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k-os [Interview]

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Vancouver, B.C. – Despite a certain reputation, k-os seems quite formidable and he’s not above cracking a few jokes in between his well thought-out responses. K-os knows what he believes and is a strong advocate of his own distinct philosophies on music. He refuses to restrict himself by way of self-definition, so to call him a mere rapper isn’t entirely accurate but the man can sure rhyme.

His fourth album in, Kheaven is proving that he’s not just talk. He’s putting his money where his mouth is and offering up his ethos in the form of free music. Okay, his album is still $12.99 on iTunes for the special edition but his shows are free, his beats are up for grabs and there might be some ringtones thrown in the mix too. Crown Loyalist Recordings, k-os’ own subsidiary to parent label Universal Music Canada, has also released a remix album, letting any one of the public have their dirty way with a k-os beat. Canada has rhythm in reserves and an open call for it reinforces the musical community and takes the term “music sharing” back to grassroots.

The k-os Yes! 9-stop Canadian Karma tour is perhaps the first musical endeavor based on an ancient religious concept since ancient religious times, but everyone’s broke and summer is finally here so a free show is a welcome thing – even if it has Rogers logos splashed all over it. The tour kicked off on April 30th in Vancouver. Granville Street was bumping: the Canucks had just beat the other team, the line-up was around the block by 6:30 and there was potential for rowdiness but the only battles that broke out all night were on the dance floor.

Donation booths were set up for the David Suzuki foundation and fans were free to pay what they wanted. K-os rapped, sang and beatboxed, intermittently attacking the harmonica, strings, keys and Korg with infectious energy. They say you get what you pay for, but k-os likes to turn clichés on their heads and has started a new trend, seeing money as a language of appreciation instead of a necessary transaction. HipHopCanada was fortunate enough to pin down the busy musician to talk about musical arrangements, his new label, and most importantly, Karma.

HipHopCanada: You’ve got a lot of new projects coming out these days: not one but two new albums, both on your own label Crown Loyalist Recordings through Universal Music Canada, right?

k-os: Right. That actually is more of a form of evolution than anything else. I’ve been signed to major labels since 1998, that’s when I got my first deal with Capitol. So it’s been ten years and I went from EMI to Universal last year and before I did that I was talking to EMI about the same thing and everyone agreed that it was time for me, now that I understood how to make records and had made four of them, that it was time for me to start doing my own thing. At that time when I was at EMI there was a young man named Shawn Hewitt, he had a record coming out and that was going to be the first thing on the label but unfortunately when I left EMI that meant that I wouldn’t have that. He toured with me for two or three years, so if you want to talk about vision or the type of bands that I would find etc, it would be guys like that. Guys I’ve been on the road with or friends or people whose music I’ve been watching for a while. That was a vision to create something where I could be director of my own destiny and then eventually down the road I’d sign bands, but for now it’s a way for me to protect what I make and what I write. The vision is to make sure with Crown Loyalist, and the name kind of infers it, just to stay true to my artistic ideals and attract artists whose task it is to, within this pop world, still remain loyal to the roots of their music and their own artistic vision and try to be as original as possible.

HipHopCanada: Cool man, your new album YES! has recently come out and it’s your fourth studio album: where do you see the greatest progression, or evolution as you had mentioned, musically in your new album?

k-os: It’s going to be hard for me to put my finger on that ’cause I don’t know musical theory but my knowledge of that stuff, without actually learning anything about it at all formally, has gotten better. Arrangement maybe, that’s what I actually had the most fun doing is arranging pieces of music. After it’s written or after it’s taken its form I’ll spend days and days and days just trying to arrange it in an interesting way but still keep it three and a half minutes, keep it as a tight dose. But to me arrangement this time around is what, if you listen to the songs, makes it seems different but at the same time there’s old tricks of the trade which make something so different just seem standard if you arrange it a certain way.

HipHopCanada: You’ve got a lot of instrumentation on YES!, more sitar and tabla-

k-os: Santosh has played with me since the beginning so we’ve always had tabla and all that. Using guitars to sound like the sitar was kind of our thing back on [Joyful Rebellion], like on “Crabuckit” and “Man I Used to Be” and I took a break from then when I did Atlantis and was investigating some more rock sensibilities but yeah, that’s definitely back so you’ll notice that for sure.

HipHopCanada: Who would you call your greatest influences from old school hip-hop?

k-os: Probably all the Native Tongue stuff: Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Black Sheep. Probably, because if you listen to those records, they do come back to arrangement and songwriting. I love Diamond D and I love Large Professor and I love Ultramagnetic MCs but there’s something about Tribe’s music for me, and De La and Black Sheep in particular Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, if you listen to those songs, the way they’re arranged and how the samples are used and cut and sliced, they’re such good songs. I think that’s why that music translated and spoke to so many people. They were songs, they weren’t just jams or something you’d put on at a club. I think that’s why they lasted the test of time, just like a lot of stuff off Buhloone Mind State by De La Soul. I just heard “Me Myself and I” at a club the other day and I was like, “wow, what a great song.” Kanye was good at thinking in terms of songs, and a lot of people are becoming more melodical and are thinking about it that way, not just spitting game or a jam or a beat. It’s a beat but it’s also a song, like “Backbone Slide” is a good song so that’s where I’m coming from in terms of my influence, great songwriters and great songs get me excited.

HipHopCanada: There’s an accompanying album to YES! called YES! It’s Yours and you’ve said that this involved separating your music from yourself as something you own, and it was something you had to get used to. I’m wondering in which way you think about that, as a spiritual entity?

k-os: I think that I’ve always looked at music in a certain way. When I was 21 years old in this country, I did a song called “Musical Essence”, it was the first song I did, first video I did, and it got played on MuchMusic. That song single-handedly got me out of University – I was going to York at the time – it put me on tour with the Rascalz and Ghetto Concept and the next thing I knew I was rapping for an audience. That song is the first time I ever rapped in the studio ever. I had decided to just do a rap song just because, and I did it, and I recorded it, so that song’s pretty pure. I don’t like watching old videos, I rarely listen to my old records, only when the new record’s done do I sit down and listen to the record I did before and I kind of compare them. But one of the reasons why I’ve been able to stay around and do music is because a lot of my friends at the time, who might have been better rappers than me in ’98, ’99, they were afraid to put music out, they didn’t want to let it go. They stockpiled all these songs and never did anything with them. So for me, I don’t consider myself to be the best rapper or the best singer or even the best producer but I definitely don’t have a problem with putting music out there. That’s why this whole concept, this whole idea of the Karma tour is a big deal to me from an ego point, because it took a lot for me to actually let people mess with my vocals, but as far as how it all fits together and why it seems to work is I’m just the type of person who puts music out there and lets it go anyway. As quick as people remix my new stuff I’ve already got six or seven songs ready for a new album. It acts as a catalyst, knowing what time we live in, when people are taking an a capella and messing with it, okay, so what am I going to do next? It just keeps you on your toes, if anything.

HipHopCanada: Are there any of the remixes that you like as much, or even better than the originals?

k-os: This one guy Jalyn had such a crazy flavour that we were going to use three from him but we were like, we can’t make this guy remix the whole album. He remixed “Uptown Girl” and he has this John Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 80′s music, very authentic with his own touch to it. And then of course the “4,3,2,1″ remix which is the first one I picked, were these 16 year old kids from Burnaby-Vancouver and that blew my mind because they were using this auto-tune thing on it and it sounded kind of Kanye-ish. Maybe I had envisioned somebody else but when I found out that [The Sound Crate] were just two 16-year-old kids that just blew my mind as well, just the aspect that you never know who’s working on the music. You can’t put a face to the music anymore cause everyone has Garage Band or some kind or technology to allow them to make music now.

HipHopCanada: You’re putting on “pay what you want” shows with the option to donate to the David Suzuki Foundation, but what if people decide not to pay? Do you have a back-up plan?

k-os: I think the key thing when this came out was to make sure the musicians I roll with were paid, making sure the venue was paid for then buses and things. My management was intelligent about it and got Rogers to put up a certain amount of money to make the show go on. A lot of the times, the public might not know this, but when you do a show there’s so much pre-payment. Before someone steps on stage the money has already been spent: that’s why they charge you a ticket because you’re paying for basically the cost to get that artist in front of you. Saying “pay what you can” isn’t just like we all just showed up for free, and now can you give us our money back; for me it’s the idea that people leave a show and they can respond directly right after. That excites me beyond compare because I’ve toured this country 4, 5, 6 times and boredom sets in so it’s a nice reality to know that when I step on stage tomorrow someone’s going to put 10 dollars, 20 dollars, even five cents: whatever’s the honest emotion of what they felt for me. That’s amazing so that’s the backup plan right there, just go with the idea that the world is changed and we’re in rough financial times and there’s so many reasons why this idea reads as a good thing on paper. But more than anything else, there’s always a clincher for me as an artist of why I do things. There can be a million other reasons but I focus on what I’m going to get out of it and for me that’s performing in the moment and knowing that no one’s obligated to be here, no one’s obligated to pay me. Money’s a language, that’s all it ever was to me in the music industry: it just communicates how someone feels sometimes. And sometimes it doesn’t, if someone puts 10 cents in cause that’s all they have then who’s different, the guy who put in his last five bucks or the guy who put in a hundred but has a million? You can’t really gauge it: to me it’s going to work if people show up to get in. And they’re just excited to be at the show and feel lucky to be there because it’s free. That to me would be cool, to see if there’s a line-up, if people come early and put some kind of effort into checking this thing out. It’s good vibes all the way around, I think.

HipHopCanada: Do you anticipate good line-up karma throughout this tour? Will people be kind to one another if there’s a mass trying to get in?

k-os: I would say that as a festival-goer myself, trying to get into places, if you’re with your friends it’s the whole experience. It’s not like I play cello or something and people are going to be in their suits outside. I anticipate that the people who get there early are probably just fans of the music and want to make sure they get in because they know that anyone can get in. And that might be a whole other demographic: who are those people? The funny thing about my shows is that when I look behind the curtain and try to figure out who the audience is I never actually can: there’s a mother and her kids, there’s some girls over there, there’s a couple of hip-hop heads, this guy looks like a policeman, I don’t know who that is…know what I mean? I’ve been told and I’ve seen myself that when I do a show I can’t predict which type of person is showing up, the music is just too schizophrenic to incorporate one group of people. It’s going to take the pressure off cause people might be fascinated to see who’s showing up, you’ve got some people-watching going on and that can be fun as well.

HipHopCanada: Can you sum up your views on the Canadian hip-hop scene and where’s it’s at right now?

k-os: I dunno man, Drake. Not to put everything on one dude, but it’s funny for me cause I feel like I’m part of the hip-hop community and I’m not. I’m part of it because I grew up in it, and I saw a lot of things in the old school, let’s call it the true school, but I also feel because my music has a broader scope that I can make comments from the outside. And as far as someone just playing that game, I think it’s a positive thing to have a guy like [Drake] representing, and being represented by Toronto right now. If that’s where things are going, if there’s more kids like that around, or men or women with his ambition or drive, then we’re in the best place we’ve ever been.

Editor’s note: For more information on k-os check out http://www.k-osmusic.com.

The k-os Yes! Karma Tour dates:

- April 30th in Vancouver, BC (Commodore Ballroom)
- May 1st in Vancouver, BC (Croatian Cultural Centre)
- May 3rd in Edmonton, AB (Edmonton Events Centre)
- May 4th in Calgary, AB (MacEwan Hall at University Of Calgary)
- May 6th in Winnipeg, MB (Burton Cummings Theatre)
- May 9th in Toronto, ON (Kool Haus)
- May 10th in London, ON (Centennial Hall)
- May 13th in Ottawa, ON (Landsdowne Coliseum – Landsdowne Park)
- May 14th in Montreal, QC (L’Olympia De Montreal)
- May 16th in Halifax, NS (Cunard Centre)

Written by Amalia Judith for HipHopCanada

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