Kiowa Roukema’s flight is delayed, which is just about the only misfire the 19 year-old Dutch producer—best known as the beatmaker behind Lil Nas X’s controversial genre-bender “Old Town Road”—has experienced in the past few months. It's period during which his life has transformed from anonymous teen making beats out of his bedroom and selling them for $30-a-pop online to the in-demand architect of one of 2019’s biggest hits. Roukema, better known as YoungKio, was supposed to fly to the United States on Friday to appear in a new music video for the song. But due to weather, he’ll have to wait a few days. He’s not sweating it, though. Everything has come at him so fast, a delayed flight might even be a bit of divine intervention.
“It's just so crazy,” Kio marvels when he calls. He says it still feels like a dream, the way a beat he cooked up on a whim—one he thought was too weird to even sell—has metamorphosed into a country-trap banger remixed to include Billy Ray Cyrus. Kio’s story has the appearance of a dream from the outside, too. To rehash: A Dutch producer (Kio) stumbles across a Nine Inch Nails song while digging through YouTube, samples its “beautiful” banjo section, puts it on top of a trap beat, a teen Tweetdecker from Atlanta leases the beat for $30, makes a winking cowboy song over it, the song blows up on TikTok, gets removed from the Country Music charts by Billboard, ignites a heated debate over race and genre, and the song only continues to mushroom as a phenomenon. Is there a more 2019 story?
Of late, Kio has dropped out of college and he’s been hit up for beats by stars like Lil Pump and Rico Nasty. “I wouldn't say it was an accident,” he tells me when I ask if it all feels like a fluke. “But it was like everything that could've gone perfect went perfect.” As he comes to America and makes a play at proving it all indeed wasn’t just a fluke, Kio rehashes the past few months’ ride and tells us where he’s going.
GQ: Did you grow up listening to a lot of hip-hop and American music?
YoungKio: I didn't really listen to hip-hop until I was like eight years old. I was in the car with my father and he played me some 50 Cent tune, "Hate It or Love It." And I really loved the song. It stuck with me. So I looked it up and I started getting into hip-hop after that. And before that I was listening to rock and shit. After that song, though, I started exploring, finding new artists affiliated with 50 Cent and the Game, and building this whole group of artists I would listen to every day. I started listening to more hip-hop—let's say Drake or even Logic.
Were a lot of your friends listening to similar things?
At the time, I didn't really have a lot of friends, and we didn't really talk about music because we were like, eight to ten years old. But I think my friends were listening to the Black Eyed Peas and stuff like that.
Did you decide then that you wanted to make music or did that come later?
That came later. I wanted to do something next to just playing sports, going to school. So my parents gave me a $20 keyboard. It was a crappy keyboard, but you could play on it. And I would just recreate the big songs.
But after that, I quit playing keyboard. I wanted to do something creative, so I became an online designer. I made backgrounds for YouTubers. I was good at it, and my friend knew I was doing it, and he had [music production software] FruityLoops and he told me, "Yo, I know you're good with computers and you're creative and know how to use all those programs. I got [this software] but it's not really working out, so I'm going to give it to you and maybe you can do something with it." And that was the point when I started making beats and enjoying it. I started in late 2016, when I was 16. I was making, I think, two beats a week. I was just starting and getting the hang of it—looking up tutorials and figuring out how to use the program. I was in high school, and I wasn't really serious. It was just me starting and playing with it.
Did you get serious?
I just started making beats and I felt that I could make money off of that. I felt like I became talented in some form. So I started looking at beats on YouTube for inspiration. And I think I found some "type" beats. People were selling these beats, like "Drake type beats" and stuff. And I was like, Hmm, I could maybe try this. But I had no money at the time. So I couldn't afford a beat store. So I just put my beats on YouTube with my email in the description. And that's when I started pumping out the beats. It was like one a week, but sometimes people really bought them. It was like a $20 lease, but it was something. And I kept doing that. I wanted to put my beats on Beatstar, which is what I saw everyone using, but membership was $180 a year. So I was saving money until I could afford a year subscription. And once I did that everything started to go way better.
What were you were going for when you were making the "Old Town Road" beat?
I was at a point where I mastered my melody game. So I wanted a challenge. My challenge was sampling. And I didn't want to just sample the usual old records. I wanted to sample weird stuff, stuff you usually wouldn't sample. I would look up stuff like Beethoven, just for practicing. And that became a routine, me digging samples on YouTube. And if you dig samples every day and every night, YouTube's algorithm puts samples of old songs that are close to the ones you looked at. And I found the Nine Inch Nails sample in my "recommends" page. And the intro with the guitars, it was something basic, something I could do myself with my melodies. But after the banjos came in I thought, Bro, I have to use this. It was something special. It was something beautiful.
So I just downloaded it and dragged it in Fruity Loops and chopped it a couple times, used some filtering on it and put my drums under it. I thought, This shit is done. I didn't want to do a lot with the sample because it was so beautiful to me. I wanted to keep it as intact as possible. It was a special beat for me, because I really loved the sample and I thought it gave a nostalgic feeling. I wanted to upload it, but I knew it wouldn't do good sales-wise because it was so different. I make beats like what the people want, what's hot at the time, because that's what generates the money. And I knew this was something so different and it wasn't really what was hot. But I still uploaded it. I put it as a "Future type beat" because I used fast-paced drums. And in the back of my head I thought, This is not going to do anything.
And you weren't familiar with Nine Inch Nails?
No, I had never heard of them. And after I used the sample it wasn't like, Damn, this sample is beautiful and I need to listen to more of them. I just continued digging.
Were you thinking about other songs or about genre while making it?
Not really, it was really just a random experience. The sample came out of nowhere. And after, I was just back to the old business.
Were you a country music fan at all?
No, not at all. [Laughs.]
What did you think of Lil Nas X's lyrics the first time you heard the song?
The first time I heard the song I was obviously surprised that he bought this beat. In my mind, it was a beat that would never sell. But when I heard the song, it was funny to me. But it also slapped because of the hard drums. I really fucked with the song. That's why I contacted him ASAP and wanted to promote it.
What was the response in the Netherlands?
The song blew up and two weeks after I got my first interview in the United States. And all these people from all the newspapers and TV stations in the Netherlands came at me at once. It was in all the headlines, "19 Year-old Dutch Producer Has Number One Billboard Hit." Everyone was crazy, and I was getting so much attention.
How did your life change?
I got so many opportunities. Before the song even got big big I got an offer to be signed. And it was a big person, [someone] of trust, so I signed with him. And after I signed, everyone knows about me now and everyone respects me. I get so many messages. All these producers who are doing what I was doing.
I heard you were paid $29.99 for the beat through Beatstars Have you since made more money on it?
When I sell my beats on Beatstars, I can sell it with a contract. And I sell all my beats with a contract. And that contract just states that I have a 50% share on a song. So I would never get fucked over. So yeah, I'm good with the money.
How does that contract work?
My team was working on the money side, but I know that he bought a $30 lease, which is the smallest lease you can buy, and when you buy that you can sell 3,000 copies on Spotify or stuff like that. And then after that, if you exceed that you have to get another lease or upgrade the lease. He didn't do that, but we had a good relationship from the start, because I found the song really early. And we just went together with it. And after the song really started to blow, we just started a new agreement on a song so we'd both get a fair share.
How has the song's success affected what you think is possible for yourself in music?
Everything. I swear, I can work with almost anyone. Big producers I looked up to, I can DM them and they tell me to send them something. I'm now in a position where I'm equal with the big producers. And it also goes for the artists. I can just send my beats to almost any artist.
What are you doing now?
I'm making so many beats a day. I'm making packs, sending them out, trying to work as much as possible. I quit school to 100% focus. I'm going to the U.S.A. soon, because I've never met Nas in person. I'm trying to work as much as possible now because now it's hot and I don't know what happens in the future.
Have you and Nas talked on the phone?
Not even. We talk and we say we're going to call each other, but I just forget it. We're always texting. And we don't even think about calling.
What's your text relationship like?
We talk about new music we're going to make. I send him new beats and some crazy IDs and stuff for the next steps.
Will you guys stay in the same country-trap mode?
I've been sending him a lot of country stuff. But also some new stuff. He just wants everyone to know he does what he wants. And if everyone wants him to do country and he doesn't, he's not going to do it. He just wants to develop as an artist how he wants to. We're going to make some more country, of course. But I've also been sending him some other new shit that's not really been heard before in hip-hop.
I don't want to sample anymore. I just want to make my own compositions. But I've been searching all these—I don't know if you can call them genres. But like Bossa nova, jazz. I've been thinking about how I can implement some of those elements in hip-hop stuff.
As you develop as a producer, what do you think distinguishes you?
When you start producing, you get inspired by all these big producers and just take all these things they do. And I just quit doing that a long time ago. The shit I do now, I'm my own inspiration. I just try new drum patterns and melody patterns. And that's what I think makes me different.
What's the most surreal thing that's happened to you since the song blew up?
I think the Billy Ray Cyrus remix.
Which do you like better, the remix or the original?
To be honest, I like the remix better.
I have to explain how I feel. I'm just a 19 year-old producer in the Netherlands in the middle of nowhere making some beats in his small ass room and I managed to get Billy Ray Cyrus on one of my hip-hop beats. That's something so crazy. When it happened, every day I woke up like, This has to be a dream. It's too crazy to be true.
Do you have any ideas about what you want your career to look like?
I told myself when I was little [that] I wanted to be not just a normal human. I wanted to be unforgettable. I wanted to do something that would always be positively remembered. That was my first goal. And my second goal was just having a hobby and making money off it so I could live off it. I don't even want to be rich or something. I just wanted to make beats and survive off it. Both of those pretty much happened.