Bongo

Who the F*ck Is Bongo the Drum Gahd?

Real gangsters don’t cry, but they can reminisce with the best of them. Inside New York’s Angelika Film Center, Compton emcee The Game (arguably the world’s most famous Blood) is sauntering down memory lane with photographer Jonathan Mannion, who shot the cover of his debut album, The Documentary, in 2005. They gaze up at Theater 3’s silver screen, expounding on photos from a decade ago, shuffling through images and emotions with the cadence of a quick game of dominoes—lingering on certain moments to emphatically slap down a feeling that reverberates with the audience. Memories run the gamut from The Game’s asinine refusal to wear belts at age 25—”I felt nothing could hold me,” he recalls, “so stupid!”—to the solemnity of seeing the faces of four homies he lost enroute to where he now sits at 35.

Amidst all the talk of yesteryear, The Game drops a gem about his new album, The Documentary 2, for which Mannion also shot the visuals. “The producer that inspired me the most, someone I think is going to shock the game, is Bongo,” he says. Game’s closest affiliates (the people in the front-row seats) erupt: “Bongo! Ayeeeee! Bongo!”

“Whenever somebody says ‘I’m going to bring my homie through to play some beats,’ it makes you instantly like, ‘Fuck your homie,’” says The Game after the crowd calms. “It’s going to be some nigga that comes through, plays 90 wack-ass beats, and I’m going to have to sit there through them because I’m a nice guy. But Bongo came through and we recorded ‘Made In America’ in like 20 minutes…Every time I played the album for somebody—whether it’s Diddy, Jermaine Dupri, or Dr. Dre, and they asked me ‘Who did this beat?’ go to the next one ‘Who did this beat?’ and I’d tell them Bongo every time man.”

Born in Nigeria and raised in Rhode Island, Uforo Ebong, aka Bongo The Drum Gahd, started making beats at the age of 11, and despite being relatively unknown, has gone on to produce for a surprising number of charted artists. Getting his start as one half of L&F (Lost & Found) productions, he recently parted ways with his cousin Christopher “C4” Umana due to what he calls “creative differences” and started working on his own. Even with all of the attention and praise being thrown his way, Bongo found time to walk over to Mass Appeal headquarters (yes, on his own two—all the way from the Wendy Williams Show) and put us up on his journey thus far.

Mass Appeal: I know you started out on Fruity Loops at an early age. What do you use now and what’s your process like when you sit down to make a beat from scratch?

Bongo The Drum Gahd: I use Logic, but I’m a minimalist. Literally, all I need I can fit in a book bag. So I use that. I also use a 25-key M-Audio keyboard. When I’m in with the artist—whether it be Game, Trey Songz, Omarion, Big Sean, whoever—I try to produce what they need. I try to be the right person for the moment. I have my own stuff that I do that I’ll bring in and I’ll play for them and if they riding with it we can definitely go in that direction, but I like to be the dude that knows what needs to be done for the specific situation.

Can you talk about how you’ve progressed since the early L&F days in the early 2000s? Has your process changed? Have you learned anything about the business?

Ah man—I’ve learned a lot about the business and working with people. That’s really been the catalyst in me growing. I’ve always been a dude in front of a computer making beats, but that’s only one small part of it. You’ve got to be able to work with people. You’ve got to be able to network. You can’t be a weirdo in the studio [Laughs]. You can’t be an asshole. Those are the things as far as on the personal level. As far as business-wise I’m learning a lot—it’s been like grad school. Learning everything from royalties, to publishing, to statutory rate. There are so many different things that you don’t learn until you get to that side. There has been so much growth since those days. Now I can hear the DNA of music. Before, I was going through the motions.

Do you have a bunch of reserves, like hard drives full of music?

Oh yeah, I’ve got archives. I go back sometimes and listen to them. Now that I know better, I can go back and A&R my own stuff. Like okay, I can drop this. I can drop this sound now. Let me add this because this sounds a little dated to me. I can actually hear it. It’s like proofreading a paper or something.

So you can probably hear a beat that you’ve done and place the year?

Oh yeah. Like, I was in high school when I made that one [Laughs].

Your first placement was with Musiq Soulchild in ’08 on OnMyRadio. When you go from an R&B artist to somebody harder like The Game, how do you find sounds to match the records?

I grew up listening to a lot of things, but hip hop was one of the most influential. At eight years old, I used to write little B.S. raps. But that was the reason why I started making beats, because I realized I knew what I wanted to hear and then that eventually developed into production. When it comes to production, there are a lot of things that you need to be able to do, and I always grew up listening to R&B, ’70s soul, everything from that to Bossa Nova, jazz—so I have a lot of different musical influences. I can’t really be put in a box of R&B or hip hop, but Musiq Soulchild that was a great look just to have the title track on his album. They even did a video and everything. It was dope and the transition into hip hop was seamless because it’s been in me.

In that same vein, hip hop isn’t really regionalized anymore, but The Game is really focused on pushing West Coast sounds. Did you find it hard to incorporate that sound into what you do?

It wasn’t hard because he’s a versatile artist. His persona and everything about him is West Coast, but when it comes to music he’s multi-faceted. Even if you go back and listen to the first Documentary, there were certain tracks on there where people may feel like he was rapping like he was from the East Coast. He can do a lot.

I heard a lot of tracks on The Making of the Documentary 2 film, but The Game said none of them were on the album, so how many tracks do you have on the album?

I have seven on the first side, and three on the second side.

So you’ve got a total of 10. That’s an album in itself.

Yeah, and we did the “Everybody on the Floor” joint with Migos we just put out there, but it’s not on the album.

So, can you pick your favorite two or three and break them down?

My favorite two would have to be “On Me”…can I make it three?

Def.

Okay Imma make it three. The first two tracks on the album that I did I had a chance to do something that I’ve always wanted to do. Well that goes for the whole album really, but I really wanted to make a body of work that could flow together. The first two tracks, “On Me” and “Step Up,” they flow together perfectly, seamlessly. That’s kind of like one track to me, and Kendrick is on “On Me,” so that was a huge moment. We got Erykah Badu on another one…and then “Dedicated” with Future. That joint with Future is really dope to me, how it all came together.

What were the sessions like?

Pssh—lit. Lit. It’s like why go to a club? There were bottles on deck, people smoking, drinking, chilling. It was probably how they had it back in the day, minus the cocaine and heroin and shit [Laughs], but it was poppin’. There were definitely ladies. A lot of people coming in and out, like Diddy, Jermaine Dupri, Busta Rhymes, Raekwon, Dre. There is a fun aspect of it, but I am working. It’s just a dope atmosphere to have people come through. We’re not just bullshitting, because when we press play it’s like [gestures to express awe with hand over his mouth]. So it was a moment. I kind of wish we could go back, even though it would be crazy. We would be in there from like 2 p.m. to 4 a.m. Then I’m driving home and going to bed at like 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., waking up at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. getting a text like 1 p.m. “studio session.” So it’s like, let me do what I can in three hours and get to the studio. It was definitely a moment.

Did Game set the tone for that? Was he the one to balance that atmosphere?

He was locked in. He didn’t leave. He lives in Calabasas, which is probably a half hour from the studio in Hollywood, and he would sleep in the studio. He was just there. He facilitated everything and was really on point.

Working with so many different people on this album and before this album, who has been your favorite to work with so far?

Game. Everything from just how involved I was to how live the sessions were, it was an experience. It’s very consuming, but it’s worth it.

Was Dre an influence for you?

Absolutely. I remember trying to make Dre beats with heavy piano hits and the loud drums. Of course, The Chronic is timeless, but Chronic 2001 I was really honing my craft then, so it was a big influence.

As far as R&B vs. hip hop which one do you like to produce more?

When I do certain things R&B-wise, where I get to work with different musicians like the guitarist Mark Rodriguez or the bass player Josh Werner, that’s dope because that’s actual production. But hip hop is so feeling-driven, so you can push the envelope. You can be different. You can take chances a little bit more with hip hop, especially since it’s still relatively new as far as genres are concerned.

You play keys, bass, and drums—programmed and live. How do you decide when to go live and when to go digital?

It’s all about the feeling. Again, growing up listening to so many genres of music and having so many different influences, I feel like what makes us who we are are just our choices in life. So I have different situations and different things that I pull from. If it’s a hard rap track, I’mma have certain drums in mind and my mind goes to a certain sound bank. If it’s R&B, it’s like okay, let me use these sounds, these pianos, these grooves, this keyboard, this guitar, so it just depends on the situation, man.

You’ve talked about creating moments in the past. Do you try to tap into a certain feeling or emotion and communicate that through the instrumentation?

Every time. You can make beats all day, but if it doesn’t strike a chord with somebody then what are we doing? It has to be emotion-driven because that’s why people listen to music. From my point, I can understand the mechanics behind things, and I can say okay, you like this because of this, the chord progression goes this way, the bassline is doing this, and I can really break it down. But on a visceral gut level, that’s how people listen to music. They just want to feel.

You’ve just released a large body of hip hop work, but who are some of the other types of artists you would like to work with?

For right now, I really want to showcase my talent as far as hip hop is concerned on The Documentary 2 with people getting to see that side, but I could make a record for Miley Cyrus right now, or Christina Aguilera. I want to touch every facet of music.

You rapped very early on as a kid, but have you ever thought about doing both. Doing the Kanye or J. Cole thing?

A lot of my close friends want me to. I won’t say that I’m opposed to it. I just want to continue to cultivate this producing thing. Now that I’ve grown, I really know what it takes to build and make an artist. To me as a really successful artist, I wouldn’t want to go at it until I was ready to. I mean we’re all artists in our own way in whatever we do, but to entertain you have to be an entertainer. It’s not just that you rap well or you make good beats.

You grew up in Rhode Island. Do you still produce for Jon Hope?

Yeah! Shout out to Jon Hope.

There’s a couple other dope cats up in R.I. like Khary Durgans and Theo Martins. Can you talk about that scene a little bit?

When I was in Rhode Island, I lived in Providence. That was when I really learned to love the art and the mechanics behind music—rap in particular. I listened to The Roots, and Mos Def, and Slum Village, and J Dilla. That was even before I got onto Jay Z. So it was like, “Okay, this is the difference between dope and trendy.” Then, later on, I moved to the South. I moved to Jacksonville, Florida. What I learned out there is how people just want to feel music. Even if you’re like, “Man, I don’t even listen to some of this stuff, it just sounds so ignorant.” But when you down there and you’re in the club, it’s just how they move themselves. I learned that and it was such a good balance. I understand the parts you can’t really understand. Like you can say this punchline is dope or this cadence. But nah, they just feel it. They lived this.

You and your cousin produced “Stay Down” with Da Internz. How did working with them impact your style?

Working with those dudes man, they’re rhythmic. Even when it’s hip hop or it’s like Rihanna or Big Sean’s “Ass.” It wasn’t really any sit-down lessons. Just being around, I learned more from them on the personal side. But on the music side, I feel like just really getting that commercial aspect down, because they got that down pat. They know how to do club records.

How do you balance keeping your own style with commercial forces, just knowing what’s popular and what people want to listen to?

It’s just paying attention for me because you can’t put yourself in a bubble. When I’m listening for what other people are doing, I’m not like “Okay, I’m going to do this exactly like that.” I can just step back and look at it from a macro standpoint and be like “Okay, these are the elements, the main elements that are registering with people. How would I do that what the sounds that I use and with my choices?” So it’s always the authentic me, but I’m just understanding…It’s like we both have clothes on. You chose to wear a green shirt; now if I like that tone of green, I don’t have to get that same shirt, I can get a long-sleeved shirt in the same color, or it can be different color, same brand. So it’s like, “Okay, that’s what hot in the streets right now. Let me put my twist on it.”

What’s next for you?

I want to see where the momentum with [The Documentary 2] goes. It’s such a huge album and a huge thing to be a part of. So I’m ready for whatever’s next. I’ve been working with Jeremih, trying to get on Big Sean’s next album—I was on his last one—Omarion’s album. Just anybody who wants to get it. Trey Songz. These are all people I’ve worked with before and I’m still working with right now, but I’m also open to working with other people in hip hop so people can understand this facet of what I’m doing.

Career-wise, where do you see yourself long term?

I want to be like the next Pharrell meets Kanye—the presence of a Kanye with the ability of a Pharrell. That’s just where I am mentally and where I want to be in the future.

Now that you’re getting more placements, you’re getting your money up. What do you spend it on? Do you collect anything? Sneakers, hats?

I have a lot of hats. I didn’t do that consciously, but I just looked in my closet one day and I was like, “Damn, that’s a lot of hats.” I don’t really have any idiosyncrasies like that, but I might. Who knows? I might just ball out and get some jewelry [Laughs].

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