A few years ago, before anyone knew his name, before rap artists from all over the country started hitting him up for music, the rap producer Lex Luger, born Lexus Lewis, now age 20, sat down in his dad’s kitchen in Suffolk, Va., opened a sound-mixing program called Fruity Loops on his laptop and created a new track. It had a thunderous canned-orchestra melody, like an endless loop of some bombastic moment from Wagner or Danny Elfman; a sternum-rattling bass line; and skittering electronic percussion that brought to mind artillery fire. When the track was finished, he e-mailed it to a rapper named Waka Flocka Flame. Luger had recently spent a few months in Atlanta with Waka, sequestered in a basement, producing most of the music for Waka’s debut album. Waka had asked him for one more beat, one that could potentially be the album’s first single.
Months later, Luger — who says he was “broke as a joke” by that point, about to become a father for the second time and seriously considering taking a job stocking boxes in a warehouse — heard that same beat on the radio, transformed into a Waka song called “Hard in da Paint.” Before long, he couldn’t get away from it.
When radio stations got their hands on another Luger-produced track — “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” by Miami’s Rick Ross — suddenly everyone was calling Luger, asking for his own “Hard in da Paint” or “Blowin’ Money Fast.” Luger’s beats were everywhere, fueling hit songs by people you’ve heard of (Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z) and innumerable underground mix tapes by people you haven’t heard of (street-famous rappers like Fat Trel, Lil Scrappy and OJ Da Juiceman).
And then last year, Kanye West summoned Luger to New York, to Electric Lady Studios in the West Village. Kanye wanted a Lex Luger beat or two for his fifth album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Kanye set Lex up in a downstairs room, where Lex knocked out a drum track for the M.B.D.T.F. bonus cut “See Me Now,” and by the time he got back upstairs, Kanye had thrown Lex’s beat under a newly recorded vocal by Beyoncé Knowles — who was there in the room, sitting in a chair next to Jay-Z.
You made it now, Lex remembers Jay-Z saying. You got Beyoncé bopping to your beats.
Lex didn’t know whether to hug her or shake her hand. He went with the hug.
It happens about once a year in hip-hop production: someone invents or perfects a sound, someone figures out how to get a weird noise out of some piece of technology not designed to make that noise, someone figures out a way to make a drum machine say the same old thing with a different accent and the whole rap world tilts on its axis. If you manage to change the beat — if your sound drifts upstream from mix tapes to pop radio, if it becomes the only thing anybody wants to hear — you can change hip-hop. In the ’90s, Dr. Dre slowed gangsta rap down to a cruising-lowrider pace, creating music for which a cocky drawl is the ideal lead instrument, and Snoop Dogg became a star. Lex Luger’s sound helped elevate Rick Ross, who pounds haikulike syllables into the spaces in the music, and Waka Flocka Flame, a pure-energy rapper who just blows the house in.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, inside Black Label, a bunkerlike recording studio in Hampton, Va., Luger crumbled little brussels-sprout buds of marijuana into the husk of a Swisher Sweets cigar. He had his black Compaq laptop jacked into the mammoth recording console on the other side of the room and was using an old copy of Billboard as a mouse pad, moving his mouse back and forth on Enrique Iglesias’s face, clicking through folders. Because he turns out music at an assembly-line clip (while really, really stoned), sometimes he’ll forget about a beat entirely until it turns up on the radio as somebody’s new single. But these days he’s trying to stay organized, to keep track of which rappers he has sent which beats to: he’s got a folder for Drake, and one for DJ Drama, and one for 2 Chainz, and one for Gangsta Boo.
Luger isn’t the first Southern rap producer to pair rattling, lawn-sprinkler-ish percussion with ominous synthesized orchestration — he has mostly been working within an established subgenre known as “trap music,” a reference to “the trap,” a slang term for a location where drugs are peddled. The trap sound is harsher and grimmer than other Southern hip-hop; it evolved to suit the morally relativist crack-sales narratives of trap rappers like Young Jeezy. But in Luger’s hands, the sound has become even more grandiose, almost operatic. It’s dope-slinging music that somehow evokes greater crimes — like regicide, maybe. Luger cranks trap music’s booming meanness to the point of absurdity and dares you to laugh.
The minute a hip-hop producer establishes a signature sound, his challenge is to prove that sound doesn’t define him — and to stay ahead of his imitators. The fact that Lex managed to define the sound of a moment in hip-hop with nothing but a laptop and a software program that retails for $250 makes him particularly vulnerable to copycats. Search his name on YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of instructional videos by bedroom producersdemonstrating just how easy it is to knock out a Lex Luger-style beat (and a few of Lex himself doing the same).
I got to see just how easy it is on the second day I spent at the studio with Luger. He began by playing a four-note melody in a series of different electronic voices — an Enya-like perfume-cloud swoosh and a harsher techno-y synthesizer bark. He has what seems like a million sounds loaded into this laptop: sampled snippets from “The Flintstones” (“This is a long-distance call from Bedrock!”) and pneumatic-door-hiss/explosion noises instantly identifiable as “Star Wars” sound effects. Every drum sound has a weird code name: SsoHatClosed3, H Emotive, Rattle Chop, Slapper Knock, Bongo4, Torture Rack Kick, TrapWhistle1. When he scrolls through the menu, it’s like listening to the world’s weirdest band tuning up, like a closetful of cartoon props tumbling onto the floor.
As it turned out, this was some of the last music he’d make in Fruity Loops; not long after we met, he announced on Twitter that he’s switching over to the fancier sound-mixing program Pro Tools and an awesomely named device called Maschine. On this day, though, he worked Fruity Loops like a virtuoso. He exhaled a baseball-size puff of smoke and clicked the mouse a few times, and a bamboo-flute sound filled the room, like a kung-fu-movie soundtrack. Four notes. “I was just playing,” he said, “and that just came out. And that’s a loop. It didn’t even take a minute. And that’s all I really need, right there, to start a beat.”
He laid down more tracks on top of it: big, menacing low-end strings, an echoed-out needle-across-vinyl scratch. Toggled through more effects: GunCock2, Luger Slap Clap, Slapper Knock. Silenced the flute loop and punched up an ominous horror-movie keyboard part, like the score John Carpenter wrote for “Halloween.” And he started doing a little chair-dance, shrugging his shoulders and clicking from window to window — if you couldn’t hear the playback hammering through the speakers or see the screen of Lex’s laptop, the way he moved would be the only thing that indicated he was making music rather than, say, checking his e-mail.
The whole thing was done in less than half an hour. Lex saved the file and took a bite of pizza, and six minutes later he had another beat in progress, with the “Star Wars” light-saber-clash sound buried somewhere in it. I clocked this one on my iPhone. It was done in 22 minutes. I relayed this to Lex.
“Twenty-two minutes?” he said, incredulous. “Pssssh. I’m gettin’ old.”
The next one took 18:58.
At the end of the Wednesday mixing session, Luger paid J. R., the studio manager, with A.T.M.-fresh cash, plus a chunk of herb, like a tip, and we took off. Outside, a thunderstorm had just blown over, and it felt as if the air had been power-washed. I wanted to see what a day in the life of a 20-year-old guy who happens to be hip-hop’s hottest beat maker was like, so we drove to Norfolk in a burgundy Expedition with Lex’s buddy 2K at the wheel, Lex in the back, gutting another Swisher cigar. He can’t say how many he smokes a day. He does say it keeps him focused. Or unfocused in the right way. Open to inspiration.
Lex’s own music played on the stereo: Wiz Khalifa’s “Errday,” featuring Juicy J, off Wiz’s “Cabin Fever” mix tape. “Foreign cars, that’s errday/A million off a tour, that’s errday/Hundred broads, that’s errday/Gettin’ this money livin’ large in every way.”
Trying to nail down some chronology, I asked Lex about a magazine article that said he was from Milwaukee. How did he get from there to here?
He laughed. “I’ve never been to Milwaukee,” he said. “Lots of people ask me that. I ain’t never been to Milwaukee. I don’t know how that got out there.”
He’s sensitive about this only because he’s the first real hip-hop star to come out of Suffolk. The producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo — the Neptunes — are also from Virginia, and Timbaland and Missy Elliott, too. “But they’re from, like, this part,” Luger said, motioning with his blunt at the well-manicured landscape passing outside the car — nice public pools, churches, white people watering their lawns. “Suffolk is country. The countryest, out of all of ’em. Like, this, right here, we ain’t used to this, where we from. We got none of this, where we from.”
Growing up, Lex drummed in church bands, then got his hands on a PlayStation game called MTV Music Generator 3, which had an interface not unlike the Fruity Loops program. He started making beats that sounded like “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” a beguilingly skeletal track the Neptunes made for Snoop Dogg, full of pop-click drums and little else.
Luger graduated from the PlayStation to an MPC sampler, which lets you assign snippets of sound to a panel of drum pads and was, for years, kind of the Fender Stratocaster of hip-hop production equipment. But then his friend Black — short for his rap name, Ur Boy Black — came back to Suffolk from North Carolina with a pirated copy of Fruity Loops. (A few years back, the company that makes this program ran afoul of Kellogg’s and changed the name of the software to FL Studio, but nobody I met in Virginia calls it anything except Fruity Loops.) That copy got copied. For a while after that, everybody in Suffolk was a hip-hop producer. “Everybody had [producer] names and everything,” Black told me. “It was funny.”
Most of them gave it up, but Lex stayed with it. He’d found his instrument. He could make a beat in five minutes and sit there for four hours fine-tuning it. Fruity Loops could stop time.
Working every day after school and all day every weekend wasn’t enough. Lex dropped out of high school after 10th grade to do music full time. He heard about artists getting record deals on the strength of MySpace exposure, so he started posting music there. He started cold e-mailing rappers and sending them beats. One of them was Waka Flocka Flame, who wrote him back. So Lex sent him hundreds of beats. Eventually Waka flew him out to Atlanta, and Luger spent months in the basement of his house, making hundreds more. Sometimes they’d play video games or watch the old movies piled up by the TV (“Friday,” “CB4,” “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood”), but they didn’t have Internet access — the 21st-century version of woodshedding.
On the drive to Norfolk, Luger pointed out some houses on the water with little boat docks. He’s got one of those now — five rooms, enough for him and his girlfriend and his two daughters. (The desktop image on his iPad is a picture of the younger one, in baby Ray-Bans, drinking a bottle, cool as hell.) He’s got a little dock, too.
We pulled up to Jay (Jaydaman) Coston’s place, a one-story house in Norfolk, shutters drawn, A.D.T. security sign on a spike in the lawn. Coston, along with his sister, Amy Lockhart, manage VABP, short for Virginia Boyz Productionz, the rap group Lex founded with a couple of his friends from high school a few years back. Lex made a lot of his most famous beats in the shed behind Coston’s house. To get to the shed, you have to traverse a mud puddle on a couple of swaybacked two-by-fours. Once we were inside, I realized I’d seen this room before, in an amazing YouTube clip called “Lex Luger Secret Formula for Making Beats,” in which Lex sits in a crappy office chair in a cluttered room that looks like a college-radio studio and bangs out a completed track in about 11 minutes.
As it happened, we were on the Internet at that very moment. Coston — a big guy in his early 30s — was doing a live Ustream broadcast. I hoped that Lex would jump on the laptop and that I’d get to watch him make a beat right there, but this was just a social call. Everybody crowded around the webcam for a minute — I caught a glimpse of myself in the background and slinked self-consciously out of frame — and then another blunt was sparked, and Lex and his crew smoked away another chunk of the afternoon.
I took notes on the décor. Shapeless couch cushions. Prison-oatmeal carpeting. Empty Ciroc vodka bottles — VABP have a song called “Ciroc Boyz” — assembled shrinelike on a shelf. There was a Dirt Devil vacuum in the corner, but it didn’t look as if it got a lot of use; if it’s possible for a home appliance to look depressed, this one did.
Then, with Jay driving the Expedition, we were off to Virginia Beach Boulevard, to this car shop Lex frequents, where we stared like chin-stroking art-gallery types at some really beautiful old “box Chevys” — square-bodied ’70s Caprices, painstakingly pimped, their trunks full of bass-cannon stereo equipment, their paint jobs rain-beaded like a Photoshop texture-tool demo. Lex went inside the rim shop next door to goggle at enormous chrome hubcaps, and I stood in the parking lot looking at the cars and thinking about lowrider culture making its way from Southwestern pachucos and L.A. hot rodders in the ’50s all the way to black Virginia in 2011, and the idea of workaday vehicles being transformed into one-of-a-kind objects by craftsmen creating within a set of very specific parameters and sold to guys who just want to drive around looking cool, and about the kind of music Luger makes, and how it’s like a factory-direct car customized in a way that doesn’t make sense as art to people who can’t perceive the subtle interplay of formula and flourish.
Some aspiring Jeff Foxworthy stopped at the light in a subcompact held together by what looked like masking tape. He took in this group of young, heavily tattooed African-Americans on the sidewalk and yelled, “Y’all got a gang or somethin’?” Everybody laughed; one of the car-shop guys gave him the finger as he drove off.
By nightfall Lex and Black and most of the other members of VABP were back in Suffolk, hanging out in the immaculate living room — vacuum tracks in velvety red carpeting — of Amy Lockhart’s house. They drank Alizé cognac in plastic cups, along with “dirty Sprite.” (Recipe: combine vodka and Sprite in half-empty Sprite bottle, serve.) Amy is a registered nurse who works for the Navy in Portsmouth, taking care of military families. Her son, a tall guy with shoulder-length dreads who goes by the rap name Kapital, was one of the kids trooping over to Lex’s house to record raps back in the day. Once VABP coalesced as a group and Amy found out how serious they were, found out they’d already laid a hundred songs to tape over Lex’s beats, she agreed to become their manager.
“I got to thinking,” she said, “that if I help them with this, it’ll keep them off the streets, and they won’t get in any trouble.” This got a huge laugh from the room; it’s clear that in one form or another, all these guys have been sneaking past Amy, God bless her, for years.
From a back bedroom, Amy produced mementos. A poster-size blowup of the cover of VABP’s first mix tape — all the guys, younger and goofier, making their best scary-guy faces — and a picture of Lex and Kapital with their dates at the King’s Fork High School Masquerade Ball Ring Dance in December 2007. “He was a lot heavier then,” Amy said of her son, and everybody except Kapital almost fell off the furniture laughing. In the photo Lex has his hands on the hips of a pretty girl in a seafoam dress. His expression is sour, as if he’s embarrassed to be there. He’s making the same face on the cover of VABP’s CD.
I got it, suddenly — he’s shy. Maybe less so now that he’s found something he’s good at, realized some rewards, signed some autographs — but he’s still not Kanye. He’s a hip-hop star who wouldn’t be a hip-hop star without the Internet. He has the tunnel vision of a hard-core gamer or a programmer, someone who can wire into an interface and shut off his perception of time’s passage — someone who feels more comfortable doing that than he does living in the world. And having his picture taken and answering questions about his craft ultimately takes him out of the zone where he’s most comfortable, the one where everything else falls away and it’s him and the screen and the beat.
As for his signature orchestral bombast, Luger’s sick of it already. It has made him incredibly successful, but he can’t listen to a lot of his big hits anymore. He doesn’t go to the clubs that often, but when he does, all he hears is his own music. Either his stuff or other people trying to do what he does.
“Everybody’s trapped in the trap sound,” he told me on the day we met. “I’m trying to get out.”
I asked him if he’d found the way out yet.
“I’m not gonna go, like, one route, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Like I’m goin’ trap today, and I’m goin’ pop tomorrow. If Britney Spears called me, I’m goin’ to wherever she at and making that record.”
Luger hopes to follow producers like the Neptunes and Timbaland, who built their careers by changing up their approach; he’s aware that this is the only way to survive. He mentions “That Way,” a song he produced for the rapper Wale, as the beginning of what he sees as his outside-the-trap phase. The song appears on “Self Made,” a compilation featuring Rick Ross and artists from his Maybach Music Group imprint, and it became the No. 1 rap album in the country the week after I visited Luger. “That Way” samples Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love,” a piece of orchestral bubble-bath soul from the “Superfly” soundtrack. Only Luger’s “tag” — a laser-gun synthesizer noise he works into almost every mix, like a watermark, usually just before the beat drops and the rhymes kick in — gives away who made it.
The next step after “That Way” is somewhere on Lex’s hard drive, waiting to find its way to the right artist. He cued up a few possibilities and let me listen. Sounds blared from the speakers at hair-curling volume. Synthesizers that sound like water dripping on a live circuit board. There’s a weird melody line, part flute and part digitized ghost choir. When the drums come in, it sounds like Lex; before that it all sounds new.
“I play this for artists all the time, and they don’t want it,” he said, skipping to another track — this one cold and melodramatic, like the Vangelis cue that underscores Rutger Hauer’s death scene in “Blade Runner.” It sounds like a computer sobbing. It seems to demand a Waka Flocka with more ice in his voice than flame. It sounds, frankly, amazing.
Luger cut off the playback after a minute and said: “Oh, man. That’s secrets, right there.”