Here’s How Five Producers Are Using Their Talents Both on the Mic and Behind the Boards
On Kanye West's The College Dropout, the outro "Last Call" finds Kanye West describing his long road from producer to rapper. "Last year shoppin' my demo, I was tryin' to shine/Every motherfucker told me that I couldn't rhyme/Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams," he rapped in the second verse. The latter half of the record featured Yeezy detailing everything from meeting Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua to his Capitol Records deal falling apart and Dame Dash signing him to Roc-A-Fella Records for eight minutes.
Kanye wasn't the first to make the leap from behind the boards to in front of the mic. Manny Fresh, Pharell, Diamond D, Dr. Dre, J Dilla, Diddy, Pete Rock, Madlib, Oddissee and so much more not only crafted some of the best beats of all time but made some of the best records in hip-hop history. Imagine a world without The Chronic or if hip-hop never got introduced to the Big Tymers.
In hip-hop today, a new wave of producers have showcased their lyrical skills in recent years, releasing excellent music of their own. Since 2013's 3ChordFold (if you haven't heard the project please do so right away), two-time Grammy Award-winning artist Terrace Martin has been dropping gems and crafting beats for artists like Kendrick Lamar, YG and more. Then there's Southside, founder of producer superclick 808 Mafia. He's one of the main spark plugs for the new sound coming out the South and has dropped ill rhymes under his stage name Young Sizzle. But they're not the only ones.
XXL spoke to five producers -- Sonny Digital, Knox Brown, Young Chop, Velous and FKi 1st -- on their experience as producers who not only create the beats, but can spit a mean 16 as well. Get informed.
Knox Brown: "It started off when I was growing up in Jamaica. I was in grade six. I had these guys in the playground rapping Busta Rhymes 'Dangerous' and that was the first time I heard rap. I was like, 'What the hell is that?' So it started off with me trying to rap, then I threw it to the side to produce. Then I guess [now] the singing and the rapping came back.
I think it surprises a lot of people. They didn’t even know I could sing. I surprised myself as well. Two years ago I didn’t even think I could sing. It was developing myself from then to now. [Producing and being an artist] completely go hand in hand, even when I go make beats for other people. Like I find myself singing and humming melodies. I’m just writing as I go along in my head. I either lay it down after I make a beat or while I make the beat.
I think it’s always been in me. [Making music] gives me the right opportunity and it provided that platform. I think it was finally time to show the world I could actually sing, I could actually do music, I could make music for myself and put it out.
In reality I’m kind of like a wacky guy, sort of like quirky, with other people I tend to tailor it to their needs but at the same time I still bring my essence to it. I think I prefer doing my own stuff ‘cause I enjoy being myself to the fullest.
[My favorite producer-turned-rapper is] I guess the obvious answer would be Kanye West. I remember hearing what he was doing for Jay Z on The Blueprint. When he did 'Never Change,' oh my God that beat was crazy. Those beats he did around then inspired me to want to produce more. Then he came with the artistry and that blew my mind.
Ryan Leslie was doing his thing; he inspired a lot of artists around my age group. But I had to say Just Blaze was the reason I started to make beats. When I heard 'Oh Boy' by Dipset, oh my goodness bro. I used to listen to Tim Westwood a lot so we get a lot of American hip-hop coming over."
Sonny Digital: "Well, rapping came first and I just started making beats ‘cause I needed beats to rap on. But the beats just took off and starting cracking more so that’s where my focus went into.
[Now] I got the platform to do it and put out the music. I can take the time out and actually do my records now. It just makes sense to do it now. I’m at a point, I be messing with a lot of new artists and it started like that and it popped off. It just makes sense now. I know how to record, I know how to make beats, I know how to rap. I just keep be stuck in the box just for producing for everybody. I want to have some type of control of what I do musically.
I got fans from the beginnings that actually know that I’ve been rapping for a long time. They’ve been listening to me since I had songs on my MySpace. Some of my fans have been traveling with me, from MySpace to Facebook and from Facebook to Twitter and Instagram. I got new fans that never heard of Sonny Digital period, produce or artist-wise. Then I have some who just want to hear me produce and that’s it. So it’s a mixture of everything. For the most part, I think the people who don’t know [about me as an artist], you want them to find out.
I never really put it out there to nobody to get justification if my shit is good or not. I don’t really care if they say its good or not. I’m not going to ask the same artists who’s trying to prove the same point to me. I’m not going to ask him his opinion on my shit when I already know 50 percent of what I’m working with when I’m making the beats. I just let them know that I’m in the building and that I can keep up with them.
[Being a producer and an artist simultaneously] for me is pretty easy. I got first dibs on beats cause if I like something I hear I push it to the side. That’s basically how I separate it. I’m not trying to sound cocky or anything but I know the beats are already good so its not like it’s hard to get the rest placed.
Originally [my favorite producer-turned-rapper] was Shawty Redd. He still is one of my favorites producers and artists. I fuck with Pharrell, I think Pharrell and Kanye West are the ideal ones for the generation though. That’s where I’m at with it. There’s one track Kanye West did called 'Last Call' when he was talking at the end, I swear to God, everything that he’s saying in that is everything that’s going on in my life up until the shit where It need to go to. It’s just funny listening to that song and describing everything perfectly. Those two people are two people I look up to and why I try to push the limits."
Velous: "I was kind of always producing and making my own music as an artist simultaneously. ‘Cause really the first person I ever produced for is myself. I didn’t always want to be an artist I always wanted to produce. I used to sing and rap but to myself. I just knew I wanted to be a producer. I was the first person around to produce. I was my own first lab rat so it kind of happened simultaneously.
I have a lot of people that look forward to hearing my music because of what I’ve done on the production side, because of the reputation I’ve been able to build on the production side. It puts me in demand a lot. Sometimes it’s hard for me to work on my own stuff. Recently I started to put myself first. Production is my bread and butter. Right now I’m getting into a new regiment, kind of figuring out my own formula that allows me the time to work on my own songs.
I honestly say that there’s 22 different version of me. When I’m producing, I produce all different type of genres that I’m not necessarily dabbling in at this point in my life. Sometimes me producing allow me to be able to get to do music that I’m not doing right now. I have my own sound that I am doing as an artist. I call is disco, there’s a couple of different aspects of disco too. There’s the disco of the bounces that I give the artists I’m producing for. So sometimes, from a production standpoint I be like this is what the artist needs so I give it to them. In other cases I’m giving an assist that day want. They have a vision, they tell me something or they have a conversation and I’ll bring their vision to life. I feel like there’s many different version of me.
The way I try to find time for [making music and producing] is I don’t leave the studio. I leave the studio once a week, sometime once every two weeks. I definitely utilize different rooms at the studio. I may be working with one or two artists in one of two rooms and I might be working on my stuff in another room at the same time and I’ll bounce back and forth. Really what it is, at this point in my life I kind’ve have to live and breathe [music]. I’m not really watching TV or finding things from Instagram or Snapchat. I have to work a 9 a.m. to 9 a.m. for six days out the week [laughs].
[My favorite producer-turned-rapper] to me it’s a tie between Pharrell and Kanye West. They both played real big roles of who I am right now. When I first saw Kanye, I didn’t really know he produced 'Izzo (H.O.V.A.)' and all these others hit records. But when I heard 'Through the Wire' it made me actually want to be an artist. I wasn’t actually so sure but it made me start."
Young Chop: "I was already a lowkey rapper before I was even a producer. It was easy for me to transition back into rap. I already was going to do it anyway, so why not now. I was like 12, 13 [when I started producing]. I was with my cousin and shit when I said I want to make beats. Ever since then I’ve been fucking with the beats. Then all that shit just blew up as me as a producer. [For me] making beats is easy, that shit like 15 to 20 minutes. It’s not hard for me; it maybe for other people but not me.
You know what’s so funny bro, everything I put out is freestyle. I just go in the booth and just freestyle off the dome. It take like 20 minutes to make a whole song when you freestyle off the top of the dome. You got to know what you doing to do that type shit. Freestyle off your head and match the song, you got to match every lyric with that lyric. I know a lot of niggas that like to write their shit, I just freestyle. I’m not writing shit down. It just confuses me.
You get some people who like, Naw stick to beats but then you’ll see the same nigga tweet you one more time like, 'That shit hard as fuck.' I listen to the [criticism] a lot ‘cause its all coming down my timeline. Like I’m one of the biggest critics of producers ever. You got to go on my Instagram and twitter.
[My favorite producer-turned-rapper is] Sonny Digital. He just doesn’t give a fuck just like me. He just droppin’ shit. I can tell he don’t give a fuck what people saying. I feel him. I like '50 on My Wrist,' I like how he coming with it. And I like Southside too, shit be crazy. I listen to more producers who rap than these rappers now."
FKi 1st: "Really to me it’s all put together, its all the same thing. Making music is all the same no matter how you do it. Whether you’re engineering, producing, ranging, rapping, it’s all the same at the end of the day. I feel like if you want to be the best you have to know how to do all those things. All the elements of making a song I feel I can do it on all on my own. When I make a beat, I’m creating a song at the same time I’m creating the words whether I’m doing it or not. I’m thinking of it all right there while I’m making it.
Sometimes I feel like [being a famous producer] does hinder me a little bit. Look at the old Kanye West interviews and he’s screaming, “I’m a fucking rapper” it’s true because people definitely hold it against you. They don’t listen to your verses sometimes but to me it’s all the same thing so I don’t even look at it like that. I don’t really entertain it. Some artists that are come out producers first didn’t come out as producers. Sometimes they just fuck up and speak on it so much like, “yea I made this shit and all that.” Like I don’t even talk about the songs I produce unless someone asked me.
I was [always] making music. I was just in the studio with Travis Porter one day, just chillin’. It wasn’t really a studio it was like a basement and one day they was just like, ‘Make a beat’ and we made ‘Make It Rain,’ ‘Bring it Back’ and ‘Ayy Ladies’ in a span of three days. It was random, I was just chillin’ in the house. I was still rapping, they heard [my] songs before we made songs. Even when I was younger, my mom’s basement that was like the place everyone came over. Whether they were from the Eastside or the Northside, Southside, they would come over. One thing might pop off before the other but everyone’s path is different. I’m just taking it in and being patience.
It’s fuckin’ hard bro. When me and Post Malone first met Kanye West I meant to ask him how does he balance that out, producing and being an artists. The bigger and better you get its going to take more time towards one of the choices. You’re going to have to put a little more time being a producer or a little more time being an artist. It’s so hard to find that balance. I just take it day by day. Sometimes I be in the studio working on something then an artists would come in I stop what I’m doing and start working with them. It just depends on what I’m doing. There’s just a small core artists I’m working with right now because I like to keep it small and really work with them than throwing random beats out, even though that’s cool every now and then. I just be in the studio just working on my shit and if someone comes we just kick it and create. I take it day by day. I really wanted to ask Kanye how he does it. I met him at Bonnaroo, it was amazing, I wished I asked him how he does it ‘cause he a legend.
[My favorite producer-turned-rapper is] I love Alchemist [but] I would say Pharrell though. I feel like he’s always been wild, he just always been out there. Not saying other producers aren’t but he just makes everything bigger. I respect that. He just always himself and always think different."
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