Not many artists can claim to have worked with the prolific Stones Throw producer/emcee and one-half of Gangrene (alongside The Alchemist) Oh No, let alone having collaborated with him on a full-length album. Even fewer can boast about doing so on their first-ever release.
Meet Chris Keys: Bay Area native, Lamont School of Music alumnus and hip-hop’s surprising new beatmaking breakout. On October 23, Keys will put out the Ashes LP — the inaugral cooperation between Oh No and himself, which features Guilty Simpson, Rapper Big Pooh, Killah Priest among more — so we caught up with the man beforehand to discuss musical chemistry, beat imperfections and ancient aliens passing down samples.
I don’t mind dirt in the music. I thrive on imperfections in the beat. When a beat starts sounding too clean I feel like it loses some soul…
Interview by: @aboynamedandy
How did you and Oh No link up in the first place for Ashes?
Well, I met Oh No through a mutual producer and mad scientist friend we have named Dashiel. We would go down to the Ox and just check beats and smoke. We did one song, and based off that I knew we had to do a full project.
Was the album something you both set out to make from the start, or was it an organic development from a few collaborations?
At first I was just happy to kick it and trade music. I have a lot of respect for Oh as a producer, too, not just a rapper. But after we did a song, I felt like the chemistry was too good to ignore. So we did about 21 songs in a week or two, and picked from those. We kept going too – we got a ton of songs. In terms of the album concept, that came after we had done the music. I just tried to do a bunch of different types of joints so we could pick from a good variety.
Oh No’s been super busy this year alone, releasing Vodka & Ayahuasca with Gangrene, the Odditorium EP again with Gangrene, as well as his OhNoMite solo LP. Was this a conscious thought when making Ashes — did you intentionally look to differentiate (or perhaps even similarize) the album’s sound?
Not consciously, no. Gangrene is it’s own thing; it has a one-of- a-kind sound and vibe to the whole thing, so it was easy to avoid sounding too close. The stuff we did on Ashes still had that raw mentality about it, but it’s definitely it’s own thing as well. A lot of this production I’m still kind of finding my style also; I tried to move around a lot – some of them are lots of keyboards and no samples (“Lights”), some only samples no drums or keys(“Big Thangs”), some a mix of both.
STREAM: Oh No & Chris Keys (feat. Guilty Simpson & Montage One) – “Devastation”
We’ve already heard two tracks from Ashes with “Devastation” featuring Guilty Simpson and Montage One and “Let’s Go” — both of which are very gritty and dark. Does the album follow this same blueprint throughout?
Gritty, sure – I don’t mind dirt in the music. I thrive on imperfections in the beat. When a beat starts sounding too clean I feel like it loses some soul, possibly. But as for dark, we tried to mix it up a bit with joints like “Lights,” “The Picture,” and “Spaceship,” which are not as dark, and songs like “Feet” which is dark but optimistic at the same time.
Oh No’s known for citing some pretty unusual influences. The aforementioned “Let Go” was apparently inspired by a European rave. What other zany inspirations are there on Ashes that you know of?
Well, the whole Ashes concept came after the music was done. I had the idea to use Ashes for the title, and Oh really came up with the concept. Even the artwork was Oh No’s brainchild, I just passed the idea from him to the graphic artist, Ken Sarafin, and that was that. In terms of lyrical inspirations, I can’t exactly tell you what’s behind every lyric, but I know his creativity is endless, so you never know what’s possibly based on a true story or not.
It’s incredible to think that this is your first full-length project. Did you feel nervous at all going into the album with little experience behind you?
Nervous, I’m not sure, but definitely humbled. I just wanted to make sure I treated the music with respect. Also I may have only been doing beats for a few years, but music has been my life since I was a kid. I’ve been playing piano for almost 20 years, and went to music school for four years – all of that can be a big advantage for a producer; any kind of ear training is king. So I’ve been very grateful having that behind me going into my production career.
You must have learned a wealth of knowledge and practices from Oh No during the creative process, right?
Oh hell yeah; specific beat-making codes translated from the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to input in your MPC, top-secret BPMs to make your beats knock super hard, samples passed down from ancient aliens… I got allathat! [Laughs]. Actually, the most important lesson I learned was work ethic. That’s all there really is to it. If you put your effort into your work ethic, everything else just comes naturally – and no one has been more inspiring to me in that regard than Oh.
The guest features on the record are nicely balanced. There’s both established MCs such as Rapper Big Pooh and Killah Priest, and relatively unknown names like Lyric James and Declaime. How did you and Oh No decide who to bring on board?
Thank you. Most of it was through Oh No. I happened to bring Killah Priest on board for “Funeral” because we had been working together on some other shit, and I thought he would be great for that song. Really glad we got a chance to fit him in, too. That was a last minute thing.
Working on Ashes will surely open more doors for you in the coming future. Have you received any production offers yet? And do you think there’s a chance you could branch out to work with the other Jackson: Madlib?
Anything is possible. I have absolutely no expectations going in; I just know I want to keep doing this. And naturally, I would be honored to work with Madlib.
And lastly, what are the future plans for Chris Keys?
I’ve been staying busy behind the scenes cooking up some other projects. After Ashes I think I’m going to be dropping some sort of compilation tape to set up for some of the other releases I’ve been working on. We’ve got MED, Roc Marciano, Declaime, Georgia Ann Muldrow, Planet Asia, and Quelle Chris to name a few. In the meantime, I’ll just be cooking up beats.
Thanks a lot for the interview, appreciate your blog and your interest in the music. Peace.