Beatmaker’s Corner: Carns Hill

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Hyperfrank

In the expansive world of UK rap, you’d be hard-pressed to find harder-working music-makers than the men behind the boards—those who create the soundscapes for rappers to slew, and make them sound as amazing as possible. Producers often don’t get the praise they deserve, perhaps because there aren’t as many of them as there are rappers, but that is all about to change. Because rapping and production go hand-in-hand to create a moment of magic, and in an evolving scene full of movers, shakers and shelly beatmakers, the latter are going through a renaissance of greatness.

One particular producer we should be giving flowers to right now is Carns Hill, the soft-spoken, prolific vibe supplier for your favourite road rappers. Over a decade spent in the game, he has found a heap of fame recently, producing hood classics for the likes of 67, Youngs Teflon, Blade Brown and Reeko Squeeze. Though affiliated with these artists, he hasn’t allowed that to limit his sound—which is just as accustomed to menacing road rap as it is to frantic drill. Carns dropped his debut album proper, OT3, in February 2015, followed by Family First in January of this year—a sprawling, 23-track opus which featured guest verses from some of the newer names in the scene, including Reekz MB, 86, K-Trap and more. Carns is an ever-evolving artist, ready and willing to take risks in order to expand his sonics, and he refuses to be pinned down by trends. It’s now safe to say that he is respected in his own right, and a Carns beat (with that killer tagline) is in high demand.

It’s impossible to pin down his sound, which is just how he likes it. “I try to be as different as possible,” he says. “Whatever is popping or current, I kind of stray away from it and just do my own thing. I can’t, or wouldn’t, really describe my sound—it’s just whatever sounds good to me, is where I want to go. I don’t try to generalise my music. I don’t specifically make drill or trap or anything like that; whoever I’m working with, I try and tailor towards their sound.” To illustrate his point further, the producer retells a story of one of the many occasions in which he has worked with Brixton Hill’s baddest, 67. “Even working with a crew like that,” he says, “I’d tell them that I’m gonna make beats at 67bpm and we kind of just developed a new sound around that, and drill just got attached to it. I would call it drill, but I also think I’m different from that.”

Carns today can be viewed, to some degree, as a pioneer—someone who is so forward thinking as to build a sonic wall around the infamous crew which, in turn, has infiltrated the scene with aplomb. You now see the 67 sound evident in other prominent drill groups—86, Harlem Spartans and 150, to name a few—and it’s this vision that continues to make Carns so relevant.

“My family’s quite musical. DJ Q is my cousin—I’ve got other cousins who sing as well—so it was always a thing that I would be at piano and guitar lessons.”

This desire not to be pinned down stems from youth: growing up in Brixton Hill, the young producer was encouraged to express his musical side from early. “My family’s quite musical,” he tells me. “DJ Q is my cousin—I’ve got other cousins who sing as well—so it was always a thing that I would be at piano and guitar lessons. I would listen to anything and play along to anything, even the EastEnders tune. But the music I really took to was when Coolio came out with “Gangsta’s Paradise”, and The Fugees. We had a Videotron as well so I could stay up until 12 to watch Yo! MTV Raps, because you didn’t see a lot of black people on TV at the time. When I got older, I just gravitated more towards hip-hop.”

On the receiving end of arguably hip-hop’s greatest era, it was one producer in particular that decided Carns’ career for him. “In the ‘90s, Timbaland was crazy,” he continues. “[Producing for] Missy Elliot, Aaliyah, Da Brat and all of that, [his beats] were always different to everything that was out. You would sometimes hear the beat and then he would be beatboxing. Like, what the fuck? It was so structured. When I was in school, that was my guy—from the sounds to the samples, he was a big influence for me growing up.” Discovering music software in secondary school, Carns took up what would become his life, taking inspiration from his earlier influences but, over time, being able to truly study the game and craft the elements that would distinguish him from the pack, while allowing him to reinvent his sound at every turn. Describing his creative process, Carns keeps it short and sweet: “I start with a blank mind and then go from there, see what happens. If I don’t like it, I just delete it and start again.”

2009, with the release of his OT mixtape—a project he curated by laying down tracks with Youngs Teflon, Blade Brown, Mental K and others—and the seminal Hollow Meets Blade collaboration between Giggs and Brown, was an important year for Carns Hill. The latter put his beats on the map, while the former outed him as a real creative. On OT, you could hear the early genesis of what would become the next phase of UK rap, and it was blared out at the back of buses throughout London most mornings on the way to school. In the UK, you would find it difficult to find one man who can channel so many talents into one project, but Carns has and continues to do so. Almost like a DJ Khaled figure, his approach to each artist he works with is streamlined for them, and only them. “Everyone is different,” he says. “Everyone has their own energy, so I have to deal with everyone differently. Blade, for example, may be more experienced with studio sessions and have a different technique to everyone else or to less-experienced rappers, so I basically have to cater to everyone’s different styles.”

“I start with a blank mind and then go from there, see what happens. If I don’t like it, I just delete it and start again.”

The OT series has gone from strength to strength, with a second and third edition in 2013 and 2015 respectively, as Carns continues to round up the best of the crop from the UK underground. Fast forward to 2017 and his Family First album has carried on the legacy, enlisting the new generation of spitters to flex their muscles. Listening to it, you hear standout performances from 67, Reekz MB and K-Trap, and you need no further proof that Carns is an expert at what he does. He tells me, “I like my music to reflect real life and to have substance—whether that’s a good or bad message—and that’s what I strive for. Because I have a lot of rappers around me, I would say it does influence my music.”

Carns’ visibility and popularity has risen to the highest it has probably been over the last year, helped by having his hands over some serious heat. Take 67’s “Take It There” and “redruM reverse” or Youngs Teflon’s “Me Again” for his regular lean towards dark, sinister rap that sounds like the streets are talking. He hopes his movements can encourage the next batch of producers to focus on the craft of making beats, especially in a scene where rappers are in abundance. “I’ve always felt as though there are far more rappers than producers,” says Carns, “but it’s definitely changing. People are starting to see that you can be a producer instead of a rapper or a singer to get into music; it’s good to see people’s eyes are open to this.” His words are telling because, when you step back and think about it, he has had a hand in the careers of so many artists, which speaks to his skills as a producer entirely. But a higher number of producers may have, perhaps, levelled the playing field and prevented such things occurring. Carns, however, has taken every opportunity thrown at him, using them to advance both himself and the culture he continues to serve.

The future promises more experimentation with Carns Hill’s sound, and taking it further (his upcoming SRB: Seperation Confirmed project will speak to this). There’s also a real desire not to follow the herd, or the space of familiar sounds that dominate raves and the airwaves. Instead, he remains resolute in pushing those sounds in different directions and frequencies, ultimately retaining his now-affirmed status as the scene’s resident shapeshifter.

Posted on October 11, 2017