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The Odyssey of B. Lewis

In Music
LEWIS IS KING: With a new album, fresh management deal and a writing credit on Kanye’s latest album, things are looking up for San Jose native B. Lewis.

LEWIS IS KING: With a new album, fresh management deal and a writing credit on Kanye’s latest album, things are looking up for San Jose native B. Lewis.

From the 17th floor of the KQED building downtown, San Jose is an impressive sight. The city of more than a million sprawls, unfurling against mountain ranges to the east and south and against an equally sublime range of suburbs to the north.

Normally, this view is only available to members of the Silicon Valley Capital Club. Today, however, there is an interloper among their ranks—a different kind of San Jose elite, still not quite used to the high life: producer B. Lewis.

It’s 10am and Lewis has already had a full day. While the rest of the coast was asleep, he was finalizing the art for his first proper full-length release, putting the finishing touches on an album cover he designed himself. Next, he packed a duffle bag and got in the car. When the sun finally rose over the Sierra Nevadas, he was already north of Bakersfield on the I-5, making a trip from his new home in Los Angeles back to the place where it all began: San Jose.

This week, Lewis releases his debut, Sunset on Carmella. Commissioned by San Jose Jazz, the record caps off a yearlong partnership between the musician and the local non-profit arts organization, which included a number of public performances and a series of lessons on music production delivered to a group of South Bay high school students.

For Lewis, the album is something of a farewell to his longtime home. In October, the producer moved to LA after signing a deal a major management team, the same group behind some of the biggest pop hits of the last few years.

Pick one—the new record or inking the deal—and it would already be a banner year for the producer. Yet both moves pale in comparison to Lewis’s other recent accomplishment: a writing credit on an album released just a few weeks ago by Kanye West.

The road here has been neither easy nor direct. In San Jose, few lamps light the way of the artist. But from the 17th floor, as the city comes to life, and Lewis puts a decade of grinding behind him, his future is looking bright.

PASSING PORTRAITS

Born in San Jose in 1988, Bradford Lewis was raised in a musical household. The son of a jazz musician, he started playing bass while still in elementary school. “Then guitar, and then piano. Pretty much all self-taught,” he says.

In his early years, the Lewis family moved around a lot, bouncing from Los Gatos to Willow Glen to South San Jose. Eventually, they settled in Evergreen.

As a teenager, Lewis began going to all-ages shows in San Jose and Santa Cruz, most of them in DIY spots, church basements and community centers.

“I was watching these bands and thinking, ‘I can do this shit,’” he remembers.

Inspired by the scene’s accessibility, he started his first band in high school: a metal band he describes as “experimental and wild.”

“I was like, ‘What if we got thicker strings, tune down to Drop G and just see what happens?’”

That project was a learning experience. In addition to writing all the music, Lewis provided the equipment and practice space (the family garage), booked the shows and even drove the band around.

“It came to a point in time where I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

For Lewis, the point had always been the music. Playing in the band got him interacting with other musicians and up on stage for the first time. Unequal workload aside, he enjoyed it. So, in 2007, after graduating high school, he enrolled at Ex’Pression College (now known as SAE Expression College) a local private university focused on training students for jobs in the entertainment industry. There, he began to hone his production skills, learning how to engineer, record and mix a session.

But all of that would just be prologue, the price of entry into a great coliseum of working musicians, all of them fighting the impossible and trying to survive in the Bay Area.

CHOICES

Like a true DJ, Shea Modiri gets his music the hard way: digging through the crates and checking out what he finds.

“I just love music,” the 38-year-old selector and show promoter says. These days, Modiri is a part of the soul and R&B night “The Changing Same” at The Continental, where he spins under the moniker Shea Butter.

The first time he heard B. Lewis, Modiri was doing a little digital crate-digging on Bandcamp, clicking his way through every single release tagged “San Jose,” just to see what he’d find. That’s when he discovered one of Lewis’s first beat tapes.

“He stood out,” Modiri says. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’”

He was mystified. At the time, he had been organizing a recurring party called The Treatment. He thought he knew the San Jose music like the back of his hand. But then, here was this guy with these crazy beats.

Soon after, Mordiri saw that Lewis was playing a show at First Street Billiards, the former pool hall now home to Forager.

“I was, like, a fan,” he says. “I went up to him and I was like, ‘Dude, I love your shit. You’re awesome.’”

He invited Lewis to perform at The Treatment , and they became fast friends.

Modiri started coming by the studio, aka the garage at Lewis’s mom’s house.

“That was not a comfortable studio,” he says. “It’s a garage. So when it was hot, it was fucking hot in there. And when it was cold, it was fucking cold.”

Still, Modiri was impressed by the music. Even more so, he was also impressed by Lewis’s work ethic.

If Lewis eventually had to move to LA to get where he wanted to go with music, it was certainly not for lack of trying here. From 2009 on, he collaborated with a vast range of artists big and small, many of them people he’d met around the Bay Area. There was K.Flay, whose debut album had recently cracked the top 15 on the Billboard rap charts. There was a tour with Sonnymoon, a band featuring Anna Wise, who had just recorded all the female vocal parts on Kendrick Lamar’s studio debut, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. In 2014, he produced Winter & The Wolves by Rhymesayers rapper Grieves, putting him in touch with the Midwest’s famously vibrant underground hip-hop scene. That record even featured an appearance by underground hip-hop heavyweight Slug, of Rhymesayers’ marquee act Atmosphere.

“We did about 85 percent of that album here in my studio,” Lewis told me back in 2016. “Slug doesn’t really do features anymore, so that was kind of a cool thing to put on my resume.”

The more he collaborated with people, met people from outside of San Jose who were connecting nationwide, the more people took notice of his work—and the drive that Mordiri had picked up on years earlier.

“He probably works 10 to 14 hours a day at recording music,” Modiri says. “All he does is make music. But unless you’re working with him, you don’t see it. It probably just comes off as, ‘Oh, he’s really talented.’ In reality, it’s years and years and years of being locked up in his studio.”

One of the people who noticed Lewis’ dedication was a musician in LA named Scott Fulton.

“I came upon his work on a music blog,” Fulton says. “He released this album of beats that really caught my attention. The production was really unique and forward-thinking. I listened to it a ton at the time.”

A few years later, Fulton moved to the Bay Area and began working for San Jose Jazz. At that year’s Winter Fest, while watching Thundercat play, he recognized Lewis in the crowd.

“Only at that point did I realize he was a San Jose-based artist,” he says.

STRANGE THINGS

By 2017, Lewis and Modiri had been friends for the better part of a decade, and their relationship had begun to change.

“It was just organic,” says Modiri. “It was never like, ‘Hey, be my manager…’ But that’s exactly what happened.”

In his first act as manager, Modiri told Lewis to write up a list of all the people he wanted to work with. After one look at that list, he gave Lewis a clear directive.

“He was like, ‘You need to get to LA ASAP. There’s nothing here for you in San Jose anymore,’” Lewis recalls.

Taking his new manager’s advice, Lewis started making trips down to Los Angeles, staying for a week or two and doing the same thing he’d been doing in the Bay: meeting people, collaborating, grinding. It didn’t take him long to get in with in with the promoters of the iconic, long-running and now-retired LA party, the Low End Theory.

“It was very similar to what we were doing up here with The Treatment—a beats night,” says Modiri.

At Low End Theory Lewis was a hit, and was brought back repeatedly (including once for one of the event’s farewell shows). There, he made connections with a range of new people—among them an LA-based producer named Falcons. In 2018, Lewis and Falcons put out their collaborative Daydrift EP, a moody blur of neon synths, backpacker beats, and big pop hooks. With a team already behind Falcons, the five-song set brought Lewis’s music to an even wider audience.

Around the same time, Lewis had begun working on some tracks with a friend in LA he just calls “Jerry.”

“We have a good connection, good vibe,” Lewis says. “We like making weird stuff.”

One night while working on music together, Jerry told Lewis that Kanye was on the hunt for new beats. “I’m like, ‘Sure Kanye’s looking,’” Lewis remembers, not thinking much of it. “Everybody’s always looking.’”

Without fretting over who might ultimately listen to the session, the two set about working on a couple ideas. One of them had all the hallmarks of a B. Lewis song: dreamy, floating synth pads, understated rhythm, a subtly complex chord progression. That idea started to catch and they recorded a vocal melody: a soft, crooning vocal line that creeps upward as the chords resolve underneath.

At the end of the night, they had three or four songs. By then, Lewis had already written hundreds, most of them just sitting in iTunes folders on his computer, labeled by year. After the writing session, he went right back to working on his own projects and preparing for his next big collaboration.

“It was 2018, and the 50th anniversary of the Dionne Warwick song ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’” says Brendan Rawson, director of San Jose Jazz. “We were thinking, San Jose is such a different place from what it was 50 years ago. What’s the soundtrack of this region today?”

To answer the question, the organization began a new concert series: “Do You Know San Jose?” In addition to performances by a number of up-and-coming local musicians, the series was to feature an artist in residence, a significant role whose duties included multiple performances, a series of lessons taught to local high school students and the commissioning of a new album. For their first artist in residence, San Jose Jazz set their sights on Lewis.

“He was really top of the list,” says Scott Fulton, now San Jose Jazz’s special projects manager. “We’re really happy he said yes.”

For Lewis, used to scraping and scrapping for every job he got, the choice was easy.

“Shea just came up to me and was like, ‘You wanna do an album for San Jose Jazz?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”

And then he got another call.

“My buddy Jerry, he was like, ‘Yo, I think we got this Kanye cut.”

’YE AREA

On Sept. 29, 2018, B. Lewis was watching the Saturday Night Live season premiere. The musical guest that night was Kanye West.

Earlier that week, Kanye had announced a new album over Twitter along with the cover art and a date: “9.29.18.” Everything pointed toward an on-air album release. But that’s not how things went.

“Never came out,” Lewis says.

Instead, at the end of the show, Kanye delivered a pro-Trump sermon to a captive audience, dipping in and out of song as he told the crowd that white people should get to make Cosby jokes, too, and that everyone should just follow their hearts.

Understandably, Lewis was confused.

“I called my boy and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ He’s like, ‘I have no fucking idea.’”

Lewis’ connection called Kanye’s people, then called back.

“He says, ‘It’s not coming out tonight. I guess he’s putting it on hold. He wants to rewrite some shit.’”

All of this was back when the record was supposed to be called Yandhi. A few months later, Kim Kardashian West announced a new release date: Nov. 23. Like the first release date, that day came and passed with no album.

Over the next 11 months, the new Kanye album was teased repeatedly. A version of Yandhi leaked, and was even reviewed a few places. Then in January, rather than release the record, Kanye started holding gospel performances billed as “Sunday Service.” In what sounds like a scene from a particularly lazy Simpsons episode, he delivered an Easter Sunday Sunday Service at Coachella.

By then, the album had been renamed. It was no longer Yandhi, with its connotations of intellect and non-violence. Now, draped in hues of gold and royal blue, the album was called Jesus is King. West had become a born-again Christian.

Lewis, on the other hand, had begun to lose faith. For more than a year, he’d been telling people about his track on the new Kanye album. The claim was starting to sound desperate.

“Nobody believed me!” he says. “I’d been teased with this thing dropping nonstop.”

Luckily, he had other irons in the fire. The record he had done with Falcons the previous year had caught the attention of Electric Feel, the production team behind “Psycho” by Post Malone, “Havana” by Camila Cabello and other big pop hits. Scott Storch worked with them, and Frank Dukes.

“The people on that label are literally the people that he wrote down on that list three years ago,” Modiri says. “Everything was planned for him to be in this spot.”

Electric Feel wanted him to move to LA permanently. Having heard what he was capable of, they wanted him doing sessions yesterday. It had taken a decade, but he was finally where he wanted to be. All that was left to do was submit the album to San Jose Jazz. With the help of his longtime friend (and the secret ear for all his projects: his mom), he pieced together his first official solo album, Sunset on Carmella. The title captures the bittersweet nature of the moment.

“Carmella Court was where I lived,” Lewis says. “So Sunset on Carmella is like the sun going down on San Jose and rising in LA.”

SUNSET ON CARMELLA

This week, Sunset on Carmella is out on all streaming platforms. In a way, it is the start of B. Lewis’ career: his first album under his own name, with a label behind it. All it took to get here was a decade of work, hundreds of songs and dozens of collaborations.

“For me, nothing was laid out,” he says. “I just kind of found my own way. I ping-ponged around until I found my own sound.”

These days, B. Lewis is no longer a San Jose resident. But sitting over a beer at the SoFA Market in downtown, he can’t help reminiscing. Towards the end of the interview, he remembers his first paycheck, back when he was still in high school at Valley Christian.

“I worked at a machine shop,” he says. “It only lasted, like, two weeks. Not because I didn’t like it, but because my friend’s dad, who ran the place, was like, ‘You need to do music.’ I got paid like $180 or something like that. I’m glad I did it, but…”

Here he pauses. The song that had been playing over the loudspeaker has ended, and a new song is just beginning. This one begins with vocals: a soft, crooning line that creeps upward over a strange sounding chord. Together, a pair of voices sing:

We began after the storm inside

The song is “Everything We Need,” by Kanye West. The melody, sung by Ty Dolla $ign and Ant Clemons, is the same one Lewis sang, in the version he wrote at a friend’s house back before the move, back before the album and management deal, back before he ever knew any of this was going to happen.

“…but I’m doing fine,” Lewis continues, as the chorus ends and the beat kicks in. “I’m doing fine.”

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