Nicholas Cheung is a fantastic producer with a flair for fusing hip-hop beats with a cornucopia of mixed styles including classical, soul, jazz, blues, and easy listening into his productions. Nicholas was formally trained in classical piano at a very young age until his interests diverged into piano composition and improvisation. During his junior year of high school in Hong Kong, Nicholas became enamored with various hip-hop and rap styles from the last four decades. Needless to say, we haven’t quite featured a talent as unique as Nicholas in the Creative Spotlight. We sit down and talk about all these topics and more. Read below for the full Q&A…
How did you get into making music?
Nicholas: I started making beats and recording music around the summer of 2008, when I was around 16. I’ve had piano lessons when I was younger so the music fundamentals were there. I really liked hip-hop though and I was curious whether or not I could make beats.
What is your current opinion of todays hip-hop and how did it influence your new EP?
Nicholas: Before high school, I listened to whatever was on the radio thought was cool. After I moved to Hong Kong in high school, they didn’t have urban radio so I started going online to keep up with and find more music. I started diving into hip-hop history and eventually, became one of those guys who only listened to what I thought was “real” hip-hop – strictly the boom bap style east coast 90s underground hip hop. Since I didn’t grow up around environments where hip-hop flourished, I digested whatever likeminded individuals online at the time taught me, and became really close-minded about what constituted as good and bad hip-hop. I had not interest in anything “dance” and “pop” sounding, because I felt that it was not “real“ – whatever that even means. Luckily, I grew out of those days and opened up my mind to different styles, which now definitely aids my production style positively. I love todays hip-hop and I feel that it’s as good, if not better, than it has ever been before, and I’m glad to be able to be producing in this stylistically prosperous era.
But you have more of an appreciation for 90s hip hop?
Nicholas: I do appreciate 90′s hip-hop, but I also do understand that hip-hop was a musical genre that was heavily commercialized even back in the 90s, meaning that a lot of the acts that heads claim to be “real” are just as fabricated as any mainstream act today. I definitely enjoy the East Coast boom bap style of the 90s and it definitely is a staple sound for a lot of hip-hop songs, but I am not limited to it. I appreciate originality, creativity and enjoyability, so when I see an act incorporate that into their music, I’ll love it.
So is there a big gap in the decision process between being a producer who supplies beats for artists, and just being a producer who releases instrumental records? Is there a crossroads that you came across?
Nicholas: To me I try to make my songs something I would enjoy listening to. If I make something that I feel will sound better by itself, I probably won’t want a rapper on it. If I feel like the right rapper could make the song better, I might add him on the track. It really depends on the song and I try to not be formulaic with my procedures to avoid something that sounds more like a project than a song. I can’t speak on behalf of other producers but I definitely can tell which of my tracks would sound good with a rapper and which ones won’t.
Listening to tracks like Wood Grain and ‘DAT JAZZ’, I couldn’t but feel I was watching a scene of Samurai Champloo. Are you familiar with that anime?
Nicholas: I have some friends on it but I’ve personally only watched two episodes, just because I’m not too into anime like that. The episodes looked cool though, I probably would look into it in the future.
Yeah, The jazzy vibe of your songs sometimes reminds me of Nujabes, but with an electronic twist. Do you take influences from him at all, or any other hip hop producers, and if so what do you take away?
Nicholas: Yeah, Nujabes is a huge influence on my style. Being classically trained and growing up on ballad-type songs, it makes sense how that type of hip-hop would have appeal to me. I had actually heard about him in 2008 after somebody posted about Uyama Hiroto on a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony forum. A few years later, a friend on Facebook posted a Bob42j song which reminded me of Nujabes. I thought that the style was something I wanted to get into, as I haven’t really found my particular sound at that time yet. However, I try not to go too mellow because I still have a huge love for street and club hip-hop. Other producer influences are: Lex Luger, Kanye West, Young Chop, SpaceGhostPurrp, Zedd, Clams Casino, DJ Premier, DJ Kno, Stoupe The Enemy of Mankind, Noisia, IAMNOBODI, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, 808 Mafia, Southside, ESKMO…list goes on.
Which leads me to vocal sampling. It’s sprinkled throughout your EP. What is the creative process behind that and how to incorporate that element?
Nicholas: I have to admit that I’m not the most sensitive person in regards to lyrics so unless they are noticeably bad, I sometimes don’t even notice what singers/rappers are saying. I am much more sensitive to other aspects of what makes something dope, like the flow, voice, and melodies the artist is singing. I am a big fan of the human voice when incorporated into beats as an instrument and not playing a dominant primary role. Hence, I really like “oohs“, “ahhs“, and other meaningless vocals that do not lyrically add to or take away from the song. The human voice is a distinct, familiar and special instrument that can add a whole lot of character to an instrumental.
Do you think the internet and open source is opening up the arts into a more sharing culture, or is it giving people less incentive to go out and find something new?
Nicholas: I’m definitely for the Internet. Without it, I would not have been able to experience the joys of listening and producing music the way I am doing now. Unless you are collector of these items, theres really no need to want to go back to the old days of records, cds, and hardware, in my opinion. Technology will evolve – thats the undeniable truth – and it is our duty as musicians and producers to cope and adapt with that. Every technology will have its pros and cons, it’s up to us to capitalize on the pros and not blame the cons for our failures.
So if your windows are rolled down and you’re cruising around Vancouver, blasting A$AP FERG…do you get stares? I can’t imagine Canada to be a hub of hip-hop lovers. Is it sometimes a challenge getting into a creative space up there?
Nicholas: I’m pretty sure I’ll get stares blasting music too loudly anywhere! But for real though, compared to the the past, Vancouver, definitely has a decent hip-hop following. Every time a big artist comes up here, shows are sold out. You see kids dressing like their favourite rappers everywhere. If you look at hip hop, Drake, Justin Bieber, KOTD are all people and movements coming out from Canada. It’s nothing like New York or Atlanta or LA right now, but I see more and more hip hop influence in Canadian popular culture. So yeah, times have changed, Canada is definitely a huge part of the current hip hop influence.
Lastly, now that the FREE album is out of the way, what can fans expect next from you?
Nicholas: Collabs, more songs, more ideas, bigger things! I do it for the love of music; if I make something I like, I’ll want everyone to hear it. I’m not in this for anything else because in all honesty, when you have a different agenda, the music just won’t feel as real. I’m thankful for all my fans and I try communicate with all of them if they hit me up.
Want to stay up to date on all of Nicholas’ musical adventures? Follow his cookie crumb trail below: