For decades, Chicago has produced rap legends, artists who have changed the culture, from Common to Kanye West to Chief Keef. The next in line to wear the crown looks to be Polo G, who has entered the mainstream with his single “Pop Out,” featuring New York’s Lil Tjay, and his recently released debut album, Die a Legend, which landed at No. 6 on the Billboard 200. Behind nine of the 14 tracks are a pair of relatively unknown producers from the Southside of Chicago named Ayo and JTK.
They specialize in dramatic, mournful beats that undergird Polo G’s gritty verses and powerful hooks. JTK’s solemn keys on “BST” make you really feel the “sleepless nights” the MC describes. On Polo’s steadfast “Through the Storm,” Ayo crafted a hypnotizing lullaby that would sooth the most energetic of toddlers.
Though they only met in 2017, their chemistry can in part be attributed to the similarities in their backgrounds. Both played instruments growing up — JTK, born Jordan T. Knight, got into the clarinet and trumpet around middle school, while 19-year-old Ayo, born Jahmere Tylon, played the drums for his local church. The impact of parents and siblings shouldn’t be understated either — Ayo’s father was a DJ and JTK’s brother and sister both make beats.
The pair have similar taste in music too; both love ATL staples like Lex Luger and the 808 Mafia, Gucci Mane, and Metro Boomin‘. The producers also made sure to show love to Young Chop, who served up Chicago street culture on a platter to the masses. “I always listened to multiple producers who sounded different,” says 18-year-old JTK of his influences. “Like the Young Chop signature mixed with Zaytoven‘s sound, and then that mixed with my own sound. I’d wonder: how that would sound?”
Ayo took up engineering and would slide his beats to artists to record to during his home studio sessions around Chicago. “Right after DJing, I didn’t have too many artists to give my beats to and get paid for it,” he says. “I wasn’t really getting paid until I was engineering. I would be throwing my beats in there during sessions, and charge for the beats as well. The engineering was helping me find all the artists to get on my beats.”
After pivoting from SoundCloud to YouTube, JTK began to see his name making some noise, leading to him working with several artists in the Chi. His YouTube channel now boasts over 60,000 subscribers. Artists can also purchase beats from his online marketplace. “I always liked the Atlanta sound, so I was trying to get people in Chicago on that. They were still so drill, drill, drill,” he says. “People always say something about Type Beats, but you cannot knock that. YouTube is how you find all the new, good artists. They don’t know where to find beats, so they go to YouTube. That’s exactly how ‘Old Town Road’ was made.”
His break finally came last September with the release of Calboy’s “Envy Me,” which has spent the last six months on the Hot 100, reaching a peak of No. 31. How the anthem came to be was actually a surprise to him. “I heard G Herbo using it on a flyer for a party,” he says. “I was like, ‘Why haven’t I heard this song on my beat before?’ I texted Calboy because the song wasn’t out yet. He was like, ‘Yeah, we got one.'”
It wasn’t until last year that JTK and Ayo linked up with Polo G to form their own lethal version of the triangle offense. JTK cut most of his records for Die a Legend at At The Studio recording studios in the heart of Chicago, while Ayo flew out to L.A. to catch a vibe with Polo. It was Ayo’s his first time out on the West Coast. “I watched him come from the ground to having a big crib with his whole family straight,” he says. “We knew what time it was. We knew it would be about coming from nothing to something, and you could feel that going toward legend status.”
For a number of tracks from the Columbia signee’s debut, the pair chose beats to match the mood of Polo G’s handwritten rhymes, some of which were prerecorded. “He already had the hooks and stuff wrote without beats,” Ayo says. “I’m basically coming in and making a beat around whatever he’s got already. He already had a lot of the album mapped out. I was just coming in and listening to what he got, and then putting it all together. I just wanted to help Polo assert his versatility. Everything didn’t have a real strong thought process — it was more based on a vibe.”
— Chips With the Dip (@LordTreeSap) June 20, 2019
The duo share co-production credits on three tracks from Die a Legend (“Dyin Breed, “Battle Cry,” “BST”). Even though they’re more than capable of getting the job done as solo acts, JTK and Ayo are always willing to collaborate and do whatever it takes to bring out the best product. Their menacing collaborative beats are the fabric of what Polo G set out to make listeners feel within his bruising debut. JTK acts much like a starting pitcher in that Ayo says he creates the “meat” of the beat by crafting tuneful melodies and controling the thunderous bass. Ayo then comes in like former Yankees legend Mariano Rivera as the track’s closer. With an engineering background, he’s often tasked with mixing and fine-tuning the beat to perfection.
JTK parlayed his success with Polo G and previous placements with Calboy and Lil Skies into two separate label deals earlier this month. “I just signed a publishing deal with Warner and an artist deal with Def Jam,” he says. “It’s kind of like what DJ Khaled does.” The beat maestro certainly isn’t lacking in the confidence department either. Look no further than his Twitter bio where he declares himself the “best producer coming out of Chicago.” JTK will look to release his debut single featuring Calboy and Lil Tjay before the summer’s out. By that point, he hopes to be moved out of his parents’ house and living on his own.
As for Ayo, he will continue working with up-and-coming artists around the city while sorting out his own business situation in the coming months. He hopes to see the Chicago hip-hop scene take on a more collaborative environment in the future, as street ties and just plain being born on the wrong side of the neighborhood sometimes put the Chi’s musical output in a chokehold.
“There’s a lot of hate in Chicago,” he says. “There’s a lot of barriers in place to go somewhere with the music stuff. Being a leader of the new school, I just try to make sure I do as much as I can to not put any hate into the atmosphere.”
He continues, “That comes between the music scene, a lot of artists won’t work with each other because they’re just from different hoods. We’re trying to do something positive.”