"I’m addicted to building things from scratch; that’s where the beauty is,” Karen Nyame, perhaps better known as KG, tells PSNEurope over a latte in the sporadically populated bar area of Shoreditch’s citizenM hotel. The overcast conditions outside on this grey mid-April Monday afternoon are at odds with Nyame’s mood, as she enthuses and eulogises about everything from her love of working with emerging artists, the power of pirate radio and her role with Red Bull Studios and its Normal Not Novelty programme. Each of these topics, along with numerous others, come under discussion over the course of our conversation, as we reflect on pivotal moments from across a career that is as distinguished as it is varied.
Her first steps into record production were taken at just eight years old when she developed an obsession with music programming, setting her on a path that would lead not only to a career behind the desk as a producer, but one that would also see her excel in the fields of broadcast and journalism. She has fronted programmes on Westside Radio 89.6 FM and BBC Radio 1Xtra, whilst also securing regular guest spots on NTS, Reprezent Radio and Rinse FM.
“I’ve had maybe 13-14 years working on production, sharpening my craft,” she reflects. “It started from a really young age. My parents used to get me these digital workstations for PC that had all these pre-made house loops on them, so the fascination started then. We also had a lot of instruments at home, so it was a natural thing for me to get into music from a young age.”
Crucial to Nyame’s development was her engagement with local pirate radio. Hailing from North London, she was already acutely aware of the scene’s ability to help break an artist.
“My connection to pirate radio in London was vital,” she says. “Culturally it’s centred around very British sounds, so UKG (garage), grime and the house element. A lot of people built their careers around these genres at underground level, so I started sending my stuff to DJs. I was producing a hybrid genre of house called UK funky: very bassy and falling into the Afro beat realm too.
“That scene was so influential, it dictated the musical climate,” Nyame continues. “Commercial radio stations were looking at what the underground stations were doing and emulating that. That’s where you’d find talent, from the roots upwards. Pirate radio was very prominent within African Carribean cultures and communities too. A lot of talent was birthed from these platforms that weren’t legal at the time! It provided a voice for talent that was often overlooked. Even as a producer I had access to DJs who would allow for my music to be played out, and that's when the buzz started to build. The mainstream is always going to play catch-up.”
Since the days of Nyame’s childhood fascination with programming beats, the title ‘producer’ has not so much shifted as mutated into an ever-changing term imbued with whichever qualities the beholder wishes to apply. For some, the producer is essentially a composer who ‘produces’ beats and lays the foundations for a record, for others they are a sounding board responsible for helping shape the sonic DNA of a body of work. In Nyame’s case, her commitment to educating herself on everything from beat composition to recording, mixing and engineering has enabled her to be whatever producer her clients require.
“There’s a stark difference between somebody who makes beats and somebody who can corroborate a real production session,” she explains. “I studied music technology in college and that’s when I decided I wanted to go further with learning how to engineer, how to mix, and how to record. There are different stems of music production but you can be successful in any. I know producers who don’t have an elaborate set up at home but are producing amazing music for mainstream artists. For me, I like to know what I’m doing. I also like to engineer sessions, having that connection to the artist as we build something from scratch.”
So, does her extensive knowledge give her an advantage over others lacking her technical acumen?
“Absolutely, especially if you want to monetise it,” she says in the affirmative. “That’s the difference between doing something short-term and having longevity in the music industry. It gives you greater scope to work with more people.
"All of these skills are beneficial. There will come a point where taking shortcuts may hinder your progression as a producer. However, there are some younger producers out there doing it the quick and easy way, and they are monetising their work, so great.”
One of Nyame’s favourite things about producing records is helping up and coming artists to define and hone their sound.
“I’m selective when it comes to working with artists; it’s like a seasonal thing for me,” she explains. “However, I like working with up and coming artists and coining their sound early on. There's something really beautiful about that process. It can take time, as they are still trying to establish their sound, and you have to have patience, but it’s fruitful when it’s done. Working solo on my own stuff is almost a subconscious thing, but with an artist, you have to work closely on it.
“Initially, even with artists that are exceptionally talented, they don’t really have an ear for sound early on,” she continues. “They don’t know what they like yet. 80 per cent of the time I get: ‘Hey Karen, I want an Afro beat and I want some grime elements,’ and I’m like, 'What do you mean?!' It takes time to establish a direction, and you have to let them know what you’re there to do. It’s important that a producer can simplify ideas and make sure the artist can process what’s happening, and also that they are realistic about the process and the time scale. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘We can get this mastered today as well, right?' On a recent project I did, a five track EP, the artist was asking if we’d get all five songs mixed in two days...
“My advice to anyone wanting to get into the game now would be to study. Coin a sound, coin a signature. Producers with a signature sound really do have legacy. It will possibly take you 10 years to become an overnight success, but it’ll be worth it.”
Before we part ways, Nyame is keen to discuss her work with Normal Not Novelty – Red Bull Studios’ gender diversity initiative aimed at providing a networking and educational hub for women of all skill levels working in the studio sector – for which she holds and curates production workshops. The project has been lauded across the board, earning high praise from virtually all who have attended or participated, whilst also scooping the first ever Campaign Award at the 2018 Pro Sound Awards.
“It’s amazing getting to hang out with all of these incredible producers who also happen to be women,” she concludes. “My alias is KG, which has no gender prefix. Sometimes people would book me and assume I was a guy; when I started it was almost unheard of
for a woman to be skilled in this area and doing it well. But now the gates are opening. I came up against a lot of misogyny and condescending attitudes in the studio. I actually had to take some time off from music because emotionally it was just a bit much, trying to create while having to deal with sexism. It can really hurt your confidence. But I’ve seen more and more women now going into studios, being respected and not being patronised. Normal Not Novelty has done so much for women aspiring to be producers and DJs. We have a way to go but the ball is rolling, which is exciting.”