If record credits were easier to find these days, you’d see the name Malay on the back of many a record sleeve or CD booklet. Born James Ryan Ho, Malay’s song-focused and sonically-rich productions have benefitted Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, John Legend, and Lorde. The Bellingham, Washington, native got an early career kick-start from working on 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and he’s never looked back.
How did your music career start?
I got into music when I was 13 or 14. My family came from Malaysia; I remember my uncles would always be talking about stereo equipment. My dad had a diverse collection of classic rock and everything in between. Getting into Jimi Hendrix was what sparked my interest in guitar. I used to play with friends, and we’d record ourselves. At one point we had a Pink Floyd cover band.
A lot of your productions focus more on the songs.
Yeah. That’s primarily what I’ve always been focused on. I guess I’ve always strived to be an artist-first producer. I’m looking to help guide their vision. There are a lot of people who are successful doing quite the opposite, where you might go to a producer for a specific sound because it’s the hot thing on the radio at the time. That’s great, but it’s never been my forte. An artist could be telling me 50 ideas at the same time, but it’s still my job to make it come to life. What best serves the song? Typically, it’s the vocal performance. Music fans aren’t thinking about microphones, preamps, and compressors. It’s about if they connect with the artist or not. I’m always looking for the most honest approach to the finished song; as long as the listener can believe that person singing. You can get pretty mundane with the processing – to be pretty slick – and take a lot of the emotion away. If you dig through a lot of these new music playlists, a lot of them have exactly the same sound, over and over; or three different versions of a popular style. I can’t even keep up with this shit!
It’s a byproduct of the tools being so affordable now. It makes the role of the modern producer challenging when button pushing can create something that might pass.
For people who have true artistic vision, it’s such a difference. For me, and the people I’m fortunate enough to work with, we always feel it’s a lot of noise. I’ve met people who have been discouraged, “Too many people have access. There’s too much shit that waters everything down.” You can’t control technology and advancement. If anything, people who are attempting to make tracks are adding a new dynamic type of fan base. There are people way more interested in the process now than there were before, because not everyone had access to go into a studio. If you can open your laptop and start making music on [Apple] GarageBand because it was included on your laptop, or download a free app to start making beats, there’s clearly a new level of interest, which is exciting.
But often the value of an expert has been greatly diminished.
In the last couple of years, I signed a young producer [FrancisGotHeat, aka, Francis NguyenTran] who came out of Toronto. He’s more rooted in trap beat production, [Image-Line] FL Studio, etc. When I signed him he was 19. At the time, he’d already done a couple of Drake songs. Out of the millions of kids who were doing that he had something unique; but I’m even more intrigued by it because I have no idea what the fuck he’s doing to make those records. The worst thing I could do is imitate and try to make a trap hit. Maybe I could sonically make it sound close, but there’s that essence of being real and true to that art. Why would I download the drum packs, or whatever the kids are using, and try to make my own beats? On the flip-side, this kid now has some insight into a much bigger process; he’s grown so much in the last couple years. We work on a lot remotely; I’ll send him some parts and ask him to play drums or whatever. He’s understanding that there’s a bigger process. It’s helped him grow, to understand, and to have the desire to do more than just programming something on the laptop. I’ve always pushed him to make records and songs, not just beats. That alone has changed his perspective.
You have such a creative palette of...
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