A West Hollywood native, Nick has channeled his diverse musical background towards music production. You can find his dynamic influence in several songs on “Alpha,” the latest album of the prolific South Korean artist, CL. Or you might recognize his iconic horns on the 3x Platinum hit “INDUSTRY BABY” by Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow.
Yo! Magazine: Music seems to have been a huge part of your life growing up. Can you tell us how you got started?
Nick Lee: It started when I was six, I started playing piano because my parents wanted me to. My dad was my first teacher, although I fired him after a year. Piano always felt like something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do. Around seventh grade, I quit piano and decided to switch over to learning trombone–I randomly chose trombone. I also happened to have a really great band director named Starr Wayne who really got me stoked on music and encouraged me to do a lot of extracurricular music programs. In eighth grade, I joined the jazz band and learned how to improvise and play different styles of music. I went down the whole jazz rabbit hole and did summer programs, honor bands, et. cetera.
Around tenth grade, I set a goal of trying to get into Juilliard - which basically meant I didn’t have a social life in high school. I practiced constantly. After tenth grade, I transferred to Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), because I wanted to pursue music seriously at a performing arts high school. After graduating from LACHSA, I took a week-long summer workshop on music production with one of the LACHSA jazz teachers at the time, Jason Goldman - It was a crash course into production. Eventually, I achieved the goal I had set in tenth grade and got into Juilliard.
Once I got to New York, It was a little different than I had anticipated because, as I immersed myself in the jazz scene, I found it wasn’t as bright and colorful as I hoped it to be. In the winter of my freshman year, my grandfather passed, and for the memorial service I ended up producing this song about him using Logic. I had the epiphany that I wanted to go down that path rather than the jazz direction. I was still in school but I knew I just really wanted to be out in the world building a career for myself rather than in classes. I dropped out of school my sophomore year and stayed in New York for another six months. Around 2017, I moved back to Los Angeles and decided to do music production full-time.
Yo!: As Asians and Asian Americans we are often pushed in a direction away from pursuing art as a professional career. How has your experience differed from some of your peers?
Nick: My parents were always supportive, but it took some convincing. At first, my parents were reluctant of me transferring to LACHSA, but eventually they saw how passionate I was about music. They were totally behind me trying to get into Juilliard and were so happy when I got in– but, when I dropped out, there was more friction between us. They wanted me to finish school and get the degree– Asian parents always want you to get that degree. But over time, they saw how determined I was, and now they are very happy with what I’ve achieved and see that dropping out made sense at the time.
I actually spoke at LACHSA and a student asked me, “I want to produce, but how do you deal with parents not being supportive?” That was a really hard question for me because every family is different. I told him, “You have to have a strong conviction that you can make it happen and be proactive. You have to show your parents that you are serious and you’re actively trying to reach the next step.”
When I dropped out of college, I wrote up this whole notes document called “Game Plan,” which had a bunch of strategies on how I’d break into the industry. The list included things like, “cold email this A&R” or “meet with this person.” It outlined actual, tangible steps I thought would be helpful. I presented this document to my parents and it really helped them see that I had a game plan– maybe it’s an Asian thing.
Yo!: What is your ethnic background and how does this influence your work?
Nick: My dad is half Chinese-half Japanese and my mom is full Chinese, so I’m three-quarters Chinese and one quarter Japanese. There definitely aren't too many other Asian Americans in the industry and when you find others, you really find there is an unspoken bond or brotherhood.
Only about a year and a half ago I accepted my identity, because before I always felt like I had to have a chip on my shoulder or work twice as hard to get the same opportunities as my white colleagues. For a while, I wanted to be only seen for my work and for people to forget I’m Asian. And then maybe about last year I decided to embrace my identity more and use it to my advantage. Understanding my identity helped when I started producing for groups like Stray Kids or CL. Now I see my culture as a way to help me stand out.
Yo!: You have gotten to collaborate with some of the biggest names in the industry right now. Can you tell us what that experience has been like?
Nick: CL is amazing, we met in November 2020 and did a couple of studio sessions in person. She then asked me to be part of working on her album. When she was in LA, we did about four or five songs on the album in person and the rest was made remotely. She is really about her vision and her message of what her music is saying. When she was back in LA earlier this year, she’d always invite me to her shows and we got to hang backstage.
With Lil Nas X, I met him through the Take A Daytrip guys. [Editor’s Note: Take a Daytrip is a music production and songwriting duo composed of Denzel Baptiste and David Biral. They are known for their frequent collaboration with Lil Nas X, Kid Cudi, Juice Wrld, and Travis Scott.]
My manager Max connected me with Daytrip in 2020 and I started making these horn loops around that time. Serendipitously, Nas was looking for trombone stuff for his album, so I started sending horn loops to Daytrip and they ended up using them.
My first impression of him was that he's super down-to-earth, cracks a lot of jokes, and is just an overall nice guy. A lot of the work was done during the pandemic remotely, and March of last year was the first time I actually got to meet them in person. “INDUSTRY BABY” was pretty much done, but we needed to record more horns on what is now the outro, so I went over to their studio and recorded those horns with them. I like to stick around good people in the industry.
Yo!: Can you walk us through your creative process in the studio?
Nick: I’ll usually start with a sound. I go through presets until I find a sound I like and go from there. I then build chords or a musical motif, add drums–it really depends on who I’m working with because as a producer, you never know where your collaborator wants to start, so you have to be flexible starting at different points.
Yo!: Talking studio gear, what do you think is the essential piece of equipment you’d recommend to a new producer looking to get started? Preferred DAW?
Nick: I started out with a laptop, Logic, some headphones and a tiny MIDI keyboard, but all you really need is a laptop and an idea.
Yo!: We all hit writer’s block from time to time. What helps you stay creative in those moments?
Nick: Whenever I get writer's block, I usually listen to classical music to reset and get reinspired. It’s good to listen to different music than the kind I make. I also like to stay active by playing tennis or badminton or even just going for a hike.
Yo!: There are a lot of talented young Asian American producers who may feel insecure about sharing their works with the world by either self-releasing or sending songs to record labels. What advice would you give them?
Nick: Just share it. Take those risks. Personally, I was never insecure about sharing my music, maybe to a fault that even when it sucked I thought it was great–which is good and bad I guess. It’s important to find the confidence in yourself to put your product out there. I sent my music to friends, family, a bunch of people I wanted to work with, A&Rs who never responded, anyone who would listen.
Yo!: Who is the dream artist or artists you’d love to collaborate with in the future?
Nick: I have a bunch. Frank Ocean, Billie Eilish, Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Doja Cat, Dua Lipa, Daniel Caesar, Kendrick Lamar, 070 shake, Baby Keem to name a few.
Yo!: What does the future look like for Nick Lee?
Nick: Right now, we are focusing on my brand and building a social media identity. We just redid my website and are developing a new logo. Last year, one of the side effects from the success of “INDUSTRY BABY” was a lot of people seeing me as the horn guy, but what those people don’t know is that I also produce different kinds of music. The goal is always to make more hit songs, make more songs I like, and make sure my creative process stays intact and I’m able to stay inspired.
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