The New Yorker: April 5, 2004
Selling the Beat
by Jake Halpern
Club La Vela, a sprawling hacienda on a swampy stretch of coast along the Florida Panhandle, claims to be the largest night club in the country, accommodating up to seventy-five hundred people in its many dance halls and bars. For several weeks each March-during the American college-age bacchanal known as spring break-Club La Vela's occupancy roughly equals the year-round population of the surrounding community of Panama City Beach. On a recent Friday night, the club was overrun with women in fishnet camisoles and halter tops and men wearing Kangol hats and thick strands of Mardi Gras beads and reeking of aftershave.
Movement in the corridors was practically impossible, but every hour or so the d.j. played a wildly popular new hip-hop song called "Tipsy," and, with a great heaving and sloshing, the crowd convulsed toward the main dance floor. As the opening beats blasted through the club, men took off their shirts and twirled them like lassos; groups of women climbed into an elevated iron cage to dance with each other. People began to chant the lyrics-"Urr'body in the club gettin' tipsy!"-and when the singer said, "Hands in the air if you cats as drunk as me," nearly everyone complied. "The beat is just so good that it makes me want to shake my booty!" a heavyset girl with a blinking penlight wedged into her bra said exuberantly.
Mark (Tarboy) Williams and Joe (Capo) Kent, a pair of hip-hop producers from St. Louis known as the Trackboyz, are responsible for "Tipsy" 's infectious beat, and they also discovered J-Kwon, the teen-age rapper who wrote and sang the lyrics. They produced thirteen of the fifteen tracks on J-Kwon's debut album, "Hood Hop," which will be released at the end of March by So So Def, the rap imprint of Arista Records. "Tipsy," the hit single, is currently No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and is poised to become the ubiquitous party song of the season, playing in every night club, bar, and Taco Bell in America.
Both Williams, who is twenty-five, and Kent, who is twenty-six, started out as performers. Williams rapped, buying his background music, or "beats," from a producer in North St. Louis, who charged three hundred dollars for a four-minute track-too much, Williams thought, and decided that he needed to get his own equipment. He raised the money any way he could: "I had a job, sold drugs. I worked everywhere-bagging groceries, cutting the grass in the summer, handing out flyers. Anything that was a hustle, I did." He bought a keyboard and a drum machine and began selling beats at a discount-two hundred dollars a track-undercutting the competition. "That is basically how I cornered the market in St. Louis, selling beats to everybody for cheap," he says.
Williams was into drum machines, raw beats, and hard-hitting rap lyrics. In 1997, a rapper friend introduced him to Kent, who was raised in a family of musicians (his younger brother is an opera singer, his sister plays piano, and his father plays guitar), and preferred gospel music, percussion instruments, piano, and singing. "My old dude was a minister," Kent says. "When I was a kid, we went to church three to four times a week, in the evenings." Kent played drums for the church choir from the time he was seven, learned keyboard when he finished high school, and thought for a time of becoming an R. & B. singer. The combination of Williams's hip-hop and Kent's R. & B. worked, so they named themselves the Trackboyz, and started making beats in an impromptu studio that Williams had set up in his mother's basement. Soon they were doing a brisk business. "Our name started getting around," Williams says. "It was almost like selling drugs. You don't advertise, but the word gets out and people find out what you do. Before long, everybody was buying beats from us."
One of their first clients was a young rapper named Cornell Haynes, Jr., later nicknamed Nelly, whom Williams had met at a talent show in a club. Nelly, who has sold more than fifteen million albums, was the first St. Louis rapper to break nationally, with "Country Grammar," in 1999. (Nelly also initiated the widespread use of a quirky St. Louis dialect whereby "here" is pronounced "hurr"-as in Nelly's "Hot in Herre"-"there" becomes "thurr," and "everybody" is "urr'body.") Murphy Lee, a member of Nelly's band, the St. Lunatics, recently produced his first solo album, "Murphy's Law," which went gold. Chingy, another St. Louis rapper, whose 2003 album "Jackpot" went double platinum, has a single, "One Call Away," currently at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The atmosphere in St. Louis is now a little like that of Nashville in the nineteen-thirties, with the Grand Ole Opry, or of Detroit in the sixties, with Motown Records. "Everyone has an eye on St. Louis now that there is some action and some stars coming out of there," Mike Caren, a vice-president of A. & R. at Atlantic Records, says. "Everyone wants to know what the artists are doing, what the producers are developing, and who their next proteges are."
For the past two years, the Trackboyz have lived in a two-story house in an upper-middle-class suburb of St. Louis called Hazelwood. When I visited there one Saturday last fall, a middle-aged neighbor was mowing his lawn, and a group of children were skateboarding on the sidewalks. A couple of women wearing fanny packs power walked past. For a moment, I thought that I had taken the wrong exit off the highway.
Williams met me on the front steps. He is slender and intense-his voice is always husky, as if he'd been up all night talking-and he wore baggy pants and a platinum chain with a diamond-studded treble clef. He offered me a complicated five- or six-part handshake, which I fumbled my way through, then escorted me around the first floor, which was lined with tanks containing reptiles (including two monitor lizards and two well-fed pythons) and down to a studio in the basement. Williams and Kent had just finished the instrumentals for one of J-Kwon's songs, "You and Me." They'd put down drum tracks over two live guitars and a keyboard bass line. "We were trying to achieve a more laid-back, summertime feeling," Williams said later. "It's a summer-type barbecue-type song." They were waiting for J-Kwon to finish the lyrics.
"Play him 'Tipsy,' " Kent said, nodding at me in lieu of a formal introduction. Everything about Kent's appearance was composed: his tracksuit was spotless and his hair was arranged in fastidious braids. Slender and of medium height, he was slouched deep into a chair.
Williams punched a few keys on an iMac and J-Kwon could be heard to say, in a lecturing tone of mock concern, "Teen drinking is ve-ry bad." Half a second later, he said, "Yo, I got a fake I.D., though," and the beat, like an entire stadium clapping and stomping in perfect unison, came thudding down. Heavy, syncopated breathing echoed the beat: "Ha-uh, ha-uh, ha-uh, ha-uh." After the first verse ("Everybody drunk out on the dance floor / Babygirl ass jiggle like she want more"), J-Kwon reached the chorus. "Now urr'body in the club gettin' tipsy," he sang in a ringing voice, then repeated the line in a breathless whisper. At one point, the bass became so loud that loose pens and coins in the room started to jitter and jump. Jermaine Dupri, the C.E.O. of So So Def, says that "Tipsy" is like a fusion of hip-hop and the big rock-and-roll sound of the seventies and eighties-disaffected black urban youth to the tune of Queen's "We Will Rock You."
Most hip-hop songs rely on a standard bass line that carries through the entire song, but the Trackboyz often start with instrumentals or vocals. "Our goal is to be unpredictable, so we just bring in the bass line wherever it feels right," Williams said. They rarely use samples-audio segments borrowed from movies, television, video games, or other songs-which have become the cliched backbone of many hits. "They won't do the good old scenario where you take a Sting song or a Bowie song and add a drum and rap over it," their sound engineer, Manny Marroquin, says.
Instead, the Trackboyz' songs for J-Kwon are filled with breathy gasps, visceral grunts, heel-pounding stomps, and wild clangs that sound like someone smashing two garbage-can lids together. "We'll take a microphone and record the sound of me clapping my hands or saying, 'Ohhhhh.' Then we will take that sound, send it into the drum machine, play with it, and use it to make a beat," Williams said. "People often think these sounds are coming from instruments, but they're really not." They throw in a bit of live guitar and bass, for contrast; the last thing they do is bring in a rapper to riff off the beats. Making a track's worth of beats, he said, can take anywhere from twenty minutes-as with "Tipsy"-to a day or two.
In the late nineties, the Trackboyz got a deal to produce a St. Louis rap group named Abyss, which was signed to Atlantic Records. The album was never released, but Williams and Kent made a number of important acquaintances in the music industry. Mike Caren, at Atlantic, has bought their beats and passed them along to his artists, musicians such as the Kentucky-based rap sextet Nappy Roots and the hip-hop artist Trina. A few years ago, he introduced the Trackboyz to Jeremy Geffen, a manager in Los Angeles, who now represents them. Geffen says that these days Kent and Williams charge roughly fifty thousand dollars a track.
The Trackboyz have been reluctant to develop a trademark sound-"Once your sound dies out, your career dies out," Williams says-and they have worked with artists as varied as Eminem's group D-12, Angie Stone, and Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees. They produced Nelly's hit "Air Force Ones" and Nappy Roots' "Po' Folks," which was nominated for a Grammy in 2003. They haven't yet achieved the name recognition of producers like the Neptunes, but, according to Dupri, "their name is definitely poppin' in the music business."
The Trackboyz' ambition is not just to produce songs for established artists but to cultivate new stars. "We wanted to build the Trackboyz legacy-same way Cash Money came in," Kent said.
"Same way Dr. Dre came in," Williams replied.
"Same way Puffy came in."
"Same way Timbaland came in. Same way J.D."-Jermaine Dupri-"came in."
"By making their artists into stars, they got what they rightly deserved."
"If I go out there and do a song for Jay-Z, do one for Janet, do one for 50 Cent, Usher, that would never give me as much credit as if I break my own artist, if Kwon blows up," Williams said.
"Because at that point it's not you looking for them-everybody comes checking for you."
"There is no feeling like seeing somebody go from nothing to something-especially when you are a major part of it," Williams said. "You get addicted to breaking new acts."
The Trackboyz met J-Kwon in the spring of 2003, through a music manager named Sean (BD) Caldwell, who works as a scout for the hip-hop industry. BD, who spends his time listening to the homemade demos that he buys on street corners and searching out rap battles, found J-Kwon in the Third District, a rough patch of South St. Louis. J-Kwon had run away from his home, in the middle-class suburb of Bellville, Missouri, at thirteen. (J-Kwon's mother, Terry Jones, told me that he had nothing but scorn for his high school in Bellville. "It was not 'hip' enough here," she said. "It was too suburban, and there were no metal detectors, and the kids were too upscale.") In the Third District, he slept in abandoned cars, ran drug errands to make money, and wrote rap lyrics about his new experiences by the flame of a cigarette lighter. He relinquished his given name-Jerrell-for J-Kwon.
After auditioning J-Kwon over the telephone, the Trackboyz invited him to their studio and asked him to rap to an R. & B. song that they had been developing. J-Kwon has a gangly build, delicate features, and the irresistible grin of a mischief-maker. When Kent saw him, he says, he thought, Yeah, this little dude has got it. He did well with the R. & B. tune, too. "J-Kwon didn't write his lyrics for that kind of beat, but he knew how to match up with it," Williams said. "That is a skill that rappers and singers take years to learn."
Not long afterward, the Trackboyz invited J-Kwon, then seventeen, to move in with them, both to get him out of the inner city and, in a sense, to begin grooming him. Now eighteen, he has acquired a hefty gold necklace and a hunk of diamond for each ear. He clearly idolizes the Trackboyz, whom he calls his "uncles." Williams says that their home has been a good learning environment, and that J-Kwon has come to appreciate the value of doing chores like cleaning-though the only person I ever saw cleaning was a nineteenyear-old female fan named Sugar. (BD explained that J-Kwon often "siphoned off" his housework to various girls he met.)
In the late summer, after a few months' work in the studio, the Trackboyz arranged for J-Kwon, who had never been on an airplane before, to perform a showcase for executives at Arista Records, in Manhattan. According to several accounts of this meeting, J-Kwon strutted into the office where everyone was assembled, jumped onto a table, and shouted, "Give me my music!" Someone turned on a CD player, producing a loud, thumping rhythm that the Trackboyz had mixed with some subtler Funkadelic-like synthesizer sounds. After running through several of his raps, J-Kwon mooned Antonio Reid, then the C.E.O., took a bow, and thanked everyone individually for his time. "My performance was right out of the Third District," J-Kwon told me. "But it was corporate, too. They put me in there with the sharks, and you might as well say I was the biggest shark." A week after the showcase, Jermaine Dupri signed him to So So Def.
During my visit to St. Louis in November, "Tipsy" was released for radio play, and the Trackboyz began a fervent promotion of the song, hoping that if it took off there it would gain momentum and infiltrate listening markets across the country. One night, I went with BD and J-Kwon to a radio station in the suburb of Creve Coeur, where BD gave CDs and several vinyl copies of "Tipsy" to a small, pudgy d.j. who introduced himself as "Big Sexy koool D.J. Kaos." Kaos wields a lot of influence in St. Louis hip-hop, so J-Kwon and BD spent the better part of an hour listening to him pontificate about the state of the business. Finally, as we got ready to leave, Kaos delivered his assurances. "You know that I am going to take care of you," he told J-Kwon.
Afterward, we took J-Kwon home and went to meet the Trackboyz at a dance hall called the Ambassador. The club was in a run-down, largely abandoned shopping plaza with rusting lampposts and a vintage nineteen-fifties marquee that listed the few remaining stores. "You got to go to places where hoodlums hang out, because they are the ones who will buy the album," BD said as we pulled in to the club's pothole-riddled parking lot. We passed a long line of people and headed directly to the front door, where an off-duty cop was operating a walk-through metal detector. The entire place was thundering with bass. As we made our way to the d.j.'s booth, there was a public announcement: "We need security!" For a moment, everyone stopped dancing to watch as a powerful blue spotlight focussed on a large man in a tracksuit and followed him as he tried to walk nonchalantly off the dance floor to the bar. Before he could get there, he was met by several bouncers, who grabbed him and shoved him out the door.
When Williams reached the booth, the d.j. shouted over the loudspeakers, "Hey, everybody, the Trackboyz are in the house!" and started to play "Tipsy." As people piled onto the dance floor, Williams stepped out of the booth. He looked tired. He had been making promotional stops at dance halls all night, and before the evening was over he had to hit the strip clubs, for good measure.
Throughout the late fall and early winter, "Tipsy" rose toward the top of the charts. It started by gaining popularity in a number of scattered urban markets-Las Vegas, Oakland, Miami-where it received substantial airtime on the major hip-hop stations. Sherita Saulsberry, the programming director at KVEG, in Las Vegas, said that it was played often at the station's club events. "There are songs where people will leave the dance floor; there are songs where people will get up and dance; and then there are songs like 'Tipsy,' where the entire dance floor gets packed and the whole energy of the club changes because of the song," she told me. By January 17th, the song had broken onto the Billboard Hot 100, at No. 96. A month later, it had climbed to No. 22. Around that time, I got a call from Jeremy Geffen. "This song is taking off like a rocket ship!" he said.
In February, I went to Los Angeles to visit the Trackboyz, who were finishing the final mixes on J-Kwon's album, with Manny Marroquin, the sound engineer. They were staying at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and we met in their room to watch the recently completed video for "Tipsy." In the video, J-Kwon throws a giant houseparty and dances with a lot of foxy older women. (Jermaine Dupri makes a cameo, as a pizza delivery boy.) The Trackboyz seemed pleased. "I like it because the focus is on J-Kwon," Williams said. He and Kent also showed me pictures of five new vans and trucks that had been ordered to shuttle J-Kwon around the country while he promotes the album; each was plastered with photographs of J-Kwon. "His picture needs to be bigger on the back," Williams said. "But I am cool with the vans."
Later that night, the Trackboyz went to Marroquin's studio, in North Hollywood, to mix "IC IC," the last song on J-Kwon's album. They presented Marroquin with a portable hard drive containing roughly fifty tracks, which encompassed all the sounds on "IC IC"-snare drums, bass, guitar, vocals, the clapping of hands, the stomping of boots. Marroquin downloaded them into his computer, which sent them over to a long mixing board, where each track had its own set of controls, for volume, treble, and bass. For the next several hours, they made subtle adjustments to individual sounds, turning down the treble on a grunting noise, or adding reverb to a boot stomp, or adjusting the volume of J-Kwon's voice during a particular verse. It was after midnight when the song was finished. Marroquin played it one more time. We listened to a mid-tempo beat in which a distorted bass and chants of "ho, ho, ho" were offset by hypnotic bells; all the while, J-Kwon bragged of his many exploits as a pimp-an act that requires some imagination for someone only four years past puberty. There were guest appearances from, among others, several of the St. Lunatics: Nelly, Murphy Lee, and a rapper named Ali. The lone female voice-throaty and tough-belonged to a little-known rapper named Ebony Eyes.
When I asked about her, Williams explained that she was a twenty-three-year-old from South St. Louis who helped support her four younger sisters by telemarketing and shining shoes. "She is our main focus right now," he said. "Here, listen to this." He played "I Can Act Like a Bitch," a rapid-fire song that warns of the dangers of trifling with her. The beat was faster and slightly less abrasive than the J-Kwon tracks. When the song was over, Williams said that the record labels were already asking about her. "We're going to do the same thing with Ebony that we did with J-Kwon," he said. "She's our next star."