Photo courtesy of Gene Brown
Long before Kanye West called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to help him achieve his dreams, he dialed Gene Brown.
Brown, a former MC and producer living in North Carolina, couldn’t provide him with stacks of cash, but he could deliver gems in the form of obscure soul, funk and rock records that were ripe for sampling. This was back in the early 2000s, when ‘Ye was just starting to pop off thanks to his “chipmunk soul” productions, built on power ballads shaped smooth through pitch manipulation. Finding a quality loop that he could alter and turn into a hit for one of his Roc-A-Fella cohorts—or even for his soon-to-be-christened classic debut—was like striking gold. While attending a show in the Tar Heel State at the time, he got word from fellow producer 9th Wonder that Brown had records full of them.
“He must have called me 10 times,” Brown says. “[Artists] hear my name and know the story and inquire about me.”
The two never connected that night; Brown was out of town and wasn’t picking up his phone. Nearly a decade later, the 42 year old would send over a file of top-shelf .wavs to Kanye to chop in Paris while working on Yeezus, but back then a call from a rising young producer wanting to do business was simply par for the course. He instead decided to focus on the task at hand, which remains the same today: travel to the far corners of the country to find material that the biggest artists in the world can turn into classics.
Questlove, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Just Blaze, and DJ Premier are just some of the legendary names who have turned to Brown for sampling fodder. Consequently, some of the most beloved hip-hop records of the past decade have his fingerprints on them, from Drake’s “Furthest Thing” to Jeezy’s “Go Crazy” to recent Aftermath signee Anderson.Paak’s “The Season.” Full projects have spawned from his findings, too, including much of Little Brother’s earnest debut The Minstrel Show, as well as Q-Tip’s critically acclaimed The Renaissance. His work has helped him earn the reputation of being “that guy” in the industry, he says, and that respect has shown itself in many forms, whether it’s being appointed as the go-to supplier for the personal collections of high-powered rap figures like Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua or Peter Rosenberg, or having guys like Easy Mo Bee, DJ Scratch, and Freeway play his birthday party at the Bowery Electric.
But getting to this level was no easy task; Brown, like so many artists, had to scrape along the bottom before finding his niche. Only after years of trying to make it as both a solo artist and a bandleader did he discover that he could use his dusty fingers to get ahold of cash. The “aha!” moment came in the mid 90s when, at the insistence of two fellow digger friends, he set up a booth at a record convention in New York. At the time, the city was immersed in the “Golden Age” of hip-hop, and some of its most brilliant artists attended conventions to find inspiration. Despite having significantly fewer records than his friends—one box compared to two tables’ worth, he says—Brown made a killing and ended up selling records to well-known beatmakers like Diamond D and Buckwild. From there, he became known in NYC for having the crème de la crème of wax, returning to the city every few months to sell off crates. He also began selling more back home, where he was already apart of a network of talented musicians because of his time spent at North Carolina Central University, where members of Little Brother and the rap collective Justus League also attended at the same time.
Brown’s line of work may come as a surprise to some—and perhaps a problem to others, especially those who were peeved last summer when it was revealed that the biggest rapper in the world doesn’t always write his own lyrics. But he believes that his trade is not only necessary for artists, but also crucial in keeping the sampling origins of hip-hop alive.
Noisey: How did you first get into record selling?
Gene Brown: It’s kind of a thing I got into naturally because I produced and rhymed and kind of knew about the little subtle things that made the differences in particular records. I was always a little better at finding things than most people. I’d find more than one copy of something and then trade it or sell it to somebody. I got an idea that it’s something I could always use to get other things I wanted or even get money.
When did you sell your first record?
I was in school. I had met a guy at a record show in North Carolina. He came and set up at a show and told me he lived in Richmond, Virginia. Just being curious at times, you try to find new places to go—new stores to try to find stuff. I went to one of his shows and established a relationship with him. He had a friend named Lennard Gill; everyone calls him Len Funk. He’s well known from back in the day in New York and was one of those guys that was deep into it. Me and him hit it off. I would trade and just play stuff for him, and go back and forth like that.
One of the times I was up there they were like, “Well look man, we’re going to New York to set up at a record show. All the stuff that you bring is just crazy. You should just bring one box and go with us and set up.” I had never really done a record show, and I didn’t think I could. But they talked me into it. I went up there, and they had a couple tables, and I just had that one box. I had no idea that it was going to be that crazy. I sold pretty much the whole box, and I made more money than their two tables combined, which had 15 or 20 boxes on them. Rashad Smith and Diamond D and Buckwild were all there and bought records from me.
What was going on with your own music career at that time?
I finished school and came back to Charlotte for a year and decided to move to Atlanta. I went to Atlanta and was still recording and putting out music. I ended up putting a band together and started performing up and down the East Coast. I had a couple of record deals that was offered to me that fell through. Had a lot of production opportunities with major artists who were interested in getting beats and making something happen, but it wouldn’t make the album or we couldn’t work out anything with the money. I got sick of it and discouraged. At the same time, I was selling records. I saw it was a lot better for me and a lot more stable. I ended up having a daughter, and when my daughter was born it was just kind of an awakening. It was like, “OK, I can’t keep being a starving artist.”
So how did you go from selling that one box of records to working with some of the biggest artists in the world?
I started making trips to New York. I was going up and going to a couple of the stores that were really big; I provided a lot of the records for places like the Sound Library and Big City and A1 Records. I was bringing stuff up there because New York and the beat scene… they had a much bigger price tag up there. So I could find stuff for cheap, go up there with five boxes of records and end up selling about three boxes over the course of two or three days.
As that progressed, I had more personal clients that were going to the stores looking for stuff. Jared Box from Sound Library hooked me up with a few of the guys that were coming in there at that time. He was like “the kind of stuff y’all are into, three fourths of the time it’s coming from Gene. Y’all should just try to get with him directly.” It just took off to the point where it got almost overwhelming, and I just got to be known as “that guy.”
When you work with an artist, do they ask for a specific type of record? Or do you just give them things you’ve found that you think are good?
I kind of give them what they’re into. Basically people that they respect and look up to say, “Oh you know Gene? That’s the guy. Trust me. Get with him.” And if Q-Tip is telling them that, there’s nothing else to say. With social media now too and how everyone tries to document things, they see me around. I try not to waste time. If I know they want to get with me, then I’ll say, “Well, what kind of sound do you need or are you looking for right now?” If they want some horns or gospel stuff, I kind of play the parts they they’ll be most interested in.
Do you literally go to their studio with a crate of records? How does the process work?
Sometimes I’ll be in the studio; sometimes I'm just doing house calls. I make trips to New York, DC, Atlanta, Philadelphia. It’s fun for me. I’m always on the road looking for records and finding collections. I have my way of finding these collections and various people. I set up appointments.
Sometimes they contact me and say, “Hey man, I got studio sessions next month. We’re trying to set up so and so’s album next month, and we really need some heat right now.” All producers are different; they all work differently. If I'm still in town, they'll sometimes play me something they did with the record. They hear my name and know the story and inquire about me and find out some of my background and they [think], “OK well y'all getting these joints from Gene, you don't do no work. He's basically bringing you the beat. If you buy stuff from Gene, he basically did the work. All you gotta do is flip the drums.”
What do you say to the people who maybe think these artists should be finding samples on their own?
Most of the people I get with got to be on a certain level. I'm probably the best at what I do; that’s why they're interested in getting with me. A lot of people don't see the value sometimes. Then there are others that maybe see the value, but that’s not in their budget to buy records. They just do their best on their own; they dig on their own or on the internet.
With guys on a certain level, they don’t have the time to be digging and finding stuff. They just pay to get the best. It saves time. They know what they’re getting when they’re paying this type of money. They can go out and try to dig and find one eighth of the stuff that they’d be getting if Gene came to their house. For a lot of guys, it’s just not the best idea for them be out digging. Everyone is trying to get autographs, and everyone is trying to see what they're picking up. What I’m providing is a personal, white glove type of thing.
I just think what I'm doing is very important in keeping the boom-bap hip-hop sound the way we always hoped it would maintain. I know that I'm making it easier for guys to be able to create the type of music we all would like to hear. It just goes along way in itself: just keeping good music alive, period. Just a bigger picture in terms of the part I'm playing… it’s not always a monetary value.
Speaking of that, can I ask how much you usually charge for your services?
I sell people what the record is worth. Sometimes they'll give me other money on the back end if the record becomes a single. With certain mp3s of records, it can get pricey. Sometimes they offer me a certain amount of money to say, “Hey, I need this amount of .wav files. Here’s this amount for your time.” At times it’s been up to $5,000 for a CD of .wavs. I've sold single records for $2,000. You gotta remember with what I'm doing… a person can listen to that sample and like it and then try to find it on their own. You can find anything on the internet nowadays. I have to deal with certain types of relationships with people. There has to be a certain type of respect there.
What about some of your favorite beats made with the samples you’ve found?
Naming specific songs gets a little tricky. Jeezy’s “Go Crazy” was one, as well as “Mr 17.5.” Destiny’s Child’s “Girl” was another. I did some things with Ludacris, Drake, DJ Spinna, Apathy. Some I can’t really say.
What about Kanye? Have you worked with him?
Kanye tried to get in touch with me a couple times in the early 2000s. He came to North Carolina and went to a show and 9th was there. And he was like, “Man where did you get these samples? This is crazy.” 9th told him about me and he said, “We need to get with him right now, right away.” I think he called me like ten times over the course of that night. After that, his manager Hip-Hop was trying to connect me to do some stuff with him. While he was recording in Paris I sent him stuff.
Do you think of any that made it onto The Life of Pablo?
I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. I haven’t listened to it all the way through yet. He’s really random how he goes about finding things.
What did you think of “No More Parties in LA,” which some people think is a return to his old sound?
That stuff’s nice. That’s what I like to listen to.
Reed Jackson is digging for the next hot sample on Snapchat. Follow him on Twitter.