By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
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Instruments litter the floor around Brock Berrigan's desk like a mechanic's tools, each in the perfect position for him to reach down and grab it without moving his eyes from the screen. In front of him is what may be his 10,000th Garage Band arrangement. "No one will ever hear most of what I make," he says with thinly veiled satisfaction.
It's painful news for the legions of fans Berrigan has accumulated online by prolifically dropping albums. Each is a collection of hip-hop beats with an utterly classic vibe — smooth soul samples laced with cracking snare drums and peppered with goofy sound bites from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Trailer Park Boys. The compositions are richly detailed, layered with Berrigan's own instrumentation, and field recordings adding barely detectable texture to the drums. For any '90s-loving hip-hop head, Berrigan's discography is a gift.
His greatest feat is never misstepping. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single "Brock beat" (as he calls them) that isn't a total banger. He attributes this to the painstaking process through which he selects his track lists. "This last album started at 51 tracks, and went to 35, then went back up to 56. Then I whittled that down to 18," he says. Those 18 comprise Four Walls and an Amplifier, Berrigan's most recent work, and his eighth release in three years.
In the age of popular home production software, it takes little more than a man and a computer to generate the output of an entire label, but that power is nothing without distribution. Garage Band facilitates the creation of his music, but Berrigan owes his notoriety to SoundCloud. "A couple of years ago, I was featured as their SoundClouder of the Day, and suddenly I had a ton of followers."
That unsought publicity gave Berrigan his first little nudge, and his work did the rest, capturing listeners from all over the world. Beat blogs heralded him as a new independent force in the global beat scene. DJs with a taste for Madlib and Dilla pulled Berrigan beats onto their mixes, and rappers blessed them with verses in all languages. His contemporaries, the other beat-making SoundCloud champions, view him as something of an anomaly. Eloquent, a producer from Toronto, says, "He doesn't seem concerned about what everybody else is doing. So many producers have started to stray away from sampling nowadays, and that makes his stuff more refreshing. I respect his unapologetic approach."
In his home studio, occupying a corner of his parents' basement in Englewood, New Jersey, Berrigan is relaxed, chuckling as he scrolls through pages of comments on a new track. It's gotten over 100,000 plays since he posted it a few weeks ago. He has reached significant status through the internet and is now trying to keep the mystery alive for a growing audience.
"We live in such a narcissistic world that most people would make two beats and have 30 fucking pictures of themselves; I don't want that," he says. Instead, the persona of Brock Berrigan isn't represented by a face, but a man in a suit and a chicken mask smoking a cigarette. It fits perfectly. The orchestral samples spliced with boom-bap beats conjure a foggy atmosphere, a gloom that carries the indistinct narrative of a chicken-headed detective wandering the streets of New York City. "I'm a classy motherfucker," says Berrigan, eying the plastic mask sitting on an amp.
While his listeners romanticize him as a crate-digging class-act in a three-piece suit, few would suspect him of being the scruffy metalhead of his youth. Among his thousands of unheard hip-hop beats are full albums of epic, Mastodon-esque symphonies of shred. Sitting at his computer, he grabs an Ibanez from the pile and plays over one of his old tracks, laughing at his little flubs. "This is why I toss guitars on all of my beats, because this is what I grew up with. This is what I know. And hip-hop's still a new territory for me."
After hearing his production mastery in a style forged by RZA and DJ Premier, it's a shock to hear that Berrigan only came across those pioneers a couple of years before he tried his hand at beat-making. But once he started, he became obsessed. He lost friends and girlfriends and sacrificed every other endeavor to work all day and all night. From the inescapable comfort of his studio, Brock Berrigan watches his profile rise, racking up followers and downloads, and watching livestreams of DJs in other countries playing his songs for thousands of dancing partiers. None of it entices him to leave his home. "I'd rather just sit here and make beats," he says humbly.
Every time he flips a beat, Berrigan assigns it a star rating out of five. The best ones make it onto the records. "Most of these are one-star beats," he says, scrolling through a folder. For a moment, it seems there might be an explanation for his unmatched consistency. If anyone made 10,000 beats and picked the best 18, perhaps they, too, would produce a Berrigan-level album. It all makes sense until he presses play on the one-star beats, revealing they are as crisp as any of the masterpieces that made his records.
"You like these?" he asks, grimacing. "These are garbage. You can have 'em."