Rap game up-and-comer kechPhrase, known to fellow University of Pennsylvania students as Ikechi Nnamani, is fresh outta Philly and preparing Green Card, his official debut, due in August. Between track practices and fancy Wall Street internships, the promising rapper-slash-producer engineers beats from his dorm and sends them to token musical Wes alum Victor Vazquez ’06 (a.k.a. Kool A.D. of Das Racist fame). Kech, who opened for Flatbush Zombies at Psi U this February, took a minute between library shifts to chat iPhone-to-iPhone with The Argus about Green Card, previous releases, and what exactly this “Veehead” business is that everyone’s been talking about.
The Argus: A month ago you opened for Flatbush Zombies at Psi U. How was that?
kechPhrase: It was a great experience to open up for some people that I’ve been following. I actually saw them live when they came here with A$AP Rocky and Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q, so it’s cool to actually be gracing the same stage with them. The crowd was cool. My manager, Kool A.D., he told me a little about Wesleyan and his time there. Everything that he had said was pretty much met, like how the crowd receives alternative hip-hop. It was a different experience: at Penn, we don’t have too many people doing hip-hop music. I transferred here in the fall of 2011 from Rice University, which is small, so it was more or less similar to Wesleyan in the sense that we had people listening to a lot of up-and-coming indie-alternative type of music.
Out here, people are more into mainstream type of things, so it was nice to watch a crowd that, I guess, has some type of respect for the craft, ’cause I think hip-hop’s not something that everyone likes; some people are really against hip-hop—some of the messages that the mainstream rappers push…. On my album right now, I have a couple songs that you could possibly put under that mainstream umbrella, but for the most part, my style is more or less east-coast hip-hop. It was nice to be able to go there and be able to be myself, not have to change anything. Being at Penn is challenging, and track and field is another commitment. But it’s all good.
A: How did you and Victor start working together?
k: I was introduced to him through Fat Tony, a rapper from Houston who I met my freshman year while I was down there. Fat Tony was going to radio stations around campus, ’cause Rice used to own a huge radio tower that pretty much broadcasted our student stations throughout the entire city of Houston. So that was really cool in the sense that we had the power to get heard and reach people. So one of my songs was playing on the radio, and Fat Tony had called in to ask, you know, “Who was that guy? Who made that beat, etc.” So me and Fat Tony linked up around the time when he was preparing to drop his first album. He had a track called “Luv it Mayne,” and Das Racist remixed it on their second mixtape.
Fat Tony, at one point in time, signed to Himanshu’s label Greedhead Music; he was working with them before his current label, Young One Records. So he introduced me by saying “Hey, I think this guy has some music that you guys would probably like.” At first, Himanshu was really busy doing what he does—he’s kind of all over the place. He’s a business man. He’s rapping, managing artists, etc. He’s not really looking to pick up anything new, but Victor was starting to work on some of his solo projects so we had hooked it up in terms of beats, and I got him two tracks—we recorded them a while ago, but he didn’t release 51 till last year.
Then we put something else out this past November called “Brobama,” kind of like an election day song. And I have a song called “Anything” on my EP. I’m in the process of remixing that right now. I have a lot of features; in addition to Kool A.D., Big Baby Gandhi, and Epic, we have Fat Tony, D.C. Pierson, Dot Da Genius, who’s Kid Cudi’s producer; I have his artist Rilgood, and 88-Keys. His artist Tre Dejean will be on the remix. So I have a wide variety of rappers that normally wouldn’t collaborate on the same track. Me and Victor, we’ve collaborated on three occasions, and we have some stuff we haven’t even released yet. It just depends on whenever the time’s right, whenever he’s working on something.
This summer, I’ll be in New York interning and working on my album, and Kool will be working on his stuff. We’ll all be in the same area, which is good ’cause we haven’t been in the same city so a lot of collaborations happen online, occasionally meeting up and getting some stuff done. It’s just easier when you’re in the same place. Rap is kind of changing in the sense that you can really be different and alternative but still stick out in a good way. With the people he’s collaborating with, I think some good things from him will definitely come. We have this small, independent type of label thing that he’s heading, which I’ve been releasing some things through, that we’re kind of trying to take more serious with my release and his next couple releases. Hopefully him and Himanshu can figure out some of their differences and get their album released. They have a lot of potential to make some good music.
A: How does Green Card compare to stuff you’ve self-released in the past?
k: I’ve been making music for a long time. This’ll be my eighth year, and my fifth project. I think Green Card is more of me putting in a lot of effort on both sides—rapping and production, all that, getting people together to collaborate, which is something I didn’t really do in the past. People would say, “You have a couple good songs here, but you sound really young.” The past two years, I’ve been trying to grow as a producer and a lyricist. ’Cause I feel like, at the moment, people think of me as a producer, ’cause most of my stuff that’s getting on blogs is self-produced or kech-produced or whatever.
I think, lyrically, I’ve grown a lot, so not only is that different, but also the subject matter, ’cause I’m Nigerian, and I feel there’s a lot to be said. Immigration, coming to America, American dream, etc. Those are really inspiring topics. A lot of people, even if they don’t have parents from another country…somewhere, you can hear the story and relate. So Green Card is serious in the sense that I have some tracks that talk about some crazy things and some of the stuff that happens in these countries, specifically Nigeria. I’m telling the story, but I also have those songs in there that could possibly be heard on the radio or at a party. But, for the most part, I’d say it’s more of me giving somewhat of an unbiased account of what I know and what I’ve seen. It’s a more mature me. I’m handling what I’d say is complicated subject matter; I talk about a lot of things. At the end of the day, I want to have enough tracks that get a point across without distorting anything.
Also, on past albums, I didn’t really have, say, the connects for a lot of features; I didn’t really branch out. To get some artists, you have to deal with managers even if they have an independent label, and that wasn’t really in the question back then. Now I’m able to do all that without really stressing out or exhausting myself. I’ve been sharing it with people—Fat Tony is one of my best friends, so if I have stuff, he’ll probably be the first to hear it. Having a guy who works with Kid Cudi is always great, ’cause I can send him music and he’ll give me an honest opinion. Even Kool A.D.—Kool’s always busy, but if it’s gonna be affiliated with him in any way, of course he wants to hear it first. That’s why I keep pushing it back: I want to make sure I have everything perfect—that’s a stretch, but I want it to be perfect in my opinion. I’m not gonna turn in some half-ass project.
A: Can you talk a little about the process of recording the kechstrumentals mixtapes in Nigeria?
k: Yeah! I have a lot of family there. My uncle was the Senate president of the country for a term; my other uncle was the governor of my state. Being in Nigeria is always a great time ’cause I see the people I don’t get to see all the time. I can get a lot of production done with my laptop and the sampler and the keyboard. I bring pretty much all that stuff with me. I sampled a lot of things before going, so like old records—there’s plenty of record stores in Philly. I’ve sampled probably, like, 70 different records that way. In Nigeria, you can’t just run to the record store; you gotta find it. So then just going through your village or going to the market, and sitting and recording stuff. It was cool in the sense that you could go collect a lot of sounds you probably wouldn’t normally find. A lot of producers—even Timbaland is notorious for getting crazy sounds by just going outside and setting up a microphone and listening. Hot Sugar does a lot of that too; he probably does it the most out of any producer. He’s definitely the guy that will go out to Central Park and just record sounds and find some way to make it into a rap beat. I think it’s amazing. Being in Nigeria, you can definitely be inspired to make a lot of crazy sounds and put some cool stuff together.
A: So how do you balance music with track and being at an Ivy League school?
k: I think it’s just time management. It’s not like high school when everything’s regimented and people are micromanaging you. I think we don’t give enough credit to the fact that we have a lot of time in college. If you’re really passionate about something, you’ll find time to dedicate to it and make things happen. I have practice from 3 to 6 and then try to go to the library—like, when I get off the phone, I’m probably gonna head there around 12, be there till 2.
A: Blegh, same.
k: Yeah. [Laughs.]
A: Sucks…I have one more question to clear things up. So Green Card will be released through Veehead, right?
k: That’s a good question. ’Cause we’re all trying to figure some stuff out.
A: Yeah, it’s all kind of under the radar.
k: Yeah, so Kool’s changing some things around. I think we’re actually changing the name from Veehead to Dumb Shiny. [Laughs.] Which is a reference to some stuff he’s done in the past; he has a mixtape that he dropped called Dumb Shiny. I think he recorded it when he was just out of Wesleyan. It’s not really so much about the affiliation as just the music. I’m not too concerned about who I release it through, but at the end of the day, he’ll do what he has to do to get it out to some places that I can’t get it to, ’cause Kool is real plugged with blogs and people. The plan right now is to release it through whatever Kool wants to call it. Okplayer and Okafrica are two blogs that are run by The Roots, and they released one of my songs recently, so we’ll probably do some things with hosting as well, but there’s no quote-unquote “label.” At the end of the day, a lot of us are independent rappers just making music and putting it out there. When you’re working with a lot of these people who are constantly featured on blogs, you kind of have promotion in that sense, so whoever’s listening to Fat Tony will listen to Big Baby Ghandi, Heems, etc. You don’t really need a label. The point of a record label now is that they handle things that artists aren’t really able to handle. You just need good music, if you have a little money to promote it.
A: It’s almost like you guys are more of a collective supporting each other and collaborating on each other’s tracks.
k: Yeah, that’s what I’d like to say. I mean, Greedhead is turning from collective to actual label; Himanshu’s spending dollars to get artists out there and to get people onto things they wouldn’t normally get on. So I’d say that we’re more or less a collective. We’re just really good friends, we make music, and whatever stuff comes out, we’ll try to brand it as something so people realize, “This is what it is. So-and-so’s putting music out.” I think that’s what a lot of people start out as. Not everybody’s got a label. Action Bronson, for instance, put out a lot of mixtapes, but he didn’t get a major deal until this past summer. Even Das Racist. Everyone’s been doing things independently. I have my own label: KechPhrase Music Group. It’s more of a production company. Nobody really has to have a label anymore. Music’s changed so much now from what it used to be that with the help of the Internet, it’s really easy to hear something out there that’s good. Hopefully what I have is good enough. [Laughs.] We’ll see, we’ll see. Some people were kind of disappointed when I pushed it back.
A: Whatever, they can wait.
k: I kind of want to get more people on board with what I’m doing before releasing a project, ’cause after college I’ll be trying to fund my music with my job. People do sell drugs to fund their music and blow up, but I think there’s a little bit of respect for somebody who’s done it quote-unquote “the right way.” So hopefully in a year I’ll know a few more people, and that’s how a lot of people who come from prestigious schools—Wesleyan has a shit ton of artists that are doing pretty good things. You guys have a lot of people. I think there’s no shame in getting the education and going back to do something that you really like, and that’s my game plan, so we’ll see.
A: Well, on that note, I guess I’ll let you get back to the library.
k: [Laughs.] Yeah…