Legendary producer and DJ, Keith Shocklee a.k.a. Wizard K-Jee’s work means a lot to me. I started listening to Public Enemy in primary/grade school thanks to hanging out with my big brother and his collection of hip-hop records and tapes. While I didn’t quite grasp PE’s lyrical message at such a young age, I was instantly in awe of the music, the wall of sound, it was unlike anything I had ever heard—dense, at times harsh, so alive! Exciting! To be able to chat with the man that helped create something that first gave inspiration to my soul and my spirit almost 30 years ago, to hear about the creation of the game changing jams, was a real full circle moment for me. Keith’s also worked with so many other artists I love, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Janet Jackson, Bell Biv Devoe, to name a few. We talk about creativity, song writing, his beginnings, studio habits, being an artist, hard work, the Spectrum City documentary in the making, PE’s achievements, high and low points of his career, his friendship with Chuck D and more.
KS: You tap into the universe to work. Sometimes I can do that and sometimes I can’t, sometimes I just work ‘cause I can’t sleep [laughs]. I’ve started working out lately and I haven’t worked out in a long time—it’s killing me! [laughs]. It’s really work, like what was I thinking!
What does it mean to you to be an artist?
KS: I’ve always more been on the producer side, I’ve never really been an artist but I work with artists, An artist should have a commitment to, and an understanding of, who they are. I’m old school. There’s times when artists get those one-hit-wonders, one song and that’s it, but if you want to be in the business, in the music industry, and you want to be around for a long time, you have to have knowledge of who you are and what you’re capable of doing—it’s deep for me.
You said that you don’t really see yourself as an artist, but I think that what you do is art.
KS: Yeah, I guess it is art. I’m dedicated and committed to what I work on. It’s like being an athlete, there’s things that you sacrifice and things you give up. You have to understand where you are going if you want to be that artist that’s going to be around for a long time. To achieve your status and your situation, people tend to be like, ok, I can lay back and do other things now but, when you’re trying to go for it and be that thing in this industry, the commitment is dire. That’s mainly a lot of people’s story, what they’ve done to get to the top and for themselves being an opportunist. For me it’s being an opportunist too, but also being very creative and knowing your limits for that—that’s what drives me. As I’m older, I do other things now, but I stay abreast of what’s happening. I’m always willing to learn.
Me too! I think that’s really important. People that think they have it all figured out, they’re the most lost ones because no matter how good you are at something you can always get better.
KS: Yes, you can always get better! Now technology is becoming more of a huge output of people’s daily lives, being an artist you have to try and understand that and adapt to that. I have certain issues adapting to certain things of how we grew up but, as far as knowing all the technology that’s out there, I am so open to that. I like new things. The only thing I’m bad at is marketing myself [laughs]. I know how to market someone else though, or how to market a concept. People will be like, Keith your Instagram is weak [laughs]. I’m like, well, I don’t know but get me in a studio on a project and I’m relentless, there’s no sleeping on that!
Would you say you’re more of a private persona and enjoy doing things behind the scenes more, doing the work?
KS: Yes! I am definitely a private behind the scenes kind of guy. Technology now and the way social media is, to earn a living, takes you away from that. It’s hard to be behind the scenes and do your thing. Now in order to sustain, you have to come out in front. Nowadays digital is king, I came up in an analogue world that you can stay behind the scenes and no one really knew who the producer was. Because we don’t sell records like that anymore, everything is streaming or download, sales from streaming and downloading are like ‘ooph’ [laughs] or ‘oooh’ you barely see something! Now you have to do other things, a lot of producers go out and deejay.
Where did you get your commitment and hard work ethic from?
KS: Playing a lot of sports [laughs]. Where I came up, this hip-hop world wasn’t even on the map, it wasn’t on the radio, we had to push the envelope ourselves. We learned to push that envelope from playing sports and being committed—that drove us. Like going to the gym, being super competitive on what you’re trying to do with your art, that taught us –me, my brother and Chuck – how to stay on the job of what we did. Compared to today’s model, where kids are growing up in the rap game, they’re born into it now with rap, they want to be that superstar rapper but, when we came up this wasn’t even a valuable entity to sustain money. It was treated like, it’s not going to last; what are you going to do when it’s over? Our job as producers and rappers and everyone else that’s part of the game—we was trying to change their mindset. That whole situation gave me the energy to do what I do. It’s important to stay competitive, we had basketball or football athletes we looked up to.
Earlier you mentioned that you feel like you have to sacrifice things to do what you do; what are some things you feel you have sacrificed?
KS: A life of hanging out with my friends that I grew up with… I grew up with Chuck and all but, I also had my other crew that was in my graduating class. I had to put them to the side because they had other aspirations and different dreams, and me and my brother was still trying to find ourselves, making that dedication. When it started to all kick in, I had a young daughter I rarely saw because we were always in the studio and working, trying to make something out of nothing. That’s kind of hard man, in the days when we came up, like I said, nobody said you can make a living from this, you could make some money but, to have a career… things like the Grammy Awards didn’t acknowledge us as a valuable situation until it started to sell a lot. It’s always something that’s been connected to the youth but when it started to sell, the older people started to be like, well maybe this is something we should look over. We were relentless, when we realised we could try to make a living from this, we were going 24/7 – recording, studio, recording, studio, recording, studio. There was nothing that was going to get in the way of us making a record—that’s dedication!
Why is music important to you?
KS: Oh man, music is important because it’s inspiration to my soul and my spirit. Music gives you all kinds of moods; sometimes when you’re having a bad day, you can put on a song and it can just brighten up your day for that moment—that’s why it’s important. I don’t know what the world would be without music. It’s already crazy! You take music away and… oh, man! [laughs]. I don’t know what we would do! I can’t even imagine! It became important because it’s like, you feel different ways from different songs. Sometimes if you’re angry about something and you want to make some kind of change, you listen to radical music that will get you so amped that you’ll start to do things to change, that came about from music from the late ‘50s and ’60s, if you go back further than that people would use it more or relaxing and chilling, stuff like that, it never made you want to go out and protest. It became more radical, it was about protest songs, and then there were songs that brought you together.
Especially, in my household man, my dad had his jazz music playing through every room in the house, so we were always into this. You deejay and you see how a crowd reacts to different music, then I feel good about it. When we started writing songs, we were asking ourselves and taking from, what do we feel in this moment?: is it hard times; is it joking around with your friends; is there a girl over there that you wanna get with so you write a song, do you feel nervous if you talk to her, or if you just wanna get with her, or do you wanna grow together—all those feelings. That’s why people come to shows, to see or feel those songs. It’s a cool thing.
I heard that you and your brother inherited your dad’s music collection?
KS: Yeah. It was a jazz collection. The thing is though, when I was young, it was weird… he left when we were really young so we grew up without a father. The thing that he left, the part of him that he left, was his record collection. When we moved into our house, he put speakers in every room, even the bathroom; this was the late ‘60s I’m talking about man [laughs]. He had his jazz collection that we weren’t allowed to touch. He thought he was a DJ because he had a microphone hooked up to it! [laughs]. He thought he was a little radio station. That’s the stuff I remember of him, we were so young when he left; I was around seven years old, maybe a little younger. It was his stereo and his music he left behind, that became the instrument of our lives. My mom would throw parties, they call ‘em get-togethers, family and friends would come around and we’d have a party and music was always the basis. We started growing up on the Motown sound and a bunch of other music. My cousin then introduced us to stuff—the funk and soul. Parliament Funkadelic! That’s a whole other trip. This was all the beginnings of our influences.
Didn’t your mother make you guys learn an instrument when you were young?
KS: [Laughs] yeah. My mom played piano, she always thought that growing up, we should learn some type of instrument. Back when I came up in school, back then there were music programs; for a lot of schools in America there’s no music programs now, so you have to go out and learn music on your own. My brother and sister learned to play piano, I wanted to be the odd ball [laughs], so I learned to play the sax because I got interested in a saxophonist named, Jimmy Castor. He’s the man! He intrigued me. I learnt sax for two or three years. Back then I never knew where it all could lead, I wasn’t thinking about making records [laughs]… that was for the groups that we bought records from!
You started making beats in your mom’s basement?
KS: Yeah. It wasn’t how people would think, back then the equipment was primitive, in the mid ‘70s. Everything was about live instruments. We played instruments but we weren’t really into being a band, the DJ world caught us—playing records. From there what we used to do was, we used to make these things called ‘pause tapes’; we’d take a song and record it onto cassette tape and we’d take the break part so the emcee could do his rhyme over it. Most of the stuff we’d make in my mom’s basement, it’s called an acetate of a song. We had to mic the drummer and a bass player, it was so primitive. We recorded it all on to a 2-track tape, in one take. Now you got multiple tracks and you can do one part then another, back then it was one big take like doing Motown! After we did that, someone would take it to a pressing plant and we’d give them $25 so they could press up our little song so we could play it when we deejayed. It started from there, doing our own thing. Before drum machines there were beatboxers, so I had a beatboxer in my mom’s basement. I’d do variations of the pre-programmed beats but then my brother had bought a bass line which was the Roland TB-303, which is huge among the EDM sound. When he did that, I started programming different bass lines that just rocked with the records we would play while we were deejaying. This was a unique kind of thing, it was really unique man, it was crazy.
It sounds like it was a really exciting time to be making music! And being self-taught the process of discovery must have been wonderful.
KS: Yes! That’s why it was exciting—there were no rules, there was no one to tell us we were doing it wrong, we were in our own world. We were doing a new style of playing records. It was all very experimental. We just wanted a cut that was nice and funky for us to play when we deejayed [laughs]; in a way we wanted to kind of make our own records. I guess it was the infatuation of wanting to make a record but without being signed or on a label, at the time you had to be a band to be on a label. They weren’t signing any deejays. I loved that we could experiment however. We were just doing stuff like it sounded like when you’re playing somebody’s record; like if you would play a Sly Stone record, maybe imitate stuff we’d heard and combine it with how our new generation was coming up and feeling about certain kinds of music and new style, breakbeats and stuff like that… I could talk about that for like nine days! [laughs]. There was always something kind of different. Deejaying and listening to records and breaking new records that nobody had ever heard before taught us how to make records. All we did was try to copy what we really liked, we like a certain artist or song and it’s like, we want that! We want our song to sound like that, or we were let’s push it to the next level, that’s a whole other dynamic.
When you’re making music do you use your intuition as a guide?
KS: Yeah, most of it is all feel. I’d say 90% of it is feel, it’s like I feel this or that or I’m in this kind of a mood. With our music it’s like what we were feeling on that day, or week. Doing those records was like, wow! I heard Rakim just drop ‘I Know You Got Soul’ and that shit is burning up the clubs and everyone in the streets, and now you want to compete with that. You want to make something in your way, in your own style that has that same dynamic impact—that’s all feel.
What’s one of your favourite sounds?
KS: We made up a lot of our own sounds. It always started out with… James Brown always had the nice snare sound, we loved a lot of that. It popped and felt good. Kick drums, some of it came from James Brown, but it came from various places; I know one thing though the James Brown snare from ‘Funky President’ that snap and that pop, when you heard it, it gave you a special kind of feeling. This was early hip-hop, it was about ‘jacking’ other people’s records and going in. As we got into the Public Enemy style we wanted something more irritating to just drive you insane! We wanted to stand up for something, I won’t say start a fight because that’s not what we were trying to do but, we just wanted to be so irritating and so forceful that you had to think about what life is about. Those sounds were crafted and created, my brother did a lot of stuff and we were like, nah it have to be like this, or you need to do it like that; he was great at direction. We all would blend in and work it out together. That sound is unique, hard and edgy because… we’re suburban kids with urban backgrounds. Our relatives and cousins live in the concrete jungle, we get that element because when we go visit them, we have to be in that element. We come back to Long Island where we can think and spread out and get our mind right. That combination of both worlds, mixing the urban and the suburban styles together, it took us a minute, to feel that vibe and get that sound right.
What’s one of the biggest things that you’ve learnt from your brother, Hank?
KS: I love my brother, man. We work on a song until it’s right. Once you put a song out there in the universe you can’t take it back. Still to this day, a lot of people still have a problem with me doing that, they’ll be like, let’s just do it and throw it out there, and, that’s why they don’t have great songs!
How do you know when a song is ‘right’?
KS: Now we’re going back to feeling, it’s a feeling. It’s when you feel good about it, and the hard part of it is being honest with your feeling. A lot of people think songs are right because they did it [laughs]. There’s a lot of things that go on with making a song that is unexplainable, like how you’re connecting with your universe and your space, and the people that you’re trying to reach it to. If you’re connecting with them on a universal level, if everyone is vibing with you at the same time and you know in your heart it’s a good song, you put it out and it works—that’s how it is. It’s hard to explain what makes a good song. There’s songs with elements that aren’t good but people buy because it’s been programmed to them. When they first hear a song they might go and lose their mind, like oh my god, what is this song, this is crazy!—that’s a good song [laughs]. Sometimes you can tell from the moment it first comes in.
I totally resonate with that. I can get super obsessed with bits of songs, like I’ll hear an intro and then have to play it back over and over before I’ve even heard the rest of the song.
KS: Yes! Like, this is soooooo great! I’m gonna put this out there, I like Beyonce’s ‘Crazy In Love’, it’s a good song! First of all, it’s a great topic, I’m crazy in love, which everybody’s been there or if you’re young and haven’t been there you will get there. There’s so many right elements, it wasn’t a slow song, it was a dance track… you hear that dahhn da da da da daaa dahhn da da da da daaa, then she does that verse, it’s that feeling thing. If you put ‘Crazy In Love’ on right now, everybody gonna start dancing.
I love the horn line/hook line, it’s amazing! When you first hear it, it’s like, yeah, I’ve arrived, take notice!
KS: Yes, it’s like, listen! I’ve arrived, I’m here, I’m crazy in love, so what y’all gonna do! [laughs].
When you’re in the studio do you work 9 to 5? Do you have daily quotas you set?
KS: I work all over the place [laughs]. I’m not a regiment kind of guy, I never have been. Nowdays you can have your own studio, sometimes it’s a curse because you can have your situation at will, your brain think, oh, it’s always there. When you have to go out and pay for time when you go to another recording studio though you gotta be precise. If you pay for right hours at $150 an hour, you gonna be like, whoaaa! I spent like almost $3,000 in this session! [laughs]—you gonna get done what you got to get done. Having your own studio in your crib though, it’s like you already paying for electricity and everything that’s happening, you’re just in there. My time in the studio is random. I get more inspiration when I’m under pressure, I start thinking more constructively, and reasonably.
I’m like that with my writing deadlines. I’ll think about the piece for a while and then finish it at crunch time right before it needs to be handed in. You are forced to make decisions a lot quicker, you have no time to think, and in those times you dig deep and you deliver. Your brain switches into, I guess, a survival, get it done mode.
KS: Yeah, when I got time, my brain just goes all over the place… like yeaaaah, ah-ha, okay, hmmm [laughs]. If I’m crunched, I’m like ‘pffffft’ I’ll sit up all night until the next morning and go straight into a meeting, my adrenaline kicks in. When I’m under the gun I’m like ‘ohhwwwww’ and I get it goin’!
Is there a particular way that making songs begins for you?
KS: It’s mainly in pieces. I’ll do a basic track, then I’ll build on the verse, chorus, and I’ll play with the song. As I listen over and over and it shapes up.
Do you get inspiration from outside of music?
KS: Oh yeah. I’m one of those guys that can get inspiration anywhere. I could be sitting in a parking lot waiting for someone and I might get an idea.
What are the things that are inspiring you at the moment?
KS: Sometimes I’ll watch a T.V. show and that might inspire me, or I’ll be online and someone will post something that will spark something off. I like to play around and just see what happens. I might not have a goal right now but I’ll just mess around and see what happens. Sometimes I’ll do tracks one day and if I go back to it the next day, I might hate it and change the whole music of it.
Earlier you were talking about how artists need to be dedicated; I know that when you first worked with Ice Cube, you said he showed up with six or seven composition books full of lyrics and ideas!
KS: Yeah! He came to the table with his ideas, we were the only crew out there that could embellish his ideas. That’s inspiring. Sometimes when I work with a lot of young artists, I have to inspire them to write. I ask them: what are they thinking? What’s in their mind? Put it out there! Then they’re like, ugh, I don’t wanna say that, it might not be cool! [laughs].
Did you learn anything from working with ‘Cube?
KS: Back then we were so young, we were all figuring it out—it was just cool. We were crazy and just having fun. He’s my man and we still talk a lot. He was like, dude, man… we just hung out and had fun working on his project because we knew where we wanted to go.
What’s something you’ve learnt from Chuck? You guys have been friends for a very long time.
KS: Oh man, Chuck is Mr Nerdy Nerd! He was a nerd before there were nerds! [laughs]. Me, Chuck and my cousin Eric when we just got into music, there was just a flow. We learnt a lot from each other because we had different worlds, but then we had the same world. Chuck was super intellectual, I was kind of intellectual but I was just like the guys in my street, my brother was just a dude that knew how to bring everybody together. Working with Chuck, he does those things where you have to warm up and do the verse like 90 times so he can warm up [laughs], it’s like come on dude!
What’s been a career highlight for you so far?
KS: Being in the Smithsonian! I thought there was nothing else after the Rock n roll Hall of Fame, our record being [considered “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”] preserved by Library of Congress and I was voted one of the Top 50 Producers of the Century but, the Smithsonian just took the cake! We were given our own space, seeing The Bomb Squad with our own space, it was just like, whoa! I was so excited to take my daughter to see it. When I saw it I was like, whoa! It felt so historical, a real achievement.
I am so happy for you, it IS such an achievement. At the opposite end of the spectrum; what’s been a real low point for you.
KS: Ugh, man, there have been so many low points… [laughs] …I’m going to call it the ‘changing of the guards’ of where… a low point to me, something that really bothered me was when we were outselling on the music that was going on, not getting a Grammy Award. They made it hard for us to get a Grammy; we got a nomination but not the Grammy. Now days anyone gets it, like anyone can get a Grammy, any kind of music. That’s a low point to me in music, for people that broke their necks to get stuff out there, they don’t even get acknowledged and then these guys that are coming in now that are making records that just have no substance get it—it’s a popularity vote. That’s hard man, it’s like, wow! The Grammys should have standards. It’s like here’s a trophy for being popular. It’s not about your songs, it’s about who is popular. How is saying you did the verse but you said three words and you said it for 16-bars, and you’re like I did a song! It’s like, really?! If you want to do that, give it its own category, call it something else—I call it ‘mumble rap’. I call it ‘mumble music’ ‘cause you ain’t even rapping, we set up rules for it and you’re taking it and making it to what you want it to be. No. Make it something else and have that be what you want it to be, I’m cool with that, just don’t call it rap [laughs]. I’m cool with mumble rap, but when it comes into the spotlight along with cats that craft their work, have great wordplay, I think that’s disrespectable. That’s a low point. I’ve had low points in my life, but I’m trying to keep it on the music side.
All the things we did as a group, changing the landscape with what we were creating, how music was being done, yeah we got certain accolades but I think we should have gotten others. Here’s a thing we will never get because Chuck had a go at them, Lifetime Achievement Awards from BET; Chuck hates that channel [laughs].
Have you had a life changing moment?
KS: As a producer, dealing with the artist, things that we’ve done in the industry that’s changed people’s lives, that’s life changing to me. When I meet people and they say the music we’ve made has changed their life, that’s like, wow! We did something! It’s great when the music really reaches people. Some people say, hey, I was in the street, slinging in the streets and doing all my dirt and then I heard your music, it uplifted me, and I gave it all up. People saying, hey, your music got me through times in prison… it goes that deep. They tell me that our music changed them for the better, not the worse.
What are you working on now?
KS: I’m working on a documentary, we hope to have it out by the end of the year, it’s about us and the stuff we were talking about earlier… how we went from our youth centre, to my mom’s basement and all the way up until we got signed to Def Jam [Records]. It’s about Spectrum City, as deejays we’d call ourselves Spectrum. It’s about that life story that nobody knows and how long we were doing it to get where we were, to where we are. A lot of people thought we just got signed and all this other stuff, nah man, we were throwing parties on Long Island early on and giving Long Island it’s name—giving Long Island the term ‘Strong Island’. We were dealing with a lot of the artists from the city that was coming in, we had a radio station at Chuck’s college WBAU, how that kind of built Def Jam in the early stage. We’ve been really instrumental in a lot of people’s careers in the early stages more so then they knew, or most people know. It’s a really big story to tell.
AND there’s the town we came from, of all the Hall of Famers that came outta the town… if not the music, the sport hall of famers, the comedians, there’s a lot of stuff, the big superstar radio jock… that came out of Roosevelt. It’s only one square mile, a mile long but, we had such concentrated effort and worked. Going back to the dedication we were talking about at the beginning, being from such a small place everyone knew everybody and the competition was high, the work ethic was there because we always wanted to be the best. We’re the smallest town out of Long Island.
I can’t wait to see it!
KS: I’m trying to finish up the treatment and hopefully it goes into production soon.
CREATE FOREVER, B xo
*Photos courtesy of K-Jee’s insta & fb.