Engineer Alex Tumay On Channeling Young Thug’s Creative Process
Young Thug's go-to engineer discusses working on the fringes of experimentation.
In a booth with the lights turned all the way down, Young Thug sat waiting for a new engineer to come in. He’d already kicked a few out of the room that day, and now it was Alex Tumay’s turn. The young engineer had heard Thugger’s 1017 Thug tape and some other tracks, but had never worked with him before. Their first project would be a blind one. The producers had left the room, so Tumay was in the studio alone, unable to see Thugger sitting there behind the glass. “It was like some phantom shit,” Tumay says. “I didn’t even see him leave.” Apparently, things went well, because the two have worked together steadily since.
That reputation for mysteriousness is something Young Thug continues cultivating to this day, intentionally or not. Interviewing him can be a gamble, as a lot of journalists can attest, and he frequently resorts to clipped, non-answers. It doesn’t always seem confrontational though—if you watch him speak, he just seems quiet around some new people or plain distracted.
Now that his fame is rising and he’s got more of a public history, the interviews have started piling up and we’ve begun to learn more. Unfortunately, too many questions directed at him are more about his style of dress and beef with other artists than his creative process.
There’s a lot of thoughtful pieces on Thug’s output, but the best ones don’t usually include interviews with the man himself. In fact, he once complained outright, “I hate explaining. I can show you though.” And he’s done just that, quiet that a few times, allowing people in for a glimpse of the process, but one or two sittings can’t paint a full enough picture.
As his engineer, Tumay is someone who’s been there alongside Thug in the studio for the majority of his work, and as a result, he’s able to provide some unique insight into things. He’s also Metro Boomin’s engineer, one of Thug’s most frequent collaborators. (Although, when Metro works with Future, they use his engineer, Seth Firkins.) Tumay has even contributed to a lot of the music on a creative level.
“I kind of have a unique situation with Thug,” he tells me. “I do a lot more than the typical recording and mixing, because he trusts me. I also do vocal production, working on harmonies, etc.” He even executive produced his newest tape, Slime Season 2. But Tumay is quick to point out that it’s not his creation, and that he’s just there to help. “At the end of the day, it’s their music. I’m trying to make it better, but it’s not mine.”
Working on vocal production is a pretty exceptional part of the process, though. Thug’s tones, pitches, warbles, and distortions are a large part of the appeal slash hate. “Rich Gang Freestyle” is a perfect example of how far his input can go. There’s a lot of vocal harmonies going on under the verses that sound almost like synth melodies. These are made from scraps Tumay keeps from sessions and uses for cases like this.
Thug might let Tumay write some of the counter melodies, but the ad libs are his alone, and usually added last. “His adlibs are all intentional,” Tumay stresses. “It’s all off the top of his head. Bar for bar.”
While harmonies are done in post-production because they’re taxing on the computer’s processor, Tumay freestyles many creative parts on the spot, sometimes alongside Thug, who’s well known for not writing anything down (or maybe drawing symbols). Tumay’s got some reliable delays, a go-to reverb, and some basic plugins, but otherwise he keeps his recording template pretty blank in order to avoid growing into any habits.
When laying down vocals, Thugger once described making his way around as trial and error: “I just think and try, think and try. I don’t really know how to sing, but I’ve been trying for years.”
In the booth, Tumay will often feed him some vocal effects into the headphones to try and communicate a vibe while he’s putting his lyrics together. The headphones also keep them on point. “The only people that can hear when we are recording are me and him,” the engineer says. “Keeps distractions down. Also, he’s quiet when talking; so when he’s telling me things, I have to be 100 percent attentive.”
Removing distractions has made Thug more focused. “There’s less gangsters, less drugs. I have a girlfriend now, so no girls,” he told The Guardian this month. “I’d have 10 girls at the studio and they would make me not rap. I’d be chilling and getting stoned.”
Although he’s always been fast—the recording of “Danny Glover” was famously lightning quick—things have become progressively streamlined. Like Wayne and Gucci before him, his work ethic in the studio is hard to keep pace with. Although he may not really be recording 27 songs in 40 minutes (unless he really is an alien), the output is constant and rapid.
The time around the recording of “Calling Your Name,” off Young Thug’s mixtape Slime Season, typifies the type of marathons him and his team will go on in the studio. “We had been doing so many records at the time,” Tumay exclaims. Like five to eight a day.” But it led to one of the weirder moments on the tape, with the Ellie Goulding sample and all. “I was drained. I was like, let’s do something crazy and different. That’s when Goose pulled that out of his hat.”
“We’re always recording, so there’s always new music to mix. If I’m not constantly keeping up, I’ll fall behind.”
“Thug’s just so fast, and timing is incredibly important. A lot of engineers won’t be fast enough, and they throw off the flow. He will place lines randomly once in a blue moon. Like in the ninth bar of an empty verse. He knows what he’s going to say the other eight bars, but he liked the way that line worked for the end. Which will throw people off.”
The way they usually build together is that first, Tumay will go through a bunch of beats with him and explain why he likes them. “Then Thug will pick one, walk around the room for a few minutes, and then say, ‘Let’s go,’ and he’ll walk into the booth. 10-20 minutes later, I’ll be mixing it.” Sometimes they’ll sit together in post-production and Thug will talk about what he wants.
While every producer has cooked up with them in the studio directly, it’s sporadic when they’re actually there, although Metro Boomin and London On Da Track frequently are. But it’s different every time, really.
The recording of “Warrior,” alongside Metro for their long-awaited Metro Thuggin project, was its own type of beast, an outlier in their catalogue: “I just wanted it to be like this huge track on some old psychedelic rock style. Metro cooked up a short outro and we just kept arranging and adding more until the song was like six to seven minutes long. It was all really unorthodox. I chopped up the vocals over the arrangement. I had to pull back a little because I had gone too crazy with it. Luckily, Metro was the voice of reason. In my defense, it was like 9 a.m. It was like an eight to nine-hour mixing span.” All this after Metro and Tumay had been in the studio for a few days straight.
That type of open collaboration is what Tumay enjoys most. Not even necessarily when it’s him involved on that level creatively, he says the Metro Thuggin joints were still his favorite.”The Blanguage” is another sprawling, experimental record for that project that really shows how far they can go when working closely together as partners. That one was all Metro and Thug, Tumay says. “The project is really an artistic collaboration between the two. Not just handing off a beat. I really think that time was the most fun I’ve had in the studio. That whole era.” When I ask if it’s over, he says only, “I hope not.” (The recent Twitter volleys looked like it may have been the end, but luckily they seem to have worked it out.)
Whether it’s something mailed in or cooked on the spot, Thug usually sees the potential in whatever beat he’s decided to jump on. “I mean, if he didn’t like them, that would be weird,” Tumay muses. “Rap is all about confidence, so you gotta love what you create.
“He can make any type of track.”