During hip-hop’s earliest years, producers played a different role in the landscape of music. They were silent collaborators, crafting sonic backdrops for artists to reveal their most intimate stories upon. But in today’s digital climate, the playing field has been flipped on its head.
More recently, producers have taken control of their destiny, utilizing the internet’s direct-to-consumer relationship and creative methods to build their own brands and develop public profiles that often supersede the very artists working with them. In 2018, one hit song and a strategically placed beat tag can catapult a producer from general obscurity to the pinnacle of cultural relevance—which is exactly what happened to Tay Keith, BlocBoy JB’s go-to producer and the genius behind the melodic, menacing instrumentals that compose BlocBoy and Drake's "Look Alive," Scorpion standout "Nonstop," and Travis Scott’s Drake-assisted "SICKO MODE."
Keith’s perspective on life and work are shaped by his experiences and hardships growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, a city known for its rough and tumble attitude. Although he’s managed to dodge the allure of the streets and ascend to creative nirvana, Keith recognizes a number of parallels between the music business he's entered and the hometown circumstances he’s left behind.
“There’s a lot of similarities with the streets and the music industry,” he tells me over the phone. “You really have to be cautious with how you move, what you do, and who you work with, especially when dealing with people you don’t really know. You can’t trust just anybody.”
Memphis’ raw, gritty reality can be felt in many of Keith’s productions, full of core-shaking 808s and aggressive rhythmic patterns. An auditory architecture of Memphis’ true essence, Tay Keith-produced records carve an image of not only the tension, angst, and struggle that the city’s people feel every day, but also the drive, diversity, and individuality that personifies them.
“Memphis’ musical sound is really hard to describe,” Keith says. “It just has this bounce that really sets it apart from everywhere else. Memphis’ culture and way of life are unique from any other place in America, so you hear that in our music, our slang, and the sounds that we create.”
To say that Tay Keith’s production style is currently at a premium would be an understatement. He's established a rapport with the biggest artist on the planet, and other stars from Lil Yachty to Yo Gotti are actively seeking him out, with the desire to craft edgier, more visceral records that leave a lasting impression on fans.
Keith is excited about the future, but he also knows he can’t afford to worry about the future. His future is now.
DJBooth’s full interview with Tay Keith, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You’ve had a crazy run over the past year, from "Look Alive" to "Rover" to "Nonstop," and now ASTROWORLD. How did you think you were able to make it this far?
Tay Keith: When I first started, I found my passion for playing the piano. I was really into playing Rock Band on PlayStation, too. The game had a microphone and at the time I was really into producing and writing on Mixcraft; one thing led to another and I ended up moving on to FruityLoops. I was doing both vocals and production. I really started making beats because I needed sounds to rap on, but for whatever reason, I could never rap to them. It just didn’t sound how I wanted it to. So I really just focused on making beats and sharpening my skills. That was when I was about 14.
Who were some of your musical influences at that time? I bet Three 6 Mafia had a huge impact on your sound and instrumentation.
When I was younger, it was more so Three 6 Mafia, but as I got older it was more of Yo Gotti, Young Dolph—pretty much of all of the rappers coming in Memphis, like Zed Zilla, DJ Squeeky, Don Trip. I remember when Don Trip dropped "Gorilla," that inspired the hell out of me. When Dolph dropped Blue Magic, that mixtape really inspired me. When Gotti dropped Cocaine Music, I remember that whole era, from the first one to the last one. That whole series influenced me.
Is there any difference between when you first started producing at home and now, being able to work in some of the best studios in the world?
There’s really no difference because when I made music at home I didn’t have anything but a laptop and headphones. In the studio nowadays, you don’t need a board or anything, you just need a laptop and speakers. There’s really no difference, you can just feel the beat better in the studio. You have nicer equipment in a real studio.
How did you transition from recording at home, alone, to working in the studio with others around?
Me and BlocBoy JB did that, and it’s really amazing seeing the transition. I remember when we were in the crib recording songs like "Shoot," "Rover," "BBQ," and "Dopeboys." All of those records were made at the house, made with nothing. Every "No Chorus" record from part one to part 10 was made at home too. Being able to actually afford studio time now, it really just shows our progression over time and how much hard work really pays off.
How did you connect with BlocBoy JB, and what is your relationship like?
Me and JB both lived in the same neighborhood of Raleigh in Memphis. I was making beats and he was always around me, so it kind of happened naturally. You know those big green electric boxes you always see outside in the hood? I would bang on those and make beats, and he would freestyle. People around the way started catching onto us, and eventually, we progressed to making records together.
What is the creative process like with JB? What inspired you both to start recording material together?
Well, for one, we were still broke. We didn’t have shit, so I just feel like the creative process was really just grinding, locking in until we created something. I wasn’t thinking of whether or not this beat or that beat would be a hit, I was just pushing out beats. And the same goes for him; he wasn’t making these songs with intentions that they’d be hits, he was just rapping and telling his story. It’s funny thinking about how it happened, I really can’t even remember making the "Look Alive" beat.
Would you say breaking through as a producer is more a matter of luck, talent, or is it just timing?
I think it’s about a lot more than just the music because all of the beats are really simple. Anybody could replicate them. I think it’s about your determination, how badly you want it, and karma. What goes around comes around, so whatever you put in is going to come back to you at some point. I’ve put in thousands of hours, worked with hundreds of artists, linked up with so many producers, gone through so many laptops. It’s really about the work you put in and what you’re willing to sacrifice.
What was life like growing up in Memphis, and how were you able to overcome the same hardships that so many in the city face every day?
I mean, I’m from the hood. I was born in South Memphis, after that I moved to East Memphis, then Orange Mound, then Raleigh. I never had anything, I wasn’t fortunate at all. Music kept me calm, kept me determined. I would just get in my zone, listen to music, and work. A lot of people there don’t have shit, so you have to make a way. Most people there find their way in the streets, others find their way in sports, I found mine in music. It’s really just about the path you choose.
Do you have a hard time separating the lifestyle you used to live from the new one you've created?
Of course, but you can’t just change up on everyone you’ve known when you get on. I still have a lot of family going through real shit, who are still there, so I can’t just wash my hands of everything. I have to make sure my folks are straight, that my homies are straight. On the other hand, there’s definitely hate from people that were around before; they may be mad things didn’t work out the same way for them, or because they didn’t do things the way we did. But that will always be there, so you can’t really focus on that.
Describe the moment you found out that "Nonstop" made Drake's Scorpion album. Did you believe it was going to be a massive hit?
It really blew me away when I found out that it debuted at number two on Billboard. It’s a great feeling, it’s a blessing because I didn’t expect people to gravitate to it like that. I really just sent him a bunch of beats, and that’s the one he liked. I don’t ever expect anyone to gravitate to my music, I really just make it for me. But to see people’s reactions and how they vibe to it and get inspired by us is just a great feeling.
How does it feel knowing the biggest artist in the world has his eye on what you've been doing in Memphis?
That’s a great feeling. He had to let people know that Memphis has something to offer to this music industry. If it caught someone like Drake’s ear, there’s no telling who else is hearing our sounds and really seeing what we’ve got going.
What advice do you have for fellow producers who are trying to break into the industry but have yet to find success?
Again, a lot of times it’s not even about the beats you make or how dope you are. It’s about your determination, the law of attraction, being in the right place and working with the right artist at the right time, all of that. Just keep working hard, stick to your sound, and people will find you every time.
How has your life changed over the past six months?
For the most part, it’s given me the ability to travel to places I’ve never been to like New York and LA. I remember before, I would go places and work at the studio all night, and then literally get right back on the road and drive back home because I couldn’t even afford a hotel room. It’s given me the opportunity to experience things that I would never have before.
So now that you’ve found a way in and have established yourself as a hitmaker, what’s next?
I just started my own production label, Drumatized, and we just signed our first producer, Denaro Love. He’s only 18 years old, but he’s one of the next big producers out of Memphis. He’s coming hard.