Hip-hop producer Swiff D has worked with a lot of big names. But as a basketball fan and former player (at Antelope Valley College), he calls his studio time with Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard one of the craziest experiences he has ever had.
“Typically, you think of an athlete rapping and you expect them to lollygag or whatever,” says Swiff, who worked on the NBA star’s debut hip-hop album, The Letter O, released earlier this year under the name Dame D.O.L.L.A. “But he came in super focused: ‘Listen to this verse, load the beat up, here’s what I’m going to do.’” The hunger Lillard demonstrated inspired rap sensation Lil Wayne to offer a guest verse on the track Swiff produced, “Loyal to the Soil.”
Swiff D, born Steve Thornton, comes from a family of musicians in Ontario. His father, who also recorded music and sang in a church group before he died of cancer, played eight instruments. When Thornton is not making beats, he still plays drums in a gospel choir.
As a producer, he prefers to be behind-the-scenes because he considers himself relatively shy. Maybe that explains how he has somehow stayed relatively unknown despite credits for the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Method Man, Talib Kweli, KRS-One, Bryson Tiller and Warm Brew.
“I originally thought I would be super stoked to meet these people, but a few years ago I started to think I’m here because I’m supposed to be here,” Swiff says. “You won’t get put in those positions unless you’re good enough.”
His biggest inspiration is J Dilla. Swiff calls Dilla’s Welcome 2 Detroit one of his all-time favorite albums. In a recent story about the young producer, a writer mistakenly said his moniker was short for Swiff Dilla, but Swiff got the “D” from Chuck Daly, who coached the 1992 Olympic basketball “Dream Team” to a gold medal.
Swiff almost had a chance to work with his idol. Around 2006, he was getting started as the in-house producer for Southern California rap group Pacific Division. He was friends with someone who worked with Dilla’s label, who planned to introduce Pac Div to the legendary beatmaker. Unfortunately, the 32-year-old Dilla unexpectedly died in Los Angeles just a few weeks before they were scheduled to meet up. The connection was never made.
“He put the craziest chops together, the weirdest samples; he could always find the melody with the bridge and the pre-chorus,” Swiff says. “I always wanted to know: Was it the weed? What was it that took him there to make him so in tune with the beat and the sample?”
If Thornton were asked that same question today, he would tell a young musician to do whatever they could to make their track sound different. That’s how he was driven to make the now-famous “Studio” beat for Schoolboy Q, basing it on gospel chords from a sample reworked using FL Studio, tons of plugins and a MIDI keyboard. He immediately knew it was special but he waited on it for a bit before sending it to anyone.
When he signed with Fakework Management in 2013, his new agent emailed the beat over to the Top Dawg Entertainment rapper later that day, who recorded it with BJ the Chicago Kid singing the hook. As BJ sings, the song was “so fucking dope” that it became hard to miss. It has racked up more than 78 million streams on Spotify since it dropped in 2014, topping Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart and receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (losing to Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster”).
In the past, Swiff has won plaques for going gold with Logic and platinum with Kevin Gates. But these days he’s focused on earning Grammy hardware. He compares that to his version of winning an NBA championship in terms of how it would define his career.
“I’d put it on my dad’s desk,” Swiff says. “He’s the reason why I’m doing this and why I know how to do all this.”