How Vince Staples and Dominic Fike Producer Kenny Beats Took Center Stage

He’s been a guru behind the boards to everyone from Vince Staples to Dominic Fike. Now with his new album Louie, he’s figuring out who he is on his own.

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T-shirt, $80, by Palmes. Sweater, $595, and pants, $495, by Ghaia Cashmere.

Kenny Beats wears many hats. He’s an in-demand, cross-genre producer, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, and as of a few weeks ago, a critically-acclaimed solo artist with a debut album Louie that’s a complex tribute to his father. But the music star also moonlights as the world’s most effective salesperson for yerba mate.

“Right now, it seems not as crazy, but in 2018, that was mountain-biking fuel. No one used yerba in any studio ever,” he says about the energy-boosting herbal tea. But Kenny has loved the stuff for years, and began turning his musician friends onto it during sessions. “I was drinking it so much. Kehlani put it on her rider, I was in a Schoolboy Q session and the teaser for his album had my yerba can in it. Smino started drinking it and matching his outfits with it and shit. I take all that credit.”

Kenny’s effectiveness spreading the highly-caffeinated beverage to music’s trendsetters speaks to his uniquely high approval rating. In these divisive times, the 31-year-old producer, born Kenneth Charles Blume III, has become a rare point of consensus, making great music with Gen Z heartthrobs (Joji, Dominic Fike, Omar Apollo), rap critical darlings (Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs, Rico Nasty), and an increasing number of rock and pop acts (IDLES, FKA Twigs, Benee). He stands well over six feet tall and his arms are covered in distinctive tattoos, including a recent one referencing Louie. In conversation, Kenny radiates a warmth and geniality that one can easily picture energizing artists in a studio session. There’s definitely a sense of polish to Kenny, but it seems like an organic manifestation of his naturally upbeat personality, as opposed to a crafted persona.

Hat, $40, by Smith Street Tattoos. T-shirt, $230, by Bode. Sweater, $665, and pants, $495, by Ghaia Cashmere. Shoes by Nike.

Originally from Greenwich, Connecticut, Kenny first gained notoriety at the tail end of the EDM boom. As part of festival circuit favorite LOUDPVCK, he played high-profile shows like Lollapalooza, released an EP, and remixed hit songs by The Chainsmokers. During the group’s run from 2012 through 2017, he produced a handful of hip-hop tracks for Smoke DZA, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul, but admits that he felt he missed his moment when the duo disbanded.

“I think I hit a point at 25 years old where I was like, ‘I’m fucked, it’s over. I haven’t made it yet, I haven’t had any huge songs. I did one Kendrick beat when I was 19 years old and that was my peak,’” he says.

Momentum began to swing Kenny’s way when Atlanta rapper Hoodrich Pablo Juan not only worked with him on the captivating South Dark mixtape, but insisted that Kenny share top billing. (“Pablo really just said, ‘I’m gonna put your name on the cover. I’m gonna wear the hoodie from South Park that Kenny wears on the cover. It’s gonna be Pablo and Kenny,’” he recalls.) Kenny’s friend and manager, Mike Power, realized that these collaborative projects were a more effective way to get his name out there than sporadic placements on major label records, and they afforded Kenny a rare level of creative control and input.

“My team wanted the rest of the world to know: When I’m in the studio, I’m the janitor on top of the engineer, on top of the therapist, on top of the [beatmaker],” Kenny says.

Comedian, occasional rapper, and full-time Kenny Beats foil Zack Fox once described his friend as “this innocent white guy who’s trying his best to make an honest career in rap music,” and Kenny preempts questions about the optics of his success by emphasizing the work he does to educate aspiring musicians.

Jacket, $248, by Reese Cooper x Levis. Shirt, $120, by Aime Leon Dore. Pants, $81, by Stan Ray.

“I don’t think that I’m someone who deserves a place in music, and especially not in Black music,” he says. “I feel like I have to continually work and earn my spot no matter what. My biggest way of giving back is teaching. My biggest way of trying to help people is by trying to demystify so that they can succeed at the same level I am.”

Another sign of Kenny’s self-awareness is that he’s never wanted to hog the spotlight. Though he’s received co-artist billing on projects by Pablo Juan, 03 Greedo, and KEY!, internet favorites who bring a singular strangeness to regional street rap, he never had an individual statement he felt warranted his own solo LP treatment. Even as his rolodex of collaborators grew larger to include more mainstream stars like Roddy Ricch and Joji, he says, “The idea of doing a DJ Khaled album was just never something that appealed to me.”

That changed last year, when he learned that his father, Kenneth Blume II, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kenny was quarantined in England in early 2021 ahead of sessions with the band IDLES when he received the news. During his isolation, Kenny began culling different recordings and voice clips of he and his father from the ‘90s, creating a kind of storyboard for the album. The record opens with an insightful conversation between father and son about the birth of the younger Kenny’s nickname “Louie,” while the most charming interstitial comes on “The Perch,” an homage to the elder Blume’s pretend radio station that he’d created to frame mixtapes for friends. (“Here in The Perch, 103.6 FM, with my son, Ken the third, and we’d just like to introduce him to you and have you say hello,” Kenny’s father says in the sampled snippet.)

Dedicating an album to a parent implies a kind of picture-perfect Disney dynamic, an impression enforced by a preview clip in which Kenny and his father jam to Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Tease Me,” and Junior calls Senior “one of my best friends in the whole world.” But the younger Kenny Blume insists that there is a more complicated relationship at play here. “I think there’s a little bit of incongruity with people thinking this is an ‘I love my dad’ record. It’s very much not that,” he says. ”The year that preceded making it was a lot of thinking and not a lot of ‘Aw man, my dad is sick. What can I do for him? I love him so much.’ People think it only comes from this positive thing, but my dad and I have had a very fucked-up relationship. It took me a long time to process how to even put that into music.”

Louie is meant to be more The Royal Tenenbaums than The Pursuit of Happyness, which becomes abundantly clear by the record’s fifth track, “Family Tree.” That track features U.K. firebrand Slowthai pointedly rapping, “Fuck your mother, fuck your sister and your dad.” Kenny also sought to recontextualize samples from love songs, such as Foster Sylvers’ 1973 R&B hit, “Misdemeanor.” Used in the Louie song “Drop 10,” it’s no longer about fraught romance: Sylvers’ lyrics “Love tracks, setbacks / All can come back” now frame a song about the highs and lows of a familial bond. Kenny’s father was a successful basketball player at powerhouse UConn in the ‘70s, but he had difficulty figuring out life once his athletic days were over, and dealt with both substance issues and a divorce that had trickle-down effects on his son.

Shirt, vintage.

T-shirt, $230, by Bode. Sweater, $665, by Ghaia Cashmere.

After spending the better part of a year ruminating, Kenny put the music together during one determined stretch over the course of December, 2021. In that time, he reached out to quite a few friends, some of whom contributed musically, while others offered opinions and guidance. Kenny knew he could’ve spent years tinkering with a project this personal, so he resolved to make no tweaks once 2022 began, effectively making it a timestamp of where he was that month, mentally and emotionally. “Now that people are hearing the record, there’s quite a few rappers who have hit me and been like, ‘Ay, what the fuck? I’m not on the record?’” he laughs. “They [didn’t] realize that when I hit them in December, that was the Bat Signal.”

Filled with lush ‘70s soul samples, Louie is a departure from the 808-centric, minimalist sound that Kenny earned his reputation crafting, albeit something he’d shown a proclivity for on occasional songs like reggie’s “Ain’t Gon Stop Me” and Smoke DZA’s “Ball Game.” At times, its collage quality (songs are peppered with dialogue snippets and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them vocal runs) recalls J Dilla’s seminal Donuts, both a blessing and a curse for a largely instrumental album by a prominent hip-hop producer.

For the first few weeks after he completed it, Kenny had no intention of the album being anything more than a stocking-stuffer for his father. But after getting a strong reaction from some loved ones, he made the decision to put it out through vaunted British label XL Recordings. Critical responses from The Guardian and Pitchfork have been positive, but Kenny says reviews didn’t matter to him once he got validations from his inner circle.

“I don’t need to wait even another second to measure the success of my first album,” he explains. “I made my best friends cry.”

To the casual music streamer, the distinction between a Kenny solo album and a rapper’s project entirely produced by Kenny may seem inconsequential, but he insists that’s not the case. While he’s glad to be an open book as a producer, he prefers keeping things closer to the chest as an artist, citing Aphex Twin, D’Angelo, and Björk as inspirations. (The air of mystery extends to exactly who contributed what to Louie, something that has inspired more than a few internet sleuths to search for answers Kenny has no interest in providing.)

Though his producing career took off in 2017, in recent years Kenny Beats has become a bona fide celebrity. His move into the limelight differs from previous superproducers like Timbaland or Mannie Fresh, who ruled the Hot 100 and routinely contributed their voices to records (although Kenny is not above a goofy music video cameo). In March 2019, he launched his YouTube show The Cave, on which he brings a wide array of guests to peel back the curtain on his studio sessions. The series has spawned viral moments—Zach Fox’s “Jesus is the One” freestyle chief amongst them—and given fans rare insight into how artists like Isaiah Rashad, Mac DeMarco, and Doja Cat work.

“I was so self-conscious that being a YouTuber of sorts, someone who does all this content, would take me out of the cool zone. It would take me out of working with those really coveted rare artists, because they’re gonna put me in the same category in their head as a Logan Paul or some shit,” Kenny admits. “But the greatest artists I’ve ever worked with and the rarest artists I’ve been able to work with and all the NDAs I’ve had to sign have come from people who watch The Cave and got it and liked it.”

Kenny says that, from a workflow standpoint, the sessions he films for The Cave are not especially different from his normal, undocumented ones, though he acknowledges that he’s “[playing] a character” on the show, often serving as the occasionally exasperated straight man for more bombastic personalities. In The Cave’s best episodes, it’s easy to see Kenny’s appeal as a musician and a public figure. He’s affable and unassuming, asking hilarious Detroit scam rapper Babytron about regional Michigan slang, offering gentle words of encouragement to Lil Yachty, and handing out cans of Guayaki yerba mate like the most effective campus rep ever.

“Kenny’s fucking superpower in the studio is his enthusiasm, and his work ethic is so infectious,” says Leon Michels, a friend and collaborator whose work appears on Louie. “With Kenny, there’s not an awkward moment, ever, which is a rarity.”

Jacket, $1600, by Bode. T-shirt, $80, by Palmes.

The show has also brought a whole new demographic into Kenny’s orbit.“I know a lot of people who don’t even really fuck with his music, but love his show. [I’ll say] that I’m working with Kenny Beats and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I love Kenny Beats,’ because they’ve seen The Cave, but they don’t actually listen to Rico Nasty or Vince Staples,” Michels explains. “It’s sort of a new-gen thing where it’s complete transparency that people love.”

While The Cave works purely as entertainment, there is also an educational bent to much of what he does. Last year, Kenny became the first Artist in Residence for Splice, the hugely popular resource for music samples and software, and he’s done video tutorials of Ableton Live, his preferred production software. While The Cave is partly a technical lesson (Kenny isn’t shy about showing exactly what he’s doing on-screen), its value lies more in showcasing the soft skills that are part of great musicianship: asking the right questions, being attentive to the artist’s mood, pivoting when something isn’t working.

“No one talks about what happens when you study all these YouTube tutorials and learn from all these masterclasses, and then you actually get in a room with an artist and it doesn’t go right,” he says.

Though Kenny knows all the latest tools and tricks in both modern production and modern social-media celebrity, there is an endearingly old-school quality to his ambitions. He cites Rick Rubin as a major influence-turned-mentor, and when he describes where he wants to go as a producer, it’s a pure vision of writing a beautiful track with a talented friend.

“I want to one day be Greg Kurstin, to sit at a piano with an Adele and just write a song that’s the biggest song in the entire world. That’s where I want to get to. I’ve got a long way to go as a piano player, an engineer, a songwriter,” he says. “As an artist, I don’t feel the need to demystify anything.”

As Kenny moves into the next phase of his career, he knows that making challenging music in today’s fractious online culture can lead to some polarizing reactions. The reception to his future work may not be as positive as it was for Louie, and he’s at peace with that.

“Every comment section on the internet is ‘that’s GOATed,’ ‘that’s mid,’ ‘that’s trash.’ Those are the only genres that exist in 2022,” he says. “Honestly, being trash or GOATed are the only ones that you want. Being mid is the worst thing you can be.”


PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Alex Hodor-Lee
Styled by Karolyn Pho
Grooming by Barry White

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