YouKnowIGotSoul Interview With Michael Keith of 112 (Part 1 of 2)
YouKnowIGotSoul caught up with one fourth of the legendary r&b group 112, Mike Keith, and in Part 1 of the interview discussed his role in the group, some of the songs he wrote that turned into smash hits, and the progression of the group over the course of their five albums.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let me just say it’s an honor to speak with you because you know growing up, I was a big fan of you as part of the group 112, and I’ve always admired your guy’s music, so this is a real treat for me to speak with you.
Mike Keith: No doubt man, the pleasure’s all mine.
YKIGS: If I could just start at the beginning of your career, I know you were discovered down in Atlanta by Puffy and all that, and then you were flown to New York to start recording. What do you remember the most about recording your debut album, “112”?
Mike: What I remember most about recording the debut album was that we didn’t know what the hell we was doing! *Laughs* We had to be guided and we definitely take into consideration that Puff was very instrumental in the development of our first project because like I said before, we didn’t know what we was doing. We was four kids from Atlanta, we had been in Atlanta our entire lives and then all of the sudden we do a 180 and move to New York, so it was kind of a culture shock, a brain fart, it was a cluster f*ck, whatever you wanna call it. But it was all in the development to take us from being kids to grown men. So I think that was the most memorable thing about that, the fact that Puff was really just instrumental in taking us from being these kids who had this mind set about how they were supposed to do it, and dude just came in an destroyed all of that, and then just created this whole new sound, which was this hip hop/r&b thing that a lot of people just take for granted. They just say ok it’s automatically that’s what the sound is, but in our opinion, 112 was very instrumental in creating that sound. A lot of r&b artists weren’t doing the singing over hip hop beats; I think the only other person that was doing it was Mary J. Blige at the time. And you could see the correlation; you could see where it all stemmed from, Mary, 112. So it was definitely that culture shock, but very, very fortuitous.
YKIGS: If I could focus on you for a little bit, some may be unaware, but I’m someone who reads the liner notes, I read the credits. I know you were involved a lot in the writing and co-wrote a lot of the biggest hits for the group. Just tell me about where it is you developed that talent in writing.
Mike: Honestly, I really don’t know where the writing came from, to be honest with you. I had a lot of things going on in my head, and I just put it to a little something. I wouldn’t say I have a natural affinity for writing, what God blessed me with, is if I put my mind towards something, and I know it sounds a little cliché, but if I put my mind towards something, I can do it. If I wanted to do standup comedy, I could do it. If I wanted to go out and be an actor, I could go out there and do that. We all have that ability, but for some reason it just comes natural to me. So, when it was time for me to write, it was just “Mike we need something,” and I would be like “aiight cool.” Like “Peaches and Cream” for example, we was stuck on that song for awhile, and then we just said let’s go outside the box and just create something that’s totally, whatever comes to our heads. And I was like the initiator of putting all of that together, because if you look at “Peaches and Cream,” the melody is not familiar with any other song that 112 did, it was totally different. Because we just said you know what screw it, let’s just see what happens, and that’s what happened. A lot of my creativity comes from me watching a lot of cartoons growing up and just, I was able to watch all kind of things that were silly, just funny shit, funny stuff like Saturday Night Live and cartoons and things of that nature. Anything that made me laugh pretty much, I just sat there and watched that all day. It brought creativity to a lot of my thinking process when it came to writing.
YKIGS: I wanted to get your opinion on something, I think in this digital age especially where people just get MP3s, and people aren’t actually buying physical cds and reading the liner notes and the credits, did you ever feel overshadowed a little bit? As someone who wasn’t one of the main, lead singers in the group, but you did a lot of the writing behind the scenes, did you feel maybe you weren’t getting the credit you deserved at any point?
Mike: I’m going to be honest with you, there were times when I felt like I wasn’t being utilized as much as I possibly could, but I didn’t really look at anybody or anything and pointed at them and said “well this guy is the reason why,” it wasn’t anything like that. It was nothing like that. I understood what the plan was, and still to do this day understand what the plan was, which was the fact was Slim’s voice was the most distinctive out of all of our voices, all of us could sing, but if you heard his voice you automatically associated with 112. We understood what the whole sense of it was. But there were times when I felt like I wasn’t being utilized to the best of my abilities, and it’s all in the sacrifice. I could go out there and try to rock the boat, or I could just keep doing what I’m doing, and we rock out and be one of the most famous groups of the late 90’s, early 2000’s, so which one was it going to be? I chose the latter. Do I regret anything? I don’t regret anything; I don’t regret a move that I made, as far as that goes, because I understood the plan and just scarified and whatever. I learned a long time ago that credit could be given and not taken, so I just looked at it as being God’s way of showing me that it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than the individuals in the group, and if we want to be legendary, then this is what we have to do to in order to do it.
YKIGS: I went back through all of the albums and went through all of the liner notes, and found some of my favorite songs that you had a hand in writing, if I could just mention a few and you could just give me a little background on each.
YKIGS: The first one is “Throw it all Away,” that’s one of my favorites.
Mike: Slim was in the zone at that point, we were towards the end of the album, conclusion of the album. We had started to get a feel for what it took to be in the studio and what Puffy wanted from us as far as songs went. And it was evident at that point that Slim was in the zone. So it was automatic for us to just make him sing the entire song because he was in such a zone at that point. So what I do when I write songs, and when I write records for people, I look at their attributes, and especially knowing these guys as long as I’ve known them, it was easy for me to say, you know what, this is a song that Slim needs to sing by himself, let him take it, he’s in the zone right now, let him kill. It’s one of my favorite songs as well, so mission accomplished on that one.
YKIGS: Another one, and from the “Room 112” album, one of my favorite songs is “Crazy Over You.”
Mike: “Crazy Over You,” I was instrumental in that one, but I think that’s more Daron than anything else. Daron was in the zone as well as far as being a producer, and I think Q and myself came in like towards the end with a bridge, where if you listen to the verses of “Crazy Over You,” and listen to the bridge, you can tell there is a difference as far as the melodies and the tones and things of that nature. That’s because Q and myself came in and wrote on that aspect of it. That just shows the correlation and the camaraderie that we all had and all possessed, we could still come in even though the band had the bulk of the song down, we could come in and just put our part on it and make it sound even better. Definitely, that was one of my favorite songs as well, it’s crazy because that is one of my favorite songs, that’s one of my favorite songs to perform, because I get to go off in the end so.
YKIGS: I was actually going to just ask you, do you have a favorite song you wrote, which is it and why?
Mike: My favorite song I wrote…one of my favorite songs that I wrote, I don’t even think people realize that 112 did the song. It was a song that we did for the “Light It Up” soundtrack, that movie that Usher was in, let me think who else was in it…ole girl from Rosanne, Forrest Whitaker was in it. For the soundtrack, we did a song called “Anything for You.” The funny thing about it is, I actually wrote it on an airplane on our way to a show. How I wrote it, because I was playing around, I wrote it as a country song. Now if you can imagine one of these country singers singing that song the way the song was written, it was written to be a country song. But when we went in and did it country, it sounded too country, it didn’t sound like 112, it sounded like we were going up to Nashville to record the song for CMT or something like that man. It was really a country sounding song. Us being from Atlanta, we originated country. It was too country so we had to pull back on that, make it more r&b, put more of the r&b slow material on it. We had the little sounds, the little guitar and everything, but it just sounded too country. We actually did that song with the intent on making it sound like it was a country record, but it didn’t really pan out the way we wanted it to, but it still came out to be a really good song.
YKIGS: Now if I could get you to comment on the sound of the group. I feel like there was a progression, in the beginning you guys had more of a soulful tone I felt, and then as you mentioned, more of that hip hop soul. In the later albums, I felt it was a little more commercial. Can you just comment on how you feel the group progressed in terms of sound?
Mike: As far as the first album goes, when we first came onto the scene, we were really raw, like I said before we really didn’t know what we were doing. We had to be taught how to do the hip hop/r&b thing because in our mindset the only thing that we were concerned about was r&b. When we grew up and we listened to the music, our sound, a lot of people don’t realize this but a lot of 112 sound stems from two groups: The Commission and Take 6. It was the harmonies from Take 6, and the vocal arrangements and also the vocal production from The Commission, and also their writing style and how they put things together. So we combine the two, and that was the 112 sound. So our whole thing was really into the harmonies at that point, we was really big on harmonies, we knew we could sing the leads, that’s not the problem, we was more concerned about how the harmonies sounded versus how the leads sounded. So that was that first album, if you could go back and listen to that, you could tell we were really into the harmonies and wanted to make sure all of the harmonies and things of that nature were most prevalent in our minds. But as we progressed and as we grew up more into the music industry, we realized that it was going to take a little more than our harmonies to be a mainstay in the music industry. So we started by the second to third album, that’s when you started to hear the evolution of the lead vocal ability of the group. Of course we had been out on the road performing; by that time we had done…we had been on tour with Whitney at that point, we went on tour with The Isley Brothers at that point, and I think New Edition, and Bone Thugs N Harmony. So by that time, we got a little, our chest was poked out a little bit, we got around saying we was these real true to life singers and you couldn’t really tell us about the music game at that point. But you could definitely tell there was a progression as far as the lead vocal ability from the first to the second, to the second to the third. We were more concerned about sticking more leads and being more sexy with it, and we would start growing up and being around the ladies and understanding what they wanted from us and stuff. So the second album was a little bit more sexy than the first album was. The first album was more of a romantic, kind of soul searching romantic kind of feel, one you could just put on for your girl at night and have a little Grey Goose or whatever. But that second one was like, once you have that Grey Goose inside, yall can get into bed and get to it. And that was the progression from the first to the second. From the second to the third, by the third album we wanted our independence. We wanted to be independent from the umbrella that was Puff. At that point we realized that a lot of people looked at it as being Puff was the producer and he was the dude that was orchestrating the entire 112 movement. And we wanted people to know at that point that yea he was instrumental, but at the same time, 112 was the reason why 112 was who we was at that point, vocally and musically. So we set out on a goal to prove to everybody that 112 was the reason why we were so dope on that third album. If you go back and just listen, after I’ve given all of this, I want you to go back and listen to the third album again, you could tell the rebelliousness that we had in our voices. The rebellious nature that we had in the music as well, we were more aggressive on the third album. The whole movement was more aggressive because we had started venturing out, but you’ve got to understand, by the first or second album, it was whatever Puff say to do, we did. But by the third album, we was like f*ck that. We aint doing it like that no more, if it sounds good we gonna listen, but we need to let it be 112 at the same time. So that’s where you get that feel on that third album. The fourth album, we lost our way on that fourth album. We moved from going to Bad Boy to Def Jam, they gave us more money than we ever saw, and we lost our way and when we did the album we weren’t really focused. We felt like “we could do that shit man, we are 112, we could do that, don’t worry about that.” But by the time we looked up and it was time to submit an album, we didn’t really give them everything we could have given. The fourth album in a lot of people’s eyes, even though it went platinum, it was a disappointment because it didn’t have the same effect as the third one. Everyone was anticipating off of that third success that we were just going to bring it, but that didn’t happen. But it did teach us a lesson, we progressed and we knew that we couldn’t play no more. You are only given one shot, so we really couldn’t go out there and play around anymore. So by the fifth album, we were just locked in and it was kind of a redemption. It was kind of like we had matured, we had been through quote, unquote the fire so to speak, and it’s time for us to show everybody that we are a mainstay in r&b and we can rebound from a little disappointment and we can rebound from not necessarily a disaster, but we can rebound from things just like any other group that has the potential to be legendary. So that was pretty much the progression that happened with these albums.
YKIGS: That’s interesting, you definitely gave me something to think about when I go back and listen again, because that gives a whole new perspective.
Mike: That first album was a classic, but a reason why the first album is always a classic, if you didn’t know, because it took however long you started making that album until the point that you lived, that’s how long it took. So for us, it took 17 or 18 years to make that first album. As for all the other albums, it was easy to make those other albums after that, but that first album, we gave it everything we had. From people telling us we couldn’t make it, to yall need to go to college instead, to moving up to New York someobody gonna kill you up there. *Laughs*It’s like all of that stuff, everybody telling us that we weren’t good enough, all of the evil energy, all of the positive energy that was given to us and thrown our way, we took that and molded it into the first album. So that’s why the first one was such a quote, unquote classic, and that’s why the first one had so much heartfelt energy. Because we didn’t know any better, all we knew was to give it our all. By that time we hadn’t lived music industry bullshit yet. For us to go out and do that first album, it came natural. It was more so romantic, it was a more romantic themed album. The second one was more of a sexy feel, that third one was more about our independence, that fourth one was kinda like we lost our way a little bit, and the fifth one was really about redemption, and getting our name back.
Stay tuned for part 2 coming later this week.