Photos by Derrick Koch
Words by Taylor Lovaas
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in Uptown, Minneapolis; cars pass by a small coffee joint on Hennepin Ave. Construction noise rings loud at first and fades into familiarity as I sit down outside with Finding Novyon and Jonathan Keller who goes by J.KELR. Preparing to unleash their collaborative project “Believe in MPLS” it’s only fitting that we enjoy the city’s warmth while it lasts.
Both draped with headphones, it’s easy to see they haven’t been taking much time away from perfecting the sound of their forthcoming work of art. Although they’ve known each other for less than a year, their collective energy is contagious. We talk about recent events that have transpired in our city and plans for the impending weekend before Novyon speaks on how he and Keller first connected.
“It was through a mutual friend,” he says. “She had seen what I was doing and picked up on that. She hit me up one day randomly and was like, ‘Yo my friend is in town are you at home?’” On the other end of this invitation was Keller who was looking for an artist to connect with from his hometown. “It was a good time for me to be here,” he says while elaborating on coming home to spend time with some ill family.
“We met and had this four hour conversation about nothing but music,” Novyon says. “He’s [Keller] created some songs that mean the most to me. Songs that actually influenced the way I articulate my rhyme schemes and crafted my own sound.”
Keller grew up in South Minneapolis and later moved to Chicago to attend Colombia College for a sound engineering degree. He along with his business partner, Rich Gains, have been behind the boards for some of the Midwest’s finest talent under the collective Blended Babies. “I’m pretty darn lucky to have been posted in Chicago,” Keller says. “We had a recording studio we named the blender in Bucktown Chicago.” Dubbed as The Cool Kids studio, Keller and Gains were no stranger to bubbling talent as well as established legends making appearances in their place.
“Chuck [Inglish] and Mikey [Sir Michael Rocks] would bring Kid Cudi over before he was famous,” he says with a grin on his face. Although Novyon has heard bits and pieces of these stories before he leans in to take in more history. “We had Raekwon come to our studio once and say, ‘Oh my God, this reminds me of RZA’s house where we made ’36 Chambers.’”
Keller shares a few more stories as traffic on Hennepin grows thicker. He speaks on being the first person to ever record Donnie Trumpet’s music during a session for the song “Clear Eyes” featuring Vic Mensa. He chuckles as he recalls kicking a young Chance The Rapper out of another session for rapping too loud during the mixing process.
From The Cool Kids to Vic Mensa, Chance The Rapper, Asher Roth and Anderson .Paak, Keller has continued to lend his talent to artists on the cusp of blowing up. To Novyon, it means the world to be able to work with Keller at this point in his career. “Honestly it’s unbelievable to tell you the truth,” he says. “I’m a big believer in the law of attraction though.”
Although Novyon has traveled the country opening for the likes of Big Sean as well as finding a spot on the 2016 Soundset lineup, he knows this is just the beginning. He opens up about this important time in his career as he reiterates how Keller’s music has been part of his backbone as an artist. “I’m actually working with the person that founded that inspiration,” he says. “It makes me feel like we got something.” He draws a quick comparison of his relationship with Keller to that of fellow Minnesota artist and good friend Allan Kingdom’s connection to Plain Pat. “It’s similar but it’s different,” he says.
After experimenting with a trap-influenced sound with Sonny Digital on Novyon’s high-energy cut “Let’s Get Lit,” he acknowledges Keller’s slow burning production style riddled with live instrumentation. “It’s kind of like being a basketball player being able to switch to the left hand,” he says of transitioning into working with Keller’s infamous sound. “I feel like I’m spitting my best shit. It’s in-depth and it’s actually more fun.”
Drawn out synth samples and looping guitar chords lend itself to more story telling for Novyon on this project. Keller speaks on the production and making his own samples. “I played guitar, bass, a lot of synthesizer. The whole album is on the Jupiter, the Roland Jupiter synthesizer,” he says. “It’s crazy because I bought that shit right before I met Novyon. A lot of the beats were made from scratch.”
Aside from the track “Timberwolves,” the project is less of a tell tale of specific Minneapolis scenes and sights and more of a connection to the city that both artists feel. “The lyrics are more of a documentation of how me and JP [Keller] felt over the past year or so,” Novyon says. “It’s honestly a lot more personal and it’s stuff that a lot of people can relate to, a lot of relationship stuff, self-realizations.” Keller chimes in to add to the feeling of the project, “It’s not all happy though, and that’s okay. It’s real,” he says.
The title, “Believe in MPLS” was a feeling of hope that came about during a transitional time in Keller’s life. Staying at a friend’s vacant house in North Hollywood, Keller invited Novyon to visit while he was in California for the first time playing a show for Red Bull’s 30 Days in LA.
“It was a fucked up time in my life,” Keller says. “I wasn’t feeling that well and I didn’t really tell him [Novyon] what was going on with me.” Novyon’s happiness and passion to put his head down and record with Keller sprouted an idea.
“It ignited a concept I guess right then,” says Keller with a deep breath and a burst of energy. “I’ve always loved Minneapolis and I didn’t want to have to move away but when I was 16 I had to get the fuck out of here and do my thing. I just feel like I’ve always been here and even if Minneapolis doesn’t believe in me, I believe in Minneapolis and that’s how it was.”
Fittingly, the title track is the grittiest work on the project. Keller lays out dark and ominous feeling with a stuttering bass line alongside a high-hat cymbal. Novyon’s vocal sample loops before taking off on his verse rapping about his come up.
While that first session in LA produced a few tracks on the project, Novyon traveled back to sunny California to get a bulk of the recording done. Once again his work ethic thoroughly impressed Keller. Finishing his coffee Novyon lounges back in his chair. “The whole time I was there we were just in the studio,” he says. “On my last day JP [Keller] told me, ‘man you got to slow down, it’s okay to relax.’” Keller re-situates his Minnesota Vikings hat and lets out a laugh before adding to his thoughts on Novyon’s work ethic.
“I’m not going to name any names but in LA I work with a lot of people that it seems like I have to drag them through the mud to get a verse done,” Keller says. The hard work doesn’t stop at the music either, after briefly mentioning to Keller he could get a video done for the title track Novyon hit him with a video snippet out of nowhere showcasing his go-getter attitude.
“I’m about to be 25 next month so it’s go time,” Novyon says. “There’s a façade to it,” he continues on. “ Everybody likes to feel or act like they’re working hard in the studio but all these guys are really just doing drugs and living the social media aspect of it all. For me, I don’t feel good unless I’m at the studio or doing something productive like shooting a video.”
Speaking on the Minneapolis music scene both Novyon and Keller are 100% confident in the talent this city has produced along with those being molded at this very moment. “I’ve been a lot of places,” Novyon says. “I’ve been to LA, I’ve been to New York, Paris, Austin. I’ve seen all these artists in all these different environments and compared to here everyone would get eaten alive.”
Putting in work in Minneapolis Novyon explains how fighting to get noticed instilled a certain mentality within him. “Minnesota’s music scene is very prestigious,” he says. “For one it’s very hard to get noticed here but if you do, it drives you. It crafts you to be this musical machine almost.”
While Keller has taken home base from Minnesota to Chicago and later Los Angeles, his roots keep his faith in Minneapolis growing strong. “Living in Chicago for 11 year and then LA for 5 I went full circle,” Keller says. “I want to believe in Minneapolis. I think it’s the hardest shit out.”
Blending experience with gritty young talent and work ethic, Finding Novyon and J.KELR “Believe In MPLS” and they have the pure, undeniable sound to prove it. Stream the project below and let us know what you think on Twitter @.
UPDATE: The video for the title track directed by Robert Henry is out now as well, watch below!