Your Overnight Success Is a Glorified Daydream

Veteran producer/rapper Curtiss King kicks off his weekly guest editorial series on DJBooth by highlighting the downside of a "one hit or handout away" mentality.
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My name is Curtiss King. I am a veteran music producer/rapper and the author of The Prosperous Hip Hop Producer. Through my YouTube channel, CurtissKingTV, I have had the opportunity to inspire, mentor, and educate over 4.2 million rappers and music producers around the world. My production credits include Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, E-40, and MURS, as well as corporate giants like MTV, VH1, and Vans. My last two albums, Jubilee Year and Summer Salt, both reached No. 4 on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart. But more importantly, I am a husband, father, and go-giver.  

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big. Every day we hear about how a producer went from humbly grinding out beats in his tiny apartment bedroom to producing for some of the biggest rappers in the game. These success stories often give us the impression that our big break in the music industry is literally a batch of fire beats and an email away. You wouldn’t believe how many producers I’ve encountered through my one-on-one coaching sessions who passionately believe if only Kendrick Lamar heard their best beats on SoundCloud, their life would change overnight. Time and time again I’ve witnessed dreams turn to desperation and obsessions turn into delusions.

At several points early in my 15-year music production career, I too found myself digging deep into a world of delusion. I remember creating beats on a PlayStation on my grandmother’s patio in Carson, California, thinking to myself that THIS would be my claim to fame. I would imagine Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, and Eminem all looking over my shoulder and expecting only the best out of me. 

I used to put a lot of pressure on myself when I actually did begin to meet famous rappers in real life. However, I found myself putting these individuals on unrealistic pedestals because, in my mind, they were the gatekeepers to the next level of success in my career. In my eyes, they had the fame, the talent, the connections, the respect, the money, and most importantly, the freedom I desired to turn a hobby into a career. During this time, I was flat broke and desperate as hell to flip my situation. To me, music represented my best shot at making this happen. To those famous rappers, I didn’t stand a chance.

I was probably told a hundred times that my production style would never translate to mainstream success. I was told that my ideas were too eclectic for a broad audience to embrace. I was told I would never make money in this industry as a sample-based producer. And as much as I’d love to say I ignored the haters and did it anyway, I didn't. It was crushing to hear that the music I loved creating just wasn’t good enough. It made me seriously debate whether I was meant to be a producer at all.

It also didn’t help that around the same time I experienced this self-doubt, I started to develop this unhealthy habit of setting up what I like to call "age checkpoints." Whenever I reached my absolute lowest personal point, I would research the life stories of my favorite music producers via Wikipedia and compare my career to their career timeline at my particular age. At the time it seemed like a healthy way to inject some instant motivation. Can you imagine being a 25-year-old music producer reading an article about how Kanye didn’t see his big break until his mid-twenties? It gave me hope that I wasn’t that far off the path of success.

Realistically, the benefits of this approach were short-term at best. Instead of creating work that would one day live on my own Wikipedia page, I found myself following the bullet point highlights of Kanye's career. I was so wrapped up in the pursuit of success, trying to become someone my friends and family could one day say they were proud of, I lost pride in myself. It wasn’t until the pain of rejection and the self-inflicting pain of knowing I had fallen short of reaching the path charted by my heroes, that I decided that enough was enough. 

No longer would I put this unfair amount of pressure on my music career. I didn’t have to be a damn thing except for the best possible version of Curtiss King. I was never meant to live out another man’s biography. I told myself to no longer buy into the delusion that I was only one hit or a handout away from living out my dreams. There came a day when I declared out loud, "You may not be talented enough to get invited into THEIR studios, but you for damn sure better get used to being the hardest working producer in your own studio."

I didn’t realize it then, but this minor mental shift started a ripple effect that, less than a year later, would eventually lead to my first major placement. No longer would I limit my wins exclusively to hitting home runs. More often than not, it’s the singles that win games. In other words, instead of following the herd of desperate producers trying to get on the radar of a legendary rapper like JAY-Z, why not just look for the next JAY-Z? In fact, what if a rapper that possessed the skill set of a young JAY-Z actually lived in my neighborhood?

One fateful night in 2006, that very rapper entered my home studio (aka my grandmother’s humid and dusty patio). His name was Ab-Soul. Within the first 45 minutes of our very first session, he convinced me he was the second lyrical coming of JAY-Z. I remember asking myself repeatedly, “Is this what it’s like to produce for JAY-Z?” It was no surprise that Hov was one of Soulo’s favorite rappers because everything from the tone of his voice to his unpredictable rhyme patterns reminded me of Jay. I was so inspired by that session I was convinced I was living out one of my own Kanye West “Last Call” moments.

Over the next few months, Ab-Soul and I met repeatedly. He didn’t have to work with me, he was an artist in great local demand at the time. But in my mind, I HAD to find a way to continue to work with him because he had the IT factor. Sometimes it was just me providing him beats, other times it was me volunteering to design his Myspace layout. What I lacked in resources I tried to make up for in resourcefulness. I was inspired by Soulo’s lyricism and work ethic so much that it pushed me to set my bar higher than I ever set it before. I enjoyed the pressure of having to step my game up in his presence because this meant that collectively we would create the best possible product. I believed beyond a reasonable doubt that when the world had a chance to experience what I experienced on that patio, they too would hear what I heard.

The following year, I received a phone call from Ab, notifying me that he made the decision to sign to the independent hip-hop label Top Dawg Entertainment. In his usual calm and collected demeanor, he casually explained how this signing would drastically change his career. He also expressed how thankful he was for our humble studio sessions those months prior to his big news. As a token of his gratitude, he told me that if I burned a CD full of beats he would make sure to "float it around" the TDE studio during Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar’s studio sessions.

A man of his word, Soulo delivered on that promise. Almost two years later, a beat from the CD I gave him gave me my first placement ("Watch Yo Lady" featuring Kendrick Lamar). Years later, I learned that another one of my beats on that burned CD-R was the last record ScHoolboy Q rapped over before TDE decided to sign him.

Over the years, my work with Ab-Soul put me on the radar of a lot of artists. From producing the title track and designing the album artwork on Longterm 2 to producing the fan favorite “A Rebellion” on Control System, and creating one of his most popular singles, “Tree Of Life,” I can’t help but think "WHAT IF?" What if I looked at a then local Ab-Soul as just another rapper from my city who probably wouldn't be a huge success? What if I refused to provide Ab-Soul free beats and studio time in exchange for the experience and growth I received while working with him? What If I was one of those producers who thought so highly of myself that I never saw the IT factor that he possessed?

Motivational speaker Les Brown once said, “Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” It’s one of my favorite quotes of all time because I too am a dreamer just like you. I want to leave a lasting impression on this world that will be felt long after I leave Earth. However, it is our responsibility to shoot responsibly and strategically at the correct moon. Success doesn’t always walk into the studio with the biggest chains, hottest ad-libs, or the most colorful hair. Many times, success is disguised in our everyday lives as the man bagging your groceries at Ralph’s during the morning shift or the woman working cashier at Chipotle during the night shift.

Your overnight success story is a daydream. Commit yourself to taking the longer route and find someone in your city or the next city over who inspires you to keep pushing. Don’t be discouraged, my friends. After all the laptop crashes, external hard drive fails, tedious marketing strategies, frustrating industry politics, the stolen beats, and late-night studio sessions that don’t seem to be pushing your career upward, the roof will eventually open up. You just have to keep going.

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