Music is a vessel. Where there are lyrics, music can convey thoughts in plain speech. But where there is only sound ― say, a filthy bass line, the whine of a synthesizer or the thunder of a kick drum ― music conveys that which can’t be reduced to words: emotions, and an artist’s origin and upbringing.
In the genres of hip-hop and rap, producers are responsible for that sound; using keyboards and drum machines, they are tasked with transporting listeners into worlds of their creation. Today, few, if any, are doing this with more commercial success than Tay Keith. At 22 years old, he has already collaborated on platinum records with artists like Drake and Beyoncé, but the Memphis-born hitmaker is out for more.
In conversation with HuffPost, Keith discussed his newfound fame, what it’s been like to get love from the Beyhive and his views on hip-hop, past and present.
Where do you get your music inspiration from? I read an article about you “Bringing Memphis to the World” and as a hip-hop head, it struck me that you exist within a tradition of Memphis music that is continually underrated.
Yeah, I got a lot of inspiration from Three 6 as far as my sound. As far as Memphis being underrated, I feel like a lot of people have slept on Memphis music when it comes to breaking through into the mainstream. I feel like artists like Three 6 Mafia and 8 Ball and MJG reached a point in their careers where they were hot and underground. I feel like it took artists like Pimp C and Andre 3000 with “International Players Anthem” — I feel like it took the Memphis sound to a certain peak but it never really broke into the mainstream.
Before that time, I was, like, in middle school.
I feel you, I feel you.
That was before I was really creating music.
One of the things I’ve heard you say in interviews is that you love making music in a minor key, and as someone who plays piano, I feel like I get it. There’s often a darker element to songs like that. What about it appeals to you?
Yeah, [major] keys are kind of anti-vibe. It kind of takes away from the hip-hop vibe.
I was watching “The Art of Organized Noize,” the doc about the producers in Organized Noize, and they tell a bunch of stories about what it was like to record with Outkast and a number of other iconic artists. What were your earliest sessions like?
I really can’t recall many moments like that. I just remember, when I started recording for real, we used to record in the house all the time — just my brothers and cousins and friends would record in the house. We just had a microphone, a small little laptop. It was just a grinding moment for all of us. We didn’t really have any resources; we were just trying to make it do what it do.
When would you say was the moment when you really saw your popularity starting to grow?
It was a couple different moments, but one moment when I really felt we were taking it to another level was when I did “Look Alive.” I feel like, after then, people started recognizing me and who I was. Before that, people thought I was just making beats that they would hear by chance and they’d overlook it. But people started recognizing who I was in public and started putting a face to the name. In the beginning of 2018, I was really becoming somebody.
How have you dealt with that success? A lot of artists talk about struggling with having new people enter their lives and knowing who to trust. Have you experienced that?
It’s been a struggle sometimes, you know? It’s really the lack of privacy [that gets to me]. I can’t really just go out. Some places I can, some places I can’t. It’s really hit-or-miss. If I want to go to a restaurant or some shit like that, sometimes I can. But sometimes people recognize me and want to take pictures or catch me off-guard in a photo. That can make you uncomfortable. I could be on a date or something or trying to get some alone time, and someone will try to take a picture of me or record me. The pros outweigh the cons, of course, but the main con would be privacy.
I gotcha. I want to hear about some of those pros. What is the greatest experience you’ve had as a result of this newfound popularity?
That’s a good question.
I know I’m putting you on the spot with that one.
I feel like it’s the privileges you get. It’s really no specific thing — it’s just a lot that comes with the popularity. It could be a situation when some new shoes come out, everyone’s trying to get them and I can just make a phone call and get them. Whereas, when I was in a little predicament in life, I wasn’t able to do that.
I hear you. That’s a very specific perk, but it just shows that with popularity comes the privilege of choice, in a sense.
You know? It’s just an example, but if there are some sneakers I know are going to sell out or go crazy on resale, I can make a call and people will send me the shoes for free. It’s just an example. Last week, I went out to eat and the waiter paid for my meal. It’s just privilege, you know?
Tell me what it was like for you to be tapped to produce Beyoncé’s version of “Before I Let Go.” A lot of people were probably familiar with your music before then, but being connected to Beyoncé thrusts you into an entirely different light.
Yeah. I mean, I get so much love from the Beyhive. Beyoncé fans show me so much love because it’s not just a Beyoncé record, you know? This one connects with Frankie Beverly, so it’s kind of a “Black People Anthem.” Anybody could just remake a song, but when I work with Beyoncé and remake it, that takes it to a different level. I got a lot of support from the Beyhive, and a lot of her fans always send me love.
I imagine there ain’t nothing like that love, man. If you’re in the Beyhive’s good graces, you’re pretty much set.
Exactly. It’s a whole different thing. [Laughs.]
One of the things I always think about is how hip-hop is perpetually forced to prove its legitimacy. I look at a lot of the artists you’ve worked with — Blac Youngsta, BlocBoy JB and others — a lot of “hip-hop purists” scoff at these people, yet you’ve worked with them to create some very interesting music. What does it mean to you to work with artists like them?
There’s a thin line between hip-hop and rap. When you look at the genres, it’s “hip-hop” and “rap” that are categorized together, but there’s always a line between them, you know what I’m saying? So when it comes to working with these artists, I feel like it’s rap but it’s also hip-hop. I feel like rap is a form of hip-hop, and the way these artists express their lyrics is hip-hop in its own way. People are still lyrical — they’re lyricists — but they’re expressing things in their own way.
Right, right. And I’ve always felt like there’s some regional discrimination in the way we think about lyricism too because a lot of the “mumble rappers” people complain about are just people with a different dialect. You can understand what they’re saying if you know the area and its dialect.
Right. I mean, truth be told, it’s not the actual musicians who criticize them. It’s the listeners who criticize them — people who don’t even create music. So when it comes to the actual people in the hip-hop/rap game, the artists and producers, it’s not really a big factor.
You graduated from Middle Tennessee State last year. Why was it important for you to finish school and get your degree even after your success?
It was one of the best experiences and feelings in my life. Just walking across the stage and me being the first one in my family to accomplish it — setting the tone for future children in our family: my nieces, nephews, little cousins, even my kids in the future. It just set the bar high for them, and it gave me a feeling of joy to say “I did it!”
Oh, absolutely. It sounds like that was empowering.
I could’ve easily dropped out when I got the call from Drake, or I could have easily decided to go DJ for Blac Youngsta, or I could have decided to hop on the road with BlocBoy, but I chose to stay in and focus on getting my education to prove a point. It was important for history — not just the history of my family, but the history of the rap game. People gon’ remember that.