If you ask any artist today who’s their dream producer to work with, they’ll likely shout, “Woah, Kenny!”, evoking the signature sound stamp of the world’s hottest producer, Kenny Beats. Known for his killer production skills and out-of-this-world collaborations, he has the likes of ultra-in-demand rappers Rico Nasty and Vince Staples in his phone book. Asked how he got his start in such a competitive field, he tells NME on the phone from his studio in Burbank, California: “A lot of internships and a lot of selling weed”.
Now 28, the Connecticut producer – real name Kenneth Blume III – began to ingratiate himself with rap’s great and good around a decade ago. “I sold [Cali rappers] Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q weed at a sneaker signing in Boston, and Ab let me stay behind because I ended up giving him a bunch of free weed. Then in the last five minutes, he listened to my beats as a favour. He ended up taking all three beats; one became Ab Soul, Mac Miller, and ScHoolboy Q’s ‘Hunnid Stax’.”
It was a lucrative encounter for Kenny, who was studying jazz guitar and Music Business at Berkeley College of Music at the time. Another of his beats became ScHoolboy Q’s hit ‘Party’, while Ab-Soul and Smoke Dza’s used the third for their beloved ‘Diamonds’. “My Twitter went crazy!” he explains. “All I saw was ‘ScHoolboy Q, Kenny Beats, ScHoolboy Q, Kenny Beats. And I remember leaving class and going to my shitty ass dorm like ‘Oh my God! This is the big break!’. I only got $500, but I had this feeling of, ‘My music is good enough’.”
At the ripe age of 19, Kenny was already making his mark on the rap scene in the US. He’s since gone onto to producing tracks for Ed Sheeran – Kenny produced the crooner’s UK Number One ‘Take Me Back To London’, plus a slew of killer records such as the Bay Area rapper 03 Greedo’s eighth mixtape ‘Netflix & Deal’.
Recently, though, he’s been making waves on our side of the Atlantic, too, working in London with the likes of Northampton rapper Slowthai, NME new gen hero Clairo, London rappers AJ Tracey and Digdat and fun punk legends IDLES. It’s safe to say that Kenny’s been practically glued to his seat in his temporary studio in Crouch Hill, north London.
It’s no secret that rap is Kenny Beats’ first love – it’s how made his name, after all. But he’s seemingly reluctantly to be pinned down to one sound. Rock, jazz, pop, punk – you name it, he’s done it. One minute’s working on his and Denzel Curry’s acclaimed ‘UNLOCKED’ project, the next he and Rico Nasty are releasing their therapeutic tales on ‘Anger Management’ record. Is it difficult to switch between these projects and working with a punk band like IDLES?
“My brain is my IDLES brain and my rapper brain all of the time,” he says. “It’s more a social thing than it is people knowing how to make the song on the computer. I am friends with the most amazing musicians that can do pop, rap, punk and jazz. All I do is facilitate. I really am a janitor.”
He says it’s all about bottling an artists’ energy: “These projects which people consider collaborative projects with me are just unbelievable moments an artist’s had that I’m trying to get out to the world as soon as possible. Many times you make music and someone decides to try and pick the best of everything. But if you wait, you sometimes fall out of love, or a song doesn’t speak to you anymore, so you lose the moment.”
Kenny prefers spontaneity. “When I make a lot of really good music with someone, I want to let the world hear it right now; unfiltered. I don’t think it has to be more complicated than that.” No wonder his creative company, though which he makes music videos for artists such as Dominic Fike and JPEGMafia, is called D.O.T.S – as in, “Don’t Over think Shit.”
No word on when that IDLES collaboration will be released, but he’s full of admiration for the Bristol gang’s sense of reckless abandon. “They’re my favourite band,” he beams. “I think they’re the most important band in the whole world. Even having been close with them and working on their music, I’m still equally obsessed. I was with Mark [Bowen, guitarist] last week and we listened to stuff for the project. Every time they play me a new song, I fall in love with them again. Their song-writing, point of view, just everything about them is what’s missing right now with bands and punk energy. IDLES are checking a box for me that nobody else is checking for me.”
He loves the fact that the band can make furious punk songs that denounce toxic masculinity and expose their vulnerability: “There are so many contradicting features about their music that just makes you aggressive. And for them to trust me to work with them has been an honour. Any time I can put a little bit of my momentum into showing why IDLES are so amazing, I’d do that 10 out of 10 times.”
Bridging the gap between rap and rock, is Kenny Beats 2020’s answer to Rick Rubin, the famed producer who twiddled knobs on both Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’ and Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’? He plays down the comparison, and suggests that genre is passé: “Being genre-bending doesn’t really cross my mind. I don’t consider anyone I work with a specific genre. Take IDLES: they’re a punk band but the reference points for how they want their album to sound aren’t punk, alt-rock, or guitar-driven albums. genre-less. I can’t say that I am bridging a gap when they’re doing it themselves.”
Every day in the studio, he says, is different. “In London I spent most of the time working with no computers. Just old ass instrumentals. I was literally playing guitar and not doing as much drum programming. And then at the same time, I could be in a rap session and we could be flipping samples and all the typical stuff.”
Earlier he referred to himself as a “janitor”; a figure of maintenance. Nowadays any kid with a laptop and Splice can call themselves a producer, but Beats says you can’t underestimate the human touch. It’s a trait that his production forebears, such as Pharrell and Timbaland, exemplified in the ‘90s and noughties.
“30 years ago, the production I do now was the only production allowed,” he says. “You had to be right with the artist, play instruments and run all this equipment no one else knows to use. Artists can get a hundred hot beats, but who’s going to sit there with them and record every bar for the whole song? [They think that] vocal production is the reason why that song is a hit – that the beat could have been any beat. If kids understood that production isn’t only [about] making beats, their shit would go a lot further than they’d think.”
When bedroom producers have become so common, why is Kenny Beats – whose career spans a decade – still in such high demand? Again, he plays down his world-beating success: “I make sure that anybody I work with walks away with a good feeling. If I am working on your music, it’s coming from a pure place. I don’t need to use anyone’s music as a stepping stone for me to get somewhere as Kenny. I only work with people I am obsessed with, because if I am in the studio with you, I can sing your songs with you.”
His YouTube series The Cave, for which he’s invited massive artists such as Doja Cat to freestyle over beats he’s made up on the spot in his Burbank, California studio, is still going strong. Kenny Beats’ glittering career is proof that humility and people skills go a long way. Overall, though, he has one message for the aspiring creative: don’t chase clout.
“When I was 18 years old,” he explains of his early career as a DJ, “I used to chase everything else like likes and clout. Then I got to a point where I realised nothing I made was anything I’d be proud of in 10 years. I don’t work on things I don’t care about. That’s not what I did when I produced Mac Miller and ScHoolboy Q. I started focusing on making a song every day with someone who I think is amazing and who my friends would think is someone cool.”