When Lloyd Banks broke out earlier this year with his debut single, "On Fire," few people realized that Kwamé, a rapper-turned-producer once known more for polka dots than gunshots, was responsible for the single's infectious track.
Kwamé first made a name for himself in 1989 with the single "The Man We All Know and Love" from his debut album, The Boy Genius. Polka-dotted trendiness ensued. He followed that up with the equally popular A Day in the Life: A Polkadelic Adventure, which featured the hit single "Ownlee Eue," in 1990. However, subsequent albums, Nastee and Incognito, didn't fare as well.
As the mood of hip-hop began to change with more hardcore MCs like the Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan rising to prominence in the mid-1990s, the fun-loving Kwamé found himself less and less interested in being an MC.
"I became disenchanted with the industry," he said. "I was tired of fighting for royalties and being so constrained. So I decided to focus on music from a producer's standpoint.
"It was hard for me at first because, as an artist, my stock wasn't that high," he added. "Therefore, it was difficult for people to see beyond the polka dots. People were afraid to be attached to a name like mine. Hip-hop is about the freshest and the newest thing that's going on — that's a hurdle I'm just getting over."
Those misperceptions didn't stop Kwamé: Over the last five years, he's crafted tracks for Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J, Dru Hill and JoJo, among others. He struck gold earlier this year when he teamed with Lloyd Banks and Eminem for "On Fire."
"Lloyd Banks and Eminem took that chance with 'On Fire' as the first single," Kwamé said of the song, which he produced with assistance from Eminem. "They thought it was hot and wanted to make it the official door-opener [for Banks]."
According to Kwamé, the track is an interpolation of the Mohawks' often-sampled funk classic "The Champ." "I knew it would be instantly recognizable to hip-hop traditionalists and still be hot for younger kids," he said. While "On Fire" has put Kwamé back on the hip-hop map, the acclaim hasn't come without its challenges.
"Everyone thought that Eminem produced the track," explained the producer. "I understand that because of Eminem's stature. It was frustrating, but when Lloyd started doing press he really acknowledged me as the producer.
"Now the doors are starting to really open," he added. "Now it's crunch time if I want to be a viable commodity. It's time to prove to those who doubted me what I am capable of."
With 15 years in the music game under his belt, Kwamé is taking advantage of every opportunity that comes his way. In addition to "On Fire," he recently produced singles for Will Smith ("Switch") and Missy Elliott protégé Tweet ("Turn Off the Light").
"Missy collaborated with me on the song's finishing touches and she is a genius," Kwamé said of the Tweet single. "I have always wanted to work with her."
As for "Switch," the producer is quick to note that it is not what you might expect from the family-friendly superstar. "It's not the traditional Will Smith record, but he's not trying to be a gangsta either," said Kwamé. "It's pop-oriented, but with a grimy element."
Kwamé produced several tracks for Smith's forthcoming set as well as T.I., Toni Braxton, Babs of Da Band fame, and the YoungbloodZ.
As for a possible return to the mic, Kwamé is not ruling it out.
"I don't know if I would do another album deal as an artist," he said. "I would love to do my own label situation, and I would be my own artist, but I don't want to do it just to do it. I want to expand hip-hop to another level. So it's not out of the question, but I want to make my mark as a producer first."