The spin doctor
DJ Toomp graduates from the old school and learns hard lessons about the business of music along the way
T.I. vs. T.I.P. had the makings of a monster hit.
Released in July, the fifth album by Clifford "T.I." Harris features Wyclef Jean, Eminem and Jay-Z on guest vocals. And it has a provocative split-personality theme that explores the conflict between being a street hustler from Bankhead and an international music star.
The album opened at No. 1 on the charts, and quickly sold more than a million copies. But critics and fans agreed that one thing was missing.
Aldrin "DJ Toomp" Davis is the closest thing T.I. had to a mentor. In the mid-'80s, before the first embers of hip-hop culture wafted from New York to Atlanta, before OutKast and Jermaine Dupri turned the Dirty South into a mecca for the urban music industry, Toomp was making some of the city's first rap records.
Toomp met T.I. in 1997 when Toomp was a journeyman producer and T.I. a teenager. He helped the young rapper polish his talents and introduced him around the local music industry. For a decade, they worked together. And when T.I.'s career took off, Toomp was there, providing street anthems for each of the rapper's first four albums.
Toomp is now 38. In the forever-young, forever-rebellious hip-hop world, those sound like dog years. Most of his contemporaries, from MC Shy D to Public Enemy, haven't had a hit in more than a decade.
But last spring Toomp won the biggest honor in his career: His production of T.I.'s "What You Know," on the 2006 album King, earned a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance.
By last February's Grammy Awards ceremony, however, T.I. was at work on T.I. vs. T.I.P., and Toomp wasn't involved. He and the protégé who'd outstripped his own fame had fallen out.
Sitting on a bright August afternoon on a leather couch inside his million-dollar high-rise apartment in Buckhead, Toomp insists he didn't take the falling out personally. His head is shaven clean. He looks fit and compact in a white T-shirt augmented by jeans and brown leather Prada shoes. His work with T.I. made him a force in the music industry and, he says, he's moving on to bigger things.
"From 1997 to 2007, you're speaking about 10 years," Toomp says. "Over 10 years a lot of stuff changes. You can speak about a whole lot of empires that went their separate ways after 10 years."
As he speaks, Toomp keeps his ears perked to a TV, which is tuned to a digital music channel rotating classic old-school soul. At one point, he excitedly turns up the sound. "Do you hear that shit?" he exclaims. The song was D-Train's "You're the One for Me," an energetic club hit in 1981. "I'm telling you, I'm a real old-school dude, man!"
Aldrin Davis was 13 in 1983, when he headed to the old Screening Room theater at Lindbergh Plaza to see a movie about New York's early hip-hop culture. It was called Wild Style, and it was destined to become a cult classic.
The kid from southwest Atlanta's Ben Hill neighborhood already was familiar with the world of R&B. His father, Alphonzo Davis, sang in the MVP's, a soul quartet that scored a minor hit in 1972 with "Turning My Heartbeat Up."
Most of the men in his family were entrepreneurs who worked a variety of legal and illegal hustles, from driving a milk truck to managing gambling houses. "They got in a little trouble," he says. "My dad had to sit down and went to jail for some years. My uncle, he got murdered. I can definitely say I learned a lot from them. ... I guess I learned from OGs, man. I learned how to move around and get some extra money in the streets."
But one famous scene in Wild Style changed his life. In it, pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash mixes records on two turntables in an apartment kitchen.
"When I saw him moving those records back and forth, it was like, 'God, I know I can do that,'" he says. "I just snapped into a mode where I didn't want to play basketball or baseball anymore."
Davis decided to become a DJ. He called himself Toomp, a nickname his older sister, Valencia, gave him, and began to spin records during lunch hour at Therrell High. He made customized mixtapes, collating the latest hits onto cassettes, and sold them to other kids for $5 or $10.
By the mid-1980s, the South was awash in bass, a hybrid of old-school party rap and electro-dance music, and Toomp was at its center. With a school friend, Makaya Raheem, he cut local hits such as "The Rahim Twins." He held a residency at the famous Jellybeans Skating Rink, which inspired the 2006 film ATL. When he won a citywide DJ competition at the Atlanta Civic Center, he drew the attention of MC Shy D, one of the bass scene's biggest stars.
The 18-year-old became MC Shy D's DJ. He co-produced Shy D's 1988 single "Shake It," a skittering, funky rap classic, and followed the rapper down to Miami, where he cranked out club tracks for the bass scene. During five years in Florida, he worked as an in-house producer for the notorious Luther Campbell's Luke Skyywalker Records, as it was called then, and even made beats for 2 Live Crew. His songs were landing on platinum-selling records such as the New Jack City soundtrack. The big time seemed within Toomp's grasp.
But Toomp's success meant little in a music industry that dismissed the bass scene as a Southern novelty. Top hip-hop producers, like Dr. Dre and Pete Rock, didn't do bass. When the phenomenon dissipated in the mid-'90s – supplanted in Atlanta by the organic grooves and soulful hip-hop of OutKast and Goodie Mob – Toomp's career started grinding to a halt.
Toomp was back in Atlanta when Trammell Morgan, a childhood friend, brought his cousin "Tip" by the house. It was 1997. The 17-year-old Tip was in a neighborhood rap crew called PSC, but he didn't have any real professional experience. While Toomp wasn't a huge star, he was still a successful Atlanta producer with years of valuable experience and a generous attitude toward aspiring talent.
"Toomp is one of those people that is always available to mentor," says Kawan "KP" Prather, who has worked for several record labels and led a modestly successful group, Parental Advisory. "He's one of the first people I knew from Atlanta who was DJing, traveling outside of Atlanta, and was doing videos and was on TV. But he was always humble about it."
T.I. started coming by Toomp's house to learn from an industry veteran – and to get connected. The DJ introduced him to Jason Geter, a New Jersey transplant who worked at Patchwerk Studios as a receptionist. Geter immediately offered to manage the unknown rapper and introduced him to Prather, then an A&R rep for LaFace Records. Impressed with his rap skills, Prather signed T.I. to his first contract.
Not surprisingly, Toomp produced six tracks on T.I.'s 2001 debut for LaFace, I'm Serious. Among them were "Dope Boyz," an underground hit that alluded to T.I.'s former life as a drug dealer. But I'm Serious only sold in modest numbers. Concerned about a lack of promotion, the young rapper sought and got a release from his LaFace contract.
He and Geter began to lay the foundation for T.I.'s career without help from a major label. They launched a mix CD series, In Da Streets, and hustled to sell them by traveling in a small van through the South's modern-day chitlin' circuit of urban radio stations, nightclubs, strip malls and strip clubs.
It worked. By the end of 2002, T.I.'s underground fame had sparked a major-label bidding war. Atlantic Records granted Geter and T.I. a distribution deal for its Grand Hustle imprint. T.I. completed his first hit album, 2003's gold-selling Trap Muzik.
As Trap Muzik's co-executive producer, Toomp played a huge role – many of his beats had been used for the In Da Streets series – and produced memorable singles such as "Be Easy" and "24's." He specialized in street anthems that secured T.I.'s reputation as a smooth yet hard-bitten voice. On songs such as "24's" and "You Don't Know Me," Toomp's beats come across as heavy, plodding, swollen with machismo. It's the kind of sound that burns brightly in rap's hardcore underground.
But Trap Muzik marked a peak in the duo's artistic partnership. By 2004's Urban Legend, T.I. was blooming into a major star. Geter describes him as an "impatient dude," the type who didn't want to sit at Toomp's house for hours and finesse a track to perfection.
T.I. began to assume control over his music. He relied on Toomp only for beats.
"I think that Toomp, being older, still looked at Tip like a little brother," Geter says, "and still thought like he was going to come to his house like he used to."
So, as T.I. got bigger, Toomp's role faded. Save for T.I. fans who studied his album's liner notes, few knew who Toomp was.
That changed with "What You Know," the song from King that would eventually win a Grammy. A synthesized dream of trash talk, "What You Know" swaggers like an arena-rock anthem. Toomp built the song around an interpolation of the Impressions' "Gone Away."
When it was first released in February 2006, just hearing Toomp's opening keyboard riff could cause a packed nightclub to erupt in cheers. Its melody seemed to float into the clouds.
"Don't you know I got a key by the three when I chirp shawty chirp back/Louis knapsack, where I'm holdin' all the work at/What you know about that?" T.I. brags in a thick Southern slang, his voice seeming to hiccup as he raps.
"What You Know" peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart, earned platinum certification for shipping 1 million copies, and helped make T.I.'s fourth album, King, his biggest-selling full-length to date.
But "What You Know" turned out to be a mixed blessing. As they achieved their greatest success together, Toomp and T.I. were slowly drifting apart. When the two had worked in the studio together, they argued more and more over creative details. Now, they were hardly communicating; Toomp wasn't really producing T.I. anymore – just providing him with beats.
There also were money issues. After mentoring T.I. as an artist, Toomp hadn't reaped the full financial benefits of effectively launching T.I.'s career.
"I actually took dude under my wing and changed his life. I did the same for Jason Geter," Toomp says. "Me and Tip never signed a contract as far as, 'Hey, I'm discovering you, I'm about to change your life. Why don't I get at least 20 percent of something, whether you're doing movies, on stage, or whatever?' That wasn't the issue when I met him. It was the fact that, 'I like your rapping, you love my beats, let's see what happens.' I never did any paperwork."
As he now puts it, "It was a learning process."
Geter, who's remained T.I.'s business partner and close friend since Toomp introduced them in 1999, says he and others tried to create a label and production deal for Toomp with Atlantic Records. But nothing came of it.
"When I look back on it right now – I'm like, for real – I wish we had all sat down," Geter says. "I have no doubt in my mind that he feels the same way. I'm sure he's frustrated ... but at the end of the day, I'm sure he's still got love for us."
In September, after a trip to Las Vegas where he appeared with Kanye West on MTV's "TRL" and at the Video Music Awards, Toomp sits in a spartan, slightly claustrophobic studio in west Atlanta. He's surrounded by equipment, including a mixing console, a pair of turntables and an ASR-10 sampling keyboard. There's a small couch for visitors, and an office chair that Toomp uses. When he twirls around, the chair makes a loud squeak.
He still fixes his own gear, which looks slightly battered from years of use. A wealthy man at this point who says he's "getting into real estate," he likes working behind the scenes, even to the consternation of his staff.
"Now, even with my management, man, they had to get on my case, like, 'We've got to get your face out there,'" he says. "I don't want everyone to know what I do. I like to pull up on the scene and make you wonder, 'Who's dude? Dang, he just pulled up ... who's this? Why did they let him in?' I like that mystique."
Bernard Parks Jr. has been Toomp's friend since the sixth grade and started managing him in 2004. "He's not comfortable taking the spotlight," Parks says. "But if you sit there and talk to him, he'll give it to you."
Few people can claim to have had a legitimate role in Atlanta's ultracompetitive urban music world for as long as Toomp has. He knew Ludacris when he was just Chris "Luva Luva" Bridges, a popular radio jock on V-103 (WVEE-FM 103.3). Long before his 2006 worldwide hit "Crazy," Cee-Lo used to go to Toomp's house as a teenager to watch him DJ. And, years before Lil Jon became the king of crunk, Toomp produced his first hit single, 1997's "Shawty Freak a Lil Sumtin'."
On a BlackBerry message, Ludacris calls Toomp "a man who has overly paid his dues in the industry over the past two decades."
"The thing I respect about him is that in an industry of bullshitters, his word is his bond and he doesn't let negative distractions get in the way of his focus," the Atlanta-based rapper says. "The best work from DJ Toomp is yet to come."
Given the odds, Toomp's ability to stay relevant for two decades is a remarkable achievement. "Hip-hop will retire you when you become a certain age," he cautions. "There's no age on a beat. When you see an artist, you can tell when an artist is getting old. ... But I don't have to perform. I just have to keep my music young."
That staying power has paid off with increasingly high-profile gigs. Between 2004 and 2006, he made beats for Ludacris, Pastor Troy and Young Jeezy, but none of those had the impact of his long working relationship with T.I. Years of cranking out gangsta beats in relative anonymity finally paid off after "What You Know" blew up in 2006. Def Jam, the leading force in the rap industry, offered a production deal calling for Toomp to create 10 to 20 songs for the label roster.
"I always knew Toomp was on the verge of exploding" as a major talent, says Def Jam's Shakir Stewart, who helped broker the deal. He points out that the song deal didn't guarantee studio sessions with top acts; it was up to Toomp to network and capitalize on the opportunity.
Toomp hooked up with Kanye West almost by accident: The Chicago rapper/producer was seeking permission to remix Toomp's beat for Young Jeezy's "I Got Money." When they met, however, they had "a bonding moment," Stewart says.
West invited Toomp to contribute on his new album, and he worked on three songs during West's sessions for Graduation. The first two were co-productions. "Can't Tell Me Nothing" is a dirge-like anthem that incorporates bits and pieces of Jeezy's "I Got Money" to masterful effect. "Good Life" is a bubbly number weaved around a sample from Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." and a vocoder hook from Florida R&B star T-Pain.
Near the end of the Graduation sessions, Toomp produced a song called "Big Brother" himself. It's West's bittersweet homage to Jay-Z, his mentor in the record industry. He details with unnerving honesty how Jay-Z helped give him his break yet, after West became a star himself, he wanted to "beat my brother/Sibling rivalry."
In the end, chastened by experience, West dedicates the song to his mentor: "So here's a few words from your kid brother/If you admire somebody, you should go 'head and tell 'em/People never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em."
As Toomp's music swells with orchestral melodies, you can't help but notice that West's "Big Brother" lyrics parallel Toomp's relationship with his "little brother," T.I. Toomp doesn't deny the comparison.
"That track just came from the heart," he says, "and I might have been thinking about T.I. when I made it. I don't know."
On an afternoon in November, two months after West's Graduation has peaked at the top of the Billboard album charts, Toomp is back in his studio, swiveling in that squeaky chair. A year into his production deal with Def Jam, he's flourished, and not just professionally. He mentions with pride that his first child, a daughter named Caden Alon, is 2 months old.
West and Toomp's "Good Life" single sits at No. 7 on the Billboard singles chart. Jay-Z's American Gangster, released Nov. 6, opened at No. 1 on the album charts, and Toomp's "Say Hello" is one of its highlights. In the coming months, he's slated to go into the studio with Nas and Mariah Carey.
"I really killed that song deal," he boasts.
Toomp's next goal is to secure a deal with Def Jam for his production company, NZone Entertainment. He's grooming a new crop of acts, including the songwriting team Six20, and rappers Kenoe and Suga Suga. "Hopefully we can do even bigger business," Stewart says. "If Toomp brings in the right artist that fits our machine, I would eventually do a record label with Toomp, if it made sense."
A few weeks later, Toomp gets the really big news – confirmation that after two decades as a journeyman, he's as hot a commodity as he's ever been: The Recording Academy announces Dec. 6 that Kanye West is up for eight Grammys and, for his work on Graduation, Toomp has a share in three of the nominations.
For T.I., this fall has been a bit rougher. On Oct. 13, hours before he was set to perform at the BET Hip-Hop Awards at the Atlanta Civic Center, the rapper was arrested by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. He's charged with buying unregistered automatic weapons and stuck in Jonesboro under house arrest. If convicted in a trial next year, he could face five or more years.
He's begun work on a fifth album, Paper Trail, but it's unclear how extensive Toomp's involvement will be. Toomp says he visited his former protégé and talks to him twice a week – and that among the things they've talked about is working together again.
"He's just hoping for this cloud to pass over so he can continue to make beautiful music and entertain his fans," he says. "Thank God he can see his family."
When Geter's asked if T.I. and Toomp are working together, he allows that Toomp may have passed the rapper a beat but emphasizes that T.I. doesn't collaborate closely with producers.
"I think it's just the chemistry, man. I think they just go together well," Geter says. "I could get a beat from Toomp right now, and take it down to Tip's house right now, and T.I.'s voice and Toomp's beat are gonna go together, sound-wise. They don't have to be together though, man."
Still, Toomp's enthusiasm about the project is infectious. He says he's excited to work on Paper Trail, which he thinks will be a "masterpiece as soon as we really vibe."
"We're about to get ready to make some more good music," Toomp says. "I still love this guy. He still loves me. I'm still his big brother, and he's still my little brother."