Nearing his high school graduation, Zach Perry had a difficult decision to make. As a Bay Area native, he could leave his home state and travel to the Windy City of Chicago to pursue a degree in architecture or he could stay home and study audio engineering. Faced with a tough decision, he made the tough choice of staying home and pursuing a career in music. Luckily, it paid off and we now know him as Ekzakt. In just under a decade, the ascending producer and engineer has worked with everyone from Jamie Foxx to 6LACK. More recently, he shined on the production end of PartyNextDoor‘s “Showing You” off of his new album, PARTYMOBILE. Taking time out of the studio, he chopped it up with Def Pen’s Culture Editor Ryan Shepard about his childhood, working with Tank and what producers he’d like to see battle next on Verzuz.
Ryan Shepard: As a kid, you spent most of your childhood in the Bay Area and Seattle. Growing up in those two cities, how were the music scenes different or similar?
Ekzakt: When I lived in Seattle, I was a kid and I pretty much listened to the music that my mom and the rest of my family listened to. I listened to a lot of oldies, Motown and soul music. My Mom is from Detroit, so I pretty much listened to that with a little classic rock thrown in there. When I came back to the Bay Area for high school, I started getting back into rap. At that point, I think I hadn’t listened to rap music since DMX and early Cash Money stuff. In high school, I got into the North Cali rap scene with Mac Dre, Andre Nikitina and it went from there.
As you got older, what was your introduction into making music like? Did you go in wanting to be an artist and then transition into being a producer or did you always know that you wanted to produce?
I first started to take music seriously as a hobby when I played the guitar and did covers, but I think I always wanted to be a producer. I tried my hand a rapping quickly. Then it became really apparent that that wasn’t what I needed to be doing.
I always wanted to be behind the scenes. My uncle did sound editing for films, so I always had a little taste of the behind the scenes life and seeing his involvement. It was inspiring for me to see that I could be a part of these big songs and productions without having to be the star. I learned that I could be just as integral to the production without being the artist.
“Some things don’t go as fast as you’d like them to, but it doesn’t mean they’re not going to happen.”
After graduating from high school, you had the option to continue your education in Chicago or stay home and go to school while continuing to perfect your craft. You ultimately decided to do the latter. What made you decided to stay home in California instead of going to Chicago?
I was about to graduate and I ended up dropping out and getting my GED because I was having some credit issues in high school. At the time, it was the perfect thing because I didn’t need a diploma. I could attend school there with a GED and I had already been accepted. However, I thought about it and my student loans were going to be somewhere in the $100,000 area. I didn’t need to put myself in debt for something that I was not 100% passionate about.
While you were in college or as a young adult, was there any point in time when you second guessed yourself as a producer? If so, how did you get past that?
There have been a few times when those thoughts have come up. I didn’t have a producer community and I wasn’t tapped into the artists in my area. There was no one around really that also did music and could give me a valuable opinion. At those times when I was faced with adversity, I had to put my nose down to the grindstone and tell myself that I just needed to get better and that I couldn’t stop making beats.
I had to learn to do different things like remaking other producers beats to see if I could execute a sound like that. Doing stuff like that helped me along the way. One of the beats I remade that helped me along the way was “Lollipop” by Lil’ Wayne. I was able to remake it pretty well to my liking. After I did that, I felt like if I could remake a beat like that that I could make a beat like that.
Whenever I feel like I’m doing enough or get discouraged, I look back at what I’ve done. It helps me realize that it is a longer process. Some things don’t go as fast as you’d like them to, but it doesn’t mean they’re not going to happen.
One point of adversity that you overcame occurred out in Los Angeles. When you first started working, you worked out of your basement working with different equipment. Then, you moved and was able to have your studio equipment in your apartment. The one catch was that you couldn’t be in the apartment without the landlord being in the building. Can you talk to me about how that happened and how you were able to work through that?
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had met a producer who had a studio with two rooms in it and was also on a lot with other studios. My roommate, Sean Sauce, and I moved down together and rented a room on the lot. When I moved down there, I thought I had an agreement that I could rent a room from him. As we’re moving all of our stuff in and wrapping up the move-in process, he gives us the keys to the room that Shawn Sauce was renting out and he tells me that he can’t give me the keys to the room I just pull all my stuff in. He told me I can’t get in there because of security issues with the lease or some bullsh*t lie, fabricated story. He just didn’t want me in the studio without him there because he didn’t trust me or whatever it was. We went from a two studio operation in the Bay and immediately got taken down to a one studio operation.
Over the next nine months, we tried to figure it out. Eventually, we had to leave that space. I was out of the country at my cousin’s wedding for 18 days when the producer hit us and said that Sauce and I had to be out of the studio by the end of the month or he’s going to lose his lease too. Luckily for Sean, Empire grabbed him up and now he’s their main engineer in the Bay. They helped me out with his part of the rent until I was able to find a roommate, but ultimately I ended up having to leave and downsize to a much smaller one room studio that I had just to myself. That was an interesting situation that kind of put a damper on my move to L.A. immediately.
When I was preparing for this interview, I realized that you had worked on a song that I remember hearing a few times in high school called “Jelly” with Andre Nickatina and Problem. Early in your career, you developed a bond with artists in your area like Mistah F.A.B and Too $hort. What did you take away from those earlier experiences of working with artists in and around the Bay area?
I met Mistah F.A.B when I was about to graduate from engineering school. We had done one session already that was kind of like a compilation session. A producer in the Bay was doing a compilation session at the time. We had a bunch of the poppin’ rappers in the Bay come through, so it was an amazing networking opportunity.
One day, I was in the studio at my school and I saw on Mistah F.A.B tweet something like, “Who has a lab in the Bay?” From there, I hit him and said, “You met me at this session. Blah, Blah, Blah. I’m out in Bay if you want to come through.” Then, he hit me back and wrote, “Send the address. I’m on the way. I’ll be there in an hour.” After that, I sent out the address and we ended up doing an eight hour session from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. It all went well. Afterward, he hit me and said, “Let me know whenever you’ve got time. I’ll come through.”
For the last five months, I was in my engineering program, F.A.B and I were in the studio probably four or five days a week. We did eight or nine hour sessions from 8 p.m. to 4 or 5 a.m. At that point, I was honing my craft and locking in. By the time I graduated, we had established a rapport and I ended moving the operation to my home studio. Mistah F.A.B is a fixture in the Bay area. By being his in-house guy, I was able to network with a multitude of Bay area artists. We would do a lot of work with P-Lo, Andre Nickatina, etc.
Andre Nickatina is the big homie. He and Mistah F.A.B have been friends for a while, so he started coming around the studio. I grew up in the North Bay listening to Andre Nickatina in high school, so I became a fan then. “Jelly” ended up being the first song I ever produced that ended up being on the radio. It was dope because I had given Andre Nickatina a folder of beats and I wasn’t expecting to get paid or anything. I just wanted my credit. Shoutout to the big homie Andrea Nickatina.
Over the course of your career, it’s been interesting how you’ve been able to cross between genres. Much of the earlier music you worked on was more rap focused and more recently you have worked a lot more with R&B artists. In your experience, what are some of the differences, if any, in working with rappers in the Bay Area on their sound as opposed to working with R&B artists on their sound?
There’s a bunch of differences. Primarily, a lot of rappers that I’ve worked with are coming from an environment where they’re having to do it all themselves. They’re writing and doing everything all by themselves. It requires more engineering. You’re fulfilling their vision and it’s more of a service. A lot of them have a story to tell and they have a good idea of what they want to execute. You’re just kind of there to help them execute their vision.
With R&B, there’s a lot of vocal production from the engineering side. Whereas with the rappers I’ve worked with, they know how they want their bars to come out and your input isn’t really needed necessarily. Whereas with singers, it’s a much more involved process with everybody in the room. You have the engineer working on the vocal tape to make sure you get the perfect line. You have the vocal producer making sure they’re singing the line and helping them with their inflection. It’s just a more involved process when you’re dealing with singing because there are multiple aspects to the vocal. Whereas with rap, it’s just one. It’s just the vocal.
One of the more legendary R&B artists you have worked with is Jamie Foxx. In his career he’s done everything from comedy to portraying Ray Charles in Ray. As an artist, what is he like to work with?
Foxx is incredible. I was able to spend a summer at his house working on what I believe is the last album he’s put out. I think it was in 2015.
That guy is incredible. He can sing so amazingly well. There were times when I would take the auto-tune off of him to get the tape right right because the tune would be tweaking it. Then you take it off and he sounds phenomenal.
He’s incredible and he’s hilarious. Some of the funniest moments in my life were during that summer. He’s a joy to work with and very talented. You would think someone of that stature would be a diva, but he was the opposite of that. He was always very welcoming. I had nothing but fun working over there.
In addition to working with Jamie Foxx, you also worked with Tank back in 2013. Fast forward a few years, you’re now working with 6LACK and Kiana Ledé. Not to veer off too much from music, but in the Bay Area is evolving in the same period your career is continuing to move forward. The Bay has always had a history of music and culture, but now it’s evolving in a way because you now have tech companies coming in and the sports scene is going wild. You have the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco 49ers had a run with Colin Kaepernick and now with Jimmy Garoppolo. Given that you grew up in the area, how has it been to see the change over the last few years?
The Bay has changed incredibly. Some for the better and some for the worse. It just depends on how you look at it. Originally, my plan was to come down to L.A., establish myself and be able to move back. Now, I’ve got to really establish myself to be able to move back because the housing market is so expensive. Culturally, it’s definitely changing. It’s definitely gentrifying, but they’re also aspects of the change that are positive because there’s a lot of good community equity stuff going on.
I definitely hear that. I live in Washington, D.C. and the city has changed so much in the few years I’ve been down here, so I definitely hear that.
My parents used to live in Fairfax, so I already know. I think they left around the same time that D.C. was really ramping up all of that development.
Giving some of the light to people in the area. Who are some artists in the Bay area that you have heard of over the last few years that you’re excited about?
There are a lot of artists. One thing I love about what’s going on in the Bay recently is that Ghazi and Empire’s success has kind of brought more structure to the scene. These younger artists now see a formula kind of like how young rappers in L.A. have the industry in town with them, so they can prepare themselves to pitch to a major label.
I think it’s been awesome with G-Eazy, Kehlani, H.E.R, Kamaiyah, etc. It’s brought a semblance of a scene back to the Bay, so there’s something to kind of work towards.
I think there’s a lot of talent coming out of the Bay. All Black, Offset Jim, and Guapdad 4000 are coming out of the Bay. There’s this new artist named Donnie Cupid. I just did an album with him that we’re starting to roll out. We actually just dropped the first single. It’s called “Be Myself.” There are a lot of artists going up right now.
One of the groups in the Bay area that I’ve been following for a few years now is SOB x RBE. They were featured on the Black Panther soundtrack and they’ve been working a lot lately.
Those cats are going crazy.
More recently, you worked with 6LACK on East Atlanta Love Letter. A lot of 6LACK’s music has a darker, mellow tone to it. Moreover, much of his music is very personal. When working on music that is personal and emotional to a degree, are you having conversations with him beforehand to better understand what it is that he’s trying to get across in his music? What is the process like of making a 6LACK record?
6LACK is such a chill dude. He’s really good at separating those two worlds if that makes sense. It’s not too difficult. He’ll kind of be more so like, “Send me a vibe. Send stuff over.” He’s not one of those writers or artists where I feel like I need to handhold them through the songwriting process. It’s very much so the opposite. It’s one of those things where it’s like if 6LACK says he likes a beat, I know whatever he’s going to do to it is going to be tight.
He’s really good at not complicating it. He’ll have a concept in his song and then he’ll try to match it to a beat or he’ll do the opposite. He’ll hear a beat and then try to come up with a concept.
More recently, you have production credits on PartyNextDoor’s album, PARTYMOBILE. Leading up to the release, there were a lot of conversations among media and fans about the album being pushed back. When speaking to artists, I hear a lot of the time that it’s frustrating to have things be pushed back when they’ve been working on something for so long. As a producer, what is it like for you when things get pushed back?
Man, I honestly try not to stress it. With smaller artists, it’s more of a big deal. With a guy like Party, he’s not as much at risk to lose fans from a delay. I wouldn’t advise a younger artist who’s less established to continually push back a release, but for Party it’s different. He takes his art so seriously and it’s so personal that he’s not going to let sh*t go out unless he’s 100% comfortable with it. I shouldn’t say 100%, but as comfortable with it as you’ll be as a creative. For him, he just wanted to make sure everything was right. I just know that Party takes time to make sure that everything is sitting the way he wants it, mixed the way he wants it and sequenced the way he wants it. I appreciate it. I think he did a good job and I love the album.
The album has been out for a little while now. As a producer, are you checking in to see what people say about it, or are you already moving on to the next thing?
I definitely check-in, do the Twitter searches for my song titles and all of that stuff, but ultimately I try not to do too much of that because you can only control what you can control.
With the PartyNextDoor, I was less involved with finishing the record than starting the record. I made the beat with Prep and NinetyFour. David “Prep” Hughes is Party’s in-house engineer. After we make the beats and Party cuts to it, it’s kind of up to Party and Prep for the arrangement and all of those other things. I trusted them to the utmost level to execute it.
For me, I just kind of enjoyed the process, enjoyed how it came out and blessed to have been a part of it. From that aspect, I try not to look too much into what the fans say because the final product isn’t something I oversaw until the end. I’m just happy and humbled that an artist like Party liked a beat that we made and wanted to do what he did on there.
As a listener, I can definitely say that I enjoyed listening to the album. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. If you’re going to wait, you want to get something that you’re going to enjoy and that’s what he did. If it takes three years, then it takes three years.
Exactly. He set the precedent so crazy with the first two projects. They were so groundbreaking. People don’t even think about it, but the run of the mill, auto-tune, super verbed out sound that is so present in 95% of rap music sound nowadays is [influence by] the PartyNetDoor sound. Between Party and Travis, they’ve pioneered the entire sound of auto-tune nowadays after T-Pain obviously. Between Party, Thug and Travis, they set the precedent every time they do a project. They’re always fighting against people who want part two of their very first album because it was so groundbreaking. I think a lot of listeners don’t understand that part of their love for that project was the fact that they had never heard that sound before.
Bringing everything to a close, the album came out during this weird period of time when we’re all stuck inside. As a result, we’re all looking for things to read, listen to and watch. One positive thing that has come out of this is that we’ve started to see more producers and songwriters get involved in Timbaland and Swizz Beatz Verzuz series. Most recently, Teddy Riley and Babyface battled. As a producer, who would you like to see battle?
We were talking about this a few days ago and they got half of it. We wanted to see Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis versus Teddy Riley. That would have been crazy. Darkchild versus Timbaland would be crazy too.
Ekzakt’s work is featured on PartyNextDoor’s album, PARTYMOBILE, which is available now. You can also find his production on Donne Cupid’s “Be Myself” here.