Sonny Digital is trying to escape the Matrix.
Almost all hip hop fans are familiar with Sonny Digital’s name, whether they realize it or not. His heavily digitized “Sonny Digital” drop appears at the beginning of everything from platinum hits like iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” to classic mixtape tracks from Juicy J’s extensive catalog. At just 25 years old, the quiet ubiquity of his name is a testament to his tremendous grind.
THE COME UP
Sonny Digital cuts a gangly silhouette. Standing at well over 6’2” (and that’s before the afro), it’s easy to picture him behind even the most expansive beatmaking set up. For now though, he’s seated on a couch in HotNewHipHop’s studio, absentmindedly curling his lanky frame around his phone.
Born Sonny Corey Uwaezuoke in Michigan to an American mother and a Nigerian father, shortly after his birth Sonny Digital’s mother moved the family to Atlanta. That move would place him at the future heart of a renaissance of Southern hip hop. His allegiance to the city has not wavered in the years since, and although he is currently residing in Los Angeles, he declares, “I plan on dying in Atlanta.”
Sonny Digital first began producing as a pre-teen, after a cousin from Michigan came to town and showed him the ropes. A kid without sports or any other dominating hobbies, creating music quickly took up most of his free time. He cites Young Jeezy and Shawty Redd as his first influences, honing his craft on early versions of Fruity Loops (now known as FL Studio).
Despite his relative youth, Sonny Digital’s come up from that point is nothing except old school. No Soundcloud algorithm or Kanye co-sign catapulted him into the spotlight. He grinded his way to notoriety, producing for a local hip hop group in high school and constantly sending beat tapes to local emcees.
Even as a minor, he would hit up strip clubs and ply DJs so they’d put on his latest productions. While strip clubs remain his favorite places to hear music, he recognizes they’ve reached the limits of their usefulness. “When I got outlets like y’all, you’re a little bigger than the strip clubs,” Sonny muses. “It depends on where you’re trying to go as an artist… at this point, I don’t want to fall into the strip club music and get stuck in there though.”
Despite his current misgivings about titty bars, the first track that put Sonny Digital on the map would surely have been a strip club banger: YC’s “Racks” featuring Future. Released in April of 2011, it predates Sonny Digital’s now unmistakable DJ tag. The song would go on to be certified Gold by the RIAA. At time, Sonny Digital was at the “height of [his] career.” Then tragedy struck.
Sonny Digital’s hard drive was broken, taking all of his stashed beats along with it. Anyone who has experienced a massive loss of creative work can attest to the crushing devastation it causes. However, the budding Atlanta producer had no choice but to keep moving forward.
“I couldn’t let anyone know that shit had happened, because I didn’t want people to be like, ‘damn, this nigga’s drive just crashed, he ain’t got no more beats. We can’t fuck with him no more,'" Sonny recalls about that moment. When that drive crashed, I just got another one and sucked it up like, ‘let me get out this little depression box.’”
He’s flip about it now, but those few months after losing all of his beats were possibly the most productive of his career. By his estimation he made “40 or 50 beats” during his production frenzy. It was a true pressure-makes-diamonds moment for Sonny Digital, as two of those beats would end up being his next biggest hits: Future’s “Same Damn Time” and 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song.”
One of the beats Sonny Digital sent to Propain in the midst of his furious streak of producing would end up on Future’s Streetz Is Calling mixtape as “Same Damn Time.” Sonny Digital didn’t originally consider the instrumental to be one of his best. He participates in a common practice among producers: he doesn’t usually send off his favorite beats, preferring to keep the cream of the crop for when he needs something truly special.
Of course, Sonny Digital was clearly wrong about “Same Damn Time,” which he now calls one of the beats he’s most proud of because, “from the time it came out to today, people still rock with that muthafucka like it just came out yesterday.” The song is a realization of one of his goals when making music: make the song evocative of a feeling, not a specific time and place. That way it becomes timeless, or as Sonny puts it, “trap timeless.”
In many ways, Sonny Digital’s big break and subsequent rise to the mainstream mirrors that of the rest of the New Atlanta sound. One could even say they’re one and the same, as he’s continued to produce for Future on DS2 and Evol, helping define a sound that’s become wildly popular.
HITTING HIS GROOVE
After continued success, Sonny Digital became interested in branching out from his usual trap tunes. This was easier said than done. People began to expect a certain sound from Sonny, which made it nearly impossible to experiment while working with established artists (homie gotta eat!). As a result, Sonny began seeking out new artists because, “it’s a breath of fresh air. I like rolling the dice with my career, production-wise. I like to see if I’m actually good at what I’m doing.”
Sonny has previously said he prefers working alone, and while he has definitely become more accustomed to working with friends like Metro Boomin and Southside, he retains his affinity for solitude when working. “I just like being in control of everything I be doing,” Sonny says. “Most of the time it’s two different people, two different brains, and they got two different thought processes.” When it works it works, but when it doesn’t it can be frustrating.
One of those times collaboration has worked was a career dice roll that turned into Sonny Digital’s only platinum record: iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday.” While the booming bass of Sonny Digital’s traditional trap sounds is present, the song makes the melody’s warping, organ-like synths the focus of the record and leaves the normally prominent snare as little more than a metronome for the track. He produced the song with his friend Metro Boomin, someone he says he meshes well with creatively.
Sonny Digital continues to look for new artists to help him expand his sound, finding that Soundcloud is his best tool. He’ll let the player’s algorithm take him wherever it likes, hoping to find something that piques his ear’s curiosity. He also derives a lot of inspiration from movies when making his instrumentals, often playing a movie on mute while he works to help stimulate his creativity. Films are not just inspiration for the young beatmaker, though. He sees parallels in the way plots are constructed and the way that editing can completely change the feeling of a scene. He encourages other producers to try the same, because the visual stimulation is often all one needs to get a vibe and start creating.
SONNY DIGITAL, THE RAPPER?
As for Sonny Digital’s favorite beat at the moment? That’s reserved for one of his own tracks, “50 On My Wrist.” The song represents the producer’s current goal: to be seen as a legit emcee and full-fledged artist.
While Sonny has always rapped (it was one of the reasons he started producing in the first place), he’s re-doubled his efforts after appearing as a feature on 50 Cent’s hit “I’m The Man.” Sonny recognized the opportunity that comes with being featured on a 50 Cent song, and has been steadily releasing his own music since then.
Interestingly, the song is actually much older than most listeners realize; it was one of Sonny Digital’s earlier releases as a rapper and came out in October of 2014. “That shit really solidified it for me, the music shit,” Sonny explains about appearing on 50 Cent’s version of “I’m The Man.” “You know he bought the whole record from me? So when he bought the record from me, I had the original out for like, a year. It was really me getting introduced to the people, as a rapper...That catapulted me into the artist world.”
Sonny knows it’s not all roses on the way to become a respected rapper, and asserts that doing so comes with more stigma when you’re a producer. When asked why this stigma exists – after all, everyone is a musician in the end – he gives a couple of theories: for one, “[the game] is oversaturated with rappers, it doesn’t need any more,” and secondly, “a lot of producer have tried [rapping], and they haven’t really done it the right way,” leaving a sour taste in people’s mouths and a ringing in their ears.
It’s particularly frustrating for him to see artists like J. Cole, who begin producing and are widely praised for it. He doesn’t see the stigma going both ways, and he’s mostly right. For the layman listener, it’s easier to critique words in a rap than the intricacies of a musical arrangement.
At one point, he even considered rapping under a pseudonym, something producers like Flying Lotus (as Captain Murphy) have done in the past. Anyone who follows Sonny Digital on Snapchat may recognize the name: Alejandro Pesos. He even went as far as to tweet about his new fictional artist, requesting beats from producers. The excitement is still evident when Sonny Digital is talking about the eventual big reveal, when he would remove the mask of Alejandro and shows his true identity (“Reveal yourself! It’s Sonny Digital!”).
I'm dropping this year - soon as I get done making all the beats https://t.co/5uBFYssCDCPosted by Sonny Digital on Friday, May 13, 2016
Eventually, Sonny Digital decided the logistics of keeping up a double life were more work than he was willing to do, his own identity was enough to break through the producer-rapper stigma. Besides, it makes for a better friendly competition between himself and Young Sizzle (AKA Southside), another producer trying to make the leap from producer to emcee. He still plans on incorporating Alejandro Pesos somewhere else, but hasn’t decided where that will end up.
His main goal now is to “be that person who transitions [from producer to rapper] for this generation.” Or, to use a move metaphor, as Sonny Digital often does, he wants to “break out from the Matrix,” and he knows the only way to do that is with good music.