The rapper Yella Beezy was barely known outside of Dallas just six months ago, but when Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II tour came to town in September, they invited the 26-year-old to open for them. That’s thanks to “That’s on Me,” which is both a great single and a prophetic one: “You can snooze if you want to,” Beezy warns, “but not on me, baby.” And sure enough, the week ending September 22nd, almost a year after it originally came out, “That’s on Me” was crowned the Number One record on mainstream rap/R&B radio.
This is impressive not least because Beezy is an independent act: When the Dallas hip-hop station KBFB added “That’s on Me” into rotation in March, the rapper was still unsigned. He now has a deal with Hitco, an indie venture, even though it’s helmed by major-label veteran L.A. Reid, who was forced out of his position as chairman/CEO of Epic Records after allegations of sexual harassment.
In addition, unlike many other unexpected hits, Beezy’s does not have a streaming story to back it up. “That’s on Me” hasn’t even topped 10 million streams on Spotify; for comparison’s sake, the new Lil Baby and Gunna single “Drip Too Hard” recently racked up more streams than that in a single week — over 17 million — before it became the most-added record at radio. “That’s on Me” is a success from another era in the music business: DJs at an independently owned radio station, Dallas’ K-104 (KKDA), thought they had a hit on their hands and decided to give a previously obscure artist a slot on their playlist.
Beezy released “That’s on Me” in October 2017 during the run-up to November’s Lite Work 2 mixtape. The instrumental came from his go-to producer Shun on da Beat. “It was just something I was playing with,” the rapper says, speaking while also chewing on a Twizzler during the speediest of interviews squeezed between stops at SiriusXM and Tidal in New York City. “I knew it went hard.” Still, he was surprised when “everybody was jamming it. It grew in the streets, the strip clubs.”
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It also reached the ears of DJ Bay Bay, who helms the 3 – 7 p.m. weekday slot for KKDA. “Bay Bay’s always been a great friend and a great advisor to Beezy,” says George “Geo” Cook, who is director of operations, brand manager and program director for KKDA and its sister station, KRNB. “My team — DJ Steve Nice, DJ Duffey and particularly Bay Bay — said, ‘hey, we need to embrace this, it’s something special.'”
And it is: “That’s on Me” is stolid yet scornful, punctuated by a viscous bass line and shrieking sound effects. It doesn’t follow the template of popular SoundCloud rap or mimic the latest exports from Atlanta. “It’s distinctive, that’s one of the things I love about [‘That’s on Me’],” adds Terri Thomas, who put Beezy into rotation on Houston’s 97.9 the Box after it got major play in Dallas. “It’s not like anybody says, that record sounds like such and such right now.”
KKDA started playing “That’s on Me” November 26, and the single soon earned support from five different new-music-focused shows on the station. On March 20, Beezy’s single was also picked up by a cross-town competitor, 97.9 The Beat (KBFB). Initially, program director Mark McCray put “That’s on Me” into late-night mix-show rotation, which is like a soft opening for a restaurant — a way to test a new song without committing much to it. McCray was partially torn between two impulses. “To give up a slot on a radio station is a pretty big deal,” he says. At the same time, “any time you hear what sounds like a hit record coming out of your hometown, you try to showcase those.” A week later, the second instinct won out, and KBFB became the first station to put “That’s on Me” into full rotation.
Meanwhile, Beezy was facing another hurdle. “He was being developed, but not as quickly as he would have liked,” Cook explains. “He had made a commitment with that [signed a deal]. But he had this hot record. If you don’t take advantage of that momentum, you may lose your window.”
So the veteran program director decided to start spreading Beezy’s story outside of Dallas. “I got on the phone,” Cook says. “I started telling [prominent hip-hop executives]: Joie Manda and Larry Khan at Interscope, Kevin Lyles at 300 Entertainment, Juliette Jones at Atlantic, and of course Lionel [Ridenour, who works with L.A. Reid’s Hitco]. L.A. was sitting on money, and it was enough to get Beezy out of the [old] deal and still get a [new] deal himself.”
Many young artists today dismiss labels, but these institutions can still help turn a local story into a national one. “I wanted to be bigger than where I was,” Beezy says. “I actually want to be somebody.”
Ridenour was tasked with making “That’s on Me” a coast-to-coast hit. He’s done that before — with Rich Homie Quan’s Number One “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)” — and he had a simple game plan to help Beezy’s single grow. “If it could do the kind of researching and connecting with the audience that it did in Dallas, which is a major market, then there really shouldn’t be a reason why we couldn’t duplicate the same kind of excitement across the country,” Ridenour says.
“The Shazam aspect of it was a big key to this record,” he continues. “You put this thing on 20, 25 times in a seven-day period, the Shazams started showing up.” When Ridenour brought those numbers to program directors in Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis, they took note. Soon “That’s on Me” was being played in those markets as well.
It’s never an easy time to break a record at radio, but this summer was particularly challenging — between April and September, nearly every major hip-hop-adjacent artist of note put out an album, from Post Malone to Kanye West to Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Drake to Travis Scott to Eminem. But Ridenour had the luxury of persistence. “A lot of time with the major labels, because you have so much product, they don’t have time to stick with records,” the promoter says. “You gotta keep going with the hottest thing coming down the pipe.” He didn’t have that problem, so he kept pushing “That’s on Me,” and it kept climbing slowly, even if it didn’t earn a “most-added” distinction.
“Every week, we tried to make sure that it grew,” Ridenour says. “We weathered the Drake tsunami.” “That’s on Me” eventually cracked Philadelphia and infiltrated the northeast. By September, Beezy was getting 5,000 plays a week.
That’s when the rapper got a call from Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s team. “They told me, we don’t have nothing for such-and-such date, we want you to perform at the Beyoncé concert,” Beezy recalls. His response: “Shit, I’m with it.” After playing at the Cowboys stadium in his hometown, he also opened for the two stars in Houston. “In Dallas they just used to me; they more numb to it,” the rapper says. “I ain’t from Houston, so it’s like another star comin’ in [when I play there]. That shit was even more crazy.”
With “That’s on Me” at Number One, Beezy’s team started to turn their attention to “Up One,” the next single, which is the musical equivalent of a runaway truck, more unstoppable with each passing minute. Beezy continues to show his knack for three-syllable hooks that are triumphant as they are succinct, trading in “that’s on me” for “I’m up one.” While the rapper can be laconic, he allows that this song is “high energy.” “I feel like that is gonna be one of ’em,” he says. Last week, Billboard reported that “Up One” was the second most-added single at radio. Beezy plans to release a new album this November as well.
Texas radio programmers are excited about what Beezy’s success means for rap back home. “I love that there are artists out here from Texas that are helping diversify what people think the Texas sound is [aside from just Houston records],” says Thomas. “There’s a music scene in Dallas that doesn’t always get the national attention that it needs,” adds McCray. “We want to make sure that people understand there’s a lot of talent here.”
But there’s another takeaway from Beezy’s success that should be heartening to rappers regardless of where they live. If Beezy got a hit without a major-label budget or a major streaming-service promotion to back him up, so can they. As Cook puts it, “we live in an environment now, where anyone can catch a break.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first radio station in Dallas to play Yella Beezy’s “That’s on Me.” It was K-104 (KKDA), not 97.9 The Beat (KBFB).