Tony Seltzer is pushing underground rap into new zones

Tony Seltzer. Photo by Lauren Davis.


In November, Tony Seltzer visited Atlanta for the first time, more for business than pleasure. He’d recently been in the studio with Bronx rapper MIKE, where the pair had recorded a song so good it planted the seed for their collaborative album Pinball, released just yesterday.

“After MIKE and I made ‘R&B,’ that was when we started talking about really putting together a project,” Seltzer tells me over the phone on Leap Day, a week ahead of the album’s release. “This dude Jelani [Miller] is from Atlanta, who I know from the videos he’s done for [Atlanta rapper] Tony Shhnow, and he specifically has that early 2000s video look, like MTV or BET.”

“So we set up a video shoot while MIKE was on tour with Earl Sweatshirt and Alchemist, they were passing through Atlanta and had a few free days there. I figured while I was there, we had an extra night — might as well book a studio and see what comes of it, y’know? And Tony [Shhnow] ended up pulling up… It was just super natural and made a ridiculously good song.”

That song, “On God,” sports a pair of slick guest verses courtesy of Shhnow and Sweatshirt and a gently tolling bell over shimmying claps and a pool of reverb. It’s a tidy microcosm for the slack posture and omnivorous outlook of Pinball, which weds MIKE’s refreshingly low-stakes raps to some of Seltzer’s hardest knocking beats. There’s the stuttering rhythm of “100 Gecs” and the sinister bloops of “Yin-Yang;” even those few songs more aligned with MIKE’s soulful M.O., like the groovy “Underground Kingz” and the Sesame Street bounce of “Lethal Weapon,” do so with a playful twinkle. “His sound is pretty different than my sound,” Seltzer says. “Recently, I guess he just wanted to try something new.”

Tony Seltzer’s sound can be hard to pin down. He mostly works with rappers, but he’s also collaborated with singers like HAWA and Eartheater (who says over email, “I love Tony! He’s responsible for some of the heaviest kicks and bass in my music!”). Even within hip-hop, his collaborations range from DJ Lucas and Lucki to Mavi and Hook. Real heads will probably recognize his name from various collaborative projects with Wifigawd, KEY!, and Wiki over recent years, though Seltzer has quietly notched a number of major label placements with Rick Ross, French Montana, and Rich The Kid thanks to his close working relationship with Harry Fraud. He’s friends with other high-profile producers too, like Kenny Beats, but more often than not his coproductions come out of sessions with longtime co-conspirators A Lau, Laron, and Vinny Fanta.

“Tony and I met in 2018 and I instantly knew there was a connection,” British producer Jam City tells me over email. “He’s one of the few producers where I know I can sit back and let the beat go in the right direction. I love how he always picks the most unexpected loops I send him. His sense of groove is pure New York — it’s got an attitude and swing that’s sorely lacking in a lot of rap.”

On the phone, Seltzer and I chopped it up about how he started making beats, producing with his older brother (Carlos Truly of Ava Luna), the recording process behind 14K Figaro with Wiki, the first time he met MIKE, and how Pinball came together.

The FADER: Tell me a little about the music you grew up with.

In the household, we grew up with a lot of different stuff. My dad on his radio show played classic soul, R&B, 60s and 70s funk. But then also a lot of jazz, classical, reggae — my dad especially is a huge 70s reggae fan. And then also, kind of late for himself but, he got into dad rock over time, so things like Led Zeppelin and Yes, prog rock, stuff like that. But then I personally grew into, because I played drums, more extreme metal, mostly because of the drumming. But I graduated from being in elementary school and listening to Slipknot to getting into more extreme death metal and black metal. And then obviously rap music I always listened to since I was a little kid.

In one of your old interviews, you said that when you heard Flockaveli it sounded like metal beats slowed down.

I would say my hip-hop upbringing was more East Coast, smooth sound. I was huge into Big L — when I started making beats, I was always focused on sampling jazz, and getting vibraphone and Rhodes, really smooth stuff. Obviously, I’m a huge J Dilla fan. That’s really what got me into production. But hearing Flockavali, that was the first time that it clicked for me like “Whoa.” That style had been around for a while, but I feel like Lex Luger took it to the next level in the intensity of those beats. It sounds like you could go beat each other up in a moshpit to it.

You used to produce under the name Yung Gutted, and you were making more complicated beats with more elements. Then you pivoted to producing for rappers. Can you tell me a bit about the transition from Yung Gutted into the Tony Seltzer stuff?

With the Yung Gutted thing, I definitely cornered myself with the aesthetic of, like, black metal, death metal, horror movie aesthetic, which at the time I thought was really revolutionary. Then suddenly everyone was doing it — not everyone, but it wasn’t as revolutionary as I thought it was. I wanted to be able to step outside of that sound, not having to sample something that sounds evil or dissonant.

Also, I released a lot of instrumental music [as Yung Gutted and] I wanted to work with rappers more. I love listening to instrumental hip-hop beats — especially at the time, the LA beat scene and Flying Lotus and all that stuff was really big. There was just more of a draw to the instrumental hip-hop world, but then I gotta say, I got bored with it and felt I wanted to work with rappers more. And needed to recognize that you have to simplify things a bit for artists to be able to put vocals on top of something — can’t fill up all that space.

90% to 95% of what you do is with rappers, but there are these moments where you’ll work with HAWA, who is kind of a rapper but also a singer, or like Eartheater, who has bars but is a singer. What are you looking for in a collaboration that isn’t strictly hip-hop?

I listen to a lot of different kinds of stuff. I always considered myself being able to produce R&B music, because a lot of R&B, especially since the 90s, is essentially very similar to hip-hop production, you know: sample chops and programmed drums, and it veered away from having a live band and being more produced in that sense.

With HAWA and any R&B artists that I’m working with, it’s very similar to producing [for rappers]. We often will start off with a beat, something that someone could have rapped on, but then we’ll, usually more than a rapper, go a little bit more in-depth into the sequencing and changing things up and post-production and turning it more into a through-written song. And I often do a lot of R&B co-production with my brother [Carlos Truly], who is just more in that world. And he’s a really good instrumentalist, so he helps bring things together.

With Eartheater, we meshed well together because she was seeking heavier beats. I was able to find the middle ground between something I would show to a rapper and something I could push the limit on a little bit more that she could sing on.

I know you and Eartheater co-produced that Coucou Chloe remix, and talking about co-producing with your brother makes me think about your Hey Tony album, where you’re co-producing with a lot of different people. And obviously, you work with A Lau and Laron and Harry Fraud all the time. What do you like about co-producing with other people?

At this point, I can say that I prefer producing with other people more than sitting in the studio alone. Not that I’ve lost my passion for making beats alone, I still do it. But I just like having other minds in the studio. It also adds a social element and every co-production with a different person — I’m bringing my flavor, and then they’re gonna bring their flavor. So it may be a Tony Seltzer beat, but it’s gonna have their sound on it as well.

And working with my brother, if I know that I am going to be working with an R&B artist coming up or someone who can get on a beat that has that sound, I’ll work with him. Everyone’s got their different sound and just brings that to the table. And on the MIKE project, most of it is co-produced with other people.

Are those co-productions with MIKE or other people?

I didn’t co-produce any with MIKE. I’m speaking for him here, but it seemed like he wanted to go completely the opposite of his usual route and sit back and let me take the reins as far as production. For the most part [with] any co-productions, I separate my studio time into making beats at the studio and then doing sessions with artists. So for this specifically, a few days a week I would be making beats with friends, and then the rest of the week MIKE would come through and record on whichever ones. There are only two songs that I actually made the beat while MIKE was sitting there.

You’ve spoken in interviews about how when you collaborate with artists, especially on an album-length project, you try to push their sound forward or that they push your sound forward. How did you and Wiki push each other recording 14K Figaro?

With Wik, I think I pushed him in the way that my beats tend to be pretty energetic and kind of intense with heavy drums And I think, because he raps a lot, he has a lot to say, it’s a matter of finding the right things to say and not overcrowding it. But then also on the other side, because he’s rapping so much, and has so many bars, I felt like he pushed my production even further and made the beat change and do switch-ups.

Thinking about the project with MIKE, you guys have been working together for a pretty long time, since very early in his career. How did you guys first meet and start collaborating?

We met initially at XL Studios when Wiki was signed over there — pretty sure it was Wik who introduced us. That was when MIKE was working on his first project, and he just recruited me. I think we did a couple of sessions and I left him with some beats to write to, and I ended up getting a couple of songs on that first project God Bless Your Hustle, and Wiki’s actually featured on one of those songs. But then from there, MIKE went on to mostly produce his own stuff, and his sound is also pretty different than my sound. I was always a huge fan and that’s been the homie forever, but I never was really pressed to try to get in the studio with him again, just because it felt like a different direction artistically.

But then recently, I guess he just felt like he just wanted to try something new, and started coming to the studio. When he first said he wanted to do a session, I started to get beats together I considered more his vibe, not so heavy on the drums, more sample-based. But when he came, he was like, “No, I want the hardest beats.” And literally the first song we did, which ended up being the first track on the project [“Two Door”], is probably the hardest beat that he could have picked: it has a Memphis sample and really, it’s almost like a Yung Gutted beat, really dark [with] super heavy drums. So we just locked in for this new sound.

That definitely struck me about the tape, that it doesn’t feel the same as a lot of stuff MIKE does, even though he’s a guy who can rap on any kind of beat and make it sound crazy. The other thing that struck me was just how brief the album was. Nowadays, people are so used to really short songs as a way to hide that the ideas behind a song aren’t fully developed, but here it felt more like “we’re going to go until we’ve said what we needed to say and get the fuck out of here,” almost like a bank heist.

We did that intentionally — honestly, we were just having fun with it. I think there wasn’t much thought going into it: whatever beats I made that week, I would play for him. When he got to the studio, he picked the one he liked, he would write to it, make a sick verse, maybe put a hook on it, we record it, throw it together, boom, it’s done. Keep it moving, very fluid, just having fun with it. And I think the same thing throwing the album together, it’s just like, let’s just make sure we like the songs and feel happy about it. It doesn’t need to be too in-depth, because obviously, MIKE projects are very crafted. These are still serious songs, serious subject matter, but [Pinball is different].

Across Pinball you guys dive into a bunch of different sounds. And one of the beats I was just blown away by was “2k24 Tour” with Niontay. I saw on your Rhythm Roulette that orchestral samples can be hard to work with because they’re too full. Can you tell me about the beat for “2k24” and why that felt more workable?

That one was Laron, he had that sample already chopped up beforehand. But what you said about orchestral samples being too full, I think because of that, I was like, “let me just go completely bare with the drums,” super empty. And that way, it gives the strings a lot of room to breathe. And then whenever a rapper does rap on top of that, we’ll give them a lot of room.

And yeah, as soon as we made that beat I knew, not necessarily that MIKE was gonna rap on it, but that was getting used. Sometimes I’ll make a beat, I’ll say, “I like the beat but I don’t know if any rapper will actually get on this.” That beat, immediately when we made it, I was like, “Someone’s getting on this in the next week, I can tell,” and that’s exactly what happened.

When you think about the beats on Pinball and the beats on 14K Figaro, versus the stuff you were making five years ago, or when you first started working as Tony Seltzer with Vinny Fanta, what are you most proud of in terms of your artistic development?

I think that I’ve established a sound with the beats themselves. And I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, but it’s not super hard to make a good beat that someone can rap on. But I think that what I’m most proud of myself is being able to turn the beat into a song with somebody and really bring it together. And then take what they’ve recorded on top of it and go further and think through the vocal production and the song sequencing and just figuring out what the right thing is to take it from a beat with a rapper on it into a fully contextualized song.