that. There was no way to get your stuff out without actually having to go there. I think now, especially with guys like Drake, he still does a lot of stuff in Toronto. I think there’s more of an opportunity to get heard now and not have to do what I did, but you still have to get down here in the States. This is where it happens. The business is so much bigger. With Melanie Fiona too, I was actually with Steve Rifkind when he first met with her. I remembered her from a couple of things in Toronto. We remembered each other. She actually had to come down to get that deal done. That’s still the way you have to do it. But there’s definitely a lot more opportunities with the internet to get heard and noticed, just look at Justin Bieber.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You guys have done a lot of work with Frank Ocean throughout the years. How did you guys originally link up and what is the creative process like in the studio?
Dirty Swift: Frank Ocean is better than anybody else. That’s what I tell people. What I mean by that is that he doesn’t really care. He started as a songwriter with us and it was maybe around the time we did Brandy’s “Human” album. That’s when we met him. He had a songwriting partner and after we started working on that project, we had a good vibe together so we just started working. He would be around every day. We would just get a beat playing and he’d start writing a song. We did a lot of placements. We did some stuff with Justin Bieber and Brandy. He also wrote a bunch of stuff for Fantasia, but that never came out. We also did some stuff with John Legend. He kind of just developed. You could see him turning into an artist, you knew it was going to happen eventually. He just had too much to offer. He was way more than a songwriter. You couldn’t tell him to write anything specific, he would just write what he thought and his version would always be better than what the artist would sing. You’re just like “This kid needs to be an artist. There’s no way these songs will be done in justice unless it’s him singing them.” It’s what happened with all those demos that got leaked. There were like 40-50 songs that we produced and stuff he did with other producers too. People just started putting collections together. This was even before he was Frank Ocean, he was still going by Lonny Breaux at the time. We were like “There’s something about it, people are really gravitating to it.” He then hooked up with Odd Future and then he did the deal with Def Jam early. It didn’t really kick in. He hooked up with Odd Future and started his mixtape. He blew up from there. I think any path he would have taken, he would have got there. It’s just that the way it happens was perfect for him. He’s almost like the anti-marketing guy. He put out his mixtape, but didn’t tell anybody. He told me “Yo, I just put out my mixtape.” I was like “I haven’t heard about it, but thanks for telling me.” The right people heard about it and started talking about it. It blew up. He never really does a lot of radio or any traditional stuff, but he’s definitely out there in his own way. I’m interested to see what happens from here. He’s on the Coldplay tour now, he’s out of here. He’s doing it in his own though, that’s what I’ve always loved about him. As far as in the studio, he’s very particular. He’s a perfectionist. He’ll do the same line 50 times if he feels like he has to. He just has to hear it a certain way. He’s very methodical and just super talented. I always love hearing what he comes up with because you never really know what he’s going to be writing about. There’s so many double meanings and deepness in his lyrics. You really have to pay attention to what he’s saying. There’s nothing generic about it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk to me about your Grammy nomination for “When I See You” by Fantasia. Where does that rank as far as your accomplishments in the industry?
Dirty Swift: As far as the industry, it’s pretty high up there. I think 50’s first album, he kind of got shunned by the Grammy’s. I was hoping for a Grammy nomination off of that, but that never happened. I think there was a category for Best Rap/Singing Duo and “21 Questions” wasn’t even nominated. I was like “Really?” It was one of the biggest songs of the year and it wasn’t nominated. When the Fantasia nomination happened, it was big because as producers, we’ve been on Grammy nominated albums like Justin Bieber’s, but to be specifically nominated and get that little certificate in the mail, that was pretty big. We attendeded every Grammy event because I was like “I don’t know when the next time I’m going to get nominated is, so let me go to every little event.” It was a dope experience to have the certificate framed and stuff. We didn’t win, I think Alicia Keys did for that category, but it was still huge to just be nominated.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I know you guys did a lot of work with Fantasia that unfortunately didn’t come out. Why do you feel like the stuff you did with her didn’t come out?
Dirty Swift: Man, I don’t know. Only she knows. I think the labels didn’t really get it. I don’t feel like she’s really done the album that she’s should have done that represented her. The first album was right after American Idol so they put out something real quick. The second one was all over the place, that’s the one we were on. The first single “Hood Boy” which was produced by Paul Mason out of Toronto, it did okay but I don’t know, it was too hood. That album just didn’t pick up. “When I See You” did really well, but the album didn’t do very well. The last album they put out, I didn’t really understand the selection of the songs. I don’t really know what the disconnect is. I don’t know if it’s her or the label, but I feel like she has so much potential. Her voice will never go anywhere. She can still blow in 20 years and still sing the same. It’s not really about her whole image. It’s really about great, soulful songs. That’s the stuff we were trying to get to with her with the soulful feel. I just feel like we never got the chance to do that, and I think that’s what people want from her. They want her kicking her shoes off and singing her ass off. They need to translate that into records and they haven’t done it. They’re trying to make her generic. I don’t know, I’m not privileged to all the inner label and management stuff that’s going on with her, so I don’t really know what it is. I’m not hearing what I feel like I should be hearing from her as far as what’s on record.
YouKnowIGotSoul: One song you guys did with her is “Overload”. Talk about that song.
Dirty Swift: That’s a Frank Ocean record actually. That’s one he wrote with this dude TK who was his writing partner. They came in and it was a cool process. TK would lay down a melody and then Frank would come up with lyrics. They would work back and forth. There was something about that song. It was just really powerful. Originally we wrote it for Brandy and obviously she didn’t take it. Fantasia heard it and loved it. She went in the booth and pretty much just sang it. We did one take of ad-libs and then she was like “No let me do one more!” She went in and started crying and singing. I was like “This is gravy!” I tried to keep as much of that emotion in the track as possible. That was supposed to be on the third album, but the label thought it was too dark. But, I felt like it spoke to a lot of stuff she was going through at the time. She had the issue she was having and the stuff was in the tabloids. I just felt like it was perfect for that. I think the labels didn’t want to address that stuff.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I know you guys and Frank did a song for Brandy’s new album called “Scared of Beautiful”. We’ve heard a version by Frank Ocean, is that the same song?
Dirty Swift: Yeah, unfortunately it got leaked. It’s the same song, but with a few little changes in the arrangements and obviously Brandy is singing which is a whole different ball game.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk to me about the history behind that song and how it ended up going to Brandy.
Dirty Swift: We actually wrote that song a couple of years ago. It got leaked with everything else we did with Frank. That’s the nature of the business. As soon as you send a song to an A&R, it’s going to end up on YouTube at some point. *Laughs* That song was just another day being in the studio with Frank. He came in and wrote that song. We all knew that song was crazy. We were like “This is so deep.” We tried to place it. I think Rihanna cut it, Beyonce cut it and a lot of people cut it. For some reason, it just didn’t end up anybody’s album. Brandy heard it and she was working on her album at the time, so she grabbed it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Aside from being producers, I know you guys have been recording your own music. What made you guys decide to start putting out your own material?
Dirty Swift: It’s a long story, short story. We were always doing the group thing and we actually had a deal on Elektra back in the day, but we never actually put out an album because we didn’t know what exact direction we wanted to do. We knew it had to be Hip Hop, but we didn’t know what fusion we could do. Bruce isn’t really a hardcore rapper, so it was like “Okay, how do we do this?” and we never really figured it out. We put it to side and then one day, it was about two years ago, Planet Hollywood in Vegas called us up. A friend of ours was doing the “Flash Mob” promotion for them and they needed a song for it. We were like “Flash Mob?” I didn’t even know what that was. They explained the concept and they were like “We need a song about being famous and make it all about Vegas and represent Planet Hollywood”. They wanted to be sort of guerrilla and didn’t want make it seem like Planet Hollywood was doing advertisement. It was just a guerrilla Flash Mob thing and it just happened to be in Planet Hollywood, so it was sort of natural. It wasn’t jingle, but in a way it was. We just said “Alright, we’ll make something”. We didn’t really understand it, but we did it. I did it like “How would like the Black Eyed Peas do it?” It had to be anthemic like “I Got A Feeling”, but still acceptable commercially. We didn’t put that much thought into it. I did the beat in ten minutes and Bruce probably wrote it in another ten. We put it on the Flash Mob and I had no idea the Flash Mob got so huge. It got like a million views in three days. People loved the song so much, so they came to our website and they crashed our site. We tried to give it away, but our server couldn’t handle them. It was like “What the hell is going on?” We put it on another file sharing site so people could download it. That got like 50,000 downloads in a few days and people started putting their viral versions of it online. We were like “Okay let’s figure out how we can capitalize on that.” We did a few more records along that vein and it just went from there. MTV heard what we were doing and they were like “We want to put all of this stuff in The Jersey Shore Season 2. We’ll make you guys featured artists.” We were like “Okay…” *Laughs* They were like “Can you guys put an EP Together?”, so we put an EP together and at the same time, Planet Hollywood just got so big that they ended up financing actual music videos for it. Cosmopolitan Magazine heard about that and they were like “We’re doing an event at Planet Hollywood. 500 girls in bikinis. We need a song.” We were like “We can do that too.” They paid for another music video. After all of that, because of all the Jersey Shore exposure, the parent company who owns all the casinos that we were working out of, they were like “Let’s do another music video! You guys can shoot in all our property.” We went in and we did all the casinos in Vegas in one day. That was for another song called “Last Call” which was on the Jersey Shore soundtrack. We didn’t really plan any of it. We were just going with it and having fun. We were making club music, but we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. It’s sort of a departure from what we do producer-wise, but I love Dance music and Dubstep. It gives us a chance to experiment with that stuff and not really worry too much about if we’re going to be able to sell it to somebody. We just put it out under our own name and we’re not worrying about selling records or anything like that. It’s just fun. We do shows and we tour. It’s just another way to monetize and also have fun. We’re not shopping it at labels, we put out our own stuff. We have a partnership with MTV and everything gets integrated into different TV shows. It’s a real big look for us. I like it the way it is.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The sound is very different from what we’re used to hearing from you guys. Is that something you guys plan on placing on different artists in the near future?
Dirty Swift: Yeah, everything we do tends to find its way into other things. I started experimenting with Dubstep and there’s a few new things we’ve done that have had a little Dubstep break or bassline into more of a Hip Hop arrangement. People really seem to gravitating to that, so you might hear that. Some of the stuff we’re doing in the UK, we’ve worked into more of the dance elements into it. Everybody loves dance music anyway and going into those parties where there are like 10,000 people rocking to a DJ. I like that energy, so I don’t try to limit ourselves to being Hip Hop or R&B. So, you might see that stuff pop up. I don’t really look at music with boundaries. If I like something, I’ll just try to work with it. If it’s a synth sound that I used in a dance beat, I’m not going to hesitate to try and work it into a Hip Hop track. That’s what Timbaland’s been able to do over the years and other producers as well. They take sounds that inspire them and do what they do with it. I don’t think we’re any different.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Who are you currently working with?
Dirty Swift: We just did a bunch of stuff in the UK for this artist named Conor Maynard. He won MTV’s “Brand New for 2012”. He’s getting a lot of support over there. We also did some work with Josh Osho along with Childish Gambino. We just did a song over there with those two. There’s a few other artists over there that are up and coming. On this side, obviously we have Brandy. We did “Swim Good” for Frank Ocean. We wrote a song on his new album too that’s coming out sometime. I’m not exactly sure what the date is yet, but he’ll probably just drop it when he’s ready. We’re developing a couple of artists such as Gaby Borromeo. She’s like 17 and she’s up and coming. We just met this kid from Chicago named Rockie Fresh. He’s really dope as well. Basically it’s just whatever is inspiring us. If I get excited about something, I just have to do it. They don’t have to be signed necessarily these days. We’re still recording and writing songs. We’re still working with different writers to pitch into different projects. There’s a lot of things, but I can’t always talk about them because I haven’t locked the deals down.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
Dirty Swift: Check out http://www.themidimafia.com. That will link you to everything there. We just dropped a new album called “Get Connected” so you can check that out.