You know the story: a child is raised in a single-parent home, an absent addict for a father; it’s only a matter of time before it’s yet another life on the streets, a life of hustling, a life dealing.
So goes the story of Keenan Lee. But this particular young man isn’t selling drugs or anything illegal. Lee’s smooth sales skills on the street could still be compared to the drug slinger, though he’s pushing something healthier, more positive.
He’s selling music, his own music, just as he has for over a decade in Rutherford County.
Rewind back to Lee’s teenage years, and he was going door to door working for a company selling gifts—stuffed bears, trinkets and jewelry. He was honing his sales skills, but he was certainly not passionate about the products he was selling, he says.
He told his manager he needed a day off, but he didn’t take a break from selling. Instead, Lee used that time to sell his music, CDs at $10 apiece.
“That day I sold 13 CDs,” he said.
He looked at the $130 in his hands at the end of the day and considered the reality of being able to make money doing what he loved.
K-Lee set the personal goal of trying to just sell 10 CDs a day—after all, that’s $500 a week, and that’s just working five days a week; what entrepreneur really takes a weekend off?
“I put out a second album, then a third album, then a fourth album,” Lee says.
Now, after releasing over a dozen independent albums, K-Lee claims he’s sold “53,000 CDs in the state of Tennessee from the trunk of my car. I’m not trying to brag, but how else can I put it?
“I’ve printed a total of 57,000; there’s about 4,000 unaccounted for,” he clarifies, but nevertheless, “I fed my kids from the streets of Middle Tennessee.”
It goes to show, persistence can yield huge results over time, no matter how humble the beginnings.
From the start, K-Lee wasn’t just passionate about his art, he was also pushing his faith, a message of hope.
“My first four albums were Christian rap,” says K-Lee. Today though, rapping with partner Slick J, “my music’s spiritual, and we don’t deny we’re believers; but our music now is more about life.”
K-Lee met J in 1997 when the two were working at Nissan in Smyrna. J, born Jason Rickard, and bred in Rutherford County himself, was an aspiring rapper and was working third shifts at Nissan to pay the bills. He heard a guy who was working first shift—K-Lee—was a rapper in his own right and the two became acquainted and hit it off.
“He helped me get my feet wet,” J said. “He helped me learn how to talk to people.”
Early on, J would contrive gangster rap lyrics about street life, crime and being hard, but today will admit that was, “make believe fairy tale stuff. I’m not a gangster; it was fake.”
He will now say that insincerity is one of the biggest problems with the rap industry, and both rappers take pride in the fact that they are making positive music that is from the heart and doesn’t need a “parental advisory” label.
The duo releases “Hometown,” an anthem of growing up in Rutherford County that also features Jellyroll and Adele, July 1 on iTunes.
One prominent client of K-Lee’s at his tattoo shop, Prophetic Ink, became a collaborator on some new material as well. Lee tattooed Brian “Head” Welch, formerly of the band Korn, but said he had no immediate intentions of working musically with the hard rock guitarist. However, while working on the song “Redemption,” which Lee describes as “a cry for help,” he couldn’t help but think about what Head could do with it. Lee approached Head about the song and the former Korn member was on board; he added his own touches to the track and sent it back.
“We cried, it was so deep,” Lee said about listening to Head’s contributions to his song initially.
As different as “Hometown” and “Redemption” are from each other, now contrast them with another recent project—“I Kant Dance.” This more upbeat and humorous take on, well, being “fat, and white and sagging my pants,” shows everyone how to “do the Kant Dance.”
K-Lee and Slick J are not trying to limit themselves to any type of music, mood or identity. They’re just trying to make music they can be proud of. Sometimes it contains humor, sometimes it contains Rutherford Co. landmarks, sometimes it contains spiritual thoughts.
“I love rapping about the lord,” J says sincerely, “but it’s out of appreciation . . . I don’t go in trying to write ‘religious’ music. We’re not trying to make music for the church, we’re not trying to make music for the streets, we want to make music that everyone can relate to.”
Of course, signing that big recording deal would be nice too, so the duo is pursuing a major contract, but in the meantime, they truly are “Hometown” boys spreading a positive message, spreading the gospel of their music. Still, they’re networking and making things happen from right here in the ’Boro, though they’re pushing iTunes downloads today, and not that “first CD to come out of La Vergne with a bar code.”
“We just did a song with a guy who’s sold 30 million records,” Lee said, almost in disbelief.
For more information, visit k-leeandslickj.com or stop by Prophetic Ink, located at 230 Stones River Mall Circle Blvd. near Coconut Bay Cafe, and pick up a CD. K-Lee would be happy to sell another one.