What are some of the misconceptions that people have when they’re first getting into the business?
Krucial: You know, it’s the new artists who come in and say, ‘OK, I’m hot. I’m supposed to get a deal. I’m supposed to get hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m supposed to get this. You know, I made this song two weeks ago and I’m supposed to be on the radio and the mall. I’m supposed to be on the cover of this. How come I can’t?’
And I tell people, if you do a show, can you book a place and 50 people will pay to see you? If you can’t do that, then why do you think you need a major deal? This is what people don’t understand. You have to work your way up to it. But Mateo understands that. He’s done the grassroots. He’s seen how it builds and he’s a hard worker. That’s another thing: They start getting lazy, get a little taste and whatever. It’s a lot of hard work and time put into it. That’s the misconception that new artists don’t understand. A lot of people think, “I’m talented. So everyone’s supposed give me.” That’s not how it works.
There’s millions of talented people. It’s not talent alone. You need that hard work and discipline and be a team player. That’s another thing: a lot of people aren’t team players. It’s me, me, me and they’re not loyal. —Kerry "Krucial" Brothers
Mateo: Most people just don’t care. Just assume that off the top. It’s about making people care.
Krucial: There’s millions of talented people. It’s not talent alone. You need that hard work and discipline and be a team player. That’s another thing: a lot of people aren’t team players. It’s me, me, me and they’re not loyal.
Mateo: A big part of this whole thing is the team. The whole Krucial Noise squad. The type of people that we’re working with—I mean, it’s just high-caliber people and characters. I always told them, before this, I was in a bedroom studio with a futon. Now we’re in big studios, we’re renting equipment. We’ve got dope musicians coming through. It’s just a different standard of making music, which is amazing. People don’t do that anymore. People always make music out of the box only, and that’s it. But now, it’s some cool stuff.
When you can actually do your thing live, that separates you from a lot of people. The fact that you recorded songs live—there’s a lot of laptop artists and punch-in artists out there.
Krucial: No, he’s the well-rounded artist. Some people sound great on records and terrible live, or great live and can’t make a good record. Mateo definitely pulls that off well.
I know Krucial Noise is the second act for you. Everyone knows your work with Alicia Keys. What came before that?
Krucial: The early days was being this aspiring rapper, [Laughs.] getting an independent deal. I was born in Brooklyn but at the time I got the deal, I was living in Far Rockaway, Queens. And I actually travelled all the way up to the bronx. It was like B-Boy Records.
Oh, the label that BDP was on.
Krucial: Yeah. I literally looked on the back of the BDP album and was like, “That’s the address.” And I had a demo and I had a partner at the time by the name of Cell V. We made a demo and we even had a video. We hooked up with a guy who worked at Pratt Institute. I mean this was the ’80s, so there was no YouTube then. [Laughs.] We made a video in the classroom.
Is it on YouTube now?
Krucial: [Laughs.] Oh no, no, no.
I know Ralph McDaniels has it. I gotta call Ralph. What was the song called?
Krucial: Aw man, it was called “It’s the Jam.” You’re not gonna find that. It was by KB & Cell V. You’re not gonna find it. [Laughs.] Anyway, we went up there with the video we were like, “We saw your address and came down.” They were like, “You guys got a video? You’re signed!” But then you know, things happen. It came to a point where all of sudden they were like, “Oh, we got managers for you.” I was like, “OK.” But mind you, I’m just turning 18.
Were you still in school?
Krucial: Just finished high school. We signed the contract as is. We knew it was dum—whatever. We were just so excited. And then they’re like “We got managers for you.” It was like, “Wait a minute.” We signed a contract as is but we’re not dumb enough to do management, too. They were like, “No problemm” and they kind of shelved us. So that left me with a bitter taste of the industry. Like, “I hate the industry” or whatever. But I kept doing things and my partner had just quit rap music for a while. I knew I had to keep doing it.
I would buy a little drum machine and make beats. And at the time, I had to make ends meets so I would intern at studios. The actual studio they put us in to record, I got cool with the owner and I started engineering the sessions. I didn’t know how to engineer. I bluffed my way into it. And I had a girlfriend at the time, worked for an agency and people used to call there and be like, “I need some studio time.” I was like, “Send them to me.” [Laughs.] And I just hustled my way in and learned how to engineer and learned the business. I just got a drum machine and just started making beats to rap on.
Fast forward to, like, the mid-'90s. Out there in the Village, you see people doing cyphers in the street all the time. I would be out there in Washington Square Park. That’s where I met Alicia [Keys].
Really, you met Alicia In the park?
Krucial: Yeah. In the park. Usually, when I get a good vibe and just start vibing with people, I’ll be like, “Hey, I got a little 4-Track; I got a drum machine. You can come to my crib and we can make music or whatever.” Because police would chase you off the streets. She was one of the people I kept in touch with. Years later, we got together. “How’s the music going?” And she’s like, pretty good. I asked her to come through. She came through and got on the piano. I was on the drum machine. We started making little tapes—cassette tapes. At this time, it was just to vibe. [Laughs.] We had no real intention of working cause I’m a hip-hop guy. I’m, like, close-minded. Hip-hop guy. You’re playing the piano. We both like Wu-Tang. We both like Stevie Wonder. So we connected.
Was she singing when you met her in the park?
Krucial: Yeah. She was singing in the park, vibing in the park.
Like, not with a piano?
Krucial: No, no, no. She was actually in a girl group at that time. This was before she was solo and stuff. And she finally got her deal with Columbia Records. I was like, “How’s it going?” She said it was going good. They put her in with various producers and she was like, “Ahh, I don’t like what I’m doing with them. I like what we do.” I was like, “Oh, really?” She was like, “I want you to work on my album.” And I was just like, “Your album coming out on the majors?” I said cool. She was like, “No, I really want you to stop what you’re doing and like really make me priority.” And I was like “Yeah, no problem.” But in the back of my throat, I’m like, “I don’t know how to make an R&B album.”
Had you produced for any other artist besides yourself?
Krucial: Just myself, and some groups and underground hip-hop guys here and there. It was all hip-hop, all sample-based in some people’s studios.
Any records that came out?
So literally just cassettes?
Krucial: Cassettes. Hand-to-hand. So this was brand new for me. It was a breakout. I was very intimidated but I was like, “I believe in you. You believe in me. Let’s do it.” Again, it was like how I learned to engineer. I started studying albums—looking at the back of albums. I started looking at the back of albums and being like, “OK, we love the way this sounds. What did they use? It says Wurlitzer. What’s a Wurlitzer? We need to get a Wurlitzer.” We’d look through the catalogs like, “Oh that’s it!” Everything was hands-on learning.
When the album was done, Columbia didn’t like it. They were like, “What is this crap? It’s like a live demo.” Whatever. Jeff Robinson—who was her manager at the time—brought it over to Peter Edge, and Clive Davis at Arista. So they loved it. They were like keep doing what we’re doing. From that point on, they were ousting Clive from the company.
[Alicia and I] had no real intention of working cause I’m a hip-hop guy. I’m, like, close-minded. Hip-hop guy. You’re playing the piano. We both like Wu-Tang. We both like Stevie Wonder. So we connected.
—Kerry "Krucial" Brothers
OK this was just at that time.
Krucial: Right. So then it was like, “Oh God, what are we going to do?” Now mind you, this was in the period from like 1998 all the way up to 2001 when he finally started J Records and the album dropped. [Songs in A Minor] debuted at No. 1. It was just like...
Were there any Songs In A Minor cuts on the demo that you gave to Columbia?
Krucial: Yes, yes.
Was “Fallin’” on the demo that they hated?
Krucial: “Fallin’” wasn’t on that demo. “Fallin’” was in beween the Arista days.
What songs were on the demo that people know now?
Krucial: The only songs that were on the album were “Fallin,’” “How Come You Don’t Call Me” and “A Woman’s Worth.”
So everything else was on that first demo, and Columbia was like, “What is this shit?”
Krucial: [Laughs.] Exactly. Just for the record. The rest was history.
Mateo: That’s the crazy part.
Number one debut. 12 million sold. Seven Grammy nominations.
Krucial: And then I’m like, “Oh shoot. Now I gotta learn what I’m doing for real.” [Laughs.] And she was the same way. Like, oh shoot!
Was there any other production on that record but you guys?
Krucial: It was just us. I mean, we had little co-productions, like Isaac Hayes arranged strings for us on the song “Rock Witchu,” which was amazing. You know, Rest in Peace. That’s all we wanted. We were sampling and emulating and using our influences. And then Jeff reached out, publishers reached out saying, “Hey, would you mind doing strings for them?” He came in with the deep voice and was like, “I usually don’t just arrange strings. I’m a producer but you guys got something there. I’m going to arrange for you.” It was unbelievable. Everything was surreal.
From then, I’ve just been on working on all her albums and just been like the partner and muse in a lot of her projects and executive produced projects. And the rest is history.