Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy marked a lot of changes for the college dropout. Aside from the personal struggles prior to its production (the death of his mother, as well as the now praised interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs) the album also marked a creative shift for Kanye: He shied away from much of the soul samples he was famous for—even opting to sample his own voice as instrumentation—for a much more sonically challenging piece of work.
Listening back to my conversation with Sean Starks, I’m reminded of this era. Starks took an interest in music production after hearing MBDTF in high school, and mentions wanting to move away from the samples he is known for. Kanye was already a critically acclaimed rapper-producer before MBDTF, but the project allowed him to curate the sounds of other artists and producers, and solidify his title as an artist. This may be a reach, I know, but I think what we’re about to witness from Sean Starks could be considered his Fantasy era.
It’s the end process, of just hearing the song. Just hearing what comes out of it, hearing the final product.
Sean Starks started producing in 2011 after he first got to college at OU. He had some interest in production while in high school, so when he got the chance to pick a major he chose audio production. “That’s the only thing I had in mind,” Sean says. “So I chose audio production…It’s kind of backwards for real. I picked my major then I figure like, let me start making beats.”
“I got [Fruity Loops] from one of my friends, it started like that. It took me a couple of years to get nice though,” he continues. “Around 2015 is when I really started dropping tapes, [when] I really got official for real.”
The link up with MOUF’s Big James and Zac Fresh came from connections at OU as well. But it wasn’t until 2015 that Sean Starks first started releasing music with Big James. The Live From NASA EP marked the beginning of the rapper-producer duo’s lengthy list of collaborations, projects and tracks.
Starks links the popularity of his records to his versatility. When you work with him, especially for a full project, there’s a sound for everybody. You can hear the contrast on a number of projects, like Zac Fresh’s appropriately titled Trap John Legend. Zac’s auto-tuned croons on “Only One” are somehow just as equally sentimental as they are potent.
More often than not, you’ll see Starks’ production spread across full projects with an artist, rather than one-off singles. Every track avoids monotony, comfortably transitioning from heavy soul samples (see TrigNO’s “Bonafide” from Rawest 4m) to trap beats (see “Liquify” one track over).
For Starks, he prefers to make projects in full. He says he likes the practice, and working on a full project just feels more important.
“I’d rather connect with an artist than just making a couple singles here and there, ‘cause I feel like it promotes [me and the artist] better, making a whole project,” he says. “One single, you forget about that over the next few months.”
Starks says he’s always looking to improve. He envisions having his own record label, overseeing projects and curating a set of producers under him. As far as moving away from sampling, Starks says he does enjoy manipulating them, but wants to learn more in his craft.
“I really want to get on the piano, learn these keys and chord progressions. Just get more instrumental,” he says. “I want to stop sampling as much, or like add my own to the sample. Something I’m gonna be practicing on this year for real.”
Along with a compilation tape and a project with Zac Fresh tentatively titled “Freshy Mode,” Starks is also set to produce a project with Greg Owens, featuring a number of artists around the city.
“Probably on some R&B, boom bap type of lane. Kind of like where ‘Cold Blooded’ was at,” he says. “I’ll have the usual artists that I’ve already made music with and hopefully some newer ones too.”
“You know, I’m not standoffish,” he continues. “I really just try to work with everybody so we can progress the city together.”