The Drake Dream Team: How Noah '40' Shebib's Slow Jams Took Over Top 40 (Q&A)
The producer/engineer, ranked 22nd on THR’s hitmakers list addresses the rapper’s next release, mixing business and friendship, and their unique relationship with their label.
“We focus on special moments as opposed to what the tempo is or how it’s gonna move at the club,” is how Noah “40” Shebib describes his approach to producing Drake’s smooth, steady grooves.
The Toronto natives have worked together nearly all of their professional lives, and through their deal with Universal and Cash Money Records they have complete control over their recordings. “These labels are looking to Drake to tell them what to do,” says Shebib, 29. “This is extremely rare, and we are blessed.”
Universal confirmed earlier this month that Drake will release a new track, “Started From the Bottom,” on Grammy Night (though fans can listen to the song here), but pressed on an album release date, Shebib isn’t spilling.
“We’re still too early to make a call about whether or not we’re half done or a quarter done or 75 percent done,” he teases.
Below, Shebib – ranked 22 on The Hollywood Reporter’s hitmakers list -- reveals the origin of his numerical nickname, the secret to keeping a personal friendship and working relationship, and how an early multiple sclerosis diagnosis has shaped his life.
The Hollywood Reporter: Where did the nickname “40” come from?
Noah "40" Shebib: 40 was given to me as a name on the first major label project I worked on. I was about 21 years old and I was working with a bunch of guys that just didn’t use government names. So they came up with nicknames fairly quickly. My name’s Noah, and there was an artist named Jellystone who was signed with Universal, he had a bunch of little kids in the hood that would be around all the time. They’d all fall asleep and I’d be up when they got up and they’d say, ‘Oh man, you don’t sleep. You’re up for 40 days and 40 nights.’ I would never stop working. That was my first credit I ever got on a major project. They published all my credits like that on the album.
THR: Most of the hitmakers we’ve interviewed for this issue have been responsible for big, uptempo, poppy beats. Why has your smoother, down-tempo style caught fire in the industry?
40: I can’t be 100 percent responsible for that without thanking or considering Drake. I think we focus on special moments as opposed to what the tempo is or how it’s gonna move in a club or which genre’s gonna resonate with it. We just want to capture a special moment. And however we can make that translate, we choose to.
THR: Is it true that you put your mark on every single Drake track?
40: I would say 100 percent. It’s rare that I don't edit his vocals, I track everything. I mix a lot of his stuff. If I didn’t produce it, I mixed it. And if I didn’t produce or mix it, I definitely edited it and arranged part of it for Drake. Everything goes through my hands. Me and Drake came into the business together, really. In the beginning, it was an engineer and a rapper. Not even a producer, really, I was an engineer more so than a producer pre-So Far Gone. People would say to Drake, ‘Where’s your manager? That’s your engineer that’s with you?’ We have such a good relationship, which is rare. We trust each other. He’ll go record something and he’ll say, ‘OK send it to 40,’ because we have that trust he ends up putting everything through my hands. I’ll make sure I edit it, I take care of it, I send it back to him, we sit down and we’re good.
THR: Having been friends for so long, how do you balance your personal relationship with your professional one?
40: I think both of us recognize the importance of that. The importance of what we do together and how we make music together. We make sure to keep our business in a very specific place and our friendship in another and our work in another. We’re always able to go to the studio, we’re always able to work. There are never problems. There’s no egos. Were’ friends first and foremost. And that’s probably my favorite part of the relationship.
THR: How long does it take you guys to cut a track?
40: Because I’m an engineer and a mixer, we’re mixing. We’re on the move. By the time we finish a session, the record doesn’t sound that far off to what the people hear. We move very quickly in that regard. By the time we’re done with a session, we could leak it right now. We leak stuff occasionally on purpose. That stuff is all very quick. Those are the references.
THR: Speaking of recording, how much of Drake’s new album is completed?
40: I don’t know, I don’t know. Every day it changes. That’s tough. That’s a hard thing to say. It depends. Because you know we work, and we have ideas and we have songs but as we create more songs, the shape of the album will change and the progression of it will change. As much as we might be sure that we’re on a path and we’re… We’re sort of working sequentially right now. We feel like we have 1, 2, 3, you know we’re going 4, 5, 6. That’s how we’re moving forward, in order of the actual playlist of the album. But as we make more music that fits in other places, it will change and adjust as far as how many songs, or how far we’re going to go so it’s yet to be discovered. We’re still too early to make a call about whether or not we’re half done or a quarter done or 75 percent done. I mean, it could be any of the above.
THR: Do you ever get sick of your own songs?
40: Yeah, for sure. I’m a producer, you know? I put out a song, and the first thing I think is like, ‘Oh my god, I should have changed this, I should have done that, why didn’t I do this? Oh god this is wrong, that is wrong.’ I’m never happy. Like for me to be satisfied, it’s difficult. You have to pry things out of my hands.
THR: So at what point do you let a track go?
40: The day of. Like you ever stay up ‘til 9 a.m. to finish a paper for school and go to school with no sleep? It’s kind of like that. Literally. Like, up ‘til the last minute. At some point, we’ll set a date. We’re in a really great position with Cash Money and Universal. We don’t take instructions from anybody they really trust us they let us have our own creative process and do what we need to do and make our music. We don’t deal with A&Rs, we don’t deal with people’s opinions, we don’t deal with producers or them bringing us song ideas ever. Ever. Ever. Ever. We’re very internal. We just decide at some point hey we’re getting close, this is when I think it should come out. We aim and strive for that date and we work tirelessly and change songs up until last minute and because I’m mixing it and because I’m producing a lot of it and because I’m tracking a lot of it, or all of it, we have the ability to do anything at any moment. Drake knows he can call me anytime. And then of course I’m sending it directly to New York and mastering and literally taking them from mastering and sending them to the plant the day that’s gonna make the difference of the album getting pushed two weeks cause we’re not gonna make our manufacturing deadline. It’s like that everytime.
THR: Wow. I think a lot of artists would kill to have that sort of relationship with their label.
40: I’ve been in this business long enough and have worked with enough people to know that this is extremely rare and we are extremely blessed and very lucky. But of course, this is Drake’s reality. People believe in him and they trust him. At the end of the day, these labels are coming to us for hits. They’re not gonna tell him what to do, they’re looking at him to tell them what to do. For the most part, no one’s bugging us. They just let us do our thing. I’m sure if we start slipping up someone will knock on the door, but thankfully that hasn’t happened yet.
THR: I understand you were diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at 22. How has that shaped you personally and professionally?
40: I took that as a motivator. It’s something that makes me even prouder of what I do I guess. It makes me want to work harder. It’s difficult and you get, I guess, used to the difference in your life and how your life changes and the type of person you can and can’t be, but ultimately I try to take all the positive I can, which is that I have this disease and it affects me the way it does but right now I’ve been blessed that it’s in remission and when it comes back, it remises again. I don't deal with it as much as a lot of people. I try to stay positive as possible and be a positive role model for people who do deal with it, especially for young people because there’s a lack of information and knowledge. I like helping and sharing and giving, and that’s one way for me to be involved in the community on that level.
THR: What do you want to do next?
40: I guess I sort of take it day by day. Me and Drake work together so exclusively that I don't really focus on that. A lot of producers in this business, their objective is to work with as many artists as they can or get as many records as they can, that’s not my objective. I don’t enjoy that. I want to be happy. I want to have fun. I don't want to be put in a situation where I feel like I’m working or I have to deliver or there’s so much pressure . I don't want to say that there’s not a time and place for that, because I think that’s what being good at what you do is and when someone says do it you can do it and you can turn over product, but ultimately at this point in my career I don't want to put myself in that position where I walk into an artist that wants some sort of pop record out of me and everyone knows I do somber slow jams. It’s like, what are you thinking? What do you want from me? I don’t want to walk into that session. I want to feel good about what I’m doing and have fun and make music and have good energy with good people. Of course there’s certain artists that are gonna come knocking on my door and of course I’m gonna get in the studio with them because those are people that I’m fans of and I want to work with, or I think t here’s great opportunity for me or I'm excited about the music that can be made. There’ll be all sort of opportunities, but for the most part there’s nothing on my radar other than producing with Drake and creating music. That’s all I really want to do.
THR: Drake’s a lucky man.
40: Drake is really lucky. Nobody in my position who mixes records at the level that I mix at is gonna go sit in that chair and hit record and stop all day long. Or sit there for 10 hours pressing record and stop. 10 hours, six days a week, on top of everything else. No one’s gonna do that. The level of quality he gets from his tracking engineer is that of a big boy mixing engineer, so I spoil him, I guess. There’s not enough money in the world that you could pay me to track anybody else. There’s no way. There’s nobody.
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci