NYC Hip-Hop’s Next Wave: Illmind On Career, Community & New Collaborations

Those who know hip-hop understand that it is largely a community oriented music genre. With the help of global web agents like Okayplayer and blog sites like 2dopeboyz and HipHopDX, this community has been able to considerably expand its reach. At the forefront of this movement locally is hip-hop veteran Ramon Ibanga, Jr., better known as producer Illmind.

Illmind in the studio

A tri-state-area native, Illmind has an ear for unique beats and an enviable work ethic, the magic combo that’s gotten him in the room with some of hip-hop’s brightest figures. Since beginning his production career with underground groups like Little Brother and Boot Camp Clik, Illmind has of late found success on the mainstream level with artists such as 50 Cent and Eminem.

In his rise to the top of the producer chain, Ill is quick to credit his relationships with other prominent members of the music industry, among those most notable, G-Unit Records president Sha Money XL.

Beyond his vast work as a producer — and recent projects with Brooklyn rapper Skyzoo and Redman — Ill has been working diligently to promote his recent event-planning venture, Beats Love Alcohol Party (B.L.A.P.), while also playing the role of professor at the Clive Davis School of Recorded Music in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

With his B.L.A.P. showcase, which allows producers a unique opportunity to play their catalogs directly to live audiences, Illmind has created an environment in which professionals can get together while honing their craft. These events — billed “Where the MPC Becomes the Turntable” — foster a sense of community amongst producers, new and experienced.

We had a chance to talk to Illmind about some of his recent projects, collaborations, and how he has been able to successfully utilize community and industry relationships to create opportunities for himself and for those around him. Check it out:

Where did you grow up?
Early childhood was in Newark, NJ, then moved to Bloomfield, NJ.

How did you get started creating beats? What kind of equipment did you start on? What do you primarily work on now?
I started messing with beats when I was around 12 or 13 years old. My dad is a musician and he had all sorts of equipment. I remember he had a [Roland] KR-4500 performance keyboard, and that’s what I learned MIDI and sequencing on. When I got older (around 17) I got Cubase, an Akai S20, SP-1200, and soon after a Boss SP-303. Today, I still use the SP-303 and S-20, but do everything on my Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard.

As an Asian American, you’re an obvious minority in the hip-hop community. How would you say your Asian background has impacted your work and ability to get work?
The Asian thing has actually been a blessing, believe it or not. It’s given me the ability to overcome greater odds. The stereotypes were always there, but I think people respected me more because there were very few of us doing it. It’s still pretty rare today (Asian producers), but we’ve come a long way and there’s definitely talent out there. All I know is, people remember me more because I’m Asian.

What was it like getting started; how did you promote your beats and gain contacts?

Skyzoo & !llmind present “Live From The Tape Deck” – out now on Duck Down Records.

Back in like ’99 or 2000, I started posting my beats on various online forums, one being http://www.undergroundhiphop.com. People liked my stuff and I slowly got my name out there. One thing led to other things and the rest was history. Back then posting beats online was a new concept. I was literally on dial-up, uploading beats at low quality bit rates because them shits took too long if they were high quality.

After working with more underground or lesser-known emcees, what’s it like working with G-Unit?

It was life changing. I got down with D Prosper and Sha Money XL, who were both pretty much running a lot of G-Unit’s operations at that point. Sha Money XL managed me for a few years, and that was that. It was definitely a learning experience for me. I appreciate those guys so much, to this day.

Having worked with a lot of different style artists, how do you define your sound?

I can’t define my sound. What I can say is that it’s honest, musical, and inspired/channeled from a “feeling”. When I say feeling, it’s that feeling you get when you hear a song that you LOVE so much, but don’t quite know why. It’s an emotion that evokes when listening to sounds. I try to channel my inspiration from that emotion and translate it into the music that I create. I was always fascinated by music, feeling, and vision, all in one. When I’m creating music, I’m actually envisioning things as I’m going along, like places or people.

I want to shift a bit to the New York scene. How’d you get setup teaching at NYU? How was that experience?

B.L.A.P. (Beats Love Alcohol Party): Where The MPC Becomes The Turntable

A few years before I started working at NYU, I was teaching music production at a non-profit organization called Harlem Children’s Zone for a few years. I knew I had a passion for sharing my craft, and really wanted to take that side of me to the next level. A mutual friend of mine introduced me to the guys over at NYU. They had a position open, so I prepared for it, and got the gig. NYU is as official as official can get, so I’m appreciative of that opportunity. The kids are great and the staff is amazing. I learn something about myself every time I teach there.

Do NYC guys work together and collaborate often; is there a kind of NYC producers’ community?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much of that going on in NY. I think overall though, there is a sense of community amongst producers, globally. We respect each others’ crafts and continue to inspire each other. To me, if you got dope beats, you got dope beats. Doesn’t matter who you’ve worked with. I get inspired all the time.

Can you talk a little bit about the BLAP project you’ve been putting on?

B.L.A.P., which stands for Beats, Love, Alcohol, Party, Is a LIVE producer showcase that me and my team started. It’s open to ALL producers, in NYC or not. To piggy back on your last question, I started this showcase/party for that very reason. To create a platform of COMMUNITY amongst my fellow producers, whether up and coming or established.

The cool thing about my event is that it’s not your regular producer showcase. It gives producers the chance to play a large catalog of their music directly to the consumers, in a club/party atmosphere, just like a DJ would. It’s pretty addicting. If I had the choice, I would participate in my own event every month, but that wouldn’t be fair.

What local venues or studios have you been working with to promote BLAP and BRL?

New from Fortlive: “There They Go again!,” produced by Slo-Mo AND !llmind!

Right now we’ve done showcases at Forbidden City, Katra, and PNC Radio, all in NYC. We definitely have BLAP lined up nationally in the coming months. [Last week, Illmind brought B.L.A.P. to Portland, Oregon] After that, we are taking it overseas.

What are you working on in the near future? Anything with local guys?

I have a lot of things going on right now. If I name them all, you might think I’m being pretentious, so bare with me, because I’m not trying to be! Me and Skyzoo have a full album dropping on Duckdown Records in October, called Live From The Tapedeck. Super proud of that project. [Watch the Skyzoo & Illmind “Speakers On Blast” music video!]

I have my first official instrumental album coming out in October as well, through [Brooklyn-based] Nature Sounds Records, called Beh!nd The Curta!n.

Also, I’m working on a handful of major placements, most of which I can’t comment on right now. I have a huge record with Redman dropping in the next month, which is his first official single to his upcoming album on Def Jam. I’m working with a brand new super group called Sun Tzu, consisting of MC Roscoe Umali, and two of the biggest pop stars in Korea right now, Drunken Tiger & Yoon Mirae. Look out for that single soon.

I just released a free project called Smokey Robotic, along with four other members. It’s pop, dance, electro, and hip-hop, which means we had a hell of a good time creating it! I’m also releasing a project with my crew, FORTILIVE, which consists of me (on the beats), MC Mushmouf and MC Slo-Mo, both from Hawaii. This is long so I’m going to stop right there, but I do have a handful of projects from some up and coming artists that I’m very excited about. Stay tuned!

— Alex Edelstein

For more on !llmind, visit http://www.illmind.biz and follow him on Twitter @IllmindProducer!