In a low-key studio space in the center of East Downtown, Steve O Valdez and Raymond A are working on new music while the muffled sounds of a drum lesson fill the building. The space has a certain charm. Perhaps it's the charm of an independent studio built by a passionate entrepreneur living out his dream. Perhaps it's the fact that it doubles as a music academy for young musicians and aspiring producers. Or maybe it's the knowledge that this studio contributed to the making of Tha Carter V, the long awaited and wildly successful thirteenth album by hip hop royalty, Lil Wayne.
To understand how that happened you have to go back to the earliest days of Steve O Valdez's career. A pianist and drummer since childhood, Steve O first learned to play at his family's north Houston church. In his teens, he discovered hip hop and began making beats soon after graduating high school.
His first production teacher and mentor was a Baton Rouge artist by the name of Happy Perez. While the name might be unfamiliar to today's casual hip hop fan, Perez was an integral part of southern hip hop in the late '90s and early 2000s. After establishing a reputation in Baton Rouge, Happy relocated to Houston where he worked with artists like South Park Mexican and Baby Bash, eventually linking up with rising Latin pop star, Frankie J. — enter Steve O Valdez.
Though only two years into his producing career, Steve O was already being mentored by Happy when he and Frankie J. began collaborating. When Perez produced Frankie's 2005 hit single, "Obsession", Steve O helped in the making of the track, catapulting his young career. A few years later, he was introduced to the man who would change his life: legendary rapper/producer, Mannie Fresh.
Fresh, a New Orleans native, gained household status as the primary producer and artistic force behind Cash Money Records, the label that launched Lil Wayne and changed the course of mainstream hip hop. A decade ago, Steve O was introduced to Fresh through a mutual friend and the two have been making music and partnering on various projects ever since.
One of the duo's first tracks, a Lil Wayne song originally recorded and mixed in 2008, "Start This Shit Off Right", made a surprise appearance on Tha Carter V ten years later. While the song was remixed for the album, it remains quintessential Lil Wayne, with vocals by Ashanti and a New Orleans bounce that transports listeners to a time when Weezy ruled the world (because that's literally when it was recorded).
"Start This Shit Off Right" is one of two songs on Tha Carter V that Steve O helped produced. The second, a track titled "Perfect Strangers", features a piano rift by Valdez himself, recorded in his EaDo studio by Houston's own, Raymond A (RYMNA).
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Steve and Raymond's collaborative history has been surprisingly brief. The two met less than six months ago through a mutual friend in the Houston rap community and hit it off immediately. Raymond, a veteran of the city's underground rap scene, is a gifted lyricist and performer whose tracks have lacked commercial appeal in the past. Valdez recognized this when he brought Ray into his studio earlier this year to produce for him. He also recognized the rapper's gift for producing and has since become a mentor and teacher.
Their creative partnership has quickly blossomed. From recording and producing Raymond's tracks, to inviting him to assist in the production of Tha Carter V and now bringing him on tour with Mannie Fresh, Steve O clearly sees something worthwhile in Raymond's raw talent.
Beyond his ongoing production projects, Steve O owns and manages the Houston Sound Academy, a school of music and beat making he runs out of his studio. He also partners with Mannie Fresh on community initiatives aimed at showcasing young and undiscovered artists around the city. Their efforts have been recognized by the mayor and the city's Department of Culture who have invited Steve O and Mannie to produce music for the city's Hip Hop for Literacy event.
As of this writing Tha Carter V has been certified gold with more than 500,000 equivalent units sold in its first two weeks. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and is reported to have had the second best week of streaming ever with 433 million streams (second only to Drake's Scorpion).