“I wanted to show people how much talent is here in this small town”
by Jamilyn Hiskes
LANSING, Ill. (July 3, 2020) – The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the music industry to its core. With concerts and festivals getting postponed, cancelled, and rescheduled every day, artists may not be as eager to release new music.
That hasn’t stopped one Lansing resident, however.
Makhi Miller, or KAI, has lived in Lansing for about six years and graduated from TF South High School on June 24. That morning, he sat down for a phone call with The Lansing Journal to discuss the release of his first full-length rap album, cleverly titled “DEMO.”
“As a kid, I always knew I was going to make an album before I graduated from high school,” Miller said. “And I knew it wasn’t going to be just an ordinary SoundCloud project—I was going to make something special.”
On June 6, that dream was realized—with less than a month to spare. Miller said he, his band, and his best friend, David Coronel, started working on “DEMO” last July, around Miller’s 17th birthday. Miller decided he wanted to make an album with 17 tracks—symbolic of the 17 years of his life—that showcased the talent of Lansing’s youth.
“There’s a lot of talent from Lansing—I wanted to show people how much talent is here in this small town,” Miller said. “I moved here in 6th or 7th grade and thought nothing of it. But the older I got, the more I appreciated it. I see a lot of talent, and I just want people to see it for themselves.”
Many local names—friends and bandmates Miller brought onto the project—are featured on Miller’s tracks. Each one brings their own flavor and flare to the album. But all the mixing and mastering of the hour-long LP was done by Miller and Coronel.
“Just two people mixing 17 songs is a lot of work, takes a long time,” Miller said. “But it was a fun experience. Fun and very stressful, but it was worth it.”
The album as a whole tells the story of being 17 and all that entails—first loves, first heartbreaks, anxiety, fear of the future, but also excitement for what it holds. There’s hope in the track “LANSING, IL,” a slower jam which opens the album with lyrics such as, “Can’t be thinkin’ ‘bout what you don’t got / Gotta be thinkin’ ‘bout what you have.” But the songs “GROWIN PAINS/Clyde Ave” and “BLU” explore those less-enjoyable aspects of being a teenager in today’s world, lamenting about loss and hard times and asking that universal question: “Why?”
“I was going through a breakup at the time,” Miller said of the album’s conception. “I’d just gotten my MacBook and my guitar, so it seemed like the right time…. The album is more about growing up, just being a teenager, going through those growing pains. That was just one of the growing pains I was going through at the time.”
That particular growing pain is brought to life on the album by the recurring motif of Miller’s friends trying to call him, only to get his voicemail. By the end of the deeply personal second-to-last track, “SURVIVORS REMORSE,” the answering machine is replaced by monotone beeps and a message that the number has been disconnected.
The more upbeat track “SEVENTEEN” is perhaps the most carefree, classic example of a coming-of-age tune on the album. It has a different feel than almost all the other songs on “DEMO,” full of groovy, 1970s guitars and a catchy melody. “We’re young and we’re dumb / We got nothing else to do / I wanna fall in love with you” is the chorus that will no doubt be relatable to almost every teenager who hears it.
It’s also the best reminder that the creators of this album are kids, which is extremely impressive given the depth of the lyrics and the quality of the music.
I wanted to make something that years from now, people would never believe a 17-year-old made,” Miller said. “I want people globally to know that a 17-year-old kid made this album.”
Kids aren’t the only ones who can take something away from “DEMO” though. Miller said there’s one overarching message he wants people of all ages to get from listening to it.
“I want people to believe in themselves as much as me and my best friend did,” Miller said. “We live in a time where people are very insecure in their beliefs, where people think they can just see what someone else is doing and follow behind that. I want people to believe that…if the coronavirus can happen, there’s no time to waste. You’ve got to think for yourself. …I want people to listen to [the album] from my small town and be like, ‘I know Kai. We live down the street, we walk past his house. I know that girl, I know that guy who sings on that track. They did that. Wow. I can definitely play football, I can definitely get straight A’s.’ I just want people to believe in themselves more.”
That powerful sentiment is simplified in one lyric from the track “YELLOW”: “You can be whoever you are.”
”DEMO” is available to stream or download on Spotify, Apple Music, and other platforms. The recently-released “YELLOW” music video is available to watch on YouTube. KAI can be found on Instagram at @kaicrewsade.
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