On February 10th, 2006, J Dilla died after a prolonged battle with lupus. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, the Detroit hip-hop community was in a state of collective mourning while devoted fans all over the world processed the loss of an icon.
For longtime Dilla devotee and former Detroit resident 14KT, making music was the only way to deal with the passing of his personal hero. “To cope with the death of my favorite producer, who I liked to call my unofficial ‘musical mentor,’ I started making ‘donuts’ …uncontrollably,” he recalled in the liner notes for his 2009 Nowalataz album.
The ‘donuts’ KT referenced were short, raw, loop-heavy instrumentals in the same vein as Dilla’s 2006 Donuts album. With no specific vision or end goal, KT let the creative energy flow through him and made so many Dilla-inspired beats that it’s hard to recall the exact amount now. “I just started making them,” he tells me. “I wasn’t even thinking about putting a project together and putting them out. I was just walking around the house, playing records, hearing something, and then making something out of it.”
“I remember him saying whenever she would cry he would play that record and she would stop crying.”
Using the ultra-limited Cool Edit Pro multi-tracking software, KT started to develop a project that — unbeknownst to him — would become one of the most important of his career. Manipulating the capabilities of Cool Edit on a level few other producers could emulate, KT chopped every single sample and wove together all aspects of each beat within the program.
Looking back on the process now, KT believes the limitations of only using Cool Edit Pro and his record collection pushed him to work his creative muscle in ways that few other setups could. “With Cool Edit man, I always looked at it as a blank sheet of paper,” he explains. “Cool Edit doesn’t come with no sounds. All the software programs now — they come with a bassline, they come with drums, they come with keys, they come with all these different things. But Cool Edit had none of that.”
Though Nowalataz started as a loose collection of beats made as musical therapy, many songs have a unique backstory or personal significance for KT. “Hello”, which builds off of a well-known vocal sample from a legendary recording artist, was constructed after a close friend and collaborator gave birth to his first child. “My homeboy Ro had his first daughter a little bit before Nowalataz came out,” KT explains. “The day he had his daughter I was listening to the record. When he says, ‘she says hello to the world,’ I thought of Ro’s daughter and made that beat and sent it to him — just to him. I remember him saying whenever she would cry he would play that record and she would stop crying.”
“With Cool Edit man, I always looked at it as a blank sheet of paper. Cool Edit doesn’t come with no sounds.”
On “Without”, KT takes a poignant vocal sample from a Detroit artist to pay homage and respect to his beloved city. “I just love the original song so much and I was always singing it around the house,” he tells me. “I guess in a sense it was showing love to Detroit. Without Detroit, without the things that I learned and the vibe, the emotion, and the raw talent that’s in Detroit, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. So that was kind of like me chopping a Detroit record up and saying without your love…just giving a shout out to the D.”
Beyond paying homage to his city and close friends, some of the Nowalataz beats started out as mini-tutorials showcasing his savvy sample chopping skills and production technique. “‘Gee Wiz’ is an example of what I would do with samples when I would load them in Cool Edit,” KT says. “At that time, I had these little settings and things where I could take the vocals out of records. It took me a minute to come up with it and every record was different, but for the most part I had the theory of how to take them out.”
After the “Gee Wiz” beat was initially finished, KT uploaded a version on MySpace with running commentary explaining how he brought different vocal samples in and out throughout the beat, using his own micro-chopping technique to MacGyver a beautiful loop. “I wanted to show people that I could take any piece of any song and make my own loop out of it — pretty much do what I wanted to do with the record,” he says. “It’s kind of like a magic trick.”
When the Donuts-style beats started to pile up after weeks of being in the creative zone, KT burned many of them to CD and erased them from his computer. As 2006 gave way to 2007, he moved on to other creative outlets and eventually stopped making Dilla-style beats altogether. For several years KT’s mini-tributes to his favorite producer sat in a CD binder collecting dust.
“Without the things that I learned and the vibe, the emotion, and the raw talent that’s in Detroit, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
That all changed when he joined fellow former Athletic Mic League members Buff 1 and Mayer Hawthorne on tour a few years later. “One day I was touring with my homies and we were sitting in the van,” he says. “I just discovered this folder and the CDs with all these joints on it and I played it for my friends. They were like, man, you should just put it out.”
Still new to releasing solo albums and fresh off of putting out his Golden Hour project, KT wasn’t quite sure how to package Nowalataz. In the end he decided to release it as a free download in 2009. “I initially gave it out for free and let whoever wanted to listen to it have it,” he says.
The album quickly caught on, receiving a co-sign from some of the biggest tastemakers and music blogs at the time. And much to his surprise, despite the majority of the songs on Nowalataz never being intended for public consumption, the album remains a favorite among fans eight years later. “Ever since that project came out I’ve heard so many stories of how people love the record and are attached to the record,” KT says. “To this day, that’s many people’s favorite project from me.”
After eight years worth of positive responses, KT decided to press the album up on vinyl so his fans could experience his music on wax. “I wanted to press up some vinyl so they have the opportunity to actually own a physical copy and hold it in their hands like a memory,” he says.
“That album still serves as a diary page. I can still remember where I was at, what was going on, and how I felt at that time.”
Revisiting the process behind Nowalataz for the vinyl release has given KT a new appreciation for how influential his Cool Edit Pro years were in his evolution. “It was fun,” he remembers. “I would make a hook out of singing and take a word from here, a word from here, and a word from here and make a whole hook out it. I was doing that just because that was all I had, maybe just that record. I’d just make a beat out of that one record and use everything in that record to create however I needed to.”
Looking back at the ten plus years since he made most of his Donuts-style beats, Nowalataz now feels like a personal journal — a remembrance of his formative years. “That album still serves as a diary page,” 14KT says. “I can still remember where I was at, what was going on, and how I felt. Every time I look at that record I’m like, man, I remember how I was feeling in ’06 and how everybody was feeling at that time.”
Order Nowalataz on vinyl from Fat Beats. Stay tuned for a bonus Nowalataz piece coming soon.