Milwaukee musician Zechariah Ruffin, known as Zed Kenzo, is releasing an EP this Friday. Her first full-project release since 2019, she says the eight-track EP, which is titled after her name, “Zechariah,” is her most “me” project yet, digging into themes of addiction, heartbreak, recovery and more.
“It’s me,” Ruffin says. “That’s the whole theme of the album. It’s just me, who I am, what I represent, what I’ve been through. This is what I feel about myself and about the people around me.”
Ruffin has been a mainstay in the Milwaukee music scene for nearly a decade. She performed at Summerfest and other festivals and opened for Flo Rida last summer. She participated in Radio Milwaukee’s Backline Program, a 12-week accelerated program that provides coaching, mentoring, industry networking and $20,000 in grants for each of the artists, which accelerated her career. She performed at Justin Vernon’s Eau Claire Festival. She’s released several singles, and in 2019 released her first EP, Baby Swag. Her enigmatic sound and stage presence has built a strong following.
Throughout her career, Ruffin has collaborated with a variety of local and national producers and engineers who have been able to reinforce her anomalous sound. For this EP, Ruffin worked with local producers Jaron “Tsuchi” Tsuchiyama and Immortal Girlfriend. She also worked with a New York based producer, Jared “Sit Still” Rapoza as well as self-producing several of the tracks. Ruffin collaborated with local engineers Eli Stamstad and Tim Wolf alongside Chicago based producer Lon “L Boogie” Renzell as well.
Ruffin’s one-of-a-kind vocals and innovative songwriting has attracted dozens of producers through the years. However, she only works with those whom she believes can really grasp her singular style.
“People are like ‘I’ve got some beats I think you would sound great on. Can I send them to you?’” says Ruffin. “I’m always a little apprehensive because I have such a distinct sound, and I feel like a lot of people don’t capture it. But when they do, it’s really exciting”
When it comes to writing songs, Ruffin’s process is quick, spontaneous and off-the-cuff. Oftentimes, she’ll pull up a beat and immediately start recording over it. “If I’m feeling it, I just get it, I pull the song up and I just start going, without writing it down,” says Ruffin. “I can create a song in like five minutes.”
In March this year, Ruffin moved to Boston to check into an alcohol rehabilitation program, which she recently finished. Several of the songs on the EP were written when she started reckoning with her addiction, and catalogs the feeling of recognizing there’s a problem – but not yet being ready to deal with it.
The first track of the EP, “Fed Up,” starts with the lyrics, “This is how it started, simple beats made by me. I’ve been broken hearted, had me fighting for the title of an alcoholic.”
“I wrote that back in February or January,” says Ruffin. “I knew that there was some stuff going on, but I wasn’t admitting it fully. Just kind of laughing it off like, ‘yeah LOL, I’m an alcoholic’ you know?”
Part of her sobriety journey has been immersing herself back into music to reach people going through similar challenges. “I’ve listened to it over and over and this is it. This is what people need to hear,” she says.
Her message is salient, and her sound is just as multifaceted as ever. In the track “Fed Up,” Ruffin sings over ominous and asynchronous piano, creating an almost apocalyptic and perilous soundscape. In the sixth track, “Come Back,” cyclic synthesizers and 808s back up her ethereal vocals and hypnotic hooks. In the fifth track, “Rudy Huxtable,” she weaves in and out of an interpolation of System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!”
“People can expect Zed Kenzo to be back,” says Ruffin. “It’s exciting, it’s fun. There’s definitely a heartbreak song in there, there’s some turn up songs in there, there’s some punk vibes. I think that everyone is going to enjoy it and. It’s for everybody to listen to whether you like rap or pop music or rock music. There’s something for everybody.”
The release of this EP is a part of her continued path to recovery. Along the way, she’s trying to break down the stigma of addiction – especially in the arts.
“I want to spread my message because I know how isolating and scary and sad it can feel when you’re struggling with addiction and you don’t know it,” says Ruffin. “Or, you do know it but you don’t want people to judge you. We all know too well how intertwined alcohol and drugs are with the performing arts. It’s really hand in hand.”
And in Wisconsin especially, recognizing addiction can be a difficult process. According to the CDC’s 2020 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, across all sub demographics – age, race, education level, gender and income – Wisconsin outranks the rest of the United States in excessive drinking.
“I remember very vividly last summer I went to the lake and I was manifesting the things I wanted,” says Ruffin. “I told myself, ‘you’re not going to find success in your career if you dont stop drinking.’ I told myself that. Did I listen to my own rules? No, I kept doing it.”
Her outlook changed when the hope of a rehabilitation project became feasible.
“I wanted to give up and not do it anymore, not even do life anymore,” says Ruffin. “I pushed myself out of that. I believed in myself. That’s what this project is about. And I’m glad to be here now.”
“Zechariah” will be available for streaming on Spotify and other streaming platforms. The album is also available to purchase on Apple Music.