Gotta Stay Fresh

With decades of experience and a slew of gold records, Jake One is Seattle’s preeminent hip-hop producer. Born Jacob Dutton, the 37-year-old native has provided beats for superstars like Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa and J. Cole while also working with the best local talent and underground favorites. Ten years his junior, Keyboard Kid, aka Greg Phillips, gained international recognition for his copious productions for Bay Area rap enigma Lil B the BasedGod. He’s released a steady stream of solo mixtapes over the last few years, displaying a hugely varied musical style. He represents the best of the city’s new guard.

Keyboard It’s good to finally get face to face and be able to chat with you in a casual setting.

Jake Yeah, I always run into you somewhere super loud.

Keyboard At a function or club or seminar or something. But I want to get to know you a bit. So, are you born and raised in Seattle?

Jake I was born in Lynnwood, but I was raised in Capitol Hill pretty much my whole life. My parents split when I was like 5. My mom lived in the north end, so I’d go back and forth.

Keyboard That’s similar to me, but I was born in Hawaii. My dad was in the Navy and met my mom out there. They ended up having me shortly after. Then they moved to California because that’s where my mom’s mom was. We lived there until I was about 6 and then we moved up here to Seattle.

Jake When did you get to Seattle?

Keyboard Summer of ’92 or ’93.

Jake How old were you then?

Keyboard I was 6. When I moved here I moved right off MLK to the MLK Apartments. Stayed there until I was about 12 or 13, then we moved south to Renton. We kind of bounced around for those few years.

Jake That’s the migration for black people in Seattle.

Keyboard It is! It’s like the Great Migration [laughs]

Jake I grew up on Cap Hill, edge of the CD, and there’s nobody that I grew up with that even lives in Seattle anymore. They’re all in Renton, Skyway, Federal Way.

Keyboard It’s weird ’cause I was part of that first generation of kids that were moved out there.

Jake When I was in high school, it was like, Renton? That’s far.

Keyboard What kind of music were you around as a kid? What do you remember hearing around the house?

Jake I heard hip-hop early, like ’82. I remember it. It was for kids, you know? And Zapp and Cameo and stuff like that. I loved it. That was my thing. I can even remember getting my first record. I went to the dentist and didn’t cry, so my dad took me to this record store on 22nd and Union, and I got Rick James’ Street Songs, and that was the first album that was mine.

It was really just what was going on around me. I was shaped by my environment, all the kids I was around and even the grown-ups. There was a time when you would turn your house speakers out and face it out the window, and they would be blasting music all day. That’s the shit that I was raised on.

That time in your life is going to determine what happens later on. Even when you shift focus. I can be into a different type of music, but that’s always, like, home. I’m always going to go back there because I just have that feeling about it.

Keyboard I was in that Sesame Street era, and they used to have Herbie Hancock come on—he was on there with synthesizers and stuff.

Jake With a sampler.

Keyboard Yeah! My mom says that was my favorite segment. I remember getting my first tape—my grandpa bought me a Sony Walkman and I got my first tape from my cousin. It was a St. Ides 1994 mixtape.

Jake I actually have that.

Keyboard Really? Wow. It was slappin’!

Jake It was in the paper sleeve. St. Ides was some shit to get! The Nate Dogg and Warren G one is still a classic.

Keyboard What other hobbies do you have besides music? Like art or sports?

Jake When I was a kid in the ’80s, you had to do everything. I used to write graffiti like crazy. My parents were hippies and my dad was all about it. He was like, yeah go ahead and spray paint your room. My room at my dad’s house still has tags on the wall. It’s exactly like it was in the ’80s. For some reason, I totally stopped doing that.

Keyboard If you had to pack everything up and move to another country, where would that be?

Jake Probably Vancouver or Toronto. It’s not so far but it feels different. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, but as much as I like certain things about it, it’s just not home. I feel I’d be noticing that all the time. And I’d be mad ’cause I couldn’t watch SportsCenter.

It’s different hip-hop-wise in Europe. I went on tour with Freeway for three weeks and we hit all these festivals and I was like, wow, there’s like 10,000 people here to see this. It wasn’t like Jay-Z was playing there. It was underground artists. They go super hard for that.

Keyboard Is their music industry different? You know how here you get bombarded when something comes out and you’re kind of forced to like it?

Jake They have the stuff that’s the complete smash hit, the generic pop music, but then there’s a gigantic wave of people that only like something that’s underground. Maybe it’s because they don’t make the music the same way we do, so they have an appreciation for us. It’s strange to me. We were in Prague, no one could even speak English, but they knew the words.

Keyboard Music’s powerful.

Jake It really is.

Keyboard They’ve been one of the first places to latch onto a lot of my music too—like London and the UK. How many countries have you been to?

Jake I’ve been everywhere except Africa and Australia at this point.

Keyboard Australia—I want to go there. I’m flying out at the end of the month.

Jake Where you headed?

Keyboard I’m going to New York to do a show with Lil B and Clams Casino. It’s going to be dope. Should be a big one for me.

Jake So that’s how you got your big break—but how did that even happen?

Keyboard First time I met Lil B was online. We met through MySpace. It was a window, like, I’m doing something that’s heading in the right direction.

Jake Validation.

Keyboard Yeah, validation. So, I seen Lil B, and something just told me to hit him up. I went to his MySpace and it was popping. He had hella girls on there and it was crazy. It was before he had tons of different ones, it was just one page.

Jake He ended up with 100 pages or something crazy.

Keyboard So I hit him up. I was like, man, I think I got a good sound that would help what you’re doing. I think we could make great music together. I don’t want no money or nothing, I just want somebody to rap on my beats. And he actually responded.

I had been making beats for a while, but it was one of those things like you said—it was kind of ahead of its time. I went to all these cats around the city and was like, yo, rap on these beats. They were feeling them, but I don’t think they knew what to do with them.

Jake Then BasedGod got on, and it was like, we need that.

Keyboard I just started sending him beats every day because, at that point, I didn’t even have no one else I was sending beats to. Then he just started rapping on all of them.

Jake How many records do you think you did for him?

Keyboard I don’t even remember. We have records that aren’t even out. Stuff we’ve been working on for a while.

Jake It seems like you and Clams are mostly associated with being the main producers for him early on.

Keyboard Yeah, we produced a lot of his landmark tracks that got him accepted in a broader sense.

Jake Who did that “New York Subway” song?

Keyboard I don’t know. He’s got so many songs.

Jake If I dropped an 800 song mixtape…

Keyboard I couldn’t even download it. Eight hundred songs? You know what the download time was on it with cable Internet? It was like five hours. I was like, hell no. I cancelled that shit. It took like 30 minutes just to cancel the download.

Jake But Soulja Boy clearly saw that shit and was like, I’m stealing that!

Keyboard Oh yeah.

Jake His whole guerilla approach—I feel like they took that more than his music even.

Keyboard He caught people off guard. We talked about a lot of it before it was anything. He was like, what do we want to make happen? We want a cult following, something that’ll last. Like old rock groups, you know what I’m saying?

Jake It almost is like a Grateful Dead-type thing. People outside of the world don’t necessarily understand it.

Keyboard A lot of it is just funny ideas. Jokes. But then people ran with it and it turned into something,

Jake He’ll do the “Ellen Degeneres” song, but then he’ll come with like a “heal the world” song next.

Keyboard People always ask me, what’s he like in person? He is the character he is, but it’s toned down, he’s just chilling. He’s funny, man.

At first no one understood my music, or his music. So we were rebels. We looked at ourselves like punk, not even rap. We do rap ’cause that’s what we love and we studied rap and we grew up around rap. Lil B knows all about the Kool G Rap and Rakim-era and Afrika Bambaataa. He’s a student of hip-hop, but we just wanted to tear down walls and create something new. We felt like rap was getting stagnant and saturated so we wanted to break it down.

Jake Did you notice once were you doing songs for him that other people were coming, like, man, I need that sound?

Keyboard That’s definitely what happened. It’s been from all different weird angles. People either want the certain sound or they just like the beats. Maybe they don’t like the songs he makes, but they want some music. I put out so much weird stuff on my own, too. I put out like 30 self-released mixtapes on the Internet.

Jake That’s crazy.

Keyboard It’s just the way I work. I work fast. For a while there, I had so much music so I was just dropping tape, tape, tape.

So what do you think makes a classic beat?

Jake I was talking to somebody about this yesterday. I think it can be multiple things. It can be something that defines this moment or this sound, but that’s a bad thing sometimes. People have things in their beats that’re like, that’s 2008. It has this certain clap and you’re like, nobody’s using that dumb-ass clap anymore.

Most of my beats don’t really have an identifier in them. I just did a song on Rick Ross’ new album and it’s a beat I made in 2008! It still sounds good. There’s nothing that says it was made in 2008. It just happened to work for now.

But it can be a lot of different things. Something like “The Grinder” was so minimal. It’s obviously a classic beat and it was different for the time, but you probably couldn’t come out with that beat right now. It’s hard to make anything that’s popular without an 808 right now.

Keyboard That’s true. There’s nothing without the low 808 in there on a main station right now. It’s all the 808 driven beats.

Do you have a favorite song you’ve produced?

Jake It’s hard not to let people make that decision. People always bring up “Rock Cocaine Flow,” “Three Kings.” I don’t know, man. Once I do ’em, I’m kinda done with them. I’m not gonna lie—I’m always worried about the next thing that’s coming. I’m trying to do something better than the last. People can get stuck. Like, if you did one song that was the biggest song you ever did, you’re always going to be chasing that. You’ve got to reinvent things on some level. So my favorite is probably whatever just came out, which is the song I just did on J. Cole’s album, which I’ve only listened to one time. It sounds dope to me.

Keyboard I’m the same way. Once I’ve put out a beat, I don’t even want to listen to it again. I forget I made it sometimes.

Jake I listen to a lot of the beats I do, but by the time they get to the rap stage, usually the thing is old to me. Producers aren’t good judges of their music because you like things for a particular technical reason, and the fans just like what they like.

Keyboard I feel sometimes like I’m in a different reality. I hear the same music they hear, but I hear it a totally differently. That’s one of the hardest things for me as far as getting to the next level. How’d you take it from just being a hobby to the career part?

Jake It’s a lot harder now to break through as a new producer because there’s so many producers. And there’s so few albums coming out. There might be 10 major label albums that are gonna drop in a year.

Everybody’s always working. You send guys beats, they record to them. They might have 50 songs and you maybe did two, and you hope your song makes it. You’re waiting around until it releases. I have so many songs in that stage. It’s a good place to be, but it also hurts when you don’t make the album that gets big.

Keyboard That’s how it is now at my level, even. All these new producers are breaking through.

Jake A lot of guys make good beats. But only a couple break through and keep coming back. It’s because of the computer style in general—everybody’s using the same sounds, so it’s really hard to be different.

Keyboard I wonder if it’s the state of mind of the artist.

Jake They don’t care about the producers, either.

Keyboard They’re just chasing trends.

Jake When I started it was a lot different. When Pro Tools came around, these guys had the ability to just demo shit all the time without paying for it. Stuff became a lot more disposable. I got a manager in 2001, 2002. That’s when I started getting beats to bigger artists, and you’d get paid for shit that never even came out. I remember Mos Def bought like four beats off me and that shit never saw the light of day. Once that went away, the combination of that and the Internet destroyed it.

Keyboard It’s the gift and the curse.

Jake It’s great in a lot of ways.

Keyboard I’m living proof that it can be positive, so I can’t ever knock it. But, at the same time, it’s like letting the floodgates open.

Jake Fans feel like you owe them, you know? Like, make my beats for free, put this song out and don’t say shit—you know what I mean? That’s their attitude. Hurry up and make more free songs for me. I don’t do that, but I do songs that just come out on a mixtape. If I like the artist, I’ll do that.

Keyboard That’s how I feel. It’s a weird business sometimes.

Jake They only do that with rap. Like, fun. isn’t making a mixtape and giving it away.

Keyboard Never. The Rolling Stones are not making a fucking mixtape. Ozzy Osbourne isn’t giving you a pre-release before they drop the new Black Sabbath.

Jake They didn’t drop seven mixtapes before his album. They just gave you the fucking album. BasedGod and some of these guys, they’re revolutionary with what they did, but they threw the whole game out of whack. Because now everybody’s like, make me a bunch of free songs—BasedGod did it! Man, if you’re going to pay $300 for some Jordans, you could spend $10 on the album.

Keyboard Yeah, you gotta make people really like you. You have to create this character or give enough of yourself for them to be like, hey I see something in you that I like. I’ll support you. It’s bad, but it does kind of bring back the showmanship part of the music.

Jake Everything is all character and personality. That’s what it’s turned into. It’s good and bad. Rakim wouldn’t have popped now, ’cause he just raps. He doesn’t do anything besides that—he just raps. He’s not beating people up on Worldstar, you know? His Twitter wouldn’t be funny.

Keyboard Do you think it’s something that happened because of people’s tastes in general?

Jake I think it’s social media. I look at somebody like Joe Budden—he’s a good rapper, but his presence on the Internet makes him a star more than his music. He gets all the model girls in the videos, and he’s funny, he’s entertaining. People buy into that.

Keyboard It can either help someone’s career or kill it. Like with Lil B—a lot of people don’t get it. Like, the older cats. You probably shouldn’t get it.

Jake A lot of older dudes are really pissed off. I have to explain to them, you sound like our parents. Shit changes, and you don’t necessarily have to go in that direction, but you have to accept it. I’ve been lucky to be able to transition with the different generations of rappers—they still like me somehow. I’m definitely older than damn near all of them, but I also like a lot of the new shit, so that comes out in my music. I’m not making beats like it’s 1999.

Keyboard I can see it in just talking to you, how you are, when you get done with something, you just move onto the next. That’s how I am. You’re always evolving, you’re always feeling like you can get better ’cause you see something bigger.

Jake I also like just being around younger people, ’cause they’re still exciting. I have a kid, his name’s Swish, who’s the first producer I signed to my company ever, the first person I’ve ever even done anything like that with. He plays keys on a lot of stuff for me, but his level of excitement about music is just good to be around. I need that, ’cause I’m old, man. I’ve been doing this so long it’s hard to be excited about anything. I don’t know what there is left for me to accomplish on a tangible level. I need to make a hit song and that’s about it. But being around him and other youngsters, it’s like, damn, alright, I need to keep on.

Keyboard People want more JakeOne.

Jake They still want me, so that’s good.

Keyboard That’s dope, man. That’s how I feel. I make music to this day probably ’cause the little homies told me that my music was dope and that I should keep going. They understood it when other people maybe didn’t get it at the time.

My best friend’s little brother, he started out making beats ’cause I made beats. Now he raps and he’s got music videos out on YouTube and all this stuff, and he went to the Art Institute. So I feel I gotta keep going, I gotta stay fresh. I look at what he’s doing and that influences me.

Photo by Jake Clifford