Kelela: D.C.-Bred Dynamo Crafts Futuristic Soul With U.K. Producers

"Fog and one blue light is all I need at the club."

Kelela, this is happening
Kelela Photo by Matt Fry
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

Who: Kelela Mizanekristos, a Los Angeles-based vocalist (and Solange collaborator) who was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Maryland ("Gaithersburg, kind of like a ghetto suburb"). Her free download album CUT 4 ME, pins sophisticated, searching vocals over production from leftfield sound-stackers connected to the bleeding-edge label Fade To Mind, creating futuristic soul that gains its power from "taking really forward-thinking production, but making it sound very pop," as Kelela says. More jazzy than most current R&B, thanks to her restrained, controlled delivery, the tracks become more abrasively challenging with the remixes, edits, and instrumentals from her friends. Here, Jam City, Kingdom, Nguzunguzu, and others wrangle their twisting, turning soundscapes, taking Kelela to the more experimental fringes of neo-soul.

Freak It: Kelela was collaborating with dream-pop producers Teengirl Fantasy on "EFX" from 2012's Tracer, when producer/DJ Total Freedom walked into the session and suggested that she collaborate with the Fade To Mind crew. She wasn't aware of the label's output, but dove into the catalog and discovered a number of aesthetic similarities. "All of those producers think about vocals similarly to how I think about them – specifically R&B vocals," she says. Slow-growing hooks and atmospheric crooning are "inside the track, rather than on top of the track" and "they have their own vision of vocal work as music and how they would like to freak it." The title track on CUT 4 ME, kicks like footwork and bounces like '80s John Hughes soundtrack cheese, and Kelela's demanding, longing-filled delivery holds the disparate styles together.

Blue Light Special: A significant influence on Kelela's sound, particularly on CUT 4 ME, is the rarefied, regional party music of Maryland, where she was raised: D.C. go-go and Baltimore Club music. The frenetic pace and jagged breakbeats of Bmore Club were something she experienced on the way to school, thanks to Baltimore radio station 92Q, who frequently mixed the music into rotation with hits. "I'm on my way to school and I just dropped my mom off at the Metro and I'm the car getting hype at like 6:35 in the morning to the most hype Baltimore music," she gleefully recalls. And the syncopated, improvisatory hard funk of go-go was the go-to music at parties: "Any birthday party that any of my black friends were having was in a basement and there was hardly any light and [go-go] was [playing] really loud the entire night." Kelela observes that only later did she realize how "big" Bmore Club culture truly had become. "Fog and one blue light is all I need in life at the club," she jokes. "Just a dark room and loud music. I'm into that."

Dropboxin' It: The access provided by the Internet was central to CUT 4 ME's construction. Initially, Kelela was handed 50 tracks from Fade To Mind producers, and though they helped familiarize her with the music and their approach, she only ended up using two tracks: "Keep It Cool," produced by Jam City, and "Bank Head," produced by Kingdom. "Those two happened in my room," Kelela explains. She "wrote right over them," like a rapper spitting over an instrumental. From there, though, the interplay between singer and beatmakers grew more intense, with the process generally involving Kelela receiving beats, working with them ("improvising gibberish over the track, initially"), receiving more feedback, adjusting them accordingly, and tinkering with the lyrics, often with the producers themselves. As a result, CUT 4 ME "sounds like one thing," she says proudly. Being "on Dropbox constantly, sending files back and forth, back and forth" paid off in one of the most cohesive, intimate, experimental club-pop albums of the year.

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