If You Want To Produce, Produce—An Interview With Arthur McArthur

By Michael Vettese

I’m waiting for Arthur McArthur in front of St. Lawrence market on a brisk Sunday afternoon. My eyes are peeled for a guy with a bushy beard, which is about the only thing I could decipher about him from the one picture I could find on Google, but there are no bearded guys in sight. I check his text once again to make sure I’m standing in the right spot. Seems like it. His number has a 310 area code; what city is that — New York maybe? I look up from my phone and see a guy with a black Canada Goose jacket, a green toque, black Nike runners, and a thick beard coming my way – it’s Arthur McArthur.

McArthur is a born-and-bred Toronto hip hop producer. He’s twenty-five years old, but has already been in the game for five years. His career took off with the track “Uptown” on Drake’s seminal mixtape So Far Gone. As far I know, it’s the only song that samples Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, and after “Best I Ever Had”, it’s the most infectious track off the mixtape. Featuring heavy hitters Lil Wayne and Bun B, it was a huge break for the young producer. He was twenty and still in school when So Far Gone dropped. “After ‘Uptown’, I was like, ‘I’m gonna make hip hop my job’.”

I ask him about the area code, and he explains that 310 is L.A., a place “you practically need to be in if you want to make it in this industry.” He’s part of a legion of Canadian émigrés in the post-Thank Me Later era who are finally being given the opportunity to show their chops after a seemingly endless period of disregard for Canadian hip hop. Before Drake (B.D. let’s call it), “a producer in Toronto might be working his craft for four, five years without any recognition, no money, because we were just so far from the center of the industry.” The situation has changed dramatically in recent years, and most of McArthur’s friends in L.A. are actually Canadian.

You cannot mistake McArthur’s success as the result of Canada’s most famous rapper, though. It’s still a long road between Canadians and the meccas of hip hop, such as Los Angeles and New York. The situation isn’t much different from the NBA, where a small number of Canadians have achieved massive success (Steve Nash as an analog to Drake), but the vast majority remains American. So while he’s living the dream in L.A., he achieved that by virtue of his talent.

One might say that the dearth of recognition for hip hop in Toronto created an environment based on skill and capability. “Look, in Atlanta you might be making beats for a year, and if one of them gets picked up by a hot artist and gets airplay, you could make $750,000 and just get lazy. That would never happen here, there just aren’t as many opportunities. So in Toronto, we had to be better than everyone else in order to get recognized.” McArthur rose to the top of a small core of highly creative producers to get to where he is now. Consider that Toronto has spawned producers like Boi-1da (who has worked with Nas, Kanye, and Talib Kweli, among others), and most recently WondaGurl, the seventeen-year old phenom who produced “Crown” on Magna Carta…Holy Grail), it’s clear Toronto is punching above its weight.

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Talking with McArthur, a few things are plain to see: he’s an intelligent guy, he’s humble, and he’s grateful for the exposure he’s attained at such a young age. His background isn’t what you would call typical of those in hip hop, though. “My family is really artistic, and I actually went to UCC on a full-scholarship for academics.” Was there a hip hop scene there?  “Not really, except for me and friend Rohan, we really got into Wu[-Tang Clan]. 36 Chambers but especially The W. It just represented a rebelliousness that we really identified with.” He also studied RCM piano while growing up. “I think I got up to Grade 10, and then I started smoking pot,” he says with a laugh. “That didn’t mesh so well with piano. I was showing up to my lessons and forgetting my pieces. I’m pretty sure she knew I was high. There was no hiding the smell of that dank.”

That formal musical training proved to be important though, giving him a musical advantage over his peers. “I would strongly recommend any up-and-coming producer to take piano lessons. Just to know chord progressions and how to improvise are really key. Not even from a creativity standpoint, but from a workflow standpoint. Instead of taking three minutes to work out a chord progression it might take you ten seconds if you’ve taken some piano lessons.”

I ask him if he has any advice for people who want to get into producing. “I had a buddy hit me up the other day, telling me he wants to become a producer and was asking me how. I told him just start. If you want to produce, then produce. After high school, I spent a year to focus on producing. The timing wasn’t right, and it took a couple of years to achieve some kind of success, but that was an important decision to make. I didn’t know what I was doing at first, but I got better by doing that. My first beats were not that good compared to a lot of people. I mean, I was playing people my beats, and they were just not it. But I always thought my beats were ready for Jay-Z, you know. That’s just the relationship I’ve always had with my music, and you kind of need that confidence. People also worry about getting the right equipment, but honestly, don’t worry about that. All I had was a laptop with a copy of Fruity Loops and a MIDI controller, and that’s basically what I still use today.  And it’s great that hip-hop is growing in Toronto. We have competitions like Battle of the Beatmakers, we have the Mixtape Project, we have people writing articles about it. Thankfully, we’re in a metropolitan city where you have a shot at blowing up.”

After “Uptown”, McArthur was behind a number of sleeper hits in 2011 and 2012, appearing on Big Sean’s Finally Famous and Rick Ross’s Rich Forever mixtape. He’s hit a new gear in 2013 , with tracks on Chris Brown’s X, Pusha T’s Wrath of Caine mixtape, and even Lonely Island’s The Wack Album. The scary thing is that the year’s success might not be over yet. “I plan on finishing 2013 strong. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve”, he says with a sly smile.

This article appeared in Demo‘s January 2014 print issue.

Michael Vettese is in his final year of a double major in German and Biology. He currently splits his time between studying, playing basketball at Hart House, and reading German rap magazines. He enjoys performing on stage, such as stand-up and theatre, but is still recovering from the trauma of his last hip hop karaoke performance, in which he forgot the words. He plans to come back strong with a rendition of Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”

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