Online trap-rap tune-up

2011-11-12 09:12

A few years ago, before anyone knew his name, the rap producer Lex Luger, born Lexus Lewis, sat down in his dad’s kitchen, opened a sound-mixing programme called Fruity Loops on his laptop and created a new track.

It had a thunderous canned-orchestra melody, a sternum-rattling bass line and skittering electronic percussion. When the track was finished, he emailed it to a rapper named Waka Flocka Flame.

Luger had recently spent a few months in Atlanta with Waka, sequestered in a basement, producing most of the music for Waka’s debut album. Waka had asked him for one more beat that could potentially be the album’s first single.

Months later, Luger (20) – who says he was “broke as a joke” by that point, about to become a father for the second time and seriously considering taking a job stacking boxes in a warehouse – heard that same beat on the radio, transformed into a Waka song called Hard in da Paint.

When radio stations got their hands on another Luger-produced track – B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast) by Rick Ross – suddenly everyone was calling Luger.

His beats were everywhere, fuelling hit songs by people you’ve heard of (Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z) and people you haven’t (street-famous rappers like Fat Trel, Lil Scrappy and OJ Da Juiceman).

And then last year, Kanye West summoned Luger to New York, where he wanted a Lex Luger beat or two for his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Kanye set Luger up in a downstairs room, where the producer knocked out a drum track for the bonus cut See Me Now. And by the time he got back upstairs, Kanye had thrown the beat under a newly recorded vocal by Beyoncé Knowles – who was there in the room, sitting next to Jay-Z.

“You made it now,” Luger remembers Jay-Z saying, “you got Beyoncé bopping to your beats.”

It happens about once a year in hip-hop production: someone invents or perfects a sound, figures out how to get a weird noise out of some piece of technology, makes a drum machine say the same old thing with a different accent and the whole rap world tilts on its axis.

In the 90s, Dr Dre slowed gangsta rap down to a cruising-lowrider pace, creating music for which a cocky drawl is the ideal lead instrument, and Snoop Dogg became a star. Lex Luger’s sound helped elevate Rick Ross, who pounds haiku-like syllables into the spaces in the music.

Luger isn’t the first Southern rap producer to pair rattling, lawn-sprinkler-ish percussion with ominous synthesized orchestration. But in Luger’s hands, the sound has become almost operatic.

The minute a hip-hop producer establishes a signature sound, his challenge is to prove that that sound doesn’t define him – and to stay ahead of his imitators.

The fact that Luger managed to define the sound of a moment in hip-hop with nothing but a laptop and a software program that retails for R2?000 makes him particularly vulnerable to copycats.

I got to see just how easy it is on the second day I spent at the studio with Luger. He began by playing a four-note melody in a series of different electronic voices – an Enya-like perfume-cloud swoosh and a harsher techno synthesizer bark.

He has what seems like a million sounds loaded into this laptop: sampled snippets from The Flintstones and pneumatic-door-hiss/explosion noises instantly identifiable as Star Wars sound effects. Every drum sound has a weird code name: SsoHatClosed3, H Emotive, Rattle Chop, Slapper Knock, Bongo4 and so on.

When he scrolls through the menu, it’s like listening to the world’s weirdest band tuning up, like a closetful of cartoon props tumbling onto the floor.

He exhaled a baseball-size puff of smoke and clicked the mouse a few times, and a bamboo-flute sound filled the room, like a kung fu movie soundtrack.

Four notes. “I was just playing,” he said, “and that just came out. And that’s a loop. It didn’t even take a minute. And that’s all I really need, right there, to start a beat.”

He laid down more tracks on top of it: big, menacing low-end strings, an echoed-out needle-across-vinyl scratch. Toggled through more effects: GunCock2, Luger Slap Clap, Slapper Knock.

Silenced the flute loop and punched up an ominous horror-movie keyboard part, like the score John Carpenter wrote for Halloween.

The whole thing was done in less than half an hour. Luger saved the file and took a bite of pizza, and six minutes later he had another beat in progress, with the Star Wars light-saber-clash sound buried somewhere in it. I clocked this one. It was done in 22 minutes.

“Twenty-two minutes?” he said, incredulous. “Pssssh. I’m gettin’ old.”

The next one took 18:58.

At the end of the Wednesday mixing session, Luger paid JR, the studio manager, with ATM-fresh cash, plus a chunk of herb, like a tip, and we took off.

I wanted to see what a day in the life of a 20-year-old guy who happens to be hip-hop’s hottest beatmaker was like, so we drove to Norfolk in a burgundy Expedition with Luger’s buddy 2K at the wheel, Luger in the back, gutting another “Swisher cigar”. He can’t say how many he smokes a day.

He does say it keeps him focused. His own music played on the stereo, Errday by Wiz Khalifa.


He’s sensitive about where he comes from because he’s the first real hip-hop star to come out of Suffolk. The producers Pharrell Williams and Chad of the Neptunes are also from Virginia. As are Timbaland and Missy Elliott.

“But they’re from, like, this part,” Luger said, motioning with his blunt at the well-manicured landscape passing outside the car – nice public pools, churches, white people watering their lawns.

He says: “Suffolk is country. The countriest, out of all of ’em. Like, this, right here, we ain’t used to this, where we from. We got none of this.”

Growing up, Luger drummed in church bands, then got his hands on a PlayStation game called MTV Music Generator 3.

But then his friend Black came back to Suffolk from North Carolina with a pirated copy of Fruity Loops. That copy got copied. For a while after that, everybody in Suffolk was a hip-hop producer.

Most of them gave it up, but Luger stayed with it. He’d found his instrument. He could make a beat in five minutes and sit there for four hours fine-tuning it. Fruity Loops could stop time.

Working every day after school and all day every weekend wasn’t enough. Luger dropped out of high school after Grade 10 to do music full time. He heard about artists getting record deals on the strength of MySpace exposure, so he started posting music there.

He also started cold emailing rappers and sending them beats. One of them was Waka Flocka Flame, who wrote back to him.

On the drive to Norfolk, Luger pointed out some houses on the water with little boat docks. He’s got one of those now – five rooms, enough for him, his girlfriend and his two daughters.

We pulled up to Jay Coston’s place, a one-storey house in Norfolk – shutters drawn, ADT security sign on a spike in the lawn. Coston, along with his sister Amy Lockhart, manage VABP, short for Virginia Boyz Productionz, the rap group Luger founded with a couple of his friends from high school a few years back.

Luger made a lot of his most famous beats in the shed behind Coston’s house. Once inside the shed, I realised I’d seen this room before, in an amazing YouTube clip called “Lex Luger secret formula for making beats”, in which he bangs out a completed track in minutes.

As it happened, we were on the internet at that very moment. Coston was doing a live Ustream broadcast. Everybody crowded around the webcam for a minute and then another blunt was sparked, and Luger and his crew smoked away another chunk of the afternoon.

Then we were off to Virginia Beach Boulevard, to this car shop Luger frequents, where we stared like chin-stroking art-gallery types at some really bea

utiful old “box Chevys” – square-bodied 70s Caprices, painstakingly pimped, their trunks full of bass-cannon stereo equipment, their paint jobs rain-beaded like a Photoshop texture-tool demo.

By nightfall Luger, Black and most of the other members of VABP were back in Suffolk, hanging out in the immaculate living room of Amy Lockhart’s house.
Her son, who goes by the rap name Kapital, was one of the kids trooping over to Lex’s house to record raps back in the day. Once VABP coalesced as a group and Amy found out how serious they were, she agreed to become their manager.

“I got to thinking,” she said, “that if I help them with this, it’ll keep them off the streets, and they won’t get in any trouble.”

Luger is a hip-hop star who wouldn’t be one without the internet.

He has the tunnel vision of a hardcore gamer or a programmer, someone who can wire into an interface and shut off his perception of time’s passage.

As for his signature orchestral bombast, Luger’s sick of ?it already. It has made him incredibly successful, but he can’t listen to a lot of his big hits any more.

“Everybody’s trapped in the trap sound,” he told me on the day we met. “I’m trying to get out.”

I asked him if he’d found the way out yet.

“I’m not gonna go, like, one route, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Like I’m goin’ trap today, and I’m goin’ pop tomorrow. If Britney Spears called me, I’m goin’ to wherever she at.”

Luger hopes to follow producers like the Neptunes and Timbaland, who built their careers by charging up their approach. He mentions That Way, a song he produced for the rapper Wale, as the beginning of what he sees as his outside-the-trap phase. It became the No. 1 rap album in America the week after I visited Luger.

The next step after That Way is somewhere on Luger’s hard drive, waiting to find its way to the right artist. He cued up a few possibilities and let me listen.

Sounds blared from the speakers at hair-curling volume. Synthesizers that sound like water dripping on a live circuit board. There’s a weird melody line, part flute and part digitised ghost choir. When the drums come in, it sounds like Luger.

“I play this for artists all the time, and they don’t want it,” he said, skipping to another track. It sounds like a computer sobbing.

Luger cut off the playback after a minute and said: “Oh, man. That’s secrets, right there.”

» Pappademas is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine © 2011 The New York Times 

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