Nearly a year after his collaboration with Dua Lipa came out, SG Lewis is still humble about it. He co-produced “Hallucinate,” the showstopping climax of Lipa’s 2020 disco outing Future Nostalgia. The song began in a casual session with his college friend Sophie Cooke, who performs under her middle name Frances and has worked with Lewis since his 2015 debut single “Warm.” Lewis gets messages from fans waiting for the day they can hear “Hallucinate” in clubs, but somehow he’s still shocked to learn it’s a personal favorite for many from Future Nostalgia. He brushes off the praise: “I just think it’s a brilliant record, and I was really, really proud to be a part of it.”
It’s not just Lipa — at 26 years old, Lewis has already worked with a list of the best and brightest in pop and dance music. Just in 2020, the Reading-born producer also cut songs with Aluna, Victoria Monét, and most shockingly, Robyn, who featured on a single off his debut album times. When the full album followed in February, it also boasted features from Lucky Daye, Rhye, and disco legend Nile Rodgers. Six years into his career, Lewis may not have the fame complex of some producers — never mind that he’s still introducing himself by name as an artist — but times has cemented his status as one of the preeminent players in the ongoing disco revival.
Even though the world can’t gather to dance to songs like “Hallucinate” or “One More,” the track that features Rodgers, Lewis still sees his music as essential to the moment. He pins the current disco revival on the same factors that first brought people to disco in ’70s New York, which he has obsessively studied. “It’s the complete opposite of everything that’s happening in everyone’s lives. People want and need that escapism,” he explains. “If the music can make them feel like they’re somewhere else for a moment, then I think it’s served its purpose.” Yet don’t mistake Lewis for a simple imitator of the past — he’s equally likely to wax about Pharrell, a musical hero whose varied success he hopes to one day follow. For the release of times, Lewis spoke to Vulture about those influences and more on his path to shaping dance music in the 2020s.
Liverpool’s club scene
I was a student in Liverpool, and I got into electronic music through going to these raves, and watching these DJs play, and then slowly starting to DJ myself. Growing up, disco wasn’t a genre that I was necessarily exposed to a lot, so my introduction to it was definitely secondhand through DJs that were coming to Liverpool like Motor City Drum Ensemble or Honey Dijon. It was the first time that I’d seen people just embracing strangers in a room because there was this overflowing sense of joy and togetherness. That just made me A). fall in love with it, but B). so curious about it.
Dimitri From Paris came and played in Liverpool, and he was playing edits of records that he would make. There was a Brazilian disco record called “Ripa Na Xulipa,” by Rabo De Saia. I heard Motor City Drum Ensemble play this record, and then a couple of other people played it, and it’s in [Portuguese], but I just remember there’s such a euphoria to the record. I remember hearing it for the first time and being like, What the fuck is this? This is incredible.
Love Saves the Day by Tim Lawrence
Because my entry point was secondhand, it was then a case of going back and learning about the roots and the birth of disco, and ’70s New York, and the people that helped create it. That helped me understand where it came from and why I felt myself resonating with it.
Disco was born out of this coming together of marginalized communities, and disco is gay, Black music. So I needed to make sure that I understood where this music was coming from if I was to be taking any influence in my own music.
I was reading this book, Love Saves the Day by Tim Lawrence, and there was playlists of records that all the different DJs would be playing at the time, in Paradise Garage or the Loft with David Mancuso. So I was going through the whole period chronologically as I was reading the book. I was ingesting a lot of that early ’70s stuff, and I think that influence is clear in the string arrangements of some of the songs [on times]. But I think it was a broader influence, rather than really specific records, in a lot of places.
If I was going to [credit] one person’s influence on my love of disco and this entire era, it would be Nile Rodgers, so to have him on the record is hugely full circle for me. To be honest, quite mind-blowing! For one person to have had such a huge impact on popular culture and music through his ability to play guitar and produce records and write songs is massive. Having him play guitar on the record is one of them things — if I never make another record, if I never make another song, I’ll be able to be pretty fucking proud of that.
A couple years back, he was doing these sessions at Abbey Road where he was working with a bunch of up-and-coming artists who had buzz about them in the U.K. I met him at one of those sessions, and he said, “If you ever want to get together and do some other stuff, let me know.” I didn’t expect that to be such a possibility.
I was chatting with my manager [Grant Motion] and said, “How can we elevate [‘One More’]?” He said, “Just send it to Nile, see what he’s saying.” And I was like, “That’s crazy.” [Laughs] But we sent it over, and straight away, he was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” To get to sit there and watch him rip guitar on top of something that you’ve just started out of nothing, it’s very surreal.
They’ve done nothing but improve my ability, really. I think a lot of people don’t like those situations because they can be very dog-eat-dog and cutthroat, depending on who’s there and the environment. I’m quite an anxious, nervous person by nature, and I think that sort of baptism of fire, of being placed in those high-pressure situations, helped me. It was like, Okay, you’re in these rooms now, and you’ve got no choice but to focus in. When I’m going into the studio and collaborating with bigger artists, I feel more armed to deal with those situations. But also, on the skill level, these camps are full of some of the most incredible, skilled pop songwriters alive, so to get to watch some of those people work and to learn about the process of those songs in a pop environment is also very cool.
Being a singer
It’s really enabled me to songwrite by myself more. I think that it makes me approach the process more as an all-rounded artist, as opposed to from a producer’s angle. But the singing doesn’t stop me from wanting to collaborate with other people, because it just changes what I’m looking for from a collaborator. The only criteria for whoever I’m working with is they have to, vocally, be doing something that my voice doesn’t offer or bring to the table. Take, for instance, “Impact.” This contrast between Robyn’s voice in the chorus and Channel [Tres]’s voice in the verses, neither of those roles are something that I would aim to do with my own vocal. But if nothing, it’s just opened up more doors and possibility in the studio.
She’s everything so many artists aspire to be: She’s so honest to her vision and she’s so dialed in to her own artistry. Working with her was just incredible, and I learned so much from it. Watching her process and how specific she is about the minute details of everything she’s doing in her music, and the implications of that on a wider level, has made me 20 times as big a fan of her as I was before.
Every decision that she’s making, whether it’s at a production level, a mixing level, lyrically — there’s not a step in the process that she’s not thinking about and how it connects. Working with her showed me how much detail I need to go into with my own music as well. The details matter, and I think that’s why her music lasts for as long as it does.
As much as I’m an electronic music producer, and my bread and butter is clubs, I’ve grown up with a love of pop music. I grew up in the Neptunes-Timbaland era, where, as much as the beats and the instrumentals were amazing, they serviced the song and the vocal. You know, the thing that lasts forever is always the song. So as much as it’s about the whole thing, and as much as I’m a producer, I think that I always try to focus in on the song, and the communication of the song through the singing.
“Frontin’” is a huge record for me. There’s kind of small pockets of Pharrell flirting with disco, like when he did Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body.” Or even, if you’re talking about “Frontin’,” that was originally meant to be a Prince record. Once you know that fact and listen to a record like “Frontin’,” you hear it in a slightly different light, and you’re like, Oh yeah, of course. It’s that kind of MIDI guitar pattern, and there’s definitely a connection between some of those records and some of the music I’m making now.
Pharrell is someone whose presence was felt across popular music on such a wide level, but he was still an artist in his own right, and he still is. There are people that know Pharrell as the guy who made “Happy” and don’t know that Pharrell produced most of their favorite Justin Timberlake records, or some Britney Spears records. I want to be that guy. I want people to know and appreciate my music as an artist, but to be pleasantly surprised when they find out that I’ve been involved in some of their favorite records for other artists too. That’s the ultimate goal.
I’ve always made music that lends itself to the live show. This is the first time that I’ve made a collection of songs that I was as excited to DJ them as I was to play them live. I think that the performance would end up being a hybrid between those things. There’s been sound-system versions of live shows I’ve seen. I’ve seen Crazy P do something like that, and like, when Tame Impala did [NPR] Tiny Desk [Home], there was this sound-system setup that allows for this rolling energy that the DJ set has, but with these live moments, vocals and stuff. I was really excited to get into that and develop that, because it just sounded like a lot of fun to perform. I was looking forward to playing festivals and providing that energy for crowds. I guess we’ll see when it comes back.
Upon diving into ’70s New York, I would note down names of people, and then I’d go on the internet and research. One of them was this guy called Alex Rosner. He’s this legendary sound engineer who has this amazing life story: He was an Auschwitz survivor, he managed to survive when he was a child, so he then moved to New York and was the sound engineer who set up some of the first sound systems in these disco clubs. I found this clip of Alex talking about what it was like at the Loft in New York, and I cut it out and I put it at the start of “time,” the first track on the album. When we went to clear the sample, we got bounced around through this email chain and ended up put in contact with the man himself. He said, “I’d love to clear this sample, but I’m of absolutely no idea where the original clip’s from or who owns the audio. But if you want to, we could set up a video call and we could do our own interview.” So I interviewed him for about an hour, and he told me about his life and his story. I asked him about the atmosphere in the Loft; at the start of “time,” he’s talking about what it felt like to be in those rooms, and then the interlude is an extended snippet from that conversation.
It was really humbling to speak to someone whose life had been a part of some huge experiences. The thing that I took away from the conversation was one of the big themes of the album, if not the theme of the album, which is that time is a finite thing. That, given the opportunity to celebrate in a room of people and connect with friends through music and through dancing, or to experience those moments — you have to take those opportunities and cherish them, because they’re finite. One day, the opportunity to do those things won’t be there again.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.