Why Being a Hip-Hop Producer Sucks
After what seemed like an endless stream of promotional hype, 50 Cent’sAnimal Ambition, finally hit stores and streaming outlets yesterday (June 3). His fifth official studio record, it comes almost a full five years after his last LP was released, and if it sounds a little dated, that’s probably because it is.
In a series of interviews at XXLMag.com, the producers who worked on the album described what went into making each song. The overarching theme was that very few of them knew what was going on with the project until it was actually time for it to be released. Over the course of five years, one of the producers had given up on making records altogether.
According to the interviews, Charli Brown Beatz made the track for “Don’t Worry Bout It” in 2008, sent it to 50 in 2009, and didn’t hear the song until it was on the radio in March. Another producer, Frank Dukes, who made the track for “Hold On,” had sent over the instrumental five years ago, and wasn’t aware of the song’s existence until 8-9 months ago. Steve Alien’s beat for “Everytime I Come Around” is also roughly five-years-old.; so old, in fact, that by the time 50’s label came calling he had ditched beatmaking, and couldn’t even find the files.
The decentralization of the recording business has been good for many things, but it’s been particularly bad for record producers. The hip-hop genre has been affected more than most. Many hip-hop beatmakers craft their beats on their own, then send them out as instrumentals or half-completed ideas— occasionally with demoed choruses on them— in hopes that an artist will like the tracks and record songs to them.
Advancements in recording technology have put the power of entire recording studios inside of a laptop, allowing artists to make records on their own, without any input from the producer i.e. the person who made the music. The songs get finished, cataloged in a folder or on an iTunes playlist, and filed away until they’re ready to be released.
The producer doesn’t know the fate of the song until the very last minute, when the artist’s reps either call to due their due diligence— pay for the beat, get the files so they can mix the finished record— or worse, when they hear it on the radio or the internet.
So what happens is that the producer has no control over his/her material, and is essentially at the mercy of the artist. If it’s someone like 50 Cent, whose career is very calculated and might not release an album without the proper set up, the producer is left waiting in the wings until the album is released. Their material has been used, but they won’t get paid until the very last second. In this case, they were waiting five years.
Now, historically 50 Cent has worked with a lot of new producers, and having a beat on one of his LPs— at least in his earlier years— could be life-altering. Outside of the producer fee itself, it could lead to a song deal, publishing deal, maybe work with another artist. 50 Cent is far from the industry’s most trendsetting artist these days, but he’s still 50 Cent. People are undoubtedly paying attention and to work with someone of his caliber is still great for discography-building.
But 50 Cent lucked out in that the beats he wanted from these producers were still available. And there are probably songs that 50 tried to put on the album’s final tracklist that he couldn’t, because the producers sold their beats to someone else, or worse, couldn’t even find the source files.
That’s to say nothing of the hundreds of songs that he recorded in the five year span between this LP and his last, songs that are now sitting idly on a hard drive somewhere, the producers of them still toiling away night after night, never knowing that they had a 50 Cent song somewhere under their belt.
This scenario repeats itself endlessly in hip-hop, with rappers who are signed to labels amassing huge catalogs of songs to beats they’ve never paid for. The producers have to just bide their time, cross their fingers and hope someone at a company finds it within reason to give the green light for an artist’s project to come out. Then, they need to hope their song makes it onto the final tracklist. It’s a nail-biting experience, and unless you’re sitting on some money, it’s hardly sustainable. If luck is on your side, one day you get a random call about some beat you emailed to an artist or his A&R rep five years ago, and you’re in business. Otherwise, you’re entire career is working on spec.
The music industry has always been a place where the unexpected happens— entertainment industries are like that; one day the phone magically rings and your life can change— but right now it’s the real wild west. If you’re looking to plan out your music career, it’s impossibly difficult. You’ll just have to cross your fingers and hope something sticks.