J. Frank

Get Familiar With Your Favorite Rapper's Favorite Singer, Lili K.

With co-signs from Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa and Jay Z's TIDAL, Lili K. is already a big deal

Williamsburg's Rough Trade record store looks like a musicophile’s dream come true. With rows on rows of records, the audio hub also doubles as a concert venue for musicians. On a brisk Saturday evening (Sept. 26), the stage was set for intimate performances from Kahli Abdu & VHS Safari, The Suffers and Chicago-based jazz musician Lili K.

This year, Lili K. has performed at Made In America, SXSW and North Coast Music Festival. She has lent her voice to collaborations with artists like Chance The Rapper ("Good Ass Intro," "Hey Ma," "Pusha Man"), Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment ("Go"), MC Tree ("Say How U Feel") and Vic Mensa ("Hollywood LA," "Lovely Day"). She was also TIDAL’s very first Rising Artist, an honor given to emerging artists on Jay Z's music-streaming service. After working with producer Peter Cottontale on her EPs, Lili self-funded and self-produced her debut full-length album, Ruby, a concoction of jazz and soul, all recorded live.

Accompanied by The Lili K. Band, the Milwaukee-bred songstress went hard for Brooklyn with soulful renditions of self-written joints such as "Pour Some Shuga," "I Don’t Want You No More," "One More Time," (where she “pretended she was D’Angelo” while writing) and "Tommy," as well as covers of well-known hip hop songs like T-Pain's "Buy U A Drank," Kanye West's "Addiction" and a salute to her work with Chance and Vic.

While getting glam for her performance, Lili chatted with VIBE to break down her musical upbringing, the importance of experimentation and the one piece of advice that cemented her career.—J'na Jefferson

VIBE: Where did this love of jazz and your soul come from?
Lili K: I was raised on Motown. I came up with a lot of Motown and classic rock as well, like Steely Dan, and in gospel. I was raised in a church and I sang in choirs. In middle school, I went to an arts middle school in Milwaukee and an arts high school, and my vocal teacher heard me sing and was like, "You need to listen to jazz." I did, and it kind of changed everything for me. I just learned a lot about my voice and how to use it. It kind of led me to incorporate all those different genres and kind of play up the strengths that I have, as well as incorporating soul and funk with my musicians and instrumentations with my voice.

You’ve been featured on the tracks for a lot of hip-hop artists. How important is experimenting with other genres when it comes to music?
Especially coming from a jazz perspective, it’s all about collaboration, improvisation and innovation, and so, I think it’s kind of in my nature to work with other musicians and artists, and kind of collaborate together. I think it definitely helps you grow as an artist and a musician and as a person, really, to work with other people, and just learn the most that you can. I think the coolest part about music is learning and growing everyday and getting better. What better way to do that than to collaborate, whether it’s with the musicians in my band or with other artists.

Who are your favorite hip-hop artists?
I’ve always loved A Tribe Called Quest. It’s very obvious that they use a lot of jazz and sampling. I love Kanye West. I mean, when The College Dropout came out, it kind of changed everything. There’s a lot of hip-hop artists who I think are great. There’s a lot of artists, period, from all genres that I really look up to and admire. I think that’s part of the reason my sound pulls from so many places, because I love so much music. The other day, I was saying that I wanna be a combination of Ella Fitzgerald and Gwen Stefani. [Laughs.]

What inspired your latest album, Ruby?
It was actually called Ruby because of a tradition my mom and I have. She’s a vintage clothing dealer, which is a big part of why I dress the way I dress, but she would find me vintage ruby rings for high school graduation, college graduation, like big, monumental moments in life. I thought it was fitting to call my first album Ruby because of that. Really, Ruby was kind of just going back to my roots of soul music and jazz music. I really wanted to record it like a lot of those classic recordings, so I left in talking in the background, piano creaks and amp pickups, so you kind of hear the imperfections, which is why so many vintage recordings are so beautiful, because it reminds me that they’re real. It’s not like this studio-processed edited thing, and that’s really what we were going for with that album. Just organic, fun music, not computer-generated sounds.

You got the chance to perform at major festivals across the country this year. How does all the recognition feel for you?
I’ve actually been in the music game for five years, and it’s still very new. I’m only 24. I did three free EPs and so many shows over the years, and it’s really cool actually to be able to go somewhere and do the music that I wanna do and not just singing background for someone or for a hip-hop artist. Even though those were cool opportunities too, it’s really awesome to be with my band, doing the music that I’ve written. It’s awesome and I’m just so happy. I love being around [The Lili K. band] and performing with them. It’s been a really fun journey and I’m hoping it continues.

How has working with other artists made your sound change compared to when you first started out?
The sound that I was doing initially, it wasn’t my full sound. It was like half-me and half-producer, or half-me and half-the-other-artist-I-was-working-with. So no one really got to hear me fully, because my EPs were done with a producer [Peter Cottontale]. This album was really my first chance to do my full sound. Some fans didn’t like it as much because it wasn’t as hip-hop oriented, but some fans stayed true and really liked was I was doing. I gained some new fans from it, who are more so jazz heads or soul heads. It’s been cool, but working with other artists definitely helps you grow. You see their process, the ideas they bring to the table. They think and they hear differently than you. That’s part of the reason why I brought in my specific band members, because of their individual styles and how much I know they can bring to the table. It’s not like a random group of people. It’s people who I’ve known for years and I like their styles of playing, and that’s why they’re here. It’s not gonna be as good without them. I don’t play drums so why would I tell my drummer how to play?

Did you have to take any odd jobs in order to save up money to fund your album?
I’ve kept a day job. It’s usually contractor things where I can still travel and whatnot but I just worked my ass off. I worked 60 hours a week for a month, and I just kind of got it done, and I funded the album. It was really hard, but it’s also like, 'Yeah, I own my masters!' {Laughs.] It’s a way different process than a lot of hip-hop or R&B or even just a lot of contemporary music because it’s completely live instrumentation. There’s no tracks, it’s all done live in the studio. We brought in live horns, live string players, brought in a few of my male vocalist friends to come and do background vocals. It’s all live. It’s a longer process and a more expensive process, but it totally turned out the way I wanted.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve received?
It’s actually a piece of advice that’s actually the worst advice that could turn into the best thing. I had a meeting with some industry label dude, and he pretty much said, "You have a good voice and everything, but you should just be a pop star and just work out more, and wear sexier clothes, and just do that thing. You’ll get so much more money. You do that, I can work with you." And it really cemented that I wanna do this because it’s the music I love. It’s not about the money or fame necessarily, it’s just really about I love doing this. The second it becomes about something other than what I love, what’s the point of it anymore? After that meeting, it kind of solidified that in me. So the worst advice I ever got was from that dude, and it turned into the best advice, because it showed me what I really wanted out of music, and that’s just to be happy and to make the music I want to make. If I get somewhere, I get somewhere.

Cop Lili K.'s Ruby LP on iTunes here.

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VIBE decided to switch things up but also highlighting rap albums by womxn who came strong in their respectively debut albums, mixtapes, EPs. We also had to give props to those who dropped standout singles, leaving us wanting more.

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We’ve reached another end to an eventful year in hip-hop. From rap beefs to new music releases and milestones, 2018 has been forged in the history books as a year to remember. But more important than the events that happened over the span of 12 months are the people who made them happen.

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NEXT: Intent On Impact, Kiana Lede Is Ready To Leave Her Mark

After learning The Alphabet Song as a little girl, Kiana Lede would always “get in trouble” for singing during class. “My mom was like, ‘why can't you focus?’” she laughs while reminiscing on her career’s formative years. “I was like, ‘I don’t know! Songs are just playing in my head all the time!’”

Whilst sitting in a shoebox-sized room at Midtown Manhattan’s Moxy Hotel on a humid September day, the now- 21-year-old Arizona-bred R&B songbird, actress and pianist speculates that she “may have had ADD.” However, she settles down after taking off her white cowboy boots and flops down on the ivory-clothed bed, demonstrating that her fiery Aries energy can be contained. Cool as a cucumber, Lede shuffles between chewing on banana candies and blowing smoke rings after taking drags from a pen, all while musing about her journey to becoming a Republic Records signee.

“I just grew up singing and doing musical theater, and reading a lot of books, and playing piano way too much in my room by myself,” she says, pushing her big, curly brown hair out of her face. Her expressive green eyes widen as she grins. “It was my thing. Nobody in my family does music, just me.”

After winning Kidz Bop’s 2011 KIDZ Star USA talent contest at 14 (which her mother secretly entered her into), Lede was signed to RCA Records. She was released from her contract and dropped from the label three years later. However, thanks to guidance and friendship from the Grammy-winning production duo Rice N’ Peas, (who’ve worked with G-Eazy, Trevor Jackson, and Bazzi), she released covers of songs such as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” while working to get her groove back. The latter rendition resulted in Republic Record’s Chairman and CEO Monte Lipman flying her out and signing her to his label.

“I got a second chance, which a lot of people don't get,” she reveals. “So I'm really happy that that all happened. I wouldn't be here right now in this room if that didn't happen.”

Thanks to the new opportunity she was given, Lede’s sound has evolved into something she’s proud of—equal parts soul, R&B and bohemian. As evidenced by the aforementioned ensemble, glimmers of each aesthetic can be found when observing her personal style as well. She released her seven-song EP Selfless in July, which features the bedroom-ready “Show Love” and “Fairplay,” which manages to fit in the mainstream R&B vein while also showcasing her goosebump-inducing vocals. The remix of the latter features MC A$AP Ferg. What pleases her most is that it not only garnered a favorable response from fans, but that those listeners found it so relatable.

“As an artist, it's really nerve-wracking for someone who writes about such personal things all the time,” she says. “Just the fact that it is my story… It's good to know that other people know that there's somebody on their side, and they're not the only ones going through it. A lot of people obviously feel this way, and have been through this same thing that I've been through. So I think that's cool.”

Although she moved to various places as a Navy serviceman’s daughter, Lede claims Phoenix as home. This means she hails from the same stomping grounds as rockers Alice Cooper, Stevie Nicks and the late Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. However, growing up in a mixed race household gave way to tons of sonic exploration outside of the rock-heavy scene.

“My dad's black, and both of my parents are from the East Coast,” she says of her musical and ethnic upbringing (she’s black, Latina and Native American). “[My parents] listened to a lot of R&B. My mom listened to a lot of SWV, TLC, Boyz II Men. I didn't realize I knew the songs until I got older. I played a charity show with T-Boz, and I was like 'why do I know these songs?'” Lede also says her father was a fan of neo-soul and gangsta rap, but she personally believes the early-2000s was the best time for music.

“[That era] influences a lot of my music subconsciously, and also, singer-songwriter stuff,” she continues. “I listen to a lot of early-2000s music because I played piano most of my life. I listened to Sara Bareilles, John Mayer.”

An open book, Lede details some of her struggles with anxiety and depression with the utmost candor. After being dropped from RCA, her trust in people diminished, and she experienced long bouts of depression after being sexually assaulted by someone in the industry. The track that she feels most deeply about is “One Of Them Days,” which tackles these issues head-on.

“When I'm anxious and depressed, it's really hard to be happy,” Lede says. “Most of the time, I can do it, but there are just some days where I literally can't separate the anxiety, and I can't tell anybody why, because I don't really know why myself… I was feeling very odd that day, didn't even know if I could write a song. Hue [Strother], the guy who I wrote the song with, he was like 'I totally get you. Lots of people go through this.’’’

As we’ve observed in headlines recently, mental health and being honest about life’s trickier situations can help someone going through the same thing, and Lede hopes her music provides encouragement to those who are struggling. As for how she’s learning to push through her mental health roadblocks, she meditates, runs, and is an advocate for therapy, especially in Trump’s America, where harrowing news reports dominate the cycle.

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“My passion is really people. Music is just a way that I can get to helping people,” she says with a grin. “Helping people emotionally and physically are both very important. I never want to stop helping people. I feel if other people can respect me, and I can respect myself, then I'll be happy. Happiness is all that we strive for.”

Recently, Lede played her first headlining solo show, a one-night event at The Mint in Los Angeles. While she was thrilled to see that the show sold-out, she was even happier to see the faces of her audience members, who she said ‘looked like [her].’ “Mixed girls, brown girls, black girls, gay boys,” she explains over-the-phone. Even though she wasn’t in person to discuss her latest huge accomplishment, you could hear the pride and joy through her voice.

As for the future of her career, she’s looking forward to more acting roles. You may recognize her from the first season of MTV’s Scream, and after her recent Netflix series All About The Washingtons with legendary MC Rev Run was cancelled, she has been “reading for auditions” and is “negotiating” for a role in a film set to shoot in NYC. While her time with the Run-DMC frontman was brief, she says he taught her about the importance of “not compromising your art for money.”

What Kiana Lede is most excited about, of course, is making music. She hopes to work on a new EP and then release an album after that. The ultimate goal is to fully realize the dreams in her personal and professional life, and she assures she’s just getting started.

“I want to be able to look back on my career and think 'man, I really poured my heart into this music, and made music that mattered, and made music that made people feel a certain way, whether it's bad, good, sad, anxious, whatever it may be.’”

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