This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Michael Raine
Since its inception in 2006, the Polaris Music Prize has largely lived up its goal of rewarding the best Canadian album of the year based on artistic merit without regard to genre, sales history, or label affiliation. It has gone to famed artists like Arcade Fire, Feist, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, as well as under-the-radar indie artists like Kaytranada, Lido Pimienta, Jeremy Dutcher, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Nonetheless, it’s satisfying to see an artist like Backxwash (a.k.a. Ashanti Mutinta) receive such prestigious recognition. There are few, if any, artists like her at the moment.
On the album God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It, the Zambia-born, Montreal-based rapper and producer explores her experience as a transgender woman challenging the confines of her religious upbringing. She tackles subjects of faith and identity both powerfully and succinctly with a blend of rhythmic and aggressive vocals, banging beats, and heavy metal samples (including Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin). The overall combination is done so masterfully she found a home in both the metal and rap communities, which may be a first (except for maybe Ice-T). Metal Hammer hailed it as “the most important album of 2020,” while Exclaim!’s rave review said the album “turned hip-hop on its head” and the magazine later named it the best album of the year.
Incredibly for a record that won Canada’s most prestigious music prize, the album is a completely DIY affair. For it, Mutinta co-produced alongside producer/engineer Will Owen Bennett and they recorded it in the latter’s little Montreal apartment. To find out how they made this masterpiece, Professional Sound got Mutinta together with Bennett over Zoom to hear the story behind the making of God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It.
Because of licensing issues with some of the high-profile samples, God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It is not available on the subscription streaming services or iTunes. But you can stream or download it for free at backxwash.bandcamp.com.
CM: How did the two of you first connect?
Will Owen Bennett: Ashanti came by my studio to be featured on another rapper’s track a while back, and then she hit me up to do the Deviancy record last year. So, we did that record and it was released pretty much exactly a year before God Has Nothing to Do with This.
CM: Ashanti, what made you come back to Will for this album?
Backxwash (Ashanti Mutinta): For one, I just have to make sure that wherever I'm recording, I feel comfortable. I feel very comfortable in Will’s apartment. As well, Will’s ear is just on another level. You know, he'll hear things that you don't even recognize in the composition. I feel like some other people don't really know how to mix from a hip-hop or heavy music mindset. You know, they’ll end up turning a lot of things really down. Will listens to hip-hop and heavier music and he knows how to keep the sound and momentum going. It’s just incredible.
CM: Will, what was your experience working in rap and/or metal prior to working with Ashanti? And how was it for you blending these two sonic cultures?
Bennett: In terms of engineering, I have a lot more experience with hip-hop than I do with metal. I mean, metal engineering is a whole different kind of ballgame once you're dealing with baritone guitars and breakdowns in drop A, and there's a whole way of using samples with live drums and stuff…
In terms of blending the two, I think part of what makes Ashanti’s productions super unique is just the fact that she tends to take these really aggressive samples, but then present them in a hip-hop focused way. Ashanti, the way you set up your drums and set up your 808s is super hip-hop focused, and the way you chop everything up and the way that everything's rhythmically set up is very, very hip-hop. But then the content of the samples, frequency wise, and especially on the Stigmata EP, it was all metal samples and stuff. On God Has Nothing to Do with This, there's that Nine Inch Nails sample, there’s the Black Sabbath sample, and [Led Zeppelin’s] “When the Levee Breaks” and all those different things.
So, it's sort of like taking metal and punk and hardcore sounds from an aesthetic perspective, but then setting them up and processing them in a way that rhythmically ends up becoming hip-hop. So really, my job was just to be like, “Okay, what is the energy here? How can I ensure that I'm not sterilizing anything, but still have it hit really hard and be beefy when it needs to be beefy, and be hype when it needs to be hype?”
CM: Ashanti, how did you come to this unique style of rap production that prominently incorporates metal elements?
Backxwash: Back in the day, when I was like 13 to 17, on previous projects I would never rap on my beats. When I slowly started making beats, I was just like, “I'm just going to use the stuff that I'm influenced by.” I feel like the importance of choosing a sample comes in the feeling. Like when Kanye West picks those soul samples, they’re extremely good because of the feeling that they give you. So, feeling is a big thing for me. Growing up listening [to rap and metal], I just liked how it made me feel because it was so tormented and I was in a Christian home, so it was kind of taboo. I was just like, “I'm trying to be my authentic self, so I'll just mix the two.”
Then partnering up with Will was also a no-brainer because the mixes came out incredible. When we did Deviancy, the beats were heavy, but there was still some space to make them heavier. I think we kind of did that with God Has Nothing to Do with This because it’s a much heavier record. With Stigmata, [the newest EP,] we turned that dial up even more!
CM: Where were you two recording this?
Bennett: Mostly in my current apartment in Montreal. When we did Deviancy, I was living in a different apartment. That was this super-tiny-ass room. Basically, Ashanti was maybe a foot to my left while she's on the mic. We were just doing stuff in headphones. My current apartment, the room is at least a little bit bigger, but it's still just an extra bedroom in my apartment that I use as a mixing room, and then we recorded vocals there as well.
CM: Ashanti, how fully-formed were the songs when you two met to record?
Backxwash: I think the lyrics and the structure was there, but what I like about recording with Will is he gives a lot of feedback and advice while you're doing the recording. A good thing about Will is he knows how to transition energy, or maintain energy. You know, he gives a suggestion like, “Why don’t you do it like this?” and that usually works out.
So, the songs and the structure were there, but there were a few times where it was like, “Why don't we do this?” in terms of arrangement or structure. A good example is the choir part in the song “Amen” where it slows down. That was supposed to come at the end but Will was like, “Why don’t we bring that to the middle and have that 808 come at the end?” It just worked out pretty perfectly. Also, the arrangements on “Into the Void” and “Spells.” The advice he gave while recording them took it to a whole different other level.
CM: When you have a lyrical theme that carries throughout the album like you do on God Has Nothing to Do with This, do you find maintaining that thread is helpful or an obstacle when it comes to simply writing a good song?
Backxwash: Yeah, it is kind of a challenge. But, you know, I've reached the point where I don't think I can rap about anything else right now. When we were recording Deviancy, before I came up with the tracks that I was going to use for God Has Nothing to Do with This, I was thinking I’d maybe do a [Deviancy] part two. But I was writing and the lyrics sounded like trendy political tweets [laughs]. It's like, “Yeah, you've got the message, but there’s no passion behind it.”
CM: Will, what was recording set up in your apartment when making this album?
Bennett: Basically, I’ve got an [Audio-Technica] AT4040 condenser mic and an API Lunchbox. The preamp I used was a Vintech 1073 clone that I usually run pretty hot. There are definitely some parts of the album where Ashanti didn’t clip my converter but she just clipped my preamp and it sounded great… Like, I remember on “Into the Void” when she's yelling “fuuuck!”
Backxwash: Oh yeah!
Bennett: It was super, super clipped and I was like, “This is fucking awesome!” But Ashanti was saying, “Maybe it's a little too much?” So, I was like, “Okay, okay, I guess” [laughs].
So, I've got that and I have this 500 Series RNC compressor [from FMR Audio]. It’s just a cheap 500 Series compressor that I found, which is okay. I use that to shave off a couple dB before I hit my converter. For converters I’ve just got a Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 and I'm running that into Pro Tools on my Mac Mini.
Speaker wise, I’m mostly mixing on my pair of [KRK] Rokit 8s. I think I've had them for maybe six or seven years now, so it’s definitely not the newest generation of them. I also have an old pair of Beyerdynamic DT-770 [reference headphones] that I’ve also had for about seven or eight years. So that's mostly what I'm mixing on.
CM: A song like “Black Sheep” has a cleaner vocal sound on it than a song like “Black Magic.” Can you speak to the approach to recording and mixing the vocals across the album, and how you settled on different sounds for different songs?
Bennett: Especially for Ashanti I’ll use a lot of parallel vocal chains. So parallel compression, plus a bunch of distortion and stuff like that. That’s kind of nice for a song like “Black Magic” because for the crazy demonic sections, I can bring that up and it gives her a little bit more presence. Plus, it kind of adds a little bit more vibe or distortion if I really want that.
For something like “Black Sheep,” there's a lot less going on so I don't need as much to get Ashanti to cut in a mix like that. Also, the whole way that the song is set up is a lot simpler. So, it’s about feeling, “What is really happening in this song? What is the point of the song?” Whereas in “Black Magic,” I’m asking, “How can I create these different vocal characters?”
“Into the Void” is kind of a similar thing where it’s like, “What is the character of the vocal on this track?” With “Black Sheep,” I remember that being a little bit more like normal hip-hop. I guess that would be the way that I would think about it. So, it's really about the lyrics and the flow and getting this beat to just bump a little bit. So, with something like that, I don't necessarily need to transform the vocal. With Ashanti’s delivery, I think it works as is with a little cleaner sound.
So, again, it's about whether it serves the music for me to heavily affect it. I guess if that’s a yes, then cool, and I can go down rabbit holes in terms of, “What if I try this?” Otherwise, why would I affect this vocal if there's no purpose within whole point of the song?
CM: Ashanti, being the lead producer on the album, what kind of direction were you giving Will?
Backxwash: It was more about feeling. Like, I wasn't there going “raise that 2dB up.” I was just literally being like, “I want this to sound devilish,” or “I want it to sound like it's coming out of a shitty PA.” That’s the sort of stuff I was saying because I really trust Will’s ears.
Bennett: When we're recording the song, we'll talk about, “Okay, what's happening here? What's going on here? What's the whole point?” But a lot of it is very general. I remember specifically with the song “Stigmata” from the Stigmata EP, Ashanti was like, “Just make this sound majestic,” and I feel like I know what that means.
Or as we're going through the vocal, with something like “Black Magic,” it's kind of like, “Let's try putting on this kind of character for this section of the song.” Or, “Let's have you whisper these doubles here and I think I'm going to try some reverse reverb thing here and it’ll be kind of cool. And in this section before this last hook, I want you to sound really vulnerable.” So, I think as we go through with recording the vocal, a lot of that gets figured out based on, you know, “What's the vocal doing here? What's the vibe here? What's the point of this section? What's the idea of this section as it relates to the entirety of the song?”
And one thing I just want to add about Ashanti being technical as a producer is, I think an integral part of why her productions work so well within her songwriting is the fact that she's not going crazy about ensuring that, like, “You have to make sure this bass is sidechained to this kick.” I feel like the rules that producers learn would hold you back, Ashanti.
I think part of the whole aesthetic of Ashanti's music and this record and the previous record is that the goal is not for it to be super clean and really polished from a technical standpoint. There are things in there that are sort of no-nos from a production standpoint, but it’s still giving this energy and vibe and this aggressive wall of sound. I think that's an integral part and the music would not be the same thing if Ashanti was more technically minded. That would distract her from making these awesome productions that no one else would make.
Backxwash: Oh yeah, the cleanness wouldn’t work for me! [laughs] I'm definitely inspired by heavy, dirty things. Like the way Death Grips approaches their stuff and it’s just this chaotic mess. Like, “Why are you doing that?”
CM: Will, there are songs where there's a lot going on atmospherically and effects wise, but still a very clean mix. What was your approach to mixing this record?
Bennett: Every song had its own struggles or things that worked really well or didn’t work well. So, the first thing that I would do is be like, “Where is everything going to live, frequency wise?”
There are a couple things that really helped me out a lot. Like, a lot of times I'll take some sound and kind of split it up – just do a little crossover somewhere and be able have my own track that's just the low end or just the high end.
All of Ashanti’s 808s are super distorted and clipped. It's awesome, but the key is I need some usable subs out of it. So sometimes I'll lay in my own sub with just some VST that I have, or something like that. It might be like a sine wave in a harmonic or something like, but I'll sometimes mix that in on some of the tunes. But a lot of the times I'll end up splitting up that 808 into a low-end track and a kind of mid-to-high track, and then I have some control over those two separately. And sometimes the same thing with some of those samples.
Usually, if there is a point where I feel like I kind of need to mute something, that's usually going to come after I've spent a decent amount of time trying to make it work. Because if she sent this, this is a part of the song and I might as well see if I can get this to work somehow. If I try a bunch of different things it doesn't work out, then I feel like it'll be better if we end up muting this.
But definitely a lot of it is making sure that there's space and that I'm able to get rid of anything that's extraneous, frequency wise, off of different elements. Like if there's some weird low-end garbage on some sample, I get it out of there because I just don't have room for any of that kind of stuff.
In addition to that, I just get those drums to slam as much as I can. The 808s are a good example of this where because it's so distorted, it’s already super compressed. So, a lot of times I'll end up taking an expander or something and actually bringing a little bit more dynamic back to it.
With something like “Into the Void,” it’s sort of slamming you most of the time, whereas with “Black Magic” there’s a lot of ups and downs. So, it's kind of thinking about, when do I need to feel like I'm getting blown away by the speakers, and when do I need to imagine myself leaning in a little bit and being like, “Okay, I really want to listen to this and really capture this.”
I think about music a lot in terms of gesture, I guess. So, the question becomes, “What is the gesture in this section? How can I reinforce that with whatever I'm doing with the mix?”
CM: Ashanti, were you there for the mixing sessions?
Backxwash: No, I would just send it to Will and he would send it back for my feedback. I think that works best for me. I don't think I'm one to micromanage everything. I like to hear something when it's done and then be like, “Okay, maybe do this or do that.”
Bennett: There's even been a couple times when Ashanti is like, “This mix sounds great!” and then I'm going, “Okay, but I still want to fix this one thing and I'm going send you another version. We can go back to the other version if you like it better, but let's try this.” And then she's like, “Oh, no, this is great also!”
CM: Do you remember what plug-ins you were leaning on most often in during these mixes?
Bennett: So, for God Has Nothing to Do with This, I think at that point I'd kind of gotten into the whole Acustica thing, and I really love those. So, I'll use the FabFilter EQ a decent amount, as well as the Massenburg DesignWorks EQ. Those are my two go-to all-purpose parametric EQs. Also, Acustica’s Pultec series is really, really sweet and I'll use that a lot. They also have this Gold Channel Strip, which is like Neve semi-parametric EQs and stuff. That's part of my go-to vocal colour EQ. It’s one of those Neve EQs where I move a dial just half a notch or something and it's like, “Oh, fantastic, that really did something.” Their preamp is also fantastic. I read something that said that Gold preamp is like dipping whatever you're putting it on in honey. So, I use that a lot. If you push it to break up, it'll bite you but in a sort of pleasing way.
I use Soundtoys a lot, as well. So, I love Decapitator and Devil-Loc. Devil-Loc is my go-to for vocal parallel as well as parallel compression on drums.
For reverbs, I have the Lexicon PCM reverb suite. It's all the same stuff that's in their rackmount versions. I know how to manipulate them and have used them forever. I’ve used them any time I recorded classical music, as well as more rock stuff or hip-hop stuff. They're kind of all-purpose, really-good-sounding reverbs. Still with the Soundtoys stuff, EchoBoy is the only delay that I use. Sometimes I'll end up throwing in some Waves J37, but usually I'm using the J37 more as a saturator than as a delay.
CM: Ashanti, how did you approach laying down your vocals for the record?
Backxwash: We’d just do a bunch of takes and then we pick the pick the best from each section. It takes a bit to get into it, so your first two or three vocal takes will not have as much energy, then you find that your fifth and sixth takes are the best and have the most energy. But sometimes you’ll even go for the lower-energy one if it sounds better. So, I think it was just a matter of picking the best takes and laying that down.
Sometimes we would find one take where we just pick the bulk of it. Like I remember we did “Into the Void” pretty quick. I think that one was really, really fast.
Bennett: Exactly. To get warmed up we’d probably do one full take of the song, and that also gives you a better idea of what's happening in the song. Then usually the first two or three takes, Ashanti would do it and then I’d be like, “Okay, what if we tried this here?” Or, “I'm feeling like this is the way that this works, so I want you to increase your energy here and then pull back a little bit here.”
I think we don't actually do all that many takes. I mean, I've done songs where it's like you end up with 40 or 50 vocal takes or something like that. But with Ashanti, it's usually 10 to 15, at most, and usually the last four are what we're picking between. Then we just go through and put up the playlist window and be like, “I really like this and this” and kind of put it all together like that.
CM: Which song or two stands out the most in your memory from the sessions?
Backxwash: For me, I think it's “Amen,” only because I felt really lightheaded when doing the hook [laughs]. I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I kind of felt lightheaded and like, “whoa!”
Bennett: You were really going in on that! And had my ear open to see if someone would knock on the door and be like, “Everyone okay over here?” [laughs]. I have a video on Instagram from that one of the gain reduction meter on my compressor.