Sleep Deez (BTS, Eric Bellinger) on the importance of connecting with fans and giving back

Sleep Deez is a multi-platinum producer based in Los Angeles.

He has produced records alongside a diverse array of artists spanning the likes of the Black Eyed Peas, Eric Bellinger, and BTS. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Sleep to reflect on his musical journey so far and discuss the importance of connecting with fans for artists—read on for highlights.

What are some of your early memories around music, and what got you interested in producing music?

When I was a kid, I remember sitting on the school bus and listening to “Still Dre” by Dr. Dre. Everyone around me is joking, roasting each other, and acting wild, but I remember hearing this beat and nothing else. I was totally enamored with it. I’d hear music and tell my friends, “Oh, I love this part right here, like listening on the right headphones you can hear this sprinkling thing.” But, I noticed my friends never heard that, or noticed those details. That was the beginning of me noticing how interested I was in the whole—how it all comes together.

So, I asked my Mom to buy me a keyboard. We didn’t have any money or anything, so I never thought it would be possible. Then one day, she just bought it for me. I was 14. I just remember always feeling out of place because I skipped a grade. But I got this piano, and I fell in love. It started there, with me just playing songs I heard on the radio. Then later, at college-age, I started dabbling and finding software.

When did music production shift into focus as something you wanted to pursue professionally?

I really thought I was going to do something in film. College was a time where I was also trying to figure out if I had what it took to play basketball overseas. Basketball was my love, but I kept getting hurt. Around that time, a family friend was directing music videos and my dad worked with her, so I was called down to be an extra in the MV shoots sometimes. From that, I fell in love with the behind-the-scenes and how music videos came together.

So, I found this guy on Craigslist selling a movie editing program—I think it was called Windows Movie Media Maker. It was raining that night, and I was injured on crutches at the time. I gave him $100, but as I was leaving—and I’m not clumsy by any means—my crutches slipped and I knocked over everything. I was super embarrassed. When he came to help me up, he looked at me and said, “Hey bro, do you like music?” and handed me a copy of Reason.

When I got back home, I was like, “I’ll get to this tomorrow. Tonight, I’m just gonna mess with this music thing and just chill out—see how this goes.”

I think I was up for 14 hours, maybe until 1 or 2 pm the next day. The first beat I made was called “Collard Greens.” The beat might still be on my cousin Rick’s computer. I never installed that other program. I got so hooked on Reason that the film stuff just fell back. But I’m still a young guy; I could still win an Oscar!

Who would you consider your biggest influences in shaping who you are today?

In a non-musical way, my mom has a big impact on my life. I don’t think she wanted me to pursue it. You know, parents want you to go to school. When I was a kid, everybody thought I’d be a doctor because I had straight As.

But my mom’s work ethic—I match that. I never remember hearing her complain about having a job or going to work. She is a single mom with three kids. She had a way of putting her head down, working hard, and always getting the job done. You need that discipline.

And then my dad—he came into my life a little bit later. He’s passed on now, but I say it was perfect timing when he came into my life, because it was the teenage years where things could go left and right. He taught me how to think bigger. You kind of grow up thinking only certain things are possible, but my dad would tell me that when I turned 17, I should get out of the city and go somewhere. He worked in marketing and would take me around to see different things, be a part of music videos, explore shoots, etc.

I admired how he got things done and always had a plan. He told me that I could do anything I wanted to do. You just need to focus on the skills and learn the lingo. He said that anything and everything translated in that manner. Like, if you want to be a doctor, you have to learn the skills and learn the lingo—learn the language. Music is the same way. My mom and dad really shaped who I am today, and there is so much I learned from them. I’m super thankful for both of them.

In terms of my musical influences, Dr. Dre and Timbaland are the main influences on my sound and production. Being a West Coast kid, there’s also the early Snoop Dogg stuff and the N.W.A. I’m also a fan of Kanye West, but he’s not so much an influence on my sound and more a source of inspiration.

Overall, my idol is Quincy Jones. I think he’s the greatest living musician we have. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s more important.

What was a big turning point in your career?

2016 was my coming-to-Jesus era. 2016 was my 2020. I was at a very big crossroads in my career, my life—everything. I had started a tech company and was living in New Zealand for awhile. There was interest in buying it, but things didn’t work out and I lost most of my financials.

Things were really rough. I had taken a step back from music, and I was trying to figure out my place and what I wanted to do. I was at square one. Around my birthday that year, I was in Japan and ran into an old friend who worked in publishing. We started going out, and then going to the studio to record every night. Doing those sessions in Tokyo made me so happy, and reminded me that my heart is in making music.

Also around then, there was a songwriting camp that Warner Chappell was doing, but I guess everybody kept passing it up because it was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend. For me, the concepts of parties and vacation were not on my mind. All I could think about was that I was going to kill it on any project that came my way. This was going to be my comeback season, and I wanted to show people I could bounce back.

So Jayrah Gibson, one of the writers on BTS’ “My Time,” suggested me to the A&R at Warner Chappell, and I found myself on this trip. We worked with FNC. The FNC staff was amazing and very welcoming. There were a couple of producers and a couple of writers, and collectively we made about 40 or 50 songs. I had so much fun.

This trip also introduced me to the music scene in Korea. After we’d record and go out to dinner, I’d see all these kids, some coming right after school and hanging outside of the office just to catch a glimpse of an artist. Even on the way back to the studio, those kids would still be waiting just for the chance to see a particular artist pop in or out of a recording session. We kind of lost that here in America. Seeing people be so excited about the music and the artist and be so into it—that really got me into K-pop.

What projects do you consider moments of growth for you that influenced how you think about music?

When you’re a producer, you sometimes find yourself spending all your time giving yourself to everybody else’s vision. I wanted to find a way that I could be part of the vision, but I didn’t want to be chasing around artists forever.

So, I started building things from the ground up. I started focusing on independent artists. I wanted to see who was getting big in my city and explore other avenues—and that’s when I started working with Eric Bellinger.

“Island” was such an important project because it was an idea I had that I was able to execute on. So many people have ideas, but implementation is the hardest part. My idea was that I’m not hot. It’s been seven years since my Black Eyed Peas work—I need to build from the ground up. I don’t need to be focused on making 70 tracks as much as I need to be focused on building relationships with artists that are doing things the right way.

Another project we did together was “Goat 2.0 (ft. Wale).” That went on to be RIAA-certified Gold as an independent record. Those two records really personified my sound. I spent the years prior figuring out how I want to make music, and it shows in those records. That was a turning point for me. Because I worked with an independent artist—no radio play—it was just something that the fans fell in love with.

If I hadn’t worked with Eric, I don’t know how I would have navigated the work with BTS. Firstly, if I didn’t have that confidence in my sound from producing “Goat,” I don’t think that I would have sent that beat to BTS. It didn’t sound like what was playing on the radio. I would have been in my head thinking that it was too dark, or it was too R&B.

But both “Goat” and “My Time” are a personification of my style and my sound. And with “My Time,” the staff, A&R, and the team really guided me on getting the changes right. They made it easy to not get in my head about it. The staff are really smart and really understand music. I know that when I get notes, it has been discussed internally and there’s agreement. Everybody is in lockstep. It was a great collaborative process.

Secondly, seeing the connection between independent artists and their fanbases and how much effort they put in with each release gave me perspective on BTS’ connection with ARMY. They think about those fans every time they have a release, and I see BTS do the same thing at a larger scale.

All of those projects I’ve worked on really tied together, from 2017 – 2020. They gave me a lot of confidence that I can get things done how I want them to get done, and that I can give my sound and what I want to do to an artist no matter what genre they’re in or what people expect them to do.

How important is the fan connection?

I see articles about BTS’ ARMY being a bunch of crazy teenage girls, which is totally inaccurate. When did everybody get too cool to be a fan? I’ve been cool my whole life. If I’m cool with people being a fan, you shouldn’t mock people for wanting to be a fan. People need something to believe in. And if you’re going to be a fanatic about something, who better than BTS? They don’t take it for granted one bit. They care about their fans.

From understanding that relationship, I don’t take this situation for granted. I don’t speak very often to press, because I very much want to remain a side character and just a small part of the story—because I feel the same way, but at a much, much smaller scale. I’ve always wanted to give back to people. When you produce a record of that magnitude, everybody wants you. But then the world shut down, and I was stuck at home. I had time to read all of these messages, read these comments, and see the reactions to the song. It really made me want to learn more about the community, and I started to get more involved and invested. Seeing how much ARMY cared about the song, and about the group, really touched me. BTS is very important to me; I love those guys. And seeing how much they care about people is amazing,

I see that you have your own connection with fans on social media platforms like Discord, and actively invest in them. What does that connection mean to you?

One individual tweeted that they weren’t sure how they were going to get a computer. I didn’t know they were a student at the time, so I could have showed more compassion, but I replied, “I don’t care, find a way.” Eight months later, they told me they saved money and got the computer, and showed me their setup. I was so proud. They put in the work and were working with gaming headphones, so I texted my mom and told her we needed to send them some proper headphones.

There’s this analogy I tell people all the time. If your car breaks down and you’re just sitting in your car, no one’s going to know that you need help. If you get outside the car and you’re trying to flag somebody down, somebody might stop. But if somebody sees you pushing the car yourself, I guarantee somebody is going to stop and help you push that car.

This individual pushed the car themselves. I was so proud of them and wanted to give back. I always want to give back to the people who have given me so much. They’re streaming the song, they love the song, and they share how the song has impacted their lives with me. They have been so kind to me, and they are giving me energy.

I don’t take what I do for granted for one second. I also don’t feel like I’m anything special or above anybody else. My life has been wild. When my dad passed away, he was very young. We were really close. When you go through a loss like that, you become really present and self aware. You want to be present for moments.

One of those moments was because of “My Time.” No matter how much bigger I get as a producer, nothing will top that moment of everybody discovering who I was at the same time. That was a really special day to me. I was in Mexico on a vacation and was planning to come back before the album dropped. But Bora found my account and my phone just started blowing up.

There were so many questions: Is it an R&B song? Is it a rap song? Is this rapper JK? Everybody was so excited to hear the song. Hearing how excited people were, I changed my flight because I didn’t want to miss being there with everybody to experience it at the same time. I wanted to be present. I’ll have other moments in my life, but that moment stands alone. ARMY gave me that moment, and that’s why I’m always going to give back. I don’t know how you can be an artist and not have a relationship with your fans, and not take care of the people who support you.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want my legacy to be that I gave, and I gave, and I gave. I feel like so many people get the idea that if you discover something, you don’t want to give the secrets away or tell somebody how you did something.

There’s a lot of competition within teams sometimes. My mentality is always like, “Let’s work together.” I don’t compete with my friends; we’re all coming up together, and you have to come up with people who are at your level. Like Nipsey Hussle, this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you put in the work, you’ll look up eight years down the line, and you’ll see your peers come up with you. If you want to have longevity and a career, you have to build your network and come up together. Relationships are important.

I also want to show that it’s possible. Showing it’s possible is one of the most important things that the mentors in my life have showed me. It’s easy to feel like you can do something if you know somebody that’s doing that thing. I’m just a regular person. But if you feel like you can reach out to me, say something, talk to me—that little spark is all people need. Nobody needs you to hand it to them. That little bit of inspiration can do so much.

And with the music, I want people to hear my work and feel like it sounded different. I want people to hear the care. It’s the difference between a home-cooked meal and fast food for supper. I want my legacy to be that the music was great top to bottom, and that I gave a lot to the next generation coming into music.

May 7, 2021

Hannah Mimi Park Hannah Mimi is an engineer at Splice and songwriter based in New York City. In her free time, she's an aspirational amateur baker.