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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Northern Kentucky-based Grammy Winner Says Start Local, Stay Involved

Producer and songwriter DJ Corbett hails from Northern Kentucky, but his work brings him to LA – and earned him a Grammy award.

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by Robin Gee

How does a Villa Hills teen headed to school with plans to play basketball end up with burgeoning music career in LA and a Grammy for his work on Best Rap Album of the year? Hard work and talent, of course, but also an understanding that dreams can start and grow right in your own community.

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In the beginning, DJ Corbett, who now lives in Florence with his wife and three kids, had an interest in music but no formal training. In fact, his involvement in music was sparked while playing with a friend’s music app just for fun.

"I moved in with some of my friends after high school. One of them had a music program on a computer that plays a lot more like a video game. It’s called FL Studio, and that was my introduction to making music. I never had done any music before that. I was 18 and had no background in music whatsoever," he explained.

He said the app was so easy to use and so much fun, he couldn’t put it down. He attended Wittenberg University for a year with a plan to play basketball, but then decided he had to follow this new interest to see where it led.

Making connections

Corbett went to music school in Minneapolis for about five years and began to sell some of his work online. "I started working with local people up there and started getting involved in the music scene. Finding other people who were interested," he said.

The connections he was making were key. "I was selling my music online to create income. And, I started doing pretty good with that, started to develop relationships online and locally."

Being active and involved in the music scene both in Minneapolis and back home led him to meet like-minded people, some of whom had connections and success in the business. One of these people was Cincinnati-based rapper and producer Hi-Tek who expressed interest in Corbett’s work.

"That’s what got me back to Northern Kentucky...He was one of my idols, and I wanted to work with him. It was a high priority for me, so I came back here in 2010," he said.

While things did not go as he thought they would, he said, it did open the door to new opportunities – and new connections.

"I started working with local artists here and I ended up meeting my partner Sunny (SunZoo). He is the one who ended up plugging me in with all the Los Angeles work that’s going on now." 

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The Grammy

SunZoo is a music producer and writer originally from Covington. He works with LA-based producer, songwriter and performer Hit-Boy who has produced work for many of the big names in the industry including Jay-Z, Kayne West, Drake and Nipsy Hussle.

Corbett and SunZoo worked together on Nas’ album "King’s Disease," garnering them a Grammy when it was named Best Rap Album at the 2021 Grammy Awards.

This was Corbett’s second nomination and first win. Last year, he was nominated for his work with Hit-Boy on the song, "Racks in the Middle" for the late Nipsy Hussle. While the song did not win for production, it did win a performance Grammy.

Corbett said it was an honor to be nominated twice and be a part of the winning team this year. "These sorts of things are kinda above what I was shooting for, so I was on a ride I didn’t even plan. But, maybe there is a bigger plan working for me."

Balancing life in Florence and in Los Angeles

On Corbett’s Instagram page, it lists him as "Music Producer, Songwriter, Family Man." When asked about the pressures of having a family here in Northern Kentucky (he is married with three small children) and working in LA, he said family is his number one priority and he has been fortunate the people he works with understand that.

"Luckily, I’m in with a good group out even when I’m not there, I’m getting some work from there that I can do remotely from here. But, it’s good to have the face card, for people to kind of know your personality, know your energy, and so that’s why it’s important to make the trips and get involved with what’s happening out there. They know the family is the priority and they don’t take any opportunities away from me for that. It’s a mutually respected thing," he said.

"I have three kids – seven, five and three – so we are right in the thick of raising them. It was really a challenge at first when I started going out there. But we started to figure out ways to make it more manageable for my wife when she’s the one at home with the kids."

A growing body of work

A visit to Corbett’s credits on Spotify displays an impressive body of work, much of it produced in the last two years.

"The music industry is so fast right now with streaming. People are releasing a lot more have to be prolific to stay ‘hot’ or in the conversation,” he explained. “And so, creating every day, doing sessions every day is a big part of what’s going on in the music industry right now," he explained.

The industry has changed so much in the last decade, and for quite a time the future of the business seemed up in the air. In a 2019 article, Rolling Stone took on the question of whether streaming had saved the industry.

"That’s how I would put it," said Corbett. "Streaming saved it, but at the same time, while it might be the best system we have right now, it’s still unfair to lots of writers, producers, creatives. Hopefully, in the near future, we will see a shift in the revenue sharing from some of the rights holders to the writers and others who are the ones creating this intellectual property."

In some ways, streaming has shifted things into a more independent model, and a lot of good has come of it, but the bigger labels have figured out how to reap the most benefit, he said.

"They still run the world when it comes to the music industry. Things are getting back to the way they were in the early 2000s. There’s almost a gold rush in the industry right now."

The Melody App

Corbett is doing his part in trying to make things a little easier for creatives in the business. He partnered up with Armand Auclair and Jordan Crone to develop a loop sharing app called The Melody App. The app helps producers find loops instantly and streamlines the process of obtaining them for use in their beats.

He said the app is an extension of what he already does for people within his circle. He thought why not expand this out, create an interface where producers could explore and discover loops instantly instead of having to search for them, and without the hassles that come with obtaining the rights and other issues. He wanted to create a more transparent process.

"We create everything originally. We have eight creators right now making all the loops, all guys we’ve worked with before, and we trust their quality. So everything you find on the app is completely original, and it’s completely easy to license and get up and running without any headaches or anything, just use it from our platform."

Those who use the app are given the terms upfront. Corbett and this team keep these clear and simple so a producer can find music for a variety of uses, whether it’s for a commercial or a song.

"The big issue with loops...My lawyer calls it the Wild Wild West of the music industry because there are just no standards of how you treat someone who makes a loop. Some people get cut into the revenue and some people get cut out."

Corbett hopes to ease some of that by providing clear terms and fair compensation. As a producer, he knows how hard it can be. 

"Almost everybody in the company is a producer so it’s made by producers for producers. It’s a total niche product, but I think it’s something that will serve the greater music industry. It’s model of how we can fairly compensate everyone. We are trying to make everything within the business and how people use it as transparent as possible...It’s what differentiates us from the rest of the pack."

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Sage advice: Start local

For those whose dream is to build a national following in the industry, Corbett had this advice that could apply to a number of industries:

"Don’t be afraid to just start getting involved in the local community of music because you never know who knows who. I would never have guessed the way I was introduced to the larger music industry was from a guy who was connected one town over from me," he said.

"You never can foresee what will happen, so don’t think that, just because we are in a smaller community, there aren’t people who are doing those sorts of things. You have to get involved and get out there."

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