The London-based Rokstone Studios has served as an incubator for songs that have taken over the world. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Pink’s “What About Us,” and a number of hits later popularized by such boy bands as The Wanted, Westlife, and One Direction were put together there by the master of the house, British composer Steve Mac. As the British music industry giant Simon Cowell’s right-hand man, Mac plays in the same league as Max Martin and Dr. Luke, two pop music mercenaries who artists, music producers, and managers call to craft and produce hit songs.
One day in June of 2018, the visitors entering the famed studio were, of all people, two French-speaking Montrealers, Zacharie Raymond, a.k.a Soké, and Yannick Rastogi, a.k.a. KNY Factory (on Soundcloud), both at the personal invitation of Steve Mac. And all the hit-making producer wanted to find out was how the musicians behind the Banx & Ranx duo had managed to produce “Answerphone,” a dancehall mega-hit with afro-beat, electro-trap, and Caribbean influences.
“He said he wanted to understand the science behind the piece,” says Raymond. “I couldn’t believe we were in his studio at his request,” adds Rastogi. “He was telling us how much he loved the Banx & Ranx sound. It was crazy!”
Thanks also to the talents of singer Ella Eyre and rapper Yxng Bane, “Answerphone” now totals 65 million plays on Spotify (and probably more by the time you finish this sentence).
Just two months after its release in March of 2018, the song reached No. 5 on the U.K. Singles Chart. In fact, it was the United Kingdom as a whole that was answering the Banx & Ranx call, since “Answerphone” also climbed to the No. 10 position on both the Irish and Scottish charts.
“It’s the song that changed everything,” says Raymond. “People’s perceptions of our music suddenly changed. Locked doors flew open. Incredible producers and artists started calling us and wanting to meet us. We just spent a week in Jamaica working with Sean Paul.”
It wasn’t the first time the Parlophone label-signed duo worked with the Dancehall King. Sean Paul’s latest EP includes four songs credited to the Canadian duo. “We’re also receiving tons of requests from artists who want us to re-mix their songs [Gorillaz, Major Lazer, David Guetta]. We can hardly keep up!”
It all began for Banx & Ranx when they started posting their first re-mixes online. “I started playing music when I was very young and living in Guadeloupe,” says Rastogi. “I first learned the piano, but they were more interested in rapping my knuckles than teaching me how to play. Then I got interested in the ka (a Guadeloupean drum), but I finally fell into reggae. I soon started producing my own riddims because nobody wanted to do it for me.”
Arriving in Canada at the age of 19 or so, Rastogi became interested in electro music at first. “I always loved rhythm, so it made sense,” he explains. “But I knew that I wanted to keep my Caribbean influences. So I started mixing the two styles.” Rastogi then started posting his first pieces and re-mixes on Soundcloud, the platform where Raymond would discover him. “He sent me a message. I was already following him, so I knew who he was, but we hadn’t spoken yet at the time.”
Known on the Québec rap scene for his collaborations with Koriass, D-Track, and Samian, Raymond started honing his talents as an electro-beat producer. “I was very trap, jungle, and drum & bass,” he says. “Then I fell into urban music. I worked with many rappers, but I couldn’t actually see myself being active in that environment, long-term. I was looking for something else, and I got hooked on reggae music. I fell in love with dancehall. I learned the Jamaican Patois. I worked hard on my solo career [to the point of releasing the Cellules album in Québec in 2012]. But I soon realized that I wasn’t really happy with performing live. I was playing shows for the paycheck. I didn’t want to be that kind of an artist. My real strength was as a composer and producer.”
Once they got to know one another, Rastogi and Raymond worked on a few shared projects before producing their first song, “Crime Scene.” “This is where we first understood that we could work as a team,” Rastogi explains. “We shared the same vision: making electro music and r-emixes while keeping our Caribbean influences. The Banx & Ranx objective was soon established. We wanted to write for ourselves, but also for other world-class artists. On the other hand, we would never have thought that we would get this close to pop music.”
Now that we’re on the subject, it’s not every day that we have an opportunity to talk with local composers who hobnob with the world’s pop elite. According to stereotype, that sphere of the industry builds its success on famous commercial recipes. “Before you can talk of a recipe,” Rastogi warns, “you’ve got to realize that the secret for breaking out at that level is non-stop work. You must be willing to spend a lot of time away from your family, and not be afraid of eating Kraft Diner. You can’t be afraid of failure either, because a lot of people are going to say no to you. You never know when the money will start coming in. But above all, you have to make many, many friends. Our success is 25 percent music and 75 percent contacts made during years of hard work. It requires an enormous amount of rigour and logistics. We’ve got friends in London, Jamaica, Sweden, the U.S. You have to spread your network right across the world.
“If you want to make it as a composer on the international scene, you need to be more than just a beatmaker,” he continues. “You have to be able to build the structure of a song, produce it, think of all the different vocal lines and their harmonies. This is where our strength lies. While we occasionally write separately, and send files back and forth, we’re much more productive when we lock ourselves up in a studio. We usually come out a few hours later with a brand new song.”
This is exactly how “Answerphone” came into being, during a November 2017 afternoon session in London’s Hammersmith area. “There were five of us in the studio,” Rastogi recalls. There was Zacharie and me, Ella Eyre, our friend Shakka, and Blonde’s Jacob Manson. We talked for an hour while listening to Nigerian music. Then the afro-beat materialized. We thought about a guitar line, a verse, a bridge, a chorus. Everything fell into place quickly. We started off at around noon, and the song was completed by early evening. But the craziest thing was that our management team had booked two studio sessions at the same time for us! So, after giving our instructions for “Answerphone,” we quickly moved to another part of the studio where we were recording with the dancehall singer Culan. Then we started working on “Answerphone” again, and so on. The song featuring Culan hasn’t been released yet.”
And what if that other composition becomes as successful as “Answerphone”? “Then we’d be talking about a very productive afternoon!” laughs Rastogi.