Miguelito is going berserk.
Cochran Avenue Baptist Church was built in 1928. The two-story Spanish Revival building sits in West Los Angeles, squished between Pico and San Vicente Boulevard. It’s the dominating structure of its block, cladded with yellow-peach stucco, stained glass windows of marbled tans and greens, and a mission-style bell topping its worship hall. A sign hanging from the corner reads, “Where the mission of Christ is meeting the needs of the people.”
As with most religious imperatives, those ‘needs’ aren’t explicitly stated. For BeatBoy (born Branden McNair), an established staple in the growing pantheon of New L.A. rap producers, the church was his first introduction to music and he answers the missionary call by forging instrumentals for the city’s current wave of talent. Before he was sliding beats to Problem and Earl Sweatshirt in his teen years, before his “BeatBoyTaughtMe” tag loomed in the background of gems for Shoreline Mafia and 03 Greedo, McNair learned to play the drums in Cochran Avenue’s sanctuary.
“I actually started [playing drums] when I was a toddler if we wanna get specific,” he tells me in a Valley studio. “You know the play drum set from the old JCPenney and Macy’s Christmas catalogues? I started by messing with that and then played in church when I got older.” He pauses for a moment while leaning down to brush dust off his otherwise spotless cream Vans, then checks his blue long sleeve for similar blemishes. Below the neckline it reads “C.C.U.S.A”, Cake City U.S.A., an affiliated clothing line that BeatBoy describes as a “way to express freedom in fabric.”
To complete his impromptu check he runs a hand along the back of his braids, an homage to Allen Iverson, straightening out a few and then resuming his explanation. “I got a swag from playing the drums. Alotta people try to say it’s the program you use, but it’s honestly you. People don’t have swag like that. Some producers’ beats sounds like they were made on a grid, like Legos. Alotta people’s beats sound like Legos but mine are like Play-Doh.”
Looking at his arrangements, the twenty-four year old’s analogy seems true. On “5200,” the final track from Maxo Kream’s Punken, BeatBoy presses a ghostly synth on top of the hi-hat sequence, while carving space for Maxo’s verses with weighty drums. The single components don’t slide into predetermined slots. Each sound trickles throughout, sometimes isolated by itself or joined with others in a fluid composition. He’s able to shift attention to the individual sounds, not relying solely on the strength of his drums to make Maxo’s list of hustles feel vibrant.
His experience playing alongside other instruments gives him a holistic view of stitching sounds together. When the drums do kick in, they highlight the rolling quality of his percussion. The drop causes immediate, and slightly unconscious, movement and this happens across his beats. The enjoyably jarring drum stutter that opens Shoreline Mafia’s “Break a Bitch Bacc” might be his most evocative. When the perpetually misunderstood Ohgeesy says “She gon’ fuck if the bitch rockin’ RiRi,” BeatBoy’s drums pull the listener with riptide force.
Beatboy thought “Break a Bitch Bacc” was a “throwaway beat” when he made it and applies critical analysis to all his work. This attitude comes from his teen beginnings in hip-hop production. Now a decade removed from the start, he sees past growth and a potential for more. “I was thirteen or fourteen when I started making beats,” he says. “I didn’t get good until like fifteen or sixteen though. I heard you gotta do something for ten years to be great and I’ll be 25 this year. The beats I did then were for rappers in that same vein as Earl Sweatshirt, Skeme, Vince Staples, who were really starting to pop off then.”
The oldest track on BeatBoy’s SoundCloud page is Earl Sweatshirt’s “Stapleton,” and it’s an accurate gauge of his trajectory. His beats have grown more complex and grandiose in seven years. While he still had a gift for timing and arrangement, “Stapleton” is more sparse than contemporary offerings. The melody has the whimsical feel of a carnival organ and the drum pattern is relaxed compared to a track like 03 Greedo’s “Breaking News,” which has forceful, bursting slaps. In retrospect, “Stapleton” speaks to how much L.A. rap sound has changed and how well BeatBoy adapted with it.
Growing up, McNair split his time between West L.A. and the westside of Compton, drawing negative and positive inspiration from periphery lives and his family’s musical background. “Bouncing between the two [areas] gives you a different perspective on alotta shit,” he says. His mind seems to drift elsewhere halfway through the sentence. I ask for some examples. “Just life. Alotta people on the eastside of Compton never been across Rosecrans. I came up knowing thirty-year-old men who’ve never been on a plane but I’ve been doing it since a preteen, you feel me? You see how insulated you could’ve been and I’m grateful I wasn’t satisfied with the toxic shit around me.”
No one in BeatBoy’s immediate family played instruments. He was introduced into hip-hop through the sacred rite of DJ’ing. “I grew up around my uncle,” he reveals. “He’s autistic and his mind is out of this world. He can tell you the day songs were released, artist, producer, all that just by hearing something on the radio. He’s got an extensive music library and I spent time with him growing up. He would loan me his tapes, CDs, turntables and that’s how I worked on my timing.”
His mother imbued him with his swagger through early exposure to the West Coast hymns of Tha Dogg Pound and E-40. “She’s gonna be mad I said this,” he chuckles, “But my first memory of her playing music is ‘Some Bomb Azz Pussy’ off the Dogg Food album. I vividly remember hearing that when we were going to her friend’s house or something. She had a sand-colored Ford Probe and would play that tape.”
He laughs during that response, but his demeanor is neutral throughout our talk. I watch him finish mixing some tracks and add a few elements to the outline of a beat during the interview. Even with other producers and artists in the room, BeatBoy only speaks when necessary. Some answers come back quick, though he usually pauses for a moment to collect himself before proceeded.
When I ask about the zen disposition he says it’s because he uses beats as his expression. “I put all my emotions into my beats,” he elaborates. “It’s a healthy way to work through negative shit, you know? Whatever I’m feeling that day is what’s gonna be in the beat. I take whatever I’m going through and channel it into sound.”
“You make it sound easy when you put it like that,” I respond.
“Beatmaking?,” he asks smirking, “Of course that’s easy. It’s all about timing and rhythm really. It’s just counting. Who doesn’t know how to count?”