Canadian super-producer Frank Dukes on working with 50 Cent, Drake and Camila Cabello

Toronto's Frank Dukes is one of the busiest and most successful producers making music today. He joined us to talk about working on big hits, his innovative sample music library and more.
Canadian producer Frank Dukes is the go-to music producer for superstars looking for a hit. (Jordan Dashner)

Toronto's Frank Dukes is one of the busiest and most successful producers making music today. In the past few years, he's produced and written songs for Drake, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Lorde, Camila Cabello and many more iconic artists making music right now.

Dukes is revolutionizing the way that music is made and he's doing it all with samples — layering styles and sounds, and mixing influences to create original beats and compositions — but he's also taking it a step further by making high-quality samples easily accessible to anyone who wants them.

Recently, Dukes brought his passion for sampling to a new generation of young artists with a project called the Kingsway Music Library, which helps remove the hurdles associated with clearing the sampled music.

He joined q's Tom Power to tell us more about his innovative sample music library, working on big hits with 50 Cent, Drake and Cabello, and his latest project — a collaboration with Toronto's Regent Park School of Music, called Parkscapes and available through Kingsway Music Library.

Here's part of that conversation.

What is the Kingsway Music Library and what does it allow artists to do?

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The Kingsway Music Library is really a collection of ideas. I was in a phase of my career, in my life, where I just got really into the idea of creating music for myself to sample. I amassed this huge body of ideas and samples and I'd started giving them to a few of my producer friends. So, at the beginning, I was giving stuff to Boi-1da and Vinylz, and 1da would take my stuff, flip it like a sample and make a beat out of it. And out of that came my first really big hit, which was Drake's 0 to 100 / The Catch Up. 

The Kingsway Music Library was sort of a byproduct of all the creation I was doing. As creators, we kind of just create blindly sometimes and I couldn't physically see every idea through, so I created this ecosystem where I made the ideas available to people to download, to sample and to put their own twist on it.

You were nominated for a Grammy for Drake's 0 to 100 / The Catch Up in 2014. Just give us an idea of how it goes from a sample to that track.

I think when I created that, I was kind of just creating a bunch of ideas with no idea in particular. My friend Chester Hansen, who's in the band BADBADNOTGOOD, played bass and organ on that one. We just created it in that moment and it wasn't specifically for anyone, but Boi-1da had hit me up maybe a few days after we created it looking for something to mess with. I sent it to him, he looped it up the way he looped it up and added a beat to it. A few weeks later he was like, "Drake recorded this crazy song to it. He wants to drop it soon." And it all happened really quickly. I think maybe two or three weeks later, the song was out and it became this big thing. It was really the first huge song I was a part of.

What kind of stuff did you listen to when you were growing up in Thornhill, Ont.?

I grew up on a lot of different stuff. I love Nirvana, Weezer and a lot of pop punk stuff — Blink-182, I loved. I was into skateboarding, so through skating I kind of got into hip hop by discovering it through skate videos. So my perspective on music is really varied. When I go back and listen to some of the stuff I loved growing up, like Weezer, I realise how much that developed my ear for a great melody or just those feel-good moments. Nirvana, Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins, all those bands, at their core, are just really incredible pop music and I think a lot of that stuff has deeply affected the way I approach music.

Warning: Strong language.

Back in 2009 or 2010 you sent 50 Cent a beat, which became the song Hold On. How much of a surprise was it when it turned up on his 2014 album Animal Ambition?

I haven't heard this song in so long, it's like I almost forgot I made it. I think I sent him the beat almost 10 years ago. I think it kind of shows that if you create music without following a trend, it doesn't really date itself. I have music that comes out now that I made three years ago, and I think a lot of it is just that I'm following my own intuition and not necessarily what's going on currently in music.

You also worked really closely with Camila Cabello on her big breakout single Havana from 2018. I understand this song was a product of months of work and many different versions. What can you tell me about putting this song together?

That song started as just a little piano beat that I had made at home. I titled it, Nights in Havana. Camila and I had worked a few times prior to that, but we talked a lot about who she was as an artist and how she wanted to present herself to the world.

It's really interesting. The first day we met, that evening Trump had been nominated into office. The next day at work was just dark, it was a heavy day and we were in New York at the time. Part of the conversation was just about her being a young, female, Cuban-American, and how important it is for her to really represent her heritage and do something that's honest to her.

With her being a new artist, I felt it was important that she created something singular that only she could do. So that was an idea that I specifically created for her. I made the beat in maybe 10 minutes — the song took a lot longer. In a writing session, we had come up with the hook idea. We didn't think too much of it at the time and then the next day, I was listening through everything we did, and I was like, "This song is insane. This feels like a really important song for her."

We didn't have verses at that point and we had spent the next five months or so rewriting different verses. We knew we were working toward something really big. Then we'd spent three days with Pharrell, writing for Camila's album, and we'd created a bunch of music. It was in the last hour of the last day where we kind of had nothing to do. So we said to Pharrell, "Hey, we have this song that we really love. We think the hook is really special. We'd love to just get your ears on it or hear your perspective if you have any ideas for the verse." We play the song and literally the first thing that comes out of Pharrell's mouth is the verse that you hear on the song today. So we just followed our intuition on that song until we knew what felt right.

You did this project with the Regent Park School of Music, a community music school in a high priority neighbourhood in Toronto, that provides a subsidised music program to its students. Just tell me a little about what you do with the students there.

My friend Rana works at an advertising agency, and every year they do some pro bono work, and I know him from collecting records. He's a huge record nerd, just like me, and he said, "Hey, I got this idea. One of my friends runs the music program at the Regent Park School of Music, and what if you were to do something with them, where you bring in the kids and play on a music library?" I love that idea. You know, kids play every instrument, from harp to steel pan to guitar, and whatever. … So we made it, and the proceeds from the sales, the retail sales of the library, go to fund the school, but then beyond that, when it gets sampled, money from sample clearances and the royalties, which can be long standing and pretty significant over time, would go and sustain the program. So it became this really amazing thing.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Frank Dukes, download our podcast or click 'Listen' near the top of this page. You can also check out Parkscapes, Dukes' collaboration with the Regent Park School of Music. 

— Produced by Cora Nijhawan

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