words by Jake Heinitz
photography by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Zoe Prinds-Flash
Doc McKinney hates interviews. If you take a second to search the Internet, you will come up empty-handed. This is not something you’d expect from a Grammy award-winning producer that has been pivotal in shaping the sounds of artists like Santigold and The Weeknd. Around the time I was planning what was to be the first issue of this publication, Doc and I were introduced through a mutual friend. I explained what I wanted Greenroom to be, which was independent and rooted in the Midwest. My mission resonated with the Minnesota-bred punk rocker that had been turning down interview requests from prominent magazines for years for fear of being misrepresented, so he agreed to meet with me at a diner in the small St. Paul neighborhood where he grew up. Weeks later, I traveled to meet Doc in his current hometown of Toronto. After a few days spent in his studio watching him work, I began to reflect on the fact that producers rarely get the spotlight, let alone have the opportunity to speak for themselves. With that said, I knew his story would be best told without a competing voice. So here you have the story of Doc McKinney, in his own words.
"I started playing when I was 13, 14 was my first tour. Our tour sucked. We got to New York and realized it was a bust so we stayed at a house with these groups called Agent Orange and The Mentors for like a week, squatting Lower East Side trying to figure out dates. I was the baby of the group, not that I didn’t drive, but you're talking about a brown Econovan with a U-Haul in the back, trying to make it happen through New York City. It was funny because we were just kids wild’n out so a lot of that shit is just specks of memories. I remembered getting so trashed in New York and doing so many drugs it was ridiculous. I started doing acid when I was 12, 13. That was my first real experience.
I didn’t grow up in downtown Minneapolis, I grew up in Saint Paul, around Highland Park. Prince was massive here, but it was also the home of big future grunge shit. The Replacements, Husker Du, etc., and that was very anti-establishment, so by the time I was actually making music, a lot of [Prince] was establishment. I've always been like, "Oh, everyone’s doing that? Hell no, I'm going the other way." That’s just my nature and it made me miss out on a lot of stuff, like classic rock. I thought it was fuckin’ horrible. Being what people would call "hipster" now, coupled with skate culture, punk was so much more exciting and cutting edge. Being punk rock, it didn’t matter who or what I was, they wanted to beat my ass because I was on a skateboard and had a pink mohawk, which was kind of cool.
One thing that was consistent in Minnesota was that it wasn't uncommon for any black person to be playing guitar, because Prince was here. This is where I learned everything, like "I can do punk rock and funk, and not get a brick thrown at my head?" But when you’re a mixed kid playing punk rock, the black kids would come up and be like, "you know you're black, right?" Then the white kids would be like, "no disrespect but I have this black joke." At the time, it wasn't a problem, because Minneapolis was so progressive, and punk rock was new there. In a lot of ways it was just people just telling me I didn’t know myself, but I had so much support around me for what I was doing, that I never really got hung up on shit like that.
After high school, I tried going to college. I didn't really have a path; I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I ended up going to a recording school for a couple weeks, and the teacher asked me why I was doing it, because I had been recording for so long already. Then the same guy was like, "You should interview with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis." When I went to go interview at Flyte Tyme, I didn't get the job. They were like, "What do you want to do?" I told them, "I want to be a Producer." They're like, "Wrong answer, we're looking for an Assistant Engineer that wants to be a Head Engineer, not one of our jobs." It's like you trying to hand off your demo tape to Janet Jackson.
So I was like, "Damn, what am I gonna do?" Then just by chance, things happened where I got to go see Toronto and was like, "Damn this is amazing." That was ‘94. I was 22. There wasn’t really anything left to do in Minnesota, unless I was in Prince's band or working for Jimmy and Terry; it seemed like a dead-end. I felt stifled, and needed to get out and see the world.
I had been in Toronto for a couple years when I met Esthero through Michael McCarty [then President of Publishing at EMI] and when I did, I was doing more acid jazz and hip-hop shit. She had a manager at the time that said they didn’t even need to hear her sing because she ‘just had such a great personality’, and he had heard my demo and really wanted her to work with me. It was really no different from a boy-band, corporate put-together thing. When we dropped the project in ‘98, Portishead and Massive Attack were already kind of at their peak making the Esthero record more influential to Soul and R&B, in the States, than trip-hop. That’s why I believe Ali [Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest] and Raphael [Saadiq], who I consider to be titans in hip-hop and R&B, were the first to reach out to me.
I first met Santigold through the Esthero record. She was writing for this artist named Res, who was on her way to getting a deal, and wanted me to produce her record. Santi and I bonded over our love for Bad Brains and all this other alternative culture for black folks, so from there we just became really good friends. That’s typically how I work. I don't go out looking for artists, its very organic. The Res album was basically Santi [gold] and I being a band; our creative vision. Working with new artists, there's a lot more room for me to be creative. I definitely have a lot of ideas and like to be involved in every aspect. I like dreaming with the people I collaborate with. More than A&R [Artists & Repertoire], I'm an artist. I collaborate on every aspect with the artists I work with, at least in the beginning stages. For me it was literally producing. When you're younger, you're hanging out with the people all the time.
A few years later, two of the producers, Henry “Cirkut” Walter, and Adrien "AG" Gough, from a production team that I was mentoring called The Dream Machine, called me and said, "We got this kid, he’s incredible; he’s the next." These guys have good taste. I said "Calm down," but he was like, "No, he is perfect for the stuff you're trying to do." So on January 1st, 2011, I told them to come over and Cirkut, Abel [The Weeknd] and I did the session. Abel had “What You Need”, “Loft Music” and the original recording of “The Morning (screwed)”. That was the stuff he did with Jeremy Rose [Zodiac] and that was all beat-oriented, so when I met him, he was talking about doing things that were more produced. He had a good perspective. We did the session January 1st and then the next day, Abel came back to my studio, and didn’t leave. He and I immediately started doing "House of Balloons." He already had interest from Drake, but Drake was on tour at the time. By the time Drake was off tour, they came to the studio and we already had finished "House of Balloons," "Wicked Games," "Glass Table Girls," "The Morning," etc.
What he definitely wanted to do was have the music speak for itself. We had conversations about big radio DJs requesting the clean versions of songs and Abel was like, “Fuck that, I don’t wanna be the guy that comes out and the big tune is “The Morning” and I'm the guy that sings “The Morning.” He is very good at understanding certain things about pop culture, like a lot of kids now that have grown up on the Internet. Abel is savvy and understands trends, but I don’t think it was intentional. It was more like, "I'm gonna start doing interviews next week" and then it was like, "Who the fuck wants to do interviews?" We had every record label in the country coming through by the time we should have been doing interviews, so by then it was exhausting, and he didn’t want to talk anymore. I always thought this was really cool because he had something to really talk about. He innovated. He was like, "I'm gonna be here tomorrow, I'm gonna be here a year from now, so I don't have to worry about it."
Everything was done at my studio. I sat through rehearsals with Abel. I got them a place to live, everything else like that. In many ways, I was doing the business. They stuck to the script on a lot of things, but inevitably they had their own way of doing it. What people don’t understand about me is that I don’t give a fuck. I grew up punk rock as hell. I squatted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when I was 13, 14. I’ve given up a lot of money by just not giving a fuck. I’m not motivated by money, so the music for me means everything. My main thing is developing artists. Taking them from being like, ‘I got an idea’ and then helping them develop and get to a certain point. Since day one, there is no problem at all. When we wrapped up "Thursday," and were starting "Echoes of Silence," I peaced out, and Illangelo stayed in.
Winning the Grammy for the track with Drake and Abel [“The Ride”] was underwhelming; the Grammy isn’t up in my house or anything like that. If I would have gotten ‘Producer of the Year’, or if it was an album I produced, it would have been different. Coming from where I come [sic], it was never my goal to win a Grammy. Truthfully, right now in music has not been the most exciting time for me. I’m more excited about movements than solo artists. When I come to Minneapolis and I’m like "Wow, Lizzo and Greg Grease actually kick it. I go to an Allan Kingdom session at Ryan Olson’s and P.O.S. just stops by." Everyone knows each other, and has bands with each other. That to me is super exciting, way more than individual artists. Minneapolis has just always been so progressive, and I think now is a really exciting time for the city. It's been that Minneapolis artists are so much making music where the viewer feels like it's made for them, which makes it more compelling. Similar to the first time I listened to Mobb Deep and was like, "Where do these people live?" Same way I felt about the Poliça record. Then you see the artists that are doing well here; actually hanging out with each other, it's cool.
A big part of my thing right now is to re-discover the thrill. Find the inspiration to dream bigger. Shit is all boring to me right now. I like mentoring, I like teaching. I was teaching when I did The Weeknd stuff, at a production school [TARA] and I loved it. It was amazing because I got to share information. Nowadays with people valuing information so much, its hard for them to share it because they're like, "I know the code." The first day Abel came by I was like, "Oh shit you're willing to do that? And this too?" And then it was like, "Yoooo, this is exciting; you’re confident and you have a vision?" Once you’re around that, its a weird thing. Those magical moments are the thrill. For me, when I have that thrill, that’s when I make the best music. It feels more honest. Those things just don’t come by all the time. You can't force it, you just gotta wait for it to come. And you can't be burnt out because you’re too busy working on ten sound-a-likes. You have to leave yourself open to new talent. The more that I go after it, the harder it is to identify it. So I keep it very punk rock; the couch is still very familiar."