Exclusive Interview: Burd & Keyz talks ‘Keyz of Life’, Anthony ‘Durty Keyz’ James, Working w/ Kardinal Offishall, Relationships, Boi-1da & more

interview by @petermarrack

Burd & Keyz are a Toronto hip-hop production duo composed of Andrew ‘Burd’ Liburd and Anthony ‘Durty Keyz’ James. Although the latter passed away in June of 2010, due to a “rare, yet severe bacterial infection called streptococcus”, Burd has kept Keyz both in his name and in our memories, as he dropped the 14-record tribute to his friend, entitled Keyz of Life, earlier this month. Keyz of Life features production almost exclusively by Burd, with collaborations by T-Minus, McCallaman, Kardinal Offishall, Luu Breeze, Rich Kidd, Divine Brown, Shi Wisdom, among others. The project serves as a vivid reflection of Toronto itself, a multicultural hotbed which breeds such diverse sounds as hip-hop, reggae, soul, pop, dance, and R&B, all working in harmony to produce one cohesive flavor.

Download Keyz of Life here, and read the complete interview after the jump.

What does Keyz of Life mean to you?

It’s something [Keyz and I] promised each other a long time ago. One day we were riding in a car together, coming home from work at Enterprise. We worked at the same place. We were talking about our game and we were like, “We got to put out our own project before we go,” because no one knows how talented you are until you put something out, you know? Keyz agreed, but we were too busy making singles for other people, working on other people’s projects, that we couldn’t really focus on our own shit. Now and then we’d stash away a couple beats for our own shit though. Like, “Yo, that was a special one.”

How many downloads are you at now?

Probably 2000 in a week or two weeks.

Is that more or less than you expected?

It’s pretty good, man. I’m flattered. It dropped on Wednesday and I went out downtown [Toronto] on Friday to see Rich Hil and people are coming up to me shaking my hand. Every time I’ve been downtown people have been shaking my hand, like, “Yo, Burd, Keyz of Life,” and then they just walk by. I’m like, “Cool.” People in the States are acting like I’m some sort of Don or something. [laughs] I’m like, “I’m just Burd.”

Any opportunities popping up as a result?

Definitely, people want to sign the kid. Managers want to manage me. But I got a lot more work to do now that this is out. I got to come up with some new bounces.

Are you working right now?

I’m working while they sleep.

You told me the story of “Burdstrumental (Losing My Bestfriend)”…

Yeah, it was Keyz sampling idea. I took it and then he got mad at me for taking his sample idea. I’m like, “Yo, you’re not doing it.” After he passed I took it again, and that’s when I called up his cousin, McCallaman, who’s actually here with me right now. I told McCallaman the vision I wanted, and then we just ran with it and it came out dope.

You said it’s more positive than you intended.

Yeah, I wanted a slow, dark, depressing song, but then I was like, “Fuck this, man. Let’s switch it up on them.”

Doesn’t that sum up the whole project, turning something negative into something positive?

Yeah, exactly. You could either choose to be all sad about it, make songs that put you in that mood- But everyone’s been giving me really positive feedback about that song because they’ve never heard that sound from me, or they haven’t come across McCallaman and he’s really good at that dark shit as well.

He likes the dance beats.

He loves that shit, so that mixed with me chopping up the sample, it’s a tough mix.

What about the Kardinal record? He sent you something different than you expected…

Well, we sent him two beats, the “Burdstrumental (Never Get Over You)” sample, and then the beat for “The Other Side”. At that time we didn’t have any songwriters, so we sent him those because those were the last songs to finish. We were trying to push him to do “Never Get Over You”, but it’s Kardinal so you kind of just need to work with him. You don’t want to push too hard, but rather just suggest, like, “It would be great if you could do ‘Never Get Over You’, Kardi, no pressure.” And then he’s like, “Look, Burd, send the beats and I’ll go with whatever one moves my spirit most.”

Does that dynamic change with each rapper you work with, like how they treat you?

Well, Kardi’s a bit different because he’s been around the world working with different people. He’s a vet, you know? I was impressed by how much he knows even on the production side, stuff most rappers don’t know. I guess he has experience producing records, like I could use producer terms and he knows exactly what I’m talking about. It was cool working with him.

Switching it up a bit, you told me the story about you and Keyz getting kicked out of elementary school [laughs]. What’s your fondest memory of Keyz?

Ah, my fondest memory, I don’t know, man, there’s so many. I remember when we were at that school, we both lived in Markham and the school was at Bathurst and Finch, which is fucking far. We had to take two buses. That whole time taking the bus with him, cracking jokes, getting to know him a bit more. I didn’t think I could get to know him any more, and we weren’t even making beats back then. We were just buddies. I think my fondest memory, now that I think about it, was when we linked up and made our first beat together.

Was that a long time after you guys became friends?

Yeah, we had been friends for a while. We both had a love for music, so we would always debate about who was the best producer, you know, Timbaland, Just Blaze, Dr. Dre, Kanye, The Alchemist, Havoc, all those guys, and we’d just be talking. And then one day when we were around 16, probably like 15 or 16, I was like, “Yeah, I make beats. I’m getting pretty good.” And he’s like, “Yo, I make beats too. I play the piano.” I’m like, “You do? I can kind of see that.” Then I told him, “When I get home I’ll send you some of mine and you send me some of yours.” And I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t have high hopes. I was like, “Ugh, it’s going to suck. My beats are going to be better than his.” But when he sent the beats I was like, “Hmm, not bad.” And I sent him mine and he was like, “Hmm, not bad.” [laughs] We both had different styles, but appreciated each other’s style. We were just like, “Yo, let’s link up.” On weekends we would spend the whole day fooling around, we had no sounds, no fancy plugins at the time, and we just built beats. He did the melody, and then I was like, “Yo, I don’t really like your drums, move out of the way.” I did the drums and we agreed, like, “That’s tough.” We did it again, did it again, did it again, and that was at the time when The Neptunes were hot, so we’re like, “We should be the next hot duo.” We both loved The Neptunes.

Is that around the time you came up with your names?

People have always called me Burd, because my last name’s Liburd. He didn’t have a name. We were like, “What the fuck are we going to call each other, Burd & James?” We were like, “Ah, it’ll do for now,” but we weren’t really sold on it. Like I have a logo that says ‘Burd & James’ on it. And then he went to Seneca, came back and was like, “Yo, people call me Durty Keyz at school.” I was like, “Keyz, Burd & Keyz, that has a good ring to it.”

Did it feel weird going from friends to ‘working’ partners?

No, not at all.

Did it feel like you were cheating, like, “this really isn’t work”.

Yeah, it was just like hanging out with my buddy, making records.

Is it still like that?

Well, it took a while to get adjusted.

[speaking to McCallaman in the background] Yo, come back!

McCallaman’s baked. He’s going to lie down. [laughs]

Well, why can’t he? I don’t really have anything for him. I just know he has an old ass phone.

[laughs] He does have an old ass phone. [laughs] That’s hilarious.

When we talked before, you mentioned after Keyz passed you started smoking more, gained some weight, but now you’re looking great. What clicked, how did you manage to turn things around?

I don’t know, I was going out and people were like- I was seeing people from high school and they were like, “Yo, you got fat.” I was just caught in the Matrix, man, I didn’t realize I was as sad as I was. I tried to keep a really upbeat spirit, but deep down I was really hurting. Sometimes I didn’t even know, but my dad would tell me he could hear me while I was sleeping, and it sounded like I was crying in my sleep. I was like, “That’s fucked up.” My body was fighting a lot of the stuff, and you just get to a point where you look at yourself and you’re like, “Yo, I’m not going to feel like this anymore.” I started limiting my weed intake… as I’m breaking up a bud right now. [laughs] But I’ve reduced it dramatically. I started running on the treadmill, getting my life back in order, because this project occupied my life for a year and a half. I neglected a lot of people, a lot of things, a lot of relationships suffered just for the success of this project. I got caught in a mode where I was like, “I have to do this.” People didn’t understand, they figured it was just another mixtape. They didn’t understand how much this meant to me, and the kind of details we paid attention to.

You have to treat every project like it’s your masterpiece, then you move on, and the next gig becomes your masterpiece, and so on and so on.

Yeah, exactly, on to the next, and that’s been the biggest compliment I’ve been getting from everybody, the random people I run into, or people I know from Twitter and then bump into them, they’ve been like, “Burd, honestly, respect.” Even just on that long handshake kind of love. People are like, “This is what Toronto needs, more quality projects, not just putting out crap.”

You can feel the intimacy.

I think everybody brought their A-game. McCallaman brought his A-game, T-Minus brought his A-game, I brought my A-game, Keyz brought his A-game. Even though some of the beats are old they’re still sick. Rez went in on the mixing. Rez was really like the MVP of the project. He’s the fucking man. He just has a high attention to detail. Sometimes I would be like, “C’mon, let’s just cut the corner,” but he’s like, “No!” He’d rather not do the project at all than cut a corner, and that’s what I needed. We would hold each other accountable. He takes everything as a challenge.

You mentioned the relationship stuff, what’s your take on that, you know, girlfriends?

That’s a good question, man. I’m kind of in the midst of that shit right now. For me, sometimes you might try to make certain moves around certain people, like you think what’ll make your mom proud of you. But you really only have one life to live. After Keyz passed away, I had already left my job to work on beats, then when he passed it put me in a different mind-state, like I was not sleeping. My biggest fear was people mumbling behind my back, like, “Burd fell off.” I used that as self-motivation, like, “the beats don’t sound the same.” I was terrified that people would start thinking that. Thankfully, not to say I don’t miss him, but I think that I got better, and I think Keyz would be proud of that. It hurts at the same time because I know we would have been nice together, but you can’t always cry over spilt milk. Sometimes I still hear his voice in my head, as trippy as that sounds, if I do something I can hear him go like, “Whoooooo, Burdman.” [laughs]

Are you producing full-time now?

Yep, I’m producing music full-time.

You think that’s important? Do you need to do something full-time, or can you work too, balance things?

I just found it hard. I was working at Enterprise, it was my first job out of university. I loved music, but I was trying to get a job, go that whole corporate route and become a manager, do all that shit. I was wearing a shirt and tie and I felt cool. That was the time I started getting songs on the radio, back when Flow 93.5 actually played people. [laughs] Shout out to Flow. I’d be riding in the car with customers and I’d be like, “That’s my song on the radio.” And they’d be like, “Oh, good for you, sonny.” Then I’d have days off and try to do the music thing, and I’d go check other producers. I remember one day I was really upset and I called Boi-1da. It was around the time “Forever” was blowing up. I called him and was like, “Yo, bro, do you have like a minute? I got some questions.” I don’t usually call him like that, but it was just one of those things. I asked him, “When did you know it was time to bounce from work?” He was like, “Honestly, I haven’t worked since I was 19.” And he was probably 23, 24. It’s a struggle, bro. He was selling beats for $100 to pay his phone bill. He was telling me about his parents, because they’re West Indian, just like my parents, and they’re not really supportive of the dream, you know?

Still?

We had a beef last year, but I got some cheques since then that shut them up. [laughs] They’re starting to believe in the kid now. I’m starting to prove that what I did was the right decision.

What’s your background?

My mom’s from Jamaica and my dad’s from St. Kitts, but they both grew up predominantly in England. My sister was born in England. I have dual citizenship with England. My parents are very prim and proper, and then they have this wild kid upstairs. I was always smart, very good at writing and shit. I went to school to make them happy, I wanted a diploma on the wall. It was more of a challenge. After I got my degree, made my mom happy, I figured I would go to work and then bounce. I wanted to drop out my second year of school, but I was like, “Whatever, man, I’ve already started.” I didn’t want to be one of those people who switches majors all the time, even though I didn’t really love it.

Where’d you go to school?

University of Ontario in Oshawa.

What did you graduate in?

Criminology. I have a four year degree in Criminology. Yeah, man, I graduated with Honors. I was the only black kid in my class. [laughs]

Switching up again, your boy, Masspike Miles, he told me he can read a man by his eyes. You agree with that?

For sure.

What did you see in Keyz’ eyes?

I saw honesty, a person who loves to have fun. He was a very happy guy, very happy-go-lucky. It was rare that he’d be down or upset. He was very high-spirited. When he and I were together I was a hyper version of myself. We’d feed off each other’s energy. Sometimes we’d be rolling around on the ground laughing. He’d make me laugh, and then I’d make him shoot milk out of his nose. [laughs]

[conversation lingers on for another 20 minutes, at least, covering subjects as obscure as tennis games to my deteriorating reputation as an objective journalist… needless to say, this dialogue did not need to be recounted. Preach.]

– By @petermarrack