An Interview With Keith Lawson

Vol. 20

Keith Lawson never gave up on music. He picked up rapping, singing, and producing as a high schooler in the early 2010s, and his commitment to the craft has taken him on a winding journey through the modern pop-rap landscape that touches both coasts.

Over the course of his career, Lawson has built a rich catalogue of solo releases, collaborated with a diverse cast of characters including Asian Doll, Lil Tjay, Chozus, 1TakeQuan, and 24hrs, and ghostwritten for big names like Rubi Rose and Cardi B. He’s created a niche for himself as a songwriter with loyal fans and deep connections in the LA music scene, but his path to stability was no walk in the park.

Keith Lawson was born in Jamaica, Queens and spent his early years at his grandmother’s house on 225th and Merrick Blvd. Despite being an only child, he was never close with his biological parents. His mother struggled with addiction, and his father was a hip-hop dancer who traveled for long stretches, so parental guidance came primarily from his grandmother and extended family members.

When Lawson was in fourth grade, his grandma died, and staying at her house was suddenly no longer an option. Unable to locate his mom, Lawson moved to the Bronx with his dad, where he lived for about two years before running away. With nowhere to call home, he bounced between group homes in the NY metropolitan area until his sophomore year of high school, when he was adopted by a family in Rockland County.

Amid the tumult of his childhood, Lawson found solace in music. His dreams of being an artist trace back to a family talent show at his grandma’s place, where he performed a cover of Mario’s “Let Me Love You” to rapturous applause. He cites R&B and neo-soul artists like Erykah Badu and Donell Jones as formative influences, and claims he didn’t fully appreciate hip-hop until later in life, when his group home friends introduced him to rappers like Jay-Z and J. Cole.

By the time he moved to Rockland, Lawson was writing songs of his own. He struck up a friendship with a multi-talented artist named Chozus, who had a home studio in his basement. The duo pulled countless all-nighters together, tinkering with their sound and slowly cultivating an online audience for their work. Lawson got his first taste of viral fame in high school, when the New York radio host DJ Suss-One retweeted one of his freestyles.

As they aged into young adulthood, Lawson and Chozus remained focused on their music dreams. In 2017, they crossed paths with the rapper Asian Doll, who was being managed by Chozus’ brother Jovan Dais at the time. Lawson’s close relationship with Asian boosted his social media followers, and he often accompanied her to studio sessions and tour dates, networking and soaking up game in the process. Eventually, his nomadic lifestyle took him to L.A., where he settled down and built a home studio with the Philadelphia-born producer BNYX in 2019.

While working on his debut album Lawless with BNYX, Lawson kept his ears open. One day, while browsing YouTube, he learned that (male) Lil Yatchy wrote the Billboard-charting smash “Act Up” for the (female) City Girls. The discovery prompted an epiphany, and Lawson immediately flew to Atlanta with the intention of ghostwriting for women. Through several twists of fate, he ended up meeting Rubi Rose, an Instagram star who was trying to get a foothold in the music business.

Sensing the opportunity, Lawson offered to write a song for Rose. The track he ended up writing, “Big Mouth”, became her breakout hit, earning tens of millions of streams and launching her into a deal with L.A. Reid’s HitCo imprint. Flaunt Magazine deemed it a contender for “bad bitch anthem of the year.”

The runaway success of “Big Mouth” raised Lawson’s profile as a hitmaker. By 2020, he found himself FaceTiming with Kehlani and writing reference tracks for Cardi B. As the demand for his talent skyrocketed, he stayed true to his studio rat roots and continued refining his voice, single by single.

Lawson’s solo output embraces conceptual R&B (“Superman”, “Creeping”) and confessional melodic rap (“Mongoose Bikes & Chips”, “Money Talks Nice Freestyle”) with quiet confidence. He still makes ornate party music with Chozus (“Ask For It”, “DTLA”), and life on the West Coast has expanded his sonic palette, leading to colorful collaborations with Angeleno artists like 1TakeQuan (“Regardless”) and L.A. transplants like 24hrs (“See Me When You Want Remix”).

After years of unglamorous toil, Lawson’s dedication to music is paying dividends. These days, he spends most of his time in various LA studios, working with rising stars like Teezo Touchdown and T$AN. He co-wrote two tracks - “The Truth'' and “Whole Lotta Liquor” ft. Future & PARTYNEXTDOOR - on Rubi Rose’s debut mixtape For The Streets, which came out in late December. His album Lawless is finished and forthcoming. He’s even picked up work as a model and actor, most recently appearing in a PlayStation 5 commercial with 21 Savage.

I spoke to Keith Lawson over the phone about growing up in group homes, ghostwriting, and staying open to new sounds. These excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity. You can stream his discography via the links below.

Keith Lawson Full Discography (Apple / Spotify / Tidal)

Can you tell me a little about your upbringing and where you’re from originally?

Yeah bro, so I was born in Jamaica, Queens hospital. And from Queens, I ended up moving to the Bronx with my dad, after my grandma passed away. She was the one who owned the crib (in Queens). I used to stay on 225th and Merrick.

My grandma passed away in a nursing home, so we were all just holding onto the memories at the crib and shit, but it came time when everybody had to move out. So me being an only child, and my mom being the youngest out of all her sisters, kinda put me in a hard position. My mom wasn’t really around, she was addicted to drugs and shit. My pops was a dancer, so that n***a was never really around like that. He was a hip-hop dancer. So I never really saw him like that.

Then one day, I just remember my aunt was like, ‘yo, you gotta move in with your dad. We can’t find your mom, and grandma’s house is getting shut down.’ So I was like fuck it. I don’t really know this n***a like that. I only seen him on the weekends and shit at this point in my life, you feel me? But I just took the chance and said let's do it. I ended up living with my dad in the Bronx from like, 4th to 5th grade. When I got there, man, I had no structure. I didn’t want to listen to nobody. My dad would try to discipline me, I just didn’t understand what discipline was. So I ended up running away from home. Then later on getting adopted after that. That’s a small summary of my childhood. 

Where did you stay after you ran away from home?

After I ran away from home, I ended up going to group homes at first. I was staying with a friend, but his parents got scared, ‘cause there was a legal issue with me staying there. So they got scared like, ‘yo man, you can’t hide here no more more, because we might lose our kids.’ So I ended up going into group homes, I want to say for three or four years. I went in around sixth grade, and I didn’t get out until my tenth grade year.

I ended up getting adopted to a family in Rockland County, New York. I’d never been to a foster home before or anything. They just said I was such a good kid in the group home, they were like, ‘yo man, instead of you aging out of here, why don’t you just look for a family?’ I was like, that’s kinda weird, just living with strangers and shit. I remember this lady named Destiny, she was a social worker, she told me, ‘God wants you to do something with your life. And I feel like he’s gonna put you in front of some good people. So why don’t you just try it?’ I tried it, and the first people I matched with was a family in Rockland County.

What kind of impact did living in group homes have on your teenage years?

So as well as me being in a group home, I was also not exposed to society and the public. Because if you got in trouble, then you couldn’t go out on the weekends. If you got in trouble, you couldn’t do certain things. They’d take away you going outside, or take away your phone. So I was just so sheltered, as far as what was going on in the world, and where the culture was going. I wasn’t exposed to any of it. Not having no phones, no electronics, getting in trouble all the time in the group home, I couldn’t really go out on the weekends like that, you feel me? 

I wasn’t getting in trouble because I was doing dumb shit myself. It’s just, you know, n***as like to try shit. So shit would happen. I was small, so I was always having to fight for myself, and that shit used to just knock me back. Even though you’re sticking up for yourself, it’s still not the behavior that they want to see, you feel me? (Laughs). So that shit held me back a little bit, I can’t even front.

Who were your early musical influences? What did you gravitate to as a kid?

My biggest influences are Erykah Badu, Donell Jones, and Michael Jackson. Top three, I don’t even gotta think about it. And then comes rappers like J Cole, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, Pac. But I was always influenced by R&B and soul for some reason. I grew up on that. My mom was singing Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and my dad was playing Robin Thicke, the “Lost Without U” shit, Omarion, Justin Timberlake, Timabaland, Missy Elliot, a lot of shit like that. I wasn’t really exposed to modern rap until I got to group homes, ‘cause that’s what those kids liked. I grew up on old soul music.

That definitely comes through in your music. There’s a vibrant, melodic sensibility to it. Did you always imagine yourself as an artist?

I can’t lie bro, I definitely always did imagine myself becoming an artist. Like when I was a kid, I used to have dreams of me just being in front of a big crowd and singing. When my grandma was alive, we used to do a house talent show every Thanksgiving. So everyone in the house would have to put on a show. My cousin was a dancer, my other cousin was a hip-hop dancer as well, they did contemporary dance and African dance, and I had a little cousin that did ballet. So we all were talented in our own ways. I was just always singing as a kid. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving, I was performing “Let Me Love You” by Mario, and I took my shirt off and started singing for my family, and everybody was screaming.

Do you remember the first song or snippet of yours that generated a buzz online? 

I was like 16-17, I had just got adopted in Rockland County, and I freestyled to that “Still D.R.E.” beat. And DJ Suss One retweeted it, like, ‘nah this is dope, this is hip-hop.’ And everybody in my high school started retweeting the shit. I went to school the next day, n***as was like, ‘bro, you’re famous now, what the hell?’ At the time, having some verification is so crucial. 

After that, I wanna say it was when Asian Doll posted a song of mine called “A Lot”. She posted it on her IG for like 40 minutes, and that was the most traction I’d ever seen. She ended up taking it down ‘cause she was twerking in it, you know how girls are. But when I say that video went viral, that was one of the first times I saw my numbers go up so quick.

I was cracking up at you in the background of Asian Doll’s “Nunnadat Shit” snippet

(Laughs). That’s another video that went viral. It’s like every time we link up, we go viral. We danced to the Popp Hunna “Corvette” joint, that shit went viral. Popp Hunna had hit up Asian Doll the same day we did it, like, ‘yo, I just wanna thank you for doing the dance.’ So we really be going viral. Shoutout to Asian, I fuck with her.

Inspiration for the nuts and bolts of songwriting - lyrics, melodies, concepts - is that just second nature at this point?

Yeah bro, it is. I always had a thing for writing. And me just analyzing the game as I was coming up and traveling, I started seeing females getting the upper hand in the industry. And there’s two things you can do. You can realize something and ignore it. Or you can realize something and participate. So I decided to participate. And instead of being like, ‘let me get every woman on a song with me,’ how about I write for a woman? So that’s why I be in the studio a lot now. If it’s not for me, I’m writing for somebody else, and if I’m not writing, I’m working on some beats.

When did you start working as a ghostwriter, and how did you end up writing “Big Mouth” for Rubi Rose?

I feel like the ghostwriting things happened around 2019. I had watched an interview, and somebody was like, ‘Lil Yatchy wrote “Act Up” by City Girls.’ I jumped out of my seat! My boy was in Atlanta, so I flew to Atlanta on the spot to work on some music. All I knew was that Lil Yatchy wrote “Act Up”. I didn’t care about anything else. I was just like, ‘that’s so dope, I gotta write for girls.’ So I’m working on music in Atlanta, and it comes time I gotta leave. I ended up missing my fucking flight. And I was so devastated bro. I was broke, I didn’t have no money. And mind you, I just went to ATL on a whim.

When I missed my flight, that shit really fucked with me. I remember my boy was like, ‘bro, everything happens for a reason.’ And I said, ‘you know what? You’re right, come get me.’ As I leave the airport, I found an iPad on the floor. Me and my boy sell this shit, now I got some bread in my pocket, you feel me?

We go to make some music, and one of my homies calls me like, ‘yo, I want you to meet my artist Rubi Rose.’ I called her and told her to pull up to a party we were having that night. She pulls up and shows me a song she had with Playboi Carti. I’m like, ‘I can write you something better than this.’ She left, and I ended up freestyling to that ‘Act Up’ beat. Then I made the beat for “Big Mouth” on the spot with my boy who picked me up from the airport. So I co-produced “Big Mouth” too. Time goes by, and I’m on a plane on my way to Oakland, doing a show with A$AP TyY, YBN Nahmir, a few other guys. Rubi called me and asked for a second verse. I wrote the second verse in 30 minutes on the plane and sent it to her. The rest is history.

Have you been writing for artists besides Rubi? 

Yeah, a few A&Rs hit me up. Kehlani’s project manager reached out to me about writing. I FaceTimed Kehlani, she told me ‘Big Mouth’ is her favorite song out right now, and that it makes women feel strong. Who else? Cardi B. Shoutout to Darrale Jones. I went to a writing camp for Cardi B for thirty days straight in L.A. I actually got to meet Cardi B too. Mad humble, very nice woman, super strong energy. I met Lizzo as well.

It’s dope to see how much that song affected the woman culture. That’s all I hear. That it makes them feel powerful, they love feeling like a boss. If I can make women feel like that, then why not?

How does your process change writing for other artists versus working on your own stuff?

The first thing is, I don’t write for men. I’m an artist myself, and I feel like I’d be selling my life and my story to somebody else.

But if I’m writing for women, I’m not doing anything that I’m saying necessarily. With women, I can sit down and talk to them, and they’re gonna be open and tell me everything. ‘I went through this, she did this to me,’ all that. Guys might feel too vulnerable. Women don’t have a problem with being vulnerable, and that’s why they’re winning right now. People get to see the real them, the real emotions.

Do you have a solo song that you feel like people slept on or didn’t appreciate enough?

I feel like the song that got slept on the most was “Buss It For Me”. That song, I really just explained my whole story. If you’re a real Keith Lawson fan, and you hear “Buss It For Me”, you’re gonna know that I’m adopted, you’re gonna know my mom didn’t really care about me. “Buss It For Me” is a real story about where I’m coming from.

Who are some of your producers to work with?

Man, I want to start with BNYX. He’s my favorite producer to work with, hands down. He’s gonna sit there and create the vibe with you and create the energy of the song. It’s deeper than just words, it’s deeper than just sounds, and the fact that BNY understands that, we always make something beautiful. 

I’m not gonna lie, BNY got my ear on the right pitches. Before, I used to sing things in the wrong pitch sometimes. He’s just naturally perfect with pitches. He’s super music inclined. He plays every instrument. So it’s always a blessing to work with BNY. But I like working with people all over the world.

What about artists?

I wanna say Teezo Touchdown. I love the way he makes music. Me and him got some heat. I can’t forget my boy Pres Laurent. I love working with Presto. And of course T$AN. He’s gonna be a top dog.

All these artists I just named, they go in the studio and just do it. It comes off the head like me. There’s no extra thinking, they’re not tryna be nobody else. They’re fully themselves. They go to the studio and embrace themselves. And that’s the type of artist I want to work with.

Why do you think you attract such a diverse cast of collaborators?

Keeping my ear open, and keeping my range open. A lot of people only see themselves in one lane. I never seen myself as just a rapper, just a singer, just a writer, just a producer. With my mentality being like that, the range of music that I go through is always gonna be diverse.

I love “Regardless” with 1TakeQuan. How did that collaboration happen?

I wanna say it was my boy 420 Tiesto. Tiesto is a known California beatmaker. If you in Cali and you rap, you know who Tiesto is. So Tiesto just connected the dots with me being on some L.A. shit.

You get real conceptual on songs like “Superman”, where you’re writing about relationships. Do you take a little more time and care with those types of songs?

When I write R&B, I have more time to think. The song is slower, it’s not as fast paced, it’s less words. So that’s why I feel like my R&B is more conceptual. Understanding how much space is in the song, people are gonna be hearing my voice more. I just want every word to count.

Also with R&B, there’s no points to prove. With rap, sometimes you gotta prove something. But with R&B, it’s more of that vulnerability we were talking about. That’s super important right now.

You and Chozus were two of the first artists I saw using TikTok to promote your music. Do you feel like you were ahead of the curb on that?

Bro, when I say we were ahead of the curb...I remember when you would make a TikTok, your shit would get 500, 600 views automatically. Chozus was on that shit. He’s verified now. When I made one, I had 70k followers, but my dumb ass didn’t really follow rules like that. I ended up getting deleted off there, because I posted some quote unquote ‘inappropriate’ things. Shoutout to TikTok though, it definitely got me booming a little bit, but I lost my account.

Do you have a full-length project in the works?

I do. I got a few. The one you might’ve heard about is called Lawless. I finished Lawless in July of 2019. I don’t think the world is ready for it, so what I’m doing at the top of the year is giving my fans a compilation project of everything I put out in 2020, plus three to four new songs. Just to put everything in one spot for the fans.

I know you’ve been approached by labels. Would you ever sign a deal, or is the plan to stay independent?

It’s crazy, because I do go to these meetings. I’ve met with a lot of label presidents and shit. But what I always hear after I leave these big meetings is, ‘yo, you don’t gotta do that. You don’t gotta sign.’ I’m not gonna say any names, but I got friends who signed major deals, they’re superstars, and they’re like, ‘bro, please don’t sign a deal. You don’t need to.’ Some days, I find myself just upset, like damn I should just sign this or that deal. But other days, I find myself feeling free.

A trick to it is not paying attention to anyone else’s success. ‘Cause a person can make signing look like everything that you dreamt about, then another person can tell you that it’s nothing, it’s hell. If the decision is right and I get the right offer, possibly. But right now, I’mma stay independent.

What’s your philosophy as an artist going into 2021?

2021 is going to be very lawless. I’m gonna speak louder, speak on things that’s going on in the world that people aren’t sticking up for. I want to do more things for foster kids, being that I’m adopted, and just let them know that they can be lawless too, and make it far. You don’t have to count yourself out because someone counted you out already as a child. You didn’t have a choice. I just want everybody to understand that, and I want to push a message that nobody really highlights.

I ain’t seen somebody come around and express their feelings for kids who got adopted. We all know about depression, people talk about depression all the time, but where does that shit come from? Where does it come from? Does anybody take the time to ask kids like, ‘yo, how’s your relationship with your parents?’ No one ever asks you that question. No one ever cares. But that relationship is the most important thing. Because it molds that child. I just wanna keep pushing good parenting, pushing fathers being in their sons’ lives. So that’s gonna be a big thing I do in 2021, as well as dropping my album.