Your group album Ridin’ High is now out. First things first, how did you come up with the concept for the album?
Keelay: We sat down and we actually wanted to do something really conceptual, almost like Prince of Thieves. But we just started talking back and forth and we came up with a lot of ideas but this was the hottest one. After “On Swerv,” that’s one of my favorite joints, that’s when we came up with the concept of it. And we were talking about it and Zaire comes out here all the time and I was picking him up from the airport and at first we wrote out a whole concept for the album but as we were making the whole album it just sort of turned into more of a theme so we tried to put in little things and little nuances in there to make it seem like you were in the car.
Zaire: It’s not as intricate as a Prince of Thieves-type theme. It’s more general because everybody can understand riding around and listening to music and having things popping off. We have a loose theme but it’s not that loose. We’re just riding around the city and that just explains how we all get down or how we all get down, whether you’re on the East Coast or West Coast.
Whenever I talk to producers who have made a good compilation, they usually shout out Prince of Thieves, which is one of my all-time favorites. From your perspective, what makes Prince of Thieves such a classic album?
Keelay: Man, Prince of Thieves is just such a classic to me. I don’t even know. When I first heard that album that just changed my whole view on the production of an album, for real. It’s an experience, is what it is.
Zaire: I just remember the first time hearing that album, it was immediately special to me. I just like that it was kind of a deep concept. That’s something that I would like to tackle one day, even though we didn’t go that deep with the album. Someday I would like to tackle something that intricate.
Keelay: Yeah. That album wasn’t just a loose concept. There was a lot of detail in every song and skit. It’s like somebody wrote a movie through music. It was just one of those albums that was like a masterpiece. It was like a work of art. I think a lot of beatmakers, they look at that and they recognize how good it was put together. It’s not just going to the lab and making a beat and they send it back to you. Nah. It had to be fitted in. Some parts had to be written and skits had to be written. I thin that shit is cool. I want to get into some shit like that.
How did you guys decide what MCs you wanted on the album and where they would go?
Keelay: I guess when we first started doing it, we kind of just got all the beats together that we wanted to use and all the ideas and song by song, we just kind of picked it out. We wanted to get this person here and Phonte on this joint, Blu on this joint. We just kind of reached out to people. It didn’t work out exactly how we drew it out and some people we weren’t able to get at and some people fell through. We had verses that we didn’t use because it didn’t fit the concept that we wanted but in the end, I think we’re happy with how it turned out.
Zaire: For the most part, most of the cats came through. These are guys that we talk to on the web a lot. Some folks didn’t come through because of the agendas and the stuff that they have going on. At the end of the album, we’re really proud of it and we have a product that we really enjoy. And there were some verses that we didn’t really use because of the concepts but it came out right and the concept grew as time went on and I know I’m proud of it.
What song are you most proud of off Ridin’ High?
Keelay: My favorite, I would say the song that I was most excited about making happen, was “On Swerv” with Tash. I was excited to even get Tash on the album, because I was a huge Alkaholiks fan for a long time and Tash was always one of my favorites out of that group so for me that was just crazy.
Zaire: “On Swerv” is probably currently my favorite song on that album. The song is just ridiculous because it’s not an average party song but it shows exactly how we all get down when we all get together. It’s crazy. It’s just about partying. Tash came though to lay his verse and it was some G shit, just on how we kick it. It came out totally ridiculous and it just shows how the squad gets down when we kick it on a regular basis. It’s definitely one of my favorite tracks that we put together.
You guys are located on different coasts and still work together. How do you make it work?
Keelay: I mean, it’s changed a lot since we first started. When we first initially did the album, we got the beats together and decided which joints we would use. As time went on, once we started getting vocals back, we really started changing everything up. We would send a session back and forth, however many times we needed to. That’s kind of when we started collaborating and we knew it was a good process that we had going on and we were going to continue to try to do it that way. At this time, Zaire is out here quite often, but when that’s not happening we just start off with a raw skeleton and go from there or he might finish a whole beat or I might. But once we get into song mode, we’re sending songs back and forth.
Zaire: Exactly. When we both work on beats, we’ll send them back and forth and when it’s time to work on a song we’ll change the whole thing up with the composition of it or live keys or guitar or live bass. We try to make it a complete song instead of a beat and a rapper or a beat and a singer. We kind of mastered that process. We have to master it because I’m out here in the East and he’s out in the West. It works.
How did you guys get your start in production?
Keelay: I started actually DJing out in Utah and then pretty much right before I moved to California is when I started making beats. That’s kind of where it all started. Once I moved out to Southern California then I just didn’t even want to DJ anymore. I just wanted to make beats. I guess I did before I moved but the addiction to wanting to make beats started right when I moved to Cali.
Zaire: I’m out in Newport News, VA right now. I needed up out here because of a job and whatnot. I initially wanted to be a DJ and I got a couple of tables and I started practicing cuts and all that. It was a lot of work. Respect to all the DJs out there, for real. My tables came with a sampler and I started looping up samples and just learning beats and throwing drums behind them. I found myself just hooked to it, man. I was in internet forums, met up with Keelay, and it was on from there.
How are the two of you influenced by the different sounds in each of your regions?
Zaire: I know for one that we are both fans of different kinds of music. Keelay listened to hardcore hip-hop and I didn’t get into hardcore hip-hop until ’99. I was brought up on R&B. We have appreciation for a lot of music and that appreciation opens a lot of doors for all types of collaborations and it makes it real easy. We can get down on some R&B or some boom-bap hip-hop. That comes from our appreciation and working together is real easy and we have some of the same influences as far as producing like Pete Rock, Primo and Dilla and all those usual suspects. But yeah, we use all that. We bring all of that in and we hit a lot of the same spots with this music and it’s real easy to work together because of all our influences and even our different backgrounds and come-ups. We also have a lot of the same equipment, so that helps too.
How do you decide what you’re going to produce by yourself and what’s going to go into a Keelay and Zaire project?
Keelay: We pretty much do everything as Keelay and Zaire at this point. We used to have a bigger camp and once we started doing the album it just became a collaborative process so we’re really just trying to push Keelay and Zaire as a duo right now. That’s the focus right now.
Can you take us through a detailed making of a Keelay and Zaire beat?
Zaire: Oh, man, Keelay is a lot more technical. I have a much more unorthodox approach every time.
Keelay: I always start with the drums. I’ll just do a real basic drum beat. It depends on what type of a joint you’re making. I’ll just start on the keyboard with an idea. It could be a piano or bass or flute or something. If it’s a sample then I’ll just do the drums and the sample on the MPC. As soon as I get the drums going and I get a basic idea going, I throw it right into Pro Tools and I just start having whatever elements I feel fit, whether it’s keys or bass or a guitar or whatever. I’ll just throw it right into Pro Tools. I just try to get basic skeleton ideas down and just kind of pass it back and forth. The good thing about working with Zaire is that he has different strengths that I have and I think we kind of know what we do well and we play off of that. If it’s an R&B cut I’ll send it to Zaire early and just let him take it from there.
Zaire: My process is unorthodox. I have a Yamaha Motif keyboard and I’ll either play around with the little melodies on the keyboard or I’ll go dig through the wax and look for a sample. Once I get the sample there’s really no next step. Sometimes I’ll go for the drums and other times I’ll go for the bassline and other times I’ll go for the keys or the percussion. I can’t build it by a step-by-step process. I have to kind of see the track in my head. Most of the time I can come up with something that’s close to the idea in my head but sometimes I get exactly what I’m looking for in my head. I’m not real quick with it. My stuff takes awhile to formulate, maybe even a day. Yeah, man, it’s unorthodox and there’s really no steps but the first step is the melody and the sample and just building from there.
What equipment do you use?
Keelay: I have an MPC 1000 and a Motif. I use Pro Tools. I’m trying to get into Logic now just so I can increase my workflow. I got a Micro Korg and all that but that’s pretty much the basis of it right there.
Zaire: I rock with a Yamaha keyboard, an old school joint and a couple of Tech decks. I got the Micro Korg and the Pro Tools, man. We got a vocoder that we need to get more familiar with. I try to keep it simple, man. I like to just rock my keyboard and rock the samples from my tables, man, but sometimes I use the Micro Korg for some bass or some crazy synth sounds. But I want to get more into the digital software like the Logic and all of that.
Where do you want to take the Keelay and Zaire sound in the future?
Keelay: Man, honestly, as far as artists go, I want to obviously want to take it as far as we can and work with some great artists. We’re working on that now. And as far as that goes, the project that just came out, there’s a real aura to us. I want to try to define our sound a little more with just one artist and just try to get out there and work with as many people as possible in all genres, not just hip-hop but in R&B and rock. Whatever we do, I want to have a wide variety of different kinds of styles too.
Zaire: We really want to do a project with one artist to show how versatile we are and to show how artistic we can get. We are beatmakers and producers, per se, but we have ideas and concepts and things that we want to put into these concepts and working with one artist would definitely give us the opportunity to do that and define our sound and solidify some things. So that’s definitely on the horizon.
What’s the next move for Keelay and Zaire?
Keelay: Man, well just really trying to go hard with the album, man. We’re working on trying to get on the road as much as possible. Right now I just want to go out there and just try to promote this record. We got a couple other things lined up as far as projects going on but I don’t really want to jinx them. But I just want to hit as many people as possible at this point and work with people who are fans of what we’re doing. That’s my main goal right now.
Zaire: We want to do as many live shows as possible. Those live shows are fun and we want to go on the road and make as much music as possible in all genres. Being fans of music it’s only right to get out there and get our stamp out there. We’re not just beatmakers but artists in general.