And in his latest collaboration, Whole Food, with Detroit rapper Denmark Vessey, he has one of the year's most buzzed-about indie rap records.
“That mindset of mine is intentional. Gone are the days where you had one producer create a landscape for the artist to do whatever they wanted,” says Dean, who career began in 1998. “Now you’ve got one rapper and he’s got six different producers on the album and it sounds like a compilation.”
That style of producing is too mechanical for Dean. He prefers a one-on-one approach that is more organic rather than tossing out beats for rappers. It’s how his label Mello Music Group prefers to operate. “We brought that back, the one producer, one group concept,” Dean says. “It’s robbery to put out music for the consumer that’s mechanical. You’re doing it because that’s what the blogs are saying and this guy is hot.”
Since his first production credits with Crooked Lettaz, a duo from Mississippi featuring eventual breakout star David Banner, Dean has developed a reputation for his samples using the classic E-mu SP-1200 drum machine much like other beatsmiths who’ve used it like Q-Tip, Danger Mouse, DJ Premier, J Dilla and Pete Rock. His following production credits had labels calling on him to remix projects for artists like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and CL Smooth and earned him cosigns from DMC of RUN DMC, which can be heard at the end of his Lo-Fi Fingahz compilation.
For this latest collaborative effort Dean sought out a rapper who he felt was eclectic “but still dope.” During the search, he came across Vessey’s “HoeininDaGaddaDaVida” video from his critically acclaimed 2013 album Cult Classic. Struck by Vessey’s surreal portrayal of Adam and Eve, Dean reached out to the Detroit MC, who jumped at the opportunity. “I watched two videos and I was sold,” Dean says. “There was an energy in his delivery and of course he has the technical skills — he’s a very talented writer. His execution as an emcee is grade A.”
Vessey’s oddball nature and versatility — his lyricism is sharp, witty and enthralling — offered Dean an opportunity to operate outside of his classic boom-bap sound and dive into his weird chamber of beats. The production of Whole Food marked a huge transition in Dean’s production style, as he embraced a new-to-him piece of analog equipment in the MPC3000, a favorite of Kanye West and J Dilla.
“When I made the switch to the 3000 it enabled me to listen to my records differently because I no longer had the limitations of the 1200,” Dean says. “It was like getting a new record collection. I no longer had to shy away from certain sounds.”
The new machine changed the way he creates music. Digging through his 7,000-piece vinyl collection with new equipment was no small feat. For the first time in a long time, he was sampling soul records when in the past their nuanced sounds were lost on the 1200. He had a whole new palette and experimented. The new sounds caught the attention of NPR who featured the song “Black Love” before the album released and praised Dean’s bluesy guitar and organ loops on the track for their Songs We Love series.
But Dean is well aware Whole Food won’t be cracking Billboard charts. “When you decide as a creator that you’re going to use certain equipment or walk a certain path you have to be wise enough and strong enough to accept everything that comes with it,” he says. “I had a talk with myself years ago that I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and be proud of the records I put out and it cannot be about the money.”
Dean’s commitment to classic hip-hop may keep his work underrated, but it’s also earned him a designation as one of hip-hop’s best kept secrets. For Dean that’s a double-edged sword. “It’s good that people recognize what I do," Dean says. "At some point you want the world to have the opportunity to listen to your stuff."
GENSU DEAN AND DENMARK VESSEY perform at 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, at RBC.