The “veteran” label has become a title in hip hip culture that has frequently coincided with a slew of unique characteristics. Some may earn the inscription on their careers for their impact on the culture during a particularly notable era, while others carry the label once their unofficial “dues” have been paid. For certain individuals, however, their creative consistency is what speaks for their title as a master of the craft in the hip hop business.
For longtime producer duo, Sean C and LV, their dedicated time, hands, and ears to the game have given them a notorious label as more than just veterans. The two have dipped their feet, taken risky dives, and created full bodies of water in the music industry over the past two decades with their musical genius. While one of their most notable titles has come from being part of Diddy’s legendary producer group, The Hitmen, their capabilities have been tested and victorious throughout many spectacles of hip hop and music culture.
The pair have been longtime friends, with Sean and LV growing up around each other before they even got heavily into music. While Sean has been hustling since his humble beginnings with the former X-Executioners, he went on to create a major impact on the culture by working with the likes of Fat Joe, Mobb Deep, Ghostface, and other superstar acts. He later earned himself a Grammy nomination after his work on Big Pun’s Capital Punishment debut, and even influenced a huge wave of Terror Squad’s original sound. At the same time, LV was beginning his his own chapter in the business as Pun’s official DJ on the road, thanks to a hookup from Sean, and eventually took on producing when he got a hold of his partner’s former equipment.
Soon, the two got even closer creatively, spending majority of their time in the studio, and launching their Grind Music brand, becoming their credit alias on multiple projects. They went on to get their first artist, Aasim, signed to Bad Boy Records, before landing a producer deal with Puff and joining his iconic team.
Things picked up pace quickly for Sean and LV over the next decade, with the two putting in their most notable work together on Jay Z’s American Gangster album in 2007, which they deem as their highest hill of success achieved yet. The two are even famously responsible for one of the Brooklyn rapper’s most famous hits of today, “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is).”
Fast forward to today, and the twosome are still hard at work at providing the soundtrack to our every day playlists, which includes the likes of Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Although they have earned their titles as iconic veterans, both Sean and LV can attest to the hardships of being a hip hop creative, and how it impacts one’s mental health.
I recently sat down for a raw discussion with the incredible duo, where we spoke about their musical journey, mental illness in the music business and urban community, Kanye West’s genius, advice for sensitive talents and how their work on American Gangster inspired them.
Read my conversation with Sean C and LV below to tap into the minds of two musical greats.
Lindsey India: How did you both come into music as more than just a passion or hobby, but a full-time pursuit?
Sean: For me, I always wanted to be in music, so I don’t think there was ever a time where I thought [differently]. I started out as a DJ, so the natural progression from being a DJ is production. To me, that’s how I looked at it. I was in a group, the DJ made the music, so that’s just how it was when I was coming up. I think I decided that I could become a producer and make money producing for people outside of the group when the person in the group stopped rapping. [laughs] So, I was like, I guess I have to do this now. That was the natural progression.
LV: I always wanted to do music. It was never a question about whether I was going to take it seriously. That was always serious for me. I guess having a regular 9-5…that wasn’t serious to me. Right after high school. I started DJing for Big Pun. I didn’t even know what producing was. I was just tagging along with Sean every day as he was working on projects. Then it started hitting me like, “Oh, that’s what producing is.” I started being around in the studio, and one day Sean was about to sell his MPC, and I asked him if I could hold it for a little while. I started making beats and figuring out what I could do with them until I realized how much money you could actually make from it. I thought, “Oh, maybe I need to stop DJing for a little while and focus on that.” It was always serious, but I guess once I started producing, and started seeing someone else actually get a check for a beat, I thought it was serious.
What brought you both together as business and creative partners in music? Was it a chemistry connection, or a more of a mentor situation?
Sean: We started a company together, but if you look at earlier records, a lot of them will either say they were produced by Grind Music, or they’ll say “produced by Sean C” or “produced by LV,” separately. After he got the machine and started making beats, he would play me beats. I think it happened one day when we were in the studio, and we got two MPC’s. We usually just had one, but once we started working with two at the same time, that’s when it really turned into a collaboration.
LV: I think it was kind of like all of that. It was kind of a mentorship, because even before I was doing beats, I would see how the process of it happening went down. It was just all of that between mentorship and working together. It just made sense to me. It was easier that way. We liked the same things, but differently, and if you blend that together…that shit is just ill.
Both of you have done Grammy-nominated and award-winning work throughout your hefty careers that’s been laced all over the culture for over two decades. What’s been the most monumental high for you?
Sean: Creatively, it would be working on American Gangster, for me. But I think the first time I got a check for making a beat, that was also a moment, like how you said it. Figuring out that I could do something that I liked to do, that I could make a living off of…it was like an “a-ha” moment. After we did the American Gangster album, I would say that that was the height of our success, creatively.
LV: For me, it’s probably two of them. One was actually being able to DJ for Pun. That was just crazy for me, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I stopped going to school, I was just…like…I don’t want to say I was lost, but I didn’t want to get a job. I couldn’t really survive on $200 trying to do a party every month, and my mother was on my neck. So being able to go on the road and actually have fun and make money while DJing, that was fun. The second moment was when Sean and I had an artist named Aasim, and we got him signed. I think that was real hot. It’s not to say working on American Gangster wasn’t incredible, but that seemed inevitable to me. But working from nothing, and getting someone signed to someone like Puff, who’s like my idol, that was a “this is crazy” moment. Everything else after that was very good, but those are the life-changers for me.
Talk to me about your creative space. What does it take for you guys to get in your best element, but what can deter that as well?
Sean: I think if someone is the room with a bad vibe, it can definitely fuck up the creative process. If you’re trying to get something out that’s in your head…that about does it. As far as getting the best out of me, I listen to other music. Other people’s music inspires me to make music, so if I heard something that’s dope, that makes me make that face that I can’t help but make when something’s hot, that will make me want to make more music.
LV: There’s a few things that make me want to make music. Listening to other things and seeing other things definitely inspires me in that way. Women help. Wanting things, whether it’s wanting to do things like travel, buy sneakers, or those things. I know that if I make music, I know that I can do things that I want to do. I know that if I don’t make music, I can’t do any of that. I love being in the studio with Sean and around my friends. That helps me so much creatively too. When life goes the other day, it can help your creativity, but it sometimes also helps it. A lot of times it can throw a curve. When you got something in your head and you know how it’s supposed to sound, but it’s not coming out that way, that fucks up my vibe. I try my hardest not to let people have that much control over the work.
Sean: I want to build on something he just said. The business aspect of the music business can really destroy your creativity. If you get to a certain point, and you’re trying to figure out, “Well, we should make these kind of records in order to get here,” or “Maybe we shouldn’t be sampling, because with sampling, we’re not going to make as much money.” Then once you start thinking about things too much, it’s two different sides of your brain. That I would say is probably the thing that does spoil my creativity the most. Thinking too much, and thinking about how to profit off of something instead of just being creative.
LV: Definitely! That’s why I, maybe to a default, try not to think about that. I always just try to stay creative. I figured I made it this far off of doing shit that I love. Once I started I started realizing the business, I was like, “Oh, I don’t like this shit.” It definitely fucks it up. I try not to think about that and just be as creative as possible. If it happens, it happens.
As producers, how do you find mental health affecting you as a musical creative? Being that you’re constantly thinking of sounds, does depression or moments of anxiety impact that?
Sean: I went through a lot of different periods while making music. I’m a cancer survivor. I’m a single father. When I was going through cancer, I had my son at the same time, and I was working a regular job. I wasn’t happy. I was trying to get a job in music. So, I guess, mentally, making music [helped]. If I would sit in my room, no matter how stressed I was, and I made music, it would help me feel better. Even now, it’s the same thing. If I’m going through something, and I sit and make something, it helps me feel good. If I’m frustrated, and I’m trying to make music, but I don’t come up with anything, that also adds to my mood. It will make me feel worse, actually. I have to leave it alone at that point.
LV: I feel like [mental health] is very important. It comes out in different ways for me. If I’m going through something, whether it’s family, personal, or whatever else, I definitely use music as an escape. I try to really go deep into music. If you’re trying to escape something, and it’s not working, I kind of try not to beat myself up too much for not creating. I just leave it alone immediately. That’s something that I never want to get mad at or be upset at. That’s something I never want to have a problem with. We go through things, so sometimes that can actually help you. I was fucking depressed and I made some real up shit. It just helps. I feel like all creative people are special in their own way. Like special geniuses. You get obsessed with it, and it can make you do some crazy things.
When you were dealing with some of your harder times, is there anything you particularly created that came out of that?
Sean: I can’t say a specific song, but I’ll go back to American Gangster a little bit, because that was the time when I was figuring out whether I should just do executive stuff, and not be a producer. The opportunity to do American Gangster came, and it was like, “Whoa, okay.” It’s no specific song that I can attach to that period, but I know that project [is where] I was at a point where I was trying to figure out if I should even continue to make music or be in the business in a different way. So that opportunity gave me some light.
One event in the last year that shed some light on the topic of mental health and mental illness was Kanye West being reportedly hospitalized and allegedly put on a psychiatric hold for sleep deprivation. Being that he is a producer and music creative like both of you, did you understand or empathize with him on that scale? Could you relate to where his mind could have gone?
Sean: I understood it. I don’t know if it’s as a producer, a creative, or what it is, but I could understand a person of his stature and what he’s done creatively in the culture. He’s changed the tide, and is responsible for making groundbreaking art in general. Not just music. He’s been that for a very long time. When you’re younger, you do things for different reasons. When you’re older, you’re reasoning is different. You’re thinking a lot more and have a lot more experiences. I think a lot of the drive you have as a youth comes from being naïve about certain things as well. That helps you get through. Once you get to a certain success, and you’re at a certain age, trying to figure out how to do the things that you used to do, and do them just as well or better, it’s a lot of pressure. While I don’t know for a fact, I could see how that pressure can come down on you. Everything you do becomes this important thing, and everyone is watching. You gotta do some shit that’s going to change things, because that’s what you always do. You put that pressure on yourself as well, and that’s probably what happened. Although, I don’t know the full details of what happened. Even outside of it, being Kanye, you’ve see that before. D’Angelo was a similar situation. That’s why he was gone and took so long to make his records. He just wanted to live his life. When you do something so great, you have to follow it up. It’s a lot of pressure.
LV: That’s what it is. I think it’s pressure that people put on you, but mostly the pressure you put yourself to make you break down. I’m in no way saying this was the case for Kanye or D’Angelo, but if you’re making something that you create, you put pressure on yourself to make it good because you know what you’re capable of, and you know how you want it. You put so much pressure into it, and it can drive you crazy. You have to have a good relationship with yourself. You gotta tell yourself, “Calm the fuck down.” Take a walk around the corner or something [laughs].” Cause it can get crazy! I feel like that’s where your support system, and your friends, become really important. That can really help you a lot too. You need people to remind you to eat today. A lot of people don’t have that, and they tend to just have themselves. You’ll be living in a fucking box.
People always hear stories about working for Puff, and being that you both are members of The Hitmen, you know how those “bootcamps” work where you may be in the studio for extremely long periods, working hard on music. How do you stay sane, motivated, and not succumb to outside pressures?
LV: We have a good time. Personally, I love the studio. I love being in the studio. I could go to the studio every day. Creating music and just having friendships, where we’re bugging out, laughing in the studio. That’s what keeps you sane to me.
Sean: Somebody asked me a similar question about how hard it could be to work with Puff. To me, it’s like, “Bro, I’m getting paid to change a snare.” People are out here picking up garbage, and doing really, really hard work every day. So, you kind of have to put it in perspective [laughs]. You get your times where he wants you to do it over and over, but I could be doing so many other things that aren’t as fun. It’s a business, but it’s a blessing.
Do you think that there is an absence of mental health awareness in the music industry that needs to be stressed more? I tend to think back on the tragic losses of Chris Lighty and Shakir Stewart, and wonder about the dynamics of the business for those suffering.
Sean: I think in general there should be. I’ll say this. The black and latino community, we don’t deal with mental health issues. People sweep things under the rug, and I think a lot of it is stigma of not wanting to look weak. You always have to look like you’re in control of everything. I think that we should just pay attention [more]. I think you’re right. In the music business, it’s mostly entrepreneurs that are the most successful people. That takes a lot out of you. You basically eat what you kill. You have to have a tough skin when things start to slow down. You have to have a plan for how things are gonna go. You gotta figure out all of your opportunities. It becomes stressful. I think this is just for something in general: You should always be aware of what someone else is going through. No matter how successful or happy they may look, you don’t know what they’re going through. You should always try to be nice to everyone. Be mindful of that. If you talk to someone, but they seem like they’re brushing you off, and you take it personal, they could be going through something. I don’t know what we could do to provide more awareness, per say, because most people unfortunately don’t have health insurance. They do it on their own separately. There’s no union for rappers, singers, and artists.
LV: I think it should just be a law that everyone seeks some kind of therapy. People everywhere, not even in the music industry, suffer from mental illness and mental health issues. You should have to talk to somebody. You should have to express things and get rid of things. That includes the music industry. Get shit out. People in the music business hold shit in. Everybody’s not a writer that is able to release it that way. That’s why I go to therapy. That’s one of the best decisions I think I’ve made as an adult. Not to say something is wrong, but I can see when something is starting to get wrong. You don’t want it to be too late and you’re already tweaked.
Sean: Being in a cloud, it’s a hard thing to get out of. It’s a tough business. There’s a lot of casualties from just trying to deal with it.
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring talented producers who want to come into the music business, but are prone to anxiety, depression, or are more sensitive emotionally?
Sean: Well, one, self awareness is extremely important. Don’t be naïve about the type of person that you are. I think once you figure that out, it can help you move forward. Nobody wants to say that they’re sensitive if they’re a man. But if you know you’re sensitive, you’re a sensitive dude! So just be aware that that’s what you are, and know that in certain situations, you’re going to deal with that. You have to know that it’s not because the world is coming to an end, you just might have to seek some help or therapy. Don’t take this too seriously. Life is bigger than music. Don’t let just that define you. When it comes to mental health and music, don’t think that if you’re not making money, or things are dry, it means that you’re not good. It’s just what happens. That doesn’t define you as a person.
LV: It’s just self-awareness. You have to know who you are and believe in yourself. If you know who you are, the sooner your questions can get answered. Ask yourself, “I’m sensitive. How can I work on it?” Be willing to work on it if you want to. Be aware of who you are and who you want to be.
There’s fans and listeners out there who use your music to cope with their own day-to-day thoughts and feelings. What do you have coming up that they can look forward to?
Sean: Get in the Pool. That will make you feel good. It’s all about the positive energy. We always try to look at the positive side of things, but Get in the Pool is all fun.
LV: I like to have fun a lot. If I can have fun all day, and not do as much serious shit, that’s not a hard decision for me. I want to have fun all day. Get In the Pool is a place, a vibe, an energy that will inspire people to feel good. Whatever fun is in your mind, whatever good music you want to play, whatever guy or girl you want to look at, that’s what Get in the Pool Is. It will make everyone feel good and smile.