KeithCharles: 'I Love You But You Already Knew That'
If there is one thing KeithCharles is, it’s in touch with his emotions, but don’t take it from us, just listen to his new EP “I love you, but you already knew that”. It’s hard to pigeonhole Mr. Charles—the 28-year-old rapper/producer doesn’t simply make tracks, he makes musical collages that blend the grit of hip-hop with the ethereality of experimental indie.
The EP represents a masterful culminating point in the artist’s career, a true signifier of just how much his sound has evolved and expanded from the 90s-inspired throwback mixtape vibes of his initial work way back in 2011. Drawing as much from his southern background as he does from the depths of his soul, Charles was able to create a remarkably human narrative about love and loss poignant enough to soften the stoniest of hearts, and with a bouncy beat to boot.
We had a chance to catch up with the musician to ask him a couple questions about “I love you, but you already knew that”, the creative direction for “Bulletproof”, the music video premiering exclusively with office today on March 8th, and some other groovy topics.
Top by Helmut Lang, Bottoms by Acne Studios.
Introduce yourself, tell me about where you’re from and all that good stuff.
I’m KeithCharles and I just turned twenty-eight, pisces game. I was born in Tampa, Florida and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where I started making music.
Do you come from a church background?
Yes, definitely, southern baptist. One day my mom was like you know what? Fuck this. And I was like yeah that’s right mom, fuck this shit! So I thought alright, I’m not going back.
So you never went back to church after that?
There were a few times when my grandma dragged me, my aunts dragged me, or times when spent the night at somebody’s house and their mama would drag me to church, that kind of thing. But my mom always wanted me to be a musician, she put me in church piano lessons, then outside lessons and all that. Then when I got a little older I just wanted to be outside with my boys, but I really wish I had paid attention, I wish I’d listened to what my teachers were saying because I would’ve been crazy by now. I play cello, piano, and base, but recently I’ve been focusing on guitar and base.
You could be a one-man band.
I want to, all of my favorite musicians have that type of thing going on. It’s better if you can do everything yourself.
I can imagine, you cut out the middle man.
Mhm, but then you just want to bring in more middle men—people you trust.
Yeah exactly, you get to be very selective about the people with surround yourself with, creatively-speaking. Where do your sound come from?
My sound identity comes from who I am as a person, and it all stems back to my family, there are many different pieces. Just being black, I think we possess this innate desire to create within us, and that’s where I draw most of my inspiration from. Trying to discover what it means to be a man is a constant theme, and I also try to grapple with all of those non-verbal emotions, those feelings that remain unsaid. My sound is heavily inspired by southern rap, especially old school southern rap, like 8Ball & MJG, UGK, Three 6 Mafia, all of Cash Money Records—these are my basis. Then, as I got older, different artistic influences piled on top of that foundation, but at the root, it’s just...slap. Just slap.
It’s cool you say that because even in your music video for "Bulletproof", if you were to strip away the indie-alt aesthetic layers of the art direction and instrumentals, the base of the sound is very much this raw, southern beat. What was the concept behind the title of your EP?
It’s about the time that I took away from making music, the time I took away from trying to figure out what my sound was. I had so many questions right before I moved to New York, and I needed to to figure everything out. Once I got up here, I was still trying to make music but it took me so long to get into the flow of New York living, to find my core group of friends, all that kind of stuff. I used to always ask myself, I love doing this, but does it love me back? This question is very important to me. You want what you put your hard work and effort into to pay off, but as I started to learn more about love, I came to the realization that if you truly love something, you can’t ask for anything in return. After that, it became really apparent that what I love does love me back, but I think I already knew that, I don’t have to stress about it.
Top by Helmut Lang, Bottoms by Acne Studios.
Woah, that’s some major pisces energy coming out right there!
Yo! That’s all I do! People will say something to me, they’ll ask me a simple ass question and I’m about to get deep.
On some soulful eye shit! What was the creative direction for the “Bulletproof” music video?
It was written by Alex Russell, who is a great friend of mine. He’s a great actor, comedian, and, if you want to throw this in there, he’s hot! He was one of the first people I sent the song to, and immediately after hearing it for the first time, he gave me a rundown of the whole concept: I’m a magician in a high school talent show kind of thing—some recreational YMCA talent show—and all of my tricks are pretty whack. Then I would do this one trick called the bullet catch, where a magician offers a loaded gun to someone in the audience and he has to catch the bullet with his teeth in between his hands. But in the he video, the women that I hand the gun to is like nah, I really want you to die, and I’m like yeah, that’s who I am. Shoot me, please, somebody.
How does this concept correlate with what the song is about?
The song, for me, is about trying to deny everything that you feel when you’re really crushing on somebody. Sometimes I try not to write from my own emotions because I feel like that shit is so...ugh. You just can’t do it all the time, you need to get someone else’s perspective in there, I think it’s kind of selfish not to. So for this particular song, I wrote from an imaginary perspective—I didn’t have anybody special in my life when I wrote it, and somehow I’ve managed to manifest this scenario into reality. The song grapples with the phenomena of loving someone but trying to play it cool, but it hurts to play it cool, so then you start acting only out of pride. You stop texting back because because you think well shit, I need to chill, I need to relax, and then before you know it you’re too late. That’s what the Bulletproof is about, recognizing when it’s too late. But it’s cool because it’s a great situation with a great person.
There’s always time. You know what? On my train over to work this morning, a man had a stroke in my car—he just dropped. The whole thing was so crazy because I was thinking about time right before it happened—I was thinking ok, how many times have I been on this train at this exact time to get to the same place? Just some existential stuff, and then he dropped. It’s corny but it’s so important to take every moment seriously and jump at the opportunities that come your way, to put pride and ego and all that shit to the side because we don’t have time to revel in negativity. We do, but we don’t.
Exactly. Why are we spending so much time worrying and feeling a certain type of way when we could just enjoy all the beautiful things happening around us.
I feel, especially because it’s such a simple realization to have yet such a difficult practice to implement. We put ourselves through so much shit, we love to agonize.
Yep, agonizing. Pain becomes suffering. Some shit does hurt, but there is no need to revel in it. We do have time, we’re not on our way out.
Wetsuit by Calvin Klein 205W39NYC.
I hope not, shit! One thing that music has the power to do that nothing else does?
Music has the power to actually be understood. Some people are more visual, some people are more auditory, but I feel like with music, no matter if you speak the language or not, you can understand it, you get it. I’m pretty sure there are people that don’t speak any english who cry to White Ferrari.
I agree with that, classical music is also a great example of this, especially because it is nonverbal. If you and a friend were to listen to a piece together and concoct a narrative in your mind while you listen, I’ve found that the respective narratives you create are strikingly similar. It’s the same kind of deal.
Yo, I’m with that. Going back to what we were just talking about with time, with my twenty-eighth birthday that just came up, I’ve been thinking a lot about how you had to be a certain way to get where you’re going, especially earlier in life. Now that I’m about to be balling, now that I’m really about to do it, I’ve been thinking about how I can really enjoy nothing so that I can truly enjoy everything. This book that I’ve been reading called Letting Go has been helping me with all this. I put on the new Solange album and I read my book and I think, this is what enjoying yourself is—I put my phone on airplane mode and I just kick it.
One event that changed the way you understood music, that changed your relationship with music?
When I toured with HOMESHAKE in Europe. My manager set it up, and we all became really great friends almost off the bat. We did a show in London and it was packed the fuck out—I ain’t never performed to this many people overseas before. Peter was like I loved it! And I was like you did? And then every night after that he was like play this, this, this! The whole experience of playing live shows, touring with an actual band, and seeing people who don’t know me from a can of paint truly fuck with my sound, it changed the way that I made music. I used to create from the perspective of what’s gonna make the 808 hit here? What’s gonna make the people go crazy? Now I know that people are gonna fuck with this shit anyway, so now I’m just thinking what’s gonna make their heads explode? So that’s what I’m trying to do, but in a calm, orderly fashion.
Yin-yang, very balanced. What’s something about yourself that makes you really proud?
I’m really proud that I’m able to hold space for people. I care so much about my friends, so much, my family, so much. As a man, your shoulders have to be big, you have to be able to take on so many responsibilities, any kind of crisis. To be able to deal with what you have going on and still have space for other people? That’s something that makes me really proud of myself.
I love that. What smell would you associate with “I love you, but you already knew that” ?
You know when you light a match, then put it out? That smell.
Check out the exclusive music video for "Bulletproof" below.