The High Key Portrait Series: King Britt

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King Britt | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in recurring installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.

A year after graduating from Central High School, King Britt was working at a new Tower Records location on South Street, having been hired for his judicious taste in music imports. At just 19 years old in 1987, having been brought up on all kinds of music and connected to the arts community in Philly, King was uniquely positioned to make moves, and to update dance music and electronica just at a time when the music industry stood ready to be transformed by the impending advent of digital technology.

At this interview at XPN studios, King reflected on his early hustle, and on those days in the late ‘80s and the first years of the ‘90s — a time of mixtapes and cassingles, hip-house and trip-hop. Few would be able to tell the story more capably or warmly than the Philly-born music producer, as he entreats us to fond memories of his days recording Sylk 130 records at Larry Gold’s studio, of the record label he co-founded with then-fellow-Temple-U student Josh Wink, of his collaborations with Bahamadia, and Ursula Rucker, and to musings about what, in his opinion, we all lost when Napster was unleashed (hint: it may not be what you think!).

King Britt | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

THE KEY: You grew up here in Philly and went to Central High School. Where were you born, what part?

KING BRITT: Southwest. So, my mom’s still there, 56th and Litchfield, right near Chester Avenue.

TK: She still in the same place you were living in?

KB: Same . . . dude, I walk in, it’s a time machine. All the photos, all my prom photos [laughs] — like, you know what I’m saying . . .

TK: So you grew up there, you went to Central High School.

KB: Yeah, Greenfield for grade school.

TK: Cool. And then you graduated high school in, what, eighty . . .

KB: ‘86.

TK: So just a little bit about your background — you were working at Tower Records, in charge I guess of importing stuff?

KB: Yeah, I brought all the imports from England. And from everywhere.

TK: Was that globally, for Tower?

KB: Just for Philly, but once a month we would all meet in Sacramento, and discuss things.

TK: That was a different kind of record store.

KB: Dude. I mean. It was like a cultural hub. And if you ever see the movie — you know, there’s a whole movie, on Netflix, a whole documentary, because it was such a special place. There’s one left!

TK: I didn’t realize it was still around!

KB: It’s really not around, but they bought the name and everything. And they keep it alive, it’s really amazing.

TK: Were you at the one on South Street?

KB: South Street, yeah. We opened that one.

King Britt | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: And where did you meet Josh Wink?

KB: So we were all at Temple University, and I used to see him around, like “who’s this guy?” And I went to a few of their parties, and he was roommates with my best friend, Blake Tart — Boy Blake, is his DJ name. Blake sent [Josh] to Tower [Records], because he knew I had all the imports that no one else was getting. And we met at Tower. It was really cool.

TK: And so, I guess before you started working with him, or maybe around the same time, you had a single with Ursula Rucker, “Supernatural,” right?

KB: Okay, so Josh and I started in ‘89, I had just gotten a deal with Strictly Rhythm. Josh had an alright drum machine, and he was getting into production. And I was like, “you know what bro,? Let’s do this together.” Because, I’m an only child, like I’m always looking to collaborate and brothers, and — you know what I mean, like-minded — we hit it off like that. [snaps] And so we did the 12-inch together and it came out, it blew up, everything. And then around that time, I met Butterfly from Digable Planets. And then I went to tour with them, Josh blew up on his own, on the acid house scene and everything, techno scene. And then in ‘94 we came back, and we started Ovum Recordings. Which is still rocking. I’m not part of it now, but he’s still keeping it alive. The first release — this was ‘94 — was Ursula Rucker’s “Supernatural.” And, I’ve known Urs since ‘86, ‘87.

TK: From?

KB: She used to date a good friend of mine. And her cousin, who used to sing on a lot of my stuff, went to Girls [High].

TK: Who was her cousin?

KB: Vicky Miles. Yeah, she sings “The Reason” on Sylk 130, stuff like that. Philly’s this big [gestures with thumb and forefinger, laughs]

TK: It’s amazing. So was Tower Records sort of your introduction to the Philly music scene, or was it before that?

KB: Oh no . . . so, my mom, my parents were heavy into music. But collectors, not musicians. My mom, because my dad was working all the time — I mean, he and I went to a lot of shows too — but my mom and I, that’s all we did, bro. Like, ever since I was little, just go to shows. She was friends with Sun Ra and, went to a few rehearsals. And so I learned from her, like going to concerts, and then in tenth grade I started going by myself. So, I went to school — and, school was easy for me — so it was like school, and then work — I worked at The Gallery . . .

TK: What store at The Gallery?

KB: The Newsstand. Which was in the old Gallery. There were two, there was one near the suburban [train] line, and then there was one in the old Gallery, soon as you come in,. That’s where I worked. And you know, I did stock, I sold candy and cigarettes and stuff. And also mixtapes on the side, right? But anyway, I used to just go to shows like after work. It’s just like [Key editor] John [Vettese] and his lady, Maureen — they go to every show possible. That’s what we did.

Oh, so as far as the music scene — so going to shows and also hanging out at Spike’s Skates, off of South Street, which Cosmo Baker’s mom owned it. And his sister Zoe [Struass], the famous photographer, she went to Girls’ High. And so we were all really tight. But that’s where I met Chuck Treece, and started hanging out and checking bands, like more in the punk scene,  Trained Attack Dogs, and all these different kinda underground bands in Philly. So that’s what I started to meet musicians — you know, so people like Elliott Levin, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who is one of my mentors, who worked in The Gallery as well. That’s when I started to get immersed in the Philly music scene. And then I started DJing that was it. I worked at [after-hours club] Revival, I met everybody. And I started collecting keyboards and everything. So I was starting to produce — this was around ‘86, ‘87 — so I started producing, with the dream of one day putting a record out. And then in 1990 it happened, and I never went back. And Josh and I both left Temple, we just dropped out. [laughs] Not saying that’s what you should do! I mean my daughter’s in grad school at NYU, but…

TK: What’s she going for?

KB: Art curation. But, she saw me, and she was like, she’s seen the ups and downs of an artist.  She didn’t want that. She wanted nice cushion.

TK: More stable?

KB: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

King Britt | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: What do you remember about your first your first time playing in Philly? In terms of crowd, in terms of how you felt…

KB: Yeah, alright, so as a DJ, the first time playing was Revival. Other than house parties. First time playing, in a club, and getting paid. I got like 30 bucks or something, right, for like five hours! Free drinks, but I didn’t really drink. And it was opening for Bobby Startup. If it wasn’t for Bobby, I mean, he founded the Stray Cats, you know what I mean? He’s such a legend.

First time dropping a needle at Revival, it’s the who’s who of Philly in there — you know, Joe The Butcher, everyone! — and I felt at home. I felt like, this is my calling. You know, I love music so much, but I never thought about it as a career, and that was it, man. I was like, holy shit, this is it. And then Josh, Blake and Dozia — my best friend growing up — they started a party called “Vagabond,” which would move club to club every Monday. And they brought me in to start DJing, at Vagabond. And it’s there when I really got my skills refined as a DJ. So, playing for that crowd, because it was two different crowds, that was amazing, man. Because you know Revival was more like the, after-hours, druggie crowd, you know, so it’s like anything goes.

TK: You said you didn’t drink, did you do drugs, at that point?

KB: Nah, I didn’t, really. I never really did stuff like that. I smoke weed, but — not then, now I do! But, not then.

TK: So, how was it like, being the sort of “only sober person at the party” or whatever, was that weird?

KB: I was in the music, dude. I wasn’t even thinking about that. You know what I’m saying, like I just never really got into that. You know, I would drink socially, a few years later — like grasshoppers or some little fucking mixed drinks, working at Silk City, because they would be like “yo test this out.” But it never appealed to me. I’m all about the music. My parents didn’t do it either, they didn’t drink or anything. So I think that helped too. I was an only child, like I didn’t have an older brother who drank. So it just wasn’t in my DNA, I guess.

TK: And so, when you said when you started feeling like this was your scene — you hit a point where it was like, you were the top-billed performer at the club, and people were coming for you.

KB: Oh definitely! I mean, but it took work because, first you got to find your sound, then refine that sound. Luckily I was working at Tower. And so, I was getting stuff before anybody. So that was kind of my calling card. Like “yo, we gotta go hear what King’s going to play!” So I was kind of “the DJ’s DJ,” but also, like, people would come because they knew I was going to play some shit that they didn’t have or know — and then, they could come see me at Tower [Records] to get it! So it’s like this triple-threat type of situation.

TK: This was before it was on the internet, too.

KB: Exactly. And then I’m at Tower [Records] handing out flyers — I don’t know if you watch Portlandia, but there’s an episode with the flyers, and that’s exactly how it was, man! I would just be like, you know, I’ll ring someone up or whatever, you know, put it in their bag like, “come out!” Especially because they’re buying dance music. So they’re going to come to the party, they’re going to hear the shit!  

TK: So you’re cross-promoting all the time.

KB: Totally! And, I’m on the phone with buyers. So Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Derrick May — all these guys before anyone knew who they were, we’re talking on the phone because they want me to get their records in the store. And we’re still all friends, to this day.

King Britt | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: How digital was the craft at that point, was there any kind of digital . . . anything?

KB: Nah! It was tape, cassingles, and vinyl.

TK: When did you start introducing programs and you know, having a laptop in your setup?

KB: Well CDs came…when did CDs come, ‘91?

TK: I remember holding a CD in ‘93 in my sophomore class at Central, I remember somebody brought it in and I was like, oh my god what is this . . .

KB: Yeah, it was around ‘91, ‘92 — No, right because Digable, we had acetates, so it had to be around ‘93. Yeah, perfect, you’re on it, yeah. So it was around then, with CD-Js and all that. The first one, I remember, it was huge. And laptop — I didn’t even go to laptop. So I always use a laptop or a computer to make music since around ‘93. But for performing, I was always analog, or analog and CDs, up until around the third iteration of Ableton [software]. They gave me Serato, they gave me all that, but I never embraced it, because I saw Josh — he was beta-testing it and it would always fail. So I was strictly CDs.

TK: So you were a little resistant.

KB: I was resistant to use it in a live capacity. In a studio? A hundred percent. I’m always about technology. I use iPad now, like it’s insane, like it’s going outta style. But, using a computer live? Nah. I remember Josh, he was playing in Miami at Crobar and the shit just went haywire — but no one knew really, because he’s so skilled, he killed it, and looped some shit and was rebooting his computer, like sweating. But I was like nah, I can’t. But it wasn’t till Ableton, when I was playing live — like band live. So I was doing like an electronic experimental night, called “Saturn Never Sleeps,” with one of my ex-ladies, and that’s when I embraced the laptop in a live setting. And then I started to use it for DJ-ing and stuff. But not with Serato and all, I use it in a different way.

TK: And this is like late-90s-ish?

KB: No this is like, mid-2000s! Yeah, like I was late to the game, as far as using it for DJ-ing in an a live capacity, yeah.

TK: So where did Sylk 130 fit into the timeline?

KB: So Silk was ‘96, the first album. When I left Digable in ‘94, that’s when I started the album. The first song ever to surface was on a UFO compilation at Giles Peterson put together in ‘95 in Japan — “Seasons Change” — and then the album dropped, Sony Ovum, in 1996. End of ‘96, into ‘97.

I’m doing a box set now for 2020, like of all the album outtakes, with Vinyl Me. We did the Sister Gertrude together like the triple-gatefold. And they do it, they do it right. I’m excited for that. And it’s good the new generation can hear.

TK: Right, right. I had I radio show at Penn State and I remember when the Sylk 130 single came out, we used to play it.

KB: Oh, snap! Was it “Gettin’ Into It,” the red cover?

TK: It was a green cover.

KB: I was oh you got “The Reason!” Bahamadia’s on one version! Yeah! Yeah, that was my first time working with her too, and god, what a talent.

TK: She’s amazing.

KB: I wanna hear her and Black Thought go verse-for-verse, man.

TK: Right? Why hasn’t that happened yet?

KB: You know what, I’m gonna make it happen. I was talking to him today, because he just dropped the new one with Salaam Remi. I’m like bro, you need to do a hip-house album. Hip-house was big, end of the ‘90s, Doug Lazy — he’s like yo, that’s a good idea! So we’ll see. [laughs]

King Britt | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: So in terms of the art scene in Philly, and how it informs your music — what advantages did you feel were afforded to you living here?

KB: Hmm. Philly’s always been the town for the top musicians. Even today, if you look at any band, ANY band — Justin Timberlake, I don’t know about Beyonce now, but, Lauryn Hill, all the top bands that are out now — have one or two people from Philly in the band. Like, it’s insane. And Adam Blackstone, he’s doing music directing for the NFL or for the Super Bowl. You know, it’s wild, it’s mind-blowing, right? So we’ve always been a town of musicians. Ever since jazz! Like, you know? Coltrane lived here, and Art Blakey, and . . .

TK: Billie Holiday . . .

KB: Yeah, of course! Yeah. But then the musicians would come to Philly, because our crowd was the hardest — you know, to learn their craft. To the top. And then they’d go to New York, and rock it. But it was Philly as their breeding ground, kind of the school, you know what I mean? So it’s always been the school. So, Gamble and Huff, all those musicians, all the classical musicians who would moonlight and do the soul stuff — the musicianship was always on top, on the highest level. And because of that, if you’re coming up — and that goes for DJ’s too, Jazzy Jeff, Miz, Cash Money, Ghetto — all these people won the World Supremacy contest and everything, so, it’s always the highest level. So if you’re coming if back in the day, if you were coming up in Philly, first you have to pay your dues, but then you had to, like this was the threshold! The bar was high, bro! So you had to come with it, man. And the crowd here doesn’t play! You’d see that with sports. You know what I mean, same with music.

Now it’s changed now, like a lot of that his dissipated, and the crowd is different in Philly now. It’s going through a change — and I’m not saying it’s bad — it’s just going through a change, you know, and you gotta roll with the punches. You gotta embrace the change. But a lot of the real artists have moved out of Philly.

TK: Necessarily, you think?

KB: Necessarily. Like, I’m actually thinking of moving to LA. I’m gonna be bicoastal but, I mean, I want to do more film work, and I need to be in LA! Back in the day, you could be in Philly, and still get work because of New York. I’m talking production-wise, and that sort of thing, music production. Art too, though. You know a lot of visual artists have to move out of Philly, like the scene has gotten smaller. It used to be very diverse and it’s, I don’t know, I don’t see that as much. It still is, but.

You know what happened? This is what happened. This is very important: the studios closed. Not all of them. But the hubs. So Larry Gold’s studio was legendary. So Larry Gold’s — everyone worked there.

TK: Where was that at?

KB: That’s on 7th and Willow. It’s still there, it’s MilkBoy now. But Larry’s still there! He’s got a room and everything. So The Roots had a room. They had a B room, then there was a J room, and then the main room. So, you’re in there — I’ll just give you one day there. I’m working on Re-Members Only, the second Sylk 130 album. I got ABC in there, from the ‘80s. ABC’s in — Martin Fry — we’re in one room, rocking that shit. The next room is Ahmir [Thompson], Questlove, [and Living Colour’s] Vernon Reid, working on something. Ahmir comes in, just to see what’s going on, he goes, “holy shit! That’s Martin Fry from ABC! He’s one of the only white dudes that was ever on Soul Train!” and he just starts going crazy. Martin Fry goes “oh yeah, nice to meet you, I heard of The Roots, and . . .” — you know, it was just like, mind-blowing! That same week, they’re doing Electric Circus in the Roots’ room, with Common, and [Roots’ musician/producer James] Poyser’s out in the hallway with who? J Dilla. I’m like, “oh snap! J Dilla . . .”

So, okay, so just that example — everyone, first of all, was making a lot of money, because the the labels, the music business was popping bro! Now, with the internet and everything, man, it’s a wild time for music, and being a musician.

TK: So the internet kind of crushed the studios, you’re saying, enough that many of them had to close?

KB: The internet, but I’ll get to that. Two things — it was technology, because everyone started to get their own studios! I have my own right now! It actually was the best thing ever, because I was spending so much at Larry’s, when I could have been doing so much in my own. But it was the technology, and the access to be able to really record at high-quality yourself, in your fucking bedroom, and get the same results as working in the B room. Maybe not exactly the same — because of the engineers and high-tech equipment — but you could do your thing without being on a clock, and worried about “oh man, this is a hundred an hour,” or whatever it was, you know what I mean? And then, yes, technology — when Napster came out, and all of this — instead of the majors embracing it…the music business could’ve been saved back then, if they had just embraced Napster, and stopped being so scared of the technology, it would’ve been a whole different a ballgame. But once everything was becoming free, and young people were like yo, I’m not paying all that for that CD, or whatever, like I can get it right here, off Napster! Changed everything, dude.

So that shift, we still haven’t recovered from that. Even with Spotify, and all these amazing platforms — which I embrace and love — financially, it’s a super challenge as a musician and producer right now.

TK: And you think that one of the other main drawbacks of that was the fact that then people couldn’t commune like you were just talking about.

KB: Yeah, so the hubs, right, the studios started to close and implode, because the marketing budgets were being cut, recording budgets were being cut, major labels were scared, and there was no money! So, what are the artists gonna do? They’re gonna start doing their own, in their own studios, and it started to become punk rock again as far as process! Which actually spawned a lot of creativity. There were no rules, anymore. You know, sometimes you’re intimidated by being in the studio and there are rules. So like Larry Gold, you know, you could see JLo in there, you could see all these people in there at anytime, bro. Now? It’s like tumbleweeds. So he sold it to MilkBoy. MilkBoy has a whole different audience. They do a lot of post-production work — their focus wasn’t on the kind of music scene, producer scene, theirs was more on the film / television — still musicians and bands, but, they didn’t come in there with an ego. You know what I mean? They came in there, they got a good deal, already-running studio, and they just needed the business savvy to survive. And they’ve done a great job.

And like tomorrow, I’m part of this filming, they’re doing this documentary on Sigma Sound. What a sad fucking story, man! I mean, I’m glad you’re doing the documentary but, it’s one of the greatest studios in the world! It was a landmark of Philly history! Bowie. Elton John. All the Gamble and Huff.

TK: Didn’t Michael Jackson do one there too?

KB: Mike, of course, yes! He did the Jackson album that they did on TSOP, PIR — Philly International [Records]. Anyway. History. And it’s not in existence anymore.

TK: So that’s interesting, sort of addresses my other question about major frustrations or drawbacks about being an artist in Philly…

KB: There are still good studios around. But the history is being erased. And so I’m glad they’re doing this documentary. So great. I’m really happy to be a part of it too. But it took John Legend, who’s executive producer of this.

TK: John Legend is from where, originally?

KB: I think he’s from Ohio . . .

TK: But he went to Penn, right?

KB: Yeah yeah yeah, he used to come out to our “Back2Basics” at Silk City, Five Spot — we’d see him around.

King Britt | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: So were you part of the Black Lily scene at Five Spot?

KB: No because, so we did “Back2Basics.” And it was popping, I mean we had Saturday night and Monday night — Monday with the band, Saturday was just DJing — and it was at the height, I mean dude, we couldn’t even keep the money in the cash register, it was so packed. Line down the street. But Jazzyfatnastees were like — it was very machismo, very male-dominated. Not on purpose. It just happened that way. They were like, we want to start our own thing. And that’s when Black Lily started, out of the frustration of like, kind of the male energy at Silk City. That’s when it started over there. And the timing was impeccable. Because Silk was getting too crazy, too overpacked, and then that was very feminine as well, like feminine energy, which was very positive. New spot, a whole new night. But also, Philly was on fire at the time, and then The Roots, you know, to have Ahmir and The Roots cosign it, with [manager] Rich [Nichols], like that was it.

TK: In terms of like Philly artists, who stands out to you as having been particularly influential, or maybe a mentor?

KB: Okay, there’s two. So one personal mentor of mine is Jamaaladeen Tacuma. So one of the greatest bass players of all-time, still killing it, played with Ornette Coleman — I mean, everyone you can think of, all genres, but mainly jazz and avant-garde — and he really took me under his wing as far as production and like, telling me what equipment to get, and just just being there to answer questions and that sort of thing. Which is what I try to do with my friends now that are younger than me.

And then, as far as someone that I looked up to but never met: Dexter Wansel. So, Life On Mars — that album, which was on Philly International — changed everything, because it was so futuristic, but yet Philly soul, and it had classical overtones, with the strings. Just, to this day, I mean, even sonically it was just like, holy shit. So yeah, man. And I don’t know. Like, I would love to meet him, but then there’s something cool about not meeting him.

I’m reading this Prince book, The Purple Rain Years — and everything that went into making Purple Rain and Around The World In A Day. Anyway, talking about Purple Rain, working with Clare Fisher on Parade and all of this stuff — Clare Fisher did all the strings for Rufus and Chaka Khan. Prince loved that, he started working with Clare. I never knew bro, to this day — he never met Clare Fisher! He would send the reels to LA, Clare would do all the string stuff, and send it back. And [once], they were at the Grammy Awards, and they were standing next to each other!  Like, Where this is [motions], that’s Clare, Prince was here [motions], and his son was playing with Beyoncé, and he was like, I’m not going to introduce them because he didn’t want to meet Clare because it was going to spoil the way they worked. I think that’s just the most brilliant shit. Like that’s just crazy, dude! He was right there man!

TK: You went to Temple, did you live up there too?

KB: Yeah. Well, it was North Philly then, now it’s new . . . whatever [laughs], New Northern Liberties! There’s another Northern Liberties now. But anyway, I lived there, then I lived downtown and I lived on Arch. Now I’m in Fishtown. Chilling.  

TK: How have you seen Philly changing, in your time living here?

KB: Oh, my god. I’ll keep that super-short. Change is always good, right?  But, it’s how it’s changing. You know, like, my Philly’s gone, bro. All my places that I loved to go, most of them are gone. I mean except for Eyes Gallery and Garland Of Letters on South Street, everything’s gone.

TK: I don’t know how they do it, they’ve been there forever, right?

KB: There’s no store like it! They own the building, too. So it’s like, you know, to live in Fishtown, I swear, to watch it change — because I believe in Fishtown 13 years — it’s mind-blowing to me. Just the past two years has been the fastest change. But they’re just throwing these houses up — I mean, people are having leaks already, and the houses are falling apart — people are just getting paid. From that and gentrification — pushing people out without any sort of notice or anything, not just Fishtown, but all over Philly — it’s fucked up. It is good that the city is implementing a lot of laws to kind of counterbalance that. But, there’s this influx of New York, because of it’s too expensive up there, and people are moving here and commuting. Then the new trains coming, Amtrak, it’ll get to New York in 35 minutes. And that starts 2020. And then all this these investors came to Philly because they thought Amazon was coming. So all these buildings were just popping up. But they can’t really fill them all. We’ll see what happens in two years. I feel it’s going to crash, it’ll be a buyers’ market just like 2006. But who knows? We don’t know yet, you know? Amazon’s in New York, and in DC, so we may get an influx of people who are getting pushed out of those places, that come to Philly. It’s good in the fact that there’s a lot of work, a lot of jobs are being created here. It’s really great to see. A lot of money. Yes, it’s getting a little expensive but it’s still very affordable. If you grew up here, you know the hustle.

But, I feel the the artistry is getting a little bit diluted. But hopefully that will change. But I just feel, I don’t know. We’re getting a lot of non-musicians coming, or non-artists, that are coming to Philly, and the kind of artistic landscape has changed. I don’t want to say for the worse, but it’s just not progressing the way you would think, in a city that’s growing exponentially. It’s becoming very homogenized. So hopefully for the artists that are here, we can keep it going, cultivate the younger artists that are actually making some moves. Like Moor Mother, who’s just killing it.

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