Jeff Bhasker, A.K.A. Billy Kraven, is a music producer and songwriter. Born to an Indian father and Caucasian mother, he was raised in Socorro, New Mexico where his father is a doctor and the town’s mayor. Bhasker left Socorro to pursue music studies at Berklee School of Music, then moved to New York for three years before beginning his career in Los Angeles.
Famous artists he has worked with include Kanye West, Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Bruno Mars, The Game, Rolling Stones, Beyonce, and Alicia Keys. He has won Grammy awards for the songs “Run This Town,” by Jay-Z (Best Rap Song), “All of the Lights” by Kanye West (Best Rap Song), “We Are Young” by FUN (Song of the Year), “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson (Record of the Year), and Bhasker, himself, won Producer of the Year.
In this exclusive interview with India Currents, Jeff Bhasker opens up about his music and experience in the industry.
IC: Did growing up in Socorro have any impact on your getting into music?
JF: Not in a typical way, because there were not many resources around. However, the lack of distractions and outside influences allowed me to do a lot of soul searching, during which I discovered my music passion.
I wanted to find a place where I belonged. My home life was not great due to my parents being divorced, and the challenge of having a blended family. I wanted to be around people who, like me, were into Jazz and enjoyed playing music together. I eventually found it at the Berklee School of Music
IC: We are all aware of the Indian stereotype of parents wanting their children to become doctors and engineers. How did your family feel about your pursuit of music?
JF: It definitely confused my family of doctors. No one in our family had become a musician. However, they were relieved once I became more successful. Now, of course, they are very proud of the work I have done.
IC: What was your focus at the Berklee College of Music?
JF: I, initially, wanted to be a jazz musician and composer, but I drifted into recording and production. Technology and computer recording began to take a bigger role, hence making recording more accessible. You could record music on a laptop instead of paying a big fee to use a studio. Eventually, songwriting and recording became my specialty.
IC: You produce music across all genres- rap/hip-hop, rock, pop, R&B, and Bhangra. What are your thoughts regarding the term “genre”?
JF: Genres are only marketing devices to appeal to a certain demographic. I try to be genre-less and, instead, utilize the best aspects of each genre. Ultimately, we are all humans that bleed, love, and hurt. In any genre, the best song appeals to people on a human rather than on a genre level.
IC: How did you initially connect with famous musicians?
JF: My first song was the title track on The Game’s Documentary album. After that, there was a lull until I worked with Kanye. My work with Kanye became my calling card. In 2009, my song with Alicia Keys, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, made me known for my sound. Once I had a hit song, I slowly built up my reputation and became connected with more people.
IC: I assume that each musician you work with has a unique style. How have these different musicians inspired you?
JF: I learn a lot from everyone I work with. However, I consider Kanye my biggest mentor. Kanye is a huge influence regarding how hard he works on his projects, whether in fashion, music, or whatever else. He has largely helped shape my concept of being an artist, which is to create music on an intensely personal and honest level. In other words, he has taught me to be driven by the need to express instead of success.
IC: You have produced three songs on Jasbir Jassi’s “Back with a Bang” (2014) album. How did working with Jassi help you reconnect with Indian roots?
JF: Meeting Jasbir Jassi and his family has been such a great and organic part of my life. In 2017, I traveled with him to India to participate in MTV India.
Being in India was a culture shock and my head was spinning. I did not know where I fit in. Navigating Indian society and the music business was like being on another planet. By the end, I had two harmoniums and was sitting on the plane in my kurta and I did not want to leave. I had a close connection with the people I met. The sights, smells of India really felt like home. It was a great experience.
IC: Many people dream of becoming successful musicians. However, very few actually make that dream a reality. What has been the key to your success in the industry?
JF: The best advertising and PR is making the best music. People, nowadays, over-focus on connections and social media. While these are important, you ultimately just need to deliver a great product. A song is a product. How meaningful and life-changing it is, is what matters. That is what I focus on: How to make what I am working on undeniable.
IC: What are you currently working on?
JF: I have an independent record label called Kravenworks. We are currently releasing the latest material from a Swedish act called Vacation Forever. It’s been fun to curate content and develop marketing campaigns for amazing artists such as Angelique Kidjo and Cam, with whom we had a hit single!
IC: Any lessons to inspire young Indians?
JF: As we develop a more global perspective, it’s about being a human being. Whether you are Indian, American, British, or a Martian you need to find what is inside you that you need to express and tell your story.
My message is to believe in yourself. Find the people who believe in you and work hard. Knowing your place on the timeline of history and where you are going is important for helping you grow in the right direction. You should always be growing, challenging, changing, and trying to better yourself. That will lead you to the most impactful result. Staying true to yourself is what I mean.
Nikhil Misra-Bhambri is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. He is a graduate from the University of Southern California (USC) with a degree in history and will begin his Masters in Social Work at USC in Fall 2021.