Terminal 5 is dimly lit and packed to capacity with a New York crowd hungry for a homecoming performance by Flatbush Zombies. Before their set begins, Funkmaster Flex must first power through a 45-minute DJ set. But what starts off as a lively run of records, including Drake, A$AP, and BlocBoy JB, comes to a screeching halt once the veteran disc jockey and radio host toggles the crossfade before screaming over the mic.
Few songs make it past 30 seconds without Flex’s booming voice telegraphing a cut to the next hit. His erratic mixing style becomes more noticeable when the venue’s energy dips following a missed drop on A$AP Ferg’s “Work.” A hearty wave of boos follow. When you test even the drunkest audience’s patience, a tag-heavy approach creates an unstable energy source.
As the night continues and the Zombies greet their fiercely loyal fellow corpses with 10 Energizer Bunnies worth of energy, I find the hair on the back of my neck standing up. It wasn’t just because of the trio's stage presence or that I was experiencing one of my favorite acts live; it was from hearing Erick “The Architect” Elliott’s producer tag—a playful laugh from a woman that echoes into the distance—floating over the early moments of the beat. If the first notes of “Hell-O” signaled our descent into Hell, Elliott's tag was the roller coaster bar strap.
What began as a tradition by disc jockeys like Kool DJ Red Alert eventually took form as a way for producers to leave their watermark on a record. At the end of his absurdly detailed investigation into producer tags, former DJBooth scribe Lucas Garrison posed the following question: “Who was the first producer to ever use a name drop?” For weeks, I attempted to find an answer to this question, but no one seems to agree on who did it first.
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While the answer eluded me, my experience watching Funk Flex and Flatbush Zombies served a reminder that even though hip-hop beats tend to have more signifiers than I could possibly list here, few ingredients can make or break a song as swiftly as the tag. A tag is both a calling card and the reason that an entire generation knows how to stay on Metro Boomin’s good side, and how most of us know when to smash the skip button on the newest DJ Khaled single. When used properly, a tag is the bottom arc of the Shoryuken that can turn a solid joint into an all-time banger.
So then the question becomes: what exactly makes for a good producer tag?
For starters, a tag must serve as an earworm, but that alone isn't enough. Not everyone can spin gold out of a Jamie Foxx vocal sample like Pi’erre Bourne. Tags like Bourne’s work because they’re clearly form-fitted to the beat they’re gliding over. Nothing throws off the rhythm of a good song like unexpected ad-libs that overstay their welcome. I often think of how Mike WiLL Made-It’s tag slows down near the end and melts into the synths or how someone as versatile as Harry Fraud can stop any production in its tracks with the smooth Spanish of “La Musica de Harry Fraud.” The melody to CashMoney AP, London on da Track, and Louie Lastic’s respective tags give them distinctly light feet over their production introductions, as does the syncopated Afrobeat chopped up by Jae5. Brevity is also key; it's what gives Just Blaze his punch, Jazze Pha his knock and Cardo his wings. They offer a taste of musical heaven on top of digging a hole in your brain for the months to come.
Some creatives even stumble into greatness by incorporating their record label or group name, but this approach can also be risky. Both Jermaine Dupri (So So Def) and Rick Ross (Maybach Music) struck gold when they realized their labels could be branded on wax, but imagine how different early Odd Future mixtapes or Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series would sound if a canned voice was shouting the name of their crew once every three bars. Production groups like Nard & B and Cool & Dre sidestep this problem by refusing to bombard the listener with repeated use. It’s okay to broadcast your name once, but if the beat can’t breathe on its own, ears will tire quickly.
Some producers don’t even need words. The disembodied laugh that begins each Erick Arc Elliott beat is calm and inviting enough to make you forget about the hellacious banger that is waiting around the corner. The notorious 4-count precedes almost every song Pharrell Williams has ever produced. Detroit madman Bulletproof Dolphin cuts through his production with a beefed-up dolphin cackle shrill enough to make Thanos wince in agony before the beat drops.
My experience watching Funk Flex fumble his way through a wave of teenage boos was a reminder that though drops and tags serve many purposes for DJs, producers, collectives, and music labels the world over, they can and will go wrong if poorly executed. There’s no true found recipe for success when it comes to what immediately catches ears and what doesn’t, especially considering that tags are quite divisive within the fan community at large. What sounds to me like a brace for impact could be an unnecessary distraction to someone else. But the music business is cutthroat, especially for producers; if they don't let the world know that a beat is theirs, no one will.