(image credit: ryancr)
If you’re one of the many people listening to Detroit rapper Big Sean’s new album I Decided., which dropped earlier this week, you’ve probably heard his hit song “Bounce Back.” The album’s lead single has become one of Sean’s biggest hits to date, currently sitting in the Top 20 on Billboard. However, not all of the people involved in the song’s creation are thrilled with its success. Music producer TM88, who has nothing to do with Pokemon, lashed out on Twitter after finding out that he wasn’t credited for his work on “Bounce Back.” Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the term “music producer”, or you’ve never heard the word “credit” used outside of your bank statements, you may have a few questions about why this is a big deal.
A music producer, in the simplest sense, is the person who makes the music – usually referred to as a “beat” – that a rapper performs over. Kanye West, for example, was a well-known producer for Jay-Z before he became a rapper/media prostitute. Generally, the producer is credited as such in the official song credits, as well as the album booklet included with physical copies of an album (not that anyone buys those). But if you look at the album credits for I Decided, available on Big Sean’s website, TM88 is indeed not credited on “Bounce Back.” Considering that TM88 is a well-known hip hop producer who has worked with Future, Gucci Mane, Drake and even produced a whole album with Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J, he has no reason to lie about producing the song, unless he’s asking for payment – which he isn’t.
Although Big Sean has yet to comment on the issue, it’s a good time to bring up the problem hip hop producers face in the digital age, when they can be easily cheated by rappers or even their fellow producers out of credit and/or payment for their work.
A high-profile case of producer theft occurred last December, when numerous listeners pointed out that J. Cole’s hit song “Deja Vu” sounded extremely similar to R&B singer Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange”, another hit song that had been released over a year earlier and used a similar sample. “Deja Vu” seemed like a blatant rip-off of an existing popular song, before the song’s producers, Boi-1da and Vinylz, explained that their beat had, in fact, been produced for J. Cole’s previous album about two years ago. They claimed that Foreign Teck, the producer of “Exchange”, stole the “Deja Vu” beat after Vinylz shared a portion of the original beat with Foreign Teck, and that Teck had also used some drum elements of the “Deja Vu” beat in his production for Meek Mill’s song “You Know”. It didn’t help that, although Foreign Teck maintains that his “Exchange” beat is original, he admitted he had stolen the “Deja Vu” beat for “You Know” and claimed that he did so because of his inexperience as a producer, trying to paint himself as a struggling young producer whom Boi-1da and Vinylz were simply picking on.
In response to the odd timing, Boi-1da and Vinylz claimed that they didn’t pursue legal action against Foreign Teck because they felt that it would hurt Bryson Tiller, who was only moderately-popular at the time of “Exchange’s” release. He has since become a platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated artist. Ironically, “Exchange” is the song he’s nominated for (even the Grammys don’t take plagiarism very seriously).
Of course, these two major examples don’t do much justice to the plight of lesser-known producers. TM88, Boi-1da and Vinylz are all well-known professionals who will continue to get work producing for famous rappers regardless of whether a few of their beats get stolen or they don’t get paid once in a while. The problem is how easy it is for a producer’s work to be plagiarized (also known as “beat jacking”), especially when most up-and-coming producers operate through the Internet, and how simple it can be for someone to take credit for another person’s work. There’s even a website that implies that production theft is OK and that “most producers won’t mind.” Production theft can be as simple as Googling a kind of sound you’re looking for: for example, I Googled “Drake beat” and found this beat on YouTube. At the risk of promoting music theft (I’m not going to tell you how to do it), but stealing this beat would literally take two steps, and you can probably figure it out yourself anyway.
A rare but excellent example of music journalism came early last year when Genius ran an exposé on Cali the Producer, a producer who had made beats for number one hit songs like “What Do You Mean” for Justin Bieber and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” Except, Cali had nothing to do with these beats and had never met any of the artists he had claimed to work for – he literally just added his name to the Wikipedia entries for the song credits. Even worse was the fact that numerous media outlets repeated the false Wikipedia entries and helped bolster Cali’s phony career profile, because nobody bothered to verify whether the Wikipedia pages were cited correctly. You know how every college professor tells you, “Wikipedia is not a reliable source”? This is why.
And in case you’re thinking that production theft is only committed by creepy strangers on the Internet – well, you’re probably right, unless you personally know The Weeknd. Jeremy Rose, a Canadian producer who worked on The Weeknd’s debut mixtape House of Balloons, claimed that he had formed a short-lived group called “The Weekend” with Abel Tesfaye, who eventually kicked him out, kept the name (shortening it to “The Weeknd”) and used Rose’s productions for his early songs. Rose claims The Weeknd refused to pay him when House of Balloons gained attention over the Internet, and representatives for The Weeknd even tried to have Rose’s name erased from publications.
great for him. sucks for his producers. https://t.co/ROFTix0plY
— DJ Burn One (@djburnone) October 4, 2016
It’s also worth noting that House of Balloons is a free mixtape, meaning The Weeknd didn’t get paid, no matter how many people downloaded/listened to the music. Regardless, he used stolen music to build a fanbase, and then tried to hide the evidence. It’s the moral equivalent of leaving a Christmas gift for your boss, only for a seedy co-worker to scratch your name off and replace it with theirs. DJ Burn One recently called out Chance the Rapper, who proudly touts the fact that he releases his music for free because he can just make money from touring and performing. Burn One later explained that, while Chance can easily make money without selling his music, most of his producers can’t. As he explains, popular rappers can easily persuade producers to give them beats for free, with the assumption that the exposure will help the producer get more work. This can be true with big name rappers, but what if a little-known rapper asks you to give them a free beat? Is it worth the trade?
Want to see something funny? Remember the “Drake beat” I told you to listen to? Click on the link in the description and you’ll see the prices that the producer is selling the beat for. I actually think these are really excessive prices for this beat, especially since this producer is explicitly telling us he’s a Drake-sound alike (although the beat is fairly popular on YouTube), but I’m more interested in the comment below, which I think indicates how unknown Internet rappers can feel ridiculously entitled to production.
In other words: “If I give you credit, can I use your beat for free?”
Uh… would you flip burgers at Burger King for free if Burger King promised to write your name in ketchup on the inside of each burger?
The problem here is that music itself has become undervalued, and it’s partially a result of our tendency to valorize artists as being solo geniuses. Everybody goes crazy when J. Cole goes “platinum with no features” but nobody is going to mention the people behind him helping to create the music, and few people know who Noah “40” Shebib is, even though he pretty much invented Drake’s sound. This isn’t to discredit J. Cole or Drake; practically every well-known artist/band has one producer or a team of producers behind them. If Drake shouldn’t have to do it for free, neither should his producers.