Play me a dope song and there’s a 10/10 chance I will ask: “Who produced this?” It might seem presumptuous, but production is the most important element of any song – I will die on this hill. Regardless of lyrics or vocal performance, a track can never be great without a great beat. But while they’re an integral part of the music industry formula, most of these behind-the-scenes hitmakers haven’t gotten their flowers, often relegated to the culture’s background; just a name in the credits on the back cover. However, if there’s been one consistent positive trend in popular music in the 21st century, it’s the growing prominence of the producer in soundtracking the culture as much as any of its greatest recording artists. No longer on the B-side of the music industry, a vanguard of studio mavens is stepping into the spotlight, innovating music, and oftentimes in the process, becoming recording stars themselves.
Leading the revolution is a special breed of producers: the superproducer. It’s a phenomenon that happens every once in a while – suddenly, one person’s sound penetrates and dominates music. It may seem spontaneous but in fact, it takes years to get to this tipping point. With OGs like Quincy Jones, Dr. Dre, The Neptunes, and J Dilla who laid the blueprint of what it means to be a superproducer, this new school of standout creators is finally achieving true mainstream visibility. When I look at the ever-evolving music scene, superproducers Murda Beatz, JAE5, and GuiltyBeatz are emerging as the geniuses everyone wants on their team, carving out their own lanes, defining modern music, and building legacies on the way.
Meet the Producers
You’ve definitely heard a few Murda Beatz productions and the tag, “Murda on the beat so it’s not nice.” Over the last decade, the 28-year-old producer from Canada has been behind some of hip-hop’s biggest records, working with a rolodex of heavy-hitters including Migos, Nicki Minaj, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, Jadakiss, PartyNextDoor, and Drake. He famously created the beat for Drizzy’s “Nice for What” in 1.5 hours. It’s all in the name: “At first, when I was posting beats on YouTube, someone told me I needed a name to protect the brand. It just came to me: ‘I’m gonna call myself Murda Beatz… because I murder the beats,” he says with a laugh.
While Murda was cooking up chart-toppers stateside, across the pond, a formidable force was revolutionizing the UK rap scene with his fresh diasporic sound. The East Londoner, JAE5, made a name for himself as one of the leading innovators behind the UK’s Afroswing sound – combining elements of hip-hop, bashment, and Afrobeats – that in many ways has become an expression of contemporary Black British youth. He holds an impressive CV that includes production credits for Skepta, Dave, NSG, Koffee, French Montana, Headie One, and a Grammy win with Burna Boy. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment to date is being the machine behind one of the UK’s most prolific rap talents, J Hus.
Then over in Ghana, one of Africa’s most in-demand producers, GuiltyBeatz, has been brewing up his own forward-moving sound that’s disrupting all corners of the world. The multifaceted producer has the rare ability to turn any genre into another Guilty beat with integrity. Whether it’s Afro-R&B for Tems, a Jorja Smith-led Amapiano joint, rap beats for Shaybo, or Grammy-worthy Afrobeats for the one and only Beyoncé. “My main goal was always for my music to travel, for people to recognize me for it and hear me out.”
How did you start making music?
JAE5: I started making music out of boredom. I was sent to boarding school in Ghana from 10 to 13. Someone had a computer with Fruity Loops on it, which is a music production software. So when I had nothing to do I just tried to make beats on there and the more I played around with it, I got into it more. When I got back to London, that’s when Grime was popping, so all my friends were trying to be MCs. But I still had an African accent at the time, so MCing wasn’t working for me and the next best thing was to record or produce for the artists.
GuitlyBeatz: Like every kid, at some point I ended up in a rap group. I already knew I wanted to do music, I was listening to a lot of jazz on my Walkman and producers like Timbaland, Pharrell, and Ryan Leslie. But I didn't want to be a rapper. In my mind I was looking at someone like Timbaland and thinking, “I want to do what he does. But I want to be even bigger.” Things started moving when my friend got a Sony Ericsson phone in school that had an application called Music DJ. I would put together sounds and loops to make beats for our rap group. Eventually one of my friends played my beats for a guy who owned a studio and that’s how I got my first job producing. I was so happy, I was even paid 100 cedis (approximately 13 dollars) a month.
Murda Beatz: I got into music at a young age. My parents were always playing rock music in the house when I was a kid and my dad played guitar. I played bass, drums, [and] sang and stuff. Around the time I started listening to more rap, I got an electric drum set and started messing with 808s. I definitely didn't want to rap myself, I was just making beats for my boy. By the time he didn’t wanna rap anymore I had already gotten so much better at making beats. I was hooked.
How did you go about defining and perfecting your sound?
Murda: It takes years to create a signature sound. To have someone listen to your beat and know it’s you, that’s GOAT-level. Not many people can say that. Obviously, we all put certain sounds, patterns in our beats that set us apart if you’re really in tune with that stuff and our style of work, but at the end of the day, it comes down to tagging. I started doing it just so people wouldn’t steal my beats on YouTube, but it definitely helped me build my brand up to where it is.
JAE5: I hate tagging my music, but it became necessary. I loved the era when artists would literally rap about their producer. Like Snoop Dogg would brag about being with Dr. Dre in the studio, Missy with Timbaland. But in the UK when I was coming up the artists weren’t doing that. They didn’t even want anyone to know who made the beat. I didn't even know when my song would come out. I would see the video on YouTube and be like, “Oh, I made that.” That just felt unfair. So the tag was the solution.
Guilty: Being versatile is a blessing and a curse. When I’m going into all these different genres, it’s hard for me personally to build a signature sound. But I’ve learnt that if you stick with it, you'll have a signature sound. Recently, I've not been feeling that I don’t want to put my tag on every song. I don’t feel that need anymore. Sometimes it just kills the vibe of a song. When do you know you’ve found the right artists to carry your sound?
JAE5: With J Hus, that relationship started when I was 21. I had a job teaching music production [to] people who’d just come out of jail. J Hus was one of those people. We lost touch for a while when he went back inside. Then friends of mine kept banging on him about this artist, that I needed to work with him. At that point, I was kind of getting fed up [with] music. Eventually, they pressured me to do the session, I went and it was him! Because I used to be a teacher to him, he would listen to things I would say, he would take my opinion, unlike other artists I'd work with. So it made us close, it made me better. You wanna work with someone who trusts you.
Guilty: You know you’re doing something right when the artist finds you. For me it was when I got that Beyoncé email. That was the moment I was like, “You know what, I'm doing something great and I have to keep up.” It's hard keeping up because there are days where you feel like you're not doing enough. I’m still just a guy from Ghana making beats, I need to take it further. When something like [The Lion King: The Gift] happens and you realize you’re representing your sound. Because that is the only time Beyoncé would do a whole Afrobeats or African-inspired album. She's not going to do that again. That is the one time. And I got the opportunity to be part of it. That’s crazy.
Producers make music, superproducers make artists. Do you agree?
JAE5: Making artists, being part of their story from the beginning, being able to work with artists like NSG when nobody gives a damn, and then have a platinum-selling song, that’s what it’s all about. When I walk in a place I hear Hus' album or an NSG song goes silver, that means more to me than a platinum song with, let's say, Chris Brown, who would've [gone] platinum regardless whether I was involved or not. I think I've had a good run. I feel like I created something that was very influential to the culture, but you can't just do it once. Timbaland and those guys recreated themselves numerous times and introduced a lot of successful artists, not just one or two. I feel like when I've done it, three, four times, I can call myself a superproducer.
Murda: Definitely one of the greatest successes as a producer is looking at the relationships you build with artists. Like Quavo, the friendship and chemistry that we built in the lab over the past nine, 10 years, that’s special. It’s not even about making artists, it’s just as much that the artists make the producer and I’ve been fortunate to be shaped by some of the greats. I just wanna have fun making music, I don't want to be put in a box. That’s what being a superproducer means to me. You’ve all released music as the lead recording artists yourselves. Is that a necessary switch to make if you want to go to the next level?
JAE5: I never wanted to be JAE5, the artist. I never even wanted people to really know who I am. I would've been happy to be unknown, working and making money off my music, but I realized it doesn't work like that. I don't have a structure [for] my career. I just enjoy putting out music. But sometimes you have limitations with artists. What tends to happen is, sometimes you have a song with an artist but it doesn’t fit in with their sound or where they are in their career at that moment. So I decided, “You know what, I'll take it and I'll put it out as me, so it doesn't affect anything you are doing.” Because regardless, the music deserves to be heard.
As a producer-slash-artist is it best to stay independent or go the label route?
Guilty: I feel like it makes sense that every producer just stays independent. Artists need producers, engineers, A&Rs, they need all these things and that requires funding. As a record producer, you can literally be in your home and produce a whole album. Do that. If you have a vision of becoming huge, having music videos, then a label makes sense. But until then just put in the work. Producers, we get sidelined a lot, so get educated. If you're an independent, you don't have a manager or anything. Always have a producer agreement ready, which includes your fees. Then negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. What advice or lessons do you have for people who want to do what you’re doing?
Murda: The thing about music is it's 80% business, 20% skill. At the beginning, I was always like, “Wow, I wish I could work with this person,” and then someone said to me, “If you're trying to make this a career, don't just think of it as a dream. You've got to think of it as a business as well.” That always kind of stuck with me.
JAE5: If you want it, just start and work with whatever you've got around you. I wasted a lot of years holding on to beats, saving them for a big artist. I started getting success when I started working with what was around me. You’ve gotta be realistic, make the beat for your boy that can rap. Even if he only gets 100 views now, when he gets bigger, you get better and bigger. So I think, if you want to be a producer, just get started, work with anyone that you think is talented around you and then move from there. Just keep working and it will happen.
Guilty: Don't force [yourself] to be in the industry. Your aim should be to improve yourself every day. Stay focused – I can’t say that enough. You can easily get distracted when you start getting recognition. But try as much as possible to stay the same. Just perfect your craft, pray, stay sane. A lot of things will happen, don't take it personal.