Listening to Keelay & Zaire's debut, Ridin' High (MYX Music Label), is like being transported back to Bay Area hip-hop in the early '90s. Remember those glory days? Hobo Junction and Hieroglyphics battled for supremacy; the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and Bomb Records sparked the turntablism movement; and Celly Cel, Spice-1, Richie Rich, and the Click created mob music.
Production team Tim "Zaire" Lewis and Kyle "Keelay" Pierce evoke that era with balletic numbers such as "I'm on Swerv," with its Zapp-style not T-Pain style Auto-Tunin', and laid-back gangsta soul like "Alright with Me" and "Nurf to the Turf." The cast itself isn't Bay-specific. Its geographical makeup a product of connections made through MySpace pages and online community forums ranges from Raleigh, N.C. (Phonte Coleman and Darien Brockington) to Bloomberg, N.J. (rising producer Illmind's group Fortilive). It's a result of Internet hustling, and the chorus line raps, sings, swaggers, and jostles for attention. But the smooth, breezy, Dayton-tires-rolling-on-concrete tone remains.
"We really just wanted to make something that would give the listener the feeling of riding around in a car," says Keelay by phone. A Salt Lake City transplant, he enrolled at San Francisco State seven years ago. "After college, I just didn't want to leave," he remembers. "I loved it in the Bay Area. It quickly became my home."
Keelay met Zaire on the UndergroundHipHop.com once ughh.com message boards. Both work 9-to-5 gigs: Keelay is a computer technician for Wells Fargo. Zaire, who lives in Newport News, Va., is a government contractor who mysteriously performs "intelligence work." ("I don't know what he does!" answers Keelay when pressed for details.) Without a label deal, they painstakingly cobbled together Ridin' High over two years, paying for the guest appearances themselves, though, Keelay adds, "a lot of people were really generous," and did it for free. "Me and Zaire had to send beats and sessions back and forth" via e-mail, he says. "We did it all through the Internet."
Now MYX Music Label (MML), who signed Keelay & Zaire to a deal last fall, has chosen Ridin' High as its first major release. MML is a subsidiary of ABS-CBN Global, a Philippines media company that launched a U.S. version of MYX TV in 2007. According to Karim Panni, who manages the imprint, the "music lifestyle channel" can only be seen on DIRECTV in the Bay Area. But it is working on various deals that will widen its reach. Meanwhile, Comcast carries MYX's most popular show, Built from Scratch, through its On Demand channel.
"There's a lot of work that goes into getting added onto Comcast. But we're working on it," says Panni, also known as Nightclubber Lang, one-third of the Seattle group Boom Bap Project. "I was on tour with Brother Ali, and the owner [of MYX] asked me if I wanted to run his record label."
It seems odd that a multimedia company with international ambitions would choose an indie rapper to launch a record label. And judging from MML's release slate including 20 C Energizers, described in press materials as a "hip-hop CD produced solely by Asian MCs, producers, DJs and singers," and MYX TV-affiliated DVDs such as Slanted Comedy, which showcases Asian American comedians MYX appears to target Asian youth culture. But when asked about MYX's Asian identity, Panni bristles. "I'm not trying to be typecast as an Asian label," he says. "We're not trying to market to a niche audience. We're reaching out to everybody."
"These days, with the Internet, the lines between major and underground are really fine.