Remember “Sexy Can I,” the Ray J smash hit, featuring Yung Berg? Of course, you do, but what about Yung Berg himself?
Chances are, you’ve been a Yung Berg fan at one point or another in the 11 years since “Sexy Can I” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. You see, Yung Berg, born Christian Ward in Chicago, Illinois, on September 9, 1985, now goes by Hitmaka. Nearly a decade ago, he took the pivot from lead artist to songwriter and producer, and now has his name attached to records by A Boogie wit da Hoodie (“Come Closer”), Meek Mill (“Dangerous”) Big Sean (“Bounce Back”), Nicki Minaj (“Want Some More”), and more.
In short, Yung Berg felt which way the air was blowing, and Hitmaka emerged in his wake.
To go from born artist to “executive,” to be in the spotlight only to leave and return as a behind-the-scenes player, takes massive self-awareness and requires ego death. But as Hitmaka tells it, the pivot was all part of the process of coming into himself.
“I would never rap again,” he says over the phone. “I had satisfied all my ego-driven things as an artist… I was not just a rapper, I was really in love with music, so I had to learn how to move around in it.”
Figuring out how to maneuver in music without being a lead artist has proven fruitful for Hitmaka. He has the plaques, he has the recognition, but he doesn’t have the added pressure of living under a microscope. Does he miss the spotlight? “Fuck no!” he says. Does he love waking up every day and hitting the studio? Absolutely.
“I don’t want anybody [thinking] it’s this simple,” he begins. “But my process is to get up, get dressed, and go to the studio. Now, you might not have the best beats, but if you put that work in 24/7, 365, there’s no way you not gon’ have a tab of success. Consistency is key.”
As far as understanding his process and pivoting, Hitmaka speaks without malice. His measured tone and understanding of his career as it unfolds today is admirable. Not everyone can retool and refocus themselves. A lesser artist would likely pivot out of music entirely rather than start a new career, but perhaps this levelheadedness is why Hitmaka was able to re-enter music in a nearly effortless way.
“This is what it’s supposed to be,” he concludes. “I’m still the same way, doing what I wanna do. I’m happy; I’m excited, and I’m getting paid to do what I love.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Your career trajectory is fascinating, from “Sexy Can I” to your present work as a songwriter and producer. When did you know it was time to go all-in with your current career?
Hitmaka: Man, I’d always been producing and writing. I just felt at a certain that people weren’t receiving my records [as a lead artist] the way they were supposed to be. That was 2010, 2011. I decided to pivot and put a different name on the records. I always knew my songs were good, but what if I just flipped the switch and said it’s not Yung Berg doing the songs. That was around “John” with Lil Wayne.
How did you put your ego aside to do that?
I had satisfied all my ego-driven things as an artist. People get in this game like, “I wanna have the most girls, the most cars, the most…” you know? I think that I did everything that I wanted to do on that level and I felt like this is my career. This is my thing. I was not just a rapper, I was really in love with music, so I had to learn how to move around in it.
You had the spotlight, and then you left the spotlight. Is there anything you miss about being in the spotlight?
Hell no! Fuck no! This shit is amazing. What do you mean? I go to the studio, and I do what I love. I wanna get the point across that I’m not an artist, I’m not a producer, I’m more than that. I’m an executive.
So you don’t miss being under a microscope?
Hell no, I would never rap again. I’d never rap again.
‘Cause a lot of people don’t know how to get out they own way. I had to get out my way to be successful. I wanna instill that in people coming up now. Sometimes, you being your best friend, you could be your worst enemy. I wanna inspire people [to see] there’s more than one way to get this shit accomplished.
Why do you think now is a great time for producers to launch their careers?
Social media, you could be as big as you wanna be. Everybody’s somebody. I think producers are getting the pub that they deserve. It’s been that way for a minute. We can’t say that now is super-producer crazy. Metro Boomin has watched Timbaland. Hitmaka has watched Dr. Dre. We’re all a product.
Your debut single, “Thot Box,” features Meek Mill, 2 Chainz, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Tyga, and YBN Nahmir. Who had the best verse?
It changes daily. At first, my favorite verse was Meek because he set it off first. When I created the song, he was the first person to do his verse. The song was created with Nahmir. He had a verse, and I’m like, “Nah, I gotta get this on my shit.” Meek did his verse first, then 2 Chainz… We had another record, but the single didn’t end up going as planned, so he went back and did his verse for me after I gave him “Rule The World.” After that, I think A Boogie is my favorite verse. Some people love Tyga; some people love Meek. That’s a great problem to have.
What did you learn from your first go-round as Yung Berg that benefited you as you entered the world as Hitmaka?
Just to be self-aware, to know what you’re doing, and to have the right people around you that want to help you succeed. Now, it’s more so a very small circle, a very concentrated group. I think that you can get more accomplished with three or four people that you’re on the same page with than 30 or 40 that wanna be in the same building.
How does it feel to be seeing the success as a producer and writer that you did not see as an artist?
Nothing. This is what it’s supposed to be. It is what it is. It doesn’t feel no way different. I’m still the same way, doing what I wanna do. I’m happy; I’m excited, and I’m getting paid to do what I love.
It sounds to me like you believe in the process.
For sure! I watched it change my life. My process is different from everybody’s process. I don’t want anybody [thinking] it’s this simple.
What is it about your process that makes you such a successful songwriter?
I know how to make a hit. I’ve been doing this shit since I was 14 years old. I was a professional at 14 years old; I had a record deal. It’s just consistency; every day, just doing this shit.
What advice would you give to an artist thinking of retooling their entire career?
Always refocus and rebrand. If something isn’t working right, refocus and rebrand. And you have to understand and accept that this is a career. What’s gon’ happen when you don’t have nothing else but this? You gotta treat it like you ain’t got nothing else. There are so many people doing it. If you are not treating it like there is nothing else, you behind on the race. For real.