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From Cirkut to Frank Dukes: meet 5 Canadian producers behind the hits
By
Del Cowie

Published

December 3, 2015

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Read the new CBC Music Magazine! We look at the 50 best Canadian albums, dive deep into the year of the Canadian music renaissance, talk to Alanis Morissette about her iconic album, Jagged Little Pill, and so much more.

In the last few months of 2015, artists like the Weeknd, Drake, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes have dominated the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, marking the first time in history that the first four slots have been occupied by Canadians. But why now? The answer is a changing tide in the people shaping the hits — producers who are also Canadian.

In the past few years, pop music has been dominated by producers like Swedish superproducer Max Martin and those he has mentored, like Dr. Luke and Norwegian production duo Stargate. Their penchant for meshing pop and R&B sensibilities has formed the bedrock for a sizable chunk of the hit singles populating the Billboard singles chart in recent years, from artists like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.

Behind artists like Drake and the Weeknd, though, are a group of Canadian producers providing the sonic backdrop for the former’s willingness to blur the lines between R&B, hip-hop and pop and the latter’s unorthodox take on R&B, tweaking — but not necessarily disrupting — the hit formula currently in place to carve out their own paths. Consequently, part of the explanation for the recent high-profile success of Canadian music artists may lie in the people who are behind the music, those who seemingly operate within a few degrees of separation.

Below, we look at five Canadians behind the hits.

Cirkut

While he might now be known as a high-profile collaborator with Dr. Luke (himself a graduate of the Max Martin school of production and songwriting), Halifax native Henry “Cirkut” Walter’s break came at the Dream House studio he helped co-found in Toronto when he co-wrote and co-produced “High for This,” a pivotal early track for the Weeknd’s House of Balloons. Somewhere along the line, a fortuitous opportunity surfaced to produce a Britney Spears track, helping to broker Cirkut’s relationship with Dr. Luke and Max Martin, which led to writing and production work on virtually every omnipotent track from Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus you’ve heard in the last couple of years (“Wrecking Ball”? Check. “Dark Horse”? Check.) Despite this, Cirkut has managed to maintain a relatively low profile, while he continues to work with and develop relatively new acts while continuing to produce for superstar artists like Nicki Minaj. And amid the hubbub surrounding current chart-topping acts like Drake, the Weeknd and Justin Bieber, Cirkut had writing and production credits on R. City’s “Locked Away,” with Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine that was in the top 10 at around the same time.

Illangelo

While much of the advance press surrounding the creation of the Weeknd’s chart-topping album Beauty Behind the Madness has focused on the increased mass appeal of his work with Max Martin’s songwriting team, it is worth noting that many of the songs were produced and mixed by Calgary native Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese. Illangelo has been a constant presence in the Weeknd’s circle of collaborators ever since the initial Dream House sessions for House of Balloons, the first mixtape the enigmatic Scarborough, Ont., singer released in 2011, crafting what would become “Crew Love,” a track originally meant for a Weeknd mixtape but that ended up on Drake’s 2011 album Take Care. While he was not involved in the Weeknd’s decidedly mixed major label debut, Kiss Land, Illangelo’s return to the fold as an executive producer and a primary collaborator for the Weeknd on Beauty Behind the Madness has yielded immediate returns, most notably the virtually inescapable Billboard number one hit single “The Hills.”

Boi-1da

While Drake has now managed to lodge an astonishing 100 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, an overlooked fact is that Kardinal Offishall was actually the first Canadian hip-hop artist to have a hit on the chart with “Dangerous” in 2007. Not 4 Sale, the album from which that single was taken, featured Matthew “Boi-1da” Burnett’s ’s first high-profile production credit for Kardinal Offishall’s “Set It Off.” It was the break the Toronto native needed and, by 2009, he had produced Drake’s breakthrough 2009 single “Best I Ever Had.” And his production of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’s track “Know Yourself,” which has popularized the phrase “running through the 6 with my woes,” underscores his ongoing importance to Drake’s work. As key as Boi-1da’s production work for Drake has been over the years, his willingness to facilitate opportunities for others is also notable: he has helped create opportunities for other Toronto producers such as T-Minus, who has worked with Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj, as well as Nineteen85, co-producer of the now-ubiquitous “Hotline Bling,” and Wondagurl, who famously produced a track for Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail when she was 16 years old.

Noah ‘40’ Shebib

When people refer to Drake’s music as reflecting a Toronto sound, they are talking about the nocturnal, bass-heavy ambience popularized by Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s close friend, go-to producer and key collaborator. At this point, 40’s role extends far beyond mere knob twiddler. As the chief purveyor of Drake’s identifiable sound — which now incorporates a globally broadcast Apple Beats1 radio show and a record label, OVO Sound, featuring acts like Majid Jordan and PartyNextDoor — 40 is ostensibly a curator, one who wields considerable influence incorporating producers who fit the OVO mould into a burgeoning production team. On top of it all, 40 is charged with providing the sonic backdrop for Drake’s Views from the 6, whose title alone has already changed the colloquial name of the city of Toronto without even having been released yet.

Frank Dukes

When the 2015 Polaris Prize short list was announced earlier this year, it featured Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Sour Soul, the collaboration between Toronto’s jazz band trio BadBadNotGood and Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. Read the credits of these records and you’ll find the name Frank Dukes, a.k.a. Adam Feeney, on both of them. Dukes runs the Kingsway Music Library, a service that recruits live musicians to commit loop-friendly instrumentals for the benefit of hip-hop artists and producers. Dukes also helped out with “Charged Up,” Drake’s critical first response to rapper Meek Mill, who had accused Drake of using ghostwriters to write his lyrics. When you hear Drake’s “0 to 100” you’re hearing producer Boi-1da’s chopped-up interpretation of a groove initially laid down in Dukes’s Toronto studio by members of BadBadNotGood. Ask any member of the jazz trio and they’ll tell you that Dukes, who produced the whole record with the group, shepherded Sour Soul from conception to completion.