When Death Becomes You by M.O.P. ft. 50 Cent (Produced by the Kickdrums):
In 2004, 50 Cent was sitting in a trailer in Toronto, waiting for filming to resume on his biopic, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. It was the height of 50's popularity: Not only was he starring in the movie; he also was charged with creating its soundtrack. So as he waited, his sound engineer, Ky Miller, began cueing up CDs — hip-hop beats sent to 50's label from hopeful producers around the country.
With more than 400 beats to choose from, 50 devoted only a few seconds to each before signaling for the next. But about four minutes in, Miller played a track that sent 50's head rocking. It featured overpowering drums and a gruesomely symphonic melody, and the production was sonically "dirty"— gritty with almost imperceptible recording flaws. The rapper hit Miller with "the gas face," a flabbergasted grimace you might make stepping into a foul-smelling elevator. From 50, this expression is the highest praise, and it telegraphed to Miller that the search for this session's beat was complete.
"With 50, you automatically know if he's feeling something or not," says Miller. "When he picks up a pen and a pad, that's it."
50 penned a hook he'd been saving for such a beat — a poetic ode to "niggas that murk you/come to your tombstone and piss in your grave." He recorded it later that day, and Miller FedExed the work to New York, where the angry rap outfit M.O.P. added verses. The end result, a jarring track called "When Death Becomes You," was vintage 50: smug, abrasive, and disturbingly satisfying.
By then, the custom of producers boarding planes to work in-studio with rappers had waned, replaced by FedExed and e-mailed MP3s. So as it turned out, the producers of 50's new favorite beat didn't learn that their creation had been chosen until a Columbia Records insider phoned Matt Penttila, half of a Cleveland-based production team called the Kickdrums, and told him the news.
"Working with 50 changed our lives," says the other Kickdrum, Alex Fitts.
For the beat, Fitts and Penttila, just 23 at the time, were cut a check for $10,000. It was their first major "placement" — industry-speak for a beat purchased by a major label. They knew the moment was pivotal.
"Once you do get that placement, you have about a year to come up with a hit single," says Fitts. "After a year, newer producers start coming in, and the industry's like, 'OK, here are the new kids on the block.'"
More than two years later, the Kickdrums haven't achieved that hit single. Their placements have been non-singles for rappers like Papoose, Yung Joc, and Chamillionaire. Fitts and Penttila estimate their annual earnings at $40,000 to 50,000 each — the price of one beat for an elite producer. Which explains why their studio is a converted den in Fitts' apartment in Avon.
But in those two years, they've managed to stay relevant, logging hours in that den — often up to a hundred a week — pumping out new material, working with local artists, and mastering genre-blurring production that has generated buzz among music insiders. They're enticingly close to the breakthrough. Harlem phenom Juelz Santana is rumored to have tapped a few tracks for his next project, and Houston legend Scarface recently called Penttila about working on his next album. Despite the four-year lull since their brush with 50 and fame, they're still considered up-and-comers.
Says Leo G, program director at XM hip-hop station, 66 Raw: "I definitely think they're the next to blow."
Killa Flow by Ray Cash (Produced by the Kickdrums):
The Hunter's Chase Apartments, a few blocks from the artificial village of Crocker Park, are home to yuppies on a budget. Slumbering under snow the day after a February blizzard, the labyrinthine complex resembles a ski lodge, with blond kids in snowshoes lumbering through the cul-de-sac.
This, of all places, is the capital of Cleveland street rap.
In Fitts and his fiancée's sparse one-bedroom, the Kickdrums have used $20,000 in sound equipment to turn a small den into a professional-grade studio. A nearby closet serves as the microphone booth, soundproofed by bunched sheets. A bag of golf clubs rests against a dingy couch, which has been crushed shapeless by the asses of countless rappers, managers, and hangers-on. Nino, an English bulldog, prods visitors for snacks.
The Kickdrums seem like pals you might make at college. Fitts, 26, wears torn jeans and clunky skater shoes, and hides thick pumpkin-hued hair under a Lacoste skullcap. He's thoughtful and quiet, unless you get him onto the topics of ancient Rome or Impressionist art. Penttila, 25, is the group's boisterous self-promoter. (Every hip-hop duo needs one.) He's the guy who texts women while driving and speaks in an Ebonic twang, despite being raised in Chardon. Both love chess and swear by the philosophies of one book: The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda — the chronicles of a man exploring spirituality via peyote tripping. "This is something I learned from my grandma," says Fitts, as he digs Don Juan out of the microphone booth and hands it over. "You should never keep a book; you should always give them away."
They aren't who you would suspect are behind the popular crack rap that pounds from the mixtape CDs being slung on East 99th. C.J., however, is.
The muscle-bound rapper arrives at the apartment four hours late, trailed by his seven-year-old son and his manager, all carrying steaming bags of Wendy's. C.J.'s arms are covered in tattoos. A motorcycle chain connects his wallet to a belt loop on his tan Dickies.
"A lot of rappers talk about stuff they haven't done," says Penttila. "The thing people like about C.J. is that he lives what he raps about."
Mostly, that's dealing coke. C.J. is an unabashed Young Jeezy clone, extolling the determination of his hustle in an exclamatory drawl. "All day trapping/Posted on the corner, sorry Frank Jackson!" he raps in the closet soon after arriving, his hand brushing against hanging button-downs.
This den-closet studio isn't flashy, but it's hosted almost every local rapper with current street buzz. That includes former high-school stunna Corey Bapes, pudgy party-anthem specialist Chip tha Rippa, and Ray Cash, the rangy, bespectacled rapper with a fat man's voice — perhaps Cleveland's most nationally known rapper since Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The Kickdrums produced four of the songs on Cash's latest album, Clangin and Swangin.
"It doesn't matter how much or how little you spend" on a studio, says local hip-hop DJ Terry Urban, "just as long as you know music and have a sound you're comfortable with. Everything they do is pro."
A week later, when Fitts and his fiancée move, they bring the studio to their new home — a larger but almost identical apartment in Avon, in a 'hood marked by streets called Americana Boulevard and Constitution Drive. In Hunter's Chase, Fitts made nice with the neighbors, who seemed to tolerate the constant visitors and booming bass. But in this new complex, C.J. roaring around a bend on his Harley could be interpreted as a sign of the apocalypse.
"I'm back on square one in explaining the studio to the neighbors," Fitts says with a sigh.
If there's such a thing as musical soul mates, Penttila and Fitts are them. "We're more like brothers than friends," says Penttila. And until their first meeting at age 19, they lived oddly parallel lives.
Both came from middle-class, professional families — Penttila's in Chardon, Fitts' in Chesterland. And both were weaned on music. Fitts' father, the owner of a woodshop, made fine instruments, and there was always a freshly carved guitar or violin hanging around the shop. As a kid, Fitts learned new instruments as naturally as classmates might master a video game. Now he can play virtually anything with strings. Penttila's father, an architect, filled the home with everything from "big band to rock to opera to old soul."
But the boys gravitated toward the brash energy of hip-hop. "I liked the message," says Penttila. "It's not just one line repeated over and over, like other music. It's people putting their thoughts right out there."
Both began making hip-hop in high school, Fitts DJing and Penttila producing beats. And as each attempted college, their twin obsessions proved too strong to ignore. Penttila spent his one year at Kent producing and managing another student's rap career. "I slept in a [dorm room] with four other people," he remembers. "I didn't want to have all my recording equipment in everybody else's space, so I put it on my bed. And somebody was sleeping on the couch, so I slept on the floor. I slept like that for a year.
"I had to make a choice," he says. "I decided, 'I gotta give one thing 100 percent of my attention.'"
Meanwhile, Fitts lasted just a semester at Tri-C. "I was what you'd call a poor student," he says. "I didn't have any interest in it. It was like working a job you don't really like, just waiting for the opportunity to get out of there."
They both dropped out at 19, around the time that they were introduced through a mutual friend. They bonded when they took entry-level jobs at a music studio in dilapidated Randall Park Mall. The work wasn't exactly groundbreaking: One client was an ex-con paying to threaten his former prison guards over a canned beat. Another was a ventriloquist. "He was this super hillbilly from Xenia, Ohio, with a creepy clown dummy," remembers Penttila. "He had this 'evil carnival' project he wanted to record."
After toiling there for a year, the duo quit to form the Kickdrums and soon found their bass-heavy beats perfectly complementing local street rappers. They were privileged 'burb dwellers laying the backdrop for tales of ghetto violence, pain, and braggadocio.
"That's the power of music," says Fitts. "I've worked with people that I would have never been in the same room with otherwise."
Manifest Destiny by Verbal (Produced by the Kickdrums):
As Penttila and Fitts perfected their unlikely niche, the work began to consume their lives. Lugging basement-produced CDs full of their beats, they drove to New York on pilgrimages of guerrilla self-promotion, sleeping in Penttila's parents' car or on friends' floors. Standing outside of record-company buildings, they handed out CDs to all who passed, hoping they were A&Rs or executives. "If they give you a weird look," says Penttila, "then you know it's a janitor."
As they gained low-level label contacts, they worked with A&Rs with fledgling career status similar to their own. "You start with the guys you can get to," says Fitts. "It benefits both sides, because then the low-level A&Rs take it to their boss, and it's like, 'I discovered this new talent.' Eventually, you get a call from a big-time A&R about the CD you gave somebody else."
As Penttila drives to the studio for an afternoon beatmaking session, he puts on a CD by '70s spazz-rockers Television. Somewhere in the first song, he begins to hear how he'll dissect and rearrange it. "That's a real good tripped-out synth," he says. "I'd like to take that part when the drums drop out . . . and rework it so it's completely unidentifiable."
This is Penttila's specialty. He's the master of the "loop," that section of an original, often classic song that's repeated to form the backdrop of a beat — like the Isaac Hayes bassline at the heart of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Kick in the Door." Penttila brings this musical skeleton to Fitts, who fleshes it out with more instrumentation and atmospheric sound. Then the fine-tuning begins.
The Kickdrums are painstaking perfectionists. Until the beat sounds perfect on a car's sound system — their testing ground of choice — it's not done. "A lot of producers make 10 beats per day," says DJ Joey Fingaz. But the Kickdrums "could spend a whole week on a beat. They won't let nothing leave the studio until they could hear it on the radio."
When their record crates are running low, Fitts and Penttila go "digging" — on road trips to buy vintage records from which to pluck samples. Their favorite spot is a giant store outside of Pittsburgh, the name of which they won't divulge. "You gotta go to a place where no other DJs and producers go," says Fitts, "or else it's already gonna be picked apart."
Once inside, they use what Fitts calls "the greatest invention ever" — the portable record player. They spend entire afternoons creeping through record stores, listening to old vinyl on the plastic device.
Then they have to get the samples cleared. An artist can demand 100 percent of a beat's royalties or kill a project altogether. A jazz flutist named Herbie Mann did just that when he heard the Kickdrums' sample of his riff on Ray Cash's street-hustle anthem titled "Dope Game." After some negotiating, Mann approved the Kickdrums' use of the beat, but only for a song by rapper Al Fatz called "I Got Fire" — which notably didn't mention crack dealing.
Sometimes Fitts and Penttila tool with a sample so thoroughly that it's virtually beyond identification. That's what they did to the beat for 50's "When Death Becomes You," which included a split-second, reversed Diana Ross sample. "Diana herself probably couldn't tell we sampled her," says Fitts. Nonetheless, the Kickdrums forked over a quarter of their royalties to the ex-Supreme.
The Kickdrums' trademark has become genre-busting experimentation. "Killa Flow," a track on Ray Cash's upcoming album, sounds like textbook modern gangsta rap: "I play the part of the barber," Cash raps, "Take a part out of your hair/Sit inside my barber's chair, let the .45 clippers clip a nigga." But then comes a droning breakdown with Fitts singing "I am a killer" in a throaty minute-long chant reminiscent of Trent Reznor. Fitts put it together alone in the studio, too shy to sing in front of even Penttila. When he played the completed track for Cash, Fitts didn't know what reaction to expect.
"I was really kind of holding my breath," he says. "Ray was sitting on the couch, and when I played that part for him, he started flipping out."
"I think that's growth," explains Cash, a Billy Joel and Elton John fan who prides himself on his own eclectic tastes. "That epitomizes their whole swag, the difference between the Kickdrums and everybody else . . . You wanna give people the shit that's gonna have them hitting the rewind button — that different shit."
The experimentation stems from their tastes, which extend far beyond rap. "We listen to that all day at work," says Fitts, who's most into indie-rock. Penttila prefers fast-paced electronic dance. And while they recognize rap as their ticket to music stardom, neither plans on doing hip-hop production forever.
"I'm not saying I'm getting bored," Fitts says. "I just wish we could branch out with it."
It's a desire reflected in their latest project, which features a razor-witted white dude named Verbal rapping over groove-heavy beats made from samples of unconventional stuff like the Cure. Basically, it's dance music set to a hip-hop drumbeat — "kind of our Gnarls Barkley," says Penttila. For an upcoming tour, which will likely kick off at the Grog Shop, Penttila and Fitts will take the stage with the gangly Verbal, who quit a construction job for the chance.
"I never meant for it to be dance music, but I don't mind," says the affable Verbal. "I just do what they tell me."
Stay on My Grind by Young Wazzie (Produced by the Kickdrums):
The trouble with being an aspiring rap producer is that you can't do it without rappers. And the trouble with rappers starts and ends with ego. They're often chronically late, because they know there's no project without them. And they travel with posses of yes-men that encourage them in shortsighted or selfish decisions.
The Kickdrums have been stung their share of times. First there was Chip tha Rippa, a roly-poly East Clevelander who can pull off cheery or intimidating with equal aplomb in his raps. He can't even be trusted to show up for a studio session, but he's still a hot prospect in Ohio. "Chip's the next Biggie Smalls, I swear," says Cincinnati producer Hi-Tek.
When the Kickdrums met Chip, he was handing out albums on Superior Avenue. His hype started building as he worked with the producers, and it peaked with their club anthem, "Get It Girl," which featured Chip and Al Fatz rapping over a Kickdrums' beat anchored by a stuttering acoustic-guitar loop.
That's when an executive from Dreamlife, LeBron James' fledgling record label, called Chip and asked him to lunch. The next thing the Kickdrums knew, Chip was signed to Atlantic Records (through Dreamlife), and the producers had lost their artist.
"We had talked about this maybe happening with Chip. He was always like, 'Nah, I'm ridin' with you,'" says Penttila. "But when you put even a small amount of money, like $20,000, on the table, all that goes out the window."
Once at Dreamlife, Chip learned it wasn't him the record company was after at all. It was "Get It Girl," which they stripped from his planned album and gave to labelmate Al Fatz. Soon enough, Chip was dropped from Atlantic.
The next year, the Kickdrums hooked up with Cleveland rapper Corey Bapes. His career was a product of the "cap rapping" trend, in which juvenile rappers spit simple rhymes about material riches they probably don't have. With a cubic-zirconia grill and lyrics like "I'm fly like Batman/I get a lot of pussy; you can call me cat man," the 17-year-old Central Catholic student was an artist cut from the Soulja Boy mold — a predestined one-hit wonder. But the Kickdrums lost him before that one hit.
They produced every song on Bapes' In a Class of My Own and planned a summer '07 record-release party at Peabody's. The show garnered so much hype, it turned into a near riot, with 150 partyers, most of them high-school girls, left clamoring outside the packed concert. The Kickdrums produced a video and even oversaw the CD's iced-out packaging. "We even had foil on Corey's grill, man," says Penttila.
But on Bapes' 18th birthday, he defected to Defient, a Miami record label started by an online-reality-show winner named Greg Calloway. "We made a whole new set of mistakes," Penttila says. "Never underestimate people's greed."
Bapes sooned learned that online reality shows don't breed the most polished CEOs. The Miami label has apparently folded. Bapes is now said to be living in Bowling Green, Ohio.
"Fucker fell off," says Cincinnati DJ Bigg Eddie Bauer, with more exasperation than anger. "He made the wrong play."
Cleveland's hip-hop scene is notorious for this sort of backstabbing and betrayal. While the entire music industry is plagued by snakelike maneuvering, Cleveland stands out because it has little success to show for it: Cleveland hip-hop hasn't penetrated the national psyche since Bone Thugs in the mid-'90s.
"It's the curse of the Bone," says Penttila. "Every interview about Cleveland hip-hop, they ask us about the Bone. I mean, that was 15 years ago."
"If anybody could work together seriously, we'd be the next Atlanta right now," says DJ Terry Urban. "We have a buzz around people like Al Fatz and Chip tha Rippa. But nobody wants to work together to get shit done. Cleveland's a bunch of fucking haters."
Of course, Atlanta's a booming metropolis, and Cleveland's a shrinking one. The talent pool here is simply smaller, and doesn't have a major label to scout or develop it. And without a geographical peg like the coasts and the South, Cleveland is without a cohesive identity to market. Atlanta's crunk and Oakland's hyphy movements worked because they developed organically. But Cleveland is better known for stealing trends from other regions. Penttila was recently confronted in Dallas by a group of "slab" rappers — members of the Texan woofer-banging subgenre that Cleveland rappers like Chip openly borrow from. "These guys were like, 'Why do Cleveland cats think it's okay for them to steal our sound and our slang?'" says Penttila.
The Kickdrums say they want to make Cleveland aurally recognizable — and they have a deeply technical explanation, with references to subtle melody lines and megahertz stats, for how they'll do it. But by this time next year, the Kickdrums may be known as a Brooklyn production duo. That's how long they've given their chances in Cleveland.
"I can't see myself living in New York," says Fitts, who also lists L.A. as an option. "But if that's what we have to do to succeed, I definitely will."
Life to Me by Hi-Tek ft. Estelle (Produced by Hi-Tek):
The three-story house sits with windows boarded on an industrial street a few hundred feet from Cincinnati and just over the Kentucky border. To passing drunks, it's likely an attractive target at which to hurl that empty malt-liquor bottle. But the plum-red Escalade with 24-inch rims that is parked outside hints that the house isn't abandoned after all.
This is the workspace of veteran producer Hi-Tek, and inside is a fledgling producer's dream setup: A studio of polished wood and brushed metal that smells of incense and hydro smoke. A million-dollar soundboard. A band room stocked with instruments. An entire room devoted only to storing thousands of records. There's even a weight room.
On the walls throughout hang flat-screen TVs displaying footage fed from cameras mounted around the house, commemorative records from the various rap stars who have recorded here — Busta Rhymes, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg among them — and, of course, portraits of Tony Montana, the patron saint of hip-hop.
On the floors above, Hi-Tek has set up an apartment for his four-day marathon recording sessions. "You can come down in house shoes and boxers, and make a beat," he says. The supremely relaxed producer, wearing a T-shirt with his own name on it, shows the Kickdrums around, punctuating everything with his favorite declaration: "That's what time it is."
A few days earlier, the Kickdrums had received a call from transplanted Clevelander Bauer, saying that Hi-Tek wanted to meet them. The producers asked no questions; they threw their hard drive into a padded case and piled into Penttila's parents' Saturn for the four-hour drive to Cincinnati.
Besides the Bone Thugs, Hi-Tek has had perhaps the most success of any Ohio-bred hip-hop artist. He produced most of Black Star, the classic collaboration between Talib Kweli and Mos Def, then formed a duo with Kweli in releasing Train of Thought. He's now working under Dr. Dre on Dre's long-delayed and much-anticipated Detox, and just finished the final of three solo albums.
Hi-Tek refuses to move from Cincinnati and rarely wavers from his underground sound — organic, instrument-heavy beats that appeal to bohemians like Kweli. In the late '90s, when the public grew sick of Master P's brainless chanting, the music industry was looking for intelligent music to push to the forefront — and landed on Hi-Tek. "You just gotta keep making music that you're proud of," he says.
A huge, sweaty man named Big D lugs a bag of ice to the studio, and Hi-Tek chills some Rémy Martin in a plastic cup. They're joined by Bauer, who focuses his efforts on the lit blunt in between his fingers. "Ya'll got some shit to play me?" Hi-Tek finally asks.
The Kickdrums play some new Ray Cash tracks on the studio's overpowering sound system. Hi-Tek barely nods his head and remains focused on texting on his Sidekick.
"If we had just left it at Ray, we might have been sunk," Fitts says later. "We might as well have gotten back in the car at that point."
Fitts then takes a whimsical risk, playing an indie-rock song on which he sings and plays all the instruments. Hi-Tek looks a bit confused at first. But suddenly, he stands up and starts shaking his arms, like a child who just discovered dancing. The session has new life.
Next up is a futuristic Chip tha Rippa track. As soon as the chirpy beat drops, eyes widen on the Cincinnati crew, and the studio comes alive with movement. Even the right-hand man, to this point semiconscious, bolts out of the couch like he's been stung. "That's just ignorantly stupid right there," says Bauer. In his inverse vernacular, this is gushing praise. Hi-Tek moans in agreement.
After the session, the Kickdrums slouch against recording equipment as Hi-Tek settles into a leather couch, eating a Taco Bell quesadilla fetched by Big D. Tek begins critiquing their beats, as authoritatively as if they're still playing. "I think his verse is too long," he says of one. "Patch up these little holes; make it a better record.
"This is how I think I could work with you," he continues. "Just to tighten it up: Shorten a verse here, tweak some background vocals here."
It evolves into an offer. He has the ear of every rapper in the industry, he reminds them; Hitmakers like Jay-Z and Atlanta top dog T.I. pick up his calls. "When I'm ready to not touch the MPC no more," he says of the producer's all-important electronic drum machine, "I'll be ready to take people like you, who are really grinding, and give you my expertise."
It's around 11 when they leave, which means they'll be driving well into the next morning. They've spent eight hours of travel to play a dozen tracks that they could've e-mailed to Hi-Tek. But there's no complaining on the way home.
"That was so much better than we expected," Penttila says, as Fitts begins to doze in the passenger seat. "He's basically talking about being a mentor, and that's what we need."
They've made plans to meet with Hi-Tek again in two weeks, and they'll spend the meantime running marathon sessions in the studio, reacting as they always have to good news — by working harder. For two artists who have spent four years doggedly pounding on the gates of the industry, it's a strange sensation to be offered any help. Stranger still, because the call didn't come from a music capital, but from their home state, from a place as anonymous in the rap world as Cleveland.
"We've never had anybody show us the ropes before," Penttila says, as the dark, empty highway unfolds before them. "We've always had to figure it out for ourselves."