In 2009, Jay-Z tried to put an end to a trend that had been bubbling up in hip-hop over the previous few years. He failed.
Hova’s song “D.O.A. (Death of AutoTune)” may have sparked some conversation, but it did nothing to quell enthusiasm for the fluttery vocal effect. Instead, one of the most influential rappers of all time had to stand idly by while the music industry and its fans declined to agree with him. The influence of T-Pain, who innovated and popularized AutoTune to the point where it became known as The T-Pain Effect, won out and spread to nearly every other genre of music. It was a mixed victory, though, because as the sound benefitted more and more people, it benefitted T-Pain less. But T-Pain has been confounding detractors since he first blazed a trail through the radio soundscape 10 years ago, and he’s proven to be as resilient as the controversial effect he pioneered.
There was a time when it seemed as though artists weren’t legally allowed to put out an album unless T-Pain featured on at least one track. Not on the deep cuts either, but the singles. Including those along with his own hits, T-Pain managed to accrue 60 top ten singles over the years–especially impressive considering that many of those happened during the period where he constantly wore a series of enormous top hats. All told, he sold 16 million albums worldwide, and then watched the effect he’d made his own become more associated with the next wave of musicians that included Future, Fetty Wap, and Young Thug. It was about this time that he started showing up less on other people’s albums.
A few years after 2011’s RevolveR, the rapper-turned-singer swore off his namesake vocal implement for a while. He performed for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series, just his naked voice and a spare keyboard, silencing anyone who thought AutoTune was a crutch and not a stylistic choice. The video went viral and reignited interest in the hook-slinger. T-Pain followed this appearance up with a stunning 42-song set at SXSW this past March, the Iron Way mixtape, and the promise of a new album. Oh, and he started using AutoTune again.
“It just didn’t feel fair, you know?” T-Pain said, when I asked about this decision. “I always felt like, why should I stop? Everybody else should be stopping. What the hell? It felt like I was kicking myself out of something I brought to the rest of the world, like I’m not the one who should be leaving that. I just came to my senses, pretty much.”
With a lot of new T-Pain music on the way, fans who may have strayed are about to come to their senses too. As he gears up to release his fifth album, Stoicville, in 2016, and celbrates the 10th anniversary of his debut, the artist stopped by Fast Company HQ to talk coming up with hooks, making beats by chattering his teeth, and keeping it creative in the studio.
“I work a lot in the late evening—probably because that’s when I’m waking up from the previous night. I don’t like doing anything in the morning, I feel like things can get done later in the day. There’s still time, and evening is my time. Nobody in this industry wakes up that early anyway. The studio in my house is my favorite place to work because anywhere else you gotta get dressed, you gotta have pants on and shit. I don’t wanna do that. That’s crazy. I get to be around the kids, I get to see my wife whenever I feel like it. And If I decide I don’t want to work, I’m not wasting money paying for studio time, hourly. If I need to go watch Cartoon Network for a little while until I feel inspired, it costs nothing to do that in my house.”
“Sometimes when I’m making beats, I mess around with equipment. Most of the time, it’s just me chattering my teeth. It’s weird because I make full on drumbeats with my teeth and they sound nothing like I wanted them to when I do go to the board. So it’s difficult to translate but I do get a general idea of what it is. My go-to beat idea maker is my teeth. I get a little knee-slapping in sometimes too. If I do that, I’ll sample it on my iPad and then import that into my computer and it turns into something. Other times, it’s just found sound. I’ll need a kick drum that sounds like a trashcan and I’ll find a trashcan and just record me kicking it. Everybody is buying the same stuff, so I try to create different sounds. I’ve taken master classes on sound design and stuff like that, but I’m just trying to do my own thing.”
“The hook just kinda comes out. I would say it’s freestyle but it’s not. Freestyle is when you’re just trying to be creative; this is just what the song makes you feel like from the moment. Then people can feel it all the time. Any time I play a beat back that first time, it makes me feel a certain way. And that feeling right there is what you go with and that’s what you put down. You don’t write it down, just go in the booth. If it makes you feel like that, say something about it. Sometimes it’s just, like, bum bum bum daba ding bing dum bum bing bumm bing badaleeep. If it doesn’t rhyme, come back, find that later—but get the feeling right then. That is the feeling that people are gonna get when they hear the song the first time. One time the verses were done, but there was no hook and I literally went into the studio and just started doing ad-libs, like What? Enough! Oh! Da da dada. And then I laid stuff over that and it just got bigger and bigger and ‘All I Do Is Win’ came out of it.”
“Some things I can be lazy about. If I can’t find the right sound within three minutes, maybe it’s not happening. If it’s something like finding the right wind chime, it might just be a random one that’s the right one. Whatever, it’s a wind chime. I’m not gonna dive too deep into it. But if there’s anything that’s more important to me than others, it’s the last line of the hook. I’ll work on that. That’s the punch line. Sometimes that one last line is actually the title of the song, sometimes not, but you gotta have it hit. I think that’s more important than any other part of the song to me. That’s what the song is about and then there it is. That’s what people are singing along to. That’s what makes the song complete.”