Apollo Brown's future was locked away on an old computer. He didn't know it yet, but he was sitting on beats that would take him out of his Grand Rapids, MI home, and bring around the world. However, we was simply content to keep making beat after beat on his computer loaded with Cool Edit Pro and never let anyone else listen to them.
Like so many other kids who came of age in the '80s, Brown was influenced by the East Coast sound which was heavily shaped by luminaries like the RZA, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, the Large Professor, and Da Beatminerz.
"Enta Da Stage is my favorite album of all time," he says. "If I was stranded on a deserted island, and I could only take one album with me, that would be the album. The beats that we wanted to hear were that East Coast Timberland stomp, put on your hoodie and your bubble vest. We thought we were baby New York."
Brown produced his first beat when he was 16 years old. Although he was an avid consumer of Hip-Hop before then, most of his time was spent playing sports. Much in the same way a quarterback might read a zone defense, Brown was also subconsciously breaking down every Hip-Hop song he listened to.
I no longer wanted to just be a listener, I wanted to be a participant.
"I tell people all the time, I came up listening to a couple different forms of music. I was very familiar with the Seals & Crofts version of "Summer Breeze," but I was also very familiar with the Isley Brothers version of "Summer Breeze." Same song, completely different vibes, and that's kind of where I came from with music."
After graduating high school, Brown traveled to East Lansing to Michigan State University where he got a degree in human resources. His plan was to move to Detroit in 2003 and work for one of the "Big Three" companies there: GM, Ford or Chrysler.
"That was the plan — get into human resources — and make a lot of money, and live a very boring, mundane life. It just didn't really work out that way."
By 2007, Brown was working as a city inspector in Cleveland, and in his own words, had ten years experience as, "a bedroom beatmaker." But one fateful night — at a beat showcase featuring some of Detroit's biggest and brightest — Brown decided to step out of the shadows.
At that point, he didn't even have a moniker. He settled on "Apollo Brown" as a reference to Apollo who is the Greek god of music, and "Brown" as an homage to James Brown. Since the moniker was so new, when the MC of the event began calling his name, he thought it was for someone else.
"They let me rock, I rocked as Apollo Brown for the first time, and I turned some heads and made some faces scrunch up, and then Apollo Brown just stuck, and people were calling me that and I was like, "All right. There it is, man. That's the name,'" he says. "It was crazy that I did a show with these cats that I looked up to and kind of held my own. So from then on, I just kept making shit and doing more shows."
January 2010 marked a huge turning point for Brown professionally. The same week that he was laid off from his city inspector job in Cleveland, he received a call from Michael Tolle who had operated Mellow Music Group since 2007. The label had traces of Rawkus Records and Stones Throw — buoyed by the success of In the Ruff by Diamond District in 2009. Tolle had heard Brown's instrumental albums Skilled Trade and Make Do and liked what he heard.
"He was like, 'Yo, man. I love your music. I'd love for you to be a part of the team,'" Brown says. "'I want to sign you to a production deal and kind of go from there and see what we can do with it.; I'm kind of skeptical and like, 'Man, I don't know you. I don't know your label.'"
"'I'm about to revamp this resume, dude. I just got laid off, and about to try to get a job, man.'"
Brown and Tolle settled on a proposed one-year partnership to make traction. Today, Brown and Tolle have over 11 years working together.
"I owe him a lot of gratitude for believing in me when I didn't really even believe in myself at that time, and helping me become who I am today and this producer guy named Apollo Brown," he says. "That has been my full-time job since. I've never had a job since or a traditional job is what I say, because this is a job, this is my career. It's like you go to the family cookout and the uncle says, 'Yo, hey. All right. You still doing that little music thing? When you going to get a real job?' And I'm like, 'Yo, unc. I make more money than you do, bro. What are you talking about real job? This is my career. This is what I do. This is my job.'"
It certainly didn't happen overnight. He cites three projects — The Reset, Brown Study, and Gas Mask — as the kindling which led to bigger opportunities like working with OC on Trophies, and The Brown Tape with Ghostface.
"The O.C. album was probably the one that kind of put me in a whole different category, kind of bumped me into another echelon or another tier," he says. "Obviously with the help of O.C., with the help of D.I.T.C, that whole unit, and then obviously DJ Premier had it at... When he used to have his yearly list, end of the year list, he put that as number one over his own album. It was number one on his year end list for 2012 above his own album, so I was like, 'Yo, that's crazy.' And honestly, Preem is my GOAT. And this is also during a certain time where I'm sitting at the board with Preem. I'm up in D&D, I'm up in Headquarters. I'm sitting next to this dude and I'm fanning out, but I'm like, 'I got to be cool,' because I'm like, 'Yo, I'm a producer too. I'm doing this too.' But next to me is Preem, the greatest of all time, and I'm just sitting there looking at him like, 'Yo, this is nuts.'"
"That was definitely the album that kind of put me in the household, and not only the household of fans, but the household of my peers. That put me in the household and in the ears of my peers, which is what I wanted."
It's impossible to talk about Trophies without mentioning it was a "one MC, one producer," project, which seems to be a lost art these days. For Brown, this leads to disjointed projects which lack a cohesive throughline. However, Brown is unafraid to tackle projects that are completely different. Specifically, 2019's Sincerely Detroit which featured 56 different Motor City artists on a single project.
"That was just a feat," he says. "That was something that I accomplished and I don't think anybody else has ever done it and I don't know if anybody else will, hopefully so. I kind of wanted to start something with that album. I wanted to see other producers and other cities do it, like a Sincerely Chicago, a Sincerely Paris, a Sincerely Miami. I want to kind of go and kind of give them a challenge to, 'Why don't you get all your greats together and make an album?' And not as competition, just for the culture, just getting together and bringing out the best in your city. And it wasn't about me, it was about these artists on the project, and they showed out. They showed out and they made an amazing album."
While Brown isn't willing to reveal what his next project is — nor who it's with — he can confirm it's being recorded in Los Angeles very soon. And as his fans have come to expect, it's going to be packed with a sound that only Apollo Brown can bring.
"This is one of my favorite compliments I've ever received," he recalls. "Yo, one word describes you as a producer and that's reliable." That was like, "Yo, that blew my mind," because anybody else, you hear the word reliable... When you think of a compliment you think of calling a woman beautiful or something like that. When somebody calls me reliable in the position that I'm in as a producer, to me that is the utmost compliment I can ever receive to tell me that. No matter what we're going through, no matter what this music is sounding like these days, no matter what, whatever's going on, I can rely on you to put out some dope music. I can rely on you to give me what I need in my ears, and to give me that music that I've been yearning for. Reliable, that's an amazing compliment. Consistently is great. I live my life by consistency. Everything I do, I try to stay consistent, whether it's my personal life, my home life or my career, whatever, consistency is key. I always say, 'Consistency leads to longevity in this business.'"