“I Feel Like It’s Coming Full Circle”: Exploring Musical Roots With Kilamanzego
Though Philly-based producer Kilamanzego (pronounced “kill a man’s ego”) picked up her first instrument at an early age, she had an affinity for the written word before developing the passion for music that led to co-founding the Backyard Bxss live beat showcase and smth savant records. “It’s funny, I started off not really listening to music,” she admits. “I didn’t really like it to be honest with you. I was just a big old book nerd.”
While she may have disinterested in music during her earliest years, that all changed when her father gifted her a bass guitar at age 12 and helped unlock her inner musician. Despite having no formal musical training, Kilamanzego has never looked back since teaching herself the bass. After many years of playing in bands, tinkering with different instruments, and more recently exploring Ableton, she is now a skilled multi-instrumentalist and producer. “Bass, guitar, violin, trombone…there’s pretty much no instrument I don’t play except for drums,” she tells me.
Kilamanzego’s first musical interests included hardcore, punk, ska, in addition to a healthy dose of R & B and rap acts like Mary J. Blige and Salt N Pepa. But it was the experience of listening to J Dilla’s Donuts that opened her eyes to the true power of instrumental music. After Donuts provided an entry point, she further explored the Detroit producer’s massive catalog and was floored by his unrivaled synth design. Dilla showed her that producers could use synths to bring distinct sonic qualities to each beat while cultivating a signature style. “Every synth that I heard him model or shape sounded uniquely different than the other,” she explains. “But you could still tell it was him because he had the same grooves in each song.”
“You have to be tough. You have to be strong willed, strong minded.”
Though her production influences have broadened since first discovering Donuts, her affinity for synths remains the same. “That’s probably one of the most important things you can do,” she says. “Sit by synths all day and try to design sounds with it. I think that’s one of the best ways to get your unique sound going.”
Using a laptop a keyboard full of missing keys to do the lion’s share of her composing and writing, Kilamanzego has learned to embrace the limitations of her setup and work with what she has. Though it isn’t the fanciest setup, a recent upgrade took place when she added the Ableton Push to her arsenal after seeing her roommate use Ableton. Viewed by many producers as a powerful yet sometimes overwhelming piece of gear, a few years of consistent practice with the Push has yielded positive results. With a growing reputation for her killer live sets, Kilamanzego has also dropped two buzzworthy tracks in the past month: “Cross Trainers” featuring Argyle Cozbee and “I’m A Rockstar” featuring Anita Got Bars.
Letting two different MCs spit verses over her tracks is a new wrinkle in her career, and although it was a bit intimidating at first, the experience of letting other people create over her music was ultimately freeing. “I was getting frustrated because I was making these instrumentals that I was half satisfied with,” she says. “People had been asking me for beats but I kept saying, ‘No, it’s not ready yet. No, it’s not ready yet,’ because I didn’t have confidence in them.”
“Sit by synths all day and try to design sounds with it. I think that’s one of the best ways to get your unique sound going.”
Despite her initial hesitations, Kilamanzego realized that pushing herself out of her comfort zone was an important part of her growth. “I told myself, ‘You’re actually going to keep doing that for the rest of your life unless you tell yourself to put your foot forward and do it. Whether you think that they’re good or not, just do it,’” she says.
Based on the initial response towards the songs from both music blogs and the beatmaking community, deciding to release them was the right play. With the positive response to her most recent work and growing enthusiasm for the monthly Backyard Bxss event she helped kickstart, Kilamanzego’s career seems to be on the right track. That said, she’s quick to admit that the creative journey isn’t always an easy one. “You have to be tough. You have to be strong willed, strong minded,” she says. “Making music, especially when we’re bombarded with so much, you have to stick with it.”
In the end, she encourages producers to embrace the difficult aspects of sitting alone in a room with your art for hours at a time. Learning to work through the frustration is an important aspect of mastering the craft. “It calls for playing the same sounds over and over again. Tweaking it by just point something of a second,” she says. “Replaying the same sounds for hours on end, leaving, coming back and being like, ‘Dammit that doesn’t sound right.’ Wanting to throw your computer out — things like that.”
“I told myself, ‘You’re actually going to keep doing that for the rest of your life unless you tell yourself to put your foot forward and do it.”
Now that Kilamanzego has the mental stamina to navigate the creative ebbs and flows of producing, she is exploring her roots through music and trying to weave her family lineage into her compositions. “Africa is very important to me as a whole and more specifically Ghana,” she says.
“I try to do overt and not so overt callbacks to rhythms and sounds in my songwriting.”
Though Kilamanzego grew up listening to traditional Ghanian music, she eventually moved on to explore other genres. Now that she’s developing a scene and a sound all her own, she’s taking a return trip to where it all started. “I’m trying to access my roots more,” she says. “Now I feel like it’s coming full circle again where I’m kind of going back to my roots and trying to connect pieces that I felt kind of trailed off throughout my life.”
She’s still in the early exploration phase, but as always, she’s embracing the process. “It’s not perfect,” she says. “I’m still learning — always learning and trying to figure out who I am in relation to my music.”