How the Producer Drop Changed Rap Music
This February at Madison Square Garden, 20,000 people – and an undetermined but staggering number of reporters – turned out for a fledgling fashion designer’s third collection with Adidas. The real draw, of course, was that Kanye West was soundtracking the march of models with his then-unreleased seventh album, The Life of Pablo. The first song was a slow gospel burn, anchored by a verse from Chance the Rapper and a choir led by The-Dream. The second starts more or less the same way, with a sampled church group. Then, everything stops: “If young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you.”
The voice belongs to Future, the line an alternate take from an Uncle Murda single on which he was featured. Future doesn’t appear on Kanye’s song, which would later be revealed as “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” – nor on its sequel, which does feature a teenaged Future sound-alike from Brooklyn named Desiigner. The star, of course, is Metro Boomin, a St. Louis-born, Atlanta-based producer who’s becoming a superstar for his work with Future, Young Thug and a litany of other big names. For some fans, half the fun of a Metro Boomin beat – aside from the skeletal rattling and punishing low end – is hearing one of his handful of signature drops.
Those three seconds – “If young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you” – have become, to many people, the most memorable part of this year’s first real blockbuster release. To the uninitiated, they’re referred to as a producer’s tag, or a producer’s drop, used to identify the unseen hands on your favorite rap songs. And in the last decade-and-a-half, they’ve evolved from a last-ditch anti-piracy effort into part of the creative process, a piece of hip-hop that’s now more prevalent even than DJs scratching on records.
It was a long time coming. As any rudimentary history of the genre will point out, hip-hop’s first stars were the DJs. Rappers are called MCs for a reason; they were facilitating the parties that were directed from behind the decks. You’ve seen the old records: “Eric B. Is President,” “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” Jam Master Jay was the third member of Run-DMC, not Larry Smith. But by the start of the 1990s, producers were building a cache of their own, whether they could spin or not. Producer tags share some DNA with DJ drops – the talking-over-records phenomenon that gives mixtapes a distinct character – but they serve different purposes.
First, it might help to clarify something: in most genres of music, “producer” is a nebulous term. It’s applied to people with a variety of roles, from engineer-in-chief to chorus guru to omnipotent creative czar. In rap, it refers almost exclusively to the person who makes the beat for a song – which is how a song today can be “produced” by someone via Dropbox from across the world.
But for most of rap’s first two decades as a commercial enterprise, producers were making beats for artists with whom they already had relationships, or in album-length quantities for rappers who sought them out. (Ice Cube moved to New York to make records with the Bomb Squad, he didn’t send an email and pick two tracks.) When producers shopped their work, they were peddling beats to A&Rs, not the public. So sure, here’s a Pete Rock remix of a Brand Nubian song from 1991, where the legendary producer can be heard talking over the beat, including saying his own name. But this is the finished track, not a consumer-facing product for consumption. That would come later.
At the turn of the century, a few things were brewing that would eventually make the producer tag ubiquitous. First, producers were becoming stars in a way they hadn’t been before, guns-for-hire that guaranteed more hits or deeper crates than anyone else. On “Oh Boy,” which became a hit for Cam’ron and Juelz Santana in 2002, Just Blaze moved a clip of Cam saying his producer’s name to the record’s very beginning. The trademark – eventually voiced by Blaze himself – not only helped bolster his reputation, but was eventually requested by artists he worked with.
“I’m not dancing in videos,” he said in a 2006 lecture for RBMA. “I have to do something to kind of brand myself. Because it’s all about really the perception. You make yourself look bigger than you are, you will eventually become that. It was like, ‘Alright, if I know I’m about to have five or six big records out and at the beginning of the record every song starts out with somebody saying ‘Just Blaze,’ people might not even know who I am or that it’s a person but eventually they’ll catch on.’” When he tried to end the practice, rappers balked. “Artists were starting to tell me that... people were checking or they were paying more attention to a song when they would hear that at the beginning,” he said. “So in some instances artists were asking me to put it on there, even when I wanted to stop doing it.”
In the early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon for famous producers to add live vocals to a track to identify it. See Jermaine Dupri’s innumerable “So So Def” introductions, or when Chicago street rap star Bump J dropped “Move Around” on Atlantic and recruited another Windy City native to boost his radio prospects. “Yo Bump, I just wanna make sure everybody know who did the track – Kanye to the.”
At the other end of the professional spectrum, fledgling rappers were starting to source beats online, where similarly hopeful producers were trying to catch their big break. Before Bandcamp and Soundcloud became industry standards, beats were shopped and shopped for on Soundclick.com. Tracks went for cheap – maybe $150 for exclusive rights, with “leases” allowing limited commercial use for as little as $20. To guard against unauthorized use, producers would add drops of their own to beats, often multiple times throughout the song and at key portions, like in the middle of a hook.
But it quickly became obvious that aspiring MCs could work around the restrictions. Masai Andrews, an activist and rapper from Albany, NY, remembers the process, saying, “The obvious answer is find untagged portions of the beat, chop it up, arrange them, and loop it.” He adds, “I’ve done this before and I’m not proud of it.”
Not all producers feel the need to participate. Psymun, a Minneapolis-St. Paul native famous for his own instrumental work and for his role in the supergroup The Stand4rd, has never used one. “The goal as an artist is to move an idea or a feeling from one person or group to next,” he says, “so in my mind if someone is inspired by my music to create something, it’s absurd to try and deter that, whether it be via tags or copyright – especially when I came up on sampling, in a genre that came up on sampling.”
Yet tags persist, despite the relative ease with which they could be excised, precisely because of people like Blaze, Mannie Fresh, and others, who made a dramatic name feel like an important moment on a record. On “3 Peat,” the intro from his blockbuster Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne even works producer Maestro’s tag into his rhyme scheme. DJ Mustard’s is as famous as his borrowed Bay Area keys; JUSTICE League, Harry Fraud, and the entirety of the Maybach Music Group catalog brought disaffected intercom voices back in style. Producers like Mike WiLL Made It and London on da Track have names that are tailored to be declarations themselves. If a 16-year-old rapper in Orlando can’t afford a Sonny Digital beat (and the drop that comes with it) he’ll make do with one he can afford. Better yet, his voice might end up becoming the new tag everyone wants.
Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” is credited to seven different producers: West; Noah Goldstein; Allen Ritter; Rick Rubin, the Def Jam co-founder famous for stripping songs and albums down to their cores; DJDS, the Los Angeles duo better known as DJ Dodger Stadium before lawyers got involved; Mike Dean, the Southern production pioneer from Houston who West has latched onto in recent years; and Metro.
Alex Tumay, an engineer to many of rap’s biggest stars who’s perhaps best known as a creative director of sorts for Young Thug, came up with Metro’s most famous drop. “I created the ‘Metro Boomin want some more’ tag out of the song ‘Some More’ with Young Thug,” he remembers, explaining that most are taken from existing vocal takes, rather than engineered from scratch. “It just felt right to make it in the moment.”
Given his role in the creative processes of famous artists, often those on major labels, Tumay’s been witness to minor disputes over the inclusion or placement of tags. “A lot of artists hate tags,” he says. “They feel like they’re distracting. A few songs I’ve worked on, I’ve put the tags at the end so they were more of a closing moment than an interruption to the song. Other times, It’s in the intro somewhere, so it’s not a big deal.” He estimates that of the hundreds of submitted beats he sifts through each month, “99 percent” have tags added.
And while he’s adjusted volumes on said tags or requested the removal of some that were “over-the-top,” Tumay has been reticent to get rid of them all together. “A lot of the time with the way this industry is set up people don’t get credited or paid on projects,” he says. “So that tag is their own version of insurance.”