Gil Smith II
Gil Smith II '99 has the reputation of being the go-to music director for the live shows of multiple artists including Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Lady Gaga as well as many K-pop groups including BIGBANG and 2NE1. We managed to catch him on the phone between two gigs, and he shared some insight on how he wound up in such an illustrious career.
Smith was born and raised in Los Angeles, where he attended Hamilton High School Music Academy. In his senior year, all the talk among the students was about going to either Berklee or Juilliard. Smith made his decision, applying to Berklee and no other schools. He first attended the Five-Week Summer Performance Program and then was accepted for the next fall semester.
Smith says of his time at Berklee, “It was kind of surreal because you get to the point where you’re 'the guy,' especially within your church or your playing circle. And when I got to Berklee, I wasn’t the guy. You find out very quickly that there are people from all over the world that have been shedding forever. It was cool for me because it opened me up to more of a broad perspective on music.” At Berklee, Smith was taking classes that can’t be taken anywhere else, such as classes on the Beatles and Babyface: “You wake up, and you can’t wait to get to class to dissect a Miles Davis solo. That was heaven for me at 18, literally heaven.”
After a year and a half at Berklee, Smith moved back to L.A. to start touring as a keyboard player. A few years later, he started being hired as an assistant music director and, eventually, as a music director. His first big music directing gig was for R&B artist Faith Evans. Now, he music directs for tours, television performances, Six Flags performances, cruises, corporate shows, awards shows, and everything in between. Among his biggest credits are Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Drake, CeeLo Green, and Chris Brown, among others.
One thing that evolves from working in live music is the fact that being known for pulling together the best musicians translates to the studio when artists want to get a true live feel. Music directing and producing Lil Wayne’s MTV Unplugged session was a defining moment for Smith, solidifying his position in pop and the mainstream as both a music director and a producer. He reprised the roles of producer and A&R for Chrisette Michele's album The Lyricist's Opus, bringing in all live instrumentation including strings, horns, and a rhythm section.
Across the Pacific
In addition to his work in the U.S., Smith has also done a lot of work in Korea. He has been the music director for leading K-pop label YG Entertainment since 2012; there he has worked with international stars BIGBANG as well as 2NE1, Psy, Winner, iKon, and more.
Of his international work, Smith says, “There are a lot of similarities and a few key differences. It’s all music at the end of the day, and people are driven by that, just from a working perspective and a crowd perspective. In K-pop, they look at what we do in Western music, and they put their own spin on that. The key difference is discipline. When working with K-pop labels, it’s built like a factory, and the discipline behind executing everything is top notch. Out here, it’s a bunch of departments from different places and experiences coming together to do one thing. Sometimes that’s great, but sometimes there’s a weak link in the chain. In the K-pop world, everything is connected: with that level of dedication and discipline, you never have to question. BIGBANG’s shows can last anywhere from two to four hours, and everything needs to be mapped out from top to bottom."
On their most recent tour, Smith took on the dual role of being music director and also one of the two keyboard players for the live show.
Advice for Young Alumni
Smith shares some words of wisdom garnered from his extensive experience: “Be ready. That’s something that I’m always trying to let people know. Be ready for anything, be available, be open. Understand the world that we’re living in currently: if I can’t YouTube you and figure out how you play as a musician in the first five or 10 minutes of researching you online, then there’s an issue. That’s what I see lacking the most when we put together newer and younger bands. The playing is never an issue. It’s the other stuff: being ready, getting along with people, being an effective communicator. Take those into consideration and prep them. As much as you’re practicing your instrument, practice those things as well. You’ll never stop getting calls if those areas are covered.”