INTERVIEW with LaynoProd: 'SERVE THE POOR', heartwarming trap, and cultural identity
James Layno, more commonly known as LaynoProd, is a producer, audio engineer, and artist who fuses soothing synths and soulful samples with inspirational lyricism and auto tuned melodies to create a unique sound that he describes as heartwarming trap. As a first-generation Filipino-American, the multifaceted artist sets to inspire and empower minorities and artists alike through his Catholic-Christian faith alongside his Asian-American cultural narrative.
Following the April 2019 release of his EP, PRAY FOR THE RICH, LaynoProd has recently released the highly anticipated sequel: SERVE THE POOR. The six-track, twenty minute record tells the truthful story of LaynoProd, exploring topics of gratitude, faith, and close relationships through honest lyricism accompanied with a production style that blends classical instrumentation with modern techniques.
First off, congratulations on the release of your record! How have the reactions
been? Has it been well received?
The reactions have generally been well received and positive, both from my friends who I talk to frequently and some friends who I rarely talk to or have not heard from in awhile. They had common feedback of the album being really good with multiple fire emojis and the impression that they love hearing the Kanye influence in my album. The best feedback are from my friends who tell me in person why they liked the album, specifically one told me that the album has been helping them get through the tough finals season. Regarding the tracks, it's hard to pinpoint which one out of the six is the most favored by my fans. People love the sounds and good vibes of LORD FIRST and CHASIN, while others love the piano on BAPTIZE and conscious rap lyrics of CHURCH WINE, and others love the overall feel and featured artists on FLIRTIN and SERVE THE POOR. My friends also love how the album sounds cohesive, as if one track seamlessly flows into the next, as if it were one big masterpiece.
I understand that ‘SERVE THE POOR’ is your second mini-album following ‘PRAY
FOR THE RICH.’ Is STP a sequel to PFTR? Do the two play off of each other thematically?
Yes, SERVE THE POOR, my 2nd mini-album (the mini-album concept I got from K-Pop, even though my project is not a K-Pop album because I got into K-Pop music and culture about a year ago) follows my 1st mini-album, PRAY FOR THE RICH. STP is the sequel to PFTR because thematically I initially wanted to make one big album called STPPFTR (SERVE THE POOR PRAY FOR THE RICH). The reason why I put out two projects instead of one entire piece is because I needed something for my senior capstone project as a Music Industry (Music Business) major in the USC Thornton School of Music in order to graduate. Amidst planning in the Spring, I realized that a full album was not going to happen and I needed a creative project to submit by the end of April in order to graduate in May 2019. Thankfully, my friend Jasper Leong (who wrote the spoken word poem on TO WHERE FROM WHAT, the 4th track on PRAY FOR THE RICH), advised me to conceptually split the album into two, but instead of releasing STP first, that I should thematically release PFTR in April first, then STP later on because story-wise it'll be more interesting to tell. I made a playlist on Spotify if you search “SERVE THE POOR PRAY FOR THE RICH”, the playlist result by laynoprod should pop up, and you can listen to the two mini albums (a total of 11 tracks) as if it were one, full album as I had initially intended, and sonically and conceptually, it should flow nicely!
While PFTR has a rebellious, carefree and darker vibe, STP acts not as the solution to the problems in PFTR, but more of a reflection of how I grew over time. STP is more uplifting and focused sonically, but I am not suddenly a completely positive, perfect Catholic-Christian man just because I made an album called SERVE THE POOR. If anything, STP is a reminder that I am constantly failing and learning and growing. On my favorite Kendrick Lamar track, “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” he says what I think being Christian means in all honesty, “I am a sinner, who’s prolly gonna sin again, Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me, things I don’t understand.” SERVE THE POOR shows that although I can praise and thank God, it doesn’t make me holy or perfect. I still doubt, sin, fall into temptation, and choose to pursue other things besides God. SERVE THE POOR is a journey of my personal faith, disguised in catchy melodies and spurts of my stories and experiences during and after college.
Can you touch upon the inspiration behind the project? In terms of subject matter,
I couldn’t help but think of Kanye’s latest, ‘Jesus Is King.’
Funny how you are not the first to mention that SERVE THE POOR can be associated in the same vein as Kanye’s “Jesus Is King”. As inspired I am by Kanye’s latest project and happy for his recent conversion to Christianity, I actually had the concept, titles, and production style of SERVE THE POOR before I heard any leaks and tracks from Kanye’s Jesus Is King. While Kanye’s Jesus Is King is more a gospel album, mine is not, and is more a reflective journey hip-hop album of one’s faith despite the not-so-holy, but honest expressions more in the vein of Kanye’s The Life of Pablo album. Both PRAY FOR THE RICH and SERVE THE POOR have huge influences from my current favorite artists and producers Kanye West (the sampling and production style), Travis Scott (the vocal delivery and songwriting style), and Mike Dean (the synth production style and the loud, distorted and heavily-processed mixing & mastering style). Kanye’s The Life of Pablo and Travis’ Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight are always my two favorite albums and huge influences, and Kanye and Travis’ other albums also inspired me.
The inspiration behind the project was initially from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly album. Last summer in 2018, I went on a 6-week mission trip to Lincoln Heights on a program called the Los Angeles Urban Program (LAUP), part of an internship with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at USC. In LAUP 2018, I lived among the poor in Lincoln Heights on a fixed-income, attending church in urban communities, exploring the biblical values of service, justice and compassion, and receiving regular training in leadership, teamwork and decision-making, specifically my site was LHTP, the Lincoln Heights Tutorial Program, helping urban children and youth prepare for college. During the 6-week program, my friends and I had no access to our phones and internet. For fun, we walk to the nearby library and check out books to read and CDs to listen to (yes, since we didn’t have our phones, we played music via CDs in a mini-boombox/CD player at the house we stayed at). During one of my prayer times with God, I believe that God could speak through not-so-usual mediums, such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Even though I was 3 years late, I finally sat with the album, super focused and absorbed as each track played. From that reflective experience, I wanted to do an album called “SERVE THE POOR PRAY FOR THE RICH”, because throughout my life, I have been living the opposite: I usually “pray for the poor” because it’s so easy to do so without taking action against the injustices around me, and through my lifestyle and choices, I actually “serve the rich” and privileged versus helping out the poor around me (not limited to the financially poor, but poor people in all ways). I wanted to initially make my version of Kendrick’s TPAB.
How would you describe the production process of STP? Did you have to
overcome any obstacles while creating the project, or did you find that everything went according to plan?
However, as time went on, things did not go according to plan. As I mentioned earlier, the 12 to 15 track “full album” ended up being two mini-albums (5 + 6 tracks, only 11 tracks total). I started writing songs and producing drum loops back in September 2018 for this album (you can find my Instagram story highlights called “ALBUM” and you’ll see me at the beach and other locations writing to simple drum loops, then developing them into full songs later on.) One obstacle I faced while creating the project was the concept itself. One of my good friends told me that “it is better to tell your story first, rather than tell someone else's.” As I wrote more songs and became more honest with myself, I realized that I cannot make a socially, politically conscious album such as TPAB, because I hadn’t gone through those experiences and have no authority to speak on it. However, I can honestly tell people who listen to my tracks what I’ve been going through in my last years of college and transitioning into adulthood and life after college. The second obstacle that came up was timing. As I mentioned earlier, I needed to submit a project in order to graduate from USC, so I ended up splitting my album into two and felt that PRAY FOR THE RICH, as much as I love the sounds, lyrics, and features, I think my mixing and mastering of it could have been better if I made for time. I also kept delaying SERVE THE POOR, initially saying that it’ll come out in May when I graduate from USC (that is why I say on the opening track “LORD FIRST”, “I told you I was gonna drop another one...it’s 1 am right now...graduation day...thank you God! Thank you Lord! Wooo I’m done” because I actually recorded that track on graduation midnight), but I realized I did not want to rush the 2nd project as I did with the 1st. So I thought over Summer I was going through work on SERVE THE POOR and have it done by my 22nd birthday on September 13th. That did not happen due to big transition stages in my life such as moving to the Bay area for work, and working a 9 to 5 in general has made time management a huge challenge. I am glad I put in over a year’s work into STP and was finally able to release it by the end of 2019 in December (even though I believe STP has been my best work so far, I am so done with it and ready to move on to other projects in 2020.) The timing obstacle has also resulted to multiple feature drop-outs and track cutoffs.
Do you have a favorite track/lyric on the record? Are you able to provide me with a
quick, Genius-style lyrical annotation?
My favorite track on the record is FLIRTIN. The process of making FLIRTIN was transformative. Initially, FLIRTIN was my least favorite track on the record. Back when my college roommate and friend since 9th grade Johnny Chives and I made the voice memo and dry drum loop in October 2018, we were both high, tired, and hungry. Around 4am after our weekly late night, Spudnuts donuts run and McDonald’s postmates orders, we wrote FLIRTIN, originally called “Flirtin’ Vermin”. The chorus mainly had a completely different vibe, which was a more foolish, falsetto version almost like you’re high and absorbing helium. However, when Johnny told me that I needed to get a female vocalist to sing the chorus instead or else he won’t record his verse, I was like ok, let me hit up my friend Izzy (whom I haven’t met in person at the time.) I sent her the voice memo early 2019, and in May, she sent back her raw takes on a USB mic while she was in Australia abroad with her friends. When I heard her raw vocals, I knew this was it. I mixed it and it easily became one of my most favorite tracks because the melodies and harmonies Izzy did were amazing. Building around her vocals, I got my friend Jin Lee, a popular music guitar major at the USC Thornton School of Music, to add beautiful, funky guitar riffs to layer the melody of the chorus and doing a call-and-response to our verses. FLIRTIN just kept growing and transforming as a better track as time went by. In graduation week, I decided to scrap my original, rough verse and replace it with a verse that would have been on CHURCH WINE, but I made it melodic to fit the vibes of FLIRTIN. Then Johnny had a rough take on his last verse because he was high, and it was almost comical and didn’t match the delivery of mine and Izzy’s. Over summer, Johnny redid his vocal delivery to something more laidback, and after a couple of mixes and masters I finally called it quits on FLIRTIN. Sonically, it is one of my most simplest tracks, yet super catchy, melodic, powerful, spacious and vibey.
My favorite lyric on the record is on FLIRTIN during my verse when I say:
“You try so hard, just to leave another mark, God had me at 0 step, my heart became James Harden.”
When I say “you try so hard”, I’m actually talking to myself, saying that I try so hard in life to make an impact in the world, craving the fame and fortune, when actually I fail to realize that God was there for me the whole time.
“God had me at 0 step” can mean that (1) God had my back (because in basketball, James Harden’s signature move is a step-back jumpshot), it can mean (2) God had me since the beginning aka the 0 step, before I was even born, God had a plan for me...that’s biblical look it up haha (Jeremiah 1:5), and (3) God had me when I failed to see Him and felt like He wasn’t there for me (since the 0 step can be mistakenly called as a travel in basketball but the referees don’t see this extra, 0 step that James Harden takes because it’s so quick and finesse).
For the last part, “my heart became James Harden,” it means that I hardened my heart even though God was trying to help me, going back to the free-will that humans have according to Christianity, but when I harden my heart I fail to understand God and I missed the times He was there for me (Mark 8:17).
*Also, my first name is James, so James Hardened his heart against God. This lyric is an honest confession due to my temptation of worldly things instead of pursuing the ways of God.
Is there a specific theme or moral you are trying to convey with your record, or is
it up to the listener to interpret their own?
The general theme of SERVE THE POOR is my story, LaynoProd talking about his life during and after college while touching on topics such as gratitude & celebration, family & friendship, faith & reliance on God, temptation with vices, and the conflict between a 9 to 5 job and his own business as an independent artist. However, with all my “heartwarming trap” songs, I do want the listener to interpret their own and express how my music makes them feel.
I see you’ve collaborated with a number of artists on multiple tracks, including
I am thankful that the production quality on SERVE THE POOR is my best yet. I never got so many of my friends to be involved in a project before. The only thing that I did for the majority of the record on my own is the mixing and mastering because I felt that I grew as a better audio engineer over the years. I like to mix and master tracks in a certain way, and I did numerous mixes and masters over time to get it to sound satisfactory to me. In terms of writing and production, I got a lot of help on this record. For this project specifically, collaboration to me meant that I had a vision for my album, and I was open enough to have other talented artists and musicians enhance that vision through their takes on the record. I felt like a mega-curator, kind of like how Kanye and DJ Khaled are in the studio; despite critics saying that they don’t do the work and have only ghostwriters and ghostproducers, I believe that their way of making records is what makes their works of art classic masterpieces. The way they orchestrate individuals that might not mix with others at first hand and find that chemistry and energy to create something new is impressive. Those legends I look up to know how to bring the best out of the artists and musicians they work with, and I tried to do so too on my record.
I’d like to shoutout the talented friends and family I got involved on the record. For LORD FIRST, I had my cousin Russell Groovy produce the beat and I coproduced it. I also got my friend Mark Pico to play real organ on the outro of LORD FIRST. The two features on the track, my friend Taro of TriTip and Russell Groovy, also cowrote and comixed LORD FIRST. For BAPTIZE, I had my friend David S. Park play grand piano throughout the entire track. I also featured my friend Abraham Chorbajian on the vocals and my cousin Russell Groovy on the talkbox background vocals. For CHURCH WINE, my friend and roommate in college, Johnny Chives, cowrote the record. For FLIRTIN, I had my friend Jin Lee play electric guitar to spice up the simple trap beat. On FLIRTIN, I got my friend Johnny Chives to rap the last verse and my friend Izzy to sing the chorus, first verse, and bridges. On CHASIN, my cousin Russell Groovy produced another beat and comixed the track, and I coproduced it. I got my friend Barlos of TriTip to rap the second verse, my friend Ify Anene to sing background vocals, and my cousin Russell Groovy to also sing background vocals. Lastly, on the last track of the album and title track SERVE THE POOR, I got my friend Eric Su to play saxophone on the entire record. I also had my friend Abraham Chorbajian play some keys at the outro of the song along with his featured vocals on the outro. For the 2nd verse of SERVE THE POOR, my friend Cole Pham featured a rap verse, and he also comixed the record along with my engineer and producer friend, Zach McDermott aka ZMcD.
As a fellow Filipino-American, it is always amazing to see Filipino representation
in the music industry. Has your culture had an impact on your musicality?
Yes, my culture seeps into my musicality whether or not I know it. Because I try to be myself as much as I can on the record, I am proud to identify as a Filipino-American. My mission
as an artist is to “inspire minorities and empower artists with my Catholic-Christian faith and Filipino-American cultural narrative through my style of music known as ‘Heartwarming Trap’.” Heartwarming trap is honest storytelling over trap production aesthetics, bringing laidback vibes with autotune melodies, soul samples, ambient synths and 808s.
When people see my face, they know that I’m some type of Asian. However, I like to specifically say I’m Filipino-American because I believe Filipinos have a similar but also unique experience compared to other Asians and also Asian-Americans have a similar but also unique experience compared to Asians in general. I grew up with two Filipino immigrant parents, two older siblings, and a bunch of cousins, aunts and uncles. My family was my source of my Filipino culture, and I grew up with them for most of my life. When I hangout with friends in school, they are rarely Filipino. I grew up with mostly Latinos up to high school, then in college I made several Black, White, and East Asian friends. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley (a region north of Los Angeles past the Hollywood Hills) gave me the unique experience of getting to hang out with a diverse set of people growing up. Also, Filipinos are known as “bridge-builders” because of their rich, historic culture. In my music, I like to build bridges across races, social classes, and ages. Because I usually grew up being the youngest, most people who meet me say I have an “old soul.”
Overall, what has been the most rewarding part of the production process, from
pre to post-production?
The most rewarding part of the production process is finishing. I’m a huge basketball fan, and in basketball, it doesn’t matter how well you do in the first 3 quarters if you can’t seal the deal in the 4th quarter and get that W when the time runs out. Just like it was a huge accomplishment and uphill battle in my life to graduate college on time from a prestigious university, it is also a huge accomplishment for me to see the end product and body of art come to life on other people’s speakers when I release my album before the year ended (just as I told others and set my mind to do so.) As artists, we can get caught up and overthink the process, but I enjoyed the process everyday and know that once I released SERVE THE POOR, that I can always do a better project and learn from the flaws it has. Finishing this album grew my creativity, confidence, and knowledge.
Is there anything you would like to add regarding LaynoProd/STP?
I have a music video for the intro track “LORD FIRST” premiering on YouTube on Monday December 16, 2019 at 9PM so please check it out if you haven’t yet. I also have an alter ego called 2 Jaimz, which is part of the rap trio called TriTip (Taro, Barlos, 2 Jaimz). TriTip will be releasing a project early 2020 so stay tuned for another album in the works! Lastly, please follow my “heartwarming trap” playlist on Spotify by LaynoProd if you like chill, laidback autotuned rap vibes. You can follow my amazing content on Instagram and Youtube @LaynoProd and I recently got into film photography, check out @laynofilm for my film aesthetics. In terms of LaynoProd’s own music, I will continue to push my album SERVE THE POOR for several months as I transition back to LA (I moved to the Bay area for work and will move back to LA in February 2020), specifically living with my family in the San Fernando Valley, where I was born and raised.
Keep up with all things LaynoProd:
& stream 'SERVE THE POOR'