“When I played my new music to my friends, they called me a bully,” Kel-P teasingly mentions about halfway into our conversation, “they say I’m coming for the music industry with how good the music sounds.”
In a little more than 5 years, Kel-P has made his mark as one of the most proficient West African artists. The singer/composer has collaborated with what seems like an endless list of incredible artists including African juggernauts Angelique Kidjo and Burna Boy. He brags a Grammy for his work on Kidjo’s Mother Nature as well as a Best World Album nomination for Burna Boy’s African Giant. And with the playful dubbing “bully” from his friends, it’s clear he doesn’t plan on letting up.
With the release of single One More Night, Kel-P ushers in a new era as a recording artist. We catch up with him to talk about his production sensibilities, his thoughts on the ever-evolving afrobeats genre, and maintaining the unrelenting drive that made him one of the most sought-after beat makers, as he adds recording artist to his expansive repertoire.
Did you always know that you'd go back to being an artist even after production took off?
Yeah, I was just waiting for the right time. I was waiting for it to feel right.
You sampled Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s Dilemma in One More Night, is that you teasing Afro-American connections in your music?
I'm a huge fan of RnB, especially early 2000s RnB. As a kid I loved Nelly, T-Pain, Ne-yo, Rihanna and the like. I told myself I'm going to sample every one of my favourite songs from back then. So far there are records in my unreleased album that sample T-pain's I'm Sprung, I sampled Marvin Gaye, I also sampled Sweetest Girl by Wycleaf Jean and Akon. So it's intentional, there’s more to come.
Are there collaborations with any of the artists in the works?
Yeah, of course. I'm trying to cut the record with a verse from T-pain for a song in my album because I sampled him.
Do you think we're going to keep seeing a lot more RnB infusions in the afrobeats genre, not just from you but from other artists too?
Yeah, of course. More RnB and even more dancehall. My song is more of afro-dancehall. If you gave Skilly Beng or Popcaan the One More Night beat, you'd call the track that comes out dancehall. But when an African artist jumps on that particular beat and sings in an African dialect like Yoruba or Pidgin, and adds a few other afrobeats elements, it will no longer be straight dancehall. I think that's where the genre is headed, towards dancehall sounds.
Are you worried at all about all the fusion possibly diluting African genres?
No, it's going to grow. It's good for the genre because it will give it more exposure. And they’re going to feel connected to it because they’ll see that it's something they could do, too. For example, I’d call Essence afro-soul. I can imagine a female American singer jumping on it. So I think these links will only make the genre grow.
Let’s talk about Kel-P, the producer. You've worked with so many different artists, and with all of them, it seems like you guys have great chemistry. How do you establish that synergy?
With artists, once they discover that you are a true musician they trust you. But you need to understand them more than they understand you, and you need to be a very patient person because artists can be very difficult. Because I've worked with a lot of people, I understand different personalities and I'm very cool so I don’t take things personally. You also need to always deliver. Always. You need to have 50 beats before they wake up, and if they want to you need to be able to go party with them. And then when you guys are back to the studio, if they want to record you gotta be there. That’s how they keep trusting you.
And how do you deal with artistic differences?
Because you are the producer, you are trying to step up their shit. But you need to learn how to listen to the artist. Let them express themselves and let them try what they want to. You offer your suggestions like “Yo, we're not supposed to stack the vocals on this part. Trust me it doesn't sound right.” If they agree and it sounds good they’ll allow it, and sometimes they're like “no, Kel-P, leave that shit the way it is.” And I usually just let them have their version and keep my own that I listen to. When you argue with them it becomes difficult for the artist to keep on working with you. You can be the best producer, you can be the best songwriter, but trust me, if you don't have that synergy they won’t give a fuck about you.
Do you think now you can tell even before you start working with someone whether that chemistry is there or not? Have you been in sessions where there was instant synergy?
There have been so many sessions like that. I remember when I did a session in LA with Masego and Tamara. Right from the first beat I knew. Masego got up there and started playing the saxophone and I just remember being very happy to be in that room. The energy was just right.
So, I really wish I was in the room when you made Gbona. Is there a track you wish you witnessed the making of?
Leave the door open- Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars. Bruno Mars is my favourite artist in the world.
Now that you're taking on the role of an artist yourself, are you looking forward to relinquishing a little bit of that power to producers you work with?
Yeah, I'm always open to that. There's no harm in trying because at the end of the day, even after you suggest your idea, I have the ears to listen and the soul to feel. If it works it works and if it doesn't work, we try another thing.
Tell me a little about your songwriting process?
The melodies inspire every line I write. I’ll write the first line and then decide what it feels like and the direction I want to take the song? Do I want to make it a true life story? Do I want to make it about hustle? Or love and affection? Once I get the direction, I start writing according to that. I also work with writers who are my friends. I tell them what direction I want to take the track and they we come up with bars together.
Having been 4-time Grammy nominated, a big feat early on in your career, what else do you regard as success?
I think it's when I win a Grammy for my own songs as an artist, and when I go on tour and perform for big crowds in big stadiums, that's success. Success to me is also when I'm rich enough to be able to feed and take care of my family.
When should we be expecting your upcoming EP?
The EP Bully Season Vol.1 drops in three weeks. That's February 24. Five tracks. The lead single One More Night is already out. When you listen to that EP, you’ll understand why I'm called a Bully.