Kenny Beats Wants To Be Rap's Quincy Jones [Interview]
Kenny Beats wants to make 100 songs before he leaves Atlanta. Not beats — songs. The word choice, as well as the self-imposed assignment, reflect not only his dedication but the seriousness with which he takes making music. Beats doesn’t just want to make beats — he wants to produce.
A part of this is because of his background. The 27-year-old started out making rap beats for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Smoke DZA, and Schoolboy Q before becoming EDM DJ Loudpvck. As Loudpvck, Beats found himself making more money than he ever did making beats for rappers, and learned how to navigate the business aspect of the music industry. But being an EDM producer also exposed him to the nuances of production — how a small subtlety could change a track for the better.
Even though he was successful Beats wasn’t happy, realizing that he wasn’t making the music he wanted to. So he left EDM DJ’ing and studied what was going on in contemporary rap while working on beats each and every day. Finally, after building a repertoire of beats he was satisfied in, he made his return as Kenny Beats.
Now, Beats is focused on helping rappers tell their stories and it’s this undertaking that makes him such a versatile and unconventional producer. In the age of the internet, he doesn’t send beats; he works with an artist in the studio from start to finish. Listening to how they want a track to feel and sound, coaching them through their vocal deliveries, and engineering the track so that it sounds as good as it can be.
This is why Rico Nasty sounds like a punk rock queen on “Smack A Bitch” or “Rage”; why 03 Greedo can go from an auto-tune R&B crooner on “In My Feelings” to an abrasive rap storyteller on “Street Life”; and why Key! has become one of the most important rappers to come out of Atlanta this year. Beats understands that a producer does more than make a beat — they challenge an artist to see their song to its absolute fullest.
While in Atlanta for Red Bull’s Culture Clash, Beats talked with Okayplayer about working with Rico Nasty on her debut album Nasty, as well as Key!’s new album 777, how his time as an EDM DJ informs his approach to producing, and why he turned down an opportunity to meet Rick Rubin.
Okayplayer: In today’s age, I feel like beat-maker and producer are treated synonymously. How do you define the difference?
Kenny Beats: If you lay the canvas, if you make the beat, you’re not seeing it all the way through if you’re not helping with the vocal. If you’re not helping with the artist’s mood in the room that day. If you’re not answering their questions about how you feel about certain things that they’re doing or where they should be going or how you feel about the music they’re playing you.
Vibe is quintessential. And vibe doesn’t just come from being a cool guy and smoking some weed and playing some hot beats. It comes from showing someone that you really understand their music and you love it and you wanna help take them to where they wanna go. And it’s a mutual respect there when people realize like, “This kid has no interest in a check here or charging for studio time or any of this stuff. He really does know and love my music and that’s why we in this room.”
I can go work with someone like Key! or Uno or Freddie Gibbs or whoever I’m working with for a couple of months and just say, “Let’s figure this music out, regardless of what I’m gonna get paid on it, regardless of what it’s gonna cost to make it. Let’s make the best music we can for you. It’s gon’ pay us all back.”
And that’s always been my sentiment. I don’t charge for studio time; you can’t buy a beat off me; there’s nothing like that. We gotta be focused on just the music. The artist’s looking for a certain energy and I wanna provide that. You can’t do that by making one or two songs here and there. You gotta be around the clock. I don’t wanna be Metro Boomin, I wanna be Quincy Jones.
I really enjoy the soundscape that you’ve made for Rico Nasty, particularly the songs that sound more punk or nu-metal influenced. Where did making that sonic palette for her come about?
She is a child of the internet. Rico’s 21 years old. She will listen to everything from the Eurhythmics to Nine Inch Nails all the way to Queen Key and the hardest street rap shit that you are not paying attention to. I think what a lot of producers had a problem with was showing up with some shit prepared that sounds like Rico’s last two or three singles and her going, “Oh, I want techno tonight. Oh, tonight I wanna do a country song.”
The first day I ever met her I brought her all these little cute, sugar trap beats that sounded just like the stuff she’d been doing. She got on one, kinda reluctantly, starting to get comfortable, and then she said, “I want heavy metal.” And the way she said it, I could tell she had said that to other people and they’d go, “Whoa, whoa, I came here to make you trap beats. What am I gonna do?”
I pulled up some guitars. I didn’t even get through the beat. I was nine, ten minutes through the beat and she went in there and said, “Thank god I ain’t have to smack a bitch a today!” And me and her manager and her boyfriend, Malik, we started looking at each other going, “What is this?”
And the same thing with Key!. Key! will come in and say, “I wanna sound like Wayne in ’06 today.” He’ll say, “I need some pink hair shit,” which means all the little SoundCloud rappers. There’s no rapper better than Key!, to me, in the world. Like, he is the absolute paramount, most important artist to me. And that’s why 777 did what it did. ‘Cause you can feel that. You can feel it on every song. You can feel when we had a bad day, when we had a good day. You can feel all this pressure on his head.
I think a lot of the records people love that I’ve done with artists like Key! or Rico have been us challenging each other. And whether it’s me on their end with their bars and their flows and their songs, or them with me with the beat, it’s like, that competition in the studio. Like, “Oh, I’ma show you. Oh, you don’t think I can do heavy metal? I’ma show you.”
When “Smack A Bitch” happened we were like, “Man, how do we beat that?” Then “Trust Issues” happened. Then “Rage” happened. “Rage” sounds like a Slipknot song. After that, “Countin’ Up” happened. Polar opposite. It’s a flip of Noreaga‘s “Superthug.” She’s just all over the place and if you’re not gonna be there to go with her, she’s not gon’ take you with her. I think a lot of producers say, “Oh, Rico, I got this in mind for you.” It’s about what she has in mind.
Speaking of “Trust Issues” and “Rage” the use of guitar on those tracks are subtle but so important to how they feel. Did you play the guitar on those songs?
Those guitars on those two Rico songs are by Sullivan King, who’s a guitar player in LA and a really dope producer. But I grew up playing metal. My first concert was Metallica when I was 10 years old. I was super into Slipknot, I was super into Lamb of God and Children of Bodom and all of that metal shit when I was younger. That’s why when Rico said, “I need some metal,” I knew exactly what to go to.
There are so many sections of metal songs that are so hard and groovy, that almost feels like a beat. I was like, “Man, I give Rico some guitars and 808s. That’s all she’s really gonna need.” And “Smack A Bitch” was the test. Now it’s our sound. Now if anybody does that it sounds like Rico and Kenny and it didn’t come from any influence other than Rico saying, “I want metal.”
How did your time as Loudpvck inform how you are now as a producer?
I’d say more than anything on the business side and the production side. I didn’t know how to handle myself, I didn’t know how to handle the business. I didn’t know anything, really, about what I was doing until I started doing the DJ stuff and I had a real team, a business manager, a lawyer, and a whole team of people behind me to really get my business straight.
So, for me to be able to come back to rap music after so many years with this confidence about how I’m doing my business, how my money’s being handled, and the team around me, it just makes the music easier to make. ‘Cause you’re not so worried about what’s gonna happen to the song or not having any awareness of if a song got used or not.
There’s so much communication going on now, ’cause I know what to look for. And then on the production end, EDM producers are the best producers in the world. Those dudes, you can play them a Motown song and say, “I want this bassline.” Or, “I want this Paul McCartney guitar sound.” And these dudes will pull up a synth and turn a bunch of knobs for 20 minutes and then give you that sound on the keyboard. It’s that level of production.
So, it can kinda hinder you if you come back to rap music and say, “Lemme show these kids,” like, “I’ma clean all this music up, I’m gonna show them all the real production shit that real producers do.” You gon’ lose the vibe and automatically those beats gon’ sound too clean and fruity and weird and these rappers aren’t gonna understand them, just ’cause of how polished they are.
But I feel very well-rounded because EDM was such a competitive level of production that now I come back to rap music with this bag of tricks that no one in rap is paying attention to.
Going back to your comment where you said you wanna be a producer like Quincy Jones. Dream situation, what artist would you want to be the Quincy Jones to?
I mean, I’ve been lucky enough to get in with Young Thug this year. And that was bucket list for me, that’s someone I’ve always really, really hoped and dreamed of working with. I’m hoping to work on some stuff with Pusha T soon. [Clipse‘s] Hell Hath No Fury is framed in my apartment. Clipse is my favorite of all time.
Dream artist for me, though, it probably just wouldn’t be rap alone. There’s a lot of other stuff I’d love to work on and I definitely see myself doing pop music in the next few years, like pop-pop music. But, dream collab. It’s really Thug, man. I’m living my dreams.
— kennybeats (@kennybeats) July 8, 2018
I’ve been doing rap music for a long time and I’m coming back to it now with real sincerity. But it’s still a lot of shit I got to learn. Like, “Lemme take this like a college course right now and really pay attention to every little thing and spend 12, 14 hours a day on YouTube learning new techniques so I can be better. So I could be that producer that these people need.” Someone offered to introduce me to Rick Rubin after they saw all the shit I had said about him in interviews and stuff. And I said, “No thank you. Not yet.”
I said, “I’m not ready yet.” I said, “When I walk in that room, I wanna make sure I play that man something and when he looks at me he sheds a tear.” That’s how I’m coming. I’m not here to make no little flash in the pan hot beats. This has been a long preparation, a long time in the making. It’s just about taking your time with it and these bigger artists seeing that you not just a beat-maker. That you got opinions and things to say, without overstepping their creative vision, that will elevate them, that will make their things bigger.