The spin doctor 

DJ Toomp graduates from the old school and learns hard lessons about the business of music along the way

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The 18-year-old became MC Shy D's DJ. He co-produced Shy D's 1988 single "Shake It," a skittering, funky rap classic, and followed the rapper down to Miami, where he cranked out club tracks for the bass scene. During five years in Florida, he worked as an in-house producer for the notorious Luther Campbell's Luke Skyywalker Records, as it was called then, and even made beats for 2 Live Crew. His songs were landing on platinum-selling records such as the New Jack City soundtrack. The big time seemed within Toomp's grasp.

But Toomp's success meant little in a music industry that dismissed the bass scene as a Southern novelty. Top hip-hop producers, like Dr. Dre and Pete Rock, didn't do bass. When the phenomenon dissipated in the mid-'90s – supplanted in Atlanta by the organic grooves and soulful hip-hop of OutKast and Goodie Mob – Toomp's career started grinding to a halt.

Toomp was back in Atlanta when Trammell Morgan, a childhood friend, brought his cousin "Tip" by the house. It was 1997. The 17-year-old Tip was in a neighborhood rap crew called PSC, but he didn't have any real professional experience. While Toomp wasn't a huge star, he was still a successful Atlanta producer with years of valuable experience and a generous attitude toward aspiring talent.

"Toomp is one of those people that is always available to mentor," says Kawan "KP" Prather, who has worked for several record labels and led a modestly successful group, Parental Advisory. "He's one of the first people I knew [from Atlanta] who was DJing, traveling outside of Atlanta, and was doing videos and was on TV. But he was always humble about it."

T.I. started coming by Toomp's house to learn from an industry veteran – and to get connected. The DJ introduced him to Jason Geter, a New Jersey transplant who worked at Patchwerk Studios as a receptionist. Geter immediately offered to manage the unknown rapper and introduced him to Prather, then an A&R rep for LaFace Records. Impressed with his rap skills, Prather signed T.I. to his first contract.

Not surprisingly, Toomp produced six tracks on T.I.'s 2001 debut for LaFace, I'm Serious. Among them were "Dope Boyz," an underground hit that alluded to T.I.'s former life as a drug dealer. But I'm Serious only sold in modest numbers. Concerned about a lack of promotion, the young rapper sought and got a release from his LaFace contract.

He and Geter began to lay the foundation for T.I.'s career without help from a major label. They launched a mix CD series, In Da Streets, and hustled to sell them by traveling in a small van through the South's modern-day chitlin' circuit of urban radio stations, nightclubs, strip malls and strip clubs.

It worked. By the end of 2002, T.I.'s underground fame had sparked a major-label bidding war. Atlantic Records granted Geter and T.I. a distribution deal for its Grand Hustle imprint. T.I. completed his first hit album, 2003's gold-selling Trap Muzik.

As Trap Muzik's co-executive producer, Toomp played a huge role – many of his beats had been used for the In Da Streets series – and produced memorable singles such as "Be Easy" and "24's." He specialized in street anthems that secured T.I.'s reputation as a smooth yet hard-bitten voice. On songs such as "24's" and "You Don't Know Me," Toomp's beats come across as heavy, plodding, swollen with machismo. It's the kind of sound that burns brightly in rap's hardcore underground.

But Trap Muzik marked a peak in the duo's artistic partnership. By 2004's Urban Legend, T.I. was blooming into a major star. Geter describes him as an "impatient dude," the type who didn't want to sit at Toomp's house for hours and finesse a track to perfection.

T.I. began to assume control over his music. He relied on Toomp only for beats.

"I think that Toomp, being older, still looked at Tip like a little brother," Geter says, "and still thought like he was going to come to his house like he used to."

So, as T.I. got bigger, Toomp's role faded. Save for T.I. fans who studied his album's liner notes, few knew who Toomp was.

That changed with "What You Know," the song from King that would eventually win a Grammy. A synthesized dream of trash talk, "What You Know" swaggers like an arena-rock anthem. Toomp built the song around an interpolation of the Impressions' "Gone Away."

When it was first released in February 2006, just hearing Toomp's opening keyboard riff could cause a packed nightclub to erupt in cheers. Its melody seemed to float into the clouds.

"Don't you know I got a key by the three when I chirp shawty chirp back/Louis knapsack, where I'm holdin' all the work at/What you know about that?" T.I. brags in a thick Southern slang, his voice seeming to hiccup as he raps.

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