COBRA: The pivotal events that formed the production duo all over KB’s ‘Tomorrow We Live’
No production entity in Christian hip hop has achieved more over the past eight months than COBRA.
Formed by Joseph Prielozny and Dirty Rice, COBRA collaborated with Lecrae on his September release Anomaly to earn a Grammy Award for the song “Messengers” and another nomination for “All I Need Is You.” On Tuesday, the extended COBRA crew, which includes rapper KB and singer-songwriter Natalie Lauren, gave birth to Tomorrow We Live. Dirty Rice produced seven out of the album’s 14 tracks with Prielozny, who also played the role of A&R with Lauren.
“I think [Prielozny] is the genius behind a lot of what has come out of Reach, and Dirty’s a beast,” KB said, “and when we come together, you might get struck by the COBRA.”
Tomorrow We Live has been purchased more on iTunes than any hip-hop album this week besides Love Story by Eminem-endorsed Yelawolf. Its success was predictable, considering that Reach Records has had 17 straight solo albums chart on the Billboard 200. Less predictable were the events that made COBRA — and Tomorrow We Live as it exists today — possible.
A New Leaf
Before Reach CEO Ben Washer wanted to sign Lecrae, he had his eye on another act — A New Leaf, an acoustic duo formed by Kurt Denmark and Prielozny, whose brother roomed in college with Washer. A New Leaf flew to New York to record its Reach debut, but the group ultimately never released any music.
“I just felt like I didn’t need to be in the spotlight,” Prielozny said.
Prielozny instead accepted a job in Nashville, Tennessee as an assistant to Grammy-nominated producer Shaun Shankel. Then in 2004, Washer sent Prielozny an album that captured his attention — Real Talk by Lecrae.
“Man, this Christian music is different from the Christian music I’m working on in Nashville,” Prielozny said.
Bored one night, Prielozny produced a rock remix of Real Talk and returned it to Washer. Lecrae loved it. This led to Amped, the rap-rock EP released in 2007 by the 116 Clique, and then an offer for Prielozny to join Reach as an on-staff producer.
Several years later, as Prielozny’s attention shifted to PRo’s album Dying to Live, he met a relatively unknown producer who PRo — now known as Derek Minor — recruited to work on the project, Dirty Rice.
After 10 years of producing for independent artists in Tennessee, Dirty Rice had moved to Georgia for more work opportunities. Most of those opportunities came through Reach. He produced track No. 5 of Dying to Live, “Before I Die,” and an impressed Trip Lee asked him to collaborate with Prielozny on some instrumentals for his album The Good Life.
“I guess he thought we’d get along because we’re both tall, skinny, white guys with beards,” Dirty Rice said.
Four hours into Prielozny and Dirty Rice’s first studio session together, though, their similar physical characteristics failed to translate into music.
“We had no good ideas,” Dirty Rice said. “I was thinking, ‘Man, this guy is going to never want to work with me ever again.”
They began to pack their bags to leave. Before they finished, though, Prielozny started to toy around on the keyboard again, which sparked their first inspiration of the day. Over the next hour, they finished track No. 12 of The Good Life, “Fantasy.”
If “Fantasy” never happened, Prielozny and Dirty Rice said they probably would have never gotten back in the studio together.
But since they maintained a working relationship, the producers proceeded to team up quite often because they lived five minutes away from each other in Marietta, Georgia. In addition to “Fantasy,” they combined to produce “Fallin” and The Good Life’s title track.
Next on Reach’s release calendar came KB’s Weight & Glory, and the artist behind the hook of “Fantasy,” Natalie Lauren, just happened to be long-time friends with him. Prielozny, Dirty Rice and Lauren all played major roles on the album, which built them chemistry with KB. While they only collaborated on a single Weight & Glory song all together, it became one of the album’s most popular, “Open Letter (Battlefield).”
Between then and KB’s next project, all four artists grew closer outside of the studio. When it came time to craft 100, the quartet discovered a special chemistry in the studio. Lauren and Prielozny served as A&R of the EP while Dirty Rice helped Prielozny produce a third of the project — the songs “Give My All” and “Kamikaze.”
“When I work with those two guys in particular, and even KB, it’s always like magic,” Lauren said. “They’re kind of my brothers in some sense, so the relationship that we have outside of music is so much bigger than music, but I think that’s why we make music so well together.”
On a drive to Nashville during the 100 creation process, Prielozny and Dirty Rice got the idea to choose a name for the production team they had become, by then having produced over a dozen songs together.
“We spent three hours trying to come up with a cool production name,” Dirty Rice said, “and somewhere in those three hours, somebody said, ‘Cobra.’ I don’t know where it came from. … For about the first six months, COBRA was more of a joke because it doesn’t mean anything. Then we just kept it because it was such a random name.”
After 100 came Below Paradise and then Anomaly. During the making of Anomaly, Prielozny asked an old friend if he had any potential songs lying around.
The friend was Joel Smallbone of for KING & COUNTRY, the band which Shaun Shankel signed to a production deal the first week that Prielozny worked for him. Smallbone sent Prielozny for KING & COUNTRY’s version of “Messengers” that had not made its album. Prielozny, Dirty Rice and Street Symphony then spent a night molding the instrumental and hook of a track that, from Day 1, they knew had Grammy-potential.
“If Lecrae nails this, it’s a hit,” Prielozny said.
Then Lecrae “did his Nelly,” Prielozny said, and “Messengers” was a hit as predicted. It earned spins on contemporary Christian radio stations K-Love and Air1 and, in February, became the first Christian hip-hop song to win a Grammy.
Tomorrow We Live is just the latest success story for the COBRA production duo, but it’s the most cooperative effort yet for the crew as a whole, which attributes its unique chemistry to an ability to take constructive criticism from each other.
“Sometimes I’ll have an idea and Joseph will rip it apart and rework it completely,” Dirty Rice said, “but I let him do it. I don’t get offended and say, ‘No, that was my idea. Let’s stick with it.’ … There are a lot of producers who are super talented, but they can’t get in a room and work together because of their egos or their vision. We’re pretty flexible.”
“If [KB] comes in the studio, lays down a verse and I’m like, ‘I hate that verse,’ he already knows he’s my little brother,” Lauren said. “The relationship and trust is so strong that he knows our input is coming from a loving place.”
This selflessness in the studio has led to one of the most celebrated Christian hip-hop albums this year, as well as a production duo that continues to churn — or, in the spirit of its nickname, spit — out hits.
Follow Joseph Prielozny (aka Fangs) and Dirty Rice (aka Venom) on Twitter: @cobramusicgroup