Name: The Kii
Members: Jan Lilienthal, Michael Nowatzky
Current Release: The Kii's debut EP PIUPIUPIU is out now via The Kii.
If you enjoyed this interview with The Kii and would like to stay up to date on their work, visit their website for more information. They are also on Instagram.
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?
We started producing music professionally around 3 years ago, but have been musicians all of our lives and made a living as live musicians before. Our musical background is mainly R’n’B, Jazz, HipHop, even though we have also toured with rockbands. D’Angelo, J Dilla, Steely Dan, Hiatus Kaiyote are definitely big influences of ours.
First of all – DON’T OVERTHINK SHIT (Kenny Beats). But then we also learned a lot of bits and pieces from podcasts like Pensado’s Place or or Youtube videos like Genius haha. Simplicity is key.
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?
Our first studio was in Jan’s bedroom, in his shared flat. Super basic, with just two boxes, interface and laptop. The first laptop ran so hot all the time that we had to put it on ice packs to work and the DAW still froze. It was a nightmare.
Meanwhile we have our own studio and have collected a lot of instruments and gear. It’s a process. We love analogue and vintage equipment, that’s why we drifted away from VSTs – towards real instruments.
Right now, our favourite pieces are Prophet 10, Mellotron and different kinds of guitar pedals.
When it comes to sampling vs playing something yourself, what are your preferences?
Playing 100%. We almost never sample from other sources, but like to sample ourselves. It’s just more fun that way.
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.
We have a Dropbox folder where we save good ideas or starters. So sometimes we browse through there and look for inspiration. Most of the time though we just don’t work on ideas that don’t inspire us to finish them.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Yes, like the tape machine, where you can’t edit as much and have to work with your recorded performance.
We use newer technologies of course, but don’t use AI-applications or Arcade, etc.
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?
Music is essential to our lives and let’s us express ourselves freely. Impulses come from all sorts of sources and are therefore very different. We always like to convey a certain raw energy or feeling with our beats and also inspire artists.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
For us, the magic is always in the unknown. We like to start with a vibe, some chords and then flip it and change it until something exciting happens.
We tend to not plan anything because we want to stay open to ideas that are better than the ones in our heads.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first bar of music?
We like to start with some chords or a melody most of the time, although starting with drums can be fun too.
It’s normal that you don’t start out with the perfect idea, so it’s okay to just try a bunch and see where it takes you.
Using an example, can you tell me how you produce a beat? In your opinion, what makes a great beat?
On “Picture Me” we started with the sample. First came the main melody and then we just layered on top of that. The basis of the sample is all Mellotron.
Then we did the 808 and drums. Most often we do a basic clap/snare layout and then work on the 808. It’s super important to us that the 808 bounce feels right. After that we finish the drums and tweak the beat until it delivers the right energy.
That beat actually had a part in there with live drums and bass! Which we edited out later on in the process because we felt it’s distracting.
We feel that a great beat always has a clear message and a distinct energy. There’s no second-guessing and everybody knows it’s great.
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?
Making beats is definitely an artform. It’s just that in the genre we’re in with the Kii right now, the beats feel much more elevated with a rapper or vocalist on them. It’s like another dimension and also provides another perspective. We want the beat to be as clear as possible so the vocalists can just lay their part down easily.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creative through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration is really at the core of what we’re doing. Since it’s the two of us, we’re always coming up with stuff that’s not just one person. We also love to collaborate with other producers through jamming or sending ideas back and forth.
Different perspectives can be pure gold. And also it’s nice to create and grow as a team.
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?
A great vocalist just delivers the whole package; everything from flow to words to performance to attitude is just on point and fits perfectly.
We always produce beats with an idea of a vocal performance in mind. It’s really important to leave space for them. Otherwise it gets way too crowded and nobody has room to tell their story over the beat.
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"?
Our premise is to do what’s good for the song, always. So we arrange the way we feel suits the song best. We try to not think about Spotify or TikTok as much, but that does play some role though. Songs got way shorter over the last 20 years and you have to keep in mind what people are used to listen to.
Pop music definitely feels more strict in terms of arranging, although there’s been a lot of pop music coming out that’s more unconventional, which is great.
How do you see the balance between writing for current trends, referring to classic sounds or creating a personal signature sound?
We strongly feel that it’s important to have your own sound, but to find that it’s good to know some of the classics and how they’re made. Understanding where things come from gives you much more opportunities and ways to go for your own sound.
We don’t like writing for trends, because they can be over very fast. So by the time you’re done with your song/beat and it finally comes out, the trend is most likely gone. Best case is that your own sound eventually becomes a trend and then you can profit big time.
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?
There’s 100% of ourselves in the music we put out as the Kii or else we wouldn’t do it.