Although he’s been making beats since the 90s, New Jersey-based producer Keith Science might not be a familiar name to many. Keeping his talents under the radar from everyone other than his closest friends and family, Science has only been making his unique brand of sample-based boom-bap production available to the masses for the last couple of years.
Aside from dropping his debut instrumental project “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” in 2012, the NJ beat junkie has also worked with Kool Keith and the UK’s very own Mista Spyce of The Brotherhood fame.
Keith’s latest release, the hypnotic “Hypothalamus”, finds the talented music man once again putting his own spin on the traditional sounds of East Coast Hip-Hop with sublime results.
Here, Science discusses his passion for 90s Hip-Hop, the art of sampling and his personal approach to making music.
How were you initially introduced to Hip-Hop?
“Okay, well I’ve been a musician my entire life, y’know. When I was growing-up my dad was a blues guitarist and my uncle, who was real close with the family, he was a rock guitarist. So I grew-up primarily as a guitarist, playing different styles of music, and I really always wanted to keep the range of music that I listened to as diverse as possible. As a musician, I was constantly looking for something to inspire me. I was definitely listening to rap music as I was growing-up in the 80s and you had “Yo! MTV Raps” on all the time and I would watch that. But then when I heard what was happening in Hip-Hop in the early-90s, it hit me like a ton of bricks. That early-90s East Coast feel is just such a magical sound and I’d never really heard anything like that before. It was just so captivating and so creative. The music I was hearing gave me this unbelievable feeling compared to anything that I’d ever listened to before. Now, this was probably when I was about eighteen-years-old. That’s when I really fell head over heels in love with Hip-Hop. I mean, before that I’d been playing the guitar, writing my own music, and that really seemed like it was the direction I was going to go in. But then when I really got into Hip-Hop, it just changed everything.”
Can you remember some of those first early-90s albums you heard that really gave you that feeling you mentioned?
“Absolutely. The first album that comes to mind is “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest. I was just glued to that one instantly. But the album that really did it for me and made me a Hip-Hop fan for life was Gang Starr’s “Daily Operation”. When I heard that it just changed everything. I can’t even really explain it. I mean, first of all, it just sounded so different to the other Hip-Hop records that I was listening to at the time. It was Premier, y’know (laughs). He’s the greatest ever. But there’s something about that “Daily Operation” album, even to this day, that just reminds me of why I love this music and why I want to be involved with it.”
For me, “Daily Operation” is the album that bridged the gap between the straight jazz loops Premier had been using on the first two Gang Starr albums and the boom-bap sound that became his trademark…
“Absolutely. I think you’re right on that. Also, that album is deceptively simple. It’s so simple but also so rich in terms of the creativity heard on it. “Daily Operation” is an album that literally gives me chills. I mean, if you listen to something off it like “Soliloquy Of Chaos”, that track in particular just puts you in such a trance the second it comes on and you don’t want it stop, y’know (laughs). It’s amazing.”
So as you were really starting to immerse yourself in Hip-Hop, was it a journey you were making on your own or did you also have friends at the time who were listening to the music?
“It was actually my friends who helped me get into it. A friend of mine had moved from our town to another town in New Jersey and over there they were listening to a lot of Hip-Hop. So he would come back with a lot of tapes and we would be listening to this stuff and were just being blown away by it. Some of the guys in this group of friends had already been listening to Hip-Hop and really studying it. I mean, I would see my friends all huddling around the stereo listening to a new Hip-Hop track and they would really be speaking in-depth about each different sound and the way the samples had been layered, all this kinda stuff. It really just blew my mind because before then I’d never really seen anyone sit there and really analyse music like that. So it taught me a lot about how to approach the music when I did start making beats. Plus, with the musical experience I already had and being able to play various instruments, it was just a real natural progression to me.”
So is that where the Science part of your name comes from, seeing your friends really studying the music and then doing that yourself?
“Exactly. The name was definitely born out of that original group of friends I had back in the early-90s. It just came from me studying Hip-Hop and I really feel the stuff I learned from being around those guys at that time are lessons that I still apply when I’m making music today. Unfortunately, I don’t know if many people still listen to music and study it in that same way today. I think a lot of people now jump into this style of music without even attempting to study the history which I think is a huge mistake. But I definitely think there seems to be more of an interest in that old sound now among the newer generation that are coming up which is pretty amazing.”
Speaking of studying the history, when you first started really listening to Hip-Hop in the early-90s were you aware of the rich heritage that New Jersey already had with the whole Flavor Unit movement, YZ, Poor Righteous Teachers etc?
“I kinda learnt about it as I went along. I mean, when I first got into the music I used to just study it all the time. I was so into it that I wanted to know everything about it. At one point, I was almost like a walking encyclopedia. Unfortunately, it’s not like that anymore as I can barely remember what I did yesterday (laughs). But there was a time when I was very dedicated to learning about the music and culture of Hip-Hop and making sure that anything I did didn’t violate the original principles.”
So did you start making beats almost immediately?
“Pretty much. What happened was, my uncle, who I mentioned earlier, had some old studio equipment. So back in the day he got hold of an old Tascam four-track cassette machine and he also got a couple of drum machines and a keyboard. So there was equipment around and I already knew how to work the stuff because I’d been using it for years. So when I started hanging-out with my group of friends who helped get me into Hip-Hop, one dude was an emcee and he wanted to make a beat. So he was asking me about it because he knew I had access to equipment. So I said I’d call my uncle up and see if he’d let us borrow some of the stuff. So my uncle let me borrow the four-track and the drum machines and my friend, who went by the name Swift Wisdom , he had a really cheap sampler. So we just started messing around and the first thing we did, I helped him make his beat because he already knew what he wanted to do and I knew how to use the equipment. So once that first beat was made, I was like, ‘You know what? I could learn how to do this and really go crazy with it.'”
Were you trying to shop beats at this point or were you really just keeping what you were doing within your own circle?
“Yeah, I was just keeping my beats within the crew. To be honest, I really didn’t feel like I was that good back then. I needed to learn and grow. I was still experimenting and it wasn’t really my time yet. Furthermore, on top of that, I really had bulls**t equipment (laughs). So it would have been really difficult for me to approach a big name emcee or something when I didn’t feel my beats were good enough. Or even if it was a good beat, it would have been made on crappy equipment so you wouldn’t have been able to record with it.”
Who would you say were some of your earliest influences when you started making beats?
“I’ve obviously gotta say DJ Premier as he was such a huge influence on me and there’s no way I’d even be able to do what I do today without what he did first. I was a huge Pete Rock fan, then there was Diamond D, Showbiz, Buckwild, all that D.I.T.C. stuff. Plus, all the Tribe stuff was a huge influence on me.”
Those influences can still definitely be heard in your music today because you’re very much about drums but there’s often a lot of melody in there as well…
“No doubt. I can’t tell you’re listening, man. That really is my thing so I’m glad you noticed that. The type of beats that I really liked the most back in the 90s were the ones where the drums were really hard but there was a nice semi-friendly melody going on over that with the samples and everything. There’s just something about the marriage of those two things together that I really like. I mean, one beat that immediately comes to mind when I think about that is DJ Premier’s remix of Fat Joe’s “The S**t Is Real”. That beat is hard as hell but it’s got a nice melody behind it as well. So that’s something I always try to do. I mean, not all of my beats are melodic, but that is a huge part of what I do. I think being a musician by nature, I always try to make things sound as musical and as organic as possible.”
I think that’s always the challenge with instrumental Hip-Hop, for a producer to take it beyond just being a good beat for someone to rhyme over and to make music that stands on its own, keeps your interest and doesn’t make you think, ‘I wish there was an emcee on this…’
“Right, absolutely. You’re exactly right. You’ve got to have some substance in there. That’s one of the mistakes I think I made as a young producer, I didn’t have enough layers or changes in the music I was making. Now, I’ve come up with a formula that works for me and I really try to make a song out of every track I do, even though there are no vocals. That’s something that’s especially evident to me on this new project “Hypothalamus” compared to the previous album, “Vessels Of Thought Volume II”.”
So were you producing consistently throughout the 90s? Is there any particular reason why you didn’t release any material during that time?
“That’s a good question and, to be honest with you, I did actually stop making beats for awhile. When Hip-Hop started to decline towards the end of the late-90s, I really started to get frustrated. I wasn’t happy about the direction the music was moving in and it made me lose interest. Also, around that time, I’d been doing a lot of music projects that included some stuff outside of Hip-Hop and I just felt burnt out. I felt like I didn’t even want to mess with music for awhile. Then my brother, who goes by the name DJ Uncut Raw, he and I got hold of some equipment at some point and we started making beats together. I mean, he’d got into it a little bit through being the younger brother watching me as we were growing-up. So we started working together and that was the first time I got an actual sampling drum machine. We built a studio in a friend’s house and were over there all the time. We had local emcees just coming through and we were just having fun with it. This was around the early-to-mid 2000s. Then I got to a point a couple of years ago where I decided that I wanted to try and formally release my music. So “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” kind of just started off with me making a beat-tape for me and my friends to listen to and a lot of people liked it, so I just ended-up formally pressing it up. I mean, I’m a pretty private guy. I’m not that person who’s trying to be all up in the cameras and everything. I’m just doing this because I love this music and I can’t sit back and just watch the art of sampling die.”
What is it about the actual act of sampling that really draws you in and keeps you feeling so passionate about it?
“The thing is, I use a really old style sampler and I do that for a reason. It’s because it has a certain, beautiful organic sound to it and that’s what really excites me about sampling. That sound is the sound of Hip-Hop. But it’s that whole process of sampling and achieving that sound that you’re hearing in your head that really excites me as well. I mean, a lot of people wouldn’t even want to touch the equipment I make my music on because that old equipment is hard to use (laughs). I mean, my new album “Hypothalamus” only has twelve tracks on it, but that album took me a whole year to make. I can’t be one of those people who pump out ten beats a day. I can’t do that. I’ll start a beat and maybe won’t go back to it until a month later when I’m really inspired by something or a particular idea grabs me. But to really answer your question, you can just do so many things when you’re sampling. The most exciting thing for me is to take sounds and try to make them sound completely different. I mean, the samples that I took from vinyl and used on the new album, you’ll never be able to figure out where I got them from (laughs). I don’t want to give away any tricks, but there’s so many things you can do with sampling and I really wish people would try to challenge themselves more and see what they can come up with. I think anyone doing this just needs to at least try and elevate themselves above what they’ve already heard being done. That’s how you end-up doing something creative. I mean, I love Hip-Hop more than other style of music but I’m open to listening to anything and I can be inspired by anything as long as it’s something that’s pure and great. Music speaks to you in general and if you want to be a good, well-rounded artist I think it’s important for you to listen to other genres and really study how different types of music are put together.”
What equipment do you use?
“I use an old Akai S2000 rack sampler for everything. If you look at the whole history of Akai, it’s probably the cheapest sampler they ever put out (laughs). But the reason I chose this machine is mainly because I didn’t know of anyone that was using it. Premier has the S950, Pete Rock did the SP12oo thing, but I wanted to use something that nobody else was using. So I decided to give this particular machine a shot. When I first started using it, the learning curve was definitely huge (laughs). It wasn’t pretty when I first started with that machine but I think I’ve got it now. I mean, I don’t use Pro-Tools or anything. This whole “Hypothalamus” album was mixed on my old analog recording console. If I could record to tape I would, but it’s just way too expensive at this point. But a lot of the equipment I use today is the stuff that was being used in studios back in the 90s. For me, it’s more fun sitting in front of a recording console than it is sitting in front of a computer screen with a mouse. I just think that all of this computer software used today makes it harder for people to differentiate themselves and really put their own character into their music. I mean, the way I work, it takes forever, but I run every single individual track in at its own time. So if I get the foundation of a beat down, before I go and record it I might sit there and mess with the sound of the bass drum for an hour or something (laughs). Then I’ll record just that track, then I’ll run in another track like the snare and layer it like that. So every single sound on my tracks gets attention. It takes forever and a lot of people wouldn’t want to do it like that, but that’s when you can have full control and really make what you’re doing musical.”
So do you think relying too heavily on computers whilst making music takes away from the creative process?
“It’s too easy to sound like everyone else when you’re involving computers too much in the recording process. I mean, I try to keep computers totally out of music if possible. Now, like I said, these days it’s too expensive to record on tape, so you have to stick with digital, but there are so many things that you can do to mess with samples and get a more organic sound than just relying on a computer. As I said, I don’t want to give away any secrets as it’s taken me twenty years to develop some of the techniques I use, but I just think producers out there should challenge themselves more and explore the other things that can be done with samples rather than just doing the obvious stuff. There are a lot of great rappers out there and I think that when it comes to a lot of people who have complaints about Hip-Hop today, it’s really the production that’s ruining it for them. I just think that a lot of the computer-based production being heard today sounds very sterile and stiff and doesn’t have that loose, organic bounce to it like it should. Those are the kind of things I try to focus on specifically when I’m making my records.”
You definitely have a real talent for creating particular moods in your music and really taking the listener somewhere on each track…
“When I make my music I just try and take my brain to another universe or something (laughs). I don’t even really know how to explain it. But it really feels good to hear people say that because it means they’re really listening and getting what I’m doing. I mean, my music is designed that way and it is made to tap into certain moods and hopefully take you somewhere as you’re listening to it. That is the ultimate goal, to create some type of emotion that really sticks with you after you’ve listened to the music.”
It was actually the work you did in 2012 with the UK’s Mista Spyce that put me on to you. How did you hook-up with him?
“First of all, big shout to Mista Spyce! To be honest with you, he’s really part of the reason that “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” even happened in the first place. I started posting some beats online, some of which would actually end up on “Vessels…”, and Spyce was one of the first guys to really listen and give me the nod of approval. He immediately wanted to work together, which we did and we made a couple of great tracks. Spyce was really encouraging and it kinda helped give me the confidence to formally release something and he continues to be supportive.”
If you could choose one emcee to work with, is there anyone in particular who immediately comes to mind?
“Now, this is a totally unoriginal answer and probably every producer will say the same thing, but I would definitely like to work with Nas. As far as I’m concerned he’s the greatest and there’s nothing else really to talk about (laughs). Nas is the type of emcee who can really light up any type of track. Someone else I’d like to work with is Jeru The Damaja. I’d really like to do something with him. But in terms of working with different emcees, we’ll see what happens in the future as a lot of people really still don’t know that I’m even out there yet. I hope I do get to work with more emcees but it’s tough to find the right people to work with. I mean, I’m not an emcee, but the one thing I will say about my beats is that I can see how some of them might not be considered easy to rap on (laughs). But as much as I enjoy making instrumentals, when you put vocals on a track it just takes it somewhere else and opens up a whole new level of creativity.”
And when it comes to other producers, is there anyone who you really think is setting the standard today?
“Hell yeah, The Alchemist. I really love what he’s doing and he really seems to always think outside the box. He’s just a true original in my opinion. I mean, I loved that s**t that he did with Prodigy on their “Albert Einstein” album. That album is really creative to me. The first two tracks on that album are just so good and you really get pulled in quick. That s**t is just hard! But musically Alchemist is just so unpredictable and I’m always excited to hear what he’s going to do next. Alchemist is definitely someone who, to me, is elevating the art of sampling and really showing what you can do with it.”
Now that “Hypothalamus” is out, do you have any goals for the next twelve months?
“All I can really hope for is that this album lets people know that I’m out there and if people want to work together then come and see me (laughs). I mean, after getting “Hypothalamus” out there, I haven’t even really made a beat in the last few months. I’ve been having to take care of a lot of business stuff with getting the vinyl finished and everything. But my girlfriend always tells me that the creative process needs a rest sometimes and I’m kinda in that rest period right now (laughs). I can’t wait to get back in that studio but I just have to wait until that inspiration hits me. I mean, sometimes it’s like that and you just have to wait until it’s the right time. For many years I felt like I was just making music for myself, so it’s great to have reached a point where people are receiving the music in the way it was intended to be received. It just makes me want to work harder.”
Follow Keith Science on Twitter – @KeithScience
Check “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” and “Hypothalamus” on BandCamp.
Keith Science – “Logic Gates” (Central Wax Records / 2014)