Although it’s been a while since his album, Exit dropped in early 2003, hearing this Toronto-based emcee is always another step forward towards understanding humanity in a little more detail. His analytical skills are so abnormal when compared to other artists in hip hop, it must be warned that he’s not here to try desperately to relate to the typical so-called artists in the game, who are easily categorized, marketed and sold into an unsure future. At the same time, he’s not too preachy and cocky, just humble and very admitting to how his journey has now begun. In dropping this album, just like his few gems of singles he released in the past, the title Exit is so appropriate. K-Os tends to disappear off the scene deliberately, somewhat like a superhero. Unlike artists who crave the limelight through repeated releases and cameo appearances, justifying their ‘battery life’ in the music world, K-Os sees life as much more varied, much more important than his selfish music career. Meet a human first, then a rapper … someone willing to risk his career for the sake of transcending good, wholesome and organic hip hop. Remember when the Native Tongues were licking airwaves with a renaissance of soul, true hip hop vibes and a style defining the early 1990s? Well, this is one emcee who could have easily been part of that posse of De La Soul, Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love and Jungle Brothers. Somehow displaced, and finding himself in this time, maybe he can rescue us from what has become the ‘jiggy era’ gone mad!
HHS: So how does it feel today being K-os, finally finding yourself and feeling comfortable within somewhat, as opposed to that time yesteryear where so much time was spent searching and trying to find yourself?
K-os: “Oh, well you know we’re always searching, I don’t think you’ll come to the point where you’re not searching anymore. Being comfortable to me is just the ability to know who you are in the moment. I think to be comfortable with yourself as to who you are in the moment is the ultimate in peace. At the same time, we all stray from that sometimes when we start to compare ourselves with people, or things or time and places. It feels good when those moments happen â€“ of complete abandonment. But because you’re in the music industry or because people quantify what you do or put it on a chart, or try to put it opposed to other things where you feel inadequate or you feel like you’re not living up to a certain standard, that’s where I think it kicks in… you’re not centered.”
HHS: When I listen to this album, Exit, I hardly hear a tone of preaching, but yet somehow you’re saying a lot, making a lot of references to better living, better hip hop and so much more on life in general. You definitely expose the hypocrisy included into hip hop these days, something that seemed so far from its roots back in the day.
K-os: “Well, there’s a saying and it says, ‘the wise leader or the wise king teaches the people’ and the people say, ‘look, we did it all by ourselves.’ And what that shows to me is that, people don’t want to be preached to or think that someone’s telling them how to live their lives. At the same time, because of parallel evolution, some men get on a stage where they learn more than other men, and there’s always the intelligent few that kinda figure things out before others. The problem is, how do you fit it back into the matrix, without it becoming like you’re pontificating or your own ego blowing up because you know more? And the best way to do it for me is – hip hop has a term called ‘dropping jewels’. From the beginning in time, someone figured out that’s how the way you do it. You put these little jewels between the entertainment. To me, music has to be entertaining first of all, it has to be fun to listen to. It doesn’t have to be fun to listen to in the way everyone thinks, because then I’d try to say a positive message over some sort of Puffy beat. I don’t think I have to make it sort of entertaining in the way society says it has. I have to just find new and innovative ways to entertain as an artist. It could be an acoustic sound, you could be using a Spanish guitar, it could be using a reggae track, once you find that backdrop music that’s most importantly to make people move. To me, the music is the body, and the lyrics is the mind. The body just goes by certain functions … the heartbeat. It’s almost subliminal and subversive. The mind now is the thinking part, it’s deliberate, it thinks, it puts things together. What I find with a lot of rappers, they even try to put the revolution into the beat also, so the beat may alienate people or, like in underground hip hop, they may use a very minimal type of beat that they don’t want to sound too entertaining or to be too attractive or glossy. They think the lyrics are so important, but if you keep doing that, you’re just speaking to people.”
HHS: I continually parallel the vibe of this release to Lauryn Hill’s classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. How were you able to simply use a basic acoustic foundation to then create this â€“ such an intricate gift of sprinkled hip hop, soul, reggae and more?
K-os: “It all comes from the songwriting aspect. On this album, I kinda felt, well, let’s start with a song. Let’s start like how these cats used to write a song and then take it to their band, and go ok, let’s expand now. That has sort have been lost. But it’s a great method because the song is there from the beginning, with the beat on there or not. “Heaven Only Knows” is what it is but you can go so many places with it in the forms that it is now. Well a lot of the songs, “Follow Me,” “Call me”…. these started with very simple things and then over a month we added the drums here, or we added a little sound there. When songs build like that, there’s no fear because they’re creating themselves. You start to hear those noises in the back. When a song is simply a groove, which is what’s going on in music right now, I’m watching hip hop in a sort of disco stage. It gives you a good feeling in the clubs, you get a couple of drinks, you feel good, the song might not be there though. That’s OK too. I don’t think anyone is better than the other, don’t get me wrong. I think that’s when you sort of become like a snob you know. You can’t think that because you sit down and write and put chords together, it’s better. But what it is, what’s really happening is that those things last a bit longer. If you look at “Yesterday” by The Beatles, or “Imagine” or “Let it Be,” those songs last because they follow a classic chord structure. But then again, there’s a song like Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing” â€“ Oh! That’s wicked that you even have me going here, because that’s sort of like what Quincy Jones did on Thriller, that whole disco thing going on. But what Quincy Jones was genius at doing was adding string parts, or horn parts â€“ he sort of brought disco into song writing! Like what Sting and them did with Reggae or Ska; and Ska and punk grooves, and start dropping things out, and incorporating reggae into the chorus. A songwriter will always have a cultured way of taking. I think that’s the big thing that excited me there, in helping put some things in perspective of what I was actually trying to do on this record, is to keep it hip hop by keeping the groove there, but at the same time, maybe incorporate a song writing aspect where you bring in some strings…
HHS: But you did it bro, that’s exactly what you did.
K-os: ”Yo man, so you are asking me these questions and I never really thought of it in this way, thank you.”
HHS: Thank you for the compliment. Now, on that track “Freeze,” a heroic song for fans and emcees alike to relate to and that understand the need to separate the ‘sheep from the goats’, so to speak. You sort of use Q-tip and some of his famous lyrics in the past, to show your deep disappointment in his recent turn, and the state of hip hop in general.
K-os: “Well, the Q-Tip thing first I have to say that, Q-Tip was almost like an older brother. My father was living in Trinidad for a while. We moved back to Canada ’cause we couldn’t take Trinidad too much. We were there four years, but after a while, it took a toll on us as far as culturally. So my father sent us back to Toronto now. So the lack of having my father around which in those formative years is very important, hip hop became my father. Now because they’d (his parents) already trained me in a certain way, I think that I gravitated towards the Native Tongues ’cause it was something I could play in my house or they were good brothers doing positive things. Now with Q-Tip, I’d gone to England with a group called Tha Razcals – they’re from Vancouver – they took me on tour with them just on a run. When I got back home, people kept calling me saying, “Yo! You gotta see this new Q-Tip video, you’ll be surprised!” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And they continued, ‘I know you’re NOT gonna like it.’ Because everyone knows I was a big Q-Tip fan, all my friends knew this. In fact, I got back and didn’t see it but started working on a beat, which was “Freeze,” I had the drums done, I think I had a couple of samples in there, and I turn on the T.V. BOOM! The VJ was like, ‘Here’s Q-Tip for “Vivrant Thing” BOOM! It came on, the first time I saw the video and I was just like…FLOORED! I couldn’t believe…I couldn’t believe it! He had a certain reputation, put it that way. When I saw that, the lyrics just came. Yuh see the whole thing on “Freeze” isn’t just about dissing Q-Tip. I used pieces of his lyrics, things he said in the past. I don’t know, I can’t judge him, only God can judge him. Really what that song is saying though is (he goes into its hook) “Stop. Don’t make a move, just FREEZE, instead of telling a lie, GET down on your knees!” Before you do anything, or before I do anything now, I stop for a second. I just stop. I’ll have enough time to connect with my beliefs or my childhood. The song is about doing nothing, just freezing, instead of doing something you’re gonna regret, and talking about hip hop in general.”
HHS: A favorite off this album is “Patience” – a song without knowing its words, just the melodic patterns signal the message. Maybe if one didn’t understand English, one would still somehow get it. You think that with the power of music, this is possible?
K-os: “For sure, that’s the whole point of music, it’s just that. Kardinal Offishall who is also from Toronto, me and him would always argue because he thinks that the music is the message, and I think it is too, just not as completely as he does. I certainly understand art from that viewpoint. And to be an artist, you have to understand art from a non-verbal viewpoint. If you don’t, you’re basically a clone using the symbols of things done in the past to create a persona. When you use these same chords over and over again, all you’re doing is limiting the listener. When you watch these hip hop videos, or these rap or R&B videos and some of these Rock videos, it’s jut a bunch of people who have learned the right chords. Music has become more of a thing where you’re living out a fantasy as an artist, as opposed to actually trying to push it forward by creating new rhythms and new vibes. That’s why when the Digible Planets appeared, it was wicked! That same vibe, you can also speak of De La Soul coming out of. That vibe, The Roots came out of, it is amazing because they’re all not using music in the same way. You got 4or 5 or 6 groups that are like The Roots, then you got 95 of the rest doing what people have been doing from the past. And I think the average listener are more worried about it’s Friday afternoon and they wanna – ‘You could find me in da club!’ (he says going into 50 Cent’s tone, reciting his smash hook) – The new breed to me is the guy who could get the crowd going like a 50 Cent, but add something to say for it.”
HHS: The video that totally revitalized hip hop dance, graffiti and sound, in less of a gimmicky way than other pop icon notables, is “Superstar Part 2″ – it’s just what the doctor ordered. But still its rotation is smothered by the overwhelming persistence of the ‘bling bling’ era, just exactly what you’re sort of rapping against here.
K-os: “It comes down to economics. The Reagan administration, the Bush administration now. A lot of people react to their environment. Look at me, I wasn’t poor, but I wasn’t rich. I was a middle class, fairly wealthy, young teenager who grew up driving his mother’s Volvo by the time he was in Grade 11. They say the real thing about wealth is that it gives you time. Time to learn, time away from the struggle to become something. I can not judge any of my brothers and sisters in the United States. They wanna pursue wealth ’cause they never had it, and it’s all around them. I could say that because I grew up middle class and basically had what I wanted, I have no desire to be rich. I don’t like to be associated with being rich. So far, I shouldn’t say I haven’t met people who are rich who aren’t cool, but on a major level, I don’t like that culture of being rich. I don’t think it breathes characteristics that are admirable for me. It’s not to say you can’t be rich and not be a good person. These rappers who just have millions of dollars, they know what’s going on by now and they’re in a position where their words mean a lot. We’ve seen what happens when people start ‘rocking the boat’ – there’s a lot of scared people with revolutionary hearts, but are scared to do stuff. They don’t wanna rock the boat, they wanna make their money. They put on another rapper, set up a community center in the ghetto and they feel they’re straight. No one will last in the music industry if they don’t keep evolving. What happens is, no matter how rich you get, the next step after being rich is Revolution – change. So what happens is they just become… WACK! Not too many rappers with millions of dollars stay around for a long time, if you noticed. Few. It’s an endangered species. So what happens is, their own life becomes their own punishment. They lose their status in the underground, they know in the back of their minds, they’re not as dope as before. Find all kind of gimmicks, buying all types of beats to put them back in solid rotation. The first rapper to realize it’s not all about the money, will be the next generation and the real end of the ‘jiggy’ era. But until then, it’s gonna be people trying to justify that they need more millions to buy a bigger yacht, millions to help out more people in the ghetto DON’T help out people in the ghetto, TRANSFORM the ghetto! When black people get money, most of the time, they don’t judge themselves based upon what it needs to be to have amongst blacks. They judge what it needs to have a black man with money amongst whites. Their main goal is to be something in that world, that white world. And that’s all you really witnessing when you witnessing ‘bling bling’ rappers, a bunch of black rappers trying to be something in a white world, who still wanna stay black on the surface because they want the people to relate to them. The fact that I say in my song, ‘the jiggy era is over,’ it’s stronger than not putting it out there. It’s more like incarnation than it was a statement. More like a magical word like ‘OPEN SEASEME!’
HHS: Finally, your strength to not compromise, something that’s almost an endangered concept as a hip hop artist these days, especially when signed to a major label. Tell me, how would you describe the success in which you were able to achieve this major deal, without comprising too much of your artistry? A bit of luck, or true self-realization really has its rewards?
K-os: “A lot of it is deliberate. Deliberate because I did that one thing I took time off to know myself. I wanted Grammy’s, I wanted it all like everybody else. Still, I don’t think those are bad desires. Time off really, really defined who I was. I know why I was signing that 82-page contract when I signed with the record label, it’s not for them to tell me what to do. Those people don’t know, they’re not on stage. It’s like when Bob Marley says about “coming to conquer and not to bow.” I didn’t sign to a label for some people to tell me what my music is about. Just gimme the check! Just sign the check, you guys have no say over what I do. Once I figured out who I was, then I figured out who everybody else was. There’s a lot of good people in the industry, don’t get me wrong. Nothing is absolute, but the majority of them are either Wanna-Be artists themselves, or around that whole aura of the game because it’s a very, very, very shiny sort of thing. They think they’re making decisions of being big hustlers in this industry. We need the industry to get our music to the most amount of people. In that case, show me to where the pressing plant is, tell me how many copies you’re gonna put out. Don’t tell me about my music. That’s why I don’t hesitate to tell all those people to fuck off. You have to be as wise as a serpent, but as harmless as a dove. It’s that thin line, because if you’re as wise as a serpent, you know what they know, so what stops you from becoming just like them? What your intention is! And I think as long as I keep on, keep doing this music for the love and unifying people, people can say I am walking a thin line all that I want.”
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