How a Mexican-American musician raised in Central Ohio went from making beats in a laundry closet to becoming a producer for Kanye, Coldplay and Timbaland

There’s a Coldplay poster affixed to the wall above Angel Lopez’s bedroom door in the Los Angeles apartment he moved to earlier this year. Tucked between the door frame and an air conditioning vent, the small, weathered poster doesn’t really match the rest of the room’s decor. The corners are dog-eared, and there’s a tear going up the left leg of bassist Guy Berryman in the sepia-toned promotional photo circa 2008.

But the poster has come along with Lopez and his wife, Amira Velazquez, to five different residences since 2009, and there was no question whether it would hang here. Coldplay is an essential part of the couple’s relationship. Soon after meeting in Columbus, they went on a date to a Coldplay concert at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center on June 4, 2009 — a date Velazquez can recall without hesitation. They stood in the front row and cried their eyes out.

In those days, Lopez had set up his room as a studio inside his mother’s Hilliard home, so there wasn’t space for a bed. The couple would pull all-nighters on the floor or on a tiny futon listening to Coldplay albums on repeat. They knew all the lyrics, and Lopez could play the songs on guitar. When the two married in Cancun in 2014, Velazquez walked down the aisle to a solo piano version of “Yellow.”

So Friday, Nov. 22, would be a big day for Lopez and his wife no matter what. It’s the release date for Coldplay’s anticipated double album, Everyday Life. But it’s more than that. In the last five years, Lopez has gone from Coldplay fan to collaborator. He worked with singer Chris Martin in the studio during the summer of 2017 and attended an Aug. 28 show in Miami as a VIP; that night, Martin shouted Lopez's name to the sold-out arena. Later, Lopez and fellow producer Federico Vindver worked with Martin again in Malibu, California, where Lopez said Martin told them, “I believe in you guys so much.”

Because of that belief, Lopez has production credits on four songs from Everyday Life, including the title track. And yet Coldplay may not even be the biggest artist Lopez has worked with this year. After spending most of the summer working side by side with Kanye West, Lopez is credited on six tracks from Ye’s head-turning gospel album, Jesus is King, released in October.

Rapper Trippie Redd also released a new mixtape on Nov. 22 that features two tracks with Lopez’s fingerprints, and earlier this year Lopez worked on Chance the Rapper track “Big Fish” from The Big Day. In the last couple of years, his list of collaborators includes Sam Smith, Mariah Carey, Muse and more.

And if it weren’t for Timbaland checking his Instagram account, Lopez might have become a gemologist instead.

***

Soon after 10-year-old Jose Angel Velazquez Lopez moved with his family from the San Diego area to Hilliard in 2000, he decided to go by “Angel”; his friends at JW Reason Elementary had trouble pronouncing “Jose.” Central Ohio was a stark departure from a border town where everyone spoke Spanish. The first time Lopez encountered a boy who could speak Spanish in Hilliard, he cried tears of joy. 

The cultural differences sometimes led to bullying, so young Angel did anything he could to fit in. Since his mother’s name is Norma Lopez, he’d jokingly tell classmates that J. Lo was his aunt. “I was Latin, and they didn't know the difference between Mexican and Puerto Rican,” Lopez said, laughing. 

In his quest not to get bullied, Lopez discovered a creative side. His mother used to sing in a band in Tijuana and his stepfather played guitar, so there was always a guitar in the house. After learning four chords, Lopez fell in love with the instrument, and music became his primary way to connect with his peers. “When I picked up a guitar, these kids were always astonished,” he said.

In 2004, while visiting family in San Diego, Lopez saw a performance by Chicano rapper MC Magic from Arizona, and he was smitten. He loved the blend of hip-hop and Mexican-American influences, and he started teaching himself how to make beats to go with his guitar. In 2006, Lopez found MC Magic on Myspace and sent him some tracks he’d recorded by stuffing a webcam microphone inside his guitar. 

“The guitar just felt like it had a lot of soul in it,” said MC Magic, who didn't initially realize Lopez was only 16 at the time. “We were talking on Myspace, and before you know it, he was game to take a flight to Phoenix.”

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After looping his mom in on the emails, Angel flew to Arizona in the middle of exams at Hilliard Darby High School to work on the song “All My Life” with MC Magic (Angel even shows up on guitar in the song’s music video). He didn’t have a case for the keyboard that he used to make the beat, so Norma went to Joann Fabrics and made him one. When MC Magic realized Angel didn’t have proper recording gear, he bought him the equipment and programs he needed. “Once he got the software, he started excelling very quickly. He became one of my go-to producers,” Magic said. 

“All My Life” allowed Lopez to perform onstage in front of thousands, and he continued to collaborate with MC Magic for the next couple of years while taking odd jobs. He briefly worked at Guitar Center on Morse Road, making beats using the in-store studio, and he noticed most of the beats other people brought in tended to sound the same. They could have come from anybody, anywhere. He knew that if he was going to set himself apart, his beats couldn’t sound generic.

In 2009, at age 19, Lopez met his future wife, Amira (Scott) Velazquez, then 17, on Facebook, and the two hit it off at a Flo Rida show at BoMA (now the Bluestone). Like Lopez, Velazquez experienced culture shock in Ohio; at 15, she moved to Canal Winchester with her mother and stepfather after war broke out in her home country of Lebanon. “We both could understand what it felt like coming from somewhere completely different — somewhere where you saw a lot of people that are like you or speak your language or share your values and your culture, and then going somewhere completely different and just needing to integrate into that society,” she said. “We definitely bonded over that." 

As the MC Magic work died down, Lopez kept honing his craft while doing whatever he could to make a buck, whether it was dabbling in graphic design, photography and video or taking a factory job or working at a car lot on West Broad Street in Galloway. “I’d be at the car lot, and clients would walk in, bro, and I’d have my laptop and headphones and my little bitty keyboard. I would sit there and make beats,” he said.

Eventually Lopez got connected with Mark Abrams, the manager at Vaughan Music Studios in Upper Arlington, who was looking for someone to help out on some pop projects. “He was extremely humble and didn't have a lot of resources. He was always struggling to have a good laptop and everything so he could actually do the work,” said Abrams, who taught Lopez more about Pro Tools recording software. “But he was a master of simplicity. He was extremely fast, and he knew how to say a lot with very little — just a great ear and a good sense of song form.”

Lopez would hang out at (now-closed) Kitamu Coffee in Hilliard, particularly on open mic nights. He’d show up with his guitar and look for singers to feature on his songs, which came pouring out. “If we didn't see each other for a week, he'd come in and be like, ‘Hey, I got these tracks you gotta check out.’ And he had just made, like, 20 full-length songs,” Abrams said. “He would write for the sake of writing. It didn't have to be for a project. He was just writing to get better all the time.”

Still, Lopez had a tough time breaking into the Columbus scene. Other than producing some tracks on P. Blackk’s 2010 Chicken N’ Waffles mixtape, his name didn’t get around town much. “Nobody really knew me,” Lopez said.

Lopez didn’t let a lack of local validation get him down, and Power 107.5's DJ City, aka Terrence Sigers, was determined to get Lopez noticed. “When I first met Angel, he's like, ‘I do hip-hop beats,’ and he has an acoustic guitar. I was like, ‘You do beats?’” Sigers said, describing his skepticism. “And he starts playing the guitar, and I'm just like, ‘Man, nobody's even thinking like this kid. This kid is freaking incredible. He's a savant. And he’s being hidden here.”

Sigers tried connecting Lopez to a few local producers, but it didn’t work. “They told me, ‘Nah, I can't help push this stuff when I'm trying to push my stuff because his stuff is better,’” Sigers said. “So I was like, ‘You know what, Angel? I don't want nothing from you, but I want to help the hell out of you. So whenever I get a chance to put you on a platform, I'm going to put you there and I'm gonna make sure you shine.’”

Sigers called Lopez to the station whenever big artists came through so he could put beats in their hands, but big breaks weren’t coming. “I always had that pressure of, ‘You need to get a job and forget about it. You did the Magic thing, but it's time for you to grow up and leave that behind,'” Lopez said.

At the same time, Lopez got involved with Covenant Church in Grove City, playing guitar on the worship team and becoming friends with pastor Travis Davenport. And even though Lopez continued to work on his craft, constantly making beats and songs, he began to see a role for himself in the local church, using music as his ministry. In 2014, his father suggested he follow in his footsteps and go to gemology school, which seemed to Lopez like a good long-term career option. He could provide better for his wife, whom he married that summer.

But in the winter of 2014, a funny thing happened. Lopez began posting his beats on Instagram, occasionally tagging Timbaland, one of pop and hip-hop’s most respected producers of the past 25 years. And one night Timbaland followed him. 

“It was the weirdest thing. I’m like, ‘This is absolutely mad. It can't be real,’” Lopez said. “So I DM him, and I'm like, ‘Yo, I'm a big fan. Can I send you some clips?’ And he said, ‘Yes, send me more clips.’ So I started sending Timbaland beat clips.”

Lopez was at a crossroads. He had the ear of Timbaland, but pursuing that relationship would take a lot of time and (unpaid) work, and he and his wife weren’t in great shape financially. But Velazquez told him he had to put gemology school on hold and go for it. “If you're catching the interest and the attention of someone like Timbaland, who could possibly change our situation and give you the opportunity to do what you love, you have to pursue that,” she told him.

For the next few months, Velazquez picked up double shifts serving at Applebee’s while Lopez stayed home making beats in the makeshift studio inside the laundry closet in the couple’s Golf Pointe apartment in Galloway. He made sure he could send Timbaland a new beat every day. Then in February, while Lopez was watching the Grammy Awards, the phone rang. “I pick up the phone, and it's, 'Yo, it's Timbo,’” Lopez said. “We spoke for an hour, and that's when it got real. He's like, 'Yo, you're dope. I need you on my team. Tell me about yourself.'”

They built a relationship over the phone, and in 2016 Lopez took a road trip to Miami to meet Timbaland in person. Soon after, the two worked together on a song for the Netflix TV show “Skylanders Academy.” Lopez eventually signed with Timbaland’s manager, Gary Marella of Mono Music Group, and inked a publishing deal with Anthem Entertainment.

Any time there’s a Timbaland session, Lopez is part of a handful of go-to producers, including Federico “Fede” Vindver, a kindred spirit whom Lopez teamed with for the Coldplay sessions and again for the most surreal production experience of all: recording with Kanye West.

***

It started with an impromptu request in Miami in December of 2018. Kanye wanted to see Timbaland in the studio the next morning, so Lopez and the whole team scrambled to make it happen.

“We were having 20-hour sessions,” Lopez said. “That first day, I played like 50 Timbaland beats. I remember Kanye was like, ‘Yo, can everybody just get out? I need Angel and Timbaland in the room.’ And we started flipping through Tim beats, and he just started freestyling. There was so much music being made.”

At the time, Lopez and the team assumed the tracks were for Yandhi, the anticipated album West had been promising for months. But Kanye had other plans, and on New Year’s Day of 2019, he filled in Lopez. “It’s late — I'm in Ohio — and he calls me: ‘Hey, Angel. How are you?’ I hadn't heard from him in about a week. I’m like, ‘I'm doing amazing,’ and he's like, ‘That’s lovely. That’s lovely.’ And I could hear he’s in his space with his family, and I'm already thinking, man, Kanye West has welcomed me into this space. And then he’s like, ‘I want to start a church.’”

Soon after, Kanye’s famous Sunday Services began. Then, over the summer, Lopez spent weeks at a time at West’s home and his studio in Calabasas, California, working on the album that would become Jesus is King.

“I think that's the most hardworking, involved project Angel's been on,” Velazquez said. “It required a lot of commitment, a lot of time, a lot of everything. Throughout the summer, he was driving an hour away to Calabasas, working every day. I'm talking 14-hour sessions daily.”

After one session, around 10 p.m., West called Lopez and told him he was going to Arizona that night and wanted him to come along. The next thing he knew, Lopez was on a private jet with Kanye’s crew to visit the Roden Crater, a giant, in-progress James Turrell art installation in northern Arizona, and the site of a forthcoming Kanye West iMAX movie.

But the best part of the experience for Lopez was the spiritual aspect. Lopez said he and Kanye connected over their faith, sharing meals and praying together. “We’d work on the songs, and then we'd present the versions of the songs to Kanye, and then we had fellowship. It'd be his cousin in there, or maybe a pastor overlooking lyrics. It was real spiritual,” Lopez said. “It's been kind of sad to see the reaction of some people [to Jesus is King]. ... If you're not religious and you don't believe in Christ, OK, cool, but celebrate the fact that there is good music and a good message. We're not degrading women. We're not doing any of that. It's just a beautiful, pure message of how this man's life was transformed, and I think that's something worth the celebration, whether you believe in God or not.”

“I remember these conversations about how [Lopez’s] craft could be used as a ministry on a larger stage and on a larger platform,” said Lopez’s Covenant Church pastor Travis Davenport. “And then about a year ago, he called me and said, ‘I can't give you any of the details, but just know that it's looking like I'm going to be on Kanye's new joint, and this dude... God is doing something in his life.’”

Lopez ended up with writing and production credits on six tracks from Jesus is King, which landed last month. The album topped five charts: the Billboard 200, R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, Rap Albums, Christian Albums and Gospel Albums. 

***

When an email about Angel Lopez landed in my inbox earlier this month, I was initially skeptical. If this guy is from Columbus and has worked with all these huge names, why hadn’t I heard of him?

After some initial internet research, the claims seemed to hold water, so I gave Lopez a call. He was calling me “bro” within the first five minutes, and we ended up speaking for more than an hour. I got the sense that he was just as excited to talk about MC Magic as he was about Kanye and Coldplay. He was warm, sincere and entirely devoid of disaffected irony. By the end of the first call, I felt like I knew him.

Multiple people used the term “heart of gold” when describing Lopez. Another called him a “beautiful soul.” “Talking to him, you'll forget how important he is because he's more concerned about what you got going on,” Sigers said.

At 30, Lopez has become an integral part of the Timbaland team. Together, they’re working on an online platform they hope will be a one-stop-shop for producers called Beat Club, launching next year. And Lopez no longer has one foot in, one foot out of the industry. After living out of a suitcase in hotels and Airbnb rentals the last few years, Lopez and Velazquez packed their stuff and moved from Columbus to Los Angeles in February. But Lopez has made sure to keep in touch with the friends he made coming up. Even MC Magic still thinks of him as family.

Lopez doesn’t seem jaded by the music industry, either. Even after working closely with Chris Martin, he still geeks out over Coldplay. The night before Everyday Life was released in the U.S., Coldplay performed the first half of the album at sunrise in Jordan and streamed it live on YouTube. The concert opened with the song “Church,” one of four tracks Lopez worked on. “What can I tell you? When I'm with you, I'm walking on air,” Martin sang, and out in California, Lopez and Velazquez listened and watched while wiping away tears, just like that first Coldplay show 10 years ago.