(AllHipHop Features) Where would modern-day rap music be without production teams such as The Bomb Squad, The Hitmen, Organized Noize, Beats by the Pound, The Neptunes, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, DJ Paul and Juicy J, The Heatmakerz, Cool & Dre, and other factions laying the foundation for future generations of beatmakers to build their own empire?
Austin “Ayo The Producer” Owens and James “KEYZBABY” Foye III worked their way into the conversation about producers who have grabbed the torch from their predecessors and are now marching alongside them as they help shape the sound of contemporary Hip Hop. On August 7 of this year, Ayo N Keyz marked their names in music history forever.
That was the date Cardi B released her international hit “WAP” featuring Megan Thee Stallion. Ayo N Keyz were the minds behind the soundscape used for the sex-positive anthem which had viral-hopeful TikTok users doing splits and puritanical political figures clutching their pearls.
Despite the conservative backlash (or possibly partly because of the prudish reactions), “WAP” is already certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Cardi’s latest single debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart with a record-breaking 93 million first-week streams. It remained in the rankings’ highest position for two more non-consecutive weeks and became the inaugural #1 on the Billboard Global 200 Chart.
Bruhhhh 😩🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/lGbk4rFPg2
— Ayo The Producer (@AYOtheproducer) August 20, 2020
“WAP” also hit the top spot in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Greece. Plus, the song has led Spotify’s Top 200 global daily chart for more than 30 days by collecting 240 million total streams on the platform in just five weeks. Ayo N Keyz also saw their names at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Producers chart as a result of “WAP” becoming the most popular song in America.
Owens and Foye’s Frank Ski-sampling track is a certified triumph, but the two musicians are not ready to extinguish their blazing torch just yet. Even before producing Cardi B’s “Bickenhead” in 2018 and Chris Brown’s “Proof” in 2015, Ayo N Keyz established the UpperClassmen Music Group which is giving them the opportunity to develop future stars.
I recently spoke to Ayo The Producer by phone to talk about UpperClassmen Music Group, the internet-breaking commotion surrounding “WAP,” what’s coming next from the songwriter/engineer, and more.
AllHipHop: Can you just talk about the early stages in your career and how you got into the business?
Ayo: Music first started for me… well, I was really born into it. My dad used to play in a band. He also played in church. My mom was a singer in church. One year, rather than buying me a drumset they couldn’t afford, they bought me drumsticks. From there, I ended up joining the band in middle school and high school. Then in high school, my oldest brother used to produce, but I didn’t know what it was. I just knew he had a real passion for it. I was like, “Whatever he’s doing, I want to do that.” Sometime before that, somebody in the church told me that I would make my family millions through music. So that just confirmed everything. From there, I started producing. Me and Keyz started our company in 2012. We’ve just been working ever since.
AllHipHop: So you and Keyz started working together around 2012?
Ayo: I went to Atlanta with a mutual friend who was going to school down there. At the time, we stayed at Keyz’s house. We didn’t even know who he was. We hit it off and built such a vibe from having similar backgrounds and, of course, a similar passion. The music we were making back then was dope. Or, at least, dope to us. We were like, “We might as well start our own team. Let’s be partners.” That was how it all got started.
AllHipHop: Were there any producers, engineers, or anybody in the industry you looked to as a model or inspiration?
Ayo: Absolutely. It was a lot of duos like The Runners, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Pop & Oak. Other producers as well like Bryan-Michael Cox and Timbaland. It’s crazy. These are the producers that we looked up to, and now we’re able to build with them in music and outside of it. So it’s just been crazy how everything works.
AllHipHop: What would you say was the song that broke you and exposed you to the greater industry?
Ayo: Our very first placement together is a song called “Let’s Talk.” It was by Omarion featuring Rick Ross. That was the song where we felt like we’re doing this for real. We watched and mimicked the habits of these other producers. Now that we’re doing it ourselves, it was like, “We got it. This is it. Let’s keep it going.” Like they say, you never forget your first.
AllHipHop: You guys went on to work with Beyoncé [on “Bow Down/I Been On”]. Can you talk about how that happened?
Ayo: The Beyoncé play was from Keyz’s side before we really put it all together. That was with one of his mentors, this producer named Polo da Don, who also co-produced with Sonny Digital, a super-dope producer in Atlanta as well.
AllHipHop: You also got to work with Cardi [on “WAP”]. Can you just talk about that experience? I know you worked with her before on “Bickenhead.”
Ayo: The first time we met Cardi B was right during her Love & Hip Hop days. She hosted a club down here. I just started doing music. I introduced myself back then. Of course, she don’t remember it or remembers me. [laughs] It’s perceived or looks like it was overnight for her, but once you get to that level, it’s hard to keep in touch with anybody. People are changing their numbers once, twice a year. With this particular Cardi situation, we had a mutual friend. I was like, “Yo, we’ve been working on some music that I really think will be dope for Cardi.” He showed her. From there, we ended up getting a call from the Chairman at Atlantic Records, like, “Hey, we’re thinking about making a single. Can you make a few variations for her to choose from?” Honestly, like moments later, the song was out.
AllHipHop: Before “WAP” came out, Cardi mentioned that she had some controversial things coming. She kept giving hints about what her next era was going to be, then when the song came out there was a lot of controversy around it. Overwhelmingly, there was a lot of positive energy behind the song. But what were your thoughts when you saw people like Ben Shapiro and other conservatives being so bothered by the song?
Ayo: Of course, at first, I was worried about what was about to happen. But then, again, that verified the influence those two women have. We’re talking about releasing music, and you got conservative politicians reaching out, speaking out like, “Cardi B supports Joe Biden, and this is the music she’s making. Is this who you want to represent your company?” It’s just like, “Y’all are really going to reach that far?” They know that Cardi B has impact. That’s what they’re really worried about. It’s just dope to be behind something like that. Especially, during these times when we know voting is so important.
AllHipHop: How did you guys pick that sample [of Frank Ski’s 1993 single “W##### in This House”]? That’s such a classic club song. It fits perfectly with the theme of “WAP.” How did you guys come up with the concept?
Ayo: I feel like at every club or party there’s going to be this moment where you’re going to hear the Frank Ski song, you’re going to hear [69 Boyz’s] “Tootsee Roll,” you’re going to hear Ying Yang Twins. That’s like the evolution of Twerk music. That’s what it was. Me and Keyz like to go out and have our fun. But when we’re in a club, we’re listening to what people react to. Even the first song we did with Cardi B – “Bickenhead” – where we flipped [Project Pat’s] “Chickenhead,” it’s these classic moments in Hip Hop. It was like, “Okay, how can we take that and make it a 2020 moment.” That’s what this song was for us.
AllHipHop: Have you done any other songs with her?
Ayo: We probably have… [laughs]
AllHipHop: Can you talk about anything else you’ve been working on outside of Cardi?
Ayo: There is one really big project that will be released in the next month or so. I just did this project called A Born Winner. It’s an album featuring nothing but professional athletes. It was something I put together with a great group of people. We really wanted to help give some of these athletes a voice and also change the perspective that, as a person, you’re not just confined to a title. I feel like a lot of times athletes like LeBron James get this concentration that’s like, “Just shut up and bounce the ball.” Nah, these people are humans just like us. If they have other things that fulfill a purpose or something that they want to express, we want to help be that platform and also help them express it on a major level. I’m super excited about that. And of course, we have our own company, UpperClassmen Music Group. We’re developing our own talent. We signed a dope artist by the name of Asia Graves. We’re helping to cultivate and mold the next generation of producers and songwriters.
AllHipHop: Have you thought about putting out your own project?
Ayo: Yeah, I wanted to do that. I feel like this athlete’s project is my way of doing it. I produced the whole thing. I’ve just been really treating this like my baby. We’ve been working on it for almost two years now.
AllHipHop: How did you select which athletes were going to be part of the project?
Ayo: I think it’s just been watching and observing which ones have been passionate about it over the years. It’s also going back. For instance, you’re the first person to hear this, but we got a feature from Shaq. We know he was killing it before. He went Gold and Platinum as an athlete and artist. We had to reach out and just have him bless this project. It’s crazy, man.
AllHipHop: Finally, I just want to know your thoughts on the success of “WAP.” What’s your reaction to the impact the song has had?
Ayo: The first initial reaction was anxiety, just trying to process something like this on this level for the first time. But also, processing it in a way but still being prepared and understanding like, “Hey, this isn’t it.” [I can’t think,] “I got what I needed, that’s it. I can sit back.” Nah, there’s still more work to be done. The first Number One is special, but I think the second one is the one that really matters. Like, “We really do these. It wasn’t just a stroke of luck.”