Far from just a producer, Zo! is a musician and a work horse in full charge of his operation and responsible for just about every nook and cranny that goes into his product. For anyone who doesn’t obsess over album credits, he was the mastermind behind Little Brother’s “When Everything Is New”, a song that took the group from standard samples and loops towards the more ambitious sound Phonte had already been hinting at with The Foreign Exchange. Since LB’s GetBack dropped in 2007 they’ve done countless collaborations, with Zo! being brought into the fold as family under the FE Music Group banner to release Zo! And Tigallo Love the ’80s, the Just Visiting series which remade old favorites and his formal debut SunStorm widely considered a contemporary classic. What stood out from my recent conversation with Zo! regarding his craft, brotherhood with Phonte and his latest album ManMade was a love that shines through all of his efforts.
I’ve been playing music since I was about five or six, starting on the piano. I didn’t even end up picking up everything else until my mid 20′s. I decided to go to Guitar Center one day, I got a bass and started teaching myself how to play that, then I went a couple of months later to get a drum set and started playing that. My father played the guitar, so that was always around the house but I never really took the time to sit down on it. Gradually I started implementing that into some of the music as well, so it’s been spread out over almost 30 years.
I used to work for a medical supply company in Michigan around 2004. Up until that point I had been doing the earlier instrumental CDs but it was still very much on the side while I was defining what I was doing. We all got let go from the job and I decided to start interviewing for different pharmaceutical sales positions, and while I was interviewing I cant remember how we got started talking about music but the woman said “You qualify for this job but you need to be pursuing music from the way you talk about it, that’s what you need to be doing.” It had to come from someone at a company who was getting ready to take me through a hiring process, and it really just hit me then.
That was the one that put me onto a lot more ears than what I was getting to at the time, between that on the Hip-Hop side and the Foreign Exchange music on the R&B side, that’s what pretty much did it.
You were also a music teacher, what was that experience like?
I taught music for five years in DC to kids who are classified as special needs, a lot of them have been neglected and have different problems with the law. It was a one foot in the classroom, one foot in jail type of thing for them. A lot of them had parole officers and all of them had lawyers, but I tried to use music as the door to connect me with them and once we were connected like that I could not only be a teacher but 18 different things to these kids including a positive father figure. I schooled them on different things, we didn’t always do music but I helped them relate to life in general. It was a good thing until the school closed, I was there from 2005 to 2011.
Your sound definitely transcends Hip-Hop but being from Detroit I heard some Dilla influence in your earlier work. Who would you say have been your greatest musical influences altogether?
I think anybody who’s a multi-instrumentalist. Of course Stevie Wonder, you got Shuggie Otis, Sly Stone, I really have my eye on anybody who plays different instruments. Anyone doing lush type of production with a lot of layering, I study it and try to put my own spin on it so that I can create my own lane creatively and be an influence to others, hopefully to be an answer to somebody else’s question like this.
It’s been dope because not only have we been making music for damn near eight years, but that’s like my brother. Any time he’s in town he stays at the crib, any time I go down there I’m at his house. It’s not like me just hitting him up to work on music, we’ll get on the phone and clown for hours. It’s definitely helped me creatively because Phonte, Nicolay and myself are competitors and perfectionists, and when those elements come together you really hold each other to this higher standard, and if it doesn’t fit that we’re gonna tell each other that. He’ll tell me he aint feeling something just like he’ll tell me when he is feeling something, I definitely think that level of quality control helps to push, shape and build your musical ability and capabilities moving forward.
You’ve spoken about it on your blog entries, but walk me through the process of producing and working with Phonte as your backup.
We laugh because all of the ManMade song stories that I’m typing up now sound very similar. I go into the studio and work out an instrumental and hit up Phonte like “Yo, we got another one”. From there, I’ll send it to him and we’ll discuss things like who we hear on it whether it’s a male or female, tenor, baritone or soprano, then we try to pick not only which vocalist but which vocalist will work for us so that when we give it to them it’s not gonna take two months to get it back versus a turnaround of a week.
So it’s all of those different elements, normally he’ll like the record and reference it, writing and recording a version of his own so that the vocalist who gets it can see what it sounds like, they’ll record their own version and put their spin on his words and we’re good to go. I may add some elements afterwards, but that was the process for 90% of ManMade.
You touched on it a minute ago, but how would you say being a part of the Foreign Exchange family has helped you grow as a musician?
It’s definitely pushed me to not be scared of dabbling in other genres and to be very free and creative on stage. I think that my live show has only gotten better because of the experience I’ve had with The Foreign Exchange. Being on stage with them has enhanced me as a performer, I’m still a work in progress but it’s really pushed me in a positive direction on the live end.
Like I said earlier, we have that competition to where if I see Nicolay Instagram a picture in the studio, I’m like “I’m sitting here on Twitter and I need to go in the studio.” We are all family but at the same time we either silently or verbally push each other, it’s dope and healthy for what we’re doing musically.
Another special relationship you’ve formed is with Sy Smith. What have you gained from working with her in particular?
I talked to Sy the other night and I told her she’s the queen of taking lemons and making it into lemonade. She always finds a way to make it good, I don’t know if she just got some type of touch or what the deal is. She is a consummate professional, there’s many reasons why she ends up on The Tonight Show [with Jay Leno] and all over the world performing with cats like jazz musician Chris Botti. She’s been in the game since the late ’90s, back then I wasn’t even thinking about professional music, I was all into a baseball career.
I take things from her like who to know and talk to, not only is she a stellar talent but she knows how to handle herself on the business side and around mega stars. She mentioned Sting in a conversation like that was just regular, I’m like “Where do you and Sting hang out at?” [laughs] She knows how to maximize her situation no matter who she’s with or on what level, that’s what I’ve taken from Sy.
It’s been excellent, there’s nothing like it. I know some people may need barriers but I love that I can wake up, go downstairs in the studio and work on something in my comfort zone, then wake up the next day to work on a jazz record, and wake up the next day to work on an electronic record. As long as they all work and if it’s for an album the music is cohesive in a sequential order, then that’s just what it is.
It’s funny when you talk to people who aren’t really deep into music and they’ll want to ask “What kind of music and genre do you fit into?” It’s just good music, I always say there’s two genres of music, good or not so good, something you feel or something you don’t feel. As long as you feel it, that’s all you need to know.
All of the preliminary talk has said you guys have stepped it up considerably with ManMade where fans were already blown away by SunStorm. How would you say you’ve grown and progressed with this album?
As I said before, I wasn’t afraid to knock on the doors of different genres. For example “The Train”, I’ve never really done an uptempo almost dance record before. It just came out of me and putting Sy on it was perfect because her last album Fast And Curious was dance oriented and it worked. Being able to fight off barriers and the fact that me and Phonte have a solid formula helped it too, we’re way past the stage of figuring out how someone else works. Now we know it and we can just go in and delve into the music and the creative aspects to make it stellar.
Also, I think not really taking a whole lot of time to admire my work helps because I don’t really listen to SunStorm anymore, I cant tell you the last time I listened to it. It’s about being able to take where you are in your life and put it down in a recorded form. I’m in a totally different space now than I was in 2009-2010 and hopefully I’m able to build on those experiences to make the overall product a little bit better, and I think with this album I have.
Any time I get to travel overseas is a highlight to me [laughs], and when you find out people you admire musically are paying attention to what you’re doing. The other day Sy told me she played the album for Sheila E and that she was loving the record, I was on the phone like “This is crazy”. It’s very humbling, you don’t know who’s listening and sometimes even when doing remakes you hear about the original artist coming up on it and giving you props, that’s the ultimate. You hope you’ve done their song some justice and when they give you props it gets no better than that.
When it’s all said and done, what sort of legacy would you like to have left behind?
I guess musically just being able to inspire people all around the world, whether to make music themselves or to just have a great week behind your music. That’s really what you wanted to do, you wanted to touch people positively and on the flip ultimately I want to work with more youth, I think a lot of them need direction towards live instrumentation. We’ve become a touch screen, button pushing society, getting them used to the hard work of the practice and the repetition that goes into learning instruments, I think that’s important at a young age to learn responsibility and to show off your talent. To see how it makes them feel is an ultimate accomplishment, almost like a proud father type of moment.