Hip-hop duo Neon Vice chases ‘witty and gorgeous’ sound

words and photos by Kyle Cochrun

Lounging inside a second-floor recording studio in Barberton, surrounded by walls adorned with covers for records by Herbie Hancock, Prince, Curtis Mayfield and other top-shelf funk and R&B acts, Neon Vice are having a nerd-out moment. 

The Akron-based hip-hop duo, consisting of rapper Kell16 and producer/singer Smoove, are listing everything they’ve been listening to. The list includes British new wave acts Naked Eyes and Japan, Swiss hip-hop artist Varnish La Piscine, Canadian indie band Reverie Sound Revue and American alt-rap act N.E.R.D. Their combined taste is eclectic, the idiosyncratic comprehensiveness of two serious music enthusiasts. 

But their sound is as distinctive as their fandom is extensive. The duo’s debut EP, Why Her, displays Kell16’s wordplay over Smoove’s pressurized drums and dripping chords. The result is a lyrical examination of love and lust delivered in a technicolor sauna of melody.

Smoove, rocking a beige safari hat, discusses how he was inspired by David Bowie’s Soul Train performance of “Fame,” a song produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic, another band they both love. 

Kell16, in a hoodie depicting a yellow raincoat-clad Chucky the Evil Doll holding a red balloon in mock innocence, is exuberant over his love of Blade Runner

“I’m a big, unapologetic Blade Runner fan,” Kell16 says. “Both of ‘em, Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. I got the 20th anniversary edition for the first movie.”

The Blade Runner soundtrack’s influence is discernible in Why Her, which is saturated in lush synthesizer tones. 

As their name might suggest, Neon Vice mines the electro-gloss of 1980s pop music for inspiration.

“Our overall sound and our aesthetic is rooted in nostalgia,” Kell16 says. “Like, what makes the ‘80s. The synths in particular are a sound that we are truly obsessed with. But we don’t really want it to sound robotic, which is why we mix hip-hop and soul and a little bit of funk in there… Everybody does synths. Like, who doesn’t do synths? But we want to make it off-kilter, just a slight shift to it. We want to make it sexy, we want to make it intimate, but then at the same time we can make it witty and gorgeous if we want to.”

Witty is right. Kell16 sums up his lyrical delivery in the opening lines of “No Brains:” “Smart guy flows / H2O with a glass of intel.” The way he slinks his lines between Smoove’s night-glide instrumentals and injects them with subtle melodic lilts is refreshing, as is his thorough avoidance of rap clichés. 

Gorgeous is right, too. Smoove’s synth melodies on songs like “What A Dream” and “Knighted” sound like pulsing LED lights shining through a clear stream. He contributes vocals as well, handling the glacé chorus on “No Brains.” His voice reverberates in the background of some tracks, blending with the synthesized syrup.

When discussing his production techniques, it’s no surprise Smoove namedrops the late beatsmith J Dilla. Smoove’s percussion bumps in similar fashion, both wonky and head-boppable. 

“’Pending First Date’ is not even on sequence,” Smoove says, referring to the EP’s second track. “It’s kind of off a little bit. I did that on purpose. [Kell16] recognized that the drums were off, and I was like, ‘leave it that way.’” 

“I can write to a sequence of farts,” says Kell16, “but that doesn’t mean anything. [Smoove] makes it memorable… Lyrics are only as powerful as the track.”

The duo’s willingness to skirt the creative restraints of puzzle-perfect drum patterns and to keep the music soulful amongst the electronic sheen speaks to just how long it took to make this record: two years. The group seems to have reached a point when perfectionism gives way to instinct. 

For example, the single “No Brains” was set to be released digitally at the end of February. Smoove and Kell16 met up in the studio to listen to the finished track two days before its release date. Dissatisfied, they decided to scrap the entire song and re-record it.

“The version that’s out now sounds nothing like the original version,” says Smoove. 

Smoove listened to the track’s original vocals and re-programmed the beat from memory, then Kell16 re-recorded his vocals in one take. This new version added depth to an already impressive song, and they still met their release deadline.

Kell16 and Smoove credit much of the warm, sauna-like soundscape of Why Her to their audio engineer, who goes by the moniker GoldFrame.

“What’s cool about these guys is that whenever [Smoove] makes a beat and gives it to me it’s already done, it just needs to sound bigger,” says GoldFrame. “I add a couple reverbs to make the synths sound fatter and then, once I finish the mix, I take the EQ and cut out a shit-ton of the highs. I don’t know why this works, but it works.”

GoldFrame is the group’s unofficial third member, which is evident when you spend an hour with them all in the studio; their dynamic is easygoing comradery strengthened by blunt honesty (and, of course, those nerd-out moments). It goes without saying that GoldFrame will work on their next record, which is already in the making. 

“We’re the architects of new moments,” Kell16 says in a snippet of in-studio dialogue placed at the close of Why Her. “And that is what Neon Vice is about. Always being fresh, not being afraid.”

With their debut EP, Neon Vice have proven themselves one of the most promising up and coming hip-hop acts in Akron. Pay attention to the sounds dripping out their speakers. 

Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio. Contact him at kylecochrun@gmail.com.