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88-Keys - The Piano Man printer friendly version Send this story to a friend!
Posted: 7/9/2008 10:28:16 AM by Serge Fleury

What makes a good song? One of the key components has always been the production. Lyrics are just as important, but for a lot of people the beat is what initially hypnotizes them to give a song a deeper listen. Even if the content of the song is dismal, you can always tune out the sub par verbiage, and concentrate solely on the beat at hand.

Nowadays with lyricism becoming more and more transparent, consumers often look at the credits to see who did what production on an album just so they have something to look forward to. Most recently the topic of any conversation has been who’s producing for whom, instead of who’s saying what, and with popularity of producers rising, why wouldn’t it be?

There is gamut of talented melody makers who’ve had a major impact when it comes to sound, and when you compile a list, make sure that Harlem native, 88-Keys is amongst those penciled in. This chairman of the boards was behind such classics as Black Star’s ‘Thieves In The Night,’ ‘Babygirl,’ ‘Don’t Stop,’ and ‘Her’ all by Musiq Soulchild, and ‘Watch Your B*tches’ by Beanie Sigel.

His signature sound of soulful blends articulates itself through every creation that his equipment cranks out. He is the true embodiment of craftsmanship with a golden era resonance that is still prevalent in this current day and age of spacey way-over-the-top redundancy. With his trademark dread s cut off for a more conservative look, the father of two can attest to everybody that subsequent change is probably the only one he’ll ever make, while he stays true and assures the beat continues to go on.

How did you first get into producing? Do you come from a musical family?

Nah, not at all I came from a family of medicine actually. Both of my parents are registered nurses, my brother is a doctor, one of my older sisters is a nurse and another sister is on her way to becoming a doctor. It’s definitely a family of medicine; I’m just the one black sheep. 

How did they take it when you decided to take the music route? Were they upset?

Yeah, more so my parents and my older brother. Having an older brother was more like having a second father, and he was pretty strict with me just like my parents were. I guess he was just trying to point me into the field of medicine, or “quote-un-quote” a “professional field.” The music field didn’t seem like a lucrative move, and it just seemed more like a dream to them.

What was one of first tracks you did that really got you recognition?

Um, I would probably say ‘Thieves In The Night’ by Black Star. But I don’t remember receiving the accolades until well after it came out. I think by the time Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides came out, I did about two and a third joints on there. ‘May-December’ was actually produced by Mos Def, the late great Weldon Irvine, and myself. So it was tri-produced…

[Laughs] Tri-produced?

[Laughs] Yeah! I wanna coin that phrase right now! “Tri-produced!” [Laughing] I think right when that popped off, that’s when people were like, “Awe man!” “I never heard of 88-Keys!” “Where’d he come from?!” So then they went back and found out I did ‘Thieves In The Night’ on the Black Star album, and surprisingly enough; that’s a lot of people’s favorite joint on the album.

Yeah, it was one of my favorite joints too

Awe, good looking… 

Has your methods changed over the years, or are you a fan of; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?

Well my methods have changed, but not that dramatically. I am a fan of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s funny because I was reading an article on Just Blaze, and he kind of has the opposite theory on that, but he’s a really-really good friend of mine. I am a fan of the “don’t fix it” theory, but over the years I’ve found ways to shimmy it up. I feel like every 6-8 months I discover something new with my MPC 3000. I’ve been using that literally half of my life; since I was like 14 or 15-years-old. But at the end of the day, I’ve been doing the same thing pretty much all of my life, or half my life I should say.    

You’ve produced songs for Musiq, to Mos Def, to Macy Gray. Does it tricky sometimes trying to produce for such a vast and diverse field of artists?

Nah, not at all for me because I pretty much give everybody the same thing. To this day, when people ask me what kind of music do I do—I’ve been asked that so many times, I’ve have time to really think about my answer. Instead of giving a long answer and trying to break it down, I just say pretty much that I’m trying to do good music. I think that it’s the artist that determines what sound my beats fall into. For instance, the same beat I gave Musiq Soulchild for his song ‘Her’ off his Soulstar album; I sent it to the late great J Dilla at one point. But I sent it to him for professional purposes only; because I actually chopped up a sample that he used earlier in his career, and I just wanted to show him my skills and how I switched it up.

I felt like I won a Blue Ribbon when I played it for him, and he couldn’t figure out what sample I used. Then I started singing his Slum Village chorus to the song, and he like, “WHHHHOOOOAAAAAA!!!!” I believe I gave that same beat to Beanie Sigel and Mos Def; but it just-so-happened that Musiq picked it. So then it became a “Neo-Soul” track at the time. Had Beans picked it, it would’ve been the “Smooth Gangsta” track and if Mos [Def] picked it, it would’ve been the “Underground Hip-Hop/Backpacker track.” It was the same thing for a beat that I eventually sold to 3LW, Mos [Def] wanted that beat REALLY BAD, and he actually wrote a song to it.

This was around the time when Kanye [West] was really budding and making his way to “super producer dom.” [Laughing] That’s another phrase I want to coin really quick, “Super Producer-dom.” [Laughs] That’s when they really started to work together, and Mos [Def] played him the song, and Kanye [West] was like, “That sounds like a hit!” But I went with 3LW because I hadn’t worked with a group like that who were signed at that caliber at the time. I wanted to spread my wings a little bit. I remember reading this story on Duke Ellington and how he said there’s only good music and bad music—and how he’s only trying to do good music. And once read that, it made a lot of sense.      

Would you say the production world is really competitive, or more of a camaraderie?

Definitely-definitely competitive. Back in the day before I was truly on, and got my hands into it—I would say it was competitive, but definitely a camaraderie. Cats would go beat shopping together. You would see Buck Wild [digging for records] with Juju of the Beatnuts, or you’d see Q-Tip digging with Pete Rock and Large Professor. It was funny because one person would come across one sample or one album, and put everybody else on. Then everybody would take it, and flip it differently. Or they’d make a pact and say: “Okay, I found it first, so I’m going to use it first.” “Y’all can f*ck with it, but I’m going to use it.” And all that stuff would be agreed upon.

But back then, the checks were going around like that, and no one was trying to be on some “Secret Squirrel” sh*t. As opposed to nowadays where checks are very scarce, and you have the whole Protools factor and stuff like that. Nowadays they want you to send a beat tape out, and all they need is a few seconds of your beat, and they’re looping it up.    

You think Protools messed the game?

Yeah I definitely think so, at least the way I see it. It’s a dope invention, but I don’t use it, and I never used it; and that’s only because I’m a creature of habit. I’m still using my Roland-VS 2480 to track everything. But I definitely think Protools was the downfall of the golden era where cats were getting checks; or like the average producer getting a check.  

Where do you draw your inspiration? Is it taken from older music, newer music, or both?

I’d say a little bit of both. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Grunge Rock/Alternative Rock, but I don’t even know what it’s called. I’ve been listening to this group called Tokyo Police Club, and they’re really dope. I don’t really listen to it to draw inspiration, but then again I do—because I want to make music as dope as they make their music. But as far as inspiration like beat-wise, my heroes are still inspiring me. People like Q-Tip, Pete Rock and DJ Premier. Plus the people that I consider to be my peers, people like Just Blaze, Nottz, Kanye West, Needlz, Mr. Porter and Hi-Tek.

But as a whole, I pretty much try to listen to everything; like a lot of 70’s and 80’s music. If I’m not listening to a song by one of the aforementioned, then I’ll listen to something like Jack White’s new group The Raconteurs—and I still listen to White Stripes. I’m just all over the place with it.     

How do you get your creative juices going? Does it come more sporadically?

Well a lot of times when I get beat-block, and if my wife has my daughter[s], I’ll go straight to the Polo Store. I’ll go to the one in SOHO or the one on Madison Ave., and I go there and I draw inspiration from Ralph Lauren’s clothing.

You do?! [Laughs]

It seems crazy, but I’m a real ‘Lo-head and I don’t think a lot of cats know. His clothing inspires me, and stuff like that. I’ll usually get something for myself, but recently I’ve been getting a lot of stuff for my daughter[s]. Then I’ll go back home kick it with my wife for a bit, and I’m back on the scene. Usually I’ll make a beat where I think it’s a keeper, and then I’ll make a skeleton of it and finish it up the next day. Doing that kind of clears my head, for some people, weed does that but I never smoked a day in my life. I’m not knocking it, but it’s not for me. Plus I’m getting older, so I prefer not to party as much, mainly because I’m a family man now. I’d rather sit home and watch Law & Order: SVU

[Laughs] I’m a Law & Order person myself…

Awe man! Law & Order is the SH*T! But I don’t really watch [Law & Order] Criminal Intent…

Me either! Det. Goren is way too smart for it to be real! [Laughing]

YEAH! On top of that he’s crazy and weird on top of being smart! He knows everything about everything! But I was disappointed with Jessie L. Martin leaving the original Law & Order, and now they got Anthony Anderson on it—I might not even mess with that anymore.

I do give him credit for being a successful actor of color though, but when he made his first guest appearance on Law & Order, his character was so annoying!    

[Laughing] What’s one of the pieces of equipment that you can’t live without?

My MPC 3000… Besides me being the brains behind the whole operation, I’d say that’s second-in-command…

Right now Hip-Hop seems to be more beat-driven, and lyrics have taken a backseat. Do you find this to be true?

I don’t know what the general consensus on that is, but it has always been beats first and lyrics second. For me, that’s the first thing I listen to whenever I hear a new song. Before I even became a producer, I found that was the thing that always moved me, and gravitated me to a song. I’ve come across people that think the opposite, but would that person buy an acappella album? Or are you going to buy an acappella album versus an instrumental album? 

Have you ever found it difficult to get placement for your material?

Yeah, that’s probably the reason why I haven’t been prevalent in the game like that. I guess it’s just me sticking to my guns, and not really progressing to where music is right now; the way popular music is progressing. Like when Lil’ Jon hit, and his sound became popular, I wasn’t doing none of the keyboard sounds, like the 808’s and stuff like that.

When Neptunes started to hit, I wasn’t doing the Neptunes thing. I guess I can’t say it’s all that, but Ido feel like I’ve been doing really-really good beats. At face value, A&R’s were going crazy, and they were damn-near dancing on their office tables. They were sticking their heads out of their offices to call other people in, and saying things like, “88-KEYS GOT SOME HEAT!”  It turned into disco fever in the office, and at the end of the meeting they’re like, “Yo 88-Keys, can I hold onto this?” Then I’d say, “Yeah, it’s yours.” “It’s for you and your artist.” Then they’d say, “Well this stuff is fire, but we’re going to have to hear some more beats.”

Then I work on some more stuff for about 2-3 weeks and do the same song and dance all over again, and then your artists’ album comes out, and I’m nowhere to be found. Then you see Timbaland or Neptunes name on the credits. Besides the names that I just mentioned, I think a lot of placements that I didn’t get, I should’ve made—because a lot of my stuff was killing a lot of the other stuff that did make albums. But for one reason or another, their stuff made it, and mine didn’t. So about two years ago, I started submitting my beats to this one dude that I knew would never turn my stuff down. I started sending it to my man, “88-Keys” and he really like my sh*t. So I started getting placements for his stuff, and he’s working on his album, and I wound up producing his whole album…

Not to cut you off, but did you just say you were sending stuff to “88-Keys”? Isn’t that you? [Laughing]

 Yes, that would be myself… I tried to get one past you… [Laughing]

[Laughing] Any up-and-coming producers you’re feeling right now? Like lets say somebody like Black Milk…

I wouldn’t really call Black Milk new, because he’s been doing his thing for minute now. Matter of fact, I went on his Myspace [page] a few weeks ago, and he had a melody of his beats. And the last beat he had on there totally f*cked me up! I know he did this on purpose; at the end of the beat collage, he flipped this Michael Jackson song—I can’t remember which one, but he flipped the CRAP outta that! When I heard that, it made me sick! I had my MPC [3000] on, but I turned it off to start fresh. Black Milk is super dope, but as far as Hip-Hop; I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t had my ear to the streets like that to know what’s going on. As far as I know, people like Jay Electronica is making a huge buzz in the industry, so is Wale, and I just started hearing about Truck North—that’s a dope name too (Truck North). 

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The Piano Man

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