About three months ago I received an email requesting my presence at the Red Bull Big Tune Beat competition, a tour that pits producers in head-to-head beat battles. I've been to functions like this before, but I wasn't sure what to expect considering this one was sponsored by Red Bull, which, as a brand, seems to have its finger on the pulse of the underground hip-hop scene. Walking toward the entrance of the Metro, I noticed a mammoth black SUV with the Red Bull logo splattered on the side. Inside the beast a DJ was spinning and in the trunk was an Xbox 360 available to pretty much anyone wanting to play. It was obvious that a lot of money went into this event. Could these producers measure up?
There were some notable names among the 12 competitors, including last year's winner, Tall Black Guy. As the competition progressed, though, it was clear some belonged there while others didn't; it was also clear that the producer who stood head-and-shoulders above the rest was Chicago's own J-Rell. The ease with which Rell dismantled the competition was noteworthy in itself, but what really impressed me was his humble, matter-of-fact demeanor. It's clear that regardless of who he's "competing" against, ultimately he makes beats for himself.
In the end, J-Rell edged out J-Mac of North Carolina, and the affluent crowd there knew they had just witnessed an important moment. Since the competition, Rell's name has been floating around some deep circles and big projects seem to be on the horizon. Centerstage recently caught up with him to see how he got started in producing and how winning the competition changed his life.
What was it about hip-hop that spoke to you?
Two words: no restrictions. To me, hip-hop is a culture that many misinterpreted as a bad culture to be part of. In the world of hip-hop you can turn nothing to something, from something to a much greater height of discovery. I first got into hip-hop around the age of ten. First group I ever heard of was Wu-Tang Clan through a relative. As time flew by I started listening to artists from mainstream to underground to unsigned hype. Overall I just love everything about it from the music, fashion and the creativity behind it.
How did you get interested in production?
I started off DJing at the age of twelve. The mentor who played a huge part in why I do both DJing & producing is Boolumaster. He's a well respected DJ in the city and I was the lucky kid who received the pair of turntables from him on Christmas day. It was also on his MPC 2000 beat machine where I had my first taste of making beats. I didn't start getting more into it until I received my first computer on which I downloaded a version of Hip Hop EJ. The program was loop only and you can only use the sounds built in it. As years progressed I was able to buy more equipment and software to help mold my sound.
Who are some of your influences inside and outside of hip-hop?
I'll have to say inside the genre will be producers such as J.Dilla, Kanye West, Focus, Nottz and Rza. Outside the genre I'll have to say the veterans such as Gamble & Huff, Quincy Jones and also Daft Punk. Doing your research on producers before you can really help your style in a good way.
As a producer you're the architect. What's your philosophy going into it?
Making whatever feels and sounds good to you. A lot of "beat-makers" go out of their way to just make what seems right for the radio or playing it safe. Not realizing that they are just a clone of the original creator of that particular sound at that moment. Hence why a lot of songs out now sound the same. When I approach a beat I go through my checklist. Is it creative but not over the top to where it'll be hard for the artist to express their creativity over it? Above all else, do I like it? I'm my own worst critic and won't save a beat unless I feel like I can play it twenty times that day and enjoy it every time.
Do you have a different approach if you're producing for an MC?
Not really. What normally happens is I'll know beforehand what that particular artist likes. I'll play or send a few beats that I can hear he/she over, give them my idea as far as a song subject matter and we'll build from there.
Are you working with any MCs right now?
Yes. To be honest ever since the Red Bull Beat Battle, the demand has definitely increased. I'm currently working with artists such as Enigma, Prallem, Dave Pracyse, YP, 3tre, Esohel and a list of others. I'm focused on making the best music possible with those that appreciate art.
Tell me about the Red Bull Big Tune Beat Battle?
It's a head-to-head producer battle that was held here in Chicago. Out of around 220 submissions, twelve producers were chosen. Each producer played two beats and the crowd made the ultimate decision on who stayed and who went home. I was blessed to be able to win the crown as Chicago's '09 Big Tune Champion and compete in the finals in Atlanta in November.
There was an interesting blend of competitors there; you had your old-school heads, the younger generation and some progressive-minded producers. In what ways is this batch of producers changing hip-hop?
I wouldn't say it's changing hip-hop but that it's what makes hip-hop what it is today. A melting pot of different sub genres and regions that you can go to based on your personal preference. You need variety and without it you're stuck with an abundance of the same thing. If you get tired of mainstream you can run and find something fresh and new underground and vice versa.
What do you think about the underground's relationship to mainstream hip-hop?
Unfortunately it has always been segregated. Underground you have more freedom musically but less perks - no huge budget, or extravagant tours - to where mainstream you lose a bit of freedom but you gain much more as far as marketing to get more fans, radio play, and in most cases money. But at the end of the day both influence each other and I would personally like to hear more underground heard on a wider scale, but that's another interview.
How have things changed since the competition?
For the better! More people have reached out for collaborations, the name J-Rell is ringing a little bit more, and it's something I can add on to the resume so I can't complain at all. I'm very humbled by it.
What's the next step for you in terms of continuing your success?
Not limiting myself to just one thing. From here, I'm working on building my brand not only as a producer but also as a DJ which is my first love, music artist, and artist development for musicians I work with. I feel that's one piece missing from the industry, which is the molding of an artist past their one hit single and to help bring longevity in their careers. Mark my words, Jeff; it won't stop here.