Oakland producer Wax Roof doesn't believe in separating his studio life from the rest of his day-to-day. He practices trumpet on his lunch breaks at his day job in an environmental testing lab. Sometimes he wakes up at 3 a.m. to hum a melody he heard in a dream into Voice Memos. And when discussing the standout work he put in on Siri's Gawd Body, Elujay's Jentrify, and Caleborate's 1993, it was easier for him to demonstrate on his piano than to explain verbally.
"[This is] 2016 music vocab broken down into music," he said as he sat down at his piano bench in his East Oakland home.
"When people say, 'That shit's hella fuckin' vibey,' it means it's pretty simple chords and there's usually only two of 'em and they don't have more than four notes in 'em," he said as he played a chiming chord progression.
"Bay shit is like, 'Fuck chords, we're just gonna have a note.'" He played a staccato version of the melody, this time with two notes that were easy to imagine over an 808.
"Jazz is the freedom to break away from pop chords and pop writing." He let his fingers frolic over the keyboard. He lingered over certain phrases, adding pauses and flourishes that threw the melody off balance.
The 29-year-old multi-instrumentalist (whose real name is Will Rice) studied jazz in his hometown at University of California, Santa Cruz. He's proficient at guitar, bass, and synth in addition to piano and trumpet. He can also write choral and string arrangements. Instead of using samples, he mostly records live instruments to give his beats and compositions a "human, natural feel." Artists come to him when they want to make technically impressive, genre-bending work.
That said, Wax Roof doesn't believe in hierarchies and rejects what he sees as jazz-world elitism. "If I'm working with like a violin player or saxophone player or trumpet player and they let it slip to me that they got some kind of condescending attitude towards hip-hop and beatmaking — like it's some kind of simpler form of expression — [they're] not getting a callback."
The producer's keen understanding of both jazz and hip-hop stems from a difficult time in his life. During his first year at UCSC, he found himself debilitated and unable to play instruments due to a chronic pain condition. It was then that he started collecting records, sampling, and using production software. The symptoms have since subsided, but he cites this challenging period as the origin of his current approach.
While Wax Roof's best-known work has a palpably jazzy quality to it, he doesn't want to become known as the "jazzy guy that hip-hop people come and get when they want their shit to sound musical." Jazz samples have been a staple in hip-hop since Souls of Mischief and A Tribe Called Quest, but he consciously resists the tendency to make the kind of backpacker boom-bap that has long saturated the West Coast.
Wax Roof is integrating quality musicianship into hip-hop in novel ways, adding homespun craftsmanship to styles that are often executed in minimalist and digitized ways. He insisted, however, that his preference for analog sounds in his own work is no knock to producers making the kind of pared-down beats the Bay Area is known for.
"Being raised on what's coming out of this area, having the mobby element to it is as important as having the soulful [element]," he said. "Our formula up until now has been beats, rhymes. ... Now what we're getting into is ... beats, rhymes, and what we did with [the] music after the vocal performance — so it's a true accompaniment and not a metronome or backing track."
Wax Roof is becoming one of the most sought-after producers in Oakland's burgeoning underground scene. He co-produced Elujay's standout single "Soulfood," a track with a Seventies feel that juxtaposes warm gospel vocals, sunny guitar with rippling reverb, and contemporary trap hi-hats. He also architected Down 2 Earth's new track "Fair Share," which he built around a distorted electric guitar riff that calls to mind Abbey Road-era Beatles. His emphatic guitar playing lends a bluesy quality to "Gettin' By," Caleborate's meditation on race and class in America. And he was the sole producer of Siri's new EP Gawd Body, which comes alive with a full drum kit and layered arrangements of keys and guitars.
Wax Roof's breadth of skills is coming in handy in an era when rappers and pop artists are opting for earthier, old-school analog sounds. Thanks to the popularity of Dev Hynes' solo work as Blood Orange, guitar solos are back in style. Kanye West incorporated gospel into The Life of Pablo more than he did trap. And Rihanna and Frank Ocean's latest work is quiet and subtle — a far cry from the "Pour It Up" and "Pyramids" of years past.
Wax Roof hypothesized that this shift away from sparse beats towards big, full-fledged instrumentation is just another swing of the pendulum of popular taste, which changes every few decades.
"In the Sixties and Seventies, into the Eighties, they were really fuckin' pushing it on a composition, arrangement, and performance level musically — in every genre," he said. "The writing was getting wild for funk and R&B. Jazz was as technical as it had ever fuckin' been. ... It only makes sense that the conversation would have been steered to beats at some point."
He added that he has production credits on fifteen to twenty releases in the upcoming year — and a lot of them have nothing to do with jazz. But what his work with different artists has in common, he said, is that it's meant to make you dance while stimulating your mind.
"I think in 2016, in our generation, we want the full package. I want to move and be moved."