Written by Daniel Isenberg
I first heard Bronx producer Spanish Ran’s name being dropped on podcasts by Westside Gunn, in reference to Ran bringing Gunn to Roc Nation during the early days of Griselda. And that’s because before Spanish Ran became the prolific, full-time producer we know now, he worked under Lenny S.
While Lenny was busy with A-list artists like Jay-Z, DJ Khaled, and Fabolous, Ran was all over the web and the blogs—and outside at the live shows—starting as an intern and bringing new talent into the building. And he was successful, helping Roc Nation sign breakthrough artists like Vic Mensa and Rapsody. In fact, the first project he ever worked on as an A&R—Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom—ended up being nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy Award.
But even with his success on the label side, Spanish Ran was inspired by watching the best producers in the game get busy in the studio, and decided to flip the switch to become one himself. So after years of quietly perfecting his craft at home, Ran went all in and gave production his full attention.
Since then, Spanish Ran’s been on an unprecedented underground run, producing a long string of full-length, independently-released projects with multiple MCs (Bronx representatives Al-Doe, Bloo Azul, and Tree Mason to name a few), each joint as fire as the next. His moody, gritty sound is an offshoot of producers like RZA and Alchemist, but clearly he’s defining his own lane and pushing New York hip-hop forward without compromise.
Rap fans out there who have been paying attention know that Ran’s been doing his thing for a minute now, and shows no signs of slowing down. So we tapped him for our first ever Cookin’ Up feature to discuss his daily grind and process as a producer, and how he’s using his home studio in the Bronx—dubbed “The Church” which also doubles as the name of his artist collective—to create some of the illest new rap music coming out of New York City right now. Peep the flavor.
Transition From Roc Nation to Full-Time Production
Spanish Ran: It was always a part of me. I’ve never really been a guy who wanted to be in an office looking at analytics all day or talking about numbers. I was like, “I like being on the creative side, being in the studio.” I’d see these guys working all the time in the studio, but I never told anybody I was doing production. That was never really my focus. I was trying to sign producers and get producers placement, and trying to sign artists.
But at the same time, I was around all these guys making production. Watching 9th Wonder or No I.D. make a beat, or Swizz. All these guys are legends, and I’m watching them. And behind closed doors, I was doing my own thing, trying to perfect my craft. And seeing them sparked up a whole new interest in me, like, “Let me take this real serious.” It was on some competition shit, like, “This is all that they do? I can do this.”
It took me a while to get confident. Because at the end of the day, I was the guy critiquing artists. If I’m the one saying, “This is dope,” or, “This shit could be better,” I gotta make sure my sword is sharp, too. I can’t just be putting out trash.
It pretty much became, “Let me put my 100% percent on it. Instead of looking for the artist, let me become the artist.”
Learning How To Make Beats
One of my closest friends who used to live across the street from me in the Bronx—ironically he’s Lenny S’s cousin—he had an MPC2000. I remember at that time, if you had an MPC, you were doing something. That was like a UFO to me. He had a two screen computer, he had CD burners—this was during that time. Even having a studio in the house at that time was unheard of.
He went to school at IAR for audio engineering and had an MPC. So I was like, “Oh, you know how to make beats and engineer? Let’s try to get people into the studio and charge them.” I was more on the business side. Like, “You handle that, and I’ll handle bringing the artists in.”
But I would see him making beats. And I never touched an MPC. I didn’t know what it took to make a beat. But he would be making beats in like ten, fifteen minutes and I was like, “I think I can do this shit.”
In the long run, he stopped taking an interest in making beats. And I told him, “Let me hold that MPC down.” And that’s when I eventually built a studio in my apartment. I had the MPC, and he taught me the basics of it. Then I made a booth, and I bought all this equipment. But I didn’t know how to use it. So I took myself to IAR to learn how to become an engineer.
It was a nine month program, but it doesn’t take nine months to become an engineer. If it was that simple, everyone would’ve been doing it. It takes years of really training the ear, and they always said that. But every time I learned something new in school, like how to use Pro Tools or some trick that a professional engineer taught us, I had the equipment at home to try it. But I didn’t apply what I learned when I graduated until five or six years later when I decided to really become a producer.
Hardware and Software
I was making beats on the MPC, but not really taking it too seriously. I would toy around with it. Then from the MPC, I eventually got into software. I saw 9th Wonder using Fruity Loops, then I got into Reason and learning the basics of chopping samples. Then from Reason, I went to Ableton. And that changed my whole train of thought. Not only could I make a beat, but I could engineer a whole song and mix vocals.
To this day, I use Ableton, but now I apply hardware also. I have an MPC2500, but I also have an SP-404. The SP-404 changed my life because of the quality and texture of a sample when you go into it. So now I apply Ableton and the SP-404 into my whole workflow. Plus I mix vocals and mix the sample in Ableton. Transitioning from the MPC to Ableton and the SP-404 created a whole new way of how I do my shit.
There’s a compressor that’s in the SP-404 that you can’t emulate. There’s plug-ins that have that preset, but there’s something with that hardware where whatever sound you get out of that compressor, you can’t emulate it with a plug-in. I’ve tried. There’s other shit besides the compressor—obviously, you can make beats with it. But I use it for the texture of the compressor within the SP-404. The hub is the SP-404, and the seasoning is whatever I got on Ableton.
I got the mic set up to my focus right. I got the Macbook with Ableton connected to the SP-404. And I got a USB vinyl player, so I can transfer that into Ableton. It’s a whole workflow. I’ll grab a sample and throw it onto the SP-404 just to get that texture that I want, to make it sound real gritty. Then I’ll reroute it back into Ableton, and do my chopping on Ableton. Then it’ll probably take me three, four minutes to finish a beat, depending on how into it I am.
The way I create, it’s like, “What’s next, what’s next.” I try not to add too much, because it’s like putting too much seasoning on the plate. If it feels right, I stop right there and try to top what I did before. Like, “That beat was crazy, let me try to do another crazy one.” It’s kind of like an addiction, in a sense.
It’s the same thing with songs. I get tired of what we did last week. I’m already onto the new one, like, “What are we doing next?” I want to keep on creating and top what I did before, production-wise or even mixing-wise. And I throw that in with any artist I work with, like, “Let’s do this now.” And we both agree on it, instead of listening to the same song nonstop.
When I do a song with somebody, their vocals are already mixed and sounding crispy. I might take out little breaths or dead air here and there. And then I’ll build off of what they’re saying, like really producing producing.
Like, I won’t add my intros until the song is done. And whatever they’re saying that I think will really hit, I’ll take out a drum here and there or add little sound effects. It depends on the song. Sometimes it can be a basic joint and the pieces are already filled. I go by feeling. If it feels like it’s done, it’s done. Unless we’re doing a whole project, then I’ll listen to the sequence and be like, “I can add this,” or, “Let me take this out.”
You gotta have some type of rapport. Conversation. Mutual respect. As far as essentials, to me, I’m a healthy guy so I make sure someone brings me a juice, or a smoothie. Water. As for the artist, it depends. Everybody’s got their preference. Tree, obviously, a lotta marijuana. Bloo, a lot of marijuana. Doe, water and some beer. Me—a smoothie, a blunt, sage to clear out the energy, and good company. Even if it’s someone who’s not rapping, it’s good energy. That shit travels through the music, too.
Traveling in New York or outside of New York is always inspiring. I’m a gym guy, I like to go to the gym every day. But when there were no gyms during the pandemic, I ended up finding a new resource—riding a bike. That gave me a new perspective on where we’re from.
In New York, you either walk, drive, or take the train. But with a bike, you’re gonna see things a little differently. Certain parts you’ve never seen or ran into because there’s only a bike lane that can take you to those destinations. Riding a bike through the Bronx and down to Brooklyn, it gives me a new appreciation for the city I grew up in. Like, seeing Manhattan from across the Williamsburg Bridge, and getting that idea of, “This city is big. Anyone can make it.” That inspires me.
I like to work in the morning. I feel like when I wake up, my mind is fresh. New thoughts, new ideas. Wednesday, Thursday is always best for me to bring people through. And I work in the morning, kind of like a job, to keep it a hundred. 10am to 8, 9pm. I don’t like working overnight. I feel like by that time, my ear’s already done and drained.
Depending on the day and how many samples I have, I could crank out four or five beats a day. I make beats every day. It’s like shooting in the gym. I’m in the gym every day shooting and perfecting my shot.
Then my influences—like Madlib, Alchemist. If I hear something with those guys, like, “Oh shit, this drum is nuts.” Or, “This sample is crazy.” I’ll be inspired, like, “Let me cook up nine. Let me push myself.” It’s like being in the gym. “Let me crank out 300 pounds because I saw Arnold put up 350.”
Picking out a sample is really a job in itself. I don’t like to dig the same shit that everybody else digs. If I hear a sample that I heard somebody else use, it’s already in my mind, like, “I don’t really wanna use this.” I’d rather find something that nobody ever heard and put my stamp on it. So when people hear it, they’re like, “Oh, that’s the shit that Ran used,” or, “That’s the shit that Al-Doe rapped on.”
Online, you can find anything. Everything, actually. So I dig for shit online and go really deep, and try to find shit that nobody ever heard, or ever used, or wouldn’t even think about. I think most producers do that.
Then, if I’m in the city, or I’m running around Manhattan or Brooklyn, I’ll find a thrift shop or any record store, and I’ll go a month straight digging for samples. There’s something about the find, and the memories you have. Like, “Oh, I found this crazy sample in Brooklyn in some old thrift shop that cost me $2.” That story.
Or even the artwork aspect. There’s a thrift shop not that far from me, and every now and then I’ll go there to find records. And I’ll find a cover with a church choir and a bunch of kids on it, like, “I don’t know what this record’s gonna say to me, but I feel like there’s some grimy shit on this.” And it’ll be some kids singing, and I’ll be like, “Oh, I can turn this into some nasty, ignorant shit.”
If I vinyl dig, I’ll probably have records in my crib for about a month before I go through them all. When I do vinyl dig, I dig heavy. I’ll be like, “Alright, if I can’t find nothing online, I’m gonna go through these thirty records and start finding shit.”
During the pandemic, there was nothing to do. All I would do was dig through all the records from my mother and father’s stash, or records I came upon that I had never really went through, and put those shits on the vinyl player and make beats nonstop. 2020? I was nonstop just cranking shit, because I was in the house all day. Why not?
I’ll sample anything but country. I try everything. Brazilian, rock, psychedelic rock, soul, jazz, blues. A lotta out the box shit. But the way I mix my beats, you wouldn’t even tell if it’s vinyl or not. It’s that texture. A lot of my beats I make from samples online, you wouldn’t know they weren’t vinyl.
I’m personal with all the artists I work with. I go by conversations. Whatever you’re telling me, I’m gonna go around that so you can vent on it. So if you’re going through some shit, I’m gonna find some pain. Some piano riff or guitar you can go crazy on. I go by mood and feeling.
I try not to go for the happy soulful shit. It has to be like a woman pleading, like she hates her man type of shit. I go by full emotion, and by my influences that did it before me. Like RZA, Havoc, of course Alchemist. Especially RZA. I’m coming for that “Can It Be All So Simple” vibe. Something soulful but gritty, where I can bring you into my world.
It depends on the sample. Sometimes samples already have drums in it, and you chop it and manipulate it to how you want it, pattern-wise. Some samples I use, I don’t put drums on them. I chop it up in a certain way so it hits with that one-two pattern, but I’ll EQ it so crazy that you’d think I put drums on it. But I didn’t.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I think for most producers, drums have always been a thing. Like, “I gotta make sure my drums hit.” That’s everything. I think bass and drums is the most important part.
For my drums, I EQ it a certain way to make it sound gritty and dirty. But it depends on the sample. Like if it’s some soulful shit, I try not to put too hard-hitting of a drum, because it doesn’t call for it. I might lower it so it’s not too in-your-face, because sometimes the drums can take away from the feel of the sample.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the song. You want to make sure all the parts sound good. Drums, bass, the sample, and obviously the vocals play a huge part. You want to make sure it all sounds perfect, tone-wise and volume-wise.
Making Beats For Multiple Artists / Rap Camp
I go by a timeline. We got everything on a whiteboard. So let’s say I’m working with Tree—when I’m done with beats, I’ll put in parentheses “Tree,” or like, “Tree” or “Al-Doe.” So then when they come to the lab, I can just type in “Al-Doe,” and I got a bunch of the joints I made over the week. And if he fucks with it, I’ll build off what’s created.
Rap Camp is different, because it’s multiple people at once. So I’m trying to figure out who’s gonna sound good with who. You don’t wanna just have all five dudes on one song if it doesn’t make sense.
So let’s say I got UFO Fev or Tree or Bloo coming in. I’m gonna see what makes sense with who I’m working with right now, so I can put it on a project. And if their project is already out, I might keep it for myself or do a little digital loosie.
For me, when I have a bunch of rappers with different styles, I like to have the sample all ready, then chop it up and make it from scratch. It’s like boot camp for all of us. I make it on the spot, and they write it on the spot. And they’re all competing with each other to see who’s gonna have the best verse. It’s like seeing these guys spar in front of me. And now we can debate who got the best verse because they all wrote it on the spot.
I did it with UFO Fev, Al-Doe, and Madhattan. And these guys were like pitbulls in a circle, seeing who’s gonna go crazy on one another. It hasn’t dropped yet, but it’s very debatable. You don’t know who had the best verse. And that’s the conversation I like to have.
I haven’t done Rap Camp in three or four months now, it’s been a minute. It all stems from Alchemist and Mac Miller, and what they did in L.A.
Collaborating With Artists
A lot of times when they’re doing their verses and they can’t think of a hook, and they have certain parts of their verse that sounds like a hook, I’ll just drag and drop it like, “Nah, this gonna be the hook.” Or, “This sounds like a hook. Try to say this like a hook.” I’m engineering the whole thing, too. Making sure it’s a complete song, not just a beat and a verse.
Input, song ideas. And it’s based on conversation, too. I’ll be like, “You should talk about what you were telling me last week, or yesterday, or right now.” It’s like a script. “I got the perfect script for you, I just need your best acting performance. Why don’t you say it or do it like this?” Or, “Take that line out, that didn’t sound right.” Just really not being a “Yes Man.” You wanna make sure that shit sounds up to par, especially when you know the level that they’re at. Like, “I know you can do that way better.”
And without any ego. They listen to me, and I listen to them. Like, “Yo Ran, this beat is cool, but I feel like this.” And I’m not like, “Nah, you need to rap on it.” It’s like, “Aiight, bet. Let me keep on diggin’.”
Bloo can rap on anything. With MF Bloo, a lot of those beats weren’t supposed to be rapped on, because they were so off beat. It was like a rough draft, and he just rapped on it and created his own flow. And the shits hit, which is crazy to me. It would be like a three-bar format, and he managed to keep a flow and make it sound good. He’s ill with flows, and can pick out different flows on pretty much anything. He always finds it as a test. Like, “This beat is bugged out, but I’ma catch it.” And he’ll catch it.
Very creative and different. From song titles to hooks to subject matter, he’s very sharp. Especially with hooks. He’s like our Nate Dogg. If we can’t think of a hook, we go right to Tree. And he’ll be like, “Why don’t you do it like this or say it like that.” He’s ill with hooks.
Top Five Dead or Alive. One of the best rappers I ever heard. Put him on a song with Jada, put him on a song with Nas, with Hov. He’s gonna do his thing. If he feels challenged, he’s gonna make you feel just as challenged.
With “Still Hope,” you can hear the emotion behind the song. He was pissed when he did that song. He came in, and that was a day he wasn’t gonna show up at the lab. And he pulled up surprisingly and was like, “Yo Ran, load that shit up.” He wanted to vent. And did he.
Very passionate. Smart brother. He’s like the Ghostface, the Noreaga. That type of dude. Five percenter. Heavy into that lifestyle. Very plant-based. Hit you with some type of knowledge, like, “Damn, I didn’t think about it like that.” But also, dope. For me being RZA, he’s my Ghostface.
Ty Da Dale is down with Sauce Heist and them. He’s one of those dudes that can really rap his ass off. And he’s got a special, dope voice. Kinda like Busta, like when he talks how it’s so deep and gritty. He can rap about anything, and people are gonna be like, “Holy shit.” And very slick with the wordplay. He’s one of those guys that if he keeps working the way he works, he’s gonna be someone in that scene that people flock to. I did a whole album with him and Sauce Heist called Heist Life. He did his thing.
The camp is Tree, Doe, Bloo, and Sauce. Mav is someone I worked with outside of the camp. Great guy, great human being, and a great storyteller. He’s gonna create this picture where you can visualize everything he’s saying. That album we did is one of my favorites.
Mav has a very Alfred Hitchcock vibe. Very mysterious, but you see what he’s getting at. I’m a movie buff, I’m into horror films and stuff like that. It’s like I provided a soundtrack and a score to what he was saying, and it became one of those joints that people loved.
Mav and Madhattan—they’re like, external family. Madhattan writes very fast. When he hears something he likes, he’s gonna do it quick and it’s gonna come out dope. The majority of the time, we did like three songs in a day. We knocked that project out quick. He’s ready to rap. And ready to rap with anybody.
I got a whole project coming out soon with UFO Fev, too. Another artist by the name of Water from Chicago, I got a couple joints with him. Asun Eastwood is another one.
But at the same time, I keep the core of who I’m working with, even with outside projects. So if you hear a Mav album, Doe’s on it, and Tree’s on it. So it’s keeping the hub of the family around outside projects. I grew up on RZA, so I’m taking that playbook and running it to what we’re doing.
I go with feeling when it comes to sequencing. I want to set a vibe, and a mood. Not just be like, “Track 1, Track 2, Track 3.” I want it to flow like you’re watching a movie. I like to add different pieces behind the song that will blend with the next song. I don’t want it to stop like, “This is Track 5.”
Sometimes it be out the blue, like, “We got enough songs, we can just drop the project.” But I like to set a time stamp for ourselves, so it’s like, “Let’s stop right here.” Because if we don’t stop, we’ll just keep recording mad songs. I want to set more of a militant time.
My man Duane Planes is one of the illest graphic design guys out there. Between me and the artist I’m working with, we’re definitely hands on with the art. We direct the artist on how to do it, or what we have in mind. Nine times out of ten he nails it off one shot. Sometimes they’ll be little readjustments, but other than that, he already knows what we’re thinking.
MF Bloo is the perfect example. We were like, “Yo, we need this. Can you do it like this?” Done. That was one shot, no readjustments, no nothing. Off rip, that was one of the best covers I’ve ever seen him do for us.
I’ve always been tapped into the vinyl game from watching other people do it. I remember Westside Gunn telling me about vinyl early, during the time of me being in the office. So I was always familiar with it.
But Sauce Heist was the one who was like, “Nah Ran, we could really do this.” Because he was doing the vinyl thing on his own side. He actually showed me how it works. From then, his was the first vinyl I ever received myself. Whatever I learned from that first vinyl run I had with Sauce, I managed to bring that over to me and Doe having our own vinyls. And that transferred over to Tree and Bloo, and then Mav and Madhattan later on.
A lot of the overseas vinyl companies that run the vinyl game, if they’re a fan of your shit, they’re gonna reach out like, “How can we partner up with you so we can release vinyls on our site, and you can release them on your site?”
The good thing about working with these companies is you get to see who’s your core fan base by how many times they’re ordering and you’re delivering to them. If you’re an independent artist, and you have people that are going to support anything that you do, that’s your core. If you’ve got a good set of 150 people that are gonna buy your shit anytime you’re gonna drop? You’ll be good. You’re gonna get your money back regardless.
But you gotta know where you are as an independent artist. And that comes with trial and error. And for me, when I first did the vinyl thing, everything was trial and error. I never had a website, nothing. I was pretty much DM’ing. Which is a good thing, but it can get confusing depending on how many people want to buy your shit. But that’s good trial and error, because you’re learning while you’re doing it. Then from the next one, you know how to run it.
Everything is trial and error when you’re an independent artist. But the good thing is, you learn from what didn’t work, too.
Working with Bigger Name Rap Artists
The great thing about it is I already know these guys. But it has to be organic. I like being in the same room, I don’t like sending shit. And, not for nothing, a selfish part of me is like, “I don’t wanna do one joint. I wanna do a whole project.” I feel like that showcases more of the producer. I’m not really a one-off type of guy.
Don’t get me wrong—if it’s a Jay-Z or a Nas, I’m gonna take what I can. But if it’s a guy I already have a relationship and a history with, and they know what I’ve been doing as far as creating full-length albums and people receiving them well, then they know I can hold down a whole project.
That’s the reputation I built for myself, like an Alchemist, creating these full projects. I feel like I can do the same thing. And I might not be at that name yet, but I feel like I can do it in a way that’s gonna be as impactful as that man did it. This history is already there, it’s not far-fetched. It’s just about timing, and if it’s going to organically make sense.
Room For Improvement
Drums have always been a thing for me that I feel I can always do better. Make sure my drum patterns are a little more different, and creative.
And making original music. I don’t wanna be sampling all the time now. As people grow and progress, you wanna see something different. Especially with samples nowadays. The level where I’m at right now, people don’t care about clearances. But let’s say hypothetically, this shit goes out of the water now to the point where people are going to want that sample clearance. That shit is not a pretty penny.
So you gotta make sure you go around it. Still keep your sound, and not sound too computer-ish, if that makes sense. I look at a guy like Beat Butcha or DJ Khalil, and how they can make their original shit sound like a sample. That’s my goal. Eventually I’m gonna do it.
Pics courtesy of Spanish Ran’s Instagram and Tree Mason’s Instagram. Visit Spanish Ran’s website to purchase his latest releases.