Key! is ready to be the adult in the room — at least when it comes to music. While some credit the Atlanta veteran with fathering more than a few household names of the SoundCloud generation, he sees 2018 as a fresh opportunity to introduce his most evolved form yet. After years of solo projects, collaborative streaks with Two-9 and more recently, A$AP Mob, his newest effort, entitled 777 Volume 1, represents the refined version of himself, a crystallization of his former style that he calls “HD” Key!
No one is more excited about the project than Kenny Beats, who produced the tape from beginning to end. Kenny himself has historically made a living by touring as EDM producer LOUDPVCK, but his roots are firmly tied to producing for hip-hop acts. Over the last year or so, he’s rebuilt a name for himself by making standout songs with upcoming artists like Hoodrich Pablo Juan and Rico Nasty. It all came together at Kenny’s small studio in Los Angeles, formerly occupied (also for recording purposes) by retired basketball player Metta World Peace. This is where I meet Kenny and Key! In the space, a collapsible ladder stretches down from a rickety attic full of beanbags, memorabilia, and transient people’s forgotten shit.
Key! and I make our ascent up the ladder to discuss, among other things, what it means to grow up, how styles travel through artists, and what — if anything — is important to achieve before death.
How do you feel that this project has progressed from your older work?
I feel like this is the cleanest. I’m speaking clearly. I just feel like it makes sense. It’s extra clear. It’s like HD me. The most polished me. Right now, I only wanna work with one producer when I do a project. I want the sound to stay consistent.
A cohesive thought.
Right, so I’ma try to challenge [the producer] to the best of my abilities. So if I come up with some wild thought, like me and Kenny did the Bjork sample. We just threw it away because we knew we wouldn’t get the clearance. But that was like, Let me come in here and do some shit nobody that listens to me thinks about.
Like Björk. But I feel like this whole project is gonna be over everybody’s head, like nobody has heard some shit like this. But it’s still gonna sound understandable to the masses.
And to fans of your music, it’s not too much of a departure.
I feel like it sounds like my old music too. I feel like I just took what I was missing and I added something to clean it up with. I was on this tour [A$AP Mob Too Cozy tour], and I felt like the tour was bigger than me. And I didn’t like that.
So you want to feel comfortable in a stadium environment? Is that why your new ad-lib is you screaming, “Open up that mosh pit!”?
Yeah, my whole approach is I can take this shit serious now. I like being an adult. I feel like this is my Kanye West year, like I feel like I got something to explain. And if you ain’t listening suck my dick,.
Well, Kanye was around your age when he first dropped. Do you think about things like that?
Yeah, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg too. But before now, I wasn’t the best artist to me either. I was fye, but I was like “Damn, I’ma be the best.” Now I feel like I’m the best. Whatever a nigga wanna do, I feel like I did that. I’m an instrument, I built this instrument. Niggas say niggas took my sound or whatever, but it’s like...which sound? Because it could have been that old “Wrist” sound, but then I did them Auto-Tune mixtapes and now everybody sound like that.
Do you agree with that though, that people stole your sound?
Nah. I feel like I influence people, but people influence me as well.
But some people take more than they give.
For sure. But how I’m coming at it now is, I’m not doing nothing different, I’m just an adult with it. It’s like at first you’re a teenager trying to fuck a bitch versus you got some money and you a grown ass man, and you can drop that bitch off. Rather than riding a bus to go fuck a bitch, you dig what I’m saying? That’s what we used to do, ride the bus to go fuck bitches.
Now, I’m picking her up. And I’m taking her to the crib or a hotel.
Do you feel more like an adult, personally as well?
You feel like a kid?
Mhmm. I need to catch up soon though, because I can’t be a kid forever.
What does it mean to you to be grown up?
To be a fully responsible person. I know I’m not that. But I’m like an artist you know. Artists is like niggas who need hugs.
And the best of them are able to access the kid part of themselves. I think Kanye said something like he tries to act like a 3-year-old because we were all artists at that age. Our imaginations were pure.
My imagination be taking the best of me.
What do you mean by that?
I imagine everything and then I do it. And it ain’t good sometimes.
So you follow through on your desires regardless of their consequences?
Yeah, sometimes. I be feeling like That’s So Raven sometimes, you know.
You get a vision?
Yeah straight up, too. And it can be about other people too, you know how people be like “I put this artist there.” Same shit. I could see it if you was a basketball player. Or if you punch somebody, I’ll be like, “You need to go to the UFC.” I ain’t never seen nobody punch nobody like that. You look like you was classically trained to punch people like that, dog.
Speak it into existence.
That shit easy. Money easy. Everything easy. But right now in my life I just need to solidify my business. As Key! the rapper I don’t gotta do nothing else. Other than that nobody fucking with me.
What does solidifying the business aspect involve?
Great management. Great suits.
Suits on yourself?
Suits working for me. Working for my brand, working for this company. Employees.
The Key! Company.
The Key! Company. It’s like...remember that game Hospital Tycoon?
Hospital Tycoon? I remember Roller Coaster Tycoon.
Yeah, they had one for hospitals, too. It was on PlayStation.
Sounds like a stressful environment to run. Why would they make that?
I don’t know. People be dying in the hospital.
We were talking before about influences and how they pass through artists.
I was just talking the other day on Twitter about Ace Hood, how everybody sounds like Ace Hood. Off that one song “Hustle Hard.” Like that shit made careers. That song could make full-on careers. Meek Mill. Lil Wayne was rapping like that. Anybody, Rick Ross, they was all rapping like that. I heard it in Rocky, I heard it in myself. I heard it in everybody, Tyler, the Creator. Pusha T! Pusha T, my man with the flows. Everybody with flows switched to that flow. Ra-ra with the top off. Fi-fa with the drop off. That became everybody. That’s Ace Hood. One person.
It can be hard to detect the sources.
Nah, it ain’t that hard. And I’m not saying this like it’s bad. Like, a lot of people mastered it. But they forgot about whatever unorthodox flow they had before.
Do you feel like it’s more important to be the inventor or the master?
You can’t invent unless you master.
But some people are like the first ones to break through.
You could come out with the hoverboard, but then there’s a super fire hoverboard. They came out with the cell phone and then Steve Jobs made the best one, the iPhone.
He was the master, not inventor.
Yep, and I ain’t hating. I ain’t invent hip-hop. But I mastered the shit. But I’m master enough to tell you where the fuck that sound came from. ‘Cause I was there for that sound. I seent that sound. I used to be like “I don’t wanna rap like that.”
So when something becomes too recognizable, you steer away. Because you want to be original?
At this point I already know I’m original because I built this whole thing not wanting to be nobody else. My whole thing is to be different. My whole style is gonna be an offset style. I was just talking about the term “offset” and Offset name and how he ran off with the whole term. That’s so fire. 'Cause everybody was saying “offset” until Offset came out and totally wrapped that whole term up and that’s fire. That’s a great terminology. You can’t even say that word without thinking about Offset. Super fire.
He branded it.
But yeah my style is offset.
What would you say influences you outside of your peers?
Old music, and movies. And video games. I like characters. I like characters in general. I like characteristics about people, I like good stories.
What are some of your favorite stories?
The other day, I found the best storyline you could ever find in a fucking video game. But it’s some game that’s about to come out and I don’t know the name of it, so we ain’t giving them credit yet 'cause they ain’t pay me. But the shit look crazy — they based it off purgatory. And you got these suits on and you gotta fight like you a soldier of some platoon, and y’all platoon is like a rebel platoon. And y’all are fighting the army of death. And just to get another life, like reincarnation, back to life, like it’s a baby. Like they be carrying babies in the game.
But yeah, artists-wise, I fuck with Nina Simone’s story. I fuck with Jim Morrison. Jim Morrison’s story is super fire. You gon fuck with everybody who famous story. That’s why they famous. 'Cause their story is famous.
That’s why people keep paying attention. You mentioned Jim Morrison. Do you romanticize dying young?
That’s an interesting story, too. That lil 27 club. It’s interesting if a nigga die jumping off a roof on WorldStar. He coulda been 45, that shit interesting. People die at any age at all times every day. We could go right now and make a 25 club. But Jim Morrison’s story is way better than the fact that he died at 27.
That’s just where it ends. Do you think that’s a good year to die?
I don’t know. You could die 1 to 100. I ain’t with the emotional death art. What’s that, death metal music? I ain’t into that. Like my boy Bighead is a death metal producer. “Gucci Gang” is a death metal song.
What do you think is important to have done before dying?
Having kids and raising them right. That’s it. Make sure your kids good, make sure they rich. All go to good schools and make sure they get rich.
Given the perspective you have now, how would you tell your story, to someone who doesn’t know about you, about how you came to be in the position that you are today?
I ain’t got enough money to be talking about, “I’m in a position.”
Well everyone’s in some position.
I’m incompetent to understand that. That sound like somebody who like “To get like me, to have 3 million dollars man you had to sacrifice a lot.” I ain’t got one of those stories.
Do you feel like you’re a storyteller?
Yeah, in a sense. In the sense that everybody’s watching each other’s lives on social media. People tune in.
What about in the music?
I paint a picture. It’s whatever you make it. Whatever you take it in as is what it’s gon be.
What do you want people to feel when they listen to your music?
I want them to be able to relate. I want people to be like, Yeah damn, I feel him. That’s just like me. Damn, if I was a artist, that’s what I’d be.
Do you feel like you’re relatable to the average person?
Yeah, for sure.
Or moreso an offset person?
Nah, my regular life part is just as relatable as anybody else. I’m a offset person.