Learning How to Be Self-Sufficient From the Most Important Producer of 2020

Learning How to Be Self-Sufficient From the Most Important Producer of 2020

Sometimes the best lessons come from the bumps and bruises along the way

In a year that has seen musicians scrambling to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic — which disrupted both touring and recording, not to mention wreaking havoc on release schedules — Hit-Boy has had one of the best stretches of his career.

The 33-year-old Fontana, California, producer/rapper executive-produced three of 2020’s most acclaimed rap albums, each with high stakes of their own: Nas’ King’s Disease; Big Sean’s Detroit 2; and Benny the Butcher’s sophomore album, Burden of Proof. It was all light work for the man born Chauncey Hollis, who’d previously been mostly known for being a hired gun for singles and stand-out album cuts.

In 2011, Hit-Boy signed a production deal with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, subsequently producing “Clique” for the label’s Cruel Summer compilation and the inescapable “Niggas in Paris” for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album. He’s since grown his resumé to include heaters from A-listers like Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Ariana Grande, Lil Wayne, and Travis Scott — many of which were on display in Hit’s Verzuz battle with Boi-1da in March.

But the ride to the top wasn’t without turbulence. The usually drama-free Hit-Boy aired out Universal Music Publishing Group earlier this year on Instagram for keeping him in what he says his lawyers have called “the worst publishing contract we’ve ever seen” for more than a decade. In that same post, he also claimed that Kanye stopped working with him due to discovering that Hit had been working with Beyoncé. (Kanye has since responded, though in an unclear manner.)

My fallout with Kanye used to really mess me up mentally. It made me feel people could tell you to your face how dope you are but still not want to fuck with you because they’ve got personal issues.

While the great music has never paused, Hit-Boy has learned some valuable lessons along the way — wisdom that has helped him to outshine his peers in a year in which good music has been more necessary than ever. Below, he reflects on his early years, bad advice from a former mentor, escaping bad deals, and the need for self-sufficiency in an industry full of vultures. — As told to William E. Ketchum III

My high school teachers told me I shouldn’t do music: “It’s a one in a million chance you’re going to make it,” they said. “You need to focus on some other shit.” If I’d listened to them, I probably would’ve just been on some regular shit. But I was like, “Nah.” I didn’t know how, but I knew I was gonna make it.

I always knew that I had to take my own path. For a big percentage of the world, it’s super hard to think outside of what’s going on in front of them. I always see down the line. When I start on a song, from the first two bars, I know what this shit is supposed to be by the end. That’s how I look at life. As long as I stay on that path and keep thinking to the future, it’s going to come one day.

In the beginning, I was managed by the same people who ran my publishing deal. So it was some trickery going on. Once I got to Kanye West, I was already kind of fed up with them. I’m like, shit, y’all barely be doing shit for me. I signed a management deal with G.O.O.D. Music where they were getting 20%. I was giving 10% between business manager and manager. And I was giving 20% to my original managers because I had that sense of loyalty to them. Kanye’s like, “You should leave them.” I’m just a young kid, confused as hell.

On my first beat I ever sold — to Jennifer Lopez in 2007 — I whispered my tag on it. I just whispered my name into a mic. I never used the tag again until recently. Kanye said, “Tags are corny.” That was his whole thing. This is before all the tag producers started blowing up, so I just took his word as law. But I saw quickly these kids are out here eating. Metro Boomin’, DJ Mustard, Mike WiLL Made-It — I’ve always showed love, but I was in the game before all of them. I’ve known all these motherfuckers right before they was on. I see glow up, doing festivals, getting feature records because they’ve got their tag.

Looking back — damn, if I had a tag on “Niggas in Paris”? Lord, I don’t know who I’d be right now. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Now, I see people say, “Damn, every song that I play, I hear ‘Hit-Boy’ at the front of that shit.” It’s small and subtle, too. Just a stamp to let people know I helped put this record together.

I made a sacrifice by signing to G.O.O.D. Music. I’m just like, I’m gonna up my brand and abilities through this shit. It was a gift and a curse because I was giving up a big percentage. I should’ve believed and trusted in myself earlier. I had all these big-time lawyers, managers, assistants, and all types of employees that I was paying crazy salaries. I would trust people a little too much, and it would lead me to the wrong place every time. I wasn’t willing to be as vocal or take command in a role as I do now, knowing that I know what the hell I’m talking about and going with that. But it all comes with time and development. I needed to know that I got what it takes to do this shit.

My fallout with Kanye used to really mess me up mentally. It made me feel people could tell you to your face how dope you are but still not want to fuck with you because they’ve got personal issues. I went back to ground zero, having nobody around me, doing what I had to do to stay afloat. I managed myself for a few years. No label deals. No assistants — I still don’t have a fucking assistant. I got to have every conversation, be on every email. I can’t feel like I’m putting trust in people who ain’t gonna look out for me.

I’d be doing all these major records for major artists like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, and people act like they don’t even see it. I’d see on Twitter, “Hit-Boy fell off.” I’m like, what the fuck? People felt because my brand is disconnected from G.O.O.D. Music, I wasn’t as big or wasn’t doing as much. I had to take that fuel and really buckle down and create new sounds and moments.

I just give artists what they need. I try not to overdo it but make it still sound modern, sound fresh but sound like them. I feel like most producers just come to the table like, “This is what I got.” They don’t study. They don’t think what type of mood or feeling should this have? I’m thinking about every cylinder. When you listen to “Blue Benz” or “Car 85” on Nas’ album, it feels real. It doesn’t feel like he went and got the producers that do Uzi’s shit because they’re hot right now. He went to get a motherfucker that knows how to make some shit that people want to hear Nas on. We made a statement: King’s Disease is a whole moment for 2020.

I just lock in with people and give them the feel that they need at the moment. I knew what Big Sean needed: Detroit 2 was a sequel, and a lot of people say the first one was his best body of work. We had a lot of pressure, but I matched his energy, and we just took it there. As far as Benny the Butcher, I just looked at him as a completely new artist. I love all the producers he works with, but I feel like anybody could turn on Burden of Proof and rock with it. His usual production is more stiff; it might have a crazy soul sample, something that might make you feel a way, but I feel like my production just moves and moves and moves you.

Even though I’ve got management helping me out right now, I still feel like I manage myself. People hit me directly. I set up sessions, put records together, make plays. I don’t look to them to do everything for me. When I was young, it was like, “Okay, I’m going to just make the music and let them figure it out.” Now it’s like I’m on shit every day — I got that mentality from being solo for so long.