Photo by Hayden Goodridge / MTSU Sidelines
Hakeem Vance sits eagerly in front of his laptop as he sifts through some of the latest instrumental sessions he’s been working on. His computer — bearing the purple-faced logo of his Keem the Cipher moniker — appears to be a musical scrapbook of sorts, containing countless in-progress sketches of songs that he’s delicately pieced together.
“Let me show you one of my older beats,” he states and sits back to let his music do the talking.
The song has a distinct drum-kick that gives rhythm to a fickle collage of soft keyboards and vocal snippets, musical voicings that have propelled Keem, a freshman Audio Production major at MTSU, toward a fair amount of recognition within the niche genre known as lo-fi hip-hop.
In pairing the drum-centered beats that became prominent in ’90s hip-hop with small pieces of tracks pulled from a variety of past eras in the catalog of recorded music, producers like Keem are — in a sense — repurposing the sounds of musical history into something completely unique.
This sampling tactic has its fair share of criticisms, however, as some musicians argue that splicing out pieces of recorded tracks and using them as one’s own is a form of musical piracy.
Instead, Keem likens it to the artistic process of collaging, a tactic made popular by the renowned artist Pablo Picasso.
“Cutting up a song and rearranging it to where you can’t even recognize it anymore, how can you even call that stealing at this point? It’s something entirely new,” Keem says. “Making music without an inspiration or origin is like talking without thinking”
Since 2015, Keem the Cipher has consistently released his tracks through the Soundcloud platform on a weekly basis and in the process, garnered attention from prominent internet channels such as Chillhop Music. Last year, he released two projects titled “(Cosmos EP.)” and “(Exploration.),” and dropped his latest EP, “Intermissions.,” this January.
“All the albums correspond to my life,” Keem recalls. He shows me the cover of “(Exploration.),” a painting of a female astronaut on a red planet with a ship in the background. He tells me that the main concept behind “(Exploration.)” was the intrigue of the new world that he found himself exploring in his first semester at MTSU and the feelings of infatuation for the people and places that came with it.
This sort of conceptual focus continues in the musical content of his projects, where the relaxed rhythms and dreamy keys enrapture listeners with musical vignettes to coincide with the evolving moods and inclinations that make up Keem’s character. Making use of various sampled drum-breaks allows his rhythms to breathe with the passion of live instrumentation. In doing so, his beats waver slightly in their tempos and become part of the carefree collection of sounds encompassing them.
“I don’t use metronomes, it’s all just the feeling,” Keem says. “A real drummer can’t be on a grid, so I shouldn’t be on a grid either.”
Though Keem’s output of music paints him as a devoted creator, the essence of his being lies in his inclination to observe. Midway through our conversation he stops and tells me to listen with him to the various sounds occurring around us. He identifies them one by one, the wind, birds, voices of other people and starts to smile.
“It’s most interesting to just kind of watch and listen. That’s where my inspiration comes from.”
Keem’s observations not only allow him to find inspiration in the works of others to reinvigorate with his own artistic hand, but also make room for him to continuously evolve and expand, remaining in tune with his ever-changing surroundings. In fact, the young producer’s mindful spirit resonates into the name he’s attached to his music itself.
“The Cipher?” he intones. “To me the Cipher represents duality. Duality is like life and death, everything and nothing, it’s a cycle, a groove, a loop. Keem the Cipher means ‘That’s just life,’ it’s everything.”
To contact Music Editor Hayden Goodridge, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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