WE CULTIVATE COMMUNITY AND RESOURCES TO UPLIFT FILIPINO ENTREPRENEURS & CREATIVES
Interview by Marielle Sales
Sari-Sari Spotlight is an exclusive profile series highlighting Filipino artists and sharing their stories.Hailing from suburban New Jersey, Mikhail Beltran, a.k.a. Sad Money in the music world or Mik to his friends, has worked with prominent R&B talents like Sabrina Claudio, Tinashe, Chloe x Halle, RINI, and Black Coffee. With an impressive decade-long career, Beltran’s ambient and “sonically dynamic” sound has become a mainstay within the music industry.
Earlier this year, Beltran sat down with Sari-Sari Studio at his picturesque home in Los Angeles, where his newfound love for post-modern design is displayed throughout. In our interview, Beltran details saving his lunch money for CDs, his burgeoning path to music production, and his love/hate relationship with the piano.
SS: What's your name? What do you do?
MB: My name is Mikhail Beltran. I'm a music producer and DJ. I create music with other artists and help them bring their visions to life. As a DJ, I like to play a lot of house music. I'm not really into that open format stuff, just straight house music or dance music.
SS: Let's start at the beginning. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
MB: I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, where Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. That's our claim to fame. I grew up there for most of my life and went to St. Joe's High School, an all-boys school.
SS: What were those places like growing up?
MB: Growing up was difficult. In high school, I didn't have that clique of friends. That's where I got attached to music. By the time I hit high school and turned 18, I was like, I need to get out of this town. It’s the kind of town where if you end up staying there, you’re going to live there forever and become a townie. I felt like that wasn't for me. As soon as I turned 18, I decided to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and that opened my whole world up. So, music brought me to Berklee and brought me here to California now.
SS: When you were a kid, what did you want to be and why?
MB: My mom enrolled me in classical piano lessons when I was probably eight or nine. I honestly hated it. We had a piano in our living room. A small, upright [piano]. My piano teacher would come over once a week, and I had to practice for these lessons. My mom would make me practice for two hours every day.
One of my fondest memories was when I was friends with the neighborhood kids. We had this window in the living room where I played the piano, and I'd be practicing. All my friends in the neighborhood would be waving outside, like [gesturing] “Come outside! Play basketball!” And I would just stare at the window like, I can't guys. I have to practice this damn piano.
I hated piano, especially in high school when I was still doing these lessons. I tried to get my mom to let me quit, but she wouldn't let me quit. I can't thank her enough to this day. Because of all those piano lessons, it led me into music production, and it's now my life. I hated it at first, but that's how I got into it.
SS: What kind of music did you like when you were a kid?
MB: I used to save my money from lunch food. My mom would give me five bucks for lunch to go to the cafeteria, and I was kind of like a little snake. I would steal a chicken nugget or steal a fry from friends in the cafeteria. I'd hold that money so that I could save up, go to Target, and buy CDs. The first CD I ever bought with my own money was 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. That was in seventh or eighth grade.
I fell in love with R&B because my mom would always be playing Boyz II Men. In high school or middle school, I would have these crushes. Most of the time these crushes would not be liking me back. I'd be listening to these Boyz II Men songs like “End of the Road” and be in my feelings. I loved R&B because it was attached to how I felt about my crushes growing up and probably why I do a lot of R&B now.
SS: How would you describe your sound and the sounds you gravitate towards?
MB: My sound—especially in the R&B world—is pretty mellow and sonically dynamic. With my sound, it kind of varies when I work with different artists. As a producer, you’re a servant to the artist. You have to capture their vision and try to put your influence on it. If I'm going to a session with a pop artist, and they want a house disco feel that's poppy, I'll capture that.
At the end of the day, it's not about me. It's about them. I mold to their vision, and that's what makes a good producer. Look at the greats, like Pharrell or Timbaland, they mold to the artist in the beginning. Nowadays, a sound producer isn't so prevalent. Back in the day with the Neptunes or Timbaland, they had a specific sound, and they influenced it.
The environment for music production is changing these days because everyone has loops. They can make stuff so quickly. As an artist and DJ, my sound is purely house music. It's influenced by all of the old school guys [Chicago house] Paul Johnson and Marshall Jefferson. Even Jersey and New York guys too, like Kerri Chandler, Masters at Work, Louie Vega, and Kenny Dope.
“The process is always different. I think that's why I'm in love with it. I've been doing it for more than 10 years, and I'm still not tired of it.”
SS: What is it like when you produce music? Can you describe the scene?
MB: It's like speed dating in a way. You guys are about to be in this room for five hours, you've never met each other, and you have to create something personal like a song. My goal is to make this person my best friend in five hours. You have to make the artist comfortable. Usually when they come into the room, I act like I've known them for five years. I shoot the shit with them, I banter, and it usually breaks the ice.
It's always me, the artist, and sometimes a writer. It starts with a beat. At times, I have to finish the whole beat for them to get an idea for a song. Other times, it only takes chords. A lot of artists will mumble melodies. They’ll take their favorite mumbles of that melody, and they’ll write lyrics to it. It varies from artist to artist. Rappers will hear a beat and record four freestyles. If it doesn't click, then it’s onto the next beat.
The process is always different. I think that's why I'm in love with it. I've been doing it for more than 10 years, and I'm still not tired of it. I find myself loving it every time because you never know. It’s always unexpected. That's my favorite part about creating with someone you just met. The collaborative effort is fun. It's exciting.
SS: What has been a highlight and a lowlight of your music career so far?
MB: I remember one of my first sessions here in LA with a big artist. I don't want to say names, but I was so excited to work with him. He was in the booth recording, and I took out my phone to take a picture. He noticed and said, “Yo, I don't want photos taken while I'm in the studio. I don't want people to know I'm making music.” His management forced me to delete the photo off my phone. For a while, it hindered my experience in studios because I was holding back.
Some good highs are that I've worked with a lot of my idols, which I'm grateful for. I worked with Pharrell and Black Coffee when he was working on his album. It was inspiring to work with Pharrell because he was exactly how I imagined. He was the nicest guy and really listens to you. Some stars that I've worked with, they don't listen to you or they think they’re better. With Pharell, he treated me like we were on the same level, which was great.
Some other highs were—I mean I don't have songs with him—but I was able to work with Bieber and be in the room with him. I got two or three unreleased joints. It's cool to see my progress. I could work with some people of that caliber, and I’m just a guy from some suburbia in New Jersey.
SS: Especially as a Filipino, it's rare to have someone like you in the space. So let’s dive into your Filipino culture. Overall, were your parents strict growing up?
MB: They're hardcore Catholics. My dad is Opus Dei, so it's another level of Catholicism that's super strict.
When I got into rap music, I was on Napster downloading Eminem. I would burn a CD, and they found this CD. They took me into my bedroom like I was doing drugs. They sat me down and said, “How can you listen to this music, this devil's music and all this cursing? And don't you realize what they're talking about?”
Now that I'm an adult in my thirties, I get where they're coming from. If you think about it, they're immigrants into this country and were raised a certain way. I had to understand how important their faith was to them, even though I'm not going to church anymore.
When I come back home for Christmas, I go to church just for my mom. I see the smile that's on her face, and I know it makes her happy. Growing up, you want the American dream. It's always about you. Now that I'm older, I can make my parents happy too, even if it's just walking into church with them on a Sunday.
SS: Do you have any hidden hobbies or talents outside of music?
MB: I needed more hobbies once I got more stable within the industry. My girlfriend Sarah and I fell in love with furniture. We started with mid-century, and now we're into the post-modern stuff. My girlfriend is from Palm Springs, and they're all about mid-century out there. Personally, mid-century is not my style. I like more chunky things. With mid-century, it's function over form. With post-modern, it's form over function.
“Learn how to say no. Growing up Filipino, my parents—and I see it with other Filipinos too—would try to avoid confrontation.”
SS: If you were to tell something to your younger self or someone who wants to pursue music, what would you tell them?
MB: I would tell myself something different from what I would tell someone else. If I were to talk to my younger self, I would say, Learn how to say no. Growing up Filipino, my parents—and I see it with other Filipinos too—would try to avoid confrontation. In the music industry, you have to learn how to confront people or else you’re going to be taken advantage of.
When I first got into the industry, I allowed people to push me over because I didn't know how to say no. I didn't want to be confrontational. Over the years, I finally got the hang of saying no. If I had learned how to say no earlier, I could've gotten further in my career.
Some advice I'd give someone else is you have to keep going. As a music producer, you'll make 120 songs in a year, and placing five is a great track record. Don’t take the no’s you get personally. There'll be times where I'll work a whole week on one artist prepping tracks for them, and they don't even take one. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s just how the industry is.
That’s the beauty about music too. Music is timeless. You could always use those beats for something else. Beats I made seven years ago are now placed with artists. Music will always hold value, no matter how long ago you made it.
SS: In true Sari-Sari fashion, what’s your favorite Filipino food?
MB: It’s definitely lechon. I love any kind of meat. Especially when it's the whole pig, I will eat that up. Call me plain Jane for that. I don't care. I'm just a plain Jane guy. I like simple food. Give me some good lechon with white rice. That's all I need.
Listen to Mikhail’s Spotify Playlist for Sari-Sari HERE.
Interview by: Marielle Sales
Photographer / Videographer: Marielle Sales and Jonathan Seril
Video Editor: Leah Oliveria
Copy Editor: Mika Butalid
Playlist Art: Jemimah Barba