Producer Michael Keenan and rapper Skizzy Mars know how to collaborate in the studio. “I’ve worked with Skizzy since the very beginning,” says Keenan when we catch up with the pair. “It’s truly collaborative,” echos Skizzy. “It’s not like, ‘I’m going to send you a beat via email.’ We’re in the studio together.” Over the years, the two have learned from each other’s personalities and honed in on producing a style of hip-hop that’s uplifting, laid-back, and leaves room to show off Skizzy’s vocal dexterity. In a conversation with Output, Keenan and Skizzy detail how they get in the zone by walking us through the creative process for the hard-hitting track “American Dream.”

Switch it up

When producer Michael Keenan and rapper Skizzy Mars began to conceptualize “American Dream,” they envisioned a departure from the brighter, more pop-leaning sounds they’d previously worked on together. Skizzy recalls, “When we first were brainstorming about the track, we wanted to do something that was harder than the stuff I’d done in the past. But also sort of like, minimalistically hard.” 

Output is a regular part of Keenan’s music-making toolkit. And for “American Dream,” he turned to bass engine SUBSTANCE for its weight and presence. He explains how he used SUBSTANCE to discover the foundation of the beat: “I came across this major brass,” he says. “And then the harder one. That was the start of everything, that was the exciting moment where I was like, okay, this could be something cool.”

Trust your collaborator

By the time Skizzy hit the studio for “American Dream,” the song had strong bones. The dueling drum patterns pulled from the Yamaha Motif workstation synthesizer complemented the intensity of the song’s two bass lines. They provided contrast for sounds to bounce fluidly from verse to chorus. This structure from Keenan sparked a moment of inspiration for Skizzy. “When I heard what Mike first played,” he says, “I felt like it was the perfect opportunity for me to really rap.” 

“American Dream” is deeply personal for Skizzy, so his choice to collaborate in the studio with a longtime friend was intentional. “The idea of going into a session with someone you’ve never met before, pouring your heart out through your lyrics, that makes me a little anxious,” he says. “But having someone that I’ve known for a long time, I’m really able to be transparent.“

As Skizzy wrote lyrics, Keenan felt that he needed to add a bit of depth without distracting from the overall vibe. “I pulled up EXHALE,” he explains, “which is usually what I do when I just need something subtle but very cool and interesting to the ear.”

Keep it simple and let the song breathe

EXHALE’s cutting-edge vocal manipulations make another appearance in the bridge. Keenan had already added a subtle piano layer to the chorus with FX to give it a warbled, retro feel. But it still needed more soul. “I went back to the piano with the same chords, just played them a little bit differently with the third chord having a different extension,” He says. Then, “I pulled up the Fem AahWah. I love these names. They really sound like what they are.”

Part of the beauty of this collaboration is how much Skizzy and Keenan agree on the nuts and bolts of the process. While some producers insist on re-recording vocals to get those doubles to hit just right, these two feel that less is more. “Me and Skizzy don’t really like to do a lot of dubs and ad-libs and stuff,” says Keenan. “We like to just send stuff through delays and mess around that way. Keeping things simple and letting those vocals shine is the most important thing. The production is just there as a highlighter.”