UNCHARTED is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This time, Mississauga, Ontario rapper Keita Juma talks about how he's wired into the pulse of the world, how radio has become irrelevant, and why he'll never stop evolving.
Keita Juma’s a sleeper hit, and he seems to prefer it that way.
Born in Bristol, England the rapper/producer now shares a borough with OVO’s PARTYNEXTDOOR in Mississauga, Ontario. Most Toronto rappers are dropping moody crooned confessionals and gliding, bass-heavy club hits in the mould of a certain local star. But Keita is cool with foregoing the concrete bangers to use jungle music as his soundscape.
Going through Keita’s work is a slow, even burn. From the thick, dubby jaunt on "State of the Art" to the four-on-the-floor bop of “Come Over,” (one of our top Canadian songs of last year) his style remains distinct while it evolves over a steady, prolific stream of releases.
Keita calls his sound a “smoothie” of all his tastes and influences, both cultural and personal. Listening to his newest album Nights in Space A Short Film, I totally get it. American rap is the milk; reggae’s the protein; jungle and grime are the mixed berries, and his bouncy flair is the peanut butter.
We caught up with Keita Juma at Wavelength Music Festival 16, where he proved to yet another Toronto crowd that all eyes should be on him.
Keita Juma live at Wavelength Festival 16. Photo by: Anders Marshall
Chart Attack: It seems like half of hip-hop has Metro Boomin doing the heavy lifting. Why are you your own producer? Is it a control thing?
Keita Juma: It’s more a necessity thing. When I was 14 I was using instrumentals, but I knew my music had to be original. That was always the goal. When I didn’t have access to new beats I’d have to make them myself.
It was a fascination. Aside from writing a song, choosing the sounds is a cool process to me. The last two projects are mostly my beats because I haven’t been feeling anybody else’s, aside from Jahmal Padmore on “Freely.”
When you’re writing, do you have a “go to” person to bounce ideas off of, or is it all you?
I feel rap has hit a point that people really like. When something hits its stride, people want to keep it the same. Nah, that’s the beginning of the end when you start thinking like that.
Your sound seems to go against the grain in hip-hop, especially in Toronto. It feels like people are catching up to you. What do you think?
That could be the case. It could be that I’m following a different lead, but it’s my influences too. As against the grain as I am, when you look at the music I’ve been around since I was a kid, it all makes sense. I grew up listening to jungle music, all kinds of fast-paced type of beats, combined with North American rap. That was my starting point. I think it’s becoming more popular to mix these off-shoot genres of rap. Now we’re hearing what’s coming out of England and Nigeria; you can hear what the pulse is around the world.
When people hear your songs coming from a “Toronto rapper” do you think it’s difficult for people here to relate to your sound?
I think that’s the best case scenario. The only way I can be successful is if I have my own sound. If it sticks out like a sore thumb. If you listen to UK rap you’ll hear a lot of my influences. If you listen to Kano’s album Home Sweet Home, that album was huge for me when I was younger, and now when I listen to that I was like “wow, it’s just my accent that changed.”
Do you think regional sounds will fade away as music and its creators cross borders like you have?
I don’t think so. Where you’re from is always part of the story. There’s also a lot of Canadian influences in what I do, including the influence of Jamaican culture in our rap. All music is slowly going back to the source. For me, and rap/grime specifically, the source is Jamaica, England, and Nigeria. And Canada.
Do you think it’s easy to get caught up in where you’re from in hip-hop? Everybody wants to rep their block.
Loving where you’re from stems from knowing yourself. It’s what gave me the tools to be who I am. If you don’t respect, love or hate where you’re from, how can we think anything you say is gonna be from the heart?
Where do you think you fit in the expanding world of hip-hop?
I’m trying to bring rap to a place by writing songs that can be held up to R&B, not just a genre that’s ego driven — that gets boring after a while. It’s cool for the gym and the club, but when there are twelve tracks of you telling me how nice you are, it's like, alright cool, you’re nice, I’m not fighting you on that. What’s next?
In the beginning, rap was about flipping the script with obscure samples, drum patterns from different genres. It’s rooted in experimentation. I feel rap has hit a point [as an art form] that people really like. When something hits its stride, people want to keep it the same. Nah, that’s the beginning of the end when you start thinking like that.
If you don’t evolve you’re going to go crazy. You’re not a bricklayer, doing the same thing over and over. That’s not what makes you good.
So you’re not the guy who raps about rapping, and you don’t listen to the ones who do?
Oh no, I love it. I love Young Thug. I need to brush up on my history but there’s something about the way that Caribbeans use their voices to inflect over beats. It’s about how you say something. That’s what Future and Young Thug tapped into, and if they recognize what they did they can expand on it. I can’t listen to Young Thug for a month straight, but I play him daily and maybe an Alabama Shakes track right after.
What do you see yourself creating in 15 years?
I’m gonna be making music for a while. The time between projects may change. I want to be scoring films in the next 10 to 15 years, and making films, but scoring films is something I’m working towards immediately.
You've said that growing up Tupac was your rap idol. Do you have a musical idol right now?
It changes a lot. Kanye, Andre 3000, Wiley. I’m perpetually inspired by those who are only listening to their inner artistic voice. The same way I don’t know what kind of record I’m gonna come out with next, I know they don’t, and that’s cool to me.
Who or what excites you in music right now?
I’m super stoked about all the music coming out right now, because you don’t need a lot of resources anymore to create a great record.
I run a youth program, and I asked the kids what their favorite songs were: none were by popular artists. They’re listening to everything on YouTube! These are 17-year-olds, and that made me realize that the days of radio are gone, and that’s why your Biebers and Rihannas are putting out such great content. You can’t just make a record for radio stations to spin the hell out of, because that’s not going to work anymore. You have to keep your audience engaged.
With that being said, I’m excited about The OBGMs' new record..
So with kids today having broader taste in music, is there room for 100 cultural beacons in the music industry, instead of say, the 10 or so we have now?
Yeah, I feel like we’re coming into an era where the writer and the DJ is the king and queen. DJs rule the club, the radio, even SoundCloud, and writers are becoming celebrities. To be in an era of direct distribution to the people who love my music without having to jump through hoops [to be heard], we’re gonna get a lot of great music.
When can we hear your next album, In June?
The labels say “we don’t want people to forget about you,” but your real fans aren’t going to forget about you. They know you’re gonna give them what they want.
Looking at the biggest artists today, who’s got next?
I really don’t know. If feel like the game is at a point where anybody could be next.
I can’t believe you didn’t say yourself!
I believe in myself! I’ve never doubted that I’d make music or be successful while doing it, I’m just not trying to be Kanye per se, or even Drake. That level of fame and what they needed to do to get there doesn’t interest me.
I’m realizing a lot of people who listen to my music actually vibe with me, we’re on the same page. That’s exciting, to fulfill a community that vibes with you.
I feel when you’ve gone the superstar route you have about 50% real fans and the rest are people who switch off if you don’t do something to stay relevant, and that’s why there’s pressure to keep releasing music.
The labels say “we don’t want people to forget about you,” but your real fans aren’t going to forget about you. They know you’re gonna give them what they want, and [carving out that audience] is what I’m working towards. I feel like I’m very close.
if you build it they will come
— ɐɯnɾ ɐʇıǝʞ (@kjforshort) February 4, 2016