Kid Hum is as thoughtful about his choice in food and drink as he is about his process of making beats. Early on, he sips wine and discusses Minnie Riperton; later he chooses a Bloody Mary while marveling at the genius of Pimp C. "I'm a foodie when I can afford it," says Hum.
Poring over a menu at Lucile's, Hum displays an air of sophistication in his movement. He is, at once, so inquisitive that the waitress blushes three times before she even brings the water, and so simple that he begins with a standard plate of red beans and rice. As he settles down to talk beats, he launches directly into specifics, and his answers are terse and linear. When it comes to beatmaking, Kid Hum believes there is no structure, only inspiration — that greats like J Dilla, DJ Premier and Dr. Dre all had one thing in common: the teachings of James Brown.
"Dilla, Preemo and Dre were all huge fans of James Brown," Hum points out. "And James Brown comes from the South, where there is a rich R&B music history in the U.S."
Indeed, R&B formed the foundation for hip-hop as we know it. The form has evolved, though, from its genesis of two turntables and a microphone, to using samples to enhance the song's meaning, to now, more progressively, creating custom beats. Producers like Just Blaze, the Neptunes, 9th Wonder, DJ Premier, Dr. Dre and the late J Dilla have ultimately helped mold the sound of modern hip-hop — even if they don't necessarily have the instant name recognition of their more famous counterparts, rappers like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem, Lil Wayne and 50 Cent, who've each taken a turn at producing themselves.
These are the producers, the ones creating the headnodic beats. Next to the DJ, they're the most integral part of hip-hop, as they create the texture of a song and provide the iconic framing for the storytelling. There are many elements involved in creating exemplary production — from bold sampling to using hard-hitting drums — and variables that make up each soundscape, nuances that are different for every producer.
"I couldn't stop playing 'Nuthin' but a "G" Thang' because of that bass line," confesses local producer Boonie Mayfield. "I couldn't stop playing 'The Hypnotic,' by the Roots, because of that crazy bass line. It's definitely the sound of the bass that catches me the most." Mayfield, along with Xperiment Beats, is heading to Red Bull's Big Tune finals in Chicago this week, a national competition of the country's best producers, where the two are representing Denver.
Building on a foundation laid down by Preemo, Dre and others, these emerging beatsmiths are striving to carve out unique sounds that are as distinctive as they are influential. The renowned producers who preceded them each have their own approach to how they achieve that sound. On some of his songs, for instance, instead of relying solely on samples, Dr. Dre hired studio musicians to perform interpolations.
Dilla, meanwhile, cut from the same cloth as DJ Premier, heavily used soul samples to fashion his distinctive dirty, grimy sound. Dilla, in turn, inspired a legion of beatmakers and other noisemaking experts, producers like Madlib, who took Dilla's progressive sample choices to another level by using movie clips and other such quirks.
For its part, Denver has a slew of talented producers — the aforementioned Kid Hum, Mayfield and Xperiment, and their counterparts, Graffiti Black, GirlGrabbers (Qknox, Gypdahip, Brikabrak), Davey Boy, Es-Nine, Lenny Lenn, Dealz Makes Beats, TC Crook, Nofrendo and DJ Quote, among others — who each have ideas of their own about what it takes to make a great beat.
Mayfield, for instance, likes to absorb the energy of a track in its barest form, drawing inspiration from how it feels, and DJ Quote has a similar approach. "To me, a 'good' beat is one that has feeling," he says. "I like my beats to move people. As I'm working, I usually have a vision of some place I've been or people I've met. A good beat alone, without vocals, should move you emotionally."
Others, like Lenny Lenn, are much more technical in their approach. "It's all about sound quality and understanding post-production as well," he declares. "No matter how good a beat is that you make, if it doesn't sound good, you've gotten nowhere."
Xperiment Beats, on the other hand, brings a different view entirely. Preferring to start from the foundation of appeal and immediate inspiration, Xperiment has a more structured formula for his process.
"Before I lay down a drum pattern," he explains, "I'm going through my selection of sounds and playing them live to get a feel of what sounds good. At that point, I am 'making music.' Once I have an idea, I record it into the sequence, and at that point, I have 'created music.'
Lenny Lenn works better with a more hands-on approach. "I like control and need to be in control of the entire project from start to finish," he admits. "I don't just like to make beats; I like to create songs."
Citing Quincy Jones as one of his major influences, Lenn says that seeing the process all the way through is the most important thing, not only as the producer, but as the director. He builds first on the technical aspect of the artist. "As a producer, especially in hip-hop, you have to know what will work best for an artist," he stresses, "whether with the chord progression, melody and key, whatever. Quincy Jones made Thriller. Michael Jackson was amazing, but without Quincy's control, it would have not been a complete project."
The expression of a producer's ingenuity is dictated by the needs and desires of the artist and the respective record they're working on. The fundamental characteristics of beatmaking and the audacity of reinvention are two facets seen throughout the progression of greats like DJ Premier for years. A major change in Preemo's producing style came in 1994, with Gang Starr's "Mass Appeal," in which he chopped samples and arranged the beat in a way that was more compelling with each listen.
Es-Nine, the production mastermind behind Prime Element (the trio formerly known as 3 the Hardway), finds it more natural to go where the feeling leads you and not conform to one particular idea. "I try not to overthink it or force a song," he reveals. "And I always create music with a feeling, emotion or mood in mind."
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Creating a signature sound without being redundant is the ultimate aim for many. Davey Boy offers the most poignant observation: "Strangely, I couldn't duplicate my own beats even if I tried," he confesses. "With all the different sounds and instruments, there's a constant drive to make something new."
To that end, Gypdahip says laying the verse down over the beat while it's still being constructed enhances the context and tone. "I like for someone to come in and lay the verse down over the beat while it's still dry and then throw in the feelings afterwards," says Gyp. "Once you know what it sounds like, you can add whatever explosions you like."
Whether beginning with a sample, as Graffiti chooses to do, or leading with the drums, as Es-Nine prefers, each producer shares a desire to create something that's challenging for the artist to work with, that's accessible to the listener, and that bears the indelible stamp of the producer.
"Audio Two rapped over just drums, and Jay Electronica rapped over movie-soundtrack music with no drums at all," notes Kid Hum, bolstering the notion that at the end of the day, there really is no method to the madness.