Thank your favorite deity for Aaron Mader's deficiencies. If the teenaged, head-over-heels-for-hip-hop Mader hadn't sucked at dancing, hadn't been uncomfortable with rapping, and hadn't been scared of getting into trouble for spraying graffiti, the world might have never known his enviable skills as a beatmaker. "I wanted something to contribute to [hip-hop]," says the ever-affable Mader, who produces under the alias of Lazerbeak. "It seemed like if there was anything I could do, I knew music, because I had been doing it for so long that I had an ear for it."
"So long" is a pretty apt choice of words to describe his commitment. The Minneapolis-bred Mader began singing and playing guitar in the Plastic Constellations when he was around 13, sticking with it for more than a decade until the indie-rock act went on hiatus in 2008. Sometime in junior high, his interest in hip-hop began to blossom, owing greatly to the Roots' classic Things Fall Apart. By 2001, he'd struck up a friendship with Stefon Alexander (aka indie rapper P.O.S.) through playing in the same scene. Alexander urged Mader to try his hand at hip-hop beats and gave him a quick primer on digging for vinyl and finding the right instrumental equipment. Unsurprisingly, Mader's first composition was both a "standard affair" and "terrible," as he puts it — a simple 18-second loop involving a kick, a snare, a hi-hat, and a flute. But that first taste was enough to keep him hooked, even if it took a year for anyone to start rapping over his work. "Right away, I had no clue what was going to happen, but as it progressed, I felt, 'Wow, this could be something I always want to be doing,'" he says.
Now, some 700 beats later, Mader has become a king of his craft. Lazerbeak has long been part of Doomtree, the thriving Twin Cities hip-hop collective that also includes P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, and Paper Tiger. Mader's primary work has been with members of that group, but he cut his teeth by collaborating with whomever he could find in Minneapolis. He gives his home base props for making the transition from indie rock to hip-hop easy. "I don't think it's like a lot of other towns," he says. "It's a town that's not that big and close to a lot of other big markets, so the rap dudes know the rock dudes know the folk dudes know the R&B bands, so you are kind of in the circle if you're doing anything related."
What makes Mader such a worthwhile talent is his knack for variety and his ability to make those diverse sounds work within the confines of hip-hop. A quick sampler of his material is testament: "Drumsticks," from Doomtree's collaborative record, sounds like a high school drum line performing in a desert at sunset. Disco-funk rears its glittery jacket in "Coup for the King," featuring MCs P.O.S. and Sims, and Mike Mictlan's "Prizefight" has the anthemic feel of the Rocky theme. In 2006, Lazerbeak and some friends devised the term "lavabanger" to describe his more fierce beats — tracks where "you nod your head to the side instead of up and down and your face gets all screwy." Not every composition wields the forward-moving force to enter lavabanger territory, but much of his best material fits that description.
With Bad Time Zoo, Sims' recently released sophomore LP, Mader again shows off his ability to navigate a broad palette. "One Dimensional Man" has a gloriously desolate vibe that's like Joy Division scoring the climax of Terminator 2, with a choir of soft female voices chanting to kick up the song's ominousness. "Too Much" is jazzy and amiable, while "Weight" could be a hype song for a basketball team with a bit of tweaking. Musicwise, there's rarely an off moment.
On his tour, Mader will spend most of his time triggering beats on an electronic sampler while Sims raps. Even though Mader hasn't entirely abandoned his early rock aesthetic (his solo record, Legend Recognize Legend dares an elusive blur of pop and rock), he has settled into the producer role comfortably. "More than ever, I consider Doomtree my band now," he says. When "I started out producing, I thought maybe I had to be a certain type of person or you have to act a certain way, when more than anything, if you believe in what you're doing and you're good to people, only good things could come out of that."