Hard choices fuel a musical transformation

How hard-core rapper Ceekay Jones evolved into Americana singer-songwriter Kirk Matthews

By Rick Romancito
Posted 11/14/19

"So, my listening platform according to the algorithm was that all my listeners listen to rap music and, as I evolved as a songwriter and a musician, I've kind of - really it isn't even kind of - I've evolved out of hip-hop music and I rarely even rap anymore." — Kirk Matthews

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Hard choices fuel a musical transformation

How hard-core rapper Ceekay Jones evolved into Americana singer-songwriter Kirk Matthews


Ever since digital streaming services allowed us to get our music fix any time and anywhere, many times for free, we've been conditioned to believe they are doing us a favor by creating categories that a digital algorithm will pick according to the kinds of music preferences we've chosen in the past.

Let's say you went on a Taylor Swift or a Katy Perry binge, but at some point decided you hated their music and preferred something completely different. Sure, you could pick whatever style of music you liked, but if you chose a playlist of your favorites, "Shake It Off" or "Firework" might still populate it.

What about artists who evolve? In the cases of Swift, who began as a country crooner, or Perry, who started out in Christian pop, each had a professional team that laid the groundwork with streaming services to make these transitions compatible with their fan's playlists. Lesser-known artists though aren't so fortunate. Take the case of Kirk Matthews.

You might remember him as a member of the Taos hip-hip outfit, Tabularasa. But, when that group fell apart during a foray to Los Angeles, he stayed behind and began shaping a respectable rap music career as Ceekay Jones. Eventually, like the aforementioned artists, he evolved. This meant he wanted to stretch his creative wings and explore other kinds of music. When the gods of the professional recording industry found out, they weren't happy.

Party band origins

"It's been an interesting journey and I think getting to where I've gotten it was just something that needed to happen," he said in a late October phone interview.

"I grew up in Taos between the late '80s and early 2000s before heading out to L.A.," Matthews told Tempo back in 2016. "Growing up in New Mexico during that time was a bit rough, but also molded me into the individual I am."

Matthews (whose real name is Matt Kirk), was born to parents who were professional athletes and avid music enthusiasts. "Music has always been a part of my life and my family," he said, adding in that article that he "never really dreamed or thought about being a musician or having a career in music growing up."

Before discovering his talents as a singer and musician, he spent most of his time on the slopes above Taos, becoming a junior Olympic skier in his early teens. He later became a professional snowboarder.

"I always tell people music found me," he explained. "During a time where I was rehabilitating some knee injuries … I wound up jamming with some close friends I grew up with in Taos … I never looked back."

That circle of friends included drummer Norm Cutliff III, guitarist Marcos Nuñez and bassist Giles Shelton. Matthews easily fell into a role as lead vocalist. In 1999, they formed Tabularasa, a Taos punk-reggae-hip-hop band that is now disbanded, but occasionally pops up now and then.

Cutliff, recently contacted for this story, said of that trip to the Los Angeles scene, "Tabularasa was offered a few record deals and if we had known what the industry was doing — turning upside down on itself via internet — we might have jumped on them rather than turning them down whilst waiting for the 'big deal.' Not realizing that the 'big record deals' were quickly becoming obsolete. Frustrating lifestyles living out of an RV and eventually turning to the dark side of jobs, girlfriends and bills," that, he said, was what killed the party.

"With my past, it's been pretty well documented," Matthews said more recently. "I've had great success in the music business over the last 20 years, obviously, first with Tabularasa and then moving into being solo and doing all the things that I've done in the music business, and all obviously under [my] original name, but one thing that happens in the time frame a lot has changed in the music business — the 'business' of music, and then obviously myself included."

The evolution of 'me'

There were a number of currents swirling around Matthews that seemed to be pushing him one way and then another.

First, he was wanting to try other forms of music. Oddly enough, he was getting turned on by folk and Americana, forms of music that seem at total odds with the kinds of rap and hip-hop energies with which he enjoyed a sizable measure of fame. And, second, he was watching with a jaded eye how the music industry was changing as well, from analog to digital, and, more ominously, from record sales to streaming. Then, third, he was seriously bothered by the latter and how it was encasing artists into a digitally sculpted concrete coffin.

"A lot of people don't understand the inner workings of the streaming sites," he said. "Whether you use Spotify or Apple Music, they all run on algorithms. So, if you're an artist that was based in the music business before the implementation of streaming, and you've had any kind of success, like any algorithm, it steers its content to who the algorithm believes is the listener's platform."

Matthews said he has had a great career "in what would be considered underground hip-hop music, whether I was in the New York hard-core scene with the band Scarhead and, even obviously Tabularasa was absolutely hip-hop influenced in the early days." So, if you were a fan from those days, you were absolutely locked in to what he was doing, and when streaming came along, so were the computer-driven tastemakers who were placing digital tags on various artists and their listeners.

"So, my listening platform according to the algorithm was that all my listeners listen to rap music and, as I evolved as a songwriter and a musician, I've kind of — really it isn't even kind of — I've evolved out of hip-hop music and I rarely even rap anymore."

Falling on deaf ears

Over the past few years, Matthews has been pushing out new records he said seemed to be "falling on deaf ears," mainly because they weren't being pushed to new listeners — "or, I should say, listened to the music I'm doing currently. So, it was only getting steered algorithmically to these quote-unquote underground rap listeners. And, if you heard the records that I put out in the last few years, it's nowhere near hip-hop or rap music."

Naturally, this caused confusion. Really, if you wanted to hear Ceekay Jones and then out of the blue comes this sweet-sounding Americana song amid the hard-core rap stream you were listening to, some folks might get a little salty.

"It's an interesting time we're in," Matthew said. It was made even more so when he came upon the solution.

Slaves to the machine

Matthews said he and his management have been working hard to push this new thing but they've been hitting a brick wall. He said his group even connected with these companies to dissect these issues.

Then came a sit-down with Spotify directly. "And," he said, "after really digging in with them and talking about the problem their actual verbatim answer to us was for me to change my name."

He said they admitted this issue with their algorithm from the artist's side of things is one of their biggest complaints. But, he said, quoting them, "It's nowhere near close enough for us to change our model." They are, as Matthews agreed, slaves to the machine.

In a weird way, this was kind of familiar. Back in 2010, while wrapped up in hip-hop mania, Matthews said he was getting tired of the "man music" thing, the testosterone-fueled highly charged energy typical of his live shows. "I wanted to get into songwriting. At that time, I sat down with my younger brother, who does a lot of producing with me, and we spoke about me changing my name but at the time the digital music stream hadn't happened."

Making the decision to change his professional name was a bit frightening and certainly a humbling experience, he said. But, he said, it was also freeing. "It has opened up not only creative energy for me — it was like a weight that was holding me down with Ceekay Jones — but now there's a whole new group of listeners that has opened up to me." It opened doors. "It was amazing to watch," he said.

The change happened right as the new year began, but he kept it under cover. "I wanted to see how it would work on its own. I didn't want to make any announcements." Now, he's out and proud, now known as Americana folk artist Kirk Matthews.

At some point in the coming months, Matthews is planning to return to Taos. We'll see how his fans welcome him and his new sound when he does.


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