Editor’s Note: In 2018, the Daily Trojan published an article profiling USC students who were involved with the creation of the “Crazy Rich Asians” soundtrack. However, the article did not include Isaac Lucas, who also contributed to the film. We regret Lucas’ erasure and acknowledge this error.
Producer, musical artist and USC Thornton School of Music alumnus Isaac Lucas — whose stage name is Relaye — grew up with music in his blood and in his ears. Born in Kansas to a mother and father who started a reggae band in the ’80s, Relaye was constantly surrounded by music; he learned how to play the piano from his mother when he was five and listened to reggae, old-school funk and classical music on family car-drives.
After moving from piano to the trumpet in the fifth grade and then back to the piano, Relaye landed on music production after downloading the Beatmaker app in his senior year of high school.
“[I was drawn to] just the creativity, being able to do more with multiple instruments versus just honing in on one specific instrument,” Relaye said. “It was just kind of more fun to me, the idea of being able to make anything I wanted.”
He had pushed away thoughts of pursuing music as a career at that point — his marching band director gave him an ultimatum between the marching band and basketball, and he went with sports — but music production lingered in the back of his mind even as he applied to USC in 2010 as an architecture major.
Relaye was also in the position to walk on to the USC basketball team, but after collaborating with several suitemates from Thornton on music, he switched to a music business and technology major in the second semester of his freshman year.
“We would just kind of chop it up and make music together,” Relaye said. “Eventually, they were like, ‘Why aren’t you just in music school?’ Them asking was the first time I genuinely realized or considered, ‘Oh, this is potentially something I can do as a career.’”
Relaye initially thought that he would stick with orchestral composition, but found himself gravitating towards digital audio production after taking more classes.
“[The] program at the time was very broad and covered all aspects of the music industry so I think the biggest ‘aha moment’ was probably just realizing which of those classes I gravitated to the most,” Relaye said. “And I really just found myself enjoying classes that involved the creative process.”
Fellow USC alumna and girlfriend Alya Omar met Relaye in a marketing class — she was an international relations global business major — in 2015. She was at first apprehensive when he told her that he created music.
“I was like … ‘What if I don’t like his music and I have to pretend to?’” Omar said. “But when I finally heard his song, I was like, ‘Wow, this is truly incredible, so blown away, and I was a fan from the start.’”
In his junior year, Relaye saw a Craigslist ad from independent record label Blue Élan Records calling for artists to put together a demo album. He submitted his work and was called in for a meeting.
“I was just thinking it was going to be like, ‘We’re going to let you use our studio to record a song’, and then a conversation later they [said], ‘How would you like a record deal?’”
He was signed to the label for around four years, releasing an EP titled “9 to 5” in 2017 and the album “Oddity” in 2019. But as the sole hip hop artist signed to the label — which typically releases alternative and indie rock, Americana and folk music — Relaye realized that Blue Élan Records wasn’t able to provide the networks he desired.
“They have a lot of artists in bluegrass and country and Indie … and it just didn’t end up being the greatest fit in terms of … after I deliver an album, what they’re able to do with it just because their network … [is] all in these different genres,” Relaye said. “So when it came to trying to facilitate the growth and exposure of [hip hop artists], it kind of fell flat in other ways.”
In 2017, Relaye applied for a position at Math Club, a commercial music and composing venture founded by the Grammy-nominated music production team Cheapshot and Vin Skully, which has created hundreds of songs for movies like “Spiderman: Homecoming,” the “Pitch Perfect” series and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
“I think having been able to develop my music for a couple of years with the label put me in a position where they heard [my music] and they were like, ‘We would love to meet up,’” Relaye said.
He did remote work for the company for a year until they brought him in for a full-time position, where he now creates around a hundred songs per year for the company’s catalog as well as custom music for high profile projects such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Shaft.”
“More often than not, I’m creating full songs from the ground up, so I will self-produce a track, write a song to it, record it, put a rough mix on it where it’s like demo quality and then submit three of those every week,” Relaye said.
At first, the prospect of securing placements for such high profile movies and TV shows overwhelmed Relaye, especially since his very first placement was for the hit show “Empire.”
“The first couple of times … it felt more daunting in the sense of ‘If this doesn’t stick, and they don’t like it, it’s going to be awful,’” Relaye said. “But after doing it for so long, you kind of realize … it’s kind of like throwing darts at a dartboard … [you] hope it lands but if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world.”
Relaye’s first custom music project was for “Crazy Rich Asians.” He was flown out to New York with his boss, where he had a studio session with Awkwafina and co-wrote the song for the end title, “Money (That’s What I Want).”
“That was a super fun experience, she was super cool,” Relaye said. “It kind of went from zero to 100, where it was like, I’m just in the office making songs for the catalog and then, ‘Oh, you’re flying with me to New York tomorrow.’”
It’s largely Math Club’s signature sound — described as a “hip hop electronic hybrid” –– that appeals to these films and TV shows’ contemporary scores and soundtracks.
“More often than not, supervisors are looking for music that is along the lines of contemporary, like this sounds like what’s popular on Spotify or top 40 type stuff,” Relaye said.
Relaye’s personal music, however, diverges from the norm. He himself describes his music as pretty “weird” — he aims to create music that isn’t firmly anchored within hip hop traditions.
“I try to stand out, or separate myself more,” Relaye said. “I think working at Math Club has kind of funneled me into a happy medium, where before I would just do super left field stuff just for the sake of doing it because I thought it sounded fun … now [my music contains] elements of contemporary sound but is still weird enough to be unique and stand out.”
Relaye’s song “Lemonade,” featuring Beatnet, is perhaps his most popular personal track. It appeared in an episode of “Shameless,” netting Relaye around 496K Spotify streams and 26,000 YouTube views.
“It was a featured placement where … that song was the only audio for a decent chunk of time in this episode because it was a scene transition or montage … it gave a lot of people the opportunity to Shazam that song,” Relaye said. “It’s kind of funny because I guess ‘Shameless’ is super popular in Russia, so now I have a lot of Russian fans.”
“Lemonade” features Relaye’s characteristically clever lyrics and unique production, which Brayden Deskins, a music coordinator and songwriter at Math Club Music, describes as one of the main reasons he is so drawn to Relaye’s work.
“He’s probably one of my favorite creative minds,” Deskins said. “He is such an incredible lyricist and brings ideas to fruition faster and more efficiently than most of the people I’ve ever met; he’s a genius.”
Relaye is currently working on an album — his first personal project since he left Blue Élan Records — titled “Green Shoots.” He plans on releasing it this summer.
“The name ‘Green Shoots’ is supposed to symbolize new growth and new beginnings,” Relaye said. He added later, “It’s a more kind of general [statement] like, ‘This is me as a person.’”
Several of the songs are ones he made four years ago and never had the opportunity to release or felt were 100% done at the time. Relaye describes himself as a perfectionist when it comes to his music — in fact, when he’s crafting an album, he listens to nothing else but his own tracks.
“I will write a song, record it or record a demo, listen to it 50 times and mark down what all the things I don’t like or things that I could change or improve or tweak, then record a new version,” Relaye said. “And that process sometimes takes a week, that process sometimes takes four years.”
Relaye also noted that he aims for his songs to act as a source of escapism for the listener, rather than expounding upon deeply personal topics or hard-hitting social issues.
“I like to listen to music just for fun; to suspend disbelief, to kind of escape,” Relaye said. “I can listen to a song and be transported to wherever that song is trying to take me.” While he does have personal elements in his music, he added, “My main goal, more often than not, is just creating something that is fun to listen to.”