Solid as a Rock

STICKING WITH WHAT HE KNOWS BEST, PRODUCER 88-KEYS MEETS UP WITH KANYE AND FRIENDS AND USES NOTHING BUT HARDWARE FOR HIS DEBUT SOLO ALBUM, THE DEATH OF ADAM
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Photo: Justin Borucki

dope music is a force like none other. Just ask 13-month-old Chloe Yoshe. Her mother is missing in action, and she can think of nothing better than to let everybody know her displeasure about the situation by belting out a penetrating scream. “Okay, okay, mommy will be back. Hey, wanna make a beat?” But the request to get her Pete Rock on falls on deaf ears as she continues to test the beginnings of her Mariah Carey-esque range. Then, all of a sudden, as quickly as she had started, the crying has come to a screeching halt. Silence. While Charles Misodi Njapa would probably like you to believe it was his superior parenting skills that have soothed the child's crying, it was actually the work-in-progress beat he just put on that has instantly taken the infant's attention. Caught up in the stripped-down drum pattern, Chloe is content, and her dad has seemingly added yet another fan to his list.

The man doing his best Daddy Day Care routine on this lazy February afternoon is none other than producer extraordinaire 88-Keys. A longtime purveyor of the boom-bap, the usually laid-back beat doctor is somewhat anxious today. He can't wait to spill the beans on the details of his debut solo offering, The Death of Adam (Decon, 2008). For his first foray outside of producing other people's tracks, 88 decided to go for a concept album, one that can quite possibly position the beatmaker as one of the foremost full-fledged producers in the game. But this record is just as much about the journey that brought him here as it is the finished product, which is something that is not lost on 88.

“My dad paid for classical piano lessons and the violin, but I started ditching those classes because there was a drum class next door,” he says of his early love for the rhythm section. Born to West African parents who were staunch on education and less enthusiastic about the newly emerging phenomenon called hip-hop, his love of early luminaries like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and DJ Polo and Special Ed was met with just the right amount of resistance so as to make for the type of against-all-odds tale that creates a good story to tell at the Grammy parties. Having purchased A Tribe Called Quest's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm three times and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising a whopping seven times because of his older brother's finding the tapes and breaking them to discourage his budding interest in the music, a young 88-Keys still wouldn't let that, ahem, break his spirits.

“My background could have stifled me to where I might be a little further in my career had I been able to experience music more openly,” he says. “Growing up, maybe I felt a certain way about it, but I'm so glad that things panned out the way that they did.”

THROUGH WITH SCHOOL

After bearing the brunt of the C. Delores Tucker-like distaste for hip-hop from his parents, 88 would go to Hofstra University and Queens College, only to leave like good friend and fellow college dropout, Kanye West, to chase his dreams of providing the world with some top-notch quality beats. After being courted by The Pharcyde to do some work on a record they were recording in California, he was faced with the dilemma of either making the grade or making some tracks, a decision that proved easy for him.

“I started realizing that music was my calling from my friends around the way who were saying my stuff was good and then them trying to do what I was doing, and it sounded horrible,” he says. “Basically, I had to clear my schedule [to record with The Pharcyde]. So I thought to myself, ‘What do I have going on? Oh, what's this, school? Yeah, okay…now I'm free.'' That eventually led to me getting booted out the crib.”

Though literally out on the street, music would prove to be his salvation. After sharpening his skills behind the boards, he would land placements on records from J-Live and multiple tracks for a pre-superstar Mos Def on his Black on Both Sides album. That eventually led to him placing even more tracks on Black Star's Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (“Thieves in the Night”), Macy Gray's On How Life Is (“Why Didn't You Call Me” remix) and the Broad Street Bully Beanie Sigel's The Reason (“Watch Your Bitches”).

While chopping up samples like a veteran chef in order to put food on the table, 88 always had plans of putting together his own LP that would showcase his versatility to the world. This piece of musical history might be the springboard that would catapult him into the same stratosphere as the Q-Tips of the world, who he had grown up listening to and hoped one day to be like. Carefully crafted and intricately constructed, this record would come to be his second genesis, and so began the beginnings of Adam.

“I just always wanted to improve on my style and the level of production that I could make,” he says. “I just had to find a way to do what I do but do it better. I never said to myself, ‘I gotta start using more keyboards or downloading 808 claps or using whistles in my beats,'' like Lil Jon was doing. The Neptunes…I like what they do, but I didn't want to make music like them either.”

So he began to hone what would become his signature style of making tracks that would lay the groundwork for The Death of Adam, an album that he says he made for “fans of mine who don't know I did anything outside of Black on Both Sides.”

BITES FROM THE APPLE

“As of 2006, I started listening to the entire albums of the records I planned on sampling from, instead of just skimming through and trying to catch that little piece,” he says of his creative process. “I stay away from looping. I'll sample the part into my MPC3000, like 10 seconds of it, chop it up, spread it across the pads, truncate it, add drums, then tighten up the groove around the drums. Then, I'll work on a bass line if [the record] calls for one. My thing is, I wanna drive people to try and find the loop in my music that's pretty much nonexistent.”

For The Death of Adam, 88 says he wanted to “do something special,” which involved him enlisting a host of his famous friends — who also happen to be huge fans of his production — to contribute to the album. Bilal, Redman, Phonte of Little Brother, newcomer Shitake Monkey and even Kanye West all stop by on the disc to add their proverbial two cents. But it's the sonic pathways that really lead the listener to the promised land.

“The brains of this is the MPC3000; my entire album was produced with that machine,” 88 says. “I flipped samples, moved beats around…but I most importantly learned to work with live musicians. This is the first time that I produced live musicians. When sample-clearance issues would come up, the labels would sometimes throw me in there with guys just to replay samples. But with this, I was able to communicate to them like, ‘This is what I hear in my head, so I want you to do this.'' I commanded trumpet players, piano players…it was crazy.”

It was a welcome surprise to 88, how well he gelled with the musicians: “With them being classically trained and me not, but coming up with the notes and melodies that even moved them — like, wow, I never thought of that. I went from being a beatmaker to a producer on this album. I really don't have one wack beat on the album.”

For his first time putting together a project of this magnitude, Keys is pleased with his freshman efforts and is looking to continue, straight to the head of the class. And with the stamp of approval from those around him, Quincy Jones better watch his back.

IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE HIM…

“88-Keys has a great ear for music; that's coming from me being a musician,” says Winston Nelson, who played piano, bass guitar, organ and keyboards on The Death of Adam. “He knew how to sing melodies and bass lines to get exactly what he wanted. As far as melody, chord structure, he heard the finished product from the beginning, and even I was like, ‘Wow, that's great.'' I was able to give him that live feel, and when put on top of the sample, he made it sound realistic, like there were 10 people playing instead of two. He made it bigger. The way he programmed his drums…it all fit musically.”

88-Keys may not be a household name like some superstar producers, but his collaborators see that changing with time. “I see him going far because I think he's very underrated,” Nelson says. “Like even before I got the chance to work with him, I thought he had the same light as Kanye or Just Blaze, and when people hear this album, they'll know, too.”

Planning to whet the appetites of potential listeners with a 15-song mixtape titled Adam's Case Files, which will serve as a prequel to the full-length offering, Keys plans to insert the original parts of the records that he sampled from and feature them on the tape, just to show that he's “no slouch” when it comes to digging in the crates. But above all, he's showing that he's growing up in his production style, something that the people around him feel privileged to witness.

“I think 88 made a bit more of a change to making music for a larger audience as opposed to making music that other producers could appreciate,” says Daniel Glogower, 88's manager. “He listens to music differently and hears the musical bed underneath. He's now making music to catch everybody's ear. I think he stopped chasing the industry and allowed them to catch up to him. And when he did that, that's when the music underwent a transformation.”

GOOD, CLEAN FUN

On this February afternoon, 88 is enjoying that transformation, and more importantly, he's accepting it. The man, who occasionally takes trips to the [Ralph Lauren] Polo mansion in NYC when he gets “beat block” and needs a quick dose of inspiration, says that he wants to follow in one of his biggest musical influences' footsteps and “get as much love as the great J Dilla got.” 88 is realizing that he could very well be the future of the hip-hop aural landscape. With that thought looming over his head, he spends hours in the studio — not for himself, but for the people, preparing to keep heads satisfied with an ever-increasing body of work. And if he has his way, he'll be serving the masses with classics for calendars to come.

“I got seven albums, concepts and titles, all ready to go in my head. I might just blindfold myself, put 'em on a dart board and say, ‘I'm gonna do this one next,''” he boasts.

“I'm just hoping to become more flawless than I am now and keep putting out good, entertaining music. Everything I do, I try to have the maximum amount of fun that doesn't require drugs or alcohol. And I'm getting there.”

Not bad for the first-generation Cameroonian sonic savant. He hopes that those who are nodding their heads to his thick, layered, creative concoctions will appreciate the road that has allowed him to arrive in their iTunes or CD decks. After placing their headphones over their ears or blasting it out of their Kenwoods in the car, 88-Keys is hoping that fans will become intoxicated from his 200-proof mix of drums, keys and synths served on the rocks — shaken, not stirred. Ask Chloe Yoshe. She already knows how her daddy gets down, and the hip-hop world is next.

“I want to bring people back to buying and listening to whole albums,” 88 says, “starting with mine.”

Word to Dilla.

HARDWARE ASSEMBLY

Akai MPC3000 sampling workstation
AKG C 414B-ULS microphone
Fender Jazz Bass (borrowed from Bilal), Rhodes keyboard
Numark DM1180 mixer
Roland VS-2480 digital studio workstation
Samson Servo 150 amplifier
Tascam CD-RW700 CD burner
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable, SB-A26 3-way cabinet speakers
Yamaha Motif 6 keyboard