‘You always feel the pressure, but never let the biz get in the way of creativity’

MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the outstanding talents working in studios across the decades. To close 2023 we catch up with Tay Keith, who broke through via landmark work with Drake and Travis Scott. He is now building a business empire whilst continuing to add to a production CV that includes some of the world’s biggest stars – and is far from restricted to any single genre. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management.

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Most students mark their graduation with a family meal and a few drinks in the college bar.

But Tay Keith celebrated his degree from Middle Tennessee State University by scoring his first Hot 100 No.1 single as a producer with Travis Scott featuring Drake’s Sicko Mode (complete with the hollered exhortation of his producer tag, “Tay Keith, fuck these n****s up”).

“It was quite a week,” Keith deadpans, five years on, as he FaceTimes MBW from the back of a car speeding him towards an engagement at New York Fashion Week. “We graduated and had a No.1 the same week – there was just this alignment…”

Indeed, by the time he donned that gown and threw his mortarboard in the air, Keith was long since used to living the most significant student double life since Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider. Sicko Mode’s own graduation to the chart penthouse merely confirmed the destiny Keith had been chasing since, as a kid in High School in Memphis, he realized he was more likely to make a living out of production than chasing success as an artist.

“Artists spend years trying to get to that point of their career,” he shrugs. “But, if you learn how to produce and become a good producer, you can go from ground zero to 100 in months.”

And that is pretty much what Keith did – helping countless artists find the distinctive sound they needed for success along the way.

Keith grew up in South Memphis and forged an alliance with BlocBoy JB in his teens, also working with other local rappers such as Blac Youngsta (who later did a track called I Met Tay Keith First) to help forge a new, bass-heavy Memphis Sound that was just a little different to the one pushed by Stax Records in the 1960s. It’s a measure of their impact that Memphis is now firmly on the rap map.

Drake, always a keen student of hip-hop’s underground, spotted what was happening down south and got involved, hopping on BlocBoy JB’s Keith-produced track Look Alive, helping to take the song into the US Top 5. Soon, Keith’s fellow students were partying to his joints, unaware their producer was sat next to them in media management lectures the next morning.

“It wasn’t like I woke up one day and people knew who I was,” he says. “It took years of me and my manager Cambrian [Strong] working while I was at college, with the music situation building a buzz. We figured out the ropes of going to New York or Los Angeles for awards shows, then Atlanta to work with artists, and then coming back to college. It wasn’t a bad thing, it kept us grounded.”

Keith never considered dropping out as his mother’s housing assistance was linked to him staying in school (his mother tragically passed away two years ago). And while, by his senior year, a few classmates had connected him to the songs blowing up the charts, he maintains, “It wasn’t anything to deter me from staying in school.”

“I felt like music was my only way out at that point, and DRAKE helped me get to where I needed to go in the music industry.”

Post-graduation, his fruitful relationship with Drake has continued – Keith produced the likes of the rapper’s hit Nonstop and worked on his Her Loss project with 21 Savage. But, Keith says, Drake’s co-sign ultimately had a much deeper impact than that.

“I say he saved my life,” he says. “It goes back to me being in school and having to take care of my Ma, he knows it was a hard time for me. I wasn’t going to have a good career with my degree. I felt like music was my only way out at that point, and he helped me get to where I needed to go in the music industry.

“Would I have made it without him?” he ponders. “It certainly would have taken longer. And the thing about it is, there would be no telling where my life would be at, if it had taken longer. Everything fell in line at the perfect moment – if it had taken longer, I probably wouldn’t have been this successful.”

As it is, Keith – signed to Warner Chappell Music for publishing – is on a five-year run of hits that shows no sign of flagging. And Drake also taught Keith the priceless nature of an artistic relationship where “you’re in a creative zone and it’s not about the numbers – it’s about the creative moment at that time”.

He has worked as a producer, songwriter and occasional featured artist with the superstar likes of Eminem (Not Alike), Megan Thee Stallion (Movie), Lil Nas X (Holiday) and DJ Khaled (Every Chance I Get), as well as 6ix9ine, Future, Migos, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby and pretty much anyone else in music with Lil in their name apart from Lily Allen. But, whoever he works with, Keith always tries to forge a connection that goes beyond the mutual desire for a hit.

“That relationship is worth more than any dollar you can have,” he says. “People value those connections, because you never know when you might need them, or they might need you. To have that type of genuine relationship with people carries you a long way.”

Unlike some producers, Keith says he is happy to be versatile in his approach to production sessions. “Sometimes I like to be in my own zone, be creative and create the music,” he says. “And sometimes I might be in a city with this artist, or we might do a camp together and sometimes we plan it out. It depends on what type of mood I’m in, and what type of mood the artist is in.”

He’s also become accustomed to taking those calls from frantic A&R men towards the end of a project, hoping against hope that the super-producer can bring the magic formula for a hit to the studio with him. Often he does, but Keith maintains it isn’t that simple.

“A lot of songs that I have made for artists have beats that might have been turned down by other artists,” he says. “Like, I’ve heard this beat a thousand times, but maybe this is the artist that might make a hit with it. I’m cooking up for the artist and they’re expecting this, so I have to deliver, I have to get in my zone. Sometimes there might be a little bit of pressure…”

In fact, it’s hard to imagine the supremely laid-back Keith ever breaking a sweat. This summer, he rose to the challenge of Travis Scott’s post-Astroworld Festival comeback, working on the No.1 Utopia album, including the Top 3 single, Meltdown. He also produced rapper Sexyy Red’s Pound Town smash (which also gave Keith his first charting song as a featured artist) and worked on her Hood Hottest Princess mixtape, declaring her “the breakthrough artist of the year”.

“It’s different working with big artists than working with upcoming artists,” he says. “If you’re working with mainstream or global artists, it’s heard by millions and there’s always a question of how people are going to perceive the music like, ‘Are they going to like it or not?’ You always feel the pressure, but never let the biz get in the way of creativity.”

And that’s something Keith is determined won’t happen, even as he builds his own business ambitions beyond simply making music. He already has his own studio in the country stronghold of Nashville (“The resources are not there for rap and hip-hop like they are in LA and New York, but I decided, ‘Why not be a big fish in a small pond?’”) and launched his own label and producer stable, Drumatized Music Group, alongside his manager, in 2018.

“We wanted to focus more on building, instead of just the hype and ego of being an artist or producer in the music industry,” he says. “We wanted to understand the business side, have ownership and help and develop upcoming producers and artists.”

Drumatized has already found success with the likes of Lil Darius and Denaro Love, and helped producers like Eza and Grayson build their careers, while Keith even has a brand partnership with McDonald’s on his CV, having crafted bespoke merch and an unreleased song to promote the fast food giant’s Crispy Chicken sandwich back in 2021 (“I still get free burgers – you make a couple of calls and have them bring food to the studio,” he chuckles).

But, with the likes of Jay-Z and Dr Dre as his role models, and with his investments in everything from tech start-ups to tequila companies – assets he firmly believes will one day earn him even more money than his music career – Keith has ambitions of being much more than just another producer with a side hustle or two.

“It should be anybody’s goal to be a mogul,” he declares. “A smart person will understand you can’t be hot forever, you can’t put out music and make hits forever, you have to spread your wings to be remembered, to have that legacy and that foundation. Anybody with sense in the music game understands that 100%.”

Ask Keith the one thing he’d like to change about the music industry and he’ll talk about the importance of rights ownership (“Artists should be able to get their music out without signing over that shit,” he sighs). Drumatized does what he calls “handmade deals” with its artists that allow them to retain control, but the star stresses: “I’m not knocking [traditional] artist deals or publishing deals; they could [provide] the bags of money that people can use to invest in other things.”

He is a fan of the transparency of streaming, and sanguine about the threat of artificial intelligence to producers and songwriters, shrugging: “AI is a good thing, but it could be a bad thing. As long as we keep control over it…”

Do you think we can control it? “I’m not sure,” he laughs. “I don’t think anybody is sure! Only time will tell.”

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t focused on the future. Still only 26, he’s achieved more than many producers twice his age, but is still determined to get his hands on a Grammy. Sicko Mode was nominated but missed out in 2019, but he’s got a chance to put that right in 2023, with nominations for his work with both Drake/21 Savage and Travis Scott, something he described on X, formerly Twitter, as recognition of his “true hard work and longevity”.

“I like showing how versatile I am, working with a lot of upcoming artists, R&B artists and different genres.”

Jay-Z and Post Malone are on his production bucket list, but he also has ambitions to expand his powerbase far beyond US hip-hop. He’s already worked with Aitch and AJ Tracey on Rain (“I love UK rap – it’s crossing over now with Central Cee, UK artists have just got to spend a bit more time in America”); Beyoncé on Before I Let Go (“It was nice working with a childhood idol – I was a big fan. Everybody was a Beyoncé fan, man!”); and Miley Cyrus on Mother’s Daughter (“That was dope – they seemed like cool people”) – but is keen to do even more.

“I’ve been working with a lot of different artists, showing people I can do a lot of different things outside of what they expect of me,” he says. “I like showing how versatile I am, working with a lot of upcoming artists, R&B artists and different genres. I’m going to keep pushing and working with different people.

“I would do any type of music,” he adds. “You put me in a room with the right people and anything could come out of it. Heavy metal? Yeah, I know how to get some good music out of that.”

He’s spoken in the past of wanting to retire at 50 and become a teacher (he already has an honorary professorship from MTSU), which would certainly give new meaning to the phrase ‘going back to the old school’. But could he really walk away from all this?

“I’m still on that path,” he grins. “I will do it, for sure. But before that, [it’s about] my own label, expanding stuff through and signing the most successful artists in the world.”

And if anyone can bring this remarkable story of ‘college non-dropout turned rap tycoon’ full circle, it’s surely Tay Keith.Music Business Worldwide

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