Record Producer Ekzakt Has the Sound Artists Are Looking For

“A lot of this stuff is an educated guess.”
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San Francisco-born and Seattle and North Bay Area-raised producer and engineer, Zach “Ekzakt” Perry has a bone-deep love of music. Beginning his beatmaking career at the age of 11, Ekzakt, now 31, has come a long way from programming drum loops on Sony Acid Pro. With production credits for 6LACK (“Let Her Go”), PARTYNEXTDOOR (“SHOWING YOU”), and several placements with Guapdad 4000, among others, Ekzakt is slowly becoming your favorite rapper or singer’s secret weapon.

“When I first started producing, I was living with this rapper from the Bay named Mistah F.A.B.,” Ekzakt tells me over the phone. “I opened up a little studio in the house with Mistah F.A.B., and I was doing Bay Area gangsta rap. All the beats I made that weren’t that [sound] went unused. When I moved down to LA, I started engineering for Tank, and that opened up a bunch of opportunities to work with Kelly Rowland and Jamie Foxx. All of that was pure R&B. I had so much more fun working on it, even though it was just engineering. Then, there was a way for me to find a home for my other beats that weren’t pure rap.”

For his rap beats, though, Ekzakt has deep ties with the aforementioned artists, producers, and engineers alike. He believes the key to helping an artist find the sound they’re looking for, not the sound they’re known for, takes time—it takes rapport-building and trust.

“I hate sending beats, honestly,” Ekzakt says. “Something I always struggle with when I send beats is giving artists a sound they already have versus the sound they’re looking for. It’s difficult to mindread or assume what an artist is looking for without building a rapport with them in person. So much of music is an unspoken language, so trying to decipher someone’s email or text about the type of beat they want, versus being in person and going through sounds… There’s no parallel between the two. I’d much rather get in the lab with someone.”

Having entered the lab with so many of our favorite contemporary rappers, it comes time for me to ask Zach if he views himself as a success. He gives me a laugh before answering. “That word is so tricky!” Ekzakt says of success. “I would consider myself successful in certain aspects, but I wouldn’t qualify successful as content or comfortable. I am blessed to be able to make music as my only source of income and to focus on making music as my job. In that aspect, I am successful. But, there’s so much more for me to accomplish before I’m comfortable saying I’m successful.”

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

DJBooth: When and why did you first fall in love with music?

Ekzakt: Man! I think it gradually happened. What made me fall in love with music was when I first started playing guitar in high school... The response when people enjoy the music that you make is such an unparalleled feeling. I was, instantly, like, “Yo, I need to figure out how to do this all the time.” That evolved into figuring out different ways to be involved in the music process—whether it was writing music or engineering, or even just connecting the dots from a production level.

When did you start making beats? What were your early attempts like?

Oh, man, my first beats? I was 11, 12, on this program [called] Sony Acid Pro. It was a program used for scoring movies and stuff. There was a bunch of premade loops, and I used to drag and drop different drum and melody loops to make beats. Man… They don’t sound anything like my production now, that’s for sure. I think most producers’ first beats were all pretty wack, and we can look back at them like, “I’m so glad I kept doing this.”

What drew you to hip-hop and R&B as your main production sound?

When I first started producing [professionally], I was living with this rapper from the Bay named Mistah F.A.B.. Once I got my bachelor’s for engineering, I opened up a little studio in the house with Mistah F.A.B., and I was doing Bay Area gangsta rap. All the beats I made that weren’t that [sound] went unused. When I moved down to LA, I started engineering for Tank, and that opened up a bunch of opportunities to work with Kelly Rowland and Jamie Foxx. All of that was pure R&B. I had so much more fun working on it, even though it was just engineering. Then, there was a way for me to find a home for my other beats that weren’t pure rap.

Your list of credits is impressive. First off, walk me through the making of 6LACK’s “Let Her Go.”

I had been working with my bro Bizness Boi. We had a record that was on East Atlanta Love Letter, and then with a few months left to go, it got scrapped. I was kinda bummed. But we were cooking up, watching the playoffs one day. With Biz and me, we’ll go through some samples from one of the other dope producers [with loops]. That particular record, we decided to build from scratch and do the melodies ourselves. Biz whipped up the melody; I worked on the drums. It came together, and as soon as we finished it, Biz sent it over to 6LACK, and the rest is history. That was the last song that 6LACK recorded for his album.

How did PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “SHOWING YOU” come together?

“SHOWING YOU” was crazy. We had linked with my bro [David “Prep” Hughes], who is PARTY’s engineer. We had been heading over to the house to cook up for PARTY… We do it all the time, not even just for PARTYMOBILE. That particular record, when we made the beat… It was a full beat, and Prep said, “Hold off on sending that beat off,” so I put the pause on sending the record around. Sure enough, PARTY had cut vocals to it. He ended up stripping the beat down to just the melody and the hi-hats I did, and some of the outro elements. It was pretty interesting because, initially, the beat itself did have drops. I fuck with PARTY for taking them away because it forces you to listen.

You’ve got plenty of work with Guapdad 4000. How did you two connect?

I love Guapdad. I linked with him through this other rapper I worked with from Houston, Stockz. Guap might have been crashing on Stockz’ couch when he first moved to LA. We linked, and that evolved into Guap and me getting into the lab. We did something on Scamboy Color, [“On My Way to Nordstroms”] that Stockz was featured on. Me and Guap probably have about 20 songs on the tuck. I was able to get a couple on his last album [Dior Deposits] with Mozzy [“Scammin”] and Tory Lanez [“Stuck With It”]. That kid is amazing. He’s got it. He’s super talented. He got charisma and marketing ideas. He be doing a lot of his marketing himself. He a national treasure for that alone. It’s so refreshing to be in with a younger artist that is so creatively tapped into themselves.

Do you prefer to send beats or cook up right in the studio?

I hate sending beats, honestly. I only hate sending beats because I don’t have a good batting percentage on sending beats, versus when I get into the studio. Something I always struggle with when I send beats is giving artists a sound they already have versus the sound they’re looking for. It’s difficult to mindread or assume what an artist is looking for without building a rapport with them in person. So much of music is an unspoken language, so trying to decipher someone’s email or text about the type of beat they want, versus being in person and going through sounds… There’s no parallel between the two. I’d much rather get in the lab with someone.

How do you know what sound a rapper needs; how do you sense that?

A lot of this stuff is an educated guess. You hear what an artist has done; you talk with them about what they’re trying to do… I try and come up with a sound that is where they wanna be and sounds like something that hasn’t happened yet. As a producer, we all have the same sounds now, because a majority of this stuff is all digital. We all are using the same tools to create beats. There’s no cheat codes—it’s trying to use the same tools, but differently. I try and figure out ways we can do something they’re trying to do, that is digestible by the public, but still different than what is currently going on, to add some uniqueness to their sound.

What’s your favorite placement thus far?

Man! “Let Her Go” is one of my favorite placements. That one changed the game. I love the song; it opened up a lot of doors for me. Obviously, “SHOWING YOU.” I got a few different cuts with PARTY over the years that didn’t make this project. “SHOWING YOU” is a favorite because of the amount of time invested, and seeing it pay off. That’s always wonderful.

Is waiting and sitting on cuts the hardest part of being a producer?

It’s difficult. That’s why I keep working, ‘cause ultimately, all the songs will find a home. I put songs out that are five years old, the same way I put out songs that are two weeks old. Keep reminding yourself: It may be old to you, but it’s still new to everybody else. You gotta remember that. Your fans haven’t heard that song ever, and they wanna hear it. I’m trying to figure out a way I can put out some of these Guapdad records myself. Find a situation that makes sense. That’s the beauty about Guap; he’s still indie. Other artists signed to major labels; it’s way more complicated. I got three, four cuts sitting around with G-Eazy… You can’t count on any of that stuff until the paperwork comes in.

Do you consider yourself successful, and at what point will you be comfortable calling yourself successful?

That word is so tricky! I would consider myself successful in certain aspects, but I wouldn’t qualify successful as content or comfortable. I am blessed to be able to make music as my only source of income and to focus on making music as my job. In that aspect, I am successful. But, there’s so much more for me to accomplish before I’m comfortable saying I’m successful… It’s also important to give yourself roses along the way.

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