2016 saw the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange (obviously), dominate in ways Matthew and Tina probably never imagined. With 2016’s Lemonade and A Seat At The Table, they became the first sisters to achieve number one albums on the Billboard 200 in the same calendar year, both creating era-defining visual and aural masterpieces that expertly merged the political (Beyoncé sinking into the water on top of a police car in the Formation video has to be one of 2016’s strongest images) and the unflinchingly personal.
To celebrate the Knowles sister’s achievements we spoke to four of their collaborators – MNEK, MeLo-X, Olugbenga Adelekan and Patrick Wimberly – about crafting 2016’s two defining albums.
Singer/Songwriter/Producer. Co-wrote Hold Up on Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
When did you first meet Beyoncé?I met her in 2015 in LA. So I kept it a secret for a year! Though Clara Amfo and Nick Grimshaw tried to out me on the radio. I went over to her house, to her studio, and she played me the chorus of Hold Up and asked if I wanted to try something on it. I went back to London and I literally wrote a song and then sent it to her. Then, like a jigsaw puzzle, she took the bit she thought was dope and decided that was the middle eight.
Had she heard your stuff already at that point?
Basically it was Big Jon were brought into the process about midway through the album and we made that track at Westlake, which is where Michael Jackson recorded his albums. Beyoncé heard it and liked it and we just kept adding to it.
One of the keys things on Yoncé-X was the way you chopped up the vocals to create layers and that’s used a lot on Sorry – is that something you naturally bring to songs you work on?
Yeah, that’s some of the weird shit that I guess she gravitated towards. She did tell me once specifically that she liked how I constructed her voice and pitched it down or chopped it up whenever I wanted to. I guess when it came to make something original I kept that same approach.
That song seems to represent the album’s lack of respect to genre in a way – it’s unclassifiable isn’t it?
It’s basically just a vibe track. When I work with different artists I like to approach the direction from a place of trying to find something new, so from the music I’d heard on the album already I hadn’t heard anything like that in terms of feel and energy. It’s contemporary, it has a dancehall beat but it’s also trappy in a way, and it’s a cool tempo to dance to. It just came naturally.
What was Hit-Boy’s role with that song?
Midway through we had the song pretty much there already and then it was more him adding some parts here and there and adding in the end part. If you listen there are a whole bunch of sounds that only appear once, so sounds that only happen on the left side or the right side as you listen.
Do you remember who came up with the “Becky with the good hair” line?
I’m not quite sure with that.
What did you make of all the speculation as to who it was about?
I think anything B does falls into the meme territory and so the first time I heard that line I knew it would be something people latched onto.
With both Hold Up and Sorry are there parts that you’re most proud of when you hear them back?
With Hold Up I just remember waking up early in the hotel and listening to old Bob Marley live recordings and then writing a verse idea and doing some harmonies. It was done from a very innocent place – it wasn’t like I tried to prepare myself to write this big record, it was more about writing some cool shit and doing some harmonies. I think that’s what drew her to what I’d done, because it had a flow to it that made sense.
What was the general vibe in the studio like?
It’s cool man, she’s Beyoncé. The fact that she listens to my direction is cool. She definitely gave me directions but she’s down to take direction when it comes to certain ideas I had.
Are there any other songs you worked on that haven’t been released yet?
With every artist album there are also a bunch of tracks that don’t make the album. There’s definitely b-sides and rough cuts and unreleased stuff, so maybe you’ll hear that, maybe you won’t.
If you could email them over that would be great
(Laughs) I’ll email you some blank audio files with the bee emoji.
Songwriter/Producer/one half of Chairlift. Co-wrote and co-produced Don’t Touch My Hair, Where Do We Go and Scales on Solange’s A Seat At The Table.
How did you first meet Solange?
We met at SXSW in 2008. She introduced herself after one of the Chairlift shows that weekend. We’ve been friends ever since.
How did the idea of collaborating on A Seat At The Table come about?
I wanted to work with her ever since we first met. We have so much in common when it comes to music and values. I’d learn a lot from her every time we’d hang out. She turned me onto some of my favourite records. The first time I worked with her was right after her album True came out. I played drums and did some programming for her live show. We got closer during that period and developed a lot of mutual trust and respect for each other. It seemed natural that we would come together for her next record.
Given that your good friends were you nervous at all about working together? Or is that how you prefer to work – with mates?
I always do much better work with someone once I’ve established some sort of friendship with them. In this case, we had years behind us as friends, so once we started working on this, things started coming together really fast. I’ve been in many situations where I’m going into the studio with someone I barely just met and it always takes time to find the common ties that make the collaboration important to do. Solange and I already knew what those things were.
Where did you go to record?
The first sessions I did on this album were out in Long Island. I forget what town it was but there was an alpaca farm right behind us! She rented a house, some gear and turned the screened-in porch area into a studio. I brought a bunch of my gear up there, too. About a year later we did a similar thing in New Orleans. But, there was no alpaca farm…
Did the songs you worked on come out of jam sessions, or were they more fully formed songs?
The first sessions in Long Island songs were coming from impromptu moments. I’m avoiding the term jam sessions because they weren’t like traditional jam sessions. It was more like producers jamming. And there was no rhyme or reason to who could do what on what instrument. I’m really thinking of Don’t Touch My Hair and how it came together. That was when Sampha, Solange, Bryndon (Starchild) and I were working together. We’d talk for a bit and Solange would start describing a mood. And then we’d all dive into some ideas for the production. Solange would get melodies in there very early which would really guide the direction. Sometimes she’d come up with chords and beats too. All of the songs came together in different ways, but yes, there’s was usually some element of jamming in the beginning.
Were there any songs you worked on that didn’t make the album?
We made some really great stuff that didn’t quite work on the album in the end. That’s always a sign that you’re making a truly great album – even the outtakes are amazing.
What was your role on Don’t Touch My Hair, specifically?
This was maybe the first thing we did together for the album and it was when I learned what kind of record she wanted make. I started with some 808 programming on the MPC and Sampha started playing those amazing chords. Then everybody started getting ideas really fast. I added some more MPC drums and a bass line. Bryndon and Sampha wrote two more bass parts that overlapped on top of the part I wrote. So there was as many as three basses playing at a time, which I love. Who needs guitar anyway? There’s this siren sounding synth part that I played that night and that sound ended making it on a bunch of other tracks on the album, too. Solange wrote pretty much all the melodies right then and came up with the words ‘don’t touch my hair.’ I was the only white dude in the room that night. I didn’t even know that that was a thing. They all told me stories of being young and having to deal with that question, “can I touch your hair?” I learned that night that no matter how sensitive I am, I can always be more sensitive. Being trustworthy is important because it allows you to be part of the conversation. Then, just listening is even more important.
You’re part of a small group of people that have worked with both Knowles sisters – in what way are they similar in terms of how they work?
Ha! I hadn’t really thought about that. Tough question, too. I had very different experiences working with them. Without saying too much, they’re both just really fucking good. They’re as good as their albums would lead you to believe.