The Basement Tapes

Kenautis Smith has the beat, and for a little cash it's yours

Kenautis Smith lives in a beautiful brick house off West Florissant Avenue near O'Fallon Park, in one of St. Louis' most upscale black neighborhoods. So why does he spend so much time in the basement?

Even getting down there is tricky, if you're any taller than five-foot-six. Wires hang down from the ceiling, and the floor feels, in spots, like it's about to give out. Once you arrive at Smith's lair, you're greeted by a trifecta of vinyl: Jermaine Jackson's Let's Get Serious, The Story of Tron and an album that simply says Bootsy? on the cover.

"I just think they have interesting jackets," Smith explains. "It's not so much me liking the music that's on them."

His duties as the hardest-working producer in St. Louis hip-hop are what require Smith to spend so much time in this poorly lit dungeon. The girthy Jackson, Mississippi, native crafts beat after beat for local acts such as Coultrain, Black Spade and Jia Davis, and for regional acts who are finding their way onto the national radar, like Nite Owl, Juice and Qualo. The latter's latest release recently received three and half rabbit ears (out of four) from Playboy, and the magazine noted the album's "great production."

"He kinda gives us the sound we like," says Kevynn Bunkley, one half of Chicago's Daily Plannet, another group Smith works with. "He's really diverse as a producer -- we make old-school hip-hop anthems, so yeah, we like Kenautis Smith a lot. He gave me a CD with thirty-five tracks, and then I called him and said we wanted to use six or seven of those, and then about ten days later he sent me a CD with another thirty beats! He's slept on."

That's means he's underappreciated, yo.

The 32-year-old Smith says he's always been productive. Even when he was studying child psychology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, he'd come up with as many as ten beats a day during his off-hours.

Ten good beats a day. Think about that.

Consider that a beat is the backbone of a song, the part you dance to, the part that record executives will pay even hacks like the Track Boyz gazillions of dollars to make. Consider what this writer's pop always says: "I only like songs that are catchy." Of course, the songs he likes are usually performed by artists with some combination of the words "Simon" or "Garfunkel" in their names, but the same principle applies to hip-hop. Poetry, singing ability and the juicy curvature of the performer's rump don't mean shit. If the song makes you shake your own flat ass, it's a success. End of story.

Smith culls almost all of his samples from jazz and soul albums that came out between 1968 and 1977.

"That's when they started using electrical instruments, going out on a limb," Smith says, mentioning favorites Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis and George Duke. "They're also good because of the way they were made, in stereo. Like, the acoustic guitar might be totally on the left side, with the percussion totally on the right side. So if I just want the drum kit on a record, it will probably be panned real hard and have more clarity to it. Stuff on CD is usually centered, so you can't do that."

Smith could go on and on about his technique, but he'd rather demonstrate it. So he grabs a record, which just so happens to be 1969's The O'Jays In Philadelphia, and sets the needle down on a song called "Let Me in Your World." He ups the speed from 33 RPM to 45 RPM, until it begins to resemble the vocal stylings of Alvin, Simon and Theodore. He stores a snippet on his production console and begins chopping it up. In a minute, the piece has shed most of its similarity to the original, other than the words and structure -- think of the chorus from Kanye West's "Through the Wire" as compared with Chaka Kahn's original.

This is all great, but considering that Smith isn't going to be mailing checks to Eddie LeVert and the gang anytime soon, one wonders: Is it legal?

"I wouldn't even know at this point," Smith admits, pausing before reversing course. "It's legal. I only have six notes of theirs in this sequence. But it's not the number of notes -- it's whether your idea derives from theirs. See, I'm not just running theirs from start to finish. The end is different."

His conscience clean, Smith breaks down the song's guitar parts and then adds some drums from a breakbeat record. Using this type of record -- which contain snippets, rather than full songs -- is a technique sometimes frowned upon by other producers, Smith says.

"At one point in college I had 50,000 albums," he recalls. "All they did for me was create dust in my apartment and take up space. This has 40 drumbeats. Why would I bother owning 40 different albums with only a four-bar drumbeat on each?"

Lots of hip-hoppers like to call themselves scientists, but Smith actually acts like one. He doesn't drink or smoke, and he only briefly dabbled in the more-glamorous MC role ("I was probably....average," he says). He uses a computer, speaks in a lot of jargon and is willing to toil in his lab for as long as necessary to get his musical experiments to come out right. "Sometimes it takes five minutes, and sometimes five hours," he says.

"It's like a war out there," he continues, referring to production techniques. "You wanna have as many weapons as possible at your disposal."

One of those weapons sits on the other side of the basement -- his recording studio. It includes a drum set, guitars and a bass. Smith's made engineering a bigger part of his repertoire lately, and in recent days he's been working with Lynette, a soul artist who sometimes sings backup for Coultrain.

All this work manages to pay his rent and support his two kids, who live with their mothers in Normal and Chicago. He says he gets paid around $350 a beat for some clients, but that price is highly variable and depends on how tight he is with the artist.

"I do it for the love, first and foremost," he says. "Second for the art form, and third for the money. I just wanna stay working, and it just so happens that I can generate money from something I love."

In fact, he's been working the entire time he's been talking, tapping on the drum machine and whittling down the seven-second sample to exactly the part he wants. All of a sudden, he's done. He's made a hot beat in five minutes -- from a song he'd never heard before in its entirety.

And then, just as suddenly, the beat's gone.

"I just threw it out -- I didn't need it," he says. "That was just for demonstration. Like I said, I have a considerable amount of beats."

Ben Westhoff

Ben Westhoff is the author of the books Original Gangstas, Fentanyl, Inc., and Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search For the Truth.
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