In the latest installment of Behind The Beat, Thomas Hobbs spoke with Jahlil Beats about how he and Bobby Shmurda made the immortal hood anthem “Hot N*gga.”
You might expect a song by Barney the dinosaur to get the most love at a small child’s birthday party — not a gutter rap. Yet producer Jahlil Beats (real name Orlando Tucker) tells me Bobby Shmurda’s immortal hood anthem “Hot N*gga” got the kids at his niece’s fifth birthday party so hyped that the DJ was forced to run the song back three times.
“They were going crazy,” says the producer behind the 2014 hit song. “I’ve been to two or three weddings where they’ve played it, too, and grandmas were losing their shit on the dance floor. It’s a song that brings people together, you know? It just uplifts the people.”
The idea that a hook-less rap song about being surrounded by nine-millimetre handguns, flipping g-packs, and being fellated until you’ve passed out, could fire up both rugrats and pensioners seems farcical. Yet thanks to Jahlil’s thumping beat and a then 19-year-old Bobby’s infectious rookie energy, “Hot N*gga” is that rare rap song that makes you feel like a $1 million every time you listen to it. It’s what the repeat button was designed for.
The “Hot N*gga” beat was intended as a continuation of the exhilarating thrust of “Ima Boss” and “Burn” — two bangers Jahlil had produced for Meek Mill when he was first breaking through onto the pop charts in the early 2010s. Of his production style back then, the now 33-year-old notes: “I was inspired by Swizz Beats with his drum patterns and that double snare. I just loved how his shit always sounded so gutter and the feel of those first two DMX records, which are probably my favorite albums of all time. I wanted to recapture some of that magic.”
Jahlil insists he wanted “Hot N*gga” to sound even more cinematic than his previous work and to visibly tap into his “nerdish” childhood love for video games and R-rated horror movies, which he used to watch until the early hours at his uncle’s house. The fierce instrumental succeeds in doing this by combining menacing WW3 sirens with an eerie, warped church choir and the hoarse caws of a crow flying over New York City, intently stalking its prey. Tonally, it’s like Edgar Allen Poe if he was into trapping, and one of those rap songs that just dares to be played on full volume.
“Although I had one foot in the door [of the music industry], I still had the other foot a lot closer to the street because that’s where all my friends were still at,” Jahlil said.“[Therefore] the music captured that raw energy. The sound of the crow was because I loved those gothic horror movies, but it was also to symbolize that death is always stalking Black people in America. It can strike at any moment.”
Jahlil, who cut his first demo at just 2-years-old thanks to his dad being a studio engineer, says studying computer science at college helped him understand how to effortlessly combine different sound effects in the studio. “You have the hiss of a vinyl needle, that lower brass which really snaps, the kick drum. I brought all of these different effects together in Fruity Loops and made the “Hot N*gga” beat in like 15 minutes, tops. I knew it was special.”
Not special enough for Meek though, who wasn’t interested (“He thought it sounded too much like ‘Burn’”). Having previously produced for Queens superstar 50 Cent and his street soldier Tony Yayo, Jahlil instead passed the beat over to another G-Unit member, Lloyd Banks, who released it as “Jackpot” directly onto his Twitter in February 2012.
“Jackpot” is built around chest-thumping bravado (“A threesome ain’t shit / I need a couple of those”) and Banks’ usual avalanche of punchlines. But The Hunger For More MC clearly saw the song as a throwaway, leaving it off his mixtape V.6: The Gift. Jahlil envisioned more. “Banks is one of the most underrated rappers ever and I loved what he did to my beat, but it didn’t end up on his mixtape,” Jahlil said. “I took the beat and put it out on my own instrumental mixtape. Bobby and Rowdy Rebel listened to all my instrumental tapes, and that’s how they turned the beat into “Hot N*gga.”
Jahlil likens Bobby Shmurda’s everyman energy on the track to Eazy-E’s. “Bobby was so raw and has that conversational flow like someone who has come right off the block, you know?” he said. “Some people you can just relate to and feel. That’s why people loved Eazy-E so much as well. Bobby wasn’t trying to be an MC or an artist, he was just showing us his personality [with the Schmurda dance and] shouting out the people in his community. It wasn’t an image, it was just who he was.”
There’s no denying that the jubilant melodic sensibility Bobby Shmurda brought to the beat sounds more natural than Lloyd Banks’ rigid, super lyrical approach, which overwhelms the beat. The endearingly low-budget music video also rubber stamped “Hot N*gga”’s crossover appeal, with the Shmurda dance (imitated endlessly by athletes) and Bobby’s iconic catch of his own cap (which may or may not have fallen from outer space) both becoming two of the biggest memes of 2014.
Yet the producer says the primary reason “Hot N*gga” peaked at no. 6 on the Billboard 100 and resonated with so many different age groups, was because of its “defiance.” It’s a song where Bobby’s admission of “selling crack since the fifth grade” isn’t framed as a tragedy, but an achievement. “That’s important,” Jahlil said. “It’s like: this is the harsh reality of being young and Black in America, but despite all this bullshit, I am still going to stand tall and fully own it. By doing that, Bobby is uplifting his whole neighborhood.”
It was also that rare song that seemed to unite both rap’s young and older generations. “A lot of the pioneers loved the song because of what it represented. The idea of a rising rapper [bum-rushing the stage and] hopping on a more established rapper’s beat, to put their own unique spin on it, is what hip-hop is all about.”
Bobby Shmurda didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the success of “Hot N*gga.” The song was officially released by Epic on July 25, 2014. But by December, Bobby, along with several other members of the GS9 collective, were arrested for numerous charges including conspiracy to murder, weapons possession, and reckless endangerment. The lyrics of the song were used against Bobby Shmurda in court, and in 2016 the rapper pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree conspiracy and one count of weapons possession. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Looking bag on the saga, Jahlil says the legal system fundamentally misunderstood its intention.
“It is all an art form. [Jean-Michel] Basquiat wouldn’t be Basquiat if he didn’t go through the things he went through,” Jahlil said. “This is an art form and these dudes – it is kind of like a cry out for help. It wasn’t celebratory, it was just a song about showing you the realities of Bobby’s neighborhood, and refusing to do so in a tragic way.”
Bobby was released from prison on February 27, getting a ride home in Migos member Quavo’s private jet and quickly taking to Instagram to thank his fans, while also comparing himself to the King Of New York’s Frank White. Jahlil says Bobby is ready to “change his life. From what I’ve heard, he’s really focused on making music and staying out the way. He didn’t come out of prison to cause drama or to do any clout chasing. He had to go through all that to become who he is today. Now, he just wants to enjoy life and help others.”
Creating positive change is something Jahlil, who is managed by Roc Nation, also wants to do. He is in the process of opening his own academy in his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, for young producers, with the intention of giving kids who don’t have much money an opportunity to shadow the producer and learn the ropes of the music industry. Jahlil also has a compilation album with appearances from Nas, Gucci Mane, Dave East, Rowdy Rebel, Future, Meek Mill, and “potentially” Bobby Shmurda on the horizon. He’s also trying to clear an Aaliyah song — which he produced for Drake’s cancelled posthumous project for the late R&B star — for the album.
Like “Hot N*gga”, he dreams of creating another beat that turns the tide. “Me and Bobby are going to get back in the studio soon, but I don’t want to just make ‘Hot N*gga 2’ The energy has to be different,” Jahlil said. “That song just shifted the whole game. It broke the mould in terms of being the no. 1 rap song in the country, and not even having a hook. I think it wrote the energy for the younger generation [and some of the drill scene]. I’ve never seen a buzz like it in the clubs. It changed my life, and it changed my family’s lives too. I want to do that again, but with a completely different sound.”
Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno.