Lounging in a hotel room chair in the midst of GMA Week, you'd never guess that rapper KJ-52 was deep into a busy schedule of interviews
and shmoozing. Although we would have been content discussing the latest occurences in The Office,
our conversation with KJ delved into the industry, our living in a digital
world, and of course, his latest project The Yearbook.
This interview took place on: 4/23/07.
Jesus freak Hideout (John DiBiase): So how are you doing?
KJ-52: Doing good, got the new record out, got the baby on the way, getting older,
y'know? You know it's been a big shift. I was looking back - I've done five records.
Five records. It's almost at the point where I don't have to prove myself. I mean, I still do, you know?
Fifth album - only because of the way the music business is right now, it's like the first album again.
JFH (John): Really? Why? Why do you say that?
Because it's like a changing of the guard. In seven years, a whole new generation of kids has come up.
So y'know, I have to go back and prove that I'm still relevant to those kids. But, at the same token, it's a
different generation of buyers. Kids today are like: "Well I deserve to have this music." Y'know? It's not like
a privilege. Y'know what I mean? My age, maybe a little younger, we were like, it was a privilege to have a
record. You waited for that release date, and you couldn't wait, and you wanted that CD, and you opened it up,
and you read the liner notes, and you experienced an album.
It wasn't like, 'let me go get "Laffy Taffy" off iTunes for .99 cents.'
But that's the mentality of kids now.
JFH (John): Yeah. And that hurts. I mean, Iím a ďhold it in my handĒ kind of
music-buying guy. I want the album artwork. I mean, we get pre-releases because weíre media, and now weíre just
getting mp3s, and that hurts it even more. But itís like, sometimes, if I really like the record, Iíll go buy it,
just so I have the case, the artwork, because to me a record is the full CD, itís the
Itís like going from experiencing the record, toÖ
(John: Itís the ďgotta have it now attitudeĒ)
It is. And itís not going to change. If anything, that will be the norm.
(Amy DiBiase: Call it the generation for immediate gratification.)
It is. I mean, itís not even that. I remember watching stupid MTV all day just to watch the one rap video
they were going to play, late at night, and now itís like five seconds to go onto Youtube to watch a video.
*Laughter* You know what I mean? Like, literally.
(John: At least you save time!)
It does, and I love it, Iím an iPod guy. Iím a technology dude, to the "T," but itís a different mentality.
Trying to convince the kids to buy CDs. Thatís why I say Iím on my fifth album but it feels like my first album.
It really does. Because of that, I know I need to go out and hit the road, just like I used to, I gotta
grind it out, Iíve got shake hands, Iíve gotta kiss babies. *Laughter* I have to do all that
stuff again. Really, I do. Because, seven years ago, that kid that is 15 now, seven years ago was 8. Those kids
that are 10, were 3. Itís a totally different mentality.
JFH (John): Well I think itís crazy, when I look back. When I look back at
Christian music, when I first got into it, probably around '93, and to think that Jesus Freak was 12
years ago, almost. And Jars of Clayís first record was 12 years ago. And you know, music-defining records.
Industry-defining records were that long ago. Youíve got kids now who are like, ďPFR? Iíve never heard of them.
dc Talk? Whatís that?Ē Y'know, itís sad. I can totally understand where youíre coming from, as far as, where you
have to prove yourself all over again.
It's true. I donít mind, I mean, my whole life has been an uphill battle, so Iím like, "Iíve totally been here
before." But at least you want to be like, ďOh good I can relaxÖ oh man, I canít!Ē *Laughter* Youíre
like, ďOh I donít have to cut the grass today. I can let---oh I gotta cut the grass today. Ok fine, Iíve been
cutting the grass all my life. Iíll go cut the grass again.Ē But itís literally like that.
JFH (John): Well you know, maybe itís just like, Godís way of keeping us grounded.
KJ-52: Honestly, Iíve been reading in Isaiah, chapter 40, and everything there is like God
saying to Isaiah, ďIím with you, Iím here for you.Ē It takes on this whole new personal perspective, like Godís
saying this. Itís very personal. And man, itís just been rocking my world. Like everything in the industry, is
falling apart. And I finally felt that this record, when I went to try to do things for the last seven years that
I could usually do before, and theyíre like ďWe canít do that for youĒ because the budgets are slashed. I mean,
itís not even that my label is doing bad. But because weíre under the whole umbrella, we have to feel the brunt
of every other label thatís doing bad. It finally started hitting me, Iím like ďDang!Ē You know? You get a
little comfortable, and you realize, itís like youíre a new artist again. Which, you know, if you would have
told me when Iím on my fifth album that, this is my ninth GMA...
Itís my ninth GMA. I was very blown away.
(John: That's crazy)
JFH (John): I know what you mean, I mean, you still gotta do the dishes!
Yeah, I mean, youíre like: ďCan I get someone to do the dishes for me now?Ē I have to go do the dishes.
Itís weird, but coming here now, being with some of the guys that have been my contemporaries, or guys I
knew way back when I first started, that are still coming here, doing their thing, these are the same guys who,
five, six years ago, we would all just sit around, no one would stop when I would talk. And now they stop,
and I have this like, bevy of Yoda wisdom to give, y'know? People would actually stop me and really want to hear
my opinion, and they would be like ďWell what do you think of the state if Christian hip-hop?Ē Iím like, who
really cares what I have to say? But people are really interested. Those things to me, Iím like, "Woah. What
happened? How did I get to this point?"
JFH (John): Yeah. Itís huge. I've had similar experiences. Itís humbling to
be used in that way. Itís weird.
It is weird. And itís sad to some degree, because you see a lot of my contemporaries dropping like flies,
y'know? I mean, I went to the Rooftop last night, and it was pretty packed. Iím like, "this is pretty good, cuz
I could remember six, seven years ago, thereíd be nothing like that." That itís actually happening, but then
I think, we can all pat ourselves on the back, and then go, weíre all still in bad shape.
(John: Yeah. But thereís been progression.)
There has, I can even see in the five, six, seven years that Iíve done it, itís definitely changed.
But weíre still---I mean, I donít really blame the industry though. I blame the artists. I really do,
I think itís the lack of the artist not providing the product.
JFH (John): Well I also think that maybe itís partially the industry not pushing it.
KJ-52: Right. Well there still needs to be somebody whoís a champion, somebody at the higher up,
some of the gatekeepers need to go, "letís give this a shot." But I unfortunately feel that some of them said
"letís give it a shot," five years ago, and the ones they gave a shot dropped the ball. And it just reinforces
that stereotype that Christian rap doesnít sell, theyíre hard to work with, they have bad attitudes, theyíre
not thankful, y'know? So I donít know. It puts me in a position now, where Iím like, well Iím getting into the
production game, well, why donít I have a label? Why havenít I found an artist? Why havenít I put somebody out?
And I honestly canít think of anybody I wanted. Like if you were to hand me a label right now, like, "here you
go KJ, hereís your label." I would be like, "I think we need to put a compilation out first, cuz I donít have
anybody. Thereís nobody I can think of that Iím excited about." Maybe Iím just jaded, but y'know?
JFH (John): Well that is easy to, even in our position, itís easy to get that
feeling. Kind of like, Iíve heard this a million times before, this really doesnít sound like thereís anything
new, then you try to be positive. ďWell maybe the next record,Ē or ďMaybe when they get hooked up with the right
person theyíll do something tremendousĒ or whatever. Cuz if you watch certain bands, you might not have been
crazy about their first record or two, or even three, but then something clicks, then theyíre really good, and
theyíre doing something amazing. But can we maintain that? And then Christian music doesnít get taken serious
cuz thereís too many of those slow starts.
KJ-52: But thatís a period, you know? Labels now are struggling. Theyíre all running, hurting.
Everyoneís getting their profits slashed, and the business model is gone. The idea of a big bloated CD
manufacturing is gone. They canít afford it anymore. They have to look at it like, okay, we sell downloads,
ringtones, and we sell videos, itís like a media thing.
JFH (John): Yeah, anything they can put a price tag on.
Well yeah, theyíve gotta keep the lights on. Granted too, theyíre a victim of their own self, their own greed
because they jack CD prices up to 15 bucks, because it costs more to make the CD. Well the prices fell on CDs,
youíre still making a profit. *Laughter* You could have lowered the prices a long time ago.
JFH (John): Oh yeah, kids would rather go to Best Buy than FYE. Nowadays, you
can get one for like $7.99 when it comes out, which is insane. Ten years ago when they started jacking them up,
it was like, even before that, it was like $18, $19 a CD? $20 a CD? You go into FYE or The Wall, and itís like
$22 for a new CD or whatever. Itís like, "Youíve gotta be kidding me. No way!" And now you can just download the
whole record for $9.99. Or just borrow it from a friend and burn it.
Yeah, it's crazy.
JFH (John): So how did you approach the production of The Yearbook differently than your previous projects?
Well because I was doing it myself, I had to figure it out. Like I didnít really have a process, you know what I
mean? So the difference was, now you know you make a beat for somebody and take it from there, itís easier.
Now, Iím going ďAh, I just killed myself making this track, now Iíve gotta go and actually write lyrics to it too?Ē
So a lot of it was stockpiling tracks, like I kept stockpiling tracks, I would just make beats constantly. Constantly
making beats, just not stopping. So Iíd go back and be like, ďAh, I really like this beat.Ē If it makes me write
immediately, I usually know itís going to be a good song. But sometimes I would do a track, actually a lot of times
I would do a track, and then I would sit on it, and I would obsess over it, and then I would go, ďI think I can
make that beat better.Ē Like some songs went through literally four different versions of it.
Yeah, some were five or six versions, cuz I kept going, ďAlright how do I make this better? Maybe if I tweak
this here. Let me see what my bass player adds to this. Let me see what Liquid would add to this.Ē You know?
All these different things, to finally get it to here I felt like, I canít make this any better. So the main
process would be: do a basic track in reason on my laptop, then listen back and go ďDo I like the bass line?Ē
If I donít like the bass line, I go to my bass player and say ďWell what can you add to this?Ē Then I listen to
what he would do and Iíd go ďOkay, that was pretty cool. I think I like my original bass line better,Ē or
whatever. Or go to Liquid, ďHey, what can you add here?Ē And then sometimes he would do something and Iíd be
like ďHey dude, I was messing with it again, do you think you could go back and add a chord here?Ē He would be
like, "yeah I know." Iíd call him back, by the third time heíd be like, ďYeah I know, just get it sent,
send me the track.Ē *Laughter* Heíd be like, ďYeah, you changed it again, didnít you?Ē So, same with
him, same with working with Pete Stewart. He would be able to finish off the guitar ideas, like the last time.
Yeah, Pete did all the guitar stuff, except for the stuff Aaron did. Pete did the guitars on ďIn The Garden.Ē
He did the guitars on ďYouíll Never Take Me Down.Ē
(John: I donít think we ever got the liner notes.)
Ah, yeah Pete did all the guitar work except Aaron Sprinkleís stuff.
I hadnít talked to him since the Peace of Mind record. And I got his number from Todd, and asked ďHey, are you
doing anything with him?Ē Heís like ďNo, I talked to him briefly.Ē I literally just sent him a text, ďHey Pete,
I donít know if you remember me, we did the Peace of Mind project, Iíve got a few tracks I need to be played,
what do you think?Ē We talked on the phone, we never stopped talking. He was like,
ďYeah man, letís do some stuffĒ and I think he did a great job. He really added a lot to it.
JFH (John): Can you talk a bit about the song ďFanmail?Ē
Sure. They were all based on real stories, real letters. But I didnít want to take one letter and just exploit
it. So I took a cross section of a lot of the letters. Itís really as if you were to go read my letters,
that would be a cross section.
(John: I believe it.)
But I wanted it to show all different types of kids. You know, like the good church girl, to the non-church kid,
to the semi-church kid, y'know? And everything in between. And I actually then, to finish it off, actually had
actual fans be the voices on there. Four of the kids that are on there at the end are in, I have a hip-hop
production class I teach at my church.
(John: Oh really?)
So it was really a combination of putting them on it to talk, and to add those parts. So, it was like my way of
addressing those things without having to come out, and go ďCutting is wrong, cutting is bad. Donít do cutting,
itíll make you sad.Ē *Laughter* Y'know what I mean though? It was a way of going, "hereís an example,"
and the kidís are like "yeah, thatís me." So that was it.
JFH (John): I thought it was cool how it covered a lot, too. It was a very personal feel.
Thank you. That was the only track I didnít write the music for. Like I had a friend of mine, who works at Nike
actually, do the piano riff. I produced it, did everything around it, but he just sent me this piano riff,
with all this other stuff, and Iím like "dude, that is the song Iíve been trying to write." And I literally sat
up in the middle of the night at two, three in the morning, and wrote the first three verses of it. Just wrote
JFH (John): Was it difficult to write a song like ďCan I Be Honest?Ē
KJ-52:*Laughs* Yeah. Well, yes and no. No, it wasnít because it was everything I wanted to say.
It was hard because, I thought this is like ammunition for everyone that doesnít like me. Cuz itís like,
ďSee I told you he was that way!Ē Y'know?
JFH (John): In the same way youíre saying, ďI know. And Iím not proud of it.Ē Or ďI know, and Iím working on it.Ē
The original idea of the song was going to be called ďNo Regrets,Ē cuz it was talking about all the things I
regretted. But saying, "well I donít regret it anymore cuz of God," but the hook just didnít work. So thatís
when I flipped it to "can I be honest," cuz honestly, a lot of it, whether you take it away or not, a lot of it
has to do with the Christian music industry. It was my way of saying, even not just that but the church, that we are
so geared towards making everything perfect. Weíre so geared toward this ďOh hey how are you? Oh Iím great,
praise the Lord, how about you? Yeah, Iím just blessed man.Ē And going home, and your life is a mess. And
I think too, the fans could, maybe say "yeah, thatís everything Iíve wanted to say, but I canít say it."
Iíve always been kind of transparent, but I figure itís time to go, cuz The Yearbook was about seeing
the last year of my life. Thatís what I feel. I got the point where I can open this up and people will still
respect you for it. So thatís what it was. Itís probably my favorite song on the record.
Cuz I liked the way the music turned out. Everything I was trying to say - whenever you try to say
something and you finally say it the way you wanted to say it. But again, itís one of those songs the kids who
actually buy records could care less about, y'know? They just want to hear the goofy fun stuff!
JFH (John): Yeah maybe some kids do, but I appreciate a song like that, a lot.
And I think that it has a lot of depth - just the depth of it, and the honesty of it, and the vulnerability of it.
Yeah. Well originally, that was going to be the name of the record. It was going to be called Honest,
and I played the song for my pastor - and I originally had a different title for the record - and I played him
that song, and he said, "You should really call your record Honest, cuz thatís what youíre being." I
talked to my pastor then about opening up that little part of you, that nobody wants to seeÖ but then
The Yearbook just sounded cooler. *Laughter*
JFH (John): How did working with rock artists like Kevin from Disciple and Toby from Emery come about? Did you approach them? Howíd you get the idea?
Kevin, for me, we toured together on the Kutless tour. Heís just a cool dude. Heís like a country boy man.
A country boy, from Knoxville. I just always appreciated him, heís a sweet guy. Heís fun. We went running one
time on tour, and I just like ditched him in the background. We always had that special moment.
*Laughter* So the original idea was that Aaron Sprinkle was gonna produce the rock stuff on the
record, and I was just gonna produce all the hip-hop stuff. Then Aaronís wife had some health problems, and it
was looking like he wouldnít be doing anything on the album. So I was getting desperate. I actually, this is
kind of funny, because I figured nobody would think I could produce a rock song, I produced the track.
I actually produced it, and I told them Aaron did it. *Laughter* I lied to everybody.
(John: Are you serious?)
Because I wanted an honest opinion. So I asked them, "hey I got this track from Aaron, what do you guys think?" Theyíre like ďThis is amazing! This is the best song on your record!Ē Iím like, you liars! I did it! You
wouldnít have believed me if I did it! *Laughter* You just proved it! Now youíre stuck! You canít say
anything! And so when I was done with the song, I could really hear it. I just heard
Kevin on it. So it was a win-win situation. I just really heard Kevin on the song. And Kevinís like, "yeah man
letís do it." And he just came up in the studio, and cut it. The Emery one, was much different actually. You
can hear the musical difference, between me producing a rock song and Aaron producing a rock song. What Aaron
did was he had the music from me and he gave it to Toby, and heís like, "Yeah, Tobyís a big fan of yours." Iím
like, "For real?" Heís like, "Yeah, heís a big fan, you guys should do a song together!" Iím like, "Emo? With
hip-hop??" I could maybe see Kevin, that made a little sense, but emo and hip-hop? And we never talked on the
phone. Ever. It was all through instant messanger. We just chatted. I was like, "Hey man, I got a couple song
ideas, and he went to lunch, and he came back from lunch, and demoed some stuff in Garage Band. I said,
"Number 2 sounds great!" He went and cut it, and we were done! Like that was it, it was that simple. Itís
funny, because rock guys are the easiest ones to work with. Iím serious, the guys who deserve to be divas,
and deserve to have big heads and to be a pain are the easiest people to work with. Whereas, the rappers, who
have no right to think that theyíre anybody are the most single-handedly hardest people to work with. It really
makes no sense. But Iím telling you, Kevin came in all nonchalant, into the studio, did his thing, and boom!
Heís done. It was like he has every right to be a rock star, and he's not.
(John: I love people like that.)
Oh me too! I get people who give me a hard time, "why donít you put more rappers on your record?" Iím like, "Dude,
if you only knew. You donít understand. Never mind, I wonít even go that route." People are like, "why are you
always doing these rock songs with these people?" Uh, because first of all, itís easy, and people actually buy
the songs and like them. It is what it is. But yeah, the song with Emery, I was like, "I donít know if this is
going to work. Even when I got the song done, I was like, "This is so far extreme, heís screaming? Heís screaming
on a rap record!" I really had some doubts, I was like, we have got to take one of these songs off.
I mean, I donít care if you take my song off with Kevin, just take one of these rock songs off, cuz itís too
much rock on the record!! Theyíre like, "No, itís cool, kids are going to like it, theyíre really gonna like it."
Iím like, "The kids are going to HATE me." *Laughter* I really was like that. Theyíre going to hate
this song, theyíre going to hate me. And itís like the best single Iíve had, out the gate.
Itís literally the best rock single Iíve had. It might be the best rock single. It makes no sense.
Even the hip-hop heads are like, "Iím feeliní that Emery stuff man." Nothing makes sense anymore.
*Laughter* Iíll accept the rock award at the Doves next year. Iíll be like, "Yes, thank you, I always
thought this would work. Thank you." *Laughter*
JFH (John): Lastly, would you say that there's
anyone, in general, who youíve worked with that particularly left an impression on you?
You know, I can think of a lot of guys when I first started that not necessarily I worked with, but some of the
earlier pioneers of Christian hip-hop, the guys that really paved the way, that really deserve the Dove awards,
and never really got the credit. Those were the guys - like the old Sugar Hill Gangs, they never got any props
for it. Those are the guys that made an impression to me, because when I got saved, coming out of that into
Christian hip-hop, that was a big deal for me.