We're in Brooklyn baby, with legendary vocalist Keith Thompson. It's finally time to chit chat about what all has been happening since your breakthrough record in 1987.
Keith Thompson: Oh my God. Let's talk about what's happening now and do a flashback to that.
Well we can't start at the end; we have to start at the beginning sir.
KT: You ever seen those movies where you start now and then do a little flashback?
KT: Negro style – the beginning.
Damn right so we can get the story, the flow. We start with the corny stuff so that by the time you get all juiced up from that glass of wine you got, we'll be at the good part.
KT: Ahhh, the power of wine.
So what is the beginning Keith? Where does it start for you? Are you Brooklyn-bred?
KT: No, I am Bronx-bred. I was born in Jamaica, came to the US when I was seven and lived in New Rochelle. Then we moved to the Bronx. Since then, I've always felt like a Bronx boy. It's become instinctual for me to say, I'm from the 'Boogie Down.'
Oooh… where in the Bronx?
KT: Near Haffen Park. On Bruner Avenue, you know, in the Valley. As y'all might know, “The Valley.”
I hated the people from The Valley.
KT: And we hated anybody who was not from the Valley cause y'all would come and try to ruin our little black utopia. With nice houses and backyards but nah, all you project motherfuckers would come to our neighborhood and try to ruin our public park. It had a pool, tennis court, baseball field, basketball court and it's where rap had some of its beginnings.
KT: Where did rap begin?
KT: What?! That's where Afrika Bambaataa started. Are you mad?! Kool Herc was always playing there. He didn't live in the South Bronx; Herc didn't begin in the South Bronx. He lived right off White Plains and the only park to come and play at was ours. And of course he would go down there with Bambaataa and Theodore who did that little thing but don't lie about that South Bronx stuff.
Do you know how much of a rivalry there was between people in the Valley and those from the South Bronx ?
KT: Oh yeah, because it started as a rivalry, then it got into gunshots in the late seventies and then we moved out. It was a cool neighborhood but that just made it worse… every week someone was dead in the park.
Then where did you move?
KT: We moved to Queens.
How did that help? (Both Laugh)
KT: Yeah, that's my parents. You know as a kid, you can't help where you move. It was cool for a minute, but being from the Bronx that gave me some props. I knew how to rap which I didn't know was going to go anywhere. But they were like, “Oh, he's bad! He can rap.” I would write some rhymes and stuff but back then it was corny stuff [freestyles], “Peter Piper picked a peck…”
So you started rapping first?
KT: Yeah I was always singing as a kid and rapping, but like I said, wasn't even a thought as a vehicle for anything outside of the street. No one really thought it was going to go anywhere, so, I didn't pursue that. What I did pursue was singing in chorus class. I had a deep voice from then so, that's what I did.
Are there any other musicians in the family?
KT: My mother sang and played the drum in church. Yeah, I know – the drums! It's like ‘Damn, mom, the drum?!'
[Both Laugh] You guys must have gone to a pretty out there church.
KT: It was very funky. And I think I got that stuff from her. I used to play the drums and stuff too but it was funny how the system kind of works against a black kid. They made it seem like you had to be in honors classes to get certain instruments. If you just had average grades, you had to go safe or they told you that there were no more instruments left and that kind of crap.
Is that something you suffered from?
KT: I think so. Maybe they were telling the truth but I wasn't a stupid kid, I was a smart kid. They kind of steered me into me into “the safe' [zone]. I wanted to play guitar, piano or whatever but they gave me the clarinet, which was wack!
Not too much street-cred playing the clarinet.
KT: Not the clarinet. But I joined different bands in school while I was in Junior High and stuff.
Where did you live in Queens?
KT: In Flushing. It was a very multi-cultural neighborhood and I loved that area. It seemed like the promise of what the future was going to be, but that didn't happen. The Koreans, Latinos, Blacks, Italians, Jews… everybody was there, it was really beautiful for a quick minute.
And then what happened?
KT: You get older and you go to High School and this crazy flip-back racism started. I don't know how it happened. I joined the track team and of course, I was still singing.
So did the ladies man vibe develop here between being a track star and a singer?
KT: Ladies man? I don't know about that. I try not to even acknowledge that and let it happen naturally because I think in society; they only have a few roles for a black man to play. The hood thug, the serious intellectual – who is rare, or the ladies man. I try not to play any of those roles but rather veer from different areas of it. I was an athlete / artist. That brooding, troubled guy, you know? ‘Don't fuck with me. I will kick your ass.' I may look nice, but I will. I took karate and all those things just for that. Well actually, Isshin Ryu Kung Fu. I was quiet but I had my crew of people I'd talk to from the track team or the other clubs I joined. It was kind of cool, you know, because when I think back on it, I didn't realize how many people knew me, and kind of liked or respected me. When you are young, you swear the whole world is against you. We were bused to the high school I went to – Cardoza in Bayside. I took a bus in the morning into the white neighborhood and heard “Niggers, Niggers!” I swear every summer, they'd have little riots, and it was like a planned thing to get out of school early. Being young, you think having a riot is cool but in the late seventies when the first hot day came, it was a wild time. This was all a part of my life.
How did you stay positive and keep away from all of this negative influence?
KT: I wrote still, not rhymes any more but songs and ideas. And when you are in love sometimes, you write love songs. I didn't write typical love songs, though. They were always melancholy or because I was growing up on Bob Marley, I was writing socially conscious stuff.
Fast-forwarding, I went to college to study communications because I wanted to be a filmmaker and a television producer. I went to New York Institute of Technology - the private university, not the city school in Brooklyn. I always feel like I have to explain that. While I was doing that, I would do videos for musicians. Up and coming people who were doing new wave, punk rock and a few reggae acts. Then I got on the radio, and was a DJ on WBAI 105.9FM (it later became WNWK 105.9FM). I had a reggae show and I woke people up in the morning. It was pretty cool.
I started realizing that I could do as well as some of these others and because I was always doing demos at home, that's when I really got into the business. Knowing the other sides, the radio, advertising and even the media side, gave me an [understanding] of how the industry worked. So I decided to open up my little label called FLAT RECORDS. I put out a reggae record, did all the stuff that needs to be done to it to get it on the radio and it worked. I got calls from all the national college radio stations and it got charted on WLIB [1190 AM] here, which is the biggest Caribbean station and a sister to WBLS [107.5 FM].
The only part I didn't handle was the management or booking because I really wasn't into doing gigs, I just wanted to put the records out. That's [when] I met Vaughan Mason. I was at a mastering house, mastering one of the tracks and I ran into him. He produced “Bounce, Rock, Roll, Skate.” So we met and I asked him what kind of music was he into and he said, “house.” I said I was too, because I went to one of Paradise Garage's last days and that whole scene just blew me away. I was like, ‘what the hell is this?' I left the place all angry going, ‘I should know about this. I want to get down with this.' The fire was in me. It was an epiphany, and I am not exaggerating. I came out of that place that next morning, thinking this is it. Where the fuck have I been?
I went home, did a demo and later when I talked to Vaughan he said come out to the studio. I heard what he was doing and it wasn't as deep as I wanted to go but it was cool and we did one track called “Caught U Cheating.” That was the one I thought would be the hit. I sang it kind of Teddy Pendergrass -ish. People say it's Colonel Abrams but I say if you don't know Teddy…
...you don't know the Colonel.
KT: Exactly. I thought that was going to be the hit and then we did a second song. I didn't really know where it was coming from but that was “Break 4 Love.”
Okay, tell us how that song came to be.
KT: I was home after we'd done “Caught You Cheating” which they'd sent it out and was buzzing around in early 1987. We put it out on his label GROOVE STREET and we took it around to all the local clubs and DJs. I think ‘BLS and KISS added it to their late mixes. Back then the US was playing house music and it was street music so people like John Robinson and Tony Humphries picked up on it and it became something of a hit in the underground. It was recorded as Raze, and I was the vocalist. The follow-up single was “Break 4 Love” and like I said, I didn't really know it was going to get anywhere. It was different for its time – it was an Afro kind of thing, minimalist style, the moaning and groaning. Okay, let's be graphic. When Vaughan first called me to do the track, I was with my girlfriend, at home, her legs up by my shoulder – engaged in some activity.
You answered the phone?!
KT: I answered the phone and I always remember that. She was pissed, and rightfully so. But usually when the phone rang at that time, it was something important and it was Vaughan asking me to come right now and finish up a recording. We finished up and I did go to the studio. Maybe because of that mood of him interrupting me, I was thinking, ‘yo, this track ain't all that.' He wanted me to finish writing it because all he had was break for love and baby don't you worry. He said say some stuff that women want to hear. So I start writing some of that. And as you can see it's a short song because I didn't have any more inspiration. I just wrote one verse basically and let the music do its thing.
Who wrote the “break” music?
KT: Vaughan and my boy Vinny Fraginals came up with the concept. Vinny had heard a track that he liked and thought could be done over to greater success, so he brought it to Vaughan who liked it and worked on it. Vaughan was the one who put it on tape with some other musicians so when I got there, the track was basically finished. He already had the hook line ‘break for love.” I finished the rest and Vinny's wife did the Spanish translation and original vocals that are on the GROOVE STREET Spanish Flyversion. When I heard the final mix, he had added the moaning and groaning because when you listen to the lyrics, it's just a simple love song. It shipped like 13,000, which back then, wasn't a lot, and we brought them to Vinylmania. This is around December 1987 and the DJs weren't feeling it. That's why when I hear people say that it was a hit from the beginning, I am like, oh, shut the fuck up. I personally brought it up to WKTU and though they had a euphemistic way of saying they didn't want to play it, I knew what they were saying was that we aren't playing no black house. They only wanted to play that high-energy / freestyle wack shit.
I went to BLS and Bobby Konders said it was too slow and lazy and he wasn't feeling it. Then I brought it to KISS and I forgot the girls name but she was the one who listened to new product and placed them. She wasn't the program director but she felt it and got it play-listed. Besides that radio station, the only other person that was playing it was Tony Humphries. He always played whatever we gave him and he is the one I credit with making it a hit at Zanzibar. Zanzibar for me was the serious home of house music.
How did you find all these people? Were these contacts that you made while working on the radio yourself?
KT: I knew a lot of people. Tony I knew from going to Zanzibar and also he had close connections with Vinny. Vinny was one of his run around guys so that helped. Vaughan knew some of the other DJs like Merlin Bobb and people who played at the Silver Shadow. I knew how to approach ‘BLS because I was in radio before and I knew the protocol, so I just went up there. It's whom you know and the contacts you build.
By now, you were clubbing too…
KT: Oh yeah, I was doing my thing and getting out there. What was nice about the time was we were part of creating a new music. Not many people realized it then. Some people were opportunists. I think I realized it but not enough because coming from the reggae scene, where it's a do-it-yourself kind of thing, gave me a different mindset about putting out house stuff. You could put it out on your own label and that was working for a lot of people. Even what's his name, who started BIG BEAT [ed. note : RECORDS, Craig Kallman was founder]. He was no one, but he had one record and he went around to those really small dives in Jersey where had artists perform and sold stuff out of his trunk. He's gone very far. It was a beginning for the times.
And like I said, most radio wouldn't play it and KISS didn't start playing it until summer time. So from the beginning of 1988 it was still an underground thing but it just kept picking up steam because the underground had power back then. We sold close to thirteen thousand and by summer, it was everywhere. How I knew that was, I was walking down Gun Hill Road in the Bronx one day and some Latino guys were driving by and they were blasting it. I was like where did they get that from? My friend was like, “It's out.” Then I realized it wasn't a tape, it was on the radio and I was like, 'ahhh' (yells)! It's funny how you lose your mind – even after you've been a radio announcer – when hear your song coming out from a big radio station. No matter how cool you are, it makes you go 'ahhh' [screams again]!
Like a little girl on Gun Hill Road … [Both laugh]
KT: Exactly, but not too much because it was Gun Hill Road. I was cool, you know? Then after that, it got really sickening because it was everywhere. I am not exaggerating plus the Spanish version was out and I was getting sick of it.
So what happened financially for you?
KT: The record blew up and I was making money – getting royalties. Vaughan was trying to be cool about it and by mid to late summer, we started getting agents to book us. I'm getting my dance steps together and I can actually quote Vaughan saying, “Get your moon walk together.” Moonwalk? Ain't no one doing that! So I am waiting for the gigs to come in and I hear from Vinny, “Yo, Vaughan just performed at Baseline.” And I was like, what? How did he perform, I am the singer for Raze. Vinny told me, “Nah man, he performed with his wife.” Vaughn had just gotten married, someone he'd met a few months before. And Vinny was like, “He performed on stage with her dressed up as a mailman. He was in chaps with his butt out the back with elevated shoes or whatever. Then mid-way through the show, she unzips her pants, a dildo comes out and he deep throats it!”
KT: I was like what?!! That's not the Raze I want to be with and besides, my uncles would kick my ass if they heard I was down with a group like that. How would I explain it? So I called up Vaughan and asked what was going on and since he had seen the potential of what could happen, he got to arguing with me and I was like, cool then, I'm out. No problem. Now some people make me feel like that was a stupid move but it's easy to say that when you don't know the deeper story. Then pressings of the record came out without my name as a writer, and that bothered me. Finally [the record] got picked up by COLUMBIA RECORDS; which means it sold very well. Nowadays, if you sell 5,000 it means they might pick you up but back then, the record had sold about thirty thousand before they picked it up. Then there were posters all over the city and on the radio, it was Vaughan Mason of Raze and I was like, what happened to my name? I was getting heated. I had the right to be angry. There were gigs popping up all over, Bentley's, 1018… I was like, this is money I am losing out on and I can say this now, I had a plan.
…he says while looking at the tape recorder with a real venomous look…
KT: I had a plan, cause I am from the Bronx. I was gonna get some crew but then I thought, you know what, let me do this all by my lonely. I heard he was going to play at a certain Manhattan club. Let's just say I had to rearrange some things and went to bat for my cause. It was wild though.
That's pretty dramatic stuff. Was this random act of violence brought on by something specific or were you just dying to crack on him because he'd cut you out of things?
KT: This is actually after an episode that had built up. He had performed at 1018 and the opening act was actually the New Kids on the Block. He went on stage and when he finished doing his thing, a corny ass show, I came to the side of the stage and I said, ‘Yo, I want to talk to you.' He pissed me off the way he responded. And at that time, we hadn't resolved certain issues and I blew up and was about to fuck him up. He started fighting like a girl so I stepped back and got into a fighting stance. Then these two big guys came and grabbed me and were about to throw me out but Vinny knew some of them and he was like, 'don't fuck him up, we're about to leave.' And we left. Then later the word went out around the industry from a COLUMBIA RECORDS A&R guy that I was a thug and that I tried to beat up Vaughan again at Roseland. I had not done that, I just tried to fuck him up at 1018! Keep it straight. And that's when the [bat] to the BMW thing happened. I never admitted to it even though people have asked me about it. [I denied it because] it wasn't any of their business. Besides, I am a lover not a fighter [smiles].
So what else happened?
KT: You know what, I said I am an educated brother, so I did it that way. I got my lawyer and told him I wanted a cease and desist order against COLUMBIA RECORDS so they couldn't put out anymore records or at least couldn't pay him until this was settled. My lawyer wouldn't do it because he was scared of Columbia and he had other artists blah, blah, blah... So I thought there must be something else I could do. So I wrote a legal letter, nothing too threatening because they wouldn't respond, but rather honey to the bee type stuff, real nice. I told them the situation and that I wanted them to cease and desist royalty payments until this was resolved and here are the facts – and they did it, they stopped paying him.
I also went on a campaign and told myself to use what I knew about advertising on my new record, “Love Is Not a Toy” so I promoted myself as the voice on “Break 4 Love” to help it sell. When I booked gigs and would sing it, you could hear it in my voice. I could talk the song and you would know it was me. I was doing videos and other street things to spread the vibe and the truth.
Finally like a year later, just when I was about to be signed to CAPITOL on my own right, nothing connected to “Break For Love,” Vaughan wanted to negotiate because the money that was being held up was getting fat. Then kind of youthfully and stupidly, I agreed to just settle it because I thought the record was over not knowing that records could be over this year but there's a lifetime later on.
You didn't understand the virtue of a classic.
KT: Exactly! Who thought house would get to a classics stage? So I settled that and in the meantime I was getting paid. That's the funny thing that even though he was initially trying to deny who sang it and was playing bullshit games, he was still sending royalties but I would have to still send letters to say correction, you can't take that deduction etc, because you are still performing. So it was kind of weird him doing the right thing but in the wrong way at the time. I went on and did “Can't Take It” which became the first raga / house track. CAPITOL RECORDS signed it and they sent me on tour to Europe so I just put the whole “Break 4 Love” thing behind me cause I was doing it live anyway and doing interviews on English and German television and radio shows. I thought it was resolved but like you said, I didn't appreciate the classic potential of the record.
How was it to be on tour in Europe for the first time?
KT: It was amazing. Even though ‘house' was being respected in New York and America, it was just getting big in England and it was fresh. It was like a new age for them. '88 was called the summer of love or something like that. They put it down in history like it was like a landmark year. True, a lot of the great stuff did come out in '87, '88. That was the time that we were touring, '88, '89. There were rave parties everywhere at the time where you would call your friend and they would tell you where it's at, but they would never advertise it. And then you show up in a field in the middle of England somewhere and there would be like ten or twenty thousand people rocking to different tracks. It was heady and our tour was well put together and it covered every major town and city in the United Kingdom, meaning Scotland, too. Also on that tour were Charvoni and Madagascar – a male and female artist, Glenn Toby and myself. We were the house acts on CAPITOL and the songs were all commissioned for a project called BLACK HAVANA. The singles all went on to be hits and Black Havana is a classic album. [It] included my track “Can't Take It” and some others by Mantronix, Benji Candelario and Aldo Marrin – a lot of people were on it. In England, KISS-FM – which was a pirate radio station, was rocking “Can't Take It” along with “Love Is Not a Toy” so that gave me a lot of cred when I performed. There was a lot notoriety and having “Can't Take It” be the first ragga-house track, that was big too because there's a large West Indian population in England. Then we went to Germany so it was a pretty major time.
So what's the life like as you're touring as something of a big star?
KT: You know what? I think I was smart in the sense that I knew touring couldn't have been good or fun. It is grueling. The flight to England at that time was like seven to eight hours. It was just a long ass flight – so that's hard on your body. Then every morning you are in another city. You do sound-check at a certain time, and then you have to rush and go eat. You do the show and then drive somewhere else. Schedule-wise it's tough and especially when you are not sleeping.
Also, if you don't have a manager with you, then you have to do some of the managerial stuff you know like, ‘where's my per diem at least?' which I didn't find hard. Some people find that hard but I'm not afraid to ask. And that was the thing too, people saw me as being very ummmm... Yeah. And what made it worse; I was wearing an army jacket. So they thought, “Oh, militant black man!” I played it up; I was like fine! The song was also called “Can't Take It” so I decided what the hell, let them feel that way. It was also lonely too. As much of a ladies man as y'all may think I am, I wasn't trying to bed down a whole nation because you don't know who they are. And when you're coming into a town, many other artists have already been through and maybe that person already gave it up to them.
KT: Yeah! So I'm not that stupid and it gets kind of lonely. Sometimes you try to mess with the people on the tour but that's not good because it can mess with their heads. I was a trouble-maker.
What do you mean “messing with someone's head?” Does that mean you are trying not to get too deep because you're lonely and it's temporary or you don't want to be in love…
KT: Well you are lonely so you start flirting a little bit. Not like ‘hey, baby' but you just start talking to a person. You drop a little flirtation in there and you may invite one of the artists on tour with you back to your hotel room and then you pull back because you realize what it could do to the tour.
How long did the tour go on?
KT: About two months, not long for me but before that I had been in Japan doing backup singing for a reggae artist I knew and that lasted for two months. It was an education for me because in Japan it was interesting to see how they respond to brothers over there, the music and women. I took my vitamins, worked out in the morning and stayed healthy while everyone else got sick. It wasn't hard for me really… make sure you get your per diem, make sure whoever's driving you isn't drunk and they get you to the gig on time. There are little games that go on between certain artists about who goes on first. I just made sure that wherever I started out on the appearance schedule that was where I would stay.
So how did you get to this place from just being a radio person to all of a sudden becoming an artist? What was the rest of your experience like in those early days?
KT: My education prepared me for that. I worked [at it] and amassed some equipment as well. A little drum machine, a little sequencer, keyboards and taught myself how to play. I wasn't trained so I busted my ass and when the songs came, I would play and record them. One thing I didn't mention was that after the whole “Break 4 Love” thing, I had a fire that burned my whole apartment and my little studio just after I had recorded “Can't Take It” which was signed to CAPITOL RCORDS. I lost everything. So, I have a contract with CAPITOL for a record that's gone and all the other stuff that was on the tapes. I think that certain tragedies can either break you or teach you how to overcome. I was so low I realized that I couldn't go any lower so I had to rise up. Yeah I was scared I wouldn't remember the track. But I was like, ‘yes you can, and whatever you can remember, just do it.' I recreated it on my own and that taught me something, back up, back up, back up. Either physically or in your brain.
When the tour wrapped and I came back to America, I performed at the Red Zone. David Morales had been rocking “Can't Take it” on the regular so the people knew the words and were feeling it, ‘I was like ‘Yo, it's a hit here?!' It was nice not having “Break…” be the only hit. CAPITOL didn't really understand the whole raga-house thing and they didn't want a follow up to it. Then my A&R man got fired so I had to get ready for something else. I got released from the label and stayed out of the limelight working on my material. Just staying true to house because I finally realized that a lot of artists were using it as a stepping-stone to be an R&B artist. For a minute, I may have but I realized that I didn't want to be an R&B artist. I wanted to do house and the reggae-ish new thing, whatever that was going to be.
In 1992 the president of EMI signed me and I was very proud of that because he seemed to understand where I was coming from. Unfortunately, some weird shit happened. SBK was a publishing company and they finagled some money, bought EMI and wiped everybody out and fired the president. That means anything the President did was gone and they just sat on my project. So we asked for my material back and to be released. They also gave me back the rights to my masters – they never do that – then I started my own label called LEVEL 10 and it was distributed through Emotive. We put out “Believe” and the “Rhythm of Life.”
“Believe” was a moderate radio hit because John Robinson was playing it every day at one or twelve when he was on, and that was nice for the royalties and everything. Then “Rhythm of Life” came out as a pre-release bootleg. Tony Humphries, Todd Terry and before Masters at Work was formed, Louie and Kenny brought India to the project with Connie Harvey and were part of an all-star crew doing the remix. Acetates got leaked before the official release of the record so it kind of watered down its actual potential. It was big hit in England but here it was still underground and by that time, underground was over here about ‘92 or ‘93. At that time I was still traveling anyway so I decided to relocate to England because that was where it was happening. I moved there and it was a different world. You could get radio and TV interviews, or magazine features. You got respect in that way for what you were doing, and that helped.
What was the culture shock like?
KT: There really wasn't because remember, I did the tour so that helped me. Then having Jamaican parents was good because there are certain things that you are familiar with already; even stuff like driving on the left side of the road. It wasn't so much culture shock as it was the deeper stuff that is kind of subtle. I made sure not to get the accent or call things biscuits instead of cookies. The food stunk so that was a crime to me. But at the same time, what makes up for all that stuff is the respect they give you and the access I had to the studios. I didn't want to own anything after the fire so there I didn't have a studio, but I could get time and then I'd pay when the projects were sold. I could do that there which was really cool. I also met up with other artists over there that were relocating or coming through. When Marshall Jefferson relocated and we started working together that was really good – getting to work with the man.
What kind of stories can you share about him?
KT: How long is this tape? (Laughs) I'll be brief though… he's a funny guy, very intelligent man. He pretends to be jovial and slightly naïve but he's very intelligent and he gave me a lot of insights into stuff. He's a really cool guy and unconventionally talented because he knows how to do his thing his way – all that Ten City stuff, etc.
So what led you back home?
KT: The bad food! There are so many similarities between our culture and, also so many differences. In short, a common language divides us. It's the way they look at things. They would also complain a lot about America and I as a black man, am the first to say that America has some problems but they ain't wrong on everything. If you want to bring it back, America was a British colony so y'all started it, now stop the crap. It was also just me missing home. I realized that when I came back to visit, when I land in New York (exhales deeply), I felt at home.
And finally, the weather – it's a bitch. Lately, it's been getting really nice over there during the summer but on the average the dreariness, the lack of sun, for a black man I'm going to be straight up, we need sun! The first year there, I was melancholy and sad. I would go to Hampstead Heath, a park near where I lived near in North London and I would find myself almost wanting to cry. I was like, ‘what's wrong with you, you miss home or what?' No, it's called winter sadness and the lack of sun can drive you mad too. That's why a lot of those black people in England are kind of crazy. I know family members who were over there too long and came back crazy so I figured I needed to get out of there, I was already crazy enough.
How long did you stay?
KT: A year-and-a-half. I was coming back and forth from '89 through '95 before I decided to stay from '95 until '96. I got tired of house and when I came home, it was already dead here so I went back to school. Near 2000, I thought, let's get back into this with a serious fervor.
Why did you do that? What brought you back to dance music?
KT: Probably, I couldn't stay out of it; I didn't want to do anything else, it would drive me crazy. Even though ten years had passed, believe it or not I hadn't exhausted a quarter of the songs I have created that I think are good and that people need to hear. This is not an exaggeration; this is a blessing from God. I really think I have about five albums worth of songs to put out that could mean something to somebody – maybe even a classic here or there. Plus there is always new stuff coming.
I recently met some guys from South Africa – Brothers of Peace – and “Living on the Frontline,” which is a cover of an Eddie Grant track that Victor Simonelli and I did, was a massive hit down there. Through their record label we started talking. I met them in New York, then again at the Winter Music Conference and we've become good friends. So they told me that “Can't Take it” was an anthem for them during apartheid, you know how that touched me? I got goose pimples. That was big.
So let's talk a bit about what it's like to be a one-man band. You are an artist, record promoter / producer, and you work with other people as well, how do you manage it all?
KT: I work with other people because it adds flavor to a track and also, not to sound mercenary, it adds a kind of promotional credibility to a track too. A lot of people didn't understand when I came back and was just putting out tracks, they were like “Oh man, there's one coming out like every three months, what's he doing?” They were coming from an old perspective of being a label whore. I wasn't being a label whore I knew what I was doing. I worked with a producer knowing that when that track comes out, and when my album's ready I get that track for the album. Other people just put out singles with no direction so each of the producers I worked with knew that I was going to be putting all the singles out along with new tracks. I was a black man with a plan.
The reissue of “Rhythm of Life” was a hit in Europe, and here, somewhat. But sometimes, the US doesn't matter because all around Europe it's been licensed to compilations so it was a hit. “Living on the Frontline” became a hit in South Africa and small little pockets of the US and England. It's still a hit in Italy. It got re-signed to a label there and I just signed a contract with them to do an album because of that single. It's being promoted to the national radio station like big. When I performed there earlier this year – I'm not joking, there were people crying in the audience. That was some scary, Beatle-type shit, I was thinking, 'What was going on?!'
That's the thing, too. Since America is such a weak market, all around the word, [house] is big time respected as a viable music. Even though it's underground, it still has the ears of the mainstream in a sense. You license things to different labels, it gets around and it gets you gigs. If I were a DJ, I would be the man. But I don't disrespect the DJ industry. Even though I DJ at home, I leave that to them in public.
I do try to work with other people but I also have visions in my head that only I can bring to fruition so then I produce. On the album LONG TIME COMING, I produced at least half of the tracks and not all of them are house. Some of them are what I call ‘world house' – a kind soca-flavored house similar to “Living on the Frontline.” And some are not house at all; they are just an afro, jazzy kind of down-tempo flow that is perfect for a lounge. I wanted to give the album a range or flow from say lounge, into club, into prime time, into wind-down, I hope I accomplished that. I actually like it when I play it. I wanted to like the album and if I liked it, then that is the first victory. If other people don't like it, it's okay because I'm old enough now to know that I have done the best I can for that moment. A lot of stuff I put out, at first no one likes it and then the next month or the next year, suddenly it's the shit.
What about some of the tracks on the album, which are your favorites?
KT: First of all, the album is available on-line and in stores. Favorites? As they always do, the artist isn't going to say what their favorites are. The whole album in it's entirety blah, blah, blah.
KT: My favorite track actually is “Uhuru Bang.” There is a time of the year in South Africa called Freedom Day and since those guys gave me some information that touched me, it's kind of for them. I still don't think they are totally free because there are a majority of people who don't have clean water or other basic stuff. It's not a preachy song but it's just talking about someday they will be free. Asking the questions, what do black, suffering people want? We want a home, a family, love and just some happiness. It's what all people want too, but I put it in that kind of friendly manner.
My second favorite song is a tie between, “And Now It Seems” and “Africa In Your Veins.” The former is talking to people around the globe about how troubled the world is. It just seems like we are living on a hope and a prayer, there's nothing solid anymore. It's not a negative song, it's just saying this is what it looks like and I don't have an answer. You can chill out and listen to it but later on hear it. “ Africa …” is straight up saying recognize the truth about contributions and heritage. There's another song I like that probably won't get played on radio either which is cool, too…
But wait a minute, first let's get away from all this deeply socially conscious stuff before we introduce that song which has nothing to do with any of that. Ahem… now what's the name of the song?
KT: [singing] “Face down, Ass up.”
Which made me blush and I am sure that most of you on the first hearing of that record have blushed too. Beside that, you have your every own warning sticker because of it!
KT: Yeah! I mean it's funny, I blush too.
Sure you do! You've been performing it, you wrote it, I don't believe it.
KT: I got brave enough when I performed it at Cielo and Route 85a [at Sole Channel]. Believe it or not, it is a social commentary but at the same time, it can be raunchy or whatever you want it to be. I'm making fun of some of those rap and R&B songs that come close to saying that stuff anyway. And even though they beep that stuff out, you still know it's there so I thought, why not just come out and say it. Let me push the envelope, all the adult way. It's not autobiographical, it's just me saying what we all say and in fact, there ain't one woman in the world who doesn't want it harder, deeper faster. So it's coming from that angle and it's very graphic. Again, I try to sing it in a nice mellow R&B vibe that sounds nice at first and you don't realize where it's coming from. You know smooth. I really love that song though.
What can you offer up as the best and worst parts of being specifically in the underground music business?
KT: Long pause… It's troubled. As much as there are some organized people in it, there also are some unorganized people in it that bring it down and make it hard to really get business done. I didn't realize there was so much infighting again. When I reentered it, I thought things had settled down with a new crew. But there is still a lot of BS clique in-fighting and just player-hating which is unnecessary especially since the American market is such a small one. I basically just acknowledge they are there but I ignore them because the major market is outside of America. You may not like my song, or you may not want to play my song and because I may not get the chance to come to their club night often enough they may hate me but I will still sell around the world. As Bob Marley said, when one door closes, another opens and it's true. There's not enough money in the business it seems sometimes. More of the money seems to go to the DJs. Not that I am playa-hating on the DJs, but it would be fairer for the DJs and artists to have an equitable split in the money earning.
That's an issue that is dear to my heart as well. The idea that DJs are solely responsible for selling music as a marketing concept to the detriment of promoting artists is killing the business.
KT: They mistakenly got that idea or buy into that philosophy from England because they went through that stage and they made that happen. I will give them the credit for creating the era of mega-DJs, giving them thousands of dollars, calling them artists. Some of them are artists in a way but a lot of them are just DJs. They have created that whole thing and now certain American labels think that's the way to promote it.
Yeah the DJ tours so he gets the record out there in more places than the artist and he plays for a longer time.
KT: Exactly. It's kind of a misplaced ideal. They don't realize that many in the “music business” think dance music is full of shit because there is no identity; there are no artists and they are perpetuating that idea and making it a reality. What helps them out is sampling. They can get sampler CDs of vocals and create a lot of whacko songs and I'll gamble on it right now – a lot of those tracks you won't hear ten years from now. The tracks you'll hear ten years from now are the ones that someone is singing and that contain some kind of human spirit. So I'm not saying stop promoting DJs, I am saying promote both the DJ and artist so you'll have more longevity out of your artistry. Like you said, a lot of these labels that are doing this now and I'm betting that a lot of those tracks that they are pushing from those faceless persons, probably won't make it in five to ten years. As long as they are focusing on the DJs, I make sure to keep branding myself and staying out there. Doing interviews, performing whatever.
In closing, the good part?
KT: I like being in this business because of the music. I do love this music. It's one of the few genres' that is up-tempo but not corny in terms of the message, the rhythm or anything. It's spiritual and at the same time it's sexual or political – it's all of that. It just touches me. I know some people think it's over, or it's old-school for old people but I don't think so because there are new people coming into it and it's lasted a long time. I think it has more to go. There is a whole reemergence of the soulful thing and some labels that separated it and started calling it other things are coming around to putting out more soulful stuff again. I don't think I am imagining that, suddenly they joined our styles together again. They realize that the genre is still lasting and they're coming back to it.
Thanks for spending time with us! Good luck with the project and we look forward to hearing more from you in the coming years!
You know that deep-throated croon from the first note of any song he sings and with a career spanning nearly twenty years, it should come as no surprise that Keith Thompson has only just begun. From the roots of his Jamaican birthplace to his current Brooklyn-based vibe, Thompson understands something about struggle, perseverance and passion. All themes that define his music and the lively stage show that plays regularly around the globe. We spoke on the occasion of his first full-length release, LONG TIME COMING (Waking Monster) – a fifteen-track opus that offers a musical snapshot of his life over the last several years, and puts many of his best releases in one smooth place. It's been a long road getting to this release and in this extended interview, we get the story from the beginning of Bronx hip hop culture in his childhood, to the trials of his dance classic “Break 4 Love” and on to the Africa-inspired activism that motivates him today…
WATCH KEITH LIVE AT LSL 20TH ANNIVERSARY