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I had the pleasure of catching up with two of my favorite producers at the moment, Brian Warfield and Mac Robinson. These are the guys who make up the Grammy nominated production duo, The Fisticuffs. They’re also the talented musicians behind the sound of R&B superstars, Miguel & Jhene Aiko. See what they had to say about their influences, their beginnings, their success, upcoming projects with Miguel & Jhene Aiko, and what they look for when working with new talent. Take it in.
A&R Report: Can you tell us about the origins of Fisticuffs? How did you guys become the production duo you are today?
Fisticuffs: We’ve known each other since high school. We were both in the band and both continued doing music after school. We hooked back up a few years later, made a beat together for fun, started doing it more often and next thing you know, we combined studio equipment and started working together and formed Fisticuffs.
A&R Report: Can you let us in on the production process? Is it completely collaborative or do the two of you specialize in different aspects of the song production, whether it be melodies, 808s, etc.?
Fisticuffs: Mac plays Guitar and bass and Brian plays trumpet. Aside from that, we both program drums, play keys, and add elements to our tracks. There is no set way of starting a track with us. Sometimes the artist comes with an idea or accapella for us to build around. Sometimes one of us will have a beat started that the other will touch up on, or sometimes we start together from scratch. Main thing is we always make sure both of us are happy with the final project before we consider it finished.
A&R Report: I like your Twitter bio, “Pretty chords, grimey sounds and 808s. Grammy nominated production duo… Making our parents proud.” R&B Grime seems to be your unique sound. Describe “grimey” sounds. I get it and feel it, but others may not.
Fisticuffs: It’s more so the contrast of pretty sounds to dirty sounds. We love using nice melodic chord changes but we’ll throw a booming 808 in the track to offset the prettiness. Or we’ll have some nice soothing keys or bells in a track on top of some dirty drums with a touch of distorted guitar in the chorus. We cant ever have anything to clean or pretty. All our stuff needs a little “grime” and grunge to it. Just like us.
A&R Report: Your most notable work has been with Miguel and Jhene Aiko. How did those working relationships come about?
Fisticuffs: We’ve been with both artists from the beginning and its incredible to see them take off and become the stars they are today. A lot of time and hard work was put in and its great to see it pay off. We’ve known Miguel since he was about 16. He would come by, vibe out, and cut records with us at our studio. At the time, Myspace was huge so we took our songs and put them on our pages. Songs began to spread, one thing led to another and about a year or so later, Miguel got his deal with Jive records. As for Jhene, it was pretty similar. We worked and cut records at our spot, released an all original mixtape and a few months after that, she had her deal with Def Jam records.
A&R Report: Describe the atmosphere, mood, energy in the studio while working with these special artists.
Fisticuffs: Magical. They are both very creative and talented, but overall, they’re good people at heart so it always makes working with them a pleasure. No egos, no attitude. Just positive, creative vibes. Even tho we’re all good friends, we’re still big fans of both of them and its always a great feeling listening back to a song we just finished.
A&R Report: What artists and producers did you look up to growing up? Or who had the biggest influence on your sound?
Fisticuffs: There’s probably too many artists to name between the both of us but we’re influenced by a lot of different genres of music. Our parents have a lot to do with that. Brian’s dad was a big jazz listener who always had music playing in the house. He also constantly played oldies, funk and soul records. Mac’s mom was constantly listening and exposing Mac to dance, pop, electro and rock music. But Mac and Brian both had a love for hiphop and R&B music growing up. I’d say the mix of music and genres helped expand our sound and helped form Fisticuffs into the producers we are today.
A&R Report: We’re all anticipating Jhene Aiko’s full length label debut “Souled Out” due out in May. What can we expect from J. Hennessy on this one?
Fisticuffs: Expect more great music! Expect more soothing Jhene vocals, more catchy melodies and more tracks that knock! She’s just staying true to herself, writing songs that come from the heart and we’re doing tracks to complement what she’s talking about and going through. We’re always trying to paint the picture and keep everything sounding as timeless as possible. We want girls to love it and guys to feel ok with riding around bumping it in their cars. That’s where that “knock” comes into play.
A&R Report: How’s Miguel’s project coming along?
Fisticuffs: It’s coming along great. Miguel is always evolving. Expect this album to be a little more grungy, fun and up tempo. His vocals, melodies and song writing is always top notch. Cant wait for everyone to check it out once it drops.
A&R Report: Speaking of Miguel, did you guys anticipate the crazy success and acclaim Kaleidoscope Dreams received? I’m sure you all knew you had something special there.
Fisticuffs: We always knew there was something special with every album he worked on. It was always more so hoping it had the right outlets for it to be heard. We’re glad he was able to get the right looks and push to get him out there to an even broader audience. Miguel is only gonna get bigger and he’s gonna be one of those artists who keeps evolving and will be around for as long as he wants to put out music.
A&R Report: What’s your dream collaboration?
Fisticuffs: Another one of those hard questions [Laughs]. I’d say our dream collaboration is with that one kid who has a great, distinct voice who is writing incredible songs in his/her bedroom and is unknown. We love developing talent from the ground up once we see there’s a star quality already there. Its much more gratifying to see someone come up and make it from nothing instead of working with someone already on top of their game. But don’t get me wrong, were fans of many artists so were always down to create and experiment.
A&R Report: What do you guys look for in a new artist?
Fisticuffs: The whole package. First, we look for a distinct voice. That’s very important. People need to hear the first 5 seconds of a record and know who it is. Second, the “it” factor. They need to walk into a room and have something different about them than the average person. Not everyone is meant to be a star or an artist. When certain people walk into a room, you know there’s something special there. Third is song writing ability. Can they write good songs and have their own opinion about things. We need them to have their own identity. Not trying to build an album with 10 different writers submitting different sounding sounds. And last, it doesn’t hurt if they’re pleasing to the eye. Don’t ask me why. People want to look at someone good looking when hearing songs about love and things of that nature.
A&R Report: Lastly, what does the future hold for The Fisticuffs? What are you looking to accomplish?
Fisticuffs: Hopefully the future is bright. We believe in ourselves and the more we work and have songs out there, the more people are starting to see, realize and understand what we’re doing. We’re growing from project to project and more and more people are starting to recognize us from our work. We just hope to continue to make timeless music people will continue to love. Music is very powerful and there have been many times people have come up to us and told us about how a certain song got them through a rough time in their life. Or how they listen to a certain song everyday because they enjoy it that much. It’s crazy how something we create can have that much of an affect on someone. We just want to leave a positive footprint in the music industry and have a career we can look back on and be proud of… I think we’re off to a great start.