A Conversation With Tay Keith, the Best Hip-Hop Producer of 2018

Tay Keith talks Drake collaborations, plans to release solo music, and being crowned Complex’s Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive in 2018.

Tay Keith: Complex's Best Producer Alive, 2018
Complex Original

Image via Sho Hanafusa/Complex Original

Tay Keith: Complex's Best Producer Alive, 2018

Tay Keith had a monster 2018, emerging from Memphis to produce some of the year’s defining hits, including Drake’s “Nonstop,” Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” and BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive.” With a Grammy nomination and college degree in hand, he has now earned the distinction as Complex’s Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive in 2018.

Naturally, the 22-year-old isn’t content with all the accolades. Sitting down with Complex to discuss his breakout year, Keith says his focus is squarely on his plans for a follow-up. He’s currently plotting the release of his first solo material, which will arrive this summer. “My first single got Sheck Wes and Yachty,” he reveals.

Mentioning JAY-Z and Dr. Dre as artists he’d like to work with next, Keith looks even further into his own future and suggests a self-imposed expiration date on his career. “I plan to retire at 50,” he discloses. “When I’m done, I ain’t touching no more keyboards.” And what will the recent graduate do when he’s finished with music? “When I hit 50, I want to go be a professor.”

Fortunately, that means we have 28 more years of Tay Keith beats. He hints that, in the future, we’ll be hearing plenty more collaborations with Drake. “Man, we never stopped cooking up,” he says of his ongoing work with the Toronto rapper. “It’s just timing. You don’t want to just drop all your shit in one day.”

Complex’s Speedy Morman caught up with Tay Keith for a conversation about the producer’s whirlwind 2018 and what he has planned next. The video interview is below, followed by a lightly edited transcript of the full discussion.

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How have things been since the last time I saw you?
Everything's been good. It's been falling into place. For one, I graduated, so that was a major accomplishment for me. And I got Grammy nominated. I went platinum a couple more times, so you know, everything's been good.

You were just named the Best Producer Alive for the year of 2018. How does that feel?
Shit, that's new news to me, but it feels good. I'm just humble with it, so being acknowledged for stuff like that just shows how much I'm really working. They had to remind me how hard I'm really working out here. I've got a lot more stuff that I'm trying to get the ball rolling on.

Some of the people who have won this award before are Rick Rubin, Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, and Kanye West. What does it feel to be in the same sentence as some of these people?
Man, Dr. Dre just inspired me so much. Just him personally, outside of music, too. You know, him doing the whole Beats thing... People like him, they set the bar high for me to set the bar even higher, you know? It's more than just music when it comes to building a foundation and building your empire.

Let's list some of your 2018 accolades. In this past year alone, obviously you dropped “Rover” with Bloc, “Never Recover” went crazy, “Look Alive” went triple platinum, “Nonstop” went number two, “Sicko Mode” went number one, and [you were] Grammy nominated twice. When you think back to selling five beats for 250 dollars, what do you make of this journey?
It’s just like, what I can do even bigger this year? I look at it like, all of that happened in one year, 365 days, you know? It’s just like, okay, what am I gonna do next? That's always been my mindset. Never be content. Just never be satisfied. Just keep going on, and on, and on. I look back and have to remind myself sometimes [about] a lot of shit that I did. I'll be like, damn, I really did that. Just because I'm always going.

“When I hit 50, I want to go be a professor.”

You said it's all just happened in 365 days. That’s quick. Did you expect things to happen that quickly, or was it a shock to you?
Yeah, it was really a shock to me. I was like, damn. Shit just started happening back to back to back. I’m just being exposed to this shit so quick. It’s so amazing, like a blessing.

Why do you think things clicked so quickly? Do you think it was just timing or do you think it was the work that spoke for itself?
It’s a lot of things. One of the main reasons was Drake, of course. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. On top of that, I feel like my story was just so inspirational: me still being in school and doing what I was doing. It just set myself apart from a lot of other producers.

All of those accolades that you spoke about happened while you were still in college. At this point you’ve graduated. Where does graduating from college rank amongst some of those accolades? I know you’re the first person in your family to graduate. How did that feel compared to something like going to the Grammys?
See, the Grammys, that shit wasn’t expected at all. I knew I was going to graduate regardless. I look at it like, graduation is going to be number one because that was some shit that I put four years into. Really, my whole life being in school, just going beyond graduating high school and going to college. But then I say second had to be the Grammy nomination. Like damn, one year in the game, Grammy nomination already. Even if I didn't win, I still appreciate the fact that I was able to even be recognized.

People go their whole careers without winning a Grammy, or even being nominated. So for it to happen so young, what was the first emotion that you felt?
Yeah, I was nervous as hell. I ain’t gonna lie, I was nervous, bro. Walking on the red carpet and shit; it's new to me. I ain’t even know how the other side of the red carpet looked, you know what I'm saying? I just see the shit that’s on TV, y’all. Like damn.

I saw you brought some of your guys with you. How did it feel to be there with your guys?
It felt good, just them even experiencing that shit. They’re going to be able to tell their kids and their family down the line. Like, “I was able to go and experience that shit with Tay Keith, too.” So it was cool. It was a real good experience.

Tay Keith photo by YoBreezye

I saw what it was like for you on campus [during graduation]. It was crazy. Kids were screaming from across the quad outside of the student center. Are you going to miss any of that?
Yeah, I’m gonna miss it, for sure. The people who I went to school with, I came up with, and they still stayed the same. It was like a family type thing. Even when I came up, they still stayed down. They didn’t treat me no different. I could just kick it and chop it up with [them]. But it’s another thing when I'm going to school, and motherfuckers who don't know me, they wanna take pictures and they’re trying to record me. Of course I was dealing with it, but for the most part, the people who I went to school with and who I associated myself with, they’re still the same. So I’m gonna miss it.

When I was in school, I was still young, and I felt like a kid. But when I graduated, I felt like I left some of my youth behind. I felt like I had manned up, and I had become an adult. Do you feel like that as well? Do you feel like playtime is over now, and it’s time for business?
Yeah, of course. Shit, you just have fun at college until you realize you ain’t in college no more. You gotta go handle responsibilities and shit. Just me in my position, I’m already successful, fresh out of college. So I gotta handle this or do that. It might be different than the next person who is kind of like struggling to find a job, fresh out of college.

Do you do anything differently now that you’re not in college? How different is life?
I don’t have the responsibility to get up and go to class. So I wake up, and I might just go shop. Or then I might wake up and be like, “Let me go to my spot in Atlanta.” I can randomly do shit now.

More freedom.
Yeah, way more freedom. Especially when everything hit the fan with my career, I couldn’t just come up and be like, “I want to come to Complex.” I had to schedule some shit. [Now], I can wake up tomorrow and be like, “I want to go here, I want to go there,” you know? I’d say that’s the best part, that freedom.

I saw you tweet something about how your GPA wasn’t all that? What was your GPA?
I don’t even want to say. It’s low.

Lower than 3.0?
Yeah, but it was good enough to graduate.

Listen, as long as you got the degree, that’s all that matters. Are you serious about considering grad school, or were you just playing?
No, I’m for real. Whatever dean or president is watching this: I need a Masters’ program at your school. Let me get in. Let me get in there. I want get my degree, for real, whether it be online or not.

What would you want the degree to be in? Would it be in something music-related? Maybe something business?
When I retire, I plan to retire at 50. When I’m done, I ain’t touching no more keyboards.

And how old are you now. 22?
Yeah. So, when I hit 50, I want to go be a professor. So, hopefully I have my degrees by then. You know, mature. Get a little bit older and shit, realize some more things, be a bit more wiser, and get my degrees. I’ll be a professor.

What would you teach?
I want to teach something with media.

I know you studied media management. Would you want to teach something like you studied?
Yeah, but more like new media.

“[Lil Wayne’s ‘Lollipop’] beat was one of the main beats that caught my attention to even start creating music.”

Why retire at 50, though?
There are just days where I want to retire, you know? They say [when] you hit 50, you’re going over the hill. It’s already stressful, but I say by the end, I want to be able to enjoy life, man. Give more, teach, educate, whatever type shit.

What do you think that retirement looks like? No more music at all? Or what would you do at 50?
I don’t know. I just don’t plan on making music. I plan on doing something; it ain't gonna be music, though.

I know you listened to a lot of Jeezy growing up, but did you have a favorite producer while you were a kid?
Well I listen to more than just Jeezy, for one—

Right. But I remember you saying that’s somebody you listened to a lot, especially in the house and stuff like that.
Yeah, so his producers, you know, D. Rich and Shawty Redd... I [also] listened to Mannie Fresh. Pretty much all the producers who were coming up then. Timbaland, Pharrell, everybody. There was no specific producer. I would listen to a lot of people who were making music back then.

Were there any beats that were like your Holy Grails?
Yeah, “Lollipop.” Lil Wayne. I don't even know who made that beat, I couldn’t tell you. I ain’t ever looked it up. But, that beat was one of the main beats that caught my attention to even start creating music, so I always remember that.

I remember you telling me that your first computer that you got and started making beats off of, you bought from a pawn shop.
Yeah, EZPAWN in Memphis on Summer.

How much did you pay for that?

What beats did you make on that laptop?
All the beats that started making me money. I ain’t make no hits or no shit like that. But all the beats that I was making, I would put on YouTube, like the different “type” beats and shit. Then all the beats I would make on my beat tapes, I put out like that. That started the foundation, that computer. So, when I started making more money, I bought me some new equipment. Then I just kept going on and on.

I remember you saying you were using the Fruity Loops trial, and the $40 computer from the pawn shop. When you think about where you are now, what do you remember about the journey that took you from one place to the other?
I remember when I was using Fruity Loops, you couldn't save the file. So you always gotta save the MP3, then add on to it and shit. It was more like a struggle, trying to actually build up that shit, and just being able to afford the good shit, the equipment you need. When I first started, all I had was the laptop and some cheap headphones. I ain’t have no speakers. You know, no Rocket speakers or no MPC. No keyboard, none of that. It just was the laptop and the headphones. Going from there, it just teaches you a lot.

But that computer then led you to the second computer, which you copped for like $1000. A Dell or something like that, right?
No, that was like the fourth computer. Because you got to think about, I was buying used laptops, so they always was slowing down and catching viruses and shit like that. So when the shit started really catching, I was like, all right, let me invest in some real equipment. That’s when I bought my Dell.

The Dell is the one that you made “Rover” on?
No, I made “Rover” on my HP. I had an HP before the Dell.

I remember hearing you say you made “Rover” in your bedroom, you made “Look Alive” in your bedroom, and you used to make beats in your car?
Yeah, I remember one time, I was seeing my counselor, like my advisor. [It was] my last meeting with him, and I was just in the car. I don’t know if it was before or afterwards, but I was just making beats in the car right there.

So, you can, in theory, make beats anywhere?
Anywhere. I could make one right here if I had my laptop.

You’ve made huge hits like “Rover” and “Look Alive.” And you made those in your crib. Do you prefer a work environment like that, where you can kind of just cook up on your own? Or do you prefer the studio, with the artist and the whole session?
It just depends on what type of vibe you want to go in. I was in a Memphis, Grammy type of vibe, because I had listened to a whole bunch of Three 6 [Mafia], around the time I was making that shit. I was listening to Project Pat, Three 6 Mafia, just that old shit. But if I want to do some pop or some R&B and I’m with the artist, I might just play some old school R&B I like. Just kick the vibes with that.

I know you said a minute ago that Dr. Dre is someone you really look at. But are there trajectories of other producers who you look at like, “Damn, I want to do something like that”? Pharrell, he's scoring films. Mustard, he's got Grammy-nominated artists under his belt. Kanye, he started rapping. Is there something else that you’d like to do or a trajectory that you’d like to follow?
I ain’t gonna lie, I get something from every last one of them. They all inspire, not just me, but all the other producers, because they’re the ones who are at the top. So I’m just building my platform up to the top, and I’m getting a piece of knowledge from every one of them who you just named. I’m trying to find a way to better myself, whichever way I wanna go down. I might be that producer who might do some shit different and set the bar higher in that way, you know? They got artists, or rappers, or movies, or whatnot, but I might be doing some shit like [becoming a] professor. You just never know.

I remember hearing you say that when you graduated, you were going to move to Atlanta. Do you still live in Tennessee, or did you move to—
No, I got me a spot in Atlanta.

What’s life like in Atlanta for you now, compared to living in Memphis?
It’s way more accessible to artists. Like, 2 Chainz hit me up to come pull up at the studio. Playboi Carti hit me up to pull up at the crib. It’s way more artists who actually live in Atlanta than in Memphis. The majority of rappers who make it out of Memphis, they don’t stay in Memphis no more. What they do, they stay on the outside of Memphis, like the outside parts. But yeah, it’s way more accessible. The majority of the artists got their own studios in Atlanta, so when I’m down there and I’m vibing out, they might tell me to pull up.

“My first single got Sheck Wes and Yachty.”

You’re still in Tennessee often, though, right?
Yeah, I’m back and forth. I’m not in no set place. I be in Tennessee, Georgia, Atlanta, L.A. I come out here [in New York] a couple of times. I just went to Miami. I’m pretty much everywhere.

You said that most people who pop off from Memphis, don’t still live in Memphis. When you hear news, like what happened to Nipsey, in his own neighborhood, does that change the way you look at your hometown? Does it make you say, hey, maybe I shouldn’t spend as much time home as I do?
Yeah, I feel like a lot of rappers who get killed, they be in their city. So I’d be just be real cautious on when I’m gonna go. I don’t gotta watch my back when I’m in Memphis; I got a lot of respect. But at the same time, it’s like, somebody was just telling me it could have been that hating ass nigga in the third grade who had the same opportunities you had, you know what I’m saying? Y’all both went to the same school, and had the same opportunities. Everything. The same neighborhood. And he might just be looking at you like, “It could've been me.” So it's different. When you’re in another city, you surround yourself around self-made people who did similar shit—or different shit, but still successful—you know what I'm saying?

On a more positive note, Tennessee is known for having a very rich music history. It’s like the capital of country music. I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on Lil Nas X's joint, “Old Town Road.” The number one song in the country right now.
It’s crazy, because I had hit him up probably like a month ago, just because I’d seen some shit. What he had going on was just catching my ear, and I was like, “This nigga know how to troll. He know how to capitalize off this shit. He got a hit song, let me just hit him up and just chop it up with him.” But I stayed in contact with him and then out of nowhere, he just blew up and got a number one song. Then he got Billy Ray Cyrus on the remix and shit. Like I said, that nigga smart. He know what he doing, for real.

What was that first conversation with him like? What did you guys talk about?
The majority of people I come in contact with now who are coming up, as far as like young guys in music industry, it’s just straight work. We just talk about what we can do or what we can make, instead of just like me talking to an OG in the game and getting advice from them. I chopped it up with him. It would be about music rather than just me chopping it up with somebody like 2 Chainz or something, which would be about him putting me on game about some shit. Advice, things like that.

So, do you guys have plans to work together?
I plan on it, yeah. Shit, if we catch each other in the same city, we’ll make shit happen for sure.

All right, let’s talk about you. Obviously the producer tag is famous at this point. Where do you think your producer tag ranks among some of the other ones? Do you think yours is the hardest? Are there other producer tags that you like as well?
I like all of them. One of my favorite tags, besides mine, is “I'm in London, got my beats from London.” That shit hard. I mean, everybody got some hard tags, man. It’s the new wave. I kind of feel like they put producers in a better position. If you’re working as a producer and you ain’t got no tag, it won’t show. But if you’re working as a producer, and you got a good tag, it’s gonna show.

Do you think [your tags] helped you at all in your career?
Yeah, for sure. I feel like they helped. Instead of just me being a regular producer with hella hits, it kind of brings fame, too. Clout and all that shit. Besides just me, it’s setting the bar high for other producers, too. It’s making them have better opportunities now because you got the Tay Keiths, you got the Wheezys, you got the Turbos. You got the Metros, the Murdas. All the producers are starting to have names, and faces with their names. It’s becoming more of a trend now.

Do you like that fame?
Yeah. I mean, there’s pros and there’s cons. You gotta take the good with the bad.

Do you think that there are more pros or more cons?
I don’t know, I can't answer that. I don’t even know, bro. I just take the shit. I ain’t gotta worry about shit that regular people gotta worry about. But I do gotta worry about shit that regular people don’t gotta worry about, so you gotta take the good with the bad. That comes with anything in life. It’s part of the game.

Tay Keith at Complex for his Best Producer Alive interview

Let’s talk about some of your beats. Is there a beat that you look at, where you’re like, “Yo, I did my thing on the beat”? Is there one that sticks out in your mind, that you’re still proud of?
Man, I got some crazy shit on the way. Me just putting my time into shit. It’s different when you could just make a hit and make another one. But when you actually put your time into something and you actually like the music—instead of making it just for a hit—you look at it different. So I’ve got a lot of music on the way that I put some real time into, for real.

But out of all the records that are out now, which one would you say is your best? Or your favorite?
Of course, I’m proud of “Sicko Mode.” I'm proud of “Temptation.” I like that sound because it brought out a different vibe in me, producing wise. So I feel like that’s one of my favorite ones. What else? I don’t know, I did “Stoopid” with 6ix9ine. Then “Don't Come Out The House” with Metro and 21.

You’ve got a lot of hits. Obviously we’ve named you as the Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive for 2018. What does 2019 look like?
Man, it’s gonna be crazy. Summertime, I’m finna release my own shit.

Is it an album?
I got like an album worth of shit. It ain’t time for that, though. I’m gonna just release my first single, though.

Okay, who’s on it?
Should I say?

I mean, we just named you the Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive of 2018…
My first single got Sheck Wes and Yachty. It’s featuring Sheck Wes and Yachty.

How did it come together? Was it your idea?
Relationships, you know. They’re my homeboys. I chop it up with them all the time. Like I was telling you, some people you chop it up with and you work. Some people you get advice from. Some people you give advice to. It’s just about being in that relationship with them.

In 2018, you worked with Eminem, Drake, Trav, and now we know about Yachty and Sheck Wes. Who’s left? Is there someone else who you haven’t tapped yet, who you’re waiting to hit up and work with?
Yeah, a lot of people. I gotta work with Dr. Dre, for sure. I got to. I’ve been in contact with Timbaland. Hopefully we can make something work. I got to work with Metro, just with [him] being the biggest producer of our generation coming up right now. Artist wise, I gotta work with JAY-Z. I ain’t done working with Jeezy, too. Who else? I want to say like, Gotti, working with him. I ain’t worked with him yet.

From growing up listening to a lot of Jeezy, what was it like to finally get to work with him?
Jeezy was really one of the first artists to reach out to me, because he got a hold of one of my beats. This was a little over a year ago. He just always stayed in contact with me. Just for me being able to chop it up with him, he gave me advice. It’s just crazy, somebody who influenced you, getting influenced by you now.

Someone else who I’m excited to see you work with is J. Cole. I saw you were at the Dreamville sessions in Atlanta. What were [those] sessions like?
Man, that shit was dope. You know, we were with hella producers, hella songwriters, and hella rappers. Producers were looking at me like, “Bro, why you ain't in a session with Cole?” And all this and that. Bro, I’m just vibin.’ Like, I’m getting to meet new people, you know what I’m saying? And people just wonder like, why [I] ain't in a session with Cole. Bro, I’m just vibing. I'm trying to just network and meet new people and shit.

When I ended up going in with Cole, it was him and T-Minus. I was in the back just soaking up the game. They were teaching me a lot of shit, telling me a lot of shit. T-Minus was just showing pointers and shit. J. Cole was just telling me about life.

“I’m independent still. I’ve been meeting with people. Everybody wants my masters.”

I saw a photo of you on the computer and him standing behind you. Did you guys get a chance to work together musically at all?
Yeah, but like I said, it was all over the place. Everybody was working with everybody. I did get the chance to go with him two days. But for the most part, I was just like working with all kind of producers, catching them vibes.

Word on the street is that you also have a record with Khaled. What’s up with that?
Shit, it’s gonna be crazy. Khaled is always in good spirits, just a helping hand. He's helping to get me on a different platform, too. Much respect to Khaled.

Everyone knows he has an album coming out in May. Did you guys working together have anything to do with the album?

Is it a big record?
Possibly. You just never know what records might... It could be a record that people put a lot of time into, but it’ll be a hit or miss. But on that note, I don’t ever make music like, “Oh it’s gonna be a hit.” I had to stop getting in that mindset. Because then I start feeling like I’m working. I don’t want to feel like I’m working. I want to feel I’m having fun. I’m creating vibes, man. It’s better for me, instead of just like, “Man, I gotta hurry up and keep doing this, so I can keep up.” Because of course there’s ups and downs. It’s the game. But I don’t want to feel like I’m working for the game. I want to feel like I’m having fun.

Another person who said that once he got off tour, he’s coming to work with you, was Drake. Have you guys begun cooking up yet?
Man, we never stopped cooking up. I don’t know what fools are thinking. It ain’t stop. It’s just timing. You don’t want to just drop all your shit in one day.

Are you guys actively still working together? Or do you have such a big library of stuff that you’ve already cooked up?
Bro, I just told you. We never stopped. It’s going. Shit ain’t stop, bro.

What was the backstory behind [Drake saying that about you at his show]?
He came to Tennessee to do the show. It was my birthday weekend. I wanted to come to the show and we chopped it up. His whole family was there. We just vibin.’

And then, he stops the show and says to 50,000 people that he’s ready to work with you. What goes through your mind when you hear something like that?
I mean shit, he was just letting everybody know. We been working. He was just letting everybody know.

Are you with a label, or are you independent still?
Yeah, I’m independent still. I’ve been meeting with people. Everybody wants my masters.

But you don’t want to give it up.
I don’t want to give up my masters. I got so much shit.

Every label that you’ve met with wants your masters?
Not every label. It’s just about finding the right situation. You can meet a label and everybody who you come across at the label, and then the paperwork might not be right. I’m still independent, though.

Is it something that you’re willing to do? Are you willing to sign if it’s the right fit?
Yeah, of course. I’m willing to sign. I got a lot of stuff, a lot of labels on the table wanting to sign now. It’s just about finding the right situation.

I know that you’ve signed a couple producers.
Yeah, my producers are here. I got IV Beats right there, and I got Denaro Love.

What can we expect from those guys?
Man, they got some crazy shit on the way, too. I’m just hippin’ ’em, getting their foot in the door. You know, placements and shit. Denaro is in Memphis, and IV is from Nashville. So I got two producers from places that mean something to me, that helped me grow and get to where I’m at. I’m gonna eventually get more talent from the cities in Tennessee. But, yeah, they got some crazy shit on the way.

What’s your relationship with those guys like? Is it like a mentor relationship, like bro and little bro? Or are you guys just all creating together?
Yeah, both. I signed them to let them know they can have the opportunity to do whatever the fuck they want. If they want fly to work with Gates or any [other] artist, they got the opportunity to. A lot of producers, they want to work with people they don’t got the opportunity to. It was more about the support and the opportunity with them to do whatever they want to do.

I feel like for the past few years we’ve seen larger-than-life producers who are poppin’ for a year. Mainstream hip-hop will have a sound and they will dominate that sound for a year. Then that sound expires and then they’re not poppin’ anymore. How do you ensure that you’re sitting in this seat again next year as the Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive? How do you ensure that your sound or your skillset doesn’t get stale?
There are a couple things that play into that. For one, the whole sound that I had was the wave, which I had already moved on from by the time I had made it to the industry. So the shit that I’m working on now, it has showed that I moved on from what I was doing. Like I said, it’s about timing.

I feel like another thing would be the relationships. I don’t know how other producers’ relationships [are like] with the people that they were working with, or even if they had relationships. With me, I got a lot of strong relationships. I network a lot, and I know they play a big part in [me] staying in the industry. There’s going to be ups and downs with anybody. It’s just part of the game. But for the most part with me and my longevity in the industry, there ain’t no question, because of the shit that I got going and my networking and the opportunities I have with people. I’m good.

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