“Beat tags are resumes; artists are employers.”
The plight of the producer in the modern rap landscape is comparable to the that of the Atlas, the Titan. Similar to how the Olympian must bear the burden of the world on his shoulders, producers – and their creations – are what supports artists as they preach to the huddled masses. If a producer makes something weak that an artist supports, they’re in danger of losing their credibility if listeners deem the production sub par. It’s an everlasting struggle with compounding effects that build with each release. It’s a wonder how Metro Boomin manages to keep afloat with constant, steady production that almost never sounds the same. Maybe, there’s a trick to that; a pendulum being swung before listeners eyes. The pendulum in question; the beat tag.
Easing a person into something new is a gradual task. The person can’t be immediately thrust into new surroundings without something familiar in their grasp. Hip-Hop fans are like this; we will listen to new music, but we may not respect it if the artist isn’t widely known. Beat tags enable producers to lay down their signature in sonic form, claiming ownership of a production that they’re proud of, and, at the same time, tie their work together to familiarize listeners with their sound. Beat tags are resumes; artists are employers.
The 1990s saw Hip-Hop explode as a means of sociopolitical commentary and lifestyle therapy. Artists quickly grew from genre fixations to worldwide phenomena. While they were busy switching flows over boom-bap beats and rapidly rising in industry and public importance, the producers of these records were left out. Of course, they were paid. But the full artist experience – the prominence, television placement, and sense of security that comes with stardom – continuously eluded them. Aside from the artists that they produced for, no one knew a majority of producers from a fly on the wall. A genre, prided on its inventive lyricism and fresh, memorable production, showed no love to the creators of the sound.
In the midst of the 2000s, mixtape DJs and producers added their sonic signatures to their creations in hopes of becoming the next hybrid superstar. What they’d find is that if the tag wasn’t as memorable as the beat or vice versa, they had a hard time remaining relevant. Thus is the nature of the rapid pace of rap; producers and technology constantly evolve, making those who don’t progressively get better get left in the canals of time. The best of their tags would become blueprints for the next generation. Harry Fraud‘s tag, as sensual and direct as it was and still is, gave an immediate indicator of the style of beat listeners would hear. The monotone yell of “Bangladesh!” timed perfectly with the piano beginning of Lil Wayne‘s “A Milli” – produced by Bangladesh – making the brief tag an important part of the song’s legacy.
Beat tags have become all but required in today’s rap game in a time where producers, in some cases, are bigger stars than the rappers themselves. Metro Boomin’s constantly switching beat tag alternates between the vocals of either Future or Young Thug, two rappers who act as the attractions to Metro’s circus of beat production; attracting listeners with their sonic co-signs. DJ Mustard‘s tag is simple, yet times in perfectly with the rapid nature of his Bay-Area influenced releases. To differentiate themselves from other artists who regularly emulate the sound that they’ve created, they turn to their digital signature to inform listeners that what they’re about to get is 100% original.
Creativity runs abundant in the genre as producers figure out new ways of evolving the idea of the beat tag. Perhaps one of the most notable producers of the last five years, MexikoDro of producer collective Beat Pluggz, pioneered a new sound with the signature “Plug” tag that intersperses the word at strategic points in the beat. The tag comes in clean and crisply in between the thud of 808s, with some artists choosing to build their songs around it. Rich The Kid‘s “PLUG” had its chorus shaped around the phrase, making for a very poignant and direct use. Producers like Stoopidxool (also a member of Beat Pluggz) and Pi’erre Bourne have a similar style that utilizes a repeating tag to give their creations further personality.
The best case for the impact of the beat tag in modern times comes when analyzing the career of Playboi Carti. Prior to his mainstream success, Carti was a frequent fixture of SoundCloud’s elite list. His releases like “chill freestyle” and “lost” were glimpses into his quiet ruffian style that showcased why his fan base was egregious, way back in 2014. They were great releases, but there was something holding him back from success at the mainstream level.
Carti’s release of “Broke Boi” forever changed rap music. It introduced an atmospheric and non-sensical element into Hip Hop that would be replicated over and over, each time to diminishing returns. Of course, Carti’s lyrics were nothing to write home about; that’s not the focus of his artistry. His casual delivery, much more relaxed and relatable this go around, attracted fans to the song in addition to the social media recommendations from Ian Connor, which in turn led to prominent blog placement. The production, created by Mexikodro, was Carti in a nutshell; saccharine, bouncy, and a mix of two extremes (street and pop). The success of the single spawned a symbiotic partnership, both creatives profiting from each other’s unique array of talents. MexikoDro’s beat tag would become synonymous with Playboi Carti, and vice versa.
After a generous number of quality records coming from their sonic marriage made waves on the internet, the pair inexplicably split. MexikoDro’s allure may have started to wane a bit; the success of Nebu Keninza‘s “Gassed Up” and Lil Yachty’s “Hella O’s” made the producer a household name with other hopefuls emulating what made his sound unique. Carti would connect with Pi’erre Bourne and make use of his infamous beat tag “Yo Pi’erre, you wanna’ come out here?” on “Magnolia” from his self-titled debut Playboi Carti. He would later be quoted saying that he only prefers to rap on Pi’erre beats. The producers use of video game sounds and other eclectic noises have made him one of the industry’s producers – and artists – to watch in the future. The repeating beat tag added an additional recognizable element to his beats that Carti could identify with. Choosing to align himself with Bourne enabled him to continue developing as an artist while making use of a convention that helped him to achieve a new level of prominence.
“My favorite part of the beat is probably the Spongebob tag, ’cause nobody’s expecting the Spongebob voice,” producer Izak of YBN Nahmir‘s “Rubbin Off The Paint” said during an interview with Genius. Does this represent an increased focus for a new generation of producers? The search for a creative signature has become less of an embellishment and more of a necessity. Websites like Voice Tag Gods and Knocks House have made a business out of selling tags to producers looking to take the next step.
But when the track ends and the next song inevitably begins, the power of the beat itself will outlast the tag. It may have increased in importance and has become one of the most important aspects of differentiating producers, but it will never be a substitute for great musicality. ICYTWAT, one of rap’s most promising rising producers, lacks any kind of indicator of ownership on his beats yet they are instantly recognizable, without the slightest doubt. ICYTWAT’s one-of-a-kind sound that is equal parts vintage as it is futuristic mixes a number of influences to create its own lane. The absence of a tag only strengthens the air of mystery and anticipation for his next release.
It all ties into establishing the mythos of the producer who ties each part of their character together with an audio clip that’s usually three seconds or less. Producers have multiple sides to their personalities. Beat tags help to string them together and make them instantly recognizable. They aren’t an indicator of hunky-dory production; more-or-less, a watermark to authenticate what listeners are about to hear. Some of rap’s best go-to beat creators add a tag to connect their work while others do it for sheer cosmetic appeal; and yet, there’s some who don’t use one at all. It’s a convention that’s still in its infancy that will surely continue to grow in appeal and use as rap music continues to evolve, as it has continuously over the last forty years.