[Feature] 88-Keys: Golden Era Gate Keeper

Article by Persiah Alcorn (@latinegras)

Photography by Krista C. Njapa

I recently had the privilege of exchanging emails with legendary music producer, 88-Keys. As I awaited his emails I pondered on what he would say. Though his production is highly acknowledged in the Hip-Hop industry few know of Charles Njapa: the father of two, the husband of one, “the preserver of the Golden Era of Hip-Hop.”

I opened our conversation by asking what may be the most simple and recycled question, “why music?”, but such a mundane question is the key to understanding how the legend became just that.

“It all occurred to me back when I was a late-teenager. I heard one too many times from one too many people from all age demographics and facets of life that my beats were really really good and that I had a gift. Heard it from everyone except my parents but I didn't expect them to like it nor “get it” so I wasn't really mad at them nor was I longing for some sort of ‘acceptance’ from them; I knew the drill.”

Unmoved by the lack of understanding his parents held towards his music industry dreams 88-Keys embarked upon his new career. Just as every rookie basketball player quotes Michael Jordan as one of their influences or how young rap artists gush about how Tupac inspired them to write rhymes I knew 88-Keys had to have someone he looked up to. In an interview with 25 Magazine 88 revealed that Q-Tip, Pete Rock and Ralph Lauren were amongst his list of influential people. In addition, he placed his older brother, Dr. Anthony K. Njapa, on his list of inspirations.

“These are literally my “heroes”, with the inclusion of my older brother Dr. Anthony K. Njapa.”

He began to sing the praises of The Abstract and how his ever so changing rhyme patterns and song concepts left a young 88-Keys itching to work in the industry.

“Due to Q-Tip's production, song concepts, voice and several different rhyme schemes displayed on “People's Instinctive Travels” and “The Paths of Rhythm”, I decided that I had to play an active role in the Hip-Hop community. I was only about 12 or 13 when that came out so I didn't know exactly what I'd do to accomplish this feat, but I knew there was something special about that album as well as A Tribe Called Quest and the entire Native Tongue collective as a whole and I wanted in!”

He continued to break down his list. Even revealing a heartfelt appreciation for his older brother.

“With Pete Rock it was pretty much the same. Both the balance and contrast of smooth, melodic mixed with smack-you-in-the-face-and-stand-there-to-wait-for-your-reaction hard-ass drum textures and programming is what guided me to want to take my music production to the higher plateaus. That and the way Pete Rock used multiple records to create one beat is genius. My brother Ant, as far back as I can remember, since his mid-teens, he's been like the patriarch in my family. Don't get me wrong, my parents are still and have been happily married for well over 30 plus years now and my father has always been around and the backbone to the family but the times where my father couldn't have his watchful eye on us due to his work schedule it was my brother who stepped up and played “the enforcer”. He was also a very positive role model to look up to in my youth even though we're years apart: he (too) has never smoked (cigarettes, marijuana), doesn't drink alcohol either (like myself) and both graduated from the top of his class and is just naturally athletic (which is an understatement; more like The Hulk back in his heyday). He always knew what to do and had the right answers in any given situation. He's just a great guy, husband and family man. With Ralph Lauren, he's just in a league all his own. His attention to detail and texturizing is similar to how I approach my production. Most people don't know that there's a story behind every Polo collection he puts out. It's the reason why I only stick to that brand (Polo) and none of his other brands like Rugby, RRL, Purple Label.”

With Ralph Lauren’s recent closure of his Rugby line I couldn’t help but ask “So is it safe to say you’re indifferent to the closure of the Rugby line?”

“To be honest if I had to choose an emotion, I'd say that it's made me: happy.”

Making a brief aside to discuss fashion the conversation transitioned back to the topic of music. 88-Keys refer to himself as a “preserver of the Golden Era of hip-Hop”. It is undeniable that Hip-Hop has begun to reclaim many of its old ways. This process has been seen in the Houston rap stylings of newcomer A$AP Rocky or the conscious lyrics The Underachievers. The old is being infiltrated with the new.

“I invite it! I'd rather this new generation latch onto something which I personally felt was dope rather than create and promote the music I have a great disdain for such as ‘trap music’ or ‘ratchet music’.”

With such good music being created during this time in Hip-Hop I began to wonder who 88-Keys had his eyes on for collaboration.

“Not really. I always wanted to work with Michael MacDonald though. His voice is amazing! Oh I take that back I’d love to work with Frank Ocean. His writing and unpredictable song structures are pretty amazing.”

JM: “I definitely thought you would have said Joey Bada$$. A lot of seasoned producers are latching onto him. Have you heard of him? If so, could a future collaboration be in the works, possibly?”

88-Keys: “A few months ago, my artist Robert Akins III mentioned him to me but I never bothered to check out his music as I have made it up in my mind to sort of “give up” on a lot of upcoming rappers who've been receiving a lot of attention via Internet due to the fact that when I do tune in 8 times out of 10 I'm usually disappointed then left with the feeling that I just wasted 3:15 minutes of my life, which I can't get back. It wasn't until recently when he was mentioned to me by my man Sean C. that I tuned into one of Joey's videos. I was impressed by his track selection and felt he was pretty good at rapping but it didn't necessarily “blow me away”. Then again, to date, I've only heard that one song of his. There's still a chance that he could wow me with his other releases when I get a chance to tune in again. As for working with him, I'm down to work with (almost) anyone who'd like to work with me and has at least a budget. Other than that, I'm not really checking for anybody outside of my own artists.”

JM: “No J. Dilla? Would you have worked with Dilla if he was still alive?”

88-Keys: “I wish I could have made a mega hit with the late great J. Dilla with him exercising all facets of his talents. You know, like rapping and singing and doing DJ scratching and cutting; everything except the production (of course) because that'll be my job. I'd have wanted to do this with him so the world could keep their threshold for dope Hip-Hop music high instead of accepting the wack stuff because it’s been posted on some ‘popular’ blogs thus creating the illusion that weak shit is dope. Basically, I'd have wanted us to ‘show 'em how to do this sonnn! [Laughs].”

Drummer of The Roots, ?uestlove, spoke of J. Dilla’s interesting and somewhat primal way of creating the perfect sound through homemade instruments. 88-Keys indicated to me that he never learned how to play instruments.

“I actually don't think it's that important at all as long as you know how to get the results that you're looking for. I've skated through my career all these years without being able to play a single instrument or being able to distinguish an A from an Eb. However, recently I've been coming up with my own little “theories” on music and music production which has surprisingly been working out pretty crazy for me lately. My music has definitely elevated to the next level but this actually happens to me every few months to every couple of years. It's exciting for me at the moment I happen across something “new” to me that the MPC3000 can do but then I don't give myself the time to wallow in it. I just start applying it to my work “formula” immediately and never turn back so it instantly becomes a part of me.”

Could his instantaneous attitude towards teaching an old MPC3000 new tricks be the reason why he has become who he is today? What is this said “formula” he has crafted to create such an extensive production background?

“Sitting with my beloved and ever growing vinyl record collection and just soaking in the music which was made in yesteryear. I just sit through hours upon hours of music then go back and get the parts I want and get t'chop'n!”

We spoke on sampling and crate digging:

“Go diggin’. Like actual diggin', not downloading torrents from the 'net or resorting to catching samples off of YouTube. That shit is sickening to me. I remember when I was on tour with The Alchemist, Dilated Peoples and Aceyalone, Al' and Ev' (Evidence) told me that people were starting to get their “records” that way. That news made my stomach turn but that's me just being a self-righteous Hip Hop purist.”

On his favorite albums:

“Oh man! A Tribe Called Quest…actually their whole discography, ‘Fantastic Vol. 1’ and ‘Fantastic Vol. 2’ by Slum Village, Reflection Eternal(both albums). Hi-Tek's a beast! And 88-Keys’ ‘The Death of Adam’, ‘Adam's Case Files’ and a host of music I'm still cookin' up for my artists signed to my Locksmith Music label.”

On what he has coming up and his connection to Kid Cudi:

“A ton of music from the artists on my label (Locksmith Music) who are: Nemo Achida, Robert Akins III, Mann95, Little Vic and Tre DeJean. All of the music is going to shake shit up in our Hip-Hop community and bang cats in the head right quick. I have a few major label releases coming up but I can only speak on one artist in particular since he already mentioned it in brief via his Twitter: I will make a couple of production appearances on KiD CuDi's highly anticipated “Indicud” album. My man Dot Da Genius and I produced said tracks together. Next level shit for real! And, of course CuDi spazz’d on 'em! It's only right!”

Check out Tre DeJean's “Time Zone” below:

88-Keys is taking no days off and doesn’t plan to any time soon. You can interact with 88-Keys on Twitter.com/eightyocho and follow his blog http://polo67life.com. A special “thank you” is in order to 88-Keys for taking time out of his family vacation to talk to Jenesis Magazine. Thank you!

Written by Thomas Agnew