Kaj Kadence (aka Kevin Michel) is a Brooklyn-born, North Carolina-based artist who is three mix tapes deep into his hip hop journey. He’s been using TuneCore for almost three years to distribute his music, and he’s got a lot to say about being an independent creator in 2015.
Read our interview with Kaj as we dive into topics of over saturation, substantive lyrical content, evolving as an artist, and running your own creative start up:
You’ve been quoted saying you felt you were “born 20 years too late”. What is it about the hip hop of the late 80s and early 90s that resonates with you most? Who are your strongest influences?
Kaj Kadence: Ah! If I had the foresight to know that quote would be brought up so often I might of worded it differently (laughs). There is a raw emotion of passion present in most recordings completed in the late 80s and early to mid 90s. I refuse to be the young artist on an evangelical pedestal preaching about the differences between the Golden Era and modern music, so it is easier to focus on the blood, sweat and tears that were mixed into the music from that time when compared to current sounds.
My strongest influences in music are Christopher Wallace, Shawn Carter, Nasir Jones, James Hendrix, Robert Marley and Michael Jackson. I pull positives and negatives from their personal and creative lives to shape the world that Kaj resides in.
What do you feel a lot of newer hip hop is lacking in terms of substance? Conversely, where do you feel current MCs and producers are getting it right in ways the legends couldn’t?
I have given the term “substance” a lot of thought. I think I am in a comfortable spot where I can acknowledge that, although what is being discussed in current hip hop releases is not as in-your-face informative as records of the golden era, hip hop has become the new rock ‘n roll. We must remember that life is give and take. Creators, as well as fans of hip hop, wanted the spotlight and to control a large portion of popular music, but sacrifices must be made to cross over. We can all agree that radio stations, college campuses, festivals and club venues will probably never blast music discussing the plight of the impoverished or the wicked ways of the government.
I think newer artists figured out a songwriting formula that appealed to their target audience, (millennials), in a way that has never been seen. There is a clear line that has been drawn that states “FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY“. Newer artist and producers understand the business of music more than ever. Every song, video and performance is catered to entertainment and prolonging their career/relevancy, unlike the previous generation of music which delivered informative messages while entertaining
It should be noted that there are many artist still staying true to their message and non-commercialized art. Although you may have to dig a little deeper or utilize Internet radio, there is an abundance of artist spreading conscious messages through their songs and visuals.
You’ve dropped several mixtapes over the past few years. How do you feel your style and lyrical content evolved with each release?
I have commercially released three mixtapes via TuneCore and an additional four EPs via Soundcloud dating back to 2013. It’s an awesome feeling to have some groundwork laid, but when listening to previous work I tend to cringe. I say that jokingly, but there is some truth to that. When I first started releasing music in 2013, I definitely was a product of the music I grew up listening to. I had points to prove, downtrodden people to defend and lyrical prowess to flex. I did so primarily over simple and soft boom-bap.
I am fortunate to have a well rounded music business partner who understands my creative plight. He helps me get out of my own way and understand needs versus wants. As an artist, I want to use my talents to spread good and speak on things that may not be widespread knowledge; but as a professional artist I must understand consumerism and how to feed the masses.
If you start with my second mixtape, Bragg BLVD, you can see a change in my creative climate. You can hear me stray from the complexities of wordplay and become more comfortable with making enjoyable songs while maintaining lyrical content. Move along to my third and most recent mixtape, Studio 68, and my progression is front and center. I really took a big step into “dumbing down” my work to take the step towards a sustainable career in the music industry.
Dumbing down is a complex and draining process, because one must create entertaining content while staying true to being a lyricist. I also expanded my production palate to showcase everything from west coast production to southern trap. The change of production coupled with my further understanding of my art and songwriting opened up a new world from me. My forthcoming project, Kareem Abdul Jabars will be an enjoyable ride for all.
In what ways do you think indie artists in the hip hop world can break through an oversaturated internet space when it comes to promoting their music?
This may be the most ironic question of the interview! The legendary “breakthrough” that we are all searching for is very elusive. No one knows the time nor place but it is almost guaranteed to occur if the artist stays focused, right? WRONG! I don’t know if there is an exact process. I chose to heavily focus on craft as the foundation of my movement. Nowadays an artist has to spend less time in sitting outside of the nearby label office and more time electronically networking with blogs, fellow artist and social media users.
Social media has been playing a major role in the industry since MySpace starting breaking artist in the mid 2000s. Some may feel social media is worn out but I don’t seeing it losing its place as a gateway to the industry. Persistence via consistent content and brand development can pay off if it is placed in the right online channels. What works for artist A may not hold true for B and C. Since I started in 2011 and dropped my first project in 2013 I have found some success via the Internet, but I ultimately credit my small rise from dorm room to having offers for interviews to picking the right people and companies to align myself with.
Due to the nature of my music I have to play the field differently. Because I am not making club anthems, strip club favorites or Top 40 crossovers, I must approach the Internet differently. I have to do a lot of surveying before I make new connections and send music out. I have no problem admitting it is a very difficult journey navigating the Internet to find success, but it is a necessary evil in today’s industry. We live in a time where your neighbor can visit you while you’re recording a song then go home, order comparable equipment, record a song, release it online then get a deal in six months while you’re still at home putting your best foot forward. There is no rhyme or reason to breaking through this super saturated market, but one should always be prepared to be the new “it” artist discovered.
Do you see in some ways the need to keep up with indie artists and labels who seek to create their own brand?
The deeper I get in the industry the more I feel the need to keep up with fellow independent artist and labels. Positive success is the ultimate goal and I like to see what works for everyone so I can repurpose to fit my brand. I have always used key points from various resources to build my blueprint. I also use other artisst and labels as a measuring stick of my journey. I think all artist should find motivation in the way other brands operate, independent and major included.
Offline, what advice do you have for hip hop artists that are seeking to infiltrate their local scene (wherever it may be), or maybe build their own?
I believe we have reached an era where offline work may not be important until you have gained an online identity. I will let that nonsense sink in!
It is very hard to do local and college shows without a considerable demand for your brand. I suggest an artist use the Internet and face-to-face interaction equally. If your online and local footprint are comparable, you will see an increase in your offline presence. This is partly due to the need of validation. When you shake hands with someone and start discussing music, they will in turn research your brand as soon as they can access the Internet. We are living in a time where reality is blurred. Online and offline are becoming one in the same.
How did you build your live show over the years, and what have you learned about promoting and booking shows as an independent artist without the support of a label?
When the time for me to perform arrived I chose to travel out of town to spread my wings. I lived in Fayetteville, NC but I built my name about 70 miles away in Raleigh. Raleigh is the capital and at that time I did not have any connections there, but I knew it would be a more beneficial market for me due to the larger population and college market.
I started as the unknown kid shouting out Brooklyn and Fayetteville to headlining my own shows in the area. It’s constant battle to book out of town without having major exposure or label support but I use the quality in my content to back up my appeal. I was fortunate to perform at four official showcases during A3C Festival this year and there was a moment where I looked back at my short career. I remember talking to my team and realizing we reached an achievement in only two years since the first project. You never know how long it will take to reach a new market or a bigger stage, but I treat every show – big or small – as a training opportunity for touring, awards shows, etc.
As I lightly touched on earlier, I have a creative partner, Sean Shores, for all things Kaj except writing. I work closely with him to deliver the best live product. It is very crucial that I have someone around me that doesn’t create music. Artist need a buffer between their mind and the mind of those receiving the music. When I first started I wanted to perform personal favorites. Sean pulled me to the side and thoroughly explained perception and entertainment to me. He stressed the importance of keeping everyone focused and in tuned with my every move on stage. I do my best to curate my set list based on the region I am performing in and the familiarity with my brand or lack of.
Also, while we are on subject I think it should be stated that performances should give a different appeal to the recorded song. Hip hop has a bad reputation of lackluster live shows. A hip hop artist should never use a backing track unless it’s absolutely necessary, and they should always know their lyrics. It is my belief that if someone wanted to hear the track played back they could do so in their car or home. Always give LIVE performances.
Talk to us about the connection you seek to build with your fan base. How do you use social and other outlets to engage and keep them interested?
On my first mixtape, Flat Tops and Flows, I titled my intro track as “M.T.M.F (Message to My Fans)”. For the cover art to the song I used tweets I received from various supporters to fill in the Kaj Kadence logo. I thought it was really cool for people to see I actually care.I want everyone that currently and will one day support to know I truly believe in the power of hip hop’s place as a credible art form. I’m aware people don’t have to spend their money and time on the Kaj brand and I keep that in the forefront of my daily adventures in music.
My whole career can be followed online therefore I spend a substantial amount of time communicating with people all over the world. Some ask for advice, or some assume I am a bigger artist than I am and ask for a plug to an industry tastemaker, (at which point I politely let them know I am far from having connections). I actually pride myself on remaining friendly and human. I can always be reached via social media to discuss the business, music or future moves.
I have a few tactics that I utilize to build personal connections with those that support, but if I break them down the curtain is drawn and Oz is exposed (laughs). This is entertainment at the end of the day, so every edge over the next artist counts!
You’ve compared your music career to building a start up. How did you come to find yourself being available for consulting?
Great question! My partner Sean and I get into frequent arguments about the business side of the brand. At first I didn’t understand the opportunity my music presented. By taking an independent approach, we created a start up and I don’t know if I was aware of that. From the start we decided I would handle the songwriting, he would handle majority of the business connections, and jointly we plotted out the branding. Starting up a business is very tiring and trying, but after some time the machine will run efficiently.
Maybe because I’m apart of a developing market in the Carolinas, but my brand has come to stand out. The machine that Kaj Kadence is apart of handles everything in house without any major co-signs or private investors. I am able to stay true to my goal without conforming to find success.
How has TuneCore has played a role in your musical journey so far?
I’m from Fayetteville, where the only noteworthy talent to make it out did so in a big manner and became the first artist signed to Roc Nation and go on to be the first artist in 25 years to go platinum without a feature on his album. Shout out to Jermaine Cole for his work ethic, talent and love he showed to the state.
I knew I wanted to get music out but I didn’t understand HOW. Like I said, I have a really good person in my corner that has the same passion for this industry that I do. Sean conducted heavy research and found a company he felt comfortable doing business with. After we discussed the pros and realized there weren’t any foreseeable cons, he signed me up with TuneCore. Through TuneCore I have reached many corners of the world. From iTunes to streaming services in Australia, Kaj Kadence can be discovered and enjoyed daily thanks to TC. I have had some great experiences with the company for example, I was grandfathered in to Tidal after Jay Z purchased the parent company, and I had a chance to perform at A3C with some very good upcoming talent… oh, and Young Jeezy closed out my showcase. TuneCore allows me to keep my earnings and the customer service is very friendly. I am respected, valued and treated like a reputable artist despite being a young independent hip hop artist.
What kind of plans do you have for 2016?
2016 will bring Kaj Kadence to more stages, computer screens and conversations. I plan on having a bigger presence at the major festivals and college tours. More importantly, my projects and visuals will be evolving to reach a bigger audience.