Kevin West Music

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"Sometimes, I wonder if it's smart to put all these life experiences out there on an album ... where people will know more about me than I cared to let them know," says songwriter and guitarist Kevin West, who celebrates the official release of his new, independently-produced album My Life & Times this week. "As an artist, I feel like you have to do it. I'm sure a lot of my life experiences are similar to a lot of other people's. I'm singing from what my life was at certain times, but people relate to honesty, and I think they'll relate with this."

Born in San Diego and raised in northern New Jersey, West grew up in what he calls a "lower-middle class blue-collar environment" — an experience often reflected in his lyrics. He relocated to Charleston in 1995 and worked his way into the local club scene as a singer/guitarist doing his own tunes and a variety of funky renditions of rock and pop classics.

"I grew up as a heavy metal kid," West says. "I first started playing guitar when I was like 8 years old because of Ozzy's guitarist Randy Rhoads. Throughout the '80s, I liked the good metal, but not the bad hair metal. I could never see myself wearing spandex and poodle hair. I picked up an acoustic guitar and checked out some classic music. The '90s came along, and, all of a sudden, the solo singer/songwriter thing became popular. I was used to playing by myself anyway, so I worked on becoming a vocalist, too. I never could find the right person to sing for me, so out of necessity, I became a singer. I went through a phase where I listened to a lot of classic acoustic singer/songwriters like Harry Chapin, James Taylor, and Jim Croce. I got into Jeffrey Gaines and Dave Matthews."

Voted "Best Male Vocalist" by City Paper readers in 1997 and '98, he eventually formed a full band with a loose rotation of local players. His current backing band includes drummer Alan Brisendine, bassists David Hodges and Blair Halford, guitarist Kenny Meyer, and keyboardist Daniel Walker (who played on most of the new album).

"My little brother, Mike [a.k.a "O.C."], moved down here from New Jersey. His whole life, he's been rapping. He was totally into hip-hop. I used to not even like hip-hop when I was younger; I thought it was all machines and beats with no real musicians. I was sort of ignorant because I never really listened. Once I really listened to 2Pac, The Roots, Eminem, Common, and others — and their stories — I really got into it. The true hip-hop artists really have something to say."

The 18-track My Life & Times is a musical jumble of hip-hop and rap, slow-moving grooves, acoustic and electric modern rock, foul-mouthed comedy skits, and lyrical storytelling.

"This album has such a huge hip-hop element to it, but it's not enough for the hip-hop radio stations ... and there's too much hip-hop in it for most rock stations," shrugs West. "It could be a rough place to be, but I figure that most music that gets anywhere succeeds because it's something different and doesn't sound like everybody else."

Semi-modern hip-hop sounds and styles made their way into most of the songs — sometimes without proper credit. Lead-off track "Carolina Love" — featuring raps from Ace, PHEVE, O.C., Number One Contender's P Huck, and Double O's Ryan Phillips — carries on about the life "in the city of James Island ... and in the city of Folly Beach" without listing any credit to the original version: it is an obvious reworking of 2Pac's and Dr. Dre's "California Love," released as a single in '95 and featured on 2Pac's '96 album All Eyez on Me. The tune traces back to a collaboration between funk drummer Woody Cunningham and Zapp keyboardist Roger Troutman. For the 18 tracks on the disc, the only writing credits listed read as follow: "All songs and original skits written and produced by Kevin West." Most, perhaps ... but not quite all.

"Well, 'Carolina Love' is definitely derived from 2Pac's 'California Love,'" says West. "I checked with the publishers and cleared it, but I wasn't sure how to include that information in the sleeve. I'm definitely not trying to claim it as a songwriter.

"There were little things along the way that weren't exactly planned, but mostly, every detail on the album was thoroughly planned out," asserts West, who began recording the basic tracks for My Life & Times in March '05, but was nearly sidelined from bone-fusion surgery in his neck in April. "For most of the making of the album I was in a neck brace and a lot of pain [laughs]. It was a rough summer. In a weird way, making this album was a strange blessing. Now, I'm ready to go."