Finland's top hip hop producer MD$ sees business-wise no point in sticking to his home turf. For MD$, Finland is the base where he grows and prepares "Fountain", an army of fresh and upcoming beatmakers, soon ready to take on the world after their mentor.
One of the last movies to premiere before coronavirus shut theatres down was Birds of Prey. When the smoke cleared after the final fight scene led by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and the end credits started rolling, Megan thee Stallion and Normani started rapping. The song was the super hero movie's theme song “Diamonds”, which had a beat made on the sofa of an Airbnb apartment in Los Angeles by Finnish producer MD$.
"I haven't seen the movie, I doubt it's up my alley", MD$, real name Santeri Kauppinen, says via Zoom from his home at Helsinki and adds with a smirk.
"But a friend of mine told me that the whole song plays in the end credits. That was a nice surprise because usually only short clips end up being in a movie and the compensation is generated by how long it plays."
Kauppinen, unlike many artists, musicians and producers, isn't shy talking about money. The dollar sign in his artist name underlines the acronym – which spells out “Million Dollar Smile”. Since day one, his aim has been the USA, mainly because the market is so much bigger than in Finland.
You can produce a song that resonates with the Finnish youth, but business-wise that doesn't make sense. The potential audiences are so huge in the US even in marginal genres and sub-genres – MD$
"Of course you can keep your finger on the pulse and produce a song that resonates with the Finnish youth, but business-wise that doesn't make sense. The potential audiences are so huge in the US even in marginal genres and sub-genres."
When starting out as a producer Kauppinen had to make compromises: think about possible radio play and the average joes of Finland. He says he hasn't produced any "shit" or too corny pop, but there has been some songs that have had him thinking if they were the kind of music he wants his name attached to.
Beats at the street wear store
Santeri Kauppinen grew up in home where music was ever-present. His father played the drums and started teaching him to play at the age of 4. His mother sang. His grandpa played the piano. 7-year-old Kauppinen got his musical awakening when his family bought their first computer.
"There was this music software that resembled a game. You could arrange your own song from ready-made loops and control what happened in it, mute the drums for example. That sparked my interest towards creating music."
Kauppinen played and studied both drums and guitar. He's convinced that every producer should learn an instrument and practice at least the basics in music theory. Kauppinen dropped out of his bands at the age of 16 and his computer became his main focus.
"I was intrigued in carrying out my own vision all by myself. There was no boundaries. There was some magic in creating a complete song from scratch."
I was intrigued in carrying out my own vision all by myself. There was some magic in creating a complete song from scratch.
When Kauppinen felt that his first batch of hip hop beats was good enough to show to the world, he was still left with one problem: he didn't know any rappers. He figured out that rappers must be regular visitors at one of the few street fashion clothing stores of Helsinki. So he packed up a USB flash drive filled with beats in his pocket and took off to present it to the store clerk.
"I really had to convince him that I was really the one behind the beats. He didn't believe me as they were too good."
A couple of hours later Kauppinen's phone rang: Redrama, one of the most popular Finnish rappers, wanted to use his beat. He then got himself a job working irregular shifts at the clothing store. One day while Kauppinen was fooling around with the dj equipment in the store, Mikael Gabriel, another popular Finnish rapper, walked in and asked him to fill in for his dj who had cancelled a gig. Kauppinen said yes and found himself touring with Gabriel for years.
Two of the most important tips Santeri Kauppinen has for young producers – besides producing killer beats – are these: get out of your comfort zone and practice your shark mentality.
"Exciting things start to happen when you push yourself from your comfort zone. Don't be scared to embarrass yourself. Build your networks, get your foot in the door, make noise about yourself. Your work will do the talking but not before it's up there."
By this “shark mentality” Kauppinen means for example the trips he took to Los Angeles. Before going, he scouted for possible studio sessions, artists working there then and even parties. Then booked flights to LA and stayed for a couple of months.
"No-one's going to pick you up from your home. Don't wait to be invited. Go, grind and take control of the situations you can."
It's no longer about just producing beats, it's the overall picture I'm interested in. I intend to proceed from the ground level to the executive floor – MD$
Kauppinen doesn't need to "grind" that much anymore as he has signed a publishing deal in the US with APG – which led for example to the song request for a film which turned out to be Birds of Prey. In Finland, he also founded a producer-centric publishing company Fountain and has signed a dozen producers to its roster.
"We're building a foundation to keep things rolling in our home base. But our aim is in the US – we keep pumping tracks towards them and hope for good things to happen. Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom are also interesting markets for us. We are also keeping an eye on the African continent – this summer will be bigger for afrobeats than ever."
He believes in the talent of the Finnish producer scene and says that they can learn from each other – that's one of the reasons Fountain was founded. Fountain has already produced tracks for example to Kevin Gates, G-Eazy, 6lack (on an album which got nominated for a Grammy), Tiwa Savage and Sam Smith. Kauppinen's goal is to school "complete producers", who not only can make beats but also record and know their way around studios.
"I've been part of building artists' careers and being the visionary next to them. It's no longer about just producing beats, it's the overall picture I'm interested in. I intend to proceed from the ground level to the executive floor."
Five Finnish producers to keep an eye on
Fractious Frank is signed to MD$'s Fountain. He has co-produced Kevin Gates' song Push It with MD$.
MD$: "I started working with him a couple of years ago. I immediately saw the hunger in him: he was always the first to arrive to studio and was motivated in spending time there. He's my right hand man. He has determination which shows for example in his travels to LA all by himself. He has courage to pull even radical moves when producing."
Boundaries is signed to MD$'s Fountain and has produced Tiwa Savage's and Sam Smith's afrobeats hit Temptation.
MD$: "I stumbled upon Boundaries' Instagram. He had uploaded a couple of beats there and I heard right away that there's something special going on. I haven't heard of any up and coming producer who had such a clean sound. He has a deeply personal sound and is really talented in building and creating whole songs."
Ruuben is signed to MD$'s Fountain. He's the trusted producer of Gettomasa, Finland's top tier rapper.
MD$: "Ruuben has been doing this for a long time and crafted an ear for perfection. The stuff he's been doing lately is pure diamond. It strongly looks like he's the next Fountain producer to enter the international market."
Mvabeats & Jayston
Mvabeats & Jayston are signed to Def Jam Recordings Finland. The duo produced the melody for DaBaby's song Blame It On Baby.
MD$: "I've been following their work. They have used the internet very well and worked directly with other producers rather than artists. They present the producers with ideas and make their job easier. And they do it well."
Evertime has co-produced Lil Tecca's song No Answers with Tobi Aitch.
MD$: "Well here's a name you're going to hear a lot in the future. He's taken the same approach as Mvabeats & Jayston, the same approach I took years ago: contact ofther producers and inch yourself towards the game. That's a good way to go international."