The Chicago-bred super-producer spoke with Boardroom about his transition from rapper Yung Berg into a Grammy-nominated powerhouse — and the secrets he learned along the way.
After dedicating nearly two decades of his life to this thing called the music industry, the artist, producer, and all-around multihyphenate born Christian J. Ward has been on go with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Originally introduced as Ice Berg back in 2001 as the newest signee to DMX‘s Bloodline Records, the 37-year-old has evolved from an industry novice into one of the most sought-after producers in the game today as part of a run of success that includes chart-topping hits in the 2000s like “Sexy Can I” alongside fellow artist (and former Love and Hip-Hop: Hollywood castmate) Ray J.
As the current Vice President of A&R at EMPIRE, where he houses his very own Makasound Records label imprint, Hitmaka continues to find new ways to demonstrate that his ear for music goes beyond just laying tracks in the booth with a top artist and calling it a day — it extends to an executive level that allows him to work across the industry more closely and effectively with other performers on honing their crafts on an ongoing basis.
From fellow Chicago native and R&B songbird Tink’s Pillow Talk album to the forthcoming solo debut by Parkwood Entertainment’s own Chlöe, In Pieces, Hitmaka has proven an undeniable Midas touch in the studio. With pen credits including Big Sean’s head-bopping “Bounce Back,” Tinashe’s millennial pop-R&B fusion “Throw A Fit,” and even Tamar Braxton’s “The One,” which samples Mtume’s 1983 “Juicy Fruit” previously used in The Notorious BIG’s own “Juicy,” Hitmaka continues to prove that no matter which lane he merges into, he’ll always finish first and finish strong.
But what’s the next destination in a career that’s already covered so much ground?
Boardroom had the chance to catch up with Hitmaka on the way to the 2023 Grammys to discuss lessons that he learned in the industry, the importance of empowering female rappers in the hip-hop game, and the potentially divisive notion of “Black music” as a label.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
D’SHONDA BROWN: Your name is Hitmaka, and it’s not just a handle — you literally are one. What do you think actually shaped you into an effective and sought-after hitmaker?
HITMAKA: I mean, I gave my whole life to this music industry, you know? I started at a very young age just being inspired by a bunch of different people, from Shawnna from Disturbing Tha Peace [who] was my next-door neighbor and a close friend, just being around [producer] No ID and just the whole Chicago scene. I was kind of raised into this, and seeing the big picture and the work ethic that I put into it, my brain never shuts off. My job is 24/7. So, to be a hitmaker, you gotta really put your heart into this whole career. It’s not just about making a hit; it’s about my whole life being a hit.
DB: How has the Chicago sound influenced your work, and how would you say that Chicago has influenced what popular music is today overall?
H: Chicago pretty much for me is just — it’s everything. Being so young at that point, there’s no internet like that. There was no crazy people, no TikTok, no apps or nothing, so it almost felt impossible to make it outta Chicago. I’m probably two tiers younger than them, but to see Kanye and everybody else make it, that was really the inspiration, the hope, and just the way we were brought up was to show against-all-odds type of vibes. That’s pretty much like what Chicago means to me and what Chicago means to the game right now.
From a young generation perspective, you could just tell from the music. The drill scene [with] Chief Keef, Lil Durk, [and] Young Chop, they were very influential in what really is going on right now. These are all people that I’ve collaborated with, and the crazy part about all these people [is] we were just in, like, a two-block radius. All our careers started in a two-block radius of each other.
DB: When did you fall in love with production and out of love with being the front-facing talent as a rapper?
H: I always had a good ear for beats. That’s what I really pride myself on, like having great pace and knowing what a hit is beat-wise while I was just hearing it. I think that comes from being around those great producers that are around that groomed me, from the Kanyes and No IDs. For me, I just realized that I wanted to have a real career. If you really being honest with yourself, if you look at who’s a child star or a kid rapper to an adult rapper right now, it’s very slim. I always looked up to people like LA Reid, Clive Davis, Sean Combs, so I always knew I wanted to take it to the executive level and go behind the scenes.
What a lot of people didn’t know is that when I was doing my own records as the front guy, I was also producing those records as well. If we go back to my album, I mean, Trey Songz, Amerie, Casha — the girl that was on my song “The Business” — Junior that was on my song “Sexy Lady,” I literally wrote all those hooks. All those R&B hooks, I wrote ’em for those artists, so I was actively doing it. I just didn’t understand what I was doing at the time ’cause I was still young.
DB: When you look at Clive Davis, Diddy, LA Reid, and even your own career, what is the key to longevity in the music industry? And what advice would you give your younger self?
H: I probably would say [that] I think it’s more so dedication. Like all those people that you just named, like their whole career, even if you look at Clive Davis right now when you go watch his documentary, his whole spawn of his whole life, he just dedicated it to music. That’s what I’m really all about. I really have no personal life. I have no real things moving. I have no kids, I have nothing. It’s totally just investing my career into music and also wanting to see people blossom from being able to help people as well. I think that’s the great gift out of the whole thing. You’re so blessed that you could be a blessing [to] someone else.
DB: In your opinion, why is it important for people in the entertainment industry to have multiple streams of income and talents in music?
H: It’s not even an entertainment industry thing. I would just advise anyone in life that if you can apply yourself and figure out a way to generate revenue in different ways, that’s really the game. It’s not even just for musicians or songwriters, producers, or artists — I think that people as a whole should adapt [to] that whole lifestyle, so I wouldn’t even put that in a box of just us in the music industry.
DB: I’m pretty sure you’ve had plenty, but when was your big “I made it” moment as a producer, or do you believe that you haven’t had it yet?
H: To be honest, I don’t even look at accomplishments and shit like that. I don’t have a house full of plaques or whatever and all that stuff.
I got one plaque; I waited to get a plaque. I went to Trick Stewart’s studio, who’s also a mentor of mine, and him and The-Dream, their sound kind of raised me as a producer and songwriter. I went to a studio and I was seeing Tricky’s plaques — 50 million, this and the third, all these different [things]. I was like, yo, I’m not gonna get no plaques until my numbers get up.
Then my first plaque was 70 million, so 10 billion streams or something like that. Then, my next plaque was a hundred million, so 13 billion streams. I try and bury myself so much in work that I don’t get a chance to acknowledge or feel good about things that are happening because I know I’ve had several careers. I’ve been Yung Berg before, now I’m Hitmaka, so I know what it feels like to go through adversity and the game turning its back on you. With that type of career that I’ve had, I just never get settled or caught up in my own shit.
DB: I’ve read a few of the interviews that you’ve done in the past. I realize that a lot of people ask you about why you made the transition from Yung Berg to Hitmaka, but I wanna ask you a different question: What were some of the most difficult aspects of making that transition, and did you find it difficult to have the same people supporting you from when you went from an artist to a producer?
H: Nah, it was really like a whole revamp. I had people support me, like Bryant McKinnie who played for the Minnesota Vikings — he’s the NFL legend. He really looked out for me at one point in my career, but it was pretty bad because nobody wanted to be associated with me and my image. I felt like it’s probably still like being canceled before a cancel culture existed.
Like I was saying earlier, I just was so dedicated to the music and to the craft. I always stayed in the trenches and stayed with the music. Once I decided to make a conscious effort to just shed that, it was more so ego as well and also just like, ‘damn, what did I do?‘ and feeling like a victim and feeling like, ‘Yo, you could have played things differently.’
Ultimately, I just had to just get out my own way and just go to the studio. It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, like I’m gonna be this or I’m gonna do this.’ But I always knew I was a great songwriter, so I’m like, I’m just gonna go write a bunch of songs. People like my songs. They might not want ’em from me, but I’m sure I could be able to give them to somebody and somebody will give it to the next person and maybe get into the right hands to turn into a record or opportunity for me. That’s kind of what happened.
I didn’t sit at home and brainstorm and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna call myself Hitmaka.’ Like, that wasn’t the case. I just went to the studio one time and randomly said Hitmaka at the beginning of the song. It literally just happened that way. I put the hard work on me, but I put the blessing on God. God had a different plan for my situation, and here we are now.
DB: What was the creative process behind gathering all of the femcees for the “Thot Box (Remix),” and why is it important to also include female rappers in the conversation about music?
H: This is what’s so crazy about that record. The original version has Meek Mill, 2 Chainz, YBN Nahmir, Tyga, and A Boogie on it. I thought it was a hit, like right then and there, and I went on promo and people were embracing it. We did little promotional items, like we had literally ‘thot boxes’ or whatever where we had, like, drinks and condoms and all those stuff. Looking back, when I read the room and after going on promo tours, I felt like the marketing was off. I felt like it was too many guys for the guy record with five guys on here talking about thoughts and shit like that. I stepped back with my team and I went to Las Vegas and the record wasn’t doing as good as I wanted [it] to do.
I felt like I was going everywhere and I had so many records that I produced and wrote on the radio at the same time. I was like, ‘Damn, where did I make the mistake here?’ I’ll never forget, I was in Las Vegas. I think I was doing a producer camp. I was staying at the Palms Hotel and I was in my room smoking and having a drink. The light bulb just went off, like, ding! Like ‘No, I’m gonna go put all girls on this.’
I was working with every girl that was on the song I was working with already. I’m gonna put all girls on this, but I’m not gonna go and reach for the Nicki Minaj, the Cardi Bs and whatever. I’m gonna go get all girls that have at least a million followers on Instagram and I’m gonna put all the underdog girls that’s on the cusp so when we do press at the same time, with me having close to a million followers and all of them having a million followers, we’re gonna reach at least five million people with this at one push of the button whenever we dropped the video.
For the process, I just started reaching out to everybody and it happened very quickly; I probably say maybe a week to get everybody’s verses back. I went in the studio, re-did it, and the last thing that I did was put Latto on the record, and I was already working with her a lot. We went to the studio, put her on a hook, and that was the final [piece] of the puzzle.
After that shit, we put it out and it worked exactly how I thought it would work. I was super proud of that moment and super excited to be able to be involved with all these different dope females that were up and coming at the time. Some were already in that bag, but to be able to work with those girls and then have that moment and get empowerment and see it not work for the fellas, but knowing that I could put it with the girls and it would have a different reaction was, it was satisfying for me. I feel like it really helped a lot of people and myself at the same time.
DB: What are your thoughts on the term “Black music”? Do you think that its use is divisive and segregating, or do you believe that it gives the Black community a sense of ownership when it comes to what we’ve created and the impact that we’ve had?
H: I don’t feel it’s divisive. I just feel like it’s just 2023, man. People always gotta find a reason to be on some bullshit or have an opinion about stuff or whatever and do whatever. We all know Black music runs the world, and that’s just what it is.
We don’t have to go and create issues about every little thing that’s going on. When you look at it from an executive standpoint where it’s like, “Head of Black Music” or “Head of Urban something” or the “Creative Director of Urban Music” or something like that, yeah, it could be offensive if you look at it like that, but I’m just so proud of what Black music has done and I don’t even focus on the bullshit at all. Who am I to go and throw a fucking fit and be upset about something?
As we just said, I’m Yung Berg and I’ve transitioned and become Hitmaka, and I was Ice Berg before I was Yung Berg. I’ve lived a very successful career that had its ups and downs, man, and I just wanna focus on the positive things and keep putting good energy out there, and hopefully, everybody will get on the wave. Let’s just be happy and let’s just support each other.
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