Kenny Beats: Connecting the D.O.T.S
When the late rapper and music producer Daniel Dumile (MF DOOM) was asked how he combats writer’s block, his answer was simple: “The way that creativity works for me, it comes like an energy stream. It comes in waves. You’ve just got to be ready for the wave, and when it subsides, wait for it to come back. That’s when you step back for a second. There’s no way to make it happen. You’ve just got to be ready.” It is a precept echoed through millennia and across cultures, from Tibetan Buddhist meditative practices, to the “Be Like Water”-minimalism of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, to the “flow states” popularized by twentieth-century positive psychologists. The secret to greatness, be it spiritual, physical, or creative, appears to lie in an individual’s capacity to relax their mind and trust in their ability to surf the pending waves of inspiration.
Kenneth Charles Blume III, better known as Kenny Beats, has taken this idea and done with it what any entrepreneurially-minded millennial would do: he branded it. Don’t Over Think Shit—“D.O.T.S” for G-rated brevity—adorns his merchandise, the neon sign above his studio entrance, and, apparently, nearly everything else in his possession. “The rug underneath my feet where I look down all day says Don't Over Think Shit on it. My lighter says Don't Over Think Shit on it. Every little thing I use says Don’t Over Think Shit,” he revealed over a video call from his recording studio in Los Angeles. For Blume, D.O.T.S is less a campaign slogan than a meditative mantra, the philosophical underpinning holding his work ethic and creativity in delicate harmony.
“It came from my manager telling me, don't overthink shit. I'm always overthinking. I'm always trying to draw some conclusion that isn't there, that's going to get me to a better way of working. I need to remind myself of that more than anybody. I remind myself all the time: let it go. It doesn't mean let the quality go. It doesn't mean let something out in the world go that you're not proud of. But it's just a reminder that sometimes you'll drive yourself crazy over one specific decision when there's a lot of decisions to be made, you know, and sometimes you just need a bird's eye view. And the D.O.T.S mantra has always just been kind of a slap in the head for me to kind of reset.”
Perhaps D.O.T.S is the glue holding together Blume’s 11-year, genre-galloping career as a producer. In the early 2010s, Blume dealt his way into placements with blog-rap favorites Skeme, Smoke DZA, and a pre-Interscope ScHoolboy Q. In 2012, he formed LOUDPVCK with fellow Berklee College of Music student Ryan Marks, eventually touring the world on a festival-friendly EDM sound indebted to 808-driven Atlanta trap music. 2017 would mark the death of LOUDPVCK and a kind of homegoing for Blume’s music career. After holing up in a Los Angeles studio studying the vast soundscape of contemporary hip-hop, he emerged as Kenny Beats and embarked on a slew of collaborations with the likes of HoodRich Pablo Juan, Lil Wop, and Atlanta underground favorite KEY!
It would be this last project, titled 777, which would catapult Blume to become one of hip-hop’s most in-demand bass-providers, crafting personalized bangers for a coterie of rappers at the forefront of hip-hop’s low-end heavy creative renaissance in the late 2010s: Greedo, Gibbs, Staples, Nasty. Blume had arrived as a go-to producer for making a trunk rattle and hasn’t looked back since.
“The 808"—shorthand parlance in hip-hop production for a sampled and processed 808 kick drum with a decay extending to the moon—is the ultimate currency for many a rap producer. It is hip-hop’s great attention grabber; a sonic entryway into the soul of the genre’s young listeners; the key to a track’s bump in Feefo’s whip. Blume’s 808’s are voluminous affairs, enveloping the production while always leaving an appropriate amount of pocket for an emcee to carry the beat into oblivion. His secret? You guessed it—D.O.T.S:
“My approach is do less. My approach is pick samples that you really, really like and go through literally thousands and thousands and thousands of samples and only use, let’s say, the 20 to 30 that you love. You need to find something that is just sick to you instead of saying ‘this could be good if I sidechain it; this might sound right if I put the right EQ on; maybe it needs R-Bass.’ You shouldn’t be doing too much, in my opinion. I just learned from people whose 808s I thought sounded really good. They always had one kick and they always had one really sick 808 sample. And there was never any talk about sidechaining and there was never any discussion about what you needed to do to the 808. It was just like, oh, find an 808 that knocks.”
As hip-hop’s influence continues to dominate the spectrum of pop music, its sonic signatures have become the lingua franca of the sound of youth culture across genres. Accordingly, Blume’s demand has expanded to collaborations with the likes of Joji, Deb Never, Ed Sheeran, and IDLES. His technical proficiency is now being challenged beyond the scope of the laptop and into more traditional studio recording environments. One through-line in his practice, be it in 808-selection, gear acquisition, or vocal production, is a devotion to well-preparedness that stems from a genuine love for the artists with whom he works. If Don’t Over Think Shit is Blume’s theory, his praxis lies at the intersection of meticulous organization, deep research, and sincere compassion and excitement for his favorite musicians.
This is the process which Blume is most eager to reveal to us over the course of our interview. In doing so, he offers us a detailed insight into the creative and technical approach of one of contemporary music’s great orchestrators. As we learned, saying Don’t Over Think Shit is one thing; embedding it into your psyche so you can stay productive without losing your mind is another beast entirely.
You mentioned that you were recently working with two very different kinds of artists. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
I mean, one album is an album where I'm literally doing what everyone knows me to do: me making beats, flipping samples, and playing instruments. Just different types of rap stuff, hip-hop stuff with one of my favorite artists.
But another album I was working on is pretty much solely live recording with barely any use of my normal skill-set or my normal sample folder or my normal process where I just hop onto Ableton [Live] and do everything by myself. For the artist I was working with, you really just put a lot of mics in front of a lot of amps and put a lot of mics in front of a lot of instruments and people, and that's all you have to work with, that's all they want their music to sound like. And for me, it put me in a different perspective to find out my use in a room with an artist when it's not just "What samples can I pull up? What plugins can I pull up? What can I do to make everything sound better? I'll make a guitar by myself. I'll make a drum-loop by myself. I'll do whatever it is alone.”
Now you're in a room where tone matters, recording matters, acoustics matter. It's a whole different thing, and to go from one project to another project having to use my brain in different ways, use my sense as a producer in different ways, it really informed me of what I'm good for. It's really just my taste in the creative process or my help with troubleshooting. There's a million decisions you answer no matter what kind of record you're working on. And it's kind of just making the best decisions and having the highest field goal percentage you can along the way.
How does your approach change when working with artists of different genres?
The way you get a performance out of anyone is different, regardless of the genre. It doesn't matter if two people make the same niche style of music from the same town in the same state. They might have completely different motivators, completely different personalities, completely different ways of looking at music or ways of getting in their zone or their flow state or whatever you want to call it. To me, every single artist is a case by case basis, whether I'm doing a hardcore album with Trash Talk, whether I'm working on a project like Ultra Mono with Idles, whether I'm doing a whole album with any artist - you've seen whether it's a Denzel (Curry) thing or it's someone like Vince (Staples) or Rico (Nasty) or Freddie (Gibbs) or KEY! or whatever. I take every session like a completely different scenario.
Let's just say you're working with JID. He can sing unbelievably, and he also has a very specific kind of cadence and kind of tone when he raps that actually varies all the time. Whenever you're engineering someone like that, treat the singing like a singer, treat the rapping like a rapper. I put them on different tracks. They have different EQs, they have different plugins, different reverbs, different Sends. I treat them like completely different people and that's how I get my best results. And whenever I'm with different people, I'm definitely going to treat every scenario completely independent of every other one. You can't really be informed by a genre or an interview you read or even a conversation you had in the past, 'cause creative people are always evolving. So, case-by-case basis. Always.
Do you have a baseline approach? Since we're on JID as an example, do you have a starting point for how you might set up a vocal chain for him rapping versus how you set up a vocal chain for singing?
At first I just stole something from Alex Tumay, and I ran with it for every person for months and months. But then I started to realize “Oh, they sound real bad on that mic,” or “Oh they sound really not-so-good in this song.” But the other day that person sounded amazing! And I started to realize it's not the mic; it's me leaving the same chain on everybody. I think that's one of the things that frustrates me the most whenever I get invited to some big, nice studio and I'm not working at my spot: the engineers at a lot of spots learn a template, learn one thing that works, and they don't have enough time to be with an artist. It's not their fault, but they don't have enough time to be with an artist to know what specifically works for their voice. So every day is the same template. Every person is the same template. Every session for every artist is the same template, and nothing evolves as kind of a rule at a lot of places I go.
So I think about that and I try to cover my blind spots. When someone comes in here, I'm not just going to say, “Okay, boom, that's a woman. Let me go to a female vocal preset. Okay, boom, this is a male. Let me go to ‘low male’ in Auto-Tune.” I would start to figure out “Oh wow, they have a weird resonance in their voice around 500 Hz every time they rap. Okay, every time there's a rap vocal, I'm going to drag that same EQ onto that track that covers that little bit of resonance or covers that little weird spot that I always notice every time they're rapping.” And then you start to get to know people. Every time they do an adlib, they get really loud. Okay, let me turn down the gain on the compressor a little bit. Let me go over here, let me push a notch down on my preamp. I slowly would learn by failing. And failing's amazing when you're by yourself, but failing with an artist? Failing on a recording, failing in a moment that you can't get back, when someone is super inspired? You can't have that.
It just takes a little bit of focus when you shift from that making-beats/producer mindset to the engineer mindset. A vocal take isn't like me laying down some MIDI. It's not always something you can get back. A performance is not always something you can just call for again. So you have to pay a little more attention when it comes to that learning curve and all the equipment and plug-ins or whatever that are involved when it comes to doing vocals, when it comes to engineering on top of the music you made.
That's big. It reminds me of a documentary I watched. Ice-T talked about how he would go into the studio and he would book two sessions. One session was to get the idea of the song out, and then the next session was to actually record the song. He knew that he would always need to book two sessions because he knew the first time was never going to be it.
Yeah, I mean, sometimes the first year is never it for me and people. Sometimes the first three, four years are never it for me and people. And I'm starting to really learn that. It's like sometimes it takes having that relationship or having that understanding of each other. You don't have to be best friends with everybody to start to get to know why it didn't work or what they're into or what you need to change in your approach. Or maybe it just ends up being the right time. You know, sometimes it's like that. I heard Prince used to do a whole album and then say, "Okay, I'm ready to do the album." He had to get one out of the system just to say, “I'm in my mode now, here we go.” Like, I don't mind that if it puts you in the zone, I don't mind doing something for one hour or taking four years. Whatever it takes.
How much goes into getting everything right the first time, in the production stage versus the post-production stage?
I'm always trying to get the best sound, whether it's the perfect snare, the perfect preset, the perfect EQ, cut or boost…. I'm never thinking, “Oh, I'll touch this later.” That's plan B, that's always secondary. If something can happen right there, why wait? Why does it need to necessarily go through a checklist of what we're supposed to do on the mix or what I'm supposed to add or how much time we're supposed to spend? A lot of people I'm working with are making five, six, two-minute songs a day. I have 80 songs that I made with 03 Greedo in a couple of months. You know, people's work rate is unreal these days. And it's not to say that people who take longer and write their music are better than people who punch-in and are right off the cuff…. It's just, people work differently, and I'm always trying to match the energy. If they can get a perfect vocal take, why can't I get a hole-in-one? I think a lot of people are good enough to where you're putting in the hours every single day, you've spent your ten thousand hours or whatever you want to call it, you might just have that perfect game.
What goes into preparing for an artist?
It's not so much prep as it's just being a fan. Nine times out of ten, the reason I'm working with somebody is because somebody else who's either a person I work with, a person I'm close with, a friend of mine--they showed me their music and I loved it. I need to understand it enough to love it, to go do the research, to go find out every single thing, to go listen to every other thing that's going on, whether it's their influences or the people around them from where they're from or the producers they work with--what's a common thread between everything mix-wise? Production-wise?
Even if I'm not working with someone, there's a lot of people where I study, study, study their music. What they used, every single [Gearspace] forum I can find about every guitar pedal or every old rack-mounted piece of gear that I can go look up to try to emulate this one moment on a record I love. I'm doing it all the time. If I end up working with one of those people, you better believe I'm going to put 110% in because I'm such a fan. The research doesn't really feel like prep, it doesn't really feel like, “Today, I got to nail it." It's more like, “Oh, I've been listening to nothing but this person anyway. Now they're here.”
Getting into the technical stuff, do you work off of a template when you use Live?
Yes, I do. I have a template that has everything in my studio basically ready to go. There's a guitar channel, there's a bass channel. There's a channel for my tape machine, a channel for a cassette deck. There's channels for my Distressor. There's channels for my dbx 560a's. There's channels for my API 512c’s. I have a couple of tape echoes that I can swap out and have one tape echo channel in my Ableton [Live] template, and then all the drum mics are kind of just staggered. So when I open the template, you see everything. And if you want to play guitar? You go there. You want to use a synth? You go there. If you want to play drums…. But a lot of times you'll see me on Twitch or something, make a beat, or an artist will ask me to make a beat in a session, and I'll just go in and I'll delete everything except Simpler and I'll just start a beat how I've always made beats.
But because I'm using gear for the first time in these last few months, because I have so many different things that I might hop between for a different idea or a different artist on a different day, my template needs to be ready so I don't need to be, “Okay, new audio track. Okay, let me figure out which buss this is on. Alright, let me go back into my console and see….” No, I can't be doing that. I have everything saved and locked-in so the second someone wants to go, "Oh, I'm going to the keyboard. Oh I'm just gonna step over here. Can we do our drums? Actually we don't want to do live drums. Can you program something?" I can't be having the technical part of that slow me down. So I have a vocal template I hop between whenever I'm engineering anything people are singing or rapping to or whatever. But, for the most part, this one long template for all my gear is the first thing I see. And now, in [Live] 11, it's so easy to just swap between them. I noticed the first second I was using it like, “Oh my God, this template thing is sick!”
How many tracks are in your main template?
I think it must be 18. Not too bad. I always have one Simpler at the end. And then I have one external audio effects thing I usually get rid of if I'm not doing the tape delays.
Do you put anything on the master track in your template?
Pretty much never when I'm making a quote-unquote beat. Usually, whenever I open my vocal template, I drop in a 2-track of whatever the person is going to sing over or rap over. And then I record them to the 2-track and then I master that. And my master chain's got some stock Ableton things that I have stolen from DJs over the years, along with an Oxford limiter. There's definitely some FabFilter Pro-2 in there, there's definitely an SSL EQ in there. And then I'm using the UAD stuff now a lot of the time. But I really don't ever send mastered beats to anyone. I don't ever put a master chain when I'm just making instrumentals because I feel like tracking over something that's real limited or compressed or saturated in any kind of way makes it harder for that vocal mix--even on the demo--to sound good. And then people aren't in love with what they're making and then it just goes downhill from there. So I try to send things that are really loud, still smacks, still hits, still have the presence that I want them to have, but there's never really a time where I'm throwing a Pro-L or even a simple limiter on my master. I leave it pretty clean.
But you send your beats loud?
As loud as I can get them without distorting. If I start seeing it going in the red on my master, I'm not pushing any harder than that. But at the same time, I know for a fact, especially if you're sending beats to either young artists or people who are listening to, like, stuff with big 808s, you're going to hear it on huge speakers, probably, or they're going to hear it on the iPhone speaker. So I account for those two things. If it knocks on the iPhone and if it knocks real loud, good to go. I'm never worried about, like, the loudness war when it comes to me playing somebody something. But also, I'm not someone who sends a lot of beats if it's not a worldwide pandemic. I normally play things for people or cook-up from scratch, so I control the volume a lot of the time.
How has the past year affected you, as far as the difficulties in physically getting in the room with people?
I still made a lot of music this year in a lot of different ways than I ever have before. It was kind of a lesson to me to not take it for granted, because the Zoom way of working, the screen-share way of working, it's really, really, really hard for me. I only have a couple of artists where I've been able to make songs virtually and I've felt like it was up to par compared to what we would have done had we had a normal chance to be in the studio. So, honestly, it affected things in an insane way. But it also made me start working on music completely differently because I had time where I couldn't be in the studio with people. I had started putting together this new spot besides The Cave that was going to be more of a production focused room for me, which is where I'm sitting right now. And I had this plan of, ”Maybe I'm going to get a drum set in there and start playing drums again,” or “Maybe I'll put one synth or maybe I'll get one keyboard.” Like, I've always just used my computer. The only keyboard I ever had is a small MIDI keyboard and I would plug guitars in the DI or basses in the DI if I had to record them. And it wasn't until I was doing the Trash Talk album that a full drum kit with 20 microphones was something I was ever responsible for; which mics on the amps you want to choose and what placement do you like and what balance do you feel they should have and how to get rid of the fades. These were not questions I ever had been asked before the end of 2019.
And so, whatever, 2020 happened, and it kind of felt like I had this moment to study up. Let me figure out some of these things with live recording. Let me figure out some of these blind spots that I have when it comes to different styles of production that aren't just getting the best samples and programming the best I can. And, one-by-one, I went from having one synth, to tape echoes, to cassette machines, to all types of different things now, and I'm sitting here and I think I have 16 inputs and outputs and they're all full. And I'm always looking for more space at this point because I've found this new way of working that definitely slows me down, but creates a whole different kind of result. And also, when I'm in the room with artists, creates a whole different way of keeping people inspired or starting ideas. And it all comes down to just being able to touch it and actually turn a knob and actually play a Rhodes instead of just a MIDI keyboard.
I've never been someone who needed gear ever, but I've always been ashamed that I didn't know how to use it. I've always been ashamed that I didn't know how to record it. And I always felt like when I plugged guitars in they never sounded right. So after working with certain artists and after getting the opportunity to do certain things, it's made me turn around in 2020 and say, “Okay, let me get even sharper with skills that I barely have right now so next time I can be in that room, I have an opinion,” you know what I mean? Next time I'm around those people that I'm dying to work with, there's stuff I know from a baseline of knowledge I gave myself that can help me make their dream music and help me be useful to them. And that's really been the focus of my year. And my Twitchers watch me struggle through every bit of it, and it's hopefully helped a couple of people.
I hear that. It sounds like your approach to gear and gear selection is really informed more by a desire for things to spark your creativity. It's not that you're looking for the thing that has a specific feature, but more that you're looking for things that are going to inspire you.
The best way to explain my gear acquisition is: stealing the sauce. I see great people I look up to, videos or pictures of records getting made that I'm a giant fan of, and I see something in the corner. And I go, "Oh my God, they used that. Oh my God, is that from that record? Oh, wait, he's standing next to that amp. Do you think that means...?" That's why I have everything I have. I found out that a record I listened to used this thing, that's why I have it. I don't have it because of any specific feature or because any gear review site said this is better than this. I have it because I know for a fact that something I'm in love with utilized this weird thing or this piece of gear in some way.
I don't ever want this interview to come off like, "Oh, yeah, I got all this sick gear and use sick speakers." It's not about any of that. It's just about knowing what you're using and knowing how to use it well. And for me--I made nothing but beats on a laptop for 10, 12, 13-something years. It started to be time for me to have one synth. And then that forced me to play piano better. And then me micing the drum kit forced me to do drums better. At the end of the day, if the gear starts slowing me down, I just go back to basics. I can do everything with one channel of Omnisphere and a couple of plugins, my sample library, I'm good. I don't really need anything else if I really need to get the job done. So everything's a bonus. Having nice speakers is a bonus. Being able to work in a studio that sounds good is a bonus. Having one piece of gear is a bonus. Having an interface is a bonus. If it's not getting used at least once a month, it's gotta go. I gotta give it to someone who is going to use it or I gotta sell it or get rid of it. Like I got to bring it back 'cause I don't want to have a bunch of shit just to have a bunch of shit. I just want to make better music, period.
Though Blume has vastly expanded his repertoire of tools and techniques since the beginning of his career, his commitment to working first as a listener and facilitator has never relented. Trying as it may seem, his work is a labor of love that reminds us of the fulfillment achieved from immersing oneself into a creative process and being attentive and responsive to a community from which your inspiration springs. Blume isn’t concerned with making it look easy, difficult, expensive, cheap, or stylish. He’s concerned with doing whatever it takes to achieve what we all want if we just step back and stop overthinking shit: better music, period.
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Text and interview by Daniel Krishnan. Daniel is the founder of Program Change, a media platform dedicated to inspiring music-makers around the world.