When you think of Kenny Beats, you might think of Rico Nasty, or Key!, or UnoTheActivist, or Freddie Gibbs, or Smoke DZA, or 03 Greedo, or, well, you get the idea.
At 27, with a decade in music and two separate phases of being a rap producer, Kenny’s success comes on the back of his being a genuine fan of hip-hop first, and the creativity surely follows.
“I think it’s 10 times harder to walk into a session with someone that you’re told you’d make good music with, or you think will get you a lot of followers or money,” he tells me over the phone. “It’s never going to feel right because the vibe in the room [will be] sterile. Even if you give them the best beat and they write a cool song, it’s not going to touch people unless you both really felt it in the studio.”
Kenny first began producing at 17, and at the height of his young career—singles with Top Dawg Entertainment and Smoke DZA—he walked away from hip-hop to pursue dance music and DJing. “I was a junior in college, making a little bit of money off the beats I’m selling,” he recalls, “but I was basically selling weed and figuring out what I was gonna do. This dance music thing came along, I made a couple songs just for fun, and when I put those songs up it went crazy.”
At the end of the day, though, hip-hop is where Kenny Beats feels most at home. After successfully touring as LOUDPVCK, Kenny returned to rap a little wiser and ready to get to work. “I’m coming back to rap with this older sense of what I need to do with people and how I need to do my business,” he says. “I’m getting a second chance at doing rap production, and I want to go about it the right way.”
After crafting six tracks with DMV buzzmaker Rico Nasty (Nasty), five with venerable MC Freddie Gibbs (Freddie), an entire project with Key! (777), and lord knows how many songs with 03 Greedo, it’s safe to say hip-hop has welcomed back Kenny Beats with open arms.
DJBooth’s full interview with Kenny Beats, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: First thing’s first, congratulations on your 2018. How does it feel to be everywhere?
Kenny Beats: It feels good! I’ve had a game plan for quite a while about how to make this happen, and I think that comes from having done a lot of rap production when I was 19 and then leaving rap for a long time to do some dance music and make money with other music. Now, I’m coming back to rap with this older sense of what I need to do with people and how I need to do my business. I’m getting a second chance at doing rap production, and I want to go about it the right way.
Tell me about your first wind as a rap producer.
From 17 to 20, I was interning all over the place in New York City. I interned for Johnny Shipes, who runs Cinematic Music Group, used to manage Big K.R.I.T. and Curren$y and Cam’ron, and all types of people. Then I did some internships through my high school at RCA Records and J Records, so I was just in the city all the time.
I started getting some beats off via my internships and my first ones were with Smoke DZA. Through doing beats for Smoke DZA, I ended up doing a song with him and Kendrick Lamar ("Ball Game), and a song with him and Dom Kennedy ("Pow Wow") that were all on the same mixtape that I co-produced with my homie. All of that stuff really started to take off. Right after I did ScHoolboy Q ("Party") and Ab-Soul ("Hunnid Stax") and a couple other things, I veered away from rap completely. I left everything.
What drew you to EDM when you were about to blow?
I had ScHoolboy Q’s single “Party” when I was 20 years old, and my homie who was a year older than me, from LA, was like, “Yo, there’s all this music going on, it’s dance music with rap sounds. I think you could kill it. We should just make some stuff.”
I was a junior in college, making a little bit of money off the beats I’m selling. But I was basically selling weed and figuring out what I was gonna do. This dance music thing came along, I made a couple songs just for fun, and when I put those songs up it went crazy. I started getting hit up by agents and managers—my EDM name is LOUDPVCK. Then I realized that this music isn’t going to mean anything to me in ten years and I want to start only working on stuff that when I look back to this, it’s going to stand the test of time and I’m going to be really proud of it.
Was that what ultimately brought you back to rap?
I wanted to make music without the guise of how much money I’m gonna make, or how much clout. It’s like, let me pick the artists who I really, truly believe in and listen to in my free time. Let me get in with them however I can, and let me make their music better. Not that their music isn’t great, but let me add my two cents. Let me help you let it off your chest. People like Key!, Rico, 03 Greedo, NBA YoungBoy, all these people I’m working with are people who have a name, but when I listen, in my head I’m like, “Your producer doesn’t care enough.”
Is that the most startling change you’ve noticed? People don’t care as much?
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There’s not a lot of great producers, and there’s a shit ton of beatmakers. I produce records. I don’t make a beat and then send that beat to a bunch of emails. I don’t make a beat and then sit there and watch this whole song happen on my beat—I’m very involved in the process. I’m telling them, “Yo, there’s something you did on this other song that you should try here, it could be crazy. It might not work, but let’s try it.” Saying things like that to artists, it’s not really criticism as much as it is, I want to push you to be better and do the best that you could do because I’m just a fan, just like everybody else.
Is being a fan the key?
I think it’s 10 times harder to walk into a session with someone that you’re told you’d make good music with, or you think will get you a lot of followers or money. It’s never going to feel right because the vibe in the room [will be] sterile. Even if you give them the best beat and they write a cool song, it’s not going to touch people unless you both really felt it in the studio.
That’s something that Key!, Rico, Greedo, those people, they trust their instincts and they know what they’re trying to get across. My goal is to help that happen. A lot of times, you get the best beat that you can get and they do their thing, but I’m sitting there thinking “What do you want?” It’s all about fostering people’s creativity.
I love the passion.
Whenever you go, “Oh my God! What is this?” those are the moments I’m looking for. With certain artists, they know what they’re doing, and you’re not going to be able to sit there with every person and go, “Hey, bro, you should try this.” Sometimes you gotta shut your fucking mouth. That’s part of it, too. It’s all about understanding these artists as people first, and then using what you’ve learned about them and see where they’re trying to go with their music and how. It’s so much deeper than a hot beat and hot raps.
Let’s break down some of these relationships, starting with Rico. How did you two start and what’s the working relationship there?
Rico is not an easy case to crack. Whether you’re a business person or a producer, she’s very careful about how she holds herself and what she responds to. I heard about her first at Coachella a year ago. Someone played me one song and I played it all weekend. Any time one of my girl homies asked for a new song, I would always send them “Hey Arnold” because it was the bad bitch anthem. It was such a great song.
I was playing it for months and months, and I hit Rico—my Twitter for my DJ shit is way bigger—like, “Aye, we gotta work.” She followed me back and any time I would send her a DM or anything she would respond with one word or be like, “Send it.” A year later, I hit her from [my] Kenny Beats [Twitter] and said: “Hey, I got so much music for Rico Nasty.” I think I had a mutual friend who was in her studio that night who must have shown her the tweet, and I get a DM from Rico that says, “Pull up.” I pull up, it was at Atlantic Studios, there was a bunch of fucking people in the room and she’s sitting there in a hoodie.
I walked in there and started playing beats that sound like sugar trap. She went in and did one song, she was kinda reluctant. She came outta the booth and asks, “Can we cook up?” seeing if I’m down to make some shit on the spot. I’m like, “Yeah, what do you want?” She’s like, “I want Death Grips. I want heavy metal.” I started pulling up guitars, started pulling up weird sounds, and we made “Smack a Bitch” in the next 20 minutes. The beat and the song, the entire thing. Rico was writing it while I was making the beat and she kept asking if I was done, so I stopped making the beat before I was even done and we loaded it up, and she went right in there. Her manager and boyfriend, Malik, who was one of the most important parts of this, looks at me like, “You did not just do this in 10 minutes.”
Ever since then I was telling her she’s gotta come to my studio. The first night she came to my studio, we made “Ice Cream” and “Trust Issues.” I met her, however I could I got in there, she trusted me a little bit, as soon as I got her and Malik to the studio, we got super comfortable and everything changed. Now they’re my good, good friends and we’re making the best music because she’s so comfortable.
Now, tell me about these five Freddie joints.
I met Cousin Stizz a while ago, and when you meet me, you’re about to get a bunch of info if I’m a fan of you. Me and Stizz had this really crazy heart-to-heart one night about how he writes lyrics instead of going in and trying the first thing he thinks of, and we had a breakthrough. Stizz started recording 20, 30, 40 songs a week saying, “Fuck it, I’m gonna get the vibe across.” It was such a big moment to him and he brought me up to Freddie Gibbs and told him we’ve been working and that I broke him out of his writer’s block.
I get a call from Freddie’s manager that he’s trying to get in. Freddie came by, I’m giving him my normal spiel, playing him a bunch of shit, he gets in the booth and the first song we do is “Automatic,” which you’ll hear tonight. It’s on the project. It’s a beat that sounds like some shit I would give to Smokepurpp. Freddie Gibbs is used to some Madlib shit, but I wanted to give him some fun shit. He went fucking crazy because no one’s ever given him that kind of energy.
He says we should do something else and I say he should try some ad-libs. He says he doesn’t really ad-lib like that, and I was like, “You don’t have to try this if you don’t want to, but I really think it could take this to another level.” He went in and started doing all these snorts, all these crazy sounds, came back out, I mixed his ad-libs all around the speakers and cutting the beat in all these places. I cut the beat every 10 seconds. We played the song back and he’s geeking in the studio. He’s like, “Oh my God, this shit is so hard. We gotta do a tape.”
We got in once every week for the next couple weeks and did one perfect song each day. Right now we’ve only done five songs, and they’re all on the project. We’re five for five. He’s got a couple other things on that project that aren’t produced by me, but I mixed the entire thing for him.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever given a rapper in the studio?
Trust your instincts. If you and I are in the studio, generally I heard about you somewhere and something’s going on for you. You probably grew up with a bunch of people who also rap, but you’re the one who made it. That means you are talented, so if you’re so good, why are you gonna sit there for six hours and write one verse?
In an interview with The FADER you said that your goal was to become a wizard. What are the steps to become a wizard?
You have to not care about money. You have to not care about fame. You have to be able to put away any worldly desires or obstacles out of your way as far as your life, your family, your health. You gotta literally put everything aside and just focus on the feeling in the room. The feeling a song gives people whether they’re in the car talking while it plays or on the best speakers ever, you gotta feel that vibe, and do whatever you can to take that to its next level. Being a wizard is being able to see that aura and help show it to more people.