Boi-1da has produced for music superstars, including a long association with Drake. On Sunday, he’s up for Non-Classical Producer of the Year for the second time
By Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
When the 65th Grammy Awards are held Sunday in Los Angeles, all Canadian eyes will be on the Non-Classical Producer of the Year category.
That’s because Toronto’s Matthew Samuels – better known publicly as Boi-1da – has racked up his second nomination in the category in five years, this time for his production work on such memorable 2022 projects by pop, R&B and rap superstars Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Jack Harlow, Giveon, H.E.R., Lil Durk, Ella Mai and some guy who goes by the name of Drake.
It’s a difficult enough accomplishment to achieve a first time around, let alone a second – and Samuels is counting his blessings.
“Both nominations mean a lot, you know?” he said recently during a Zoom call from a home office in Pickering that includes wall-to-wall plaques and trophies gathered from cumulative album sales numbering in the hundreds of millions and 2.5 billion streams.
“Being nominated for Producer of the Year the first time really meant a lot to me. I didn’t win, but I really thought I deserved it. And I said to myself, ‘I’m going to put my head down and maybe one of these days, maybe I’ll get back there and maybe I’ll get it this time.
“But, the second time around means a lot as well because there aren’t a lot of people that get nominated for that award multiple times, so it’s really just an honour to have my name amongst everybody involved.”
Although he’s vying against Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift,) The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Dahi (Kendrick Lamar, Steve Lacy) and Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II (Silk Sonic, Lucky Daye), he’s also got three other nominations for his songwriting and production work: if Beyoncé’s Renaissance or Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers capture Album of the Year honours, Samuels will walk away with both songwriting and producer hardware for his contributions to those projects.
Samuels is also up as co-writer for Best Rap Song for “Churchill Downs” recorded by Jack Harlow featuring Drake, a category that accounts for his only Grammy win thus far when he captured the golden gramophone for Drake’s “God’s Plan” in 2018 – the same year he was first up for Producer of the Year accolades in a field that included Larry Klein, Linda Perry, Kanye West and eventual winner Pharrell Williams.
“They’re great, iconic producers that shaped my sound as well,” Samuels offered. “And for my name to be mentioned with them as well? I’m just so honoured.”
As you can gather, humility is one of Samuels’ strong suits. Ever since he “started at the bottom” with Drake, collaborating with him on his 2006 mixtape Room For Improvement, he’s not only been a constant fixture in Drizzy‘s world domination through the years – “Best I Ever Had,” “Over,” “Headlines,” “Know Yourself” and “Controlla” are just a few that bear his production stamp – but Samuels has also taken a number of local studio overseers under his wing and helped them rise to the top of their international game: Adam “Frank Dukes, now Ging” Feeney; Ebony “Wondagurl” Oshunrinde; fellow Grammy nominee Rupert “Sevn” Thomas; Zale Epstein; Stephen “Koz” Kozmeniuk; Tyler “T-Minus” Williams; Matthew Burnett and Jordan Evans among them.
Samuels’ A-list credits also include work with Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Eminem, Jay Z, Cardi B., J. Cole, Alessia Cara, Maroon 5, Kehlani, Lana Del Ray, Nicki Minaj and the list goes on…but he often generously involves his protégés in his recording sessions.
“I never compete,” stated Samuels, born 36 years ago in Kingston, Jamaica. “It’s weird: some people compete with music to get themselves motivated…some people are more motivated by competition. I was never motivated by competition.
“I feel that music is art, and that’s the way I look at it. Some people are going to like my art. Some like Picasso; some like Basquiat. It’s all subjective at the end of the day.
“When I came up here, we never had a mentor or anyone to really look up to, to really teach me the game and put me in different rooms and opportunities.
“So, when I get the chance to spread those opportunities, I do, because it’s hard. I adopted the mentality of paying it forward and I really live by that because, it just helps build our eco-system and helps everybody, you know?”
He comes by his gift naturally: when he was 14, he spent the summer experimenting with the digital audio workstation FL Studio, known back then as Fruity Loops.
“I knew FL Studio was the right platform for me just from how easy it was to create on it,” he explained. “I’m a very simple guy and .I understood how to use it so quickly. You know the saying, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’ I’ve been using FL since I was 14 and I still use it. It hasn’t been broken, and I have no need to fix anything.”
After working on some early Keshia Chanté and Kardinal Offishall projects, Samuels hooked up with Aubrey “Drake” Graham, which has been his longest association. While he hasn’t worked on every Drizzy album, the latest one he did a couple of tracks for was Her Loss, the collaborative Drake and 21 Savage effort.
“What clicks with me and Drake so well is that we just understand each other, musically,” said Samuels. “I can see the mood that he’s in or, he’s very good at explaining things and explaining what he wants when it comes to music. We just ignite.
“Some people have that musical synergy, where it’s like Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson – anytime they came together they made something special – or Timbaland and Aaliyah. Although I feel like it’s just both of our God-given gifts combined and for some reason, whenever we link up, it’s crazy every time. It’s fire and gasoline.”
Perhaps the most effective tool in Samuels’ success story is spontaneity: he enters the studio with no preconceptions.
“I go in there with a clear head,” Samuels explained. “I really go in with no objective other than to just be creative and do what I feel I should do.
“It’s music, and you should always do what you love and what you want to do, instead of being pushed by a narrative or an objective. I think the best stuff comes out of you with a free mind.”
And how does he know when the track is ready for public consumption?
“It’s almost an unexplainable feeling. You just know it’s there. You feel it. It’s like your palms are itching; you feel like you’re going to get lucky. That’s how I feel when I make something and I realize it’s done.
“But sometimes, you don’t know that it’s done. For instance, I grew up working with Drake, and many times I cut a lot of stuff, a lot of meat on the music, and he would eliminate a lot of things from me. Sometimes you might create something and you might create a canvas for somebody else, but they might have a whole other vision. It’s topsy-turvy and you really never know where it’s going to go and end up sometimes.”
This is where Samuels’ ego-free demeanour helps placate potential tension-creating situations involving work completed and work edited.
“Especially with Drake,” said Samuels. “A guy like that, he really knows what he’s doing. You have to trust the process and trust somebody like him – he’s a known, certified hitmaker and he knows what to do. I’ve learned a lot from him and also a lot from other people. You’ve got to just trust the process.”
Although Samuels is primarily known for hip-hop, he also works with singers, songwriters, pop and rock stars. He says there’s a difference between genres.
“When I do hip-hop, it’s a little more free,” Samuels admitted. “It’s less meticulous, where you can really simplify the music and something extremely simple will work. Whereas, working with pop music and R&B and other genres of music, it has a lot to do with songwriting, structurally. That’s the difference between the two: A lot of R&B music and a lot of pop music is really based more in the songwriting and the structure than the production itself. That’s what I take from it and it’s a challenge each and every time – one that I accept with open arms.
“I’m always willing to learn and do something new. I get bored easily.”
What does he consider to be some of his finest work?
“I’ll put ‘Work’ by Rihanna (featuring Drake) as one of my favourites, because it came at a time where that was not even expected,” he replied. “It was a whole new Caribbean-dancehall influenced sound that came out of nowhere and took over the whole summer.
“Then Drake did ‘Controlla’ and PartyNextDoor released ‘Only You:’ I think it was 2016, and that’s the one I was really proud of because I’m Jamaican. Dancehall was really my first love, so to bring it back as a vibe and to make it popular – that was a proud moment for me. I feel like it paid homage to Jamaica and dancehall, which moulded me as a producer, as a person, as everything. Dancehall is so prevalent in my life – even to this day – I still listen to it.
“I’ll also put up ‘God’s Plan,’ by Drake and ‘Not Afraid’ by . ‘God’s Plan,’ one of Drake’s biggest songs, was such a massive hit – so amazing, so loved. That’s always the goal.
“And ‘Not Afraid’ – Eminem has always been one of my favourite rappers. Just getting an opportunity to make such a gigantic song with a person you’ve grown up listening to and idolizing for years is amazing.
“The first album I ever bought was Eminem’s Slim Shady LP. So going from that kid rushing to the mall to HMV to buy Eminem’s Slim Shady LP then growing up and doing a major comeback album for him was really a huge moment for me and my career.”
Although he splits his time between L.A. and Pickering, his family life is centered here around his 12-year-old daughter Shayla.
“She’s avid in soccer and she plays sports and it’s just very important for me to be there for her as a father,” he noted. ” I’m a very active Dad.”
Currently in the process of building a studio while working on his own album, Samuels said he wants to see “Canada and Toronto thrive as a music hub where people don’t have to leave and go to America.”
“I’m trying to set that example and stay true to Canada.”
He’s also given back in terms of conducting lectures at the Weeknd-sponsored incubator Hxouse and continues to finance a bursary at his alma mater, Pickering High.
“Any chance I get to teach, inspire, help – I take it, because there’s just not a better, more rewarding feeling then giving back, helping others and inspiring. It’s the greatest feeling ever.”