On a Sunday evening in late November, up-and-coming hip-hop producer and artist Loudy Luna played her music for a room full of the biggest stars in rap.
As she picked through her catalog of beats, rappers like Drake and 21 Savage listened intently. A-list producers like Boi-1da, Cardo, and No I.D. were also in attendance, offering feedback in real-time.
“That shit was crazy, because I had no idea that Drake and Savage were going to be in there,” Luna says now.
It was the kind of moment that every young producer dreams of, but it didn’t happen in the way you might expect. Luna didn’t score an invite to a prestigious rap camp in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t a star-studded studio session for a new Drake album. Like most events in 2020, it all happened virtually.
Loudy Luna was at home, playing beats over her phone on Clubhouse, the new invite-only social media platform that has the entertainment industry buzzing this year. More specifically, she was a contestant on the third edition of a beat battle series started by A-list producers Boi-1da, Cardo, and their manager Simon Gebrelul.
Boi-1da and Cardo, who are both represented by Simon’s ISLA Management company, had been poking around Clubhouse for a couple weeks before settling on the concept. Boi-1da remembers coming across a room where other producers were playing beats for each other, and the sound quality was better than he expected, opening his eyes to the potential of the app. Later in the day, he was texting with Cardo and Simon on a group chat and they collectively came up with the idea to organize a beat battle.
“We all came up with the idea and we were like, ‘Yo, let’s get some guest judges and do something for the culture,’” Boi-1da remembers.
From the very first battle, an all-star cast of guest judges has showed up each week. At any given battle, you’ll see names like Metro Boomin, No I.D., Vinylz, Sonny Digital, Sevn Thomas, OZ, Mustard, Lil Yachty, and Wiz Khalifa pop into the room and listen to beats.
“The first battle was really nonchalant, and we still ended up getting lots of guest judges,” Boi-1da says. “In the producer community, everybody's really cool with each other, and everybody’s on Clubhouse, anyway. You know, it’s COVID time and there are no ways for people to really interact with each other. There are no ways of having beat battles, so we figured we’d just do it over Clubhouse.”
Each battle, up-and-coming hip-hop producers are called up on the virtual stage where they play beats for thousands of spectators. In any given round, two producers are pitted against each other, and a handful of guest judges vote on the winner. When beats are trash, judges aren’t afraid to be brutally honest, offering feedback like, “You don’t need to use all those Nextel chirp sounds next time.” And when beats are good, the judges hype up the up-and-coming producers, often exchanging contact information with them and planning future collaborations.
“There’s no American Idol for producers. I feel like this is a stepping stone. We could get this going and it could become something like that.” - Cardo
The concept for the battle series came naturally for the trio, who each bring their own strengths to the table. “1da came up in the Battle of the Beatmakers in Toronto, and Cardo’s probably the most entertaining person on Clubhouse,” Simon points out. “He just knows how to solicit conversation, and his commentary is funny. They’re also both really well-respected musically, so it was a perfect marriage.”
Jokes fly between rounds, keeping the mood light, and if you stick around long enough, you’ll witness surprises. One time, Lil Yachty rapped a new verse he had just written while contestants were being pulled up onstage, and you’ll occasionally catch behind-the-scenes banter about major albums. For spectators, each battle feels like sitting in on a studio session with some of the most successful producers in the world. More than anything, though, the battles are intended as a place for up-and-coming producers to get a real shot at making connections and breaking into the industry.
“We’re doing this to give an opportunity to people who don’t get the chance to get their music heard,” Cardo explains. “This is a perfect platform for people to broadcast their beats to artists like Drake and Savage, and meet everybody else in the room. They can play beats for these people, and hopefully their life can change in one night. We want to give them that power.”
After watching the breakout success of Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’s Verzuz series over the past year, it’s easy to see how something like this could grow in popularity if they keep it up. Where Verzuz put a spotlight on established artists and producers, though, the Clubhouse beat battles provide a platform (and industry connections) to newer talent.
“Everyone loves Verzuz,” Simon says. “Verzuz is a highlight of legendary catalog, and we’re more putting a magnifying glass on undiscovered talent. We’re breaking talent instead of highlighting catalog.”
Speaking about the potential he sees for the battles, Cardo brings up another popular music competition. “There’s no American Idol for producers,” he points out. “I feel like this is a stepping stone. We could get this going and it could become something like that. We want to put more of a spotlight on not just rappers and artists, but awesome music producers. A lot of people don't understand music producers and composers, so I think things like this open up a lot of people's eyes.”
So far, the battles have been successful, routinely breaking new Clubhouse attendance records with thousands of spectators listening in. And part of the appeal, of course, comes from the A-list artists and producers who show up in the room each week. Cardo, Boi-1da, and Simon each point out that the celebrity judge cameos happen organically, because they’re all friends with each other.
“We take it for granted that our conglomerate is some of the most successful artists and producers and writers in music,” Boi-1da says. “We have the relationships where it’s a text away. I can be like, ‘Yo, this Clubhouse is jumping right now, pull up,’ to No I.D. or Metro. We’re all friends.” Simon agrees, adding, “We take for granted the type of access we have. I saw kids tweeting, like, ‘My life is made just being in the same Clubhouse as Drake and 21 Savage.’
“Verzuz is a highlight of legendary catalog, and we’re more putting a magnifying glass on undiscovered talent. We’re breaking talent instead of highlighting catalog.” - Simon Gebrelul
The week Loudy Luna participated, she stumbled into a bigger opportunity than she expected. Looking to build connections as an artist and a producer (you can hear some of her music here), she joined the room one Sunday evening, but didn’t realize she would be playing beats for two of the biggest rappers on the planet. “I knew that Metro Boomin was one of the judges, but the week that I had joined, he wasn't a speaker,” she explains. “So I was like, ‘Damn, I was really looking forward to the player beats from Metro.’ But then Drake and 21 Savage came in, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ That was a great opportunity. After the battle, Drake ended up following me on Instagram, too, which was exciting.”
The industry connections go deeper than Instagram follows from rappers, too. So far, the rooms have been packed with A&Rs, label executives, music writers, and tastemakers who are closely watching for undiscovered talent.
“My notifications were going crazy on Twitter, Clubhouse, and Instagram,” Luna says of the attention she received after the battle. “Everybody was following me, DMing me and everything. It got overwhelming, but it's exciting. I’m still going through my DMs from that day. I’ve been tapped in with a couple producers and artists.”
Even for the contestants who don’t end up winning, though, the experience of participating is a net positive.
“One of the producers who made it to the second round hit me up and was just telling me how he hadn’t been motivated to make music because of everything going on this year,” Boi-1da says. “There’s so much going on in people's lives, having to do certain things to make ends meet. But the fact that he was in the Clubhouse with Drake, 21 Savage, me, Metro, and No I.D., he said he feels like he needs to go on 10 times harder now. Especially at a time like this right now, it means a lot to up-and-coming producers. It’s way harder now to get out there and to network with people with all this social distancing. It’s not like there's events to go to and things to go to.”
As they figure out how to make these battles bigger and better each week, Boi-1da, Cardo, and Simon are using the unique strengths of the Clubhouse app to make improvements. After the third battle, a Clubhouse room was created with the name, “Why was the beat battle so mid?!?!?!?!” All of the organizers quickly joined the conversation and heard feedback from the audience in real time.
“We made this for the people, so it’s only right to give the people's feedback,” Boi-1da says. “Me, Cardo, and Simon are very good at taking constructive criticism. We were just listening to the people, and a lot of them were just saying it was mid because the producers who were brought up weren't playing beats that were up to par.”
Taking the feedback from spectators into consideration, they came up with a plan to start holding preliminary rounds between battles, pulling producers up to the stage and giving them a chance to prove themselves before moving on to the main event. In mid-December, they held two preliminary rounds and selected 16 producers who have been slotted into a bracket for the biggest battle yet.
On Sunday, Dec. 20, at 6 p.m. ET, the fourth battle will take place. Boi-1da, Cardo, and Simon promise that major guest judges will be in attendance, and this time there will be prizes. Everyone who shows up to the room (even spectators) will receive free Splice memberships, and prizes will include cash, Xbox Series X, Playstation 5, and a collaborative session with Boi-1da and Cardo.
Looking forward, all three of them reveal big plans for the future of the series. “From a business standpoint, I would say we want to get it as big as possible,” Simon says. “We want to get the biggest partnerships we can, get the most exposure, and help the most kids we can. That's what we do it for, first and foremost. We want to break talent.” Cardo adds, “We hope this serves as motivation for kids out there that have zero placements, but they’re amazing producers. They might not know how to get from where they’re at to the major artists, so we hope we could serve as that bridge.”
Reflecting on his own ascent as a producer, Boi-1da points out, “When I was coming up, there was absolutely nobody to help me or to mentor me other than Battle of the Beatmakers, to get my music out there. So I just want to make this the biggest possible way that producers all over the world get their music played and have a real opportunity.”
It’s working. Seeing firsthand what these battles can do for producers who participate, Luna praises Boi-1da, Cardo, and everyone involved for creating opportunities like this.
“It’s really cool that they're doing this, because there are a lot of big artists and big producers who wouldn’t want to help up-and-comers because they're selfish or insecure that someone would take their spot,” she says. “So it’s cool to me what they’re doing. I really respect it.”