Although the year may be young, Keelay & Zaire’s “Ridin High” is already being hailed as one of the best Hip-Hop releases of 2009. The duo is fairly new to the scene and their story is an interesting one as they’re a production duo that lives over 2,000 miles apart from each other; Keelay resides in San Francisco, CA while Zaire is in Newport News, VA. This week RapReviews caught up with both of them to find out about how they met, what their work process is like, and how the internet has been a major part of their careers every step of the way.

Adam Bernard: OK, first question, point blank, how the heck did you two end up linking up?
Keelay: {*laughs*} We live in the age of the internet now, so it’s just a crazy thing. I think back in ’02 or ’03 we had both started learning how to make beats and we started posting on this message board on and we met so many people there. A lot of our homies are from there and used to post there. Zaire and myself and J. Fish, who’s another producer friend of ours, we just kinda started hitting each other up on instant messenger and sending beats back and forth. About a month, maybe two months, after that it was like yo, let’s meet up and put a project together or start working on something. Two months later we just blindly flew out to Pittsburgh, PA, which was where Fish lived, and it’s been a wrap ever since then.

Adam: I was about to say, Pittsburgh didn’t exactly sound like a central location if somebody didn’t live there.
Keelay: It’s a funny place, man. I’m actually glad we got to go there because it’s an interesting place I would have never have gone to in my life.
Zaire: It was funny, though, because nobody knew what each other looked like. Fish was the one who engineered the whole thing, he said just come out to my crib, we can do some music. We were under the impression that this guy had his own place and was a little bit older and what not. It turned out that J. Fish was like 17 years old staying with his mom and we all mobbed up there and all we had was internet contacts. It was a crazy thing, but it was wonderful, man. We did a lot of things, did a lot of music. We just linked up and vibed out and it just worked out really well.

AB: To be fair to J. Fish, most of us were still shackin up with moms at 17.
K: It’s funny because the first thing that I had heard on the message boards from Fish was a song where he had made the beat and was rappin on it and Fish sounds like, honestly, I thought he was like a 30 year old black dude, but we get out there, Fish comes to pick me up at the airport and it turns out he’s this little 17 year old white, furry dude.

AB: Hilarious description! So with you and Zaire so far away from each other what does the song creation process entail for you?
K: It’s a lot different now than it was for the album, obviously, because we’re two years deep and have refined the process a lot, but to start with we really just wanted to do a project, me and Zaire, and we just started with some beats that we both liked and we put em all in a pot and we started mapping out the album and deciding who we wanted to get on it. From there we had people record to the beats and then after that it was a back and forth kind of thing where I would add a string section here, send it back to Zaire, have him put some keys on it. It was a process. Right now we just start with real bare bones skeleton beats and we just send it back and forth however many times it takes to get it to a point where we’re happy with it.
[Ridin High]
AB: So the internet, while being a haven for piracy, is also a complete necessity for you in order to get your work done.
Z: Oh yeah.
K: I would say like a good 80% of the album was done over the internet, at least for us.

AB: So how do you deal with the fact that this tool that is obviously helping you a lot is also making it possible for people to steal your music?
K: For me, really, it’s just one of those things. Especially, not that I’m a veteran in the music industry by any means, I consider me and Zaire to be super rookies, but as far as how I like to view it, it’s just like it’s just part of the game now, it’s part of life now. At this point the music is basically free for a lot of core people who listen to underground Hip-Hop. It doesn’t bother me. Obviously it’s something we just have to adapt to as an industry. Not a lot of income is gonna come from record sales. Everybody’s gotta find a creative way to make it work and to be able to keep on doing music, whether that’s getting on the road, doing a tour, or trying to create some revenue through endorsements, or even licensing, it’s just one of those things, but everything you do is to support the music that you want to put out and that’s the end of it all for me.
Z: The internet changed the game music-wise. As folks got savvy with the internet, found out how to put music up on the internet, and they now know how to get virtually all music for free, that’s just the industry and that’s the game, so you have to adapt. I’m not really mad at it because it takes the power away from the guys that are just trying to commercialize everything and it kinda balances everything out. Now it’s more in the hands of the artists. Artists have to grind more, they have to put out more music for free. Folks are looking for this music for free and your exposure goes up and you have to get creative to get your stuff out there. So yeah, you won’t get a lot of dough off of album sales anymore, that’s just a truism these days, but there are other avenues to go. I think it’s actually cool. We’re not really in it to be rich, but we can still do some things and get our music out there. Can’t be mad at that.

AB: I know you guys released an EP for free for download. How did that work out?
K: You know, in the grand scheme of things, the whole reason to release that EP for free was really to shed some light onto the album. For our goal for it, I think it did well. We got a lot of good responses from people who downloaded it and hit us up personally. The object right now for me and Zaire is really to try to get some exposure right now and if that means putting out a free EP, that means putting out a free EP. We’re trying to get our music out there and have people hear it. That’s the goal.

AB: Let’s talk about your new album, Ridin High. From what I’ve read it’s actually a concept album.
K: It’s somewhat conceptual.

AB: In what way? For me the concept was it’s smooth and funky, but I’m guessing there’s more to it than that.
K: Yeah, when we started out the whole process of the album we really wanted to do something more conceptual, like a Prince Paul’s Prince of Thieves, but as the album went on, the more we did things, trying to do something as intricate as that didn’t lend itself well to my and Zaire’s situation, but we still wanted to keep the album themed and somewhat conceptual. We wanted to make it feel like you’re riding around in your car listening to Hip-Hop. We try to convey that through the music, through different songs and different concepts of the songs and what not.

AB: So you made the CD for the car. Do you think that will influence people to pick up the full album rather than just download a single?
K: I hope so. {laughs}
Z: We’re trying to go for it. Just like he said, it’s like riding around in the car listening to Hip-Hop and the album is very musical, it’s not just like 30 tracks put together and just thrown on the album. It’s meant to flow a certain way, it’s meant to have hills and valleys and all that and it’s meant to flow different kinds of energies. It was put together like that, so hopefully it will translate to people and they can go ahead and check that out and just ride through the whole album and understand that this is really some ridin music.

AB: In other words, don’t put your CD player on “random.”
Z: Right, but if that’s how you do it then it’s all good. We’re not trying to keep people boxed in, but when you listen to it all the way through you’ll find it’s a different experience.

AB: Do you still buy albums?
Z: I do, yeah.
K: Yeah, but I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the last time I bought a physical CD, I buy all my music from Amazon. I don’t know why, I just like Amazon, but I still buy music.
Z: I don’t buy it as frequently as I used to. I don’t think anybody does. There was a time when joints would come out every week, or every month. You’d get that Tuesday and boom, it’s on. But I still buy music.

AB: Let’s have a little fun. Give me a slang word or phrase you’d like to bring back.
Z: One of my favorite old school joints is “fly.” I like the word fly. I think fly is a different type of dopeness, a different type of good. Something can be dope, but if something’s fly it’s like its got a little swag to it.
[Keelay & Zaire]
AB: So bring “fly” back!
Z: Yeah. Shiiit, that’s what I say.
K: I know one I don’t want to come back and that’s “the bomb.” I don’t like when people say that something is the bomb.
Z: It had its place in history.

AB: It’s funny you say that because I was about to follow this up by asking if there was a word or phrase you’d like to see fade away. I guess “the bomb” would be it.
K: I don’t want to hear that no more.
Z: “That joint’s the bomb,” yeah, that’s pretty dated.

AB: Finally, be honest, who’s doper?
Z: I’ll answer. I’m not gonna even be on no fan shit, or not political stuff. Keelay has a grip on sounds and his ear is probably one of the best ears out there in the game, period. I think, to me, to a beat maker / producer, it’s all about the ear. Nobody’s drums sound like Keelay’s.
K: I think that’s a funny question because, for real, I think the reason Zaire and I work well together is because we’re so different. I look to Zaire for different stuff and he looks to me for different things as far as the beats go. I think it’s a tough one. I think we’re just a good duo.
Z: Fuck that!