WORDS: Kelly Trom VIDEO: Spencer Sarson
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He sits on the bench in front of his old, chipped, bright yellow locker in the San Luis Obispo High School locker room. His name is painted on the wall for all-county recognition as a defensive back on the 2008 football team.
Some might say his career started in that locker room. Playing alongside Richard Sherman and Champ Bailey in the NFL was once his dream, but now his career aspirations aim a little closer to Eminem or Slug from hip-hop duo Atmosphere.
His words reverberate through the room, echoing through all of the lockers filled with current students’ sports equipment. His eyes light up as he accompanies his words with sound effects, flow and rhythm signifying the mark of a performer.
San Luis Obispo County emcee James Kaye started pursuing a career in music when he was 17. He recorded music with his friends in a group called “Clockwork Royalty.” Before games, all of the players would freestyle back and forth to get each other pumped up.
“For me, this is where I learned to work with a team and work within a system,” Kaye said. “Right next to my brothers, all my boys. We were out there together putting in work. That has definitely carried over into the people I work with now.”
The first thing he freestyled was a poetry assignment in elementary school. He took the beat and flow of Ice Cube’s verse “Gangster Gangster” at the end of N.W.A.’s Greatest Hits and put it in his own words.
Many of his music milestones can be traced back to his time as a Tiger at San Luis Obispo High. His first performance freestyling was during a pep rally.
“It was a big thing, because they didn’t want to let us do it,” Kaye said. “We had to submit our lyrics and they didn’t like some of them. So we said we would change them. The bell rang in the middle of our show, and a bunch of people got up, and some people stayed.”
Whether he is performing at a pep rally, party or music festival, Kaye’s style is all his own.
“I have had people tell me that I am a different person when I am on stage,” he said. “I feel like that is because when I am up there, I try to be fully comfortable and fully be who I want to be. In my everyday life, I feel like I can’t say this or this, but when I have the microphone, it’s like I can do my thing, go hard, but also connect with people.”
Kaye knows that being a white rapper can be perceived as taboo or uncool, but has always enjoyed the art of freestyling and putting words together.
“I am not gangster; I am not from the hood. So when people hear that I rap, they are like, ‘Who is this guy, another white rapper?’” Kaye said. “But I started rapping because I was self-conscious about singing, because I didn’t want people to think I was soft or something.”
Now, Kaye is starting to venture into music with more of a rhythm and blues feeling that involves more singing.
His new EP, Free Market, reflects his willingness to experiment with different music genres. Kaye’s producer was Sean Ross — who has worked with Lil Wayne, Brother Ali and Yonas — and Free Market is a sample of all the music Kaye wants to do more of in the future. The EP is free so everyone can hear the progression of Kaye’s music.
“Sometimes you got to just do it and not listen to what people are saying,” Kaye said. “That’s what I want to do with my music. You thought I was this, but boom — now I am dropping that.”
Whether his music is inspired by R&B, rock or hip hop, Kaye wants his listeners to take away a message of having fun while bettering themselves.
“Hopefully it either inspires you to better yourself or your situation,” he said. “That is really what I am about — growing, learning and being humble — but also having a confidence to your step.”
Kaye writes his music collaboratively with his friends as well as by himself.
“Lately, I have been feeling that when I am alone I come up with some of the best stuff,” Kaye said. “Turn a beat on and if it hits me right, I usually end up standing up and moving around. I come up with how I am going to say it first and then the words follow that. I feel like when I’m moving around, that helps.”
However the music gets written, it is always a collaborative effort to get the music out into the world.
Kaye’s first music video accompanying the song “One of Those Days” is an example of that. The video was shot during a real house party at his childhood friend’s house in Ojai, Calif.
Long hours combined with working with friends and unpaid professionals made it a challenging but rewarding and fun process, Kaye said.
Close friend of Kaye and local emcee Josh Jackson has also performed with him, both live and recorded. Jackson is featured in the song “Lay On Back” on Free Market.
“James is really hardworking,” Jackson said. “He is constantly busy because he owns his own business and then he has his music ventures.”
Besides pursuing his own music career, he created his own concert series, “Rock and Flow,” at Santa Rosa Park. Twenty-five local musicians come together for the festival. Next year will be its third anniversary.
Kaye’s future goals are to continue to progress in his music and keep trying out-of-the-box ideas.
“I don’t know if I am the best guy to give advice, because I am not even close to where I want to be, but from where I am at now to where I was, I would say just don’t stop,” Kaye said. “If it is something you enjoy, keep doing it.”