switched on pop

Only Lil Nas X Predicted How Much ‘Montero’ Would Outrage the Machine

“He knew it would piss off a lot of people, those that aren’t quick to realize the true message behind that music video.” Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Lil Nas X has a talent for creating productive controversy. First with 2018’s “Old Town Road,” he challenged expectations of Blackness in country music. Now with “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” the title track to his forthcoming eponymous (after his real name) album, takes aim at anti-LGBTQ+ messages propagated by the religious dogma from his youth (he came out as gay during Pride 2019). The song describes a romantic encounter without innuendo. Sure it’s raunchy, but the song doesn’t especially stand out on the Billboard charts, where explicit sexual fantasy is commonplace. But his use of religious iconography in its video and merchandise created an immediate backlash. In the video to “Montero,” Lil Nas X rides a stripper pole into Hades where he gives a lap dance to Satan (also played by Lil Nas X).

The song became a lightning rod. But as pundits fought on social media about the song’s meaning, most critics failed to look into the song’s musical references. Produced by Take a Daytrip, the duo behind Shek Wes’s “Mo Bamba” and Lil Nas X’s “Panini,” “Montero” mashes up genres to take the listener on a global journey, bringing that message of identity acceptance across cultures. In this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, co-host Charlie Harding spoke with Take a Daytrip’s David Biral and Denzel Baptiste about the making of “Montero” and the frenzy that followed.

Charlie: As the first producers to work with Lil Nas X after “Old Town Road,” did you feel pressure to follow up something of that magnitude with something on that level, or bigger?

David: I don’t think we felt any pressure. That song was so huge at the time and it came out of almost nowhere for the rest of the world. Everyone’s like, “Whoa, this new kid, Lil Nas X, all of a sudden he has a No. 1 record. Where’d that come from?” We were really curious to see what this kid’s about and what direction he wanted to go in. Early on, everyone was kind of looking at him like, “Oh, this is the Black kid that’s going to make country music. And that’s all he’s going to do.” Me and Denzel had our country sample pack ready to go. And then we had another pack that was just, like, let’s see if he wants to do something else.

I remember we hopped in the session and slowly started to realize that he doesn’t want to just be known as this Black kid that entered the country space, this one-hit wonder that only makes this massive country song and then for the rest of his life is making gimmicky country records, playing off of something that he’s already done before.

I remember we played him a couple of country records and one of them was the starting idea to “Rodeo” [featuring Cardi B and another version with Nas]. And I remember he was like, “Play me something that’s super-futuristic — something that is just different.” And we had made this one beat — we name all our beats after food — and we named it “beef pasta.”

And me and Denzel looked at each other. We’re like, Maybe we should. Why not that one? And like right away, [Lil Nas X] was like, “That’s the one, load that up.” And he wrote the whole record on the spot, arranged it with us, and we recorded the whole thing. And then before we had even finished the second verse, he had one of our friends shoot this video of him. Then he posted on the internet a snippet of “Panini.” And the whole internet reacted to this record. That week he recorded the rest of [2019’s] 7 EP.

So he was jogging along the rest of the week, like, “I have this massive hit in my pocket, let me finish the rest of this EP and sail into the sunset.” That was the beginning of our relationship.

Charlie: What led to “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”? 

Denzel: This time last year, spring 2020, when everything was shut down, we were sending things back and forth with Nas and we hadn’t really started the album. And at some point he was like, “You know what, I want you guys to executive produce my album.”

So we started doing that. And then we met [the producer Omer Fedi] who played guitar. So one night we were recording one of the songs that Nas had made in his house during quarantine that he recorded on his phone. In the middle of the tape, he’s like, “Wait, just record this separately.” And then he’s just like, “Call me when you want, call me when you need, call me in the morning,” and just says that randomly. And then Omer immediately records the guitar on his iPhone. And then we had a banjo, ’cause we thought it’d be so funny to put a banjo on this album because of “Old Town Road.” And then that ended up making it on the the song too. But it was a very serendipitous type of process of ideas where it just randomly hits you.

Charlie: Did you all have any sense of the impact that this song would have?

Denzel: Nas would always be like, “This is going to be a moment. Like you guys literally do not understand.” And we didn’t. He had so much of the entire thing planned out in his head.

David: And he let us know too. He was like, “You know, you guys are gonna see me in a way that you’ve never seen me before.”

Charlie: How did it feel when the song broke and sort of took apart America for a few weeks?

Denzel: From a social standpoint, I didn’t know that so many people were not going to be able to grasp it, but it was interesting to see all the conversations start happening on Twitter. It inspired conversations that we’d never had before.

David: And Nas knew the controversy around bringing religion in, showing himself going down to hell and giving Satan a lap dance. But really, the message behind all that is a kid who grew up in church and was told from a very early age that one of the biggest sins is to be gay and you will not be forgiven for that. You will go to hell for that, no matter what. So essentially he just made a music video saying, “Well, if I’m going to be gay and I’m going to be open about my sexuality and be fully myself, then I’m going to shoot a music video of myself going to hell and living it up.”

He knew the conversations he started. He knew it would piss off a lot of people, those that aren’t quick to realize the true message behind that music video and what it’s actually saying, and how that relates to so many people who are afraid to be truly themselves. Because there’s so many things in the world that tell someone who is gay or someone who is a person of color that you can’t be something or go someplace because of who you are.

Charlie:  He’s good at mashing up cultural expectations and finding some way of surprising us with something important to say. Within that context, musically, you all find ways to work to mash up different genres and styles. What references are we hearing on “Montero”?

Denzel: The song is in Phrygian. I think every song that we’ve had in the top ten, oddly, has been Phrygian mode. It has almost a Middle Eastern or Morrish or Spanish sound.

David: I mean, “Mo Bamba”’s chord progression used to be called “the devil’s tritone” for a really long time. It was a banned progression. A lot of how that song made people react, it’s just tension is constantly building throughout the whole record. The chord progression is constantly looping. Nothing ever is really fully resolved.

Denzel: And it’s the same thing with “Call Me,” it just goes up a minor second and then back down to minor second. It causes tension, and then kind of eases it by going back down that minor second. And literally repeats for the entire song. It’s always pushing and pulling on your emotions.

Charlie: Were you thinking about that tonality as you were sort of imagining Satan in the video? Are these things connected?

Denzel: We had to learn how to do things very specifically and with extreme intent in a way where we’re working with this artist who has this goal. So how do we put all of our cards together to achieve that goal sonically, harmonically, drum-wise, and genre-wise? It’s not something where we’re like, “Oh, well, let’s write something in Phrygian today.” But having certain things in our back pocket where, if we want to cause tension, this is what it sounds like. If we want to ease tension, this is usually what that sounds like. But it definitely wasn’t like, “Oh, this is something to definitely dance on the devil to.” But it was definitely something that the entire song was built on, building and releasing tension.

Charlie: Can you tell me more about the banjo’s role in the song?

Denzel: Usually you never hear a banjo playing in Phrygian. You would think that it’s an oud or sitar, but all these things are actually very much connected: a banjo from the South, and an oud from the Middle East. All these different instruments are not really that different, people just change the way that they play them.

And how it’s perceived is interesting. With Omer being from Israel and bringing in a lot of those melodies, the song is No. 1 on Spotify in Israel, and also Saudi Arabia, which you know is not because of the lyrics. You know there’s other things that people are connecting to. And then that’s like the entry point for some people.

Charlie: There seems to be a lot of intentionality in the way that you think about your production. It makes me think of this little Twitter kerfuffle that happened a few years back between the producers A-Trak and Zedd. A-Trak was saying that “Mo Bamba” was excellent. And Zedd came in and was saying, “Nah, I don’t really like this, clearly it’s just made for the club.” Like, “I only make music that I really like.” And then you all hilariously chimed in and started quoting the actual chords and music theory behind what made “Mo Bomba” such a smash.  

David: We definitely create on feeling first, but if you ever come after us and say we’re not legitimate producers, we will tell you the chord progression. We will let you know that we know how to make music. And, obviously, we don’t want to start any beef and there’s no offense; we’re big fans of Zedd. And I understand, in that moment, the way the hip-hop genre is perceived. I think a lot of people look at hip-hop producers as people that might not have all the music knowledge in the world, or that they play an 808 out of tune and have no idea that they’re playing an 808 out of tune, even though that adds so much character to so many the records, you know?

I think in that moment, we really just wanted to prove to the world, like, hey, we are Black producers in this space; yes, we made a really big rap record, but we’re not going anywhere just because of where this song might fit in a category.

At the end of the day, we love making music. We know how to make music and we’re going to be making music for the rest of our lives. And we’re going to be making music with people that we truly love, cherish, and feel are an important voice to the world. That’s always been a big goal of ours — really changing the conversation around Black producers in the pop space, especially for this generation.

Denzel: Pop is just popular, Switched on Pop is just a study of popular music. Pop, the genre, to me, is really just an intent. Max Martin was making just a mix between multiple genres and created what many people now think is the pop genre. But is Drake going No. 1, 2, and 3 on Billboard any less pop than “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry? It’s not. Our outlook on music and these genres as a whole is really just based on intention. And as David was saying, showing that, yeah, we are two Black kids that love hip-hop music but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do things with intent behind it. And that’s what we’re always going to continue to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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