CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal has kindly invited Yellow Noise on air for the month of October to share some mixes and interview local Montreal musicians each week. You can catch us on air every Tuesday from 3PM to 5PM this month either through radio or live streaming from the CKUT website. You can also find the unedited version of our show on their programming archives as well.
This week, on top of mixing our DJ sets on air (as SierraLima and DJ Mango Juiiice), we also interviewed Kevin Lee, aka KEI-LI, who recently performed for Alien Movement, our Yellow Noise x Atelier Celadon show at the Belmont in Montreal. We asked him how he navigates producing music rooted in black culture as an Asian-Canadian. For the transcript of the interview, scroll down below!
SierraLima's set starts at 3:14
DJ Mango Juice's set starts at 47:36
Interview with KEI-LI starts at 1:30:34
Clarifications by Kevin Lee included in transcript.
Sam Lu: How was your experience playing the show (Yellow Noise x Atelier Celadon's Alien Movement) Kevin?
KEI-LI: Oh man, I had a ton of fun, I met a lot of cool people beforehand and after as well, like Onyx Ashanti who makes the coolest bionic sound interface, I don’t know how he refers to it. That was a really interesting chat. Marley Nolls?
SL: Marley C I think. Marley C is his stage name at least.
SL: And it was pretty good being back in Montreal eh? For those who don’t know, Kevin went to McGill that’s how I know him.
Mel Palapuz: McGill kids haha.
KL: Yea we go way back.
SL: Oh yea haha. So I have a couple of questions for you. What drew you to R&B, you know that D’Angelo, that baby making music?
KL: Haha, boner jams? I don’t know, I guess getting out of really digging hip-hop and funk in early high school, I sort of found neo-soul which has that distinctive tse tse ka tse tse sort of swing. Musiq Soulchild first, then D’Angelo in grade 12. I listened to Untitled for the first time and that kind of changed my life. I don’t know what it was at first, but being a beat-maker, I started to deconstruct the various elements. I guess it just has to do with the groove.
SL: It’s very infectious.
KL: It makes your head bop.
SL: Indeed. So on the Darker Than Wax website, the label that you’re on, they say that they are “A statement on the pervasiveness of black music and the influence it has had on countless genres and sub genres”. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read on one of your bios somewhere on the internet –
KL: One of the many.
SL: Haha exactly – that you are constantly navigating your position as an Asian artist within the context of historically black music and trying to figure out how to respect the roots of the music. Can you share any of the insights that you have come across along the way?
KL: As many people are aware, but for those who aren’t I guess, the entire white washing cycle of black music, not starting with but including Elvis, rock’n’roll, most recently with Iggy Azaelea. That entire discussion made me look introspectively at my position as a non-black artist. Am I appropriating black music? What am I doing to contribute to that cycle and how can I not contribute to that cycle? So to that end, an insight I’ve settled upon – there’s no perfect answer, there’s no perfect solution – at least something I’ve settled on, two things: one, to respect the roots. Always give credit to the black artists that inspire me – D’Angelo, if you’re listening, I love you. But also to, in my own work, continue to strive to represent different kinds of diverse groups. To represent black people in the music that I make, because then hopefully that will not feed into that whole cycle of erasure. *What I mean is that I'm trying to make sure that I have a good representation of ethnicities amongst people that feature on my work, especially given the historical context of the music I make.
SL: How does your Asian identity play into this? Does it complicate this further than straight black and white?
KL: Yea it’s hard. On one hand, I’m not white. I feel as though I have a slightly different approach to this appropriation discussion, or I would have to take a slightly different approach navigating that whole discussion as a white person would. As an Asian artist – I’m neither white nor black. It also becomes hard to… without a presence of popular North American Asian pop music to be able to draw on that and to use that as an influence. But because we don’t really have that here too much and quite frankly I dig my C-Pop and K-Pop, but that’s not the kind of music I like to make as much. So… I don’t really have an answer. It’s hard. Haha.
MP: Yea, because it’s not something you consciously think about all the time. It maybe depends where your taste in music and where you want to take it. You are who you are. You know you are Asian… It’s complicated.
KL: Exactly. I guess it’s really the process of thinking about it. I’m going to make a ton of mistakes I’m sure, philosophically, in my music. But I’m trying.
SL: I think that’s the most important part, to recognize that aspect of it and be open to change for that.
KL: Yea definitely.
SL: So onto less political questions – haha.
KL: I could talk about this all day.
SL: Haha, I know yea, this is super interesting. But we only got so much time. So what was your process in starting to make music? Because I remember seeing your music page up on Facebook a year and a half ago, two years ago? What was your process of becoming a performing musician?
KL: In third year, during the summertime I was studying for my MCAT – this is a story I tell all the time – so I was staying in Montreal that summer, just kind of living with my roommates. So I didn’t end up studying for the MCATs because I found –
MP: Something better?
KL: Haha, I found a couple of things that were better, stuff that really inspired me to continue to make music and dig a little deeper. Also I beat-sessioned a lot with this guy Preston, Preston Chin, aka Robotaki if you haven’t heard.
MP: I think I have heard of him. Did he go to McGill as well?
KL: He also went to McGill, he’s a year older than me. We had been buds for a long time, but we had never really done anything musically related. At that time I was just starting out, so then he taught me a lot of his tips and tricks, on the science behind production. He’s like real smart, real good at physics. So he gave me a rundown. And that kind of sent me off towards where I am now and hopefully where I will continue to be in the future.
SL: So what’s the future for KEI-LI? Is it going to be Mississauga or are you going to be moving around a bit?
KL: I’m moving downtown Toronto, very shortly for whoever wants to hang. I guess I’m just going to base my operations out of downtown and travel hopefully to Montreal a couple more times. Hit up a couple Mississauga jams. You know actually, the Mississauga scene is really vibrant. So shout out to Mississauga.
SL: Yea you were talking about that to me.
KL: Yea they have some really cool parties.
SL: Awesome. So you’re still at work eh? This is on your work time!
KL: Yea, yea haha. I have my work way of talking as well.
SL: Haha, well I’ll let you get back to work then. We’re going to play some of your tracks, hope everybody enjoys them.
KL: Me too me too haha. Alright good chatting!
SL: Alright thanks so much!
MP: Thanks for coming on air!
KL: Alright bye Mel, bye Sam!