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How a Yukon producer won his first Grammy for Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

During the 2000's, Canadian producer/musician Stephen Kozmeniuk fronted the Whitehorse-based indie-pop band called Boy. Frustrated by that band's progress, Kozmeniuk (or Koz) started writing advertising jingles to pay the bills. Today, as a producer, he’s worked with artists like Madonna, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj. He’s also one of 17 producers nominated for a Grammy Award for his work on Kendrick Lamar’sTo Pimp A Butterfly, as one half of the Canadian team behind the poignant, politically sharp single off the album, "The Blacker The Berry."

"It definitely wasn’t something I planned out," says the producer. "I just love doing music so was trying to make ends meet while still doing what I love to do."

However, a chance encounter with Swedish producer Jonas Quant (Kylie Minogue, No Doubt), lead to an apprenticeship that changed everything.

"In Sweden, that's where you really get schooled in production in pop music," he says. “When my work visa ran out, I had gotten some cool credits over there and then I came back and started doing more my own thing."

When he got back to Toronto, he met Demo Castellon, producer and husband to Nelly Furtado, which lead to him working on Madonna’s 2012 albumMDNA.

"They just needed someone to come in and be the all around person," he says. "We got to do the Super Bowl. That was fun."

It was a chance encounter with frequent Drake producer Boi-1da, however, that lead him down the path to working with a who’s who of rappers. The pair have collaborated on tracks such as "Jesus Piece" by Game, Common, and Kanye West, and "Up In Flames" by Nicki Minaj, to name a few.

"Before meeting Boi-1da, I had never done hip-hop before in my life,” he says. "It was a crash course. Maybe that was the advantage, I could provide the songs and hooks for these guys."

Then of course there’s the track with Lamar, which was used as the second single fromTo Pimp a Butterfly, easily one of the most significant rap albums of its generation. A difficult, dense and complex piece of work that explores what it means to be black in America today, both politically and personally, U.S. president Barack Obama even named a song from the album as his favourite of 2015.To Pimp a Butterflyis up for 11 Grammys, including album of the year and rap album of the year.

The beat for "The Blacker the Berry" started with "a silly little guitar riff I made, a three minute thing, and it was just sitting in a folder," he says. "You just never know when something will inspire you later. Just a stream of consciousness riff. I never would have guessed, a Grammy nomination from that little nugget of an idea you had."

The beat was finished almost two years ago and shopped around to different rappers, but with no takers. "A few people had tried it and it didn’t go anywhere, but I don’t think I should say names," he says. "Then 1da hit me and said Kendrick is going to do it. It's like, ok. … In hip hop, you all of a sudden find out it's getting released a couple days later or something, and then you scramble to get all the parts and get it out to get mixed. ... The first time I heard it with the vocals was when it was released."

It marks the producer’s first Grammy nomination, reason enough to be excited, but the fact that it’s for such a significant album only adds to the anticipation.

"I really equate this record to when you heard Rage Against the Machine for the first time, or to the '60s civil rights music,” he says. "It's that record for this generation. It talks about these issues and I think that's why people are reacting. I feel lucky he really liked it and it spoke to him and made him want to say something like that because it had to be said."

While more offers are bound to come in, Koz is reluctant to commit to hip-hop full time.

"To be honest, after the hip-hop stuff, I’ve been trying to do my own stuff because it's just like I don’t want to get stuck just in hip-hop. I like so many different kinds of music,” he says, mentioning other artists he’s been working with, such as Serena Ryder, Reuben and the Dark and Banners.

Besides, short of Drake, he's already worked with the biggest names in rap in a short space of time.

"After Kendrick, what do you do?" he says. "Who else do you even work with? I don’t want to just make ignorant trap music all the time. It's fun to do, but I’m branching out."

After Monday, hopefully he'll have a Grammy to show for it.

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter:@JesseKG