A Million Styles Per Hour:
The Long Haul with Producers Tony Seltzer & A Lau

 

Words by Andrew Matson
Illustration by Jul Quaouai

Talk about a gradual build and massive grind: New York City producers Tony Seltzer and A Lau have been friends for 10 years, and estimate the number of songs they’ve made together at close to 1,000. Along the way they’ve embraced the idea that there are no shortcuts in the game. Instead they rely on their own raw talent, each other’s insights, ego denial, and the work ethic to make five to 10 beats a day.

While technically still both making their names, 2021 finds them creating their best music and handling senior level projects. Most prominent are Tony’s outstanding psychedelic album Alpha Jerk with Atlanta’s KEY!, and A Lau’s comprehensive work breaking new voices in the Brooklyn drill scene, like Tazzo B, 26ar, Swook (half of Gloss Gang) and Rocko Ballin.

The children of radio DJs and film sound editors, the unofficial duo pivoted to hip-hop production in the mid 2010s. Previously Tony was a metal drummer, and A Lau was a rapper (“I was ass,” he says). Not so ass, however, that he didn’t catch the ear of heavyweight producer Harry Fraud, who produced an entire A Lau tape. Eventually Fraud started working with A Lau and Tony Seltzer as co-producers, and they made songs for stars like French Montana and Wiz Khalifa, huge placements for the up and coming producers.

At the same time, they began producing prolifically all throughout the underground, flooding various tidepools of rap with beats in mad different styles. Their repertoires now include credits as diverse as Ghostface, Babyxsosa, MIKE and A Boogie. And that’s just inside NYC.

They credit each other with developing from mere beatmakers to full-fledged producers, regularly meeting after sessions to discuss the finer points of tailoring music. And at this point, building livelihoods. In so doing, they disregard the macho myth of the lone wolf, working together in egoless noncompetition.

On a three-way FaceTime, Tony rolled a fat joint and A Lau sipped something brown. Things might have gotten too loose. A Lau laughed frequently in between bites of mackerel sushi, and Tony called me back a few days later to clarify a few of his positions.

Our edited conversation is below.


Let’s start with how old both of you are and how long you’ve known each other.

TS: I’m 27. Adrian how old are you?

AL: I’m 31. Old gang.

TS: We’re both old gang. And we’ve been knowing each other for a long time, even before any of the hip-hop beat stuff. Adrian’s long-time friend and next-door neighbor was a bassist who I used to be in a metal band [Wool Over Eyes] with, at the end of high school and beginning of college. So Adrian and I used to chill and smoke weed in our mutual friend’s living room. Our mutual homie was really into Primus, so in a way it was a bass-influenced band. My drums were Tool-ish, but more double-kicky.

I was gonna guess that Tony, you were a drummer, and Adrian, I thought maybe piano player.

AL: I can’t do shit.

TS: You can call yourself a piano player now, at this point.

AL: I have a little bit of background. When I was a kid I took two years of piano lessons.

TS: But especially with the beats, you can get behind the keys way better than I can. For the most part, when we collaborate on beats he does the melody and I do the drums.

Adrian, what do you know about Tony’s family and younger years?

AL: I met Tony his last year of high school, and I’ve collabed with his brother, a legendary musician Carlos [Hernandez]. It’s funny, I know that Tony’s mom and Harry Fraud’s mom are all connected and shit like that…

TS: Yeah, they’re both midwives. We didn’t even know that. Adrian introduced us, and it turned out our moms knew each other.

AL: When he was younger, he wasn’t into making beats like that. He was really fucking good at drumming.

TS: I knew Adrian as a rapper.

AL: I was ass.

TS: That’s how he got Harry Fraud’s attention, so he wasn’t that ass.

What was your relationship with Harry Fraud?

TS: Co-production. When Adrian rapped, he gave him beats.

AL: He produced a whole tape for me.

TS: So, there’s that. Then Adrian started cooking up, and we started working together, and then he introduced [Harry Fraud and I]. And then we were co-producers. We’d go to his studio and make a bunch of beats together.

And Tony what do you know about Adrian and his family?

TS: I’ve been to his family home several times and interacted with his dad and brother a trillion times. But they don’t do music. My brother does music so it’s not really the same. [Adrian’s] parents are in film. My dad is a radio DJ on 88.3 WGBO. The station is jazz, but he plays classic soul, Motown, ‘70s, ‘60s, even doo-wop.

AL: My pops did all types of different shit. My mom is a sound editor. Not sure exactly what that means, though.

Adrian, for someone who had never heard Tony Seltzer, but needed an introduction, what would you say is important about his production?

AL: If I was introducing him to a rapper, I’d say his beats just hit differently than any other producer’s. You have to go into the session knowing you’re not going to get a bunch of “type beats.” You’re going to get a totally different bounce. You have to want that. That’s why most people tune in with Tony. His drums have a totally different bounce.

And Tony, same question.

TS: I’d say he’s got what you need. Any type of beat you need, he has a version of that that’s fire.

AL: I got “type beats.”

TS: Not “type beats,” but like the opposite of me. I might not have anything for you. He’s definitely got something for you. If you don’t like my drums, it’s not gonna happen. But Adrian has the crazy drill beats, to melodic guitar beats, to R&B shit.

How many beats have you co-produced?

AL: A thousand. Literally.

TS: So many that you’ll never hear, too. But yeah. Probably 1,000.

AL: I’m not exaggerating.

Any secret workstation software or hardware?

TS: We’re just in our laptops these days, we got some VSTs and shit [virtual studio technology]. I used to be all about VHS [videocassette] samples and MPCs [drum machine/sampler], and that’s fun, but these days it’s about making 5-10 beats per day. Not one beat that was really fun. The other day I was using a four-track recorder to make some beats, but there is no reason to really do that.

AL: I just use Logic. He uses Ableton, I use Logic. I’m definitely the only person who uses Logic to make drill beats.

Who are some of your mentors in the game?

AL: Tony Seltzer.

TS: A Lau. Seriously though, Harry Fraud taught us both a lot, but I learn so much from [A Lau]. There’s a constant, everlasting argument about “beatmaker” versus “producer.” There’s plenty of kids sitting in their room who are really good at making beats. I was one of those kids. But does a rapper want to get on it? You have to make shit that a rapper wants to get on. Adrian really helped me learn how to tone it down. And also networking, socially, he helped me a lot.

AL: We learned by getting into it together and figuring it out. When we were getting into it, there wasn’t like someone getting us into those rooms. We were getting ourselves in those rooms. We had to figure out how to get in those rooms ourselves.

TS: And how to have a fire pack. And how to not be a weirdo. I mean obviously neither one of us are weirdos, but in general we see other people and how they move and then look at each other and be like, “That’s not chill.” And I can say we’ve both learned a lot from Kenny Beats. He’s put us on to a lot of game and is the nicest dude.

Speaking of beatmaker versus producer. Did you start out as the former and become the latter?

TS: I was definitely a beatmaker, as Antoine Beats in high school. And then as Young Gutted, on some demon shit back when Spaceghostpurrp was blowing up and Lil Ugly Mane…

AL: Mike Dean reposted his shit!

TS: Yeah. I would put out beat tapes on SoundCloud and Bandcamp. I was definitely too weird for rappers. It was a cool moment, but it was when I realized I needed to actually be able to work with rappers to make songs.

AL: But you also mastered it. And once you master something, I feel like it’s boring.

TS: Yeah but also I started thinking, am I gonna listen to a rapper make a shitty song on this fire beat that has too much going on? Am I just gonna sit here and allow that to happen? Or am I gonna work as a producer to make this shit happen right. And Adrian definitely taught me that. It doesn’t matter how big the artist is, Adrian will say, I think you should do this, I think you should put the hook here. Which is really what real production is. Crafting a song.

A big feature in both your styles is how nobody can pin you down. You’re good at several lanes of rap, and have worked with a diverse mix of artists who might never overlap except for you. What do you think drives that diversity, instead of you going for like a signature sound?

TS: I think we just both listen to a lot of shit. And we want to be able to do everything for everyone.

Do you think it comes from approaching your craft as a way to make money?

TS: To some degree. There are artists that I would not have been down to work with in the past that I opened myself up to. And earned bread and learned a new way of production. Some people are too stubborn to do that.

AL: Yo, we live in New York City, bruh!

TS: Yeah, we’re trying to get paid.

AL: Tony has a kid! We’ll do whatever, we might just not post it.

In that Netflix Fran Lebowitz show she says nobody in New York knows how they pay rent, they just somehow do it.

AL: I know how I do it: I sell beats to people who have money. But also with the diversity, it helps that we’re from the city. There’s a lot of influences around us growing up. If you listen to our Avenues tape, everyone’s from New York, all young, and really different styles, from R&B to drill to trap to random shit. Being from the city is a big help automatically, because you’re surrounded by so many different types of artists.

TS: Right now, there’s New York rappers getting on super-fast melodic trap beats like the A Boogie shit, there’s drill, there’s the old-school ’90s boom bap thing, there’s people more on the early 2000s super hard beats.

You guys have a long path ahead of you, but does this year also feel like a turning point in your careers?

TS: Well the pandemic sucks, I’ll tell you that. I like going to L.A., meeting people, working out there. I’m not doing that. And sessions in general are not happening. And I’m being super cautious now because I have a baby. I feel restricted right now.

Yeah one in three people in L.A. have had Covid now. You don’t want to go there.

AL: That’s crazy. But to answer your question for me, since we both came in, it’s been a steady progression. But this year I’ve been developing new artists, 26ar, Tazzo B, Rocko Ballin, Swook, and been working with these kids like Bizzy Banks and Leeky G Bando –– all these kids are coming up in the drill scene in New York. It’s exciting to be part of new waves. That’s one of the luxuries of being a producer. You don’t have to attach yourself to one person’s career. If something new comes along, and you like it, and you’re good at it, you can make 100,000 beats. There’s no lifespan for production, I feel.

Adrian, do you remember when you uploaded 100 drill beats to YouTube in one day? Why did you do that?

AL: I uploaded them because they were the first 100 drill beats I made, and I didn’t care about them. And I ended up getting two Bizzy Banks placements, two Rah Swish placements, all major label stuff. And mad leases. I was like, “Oh shit, that’s cool.” And I respect everyone’s approach to their art. A lot of people are very protective of it. But for me, I don’t actually think one beat or 50 beats I make matters. The overall vision I have as a producer matters. If I’m making good-ass songs, I don’t care if I let 100 beats go. I make eight beats a day.

I feel like you’re the unofficial Brooklyn drill A&R.

AL: Ha ha. And Rubirosa. He discovered Bizzy Banks and that whole Structure thing. But I don’t consciously A&R.

TS: You do in the sense of, you get the video dudes…

AL: Yeah but I’m not like, “I’m an A&R.” I’m a little obsessive compulsive. I’ll be like “This song is fire, it could really be a single,” and then I’ll kind of annoy the artist about it. Like, “I’ll pay for the video, I’ll set up the location, da da da.” And they don’t have any choice to be like, OK, let’s go. But it comes from a place of, not trying to sign them, but to get the song to the best place.

TS: It’s being a true producer. A full production. The jobs of A&R and a real producer overlap a lot.

AL: One of my big influences is DJ Khaled. He gets it done.

TS: For real, but what does he do? He’s like, “Oh, I got this producer with a fire beat, OK I know which rapper would be dope on it and I have their number in my phone, call them, OK, pull up to the studio in Miami, I’ll cop your ticket. Boom.” He’s got the ear for what’s going to be fire and he gets it done.

AL: That’s literally all I do. And I make beats too. Getting it done is a really undervalued thing. Bruh, you try getting a bunch of kids with no knowledge of the music industry or etiquette to do this stuff. Shit is not simple, to say the very least.

TS: And to get shit released to the public is a struggle. I have an artist I’m working with right now, and we’re making fire, and maybe none of it will come out. They’re at a phase, they’re really self-conscious about their music. But I’m like, “Yo, this is fire!” That’s a producer’s job, too. That encouragement. Kenny Beats taught me that half of it’s making the song, and the other half is being an artist’s therapist.

Your work on “Bandemic” by Bizzy Banks and “Grateful” by Rocko Ballin is so sample-heavy it’s almost old Ye. Because of the prominent samples, I would categorize those next to Sleepy Hallow and Sheff G’s “Deep End Freestyle” and “Tip Toe.” How do you feel about what seems like a re-appreciation of sampling in BK drill?

AL: I mean…

TS: He started that shit. Adrian started that. I see mad people doing that now, with the drill sampling.

AL: That’s my favorite aspect of rap, growing up. I was waiting for a time when nobody knew what any of these songs were anymore. Now if you ask a 16-year-old about a lot of samples, they’ll be like “What the fuck is that?” Or it’s so antiquated that it’s cool. If you look at what producers in the ‘90s were doing, they took songs from the ‘70s, like took Marvin Gaye from the ‘70s and turned it into G-Unit. So, I’m taking songs from the ‘90s and flipping them for kids to bop to now. It’s kind of the same philosophy. But “Grateful” I sampled from Twitter; it was just some lady on Thanksgiving singing. I screen recorded it. I don’t do mad songs like that, but I’ve been more prominently sampling big songs.

What else have you brought to BK drill sonically?

AL: I don’t really want to take credit for evolving the sound of Brooklyn drill. People like Pop Smoke evolved the sound of Brooklyn drill. I don’t know if I’m affecting the drill scene. We’re carving out our own little pocket. Definitely people from every part of the drill scene have reached out for beats. But for now, I’m really trying to develop these artists to be their own thing. Tazzo B, 26ar, Rocko Ballin, and Swook. They all rap together, they’re all great. I think the people who made [Pop Smoke’s] drill beats like Axl or Melo, those are the producer pioneers, and everything is a cool spin off that. But the overall style I think I have, is trying to push artists by any means to get where they can, and sometimes it’s not just about beats.

OK Tony I want to talk about Alpha Jerk [KEY!'s album produced by Tony, released in January 2021]. This is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a while, I keep saying “this is the music that Kid Cudi THINKS he’s making.”

TS: You should tell KEY! that, he’s a big Kid Cudi fan. And I got beats for Kid Cudi for sure.

None of the beats on Alpha Jerk are the same or even very similar. It doesn’t necessarily sound “New York” or “Atlanta” or even “underground” or “mainstream,” it’s like you guys made your own origin and intention.

TS: I think KEY! had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to make, which was a psychedelic album that was still accessible, and not all the way weird. We had songs that were really out there, where I was like, “Don’t put this on the project. People aren’t ready yet.” The one that was on the edge was the one with Quadie Diesel at the end [“Ima Star”], it was way too weird until we got Quadie’s verse. We wanted to make it so you could still drive to it, play it in your whip. You don’t have to do acid to get it.

Is that a mainstream record?

TS: I don’t know. I don’t fully understand what makes a record a Billboard record. It’s probably too weird for a mainstream audience. But his fans, who are new fans of me, think it’s the best music he’s made. A lot of people are comparing it to Whole Lotta Red, which I don’t think they need to do. But I liked that record a lot, and I think Carti is definitely trying to be experimental in his way but is mainstream at the same time. And I think KEY! not being mainstream is able to explore that duality even more.

So you’re OK being there, you don’t want to be like, Pharrell.

TS: I would love to be Pharrell. It would be amazing if people could see Alpha Jerk in a way that they see a mainstream record. But I don’t know if it’ll happen.

I also really loved the Flips beat tape you did on SoundCloud last year, the Chief Keef and Gucci remixes. Why did you do that, just for fun?

TS: Yeah. I probably would never have dropped that if not for the pandemic. I was just home not doing anything. But it’s fun for me to do.

It reminded me of Knxwledge, if you know him.

TS: Of course. I love him. Even in high school I was super into him, super into Low End Theory in L.A., super into Dilla, Flying Lotus, all that.

Final question: What’s the status of New York rap right now?

AL: Extremely healthy.

TS: I think Pop Smoke, Lil Tjay and even Cardi B have made it a great time for New York.

AL: I think the drill wave has brought a new life to New York. New York has always had stars that don’t start movements behind them. Like how Cardi B blew up, didn’t take anyone with her. But drill, and Pop Smoke, started a situation where other people can become millionaires. Something people can put their own spin on and get out of the hood. No disrespect to Cardi B, she’s a legend, but she didn’t start a wave. Pop just brought something different that other people can capitalize off of, without being clones. People are showing how talented they are with this new format, if you want to call it that.

That’s a really positive way to think about drill, which people might otherwise consider negative due to the lyrical content being so violent.

AL: Yeah, but people who get to be Pop Smoke or Fivio Foreign, they get to get out of that situation. And you wouldn’t listen to their later music really and hear, “Oh this is violent music.” You hear it and it’s something to turn up to. And that’s fire. A lot of rap starts out of a dark place of frustration, but when you look at what it can turn into, the positive aspects are almost overwhelming.

This story is taken from BRICK Edition 10, available now.

A Million Styles Per Hour

Filed under: Edition 10, Essays