Recently I witnessed one of the most interesting Twitter conversations I've seen in a while, although writing "most interesting Twitter conversation" is a lot like writing "most thought provoking episode of The Kardashians." Still though, Lupe Fiasco's series of tweets around the relative value of rapping versus production sent my brain spinning.
The tweets were all I'd been thinking about since I saw them, largely because I'm an insane person who spends his free time thinking about music when he's not at his job writing about music. So I opened up my computer and got ready to write a response when I saw that....
...Lupe had deleted all the tweets. Fuck.
Only Lupe knows why Lupe does what Lupe does, he's certainly under no obligation to keep his tweets up so I could write my little article. But still, I just couldn't let the idea go, largely because it wasn't really about his tweets specifically, it was about the larger questions and issues they raised. So with the help of the almighty Yoh and some internet Macgyver-ing we managed to resurrect the one original tweet that kicked things off. I would have loved to have posted all of his tweets and replies to more fully represent his thoughts but hey, the Lupe giveth and the Lupe taketh away. This should still more than suffice to get the conversation going.
Lupe seems to be referring to a specific instance or instances, so I have to assume some insane producer really did try to charge him an insane amount of money for a beat. But while I know nothing about Lupe's specific instance, more generally speaking I do know a good amount about how much money producers make selling their beats. I've witnessed the back and forth of struggle producers trying to "lease" beats to struggle rappers for $100, I've seen firsthand what it looks like when a moderately successful producer sells an instrumental to a moderately successful rapper, and I've had lawyers tell me about the deals they did between mega-producers and mega-rappers. And more generally speaking, we need to have a conversation about just how heavily the finances of the music industry is skewed towards the rapper over the producer.
It seems like pointing out that the sun is hot, but since the sun is there every day we often don't even consciously acknowledge its life-giving existence, and so let's take a moment to truly recognize how fundamentally astounding, how earth-movingly incredible, instrumental music is. Play a major chord for anyone and they'll all tell you it sounds "happy," play a minor chord for someone and they'll tell you it sounds "sad." WHAT?!?!?! How amazing is it that some combination of sonic vibrations has the ability to provoke in us very real emotion? How powerful is music that it has the ability to make us cry, dance or fight without a single word? Really take a moment to let that sink in. (And no, I'm not stoned right now, I swear.) Music reaches some part of our hearts and brains that words alone can't. That's why even small children who can't even speak can hum along to a song's melody, why millions of people have been moved to tears by a Beethoven symphony over the centuries and why instrumental albums abound while a capella or truly vocal-only albums are exceedingly rare. If humans somehow all simultaneously contracted laryngitis then music would take a serious hit, but if we somehow lost the ability to create percussion, notes and chords on instruments (to "produce") then music would be absolutely devastated. Or to be more specific to hip-hop, a lot of people are interested in listening to just Kanye West beats, but a much smaller number of people would cop a "just Kanye West vocals" album.
So on the most purely artistic level it would seem logical that producers, the creators of the music, should be making the majority of money for each song with rappers getting the smaller cut, but the opposite is true becase the actual economics of music have very little to do with pure art. While it might be true that it was that minor chord that makes you love a song, that melody that makes a song a hit, you can't put a minor chord's face on a t-shirt, no one's buying tickets to see a melody in concert, Def Jam can't sign an instrumental to a five album deal. It's the instrumental that makes a great song great, but it's the rapper that sells that great song. That's the paradox of the producer, they're simultaneously absolutely crucial and systematically powerless. Their instrumental is quite literally the most fundamental component of a song, but the producer is still almost completely dependent on the rapper (or the rapper's label) to select that instrumental, place it on an album and put it out into the world where it can make money.
And so while yes, of course, producers are human and some humans are greedy assholes and so some producers are greedy assholes, on the whole I would still push producers to get every single dollar they can from rappers right now. The rapper can flip the hit song you make together into a record deal, go on tour, get a Sprite endorsement, and when they do you think they're going to reach back and break off the producer with some of that Sprite money? Good luck, let me know how that works out for you. Unlike the rapper, a producer's only source of revenue is going to come from the song itself, so they need to make sure they're getting paid every cent they possibly can for the song itself. And rappers, understandably, are often loath to part with those cents.
I've watched a rapper promise a producer that if they gave them a beat on discount now they'd make sure they got them big money when they blew up, got signed and got a real budget. Guess what? The rapper actually did blow up, actually did get signed and, you guessed it, didn't include that producer on their bigger budget next album. Every producer reading this is nodding their head in recognition.
Similarly, I can't tell you how many rappers I've seen try to convince a producer to give them a beat for free because it'll be "good promo," how many rappers I knew were getting $80K for a single show balk at paying more than $10K for a beat. In those now-deleted tweets I remember Lupe very specifically writing that once a beat started getting in the $20K range he would be very hard pressed to pay that much. If I remember correctly he wrote that once a beat hit $20K he started "looking for Jesus' fingerprints on the keyboards." But I also know he'd have no hesitation in charging at least that much for a guest verse, and he has every right to if that's how much be believes his art is worth. It just speaks volumes about how much more artists believe their art is worth compared to the instrumental art they're rapping on, and I've talked to enough artists, seen enough negotiations, to know Lupe's views about paying for beats echo the overwhelming majority of rappers. If anything he's generous to producers compared to many of his peers.
Ideally it takes equal brilliance from both the rapper and the producer (and 30 songwriters, give or take) to make a great song, so ideally that equal partnership would be reflected financially, but it's just not, not even close, and there's really no fix here, no solution beyond a radical transformation of music industry economics that's just not going to happen. And I also understand that, like any business, being a generally likeable person is crucial to your business success. Relationships are everything, and no one wants to maintain a close working relationship with one of those aformentioned greedy assholes. So, you know, don't be an asshole. Still though, life's hard enough already for a producer, don't make it even harder by not demanding to be paid your worth. My advice? If Kanye West ever tries to buy a beat from you then you respond with the two words that Kanye West himself lives by: pay me.
[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]