Interview: Jillian Billard
Photo: Kat Slootsky
“Everything you know is true. Everything you know is real.” So begins Brooklyn-born rapper Kahiem Rivera’s second EP, Be Quiet, Part II. Released in multiple installments, the Be Quiet EPs are a document of a period of isolation following a near-fatal bicycle accident that left the artist immobilized for a number of months. Formerly a rapper in alt-rap groups The Universe Project and Kobu, Rivera began writing solo music during this time of forced solitude as a way to counter the waves of depression that become more visceral when we are alone. The resulting tracks are staggeringly intimate, and bare a rare honesty. Rivera wrestles with issues of race, identity, love and sex with poetic lyricism that is at once gritty and vulnerable. Be Quiet Part II presents a tangible progression outward––from the depths of the psyche to a sense of assuredness, and at points, even playfulness. In anticipation of the EP’s release, we spoke with Rivera about his process; releasing albums in the age of streaming; and the catharsis of writing.
Hi Kahiem! Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with Ravelin about your forthcoming EP, Be Quiet Pt. II. I thought we’d start with your background––you’re from Brooklyn, yeah? What are some of your earliest memories of listening to and making music?
Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn. My mom always let me listen to whatever I wanted. I really like Usher as a kid, even though I didn’t know what he was talking about. My first CD ever was a Nas record, and the first CD I bought with my own money was Be by Common. I think that album, and College Dropout, really changed the game for me in what I thought rap music could be or sound like.
You began your career writing lyrics and rapping in Alt-Rap bands The Universe Project and Kobu. When did you begin writing solo music? How did you make the transition to becoming a solo artist?
In the fall of 2016 I got hit by a taxi on my bike, and I broke my knee and ankle. I was pretty immobile from October to February and all I could really do was play video games and make music. So the solo thing came out of a literal isolation. I just had way too much time on my hands.
So during this period of forced isolation, you recorded your first EP, Be Quiet, which released back in March. When you released Be Quiet, did you know that you would expand upon the work with a Part II, or was this a realization you came to later on? What was your thought process behind writing a second part to this earlier project, rather than a separate record?
Actually, I wrote two full albums while I was injured at home, but didn’t know how I wanted to release the stuff. The first EP actually about came because Gabe asked me to send him a couple of sample tracks to show to some people, and then he was like “these three songs sound really good together, man.”
How did you start working with Gabe and Crooked Letter?
Gabe is my oldest friend. We went to Middle School and High School together, and were roommates in college. I love him a lot. Having him as a manager has been dope, but he also didn’t do it because we were friends. This solo shit is the best music I’ve made so far, and it was when he saw my first solo show that he finally said “okay, let’s do this. Let me manage you.” I had to earn that shit.
It’s so rad that you have Gabe to offer this outside perspective on your work and basically act as a curator––I’m sure that when you’re in it and just making all of these tracks it’s hard to gain clarity on how to put it all together.
When we decided to release the work in smaller installments, Gabe and I had already been talking a lot about how to release larger projects in the era of streaming. When he said that the songs I’d sent him worked cohesively together, it all just kind of clicked. It allowed me to go through everything I had and actually figure out which songs I still loved, which were B sides.
The first installment is highly introspective, as though you are traversing through your own psyche. There’s a rawness––a visceral pain––and it feels very candid and intimate. Can you talk about your process of writing this first EP? Would you say that the writing process was cathartic for you?
That injury actually triggered a really intense depressive episode that lasted for months. Cabin fever is super normal but it was way more intense than that, and it was also familiar. I’ve been struggling with depression since I hit puberty and this go around was the first time I could actually call it that, and understand it as a thing that I’ll probably struggle with for the rest of my life. So that’s kind of the headspace I was in. I’m very good at compartmentalizing, so there was a lot of shit I hadn’t worked through out loud. Writing allowed me to really address and understand what I was going through.
Part II seems more outwardly invested––“stronger” isn’t the right word––but the sound is fuller and heavier, and the tempos are generally faster. It feels almost as though you’ve emerged or evolved from an introspective state. How does the second installment expound upon the first, narratively and sound-wise, and how does this relate to your own life as you were writing?
Yeah, I mean the thing about depression is that it’s really wavy. I wrote “Cranes” around the same time that I wrote “This Night Last Year,” but the difference between those two songs is sort of like what side of the bed you wake up on. But I definitely did notice that as I was climbing out of that rut the sounds started to change. “Stubborn” was actually the last song I wrote during the “Be Quiet sessions,” I’ll call them, and it was this sort of closure. I was trying a bunch of new things, production-wise, and just calling myself out. At the end of the day, only you can help yourself.
Your lyrics are so precisely articulated and have this beautiful lyricism to them. What does your writing process look like? Do you write lyrics first, or the music first?
Damn. Thank you. I’m constantly writing raps. I do it in the notes app in my phone. Sometimes I’ll be biking and have to pull over because I came up with some shit. I use about 10% of the raps I write but when I start producing a track, I kinda just backtrack through all these words and find a phrase that still feels good, and go from there. But a song like “Shackles” is different. It’s got this weird structure because I was writing the music and the lyrics simultaneously, piece by piece. I had just bought this little Yamaha synth and just started layering all these simple chords on top of each other, and coming up with the words as I was doing that. I think that song felt more like a singer/songwriter process than the way rappers normally go about it.
I’m very good at compartmentalizing, so there was a lot of shit I hadn’t worked through out loud. Writing allowed me to really address and understand what I was going through.
I am always wary to make comparisons between contemporary artists, but I’m sure you’ve heard comparisons of your work to that of Kendrick Lamar––you share this candid honesty and poetic lyricism. I think you even reference listening to “Humble” in one of your songs. Who are some contemporary artists who have been formative and influential to your writing process?
I get the Kendrick thing a lot, and especially on “This Night Last Year.” I think I was subconsciously writing an ode to him, or at least his style. I think he is the most important songwriter making music today, of any genre. He’s like an endless well of sonic ideas. I think his earlier shit is kind of hit or miss, but Good Kid, Maad City was a radical fucking album. And I think that was the first time that I thought arty, emotional rap had a place with the masses. In high school I only bumped indie rap, I loved Atmosphere, I loved Aesop Rock and El-P. P.O.S, Doomtree––all those guys. But Kendrick really bridged the gap I think.
One of the standout songs on the upcoming EP is “Cranes.” It seems like a seminal work of this second installment, that embraces a sort of playfulness. Can you talk about your process of writing this track, and how it informs the rest of the album?
I never thought I would be able to write a song like “Cranes.” I know I mentioned College Dropout earlier, but even when I was a kid (that album came out when I was in middle school), I would skip “Workout Plan.” To me, rap has always been serious. I was the high school kid hating on “mainstream” rap. I used to bump Atmosphere and Aesop Rock religiously. But when I was trying to get out of this depression, my girlfriend gave me this sort of pep talk like “you need to get out of your own head! Go get drunk with your friends! Have more sex!” And so on a good day I wrote a song about fucking. And I love it. And it really opened a door to make more playful music. There’s always a serious undertone to my shit because I can’t help it, but my next project is so much livelier.
You record and produce all of your own tracks in your own home studio, is that correct? Can you talk a bit about this process/what programs you use/etc.?
Yeah! It’s a really simple set up. I use Reason, which has gotten so much better at over the years, and I just have a couple midi controllers and that Yamaha synth. All of my roommates are musicians, and they have helped a lot. I only started understanding music production a few years ago, and when I was hurt I spent a lot of time watching YouTube tutorials. My friend Julien, who I used to be in a band with, (he produced “Pareidolia” and “This Night Last Year”) has taught me so much. He’s one of those geniuses that gets good at everything he does, you know?
You often collaborate with other artists, some of which include Tara Amber, Chazz Giovanni, and Rosehardt. Can you talk a bit about working collaboratively, and how you came to work with these artists?
Tara was my bandmate in Kobu, and was my roommate for many many years. She is a classically trained pianist and has been so so valuable to me. She has the sharpest ear, and will point out some dissonance when I can’t hear a thing. I went to college with Chazz and Caleb (Rosehardt), and we’ve just been collaborating forever. It honestly feels more natural for me to collaborate. The solo thing still feels new. The songs are also so personal and I start to feel indulgent if I linger on myself for too long. Like, nothing I have to say is THAT important. So working with other people helps me feed off of whatever they’re bringing to the table, and get out of my own head a bit.
What are you looking forward to following the EP Release?
I’ve been sitting on these songs for so long. I’m six or seven tracks into my next project already so I’m just excited to keep it moving. Build build build.