A Conversation w/ !llmind: Adapting to Current Music Scene, Filipino Culture, Dropping Gems and More

There’s just so many different sounds and vibes that I fell in love with, and as a creative and curious person, I can’t help but want to make all of them

-!llmind

Give credit where credit is due, and always give people their flowers while they can still smell them. While we often look towards the future and the next hot thing, we can forget about some of the amazing creators that came before us. With Hip-Hop recently celebrating 47 years of existence, it forces us to take a step back and look at where we came from, where we’re at now, and where we are going in the future. If there’s one thing for sure, legendary music producer !llmind has the resume and the work ethic to prove that he is belongs in the past, present, and future of the genre and of the culture, as a whole.

!llmind being born in New Jersey puts him very close to New York – the home of Hip Hop itself. As he stands now, he currently has a production credit list that spans over almost two decades worth of material – ranging across various underground artists, well-known legends such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Beyonce, and even some of the new-age pioneers of Hip-Hop such as Travis Scott, Future, J. Cole, and Drake. Seeing that he’s had a career that has spanned over so many years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he could potentially be the mind behind a lot of your favorite records. A few of his notable production credits include “Love Yourz” by J. Cole, “Pretty Mami” by Lil Uzi Vert, “The Morning” by G.O.O.D Music, “Heard About Us” by The Carters, and “You & the 6” by Drake.

!llmind is an absolute legend in the game, so it was an honor to be blessed with his time and presence. We spoke about his early beginnings in music, his Filipino roots, what he had to break through to be in the Hip-Hop world, life gems, and so much more. Read our conversation below!


LL: Going through your production history, you’ve worked with tons of very prominent artists, but I feel like your story is still in the shadows. Tell me a bit about how you began as a producer.

ILL: I started producing in high school, and it basically started off like a lot of the other producers started off. You start off with something that you love, and it becomes a passion and it’s fun for you. You download your first DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and you idolize the big producers and basically teaching yourself along the way. You do that long enough and people start to catch on and eventually you get one rapper that wants to rap on your beat. That turns into two rappers, then four, so on and so forth. For me, it always started as a passion and still is a passion of mine. I’m just super humbled and fortunate to be doing it for this long. I built some relationships along the way, sacrificed a lot, experimented a lot with my sound… somewhere in between all the madness, a few things started to work and they’re still working now, so here I am.

LL: We can definitely say that it worked out for you because you’ve managed to stay relevant and continue to work after so many years in the game. I feel like that’s something that isn’t too common nowadays with legacy acts. Being able to adapt and move with the climate is a hard task to handle.

ILL: Yeah man, it’s very interesting how it worked out. I don’t know if I’ve ever told this story before, but I read this interview from Questlove years ago—maybe like ’07 or ’08. The interviewer asked him his opinion on their album and how much of it changed and how much stayed the same. He said something that struck me really deeply, and it was along the lines of “every time we put out a Roots album, we lose 50% of our fans because the music is too different from the previous work, but we gain 75%”. That gives you a 25% return on investment on fans. Some leave and lose interest, some come by and stick around. And that point always resonated with me and it was one of the things that really pushed me and put the battery in my back. That showed me like okay, I’m allowed to experiment and try different things and not keep myself contained in this box. Once I gave myself permission to just try new things and experiment with my sound, I think that’s what really allowed me to adapt and allow me to push the envelope, and I think that’s really a big reason as to why I’m still around or still relevant to this day.

LL: That’s amazing to hear because a lot of people are afraid of jumping out there and taking that risk because of, like you said, losing fans. Was that something that was hard for you to cope with initially?

ILL: I don’t think it was really hard for me to cope with it at all. It was and still is all about perspective to me. You can paint a picture in a negative way, but you can also look at it in a positive way too. Looking back at it, of course I could say that there were a lot of things that I lost along the way. For an example, I’m pretty sure that there were a lot of fans of mine out there that have been there since ’07 or ’08 when I was working with Little Brother where my sound and brand was more soulful. When those fans see that I transitioned to different types of boom-bap rap and trap music, losing those fans, of course, you could look at as taking an L. But the reward that I got was self-fulfilling and finding something that I’m passionate about and just pushing myself; losing 10 people but gaining 11, giving me a 1 person ROI. I’ll take that any day over trapping myself and staying in one box. And that’s not to take away from people who do or did that. Personally, I love the idea of growth and finding other things to immerse myself in. Not even to make it too complicated, but a lot of it is boredom too. I don’t want to make the same stuff over and over for years at the cost of being known for that one sound. That’s just me. I would get bored of it and I have gotten bored of it. It’s just the way my brand is wired. My brain is already looking at 2025.

LL: Doing some digging around, I also saw that you were a part of an underground beat society back in the day as well. A lot of people never even knew that Kanye West was also a part of that as well. Tell me a little bit about that experience for you.

ILL: Oh man, it was life changing for me. Early in my days, I was posting up my beats on Undergroundhiphop.com producer forums. Long story short, one of the members in there was putting together this show in Philly called Beat Society and they became a fan of my beats from what I was posting on there. They reached out and said they were doing this event with four producers on stage, kind of like a beat cypher. I had never heard of anything like that before, so I was like hell yeah, let me know when and where. I ended up driving to Philly and it was an amazing night. I didn’t even know that Kanye was gonna be one of the producers either. And this was pre-College Dropout Kanye too. It was literally right after The Blueprint had dropped, so Kanye was still Kanye, but he wasn’t rapper Kanye. I remember Kanye handed me a bootleg CD-R and on the front, it had “College Dropout” written on it. I’m pretty sure that same CD is in my mom’s basement somewhere—I gotta go find that thing.

!llmind plays a beat at Beat Society alongside Kanye West.

The overall experience was so great though. It was the first time that I was able to play my beats in a live setting like that, and just being in front of Kanye, 88-Keys was there too—he was another guy that I would look up to. That was the one moment that I can say is really implanted in my mind and made it feel like I had found my calling.

LL: Who were some of the people that inspired you to get into music?

ILL: It was a culmination of things. First of all my Dad, rest in peace. He used to play guitar and he made his own music and he had a band that did covers and things like that. He would always get wedding gigs and New Year’s Eve gigs and stuff like that. My brother and I were just always around music. We grew up with instruments all around us. I remember my dad used to have this drum set in the middle of the living room and my mom would be like “you better move that damn drum set out of the living room!”. I’m Filipino and we usually have really big families. My dad has three brothers and they all were into music. I remember family parties and my uncles would all be playing instruments. When I specifically got into Hip Hop, I was listening to producers like J Dilla, Mannie Fresh, DJ Premier, Pete Rock. Those were the ones that really sparked my love for Hip Hop.

LL: I’m dating a Filipino girl myself, and she constantly tells me about how in her culture, they really want their kids to flourish being a nurse or a doctor or anything in the medical field. Was it hard for them to get used to you being a Hip-Hop producer and being into Hip Hop?

ILL: Yes, definitely. It was kind of a split decision for me. Every one of my Titos and Titas on my Dads side of the family were all musicians or into music, so it wasn’t hard there. On my mom’s side though, every one of my Titos and Titas including my mom, were all nurses and doctors. So of course, my mom was always team “go to medical school”, and my dad was team “let him do whatever he wants to do and be creative”. Like any other parent, I knew that they just wanted me to be successful and happy. It took them a while though for them to see what I was passionate about. For the first year or so, they were kind of just like “he’s a kid—this is just a hobby for him. Give it about a year and he will be over it and he will go to school”. For me, it was one year, then it turned into two years, then three, then it was like “alright now—any day now he will go back to school”. Those first few years were very tough, but I could never blame my parents though because I knew that at the end of the day, they just saw their kid in the basement playing with a keyboard all day and not making any money, but I was very stubborn.

We definitely butted heads a lot but they did support me, and they never gave me an ultimatum like “okay, you have 12 months to make some money or you’re gonna get kicked out”. I’m just very thankful that they were supportive in it and they kind of just let me do my thing and realized that this was my life and my passion, and of course it all paid off. I would say the very first moment my mom and dad were like okay I think our son can really make some money from this was when I was featured in Scratch Magazine in 2008. I had a one-page interview in there, and I was talking about Little Brother and working with G-Unit and all the underground shit I was doing. On the cover of the magazine was Dr. Dre. I went to the store and I bought the magazine and I remember showing my mom and she was like “Oh that’s Dr. Dre!”. That was the big point where they both really recognized that this was a big thing.

LL: How does it make you feel being one of the few Filipinos to break into the Hip-Hop world?

ILL: It’s super humbling man. Not a day goes by that I don’t look in the mirror and just think to myself like man, I really shouldn’t be here. Chad Hugo from The Neptunes was technically the first Filipino to break in the Hip Hop world, but as you said, there definitely are very few of us. One moment that really humbled me was when I went back home to the Philippines back in January before COVID hit. I was filming a Netflix special with a Filipino Comedian named Jo Koy. We went out there and I filmed my segment and it was super amazing—I had a blast. It was my first time back in the Philippines since 2013. Prior to that, I hadn’t been there since I was maybe nine years old. I was there and there was a point on the trip where I was in a cab, and we were driving somewhere. As we were driving down this road, I was just looking at everything and everyone. I see tons of kid, teens, adults and all. In my head, I’m like “wow, I look exactly like every single person here”. I’m seeing people carrying baskets on their head, I’m seeing kids on mopeds carrying bags home, I’m seeing kids on the street playing, I’m seeing a random dude standing in front of a bank as a security guard. I realized in that moment that I literally could be any one of these people I’m seeing. The only reason why I’m not, is because my parents decided to leave the Philippines in the 70’s to fly to America and try to live a better life and decided to have kids. That really, really fucked my head up. I could have been any one of these people out here, but I ended up making it in America as a producer, and it just really put things into perspective for me.

!llmind stars in Jo Koy’s In His Elements Netflix special.

LL: Going home and seeing all those Filipino faces, does it make you want to eventually bring up an artist or producer from back home?

ILL: One million percent. After the trip I actually started having talks with a few of the artists from there. I was talking with one artist that’s pretty big out in the Philippines that I coincidentally met up with a few weeks later out in LA. We had some conversations about doing some stuff to maybe give back to the community, as well as some thigs to magnify some of the Hip Hop talent out there. My interest is the music producers and the music creators in the Philippines. We gotta start somewhere, so I’m always gonna be an advocate for supporting initiatives or even doing things myself that could nurture that community out there. It’s not gonna be an easy fight, but we gotta start somewhere.

LL: I saw a podcast that you did a little while back and you said that “Filipinos are the blacks of Asia”, and I can see how those two cultures intertwine especially with the deep-rooted love for Hip Hop and dancing amongst Filipinos. Could you elaborate more on that comment and what exactly you meant by it? 

ILL: Well first and foremost I want to preface that this is not taking away from any other Asian cultures in any kind of way. I say that and I think a lot of people say that for a number of reasons. Honestly, if I really trace it back, I do believe that a big part of it all is the fact that of all the Asian cultures and countries, and I think there’s some research to back this, but I think the Philippines is one of the most English-speaking Asian countries and in the Pacific islands. The fact that the English language is very well spoken in common places in the Philippines, has a lot to do with the fact that the Filipino people have been able to adapt to the American culture such as Hip Hop, music, breakdancing, graffiti, DJ’ing, basketball. When you look at Filipinos, they love a lot of those things. When you look at what Filipino culture is, music has always been a part of what we consider our culture to be. A lot of us have that one auntie or uncle that played guitar. Karaoke is another big thing for Filipinos as well. When you think about the DJ world, a lot of the legendary DJ’s are Filipino like The Skratch Piklz & Q-Bert. When you look at the dance culture, again, you will see a lot of Filipinos in the mix, like the Jabbawockeez. We just really appreciate good music and good art, and those are just a few of the cultures that we intertwine with and it just became a part of our DNA.

LL: You mentioned in one of your livestreams that it took you 15 years for your career to really take off. That’s something that we do not really hear, seeing as so many people blow up very fast. Talk a little bit more about some of the things that occurred along the way of that journey.

I think one of the greatest lessons that I learned, is that it’s never gonna be over. I think there’s this misconception of you work over and over again, create your art, grind some more, get put on and make a million dollars, and then you “made it”. There’s never a point in time to where you really feel like you made it. Let’s put it into perspective of producers. You’re an upcoming producer, and you get a placement on a Travis Scott album. That’s definitely a huge deal. Your life is gonna change and you’re probably gonna make more money that you ever have before. That for a lot of producers is “I made it”. I think what they don’t realize, is that it’s really just a steppingstone to whatever the next thing is gonna be. I think the most crucial time is the time frame in between your wins. The work that you do in between, is what’s gonna determine what happens next in your career. When I learned that about the game, it made me appreciate the wins, but it also made me realize “!llmind, you ain’t shit. I don’t care if you got a Grammy, if you worked with J. Cole—this shit ain’t over and you got a long way to go”. When you look at it that way, it becomes more clear on how you can create some longevity for yourself. I could have quit a long time ago for many reasons, but I didn’t. The fact that I kept going, is the reason that I’m still here and I believe that I will still be here for a very long time. Time is the one thing that we have no control over, but we do have control over what we do with that time and how hard we work every day.

!llmind regularly documents his success story, as well as drop gems for others.

LL: With me getting to talk to you more, I’m starting to see just how much you love to give credit. I saw a tweet rom you recently that spoke about the producers who take others loops or don’t credit other producers. It seems like this is a never-ending battle amongst producers  What do you think could be done to avoid that or at least make it not as common anymore?

ILL: I think it’s gonna be a long hard battle and it’s not something that can be changed overnight. On top of that, it’s gonna be a collective effort as well. I will say this—people like Boi-1da, Murda Beatz, Bizness Boi, myself and producers that have seen tons of success in the industry are setting the prime example of the collaboration process, using loops, splitting publishing, etc. At the end of the day, the best way to look at it, is just simple having a good lawyer. Contracts exist and were created to avoid the exact problem that we are having right now amongst producers. If you’re using loops without any contracts involved, then you’re gonna get to the point that we’re at now which is confusion, frustration, feeling like you aren’t getting your fair share, so on and so forth. It’s definitely very messy right now, but I feel like it’s my duty to speak up on it, play my part as much as I can, educate where I can based on what I know. We all have to set the example together and I can’t do this alone. It’s definitely a collaborative effort.

!llmind speaks on bossing up as a music producer.

LL: Looking at your long list of credits, it shows just how broad your production style is. You successfully transitioned from the Boom Bap era of Hip Hop, to the current Trap sound. How did you become so versatile with your music?

ILL: When I started making beats, the music that I listened to and fell in love with is the music that I wanted to make. When I was a kid, I was listening to a lot of J Dilla, Pete Rock and a lot of Boom Bap. I fell in love with it, mimicked it, gained a passion for it, and started creating it. I never stopped from there. When I started to listen to more of the southern sound and the early Trap music like Mannie Fresh, Lex Luger, Southside, Zaytoven, etc. I love Mannie Fresh just as much as I love J Dilla. I never stopped creating and I never stopped experimenting with my sound and different types of things. Years and years later, I have a list full of different genres that I produced for and I learned the techniques and skills to adapt along the way. There’s just so many different sounds and vibes that I fell in love with, and as a creative and curious person, I can’t help but want to make all of them.

LL: Speaking of Moana and Hamilton, how did you make that transformation from producing Hip Hop tracks to producing songs for these movies and soundtracks?

ILL: I did an album with Joel Ortiz, one of the most insane rappers of all time in my opinion. We did an album in 2015 called Human. We released the album, went on tour and had a blast, everything was great. The same year that we released that album, it was the same year that Hamilton on Broadway started to blow up. Joel Ortiz just so happened to be one of Lin-Manuel’s (founder of Hamilton) favorite rappers. I started following him and Lin followed me back, then we started DM’ing each other on Twitter. He’s like “yo I love the Human album, it’s great” and I’m like “yo Hamilton is crazy too”. We kind of got to know each other and I already had a relationship at Atlantic records. All the stars were aligned, and they were releasing the Hamilton album and they wanted me involved. I ended up producing four records for the project. They even gave me my own track with an !llmind feature credit which no one ever gave me. That led to more work with Lin, and one day he called me about him working on a movie with Disney and he wanted me to be a part of it and I was like “uhh, fuck yeah”. That ended up being Moana and that’s how I got into that—one thing led to another.

!llmind produced “You’re Welcome” from Disney’s Moana soundtrack.

LL: Another accomplishment that you speak very highly of is “Love Yourz” by J. Cole. Tell my why that song is so important to you.

ILL: It was a big moment in my career for two reasons. One, I was just always a huge J. Cole fan and the fact that I got to work with him just felt very good. The main reason is just being able to see the amount of impact that it made and witness the reactions that it got from his fans. Countless stories of people saying that song saved their life—just the idea of composing a beat that inspired one of the greatest rappers of this era J. Cole to pen what he penned on it, and for that song to cut really deep for someone emotionally to save their life, is something that I will never ever take for granted and is something that I will forever be grateful for. That song is one of my greatest accomplishments in history. I’ll put “Love Yourz” over any huge record that I had  or will ever have moving forward. For the rest of my life I think I will always go back and reference that song. It still gives me chills honestly. I have all my plaques hanging up in my studio and the J. Cole one is hanging right above my head at my computer. Every time I’m in there and I look at it, it gives me chills because it brings me back to that moment and it’s just a reminder to always be humble.

!llmind breaks down the process behind the “Love Yourz” beat.

LL: Me speaking to you, I can see that you’re a very fruitful person. The other day I was watching one of your Twitch streams just soaking up gems left and right, and not too many people give it up like you do. How did you become such a fruitful person and why do you think it’s not more common?

ILL: One of the main reasons that I do what I do, is because I think it’s fun. The benefit of it, is that it actually helps people, and that’s of course the cherry on top. But there’s something about doing something knowing that someone else will really benefit off of it. You give it to them and see their reaction and it’s so fuckin’ priceless, and it makes me want to continue doing what I do. Whatever gems I have or don’t have, whatever it is that I can do to help and impact people, I’m obsessed with giving as much as I can because it feels good. If people show that there’s value in the words that I say, then that makes me very happy.

I’m very critical with the words that I give as well. I’m super down to be that guy to say something crazy and have people be like “bro fuck you, what are you talking about”. Then they actually let it breathe and think about it and they realize like “wait, he’s actually right”. I’m not saying that I do this because I want to be proven right. I’ve said plenty of things that I’m sure I wasn’t right about 100% of the time. One thing that I can say is that when someone asks me for advice, there’s a 99.99% chance that I’m gonna tell them something that they don’t want to hear. It’s good because I don’t think anyone has found success or done anything impactful by doing what they already thought was the right thing to do.

There was this crazy thing that I heard recently from Dr. Joe Dispenza, and he basically said that anytime you learn something or try something new, your brain physically creates a new neurological connection, which means that your brain literally expands. That really changed my life because it made me realize that if I tell someone something that they already know is right, their brain isn’t expanding. That made me realize like okay, I need to shake them up. I need to open their third eye and say some shit that they have never heard of so they can create that new neurological connection in their brain. That’s why I always tell people that they need to fail a bunch of times because that’s how they get t the win. Most people don’t think that way because they just want to get to the win. I’m gonna tell you how to fuck up, and it’s gonna work out in the end. I’m gonna tell you how to fuck this shit up, and then if you stay consistent, you’re gonna catch that dub soon enough.

LL: A lot of people are starting to get to the point in their careers where they say they’re done with music and they’re on to their next calling (i.e.: Joe Budden with his podcast, and Logic announcing his retirement). After you put away your keyboard and never touch it again, what do you think you will be headed to next and what will your impact be on the world?

ILL: To be honest with you, I really don’t know what I would be doing after I’m done here. I rather not even try to predict that either. I guess what I can say is that it will definitely be music related. As far as my legacy, I just want to impact people in ways that will help them become better human beings. That’s just ultimately it. IF I can help people just become their best self, whatever that may be, but if I can help one person be their best self, then I say I have done my job. That’s the game plan for me.

Cover photo: Joshua Howard