Red Bull’s Music Academy: Who is 88-Keys?

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I’ve been hearing the name 88-Keys buzzing around for a few months. I had never heard a song and missed many opportunities to see him perform. One day, while watching MTVU, 88-Keys’ video The Friends Zone

came on. I wasn’t immediately impressed by the video, but gave it another review on YouTube. Like Kid Cudi‘s Day ‘N Night, The Friend Zone grew on me. Who is 88-Keys?


I finally got a chance to discover who 88-Keys is, when I attended Red Bull’s Music Academy. I walked in The Red Bull Space in Lower Manhattan and felt like I was at home. A pure intimate setting with plush white couches surrounding an elevated stage. No seat was a bad seat in the house. With my Red Bull and appetizer in hand, I soaked up the blend of Techno beats and Hip Hop classics being spun by the DJ. Expecting a performance by the artists of the night, I was proven wrong. It was a evening of shared information. It was an “Inside the Actor’s Studio” master class but for Musicians. DJs interviewed sound system developers, producers interviewed producers, music connoisseurs interviewed music legends. It was a night for me to discover who is behind the music. Singer/songwriter/producer Colin Munroe (I Want Those Flashing Lights) interviewed producer/rapper/singer 88-Keys.

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As I sat there listening to him talk, what I thought of him before was replaced by a fresh perspective. I began to connect with him around his passion for Hip Hop Music. More importantly he had me at A Tribe Called Quest! “I fell in love with Hip Hop music with A Tribe Called Quest when People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm came out. I listened to Hip Hop before that, but when that came out, that changed my life.” 88-Keys sold me with that statement. Not to mention his extensive production resume working with some of my favorite artists like Mos Def (Love, Speed Law) and Talib Kweli (Thieves in the Night) as well as Macy Gray (Why Didn’t You Call Me, remix) and Musiq Soulchild (Babygirl, Dontstop, Her).

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Hearing 88-Keys speak, reminded me that there are still innovative producers contributing to Hip Hop’s livelihood. Hip Hop isn’t dead, it’s being reborn through individuals like 88-Keys.

88-Keys interviewed by Colin Monroe

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Colin Mo: Were your parents the type of parents, see you get into all this, disapproving of the music from the beginning

88-Keys: Yes.

CM: So if you had said you wanted to be a Classical pianist or something like that, do you think it would have been different?

88-Keys: Yes, actually it would have. My father is from the old country. Both my parents are from Camaroon in West Africa along with my older brother and my three older sisters, they’re all from there. My family is from a medical background. My father was a register nurse, my mother was a health administrator, my brother eventually became doctor, I have another sister who is a nurse. My dad felt like classical music that that was the shit. He actually gave me piano lessons back in the day, but I didn’t like the piano, at all. Had I known I would have stuck with it.

CM: Explain the history of the name.

88: Back in the day I used to sell records with my man John Carrero, who is one of the biggest record vendors in the early 80s-mid 90s in New York and east coast. We eventually had clients like Q-Tip coming through. Pete Rock uses to come through, the Beatnuts, Da Beatminerz, Prince E from PM Dawn. Like anyone who was super relevant and doing it on the east coast in hip hop music came through. One day Q-tip came through to buy some records from us and he brought Large Professor over. At this time I was working with John maybe about a year or so. So I was just starting to getting into music production, so I had an Esoniq ASR Keyboard. So I was making beats on there. Q-Tip came through and brought Large Professor and Large Professor, straight off the top started free-styling. Like no introduction or anything. When I saw Large Professor walked in I was like “ah wow its Large Professor Looking At the Front Door” and I was looking at the front door, looking at him walk through the front door. He just started free-styling. He didn’t know my name or anything, no introduction he just called me 88-Keys in the free-style cause I was making beats on the piano. And that was it. So I said if I ever get into the business that would be the name I would go by, I think I was like 15 years old at the time.

CM: What was it that made your parents change and take this music thing seriously? Was it the records with Black Star, was it being able to work with the people they see in music?

88: Everything was all good with my parents, when I got my first check from Mos Def.

CM: So they saw someone recognizable and were like “Ok, he is actually doing something with it”.

88: Yeah. I was actually able to live on my own after they kicked me out the crib.

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CM: They actually kicked you out?

88: Yeah. I had decided that I didn’t want to continue my college education. I had one more semester to go before I graduated with a BA in English. At the time I had an opportunity to work with The Pharcyde, so I took that instead. Which happened, but didn’t happen. I don’t know how to explain it.

CM: How so?

88: I met The Pharcyde at a club called Tramps. I was friends with the late great J. Dilla, back then he was JayDee. I have so many hip hop connecting stories. So I went to The Pharcyde concert and wiggled myself to the front, yo it was a sold out crowd. I kept screaming ‘I know JayDee! I know JayDee!’ While they were performing they looked at me and just kept performing and looked at me again and I was waving my beat tape. I had a beat cassette, like one of those 10 minute cassettes. At the time they were performing songs from Labcabincalifornia, which had a lot of production from JayDee. So after the show I waited until about 3am on the side of the venue for them to come out. They came out, I gave them the tape with my pager number on it. Much to my surprise, they called me or paged me like a doctor. And I called them back. They wanted to get things started right away. Eventually I tracked the beats for them, i got paid for it. The original plan was for them to fly me out in California. I told my parents. My parents didn’t believe it and then it didn’t happen.

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CM: So how did you and Dilla cross paths?

88: I met Dilla through Q-Tip. By this time Tip and I were good friends. Well I still always looked up to him, he literally changed my life. To this day he is like one of my heros.

CM: To what extent? Is this musically? Personally?

88: Everything. Like I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have met my wife had it not been for Dee making beats and being where I was in Jersey City in my Loft. I wouldn’t have my kids… it’s like the whole six degrees of separation, things intertwining itself like that. Hip Hop has brought me across the US and beyond and met certain people. It’s all because of Hip Hop.

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CM: What do you think his biggest musical contribution to you?

88: Just his whole style. Well to get back to the original question. I met him through Tip… when I was just trying to get a nitch for my own sound, as far as making beats. Initially I always wanted to sound like, who I thought was Ali Shaheed Muhammad, not knowing that Q-Tip produced majority of the A Tribe Called Quest stuff. I wanted to sound like Ali, Tip and I wanted to sound like Pete Rock. So I was really trying to mimic their style of production and failed miserably. But eventually I started to get the hang of it. I guess I got into my own style. So eventually, by this time Tip had already met JayDee, and he asked me to come down to the studio to meet him. They had just started to work on ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ at the time. I went to the studio and met him he was real cool, he was quite. I handed him my cassette. Three days later he called me back and he was playing me beats. I was like ok he liked this beat and that beat, thinking he is playing my beats over the phone,and he starts laughing and says ‘naw these are my beats’. So we wound up chopping up the same samples almost the same exact way except his drums were slightly different. And ever since then we would play records, I would say once a week or once every two weeks we would just work on beats together. Three times out of ten we would wound up touching same record and chop it up the same exact way. So that’s how I met him.

CM: How did you and Kanye cross paths?

88: Kanye and I met at Baseline Studio in New York City. When I told him I was 88-Keys, his eye lit up. He said it was an honor to meet me because I had produced one of his favorite albums at the time which was Black on Both Sides, Mos Def’s first album. When he told me his name, I vaguely remember seeing his name in credits, but you have to remember this is back in 2001, but we ended up continuing to hang out and playing beats for each other.

CM: One thing led to another, which leads him to produce your current record, which is a concept record. Is this something you continuing, another concept record? Or are you going to just see what happens.

88: A little bit of both. I already of other albums lined up in my head as far as for my self and Im going to defiantly going to do another album.

88-Keys’ debut album is entitled The Death of Adam and it is in store now!

Dana Bingham
The Concert Junkie

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