As I was surfing Twitter early last month, I came across a Thelonious Martin tweet that caught my eye.
Martin, a New Jersey-born/Chicago-based producer, has worked with everyone from A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$ to Curren$y and Skyzoo over the course of his career, but he’s also released no less than 12 of his own beat tapes. This got me thinking; what is the difference between producing for others versus producing for yourself? Is one inherently better or easier than the other?
“I get more joy out of collaboration than doing things by myself," Martin told me over the phone while searching Target for a ZeroWater filter. "I could sit down and make a bunch of beats, but it’s just more fun to do it with people. Maybe I’ll get selfish and think no one’s worthy of rapping on my shit, but until that day comes, I’ma keep working with others.”
Martin recalls days spent in basements in Montclair, New Jersey, working with artists like Topaz Jones and D-Dand, toiling away while playing off of each other’s musical strengths. While Martin stresses he loves collaboration, foregoing the “email process” and just holing up in a studio with people and ideas to bounce off of, he’s just as willing to feast on "the good stuff" himself, crafting five beats before noon in his apartment by his lonesome.
No matter who Martin is producing for—himself or others—his fierce ear for detail always comes through. Take “Infomercial,” a track from his 2016 beat tape Late Night Programming, which features clips from actual infomercials and was partly inspired by the Adult Swim shows playing in the background of his beat sessions, or "Growing Up," a hazy production gifted to Michael Christmas that twinkles in a way that perfectly matches the Boston MC's jolly rapping style.
“Me and Michael Christmas have known each other for five or six years, but we’ve only made five or six songs,” Martin says. “I think that’s another part of wanting to produce for people. Lemme try to create something that’s a reflection of that.”
Adapting a particular production style to suit a rapper’s flow can be extremely rewarding for a producer, but as veteran New York rapper-producer Roc Marciano explains, so can challenging the artist to adapt their approach to your own. “I think when people come to me for production, they’re coming to me for the sound,” Marciano says. “I got a particular sound so nine times out of 10 they wanna hear something that’s fit for me to be rhyming on. I make all kinds of beats, so when I’m making beats for MCs—especially MCs I know—I know what they want since we’re on the same page musically.”
Marciano's sample-based production style, first introduced on his 2010 solo debut, Marcberg, is heavy but nonetheless appealing; a New York gravel coated in a surreal haze that befits his outlandish Strong Island raps. “When it comes to production for me, it’s about getting the best performance out of artists,” he continues. “Whether it’s for me or for other artists, I wanna get the illest raps out of it. That’s the goal.”
I asked Marciano whether he prefers producing or rapping; to him, it’s all just an excuse to create, an attitude he’ll be bringing to his first series of instrumental projects releasing later this year. “I just wanna expand. I wanna do more. I feel like a lot of people love my production, so that’s something that’s exciting for me,” he says.
Whereas Roc Marciano is upbeat and encouraged about the future, breakout star JPEGMAFIA is a touch less optimistic. “Everything in the music industry is complete ass except for making the music,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone at the end of our nearly hour-long conversation. The Los Angeles-via-Baltimore-via-Alabama-via-Harlem rapper-producer creates music that frays the edges of rap, noise, club, and industrial, tied together with Mortal Kombat samples and shots at racists and Starbucks hipsters. The close-throated yell sampled from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Goin’ Down” serves as the spine of the beat for “Real Nega,” a track off Peggy’s critically-acclaimed fourth album, Veteran, and production that only someone with Peggy’s taste for controlled chaos could ever hope to ride.
Over the past two years, JPEGMAFIA has built up a reputation for having one of the wildest live shows in the indie rap scene, but nothing, he says, compares to the joy of producing music—for himself or others. “[It's] the most therapeutic thing I can think of doing, other than masturbating,” he says.
JPEG cites his sludgy production on Armand Hammer’s “Barbarians”—a beat he repurposed for Veteran cut “My Thoughts on Neogaf Dying”—as a stepping stone for his production ambitions. “There’s a satisfaction I get out of producing for other people. When I work with other people, I like to put myself in their world and put my sauce on it," he says. "When I’m just making my own shit, there’s obviously no limit. Any sort of stupid shit I can think of, I’ll put it in there and if it doesn’t work, I’ll make it work [laughs]. There are no limits.”
Unlike their contemporaries, producers who double as vocal artists understand that creating for yourself is a wholly different animal. “I be supercritical of my own shit,” declares Sonny Digital, who began perfecting his booming synth production in sixth grade after hearing T.I.’s “What You Know.” “Being a rapper and a producer comes with a little stigma. Wherever I lag on rapping, I wanna be able to compensate on the production side. You can say, 'I don’t like that rapping but that beat hard doe [laughs].' I done won you over 50% and shit.”
You can hear the ease with which Sonny slides into his own vocal pockets on a song like "First Call," with years of critical self-analysis providing the coat of polish that glistens with 808s.
But while Sonny relishes the freedom of answering to no one while working on his own material, he also enjoys working in tandem with other veteran producers to create a production that is greater than the sum of any individual contributions.
"It’s a vibe but it’s still work, especially compared to working with a newer n*gga. It's easier to work with newer dudes sometimes they kinda let you lead. Not saying that working with bigger producers and they don’t listen, but it’s harder to get your opinion out there sometimes. Everybody’s successful and got shit goin’ on, so it’s hard to say no to someone who’s successful and poppin’ like that. When you do that, you cover a lotta ground... But with a newer n*gga they don’t be knowing what to do sometimes, so when it come time to do percentages and things and you don’t know how to handle business, it can get kinda shaky." —Sonny Digital
After speaking with Thelonious Martin, Roc Marciano, JPEGMAFIA and Sonny Digital, four producers whose individual work runs the hip-hop gamut, it's clear there is no easier or better way to produce material. Whether operating solo or in the best interest of another, the same small joys and struggles bloom from every sample and 808. Sure, there's more breathing room and freedom when you only have to answer to yourself, but as these four creatives will attest, collaboration is an entirely next-level experience. Each approach has its share of perks and drawbacks, but whether produced by one or four sets of hands, for self or for others, the art always speaks for itself.