After being summoned by phone on a December afternoon, A.B. Eastwood (who goes simply by A.B.) leads the way into a window-lined lobby, up an elevator and down a carpeted hallway into the Nashville apartment he shares with a couple of other young music-makers.
Petty, a rapper who's not among the roommates, is slouched on the living room love seat, a Santa hat on his head and a matching red and white robe draped over the cushions behind him.
The tools that A.B. uses for his production work, including on numerous Petty tracks, is strewn about: a battered laptop open on the coffee table, keyboards propped up against the walls.
Both Petty and A.B. are natives of the Nashville area, though they each spent years wood-shedding separately before crossing paths. A.B. grew up playing jazz trumpet, picked up piano, then learned the skills of beatmaking and layering synths while apprenticing under the producer DUBBA-AA on South Florida studio sessions with Kodak Black and other hot MCs. Without ever leaving Tennessee, Petty went from releasing mixtapes that consisted of him rapping over tracks associated with other artists — his Elvis interpolation, Petty Presley, in particular, helped put him on the map — to enlisting local production talent for increasingly sophisticated, all-original projects. Eventually, their two expanding musical circles overlapped.
Since late 2017, Petty, who's come to be viewed as an enigmatic, gruffly thoughtful pillar of the hip-hop community, and A.B., who's become a laid back go-to for rappers and alt-R&B singers alike, have teamed up repeatedly. Together, the released a wry, seasonal brooding of A Christmas Album, the subdued self-examination of the 18-song album Words I Couldn't Say and the impressive mirroring exercise that is the Good Goat and Bad Goat EPs, on which Petty wrote and performed two entirely different songs to each of eight backing tracks.
Late last year, after a couple of months of trying unsuccessfully to nail them down, they agreed to do their first joint interview, and actually seemed to enjoy it.
We're sitting in a room where a lot of your music has gotten made, or at least where A.B. does his part. Can you help me wrap my head around what that process looks like from one end to the other?
A.B. Eastwood: It's really simple. I make [a track], I send it and he'll send it back [with his vocals on it]. ... I work with people I'm a fan of, and I'm big on not intervening in their process, because that's what made me a fan. ... I just give them their space.
Petty: I prefer to hear a finished record. When I go to another producer for production, I want them to give me [something that feels like] them. Most of the time it just feels better when they create on their own time. It's a solid expression of whatever they was feelin' at the time.
I write in bulk, in a weird process. I usually write to, like, five, six beats at the same time. So I just bounce back and forth to different tracks. Whenever this verse feels like it's taking a little longer to write, I just change the beat. ... I like hearing fresh sounds. If we was to be in the studio all night making a beat, trying to come up with a record, I'd probably never be able to write to it, hearing it a million times.
It sounds like you're both used to working in isolation. Was there any conversation at all about what Petty wanted to do conceptually with Words I Couldn't Say or Good Goat/Bad Goat?
P: Words I Couldn't Say, I really didn't write that with an album in mind. All of those songs are songs that I would write in between [other] songs that I was focused on. I was writing just to vent. Then, one day, I was sitting on my porch listening to some songs while it was raining, and I just grouped up all of the more reflective records and listened to them like a playlist and I was like, "Aw, shit, this is an album."
With Good Goat/Bad Goat I said, "Hey man, this is the vibe I'm going with. It's gonna be 16 songs total, but technically we're only using [half that many] beats. I'm gonna rap over them twice."
A.B.: Anybody can say they can do that ...I was terrified, really, because I felt bad for him. He had to shut himself up and not listen to himself, forget everything he just did and go at it again.
P: We worked together on another project too. We had a Christmas album out.
You look like a pretty big fan of Christmas, sitting there in a Santa hat.
P: I hated Christmas right up until I called [A.B.] and a couple of other producers to make that album.
I did that because, you know, that "season of depression" shit is real. Society, it's like it's pressuring you to be in a good mood or be in the spirit or be positive about your personal reality. ... You may be going to a Wal-Mart for some damn towels, and you can't avoid the shit; there's Christmas music playing. So you're almost being hard on yourself, like, "Why am I so down?" And then you're down that you're down. So I was like, "Man, we've gotta make some upbeat Christmas music for people who don't like Christmas. We've gotta not make it cheesy."
How much did you tell A.B. about what you wanted these projects to sound like?
P: At one point I probably said, "Give me a little steady bounce," but I never got really specific about what I wanted. ... I know I can get a smooth soulful vibe from him where the bass is knockin' but it's not doing too much, and it's simple enough to where I can be the lead instrument. Some beats you gotta rap on because there's so much shit, and his beats I feel like you can rap in 'em.
A.B.: I don't play on tracks as much as I used to, because I had a bad problem of doing too much. The track was so full. ... And it would be like I'd done everything possible and [the artist] didn't have any room. I get tempted to do that when I'm on a keyboard. I still play chords, but I play them on [the laptop] where there's limitations and I can't go too crazy.
A.B., you cut your teeth in South Florida, which has its own sound, but your jazz sensibilities make me think of the West Coast scene that Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar are a part of. Petty, you stayed immersed in the Nashville hip-hop scene while developing your approach. Do you feel like you have signatures sounds, and do they correspond to a regional thing that's undeniably Nashville?
P: Nashville is just one of those weird places where I don't think we've got a set sound. The Nashville sound is a quality. ...We've gotta be extra creative and go outside the box just to even get respected coming from the country music capital. I feel like fighting through that adversity makes everybody innovative in their own way.
Jay Z's publishing company Roc Nation opened a Nashville office a few years ago and, in general, there are a lot more writer-producers, beat-makers and track people in town these days. What does that mean for both of you? Are you finding more opportunities to work within industry, as opposed to completely outside of it?
A.B.: It's put me on my P's and Q's as far as the execution of things or keeping everything organized. Because I know that there's eyes watching. I could meet somebody tonight at a show and he may know my name. ... That didn't happen until the last two years.
So you're more self-conscious about putting your professionalism forward in general. Would you consider working in country?
A.B.: Yeah, because country sounds a lot like urban nowadays.
P: That's what they're doing now. Country has a lot more 808s in it, and synths.
A.B.: They're not pulling from country [sounds] to advance country [music]—they're pulling from elsewhere. Just as there's that urban hint in country now, there's also that very pop-electronic side. You can still feel that it's country, but it's not country texture.
Petty, I've seen you post on social media about hanging out with writers and artists signed to Big Loud, best known as the home of Florida Georgia Line. Are you working with those folks?
P: I've been spending a lot of time over there. Me and Ernest K. mess around a lot. If something lands, something lands. I'm ready to write a country record. I'm excited for that. ... I'll write for other people. Me and Ernest, we joke about making me a country song that I'm gonna sing. I'm with whatever. Let's try it. There ain't no rules in music, man. I try to remind myself of that every time I record.