In 1989 Kwamé dropped his free-wheeling, Minnie-Ripperton-sampling debut The Boy Genius. Much like hip-hop itself, Kwamé has evolved over the interceding years, and since then he has worked as a producer with Mary J Blige, Will Smith, and LL Cool J. 2004 found him co-producing with Eminem on the Lloyd Banks debut, “On Fire”. If anyone knows about longevity in an industry that doesn’t exactly encourage it, it’s this guy. And he really loves Star Wars.
I spoke to Kwamé bleary-eyed and half-stoned at 5:30am (after getting home at 4) from half a world away. Kwamé was plenty lucid, but you might need to cut me some slack.
PM: I understand you come from quite a musical family.
K: Yeah, basically I would say a musical family but more or less my family influenced me, had a lot of musical influence around me. For example my grandfather was great friends with the jazz great Lionel Hampton, so he brought me around that atmosphere a lot, and actually Lionel Hampton bought me my first set of drums when I was like nine years old, so that helped me hone my skills, as well as my father was around a lot of jazz musicians and they allowed me to play on their skins, you know play their drums, either open up for them or fool around on their equipment, and so I got to learn a lot of technical things at an early age, and when I say technical I mean the fundamentals of music, not just electronic music or anything that I use now, but I was able to learn a lot of the fundamentals.
PM: Do you remember when you first knew that you wanted to work in the music industry?
K: To be honest with you ... the funny thing is I never knew that I was able to achieve a career in music. When I was a kid I always wanted to be things that I knew were “jobs”. I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to be a graphic artist, I wanted to be an archaeologist at one time, I wanted to be a scientist. I was really into the arts and science.
Another influence was Stevie Wonder. His brother Milton was a good friend of the families, so I was around these people, but I never thought that I would be able to do the same things that these people were doing, for whatever reason I didn’t know why. As a teenager, when rap was very prominent in the neighbourhood of New York City, I started to see friends that I went to school with, my friend’s older brothers and sisters, actually making records, and actually doing videos, and doing shows, and making a living at doing music. And so that’s what made it a reality for me. So I guess I was around 14 years old when I realised that this was something that I actually can do.
PM: Do you think that your background has something to do with your general preference for using live instruments, whereas other producers might rely on synths?
K: Well, when I make music I usually compose everything in my head before I even go into the studio, and what I hear are the live sounds. So if I use the synth, it’s because I don’t have the access to any live players at the time, and I have to, you know, make do. Or if I sample a record I do it because I have to make do. But my preference would always be using the live ... with the exception of maybe the drums, because the electric drums pretty much drive hip-hop influenced records. But anything on top of that I would love just to go live, but also with the exception of obvious electronic synth analogue noises that were created back in the sixties and seventies and stuff like that.
PM: Your career has lasted while many others haven’t, what do you think has enabled you to maintain?
K: In my mind I never was gonna stop, and I never stopped. On the other hand in the public’s eye it looked, for a period of time, that I was over and done with. But mentally I kept the same schedule, I kept in the studio, I made sure that I continuously did live performances, doing the things I did as an artist. I maintained my pace, and so when the opportunity came for me to be in the spotlight again, for me it wasn’t a big transition or anything because I always stayed my course. I think a lot of times this industry puts a lot of pressure on you, and the pressures are to over-achieve, over-excel, make the best record, better than the last record, and you’re only as good as your last record and all those things people take so serious. But if you know that this is what you do, then this is what you’re meant to do, and this is all you do. Cause all you’re doing is expressing yourself. And no record deal, no audience, no video, no radio, no interview could stop you from expressing yourself. If you have that attitude, you know, then you’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out, but you maintain yourself through your whole course.
PM: What do you think have been the major changes in hip-hop during the time you’ve been involved, and are they for better or worse?
K: For better ... it’s both. On the better side, we who do hip-hop have been able to become entrepreneurs, we’ve been able to know that we can have a label, know that we can have a clothing line or television show or a movie production house or whatever it is in entertainment, because now we have power in the music industry and we are able to wield that power and influence through practically the whole world. When I got started we may have influenced a couple of states in America, and we may have perhaps held some influence abroad, but we didn’t have any knowledge of that. It was just something we did for fun. To be honest with you, no one thought it would become a multi-billion dollar industry. So going into the bad part, when you do something for fun and for love, and not with the idea of a cheque involved, your music is 100% pure. So in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when myself and other rappers were making records, everybody was an individual, everybody expressed themselves individually and it wasn’t a territorial thing. It was “this is where I’m from, this is what I do, this is what I think.” Where nowadays in hip-hop, especially here in the States, it’s a territorial thing, east coast rap is one thing, west coast rap is another thing, dirty south rap is another thing, mid-west rap is another thing. It has been sectioned off, and each section has it’s own individuality, but the people who make up the sections pretty much do and say the same things. It’s a double-edged sword. I think that before we had our individuality, but we didn’t have our viability. Now we have our viability but we’re lacking the individuality, and sooner or later it will balance itself out.
PM: Your work as a rapper is highly regarded in many quarters, but it’s as a producer that you have now come to be best known. Which role do you prefer?
K: I have always been a producer, you know, when I produced my own stuff. I would equate it to having the love for your children, and at the same time the love for your wife. You love both of them with everything, but it’s two different situations. Like my producing is actually like my kids, because each track you feel like you’re birthing a new sound every time, and you look at these tracks and these productions as individuals, but you love them all the same. And what I love about producing is the fact that I am able to interact with like-minded people, because just as much as I’m a person within the industry, I’m also a fan of the industry. So when I get to work with Mary J Blige, who I’m a fan of, LL Cool J, who I’m a fan of, or Will Smith ... these people I admire. So to sit back and look at the fact that, hey, I’m sitting right next to these people and we’re working together on an equal plane. I never can get used to that. And that’s the thing that I’ve always been able to maintain, a sense of being down to earth, cause this whole thing is like one big dream to me. On the production aspect, I love doing that, but on the performance side, being on stage doing the records that people have grown to love over the years, I love to interact with everyday people that I can walk up and down the street with, and be able to interact and we have a common ground, those songs are common ground. And so, you know, I love them both.
PM: Would you ever consider picking up the mic again?
K: Oh, yeah, definitely, I always consider it, I don’t think I ever ... as far as writing songs and just going in and personally recording songs, I continue to do it all the time. Just like when I was pretty much out of sight I kept my skills up, it’s the same thing with being a performer, being a rapper. I’ll do a show here and there just to keep it going, just to see if I still have it. I’ll continuously record records or write records and come up with new ideas that ... I think that what I’m most disenfranchised with is that the recording industry, for artists, has become such an assembly line situation, it’s like, “Now you need a bootie-shaking club record, now you need the gangster record.” You know, for me, I just wanna express myself, what my life is about right now, the ups and downs, and I want to be able to freely express myself like I was able to do at 16-17 years old and not worry about “Is this club enough?” or “Is this radio enough?” so that’s the only thing that’s pretty much held me back from pursuing a longer career as a rapper. I really don’t want the restraints on me. As a producer it is what it is, you’re coming to me for a certain type of music; I can provide that music. After I provide that music it’s my job that the artist express themself the way they want to. If they want to do it the way everybody expects them to do it, cool, as long as they express themselves to the fullest, and from there it’s out of my hands.
PM: You’ve worked with some of the bigger names in music, and you’ve stated that one of the highlights of your production career was working with LL Cool J on “10 Million Stars”. What do you think makes a truly great performer?
K: A truly great performer is somebody with who, when you listen to their record or when you see them on stage, you connect. You feel like “this person is giving me all of them”, and that’s how people become fans of artists because they can listen to a record and they’ll say “You know what, I can relate to that.” Or if I never even went through the situation, they’re telling it to me so well that I feel like I’ve experienced that same situation, I feel your pain, I feel your joy. And an artist that can achieve that, to me is a great performer.
PM: I read somewhere that you do mentoring programs with young musicians. Do you find yourself taking anything from that back to your own work?
K: Yes. At least every two weeks I go to different schools and I hold workshops, partnered up with Coca-Cola and the Apollo Theatre in New York, and we do workshops where we teach the kids a quick tutorial on the inside of the music business. What I take back with me is the fact that ... the thing that people don’t do with today’s youth is listen, they just talk talk talk talk, tell, tell tell, and force things on the youth. I ask questions. You know, I come in and I don’t tell them “well this is what happens”, I ask questions. “What do you think happens in the music industry? What do you want to see out of artists? What would you like to hear? What disturbs you?” To be honest with you, a lot of those workshops that start out with music turn into what their problems at home are, what their problems at school are. And it becomes a dialogue, and that’s the thing you have to do with children. And the things that they say, the things they tell me, the feelings that I get, I do bring those back into the studio and may write a song about it, may make a track about, you know because the tracks deal with feelings as well, all my tracks are based on a feeling that I have had or that I have. And I think that’s because I’m so used to being an artist and expressing myself vocally, when I’m not doing it vocally I have to do it musically. So everything is connected.
PM: You seem to have a good ear for samples, or even re-appropriation of music’s past, like that falsetto run through “Loving You” on “The Man We All Know and Love”. What are your views on the creative value of sampling?
K: I think they’re very important. Hip-hop gets a lot of flack from it, but I think it’s because they ... samples remind you of a time, remind you of a situation, and it brings you back to when you were young and what you enjoyed and gives you a feeling. And so when I sample records, I try to pick the appropriate sample to remind you of certain things that you enjoyed. Like Minnie Ripperton, for example. I used to love Minnie Ripperton as a kid, I used to love her music, and I wanted to give a sense of that when I sang that. Or when I re-did “Sweet Thing”; Chaka Khan is one of my favourite artists, “Sweet Thing” is one of my favourite songs. So when I sample a record, “10 Million Stars” for example I hold so much pride in that song because the movie Fame influenced me greatly. If hip-hop influenced me 50%, Fame influenced me another 30-40%. So me sampling that song, I didn’t think about “OK I might not have too much publishing on this record,” I don’t think about it in that way. I think about, “I love this movie so much that I’m gonna pay my respects to this movie by sampling this record, and making it a good record.”
PM: People outside the music business tend to think of the hip-hop life as all bitches, blow and bling. How wrong, or maybe right, is that?
K: That’s the problem nowadays, that’s the point that I’m trying to make. It hurts me to see that the perception of hip-hop is that. Coming from its inception, it’s mind-boggling to think that. We never wanted to portray that; we did our best to not portray it. When I was rapping I wore suits and ties because I wanted to show that this music came out of the streets, but at the same time we rose above the common perception.
PM: You’ve said that you would like to move in other directions musically, so if you ever did get around to scoring a movie what kind would it be? Or which movie do you wish you had scored?
K: Well the movies that I enjoy are ... I’m a big science fiction buff, so I live and breathe Star Wars. They’re all on DVD now, oh my God! A composer like John Williams, if I can put it bluntly, he’s one of my idols. I listen to that, and I would try to apply what I learnt from his compositions and what I do with my compositions and I would try to make something very dramatic. I want to deal with dramatic, real energetic, real action-packed movies. When I was an artist I always looked to the future, becoming a producer. Now that I’m a producer my future is the scoring of movies, the producing of movies; music and multi-media.
Star Wars is one of my favourites.
PM: What music have you been listening to lately?
K: I don’t listen to anything new at all. I don’t listen to new music. I listen to you know who I’ve been listening to a lot, I’ve been listening to a lot of Little Richard, a lot of Ray Charles, this is even before he died, I’ve been immersed in Ray Charles for the last two years, that’s all I’ve been doing is playing Ray Charles. I’ve just been searching for a lot of rarer soul, jazz, you know, classic jazz and soul records. I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald the other day. I have my moods on certain days, like yesterday I only wanted to hear hip-hop from 1980 to 1984. So the whole day I listened to classic hip-hop, and it touched me in a way, because sometimes I need to listen to it because it brings me to a time when everything was pure and innocent for me. Listening to those Furious Five records, or Treacherous Three records, or Afrika Bambata records. That was a time when hip-hop was so golden, it was like the greatest thing ever to me. I would do anything to get out my $3.99 to buy one of these singles. I was 12 years old, my father bought me two turntables and a mixer. That was the best time of my life. Sometimes when the industry gets real hectic and real crazy I have to play that type of music, to ground me and let me know, “This is where you came from and this is what you dreamed about, and now you’re here.”
PM: Are there any questions that you wish interviewers would ask you more often?
K: You know what, I’m starting to get the questions that I love to answer. Everything used to be, they used to always be focussed on a negative thing, like, “So what are you going to do now that you haven’t rapped in a long time? What’s next for you?”, just things that either I didn’t have an answer for or that to me just wasn’t relevant. Me talking about the children is relevant. Me talking about the state of hip-hop is relevant. I want to be able to, at the end of an interview, leave a thought in the person who’s seeing it, reading it or hearing it, and with those thoughts hopefully spark a change. Because I’ve always, as an artist, as a producer, I’ve always been into change, into elevation and evolving this music.
PM: Is there any question you wish you never had to answer again?
K: I like to talk, so ... the only question that I really didn’t like, and now I’m playing the double-edged sword because you didn’t ask the question and now I’m about to bring up the question. There was a time that all I would get asked about was the fact that Biggie dissed me on a record. And that was the question I hated the most, like “what do you care?” That’s ten years old! And people would always use, “So what did you think about that Biggie line?” or they would open up the article, “You knew him from the polka-dot, and then most recently the Biggie diss…” And I said, “OK, my whole adult life I’ve been in this music industry, and if I were to die today my legacy would be the fact that I wore polka-dots and was dissed by Biggie?” That can’t happen. I can’t allow that to happen, and that’s another one of my motivations, just “what are you gonna leave behind?”