Akeel Henry Brings Keys Expertise and R&B Vibes to His Toronto Sound, But Has More to Offer
Published Jun 10, 2019As one of the emerging music producers to watch in Toronto these days, Akeel Henry only has one message for artists in the city: "Get at me."
"I need more songwriters in Toronto right now man. I have to be sending my beats out to the States to get them penned on," Henry says. "Songwriters, call me?"
At 23, the GTA native interned with OVO, with Drake's producer, Noah '40' Shebib, and has already worked with fellow producers like DZL, Batista, and names like Roy Woods, Jeremih, Ty Dolla $ign, Shawn Mendes and Sage the Gemini.
Henry got his start in the church. Coming from a devout Christian background — he got into music early, listening to gospel artists Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond, and playing drums, keys and later bass, since he was 5. "I started making beats on Fruity Loops for fun at around 9," he recalls. "I didn't really know that 'producer' is what I wanted to do full-time until 15 or 16, and I was really focused on it."
After graduating from Metalworks Institute and interning at Phase One Studios in Toronto, it was on to a coveted opportunity to work with OVO's 40. "I'm a huge fan of 40," he says. "40 was working on a Drake record at the time, so it was inspiring to be in the room and see him work. He's got a great work ethic and it was really cool to watch and learn," Henry says.
Currently working out of downtown Toronto's Signal Creative Collective — a private co-working space for musicians and other sound creatives — Henry says the facility has what he needs to collaborate and get work done. "Signal is dope. There are a lot of creatives around here — I usually walk in the hallway and can see a hot producer like Eestbound walking around. There are serious producers coming through the place," Henry says. "It's where only professionals work — corporate guys, or like serious producers from the urban space and other industry genres. So it's cool. I can collab with some people I never would have before, because of being here and because of a space like this."
In terms of advice for emerging producers, Henry notes that it's important to work on your craft. And don't be a jerk. "You have to be good, and be a good person. Once you're good, people will want you in the room."
Henry defines his sound as keys-driven and notes that it's what gotten him so much success. He recalls just recently getting an urgent cold call to work with a well-known American R&B singer who happened to be in town. It's occurrences like those that are happening more regularly for the rising producer.
"I'm as much a mixing engineer as I am a producer right now. I'm working on a major label record right now — can't say what or who yet — but I'm mixing their project," he says. "Because of my church background and musical sense, I've been brought [into] some rooms with some heavy hitters — like serious Grammy Award-winning producers — just because they wanted me to be the keys guy. I'm not a real guitarist, per se, but I can give you some lines on the guitar. I also have strong vocal production skills, because I'm good working with singers and getting them to good takes and harmonies."
In terms of tools, the self-professed gearhead's studio features an array of digital boards, monitors and instruments. "Whether its something like a Talk Box or a Roland, I've either bought it and returned it, or still have it," he says. "My 'go-to' plugin right now is Omnisphere. I love it. I can make full beats using just Omnisphere and live instruments," he says.
While digital tools clearly dominate the industry, Henry still loves the vibe of analogue and tried to work it in when he can. "I love, love the sound of analogue. That said, I'm a '95 kid. I want stuff fast," Henry admits. "But I try to replicate analogue as much as I can. I'm about to get a new Moog Sub-37 board, but digital is just easier at times. You can recall immediately instead of wondering 'which knobs did I turn?' and writing everything down. But given my musical background, I'm a mixture of both."
While working with up-and-coming soulful artists in the city such as Loony or Liza, Henry is hesitant to define himself as just an R&B producer. "I don't like answering that question because I do everything. Currently, I'm in my R&B bag. Because of the proficiency on the keys, it can be easier for me and fun for me to create R&B grooves. I'm scared of getting put into the 'he's an R&B producer' box. I want to do, and can do, pop, hip-hop, everything," he says.
It's a great time to be a producer in Toronto, according to Henry. "There are so many of us on the come-up, but we're all friends and we're all trying to blow up, so everyone is looking to collaborate together. It's like 'Let's cook up and let's try get hit together.'
"I don't think is was always like that, but I think it's just a new vibe for the city. It's cool."