Interview: DJ Kay Gee – The R&B Side of Naughty by Nature
Since the early 90’s, hip-hop group Naughty by Nature has developed a legacy as one of the greatest to do it in the genre. However, behind the scenes, the group’s producer DJ Kay Gee has always been deeply rooted in r&b music. After starting his Divine Mill record label in the 90’s, he discovered and signed acts like Zhane, Next, Jaheim and Koffee Brown, as well as helped to develop Noel Gourdin. Additionally, he’s also produced for countless r&b artists through the years such as Aaliyah and many others. His history in r&b runs deep, and his contributions to the genre are countless. YouKnowIGotSoul caught up with him to discuss his roots in r&b, the stories behind signing each of the artists to his label, his current projects, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’re known for your work with Naughty by Nature and your success with group in hip hop over the years, but on the production side of things you’ve done a lot of hits in r&b. Where are your roots in r&b?
Kay Gee: R&b started for me as a little kid growing up. My parents were from the south, so we’d go down and visit their family in the summer all of the time as youngsters. My father would just play his tapes all the way on the long ride down there, the 12-14 hour drive, he would just play all of the classics. That introduced me to music from there from Sam Cooke to Marvin Gayne to The Sound of Philadelphia to Teddy Pendergrass to Luther Vandross to the Jackson 5, everybody. He would play all of the records. I just learned those records growing up.
YouKnowIGotSoul: After you had some success with Naughty by Nature in the early 90’s, you came across and discovered Zhane. Talk about that whole experience.
Kay Gee: It goes back to growing up, I was introduced to r&b early. So my roots and everything that I’m about start with r&b. It was kinda shocking to everybody that my first artists would be r&b but not really to me. If you think about Naughty by Nature’s productions, they’ve always been r&b heavy, there’s always been a lot of musical stuff, a lot of keys and piano driven stuff. My love has always been in r&b so it was always fitting that the first group I put out was an r&b group. I came across them when they dropped their demo off down at the office and a girl by the name of Les Scott was like “Yo Kay, some demos came in, you should check these demos out.” She gave them to me and I just checked the demos out over at the office and Zhane stuck out to me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your label Divine Mill and how it came together and how you started it.
Kay Gee: Divine Mill started with me as a producer as a whole. It started off as Illtown and it evolved and developed into Divine Mill. I’ve always wanted to be behind the scenes and I do my part as the DJ/Producer and the member of Naughty by Nature but I’m a lot more laid back. At the same time, it’s all about evolution and it’s all about growth and it’s all about maintaining and having that stability to maintain. I’ve always knew that I could most likely be a producer or be an executive or be a manager or something behind the scenes a lot longer than you can in the front. It’s just how it is. From day one, I’ve always worked towards that and I’m still working towards that and I just knew coming out of the box that I had to start building from day one. That’s where I started with Illtown and it grew into Divine Mill. I’m still here to this day working on developing new artists and keeping my name out there on the production side. At the same time, it’s always a lot more fruitful and a lot more impactful when you develop artists of your own from scratch.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about how you discovered the group Next.
Kay Gee: It’s the same exact thing. I was once on that side as well, people would get demo tapes and people would send in tapes hoping people would listen or running up on artists hoping that they would give them a chance. I was once on that side. Some people gave us a look or a chance and a lot of people didn’t. I always remembered that. A lot of times I tried throughout my career if I got something to always listen to it and give it a chance if I had time. At least try to find time to give somebody a chance if they ran down on me. Looking at even us, if they didn’t check us out, I was like “They don’t know what they’re missing”. I knew that if you don’t give that artist or that demo tape or cd a chance, you might be missing something. I’ve always done that and that’s how I was able to find Zhane and that’s how I was able to find Next and Jaheim. I was able to find all of them by doing the same concept for what I believed in. Next was just another one of those cases where we were in Minnesota, I ran across T-Lo from Next and he came up to me. They were a group called Straight Forward at the time and he was like “Yo, we’re a group called Straight Forward and we’ve got a great following out here.” I asked one the DJs and he knew of them and said they were pretty good, so I said “Alright cool.” So I got a tape from them and I checked it out. I checked the tape out and I felt like it was well put together. I felt like I wanted them to finish what they started along with me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You worked with Next on all three of their albums. What do you remember most about working with them and helping them develop as a group?
Kay Gee: I remember from day one, R.L. wasn’t developed as a writer, but I knew he had potential. He was trying and trying and trying. At the end of the day he had that work ethic that was off the charts. He would come early, first one there, last one to leave. “Butta Love” was one of his first records and one of the main ones he had did. I felt like at the time it kinda sounded like R. Kelly’s records and his style a little bit and not really Next that much. I did like it. As I started listening to it more and putting it in my ear, I fell in love with it just like they did. That was the beginning of R.L., he just needed his chance. From there his confidence grew and he just got better and better and better.
YouKnowIGotSoul: And he’s still doing it today as well.
Kay Gee: Yea, he’s still doing it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Another artist you discovered was Jaheim. You talked about finding his demo, so what was he like when you first met him and what was the process like developing him into a star?
Kay Gee: Jaheim was as raw as any artist I ever worked with. He was just young, looked like a rapper, didn’t really care or know too much about the business, nothing at all. Just a dude with raw talent that could sing. He didn’t even know nothing about it. When I first heard his demo tape, we had a store called The Naughty Store where we sold the Naughty gear and all of that down in Newark. He dropped the demo tape down there. I would come and get the boxes and all of that and listen to the tapes. I heard this one tape by Jaheim from New Brunswick. I listened to it and it was this dude singing Luther Vandross. It was a 17 year old Jaheim and I thought “This dude can’t be no 17!” I played it over and over and over again and finally I called the number and told them to bring him down so I can meet him. When I saw him, he was raw, really rough around the edges, jeans, timbs and a t-shirt on, didn’t even look at me really too much, was shy. He didn’t even really care about music too much, he didn’t have too much to say. You know how most people want to sell themselves like “I can do this, I can do that”, he didn’t have too much to say. I was just looking at him like “I can make this guy 8 to 80” meaning that I can make him appeal to kids from 8 years old all the way to an 80 year old woman because of his voice. With him being so young, he can appeal to the younger people and the voice is going to grab the older people. That’s the way I went with it from the beginning. As I started working with him more, he just started understanding a little bit more and he would just sing all day and get on everybody’s nerves! He would walk around with a radio all day just singing, they started calling him “radio man” or something like that. He would just walk around with a radio all the time. He was around just as long as Next and everybody was, but like I said, he was just so rough around the edges he had to develop way more than they did. Next came with a producer, they were already polished, they were already doing shows, so they were ready to go. It kinda pissed him off because he felt like “I don’t think you believe in me, why haven’t I come out yet, everybody else has come out and I didn’t.” I was like “Jah, you’re just not ready yet, when it comes time you’ll be ready. Once you get your chance, you’re probably not going to stop, the type of artist you are. It’s coming”. Here we are, he’s the last one but he’s still going.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve contributed to each of his album through the years. Do you still have plans of working with him in the future?
Kay Gee: Unfortunately it’s just so much political stuff going on whether it’s from record companies and guys working on each project to everybody wanting to replace me and do what it is that I do. Everybody wants to be in his ear and try to do what I’ve done from day one. Jaheim wants to be a producer now and I guess a lot of people give him that comfort to say “I’ll do this with you and allow you to say you’re the producer” or doing whatever, and that’s fine with me. You want to grow? Everybody deserves a chance to grow, and I think it’s at time when he can spread his wings and grow. That’s what he’s evolved into for the last couple of albums, my role has been less and less. Even with this album, supposedly there are two tracks that I did on there, I haven’t heard the tracks to this day.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Wow, that’s unfortunate.
Kay Gee: Well that’s reality, that’s how it is. A lot of these artists out here they haven’t even put their first album out yet and they want everything. They want to write every record, they want to produce every record. My first thing that I’m always telling them all of the time is have some success first. I’ll expect that from you on album two or three after you’ve had some success, but not on album one. Sell records first then start acting ridiculous.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Another artist you discovered and worked with is Noel Gourdin. Talk about discovering him and working with him.
Kay Gee: I didn’t actually discover Noel, he was actually brought to me by my man TO from up in Rhode Island. TO is always bringing me talent and all of that. He actually called me yesterday and told me he’s got two other artists for me. It’s the same thing again, you always gotta give it a shot because you never know. There’s certain people when they do call you, you at least definitely gotta check it out even if it’s not your cup of tea at the time because you respect what they bring to the table. TO came to me with Noel and said “Yo Kay listen, I’ve got this artist, we’ve got something on the table”. We started working with him and developing him and I started helping out a little bit with it and they ended up signing him over at Sony. We did a couple of records on him. He’s not my artist, he’s TO’s artist, but he’s somebody that I helped develop with TO and we helped get a situation. Another great artist and great talent and singer as well. That’s what I’m into, I’m into real r&b, straight r&b.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I’d like to get some background on a few songs you produced and the history on it. The first one is Aaliyah’s “A Girl Like You”.
Kay Gee: That was great. I remember going into the studio and her being there with her parents and her brother. She was young so her whole family was always with her, her uncle Barry Hankerson was there, Jomo Hankerson was there, the whole family was there. Another one, great talent, a bright light that would light up the room, shy but was a star. They all came in and were like “You guys have got your flavor and we have ours, but we come to you as a producer because we want you to do what it is that you do. Give me one of those records that you do.” We did something that did. We actually did two records on her at that time, the other one was on a soundtrack [“Are You Ready”]. It was a great experience, it was fun doing it. We enjoyed ourselves working with her.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about the creation of Jaheim’s “Anything” with Next.
Kay Gee: That one goes back to us just in the studio. I had a studio in my back house and they all used to literally live in there. They slept in there while we worked on their projects. Jaheim, Fonz from Koffee Brown and Next. That’s why I said when I showed up in the morning, R.L. was the first one up, he had the MPC on and everything, didn’t know what he was doing, but just had it on trying to learn what he was doing. “Anything” was actually a record that we did for Next, R.L. wrote it. That’s why Next is on there. Next had so many records at that time that I just was like “Let’s just do this record on Jaheim featuring Next”.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You mentioned Koffee Brown and they didn’t have as much success as some of the other acts on your label. Do you feel like they should have had more success than they did?
Kay Gee: They would have if they wouldn’t have broken up before they started. Even before we got the chance to even do the first video for “After Party”, that group was already disbanded and on its way out of there. So we said “Let’s save face, we’ve at least got to shoot the video”. It was tough. I was mad about that whole project because I feel like it was a great project and idea and it could have gone a long way. I feel like it’s still missing in r&b even today. They’re missing that fly guy and that fly female, those two together. I was actually just working on a project not too long ago, trying to put a new Koffee Brown together. I had a group I was doing called Melissa Malone. That fell apart as well, I dunno, this whole thing with guy and girl. The only one that kinda had a chance to work like that was Kindred the Family Soul and that’s because they’re married. When you guys appear to be a couple and come across as you’re not, it’s rough. You’ll have the guy who has his own girl, and the girl who has her own guy, then they have that friction with each other and it’s just tough.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What projects are you currently working on and what artists have you worked with recently?
Kay Gee: I did a track on Ledisi’s last project. I did something on Yolanda Adam’s last holiday album. I’ve been working on my own stuff. I’ve actually did some new stuff for Noel Gourdin. I did the two songs on Jaheim’s album. I’ve been developing new artists. I’ve got a new artists I’ve been developing for a little while now that I’m starting to really push out now, I think they’re really ready to go out there, this group called Elite. It’s kinda like r&b/hip hop. I got a mixtape coming from them soon. I did a record with them with the Fun “We Are Young” record, I took that and made it into a hip hop record and we shot a video on that. I got another record that’s about to come out, I’m getting ready to set them off. It’s not traditional r&b, it’s more of the younger r&b, it’s two singers and one rapper. The music is like, if you think about everything about what Chris Brown does from the uptempo to the dance records to the hip hop to the pop/r&b records, it’s all of that. It’s Chris Brown with a group, that’s what it’s about.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’ve been talking about “Next” throughout the interview and you produced their number one single “Too Close” which was a crossover hit that made them a household name. Did you guys ever expect that song to become as big as it was?
Kay Gee: Yes. *Laughs* I knew that using the Kurtis Blow sample, the DJs in my world would love this record, they know it’s a classic record already, they’re going to spin it as soon as they hear that top part. Then even the lyrical content and everything about the record, I knew it was going to be a really, really good record. I didn’t know exactly if it was going to be a monster like it was, but I knew it was going to be a good record.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
Kay Gee: Just look out for my new group Elite, they’ll be coming soon. Look out for the new video.