“I’m 100% Comfortable With My Sound.” Al Cheekz Premieres New EP, “Beginning of Nothing”
In order to understand the workings of the world inside a song, to micromanage different instruments and space them where you deem best-fit, involves a greater sensitivity. Al Cheekz, a hip-hop producer and full-time music nerd, whose experience with jazz performance only adds to his musical repertoire, has this sensitivity, and is prepped to step out of the shadows of Chicagoland’s “keystone species” of hip-hop/rap to assert his own sound. Green Label is premiering his latest EP–Beginning of Nothing—where to do it justice, one must give it a listen all the way through.
Check out the interview below where we chat about musical acquaintances, studio anecdotes (a great one involving Kendrick Lamar and producer Boi-1da), and plenty more fun facts.
Why don’t you introduce yourself?
I grew up in St. Louis. Right after high school, I moved to Chicago on my own. I don’t have any family here, I had no connections. I just moved here, went to school. Then from there, it started unfolding. I met Chance The Rapper, I met Vic. I started getting traveling opportunities. Very quick, I ended up dropping out of school.
You could have moved to any major city, like LA or New York. What was it about Chicago that you gravitated towards?
Honestly, I’ve always wanted to do New York. I go back and forth from New York almost about every month. But I chose Chicago because I just wanted to build, basically.
It makes complete sense. What better place to be in now, in terms of a creative atmosphere than Chicago? There’s so much talent and so much inspiration everywhere, Chicago’s killing it right now; it’s no secret.
Chicago really is killing it. We’ve been killing it for a few years now. It’s even bigger than what most people know. We have the whole drill scene, an amazing jazz scene, major classical scene. It’s like all aspects of Chicago is truly flourishing right now.
The jazz gets me most excited, especially Kamasi Washington in LA and what his collective is doing. Plus the whole Kendrick last album, which kind of revives that funk, soul sound…
It’s coming back, man, it’s coming back.
Yeah. I’m pretty sure for us it never left. I remember reading an article a while back, of jazz music being the least popular music genre in the US. So I’m glad these influential guys are latching onto it because it should be recognized, you know? What better music is there?
It should, man. It’s real instrumentation. I don’t want to take away from great people, but anyone can sit in front of a computer, but not everyone can play instruments or read notes. Especially jazz music; that’s as elite as it gets. You have to pay homage, you know?
Exactly. Why don’t you tell me the story behind Beginning of Nothing; that’s your latest EP. I’ve listened to the track “All Lit” and it’s really good.
Thank you, man. I appreciate it. I’ve been working on that EP for a while now. I actually recorded most of the songs in New York, at Brooklyn Music Factory, last February. I don’t know if you heard the first track, I have the piano on there. The other tracks too, I incorporate a lot of live instrumentals, the width, a lot of the sounds people want today.
Basically, the Beginning of Nothing—and why I even call it that is ’cause, I put out four albums, one which is on iTunes and Spotify the others are on Soundcloud—but basically man I’ve been working really hard, but people just always overlook me. They always see me in the shadows of somebody, whether it’s Mick Jenkins or someone else. They know me as the guy who’s just there. A lot of people don’t realize that I’m not just a DJ, that I make music. Beginning of Nothing is that people are finally… You know I’ve been out here for a while, people are finally giving me the recognition. The recognition, I would say, I’ve earned, all, but it’s only the beginning; it’s just getting started. I have to keep coming up with projects, keep doing my thing, so basically the Beginning of Nothing is that.
It’s just the opposite of “nothing” almost.
Exactly. It’s been pretty exciting, man.
Listening to your music, there’s a dynamic of ambient and some serious sonic tuneage/streaks in your music. How would you describe your sound?
That’s exactly what I want. The fact that you recognize my sound, like right there it tells you I have a sound that is recognizable. You hear it once and you’re like, OK, it sounds familiar. Since I studied jazz, I try to take jazz samples and put them on top of hip-hop and electronic drums; that’s what makes that wavy, ambient, eerie, spacey feel. Honestly, growing up people always told me my beats are too “happy,” that I need to make something dark. But once you find your sound, you improve it and enhance it. Even if you go back on my older albums, they all have that sound.
I’m a hundred percent comfortable with my little spacey sound; it took me a while to actually click with but now that I have it, I’m getting better and better at it.
Happy is a great word. So if they’re describing your sound as “happy,” hopefully you stay in a happy place forever.
That’s what I’m saying, man. Whenever I start making beats, the first thing I do is chord progressions. Most producers don’t really start with chords; they’ll start with that melody or a sample. I start off with like flat-out seventh barre chords just ’cause that’s my thing. Like I said: once you find what works for you, you just stick with it and make it better. You improve it.
That’s smart. A lot of people try doing too much and that way, they kind of lose that distinction.
You don’t want to sound like everyone else. You don’t want to sound like another trap beat…
Yo. Shout out to all the trap folks out there too. Future’s killing it. Love listening to his album.
Funny story: I went to high school with Metro Boomin; that’s a good friend of mine. Man, he’s a supporter; he’s even sent me some sounds before. I’m been a fan of his movement, Future’s movement, for a minute right now. Dude’s killin’ it right now.
Favorite rappers within or outside of rap? And who would you say is influential to your musical upbringing?
Aw, man… I’m the biggest George Benson fan. Amazing guitar player. I seriously just watch his videos, watch him shred and say, “Man. I want to make music that’s gonna make people move and groove like that.” That’s insane. I would say George Benson is my favorite musician. Producer, right now, I would say the best producer in the game right now is J. Lewis. He’s seriously the truth. His rhythm, his melodies, everything is always on tune and I saw him speak before; he’s just a very great guy and he makes great music so… Of all time, you already know Kanye, Pharrell, Pete Rock…
Pete Rock. Guys like that are forerunners of Kanye and the rest. You have to respect the masters.
You got to. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t even have a style. Honestly, if we didn’t have Q-Tip, from A Tribe Called Quest, we wouldn’t have the Kanye West we have today. What Kanye’s doing now, Q-Tip was doing back then. It’s crazy how history just repeats itself in front our face.
Last album you’ve listened to straight through that you loved/enjoyed?
I’m going to say two albums. One, I listened to last-night is To Pimp A Butterfly; that’s my favorite album ever. Kendrick, his lyrics, but Terrace Martin’s production… It is insane. Every time you listen to the album straight through you get a different interpretation of it; that’s exactly what Kendrick wanted. The Waters by Mick Jenkins is the second album I’ve listened to straight through where I just said “Wow.”
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen/experience in the studio? Any anecdotes?
Two years ago, I was in the studio in Chicago working on a song and one of the engineers ran into the room and he said “Do you guys wanna hear a new song from Kendrick Lamar?” I was like “What?!” He said yeah, he was just here for the Yeezus tour a few days ago and he recorded a song. Uhhh… yeah. So this man takes all of our cellphones, puts them in a bin, puts them in a different room and he comes in and plays us the song. To be honest with you, the song was “The Blacker The Berry.” This was in 2013. I didn’t realize it till it came out. At that time, it was when Drake was just starting to do some cocky “I’m the best rapper,” so at that time I just thought it was shots at Drake. I didn’t realize how conscious it all was, but we were going crazy, man. We were like “Yo, we just heard a new Kendrick song!”
He walked us through the whole process, how Kendrick came by and called Boi-1da from Toronto, so Boi-1da actually flew from Toronto to Chicago just for that session. He told us Boi-1da actually sat in that chair you guys are sitting in, took one sample, a kick and a snare, and made an amazing beat.
Any last words before we let the world hear your Beginning of Nothing EP?
I’m excited to get it out. I worked hard on this project and I just hope people actually listen to it, not just skim through it. The whole point of it, it’s 25 minutes straight through. I wish everyone would give it one straight-through listen. Once you see your hard work pay off, that’s the best feeling.