The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. In some songs, the producer is both the band leader and the band, yet his or her name is often unknown. Every other week, with Beat Construction, an extension of our column in the magazine, we aim to illuminate the role producers are playing in creating some of our favorite music. For the latest installment we talk to New Orleans beatsmith Kenoe who cut his teeth running with the No Limit camp at the height of their reign and has since laced the likes of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and, most recently, Nicki Minaj, with the street hit "Beez In The Trap."
How did you get down with No Limit back in the days? When No Limit was hot I used to shoot basketball in the rec center at LSU. Master P and C-Murder and them used to come in there and play basketball all the time. Finally one day I just gave my beats to C-Murder and he was like, "I'mma put you on." He started networking me with the artists within the No Limit camp and from there it just expanded. Me building up a resume by working with a hot camp, I was able to get into a few doors and play beats for other artists.
What was the process like with No Limit?. I wasn't really in [No Limit in-house production unit] Beats By The Pound. When I came there I just was this little kid with beats, a young cat hanging around the studio. Beats By The Pound was pumping out three albums a month. I had to hang around all the time because they wasn't looking for me. Most of those albums would be done by the older guys. Guys like KLC and Craig B and Mo B Dick took me under their wing, they kinda big brothered me at that time and [let me] sit in and learn.
What kind of gear were you working with in those days? The same gear I use today, basically. I made all my beats on an Ensoniq ASR-10. I didn't even have a drum machine, it was just all ASR-10. I had a Roland W-30 before that and a few sound modules I would use here and there.
That's wild you still rock with the ASR. Yeah, still rocking with the ASR. I use Logic too, but if I do use Logic most of the time I end up going back to the ASR because it gives it a warmer sound. Like I might use the bass from the ASR.
Being that you've worked with No Limit and Cash Money, how do you compare and contrast the two? It's pretty much the same thing. Being from Louisiana you have to have hustle to even survive. I think both of those labels were able to be so strong and have the success they had was because they took that same hustle and applied it to the music game. The difference is that Cash Money is still thriving and that's because they have younger acts. They're constantly getting fresh new talent. With Wayne, his fan base grew with him. And while he got hot and had other artists his age that he brought along with him. It's the same thing with production, when producers get old. You get stuck because you're not in the streets or the club like you used to be. You're in another world. You have to stay relevant and put yourself in the position where you know what's going on out there.
Is that something you worry about? Aging past the point where you're no longer connected? No, I'm not worried about that at all because I'm the type of guy that still goes to the clubs. When I'm in the club it's not because I'm gonna party and love doing it, I look at it as work. I'm either networking with someone or listening and getting a feel of what the new sounds are. And I also have young producers on my production team. I have a kid named Smizzy, he's 18 years old, and another guy Crack Cocaine, he's like 23 years old. So they have their energy around me and we're all collaborating and vibing. You just gotta keep that freshness and ear to the streets for what's hot. Like when Lil Flip came out I was the only producer on that album that had platinum or gold records under his belt. I found him because I had my ear to the street. I looked at the number on the back of that independent CD, reached out to [Sucka Free CEO] Hump and told him who I was. The next day I was out there and they bought like ten beats from me. So I'm always keeping my ear out, trying to get involved in it.
So how did "Beez In The Trap" come about? I was submitting beats to Nicki when I heard she was getting her project going and I just kept submitting. Finally Mack Maine, the A&R over at Young Money/Cash Money called me in the last hour and told me what they was looking for and I sent the beat to them and the rest was history.
What did he say he was looking for? He was like, "Nicki needs some rap shit." And I just sent some. Because if I was submitting beats to Nicki I probably would submit some pop stuff too because you figure she was going in that angle. "Beez In The Trap" stands out on this album because there's nothing else like that on there. It's simple but that's what the concept of it was. There's a lot of action in the other things I do, but that particular song was not made to be a song with a million and one things going on in it.
What's the process of getting a beat placement these days? How do you put yourself out there? The process of it for me is just straight relentless hustling. I figure if I go after 50 artists and I can get two or three of them to land, then I won. It's just relentless hustle. I'm not backed by nobody by myself. If you're in China, I'm gonna spend my own money to fly there. Like when Kanye and them was working on Blueprint 3 I flew my own self on my own dime to Hawaii, paid for my own hotel and my own food and that lead to a multiplatinum album. That changed my life. I did the same thing when Cash Money was in Miami. I spent my own money and went out there. Everything I do is on my own dime. A lot of these guys get money and invest it in other things but I feel like you have to have what I call move around money to invest in yourself.
What was that like being in Hawaii with Jay and Kanye and them? It was cool, I [had been] around Kanye a lot during the process of him and Toomp working on the Graduation album. I was basically in the studio with him like every day vibing. So when they went to Hawaii I think I was out there for maybe three days and I did a lot of co-production at the time. I was working on like four or five beats with him. Two of them ended up being used. Another one was the intro on his album, do it get much higher ["Dark Fantasy"], it was a different beat [initially]. I did some drums on that sample but I guess Jay-Z didn't pick that beat and Kanye flipped it for his album. I think No ID had found that sample.
It must be fun to have so much talent in one room. It is. It's a unique situation but it's also a difficult situation. You have to be a role player, you have to know how to play it. You can't speak too much because you don't want to be annoying or anxious because you want to get on and play your stuff. A lot of times you gotta realize you're actually working with somebody that's bigger so it's kinda like, they chillin.
Do you make each beat with a specific artist in mind? Will you make it right there in front of them? Sometimes I'll make it in front of them. Or if I know I'm gonna work with a particular artist I might already start working beats that I think I can hear for them, or based on what they're telling me they're looking for. Usually they like what I have. And if they don't then it's nothing for me to create. I can make a beat in five to ten minutes.
How many beats would you say you make in a week or so? In my younger days, at least eight to ten beats. I would just do that all day. At No Limit they were dropping three albums a month, so you had to keep your beat catalog up. If you made eight beats you'd go and run to the studio and if you don't get those off or you done got those off you gotta reload. At that time I had to work. But now it's spaced out, you might have an artist drop one album every three or four years. So I might go in the studio, make a few beats and then chill. I might not touch it for a week or two.
What projects do you have in the pipeline? Ross' God Forgives album, 2 Chainz' new album. I've been in the lab with Jeezy for his new album. I'm on my way to a session with Jeezy today. T.I., Meek Mill. I was just in the lab with Big Sean last night. I did a song deal with Young Money/Cash Money, so there are a lot of placements in the pipeline over there as well. I'm just working, man.