How Yella Beezy Scored a Number One Hit During the Summer of Drake

How Yella Beezy Scored a Number One Hit During the Summer of Drake

The rapper Yella Beezy was barely known outside of Dallas just six months ago, but when Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II tour came to town in September, they invited the 26-year-old to open for them. That’s thanks to “That’s on Me,” which is both a great single and a prophetic one: “You can snooze if you want to,” Beezy warns, “but not on me, baby.” And sure enough, the week ending September 22nd, almost a year after it originally came out, “That’s on Me” was crowned the Number One record on mainstream rap/R&B radio.

This is impressive not least because Yella Beezy is an independent act: When the Dallas hip-hop station KBFB added “That’s on Me” into rotation in March, the rapper was still unsigned. He now has a deal with Hitco, an indie venture, even though it’s helmed by major-label veteran L.A. Reid, who was forced out of his position as chairman/CEO of Epic Records after allegations of sexual harassment.

In addition, unlike many other unexpected hits, Beezy’s does not have a streaming story to back it up. “That’s on Me” hasn’t even topped 10 million streams on Spotify; for comparison’s sake, the new Lil Baby and Gunna single “Drip Too Hard” recently racked up more streams than that in a single week — over 17 million — before it became the most-added record at radio. “That’s on Me” is a story from another era in the music business: Two programmers at a radio station thought they had a hit on their hands and decided to give a previously obscure artist a slot on their playlist.

Beezy released “That’s on Me” in October 2017 during the run-up to November’s Lite Work 2 mixtape. The instrumental came from his go-to producer Shun on da Beat. “It was just something I was playing with,” the rapper says, speaking while also chewing on a Twizzler during the speediest of interviews squeezed between stops at SiriusXM and Tidal in New York City. “I knew it went hard.” Still, he was surprised when “everybody was jamming it. It grew in the streets, the strip clubs.”

Beezy’s team also submitted the song to KBFB. “Myself and my music director Jessi [Salazar] typically make the calls [about what to play],” explains Mark McCray, vice president of programming and operations for both KBFB and Dallas’ R&B station KZMJ. “We get a lot of music that crosses our desks. This one stood out.”

And it does: “That’s on Me” feels as if it could have come out in 2005, before the Internet started to shrink the distance between regional hip-hop variants. “It sounds like a Dallas record,” McCray stresses. “It’s distinctive, that’s one of the things I love about it,” adds Terri Thomas, who added Beezy into rotation on Houston’s the Box after it got major play in Dallas. “It’s not like anybody says, that Yella Beezy record sounds like such and such right now.”

“That’s on Me” is certainly unmistakably Southern — stolid yet scornful, punctuated by a viscous bass line and shrieking sound effects. The creeping keyboards sound like they were played live even if they weren’t. The shriek feels more modern, a cousin of the Kill Bill sample that became popular in Atlanta rap a few years ago.

Initially McCray added “That’s on Me” into his station’s late-night mix-show rotation, which is like a soft opening for a restaurant — a way to test a new song without committing much to it. He was partially torn between two impulses. “To give up a slot on a radio station is a pretty big deal,” McCray says. At the same time, “any time you hear what sounds like a hit record coming out of your hometown, you try to showcase those.” A week later, the second instinct won out, and “That’s on Me” entered prime-time rotation.

Listeners in Dallas responded with enthusiasm: “The Shazams hit Number One,” McCray said. “The record started to research for us pretty instantly.” (Radio stations do what’s known as “call out research,” conducting surveys to figure out how their constituents react to songs.) Soon McCray’s cross-town competitor started playing “That’s on Me” as well.

When Hitco was in the process of signing Beezy, the label brought in Lionel Ridenour, who has been in radio promotions since the early Nineties, to make “That’s on Me” a national hit. (He’s done that before — in 2015, Ridenour helped Rich Homie Quan’s “Flex” go Number One on the airwaves.) Many young artists today dismiss the importance of labels, but Beezy wanted access to veteran radio promotions team. “I wanted to be bigger than where I was,” the rapper says. “I actually want to be somebody.”

Ridenour had a simple game plan to help “That’s on Me” grow. “If it could do the kind of researching and connecting with the audience that it did in Dallas, which is a major market, then there really shouldn’t be a reason why we couldn’t duplicate the same kind of excitement across the country,” he says.

“The Shazam aspect of it was a big key to this record,” he continues. “You put this thing on 20, 25 times in a seven-day period, the Shazams started showing up.” When he explained that to program directors in Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis, they took note. Soon “That’s on Me” was being played in those markets as well.  

It’s never an easy time to break a record at radio, but this summer was particularly challenging — between April and September, nearly every major hip-hop-adjacent artist of note put out an album: from Post Malone to Kanye West to Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Drake to Travis Scott to Eminem. But Ridenour had the luxury of persistence. “A lot of time with the major labels, because you have so much product, they don’t have time to stick with records,” the promoter says. “You gotta keep going with the hottest thing coming down the pipe.” He didn’t have that problem, so he kept pushing “That’s on Me,” and it kept climbing slowly, even if it didn’t earn a “most-added” distinction.

“Every week, we tried to make sure that it grew,” Ridenour says. “We weathered the Drake tsunami.” “That’s on Me” eventually cracked Philadelphia and infiltrated the northeast. By September, Beezy was getting 5,000 plays a week.  

That’s when Beezy got a call from Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s team. “They told me, we don’t have nothing for such-and-such date, we want you to perform at the Beyoncé concert,” he recalls. His response: “Shit, I’m with it.” After playing at the Cowboys stadium in his hometown, Beezy also opened for the two stars in Houston. “In Dallas they just used to me; they more numb to it,” the rapper says. “I ain’t from Houston, so it’s like another star comin’ in [when I play there]. That shit was even more crazy.”

With “That’s on Me” at Number One, Beezy’s team will now turn their attention to “Up One,” the next single, which is the musical equivalent of a runaway truck, more unstoppable with each passing minute. Beezy continues to show his knack for three-syllable hooks that are triumphant as they are succinct, trading in “that’s on me” for “I’m up one.” While the rapper can be laconic, he allows that this song is “high energy.” “I feel like that is gonna be one of ’em,” he says. He’ll release a new album this November as well.

Texas radio programmers are excited about what Beezy’s success means for rap back home. “I love that there are artists out here from Texas that are helping diversify what people think the Texas sound is [aside from just Houston records],” says Thomas. “There’s a music scene in Dallas that doesn’t always get the national attention that it needs,” adds McCray. “It’s good to have somebody out of Dallas break through. We want to make sure that people understand there’s a lot of talent here.”

But there’s a larger takeaway from Beezy’s success, too, one which should be heartening to rappers regardless of whether or not they live in Texas. If Beezy got a hit without a major label budget or a major streaming-service promotion to back him up, so can they.

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Published at Tue, 09 Oct 2018 13:00:45 +0000