Murda Beatz, an ‘alien’ in rap, can’t stop making hits
  • Saturday, November 17, 2018
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Murda Beatz, an ‘alien’ in rap, can’t stop making hits

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Murda Beatz, 24, at the Paramount Recording Studios in Los Angeles on Sept. 27. Murda, one of the year’s most successful hip-hop producers, is a favorite of Drake, Migos and Travis Scott.

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LOS ANGELES >> Shane Lindstrom, an easygoing 24-year-old from the undistinguished Canadian side of Niagara Falls, cuts a curious figure for a rap-world star.

He has a young man’s beard, fuller off the edges of his face, and a feathered bowl of reddish-blond hair that often flops onto his designer sunglasses. His cluster of diamond chains includes one depicting an oversized chef emoji, complementing his iced-out, rose gold Audemars Piguet watch.

But it’s Lindstrom’s producer name that is maybe most jarring for an amiable dude from north of the border: Murda Beatz, or just Murda to everyone who knows him.

“People aren’t expecting me to look how I do,” he said recently. “But that’s one of the main reasons it works so well: the surprise factor.”

It first worked about five years ago when, after some long-shot social-media networking, a less flashy Murda showed up on Chicago’s South Side to collaborate with Chief Keef’s GBE crew. And it worked again soon after when Murda appeared on the Atlanta doorstep of a then-little-known trio calling itself Migos.

“They just really wanted to get me out there to make sure I was making my beats, because they were fire,” Murda recalled. “They didn’t believe that I was the kid making them.”

In the years since, Murda Beatz has moved steadily, alongside his old friends in Migos, through the mixtape circuit and onto the pop charts. As his instrumentals have evolved from faithful versions of the ominous, 808-heavy Atlanta trap sound perfected by Zaytoven and Lex Luger toward more melodic, sample-based and elaborate compositions, his clientele has also expanded.

Singles like 2 Chainz’s “It’s a Vibe” and Travis Scott’s “Butterfly Effect,” as well as a smattering of Drake album cuts and features, led to a sonic boom for Murda this year: “MotorSport” by Migos, featuring Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, was too big to fail, settling in the Top 10; Drake’s “Nice for What,” built around an undeniable Lauryn Hill sample, spent eight warm weeks at No. 1; and “Fefe,” which brought together Minaj and 6ix9ine, the rap villain of the moment, peaked at No. 3 on its way to nearly half a billion YouTube views.

Now Murda is on the path to headline his own tracks à la Calvin Harris and DJ Khaled (“but bigger,” he said). The demand for his beats, along with his connections, has resulted in a deal with Interscope Records as both an artist in his own right and the head of a label imprint to foster talent.

But joining the rap establishment as an in-demand producer can also mean that you’ve been stamped with an expiration date. Artists and listeners are fickle, always searching for the next sound, and hip-hop is a veritable graveyard of producers who defined a moment only to wither.

“People get content — they buy their house, their cars, their grills, and they get comfortable,” Murda acknowledged. “But I’m not here to be hot for a year.”

In an interview over a sushi dinner and, later, at a Koreatown driving range, a boyish Murda, who whacked golf balls with “Happy Gilmore”-esque abandon, said he was steeling himself for the future now that he’d made it to the top.

He was in the process of surrounding himself with a group of collaborative producers who would work to “keep recreating the sound of music,” he said. And he planned to move away from quantity, the prevailing ideology in modern rap, toward bespoke quality, building songs and whole projects in the same room with top-tier rappers. (Pop singers have also come calling.)

The five-times-platinum “Nice for What” was an inflection point. Rather than dropping off a premade digital beat pack, his biggest hit to date was made at Drake’s house, over a game of “NBA 2K18,” when the rapper ordered up a beat with a female vocal sample and Murda made it on the spot. (Drake located the song’s additional Big Freedia sample himself on YouTube, Murda said; the producer BlaqNmilD later added the New Orleans bounce section.)

The process was a throwback to Murda’s pre-fame days living in an Atlanta studio with Migos, creating five to 10 songs a day. But while Murda first made a name for himself on mixtapes like “No Label 2,” he existed on rap’s periphery until returning to Canada in 2014 and meeting Cory Litwin, a Toronto night life presence who became his manager.

Litwin, a genial operator with a Star of David chain, was then working as a party and concert promoter while selling gold and diamond grills. He connected with Murda through the security guard at their mutual jeweler, and was baffled when Murda insisted on playing him beats. “He was very persistent,” said Litwin, who was not exactly in the music business. “Murda hit me up like 15 times in five days.”

But because Litwin, 32, ran in the same circles as local artists like Drake and the Weeknd, “I thought I could use him to get me to everyone in Toronto,” Murda said.

“And I did,” Litwin added.

Together, the pair practiced the timeless art of faking it like they’d already made it. “I would bring him out to the clubs and make sure he was treated like a superstar,” Litwin said. “Everyone would be like, who the hell is this white kid?” In Los Angeles, if Litwin spotted a celebrity, he would make a mortified Murda pose for a photo to post on social media.

“I’d tell them, ‘Murda Beatz, Migos producer,’” Litwin said. “They’d be like: Oh, really — what’d he produce? ‘Versace’? No. ‘Fight Night’? Nope. ‘Handsome and Wealthy?’ No. So what’d he do? ‘Emmitt Smith!’ And they’re like, What?”

Litwin added: “Every club we’d go to I’d be like, play ‘Emmitt Smith,’ and the DJ would say he didn’t have it. I’d tell them, ‘You have 10 minutes to download it and play it or you’ll never play in this city again.’”

Murda had a similar knack for hustle and finesse, dating back to his days tweeting at rappers and their lower-level associates to make connections and send free beats. In high school, as he transitioned from a drummer obsessed with Travis Barker to a bedroom beatmaker, Murda would identify obscure rappers that his peers enjoyed and target them for collaborations.

Relentless networking worked in the actual music industry, too. Friendships lead to collaborations, especially in a business that includes a lot of late nights and downtime. Through work with artists like the Game, Jeremih and Partynextdoor, Murda, who has never been too shy to FaceTime a famous person, worked his way up the chain.

Boi-1da, Drake’s go-to producer, credited Murda for his relentlessness, both socially and musically. And he said the unlikeliness of Murda’s career often worked in his favor. “It’s just so interesting that this little white kid from Niagara, who kind of looks like Shaggy from ‘Scooby Doo,’ is making these hard trap beats,” he said. “It looks crazy, but people love it. And Murda can always back it up with the music.”

The rapper G-Eazy, who took Murda on tour as a DJ opener this summer, added in a text message: “He’s almost like an alien because his origins don’t seem to make a lot of sense. He’s from the middle of nowhere in Canada, but somehow he’s making some of the most culturally relevant music.”

In the studio, Murda can be easily distracted by, say, putting in an order for wings or hopping on the phone with an incarcerated rapper to play him unreleased music. But when it’s time to create, he’ll futz with a MIDI Keyboard melody or a drum sound with savantlike focus. “When he works it’s almost like he’s unconscious, and the music just makes itself,” G-Eazy said.

So even while Murda has considered slowing his pace in favor of longevity, it’s proven hard to stop the itch. His beats are still popping up on nearly every major rap release of the moment, including Future and Juice WRLD’s collaborative mixtape and Quavo of Migos’ solo debut, where Murda has four songs, including one somewhat bafflingly featuring chopped-up vocals from Madonna. He recently sent more beats to Drake, he said, and hoped for another hit soon with Cardi B.

Any decline in productivity seemed unlikely, for now, if one studio session over the summer was any indication. It was past 2 a.m. and a producer that Murda had recruited for his Murda Gang collective offered tentatively, “Let’s aim for five beats tonight.”

Murda shot back: “Let’s aim for 10.”

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