How Key! and Kenny Beats Channelled Their Emotions For ‘777’ Project
Sometimes, things just align. As it comes to Atlanta rap stalwart Key! and buzzing LA-based producer Kenny Beats, the time was simply right for them to team up.
After first meeting in a Hollywood recording studio, Key! and Kenny Beats would routinely run into each other eventually working together on a one-off collaboration for Loudpvck, Kenny's EDM alter ego. When Key! caught wind of Kenny's 2017 work with Lil Wop and Hoodrich Pablo Juan, he pushed the talented producer to join forces for a full-length collaborative project.
"Key had seen me around many different studios—Mike WiLL sessions, other Atlanta people—and I'd always play him beats," Kenny tells XXL. "Him and I [would] be looking at each other in the room, while I'm playing beats for other people."
Things came together this year, leading to Key! and Kenny's May project, 777. Key! handles the raps, Kenny makes the beats. The skilled and pretty personable duo sat down with XXL to discuss 777, how the project made their friendship tighter and new music they have on the way.
XXL: You guys locked in last November. How long did it take you to put everything together?
Kenny Beats: It was three different projects. We did seven songs in three days. That was the project, then we kept working. We had 11 songs, then we had 20 songs. Now we have 60-something songs.
Key!: While we were planning for the seven songs, we just added more. We were planning to release the seven songs, but we just kept going.
Is that why it's called 777?
Key!: It was already called 777 because we were gonna do seven songs. We just kept making better songs, it was like "Aw naw, we gotta put that on there, we gotta put that." It ended up being seven, eight more songs.
Kenny Beats: That's what keeps happening to us now. Every time we get in, we make two new things, and it fucks up what our release is gonna be, because it's better than the last shit we made. It's been happening since we started working. So we cant get in the studio now without knowing where the songs are going, 'cause they keep pushing release dates.
Both of you guys are unique talents in your own right. What is it about the other person that sticks out to you?
Key!: Just how clean everything is, I really admire that, because everybody don't take time to clean they music up. But everything is clean, you not gonna find no quality in mixing, or nothing, that's fuckin' with Kenny.
Kenny Beats: Versatility. Key! come in every day and be telling me, "You boring if I don't wanna use a new voice." And its the same thing with the production. "Today I need dancehall. Today I need some hard, pink hair 160 shit, tomorrow I need R&B." And you gotta be up to that task. And I feel like I have been. I been always thinking once me and Key! get in, I got every kind of beat, every style. Cause there's not a lot of people who can really sing like that and rap like that, then really change every tempo and every kinda key. You gotta be ready for whatever.
It seems to me like the two of you keep each other sharp, because you demand so much from each other. What was the creative process for 777?
Key!: It was drug-fueled.
Kenny Beats: Yeah. We were doing different shit for every different song, some days we'd be drunk, some days we'd be high, some days we'd be whatever.
Key!: Some days we'd be sober and just mad.
Kenny Beats: People don't understand when you hear "It Gets Better" that there was two hours of us sitting there, both sad as hell about shit we have going on in our respective lives—with our families, with money, with whatever—and we're sitting there, mad. And then he's like, "Aight, put a beat on." People don't realize those songs feel like that, because they really felt like that.
Because they come from a real place. The tone of 777, it's really personal. Key! has been rapping for a while, but I think this feels vulnerable while having fun, too. Why do you think your music got more serious over time?
Key!: Prolly 'cause I'm an adult now, so I got a real responsibility. When I was young and everything was more party-based, you don't be wanting to tell everybody about what's going on with you. I was just getting more open because I'm getting older and I know how to express myself now. Finding ways to express the shit I wouldn't usually express.
The subject matter and themes are different.
Key!: To be honest with you, I just go and speak and then whatever comes out, that's just usually what it is. Sometimes I think I'm not making sense, then I go back and listen to it like "Damn, I just made a whole lotta sense."
Kenny Beats: That's the thing though, it's the opposite of dumbing it down and making it more digestible. He's coming and asking, "Are you sure people are gonna understand what I'm talking about?" When he's talking about Soo-Yung [a character from the Rush Hour movie series] on "Move," we had this long debate whether people were gonna know who Soo was. We're not changing the song, cause those pieces are what make it so interesting.
Key!: Nobody's still ever caught it. Cause on "Move" I say, "I'ma chase money, I will never chase Soo." It goes into "Yung"—Soo-Yung.
Kenny Beats: That's the thing, our favorite rap projects, it takes you three weeks 'til you go "Oh!" We wanted to make a project like that, instead of everything being right on the surface. There's a lot of extra things in the production, little moments that you might have to listen to 10 times before you pick it up.
You say the recording process for the album existed in emotional extremes. Did making this together improve your relationship?
Key!: We never had no conversations like how we have now.
And it's just because you've learned a lot about each other through making this.
Key!: Spent a lot of time with each other. We gotta talk to each other, shit like that.
Kenny Beats: And beyond the music shit, like when someone comes in and starts talking to you about that, a lot of the time, I just be working with people, not in that capacity, where your life and all these things matter to me. It's like, "Let's do business." But it's not like that anymore. Whatever happens to him, happens to me, period.
Kenny tweeted, "If you want to really elevate someone's work you need to understand their team and friends just as well as their music." How did you come to that conclusion?
Kenny Beats: I don't understand how people don't come to that conclusion. "People groupie too, they try to hang for no reason," which is a lyric from the project. Really, you have to know where the music is coming from, why it's important and what the context is. And it has to do with their friends, where they're from, who's on their team, and all that comes into the release too. Key! could've done this years ago—he's had this in him forever. But what was going on in the circle around this project that was either holding it back or whatever the fuck. That's always what I'm looking at, because the music—it's understood that it's gonna be crazy. We know how talented Key! is and I know I got whatever beat I need. I had to learn how to bring the best outta Key! by learning what's going on with him. That's how I approach every artist I work with, period. So you have to understand the entire context to make anything that really matters with them.
Was that always your approach or did something happen that made you change?
Kenny Beats: I stopped making rap music for years until about a year ago. I had done a lot of stuff for TDE when I was younger. I was working for Johnny Shipes in New York when I was 17 years old, getting beats off. When I came back to it, I wanted to do it the right way. So everything I go into now... unless I'm a big fan of your music, I'm not working with you. Can't buy a beat off me, can't buy a fuckin' repost. It is what it is. I really care about the legacy.
How long was that break?
I stopped for three years. I started a group called Loudpvck, which I do by myself now, and toured the whole world. Did all the EDM shit but started to realize the music didn't mean as much to me as rap always has. When I got back to it, I was starting to work with people that were dope. But Key! was always bucket list. 777 is the warm-up.
Key! has a lot of good hooks on 777.
Key!: I'm definitely better at song structure. It's all math now. I try to make shit so everybody gon' understand. That's why I try to be repetitive. I try to use a James Brown method rather than just repeating something. It's kinda weird, but I do everything by four's.
You got more technical.
Kenny Beats: We ain't talk about rappers during the project. We talked about James Brown, Rick James—that's literally what he was talking about, every single day. He might once in a while be like, "I need some pink hair tempo!" But we were not talking about what's going on. We were talking about timeless shit. That's why the album feels deep.
"Boss" is fun, light fare. A little bit different from the other stuff. How is it putting that together, in comparison to the more serious stuff?
Key!: That's one of the songs we did, like, "Move" and "Kelly Price." Those are the seven original songs.
Kenny Beats: "Squeamish," "Famous."
Key!: I was having fun already. Them three days—I don't even remember those days.
Kenny Beats: I feel like that was us getting comfortable too. 'Cause he can brag and boast all day. He lives there. To get a song like "Twisted," "Control" or "True Love" took a vibe that day. Something was going on with him. Something made him think a different way. "Boss" is just like, that's Key! off top. You put on a beat like that, Key could write you a fuckin' "Crazy Brazy" in five seconds if you give him a hard-ass beat. The more thoughtful shit comes out once we got more comfortable.
Kenny, how do you keep your production so sharp?
Kenny Beats: Learning every day. New sounds every day, new info every day, new YouTube lessons every day. I started doing vocals. I'm starting to do all my mastering now. I'm learning about mixing. There's never a reason to stop. And to me, most of these dudes is not producers; they're beatmakers. I don't just make beats. It's a big difference. If you really a producer, you need to know what's going on with your vocal. You need to know what's going on with the mix, you need to know what specific effects he likes. This shit's all really important to me, and I feel like there's always a weird divide between this dude who makes a beat, someone writing a great song, then a $50 an hour engineer in the middle, who don't give a fuck what your project sound like. For me its always more to learn, and I'm not comparing myself to people our age. I want us to sound like fuckin' Michael Jackson. I want Key! to sound Rick Rubin-produced when I do it.
Key!: Quincy Jones.
What's something you learned about each other that surprised you?
Key!: My nigga a diva. I prolly wouldn't even expect that. I prolly thought my nigga was a rager.
Kenny Beats: Haircuts and good food! What did I learn about Key!? I ain't learn shit.
Key!: Kenny is an amazing chef as well. What's that shit you make with the green sauce?
Kenny Beats: Oh, it's the lomo saltado with the cilantro sauce. It's not regular!
Key!, what do you wanna transition into as an artist?
Key!: A more stable artist, more consistent artist. Ain't really no such thing as underground no more. I was just that. I was underground and my music was getting kinda more on an internet basis. That's where everything is all on the same level. So I had to catch up to my industry self. Where you used to be able to be rare, and still make money.
What are you pushing next?
Kenny Beats: We got some people who got on some songs, very exciting features and shit. We're gonna push more of 777. But Key! came back to L.A. for the first time in a couple weeks since the project dropped. We just started working again. These new songs are fucking crazy.
Key!: We about to shoot out to Toronto to shoot "Toronto." We gonna go to Toronto to shoot a hood video. Like Clockers. Make Toronto look like New York.
Kenny Beats: We can't wait 'til people hear who's on "Love On Ice," who's on "Dig It."
Kenny, I know you have plenty of stuff on the way.
Kenny Beats: Rico [Nasty], UnoTheActivist, WARHOL.SS, Cousin Stizz, Ski Mask [The Slump God],  Greedo, Freddie Gibbs—a lot of shit I'm excited about. But a lot of these people now, it's a different thing when they come to the studio, cause 777 is required listening. So you need to know where my head is at and what kind of music I'm making. And they are all fans of Key! Every single person I work with was there for a lot of the recording process. I be having sessions with other people and Key! be taking over my studio and walking in for their session, not realizing it was a Key! listening session.
I'm working with a ton of people right now, and we're doing a bunch of amazing music. Rico is someone I'm especially excited about because she really just sits in her own lane. But Greedo and Key! are the ones who be making me cry in the studio more than anybody, to be real. I got way more songs with Key! than Greedo, but I met them via each other, they Facetimed me at 6 a.m. in Atlanta, wearing sunglasses. Key! said, "You and Greedo doing a whole project." And I was like, "Alright." Then they hung up on me. Then Greedo called me in L.A., now me and Greedo have a whole project. They are kinda kindred spirits. I can't wait until people hear what they have together, too.
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