Rising up

Dig this: Detroit producer Nick Speed has crafted beats for such superstars as 50 Cent and Talib Kweli. And, considering his family background, no one should be surprised.

"I didn't understand the importance to these things till I got older," Speed says of his past. "At the time, it was just what pops did."

See, Speed's pop was a bit of a trailblazer in the entertainment industry. While living in California, he compiled the first black music charts for Black Popular Rhythms in 1978. He later moved the family to Washington, D.C., where he created Video Soul, a show broadcast on Black Entertainment Television (BET).

While living in D.C, the 4-year-old Speed got bit by the media bug himself; one day his mother took him to a barbershop where a worker noticed Speed was well-spoken. He suggested the kid audition for a kids-only radio show. Speed landed the gig, which saw him conducting interviews with various celebs, including then-President Ronald Reagan.

"We'd do a story on break dancers or one on South Africa," Speed says. "And then I'd interview a clown or something like that on the same show." The program played music by such artists as Run-DMC and LL Cool J between segments — and that's exactly what sparked Speed's interest in music.

"I had this idea in mind that since I was the youngest on-air personality [at the station], I wanted to teach myself how to DJ and create music. But the records were always there, right from the beginning, because my dad got the free promos. We had music from before I was even born in the house."

Though Speed's family had much going for them in D.C., the death of his maternal grandmother prompted a Detroit move. What initially was a bereavement visit here became a permanent family relocation.

While in the Detroit school system, the aspiring hip hopper began DJing and writing raps in seventh grade. He took rap seriously by high school.

Speed: "Once I started composing verses and examining them inside and out, that's the point when I decided, 'I'm going to do this.' I studied every rapper and DJ I felt were great, tried to figure out what made me react and how they did it. ..."

He rhymed at school and at area talent shows, DJ'd in his spare time, and became more serious about creating beats. One day he met budding producer and record-store clerk DJ House Shoes at Street Corner Records (where his dad also worked). The pair became friends and began creating beats together.

"I would visit him every Saturday and we would just do our thing," Speed says. "And I'd always go home with a tape that had four or five beats that we made in that one day."

Soon, Speed formed the local group 925 Colony — which also featured area emcees Magestik Legend and iLLite, but the latter was soon replaced by Elzhi. He also made beats for other Detroit artists to build his catalog and create buzz. He executive produced and made beats for Elzhi's Witness My Growth, a critically acclaimed double-disc mixtape released in '04. But while other producers would normally create their tunes using keyboards, Speed played his melodies on beat machines (the BR5 early on, then the MPC later), which gave his beats a unique twist.

"That made me different," Speed says. "That's when I realized that I had my own style. And so I decided to start highlighting what was original about me. I decided to push those sounds to the front and let the sounds dominate within the track."

That sound led to his "big break." During visits to New York City, where he networked and circulated his music, one of his contacts ended up shopping his beats to execs at G-Unit, the group headed by superstar 50 Cent. After listening in on a three-way phone call between his original contact and the G-Unit exec who was praising his work, Speed met with the crew in Detroit. Hence, Speed signed with G-Unit Records as an in-house producer; he eventually signed with then-G-Unit pres Sha Money XL to be his manager.

"To me, especially around that time, they had some of the hottest beats around." Speed says. "They knew what a hot beat was and it became a blessing to be part of that system, man. It definitely opens doors. It's one of the strongest brand names in rap, so it's an honor and I'm thankful to be part of it. It's simply an unspoken high-profile endorsement that lets everybody know I've got product."

Since then, Speed has gotten killer placements, including 50 Cent's "What If" from the Get Rich or Die Tryin' soundtrack and Talib Kweli's "New York Weather Report." What's more, G-Unit emcee Lloyd Banks' Rotten Apple album included a Speed-produced song called "Stranger," and Speed says a premature Internet leak of that album spotlighted five of his beats. While he didn't see coin from those illegally leaked songs, Speed was grateful his material got so much mainstream love.

"It was surprising to see that people were feeling my production like that, especially when it was by others who make hits for a living," he says. "I started looking at it in a totally different way at that point. Instead of thinking about the money, I began concentrating more on just making sure it sounds as good as possible. You never know where they might be playing one of my beats. They could be playing it at Sony Studios. Beyoncé could be listening to one of my beats right now."

But, much like those who've influenced him, including the late J Dilla and peers Black Milk and Denaun Porter, Speed continues to make music with the numerous Michiganders in his circle.

And why not? Speed created beats for D12 members Proof and Bizarre's solo projects, and his beat for "Nightmares" was a standout on Phat Kat's 2007 Carte Blanche album. Last year he even released a two-disc compilation, D-Tour, as an audio résumé of his career highlights so far. It also featured numerous unreleased mixes.

Last summer Speed dropped Hot Soup, an album with Detroit emcee Danny Brown, which pays homage to Detroit's historical music scene by sampling Motown, electronic and other genres that originated here. Model 500, the techno group sampled on Danny Brown's flagship song "Whattupdoe," was so pleased with Nick Speed's work on that project that they pegged him to executive produce their next album. And Speed just completed As Seen On TV, a beat tape that samples YouTube audio splices. Since, he's placed beats with stalwarts Little Brother and Idle Worship, among others. In fact, Speed talked about recent developments with Time Life, which is developing a syndicated radio program based on Let Freedom Sing, a three-disc compilation that the company's doing about the civil rights movement. Speed's tapped to contribute to the show. He also plans to work with filmmaker Notion Tha Bartender on American Manufacturing, a visual project that contrasts and compares the Motor City's once-thriving auto industry with its hip-hop scene.

"I definitely know I've got a full plate," Speed says. "But to be all over the place like this is just amazing. It's crazy what a high-profile endorsement can get you." And then he laughs, and says, "but it's all just a stepping stone, so we can get to that award show level. It's a wonderful thing and I'm just glad that people here appreciate it. It's still going to be a fun ride, man."

William E. Ketchum III is a music journalist for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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