NF's The Search has revitalised hip-hop with its cinematic textures and arrangements. Longstanding producer Tommee Profitt was at the controls...
Hip-hop production has become increasingly sparse in recent years, with some trap beats consisting of little else but an 808, some hi-hats, the occasional snare, and a couple of synth tracks. The latest rap album to top the US charts, NF's The Search, couldn't be more different. High drama is created by orchestras, choirs, big drums and cinematic sound effects, while NF himself creates intensity with rapid-fire rapping.
In another break with recent hip–hop and pop practice, where dozens of beatmakers tend to be involved in the creation of an album, NF also works almost exclusively with one beatmaker/producer. Tommee Profitt was involved in the making of 16 of The Search's 19 songs, and wrote and produced 10 of them alone with NF, aka Nate Feuerstein. Profitt also mixed all the tracks he was involved in.
"Nate's music is very musical and dynamic," agrees Profitt, "and we often talk about how it contrasts with other hip-hop. Nate also sings, and there are not many artists who can rap the way he does and sing the way he does. And there is a lot of musical development in Nate's music, which is kind of rare in hip-hop. It is not just a sample that loops over and over. The entire musical bed is almost like a movie score. My main thing is cinematic music. I do movie trailers, and TV promos and stuff like that, and video-game trailers, and it is really fun to bring that world to a hip-hop artist production, and blend the two, and kind of create a genre that not a lot of people are doing."
According to Profitt's website, his "cinematic productions" have been used by the likes of ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, ESPN, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA Sports, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, MTV, VH1, HBO, CW, OWN, GOLF, Freeform, Showtime, Starz, Mountain Dew, Finish Line, Under Armour and more. The producer elaborates on how his cinematic work has a direct impact on the way he approaches pop and hip–hop in general, and NF in particular. "I use many trailer samples for impact, for example things they call 'whooshbangs' to make songs really hit hard when the chorus comes in. These sounds rise up with a whoosh, followed by a big impact. Many companies, like KeepForest, Hybrid Two, Heavyocity and Ava, make trailer sound libraries, and I have thousands and thousands and thousands of these trailer sound effects. For NF and for trailer music I want impact sounds that sound and feel like they are a big meteor hitting the earth. You want big, massive gongs, big tubular bells with lots of low end, and so on. They really bring an organic big feel to tracks. By contrast, I think many hip-hop samples are rather small-sounding, with an impact that is like flicking a piece of paper."
For those not in the know, movie trailers often don't feature the actual soundtrack from the movie they're trailing, as the trailers tend to be made well before the soundtrack is finished. As a result, an entire industry has emerged that supplies trailer music, which tends to be full of sound-designed 'whooshbangs' and so on, as well as dramatic orchestral and choir arrangements, all to maximise the instant impact that's the essence of a good trailer. Trailer-like samples also are regularly used in EDM, with its risers and big crashes, but their appearance in pop and hip-hop has so far been limited. The breakthrough success of NF's The Search may alter this, particularly as it is proving to be career changing for the protagonists.
"It's definitely a crazy moment for us," explains Profitt. "Nate's previous album also went to number one, but it did not go up against any other major album, and sold perhaps 50,000. But with this album, there was quite a lot of big-name competition, so it means a lot more. It sold 84,000 albums and 130,000 units in the first week! Nate and I worked almost five months non–stop on the album. We poured so much passion into it, I don't think I have ever felt so fried afterwards. We are incredibly proud of it."
Profitt and Feuerstein's long journey to the top of the Billboard charts started 10 years ago when they first met in their native Michigan. Profitt was already a proficient piano player, who toured the US with his own group, the Tommee Profitt Band, and had a college degree in audio production. Profitt and Feuerstein hit it off, and started working together. They signed in 2014 to Capitol Christian Music Group, and The Search is NF's fourth major-label album.
Profitt played a key role on all four of NF's albums, and he explains that he was attracted to film music from a young age. "Playing piano gave me a very good knowledge of music and music theory, and when I was in high school, I'd listen to movie scores and trailer music in my car. I totally fell in love with cinematic music and started creating it myself. Because of my keyboard skills, it was fun for me to play every violin part, every viola part, every cello part and so on, and create chords and build up tracks that way in the studio. I learned doing orchestral arrangement by trial and error. I did a lot of things wrong in those early days, for example making instruments play higher or lower than their range. But now libraries limit the samples to the range of the instrument, so that helped me a lot to learn where these instruments...