Photo via Nicholas Craven/Instagram
Nicholas Craven abides by a formula that has seen him become a traditionalist’s ideal producer. Emboldened by the last decade’s wave of revivalist East Coast rap, he builds from the blueprints of the mid-‘90s and reinterprets them to deftly balance grit with grandeur, allowing a murderer’s row of post-boom bap raconteurs to shine. Despite some sumptuous instrumental tapes, including an early career trilogy steered by Françoise Hardy’s enchanting alto, he’s always preferred collaborative art over solo projects. Simply put, Craven just wants to cement his legacy as the go-to beatmaker for the sharpest MCs around.
Ever since he formed a punk band back in elementary school, Craven’s always maintained a studious passion for making music. His formative years growing up in Gatineau — a small city in Western Quebec — saw him enroll in countless lessons, concoct riffs and melodies for his group, and dedicate hours listening to albums by Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and other rock acts from the ‘70s onwards. It wasn’t until he became a teenager that he got into hip hop via a friend’s older brother, who introduced him to Ghostface and Raekwon and showed him how to create the type of beats that his new favorites rapped to. From there, he would dig into the crates and dissect at least five records a day, ranging from ‘60s soul to French chanson, and explore ways he could infuse them into his own music. Given his home province’s multi-cultural makeup, he’d also be exposed to sounds from all over the world, experimenting with samples from Lebanese folk to Algerian rai.
It was through linkups with like-minded local rappers upon moving to Montreal in the early 2010s that Craven developed a fondness for beats heavy on samples but light on drums. His woozy style owes as much to the Charles Aznavour and the Motown that he heard growing up as it does to Only Built for Cuban Linx and Donuts. Splicing together stripped-down blues and jazz loops with chopped-up luxe soul, his symphonic sound became synonymous with cinematic street rap. His production is the soundtrack to 2 a.m. laments with Courvoisier and cigarettes, suspicious stares on a cold winter night, or long drives down winding roads.
Tha God Fahim was the first rapper south of the Canada-US border to acknowledge Craven’s talents, having been one of several underground names originally sent beat packs from the then-unknown producer. He would later discard his strategy of mailing burnt CDs to labels like Stones Throw and then switch to deliberately targeting indie favorites such as Hus Kingpin and a pre-mainstream Griselda, leading to some major online buzz. The Dump Gawd eventually opened doors to the rest of his stylistic peers, as Your Old Droog’s intricate punchlines and Mach-Hommy’s cryptic hieroglyphs found another backdrop to flesh out their complex narratives. More recently, artists as varied as Armand Hammer, Navy Blue, and Ransom got Craven to score some of their finest work, and a nostalgic appreciation for the mid-2000s’ mixtape age led him to produce tracks for Planet Asia, Styles P, and Evidence.
Craven’s melodious homages prove that he’s more than a capable heir to the neo-classical nihilism pioneered by Roc Marciano over a decade ago. As his stock continues to rise, let’s dive into some choice cuts produced by one of my favorite composers today:
Prior to carving out his own path with the Dump Gawds, Fahim was riding with Griselda around the time this 2016 loosie was released. The claustrophobic “Nosferatu” fits within the collective’s grimy aesthetic, with Fahim spraying machine gun raps all over Craven’s wraithlike beat that treads a fine line between soulful and sinister. The track also kick-started a long and fruitful alliance between the pair, with Craven most notably behind the boards for Fahim’s acclaimed Dump Gawd: Shot Clock King series.
Mere months after dropping Reject 2, Conway enlisted Craven’s help in illustrating another bleak chronicle of Buffalo corners. Craven commandeers the song with a distressed soul loop that lets the Machine recount all the crimes he’s seen and the violence he could commit. In Conway, Craven found another lyricist he connected musically with – later helming a Benny the Butcher-assisted remix as well as a two-part project reimagining several of the rapper’s signature joints.
As a devotee of the Wu and their many descendants during the 2000s, it was inevitable that Craven would seek out some of the gulliest spitters of that time. Styles P embodies that ethos, and while he’s kept himself active with a slew of new material, he hasn’t recaptured the mass hype that surrounded his work with the LOX and his first three solo LPs. Closing out with some chopped-up verses off We Are The Streets, “The Irishman” has the Ghost harking back to his heyday, with Craven’s love of somber piano chords on full display.
This is a perfect example of Craven’s willingness to veer beyond the soul-drenched template he’s renowned for to mirror his numerous collaborators’ oeuvres. billy woods and Elucid aren’t usually the first rappers you’d think of when discussing Craven’s diverse catalog, but the producer manages to create an unsettling aura befitting the duo, implementing eerie wails and distorted lasers (in a tribute to the legendary Jamaican remix pioneer) throughout.
Of the four songs Craven produced on the melancholic Songs of Sage: Post Panic, this is the most moving. We’re invited into another one of the rapper’s therapy sessions where you can almost feel the weight being lifted off his shoulders as the song progresses. Craven expertly blends electric keys and soft cymbal taps to create a celestial vibe that compliments Navy’s pensive mood, even as the latter recalls memories both tragic and wistful.
Craven and Payne are on their slasher movie shit here in this Leatherface 3 standout. Guided by some menacing riffs, the producer channels his iconic namesake by creating a sense of foreboding, allowing the battle rap legend to go off with the energy of a chainsaw-wielding maniac. With how rap has embraced the morbid and macabre for decades, this rage-fuelled gem left fans of hip hop and horror craving for more between two musicians who couldn’t be any more different from each other.
It’s no secret that Craven’s primary beatmaking influence is Roc, having been inspired by his key role in the resuscitation of that gloomy New York sound since Marcberg’s release over a decade ago. This Mt. Marci bonus cut — the second of three collaborations between them — sounds like the end credits of a ‘70s blaxploitation flick, with Craven anchoring the track with a warm soul sample that loops around another tapestry woven by the raspy king of East Coast rap noirs.
In 20+ years of rapping, Ransom has never sounded better than over Craven’s harmonious beats, developing some superb chemistry across their 2020 run of mini-albums saluting silver screen classics. In this highlight from the excellent Crime Scenes, Craven musters up the jaunty spirit of early 2000s Roc-A-Fella, laying down subtle drums and relentless horns for the crime rhyme veteran to ride over with aplomb.
While Craven got his breakthrough by connecting with American artists, the Quebecois also honed his craft by producing for talents closer to home such as D-Track — a Francophone rapper whose style Craven likens to Evidence. Like Craven, D-Track’s vision of hip hop is geared towards its more soulful aspects. The best joint off of their last project Hull (an album they spent over two years working on) has Craven inject bluesy guitars reminiscent of Albert Collins over D-Track doing his thing. You don’t even have to understand French to enjoy this.
Last year’s stellar Balens Cho is the culmination of Craven’s commitment to working with Mach, having sent him over a thousand beats before they truly solidified their tandem with classics such as “Mozambique Drill” and “Kriminel”. One of four tracks Craven produced on the album, “LAJAN SAL” is more jubilant than what we’re used to from both. Mach triumphantly raps and croons over a shimmering arrangement of sped-up strings that trigger visions of a tropical paradise. It also established Craven as one of the very few outside of Griselda and the Dump Gawds who understood the faceless surrealist more than most.