Kenny Keys is a premier underground producer who has helped make Chicago one of the most sophisticated hip-hop scenes in the nation. Keys has incorporated every facet of his life into his creative development, and the diversity of the city has been a constant source of inspiration. Centerstage was lucky enough to catch up with him and find out how it all got started.
Who were some of your influences growing up, both personally and musically?
Personally I would say my mother, my father and my uncle. My mother is a sculptor, my father is a visual artist and my uncle is an avid music-buff. Between the three of them I was exposed to a pretty wide spectrum of music. My mother listened to mostly classic soul, R&B and blues while my father was a major jazz buff; anything ranging from bebop to the modern jazz era of the '80s. Stuff like Wynton Marsalis, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Gonzalo Rubacalba, for example. My uncle loved funk, too, and late-'70s and early-'80s hip hop. My brother was also a house DJ in the early '90s, he influenced me a lot too.
As far as music goes I essentially grew up listening to artists like Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea, Art Tatum; Cal Tjader, Xavier Cugat, Roy Ayers, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The Jones Girls, Emotions, Patrice Rushen, Gene Carn, Kool & The Gang, Parliament, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones.
It seems like family was huge part of your creative upbringing. What about the neighborhood you grew up in?
I grew up in Humboldt Park and K-town and back then there was a strong sense of community. In the '80s my neighborhood exposed me to so many cultures; there was a large sense of togetherness. I mean there were gangs and violence, but with so much cultural diversity I was able to translate it into music.
You started producing music at 14. Who was it that introduced you to the art form and how did you meet?
Chris Robinson introduced me to producing. I met him in high school at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in '93. During his senior year there he, in a sense, took me under his wing. He taught me the difference between a cat who just makes beats and an actual producer.
There's a distinct element of jazz and soul in your music. Do you feel that hip-hop today does a good job of representing the past?
The future is a representation of the past. Cats making music now are influenced by what they were listening to when they were coming up, not necessarily what their parents were listening to. I do feel that music has changed, but music is always changing. For example, my mother couldn't stand Roy Ayers, but my father loved him. I'm a fan of TI, but that doesn't sit very well with some of my peers. In the end there's something for everybody.p> Tell me about how you linked up with the All Natural crew and elaborate on some of the work you've done with them.
I started working with Tone B. Nimble in 2004, doing work-for-hire on All Natural's Vintage album. Tone and Cap D. showed me a lot of love by putting me on that project. After they heard my catalog-beats, and the music my partner Adad and I did under the name Eulorhythmics, we eventually signed to All Natural Inc. in 2005. I also did beats on Primemeridian's album Da AllNighta, Rita J's Artists Workshop and keyboard work for BSTC. And through working with All Natural I was able to land a spot on J-Live's BBE Release.
Who are some of the artists that you're working with right now?
Right now I'm working on my first solo full-length album, A World Premiere. I've been working with some pretty dynamic artists like Spq-Her, Nina Rae, Janiel Smith, Skip Lava, J. Hewitt, Adad, Cap D, JP, G-Roc and Nasté Nate just to name a few. I guess you can call it a very diverse sound piece ranging from classic soul and R&B to hip-hop and jazz.
There seem to be so many different styles of hip-hop going through Chicago right now. How do you feel about that and where does Kenny Keys fit in?
I feel blessed to be able to be around such a variety of talented musicians and word-smiths. Chicago has a very eclectic scene whether you believe it or not, and I feel the music that I create mirrors my peers and my city. I've been pigeonholed in the past as the type of cat who tends to make a conscious or non-aggressive style of hip-hop, but if you check the beat tapes and the "Dance to the Drummer's Beat" battle you can definitely see the diversity I contain, which I believe is a part of being a Chicagoan.
You've been playing piano since '87. How has having that musical knowledge given you an edge over other producers?
Let's get one thing straight: I am a musician first and foremost. Producing to me is one of my many methods to organize ideas and concepts that come to me from studying various artists in music. I feel that being a keyboardist has not necessarily given me an advantage, but it has given me a different perspective on how music can be arranged, composed and translated to my people. At times I feel it can be a gift and a curse because I tend to constantly battle between my keyboard and the pads on my MPC. But I think I've finally found a happy medium.