In Conversation with Kai Alce
On Sunday, May 7th, a now 5 year old Coloring Lessons returns to Nowadays, for muscelcars’ residency night. This time, joined by the prolific dj/producer Kai Alce! From NYC to Detroit to Atlanta, Kai has been making a name for himself as a true underground dance music hero. From mentoring fan favorites, such as Ash Lauryn to Javonntte, to trailblazing his own path, he has been instrumental in the Atlanta house music scene, where he is currently based. He also runs the prominent label NDATL, with releases from Mr G, to Larry Heard, to Omar S, and of course tons of dance floor jams from Kai himself. In this conversation, we chat about his long standing DJ career, his label, his eyewear line, and much more.
sat down with Kai to chat about his long standing DJ career, his label, and his eyewear line, ahead of Sunday’s Coloring Lessons party, on May 7th.
We sat down with Kai to chat about his long standing DJ career, his label, and his eyewear line, ahead of Sunday’s Coloring Lessons party, on May 7th.
Coloring Lessons: Peace Kai, thank you for taking out the time to chat with us!
Kai Alce: No problem! Are you guys off tonight?
CL: No gigs tonight, but when we’re not playing, we’re still working haha! How are you?
KA: I’m good man, no complaints! Just been traveling, trying to keep the label going and also have a few remixes of my own in the pipeline. I have a remix coming out on the Toy Tonics label.
CL: Oh that’s dope, excited to hear it! Is the production process for remixes different from original work?
KA: Definitely. So let’s say someone wants me to remix their track…unless there is a strong melody in the song that I can keep and build around, I usually won’t do it. At that point I would be making an entirely new track and not a remix. OR if the song is sample heavy, I won’t do it. There’s just not as much room for creativity.
CL: Ah we feel that. For us, we usually try to create a completely new song out of it, and only use a vocal or a melody from the original.
KA: I do a lot more remixing than I give out my own original works. I don’t come up with stuff super often so it’s important for me to keep those for my projects.
CL: Most definitely. Also, want to take a second to thank you for agreeing to DJ with us at Coloring Lessons on Sunday. We’ve been a fan of your work for some time, and when we were first starting off your production was such an inspiration for us.
KA: Thank you and no problem. I heard about you two from Samir Hall and Carlos Sanchez, so I knew that you guys were the real deal. Samir played a crucial role when I had started DJing in Atlanta.
CL: Oh interesting, how did that come about?
KA: Samir was throwing parties in Atlanta before I arrived. His partners at that time weren’t really feeling the way I played, because I was coming from Detroit and Detroit DJs tend to play fast. One of the DJs that they were booking was my roommate, and he was using my records to go play at their party. One night Samir was throwing a party and had me fill in for a local Atlanta legend by the name of Ron Pullman, since he had just moved out of town.
CL: ...and you were in college then?
KA: Yes, I was in college. This was in the early 90’s.
CL: Were you playing hip-hop at that time?
KA: No, I actually never played it. I listened to hip-hop and I’m a fan of it, but I made the decision early on that I wasn’t going to play it.
CL: And where did you go to college?
KA: I had the choice of going to NYU, Morehouse, Howard and Michigan State.
I didn’t want to go to Michigan State because I had no interest in staying that close to Detroit. My father didn’t want to send me to NYU because I was already going to New York to party and he was like “if you go to NY, you ain’t going to do anything but party, I’m not paying for that”. Howard University wanted me to do remedial classes and I wasn’t into that, so I settled on going to Morehouse. From there, Atlanta ended up being my home.
CL: What was your relationship with NYC at that time?
KA: I didn’t really know the NYC people in the dance community yet. I may have visited and went to parties like Save The Robot and World. Do you remember the record store Satellite?
CL: Yes, we’ve heard of it but we were unfortunately too young to make sense of it when it was open haha.
KA: So there was one in NYC and one in Atlanta. I ended up getting a job at the Atlanta location, and that was my bridge to the dance music industry in NYC. People would send me promos and I was pretty much the only DJ in the southeast playing music from Ibadan records and other small labels like that.
In Atlanta during the 90s, the only places that were playing house music was a club called Traxx or maybe some of the parties on campus.
CL: At that age, were you sneaking into clubs to listen to house music?
KA: Oh yeah, I was going out— but I didn’t have to sneak into Traxx because I knew someone there, and would end up getting a job there myself when I turned 20. Before Traxx, I was working at a club called Velvet with Samir Hall.
Over the years, that became apart of my cultivation in Atlanta. I started during the college era, I played at Traxx and I played at Velvet which had a mixed crowd of yuppies (kind of like the rich white peoples), gay black people, and more of the black college crowd.
CL: Did you have any mentors when you were coming up?
KA: I would say my main influences were Chez [Damier], Derrick [May], and Frankie [Knuckles]. Frankie was a DJ that I would always travel to go see. I’ve had the chance to see him at the warehouse in Chicago and at the Sound Factory and Sound Factory Bar in NYC. If I was in town and Frankie was playing, I was going to see him. During those golden years of 1988-92, I hit Chicago, Detroit and NYC throughly.
CL: That’s so cool, the idea of traveling to see your favorite DJ. It seems like NYC, ATL, and Detroit were the trifecta for underground dance music in the states at that time. What brought you to NYC?
KA: Yeap! That’s actually where the name for my label NDATL (NY, Detroit, ATL) comes from. So I was actually born in NYC and lived there until I was about 11 years old, moved to Detroit until college, and then landed in Atlanta.
CL: And when did you start getting booked to play outside of Atlanta?
KA: We were doing a party in Atlanta at this club called MJQ in the early 2000’s, and around that time I started playing overseas. Panorama Bar was actually one of my first international gigs. I played a lot in Berlin, Japan, and Italy. I remember one of my early gigs in Italy was crazy. My passport had expired so I had to fly to Miami to get a new passport, and then fly to NYC to go to Italy. When I landed in New York, I pull up to the gate and see the plane taking off. I had to spend the night in La Guardia Airport to catch a flight at JFK the next day. I also met Prince at the airport during that trip haha!
CL: Having played in Berlin and Europe over the years, do you feel like it’s different now compared to when you started playing internationally?
KA: So this last time I played at Panorama Bar, it was my first time playing on a Sunday. I played more house-y than usual at that club. Dee Diggs played before me and was great! I felt comfortable to play looser. But at Panorama Bar you can kind of get away with playing whatever you want.
CL: Yes, that’s been our experience as well, we’ve always felt really comfortable to just do us and play how we want.
How was your experience in Japan? We’ve heard they have a really dedicated house music community.
KA: They totally get it! When you guys play out there, they’re going to know all of your music haha!
CL: We’re so looking forward to playing out there! We hear from all of the OG’s that Japan is their favorite place to play outside of NYC. Speaking of OG’s, can you talk about your relationship with Larry Heard? How did you guys meet?
KA: I’ve had two star struck moments in my life, and that was with Prince and Larry Heard. I had a feeling that I would run into Prince at some point because he tours. But when Larry moved to Memphis, I thought I’d never run into him because he didn’t really DJ at that time.
He became cool with Brett [Dancer], and I believe we met through Brett. I remember when the song Missing You came out on Larry’s “Genesis” album, I called Brett and told him that Larry should consider putting the song out on a 12”. After that, I brought Larry Heard to Atlanta to play a party and we’ve been cool ever since.
I’ve been really grateful for his support over the years. I remember when I asked him for a remix, I sent over two songs, “Take A Chance” and “Hey Young World”. I didn’t really think much of it at the time. He sent over his remix of “Take A Chance” which I really liked, but I asked if he could also do a quirky version of the song. About a week later, he sent me the acid mix and I was like “oh shit”!
CL: Having spent time in Detroit, were you close with the folks like Theo Parrish, Marcellus Pittman, Kenny Dixon Jr, etc.?
KA: I knew Kenny when I was coming up and Theo had moved to Detroit when I left to Atlanta for college. The way that Theo and I met was when I invited him out to a party in Atlanta, but Rick [Wilhite], Kenny [Moodymann], and Sherard [DJ Stingray] were my contemporaries early on. Actually, when I first landed in Detroit I was riding my BMX bike around and Sherard approached me and asked if I was new to the neighborhood. He took me around and showed me the neighborhood, the places I can go and can’t go. That kind of thing.
CL: And you were learning how to DJ at that time?
KA: Yeah, I was learning, but it was just a hobby. We didn’t really have the idea of DJing as a profession back then. We didn’t see that until the early 90’s, when DJs were making thousands of dollars.
CL: That’s right— we heard about how competitive it was in the 90’s. It seems like traveling overseas to play wasn’t as common, too.
KA: Yeah, the way we travel now, there wasn’t much of that in the 90’s unless you were big time. When they did start requesting DJ’s to fly to Europe and play, some would never go. For example, Junior Vasquez stayed loyal to the Sound Factory, and if you wanted to hear Junior Vasquez, you had to come from wherever you were, all the way to NYC, to the Sound Factory. Same thing with Timmy Regisford and The Shelter.
CL: We’ve noticed that some artists see playing internationally as a metric of success. Do you have an opinion on that? Do you feel like your career has changed since you’ve started playing overseas?
KA: Not really. I don’t know…maybe I would say that it has pushed me forward in a sense. It definitely gave me more work. One thing that I don’t like is when DJ’s play outside of the city that cultivated them and give up on where they’re coming from…just to praise the city that’s inviting them. Those promoters are inviting you out because of where you’re from. So to go to a place like Europe and just give up on where you come from doesn’t make sense. That’s why I’ve never wanted to move out to Europe. My music and everything that I do is a part of my environment.
CL: Couldn’t agree more. How do you feel about the direction that dance music is going in? We’ve noticed during our travels to Europe that techno and rave seem to be the genres that are dominating at the moment. Do you have an opinion on it?
KA: Their standard for what is quality dance music is pretty low, so I think when we play over there it’s mind blowing to them. Recently, I played in Croatia and Belgrade and people were telling me that they don’t really play our kind of dance music out there.
CL: Yeah, that’s true. We’re so spoiled here in NYC with an abundance of great parties and talented artists! When we go abroad there’s such a different energy.
KA: Exactly, and that’s what’s so great! This music started here in the states, and you can’t really name an artist overseas that’s as influential as someone like Louie Vega or DJ Pierre. When they want the real deal, they have to book someone from over here. One European artist that was impactful to the scene is Phil Asher, and he was dope!
CL: Exactly! Rest in peace to Phil Asher, we love his production.
I know that we touched on it earlier but was curious to know about your relationship with music production. When did you start experimenting with production?
KA: It started in the early 1990s. I was around when Chez Damier and Ron Trent were putting out music on the label KMS. At that time I wasn’t really producing, but more so learning the equipment. Only in 98’ did I finally decide to buy my own gear. I purchased an MPC and a Juno keyboard.
CL: Your first release came out on Track Mode, yes?
KA: Yeah, and then I had a release on Kenny’s label, Mahogani Music.
After that I started planning for the NDATL label, but I wanted to be sure I had accumulated enough releases to start the label.
CL: Ah yes, you’ve put out so many incredible releases on NDATL. One of our favorites is “I Got Life” by DJ Kemit!
KA: Oh yeah, that’s one of my favorites too.
You know, the party on Sunday is actually my first time playing at nowadays!
CL: No way! We thought that you had played there before.
KA: I’ve been a few times but hadn’t had the chance to play.
CL: We’re excited to finally be able to make this happen! On the subject of parties, we wanted to chat about Atlanta’s legendary House In The Park party. How did that come about?
KA: House In The Park was started by my friend Ramon Guyton and I. We wanted to do parties in the park and decided to try it out. The number of people kept increasing every year that we did, from 100 to 200, 300 and by the fifth year we had an attendance of 3000 - 5000 people. Now, House In The Park is a full on festival. Around 20k people expected for this year.
CL: Wow, that’s incredible! We need to make it out there one year. We’re running out of time, but wanted to ask. You have been known for mentoring artists out of Atlanta in beyond. From Ash Lauryn, to Javonntte. Do you have any advice for up and coming artists?
KA: I mean yeah, I definitely try to help anyone I can, especially if they’re black and from where I’m from— but honestly, anybody who is doing something that wants some guidance, and I can offer it? I’m happy to help! Back in the day, you would have gatekeepers who wouldn’t want you to know where they press records, and gate kept other resources…even when they were already making tons more money.
CL: Yeah, it definitely speaks to the competitiveness of the scene back then. Thankful that we are coming up in a different environment.
KA: For real.
CL: This has been great, Kai! Is there anything you want to share that you have in the pipeline? Perhaps the eyewear line? How did that even come about?
KA: Kai Alce Eyewear! Yeah man, I always wore crazy glasses, and people would always say “you should start your own line”. It seemed a little farfetched at first, but I looked into it and had some help with prototypes and manufacturing, and it became a very real thing. I was like, “okay, I can do this” and here we are. We only make about 50 units of each colorway, and then that’s it. We have two more models coming in May.
To that, we have a Rasheeda Ali record coming out on the label, and the Deep Detroit Underground & Black joint with Ash Lauryn.
CL: Amazing! Thank you again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us Kai. We’re looking forward to the party on Sunday!
KA: Thank you guys!
Tickets to Sunday’s party below. We’ll see you then ;)
On Sunday, May 7th, musclecars presents…
Coloring Lessons With Special Guest Kai Alce
5PM | Nowadays
Coloring Lessons With Special Guest Kai Alce
5PM | Nowadays