Breaking: Boss Selection

Producer Sunny Levine steps out from behind the boards on his collaborative LP.
Breaking: Boss Selection

Producer Sunny Levine steps out from behind the boards on his collaborative LP.

Words: Roman Gokhman

photo by Abby Ross

December 10, 2015

BACKSTORY: Born to a family of all-star producers, Sunny Levine has made his own name as a songwriter, producer, and film composer
FROM: Los Angeles, California
YOU MIGHT KNOW HIM FROM: Producing the likes of Hugh Masekela and Ariel Pink and manning the boards for Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansen’s collaborative LP Break Up
NOW: Volume 1, Levine’s collaborative record released under the name Boss Selection  

On his new collection of sunlit, ’90s-inspired R&B tunes, Angeleno Sunny Levine, recording as Boss Selection, partners with twelve artists. Among them are a few up-and-comers and a handful of influential icons, including South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, alt-star Pete Yorn, and singer-songwriter Brenda Russell. But perhaps the most surprising guest star is actress Rashida Jones.

Given Levine’s family tree, though, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. His father is producer Stewart Levine (B. B. King, Dr. John, Minnie Riperton). His uncle is producer QD3 (Ice Cube, 2 Pac, L. L. Cool J). And his grandfather is the untouchable Quincy Jones. Which makes Rashida—Quincy’s daughter—his aunt.

“There’s something about family,” the thirty-six-year-old says on the phone from his LA home. “Because you have all of the same references, there are things you don’t have to say, there’s built-in [communication]. And there’s so many unsaid things that go into music.”

Levine has plenty of his own credentials. He has produced records for Yorn, Scarlett Johansson, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and Happy Mondays. He also composed the score for the 2012 film Celeste and Jesse Forever, which costarred Rashida Jones, and put out a couple of records under his own name. Since wrapping Volume 1, the Boss Selection record, he’s put the finishing touches on two other projects: a partnership with Sal Masekela (Hugh’s son) called Alekesam and a solo album by Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder.

“[Quincy] instilled in me to take in as much music as I possibly can from the world,” Levine said. “That’s been a big part of my style: listen to [many different artists] and understand the nuances of things… and then translate those nuances into the things that I do.”

“Quincy Jones instilled in me to take in as much music as I possibly can from the world.”

For Boss Selection—the name is a nod to a Jamaican expression for putting together an excellent DJ set—Levine relied heavily on family friends, many of whom he’s worked with in the past and all of whom he’s known for most of his life. He grew up with Hugh Masekela as a de facto uncle. Stewart Levine produced the trumpeter’s records early in his career, and Sunny has worked with him for the last decade.

“He gave me one of my first big shots as a producer, when I hadn’t proven that I could hold my own,” Levine said. “He’s always been a crazy big supporter.”

Working on Volume 1 provided Levine an opportunity to write happier lyrics than his typical “troubled love songs,” as he puts it. Each individual song (save the finale) was written and recorded by Levine and a collaborator in 2014 over the course of a single day, with Levine adding production flourishes later. Masekela only had a few hours to record, so Levine wrote and demoed the first version of  “One of These Days” alone from Masekela’s perspective. When the elder statesman listened to the demo, he joked that Levine was stealing his material.

But it’s the track he recorded with his aunt—the laid-back, nostalgic, and funky “Flip and Rewind”—that’s garnered the most attention. While Rashida Jones has sung comedic bits on TV and recorded for a pair of soundtracks, it was her first serious recording project.

“She used to sing a lot more when she was in college,” he says. “She was always a good singer but she’d never done it, and she’s become Rashida Jones. She was one of the first people I called.” With talent like that in the gene pool, it makes sense to keep it all in the family. FL