Tyrell Paul, better known by his numerical moniker 169, is one of the UK’s most exciting artists and producers, boasting credits with the likes of Mercury Prize winner Dave, Craig David and revered producer Fraser T Smith. He also writes and produces his own records. Daniel Gumble sat down with him to talk studio techniques and the future of UK music…
Tyrell Paul, better known simply as 169, is the embodiment of what it is to be a producer and recording artist in 2019. An innate knack for producing brain rattling beats combined with a precocious technical prowess in the studio has made the young South Londoner an increasingly sought after talent in the UK. He also possesses a keen understanding of the myriad creative and commercial possibilities that come from serial collaboration. His work with grime icon and 2019 Mercury Prize winner Dave has drawn plaudits from across the scene, while production credits with the likes of Craig David and a publishing deal with legendary Dave, Stormzy, Adele, Kano and Sam Smith producer Fraser T Smith offers as glowing a seal of approval as one could ask for.
To find out how 169 honed his skills and established his reputation as one to most definitely watch in the modern music era, Daniel Gumble sat down with him in the plush surroundings of London’s Soho House to talk studio skills, influences and working with the stars…
Tell us about your background in music.
My dad was really into music, he was always playing reggae or old school R&B, just blaring it out loud, so music was always in my heart. He had this keyboard he used to make beats on, and I wanted to play around and do the same thing. I noticed I was quite good at it, so I started making songs on it. It was nothing major or serious, but I started developing my talent for singing and thought, ‘How about I make my own beats to sing on’. That’s where I really started to develop.
Who were the artists you were listening to at that time?
Beres Hammond, definitely. Whitney Houston. Very early on, someone who was inspiring me a lot was Drake. He came about around 2008-9. It was the So Far Gone days and I was trying to recreate some of that.
At what point did you start taking music seriously as a career?
Initially, my dream was to design cars – I loved cars and was pretty decent at drawing. But during school, music became a thing; I had a couple of friends who were also into music and we’d click on that level. We’d do talent shows and win them and we’d get the highest grades in our class for music. It was like, ‘clearly we’ve got something here’. But the point at which I realised it could be something serious was when I linked up with Dave and we did ‘JKYL+HYD’. I never realised how complete a song could sound until someone with a vision like Dave put his lyrics to the instrumental. That was when I went, ‘OK, this is not just for fun anymore, this could really happen’.
How did your relationship with Dave start?
We met through a friend in common called Kyle – he’s working with Dave right now, he did a couple of tracks on Psychodrama. They went to the same school, and Kyle and I went to the same primary school. He told me, ‘There’s this guy Dave at my school and he’s one of the best rappers out here and nobody even knows it’. At that time I still wasn’t really developed as a producer but there was enough to establish something with Dave. He linked us both up, we made a couple of songs and eventually we came up with ‘JKYL+HYD’. He was very much into sampling at the time, he loved movie soundtracks, high voice samples like choirs. We were just experimenting; we were on the same wavelength with bass line and tempos. We knew what we wanted each other to sound like. It just clicked.
Tell us about your approach to production.
I was a singer first, so a lot of what I was looking for when I started to produce were melodies and which types of melodies worked with others. That’s a fundamental thing when I get to the studio. The melody is the first thing I look at and the emotion it evokes. The next thing for me is all my beats have to hit hard. Not just anybody could mix my beats.
How do you define your role as a producer?
First of all, it’s about establishing the mood of the artist. Everybody has a different mood they come into the studio with; they have their vision and you have to understand it. That’s fundamental, otherwise you can’t produce anything, you’re just doing it off the top of your head. Secondly, you have to make sure you understand where they want to take the record. That’s crucial. I don’t really have a process – I go with the flow.
Talk us through the production of Dave’s Game Over EP.
Dave is very much in tune with all the elements of the song. He knows where he wants it to go, and you have to click with the artist on that level in order to make it work. With the first record with Dave, he’d come with a couple of ideas conceptually and you have to be very good at being able to put that down on your software or on paper, getting a description of what he wants it to sound like.
How has your working relationship developed since you first started working together?
It’s definitely evolved. Dave is more of a producer now, Whereas before he’d be like, ‘Tyrell, I want it to sound like this, I want this here, I want that there’, now he’ll come in with his laptop and he’s already got the idea and he’ll be like, ‘here’s the idea, I’m going to send you the file’. So now we know exactly what we want to do, it’s less about creation and more about development.
There’s an exciting amount of independently minded young artists breaking through on a major level at the moment, with Dave winning the Mercury Prize and Stormzy headlining Glastonbury in the summer. Do you feel there is a real movement happening amongst contemporary UK artists and producers at the moment?
Definitely. It’s good because you all feel like you want to collaborate more. You realise people are paying attention and producers are getting more love than they used to. It’s a time when collaboration is high. People are realising that there is a lot of money out here to make. People are listening to music now, especially from the UK. Everybody is willing to work, everyone is willing to collaborate. Everybody wants a piece of this sound, a piece of that sound, and when everyone comes together it’s going to just keep getting better. The US is starting to take notice of what’s going on over here. It’s great.
How is UK grime translating in the US? It seems lots of artists are loving it but audiences aren’t quite onboard. Do you see it breaking there?
I don’t think it really matters. One of the reasons I’ve heard a lot of people say is the accent; we rap too fast and they can’t understand what we’re saying. I can understand why that might turn some people off of certain songs, but if you listen to a song like ‘Funky Friday’ it’s quite simple, the flows aren’t complicated, it’s very clear what he’s saying. It can be done, but I don’t think we care. We don’t need to.
How did you come to work with Fraser T Smith?
Fraser and I met through Dave just before we started the Six Paths EP. He and Dave were working together and they were like, let’s get 169 in, see what he’s like. And again, we just clicked on a musical level. He was like, ‘Yeah I like this kid – he’s cool, he’s calm, he’s got a good background’. We dropped the Dave EP, the single ‘Wanna Know’ came out and then he signed me to a publishing deal. He wanted to be my mentor, help me develop and grow as a producer. I’ve got so much respect for Fraser. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without him; he’s helped me navigate through the industry, make the right choices and meet the right people. In terms of how we work together, he’s put me with quite a few big artists and thrown me into the deep end. He’d be like, ‘session next week with Craig David, are you ready?’ ‘No! But, I’ll just go anyway because, why not?’
How did that go?
It was cool. You forget that a lot of these big artists are just normal people who want to make music, have fun and enjoy life. He’s a cool person. Him and Fraser have been friends for years so when we were at the studio it felt very homey. I never felt out of place. That’s how it always is with Fraser. It feels easy.
What key things have you learned so far?
Stay humble. It’s very easy to rub shoulders with certain people and forget where you’ve come from. It’s all about always giving off positive energy to anybody you meet, never treat anyone like they’re below you. Creatively, always experiment. Never be afraid to jump at an opportunity. You never know what’s going to happen, so take risks. And never let up. Keep going, keep grafting.
Tell us about your work as an artist in your own right.
My music was initially R&B but I’ve developed it into something different. I just like making music, anything that comes to mind. It is what it is. For me, I will always do the artist thing. The reason why the producer thing shone through is because it was the first thing that popped off for me. If it was just the artist thing, I still would’ve been producing. I’m going to keep doing it all. I produce my music all myself. It gives me the chance to experiment with production. I’m down to collaborate, but I want to explore and see how far I can take it on my own.