“I want to make my living from music, and to do that the Norwegian industry is not profitable enough. Many Norwegian artists think that producers work gratis, says Kim Høglund aka Kakemonsteret aka Kookie.
The rapper Twista, soul-legend Aretha Franklin, new r&b hotshots Rihanna and Ne-Yo, harcore rappers M.O.P. and the politically conscious Wagëblë from Senegal, what do they have in common? They all employ Norwegian beats.
This summer the American r&b artist Trey Songz entered the billboard list at #20 with the debut album “I Gotta Make it”. A celebration day for Trey Songz of course, but also for Kim Høglund from Oslo since he produced the album’s title track, which also features Twista, and –on the remix version- none other than Aretha Franklin.
“I’m a big fan of seventies’ soul, so getting her to contribute was swell”, conveys Høglund
Norway not profitable enough
“This was my first released production on an American album. I’ve previously recorded songs with several artists but they have either been shelved or postponed”.
In domestic hip-hop circles Høglund is known as Kakemonsteret (the cookie monster). He has contributed on records from Apollo, Paperboys and Klovner I Kamp (Clowns in combat). Abroad he entitles himself Kookie, and he is now manoeuvring for a position among the defining figures in hip-hop, -with considerable progress considering the fate of the Trey Songz tune.
“The domestic marked in Norway is not profitable enough if one wants to make a living as a producer, since many Norwegian artists think that producers work for free”, says Høglund. “Another reason to relocate was that people simply stopped requesting beats, something related to the issue of samples: Norwegian labels are not to keen on clearing samples, to put it that way”.
“The American market is my long-term aim, but right now I’m focusing on London. I’m working on a project for Polydor in England that has been running for some time. But I can’t reveal anything about it since its fate is still undecided. Another project, which is 99 per cent certain, is with the English r&b singer Shawn Emmanuel who is signed to EMI. The song was supposed to feature The Game, but it turns out it’s going to be someone called Malik Yusef –signed to Kanye West’s label- instead. I’m also involved with songwriters such as Siouxsie Sioux (the Banshees) and Cameron McVey who produced a lot of stuff for Massive Attack and Portishead in the old days”.
In the US Kookie is represented by Genuine Music Group, home to well known producers such as Sam Sneed (Snoop Dog), DJ Khalil (G-Unit) and Sean Blaze (50 cent).
“I managed to get hold of the addresses to a whole bunch of American managers. Three of them responded to the beats-CD I sent them. Only one was really serious, but he was instantly interested and said that his company were in need of producers who did the kind of hip-hop I had sent samples of.”
Genuine Music Group, based in Los Angeles, is home to about 25 producers and songwriters that have worked with artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Christian Aguilera, Usher, Robin Thicke, Babyface and Jermaine Dupri.
Norwegian beats are beyond doubt leagues more profitable than Norwegian rhymes. While rapper Vinnie in Paperboys made a modest 121 000 (nok) in 2004, StarGate-producer Tor Erik Hermansen cashed in no less than seven million.
This team of producers are on the verge of a longed-for American breakthrough, involved as they are with Def Jam, where Jay-Z has taken charge. This fall they are in vogue with songs for r&b artists Rihanna and Ne-Yo, the latter being the warm-up act for John Legend on his US tour this fall
“We’ve previously done a lot of pop, but now we’re a lot closer to r&b and hip-hop. This has been our own preferred music for years, so the chance to work with the best in this genre is a dream come true,” explain Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen from StarGate on telephone from America.
“Expectations and requirements are very high over here, entailing that we have to be fully focused at all times. It is too early to say what the deal with Def Jam will amount to eventually, but the opportunity is most definitely in place. It is up to us to perform and live up to the standards required. Ultimately it is up to the audiences. Our plan is to stay in the US as long as we are busy.”
StarGate have previously produced material for Beenie Man, Sisqo and Mis-Teeq, and they have remixed stars like Eve, Mariah Carey, Lil’ Kim, Nelly and Mary J. Blige. But they have yet to fulfil the dream of producing a song for an American rapper of the top division. However, with numerous new Def Jam projects lined up, this may only be a matter of time.
“We’ve been into hip-hop ever since we saw “Beat Street” at the movies, so needless to say working with one of the majors of rap would be an ultimate experience. Right now we’re more involved with r&b, but things might change. Just to get feedback from Jay-Z is ample reward in itself.”
So what would be StarGate’s advice to promising Norwegian hip-hop producers dying to make a move from the home country?
“Always use the best music out there as the standard in judging your own work. Distinction is a function of mastering fully the structure and musical mould. Don’t worry too much about being conned, because if you have had good ideas before you’re likely to come up with more of them. If no doors appear to be opening, one must withdraw to the studio. When the beats are good enough and you have accumulated enough experience the opportunities will come too you. Good collaborators are essential.”
Kakemonsteret and StarGate are not the only Norwegian producers to home-in on the r&b and hip-hop industry outside of Norway. Oral Bee and Big Ice in Da Playboy Foundation have their beats featuring on more than fifty albums from the American gangsta rap underground.
According to Oral Bee there are more talented producers than rappers in Norway: SilverPlate, Kakemonsteret, Mr. Dice, Neema, (Jae R’s producer), Tom12, etcetera.
“To really succeed as a rapper in Norway it seems the main-stream appeal must be tantamount to Ravi’s, and not many hip-hopers are comfortable with that.”
Despite their contribution on the million selling Baby Bash album “Tha Smoking Nephew” in 2003, Da Playboy Foundation are still awaiting their breakthrough: their beats still mostly furnish the music of lesser gangsta rappers such as Jay Tee, Chingo Bling, Yuns and Bullet.
“After we did “Image of pimp” for Baby Bash we had some naïve faith that The Game, Snoop Dog and E-40 would be leaving an annoying amount of messages on our machine. But we were not sufficiently skilful in promoting ourselves in the aftermath of the release, and haven’t really regained proper initiative until recently. Another thing is that we lack an agent to push our beats, so we have to do everything ourselves. But things are moving in Texas and St. Louis, so we’ll see what happens. We might be able to get in a song we’ve done with Murphy Lee-affiliated artist Potzee on Nelly’s new “Dirty Ent.” mixtape.
We have been able to work with many of our heroes from the Bay-Area underground, people we listen to a lot ourselves, so its been rewarding to produce for them, but naturally, what we really want is to make it big, with major-label releases.”
The Baby Bash album sold more than a million copies in the US. It featured a Norwegian-language guest-rap from Oral Bee, and was also released in a “screwed and chapped” version. Another highlight, from these producers’ point of view, is “Velvetism” by Jay Tee and Baby Bash, which features no less than five songs by Da Playboy Foundation.
So how is it possible for them to shift their beats in the “home-market” of this music? Is not America overflowing with producers that create the kind of g-funk inspired hip-hop that Oral Bee and Big Ice embrace?
“We’ve always been acclaimed for the mastering-work on our beats, and the sound itself, so most likely we have a different sound than most local (American) producers. We put a lot of effort into our songs and we polish them until they become crystal clear and quite different from the ordinary computer beats that dominate home in Norway,” says Big Ice.
But how does one establish contact in the first place? What do aspiring beats-smiths need to do to get the right partners in this nebulous business?
“Internet has facilitated the issue of getting contacts in the US; many artists and labels have web-sites with e-mail addresses they can be reached at. However, it is not uncommon to experience some delay in replies since many are under the influence of certain substances. Actually going over “there” to met people face to face is not a bad idea.”
While Da Playboy Foundation are focusing on the Bay-Area, Texas and Seattle, Tom Roger “Rumblin” Rogstad is placing his bets in Dakar, Senegal West Africa. He produced Wagëblë’s debut album with DJ Crizmo, and on this year’s sophomore “Senegal”, Rumblin is responsible for all the music.
“There are thousands of rappers in Senegal, but very few producers and very limited access to equipment. The few studios that do exist are usually fully booked and too expensive for most artists any way. All expenses have to be paid by the guys themselves. From me they get the beats for free.”
In return the guys in Wagëblë report that Rumblin-beats are the talk of the town.
“A rapper called Eyewitness was in my studio for a couple of weeks this summer, and he was filming me all the time. He told me everyone in Dakar wanted to know who this Rumblin was so he was going to put my face on TV.”
DJ white Shadow from Geilo -a Norwegian mountain village- saw his American debut this fall. “Renegades” features underground rappers such as Maylay, Sparks, Grand Agent, D-Story, Wordsworth and J-Zone. White Shadow has already produced in quantities for the American market, but now he’s hoping the album will increase the business.
“I’m well neigh fully booked for a whole year ahead: I’m doing some remixes for Mic Stylz with Esoteric and Thirstin Hown III in January, and in February I’ll produce a whole album for The Longshots. Just recently I did a song for Army of Pharaoh’s “Torture Paper” album, which is made up of Jedi Mind Tricks, Apathy, Celph Titled, Immortal Technique, Outerspace, Kingsyze and Chief Kamachi. I’ve also done cuts for- and produced the intro track to- Supastition’s “Chain Letters”, which is a strong candidate for hip-hop album of the year in the states.”
Selling beats to American rappers requires stomach and a lot of patience. Tommy Tee knows this betters than most. Several years ago it came out that he had produced some songs on “Ghetto Warfare”, an album by M.O.P to be released on Jay-Z’s label Roc-A-Fella Records. M.O.P have since changed labels to 50 Cent’s G-Unit, and the world is still waiting for “Ghetto Warfare”. However, several of the M.O.P. songs produced by Tommy Tee have appeared on two different M.O.P mix tapes under their alias Marxmen.
“I really enjoy working with Americans, chiefly because I hardly listen to any other rap. The musical aspect is my most important motivation. The business side of things is just a headache, and for that reason it often happens that you don’t pursue matters, even if you know that artists have recorded using your beats. I have some beats floating around, but the problem is that there are thousands of rappers recording albums, but only a minority of them are released in proper legal manner.”
This confused business situation is also well known to Kakemonsteret/Kookie: he was given credit for one of the songs on LA-rapper Ras Kass’ latest album, notwithstanding that the song is not his at all!
“It is always nice to be given credit and the promo is valuable of course.
We’ve given many beats to Ras Kass, so it might well happen that more Kookie-produced material will be appearing from that camp”, says Kakemonsteret, who has lately also been involved with Norwegian rappers such as Son of Light, Karpe Diem and England-based AZ.
“As long as one has a good manager, the confusion is usually minimal, and it is next to impossible to sell beats in the US without one. Most rappers are subject to the A&R divisions of their labels, and for them the name is all that counts. This entails that it is extremely seldom that they venture to use new people. G-Unit is an exception; they pick beats regardless of name, so long as the beats match one of their artist, and the song turns out right. But if you are to succeed in this business it is vital to get up in the morning, put in a lot of work, acquire a good manager, travel a lot and see to it that you meet the right people. The whole industry is based on who you know, and who knows your name”, says Kakemonsteret.
Translated by Christian Lysvåg
StarGate Studios (Studios\Sound; Production Companies)