Greenwich, Connecticut, home to the Winklevoss twins, Vince McMahon, and every New York hedge fund vampire above the age of 35, has improbably produced two of the most electrifying cultural folk heroes to emerge in 2018: Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and rap producer Kenny Beats.
Last spring, as Mitchell flambéed the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA playoffs, Kenny sprang from relative obscurity and took off an a colossal tear in the rap world. The stretch from the beginning of May to the end of June witnessed the release of 777, his joint project with Key!, as well as Rico Nasty’s Nasty, Freddie Gibbs’s Freddie, and 03 Greedo’s God Level, all projects he contributed several beats to. On these albums, he demonstrated both finesse and power—the range to craft a bedroom serenade like Greedo’s “In My Feelings” in one moment, a wig-splitting riot-starter like Gibbs’s “Automatic” the next. Such a concentration of heat hasn’t been heard from a single producer since Metro Boomin lit the summer of 2015 on fire with his collaborations with Future, Drake, and Travis Scott.
In other words, Kenny snatched the torch for hottest rap producer on the planet and has been running with it ever since. His momentum hasn’t wavered this fall, between his oversight of Vince Staples’s FM! and ALLBLACK’s 2 Minute Drills and his one-off collaborations with artists like Zack Fox, DRAM, Jay Critch, JPEGMAFIA, J.I.D, and Ski Mask the Slump God. A rap producer’s clout can be measured in part by the excitement his producer tag elicits; with almost 100 production credits to his name in 2018, Kenny has conditioned listeners to expect the words “Woah, Kenny!” to trigger nothing less than a beat drop of seismic proportions. In September, he humbly tweeted: “I just want people to hear that woah kenny and know for the next 2 minutes and 30 seconds I got your back.”
The 27-year-old producer started out as a multi-instrumentalist and eager beatmaker who made tracks for rappers like Smoke DZA, ScHoolboy Q, and even Kendrick Lamar while he was in college. Then he was abruptly sucked into the comparatively lucrative world of EDM and embarked on a three-year excursion around the globe as one-half of the electronic duo LOUDPVCK, only to find himself, as he told The Fader, in “a deep hole of depression.” He quit EDM mid-2017 and recommitted himself to rap music; he claimed Ron Artest’s old Burbank studio as his HQ, hunkered down there for six months of self-imposed exile, and instituted an obsessive, Coltrane-esque practice regimen of 12 to 14 hours per day in order to broaden and refine his vocabulary. “I made 500 beats,” he said in an interview on the podcast A Waste of Time With ItsTheReal. “Literally, 500 MP3s, of all different tempos, of Oakland shit, Chicago shit, Texas shit, whatever I’m missing.” At the end of 2017, he emerged from his cave reborn and declared Kenny Beats the rap producer open for business.
Kenny’s rapid rise in 2018 marks the culmination of a musical odyssey spanning nearly two decades. Kenneth Blume III picked up guitar at age 9, drums at 11, and starting making beats on the video game MTV Music Generator at 13. In high school, he stayed late recreating the beats Timbaland played for Jay-Z in the documentary Fade to Black. He invited every aspiring rapper in Fairfield County to his dad’s apartment in Greenwich to record on a cheap mic from the Apple Store. And when he wasn’t making music, he was taking trips into Manhattan to intern for RCA and Cinematic Music Group honcho Jonny Shipes. “My senior year I had a Kenny Beats MySpace,” he said to The Fader. “Every one of my friends was going D2 for lacrosse or playing football and I’m 6′7″. Kids were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re supposed to be playing basketball, you’re out of your fucking mind.’ But I was literally the only one of my friends who was like, ‘No, I wanna make beats.’ Rap music’s the only thing that ever mattered.”
Kenny matriculated to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied jazz guitar and music business and used his side-hustle selling weed to network with out-of-town rappers and, by extension, advance his ambitions as a producer. One day, he finessed his way to the back area of a Habits and Contradictions–era ScHoolboy Q signing at a sneaker store and played Ab-Soul three beats off his phone. Ab-Soul helped him secure placements for all three: the beats became Soul’s “Hunnid Stax,” Q’s “Party,” and Smoke DZA’s “Diamond.” Despite this coup, Kenny found his rap earnings meager, insufficient to cover his rent. The same month “Party” dropped, a friend introduced him to EDM and informed him of the exorbitant sums the genre’s DJs regularly raked in. “This kid’s making 10 grand a night?” he told ItsTheReal. “I was like, I just signed a thousand-dollar iStandard hip-hop contract to give away my royalties for life on a song two days ago.”
Confident he could match the sound of electronic producers like Baauer and Flosstradamus, Kenny tried his hand producing in the style of the EDM subgenre known as trap, a face-melting blend of dubstep and hip-hop. He and his LOUDPVCK partner Ryan Marks found instant success—within a matter of weeks, they had flown to L.A., met with labels, and hired a coterie of professionals to guide their blossoming career. In a video of LOUDPVCK’s set from 2015’s Electric Daisy Carnival, Kenny can be seen hunched over his DJ controller, operating the faders, triggers, and knobs with laser focus, seemingly oblivious to the molly-whopped crowd thrashing before him. Here he was, living his dream as a working musician. It wasn’t all festivals and Chainsmokers remixes—LOUDPVCK collaborated with rappers like Reese LaFlare, A$AP Ferg, and Nipsey Hussle—but Kenny still yearned to make more rap music. Creatively unfulfilled and burnt out from all the travel, he quit EDM after an epiphany in Australia. “I’d done music before to get a check and it can never be about that again,” he said in an interview with Noisey. “I don’t want to leave that as my legacy. It’s legacy time.”
As he set out on this new life chapter, Kenny resolved to work with rappers only in person and to refrain from sending them beats over email. He identified himself as a producer rather than beatmaker—essentially, he desired active collaborations. “I get all these big DMs from people all the time [asking for beats],” he told ItsTheReal. “If I don’t have a vision, there’s no point in me doing it, because I’m just bringing you hot beats. And I don’t want to do that.” More often than not, he has aligned himself with enigmatic rappers a tad too left-field to achieve mainstream stardom—rappers like Key!, who would give him cryptic instructions like “I want 160 [BPM], pink hair shit, Bjork samples only. In 15 minutes I’ll be back from the store. Have it ready”; or Rico Nasty, who, in their very first session, expressed a desire for “heavy metal” and “Death Grips” that ultimately yielded the instant classic “Smack a Bitch”; or JPEGMAFIA, who told him, “Play me the weirdest shit in your computer.” Even as far as more popular artists go, Kenny has tended to wind up in sessions with the quirkier ones, like Young Thug or Vince Staples, who introduced himself by sending Kenny a DM that read, “Waddup, black man.”
Kenny’s eagerness to collaborate, his reluctance to peddle premade beats, and his preference to build songs from scratch with rappers at his side—these are not radical traits. But with each of his productions this year, and in particular each of his joint projects, he has exhibited a unique chameleonic ability to cater to the sensibilities of each artist. On 777, Kenny mirrors Key!’s every eccentric whim, leaping from the bittersweet hosannas of “Demolition 1 + 2” to the sinister “Hater,” from the schizophrenic “Blurry” to the sunny, detuned keys of “Boss.” In the case of both the paranoid Southern Californian party music of Vince Staples’ FM! (for which he produced or co-produced nine of 11 tracks) and the brolic East Bay bounce of ALLBLACK’s 2 Minute Drills (for which he produced every song), he hones in on a regional style and successfully threads a focused sound and concept across an entire project.
Kenny’s adaptability stems in part from the technical foundation he developed as an EDM producer and from his fluency in both rap and electronic music. Though any given attempt to fuse these two genres can quickly go off the rails, electronic producers like Carnage, Skrillex, Diplo, and Daft Punk have a strong track record of raising rap songs to a fever pitch. But few producers steeped in electronic music, if any, have dedicated themselves to producing rap to the extent that Kenny has. And while he is eager to put his time in the EDM world behind him, he readily admitted to ItsTheReal that his experiences there taught him what he refers to as “insurmountable amounts of production knowledge.” “When I’m mixing rap, even if it’s like some super street hard shit, I’m calling EDM producers to ask about compressors and reverb,” he said in an interview with Pitchfork. “Those dudes know more than anyone I ever met. Being in the EDM world taught me that nothing’s impossible. There are so many resources that EDM producers get put onto on day one that rap producers don’t find about for five years.”
It should come as no surprise that a former EDM producer is responsible for several of the hardest songs of the year—Gibbs’ “Automatic,” 03 Greedo’s “Street Life,” and Rico’s “Trust Issues,” to name three, all place punishing 808s amid eerie atmospheric synths that feel like noxious vapors. If Kenny has anything resembling a signature sound, it is his visceral, full-bodied low end, a more controlled and textured version of the blown-out bass native to SoundCloud rap. It sounds like Kenny Beats is trying to rip a hole in the space-time continuum.
The only rap producer to match Kenny this year may be Tay Keith, the young Memphis native behind Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” Drake’s “Nonstop,” and BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive.” But by building up artists that dwell in the fringes of rap, Kenny not only covered an unparalleled amount of ground, he also positioned himself as a significant tastemaker. Earlier this week, he revealed on Twitter that he’s releasing a joint mixtape with the largely unknown Q Da Fool in January. The 21-year-old Maryland rapper is poised to become the latest star to appear in Kenny’s ever-expanding constellation of collaborations—the producer is on a mission to light up the entire sky.
Danny Schwartz is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Pitchfork, and BandCamp.