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This Grammy-Winning Performer's Secrets To Creative Collaboration

Thundercat performed on Kendrick Lamar's critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly. Here's how he makes creativity a team sport.

This Grammy-Winning Performer's Secrets To Creative Collaboration

Thundercat performing at theRed Bull Music Academy public show, Kaléidoscope 1754, on October 20th.

[Photo:Maria Jose Govea/Red Bull Music Academy]

Creative collaboration isn’t as simple as putting a few smart people in the same room.

That's likely why some of the world's biggest tech companies, whose offices are packed with some of the brightest minds, invest significant time and money into building policies, physical spaces, and a workplace culture to foster creative collaboration and innovation.

The Google Garage, for example, was specifically designed to ignite creative collaboration between employees.

Companies like Google understand that everything from managerial relationships to physical office layouts will ultimately dictate whether or not creativity is able to flourish. Whether in technology, business, or music, there are certain elements leaders must consider in order to get the most out of their teams.

That's also the philosophy behind the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, where a group of established musicians is mentoring the next generation of musical talent. Fast Company recently caught up with one of its studio tutors, Grammy award-winning performer, producer, and musician Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, to discuss his work mentoring young creative talent. As a creative force behind Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 chart-topping album To Pimp a Butterfly, Bruner shares five lessons that experience taught him about collaboration.

1. Make Sure Everyone's Roles Are Clear

Whether in a music studio or an office boardroom, Bruner believes that it's important for everyone around the table to arrive with a "knowledgable perspective and understanding" of what they want to achieve, and where each member of the team fits into the equation.

"If you are trying to extract creativity from coworkers in different departments, they need to take the time learn about each other’s roles in the company before starting to collaborate," he says.

Bruner adds that the same is true when putting together a Grammy award-winning album with one of the country’s hottest artists.

"Before working with Kendrick, I made sure I knew as much as I could about his career, his musical strengths, areas that he could explore further and areas I could support," Bruner observes, "all while trying to understand ultimately what kind of album Kendrick would want to end up with."

Thundercat working with three of this year’s Red Bull Academy participants in one of the bedroom studios at Red Bull Music Academy Montreal.[Photo: Dan Wilton/Red Bull Music Academy]

2. Find A Comfortable Environment

Though it may not seem significant on the surface, the physical design and layout of a space can have a big impact on fostering creativity. For example, when working on To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar abandoned his home studio in Los Angeles where he'd been recording for four years, in favor of a new space in New York City "in order to add a different vibe to the creative process," says Bruner.

Bruner believes that physical spaces ultimately dictate creative head spaces, so all aspects of the environment need to be considered. "The fabric of the couch, plants, and natural light all can make a difference," he says.

Like Lamar’s decision to move his recording sessions across the country, Bruner says managers should consider taking the team to a comfortable and creative space offsite. "Boardrooms don’t breed creativity," he adds.

3. Be Hands On, But Not Too Hands On

Though managers need to maintain some level of control, Bruner believes they also need to operate at a comfortable distance in order to allow creativity to flourish.

"As a leader, being hands on in the creative process is a careful balance between being involved enough to make sure everyone has a voice, and being removed enough to make them feel they are in control," he says. "Creativity is very personal. There maybe somebody who is not as comfortable expressing themselves, so you have to let them know there is no judgment in that space."

4. Find A Pace That Works For Everyone

Because of that highly individualistic approach to creativity, Bruner knows that collaborators often work at different speeds, but he suggests that they eventually have to find a pace that works for everyone. He explains that when he began working with Lamar, the rapper worked at an incredibly fast rate, and Bruner had to learn where to jump in and contribute.

"Once I got up to speed it was like 'drafting' in a bike race," he says. "Kendrick was creatively moving so fast that I was able to draft behind him and advance my own creativity."

5. Just Be Patient

Working well with others often requires a period of adjustment, which Bruner believes is an uncomfortable but vital part of the process.

"The first part of a collaboration can be messy, as you don’t always click right away with the person you are working with," he says. "In order to get in step together creatively, you have to be prepared that you could be [in] sync before you achieve."

Though the process can be difficult at first, those initial frustrations eventually give way to a more collaborative environment. "Sometimes creative processes won’t initially match and big ideas won’t come easy," Bruner continues, "but if you provide your team with the tools they need to successfully collaborate, it will happen."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Bruner was a producer of To Pimp a Butterfly. He performed on it as a collaborator, but didn't produce it. We regret the error.

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