When Kid Sister first emerged, she was one of the first and only artists to combine club-centric hip-hop and dance music as a matter of course; along with her Philly counterpart Amanda Blank, the Chicago-raised MC blasted through genre demarcations in an era that was just starting to feel the ripple effect of M.I.A. and Diplo’s polymath approach to songwriting. Under the tutelage of her former producer (and then-boyfriend) A-Trak and his label Fool’s Gold, she was a new kind of club rap, dropping round-the-way-girl lyrics with snarl and sass over synthy rhythms more influenced by house and electro than anything going on in mainstream hip-hop at the time. Some may think 2007′s “Pro Nails,” her super-catchy breakout single, was corny (it wasn’t). In retrospect, the song it was undeniably prescient, from its nail-art theme and Kanye West feature to its then-unique screwed-down hook and footwork-influenced beat.
In the three short years that Kid Sister, née Melisa Young, has been silent since then, both hip-hop and electronic music have undergone a tectonic shift. Where does an artist like Kid Sister go when dance music has been marketed into a multibillion-dollar industry called “EDM”? When hip-hop has opened up to ever more styles and hopped on the Eurodance music train itself? During the period since her last album, 2009′s Ultraviolet, Young fell into a depression, her personal life shifting as trends in music did so around her. She moved from her hometown to Los Angeles. Her brother’s group, Flosstradamus, became even more famous on the EDM circuit, while Iggy Azalea became a superstar hawking a rubric that Kid Sister pioneered (and once got shit for). Yet Young’s output was nil, her relationship crumbled and she spent two years lost and wondering what, if anything, she could do to next.
But as she started to pull through, Young began writing again — prolifically. Her latest mixtape, Dusk2Dawn: The Diary of Jane Jupiter, is the first in a series (she wrote a total of 50 songs for this project), and it is her best work yet by lightyears. Her take-no-shorts style of rapping has improved immensely, with nimble flows and syncopated cadences she might not have tried before; she is also singing tea-sweet diva melodies, a nice surprise that didn’t need to be kept under wraps this long. The production, from upstarts like ETC!ETC! and GTA to stars like Neptunes’ Chad Hugo, is still dance-music-oriented with a rap-beat influence, alluding to trends but looking beyond them for a new path. And with her emergence from depression, she’s crafted another persona to accompany her newly diaristic approach to songwriting: Jane Jupiter is the version of Melisa Young that is swathed in diamonds and rising through space into a heavenly light on the Dusk2Dawn album cover.
We spoke with Young for an epic two-hour phone session. She made jokes and was as funny as she’s always been, but there was poise and self-assurance to her voice that shows what Jane Jupiter might really represent: Kid Sister’s hard-won transition to womanhood. Let her bang.
How did you come up with the Jane Jupiter persona?
Kid Sister was a kid, and I wasn’t super young when I started doing that project, but I think perhaps emotionally and musically, certainly, I was really green.
Beyond that, I don’t really feel like that artist anymore, so I needed a new way to articulate myself. There’s all this symbology behind the Jane Jupiter name. The name Jane is from the root name, yonus. Yonus was the god of passageways, new beginnings, going from the old to the new. And Jupiter was the god of all gods, and he ruled the heavens. Those things together really spoke to me when thinking about the project. None of it is fake. None of it is constructed. Everything on the mixtape is just me talking about what I know.
I felt like it was really strange how everything came together. I got the idea to call it Dusk2Dawn while daydreaming. Same thing for the mirror suit I’m wearing in the “Higher” video. You know when you’re lying down to sleep or just before you really wake up and you have those moments? So, the idea kind of came to me just from extended periods of rumination and those moments of twilight sleep. I already had the building blocks and then these ideas came to me through moments where I think I was just really relaxed and could be receptive to the sort of information. To be honest, I can get in my head, and I’m a bit neurotic at times. I think it took those moments where I was completely relaxed to even like allow those thoughts to creep in. It came naturally, and I felt like it almost came subconsciously, almost organically, and that’s how I knew it was right.
Between the cover art and the mirror suit, you are invoking that sort of imagery. It’s sort of dreamy, and very phoenix-rising-from-the-flames.
Well, that’s kind of how it feels to me, to be honest. During the first run of the Kid Sister project, there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen. That’s not to complain about it; I’m glad I had cooks in my kitchen, to figure out my way around. It was like Ratatouille; I don’t know what I’m doing, I need a little chef advice, help me with decisions, because I didn’t know any better. But, at the end of the day, I’ve always had strong and clear ideas of what I want to do creatively, and that’s where having all those cooks in the kitchen, I think, did me a bit of a disservice. It’s one thing to have people showing you the ropes and helping you along, but this industry, it’s not like medicine. It’s not science where things are really logical. It’s nebulous. Sometimes, the lines can get hazy.
With this new project, I know the business a little bit better, and I have an even stronger sense of what I want to do on the creative end. I’ve always had very strong sensibilities about what I’ve wanted to do aesthetically and musically. Maybe they weren’t as dialed in as they should have been, but now they are! It definitely feels like I’m finally being able to do things on my terms.
You weren’t really rapping or singing lyrics this personal before. How did you tap into it?
It was difficult. I feel like it’s more of a singer-songwriter thing to do, to take your real life experiences and put them into song. I talk about things on Dusk2Dawn that I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about, because I was ashamed or embarrassed or I didn’t have anyone to tell, you know? I went through a really isolating period in my life, socially as well as professionally, because when you realize that what you’re doing isn’t fulfilling you on any level, it’s depressing. Me being the strong and self-respecting person that I am, I just knew it was time to switch it up.
When I started to write, I was thinking, “Does this challenge me, does this scare me?” I never thought about those things before, because life was kind of easy before. When life is easy, sometimes your art suffers, because you can just coast. Kid Sister was kind of — a kid. When you’re younger, you maybe don’t have this skill to communicate what you want to communicate, or you just don’t care. For me, it was definitely a little bit of both.
Is “Higher” a self-esteem song?
It can be. That’s why I love it so much, it can be interpreted a bunch of different ways. This particular song was about a guy I was seeing, where I knew it wasn’t right, but I did it anyway. He kind of suffered from — he’s an artist too, a visual artist — and suffered from a bit of low self-esteem. This song was kind of a letter to him.
I wrote “Higher” four years ago, before the hiatus. I wrote it really quickly. I don’t know how it happened. It was the first melodic song I’ve ever written. And I was like, I don’t knoooww. This was before Random Access Memories, this was before “Blurred Lines,” this was before “Get Lucky.” No one was doing this music at all. That’s what made me freeze artistically. Like, I know I don’t want to make this kind of girl-rap anymore, but how the fuck will I make another “Higher”? I don’t even know how to make melodic songs. It paralyzed me. That’s another reason Jane Jupiter is a symbol for moving to the next dimension, coming out of your shell. It’s this thing I never thought I could do, this thing I was absolutely paralyzed by and suffered crippling fear. I actually did. That song, that’s kind of what started everything. It all came from “Higher.”
Dusk2Dawn has a lot of singing and melody, and it makes sense as a progression. Why weren’t you doing this before?
Exactly. It goes back to the cooks in the kitchen. It goes back to what I said in that Facebook post that I put up before the mixtape dropped. I was insecure. I thought before I could only do one thing, and with the permission of others. Once I realized that was all in my head, I was like, “Well, I’ll just do what I wanted to do the whole time, because I can do that now. I think it was just realizing…Am I really going to quote a Mary Mary song right now?” [Laughs] I think it was realizing not only were the handcuffs that were on me placed there by me, but that they were completely imagined. Enough with the self-induced sabotage. I said to myself, “Get out of your own way and do what you want to do.”
I feel like I hear a lot of Chicago in Dusk2Dawn, or at least the history of Chicago house.
You’re right. Sonically, I think you’ll always hear a bit of Chicago in everything I do. It’s completely something that is hardwired into me. In Chicago, when I was growing up, everyone listened to house music. It was on the radio. It was completely normal. I used to buy these house mixtapes in the late ’90s. My favorite was Paul Johnson. I was listening to one of his old mixtapes, oh, six months ago, before the album was done. He had a Chris Rock excerpt. You know the bit where he’s talking about, “you don’t want to the old guy in the club”? [When he says], “You don’t want to be that guy! You better settle down! It’s in the Dusk2Dawn outro: “You gotta settle down-down-down.” I was laughing my ass off and remembering how awesome Paul Johnson is, thinking, “Outro! I need to use that!” It’s the song that reminds me the most of the Chicago house music scene at the time, so I had to include it, because it makes me feel so good. “Sunshine City” — the way that song sounds is how I want to feel all the time. It speaks to that darkness leading to a brighter, happier time. It was the perfect garnish for the end of things.
You executive produced Dusk2Dawn. That’s a shift from too many cooks in the kitchen.
I have to say, it is one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding. This is not to say that I didn’t have tremendous help from a number of amazing engineers and producers, which I did, but conceiving this thing. Going from having nothing, to being able to articulate the evolution from where I was emotionally to where I am today emotionally. Also, being able to convey sonically where I started and mapped the evolution to where I am today took…I don’t think I can properly explain. It’s one of those huge waves that comes crashing down on you, but in my case, I was a willing participant. Like, OK, this is going to be nasty, but I just have to dive into it. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. In my world, I don’t know of any other women who are doing it. It’s a point of pride, but it’s also really isolating. At the end of it, I wasn’t even going into it thinking I’m the executive producer. I knew I was steering the shit, and then I was doing the liner notes. And I thought about it before I sat down to do the liner notes — I’m the executive producer. I was looking at it, thinking who would I credit for that? I would credit me.
The beats you chose are really interesting. It sounds really current and future. It’s not the default cliché trap-rave bullshit.
It sounds the way it does because of all the different music I like and the vast tapestry of influences I drew from. I think that just comes from being a music nerd. I grew up in the age of Napster, and I went crazy. I downloaded so many people’s music libraries. I think my first download from Napster was every Stereolab album. My sensibility of what sounds “future” comes from listening to groups like Stereolab and Cibo Matto. Even The 6ths, the Magnetic Fields side project. Those are the kinds of futurism I like. When I really eschewed and set down the insecurity and let my own sensibilities speak the loudest, I got what I think is the best work I’ve ever done. Not to brag, but I don’t think I was ever really proud of myself before this project. You gotta trust yourself.
I had such a tough time emotionally in 2011, 2012. I mean, I certainly didn’t know how to soothe myself and nobody else knew how to soothe me, which is why I went away. I had to take the responsibility of self-soothing. I’ve been head first. I started going to Kundalini meditation. I got real California about it. I might as well, while I’m here. When I started investing a lot of time in my own personal development, I realized mindfulness is such a part of living a fully realized adult life. Before, I was kind of coasting and not really thinking…If it felt good, right now, I’d do it. Everything was very impulsive. And now, everything is very mindful. For you to bring up the artwork, to bring up kind of all the points I was trying to drive home and hoping wouldn’t be lost on people, is really gratifying.