When I showed up on the doorstep of Nate Karamanski's house on Saturday night to witness a Gateway session in action, I didn't see J. Brookinz right away. He was running around, making sure everything was in place to kick off the latest version of his epic album-in-a-weekend hip-hop experiment.
Gateway in its current incarnation is the ultimate local hip-hop sampler; over 48 hours – give or take – a who's who of Indy's hip-hop scene gets together to write, rhyme and record an album. It's all helmed by Brookinz, who in three previous years has produced the entire thing himself. This year, he's taking a more executive role; he picked five local producers (Mandog, Harry Otaku, DylanPrevails, KNAG$ and Philo T) to help realize his vision. He calls himself the "Geppetto" of Gateway5, pulling the strings behind the scenes to make it all happen.
"[Gateway] is a window into the underground Naptown hip-hop scene," Brookinz says, when I chat with him after the weekend is over. He plans to release the latest album this Friday; Gateway albums – packed with relentless weed references – are generally released very close to or on April 20.
The Friday release of the newest Gateway isn't the only thing Brookinz has going on this week – far from it, in fact. On Thursday, his birthday, he'll release a greatest hits album, "a compilation of all my favorite tracks." Friday, of course, is Gateway release day. Saturday, he'll put on a producers showcase at Indy CD and Vinyl for Record Store Day, a one-of-a-kind tag-team battle that pairs producers and DJs. ("I don't think that anybody's ever done anything like this before.") And Sunday, he'll take part in a 4/20 Welcome Back Ghost Gun Summer event at Sabbatical ("We'll give them a proper welcome home"). It's frankly exhausting even hear him talk about everything he has going on this weekend. But it's par for the course for Brookinz, who tends to take on ambitious projects and pull them off with nary a hitch.
Back to Gateway. Brookinz talked at length about the strengths of the producers he tapped to work on this year's Gateway who he said he's "rubbed elbows with a lot ... these were the five guys I thought would be best for what we're doing."
Of KNAG$, he says, "It's total music to turn up to; his beats bang and they're really hard." Of Mandog: " I marvel at what he does with his music. Where is he coming from when he makes these tracks? They're spacey, they change, they build up. It's almost like he's conducting." He calls Harry Otaku "probably one of the most soulful producers in Indianapolis." And of DylanPrevails: "He's one of the most underrated producers; he's got placements with really, really big artists. A lot of people don't know that. His style is so engrained in what's going on in popular music right now and a lot of people outside the city have noticed that."
The project's recording engineer, Matt Riefler, added production talents as well under the name Philo T. "He totally came with some huge tracks," Brookinz says.
So why step back now as a producer, three well-received albums in? "I knew going in that I didn't want to do it on the producer aspect," Brookinz says. "I didn't want to make all the tracks and take care of all the business around putting an album out. I wanted other people to shine, and I would just create the project from an outside angle. I didn't want to be the everything man for this one."
And after being the "everything man" for three previous albums, Brookinz was ready to give ample creative control to the producers he tapped. "I didn't tell anybody to do anything; I just was like, 'Hey, I trust you to do what you do best, and I want you to do your best. And I'm going to give you this crazy scenario and not a lot of time to do it in.' And they came through and killed it."
Brookinz isn't totally sure how many people stopped by to witness and participate in this year's Gateway ("30-plus" is his official guess; there were more than 15 there on Saturday night when I stopped in), which wrapped up Monday morning at 6 a.m. And there's some more long nights ahead as he finalizes the project before Friday. But Brookinz isn't worried.
"When you first start off doing things, you're always worried that it's going to fail," Brookinz says. "It's not. It's never failed; it's always been great and better than the last time. I want it to be easy to create things and put things together now. I feel like I have a relationship now with the audience, that they can trust me."
Update: Brookinz just dropped a taste of the Gateway here for us.