The Art of Adaptability: A Conversation With Kato On The Track

Kato on The Track
Photo Credit: Koury Angelo / Red Bull Content Pool

Kato On The Track’s successful run in music is a byproduct of adaptability and consistency. Today, the second season of Red Bull’s acclaimed Mystery Pack series has officially launched, featuring none other than the self-described Korean Larry Bird, Kato. With a resume that cites Billboard-charting status and featured collaborations with some of music’s biggest names (Snoop Dogg, Jack Harlow, Tory Lanez), acquiring someone of Kato’s caliber just made sense: he’s one of the most innovative purveyors of sound in the game today.

Season Two of the music production series challenged creatives to think outside of the box in an impromptu fashion. In each episode, a producer is invited to Red Bull’s custom-built personal studio to test the boundaries of their ear for production. The Mystery Pack challenge features an assorted collection of ten new sounds, ranging from inanimate objects to a sheep’s bleat. “When I first heard the sounds, I was kind of stumped as to how I’m going to turn it into a beat,” Kato admits.

Kato’s innate musicality has garnered mass appeal in route of his auditory dominance within music. He continues to expand his sonic palette, swaying from frenetic to somber tones. But when it comes to chord progression, Kato leads with melody, or as he states, “That usually sets the mood or vibe of the overall production.” In a visceral sense, mood is everything: it heavily influences the overall production quality of a record.

With over a decade’s worth of experience in the industry, at this stage in his career, Kato is all about paying it forward through collaboration. “I think it’s such an untapped opportunity,” he says. Moreover, this same concept of working with other people is what has enabled Kato to take personal branding to new heights. In truth, a collaborative effort is what has also earned the charting producer his first viral hit on TikTok, pairing with Reyanna Maria for “So Pretty.”

Admittedly, this last year of a quarantined lifestyle has been viewed as a double-edged sword for the many moving parts within the music business. For Kato, he hasn’t had to rely on gimmicky attempts for the sake of staying relevant, he simply adapted.

With the Red Bull Mystery Pack, which sound felt the most challenging to make use of – and why? 

I won’t lie man, Red Bull definitely threw in some curveballs (laughs). When I first heard the sounds, I was kind of stumped as to how I’m going to turn it into a beat. But you just gotta get creative, and that’s my job as a producer, as a sound curator – to be able to take anything: a sound, a snapshot, a loop, a melody and be able to turn it into something dope. The good thing is that they gave me a lot of options. The pack had I think 12 sounds in it, so it was a good batch to pick from. I remember my pack had a sheep sound and I had no idea what to even do with that. That one kind of threw me off a bit, but the rest wasn’t too hard. 

Was there any added pressure behind creating a studio-ready track in what’s considered unfamiliar territory? 

I won’t lie, when I walked into the Mystery Pack studio it was this gigantic warehouse. I thought we were going to walk into this cool, intimate studio space, kind of where I am right now. That’s the environment that I’m used to, but I walked in and it was this whole sound stage warehouse. It must have been 2,000 square feet. They had a crew of 15-20 people, all these crazy looking cameras. I was a little bit intimidated because I wasn’t expecting that, but everyone there was super cool. But that’s the biggest part for me, as long as the people I’m working with are cool, then it’s a vibe and I can create in that environment. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to cook up on the spot in a new environment, so it wasn’t really anything new, it was just kind of unexpected at first. I just had to adapt and get used to it. 

All things considered, is there a specific sound from the Mystery Pack that is vital to the overall quality of the track? If so, what is it and why is it so important? 

As long as there’s enough variety I can pretty much flip anything. Especially with the tools I’m working with, where there’s plugins and software, you can add distortion, saturation and bend sounds, time stretch em, pitch em up, pitch em down: there’s so many different ways that you can get creative with the smallest sound. I remember there’s one sound that they put in there, it was like a cell phone buzzing, like if you put your phone on silent and get an alert. I can imagine if you take that sound and pitch it down, add some plugins and effects to it, that can easily become an 808. It’s really just about getting creative with your sound. 

In terms of chord progression, walk me through the process of creating a song from your perspective. 

Usually, I start with a melody. That usually sets the mood or vibe of the overall production. Then it’s just adding layer on top of layer. One thing I will say is that as a producer, you have to be conscious to make sure you leave room for the vocals. Ultimately, when I’m making beats, I’m always thinking about the artist: who could go on this, who would fit on this. You wanna make sure that the vocals are going to be the last instrument you lay on the track. I try to not overproduce my beats. I actually intend to strip it down and make it as simple and open as possible because I found that is the easiest. When I play it for an artist, it’s just much easier  for them to hear where they can finish painting the overall picture. 

When you’re creating, how much does your mood dictate the overall production quality of a track?

A lot. That’s really everything. When I sit in this room to cook up, my mood dictates how the track is going to end up sounding, or who I send it to: what artist I get on the track. Mood is everything. I might feel like turning up and make a super hype, uptempo or gritty trap beat. I might hear some guitars and want to do something melodic and send it to an R&B singer, it really just depends. 

As a producer, is there a certain energy you’d like to convey with your art? Or is creating a more cathartic experience for you?

It’s a little bit of both. These days, I’ve been getting reached out to by a lot of artists to collaborate, so actually I’ve been sitting  down and producing with a particular artist in mind. You almost have to get yourself in the vibe and zone of the artist that you’re creating for in those circumstances. And that’s what I’ve been doing recently. I’m not just working on my own album, but I’m also working on a few placement opportunities with a lot of big artists, so I kind of have to lock myself in one particular zone. One day it might be some R&B shit, or the next day it might be on some trap shit. I just gotta be able to flip that switch on and off and be able to create in different vibes. 

Kato seen during Red Bull Mystery Pack at Hubble Studios, in Los Angeles, CA

At this stage in your career, are you a student of the game or would you consider yourself an expert at your craft? 

I’m always a student of the game. I never consider myself an expert. Even with some of the new producers coming out and the way that they produce their tracks, it’s stuff I learn from them. I’m always learning on the creative side, on the business side, as an entrepreneur, as a person, as a human: I’m a student of life in general, I never stop learning. 

Personally, what do you feel like was your defining moment as a producer?

When I look back, my career has been a series of moments. It hasn’t been one defining moment that set my career on a certain trajectory. It’s been a series of so many different moments, opportunities and failures throughout the last decade plus and that’s really what has defined my career and where I am today. I always tell new artists and producers don’t focus on trying to achieve that one moment. When I was younger, I had those dreams where it’s like I wanted to win a Grammy, I want tons of plaques on my wall, and that stuff is cool, but there’s so many things that are needed to be done leading up to that point. It’s really all about the process rather than the moment: you really have to fall in love with the process of making music, the process of creating art, the process of being an entrepreneur. It’s so much more to love the process than to love those little moments. 

When you factor in the losses and personal shortcomings, how do you maintain that yearning desire for more and not getting caught up in the results? 

You gotta trust the process. I find myself saying that all the time. You got to know what it is that you want, believe in it and keep going until you achieve that. Over the last decade, it’s been about putting myself in the mindstate of this is what I do everyday. It’s so automatic at this point that if I do experience any type of failure, I know tomorrow’s a new day, so it’s really become a part of my lifestyle to be creative, to make music, to be an entrepreneur. At this point, there’s really nothing that can get in my way. 

In terms of branding, how has social media impacted the pace of your business? I know TikTok has been a huge part of your success as of late. 

For the last several years, I’ve focused heavily on trying to build a brand online. Really, the key to that is posting content and staying active on these platforms, especially TikTok. I jumped on there at the end of 2020 and I was reluctant at first. I was thinking it was all about people going gimmicky dances and that type of shit, but then I actually got on TikTok and started spending time with it. There’s so much creativity happening on TikTok and that’s what really inspired me to start posting my beats, being more active and releasing ideas. That’s what led to so many opportunities that I couldn’t even predict were going to happen. I’m a huge fan of TikTok, social media and creating content. 

What’s your opinion on record sampling — does that method of production narrow the scope of creativity in terms of full-fledge expression? 

I think it enhances your creativity. When you’re able to share an idea on a platform as big as TikTok and reach billions of people around the world, I think that it’s another form of collaboration. To me, collaborating with other creatives is what opens up new ideas, new sounds. It inspired me to switch up my workflow and discover new influences. I think it enhances the ideas that I have. “So Pretty” wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t post that beat on Tiktok. I’ve seen so many talented artists duetting to my beat on Tiktok and I’m collaborating with so many of them now, it’s crazy. 

It seems like collaborating with other creatives is your way of paying it forward.

For sure, and I’ve always been about that. I always believe in paying it forward and giving new, undiscovered artists the opportunity to shine. I think it’s such an untapped opportunity. 

From a producer’s perspective, what do you feel like is a common misconception about acquiring placements? 

A common misconception is that if you get a placement as a producer you’re set, you’re good. Obviously there’s levels to that, but generally, when people perceive a producer to get a placement with a well-known artist, they’re going to start making tons of money, they’re going to have all of these opportunities lined up for them and it’s just not like that. After you get your first placement, you really gotta double down and put in more work than before. Otherwise, that moment comes and goes. Depending on how big the placement is, it could set you up for a lot of opportunities after that, but it’s not gonna set you up for life: you gotta consistently work. That’s why it’s so hard for producers and artists to have long careers in the music industry. We see it. For every Drake, there’s millions of artists who fall off after their first album and that’s just how it is. It’s really hard to stay consistent in the music industry, especially after that first placement. 

I know producers who have gone multi-platinum, and some of them have won Grammy’s and they still are working day jobs. It’s crazy but that’s what they won’t tell you. It also depends on your deal, there’s so many different factors: if you have a team in place, do you have a publishing deal, are you independent, who else do you know, is this an artist that found your beat on YouTube, is this an artist that you have a relationship with and can continue working with them for a long period of time. There’s so many different factors that come into play that a placement can be a flash in the pan. If you don’t keep working, that moment is going to come and go real fast. 

Do you have any producer horror stories? Whether it was a bad split agreement, a terrible mix post-production etc. 

You know, I’ve been very fortunate in my career where I haven’t had any situations where I’ve totally got shortsided. I’ll just say this, most of the time, it’s very rare for things to go exactly according to plan. Whatever blueprint you’ve laid out for yourself, whenever you see something going, it never goes exactly how you want it to. With that said, I think it’s important for any creative in the industry to adapt and know how to finesse certain situations. There’s going to be some difficult people to work with in the industry, whether it’s another creative, an executive or whoever – I’ve had plenty of those types of situations when it comes to negotiating or getting certain terms you want as a producer – it’s always an uphill battle. Even for the big guys, the guys that have credits, have names and have a brand, it’s still going to be an uphill battle to get the things that you want. That’s been one of my biggest lessons in the music industry, you just gotta be able to adapt.

Kato seen during Red Bull Mystery Pack at Hubble Studios, in Los Angeles, CA

About the Author

Derrius Edwards
Derrius is a music industry professional with experience in content strategy and editorial writing, sharing relevant and resonating stories as a conduit for hip-hop culture advancement.

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