By Nick Harwood. The cover of Kenna Zemedkun‘s first album, New Sacred Cow, is nearly blank. For his second album, the story goes, Pharrell urged him to reveal his mug, to give his audience a face to the name. He didn’t, of course, titling it Make Sure They See My Face in joking rebuke. And four EPs later, he’s still yet to heed his friend’s advice. But far from a camera-shy Weeknd-type enigma, Kenna’s face has been seen in a variety of other mediums in the six years since his last full-length. There he was on the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as a case study of the virtue of intuition, and on MTV, leading a pack of celebrities to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in support of clean water.
For the most part, though, he stepped out of the music world, fashioning himself into more of a philanthropist-entrepreneur than singer-songwriter. Now, he’s back in the role of musician, with a slew of brief releases produced by the likes of RJD2 and Chad Hugo out on Dim Mak Records this year. Respect-Mag.com sat down with the Virginia Beach-bred Renaissance man to chat about his new sound and old image.
RESPECT: Your new music is out on Steve Aoki’s label, Dim Mak. How did that come about?
Kenna: Aoki and I have been friends for a few years, and Dim Mak is a hungry label. I wanted to license my records, I wanted to own my masters, and he afforded me that opportunity. At the same time, he’s a fan of my music and put his team on task to make sure that it gets heard. And that’s all I ever wanted from a relationship with a label. It’s a true partnership. The other thing is that—maybe I shouldn’t say it—it’s an indicator of where, sonically, I might shift a little bit in the near future. I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, but I definitely have always had an electronic twinge to my music anyways; there’s gonna be some interesting dynamic shifts from my album that don’t sound anything like the Imitation Is Suicide EP, doesn’t sound like any of the Land 2 Air EPs. It’s gonna change completely. And in the meantime, I’m just saying, “By the way, remember this? By the way, I can do this too. Don’t try to limit me, ‘cause my next record’s not gonna be anything you expect.”
You’ve been working with a range of other artists lately, from Vic Mensa to JoJo. How would you describe your approach to collaboration?
Here’s the thing: I don’t think that the world is flat anymore. People listen to everything. Diddy came out today and said he loves country music. Did you hear about that? We’re influenced by a lot of different music, and it only makes sense for me to find the best breeds in all different genres and wanna work with them—at least the ones that I love. Working with Jo, she’s one of the illest vocalists on the planet—forget what genre she’s in. Working with Childish [Gambino] is like working with one of the best in the world. It’s not about what genres they’re in, it’s about whether or not we can make great music together.
What does the EP format allow you to do that can’t be done on a full-length? What kinds of ideas can you get across in three tracks?
I look at myself as a new artist. I stepped out of the focus on music for a minute to do some other business and philanthropic work. And to come back to it, I have to acknowledge to my fans that I’ve been doing other things, and I have to come out with music that matters and is relevant now. So for me, it was about being able to create little bite-sized packages for people to get into but not be overwhelmed by. Who wants to hear a whole album of anybody right now? So to me, it’s like, “Here’s three records. Love what you love, hate what you hate. Here’s three more. Oh, here’s three more.” And being consistent. The other thing that’s happened over my whole career is that, being stuck to some label systems, I haven’t been able to put out the records when I wanted to. And there have been a lot of delays. I hated that. It wasn’t my fault. But now that I control it, I want to make sure I’m consistent with putting out music that matters and being relevant in what I make. And respecting my audience and being sure that they know that I’m fucking working. The hustle’s on.
Are you still recording in Virginia?
No, I haven’t recorded in Virginia in a minute. Chad, we do some stuff satellite, so Chad’ll be working in Virginia. I’m mostly working in Los Angeles now.
What’s it like working with Chad in a post-Neptunes world?
Don’t sleep. It seems like they don’t work together as much, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work together as much, if that means anything. They still work together. It’s not official, on multiple levels, but Chad and Pharrell will always be allies. They’ll always work together on things here and there. You never know when Chad’s involved with something. It may not be titled “Neptunes” anymore, but he’s always close by. When it comes down to the big picture of evolution, we all have different things to say with our lives, and naturally, there’s a progression there. I’ve always been kind of tangential to the Neptunes’ mast, but at the exact same time, I’ll see Pharrell this week, and I talk to Chad—Chad’s in Charlotte on the way back to VA right now. We’re far from each other on multiple levels, but we’re just making other things.
I just put out another song, “Love Is Still Alive,” from Chapter II of the EP, and that was the first time—well, not the first time, but one of the first future soul type of records I’ve ever fully produced myself, and wrote, and produced, and played everything. It’s that kind of time right now, where we have to evolve and shape our futures. Pharrell’s always produced his own shit, and I commend him for that, because he’s always pushed himself to do that. My focuses are different. We all do come together, though. I’ll be there to talk to him about his mix on things, or a record that he’s writing, and assist, and give him—I guess, the word is a 30,000-foot view on something when he’s in the middle of it. Same with Chad—Chad will do the same thing for me. We’ll always work together, so it’s really dope to see the cycle. Great music comes back. You look at Pharrell, and the things that are happening this year, and what’s gonna happen next year with him, it’s great to know that music and great melodies will always return to the forefront no matter what.
It just occurred to me—the nexus, the meeting point of you, Pharrell, and Chad, might be Steve Aoki. Isn’t P on tour with him right now?
[Laughs] Steve Aoki is the nexus! It’s interesting. Things are just not written. When you circle each other in a creative space, you’re bound to bump into each other. Steve Aoki circles that space, so does Pharrell, so does Childish Gambino, so does Santigold. The nexus in LA is the Record Plant studio where we all run into each other and run into each other’s sessions and cut vocals. You wonder why those collaborations ever happen—it’s because they were all in the same studio on the same day by accident. And they all love each other’s shit.
Talk to me about your extracurriculars. You and Pharrell took a couple years to step into entrepreneurial mode, making waves in the world of online media. What exactly do you do for MySpace?
Justin [Timberlake] is a co-owner of Myspace. I’m his partner at MySpace. As the Chief Vision Officer, which is in tandem as one of the chief creatives here, my gig is pretty overarching—basically, where MySpace is gonna go, what it’s gonna do. For example, why it looks the way it does right now is a part of my work.
The side scroll, right? Was that you?
Yeah, the new design, the side scroll, the UX, the UI, how we build the team around it. I brought Joseph Patel, who was at Vice before. Now he runs editorial and content at MySpace. I’m pretty much a change agent. Let’s just call it that.
Ten years ago, if I told you that you and Justin Timberlake were gonna own MySpace and Pharrell’s gonna be on tour with Daft Punk, what would you have said?
You know what’s funny? There was a moment ten years ago when I sat down with this kid in college, and I was like, “Yo, I need you to make a MySpace page with me,” and he was like, “Yeah, but I don’t have a computer.” I said, “Cool, let me get you one,” and I bought him a computer. I said, “Because I’m giving you this computer, I want you to run my MySpace page from now on. You just keep it up.” And he did that, and he’s gone on to do a lot of things. He directed music videos, he’s over at Karmaloop now—
Yeah, Shomi. He’ll tell you this story. He said, “I’ll do that for you,” and I said, “Look, one day when I run MySpace, we’ll do a lot of shit together.” That was ten years ago. Then, literally ten months ago, I went to have a meeting with MySpace and Karmaloop, and he walked in and told that story to the whole room, and it was like, “Oh shit—we’re here to actually do shit together.”
I think it’s manifest destiny, man. You build what you believe is your future in every word you speak, in every action you take. I’m here for a greater purpose. I’m here to help people get clean water. That’s my legacy. I’ll climb mountains for that. I’ll write records for that. I’ll run social networks for that. So everything I do is to build towards that goal. That first Kilimanjaro climb I did ended up being a part of pushing $400 million into clean water. At the end of the day, I went and dug a well 50 yards from where my grandfather tried to build a well in Ethiopia so that he could get water 50 years ago with my father. These are the things that matter in this life, and my music is a conduit for that kind of change. So every time you guys post stuff, every time I get put on here and there, the opportunities rise for me to be able to do more of that. I appreciate this conversation. And at the end of the day, I know Pharrell, and Chad, and everybody else that I work with, they know what my purpose is. Pharrell always says, “Make something greater than yourself.” And that’s what I try to do with every single melody that comes out of my mouth and every sound that comes out of my teeth. That’s my goal, so that I can actually do what I’m here to do: make change.