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FEATURE: Beats by the Pound

In recent years, Just Blaze has scored video games such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour and NBA Street Vol. 2 and produced music for Nike and USA Basketball. He has also booked more DJ gigs than usual. The 32-year-old producer still has a knack for creating hit records—credit him for Maino’s “All the Above” and T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life”—but it’s in his best interest to capitalize on other moneymaking ventures.

“Those little projects can generate a hundred grand for a couple of days’s worth of work,” he says. “All those little things keep me in business. I can DJ a corporate event and come back with 20 grand for an hour’s worth of work. You can’t throw all your eggs into one basket, just make beats for records.”

It’s Financial Planning 101: When the market turns ugly, it’s time to diversify your portfolio. And boy is it ugly out there in today’s music industry. Even for the so-called superproducers who’ve dominated hip-hop for the past 15 years.

In the past, producers fed at the limitless troughs of record companies. After all, a label could break a new artist merely by hiring a proven hitmaker (see: Just Blaze for Joe Budden’s “Pump It Up” or The Neptunes for Fabolous’s “Young’n”). Because of this power, superproducers received 50/50 label imprints and six-figure paydays. (Or seven figures. Remember the talk, back in 2005, that Nas had purchased a Neptunes beat for $2 million? Nas denied the rumor.) In some cases, they became bigger stars than the artists. In 2004, XXL’s parent company launched Scratch, a magazine devoted to covering beatmakers’s every move. Producers’s names were routinely featured on album packaging as a selling point.

These days, spotlighting a producer on a new release often seems useless—and not just because no one reads iTunes’ digital liner notes. There are no guarantees in today’s music business. And record labels no longer have bundles of cash to throw at the big guns. Instead, they are scouring the Internet for younger, hungrier (i.e., cheaper) sources for beats, trying to get more bang for their ever-dwindling bucks.

“Before, it would be mandatory to get certain [producers],” remembers Mike Heron, a former A&R for Rawkus Records who has also consulted for major labels. “Like, in meetings, [label execs would say,] ‘No way you can do a record without this guy.’ They would put money to the side for certain producers. It’s not like that anymore.” Mike Caren, executive VP of A&R at Atlantic Records, says the same: “The struggles of the music industry have made everyone careful. Money isn’t flying around like it used to be.”

Established superproducers such as Dr. Dre and Timbaland have therefore trimmed their output. And the next generation hasn’t fared much better—folks like Cool & Dre and Polow Da Don have had trouble sustaining the buzz surrounding their more recent breakthroughs. With a streak of ubiquity like the one The Neptunes enjoyed the first few years of the decade a distant memory, it’s not unreasonable to ask: Is the era of the superproducer over?

To read more of the Beats by the Pound feature, make sure to pick up XXL‘s September issue on newsstands now.

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