Lil Nas X's novel mash-up of trap and country provided an unexpected showcase for the talents of a leading vocal producer and mixer.
Lil Nas X's song 'Old Town Road' has spent 11 weeks at the top of the Billboard singles chart at the time of writing. It's also the most talked-about track of the year so far, thanks in part to the success it brought 19-year old Dutch beatmaker Kiowa Roukema, aka YoungKio.
Last year, still living with his parents, and making beats in his bedroom on FL Studio, YoungKio sampled some banjos from the Nine Inch Nails song '34 Ghosts IV' and put a trap beat underneath. He posted his track on Beatstars, thinking it was too weird to sell. But not long afterwards, over in Atlanta, another 19-year-old, Montero Lamar Hill, aka Lil Nas X, liked the idea of a mash-up of trap and country, and bought YoungKio's beat for $30. He recorded a vocal part with engineer Cinco, and self-released the song on December 3rd, 2018.
Nas X clearly has a knack for social media promotion and meme creation, and one of his achievements was to get his song on the video-sharing app TikTok. 'Old Town Road' became a popular soundtrack for the 'Yeehaw Challenge' meme, where people videoed themselves changing into country clothes. It went viral, and to date, the #yeehaw videos have been viewed 120 million times. The song started to create a stir online, and by March, Lil Nas X had signed to Columbia, who took over the song's distribution, and sorted out contractual details, like clearing the sample with Nine Inch Nails, and cutting YoungKio, who had gotten wind of the fact that his beat underpinned a major hit, in on the royalties.
In a rare achievement, 'Old Town Road' charted at the same time on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Country Songs and Hot R&B/Hip‑Hop Songs charts. A couple of weeks later it was controversially banned from the country chart for, supposedly, not being country enough. Arguably being a case of bad publicity also being good publicity, this created yet more publicity, not to mention endless debate about identity, race, power, culture, musical genre boundaries and so on.
While the song was still making its way to the top of the charts, Columbia were already looking ahead, planning an alternate version that would carry on the trap-country mash-up theme. Lil Nas X had already broached the idea of involving country star Billy Ray Cyrus, and so on March 16th, Cyrus was invited by the CEO of Columbia, Ron Perry, for a writing session at The Record Plant in Los Angeles. It is at this point that the story gets picked up by Andrew 'VoxGod' Bolooki, a Los Angeles-based vocal producer still in the early stages of his career, but already with major credits to his name like Linkin Park, Selena Gomez and Fifth Harmony.
"I got a call on a Friday, March 15th from Whitney Taber at The Record Plant, saying she needed an engineer to fill in last minute for a writing session the next day with Billy Ray Cyrus," explains Bolooki. "Apparently the regular engineer could not make it. I assumed it'd be a typical writing session for a country song. But when Billy and his wife Tish showed up, together with songwriter Jocelyn 'Jozzy' Donald, they said they were there to write and record a feature verse for a song called 'Old Town Road'. No one had any song files, though, so I listened to the Spotify version while we waited for an instrumental to be sent."
Little did Bolooki know that he was about to be plunged into two weeks of manic work to get the track finished. "There were a few days when I slept maybe 30 minutes per night on the couch in my studio. Other days, there was just no time for sleep. I ended up doing nearly 40 hours straight to get the first full version sent out. At one point I started using an icepack as my trackball wrist pad because my wrist was hurting so bad from hours of non-stop editing and drawing automation. It was pretty intense."
This may come as a surprise, because the original version of 'Old Town Road' sounds like a barely finished demo. Its rough and ready nature is part of its charm, and Columbia have not gone out of their way to dispel that image with the Billy Ray Cyrus version. Close listening, however, reveals that the Billy Ray Cyrus 'remix' is sonically superior to the original version.
In a graphic illustration of how much work Bolooki put into the 'remix', his Pro Tools vocal production and mix session is a whopping 108 tracks large, with an estimated 300-plus plug-ins. Bolooki explains how a session which started with 16 tracks ballooned like this, starting with that initial writing session on March 16th.
"Billy and Jozzy were bouncing ideas back and forth. I swear they got that verse written in what seemed like 20 minutes. After they finished the writing part, Jozzy laid down a quick reference vocal of the verse that sounded pretty close to how it is now, along with a few background harmonies just for fun, and then Billy went in and started recording on top of her ref. He did maybe 10 takes working out how to sound, as he thought he sounded a bit out of place on the track. However, Jozzy said, 'Nas is more or less imitating an artist like you, so you need to sound like you!' Billy lit the booth up like only a legend could. It was really amazing to catch that magic. The session lasted maybe three hours total, and I took 30 minutes afterwards to do a quick comp for Billy to blast the track a few times before we...