"Throughout my life, a lot of people have called me obsessive," says IMAKEMADBEATS. "If I took interest in something, it wasn't just 'I like that.' If I liked something, I usually went way deeper into it. Music was one of the first."
Back in the day, IMAKEMADBEATS was a kid from Orange Mound named James Dukes. Now, he's Memphis' most sought-after hip-hop producer and guru of Unapologetic, which he calls "A label? A collective? Maybe all of those things."
IMAKEMADBEATS got his musical start from his family. His father was an avid record hound with an encyclopedic soul, blues, and R&B collection. But in the car, he listened to just jazz — "the most artistic, calm, riff-changing, random jazz. That had the biggest influence on me," the producer says. "About a month ago, I asked him, 'Hey dad, why did you listen to jazz only in the car?' He said, 'That's because Memphis drivers can't drive. I needed something to calm me down.' ... Jazz was like music that was how my brain works. I liked how randomness didn't feel so random."
As a teenager, his musical tastes ranged from Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, and Gang Starr to Detroit techno, trip-hop, and rock. "If it sounded like magic, I loved it."
But he quickly found his eclectic taste marked him as an outsider. "When I got on the Orange Mound bus to go to school ... I'll never forget that. I had to be playing Three-Six, or nothing. If it ain't that, you're either gay or white or weird."
"I started making beats on a computer we found on the side of the street," he says. "My first group that I was in in high school was called The Strangers. We were called The Strangers because we felt like strangers in our own community. I lived here, I know every street here, I know your grandmother. But everyone tells me I act and sound like I'm from somewhere else."
IMAKEMADBEATS moved to New York quickly after he graduated from White Station High School and eventually became an engineer at Manhattan's Quad Recording Studios, where he worked with Talib Kweli, Common, Missy Elliott, Musiq Soulchild, Ludacris, and Solange Knowles, and many others. In 2009, he got a break to record his own album The Transcontinental with Roc C. He moved into lucrative soundtrack work and corporate jobs, and returned to Memphis in 2011 for family reasons, where he spent most of his time in his sound lab. Finally, a friend dragged him out of his solitude to see a show with Cities Aviv and PreauXX, and he found kindred spirits. "PreauXX, being the most popular guy ever, eventually pulled me out of the cage. He got me working with artists again and making my own music."
Better Left Unsaid is a seven-song EP of cut-up instrumental hip-hop IMAKEMADBEATS recorded in 11 days. Like the works of Madlib and Donuts-era J Dilla, the work defies conventional genre labels. Suffice it to say that IMAKEMADBEATS can do literally anything in a studio. After shopping the record to indie labels for a time, he decided that no one knew how to do the record justice but himself, so he founded Unapologetic. The album comes on a USB drive shaped like the IMAKEMADBEATS logo: a giant afro surrounding the artist's signature mask. There's also a comic book drawn by Gift Revolver to dramatize the story behind the track "Mother Sang to Us" and an animated video.
Unapologetic is just getting started. IMAKEMADBEATS is planning four more releases this year, including Stuntarious Vol. 2 compilation in May, gospel singer/songwriter Cameron Bethany in July, and hip-hop duo Kid Maestro and A Weirdo From Memphis' Enter Weird Maestro in September. The aim is to tap into the creativity of the dispossessed Memphis artists. "Unapologetic is my stand against being what you're supposed to be, externally, and just being what you are, which is what you're supposed to be."
To those who think Memphis, and the world, isn't ready for these new sounds, "The punch you didn't see coming is the one that hurts most."