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The Producer Who Created 'Beat Kits' Behind Today's Pop Music


Behind almost all of the popular music you hear today, there is this hidden, high-tech economy. Music producers buy and sell musical snippets to each other. They text each other half-finished beats. There's even a market for the sound of a single tap of a snare drum or a single perfect yell. Jacob Goldstein of our Planet Money podcast has this story about a music producer who helped create this world.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: When Illmind was just getting started as a producer, he couldn't afford to go into a music studio to record. So he came up with his own technique.

ILLMIND: It was me in a closet with tambourines and, like, shakers and, like, a couple other snare drums.

GOLDSTEIN: This was in a closet in your apartment, or...

ILLMIND: Yep, closet in my apartment. And I was just, like, creating my own sounds.

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind used his laptop to manipulate those recordings and created a library of hundreds of different sounds which he used to make his beats, his songs. He worked with 50 Cent, contributed to a Tupac remix album, started to make a name for himself.

ILLMIND: So one day I woke up, 2011, and I said to myself, well, I have a little bit of a following, right? And I'm wondering if there's producers out there who want Illmind drums.

GOLDSTEIN: All his drum sounds and the tambourines and everything else are just digital sound files. Illmind wondered, would other producers pay to be able to use those files? Illmind decided to do an experiment.

ILLMIND: So I said, you know what? Twenty, 25 bucks, 100 to 150 sounds in a folder. I went to my blog site, and I put up a PayPal now button.

GOLDSTEIN: To be clear, this is not beats or songs that he's selling. It's just a folder with all these individual sounds. Just for snare drums alone, there are 46 different files each with its own name. There's Snare Bass-y (ph), Snare Blue, Snare Born, Snare Born Again, Snare Buda and Snare Buzzworthy. And those are just the B's. One hundred thirteen sounds in all is what you get. And the idea is music producers could use these as, like, Lego blocks to make their own songs. Illmind posts this folder online and goes to sleep.

ILLMIND: I woke up the next morning, and I found that I had, like, $2,000 in my PayPal account...

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

ILLMIND: ...That I didn't have the night before. So I'm like, people want this thing.

GOLDSTEIN: It's now six years later. And Illmind has published dozens of different kits. He makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year selling them. And he constantly hears his own sounds out in the wild.

ILLMIND: I'll put on a Spotify playlist, and I'm like, oh, there's my snare. Or, like, oh, there's my cowbell, you know?

GOLDSTEIN: List some.

ILLMIND: I mean, Bruno Mars - his new album - you know, Kendrick Lamar's new album, Taylor Swift's recent album.

GOLDSTEIN: A lot of these are just, like, a snare here or a snap there. But there is one he played for me that is a little easier to recognize. The sound is a human yell.


GOLDSTEIN: It's actually Illmind's voice.


GOLDSTEIN: And he recently heard this on an album called Malibu by Anderson Paak. He played it for me. His yell is his half-buried under a bunch of other sounds, but you can hear it if you listen closely.


ANDERSON PAAK: (Singing) Momma, can you carry me? It was late in the fall. I caught a glimpse...

ILLMIND: That little, yeah, yeah in the back.

GOLDSTEIN: Play it again.


ANDERSON PAAK: (Singing) Momma, can you carry me? It was late in the fall. I caught a glimpse...

GOLDSTEIN: When Illmind started, drum kits were something a few producers were experimenting with. Since then, the idea has taken off. Now there is this whole industry of drum kits and sample packs, all these different kinds of sounds that producers can buy or license. A lot of popular songs today are not so much played as assembled from parts. And the market for parts is strong. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "LOVE YOURZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.