by Kara-Lis Coverdale
He’s no spring chicken in the Canadian hip-hop scene, but T.O. based producer Fresh Kils hasn’t really spent much time dancing in the spotlight, and it’s not because he was born with a hideous gnome face or because he’s an ardent agoraphobic or something. No, along with his mountains of production gear, Fresh Kils has simply been dwelling in his studio, grinding hard and banging out beats for artists like D-Sisive and Ghettosocks like he’s the Christmas elf of Northern hip-hop.
But all that is changing. Or, at least the behind-the-scenes part. As a solo act and as 1/2 of the production duo The Extremities, Kils is stepping up his stage game, and he’s doing it by coming hard as one of the most kick ass MPC performers out there right now.
In between Easter egg hunts this past holy Sunday, we sat down to chat with Kils to talk about sampling, the state of “live” hip-hop, and how the MPC has not only brought him from the studio to stage, but has changed the way he makes beats altogether.
TCUS: Where are you from?
Fresh Kils: I grew up in Toronto and went to University in Halifax where I really started to come up, but the connection with Ghettosocks and all the other Halifax artists came later, after I moved back to Toronto. By luck, I moved into residence at King’s College [Halifax] next door to who is now one of my best friends and collaborators, Uncle Fester, who really introduced me to hip-hop and production. That’s what ultimately lead me to come back home to go to The Harris Institute, where I studied audio engineering.
TCUS: Before you delved heavily into hip-hop, you played a whack of instruments, particularly guitar.
Fresh Kils: Yeah, I was a long haired, guitar playing, weed smoking hippie [laughs].
TCUS: How do you think your pot smoking, guitar playing hippie history, particularly as an instrumentalist, has influenced your style of production?
Fresh Kils: The style question is always difficult for me because as a full-time engineer and producer I’ve been asked to do all kinds of different styles of beats, mixes, etc. I would say that initially my production had more layering, and was more emotive and chill. But the more and more exposure I had to hip-hop, the harder and more stripped back my arrangements became. I started to dial in different styles for people better [laughs]. The acquisition of my MPC really influenced the way I produce too. Before all this, I was using a four track, where layering and bouncing tracks was the key.
TCUS: Which produces a different sound altogether …
Fresh Kils: Yeah. I never really made beats on the four track, but as a guitar player I’d make songs and instrumentals and things. The computer was just too powerful, even back then. I remember Sole and Josh Martinez recording in my spot, and it was the first time they’d recorded on a computer, and Sole was like “Wow, so you really can do it fully on a computer!”
TCUS: When was that?
Fresh Kils: That would have been around 2000-2001. Everything coming out of Halifax at that time was done on four tracks, from Buck 65, Sebutones, Taichichi And Moves, The Goods, Josh Martinez, Classified, etc.
TCUS: Are you still using that retro version of Logic?
Fresh Kils: [laughs] How I would love that to be off the record. Yes. I’m currently making the switch out of Emagic Logic Audio Platinum 5.5 into Apple Logic 9. If It ain’t broke… [laughs]. I just mixed an MOP joint for Frank Dukes on it the other week, and I was a little embarrassed when he came through to check the arrangement.
TCUS: I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. Sometimes technological limitations are a creative advantage.
Fresh Kils: And it tends to be more about what’s in your heart and mind any way. There’s dudes making huge records on Fruity Loops, which for a while wasn’t cool either [laughs].
TCUS: Yes, Boi-1da being one of them, for a while I think.
Fresh Kils: Mmhmm, Rich Kidd too.
TCUS: I saw a recent photo taken in his studio and I noticed he had a Pro Tools Manual on his shelf, so I guess that era is over. You use a lot of horns in your tracks. What types of records do you most often dig for samples? Do you have a favourite label, era, or genre that you frequent the most?
Fresh Kils: One of the things I loved so much about hip-hop production early on was that there really was no rules about where to find samples, influences, and ideas. I remember someone showing me the hardest drum breaks I’d ever heard, and then realizing it was on an Anne Murray record, of all things.
Hip-hop production has also gone through many stages. Early on it was all about sampling funk records with the hard danceable breakdowns, then it became more jazzy. More recently psyche rock records have become very popular for sampling, as producers dug further and further for more rare stuff. Personally I’ve always had a affinity for soundtracks, because scores tend to offer a plethora of musical ideas, one after another. Its always emotive and big sounding. Lately I’ve been into early electronic records, stuff where old guys with early Moog synths were putting out experimental albums.
When it comes to horns though, Pete Rock really made horn sampling famous. He’s a huge influence not only on me, but pretty much every producer out there. As I said earlier, my musical background influenced me to do more layering with my production when I started. And horns, especially saxophones, lend themselves well to that because you can really filter out a sax sound from a full band recording. Saxes cut through a mix, so they’re easier to filter and re-contextualize over something else.
TCUS: How do you go about sample clearance? Do you go about it, or do you simply manipulate the samples so heavily that they become something unrecognizable?
Fresh Kils: When it comes to sample clearance, there are a few different schools of thought. There are many who consider it a lazy way to make music, as though we sample because it would be too hard to make from scratch. That comes from an assumption that because we have neither the means– nor the patience — to mic a bands worth of instruments in a room and mix them down, it’s lazy. We would have to do all that, only to chop the tracks up again.
The truth is that we’re way beyond that now. Sampling has become a sound of its own that is recognizable. Although it is achievable in other ways, it continues to be relevant in its purest form. It’s an art. We’re creating new expressions, not derivative ones. Some of the ways I chop sounds, live musicians could never produce.
I put a lot of work into chopping and reworking sounds, to the point that I consider them either unrecognizable and/or completely different artistic statements in their own right (with a few exceptions). That being said, what I do is still considered an infringement of people rights in a court of law. But because I’ve either never produced a big enough record for anyone to care, or my re-workings have sufficiently hid the origins of said samples, I remain unscathed. I don’t rely on samples for my craft, nor do I “need” them so to speak. Rather, I choose to use them because I like the way incorporating samples sounds.
D-Sisive came to me to produce Vaudeville because he and Muneshine had been tagged for sampling on a previous release. D needed someone who could work without samples but within a hip-hop framework. And thats what we did. The process had come full circle for me at that point, to the extent that I started on that project as a guitar player. On Vaudeville, I played keys, guitars, bass, drums, and synths.
Sampling is one tool in the arsenal of a producer. Relying too heavily on one tool, like autotune for example, makes your work one dimensional. There are musicians out there who’d love to be sampled, and if you approach them in the right way, you can make moves. D-Sisive’s “West Coast” was done that way. So for me now, I look for artists that are open to sampling. And I’m currently working with this Scottish songwriter that loves what I’m doing with his material. Thats the future of sampling as I see it.
TCUS: Do you ever use MIDI?
Fresh Kils: I use MIDI all the time. My studio is all synced up via MIDI between my keyboards, samplers, and computer. Most frequently, I MIDI sync my MPC to logic so I can layer soft synths, record other parts, and dump the beats properly. Its an integral part of the studio.
TCUS: If I was asked to describe what it is you’re up to, or what direction it seems you’re going in, from my impressions I would probably tell someone you’re a producer who’s playing around with “liveness” in production, and the way you literally play the MPC is central in that. When and how did this entire routine start?
Fresh Kils: I’ve always thought the biggest weakness in hip-hop was the live show, so over the years I’ve tried to infuse something into my shows with the MPC thats fun to watch. It amazes me how many emcee’s perform without a DJ, and when they do, the DJ doesn’t do anything. At the end of the day its glorified karaoke. When I first got the MPC, I had already been making beats for years, so I never needed it to make beats. I wanted to use it for the pads to explore the live aspect. And of course its not most perfect machine for that, but I’ve made it work.
Then there was my friends, who took chances on me to see if it could work on stage, like More Or Les, Ghettosocks, and Toolshed. But we did some incredible things; I’ll never forget opening for Nas in Halifax with Ghettosocks & DJ Cosmo in front of 4000 people, banging out drums on the pads. Even just the soundcheck was insane, hitting a kick drum and having the whole 1000 ft. venue shaking. It was nuts! But the routines really came when I linked with DJ iRATE. Although Fester and I had been working together for years and have a killer live production group called The Extremities, he lives in Halifax which meant that we couldn’t get together as much. When More Or Les began working on our EP, we had introduced DJ Killa Jewel as the last part of the team. So we were a fully live trio of heavyweights in our respective lanes, More Or Les on the mic, me on the MPC, and Jewel on the cuts. And it was crazy, but hard to keep together. Jewel later introduced me to iRATE, who came in with us and did a number of shows. I had been invited to do an MPC set at Beat Lounge, but when I realized I couldn’t do a full set by myself, I reached out to iRATE. From that show onward, we did tons of other sets and showcases doing solely DJ/MPC routine sets, but it was difficult to keep Jewel in the mix, too.
The battle DJ mentality had a large effect on what would later become the MPC routines I do now. Going into the Sound Battle Royale was maybe the most galvanizing event that focused me. Working on those routines while using a DJ battle mentality really forged the stuff you’re seeing now.
TCUS: When did you first do a set with a live sax player, and is this ongoing? I’ve seen some of those jazz improv-esque sets on youtube.
Fresh Kils: The performances with a live sax player are with my group The Extremities, which Uncle Fester and I formed as production duo. Our first record was a jazz remix album for CBC Halifax for which we were given a killer record to remix into a hip-hop record. Our shows have always involved live elements. Currently we work with a very talented sax player, Anthony Rinaldi, but in the past we’ve played with Sylvio Pupo from Buena Vista Social Club, Chris Mitchell, Kingsley Ettienne and others.
Because the first record was jazz, we tried to keep the live show pretty open. But its always a balance between pre-sequenced material and improv. Sometimes its a full jam, other times we’re on rails. Our new record coming out in July will have an explicit focus on bringing something live to the stage when it comes to production, and it features Ali Shaheed Mohammad, El Da Sensei, Kam Moye, Ohmega Watts, Moka Only, Rich Kidd, Ghettosocks, Kaleb Simmonds, and more.
TCUS: You mentioned you started with the MPC not for making beats, but for exploring the live element. Now that you’re so heavy into using the MPC as a “traditional” instrument improvisationally and all, do you find yourself making beats on the MPC first then recording them afterwards (the other way around)? And if so, has this had a noticeable affect on the beats you make?
Fresh Kils: I have moved over to starting beats on the MPC. Then I’ll go to Logic and other instruments to build on. The MPC is so convenient cause its compact and yet so powerful. When I’m on the road, I can make a beat in the hotel the night before, and be rocking it the next day on stage. I still make beats every which way though. The thing about the MPC is that its limitations focus you. Things sound more stripped back and raw.
TCUS: Is the full-blown MPC routine — like funky drummer set for instance — sort-of a niche thing, or at least pretty rare? And is this something you just learned on your own, or are there any other people who you took inspiration from?
Fresh Kils: There are a few of us out there. But the real monsters, the guys who inspire me, are Exile, Jel, DaVinci & Araab Muzik. All those guys are incredible and for different reasons. They all have their own sound, and are dope producers in their own right. Exile did one of the most classic hip hop records in the last decade with Blu called Below The Heavens. DaVinci is the only guy to ever be sponsored by Akai. There’s even other forms of live beat stuff I love. Beardyman, if you’ve ever seen him, is absolutely incredible, and there are also many loop pedal musicans out there doing great things. So although it is a niche thing, its growing, and it is bigger than we might think.
TCUS: Can you tell us a bit about the MPC routine video series you’re going to be making for us?
Fresh Kils: The MPC routines I’m gonna be doing will be themed, for the most part. Sticking with a theme not only helps to focus me, but it makes it easier to connect with the audience. There’ll be some comedy, as well as some fun experimental stuff I’m working on in there. More than anything I’m gonna have fun with it. As with all my performances, I find if you’re genuinely having a good time, the audience won’t be far behind.