When I secured the interview with Jimmy Keys for “Un-Block The Music,” I had a flashback to the days working at Billboard. At that time, did I ever expect to interview a rapper for a Broadway show story? I didn’t! But, “Un-Block The Music” is so excited to be on the front lines as theater begins to catch up with the rest of the music industry. Jimmy Keys, aka J. Keys, is the lyric writer and part of the sound design team for Skeleton Crew and Confederates, both written by the dynamic Tony-nominated Dominique Morisseau, who also happens to be Jimmy’s wife.
“I am from Southfield, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. I went to University of Michigan where I met Dominique. It was the only school I applied to. I was set on going there,” Jimmy said. “My mother, God rest her soul, emphasized academics which I pushed to the side for extra curriculars. But the irony is, those extra curriculars would become the foundation of my career trajectory.” Jimmy worked on college radio, hosted events and did open mic.
Jimmy said he always wanted to be an MC or a rapper, but he needed a day job. So, he aggressively pursued a record label internship. “It took me a year to get a job to work for free!!” But, when they kept passing him by for a paying job, he followed up on a lead to work as a promoter at Bad Boy Records owned by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs where he ended up being employed for about 8 years. It was probably not the best time to be working at a record label. “I cut my teeth during an era when labels were trying to figure out what to do with downloading and streaming. All of the labels were downsizing. Bad Boy kept doing distribution deals that would last only a year,” he said.
What kept Jimmy working during that time of change was not music promotion necessarily but the promotion of Diddy’s spirit. “I did every job you can imagine in that small environment and eventually became marketing director and head of road management. It prepared me for what I do now.” When he felt he hit a career plateau, Jimmy ventured out on his own, continuing as an artist of course, but he is also a promoter, producer/engineer.
Did Jimmy ever expect to work on Broadway? Heck no. He always wondered why all of the music in musicals has been the same since the 1920s. “We are entering a time with the next generation of theater music. What was once rebel music (Hip Hop and Rap) is mainstream now. I expect musicals are going to continue to evolve,” he said.
Jimmy and Rob Kaplowitz worked together on the sound design for the off-Broadway production of Skeleton Crew, which starred Phylicia Rashad, takes place in 2008 Detroit in a small car factory on the brink of foreclosure. The plot focuses on four characters and their uncertainty and how the line between blue collar and white collar becomes blurred. Workers come to understand their personal loyalties, their instincts for survival and their hopes for humanity. In essence, the sound designers brough the factory to life through sound cues. “When we did it off-Broadway, we didn’t have a lot of time. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson brought us together, but we had only about two weeks at best to put something up.” However, when it was headed to Broadway, the team was able to pull out a lot more stops. They already had a familiarity with the show and more time to achieve their vision. “Broadway gave us a bigger budget and more resources. We probably had the most intense music process for a show that isn’t a musical!”
Jimmy described the process. “In one room, you would have the playwright and actors, directors and the stage manager who were going over lines and blocking (how the actors move). We had a rehearsal room next door and we created a mobile studio for myself, Rob and Chesney Snow who is the beatboxer that director Ruben brought on to help give the factory a human side. “We had to cross reference the script to decide what moments needed music and transition music. We passed music back and forth. Sometimes music in a play can be ambient, but not here. Ruben leans into the music and showcases it!”
While Skeleton Crew was still running, Jimmy was already working on Confederates. He has created the music side of the sound design. The show is about an enslaved rebel turned Union spy and a tenured professor in a modern-day private university that are having parallel experiences of institutional racism, though they live over a century apart.
The show opened this week at the Signature Theater and runs through April 8. For more about the show and tickets, go to https://order.signaturetheatre.org/events/confederates
For more about Skeleton Crew and Rob Kaplowitz, go to https://unblockthemusic.blog/2022/03/09/tony-winning-sound-designer-rob-kaplowitz-talks-about-brining-a-car-factory-to-life/