The tale of New York rapper Keith “Koncept” Whitehead and his partner in crime, producer Jimmy “J57” Heinz, dates back to September 2006. Koncept had just returned home to New York after attending college in Vermont and decided to stop into his favorite record store, Fat Beats. When he walked in, J57 was playing his own beats, and some cats were rapping over them. “So I asked if I could jump in the cypher, as the rap guys say,” Koncept tells me. “So I jumped in, and kicked these raps, and then me and J started talking and building, and we exchanged info.” Soon after, the two artists got into the studio and started recording together.
At the time, J57 was working at Fat Beats, and got Koncept a job there, which both describe as a “dream come true.” It was there that they met DeeJay Element, DJ E-Holla, Soul Khan, and The Audible Doctor, and formed The Brown Bag AllStars, bonding over a love and appreciation of New York hip hop. “We’d play all the classic hip hop artists you’d listen to growing up in New York,” J explains. “Like Wu-Tang, Jay Z, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta. But at the same time, we were also playing UGK and T.I., which I’d get yelled at for,” J laughs. “It wasn’t cool to do that in New York back then.” Over time, they expanded their horizons and started playing a more diverse mix of music, which included artists like Björk and Radiohead.
While it all started with East Coast hip hop, Koncept and J57’s music today is the by-product of being inspired by a myriad of genres and artists. And they hope this appreciation for all types of music shines through on their new EP, The Fuel, which features an eclectic mix of artists, from Dice Raw of the Legendary Roots Crew to Nevaeh, a soul singer from Portland, who at only 12-years-old is already taking the music world by storm. The EP, an amuse bouche of sorts for their Flight album, due out in 2016, also features indie rock artist Andrew Thomas Reid, soul singer Akie Bermiss, Hollis from Macklemore’s camp, and others. Each artist on The Fuel EP represents a different genre or subgenre, and brings a different edge to uniquely complement the duo’s style.
One key aspect about The Fuel EP that might surprise Koncept and J57’s fans is their decision to release the record through their own imprint, Kon57, instead of through a major label. Since meeting and working together at Fat Beats, Koncept and J have built their entire brand on their own. “We’ve always done all our PR and marketing,” J57 says. “We’ve toured Europe, the U.S., and Canada. We’ve played SXSW the last three years. We’ve played A3C. And we’ve just reached a lot of accomplishments that we’re very proud of, and we’ve done all of these on our own.”
Soon after finishing the album, Koncept and J were called by several major labels that wanted to sign them. “We couldn’t believe it at first,” J reminisces. “We were like, ‘Wow. This is what we’ve worked so hard for.’” But as the dust began to settle and the initial thrill wore off, the artists began to realize how much they’d be giving up by signing with a major label. “We sat with these labels and had more and more meetings, and we began to realize that basically, we were gonna be giving everything we had built,” J57 says. “It’s more work to do it on our own. But honestly, we like the work. And we’re happy to do it this way.”
Koncept and J57’s The Fuel EP is out now on iTunes.