How Hip-Hop Producers Lost Their Power

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Dan Runcie

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Mega-producers once had remarkable runs, but changes in the industry made it difficult for today’s best producers to stay on top for long.

DJ Mustard (via Shutterstock)

It didn’t take long for Tay Keith to become the hottest producer in the game. The 22-year-old laid the beats down for three of this summer’s biggest songs: “Look Alive,” “Sicko Mode,” and “Nonstop”—all featuring Drake. A fourth single, “Never Recover,” also featuring Drizzy, was just released last week. Keith’s ascension is impressive, especially for a college student. But recent trends indicate that his run may not last long.

Every couple years, a new producer dominates airwaves with timely sound and a catchy tagline. Two years ago, Metro Boomin’ was in his bag. Future and Drake had signature hits made by the Atlanta native. Even presidential candidates were asked what to do if Young Metro don’t trust them. Before Metro, it was DJ Mustard who took 2014 by storm with an unparalleled hit streak. And before him, Mike WiLL Made-It appeared destined to take the baton from his elders and run the whole decade.

But things didn’t pan out that way. Metro has been in-and-out of producing since the 24-year-old announced his retirement in April. Earlier this year, Mustard acknowledged that he’s not as hot as he once was. And Mike WiLL has slowed down his once prolific pace.

We are well past the era when the Neptunes, Timbaland, and Kanye West ran hip-hop. Back in the 2000s, they could charge the price of a home mortgage for a single beat. Those mega-producers had tight relationships with major labels and hip-hop crews, which solidified their power. Other producers like Just Blaze and Cool & Dre had their moments as well, but the “Big 3” were gatekeepers to rap superstardom.

The game has now changed. Since streaming took off, the industry’s business model shifted and flipped the power dynamic. Technology evolved, CD sales dropped, labels were pinched for dollars, and producers felt the blow. Thanks to the internet, a college student like Tay Keith has access that was once reserved for Timbaland.

Tay Keith and other producers should enjoy their moments, but they need to maximize it too. A viable and realistic strategy is necessary in this increasingly competitive and frictionless producer market.

At one point in 2003, the Neptunes produced 43% of all songs on the radio. As dope as the Neptunes were, that level of dominance is only possible with favorable industry dynamics.

Mega-producers are a thing of the past

In a 2016 interview with Hot 97, Timbaland came at the neck of today’s producers. “I don’t think we have producers anymore, I think we have great programmers. Beats are not made how we used to do them, I think they come as a package.” Atlanta rapper Russ also shared similar sentiments in April via Twitter. “You used to be able to tell who’s beat was who’s. Everyone had a real unique style and sound. All the shit be sounding the same now and that’s a fact. If the shoe fits, that’s on you.”

Timbo and Russ aren’t wrong, but their “back in the old days…” trope ignores the underlying dynamic that dictates their perspective.

In the 90s and 2000s, the handful of mega-producers had unmatched power. Each of them had space to craft a unique sound with limited threat of competition. Their exclusive access played itself out in numerous ways. Here’s an example from an MTV News story in 1998 (which Andrew Barber shared on Twitter):

A new Dr. Dre-produced track titled “Ask Yourself A Question” was flown out by private jet from Los Angeles to a pressing plant in Grover, North Carolina at 3:00 a.m. on Monday morning in order to make the final cut on Kurupt’s upcoming double-album “Kuruption.”

That’s wild. Think about the connections needed for Dr. Dre to have one of his tracks sent on a private jet (at least $25,000 per one-way flight) to another artist. In those days, mega-producers could charge half a million for a single beat (and brag about it) because their customers—the artists—had money from their lucrative label deals. In the days of CD album sales, everybody was making money hand over fist.

As mega-producers made more hit songs, they added bullets to their resumes. This increased demand for their beats and strengthened their relationships with label-heads. At one point in 2003, the Neptunes produced 43% of all songs on the radio. As dope as the Neptunes were, that level of dominance is only possible with favorable industry dynamics.

Today’s producers are highly unlikely to attain that much control. Not because they lack the talent, but because technology flipped the economics of hip-hop production.

Timbaland (via Shutterstock)

A whole different game

Technology has changed the landscape in two ways. First, the rise of streaming (and the demise of CDs) squeezed the major label’s margins. Artists no longer receive megadeals to only drop albums. The labels push for the lucrative, but polarizing, 360 deals and urge their artists to focus on higher-margin aspects of the business, such as touring and merchandise sales. This starts a trickle-down effect. Since artists are the producer’s customers, and artists earn less money upon signing their initial album deals, producers cannot earn the high advances they once did.

Second, more producers have a seat at the table than ever before. Marketplaces like Beatstars have cut out the middlemen completely. Anyone can make a beat, place it on the platform, and sell directly to an artist. Less barriers mean more competitors, which leads to the commoditized product that Russ and others alluded to.

Even if Mike Will charges a premium for his beats (rumors say he gets between $75,000-$100,000 per track), there are hundreds of producers who brand themselves as “beats sounds like Mike Will.” These internet producers sell those beats for a fraction of the cost. The beat for Desiigner’s “Panda” (once the number 1 song in the country), which Kanye also used for “Pt. 2” (which went Platinum) was sold for only $200.

When labels started to treat beat-making as a commodity, tensions boiled between well-known producers and label-heads.

Last year, Metro Boomin’ expressed his frustration with Atlantic Records stealing his soul and his music. Mike WiLL, London on Da Track, and Sonny Digital cosigned Metro’s thoughts with their own experiences. DJ Mustard shared similar thoughts in an interview with Revolt:

[Record labels] don’t want to pay. They paint a picture to the artist saying, ‘I thought that was your friend, why is he trying to charge you $50,000?’ Then the label doesn’t want to pay and encourages the artist to talk to the producer.

This dynamic has been a new challenge to navigate. When a lesser-known producer like TrapMoneyBenny can send a cold email to Drake’s team and get his beat used for a song-of-the-summer contender like “In My Feelings,” it gives hope to aspiring producers. But it also presents challenges that more established producers need to account for.

Standing out from other producers

These changes are similar to the media industry’s evolution. Mass media companies like Condé Nast ran the table for years. But the internet removed publishing barriers, which begat to thousands of new online media publications. Most established outlets were forced to pivot to compete in the changing landscape.

Despite the push toward commoditization, several newer media outlets have risen above the fray and published content for a specific niche. A similar approach can work for today’s hip-hop producers. Instead of everyone pitching generic-sounding beats to Drake and other big-name rappers, producers should differentiate and carve out specific lanes for themselves.

This is not a new concept. Past producers have done this and been successful. Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins made a career of making hip-hop beats for the women of R&B. Toni Braxton, Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston, and plenty others collaborated with the Grammy award-winning producer in the 90s and 2000s. While Timbaland and Pharrell alternated producing songs for many of the same artists like Justin Timberlake and Jay Z, Darkchild truly had his own lane. The “Say My Name” producer’s strategy may not have been as lucrative as Timbaland’s, but it is more germane to how today’s producers can maintain success.

By focusing on a particular niche, and not a specific artist, Darkchild also hedged his bets. Had he only produced tracks for short-lived R&B groups like Blaque and 702 in hopes of riding their waves, we might have never heard from him again.

Tay Keith can learn from this. He should enjoy his moment as Drake’s go-to producer, but he should know that Drake won’t hesitate to jump to the next hot producer. The only producer Drake has been loyal to his whole career is his longtime friend “40,” who works for Drake’s OVO Sound.

The interwebs are already writing off Tay Keith’s longevity on several forums, but hope is not lost. “Trap music” is too ubiquitous with mainstream hip-hop to be a distinct focus, so Tay Keith will have to dig deeper. Keith is well-connected in the Memphis rap community, which has its own distinct sound and successful artists like Yo Gotti, Young Dolph, and the legendary Juicy J. He can hedge his bets by competing in a sector that he has a lot of pride for and can serve better than his imitators might.

Today’s producer landscape will naturally lead to more hot producers with short-lived runs. But the more producers that understand that’s not a long-term plan, the better. Differentiation is the key to success in an increasingly commoditized market, and hip-hop production is no different.

One thing Tay Keith doesn’t have to worry about is having a memorable tagline. “Tay Keith, fuck these niggas up!” has quickly become his claim to fame. But if he wants his tagline to mean something after he graduates from college in May, his strategy needs to be less opportunistic and more sustainable.

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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie: info [at] trapital.co

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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