Words by Nneka Samuel
Reggae. Salsa. Calypso. Dancehall. Cumbia. Soca. These are but a few of the blood pumping, hip-gyrating, life giving sounds we typically associate with the white hot music coming out of the Caribbean. But then again, he’s not exactly Caribbean born and bred.
He is Jamal Samuel, one half of the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virgina) area-based, chillwave group known as PKWY (pronounced Parkway). He also happens to be my brother. The other half of PKWY consists of singer Emily Ehrens, whose attention-demanding vocals mesmerize in a peaceful, lulling sort of way. Jamal composes the beats, Emily writes the lyrics and together this duo’s 80s-meets-now type of sound is, simply put, infectious.
To say he’s come a long way from banging on the oversized dictionary he used to compose beats back in the day is an understatement. Clearly, it was all part of the training that prepared him to become the producer extraordinaire he is today. And while our father hails from Grenada (our mom is a New Yorker who’s Caribbean by association) and the music he knew and loved from back home filled our house on a regular basis, Jamal, being born of a certain time and locale, quickly grew an affinity for all things hip hop, his first musical love. Prior to joining PKWY, he sampled and composed beats under numerous aliases, most notably, Terracotta Blue. It’s his musings as Terracotta Blue that first caught the attention of Emily. And the rest, as they say, is history. Earlier this year, they released their debut EP, “The Fire,” featuring the title track and five other hit-worthy songs.
Read on to learn more about Jamal, how PKWY came to be and what they’re all about.
POTENT: How did you and Emily first meet and what made you want to make music together?
JS: Emily actually reached out to me in early 2013 after hearing some of my tracks on SoundCloud (as Terracotta Blue). She said she really liked my sound and wanted to know if I was down to collaborate. The vast majority of my collaborations prior to this point had been with rappers, so I thought working with a singer would be a good change of pace. I sent her a couple of tracks to mess with and when she sent them back with rough vocals I was blown away! She has a real knack for catchy songwriting and a unique vocal range. So over the course of the following year, we traded numerous song ideas back and forth. You can find our earliest songs (“I’d Do” and “My Time”) on my SoundCloud page. It was in the summer of 2014 when Emily proposed the idea of creating an official group. She actually beat me to the question because I was about to ask her the same thing at the time!
POTENT: How would you describe PKWY’s sound? And who came up with the name PKWY?
JS: Both Emily and I are big fans of 80s music, from Michael Jackson to Madonna to Prince to Pat Benatar—the list can (and does) go on and on! And although I’m a true blue hip-hop head, I started my Terracotta Blue alias to release material more heavily influenced by the chillwave sound (which in turn borrows a lot of the aesthetics of the 80s). So our sound owes a lot to 80s pop, but you can hear R&B and hip-hop mixed all throughout.
I came up with the PKWY name. We were living in adjacent cities (Silver Spring and Takoma Park) when we first started collaborating, and one of the main roads connecting the two is Sligo Creek Parkway. So that was that—absolutely no deep meaning behind it lol.
POTENT: How does your Caribbean background influence PKWY’s sound (or your sound in general)?
JS: I would say that my sound in general has been very influenced by reggae, particularly dub. The basslines I would play over some of my tracks are definitely reggae-inspired. There aren’t any obvious Caribbean influences in the PKWY sound, although you might hear traces of reggae influence in songs like “Hiding Behind Fine” (bassline and horn section). But I’ve been listening to a lot of dub recently, so it’s only a matter of time before I send a dub track for Emily to mess with!
POTENT: How do you and Emily collaborate? What’s the creative process like?
JS: PKWY is very much an email-based project. I generally send her a track idea, and then she sends it back with some rough vocals. We send files back and forth with tweaks to the tracks and vocals until we have something that sounds complete. We recorded drafts of the songs on The Fire EP before cutting the final vocals in a studio. But our setup now just consists of a laptop, iPad, a mic, and Gmail.
POTENT: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
JS: Way too many to name for this article! But regarding my sound and production, its Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, RZA, DJ Quik, and Timbaland.
POTENT: What do you want people to know most about PKWY? And what’s next for you guys?
JS: PKWY started off as a side project for both Emily and myself, and it turns out that we have a real good musical chemistry. Our goal is to simply make good, catchy tunes. We definitely like to genre hop, so you’ll hear pop, chillwave, R&B, and hip-hop all through our catalog. We started releasing material officially as PKWY in early January (2015) and have tried to release material every month or so. Just keep checking our SoundCloud for new music.