Spotlight: Chris Keys
Meet the Oakland producer you need to know about
By Brennan Ko-Madden
For all lovers of instrumental hip-hop we have the plug on an artist who is probably flying just below your radar. Meet Chris Keys the Oakland based producer and keyboardist who just released a flurry of albums with some of the best true hip-hop productions of the year.
Despite Chris Keys being a regular in the Bay Area beat and hip-hop scene he remains one of its best-kept secrets, due only to his low-key and humble personality. Often mixing samples with improvised keyboard melodies, Keys’ productions showcase his ear for making nostalgic beats that have strong leanings towards influences like J Dilla and Pete Rock. Combined with his talents as a classically trained piano and keyboard player his productions have an organic feel and sonic signature that are consistent throughout his last three releases. In just a 4-month span he has self-released three complete albums of hip-hop instrumentals, each loosely related to a singular theme or narrative.
His first album Bridges, released in December 2017, is a meditative compilation of productions inspired by the many bridges and causeways that crisscross the Bay Area. Describing this album Keys wrote,
“Bridges is something I did mid-2015. I had been making exclusively sample-based music and felt like seeing what would happen if I tried making things from scratch, and this is what I came up with over about a week or two. The title comes from a routine I had where I would burn a CD of songs I wanted to listen to and drive from Oakland to SF and back listening to it. I’d usually go at night around 1 or so when the roads would be pretty clear and there was a calmness around that you don’t usually get to see during other hours.”
Keys followed his first album with Fences, a straightforward album of beats released only just a month after Bridges. This album continues the trend of using jazzy samples coupled with shuffling boom-bap percussion to create a well-rounded collection of songs perfect to have with a cup of morning coffee.
Out of all 10 tracks the standout is arguably “Night Owl (+listen)”, which features a choir of crickets chirping along to pitched vocal samples that croon like a spurned lover. The one argument against its quality is that the song is regrettably only 2 minutes long. Expect to have this one on repeat.
To round out his impressive catalogue is the most recent album entitled Lucky Twice. Released in March of 2018, this album cements Keys’ as an expert in creating sublime hip-hop instrumentals of stand-alone merit. Offering no description for this album Keys lets the title and songs speak for themselves. Arguably his most accomplished work to date the album features more of Keys’ keyboard skills with choice samples and impeccable drum programming. The filtered tape saturated sounds found on tracks like “Straight Down” and “Pianolude” offer a dusty lo-fi induced nostalgia perfect for reflecting on the things in life we often take for granted.
With that in mind we can all look forward to the next album and ask the question: Where’s the physical release at Chris?
In addition to his impressive production chops, Keys frequently performs live for East Bay institution Smart Bomb and reoccurring beat socials at both Amoeba and Hercules Records. Check out his albums on Bandcamp and make sure to follow his socials for upcoming shows.