Producers are a lot like the offensive line of a football team. Like the guys in the trenches, they can make the superstar quarterback look great, but rarely get the credit they deserve. Well, here at The DJBooth we say "No more." Behind The Boards is a feature interview series dedicated to giving producers their proper shine. Over the next few months, we will speak with some of the games most respected and renowned beatmakers about what it means to be a producer in 2014, and hopefully shed some light on just what it is producers do (and don't do) so that they can finally get the credit they deserve.
First up is !llmind. From Little Brother and Skyzoo to Eminem and Kanye West, the New Jersey beatsmith has been helping some of hip-hop's most popular and respected emcees sound great for over a decade. With a unique, distinct sound !llmind has become a hip-hop staple in both the underground world as well as the mainstream. His experience in both realms is invaluable and if anyone can accurately detail what it means to be a producer in 2014, it's him.
How did you get into producing?
I've always been into music. My father was a musician so I grew up in a relatively musical house hold. So one day I just decided to mess around with the keyboard and I didn't know what I was doing, but I didn't really care. I was just kind of making sh*t. It was around the same time I discovered hip-hop so that kind of evolved into me getting into the culture, going record shopping, collecting vinyl and finding out who was producing and who was behind the beats of these records. I eventually bought a sampler and started making my own beats and I haven't stopped since. After high-school I graduated and made this decision to pursue it full time.
At what point did you know you could do it full-time?
I had to sacrifice a lot of things and bear with the pressures of being in your early twenties [and] living at home. I did that for six years straight. While doing that it was the birth of the whole online community thing. There was a website I used to log onto, UndergroundHipHop.com, [which had] a producer forum. It was everybody from me, to Nicolay to M-Phazes to Symbolyc One, Rook from J.U.S.T.I.C.E League, and the list goes on. We didn't know what the hell we were doing but we didn't care, it just felt good to connect with likeminded people. So that was kind of the birth of that whole movement and it just started from there.
That was when you realized that you could make a career of it?
Yeah. I think I just sort of kept going. I had to swallow my pride for a long time in terms of living in my moms basement not having any money, not having an income, and sacrificing everything else to do music full-time. During that era, whatever little money I had I would spend on records. I remember I would save up money to take trips to Philly and do a lot of networking. I did that for six years and in early 2006, I got contacted by an A&R at G-Unit. Long story short I linked with them, got my first big paycheck and [I've] been thriving ever since. So in my personal experience it took me about six years of real, hardcore struggle. It was a steady climb, but it was definitely rough at times.
In general, today, which happens more often: You reach out to an artist to work or the artist reaches out to you to work?
It's very unique. There are no two situations that are similar. At this point in my career there are a handful of guys that I work with fairly consistently that I choose to work with because I think they are incredible and they inspire me and they feel the same inspiration from me. I've been letting it happen organically. I'm always open to work with people, but I'm at that point where I'm probably not going to work with you unless I think you are inspiring or you inspire me musically.
Do you create custom-made beats with specific artists in mind? Or do you mostly "fit" a previously created record to the artist?
Again, it's usually always different. Most of the time I prefer being in the studio with [the artist] and creating something together. Other times I'll have something laying around that I might show them and be inspired enough to make something out of so we take that blueprint and build something together. It really goes both ways; it is definitely case by case.
A lot of collaboration takes place over the Internet, but you've stated your preference is to do work in the studio. Is that mainly how you operate?
Yeah. It's always a priority for me to get into the studio with the person. Obviously, because of technology, it allows us to be able to collaborate utilizing the Internet in terms of sending Pro Tools files out and emailing beats to people and stuff like that. I'm not going to not do that as well, but there is no way for me to be in the studio with every artist I want to work with.
Once you are done, either in the studio or online, do you get any say over the final product?
I always have a say. Always. As a producer, something I want to make clear to the producer community is that I think we all need to grow some balls and stop thinking that we need to play the background as the music producer. We are the dictators of the music, point blank. If you're a music producer and you are working with a rapper, it's your job to really take that initiative and get in there and take control of the direction and really kind of feel the person out to form a true collaboration and see it all the way through to the end. I don't consider emailing beats out and getting stuff back without having a final say. That's not producing. That's not [being] a producer. That's someone who made a beat and sent it out and walked away to move on to the next thing; you're a beat maker. I think that's a goal for all producers is to see it through till the end, because that's your creation and you are a part of that art so it's important for you to give it your all and commit to it.
Producers are overwhelmingly unaccredited and overlooked. What steps do you take to ensure you receive full credit for your contribution to a record? Was there a situation where this happened?
It has definitely happened to me. Knock on wood and I'm blessed to be able to say that it doesn't happen to me anymore, but we've all gone through it. I think a lot of it has to do with that, as a producer, you don't have a real relationship with the artist you are creating with and that's due to the fact that you're e-mailing beats. The most important relationship you can curate with someone is directly with the artist. It's not with the A&R, it's not with their manager. You need to have a direct relationship, a working relationship with he artist you are working with. A lot of times, up-and-coming producers don't get credit because the guys on the other side just don't care. The artists don't care. For all you know they don't even know what your name is or probably forgot your name and the A&R's working in-between are juggling a million things. You are probably not getting paid much money and if it's a mixtape placement, you probably aren't getting paid anything so you are left in the dark. You did the beat, but you're still a stranger. They aren't gonna go that extra mile to do you any favors because they simply don't care about you. So that's the difference between having a real, true working relationship with an artist as opposed to being a beat maker and e-mailing your sh*t out, getting a placement, and getting pissed off you didn't get credit.
Where do you see the future of production going, both in terms of technology and sound?
I think it's headed in an awesome direction. I think technology has allowed us to do things we couldn't do back in the day, as early as ten years ago. Technology is just so advanced now and things are sounding more realistic. Obviously, humans feel with human instruments and live instrumentation; you can't duplicate that, but I think the advancements in technology are really helping us as producers. I think we all need to embrace that, be proud of that and continue to feed into it so it can grow more.
What are you working on right now that you're excited for people to hear?
Everything I'm working on I'm excited for people to hear! There's so much sh*t, I can't even begin to start [listing everything]. I'm working with a lot of songwriters. I got my band Smokey Robotic -- you can follow us at SmokeyRobotic.com -- we have this monster video we're dropping in the next few months, with a new campaign and a couple surprises. I'm excited about everything to be honest with you. I've been in the studio with so many people lately. A lot of 'em are gonna surprise people, which I think is really cool and I'm just humbled to be part of it all.
Story and interview by Lucas Garrison | Artwork and design by Nick Fulcher