Interview with Philadelphia Hip Hop Artist Khemist


Khemist, courtesy of Instagram

Recently, the Upper School Ensemble completed a project with Philadelphia Hip Hop Artist Khemist, creating musical sketches in groups of three or four students. “Our objectives were to try something new, to push ourselves creatively, and to learn from each other,” says Upper School Performing Arts Chair Heather Fortune. Khemist introduced students to the concept of loops, lyrics, and hooks, in addition to giving specific feedback to each group pertaining to their flow, rhythm, and more.


Below is the transcription of a Falcon interview with Khemist:

(This interview has been edited for length/clarity.)

Falcon: What is your first memory of music?

Khemist: My first memory? Probably the church. I grew up in a Baptist Church. All of my cousins and aunts and uncles were into music so I was always around it. At a young age, I was introduced to music from the church, and then my uncles later showed me how that was all blues. The gospel music that the church plays stems from the blues.

How would you describe your work and yourself, as an artist?

Definitely a songwriter, a poet, a musician and an instrumentalist who finds a way to incorporate struggle in the music but does it with a cool contrast. Sometimes the music may come across as far as the musicality but when you actually listen to the lyrics, they’re the darkest lyrics. Somebody has to listen to it to really catch that.

How do you get inspiration for your songs? I know you just touched on struggle or personal experience, but could you take us through how you go about writing a song?

Definitely from reading books, listening to poets, and just constantly seeing in my mind different things. Learning different things about spirituality, history, and the inner workings of certain systems in this world, whether that be on this plane or other planes. All of that inspires the music that I write. So listening to other music… I love music from the 70s, 80s, and stuff from the 30s like blues and jazz. I’m always introducing new styles or concepts of music. 

Art too, man, I was in art school when I was younger so that was my first creative outlet. I’ve always loved surrealism and abstract art. Figuring out ways to do that with words has always been something that I push for.

I feel like after listening to your music, that makes a lot of sense. Are there any artists, musical or otherwise, as influences?

Mati Klarwein is a surrealist who did the Carlos Santana Abraxas cover, and he did the Miles Davis Bitches Brew cover. A lot of his artwork inspires me. As far as musicians, definitely Stevie Wonder is my favorite writer of all time. Curtis Mayfield, Nas, JAY-Z, Lauren Hill… Sonia Sanchez is like the greatest poet ever. Robert Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green. Anwar Marshall is someone that’s current. Definitely Ursula Rucker… it’s a lot of poets and rappers. Oh, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison as writers. 

Has your approach to songwriting changed throughout your career?

Yes. Before I would constantly go look for beats, you know, I’d go on Youtube and look up beats. During the early 2000’s, you had stores that actually sold CDs and mixtapes so I was able to go to a mixtape store and get the latest instrumental CD that was out and write to that. I’d always listened to a lot of jazz and R&B beats. Once I picked up the guitar I was able to create what I wanted myself. I didn’t have to constantly depend on people to make the music that I wanted because a lot of the time when I would be in the studio with a producer, they would have a loop planned and I’d want to manipulate certain things and they weren’t able to do it because it was just a loop. They’d be like “This is all I can do. This is a sample, I can’t change a sample.” And that was frustrating for me so I learned how to make stuff myself. 

Where would you recommend new listeners start with your music? Is there a project that you’re particularly proud of?

Definitely Khemtrails, released last year. It’s all live instrumentation with some of the best musicians in the world. It showcases some of my range as a writer, just some of it because there’s still more that I will present. But definitely, Khemtrails is the best foot forward. This next project will show more of what I can do. I didn’t want to give people too much too soon and confuse people, so it’s kind of spoon-fed.

Do you have a goal or a message that you want to spread through your music?

Yeah, well, people need to understand the environment that we come from and how it affects us. That may get lost in a catchy chorus and people not really understanding where these lyrics come from and what these lyrics are about. There’s a lot of pain in our existence right now so the purpose of the music is always to express the pain but do it in a cool way so people understand why this pain exists. To make sure that people don’t forget that.

Do you have any advice for students who are interested in pursuing music?

Try everything. Listen to all the music you can. Understand the different roles in the music industry. Not everyone has to be a singer or a rapper or a songwriter or pursue a big radio hit or be a Top 40 artist. There are several avenues in this industry that you can pursue that pay well. And it’s okay to fail at first at something as long as you keep pushing. I failed at a lot of things, you know what I’m saying? I feel like it’s not until now that things are finally starting to click after all these years, the way I wanted them to anyway. Definitely, you’ve got to trust yourself and that gut instinct. Practice. Keep practicing. Don’t stop practicing. Even when you think you’re good. Challenge yourself. Do things that other people may think are impossible because that’s what makes you stand out. People laughed at me when I picked the guitar up at first and now the checks have gotten bigger and more doors have opened since then. I practiced a lot, I put the hours in.


Here is a link to some of the Upper School Ensemble’s Hip Hop projects made in collaboration with Khemist.