Today, the Stanford-based musician Yung Slee is releasing a new mixtape, “Cross My Heart.” Slee, who was profiled by the Daily last year, talked to managing editor Amir Abou-Jaoude last week about his passion for music, his creative process, his inspirations and his new project.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you tell me a little bit about your interest in music and your beginnings as a composer?
Yung Slee (YS): A year ago today (Jan. 2) I dropped my first EP, which had five songs on it. That was the first time I had ever put out a significant body of work. That was like the beginning, I feel like. I made 50 or 60 songs last year and dropped maybe half of them. All summer long I was working diligently on making music and really trying to get better at making music. This year’s been crazy — again in the summer I worked on tons of music and ultimately came up with a few songs I wanted to save for my first album. Doing a significant body of work is a step up, an evolution in a way.
TSD: You mentioned you made 50 or 60 songs over the summer. I’m curious — what’s your creative process like?
YS: My creative process involves randomly getting ideas for a chorus. I listen to a ton of music, and we have access to so much music today. You can listen to anybody — on YouTube, Spotify or SoundCloud. There’s all different groups and bands. Everything’s interconnected. We can see what tons of people are doing and working on. I think by spending time listening to a lot of stuff I get ideas.
When I actually go to write a song, I’ll have a beat that someone sends to me. I’ll find a beat that people are hoping other people will use and write vocals for it. From there, I’ll just sit down with pen and paper and write. A lot people today use the computer for making music, but there’s something really cool about the experience of writing lyrics, crossing stuff out — I think that’s a cool part of it.
TSD: I’m really interested in the culture and music of the 1950s. I noticed that on “Lost the Key,” a song on your mixtape, you included a tune from that era. That made me wonder — how do you balance your lyrics and your music composition with the other audio you include in your tracks?
YS: I usually handle all the lyrics. A lot of people work on the beats. A collection of people come up with the beat that has a vocal sample from a random clip — like from the 1950s — or it could be a doorbell, but someone’s changed the pitch on it, so it sounds like a piano key. There’s a lot of little things that people work on, and it comes together in a beat instrumental. What I do is I find things that I think are hidden gems or things that are good instrumentals, but I think I have a story to tell through writing lyrics to it. When I write a lyric, sometimes it’s not so scholarly or academic, where I’m thinking what theme I want to evoke. It’s very natural. It comes out — this chorus came out, and after you hear it, you’re like, “wow, this makes so much sense.” But I didn’t really think about it. It just happened. In the 21st-century, we have so many different competing genres. Everyone wants to classify music — as pop or rap or EDM. As the end of the day, a lot of those interesting music things have been around for decades. A lot of cool ideas and great examples have been around for 50, 60 or 70 years. People only now are starting to reincorporate them into songs, and I support that.
TSD: Could you talk a little bit more specifically about your influences? Who are some musicians that inspire you?
YS: I’m from D.C., and we have a decent amount of famous musicians. Still, a lot of musicians I like are from many different places around the country or even around the world. Obviously, Drake to me is one of the biggest influences. Drake does something that no one else has been able to do super successfully for a long time. He can come up with so many different songs and so many different rhymes. Drake has demonstrated that it’s possible to reinvent and evolve as a musician. You look at Drake’s first few projects. I don’t think that my work is so far off from his first project. Things sound comparable. Although he’s a totally different musician, I can see a progression in my own work. It’s a true evolution, exponential in some way.
Other musicians include electronic musicians like Flume, who has incorporated a lot of New Age synth stuff into his work, which is pretty cool. Also, Giraffage, who is based out of the Bay Area. I think those people inspire me the most or had the biggest influence on me. Now that I’m making tons of music, I see how people would say that this sounds like that musician, or it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. I think that’s kind of cool.
TSD: Your new mixtape is an important step in your evolution as a musician. What do you hope that people listening to it will take away from it?
YS: The mixtape is something I’ve been working on for a bunch of months. I’ve been saving up music for it — I made two really good songs over the summer, “Lost the Key” and “Wifi.” I showed those to very few people, and they were all like, “this is crazy. This is going to be a hit.” I could have just dropped them and put them out as singles. But to me, there was something about those songs that not dropping them in something substantial would be a wasted opportunity. They’re two songs that I think tell really cool stories.
The mixtape is called “Cross My Heart,” and it’s nine songs — nine vibes — to ring in 2019. I’m dropping on Jan. 9 because I think that is a pretty cool symmetrical day. It’s pretty close a year since I dropped my first EP, but this new project improves on it. This mixtape that I hope people say, “Oh my gosh, this doesn’t even sound like Slee. I don’t know what this sounds like.” I think people will say that. I think I really focus in on my strengths.
TSD: It’s fitting that the mixtape is called “Cross My Heart” because the three songs I heard from it all involve the heart. They all deal with love and complex relationships. Do these themes serve as threads, connecting the songs on the mixtape?
YS: I think that that thread does exist. All the songs talk about that idea of complex relationships. In this day and age, we spend a lot of time on social media, the Internet and technology. I think there’s something to be said for in-person interactions. I hope that this project causes people to think about how they can change their perspectives on or their relationships with other people and technology. “Cross My Heart” evokes feelings of love and romance. Other songs on the mixtape are a little more distant from that theme. The album is supposed to capture a lot of feelings and a lot of vibes, and they all are connected by love.
TSD: Finally, how has your experience at Stanford changed your music or influenced the mixtape?
YS: I’m from the East Coast. Coming out to the West Coast is already a different sort of vibe. At Stanford, it’s even more different. Stanford is a bubble. There’s good and there’s bad of it, but the good of it is that people are super motivated. They’re hands-on with projects. They want to have an opportunity to help in any sort of way. People will just come up to me with an idea or propose a collaboration, or they’ll tell me to link up with this person. They’ll collaborate on some work, whether it’s a beat or production stuff. Someone will listen to songs and critique them. There are people who do art and photos. The music is just one component. There’s so much that goes on at the backend, like marketing stuff and shows and all these things that people are experts at, especially at Stanford. Being part of the Stanford community has exposed me to people who are experts in a lot of different things and always want to help. I think that’s awesome. Now people at Stanford know who Slee is. What this mixtape has the potential to do is allow my music to be heard around the globe.
“Cross My Heart” is available now on SoundCloud. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at firstname.lastname@example.org.