INTERVIEW: KILLER BEE
Lo-fi hip hop is a truly intriguing genre of music – juxtaposing all things ‘nerd’, including anime, 80’s computer games, VHS, and old TV shows with hip hop, which is a decidedly ‘cool’ music genre to create a dreamy and nostalgic representation of a 90’s childhood. Just search for lo-fi hip hop on Youtube, and the first page is saturated with music cut to anime videos. Indications of traditional binary descriptors (cool/uncool) becoming more blurred is furthered by the genre’s popularity on geek havens like Reddit, whilst also being assimilated into the mainstream, with more and more hip hop artists experimenting with crackly sounds, heavy low ends, ‘nerdy’ samples, and muddy frequencies. One lo-fi artist who knows all about the relationship between geek culture and hip hop, is New York producer Killer Bee, who’s latest album ‘Otaku‘ (slang for a Westerner obsessed with Japanese culture), is a goldmine for old school hip hop and RnB refrains, loose drum patterns, and collage style sampling. I spoke to the young producer about influences, anime, and the joys of Tumblr surfing:
KM: Tell us about your early life and first experiences with music.
I’ve been connected to music since I was a kid. My mom recently found drawings I made when I was in Kindergarten of me at a concert with two giant speakers behind me (but I was a holding a mic, and not an Akai MPD32). So I guess I always had a vision of what I wanted to do when I grew up. My first memories of listening to music stem from my parents, who had very different tastes in music. My dad likes rock and roll, artists like Queen and Elvis, and my mom liked pop – Timbiriche, Michael Jackson and The Carpenters seemed to always be playing during car rides.
I have a distinct memory from when I was 4 or so of telling my dad I had a crush on this girl Julia in my class, and he throws on “The Way You Look Tonight” by Sinatra on the stereo, teasing me about how I should dedicate the song to her. I think that was an important moment for me because it was the first time I really connected emotion to music, something that is still really important for me when I create my own music. I try to inspire similar feelings in people listening to my music. Each song I make tells a story, and though not every song is supposed to inspire longing, it’s important to me that the listener feels something real. Just like how I felt at that moment listening to Frank Sinatra, it marks a unique moment and feeling in my life that I wish to share with the listener.
KM: Which artists do you look to for inspiration?
There are so many artists that I admire and continually look to for inspiration. The biggest ones who inspire me to take my art seriously and constantly strive to take it the next level are artists like Kanye West, Flying Lotus, Donald Glover, J Dilla, John Coltrane, Robert Glasper, and Pharaoh Sanders. In terms of actually making hip hop beats I look up to Knxwledge, Madlib, bsd.u, SwuM, drwn., Sleepy Eyes, Ohbliv, Tuamie, OSL, ewonee, bzkt., e e v e e, mndbd, idntrmmbr, tomppabeats, mt. marcy and so many more.
KM: Do you ever look outside the music world for inspiration?
Of course, I believe we’re the sums of our experiences so whenever I write liner notes for my albums, I make sure to always include everything that I’ve been watching/listening to over the course of its creation. I believe that the movies, tv shows, and art I watch filters into my music subconsciously. I have a small projector in my bedroom studio that I use to throw visuals up on the wall when I make beats or when I have writer’s block to inspire me. I put on everything from FLCL to Jean Luc Godard, depending on the mood or vibe I’m going for. I’ve recently been really into Tomokazu Matsuyama’s art and just scrolling through art websites like Art Nau to feel inspired. I also feel like that’s why Tumblr is such a powerful tool and basically ground zero for every “aesthetic” that has been attached to music genres. You can go on Tumblr and just scroll through hundreds of images that you’ve curated to inspire you. One moment you might be looking at ancient architecture in Italy and the next you might be transported to a metro station in Copenhagen.
KM: Why producing? What about that aspect of music interested you in particular?
I’ve been making music for a long time now. A few years after I started learning guitar I began writing acoustic rock songs. Fast forward to when I was 16 and I just kind of fell into producing hip hop. My friend Cole and I were listening to Drake and attempted to recreate “Best I Ever Had” on Garageband. I already had the groundwork of navigating a DAW from recording my acoustic material onto Garageband and I realized that the melodies in Hip Hop and rock were kind of similar. The next step was to learn how to program drums, and I loved how complex the drums sounded on hip hop songs. I realized I had a knack for putting together hip hop beats even though they were awful at first. These days I mostly produce instrumental hip hop – either way I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m studying all the time.
KM: You’ve produced for a number of up and coming rappers – how did those relationships come about?
I’ve been blessed to have worked with a bunch of great artists in the past. The first group of artists I seriously started producing for was the Krewe of 77, a rap collective based out of New Orleans. I’ve featured Tim Cross and Burger on my album ‘alone_’ and have produced for fellow Krewe member Supermane as well. I met Melrose through the Krewe as well. He’s both a rapper and a producer. The dude is a genius. We’ve been trying to link up and create a duo for a while, but we both just have a lot on our plate. He’s crushing it in Texas right now though and has started his own label/collective called Mishima.
The next serious artist I managed to link up with was Juego The Ninety. He was in Baltimore at the time and I reached out over Soundcloud after coming across his music. I sent him a demo or too and he immediately vibed with the beats which I was super happy about. I produced two songs off his “Abandoned Mansions” project, including the intro track so I was honored to have worked with him. Connecticut rapper Lonny X reached out to me via Twitter one day and we’ve been homies ever since. He hopped on two of my beats from ‘alone_’ which came out really nicely and I think I have a cut or two with him in the pipeline. After that, I’ve started to link up with a bunch of rappers from the UK like Louis Culture, and Lord Apex. I produced a cut for Louis Culture’s upcoming rap project which I’m psyched about, and am sending Lord Apex beats all the time. Finally, 1234 member dylAn reached out to me a few months ago on Twitter and we just started chatting about music. I mentioned that I was working on an album and he was down to be a part of it. Fast forward to a few weeks before I dropped ‘Otaku’ and I made this interlude beat as the second half to the song “Blossom” and knew that he would sound dope on it. I sent it through and after it came together, managed to become one of my favorite tracks on the album.
KM: You’ve found yourself a bit of a cult following on the internet – why do you think that is?
I was blessed to have my track “Fantasy” from my Venus EP go semi viral on Soundcloud. The song has kind of taken on a life of its own and has its own following to it almost. It’s funny because when I made that my junior year in college, right before I released the Venus EP, I never thought twice about it. That was one of the first lofi tracks I ever made and just prayed that people would like the project overall. I know it’s sloppy but it’s also kind of pure in that sense. Spirited Away is also one of my favorite films and I just wanted to pay homage to it. I just wanted the track to invoke that sense of longing and nostalgia, which is why I think people vibe with it. At least for me, it gets me out of my own head and transports me to a different place, which I mentioned above is really important to me when making music. Anyway Miyazaki is a genius and I’m just really happy that people liked it.
KM: Your latest release ‘Otaku’, has been met with critical acclaim. Can you talk us through the themes you explore in the album?
I’m not sure if there is a central theme running through the project like there was on my first album ‘alone_’, which really explored the theme of missing an ex or thinking about the girl who got away. ‘alone_’ acted as a sort of catharsis for me. I was just in a really intense period of my life. Which is kind of why I don’t consider ‘Otaku’ my sophomore album, and the reason I didn’t make an extremely detailed “notes” section or extensive .pdf pamphlet that I usually do with my albums. But don’t get me wrong, ‘Otaku’ is still a very important project to me. I took off the previous summer to study beatmaking so it was sort of a victory lap for me and an opportunity to be taken seriously as a beatmaker. Some songs still explore a similar theme of missing an ex or the push and pull of a broken relationship, especially tracks like “luvsick (intro)” and “swim.” But the overall theme of the project is that of joy and triumph I think. Bombastic tracks like “irl” ,“blossom”, and “evian” reflect the emotional state of I was in. It kind of symbolized the aforementioned cathartic release and escape of the emotionally darker place in my life I was in while making ‘alone_’. I became that much more confident in my music, my life’s purpose and myself in general.
KM: There’s a significant relationship between Japanese culture and lo fi hip hop. What does that relationship mean to you?
It definitely means a lot to me and I think reflects the attitude/creative output of the producers who embody the aesthetic. To me, it just reinforces the dreamy and nostalgic sound that lofi has because I feel like many of the people in the new lofi wave are just kids who watched toonami when they were younger and have grown up to make music. Since this was around the 1990’s when Dragonball Z and Pokemon helped introduce and commercialize the anime genre to a mass Western audience. I was pretty young when I got into Toonami so every time I see a lofi track on soundcloud with an oldschool anime cover art, I’m immediately transported to those days staying up really late waiting for the new Yu Yu Hakusho episode on Toonami. And the aesthetic was then really cemented when instrumental Japanese hip hop producer Nujabes scored the popular anime Samurai Champloo.
KM: Do you think that the association between manga/anime and hip hop is doing anything to reduce the stigma surrounding being an ‘otaku’?
Yeah definitely. I mean even five years ago anime was still kind of taboo in my high school I’d say. It was still a relatively niche thing and it wasn’t until it started being associated with the Internet based vaporwave and lofi hip hop genres that it started to gain mainstream attention and thus was suddenly cool to like it. And the niche aspect of it is a big part of why it’s cool to like it now. I think people like the feeling that they’re the first to discover something or believe that being anti in general is cool. Either way, Samurai Champloo was a pretty universal anime in my opinion. I remember showing it to friends who didn’t necessarily like anime, but they loved hip hop and they would end up listening to the Nujabes on their way to school. So music definitely made anime accessible to the masses in my opinion, and possibly vice versa. I think both audiences benefited from the marriage.
KM: You released the album with a .txt file explaining what inspired you to write it – why was it important to you to express your intentions to your listeners?
I always try and write some sort of letter and liner notes for my projects. It helps me directly connect with fans, as they can kind of understand the headspace I was in when I made the project. If someone is in a similar position, I’m sure it will help them connect to the music that much more. Like when I made my album ‘alone_’ for example, I’d get monthly messages saying how much they vibed with it because they were in a similar space. A big part of that letter was to let people know that they’re not alone, and walking away from a toxic relationship is necessary even though it hurts like hell. I wanted that album to act like a therapy for myself and for others. I also want to give more insights to listeners. I want them to know what inspired the album, what I was watching, who I was listening to, etc. because if a listener wants to begin producing but doesn’t know where to start (and they want a similar sound), I think it will help point them in the right direction.
KM: What’s next for Killer Bee?
I’m currently working on my next major release which should be released in the summer. The working title right now is “seeed of life.” I’m thinking of making it a trilogy with “fruit of life” and “flower of life” being the other two in the series. Other than that, I have a beat tape full of loosies and other secret demos called “Late Night Ramen” (a nod to bsd.u) which should be out at the end of the month, and I’ve also been blessed to get a monthly residency at Father Knows Best in Bushwick for the NYC artist collective Ishin Lab that my homie Sum Total and I started, which showcases emerging local lofi hip hop beatmakers/rappers and DJs.
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