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Rapper KeithCharles Has Found His Own Lane    

Rapper KeithCharles Has Found His Own Lane

Photo by Steve Hoskins (@steveakation); Art by FISK

By Justin Tejada

When KeithCharles is looking for creative inspiration, he knows who to turn to. Himself. The rapper and producer is a self-proclaimed hard drive fanatic and has cataloged every beat he’s ever made since 2015. So when he is working on new music and isn’t sure where to start, he will often go back to the work he’s done before to see if he finds a new perspective or direction that can guide him.

For KeithCharles, who has been focused on making music for nearly a decade, that willingness to constantly go back to square one without judgment has been an important part of his creative evolution. It is just one of the things that sets his music apart. While the hip hop spotlight often shines on artists whose music is characterized by machismo and braggadocio, KeithCharles has found his own lane, creating songs that have a distinctive vulnerability and sensitivity yet still heads nodding.

We caught up with KeithCharles to talk about what made him want to rap, his optimism for the future of hip hop, and how he’s been addressing his mental health during the pandemic.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

What was the first song you heard that made you think, I want to do that?

I remember saying I was going to make music around fourth grade. It wasn't a real thing. It was more of an "I'm going to be an astronaut" type of thing. But I think it was Michael Jackson's “Human Nature” where I really saw how magical music could be. That was the song that made me think, "I want to give people this feeling." When I think of what I am trying to do as an artist, it is to try to give a feeling. I think that song inspired that approach. 

And that was in fourth grade?

Yeah. But that was also the year that I bought Shyne. I was a huge Snoop Dogg fan—him and DMX. I fell in love with rap music around that time, too. 

What made you want to rap?

I have cousins that were traveling back and forth from Cali to Houston to New Orleans, just hustling. They would be playing tapes of all kinds of crazy shit, No Limit, Hot Boys, Death Row. I remember being in the backseat of an Isuzu Rodeo, and it was nothing but Master P, Silkk the Shocker, Snoop Dogg, Death Row, Tupac, and it was just amazing. I wanted to be like what these older men were. I want to be in tank tops; I want to wear gold; I want to be trappin’. Obviously, at that age, you don't know what that is all about. But that is what made me want to rap. I wanted to be with my older cousins. I wanted to be one of the guys.

Your music has a vulnerability that is somewhat antithetical to that macho rap you were introduced to. How did you come to feel comfortable making music that went in a different direction?

One, the internet. And two, the things that shaped me and molded me. I grew up really poor, and the people that were around me were really poor. There is certain music that is made completely because of those circumstances. What the internet did was hold up a mirror so I could see. I could see what drugs did in the 80s and 90s now that I am in the 2000s. I can see the prison industrial complex. So I got to choose differently. My whole generation got to choose differently. What our generation has is an option, which is what people like Kanye and Pharrell gave us. I come from some of these hard situations, but I was blessed to have a different option. What shaped me was sensitivity and vulnerability. As I get older, I am more accepting of myself; I am more accepting of my sensitivities; I am more accepting of other people's bullshit; and I am less judgmental. 

Does seeing the door opened by Pharrell and Kanye give you a sense of optimism of where hip-hop can go in the future?

The generations younger than me are so accepting, and they are pushing boundaries because they have more space. I think that is a beautiful thing about rap music. There are so many sub-genres now. You meet some of these people, and they are just the sweetest people. They are not hindered by the idea of what they are trying to create. They know that they like this thing, and they are just trying to make it how they want to hear it.

Photo by Steve Hoskins (@steveakation)

How would you describe your creative process? Has it evolved over the years?

There was a time where I would make as much music as I could every single day. I would randomly select a sound out of my soundbank. Then I would make a beat out of whatever I was trying to hear. Because I was trying to get over the hurdle of what sounds "good." That has been the biggest starting point for me musically. Now I have gotten better. My taste has gotten better, and my ear has gotten better. I no longer worry about what is good. My starting point is my starting point, and I am not afraid to start at square one over and over again. I can be accepting because it is not about making a smash hit. I start at the place of, "Can we make something?" That is my process now. I will make a loop that sounds interesting, something that I haven't quite done before, and I will let that lead me. 

Do you do it in a way where you just record without any expectations or judgment and then come back to it? 

Right, 100%. I know I'm good. I know that the things I make are tight. That is no longer a question. When I first started making music around 2012-14, that was always a question, "Is this good?" It is no longer like that. If you don't think it is tight, then it is not for you. I’ve kept every single beat I have made since 2015—I’m a hard drive fanatic. Now, if I am at a place where I don't know what to do, I'll just open up what I have already done and just start from there. 

How has your mental health been during Covid?

I started therapy again. I tried it out at different times in my life, but you have to find somebody that works for you. I also have a great support system of friends. It wasn't until the pandemic started that I realized how many people I know and how many people I can count on and call and talk to for hours. One of my friends is a writer. He just got a movie picked up by a24. I hadn't spoken to him for almost a year before the pandemic, and he and I have rekindled and bounced things back and forth. It just goes to show that relationships aren't just linear.

Outside of music, are there ways that you try to channel your creativity?

The first thing I am going to say is still musically related, but learning new instruments. It is just like speaking another language. I read as much as I can. Physical exercise. Drinking water. Eating right. It is just really basic things. But, when I am drinking water, not isolating myself, eating right, I feel way better, and I feel like I can accomplish things, and I feel ready for the world, and I am excited. I think my viewpoint on the world is heavily contingent on being grateful and being happy with what you have. Especially for me, because I come from places where you don't have any of this. I look at my life now, and I am like, "Bro, this is beautiful." Some of it is chance, some of it is luck, some of it is ordained, some of it is just by the sheer power of being able to show up for myself. That is what I try to make music about. 

What can you tell me about this new project that you have cooking?

It is the best music that I have made in my whole life. I know that every artist always says that, but I really mean it for myself. It is about life in stages. It is about grief and hope, what I hope serves as one long prayer. That is what my album is. I am loving the ebb and flow of what my music sounds like right now. I don't have a time frame [for release], but I don't care because if it comes out dope, then it doesn’t matter. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.