Back Issue__ 88-Keys

September 08, 2009 | By

Photos by Jody Rogac

We sat down with 88-Keys in his home for an intimate talk about his life . We also got a look at his in-house-studio. Check out the photos here.

When 88-Keys was putting together his current album, Death of Adam, his ideas came to him when he was in the shower--the title, the cover and even a lot of raps. "I think from now on I'm going to try and keep work in mind when I take showers, as ridiculous as it sounds," 88-Keys says.

88-Keys grew up in a strict Bronx household, and now lives in Harlem. Both places have played an important role in hip hop music--an ambition shared by the 33-year-old producer. Having worked with the likes of Macy Gray, Musiq Soulchild, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Fall Out Boy and Kanye, we'd say 88-Keys is well on his way. Surprisingly 88-Keys didn't start out in the music business thinking he would make music. It was when he was picking out records for John Carrero, one of the most successful hip-hop producers in the nineties. "All the hip hop producers that were hot or whose careers were through the roof in the mid-nineties they pretty much got records through John Carrero who I was working for at the time." 88-Keys even took part in the early fabled Roosevelt Hotel record convention. "I was part of that and I became John's ears." The success of Q-tip, Buckwild and The Beatnuts is the testament to those ears.

When he finally started to produce records an opportunity came knocking, but it came with a choice: Pursue college (he was already enrolled in classes) or record with The Pharcyde. Lucky for us, 88-Keys took the leap of faith. "It panned out but it didn't really pan out according to plans, actually none of my stuff that I recorded with them made the album." Regardless, this collaboration marked the true beginning of 88-Keys' music career.

Today, 88-Keys remains humble referring to his success so far as "mild." He says, ‚"I'm still not where I want to be or where I need to be or where I should be." But he's a definite fan favorite. Recently he put up an old demo of his on his blog. "I almost forgot I did the song." It received a really great response. Fans can look forward to him putting out more stuff from the vault.

Believing he has a certain responsibility to hip-hop, 88-Keys thinks the power to change music (including bringing that New York sound back) is in the power of the people. I.e. going out and buying that record! "People claim to be broke yet they always have money for weed or they find a way to get it...That dollar bag of weed lasts you what--a day or two? You buy an album that's going to last you for the rest of your life." We should mention that 88-Keys has never smoked weed, or does he have any plans to start. No small wonder, given the number of projects he has going at the moment: He's currently working on his next studio album (buying it will require a trip to the record store--no downloads); creating an album with Colin Munroe; working on features for a bunch of artist like Peter Bjorn and John, Poison; and creating remixes for The Morning Benders (his favorite band of the moment). While his two daughters "napped" (there seemed to be more playing around going on) in the other room, we sat down with a Ralph Lauren-clad 88-Keys. (He hasn't worn an piece of clothing by another designer in 18 years.) What follows are the jokes anecdotes of an entertainer, the warmth of a family man, and, perhaps most revealingly, the struggles of a son with his father.

A lot of your family works in medicine where do you think your musical talents come from?

It was innate it was just dormant for many years. God gave it to me and I was lucky enough to recognize it at an early age.

How did you recognize it?

Before I made beats I had an ear for picking out samples. For the likes of Buckwild or The Beatnuts or Q-tip, all the hip hop producers that were hot or whose careers were through the roof in the mid-nineties they pretty much got records through John Carerra who I was working for at the time. And the fabled Roosevelt Hotel record convention I was part of that and I became John's ears.

All when you were 15?

Yeah. A lot of people don't know I have a long history in the music industry. So when I was 15 I used to pick out records he would sell to these guys. So I knew I had talents with finding the samples and stuff like that, which is a talent within itself. And then eventually I started making beats and then too many people were telling me the beats were really good.

That's not a bad thing.

The thing is like at first I was thinking they're my friends and they're just saying that, but then I started getting feedback from people who I didn't even know. And that's when I knew I had something. I think my first beat I had placed when I was like 18 years old or so, or 17. I knew I had it.

You were studying and quit all your classes to go record with The Pharcyde in hindsight you can look back and say that was a good decision but how did it feel when you were making that decision at the time?

I definitely knew I was at my crossroads but I didn't know how severe the consequences were going to be.

Either way.

Yeah, I got kicked out of my house. I did not see that coming at all, especially since my mother was the one who enforced it. By the time I hit mid-17 I was starting to come to bats with my father, where I actually felt like I had a mind of my own. So I was starting to be a little rebellious. A lot of things even to this day I feel like they weren't called for from my pops with his rules. They're from the old country, they're born and raised in Cameroon. They've only been in this country for like 30 years. [Pause] Yeah, man I'm just having memories with all this stuff. Let me just collect my thoughts.

But yeah that and my mother kicking me out was the best thing that's ever happened to me, because that actually forced me to become an adult. Like really fast and take care of myself and also that was the early signs of the creator existing for me, shortly there after god made his presence very well known.

Were you very rebellious as a teenager?

No not at all. It was just that my folks were really strict. More so my dad. 'Cause it was like, "Go to school, come back home from school. You're not hanging out with your friends you're going to go study, until night falls and then do your chores and then you can do whatever it is you want," unless it involves going out. So it was that kind of regime.

I remember the one incident that broke the camels back for me was I actually saved up money to buy some sneakers, they were Nike Air Cross trainers and I was 20 bucks short. Cause I think when I saw them they were on sale [laughs] and being that I wasn't allowed out, I didn't know the price had gone back up.

[Laughs] You hadn't been to the store every day.

I didn't want to wait to scrounge up another 20 bucks, so I asked my mother. And I rarely asked my parent for anything. I never even asked them for extra stuff for like school trips or anything. I know my parents are struggling so I don't wanna trouble them. I never asked for anything for Christmas or anything like that. I knew if they had it, they'd give, but one time I really wanted those sneakers, so I asked my mom for it and I'm walking out the house and my dad is like, "Where are you going?" And I said, "To the sneaker store," and he was like, "What are you going to do there?" and I was like, ‚"I'm going to buy sneakers." And he just flipped out on me because we came from the family where it was like you don't get new sneakers until your old ones have holes in the bottom.

It was necessity not want.

Exactly. I learned that early in life. When I used to live in the Bronx and I lived in East Chester and I was thinking, Man my parents they're not doctors or anything but they're in the medical field so they're doing okay and then I look at all the kids who are living in the projects and in Edemore projects and they have new sneakers like every three weeks. I'm like man, I thought these kids supposed to be poor. What is gong on? We live in a house, with a lawn--and I know we have a lawn because I used to mow it every weekend--and these kids in the projects have new sneakers. But I didn't understand how the system worked. So when my pops told me I can't buy sneakers with my hard earned money. My own money not the money that he gave me, even though my mother she chipped in twenty. That just didn't make sense to me. I'm like, "I'm going to buy sneakers," and that's when my father was like, "Know what." and he got up and [raising his voice animated] IT WAS ON! Yeah that was like the first out of three times that you know my father and I literally bumped heads.

Did you end up getting the sneakers?

No, I actually didn't. I wound up not even leaving the house, because I was so upset by what had transpired. I was surprised at myself. I felt like a completely different person. My pops he like got in my face and he went to strike me and I just blocked his swing and it happened like three times in a row and I wound up like yoking him up and I realized like what am I doing. So I took the money and I threw it in the living room and I like ran upstairs and the funny thing is, yo I remember this like it was yesterday, we had like a regular flight of stairs it took me like two leaps and I was not only upstairs, I was like in my room.

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