The evolution of hip-hop production in Madison
Meet nine producers bolstering Madison hip-hop behind the scenes.
In recent years, hip-hop producers have undergone a resurgence, not in terms of talent or style but rather in terms of recognition and popularity.
Though DJs were the center of the genre in its infancy, rappers have leapfrogged beatmakers (and then some) to become hip-hop's most recognizable faces. During the 1990s and the 00’s, producers were mostly celebrities only to the people making the music and its nerdiest followers. To be a fan of a producer was to appreciate hip-hop music not just for what it said or represented, but also for its inherent artistry and eclectic sonic palette.
Nowadays, however, things are beginning to even out. Producers like Metro Boomin have enjoyed levels of fame greater than or equal to the artists for whom they produce. Producer credits aren’t hidden within album leaflets anymore either. Instead, they more often appear within song titles, or the producers even own the songs outright.
How does this dynamic play out in Madison's ascendant hip-hop scene? At first glance, Madison doesn't seem to have that many producers period. Though rappers and vocalists are surprisingly abundant in Madison, in my time following local hip-hop I always seem to see the same 10 or so names nestled in the production credits. And out of that small pool of producers, most seem to either be attending UW-Madison, or were at some point.
Of course, there are producers beyond campus, but they often keep to themselves or work more through the internet than with other local artists. Campus-based producers also enjoy greater visibility and a larger pool of artists to work with due to the nature of college life. They also have greater access to UW’s built in avenues for performing, either through WUD Music or campus DIY shows.
That being said, there are some factors that limit the overall number of producers in Madison. UW's First Wave program, for example, has become a magnet for rappers, especially in recent years, but has not held the same attraction for budding producers. Though some First Wavers do pick up production at some point, it is usually in addition to their other disciplines.
The for-profit entertainment college Madison Media Institute also bolsters the number of producers in Madison, but perhaps not as much as one might expect. Many people who attend MMI do so as commuters from other locales, and many of the people who attend are either into electronic production or other genres.
And then finally, producing just has higher entry barriers than rapping. Anyone can rap at the lowest level, but to make even the shittiest beat requires a relatively high level of technological know-how and a computer. And as you progress through these beginning stages, the demands of technique and gear only increase.
Still, what’s interesting is that despite their relatively small number, the producers working within Madison are able to command a fairly large presence within Madison’s total output of hip-hop. Locally based rappers could choose to get beats off Soundcloud or from other locations, and they do, but they also work alongside local producers, drawn to their talent and to the creative potential that comes with IRL collaboration. To offer a sense of Madison's hip-hop production landscape, let’s dive into an incomplete and subjective list of Madison’s most noteworthy producers at the moment.
Many conversations about hip-hop in Madison start with Pacal Bayley, aka DJ Pain 1, and any would be incomplete without him. He is the genre’s elder statesman in Madison, though he would have you know he is only 33. In his decade-plus as a producer, he’s become a local authority on navigating the music industry (often dispensing advice and dirt through his Twitter account and Facebook videos), and he's witnessed the barriers and stigma that hip-hop faces in local venues. Bayley cut his own teeth as a producer in the mid-00’s, an interesting time for the craft. Music software and the internet were making production more accessible than ever, but they had not yet hadn't yet dampened people’s music-buying habits to the extent that they have today.
That climate, and Bayley's sheer versatility as a beatmaker, helped him land a track on Young Jeezy’s 2008 platinum record The Recession. Since then Pain 1 has produced for national and local artists, and also occupied a pivotal role in Madison’s hip hop scene, both as an artist and as a mentor and advocate for local rappers and producers.
Beyond his "damn that hurt!" DJ drop, Pain 1's main musical signature is variety. Recently, he's made everything from bubblegum-trap instrumentals for former Madisonian Ted Park to stark and shadowy beats for bleak, political Denver rapper Sole to two tracks for Public Enemy's new album. He’s even branched out from hip-hop, going so far as to produce an unreleased country-pop record for Madison-based artist Chloe Rose.
If anything has changed over the years, is that recently Bayley has limited his production work to only being for artists he trusts and interacts with regularly.
“Maybe eight years ago, I was focused on making beats that I could, you know, just shop around to industry artists. Now I’m working directly with Sole, directly with Ted Park, directly with Royce da 5’9. I’m making tracks for them because these are people I interact with on a regular basis and have friendships with. It’s different. I like it way more [...] I guess I just like making music that I know is going somewhere, that has a purpose, that’s being appreciated,” Bayley says.
From working together over the past two years, Chris LaBella and David Dickson (Norwei) say they've each gained a renewed sense of creativity. LaBella, a Madison native, has been making music for practically his whole life—he is a self-trained guitarist and an emcee in his own right.
Dickson, on the other hand, hails from Minnesota. Classically trained on the piano, he started working on music production after he got burned out selling ads in New York City. Now he resides in Madison, where he works on hip-hop production with LaBella, as well as his own electronic instrumentals under the name Norwei.
The pair began jamming together after a fateful bar encounter on Halloween back in 2015 and became official collaborators soon after. For both artists this decision has allowed each artist to focus more on making music, rather than the little things that can sometimes bog down artists. Together and separately, the two contributed to seven tracks on Madison rapper Trapo's first full-length album, 2016's Shade Trees, their most high-profile work so far. They've had a hand in other noteworthy releases from local artists recently, including Ra'Shaun's debut EP, Kolors. In fact, that EP's title was inspired by LaBella's penchant for using purple lightbulbs in his attic studio on the west side.
“Throughout my entire musical journey, I’ve done pretty much everything myself, as far as recording it, engineering it, writing the songs, doing all this promoting, doing the artwork ... it’s a lot of stuff to handle all at once," LaBella says. "It often felt like I’d be hitting a wall trying to juggle all these responsibilities. So working with [Dickson] has definitely taken weights off my shoulders and makes it so much easier to go and create.”
Their creative process together itself is organic and freeform, as Dickson describes it. The pair also love working with rappers and vocalists in person, since it allows them to build up tracks around the artist.
A prime example of why they favor this approach is the recent song “Adult Drinks,” with rapper Rich Robbins and (also featured) producer Since‘93. Each part of the track melts together to bring out the warmth of Robbin’s vocals.
Currently, both artists continue to work on their own solo stuff while also looking to expand their reach outside of Madison. In LaBella’s studio, there sits a kind of “image board” with artists they want to work with throughout the Midwest and beyond.
Zach Salvat, who goes by Evaridae, is one half rapper/producer duo Neu Dae and also the former bassist of now-defunct local band Hired Rivals. Since that band wrapped up, he's been focusing more on production, and, he says it’s only recently that he’s found a style he wants to stick with.
Though the vocals and lyrics on Neu Dae are pretty consistent from track-to-track, Evaridae’s production rarely stays in one place for long. His work ranges greatly in terms of emotional tone, as well as the types of instrumentation involved. On their recent album the tracks will bounce from big, techy beats like “killing time” to chill old-school jams like “spaulding ave.”
Evaridae credits this to a long-term experimental approach. When he began producing, he didn’t know what kind of music he wanted to make, so he simply tried everything, assembling beats from samples and later from melodies in his head. Usually he’ll make the bare bones of beats before sending them to Neuby. From there he’ll build the track up around the laid down vocals.
“Whatever I send [Neu Dae MC Neuby], that iteration of the beat is pretty bare bones. The way I work the best is if I make a four bar loop and then we get a 16 over it and record a rough copy of it. Then I’ll listen to his verse, and I’m like ‘OK, I’m going to drop the kick here, a little swell here, or some chimes or something.’ And, I think that makes it way more dynamic, for me at least,” Evaridae says.
Recently though, Salvat has found himself more and more drawn to one specific sound—one that balances influences from modern electronic acts like Flume with trappy drums and some old-school grit. The end result is something that falls in the same vein as El-P’s production for himself and Run The Jewels.
Evaridae says this direction will inform parts of a yet-to-be released, self-titled LP, and it features prominently on his recently released EP Stress Bless. His newer works also reflect a desire to branch out and work with more local artists, including Sincere Life, and hopefully national artists in the near future. He also wants to keep his brick-by-brick approach mostly intact, but has started to send finished beats to other artists.
Though he now lives in Milwaukee, 26-year-old Ian Carroll, who works under the name knowsthetime (f.k.a. hitmayng), is very much a part of Madison’s hip-hop scene.
Of all the producers at work in hip-hop in Wisconsin, knowsthetime may have the style most difficult to pin down. His tracks range from downtempo slow jams to heavy trap bangers. He credits this to his own eclectic taste, fostered from his teenage years as a scratching DJ.
After a hiatus and re-naming, though, Carroll (who produced for several years under the name *hitmayng) has found a more cohesive vein to his music. He describes it as more downtempo, experimental, and a bit jazzy. It will also continue to feature his longtime approach of creating textures out of random everyday recordings, like rain or the wind.
“Tracks feel more personal for me when you have these, I don’t know, little bits of audio that you’ve just kind of collected over time. I’ve done things where I have my girlfriend laughing or just the sound of her room and make it into a synthesizer, or have it be a background noise or making it a drum. It just feels more intimate ... it feels good,” Carroll says.
One track that showcases this new style and penchant for IRL-samples is “Rewind,” a track with former First Waver Bello. On the song, Carroll's instrumental is like a warm ocean, deep and vast. It never envelops or drowns Bello’s vocals (which are both rapped and sung), but instead the instrumental buoys them, allowing them to drift to and fro on the surface.
This emphasis on his new style, himself and his surroundings is something Carroll is focusing on for new collaborations and longer projects in the future. For those who like his music of old, however, it’s not going away entirely. Carroll has recently started digging through his own discography and releasing old beats that anyone is free to use, so long as they credit Carroll.
Moving forward, Carroll’s goal is to maintain the “experimental ethos” that his music has always had, but now to channel it in a clearer, more cohesive direction.
Another UW-Madison graduate who's stuck around the local scene, Daniel Zych, is a producer whose style is defined by the unique range of music he takes influences from. A guitar player since the age of 8, Zych played in bands all over the rock spectrum throughout high school before taking up hip-hop production a few years ago.
His initial beats don’t reflect this, though, in part due to a desire to experiment and improve his sound, but also because he was afraid that blending emo and hip-hop would be dismissed as corny. He always did want to enfold those kinds of melodies into rap beats, however, and it wasn’t until he began listening to Lil Peep at the end of 2015 that he realized that sort of mix could actually be viable.
His 2016 track “Cave,” with KennyHoopla, is his first release since this realization, and also Zych’s favorite of the tracks he's produced under the name taxpurposes. It showcases his ability to not just match the emotional quality of the artist’s vocals but also to amplify it in every direction.
“Whenever I start making [these beats], I always start with the melody, and it’s kind of got to be something that hits me in the soul a little bit,” Zych says.
“Cave,” and its positive reception, also marked a turning point for Zych in his career, as he now approaches producing more professionally and is now selective about the artists for whom he produces. He’s also continuing to make other more trap-focused beats but is really running with his new emotionally and melody-driven sound, since that is really what is taking off at the moment.
For the near future, Zych is continuing to work with KennyHoopla and other local artists and has some collaborations in the works with national artists that he had to remain mum on for the time being.
Since‘93, a graduate of UW, frequent collaborator of Rich Robbins, and the drummer of local band Bien Bien, has one goal in mind for basically every track he produces.
“A lot of my sound, I take it from the mountains,” he says. “Because I grew up in Colorado, I want my shit to sound like mountains. I fucking love the mountains.”
That impulse comes through in his music's balance of atmospheric, psychedelic tendencies and a sort of core earthiness.
Since‘93, real name Ben Karbank, takes an old-school approach to production is but his output doesn't come off as dated. A crate digger, he’ll pick out records that look or sound cool, or feature producers he likes. From there he’ll chop up a part that catches his ears, form a new melody, add drums and, lastly, he says, “make sure that shit bangs.”
This style of his shines especially bright on the recent Textures EP, the debut project pf Outsydus, a new group consisting of Karbank, Robbins, Milwaukee-based A.C. the Ruler, and Chicagoan FreeThe3rd. On “honest,” Karbank produces a beat that is understated but not without something to say. The sleek but slightly sad combination of keys, strings and sparse production provides each rapper a solid platform to talk about romance and its pitfalls.
Karbank has also been diving into the process of making beats from scratch, which he said has allowed him a new sense of originality and complexity in his music. He isn’t converting fully to this new approach, though, instead opting to use it side-by-side with more sample-based methods.
He said we can expect to hear some of his new approach on upcoming Rich Robbins tracks, which will be different than anything we’ve heard from the pair prior.
For a while, UW-Madison student Matt Engels occupied a bizarre position in local music. Working under the name Engelwood, he was and still is the most popular producer in Madison on Soundcloud, but for two years was largely unknown to fellow Madison-based artists.
His brand of tropical, sample-heavy, and highly listenable instrumental hip-hop had carried him far over the internet but had failed to make any sort of splash in Madison. A tad bitter he wasn’t getting any recognition at first, he eventually realized the importance of reaching out and making your own connections after watching a documentary about the origins of Atlanta hip-hop and R&B.
“Back then Atlanta was just as irrelevant as Madison. But just in a matter of a few years of hard work, dedication and [making connections], music was made that still influences all of the hip-hop that we hear today. I was inspired as fuck by that and I realized that that stuff is bigger than any individual making music,” Engels said.
His recent track with 3rd Dimension, "No Need," highlights the potential of future rapper collaborations with Engelwood. Engels’ airy instrumental seems to give the members of 3rd a brief respite from their usual grittiness.
His recent collaboration with Milwaukee-based Simon Eng, Jazz Channel, sports a departure from Engel’s usual tropical motifs. Inspired by the trend of lo-fi hip-hop, Engels thought he could make his music stand out more if he incorporated singers instead of rappers. And so, Jazz Channel was born, an EP that hearkens back to 40’s jazz singing but sets that influence in a fuzzy, at times distorted present.
In the near future, Engels says he'll focus on continuing to branch out as he did on Jazz Channel, but also returning a bit to his normal tropical form. He’s also looking to push his circle of collaborators in Madison wider, regardless of genre or popularity.
Trained in Indian percussion growing up, Bhairav Chandrashekar only really started producing last year. Going by his first name (all caps though), he still considers himself to be in an experimental phase with hip-hop. No two tracks he has produced are alike, and he is nowhere close to identifying a style or sound he wishes to stick with. This doesn’t mean he isn’t taking production seriously, though.
Instead of firing beats out at random, BHAIRAV has stuck to working one-on-one with artists he knows and respects. First, he’ll send them the bare bones of a beat he’s been working on. After the rapper has laid down vocals, BHAIRAV then goes back into the beat to build it around the rapper.
“I’ve just learnt a thing or two from performing professionally, that there is something to rejoice in just making music. But at the same time, there’s also something to rejoice in presenting it in a professional manner. When I hear my music, I want to feel the same way as when I listen to another album on Spotify,” Chandrashekar says.
This approach has manifested major dividends so far, especially on “Zeitgeist,” a recent collaboration with Oakland native and First Wave student Ru. Around an insidious snare, synth and chime core, BHAIRAV dresses the beat up in an eclectic assortment of accessories. The track plays like a love letter to different styles of hip-hop, and also accentuates Ru’s vocals like classy jewelry.
In the coming months, BHAIRAV plans to keep this approach and continue pushing his boundaries as well as those of his collaborators. A new collaborative mixtape with Ru, Son Of The Moon, is due out July 7.
Editor's note: In researching this story we looked hard for female/non-binary/LGBTQ hip-hop producers working in Madison and were shocked to come up empty-handed. Know someone we missed? Tell us.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to "Evaridae" as Zach Salvat's middle name. The reference has been corrected.