Kenny Beats leans back and forth in a swivel chair, his movements matching the rhythm of his words, his face darting in and out of the conference room shadows. He’s describing L.A. rapper 03 Greedo’s last days of freedom before he turned himself in to serve 20 years in prison for drug and gun possession. It’s a subject he feels strongly about. Kenny’s voice is a mixture of reverence and pain as he speaks about his collaborator — half lamenting, half mythologizing.
“I can’t understand anything about that,” he says, referring to Greedo’s long alleged history with gangs and drug deals. “But I grew to kind of have an in via his music to the smallest piece of what he was going through, ‘cause every night he would literally go in [the booth] and talk. And do a song called ‘Life,’ about getting life in prison, when he wasn’t sure if he was going to face life or not. You’re sitting there when he comes out of there. What are you gonna say? ‘That’s a dope hook?’ There’s nothing you can say… I have 120 Greedo songs, and it’s so hard to play some of them, but at the same time, more than anything else I could’ve done for him as a person, at least we got to get those songs out. We have those songs.”
Kenny Beats cares. He’s preternaturally empathetic. It’s his thing, and it’s one reason the last few years have gone so well for him. Artists want to talk to Kenny, who comes off in conversation like a therapist stuck in the body of a basketball player. Walking over marble floors in the middle of a Manhattan high-rise, one half expects the Knicks’ front office to hop out and try to pass him off as Kristaps Porzingis. For the last two years, he’s devoted himself to listening to people: He delivered heavy metal beats to Rico Nasty upon her request, despite how extreme the request sounded at the time, and helped Vince Staples make his most streamlined album to date with FM!
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“Let me give this person anything they need for two months and then show everybody,” Kenny says, describing how he prefers to work. “Literally, free studio time. Don’t worry about beats, don’t worry about the cost of it, don’t worry about anything. Just say to me what you want to make.”
Kenny is a talented producer, but it’s that lack of pretension that’s helped him make some of the most cohesive projects on the market. He’s willing to play the director of photography, and let the rappers be the auteurs.
“Most of these producers have an agenda of what they want to push or what they think will be hot for someone,” he says. “I don’t have an agenda. My agenda is to take someone and bring out their dreams, what they’re hearing in their head.”
Kenny grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He got his start as a producer remaking Brandy’s 2004 song “Come As You Are” by watching Timbaland show it to Jay-Z in the movie Fade to Black. He couldn’t help but try and make it himself. His career from there took a lot of turns, all of which he seems to remember fondly. Before the days of his now-noticeable “Whoa, Kenny!” producer tag, he was splitting his time studying music business at Berklee College of Music and hustling to build a career as a full-time beatmaker. He can reminisce about being an intern for Cinematic Music Group founder Jonny Shipes and watching Big KRIT’s first XXL interview with the same clarity he remembers selling Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q weed to get his beats to them. His early placements included Smoke DZA’s “Continental Kush Breakfast,” and — when the weed-selling maneuver worked out — Schoolboy Q’s “Party” and Ab-Soul’s “Hunnid Stax.”
“I was about to be a senior in college,” he says. “I had these couple placements under my belt, but the most I’d ever seen for a beat was like $1,000, $1,500. I would get these random boilerplate contracts from companies that I know now are screwing over young producers. They’d send me something like, ‘Yo, we love this beat. We’re going to put you on every blog tomorrow. We need you to sign this.’”
Adds the producer, “The song would come out, and then I’d be like, ‘That was it? ‘What happens from here? What do I do next?’ I had no concept of a manager or lawyer, an agent, nothing like that.”
At the suggestion of a friend, Kenny took notice of the emerging world of EDM artists like RL Grime, Flosstradamus, and Baauer. They seemed to be making money; the scene was beginning its boom period. Kenny pivoted. Alongside Ryan Marks, he performed as LOUDPVCK and quickly gained nearly everything that had eluded him as a beatmaker: a manager, agent, shows, compensation.
“I never was able to pay any type of bill doing the music that I was instinctually was making ‘cause I loved it,” Kenny says. “I had to kind of pivot into doing the stuff that someone had taught me about to really get on my feet. Once I got on my feet a couple of years ago, I just kind of had this epiphany of like, if I get hit by a car tomorrow and I’m known for build-ups and drops… That thought, I felt like I fell through the fucking floor, like a thousand stories.”
LOUDPVCK dissolved in 2017. Kenny promised himself one thing: “There’s a difference between a beatmaker and a producer. When I came back I was like, ‘I will not be a beatmaker.'”
“When people are saying something to you, you gotta listen to them,” he says. “It’s a conversation you can’t have if you send ten beats in a folder. ‘Cause there is no conversation.”
So he doesn’t send beats. If you want to work with Kenny, he has to be in the studio, and when an artist takes a bathroom or smoke break, there is a good chance he’s going to talk to the engineer until they get the song right.
“I’m not just an engineer and the mixing guy and the fucking mastering guy and the producer and the therapist and the janitor in the studio for every single one of these jobs,” he says. “You’re a friend to this artist. You gotta care.”
Kenny sees Rico Nasty as one of his best collaborators. “Rico is in her early twenties,” he says. “She’s an unbelievable mom. She helps her family. When she comes to my studio, for her to make music in the midst of all the things she’s got going on — and having the life Rico has, it’s a lot. For her to come in there and me to be dull to what’s going on in her life, and not understand what she has going on in her head that day? Why she’s acting how she’s acting and why her music means what it means, and who’s she’s speaking to? And ignore all those things and just think about, ‘What are hot songs?,’ ‘What do we need for a single?,’ ‘What is this beat going to sound like?’ I’m not doing her justice. And I don’t think the music is going to do either one of us justice.”
2018 was the biggest year of Kenny’s career, which is partially owed to the partnership he forged with Key!, who he’s known for five years. They’d run into each other at sessions, and the Atlanta rapper was always the most talented musician in the room. They began working together.
“I will say that there’s nothing more important to me than 777,” Kenny says, of the full-length he produced for Key! last year. “It just meant a lot to both of us. I feel like Key! was speaking for me on a lot of songs. We’d talk about something and he’d go in there and say something after it about relationships or about shit that’s going on, but he’s speaking for both of us. He’s speaking for a lot more than just us.”
He might have not known it then, but Key! succinctly laid out the ethos of his collaborator on 777’s album opener “Demolition 1 + 2.” Over a sample of a soaring choir, the Atlanta rapper simply states, “Please don’t worry, let me.”
After years of boilerplate contracts, an unfulfilling EDM turn and a more rewarding time shepherding artists towards their own Kenny Beats-produced concept albums, Kenny and his manager, Mike Power, are building something of their own — a place where it’s Kenny’s job to listen, worry about what he’s listening to, then make something out of that chaos. They’re calling the company D.O.T.S.
“Let’s work with our favorite artists,” Power explains over the phone. “Let’s not make it about the numbers, because obviously, we’ve been working with every size artist. We wanted to start working with people and not have people tell us who we should be working with based on what the financial turnout was going to be, or what the streaming numbers would end up being, or what the radio plays would end up being. It was: ‘Let’s make art that we’re passionate about,’ because eventually it’s going to translate.”
Kenny puts it even more simply: “I just felt like having something with no expiration date that can live bigger than me.”