June 1, 2017

kami

Since his early days in the SAVEMONEY collective, KAMI has used rap to find his place in the world. Inspired by Andre 3000, David Bowie, and Stanley Kubrick, the Chicago makes a compelling argument against things being able to be classified by Spotify genre. See his new album Just Like The Movies, where he obliterates the divide between rapper, singer, and director

Executive-produced by Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double Knox Fortune, the new project takes a page from the leather-jacket-cool of the ’80s. Heavy synths and stuttered rhythms imitate neon signs pulsing while KAMI lays down his new wave inspired vocals. While his 2012 tape LIGHT and his Leather Corduroys duo with Joey Purp have him spitting bars with a near-screaming fervor, Just Like The Movies finds KAMI taking a liberating detopur into singing.

Exploring the innate love and beauty of duality, we get lost in the whirl of an all white party on “Miami White Limousines.” Later, we attempt to find ourselves within the double meaning of the hook on “Feel Better.” Even the structure of the album has a binary nature. The melodic 80s cuts comprise the first half, with stormy and distorted raps comprising the second.

All good movies leave us wishing the characters were real and so this album also features a strong main character: an amalgamation’ of who KAMI is as a person. He’s trying to create a character that stays with the audience long after the screening.

We spoke on the phone about using music to make memories, the cool factor of the ’80s, the art and dangers of curation, and the potential of a mother-son clothing line. —Donna-Claire


What role did music play in your childhood?


KAMI: You always get music from your parents when you’re a child. I traveled a lot, because my mom needed help raising me for a little bit. And everywhere you go, there’s music. So music helped me form memories. Music is a way to remember things in a situation where I wasn’t ever really in one place. Just hearing my mom play Sting is one of my earliest memories.


Do you have certain genres that you associate with certain memories?


KAMI: Well I was born in Chicago, but then I moved to Ghana to live with my grandmother, because my mother couldn’t really support me at the time. I remember when I came back, what she was listening to was Sting and The Police. So the first form of memory I have is coming back from Ghana and being in the car with my mom, and listening to that. You know, when you grow up you wonder, ‘how did I even know this song?’ Then it’s, ‘oh damn, that’s the reason why!’


You’ve had some name changes over the years, so what prompted the shift from Kami de Chukwu to KAMI?


KAMI: The simplicity, really. I just think that was also me changing. I like things to be very simple now. The Kami de Chukwu thing was me overthinking, and KAMI is me making things simple and accessible.


A lot of people know you from the SAVEMONEY collective and I read that you described the dynamic of the group as a really healthy competition. How is the relationship with the rest of the SAVEMONEY crew now?


KAMI: The same, you know, it’s like any group of friends. You guys always want each other to succeed, but you’re also fighting to be the best. I don’t think it’s like a direct competition. I don’t think any of us would stop the other from doing something, but everybody does want to outdo each other. It’s good, because it adds to the creativity. It inspires different ways for us to create.


Leather Corduroys is your boundary breaking duo with Joey Purp, what’s the backstory behind the duo’s formation?


KAMI: Who’s Joey? Nah, I’m just playing. Joey and I have always been similar in thinking, but just like any of my other friends, we’re different in the process of how we get to our thoughts. We end up agreeing on a lot of things, but a lot of our core values are completely different.

When we started rapping together, Vic was doing what he was doing and Chance was doing what he was doing, then I started making music. We were all ushering Joey to make music, telling him ‘you gotta start rapping.’ Once he started, me and him were in the same position and it was natural because we hang out every day. So then it was like ‘let’s call our shit Leather Cords,’ just something that’s extremely hot. Leather and Corduroys.


Now that you guys are doing solo projects, are we going to get a follow up to Season or is Leather Corduroys in the background?


KAMI: Man, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, it’s like built in. The friendship is never over. We don’t know when we’re going to do that shit, but we’re gonna do that before we die.


I want to talk about the the evolution from LIGHT to the Leather Corduroys projects to Just Like The Movies. What prompted this evolution from raw raps to the more melodic cuts?


KAMI: Breathing and being alive. I just changed. I grew up listening to everything and taking everything in. That’s just the type of person I am. I like to find a way to appreciate everything that can be appreciated, so I don’t like to kind of stick to one thing in general. I’m not on some ‘I’m an artiste’ shit. I just like to channel how I’m feeling through music.

I don’t necessarily have an allegiance to one sound. I know it’s sometimes hard for people to embrace that change, because they can’t define this. Not everybody has the time or attention span to try and define one person. So it might be to a detriment that not everything is going to be consistent, but it’s all going to be good music. I’m going to try my hardest to convey whatever message, or wherever my life is at, through this music. So it will be consistently good in that way.


Speaking of message, you once said you wanted your music to help people realize that duality and adaptability are cool. How did those two ideals help shape the record?


KAMI: I came to that conclusion or that idea when we first made the first few joints on the album like “Home Movies” and “Scene Girl” and all the—I kind of hate to say it—the ’80s joints. I thought it was so cool, because up until that point I was a rapper. That was what I knew how to do, and that was how I expressed myself. This was me taking that leap into something else. It shouldn’t just be, ‘oh, this is rap’ or, ‘oh, this isn’t rap;’ it’s probably still hip-hop. However you want to classify it, because I don’t really think genres are out of date. They’re not unnecessary, but some things just can’t be classified as what a Spotify playlist would tell you.

The duality of things is very important. In the world, any time there’s been a duality, something beautiful comes out of it: peace treaties, compromises, interracial relationships, or anything that progresses past any type of singularity. There’s an innate love in duality.


I imagine being able to write songs to be sung is more liberating.


KAMI: It’s very liberating to be able to have the experience in one thing while trying another. So those two things complementing each other, that’s a great feeling. ‘Very great!’ [in a Donald Trump voice].


In an old interview with Joey you mentioned being a rapper because you felt obligated to be one. Could you elaborate on that?


KAMI: Rap is something that I’ve been using to save my life, you know? I don’t really have any other options. It’s just that simple. It was out of necessity of using something that I knew that I could do, and use to convey a message, and then finding my place in the world. I found my place through rap, and I’ll always find it through rap, and that’s never going to change.


I know you don’t want to call them the ‘’80s joints,’ but I do hear a lot of new wave on Just Like The Movies. Where did these new wave influences come from?


KAMI: To keep it simple: God. I think that being a ’90s kid and everything being available, everything that was already archived, was shit from the ’80s. So you ended up watching all these things that defined your definition of ‘cool,’ and innately the ’80s were always cool. That’s when The Jetsons were around, and robots, and as a kid that’s what appealed to you.

All of this space-age and new wave type things in the movies and the music, that was the foundation of what was cool. Personally, I just started associating the sound of the ’80s as synonymous with cool. So when I started doing something besides rap, that was the first thing I gravitated towards: these melodic ballad-y type things.


Have you been interested in incorporating new wave for a while?


KAMI: I wouldn’t say for a while. I have always been interested in what I’ve been interested in for the moment. It was more of a serendipity type thing, and we just executed it well.


Knox Fortune played a big role in the album’s sound, so what’s the working relationship like with him?


KAMI: Daniel Radcliffe and I have a great relationship.


Oh, man, you’re right. He does look like Daniel Radcliffe.


KAMI: Yeah, so I don’t know who Knox Fortune is, but I know that the next Harry Potter movie will be one big music video. But anyway, when we were making the project, it’s so easy for us to reference and understand each other and direction. That’s the biggest thing that Knox is a genius at: being able to understand direction, give direction, and take direction. That really ties into the whole scheme of the project with the movies. Knox is a magical person.


Did you run through a few sounds before you settled on the aesthetic on the album?


KAMI: Yeah, because you have to think. I’ve been working with Knox even before, and we made all this music. We’ve probably made music over the past two or three years. This project was me curating the best 13-tracks. Maybe when we made certain songs, we tried to make songs to complement them. But there was no drawing board that said, ‘we have to make this type of music.’ When we made a type of music that we liked, we just made more of it naturally. It just makes sense to do more of something that you like.


Speaking of curation, after working on a project for so long, how do you remove your emotions and evaluate the album critically before releasing it?


KAMI: It’s weird because there was this one song, and it wasn’t even an ’80s type tune, that we made. This one song was like the lovechild or the brainchild of the project. It was the most sentimental song on the project. It was called “Tropico,” and after we made that song we knew we had to make a whole project. But that song didn’t even make it on the project. In the scheme of things, we couldn’t get it mixed the way I wanted it to be. And curating and formatting things is so important to me. That goes into direction. It’s so important to have things juxtaposed the right way, because that changes how people receive it, as in any form of art. If something is shifted, it might make people appreciate it in a different type of way. That’s fine, too. But the way that I wanted people to appreciate it is how I formatted the project.

If you pay close attention, I put all of the ’80s joints at the start of the project. So tracks two to five are the more heavy synth, new wave type of tracks. Right after the interlude is the more traditional rap shit. I’m rapping on all of the songs on the second half of the album. I’m not really singing at all, except for on “Feel Better.” I wanted it to be a dual thing, you know? There’s two sides, so you have to pay attention.


On “Foundation” you’re rapping with that raw passion that marked your earlier work. Can you talk about the importance of rawness as an aesthetic in your music?


KAMI: That’s just the only way I know how to convey emotions. Especially with rap, I’ve always had a more raw style. It’s just the easiest way for me to do that. Most of the time, if I want to rap about something past a 16-bar voice, it actually means something to me. So, that’s just how it’s going to come out: with my voice a little louder, and that’s just the emotion. I’m not trying to scream at anyone like Meek Mill, but at the same time, I definitely want people to hear what I’m saying.


You also touched on my favorite track “Feel Better,” where you’re talking about using vices to get over dark times. I also hear a duality in that. What exactly were you trying to feel better about while writing the song?


KAMI: When I wrote that song, I was feeling bad. The name of the song, when I first wrote it, was “Feeling Bad.” But that wasn’t the message I wanted for the song, you know, I wanted people to walk away from it feeling better. Even the hook, I tried to write it with two interpretations. So it’s “feeling bad never felt better,” no comma and also “feeling bad[,] never felt better,” with the comma. The first interpretation would be that actually feeling bad never has you feeling better. Then the second would be, I am happy feeling bad right now.


What kind of good can you pull out of feeling bad?


KAMI: A lot. I think you get time to reflect while you feel bad, and you get time to change. So it gives you an opportunity to be with yourself, and a lot of people aren’t with themselves in the right way. A lot of people feel like it’s a lot of other people’s fault that they feel the way they do. Maybe certain people are the catalyst for why you feel the way you do, but ultimately it’s up to you to take all of that and process it. Then you continue. You always will feel better. Even in the worst situations, things only shift one of two ways. Generally speaking, if you hit the bottom of things, there’s only one way to go.


Did it take you a long time to learn to be that optimistic?


KAMI: It’s hard to be optimistic in the world right now. You almost feel like a fool being optimistic, but I think that’s the point. I think the point is to find happiness and joy in everything that you can. So when you’re sad, it’s natural and you accept it. But you have to look for reasons to be happy.


Let’s pivot and discuss the title. You mentioned that ‘Everybody has an interesting life, no matter what’ and that anything can be made to look entertaining. With how easy it is to share and curate life now, do you see any danger in life and art becoming synonymous?


KAMI: Life and art have always been synonyms, it’s like the phrase ‘life imitates art.’ It’s just becoming more apparent. Not to get too political, but look at Donald Trump becoming president. This is a time in life where things are, for lack of a better term, memeable. Things that are memes kind of dictate and curate what we are talking about, and what we are about. All the way to the point where somebody who is a meme and is not looked at as serious, because they’re this whole caricature of themselves, becomes something serious. This is just how we’re processing information now. So to a blind eye, if you don’t put what’s real to you in your art and everything is synthetic, that’s just what the world is going to turn into. The world will just become an imitation.

Now more than ever, I think we have a responsibility to make sure our art is indicative of what is real life. You can’t subscribe to everybody else’s ideas so blindly. We really have to try to convey our own messages. It is very dangerous that life and art are so connected.


Where do you think we find the balance between the actual lived experience and the art we produce as a result?


KAMI: We need more genuineness. People just aren’t genuine anymore. If you think about the period of time before broadband internet or DSL, just before the internet was so accessible people had no choice but to convey what they went through in that day, that week, or that year. Now, you can get information straight from Future or whoever, without even buying his record. You can stream six records in a day if you want to, which is beautiful because it’s a great progression. But everything has its faults.

Now people are just hearing whatever they want to hear, so they’re curating and imitating that art. People are trying to be these people, not being themselves. They’re trying to be a personification, because those people obviously have a real essence to themselves. So what anyone is personifying is at least a layer removed, they’re just personifying one aspect of an artist and making that their whole person. That’s why you get the same thing repackaged, microwaved, and given back to you over and over.


The sound on your album is very genuine, and as a result your record doesn’t fit the moniker of ‘Chicago hip-hop’ that people are so quick to slap on a project. How has the Chicago scene received it?


KAMI: The local scene has actually really shown me love. It’s actually pretty funny, because if it’s some shit that’s different or hard to understand, people are like, ‘no, that shit’s different.’ You know, I think different is cool. I think people have shown me love, because I think you can hear how genuine I was trying to be with it. There was no point where I did something because of something else on that project. Like I told you, there was a song that didn’t even end up on the project because it wasn’t as genuine as the song that I replaced it with.


I read up on your phase where you made twenty tracks that sound like Future.


KAMI: Yeah! Even with the Leather Cords shit, we were just rapping like other people. We did go back and make sure it wasn’t super imitation heavy. Really, I just wanted to find myself through this album. I wanted everything to be me. People love to categorize things. When I first showed people the ’80s records or some of the other records, they said, ‘this is some Kid Cudi shit.’ I love Kid Cudi, I really do. Somebody tweeted me the other day saying, ‘you’re like the new old Kanye.’ Why can’t I really just be me? I’m sure Kanye or Kid Cudi or Future don’t want me to be them, they’re already themselves. Why can’t I just be me? People need to get over trying to make so many comparisons and just accept the fact that things are the way they are.


To me, the title reads like a bit of wish—wishing to escape life either like a movie character or right into a film. What role did longing or escapism play in the making of the album?


KAMI: Yo! I never really thought about it like that, but that’s so true. Even just the reason why people make movies, it’s to escape. So escapism must play into it. Even if it’s based on a true story, it definitely still has that element of romanticizing or exaggerating to portray a story. There’s always a sense of escapism in music.

Music, at its root form, is like a type of therapy. I think that subconsciously, I definitely wanted to portray my life the same way that they would get it if they sat down to watch a movie. At the end of the movie, they feel a certain way about the main characters. Those characters stay with them the rest of their life: Simba from The Lion King, Buzz from Toy Story, Tony Montana, Jack from The Shining, Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut. All of these different characters just stick with you, because you watched these movies and now you almost wish they were real.


What do you want your ‘viewers’ to walk away thinking about your character?


KAMI: That’s the thing. The character I put on the album is an amalgamation of me. I wouldn’t call it a character, but what I would want people to walk away with is Kene. That’s my real name. I want people to know me through my music. Maybe earlier I just wanted to rap like Lil Wayne, because that’s what inspired. But now, I’m finding inspiration in life. I hope the character that I create showcases that, or even just the art that I make. I want my art to always be a reflection of myself.


Is there a specific reason why your eyes are closed on the cover, maybe related to character?


KAMI: It’s a loose reference to my favorite movie at the time, which was Eyes Wide Shut by Kubrick. So that got me thinking about that phrase. It was also about how people always say the eyes are kind of the windows to the soul. I thought that as a little fucked up. First of all, I already know my soul. Second, when are you creating memories with yourself? When you’re out and walking around, you’re creating memories with other people. When you’re dreaming or thinking, that’s when you form memories with yourself. Your dreams are literally things that you remember, that also help define you. So I thought when my eyes are closed, that’s the image that will convey the idea of reflection. I wanted to be self-reflective on my album cover.


It does look like you’re lost in a feeling.


KAMI: We were trying to take the picture, and I wanted to smile and stop smiling before the picture is taken. When you’re reflecting, you go through a lot of emotions. You’re never feeling anything definitive, like you can be mad and then someone can make you laugh. So I wanted to get that across, too.


Were there any other movies were you watching, or were inspiring you, while you were recording the album?


KAMI: I watched this movie called The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s just this really weird art film. The movie doesn’t really have a plot. It’s about this character that goes through this journey—actually I don’t want to ruin the movie for you, that would be petty. It’s essentially about this character that goes through the movie wanting something, but in the end he only wants that thing because of other people’s perception. The whole movie is about finding his own value. That was the base message in the movie.

I was also super into David Bowie, because he was a person who was always able to reinvent himself and his sound. He even created characters. So I thought, ‘that’s how I want my life to be like.’ Or like Andre 3000 being able to just live his life, and when he feels like it, he does something great every time he does it.


The videos for “Home Movies” and “Scene Girl” capture the essence of the album with their color palette and diner/club settings. What was the process of putting these videos together when you have an album that is so driven by aesthetic?


KAMI: Me and my director, Andre Muir, we just go over there and just talk about these things. We’re just aware of, with each song, how we want sounds to look. The first one, “Home Movies,” was the most ’80s sounding on the album. So we had to get the colors looking right, and let’s just be a boyband. We take our time with things. I like to take my time and make sure that it’s the best possible work I can do.


What are you most excited about in future music videos?


KAMI: I’m just excited in general. I’m really trying to get into direction. I’m stoked to be able to be part of that process.


You previously mentioned you don’t want to use this record to soundtrack a short film you’re working on, but can we get some insight on how that project is going?


KAMI: We wrote the script already; I’ve written it with Andre. First, I need to find a way to actually produce this, you know, I gotta get some money. From an idea standpoint, it’s not that I don’t want the album to soundtrack it, I just don’t like the idea of a glorified music video. I’m not trying to make a 20 minute music video, I’m trying to shoot a short film. If I wasn’t doing music right now, I’d be doing film. So I want this to be more film, rather than associated with music. I might not even want it to go through all the connections I have through music. I might just put it out and see what it does.


Speaking of film and directing, what other artistic avenues are you looking to branch out into?


KAMI: Whatever I’m feeling. I haven’t really premeditated that. The whole idea of SAVEMONEY when we were younger was clothes, because that was a passion for us. It evolved into just art in general. I kind of want to brand myself more. I think the most inviting industry that I can lend myself to without just calling any shots is fashion. I’ve always appreciated fashion. I get a lot of inspiration just from the people in the industry. People like Rei Kawakubo, and when Helmut Lang was still designing. I’ve always been super fascinated with the idea, especially because my mom is a fashion designer. I can watch her go buy yards of fabric and turn that into clothing that we all wear on a daily basis. That’s a beautiful art to me.


Are we going to get a mother-son fashion collection?


KAMI: I’ve been trying to get her to do that for so long! Now that I’m on iTunes she’s like, ‘let’s do it!’ So, hopefully. I want to study her, or maybe she has to teach me for a while. Then I can convey my ideas to her better.