Tr!zzy Track‘s viral moment took place in a van down by the river.
He had driven from Chicago to Tennessee in a cargo van as a part of his gig handling interstate deliveries, and was getting ready to head home to North Carolina when inspiration struck. Heather Headley’s “In My Mind” started playing on his Spotify, and he was overcome with the urge to sample it. He pulled over to the side of a scenic body of water, pulled out his MPC, and created a vicious soul chop worthy of Just Blaze.
It wasn’t the beat itself that went viral; it was the performance of the beat. Tr!zzy recorded five takes of himself performing the beat on his MPC using a discipline known as “finger drumming” and uploaded his favorite take to his socials in May. In the video, he’s literally sitting in his cargo van in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee, alternately smiling into the camera and enthusiastically nodding his head, fingers a blur.
The video exploded across social media. “Where is [this] guy at … the game needs you,” Meek Mill tweeted two months later. “I had 1000’s of people @ me in this …. now where is it. Come to the kitchen and let’s cook … you got more of this type?”
Hours later, Meek shared an audio clip of himself rapping over the beat, along with the message, “I am fucking this beat uppppppppp.” The video, which has now amassed 21 million views on Twitter, caused Tr!zzy’s Instagram presence to expand from 40 thousand followers to over 400 thousand followers within a matter of days. Timbaland had also invited the the fellow producer to his studio to work with his artists.
“That’s my first like major meeting,” Tr!zzy said. “He flew us out to Miami, then a week after that, back to Miami again to work with one of his artists.”
Tr!zzy’s story illustrates the immense appeal of beatmaking videos: a diverse medium that has blossomed over the course of the last decade with the rise of social media. The proliferation of beatmaking videos began in 2005, with the launch of YouTube. There were videos of Ski Beatz breaking down the creation of his “Dead Presidents” beat for Jay-Z; Ryan Leslie going into the studio and whipping up songs like “Addiction” and “Gibberish” seemingly without effort, solidifying his reputation as an R&B wunderkind. araabMUZIK was another early YouTube beneficiary; his conception of the MPC as a performance instrument lent itself naturally to both live shows and internet videos. Videos of him and Leslie at work both conveyed in the viewer that sense that they were witnessing magic — songwriting at warp speed.
“Me taking a piece of studio equipment and performing on it live, that made my career what it is,” araabMUZIK said.
YouTube also helped immortalize the creation of some of rap’s most notable beats. Take, for example, the 2003 documentary Fade to Black, where Kanye West and Timbaland sit down Jay-Z and play him soon-to-be-famous beats like “Lucifer” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” for the first time. In the course of the last 10 years, the documentation of these sorts of studio moments has become commonplace, almost to the point of banality. And as Tr!zzy’s viral video demonstrates, these moments don’t always happen in studios.
The second great leap forward in the brief history of beatmaking videos played out gradually on social media, and in particular on Instagram. Instagram added video capability in 2013, then launched Instagram Live and increased video capacity from 15 seconds to 60 seconds in 2016, and launched IGTV in 2018. In the course of these steps, Instagram became a thriving ecosystem for producers, and surpassed YouTube as their best tool to market themselves to fans, brands, and other musicians. It has become a normalcy for producers to broadcast their studio sessions on IG Live (Pierre Bourne, Saba, Scott Storch), whether that mean making beats from scratch or simply pressing play on new ones and gauging fans’ interest in the process.
Still, YouTube continues to be a home for producers and their looser, longform beatmaking shows. Kenny Beats‘ immensely popular show The Cave features a different guest artist each episode and works under the parameters of a 10-minute beat and 16-bar verse. Still bite size – essentially an exercise. Los Angeles-based producer and jazz pianist Kiefer calls his program Records Shirts and Donuts, “the most wholesome beatmaking show on YouTube.”
“I wanted to show what my experience making beats with all kinds of people has been, which tends to be a much more sincere, relaxed, and endearing experience,” he said. “I also wanted to show what it’s like to make music with someone you’ve never made music with before and what that looks like, what skills that involves.”
YouTube is also the primary domain for publications and companies who leverage beatmaking videos to build their brands. Publications invite popular producers to either break down popular beats they make (Genius’ Deconstructed) or construct new ones out of thin air (Mass Appeal’s Rhythm Roulette, FACT Mag’s Against the Clock).
“I think the biggest thing is realizing there’s this huge community of music nerds on YouTube, and Deconstructed is one of those series that really gets into the nitty-gritty,” Devan Joseph, Genius’ Head of Video, said. “This community is hungry for this content. It’s really educational, when you think about it.”
Music hardware and software brands like Native Instruments, Moog and Maschine have caught on as well, and used beatmaking videos to illustrate the power of their product. Maschine even credits itself with creating “the first reality show for producers” — House of Beats. The online series finds up-and-coming producers from across the country competing against each other to win cash prizes and the opportuntiy to produce for well-known artists. (The first season, which had its finale in March, featured Talib Kweli as the artist the winning producer was able to work with.)
Still, beatmaking videos offer much greater potential for producers than companies. Producers have notoriously been under-credited and underpaid for their work. Beatmaking videos offer a way for producers to step into the spotlight and build their own personal brands. This doesn’t simply mean using Instagram as a platform to sell beats. It means using Instagram to market one’s music to musicians, fans, brands and everyone in between.
“No one is going to know you make music unless you share that music,” Kevin Lavitt, a producer who has used beatmaking videos to build a robust Instagram following, said. “It’s a good way to still share my work and interact with people and kind of show the world what I’m doing. If I waited for every single track to be 100% done, nothing would be released.”
Lavitt views his Instagram as a catalog of beats and beat concepts that represent not only his musical style but workflow, aesthetic, and musical toolkit. Though Instagram isn’t as conducive to sharing posts in the same way Twitter and Facebook is, it is definitely conducive to collaboration and education.
“There’s been a lot of people that have reached out to me and told me that they want to learn this whole finger drumming thing,” Tr!zzy said. “They’re inspired by my music, my videos, my content, just me as a person. It’s all love. It’s not just in the U.S., it’s all around the world. People from Switzerland, France, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Australia, Finland, Greece, everywhere.”
The potential to go viral exists both on a small scale — with reposts from curated IG pages like @producervids and @pickupmusic — or on a massive scale like with Tr!zzy or FKJ and Masego. The case of the latter, the pair’s “Tadow” video has been viewed over 150 million times on YouTube. By providing useful open-source learning tools for the growing pool of amateur producers, beatmaking videos underscore how the line between musician and fan is blurred.
Music is generally conceived of as an auditory medium. But beatmaking videos underscore the fundamentally visual nature of music. Music is physical. Music has a visual language. Beatmaking videos allow producers to express themselves through performance rather than simply a finished product. Furthermore, beatmaking videos create a positive space that is relatively immune to the ills and darkness of social media. They constitute not only self-expression but collaborative expression — a dialogue between artists and their audience.
“Wynton Marsalis said that jazz is about negotiation,” Kiefer said. “The sound is the result. The music is actually the negotiation of where the music goes. Miles Davis doesn’t call it jazz, he calls it social music. It’s people socializing on stage. The sound is just the result. The music is what happens underneath the sound.”
Danny Schwartz is a New York-based music writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, and Pitchfork. You can follow him @dschwrtz.
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