Meet Keith James, The Songwriter Behind Jeremih’s “Paradise”
By Caitlin White
Courtesy of Adrien O.
Earlier this month Jeremih’s long-anticipated third studio album Late Nightsdropped out of the sky. The album shares a name with the Chicago R&B singer’s 2012 mixtape Late Nights With Jeremih, a body of work that it’s no exaggeration to say sparked a new movement within the R&B landscape. So, there were a lot of expectations placed on this album before it arrived, and that pressure seemed to manifest in delays, label scrabbling, and the subsequent, sudden year-end drop. Whether or not you feel like the album lives up to its potential, there’s one song on there that I’ve been listening to every single day since it came out. That song is called “Paradise,” and it soundtracked my entire December.
“Paradise,” along with plenty of other Jeremih tracks, was written by his colleague Keith James. Keith and Jeremih grew up together, and along with producer Mick Schultz, helped create what has become the Jeremih sound. After the way “Paradise” resonated, James decided to release his original, raw songwriter version on New Year’s Eve to help close out 2015 with a bang. He also took the time to talk with me about his inspiration for writing the song, plans for his own solo career, and the ever-present violence in Chicago. Read our unvarnished conversation below.
I’m not super familiar with your background, so let’s start off talking a bit more about you and your relationship to music.
I grew up in Chicago and my whole family is musical. I actually have an uncle and aunt that are traveling musicians, and a cousin that travels for music. Everybody sings in my family and I’ve been in choir since I was five or six, somewhere along those lines. Church choir, school choir, and me and Jeremih were in the all-city youth chorus when we were in high school. We grew up together, maybe in kindergarten or first grade together. So that’s my brother. I’ve been doing music all my life, me and him played the saxophones and percussion for a while.
So back in 2009 when Jeremih started breaking out with his first record were you involved?
I actually did “Birthday Sex” with him and our producer Mick Schultz. Jeremih went to school with him too, they met at Columbia College. He had J recording records, and they brought me in on a record. I wrote a hook with them one day, and then “Birthday Sex” was the first R&B record that I wrote. I think we’ve released over twenty records together. I’ve done a few interviews before, but at first I didn’t really want to be public with it. I just wanted him to shine. But at this point, I need money. (laughs)
Since you’re dropping your version of “Paradise” today, let’s talk about that song. “Paradise” was the one song on Late Nights that I felt was really transcendental. What were you feeling when you wrote it?
I’m glad you felt that way! When we did “Paradise,” I had been running around with J for like a month out in LA. I’m a homebody, I’m always in the house in Chicago. But he pulled me up out of the house and said ‘Come out to LA, me and Mick are finishing up the album. Come and write.’ So I went out there, and I think “Paradise” was the last record we did. That was the top of last year. February 2014. Two days before my birthday.
I was just watching my boy get down. We grew up together — so him traveling, I haven’t seen him a lot. To get a chance to go out with him, it’s just different. I’m watching my boy, he turned into a man. He’s doing his thing and I got to see that, and the life he lives. The cribs he gets to live in, the whips he had us driving. And then he was like ‘Go get your ass in the studio and write with Mick for this album.’ Being in LA, you know I’m from Chicago, so going out to California in the wintertime in February, it’s just paradise! So I got to write that down and he got to sing it.
I went to college in Malibu, so I knew exactly what you were talking about. It’s the dead of winter and you’re still on the beach, you almost can’t believe it’s real life. As much as the song is about having a good life though, it’s also about a regular day of partying with friends. That struck me as such an incredible conception of heaven, that it’s right here, when you’re with people that you love.
That’s very true. That’s what I want you to feel. Man, we just felt this way as soon as we did this record. And that feeling has never left. But that also comes from the direction that we took, and how Mick played those strings. He doesn’t always play the guitar on his records, but he was like let’s just do it this way. I don’t know what record we were listening to, but I think we were listening to two or three Beatles albums. And he was like, ‘Let’s do something like this. No drums, let’s just make it wide open and pluck their heartstrings.’ I think that’s why it feels like heaven on earth. For me, it really is. This is nothing that we took for granted. We were just making beats, me and Jeremih. Then we met Mick, and this shit just blew up. So, it’s still surreal in ways. Especially for me playing the background, I’m just now getting out to LA, nobody really knows me like that.
Courtesy of Adrien O.
It does sound a Beatles era record, but then it’s got R&B lyrics. The juxtaposition of those two things is part of why people really like it.
I just told the truth. Like, I’m watching my boy and he’s handling himself and living this life. Like I can’t say that I would want to live the same life, I’m about to get married and all that. But I have an appreciation for what he does because that’s my dog. And I just told the truth. He probably would’ve put it in metaphors and all of that, but I’m like no. Tell it like it is. And a lot of people will hear that record and say ‘Oh that’s riff raff, it’s a bunch of bullshit. He shouldn’t be living like that.’ But I’m not out here shooting! I’m not out here robbing. I’m getting to the bag without doing anything negative.
That’s part of why I loved the sentiment — no one else gets to say what your heaven is. Your religion isn’t mine, your lifestyle isn’t mine. But doing the math, you you wrote and recorded it almost two years ago. What is it like, to be sitting on something like this?
Nerve-wracking, I can tell you that much. To speak on something that you can’t touch, in a lot of conversations, is one of the most annoying things. Because we’re talking about something that you can only hear, people haven’t heard it, and that’s the only medium that you’re going to get to them immediately through. It blows really bad sometimes, because egos get involved, and you can’t speak on something that hasn’t shown what it really is publicly. So you’ve got to just play it cool sometimes.
How did the song change from the original version when you re-recorded it with Jeremih?
Well, the dude is a background phenomenon to me. So I got to experiment with some things because I know his voice. We built the Jeremih sound together, so I know what he can do. So he he opened up the record even more. We had backgrounds, but he can go up in those higher registers that you can appreciate the airiness in. So we got to do more of that, and it just opened the record wide. I like my version too, but I just got an appreciation for what he does. I’m a fan.
Do you have thoughts on how long it did take this album to come out?
I got a lot to say about what was going on with this album. This boy, Jeremih, preach about time all the time. ‘It’s timing dog, timing.’ And there’s roadblocks mentally — and I can’t say financially because he’s signed — but it’s a label so it’s a business. So you’ve got to play it like it’s a business. And I just don’t feel like the people there over in his camp do that all the time. That’s my bro, and I’m trying to tell him it’s all about delegating and decision-making. I’m glad he got it together and it finally came out. I’m hoping he can pick it up and run with it. I’ve seen him do it before, I think he can do it again. ‘Just put the damn album out jackass.’ That’s what I used to do tell him.
Well, it felt like a similar thing when the mixtape came out. “Birthday Sex” was a great fucking song, but when the mixtape came out, I felt like it influenced everyone. And it was funny that it wasn’t even on his label, it was clear that he had to fight to get that out. [Ed. note: You can still download that tape for free below, and you should.]
Yeah, I executive produced that mixtape. I wrote most of those. At the time, Mick, Jeremih and the manager of both of those guys were butting heads. It wasn’t really arguments, it was just communication drops. So, he was feeling himself and said ‘Let’s put this shit out ourselves, we don’t need anybody. Let’s get it.’ I was like ‘Hell yeah, I’m riding. Let’s get it.’ We went into the studio for like two or three months.
I was going to be a rapper at one point — and I still might rap — but I put my project down for a year so I could roll with him. We were like ‘Fuck it, we’re going to put it out and hope the people gravitate to it.’ He was never unsure, because he travels and he knows the reaction he gets from his fans, the response. So he knew if he was going to put this shit out, exactly what they want, and it was going to grow. But I’m watching it like, I’m trying to get a bag, let’s get a check. Put this thing out, market it the right way, and get some green off it. But he’s an artiste, so I just let him be artistic.
What are you thoughts on the rest of the Late Nights album? Are there any other songs on there that are really dear to you?
Yeah, “Woosah.” It’s the shit. That’s my shit shit.
The Twista one! A friend of mine likes that one a lot.
See? They know. You get touched off that “Woosah.” What else, “Feel Like Phil,” that’s my shit too. I can’t stop playing that, too. My son loves “Feel Like Phil,” even though he shouldn’t be listening to it. And “Remember Me.” That’s the other song on there that I wrote. To me, that’s a cry for help from him. Because of the way his career is right now, everybody knows him but not everybody knows him. That’s just how you would approach anybody. This is what it is — go get the album. Remember me like this. That one is close to me, and everybody fucking with it from what I understand. Especially the older crowd.
So you’ve begun working on your own solo projects?
This year I put out a couple of EPS, and we’re just building this thing. Mick and I got together working on Jeremih’s last album, and we were like ‘What the hell are we doing, why aren’t we putting music out together?” We put out an EP at the top of 2014 and we’ve got a record coming out real soon.
What are your goals as a solo artist in 2016?
That you won’t not know me. If you work in this business, I want you to know me. I just want to be on everybody’s tongue and in everybody’s ears. Let me just get it going. I’m entertaining, this is what I love to do I’m sorry. Get in a little liquor in me and go crazy. I’d work with anybody, right now, I feel like I want my sound to be heard from me first. Because I’m watching his sound get shared by everybody. Bryson Tiller, Chris [Brown] be using it sometimes. You’re not going to hear anybody who sounds like The Weeknd. And that’s why his check is going to be bigger than everybody’s, because it’s a hot commodity, it’s in demand, and nobody can do it right now. I’m sure somebody can do it, but you’ve got to be there with that man to figure it out. And he’s not having it. He actually told Jeremih he’s not having that shit. He said he isn’t going to work with anyone until he’s squeezed this thing for everything it’s worth. That’s the way to do it these days, because there’s not really a lot of money in it.
Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to say to people?
I want people to know that the violence in Chicago is getting ridiculous and somebody needs to help. I know that’s totally off topic, it’s just we need more Martin Luther King Jrs. We need another Martin, we need another Malcom. We need another Larry Hoover. All of these movements aren’t looked at as positive, and they aren’t all positive, but we need leaders. There are no leaders here anymore and it’s killing this city. Everywhere there’s a thick African-American population, there needs to be a Martin Luther King Jr. That’s just the time we live in, there needs to be that many Martins.