Interview: Kero One Discusses DIY Hip Hop & New Album

December 10, 2015

Kero One is an LA-based songwriter, MC, and producer. Raised in the Bay Area, Kero released and pressed his first album Check The Blueprints in 2003, only to have it discovered in Japan by a DJ who exposed a wide audience to the soulful, jazz-filled beats and rhymes of an artist an ocean away.

Releasing four full length albums (on which he produced, played instruments, and wrote all songs) over the next decade, Kero has built an independent music career that truly epitomizes everything DIY. Amassing over 60,000 fans between Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and sharing the stage with the likes of Blu + Exile, KRS 1, Dougie Fresh, and Souls of Mischief, he’s now ready to release his first-ever producer album under the name Kero Uno.

Kero took the time to answer some questions for us about his hip hop story, running his own business, and working with vocalists on his upcoming Reflection Eternal album, available for pre-order and out December 15th on iTunes (via TuneCore). Check it out after the jump:

1. Tell us a little bit about how Check The Blueprints blew up in Japan and how it impacted the beginning of your musical journey.

Kero One: It was a little over 10 years ago when a random DJ in Japan found that record (vinyl) and played it at his club gig, which caught the attention of a record distributor because at the time not many people were making that sort of melodic hip hop. The distributor then contacted me and asked me for like 5,000 copies of it. That was eye-opening to me because I was rapping in English and I’m not Japanese.

In a way it helped kick off my music career because I was invited to tour the country and I didn’t even have enough songs to do a live show. I had to expedite the recording of new songs just so I could perform out there. Eventually those songs I made landed on my debut album.

2. You’ve played a role in every aspect of the production on your albums, including instrumentation. Were you brought up playing instruments? How do you feel that has impacted your connection to your music?

My parents forced me to play piano when I was young, and like almost everything they forced me to do back then, I became thankful for it when I got older. I love to sample in my music, but I don’t believe you can rely on that when you want to step up production to the next level. Honestly, I’m not a great player but I have enough foundation to make the sounds come out the way I envision it. Thank you, technology.

3. How has your move to LA from the Bay played a role in your current production and styles?

For the past 4 years in LA – damn, it’s been 4 years! – I was able to really get inspired and soak up the scene. Musically, LA has something for everyone, and I hung out in every different scene I was interested in to feel the different vibes: from the Golden Age hip hop scene and the beat scene, to the club and electronic music world. Even though I’ve primarily released hip hop music, I’ve always been a DJ first and a lover of all kinds of music, and I think that’s starting to leak out in my more current music.

Kero Uno Live

4. You’ve licensed music in less traditionally sought-after lanes like malls and hotels. Has it impacted your reach positively?

I think so. Every now and then I get messages from people who tell me they found my music at the gym or at a department store.

5. You’ve totally embraced the DIY ethos since you first started releasing music. How has TuneCore played a role in your career over the years?

I love you guys for not taking a percentage of my revenue! Now I can pay my bills and make more music.

6. On that note, having done your own marketing, design, finances – essentially running your own business – what are some of the most commonly made mistakes by independent artists attempting to do the same?

One thing that I’ve experienced is that sometimes making whatever music you want is bad for branding. In some instances, I’ve found that having too many music interests can hurt your overall career.

For example, I started my career as what people labeled a jazz hop artist, so whenever I did anything outside of that I’d always get people wondering why I’m doing something different. People want consistency and they want to know what they’re going to get. For me though, I just make what I want, so in a way I am knowingly doing this wrong but I have faith that people who follow me do so for the quality of music that I bring. That’s the only consistency I can promise. Its like Jay-Z said though, “If you like my old stuff go buy my old albums”.

A behind-the-scenes look at the making of Reflection Eternal.

8. On your upcoming release Reflection Eternal, you play the role of ‘producer only’ under the name Kero Uno. What inspired the name change and your choice to put out a producer album?

Musically, I felt like this project wasn’t so much of a stretch from what I’ve been doing already as there’s still jazz, soul and some groove, but with perhaps a more modern touch. That’s why I decided to keep my name basically the same, with just enough of a twist to let people know it’s different. Also it’s great for Google searching. I do a lot of research on tagging and search metrics because discovery is so important in this Internet age.

I’ve been wanting to do a producer album for so long, but of course I never had the chance to do it. It’s my chance to challenge myself as a producer and be inspired by other vocalists.

9. How does it feel to be able to let others take the lyrical reigns on your productions? Do you cater to different styles and flows ahead of time, or is there somewhat of a matchmaking process?

For Reflection Eternal I was able to get into the studio with a lot of the vocalists, and overall I went back and forth in collaboration with every vocalist. At the end of the day though, it was so nice to be able to just focus more on producing then penning every single lyric. It’s so much less stressful when you’re not doing both.

10. Aside from the release of Reflection Eternal, what other plans do you have for the coming year?

I’m working on my live show for this album which includes live instrumentation and custom visuals. So once that’s all good I’m planning to tour that around the world. I’m also going to be working on producing tracks for other rappers and singers. I’m currently signed to Universal Music Publishing in Asia and they are trying to link me up with other artists signed under them or other major labels for collaboration.

Get your hands on Reflection Eternal early – pre-order it on iTunes here!

Tags: DIY featuring Hip Hop indie jazz hop kero one kero uno reflection eternal tunecore