DJ Kevvy Kev on DJing for the RZA, Playing Chess Onstage, and the Decline of Commercial Radio
DJ Kevin Montague, aka Kevvy Kev, has been spreading his hip-hop gospel since the moment he set foot down in California over three decades ago to attend Stanford University. As the host of KZSU's The Drum starting in 1984, he was the main voice behind the world's longest running hip-hop show until it went off air in 2011. The Drum featured guest spots from artists like Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan in their early years, and created a non-commercial forum that could reach the ears of over five million listeners. During this time, he also hosted shows on KMEL and Wild 94.9, and guest DJ'd on radio stations in Austria and France. We spoke with Kevvy Kev about his upcoming club appearances, becoming RZA's tour DJ, and radio today. He plays 1015 this Friday for their free Halloween party featuring Kaytranada, Maxim of The Prodigy, and Groundislava, and next Friday for Witness 4.0.
Since you're originally from New York, what kept you here after your college years at Stanford?
I was simultaneously trying to be a grown-up. I was doing the 9-5 as a chemist, and then a software technical writer, and realizing that I was at the beginning stages of something special, artistically. It made more sense to stay and pursue what I had going on out here, than to move back to N.Y. and try to establish a new set of opportunities.
From 1984 until its end in 2011, you hosted KZSU's hip-hop show The Drum. Share with us some of your best experiences there.
There was definitely something in the air down there, because some of the most legendary lyrical sessions ever happened in the bomb shelter. One standout is the first time the Wu-Tang Clan came through. They had just put out their first single, and while everyone knew they were dope, cats didn't know they were incredible until they hit The Drum, and went off for like an hour straight on the mics. Busta Rhymes, Spliff Star, and Rampage did a session that somehow morphed from pure, amazing lyricism to a hilarious three-way mother jokes battle while still rhyming. Wyclef and Lauryn made a special trip, and they made the studio sing for about a half hour of pure bliss. Lauryn personalized a song on-air for me, which was an epic win.
For a number of years, the biggest music conference in the country was the Gavin, which was based here in S.F. So every year, hordes of artists, label folks and industry personnel from across the globe would descend on the Bay Area, and Sunday night they would all come by The Greatest Show on Earth. Imagine a three-hour radio show with a studio simultaneously populated by X Clan, Nas, Jay-Z, Organized Konfusion, The Boot Camp Click, Kool Keith, Das EFX, and more. I don't think there will ever be anything like that again. Pure magic.
How come the radio show went off air?
Short version: management at college radio changes frequently. The result is there are often kids in charge who don't know what they're doing, frankly. It became clear that the show was not valued, and this finally became too annoying to deal with. After a couple of particularly aggravating episodes I decided that 27 years was long enough, especially with the way the world has changed, vis-a-vis how people learn about, acquire, and share music.
You've also worked at both KMEL and Wild 94.9 doing radio shows. What do you think of radio shows today? How much have they changed since the days you've worked there?
I stopped listening to commercial radio after I stopped working there. Again, with the advent of multiple online platforms, as well as satellite radio, the game has definitely changed. What's interesting is watching the ways management has kept up, and how they haven't. Playlists have shrunk, and stations have consolidated. Things are definitely more homogenous than ever before, which is incredible, if you think about it. We live in an age where people have more freedom and more ways to connect with music than ever before. Makes you wonder.
What direction do you see hip-hop radio going in the future?
If you mean on the college/podcast/satellite level, I don't see much of a change, frankly. Those shows tend to be labors of love, with fairly well-defined, clear agendas. If you're talking about commercial radio, I wouldn't even speculate ... partly because I'm fairly certain they don't know.
Part of your DJ career involves being RZA's official tour DJ. How did that come about?
I've been down with the Wu since Day One (before Day One, technically). RZA in particular is one of my favorite people on the planet, since we connect on the hip-hop, chess, gearhead, and movie aficionado level. So when he was in the Bay for a chess and martial arts conference, we started talking about his upcoming shows. I let him know I was looking to get out there more, and he put me on. Maximum respect for that, because RZA can get anybody he wants to DJ for him.
Last time we saw you at perform, you were mixing with no headphones. How many years did it take to perfect that skill?
Ha! It's definitely not a "skill" I worked at. I forgot my headphones one night, and had to do the gig without them. It was disorienting at first, but I quickly realized it's much easier to hear the house, and read the crowd, if I didn't split my concentration. So now, I never use them, unless I'm doing an all-vinyl set, in which case I will if I want to do something particularly tricky.
You're also known for playing a mean chess game during your sets. How did this tradition start?
I've been a chess nerd since I was a teen. It's an addictive game, so there was a while there when I always had my set with me at music conferences, parties, and shows, whatever. Time to time, I'd break it out so either myself or whoever wanted could play, during the night. One night I was feelin' myself, so I got on the mic and told the crowd the board was behind me and anyone who won would drink free all night. It kind of became a theme, after that.
Do you usually win?
Well, nobody's gotten free drinks yet!