— KG —

On Tottenham, drama school, beats, broadcasting, battling disillusionment, Goon Club Allstars, Normal Not Novelty, Capital Dance and championing rhythm & ambition on new EP, ‘Sensei II’.

(All photos submitted by KG)

“You know what people say, when it rains it pours”, says Karen Nyame, trying to sum up a remarkable few years that’s seen her kick down myriad doors as a DJ, producer and broadcaster. Better known by her artist moniker, KG, she’s speaking to me from home in Stamford Hill on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, in the midst of a bustling promo run for her new Black Acre EP, ‘Sensei II’ — a sparkling record boasting collaborations and guest features from Mista Silva, Taliwoah, Aymos and South African vocalist, Toya Delazy.  “I’ve really been trying to get in my record producer bag recently you know”, she says, breaking out into laughter. “But no, no, in all seriousness, the difference between the ‘KG’ EP and this one is crazy. I’ve come a long way.”

Five years ago, things were very different. Bereft of confidence and struggling for any sort of break, KG was close to giving up on music altogether, until a chance DM from Goon Club Allstars — a DIY label with a cult following and a lauded discography — would change everything. In fact, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck UK shores last March, she’d barely had a moment to herself. “That moment of stillness, having that opportunity to slow down and work on things introspectively has actually been really beneficial”, she says, opening our conversation. ‘Before that, I was here, I was there, touring, taking bookings back-to-back … you just don’t get a chance to assess where you’re at or how you’re feeling when things are like that. I guess I’ve just tried to give myself the chance to delve back into self-care as a response almost, just to make sure that I’m good when the world starts to open back up again, you know. I just thought to myself, ‘when will you ever get to spend some time with you?”

An only child, KG was born in Tottenham to Ghanaian parents and has stayed local to North London throughout her life. She recalls being a very ‘animated’ and ‘creative’ young child — “it might be some dramatic little performance at my dad’s house where I was pretending to be in a soap opera or I was just writing songs and playing my guitar” — and grew up close to where the 2011 London riots were sparked in response to the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan. “It’s really dark thinking about it”, she says, pausing for a moment. “I mean, that stretch was literally where I used to be, it was where I grew up. To see it all go up in flames … ah, man … it was a very profound moment in time.”

“My parents split up when I was about four or five, but my dad still played an important part in shaping my musical appetite”, she continues, reflecting on her childhood. “He was really eclectic in terms of genres, where as my mum was quite linear … she’s a Ghanaian woman, she was just into her African Highlife and that was about it. She quite likes a bit of jazz actually too, but she didn’t stray too far from the formula. My dad was into reggae, motown, jungle, alternative pop … everything really. I was a sponge growing up, so I just absorbed all of that energy.”

What was school like, I ask? “I think my creativity kinda ran into my school life as well”, KG explains. “I was a heavy gamer, too. I had all of the consoles, from your Sega Megadrive to your Nintendo to the first batch of Playstations, but all I’d ever get was music making software and the occasional car game like Need For Speed or Porsche Carrera Challenge. Going back to school, and my mum always says this, but I was just that child that talked to everyone, wanted to help everyone and my teachers were just like, ‘ah man, that Karen, she’s amazing, man!’. I was actually really shy though, especially around adults, to the point where people thought something might be wrong. At school, I’d run around and play with my friends and let myself go a bit, but with adults I’d just never really speak, I was so reserved. That all changed when I went to drama school. Oh boy, it all changed after that … you’d never shut me up!”

“I had all of the consoles, from your Sega Megadrive to your Nintendo to the first batch of Playstations, but all I’d ever get was music making software and the occasional car game like Need For Speed or Porsche Carrera Challenge.”

In and amongst the hustle and bustle of school, KG quickly realised she heard music differently to everybody else, too. “I knew that my affinity towards music was different and the way that I processed music was different”, she says, again pausing for a moment. “I would isolate the instruments in a song in my head. You know when people consume music, they’ll pretty much just be listening to the song itself, maybe vibing with the lyrics or whatever, but I’d always be like ‘ah, I love that shaker in the background’ or I’d mimic the sound of specific instruments. Thinking back, I had a neighbour when I was growing up that we used to call Uncle Henry. He was a vinyl DJ and all he ever did was play US house, US garage … a lot of Todd Edwards and stuff like that. It was beautiful and up-tempo and I just loved the way that it sounded. My dad actually started getting me music tech magazines around that time and they’d come with these free audio workstation demos. I remember sticking the CDs into our home PC and they’d always be house music production suites, so I started making jungle and acid house with the loops and presets at like seven, eight years old. I didn’t understand what I was doing, but I knew that I was putting sounds together… and I loved it. It was like another one of my games to me.”

“My dad actually started getting me music tech magazines and they’d come with these free audio workstation demons. I remember sticking the CDs into our home PC and they’d always be house music production suites, so I started making jungle and acid house with the loops and presets at like seven, eight years old.”

In the background, KG was starting to mould her own tastes — and they were just as eclectic as her dad’s. “Ah I’d be listening to Enya, Annie Lennox, Barry White … and then into Shabba Ranks and Bob Marley”, she recalls. “Then I remember finding ‘90s RnB and being fascinated and heavily inspired by the early Timbaland, Missy Elliot, Ginuwine, Aaliyah days. That era was golden. I just remember thinking, ‘whatever they are doing, I wanna do that’. I wanted to be Missy Elliot really, she literally was the blueprint. At secondary school, I had a few issues with girls, growing pains shall we say, and I remember no one really getting me until the music classes starting popping in like, year 8 or whatever, when I basically started making songs for everyone. That in itself led me into the UKG era. I was listening to a lot of MJ Cole and that soulful, melodic side of UK garage, which then bled into the So Solid Crew era and then Dizzee Rascal and grime. I just wanted to emulate whatever musical shifts were happening at the time, really. I was totally obsessed.”

“I wanted to be Missy Elliot really, she was literally the blue print.”

After leaving school, KG knew that she wanted to work in the media in one form or another. “There was no elaborate plan or anything”, she says, “but broadcasting was my thing and I knew that I had to somehow work my way into the industry. College was a bit of a dud because I actually failed my music technology course … imagine you’re already a producer and you fail music technology?”. She opted to leave London for Nottingham Trent University shortly after finishing college, where she studied broadcast journalism in the hope of landing a job on her return to the capital. All the while, she still harboured dreams of becoming a fully fledged music producer, too. What was university like, I wondered? “A lot of my lecturers were like ex-BBC honchos, really quite traditional and old school”, she recalls, chucking to herself. “But the experience I gained from them was priceless really and it made me realise that radio was the thing I wanted to try and lock down. I actually did a few placements with Heart 106 and Smooth Radio while I was at university as well, because I’d effectively been training for commercial radio, but at the same time there was this surge of broken beat that was starting to morph into UK funky in the clubs. I thought to myself, ‘I missed the grime era, I missed the garage era, so let me try and jump on this UK funky wave’. I didn’t know how it’d pan out but I just went for it.”

“College was a bit of a dud because I actually failed my music technology course … imagine you’re already a producer and you fail music technology?”

“I’d spend so much of my time just logging onto Facebook groups trying to find the hottest pirate radio DJs to try and get my music too”, KG continues. “Deja FM, Touch FM, Mystic FM, Heat FM … like, ‘who can I send these unmixed, raw versions of these UK funky tracks straight off Fruity Loops too?’. I just wanted my stuff to be played on pirate radio, that was it. It’s crazy now, thinking back to that period because I never knew what was to come. It was such a ripe time for so much music back then. I was kinda around at the tipping point for afrobeats and UK funky … like some of the MCs and hosts that were around then are now doing up Vogue and Paris Fashion Week, it’s mad. I was speaking to Kitty Amor the other day … I love Kitty, she went to the same uni as me … and just seeing her and Sef Kombo on the cover of Mixmag made me think, ‘bloody hell, we’ve come a long way, man’.”

For all her enthusiasm and hard work, KG’s time at Nottingham would unwittingly serve as a pre-cursor to a period that she now looks back on as the hardest of her life so far. Like many graduates, she’d left university hopeful and wide-eyed but upon her return to London, quickly realised that life out in the real world was far from what the glossy, graduate careers fairs had promised. Coupled with her mum facing an unexpected redundancy, she found herself isolated, anxious and disillusioned. “Things got dark for me pretty quickly”, she says softly. “I graduated in 2010 but my mum had been made redundant shortly before during my final year. She used to work as MFI, the furniture store, and they went into administration and it was the first time she’d ever heard of anything like it. I ended up having to borrow money from friends just to get by those last few months. Doing your dissertation and not having enough money to survive, knowing that your mum is struggling because she has no financial support either … it was the hardest thing ever. To make it worse, I couldn’t get a job when I got home. I was unemployed for about two years and so I fell into a very, very deep depression. It was probably the darkest moment of my whole entire life. I found myself thinking like, ‘I’m a graduate, why do I need to sign on?’. Like, ‘why am I here at the job centre? You lot told me to go to university in order to get a job and I come back and I can’t get one?’. I sometimes think about if I was right to have that sense of entitlement but we were all told to go to university, you know. It was just a massive knock to my confidence and I remember I literally started the therapy process as soon as I could get some money together in 2011, 2012. My self-esteem was in the gutter back then, honestly.”

“Doing your dissertation and not having enough money to survive, knowing that your mum is struggling because she has no financial support either … it was the hardest thing ever.”

To make matters worse, some of KG’s funky tracks had started to gain a bit of traction — but nothing was sticking. “I thought something might happen off the back of all that”, she acknowledges, “so I started to have conversations and realised that people had heard of me and my music. A&R’s started approaching me and I remember getting excited and a bit ahead of myself, especially because they’d mention publishing deals and this and that. When none of that materialised, it was like ‘wow, okay so music isn’t for me’. I didn’t have any money, I couldn’t get a job and now I was gonna have to quit music because it wasn’t feasible… and the industry was just weird. It was just too much for me to deal with and it look me a long time to pick myself back up afterwards.”

Despite eventually landing a job working in security, KG took the next five or so years as time away from music. She’d still make beats in her down time — “it definitely helped keep the studio juices flowing” — but the safety blanket of structure and a regular wage had helped stitch her confidence back together. Maybe it was time to move on from music for good? “I definitely felt a deep sense of emptiness because I wasn’t having that creative exchange with other people”, she recalls. “My friends would always be asking about when I was coming back to music or whatever but I couldn’t be arsed with the politics and the stress. For a while, I was just thinking like, let me get my money, live for the weekend and take a holiday here and there… the simple life. Over time though, it quickly dawned on me that I just was living to exist and that was never the aim. I’m a passionate person, you know, and I realised I was actually suppressing my authentic self by living like that. I went back into therapy in 2017 just as I’d started to learn to DJ … which is when Goon Club Allstars first got in touch.”

“For a while, I was just thinking like, let me get my money, live for the weekend and take a holiday here and there … the simple life.”

Goon Club, co-run by label heads Kamran (fka Moleskin) and Ed, had already built a strong rep for not leveraging quality about quantity — they’re still only 10 releases deep despite forming in 2013 — but birthing new stars, too. As well as being the label behind Mssingno’s cult debut EP, they were also the first label to platform gqom in the UK — see Rudeboyz’ self-titled 2015 debut EP — and were crucial in building out the career of DJ Lag, who went on to co-produce a track for Beyoncé’s ‘Lion King: The Gift’ soundtrack in 2019 alongside stars like Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar and Burna Boy. “They were the first label that had properly approached me about my tracks and it was like, ’this music thing, I don’t know man’”, she says openly. “There are so many barriers and obstacles to think about, especially as a black woman in electronic music, so I took my time weighing it up, but Ed and Felix (Kamran) were so supportive from the beginning. To be honest, it was more a case of me just giving them the tracks to do whatever they wanted with … I couldn’t actually find the stems for ’808’ so they had to make do!”

“I didn’t think much of what was going on at that point”, KG continues. “I was already spending a lot of time with two amazing creatives, Ronnie Loko and Kofi Amah, my brothers, who’d call me to their studio so I could spend time on the decks and become accustomed to DJing. Towards the end of the year, Ed from Goon Club messaged me to say they were planning on dropping my EP in January 2018 and then asked if I could DJ. I told them I was much more of a producer than a DJ but that I was you know, alright. They were like ‘ah, okay, okay, you’re learning … do you think you’d be ready for Rinse FM in January?’ I was like…’Rinse…FM? I can get ready!’. Honestly, that December, those fucking Pioneers … I was mixing day and night, practising. I mean, Rinse FM? I’d been trying to get on Rinse for the longest. I’d sent so many demos to so many radio stations and never got any feedback from anybody so doing a production mix for Goon Club… ah man, it was crazy. Rinse FM! That one guest mix made me seriously reconsider coming back to music but then as soon as the ‘KG’ EP dropped later that month, that was it. I was back in full effect. This time, I felt a deeper sense of community. I instantly made some amazing friends and met some amazing artists, and now there were safe spaces for women in music. There was tangible progress I could see around me. I felt like I’d cracked a code.”

The ‘KG’ EP, comprised of two of KG’s biggest forgotten funky anthems in ‘808’ and ‘Midnight (Flute Riddim)’, was an instant classic. Backed up by remixes from FDM pioneer Hitmakerchinx and Goon Club affiliate, BSNYEA, it was a record that slotted into the label discography seamlessly, while capturing the imagination of UK dance floors. Finally, KG was getting her flowers. “It’s not stopped since that moment”, she says warmly. “It’s been a complete domino effect.”

EPs for Hyperdub — she collaborated on collaborative gqom-flavoured EP, ‘Touch’, with Scratcha DVA in 2019 — and a follow up for Goon Club soon followed (including a fully-mastered re-issue of 2009 classic, ‘Feeling Funky’) with new EP, ’Sensei II’, scheduled for release on June 25 as her first for Black Acre. She also collaborated with Uniiqu3 on a pulsating two-tracker for Jamz Supernova’s Future Bounce label at the back end of last year. With such a fluid approach to her releases so far, I asked what her overarching MO is — what makes a KG record, a KG record? “I’m all about the sounds of the diaspora and making sure I produce through an afro-lens, while fusing that with club energy”, she says eloquently. “I’m at a point right now where I really wanna evolve past the beat-maker stage and go into more record producing, which I hope I’ve managed to achieve on ‘Sensei II’. It’s an example of my artistic growth as well I think, so I’m chuffed about that. It was a big learning curve to work with vocalists, especially from an arrangement perspective because when you’re making beats, you don’t think to leave any space. I can recount with Taliwoah for example, I’d placed the bridge of ‘Mantra’ at the end of the track and Tali was just like ‘nah sis, put it in the middle and the breakdown like, give me some air to breathe!’. When I heard it back, it sounded beautiful and I realised straight away that she was right.”

“The last time I was in Ghana was … I can’t even remember!”, she continues, as talk turns back to the subject of the diaspora. “Because I’m integrated into my community, it’s kinda like back home is here anyway. Twi is my second language, my mum and my aunties are here and I’ve got a load of British-Ghanaian musicians that I connect with regularly, so that forms the glue that binds us together. Home has never really escaped me in that sense, but I know I need to go back to purge and re-root, because I know it’ll influence everything that I do creatively and artistically. It’s always important to touch the motherland just from a spiritual perspective, and I know my experience of Ghana now, as an adult, will be very different to how I remember it as a child.”

“Twi is my second language, my mum and my aunties are here and I’ve got a load of British-Ghanaian musicians that I connect with regularly, so that forms the glue that binds us together.”

As well as her own music snowballing, KG has also been a figurehead (and production lead) for Red Bull Music’s Normal Not Novelty program since 2018 — a nationwide series of monthly events and workshops aimed at encouraging women to get involved in electronic music, be it as DJs, producers or engineers. “I would have loved for something like Normal Not Novelty to have been around when I was 22”, she explains. “It’s my way of paying it forward I guess and I enjoy the sessions so much. It’s such a safe space, too. There’s no judgement, no right way of being or doing things. I’ve had so many experiences in music with men trying to mansplain everything … you know, “oh that’s the fader, do you know what that is?’ kinda stuff … so getting to the point where I can pass on my expertise to other women coming up is really gratifying. Let’s make some other KGs, you get me!”

The icing on the cake? As of early 2021, KG also finally got her long-deserved commercial radio break at Capital Dance — the dance arm of the Capital network, launched by former BBC R1 & 1Xtra DJ, MistaJam, earlier this spring. “It felt like another falling-out-of-the-sky scenario and I’m not gonna lie, it’s still blowing my mind”, she says, her voice almost trembling with excitement. “If you would have told me I was gonna be on national radio in 2021, I’d have been like ‘whaaaaat, how is that gonna happen?’. I actually got a referral through a lovely girl that I know and worked with at Foundation FM, who also worked at Global. The senior producers at Capital had asked her if there were any DJs around that they needed to know and she put me forward. She ended up messaging me to tell me that these senior producers wanted to meet for a chat and I was like, ‘whaaaaat, what kind of chat?’ kinda thing. It felt crazy! She setup a Zoom and we had a chat and we haven’t really stopped since. They ended up inviting me to record a demo show and then kept hypothetically asking where I’d see myself in terms of commercial radio. Obviously, the natural fit was Capital Dance and so I was basically demoing from December 2020. The producers loved my voice, so I kept on recording and demoing and chatting on Zoom right up until April time, when they offered me my first cover contract at the station. I’m still pretty much in the training process right now, but I’ve been covering shows whenever my schedule allows and I’m absolutely loving it so far.”

After years of hard graft and some immeasurable lows, KG’s recent success feels all the sweeter. It’s hard not to be compelled by her infectious approach to life, too, and she speaks honestly with care and detail; every word is measured and considered. As for her music, it’s never sounded so full or expansive. From the funky barnstormers of her past to complex, colourful, engrossing records like ‘Sensei II’, KG is clearly an artist on the up — and one revelling in the spotlight. “I eventually do wanna go down the label route as well”, she says, looking to the future. “I really feel like I’ve got a knack for developing new talent and I love sharing and encouraging and teaching, so hopefully I can do that somewhere down the line. I’d love to become a proper staple in electronic music as well. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be credited on a Wizkid album or have production credits on a Kelela joint. I want to have a presence in that space and eventually be a gateway for other amazing women in music. I’ve still got a few doors left to kick down, basically.”

KG’s new EP, ’Sensei II’, is out June 25 on Black Acre:

https://karennyamekg.bandcamp.com/album/sensei-ii

Tickets for the first KG & Friends event at NT’s LOFT on July 2 are available now:

https://dice.fm/event/oox7g-kg-friends-ep-launch-2nd-jul-nts-loft-london-tickets

3 thoughts on “— KG —

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