Meet John Cunningham, the little-known executive producer behind XXXtentacion's sophomore effort, "?."
You may not have heard of John Cunningham, who first connected with XXX on 17’s touching outro, “Ayala,” but you’ll know his name soon enough.
In under a year, Cunningham went from just being a fan of the Florida artist's music, observing his controversial rise to stardom as a budding A&R at Unrestricted, to being a trusted live-in creative partner. Originally from Oakland, CA and a musician since a young age, Cunningham brought with him an eclectic musical palette that instantly found its counterpart in XXX’s own versatile taste. It was fate: the aforementioned outro to 17 was conceived on the very same night they met, back in mid-August last year. And since then, the creativity has only been fueled by their growing chemistry and XXX’s uncertain artistic trajectory.
HotNewHipHop was able to catch Cunningham for a brief phone call this past week and get a glimpse into the headspace of a man on the verge of his own breakthrough. Presented below is our conversation, edited for clarity.
HotNewHipHop: To be transparent, I’m very new to your work...
John Cunningham: Most people are.
Is ? the first album you’ve executive produced?
Yes. You like it?
For sure. XXX seems to have countless influences musically and it just felt like something clicked this time around.
Yeah, like I said, this is the first album I’ve ever executive produced. I’ve produced for a few other artists that I’m really proud to have worked with, but this is just different. I’ve never heard anyone like X and I really do think that he could be the biggest artist in the world if he continues to make the right moves.
Born & raised in Oakland, has hip-hop always been a big part of your life?
Yeah, here’s the thing: I’m a white kid with red hair and I was growing up in Oakland. So my parents love country music and I was into the hyphy movement. I just listened to everything, right? But then it all kinda changed when I started playing guitar when I was 12. We started this mediocre garageband with other kids from my high school - I think on Myspace our genre was “indie/pop/alternative.” And, honestly, those were some of the best times of my life because performing is the greatest feeling. Once we started going to real studios, I learned how to produce & record.
How did you and X meet?
I was working for a company called Unrestricted and we had a partnership with SONGS Publishing. The writer/producer thing has always been my main focus but I also had my hand in A&R and artist development. Basically, this guy, Ron Perry, who was the president of SONGS Publishing at the time, brought up X in an A&R meeting and because I loved X's music, I was able to help Ron sign him. So I initially met X in the studio under the whole pretense of Ron saying, “Here’s this guy John from the Publishing company who’s going to make sure the session goes well." But then, within like the first hour of meeting him, I’m playing guitar and he's writing a song! [Currently unreleased] I think we really hit it off because we have the same taste and I'd be honest with him. And those are all things he appreciates in a creative partner.
Wow, okay, so you guys met less than a year ago? Did you start working on ? as soon as 17 was rolled out?
The day I met him, he got to the studio at 10 pm and we stayed in there till 1 pm the next day, 15 hours. And then we went to the studio again 5 pm to midnight, and so on. When he came to LA, it was like he arrived and had all the resources he didn't have back in Florida. It was just a really good relationship creatively. We finished 17 within a few days of meeting and then just kept working whenever he would come to LA. At the time, we - or, at least I - didn't know what those would turn into. There were a couple sessions like that in between 17 and ? where we were working on stuff that X probably had the vision for, but the rest of us had no idea they were for the next project. But once I moved into his house in January, we ended up finishing like 70%-80% of ? and even ended up using some of the ideas we had started earlier.
And this was still in LA?
No, so sometime in late December he called me like, “Hey I wanna make this album, when can you fly out to Florida?” So I flew out on New Years Eve and, well, I’ve been here for the majority of 2018! [Laughs]
Hey, it sounds like it’s working! What’s the process of creating a song with X and how does it differ from your past collaborations?
The process of starting songs with X is so exciting. Sometimes he'll have a melody in his head and then just run over and hum it to me so I can figure out the chords. Or sometimes, I’ll just be playing the guitar or a beat, he hears something in his head, and in 15 seconds he'll have written a song. For example, “SAD!" was a beat I had started in L.A. and when X heard it, the first thing that came out of his mouth was the entire melody for the chorus. But with something like the "love yourself (interlude)"? That started with X singing the melody to me while I found chords we both liked.
Is there stuff in X’s head that you wish you were privy to? Whether it’s themes and concepts for songs, or the tracklisting, features, album rollout, and so forth.
Dude absolutely. When X is in the zone, he’s untouchable creatively. I’ve never seen or heard of an artist that can do exactly what he does. Whether or not he vocalizes his thought process behind something, the depth is there. For instance, the whole idea with the ? tracklist was to switch genres from song to song and jump around. That was something he had in his head for months that I only came to realize once we were coming up with the order of the tracks. The concept is to fuck with people’s heads.
Not pin him or you down to one box.
Andre 3000, Kanye West, Young Thug - X seems to be in this vein of genre-pushing versatility and it’s clear that he’s super exciting to many fans because they aren’t sure where he’s going to take hip-hop next. Is this in the back of your minds when creating?
We had to upload the album as “pop” because using the term hip-hop felt dated...
Grunge, alt-rock, post-hardcore…
Exactly. There were nights we would just listen to the album back to back and it felt like nothing we’d ever heard before. What I think happened was that the music we listened to when we were 10, 12, 14 - 10 years later, those influences found their way back into our work. That Travis Barker feature is a direct example of that. Blink-182 was a childhood favorite band for both X and myself growing up.
How would you compare ? to 17?
Comparing them is apples to oranges, one isn’t better or worse than the other. But, in my opinion, 17 was a project that X’s fans at the current time loved and could play front to back. It all flowed very very well and was very smooth. And maybe ? isn’t necessarily a project they can play front to back. His existing fans may find 2-3 songs they really feel attached to. But it’s also the one that will get him new fans. The special thing about him is how diverse he is. Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Drake, whoever - we all know how big a superstar can get right? But I don’t think anybody has ever seen an artist that can literally do all kinds of music. We don’t know what the ceiling is with that kind of range.
What are your goals for the short term?
What I want to emphasize is that throughout this whole process - learning guitar, playing in a band, producing and eventually going to a school in New York [Cunningham attended Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music] - I was super lucky because I had a few people who really helped me and gave back, you know? So I did an AMA on Reddit for up & coming producers, have behind-the-scenes videos for songs like "SAD!" and "Moonlight" and all that so that I can give back. I love doing that stuff - I feel like that’s the most value I can give. And my goal? My goal is to make music! It’s the best feeling in the world. That moment when you’re like, “oh, FUCK...this song is crazy” - that’s the best. The second best is performing or seeing your work live, like when X did his Helping Hand show on March 18th. And there's actually a song on the album where we're donating all proceeds to help pay for the medical bills of Anthony Borges, one of the survivors of the shooting who was in ICU for a couple weeks.
Yeah - X lives literally 5 mins from where it happened so he clearly wanted to help in any way he could.