After years in the background, the longtime producer is finally getting his day in the sun
For Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton, ComFest 2017 was cause for celebration.
During the June festivities in Goodale Park, the Columbus native and longtime beat-maker appeared onstage with friend and collaborator Sheron “Nes Wordz” Colbert, a skilled rapper who appeared to be on the verge of moving beyond local acclaim. Just days later, however, Colbert was dead, and his family and friends, including Burton, were left reeling in the aftermath.
Rather than allowing grief to derail him, Burton forged ahead and returned to the studio the next weekend, determined to transform his pain into art, as his friend would have wanted.
“I felt like I had no choice. Nes' last words to me [in the hospital] were that I'm a soldier … and he said, ‘Keep fighting,' those were the last words I heard from him,” Burton said during a May interview in his East Side recording studio. The producer then pointed to a star tattoo on his hand and explained its importance. “[Nes] was in and out, but when he talked to me, he was there, and we connected. … The last thing before walking away, I was holding his hand, and I looked at the star [tattoo] on his hand.
“I got three things as tattoos: my nickname, Baby Jack, which my whole entire family calls me; I've got Jalise, that's my daughter; and then there's the star for Nes. I only put things on my body that mean something.”
Now a year removed from the experience, Burton is gearing up for a return to ComFest, where his beats will provide backing for numerous performers, including Darrio Lamont, OG Vern, Weezee and the Flight Brothers (Lambo VanGogh and King Ezz). This time around, though, Burton enters into the fest with mixed emotions, unsure precisely how the weekend's events will play out.
“I've thought about it a lot, and I know it's going to be a very emotional week,” he said. “My goal is just to rock out with it … but I might break down just looking at the stage. I might break down during Darrio's performance. I might be crying while performing. I'm prepared for whatever comes.”
Overcoming hardship is nothing new for Burton, 32, who was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy that left him with nerve damage to the right side of his body, most notably in his hand. On the cover of his 2016 instrumental album, VIBESS 2, Burton purposefully holds his left hand over his right. “I'm holding my bad hand, and you can read my daughter's name [tattooed] on my wrist,” he said. “It was just showing, ‘This is life.'”
Growing up, Burton rarely let the condition interfere with his day-to-day existence. He said playing football was the only thing cerebral palsy prevented him from pursuing, so he took up basketball instead. At times, other kids would tease him, but from a young age Burton was instilled with a confidence that prevented him from getting too rattled, as well as a sharp tongue and a quick wit that allowed him to return fire when needed.
“He never complained about his cerebral palsy. He never said anyone picked on him or bullied him, so I never knew until later [in life] when he said, ‘Oh, I would get some guys who would tease me, but I learned to snap back at 'em,'” said Burton's mom, Tonya Helm-Burton. “He knew how to handle himself. He didn't let nobody bully him.”
Other collaborators credited Burton with transforming physical disability into strength.
“When you have a disability or a handicap, people want to take that as, ‘You can't do anything.' That's not only a fuel for him, but I feel like it heightened his senses and his ear and his listening capabilities, where he can hear and imagine things a lot of other producers can't,” said rapper and longtime friend Darrio Lamont, who recently collaborated with Burton on the full-length album Sunsets on Bartlett. “That might sound crazy, but he has this sixth sense for things, where I can say something and he'll bring it to life in a whole other way, and far better than I could have imagined. And I think that plays a big part in him being such an extraordinary producer. It's the will to prove to others that, ‘Not only am I not lacking because of my condition, I'm actually a step ahead of you because of it.'”
Burton rightly believes it's cliche to say he lives and breathes music 24/7, but it's close to the truth. When he's not working in the studio space he rents on the second floor of a beige, flat-roofed two-story on the East Side, he might be at his nearby home combing YouTube for undiscovered songs, or cataloguing the untold samples he has stored on a series of hard drives — one filled strictly with drums, another with studio sessions recorded with local rappers, and so on.
“I don't know where I'd be without music,” said Burton, who first became hooked on hip-hop when he discovered Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle at age 5 (“Tha Audio Unit” was even adapted from the Snoop-associated Tha Dogg Pound, of which Burton grew up wanting to be a member). “Music was my first love, and music was second nature. It goes with my daily routine. If I don't make music … the day isn't complete.”
Burton started crafting his own beats beginning at age 12, and within a year he was already turning out award-winning mixes on the family's home computer. (At 13, he won a grade school talent contest with a rejiggered version of Master P's “Make 'Em Say Uhh!”)
According to his mother, the musician's earliest efforts were more symphonic, akin to lush film scores and filled with rich, orchestral elements that owed some debt to the family's diverse CD collection, which ranged from new age artists such as Yanni and John Tesh to jazz, soul and R&B standard-bearers. Burton also developed a knack for building songs around pop-culture touchstones, with early recordings sampling theme songs from “Inspector Gadget,” “Batman” and more.
“When Baby Jack was an actual baby, he would sit there on the bed and watch TV, and if you walked in front of him, he would go like this (makes brushing aside motion) and move you out of the way,” said Helm-Burton, who recalled Burton tagging along when she taught dance classes, sitting in his stroller and rocking and dancing to the music. “He was always listening.”
“He picked up all these details people don't hear, and it's all still loose in his brain,” Lamont said.
Rapper Dominque Larue, who collaborated with Burton on a just-released EP, Everything Is Fine, as well as a still-untitled full-length due in September, said when she met the producer in the early 2000s, one of the first beats he played for her centered on the “James Bond Theme.” “I was blown away, like, ‘Who is this guy?'” Larue said. “‘And he lives right around the corner?”
In elementary school at St. Thomas the Apostle on the North Side, Burton flashed a natural business sense inherited from his father, a real estate agent and car salesman. He would purchase candy bars in bulk and sell them to classmates for a dollar each. He also burned and sold mix CDs and dubbed cassettes, among other things, eventually earning the nickname Hustle Man from his peers at Northland High School.
The producer applied a similar business sense in opting to drop out of Columbus State Community College after two quarters, forgoing a more expensive two- or four-year education in favor of a five-week course in audio and music production at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio, from which he graduated in the fall of 2005.
“Coming out [of the Recording Workshop], I bought ProTools, bought a mic, bought some speakers,” Burton said. “And then I started working.”
Around this time, Burton landed in a campus-adjacent house, in which he built a musical legacy that still resonates, recording tracks alongside celebrated Columbus rappers such as Philly P, Hodgie Street and Nes Wordz. The producer's studio was located in the attic of the multilevel home, and Darrio Lamont compared the process of making one's way to the top floor with progressing toward the final boss in a video game.
“You had to go from outside, where they trust you to be on the porch, to eventually being in the living room,” Lamont said, and laughed. Over time, some, including Lamont, made it all the way to the attic.
This process doesn't square cleanly with Burton's approachable demeanor, or the diverse assortment of collaborators he's amassed over the years. (As Larue noted, “As an artist and a rapper here, you need to work with Jack.”) But it does attest to the seriousness with which Burton approaches his craft, and the idea that he wants to see similar dedication from the artists with whom he chooses to work.
Personal relationships are a key element to Burton's production style, and he frequently tailors his approach to the artist, keeping all of the elements in balance. Burton counters Lamont's intense energy with more restrained beats on Sunsets on Bartlett, and offers Larue sunny, soul-kissed backdrops on which to press at her bruises on the aching Everything Is Fine.
“One thing that's great about Jack is that he listens to what people want, and he can pretty much create any beat,” Larue said. “It's crazy how versatile he is as a producer. Even with some of the stuff we've done people will be like, ‘Yo, who did that?' Jack. … Bro, Jack can do any sound.”
Everyone interviewed described working on a song with Burton as an ongoing, collaborative process.
“Once he puts down a basic track, I can go sing over the top of it, and then he'll go back and do some more producing and mixing and adding sounds, or taking them out,” said singer Weezee, who has worked with the producer since 2013. “There have been times I've thought a song was done, then Jack will line up another full session and people are coming in to record live instruments, and someone is playing drums over it, or someone is playing piano over it.”
Burton compares constructing a beat with building a Lego model, where he gradually weaves myriad small snippets into a dense musical tapestry. Seated at a laptop next to a control board in his East Side studio, the producer opens one of several hundred files, each filled with hundreds of samples, and begins clicking his way through, showing off some of the pieces with which he'll begin building. The soundtrack moves from crackling soul snippets to syrupy, chopped-and-screwed Southern beats to atmospheric washes that come on like a score that might play as one explores an alien planet in a video game. And while it's possible to pick out certain artists — indie-rock band Tame Impala, rapper Juvenile, etc. — the beats are largely unrecognizable, unearthed during deep, late-night internet dives.
For years, the impressively bearded Burton, known to most as A.U., has remained similarly anonymous. He's rarely been the subject of a profile, and the few times he's turned up in the pages of Alive, it's been in the background, supporting rappers for whom he's produced beats.
This is starting to change, though. In recent years, Burton has seen a sharp uptick in digital streams, particularly on Spotify. In 2017, Burton's songs were streamed more than 750,000 times, a number he's already topped this year, with more than 2 million streams through May, according to the producer. (His most popular song, “Make a Move,” off VIBESS 2, has now streamed more than 487,000 times.) Burton said the streaming income can vary, though it typically generates $200 to $250 a month.
He's also starting to get more plaudits locally, both from newcomers such as 20-year-old rapper OG Vern, who worked with the producer on his most recent EP, NOT4THEWEAKHEARTED, as well as scene vets such as Lamont and Larue, both of whom refer to Burton as a genius without hesitation.
“If you are anybody in Columbus, or even Ohio, you've had production touched by AU,” Lamont said. “It doesn't matter what side of town you're from. It doesn't matter what rap scene you're part of — trap, b-boy — A.U. has touched on it.”
“He's cultivated the Columbus sound. He's an OG out here and people need to respect him as such,” Larue said. “First of all, who else in Columbus sounds like Jack? Let's start there. Then who else in Ohio sounds like Jack? Who else in the Midwest? Who in America? I haven't heard that producer. Jack can emulate any sound. He can make anything his own. What producer you know like that?”