Photo by Troy Benson
[In person interview]
You rarely find a student of music and a student of hip hop in the same package. Rarer is an artist who understands the theory behind the reverberations of inner ear ecstasies. This up and coming phenom, by the name of Klassik, has already shared the stage with Lupe Fiasco, Cool Kids and Rhymefest. Just wait until he stands head to head with the likes of Kanye.
Kellen “Klassik” Abston is a Milwaukee native, not the ideal location for hip hop, but he does what most self professed artists forget to do today. Klassik both takes you back several decades to Johnny Coltrane, Prince, Trent D’Arby, while reevaluating and pushing the scope of the plagued hip hop genre. The melody and lyrics are highly evocative of Lupe but tinged with a century’s worth of jazz and classical music to express his years of frustrations and aspirations.
His dedication to the art is equally remarkable. Walking into the door, I saw what was presented before me. He set up shop on the kitchen counter with breakfast in one hand and keyboard keys in the other. During the interview, with any spare seconds, he was mixing and experimenting for his upcoming album and I noticed my head banging.
In an era inundated by the aficionados who claim to be the next hot topic in hip hop that everyone important is listening to, while spamming our walls, kids these days will be schooled by the Klassik.
Klassik, his manager, Louis, and I sat down to talk about growing up, hip hop, philosophies and struggles. This is one interview that I suggest you to read all the way through.
Musebox: Who is Klassik?
Klassik: Klassik is me, Klassik is a producer, a musician, a writer, singer a rapper.
MB: Why the name Klassik?
K: The name Klassik because I want to bring back a classical element. You have classic old Motown. You have classic records but there isn’t a lot of the classic element put into today’s music and there’s so much that can be combined.
MB: What types of musicians influence you?
K: Freddy Mercury, Queen and Prince, Terence Trent D’Arby, Johnny Coltrane and even back to as classic as Tchikovsky.
MB: So what do you think of the mainstream artists out there since you mentioned that the classical elements are absent? Musicians these days seem to be giving the music community what they want to hear.
K: Yea, pretty much, you know it’s a lot what’s tried and true and what’s safe, and even the stuff that goes off of that, still more can be done. I believe there’s so much more that can be done creatively as far as evolving music.
MB: So would you say that Kanye West’s work adheres to the classics or caters to what his fans want?
K: I think he’s more classic. I don’t know if he’s at that classic, classic status. I don’t know when you become that, but it’s probably pretty close though in terms of putting on live performances and putting time and effort into his music, just doing different stuff – Just being like, “just try this.” So I think he’s pretty good at that, so less mainstream because he he’s not trying to play into that. He doesn’t have a lot of singles on the radio but still you know those songs.
MB: How did you get into music and why hip hop?
K: I got into music when I started playing alto sax so I was in the jazz in the fourth grade, so I was ten years old – nine or ten maybe? Ten years old. I played the sax all through middle school, high school and then I got to college – I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a year – and then I stopped playing the sax. But by that time I was already kind of had first picked up FruityLoops and then knew how to do all that and then was like, alright this is boring.
The summer after I graduated I went and bought Reason sat down and just started teaching myself chords, drum pads and just how to play different stuff. I was trying to get away from the FruitLoops thing where it’s like I’m going to drop in and it’s going to be a beat.
I just like to actually physically play so that it feels like at least I’m doing something. I really like to be hands on and just be really in touch with what’s going on with music. I’ve done so much with FruityLoops and I’ve been using that since I was in 8th grade. By the time I got to high school I was like, alright, I’ve done everything you can really do with any FruityLoops beats. I’ve made magnificent FruityLoops beats but the time has come for me to move onto greener pastures.
Big props to FruityLoops for starting out people. If you know what you’re doing you can get a good start there.
They should pay me to say that.
MB: What’s your relationship to InkRed?
K: That’s like our sponsorship. We endorse each other I guess.
Louis: We have mutual interests and we both want to help each other out and we’re able to use each other’s resources and connections to best help both of us. InkRed gets promoted from Klassik performing and we get free t-shirts and artwork – a lot of the promotional stuff he’ll do.
Yea, this sponsorship is pretty laid back though. There’s a contract, but it’s not super binding terms. We’re more so like good friends too. There’s another guy named Oye who hooked it up.
MB: Where do you find the inspiration for your music and what musicians do you listen to? What musicians do you listen to for that?
K: When I bring up Freddy Mercury because recently I’ve been recently listening to a lot of queen – those big records, not even their mainstream stuff, but just listening to the records and stuff that made them big. Listening to how stuff was mixed and what interludes and what cords and all that crazy stuff.
I also listen to a lot of Steely Dan, which is weird and people don’t know that. I listen to a lot of hip hop, but on a day to day basis I listen to a lot of Steely Dan, or Incubus “Fungus Amongus” – Just old school music that friends will put me up on different music so I love that drawing influences from just everything you hear.
MB: How hard have you found it to break out as a rapper into the hip hop genre and make a name for yourself?
K: I guess not that hard because I haven’t been really trying, because I was just like, let me just try it, I think I’m pretty good at it. Most people agree – the people I do music with are like, yea you’re pretty dope, but I guess it’s going easy for me – well not exactly easy but, I guess I’m not really trying.
I guess the less you focus on it sometimes you try to let things come to you. I’m really trying to get this production thing down. Like with beats. I’m not like, I want to make beats for so and so. I’m not like that. I want to get into producing records, taking newer talent, and making crazy dope songs.
MB: Does that mean you’re a rapper or producer first?
K: I would have to say that I’m a producer first, which I think makes me an inherently better rapper. As far as making stuff, when I make it, I can kind of know while I’m making it what I’m envisioning with it. I can hear it while I’m playing stuff. I’m thinking of choruses or melodies on top of it.
MB: You shared the stage with Rhymefest, Cool Kids and Lupe Fiasco. How was the experience and if one day you’re the main attraction, is there any artists that you’d like to be opening for you?
K: The Rhymefest thing was cool. That was really even before I was rapping. It was just by luck. Rhymefest came, but he had a bigger song with Kanye on it because him and Kanye used to work together producing records for him so it was called Brand New. He was at the show at Memorial Union in Madison. He was like “Who out there knows the verse on Kanye’s “Brand New”?” And I was in front and I was like “I know it.” So I got up on stage and rapped with him. So that was really before I was even really rapping.
L: The funny part too was that in that one line about “Ralph Lauren.”
K: Oh yea, “Ralph Lauren was borin’ before I wore ‘em” and I happened to have on a polo.
L: That was just kind of weird and we just kicked it with him afterwards. That was crazy.
K: Yea, sat, talked, made jokes, kicked it and there it was.
And the Cool Kids thing was they came to Madison. Rhyme Fest was January, maybe February? Because yea, me and Adam – Def C – opened up for the Cool Kids in May of ’08, so it was right when they were still on the come up.
L: They were starting to blow up too. They weren’t really that big until that summer. They did that record with Ludacris and Bun B a year after that so they were still pretty underground so that was sick.
MB: And what about Lupe Fiasco?
K: That thing was one of the things Louis set up in Milwaukee. The way they had this one venue set up in Milwaukee was that they had two or three opening acts and I was one of them. They had other stages and it would suck because I think that was the one where Lupe’s opening act was real garbage and no offense, I don’t know him or maybe I haven’t heard his music but he was getting booed. So it was like why do that when we could have gone in there for that crowd and rocked it. That’s like one of those chances we need – catching one of the opening acts for the bigger crowd coming into town, trying to get that spot.
MB: So when you’re the main attraction do you have anyone specific in mind?
K: It’d probably have to be SAFs crew, this crew from back home because we’ve got some talented guys. I pale in comparison as far as compared to a few of these guys. Especially this guy Blizz, he’d probably be one of the main male, because I knew him first and when I came back to Milwaukee after leaving Madison, he’s one of the first people I linked up with for music – him and The Cranberry Show. We just met up and started making music, started making beats. I’d go over to his house and bring this [pointing to his keyboard], bring it over there just sit there and make some beats and write some songs to the beats I already have and make some music to it.
MB: Why did you leave the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
K: I left Madison and I left my full scholarship because I was going to school and I was pursuing something I had no interest in pursuing.
MB: Which was?
K: Secondary English Education. Like I don’t mind English. It’s fun, interesting to learn new vocabulary words and expand your mind, analyze and critique, but I wouldn’t want to do it every day so I was like I’m going to go after this thing while I’m young and if it’s a mistake, it’s a mistake and it can be chalked up as one of those stupid things you do. But if not, then who knows what can happen.
So I decided now is the time to try and go for it. Even though it was new, I was like I don’t know what I’m going to do. Am I going to make some beats, am I going to rap? I just started rapping at that time. Am I going to make some songs? The album I’m going to be putting out this spring is a lot of the stuff is what I wrote coming right out of Madison. It’s over two years old. I’ve just been sitting on it. It’s dope because it’s the first stuff I wrote so it’s close. I still think it’s some pretty dope stuff.
MB: What artists do you or don’t you respect? I’m going to throw 50 Cent out there to get us started
K: Yea, that’s a tough one because I respect certain elements of his drive I guess but then again I don’t agree with certain elements of that drive, among other things. But I don’t know. It’s hard not to respect an artist just because even if I think your music sucks, even if I think it’s ignorant or there’s no point, at the same time, somebody noticed it. You just don’t get there. I respect right now any artist who made it to that point because whatever it is, even if I think your music is terrible, somebody is liking it, whatever the cause may be. Yea it’s hard not to.
MB: How did you and Louis meet?
K: Yea, we’ve known each other for ten years now. I met him in the sixth grade in Spanish class. His mom was the Spanish teacher.
L: Yea my mom was teaching.
K: School starts in like August, September so by the time Christmas rolled around, we were already best friends. I came to his Christmas party. That was the first time I spent the night over at his house, one of the millions of times I’ve stayed over there for like five days at a time. I just practically lived there.
MB: Did you both share an interest in music? When did you come to the decision that Louis would become your manager?
L: We both actually played sax in middle school together. I played and I wasn’t nearly as good as Kellen was. I played and I love music. We played a quartet.
K: Oh yea, me Josh you and Maggie?
L: Yea. So we played a quartet and I still remember it because there was four parts to the quartet. It was not an easy piece by any means. It was class A or something? We didn’t know the last part of it at all. Somehow when we performed at the regional level, they just didn’t ask us to play that part, so we just made it to state on a whim. Then after that we just started listening to music together. I stopped playing sax in high school and my thing has always just been… I’ve always been good with numbers so that’s why I went into business. So yea, he’s the music guy, I’m the business.
MB: Shouldn’t there be something at the state level for kids who are producing or into hip hop because everything related to schools have to do with classical music?
K: Yea, there’s no state level for that. They have beat battles. I’m going to be in this one they have in Milwaukee and I tried to get into it when I dropped out of Madison. They were trying to sweat me about my age. It’s like, “If you’re 18 and not 21, it’s going to be in a venue at a bar.” Then someone came and found me and was like, “Yea there was someone who was 18 or 19 there.” I was like, “seriously? C’mon man.”
I guess I wasn’t really known. I did a song for this guy, Frankie Flowers who I’ve known for a long time too, it was a guy I knew on a local radio station, 88.9 and they were loving it. So this was before then, so I’m trying to just break into the scene and I was like, “Let me get into this beat battle and kill shit.” They were like, “Nah, you’re not old enough, sorry we have these rules.”
But now it’s full circle because the guy is emailing me. We meet him and he’s sweating us about, “So are you going to be in the beat battle this year? Everyone has been asking why isn’t Klassik in the beat battle.” I’m just like, “I guess.”
So something like that on the state level would be dope or even in the school. It would really give something for the kids to really do you know? And it would let them find out other talents.
L: The problem is that this education system is so bureaucratic. It would be so hard to impose a change like that or even propose that.
MB: You mean because these children’s idols would be the rappers talking about sex, drugs and money?
K: Yea, but it’s crazy because it would force music to have to carry a different image. It would force a change on so many different levels in the schools. But then the music they listen to would have to reflect that. You couldn’t let them do that and then just have music all be exactly how it is now. I don’t think that’s the image we need to portray. It needs to be realistic and at times they should be aware of things, but to have your music focus on all these negative concepts, these things that have such negative connotations knowingly sometimes not necessary. Like everything should be in good taste. You can do things in tact and in moderation.
MB: How did you teach yourself piano?
K: I took one year of lessons from my saxophone teacher. He’s a well known local jazz saxophonist in Milwaukee. His name is Berkley Fudge. I think that’s awesome.
MB: Wow yea that is an awesome name.
K: His real name is Berkley Fudge. It doesn’t get more G than that.
So yea he was my teacher for the majority of the time I was playing, like 7 or 8 years. He just had this thing that sucked. He just had a stroke so he can’t use his whole right side so he can’t play and that’s his living. The thing is he’s probably set from a financial point of view, but playing the sax is what he does. He used to play every day. It’s something he does. He plays. It’s crazy to see things like that happen.
But, it was cool to have him as teacher. He taught me the basics of chords, of 1,3,5,7, and then the 9, because I like minor 9 chords. I like theory too, the way they’re constructed and why certain intervals make it sound like one chord, three different ways by just changing one key. It’s crazy.
MB: What gear do you use?
K: I just picked up this M-Audio Axiom Pro 49 all white… bricks. I had the same thing just basically in black. This just is more is in touch with the software. It links up more directly. The other keyboard was more difficult to link up. I still had an M-Audio, but this is the Pro 49. 49 keys, 8 drum pads, 8 knobs, faders, all kinds of crazy stuff.
Then there’s Reason. I really have a simple set up like mini keyboard, sustain pedal, keys, Fishman, because I actually like to play everything, some speakers, some headphones and I’m good to go. I can just do this anywhere I have access to this. I would take a train across the country… that’d be dope, I think I should do that. I’m going to take a train and write an EP across the country. I’m going to take a train just bring this and write tracks as I go along the desert. I just had an epiphany.
MB: How would you want your fans to remember you?
K: Making beautiful, epic music.
MB: Plain and simple?
K: Yea. Because those are like the reactions I get. It’s what I strive for, but it’s the biggest reward to get that type of reaction out of people. I met this guy at the coffee shop. He does music, he writes, plays guitar and stuff and I was like, “I do music too.” It’s a weird blend of hip hop, R&B, alt-rock, jazz. He checked it out, came back the next day and was like, man, that was just really pretty, it was beautiful, it was good. I was like thanks. That’s dope, I’m glad you think that too because I think that every day, and I just want everybody else to know what I know. It’s not cocky. It’s just like I want to share. I think it’s really dope, I think it’s really pleasing to your ears. It’s interesting.
MB: So you know someone out there is going to love it. All you want to do is just to put it into their ear.
K: Yea, if the right person was just to hear this. But, I’m sure everyone says that. At the end of the day, you can’t think like that. Maybe the right person is just people. Just a right amount of people, like if you put enough people onto it, if you just keep on working on it.
I felt at the last show, I kind of felt like that with the Drake song, “Over.” I know way too many people here right now, that I didn’t know last year, it’s crazy. You come to stuff you’ve done two years ago. I’d be doing little opening things for someone else’s crowd and I’d be like, cool they’re rocking with it. Even back then I was getting pretty good reactions but then it was just like, people don’t really know me. But now I do shows and some of the same people come and they know when I’m doing shows or it’s just like, the crowd is really into it and people come up to me afterwards and are just like, who are you? This is crazy. I’m like, I’ve been telling you this, I’ve been working so hard. It’s crazy that it’s finally happening.
I think that’s what that song is, is that it is crazy how it progresses. The more new faces and this person is like oh I told my friend about and she told her friend and her friends cam down to the show and we told some friends and lets go get some drinks afterwards. Damn, it’s fun.
MB: Are you planning on moving out of the Midwest?
K: Yes. Yes, it’s the dream, the goal, one of the next steps.
MB: Is the Midwest just not good for hip hop?
K: It’s not even that because like I said, with the emphasis I guess I most noticeably appeal to the hip hop community, but it’s that part of the hip hop community that is in the search for something more and I’m searching for something more. Like, what I’m doing is real jazzy, real funky, groove, self done stuff. Like self portraits.
MB: What about work?
K: It’s a necessary evil I guess. It sucks ass… nah it doesn’t… I don’t know. Some days it does some days it doesn’t.
MB: You wish you could spend all that time on music right?
K: Yea, that would be quite beneficial to the next steps. But I’m not complaining. I’ve got a job, I’ve got a way to sustain myself in today’s economy so I’m doing alright. Everything could always be better. I’ll just say, they are looking better. They are always better.
MB: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
K: Hm, advice for aspiring musicians?
MB: Or struggling.
K: Aspiring and or struggling is usually synonymous. If you’re doing it right. Maybe. There are rarely silver spoons.
If you just want a quick way to some money that you’ll blow through in a few years and you’re not really a musician – music isn’t really your thing and it’s just something you’re good at and can make some money off of it, I mean it’s cool if you want to do that, but just know that the end result has no longevity.
I mean if that’s not your goal, that’s not your goal. But if you’re like me and just want a career and just want to be known for something bigger than even your life time, which is what I feel like everyone should want to do, to leave that mark. Then take care and pay attention to the details from day one and don’t just make stuff and be like, “oh, I’m new at this and it’s just something I did.” If you have to say all that, then don’t say it every time. You should feel like you made the best track every time.
Every day I like the newest thing I made even more. Every new song I make, I’m like this is the best song that I’ve ever made and the next day, someone’s like no, this is the best song that you’ve ever made. So when you present it to people, you should feel that way. If you want to be great, epic and have this legacy thing go, then you have to have that kind drive to satisfy yourself, because it will never happen.
That’s the thing. You shouldn’t ever be complacent or set. I guess you can be satisfied but you can’t be complacent. Just don’t be overly satisfied. Just take it as it comes but just realize that you can always do more but at the same time don’t concentrate on “you can always do more.”
Like I said, everything in moderation. I realize that one, that simple statement right there applies to so many things. It’s like this axiom of truth – everything in moderation. You realize there’s so much you can do and you can always push yourself, but just don’t do it too much. But at the same time, realize that you do not enough too much.
L: If you’re fucking up too much, you’re not going to make it basically.
K: Pretty much
MB: That’s Klassik for you. Is there anything in the works?
K: The album.
L: And the “Halftime Show.”
K: Me and a couple of guys, SAFS crew, shout out, we just did a EP called the “Halftime Show” because the plan was to release it during the Super Bowl halftime show and that didn’t happen because we were still mixing it down. We had some fun, made some pretty dope music.