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The Making of 14KT’s Ambitious Jazz Album ‘For My Sanity’
The Ypsilanti native discusses making a song for his mother, using his voice as an instrument, and how the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling influenced his music.
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The Making of 14KT’s Ambitious Jazz Album ‘For My Sanity’
23-year production veteran 14KT has often found the creative process with relative ease during his career. He first began his musical odyssey by recording raps through a busted pair of headphones and constructing pause tape beats with his boombox during his high school years.
As his sample chopping skills improved with time, he posted audio commentary of instrumentals on Myspace during the platform’s beat scene heyday. And in a November 2017 Micro-Chop interview, KT described a sort of creative apex he hit with his sample flipping abilities while working on the RSXGLD album.
Even though his Maschine proficiency hit new heights in 2017, he sometimes found it difficult to apply his talents and actually make music. In other words, his creative spirit wasn’t always in line with his technical abilities. “When you’re on a journey to get somewhere sonically, I guess you go through that battle of hitting a block,” he says. “I was in a block for a minute, but usually, I try to find ways to get out of it. One of the ways I started that kind of led to this project was I would chop records, but I’d do ‘em as an exercise.”
Exercises to work through his creative block might include constructing a jazz song or listening to one specific kind of music as a sample source. Presenting himself with these challenges while simultaneously working on the RSXGLD album, KT found the exercise an effective method for expanding his artistic lens. Often posting his creations on Instagram with the hashtag #formysanity, his spontaneous songs started to take shape and morph into a jazz album. At the urging of his friend iRock, he decided to keep with the name For My Sanity as an official album title.
In addition to tackling a new challenge in terms of genre and sound, KT also tried to make as much of the album as he could exclusively with his Maschine sampler—a remarkable feat when you consider the depth and complexity of the music on For My Sanity. “I was like, ‘OK, if I just use the pads on this Maschine and the sounds that I have, I want to sound like a live band,’” he says. “85–90% of the album is me playing everything live on Maschine. Some songs I play live keys and some songs I play live bass, but most of the basslines you hear are on the pads live.”
One of the songs to flow out of his sampler during the #formysanity sessions is the gorgeous Mother’s Day gift “Sunday’s Yellow.” Inspired by his mother’s favorite color and the 2010 animated film Chico & Rita—which features a beautiful score from Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdes—the song is steeped in personal meaning. Much of it is a reflection of the reverence for jazz KT’s mom instilled in him during his youth. “When I was younger I would dig into her records and she had a record in there from Bobby Timmons called Chun-King that I really loved,” he says. “That kind of started the whole journey of me being a fan.”
“Sunday’s Yellow” also finds KT employing his voice as an instrument—a technique listeners can hear in some of his earlier work. Though he often uses his vocals as a placeholder during the early versions of beats, he sometimes keeps them in the final mix if the song is especially meaningful. For example, you can hear KT’s singing layered in on cuts like “Ypsilanti” from 2008’s The Golden Hour. On “Sunday’s Yellow,” the emotional weightiness of the song was the deciding factor in keeping his voice as part of the final mix. “That was personal,” he says. “When you hear me singing it, that’s me singing to my mom. So I left myself on there.” (See his mother’s reaction to the song here.)
Another captivating fusion of vocals and lush instrumentation was born out of lessons from a bible study plan that spoke to the power of consistency and inspired KT. After building a skeletal version of what later became “The Power of Same,” he asked Roots member James Poyser to help enhance and enrich the track with further instrumentation. Then recent Roots addition Stro Elliot, who was practically neighbors with KT at the time, added another critical element. “One night he walked over to my house, I played the record for him, and he picked up my electric guitar and played the first thing that came to mind, which was perfect,” KT told Self-Titled in a May of 2019 interview.
With the track already steeped in the spirit of collaboration, DJ Jazzy Jeff’s annual Playlist Retreat provided the ideal setting for “The Power of Same” to enter its second act. KT’s friend and collaborator Tall Black Guy suggested having Muhsinah, who was also a Playlist attendant, sing over the beautiful instrumental during a retreat listening session. “As soon as he said ‘Get Muhsinah on it,’ I heard her on the record,” KT says.
After KT and Muhsinah talked about the messaging of the song, she went off to record her contribution. It took her a mere two days to write, arrange, and sing the vocals you hear on the album. Though his preference is to be in the same room with a vocalist when they record to his production, KT was blown away by the final product of letting Muhsinah work with his instrumental on her own. “It was just magic how it happened,” he says.
Listeners paying careful attention will also notice a subtle layer of KT vocals underneath “The Power of Same”—this time in prayer. Putting his personal prayers underneath the music served two purposes: it sent positive energy to his listeners while also serving as a reminder to KT of where he was in his life when he made the song. “There were certain things that I was praying for everybody who listens to the music,” he says. “It’s not really meant for everyone to hear, but to feel. I’ma look back on that song 20 years from now and it’s going to remind me what I was doing that day. And why I was doing it.”
Another impressive offering on the album is “Mainstream,” a bold reimagining of Outkast and Organized Noize’s classic ATLiens track. Once again showing his impressive musicality and ability to blur the lines between samples and live instrumentation, KT constructed every part of the song himself—even the “uh, y’all know what it is” vocal sample from the Outkast version is a re-recording of KT speaking. “It was just me saying the same thing and tucking it into the back just like they did in the original,” he says. “I was just kind of creating that energy and that vibe that they had, the little things in that record that I love.”
The creative process behind this record could easily fill an article twice as long, but it would be an injustice not to address the societal factors that influenced the album head-on. As KT writes in the albums liner notes, “Paired with the everyday struggles of being an artist, it was very stressful hearing about so many deaths—especially due to law enforcement. Making For My Sanity was how I was trying to find peace of mind every night so I could go to sleep.”
Although many of us use music as a way of escaping painful realities or simply as a mechanism for feeling joy and happiness, it is essential not to overlook the troubling reality black musicians face every day in America. Unfortunately, it’s a topic of discussion that is often too easy for mainstream music publications to sweep under the rug.
As we broach the subject, KT opens up about the mental exhaustion he experienced and the impact it had while he recorded For My Sanity. “While I was making this record I was just tired,” he says. “When I go into the studio or when I’m going around in the world, the events of the world affect how I feel every day. Sometimes it’s hard to create with that on your mind.”
Yet he somehow found a way. “When something would happen that day, instead of me just being sad or it bothering me, I allowed myself to just create how I felt,” he says. “I didn’t have to make just hip-hop music or I didn’t have to make just a beat or I didn’t have to just sample a record when I wanted to express my feelings.”
After a July 2016 Black Lives Matter rally in Inglewood that KT attended, he created “Nothing To Lose But Our Chains.” In his Self-Titled interview, he explained the specific events that lead to the rally and him making this song.
It was in response to many police shootings, but this particular protest was sparked by the fatal police shootings of two black men. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Say their names. The next day I composed this song to capture how I felt: tired. Tired of the constant struggle of having to fight for equality, rights, and respect because of my skin color. Yet I’m still hopeful that things can change.
Whether you’re a longtime 14KT fan or he’s a new discovery for you, For My Sanity is an essential listen. Much more than an impressive collection of songs, the album makes the listener reconsider the limits of what producers can achieve with one sampler. It also brings important social and political issues to the forefront through the power of jazz music.
Thanks for reading, see you on Friday!