Helluva is the Producer Bringing Detroit Street Rap to the Forefront [Interview]

We spoke to Helluva about the history of Detroit street rap, the making of “First Day Out,” and more.

When Tee Grizzy released his breakout single “First Day Out” producer Helluva was already a star.

Just not a national one.

Born in the Southwest side of Detroit, Heullva spent years on the local scene, coming up as a rapper and producer with underground entities like Watchout Entertainment and Made West Entertainment in the early 2000s. From there Heullva established a blue-collar career as a producer, working with up-and-coming street rappers in the city, from Doughboy Cashout to Icewear Izzo. During that time he sprinkled in features with non-locals like Yo Gotti and Akon. (He was even grooming his son, Lil’ Zay, who came up with his famous “Helluva Beat Baby” drop.)

Things changed with “First Day Out.” The song, recorded by Tee Grizzly after a prison stint, followed the template established by Meek Mill. The song — dramatic with an extended intro — starts on a somber note, before building up and erupting as Tee details his journey from prison to burgeoning rap star. The song was one of the biggest rap songs of 2016, making Helluva’s tag one of the most recognizable in rap.

Since the success of that song and Tee’s album, My Moment — which was mostly produced by Helluva — you have seen Detroit become one of the hottest rap scenes in the country. The city is ripe with talent, from Sada Baby to Drego & Beno to Bandgang Lonnie to the newest rappers on the scene Teejay6 and Shitty Boyz.

Helluva has worked with them all.

Because of his longevity and how committed he has been to working with young talent from Detroit, Hellvua has a rare advantage: he is able to carry the history of the city — which has always been underrated — while ushering what the city will sound like going forward.

We spoke to Helluva about the history of Detroit street rap, the making of “First Day Out,” and why Eminem isn’t a representation of Detroit rap.

Check out the interview below.

I read in an interview you did where you said you want Detroit to have its moment like Chicago had its moment. Are you playing a part in that?

Yeah, I feel like I played a part in a sense. Rappers from Detroit — and when I say rappers from Detroit, I mean, like, the street rappers and the hood rappers — wasn’t really going anywhere. Nobody was getting deals. And instead of me abandoning [the scene], I just kind of stuck with it with hopes that someday, somebody would be able to get on.

But at one point, Detroit started being a fan of its own music. And, to me, that was good enough for me. Because there was a point in Detroit where people weren’t listening to [the underground music in] Detroit. If you were to get in somebody’s car and put in a CD, they’d be like, “This better not be no Detroit music. We don’t want to hear that.” And when I say Detroit music, I don’t mean mainstream [music] like Eminem or Big Sean. I mean like inner city music.

When you speak about Detroit music, who do you think is the most important rapper or rap group of the last 20 years?

I would have to say it started with the Street Lord’z and Rock Bottom [Entertainment.] If you look at them, you’ll see where this all developed from. And then Doughboyz Cashout really solidified a Detroit sound. I was always making the beats that I was making, but when they came out as a group, they’re the ones who got everybody to be a fan of Detroit music.

How would you describe that sound?

I describe it as kind of like a basement sound — like a basement of simple sounds. And growing up, a lot of people compare the music to West Coast and Bay Area music. Coming up, my favorite producers was all West Coast producers and I listened to a lot of West Coast music. So I just instinctively took that style and blended it with my sound.

What percentage of you of your production would you say is sample-based?

I would have to say maybe 30 to 40%.

Would you consider that high?

Well, it’s high for me because I didn’t use to sample at all. But I don’t think it’s that high. A lot of music right now is real sample-based, so it’s kind of just like a style. It’s the style that everybody is going with now, so when you can do something outside of that, or add something to that, it kind of sticks out.

I try to bring something different to the table. Something that might sound totally the opposite of what they used to. And then when they listen to it, they would be like, “Let me try this.” Lil Yachty likes my beats a lot. My first time in the studio with him, there was other producers in the studio that was playing those Lil Yachty-type of ice cream truck beats.

Everybody’s playing these beats and they was dope. So, I’m thinking to myself, “If I play a beat, he is not going to like it.” As soon as I started playing beats for him, he just went crazy. Him and Tee [Grizzley] went in and they made “From the D to the A” on the spot.

Stretch Money’s “Takes Money to Make Money” was one of your first big records. What do you sort of remember about the making of that song?

Well, I didn’t think that he would like that beat. It was a beat that I had just made, and I had wrote the hook in my head. I was still with him and I was playing beats for him and I was like, “You know, I got this beat that I got a hook to. I don’t think you’ll like it.” He was like “let me hear it.” So I played it for him, and I sang the hook to him, and he just fell in love with it.

That was my first big song in the city.

You did a lot of stuff with Doughboyz Cashout. What do you think was your best song together?

A big song we had was “Chances Make Champions” and “Be Going Hard Out Here,” which was one of my songs that I featured them on.

I used to listen to them. People from my generation, they really weren’t accepting them, because of the quality of their music. It was good, but the quality was like real bad. But all the younger people was loving it. I liked the music. And when I started working with them, it kind of solidified them to a point of where people were like, “OK, if he’s working with them, there’s got to be something about them.”So, people were more accepting to them.

Man, [they] were just completely different. They was basically kids. So it was like little kids music to the older generation.

You feel like the younger generation really sort of embraced that sound. What was the older generation still embracing?

It was more like the Street Lord’z, Rock Bottom, and Made West [Entertainment.]

What do you remember about making “Be Going Hard”?

Well, at that point I didn’t really know them. So when we all got in the studio together, it was just all of us getting to know each other. Them being accepting of me, and me being accepting of them. They were saying how cool I was. They looked at [me] sort of like a legend and stuff. But then to be around me and see that I’m cool, and I could relate to them and crack jokes with them and keep them laughing all day. They liked just being around me, so it just developed, like a big brother type of relationship.

And the same thing with Icewear Vezzo and Team Eastside. Most of the younger rapper in the race, they all look at me like a big brother.

The biggest song of your career is “First Day Out.” Is it true you were uncertain about doing the song?

No, I definitely wasn’t uncertain about doing the song. I was in the process of moving from Atlanta to Detroit. I had moved there for a few months to try to do a music thing, and it wasn’t really working out because I had my sound, they wasn’t really receptive to my sound, and I wasn’t really trying to change my sound. But I learned a lot from just being there and listening to their sound. I learned how to integrate some things that I was picking up from their music and put it with my sound.

I was coming back to Detroit with nothing. His auntie [Jobina Brown] called me and said, “My nephew, he’s getting out of jail. He has a song that he wrote in jail and I want to know if you can build a beat around his song.” And I’m like, “Shit, I know I’m good at doing that.” I can just listen to somebody rap and come up with a beat to fit it, like right there. That’s like one of my specialties.

So, after I heard the rap, I was blown away. Especially how it started off in storyteller mode, then the middle of it just picked up. It was a challenge. It was so good when he rapped it to me that I just had to make a beat as good as the rap, or to accent the rap, to be able to tell the story with the rap. That’s what I wanted the beat to do, tell you the story. And then when he got aggressive, I wanted the beat to get aggressive right with the rap.

So when you heard him rap it, did it have that same sort of format where he starts off somber.

It had that exact format.

That’s interesting because if you don’t know the story of that, you would think that it was the other way around. He heard the production and then he said, “All right, I’m going to ride that.”

Actually that whole [My Moment] album, that whole first CD…

Oh, he had written everything already on that album?

Yep. And my job was to build beats around these songs.

Do you and Tee still work like that?

As he got bigger, we kind of shied away from our original format. He’ll be like, “just send me some beats.” So, this last song [“Satish”] that he did about his auntie, after she passed, we went back to our old [way.] He came in and he started rapping. I built the beat around that song, and out of his last few songs that he put out, I feel like it was one of the more successful ones. And I think it was because we went back to our old format.

You produced Sada Baby’s “Big Skuba.” Do you remember recording that song?

I think we recorded that in Atlanta. So me and Sada was hanging out and I was just really, at that point, starting to being able to take his style of how to make a beat for him, because he was a very different type of artist. There’s no telling what he’s going to do. You kind of got to make the beat to how you want his energy to go…He could go from yelling to whispering to yodeling.

He eats beats for breakfast. You can get him ten beats and he’ll give you ten songs quicker than you could blink.

I think what I appreciate about Detroit rappers is it seems very communal. They, they do that Run-DMC type of rap, where they’re going back and forth.

Yeah, that’s a Detroit style right there. Where they just get in there and just go back to back, in and out.

They want to get in the studio together and just vibe off of each other. “Let me see what you’re going to say, and then let me see if I can top it,” you know?

Next, I want to ask about ShittyBoyz and BabyTron.

[BabyTron’s] my boy right there.

The main thing I like about them is they rap off the Hispanic, ’80s-type of dance beats that nobody raps off of. And it’s still Detroit style, but it’s like a different form of Detroit style, and these is the beats that I kind of grew up on. So, to hear that type of music and to hear kids rapping off of those beats — I just was so excited the first time I heard them. Kind of like the first time I heard Doughboyz Cashout.

The first question I asked BabyTron, the first time I talked to him, was, “Why are y’all rapping off pf these types of beats? And he said, “We just do it because nobody else does.”

They don’t really even know what they be listening to, or the songs that they be vibing with. I don’t think they are aware of the whole freestyle era.

Before them, did you think about sampling freestyle songs?

Definitely, all the time. But I was just like, “Nobody’s going to rap to this shit.”

I used to listen to that music all the time. I just feel like I was waiting for somebody like them to come along that liked those type of beats. So I jumped on it instantly and started working with them. The first time I made a pack of beats for them, they just couldn’t believe how I knew how to just make those beats like that. And I’m like, “These are my beats.”

I think that’s one of the advantages I’ve got as far as music. I kind of lived through every era, and I’m still in this shit.

What are you most proud of over the last couple of years?

That’s the easy question. I’m most proud of when people see me in my city, it’s not just like, “Oh I know who you are. I like your music.” The most thing people tell me is, “Thanks for helping put the city on.” And that’s what I’m more proud of. People say I helped put the Detroit sound on and I’m getting people on, I’m playing a part in Detroit music being recognized all over. That, to me, is a great accomplishment in itself.

I’m from New York and when I was a kid my definition of Detroit rap was like Eminem or maybe J Dilla. It wasn’t very street-based. And then as I got older I found out about people like Blade Icewood and other locals.

Yeah, so we got Eminem, and he’s a definitely a GOAT, one of the greatest rappers ever. But his movement didn’t help the Detroit rap scene. It wasn’t the music that was in the hood. No disrespect to him. But where Tee got [Detroit], when “First Day Out” came out, that’s, to me, a real Detroit sound right there. If I had to pick a Detroit sound, that’s the Detroit sound.

Right, Eminem made mainstream music.

I mean it’s just like his own style of music. That is a hip-hop scene in Detroit, where that’s the type of music that they do. But that’s not really what’s in the street. That can’t describe the Detroit sound.

So if I’m driving in Detroit right now, what’s the song that I’m hearing right now?

You would probably hear Drego or Beno. Definitely Sada Baby, too. [He] run this shit.

Dimas Sanfiorenzo

Dimas Sanfiorenzo is the Managing Editor for Okayplayer. He specializes in coverage centered around music, pop culture, and politics. Email:

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Dimas Sanfiorenzo

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