Kiefer is passionate about sharing his process - “This is my life's passion. I love talking about this stuff. It's my favorite thing!” But let’s be clear, this is not a passion of self-reflective, navel-gazing inquiry into only his own process, the LA-based artist is passionate about exposing how music works for anyone. He wants to open doors for other musicians and aspiring musicians the same way your favorite YouTuber might talk about how you too can become an expert ceramicist. In fact, Kiefer might be your new favorite YouTuber, on top of being the producer of an album that can suit nearly every mood. The album, It’s Ok B U, his fifth since 2017, could be heard as a manifesto as much as the title, both carrying the banner of his aesthetic mission, and his message for aspiring musicians.
Learning how to “B U” has taken some work, according to Kiefer. As a teenager, he struggled with doubt about his own prospects for achieving anything as a musician. He would pick up music, and quit, try again and quit soon after. “I think one of the reasons why I quit…there was this belief that was instilled in me, not intentionally, it was a thing [I heard] ‘Either you got it or you don’t.’ That's a phrase that was so common when I was a kid, and now people don't say it anymore, and that's good.” This misperception of the importance of “talent” as an arbiter of musical skill instilled doubt in young Kiefer. It’s a barrier he managed to overcome and now works hard to erase for anyone who will listen to his music or watch his Youtube channel.
He recounts a breakthrough that came via a simple insight from a teacher asking him to try a new skill, “I was like, No, because I can't do it. He's like, well, that doesn't make any sense. You know you can just practice that, right? I was like, really? He was like, yeah, dude, just practice it.’ I needed to have a teacher kind of explain to me what an exercise looks like and what a practice routine looks like, and what organizing a practice routine looks like and setting goals and trying to achieve them. And also a teacher that could tell me, you can do this. Just basic level encouragement; this is something you can do if you want to do it, and without pretending the problems don't exist. Encouraging me. The operative word in there being courage.”
This revelation about the power of practice, exercises and goal-setting placed Kiefer on a course that has brought him to a career as both a solo artist and producer as well as a collaborator with some major credits. He worked on Anderson.Paak’s Ventura, which won a Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2020, and his credits include work with Drake, Kaytranada, Mndsgn and Terrace Martin. It’s Ok, B U his new album on Stones Throw, is his fourth for the label since signing in 2018. The album is a heady combination of swaggering beats, soulful jazz progressions and playfully improvised melodies. While streaming services are a sea of ‘chill lofi beats for studying’ the album steamrolls into brain-twisting piano solos riding atop crunchy drums and low-slung funk bass. The grooves slide from vibey mellow meditations to off-kilter boom-bap occupying the terrain of the jazz domain many in the genre live to sample. By providing a broader mood palette than just “chill” it shares a voice that is unique to this Californian hip-hop and jazz fan - an album that is neither jazz nor hip hop, but rather a personal and individual alchemy of the two.
As of this writing, Kiefer has nearly 17k subscribers on his YouTube channel @kiefdaddysupreme where he divides his contributions between the requisite tour and album announcements, vibe-heavy jam sessions with other top-flight players, and a slew of insightful, disarming and illuminating videos breaking down how he became a better player, composer and producer. A visualizer video of his new single sits next to a video exhorting viewers towards “Important Scales to Know - Piano Labs with Kiefer.” The combination of both sides of his creative output leans into Kiefer’s passion for music and for helping others demystify it. “I think [coming from] a point in my life where I [was] convinced this is impossible, to [realizing] ‘Oh, wait, this is actually possible. There were some narratives that were wrong.’ So, that became a lifelong passion to try to dispel some of those things and just telling people, no, you can do it. You just got to practice it, and you got to figure out how your brain works and how you like to practice and what your process looks like and what your musicianship looks like and design a way to do it. And that's so much fun. Once you start doing it, and every person has their own way of doing it. So fascinating.”
While his YouTube channel reflects a passion for mapping every available route up the mountain of becoming a great musician, his own music productions reflect a depth of interest equally broad as his skills are deep. His new album flits across the pages of the 20th century stylebook. Hip hop is the lingua franca, a clear entry point, but jazz is at the core. Beatmaking has been at the center of his musical endeavors since his early teens.
“I remember my sister one summer… had a boyfriend at the time who visited with her from college, Sam. Shout out Sam. And he showed me Dilla's music and Madlib and he made me these mix CDs that were awesome and MF Doom, those were the three musicians that he was really into. And yeah, I was just really hooked.”
Beats that were influenced by Dilla find their way into It’s Ok B U as do a lot of hip hop compositional ideas that, despite the hooks not being samples, still point back to the same structures. “Yeah, I think structurally, that's a hip-hop thing. Right. It's a lot of four-bar loops, a lot of eight-bar loops. Very simple structures that I work with. I can't say it really comes from anything else that I'm aware of. I'm pretty sure it's just hip-hop. It's a lot of Dilla. It's a lot of Pete Rock, especially Pete Rock, I think. But then I think maybe the harmonic choices or the melodic choices are a little bit more diagonal. I have some more jazzy, maybe weirder phrasing and things that maybe Pete Rock wouldn't choose to sample, or maybe he would, I don't know… Melodically, I think about Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter a lot, those are probably two of the biggest. There's Egberto Gismonti, who's this Brazilian composer that doesn't get talked about. I love his music so much. I feel like melodically, my inspiration's come from everywhere. It's Chopin. It's Brad Mehldau. It's everything, Madlib - I love the stuff that he samples, his melodic sense. And his sampling is really amazing. There's so many different composers that I've taken from over the years; Miles Davis. A pianist named Mulgrew Miller is a big one for me. Kenny Kirkland. Kenny Werner is another pianist I love a lot.”
Many jazz-trained musicians have found ways to bridge the advanced harmonic and melodic ideas of the art form with contemporary genres and modes of production. However, records styled for their times but anchored in jazz theory have had mixed success. So it’s rare and noteworthy when a record like Kiefer’s It’s Ok B U comes along and feels so effortlessly authentic, naturally combining dextrous skills and enough restraint to keep the chops from getting in the way of the vibe. This deft blend comes from Kiefer’s unique practice of beatmaking and improvising, both in the studio and live with other instrumentalists.
“Working in the studio... Still to this day, it's 95% by myself. When it comes to collaborating with musicians, the thing I will know the most about will be playing live. There's The Kiefer Band, and then there’s the Kiefer Trio, which is Pera Krstajic on bass and Luke Titus. Me and [bass player] Carrtoons are playing shows with Nate Smith right now. That's really fun. I play with a lot of really great musicians. I'm very, very lucky.”
While Kiefer’s passion for his own progress as a musician, both solo and along with other players, has gotten him to an established career with enviable credits, his passion for showing other musicians how to improve is equally successful. His Youtube channel and Twitch streams offer more than just encouragement. There is granular detail in his advice on chord voicings, harmonic exercises and fundamentals of music theory. The zeal he has for these comes through in any conversation. Sometimes his advice comes with a helping of fundamentals - know your scales. “If harmony can be defined as a combination of sounds, and scales are a combination of sounds and scales — the major scales are the most fundamental combination of sounds that there are, then you’ve got to do that. Otherwise what are we even talking about? So that's the first thing. If you're really starting out, you have to do your scales. Otherwise there's nothing else to really talk about. Also, that kind of gets to the core of what the piano actually is. For the last few hundred years, for most of the time it was the only real instrument that was a visual representation of our harmonic system, where every note of the same name looked identical. Right? It's literally twelve notes listed in order 12345678 10, 11, 12, from left to right, and then every octave looks the same. And so basically, piano is, the real invention of it is for the purpose of visualizing harmony. And it's the reason why every single classical composer was a pianist. So you got to know your scales because that's what it is - you're visualizing harmony. And then after that, voicings gets really easy.”
But his advice doesn’t just lean back on telling people to relearn the basics, he will often give advice on specific exercises, and shares the ones that helped him the most. “One of the coolest things I ever did was learning a bunch of block chord voicings my teacher made me learn by transcribing an Oscar Peterson recording. I also used to transcribe Chet Baker solos because they were really simple. And that helped me so much.”
The magic of music is that it can occupy both sides of our brains. On one side it engages the quizzical, ambitious and analytical mind seeking to navigate music’s grammar, and the other side can just enjoy the tickling inspiration of beautifully-executed dances within that grammar by a musician dedicated to it. Kiefer has found a way to use both sides of this passion and bring everyone along for the ride, with a message — “It’s ok B U.”
Text and interview: Kevin McHugh
Artist photo: Preston Groff