Twenty-five-year-old Gregory C. Phillips Jr., aka Keyboard Kid, leans back in his seat at a tall, square table in the middle of his Federal Way apartment's dining area. His place is neat but accommodating, and quiet on an overcast Saturday afternoon. Phillips lounges in jeans, T-shirt, and a Mariners snapback, clicking around on his laptop as his uncle watches basketball in the adjoining living room. He's just been asked what he uses to make his music.
"Man, just this," he says, tapping the side of his laptop, the sole piece of equipment he employs to make his beats. "I could make one right now if you want."
Keyboard Kid got his nickname from a relative who coined it in disbelief after hearing his music and learning he used nothing but the software program and his laptop's keyboard to make it. Phillips explains that although he never really played traditional instruments growing up, he's been messing around with computer beat-making software since age 17. "I started out just trying to make ambient beats that I could smoke to," he says. But after getting more familiar with FL Studio and computer sampling techniques, he got serious.
Years later, Phillips has produced for a number of prominent rappers, including Oakland duo Main Attrakionz and Berkeley internet phenomenon/meme generator Lil B, aka "the BasedGod." Combined with his 17 solo albums/mixtapes (all released initially for free online) and constant presence on the high-traffic blogs of the Fader and Prefix, Keyboard Kid has become one of the most in-demand producers on the internet. Now able to charge artists for his beats, Phillips quit his day job at the Auburn SuperMall AT&T store last December, a decision he says was "the best feeling ever."
"It was just frustrating sometimes, coming home after a bad day, being like, 'Damn, I could've made three beats during those eight hours and made more money than that.'" Now Phillips concentrates on his music full-time, making three to five beats a day, and says that the most he's ever made in one day is "probably 8 to 10." He adds that he had more than 1,000 beats recorded on his laptop before an unfortunate data crash around the New Year, but in the four months since then, he has cranked out more than 500.
His output isn't surprising, considering Keyboard Kid's history with Lil B, a 22-year-old rapper who's taken fullest advantage of the artistic independence facilitated by the egalitarianism of the internet. Lil B used the internet not only to build up and connect with his fan base on MySpace, Twitter, and Tumblr, but to maintain a prolific yield of free music. In 2012 alone, he's released four mixtapes—White Flame, God's Father, #1Bitch, and The Basedprint 2—respectively standing at 21, 34, 28, and 20 tracks in length.
"I just hit Lil B up on MySpace in like '06 or '07 and was like, 'Man, I'm a fan of your music and I think we could make some classics together,'" Phillips says. After unsuccessful attempts to collaborate with local artists (a fairly prominent local rapper recently described some beats Phillips had sent him a couple years ago as "too out-there for me"), he kept sending Lil B his beats and received increasingly positive responses. "He was finally like, 'I'm really gonna start working on my solo career, branching out and doing my own thing. How do you feel about being one of my main producers and helping me build up this BasedWorld?'"
The term "based" originated in Bay Area slang as a negative term, meaning someone was dumb, slow, even just too stoned. Lil B's global, online "BasedWorld" movement, which Keyboard Kid's "out-there" beats had a significant role in shaping, has redefined the word into a style, rap subgenre, and loose brand of philosophy.
Lil B summarized the term—often seen online as "#based"—during his April 11 speech at New York University as a "common vibe of peace." But thanks to Lil B's massive social media presence and following, #based has multiple levels of meaning. It's him wearing "tiny shirts" and "tiny pants" with beat-up, ratty "#based Vans," a pair of shoes he's supposedly been wearing every day for several years now ("A girl's gotta love me for me," he explains in a song). It's his unconventional, stream-of-consciousness verses and "based freestyles": deconstructionist flows still delivered in rap-character archetypes, from the conscious, streetwise sage preaching stop-the-violence, safe-sex messages ("Put Down the Guns," "I Got AIDS") to gun-busting, bitch-fucking Bay Area mobster ("Finna Hit a Lick," "Violate That Bitch") and everything in between. It's also his BasedWorld cult following—random hecklers shouting "Thank You, BasedGod" on live news broadcasts, or NFL and college basketball players celebrating big plays with Lil B's mega-viral "cooking dance," which made one of its first appearances in the video for the Keyboard Kid–produced "Swag on My Dick."
Keyboard Kid's beat contributions to the #based sound are often crosses between ambient mood music and huge, percussive rap productions. "!ri5," which Lil B used for his song "I Hate Myself," features a sample of the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" warped and filtered nearly beyond recognition, but pulled out of its audial murk as cracking electronic drum fills and rising synth swells fold in. But most of their post-MySpace collaborations were featured on Lil B's first official albums, 6 Kiss and I'm Thraxx, in 2009. 6 Kiss track "Based" features a Keyboard Kid beat he calls "probably the weirdest one I've ever made" that samples the sound of a crackling fire and combines it with a slow-burning synth buzz and far-away drum echoes. But over this strange beat, Lil B's lyrics are simultaneously random and thoughtful:
"Goddamn, being honest with yourself is so hard/Sometimes I'd rather be in jail/But that's coppin' out because this game I call life/Ain't no ways out except life/Because even when you die, no tellin' when you go/So might as well live life and see the places you can go/I'm goin' for the gold and I'm aimin' for the sky/Completin' life missions, that's the way to get high." He then sings the hook, "I just wanna be based," horribly off-key but unabashedly. This is the core of the based ethos: a loosely existential acknowledgment of the complexity of society and individual existence, combined with the conclusion that life is too short and weird for a person to be anything but oneself.
Since these early collaborations with Lil B, Keyboard Kid has furthered his signature sound and emerged as a producer on his own. While he still relies heavily on samples, Phillips says he tries to use them as more of a soundpad than an actual loop or melody. "It's no disrespect, but I don't think it sounds good when producers just loop something without changing it," he adds. He attributes his aesthetic to his diverse upbringing and a combination of long-held interests, like video games and anime. Born on Oahu while his dad was in the navy, Phillips lived in San Jose before his parents split and he moved with his mom to South Seattle. His dad moved to his hometown near Dallas, where Phillips visited during summers and lived for the few sporadic years he spent away from the Northwest.
Phillips credits his frequent trips to Texas and time spent with family there with exposing him to Southern rap music like "UGK, Scarface, all those guys, even before it was getting really popular outside of the area... but then I would come back up to Seattle and listen to stuff like Ozzy [Osbourne] with my uncle [from my mom's side]." Phillips's syncopated, often-aggressive drum programming echoes the traditional trunk-rattling beats of Dirty South rap, and his eight-bit electronic tones sound like grown-up versions of NES themes. His ever-expanding range of samples, from Imogen Heap, M.I.A., and M83 to anime theme songs and video-game soundtracks, reflects his many influences.
Though local artists and venues only recently noticed the talent just 30 minutes south of the city, Phillips has been connecting, collaborating, and booking shows around town.
Ty Finnan, aka DJ Darwin of Mad Rad and Out for Stardom, says that he contacted Keyboard Kid online after hearing his Videogames & Blunts Vol. 1 mixtape a few months ago. After meeting in person at Moe Bar, Phillips sent Finnan the then-unreleased The Mind Is So Complex When Your [sic] Based. "I was blown away," said Finnan. "Every tune had an amazing hook and so much emotion." He immediately linked Phillips with Out for Stardom's Katie Kate to do a remix of her song "Houses." "I really don't collaborate with other people," Kate says. "Greg was the first one I felt comfortable allowing to remix my stuff. It doesn't seem like he's trying to please anybody, he's just doing his thing, and it happens to be awesome."
Rapper Thaddeus David, who had Phillips remix his song "Block Business," gave a similar story. "Remixes can be hit and miss... this one came through with the hit, though. He gave it a completely different mood... a new life that I didn't even see for it." Neema, another local rap-scene mainstay, was so excited after hearing Phillips's beats that he enlisted him to handle all of the production on his upcoming release The Cigar Room. "This guy is so far ahead of his time it's amazing to me," he says. "Keyboard Kid's beats have taken me to songwriting 2012 in every sense of the phrase. I want to make major motion pictures with his atmosphere as the backdrop to an epic journey. Living. #Based."
Phillips also performed his first live set on March 8 at Portland's Holocene (a fact that should haunt Seattle venue bookers for years), and since then has performed at New York's New Museum and Santos Party House, and Las Vegas's New York-New York Hotel. He will finally play his first Seattle date at Neumos on April 29, opening for Lil B himself—a very "#rare" and "#legendary" performance will surely go down in "#based history."
And though his schedule is suddenly packed and his life drastically different from what it was only a few months ago, Phillips is content and excited about the new pace of things.
"It's definitely happened hella fast... but I feel like it's about time and I'm just trying to take advantage of the opportunities as they come," he says. Seeing as he can make beats from home, the airport, hotels, or wherever else he takes his laptop, there should be plenty of those in the future for Keyboard Kid.