[Interview] Fresh Kils talks working with Mad Dukez, his MPC routines, and his newfound confidence

Interview by: Martin Bauman

If you’re a fan of MPC routines, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name Fresh Kils before. The Toronto-based producer/engineer has made a name for himself over the past couple years by turning familiar songs (“Live And Let Die”, the Transformers theme, the Price is Right theme, etc.) into full-out head-nodding hip-hop routines, and winning the Sound Battle Royale in the process. Along the way, he’s also chalked up some impressive credentials in the studio, crafting one of 2011’s stronger releases in The Mint Condition, producing/engineering for artists such as Saigon, Kool G Rap, Fabolous, and M.O.P., and sharing the stage with the likes of Nas, GZA, Ice Cube, Afrika Bambaataa, and more. The Come Up Show caught up with Fresh Kils when he came through London as part of the Deleted Scenes tour with Blueprint, Mad Dukez, and Atherton. We discussed Kils’ upcoming album with Mad Dukez, his MPC routines, why he feels confident on stage or in the studio with anyone, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: First off, I’d like to welcome you back to The Come Up Show. It’s a pleasure to have you. I know you and Mad Dukez have been working on Gettin Gatsby’d, what can you tell me about the project?

Fresh Kils: Dukez, wanna chime in?

Mad Dukez: Gettin Gatsby’d is loosely based on the actual book, The Great Gatsby. So what we did, really, was take some of the bigger themes and modernize it and change it in a way. It wasn’t exactly gonna go in some storybook form, so that it would match the movie or the book. The beats – from the sound champion over here, Fresh Kils – [they] painted a picture for me. I was able to take bigger figures from the book, and create something out of it that was a remnant of actual figures that were written down by F. Scott Fitzgerald. So that was cool.

Fresh Kils: Yeah, and as we’re progressing, we’re trying to make it more [extravagant]. The sound of the roaring twenties is kind of a difficult thing to [replicate]… I don’t want to say use, in a sampling way, but it’s more about trying to create the same mood. That’s been a bit of the challenge, making sure that [the mood is reflected]. You know, obviously Dukez [is a] great writer, and has brought these great concepts together. And obviously, there’s different things about the twenties. It was kind of a roaring time, but there’s also a dark underside to it. So we’re trying to [reflect that]. And as we progress, we’re going to be incorporating more of the twenties vibe into it. More horns, muted trumpets, we’re gonna do some big band things…

Mad Dukez: That’s what I’m mostly looking forward to, that big band sound. [It] really touches everybody. Everybody likes to hear those instruments being played, and when you hear the harmonies and the way that it’s formed together, especially with the ears that Kils has, we’re gonna make something that you’ll enjoy listening to and just let it play through.

TCUS: Moving to another album, I know earlier this year, you did the Extra Science LP with Fraction. I read that it was originally going to be a one-time performance, is that true?

Fresh Kils: That was an interesting album, because I didn’t really even know we were making an album. We met at a beat show, and we talked about getting together and doing stuff, and then Fraction would just come down… It’s funny, I didn’t realize what was happening. Fraction would come down, and we’d hang out, and it was really organic. We’d work on stuff together. And I remember him coming to the studio one day and being like, “yo man, this album’s sounding really dope.” And I was like, “what are you talking about?” At that point, we’d compiled like five or six joints, and I just didn’t realize it. It was so organic, that it kinda just snuck up on me. So yeah, I didn’t think of it as an album. I thought of it more [like it was] just us hanging out, and I think the record kind of reflects that. When we were trying to figure out what the single was, it was sort of funny, because we didn’t really make it for singles. We just made music for awhile, and then it was like “oh, this is dope! Let’s do that.” It was really, really organic and cool. It’s not just going to be a one-shot, [Fraction] is working on another thing, but I don’t know that the next thing is going to be just me and him. He’s working with Da Beatminerz for some shit, and some other producers that we’re bringing into the fold.

TCUS: I remember Fraction emceeing when you and Uncle Fester came to Waterloo as part of The Extremities tour a couple summers ago. On the subject of The Extremities, is there going to be a followup to The Mint Condition?

Fresh Kils: Yeah, we have two things coming up right now. The next thing we’re working on is the remix record. It’s called Re:Fresh, and we’re really excited about it, because we’ve done two things. We’ve decided every song is either gonna be an exciting feature that someone in the fam – or someone that we’re familiar with – has done, or it would be something that there’s a video for. So we’re either remixing songs that already have videos, or we’re doing songs that have exciting features. We’re remixing Relic and Saukrates’ song. We’re remixing the D-Sisive and Guilty Simpson song. We’re remixing The Get By’s song, “Lift Off”, which has a really cool video.

We’re remixing Rich Kidd’s “Don’t Sleep” video, we’re remixing a song by Ain’t No Love featuring Skyzoo… so every song’s gonna have some caché to it. And we’re gonna do it as a free thing too, because the last record really exceeded all of our expectations, so we kinda wanted to thank the fans. So that’ll be coming out in the new year, and then we’re actually a lot farther ahead on our next album than I realized. We had Fashawn in the studio, we had REKS in the studio… and it’s always difficult, because there’s so many people that you want to work with. Obviously, there will be crew members and stuff on there, Backburner and Droppin’ Science fam. We’re looking at trying to get A-Plus on something, so we’ll see how that goes. But yeah, Re:Fresh is the next thing, and then it’ll be the next Extremities record coming out after that.

TCUS: You mentioned Fashawn and REKS, what was it like working with those guys?

Fresh Kils: It was really dope, for a couple of reasons. Going into it… I don’t know Fashawn or REKS [personally], so one of the exciting things for me about working with both those guys is, they come into the situation, and they kind of get to see what I’m doing. And it’s really cool [when] there’s that moment of mutual respect, like, I’m not just some new jack that’s trying to buy a verse or something like that. For example, REKS’ manager has been hustling beats for me, and I’ve been doing work with MoSS, who works with REKS. There’s a lot more connection, so it’s nice to be able to approach it more on a level playing field with those guys. I mean, obviously, I look up to those guys. Fashawn is one of my favourite emcees, period, and same with REKS. It was just exciting for me, because it wasn’t on some fanboy shit, and they’re really excited about the joints [too]. REKS actually got his boy on one of the joints, because he was really feeling it, and the Fashawn track is one of my favourite beats that I’ve ever done, and he was just loving it. It’s exciting from that point, because in past years, I wouldn’t have felt ready to be in the same room as those guys, in some senses. But especially in the last year, man, I feel ready, and I’m comfortable in those situations, and I feel great about the material. I have a confidence now that I didn’t have, and it just helps make those experiences go a lot smoother. It’s been really exciting to work with guys that I’m a fan of.

TCUS: Back to The Mint Condition, what was the concept behind that album?

Fresh Kils: It was kind of a reaction to our first record, which was commissioned by CBC to remix a jazz record and make a hip-hop record out of it. And because of that, we had a bit more of a narrow focus. In a lot of ways, The Mint Condition was kind of our first record, because we had full creative control. It’s not that we didn’t have creative control on the first record, but we didn’t [really], and in a lot of ways, CBC producers were picking which ones they wanted to go, there were helping to find features, and we were limited in terms of material that we could sample. So from Fes’ and my point of view, The Mint Condition is kind of like our first record, in a sense. I think also, too, as producers, it’s difficult when you’re making a producer record, we really wanted to make sure that we weren’t just producing emcees’ songs. We came up on Ninja Tune, which is all instrumental stuff, so we wanted to do a couple instrumental tracks, and we did the song “Look My Way” with Kaleb Simmonds, which is a gospel tune – like, full out R&B/gospel tune – that we just did an incredible video for that’s coming out in the new year. Again, as producers, we kind of wanted to show a little bit of diversity, and keep things entertaining and organic-sounding, and to a certain degree, nostalgic. We’re nineties/golden era heads, and hopefully we’re not derivative, but [we’re] taking some of those old models and injecting them with some new love.

TCUS: It’s interesting… You mention you and Uncle Fester handling the production, and talk about creative control; how did you deal with control of the song direction on The Mint Condition? Are you giving these emcees a lot of leeway, or is the song direction something that you’ve already set for them?

Fresh Kils: There’s a couple different things. For example, with the “Dial Tones” track, we’re blessed to have Ghettosocks, Ambition and Lushlife. Those guys are all incredible writers and emcees. And the really cool thing about the way that song came together is that I did the skeleton of the beat, and then Socks and Fes came together to figure out a concept, and then Socks actually quarterbacked the writing of everyone’s verse overlapping. The way that actually happened is Lushlife is rapping lines from Ambition’s verse, and they actually wrote each other’s parts in so that they could overlap and make it sound like it’s a phone conversation. And that’s a testament to them being willing to work together, and Ghettosocks really quarterbacking the creative writing.

I think overall, to answer that question, we just try to pick the best artists so that when it comes to that stage, that’s sort of being handled. I’d be in the studio with people all the time, and I’d be pitching ideas at Fes, like, “hey, I have this joint, I’ve got these guys in the studio, what do you think? Here’s some of their stuff, here’s what we did,” and Fester and I decided what we liked. We got really excited about Ohmega Watts, because we’re big fans of [his], and it was nice, because we would get a verse from somebody, and we could then go out and [bring other people in]. I’ve known Moka [Only] for a long time, so it’s not a big deal, but it was nice to be like, “hey Moka, how would you like to be on a song with Ohmega Watts?” That’s a much cooler way to present him with something, and then have Moka be able to write off of Ohmega. So it depends…

The Kaleb Simmonds song, “Look My Way”, was done a long time ago, and I sort of pitched it, because it hadn’t come out on a Kaleb record. I pitched it to Fes, saying “I don’t know, what do you think? I love this song, do you think it’s representative enough of what we’re doing?” And we both just loved the song so much, and Kaleb gave us his blessing to put the song on. It’s a great way to cap off the record.

TCUS: Speaking of another artist that’s on The Mint Condition, how did you guys get involved with Ali Shaheed Muhammad?

Fresh Kils: Interestingly enough, [in] my first gig out of school, I interned for half a year with K-Cut from Main Source. And that’s kind of how I got my start in the industry; I was his engineer for about three years. Working with K, he’s from that [golden] era – you know, Large Professor and him being in a group in the early nineties – they all know each other. There was a small group of guys in that era that were doing things, so all the Native Tongues guys know each other, and Tribe, and Brand Nubian, and all these different groups. So there’s all these interesting relationships from that time. So, you know, I’d be in the studio and K-Cut would show up with Rashad Smith, who produced Busta Rhymes’ “Woo-Hah!”, who’s like his cousin from back in the day. This kind of stuff [happened]. So I’d be in the studio with all these different people, and one week, he brought Ali Shaheed up. Ali Shaheed was spinning, and they were all friends, so I ended up spending a week in the studio with the two of them, producing for one of K-Cut’s artists. Ali and I got along, and… I mean, he’s a sweetheart, he’s a really great guy.

But that was awhile ago, actually, and what happened was that I kept all those sessions, and some stuff got used, some didn’t. And when it came time to do [The Mint Condition], I was looking for different material, I stumbled upon some of those old sessions, called up Ali, and was like “hey man, I’d like to use some of those stuff, would you be down for it?” And he was like “yeah man, go for it!” And that was really exciting, because initially, I talked to K-Cut about it, but I didn’t want to do it without talking to Ali. And not only was Ali up for it, but he also responded really well to what we did with the stuff, and gave us [his approval], like “yeah, I’m down to be part of it,” which is just crazy, because he’s a total legend, and I’m in awe of that whole thing. Another thing we did, and we’ll do over the course of things, is we’ll just produce a bunch of stuff, and then we’ll kinda whittle down to what we like. “The Mint Condition” part 1 and part 2 were both based off the main source material that we reworked in different ways, and we were going to just pick one of them, [but] in the end, we just liked both of them and said, “f*** it, let’s make two tracks and do it that way.”

TCUS: I know you and Uncle Fester met back at University of King’s College in Halifax. What’s the full story?

Fresh Kils: We moved in next door to one another. It’s really weird. I was a guitar playing four-track guy at the time, and he was getting into deejaying, and that’s just what happened. Right away, we knew we were interested in similar things. I mean, I wasn’t a hip-hop head at the time, but being interested in four-track recording, I was interested in the process, and the hip-hop stuff just fed [right] into that. When he showed me samplers, and how to make beats, that was just like a lightbulb firing in my head. And it just kinda went from there. And it’s always kind of been that role, where I’ve been the engineer/producer, and he’s been the producer/deejay, and in that way, we’ve kind of been the backbone of… initially, it was the Backburner crew, and it’s just kind of expanded. I mean, MisterE, I did that MisterE record [Dusting For Prints] in my studio, [and] all the cuts [were done] by Fes. We’ve been able to be a part of so many different artists, and kind of move as a team behind [them]. And that’s part of the reason why we wanted to do our own thing.

TCUS: You mentioned that you used to be mostly into rock and roll, and didn’t listen to a lot of hip-hop. What was the first record that got you into hip-hop?

Fresh Kils: The first record that really got me was The Goods’ Secondary Education, which was produced by Gordski. At the time, Fes was showing me a lot of stuff. He showed me Buck 65, and Sixtoo, and I thought that stuff was so out there, it was hard for me to get into it right away. And The Goods’ stuff was just so funky, and they sampled a lot of David Axelrod, and I think that might have been what did it [for me]. That got me for production. The first record that really got me rap-wise was The Juggaknots’ “Clear Blue Skies”.

Even to this day, it’s one of those songs that on the odd day, I’ll tear up listening to it. It’s a song about a father and a son, and it’s a father scolding his son for dating a black girl. When I heard that song, I understood the power of rap. It was hard when I first started listening to rap, because there was so much going on, and it was hard to digest. [But] that song really drove it home. I [knew then] that this is a powerful medium, and I understood how it could work.

TCUS: Who would you say your biggest influences are, production-wise?

Fresh Kils: I mean, the classics, right? I want to say Pete Rock. Everyone says Pete Rock, but the importance of Pete Rock for me was the layering, because I went into it from the production side where I really wanted to have all the stuff: drums, bassline, guitars, horns, strings, keys… And [Pete Rock] is really the orchestrator producer. [He’s] a bigtime influence. Eric B. and Rakim, man. Their production was big for me, especially because I was listening to Chemical Brothers, and I was into big beat – that was one of the ways I got over – and that upbeat style of production was a big influence. The producer from Portishead, Dust Brothers, Beck… That Odelay record is probably one of my [favourites] – and you don’t think of it as a hip-hop record, but in terms of production, it’s one of the most incredibly produced records. There is so much shit going on in that record. I know those aren’t typical answers. I appreciate Timbaland from the point of view of [creating a vibe]. What I love about Timbaland is that he’s purely vibe. He’s the ultimate vibe producer. It’s not really about his drums, or his instruments, or anything. It’s literally about the way everything works. You’re not gonna sit there and go “I love Timbaland’s snares,” you know? You’re not gonna say that. You’re not gonna say “I love his synth work.” It’s his vibe that’s so great. And, you know, Dilla’s such an obvious answer, but the thing about Dilla that’s so cool is that he could do anything with any record. And not having the money to buy records the way I’d love to, you kinda have to take a page out of Dilla’s book at some point. You kinda have to give him the nod, because if you can’t buy really great, rare, amazing records, you’re gonna have to make gold from crap.

TCUS: Moving on to the MPC, what got you interested in that?

Fresh Kils: I mean, it’s always been the backbone of hip-hop, but I never had the money for one. I made beats for a long time without it. When I was working with K-Cut, I had to learn how to use them, but I didn’t own one for a long time. For me, when I started getting into [the MPC], I didn’t need it to make beats. I wanted to get into it for the [live performance], which is clearly why I’ve taken the MPC shit way too far now. It has to stop.

But yeah, that’s kinda how it happened. I got into it more for the live element, and trying to change my interface – trying to approach music differently. You end up getting kinda stuck in the methodology, and you end up making the same beat every time. You can start to hear the form in different producers a lot of the time.

TCUS: In terms of your MPC routines, how do you decide if a song is going to make for a good routine?

Fresh Kils: Some of the routines were dictated, so I had to use the Transformers [theme]. They gave us the Transformers, they gave us the Price Is Right, and so I didn’t actually have choices there. Things like Bruce Lee, obviously, that mix of kung fu and Wu-Tang is gonna go well. One of the things that’s really important in the routine stuff is you need a wealth of sounds. It’s not just like “let’s sample a song and make it work.” The reason why [the] Transformers [routine] is so good, and why it works so well as a routine, is because there are so many recognizable Transformers sounds. There’s all the voices, there’s lasers, there’s so many sounds that you recognize. So that’s kinda the most important thing: are there sounds and things that you can use? The Tenacious D routine works in the same way. It only works because there are so many weird sounds to work with. I’m not just sampling guitar. So that tends to be the main reason for me.

TCUS: I have to say, I was surprised when I heard your Transformers routine as the beat in Ghettosocks’s song “Invincible”. I wasn’t sure that anyone would be able to rap over it. Did you have any reservations about having somebody rap over that routine?

Fresh Kils: Big time. I had big time reservations. I shouldn’t say I didn’t want it to happen, [but] if it was going to be something, I needed it to be the best thing. Going into it, I said to [Ghettosocks], “this is really important to me. If we do this, can we go for a VideoFACT? Can we make sure that we make something special out of it?” At the time, he’d been rejected for a video for “Ricochet”, which was another song off his record with El Da Sensei, but the treatment was this treatment of robot megazoids fighting in a city, right? So initially, I used the Transformers routine to remix “Ricochet” and apply for the grant… didn’t get it. So then we decided, “let’s just make a new song and go for it,” and then we got it. But that was the important thing for me. That was the hitch: if I was gonna make a song out of it, let’s get El [Da Sensei], let’s get a big feature or someone that we know, and let’s do this video. Let’s make it huge. The nice thing about it, though, is that the Transformers routine still survives. I don’t feel like it’s co-opted.

TCUS: One last question before we wrap up. I’m going to list off some of the people you’ve shared the stage with over the years: Nas, GZA, Ice Cube, EPMD, AZ, Buckshot, Afrika Bambaataa, Pharcyde… Which memories stand out the most from that list of names?

Fresh Kils: Afrika Bambaataa was one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met, and I can understand why he’s such a focal point of communicating it all, because he’s such a good guy, and he’s got such a good soul. I mean, you don’t really get to meet Nas at a show, because your backstage pass gets downgraded when he shows up, so it doesn’t work. But obviously, that was a huge opportunity. I think one of the best memories for me was [being] at the ECMAs in Fredericton, and we shared the stage with Sylvio Pupo, who’s a keyboard player in the Buena Vista Social Club. We just did one song, but that was a moment for me where it was a crossover moment. We had a chance to be more than… I don’t want to say just hip-hop, because hip-hop is my life, but that might have been one of the pinnacles. I know Fes and I [have] talked about that as being such a big moment for us. Because again, hip-hop tends not to be looked at fondly by other genres, a lot of the time. And Doug Riley – the late Doug Riley, Order of Canada for Music, one of the most incredible keyboard players, [who] arranged Ray Charles’ album – listening to our remixes of his song, and giving us his approval. Here’s one of the greatest composers and piano players in Canadian history, giving us the nod on our hip-hop beats. That might be one of the proudest moments that I’ve had, or that we’ve had.

And it’s always great to share the stage with somebody big, but those situations tend to be contrived, and it’s hard to build with somebody in that sense. So I think those other moments, with Sylvio Pupo, Doug Riley, and Afrika… those moments where you get to connect [stand out the most]. And obviously, the situation that I’m in right now with Mad Dukez on the Blueprint tour [is special]. I’ve been a fan of Rhymesayers, but Blueprint is such an incredible artist. He really is. When Mad Dukez and I did our first show in Huntington, it was kind of like doing a job interview for a job you’re stuck with for the next month. And it was a big moment for us to hear that he loved the set, and that we belong here. It’s like with Fashawn… I feel ready now. The stuff I’m doing with Mad Dukez, the new Monsters EP, the Gettin Gatsby’d record… I feel like we’re ready to take on the world, man. I don’t feel out of place sharing the stage with anybody. There’s a confidence there that I have. And again, working with somebody like Mad Dukez, we don’t have to talk about things. I know where the sixteen is, he knows where the hook’s coming… we just know. He’s a veteran, I’m a veteran, we’re a supergroup boy band concocted for world domination.

Mad Dukez: Test tubes and lab coats.

TCUS: Thank you very much, and good luck on the rest of the tour!

Fresh Kils: Thanks, man!

Check back next week for our interview with Mad Dukez, where we discuss the Monsters EP, touring with Blueprint, and more.