We meet the production prodigy and go-to guy for Kanye, Jay-Z & A$AP Rocky at home to find out the secrets to his trade
Feature taken from the March Issue of Dazed & Confused:
It’s a laser-sharp winter morning in the San Fernando Valley, and the house of Hit is slowly stirring to life. In a small back room in his neo-Mediterranean mansion, Hit-Boy sits quietly, clicking away on his MacBook Pro. The carpet is worn and the makeshift studio around him is sparse – nothing much more than some speakers, a keyboard and an Mbox – but there are a few visual clues to distinguish this set-up from those used by bedroom producers around the world. Most patent of these is a stretched-canvas photo print, like the ones you can get made up in Snappy Snaps, hanging directly over Hit’s desk. It depicts the 25-year-old producer onstage with Jay-Z and Kanye West at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris. Jay-Z’s hand is outstretched as he orders the crowd to catch Hit-Boy, who is about to stagedive. “If it wasn’t for him,” he’s reminding them just before the beat kicks in on the biggest rap anthem of 2011, “this song wouldn’t be happening right now.” 17,000 people raise their arms in the air. Hit-Boy takes the jump.
This is not the room where Hit-Boy began crafting “Niggas in Paris”, the standout track from Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne album, which, the producer says, “changed my life.” That beat started life several years ago, when he was still living with his mother in a sprawling district of southern California known as the I.E. (Inland Empire). Hit-Boy dismisses the first incarnation of the beat as “so simple... just some shit I made fucking around,” but it earned him a deal with Kanye’s GOOD Music label and name recognition as one of the most in-demand hip hop producers in the world. Throw in a slew of similarly impressive production credits – A$AP Rocky’s “Goldie” and “1Train”, Kanye, Jay-Z and Big Sean’s “Clique”, Kanye and DJ Khaled’s “Cold” – and Hit-Boy’s moniker seems more matter-of-fact nomenclature than mindless braggadocio. (He was originally one half of a duo called Hit-Boys, but they parted ways a while back. “He ain’t doing too well...” is all the diplomatic producer will say on the current whereabouts of Hit-Boy No. 2).
In person, Hit-Boy – Chauncey Hollis to his mother – displays none of the froideur of his glacially polished back-catalogue. He is calm and gently spoken, with teddy-bear features and a small halo of side-parted hair. There’s a rounded southern lilt to his west-coast accent, presumably acquired in Atlanta, where he lived and worked under his original mentor, Polow da Don. The 16-year-old Hit-Boy first messaged the ATL producer with his beats back in the glory days of MySpace, to which Polow replied with the immortal words, “Let’s get this paper, pimp.”
Hit-Boy’s subsequent trajectory has been both wildly successful and obviously lucrative, but he’s not trying to show off about it. His personal philosophy for success hinges on a combination of hard work and good vibes: on the door of his studio, a printed sign decrees “No Negativity Beyond This Point”. The only discernable indicators of his recent wealth (aside from the 5,000 sq ft space around him) are the diamond studs that glimmer in his earlobes, the fire-engine-red Balenciaga sneakers on his feet and the gold Versace lion ring that adorns his little finger. “My style is just understated,” he says, without a trace of irony, but when encouraged by the photographer to show off his “bling” for the camera, he erupts in embarrassed laughter.
Like thousands of young men across America, Hit-Boy’s penchant for Givenchy tees and gaudy jewellery is something he has learnt from Kanye West. Unlike thousands of young men across America, Hit-Boy absorbed the aesthetic in person – “I pick up things by just being around him” – and the similarities don’t end there. In the syncopation of his drum patterns, his renegade approach to sampling and his ability to neatly capture (and create) the sonic zeitgeist, Hit-Boy is perhaps the first serious contender to Kanye’s hip hop production throne. And he knows it. Echoing the total self-assurance for which Kanye is notorious, albeit with less crazy-eyed zeal, Hit-Boy describes his beats as “hater-proof. You’re forced to like ’em even if you don’t want to.” It’s a pretty fair description.
The formula for a hater-proof beat, Hit-Boy says, is onepart tight melody – “the melody is the part that matters most” – one-part open collaboration – “you’ve gotta put different ears on it to get the best product” – and one-part meticulous attention to detail. “I number my beats, right,” he explains as he paces his studio, eating salad from a plastic delivery-box. “I did it from the beginning: Hit-Boy 1. Then ‘Niggas in Paris’ was number 1663. ‘1Train’ was 1349. ‘Clique’ is” – he hesitates, salad in hand, eyes to the ceiling – “...1469. And now I’m on 2004.”
If “Niggas in Paris” is already several years old, 2012’s Colgate-fresh “Clique” must be even older. Its timelessness is no happy accident: for the past five years, Hit-Boy has been steadily crafting a catalogue with future-classic status. “That’s what I’m trying to do with all of my music,” he explains. “Make it so that you can’t tell if I made it last night or last year. Even when I was making a beat in my room at my mom’s, I wanted that shit to sound like it could be on the radio tomorrow.” Would he describe himself as a perfectionist? “In a sense. But it’s hard to be on the level of a Kanye. I pay really close attention, but he’s always challenging me to think more about the nuances of sound. Sometimes it gets frustrating because I feel like he’s picking on me, but I know he just wants me to be great.”
Perfectionist or not, it doesn’t take much time in Hit- Boy’s company for his staunch work-ethic to reveal itself. In an era of throw-away trap-rap, he is determined to reintroduce some quality control. “Kids should be more intelligent about what sound is, because there’s so much dumbed-down music now. When I’m making a song I might be away (from it) for two weeks, then come back, add another part, come back again, add another part. It takes months of manhours. And I make sure the song is perfect in every place.”
At the moment Hit-Boy is focused on recreating the nowfamiliar producer-to-rapper success story, having released his first solo mixtape, HITstory, earlier this year. The production is slick and his flow is smooth, but what he doesn’t share with Kanye – at least not yet – is the memegenerating resonance of hashtag rap.
“Kanye’s always on at me about getting those perfect lines. That’s what he’s known for – popculture lyrics that hit home,” acknowledges Hit-Boy, and he takes the criticisms on board. Like Mr West, he knows that today’s rap fans expect lyrics that both neatly capture our shared metacultural experience and provide the perfect caption for the day’s Instagram upload. Getting it right is of crucial importance. “At this point I’ve already worked with all of my heroes as far as production goes: Lil Wayne, Eminem, Kanye, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, The Game... So now the only way to go is to build my own thing. Pop my own rap shit off. And have a real movement that’s my own.”
I’ve already worked with all of my heroes: Lil Wayne, Eminem, Kanye, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, The Game... So now the only way to go is to build my own thing. Pop my own rap shit off.
The foundation of that movement is Hits Since 87 aka HS87, the small roster of artists for whom he is currently negotiating a major-label deal. All are close friends and housemates, and as he leads a tour around the house, they emerge en route: the effusive Pricetag, half of HS87 hip hop duo Audio Push, who has all the manic energy of a Duracell bunny; chilled-out Haze Banga, Hit-Boy’s trusted sound engineer; his enthusiastic young assistant, Casanova, spiffy and efficient in a neat blue crew-neck. Absent but oft-referenced are Oktane, the other half of Audio Push, and K Roosevelt, a producer, songwriter and reluctant singer with the raw soulfulness of Frank Ocean. “I’m always playing (Roosevelt’s) CD in my car,” enthuses Pricetag. “Girls love it!”
Half a dozen young men sharing a mansion in California is a recipe for fun (Hit-Boy proudly shares a video of his July 4 house party, in which a jampacked throng sip out of red cups while bikini-clad girls twerk en masse by the pool), but it’s clear that the producer is serious in his ambitions for the crew. “I’m trying to be like the old Roc- A-Fella and Bad Boy, influencing people culturally but having hits at the same time.” Downstairs, he leads the way through a warren of darkened bedrooms, illuminated only by blue laptop-screens and the blinking lights of recording equipment. All of HS87 live down here, while Hit- Boy himself occupies the vast en-suite upstairs, complete with minibar and balcony.
“The energy in this house is amazing”, says Pricetag, wideeyed as he too forks down a salad from a delivery container. “In the first 30 days we lived here, I recorded 22 songs. We grew up in houses where we shared rooms with two or three people so having a crazy crib to work in is just dope.
House tour complete, crew assembled, salads consumed, it’s time to go to the soundcheck for Hit-Boy’s first ever headline show tonight. The venue is The Glass House in Pomona, a small town in the I.E. where Hit-Boy lived from age 13 in a house shared with his mum, two younger sisters and an uncle, Rodney Benford, a singer in 90s R&B band Troop. It was a household filled with the music of Joe and Brandy and Mary J Blige, a sound that Hit-Boy identifies as a crucial influence on his own style. “It’s all about finding that perfect line, in the perfect place. So the melody on ‘...Paris’, the melody on ‘Goldie’, that’s what catches you. And that comes from me having understood and learned about melody from listening to R&B.” When asked what he’s playing in his car these days, Hit-Boy cites smooth-voiced slow-jam duo Ty & Kory, who last released a mixtape in 2008.
In a convoy of SUVs, the group embarks on the 60-mile journey to The Glass House at 2.30pm. The idea is to miss the rush-hour traffic (this being LA, where ‘rush hour’ lasts for roughly four hours) but the plan fails miserably and it’s almost 5pm by the time the fleet pulls up in Pomona. Outside the venue on the Disney-esque Second Street Promenade, a couple of local college students are already lingering outside. “I like his production,” says one girl waiting in line with two friends, “and the rapping I’m warming to a lot. I think his sound is refreshing. Everything now is really clubby and poppy and techno. Hit-Boy’s style is just real, honest beatmaking.”
At 5pm, the vast backstage area is bare aside from a selection box of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and a few bottles of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey (Hit-Boy’s liquor of choice). By 9pm, the area has morphed into what feels like a giant house-party, spread across two rooms and two floors. The assembled crowd mingles, a sea of camouflage, leopard print, red plaid, black leather and jumping-man logos, as Cali weed smoke lingers above their heads like the smog over downtown LA.
Hit-Boy pops up and disappears throughout the evening, checking in on his mum and posing for photos in the merchandise that arrived at his house earlier in the day (black t-shirts emblazoned with gold cherub motifs in homage to Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy, your favourite rapper’s favourite designer). K Roosevelt sits quietly on the side with his girlfriend. Casanova makes sure everyone has enough to drink. Pricetag bounds through the room like an excited puppy, now reunited with the equally energetic Oktane. They leave the backstage party briefly to warm up for Hit-Boy, leaping through their set with a near combustible level of enthusiasm.
By 10.30pm the evening’s schedule has been abandoned but the loyal crowd of family members, friends and assorted bearded hipsters in snapbacks stand strong. Clearly the west coast has love for Hit-Boy. It’s LA rapper Dom Kennedy – leaning against a wall as he waits to perform his Hit-Boy-produced track “CDC” alongside the man himself and Inglewood rapper Casey Veggies – who best explains the producer’s ability to transcend both the small venues of Pomona and the mega-stadiums of Paris. “It’s just the quality of the beats. You can tell a professional made ’em – it ain’t no amateur dude. Everything is in the right place. He goes deep with the layers, and that’s no accident.”
Kennedy’s thoughts echo the mission statement Hit-Boy articulated earlier in the day. “What I try to do is make a beat that the average person who doesn’t give a shit about sonics and progression and quality can enjoy. I try to make that person like the beat and make Kanye like the beat: the person with the sophisticated ear and the normal person. The simpler beats catch both sides. I feel like I’m in the zone with that right now.”
It’s 11.30pm by the time his stadium-sized beats begin to rattle the walls of this small, suburban venue. Bathed in purple light, Hit-Boy bounces on stage in his Givenchy sweater and Balmain biker jeans, ready to take the jump once again. But this time it’s most definitely on his own terms.
Film by Justin Hantz