Gospel Truth: Dropping Knxwledge from his roots

“You ever heard of cross colours?” Glen Boothe, or better known as Knxwledge, or Knx, the LA based producer whose beat was recently on Kendrick Lamar’s new album asks me. After 30 minutes of trying to get a clear connection through at least three different channels of communication, I’m eager to get started on the interview. But it’s been merely five minutes and we’re already off track.

I admit I hadn’t and hear him scratch his stubble. “It’s like, late 80s, early 90s hip-hop-jamaican-african-influenced clothes,” he explains. “Crazy patterns—one of those ones where your shirt would be one colour and each of your sleeves would be a different colour, and then you’d have like a stripe down the middle. I’ll send you a picture.”

And it is this genuine desire to establish a rapport, along with a charismatic warmth he lets out through bursts of chuckles, that urges me to continue this sidebar conversation. I learn that his father, an avid music fan who gave him an appreciation for bass music and drums, used to sew these outfits—with young Knx as an aid seamstress—while teaching him about history and Malcolm X.

It is a weekday morning in LA, and I imagine him sitting comfortably in front of a well-used bedroom studio set up, joint in hand, the Californian sun streaking into the room and illuminating clouds of dust floating up from tons and tons of records. He tells me his parents are coming to visit later that day from New Jersey.

“It’s funny, this is the second time they’re visiting me this whole time I’ve been out here.” Are they going to see how he lives? “Oh they know what’s good,” he chuckles. Boothe talking about his parents makes me think of the many vintage photographs of his young self that can be found on his beat tape and album covers—a perpetually grinning, happy toddler who is always exceptionally dressed. It seems like the loving familial dynamic has carried on to present day.

Growing up in New Jersey, Boothe spent a lot of his childhood in a church run by members of his extended family. After each service, his parents would clean the church and he would quickly finish up the vacuuming so to play with the instruments—his favourite amongst them being drums—which he was able to take home after they were beat up. Added onto this was his dad’s Technics DJ set up and other stereo equipment from Jamaica, and eventually his own mini home recording studio started taking shape.

Using programs like Cubase and FruityLoops, Boothe was tracking every single instrument at his disposal, along with sounds from his dad’s VHS and cassette tapes, and what he could find in his mum’s basement. For him, it was a natural transition from gospel music to beats. “As I got older, I started to hear stuff on the radio—all the Mary J [Blige] joints and Biggie—and the sampled stuff kinda took me, reminded me of the warm feeling [of church]…a lot of its progressions stems from gospel music.” He singly names D’Angelo as his strongest influence.

It should make sense then, that a certain warmness to Knxwledge’s music is what resonates with a lot of his fans. A scroll through his Bandcamp—which, last time I counted boasted 67 tapes, EPs and albums, ranging from 1-26 tracks and dating as far back as 2009 (but we’ll come to that later)—will see comments left by listeners praising his music for its comforting sensuality. “[It’s] just the kind that makes me feel the best,” he tells me honestly, “I’m melodies driven, so you’re not gonna hear something that doesn’t have that sweet spot, you know.”

But no matter how unintentional, it is exactly this ability to sample such a diverse range of music—from mainstream pop to 80s and 90s gangster rap, funk, jazz, soul and R’n’B—while finishing them off with his signature feel—nostalgic melodies stretched over murmured vocals and scattered percussion—that makes his music so likeable. He adds, “I kinda just test limits on how funky or smooth you can make some, like, super hood rap shit about shooting people in the face. It’s incredible. Experimenting with fields, I guess.”

Though Boothe himself might not have fully come to terms with yet, this sound of his is carving out its own place in the contemporary hip-hop landscape in LA and beyond. In 2008, he was fatefully flown into the city by a friend—writer and booking agent who goes by Sweeney Kovar—to play a show alongside heavyweights like Danny Brown, Samiyam, House Shoes and Gaslamp Killer. “It was friggin ridiculous,” he reminisces, “So that kinda did it. I left some shit, went home, came back and started fucking travelling this earth and making music.”

Seven years later, it’s proven to be a good move. As we’re on the verge of sidetracking to another conversation about tattoos, he realises the mix he did for Flying Lotus’ BBC radio 1 residency was just about to play. The first song on it is a track called so[rt], taken from the album relevnt.b/sde_LP, which appears again on Anthology, a double cassette released by Leaving Records of his beats from 2009-2013. It is the instrumental now many will recognise from Kendrick Lamar’s Momma, a heartfelt track from his latest masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly. Lamar heard his track on a photo shoot and hand-picked it for the album.

“It’s crazy, I can’t describe it still…speechless every time someone tries to ask me,” Boothe laughs genuinely and a bit self-consciously when I mention it, “Just like, dude, I dunno, I was just chilling. It’s a blessing.”

Illustration by Alex Mellon

Illustration by Alex Mellon

This honest response to accomplishing probably the ultimate dream of most young producers of his age sums up the charm of his character, as well as his music. When asked about his production technique, he humbly attributes it to random digging and chance. “I’m usually just going through records or walking down to Amoeba looking for some 50c acapellas.”

But knowing the perfectly harmonising way he crafts melodies, chord progressions, percussion and vocals together, there’s no doubt an intuitive genius in his way of production, whether he knows it or is too modest to admit it himself. Take an Amy Winehouse edit he did called BestFrends. A few guitar chords and her moving voice make up the song, and by simply pitching down the vocals, inserting adlibs and a rhythmic kick drum, a deep, rich sadness newfound in Winehouse’s lyrics hammers into the depths its listener.

“Probably her alone, not even her with the guitar behind it, still give me chills,” he says of that track, “It’s special.” He adds, “Everything I remix is just one of those ones where, like, I just feel that shit 100%—just the way they felt that day that would’ve made them decide to sing like that or rap like that.”

This track can be found on Hexual Sealings 1.5, a series titled with a play on the famed Marvin Gaye hit, drawing from mostly pop, R’n’B and love songs. Another recurring theme on his Bandcamp is WrapTapes, where rap vocals are dominant though not always the focus. He also showcases his instinctive loop-creating skills through a series named karma.loops.

I wondered if, seeing as he is moved by the emotion of his sources, that he finds himself in certain moods when he makes these different types of releases. Say, an excited mood results in Wraptaypes and when he’s down he makes a Hexual Sealing. But he dismisses it straight off, adding plainly, “It just pours out.”

I am met with a similarly direct response when I ask about his debut album with Stones Throw, a double vinyl release titled Hud Dreems. It features 26 mostly instrumental tracks, and seems like a celebration of his prolific career so far. He tells me it was a huge project where him and the Art Director of the label Jeff Jank went through over a hundred tracks to make selects, but assures me that “it’s not rocket science.” He adds, “I literally do shit all day—I make beats all day, or I’ll record acapellas all day, or record records all day.” He also describes his recent project with vocalist Anderson Paak, NxWorries, as an organic output of two like-mindedly prolific artists.

The ceaseless creative urge seems to echo his label contemporaries—and personal heroes—the loop digga Madlib and some might even say J Dilla. Except, his sources are from a different era. Whereas the latter two are fluent in all kinds of jazz, soul, funk, and rhythm and blues while sampling largely from the 60s and 70s, Boothe taps into the post 80s and 90s genres. Just like how his forerunners are documenting certain sounds from earlier periods—introducing them to younger generations whilst evoking nostalgia in older ones—he’s gathering samples from classic contemporary albums like Voodoo or Ready To Die and accomplishing the same effect. Though a few young producers are successfully sampling or remixing from the same stash, few have developed as unique and characteristic a sound, let alone been as extensive as him.

“I get bummed if I can’t make music,” he admits. “My creative process is kinda like my heart—it never lets up. It’s kinda hard to go to bed,” he laughs. Even as we speak, he is uploading the next Hexual Sealings. A blessing and a curse, I comment. And he agrees, “There’s other things to do in life and people that are in your lives that want you to do it and enjoy it, but it’s almost like, I’m on the clock but there’s not clock…you know what I mean?”

We’re coming to the end of our conversation and he mentions his parents coming again. “You know when you gotta clean because you’re mum’s coming?” he laughs. As one can imagine, the prolific producer has a pretty full room. With accumulated recordings and files from 15 years back, there are at least a few shoeboxes of hard drives, not to mention the hard copies—records, cassettes, CDs, VHSs and even DVDs.

For an average bedroom producer it would be a pretty daunting task to keep track of it all. But not for Boothe. “I can find everything,” he brags, “All the shit that I do use is in my quarters. I have a pretty good memory.” He pauses, then adds rather profoundly,“We’re making music by obtaining information at the same time. With all these records, we’re looking for more of the same artists or choirs—it’s kinda like a class in itself.”

But his categorised way of compartmentalising all this music and information can also be attributed to the way he names his tracks. Their signature onomatopoeic, spelt-to-pronounce (documenting concrete culture would be “dokumntng konkrete kulture”), punctuation-interspersed-titles, were a semi-myth that had a lot of fans inquiring during his recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything”.

“It began because I literally was just making too much stuff to type correctly,” he says light-heartedly, “It’s kinda frustrating to think of these names. Plus, when you’re searching for stuff, it’s easier.” That solves it, though it’s a myth to Boothe himself why his mum has followed his ways and started to type like that.

Laughing, we hang up, but his energy lingers a while after. His person, like his music, stays with you. A bit like coming home from seeing a friend off at the airport to find an indent left by them on the couch, and being comforted by the bittersweet knowledge that they were just here. That “warmth”. As it were, 20 minutes after the interview I get an email from Bandcamp on my phone—“Greetings Grace, Knxwledge just released HS8.8_, check it out here.”

Words: Grace Wang

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