The Anderson Street Project Interviews Steve McKie
During our road trip to NYC for to see our girl Goapele, we had the pleasure of meeting local musician/producer Steve McKie. Steve was playing drums behind his friend and Goapele’s opening act Chris Turner. We had never met Steve so unfortunately we were not able to put a face to his well-established name. We of course knew his name from his work with some of Philly’s most acclaimed musicians including Jill Scott, Bilal, Jazmine Sullivan, Kindred the Family Soul, and Vivian Green. (Y’all remember Jill’s “Hate on Me” and Jazmine’s flawless album cut “Redemption,” right?!) What was recognizable however was his black West Philly-labeled t-shirt.
A couple of weeks after our initial encounter, Steve invited us to chat at his West Philadelphia studio, where he cuts records for the aforementioned artists, his own band Killiam Shakespeare, and a host of others. We talked about his life as a touring musician and a producer, his work with Jill Scott and Bilal, and his stance on the state of R&B. Check out the interview below!
ASP: What would you consider your first big break?
SM: My first big break was with the Black Lily. I met everyone from Richard Nichols (the late manager of the Roots), Ahmir Thompson (bka Questlove), James Poyser (The Roots). I met everybody there. Basically, I got started by playing jam sessions and open mics.
My first major gig was playing with Musiq Soulchild. I did a couple gigs with him. Every time I see DJ AKtive (now on tour with Janet Jackson) to this day, we speak about playing on the same gig with each other. That’s where we both started professionally. Philly is a huge town full of greatness but the circle is small.
ASP: How did you from touring to producing?
SM: Honestly, I felt like it was just like something that was destined for me and I had so many great people around me, from Donald Robinson to James Poyser, to Ahmir Thompson, to Robert Glasper, a real good friend of mine. All those guys were around me and just seeing what they did, inspired me. Even Bilal, everybody doesn’t know it but he’s a great producer.
ASP: Kendrick knows now. *laughter*
SM: Bilal helped me out, found me in a spot, and I guess he figured, ‘Oh, maybe he can grow.’ With his help, I became the person I am today.
ASP: You pretty much produced, or co-produced, Bilal’s second project, Airtight’s Revenge (Ed. Note: which was recorded in Steve’s studio). Can you tell us about that experience?
SM: The story behind the Airtight’s Revenge is self-explanatory. “Airtight” is Bilal’s nickname. Yeah, it’s not like he had a lot of stuff on his chest but you know as a producer and as an artist, sometimes you get boxed into a situation where people wouldn’t recognize you. With that record, we were vibin’ with each other in the studio, listened to a bunch of records. We challenged ourselves to listen to records that a lot of people wouldn’t listen to and it inspired us to make the kind of record that it came out as.
We just wanted to combine all of the stuff that we like and we wanted to make our own record. We didn’t want to have any type of boundaries. We just wanted to be creative. I feel like people just now understand the concept behind that record.
ASP: Why do you think that is?
SM: You know how music is. Sometimes it’s timeless. Sometimes you have to sit with things. The first time you hear it, it doesn’t always pop at you. And then a week, or a year, or years later, you’ll listen to that record with a different perspective.
ASP: So what’s your stance on the state of R&B?
SM: Well, I mean, you can draw so many things out of that. But, you know, if I could stay safe, for a long time, with our music, we’ve always been the first to catch on to something. You can go all the way back to Chuck Berry type of artists. We did it first. It takes a “different” type of artist to come in and replicate the same thing that we’ve done. It’s just the platform is bigger. The money is bigger. You can support and you can back up things. When we do stuff, it’s like ‘Ok, that’s a cool record.’ When somebody else does something it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s like a million bucks behind it, and we’re going to play it 24/7.’ Like Sam Smith.
I mean think about it, I’m also a tour musician as well. I’ve toured all over the world and back. And I see how a record, like a Mama’s Gun or a D’Angelo, takes a while to catch on. However, once fans catch on, they catch on. With our music and R&B, it’s always evolving into something. So even if it’s like a trap beat or something like that, you know R&B still going to be a part of that.
ASP: Jill Scott’s third album was definitely a change for her. It shocked a lot of people including me. I know you can’t talk for her, but can you talk about where she was during this recording process?
SM: We take our real life emotions and pain, and feel like she’s just an artist that’s always evolving. It doesn’t matter what her age is or what the genre of music on the scene is. She’s just always going to be Jill Scott. People are already won over from the fact that she’s been consistent with her music. I think with this record, she just, you get to a point where, you’ve been persistent enough and you try things and you try different sounds, and I feel like she’s stayed consistent with most of her tracks. I feel like she’s just diggin’ in. She’s happy. She’s in a great place. The music shows as a result. We producers basically feed off of what the artists are feeling, what their emotions are, where they’re at musically. It’s our job to get the sound that the artist needs or wants to complement the songs that they write. we pour it out with our music as a result.
ASP: How did you Adam Blackstone become partners?
SM: It was really organic. We met through Donald Robinson. Donald had us together working in his studio. We did a gang load of Jazmine Sullivan records at the time. We were friends, so it was easy to work with him. We’re still friends to this day even though he’s working with these mega artists. We still find time to get into the studio and make records.
ASP: We know that he’s a great musical director, but people don’t talk about him as a producer enough.
SM: People have a one-track mind. Adam can put any band together, he can put any show together and that’s great. But behind the scenes, so many things are going on when you’re working in that type of field, that it’s hard to look at a person with two different titles. It’s kinda like you gotta put yourself out there like ‘Ok, I’m a producer.’ You have to live the producer life, live in the studio 24/7. Adam, he can’t do that. He’s on the road, and he’s pretty much in the rehearsal studios and the little time that he has, being a family man and everything, you kinda have to balance it out. You gotta give credit to the man because he’s on so many different stages, with so many different artists, so there’s so little time to put into production. Production of music requires 120% or more, so you know I feel like with the older we get, we want to be home more, and how can we be home more? We work on records and work on singles for artists and everything. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a good work in progress just because with all of that going on, we’ve still been able to post records with huge artists.
ASP: Does Philly inspire you musically?
SM: Yeah, we have a rich background of music. All the way back to Gamble & Huff, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, the Roots, it’s just so much that inspired me. I feel like they were here, they built their way up to the top. I feel like I can take similar paths to do the same thing with my team.