“I thought, ‘This shit is gonna be big'” – ‘Old Town Road’ producer YoungKio on the most controversial song of the year

"It’s a crazy story”

It’s the novelty banger that sparked a debate about genre, race and exclusion: ‘Old Town Road’, a country trap collaboration between 20-year-old Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X and 18-year-old Netherlands producer YoungKio (aka Kiowa Roukema), initially blew up on social media, then drew attention from mainstream outlets when it was controversially removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Eventually, country don Billy Ray Cyrus appeared on a remix and it galloped back to its rightful place. Yeehaw!

More than 170 million combined YouTube views later, NME spoke to YoungKio about 2019’s most compelling and controversial single, and its bumpy to success.

Hey ‘Kio! Did you realise what a massive hit you had on your hands when you made ‘Old Town Road’?

“I didn’t think it was a hit at first. The song was made in December and it only started to get views in February. I didn’t even know it would get this big. So the answer is no, you know? It’s just crazy how everything turned out. It was just a normal song to me but once I started to get crazy numbers then I thought, damn, this shit is gonna be a big hit.”

You initially weren’t credited on the song because you’d sold the beat on production platform BeatStars. Were you worried you were going to be left behind when the song took oFf?

“No, no, no, because from the beginning me and [Lil] Nas made the song together. We were very close. We were always updating each other about the song. He was like, ‘When the song goes big, you’re coming with it, of course.’ We were always together in it because I’m a big part of the song.”

Are platforms like BeatStars making music more democratic?

“Yeah, because everyone can sell their beats online. A lot of big artists and their people are always on YouTube trying to find beats. That’s the new way to [produce]. There’s a lot of talent out there; there are a lot of people in different countries, small producers who would never have a chance to be in studio sessions to get their beats out there. They have to find another way to do that, and they can obviously do that with beat selling. That’s what connects us as foreign producers from Europe to the American hip-hop scene. So it’s really important.”

The social network TikTok was hugely important in making this song big, too…

“TikTok is where all the kids are. If you listen to the song there isn’t, like, swearing or anything; it’s a pretty calm song. It’s suitable for almost everyone. It has the cowboy country theme, so you can make videos for it. In February, when it started to go bigger, some people made country and cowboy-type videos on the song. Everyone was getting on the hype, you know? The song is suitable for children, and that’s also why it went big on there without any problem.”

Mitski and Mac DeMarco named their albums after them; Solange cast them in her video. Cowboys are having a real moment now…

“Yeah – I think the song did it, to be honest. There wasn’t a song getting people crazy about cowboys and Westerns before that. The song did a lot of things; the song did more than you would imagine. It broke all these records, but if you look at it from every perspective, it did so many things. It’s insane.

US chart stewards Billboard controversially removed the song from the country charts. What did you make of that?

“At first I was like, ‘Damn, this is some bullshit,’ because I was thinking, ‘What makes a song country? Where do you cross the line? Is it the bass, is it the tempo? What is it that defines country?’ They didn’t really respond in a way where they explained why it was taken off – they only said it wasn’t country enough. But why wasn’t it country enough? I was pissed; Nas X was pissed. But it brought so many controversies and so much attention from the media – it was on Good Morning America, all the big hip-hop artists responded that it shouldn’t be taken off. And because of the controversy, I think, the song went two times bigger at least. At first I was disappointed but after the controversy, I thought, ‘Damn, it actually helped the song even more.’

L-R: YoungKio and Lil Nas X

Do you think the decision was racially motivated, as many people have suggested online?

“Well, I don’t think so, to be honest. I think they just heard the song and were like, ‘This is more hip-hop because of the tempo and stuff.’ I personally don’t think it has any racial thoughts behind it, but everybody says it. I think something in the song just didn’t sound country enough for them.

What did you make of the social media backlash that suggested otherwise?

“It’s like, you don’t know if it’s true or not. It’s kind of just an assumption, you know? Because you don’t have any proof that it’s racial but also you don’t have proof that it’s not. I didn’t want it to be racial, you know? I just wanted it to be the song. So that’s what I believed. There was no real proof. I thought it was just a song and, you know, everybody was talking about racial stuff. I was cool with it because it only made the song bigger. But I didn’t change my mind or anything, even though everybody was saying it.”

Have you and Lil Nas X talked about this?

“Yeah, we did. He didn’t think it was racial, as well. We were just shook because at the moment it was big but it wasn’t as big as it is now – it was going crazy, it was trending. Everybody was talking about it and we were just like, ‘Damn we really did something with this song!’”

Lil Nas X

Has the debate around the song been constructive?

“I think it was. I saw people going crazy over Post Malone as well – ‘Why’s he on the hip-hop chart?’ So it started conversations about every chart, on whether people belong on it. It sparked the conversation: when do you call something a genre? Where do you cross the line? It’s important when making music for the artist to know in which genre they can put it. They need to be more transparent, you know? This shouldn’t happen every time, you know?”

Billy Ray Cyrus’ presence on the remix helped the song blow up as well…

“It did, it did. He’s actually retired and I think his people got him on it. [Lil Nas X] was trolling on Twitter a couple months ago when the song was still small – he was like, ‘Oh, I wanna get Billy Ray Cyrus on the remix’. It was just a joke but after the song took off, Billy put his respect on it – he thought it should be on the country charts – so Nas’ people contacted Billy, who was really down to do it even though he’s retired. I was sceptical about it. Like, ‘How is he gonna go crazy on a trap beat, you know?’ But he actually nailed it. It’s a crazy story.”

Are we gonna see more country trap in the mainstream?

Hell yeah! A lot of people are coming to me for country style beats, but to be honest it’s a one-time thing, you know? That’s what [Nas] is saying as well; he just wants to make music. He wants to make what he wants to make. All the artists are coming at me thinking I’m a county trap producer now but it’s like: I know people are wanting country stuff but it’s not gonna be as big as this one. It’s not gonna be the next wave because this was just one of a kind. People wanna ride a wave, but it’s not gonna work. We did it. And we did it in our own way.”

Finally, what’s next for you and Lil Nas X?

“Oh, I was in LA last week and we made a couple songs. He’s working on his album – I got a song on there as well. We’ll just be companions forever, you know? We’ll work together forever because he changed my life; I changed his life; we did it together. We’ll never forget each other.”