The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction. This week, we catch up with IAMSU!, the core keyman behind HBK Gang's endless summer slaps. We talk about how the hyphy sound hijacked pop radio, and how he finally feels settled into place after overnight success.
How did you start producing? I always wanted to do it since freshman year of high school in 2003. My mom got me a Dell computer, I went on download.com and I typed in "producer software." I found this waveform, editing thing—I can't even describe it because I didn't know how to read music. It was a pain in the ass, I'd literally copy and paste my drums in and it'd take me hours and hours. Once I found Fruity Loops, I started making beats for real; then I joined this program called Youth Radio and they introduced me to Reason, which is what I use now. It allows me to get in the groove of the music and just build my loops out. I build a lot of my own sounds—I got drum kits and stuff I'll probably never release. Everybody's dropping their drum kits and sounds, but that's what makes everybody sound the same. The one leg-up I got on everybody is you can only get our sound from us. It's intentionally lo-fi—I'm going for '80s electronica, Knight Rider, Scarface, Miami Vice synths. Bright, thin, and icy—that's my whole aesthetic.
What were you listening to, what producers were you aware of? Dr. Dre, Scott Storch. Once I found out [Storch] was making Dr. Dre's stuff, I was like, "Ohhh, that's how it be with producers." It'll be big on the main producer, but once you start reading things like Scratch and getting on Google, it's like, "Oh, Scott Storch is doing this, Mark Elizondo is actually doing this, or J.R. Rotem." Not to discredit Dr. Dre, but it's just deeper research.
Scott was really the dude who brought keys out. That sound of Chronic 2000, GRODT, Eminem—there's just a laundry list. "Lean Back," those are my high school-era sounds. Those beats were retarded. I gravitated toward that Scott Storch sound. Lil Jon has some of those elements in his beats. I like Collipark, he was hard. Drummer Boy was always one of my favorites. On the sampling side, I listened to Dilla's Donuts for homework, and I got into Kanye through that. There's a bipolar aesthetic to my music—I appreciate sampled stuff, but I also appreciate a good Gucci Mane song.
"There was a point in time where hyphy was a complete joke. But now, if you want a hit record, it has to sound like this."
Hyphy exploded in the mid 2000s. What was it like on the ground in the Bay Area? I was a sophomore in high school when "Tell Me When To Go" came out. E-40's album dominated, and so did the Pack. When Wayne rapped on "Vans," I was like "Oh shit. We on, yes." The Pack was on MTV and I was seeing all these different Bay Area artists start to come up—the Federation was on at that point in time, E-40, "Blow the Whistle," The Team was going crazy. So it was just like, "Damn."
Of course, it's the dominant sound in pop now, to the point where it's almost completely removed from it's origin. It's indescribable, it's crazy. In high school, me and my partner Chief would be like, "Man, if 50 Cent or Wayne was on a hyphy beat, it would be crazy." And then it started happening, and we'd just sit back and laugh. There was a point in time where this shit—the tempo, the people saying the things they were saying—was a complete joke. Now, it's the shit. If you want a hit record, you have to make a song that sounds like this. It's a crazy full-circle.
"Gas Pedal," "Red Nose," "Up," those songs hit before fans even really understood that sound. What was hearing those songs take off like? It was like lightning struck—for [Sage the Gemini], it was like lightning struck twice. I wasn't expecting that song to click, there's no kick drum in that beat.
50 got in the mix and helped bring it out... …and he connected us over here. That was crazy. Songs like "Function" and "You and That"—a rare-ass song, was actually about to go gold, how crazy is that?—started to click. It's crazy to see the next generation, too; [Casey Veggies' "Backflip"] is a reincarnation of that whole steez, and that's the whole vibe I'm on. I'm taking it back to what worked for me and not trying to be so far ahead of the game that I'm devaluing things people really appreciate.
Do you feel there's a pressure to move on to other sounds? Yeah, especially if you're a competitive person. It's not even about looking for more hits, more like, "I'm going to make the most groundbreaking shit, even if you don't get it. My musicianship and my talent need to be respected." That's what my mindset was. But now I have fun making this type of music. People respond to it, it makes a hell of a lot more money. That's the hype I'm on now.
Sage and Kehlani have ended up much more visible apart from HBK. As an artist/producer, is that frustrating for you? It's a balance. I pick my times to attack, and it's my time now, I feel it. The stage has been fully set. Kehlani is all over the place, Sage is all over the place killing the game. I sparked it, they took it to the next level, and now it's time for me to spark it again. The youth culture look to me for influence, music, and ideas—what's cool, what's next. I introduced a lot of these people in the Bay in the first place by bringing Sage and Kehlani in HBK and appearing in "Gas Pedal." [Sage] doing what he did after was all him. I think it's really tight to be an influencer. It amazes me and it's crazy to see that transition. [Sage] has a big-ass fucking studio in his house that's better than studios in Hollywood. It's like, "I seen you come up and do this, so I know this is possible." God got a plan for all of us, and it took me to learn to cypher energy and really grow up.