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 called it a day. Everybody left with the biggest smiles on their faces!"
Bolooki could have handed over the mix to Columbia and gone on his way. But, sensing that there was potential for something big to happen, he decided to get more involved. "At this point the engineering work I had been hired for was finished, and I asked, 'Does anybody know what I do with this?' Nobody knew. Jozzy's manager suggested I send it to the A&R manager at Columbia. All they needed was a rough bounce, so I considered sending what I'd played back before everyone left since they were happy with it. But honestly, after hanging out with Billy and watching him do such an amazing job, I really felt the need to go in on the verse, as if they had asked me to vocal produce it in the first place. So I ordered some food and spent another 10 hours doing my vocal production thing, going over every nuance of every take to make sure Billy's verse was an undeniable fit for the record. I probably re-comped it two or three times until about 3am, then picked up again in the morning at my own studio to wrap up the transitions and vocal mix, while trying to make every word sound as aggressive as possible. I finally sent it off to Wes, the A&R guy, and his reaction was, 'I absolutely LOVE the verse.'
"A few hours later, there was another message: 'Any interest in recording the rest of the song with Billy tomorrow?' This time they wanted to hear Billy singing the rest of the song, including all of Nas' parts, and wanted me to go back in as the vocal producer for the session. My hard work had paid off! I did a second session at The Record Plant on March 19th, this time with just Billy and his wife. Billy was happy to keep working until we both agreed we got multiple takes of the right performances. He also recorded his parts in several different character voices, like one take sounding like Johnny Cash, another more like another country artist, and so on, and did the humming, and the whistling almost like an afterthought. I was like, 'Give me everything you have!' because I wasn't entirely sure how it was supposed to be presented yet and I wanted some options down the line. After we were done, the label asked me to make two different versions of the song: one with just Billy singing the whole record, and another version with Billy and Nas arranged as a duet."
Andrew 'VoxGod' Bolooki: "I was still thinking that it'd be sent to a mixer to finish. There was no way that a dude they hired as a fill-in engineer, who then became the vocal producer, would then also act as somewhat of a producer and even mixer, making sure the arrangement of the record and the sound of every track was on point.
Once again, Bolooki could have done a quick comp of the vocals he had recorded, and sent it to the label, or a producer, and that would have been it. However, this time he dived in completely. Still feeling that he had something special on his hands, he asked the label for more time, and retreated to his own studio. The studio has a Chandler REDD mic, UREI 1176 compressor, Apogee Symphony I/O interface, ADAM A7X and small bookshelf Genelec monitors, plus several analogue synths, some guitars, and "one kick ass Nespresso machine". For the next 10 or so days, this became home, as he also slept there.
"I collected all Billy's takes, and did a version of him singing the entire song, and then I did a version that was a mixture between him and Nas, again because I wasn't sure what they were going for. Because Billy had sang his vocals in so many different ways, I ended up doing a lot of mixing and panning automation to make certain voices pop out for certain lines. It just sounded incredible. His vocals were magical, there was something about them that was so authentic, and when he sings the song started sounding like a movie. The final version, which was a mixture of his vocals and Nas' vocals, took me six to seven days to comp, which was crazy.
"Another reason it took so long was because around that same time, 'Old Town Road' started gaining headlines over its removal from the country charts. I had originally made a version that was a little more straightforward, with less twang. But after the controversy broke, I decided to redo most of my comps of Billy's tracks. I wanted to send a version of Billy singing the intro and chorus that sounded like an intentional response to Billboard saying the track was not country enough. I went back through all the takes, purposely swapping and boosting takes with the most grit and twang, and made sure these were front and centre. When I was done with the new edits, every little detail came across as country as could be.
"Because I slept on the couch at the studio many nights in a row, I had to go to the drugstore to buy deodorant and toiletries so I could keep working. At one point I barely moved from my chair for 36 hours, and only got up to grab food deliveries. I was working on Nas' original vocal tracks as well by this time, because I wanted to make them on par with Billy's vocals. Every time the label asked for something, I made sure I had anticipated any notes before sending it back. If they sent me a request for an arrangement change, I'd work on it and discover 10 other things that I wanted to work on as well, so it would take me a while to send them the new version.
"I went back and forth with the label several times on different arrangement options and mix adjustments. Billy should start here, no, Nas should start here, let's have them both sing the last chorus, etc. I was totally happy to wrap the track up for them, but at the same time I was still thinking that it'd be sent to a mixer to finish. There was no way that a dude they hired as a fill-in engineer, who then became the vocal producer, would then also act as somewhat of a producer and even mixer, making sure the arrangement of the record and the sound of every track was on point. That's the deal with vocal producing, though: sometimes you just do whatever is necessary to get a record completed, regardless of how you got involved.
"We went over the arrangement several times, until finally settling on what you hear now. The structure of the final version — intro, hook sung by Billy alone, verse 1, pre-chorus 1, verse 2, pre-chorus 2, hook 2, all sung by Nas, Billy's verse, the final chorus sung by them both, and outro with whistling — is unusual in that there's no chorus after the first pre-chorus. This anomaly means you don't really get sick of hearing the chorus; also, because each chorus is presented differently throughout the song, it makes you want to listen to the final version over and over.
"I did most of the edits and mix work on the ADAM monitors in the studio, but I did the final tweaks and final bounce at home, using my UAD Apollo MkII, and my favourite Sony MDR-7506 headphones, until finally submitting the session at 7am, April 1st. By this time I had done more all-nighters, rushing to get every last tweak done. So I was 110 percent dead at this point and slept about 16 hours straight after I got that WeTransfer email confirming that the session had been uploaded. The song came out on April 5th, and the Internet exploded shortly thereafter."