The New Business of Hip-Hop Beats: How One Company Gets Musicians Paid For Creating Samples
On June 10, manager Mike “Heron” Herard got a mysterious phone call from the Grammy-winning production duo Cool & Dre. Two artists Heron manages, multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels and composer Beat Butcha, had landed placements on a top-secret project that the producers described only as “life-changing.”
They just needed stems of the recordings that Heron had sent them months before, including a four-bar instrumental loop Michels had created in his spare time, and a few tweaks: a new bassline and strings on top.
Days later, Heron got another call: The project was JAY-Z and Beyoncé’s surprise LP as The Carters, Everything Is Love, and the album’s opening track, “Summer,” would feature Michels’ loop. (A bonus track, “Salud!,” featured Butcha’s work.) It was the first time Michels’ music had been sampled since he began working with Heron’s musician management company, BeatHustle, in 2017. Within its first week, “Summer” totaled 9.1 million on-demand streams and 3,000 downloads, according to Nielsen Music, debuting at No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It’s Beyoncé and JAY-Z -- that’s the top of the mountain,” Michels tells Billboard about the placement, jokingly adding, “It’s all downhill from here, basically.”
The success of Heron’s new music outfit is a window into how the business’ top stars are churning out music faster than ever, increasingly soliciting pieces of ideas from a wide range of creators in order to make as many beats as they can in real time. With that kind of pressure, the old model of producer as crate digger, crafting melodies out of old soul records or on synths or keyboards, is history. The increase in volume has made it more difficult for sampled musicians to claim credit -- and payment -- for their work, creating an opportunity for businesses like BeatHustle.
“We’re in a climate where people are just trying to get records out really quickly,” says Heron. “I’ve been with guys where they dedicate tons of hours to records just to walk away, and no one credits them. Often there’s nothing malicious in it -- it’s just guys trying to hustle.”
In the late 1990s, Heron was part of a community of record-collecting fanatics who would spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars digging through record stores for obscure samples, re-recording them onto LPs and selling the breakbeats to producers like No I.D. and Dr. Dre. Diddy, says Heron, would give one of Heron’s record-collecting friends $10,000 to $15,000 just to go shop for records, many of which wound up on Bad Boy albums like The LOX’s Money, Power, Respect.
“I would go get everything, digging hard, and put all the choice cuts on one album and sell them,” says Heron. “I was making a living doing that -- must have been 20 volumes, which was 100 percent illegal.” He laughs. “[BeatHustle] is sort of like what I was doing before, but just, like, 100 percent legal.”
Heron began working with Shady Records in 2013, where he remains vp A&R. But he also started managing musicians on the side, beginning with Robert “G Koop” Mandell and AntMan Wonder three years ago, helping them place original music with hip-hop producers. It was then that he realized there was a problem in the production line.
“In 2018, there’s not a whole bunch of young guys that can actually play instruments,” says Heron. “So I found that those that could were sort of getting taken advantage of. And guys were reaching out to me, like, ‘Hey, man, I got a placement with this guy, I didn’t get paid, I didn’t get any publishing, I wasn’t credited.’ ”
An overlooked credit can equate to millions in lost revenue for a musician. G Koop, for example, provided the melodic backbone to Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” which Metro Boomin flipped into a No. 1 single that has racked up 1.1 billion on-demand streams and 1 million downloads sold, according to Nielsen Music. Heron says that in the past, G Koop might have gotten a few hundred dollars for his contributions, and no publishing credit. But with BeatHustle, working with people like Metro and his manager Rico Brooks -- the two of whom he considers to have “led the charge on fair treatment of these musicians” -- G Koop is credited as a co-producer. Heron declines to comment on specific songs but says he’s often able to secure 50-50 splits with producers.
Heron now manages a stable of six composers who, collectively, have contributed to records by Rick Ross, Future, DJ Khaled, Rihanna and others. He has his musicians create original beat packs, which he sends to a tight-knit group of producers he knows and trusts; Cool & Dre, Metro and Murda Beatz, the lattermost producing Drake’s recent No. 1 single, “Nice for What,” are among them. For someone like Michels, who has led several funk bands over the years and worked on records by such artists as Sharon Jones and Lee Fields, the process can be much simpler and more collaborative than just getting sampled.
"I'm not making bridges and choruses and verses, it's usually just a groove," he says, noting he's made around 100 tracks that BeatHustle has sent out. "I'll do them in a night, just get some weed. They're not that involved."
But for producers and artists, particularly in a fast-paced world and in the shadow of high-profile copyright lawsuits like that of Marvin Gaye's family against Pharrell and Robin Thicke, the value that BeatHustle provides can make a huge difference.
“The musicians and producers, they’re like a community,” says Heron. “That’s what I like to think of BeatHustle as: just music guys.”