If the heads start bobbing, you know the beat’s hot. No matter how much the producer jumps around on stage or pumps his fist in the air after pressing play, no matter how much his boys in the crowd holler and clown, if the drums aren’t live, the bass doesn’t pow, and the sample isn’t cut just right—well, you can try again next month.
“You’ve got four or five seconds to get the listener’s attention,” says Cash Ellington, an A&R rep for Def Jam and Atlantic Records, describing a good hip-hop beat the way Motown Records famously described an effective hit song. Ellington sits at the judges’ table onstage at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium at the very first Producers Faceoff and Showcase in February, an elimination tournament for aspiring regional hip-hop producers. Rounding out the panel are the rapper Bad Seed, whose career dates back to the late-’90s but blew up in the past year after his track “Yankee Fitted” (featuring Talib Kweli) went on heavy rotation inside Yankee Stadium; and up-and-coming rapper Ameer, now signed to Tommy Boy Records, who grew up in Mount Vernon but lived in Albany for a few years, working as a barber at Brick’s Barber Shop on Central Avenue.
Like Ameer’s career, the monthly event series took shape within the walls of the barbershop, where on any given day you’re likely to encounter kids practicing their rhymes and plunking out beats on a small keyboard in the back of the shop. “Being in this position in the community and seeing all the talent in the area, I know that there’s tons of gifted people looking to be heard,” says Deryl McCray, co-owner of Brick’s and organizer of the Producers Faceoff. On the walls of his office hang autographed photos of musicians who have come through the shop: Common, Mobb Deep, Carlos Santana. McCray has used his shop, and the community surrounding it, as a networking opportunity to promote the talent he sees around him. Ameer was the first big success story. “I knew personally that after I got anchored and affiliated in the industry, my objective was to kind of funnel people, introduce people,” McCray explains.
This is the other major goal of the Producers Faceoff. While the competition and a $100 cash prize drive the quality of work each producer brings to the stage, the environment remains positive. It’s an opportunity for artists to prove themselves but also to take constructive criticism from industry representatives and develop working relationships.
“The movement starts tonight,” McCray declares on the mic between rounds of competition, as DJ Phayda spins behind him. The judges have just selected another producer to advance while sending the challenger off with words of encouragement. “Hip-hop hate-free!”
“I’m 39 years old,” McCray says, “so growing up and remembering hip-hop from when it began—it brought people together. There was a lot of love and positive energy. It’s unfortunate that, due to economic reasons or whatnot, when there is an event that caters to the hip-hop community, it will get scarred by people who either don’t appreciate it or want to be knuckleheads. Come on, man. It’s music. Let’s have fun with it.”
This isn’t to say the competition isn’t fierce. An opening-round bout that pitted Albany producer and beatboxer Brinan Weeks (aka Soundwave) against Ravena (by way of the Bronx) producer Shameen Rucker (aka Sh@me) might as well have been the final. After each artist played three tracks, each one generating its own “aww-shit!” moment from the crowd, the judges scrambled to determine which of the two vastly different styles was superior. This night, Soundwave emerged victorious, cruising on through the following rounds to win the competition. Sh@me, however, found his redemption in March, handily winning the second installment of the series.
The two producers are excellent examples of what McCray was hoping to uncover, a vibrant Capital Region hip-hop scene that gets little attention from the press, is eclectic enough to spurn the notion of an “Albany sound,” and can hold its own on the level of the national hip-hop industry. It isn’t just that hip-hop in Albany goes unrecognized, though; there’s something intrinsically low-profile about the producer’s role in music that makes events like this necessary for networking and exposure.
“I’m not an in-your-face, high-energy dude,” Rucker says. “I feel like I’m a background character. That’s why I choose production over being on the stage.” The producer is the unsung hero of a successful pop or hip-hop track, the guy who’s turning knobs and adjusting levels in some small room, while the rappers and vocalists he supports become stars. A trained pianist with a degree in music, Rucker says, “the producer is the president” when it comes to collaborating with an artist, but “you have to be easy to work with.” This willingness has yielded enough freelance work that Rucker now supports himself on the tracks he licenses through sites like ModernBeats and Kicks and Snares, which also rely on competition to drive quality. With a style that can be more laid-back and R&B-oriented, he says he had to change his game for the battle format.
“I thought it just had to be hot,” Rucker says of his approach first time around, but before his second entry he consulted with Kicks and Snares editor PJ Helm about what makes for a good battle beat. “You’ve got to have an intro that’s no longer than two bars. There’s a structure to it. When people think beat battle, they think Just Blaze and those kind of heavy producers.”
For Weeks, the process is far more intuitive. “None of my beats are the same,” he says. “I don’t have a standardized style.” Before he started producing beats, he grew up playing African drums in his father’s NAACP Capital District Student Theater Outreach Program, developing a complex rhythmic sensibility. More important, he says, “I’ve been beatboxing since birth, annoying the shit out of my parents.”
This was the first skill Weeks became recognized for, performing at the Times Union Center during his senior year of college before a show by NEO and Yung Joc. It was a study-abroad trip to Senegal, though, that jump-started his work in beat production. “I broke every single rule [of the trip],” he says, finishing his schoolwork at night so he could travel the country all day, developing relationships with local rappers in Dakar and befriending one of Mauritania’s biggest producers, whose credits include Youssou N’Dour’s sister, Abibatou N’Dour. “The first track I ever had part in was the Mauritanian national soccer team’s anthem,” Weeks says. “We took a sample from the Fugee’s ‘Ready of Not’ and I came up with a bass line and drums for it. I just started playing the keyboard like a drum.”
This approach has become the hallmark of Weeks’ style, which is ready-made for competitions. He regularly submits tracks to RocBattle, an international site with 12,000 members, and SoundClick, a marketplace where increasingly influential performers such as Gucci Mane and Kajmir Royale have begun purchasing tracks. “To win a beat battle,” Weeks says, “you have to do some definite digging in the crates to get samples so that people are like, ‘Wow, you flipped that?!’”
Rucker, however, tends to be more subtle with his samples. “I set myself up for a big fucking challenge if I try to improve on something like Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly,’” he says. “If I can avoid touching something classic like that I will.” Rucker instead starts with drum tracks to establish a feel, building harmonic and melodic textures with a MIDI keyboard he runs through the computer program Cubase 6. Weeks runs the program FL Studio (Fruity Loops) in the manner of rising producer Lex Luger, but the distinction shouldn’t be audible to the listener. A big part of the producer’s process is developing a particular set of tools and software that will maximize their creativity. In the days leading up to each competition, both Weeks and Rucker spent countless hours in front of the computer, fine-tuning nearly an album’s worth of battle-ready material.
Winning a battle is one thing, but licensing a track to a performer or selling one to a commercial or movie trailer is another. A greater incentive than prize money is entrance into an industry that thrives as much on connections as raw talent. Through the guidance of Ellington, Rucker has begun crafting sample tracks to send out to a list of performers, including Midwest rapper Machine Gun Kelly. Weeks, meanwhile, has a TV audition in Los Angeles this week beatboxing for a vocal group.
“This is the atmosphere I’m trying to create,” says McCray, “out of love and sincerity for the art.” With the support of WAMC, he’s scheduled a competition every month through the fall, with the next installment coming June 23. “It’s bringing producers out and I’m encouraging the entire community to come out and take part. I see there’s a demand, so I’m going to take it further.”
Aspiring producers interested in entering the monthly Producers Faceoff and Showcase should contact Deryl McCray at 210-6440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.