Stepping into a Hotel in Soho can always be a cause for dubious concern. I encounter a spiral staircase that I proceed to walk up and then disorientedly stumble into a dimly lit bar area to find Kenny Beats and his manager waiting for me. The rap producer is 6’7” and, in another life, me and him might just be running pick and rolls together on the basketball court. But today, we’re here taking part in other luxuries, which is mostly talking about one thing: Kenny is making the best music of his life right now.
Kenny Beats is 27 now and, as Frank Ocean would say, “no white lighters till I fuck my 28th up.” Kenny is poised to make sure he’s remembered for what he wants to be remembered for and that’s his footprint in the rap game geography. Originally from Greenwich, Connecticut, Kenneth Blume III, has been making beats since high school. He moved to New York City after high school, interning under Cinematic Music Group’s Jonny Shipes, hustling beats where he could, selling weed to stay afloat—all the while going to school. In the midst of all that madness he linked with Ab-Soul to give him the pack and got three beats off to him, which turned into three placements: ScHoolboy Q’s “Party," Ab-Soul’s “Hunnid Stax” featuring Schoolboy and Mac Miller, and lastly, Smoke DZA and Ab-Soul’s “Diamonds .”
But getting a beat off here and there wasn't realistically going to cut it for Kenny. So during his senior campaign at Berklee College of Music in 2010, he and Ryan Marks formed their EDM DJ collective called Loudpvck, which took off fast and before they knew it, they were traveling the globe for the next three years. The money was coming in and it was smooth sailing until one day, while in Australia, Kenny woke up and just didn’t feel like he was doing what he loved any longer. He split from the DJ collective not too long after, and then spent time studying contemporary hip-hop in hopes of getting back into the fold. But problems began to arise for Kenny all at once, as problems tend to do, and he found himself in a bad financial situation just a year ago.
“The music really pulled me through it,” he says to me. And this sentiment rings true. 2018 has seen Kenny all over the place. And by all over the place, I mean, all over the place.. He’s produced for rap’s mainstays such as Vince Staples, Young Thug, J.I.D, 03 Greedo (Free that man!), Freddie Gibbs, HoodRich Pablo Juan, and Key!—but also is helping raise up the next generation, working with the likes of Rico Nasty, ALLBLACK, YoungBoy NBA, Comethazine, Lil Wop, JPEGMAFIA, Warhol.SS, Peeway Longway and 10K Cash.
And essentially by working nonstop this year, Kenny got himself back to a comfortable place. “That amount of shit [I take on] can be taxing but at the same time this is the first time in my life I feel like I'm really getting down to it,” he says. “Imagine if you worked like a fucking nerd or you studied harder than the valedictorian of your class, where would you be?” And if the beats that Kenny produces are giving way to new waves being created by the artists he works with, then Kenny stands to be the bed of rocks at the foot of the ocean: one that is a constant, absorbing energy and redirecting it into the best possible direction—most times, back into the ocean, where it can be free and unimpeded.
In our extended conversation, we talked about the projects he’s worked on this year, how it feels to blow up, and what it’s like to be a candidate for producer of the year.
Noisey: To start on a lighter note, one of the funniest things on the internet is the whole when you find out kenny beats is white phenomenon, is that stuff funny to you?
Kenny Beats: [laughs] In general, I've always been on the side of like, if you embrace the hate or the bullshit or whatever, you can make it work in your favor. It wasn't always like oh we love him. It was more like oh this kid who made those beats is white? kinda tone but still I would be like let me just retweet this because as soon as I retweet this, I know 30 or 40 of my followers are about to go, "bro you ain't heard this beat, you ain't heard that beat? fuck is you talking about," and I'm just like, this is just gonna set it off. And then slowly the people who really do super fuck with me started tweeting it and then it went to like friends of mine who have known me for ten years being like "Kenny's white?" jokingly. I really like the ones about me being like Ponce De Leon getting to America before Christopher Columbus, or someone said I was the kid with the big ass hat from the Sandlot. Those are the ones I like more.
Anytime I’ve heard "Woah Kenny" or seen the phrase "produced by Kenny Beats," they've been, like, one of the only consistently good things about 2018. I know you did the touring as an EDM DJ, but are you finally now making the music you’ve always wanted to?
I've been doing music in some form since I was seven years old. I played guitar. I played drums. I started making beats in high school. I was recording kids who rapped at high schools near me in my dad's closet. Then I went to Berklee for jazz guitar and got a degree in music business. I was just doing anything I could to keep music moving in my life and I remember first getting out of college and realizing there’s no way I'm gonna be able to pay rent off making beats. So someone introduced the concept of EDM DJing and the Soundcloud wave. I started making it, and immediately I got a manager and an agent. That never happened for me when I was just producing rap music. But a couple years ago something made me have an epiphany—I remember I was in Australia and I just started realizing I need to do what I really care about and I need to do nothing but that. I'd done music before to get a check and it can never be about that again. I don't want to leave that as my legacy. It's legacy time.
You went on Instagram Live recently and spoke on a bunch of things, like how this time last year you came into a bad financial situation. You were down to almost a thousand bucks.
It was a perfect storm. A lot of people will understand this, but a small thing could happen at work or with your business, and then at the same time some family shit could happen, and then it also happens to be the holidays so you want to be able to buy gifts for everybody around you, and you need to flex a little bit for one time, you know what I mean? A lot of shit hit me all at once all last year and put me in a really bad position. And at the same time, I was making the transition to where I was only going to do this Kenny shit from then on and nothing else. That already—deciding to give up on some shit that's paying your rent to go do some other music that you're not sure is going to pan out but you believe in it—that's already scary. But everything I was doing at the time, even if it hadn't financially paid off for me yet, I was just starting to see a difference in how people were receiving my music. And right around that time was when me and Key! started really locking in. I've known him for five or six years, but it just happened to be around December last year when we really started going in. That’s when 777 all got made. The music really pulled me through it, and every week that went by I was so proud of what was on my fucking computer. Things start piecing together and you start realizing oh it is possible and I had that little spark of wow I really can just focus on what I want to focus on and make it work.
Twelve months later and you’ve become one of the most productive producers in the game.. What’s it been like mentally and emotionally for you in the last year?
I got 80 plus songs produced by me out this year and it's no filler in there. Everything I'm proud of, every artist I stand behind, everything I've done this year I'm super excited about and I got 30 plus more songs dropping before the end of the year. Output is part of it but every time you take on a new artist or a new niche part of the country or some producers or you just start working with different people, that’s what it's all about. You start building these relationships and you start building this rapport with people to where you're so excited about what's going on with the music but there's a lot of obstacles in your way. It's not just obstacles about money; it's obstacles about people having things in their lives, people have all types of shit going on. At the end of the day I'm not just sending beats in. I'm mixing the song. I'm recording the song. I'm engineering the song. I'm in the studio helping with the songwriting. I'm doing the whole beat—every single piece of it is me.
What is your process going into making a beat/producing? I know you’ve touched on the idea of a beatmaker vs. a producer a bit before but is that idea to you why you can adapt to so many different styles?
Yeah I think it has to do with it. But it's mainly because I don't have an agenda; my only agenda is to push them. When people come into the studio, the process before they get there is me just like, OK, what might they want? What sounds like some shit they're gonna be comfortable on? I can just get them in the mood with? And then what's the shit they’re really not gonna expect, what's the last thing they would ever ask me for? Those are the three things I normally prepare and then they get there and before I even play them any prepared shit, I go "what do you want?" And I ask everybody that. And people will tell you and that's the scariest thing ever because you're in there with someone who's fucked up or who's weird or who's trying to just test you. That's why I love the people like Thug, Greedo, Key!, Rico, and Vince. People who are just so all over the place and could want anything at any given minute. One day it's like, drop it like its hot. And the next day it's like, we need to make some Earth Wind & Fire shit. And then the next day it’s like, I been listening to this Matt Ox song. You just never know and if you're not prepared for that and if you're pushing your own agenda instead of listening, the songs aren't gonna be as good.
With Rico Nasty, you’re always stretching her range and testing new waters, do you think you guys feed off of each other?
Definitely, I've been a fan of her for years now. And we finally got in [the studio] and I just did whatever she wanted. I made techno for her, I made country for her, I made rock for her, I made rap for her. "Smack a Bitch" was the first finished song we ever did and that set such a tone. It was so different for her. We compete with ourselves in a way that I don't with any other artists because me and Rico are always listening to the shit we made a week before being like, "Nah, today we gonna do some shit like that… but harder." And that's how you get "Smack a Bitch" into "Trust Issues" into "Rage" into "Sandy," which is our next one. The shit just keeps getting more aggressive. But at the same time we're just like, OK, we can't just be known for this shit. So that's where you get a song like "Countin' Up" or "Won't Change" or "LaLa." Rico is finding herself. She's a 21 year old girl. I'm trying to help her win. There will be a Rico and Kenny project eventually. I ain't worried about that. But I just wanna help her be a fucking superstar. I think people gonna wanna see her win the way they wanna see Cardi win.
Same with Key! too. 777 has got to be one of the most refreshing projects to drop this year. Everything you’re doing feels very fresh.
Key! is the greatest rapper alive. I'm not being funny and people reading this interview can't see me, but I'm not smiling. Key! is the greatest rapper alive. I honestly, truly believe that no one is as effortless weird and creative and themselves as he has been for years and years. He wrote platinum big hits for people when he was in high school. It's been proven that there's something about Key! For me, it was just about giving him a canvas. Letting Key! say I wanna do whatever the fuck I want to do today. This man is just exploding with ideas and exploding with creativity and weird thoughts and random off the wall references. Our last song is about a Jim Carrey movie from 1996 [The Cable Guy].
I don't think he's ever had someone take him literally. I don't think he's ever been able to walk into a studio when he's drunk as shit and say, "I need to really sound like Beyonce tonight and I want there to be a string section and I want a children's choir." When we made 777, anything he said to me, I was like, "OK let me try to illustrate this." Even with the song that dropped before 777, "Ice Cream Hello!" Key! said, "I want a Bjork sample with the old ice cream noise at the beginning of it but then it need to drop into some super hard shit," and then he left. I could've just made him a beat, but I went and found a Bjork song. I fucking put an ice cream truck on it, and then he comes in. You gotta take him serious. So a lot of the refreshing shit is because that's literally the process.
On Vince Staples FM project, you’re on 9 of 11 records, what was that chemistry like?
I give a lot of credit to Vince and his team. It's like working with prophets. They know what they're doing a year ahead, two years ahead. It's such a calculated, well-orchestrated system and whenever Vince started coming through, he slowly let me in to what he was thinking. You sit back now and you hear the project after dropping—and I was apart of a lot of shit; outside of just beat making—and even I didn't see the full scope of the record until I listened to it like a fan. I didn't even realize the connection or the purpose of the project and how it fits in his timeline of music or all these different things. It became so perfect, and he was telling me it was going to be like this from the start.
That JPEGMAFIA shit too. I like "Puff Daddy" a lot. How’d that come together?
Peggy is a genius bro. He was just like, "Play me the weirdest shit in your computer." And I started playing just kind of hard, different beats, and he's like "No no no, play me the weirdest shit on your computer." And I started playing some shit I truly would not play for anybody, and he was like "That's it, that's the one!" I was really trying to show Peggy I could do the noise and weird shit. And then we started having more of a conversation, and that's how "Puff Daddy" came about. I'm so proud of that song. I love how it's on an island from everything I'm working on and everything else I'm doing. I also really, really, really don't take it lightly when someone who produces the majority of their music lets you in. Peggy does most of his own shit and he does not need my help. So the fact that he let me in to have any kind of opinion or mark on his shit, I take that very seriously and I'm very humbled by that because I think what he's doing is important. I'm just glad I could lend a hand.
I’ve seen some stuff like you alluding to feeling like you’re the hottest producer in the game right now. You've had a hell of a year. Do you feel like you’re the producer of the year?
I will never say that myself. But as far as the whole producer of the year shit, I'm honored to even be in the talks of it. I see all the tweets and all the shit like that. You can't argue with people like Frank Dukes and Louis Bell and people who are really at the top of their game producing the biggest records in the world. Those are the producers of the year to me. But as far as like rookie [of the year] goes, me, Tay Keith, Chasethemoney, I feel like I'm not the only one who showed their shit this year but it's a couple people—like those two dudes I mentioned—who are doing it different and who really have a presence in the room. And what I'm just trying to bring back is like that, really explaining that you could be a beatmaker, and that's cool, but if you want to be a producer, you really have to make a difference on these records. Tay Keith is that too, what happened with him and Blocboy JB and why everything else happened is because they had such a chemistry and locked in the way they did. Chasethemoney and Valee have influenced fucking every single person! So for me, I'm just running my race bro.
Nate Louis is a writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.