Being asked to help record an album by a major icon on the hush tip would seem like the kind of pressure that doesn't foster someone's best work.
But for Sean C. and LV of Diddy's revamped Hitmen production team, the secrecy behind making Jay-Z's Grammy-nominated American Gangster actually led to some of the pair's best work.
"It was kind of fun, the whole secret sh--," Sean told MTV News last week. "At that time, we didn't even have time to tell people."
Jay-Z's "comeback" album, as it was billed by critics who weren't sold on Kingdom Come, was put together in typical fashion by the rapper — quickly. Once
"Making that album was one of the best music experiences I ever had," Sean said. "Just the momentum and the vibe was dope. What added to it was that nobody knew what was going on. Just us all in two studios, Daddy's House and Roc the Mic, going back and forth. We'd do beats and send them to him. And it was just this secrecy thing going on. We'd go record shopping, get sh--, bring it back, loop sh-- up, chop sh-- up. He'd walk in the room while we're doing something and would be like, 'Oh, sh--, I need that now.'
"Everybody at that time was on fire," he added. "I can't explain it much. It was definitely a zone. It was like everything we put in the machine came out crazy."
The production pair were largely credited with laying the foundation for American Gangster's sound. The '70s-soul vibe matched perfectly with the retro-gangster concept Jay-Z used as a blueprint for the album.
The project was most notable for being praised as a return to form for the onetime Def Jam CEO and president. When Jay-Z came out of retirement, he was serving as the head of the label he recorded on and oversaw the careers of other artists such as Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Fabolous. The cushy corporate gig may have influenced the rapper's turn to a more mature posture — too much, according to some experts.
"I think after Kingdom Come, Jay was at the least-favorable moment of his career," XXL magazine Editor at Large Bonsu Thompson said. "He was rapping like an executive. And people still wanted Jay-Z the Brooklyn hustler. That's what the beauty of American Gangster was. He actually got back to his roots. Number one, everybody loves a comeback. You get that with the Oscars [all the time]. So if Jay-Z, knowing that he was a little bit out of favor with the kids, and for him to come back and really give his core and the young'uns some really good music, I take my hat off to the [Grammy board] for giving him [the nod]. Because it was a very nutritious album."
Sean C. and LV helped ensure the health of the album by producing six songs of the LP's 16 tracks, including "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is ... )" and "Party Life." Diddy and the Hitmen were eventually credited as associate executive producers of American Gangster. That was fitting, because the moment Jay-Z heard the tracks they created, "What he heard in his mind is exactly what he heard in those speakers," Sean C. said.
The Hitmen's framework helped kick-start a "friendly competition" among the producers hoping to make the cut, Hov said.
"No ID was in the corner, [DJ] Toomp was there, and then people were coming by and I was playing the album," Jay-Z told MTV News in November 2007 of the recording environment. "[Jermaine Dupri] was there with his headphones and all his machines trying to make a beat. And at one point, I looked over at him and was like, 'You cool with this?' I already respected him as a great producer, but that moment right there, to make the track that he made ('Fallin' ') in that type of environment was very difficult, to be honest with you. Because it was like a party. But it wasn't a party for the sake of dancing. It was a party to get the vibe. It was purposely done. It's like a friendly competition."
Although a camaraderie was built between the producers, LV said he still kept it cool about the proceedings — even when other people started to spill their guts about the potential project. He recalled a studio session when a colleague broached the subject, not knowing LV's heavy involvement.
"I was around another producer, and he was playing me some sh--, we were just vibing," he recalled. "And he was like, 'Yo, I'm about to submit this to Jay. You know, he's about to work on an album.' I was like, 'Word?' And he played it and was like, 'I'm about to give him this sh--.' And I just like there like, 'Yeah, OK, go ahead.' He was trying to put me on. That was funny."
Will Lil Wayne grab all the gramophones? Is Katy Perry going to tell her girl rivals to kiss off? Can Coldplay march off with a win? MTV News is all over the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, so stay tuned for interviews, analysis and more before, during and after the big night, Sunday, February 8.