88 Keys is so old school, he’s practically brand new. The producer was a functional part of the New York indie hip-hop scene in the late ’90s as a producer for Blackstar. And he’s racked up plenty of credits working with stalwarts such as A Tribe Called Quest, Consequence, and The Pharcyde.
But since the turn of the century, 88 Keys has keep a low profile. For the past two years he’s been in the lab putting together what was originally slated to be an instrumental project for an unnamed independent label. Once he chopped up a particular soul sample, though–that centers around the word “pleasure”–his latest project, The Death of Adam, was born. It’s a concept album, featuring Kanye West, Redman,and Bilal, among others, inspired by, ahem, pussy, that’s a throwback to ’90s mischief backed with a marketing plan that’ll even have the Soujla Boy generation taking notice. (Check out the first single, “Stay Up! (Viagra)” featuring Kanye)
XXLmag.com caught up with 88 Keys to talk about his rebirth as a rapper, why he didn’t want ‘Ye to executive produce his project, and what is it about the, er, lady loving that made him wanna rhyme about it.
The concept of the album is an interesting one. Pussy is…great.
Ah, thanks, man. [Laughs].
Most people know you from your production work with Blackstar and Consequence. How did the transition happen for you to do an album to it becoming a concept album to then a concept about this?
Yeah, man. I, I…I’ll answer this so you won’t get in trouble by your momma. Man, really. How can I answer this without you getting in trouble with your momma?
Or you with your wife.
[Laughs]. Exactly. I been making this album the past two years and I done heard everything. Got the whip cracked on me every sort of way. Basically, the concept kind of jumped out at me. I was working on an album for another independent company who gave me the opportunity and I was like eight or nine beats deep into making an album for them. And I made the one song, it sounded so dope, this one beat, but it was super annoying at the same time. Because i couldn’t chop out the vocal sample in it. It kept saying, pleasure….pleasure….pleasure. To anyone else it would have been super monotonous, but to me it was dope. So I thought, I need to flip this or at least give it a concept so people would get a kick out of it if nothing else. So I ran down my grocery list of things that gave me pleasure. I was thinking my polo clothes, my record collection…MONEY! Then i was thinking,Hmm, you know what kind of trumps taht all right now? Bada boom, bada bing. So the vag. That brings me pleasure. Then it kind of started making sense with that one beat. So the very next record that I picked up to work, to make a beat for the album, the beat came out crazy. It was coming out crazy and I chopped up the vocal sample and the way I did it it just so happened to talk about pussy as well. So I was like, man, is this a coincidence or is God really trying to tell me something? I was like, well, this is God being the nasty freak that he is. Sorry, God, I didn’t mean to put you out there like that. So I scrapped the other beats and kept these as my keepers for the new album. Everything that I chopped up and kept, every single one wound up relating to….
Right. Thaaaat thing, thaaat thing, that thiiiing. Lau–Opps, Ms. Hill said it best. And then eventually once I sat down, the first third of my album, I started putting titles to the songs according to the meanings of the songs. Then I started placing them in order and the story pretty much wrote itself out at that point.
The titles are pretty clever, “Stay Up!” for the Viagra joint. Then The Death of Adam as a title.
The album is deep. And then with Kanye’s involvement, where he stepped in, as executive producer, him shining some of his genius down on the project, he helped me re-write the story. Now the ending, the one I had was pretty ill and dramatic. But now the new ending, the new twist, is crazy. It’s gonna catch people off guard. The thing about the album, it’s a real cohesive story, each song tells a story. It’s not like you hear a love song here, a song dissin’ the love interest, then a song talking about my momma shoulda raised me better, then a skit that ties those three songs together. It’s not like that. The story is way more intense. I don’t want to say obvious, that’s not the right word, but it’s way more apparent than that. The first song on the album, for instance, is called “Morning Wood.” So Adam, my character, wakes up with a boner. And he’s like, Man, I got to go do something about this, I’m about to go holler at this chick. So he tries to go get the girl. He tries to play Mr. Goody Two Shoes, opening door and spending on her. So because of that, the next song is called “Nice Guys Finish Last.” So she ends up liking him, but as a older brother. She’s a bad ass chick, the one you alway wanna hump.
Yeah, and it sucks. The friend zone, right?
Exactly, and that’s the name of the next song. Each song plays a part of the story line. It’s kind of ill. With the features that I have on there to build the story and then with Kanye suggesting that I use my vocals and raps on there and to sing some songs, to flesh out the entire storyline. Man, I must admit…it’s kind of crazy. [Laughs].
Jay-Z did a concept album recently, everyone knows, but it was a loose premise. Your album, on the other hand, seems more like Prince Paul project.
Is that the difference between this type of project coming from a rapper versus a producer because you have a solid hand in the framework? And what was the biggest challenge as a result producing or molding the songs as an artist?
It was both the easiest and the hardest part at the same time. That one song, the very first beat that I decided to keep for this album, the pleasure beat, the actual song is called “There’s Pleasure In It.” Because there is. That one beat actually took me four months to complete. And I learned a lot about myself as a producer. I grew as a producer. Now, I honestly feel like calling myself a producer rather than a beatmaker. Or just some dumb kid with a MPC 3000.
That’s interesting to say considering you have a production resume.
Yeah. Kanye’s involvement, he’s pretty much been there every step of the way these past two years. Right before he started working on Graduation, at one point, he asked me to play my album for him again. He always wanted to hear it. So I was playing him some songs and halfway through he stopped, and he was like: ‘Dog, your album is the best album I’ve heard since Late Registration.’ I was like, Man, thanks. It was just a crazy ride. His involvement actually came form the last time he heard the album. He asked me to play it for one of his friends in his loft in New York City. So as I’m playing him the album, which was initially meant to be mainly instrumental, cause I wanted people to see how the beats told the story themselves, with a few features. And I pulled Kanye aside and told him how I wanted to perform my album when I have to go out there and promote my album. I didn’t want to have it scaled back to where I have to only DJ my set. Being as though I was only a producer. Make sure when this is up, you boldface was. [Laughs]. I was just a producer.
…So I pulled ‘Ye aside and told him I got a couple raps. He wanted to hear it and I busted it, I think it was [the verse] for “Nice Guys Finish Last.” He started flipping and asked me if I had another one. I told him half of a rap, one verse from another song, “Hand Cuff ‘Em.” I only had one verse down. ‘Cause I was trying to get a feature on there. And he just flipped out and was like, ‘Man, you got a thousand times better at rappin.’ Then I saw the light bulb switch get clicked on above his head. And I’ve known him for so long that I know when he gets that look. He went into Kanye West super genius mode. He started throwing out ideas about how i should tweak this. And he was like, ‘Yo, yo, you should let me executive produce your album. And I was like, Yo, yo, no. [Laughs]. I was very, very reluctant to have him come aboard. Especially since I was playing him my album after it was mastered for the second time, it was ready to go.
At the time I had 21 songs, but now it’s been shaved down to the best 14 songs. Kanye helped me re-write the story, it’s been a crazy ride. But I’m having lots of fun with it, especially now that I’m rappin’. I haven’t gotten dissed too bad, from bloggers and critics. Some people say that they like my raps a lot from the mixtape stuff and the little bit floating out there. So I know the raps I did on the album are way better than the raps I did on the mixtape. And I did those on the fly. I’m not an MC, if you get me on Hot 97 like, Spit the hot 16, sun. I’d be like….Yo, you wanna hear an album record? Cause I’m not at home spittin’ raps like that. I hope to get to that point, but I’m not there yet.
What made you ultimately bring Kanye onboard?
Well, it was like the whole bittersweet experience of having him on board [that made me hesitant]. The best way I can describe it is, if you’re a parent and the first time you send your child away for kindergarten, you know you raised your child for the first 5 years by yourself and you know you taught them right. I made my album for two years [by myself first]. You know sending your child to school is the best for everyone involved. But you’re reluctant to let them go, and to let someone else teach them, even though you know that’s gonna be the best move for them. That’s all it was. Me being very reluctant to have someone come in and completely change my ideas around, if that was gonna be the case. And I knew straight off the bat, had I let him do it or if I agreed to let him executive produce my album, my 21-song album wouldn’t be a 21-song album. He would shave off a third of it, which he did. Now it’s down to 14, but now I agree with what his theories are on having a short album. Less room for mistakes, less room for people to hate. Even though the album didn’t have filler, as far as the story line there’s certain stuff that could have been left out, that eventually did [not make it]. But people will definitely hear those songs one day.