Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

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Hip-hop is in a perpetual state of backlash. Whenever it gets too mainstream-friendly and safe-sounding, it veers back in the other direction. In 2010, just when you thought soft personalities like the Black Eyed Peas and Drake had taken over, a producer named Lex Luger unveiled a blitzkrieg bop that was the antithesis of those artists’ anesthetized sounds. He was an unlikely candidate to be influential, much less re-popularize hard, aggressive street music, however. There’s his age—19—and the fact that, until recently, he was practically unknown, shamelessly spamming rappers with his quickly-crafted productions on entry-level software.

Born Lexus Lewis, he hails from Suffolk, Va., near the birthplaces of the three most popular and influential producers of the past decade—Timbaland, and Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes. But Luger’s style could hardly be more different than theirs. Where they use negative space to build spaced-out, stripped-down tracks, Luger has all the subtlety of a frying pan to the forehead. He crudely stacks sonic layers on top of each other, building off of thick, 808-like bass waves, ominous synth lines, and threatening ad-libs. His music is too slow and menacing to succeed as club music, and his peers initially thought it too dark for radio. But he became 2010’s breakout production star, ushering in popular Riverdale, Ga., MC Waka Flocka Flame, and revitalizing the career of Miami rapper Rick Ross.

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Luger played percussion for his church as a kid, and before long had taught himself how to make beats on his computer. But his substandard equipment would distort badly, making it difficult to gauge how his compositions would sound on decent speakers. (Something akin to flying a plane while squinting.) Still, he plugged on, sending his work to every rapper for whom he could track down an e-mail address. About the only person who responded was Waka Flocka, a hulking, Gucci Mane–affiliated former drug dealer who hadn’t been rapping very long. Though he was more known for his ability to imitate the sound of a machine gun than his lyrics, Waka’s rhymes come to life over Luger’s beats. “His production was so hard, I was like, ‘Bro, I want you to be my main producer,’” Waka tells me, comparing their chemistry to that of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.

Not long ago Waka moved Luger down to the Atlanta-area house he’d purchased from Gucci Mane. The spot was outfitted with a studio filled with technological trimmings—top-of-the-line mixer, MPC, you name it—but Luger proceeded to ignore all of it. “I ain’t need all that,” he told Complex. “All I needed is [beginner software program] FruityLoops, my laptop, and my headphones, and I’m going in.”

He kept doing what he’d been doing, and ended up responsible for the bulk of the tracks on Waka’s debut Flockaveli, which received some outstanding reviews, largely on the strength of Luger’s production. “Almost single-handedly, and without context, [Flockaveli] rediscovers hip-hop’s pugnacity in an era of extreme melodic sophistication, an idiosyncratic anomaly,” wrote The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica.

The album’s uber-raucous, stand-out track, “Hard in da Paint,” drew the attention of Ross, who, after hearing it reverberating out of someone’s car, took to Google to discover its craftsman. Ross’s camp tracked Luger down, and the producer responded in typical fashion—by sending them literally hundreds of beats in the next few days, most of them without names. Two ended up on Ross’s critical- and commercial-success Teflon Don, “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” and “MC Hammer,” each of which sound too raucous for mainstream playlists.

“I knew it was hot but I ain’t know the radio was ready for it because it’s a hard record,” Luger said to Complex of “B.M.F.” “But that’s what people want now.”

In the meantime, Luger has signed with the increasingly influential management company Mizay Entertainment, headed by Waka Flocka’s mother Debra Antney. He was nominated for BET’s hip-hop producer of the year award. Diddy, Gucci Mane, and Soulja Boy have asked him for beats, and Kanye West came close to picking one of his tracks for his blockbuster My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. (West says he’s currently considering other Luger productions for his upcoming EP with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne.)

Perhaps by the time Luger reaches drinking age, the rap winds will have shifted, back toward something lighter and more melodic. But, at least until the unemployment rate ticks downward, don’t be surprised if his dystopian dirges continue to serve as our national rap soundtrack.