“Music Is My Character”: K-Def Deconstructs The Making of “Night Shift”
The veteran producer breaks down his process from Jay-Z remix contests to his Redefinition Records debut.
After spending the much of the 90s cranking out seminal records like the Lords of The Underground’s “Chief Rocka” and “Funky Child” and having his work sampled on Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath, New Jersey native K-Def stepped away from the industry from 1997 to 2001. A comeback in the early to mid 2000s led to collaborations with Ghostface and Jayo Felony, but external situations brought on another extended hiatus from the rap game.
By the time he heard Jay-Z’s American Gangster in 2007, the veteran producer started to question if his style still had a place in the industry and almost walked away for good. In a make or break moment, he decided to enter an online remix contest for Jay-Z’s album to see what kind of response it generated. “I told my boys, “Look, I’ma do this, man, and if they’re not really feeling it, I’m not doing music no more,’” he says. Much to his surprise, his remix album became a top-five finalist and led to widespread interest from artists in Japan, London, and the west coast.
Though the success of his Jay-Z remix experiment gave him a sense of renewed energy, K-Def had grown weary from many years spent politicking with rappers and trying to land album placements. Ready for a new musical direction, he decided to use his experience with traditional samplers and studios to reinvent himself as a producer. “For 20 years prior I was a strictly machine guy, dealing with hardware and real big studios,” he explains. “I had a good fundamental feel of how things are supposed to sound as far as having a hands on engineering aspect of it.”
Using the skills he built up through 20 years of studio mastery, K-Def started to apply his knowledge to newer technologies. “As I got older, I fell in love with Cubase,” he says. Though Cubase remains a favorite, K-Def also prides himself on staying current with whatever new tools are made available to producers. “Whatever comes out, I’m gonna try it. If I like it, I’m gonna use it. If I don’t like it, it’s going in the trash can,” he says.
“Music is my character. Whatever I’m going through emotionally or feeling or thinking, it usually comes out in my music.”
By pairing his engineering skills with his technical savvy, K-Def built up a a remarkable library of virtual instruments through his ability to to isolate individual elements of vinyl samples. “I got four terabytes of some of the greatest virtual instrument sounds that you could ever want that I’ve been collecting since the early 2000s,” he says.
As he nurtured his technical prowess and library of music, K-Def put out a number of successful instrumental albums between 2006 and 2010 that eventually led to a relationship with Redefinition Records. With over 10 releases on the label since linking up with them in 2011, K-Def’s Redef debut Night Shift remains a special album for him — both for the musical qualities and the personal trials and tribulations he endured during it’s creation. “At the time my brother had just passed,” he says. “My moms was so devastated by his death and the stuff behind his death that she eventually got ill. I didn’t know what tomorrow brought, because my moms was my heart.”
Further influencing the somber vibes found on many of Night Shift’s tracks was the setting where the album came together. “I did the majority of the album outside. And I’m talking about summer, winter, fall,” he says. “I used to get my laptop, go outside on the balcony, and I would sit out there with my laptop and my headphones on and I would smoke my cigarettes out there. It could be freezing — I’m outside smoking a cigarette because I can’t smoke in the house. That was an element of the darkness.”
“I didn’t know what tomorrow brought, because my moms was my heart.”
For K-Def, it makes sense that the album is a reflection of the emotions he was experiencing in his personal life. “Music is my character,” he tells me. “Whatever I’m going through emotionally or feeling or thinking, it usually comes out in my music.”
Though the majority of Night Shift is an instrumental album, a unique opportunity to add vocals to the opening track came when longtime Pete Rock collaborator Rob-O caught wind of “Escapizm”, K-Def’s homage to Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “Escape”. “I love the stuff Rob-O did with Pete,” he says. “When he said he wanted to do it, I didn’t even know he was gonna write the rhymes that he wrote. But it was incredible and it fit the mood of the whole record. That’s one of my favorites.”
Part of his pride for “Escapizm” comes from the challenges he to to overcome to re-imagine Pete Rock’s production genius. “I felt like nobody would touch ‘Escape’ because they have to figure out how did he get his hi-hat like that, how did he get the Brethren drums like that, and how did he get it to smack like that,” he says of the original instrumental.
Never one to walk away from a difficult producer dilemma, K-Def dug deep to find new ways to rework the sample. “I used tricks beyond tricks. I ran some isolation on there where if you listen to the record carefully, I don’t have it filtered — I have it playin’ normal but without the horn. And it’s in stereo.” Def attributes his ability to give the original sample new texture and energy to his experience as an engineer. “I can do things that not everybody can do,” he says.
“I’m getting up there in age, but I feel young in the soul.”
Whether it’s the newly imagined “Escapizm”, Def’s personal favorites “Supa Heath” and the Raw Poetic-assisted “Night Owls”, or the gorgeous “Bird Flying High”, Night Shift makes for powerful, reflective listen that he suggests experiencing while taking a drive. And though K-Def has double digit releases for Redef Records since Night Shift, he has no plans of slowing down any time soon. “It’s never-ending,” he says. “The creativity and ideas are endless, especially with the technology we have.”
The Jersey native is looking at 25 plus years in the game, but he’s still bringing the same energy and enthusiasm to music that he remembers having when he first got started. “I’m getting up there in age, but I feel young in the soul,” he says.