- Nick Lee is a 24-year-old jazz musician and producer who recently worked with Lil Nas X.
- He spoke to Insider about his contributions to “Industry Baby” and “Dolla Sign Slime.”
- Lee created the trombone loops used in the songs, which were partially inspired by “Shrek 2.”
When he was 12 years old, Nick Lee picked up a trombone simply because he thought “the slide was cool.”
That spontaneous decision kicked off a series of events for the budding musician, culminating in the triumphant energy that courses through Lil Nas X’s latest top-10 hit.
Yes, despite the skepticism you may have seen online, those are real brass instruments that form the bedrock of “Industry Baby.” Each individual part is performed by Lee on trombone, layered atop each other to create the illusion of a multiplayer horn section.
“We wanted it to sound like a marching band,” he recently told Insider via
. “We would put the mic in different positions of the room to get different sounds. We even played some of the layers outside.”
The “we” in question includes the song’s main producers, Denzel Baptiste and David Biral, also known as Take A Daytrip. The duo attended the same college as Lee’s manager, who put them in touch last year during “peak pandemic.” Lee had been working on building horn loops to stay productive and creative during the industry-wide lull.
“Coincidentally, Lil Nas was looking for trombones specifically, which was perfect,” Lee explained. “So I sent Denzel my whole folder of horn loops. And then one day he texted me, ‘Oh, Nas likes this one.'”
He later received another request, hilariously more specific than the last. Baptiste asked Lee to make an intro for the song and to make it sound “like a king entering a stadium.” He attached a scene from 2004’s “Shrek 2,” when the titular hero and his new wife are summoned to the kingdom of Far Far Away.
With all the resolve of a seasoned vet, Lee replied simply, “I’ll get it done.”
Then, in late October, Lil Nas posted a snippet of a song yet to be released, built upon a familiar nest of trombones.
“That was the first time I’d heard it, but I recognized the horn loop,” Lee said. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit. This is my song.'”
He texted Baptiste, who invited Lee to help out with some finishing touches at their studio. The three producers perfected the song’s regal vibe, with the “Old Town Road” chart-topper himself presiding over the session, suggesting tweaks here and there.
“Lil Nas, he’s a super nice guy, and I had a great first experience working with him,” Lee told Insider. “He’s really funny. He’s down-to-earth. He’s not really ‘Hollywood’ like that.”
That was one of the first in-person sessions that Lee had ever done, and it yielded another imminent hit: ‘Dolla Sign Slime’
Lee had included a playful staccato piece in the folder of sounds he sent to Baptiste, which eventually became “Dolla Sign Slime” featuring Megan Thee Stallion, the ninth track on Lil Nas’ debut album “Montero.”
The song was fine-tuned during the same in-person studio session as “Industry Baby,” when Lee added a series of “accent horns” and live flourishes to the mix.
Upon the album’s release last Friday, “Dolla Sign Slime” was described by Rolling Stone as a “joyously cocky” standout with special praise for Lee’s “farts of court-jester brass.”
Indeed, Lee had labeled the original horn loop “Jester” on his computer, directly inspired by Baptiste’s “Shrek 2” request.
“That got me thinking about making more loops with that royal-sounding flair,” he said. “So I named this one ‘Jester’ because it’s really weird.”
In order to create the instrumental, Lee played with counterpoint, a compositional technique that uses multiple melodic lines occurring at the same time.
“There are five or six trombone parts that are each doing something different — not harmonizing with each other,” he explained. “It really helped to have studied Bach and counterpoint theory. Even though it was so weird that I didn’t think that it was ever going to go anywhere.”
“I was like, ‘This will probably just sit on my hard drive for the rest of my life.’ But I guess the weirdness is what Lil Nas liked about it.”
The 24-year-old Los Angeles native originally set out to become a jazz trombonist
After high school, Lee enrolled at New York City’s prestigious performing arts university, The Juilliard School.
Not long after, however, Lee learned to use the popular music software Logic. When his grandfather died during the winter of his freshman year, he decided to produce a song for the memorial service.
“That was the moment where I had an epiphany, like, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do, and I don’t really see myself going down the jazz road anymore,'” he said, noting that he dropped out of school the following year.
“For me, it seemed like the only choice,” Lee said, despite “a lot of tension” with his parents in the aftermath. “I had all these classes and assignments that I had to do, but I wanted to focus on production. That’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t really like having to do things for grades, et cetera, because I just wanted to be out in the real world, working.”
He moved back to Los Angeles to focus on making industry connections. He spent his time direct-messaging artists in hopes of collaborating, plus making “hundreds of songs” on his own, before his manager was able to set up a meeting with Scooter Braun’s management company. Braun is famous for managing superstars like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.
“Scooter wasn’t even supposed to be in the meeting, but he just happened to walk in, and he asked me to play him some songs,” Lee said. “I played him a couple I did with Jake, and kind of right on the spot, he offered to sign me for publishing.”
“I was freaking out,” he added. “It’s Scooter Braun — a mogul and a legend.”
Within the first month of signing, Lee said, Braun had him in a studio session with Demi Lovato: “Right off the bat, it was clearly, ‘Oh, this is it. This is where the work begins.'”
Lee, who is Chinese and Japanese-American, spoke reverently of the “meticulous” creative process for South Korean idols.
“I have the K-pop knowledge, but also can approach it with an American sound, so I feel like it’s the ability to cross between both worlds is what’s helping me produce that music,” he said.
“Originally, my mindset was, ‘I don’t want them to even notice I’m Asian. I just want my work to speak for itself,'” he added. “But I think success means a lot more being an Asian in entertainment. I think you have to work twice as hard.”
Perhaps taking a cue from his ever-online, fiercely ambitious collaborator, Lee indicated zero intention of slowing down. He expressed frustration about the “handful of Asian producers” in the spotlight, “and even then, you don’t hear about them nearly as much as you hear about a Max Martin or a Dr. Luke.”
“I just want to help put Asians on the map,” Lee said. “I want to show the other Asian-American kids who are learning how to produce that this can be done, and it is being done.”