How Does a Producer Become a Superstar?

Donna and Yoh discuss producers becoming and staying superstars.
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Metro Boomin, 2019

How many times has a producer saved an otherwise mid track? Hold your answers, because the number is already too damn high. 

Producers are assuredly rap's new superstars—they are just as integral to the music and culture as the rappers themselves—but how do producers become superstars, make their voices heard, and what does that superstardom look like? 

In this, the latest edition of In Conversation, all those questions, and perhaps more, are answered by DJBooth Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer Yoh.

Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

yoh [1:52 PM]

Hi, First Lady Donna. Happy Thursday. What's on your mind today?

donnacwrites [1:53 PM]

Happy Thursday, Yohsipher. Today I want to ask you about producers. I just got off the phone with a producer, and during our interview we talked about 18 other producers. It makes me think about how producers are really the superstars of this era of hip-hop. I'm sure you must agree.

yoh [1:59 PM]

I do! Growing up, producers were largely background figures. Only a select few had notoriety on par with the artists they made beats for. Not everyone in the early 2000s had the following as The Neptunes. Now, in 2019, producers—all producers—are very visible. Some are more popular than rappers! Superstars in their own right. Do you think social media has played a big part in allowing such a background role to be spotlighted the way it is today?

donnacwrites [2:01 PM]

Social media has given everyone a voice and everyone a chance to build a following. When I was younger, I would watch music videos and assumed that everyone who appeared in the video made the music. Smaller Donna had no idea that there was a producer behind the boards, making the beats. 

Now, producers are in the videos. Think about Kenny Beats for a second. He's the star of the "Cable Guy" music video. Metro Boomin. Star. And they aren't just known for their production! They're known for their personalities. That's social media's golden touch in action.

yoh [2:11 PM]

I'm glad you mentioned Metro Boomin. I remember in 2015 when Metro was touring with Chance The Rapper on the Family Matters Tour, I was impressed by how the audience reacted to his DJ set. It wasn't just the set, it was the fact Metro Boomin was playing the records. 

When I profiled Atlanta-based photographer Cam Kirk for The Hundreds in 2016, he told me how he and Metro made a concentrated effort to increase Metro's visibility. Metro would make beats for artists and do songs like Young Thug's "The Blanguage" and have Cam shoot the music video with Metro having a cameo. They did the same with Rich Homie Quan's "Too Short." I'll never forget what Cam told me: "Market yourself like a rapper. Blow yourself up.” Kenny Beats and so many others have found their own unique ways to blow themselves up. 

How do you think tags play in producers being able to market themselves?

donnacwrites [2:14 PM]

The tag is an extension of the producer's personality. It's a trick, as you once wrote, that stays with us forever. Whenever I think of Kenny Beats, I can't help but hear Rico Nasty wail "Kennnny!" and a smile comes across my face. Where rappers have signature flows or vocal tricks, the producer tag is an important way to put your mark not only on the song but on the culture. 

The tag has the opportunity to become a meme, to become a bigger staple in the cultural conversation. It has the chance to have a life outside of the song, which is something rappers can't do innately. Rappers work in bars, and sometimes a bar becomes a cultural staple. 92 bricks. But producers have to work in the realm of earworms; they know to make their tags catchy for life. 

Do you have any producer tags haunt you across the day?

yoh [2:24 PM]

You nailed it. Lately, due to my recent admiration for Gunna's Drip or Drown 2, it's Future saying, "Wheezy outta here." Also, because of all the DaBaby I've been playing, "Oh Lawd, Jetson made another one!" is another one that I love. Of course, Tay Keith has a brilliant, unforgettable tag. I love how declarative tags can be. They really give producers a voice despite being the silent collaborator and it's not even their voice, lol.

donnacwrites [2:26 PM]

In that way, producers are true shapeshifters. They talk to us, without using their voice, while building a distinct voice. Producers tell stories without language while inspiring language from writers and the rappers themselves. This is why I think the "type beat" is such an interesting concept. When you are doing something so distinct and so yourself that people can lift and imitate it, is that how you know you've made it as a producer? And once you've made it as a producer, once you've got your plaques, what does your superstardom look like? Besides type beats, of course.

yoh [2:37 PM]

I would love to ask a producer what making it looks like. That's such an interesting question. If I had to imagine, superstardom for a producer is industry accessibility. Everyone wants you. 

Everyone knows your name because of your sound and that doesn't waver with time. I'm 85% sure I've only seen three or four pictures of Lex Luger, but when JAY-Z and Kanye released "HAM," the street single for Watch The Throne, and it was over a Lex beat, it personified how far he came since Waka Flocka Flame's "Oh Let's Do It." Also, the chance to contribute beyond the era your name was made.

Longevity for a producer is like an NBA coach who won championships with multiple teams. The longer you last, the more opportunities your sound is able to contribute toward new eras, your stardom transcends to immortality.

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