Michigan native Khari Cain got his start in the music industry interning for Bad Boy Records, where he began producing as "Needlz." Now he makes hit records with artists like Ludacris, 50 Cent, Lupe Fiasco, Bruno Mars and The Lonely Island.
We recently sat down with Needlz and chatted for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his love for Michael McDonald, his trick for kicking writer's block and some advice on getting the best kick sounds on an 808.
1. What’s your average day like? Do you keep a strict schedule, or do you work when there’s work to be done?
I’m a free spirit kind of guy. I kind of work when I feel it. I tend to get better results that way. But it’s still a job, it’s still something you have to spend a considerable amount of time at.
2. What’s your main tool for making beats these days? MPC? MIDI Keyboard? Just the DAW?
I use MPCs. They have an MPC program that I’ve been using for the past six years or so. I started off on an MPC. Just to have that whole hardware/software hybrid has been working for me.
3. You grew up in Lansing, MI, and went to college in Florida and New York. Where do you stay now and why? Also, how much do you miss coney dogs?
I live in Atlanta now. I wasn't a big coney dog person — that wasn’t really my thing. But, I do miss Michigan, I miss it... It’s a little slower paced, and a little more community-based.
I went to grad school at NYU, and I was there mainly for the music scene, but back in the early 2000s, it kind of dried up a little bit. Atlanta was kind of a hotbed for rap — at least southern rap and stuff like that. I just wanted to be around it so I picked up and moved out here.
4. What’s the quirkiest piece of gear or plug-in you frequently use?
I have a rare Italian keyboard by Solton called a Programmer 24. It’s just really cool. It has a really unique sound. It’s got a great chorus on there — that’s something I use to get that kind of 80s vibe to a lot of my stuff. That would be the most nostalgic piece of gear in my studio.
5. Best advice to make a kick or 808 knock?
Ultimately man, a lot of people get into applying effects in post, but for me it’s really just about picking the right sound from the beginning. That’s a big part of it for me.
You’ll have a drum kit that has like 30 808s and you just have to find the one that works best.
Other than that, I like to use a little distortion on my 808s to give them a little more presence. You know, some other little things besides that. You know, a little R Compressor. Nothing too much. For EQ, I use Pro Q by Fab Filter. I use them a lot.
I’m really not too technical It’s more about experimenting, really.
6. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not producing? What do you do to relax?
I’m real busy with family. Weirdly enough, I really enjoy interior design. Like, I’m building a home right now that’s really taken the last two or three years of my life. It’s stressful but it’s been really fun. It’s almost like creating music being able to create this house. It’s been really fun.
7. What’s one of your favorite records of all time?
Uhhh, let’s see. My favorite is "What A Fool Believes" by Michael McDonald. It’s actually my favorite song. It kind of throws me back. It throws me back to when I was with my father.
Something about that song just makes me like super-happy, like as soon as I hear the piano. It’s not even the lyrics or anything. There’s a little synth in there that they use, I’m pretty sure it’s like a Moog or something? It’s a little B line, and it’s just… I don’t I really like how back then they used to incorporate the live instruments with keyboards, like with the analog Moog and stuff like that.
I really, really like that sound. I’ve always kind of aspired to have that kind of analog feel to some of my records.
8. How do you find inspiration? How do you beat writer's block?
Yeah it's tough, I think for me it’s just kind of going back and finding older music that really inspires you from when you started. I mean, there are multiple ways for me. A lot of times it's like getting a new drum kit or piece of gear. Sometimes you get a new piece of gear and you’re like "This is going to change my approach."
I mean I’m down to change my approach. I use everything from MPCs to Logic to keys, back to MPC, and each time I switch I get a different sound and stay inspired.
For me, that’s the big thing. With music, especially with rap music, a lot of it sounds the same. It’s a challenge to do what other people aren’t doing. Honestly, that brings inspiration in itself. Just having an ear for what's going on now without duplicating their sound. I just try to find ways around it. That stuff gets me past writer’s block.
9. You used to DJ in college — what’s your record collection like these days?
It’s pretty big, man! My father is an avid jazz and blues collector, so he has a ton. I have a ton from the golden years of hip-hop, from like 91 to like early 2000s. I wish I would have kept them in better condition, but I have them now.
I have that collection, and I have my father’s collection, but what’s cool though is my daughter is DJing as well now, and she’s really, really, really into it. She wants to go through my old records and see what was going on back then. She really liked what was going on in the early 90s and has tons of questions about that.
10. What’s one piece of gear or plug-in that you can't live without?
Oh man, I don’t know… I use the Pro Q on everything now! I’m kind of like a surgeon with that. Also, this plug-in called Adverb (by Audio Damage) that I use on kicks and snares to give them a different sound. I’ve been using that over the years.
11. What’s one record you wished you produced?
Hmmm, that’s a great question… It would have to be something by Michael Jackson... I’m trying to think of one of my all time favorites. Probably something like "Rock with You." I don’t know, it might be something by Stevie…
Actually you know what? This is random, but "Luv You Better" by LL Cool J inspired me a lot. It wasn’t a big song, but I was obsessed with finding that bass sound, which led me to discover all types of analog synths.
12. You mentioned in an interview your music used to be dark, but you eventually "discovered major chords" and started making happier music. What caused that change?
Honestly, earlier in my career it was just me making music by myself in my room. I was inspired by Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang... All kinds of really gritty stuff.
But I had one collaboration with a keyboard player when I moved to Atlanta, and that first collaboration brought on this Bruno Mars record ("Just the Way You Are") that incorporated all those major chords.
Just having a taste of a record that affected so many, and had such a big reach was really cool. Ever since then I’ve been able to make my quirky music, but have it sound B.I.G. Like, big sounding chords, or something stadium-sounding.
I’m a big fan of Coldplay progressions, M83 progressions. There’s a lot of lots of groups out there… Mr. Hudson, I really like his progressions. I’m really into progressions, and using those to make stuff sound huge.
13. Which do you prefer — making beats, or producing records?
Nowadays I’m more into producing. You know, when I started it was a producer's game. It was all about the producers. You gotta get in with this producer, or that producer will give you a hit. But now, it’s come down to the songwriters.
So now I don’t pay as much attention. I can make a skeleton track, you know like four elements or something, but it's really all about the song these days. What the songwriter is saying, what we’re trying to get the artist to do, what direction, stuff like that. So I would definitely say producing.
14. What’s your favorite place to eat?
You know, this is so random, but my favorite place to eat is this place in LA called Tender Greens. And it’s not like fancy or anything like that, it’s just... Every time I go to LA I eat there like twice a day. It’s just salad, marinated steak, and potatoes. But it all comes together and it’s so good.
15. What’s your favorite virtual instrument plug-in?
Right now, it’s a Kontakt library called Signal by Output. All of Output's stuff is like the best stuff to me. They make a lot of really great sounding plug-ins.
16. Who do you think is really hot right now? Who are you listening to?
Artist wise? Um… It’s interesting because I don’t really listen to a lot of what’s going on. I listen to it just to get a quick feel on what everyone else is listening to, but I don’t listen to new music consistently.
I find myself listening to old stuff like James Blake, Kaytranada, Bango...
One other thing that’s been cool for me, as my daughter has recently got into DJing, she puts me up on a lot of cool stuff. She has a great ear. She puts me up on the underground hip-hop stuff that isn’t quite out yet, but ends up blowing up. I think she's going to be A&R or something in the future, maybe an artist.
Yeah, she tells me all the really cool stuff. A lot of times we’re in the car and I’m like "Hey, play me what you like." I get more enjoyment out of that.
The internet is just so huge. I’m sure there are tons of amazing artists out there, but just having the time and the patience to go through it all can sometimes be a daunting task, but my daughter has it down to a science.
17. What’s one production tip you think every beat maker or producer should know?
Keep it simple, stupid! Yeah man, it’s the hardest thing for me to do over the years, but if you just keep it really, really simple you don’t have to have a whole bunch of elements. But the elements that you do use — just make sure that they sound amazing.
That space — you’ll hear that in Dr. Dre. You’ll hear that in Neptunes stuff. It’s very, very simple. It’s just good songwriting, that’s the key.
And the other thing as far as songwriting — make love songs! Everyone can relate to them. Everyone is striving for them. The last few years those are the type of songs that have been working for me. They stick around a lot longer.
18. You went to grad school for music business. What’s one piece of advice about the music business you wish you knew earlier?
I think for any college kid, learning how to budget your money really important. There's a lot of ups and downs. I remember getting my first check and blowing it on a TV, like... Wow.
So it’s like, just trying to balance the ups and downs. Once you see a check or two you think it’s going to keep going but that’s never the case. Just budgeting your money, that’s one of the biggest things.
19. What’s the vibe like when you’re producing a record? Is it all business, or more laid back? Any special lighting?
Super laid back. I keep a smoke free environment, but it’s really kind of just chill. It’s fun, in my opinion.
I’m probably a little more technical than some people. I may not be speaking out loud what I’m doing, but I’m choosing each sound with something in mind.
Like, each sound — "This is radio, this isn’t. This will work for radio, this won't. This kick is too heavy, it might not work for this." I kind of self-check myself. I know what I want when I’m producing.
When it gets to making the song, I can be too technical, but I have stuff in mind about songs and when I work with songwriters I’m like look, you’re making a song about... a watch, or something small. Think bigger. I’m really into making the songs as big as possible.
So overall it’s fun, but I feel like there’s a little bit of challenge on the songwriter to make sure everyone in the room is getting the best chance for a placement or a big record.
That’s the thing, I don’t have a ton of placements but when I do they go platinum or double platinum. The people who get my production, or get what I’m going for, get good results. That’s kind of how my career has gone.
20. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
I used to add too much. Over the years, I’ve been able to simplify my approach to it and really get more into like the songwriting and the songwriters. I don’t spend all day on a track to perfect it. Once I get a song it takes me to a place and lets me know where I need to go.
Check out some of Needlz studio work by listening to tracks from Bruno Mars, Lupe Fiasco and Drake.