Kelela is the future. And the future is now.
“I was like what the hell is this?!” declares Kelela (pronounced Kar La La) recalling the instant the dry ice cleared in the club to reveal what her musical vision had the potential to be. This prophecy took place at a New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles. As she walked into the venue she was immediately struck by the track Ezra Rubin, DJ, LA producer Kingdom and head of music collective Fade To Mind, was playing. Running over she pounced on him. It was an edit of a fizzing Girl Unit track under a pitched down Kelly Rowland vocal. He then jammed the daisy cutter attack of an Untold blend with Mariah and Busta. The connection was made. Kelela’s epiphany had been realised. “It was like hearing what I’d had in my head all along, but I had been unable to get out,” she says wide-eyed.
Kelela Mizanekristos is in London for her first headline show. The venue’s austere industrial interior is framed by throbbing red strip lighting. As she steps onto the stage, petite in a Cav Empt sweat and white leggings, she tilts her head back and delicately shakes out thick hip-length dreads, scraping them back with her hands. She is sylph-like, poised, calm and static. Walking over and embracing DJ, Total Freedom, she elegantly gazes upon her audience with a thousand yard stare that is both vulnerable and commanding. The soundsystem heaves out the machine-like clank and squeeze of the beat to Bank Head, and Kelela breathes out her graceful rolling vocal. The performance is mesmeric, and feels and sounds beyond futuristic, as if processed through a matrix of Ridley Scott and William Gibson. She is the future. And the future is now.
“To many kids Fade To Mind is the only future minded club space/ label in America.” Ezra Rubin
Up until 2010, Kelela had been residing in Washington DC, exploring singing and trying to understand where she musically might fit in. As a kid she schooled herself by imitating pop icons Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey; then performing as a jazz singer, ad-libbing over deep house in DC bars and incorporating her R&B touch into a short-lived indie band. But none of these felt right. “I thought I was going to be a jazz vocalist,” Kelela confesses. “Then it became clear I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to perform new music, unfamiliar music. I realised it would mean more to create music that was real, and music that sounds like me and not like something else before.” Future career decided upon, Kelela took the jump from Washington down to LA. “Nothing was keeping me in Washington, so as soon as I saw an opportunity to do something different with a drastically different result, I took it. Low End Theory and electronica was really attractive to me, and within four days of being in LA I was like ‘I’m moving here.’”
Up until this point - skipping through jobs from nannying to telemarketing - Kelela had mainlined creativity by jamming with her ex-boyfriend’s progressive jazz fusion band, Tram; eventually recording a vocal for their record. By now she was fervently ripping tracks from her favourite producers (leaning towards the sinuous electronica of Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Daedalus and Bonobo), recording vocals and plotting a mixtape project. “It was just me and my computer,” she recalls. “I sent tracks to producers and ended up with my first ever feature on Daedalus’ Bespoke record on Ninja Tune. So I finished the mixtape, put it online and took it down almost straight away!” Prior to that NYE, she contributed a vocal to poptronica duo Teengirl Fantasy’s EFX track, capturing the interest of DJ Total Freedom who suggested she meet the Fade To Mind team. A couple of months later Fade to Mind crew member Prince Will was in touch with a folder of forty tracks primed for Kelela, which would eventually become her heralded 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me. “It was like hearing all my favourite tracks, all at the same time!” Kelela gushes of his choices. “20-25 tracks really resonated with me. The first track we worked on was a Jam City production Keep It Cool. It came out naturally in one afternoon. I was blown away with the drum patterns which were relentless and unkind. Some of them were horrifying, like ‘what is that?!”
“It’s hard for me to sound angry and mean, but because I’ve accepted how I sound, I can rely on the production to carry harder emotions. ” Kelela
Ezra Rubin has been building the Fade To Mind universe since 2008. Twinned with UK dance label Night Slugs (Featuring Bok Bok, Girl Unit, Jam City), they are driving the hardcore continuum (a legacy outlined in essays from music journalist Simon Reynolds which chronicles the lineage of energy in British club music from the genesis of rave through jungle to 2step and grime) into the future. Fade To Mind productions are advancing the venomous palette of first-gen grime and dubstep (from producers like Wiley, Rapid, Footsie, Terror Danjah, Jon E. Cash, Digital Mystikz, Horsepower Productions, and El-B) and cushioning them around R&B textures, and used to optimum effect with Kelela. “To many kids Fade To Mind is the only future minded club space/label in America,” Ezra explains.
You can name Kelela’s influences very clearly (Aaliyah, Brandy, Erykah Badu, TLC), simmering and bubbling it down into a complex distinct sound; where jolting tracks and ecstatic synths cocoon the elegiac warm tones of her R&B pop vocals. When she first heard grime, she gasped, “What is this? All these white labels you’re playing me? I want to get on all of this.” Prince Will was like, “You’re basically into Wiley. Do you want him to produce your album?” Kelela opines they were aspiring to drop an abrasive version of R&B. “There was a hard internal battle for me to understand what I wanted to say. We talked about music and me being a new representation of R&B which still resonates with people. Bjork is where I would like to perch my music. She is her own genre.”
Cut 4 Me ended up being a break-up mixtape with direct raw lyrics like, ‘It’s a twisted cycle you’ve confused with love, I’m in deep, feel like imma die.’ “A lot of the songs were made around the time that I had to let go of someone I really loved,” Kelela confesses. “I loved this person, but I knew I couldn’t be with them. That’s a hard way to be.” The title Cut 4 Me is as visceral as it sounds. “Basically it means you would kill for someone. It’s about relationships, devotion and love, it’s about the extremes you would go to.” It was important to her to not present these emotions in the tradition posturing R&B mode. “I don’t have everything figured out, but I’m okay with that,” she says. “It’s always [especially in hip hop and R&B] ‘I’m the boss and I know everything.’ It’s hard to be vulnerable and not say something that’s too cute.” Song writing was therapeutic. “When I recorded these songs everything started to go right for me and I realised I’d done the right thing. I had to cut something from my life, before I could experience that growth.”
Work is in full-flight on her debut, aiming for a high concept, hi-def blockbuster. “I want to take the songs and produce the full on big vision,” she reveals. She has some terms and conditions however. “What I won’t change is being vulnerable. I am happy to hold back and not be fierce and upfront. All the tracks for the album are dark textures, and night time music again. It’s hard for me to sound angry and mean. But because I’ve accepted how I sound, I can rely on the production to carry harder emotions. Things that are unforgiving and beautiful at the same time. The producers I work with are so amazing; all of my friends are really cool. I’m very lucky.”