As his freestyle show The Cave returns to YouTube, the in-demand US hip hop producer breaks down some of his tactics
Producer Kenny Beats is one of hip hop’s most talented shapeshifters, adapting his sound for any artist’s vision. No two of his productions are the same – just compare the trap-heavy beats of KEY!’s 777 album to the computerised aesthetic of JPEGMAFIA’s “Puff Daddy”, or the way that Anger Management, his collaborative mixtape with punk-rapper Rico Nasty, combines lacerating vocals with abrasive, bass-heavy production – but they all carry a flavour that is distinctly, unmistakably his.
His route into the rap game wasn’t the most straightforward one, though. Kenny started toying with hip hop in high school, setting up a makeshift vocal booth in a closet at his father’s house to record local rappers, and by 19 he had interned at RCA in New York, working with Kendrick Lamar on Smoke DZA’s “Ball Game” around the same time. But instead of continuing down this route, he made his living in the EDM scene, touring the world for three years as part of the duo LOUDPVCK. It wasn’t where his passions lied.
So, Kenny decided to rent a studio space in LA and re-immerse himself back into the world of hip hop. Over a period of six months, he worked to understand how rap had changed in his years out of the loop, and reached out to anyone whose music he was a fan of. Friendships with the scene’s most promising artists started to form, and rappers became comfortable enough with Kenny that he’d ask them to appear on his YouTube show, The Cave.
A typical episode of The Cave captures the production and recording of a freestyle, with the likes of Lil Yachty, Rico Nasty, and JPEGMAFIA having stopped by the studio. The Cave has proven so popular in such a short space of time that Zack Fox’s “I Got Depression”, a track that started out as a joke freestyle on the show, ended up hitting number one on Spotify’s viral charts earlier this year.
Following the launch of the show’s second season with a freestyle from Danny Brown, Kenny Beats explained to us what goes into producing a legendary rap freestyle.
NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING
Kenny Beats: I try to go in with absolutely no expectations. I don’t really have beats in mind, any kind of soundscape, tempo, idea – anything. The conversation we have in that first hour of the session is going to dictate what goes on. It’s going to dictate whether I play something that’s pre-made, whether we make something from scratch, or if we both need to do some research to accomplish what the goal is for the day.
I think a lot of people make a big misstep when they assume what an artist is going to be interested in, so I try to just take that out of the equation and make sure whenever I’m talking to people about their music, I’m getting all my context clues from that – and then we go to work.
LEARN TO UNPICK ABSTRACT IDEAS
Kenny Beats: If Zack Fox asks for a beat that “sounds like Runescape, Jodeci, almond milk, a pro-lifer beat, that’s pre-Whitney Houston, post-9/11”, there’s little tips in there. When he says Whitney Houston, it gives you a certain scope of 80s pop and more diva-y, ballad-y things. Whenever he says Runescape, or he says something videogame-y, or something that’s nostalgic, it gives you templates of older sounds, video gaming sounds, and computerised sounds. Whenever you start saying something like a ‘domestic violence filter’, that’s really a non-sequitur, but he’s trying to get across something with that.
Even though the Zack thing was a joke, that whole idea and format was really based on how I actually make music. In real life with Zack, he’ll come over with Thundercat and say, “Yo, we want to make some shit that sounds like a terrible 80s R&B gospel band.” I’m already in this mindset of “someone’s going to lead me down a horrible path today”, and I need to be able to go with it.
PUT IN THE HOURS TO BUILD UP TRUST WITH AN ARTIST
Kenny Beats: I’ve spent days, nights, and hours with Rico Nasty in studios for almost two years now. We’re at a point where she knows my process even better than I can sit here and explain it, from just being with me so much.
Be in the room (with an artist) dealing with bullshit, personal relationships, people having bad days and a lack of inspiration because it isn’t a great time for them to sit in the studio for ten hours. Be the janitor for an artist – emotionally, and by cleaning up ashes or bags of chips. It’s the stuff people don’t want to do, but it gets you to the point where, when an artist comes in and they’re on, you’re ready to do your job in any capacity.
I think for someone like Rico, coming back to my studio every time she comes to Los Angeles, it’s like being in a friend’s living room. She’s used to being there, so being stupid, crazy, or trying something eccentric is going to be way more comfortable.
IF IT’S NOT WORKING, WALK AWAY
Kenny Beats: My brand is ‘Don’t Over Think Shit’ (D.O.T.S.). That was my mantra with my best friend and my manager long before I had a TV show. That’s the one piece of advice we give ourselves and we give everybody: don’t overthink shit. Let’s just try to make our favourite music. If it’s not working, we don’t make it.
PREPARE YOURSELF FOR ANY SITUATION
Kenny Beats: I always had this ego where if I ever wanted to come back to doing rap, I could do that. That was not true. I would get stuck, I would be in a room and someone would ask me for something and I didn’t have it.
I was like, “Okay, I’m going to make sure that next time, if they ask me for some old school hip hop, or brand new Playboy Carti shit, or weird off-the-wall JPEG shit, heavy metal, or whatever, I’m going to have everything.” If I don’t have it, I’m going to have the sounds on my computer or I can make it in 30 minutes.
That’s how I am now when I get in the studio with someone – I’m assuming the worst, I’m assuming they’re going to ask me how to do something that’s hard for me to do. So I keep myself stocked with ammo and stay prepared for anything. Those months of transitioning back into rap helped me develop the work ethic and formula I have now for creating.
REMEMBER, YOU DON’T GET CREDIT FOR DOING IT ALL YOURSELF
Kenny Beats: The biggest thing Rick Rubin taught me is that you don’t get any extra credit by doing everything yourself. I’m a very self-sufficient person, much like a lot of people I work with. Rick taught me that if you know someone who’s great for the job, it needs to get done. If you’d rather do it yourself to prove you did it yourself, rather than bringing in the best person you know to make the end product the best it can be, no one’s going to give you a pat on the back for that. They’re only going to care if it’s a great song.
BE RESPECTFUL OF BORDERS, BUT DON’T BE RESTRICTED BY THEM
Kenny Beats: I can’t be in a room with M Huncho, SL, Octavian, AJ Tracey, Skepta, or any one of those guys and try to play them stuff until I hear what they’re playing and I’m with their producers. I don’t want to try to make fake drill or fake UK hip hop, so (when) I came over there (to the UK), my first thing was like, “Everyone let’s get cool, let’s make a bunch of music. I’ll make everything as I make it right now, and then y’all slowly educate me.”
When I work on something from any region, I want to be authentic to it. I don’t want to go there and (be like): “Do what I do and say, accept it or not, here’s my type beat.” So, I’m coming back to the UK in November and by then you can see how I am with anything else. I’m going to study, study, study, so when I get back, I’m going to know how to do it for real.