In Conversation: Belly

In Conversation: Belly

One of music's crucial hitmakers opens up...

Palestine-born and Ottawa-raised multi-talented artist, songwriter, and producer Belly is the musical genius behind many of your favourite hits. Growing up listening to the likes of Jay-Z and Biggie, his love for music first sprouted after high school when he began releasing a selection of mixtapes that led to his 2007 debut album ‘The Revolution’, a project which ended up going Gold in Canada. Now signed to XO and Roc Nation, the international phenomenon is the songwriter behind Ariana Grande and The Weeknd’s ‘Love Me Harder’ hit, Beyonce’s ‘6-Inch’, not to mention his role as co-writer for The Weeknd’s ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ and ‘After Hours’ albums – the list goes on!

Having now accumulated over five billion streams as both a songwriter and artist, Belly returned earlier this year following a brief hiatus to focus on his mental health and wellbeing, with the release of ‘If You Know You Know’, alongside tracks with Benny The Butcher and Moneybagg Yo on both ‘Zero Love’ and ‘Money On The Table’. Following what’s been a challenging time for many across the world, although overcoming a pandemic wasn’t a part of anyone’s plan, he was still able to find the silver lining in an unprecedented period; “As the pandemic went on, I used the downtime to make things better, including myself.”

As we gear up for the release of his highly anticipated forthcoming album, his refined pen game and ability to adjust with the times is as potent as ever. Clash got the chance to catch up with Belly over Zoom to talk about all thing’s music, becoming a top lyricist, his forthcoming album, cooking the best rib-eye steaks and more. Tap in below to see what Belly had to say!

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You have been the lyrical genius behind many hits from Beyonce, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd and more! What do you think the key is to achieve this type of pen game and placements? Obviously, you’ve been doing music for a hot minute! Do you take time to study people’s artistry?

I’m just lucky to be involved, honestly! (laughs)

I have always used music as my expressive outlet, whether it’s a situation that I resonated with that isn’t my own or life in general inspiring me, using that medium to be able to put out therapy classes for myself is what my songs feel like.

When it comes to writing with other artists; I create my own world for my artistry and I work with people that I look up to and inspire me musically, it’s me just adding or complimenting to the genius that they have already built. I’ve been blessed to be invited into those rooms, that’s what I give it up to.

Creatively, do you perform better in certain spaces?

You have to change the environment every now and then, you can’t stay in the same space for too long. I like to do crazy things, I’ll go set up the studio in a desert and go work there for a week, so when you come outside you are looking at something you aren’t used to everyday. It warps your mind and helps you get into a different zone or feeling and even helps your music have a different theme at times because you almost feel like you owe it to the environment to make it sound good, you know?

What are your thoughts on the quality of music that is being pushed out at the moment? With the rise of bitesize platforms such as TikTok, is there anything you miss about the quality of music in the earlier stages of your career?

I think music is always going to change and evolve, it’s like a pendulum it’s going to swing back and forth. I will try and find the beauty in anything that can make people react or resonate with people no matter what way. If you have a song that came out and it went viral for whatever stupid reason, it’s still touched people in a way and that’s the only reason why it went viral, so there is still something there.

I don’t like when people discount what the young artists are doing now because they have found something, it’s new and a lot of people that are still trying to grasp that which is cool. But there is a magical feeling that is resonating with young people, and I try to find the beauty in everything that has that effect.

I think a lot of people miss the substance that older music holds!

I agree! It’s still there but you just have to try and find it. There are people like Kendrick and J Cole that are the highest in terms of lyrical calibre and they are on the radio more than anybody – so it’s still there! There is room for everyone to exist if it comes from the heart and soul.

You took some time out of music to focus on yourself and this is something you’ve been speaking a lot about recently. I remember you said you worked on the ‘After Hours’ album helped you get back into music again, what is it about this year or time in particular that felt right?

I mean, after the ‘After Hours’ era, I was heavily inspired by the people and the universe that Abel has built. It was motivating and inspiring, it made me realise that I really miss this, and I think that’s ultimately what did it for me, to create and get back in. I wanted to try and re-build the passion I had for it, but in that moment, the inspiration I gained from that was the most motivating factor for me to start making music again.

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You are going to be releasing a brand-new album later this year named ‘See You Next Wednesday’. In what ways do you think this project will differ to your previous ones?

First of all, this is the longest I have taken to find my footing and put something out. In regard to thinking the album was done, we went back many times to see what we could do to make it better. It’s more thought out but it’s also about me being happy to be back and doing what I love, and the album really shows that. I talk about some things, but I don’t go too deep and most of the time, you can feel a certain energy of freedom throughout it. It really feels like something special to me. I read that this album is a nod to the film maker John Landis, tell me a bit more about this?

John Landis has made some of the biggest movies, he even directed Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ music video. He would always drop easter eggs in his movies, you would see a billboard in the back of a popular movie, and it would say ‘See You Next Wednesday’, he did that a lot! At the end of the ‘Thriller’ video when Michael Jackson is walking out of the theatre, you hear somebody whisper it in the background. I dug into it because I thought it was so interesting, I found out that he was fired by Stanley Kubrick and wrote a script called ‘See You Next Wednesday’ because of something that somebody said, never sold it or placed it, it’s a movie that never got made but he continuously teased it throughout all of the others.

For me, I related to it so much to that because at the time I didn’t think I was going to be able to put it together because of the space I was at mentally, this is my ‘See You Next Wednesday’ – it might be the one that never gets made, but I will try my best! (laughs) That’s why I stuck with that title, at first it was a working title to keep me inspired but we made it the real one!

Are you a movie guy?!

Oh yeah, I love movies!

What is your favourite, if any?

I have quite a few! I love Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction – those are my old favourites! Recently I watched ‘Hereditary’, and that movie was a master peace, it is crazy! (laughs) 

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You put 'If You Know You Know' out first earlier this year. What was it about this single that made you want this to be the introductory single to the album?

I think it was representative of how I felt at the time, which was early on in the process. It still felt vulnerable, even in my voice, my confidence wasn’t fully back, and you can hear that which I really love. It’s more vulnerable to what I have been creating more recently because I broke out of my shell again. I didn’t want people to hear me back for the first time and think any different, I wanted them to understand the struggle from point A to B, I want them to experience the growth that I went through making the album.

You’ve also recently called on the likes of Benny The Butcher and Moneybagg Yo for both ‘Zero Love’ and ‘Money On The Table’ – tell us a bit more about how these features came about? I can’t imagine you being put in a room with someone and told to make music, I feel like you have a more organic approach?

It never works that way too! First of all, I have to like the person, the amount of people that have songs together and don’t even like each other is wild. I genuinely have to feel their energy or music, with both of those guys I am a big fan of both. Secondly, when I work on songs, I never finish half the song and then say we need to get a feature, I will work on the second verse and keep hearing somebody’s cadence on it. God bless, most of the time it has always worked out because I’m not forcing anybody on something they don’t belong on!

Do you ever have sessions with artists and take something away from it? I had a conversation with someone that other day and they said they don’t get in the booth with someone unless they challenge me as opposed to it being a walk in the park. Do you feel the same way? Do you like people to push you out your comfort zone?

Honestly, I don’t have a comfort zone unless it’s straight rap. I bounce around different genres all the time, even if I am in the studio by myself, I’m not trying to do just rap, I emulate that feeling a lot. Whenever I do get in the studio, no matter what is going on I will always have an idea, I like to keep myself sharp in all the fields, I’m a rapper first but I’m not just a rapper I’m an artist, you know what I mean?

That’s a great way to be because some people box themselves in and can only make the same song 10 times which isn’t always a great thing!

Yeah, exactly! People will get successful with one song and run that sound into the ground. Realistically, if you came up with that the first time you can come up with something for second and third time.

Non-bias, Benny The Butcher comes out with a new sound for every project, he re-invents himself all the time and it’s really courageous especially as someone who has found that amount of success and knows what works easily. He challenges himself every time, I would rather challenge myself all the time rather than someone having to challenge me sometimes.

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I noticed under a few of your videos that people were commenting saying that they felt you are massively underrated. What are your opinions on this? Because others will refer to you as a legend in the game – you are being labelled at each end of the spectrum!

If there is a million people saying that you are underrated, then you aren’t because there are a million voices saying that! *laughs* I love my fans for saying that I need more recognition, they are always going to fight for it until I retire, probably! For me, I always feel blessed, and I will never be ungrateful, I’m ambitious and always want more, I can’t think of anybody that wants to be content in this industry. I want to change the legacy of my family; I am very blessed!

Putting the music aside, what does Belly like to do for fun?

I love to play basketball and I love to cook; cooking is my second love! After music, cooking comes second!

I didn’t expect you to say that! What do you enjoy cooking?

(laughs) I can’t make my favourite dishes because that’s my mums’ food and I can’t recreate that! My mum makes all the traditional Middle Eastern and Palestinian dishes, she is the queen of that! I like to make lamb chops; I do the BEST rib-eye steaks you will have in someone’s household…

That’s a BIG statement!

It’s true! (laughs) I can cook anything really!

You have the album coming soon! Is there anything else we can expect to see from you this coming year?

Look out for the visuals, I have shot around five visuals already for this album. As much time I put unto the album I also put into the visuals, I want everything to be a symbolic representation of something. I pushed the cars and chains away and really thought about the themes and feelings behind the album. I’m most excited for the fans to react to the videos!

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Belly's new album 'See You Next Wednesday' will be released this summer.

Words: Elle Evans // @ElleEvans98

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