We recently caught up with Keith Pelzer for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we touched on how he originally joined Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch of Jazz collective, working on the debut albums of Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott and Floetry, the success of the producers/songwriters who came out of A Touch of Jazz, his time after leaving the studios, and what he’s currently working on.
Keith Pelzer: In short, I’m a church kid. Like most Philly guys, we are some type of church kid. I grew up in a traditional old black Baptist church. Fatin from Kindred the Family Soul, his grandfather was an old deacon at our church. He was a guitar player and could sing off the hook. So I guess that’s where he got it from. But I learned how to play off of him and my grandfather.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Tell us how you landed at A Touch of Jazz studios with DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Keith Pelzer: If you take all six of us. Andre Harris, Vidal Davis, Darren Henson, Ivan Barias, Carvin Haggins and myself. Then you add six more guys that didn’t make it through. Then add James Poyser and Vikter Duplaix and you’ll get the whole angle of it. Then you’ve got to add DJ Jazzy Jeff. My version is, I ended up meeting Jazzy Jeff in 8th Street Music store in Philadelphia. I didn’t know exactly who he was, he invited me down to the studio. I met James Poyser and he knew him. Then I started hanging out at the studio before it become A Touch of Jazz that most people in Philly know it for. Jazzy Jeff had the studio up at Gladwyne, Pennsylvania before he decided to move it to Philly. When he decided to move, Vidal Davis, Carvin Haggins and myself, the three of us were hanging. Then we got Andre Harris, and Darren Henson and Ivan Barias came from Atlantic City. They already knew Jeff and had a relationship. Then we all just ended up being those six guys that stayed in the race and we got it done.
YouKnowIGotSoul: So there were originally another six guys in addition to the six guys we know?
Keith Pelzer: Yea, it wasn’t like a tryout. There were only two rooms at the time. Somehow, they didn’t fit. Vidal and Dre had a brother relationship and we all knew each other from church. Darren and Ivan were from Atlantic City together. Carvin was already down with a crew and holding his own. The six of us kind of just ended up being the last six out of 12 dudes and more. It was a lot of guys hanging around.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was the environment like at A Touch of Jazz.
Keith Pelzer: When I say it was the best. Even now, I do a show on Facebook, and every now and again, when I have musicians or artists on there, people always look for us to be able to give that story of what it was like. To me, it was the best experience. You can’t remake that and you can’t trade it. You take the good, the bad, the ugly, the regret and the blessing, and say it was what it was. It was really one of those things I call a cool competition. We weren’t like thieves to each other. Somebody had something the other guy didn’t have and we brushed off each other and did what we felt. Shout out to Jill Scott, her album is “Words and Sounds”, we were great with our sounds, she was great with her words. Carvin and Darren were the exception, they did lyrics. Ivan did lyrics a bit. The other three we didn’t do them. We had sounds. Whether it was knocking on the door, recording somebody screaming, brushing something making a beat, we made music out of it. People started to take notice.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was your first placement at A Touch of Jazz?
Keith Pelzer: My first placement was for Tatyana Ali. That’s a song that Darren Henson, Tia Mintze and myself did. It started as a track I was just doing by myself. I was working on it with Tia and I had her sing this R&B song on there. I wasn’t really into beats, I’m a keyboard player. Darren jumped in on the track and threw this dope crazy beat on there, and we ended up doing production together. Will Smith was actually working on his album. I hadn’t landed on his album, but he wanted that song for Tatyana Ali. We didn’t want to give the song up, but we gave it up and got that placement. That was really the first one.
YouKnowIGotSoul: From reading liner notes, it looks like you partnered with Darren Henson a lot. How did that partnership form?
Keith Pelzer: The thing that made A Touch of Jazz so unique was, I think we coined partnership with producers. You had Tone & Poke, LA Reid & Babyface, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. But then, we ended up taking on that identity as well. We did it because Jazzy Jeff had the studio. Darren had his own drum machine, I had my own equipment. Darren and I collaborated because we were independent. We each had our stuff. We didn’t need the studio, but the studio was a blessing. It was only two rooms. You had six guys, with two rooms. So when you go to make a track, it’s first come first served. If I’m sitting in the studio and someone else wants to work but I’ve got the room first, you are SOL. What we did was get to know each other so we knew what each other was lacking. We did it together and it was working. After that, we would get more work done like that. I was heavier on the engineering side. I’d be the keyboard guy, and then it was easier to work with someone who knew beats or drums. Then I could write lyrics, but they were corny to me! They were sappy. I said let me just do the music and work with someone who could write. Production wise, two heads were better than one. That’s how you ended up getting Darren & Keith, Carvin & Ivan, Dre & Vidal. The crazy thing about all six of us is, if you look at Darren and I, it’s more so keys and drums. Then you have the other dynamic. He’s lyrics, I’m melody. Look at Dre and Vidal, where both of them can play keys, Andre at the time wasn’t playing guitar but he can play everything now I think. Then you have those two who are both drummers. You had Andre who was called lazy Dre, and Vidal was more of a technical guy like me. Myself, Vidal and Ivan were three technical people. It’s not that Carvin, Dre and Darren weren’t, it’s just that we were easier to do it. Everybody collaborated that way and it’s kinda like whatever your strength is, you do that in the session.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’ve heard that A Touch of Jazz was just kids creating good music. Nobody was telling them what to do, they were just creating. Was that what it was for you?
Keith Pelzer: Yea basically. We were young. The one thing that’s never really told when people interview us, it’s not that we miss it, it’s really that we were all somebody before we came to the table. If we don’t say that, then people will say Jeff made us. Everybody had something they brought to the table. We could all be something great together, but we were all somebody before.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What do you remember about first meeting Musiq Soulchild at A Touch of Jazz.
Keith Pelzer: Let me say this on record. We’ve all been through a lot, all of the guys. However, let the truth be told, I love to tell the story this way. Carvin ended up being the guy that says “I really don’t do anything, I’m a rapper”. But he hadn’t really established himself as a writer yet. As a producer we were trying to get the big name writers on our music. Nobody was really checking Carvin out right now. So when we had our big meeting at Jeff’s house and we went back to the studio, I will say this. I will let Carvin tell his side. Carvin used to come to my house and when the studio was crowded, we’d still write songs in the basement. But Carvin’s pen was getting better. His pen was great as a rapper but not yet as a singer. Also because he can’t sing, it wasn’t getting there. Musiq was a blessing when he found him. He didn’t really write, but he had a swag to him. We were unsure about him, his tone was a little off. We said nah. My version and I stand to be corrected. We would have the DAT tapes and we’d have our own box where we made our tracks on. Carvin would come into the room and want to write to our tracks. I was kinda shady about it. I wanted to put those beats on bigger names. We kinda were shutting Carvin down. What he’d do is take the DAT and jack our tracks, and cut to it with Musiq. We started to get a little pissed as a collective. Then after awhile we thought he was onto something. Musiq had a flow. If it wasn’t money coming across, it wasn’t a big deal though. So Jerome Hipps and Michael MacArthur, Mama’s Boys. They were managing Musiq. I think what happened was they ended up getting with Def Jam and getting a buzz. Then we knew he was about to get a deal. All of the sudden we were going to Carvin with tracks! Now everything changed. The good thing is, Carvin had a great heart and wasn’t spiteful. We were still family. I was kinda working with Carvin even when everybody else wasn’t. We weren’t frontin, but it wasn’t priority, but then it became a priority. I have a CD in my car with unreleased Musiq Soulchild stuff that nobody has ever heard! I’ve got about 5 songs we wrote, it’s incredible.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about creating the song “143” on Musiq Soulchild’s debut album “Aijuswanaseing”.
Keith Pelzer: I was a good guy at the missing link stuff. You had the other guys who were great at just creating great stuff. I was more targeted because of my skill set with music. Musiq was already rolling, Carvin was already rolling with the guys. I think he got what he needed from Ivan and Andre. They were looking for a Stevie Wonder type of vibe. So the inspiration for that was, I took out of all of the church music I knew, I put progressions together that would do it. Carvin and Musiq were talking about a song that was very creative. Remember when you used to say “143” for I Love You on the pager? We did that. We wanted to do a song like that. When they were talking it, I could hear it while I was playing it. That’s how it basically came together. It was just sitting around playing on the Rhodes. If somebody were to do a film on all of us, it would be funny to see Carvin. Whenever he was singing, he’d always have Skittles or M&M’s or something and shake it! *Laughs* He can’t sing, but dope singers can listen to him and get an understanding! It’s something about his heart and the way he would go at it. It didn’t matter if his tone was off, you could feel it and keep creating from it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You also worked with Musiq Soulchild on the song “Keep it Real” which was on the Rush Hour II soundtrack. How did that come together?
Keith Pelzer: That was after the first album. They wanted to do something with Redman. I was thinking Darren or Ivan were the hip hop guys, they were DJ’s so they knew records and beats. I had a loop to start rolling with. I took the loop, but they wanted it to sound like a Musiq Soulchild song. But I thought, this is Redman! I started doing the music and got the track together and they liked it. They wanted to make sure it was soulful. I thought they wanted it like New York hip-hop! I actually played the music all the way down on that. The instrumentation was played straight through.
YouKnowIGotSoul: On Musiq Soulchild’s second album “Juslisen” you produced “Religious”. Talk about that one.
Keith Pelzer: Now that one, you’ve got to unpack by interviewing Darren Henson. He is the mastermind at picking out samples. He knew how to manipulate them real good. Because I had the keys skills, Darren would play a lot of hip hop stuff. Loops and stuff people would loop. He knows how to influence my ear to get me to kind of play a rendition of it. When it came time for Musiq’s second album…think of it like this. You had Jill’s first album, Musiq’s first album, Floetry’s first album, I’ll forever love those in my heart. The struggle came in on everything after that. We had got into the real world. You kinda lost that back in the day feel. It was more like you had to bring it. Thank goodness Darren had that loop. When we had the opportunity, we were reached out to with a spot on the album, we were family. I really had nothing for it. Carvin & Ivan were in the zone, Vidal and Dre were doing their thing. Other people were coming at Musiq. But Darren kind of saved us on that. He had that knock that they didn’t have on the rest of the album. It was easy for me to build over top of the loop. Of course the writing between Carvin and Musiq.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What do you remember about working on Jill Scott’s first album “Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1”? You had placements on there as well.
Keith Pelzer: Again, my version, because Jill will probably kill me! What I remember is, Jill was hanging out down in the studio with her friend. She is somebody that is already special before we met her. She was already doing her thing, she was big time in my eyes. But she was hanging around, but we were overlooking her as an artist. It was one of those things I wish I knew then what I know now. I think if I got my story right, I think Vidal Davis was the first one to cut a record. I think he did “A Long Walk” with her. The way we were with the 6 guys, if you came down to the studio and you sang, one of us would take a chance and cut a song. If we got it right, then everybody is trying to cut with you. Then we start going. Once the ice was broken on Jill, I think Jeff told us we better work with her. Before that we kept telling him we’d get to it, everything else was priority. Once we heard that first thing pop off, we were ready. Then we just started making songs. The one thing I love about her is, it was always a conversation. Every dope song came from some kind of conversation. One thing I remember about Jill, you couldn’t just play her tracks. If you weren’t having a conversation with her, it was not gonna work. She wasn’t just picking tracks. It was like we were talking and laughing, and then you hit something on the keys, and she’d like it. Then you build on it and it grows. Then you go into the booth. Then you have the song. That whole album, that’s why it’s called “Words & Sounds”. She would just pull out her poetry notebook and go in and do something she wrote long ago. Next thing you know she’s singing something dope.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about Floetry next. You had the single “Floetic” on the group’s debut album.
Keith Pelzer: The funny thing about these girls. Shout out to James Poyser and Vikter Duplaix at their studio at the time. The best I remember is, they had these two girls. They didn’t know what to do with these two girls from London. Jeff said to send them over to the studio. Jazzy Jeff had his room around the hall. He introduced us to these two girls. The four of us were sitting there. It was these two nice looking London chicks but they had that tom boy thing going on. It wasn’t like the Philly girl look. They were basketball players, they were wearing shell top Adidas! So we asked them what they did! Natalie said she is the Floacist, and Marsha said she’s the Songstress. So we figured out one rapped and one sang. So we tried to figure out what type of song to cut with them. We wanted to make a song to tell people who the hell they are! That’s something Darren and I were going to do. Before we go anywhere, we had to find out what they do and how do we explain it to everybody. We took the time and that’s what we did. The track actually was, Darren had his car and we’d ride up to New York going to Masta Ace’s party. Darren is the hip hop guy. He’s playing the sample in the car, and I thought we should flip it. Not knowing we’d meet these girls. So when we met them, we pulled that up and started messing with it, and they wanted to go with it. What I did was, I took that old Keith churchy boy bass line. That was the whole song.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Any songs you did you are particularly proud of that we didn’t mention?
Keith Pelzer: I don’t have the discography like the other guys. Darren has one of the best party songs on Lil’ Kim, “No Matter What”. The funny thing about that is, I did a Latin song called “La Fiesta” on Will Smith’s album. We went to New York and I made a remix for that song. Back in the day, you wanted to cash in on as much as you could. You wanted to get the single and also make a remix to get a paycheck. We went up loaded. Darren had this track in the chamber. He puts it on in New York and Lil’ Kim and them went bananas. Will liked my remix too but he never used it. But when they heard the beat for “No Matter What” everybody was going nuts. He won New York. He’s got that one. Andre has got “Is It the Way” for Jill Scott. Vidal has got the Kenny Lattimore joint “Days Like This”. Ivan’s got the Musiq Soulchild. But here is my thing, “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” by Jill Scott, that’s my song. You know what really blessed my heart. They had it on the Verzuz battle. Of course, I didn’t get my shout out. No problem. But, the crazy thing is, every time I go to a show, it’s like the crowd is waiting on that song. I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs because once that first chord goes in, then it’s all pure. That song, Larry Gold with the strings on there. The whole experience of that song is like this. My dad passed in 2008. He was the pastor at the time, I was sitting at the organ at church. At an old black Baptist church, you’re sitting while the pastor is talking. My dad is talking and I started playing that song, and then I was thinking as soon as church was over, I’d go to the studio and record it. That song from my dad talking, to going to the studio in my suit, to lighting the incense to smoke up the room. Then Jill walks in and said she liked it, wanted to write to it. I went into the other room with Darren and Carvin, and we are playing Sega Genesis. She calls me back to listen to what she recorded. She hit the play button, and I told her to go right into the booth. We cut that song. I didn’t think it was going to make the album, but it became one of the favorites. It is one of her most well known songs. Second one is “Cross My Mind” which I did with Darren Henson.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about where things took you after you left A Touch of Jazz.
Keith Pelzer: When we got out of there. The six of us we all basically, this was the last huddle. In that huddle, we all ended up with an attorney. We got out of our situation with Jazzy Jeff. Once we got out of there, everybody kind of went in two’s. My partner was Darren Henson. We were managed by Herb Quarterman. We had Troy Carter. You got him and J. Irving, managing us. We ended up getting a publishing deal in 2005. We worked on Floetry’s sophomore album, on Jill Scott’s live album, some Musiq stuff. Faith Evans, Patti LaBelle, Earth Wind & Fire, Kem “Love Calls My Name”. We worked on a lot of stuff. We kept busy and then I accepted my calling to preach in 2005. It put a monkey wrench in everything. Then we ended up in another legal battle situation. Royalties, you’ve got to keep up with them. That took me out of the vibe of stuff. I’m pretty much indebted to Darren. I don’t think I held up my side of it, dealing with my spiritual side. I did enjoy that environment of 6 guys. It’s nothing on Darren. Then we had to leave out of our studio situation, and we ended up at Sigma Sound. Then that building got taken over and foreclosed. It was just so much going on.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Tell us what you’re currently working on?
Keith Pelzer: I’m back on the music now. Actually before Covid hit, I’ve been quietly getting things going and getting my feet wet again. The whole landscape has changed. Once music started getting simple again, and I don’t want to sound like the older guy saying music sucks, I understand it. When they were having these Instagram battles, it was dope to hear the Babyface/Teddy, the Erica/Jill. Now you got Alicia and John Legend. It’s kinda like there is this whole era of music that came out that you don’t have going on right now. It’s like this dead space in there. Now music never stops. If you’re good at it, you’re good at it. Out of nowhere, you can just pop back in and just get in there. I’m very optimistic about forward movement with it.