Sipping coffee at Bay View’s Hi-Fi Cafe, Kellen Abston is wearing a simple white T-shirt and a few dangling gold chains. He is in a particularly cheerful mood. But when he starts to discuss the industrious three years since his masterful first full-length hip-hop record, the emcee whose stage name is Klassik reveals a surprising meekness.
“I can hang pretty well at this point, but I know that there are people who have dedicated more,” Abston says of his craft. “I’ve thought of myself as someone who can rap; I’ve thought of myself as someone who was a fan of hip-hop, but I grew up with Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye.”
Although he’s underselling his abilities on the mic, Abston is more like a sought-after utility player than a meaty cleanup hitter – a deft performer who can slide into any role with ease. On his third full-length album Seasons, released in July, he rarely stays in the same place long. One minute he sings lush R&B melodies, the next, he slings fuzzed-out verses over free-form production. The silky-smooth results are his most assured to date.
His musical breadth is a product of his jazz background. Abston picked up the saxophone in elementary school while taking lessons from local sax legend Berkeley Fudge. He recently joined Group of the Altos on saxophone, and his restless presence stands out in the 15-member ensemble. In fact, his impassioned verse on one of the group’s R U Person Or Not tracks blazed new territory for the band. Despite this flexibility, he grew up listening to so much Prince that, he says, “I thought I’d never be good enough or never play enough instruments.”
That not-quite-good-enough mentality has driven Abston to set himself apart from his fellow Milwaukee rappers. While others use producers to generate beats so they can focus on writing verses, Abston writes and records his own jazz-influenced compositions in his home studio.
“Every composition starts with piano,” Abston says. “That’s just hours of me sitting and playing. I sit there and then something comes of it. I start building off that. Then, I churn out three or four arrangements or melodic ideas. I just let it happen.” He has a similar take-it-as-it-comes approach to writing lyrics, which come from stream-of-consciousness bursts of inspiration.
“I’ve never written a verse without music; I’ve always written to a piece,” Abston says. “There are rappers who have notebooks, rhymes for days. I don’t even write the lyrics. Ninety percent of the
time, I don’t write it down. If I write it down, it just means we need the lyrics for something else. We’re sending it for licensing or something.”
This free-flowing process means some tracks sit on the shelf for years, while others are created in only an afternoon. He even sells some of those lyric-less compositions on his iamklassik.com website.
Seasons has been in the works since early 2014 and was introduced through a series of three-song EPs in the first half of 2015. The fast-paced rollout of his staggered collection of EPs doesn’t seem to faze Abston, who’s hungry to create more, perhaps due to that nagging belief that he’ll never be good enough. But in the years since his debut, that’s been a minority opinion.
Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Aug. 24 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story on Klassik.