An oral history of Frank Ocean’s former songwriting alias, Lonny Breaux
Frank Ocean got his first taste of the music industry as a songwriter in the latter half of the ’00s. Collaborators detail first impressions of a young Lonny Breaux, his studio ethic and eventual rise to worldwide success.
As New Orleans songwriter Lonny Breaux wrote and recorded reference tracks between 2008 and 2009 for bigger name artists like Justin Bieber and Brandy, veterans in the industry took notice. His short story-like lyrics and distinctive melodies, which he spent entire Los Angeles studio sessions perfecting, made his work highly desirable. His songs featured metaphors that deeply resonated with listeners. In John Legend and Brandy’s Quickly, he compared wanting to fall in love quickly to the feeling of the world ending (“Kiss me like the world is quaking, do it like the world is shaking”). In Justin Bieber’s Bigger, he linked his growing love for his partner and his growing maturity to simply growing up (“‘Cause we ain’t on a playground no more, baby”).
Breaux’s songwriter-for-hire days came and went in just a couple years when, in 2011, he metamorphosed into one of the most elusive artists on the planet: Frank Ocean. His rise to solo stardom followed him joining hip-hop collective Odd Future, the revolutionary group which supported the release of his critically acclaimed debut mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA.
But, in his short time writing for others, Ocean’s songwriting alias “Lonny” steadily stockpiled a repertoire of hits with Bruce Waynne and Dirty Swift, a production duo known as MIDI Mafia. Tracks like Bieber’s Bigger, Legend’s Quickly and Brandy’s 1st & Love gave Breaux a resume of records that collaborators say, melodically and lyrically, Breaux treated like his own. But regardless of who recorded the final versions of these tracks, they could always be traced back to Breaux and his attention to detail: their lyrics touched on universal themes, and their harmonies left listeners entranced.
Breaux also wrote a few other demos that could’ve been picked up by other artists (Usher was pursuing one to record). Any chance of that happening, however, was eliminated with the 2011 leak of the Lonny Breaux Collection, an unofficial 62-song mixtape comprised of tracks Breaux wrote – and had reference vocals on – before signing with Def Jam to record his own music.
Breaux’s writing left an enormous impact on his early collaborators and friends. Through MIDI Mafia, Breaux linked up with musician-turned-songwriter Dapo Torimiro during the latter’s first-ever writing session. The two shared studio space and wrote numerous tracks like Bigger and Quickly with MIDI, tracks that earned Torimiro recognition beyond his career as a touring musician. Dirty Swift and Bruce Waynne of MIDI Mafia met Breaux during Brandy’s Human album sessions in 2008, ultimately building a brotherhood and musical partnership that lasted through the release of Ocean’s debut mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA in 2011, where the duo is credited on the single Swim Good. The trio hasn’t united musically since, but MIDI says collaborating with Breaux is still something they cherish, as they claim the records – those attributed both to Frank Ocean and other artists – sound as though they haven’t aged a day.
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Bruce Waynne, MIDI Mafia, Producer (Bigger, Quickly, Swim Good, friend and close musical partner on Breaux’s best-known songwriting projects, met Breaux around 2008): It was supposed to be a comeback album [for Brandy]. Frank was a songwriter on that project. It was [MIDI Mafia], Frank, James Fauntleroy, Stacy Barthe. We all were that new team that was put together to make it happen.
Frank started coming to our studio [in North Hollywood], just to hang out, make records, and do stuff. And then he was like, “Yo, I really liked the vibe with you guys, can I come through more?” We were like, “Yeah, whatever.” So he started coming through a lot. And the next thing you know, it’s a year, then it’s two years…
Dirty Swift, MIDI Mafia, Producer (met Breaux in the same sessions): He had a partner named TK. And so TK would do the melodies and Lonny would come in after and fill in words. The first time they came, TK went in the booth and laid down some humming, just the melody on top of the track. Lonny would go in after and start singing words to the melody. I’ve never seen anybody do it [as a] tag team. (TK could not be reached for comment.)
Dapo Torimiro, Co-writer (Bigger, Quickly, Back to You, met Breaux through MIDI Mafia): First time I heard him sing, I was like, “Wow, this guy’s an artist, this guy’s a star.” His voice was so unique, I was blown away.
Dirty Swift: It was funny to see somebody come in and fill in words to somebody else’s melodies… So I always felt like, “Well, what if you did everything yourself?”
Bruce Waynne: All of the records he wrote, he didn’t write with the artist in mind but he had these subject matters that were broad [enough] that anybody could sing it.
Dapo Torimiro: One thing that struck me about him is his dedication. When he’s recording demos, he would record a line over and over. It used to drive us crazy. And I’m like, “This guy’s like a professional.”
Because when you’re working [on a] demo, it’s like, we’re going to [give] this to Usher or whoever, so as long as the line is cool, it’s in pitch. Lonny was like, “No, no, no, can we do that again?” For hours, we were working on it.
Bruce Waynne: Frank was really meticulous and really tedious. Meticulous when he was putting things together and tedious in the process. So he would come back the next day and wrap it up or lay harmonies and try different things, or he’d be like, “Yo, check this song I did over here. What do you guys think?” We didn’t tell him what to write. He did his own thing and we just gave him room to figure out his thought process.
Dapo Torimiro: I remember one time he said he tried to describe his experiences through what he’s [feeling]. Most people write with what they see. But he writes what he feels, what he tastes, what he touches. So he’s writing with all his senses.
Dirty Swift: So we got together one night, it was really late in the studio. We probably finished at five in the morning and we wrote this song. It was [a song we called] Drought. The song wasn’t that great, but I could tell working with [Lonny] that we had something special. I can’t say exactly what it was, I just had a feeling. Bruce was on vacation at the time and I remember texting him and saying, “We got something here.”
Bruce Waynne: I was in St. Lucia and my partner Swift called me and was like, “Yo, Bruce, you gotta hear this record that Lonny did…” And then it just came together and I was like, “Oh shit, we got something. This is special.” That’s when all the placements [with bigger artists] started happening.
Dapo Torimiro: When John Legend heard Quickly, his album was already done. They were mastering his album. He paused everything and said, “I want this hook on my album,” you know, and then Brandy heard it. And Brandy said, “I want this song on my album, too.” I mean, it was crazy… Usher wanted the record, a lot of people wanted the record.
With the success of his tracks, Breaux began to contemplate breaking out on his own and architected the retirement of his “Lonny” pen name and signed his deal with Def Jam. Frank Ocean first showed his face publicly for the release of his debut music video in 2011 for Acura Integurl, a record which producer Dre Knight looks back on fondly while recalling the story of its development. It was the first and only time he and Breaux ever met, but Knight is grateful to have played a part in one of Frank Ocean’s first releases. He admits the track was never finished as intended (he was expecting to add another verse and more vocals). The final version remains under two minutes long.
In the beginning of his solo career, Ocean still surrounded himself with familiar faces like MIDI Mafia, as well as producers JR Hutson and Brian Kennedy while working on nostalgia, ULTRA. Although they couldn’t be too involved in the release due to some other projects they were working on, MIDI still tried to make sure they were around when Ocean needed them, as the three created single Swim Good for the project. When Ocean dropped the full tape on Tumblr in 2011 (to Waynne’s surprise), Waynne was proud to see his friend, who would still visit his house wearing sweatpants at the time, earn recognition from artists like Drake and Beyoncé and gain the following he deserved. He says he still can’t forget watching Ocean’s Twitter following reach one million nearly overnight.
Regardless of how they met the young writer or what part they played in his early history and first solo drops, MIDI, Torimiro and Knight all remember when Breaux started his groundbreaking career as Ocean. He was a true songwriter, they say, and one they’ve seen transform into a modern-day music legend. While Breaux wrote songs for others in the late ‘00s, Ocean writes from his own perspective, and he’s become one of the most influential artists of the last decade by doing so.
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Dre Knight: When I [played the piano part of Acura Integurl, he looked at me and said, “Yo, can you record that and I just want to write.” So the process was relatively simple, man. I got the fuck out the way. I loaded it up and I got out of the room because I didn’t want to disturb this man’s creative space.
He said, “Yo, I’m gonna come back in a week and we gonna finish it.” Before he left he said, “Yo, I love this record, man. Can I use it?” He never came back. Shit was out [on Worldstar, released by Ocean]. At first, I was a little disappointed because I wanted to finish it; I had this really big idea. And [after seeing the video], I said “Lonny, we’re not finished.” He said “Yo, it’s finished, bro.” And then at that moment, I was like, “You know what, for him it is.”
Bruce Waynne: While we were doing nostalgia, ULTRA, he had been toying with the [solo artist] name the whole year and a half. He was like, “I’m thinking [I’ll call myself] Kennedy. I’m thinking this. I’m thinking that.” It was JFK. He was like, literally, “JFK.” We were like, “What?” [He was going for] the whole presidential thing and we were guys sitting around in the studio talking shit, you know? It wasn’t serious, it wasn’t serious to me.
We didn’t really know the name he chose until he put it up on Tumblr. Like nobody knew. He probably knew; he’s the type of guy who would know for like a month but wouldn’t tell you and then just do it.
Dirty Swift: He went through several iterations of what he thought he might call himself… I didn’t know where Frank Ocean came from at the time, but it wasn’t a surprise that he changed the name yet again.
Dre Knight: My boy calls me and he says, “There’s a video on WorldStar, and this kid Frank Ocean, and it sounds like something that you would do. It sounds exactly like you.” So I’m googling “Frank Ocean”, and I see pictures and don’t recognise him because his hair is completely different, right? And then I turn the video on…
I said, “Holy shit, this guy Frank Ocean stole Lonny’s song, I gotta call him right away…” And then as soon as I heard the song start and I looked at him, I said, “Holy shit, Lonny has become this guy named Frank Ocean.”
Dapo Torimiro: I didn’t know who [Frank Ocean] was, and I’m like, “This voice sounds familiar. Frank Ocean? Oh my God, this guy’s really dope. How come I don’t know this guy?” And then when my records [on The Lonny Breaux Collection] leaked, I’m like, “Wait a minute, Frank Ocean. That is Lonny, that’s my record I did with Lonny.”
Frank Ocean, as told to Complex in 2011: I changed my name on my birthday last year (Oct. 28, 2010). It was the most empowering shit I did in 2010, for sure… None of us are our names. If you don’t like your name then change your name.
Bruce Waynne: Those were all of the demos. It was like, “Yo, this is like the demo of the Channel Orange album.” Like, we wanted to take records and flip them around. We wanted to use a lot of that music as a base for Channel Orange before it was Channel Orange.
Dirty Swift: Everything eventually got leaked. I used to joke that there was a direct line to YouTube from our studio somewhere. It wasn’t surprising when it happened, it was disappointing because we lost a lot of value in those songs.
Dapo Torimiro: It was a bummer for me because those records we were supposed to place. I remember one of them, Bedtime Story, Usher wanted that record. When it leaked, all that went away.
Bruce Waynne: I know that [Frank] was really, really upset by that, you know? ‘Cause he’s really, really intimate and private about his music.
Frank Ocean, as written on Tumblr in 2011: several of these songs i had no hand in writing. i only laid reference vox on em because i was being paid. the rest are incomplete ideas, reference songs that were sent out for placement on other artists. records that were never intended to represent me. notwithstanding, i am a chill bro. as well as a sage/zen master in training. so im not angry or anything. i just had to let it at least be known. enjoy.
Dapo Torimiro: He was the first person I wrote with when I started my writing career, so I got spoiled, so to speak. He essentially introduced me to quality at the very, very start. To be a part of that in any way with leaked records or officially released [records], that was my music that he put those words on. In a way I’m part of that story, so I’m grateful for that.
Dirty Swift: I applaud the way he manoeuvred out of that [Def Jam deal] and just cut his own path. He’s chosen to service an actual fan base rather than go for the maximum commercial success.
Bruce Waynne: I’m incredibly proud of the music. I’m proud of him. I gotta remember that the way we made music before, it isn’t the way he’s probably making music now. His view on music and everything [was] different than how it is now. But the music we have is timeless. I can play you something now, you would’ve thought we did it yesterday.
Dirty Swift: At his songwriting level, he could’ve done anything he wanted, took his music to – commercially – a Prince, Michael Jackson-level in the sense of just songs that you hear all the time on the radio. He could’ve done that if he wanted to, but I feel like he’s gone the more artistic approach and just really serviced the fan base and has done what he wanted to do.
Dre Knight: He will always be relevant even in his absence. He is transcendent in that he has been one of the most creative, innovative people that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. I have no regrets at all. I have nothing but fond memories of our time together, our experience and I can’t wait to see what comes next. Hopefully, it’ll be he and I together again.