Questions and Answers: Interview with Killer Bee

Sophia Reyes, the Colby Museum’s Summer 2021 Howard A. and Gisele B. Miller Curatorial Intern, interviews musician Jose Barrionuevo, aka Killer Bee, Lunder Institute for American Art Summer ’21 Resident Fellow. 

1. Where did the stage name Killer Bee come from?

My stage name is based on one of my favorite characters from the popular anime series Naruto. I grew up watching it on channels like Toonami and loved the idea of a rapping ninja. Since I was making beats at the time I thought it was a good fit. I later found out its connection to the Wu-Tang Clan, so for me it kind of also became a nod to them.

2. Do you make your own cover art? If so, what guides your research and selection for assigning covers to an album?

I usually make, design, or remix all of my own cover art with the exception of Otaku, which was made by a brilliant artist named Zomkashwak. Even then I had a general design of a portrait for the cover. I think since I’m consuming art all the time, my taste and curating for a particular album aesthetic is created concurrently with the music. My tastes just change with what I’m interested in at the moment and that is probably influenced by platforms like Pinterest, Tumblr, Dazed, Juxtapoz, etc. For example, with my recent album, Destiny, I was studying a lot of nineties rave posters and Y2K art and that kind of filtered its way into the overall sound and art direction. Having my album art and visual aesthetic match my music is extremely important to me because it gives the listener a visual experience alongside the auditory one. My ethos of remix and sampling culture extends past my music practice and I view my digital art and design as an extension of my music. Recently I’ve tried to lean more heavily into my own photography with my past few albums to kind of complete the circle of the album’s aesthetic and make sure that the vision is one hundred percent authentic. I plan to commission more artworks in the future, though, from artists I like so I’m excited to get back into designing an illustrated album cover again.

3. Have you ever thought about incorporating your own voice into your music, whether it be singing, whistling, or the spoken word? Why or why not?

Definitely. Though I consider myself a beatmaker and sound artist first and foremost, I’ve been recently trying to grow as a songwriter and singer. I’m actually working on a song right now that features me whistling at the end, haha, but since my 2019 album, Desire, my vocals have been showing up more and more throughout my work. At first I wasn’t sure of what people would think since producers are frequently boxed into a certain role of being “behind the boards,” as opposed to the other side of the glass, so I initially started processing my vocals as samples and loops through various FX as a way to disguise them. At the end of the day, though, I just view my voice as another instrument to use in my production, the same way I would view a guitar. I’m not trying to prove I’m a good singer [but] if I can’t get a collaboration from a certain singer [I have] in mind then I usually try my hand at it. There are also lyrics sometimes too that are so personal that only you can sing them, no matter how badly. Songwriting is still something I struggle with all the time since my background is more in instrumental music, but it’s just a muscle that I have to strengthen and I’m trying to get better at it all the time.

Killer Bee performing in his Lunder Institute for American Art studio space.

4. You have participated in residencies from Italy to Japan, and your music has been played on international stations such as BBC Radio 1 and NTS. How did your residencies give you international recognition?

I think they’ve all helped get my name out there to people who otherwise wouldn’t have found my music. For an independent artist in today’s music landscape, marketing can kind of feel like a Sisyphean task since the music industry now is saturated to the point that many writers and blogs don’t have the time anymore to check out your music due to the sheer volume of submissions they get. This has led to a lot of the music we consume [being] built around an algorithmic or curatorial model and has left a lot of indie musicians on radio silence especially if you don’t fit a certain box or mood. Any kind of recognition helps for sure but I think word of mouth is still the best way to find new music and I’m grateful to anyone overseas who has shared my music with their friends and family.

5. How do you get through copyright laws, considering some of your music uses samples from copyrighted audio?

There are ways of getting around copyright laws like chopping or pitching a sample beyond recognition but to me all of this is just a Band-Aid for a bullet wound. When resources that are meant to help beginners like have become weapons for the music industry, it’s clear to me that the laws are fundamentally broken.

I consider myself to be a part of the Copyleft movement and ultimately, to me, the art is absolute. Art is constantly in conversation with itself. It would be absurd for the government to declare that using a certain shade of red in a painting is illegal. Paraphrasing Mr. Supreme, painters aren’t expected to manufacture their own paint. There was a time when photography had to go through the courts because it was considered stealing to take a picture of someone or something. That may seem absurd to us today but that’s where we are with copyright law. Copyright law in the United States is made and remade to benefit those who controlled past systems instead of accommodating the new ones created and revolutionized by the Internet. Twitch streamers losing hundreds of hours of content for playing songs they like or a police officer playing Taylor Swift to ensure a YouTube DMCA takedown and obfuscate their own disregard of the law are examples of this. Reform has been needed for a long time. New ways of life threaten older ones but progress is inevitable. Cars eventually replaced horse buggies. I hope that a hundred years from now there will be more freedom regarding art and technology, and that copyright is rewritten to adhere to the creator instead of the corporation. Remix culture and appropriation art are the languages of the twenty-first-century artist. If there was a cheap and legal way to sample, like a platform that takes an affordable (e.g., $20 to $100) price up front, and then a way to split the royalties evenly (i.e., a fifty-fifty split), every producer would do it. There are services like Splice and Tracklib that are finding ways to do just that, but Tracklib still charges thousands of dollars for certain samples because record labels and certain artists can charge whatever price they want. So producers just starting out, who may not have much of a budget but still want to use the sample as a means of expressing themselves artistically, may opt to illegally sample it instead. Both parties lose.

The solution to piracy isn’t more security or anti-piracy laws, just as much as the solution to crime isn’t more policing. It’s building alternative services that provide more benefits than piracy ever could. At the end of the day, the conversation regarding copyright is about control and the commodification of culture. The founding fathers knew that there was merit in copyright protection. But ultimately, after a brief period of time, your intellectual property would belong to the public in order to further innovate with your creation. The original law was a max of twenty-eight years and since a lot of the samples I’ve used are from before 1987, I would have been in the clear for those. But over time, corporations like Disney, music labels, and certain artists lobbied to increase copyright protection to an artist’s lifetime plus seventy-five years and 120 years for works of corporate authorship. Even when companies like Disney routinely “sample” from fiction like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Treasure Island, etc., but immediately make it illegal for anyone else to sample from their stories. No art is made in a vacuum. The illegally used sample may not even affect the artist anymore but instead the bottom line of a corporation that has control of their masters. [It’s the] same reason that private equity firms are now paying hundreds of millions of dollars for an artist’s catalog. We have an oligopoly in music, where only three major music labels control two-thirds of the music we listen to. For it to be later repackaged and repurposed for cultural relevancy or virality in a TikTok trend. Our attention is being farmed for the benefit of corporations.

Now, of course I think that certain safeguards on copyright are important. I wouldn’t want anyone to outright bootleg my cassette tapes and albums. But I release all of my music for free in a Creative Commons license on purpose. If some fledgling producer remixes and flips a part of my song and does a better job of it than I ever could, society benefits from it. The genre benefits from it and pushes past boundaries. It would be greedy of me to seek ninety percent of the royalties of that song just because it ended up doing better than mine. Songs that are sampled also benefit from a second life, especially if the song was released in the past, and [sampling] can lead to a resurgence of interest in genres such as jazz and orchestral music. When artists and creators constantly live on a tightrope where certain uses are deemed OK but others risk a DMCA takedown, they don’t live in a democracy; they live under corporate rule.

6. At what moment in your life did you decide to pursue music professionally? What was the inspiration for your career?

In the fall of my senior year here at Colby I set out to make my debut album “alone.” After spending years of not really taking my art seriously and after performing it for my friends in April, I knew that this was the only thing I wanted to do. Before then, I didn’t realize that producers and beatmakers could be independent artists. A lot of my attitude with my music before was centered around the rapper or singer I wanted to work with. I would make a song and send it to someone. It wasn’t until I discovered artists like J Dilla, Nujabes, and Knxwledge that I realized instrumental hip-hop artists can be independent artist themselves and not have to rely on a vocalist to keep people interested. They would chop up samples as a way of songwriting and paint their own picture warping and manipulating acapellas. It was clear to me that this was art. Looping a ten-second sample and finding ways to make it interesting for three minutes is one of the hardest forms of songwriting there is.

About Jose Barrionuevo: Barrionuevo is a 2016 graduate of Colby College who lives in the New York City metro area. As a Lunder Institute for American Art Summer 2021 Resident Fellow based at the Arts Collaborative, he worked on Sagrada, a new album centered around spirituality and familial relationships in Mexican culture.