- Thu, 2006-03-16 17:22
He's toured with Jurassic 5, been mentored by DJ Vadim, served time with the Scratch Perverts and Rocksteady Crew and released some fantastic singles. Now the UK's best beatboxer, Killa Kela, releases Elocution preceded by new single, Secrets (out March 20th).
I Like Music caught up with Killa Kela to find about his new material, how he impressed Pharrell with a 60-second beatbox, and how he puts together the building blocks of his music and makes such incredible sounds.
“I Like Music because… it keeps me out of trouble.” KILLA KELA
ILM: So, your new single, Secrets is out on March 20th. Can you give us your own personal description of it?
Killa Kela: Musically, it’s sort of a cross between maybe Dougie Fresh meets Prince meets N.E.R.D. meets The Streets kind of thing. It kind of bubbles in a real kind of '80s melodic way, I guess, which is all kind of post-Princey. On a technical level it’s myself doing lead vocals and singing almost for the first time, to most people who know me, and also incorporating the beatbox; developing it into musical format, song format as opposed to live format.
ILM: Which must have been interesting for you to do?
Killa Kela: Yeah, definitely. It came amongst all the other songs on the Elocution album (which comes out at the start of June 2006) and each track was created as a concept, it was like 14 different ways to put Killa across on a record, so that was the main angle. I chose instruments that I couldn’t do with the mouth, like string quartet, piano and more dirty dub sounds that were lying around in the studio at the time and incorporated them as a band set up, and, what was left was me doing the beats and sounds in some parts and doing the vocal as lead, so you could almost hear the bits I was doing compared to the instruments that I couldn’t do. That’s the thing with Secrets, it was one of the tunes that kind of epitomised that theory of making the album
ILM: How did the Jazz Cafe gig go? And what’s your favourite Killa Kela track to play live?
Killa Kela: It was great, really good. I had a wicked time there! There was a real buzz afterwards, y’know? That’s always the intention, but it was really good to have it sold out and it was really good to perform new tunes; it’s a bit of a breath of fresh air compared to the normal live show that we do. My favourite is Jawbreaker because it’s very upbeat and very carnival, brilliant for live shows.
ILM: You toured with Jurassic 5 and were mentored by DJ Vadim, plus the Scratch Perverts and Rocksteady Crew, but this is your first proper album. Of all the tracks on Elocution, which one did you have the most fun recording in the studio?
Killa Kela: Killa Cello was good fun with Skully on, that was great fun, and both times, doing Submarines, because it’s the only track on the album that really had a feature. Originally the vocals were with Dizzee Rascal, and it was good fun working with Dizzee, but then label politics kicked in from his end and it didn’t get the cut on the album, so we got Roots Manuva in, and he’s just a great laugh. I almost considered it was a bit of a blessing, as much as it was unfortunate that Dizzee couldn’t do it, the track survived and I really enjoyed working with Rodney, so I had the privilege and best of both worlds working with two great artists from over here.
ILM: Well things happen for a reason, so it must have been meant to be.
Killa Kela: The thing with Dizzee he’s got a very young market compared to Roots Manuva who captures a whole different sort of audience in many different scenes.
ILM: You’re the best beatboxer in Britain, have you insured your mouth?
Killa Kela: No, I’ve never insured my mouth. It’s one of those things, y’know, it does need to be done, and it’s in the back of my mind all the time when I do something a bit klutzy, I think I’ve really got to get that sorted out.
ILM: I saw you at Homelands, and on this album you have strings and piano but the rest is you, how on earth do you sing and beatbox and – well I’m just awestruck when I see you perform how you actually do it, it’s incredible. How do you do it? D'you listen to sounds as you go about your life and think I’ll have a go at recreating that? Is that how it works, so you gradually build up your repertoire of sounds you can do?
Killa Kela: I think so yeah… it’s more… it’s not hearing sounds, it’s the other way round - doing a sound myself and then connecting it with a sound that it sounds like. There are some sounds that I really can’t do, so I don’t trip too hard when I can’t do something. It’s more about the doors you unlock with your own mouth, just trying to connect them with other sounds that you know are out there.
ILM: You talk about achieving the right balance of hard-edged intense sounds with something people can take away, so a good hook and great song. And you truly understand the building blocks of music, and do it all yourself with your crew. Please describe the Killa Kela process of making such freakin’ awesome music?
Killa Kela: Like you say, I think it’s a case of being aware of your restrictions as an artist. I’m not going to lie and say I’m a singer or I’m a producer or I song-write; I’m Killa Kela and people know me as a beatboxer. So basically, you have to throw the whole idea of what you do out of the window, and remember that people need to listen to this as music. But obviously not forgetting what you do and who you are, because the moment you do that you’re fooling yourself, but I think you’ve got to make music that stands on its own legs first and foremost, and then build a concept around it. And involving different vocal disciplines, like spoken word and singing and rapping, it made it a lot easier for me to adapt my beatbox in amongst those fields of vocals, which in turn made it digestible and made us able to throw it back at the live show and say "right well, we can bring a string quartet here now, and a piano here and I’ll be in the middle and do the beatbox there," and it sounds exactly like the track, so it’s gone full circle.
ILM: So it’s organically grown into the live thing?
Killa Kela: That’s right, and without being too patronising to the people who’ve checked us. In many ways it’s been a case of persuading my audience who’ve been checking us from 1999 to understanding that this is a Killa Kela album not a beatbox album. And to show that live has been really important and it’s been a slow process but it’s definitely worked.
ILM: Pharrell Williams is one of your biggest supporters and you first met him after hiding out at a NERD London gig, pre-soundcheck. After four hours’ wait, you got your audience. One 80-second beatboxed medley of NERD/Neptunes/Pharrell tunes later, a fast friendship was formed and you ended up performing with NERD in the UK, Europe and America. Tell us more about that?
Killa Kela: It’s all music related right, I tend to meet random people just through the journey’s I’ve been on. I’d gone to Germany back in 2002 and some press guy asked me to do something for the camera, so I did this beatbox of a Neptunes tune. And he said, "I’ll show that to Pharrell." And then I went back six months later and the German guy said, "that thing you did for me six months ago, I showed him and he loved it." So that stuck in my head and I was like, "ok, so maybe one day when he’s over I’ll and try and get over." So my sound man knew another sound man at the time who was doing the show at the London Astoria for N.E.R.D. so I said to him, "we’ve got to get in. I know he knows me." So, I hit London Astoria and I went up to their tour manager, and I was like, "yo, I swear he knows me," and he told me I’d just have to wait to see what comes, because he wasn’t coming to soundcheck, but he might pass through.
So I just sat in the sound booth for five hours waiting for someone to come out and do a soundcheck but nobody did. And then I saw him walk past out of the corner of my eye and I thought, I’m gonna jump out at him. So I went over to him and said, "Pharrell, I’ve got something to show you," and he was like, "who are you?" So I said, "I’m Killa Kella, you saw me in Germany," and he was saying, "no I didn’t man." And I was thinking "oh no, someone’s been pulling my leg." So I said, "give me two minutes" and he said, "no man, I’m cold," and I said "dude, two minutes, you won’t regret it." And I was swallowing my words. So I went over to the PA and soundsystem and my sound manager just turned up the volume and the guy on the lights said "you’ve got 50 seconds before we shut down; if nobody’s doing a soundcheck, we’re all going." So I was like "just two minutes."
But he switched the light above me and the light above Pharrell, so it looked very ‘Jedi’, very Luke Skywalker, y’know, and I blasted out 60 seconds worth of beatbox, and it just shut him down for a minute and he didn’t know what he say. Then he came over and hugged us, and he was like, "that was incredible, how come we don’t know anything about you?"
ILM: So it definitely worked! And then you ended up going on tour with them.
Killa Kela: Yeah I did four or five shows in America and a live session for Radio 1. This was all in 2004 and I met him again at the end of last year, so we’re still in touch.
ILM: I love the fact that when DJ Vadim sent out a call for album sleeve images, you sent him some drawings, and threw in a tape of yourself beatboxing. And he invited you to his studio right away. How was it working with Vadim for the first time?
Killa Kela: He’s quite a character. He just seems to just have these ideas in his head and just goes for it. He’s very quiet with what he does, all of a sudden it just kind of blossoms. I guess this is a typical hip hop mentality, but you throw something at him and he’ll work with it. So I just went round there the following afternoon after I’d sent him the tape and just started beatboxing any old thing. I mean this was in 1999, so I wasn’t all that at the time but there weren’t really any other beatboxers out there. So I just started blasting beats and the relationship just carried on from there and the same day he said, "do you want to come on tour?" Umm. Yep!
ILM: That’s seizing opportunities right there! And you did the same with DMC New York and jumping on stage with Jurrassic 5 at The Roxy. What advice do you have for young artists starting out?
Killa Kela: Seizing opportunities is a must. In a world now where technology has kind of taken over and there are so many opportunities for artists anyway on a promotional level. So it’s hard to reach and shout as loud as you can nowadays, so you have to just shout twice as loud, and as much as you can and just get out and about and get active. That’s what our industry is all about, right?
ILM: Totally and in doing that as well as building momentum and fanbase, you’re practising your craft too.
Killa Kela: People ask me "how do you beatbox and do you practice," but I say I don’t practice, I do it at shows. And I think that should be it. People like to see growth in an artist. It doesn’t matter if you don’t do your best shows in the first few years of your beginnings. People like to celebrate an artist and their success and to see you grow is the most important thing and it’s more raw.
ILM: Are there still any Kela tags around where you lived?
Killa Kela: Cor, no I wouldn’t think so… Actually, there is one (there’s a lot of factories that have been boarded up or knocked down around there now), but there’s one Kela tag on the back of one of the doors as you come into the train station in Billingshurst.
ILM: Has your dad let you go on his drum kit yet?
Killa Kela: Still to this day, no! I think he’s sold most of it. Drummers complain of back ache and as soon as his back started give way it was no more drums.
ILM: You started inventing your own beats aged just six to copy that drum noise or put a beat to Grange Hill and were into glam rock metal until at 13 you heard hip hop. How was that to hear other people making the music you made with your mouth?
Killa Kela: At first I couldn’t take it seriously. When you’re younger it just feels like everyone is doing it, so I was like, "I thought everyone could do this," so when you hear someone doing it live and loud on the radio, you can’t grasp how someone is taking it seriously. But as soon as I heard it I thought, "if they can do it, I can do it." I think it was Biz Markie who was the first beatboxer I heard on radio in1991 and then Rahzel in 1993. But prior to that I was already working out trying to get on stages. But Rahzel for a lot of beatboxers and the scene really did blow the doors and brought that kind of American glamour back into the beatbox, and you need that.
ILM: Tell me the funniest story about anything while you were with the Scratch Perverts and the Rocksteady Crew.
Killa Kela: I remember one. I went out to New York (and that was how I met Jurassic 5) for the DMC. And I went out with the Perverts as an official member for the first time, and they won the DMC finals then, so we went out to celebrate. And it was just me and DJ First Rate, and we were rocking into pubs and bars and just ordering drinks. And First Rate was getting served at first and at the time I was 19 and he was about 30 and you have to be 21 to get beers, and I was going up and ordering beers, but they stopped serving him, and then he started getting searched, and slowly the whole night evolved around trying to get this 30 year old man into bars, to the point where he was getting quite personal about it, and I was just walking through and he wasn’t. He got escorted by police by the end of the evening.
ILM: Can you describe your favourite place on earth?
Killa Kela: My favourite place on earth is… Can I have two?
Killa Kela: The bleakness of Russia, but also LA – the sun in LA.
ILM: You’ve kept it in house with your Spit Kingdom Crew. That self-sufficient attitude and vibe seems important to you. Are you managing to keep that self-sufficient thing going now you’re with Sony?
Killa Kela: I don’t think they’ve got a choice.
Killa Kela’s new single, Secrets is out on March 20th and is, quite simply, BRILLIANT!
Check Killa Kela’s new masterpiece, his Elocution album that comes out in June 2006.