Speak of the Blue Devil: The Moody Grooves of Andy Kayes

Andy Kayes' latest album of mercurial hip-hop finds the rapper putting the boom back in boom bap, one beat at a time.

If there was ever a genre called “blue devils hip-hop”, Andy Kayes may just be its choice practitioner. His blustering, electronica-squelched hip-hop is heavily saturated with moods so blue, his music grows heavier with every play. The France-based Englishman has been working the underground scenes of Lyon for some years now, splitting his time between open mics and recording studios whilst hooking up with some of the genre’s most respected names.

Kayes’ earliest forays into music had him release an album under the moniker Manimal Instinct. While the album gained minimal exposure and, therefore, an unfair amount of obscurity, it remains an important step that helps articulate his singular sound. As Manimal Instinct, Kayes plumbed the moodier depths of turntablist hip-hop, mining the grittier textures that would offset the sharper tonalities of his voice. A few years later, the somewhat diffident rapper would regroup his resources and redirect his approach for an EP he recorded under his own name, entitled Invisible. Divorced from his previous pseudonym, Kayes could hit the proverbial reset button that would allow him to proceed from a fresh angle. Invisible’s mix of English and French-language tracks betrays the sense of underlying tension that the rapper would explore more deeply on his later works. Serving as a primer for the material that would surface on his full-length debut album, Invisible pointed the way to the caustic, emotional airs that characterize much of European hip-hop today.

Alone in Numbers, Kayes’ proper full-length debut, hits even harder, finding a counterpoint between the moodier textures of dark ambient electronica and the no-nonsense grooves of boom bap. On the LP, the rapper further expounds on the themes of self-imposed isolation; the album’s emotionally-coded melancholia is like a flowing conduit upon which his furiously-flitting rhymes travel. Kayes is a seemingly detached and reticent young man, but the explosive force with which he expels his rhymes carries significant weight. Numbers like “The Man Without a Face” feature nearly militant rhythms of strength and strife, marching with resolute will. “My Shadows” and “Runaway” take existentialist storytelling to ominous depths, with deep-running sadness doing time with boldly strutting grooves.

Amidst the concrete-busting loops and eerie synth-washes, Alone in Numbers plays out like hip-hop on downers, a chemical potion of European malaise and heavy street rhythms that finds a home with a marginal contingent among France and the United Kingdom. Citizen Kayes, the rapper’s sophomore full-length release, expands upon the flirtations with electronic music, further exploring the digital textures of laptronica. It also delves even deeper into the darker emotional realms previously explored on his other works. “The first album was more old school than Citizen Kayes, but I feel it's just part of the process,” Kayes explains. “I like challenges and rapping to different beats as long as I keep the essence intact. By essence, I mean what I've been through and what surrounds me. I'd rather share my experiences than my political views. Some rappers claim to be against the system while wearing Che Guevara shirts -- it's backwards.”

Indeed, Kayes eschews the usual political dramas of popular music in favor of exploits far more personal; often, his navel-gazing rhymes seem like matters for the shrink, particularly his restless musings on the disquietudes of his daily living. Citizen Kayes also features a wider range of grooves; from the relaxed funk of “Blinking Souls” to the granite beat-drops of “Highs and Lows”; here the rapper manages a rhythm syndicate of beats that engage with the heavier bottom ends of the bass. “I'm into all types of hip-hop, that's why I like rapping on different beats,” Kayes says. “I see it as a challenge and prefer to find new flows rather than stick to the same beats per minute over and over again. Bass plays a big part in our music because of our old school influences and because we always think about how it will sound on stage.” Sure enough, the expanse of lower end sonics prove heavy on the album throughout; the drugged and dubbed rhythms of “Get Down” feature a disembodied and monstrously deep, snaking bassline, booming from here to Pluto. On the arcade-from-hell-hip-hop of “How Long” and the thundering military-shuffles of “Lost and Found”, Kayes offers a fearsome storm of nuclear activity in his enterprise of beats and bass; the explosions hit hard and heavy, stretching the waves of a sonic blast from one progressive measure to the next.

Normally, promotion for an independent artist would prove a frustrating experience, with the expenses reaching prohibitive levels of cost in producing a worthy marketing scheme. While there are no marketing ploys per se in Kayes’ case, he does have the advantage of having an inspired filmmaking team to help conceive the designs of his videos. Kayes’ music videos are surreal flashes of mercurial images, rough and graffiti-esque movements that morph and twist with the action onscreen. “We owe the quality of our videos to the directors we work with,” the rapper professes. “I always believed you could do great things with little means. I had the chance of meeting people who shared that vision. [Filmmaking collective] Aucune Notoriété are behind most of my videos, including our show called On the Road (J'irai rapper chez vous). We travel together and freestyle with different artists from different countries.”

The rapper still manages obscurity honourably; near misses haven’t particularly jaded him. (A rumoured project with rapper Rah Digga has yet to materialize). Kayes tends to his work with the reserve of a true Brit, chiselling away at the ends moderately and considerately. While he’s not exactly the most prolific artist working today, he’s fairly content with the steady pace. “After releasing our first album, we spent quite a lot of time promoting it through concerts and different videos we posted on the net,” he says. “It took us about a year to make Citizen Kayes, which might seem long, but we wanted it to sound a certain way. The good thing about being independent is that we have no time constraints. I don't mind spending time on a track, as long as I'm happy with the end result.”

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