Hip-hop fans may remember Yung Berg’s run of hits a decade ago. But in recent years, he has made a new life for himself, under a new name. Now Hitmaka, he has largely put down the mic and spent the past several years concentrating on production.
He’s living up to his moniker, having produced or co-produced hits by a long list of major artists, ranging from Meek Mill to 2 Chainz to Big Sean to Lil Wayne.
“People said that Yung Berg would never have another hit record,” he tells Complex. “That’s why Hitmaka does.”
We sat down with Hitmaka to talk about his string of recent hits, and got a lot more than we bargained for, including a spot-on DMX impression. The complete interview is below, as well as a video with highlights.
A couple months ago, I wrote about Kanye West’s early group, the Go Getters. You were around that crew when you were coming up. Can you tell me about Chicago and that scene as you were getting your start?
A lot of people don't have that Chicago history. I came up around that whole nucleus that was happening in Chicago. Go Getters, GLC, Really Doe, Shayla G. I was the youngest guy.
A lot of people might not know that Shawnna was actually a big influence on my career. I was her hype man at the time when she was doing “Gettin’ Some Head” with DTP. She was actually my next door neighbor. Her father, Buddy Guy, used to live next door to my parents, and that’s how I really got to know Shawnna. That scene means everything to me. Kanye, No I.D., Boogz—they produced my whole demo, which led to me getting signed to DMX’s record label off Def Jam, Bloodline Records.
Did you have any Kanye beats before they became songs of his?
I had a whole song on my demo over the “Jesus Walks” beat [before] “Jesus Walks” became “Jesus Walks.” The beat wasn’t even that name when we did it.
What was that song? Do you remember?
To be honest with you, no. I’ve done so many songs. I got to holler at Boogz or whatever. Shout out to Hip Hop, the A&R from Roc-A-Fella Records. He’s also somebody that I look up to.
What was a young Kanye like?
Same. Young Kanye is new Kanye, old Kanye—same shit. He’s going to be him. He’s going to be outrageous. He’s going to say what he wants to say. I can’t judge him because I always revered and looked up to him. I could have nothing bad to say about him ever.
Like you said, from there, you got a deal with Bloodline. Give me an idea of a typical day with DMX at the height of his stardom.
A typical day with DMX [Goes into spot-on DMX impression]: “Hey, yo shorty. There go your dog. Take your dog. Walk your dog.”
He was really prolific. He was amazing. The man would drink a fifth of whole Remy Grand Cru and smoke every blunt in the world, have the police go get the weed for him, do 10 songs, fall asleep, be snoring. And a rule was, can’t nobody touch the dog. When the dog sleep, don’t nobody touch the dog. So we got to really sit here for like three, four hours and not go nowhere because the dog’s asleep.
I ran into him recently at the Topanga mall in LA, and it’s always been the same love. I really appreciate the impact he had on my life.
What’s a great DMX story from that time?
Oh, holy shit. All right. DMX story, come on. Class is in session, guys.
So, I’m a young kid. We’re shooting Exit Wounds and we’re in Toronto with Steven Seagal, and this man has on all type of foreign drip, like literally sensei drip. We’re running around and I’m out there and we’re having dinners at his house.
At this time, I was a virgin. I’ll tell the truth. I’ll let the cat out the bag. I didn’t go through puberty until I was like 15 or 16. So imagine, I ain’t have no hair on my dick. I was just a young n***a. N****s in high school had full beards and all this other shit and I'm just this young n***a running around. I was four foot four and I was a little kid.
We was out there at the club. I’m with DMX. We’re having the greatest time of our life. Now, a girl likes me. I stumbled across my first piece of pussy, and I’m thinking, holy shit, I’m about to get some ass. So from there, we go back to the hotel. We’re in the car. I’m finger-banging the girl, smelling to see what it smell like. I’m having a good-ass time.
Then we get to the hotel. Now DMX, he’s a star, and I’m a part of the entourage. So the star goes before, and I’m just chilling. Then I go to my hotel room. Coincidentally, my hotel room was right next to DMX’s. He had the presidential suite and I was right next to him. I’m walking in with the girl, I put the key in the hotel room, and DMX is opening the door like, “Shorty.” I’m like, what the fuck? Is this n***a literally a dog? Did he smell me come up?
He’s like, [DMX impression]: “Shorty, I think you left your purse in my room.” Mind you, we never went to the fucking hotel. We just met these girls at the club. And he’s talking about, she left her purse in the room. What did she do? Left me for DMX. Another L for the books.
World domination. I’m about to take over this whole sh*t. I’m already doing it.
Can you tell me how you moved from being Iceberg to Young Berg?
The story ends with Iceberg. I was an artist. I wasn’t a producer. My whole career, I was produced by Boogz and No I.D. and Kanye West. They groomed me, indirectly and directly, but Boogz was specifically my mentor. When I got my record deal, I no longer had Boogz. I was just an artist. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, and I had to be my own big homie because I wasn’t close with him anymore. I wasn’t close with people. So I decided that, you know what, I can be my own boss. I’ve seen how people ran companies. Now it’s time for me to be my own boss.
Somewhere in that process, you started writing and producing for other artists. What did you learn from doing the Morgan Smith project? [Morgan Smith was an Eve protege. Hitmaka wrote and produced for her around 2004].
Eve gave me the nickname Yung Berg. Here’s a funny story. Troy Carter and J. Erving, they’ve been my mentors forever. They were my managers at the time. So, Morgan Smith’s album comes along. This girl got a deal, and me and the girl end up liking each other. So now we fucking, and it’s complicated for Troy and J because they’re the managers. I’m the songwriter and a producer and I’m sleeping with the artist. We’re all kids, though—we’re like 16 years old. It was crazy impactful on my life because every time that somebody gives me their life and says, “Here's my whole career. I want you to write the backdrop for this whole story,” that’s always unforgettable.
One thing I was hoping you could talk about is your relationship with Jeremih.
I was doing Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood. I never met Jeremih before. He’s super talented. He’s from Chicago and I’m from Chicago, but we never crossed paths.
One night, we go to Puff Daddy’s studio in Hollywood and there’s this big-nose girl Hazel-E or whatever. She was on Love and Hip Hop with me. She called Jeremih to the studio. Jeremih, you a dirty, dirty dog. She like, “Yeah, I got this n***a Jeremih. He going to come through. I be fucking with him.” I’m like, oh, okay, this is very interesting.
So he comes to the studio and it’s supposed to be a Hazel-E session. We in there working and we ended up creating two songs. Of course, I had bigger ideas and bigger opportunities for the song, so I took it to Meek Mill and it became the first song Meek Mill and Chris Brown collaborated on. It was “All I Want Is You.” But it never came out. It got leaked.
if you’re blessed to have a 50-song pack of Jeremih hooks, sh*t, I guess you can become Hitmaka.
You’ve worked with him a lot since then.
Yeah. Me and Jeremih are serial collaborators. He changed my life. He was one of the first people that really embraced me. Jeremih doesn’t work with a lot of different people. So if you’re blessed to have a 50-song pack of Jeremih hooks, shit, I guess you can become Hitmaka.
What can we expect from your upcoming solo project?
I personally am not rapping. I won’t be singing. This is strictly one that I’m in a position and able to do. I also want to break my artists and help create my brand. It’s about putting my artist Rocky in the right position, because I want her to be the best that she can be.
You’ve had a pretty big run of hits in the past few years. Can you tell me about how that started? Do you feel you've gotten enough credit for it?Right now, it’s all about taking myself out of the ego-driven shit. How can you help somebody? How can you put somebody else in a position? It’s not about me no more. This is the point in my career where I’m stepping back. It’s not about me going out here and being with a hundred different women, even though that’s fun. At the end of the day, it’s more about the business behind the scenes and helping people succeed. Now I got my own thing, and it’s really coming to fruition. People said that Yung Berg would never have another hit record. That’s why Hitmaka does.
How’d you come up with the name Hitmaka?
I was in a studio with Jordan Hollywood, who signed to QC. We were in Miami and I said it randomly. I just ran with it. It wasn’t nothing I did consciously. It wasn’t like, “All right, I’m going to stop this. I’m not being Yung Berg no more. I’m going to be Hitmaka.” It just happened organically.
I want to go through some of your songs. Tell me what you remember about making them. Let’s start with Lil Wayne's “John.” There are a lot of people credited on that song. What was your contribution?
This is a really funny story. I think I might’ve been one of the pioneers of just putting out your email [address to the public]. I put my email on my Twitter and I’m like, “Yo producers, send me beats. I want to work.”
So I formed a relationship with Ayo the Producer, who I eventually ended up signing. Now he’s his own boss and he has his own thing going on. Shout to him and Keyz. We ended up creating that record and I took it to Polow da Don. Roscoe Dash had recorded a song over it and he knew it was a beat that me and my guy came up with. Then, long story short, that beat was stolen and I never got paid for it. Polow da Don went and placed the record, and there it is.
What was the process of telling people that you were involved with the song?
Shit, my mic wasn't loud enough. Nobody cared. But it was baby steps to where I had to get to.
You did a lot of stuff on The Pinkprint. Can you tell me about “Favorite”?
“Favorite” is probably one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever co-produced and co-wrote. The process of that I record is really crazy because Jeremih, he’s a different kind of n***a. He comes to the studio and says, “Hey, I’m here, but I only got 15 minutes.” What the fuck? Who comes to the studio with 15 minutes to spare before getting on a flight?
So we’re in there and I’m working with Nicki Minaj. She was so great and such a blessing for my career because she really juiced me up. At that point Nicki was the cream, the biggest thing ever—she still is in my eyes. She gave me a lot of love. She gave me her studio. I used to have that shit on lock. Everybody would come through. People would see me in pictures with her and be like, what the fuck is Yung Berg doing with Nikki Minaj?
[Jeremih] came to the studio. I was working with Nicki’s engineer, Big Juice. Shout out to Juice. I had a beat. It was produced by Rob Holliday, myself and DJ Camper. They had a whole different break beat in it where the tempo sped up and it was just something weird. I reconstructed the whole fucking song and made it to the beat that it is today. Jeremih went in the booth and mumbled. When you do a song, you just go in there and do melodies and we’ll pick out the great line or the great moments.
I heard him say, “I just want to be your favorite.” I took it, chopped it up. That was the hook from there. It’s that one take. He nailed it. I was inspired by his work with DJ Khaled—how different songs would have a hook before the hook.
The intro started like that. I’m like, we got to write a whole different vibe right here at the beginning. We wrote that vibe in 20 minutes, came back, reconstructed it. Shout to Candice Boyd who is the vocal on there. I really loved Kanye West, his outro on College Dropout where it had a sample saying, “Cheers to the rock.” I was like, how the fuck is the sample saying exactly what they wanted it to say? I learned that trick and made her into a sample on the outro. Arin Ray, who’s signed to Interscope, has background vocals on that record.
Tell me about making “Bounce Back.”
I co-produced and co-wrote the hook with Jeremih. I co-produced with Smash David. We were actually in my house. I bought this big-ass crib in Chatsworth, California that was half full of furniture. I wanted to motivate myself to make more records because I had to pay the bills.
We had done like nine songs that day—January 5, 2016. We was turned up. Jeremih was like, “I got one more left in me.” I'm like, “Man, fuck this shit. I’m trying to go upstairs.” I had company with me. I'm like, “Yo, it’s over n***a. You got to leave.” He’s like, “No, I got one more.” He went in the booth and [sings], “Last night took an L, but tonight I bounce back.” Changed my life.
What was your input on Drake’s “Jaded”?
That’s an amazing record. I had just been in a groove with Ty Dolla Sign. When I became Vice President [of A&R] at Atlantic Records, Wiz and Ty were the first people from the company that we started working with.
I had a home at Glenwood Studio and it would be like a club. Everybody would be there. That’s how the records were being created when we did “Jaded.” Drake had sent Ty the record. I think it was an open verse at first. We wrote a verse and then we did all the other stuff. I think Drake ended up not using the verse that Ty did, and kept all the backgrounds and the ad-libs and the shit that we did through the song.
What was your contribution to “No Stylist”?
We [Hitmaka and frequent collaborator Christopher “Chrishan” Dotson] came up with the vibe with French. We did the whole thing, everything that you hear. It’s actually Chrishan singing the falsetto, too. It’s not French singing that, but French is a great guy. Shout out to him.
Why did London on da Track get the producer tag and not you?
Because I respect London. When I write a top line, when I write the song, most of the time I want to get my shit off. My tag will be there now that I've created that leverage. But [by] the same token, London is somebody that I respect. Him, Metro Boomin, Southside. I remember when Metro just out of school and we were in clubs and Future wasn’t as huge as he is now. We used to go to the studio together, and now look at us.
“Look Back At It” by A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie was a big hit. Was it your idea to interpolate Michael Jackson?
No. This is part of me being Vice President of A&R at Atlantic Records. They had this record for so long. It had been in the clearing process for probably nine months and it was a record that he loved. A Boogie never worked with no other guy that does what I do. We all went to Hawaii. I ended up putting sauce on a whole record. We decided that we just went with the snaps. And not only that, the song was like five minutes long. So I structured the song and made it a three minute and 30 second hit, and it was our first No. 1 hit record together.
2 Chainz and Ariana Grande were having a little back and forth that you stepped in the middle of with “Rule the World.” Tell me about that.
What can I say about that record? It was going to be the intro to my album Thot Box. Fabolous did a verse for me. And I went to the studio and I played it for 2 Chainz. I’m like, “Yo, I want you to get on this record for my shit.” He like, “Nah, shorty. This my shit.” And I’ve always loved and revered 2 Chainz. We’ve been very close from before, when he was Tity Boi. He thanked me in the “Duffle Bag Boy” [liner notes]. So how can I tell him no?
On that track and a couple other recent songs, you worked with Cardiak. Do you guys go in the studio together?
My artist Rocky’s project is going to be coming next year. Me and Cardiak are executive producing it and Cardiak has been a serial collaborator with me. He actually is the producer of my next single that’s coming out. Me and him co-produced it together. We’ve done a lot of things together. We got so much more stuff coming, man. He’s a great guy, and he’s actually my gym partner. We train together.
Cardio with Cardiak.
“Thot Box” came out recently and it has just about everyone in the world featured on it. How did you get five rappers on that song?
“Thot Box” is really something that just happened organically. It wasn’t like I was trying to do it. I went to Atlanta. We were in Main Street studios. They played me this hook and I’m like, yo, we could perfect this a little bit more. I loved it after we did the changes. [YBN] Nahmir records the whole record and I’m like, I need this for my shit. Meek does his verse next. 2 Chainz, after stealing my song for him and Ariana Grande, returns the favor and does the verse for me. Then A Boogie and then Tyga—Tyga is a serial collaborator with me, too. If I send Tyga something, if he likes it, he’s going to do it in less than 24 hours.
I wanted to ask about one early track that you rap on: “Hit the Back/Slide In” by Shawnna.
That was crazy. I was her hype man. I was on tour with Shawnna and I found a beat and wrote to it. I was always hoping that she gave me that look. She was one of the first people that put me on a major album, with the exception of me doing something with DMX prior to that, on the Exit Wounds soundtrack. It was crazy. That was back in the day with Diesel jeans and Red Monkey jeans and all that other shit. That’s what I remember about it. I remember selling a lot of weed and being Shawnna’s hype man and having more money than she would pay me for the show. Just being a little young n***a. That was crazy.
What was Shawnna’s father [blues guitar legend] Buddy Guy like?
Quiet. N***a had a Jheri curl. Kept a fresh curl. Shout out to Jennifer, Buddy, Mike, Shawnna, and their whole family. We were next door neighbors. That n***a Jheri curl, his soul glo was crazy.
What's next for you?
World domination. I’m about to take over this whole shit. I’m already doing it. Seven songs out of top 50 are mine. Shout out to my whole team. I told you, Craig Kallman [Chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records], you got to get up out the seat. It's about time.
We covered a lot of your songs. Any favorites of yours that you didn't talk about that you want to share?
Layton Greene’ “Leave Em Alone” is probably my favorite song right now. It’s so cute. In a world where you got to be so hard and have a fuck you attitude about everything, I have a little moment when I hear it. I’m soft for that.
Anything else you want people to know about you?
My name is Hitmaka and dreams do come true. You’re looking at one right now in the making, so let’s get this shit. Rocky up next.