For multi-faceted producer Bongo By The Way, it’s all about the percussion. That truth should be obvious by the name, but it’s even more apparent from listening to the music. The talent is undeniable and the range is truly impressive, ambitiously weaving through textures for layered productions that still don’t sound forced.
The same drums that knock with gritty aggression on “Welcome Home” by The Game and Nipsey Hussle, are languid and patient on Cordae’s self-reflective “Bad Idea.” Next to the acclaimed songstress Teyana Taylor on “Lose Each Other,” he strips them away completely, working with Ray Keys and Mike Dean for a watery, billowing moment of post-romantic clarity.
On the recently released “Gifted” featuring both Cordae and Roddy Ricch, he accents tried-and-true trap drums with shimmering keys that bring a new feeling to familiar textures.
Bongo grew up playing percussion in the church, and that experience did much to shape his identity as a producer. He quickly learned the importance of not overdoing it when crafting a beat, allowing the track to breathe while keeping the rhythm paramount.
“With percussion, it’s not necessarily the piano or the bass,” he said. “You really learn to be a team player, you learn to work in the pocket and with other people. With production, that’s everything. My job is much more than pushing buttons, it’s managing personalities.”
Bongo is a people person, so it’s he’s never had any issues networking in the studio element. He’s built a strong relationship with well-respected artists such as Jay Rock and Anderson .Paak, and has been featured next to Ty Dolla $ign, Pop Smoke and Kanye West. On top of that, he’s a producer in the truest sense of the word, relishing the opportunity to work with all parties to create the best version of the song.
It’s inspiring to watch the producer in his element at his home studio. One minute he’s diving through old-school bossa nova records, next he’s trying to get an artist to come over via FaceTime, and before you know it he’s in the other room trying to flesh out the piano chords stuck in his head. An infectious grin remains plastered on his face the whole time, as if he’s eternally amazed by the newest bassline, latest hi-hats, or jaw-dropping sample to come across his ears.
“For me, a lot of this game is delayed gratification,” Bongo said of his work ethic. “I can make beats all day, but I don’t necessarily get paid as soon as the session is done… What I make today in 15 minutes could be $20,000 tomorrow, or next week or next year, whenever. But if I don’t do anything today, I haven’t done anything that will make me money in the future.”
There was a time when Bongo didn’t have that level of freedom to hone his skills around the clock. Before the expansive home studio and chart-topping placements, he was a car salesman in Jacksonville making music on the side. More than anything, he says, it was the rote list of responsibilities and limited room for true personal interaction that let him know the job wasn’t for him.
“They gave us this script that we had to read and memorize,” he said. “Creatively, it killed me a little bit inside. If you look at the art behind the car, the design on each of them, they’re all unique just like my beats. But just to have the same script no matter what the car is, and not being able to connect with people, it wasn’t for me.”
In 2012, he caught his big break when he earned a spot on Lecrae’s Gravity. Along with Dru Castro, Bongo worked on “Free For All,” crafting a skyscraper-sized beat with grizzly guitars and teeth-rattling drums. Upon release, Gravity debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 200 and set a record for the biggest sales week of any Christian Hip Hop album.
“My homeboy hit me like ‘Yo, it’s charting, we’re number one in three categories on Billboard,’” Bongo recalled of the moment. “I was like ‘Aye, that’s a blessing. But probably still going to sell these cars for a minute!’”
Gravity would go on to win a GRAMMY for Best Gospel Album of the Year in 2013, motivating Bongo to fully understand the significance and what he could accomplish. He finally took the leap, quitting his job and moving to California looking to make his name known.
Fast-forward to the pandemic and the lack of a routine 9-5 job pushed Bongo to do something else with the extra time: Finish his debut album.
Bongo reached out to Ant Clemons, rising singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator. “I was like I’m bored, we gotta do something just for fun,” he said. “I hit [Jeremih] and was like, ‘yo, what are we doing?’ His favorite tagline is ‘I ain’t got no job.’ Literally, I made two beats and pulled up to his crib, and they cut the first two songs from the album that same day.’”
True to Bongo’s catalog, you’ll be hard-pressed to find two songs on the project with a similar sound. The superproducer-in-the-making connects both genres and generations with thoughtful choices and artist pairings, many of whom he’s excited about but isn’t quite ready to tell the world.
“If I sang like Ant Clemons and Jeremih, this would be my R&B album,” he laughed. “I do damn near every genre, but this is near and dear to me. R&B and Hip Hop, that’s what we came up on.”
There are other things he’s working on too, of course, but as we move into the latter portion of the year, the album is priority number one for Bongo.
“I can think of 5 or 6 records that are connecting A-list artists on two different sides of the spectrum,” he said. “That’s where I’m trying to go with my production. But my focus is on the album, and I’ll be really happy when the album comes out. It’s like a menu, it has all different vibes but it’s all cohesive. You can hear it.”