Hip-hop artist Curtiss King knows the beat-making business well. Maybe a little too well.
A talented rapper in his own right, King has racked up production credits that include Murs' latest EP as well as an Ab-Soul single that featured Kendrick Lamar back when he was still recording under the name K-Dot.
Yet if anything, that's only increased the number of would-be rappers looking to pay nothing, or next to it, for custom beats. In a genuinely hilarious video called "Shit Rappers Say to Producers," King portrays a hopeless hustler who asks a producer, "just hypothetically," if he'll price-match a discount beat site the way Best Buy would.
"Sadly, that's a definite reality in the business of selling beats," King tells the Indy on the eve of the Common Ground Tour that brings him to the Black Sheep this coming Sunday. "A lot of that comedy is rooted in pain."
And then there's what King calls the elusive "buffet beat," wherein a client will ask for a hybrid fantasy that never could, or should, exist in the real world. "Especially if they're buying for the first time, they want a combination that just supersedes reality," says the producer. "They'll want whatever's the hottest song by Lady Gaga at the time mixed with, you know, Pharrell's 'Happy' and a little bit of Kanye West."
Bieber's black baby
Fortunately, there's an upside as well. The 29-year-old Southern Californian's stock shot up in February with the release of Shut Your Trap, a collaboration with Murs that the renowned emcee describes as "a backpack adventure into the world of trap music led by Curtiss King's amazing production."
Murs' journey into trap — a Southern-born subgenre characterized by hard beats and symphonic synth-lines — yields some inspired moments. The track "Justin Bieber's Black Baby," for instance, credits the teen idol's bad behavior to his having "a little black baby in his fucking head telling him what to do." (Mystery solved.)
"Murs is a legend, a 20-year-plus legend," says King, who'd toured with the rapper back in 2012. "He's been known for a pretty distinct sound, you know, very traditional hip-hop and boom-bap. So for him to do a trap project was crazy."
Fortunately, the young producer had just been experimenting with the genre, so he was already up to speed when Murs got back in touch.
"A lot of people didn't know that I did trap, and a lot of people weren't sure what Murs would sound like over trap," says King. "But when he reached out to me, I happened to be making some trap beats and EDM [electronic dance music] trap beats. And nobody wanted to purchase those from me, they just wanted my hip-hop beats. So he just happened to hit me up at the right time."
Despite his relatively high-profile collaborations, King is only beginning to reap the rewards of his hard work. His gratitude for that comes through in "Oh My God," a track from his impressive debut album Atychiphobia. "I'm living proof that you can't always be so cynical," he raps, "Murs gave me a chance, now I'm a bigger fan of miracles."
Actually, it's hard to imagine King ever being cynical. Even the most serious tracks on his album convey the kind of positive message found in the later works of Atmosphere and numerous other artists who've been classified, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, as backpack hip-hop.
"There was definitely a level of cynicism," King says. "I think it was just being cynical in general because, you know, here I was having this thriving career, but the finances weren't changing for me. But when Murs gave me the chance to go on tour with him, and all of these other positive things continued to happen, it just let me know that there's no reason to be negative. There's no reason to feel that things are gonna forever be a certain way."
King gets particularly serious on "Fvck Cancer," which he wrote while still coming to terms with the loss of his grandfather. The track, he says, was inspired by a dream in which he found himself sitting around a table with lost family members.
"It was me and a group of relatives who had passed away over the years. There was my grandfather, my other grandparents on my mother's side, who'd died within a year of each other, a family friend named Velva, and I remember it being really emotional because I hadn't seen them alive in a long time. The dream was so vivid — all their mannerisms were captured — and basically they were telling me how short life is, and remind me of the importance of what I do, and how I should care less about outside influences."
As is the case with most rappers, King's debut album wasn't really his debut album, at least not technically. "I probably had six or seven — no, I'm lying — about 10 or so unofficial mix tapes I'd released before," says King of his musical and emotional maturation. "But this album was my therapy. It was like when people go to Walgreens in the middle of the night to get medicine for a headache or whatever else they need."
From a production standpoint, Atychiphobia is heavy on virtual synthesizers and the obligatory TR-808 drum machine. Genre-wise, it's a mashup of styles, much like hip-hop in general. "The lines are all sort of blurred," says King, who was influenced by a lot of the music he heard during visits to relatives in Louisiana. "Crunk music was just a more up-tempo trap, and trap has its roots in the South, where it basically morphed out of chopped-and-screwed music."
And while conventional hip-hop beats are still King's sonic weapon of choice, the approach he took for the Murs project will remain in his arsenal. "Trap is so fun, because it really doesn't require a high level of musicianship," he explains. "What it does require is a high level of composition and spontaneity."
Meanwhile, King is hoping to continue writing and recording on the road, as he did during the Murs tour; finding time and solitude is always tricky.
"Sometime you can't predict that," he says. "But I've learned to create in chaos as well."