Matt Price is a small, unassuming 29-year-old who graduated from the classics department at UC Berkeley, and wound up producing hit songs for rappers. His proudest accomplishment? The song "Wake It Up" by local kingpin E-40 and Senegalese R&B singer Akon. Price made the beat, a heavily-synthesized four-chord smear that bolsters Akon's chirpy alto against a backdrop of handclaps and metallic bleeps. It was one of the first tracks he ever sent to E-40, shortly after getting the rapper's e-mail address from a mutual friend, the Oakland emcee Shake da Mayor. One morning at 7 a.m., Price's phone rang. "Matt Price, you know who this is?" said the bubbly voiced rapper on the other end. "I like what you're doing," said E-40. "Keep 'em coming."
Fans lined up around the block to meet E-40 at Rasputin Music in Berkeley last Tuesday, the day of his latest album release. At 6 p.m. the place was packed. By the time Price arrived at 6:45 p.m., he couldn't squeeze through the mob. He had to watch E-40 perform "Wake It Up," along with older hits "Tell Me When to Go" and "Sprinkle Me," through a store window. When the music stopped Price bought a copy of 40's new CD — nineteen club-oriented tracks with a newspaper-themed cover, called The Ball Street Journal — and got in line with everyone else. He was quickly spotted by Oakland emcee Big Dan from the group Brown Buffalo. "Hey everybody, you know who this is?" Dan yelled, pointing at Price. "That motherfucker made 'Wake It Up'!"
"So that was funny," the softspoken Price recalled. "And after that like, people were getting my autograph and taking pictures with me."
Fizzy percussion, hooky melodies, and an implied rise or bridge section are all hallmarks of Price's production style, which recalls new wave songs of the '80s but also says something about the current preferences of Bay Area rappers, who now opt for a more digitized, electronic sound palette. Few local beatmakers can match Price's sophistication, a fact one might attribute to his background.
Born in Davis, California, Price started piano lessons at age four and switched over to bass in middle school. As a teen Price played in several garage bands and eventually, the high school jazz ensemble. In ninth grade he began volunteering at the UC Davis radio station KDVS, and quickly landed his own indie rock and hip-hop show, which aired Wednesday afternoons for three years. At Cal he played upright bass in the campus chamber orchestra, studied contemporary electronic music at the Center for New Music and Technology, and took an improv class with Professor Steve Coleman, a well-known free-jazz saxophonist. He gigged around town with small jazz combos and a salsa band. In the end, Price parlayed all that training into hip-hop, a form for which classical conceptions of musicianship rarely apply.
Ultimately, Price got seduced by the genre. Not so much for its lyrics or the subculture it generated, as for the visceral quality of its backbeat. "I liked the beat," Price said. "I liked the rhythm. That's the primary thing." In 1999 Price sold his computer to buy an ASRX Beatbox — a combination sampler and drum machine that's similar to an MPC. He wrote the rest of his Latin papers at the UC Berkeley computer labs and spent his free time making beats. Price started attending underground hip-hop shows and endeared himself to a lot of local backpacker and "mobb" groups. He graduated from the classics department in 2002, got a new computer, and became a full-time hip-hop producer shortly thereafter. Price treated his new career with the same rigor and self-discipline he'd had as a kid learning classical piano, dutifully making one beat a day even though most of them languished in his computer files.
For several years Price remained a behind-the-scenes man in the backpacker hip-hop world, producing cuts for spoken-word rapper Ise Lyfe, DJ True Justice, Los Rakas, and three-emcee outfit, the Attik. He started dumping beats at the studio of a low-budget "blockumentary" film producer named Damon Jamal, who used a couple in his film soundtracks, and fielded the rest off to local rappers. Price made no royalties from any of the exchanges. What he did make was connections, first with Jamal's associate Shake Da Mayor, and then with E-40, who Price began courting in 2007, in what became a protracted but pretty one-sided e-mail correspondence. Then came "Wake It Up."
Ever the Cal liberal arts major, Price has formulated a few theses about why backpacker hip-hop fizzled out in 2002 (something to do with the dot-com bubble) and why hyphy flopped a couple years ago (he thinks it's loosely connected to the degenerate housing market). The one thing he knows for sure is that hip-hop is definitely veering in a new, more electronic direction. The once-glamorous figure of the unadorned freestyle emcee has been supplanted by a new fetish for machines — busy, synthetic drum patterns, voices modulated by Autotune software, beats fractured by tiny bleeps and blips. Price can see how the medium has evolved just by looking at his after-school classes in Oakland Unified School District, where he has taught for four years, in conjunction with B.U.M.P. Records. "A couple years ago I'd have a couple kids who just wanted to rap and do nothing else. It's not like that anymore. ... It's not really seen as a viable way up. They're still interested in making beats, but there aren't as many rappers."
Goofy as it seemed, the hyphy movement marked Bay Area rappers' biggest success since '90s-era gangsta rap. It was the one point when local artists not only caught up with national trends, but also added their own personal stamp. Price remains grateful for hyphy, since it freed up his production style (he can now make uptempo crunk beats and incorporate power-pop chord changes, without sacrificing marketability), and made a lasting impression on Bay Area hip-hop. And Price isn't the only one who's had a hard time giving it up. E-40's new Ball Street Journal shores up the production and rap style that made his 2006 "hyphy" album a hit; in many ways, the new joint is really just a continuation of the last one.
Still, times are hard for anyone in Bay Area hip-hop — even the man behind the curtain. Like many established producers, Price slings beats for about $1,500 a pop. He gets an advance and will then depend on licensing fees (from radio spins, cell phone ring tones, and video game placement, if he's lucky) for supplemental income. At a time when only a couple Bay Area rappers are currently making hits, and the amount of fledgling producers keeps growing, people of Price's ilk are quickly getting driven out of their jobs. Last weekend, Price packed up all the equipment in his Jackson Street apartment, in preparation for a December move to Los Angeles. Only a few months have passed since "Wake It Up" debuted on local hip-hop radio stations, and already, the scene here is looking pretty grim. Price thinks he can make better industry connections down south.
In the meantime, Price's breakthrough single is ubiquitous, and will probably outlive him in the Bay Area. "It's kind of funny, like I went to a bar last night and when I walked in they were playing 'Wake It Up,'" said Price, tired from a long day of packing his equipment into boxes. "It's kind of like a calling card now."