John Keenan is a rapper and producer renowned for his thought-provoking lyrics and distinctive approach to hip-hop. John, who was born in Great Bend, Kansas, recognized his musical potential at an early age and began practicing his craft alongside his brother Mark. After graduating from Kansas State University, where he honed his skills as an artist, composer, producer, and engineer, he released his debut mixtape, “Mind of a Madman.” In 2011, he released his debut EP, “One Day At A Time,” followed by his debut album, “Where I Went Wrong,” which combines R&B with various musical influences. In 2013, he published his sophomore album, “Imagination to the Nation,” before relocating to Phoenix, Arizona, where he began working on his third album, “The Illusion of Logic.” The 2016 release of John’s third album, which he produced entirely, featured guest appearances from his brother Mark Keenan, Twisted Insane, Whitney Peyton, and Carla Ayala. In 2018, he released “Late Bloomer,” his fourth self-produced album, and joined Illest Uminati on the Northwest Warpath Tour. The Lucky Rubberband EP was released in 2020, along with the track “What They Say” by Mark Keenan and Layzie Bone of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. His most recent release is the sequel to his debut album “Mind of a Madman II’. Check out the album and the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
JOHN KEENAN: I’m from the middle of nowhere. Rap music was the farthest, hardest thing I could imagine. When Tech N9ne said, “Kansas” on a song, it felt like that distant world came to my backyard. My brother and I used to go over this scenario all the time. “We know a guy, who knows a guy, who’s brother, works for a guy, who knows Tech N9ne.” We could’t even believe it. That’s when it became possible.
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
JOHN KEENAN: I’m self taught the completely backwards way. If I could do it all over I would’ve learned music theory for like 5 years before recording anything. Abraham Lincoln said something about sharpening an axe before chopping down a tree. I hit the tree with the handle for like a decade and then blamed the tree.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘JOHN KEENAN’?
JOHN KEENAN: It’s the name they gave me. My brother has a litany of cool nicknames, but my only nickname was “flagpole.” I could’t call myself “Flagpole.”
I’m a complete composite of my influences of course and standing on the shoulders of giants. Tupac, Bone, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Whitney Houston, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Spinners. My Mom listened to really cool music. When I went researching I typically realized I liked where the rap songs came from more than the rap song itself. I’m like a walking “whosampled” website walking around.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
JOHN KEENAN: I have no idea what will resonate with someone. I try and write what I feel is true the best I can and make beats that spark something in me. There’s no way to really describe my sound because I don’t understand it. I just try and follow what calls out to me.
5. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style, which is known as HIPHOP?
JOHN KEENAN: It’s taken a very long time to work that influence DNA into my system maybe. I can listen back to stuff 10 years ago and hear who I’m emulating. It’s like you imitate someones jumpshot and as you get stronger it kind of grows into you. I see hip hop partially as a big creative writing competition.
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative, and entertainment?
JOHN KEENAN: I think it’s all of those, mostly spiritual. I try to stay away from social stuff, but we all have our own beliefs. I’m not going to censor mine because you may be offended. What you think isn’t my business. It also changes. I’m not the same dude I was 10 years ago so my perspective is totally different.
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfillment as the amount of work you are putting into it or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
JOHN KEENAN: I believe is your ‘why’ is right, you get a for sure, 100% match in fulfillment. I get paid big big deposits when I’ve struggled with a song and finally it sounds good in the car. If you attach that song to some result in the world you’ll always be disappointed. Payment is in the process.
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
JOHN KEENAN: Typically a rhythm and I’ll try and build around it. I’ll often then delete the scaffolding it’s built upon, which collapses it, but it maybe goes another direction. I’ll write it and arrange it, but I’ve been too crazy trying to plan it too much when it gets to those stages.
I look at songs as % amounts. If I can get it to 95% of where it could be I’ll call it done. A 5% song may just be a melody. An 80% song may be written with something off I can’t put my finger on. What makes it to my album are just the songs I could get to that 95%. I try and hear it for what it could be not what it currently is.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
JOHN KEENAN: Me for sure. I’ve ruined everything. Self doubt, insecurity, fear of what others may think, fear of not being good enough or talented enough. Trying to hide in different ways. I’m my biggest obstacle and it’s literally been a war with myself. I’ve accepted it, quit being a tyrant about it I think. I think I got so tired of fighting I just decided to trust my gut.
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
JOHN KEENAN: I had this concert with this Kansas City artist, Mr. Stinky, when I was 18. It was a total disaster. Like 6 people showed up. I was embarrassed and defeated. I had data though and realized if I changed some variables maybe I could make it a success. Doing a second show unlocked everything for me. I needed early failures to reassess where I went wrong. That’s the trick to life I think.
11. With social media having a heavy impact on our lives and the music business in general, how do you handle criticism, haters, and/or naysayers in general? Is it something you pay attention to, or simply ignore?
JOHN KEENAN: I’ve been a critic and hater and naysayer myself, still am. I try and watch myself more now. Not everything is for everyone. We’re all different, but have more in common than we think.
12. Creative work in a studio or home environment, or interaction with a live audience? Which of these two options excites you most, and why?
JOHN KEENAN: Home environment. I’ve had a studio in my bedroom for like 20 years. Often I’ve made the “bedroom” the studio and slept somewhere else. I’ve never been married or anything so I’ve basically been sleeping in apartments turned into recording operations. I had a video set up in the kitchen of my last APT. What am I going to do with a kitchen? I just eat tuna straight out of the can hovering over the trashcan and burritos in the car driving with my knee.
13. Do you think is it important for fans of your music to understand the real story and message driving each of your songs, or do you think everyone should be free to interpret your songs in their own personal way?
JOHN KEENAN: A bit of both. Mostly it should be about the listener. If you’re listening to “Goo Goo Dolls” or something you wanna look out the window and think about some girl, not the singers personal story, I don’t know that dudes 8th grade girlfriend or whatever. That’s what connects us. That feeling matches mine. Finding out the story though is cool too though. Stories connect us, music and emotions connect us. Let’s do rap stuff and connect through cool stories and fire beats yo.