Creative Strategies for Producers w/ Matt Shadetek: Copying, Learning, and Creativity

In this creative strategies article, Logic expert and Dutty Artz label owner Matt Shadetek explores how you can benefit from copying, and how to avoid some common pitfalls.


Because it’s easier than ever to make and share music, the need to differentiate yourself and stand out is greater than ever as well. For beginners, one of the common approaches to learn a craft is to copy other skilled artists. While this is an important approach for learning, it’s also worth thinking about some of the risks associated with working this way. In this article, I’ll explore ways to benefit from copying, and how to avoid some common pitfalls.

First, let’s look at some of the positive aspects of copying as it relates to learning. When I was about fifteen, I interned for a video graphics company in Manhattan to learn about 3D animation. Like many digital art forms, it’s very easy to make something crappy and quite hard to make something excellent.

I quickly learned that there were certain things that the software could create very quickly and easily. If your image called for lots of cubes and spheres, with a sunset in the background, you had clearly chosen the right tool. If you wanted to create a humanoid character with a flowing cape and long hair blowing in the wind, however, you were in for a major challenge. The result was that much of the art in this field was clearly shaped by the tools. People tended to follow the path of least resistance, creating works that the software made easy. At the time, I read an article in 3D Artist magazine in which the author advocated creating clay sculptures of the objects and characters you wanted to create first. By committing to a prototype model, it challenged you to push past the easy choices and stick to your vision.

Let’s take a musical example. Imagine you hear a synthesizer bass sound on a record, and would like to have a similar bass sound in your own track. Listening, imitating, and comparing is useful because, like the clay model, it forces you to try to create something specific, not just play around and see what happens. You leave the path of least resistance and reach for something defined, whether it’s easy or not. I’ve learned a great deal of what I know about sound design by struggling to copy specific sounds from my favorite records.

As you develop, your copying skills improve. This is where you enter the creative danger zone. Once you can copy things pretty well, you run the risk of copying something so closely that it becomes unoriginal. At this stage, there is still value in copying things you enjoy, to learn how they are constructed. However, these studies will not be usable as original work.

One strategy that has helped me to use copying without becoming derivative is creative combination. While there are only 12 notes in an octave, somehow we continuously recombine those notes and create new original works again and again. We have a similar opportunity when it comes to stylistic characteristics. Copying an element that you like, and re-contextualizing it in a different style is one approach.

For example, let’s say I hear a style of hip hop drum programming that I find interesting. If I use some of those ideas in a house track, people may hear it as being quite original, since that technique was not familiar or common in that context. We see this often with the evolution of new sub-genres.

Recently, we’ve seen the rise of the instrumental trap movement. In terms of it’s formal elements, it offers nothing new. The beats and bass have been commonly used in southern hip hop for a long time, and the synths and sonic textures are common in house and dubstep. What has merited a new sub-genre name is the combination of these elements in a way that feels inventive and fresh.

We’ve also seen artists break out using this approach. The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye), an R&B singer from Toronto, has combined the sensual ballad style of artists like R. Kelly with the darker sonics of groups like Portishead. The result feels very fresh in the current musical landscape, and has catapulted Tesfaye to international acclaim. I consider this combinatorial approach to be a healthy middle ground between direct copying and creating original work. As one of my favorite film directors Wong Kar Wai has said, “We are all going back to the same supermarket trying to find new combinations with the same ingredients.”

The great danger of copying for both students and veteran artists, is in the feeling of competence it creates. This often manifests among people who speak of their work as being “professional quality.” The emphasis on making something as good as another artist can be incredibly limiting. It causes people to believe that by achieving a standard of quality similar to something already existent, they can be successful.

In a short-term sense, this may be true: there are many short-sighted people, especially in the commercial music business, who are looking for “the same, but different.” However, those of us who have the goal of adding something to the conversation, of expanding the boundaries of what has been done in our field, this is simply not good enough. This approach will only allow you to achieve a middle-of-the-pack rank in your field. You’ll be better than the people who lack the skills to copy effectively, but will never surpass the creative leaders.

This is not to say that being original is without risk. Attempting something new is always risky but, as they say in the world of investing, risk is proportional to reward. In this era where creating derivative work is easier than ever, not taking risks is risk in itself. You risk being trapped in the midst of a pack of mediocre artists who are similarly afraid to take chances.

Copying is neither good nor bad. It has a place in our arsenal of tools, and has been a part of even the greatest artists process. Vincent Van Gogh, regarded by many as one of the greatest painters in history, produced many studies that copied the work of predecessors he admired, notably Jean-François Millet. Copying is an invaluable technique when refining our technical, formal skills. In the realm of style, copying and combining ideas from different areas can be a fruitful tactic. The key is to be sure that, as we incorporate other influences into our own work, we maintain awareness of exactly how we want to be similar and, more importantly, how we want to be different.

About Matt Shadetek

Matt Shadetek is one of New York City’s most exciting producers. His live sets encompass contemporary Dancehall, UK Funky, and Dubstep, all delivered with Shadetek’s unique production voice which bridges the underground-mainstream divide. He’s one of the rare DJs who can rock a crowd with sets composed solely of his own dancefloor bangers and remixes.

Matt’s early love for Hip Hop and Dancehall along with edgy electronic sounds led to his Warp Records debut album Burnerism as part of the duo Team Shadetek. While Matt was living in Berlin and touring Europe, the followup LP Pale Fire was released, featuring the underground hit “Brooklyn Anthem”. The hit song kick-started a dance craze in the Brooklyn reggae scene (leading to over 100 fan videos of kids dancing to it).

Returning to NYC, Matt founded the Dutty Artz label/production crew with DJ /Rupture. Shadetek produced Jahdan Blakkamoore’s debut album, Buzzrock Warrior (!K7), pioneering its signature Reggae-Dubstep-Rap sound. In 2009 he also teamed up with Rupture to release the mix album Solar Life Raft (The Agriculture). His latest release, on Dutty Artz, is Flowers, an effervescent solo instrumental effort that references dubstep, UK Funky and Garage. He has toured internationally both solo and accompanied by Jahdan as vocalist.

Connect with Matt on Twitter | SoundCloud | Website


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