Making beats with the best
Austin House remembers staring blankly at his breakfast of waffles and fruit, his stomach in knots, his head fuzzy, after a seven-hour flight to New York City. His thumping heartbeat served as a constant reminder that, in just a few hours, he’d be competing against 11 of the best beatmakers in the country.
The judge? Ryan Lewis, a hip-hop artist and producer with multiple Grammy awards to his credit.
“This is my moment,” House thought. “You get one moment, and this is it.”
He had in his favor an instinct for rhythm and a passion for crafting instrumental tracks. But he knew sheer chance had brought him his two hours of fame in a saturated industry.
In mid-May, a text message from his brother’s girlfriend had alerted him to the “Buffalo Beat Battle,” a music competition hosted by Lewis in conjunction with denim label Buffalo David Bitton. The winner, the contest boasted, would receive $5,000 and a social media shout-out from Lewis.
A beat battle — a musical duel between producers showcasing their work — was new territory for House. But what could he lose?
“I just sat down and entered it quickly, didn’t even really think about it,” he said. Submitting his best beat, he snapped his laptop shut and didn’t give it another thought.
The congratulatory e-mail inviting him to New York caught him off-guard.
“As soon as I knew it was real, I was going,” House said. “No doubt.”
The challenge was creating nine original samples in a mere week.
Unlike the other contestants, House was just launching his label, Homegrown Records. The Dayton native had stumbled into his musical career three years before, as he was finishing high school.
Not called to a single instrument, and intrigued by the backstage aspect, he focused on music technology and theory while attending Clackamas and Lane community colleges.
He gradually accumulated mixing software, and learned how to loop tracks and balance hard kicks with snappy accents. His beats were infused with an ‘80s influence, the result of listening to Eddie Money, Journey and Billie Joel as a child.
“Sometimes there will be a melody in my mind,” he said, “I might start with a drum track and make a loop out of it. Then add some keys, or synth, maybe some horns. Then get the song down and start constructing off of that.”
Ordinarily, it took House a week to polish up a four-minute sample. But the looming battle forced him to hammer out a series of tracks on a tight deadline.
Seven days of intense beatmaking later, his laptop was primed with nine new songs.
A red-eye flight delivered him and his mother to New York City at 5 a.m. on May 21. They worked in a quick breakfast and some rapid sightseeing before heading to MSR Studio, in the heart of Times Square.
In front of the studio’s steel doors, House swapped introductions with the other finalists. The young men were all jittery with nerves, but friendly and excited.
Welcomed into the building, they walked past framed records of artists like Jennifer Lopez, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z on route to a recording room set up just for the contest. When Lewis arrived, dressed casually in a black leather jacket, jeans and a green baseball cap, everyone cheered
“It was just surreal,” House said. “I had no idea what to expect.”
The battle was swift, pitting the musicians against one another in three rounds of elimination. Lewis picked winners, provided feedback and cracked jokes to lighten the mood.
Losing in the first round didn’t faze House. It was easy for him to congratulate Jonathon Eley of Preston, Ga., on the victory.
“It was just amazing to be there,” he said. “It didn’t hit me until the cab ride home: ‘I was just in a huge New York studio with Ryan Lewis, playing my beats for him. Wow.’”
Back at work in his Dayton studio, set up in his parents’ home, House is now preparing to dig deeper into the profession. For starters, he’s hoping to land a music production internship, perhaps in one of the nation’s leading musical meccas.
“Right now, I’m focused on my own music,” he said. “I need to find my own sound and establish myself musically.”
Collaborations with aspiring hip-hop artists in the area, and a strong online presence, will help, he said. And the beat battle gave him faith in his musical creativity and skill.
“With hard work, you can make anything happen,” he said. “But after New York, I knew I could really do it.”
Austin House's SoundCloud page: http://soundcloud.com/austin-house. The beat he submitted to the contest is "HBK Type."
A video on the Buffalo Beat Battle with Ryan Lewis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtV2v2uBZAU