An Interview With KEY!

Olivier Lafontant speaks to the Atlanta emcee about being raised by a single dad who was a teenager, embracing his city's scene and always putting on for them, learning to create while sober and more.
By    October 17, 2023

Photo by Olivier Lafontant

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Olivier Lafontant recently added 5 years of his life by eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

As soon as KEY! arrives at Two Hands, a plush cafe in Williamsburg, he vicariously orders an iced coffee via his publicist, Kevin. Meeting the soft, muted gaze of the 32-year-old Atlanta rap anchor, it seems he’s half-tethered to the loose ephemera tickling the back of his mind.

Nearly 15 years into a fruitful, peculiar, and idiomatic rap career, KEY! remains eager to reinvent himself. A track record that’s outlasted late-aughts Blog Era rap cliques, mythological SoundCloud medleys of the mid-2010s, and post-COVID postmodern swag music is not easy to find. By way of his uninhibited, larger-than-life vocal gymnastics, he’s drunk from the same glasses as pop culture’s most consequential cross-bearers: A$AP Rocky and AWGE well before the Cozy Tapes, J. Cole and Dreamville for ROTD III, Playboi Carti through shared roots in Atlanta––even Post Malone when he cosplayed as a rapper. Where cursory emcees have been chewed up and spat out, KEY! has mutated and doubled his shelf life.

Marquis, his new project released in August, is an exercise in putting your hometown on a pedestal. KEY! acts as a bridge between underground Atlanta’s past and present, creating a space where ManMan Savage’s sludgy drawl can coexist with Bear1boss’ raw, acid-washed buoyancy. KEY! himself is characteristically expressive, but more poignant, polished, and premeditated in front of production from DJ Marc B. Standout “Legit” sounds like it would make the most sense flooding out of TV speakers after beating your brother in a game of NFL Street, and I mean this in the most endearing way possible. This whole record is rooted in the charisma and clarity of a tenured veteran high-stepping into the end zone.

Dudes posturing themselves as hip-hop purists will try to tell you the genre is dying––KEY! is reminding us to look further inwards. Every regional pocket is a crown jewel.

I’ve been watching The Wire over the past couple weeks, and it got to that scene near the end when Mike kills Snoop. He has that line where he’s talking with her back and forth, and I’m like ‘Damn, that sounds hella familiar.’”

KEY!: Yeah, it’s on “The Bitch Freestyle.”

Yeah and I was tryna figure out what song it was for mad long! How was The Wire influential on your career?

KEY!: When I was a teenager, my dad made me watch that shit ‘cause I was getting in trouble. So he was kinda tryna show me where you would end up, and how you could be replaced, and how the world revolves in a circle. It was kinda a lesson I learned when I was young. I been watching that show since I was like 12.

Talk to me more about your upbringing with your parents. Looking through the titles of your projects, you reference your parents and loneliness in your childhood.

KEY!: My upbringing is all over the place. My mom left me in the hospital and I went to a foster home after that, but my family came and got me. So I spent a few years in foster care, then I transitioned into being with my dad, and that’s when I met my stepmom. And that’s when she came and took over the mother role. That’s where I got Mothers Are the Blame from, ‘cause it’s like I blamed my mom. It’s like a crutch. I was just tryna put it off on someone. It comes from that.

Me and my dad are really close. He raised me my whole life. He’s kinda young so we kinda relate in a lot of senses. I’m going down another path he could’ve went down.

Did he introduce you to rap music when you were growing up?

KEY!: Yeah, fasho, my dad was young, my dad was a teenager when I was born so I was right there with him all the time. Morehouse campuses and Freakniks, I was with my dad all the time.

You were a kid going to Freakniks?

KEY!: My dad was a teenager but he used to make all the shirts, he used to make the airbrush shirts and shit. Him and his friends, they used to do the jean designs, airbrushing the outfits.

How did the music scene [in Atlanta] when you were a child inform the first styles of your rapping?

KEY!: Really I didn’t wanna start rapping, per say, I was more introduced to the production side of things, like I wanted to make beats and stuff like that. I really got into wanting to rap when music came out that I really related to, like the futuristic era. Rich Kids, Yung LA, Young Dro, and all that. That’s what really got me really wanting to rap ‘cause I could relate to it, it wasn’t like a New York n*gga. I’m not a New York n*gga so I couldn’t relate to that. So when something more relatable came out, it made more sense for me to switch over.

How did coming up in a group of other people (Two-9) influence you as an artist? How did that allow you to grow?

KEY!: We got to link with A$AP early on ‘cause all three of those crews [Two-9 of Atlanta, Odd Future of LA, A$AP Mob of New York] was like a regional––like we all related to each other, so it was easy to clique up. We all had the same vision, kinda. Ever since I met A$AP and them, I’ve kinda been inseparable from them, too, ‘cause it’s really relatable to be around them.

With the Cozy Tapes and AWGE DVDs, that was a real special time. How was that jump from being at home all the time in Atlanta and going to New York with all them?

KEY!: Since I’ve been making music, I’ve been coming to New York frequently. First time I ever got on a plane it was ‘cause of music, so at 18 I was just moving about because of that. I mean the transition ain’t really too much different from Atlanta. I was really culturally shocked with LA more so than coming here.

Why is that?

KEY!: ‘Cause everybody talk different, it’s beaches, it’s hella beautiful. I ain’t ever see that coming from somewhere very country. I welcomed all the attention I was getting.

Before [you were associated with] A$AP Mob, the underground Atlanta scene had Awful Records, OG Maco, even Makonnen came.

KEY!: Makonnen was the first one.

How did you guys develop that sound and what was the energy like around the time?

KEY!: I’d like to say that Makonnen was really hands-on ‘cause he was so weird and his manager had a website for him, and he would post these weird ass videos all the time, but the songs were super dope. And then I hit him up and he already knew who I was, and Mike WiLL linked us. From then on, [Makonnen] introduced me to Awful and stuff like that. Makonnen was very hands-on with me at that time, so I was just following him around at the time.

What is it about Atlanta that you think makes it so that artists can start out together, grow together, and then branch out into being superstars?

KEY!: I think everybody is a fan of each other and we embrace that. If I came from a place where everybody music sucked, I wouldn’t be a fan of it, you know what I’m saying? I think it’s just genuine. “Oh I like this person’s music, so I’ma support it,” and vice versa.

With your new album, are all your features from Atlanta?

KEY!: Yeah, yeah. I like to keep it close and try to shine some exposure on new artists, so that’s what I did with this new project. Longbody Leo is really fresh on the scene, but he’s more so connected to Bear1boss.

I love his verse. That song with Bear is so crazy.

KEY!: Bear got his own entity, he has Hot Sauce Records. So I wanted to bring Leo on one ‘cause he’s a fresh face. Then we got Redd Smash, he from the same neighborhood as me, but he’s a big entity on the East side so I was like “Lemme introduce this person.”

How important do you think it is to hold your city on that pedestal?

KEY!: I feel like I’m lucky to be from Atlanta and lucky to be who I am. I’m not just in it, I’m super a part of it. I don’t know, I feel like it’s an honor, but I didn’t expect it.

With this new album, you named it after your first name, so there’s always gonna be a little bit more of a personal touch to it. Why did you decide to name it that?

KEY!: I named my album Marquis because I wanted to leave my name on something I love, and I love this project, and I love how Atlanta it was. So I wanted to basically sign my signature on my sound and stamp it. ‘Cause as much as it sounds like Atlanta, it still sounds like me.

How long did it take for you to make this project?

KEY!: I probably had this album in the works for the last two years, but I have three projects that I worked through all at one time. So this was the first. You know, I could say it was done a year ago, but I wanna say it wasn’t done until we dropped it.

You talked about how working on 777 [with Kenny Beats] only took you a week. What’s the difference between an album that takes you a week and an album that takes you two years?

KEY!: Well I feel like even though it took me two years to completely put everything together, Kenny Beats is a machine. It took us a week, but he mixed and engineered everything on his own and there’s no telling how long that took. Whereas, on the Marquis album, me and Marc B was so hands-on in the mix and everything so that’s why it took so long. Getting things cleared and all that shit.

With Marc B, I didn’t know about him until listening to this album. You said he was 21 Savage’s tour DJ?

KEY!: Yeah, he’s his personal DJ at all times, he’s on tour with him right now and Drake. But yeah, I heard about him a long time ago ‘cause he had dropped a mixtape with me, 21, and Man Man [Savage]. I guess that’s how he got introduced to 21, too. He told me that he was making beats and I came through to the studio, and it clicked from right there.

How have you felt about the reception to the album?

KEY!: I think it’s amazing. My core following, the cult following, they love it, they appreciate it. I’ve been stopped every second in New York so I guess I’m doing great, I guess it’s doing good.

Personally, I love the intro the most. You sound invigorated and you [come with] different energy. Did you do anything different with your approach to the music, or did it just come naturally?

KEY!: This album is different ‘cause half of it was done before rehab and half of it was done after rehab. I got to challenge myself and try to do it sober and to myself, and find new ways to record. So it was a process of finding yourself within recording.

How was it trying to get to sobriety and what did you learn from that?

KEY!: That it’s not easy. Creative-wise, I thought I needed to be inebriated all the time to get my work done, and I had to overcome that. So I had to go cleanse myself, ‘cause when you’re young and you’re just making music, you don’t need shit. So I needed to get back to that.

How long has it been since then?

KEY!: I went in February, I got out the next month. I don’t wanna count my days of sobriety, but my days of being a new person is from that moment to now.

I heard that you’re working on an album with Dot Da Genius which is crazy. Kid Cudi has been one of my favorite artists all my life. How did that come about? You were in the “Surfin’” video right?

KEY!: Yeah, my lil part got cut out but I was definitely in there. You could see my arm or some shit like that. *laughs* Yeah, I kinda wanna say I met Dot at that video shoot, but he was acting like he knew who I was, so it was kinda natural. But I spoke it into existence ‘cause I told him “I’m gon’ do a project with you one day,” and he was like “I’m ready.” So I guess with his recent success, he has more time to work with other artists. He just got back to me and pulled up on me in Atlanta and we started like that. And we only in the beginning process of that, but I can’t wait, that’s gon’ be my favorite project.

How do you think he’s challenging you as an artist this time around?

KEY!: It is challenging because the music is not as easy as what I’m used to. I’m tryna create something that I’ve never created, no one’s ever heard, and he is too. We don’t want it to sound like Cudi, we want it to sound like KEY! and Dot.

You have any places you love to perform outside of Atlanta?

KEY!: I love performing everywhere outside of Atlanta. As much as I love Atlanta, I do get a little sick and tired of being in the same place. But I love performing in New York. New York is probably my favorite place ‘cause I did MoMA PS1 and Santos and Electric Circus, whatever that shit is called. But yeah, I also did Bali and Japan and China, too.

How’s it been going overseas and having those different cultural experiences?

KEY!: Well I haven’t been to Europe yet, but I did go to Asia. China was a f*ckin’ experience, I was there for 30 days. It was like a f*ckin’ movie.

How long ago was that?

KEY!: I wanna say right before coronavirus hit, like 2019. I was deadass in the place where coronavirus came from.

In Wuhan?

KEY!: Yeah. It was crazy ‘cause the night I was supposed to do a show there, they canceled the show and was like “No hip-hop for the rest of the year.” They knew what was happening. That was crazy. Bali was insane, though, it was beautiful. We performed outside on the beach, it was crazy. F*ckin’ Silento came out of nowhere and performed. Outta nowhere! I went to the club with him and everything. *laughs*

Outside of the music, when you were out there, what’s the day-to-day like? Obviously there’s a language barrier.

KEY!: They were speaking English in Bali! I had a ball, bro, I was getting drunk ‘cause you can’t do shit but get drunk there. You can’t smoke weed or nothing like that. So we ridin’ mopeds around, I fell into a rice field tryna drive a motorcycle. I never drove one [before], I almost broke my leg. I had a time out there. That’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. Their McDonald’s sucks though. Japanese McDonald’s is the best. And KFC in China.

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