If you’re a certain age (30+ plus crew, I am looking at you), then you remember rocking the polka dots and playing Kwame in your Sony Walkman like it was yesterday. So, it’s hard to believe that the Queens, NY MC dropped his debut, Kwamé the Boy Genius: Featuring a New Beginning 20 years ago.I recently caught up with the stylish MC-turned-beatsmith to talk about his music, legacy and more.
Rashaun Hall: First off, congratulations. I didn’t even realize that it had been 20 years since the album. To still be in this business after 20 years, that is obviously a testament to your hard work and determination.
Kwame: Yeah man, thank you man.
Tell me about those early days and what that album meant to you. Take me back to the recording process.
Kwame: Well, it was crazy because the album was recorded before I even had a deal. I really wanted to be an artist, I really wanted to be a producer and the only outlet that I had – which was a pretty good outlet – was that I was cool with the producer Herbie Lovebug, Salt-N-Pepa, Kid ‘N Play and Dana Dane. They were all in my neighborhood, so I would always find ways to run into them, like I would walk the dog at odd hours at night just to go over to Herbie’s house and chill in the studio and see how these guys are working. So, I ended up having an odd job at either a Foodtown or Shop Rite, but I would take all the checks that I would get for a month and I found this studio. It was actually a pretty famous studio in Queens off 165th St. and Jamaica Avenue, and it was a building called the Music Building. And in this particular studio, the main engineer and producer at that studio was the late Paul Cee. So, I remember showing up to the studio one day and I literally had dollars and change in a bag and I dumped it on the table like, ‘That’s all I got. How much time can I get? And how soon can I get the time?” They counted it up and they was like, “Well, we can give you eight hours, Christmas morning starting at 12 midnight.” And I was like, “I’ll take it.” So, that Christmas Eve and Christmas morning 1988, I went in. I had all the ideas. In the end, I think six of the eight cuts that I recorded that day are on the album. And I never really went into the studio before so I literally made the beats and I had all my rhymes memorized. I did those songs and gave the tape to Herbie and was just like, “Yo, I just want your opinion on it;” not ever expecting that a deal was gonna be made or anything like that. So, I was just real focused and determined to just get some music going for real.
In retrospect, do you realize the impact that album had on hip-hop?
You know what’s so crazy about it? For me, the music is so personal that it’s weird even to this day. Like today, I was driving in the car and one of my songs came on the radio out of nowhere and it always takes me by surprise. 20 years later, I’m not used to hearing my stuff outside of my own headphones, studio or just in my personal space. That’s a good thing because I put my all into the music and it is very personal for me. I never did it for a check, I never did it for… well, maybe girls… but other than that, I never really did for anything outside of just loving my music. So when people talk to me and tell me about the albums it’s funny. I’ll give you a perfect example. I met will.i.am for the first time and he came up to me and said, “I can quote every line, every ad lib and everything in between off of that first album.” He said, “Because of that first album, I decided that I wanted to be a rapper and make music.” Stuff like that is humbling. I’m gratefully appreciative for it because I would’ve never thought, 20 years later, I would even have a discussion about any of my music, so that to me always takes me aback.
You were an MC during the “golden era” of hip-hop where cats could be themselves. There were fewer gimmicks. What was that like?
It was funny because before I started really taking my first album seriously and recording it, I went through that phase of what type of rap name should I have? Or what type of image? Or how am I gonna get this gold chain and have this certain type of image? And the funny thing is, my first rap name was Sweet Daddy Jazzy K GQ — some long drawn out name. And I remember I was sitting with Dana Dane and Salt, and Dana was like, ‘That’s the dumbest name I’ve ever heard. Yo, you got your own style; you do your own thing. Why don’t you just name yourself your name? Kwame. Nobody has that name. Just be who you are.” And it was funny cuz Salt was like, “Yeah, cuz you like a little boy genius, you’re in there doing the beats and all that.” And it all clicked at that moment. People try to be recognized for what they aren’t or all this fantasy when people really just recognize you for you. And it was like the light bulb moment. And from that point on, I was like, “You know what, I’m just gonna do my own thing.” And I never expected anything in return, but I always felt that any true artist pretty much put themselves out there with no type of façade to it. And I thought rap at the time – and I think rap now – was nothing but a bunch of facades. You gotta wear this, you gotta act like this, you have to be from here, you gotta rep that. Why? If I look at rock artists, R&B artists or jazz artists, they just did them and I followed that model as an artist; not any rapper that preceded me or came before me.
You mentioned the style, so I have to ask… Where did the polka dots come from?
It was just how I dressed. At the time those patterns were being put on a lot of clothes, but for me I just loved to match. So if I’m wearing white and black, you know the easiest way to do that is wear a white and black polka dot shirt and you match around it. I was always the dude that dressed “GQ.” It was never an intent to make it any kind of gimmick. The way it caught on was funny. On my first album cover, I have a polka dot shirt and tie on. And I wore the same shirt in my first video as a pajama top or something. The album comes out, the first video comes out and I start doing promo shows. One of the first shows I do, I’ll never forget it, it was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I get on stage and the whole audience was dressed like me. All the guys had flat tops with streaks in their hair, polka dot shirts and polka dot ties. The girls had on polka dot biker shorts and dresses. And I’m like, “OK, this is a joke. Someone is playing a real wack joke on me.” And every state we went to it was the same thing. And it tripped me out and it was like, “Yo, I got people rockin’ polka dots like Prince got people wearing purple, yo, let’s go!” It took off from there.
Was the streak in your hair a fluke too?
Now that was intentional. The streak was for the simple fact that everybody had flat tops, which was the style of the day. If you look at the first album, I don’t have a streak in my hair at all. But I remember being at a party after the first album pictures were taken and Kid ‘N Play show up. Play walks in and nobody paid him any attention. Kid walked in, but because of that flattop that he had, everybody automatically knew that that was Kid. And so my thing was, “I’m not guaranteed to get my record heard, I’m probably guaranteed one video. So, if you gonna see me for one time and one time only, you gonna know it’s me.” And it’s just that simple. So, instead of cutting my hair like a regular straight-up flat top, I made it a little asymmetrical and threw the streak in it. I made that decision a few hours before my first video. Everybody just thought I was crazy. “You gonna go out on a limb like that? You gonna go into this beauty parlor and let this girl put a blonde streak in the front of your hair. What if it don’t come out?” That was a chance I was willing to take.
After the first album came out, what was going through your head? What was that like seeing the dream come to fruition?
It seemed like it was coming to fruition but it was always an uphill battle. It’s funny, the things I wanted to do as an artist then, artists are allowed to do today easily. And it was always a battle for me. I wanted a live band. “No, you can’t do that. Rappers don’t have live bands.” OK. I want a string orchestra to do the string part, you know, just different things. And this is in between albums because I’m trying set up for the second album. For the second album what I wanted to do is since people know me for the videos; I wanna make one long-form video. And you can chop it up into four different videos, but you can sell the VHS of the video, the long-form, with the second album. “No, that’ll never be done.” OK. It’s weird. Everything I did as a musician or as an artist was more or less a social experiment. Like for example, the record “Ownlee Eue,” the first single off of the second album [A Day in the Life: A Pokadelick Adventure]. During that time in 1989, radio stations were starting to boycott rap and they had mottos saying “We’re gonna have a no rap workday” and that was the thing with radio stations [that] you can’t play a rap record before 6pm. So my thing was, “OK, I wanna make a half-R&B, half rap record because I wanna wake up in the morning and hear my record at 9 in the morning, 6 in the morning.” The record label said, “You can’t do that, you can’t do that, you can’t do that.” So, I record “Ownlee Eue” and begged them to push it as an R&B record. “Give it R&B promotion, don’t give it rap promotion,” i said. These guys wouldn’t listen and the record did well but the record could’ve done so much better if they just would’ve listened and went out on a limb. And I would say pretty much that in-between time was trying to break new ground. Like the whole fame aspect of it was just like, ok I could do this now, it allowed me to do that.
What was recording that second album like in comparison to recording Boy Genius?
The recording of the second album was real cool because the money from the first album, which wasn’t a lot at all, allowed me to now buy equipment. So, recording that second album wasn’t a shoestring budget now. I was able to work my ideas out at home and then go into the studio and really try to master those ideas. I experimented with new sounds and new techniques, so we called it A Day in the Life. I wanted to make a concept album that told the story of a typical day in my life or things that I would go through at that time. It allowed me the time and the freedom to be able to do that. But the funny thing is, I almost dumbed out. I’m good for almost dumbing out and reeling myself back in. I remember after the success of the first album, the first thing I did was move out to L.A. and try to hang out on the set. They were filming House Party so I tried to be like, ‘OK, I got a good album out.’ I wasn’t doing that many shows. I stopped doing shows for a minute and I went out to L.A. and I was just gonna try to make it out there like do music for television and all this kind of stuff early. And I think I had the right idea but I executed it the wrong way. The things that I went through in L.A. helped me pen a lot of the stuff. A lot of the situations and stories for the second album, especially the one song “Oneovdabigboiz,” came from that experience. It helped me pen that record just based on those experiences.
There was a transition period from people knowing you as Kwame the MC to Kwame the producer. Did people take you seriously?
I call those my “dark times.” IN 1995 or ’96, I couldn’t buy a record deal. Nobody was messing with me for nothing. And it was pretty much to the point where I said to myself, “OK, you got two choices: You gonna be a statistic (meaning I’m gonna be just another old school rapper and the rest of my career is gonna be based on what I did) or you’re gonna use what you got and keep it pushing.” A lot of the connections that I had weren’t there anymore and it was just everything came to a dead stop. The best thing that I did was buy myself studio equipment, so I continued doing what I always did which was make music. And what I started to do was target local talent based on my name and the fact that I was able to make good music. I was able to get local talent in the studio, charge them for beats and allow them to do whatever they do. And then I took it from New York and I went out to Philly, and started doing it in Philly. And I said to myself, “If I can sell a track to this local talent for $300, there’s no way I can’t sell it to a major artist for $3,000.” Something I did got heard by Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, a producer that I grew up with. He was one of the Hit Men for Puffy. He did “Hypnotize” and “Money, Power, Respect” — a lot of records that was rocking at the time. So, Ron approached me like, “Yo, you really got some shit here. Why not join my production company and let’s try to sell some of these beats?” And I was like, “Hey, I got everything to gain and nothing to lose.” But his whole thing was the name Kwame has a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. I’m like, “Well, people were calling me K1 or K1 Million;” just based on that fact that I always show up with like a million beats. So, I was just like, “Let’s just use K1 or K1 Million.” So when he started soliciting the beats under K1 Million, automatically I started getting sales. The first sale I got was “L.O.V.E”, a Mary J. Blige record on the No More Drama album and three records for LL Cool J’s 10 album. Things were going pretty good but nobody knew that it was me doing it until one day I was in the studio doing an LL record and L walked in and it’s not like he doesn’t know it’s me, so when him and his A&R walked in and he saw that I was doing these tracks they were like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you’re K1 Million?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you know, this is what I do.” And I think the word started spreading from there so it got a little bit easier.
Was the first big hit record Lloyd Banks’ “On Fire”?
I was getting a good amount of work before “On Fire,” but then when “On Fire” came out it was big in several ways because Eminem wanted to mix it and he decided to add a keyboard sound to the track so they gave the production credit to Eminem. And being that the record was big, I said to myself, “You know this may be the last hit record I ever have, there’s no way I’m gonna allow that production credit not to be, not say my name.” So me and my management fought tooth and nail for it and when the records actually went out for solicitation it had my name on it and it wasn’t K1 Million. It wasn’t none of that, it was Kwame. That was like the light bulb moment. Everything came together at that point. Because of “On Fire,” I started getting a lot of rap work, some R&B work. Then at the same time I did “Switch” for Will Smith and it did very well pop-wise here and it was a No. 1 record in eight and 10 countries. And because that record did so well, I started getting a lot of pop work. The pop work that I was getting had no clue about “On Fire” and the rap artists I was working with could care less about Will Smith. And then simultaneously, I did Tweet’s ‘Turn the Lights Off’ with Missy Elliott and that allowed me to get a lot of R&B work. So pretty much my plan came together because I never wanted to be the type of producer that had one sound and you could automatically identify it as soon as you hear it cuz I thought that shortens your longevity. And so now, just those three anchors, I call it the “anchor records,” has allowed me to be able to flow between different music genres easily now.
So who are you working with these days?
Currently, I’m working with Estelle and John Legend on Estelle’s project. That’s been real exciting for me cuz she’s one of my favorite artists, so just to be able to get that gig was cool. And it’s not just one song; we’ve been working on several songs, so that’s real cool. I have an artist from the U.K. named Jade Ewen and she just got signed to Geffen over in the U.K. so working on that album also. And I currently have a singer that’s doing very well in the Australian market, a singer by the name of Jessica Mauboy. She won Australian Idol, so I have her current single going on also. And that’s been another one of my plans; it’s not just to be local. If you’re gonna be a producer, you want to be international. It’s nothing like walking into a club in Spain and hearing your record, and then hearing the same record in New York or Atlanta or London. So that’s just been my main focus — being a global producer.
What do you think about hip-hop today?
There’s a few artists of course like a Kanye West or an OutKast or even cats like Lil’ Wayne, just people who do them and do what they do very well. It’s a great time for hip-hop for those types of artists, monetarily, creatively. As time goes by, the well of things that you can pull from for inspiration gets deeper so at this point in time, hip-hop artists could just do anything at this point. It’s not like it wasn’t 1989 when you could walk down the street and you tell somebody you’re a rapper, and they look at you like, “What the hell is that?” So, for that side it’s great, but then on the other side, I think rap has just become very contrived and a big marketing tool. It’s like I was saying earlier, you gotta put on a costume to be a rapper nowadays. If you’re not gonna be a gangsta, you’re gonna be the weirdo downtown kid, so you put on your tight jeans and your scarves and your big old-school glasses and your trucker hat, and that’s your costume just because you’re not the thug dude. Or if you’re the thug dude, you have to throw the flag in your back pocket and your bandanna on and you gotta “rep your city.” Or even the down South guys, you gotta say “ay” on every record. And it’s like everything – rap has become a Halloween parade and that to me is corny. And rappers don’t understand that they are losing, they are killing their fan base. They don’t see it because they’re so caught up in the fact that they’re getting some check and they can buy some chains. And they can buy themselves chains and cars and stuff like that and they try to live a lifestyle that they’ve only fantasized about. And it goes back to Halloween, I’m gonna be, I’m gonna play a rich ex-drug dealer, pimp gangsta for this album. And I don’t wanna sound disgruntled old guy like, ‘That never was like that.” I know that music and things and style changes, but what doesn’t change is the fact that being creative and being yourself and actually going out there and displaying your art. And I think all genres of music goes through it, you gotta put on a cowboy hat like, ‘Ok, now you’re a country singer’ or you gotta wear your spiky hair and black lipstick, ok now you’re a rocker. I guess they go through it to, but it’s just so prevalent in rap. And before I get back into something positive, another negative: everything that used to be a rap stereotype or a joke, like if someone who had nothing to do ___(?) watch a movie and they’ll throw a rapper in the movie, like a stereotypical rapper or whatever has become the main thing to be in rap, like we’ve become our own joke for a lot of cases. And that disturbs me. But at the same time, back to the positive stuff, rap is all around the world. You can go anywhere in the world, you could hear a good rap record. You can hear rappers in French, you can hear Israeli rappers, you can hear Middle Eastern rappers, you can hear English rappers, Spanish rappers – that to me is so dope that rap has been able to be so global and control good marking share in the entertainment industry.
Kwame and his wife Tamekia’s charity organization Hip Hop 4 Life will celebrate Youthfest on Saturday, June 13th at the MS113 – Ronald Edmonds Learning Center in Brooklyn.