When top hip-hop producer Murda Beatz crafted his first track nine years ago, he gave it to Toronto rapper Hardbody, who suggested that he drop a tag — a quick audio snippet that acts like a producer’s signature, à la DJ Khaled’s incessant “We the best!” — on it. “He was telling me, you gotta tag your beats so people don’t steal them,” explains the Canadian producer.
In the years since, his tags have changed — variations include “Mu-mu-mu-murda” and “Murda on the beat so it’s not nice” on high-profile hits from 6ix9ine, Chance the Rapper and Ariana Grande — as has the intention behind employing them. “In the beginning, I was doing it to protect myself,” he says. “But then I found out that the branding is helping me.”
Today, dropping tags at the start of a song has become a ubiquitous staple in music, particularly in hip-hop, and one of the de facto marketing and branding tactics for producers. With roots in ’90s mixtape culture, when DJs would shout their name over tracks, tags have become a way to build brand equity in an industry where producers got credit only in album liner notes (which virtually have become an Easter egg hunt in the streaming age). As CD sales have declined, many producers have developed signature drops to make their presence known — major players include Mike WiLL Made-It, Metro Boomin, London on da Track and Tay Keith — which in turn has lent credence to tags as an actual component of songwriting.
“Signature tags are hooks,” explains Trevor Jerideau, senior VP of A&R at RCA Records, who signed London on Da Track to the label in 2017. “This is about artistry. The reasoning for a young producer wanting to use a tagline may evolve as their career scales to a certain level of success, to the point where the actual tag is a part of the musical composition.”
It’s a far cry from the days when high-wattage producers like Dr. Dre, Kanye West and the Neptunes let their distinctive musical styles be their signature. Some contend that the advent of technology has lowered the barrier for entry and that producers often use tags as one of the only ways to make themselves stand out, especially in an industry where oversaturation can lead to musical stagnation. “With music sounding so similar, I feel like maybe it is the tag that makes the difference,” says Tommy Brown (aka TBHits), who hasn’t used tags in the music he’s produced for Ariana Grande, T.I. and Justin Bieber. “I think more urban producers tend to do it because it’s a part of the culture now, where sometimes the producer is bigger than the artist and the producer tag helps the artist be heard.”
Love them or hate them, tags have become so woven into hip-hop that it’s pushed producers into the spotlight: Some, like Murda Beatz, even get credited as featured artists on tracks. But, of course, “If the music’s not fire,” Jerideau says, “it doesn’t really matter what tag you have on it.”