Interview by Daniel Margolis

When you think of a hip-hop producer, the mind may conjure up the image of Puff Daddy in the hot tub in the "Big Poppa" video or Pharrell rhyming on top of a cop car, but today's beatmaker is much more likely to be into producing as a side hustle complementing a regular job.

Keelay & Zaire (left and right, above) are two such producers. "We're both holding down 9-to-5 jobs," Zaire says, speaking from the parking lot outside his job working as a Department of Defense contractor in Virginia, which he moved into after being in the military for six years; Keelay, works in IT for Wells Fargo in California. Despite these 40-hours-a-week commitments, the two found the time to put together their debut album, Ridin High, which dropped in late February. A concept record (the title says it all), Ridin features a host of MCs, from up-and-comers to indie legends Saafir, Tash (Tha Alkaholiks) and Phonte (Little Brother). Complex recently got with K&Z for a little shoptalk.

Complex: In a market crowded with product, where does your album fit in?

Keelay: At this point in the game, I'm hoping people just hear the record and enjoy it. If they buy it, that's a bonus for us, obviously. But as upcoming artists, my goal right now is awareness; I just want people to hear it, see the name. As far as being in a collection, I've seen a lot of the reviews, people saying it sounds like the '90s, and we never really put ourselves in that category, maybe that's just the era we grew up in.

Zaire: We made this album exactly how we wanted to make it, so when folks listen to it, people are going to have their opinions and that's great, but speaking for myself, what I would like people — if they have this in their CD collection — to see is a couple of beatmakers/artists, this is their take on the kind of music that they like and that they created. Yeah everybody might not like it. I know I don't want people to say this is the best thing that ever happened. I want people to see 'OK this is these guys' experience; this is their art, this is what they tried to put down, it's an honest expression.' I get that from a lot of albums that I own. We were recently talking about the [Prince Paul] A Prince Among Thieves album; that's an incredible experience there. A lot of people say that's just some underground backpack stuff but for me that's a work of art, somebody took time and put that together and had all these skits and great songs and sequenced it right, that's like somebody putting up a painting and that's worth having.

Complex: Generally hip-hop producers get pulled into adding their voice to their record somehow: You're a production duo doing an album—is that a hard concept to sell?

Keelay: We get MySpace messages every day; people thinking that they like our raps or ask if we want to rap on a song with them, so it's definitely harder to market.

Zaire: And also we have the dynamic that we're up-and-coming artists. People don't really know us. Our beatmaker friends and all the folks we work with know that we're producers, but if someone's being turned on to us as brand new music and they just see our face plastered on the CD, and they just listen to the CD without any prior knowledge, folks will probably just think 'OK, these guys are the rappers.' At the end of the day I find it funny because it's just natural thought. But at the same time, when they hit you up, we have the opportunity to say 'We're not the rappers, we just laid the soundscape,' and I think that's a cool thing, and it's also different. There are producer albums out there but not too many, not as much as just a regular rapper album.

Complex: In listening to the album, I noticed a loop from "Riding High" by Faze-O creeping in between songs; is that a shout out to the song title?

Keelay: That song is pretty much the basis for the whole album. That's one of my favorite songs ever. That's what started the concept of the album. It was a little shout out to them and it works for the album.

Zaire: Those are also shout out to the folks who respect it, like one is somewhat J Dilla-based, and another is somewhat based on a Pete Rock feel.

Complex: Are you guys bored of new albums coming out with songs featuring a beat by "the late J Dilla"? Do you think that'll ever end?

Keelay: It'll definitely end man. It's just the nature of the game. It's the same reason everybody's wanting to have Lil' Wayne on their song right now, just in a different form. J Dilla is easily one of my favorite producers but when I see that on somebody's album, it's not the song I'm checking for. I'm just beyond it; I'll just kind of phase it out at this point.

Zaire: Yeah I agree, I don't think it'll last forever. I mean Dilla leaked a million of these beat tapes and he had Donuts and all that so there's a million rappers out there right now that have mix tapes of all Jay Dee beats. That's just typical artists trying to use something as a crutch, and Jay Dee is one of the illest and one of the greatest of all time, and people take advantage of that, just like a lot of folks will find a Tupac acapella in the millions of songs he'd written before his death and throw that on a song and all of the sudden 'This is my song featuring Tupac.' When people die they put them on this pedestal; I think that's wack to tell you the truth, because Dilla's worked with some folks extensively. Some folks sound natural over a Dilla joint and some don't. But people are going to be people, and that's the game, and they're going to try to capitalize off of something. But hey, at the end of the day, the heads don't really care.

Complex: What producers do you take cues from or have been influenced by?

Zaire: Jay Dee, Pete Rock, Primo; it's cliché for producers to say them but at the same time it's just the truth, these guys are masters at their craft. My favorite producer is actually Devante Swing from Jodeci. I really appreciate his work at the desk. He uses live instruments, samples — that's my favorite producer.

Keelay: I'm not the biggest Devante Swing fan. [Laughs.]

Complex: How did you go about selecting rappers to contribute to the album? Once they were contributing verses, were you tempted to enforce any selectivity on their lyrical content, like "That line isn't working for me... "

Keelay: The way it all started is we wrote out a script of the album and just sat down like "Who do we want to get on here that we might actually be able to get?" Some people we got, some people we didn't, other people just popped up out of nowhere. There were verses that we got from people that we didn't use. The cats in our crew had to do their verses like three or four times. We stepped to everybody with a concept and a storyline and said "Hey, this is what we want you to do for this song, to this beat," but then there were a couple instances where it didn't quite meet the concept that we were going for so we had to flip the script on our end and build the song around those verses. It was definitely a learning experience.

Zaire: It definitely wasn't just we send out the beat and rappers send us their verse and boom it's on the album. It would be a lot easier to do that, to tell you the truth. We changed verses and whatnot.

Complex: What was it like working with Saafir? He's been a criminally slept on MC his entire career.

Keelay: He was really cool and I think we caught him at the right time because he was going through some changes in his life. I just hit him up and he was down, he came through to the house and we mapped it all out. Then it turned into a whole another thing; he started telling us stories and just like crazy stuff because he got in a plane wreck, so he just preached it up about that for like 30 minutes. He's a very spiritual person right now. He's really into his Muslim religion. We got to hear about that. But don't get it twisted because he's the same old Saafir. It was still Harold [Saafir's character in the 1993 movie Menace II Society] in our room. It was a funny contrast. But he was really deep into it and if you listen to his lyrics now, it's a lot of Islamic references and stuff. It was just crazy because a big, white, kidnapper van just showed up to my house and I'm thinking "Who is this?" and out jumps Saafir. And I have a modest set up in my house; people have to jump in the closet to record, so it was a funny thing having Saafir in my closet.

Zaire: That's Harold from a classic hood movie, recording a verse in a closet; comes through in a white van preaching his stuff. That is an outstanding experience to get down and build with a cat like that.

Complex: What about Tash from Tha Alkaholiks; how did he get involved with the project?

Keelay: We didn't actually get to get in the studio with him. Me and Zaire were in Pittsburgh doing a show and Tash was in the Bay. Some friends of ours in Berkeley saw him at the studio recording and they called me up like "Yo, you want to get Tash on the the record?" We got on the phone with him, told him the concept of the song and he just banged it out but then when I got home and got the verse, it was only 12 bars long! It was one of those things; we just had to build the song around it. When you listen to it now you can't even tell it's missing four bars.

Zaire: It is nothing but love for Tash man, the verse is great.

Complex: How did the album come together with Keelay in San Francisco and Zaire in Virginia?

Keelay: I would say 80 percent of it, was just uploading sections back and forth. So it was a long process but that's how it works. Once we got the vocals we had all the beats picked out and all the characters we wanted on the songs, it was just back and forth, me and Zaire, late night on Megaupload.

Zaire: We met over the Internet so it was an easy transition to go ahead and complete a lot of these tracks via the net. We used that technology to our advantage, but at the same time I flew out to the Bay Area and to lay down skits and certain parts. So it was a mix of everything.

Complex: Do you guys feel hampered in terms of the changed legality of sampling today as opposed to 20 or even 10 years ago? Has that changed your approach much?

Keelay: I started making beats with nothing but samples; drum loops and little things, but as I've grown making beats over the years, my whole goal is to be more musical and learn more about music and as many instruments as possible. It's been a natural progression to try to do songs without any samples or incorporating samples in different ways, so for me I don't think it changes anything I do one bit. But I don't think me and Zaire are actually at the point right now where we have to worry about the samples being a threat to our record. If it ever comes to that point I think it's a good problem to have.

Zaire: We pride ourselves on being more musical than a cat who's saying 'all I do is rock samples' or 'all I do is rock keyboard sounds.' We like all of that. Ridin High; there's samples and keyboards and synths and live instrumentations all over the place. We are at a stage where sample clearance isn't that important and when it does become important we'll worry about that then. That's a good kind of stress. But at the same time, people aren't buying music; a lot of people aren't making a lot of money off music. There are hawks out there looking for these uncleared samples and whatnot but it's so saturated and nobody's making any money off this music like that unless you're like some of the big radio rappers and R&B cats. So it really hasn't changed my grind and I know it hasn't changed Keelay's grind.