A little over a year ago, Zecháriah Ruffin returned to Milwaukee after a short (and not-so sweet) stint in Los Angeles. Focused more on getting her life back in order than music at the time, she—under the Zed Kenzo moniker—found her way back to the stage and, in the process, saw her life slowly falling back into place. With an impressive first year back that featured a ton of shows (including one in support of Busdriver), unique collaborations, and endearing herself to Milwaukee listeners, Ruffin is poised for even greater things. Days after returning from a Tennessee festival where she played her first show as frontperson of hardcore band Youth Crush, and just before tonight’s Zed Kenzo performance at Cactus Club in support of Dai Burger, Milwaukee Record spoke with Ruffin about her path back to Milwaukee and what’s to come.
Milwaukee Record: You just got back from Middle Of Nowhere, Tennessee at Idapalooza. You were doing some solo things there, and also doing things with the band Youth Crush. What was the experience like? What was the response?
Zed Kenzo: It was amazing. Youth Crush played that same day we got there. It was my first time ever playing live, or at all, with a hardcore punk band, and everybody was really, really responsive. It was just a really amazing experience. I’m excited about working with them more. Then the next night, I did a solo Zed Kenzo set, and that was also amazing. Both times, it started with people scattered, but by the time I looked up at the end, the room was packed.
I don’t know if you know who Mykki Blanco is, but Mykki Blanco is an underground queer rapper from New York, who is like a giant influence for me. They were there and saw me perform, then came up to me after and said “You’re so good!” That was really incredible.
MR: Are you adapting existing Youth Crush songs and adding your own flare or is it all new stuff?
ZK: I’m kind of adding my own flare. We started practicing really soon before the show and I didn’t know what songs we were doing until four days before the show. It’s hardcore punk so you have to read the lyrics. You can just go in like, “I totally know what they’re saying.” A couple of songs I just freestyled and said whatever I wanted to say. Then I had the lyrics down pretty good in two of the songs, and we had two new songs.
MR: Is it weird or even uncomfortable to sing lyrics written by someone else?
ZK: Oh yeah. One of the first things I said to [Youth Crush drummer] Kelsey [Kaufmann] was that I thought I was having a hard time remembering the lyrics because they’re someone else’s. Even though there are these general messages about things in the world—this is a message about misogyny, this is a message about racism, this is a message about Dontre Hamilton—I’d rather write my own lyrics. We’ll be writing new stuff, but to respect the integrity of Youth Crush itself, I’m not going to take their own songs and rewrite them.
MR: You said the crowd in Tennessee was on board with what you were doing. Did you find that audiences here were as quick to get on board with what you were doing, or has it taken some time to get acclimated and win over Milwaukee?
ZK: I don’t think I’m winning anyone over yet. I don’t know if I was lucky with everyone else coming up—you know, NAN (New Age Narcissism)—but I happened to come back during this time where people were holding each other up, and I just kind of started off lucky. I lived in L.A. for like seven months, I came back last April and did my first show in May. It was a lifesaver that people reached out and invited me to play shows. I’m just really taken aback by all the love and I’m really happy that I’m doing all this. I didn’t think I would be, and to have the opportunities that I’ve been having has been very overwhelming and surreal.
MR: You got back last spring and started doing shows again. Along the way, you and Mozaic did a music video together. How’d you get hooked up with him?
ZK: Mutual friends. I met him last year at Summerfest when I was there seeing NAN. I ran into some people and he was friends with those people. I told him I liked his music and he told me he liked my music, and then he asked me to do a song with him. That song was sitting around since last August before he had his friend Alex Belville at Mirrorless Productions make the video last March. It was friends helping friends.
MR: You’re presently involved in all these different things between your own music, the new band, and collaborations, but what’s next? Are you focused on getting more acclimated with Youth Crush or are you at work on your own material?
ZK: I want to go to different states more because I’ve been playing here, mostly. I want to set stuff up in other states. I want my project to be really, really good. I think that might take me a really long time to work on, but if I don’t get to release the album I’m planning on doing, I at least want to release a small EP before winter. I have all this stuff just sitting around, even songs I don’t perform that I could definitely record and release. I just want to work with one person, get everything produced, get everything mixed and mastered, and put it out.
MR: Do you know who that person is?
ZK: No, that’s the problem.
Zed Kenzo will open for Dai Burger and Raquel Show House at Cactus Club tonight, and will perform with Azizi Gibson, Chapelle, Mike Regal, and Kane The Rapper at Miramar Theatre on Friday.