Story: Courtney Korder-Carreras
Photography: Seth Kushner
Editors Note: A photoshoot and interview were initially completed for the Radar section of the magazine on July 24, 2001. This powerful entertainment powerhouse was moved up to cover star, thus making YRB her first magazine cover ever.
This interview originally appeared in the Fall 2001 print issue.
Tell 20-year-old Alicia Keys that her music is gritty and gutter and she will thank you and say that she appreciates the compliment. Tell her that she has created a movement in music that feels good and powerful and positive and she will begin to grin and express and explain her mission. Tell her she’s a fuckin superstar and that she needs to recognize what everyone else sees and she goes and gets humble on you. Go figure.
Alicia is definitely the talk of the town and they are saying to do something big. I say she’s already doing it. The movement has begun. The sleeping giant has not only been disturbed, that big fat bastard has completely woken the fuck up.
Her first album, Songs In a Minor on J Records is a collection of personal and emotional songs. Already No. 1 on Billboard, knocking Eminem and his pill poppin’ boys D12 right off their blue and yellow purple hill.
The album which was produced, performed, written, and arranged by Ms. Keys except for 2 songs is to be received as the foundation for a collection of material that will follow through the years.
Born and raised between New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, USA Alicia is definitely a product of her environment with a few extras thrown in. She is a classically trained pianist who graduated early from professional performance arts high school due to good grades and started a few a Columbia University before securing a production deal with EMI Publishing 2 years ago.
YRB- You know when I told my friends that I was doing this interview they were complaining.
A- What? Why?
YRB- Because they tried to buy your album and it is sold out in different stores.
A- Oh that’s crazy. That’s bananas to me. That’s a beautiful thing.
YRB- Are you gassed about that?
A- Nah, I’m not gassed. I’m ecstatic.
YRB-That has to be the ultimate right there. Doing what you always wanted to do.
A- The best part is that I am doing what I’ve always wanted to do and worked hard to do and it’s out there and people are receptive. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. It’s a blessing.
YRB-You wrote and produced almost your entire album Did you have to fight for that?
A-Well, I definitely had to fight. Fortunately, I didn’t have to fight this label. I did my fighting before I got to J Records and that’s the reason why I am at J. I had to fight to be respected and be seen as a producer and a writer. With J, I came in already with the songs that I wrote and produced and sang and arranged. I presented them in the manner.
YRB- Do you have a huge archive of songs?
YRB-About how many?
A-I could say 100. I have a lot, including ones that are half done. Hook. One verse.
YRB-A really good melody, a phrase.
A-Exactly. I got this phrase, where am I gonna put it?
YRB-Would you ever consider writing and/or producing other artists?
A- Definitely. That is already in the works. I have a whole crew that’s called Krucial Keys. That’s what we do. That is what we are looking to get into especially now that thing has been able to be completed in this first step.
YRB- What about recording other peoples’ songs?
A- For me it would have to be a really good vibe situation. I would definitely do it, but it would have to be really personal.
YRB- It seems like the songs on your album are very personal, open, and honest. Was that hard for you to final people hear them, especially your mother or grandmother? Or were you just open enough to be like “this is me. it or leave it?”
A- I was open from the door. I don’t think that any of my subjects are different from anything else other people have gone through or felt too. Be it my mother or grandmother, whomever, and I don’t think it was something I had to hide.
YRB- How did you start your first recording experience?
A- I did a demo, my manager and I, his name is Jeff Robinson. We put together a demo of songs that I had written. This was when I was about 15-16. You know we went to real small, dingy, broke-up studios and we put it together and we hooked it up.
YRB-How at 15-16 did you get set up with a manager that was taking you serious?
A- Well since I’ve been 9 I’ve been in different groups. So when I was 13 I was in my last and final group and that group had a vocal coach. I got into different groups because of different situations. My first group came together because some girls I knew that lived in my building were older than me and they were like, “Hey you’re like my little sister and we heard you sing. It would be kinda hot.”
I was like yeah, let’s do it. So that was my first introduction into it and being in that kinda led me to meet other people and when that didn’t work it led me to other people. I just got led into situations by whatever force, being wanting to do it, or being in it, or God or destiny. So my last and final groups’ vocal coach is my present manager’s brother. So he worked with us and worked with me and told him “hey, she plays and she writes. You should come through and come see her.”
He came through and at the time I wasn’t even thinking about being a solo artist but he saw the potential in me and we established a relationship and when the time came that I decided to be a solo artist that relationship was already there.
YRB-Before all that, what was your introduction to the piano?
A- Piano was something that I always loved. In school, I was in kind of a choir and you always sing to a piano. I mean what the hell else, you don’t have nothin’ else, then use the piano.
So I think it was something that I was always around and in strange ways, I was just drawn to it and loved the piano. And being the fact that I have such a bangin’ mother. She was the one that saw my interest in it and helped me take it to the next level.
YRB- Is your mom musical?
A- She is just supportive. Which is definitely a blessing.
YRB- Do you have any brothers or sisters?
A- I do but they weren’t around when I was young. They are much younger than me.
YRB-Are they trippin’ on all this success?
A- Well, Cole is 11, so he’s cool. You know real cool.
YRB- So he thinks so.
A- Exactly. He is very happy and excited.
YRB- Does he ever try to tell you what you should do with the music?
A- Nah, he tells me “you look cool in that.” He likes the clothes. He’s into the clothes.
YRB- Is your mom active in your career?
A- She is definitely there for me. More so to help me, you know on the sides that other people don’t give a fuck. Pardon my french, I don’t know if I can speak like that during this magazine interview, but I will. And I figure by the title it’s ok. She helps me to make my life just a little bit more easy. She’s always been like that.
YRB- When you were growing up were you into the whole b-girl thing?
A- Well, I have never been real girlie girl. I was never one to go and get my hair done r my nails done. I always played keys so I could never get my nails done. So yeah, I guess so in a way I was a b-girl.
YRB- Did you ever get into breaking or rapping?
A- Nah, nah.
YRB- Are you sure? Don’t let me find the lost tapes!
A- Nah, I didn’t do it. I think that was a little bit before me. Before I could get into it hard. I saw it.
YRB-Well I have a few years on you I was definitely exposed to it. I have pictures to prove I was into it. Those the pictures I want to throw away.
A- Nah, those are probably the best you got.
YRB- What was your first reaction when you heard your song on the radio?
A- Oh, I will remember it forever and ever. You know the first I heard on the radio was “Girlfriend.” and it was in New York. Coming back from something it was late night. The studio or something. It was really late. Me and my partner K. He works with me on Krucial Keys That’s my production crew. We was in the car . And a lot f people were like “Yo did you hear it on the radio?” And I was like “Nah, I don’t hear it. They never play it” I never heard it.
We were going some place on the BQE. That we never travel and there was like this twisted construction going on.
YRB- Who’s driving?
A- I’m driving, girl. There’s this twisted construction all over the place. So we n the BQE, we twisted, we lost, we do know where we goin’, what’s the exit? We just all over the place. So we finally turn around ’cause we think we know where we are goin’ now and all of a sudden I hear “This is Funk Master Flex. You need to hear this.” and I friggin hear the chords to “Girlfriend” and I’m like wait, wait, wait a minute…I know that. You know for a minute ’cause you don’t believe it. I thought it was the original. Maybe it’s the Ol’Dirty Bastard joint.
A- Then the song drops and my Flex brought it back like 19 times and dropped 39 bombs on it. I was screaming. I’m like “Oh shit.” I’m about crash into the damn construction. I mean I was so excited that I was about to crash into the stupid construction on the BQE. K’s like “yo chill man, chill. Drive. ”
I was just too excited. So that was the first time I ever heard one of my songs on the radio.
YRB- You will probably remember that forever.
A- I sure will. On the BQE, about to crash.