Words: Dominick Brady
“It’s a beautiful day for a road trip!”
DJ Burn One stretches his arms toward the sky. He descends a short flight of steps onto the porch of the house containing the Virginia Highland studio he and his Five Points production team work from, creating coveted mixtapes populating blogs across the Internet. Burn One adjusts his navy blue Zoo York fitted baseball cap before pivoting to face the street, the sun beginning to peak around the corners of a nearby apartment complex. “South by Southwest here we come!”
Burn One and crew are traveling to Austin to network, to touch hands and match faces with the tastemakers and headline-stealers.
“Ya’ll about ready?” Burn One checks the progress of his travel mates stowing luggage. The group is a confederation of collaborators and Five Points production partners he’s worked with over the past year: Walt Live, keyboardist and co-producer of tracks such as Killer Mike’s “God In The Building;” The Professor, engineer and bass player; Ricky Fontaine, guitarist and creator of the “Party Like A Rock Star” riff; P.Watts, a South Carolina rapper and Dee Double, P.Watts’ manager.
It’s 9am and the group is already behind schedule. Burn One is due to meet Birmingham rapper K.D. and his manager “Hollow” of Hollow Entertainment in Birmingham, Alabama at 11am that morning to pick up a 15 seat travel van and complete the 15 hour trip. Taking the reigns, Burn One gently urges the group to pick up the pace as P.Watt’s 7-seater luxury van is quickly brimming with instruments, suitcases, snacks and laptops. He then quickly ducks back into the studio to make sure nothing is forgotten.
The studio is a modest home-studio filled with keyboards, racks of audio gear, guitars, a small couch and a central digital audio workstation. The space is crammed into a back room away from the dog walker and hipster traffic traversing this quiet residential street in the Virginia Highlands. Burn One steps over a stack of “dear neighbor” notes left near the front door by the studio’s neighbors asking his crew to please turn their bass down.
They won’t. Burn One and company are in the business of turning the bass up.
In an era where the music industry has floundered in finding a method for developing artists and defining a cohesive sound–often stalling projects for months and sometimes years at a time–Burn One introduced a frustrated Gucci Mane to the mixtape game before Gucci became the “it” artist Mariah Carey, Kid Sister and others would learn to lean on when eager to add street cred to pop tunes. Burn then went on to not only convince a pre-“Shoulder Lean” Young Dro that he was ready for the mixtape arena, he mined studio hard drives for Dro’s material before hosting and promoting Dro’s first tape.
Since then Burn One has been a pacesetter of sorts. He’s hosted newly signed Maybach music artist Pill’s 4180: The Prescription tape, B.o.B wingman Playboy Tre’s Georgia Durt project with Bohagon, Shady Records’ new kid on the block Yelawolf’s Trunk Music and helmed the boards for Nashville rapper Starlito’s Renaissance Gangster. Along the way, the Burn crafted beats for Jackie Chain, recent CTE signee Freddie Gibbs and helped create the sound for Rittz’s White Jesus, a tape whose success has the artist in negotiations with several labels.
And Burn One has done all this before reaching his 26th birthday.
Andrew “Noz” Nosnitsky, rap critic and contributor to The Fader, Wire magazine and NPR, took notice of Burn One’s youth, “the other thing about Burn One that was striking was when I met him and realized how young he was. I mean dude must’ve been 17-18 when he was doing stuff like Chicken Talk.”
Chicken Talk is a critical entry in the catalog of Gucci Mane, one of the hottest rappers in the music industry with four Billboard charting singles and street cache earning him cold hard cash in feature appearances alone. Burn One was still in high school when he introduced Gucci Mane to the idea of making a mixtape, he explains, “I got with Gucci like right after he did ‘So Icy.’ As soon as he got out of jail I said (to Gucci) ‘Yo let’s do a tape!’ He was like ‘No, no I just want to work on my album.’”
Time passed and Gucci’s situation changed.
“Three months later his relationship with Big Kat went sour. They were trying to come out with an album he (Gucci) didn’t want to put out so he was like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s put out own shit.’ I was a senior in high school doing that. I was still driving my dad’s pickup truck.”
It’s 9:30 am and stuck in traffic, running painfully behind schedule, Burn One gets news of trouble with the 15-seat van’s reservation in Alabama. The group of Austin pilgrims arrive in Alabama an hour behind schedule, winding through West Birmingham ‘s twisting roads in search of rapper K.D. and his manager Hollow. Birmingham’s K.D. and Columbia, South Carolina’s P.Watts are two rappers in what has become a diverse roster of talent Burn One has chosen to associate with.
Working directly with artists began nine years ago for DJ Burn One while working at Super Sound Music, an Atlanta record store chain. “A guy who used to come to my store–who actually had a website–’29’ from IAP-TV.com, he was like; ‘Drama’s doing this mixtapes with exclusives. Why don’t you try it?’” He recalls. “I was like, ‘alright.’”
“It just happened to be that Xtacy, T.I.’s girl group. They went to my high school and were like two years older than me. They just happened to come in (to the store) one day and I ended up talking to them and got T.I. to do some drops.”
That became his jumping off point. From there Burn One was able to spend time around Grand Hustle studios, learn about production techniques and motivate Young Dro to create a mixtape. It took some time.
Burn One tells the story, “I had to wait a month-and-a-half. I went up there (to Grand Hustle) every day for a month-and-a-half but nobody was paying attention to him. I liked that shit and I believed that he could do something. He wasn’t even interested in doing a tape. He didn’t even care about doing it. ‘Shoulder Lean’ hadn’t come out at this time. He was just like, ‘I’m signed with T.I. This is cool,’ but he was recording a lot of dope shit so I would just sit up there and pick through everything that he did, grabbed it all together and we put the shit out.”
Burn One’s got an ear for talent Nosnitsky says, “I trust Burn One’s taste. I like how he’s able to keep an eye to the past and be cognizant of a lot of Southern rap history without ever feeling completely nostalgic or revivalist–like that one RittZ song where he brought back the DJ Zirk Memphis pitch-shifted 808s. He’s a real student of the production game.”
On the ride to Austin Burn One’s latest project, a compilation called Joints, is blaring through the speakers. The 15-seat van rental didn’t work out. Hollow and K.D. are forced to squeeze into P.Watt’s seve-seat van, already at capacity. Gear is shifted and room is made as, with me included, 9 men head 13 hours south by southwest to Austin discussing Southern rap music history and the music industry. “Fuck the radio,” says K.D. “This is Country Rap Tunes,” he continues in disgust at what sort of Southern rap is able to make it to the airwaves.
Burn One and his Five Points production team are looking to create an independent path to success. They choose not to wait on record labels or on radio. “What we’re doing right now is demo tapes. We’re helping artists get signed. Nobody is going to invest in Rittz. Who’s going to invest in Rittz right off the bat? Nobody is getting signed off of actual demos anymore. So we’re like, ‘fuck it.’ If you don’t want to invest in it? Fine. We’ll invest in ourselves.”
6th Street in Austin is a collection of hippies, hipsters, backpackers, tourists and punk rockers on Thursday. The nine-man ensemble weaves through waves of pedestrian traffic to hobnob with fellow musicians, producers and journalists. They have arrived.
“The end game is to put together albums for people we believe in,” states Burn One.
That’s exactly what he’s doing.
Dominick Brady is a freelance multi-platform journalist currently based in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. He is also owner of Abenghorn Media Productions or “A.M.P”. You can find him in the “A,” online at www.dominickbrady.com or on Twitter, Twitter.com/DomBrady.