Jay Brookinz is without a doubt one of the most popular and recognizable personalities within the Indianapolis hip-hop scene. Much of the recognition Brookinz has accrued during his music career has come from his love for, and celebration of two things: smoking weed and crafting hip-hop beats.
As producer and mastermind behind the Gateway album series, Brookinz helmed the pot-themed MC compilation series featuring many of the biggest names in Indianapolis hip-hop, including Alpha Live, Rusty Redenbacher, Oreo Jones, Ace One and Sirius Blvck. He's also the driving force behind the annual Jay Brookinz Beat Battle, the 7th edition of which will go down Saturday, August 22 at the Vogue.
Utilizing innovative marketing techniques and tapping into his own larger than life personality, Brookinz grew the beat battle into one of the most significant local music events in Indianapolis. This year Brookinz hatched his most ambitious publicity campaign yet. The Friday before JBBB7, Brookinz will be hosting a live streaming 24 hour telethon featuring hours of local entertainment and opportunities to purchase discount tickets for the battle.
I spoke with Brookinz at the WFYI studios. You can catch the full interview on Cultural Manifesto Wednesday night at 9 on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio.
NUVO: Do you remember if there was a particular hip-hop song that made you think, “This is something I might want to learn how to do?”
Brookinz: I'm gonna go back to my hero. The number one main man DJ Premier. That's the first producer I was consciously aware of. I was like "DJ Premier made this beat? Instant hip-hop classic." That's the first person where I was like I want to know what he's doing. He was also a DJ too so he'd scratch on the songs. He had his own style that was super iconic and that's who I wanted to be. I was a huge fan of his for a long time, but it wasn't until I got to college that I got to use a beat machine. By then his sound was so ingrained in my head that I had a blueprint for what I wanted to do. I wanted to get me some dusty samples of some drums, and get me some soul samples, and I wanted to loop them bad boys up and put them hard hitting drums on them.
NUVO: Did you have an immediate feel for making beats?
Brookinz: No, I was terrible when I started. As you get older and look back on your craft you think, "Damn, what was I doing?" I've got old CDs of stuff I made and boy you couldn't have told me nothing when I was making that stuff. I was jamming hard when I first made it. But now … Let's just say I grew.
NUVO: You're widely respected in the music community now for the quality of your beats. Was there a good public response to your early productions?
Brookinz: No, we'd go and pass out CDs and people would throw them in the trash. But it was a good learning experience. I was making friends with MCs and rappers and other people who were making beats.
NUVO: A lot of hip-hop producers have a distinct and unmistakable sound. When we think of RZA we think of the Kung Fu style. When we think of Timbaland we think of the futuristic beats. When we think of Dilla we think of the soulful samples and innovative drum patterns. What's the trademark sound of a Brookinz beat?
Brookinz: Flipping things in ways that you didn't know could be flipped but still keeping the backbone of the boom-bap as the skeleton. That was my thing. Taking something and flipping it in a way where you'd be like, "How'd he do that?"
NUVO: I'm guessing that some of our readers have no clue what a beat battle is. Break the concept down for us in the simplest terms.
Brookinz: A beat battle is a production battle between people who make hip-hop beats or any kind of beats period. It's kind of like an MC battle: you bring your beats and the other competitors bring their beats and we have judges to see who wins. In a nutshell that's what it is.
This time it's a little different because we've started a league. We did the beat battle once every year. This year we're going to have eight battles starting with the one at the Vogue on August 22nd. Following that event we'll have six battles at The Hi-FI and then we'll end with the championship battle back at the Vogue in May. It's on a grander scale this time because the producers are competing over a season. It's not just one beat and you're done. We carry points over to the next one until you find out who is the king of the beats in Naptown.
NUVO: The way you've grown this event is amazing. It started out small in the first few years at Northside News and the Casba. Now you're at the Vogue and people are cheering and rooting for their favorite competitor like it's a Big Ten basketball game. It's not easy creating that type of excitement for local music in Indianapolis. How do you think you've been able to generate that sort of growth and response for the Jay Brookinz Beat Battle?
Brookinz: Being consistent. I remember days of throwing shows and only 20 people came out. It's all about sticking with it and having a passion for it and really going for it. I really love doing this. How can I transfer that to other people who aren't in the scene? I put myself out there completely. I'm not scared to be like "I think this is dope."
It also helps that the producers are getting better each year. In my mind the producers are stars just like rappers are stars. We know the Dr. Dres and the J. Dillas and the DJ Quiks. These guys are world renowned artists and I think that people here have their own sound and could achieve that level. But they need a stepping board.
NUVO: Last year you camped out in front of the Vogue in a tent for 48 hours before the event. And this is hard for me to wrap my head around, but before the interview you told me that this year you're going to host a live 24 hour streaming telethon before the beat battle at the Vogue?
Brookinz: This idea started last year. I knew exactly what I wanted to do after camping for 48 hours in front of the Vogue. I was like, "Next year I've got to do a telethon." Basically we're going to get together for 24 hours and let people do their thing. If you're an artist, come and do your art. We're not going to turn away anybody. We'll put you on to fill up the 24 hours and we'll have people calling in to purchase advance discount tickets. It's the day before the beat battle. So all day Friday we'll be doing the 24 hour telethon. It's going to be something so interesting people won't be able to take their eyes away.
NUVO: Looking back on your work organizing these beat battles do any particular producers stand out in your memory?
Brookinz: Tons! Let's start with the first one. 90 lbs. is a guy who used to do a lot of Oreo Jones productions. His beats were major. The second and third year was won by a guy named Firearms — he goes by Fire now. His beats were crazy. Then Blake Allee won one. Then Soul Cinematic. His beats were crazy insane. Last year we had Mandog who was the first pick of the draft this year. Even the people who didn't win came hard with it. Longevity always has good beats. I could go on and on.
NUVO: When I was preparing for this interview and looking through all your past musical endeavors like the Gateway album series and the beat battles, it struck me that you seem to thrive in large collaborative projects. And when I say large collaborative projects we're talking about as many as 20 to 30 participants. To me that approach seems like a lot of work. I'm sure it's not easy managing so many personalities. Why have you been drawn to creating these gigantic collaborative artistic projects?
Brookinz: I'm a glutton for punishment. I love it. I just have a lot of love for a lot of different artists. I started as a kid trying to do my thing and nobody was paying attention. I've seen all aspects of the game, kind of — maybe not the superstardom — but I've seen a lot of different aspects. I've got respect for people who want to do their art in Indianapolis. That right there sprung the whole "I will collaborate with anybody" thing. If you come with the right attitude and you're down to give me a chance we can make something happen. It doesn't matter if it was 30 people or if it was 50 people - I was down to make it happen. Yes, it was a ton of work. There was ungodly amounts of work. Sometimes I look back and think "dang, how did we make that happen?" But it happened and it kept on happening and it kept on getting bigger and bigger. So why not? I have the personality to make those kinds of things work.