Nashville’s Shangri-La Studio is a grandly named work in progress, a future music-making site and former office tucked away in an industrial pocket of the city’s southside. There’s a couch and a flat screen television left by a previous occupant and patchy primer on the wall. It’s up to the studio’s proprietors, musician-producer A.B. Eastwood and Coleman Sutton, his engineer and partner in this venture, to finish the base coat before they bring in a muralist.
Our tour of the space takes no time at all. Eastwood can stand in one spot and point out the kitchenette, the tiny bathroom and the desk that’s due to be replaced. He describes how the vibe of the room will be altered by trippy, new lighting, once it’s installed.
There’s one thing in particular that’s hard for me to envision. “Where’s the drum kit gonna go?” I ask.
“That’s a good question,” allows Eastwood. “That’s a very good question. That’s all gotta get figured out.”
He’s casually confident that the studio will hold his ever-expanding ambitions. Though he does a lot of his work either behind the turntables or behind the scenes altogether, he’s one of the most visible figures and prime movers in an ascendant hip-hop and R&B scene that is, to a great degree, powered by young, Black Nashville natives. Eastwood serves as a sort of connective tissue, moving easily between circles, collectives and collaborations, genially promoting a commitment to professionalism and quality. He anticipates an array of artists—maybe even rock bands—booking time at Shangri-La.
“We called it Shangri-La because it means ‘hidden temple,'” he explains. “We want to make it feel like it’s a place where you can really get into music, really be free.”
For the time being, Eastwood has settled for hauling a pair of slightly battered speakers up the steps so that he can plug in a phone packed with unreleased music. He jokes that he’s prepared to demo his repertoire anywhere, anytime, lest he happen to run into Jay-Z.
Eastwood cues up a pop-R&B hook that he helped shape for rapping singer Bryant Taylorr, a friend since fifth grade, and a hip-hop track he helped create for his former roommate, singing rapper Tim Gent, built around samples of his own keyboard and vocal licks, along with music he’s co-produced for the Blackson and Case Arnold—both of them sharp emcees, the former recognized for a muscular, conscious approach and the latter for psychedelic philosophizing—and singer-songwriter soul specialist John Tucker.
Then Eastwood shares an experiment with 80s-style power-pop that was inspired by his obsession with the song “867-5309.”
It occurs to him that his phone contains an additional surprise.
“Oh yeah, I got a better one for you,” he says with sly enthusiasm. “You want to hear a country remix?”
Catching my affirmative nod, he scrolls until he finds a song from a current country-pop star that’s already gotten a bit of TikTok traction and is bound to do even better once this new version drops. Eastwood thoroughly enjoyed transforming it into an arena-scale banger, bending its guitars into a synthy sound and added booming bass.
The fact that this is one of Eastwood’s first country remix gigs isn’t due to lack of interest on his part, but lack of opportunity in a city whose industry operations and music scenes have long been racially segregated.
For the time being—but probably not for long—he’s supporting his musical pursuits with actual construction work. He holds up a finger healing from a graze on the job.
“Definitely a hazard,” he notes. “And as a musician, as a producer who 98 percent of my job is with my hands, I do put them in danger quite a lot. But it gives me confidence because I feel invincible at work. I know how to avoid danger. And it [applies] to the music where I’m like, ‘I’m willing to try anything.'”
Eastwood already had gumption by 5th grade. The night before he auditioned for a magnet middle school, he watched the animated film “The Trumpet of the Swan” and found an instrument to try. He took to trumpet, developed good tone.
During his teens at Nashville School of the Arts, where Taylorr was his classmate, he delved into jazz improvisation and was selected to join other elite student musicians on a Grammy-sponsored visit to the White House. He remembers First Lady Michelle Obama complimenting his suit and delivering a motivation message that genuinely stuck: “She was like, ‘Don’t ever forget years from now that you were here, you were the best of the best. Let that drive you.'”
It was unclear to Eastwood where his musical studies might lead. One fateful career day, NSA grad Ron Gilmore captured his imagination by describing how he operates as a hip-hop player and producer.
“He was so casual,” Eastwood marvels. “He was saying, ‘Yeah, I’m working with J. Cole. I play keys with Lauryn Hill.’ I was like, ‘This is crazy. He went here. He walked these halls.’ I’m just enamored by the thought that this is even a lane, this is even a possibility, and it could come from right here.”
It made Eastwood want to try for a type of music career that hadn’t seemed possible in his city.
Gilmore has a clear memory of talking with a teenaged Eastwood. “He was very inquisitive about the business, and I could tell that he was serious about it,” says Gilmore. “He wasn’t just asking questions to ask them—he wanted to gain information in order to help him propel his life in the direction of creating music and making a living out of that.”
Eastwood briefly enrolled at Tennessee State, before concluding that the rehearsal schedule he’d have to maintain to march in the HBCU’s renowned band would be too all-consuming. He opted for a less formal education, woodshedding on keyboard with the Street Band Clan, a group of young players with ties to the TSU jazz program, whose chops challenged him to keep up. They had a standing gig at BB King’s Blues Club downtown—not inside, but out front, where they busked on the sidewalk.
“We parked illegally, set up and jammed for hours,” he says. “A lot of times we would get a crowd; sometimes sixty to a hundred people listened to us play.”
Those who gathered often wanted to know why the band didn’t have a proper gig at the club.
“The thing they had going on was a big Motown type of show,” Eastwood says of the venue. “But we were jazz and hip-hop, and that’s not what they were doing. But one day they invited us in to play the downstairs venue, and that was a hell of a day.”
Eastwood eventually got more interested in producing entire pieces of music than playing a single instrumental part. He followed a college friend, Dubba-AA, who had two things he lacked—beat-making skill and a laptop—out of town and into the Miami recording scene.
“I was so young figuring things out,” he says, “and I got to figure them out at We the Best Studios, and had these cool opportunities.”
The name that Eastwood dropped is DJ Khaled’s place. The time Eastwood spent there amounted to something like an apprenticeship; he’d work elsewhere during the day and hang around the studio at night, learning how trap beats are made and business is handled, and pitching tracks for signed rappers, including Ace Hood and Kodak Black.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is not happening in Nashville,'” Eastwood recalls. “It’s not Nashville’s fault. But the rap scene before 2017 was kind of teetering on, like, ‘Are they taking it serious?'”
Once he got his own laptop, he started collecting something more tangible than knowledge and connections: a library of samples.
Eastwood says, “One thing I would always do was [ask producers], ‘Can give me some sounds, drums?’ And so they would give me all this stuff. I come back home and everybody [in Nashville] kind of has the same thing, and I was coming from Miami with a laptop full of Miami sounds.”
What drew Eastwood back to Tennessee was the desire to produce music for his longtime friend Bryant Taylorr, who’d parted ways with a short-lived boy band and was taking his first steps toward making music as a solo artist.
Taylorr recalls, “He was the first person that was like, ‘I believe in you. for real, for real. I’m coming back.’ It was big, because it really meant to me that I was doing something.”
The Juice EP they created together, with its glacial beats and atmospheric textures—settings that suited Taylorr’s hazy melodies—made other young singers and rappers in Nashville want to work with Eastwood, including Lauren McClinton.
Her Dawn EP, released in 2019, and Juice are two of the four projects that Eastwood commemorated in ink on his left arm.
“He texted me a picture,” she says, “and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ But that just shows you we’re truly a family.”
(Taylorr’s response? “I was like, ‘Oh, snap! I don’t even have it tattooed on me. It really means something to him.”)
No less significant than a tattoo, in McClinton’s mind, is the trust she has in Eastwood. “He’s a very loving guy,” she says, “and for women in the industry, it’s hard to connect with men, I feel like, where you can have a genuine connection, where it’s not romantic.”
“I mean, obviously we’re together, so it’s different,” she clarifies, alluding to the fact that she and Eastwood started dating after meeting through music. “But he works with a lot of women and I’ve never heard anything negative. That’s hard to find, you know, just guys in the industry who aren’t creepy or want you to come to the studio late at night and you’re not working on music. He’s great and he really cares about the music, and that’s it.”
Eastwood’s style of investment—to help shape concepts, songs, sounds along with how to present them on stage—has earned him the nickname Quincy Jones among some of his Nashville peers.
McClinton noted the resemblance between Jones and Eastwood after watching the documentary “Quincy.” “He brings so much to every single artist he works with,” she says of Eastwood. “He has really cultivated, helped cultivate, my sound and my artistry. I can say personally and for friends around me who are artists, we genuinely would not be in the place we are today without him.”
“Because people respected me in certain ways, they just a lot of time I just assumed I was good at other things,” Eastwood himself reflects. “I’m a good keyboard player, but I was surprised that I could put a show together. I didn’t have any desire to be a music director or a DJ. But duty calls, and I just want the people I really work with to be successful.”
By 2019, that circle included Gilmore, the producer who stoked Eastwood’s unformed dreams a decade ago. When Gilmore was asked to help assemble one of the first major, corporately sponsored, multi-artist hip-hop showcases in Nashville, dubbed The Underflow, he tapped Eastwood to be music director.
Since that time, they’ve sometimes served as guides for each in territory one or the other knows well. Gilmore has brought Eastwood in on sessions with Ari Lennox and Bobby Gonz, a rapper and formerly incarcerated prison reform advocate who has the backing of Common and Coldplay. And Eastwood has looped Gilmore in with the multifaceted talent in town.
“By the time I got back to Nashville, A.B. was so influential that I immediately saw that he was the key for me to get in touch with every artist,” Gilmore reflects. “To me, A.B. is like the godfather of the scene that he’s in. I think that without A.B., I would not have been able to do the things that I’ve done, as far as reconnecting with the scene in Nashville.”
They’ve recorded a project with Gonz in L.A., and in the future, Eastwood may tour as Gonz’s DJ. Eastwood says that the prospect of pitching in with Gonz’s prison reform efforts is an appealing one. So is making inroads in other recording scenes.
Eastwood muses, “Who’s to say I go to New York and it’s another key unlocked up there, I bring it back and we go to another level here, you know?”