N.O. Joe is a twenty-plus year veteran behind the boards in Hip-Hop and R&B, and has undoubtedly produced songs that have been played to the point of a cassette popping, a CD scratching, or earning a spot on a digital “favorites” playlist. His work with, among others, Scarface, UGK, Lil' Wayne, Rick Ross, The Luniz, Ice Cube, Brian McKnight, Geto Boys, Jodeci, and D’Angelo has allowed him to develop rich soundscapes which don’t just transcend southern rap, but all of Hip-Hop. He even helped with the use of the Geto Boys' music in the cult comedy Office Space, and was also nominated for an Emmy when Family Guy spoofed it and he did the same thing in the classic episode, "I Dream of Jesus." His gumbo funk sound (“it’s a collage of different genres of music to create one great body of work”) has given him the ability to be one of music’s best chameleons and artists and fans have been reaping the rewards of his talents for decades.
Joe “N.O. Joe” Johnson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but his triple threat capabilities of production, songwriting, and rapping took him to New York in the early stages of his career. When he returned home below the Mason Dixon line, he helped pioneer a sound that everyone from Dr. Dre to The Dungeon Family has drawn inspiration from. And with the recent releases of Scarface’s Deeply Rooted and Travis Scott’s Rodeo (two artists that are very different, but ones that Joe has worked with nonetheless), N.O. Joe took time out of his busy schedule to chop it up about his storied career and look back on a truly monumental catalogue of classic tunes and great connections.
When speaking with him, I quickly realized that he’s one of the humblest people around. He doesn’t want to kick knowledge to leave his contemporaries in the dust, but rather to provide guidance for the those ahead of him to continue to help push music forward.
In this installment of AllHipHop’s “Lessons From a Legend” series, N.O. Joe talks playing chess with music instead of checkers, letting every artist be themselves, and how he gave Hip-Hop some much needed soul.
The term “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” has been used to categorize a few elite emcees, and N.O. Joe is the production equivalent of it. Even though he might not be a household name, he is definitely one of “your favorite producer’s favorite producers.”
Here are some of the reasons why!
Lesson 1: Stay Ahead of the Curve
AllHipHop:As far as I’m concerned, you were the first producer to incorporate the church organ into Hip-Hop beats. How did the idea to that first come about?
N.O. Joe: Yes. The B3 organ to be exact. That instrument is so soulful, bro. When we were in church, just one thing would be playing and it’d be that organ. It filled up the church with emotions. So I wanted to take that same soulful organ and incorporate into Hip-Hop in some kind of way to make it gut-bucket soulful Hip-Hop. The first artist I tried it on was an artist in New York named Mic Professor then the Geto Boys on Til Death Do Us Part.
You were also one of the early pioneers of those who dabbled with live instrumentation in rap music.
Actually, on Til Death Do Us Part, there’s a live version in the Rap-A-Lot vault somewhere. We of course recorded the kind of sample version, but I wanted to take the next step. Let’s play this stuff live. It was voted out [laughs], and within the next year Dr. Dre came out and he had a lot of live playing on his. And that when the eyes opened like, “Wow.” We had a live album and didn’t put it out. I always like to move in advance; I like to stay ahead of the curve. As long as the artists give me my freedom, I can move everything to the next level. But I understand that it’s a lot of money on the line to experiment.
Do you think staying ahead of the curve has helped you change with the times? Some veteran artists just kind of stay in the era when they were at their peak. And even if it’s dope, it still sounds dated. But you’ve worked with Travis Scott too.
Absolutely! I’ve always stayed tuned in because I love what’s new and innovative sound wise. I like to take new sounds and implement them seamlessly into classic s**t. I would partially credit a group called The Classmates that I produced in 2010 which included Spuf Don and Travis Scott for us bridging the music together making it more youthful and that’s what Spuf Don and I are doing on Spuf’s new project as well. People slept on Spuf and Travis because it was ahead of it’s time and I’m glad Kanye and T.I.P saw what I saw. On the new Scarface Deeply Rooted, 22 year old Spuf Don co-produced three records. He’s been seeing me produce for Scarface for a minute and was a Scarface fan, so that’s why he was able to help keep the youthful part of it authentic. When producing different artists, I always like to get into the artist’s mind and with Travis Scott gaining the attention grabbing the number 3 spot on billboard and Scarface 20 years plus still at the top of billboard on his new release. It lets me know I was on to something, so be on the look out for Spuf Don coming up this month.
Lesson 2: Let Everyone Excel in Their Own Lanes
[With Deeply Rooted], I did 10 tracks and help formulate the album with Face. In theory we went back to the mind set of The Diary where he let me have a lot of creative control. I think that’s what made it easier for us he also brought a lot of great ideas to the table. I was able to execute some of those ideas he brought and take them to the next level. Everybody stayed in their own lane and I think that’s why the album came out the way that it did (classic). I actually played a lot of keyboards throughout the album and bass on “Anything” but my hat goes off to the real players who contributed to the record, those guys are professionals and spend years in their craft so I give them the utmost respect.
With that seven year gap since Emeritus, I wondered how this was gonna sound?
Some of the records he had in his head for a while, but most of them came just prior to the release.
Lesson 3: Have a Passion for the Music First and Foremost
I met Face in New Orleans. I was actually doing music for Face without even knowing him. A friend of mine hit me with Face’s solo record and it was just like this dude’s voice and the way he say stuff and how he said it. And his lyrics were dope as hell. So I would start doing music catering to Scarface never knowing if I’d meet him. It just so happened I was going to a record store in New Orleans and I met up with Big Mellow, Rest in Peace, Face’s friend. I asked Mellow, “Hey, is that Scarface?” He said, “yeah.” I was like, “Man, can you come to the car real quick and listen to a couple things? If you don’t like them, you don’t even have to go back in and tell him about it.” I played him like 10 seconds of one of the records, and he said, “Wait!” He went in and got Face. I just kept playing him records. We went to my house and I played records for him. I was even pulling floppy discs all out of the closet and stuff. Then he was like, “Man, I want you to produce my album.”
What album did that eventually become?
The first album I was supposed to work on is The World is Yours, Scarface’s second solo album, but they wanted me to work on the Geto Boys album because that was the next thing up to bat. I was hired to do 4 or 5 songs on there, but of the 14 songs, I think I did 12. I don’t know how the credits got mixed up on it, but they put everyone who was involved with the record in the credits. And everyone was involved, but not everybody produced those records like that. That’s when, on the next record, if you’ll notice, you’ll see a “$” or whatever by my name just to distinguish who did what.
Lesson 4: Inspiration Knows No Bounds
Subliminally, this is pretty much how it’s broken down - I gave the south its soul. With the synths- that was kind of West Coast, the drums were kind of East Coast. The bottom end was southern. So when those things blended together perfectly, that’s why a lot of people like it. The music was from the south, but you couldn’t say that it was southern music. Even coming from down south where we wasn’t really up on the times, I had kind of an advantage because I started in New York and I was able to see a lot of things in New York that I could bring down south, but not have it have such a New York sound.
What did your experiences in New York teach you that you didn’t learn in the South?
The spirit, the love behind the music. I remember when I was out there and playing keyboards (with instruments programmed into it), and they’d say, “I like the music, but can you take some of that st out of there?” They taught me don’t put so much st in the track because where is he gonna rap? That’s when I started shortening up a lot of stuff. And I took a lot of stuff off the back end and gave it a great bassline. Keep it simple and that’s the song. They taught me that I didn’t have to use every instrument in my keyboard.
Lesson 5: There is No Right or Wrong, Just Different
What was it like working with the late, great Pimp C?
It was great working with him. I first came in with Pimp asking me to help Produce the Ridin’ Dirty album. It started by me producing four songs to us producing the entire album together. The way he would work... Pimp C would come in the studio and have a skeleton of a track and vocal and he would be like, “Man Joe, what do you think about this?” And if I liked it, I’d tell him it’s a great start, but I think we need this here and this this there or nah don’t like it you can come colder and he would do the same” Then he’d be like, “S**t, let’s work with it.” Like we’ll have one song, I’d play him another track. He’d go, “Oh, that’s dope” and have a hook right then and there. Then I’d tell him to go lay it. The beats playing, he’s writing his verse, and then Bun would come in, write his verse, and boom - we’re done with 2 or 3 songs. It’s crazy; the Ridin’ Dirty record was done in a few weeks.
The Odd Squad?
That was great. Blind Rob and I produced the Fadanuf for Erybody record along with Carlos. Hats off to Rob, man. He had a lot of those old samples and dug up some soul stuff. He work the ASR10 better than me and he was blind what an incredible talent he is. I didn’t smoke, but it was like I smoked because everyday in that studio those dudes smoked me out, they were great to work with! Devin is one of the funniest dude you’re gonna meet. Everybody was just so creative during that record. I had a great time working on it. I wish it would’ve got more attention.
What would you say is the one beat that best defines your sound?
I’ll tell you like this, one of the styles was whatever instrument, whether it was the guitar or a bass or a synth part, they never got in the way of each other. Everything has its own space and that’s my signature. Just take (Scarface’s) “Never Seen a Man Die.” That record didn’t have a hook in it, but that organ line. It was like somebody singing a hymn in church. And with the tone of Face’s voice, everything fit. That’s a good example. The way the beat rides; there was no long 808 kick drum in those records. I wanted you to hear the bass line, but I gave you enough bump in your trunk to rattle your license plate.