The Beautiful Mind of Illmind
A model of perseverance, producer !llmind began his career in his parents' basement.
Though you may not know !llmind, you may have heard his music. He's worked with hip-hop A-listers, including 50 Cent, Drake, J. Cole, and Ludacris. It all began in the early 2000s, when he started making his now-ubiquitous “Blap Kits”—premade collections of sounds and samples for other producers to use for their own creations. He's always been a self-starter.
!llmind: I'm competing with myself. I'm consistently outdoing what I did last year, right? So if I'm doing drum kits, I want to double up this year on sales, on innovation, on originality. If I worked with five major label artists last year, I want to work with 15 this year.
But it wasn't always so clear to him what his career might look like. !llmind was born Ramon Ibanga, Jr. to Filipino immigrants in New Jersey. After high school, he spent six years holed up in his parents’ basement, exploring hip-hop.
AJC: That's not the immigrant experience. Like normally, Mom is, “Go off and become a dentist or a lawyer. We didn't come to this country so you could sit in the basement, messing around with hip-hop.”
!llmind: Exactly. The pressure was on. Every day.
AJC: And how did you deal with it?
!llmind: I dealt with it through the music. I dealt with it through patience. You know, really just swallowing my pride every day. And shout out to my older brother. I have an older brother who’s two years older than me. He was always, like, the successful sibling. He was prom king, he was captain of the basketball team. You know, successful job, went to school, finished all four years. So I guess I was sort of the “bad seed.” But, you know, at the time, it was definitely rough, but it was sort of half and half. My mom was like, “Okay, any day now, you’re going to go back to school right?” Or, “Any day now, you're going to get a job.” And my dad would be kind of up in the air. He would tell my mom, like, “You know, just let him do his thing. He's finding himself. He's composing music.” So my dad definitely understood what was happening. And so, pressure was definitely on, for sure.
AJC: I mean, you are very musical but you spent six years becoming musical? What was the six years doing—sitting in your mom's basement, doing what?
!llmind: So the six years in Mom's basement was me trying to figure out how to do it. So it's like, okay, I hear a piece of hip-hop music. I'm sitting there figuring out, “Where were they getting these samples? How did they program their drums? What are drum breaks? Why did some hip-hop music sound like it was looped from older records, and how do I do that for my music? Do I need to play instruments? What kind of software do I need? What kind of equipment should I invest in?” So a lot of it was trial and error. A lot of it was me messing up a lot. The fun part of it was really what kept me going, because it's literally just all I wanted to do. I didn't want to go out and have a social life. I didn't want to get into a relationship. I didn't want to play sports. I didn't want to do anything else. So I was just answering myself and fulfilling my need to just create music.
AJC: But it's very different from the path that, say, composers in the previous 800 years would have had—which is, you sit at a keyboard and you try to create something unique and new.
AJC: You're not sitting there trying to write the next pop classic. That's not what you're trying to do.
!llmind: Not at all.
AJC: So how do you know that that's the path you're supposed to go down at this point in time?
!llmind: I didn't know. I didn't know. It was super reckless and super curious. I was super curious and—
AJC: Did you ever try to sit down and write “Hey Jude”? I mean, did you ever sit down and say, “I'm going to write a song. It's going to have a verse, chorus, verse. It's going to have lyrics. It's going to be about love.” Did you ever sort of go that traditional song route?
AJC: You did. Okay.
!llmind: Eventually, yeah.
AJC: But, at this point, not in your mind?
!llmind: At this point, not even in my mind. In my mind it's, “How do I sample? How do I manipulate what already exists? And how do I sound like my heroes?” And that's what it was, and it was me figuring out the different techniques of sampling. And then from there, then I started to think deeper and say, “Okay, well, if I'm sampling music from the past, how do I compose my own music so I can sample myself?”
AJC: Trying to create a hook.
!llmind: Trying to create a hook, right.
!llmind's break came when one evening, on a whim, he offered a collection of samples for sale on his website. He woke up the next morning to find thousands of dollars in his bank account.
AJC: Besides the market telling you they were any good, when you were making them yourself, what was your quality control of them? So you would put, I don't know, 20 snare sounds.
AJC: To get 20 snare sounds, how many were you rejecting? Or were you rejecting any?
!llmind: I didn't really reject much. You know, it's funny because when I was making my drum kits, I would always make them with the intention of, “Would I use these myself?” And I think that those drum kit sounds really were able to translate to the general public because I liked them. And I'm hoping that they also really saw the amount of time and love that I put into those sounds. It's paying off now.
One such door led to Lin-Manuel Miranda, when Atlantic Records commissioned !llmind to produce three songs for The Hamilton Mixtape, a hipper version of the original Broadway soundtrack. It wasn't long before Miranda called !llmind with another opportunity.
!llmind: So he's like, “Hey, so I'm working on this song for Disney, and I'm wondering if you can produce it for me.” I told him, “Yeah, I'll do it!” So I'm listening to it and I have, like, these weird dry vocals of The Rock singing. And so I took it and I sort of created my own version of it. And I sent it over to Lin, and he loved it. He immediately said, “Yup, this is it. This is the one.” Then the guys over at Disney heard it, and they loved the first version that I did. I was expecting to do multiple versions of this. Fortunately, I got it right the first time.
AJC: What's the special sauce? Why are they calling you?
!llmind: I think that they just think that what I bring to the table is cool and fresh and new and weird, in a way.
Today, !llmind holds workshops for budding hip-hop producers throughout the country. He says he's happy to share his knowledge with the next generation, while making them understand that the most important aspect of his work can't be taught.
!llmind: I believe that you can't be extraordinary at something unless you love it. So there's kids out there that, unfortunately, are doing it for the wrong reasons. There's kids out there that are doing it saying, “Hey I can make a couple hundred grand a year from selling kits or selling beats.” But they don't really love doing it. They're not getting up at 6 a.m. and going to bed at midnight, listening to music, and creating music, and becoming obsessed with texture and composition. Those kids are going to fall short. But I believe that if you love it enough, and you push yourself enough, you can get to where you want to be.
AJC: It will love you back.
!llmind: It will love you back. And there's only one percent of them that do.