Photo by Daniel Drake, courtesy of somanyshrimp.com
In 2011, when Chief Keef exploded from Chicago star to internet phenomenon, the first video interviews you might have discovered sat him next to DJ Kenn. It was, essentially, a "He's the DJ, I'm the rapper" partnership. And as you learned about their respective histories, Kenn's story was equally, if not more, compelling than Keef's. A Japanese man likes rap and decides to come to the US to make some rap, despite knowing no English. Raised in the Yamagata Prefecture of Japan, Kenn came to New York at 20 and moved to Chicago within a year. He found himself in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country (a YouTube comment on Keef's video for "Bang" reads "The random Asian guy with all the dogs, he is the true gangster in this video. Bang Bang.) and Keef's uncle took him into his home. The rest is history, but his and Keef's paths quickly diverged. Keef went on to sign a multi-million dollar deal with Interscope, while his newer producer Young Chop signed with Warner Brothers. According to Kenn, when the GBE family went to New York to meet with labels, they spoke to him but nothing materialized. Kenn still lives in Chicago, somewhere that he says he can't describe to me "because of safety." Just for reference, these days Keef can be found on one of his ATV's, taking pictures with giddy white girl neighbors at his suburban mansion.
But Kenn is in no way slowing down. With as much tenacity as it took to make a life for himself in America initially, he continues to grow from the roots he planted in the city's scene years ago. Kenn’s “All Or Nothing” YouTube channel dates back to summer 2011, where you can find both the runaway successes as well as the quieter slack of his oeuvre. Coming up through Kenn seems to be a rite of passage for future Chicago-bred stars, so there will always be a regional thirst for the kind of exposure he can (take Sasha Go Hard for example, whose most viewed video to this day was an early DJ Kenn production.
If he had some money, he says, he'd want to get out of Chicago and work with big artists wherever he could. But for now, he's as tied to the city's local talent as ever. He has a production credit on Lil Herb's recent and much buzzed about mixtape release "Welcome To Fazoland," and still works closely with Fredo Santana and the extended GBE family.
But what is perhaps the most compelling element of his current work situation is the couple of Japanese rappers who Kenn has imported to Chicago, named Seeda and DJ Isso.
The above video finds the two of them alternating between Japanese and English, with lines like "Feel like I'm Asian/Feel like amazing!" rising to comprehensibility. The now truly ubiquitous "squad" ad-lib is used liberally and with a phlegmy Japanese accent. The video and track display shades of Keef's "Bang," lyrics and drums chasing each other but never quite meeting. Considering the internet's undying partiality for the Yung Leans of the world, one would think that the above video would have blown up by now, if only by sheer weirdness.
According to Kenn, Seeda and Isso came to Chicago about a year ago. Kenn says Isso is a DJ and A&R, and describes him as "smart and behind the scenes." He refers to Seeda as "top 10 in Japan" in his opinion. With only the slightest amount of searching, one can find a number of Seeda pop-rap songs, dating back to the prior decade.
Of course, videos like above are a far cry from the earlier mentioned, Chicago-inspired "Scars." For the life of me, I couldn't find a single mention of "squad" in any of his older material. This past fall, Seeda released a mixtape entitled "Concrete Green," almost exclusively produced by Kenn, to very few American ears. But what Kenn wants to do now is combine his Japanese imports with his Chicago firepower, perhaps thereby making the foreign more palatable. Apparently, on a new mixtape, Kenn has put together a "few GBE x Japan collabos," though the two parties haven't yet met. Kenn is probably the only person in the world with the power to make this type of rap game particle accelerator come into existence.
Kenn doesn't have much to say about himself. When asked about his personal thoughts on his Chicago experience, or how he was affected by Keef's rise, or even why he chose Chicago in the first place, he doesn't really have the answers. What he can talk at relative length about is what he does. He just does things. His work ethic is self-evident. On top of all the kids he's constantly helping to put on, he says that he's in the process of making his own documentary (about how he “made it happen” since coming to Chicago).
When I ask Kenn about knowing no English when he got here, he responded: "I just learned that shit." When I ask when he started producing, he mishears the question as “why.” His response: "I wanted to do that shit. So I did it." The world of DJ Kenn is one of binary: there is shit, and it will be conquered, even if no one notices.
Episode six of Noisey's Chiraq doc is out right now. You can watch it here.
Alexander Gleckman is an engineer by day and writer by night. He's on Twitter - @_alex_russell