As our Alicia Keys cover story notes, Kerry “Krucial” Brothers—the producer who worked with Alicia on her first four albums—has now started his own company called Krucial Noise. The first artist he's rolling out is a singer-songwriter named Mateo, who's currently signed to Interscope. Krucial and Mateo dropped by the Complex offices to talk about his latest release, Suite 823, how the two of them connected, how Krucial hustled his way up from aspiring rapper to multiplatinum R&B hitmaker, and how Krucial Noise plans to make lightning strike a second time.
Interview by Rob Kenner (@Boomshots)
What's new with you Mateo?
Mateo: I just signed to Interscope five months ago. They were like, “We want you to put out a project for the summer.” I was like, “Ah, man—another mixtape? But we started working on it and we kinda got this whole vibe where if I’m going to do it, I want to do all original music. We just went with that and started vibing out and came up with some dope joints. Like, literally in a month’s time we came up with this whole project. It was beautiful. It was, like, perfect timing. It’s had a really good reception so far.
Was it all your production?
Krucial: Me, JL, Zeke [MacUmber] the whole in-house team from Krucial Noise.
Who’s the team?
Krucial: It’s myself, Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, and I have JL Brown who has worked with Mateo in the past on a lot of his stuff and so I kept him part of the team. Another producer of mine who goes by the name of Zeke.
What is a mixtape anymore, really? It’s an album that you don’t have to pay for.
Mateo: Exactly. It’s an album. And Interscope just threw it up on iTunes and it’s an EP on Spotify. So let’s just call it an EP/album—whatever you want.
I started doing these little sessions in basement studios in Brooklyn. Like really, really horrible studios. Like I’m recording in the laundry room with the washing machine going on. The person engineering in the other room was falling asleep while I was cutting vocals. —Mateo
Oh it’s actually on iTunes now for purchase?
Mateo: Yeah, it’s on iTunes right now for purchase.
Krucial: It started as a mixtape and then kind of did so well that they made it available on iTunes recently. Whcih was a surprise—we didn’t expect them to do that.
So what’s the song that’s really making an impact right now?
Mateo: Every person has a different favorite. Of course, I have my personal favorite. My personal favorite on the mixtape is “Looking You Up.” It’s a feature we did with Stacy Barthe, who’s another artist signed to John Legend’s label. I love that track. But other people are loving “Over You.” That’s a track that has like an ’80s vibe to it. Also, [I have] “Don’t Worry About Me,” which is sort of a ballady-type of thing. It’s kind of reminiscent of the more organic stuff I’ve put out prior to this. People are loving it. And we also did a flip of Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans.” You gotta check it out. It’s actually a live performance we did at the studio in L.A. It’s like a stripped-down version of it, but it came out really sick.
Krucial: The video just took off.
So are you working mostly in L.A. now?
Krucial: Well, we’ve been working in L.A. out of Raphael Saadiq’s studio for most of the album, but we did the mixtape in New York.
So that’s why it’s a live thing? Because Raphael is that live music guy.
Mateo: Oh man, it’s the best energy in that place. Yeah man, you’ll be there and Earth Wind & Fire walk in.
Mateo: Yeah. Stuff like, he’ll be working with Chaka Khan. Just legendary people.
Krucial: Sheila E. There was one time even Eddie Murphy came through to work on some of his music. I don’t know if he’s been working on the side or whatever. It’s just legends coming through there. It’s pretty cool.
Eddie Murphy? I haven’t heard about him doing music since “Party All The Time.”
Mateo: I know, right? Exactly.
Let’s step back a little bit. How did you two connect?
Krucial: Well I met Mateo through Quddus [Phillippe]. At the time, Quddus was managing him and he had a deal at MySpace Records. He contacted me saying, “Hey, I got this record. I want to see if you want to produce it, and meet the artist.” He played me the record “Complicated.” I heard and loved the record. I met Mateo in the studio and it was like, “Oh man, I definitely want to be involved.” A year or so went by and whatever happened with MySpace didn’t work out. I was like, “Hey, I’m starting to have my own brand; my own label. Would you want to sign with me?
What year was that?
Krucial: That was the end of 2009 when we met, and I signed in 2010.
Mateo: It was cool. It was perfect timing, too. We had just met—last time I saw you before I signed to you. It was literally the day before we did this live EP called Get To Know Me: Live at Swing House. That was what actually got more love in the blogosphere, which was really my claim to fame. It’s been all online stuff. We put that out and in that very moment, things were happening at MySpace and we were like, “It’s time to move on.” Right when we were thinking of moving on, Kerry was like, “I’m trying to have you as one of my artists on the label.” It was perfect.
What was your path into the music business, Mateo?
Mateo:I went to school in Atlanta down at Morehouse [College]. And I was always doing music on the side. And I was like most people, you don’t really know if you want to do something that risky, so I got a regular job and moved to New York. And I hated it. It was terrible and I was like, “Man, I want to do music.”
Mateo was the first artist that really gelled perfectly, and he understood how it is in the business. You know, you meet young artists and you tell them how it is. They’re believing what they heard—you know, fantasy stories. After a while, they’re trying to tell you how it goes and you’re like, 'What?'
—Kerry "Krucial" Brothers
I started doing these little sessions in basement studios in Brooklyn. Like really, really horrible studios. Like I’m recording in the laundry room with the washing machine going on. The person engineering in the other room was falling asleep while I was cutting vocals. [They were] full-on horrible, horrible, sessions. At the time, I took those demos down to a producer in Philly, who was doing for music on TV in L.A. And he was like, “Yo, come out to L.A.”
That’s how I ended up in L.A. and doing the live scene out there. I just started performing around the city and putting up songs on MySpace at the time. That’s what really started helping everything—because of MySpace. I just started building a following just through organic people. I mean that’s the best way to do it cause you really get true responses from everyday people. It’s not like a business executive telling you what music you need to put out. It’s like hearing a song and being like, “I love this.”
At this point, most A&Rs are just looking at the Internet to decide who to sign anyway.
Krucial: True that. Might as well cut to the chase, right?
What was the record that got you signed with MySpace?
Krucial: It was a song called “Complicated.”
Mateo: It was funny. I was playing piano and it was actually one of the first songs I ever wrote on piano. I was just trying to do the whole—
Krucial: Writing to beats.
Mateo: Writing to beats and stuff like that. Finally, when I did “Complicated,” I found the niche. I found my sound, which is kind of a mixture. It has some urban, R&B-qualities to it, but then it has some—I don’t know, it has some Coldplay and something else in it. Synths, big drums, a really euphoric kind of sound. That’s when we first did that and that’s what got me the MySpace deal. And that’s how I met Krucial—all through that one song.
I know you’ve got this Krucial Noise situation going on. Was he the starting artist for that?
Krucial: He’s the first artist that I did a major deal with. I had other ones before that didn’t work out or whatever. But I used it as learning curves and learning what not to do with an artist. But he was the first artist that really gelled perfectly, and he understood how it is in the business. You know, you meet young artists and you tell them how it is. They’re believing what they heard—you know, fantasy stories. After a while, they’re trying to tell you how it goes and you’re like, “What?”
I’m the one that’s been in the game for years.
Krucial:Yeah, I’ve been in the game 10-12 years and that’s not the reality. [<em>Laughs.</em>] That’s not how it is.
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.
And you all built a studio, too?
Krucial:Right. We built the studio on Long Island—Oven Studios—and worked out of there. Because we started collecting gear. That was the whole thing. It was like, every time we got a check, we bought a Wurlitzer or we bought a harpsichord and different things. So we needed a place to put all that stuff.
Every time we got a check, we bought a Wurlitzer or we bought a harpsichord and different things. So we needed a place to put all that stuff.
—Kerry "Krucial" Brothers
Is that studio still there?
Krucial: No, that studio is not out there now. She actually relocated it to Manhattan now.
And you’re working out of which studio now?
Krucial: Well right now, I pretty much set up with a little satellite start-up in Jersey right now. At an undisclosed location, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] To branch off with Mateo and just start in a fresh, new environment. I still do work at Oven and also Jungle City Studios. And most of the time I’m working with Mateo. We did a lot in L.A. cause I’m staying in LA most of the time, staying in Raphael’s studio for about a year and a half—almost two years.
I still feel like I didn’t do my best work yet. That’s how I go in. Stevie got 26 Grammys. I only got two. I need to work harder. —Kerry "Krucial" Brothers
I believe that's what you call a great look.
Mateo: Yes sir.
Did Swizz also do beats on that?
Krucial: No, no. It was my production.
Did you do any work on this new Alicia album?
Krucial: Yeah, this one we’ve been working on for a while in the beginning. This album she’s done different from the other albums. She’s worked with a whole lot of different people this time. Really experimenting. But you know, I was definitely involved with a lot of it. I think with this album I’ll probably have a couple songs on it. And she’s going to do a follow-up album soon with probably some of the stuff we did earlier.
There was one song that I really liked we had done together. It’s called “Somewhere in the City” which we wrote during the time Japan had the earthquake and the tsunami. We were just inspired and wrote that in one day. Its also been featured in a documentary she had about “Keep A Child Alive.” She has amazing records on there. There’s one song that you probably heard already. She released “Not Even the King.”
That record is crazy.
Krucial: Amazing record. And also “101.” Those are my two favorite songs from the album right now.
I feel like she dug very deep on this record. Those two songs you mentioned and “Brand New Me”—they both had a rawness to them.
Krucial: Yeah. She’s genuine. It’s an amazing thing, with all the talent she has and with everything she does, she really puts her spirit into it. That’s what motivates me and motivates everybody. She’s not doing this because she has to make a record that everyone likes or [to make money]. It’s more like, “I want to express myself.”
That’s what I saw in Mateo, too. That’s the art part of it that really inspires me. We truly believe if you do great art, the riches and the money will come. You know what I mean? Just do great work and it will be timeless and always generate things. Just to see that after 10, 11 years in the business, she still keeps that spirit and keeps that vibe. It’s amazing. I’m very proud of her. It’s hard not to get jaded. Even me, I still feel like I’m starting new. I still feel like I didn’t do my best work yet. That’s how I go in. Like, “I didn’t do my best work yet.” Stevie got 26 Grammys. I only got two. I need to work harder. [Laughs.]