Interview: KJ-52

KJ-52KJ-52 is one of the longest running hip-hop acts in Christian music and if his latest project, Mental, is any indication, he’s not slowing down any time soon. In this latest interview, Soul-Audio sits down with the artist discuss Mental, what it feels like to hear your song on “Monday Night Football,” and the changes within the industry, both good and bad.

Soul-Audio: Let’s start out by talking about the new project, Mental. This was much more an indie project than anything you’ve done before right? What were some of the challenges and maybe freedoms you found doing it this way? 

KJ-52: Well, we’re still under a label; it just so happens to be my manager’s label but we’re still under a label with full distribution and it operates just like any other label but it’s technically independent. So it’s not your traditional record deal setup so, yes, it is very independent, very DIY.

So the benefits? You have total freedom. You’re under no kind of constraints, not that BEC or Tooth & Nail were labels that had me in a stranglehold or anything like that, they were actually very artist friendly, but you’re still in a major label system and with that comes a whole litany of …?

SA: Expectations?

KJ-52: There you go! Nailed it. So, this time around that’s all gone really. We’ve dispenses with just too many chefs in the kitchen, I guess. But at the same time you’re self-funding the whole thing, you’re trying to raise money to do it and are paying for it out of your pocket. It’s all on you. If you win big, you win big. If you lose big, well, you lose big. (Laughs)

SA: So is it a little more pressure then, carrying that load yourself?

KJ-52: Yeah, well, we’ve been operating like this for a long time. I mean, I saw the writing on the wall years ago as far as where the music industry was going so I began to take steps, I want to say about seven years ago, to really doing it as if there wasn’t anybody. But it’s not really shocking or scary but you really have to push it harder than you ever did.

SA: Now you got the chance to work a bit with Solomon Olds, or Soul Glow Activatur, as his producer moniker goes on this outing. What did he bring to the table?

KJ-52: You know, honestly, he changed the whole course of the record. We were just sort of puttering along like normal and then he was like, “Hey, I’d love to work together on something” and I’d been sitting on a track and a concept that I was just stuck on, because I do a lot of self-producing. But we met up in Atlanta in a hotel room and I played it for him and I was amazed at how fast he took the concept and really fleshed it out. For lack of a better term, it was like I was digging up diamonds but they were diamonds in the rough and they needed some polish to make them shine. And you need somebody to do that and that’s exactly what he did. And that became “Mental” and we just felt the new energy on the song and we were like, this is something to keep pursuing.

So it took it from a full length to an EP, basically, and even though he only ended up doing two, those two were the catalysts for the record.

SA: Is that a collaboration that you see happening again in the future?

KJ-52: Absolutely.

SA: One of the big pieces of news that’s come out of this project is in your track “Tonight” getting picked up for “Monday Night Football.” What does that feel like to hear your song on such an iconic broadcast? Is it surreal?

KJ-52: Well, in some ways yes but I’ve had placements before; it’s not my first time. I’ve had placements on CBS “Cold Case” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and ironically, a vitamin company down in Australia during the Olympics picked up one of my random side project songs and shot it up to number one in Australia. So with those things, it’s not super weird.

But “Monday Night Football” is weird for me because I used to watch it all the time growing up and I played football in high school and all of that. And the difference was, they didn’t just pick it up for one time but basically for the next eight weeks. So it’ll keep showing up.

And yeah, my Mom came over and my wife stayed up, plus she is pregnant so we was barely hanging on waiting for it to happen and then we all kind of thought it wasn’t going to happen and then it came on. And they used it on this clip of a guy dropping a pass and I was like, “Well, that’s very ironic for my football career!”  (Laughs)

SA: That track also showed a different side of you, with you taking on a more traditional vocal role. How’d that change come about? Was it a daunting task or…?

KJ-52: You know, the funny thing is, it was the first song that I did and I was working with a guy named Andy Sheridan, who plays keys for Hunter Hayes, and it didn’t happen for any other reason than that the song just dictated what it became. I remember messing around with the track, messing around with an idea, getting kind of stuck, then taking it, fleshing it out, going back and forth with the song, and before we knew it, that’s just kind of what came out. It wasn’t a convoluted process or any particular idea, I kind of just let the track speak for itself. It was like, if this needs something melodic and with singing, then that’s what I do.

That’s really where it came from and it’s funny that it was the first song that I did. Because it usually doesn’t work that way. Usually you’re at the tail end of the record and you’re scrambling for a single and forcing something that’s done for the sake of sales and that’s just not how it happened. We were just really surprised that that’s the one they picked. I mean, it’s not “Gameface” which is totally based around a sporting event but you just can’t predict what’s going to stick. That’s just the nature of it.

KJ52bSA: For me, one of the top tracks on the record was “The Island of the Misfit Toys.” Could you maybe speak to the inspiration and the heart behind that track a bit?

KJ-52: It’s funny because I started doing that in my set just recently and I haven’t seen a song connect or go into a ministry time more powerful since “Dear Slim” back in the day. And it’s really elevated the whole show because of that.

The original impetus for the song is that I was watching a movie called “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” it’s based on a book, and there’s this little throwaway scene where this guy joins this group of outcasts at the high school. And he’s got a lot of issues in his past and the group that he joins is a bunch of “misfits,” for lack of a better term. They propose a toast to him and Emma Watson leans over to him and she says, “Welcome to the island of the misfit toys.”

The way that it was phrased just stuck with me. And I’m a big phrase guy and get ideas like that all the time and I just liked the way that sounded and the more that I began to work on it the more I thought that this is indicative of where most of us are at. We want our own little island of people that are like-minded or just as broke as we are and we want to find safe haven in that. I really wanted to hit just about every people group possible on this song, which I can never do but that was my idea. Just to hit them with this underlying idea that “You are loved.” And that’s where it went from there.

And Social Club is a group out of Fort Lauderdale who I’d just recently met and that’s a big thing that they emphasize within their crew and their fan base, the misfits and the misfit gang, all that stuff and it just made sense to partner up on a song. And SPZRKT, his vocals just fit that song and that idea really well.

SA: That’s cool, man. It’s just one of those songs that really seems to hit home and that really comes with some extra passion from you all the way around.

KJ-52: Yeah, and here’s the thing because that verse is my story. You know, that first verse is my story summed up in sixteen bars, know what I mean?

SA: Now you mentioned some of the collaborations you have on this album, in addition to those with Lecrae and more here. That spirit of collaboration is found on hip-hop records now more than ever and especially more than in just about any other genre. What is it about this genre that invites that kind of collaboration?

KJ-52: Well, it wasn’t always that way. I mean, early hip hop wasn’t as about that as much as it is now but it’s still kind of been there. I think a lot of it speaks to the idea of when something comes from a street-level, you know, you need your homies to survive in a lot of ways. There’s strength in numbers so a lot of the collaborations probably came from that initially. But I think what started to happen is that now, because it became so well known for that, it’s just expected.

And I’ve never been one to run with what everybody else is doing. (Laughs) I’ve always sort of run counter current to it. But a lot of it for me was going, “What does this song need?” If it felt like it needed something, then I went and got it. If it didn’t, I didn’t. But I think also from a fan base standpoint, I listen to my fans quite a bit and maybe one of the complaints that they had was that I didn’t do a lot of songs with a lot of other rappers. So I was like, “Okay, there’s going to be a ton of them on this record!” (Laughs)

A lot of this project is a return to where I started. Because of the way the nature of the genre is, it’s changed. Its way more accepted than when I started so there’s a lot more freedoms than I used to have. You know I was, for lack of a better term, tied down in the market.

SA: I’m really glad you bring that up because I wanted to ask you, in your years of doing this, what are some of those changes you’ve seen as the years have gone by? And are they positive changes?

KJ-52: Man, it’s night and day in a lot of ways. I think that the main thing is that the powers that be are way more readily accepting of it. Mainly because the powers that be have gotten older, I should say they used to be younger and now they’ve gotten older, so now they’re in places of influence.

SA: Kind of like the tides have shifted and they’re the guys that grew up with some hip hop as they were younger and now are saying, “Hey, we can work with this.”

KJ-52: Right! They’re the ones that are now parents with mortgages and bills but they’re also the radio programmers and the press. It’s just that hip hop as a generation has grown up. So that shapes and influences the ability for it to be accepted and you see that with what’s happening now.

I spent the first part of my career just trying to survive, trying to get by, because the power structures weren’t there. That’s part of the problem. But like I said, that’s changed, its better, and it only has room to go up.

SA: Do you see that across the board, through the mainstream and the CCM community?

KJ-52: Oh, yeah! It’s definitely across the board. I think probably what’s happened on the mainstream side is that with sales taking such a heavy decline, you still have this sort of sub-genre that is continuing to sell. And that’s making them sit up and take notice because it’s really just an economic thing. It’s the same reason why you see this influx of faith-based films in theaters. It’s not because Hollywood all of a sudden got saved. It’s because less people are going to theaters and they’re going, “Well, how can we get people to go back to theaters? Well, Christians will go out to the theater if it’s something that speaks to their faith.”

So that’s the same thing that’s happening here, is that the mainstream goes, “Dang, these dudes are outselling us, we can’t sell anything anymore; maybe we should give this some shine or maybe we can find some money to be made in it.”

SA: So does that then affect the art being made then?

KJ-52: Of course. Absolutely and without question.

SA: Just looking back, if you had to tell your younger self some words of wisdom, what would you say to yourself knowing what you do now?

KJ-52: Put aside money for taxes, I’d definitely say that. (Laughs) Don’t pay full price for that minivan. I would’ve said, hang on, because all your hard work will win out in the end and that you’re not alone and you are going to impact a lot of people if you’ll say faithful and diligent. But truth be told, I remember having a clear conversation way back then with my then producer who essentially said to me, “If you’re willing to compromise or make concessions on the front end, you’ll get what you want in the long run.” And so there’s a lot of things I did on the front end, trusting, even though it was against my set of wishes or artistic pride, whatever you want to call it, that I can honestly say that now I’ve benefited from. It was true.

But when I came in, the standard was dcTalk. That was what “Christian rap” was ascribed to. That was the idea, the template. Because there was no template. Everybody was star trekking and trying to figure it out as we went along. And now, as you said, it’s kind of come full circle so I’ve been able to come back, just come back to where I started in a lot of ways.

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