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From Drake to Cadence Weapon, FrancisGotHeat is one of Toronto's hottest producers right now

Melody Lau

It’s a bright and warm day out in Toronto, and Francis “FrancisGotHeat” Nguyen-Tran is eager to spend some time basking in the daylight.

“I just want to go outside and read,” he says, clutching a copy of The Wealthy Barber Returns. He says he’s trying to pick up some money-saving tips. It’s a smart move for the 21-year-old beat maker who has already amassed an impressive portfolio of work, transforming him into one of the city’s busiest producers.

Nguyen-Tran’s desire for a sunny day hangout is quite the opposite of his day-to-day work routine sitting inside a dark studio — his own space is painted black with matching black furniture and equipment. In there, and in similar spaces before that, Nguyen-Tran has steadily built a name for himself over the past few years, creating R&B and hip-hop hits for the likes of Drake, Big Sean, Roy Woods, John River, Anders and Cadence Weapon.

Having grown up taking piano lessons since the age of three, Nguyen-Tran first discovered beat-making at the age of 13, when a friend sent him a video of artist and producer Ryan Leslie and Nguyen-Tran realized, “I can play all those instruments, too!” From there, he researched the software and programs that some of his favourite producers used and downloaded them to “mess around with.”

From there, he was introduced to a local organization called the Remix Project, a space where young creatives from underserved communities can access tools and link up with mentors. It’s there that Nguyen-Tran met and forged a working relationship with another young up-and-comer named WondaGurl, who went on to attract headlines of her own in 2013 when, at the age of 16, Jay Z called her up to work on his album Magna Carta Holy Grail.

Although he was working on beats of his own and landing some notable records along the way, Nguyen-Tran’s time in the limelight would come four years after WondaGurl's Jay Z break, when he scored a placement on two of 2017's biggest albums: Big Sean’s I Decided (“No Favors”) and Drake’s More Life (the Sampha featured “4422”).

A scroll through FrancisGotHeat's credits and you’ll find an array of other big names in hip-hop including Isaiah Rashad, Lil Uzi Vert, Ab-Soul and Little Simz, alongside Toronto acts like Anders, Jahkoy and Sean Leon. But Nguyen-Tran is not content with just dominating one genre.

CBC Music spoke to Nguyen-Tran about his ambitions to work with pop stars, his process and why he doesn’t bother explaining his job to his mother anymore.

Do you remember what your first beats were like?

They were pretty bad [laughs]. But it was fun to me; I would just be making beats every day like, five beats a day. I still have a few of them. I like to listen to my old work. A lot of them I’m like, "Damn, I can’t believe I came this far." I can’t believe I used to think that was hot.

Your first official album placement was on Tre Mission’s "On a Wave." How did that happen?

I remember I went to see Kendrick Lamar at Sound Academy, which is now Rebel, in Toronto. Tre Mission was opening for him and I was there with WondaGurl. They gave us a private booth up top which was cool, and I was like, “Yo, who is that opening? He’s really dope.” I looked him up the next day and I met up with his manager and he said yeah, let’s get something happening. One day, we went to the studio, he had this track already, with an a cappella, and he wanted a new beat around it so I made that beat and it was a wrap from there.

That must’ve been exciting. How did you react to your first album placement ever?

At the time, I thought it was the biggest deal ever. I went to HMV, I bought all the copies in stock! There were only three copies on the shelf, which is good because it meant it was moving units, right? Even the guy at the counter was like, who is this? Why are you buying all of these? I told him I was on the album and he should listen to it.

Do you still get that feeling of excitement when you get a beat picked up?

For sure, every time. I never expect it and then I get the call like, “Hey, you’re on this album!” It’s crazy, I don’t even know how it got there but I’m so happy. A lot of the times, I don’t even get to hear the track 'til it comes out. It’s a little stressful because what if I don’t like it? But for the most part, I’ve liked everything that has come out.

Where do you get inspiration from, when it comes to making music, and where does your process start?

All of my music is based off of what I'm feeling, what I've experienced. Basically like what an artist does. Artists just can't write about nothing, they have to live life a little and that's the same thing with producers. I can't just sit there all day and make beats, I have to go live my life a little. So, if I'm making great R&B music, I'm probably going through it with a girl or something, you know? Right now, my inspiration comes from travelling a lot and seeing different places that make me feel a different type of vibe, a different type of sound.

Usually, I start with melodies because that's my strong point. From there, I move on to drums and then I might add a few complimenting layers. I like melodies because a really catchy melody will stick to people. Melody, to me, is key.

You’ve described yourself as a shy person so how do you deal with being in the studio with different people all the time? Would you say you’re still kind of a shy person?

I’m still kind of shy, but I’m a little more comfortable now. Producing just puts me in situations where I’m in the room with people who I’ve never met before, but I’ve got to make something happen. I’m more comfortable in a one-on-one situation. If I walk into a session with 10 random people, I’m probably not going to say anything because it’s just weird. But the older I get, the more I learn how to talk to people more.

In my experiences over the years in the music industry, I feel like Asian artists, producers, writers, etc. are still a minority and generally unrepresented in North America. Is this something you’ve also felt or been aware of as you’ve navigated the industry?

Definitely. When I walk into studios, people probably think I’m just the runner or the engineer or something. They never think I’m the producer. But, recently, there has been a rise of Asians in the industry. Personally, I’ve never made it a point to use that as an advantage or disadvantage. I’ve always just been about making great music. I get a lot of people in my messages or whatever trying to push that agenda, but I’m just doing it to make great music and if I can help these people along the way and push the culture, then why not? When I started making beats, I didn’t know any other Asian producers. Now, I know like five, which is not a lot but it is significant to me.

Not to say that this is a giant barrier for just Asian people to enter the industry, but I know it’s tough to convince parents of a creative career sometimes. You’ve noted that as an obstacle of sorts, which I can relate to as a writer.

Yeah, even now my mom doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what I do.

So how do you try to explain that to her?

Honestly, I don’t. I just do my thing and I help her out and she just lets me do whatever I want now because I showed her this can actually work. Random people go up to her and ask, “Hey, is this your son?” People recognize me now which is kind of cool and gives me more validation. She trusts me now.

But when I first started out, me and my brother fought for it and my parents didn’t get it. They thought it was a hobby for the longest time. They didn’t think it was a viable career. There’s a lot of misconceptions in the media like the music industry is evil, the music industry is bad, it’s not wholesome. I just had to keep doing my thing. I fought through it. Even if they said no, I’d just sneak out of the house to go to sessions and come home late and sneak back into the house. I did whatever it took.

My thing to them was yo, you were the ones who put me into music! Why are you mad that I’m using it now?

Do you have any advice to anyone who is looking to get into production or beat-making now?

Just try it. A lot of people tell me they’ve always wanted to do it and I’m like, what’s really stopping you? If I had just thought, at 13, oh this looks cool, I wish I could do that, then I wouldn’t be here. I just loved it so much that I had to try it.

You’re only 21 years old and you’ve built a pretty solid portfolio of work already. What other goals are you hoping to achieve?

I definitely want to get a Grammy. I want to work on a diamond album, too. I want to branch out because I get bored very easily. I like trying to experiment with different sounds, just stepping out of my comfort zone. I want to work with someone like Lorde, a whole different genre like that. I want to work on records internationally, I want to have at least one record on every continent.

Well, you’ve got two so far!

So a couple more to go.

FrancisGotHeat will be speaking at Canadian Music Week's panel SOCAN presents Cookin Beats on Saturday, May 12. For more information, head over to CMW's website.

More to explore:

Listen to every 2018 episode of Marvin's Room on CBC Music

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The rebirth of Cadence Weapon: how the rapper is making his biggest shift yet