88-Keys: Going After Those Weezy Numbers

88-KEYS: Going After Those Weezy Numbers
By Marsha Gosho Oakes

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As a teenager, Charles Misodi Njapa interned at The Music Palace – a studio in his hometown of West Hempstead, Long Island. He spent a decade working his way up the ladder, from being Assistant Engineer on Busta Rhymes’ debut album, The Coming (“He’s a great guy and super-talented but now I feel like I’m in a position to label him a colleague or a peer”) to producing several cuts on the Black Star album and Mos Def’s solo debut Black On Both Sides.

Now at 32 years old, producer and DJ 88-Keys (don’t you dare call him Charles! “People haven’t referred to me by my birth name since elementary school…NOBODY, aside from my parents and my siblings, nobody else calls me [by my birth name]…“) has added rapper and singer to his repertoire, independently releasing his debut album: The Death Of Adam.

88albcover1Produced by 88-Keys and executive produced by Kanye West, The Death Of Adam, is an unintended concept album based around the story of ‘Adam’ – “Who wakes up one day with a boner and he decides that he needs to get a girl to do something about that – which I’m sure everybody can relate to…” he laughs.

“So in his attempts at getting the girl he’s being Mr Goodie–Two-Shoes, plays the nice guy role, and his ass ended up in ‘The Friend Zone’. So he abandoned that approach for his next go-round and winds up doing the total opposite – then he gets the girl and their relationship, their exploits, take off from there.”

This ‘14-track cautionary tale on the pleasures and pitfalls of romantic conquests’, which may, on paper, seem like a friskily fickle concept, is in reality an extremely well executed piece of work forming what many fans consider to be one of the most enjoyable Hip Hop concept albums in recent years.

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Here, 88-Keys talks to SoulCulture editor Marsha Gosho Oakes to explain why he picked up the microphone after years of being known as ‘just’ a producer, being a happily married family man and why The Death Of Adam is not a ‘sex album.’

“I knew this album was gonna be my reintroduction to the music industry and my calling card for more work,” 88 comments. I can almost hear him grinning down the phone as he tells me, “It made a lot of top 10 lists – like best album of 2008 and stuff like that. I’m pretty happy with the results as far as the critical acclaim and I know the sales are gonna be there – it’s just a matter of time.”

This reintroduction to Mr ‘Eighty Ocho’ comes after a slight gap in output after his five year ‘peak’ from ’99 to ’05, during which time he produced for the varied likes of Mos Def (“Love,” “Speed Law,” “May-December”), Musiq Soulchild (“Babygirl,” “Dontstop”), Talib Kweli, The Pharcyde, DJ Spinna, Foxy Brown, Joe Budden, Beanie Sigel, Grafh, 3LW and Consequence.

“It’s funny…” he says, “certain people who I’d say are my biggest fans… thought the last production work I did was on Black On Both Sides. I’ve done quite a bit since then; it’s just that people didn’t know… and in the internet age where people are downloading stuff for free, you’re not getting album credits. I’ve been in the game.”

Married for the past three years (his wife “pretty much made me speechless, stopped my heart,” he gushes) – which coincides with the apparent gap in yield and/or time spent finishing the new album – 88 has been fortunate enough to keep himself and his family comfortably afloat on his production work alone: “I’ve never once had to pick up a nine-to-five job to make a living and support my new family – for me that’s not even an option. The way I set my life up…”

“I don’t know how to do anything else but make a living off my hobby.” He adds, “I haven’t had a nine-to-five since ’95.”

Whilst talking to him, 88’s pride in his marriage and two daughters is more than evident. Verbally epitomising a proud father, forthcoming on his love for his wife (who he pursued for a year before managing to bag a date) and strongly advocating the family unit – the genuine warmth and casual wit 88-Keys emits is an exuberantly shining contradiction of mainstream media impressions of most Hip Hop producers and rappers. (With an album of songs about the ‘burning bush’ of sexual infections, morning quickies, and the general ups and downs (ins and outs…) of sexual relationships, one might not expect such a sensible and lewdity-lacking interview.)

Lyrical sexual anecdotes aside, 88-Keys points out that, above all, The Death Of Adam makes a moral statement. “I don’t know if people got the message yet or not…” he muses. “I’ve seen people post comments and chime in about what they felt about my album and for the most part it’s been pretty much awesome feedback and reviews so far – but a lot of people just comment about the beats and the rhymes… they’re kinda leaving out the ‘life’ part. So I’m hoping to drive the point home with my stage show.”

”The ultimate [message] for me is the family unit. I’m trying to bring that back and instil that in today’s society, as far as the traditional family unit, versus the single parent home. My parents never divorced, they’ve been together for 35+ years and it’s kind of sad that it’s rare.”

In presenting such a view, 88-Keys considers himself to be ‘challenging the industry’ – “But more than challenging per se, I would just hope to steer people on the right path or show them that this is the right thing to do.

88key21“Everybody makes mistakes and stuff like that but it’s all about trying to stick together and work through it and raise a family together, under the same roof and share your values with your children. Have your children be a little more stationary, a little more grounded in my opinion.

“It’s like it’s abnormal to get married… They don’t even make it that far, that’s way out of their scope or spectrum for them.”

So when and why did 88-Keys decide to add rapping and singing to his musical spectrum? First picking up the mic years ago in high school, he formed a group with one of his best friends. They performed ‘one or two’ shows under the name ACG Live, recorded half a dozen songs in his parents’ basement and soon afterwards stopped taking it seriously. Technically, he didn’t ever start taking it seriously: “Honestly, I still didn’t take it seriously when I was making the album [The Death Of Adam]!”

“The reason why I’m rapping and singing on the album is ‘cause Kanye (“He told me that my album was the best album he’d heard since Late Registration…”) strongly suggested that I put those raps in, in the songs I had on the album,” he reveals. “I was totally against it [initially] because I made those raps strictly for stage show purposes only. It was just so I wouldn’t have to be stuck being a set of turntables when I was doing my stage show. Just trying to bring a little bit more to the people.” After some persuasion, he went with it – and it worked.

88 chose to feature his ‘friends and favourites’ on the album rather than ‘having features for the sake of just trying to sell more units.’ Thankfully, his friends are rather talented and have neatly established fan bases of their own – we’re talking: Kanye West, J Davey, Phonte (of Little Brother), Redman, Kid Cudi, Bilal and Shitake Monkey.

“Kanye West, who is like at the top of the food chain as far as the music industry is concerned and has been for the past few years now, is literally my best friend and my daughter’s godfather. He actually told me he was gonna be on the album… Kanye was more excited than me having a deal than I was! The way his emotions showed. He was like ‘Yo, you know I’m doing your album right!?’”

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“The album just had to be done right and a little more than what people expect from me – which is why Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Musiq Soulchild are not on my album. I love their work, I love them as people, they’re my brothers, but I’m too associated with them to… That woulda been too expected. And I would always wanna do the unexpected.”

“I have six or seven other albums ready to go in my head. But I’m not really thinking of any of them – what’s next for me is really going hard and promote this album. What’s next for me is to do Weezy numbers.”

The Death Of Adam is out now on Decon Records.

For more info on 88-Keys check out: eightyocho.com | polo67life.com | myspace.com/88keys

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