Party Girl | Kid Sister


Photo: Andreas Larsson

It's 8 p.m. on Sunday night, and Kid Sister is holed up in her London hotel room, recovering from the mud and mayhem of yesterday's Glastonbury performance. “I didn't see anybody. I didn't even try to see Winehouse, nothing,” she says, words flowing out her mouth and down the telephone line in a quick and frenzied stream flecked with giggles and the not-so-occasional swear word. “I was like, ‘Fuck. That. Shit.’ I had so much to do today, I just needed to leave. I'm just in the homestretch of the album, and it's so intense. Every day it's like something pressing and crazy, so I'm just trying to take it easy.”

She pauses for a split second, mimics the desperate panting of a rabid dog, and lets loose a peal of laughter that suggests she rather enjoys this kind of frenzied activity. “It's better to have a to-do list that's long, rather than no to-do list at all, right?”

This, boys and girls, is Melisa Young, the smart, sassy woman who parades around onstage in fierce shoes, eye-poppin' dresses and immaculately styled hair, spitting out rhymes that shamelessly elevate the more mundane aspects of late-20s life — getting one's nails done, hanging out with friends, perhaps getting laid. She's a long way from home, literally and figuratively, and judging by her recent string of high-profile appearances (the BET Awards, guest hosting on MTV, the aforementioned Glastonbury gig) plus her debut full-length, Dream Date (Downtown/Fool's Gold, 2008), on the way, she's not likely to slow down anytime soon. “Right when the video [for her single “Pro Nails,” featuring Kanye West] came out, that's when things really started popping off,” she says. “I got this worldwide exposure that I never had before. What do you do with that? I don't know!”


Based in Chicago for the past five years, Kid Sister led a fairly quiet life up until recently. In 2003, she had just finished college and landed a steady job at Little Threads, a trendy baby-clothing store in the young-hip-mom-friendly Roscoe Village neighborhood. She biked herself to work in the freezing Chicago winters and let loose on weekends at the dance parties DJ'd by her younger brother Josh and his pal Curt Cameruci (who perform together as Flosstradamus).

It didn't take long for Flosstradamus to gain some serious notoriety, and it certainly didn't take long for Kid Sister to grab the mic and let it rip. “When I first started, I didn't move around the stage, I was so scared,” she recalls. Luckily, she had some help — namely in the form of DJ A-Trak (aka Alain Macklovitch), otherwise known as the 15-year-old kid who won the DMC World DJ Championships in 1997, and otherwise really, really, well known as Kanye West's tour DJ. The two met a few years ago when A-Trak performed in Chicago with Flosstradamus, and they're currently dating. “Alain seriously took me into the living room, me and my brother Josh, and was like, ‘Do this show in front of me, here in the living room, in your PJs, and I'll give you some critique.’ It was definitely boot camp!”

These days, A-Trak mans the turntables while Kid Sister fully works that stage. And in late September, they're releasing Kid Sister's full-length debut Dream Date on Fool's Gold, the record label A-Trak runs with Nick Catchdubs. “When we met, she already had the demo version of ‘Let Me Bang,’ one of the songs on the album, and I loved it,” he says. “I had just done a mixtape with GLC, and I was really into the idea of working closely with an artist that's just coming into their sound. On my end I was also making a transition, going from hip-hop production to more clubby, electronic-sounding beats, and this seemed like a fun way to try stuff out.”

Aside from producing using Pro Tools, an Mbox and a Digi 002, A-Trak made a few beats for her album using Logic on his Apple PowerBook. “I usually start with a sample or a bass line, whatever will be the meat of the music,” he says. “Then I add drums and more layers on top. I don't really care about tweaking samples beyond recognition. I don't want my sound to be too glitchy. Mostly I focus on having a good pocket for my drums and using sounds that have a lot of character.” To help create that character, A-Trak also uses Propellerhead Reason, Native Instruments Massive and Battery 3, Waves plug-ins, Moog Minimoog Voyager, Shure KSM27 mic, D.A.V. Electronics BG No. 2 preamp and the obvious turntable setup with Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables and Pioneer DJM-800 and Rane TTM 57SL DJ mixers.


He also called in some friends, like Diplo and XXXChange (Alex Epton of Spank Rock), to help. “You could say I'm shaping the sound of the album, like what a rock producer does,” he explains. “What's cool in this case is, there really is a Kid Sister sound. This became apparent pretty early on, too. I give XXXChange a lot of credit for that sound. In a sense, “Control” [produced by XXXChange and released last year] laid down the template for a lot of her tracks. There's always a futuristic side to the music, compared to your typical rap record, but she's also got a strong ear for pop, so it never goes too left field. As her producer, I try to maintain that balance and provide a strong musical backdrop that can carry her songwriting.”

“Control” highlights Young's piquant MC style with a gut-rumbling bass line that comes courtesy of an ARP 2600. XXXChange augments his ARP in Logic with the Arturia ARP soft synth, and he phased two tracks against each other to produce the song's characteristic buzz. “What I do a lot with either the soft synth or the real synthesizer, I'll just get a drum beat going and play a lot of passes over it,” XXXChange explains. He initially made the song for Santogold to freestyle over, but she didn't bite and the beat sat on his computer for over a year. “My computer at the time wasn't very smart; it would render everything into audio, and I'd end up using it more as a sample, taking those pieces of audio and chopping them up, layering them so maybe there's three ARPs playing all at once.”

When XXXChange played that beat for A-Trak and Kid Sister, they immediately jumped on it. They sent XXXchange a rough demo of Kid Sister's vocals, A-Trak gave him some ideas for the bridge, and then they let him run with it. “For the finished product of that,” XXXchange explains, “I recorded some keyboards on a drive, I put those over for the chords and she did the vocals, and then we put the bridge in, which I think was a Korg Polysix or something, and Alain scratching on it. It kinda came together from a bunch of disparate pieces that were lying around. I like to work like that — like you're doing sample music but none of it is actually sampled. It's like doing collage style, like you're doing hip-hop production, putting different samples together, except you made all the samples. You get that feeling of stuff being slightly out of time, having that grittiness to it, like when you sample a 2-track or something that already has reverb on it.”


At first, Kid Sister recorded her vocals with A-Trak in the studio with her, but nowadays she prefers to write and record on her own, heading to the Attic studio in Chicago (where Lupe Fiasco records), not too far away from where she lives. “It's something I do very much by myself,” she admits. “We both found that I work a lot better when I'm just working by my instincts…. I lock myself in my house and try to churn out songs. It's how my life has become — it's how I like it. I'm 28 years old; do I look like I'm 28? I try to keep this face preserved! Okay?”

Her recording requirements are minimal, to say the least. To re-create that boundless energy she exhibits when performing for a crowd, she loads up on coffee and heads into the studio, where the sound engineer, Greg “G-Ball” Magers catches her vocals on a Korby KAT mic with a Sony C800 capsule and an Avalon Vt-737sp preamp. “I just get geeked up from being in there,” Kid Sister says. “I write what I want to hear and what I get excited to hear. Sometimes I'll listen to the radio just to get a feel for what's out there, but mostly I just reference my own life when I write. I just try to think about what makes me happy, what makes me sentimental.”

Being in the studio without her significant other has other advantages, too. That drum pattern on ‘Switchboard’? That's all Kid Sister. “I put the mic down on the table, and I made these rhythmic patterns with my knuckles and my wrists by banging on the table. And I think Alain, if he heard that I wanted to do that, he would have been like, ‘Uh, no!’ But I just decided that's what I wanted to do, in the studio, on the fly. It turned out being one of the coolest parts of the song.”

A-Trak fully supports her on this point: “To be honest, I think the best, unexpected stuff happens when I'm not there because I'm too much of a control freak! When she recorded ‘Switchboard’ with G-Ball, she was superexcited to do a juke record because she used to listen to those ghetto-house mixtapes growing up in Chicago. She laid down her verse, and then she added all these chants for dances and stuff. The first one was, ‘Now let your wrist and your knuckles bang / wrist and your knuckles bang,’ and she decided to record herself banging this kind of tribal rhythm and it sounds great! It keeps going between all the chants. If I was there, I would have looked at her crazy, but now I love it.”


Despite his own full schedule, A-Trak is still involved with the final stages of production for each song. He and XXXChange relied on good old AOL Instant Messenger and Gmail to toss ideas back and forth with a friend of theirs, DJ Eli Escobar, and they were able to road test several beats on club sound systems. “All three of us mix on Serato, too, so we can make something that afternoon and take it into the DJ booth, see if the crowd likes it, or if it sounds weird over big speakers,” XXXChange says. “We all work out of home studios, so we don't have these big subwoofers or anything to get an idea of what the bass is actually doing!”

Kid Sister is, after all, made to be a party MC, so it's only fitting that her vocals sit loud and clear over beats made to shake the room. Anything less would not befit her live show, which more often than not turns into a sweaty, churning mess of dancing bodies and spilled drinks. “I always try to bring it whether I'm jumping on a couch in [Chicago bar] Sonotheque with a beer in one hand and a mic in the other hand, or playing at Glastonbury,” she remarks. “I always try to bring all my energy and all my diet Red Bull every single time! I think that's what people pay for. They pay for excellence. They don't pay for mediocrity. So I just try to make sure it's good. I look at how Kanye works the stage: When he came on the stage with me at the Natural History Museum in New York [for Flavorpill's One Step Beyond party], he worked that stage just as much as he would work a stage at Madison Square Garden. Looking at that, that's definitely one of those things where I'm like, ‘Oh shit!’ I gotta take something away from that.”

In her increasingly rare quiet moments, she tosses aside her stage persona and gets down to the business of being young, hip and in Chicago. “Really, for me now, I'm like, let's have a barbecue. The downtime I do have, I don't want to spend it in a club. That's where I work,” she says. “If we don't have enough money, we'll have a beer-becue; there's no meat, just beer. It's fun! I'd much rather do that. Now that I've got a little more exposure, I'll never complain about being recognized out and about. I think that's superflattering, but sometimes it's just nice to be with your friends, not talk about music. I still don't look at myself as a musician; I look at myself as a baby-store worker with a film degree who's still taking everything in and trying to learn from it.”