You may think you’ve never heard of 88-Keys, but more than likely you’ve heard him. The reserved New York beatsmith has laid the groundwork for several of urban music’s mainstays including both members of Black Star, Musiq Soulchild, and Scarface. And like most producers in the present, he’s been bit by the rapping bug as he prepares to release his first album The Death Of Adam, a conceptual tale of the pleasures (and the perils) that relationships bring. The LP features 88 handling the mic as much as he does the boards and he’s fully confident that his sexcapade will instill some innovation back into Hip-Hop. But don’t just take his word for it. Fellow artist and best friend Kanye West was so ecstatic over the record, he pleaded to get a slice of creative control.
Read along as 88-Keys speaks with the Crew’s TC and unveils Kanye’s role as executive producer, who “Adam” would die for just to get a taste, and how a man names himself 88-Keys with no expertise in the piano.
TSS: So is it safe the say the album is done?
88-Keys: Yep…uh…actually sort of (Laughs). It’s not 100%, I’ll say we at 95%.
TSS: Just doing a little mixing & mastering?
88-Keys: Actually there’s this song Kanye’s working on with Kid Cudi and they’re working on a melody. I’ll just come up with the lyrics for it.
TSS: Aiight, I may be asking for it, but what were you doing when you came up for the concept for The Death Of Adam?
88-Keys: I was actually making beats for an album but it ended up turning into this one. I had like eight or nine beats before I got to what would turn out as the first keeper on my album called “There’s Pleasure In It.” At the beginning stages of that track, it was real dope…but really annoying at the same time. Like I chopped it up so much but I couldn’t chop out all of the words, so it just kept saying “pleasure…pleasure…pleasure … pleasure.” Musically it sounded dope but I knew it would get on people’s nerves if they heard it for more than…thirty-seven seconds…so I was like “I need to give this song a concept.” I started going through my head, thinking of all the things that gives me pleasure. I broke it down to my family, my record collection, my Polo clothes. Then it clicked…the vag!
88-Keys: So then, once I honed in on that, I figured that song in particular would be the one about the vagina and everything else would be like…whatever it will be. But then the very next beat I made directly after that which was another keeper on the album, just so happened to kind of focus around the same subject matter. So I asked myself “Is this a coincidence?” And God was like “Nah, you need to make your album about this.” So I was like “Aiight.” Then I scrapped the previous eight or nine beats that I made and used those other two to give me direction to make The Death Of The Adam.
TSS: So how long ago was that?
88-Keys: Man! TOO LONG! And by “too” I mean T-W-O! Two years in the making. And it’s still being made. But the way shit’s forming up, it’s incredible.
TSS: Would you classify this as a pure Hip-Hop record? It’s sounds like you’re singing on some of the songs. It kind of reminds me of The Love Below from what I heard.
88-Keys: Nah, I wouldn’t call it pure Hip-Hop record. But at the same time, I would because I feel like I’m Hip-Hop and I produced the entire album with the exception of like three songs with co-productions.
TSS: Okay, I see. Even though it may not have all the traditional Hip-Hop elements per se, it’s still Hip-Hop because that’s the ideology you used to make the record.
88-Keys: Yeah, everything I do is Hip-Hop based even if intentionally try to cross genres. Because at the end of the day, I still feel like my drums and the sample chops are pure Hip-Hop. I just want to put everything to be considered “dope” instead of is it alternative or is it soul.
TSS: Albums like this are usually stronger as a whole. In the era of the singles being bought like albums used to, you got any plans to market this as a whole?
88-Keys: Yeah, the first single is “Stay Up (Viagra).”
TSS: The one Kanye rapped on.
88-Keys: Yeah I’m actually on there too. But the single packaging and artwork is pretty nuts. So I would suggest, like strictly on some collector’s type shit. You should go out pick up the vinyl. We may try to do a limited edition of that. It’s available on iTunes with all the bells and whistles. But yeah man, I’m trying to make music fun again, even down to it’s presentation!
I don’t know if you remember back in the day, like in the early 90’s, you had singles with the A-Side, then you had the remix to the A-Side — which would be a real remix instead of “who’s who” in the rap industry jumping on the same beat. Then you got the B Side where you couldn’t get that anywhere else except for that single. Ya know, the artwork was tight. So I’m trying to bring back to those days. Instead of just having a black label with a sticker with my name on it (Laughs). And “Stay Up (Viagra)” on the white label. So yeah, it’s gotta be way more interesting than that. And if it’s not fun, I don’t want no parts of it.
But I want people to still go out and want to seek the album. Like say “Stay Up (Viagra).” It’s hot, it features Kanye West and all that…but it’s part of a story! So you may say I’m just copping that song, I like it lot but if you just settle right there, you’re doing yourself a disservice because you’re not getting the entire storyline. Basically, you’re going to movie and leave after the trailer. Even down to the sonic aspects because I’m doing things at the end of the song that won’t be available on the single version.
TSS: Yeah, the more I hear about your project, it seems like it’s trying to deviate from the norm, especially with today’s standards. Yeah, and you’re going all out with the promo videos, so you’re definitely trying to raise the fun factor level.
88-Keys: Yeah, all this stuff that’s happening, it’s just the beginning! I got a bunch of ideas, Decon Records, they got a bunch of ideas. And it’s dope I hooked up with them because their actually a media company as well so they stay with creative visuals and stuff. So we just get together and try our best to make it visually dope. I got the audio aspect and they come up with the visual, so we just try to make it a fun experience on some Hip-Hop head, collector’s type shit.
TSS: Yeah, Decon seems to be getting serious about the Hip-Hop side of things.
88-Keys: Yeah, they definitely know what their doing when it comes to artist development and putting out the right record. This album is gonna be monstrous! It’s gonna be a fun ride for artists, label and fans alike. I want to make it so…people don’t hate labels no more! (Laughs) Aspiring rappers will want to aspire to be signed to Decon. I want to do that for them.
TSS: Did you try any new techniques while creating this album?
88-Keys: Not really. I actually taught myself a lot about myself. Graduating from a kid with a MPC3000 to a beatmaker to a producer. I learned not everything has to be done within five minutes or even that week. There’s some songs on there that took me four months to make! And that’s just one song. Then there’s other song where I had the sample and the original song was so dope, I got a little intimidated by it so I took my time with those because I knew they would be monstrous songs. Everything I do is with divine inspiration so a lot of times, I’ll wait for God and ask him for guidance. It might take Him a couple of months to get back to me (Laughs) but He comes through.
But then again, that’s not saying I take forever to make beats, because some of the shit I did in a day and they’re just as crazy as the four month beats. And some of the raps I came up with on my mixtape such as “Young, Dumb and Full Of…,” that was like in real time. So it varies. All when God wants it to come out.
TSS: So how did Kanye get the executive producer credit?
88-Keys: Aw man! He’s always been a fan of the two years I’ve been striving to make it, every step of the way. There’s been times where he gave me some suggestions on what I can add to the the album or how I can make the album better. And it even got to the point, before he started working on Graduation, I played him the album and he turned to me and I quote “Dog, your album is the best album I’ve heard since Late Registration!!!” And I’m like…”Thanks.” (Laughs). Ya know? So he’s always be a fan.
So I was at his crib in New York City…or should I say his castle? Yeah, I think castle would be more fitting. So I’m at his castle and he wanted me to play the album for a friend of his. So I’m playing it and then I pull ‘Ye to the side and I tell him “Man, I got this idea on how I want to do my stage show.” Because at this time, my album had twenty-one tracks on it, it was already mastered and ready to go. Basically it was mainly instrumental and I had a few features to flush the storyline out. So instead of having to scale back to DJ’ing my set like I did when I was on tour with Q-Tip and Common because I wasn’t rapping at the time, I told him I had a few raps that I wanted to lay on the tracks so I could actually perform my album. So he was like “Let me hear it.” So I do this verse which eventually became “Nice Guys Finish Last” and he just went crazy! “Man, I like that shit, you got anymore?” So I was halfway finish with this verse I had for “Handcuff ‘Em” and I did he and at that point he flipped. “Awwww man, you got like a thousand times better in rapping.”
And then all of a sudden, I saw the light bulb flash at the top of his head, where he got into Kanye West super-genius mode and shit. Him and I, we’re best friends, I’ve known him for so long and I know that look. So he starts telling me all these ideas, how I could tweak certain things how I should re-sequence the album for impact. Then he was like “Dog, you should let me executive produce this album for you.” And I’m like “Dog…no!”
TSS: Oh word?
88-Keys: Yeah, man. I fought with him on it. He was really selling himself for my benefit. He’s hitting me with all the sales pitches like “Ever seen the movie Heat? Everything you love you gotta be willing to walk away from in fifteen minutes. That’s what you gotta do with your album! I know you made this for “x” amount years and stuff but I can bring you that next level and da da da blah blah blah…” I mean I was hearing him, but I wasn’t hearing him at the same time. I’m like “I took two years outta my life and my family’s life to make this album.” Like I didn’t do anything else. I wasn’t making beats for anybody. So I wasn’t readily willing to let my baby go just like that. We had that conversation in the daytime and he got so hyped and the possibility of him executive producing this album that he went in a redesigned my artwork. Like we actually went to Decon Records that day. He like “Ay yo, where Decon at?” I’m like “It’s like down over this way…” He’s like “Let’s go!” And actually I was just there visiting him because he’s my daughter’s godfather so I was bringing her down there to see him and it became a whole business meeting so I knew he was serious.
We roll up in there and people’s mouths dropped when he walked in the door and we redesigned the album cover and we talked about what singles should be released and videos. We really went in. But even after all that, I was still on the fence about it. So I had a conversation with my wife and asked her to very diplomatic with me, my manager who’s also one of my best friends as well as a godfather to my daughter, and we weighed out the pros and cons. At the end of the night, I go back to ‘Ye’s…fortress! And I was like “Let’s go.” I relinquished my album to his hands. And I tried my best to execute whatever he needed.
TSS: He’s got a little experience in constructing good albums. Just a little (Laughs).
88-Keys: (Laughs) No doubt. Cuz he was saying the album I made on my own, was a Hip-Hop classic, straight up. But where he could take would be the difference between me performing at a sold out S.O.B. show in front of roughly 500 people or whatever the capacity is at that spot or performing at Coachella, where it’s like a 30,000-seater. And he felt like he could make me as popular or as major as figure as Amy Winehouse when she first hit the States—MINUS all the crackheadness! But to the impact she made with her music when she hit the scene.
TSS: Yeah, it’s always a gamble but who would have thought The College Dropout would have blown up like that.
88-Keys: Exactly! I don’t think anyone saw that coming except for him and God. When he made the album, I was there like every step of the way and I knew it was dope, but I didn’t see that coming. He told me when we first met, within the first ten minutes of us meeting each other face to face “I’m fittin’ to be a star!” (Laughs) He had to repeat himself like three times because his Midwest accent was so thick. I’m like “Right…” Ya know, haven’t heard that one before! Then we started exchanging raps and I ran out like after two because I wasn’t even trying to be a rapper back then but he just kept going. He was real dope. So that’s where I bond started. I think this is right before Jay started working on The Blueprint and we were living in the same town in Newark, New Jersey.
TSS: So what made you start taking rapping more serious?
88-Keys: Man…Kanye (Laughs). I used to joke around and lay stuff down once in a blue moon but I never took myself seriously because 1.) I never liked my own voice and 2.) I never thought it was that dope. But just to get that official stamp of approval from not only my best friend but a person who is at the top of the food chain, not just in Hip-Hop, but music in general. Entertainment in general! And he has no reason to sugarcoat anything or pat me on the back because he’s flat out told me when he thinks shit is wack. Even down to my Polo sandals, he be like “Yo, whatthefuckyouwearingthatgayshitfor?” Nah, mean? (Laughs).
So for him to have that reaction in my raps that I freestyle, that’s when I felt like I may have something. And actually I only had rapped to those two songs. So I went in and started to add to the other instrumentals and he was like right there telling me that’s dope, laughing at my punchlines and stuff like that. So that gave me confidence to step from behind the boards and out of the shadows.
I’m definitely not at the point where you sit me down on Hot97 and you like “We got the BEAT ON 88!!!” Nah, I ain’t got no disposable bars like that yet but the ones I made for the album are pretty damn good. So hopefully I get to the point where I could just freestyle off the top and flow with it. But I’m still recording B-Sides and having fun with it, which is giving me an iller response. Like one of the songs Kanye took off of the album just because he’s a fan of shorter albums with less room for mistakes. So that song was an instrumental called “Bout To Bust That.”
Not only will people still here the song, but they’ll hear it with the verse I added on to it. And everybody I let hear thinks it’s hilarious and just crazy the way I’m flowing on it, so I’m really looking forward to being able to record more B-Sides and the next album. And when I start making beats again, I’m going to start including myself as a feature because I feel like I can hold my own with MCs who’ve been doing this for years. I’m not saying I’m good as a Jay or a Lil’ Wayne or whatever but I definitely won’t sound out of place either.
TSS: So do you think the attention that Kanye will generate for Death Of Adam will reflect on you and get everybody on the 88 bandwagon?
88-Keys: I hope so! More work for me. I have a feeling that every beat that I’ve tracked for artists that fronted on me or the ones that never came out are miraculously going to resurface and get put out and cats are gonna make their cheese off it.
TSS: I saw you leaked those Jane Doe records.
88-Keys: Oh yeah-yeah-yeah! I had tons of stuff that’s been sitting around and I think where I am in my career since the spotlight is starting to shine on me a lot more than it’s been in the past, I think now’s the time for people to hear, I’ve been dope. Just people weren’t giving me the chance to show and prove. A lot of stuff I’ve tracked for people, I felt should have made the album because it was killing a lot of stuff that made the cut. But politics are whatever came to play. But I never got salty, just the nature of the business. But now I feel those songs are gonna start resurfacing while this album becomes my calling card.
Actually the mixtape [Adam’s Case Files] opened a lot of doors for me. Surprisingly to everyone around me but not to me. I knew my beats could catch people’s attention especially the way the song’s were put together. I never doubted myself but I didn’t think it would happen as fast as it did.
TSS: So your name 88-Keys, are you some world-class, master pianist?
88-Keys: Hell nah! I don’t play any instruments to be honest. I did play the alto saxophone in high school…but Large Professor gave me that name.
TSS: How’d that happen?
88-Keys: I use to sell records back when I was a teenager. And one of my customers was my all-time and present day hero: Q-Tip. And I was working with John Carrero, who actually owned the records we were selling. So once we found out what Hip-Hop producers were doing to make their beats, John kind of wanted to get into it. And so did I. So John bought the ASR-10 Ensoniq keyboard and I think it had just came out. He kept it at his crib but it was mine to use. So I was working with it and Q-Tip came over to go digging and he brought the Large Professor with him. And it was the first time I ever met him.
As soon as he walks into the door, knapsack on his back and everything, he starts freestyling to this beat I was looping up. And in the rap he was like “And we got 88 keys on the grand piano.” And I always thought he was talking bout me! (Laughs). He could have just been talkin’ bout the keyboard and shit but I was like “Awww man, I just got the name from the great one.” I told myself if I ever got in the industry professionally, that would be the name I used. And lo’ and behold…
TSS: So you know you of all people know Adam pretty well. Who’s the chick that can get it anytime, anywhere?
88-Keys: Oh that’s easy, Rachel Bilson.
TSS: Yeah, she was on Jumper. She’s pretty.
88-Keys: I know her from The O.C. and I never even watched the show!
TSS: So what kind of guy is Adam?
88-Keys: You know what? Adam is you. Adam is me. Adam is yo daddy. Adam is your man’s and them. Adam represents man in the history of time.
TSS: So Adam’s a metaphor? He’s not directly someone you could’ve known that died from AIDS or something, right?
88-Keys: Or maybe he was. The mystery shall be revealed November 11th.
TSS: O.K. Hold up now. So if Adam’s a metaphor, then vagina or pussy, that’s a metaphor since it killed him. So you saying women are evil or what?
88-Keys: All that shall be revealed November 11th.
The Death Of Adam (Decon Media) releases on 11.18.08 and features Kanye West, J*Davey, Phonte of Little Brother, Redman, Kid Cudi, Shitake Monkey & Bilal. For more info, visit www.myspace.com/88keys.
Listen To “Stay Up! (Viagra)” Featuring Kanye West
Hear album snippets via www.deconrecords.com/88_keys_snippets.
And get familiar with 88-Keys – Adam’s Case Files Mixtape.