Standing at 6'3" with a tall, sandy brown afro and icy blue eyes, Chicago producer Mulatto Beats is physically striking. His appearance led to his producer handle, which comes from a nickname his peers gave him during his freshman year of high school. When he started making beats at the age of 16, he ran with it, creating new social media accounts with the moniker, and tacking on Beats at the end.
"I actually didn't even realize how racist the word mulatto was until I got older," he told me over the phone last week, his tone even-keeled, matter-of-fact. "I don't take offense though; I'm cool with it. Nobody calls me by my real name." If anything, the way in which Mulatto Beats answered the question is the best description of him: quiet, contemplative, and balanced.
Today, we're premiering the producer's debut solo project .22SUMMERS, featuring a handful of notable Chicago rappers: Lucki (f.k.a. Lucki Eck$), King Louie, Warhol.SS, Alex Wiley, Qari, Mick Jenkins—as well as emerging Madison emcee Trapo, and Atlanta emcee Thouxanbanfauni. The project is full of bangers united under the theme of summertime Chicago, something that's a catch-22 for many Chicagoans.
"A lot of the songs touch on things that you deal with being in Chicago during the summer," Mulatto Beats explained, hinting at the violence that typically spikes seasonally along with the block parties and long afternoons. "It's a lot, it's hectic."
Mulatto Beats—née Devin Smith—was born on the city's South Side in Jeffrey Manor before moving to the North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park. The first time he really encountered music production was in his home: His oldest brother was on house arrest, so he bought a keyboard with a floppy disk. Smith would come home after school and watch his brother make beats. By the time he was 16, Smith's middle brother, who was also a producer, gave his younger sibling a copy of FL Studio.
At just 22 years old, Mulatto Beats has already gained some steady Chicago rap alliances. When he was a freshman in high school, he joined the rap group Supreme Regime, which included his frequent collaborator Qari as well as SaveMoney producer/DJ Smoko Ono. Mulatto Beats also started hanging out with Lucki, securing his first beat placement for Lucki's 2014 song "Xan Cage."
Supreme Regime broke up around 2013, when Smith was heading to college. But he left after the first semester: "I was making beats all day, not even focusing on school," he said. When he came back to the city, he began interning for Chicago producer collective OnGaud. One of the group's producers, SolarFive, had helped record Supreme Regime, "so when I came back I just hit him up… and he was showing love," Smith said. Through Solar, Smith learned how to use ProTools, mix, and run sessions. Solar also introduced his collaborator to Jenkins and Jenkins's DJ Green Sllime; later on, Smith met Supa Bwe, and they teamed up with Qari to form the group Hurt Everybody. Unfortunately, Hurt Everybody broke up in 2016.
Still, those early relationships have formed much of the foundation of Mulatto Beats' debut .22SUMMERS; the featured artists are "pretty much just homies I fucked with and made music with." He spent a few months working on the project in New York, sending beats to some of the rappers like Wiley, who lives in California, or Trapo. Others, like King L and Jenkins, just ended up being in the studio, and they cut their records then. The project took a year and eight months to finish—there was a pause in the middle to finish a collaborative tape with Qari called _Space Jam—_and involved making over 100 beats.
"Throughout the process, I couldnt really like figure out the specific theme, the central theme I wanted," Smith said. He added, "I got better at just making a sound that's pretty much solid all the way through, same aesthetic, and at the same time, just working on my mixing and making songs actually bang for when you're in the car."
For a debut that encompasses eight different rappers' sounds, .22SUMMERS is indeed sonically cohesive. Mulatto Beats' production style is equal parts heavy bass and ambient tones, which means Warhol.SS gritty delivery on "Plottin" works just as well as Qari's hazy, sing-songy raps on "Good to Lose." On standout cut "Long Live the Kings" featuring King L, Mulatto Beats manages to make his bass feel ethereal, as King L casually spits about his blessed life and details his recovery after getting shot in the head in 2015. On another exceptional track "Guilty Automatic," over a somber, swirling bassline, Jenkins goes a little deeper than the others, referencing his famed water metaphors, as well as police brutality.
.22SUMMERS' thudding basslines and star-studded cast might distract you from the aforementioned catch-22. While the project's title is a hat tip to Mulatto Beats' age, it's also connected to how chaotic Chicago can be during the summer, the decimal before the 22 alluding to the caliber of a gun. "I'm not trying to make my project too political or anything, but I think like the songs do fit the theme of the drama you gotta go through every summer in Chicago, even though it's a good time in the summer," he explained. ".22SUMMERS is definitely about Chicago."
Follow Tara Mahadevan on Twitter.