REWIND:88 KEYS Nodfactor Interview

JLBarrow • August 23, 2009 • 3 Comments

Giving this oldie but goodie some light cuz it’s still one of my favorite interviews to date. Go cop Death of Adam!

88keysIt’s about time 88 Keys started yelling. The totally off the radar producer has been quietly amassing an enviable discography. From Black Star’s “Thieves in The Night” (thanks Eskay!) to Beanie Sigel’s “Watch Your Bitches” and Musiq Soulchild’s “Her” he’s kept heads ringing for years. Now he is preparing to release his first solo album, The Death of Adam, executive produced by Kanye West. Yeah, that Kanye West. On the eve of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop festival 88 Keys took a moment to speak with Nodfactor about the little death, producing for Jay-Z and why he’ll never give up his MPC-3000.

NODFACTOR: Tell me what your CD, The Death of Adam, is all about. What is that title supposed to be about?

88 Keys: The title is actually a reference to the female genitalia. The vagina. The entire album is based around the woman’s vagina, and the character Adam who represents the man. Just trying to get some. Just trying to get his off.


NODFACTOR: How does the woman’s vagina equate to the death of Adam?

[laughs] Man, I thought it would be quite obvious.

NODFACTOR: Well, obviously Eve came second but I want you to say it.

[laughs] “These opinions are strictly that of the artist”…My album is a passive album, and is a very story, a really strict story line. A story that follows Adam and his plight to get some, and it eventually leads to his death. It’s not a spoiler alert, you know, because it’s called The Death of Adam, but it’s how he dies. This is why people would want to purchase the album and figure it out. She winds up killing him. But it’s all suggested, is it literally, is it metaphorically, is it financially, is it all of the above? That’s where the secret lies.

NODFACTOR: You just put out a mixtape called Adam’s Case Files, which is pretty clever. Is it a prequel or the aftermath? Because Adam’s already dead…

The content on the album is what happens before but you know, the cover is kinda a flip of my album cover. Once people see my album cover, which Kanye helped me redesign with his artistic flavor…

NODFACTOR: Some day-glo blood?

Yeah. The content and the story line that I piece together is pretty much all the stuff that Adam went through with different chicks, before he met the one that offed him on the album. It’s all suggestive. Were they different chicks or was it like one chick? People can probably piece it together how they want. The story’s pretty much there though.

NODFACTOR: Yeah, I kinda got a sense of that when I listened to “Cuddle Bums” with Tanya Morgan. The story they’re telling, basically, yo man, we’re just cuddling, you sleep in your bed, I’ll sleep in mine. My bed is comfortable…

Exactly. I did a lot of those songs months and weeks apart. My deadline was coming up, so about a hour, a half an hour before I had to turn it in, I pieced it together as a story. Before that, they were just random songs and stuff. Well, it was all within the same subject matter, all focused around females and the relationship between men and women today. But I just threw it together as a storyline just to have fun with it and give people something a little more cohesive.

NODFACTOR: Your catalog is pretty intense, going back as a hip hop fan. Talk to me about the making of “Thieves In The Night”.

Man, that’s a funny story. Talib Kweli actually picked that beat from me off of my beat tape, back when beat tapes were actually beat tapes, cassettes, you know? I used to make my 20 second beats, snippets, on those 10 minute cassettes. 5 minutes on each side. So he picked the beat from me, and this is back when I was living with my parents and I had my makeshift studio in the basement. Talib Kweli and Mos Def and Kweli’s son who was, at the time, about 3 years old, they all took a cab out to Long Island from Brooklyn. As soon as that happened, I knew these guys would be a big deal. Like, they were “Baaallinnn!” They were ballin’ before record deals, because there’s no way I’m paying for a cab that far. So they came through like 7 o’clock in the evening, this was the winter time so it was pretty dark. We got to the basement – my sister actually babysat Kweli’s son upstairs – and Kweli started writing. Mos was just looking through my records, and zoning out and stuff. I recorded Kweli’s first verse on my four-track. Now, up until this time, I had no idea that Mos Def not only did he not pick the beat, he didn’t like the beat. At all.

NODFACTOR: Do you remember what he didn’t like about it? I read this part of the story on another site. He said he didn’t like the beat. But what didn’t he like about it?

To tell the truth, I don’t even think he discussed it. I don’t think we discussed it. I think he was just like, “Mannnn…”

NODFACTOR: He was like, “I’m not feeling it.”

Yeah.

NODFACTOR: But Talib did.

Yeah, yeah. Kweli explained the song and about what he wrote and his ideas. And his idea for the song, inspired by the book “The Bluest Eye” [by Toni Morrison] and stuff like that. And Kweli said his verse for Mos then once Mos heard that, he just immediately snapped into his zone and he went on to write a 44 bar verse. Me and Kweli were looking at each other like, there’s no way Rawkus is going to let a 44 bar verse fly. We trying to get on the radio – 16 bars, 8 bar hook, 16 bar verse, 8 bar hook. “C’mon man, we gotta stick to the formula!” But Mos was pretty adamant on leaving things as is. So I recorded Mos’ verse on my four-track. Before they left my crib, I asked them if I could go in and do further production on it. They was like, yeah, just as long as the beat doesn’t change. So I wound up…initially they rapped to a four bar beat, so then what it came out being was this whole programming that I did around their vocals. So by the time we were in a professional studio, or a semi-professional studio when we were recording out in Brooklyn, they laid their verses to the four bar beat so they won’t be thrown off. And I retracked the beat with the way it came out on the album, and everyone was pretty much blown away.

NODFACTOR: So how did you retrack it? How do you change a four bar beat? Did you change it to an eight bar beat?

Yeah. I changed it to an eight bar beat and I did some extra chops here and there. I tried to accent some parts of the raps by letting the sample play out a little more.

NODFACTOR: Was that so Mos’ 44 bars wouldn’t seem quite so long?

Yeah…well, it’s funny because it didn’t seem long at all for some strange reason. I guess because I really liked the song and it was my second time really working with real artists that was actually getting paper. I was on Cloud 9 all together. It was more so I could prove that it isn’t a loop, I don’t loop beats. This is a sample chop, I did a lot of work with it to get it to this point. If anybody were to find the original, they’ll see what I did with it and probably give me a little props for it.

NODFACTOR: So speaking of sampling and chopping, did you and Hi-Tek ever get a chance to talk about beatmaking during the making of the first Black Star album?

Nah, actually I think I only sat in on one of their sessions. You know what, I think they tracked “Knowledge of Self” the same day they tracked “Thieves In The Night.” But I don’t remember Hi-Tek being there – I think he just sent the reels over or something. I believe I was there for tracking one of the songs on the Black Star album but I was there for a lot of the Reflection Eternal album. But we never got down to talking about how we do music and stuff. He would just put beats up and I would just stand there in amazement. Like, “Aw man, how did you get your bass lines to jump like that?”

NODFACTOR: That’s a question I’ve asked him and he doesn’t answer straight on. There’s a track he did for 50, “Rider Music”, and I’m like, how the hell do you get everything to sound so warm? He said, “It’s analog, I sample from records.” But I’m like, that alone can’t be it. Because a lot of people sample from records but he has this way of getting this hum out of beats that I can’t do. It’s even harder to duplicate now with all that electronic software.

I believe he used to mix his own stuff too, and I think that might have to do with his sound. Or if he doesn’t still mix his own stuff, I’m guessing he might guide the engineer. Might say, you know, “This is how I want the bass.”

NODFACTOR: Well, he did say he would go run them through a mixing board and he’d get ‘em sounding real warm. But I’m like, how many people got a 20 thousand dollar SSL in their crib?

Exactly. Hi-Tek does. I heard he has a studio in Kentucky, which is on the border of his hometown. Yeah, I heard his studio is really official. Like he has a freakin’ plaque on the floor saying “Hi-Tek Studios.” Some next level. I’m like, Man, it must be nice!

NODFACTOR: What did you do on “May-December,” on the Mos Def album?

Yeah, actually. I co-produced it, but I guess like 3 of us produced it, so I tri-produced it! [laughs] It started off with Mos Def, he picked the beat from me, which was the intro piano that you hear and then the drum program…I think my original bass line was in the intro as well. And Mos kinda zoned out and started playing crazy different instruments. Actually, I think, rest in peace, the late great master Weldon Irvine, played the keys first on top of my drums. And then on top of my sample. Then we took the intro sample piano out and then Mos zoned and started playing everything else. Like he played the vibraphone, the bass line – I think he put himself on a vocoder and stuff. Mos Def is really prolific with instruments, hands on. He pretty much taught himself how to play several different instruments, on some Prince shit. It’s funny too, because during a lot of sessions, we all knew that if Mos Def came through, and there was any instrument…it could be a harmonica sitting on the table, any instrument. It could be a kazoo! Mos could pick it up and figure out how to play it. And he will not put it down until he figures out how to play it. So there’s hours of studio time just spent with him in his zone, literally hours.

NODFACTOR: Word. What about “Love” and “Speed Law”?

Yeah, that’s all me. Actually, I don’t know if people know this or not, but “Speed Law” was supposed to be the first single on the album. But I dunno if anyone remembers, there was a time when The Source would have upcoming singles reviewed by other people in the industry.

NODFACTOR: That was before my era. I was only there for 3 years, from 2002-2005 but I think I remember that.

They reviewed “Speed Law” and pretty much dissed it. So then, next thing you know, [imitates car braking], “Miss Fat Booty” came out.

NODFACTOR: In hindsight, do you think “Miss Fat Booty” was a better choice as a single?

I guess “Miss Fat Booty” has more appeal to the females and stuff like that. But to this day, I think sonically “Speed Law” is a better song. I know a lot of fans of Mos Def love “Miss Fat Booty”, ‘cause it’s the first single and they had a video and stuff like that. So I can’t truly gauge if people like that over “Speed Law.” Especially nowadays – who listens to albums nowadays? Album cuts, everyone listens to the singles.

NODFACTOR: So how did you connect with Beanie Sigel to do those cuts on The Reason?

Oh man, that’s another funny story. I was with Just Blaze, I bumped into him on the corner. And I’ve known him for a long time, way before he was [imitates Just Blaze’s famous intro drop] “JUST BLAAZE!” I knew him when he was Justin. Little old Just from the cutting room, the intern at the cutting room where they engineer. By the time I bumped into him again, he was like “JUST BLAAZE!”, but not full fledged yet. So I was working with Jane Doe at the time, and he was interested in hearing her stuff, because he actually did a track on her album which never came out on EMI. And I did the majority of the production on it. So he wanted to hear what I had. So I played him a whole bunch of stuff and he was like, “Yo, this shit is crazy. Is this stuff ever coming out?” I’m like, “Man, I dunno.” So he tells me he’s working with Beanie Sigel and he’s in with Roc-a-fella and Jay-Z. I was like, For real? He’s like, “Yeah. Man, I could hear two of these tracks for Beans.” I was like, Oh, okay. “The Truth” was already out, so I definitely knew who he was and I was pretty excited. So he picked two tracks from Jane Doe’s album to play for Beanie Sigel. And I was like, I’ll get some more stuff together.

He invited me to Baseline Studio, and there were cats there. So I played the beats Just wanted me to play and I came through with some other stuff. Nothing got picked at the time. So I asked if I could come back. I started hanging out there a bit to catch the vibe. And he was like, Ah yeah, come back and hit us with some more stuff. I kinda got the vibe that it’s something hard, gangsta beats, so I kinda got into that zone.

So then I made the beat that eventually made it on his album, but I didn’t give it to him initially. Initially I gave it to Jay-Z. I was walking out of Def Jam one day and Jay-Z was walking in one day. I gave Jay-Z the CD, I put it in his hands and he tried to play me like, “Ah well, you know. You could just send this into the office” or whatever. I’m like, Yo, it’s me. ‘Cause I had just reacquainted myself with him, because I met him back in the days too. But I just reacquainted myself with him, by going to the studio and stuff. So he tried to send me, like “You could just send this to this address.” So the same day I took the CD and went over to Baseline. And I had like 4 beats, there’s like 3 beats, 3 out of like 10 beats on there. Brand new beats that cats kinda went crazy for. And one of them was the Beanie Sigel, “Watch Your Bitches” beat. He actually made the song like a lyricist, that’s a freestyle that he made right on the spot. We were there until 4 in the morning recording it. But it was crazy. The next day, they made me the unofficial member of the Roc-A-Fella family. And Jay walks in the next day, he’s like, “Dog, yo, why didn’t you give me that beat?! I’m looking for that heat too!” I’m like, man, I put this CD in your hands. What are you talking about? He’s like, Word? That was on there?

NODFACTOR: How often does that happen with people saying, “Oh, you know” and then later on they’re like, “Wait a minute! Why didn’t you try to give me the beat?”

That actually happened to me a couple of times but that’s the most memorable with Jay-Z. But I eventually ended up recording two songs with him, but they just didn’t make any of the final cuts for his albums.

NODFACTOR: Which albums were they slated to be on?

One was slated to be for The Black Album…Actually, I think both of them were supposed to go on The Black Album. I know one was definitely for “The Black Album”, and the other one might’ve been for the The Black Album or The Blueprint 2. One of the two. He recorded them, I was in his studio at the time. To this day I’ve still never heard it but Young Guru told me, “Man, the shit came out banging.” I was like, “Gee, thanks.”

NODFACTOR: Now you’ve done a good deal of R&B as well, what was it like working with Musiq Soulchild?

K: Aw man, it was a hoot and a holler. Yeah, Musiq Soulchild, me and him, we became really tight friends. We kinda have the same vibe and the same spirit and both in and out of the studio, just fun times all around.

NODFACTOR:I wanted to speak specifically on Soulstar, because I feel it runs circles around the new Musiq CD. You did the one with him and Bilal, “Dontstop”…

Yeah, and I did the one that comes on immediately after that, which is id’d as the same song, called “Her”.

NODFACTOR: Those are my two favorite songs on the album. Please talk about how you made those.

Aw man, good lookin’. They were pretty much just beats and stuff…like the one song, “Her”, I actually had a moment with that one song there, because as soon as I made that song, I called my man up. The late great J Dilla, I called Jay Dee up and I was like, Ay yo, check this beat out. And I played it for him over the phone. And he was like, Man, that shit is hot. And I was like, Aw, you know what that is? He goes, Nah B, and I say, Listen to it again. And I played it for him again and the same thing happens. He could not figure out where I sampled that from. I have to preface this by saying that Jay Dee or Dilla is one of four people who I share my samples with and I tell him who I use. Because anyone else, I’ll be like, Sample? What sample?

We went back and forth on the phone about four times with me playing the beat and eventually I started singing a hook on a song he made, one of the early Slum Village songs. He actually used the sample I chopped up and but he looped it. So I started singing over my beat for what became “Her”, I started singing, “You know what love is? It got something to do with…” And he just started screaming over the phone, like, Damn, dog! Damnnn! Man, you chopped up…Damn, dog! You gotta send me that. I just caught the same sample and I just chopped it up. And I sent it over to him so he could hear it and fuck with it and stuff.

I think when I made that beat CD it was around the same time I did the joint for Beanie Sigel. So actually in the same session, I think in a tracking session with Beanie Sigel, Musiq called me and told me that he’s picking those two beats. I was like, Sweet!

I have to say, with the song “Dontstop”, when we were mixing it, we were down to the 11th hour of mixing the album. By the time we got down to that song, Bilal came to the session a few hours late. So his vocals, he had at least 12 tracks of vocals, and anybody who’s a fan of Bilal, and really studies his music, they’ll know that his vocal arrangement is sick. So him showing up to the session late, the engineer actually mixed his vocals and adjusted all the levels and stuff like that, so he really wasn’t too thrilled about how it happened.

And if you notice, and go back to this song and you hear some of Bilal’s background vocals, his vocals are pretty low and some background vocals are where the leads should be. All in all, the fans were pretty pleased about the song.

NODFACTOR: What’s going on with Mos Def? Is he ever coming out with another album?

I heard he was, But I haven’t spoken to him in quite some time. The few times I heard he was performing in town, I was super busy myself. So I can’t really get at him. I heard he moved not too far away from where I stay, I don’t think he’s too far out of reach from me.

I just been so busy wrapped up with my own album that I haven’t really been reaching out to cats and stuff like that.

NODFACTOR: So you still get down with an MPC 3000?

That’s what I’ve been rocking for over 15 years now.

NODFACTOR: Wow. It hasn’t conked out on you or run out of memory?You dropping disks out son, for real.

I have the same one I’ve been using the whole time. Actually right now I do need to take it to the shop to get some tweaks or whatever. Some buttons I gotta push extra hard just to do one thing or whatever. Actually I just got an upgrade for it. For a cat who’s doing music nowadays and buying the software programs, this is really nothing, not really a big deal, or for those cats who’s buying the MPC 2500 or the MPC 4000. But I got this upgrade from Australia, 3.50, it just has a few more things that the original MPC 3000 couldn’t do.

From the 2500s to the 4000s, they still do way more, some useful stuff, but I’m just stuck on my 3000. I don’t even wanna switch. I’ve had my man Needlz try to convince me, and Reason [synthesizer software] the master DJ Khalil try to convince me. Khalil actually gave me Reason to use and I’m like, man, I’m good, thanks.

NODFACTOR: Khalil’s been doing his thing with the Reason.

Man. He’s a beast. He almost convinced me to try to test it out because this dude literally makes beats on the spot. He let me know that a G-Unit member, either 50 or Lloyd Banks, picked a beat from me. He was 100 % certain and it turned out that it was true. One of them, I think it was Lloyd Banks, did pick a beat from me and tracked it and everything. I heard when he found out, he was at a video that day they were shooting, and he made a beat on the spot. He had his keyboard in his backpack and Reason on his laptop and made a beat on the spot. And I believe he sold it. After I heard that, I was like, Hmm, maybe Reason isn’t so bad. Maybe I need to reason with Reason.

NODFACTOR: So what is it about the MPC 3000 that endears you to it so much?

K: It’s really another appendage of mine. I remember when my boy Ge-ology, another producer, a painter, an artist, when he first go his Xcel 2000, he’s like, can you teach me how to use this? I’m like, I don’t really know nothing about it but I’ll try. I went to his crib and I could not figure how to sample or nothing.

It’s a completely different machine. Another friend of mine inherited an MPC 4000 ‘cause his man loaned it to him asking him to hold it and his man went to jail. He wound up bringing his 4000 over to the crib, expecting me to teach him. Literally man, I fell asleep in front of that thing for an hour. Like I was trying to figure it out and just nodded off. An hour later, still can’t figure it out.

But the 3000, man…I wanna say I know it like the back of my hand, but there’s still things on there I’ve never used before.

NODFACTOR: Really?

Yeah, like the whole MIDI thing. Because I don’t play piano, I don’t play a lick of any instrument.

NODFACTOR: You’re kidding!

Yeah. I wish I were.

NODFACTOR: Then you’re an extremely adept sample manipulator.

Exactly. A lot of people think I play keys, besides the name, just from the sound of the music. That is not the cause.

NODFACTOR: How did you connect with Kanye? He’s executive producing the album, correct?

I actually met him in Baseline, during that time. Years back, before we started working on The Blueprint album. Within the first five minutes of me meeting him, he told me he was going to be a star. Literally, told me he was going to be a star. I was like, Why? He said, Because I rap, too. I’m like, Okay. So we started rapping, spitting raps for each other. I ran out after about 3 raps and he just kept going. I was like, Oh shoot.

Then towards the end of the session, they were closing down the studio for the night, we were both going to our respective place of residence, come to find out we both lived in Newark, New Jersey, at the time. We took the same train home and then the following day he came over to my crib, we went through some beats and stuff. He turned out to be a cool dude so we started playing some videogames, PlayStation, watching movies on DVD and stuff.And the following day I went to his crib, and we just been hanging out ever since.

As far as him executive producing my album, he’d always been a fan of my album for me, the stuff I put together over the past two years and he loved my album a lot. But it wasn’t until I told him some lyrics I made for certain songs, that was only meant for my stage show. Because my album I intended to be mainly instrumental with a few features on it. I told him one rap and he was pretty blown away and he asked me if I had another rap for another song. I said yeah and he liked that one a lot too.

Then all of a sudden a lightbulb went off in his head and he just saw how I could take the project to another level, and how I could become somebody way more significant than just a hip hop producer. He literally told me he would make me as big as Amy Winehouse with his direction.

And it’s not like he’s going to come in and produce and give me some tracks or anything like that, but he pretty much said, all the pieces are there and they just need to be rearranged. One of the suggestions he made was for me to add the raps I have on the album and just tighten up the bolts and screws.

NODFACTOR: Nice. So on the beat side, you know a lot of producers. I know you’re close with Q-Tip. Who have you really sat down with and learned something from, or who have you shown something to? Like we was sitting here digging for records and he showed me how to filter this bass line.

Not too many people, actually. As far as equipment wise and getting the ins and outs of stuff, I can really only say Dilla. We used to trade tips and secrets. He put me on to the automation within the MPC 3000, which he haphazardly discovered himself.

That was mind blowing for me. This was years ago. I put him on to something I came across, that I apply to this day, which I won’t share my secrets with…[laughs] When it comes to my music and how I make it, I’m super secretive about it. The only people I plan on sharing my craft with are my children, I made that pact with myself a few years back.

NODFACTOR: Wow. Pete Rock told me the same thing.

K: For real?

NODFACTOR: He was like, I’m probably only going to teach my son how I do this.

K: I never knew that. I told myself that four years ago and that was after I got that last Dilla tip. I was like, Yes! I’m still learning stuff about my MPC 3000, which is still making it fun for me. Right before I left for the first Rhymes & Videotape tour, I had to turn in my mixtape, so I’m like super rushed. There was something I taught myself that I never knew I could do on my MPC 3000, which is how I made the original sample come together with how I chopped it up. For it to seem as one piece.The stuff on my MySpace is actually me trying to blend, cutting and blending the original sample with my beat. But I was able to actually able to program it within my MPC 3000, since I don’t have ProTools or anything like that to put stuff together. All technique.

NODFACTOR: What’s going on with the Hip-Hop Festival?

K: I’m performing on July 12 at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. I think my thing is called the Main Day and the headlining act is KRS-One and DJ Premier. Also on the bill for that day are Buckshot, Fresh Daily, Zaki Ibrahim and Blu & Exile. I’m really looking forward to that show and trying to rock the crowd the best I can.]

NODFACTOR: How much live performing do you do?

K: Not much yet but I’m getting up there. With this Fresh Rhymes & Videotape tour, which started on the 2nd. We have 19 dates on this tour and then I did two shows. It was like a warm up to the tour. I did a show at the Knitting Factory, where I was able to perform a full set.

I’ve been asked to jump on another tour, shortly after this one. I almost made the Rock The Bells tour per request of Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed, they wanted me to be a part of the tour and open up for them. I think by the time Tip’s manager got to my manager, the bill was filled up and it was too late.

There’s a lot of good things going on but I’m really looking forward to the Brooklyn Hip Hop festival because you know, I believe they called next.

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