Producer's Corner: 88-Keys
Once Keys actually started producing records, he laced Black Stars seminal Thieves In The Night, and would go on to lace heaters for both Mos and Talib, Musiq, Pharcyde and others. While his discography doesnt remotely amount to his years of work, things should be different after this year. June will see the release of The Death of Adam: a narrative-based, primarily instrumental album that uses features from Kanye West, Shitake Monkey, and others to show the power of the vag. Read on to see Keys talk about his upcoming LP, expand on his friendships with the likes of Q-Tip and Kanye West, and give historical behind-the-scenes accounts of what would become legendary Hip Hop moments.
HipHopDX: Was Black Star's Thieves In The Night your first placement?
88-Keys: My very first placement was a remix for this group called Network Repz. The original song was called Collabo, my song was called Dos Collabo (Hip Hops Delight). I was pretty psyched about it, because with the remix, they added Bahamadia to it. And she was pretty big, at the time she had an album out. I believe KRS was supposed to get on it, but that didnt happen. Me and my man Nat had a group, ACG Live, and we got on the hook doing background vocals or whatever.
The thing is, they actually bought the very first beat that I ever made on the equipment I use today, which is the [Akai MPC 3000]. By the time they received that beat till I got to the studio to lay it down, I had improved immensely. My beats still werent ill like that, but they were way better than the joint they picked from me. So I was kind of begging them, like, Nah, Ive got other joints, listen to this. Theyre like, Nah, man, they just went with what I had originally had, which was my super wack DJ Premier bite. So that was the first joint I got credited for that I got paid for. I got shorted by Nervous Records, or whoever was running it at the time, but I was just happy to get money for a beat. That was mind-boggling for me. Then maybe a year later or so, I did Thieves In The Night.
DX: Howd you link with Mos and Talib?
88-Keys: I linked up with Mos through my good friend, Shawn J Period. I used to go to a lot of sessions with The Artifacts, and at the time, Shawn J Period was working with them, and Duro, whos now Super-engineer Duro, whos recording mixing the album and Platinum Island Studios in New York City. So I would go there and hang out just to get the vibe and see professionals at work, and see what the goings-on was. So Mos would eventually start coming by. Its funny, because Id say What up to Mos, and hed say Whats up, but he never used to acknowledge me other than the initial meeting. I saw him every now and then, and he would just be in the room, Id be in the roomwed stare each other down for like half a second and keep it moving or whatever. So Im looking at this guy, like, Oh man, this guy is trying to play me, and hes a nobody just like me. So eventually, at the Stakes Is High video shoot, Mos was there, and I was trying to get up in the video. Again, I have to repeat, I was a nobody, so aint get no love shown this way. I gave Mos a beat tape, back when the actual tape cassettes (were in), with my 30 second beat snippets. He called me a day or two later, and hes like, Your shit is dope, your shit is dope. And the next time I saw him in the studio, its pounds all around the room. [Laughs]
DX: Did you record that track in the studio with them?
88-Keys: Thats a funny story. Kweli picked the beat from me, and he was saying he had an idea for the song, that him and Mos were recording an album together, and that he wanted a song for the album. Im like, Cool, lets do it. Im like, Ima hit up Mos, to see whats good. Come to find out, Mos didnt like the beat at all, but he was doing it as a favor for Kweli. I was living with my parents at the time, I had my equipment in the basement in Long Island. These dudes took a cab all the way from Brooklynthis was foreshadowing of baller status, I should have peeped it back thenbut they took a cab all the way from Brooklyn, Kweli had a son who was like one year old at the time, almost in the middle of the night, on some seven oclock shit. One of my sisters babysat Kwelis son, and we went to the basement. Kweli already had his verse written, and I had a four-track recorder with a little BS microphone, so I recorded the joint, and after Kweli laid his verse, he explained to Mos what the song was about, and his inspiration for the song was a book called The Bluest Eye. Mos did a complete 180I dont even know if he liked the beat at that time still, but he liked Kwelis rap and how the whole joint came togetherso not only did Mos write his verse, but he wrote a 44-bar verse that he was pretty adamant about not shortening it. Me and Kweli are looking at him like, Hes buggin'. Thats not a 16, Rawkus aint havin that. Mos was like, I dont care. All this is staying.
So after they recorded it, I asked them for permission to do further production on the song. The song is super chopped up, but before it was just a four-bar beat or whatever, and I wanted to get in and really program it. Theyre like, As long as it dont sound wack, its all good. So maybe a few weeks later, we recorded the song in this studio in Brooklyn, and thats when I laid the beat down initially, the four-bar beat, how they initially rapped to it, so it wasnt throwing them off. Once they laid their joints down, I retracked the beat. Man, I really fucked everybodys heads up in the studio. Theyre like, Aw man, that sounds like a live band! With all the change-ups and stuff! I got paid for the track, and I was on top of the world when that happened. The rest was pretty much history.
To this day, Ive never really been on no political stuff. Im one of the dumb guys that doesnt read; play video games, make beats or whatever. I used to read Maxim, but that was the extent of it or whatever. I know the content of the song is deep and everything, and theyre real deep themselves when they want to be, and usually they are, but the song just touched me differently only because that was the first time I was able to take creative control of something and try my idea without somebody telling me No.
DX: Youre pretty well respected, but your catalog isnt as widely-known as others. But it seems like youre always working. Why is that ratio between how much youre working on and what comes out with your name on it so skewed?
88-Keys: A lot of things go into that. Mainly, truth be told, I really couldnt get a lot of beats sold, especially after Pro Tools came out. I got a lot of beats off, I tracked a lot of beats, I got paid a lot of front ends, which really sustained my lifestyle and helped out my family and all that. Got me a 4.6 Range [Rover] and all that! Or I had that, I should say. Ill track a joint for cats, get the cheese or whatever, and it just wouldnt come out. I guess whoever had the executive decision between the artist and whoever else was in charge had other material that they felt suited their albums better. I never really got discouraged, but at the same time, I was doing a lot of my own legwork until I met my current manager Daniel Glogower, with Skyscraper Management. And even then, it was kind of tough. I guess my stuff just wasnt hitting cats ears like I wouldve liked, even though I felt otherwise. I felt a lot of artists I submitted work to was better than stuff they actually used for their albums. I did like three songs for The Pharcyde that were supposed to be on their album Plain Rap, I have no idea what happened but I did smokers for them. One had De La Soul, all three members rapping on it.
I just started thinking about this lately, because I guess with the little buzz Im getting now about my upcoming debut album and the joints Im putting on my MySpace from the mixtape Im working on, my recent involvement with OkayPlayer. A lot of my fans, to their knowledge, the last thing I did was Black on Both Sides. At first, I was kind of perplexed. Not like, Im 88-Keys, and you should recognize me. But just for them to know the track record, and to even know the samples that I use, and follow my career to the very beginning so to speak.
DX: Talk about the album, The Death of Adam.
88-Keys: Oh, boy. Ive got to say, my other best friend, KanyeIve got to preface this by saying a lot of cats really didnt know where he was coming from, they mistakenly put the arrogant tag on him for saying he loves his album, and hes got the best album out as far as albums that hes heard and stuff. But Ive got to honestly say that I feel the same way about my album. My album is so well put-together so far, Im still in the trenches with it, Im two or three songs short from completion which should be wrapped up in the next couple of days, God willing. I think my album is really nothing short of incredible, or at least really, really, really damn good. Its called The Death of Adam, Ive been working on this album for a little more than a year and a half. I feel like I stepped it up as a producer, and I learned a lot about myself with making this album, and I learned a lot about making music with this album as well.
In a nutshell, the album is about the power of the punani. It was mainly instrumental, but I have a few features on there to get my story across. The album details the life of any guy that you know, you could be that guy, weve all been this guy, and weve all come across the female in question on the album. Its pretty descriptive, and Ive put a lot into it. I have the instrumentals telling the story of Adam, whos my character on the album, who represents man. Its kind of ill.
DX: How difficult is it to tell a story with instrumentals?
88-Keys: I told you, it took me like a year and a half now! [Laughs] Its pretty difficult, but once I got through the first four or five joints that I made, I wont say that it's less difficult, but I knew how to approach it. Well that would make it less difficult, right? Yeah. What an idiot. I definitely didnt breeze through it, Ill tell you that much. Each joint was fine-tuned, I tried to be as creative as possible. I stayed away from looping anything, which has been me since I got on the MPC 3000 anyway, I dont loop anything, really. Ive got a song called, Nice guys finish last. The hook is saying, (sings) Be nice to her, be nice to her. Im making the beat tell the story, then everything else is instrumental. But everything is in a chronological order, so you see how the story develops and unfolds. You know what happens at the end, but its how he gets there thats kind of interesting. I think after this album comes out, a lot of people will fuck with me, on some, 88-Keys is a producer. 88-Keys got ill beats. 88-Keys can put an album together. 88-Keys concepts are ill. Straight up grit, Im strictly stupendous! to quote my man Diamond D.
DX: What made you take on that theme?
88-Keys: I thought, What gives me pleasure? So I thought, Polo clothes, blue label of course, give me pleasure, when Im out coppin. Making beats bring me pleasure. Money. Im like, Boom! I know what gives me pleasure! Pussy! So as soon as that thought came into my head, Im like, Okay. Im scrapping all the other beats I had made for my album so far, and Im starting with this one. This is the first beat for my album. And I just stayed on it.
So Im like, This song is going to be about pussy somehow. Ive got to flip it, I dont know how, but its got to be about pussy. So I left that one alone, and I went to another record to try to make a new song, a new beat. All of a sudden, the words on the album were jumping out at me. I dont know if I was horny that day or what, but I just started hearing a bunch of vaginal references again. So I made another beat, chopped it up, and the beat came out ill. I kind of tailored it to talk about the vagina in some way, shape or form. Then I did another one like that that jumped out at me, and Im like, Hmm, Im starting to notice a pattern here. It wasnt even a story yet, I just had four beats about skins. Then eventually, I was getting more and more ideas, and shaping them and taking stabs at it, pun intended. Nah let me chill, cause Im married, my wifell kick my ass when she reads this. You see how I got thrown off? See, the power. Thats what The Death of Adams about! Stuff like that is on my album, all unintentional. Eventually, my album started to take life, a shape of its own. I started to learn a lot of things about myself, and making beats and tailoring stuff to get it as good as I could possibly make it, like beats and songs, and eventually putting an album together.
DX: It seems like youre three degrees of separation from every artist; youve mentioned cats in conversation with me, and Im wondering, How does he even know him?
88-Keys: I met a lot of myand I dont use this term looselyI met a lot of my heroes that I looked up to in the music industry from selling records. Between me buying my first records to linking up with John Carrero, I was like his employee, so I started doing Roosevelt Record Conventions with him. I started meeting people there. I started interning at a studio around my way in Long Island, I became an assistant engineer just from my will to learn. I met Busta over there, Das EFX, LL Cool J. People were coming through, I eventually started making beats. This doesnt apply back then, because I was nowhere near where I am now, but Im pretty laid back, Im pretty chill, Im easy to get along with, Im easy to talk to. I dont really have a lot of inhibitions. Me meeting Busta Rhymes for the first timeand this is when Leaders of the New School were already hittingI was his assistant engineer on the Coming album. So he was already a huge star, and his persona and his presence and stuff was like, Oh shoot, you really are a star. But I wasnt on some quiet shit, like a little mouse in the corner. I was just introducing myself. I guess in the back of my mind, knowing Im eventually going to be in the industry, and even though Busta Rhymes to this day is way higher up on the ladder and food chain than I am, I still consider him my peer. So I just kept myself grounded, and just started looking at these stars and celebrities and heroes as regular people during the day job. So my pollying game is pretty sick [laughs], considering back then I didnt really have a lot of ammo. I had a lot of beats to back myself up, but I didnt have any platinum records or anything. But I could approach Puffy and talk to him, or whoever I met back then, to this day. I met a lot of people in my youth, and through those people, running around with them, maybe hitting the road or the studio with some cats, and meeting other cats. I met Erykah Badu before she came out, DAngelo before he came out, I met them at The Roots' sessions.
DX: Whether its ideals with music or your ideals in general, youve always seemed like a real old spirit. Have you heard that a lot?
88-Keys: Yeah, something like that. Like I said, Im uninhibited. I just love life, I love the creator, I love my family. Im real comfortable with my surroundings, Im comfortable outside of my surroundings. Im just real happy, Ive always been really happy with life in general. I just try not to take it for granted. As far as me being in the industry, I really look at it as a job. I feel blessed to have a job which is actually my hobby and something I can do for the rest of my life. I was with [Q-Tip] the other day, and he just had the same sentiments. He was working on beats and coming across samples, and he was like, out of nowhere, Yo, man, I love making beats! Just with that oomph and that emphasis. Im like, Man, I feel you.
Im a people person, Ive always been. Cats be like, Man, 88, youre a real person. And Im like, Yeah, I bleed like you bleed. Shit, I like McDonalds [combo] Number 2. Especially with me working on this album and opening myself up for criticism and stuff, I really wanted to see what was on peoples minds for the most part, in reference to myself. I guess I dont openly invite or strike up conversations, but I dont shy away from them either. Thats only because of my time. Im trying to put stuff together on my end, try to give people the best music I can possibly make with me being one man making it.