88-Keys Has Helped Shape Sounds For Q-Tip, Kanye West & Black Star, Here’s His Story (Audio)

Whether he’s breaking ground with artists like Theophilus London with “Can’t Stop,” putting heat down for Jay Z & Kanye West’s Watch The Throne album or helping architect songs that remain heavy in conversation after more than 15 years (see: Black Star “Thieves In The Night”) 88-Keys’ production credits make him one of the more sought after and versatile Hip-Hop producers in the genre both past and present.


Many, upon hearing the name 88-Keys, may think of associations with Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music, or crate-digger credits with the likes of Consequence, Diamond D, and J-Live. What they might not know is how close Hip-Hop came to not having the New Yorker’s contributions in the first place. In an audio interview with Shawn Setaro and The Cipher Show, 88 talks about his family’s professional background, including several attorneys and doctors, with hopes of him following in their footsteps (4:45). He reveals that his growing passion for Hip-Hop actually led to his parents kicking him out of their house, sending him to live with his sister in North Carolina.

As the conversation progresses, it touches on 88’s beginnings and his association with Brand Nubian’s Grand Puba, through his brother. He also covers his lucky break working for the late Jazz record broker John Currero in his early teens (18:20). It was that opportunity that allowed him to sharpen his ear for music and become a respected resource to artists and producers, hungry for records to sample. Working with Currero led to linking with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, and 88 spotting the records that would be sampled in A.T.C.Q’s hit “Award Tour,” as well as “We Can Get Down.”

Later in the discussion, 88 talks about his own journeys in crate-digging, and expounds on how technology has encroached on that rite of passage (26:40). What used to take hours, days and sometimes weeks to find that perfect beat now can be done in seconds by consulting a search engine, without so much as a turntable.

The producer then goes in about his own albums and mixtapes, and his time working with Rawkus Records is brought to the fore (34:15). He speaks candidly about his work on Rawkus projects with Black Star, Lyricist Lounge, Mos Def…and explains how that early mass-distributed work made him “hood rich.” 88 jokingly reminisces about how he used his first royalty, for $38,000, to buy a rack of records and a gang of Polo gear. It was then that he realized he’d never work for anyone else in life (in the traditional sense) going forward.

Moving into Death Of Adam (50:32) 88 explains how the 2008 Decon LP was originally supposed to be all instrumentals. He’d visualized the entire concept of the story of Adam and wanted to tell it through beats. During production, however, he found getting the story across was difficult so he began putting bars to the tracks. Eventually Kanye West heard it and was floored, and came on as the album’s executive producer.

One of the more interesting segments in the interview surrounds Beanie Sigel’s “Watch Your Bitches”. 88 recalls (1:02:00) when he went to shop beats to Def Jam Records, and ran into Jay-Z. He gave Jay a beat CD he had planned on shopping, and Jay-Z gave it back to him, urging him to send it to his office. Later that day while playing beats for Beans in the studio, Jay came through only to pull 88 outside of the studio and ask the producer why he didn’t give the beat to him. 88 told him, “I put it in your hand!”

Halfway through the conversation, 88 reflects on Lil Jon’s movement where the era of no samples, Crunk and eventually Trap Music ascended (01:11:00). Having a clear understanding of radio programmers’ viewpoints, he explains how what’s “hot” changed drastically. 88 also stresses that the demand for cohesive albums began to disappear.

During one of the most interesting stretches, 88 discusses his list of great producers and what they contributed to Hip-Hop (01:19:00). He says Q-Tip, “God of the samples,” brought Jazz to the genre, going against the James Brown-influenced sound that was dominant at the time. He calls Tip the “Godfather of Neo-Soul” and adds that J. Dilla picked up on what The Abstract was doing and shaped it even more. He also expounds on how Jay Dee’s ear for samples is hard to grasp.  Just Blaze, he describes as “technical and not afraid to use new equipment to make beats.” Large Professor—the man responsible for giving 88 his name—is a “digger” and a Golden Era Hip-Hop anchor. 88 speaks about how Kanye had a sound in the late ’90s and early 2000s that was greatly influenced by RZA. That specific sound, oft called “chipmunk soul,” was on full display on Jay’s The Blueprint.

When 88 talks about his own production style, he explains that he wishes he had a sound, but has never been able to pinpoint his own signature. Instead, he developed a formula, but not necessarily a trademark. And, the only person he shared the formula with was J. Dilla (1:27:00). He’s made beats the same way (with a few tweaks) for seven years, but no one else has seemed to pick up on it.

For Heads that make beats and produce tracks as a whole, 88-Keys’ story is a testimony of what happens when raw talent meets an eccentric ear. Prepare yourself to be entertained and enlightened on the trek 88-Keys started as a young teen to the continuing hitmaker he is today.

Check The Cipher Show for even more in-depth interviews of this quality.

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