Stormzy producer Chris Andoh on co-writing the colossal hit Vossi Bop: “I still have a lot to learn”
Chris Andoh tells us the story behind producing and co-writing the colossal hit Vossi Bop and how 10 years of creative passion is finally paying off.
From becoming the talk of Glastonbury to yielding the highest-ever streams by a rapper in its first week on sale, few contemporary songs have captured the millennial energy of our times like Stormzy’s Vossi Bop. Its lyrical flurries feature everything from incendiary digs at the government to nods to martial arts beefcake Chuck Norris, and are supported by a mesmeric musical framework co-crafted and produced by Harrow-born Chris Andoh.
“I never saw music as a career when I started out,” he says. “My parents wanted me to become a doctor. I had my heart set on football.”
A loss for the worlds of sport and medicine, perhaps, but a huge gain for pop music. As the co-writer of Stormzy’s era-defining smash-hit, Andoh has not only clocked up a couple of weeks at the top of the charts but achieved platinum sales and a BRIT Award nomination. In the wake of its success, Andoh signed a deal with Universal Music Publishing and has devoted himself to a full-time career in music, keeping busy with songwriting sessions with the long line of artists waiting to work with him. An overnight success, then? Not quite. Andoh has been grafting for 10 years to get here.
He started making music in FL Studio in high school but it was always a hobbyist pursuit. “I was always balancing shift work with making music,” says Andoh. “I’d head straight to the studio, work on beats all night, get a few hours sleep then head back to work to start all over again. I was living the studio life but still doing my best to pay the tax man.”
From the top
It was the futuristic rhymes and beats of Jay-Z, Pharrell and Timbaland that helped light the touchpaper under Andoh’s obsession with music. When his friends encouraged him to start making his own tracks, there was no going back. “Music was more a hobby back then,” he says. “I had Fruity Loops (FL Studio), which was basic but effective software, then I just started making grime. That was kicking off back then in Harrow and London. I began to build a name for myself in my area.”
After a brief stint studying popular music and record production, Andoh’s resolve to follow his musical ambitions hardened by dropping out of the course and instead choosing to get his hands dirty in the studio. “That course was a lot of theory rather than practical music-making, which was great but I really wanted the actual experience of making beats,” he says. “So I decided to come back to London, get a job and start going to the studios some of my friends looked after. I’d sit in on sessions and that’s when I really started absorbing and learning.”
Life of grime
On returning to Harrow, Andoh worked closely with rappers, producers and music makers within his circle. His close friend Parker Ighile was the first to taste genuine success, scoring a hit with grime artist Chipmunk and his track Oopsy Daisy.
“Parker worked with Jessie J and was one of Nicki Minaj’s first artists on her label. Witnessing his incredible achievements up close was really inspiring and made me believe that I could do it too,” says Andoh. “He always showed us the ins and outs of the industry and invited us to sessions. It’s all well and good making music with your friends but when someone takes it to the next level and you get to go into the big studios, see the equipment, feel the vibe of these professional environments – as someone coming up, it makes you want to up your game too.”
Some of Andoh’s first forays into releasing tracks came through connections he’d forged via Parker. He collaborated with the hotly tipped XL Recording artist Nines and US rapper BIA. “I worked with Nines after he was signed on a mixtape that did well,” says Andoh. “BIA is an American rapper who’s building a name for herself in the States and getting props from Rihanna and Jay-Z. I’m hoping to reunite with her in the future.”
Andoh reiterates the importance of his friendship with Parker, who literally opened his studio doors to him and encouraged him to get stuck in. “Parker gave us the opportunities,” he says. “I was lucky my friends had access and I responded well creatively to these environments. Saying that, all I need to be creative is my laptop and headphones. I don’t need big speakers or any overly complicated gear. That’s what I love about music-making these days.”
Building the bop
It was on one of his forays into the studio where Andoh first met Stormzy. Back in 2014, the MC and lyricist was still developing his sound. “He came to the studio to record with my friend 6IXVI, who was engineering a track,” says Andoh. “We thought it’d be cool to get to know Stormzy better to see what he could do. We all got on really well and ended up recording a track, which was on his first EP Dreamers Disease. His buzz wasn’t anywhere near as big as it is now but you could see that things were starting to happen for him, so we always kept in touch. He’d be in the studio a lot. We’d play FIFA, just chill out and talk about music and our plans.”
Despite their efforts, a musical collaboration didn’t happen straight away. But Andoh and Stormzy kept in touch via Snapchat, a platform that proved vital to the making of Vossi Bop. The beat itself came after a lengthy eight-hour shift at work, which left the producer itching to get creative and build something fresh.
“After work one day, I went to one of my friend’s studios in Park Royal. The initial idea behind the Vossi Bop beat was to craft the kind of repetitive track aimed at someone like Drake and emulate that US rap sound. As I started working on it, I realised it had a real hip-hop bounce and swing, so I downloaded a Drake a capella to see what it would sound like with a vocal. It’s something I do quite often to get more ideas and it helps me hear where things sit on a track.”
Andoh posted the beat on Snapchat and Stormzy responded almost immediately to ask if he could jump on with some verses. “I was like, ‘Bro you can have it,’” he says, with a laugh. “I couldn’t picture anyone in particular rapping on it so I was intrigued to see what he could do. Two days later he was in the studio with me and 6IXVI. Stormzy went over the beat and assembled all the lyrics really quickly as we recorded it. Me and 6IXVI were there to witness history being made.”
Shortly after this session, Stormzy’s career exploded as his debut album Gang Signs And Prayers went to number one, selling more than 68,000 copies. Andoh and 6IXVI watched from the sidelines and naturally began to wonder if their song would ever see the light of day. “We would play the files every now and again and wondered if he was ever going to release it,” says Andoh. “Then in 2018, I got a message from Stormzy saying it was going to be the next single. He kept getting asked about it online. It came out in 2019 and everything went crazy.”
That’s an understatement. The song became Stormzy’s first number-one single and an important cultural touchstone, its incisive lyrics and hypnotic charm bewitching the nation. The song’s release cemented not only Stormzy as one of the UK’s biggest stars but also propelled the careers of both Andoh and 6IXVI.
Has the song’s co-writer found it challenging to adjust to these giddy new heights? “I really do have to take it as a blessing,” says Andoh. “I keep reminding myself to keep my head on straight and carry on. I’ve been making music for more than 10 years. I’ve spent plenty of hours in the studio but I still have a lot to learn.”
Now signed to Universal, Andoh is on the other side of the door, with talent clamouring to collaborate with him. “It’s been a lot easier to set up sessions since the success,” he says. “I’ve found that if you have a number-one record people are far less likely to say no to you. At the moment, I’m working with lots of up-and-coming artists. You obviously don’t know who the next big thing might be so you can’t really say no to collaborations – one of them could be the next Stormzy. Everyone has their time, has their moment, and you need to keep your eyes and ears open.”
Andoh is a well-known advocate of FL Studio. While studying, he learnt to navigate Logic but eventually reverted back to his first-choice software once he’d left the college. What motivated this change? “I went back to it because of the drum sequencer,” he says. “Fruity is really easy to use – dynamic and diverse so you can come up with loops really quickly. I’d try to do the same on Logic but I’d lose inspiration because I just found it would take so long by comparison. Speed is important – and it would take me 20 minutes to get one hi-hat right in Logic. FL is definitely underrated. It doesn’t get the credit it deserves.”
Although Andoh is a great proponent of the Image Line DAW and has been making music with it for more than a decade, he’s still discovering tucked-away tricks and techniques in its arsenal. “I’m still learning new things,” he says. “I found this button that makes your kick drum knock so much better. It would have made Vossi Bop sound even better. At the same time, it’s a great way into making music for new producers. The interface is easy to navigate and you can start making beats almost immediately.”
“With Pro Tools, Logic and Reason, you need to spend more time digesting instructions to get anywhere. With FL, you watch or read a few tutorials and away you go. I tend to build and finish my tracks on FL but I then bounce the stems out and into Logic for one last polish. The audio quality is cleaner. But with whichever software you choose, they all ultimately do the same, so it’s each to their own.”
Andoh also points out another inadvertently convenient feature that has made the DAW popular with dozens of grime producers. “A grime tempo is 140bpm as standard,” he says. “When I first got FL, the default tempos were about 130 to 140bpm, so if you didn’t know about changing the tempo, then you’d automatically be making a beat at this speed – you’re an instant grime producer.”
Join the queue
With Andoh having spent so much time in studios over the years, he’s now focusing his efforts on searching for the right sound and looking for more new artists to hook up with. At the heart of each collaboration, there has to be an element of bonding. “Before we start, I like to spend some time getting to know someone, finding out about what they’re all about, how they carry themselves, their worldview,” he says. “It gives you a good indication of where the session and the music might go.”
Working at the crossroads between grime, R&B, pop and hip-hop means Andoh is responding to the diversity of cultures in part spread by the rise in agnostic listening habits brought on by streaming. “I like to work across different genres and styles. I’m very much open to a variety of sounds,” he says.
“Getting that input or experience definitely pushes me and my music in different directions. But when I’m working on a beat or song I’m also trying to satisfy my own creative urges. It sounds selfish but it’s kind of up to everyone else how they take a track. With Vossi Bop, I’ve seen plenty of negative feedback and comments online and, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. Everyone has an opinion.”
While a great deal of Andoh’s production is in-the-box, when he’s working with a vocalist, the most creative sessions come as a result of close proximity. “I like to be in the studio with them to see where the song is going,” he says. “There can be miscommunication or certain things might get forgotten, so I like to be in the same physical space so we can thrash it out. That’s how I like to work – you can get more done and you don’t have to worry about whether they might like an edit if you take something out, because you get their input. It flows better.”
The increasing power of portable technology is something Andoh is grateful for and comes in particularly handy during his drives between studios and sessions. “I can be anywhere when inspiration strikes. I often record melodies into my phone, then flip it by trying to recreate it in-the-box. Often ideas will just come out of nowhere.”
With the limitless power of tech comes great responsibilities and possibilities when it comes to making music. Some producers struggle to complete work due to the temptation to endlessly tweak their material. Andoh is no different. “If I showed you my folder of unfinished beats you’d be very unimpressed,” he says. “It’s definitely something that producers go through. But for me, I always strive to finish a session. I have a sense of direction when I’m in the room with an artist that helps me focus. If anything is unfinished, I never give up on it completely. Instead, I tend to get a capellas and throw it on top of the beat to see what it sounds like. Then maybe I’ll work around the a capella to figure out the structure and offer a lifeline to any collaborators wanting to work around the beat.”
Heavy is the head
Following the unprecedented success of Vossi Bop and Andoh’s elevation into the higher echelons of the production world, where will his career take him next? “I’m not working on anything on my own right now,” he says, “but I’ve been producing with lots of up-and-coming artists, including Raheaven, on her new EP, and Roshan Powell, an amazing vocalist, sort of like a British Frank Ocean. For now, I’m happy making my way up the ladder, taking life as it comes.”
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