The trap titan talks horror soundtracks, 808 Mafia, Sacii Lyfe and the hottest producer tag of 2015.
Even if you don't recognize his name, you can't miss TM88. His beats under the 808 Mafia umbrella are unavoidable at this point, first fueling the South's recent reinvention of trap music, then appearing on projects by everyone from Meek Mill to Machine Gun Kelly. The crew's new tag, a screeching, high-pitched siren, is even more recognizable, especially in the wake of Future's "Fuck Up Some Commas." Then there's TM's hair, a front-heavy mass of aqua-colored dreadlocks that cascade down his forehead and/or out of the gap in backwards hats-- if he wasn't 6'8", you'd still notice him instantly.
He's been on the cutting edge of his scene for almost four years, and as part of Atlanta's collective-minded camp of successful producers, TM88's in just about as good a spot as any beatmaker in 2015. We sat down with him last week, and he proved to be a genial, open dude in our conversation, eager to talk about his inspirations, origins and current endeavors. Read on to get a glimpse inside the restlessly creative mind behind those dreads.
Origins & 808 Mafia
TM's an Atlanta lifer, born there in 1987 (not '88, as his name seems to imply) and forming a loose clique called 8800 Block while in high school (where the number actually comes from). "TM," as he tells it, initially stood for "Track Man," but now acts as a double entendre for his "trademark" on beats, as it were. His interest in beatmaking was sparked by two factors: his love for horror movies and his cousin's Fruity Loops program:
"I woke up and walked to my cousin's crib one morning, and I seen in his room that he had a program called Fruity Loops. He was making a beat, and I was like, ‘Man, I wanna make a beat, show me how to make that Michael Myers' [starts imitating the “Halloween” theme, below]. So he showed me, and I made my first beat and went around the whole neighborhood, playing it out of little boomboxes and shit."
That interest in old-school horror soundtracks over the soul, funk and rock that provided the sonic blueprint for early hip hop is key in modern trap music, where heavy synths, eerie piano lines and synthetic percussion have taken the place of dusty loops and drum breaks. "I love old hip hop, ‘cause it reminds me of when I was a kid," TM says, "But I don’t want to make it. It kinda bores me. So I mixed the scary shit with the hard knocking 808 to give you that feel, the chest pump, that feeling like you wanna get drunk or whatever." However, he did look up to Lil Jon, an ATL icon who had risen from a background role to the forefront of tracks like "Get Low" and Usher's "Yeah." "Everybody wanted to be like Lil Jon," TM says, "I saw him everywhere."
Once he started taking music more seriously, he would join 808 Mafia, a production crew responsible for most of his notoriety at this point. TM credits the late Brick Squad member Slim Dunkin (who was tragically murdered in 2011) with hatching the plan to form the group, whose founding members were TM and Southside.
"Before [Slim] died," TM says, "He saw things that I think nobody else saw. He saw this whole transition to us taking over the whole music game." He and Southside had always been close, but were having their issues before the group got together, and so Slim had to tell TM, "'Bruh, y’all need to work it out. Y’all would be the most premier production group ever.'" Thankfully, they did, and 808 Mafia quickly racked up jobs for artists like Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Future, OJ Da Juiceman, 2 Chainz and Young Thug. With a foreboding sound and a name to match, they'd soon become one of the most in-demand production teams in the game.
Although he wasn't technically a member of 808 Mafia, Lex Luger was the first guy in TM's circle to really break out, producing most of Waka Flocka's scene-defining Flockaveli in 2010 and collaborating with Kanye West and Jay Z less than a year later. Ultimately though, Luger's simple-but-thrilling formula fell by the wayside, and his output has dropped off quite a bit these days. In contrast, TM's never really had a specific sound that's his calling card, and his longevity in the game might be because of that. He turns in such wildly varying beats that even when two end up appearing on the same project, they'll often sound nothing alike.
Such was the case on French Montana's recent Casino Life 2, to which TM contributed a few beats. Two were highlights, one coming in on the Chris Brown and Migos-assisted "Moses" and the other on "5 Mo" featuring Travi$ Scott and Lil Durk. The former is expansive, epic and lush, while the latter is grimy and cold. TM's mind seems so awash with ideas that he has to switch it up every now and then out of necessity, not a desire to pander to different artists:
"I’m an Aries but I be thinking I’m a Gemini sometimes because one minute I’m thinking like this, and five minutes later I’m thinking like that. But that goes for when I’m making beats, I can make a trap beat— whatever y’all people call ‘trap’— and then I can go straight R&B, I can go straight weirdo lane or whatever. That’s just how my brain processes stuff."
This type of versatility is ideal for producers, but with it has to come superb attention to detail. Even more impressive than TM's eclectic discography (at least to a nerd like me) is his sound design-- the ability to come up with full-bodied sonic effects that aren't being used to death by other producers. He considers it his strength too:
"I always pick good sounds, that’s one thing I do know. Like Grammy-winning engineers would tell me when I was younger, ‘Man, you pick dope sounds, you just make your beats sound big.’"
Of course, the one sound that TM and 808 Mafia are associated with above all others is the aforementioned screeching producer tag. He got this sound from the "Kill Bill" films, and described first discovering it with Southside:
"I started going through a pack of sounds in a folder, clicked on this shit and it was like 'REEEEE!’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?!’ Man, we was high as fuck, like ‘Man, we need to start using this shit bro. Hell yeah bro, put it in the beat.’ So we put it in a couple of beats, and one of them ended up being [Young Thug's] “Danny Glover.”
In the wake of Future's "Commas," which uses the sound much more liberally, it's taken on a life of its own, with other producers jacking it, and rappers actually getting upset when TM doesn't put the tag on tracks for them. If a producer sends you a track without their tag on it, it's usually considered a win, right?
On many of the tracks we've mentioned, TM88 isn't the only name in the production credits. This has become more common in the wake of Kanye's nine-producers-per-song work on Yeezus, but as 808 Mafia (and more broadly, all of Atlanta) have shown us in recent years, collective, collaborative beatmaking might be the new wave.
For TM, having 808 Mafia's name and tag (rather than his own) on tracks began as a branding issue. He estimates that he contributed to 95% of the crew's credited beats, and admits that "A lot of my early tracks would say 'Produced by 808 Mafia,' even if I made it by myself." He explains: "I was just like, ‘Nah, put 808 Mafia on there, ‘cause one day I wanna go get a deal for over a billion dollars.’"
Although he's recently distanced himself from the collective and racked up more credits under his own name, TM hasn't stopped collaborating with top-tier producers. He routinely works with ATL's other big names-- Metro Boomin, DJ Spinz, Zaytoven, Sonny Digital-- and credits this to long-standing friendships that predate most of their musical careers. "We became friends first, before we started really just working together," he says. "We’d be seeing each other out, and then we would just pull up and talk for a long time, smoke, whatever. Then we just started making beats together, and decided that we needed to keep this circle like we had it... then we could take over the world."
This bond is immediately apparent in Young Thug's "Some More" video, in which TM appears alongside his co-producers, Metro and Sonny. As with the song, the video was a spontaneous collab between all parties involved, shot in Metro's garage at four in the morning.
Never before has there been an era in hip hop where so much production is a result of cross-pollination between various artists. It always seemed to me like producers, unlike rappers, were so tied to their sound, the secrets behind it, and their reputation, to want to compose material with their peers. After all, you can't just hop on tracks for a "guest verse"-style interlude as a producer. Real, organic cooperation has to happen. With that inevitably comes competition, but thanks to the pre-existing bonds TM had with most of ATL's production world, it doesn't taint the success of his friends:
"It’s always a competition, but we family, so once they get a record, I’m happy for them. Like you know, Meek Mill’s album’s out, and Metro and Southside got two on his album, and I congratulate them. That’s fam. And I’m pretty sure that when they see me have records, they’re like, ‘Man, TM got another record.’ So that makes it even better for us to come together and make a whole 50 pack, when all of us got records that are moving, moving, moving. Then send out the 50 pack and the whole industry wanna rap on it— that’s how we get a lot of records. It’s fun, it’s friendly competition. Everyone wanna win."
Sacii Lyfe & Beyond
TM's most recent endeavor was Sacii Lyfe, a complilation mixtape presented under his name that features guest appearances from artists established and up-and-coming alike (Peewee Longway, Project Pat, Lil Uzi Vert and Hefna Gwap all contribute). "[The term] 'Sacii Lyfe' just came from a movement that we had," TM explains, "Just smoking weed in a room like ‘Man, this shit is Sacii.’ Sacii just sounds like a word that’s clean, and cool and playa, so that’s what I wanted the music to be like."
The project was also born out of TM's desire to control a full-length on his own, as he'd previously operated by sending packs of beats out to artists and letting decide which they'd like to keep:
"I just wanted to see how the whole process would be if I worked on it myself and put it out with my team. I want to be able to give the public more beats to listen to, because rappers only put out so much, and then you have so much hot shit that they’re sitting on. It’s like, ‘Man, this beat coming out is the new wave, everybody’s gonna fuck with it,' but there’s nothing you can do."
What's on the horizon for TM's solo career, though, is even more exciting:
"I've got a project called Pharmacy coming out with A-Trak, shout out to Fool’s Gold. And I’m working on 88 Will Kill Bill, it’s an MP4 mixtape. I’m actually taking scenes from the movie, and I make the beats around it, so like the audio from the fight scene’s playing. It’s crazy."
Then there's the collaborations, which never seem to stop:
"I'm working on Travi$ Scott’s album, working with Future, still working with Thug, working with Usher. I’ve been working with a lot of R&B artists with Polow Da Don, that’s my big brother. I’m on Juicy J’s album."
Ever the restless artist, though, TM's still looking to diversify his resumé:
"I’m on a few video games that’s coming out too. Wrestling, NBA. I would love to do some scary video game. I’m trying to get on [Quentin Tarantino's] shit. Trying to get him to drop this next movie. I would love to do the soundtrack, shit would be crazy."
Hey, it worked for RZA... Maybe we need to get Tarantino down to Atlanta and meet the other Tarentino. TM88's only just getting started on his solo career, but it seems like he'll be instrumental in guiding Atlanta's stylistic evolution for years to come. His SoundCloud's booming, his mind is open, and his ear is on-point. Just try and stop him.