Producer Maker Beats Talks Sampling, Licensing & Co-Owning a Record Shop | Interview

For some, the term “nerd rap” is a dagger. Word-and-beat smiths who meticulously hone and refine their craft, artists who painstakingly tighten their skills, and the collectors who harbor a deep respect for them create an ecosystem for geekdom. Cinephiles are respected; why not this? For those who’ve come of age alongside hip-hop music, there is a special kinship of authenticity and ability coiled throughout. To define “nerd rap” is to define intention. To be a real "hip-hop head” one must demonstrate an understanding of the means to an end. Maybe it’s the bar structure of a particularly lush verse. Maybe it’s searching for a certain bass player who contributed to a rock album that’s been sampled a million times.

This is not a surface area, fair weather peek into what’s cool or trendy. This is lifestyle: this is bellyaching and this is hard, pulsating, manual labors of love. For Aurora, Illinois-born Maker Beats, he was born into that love, which made the labor seem like par for the course. Né Marco Jacobo, with a father who made mixtapes for his friends on the weekend while downing a few tasty beverages, was intrigued by records from the start. His dad also possessed a big record collection that he would eventually inherit—slowly and rightfully adding to the pieces of a career in music. It was only a matter of time before these tools were put to use. Maker’s sonic hobby soon turned nerdy. But for now, let’s stay toward the beginning of Maker’s tale of loops and longevity.

Even with lots of music at his fingertips at home, Maker was self-reliant and owned his curiosity. He bought his first record, Kiss’ Destroyer, at a garage sale in Aurora, at around 10 years old. He recalls staring at the cover—Kiss in full makeup—for a long time. He became totally enamored with it. The garage sale was run by Randy, a neighborhood guy with rock hair and an IROC-Z that always needed repairing. Randy noticed Maker noticing the record and let him buy it. He may have even given the young inquisitive kid the record. Maker was hooked from that moment, obsessing over Destroyer to the point he memorized the songs.

Trew and Maker
Altered Tapes, the collaborative duo of Trew and Maker.

Now, all he needed was more records! He already had a record player he thought was akin to the radio DJ’s. He would find out soon enough how different record players could operate, but before that he was buying up any record he could find. Anything he found interesting or cool at the time. His dad, eager to help cultivate his passion, would drive him to record stores. It wasn’t so much for the genre of hip-hop that would ultimately steal his heart, but for the love of DJing. That was at the heart of Maker’s collecting: being a great DJ and party rocker. It still is. That’s a position of power.

Eventually, Maker joined a hip-hop crew called Them Bad Apples and started doing graffiti. That was his hip-hop introduction as practice; he admits he wasn’t very good at the art of bubble letters, tagging and full on pieces. He just liked heading out and “bombing” (rogue graffiti missions) with the homies. However, these friends were already heavily into hip-hop. They were also DJs, graffiti writers, and emcees. They eventually became his lightweight mentors. One of his homies, named Turk, had better turntables than the Scott PS-60 belt-driven turntables Maker had at home. Turk had a pair of Technics, which was what most DJ’s were using (and still use). At home, he couldn’t backspin or scratch or do any blends, but with Turk, Maker was able to study those tricks. Turk not only had Technics, he had a rudimentary Radio Shack mixer and a little sampler hooked up. This allowed them to loop stuff. They’d listen to non-hip-hop records non-stop and loop any sample that sounded interesting. Then they’d layer drum break records over the samples and record that to cassette tape. Again, a true labor of love.

With tapes full of these loops in hand, he’d take them to friends who were dabbling in rapping and freestyling. Maker recalls these sessions vividly, reminiscing about heavy blunt smoke, 40 oz. beer consumption, and of course raw vocals. These sessions became longer and more frequent, sometimes lasting the entire weekend. It didn’t take long before the homies were encouraging him to officially make beats. They actually liked the tapes Maker was bringing to them, inspiring rap sessions and song ideation. So, true to the craft and the budding genre of hip-hop, Maker decided that as soon as he really learned how to build full beats, he was gonna make some! That was around 1995.

Fast forward to 2023 and Maker has traveled the globe as a producer and DJ, been a go-to producer to many emcees who are considered canon in the culture, he’s licensed big tunes to big productions (ever heard of a little TV show called Abbott Elementary?) and even helps run a record shop in the heart of Southside Chicago with fellow DJ, promoter and musician Nigel “Trew” Ridgeway. Honestly, that only scratches the surface of his prolific career. Maker is so humble, and he’s been so successful, even adding classic music to the “nerd rap” category. By his own admission, “nerd rap” or “backpack rap” as terms never bothered him. In fact, he found them funny. These were just little distinctions to divide lovers of a particular genre, and he never fell into the trap.

Additionally, because of artists like him, the moniker is no longer something to be laughed at. It’s a badge of honor. Being so locked in to your craft, doing what inspires you and never letting external forces dictate your output has made Maker a force in the production and DJing world. And his labors of love will be felt for generations to come.

I recently took a weekend jaunt over to Maker’s shop, Miyagi Records, to discuss his beginnings, his never-ending stash of inspiration, drum breaks, and so much more.

So, the year is 1995 and your curiosity is activated. What’s next?

’96 is when I officially started learning, getting equipment and really trying to gain an understanding of production. I had a homie that showed me the software Cakewalk; that program was my intro to sampling. I didn’t really have a mentor because [Them Bad Apples] were figuring it out at the same time. And then I was messing around with Acid and Sound Forge and various weird little beat machines and stuff. But yeah, I just kinda learned myself and figured it out. I didn’t even know I was “digging” until later. I was finding samples and drum breaks on records and there was no language for it. Didn’t know that was a thing. I just kinda figured that was what Pete Rock was doing and DJ Premiere was doing [laughs]…so I was doing it.

How important is late ‘90s Chicago hip-hop to the global hip-hop marketplace?

I would say it is very important. Even if it's not always acknowledged or realized. So much from underground to mainstream affected popular culture. From [Chicago rappers/crews] Nacrobats and All Natural to Common and Kanye and everything in between. All levels of culture and marketplace are affected to this day. Bro…Twista! Shout out to the first time I saw E.C. Illa "On Ill" video on Rap City.

When did you realize you were gonna be a lifetime musician?

Is that what I am? Probably the same time you did? When you started! Nah, but in all seriousness: I never romanticized it. I just do what I do now. If no one ever listened to another one of my songs, or I never worked with anyone else again, I will still be doing it.

What was the first piece of gear you fell in love with?

Probably the MPC-1000, because that was actually when I was touring and getting to play live. Before that I was just making beats at home and had various synths, but a lot of it was sample based. However the MPC-1000 was the first gear I really fell in love with.

Do you still tour? At one point I remember seeing your name on so many posters it was crazy! Can you tell me about your touring experience, gear you took on the road with you and your present day trips?

Nah. I haven't toured for a while now. I still do one-off shows and DJ gigs from time to time. Touring with Glue and Qwel, many times back to back over a decade wore me out! [Laughs] Those were good days. I still love to travel though.

The experience is like nothing else. You know…the friends you make on the road become family. A familiar face that is there every time you come to town. A bond you make living in a 15-seater van for months with someone from a totally different place and background.

After years of not having insurance and steady income, a job opportunity popped up and I went that route. It was time. I used to tour with that MPC-1000 and a Kaoss Pad. Nowadays I am using Ableton's Push 2.

What’s in your studio now?

I recently sold off most of my gear. All I have in my studio right now is the Push 2, Console 1, Arturia Keystep 37, and a turntable. I am fully in the box now. I realized that I was hardly using my external gear.

Do you have a “side hustle” as a musician? What is it and how does it inform your art?

I think my day job might be my side hustle? I have been putting out projects with the LA-based label Now Again Records for the last decade. A library series of Instrumental and vocal albums. We have over 100 TV, film, video game, and commercial placements from this series. Over time the side hustle has become the main focus.

DJ Trew and I started making DJ edit / remixes / reworks under the name Altered Tapes and then this turned into starting a boutique label called Heat Rock Records. We release limited 45s for our remixes along with many other very talented DJ/producers from all over.

I also just helped Trew open up his record store, Miyagi Records, in Washington Park [Chicago]. We have been open now for about 6 months!

How did you and fellow Trew decide to open a record shop?

He actually started the brand during covid. Not being able to DJ anymore, he pivoted and started this shop out of a storage unit. Back when we were roommates in Humboldt Park, we sold records together on Ebay. He knew I always daydreamed about owning a record store [laughs]. He asked If I was down and I said “been down.”

How did the pandemic affect your output?

I definitely picked up! I released an album and started another one (Sight Unseen and Heavy Print). Two albums with my homies, The Highest Low. I even had time to make a couple DJ mixes and did some custom ad work as well. I ain't gonna lie, I didn't hate the brief time away from the normal.

How has your creating and recording process/ethos changed over time and what aspects have you kept?

I can’t really call it. Because I’m always studying. I’m always a fan. I’m always influenced by other producers but I also try not to make it influence me to the point where I’m not being myself. I’ll hear stuff and be like, “why didn’t I think of that?”. Alchemist does that to me a lot [laughs]. But the biggest difference is engineering. You can hear the difference in the sound quality of my beats over time. But like approach-wise? I’m always trying new things and staying true to what I like. I do what I like.

You’ve always been known for your big drums. What are some of your favorite drums to sample?

Back in the day I was looking for anything I could find. And hearing stories of maybe some rare record with a crazy drum break. But I still find stuff now. I’ve been collecting for so many years, now you’ll find some weird private press Christian record or something and it’ll have the nastiest drum break on it and I’ll be like “I can’t believe I just found this and nobody’s talking about it!” Maybe a couple of people do. But that’s kinda what gets me excited now. But I’ve always been a fan of drum breaks because of the era I grew up in. Like the first time I heard BDK "Raw" that was it. So that’s what became of my music.

How do you think your older music has aged?

That's a good question. Horribly probably. I don't listen to a lot of my own stuff. I don't read the comments. Regretful snares and bad mixes I tell ya. It's probably similar to when you compare old baseball footage from the ‘70s and they all have huge mustaches and they are smoking cigarettes while turning slow double plays and cut to now and it's all super fast and clean and protein powdered up.

How do you feel about sample snitching?

We live in a different time now! I used to have very strong feelings about them, like in the era where all artists were getting sued, even underground artists. But nowadays all the records are reissued and the publishing info is out there. Also because of the internet, everyone samples from YouTube now, and it's all up there. So I’ve changed my stance on it. I’ve also had people message me and ask me to reveal a sample to a song of mine. At first I was reluctant but now it’s fine. It is what it is now. [But still] Stop snitching!

You’ve had some crazy licensing opportunities. But doing the theme song for the hit TV show Abbott Elementary? How did this insane opportunity come about?

The music supervisor reached out to the label and they showed interest in my song. I actually made 6-7 alternate versions, custom for the spot. They told us they picked one and that was it. I forgot about it after a while; all the behind the scenes stuff going on. I don't like to get my hopes up for anything because there have been many that looked like it was 100% a go, and then got pulled at the last minute.

I don't tell anyone, I don't think about it, It's not even real until it airs. When the show finally aired I didn't even get a chance to watch it until 4 or 5 episodes had aired. But by that time, friends were hitting me up like "Is this YOUUU?" followed up by "this show is great, amazing" and it truly is. Shout out to Now Again and Abbott Elementary. It is such an honor being part of this show. If you haven't seen it, It really is great!

What music/projects are you currently working on?

Right now I am finishing up another album featuring The Highest Low in collaboration with the legendary British KPM Music label. And I’m always working on my solo music and Altered Tapes releases!

My last question is for the up-and-comers. What’s a common misconception some of the youth have about making beats and being a successful producer?

[A common misconception is] that you are just gonna instantly be good and blow up. You [mistakenly] feel that you deserve something more than the next man. Work hard, set goals, be humble, be patient, don't be a dick, and do what you feel.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.