By Andres Octavio (Mowgli)
Kenyan producer Jeff Kaale is as much a product of this new generation of DIY musicianship as he is a contributor to its success. What began as a passion for making beats for vlogs has evolved into a career working with some of the industry’s top names. What started as a way to pass time by mining Soundcloud for new music developed into his status as one of the platforms most heralded names in lo-fi hip hop. The hackneyed label of bedroom producer that dominated the 2010s has exhausted itself in the new decade, to be replaced by a recognition of what this next generation truly is: a protean cohort of artists who have no lanes or lines but only create what comes natural to them.
“Sometimes the things that we want most are maybe the things that are not best for us.”
Kaale said from his home in Nairobi. “And when you let things come in naturally it almost seems as if you can you can roll with it.”
But the lines that separate Jeff Kaale the man and Jeff Kaale the producer are difficult to decipher, considering that what he produces is so much a part of who he is. Not much has been written about the enigmatic 23-year-old, and while he expects that to change soon, this much is certain:
Gone is the age where the only way to find a sample is in a dusty crate of obscure soul records. The days of camping out in a sun-deprived studio for weeks at a time to crunch out an album are no longer necessary nor are they practical. Over the last decade, super producers ranging from the new-gen hip hop of Murda Beatz and Metro Boomin to the radio-centric DJ Khaled and Diplo have rightfully taken more of center stage, shifting their power from the background to solo act, from DJ openers to festival headliners.
State-of-the-art home studios are the norm now as hip-hop producers shuffle through YouTube like a rolodex for their next sample. Collabs are secured just as much via DMs as through A&Rs. It’s the way of an adapting industry, where fading industry norms still dictate the space but with less unilateral power.
So when the pandemic hit and musicians, producers, and performers of the old guard saw their world thrust into uncertainty, nothing on a structural level changed for Kaale; actually, the Nairobi-based artist made himself more of a name. Kaale continued posting beats on Soundcloud (where he has accrued more than 180,000 followers) and traded emails with top-liners and musicians until one direct message on Twitter turned into the biggest break of his career.
Years later, having almost forgotten about it, Kaale heard back on Twitter from tobi lou’s Chicago rap contemporary Rockie Fresh. Not only would it be Rockie Fresh’s first single of 2021, but Kaale would have a feature credit in the title of the song rather than just a production credit—something that would have been unheard of for an independent producer a decade ago.
After a career made from boom-bap instrumentals that have dominated Soundcloud playlists and lo-fi study channels, Kaale said he is planning to take his craft to the next level and into the mainstream.
The feel-good track meshes Kaale’s old-school roots (warped Rhodes chords, abrupt background samples) with the new-school signatures of tobi lou’s pitched hook and Rockie Fresh’s snug verses over distorted 808 production. More importantly, it represents a shift in Kaale’s mentality, one that takes him from background producer to artist at the forefront of his craft.
“Once I got that DM, I just knew it was meant to be,” Kaale said. “For me it allows me to transition from making beats to making [songs] with artists. And it just kind of fit perfect with what felt natural.”
What came natural for Kaale was never simple. Far too often, the over-propagated myth of the overnight success dominates the headlines, warping musicians aspirations and the public’s understanding to make them believe that artists like Lil Nas X and Post Malone are the norm rather than the exception of the 10,000-hour rule. If one were to ever define Kaale as an overnight success, it’s only because he quite literally works overnight, every night, until three in the morning on a passion that he has chiseled into a full-time job.
In discussing his craft, Kaale paints momentum as both friend and foe—when the going’s good he can weave between beats, and when it’s slow there’s nothing more tedious. For Kaale, even creativity is a lesson in inertia; objects in motion tend to remain in motion, and that especially applies to making music.
It’s easy to make music only when you feel most inspired, he says,
“But if you just work on Friday, one day a week is a waste of time. You’ll never develop as a human like that…You have to push through the hard days because that’s where you make progress.”
Since 2016, when he first started listening to tobi lou, Kaale’s daily routine in Nairobi hasn’t changed much. He starts every day the same way he ends it: at his custom workstation, molding samples into beats and beats into songs. He forages Soundcloud for reference tracks and YouTube for samples and sounds that can inspire his next song.
Belied by his reticence and bashful demeanor, it’s Kaale’s zealous self-discipline, not his ear for a catchy sample nor his penchant for scouring YouTube for undiscovered tracks to inspire his next song, that may be his greatest attribute as a producer. That relentless work ethic has pushed him to release five albums in four years to the tune of more than a hundred million streams in total.
Not only has Kaale begun to carve different routes out of his genre-less, next-gen approach to his music—a journey that has seen his dabble in everything from future bass to afrobeat—but he has also established himself as a legitimate player in the potentially lucrative realm of sync licensing through Czech Vibes Sound, whose YouTube channel Kaale credits for giving his career a jumpstart. Kaale has seen his music featured across the blogosphere, the biggest being Casey Neistat’s YouTube channel with more than 12 million subscribers.
Yet with the prospect of 2021 being the biggest year of his career, Kaale has one goal in mind, one independent of the digital environment that made him as a producer, one driven by a desire to better Jeff Kaale, the man.
“I just want to learn more. You can never stop learning…Whenever I feel myself getting lazy, I just tell myself: ‘Don’t be average. Don’t let your laziness conquer you.’”
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