For the first Behind the Beat of 2022, Thomas Hobbs spoke with Drumma Boy about producing Jeezy and Kanye West’s empowering trap anthem “Put On.”
The greatest rap songs don’t tend to begin in a McDonald’s parking lot. But given this setting resulted in a deadly 5 minute and 21 second coronation for hustlers who drive trucks that light up like spaceships, the low-key meeting spot makes more sense.
“We’d always pull up at the McDonald’s lot next to Patchwerk Studios [in Atlanta].”Memphis-born producer Drumma Boy said, reflecting on how he gave Jeezy the beat for “Put On” back in 2008. “He would hop in my car, I would hand him the CD, we would say a few words, maybe play one song, shake hands, and then we would both drive off like we’d just concluded a drug deal. I gave Jeezy the ‘Put On’ beat and he called me two days later. He said, ‘Oh man, we really got one. Stay tuned!’ At that point, I didn’t even know Kanye West was on the song; I probably found out when I heard it on the radio.”
Officially released in the summer of 2008, “Put On” — the lead single from Young Jeezy’s The Recession album — made a seismic impact, uniting both the streets and the pop charts (it peaked at no. 12 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the US Hot Rap Songs Chart). The commercial success was fueled by a pivotal auto-tuned-laced feature from an ascendent Kanye West (more on him later), but also Jeezy’s iconic trap Yoda-like presence — he chants out an alluring instruction manual to all the dealers on his block.
At a time where the world’s economy was tanking, Jeezy’s irresistible urge to “put on” for your city made the hustlers feel recession-proof, galvanizing working-class communities across America by making them the epicenter of a great fourth album that would consolidate the Atlanta artist’s trap legacy. “The song really became this national anthem for all the hoods in America because of how Jeezy chants,” explained Drumma Boy in our phone call. “I don’t even call it singing, it’s chanting. Jeezy just got that raspy voice that cuts through a room and makes everyone want to smile and sing along. With ‘Put On’, we were giving the underdogs music to make it through the recession.”
Just as central to the song’s enduring power is Drumma Boy’s beat. “Put On” has purring synths that sound more than a little sci-fi (and result in Jeezy boasting about working for NASA), but the juxtaposition with dark, chest-thumping bass and chilling keys indebted to a Psycho-era Bernard Hermann grounds the song in everyday realities. Having referred to “Put On” as his very own “ghetto symphony”, the 38-year-old producer told me the idea was to conjure a simultaneous feeling of tragedy and triumph.
“The Twilight Zone music put me in a trance [as a child]. If you really study music, you can see how I am doing the same kind of shit with ‘Put On’. My bass is the resonance of the heart. With ‘Put On’ I wanted the bass to be so deep that you felt in your chest and it woke you up. It changes like your heartbeat might change,” he said. “You might feel relaxed and triumphant, but you’re also going to feel on edge. It represents the ghetto experience. It’s cinematic.”
Drumma Boy’s bassline certainly woke something deep inside Mr. Kanye West. Sounding like there’s a million and one things he wanted to get off his chest, the artist’s heavily auto-tuned vocals carry a raw, bluesy sensibility. It’s a stark parallel to the guest artist’s more cartoonish “Louis Vuitton Don” persona, with West sounding isolated at the top (“I got the money and the fame and it don’t mean shit!”) and primed to show more vulnerability as a vocalist.
The “Put On” beat was inspired by The Alan Parsons Project’ “Sirius “, the entrance music used for the Chicago Bulls throughout the 1990s. Drumma Boy said he recognizes a parallel between Kanye and Michael Jordan, likening the College Dropout to Graduation-run to an NBA three-peat victory. “I was always in love with the music from the Bulls warm-up, that feeling when the lights are about to go off and then MJ is going to run out. You’d feel a chill in the air,” Drumma Boy said. “I wanted to make music like that [with the ‘Put On’ beat]. It’s ironic that Kanye, who is probably the greatest rapper from Chicago, is rapping on a beat that’s a tribute to the Chi’s greatest basketball player. That was all God’s plan. It was meant to happen that way.”
While Jeezy references women with hair like curly fries, his guest talks about the more serious matter of heartbreak. West’s slurred vocals represented an influential moment where he shifted into the more tortured, new-age R&B melodies of his 808s & Heartbreak era. Rappers half-rapping, half-singing about feeling sad in auto-tune would become commonplace, with this verse acting as somewhat of a nucleus.
“My job is to create music that inspires words. It needs to carry emotion, so it automatically tells the artist what to say. I am their therapist, leading the way,” Drumma Boy said. “The synergies, the bassline, the snares, the lap, the strings, the piano that I am playing; all that emotion on ‘Put On’ is what told Kanye, Jeezy and JAY-Z [who appears on the remix] what to say. I was conducting them.”
Drumma Boy said his parents actively encouraged his route into music. “My moms, who was an accountant and also a part-time singer, would be holding the speaker playing Earth, Wind and Fire or Patti LaBelle to her stomach. My dad was in the orchestra and he played clarinet,” Drumma Boy said. “It meant I grew up around musical instruments; I was three when I learned how to play the clarinet! My dad had me reading Beethoven and Bach. Those were the conductors and pianists I wanted to emulate them but using the creative tools of my day, which is trap.”
Although he’s rarely mentioned on top 10 producer lists outside of the South, Drumma Boy more than deserves to be recognized as a serious musician. Take the way he makes violin strings sound like police sirens on “All Mine” by the late Young Dolph, bending notes with real electricity, or the gutter funk of “Dat Recipe”, where Drumma Boy trades bars with Dolph and Future.
Drumma Boy was one of the first producers to really back Dolph, who was murdered while buying cookies in Memphis last November. It is a loss that he’s obviously still processing. “In Memphis, Dolph was almost our version of 2Pac. Smart, intelligent, he had movies, he was a marketing guru, he donated his money to the poor. He knew how to do so many things. He was really a pioneer out here. We haven’t loved someone that much since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Drumma Boy said. “I’ve always been the one trying to create peace in Memphis and link our artists up with people from Atlanta. It is important all our artists come together as one, because it is difficult to survive out here. Our music has to change. We can’t keep promoting black-on-black violence to these kids.”
Next up for the producer is a new compilation album called Drumma Boy and Friends, which has been driven by catchy single “I Said What I Said”, which features Snow Tha Product and Ludacris rapping like his Word of Mouf days. He will also soon be reunited with Jeezy, revealing to me he will be doing the score for a new film collaboration.
“Jeezy has a movie he’s doing. I can’t say too much about it, but it’s coming in 2022. It is called Trap City,” he said. I did the whole score. I see myself like Tom Brady, my beats are so good, I make everyone around me look as good as they can be.”
Drumma Boy hopes Trap City will rubber stamp his legacy and make people see him more as a composer than a producer. His enthusiasm for hip hop remains clear for all to see. Yet the producer wants to tell potential future collaborators that he’s only interested if they are self-sufficient and understand struggle. “It always comes down to who the artist is. Did they take care of themselves before the music industry, you know? It might be some illegal hustling, selling drugs, gang shit, but you have to be a self-starter. Dolph was like Eazy-E, he was self-sufficient. Same thing goes for Young Jeezy. I like them cats the most to be honest.”
Whatever the future holds for the talented producer, he can’t see the warm memories he associates with Jeezy’s “Put On” ever fading. The magic from that McDonald’s car park remains. “That shit is eternal,” Drumma Boy said. “People will be talking about putting on for their city forever.”
Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno