Atlanta, you have some competition. Toronto is arguably the beat-making capital of the world.
“We’re becoming leaders of the sound right now, more specifically because of what Drake’s output dictates to the world. Everything after that is influenced by him because he’s so big,” says Rich Kidd, a JUNO Award-winning artist with Naturally Born Strangers and veteran beat-maker/producer.
“These guys,” meaning Drake’s beat-maker/producers — and there are many.
Since starting from the bottom, Drake has made it his mission to use as many of his Toronto peeps as possible on his tracks: most notably, beat-maker/producers Boi-1da and Noah “40” Shebib, who are all over his work. But he’s also worked with far less familiar names, like Matthew Burnett, Tone Mason, Frank Dukes, Vinylz, Sevn Thomas, T-Minus, PartyNextDoor, WondaGurl, and more.
Of course, Toronto hip-hop producers have long landed their beats on songs by major artists, pre- and post-Drake; it’s just that his global stardom is putting a spotlight on the city — The 6, as he’s branded it. His profound respect for Toronto talent has led his fellow rap stars to seek out those very same beat-makers.
But a beat-maker/producer can’t just work away in the basement on FL Studio, or some other software, hoping Drake will call them on his cell phone. So, how did they get their breaks? How did they make those connections?
SOCAN spoke with six from The 6 — Sevn Thomas, Frank Dukes, Prezident Jeff, Matthew Burnett, Jordan Evans, and Rich Kidd — who’ve created beats used in songs by Drake, Eminem, Kanye West, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Travi$ Scott and The Game.
What they do is very competitive, but theirs is a supportive community, they all say. They work in tight circles, but those cliques aren’t impenetrable. Like any business in which it takes years to establish yourself, the successful ones are wary of those trying to work their way in, or poach their clients. For the up-and-coming, as much as it’s about talent, it’s also about being genuine, respectful and having good energy. Then the door opens.
“Thank God my parents raised me to always listen to people who I respect; that’s the vibe that comes across when you meet me,” says Prezident Jeff, born Jeffrey Offe, whose C.V. includes Canadian Roy Woods, the U.K.’s Little Simz and American Kevin Gates. “I’m very respectful and humble. I don’t like to talk about myself. That’s been the consistent thing. I often wonder how I’ve been able to get in certain circles — because I know a lot of bigger producers — and I chalk it up [to the fact that], besides my talent, they like my vibe.”
Matthew Burnett — who got his start in high school, signed as a staff producer to Boi-1da and worked under him for three years — agrees that respect is key; beat-making/producing is one area of hip-hop where swag and braggadocio likely won’t get you a break when you’re just starting out. “Based on experience, if you’re trying to approach someone who’s more established, obviously the biggest thing is your intentions, your personality, and also your talent level, because we’ve come across people who have ill intentions,” Burnett says.
“But if you’re a talented person and you’re new on the scene, but you have a great energy about you and you’re likeable, then you suggest, ‘Maybe we should work together?’ Or a lot of times I’ll be in a session and that person’s name will come up as a new guy on the scene, and then [I’ll say to them], ‘He played me some of your music and it sounds great. We should work together.’”
Says Jordan Evans, “the producers that are making songs with big artists, it’s a pretty small community, and we help each other out a lot. I can speak for myself, Matthew, and other people that we work with, we definitely mentor a lot of the new guys, the new beat-makers, giving them help, advice, pointers, and whatever they need. “
Evans, Burnett and Boi-1da co-wrote Eminem’s 2010 hit “Not Afraid,” a No. 1 song that’s now cerfitied 10-times platinum in the U.S. alone. Breaks don’t come any bigger than that. And they all come about differently.
Frank Dukes (born Adam Feeney) started in high school as a DJ. By reverse engineering, he figured out the samples used by his favourite producers, like RZA, Pete Rock and DJ Premier. He had a manager at the time who shopped his beats. “Around early 2000s – 2004 or 2005 — I got my first real placement with G-Unit for a Lloyd Banks song that never came out,” says Dukes. “I think I got $5,000 for it and, at the time, I was young and that seemed like a shitload of money for making music. It made me realize I could do this for a job.”
For Dukes, a bigger turning point came when he changed his approach to songwriting. He sampled The Menahan Street Band for a mixtape, and ended up becoming good friends with them. When he moved to New York for a bit, he hung out at their studio and absorbed their approach to writing and recording music.
“That just opened me up to a whole different world of making music, making beats, and making songs from an idea-based perspective,” he says. “Nurturing it and developing it into a song, as opposed to just making beats and sending them out to people.”
Sevn Thomas (born Thomas Rupert Jr.) counts his start in the music industry at age two in Jamaica. His uncle, dancehall DJ Rappa Robert, would bring him to the recording studio when he worked with UB40. Groomed for this life, he was creating beats on a Korg Triton in Grade 5 and was also a recording artist. At age 10, he had a nationwide hit with “Too Young for Love,” on Master T’s compilation, under the name Suga Prince. He signed to Sony BMG at 15.
“I was working out of Sunny Diamonds’ studio in Grade 9. Sunny is a staple in the city, being an engineer and a cultivator of talent,” he says. “Everybody would go to Sunny Diamonds’ for their first session. That’s how I how built a lot of my relationships – that I’ve been able to maintain to this day.
“I’ve known Boi-1da for about 12, 13 years. I was working on my album, when I was with Sony BMG. Boi-1da would come to Sunny Diamonds’ studio, and he’d hear some of my beats and he’d be like, ‘Yo, what’s your full name? I want to draw up a contract with my lawyer.’” Sevn recounts. “At that time, he’d really just started taking off with Drake’s success, ‘Best I Ever Had’ had just come out. So Far Gone had just come out. So he got caught up in the whirlwind, but he was a man of his word, and he came back a couple of years later, after I entered Battle of the Beat Makers 2012. I had a faceoff with Wondagurl. We re-matched, like, three times; the judges weren’t able to choose.”
That’s how he earned his break with Drake, through Boi-1da.
These six from The 6 aren’t the only ones making noise: Big Pops (The Game, Meek Mill); Mikhail (Flo Rida, Vybz Kartel, Lil Wayne); Moss (Ghostface Killah, Raekwon); Raz Fresco (Tyga, French Montana, Mac Miller); and the team Tone Mason (Drake, Jay Z, Dr. Dre) all continue to make beats and co-write songs for the highest-profile hip-hop artists. .
And many of the next generation of Toronto beat-maker/producers are taking advantage of the Battle of the Beat Makers, founded in 2005 by Sound Supremacy Entertainment’s Clifton Reddick. The battle has become the world’s most distinguished producer face-off, offering a platform to hundreds of beat-makers from all over the globe. Boi-1da won three times. So did WondaGurl, then 15. T-Minus is also an alumnus. The most recent battle was in December of 2015. Having come a long way, Boi-1da was now one of the guest judges, and helped pick the 32 qualifiers.
Since 2013, Toronto can also claim a dedicated non-profit school called The Beat Academy, which nurtures and educates budding beat-makers through workshops, and also stages Battle of the Americas International Beat Battles. #TeamTO beat Team Texas at SXSW 2014 and Team L.A. during Grammy Week 2015.
The academy is the brainchild of “homeless to Harvard” student Toni Morgan, who previously ran the Made in Canada MC battles, which were so successful she went from living in shelters to her first apartment.
“Toronto is the North American epicentre of raw talent,” Morgan says. “The diversity of the city lends itself beautifully to the way young creatives are influenced. When Beat Academy began, our goal was — and continues to be — to create avenues of access for undiscovered beatmaker/producers to turn music production into employment- a full-time career.
“We have watched basement beat-maker/producers get signed to labels, work with Grammy award-winning artists and become full-time musicians because of our commitment to connecting unknowns to the world of popular music. I have seen the entire music industry shift to include beat-maker/producers as part of the songwriting conversation.”