Hip-hop album sales reached commercial supremacy in the mid-'90s. It was the most decadent era in hip-hop culture, and music producers took home a substantial share of profits. It's the era that made Kanye West, Just Blaze, The Neptunes and Swizz Beatz household names and filthy rich. Even the original hometown "Grammy Boys" Play N Skillz climbed several tax brackets.
The advent of file sharing and streaming dismantled the old music business model and slashed record label budgets to a fraction of what they once were. Veteran Dallas based hip-hop/R&B producer Tha Kracken is aware of the methodology behind surviving in a changed music industry and is making plans to secure his longevity and establish the next stage of his career.
Tha Kracken has cultivated and fine-tuned a special brand of performance art: merging visual elements of EDM, light shows and gloving with energetic choreography, which has become common in hip-hop producer beat battle tournaments. The best way to describe Kracken's style would be that of an orchestra conductor gone mad, maniacally guiding the audience through a vast array of string crescendos, bass lines and dramatic transitions.
Before he became known in the beat battle circuit as Tha Kracken, he was a University of North Texas graduate who went by a drastically different name. "I used to go by Cheese Beats," Tha Kracken says. "Cheese was a nickname I had in school, so I just threw beats behind it. I didn't put a lot of thought into it. Don't judge me," he says through laughter.
"A lot of people know me from the current producer movement we have in Dallas now, but I was doing a bunch of stuff before this, getting some decent accolades under my belt."
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The name change came about from an endorsement deal he landed with Open Labs, a company based in Austin that designs production gear. "I remember when I went to Open Labs office in Austin to pick up some equipment," the producer recalls. "I got mine, and I was like this thing is a beast, I'm gonna name it Tha Kracken. So it started as an aka. I'd say Cheese Beats, aka Tha Kracken. Then I just dropped Cheese Beats from it."
He went on to produce music for A-list Atlanta-based artists during the 2000s, including Jagged Edge, Young Joc, Bow Wow and The Dream. After that he transitioned into the gospel hip-hop genre and mostly cut ties with the secular music industry. When he decided to re-enter secular hip-hop, Tha Kracken had to come up with a strategy to reintroduce himself.
"I was out of the mainstream genre for quite a few years," he says. "Out of sight, out of mind, a lot of people forget you and move on. The game changed, but I'm a competitive person." Tha Kracken chose to enter the burgeoning beat battle circuit as a means to sharpen his skills and reintroduce himself to the production community.
His first beat battle got off to a rocky start, as he was re-acclimating himself. "I really wasn't in battle mode, I'll be honest with you," he recalls. "(The competition) put the work on me a little bit. I mean, I made it to later rounds, but I was still in producer-songwriting mode," he says. "After that it was game-on and I consistently started on the circuit racking up a lot of wins."
It's through events such as these that Tha Kracken met and became friends with several local production luminaries such as Sikwitit, Reezy Tunez, Freddy Bruno, Oktober 1st and others. This "class" of producers formed somewhat of a loose fraternity, and all of them have played major roles in the Dallas hip-hop movement of the last five years.
Regardless of genre, producers tend to be reclusive, much like gamers and coders. In the past, if you had talent and clientele, antisocial, shut-in tendencies weren't much of a career impediment. In a changed modern industry, such behavior can stagnate careers and blanket talent in obscurity. When the internet took a wrecking ball to the profit margins of record label labels in the late 2000s, mainstream producers who regularly received five- and six-figure checks for beats saw much of that wealth dry up on every tier of the producer pecking order.
The diminished revenue affected producers even more so than artists. Less money from labels meant smaller budgets allocated to producers. Also, artists have the ability to tour and more opportunities exist to generate income from their likenesses.
"The way producers are treated, we always get the short end of the stick," Tha Kracken says. "I remember listening to a conversation with Shawty Red who's regarded as the godfather of trap music and DJ Toomp. These are guys with platinum upon platinum plaques, and they were talking about problems they've had with artists and things they were still owed money for. Shawty Red was talking about how he started to market himself as he was an artist."
Many hip-hop producers have crossed over as rappers or singers, but the artistry category Tha Kracken is pursuing is essentially uncharted territory. EDM producer/DJs are now cornering the market doing what Tha Kracken began pursuing decades ago. The sight of someone traveling the world, standing behind a DJ/audio production console while playing original instrumentals and remixes baffles those who aren't familiar with the EDM scene. Tha Kracken wants to bring this phenomenon to hip-hop, merging the beat battle experience with an EDM show. The idea is not a stretch because the environment of a producer beat battle and a small- to mid-sized indie EDM event is very similar. One main similarity is the passion and cult-like fandom from the crowd and intersecting fan demographics.
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This year, Tha Kracken is committed to taking this idea from concept to reality. He’s been booked for shows through H.A.M. Promo and the underground EDM promotion team that organizes the Open Decks party series at The Green Elephant. His biggest step forward in the reinvention process has been his new six-track audio-visual EP. The title has yet to be announced, but each single will be accompanied by a video. The first release was “Power” in February. Last week the second video, for "HBO," was released, using a sample from the broadcasting giant's interactive logo. The full project will be released this spring.
Tha Kracken is focused on perfecting his stage performance, and the successful rollout of all of the visual from his EP.
“This is my No. 1 priority,” Tha Kracken says. “Right now I feel like I’m breaking into something that I know isn’t new under the sun, but it’s unique; I’m bringing light shows and gloving to the urban world, which is why I was hesitant to do it at first but I’m past that. I’m trying to follow my heart, and this is where my heart is now. If I fail at least I tried it — pray for me, don’t judge me.”