A fascinating thing about rap music: It may be the only form of music where personality and digital ephemera matter at least as much as music itself. Within rap music, hit songs make a difference, of course. So do classic albums. But they aren’t the only things that matter. Transcendent rap moments can come in all sorts of different forms: a guest verse, a podcast argument, a five-second video that goes viral on Twitter. K-pop works a bit like this, too; fans understand that videos and hairstyles are crucial parts of the entire musical package. But in K-pop, we get all of that top-down, with these huge entertainment companies decreeing exactly what we’ll see. In rap music, it’s just a constant chaotic churn, and nobody has any idea what will catch on and what won’t. That neverending bedlam can be a beautiful thing. Case in point: One of the most vital artistic artifacts of rap’s 2019 isn’t an album or a song. It’s a YouTube series, a goofy set of amateur videos of a tall white guy hunched over a computer, giggling over whatever someone just said.
The Cave is the brainchild of Kenny Beats, the Connecticut-born beatmaker who might be the most vital producer in all of rap music right now. Kenny has had a strange career path. When he was still in college, studying guitar and music industry at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music, he was making tracks for people like Schoolboy Q and Smoke DZA. (He got his foot in the door by selling weed to Ab-Soul, which seems like a pretty smart way to get someone’s ear. Those music industry classes paid off.) But rather than advancing his rap-production career, Kenny instead became half of LOUDPVCK, an EDM duo. This, it turned out, was a growth market.
Within a few months, LOUDPVCK were playing enormous festivals, making big money. But Kenny wasn’t satisfied. LOUDPVCK broke up at the end of 2017, and Kenny immediately went into rap-production overdrive, forming close partnerships with a few key artists. He put out full collaborative projects with people like Key!, Rico Nasty, Zack Fox, and ALLBLACK, and he worked closely with others like Vince Staples, J.I.D, and Freddie Gibbs. He didn’t have a signature sound, though there’s a hyper-energetic blat to many of his beats, which he acknowledges was a byproduct of the years he spent learning what would move festival-EDM crowds. But whatever sound he was working with, his tracks had an effect. Almost instantly, you could hear the drop at the beginning of a Kenny Beats track — usually Key! grunting “whoa, Kenny!,” sometimes Rico Nasty trilling “Kennyyyyyyy!” — and know that you were about to have a good time.
Right now, Kenny Beats is on an unbelievable hot streak, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the charts. Kenny Beats doesn’t make hits, exactly. Unless I’m forgetting something, the only Kenny Beats-produced track that’s charted on the Billboard Hot 100 is Ski Mask The Slump God’s non-single “Foot Fungus,” which peaked at #81. Kenny has done some work with big artists, producing a couple of tracks on A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s quietly huge Hoodie SZN album and co-producing Ed Sheeran’s Stormzy collab “Take Me Back To London” with fellow EDM vet Skrillex and somebody named Fred. But Kenny has also failed to get a few prominent placements. He is not, for instance, on the J. Cole-spearheaded Dreamville crew album Revenge Of The Dreamers III, even though he was there for the sessions. And in the most recent episode of The Cave, he grouses about not getting any of his tracks onto Beyoncé’s Lion King tie-in compilation The Gift.
But Kenny does have The Cave. And one of the great things about The Cave is that, watching it, you get little shreds of information, like Kenny being mad about not being on the Lion King album. The concept of The Cave is simple enough. On each of the biweekly episodes, Kenny welcomes another rapper into his not-that-big studio. He makes a new beat based on whatever arcane thing the rapper wants. He spends a few minutes slapping the beat together — the camera even lets you see his desktop display — and then the rapper goes in and freestyles something. The best part of these videos usually isn’t the music, though the music is often great. It’s in the interaction — the push-and-pull that can lead to a great rapper/producer team-up. Kenny generally doesn’t send his collaborators pre-made beats over email; he likes to be in the room with them, to tailor the beat to what they want. The Cave lets us see at least some version of this process taking shape.
Now, full disclosure: I am a tall white rap nerd who spends all day hunched over a computer, who works constantly, and who has never had a non-awkward interaction with a rapper in his entire life. Kenny Beats is a tall white rap nerd who spends all day hunched over his computer and who works constantly, and in The Cave, I get to see how his awkward interactions with rappers lead to actual rap music. That’s magical, and that’s aspirational. If you’re not like me, then maybe you won’t feel the same way about it. But it’s still overwhelmingly entertaining to watch Kenny attempt to turn his collaborators’ specifications into actual music.
The requests might be the best part of the show. Doja Cat: “Bubbly noises and fucking cute shit, like music-box type shit… Hard, but cute, like some ironic shit — bells and shit like that.” Vince Staples: “I want something toxic. I want some 808s. 808s — no heartbreak at all. Black on everything crime. Even animals.” Most perfectly, Zack Fox: “I want a beat that sound like Runescape mixed with Jodeci mixed with almond milk mixed with domestic violence. Put a domestic violence filter on it. Make me a pro-lifer beat. Make me a Bernie bro beat. Make me a post-9/11, pre-death of Whitney Houston-style beat. Make me a beat that Whitney Houston would get on right now, from the grave.”
That Zack Fox episode is a fucking masterpiece — the best seven minutes and 31 second of television I’ve seen all year. Almost all of the freestyles in The Cave have made for exciting music. The Zack Fox episode is something else. Fox, a stand-up comic who also raps, spends the entire episode saying absurd, hilarious shit, and then, once Kenny has made a beat that somehow meets his requirements, he gets into the booth and raps absurd, hilarious shit. The minute-and-a-half freestyle became a song, the viral hit “Jesus Is The One (I Got Depression).”
“Jesus Is The One (I Got Depression)” is a sub-two-minute song that consists of nothing but ridiculous, quotable lines: “If you ain’t a Christian, I’ma stab you in the face,” “Armpits musty, Reeboks dusty / My show got cancelled cuz white folks don’t trust me,” “I take the condom off and drunk my nut, it’s delicious / I wanna get a whip and crash it into white-owned businesses.” Zack himself hates the song. In interviews, Zack and Kenny talk about the track as a barometer, a symbol of how utterly fucked the music business is when something so sloppy and stupid can become so popular: “Is it that people want something this meaningless, or is it that everything is already so meaningless that this fits right in?” They’re not wrong, exactly, but the song is also great. Maybe it’s great because of how meaningless is.
Kenny has said that The Cave itself is a sort of accidental success. Supposedly, he had no interest in making a YouTube show, but friends kept telling him that there should be a camera in the room for all these hijinks. So he put a camera in the room, and he captured all these hijinks. The frequently-hysterical result is also a rare glimpse of real-time creativity in action, a view of what it looks like when things go right in rap music. In the middle of the most recent episode, Kenny causally mentions that it’s the “season finale.” He hasn’t yet said whether he’ll make more. I hope he does. But whether or not that happens, I’ve already gotten more out of The Cave than I have from just about any album, movie, or TV show of 2019. Rap is funny like that.
1. Sauce Walka – “New Sauce City”
At the end of Westside Gunn’s recent track “Lakers Vs. Rockets,” we got a brief taste of what might happen if Houston bellower Sauce Walka started rapping on hazy East Coast underground beats. And it was good. Now, on the new album New Sauce City, just a couple of weeks later, we get half an hour of Sauce Walka rapping on nothing but hazy East Coast underground beats. And it’s great. I may have more to say about New Sauce City in the near future, but consider this track an appetizer.
2. Dee Watkins – “Hell Raiser”
Ridiculously catchy and energetic music from a teenage Florida phenom. That jumpy little digital bass gives me a dizzy serotonin hit everytime.
3. Kasher Quon – “Back In Motion” (Feat. Teejayx6 & 10kkevv)
Two minutes of frantic, surreal steal-your-money talk from three of Detroit’s finest young credit-card-scammer rappers. Best line: “Almost had to kill one of my fans, he wouldn’t stop starin’ / ‘Bitch you better get your kid’ is what I told the parent.” Or maybe: “I just dropped a check, went to sleep, and woke up with your savings.” Or probably: “I just stole a bomb from the army and blew up the bank.”
4. Thouxanbanfauni – “Dirt Devil”
This beat sounds like a first-generation Nintendo Entertainment System joined a warehouse drone band. I love rap music.
5. Clever – “Money To The Light”
Ever since I first heard him on NLE Choppa’s “Stick By My Side,” I have been fascinated with Clever, a 34-year-old white hesher from Alabama who sings like he’s in a radio-ready mid-’00s angst-rock band and who somehow sounds really, really good on rap beats. The world is an incredible place. People are living lives that we’ll just never even begin to understand.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
me at the function pretending i know all of the words to “dreams and nightmares” pic.twitter.com/6WIvOBPkQm
— shayla (@shaylasp_) August 3, 2019