Images by Christopher Classens
Deep in the bowels of YouTube lies a very standard definition video of Atlanta hip-hop artist Soulja Boy touring his home studio. Dressed in a baggy white T-shirt and yellow gold jewelry, the baby-faced rapper shows off a rinky-dink microphone, a small MIDI keyboard and not much else. With a slight smirk hinting at the impishness that at one point raised the ire of several prominent hip-hop figures, Soulja Boy then goes on to explain that all of his big songs, including his chart-topping smash “Crank Dat,” were actually created on his laptop. The rest of the equipment came later.
“[‘Crank Dat’] probably took me like ten minutes to make, and everyone know I made like 10 million dollars off of the song,” he says. “People were like, ‘Man, you used this demo version [of a software program] to make this song that went number one and made all this money.’”
Although he namedrops the software quite a few times throughout the video, the fact alone that he references a “demo version” of it would give most millennials enough of a hint to know what he’s talking about. After all, it was the accessibility of the popular beatmaking program FruityLoops that first drew an entire generation of kids to it in the early 2000s. With a quick click on file-sharing applications like Napster or Kazaa, we were allowed access to a full-scale music generator, albeit a version that we couldn’t always save. You didn’t have to buy an instrument or an MPC; you didn’t have to know how to read notes. All you needed to do was drag together colorful blocks of sound to create compositions. It was easy to use but sophisticated, an entry point for anyone with any sort of music production ambitions.
“A lot of these guys have reached out to me and said… ‘Dude, you made it possible for me to sit in my bedroom and do something that fit my budget,” producer 9th Wonder, an early high-profile user of the program in his work with Little Brother and Jay Z, told me over the phone. The low cost of FruityLoops, its straightforward interface, and the simple fact that it was software and not hardware made it appealing to users—if also a target of critique.
At the time the in-studio video of Soulja Boy was shot in 2009, he was enduring a barrage of hate for the simplicity of his music, which had been downloaded millions of times. But being the most reviled rap act of the moment—Ice-T had dubbed him the killer of hip-hop—seemingly gave Soulja thick skin. Rather than use the video as an apology, he uses it as a declaration, proudly asserting that he indeed does make beats using his computer, in only ten minutes, on a program that he doesn’t even own. He puts a cherry on top by proclaiming that it all results in “hits.”
“I didn’t have money to buy beats from other producers,” he recently told me. Six years later, he’s still using FruityLoops, now called FL Studio, and those ten minutes have been cut down to five. “I was forced to make them myself,” he said. “I’d be making beats everyday when I got home from school. I had to have made over 150 in a couple of months.” One of those turned into the number one song in the country and a major record deal.
Soulja Boy’s narrative of using FL to go from relative obscurity to stardom is not unique: Many others, including heavy hitters like Hit-Boy, Metro Boomin, Young Chop, and Hudson Mohawke, share similar story arcs, evolving from hobbyists to producers for artists like Drake and Kanye West. In this sense alone, the program could be regarded as an incubator for new pop music, serving as a training ground and sharpening producers’ skills over the past 15 years through its simple workflow. But its influence extends beyond just the talent it’s spawned: Since its release in the late 90s, FL has helped shape the actual sound of music across a number of genres, from hip-hop to electronic music to the mainstream pop they filter into.
In particular, its one-of-a-kind step-sequencer (those little chiclets of color on its interface) is what southern beatmakers used to help develop the “trap” sound, which is now everywhere. The sequencer lends itself to the creation of the stuttering hi-hats—when the digital cymbals alternate between eighth and 16th notes, establishing a rolling effect—that producers like Lex Luger used to define the genre. That broad style of hi-hat is currently in vogue, becoming the building block of other hip-hop subgenres like Chicago drill and filtering into music from artists like Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, and Miley Cyrus—not to mention hip-hop mainstays like Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, and Future.
The producers behind those artists often wear their usage of FL as a badge of honor. Atlanta’s Sonny Digital, for example, is unafraid to admit that “all of the biggest hits”—his resume includes Future’s “Same Damn Time,” 2 Chainz and Kanye West’s “Birthday Song,” and iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday”—were made on the program. He, like so many others, originally downloaded a “cracked” version of it to explore its capabilities before purchasing the real deal. He’s stuck with it ever since, despite now having access to any piece of equipment he could ask for. In his eyes, FL taught him a majority of what he knows about music.
“It opened so many doors for me,” he explained to me. “That was just a whole new breakthrough for us.” He also credits the program for being “any age-friendly” in the sense that anyone, regardless of their expertise, can use it to create something special. Roc Nation’s Jahlil Beats shared a similar sentiment. When I breached the topic with him on the phone, he was in a studio using the software to lay out files to prepare for a show with EDM god Skrillex that weekend. Similar to Soulja Boy, he touted the fact that he can knock a beat out in under 15 minutes flat, citing FL’s smooth workflow as a major advantage.
“You can grab all the instruments at once and throw them right together on the grid,” he said, “and just click away.”
Jhalil’s father was the one to first introduce him to FL—also a cracked copy. He now uses version 10 (it’s up to version 12) to create monstrous instrumentals for songs like Meek Mill and Drake’s “Amen” and Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Boy.” For both Jhalil and Sonny, FL serves as a tool to create hits—which is something it originally wasn’t anticipated to do.
Didier “Gol” Dambrin, the program’s Belgian-French creator, is the first to admit that. To him, it started out as a side project while he was working at a Dutch-Belgian software company called Image-Line that focused on adult games such as Porntris. FL was meant to be a simple application for building MIDI loops that had a “visually appealing” display. It was intended to be fun, simple and not much beyond that. “It hadn’t started very seriously,” he admitted to me over email, in a rare interview. “It was absolutely nothing like what it is today.”
Growing up in the 80s, Gol (a nickname derived from an old online alias) was part of the first generation to have access to home video game consoles and computers. He was infatuated by the machinery and eventually fell in love with coding, which he learned through gamer magazines that published full encryptions of games in their pages. One time, he took a code from the arcade classic Breakout, which involved using a rectangle-shaped paddle to knock a ball into Technicolor blocks that would evaporate upon impact, and warped it into his own creation, turning the paddle into a small character.
“Controlling that little guy at the bottom of the screen was amazing,” Gol recalled. At 19, he entered an IBM programming contest, where he was discovered by Image-Line. He worked on the company's lineup of porno games, but he became increasingly passionate about his MIDI project. Although he wasn’t a huge fan of music, sound generators that had the look and feel of a video game, like Rubberduck and Hammerhead, fascinated him.
“I started [it] for myself,” he said. “Maybe that helps [make] things simple to use for non-musicians.” The name was, indeed, a play on the Kellogg’s cereal (“I believe that products should have silly names”), and the interface was fun and engaging. “Sure, today that first version may look ‘fugly,’ but remember the Internet in 1998,” Gol wrote, beginning an explanation about the program's limitations.
By today’s information age standards, Gol is a ghost. He remains largely oblivious to the software's influence, content to remain outside the world of music even as Image-Line has long since pivoted away from its original focus and made FL Studio its signature product. There are some message board threads about him, along with a stagnant Facebook fan page and an interview with French electronic artist Madeon where the producer calls him an “evil genius.” But he’s remained relatively faceless over the years, with the only image of him online being not him at all but instead a mislabeled one of his publicist.
Over email, he maintained the playful but sharp tone of a mastermind checking in on his creation from a healthy remove. In response to a question about FL’s influence on hip-hop that included a YouTube link to a Young Chop instrumental, for example, he stated simply, “I can’t comment much on that.” On the concept of the “stuttering hi-hat,” his answer was even barer: “I have no idea.” And when I asked why he decided to design music software specifically, he typed out, “I’ve never really been into music.”
In these regards, it makes a lot of sense that he was the one to create FruityLoops: Dambrin calls it “an app for cheaters.” While its layout is meant to express simplicity and ease, its capabilities stretch far beyond its stripped-down appearance. The straightforward format is meant to serve as sketching paper for ideas, with the program’s tools being the elaborate colors and shading that fill it in. The result is a highly flexible set of options: "It was so easy to throw down my ideas when I had all this motivation to create a tune that would break down a genre," producer-of-the-moment Metro Boomin’ recently told Fader. In the same article, Hit-Boy, the producer of songs like Kanye West and Jay Z's “Niggas in Paris” and Beyoncé's “XO,”adds, “Some of the most interesting programming comes from trying things out on FL.”
“As soon as I saw it, I understood it,” Sonny Digital added on the phone with me. “It’s almost kind of a learning program. The process is much quicker.”
FL’s unfussiness is key in getting ideas out, but its functionality goes way deeper. Most established producers who use FL say that it has the same capabilities as any other hardware or software, dispelling the notion that it’s rudimentary. In more than one instance, producers described it to me as essentially a digital version of the MPC, the sampler that the genre of hip-hop was built within. For producers like 9th Wonder, it proved to be a convenient substitute: He turned to FruityLoops after not being able to track down an MPC in college (a childhood friend offered him one for $3,000, to which he retorted, “Bro, our parents know each other!”). The program is widely beloved among producers for its sampling capabilities, specifically its all-inclusiveness in editing audio waves (other software often require a separate program to do this). Although 9th was more reluctant than some others to give credit to the program for developing his sound, humming out mantras like, “It’s not the machine, it’s the man behind the machine” in his gentle twang and pointing out that today he prefers the pads of the Native Instruments Maschine, he credited the software's “freedom” and the way it lends itself to be “manipulated on the fly.”
When 9th first started using FL in the early 2000s, he took flack for it. “I was always looked at like, ‘Oh, you make beats on a computer,” he said, noting that it took a placement on Jay-Z's The Black Album for him to get invited to beat battles he had been trying to enter for years. These days there are certain things that many producers are quick to admit are flat-out better than the alternatives. Although FL shares a fair amount of sounds with other programs, including the heavy kicks and snares of Roland TR-808 machine, the program’s step sequencer allows beatmakers to easily layer drum lines and insert hi-hats, a workflow that helps create the trap sound and deliver stronger drum lines, Soulja Boy explained. The first beat he made without FruityLoops was “30 Thousand, 100 Million,” featuring Lil B.
“It was dope, but the 808s don’t hit the same,” Soulja Boy said, going on to offer more evidence: A few years ago, he was in the studio with Kanye West to play the Chicago MC a remix he did of the 808s and Heartbreak track “Robocop.” ‘Ye wanted to know how Soulja Boy he got the 808 kicks on the song to hit so hard. “I was using FL,” he quipped. That remix was never released, but, according to him, it elevated Soulja Boy’s reputation around the music industry and is still brought up in conversations today, including a recent one with Travi$ Scott (a lover of trap drums himself despite being a critic of FruityLoops).
Jhalil Beats shared a similar story about Def Jam A&R—and Kanye West mentor—No I.D., who inquired about his hi-hats while they were working in the studio together in 2012. Jhalil simply turned his laptop screen toward the legendary producer and showed him how easy the hats are to make on FL. Like that, the student became the teacher. “I was just trying to get him to go from Ableton to FL Studio,” he said.
Though FL Studio's capabilities are significant, it would be foolish to overlook how large of a role its mere convenience played in its popularity. This ties in with its original intent, as it wasn’t created for professional musicians, but rather amateurs—the kids who sit alone in their bedroom, slumped over their laptop, jotting down their thoughts in rhythmic form with the hope of making something meaningful. Soulja Boy, 9th Wonder, Sonny Digital, and Jhalil Beats were all like this at one point, using either demo or illegally downloaded versions of the program. Dambrin was quick to point out that the true significance of FL lies not in the clout of its creators, but rather the work that they produce.
“To me, it doesn’t matter whether amateurs or only pros are using it,” he said. “All that matters is that some people have made amazing things using FL.”
To hear some of those amazing things, one only needs to turn on the radio. Although it’s difficult to say definitively which songs were created on FL, you can see the connection by how they sound; at the time of writing, there are at least a half dozen songs in the Billboard Top 25 that feature drum patterns in the trap vein, including Fetty Wap’s “679,” Drake and Future’s “Jumpman,” The Weeknd’s “The Hills,” DJ Snake and Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” featuring MØ, Travi$ Scott’s “Antidote,” Post Malone’s “White Iverson,” and Bryson Tiller’s “Don’t.” Even the ones that weren't actually made in FL were at the very least influenced by its workflow, a fact driven home by the fact that each has YouTube videos of random users recreating the beat in FL. Certain artists have publicly made similar claims, like Glasgow beatmaker Hudson Mohawke, who, in a recent episode of Red Bull Music Academy, went as far to say, “If you were to look at the actual top ten Billboard songs, I guarantee eight of them were probably made on FruityLoops.”
The software—or at least its imprint—has finally breached the mainstream consciousness. But its influence is more importantly felt in those who haven’t broken through yet—beatmakers who are using FL to develop a fresh sound that will bring something new to the table, just as 9th's sample-based beats did in the early 2000s, as Soulja Boy’s steel-drum melodies did later in the decade, as Young Chop's drill tracks and trap producers’ hard-hitting instrumentals are doing right now. Over the summer, I experienced firsthand the initial inspiration FL can create when I wrote about litefeet music, a genre almost exclusively made in FruityLoops. One afternoon, I watched two young producers in the scene, a burgeoning duo called Hann, work magic in the program while it was displayed on a big screen TV in their manager’s apartment.
They handled their laptops’ plug-in mouses like a gunslinger handles a revolver or an NBA player handles the rock, moving and clicking at ultra high speed as they flew through the screens like a favorite paperback novel. More so than the hit singles or shout-outs by famous producers, this image of excited creation and tinkering is probably what Dambrin had in mind when he first started working on the program years ago. With each movement, the producers would describe to me with eagerness what was going on until finally a song began to form. Built around hype, high-energy chants, it was chaotic and transfixing. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.
Reed Jackson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter.