Local Production Duo Aren’t Businessmen--They’re a Business, Man
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"As much as it’s been stressful, this is the best stress I’ve ever had," Mike Miller says about the past year-in-the-life of Stay Gettin’, the production company he founded over six years ago with partner Lawrence Simpson. Last October, Stay Gettin’ Entertainment inked a deal with Def Jam, which means the two now answer to the most famous artist-turned-executive in hip-hop. "Makin’ songs that Jay-Z’s gonna like, that’s a good stress."
Simpson, 28, and the baby-faced Miller, who’s 25 but doesn’t look a day over 18, ramble and shoot the shit in an East Baltimore studio like it was the local barbershop, so it’s not surprising that both cut hair at their day jobs. In fact, a barbershop is where they first met in 1999, when a song caught Miller’s ear as he was passing through. It just happened to be by one of the barbers. Simpson, pursuing a parallel career as MC Big Kuntré, says Miller "didn’t believe that the barber who was cuttin’ hair was actually rapping." They became fast friends and production partners. They now bear Stay Gettin’ tattoos on their arms, and Miller notes, "We best friends for life."
In 2001, they released a five-song solo disc by Big Kuntré, which featured the song "Stay Gettin’," and sold their first beats to local rapper Tim Trees. But Stay Gettin’ really established itself in Baltimore’s hip-hop scene with the compilation Operation Come Up. Simpson says they went after "every artist that was doin’ somethin’ in Baltimore" at the time, featuring local fixtures like EJ, Little Clayway, and the late C.D.S.
Stay Gettin’ was also making weekly bus trips up to New York. As a couple of nobodies from Baltimore, they got their foot in the door the old-fashioned way: standing outside major labels hoping to run into someone important. Miller recalls standing in the freezing cold because there was less competition in the winter. "We actually stood in New York--please print this--in weather that, when we spit, it would skip off the ground ’cause it froze by the time it hit the ground," he laughs.
Despite a lack of industry savvy, Stay Gettin’s perseverance paid off once the two finally wedged their way into Def Jam HQ. In 2003, one of the label’s biggest stars, Cam’ron, cut two songs from Stay Gettin’ beats, "Dead Motherfuckers" and "Shut the Fuck Up," songs that got spins on New York’s Hot 97 before Miller and Simpson even knew the tracks existed. And their work with Cam’s Dipset crew brought them to the attention of one of New York’s biggest DJs, Kay Slay, the self-styled "Drama King" who actually had to trick Cam’ron into handing over Stay Gettin’s beats. The DJ "got Cam’ron and all them drunk to steal the CD from Duke Da God, the A&R [rep], and blackmailed him," Miller recalls, clearly tickled by the thought of two of East Coast hip-hop’s most influential figures fighting over his beats.
Stay Gettin’ made a name for itself with hard-hitting beats like Cam’ron’s "Bubble Music," a spastic chop-shop job on a tune by reggae band Steel Pulse. But Miller and Simpson also found themselves continually overshadowed by New York’s Heatmakerz, who have made similarly sample-driven tracks for the Diplomats and Kay Slay. "We might’ve done a track, and somebody thinkin’ the Heatmakerz done it," Simpson laments, before noting that "it wasn’t a competition thing. We would see them a lot--they would actually compliment us on certain tracks."
And Stay Gettin’ remains wary of being categorized solely by its clientele. "A lot of people, when we play the track they’ll go, ‘That’s that Dipset sound,’" Miller says. "But it’s not the Dipset sound, it’s our sound. Dipset just chose it."
But even with those hookups, Miller says they began to feel the itch to reconnect with local artists. "When you comin’ from Baltimore, people in New York or people from other places are not gonna hear what you hear," he says. So last year, Stay Gettin’ Productions became Stay Gettin’ Entertainment, and the two began to build a roster of local MCs, including Heavy Gold, formerly of Bossman’s N.E.K. crew, and Tony Bosco. But it was a fortuitous studio session with a 15-year-old that paired Stay Gettin’ with the artist who would cement the Def Jam deal.
Last fall, Young Leek was a local sensation thanks to a bouncy, Baltimore club-infused party track called "Jiggle It" that got heavy airplay on 92Q. Leek went to Stay Gettin’ to get a more serious hip-hop feel for the song "Check," and in the course of the recording session Miller and Simpson saw major potential. "We did the song, went outside to talk for like 20 minutes, and were like, ‘Can you imagine what we could do with this kid?’" Miller says. A week after Def Jam A&R rep Plain Pat witnessed Leek perform to a frenzied crowd at Hammerjacks, Leek performed at a showcase in New York for label chairman L.A. Reid.
"They wouldn’t let us leave the building," Miller says. "They didn’t want us to go to another label. And literally the day after we signed the deal with Def Jam, we were back in Baltimore at work," he adds, noting that they’ve both still got their day jobs at the same barbershop. "You have to come right back, you know what I mean, because bills gotta be paid."
The last few months have been a flurry of recording sessions, meetings, and trips out of town as Miller and Simpson have prepared for Stay Gettin’s Def Jam debut, Leek’s Somethin’ to Prove, slated for release later this year. And Miller is quick to point out that most of the album was tracked in the same East Baltimore studio they’ve worked in for years. "When a new city gets signed, you wanna keep as much of that sound as you have. You don’t wanna be tainted by Swizz Beatz workin’ in the next studio," he says. "We actually got to do us. The sound on [Leek’s] album is Stay Gettin’."
Even as they’ve made the shift from producers to label owners, Miller and Simpson have continued to sell beats, recently producing a song for Freeway’s upcoming album, Free at Last. But it’s the long rumored comeback album by their new boss that they’re the most eager to land a track on. Jay-Z "even gave us the invitation," Simpson excitedly notes, while Miller, as usual, finishes his sentence. "Yeah, like, ‘Put some tracks on my desk.’" Most importantly, though, they’re now familiar faces in a building that they used to huddle outside of in the middle of the winter, just hoping to get a shot.