Wichita, Kansas may not be known as a national hotbed for hip-hop music—and Caucasian rap, at that—but if John Keenan has his say, that’s about to change. The self-styled composer and musician released the album “Where I Went Wrong” on Full Circle Entertainment in 4Q 2012, a masterful 19-track opus that meshes its R&B foundation with a remarkably unexpected array of aural pedigrees.
“I would certainly call it an eclectic album,” Keenan offers. “We used the basic framework of hip-hop and infused it with elements of classical, funk, alternative, gospel and even country. I’ve come up with beats for years and actually hear the rap in my head as I write. After that, the chord progressions come and it turns into a song.”
There’s also a strong message within the music—a far cry from the typical bravado, T&A and cash-infused opulence that pervades so much of the hip-hop genre. In fact, “WIWW” is a testament to humility, healing and the long road to recovery, following Keenan’s personal battle after years of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Consider this an austere antidote to hip-hop’s proverbial bombast.
Keenan collaborated on “WIWW” with guitarist and vocalist Scott Martz, who co- composed many of the tracks and provides guitars, vocals and production chops. In addition, the album features Keenan’s brother Mark and his cousin Tyler, along with featured guests Kansas City rapper/singer Irv Da Phenom and veteran Wichita rapper Kanzaz Chiefa.
But in total, the project offers the declaration of a young man’s journey—along a jagged pathway etched in tough life lessons and hard knocks. Keenan was born in Great Bend, Kansas, to a family saturated with musical talent. His maternal grandmother, Marlyn Thies, participated in countless musicals and choirs, had her compositions performed at the Kennedy Center and was named Pen Women’s Kansas Composer of the Year. His paternal grandmother, Mona, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Music Theory from Kansas University and also sang in numerous musicals.
By the age of 13, John was discovering his own musical prowess, along with younger brother Mark, who was developing a unique style of rapping. The two began composing beat tracks with a keyboard grandmother Mona bought for them, and an inexpensive sampler. But without the support of family and friends, Keenan was fighting an uphill battle. He says, “In my family, it was the women that pursued music. The men were all businessmen and lawyers, and focused on education. Saying that I wanted to pursue rap was like a scandal. And in Great Bend, the other kids made fun of us and looked down on the idea. It actually made me mad enough to feel all the more determined.”
John and Mark persisted and in 2003, brought veteran KC rapper/reggae singer Mr. Stinky and the Vigilante Squad to Great Bend for live concerts. After high school, he enrolled at Kansas State, where he and Mark continued developing their talent as writers, rappers, singers, engineers and producers.
And then, unfortunately, everything crumbled. With a history of addiction in his lineage, Keenan short-circuited his progress by descending into a personal hell, despite seeing first hand the damage it could cause. “All of these stories start out the same way… I started hanging out with a crowd that was screwing around with alcohol and drugs,” he reflects. “Some people grow out of it, but I tell you, alcohol grabbed me around the throat. As soon as I could buy it legally, I was finished.”
At Kansas State, Keenan says he was essentially living a double life: “I knew what my family expected of me, so I hid the bottle. I’m a reclusive drunk. I’d have a couple drinks with the intent of going out to meet people. And that’s the insanity of it. It never happened. I’d end up in my room alone, shut off, not talking to anybody.”
Over the next two years, his affinity for whiskey and drugs progressed. He checked himself into a treatment facility for two weeks at the age of 21—and stayed sober for two days. By 2006, he dropped out of Kansas State—and was temporarily committed to Larned State Mental Hospital in Larned, Kansas, suffering from delusions and hallucinations. Doctors feared him a paranoid schizophrenic and were prepared to deem him a long-term patient. Keenan managed to negotiate his way out of the facility if he completed an intensive treatment program—during which he made the game-changing decision to clean up and turn his life around. “I had nothing but time to reflect on my life,” he says. “I made up my mind that I wasn’t going be afraid anymore.”
Keenan relocated to Wichita and entered a home for recovering addicts. Part of his healing was creation of a mixtape, “Mind of A MadMan.” Armed with an armload of life lessons, Keenan launched indie label Full Circle Entertainment, and two more mixtape compilations, and in the summer of 2011, his first fully produced EP, “One Day At A Time,” which includes appearances from brother Mark, cousin Tyler, San Diego rapper Ecay Uno and Irv Da Phenom.
“Recovery was a miracle. It taught me not only how to not drink, but how to be a normal person and do simple things, like working at Blockbuster for several years,” Keenan says. “For drug addicts, doing laundry, cleaning out the car, talking to people, it’s all difficult. You’re raw, like a big wound, and you’re awkward. You go from being numb and feeling nothing to feeling everything.”
Then transitioning to a second recovery home in November 2011, he met his musical muse, Scott Martz, who was also in recovery and living in the room next door. For the next year, Keenan and Martz worked together, as they learned how to survive without booze and drugs.
In fall 2011, Keenan and Martz began working on debut full-length album “Where I Went Wrong.” A year later, the collective was complete. And on Feb. 4, 2013 he will acknowledge another milestone: five years of remaining clean and sober, thanks in large part to expressing himself through words and melodies.
“My music gives me something to focus on, to channel frustration, to convert heartbreak or pain into something positive,” Keenan says. But there’s also universality to “WIWW”: “I’m not looking to make a load of money from this; I’d like to offer others the inspiration to make different choices than I did. If someone is struggling and wants help, maybe they can gain some small thing from my experience. I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a lot and want to share it the best way I know.”
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