Atlanta's beat generation: Drumma Boy, Chris Henderson and Zaytoven
These producers aren't household names, but they're richer and more successful than many of the artists for whom they make tracks
Nine times out of 10, a hot beat sells a song. It rarely matters which rapper or R&B star is on the track – as long as it bangs, casual fans could care less whose auto-tuned voice is featured. With beat-making techniques more accessible and innovative than ever, the past decade has often been trumpeted as the golden age of the producer.
Though Pharrell and Timbaland seemed to usher in an era of celebrity beat-makers in the early part of the decade, most prolific producers remain largely anonymous. And many Atlantans are great examples of these oxymoronic, unknown celebrities.
The city is crawling with the technicians responsible for some of the most popular songs on the radio. More successful than some of the South's favorite rappers, they have become rich off of their work and have the deluxe cribs, whips and other luxury toys to show for it. They're the toast of their industry, but you probably wouldn't recognize folks such as Drumma Boy, Christopher Henderson and Zaytoven on the street. Unlike the artists they make music for – including Kanye West, Jamie Foxx and Gucci Mane – they can go to the grocery store without being mobbed. And in most cases, they prefer it that way. Here are their stories.
He's got hits like Jeezy and Kanye's "Put On" and Birdman and Drake's "Money to Blow" under his belt, but Christopher Gholson rarely gets recognized when he's out and about. "My name is way bigger than my face right now," he says. In fact, when he introduces himself to fellow basketball players at the park as "Drumma," it still takes them awhile to put it all together. "Sometimes I'll have played with someone for a year or two before they're like, 'Wait, you're Drumma Boy?"
The son of an opera singer and a clarinetist who was the first black man to hold first chair in the National Symphony Orchestra, Gholson had the support of his mother when he began making rap beats as a teenager growing up in Memphis, but not of his father. Pops was even less excited when Gholson flunked out of the University of Memphis – where he was studying music – and moved to Atlanta to make beats. "Once my dad found out I was kicked out of school, he made me a bet," Gholson recalls. "He said, 'Since you want to be such a badass, I need to see $100,000 in your account in 12 months.' Ten months later, I showed him the bank statement which had it. That pretty much gained his trust."
Now 26, Gholson has padded his resume with tracks featuring artists including Rick Ross, Plies, T-Pain, Nelly, Juelz Santana and the Game. His focus isn't just on making popular songs, he says, but rather improving his technique and creating unique sounds. Tracks like Gucci's recent "My Own Worst Enemy" show him at his most inventive. "The way I'm rattling the snares, and the kick on the beat, I'm just trying to flip it up," he says. "A lot of people are biting my style, my masterpieces, right now. I want to show them that if you want to imitate my sound, you're going to have to keep up."
Chris Henderson originally offered his "Blame It" beat to R. Kelly, whom he'd previously collaborated with on such tracks as "The Greatest Sex." "Blame It" came with the a-a-alcohol-themed lyrics Henderson had already penned, but apparently Kelly wasn't feeling them, so the song eventually found a home with Jamie Foxx. You could say the rest is history – as the song became one of 2009's biggest and hit No. 1 on Billboard's R&B/rap chart in May – except that it's still paying out. "You get money as it climbs up the charts, but also as it climbs down," Henderson notes, adding that he gets paid both as the song's producer and as its co-writer.
Though the Detroit native moved to Atlanta in 2006, he's been seeing pop music royalty checks for years, having made the beat for R&B singer Case's hit "Happily Ever After" in 1999. He's since put together beats for artists including Mya and Trey Songz, and produced the piano-based tearjerker "Elsewhere" on R. Kelly's new album, Untitled. When he met up with Kels at a "producer cattle call" in Atlanta earlier this year, the Chicago crooner fell hard for the track. He told gossip reporter Miss Info that he later sang the song over the phone to a recently departed girlfriend, with the hopes of winning her back. It worked. "I'm flying back home," the girlfriend reportedly said.
Henderson's success has afforded him a nice home in Mableton, but he's rarely recognized when he ventures out. He believes such anonymity is good for his art. "It's important to be able to connect with people, and if you're in a fish bowl and people always have an agenda when they approach you, you kind of lose touch," he says, adding that his privacy is personally fulfilling as well. "Happiness to me would be making a good living doing this, but still having the possibility of going on a cruise, of taking a date out to a restaurant and not being hassled."
Seeing that he's arguably the architect of Atlanta's current radio sound and makes beats for nearly all of Atlanta's A-list urban performers right now – OJ da Juiceman, Usher, Jeezy and Gucci – it's somewhat surprising that Zaytoven doesn't have roots here.
A military brat born Xavier Dotson, he received his nickname from the country of his birth (Germany) and his easy mastery of the piano when he was a kid. He grew up in the Presidio neighborhood of San Francisco, and initially elected to stay there when his parents moved to Atlanta in the '90s. He hoped to pursue his fledgling production career in a known hip-hop market, but the Bay Area is not cheap, and seeing that his beats were only bringing him $100 or $200 in those days, he couldn't afford to put together a proper studio. "But my parents in Atlanta had a basement, and they weren't doing nothing with it," he recalls, explaining the impetus for his move here in 2000.
The first thing he had to do upon his arrival was completely change his style. "I had to simplify things," he says. "The artists here weren't as complex as Bay Area artists. In the Bay, they like their music more complicated. Here, it's almost like easy listening music. They want music they can sing along with."
Though he's since achieved great success, beat-making wasn't his intended career. A barber by trade, he also plays the organ at Life Abundantly Christian Church in Lithonia. And though he's sometimes recognized on the street, he's glad not to have the well-known public image of the artists for whom he produces. "I never really wanted that as much as I wanted the work and the money," he said. "I've always worked best behind the scenes. To me, that's what a producer is – the person behind the stars."