Name: Keys N Krates
Members: Adam Tune, David Matisse, Greg Dawson (Jr. Flo)
Occupation: Drummer (Adam), keyboardist (Matisse), turntablist (Flo)
Current Release: Keys N Krates just released their new single "Original Classic", a collaboration with Juicy J, Chip and Marbl via Last Gang.
If you enjoyed this interview with Keys N Krates and would like to stay up to date on their work, visit their official website for more information. Or check out their socials on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What did you learn from the masters of production for your own work?
Greg: We’ve all been doing music since our late teenage years to some degree. I was a competitive scratch DJ from high school, Matisse is a classically trained pianist who also sang and played RnB, Tune was a drummer and eventually an audio engineer. Once we started our band we all upped our production chops together.
Whether it’s listening to our contemporaries or our life long producer idols, we are always studying how people are making interesting sounds, grooves, creating space in interesting ways and creating mood. We are always listening and looking for this kind of inspiration.
For example, Timbaland has been a big influence on how we approach making dance music. We aren’t really making Timbaland type beats, as much as we are thinking about what he might do in a situation of approaching something housey. When we think of classic Timbaland beats like “get ur freek on” we think of something that feels hypnotic and tribal and that is definitely a part of what we’ve been trying to capture in dance music.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important instruments or pieces of gear for you?
Matisse: Our first studio was literally a tiny rehearsal room that we just put speakers in, made all our music and rehearsed out of. It was not much bigger than a storage closet and we were still there up until two years ago. We are now in a proper studio and it feels great. It’s put us in a way better place to create.
We’ve slowly been accumulating synths over the years without really realizing it. We’ve always used the Moog sub phatty in our live shows, so that’s been kind of a staple next to VSTS, but over the past few years we acquired a mellotron, Juno, Mopho, dx-7 and some other bits. Our new studio allows us to record live percussion, live piano, really whatever; so our set up is starting to feel more human and fun than ever. We love VSTS but there’s something about playing with more tangible instruments sometimes that’s just a whole other mood.
When it comes to sampling vs playing something yourself, what are your preferences?
Greg: We love sampling. I feel like when it’s done right, it sounds like complete magic. I really ride for the process and its results because you’re never going to get quite the same result than when ya flip a found sound or sample. Something about just being able to grab audio you didn’t create and just mangle it from this super macro perspective is just it’s own thing.
Lately we have been making our own samples/loops and then coming back to them a month or two later when we’ve forgotten about making them, and then sampling it like it’s something we ripped off youtube. This is all really just trying to replicate the traditional sampling process and that element of detachment from the source. We have to make this part our bag of tricks, because clearing samples isn’t always feasible.
But also, we get different results like this, in a good way. Since we made the sample, it’s most likely gonna be something we thought we’d want to sample. So that has its advantages.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
Tune: Ya, like Greg was saying we’ve been doing that with sample loops with the purpose of re-approaching our own loops like a detached 3rd party producer to really replicate that traditional sampling process. But we also do it with beats, drum loops, and song ideas. We have a Dropbox we share that we throw all our collective ideas into and then those tend to get broken out, worked on and geared towards whatever purposes we hear them for.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Matisse: Without ableton live and serato, we never would have been able to do our live show the way we wanted to, and using ableton in general has given access to so many sounds that we wouldn’t have access to other wise whether it be through kontakt banks, vsts, or sample banks paired with ableton’s super easy work flow.
Where does the impulse to create a beat come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Tune: More and more for us lately it’s been how we want people to move to our music and how we want to make them feel. We like when people are dancing in a unified and almost tribal style so we tend to make stuff that feels like it’ll evoke that kind of movement.
This sort of goes back to Greg’s Timbaland reference which is something we talk a lot about and why we’ve been inspired by his tribal approach, in his earlier stuff.
Greg: When we hear songs with grooves or moods that inspire us we are always trying to take cues from that. The other day we were listening to this Mele record and it had this really high bassline (higher than we would naturally think to make a bassline on drums like that) and it felt so intense but subtle at the same time were were like “shit it’s all about that high bass line here.”
So for us, inspiration is a combo of the macro of how we want people to move and feel, and the micro of trying to lift tricks and techniques to getting a result we think we might be able to put our own spin on.
Matisse: For me it’s being out at shows, clubs, or parties and hearing things in context. I’ll often go immediately from these settings back home to make a beat cause I just get ideas like that.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Matisse: We were just talking about this today.
Greg: The truth is it’s always changing. Sometimes a concrete idea and structure is exactly what we need to get going. Sometimes we need to listen to a song we love and say, “what would our version of that sound like?” Other times we just need to jam and tinker till something interesting happens that jumps out at someone. Sometimes it’s starting with a plan but being open to it going off the rails and it becoming something totally different.
I myself usually like a plan, because it gives some kind of parameters to work within. If you let me, I’ll probably just go and make some ambient soundtrack ass music with no drums in it, so I sometimes need a force telling me “they need to be able to dance to this” haha. Matisse is more free spirited and digs the jamming process. He chooses the box. Tune leans both ways. I think we all appreciate every approach. Being open to trying new approaches constantly make us who we are as a band.
Tune: No matter how planned or freewheeling you are in your approach everything is all upto chance to a certain extent. You can learn things and employ processes and principles, but great ideas are often the result of just a rabbit hole you chose to go down that day and not necessarily this genius and deliberate process. It’s all an experiment that you try to control but to a large extent we are just passengers within.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first bar of music?
Matisse: It’s different every time. Could start with a sample chop a keyboard riff, a bassline or a drum groove.
Tune: Ya, for me, too, it’s been different for everything I do lately.
Greg: Lately I’ve had a hard time starting with just drums unless I know where were are trying to go pretty specifically. Lately, starting with some kind of melody or chord progression opens up so many more options for me.
Using an example, can you tell me how you produce a beat? In your opinion, what makes a great beat?
Tune: Again we have so many different approaches to this.
Last Friday all 3 of us made a beat together that started with myself doing a pretty syncopated housey drum groove, Greg than adding this simple but emotive bassline with the Juno and matisse voicing chords over the bass with the Juno, then Greg adding arps from the evolver and some samples.
The goal was to make something that felt like emotional house music but with Afro-brazillian inspired drum grooves. So all our choices were informed by that initial set up parameters.
When will you leave a beat to work its magic by itself as an instrumental and when will you add vocals to it? Do you see beats as an artform in their own right?
Greg: It’s usually an easy call. If it sounds done without vocals then we’ll keep it like that. If it sounds like it could either use a vocal or really flatter a vocal we’ll explore that option. Sometimes one of us hears it as an instrumental record, but another one of us hear a certain kind of vocal record on it. “Like what if we had this kind of voice doing this on it.” I think we tend to lean into the direction the majority of us are excited about.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Greg: Let me just say that talking about music with other people is my favorite thing to do, and every time I have a convo about a song, a sound, an artist, an album, a drum groove or whatever, I learn a lot.
We are trying to start working with more outside producers because it’s just fun to get totally different perspectives on stuff. We’ve always done it a bit but I think there’s so much more room to bring new ears into our process. I think maybe the fact that our band is one big constant collaboration has probably slowed us from collaborating with
How do you choose vocal collaborators for a particular beat and what, in your opinion, sets a great vocalist/rapper apart from a 'merely' good one? Do you produce beats specifically with a vocalist in mind?
Matisse: We are usually looking for someone that gets us collectively excited. We tend to gravitate towards people with really unique tones and approaches; people who are characters In their own right and personify that through their voice. When you work with BiBi Bourelly there’s no way you’re not getting her personality, 1000 percent all over that record.
We also love finding people that you might not expect to be on a record like ours, while making them feel right at home. Juicy J probably doesn’t sound like the obvious choice for the “Original Classic” beat but we could picture it because Juicy kind of raps in chants which we would knew would sound great on these swung housey drums. Plus he’s a legend and is a legit icon and character. Nobody sounds like him and he’s never been on a record like this.
When working with BiBi, we are just fans of hers. We’ll do whatever with her. We are just happy to be in a room making music with someone that great. We have ballad records with her no one has heard. We really wanted to make a housey song with her because we knew she would have a fresh approach to it.
After you've recorded all the vocals, what is the arrangement process like for you and what is different in hip hop production compared to, say, a rock or pop piece? How do you stand in terms of producing "freestyles" versus "songs"?
Tune: The arrangement doesn’t necessarily only differ just by genre, but also the kind of record you’re trying to make happen. If the song is supposed to feel freeform or chaotic or just raw, then a more loose arrangement would suit that. Rap records for example can go from having these really experimental, jarring arrangements (like stats by baby keem, with two different beats and a soul sample in the middle) to having very straight forward pop sequences.
For us, when we think of making our weird dance records we look at arrangements in terms of club or festival friendly arrangements, more long form album arrangements, or more pop/olive branchy arrangements. But when making arrangements for other people’s projects that aren’t necessarily dance projects (like some of the work we’ve done with BiBi or Peyton) the arrangement and the song are going to serve their project and their vision and we gear everything towards that.
How do you see the balance between writing for current trends, referring to classic sounds or creating a personal signature sound?
Greg: We try and avoid current trends or tropes unless we truly like them. Most of them tend to kind of annoy us because we hear them so much, so we naturally gravitate towards approaches and sounds that feel classic and timeless to us but can be made to feel at home amongst modern music.
A lot of our core influences come from the 90s and early 2000s. With all that said, if there’s a current trend we like we’ll do it and just do it our own way. I wouldn’t say the m1 isn’t trendy right now, but we’ll happily use it because it’s timeless to us.
Many listeners will usually focus in on the contribution of the rapper(s) in a hip hop song. But the beat and musical elements provides for the emotional foundation of that performance. How much of yourself is in the finished production?
Greg: I mean ya, a song is always a team effort between the vocals and music. Each piece informs the other. How much of ourselves being in the finished production really depends on if it’s a record for us or a record for an artist we are trying to help. Sometimes it’s about our vision, and sometimes we are playing a position on the field to help somebody else’s vision come to light.