Interview w/ 88-Keys: Hip Hop in the Key of Life


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Hip-hop is an ever-evolving genre that is always in search of the new and hot thing, especially when it comes to sound. Longevity in hip hop has only been achieved by a select few producers. But with production featured on albums ranging from the classic Mos Def and Talib Kweli‘s Blackstar to last summer’s monumental Watch The Throne, 88-Keys has proven that he is among hip hop truly great producers. In 2008 the New York native made his emcee debut with Death Of Adam. Now, after founding Locksmith Music, 88 is adding label executive to his list of contributions to the culture. I caught up with 88 and discussed, among other things, the post Watch The Thone reaction to his sound, his thoughts on the proposed SOPA bill and his relationship with the late great J. Dilla.

Calvin: Talk a little bit about the idea behind Locksmith Music; the name and what you hope to accomplish musically.

88-Keys: The name Locksmith Music was the name of my former production company which I incorporated back in 1997. The first placement for that company was my work (‘Thieves In The Night”) on Blackstar’s album. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to start my own label and dissolved that incorporation and was able to retain that name and turn it into an LLC. I started the able to both help artists that I found who were dope and also to start building a brand for myself.

Calvin: I understand that you met the artists that you signed through Twitter and SoundCloud submissions.

88-Keys: Well, I had an idea for my next album to be a compilation of unsigned artists. Initially the idea was to have 13 different acts on an album entirely produced by myself. So I put out a casting call…and specifically asked people not to send their own music…just an email inquiry.

Calvin: Basically just saying they’re interested…

88 Keys: Exactly. A simple “How can I be down” or “I rap, what do I do know” is all I was looking for. Hundreds of people couldn’t follow simple instructions but that’s a whole other subject (laughs). That would be an interview about Generation X. A lot of rappers weren’t nearly as great as they claimed to be and there were just a handful that I rounded down to 13 acts…and eventually five. The five that I kept were the ones I started building a rapport with. Hearing them sharpen their skills and hit me with joints every week, I started thinking about what I would do next. It’s interesting because the time I wasn’t even really fucking with Hip-Hop. I wasn’t tuning in to the blogs to hear a bunch of wack rappers getting their songs posted every three or four days and eventually develop followings because they’re being posted four or five times a week. Then the audience gets gassed like these cats are dope when, in my opinion, they’re far from dope. They’re just okay rappers who got exposure. So I wasn’t buying into that. To get my hip hop fix I would just resort to playing A Tribe Called Quest, the original Slum Village. But as I’m hearing these cats (Locksmith artists) music, they’re getting me excited again. So there are really dope artists out there, they’re just not making it to the blogs for whatever reason. One night we had a magical session where recorded eight songs in one night and they all came out dope. That’s when it reaffirmed for me that I needed to start my own label and sign these dudes.

Calvin: So how did you feel about the response to the mixtape?

88-Keys: The mixtape I’ve been talking about this whole time hasn’t even come out yet. The mixtape that I did put out is called 88-Keys Presents Locksmith Music. That’s basically the warm-up. That was a compilation of material that I gathered from them well before I thought to sign them. The Source magazine actually premiered and it kind of went everywhere after that.

Calvin: So on that mixtape we’re basically hearing the music that you heard that got you excited about them?

88-Keys: Right.

Calvin: Coming from an artist and producer perspective, what type of challenges do you find yourself facing as a label executive?

88-Keys: I’m brand new to being a label but I’m not new to dealing with labels. Plus I’m doing everything on my own hands on. As far as the challenges, it’s a combination of people not paying attention especially younger fans. They’re so computer and technically savvy but it’s like they’re losing their common knowledge. Say for instance I put out a tweet saying “Yo, make sure you download my new mixtape” if I don’t put the link right there in that tweet, cats will be like “Where can I find it?” And I’m like…the Internet (laughs).

Calvin: That’s funny because I was checking out your timeline on Twitter yesterday and you had a back forth discussion that started out being about SOPA and kind of transitioned into a broader conversation about the internet and amateurism. Do you view the net as a gift and a curse?

88-Keys: Absolutely. It’s crazy you caught that (laughs). As you saw, his initial tweet to me about SOPA. He was responding to something he read on my Formspring where someone asked me about SOPA and my response was like although I know very little about it, but the little that I saw was that it was the government’s attack on piracy and intellectual property. But all of people on Twitter were panicking like “Oh, YouTube and Twitter are going to get shut down.” And I’m not jumping off a bridge if that happens. If Wikipedia shuts, oh well. I guess cats will just starting getting library cards again or actually talking to girls face to face. Maybe folks will be more active and fight obesity. But back to the bill itself, and granted I haven’t read it in full, but if this is a step toward stopping mufuckas’ from illegally downloading not only my music but any artist who works hard and this is their livelihood….i’m for it.

Calvin: At a roundtable a few years ago Young Guru spoke about kids not having common experiences attached to their consumption of music due in part to the internet.

88-Keys: They absolutely don’t. And actually feel bad for them because they don’t get a chance to really fall in love with the music they like. Growing up, I would buy two or three albums that would last me almost nine months And those were the only songs I ‘d listen to for that nine months until some new shit comes out. I wasn’t getting bombarded with new shit everyday with one song here and one song there. I had my Tribe shit, I’m listening to their album everyday to the point the whole album is seeping into my soul. Then I’d move on to a Cypress Hill or whatever. And if you make dope music I have no problem giving up eight dollars for some work that people put their soul into.

 

Calvin: As a fan, I truly believe Death Of Adam is one of the great, complete concept albums in hip hop. Do you stress to your artists the value of making complete albums?

88-Keys: It’s funny because I don’t have to stress that to my artists so much because that’s what they want to do anyway. For me, not every album has to tell a story, but it should have some cohesiveness. I’m not a fan of albums where every track is produced by a different producer with a completely different sound. For me it doesn’t gel. As opposed to a Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth album where Pete Rock does all the production. I’m down for consistency.

Calvin: Obviously you had a relationship with Kanye prior to your work on Watch The Throne, but talk about how it felt having your music on a project as big as that.

88-Keys: It didn’t really hit me until seeing my song trending for two days straight after the debut. All that stuff still hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m just noticed that the industry as far as the suits have their ear turned to me and are starting to be more receptive to my sound. My whole thing is that I’m not going to deviate from my sound…I’ll enhance it but I’m not going to change it. Like back when Lil Jon was winning and his sound was all over the radio…producers that I personally know switched up and went out and got keyboards and completely ran with that style just to get a check. I’m making beats to make money as well, but I’m not going to forfeit what I love.

Calvin: So, what’s next for Locksmith Music and what’s coming up in the next few months?

88-Keys: I signed five artists (Nemo Achida from Lexington, KY x Robert Akins III from Daphne, AL Tre DeJean from Arlington, TX Little Vic from Long Island, NY x Mann 95 from Hartford , CT) and right now collectively we have the 88-Keys Presents Locksmith Music out, which is available for download. We just released a rough draft of a Little Vic song called “Yeah Aight Though.” I’ve reached out to Action Bronson because I’d like him to jump on there if possible. The next project will be a mixtape with Mick Boogie called “Ready Set.” I’m producing the whole thing top to bottom . After that we’re working on all the artist’s individual mixtapes and from there we want to release the Green Light Means Go album which I want to shop for a distribution deal.

 

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