Producer Khalief Brown: Beats for a Space Brawl
[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
It's rare that you hear a rap song on the radio and your only thought is, "Who produced this?" That's what happened last summer when I first heard Kid Ink's "Drippin'." The beat sounded like the trap on Alpha Centauri: a nightclub brawl between funky extraterrestrial synths and bludgeoning drums, a missing link between The Neptunes and Lex Luger.
The producer was 23-year-old Khalief "KB" Brown, a Virginia-bred, Rancho Cucamonga-based former shipyard worker, legal assistant and ASCAP intern.
"I try to blend the sounds of New York, Virginia, Atlanta and L.A.," Brown says, ticking off his previous stomping grounds on a rainy Friday earlier this month. He's wearing a camouflage Obey hoodie, blue jeans and retro patent-leather Jordans. His only jewelry is a modest diamond stud in his left ear. "It's about doing what other people wouldn't -- drop a trap beat out and pair it with an orchestra breakdown, or use a sample but reverse it. The first thing I often search for is a weird sound."
Producers, rappers and check-writing executives are forever attempting to copy current radio trends. Rick Ross' "B.M.F." resulted in a thousand others jacking the gothic curb-stomp of its aforementioned producer, Lex Luger. The saturnine stripper anthems of rapper Future caused Atlanta's Mike Will to be widely imitated. Though Brown uses similar materials, (production software Fruity Loops, 808 drums, hi-hats), he carves his own lane: up-tempo enough for the club, futuristic enough to pass for the newest banger pulsing out of L.A. beat-scene locus Low End Theory.
Brown's sound is beholden to no one region or rhythm -- fitting for someone who has lived in nearly every major hip-hop production hub. Born to a hairdresser mother who loved old R&B, Brown lived in Queens until he was 8. He taught himself to produce while attending high school in Newport News, Va., the home state of Luger, The Neptunes, Timbaland and Teddy Riley. Shortly after graduation, he went to work in the shipyard, one of the chief employers in town.
"It was well-paid because it's so dangerous," Brown says. "At 19, I was making $20 an hour, more than all of my friends. But I woke up one day and said, 'This is not my life. I can't do this.' "
Quitting the shipyard, Brown promptly moved to Atlanta, where a chance performance in a beat battle landed him his current manager. The manager helped him get several placements on records from Atlanta party rap group Travis Porter. Soon after, Big Sean, 2 Chainz and Meek Mill started rapping over Brown's tracks.
But the breakthrough was last June's "Drippin'." At the time of its release, Brown was flat broke, having recently uprooted his life to move closer to his wife's family in the Inland Empire.
"I was praying for something to come through. I thought, if I'm really supposed to be doing music, show me a sign," Brown says, grinning. "I'd been meeting with labels the entire previous year and people would say, 'Oh, you're dope, we want to sign you.' But it stopped there. Then 'Drippin' came out and a week later, I got a deal with Artist Publishing Group."
Throughout the second half of 2012,"Drippin' " stayed in heavy rotation on Power 106. Most recently, Brown's beats popped up on an acclaimed mixtape from fast-rising Louisiana rap star Kevin Gates. Brown may not yet be at the level where he's being copied, but he's rapidly emerging as one of the best young producers out there. If he keeps it up, no one will need to ask any more questions.
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