Zed Kenzo's fierce approach to music and movement

The Milwaukee rapper plays July 8 at The Wisco.
 

Photo by Andrew Feller.

Photo by Andrew Feller.

Milwaukee MC/producer Zed Kenzo's music is pretty tough to separate from her disctinctive take on dance and movement. On the cover of her first EP, 2014's Violently Ill (initially released under the name Zedd The Incredible), Zechariah Ruffin is poised in some kind of dramatic leaping kick, her arms stretched out behind her, a dagger in each hand. The way Ruffin moves in her live sets is less staged, but in some ways just as dramatic, with organic but theatrical motions hinting at the internal universe that yields up such dense and playfully menacing rhymes as "I've got diamonds for irises / lyrical viruses / choke one me, CPR certified / so I can give you the Heimlich / my paradigm lit."

Violently Ill came out as Ruffin prepared to leave Madison, where she'd earned her degree at UW-Madison and stuck around for a couple of years to continue her work with the university's dance department. Things have changed rapidly in the three years since. Ruffin moved for a while to L.A., then ended up coming back to her native Milwaukee. There she's found support and collaboration among a diverse new group of hip-hop artists, from members of the New Age Narcissism collective (including Lex Allen, WebsterX, Q The Sun, and Siren) to eccentric outliers like Milo and Randal Bravery. She's also begun producing her own tracks, developing a sparse but melodic approach on recent tracks like "Good Bad Boy," "Scary Spice," and "Evanescence."

Zed Kenzo will be performing on July 8 at The Wisco as part of the first installment of the Hot Summer Gays show series. The show comes as she works toward an album to follow up Violently Ill and prepares to release a music video for her song "Touch Down." Ruffin will also be performing at that show as a member of dance-pop outfit Rio Turbo. She other Madison shows on the books this summer, on July 21 at Lothlorien Co-op and August 10 at the High Noon Saloon. Ruffin and I recently had a brief conversation about how Zed Kenzo has evolved over the past few short but busy years.

Tone Madison: What do you think of Violently Ill now, after all that's changed over the past few years?

Zechariah Ruffin: That was very, very first-time, amateur, experimental, lo-fi. I also have refined my style more since then, because, again, I was just experimenting and it was my first time recording. it was all done in my bedroom with a laptop and very, very little equipment. For my next project, I really want to step it up to a new level. I want it to be amazing quality, I don't want to do lo-fi again. I want it to be mostly tracks that I've produced myself. I'm still going to use some tracks that a couple other people have made for me. I'll probably put that song I did with Randal Bravery on it.

I mean, it's still me, I still have the same kind of style, but like I said, all of that production was done by one person, Nedarb Nagrom, and that was his sound. And you can tell the difference with the song that I'm doing now, that it's my production, and we just have different sounds. But it's the same voice and rapping style.

Tone Madison: When did you start moving into production, and how are you approaching that? 

Zechariah Ruffin: I started moving into production, I want to say, when I was still living out in L.A. That was almost three years ago. I was just playing around in Ableton and I was shown some stuff on the computer itself, and I was like, "Wow, this a lot easier than I thought it would be." I've been playing around with GarageBand forever, and I grew up playing instruments—I was really good on the piano, playing classical, and I picked up the bass guitar for a while—so I've always been able to compose music. I've always had an ear for being able to compose, so taking that to the digital realm was a lot easier than I thought it would be.

Tone Madison: Are you doing everything in the box, or are you incorporating some live instrumentation? 

Zechariah Ruffin: Not yet. I want to do that, but because everything is so digital still, I haven't recorded any live instruments onto a track yet. I haven't really been aiming at that right now.

Tone Madison: Do you feel that producing your own tracks lets you be more holistic with the way that you write songs?

Zechariah Ruffin: No. I've noticed that that doesn't really matter for me. I just kind of like to produce my own stuff because I feel like I have my own specific sound, like if you listen to my songs that I'm doing now, they all have that kind of stark, eerie trap feeling to it. But my writing and my production, those are always very separate.

Tone Madison: When you're writing and recording, do you think a lot about how something will translate into the dance and movement element of your live set?

Zechariah Ruffin: Yes, I do. It's always kind of after the fact...I'll listen to it and then I'll think about, "OK, this would be really cool choreography and movement for this song." I'm actually plotting on that, too—I want to get dancers on stage with me, but you kind of need more money and time for that, so that's in the works.