MTSU hip-hop producer, Keem the Cipher, on the beats and samples that define him

Photo by Hayden Goodridge / MTSU Sidelines

There are tonnes of independent hip hop artists on the scene so it can sometimes be hard to make yourself stand out. A lot of people use Rap Beats they’ve found on Beats Library in their songs to make it sound like a professional beat – to give them an advantage over other artists. To see what the grind is like, we decided to speak to one of the artists who is making a stir in the hip hop scene. 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 ones 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 cant even recognize it anymore, how can you even call that stealing at this point? Its 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.”

Keem the Cipher’s latest singles can be found on Soundcloud and his full projects on Spotify, Apple Music and Bandcamp.

To contact Music Editor Hayden Goodridge, email

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1 Comment

  1. Austin Jones
    February 2, 2018

    Lo-fi hip-hop has been around for years, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that the genre gained massive popularity. There have even been memes circulating saying that the genre should have won several Grammy awards under several categories. However, as laid back and relaxing the genre is, I don’t think the vibe is the only reason for the music’s rise to fame. Part of what makes lo-fi so awesome, is that anyone and everyone can make lo-fi music if they want to. You just need a basic audio editing program, and your phone’s microphone.

    Despite being an easy style of music to produce, there have been several artists that have molded the genre to serve their own expressive purposes. Milo is one example of such an artist, as is Keem the Cipher. We should encourage this kind of experimentation, as this is how music genres grow and interact with other genres.

    There is one potentially problematic aspect of Keem the Cipher’s production style. Most lo-fi music does, in fact, tie their drums to a grid. However, the drums are not absolutely in time; rather, they are just slightly behind the beat. This style or pattern of drumming is called a “lag beat,” because the drums lag behind the beat. This is a large part of what creates the laid-back, carefree atmosphere of the music. Despite the free-flowing feel, the drums are kept in time. Although Keem embraces his open, ambiguous approach to tempo, it could be keeping some fans from finding the groove in his music. Furthermore, it could potentially pose a problem to his live performances if Keem ever decides to perform with a band.