Kendrick Lamar in conversation with Baby Keem
Launching the 40th Anniversary Issue of i-D, the icon that is Kendrick Lamar interviews his 20-year-old protégé, Baby Keem, one of the world's most exciting new artists, about making money, providing for family and the rise of pgLang.
Baby Keem wears jacket and trousers Dickies. T-shirt Margaret Howell. Kendrick wears jacket Y/PROJECT x Canada Goose. Trousers Wrangler. Hoodie and hat Carhartt WIP. T-shirt Ben Davis.
Baby Keem and Kendrick’s story originally appeared in i-D's 40th Anniversary Issue, no. 361, Winter 2020. Order your copy here.
On 6 June — nine days into protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder – hundreds gathered on Washington D.C’s newly-christened Black Lives Matter Plaza to chant loud enough for the White House to hear. By half one, the crowd had broken into song and the unifying cry became Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”.
It wasn’t the first time a crowd protesting racial injustice has sprung to life with the words “We gon’ be alright”. A highlight of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick’s critically-acclaimed third album, it was sung in unison at a protest at Cleveland State University over police harassment mere months after its release in 2015. But a lot has changed since then. By 2017, and the release of his fourth album, the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN., America had entered a sinister new era. Right now, days before a crucial election that seals the country’s fate, his music feels as urgent as ever, and the world waits eagerly for a new Kendrick album to take stock of the last years of American life under President Trump.
But beyond his own music, Kendrick’s recently found a protégé in 20-year-old Baby Keem. Following a couple years working behind the scenes of the music industry and two successful mixtapes, Keem has quietly emerged as one of the anticipated new artists of the moment. Orange Soda, a sleeper hit that entered the charts six months after its release, has already been classified platinum. Here, one of the most respected artists of his generation sits down and talks with one of the most exciting new rappers on the planet…
Kendrick: When did you find your love for music?
Keem: I always loved music growing up but I wasn’t really searching for music myself until I was about nine or ten, when I got a computer and the internet started being easy to access. This is 2009/2010. Kanye, Wayne, Eminem, I remember I liked Rihanna.
Bitch, I was hot too! (laughs)
I didn’t know about you till the end of 2010. I didn’t know I wanted to make music till I was thirteen but it wasn’t, ‘Ah, I got it’. I just knew I was gonna try it cuz everybody else tried it. My whole thing was to wait until my voice got deeper because I was a little kid.
So what’s the process? You get your own mic, your own setup?
When I really started I was thirteen and I had Apple studio shit on my computer. I had borrowed $300 from my grandma and I got my stuff on Craigslist. I was probably 15. I got a mic for $50, it was shit but it worked. So I just started learning on that. I made it work.
What stands out is the fact you started at 13, y’know what I’m saying? I started recording at 16. So you got even more of a head start. But the fact that you went out your way at that age, that’s already an advantage that some older guys don’t have, their first time getting in the studios is in their twenties. So they got to catch up.
I was in my room for so long in a makeshift setup. I was just learning what mics I liked and now I know I’ve got to stop being stubborn towards mics. If I tried it when my voice was different a year ago, I have to try it now. I’m obviously evolving. Projects like Die for my Bitch officially solidified my room to me because obviously my room is my room, but to somebody else it’s not looked at like a studio, right?
That’s what made it underground though. I’m gonna tell you now, it’s gonna be hard to get that feeling back. You could get as close as you want to it, but to actually have that feeling of being in your own room, in your hub, it’s hot as fuck, 110 degrees out there. You’re on a mission to make this muhfucka hard. So, when you were 13 years old, 14 years old, we reconnected…
I was still learning what I liked then, I was figuring it out. It can feel like you did it overnight.
I can see from the outside in that people think that it’s overnight. I remember when I came out on my first album, people thought it was overnight, but it was years on top of years of doing it. And that dedication counts man, that’s the fire part about it. When I heard your music then and when I hear it now, I hear an unapologetic young nigga, the hunger of a young nigga, looking for fun, the same way we were looking for fun when I was 19. What would you say is your growth from Die for my Bitch to now?
Die for my Bitch was a breakthrough, it really gave me a chance to play with my sounds and open up the lane to grow in confidence.
I get it, that’s what will take me so long to do albums (laughs). I spend the whole year just thinking about how I’m gonna execute a new sound, I can’t do the same thing over and over. I need something to get me excited. I see you get frustrated sometimes because you want some new shit.
Because people don’t know that you on some new shit till you start doing new shit. And if you can’t do the new shit then they ain’t gonna know that you on the new shit and they’ll keep asking for old shit, but I think everybody knows now that I’m on some completely different shit.
It’s all about finding that balance. I remember the sophomore jinx of Good Kid M.A.A.D City; it was for that year and for that time. I was in a different space in my life. I already knew off the top I can’t make Good Kid M.A.A.D City Part Two. The second I’m making that, it’s corny bro. That takes the feeling away from the first. I need that muhfucka to live in its own world. Then boom, To Pimp a Butterfly. Some people love it to death, some people hate it.
Is it about surprising yourself with every new project?
That was it. To Pimp a Butterfly did that for me. I had an idea in my head of how I wanted it to sound, built with jazz and blues and hip-hop. But it was more ‘how am I gonna execute that?’ Do you think you’ll get to a point where you’ll dive into your story more?
Yeah, in my own way though. I don’t want to do anything the common way. If it’s organic and I want to do a record about this, I will, but not on this record. It can’t feel forced. Because the fans see through that shit. I learned that a long time ago.
You’ve got an interesting story though. I think a lot of people will relate to it. There’s no pressure when you arrive at that place, but when you do it’s gonna give you some real therapy because you’ll know how many people you touch. Because of all this shit going on, you’ve not been able to experience a fan walking over to you, telling you, ‘You stopped me from killing myself’. It can be emotionally draining as well as rewarding, that’s part of the game. You’re a voice for a lot of young people, a lot of older people too.
I think that one thing that has helped me grow from last year to now is the little mini tour. I did the mini tour before all this going on, seeing how many people actually care about the music. It was tight seeing that and taking that home. I’m just grateful I got to experience that, because without that I don’t know where I would be right now. You were supposed to be out, I was supposed to be out. I’ve had a year to sit down and just think about the next experience. I feel my thing now is to detach myself from the wrong things and attach myself to the right things, things that I should feel. Like sometimes I’ll detach myself from a lot of things that just upset me because I feel like I don’t need to deal with it.
It’s about being aware. The ego works how it wants to work, you gotta let that muhfucka be its own person. That’s the ego, you have to be aware of it and know how to utilise it in a positive way. Now moving to your transition to LA… I watched you go from house to house. No money. Now being able to take care of yourself financially and support yourself. What was that that transition from Vegas to LA like and how do you look at money from then and now?
I know a lot of people from Vegas say there’s nothing going on. I probably said that before. I grew up mainly with my grandma. It was just me and her. My family doesn’t have a filter, and you grow up quick. You know shit you’re not supposed to know, seeing shit you’re never supposed to see. I grew up with her, and I was kind of her best friend. I was a little kid so all the stress that she had financially was laid on me, even if it was unintentional. I felt protective of my grandma. When I came to LA, I came out to work. I ended up leaving Vegas for LA and I ain’t going back. Money is comfort, stability.
I remember when it switched, when Grandma passed. I was 13, it was hard figuring out the funeral situation and all that and shit. Grabbing pieces from here, pieces from there, so that hopefully Compton Mortuary would break us a deal on getting her body from Vegas to Compton. I would hear my mama crying, trying to handle all this shit herself and I remember saying to myself, ‘Man I never wanna put her through this again.’ I look at money as a resource to put the proper resources around my family and to educate myself. But back to your transition, moving out here, so you always said like ‘Yo, I was born in LA, I’m gonna go back’?
Yeah, like I’m gonna get back. But I didn’t know how. I honestly thought I was gonna go to school but I didn’t have the grades. I had already mentally checked out.
Oh that’s a whole other story. Your auntie calling me asking what’s going on? This nigga missing all types of days from school! Letters were getting sent to the house. I’m like ‘Ah fuck, this nigga been out here’. Nigga, I felt some type of accountability! You were talented as hell but you had to graduate. So it was about finding that middle ground, but that shit worked out. I think that’s one thing that me and Dave Free really respect about you, you’re determined and driven. You remind me of how we used to be… I wanna tap into the type of shit you like to do. You ain’t super social or Instagram heavy. And I know your fans probably wanna know what you’ve been getting into, so what does a Keem day look like?
Twitter is just niggas hating on stuff for no reason, and that shit’s boring. Oh yeah, you said Keem day. So a nigga wakes up, I go to the studio, and if I got time when I’m done, I hop on to game with someone. Next day, do the same shit or I have a spontaneous day where I pop out somewhere for a little bit. But I don’t like going out all the time, you ain’t gon see me all the damn time.
I see it though, you spend a lot of hours in the studio. I will say, from what I see, most of your time consists of creating shit. Matter of fact, let’s go all the way back. This nigga… Wait let me say this first. You have a song and it probably is going to be up on your next project and it’s probably one of my favourite songs that you did. I’m constantly playing it over and over and over like ‘Damn, this shit hard! Who did the production on this motherfucker?’ And this nigga like ‘Bro that’s your beat’. I go on my drive and I’m looking through my list of my DJ Dahi beats and there’s one that’s marked. And I check mine cuz I don’t usually mark my shit and it was red.
That shit was red though, I remember that shit, I marked it red myself. (laughing)
And I look and that’s the same exact beat that I love. But from that moment right there, I knew that you had an ear.
Yeah that nigga picked through all them beats.
That was my favourite beat, I just forgot about it because that was a beat that I was supposed to put on Damn, but I never got to it. It was in my top five DJ Dahi beats. But the fact that you grabbed that beat, and did something that I wouldn’t ever have done on it, you made it a better song than what I would have done. And that’s why I was like okay, this nigga hard.
When I stole that beat, I think I had “finished” Die for my Bitch. So I was working on the next project that’s about to come out now. I stole a beat that was too ahead of its time for me and it opened up a whole new world. After that I started working on Die for my Bitch again. When I did the song, I thought, yeah this shit’s hard. I remember niggas started hitting me, and they were saying that ‘this might be your best song ever’. So to hear that was tight. That song propelled me to do experimental shit with Die for my Bitch.
See, shit worked out. I ain’t mad. As long as that muhfucka ends up on something. So I’mma start closing, what are your aspirations sonically?
I want to reflect my feelings more in the music, with the chords that I love, because but I don’t have too many songs with chords that I actually love and feel. I feel the shit I’ve been experimenting with now can tell a story on its own.
I think you’re at your best when you can build from the ground up as you sonically have a different ear than the majority of the individuals that are doing music.
It’s unlimited, it’s a playground. Trying new shit, falling or making it across the monkey bars.
It’s a good thing to have people who understand your creative language. I always go back to the language and that’s how we damn near made this company. You have to be able to share and experience the same language, or teach another language. On the music side, you’ve been at the forefront of pgLang. What is your own personal opinion of what this company represents now that you know are in the mix?
I’ve seen pgLang before it was even an idea that came to fruition. It’s sticking to and believing in something, even when you don’t know how it will be created, and it starts out as just a small idea. I believed in it, and I stuck to it and now everything is paying off. So I’ve seen it from when there was no idea, to now. So to me, pgLang represents loyalty and trust.
Photography Glen Luchford
Fashion director Carlos Nazario
Styling (Kendrick) Dianne Garcia
Styling (Baby Keem) Taylor McNeil
Grooming (Kendrick Lamar and skin for Baby Keem) Tasha Reiko Brown using Chanel.
Grooming (Baby Keem) Shafic Tayara using GETFBN.
Lighting director Jack Webb.
Photography assistance Alex de la Hidalga and Alekzandra Zagozda.
Digital technician Paul Carter.
Styling assistance Raymond Gee, Kristin Brodsky and Claire Tang.
Tailor Susie Kourinian.
Producer Suzy Kang.
Casting Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.