K-Os: Morning Sickness

My friends dragged to me to a club on a snowy Saturday night, when I would have likely just stayed home, selfishly reading or digitizing dusty vinyl. The DJ was spinning the usual suspects of Jim Jones, M.I.M.S., and T.I., when all of a sudden, Howler Monkey (the peculiarly named DJ) threw on “The Man I Used to Be,” a three year old cut from K-Os that had long escaped my memory. The bassline mixed with the triumphant vocals brought a smile to my face. Immediately, the drink went down and the hands went up.

Freshly in my consciousness, it was striking to see that very theme appear on K-Os’ newly-released third album, in the form of the single “Sunday Morning.” The Canadian MC allowed Atlantis: Hymns for Disco to serve as a vessel for his Rock influences and education during the last several years. What may defy the conventions of Hip-Hop to some could also be the very thing that breathes new life into her questionable lungs in 2007.

K-Os admits that he likes his music and musicians weird. However, for all those that push Kevin Brereton off as something too eclectic for Hip-Hop, he’s quick to point out that Greg Nice was weird too. Read a discussion on one MC’s journey through Rock & Roll, Doo-Wop, and self-healing to take Hip-Hop to a different place than another trap, stash house, and clink. Why don’t more Hip-Hop DJs throw K-Os in the mix?

AllHipHop.com: How did the music you were listening to change during the recording of Atlantis: Hymns for Disco as compared to the previous two albums?

K-Os: It changed because I started actually playing more guitar. I started doing this thing in my shows where at the end, I’d do this Rock song, just because it was fun energy. During a rehearsal, I was playing a guitar, and it was the first time I can ever remember experiencing distortion. As someone who grew up listening to Hip-Hop music, I never really experienced that. It was this weird novelty that got me started listening to Rock music.

I started with [Jimi] Hendrix first, because I could relate to [him being Black] first of all. Then [I listened to] Led Zeppelin, and I recognized all these drum loops that I’d heard for so long [in Hip-Hop]. It was really just picking at my sensibility. It’s like when you rent a car, and then you start recognize all those type of cars on the road. If you didn’t rent it, you might not have noticed it. It’s consciousness of things. Then that led to some of my friends in bands that I’d known before. There’s this whole Indie Rock scene in Canada. I started hangin’ out with them, going to bars with them, and they started makin’ me CDs of all this obscure Indie Rock – Sonic Youth, and all this stuff that I never really listened to, ‘cause I was too busy listening to Nirvana. I never heard Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. and stuff like that. That was really it. Then Bloc Party shows up, and I connected them to The Police and stuff, and it all just made sense to me. This music had always been in the background of things that I like. As a Hip-Hop artist, I could listen to it, but never really played it before.

AllHipHop.com: In terms of music and instrumentation, the band personnel change a lot from one song to the next. Was that a challenge for you to work on something as cohesive as an album when you might have three or four different drummers?

K-Os: Not really, because it became more of a collective artist thing – more of a cathartic thing. With technology and Pro Tools, you can have a drummer play on a track, and he might never know the bass player that’s coming in 20 minutes later, but they have to get together. Quincy Jones used to work that way. He’d make a track, then call in Eddie Van Halen. You’d think it was a live band playing all together, but it was Quincy Jones – somebody who loved all types of music, and [recognized the talent] of Eddie Van Halen and said, “Yo, why don’t you come over and drop something?” I think some of the best music in the world happens like that. It was based on two things: Quincy Jones’ production technique, and also based on the fact that I was getting bored doing 10-12 songs of the same genre of music. I just heard that Amy Winehouse record [Back to Black], and it blew my mind. I respect her, ‘cause I couldn’t do that; I couldn’t do a whole record that sounded the same. I’m a musical schizophrenic.

AllHipHop.com: Two songs that jumped out at me were “The Rain,” which is iTunes' song of the week this week, and “Sunday Morning.” Both appear as expressions of hope amidst troubled, personal times. To what extent would you say those themes were present for you in working on this album?

K-Os: “The Rain” isn’t something that’s current. When I did my first album and you talked me, a big reason I called it Exit Music and it was so downtrodden was that I had broken up with my girlfriend of three years. So basically, I just didn’t want to be in the music industry. I thought that my life was kinda over; I wanted to get out of [the music industry] and conjure up enough money to move and just get away. Then I went on tour with The Roots and I started having fun. I saw The Roots working so hard after three or four albums, and I had one, and here I was saying, “Oh man, I wanna get out of this thing,” as these guys are killing it on stage. I felt like such a brat.

Basically, I came home and started writing these next two records. It wasn’t until this record that I realized that my art was going all these places ‘cause I really just missed this girl. I was in the studio one day, listening to “Don’t Make Me Over” by Dionne Warwick, and I said, “I love how this song is so sad, but so triumphant.” That’s the thing about Doo Wop music: it sounds so sad. “I Only Have Eyes for You” [by The Flamingos] sounds sad, and it’s such a hopeful thing. So I sat at the piano and started playing this line, and it all just started coming out of me. I knew what the lyrics would be. It took me about two months to run this record; I did all the music. When the lyrics came, it sounds like I went through this thing yesterday, but I went through it in ’98. It just shows what can happen when you unlock that, and you’re honest about what you’re feeling at the moment.

As far as “Sunday Morning,” I come from a pretty religious household; my dad was a priest in the congregation I grew up in. I would go out a lot, after having success in Canada, and being kind of a popular person in my area, on my block, in my scene [laughs], and I would just come after these parties and feel completely empty. Even though I had good times at the moment, I met a girl, I was with my friends, we were laughing, it was the next morning – usually Sunday morning, I was feeling guilty, sad, or “what’s the use of all this?” So I’d go listen to music, which is what I do when I feel that way, and nothing would make me feel better. It was too depressing, or it was the song I heard in the club last night. So I just started trying to write songs based on that feeling. Like you said, it’s troubled times, and trying to find something triumphant. It’s not wrong to go out and party and lose yourself in that, but I think if you have the awareness of what you’re doing, you take it all in stride. You don’t depend on it too much for happiness. You depend on it like you depend on the Super Bowl; it’s just an escape from your reality. Hopefully you don’t think about it 10 days after and obsess about it, because you’re doing something else with your life. That made me happy.

AllHipHop.com: Within Hip-Hop, we haven’t seen you make a lot of collaborations. So I wanted to ask you about the significance of bringing Buck65 onto your record, as another established MC…

K-Os: First of all, before you mention him, you gotta mention Kamau, ‘cause he did the first verse, which is retarded. That guy’s been on every single album I’ve done. He was on Exit, where he dropped a phone message. On my last album, he was on the end of “Papercutz,” where he did some ill poetry rhyming. So this record, I was like, “Yo, you wanna drop a verse, finally?” [Laughs] That started off with me going, “Who do I want to get?” If I have to be honest, the song was supposed to go Kamau – Saul Williams – then myself. Saul was in Texas at the time, and he didn’t wanna drop his verse just on Pro Tools; he wanted me to come down there. I totally admire that, but I couldn’t make it happen. So I was like, “Oh man, what am I gonna do?”

So I happened to be in Halifax, where Buck65 is from, because I was recording out there. Another irony was that the Juno Awards were out there – which is the Canadian Grammy’s. I was like, “Yo, do you wanna check this track?” Basically, what you hear on the record is his first take. All the stuff is effortless. I was still mad about the Saul stuff ‘cause he was the guy at the beginning of this record who was telling me to go check out Muddy Waters and stuff, so I thought it was only right for him to be on the record. When he was being very artistic in his principles and not wanting to do the Pro Tools thing, I was sort of upset. So Buck65 in his Tom Waits meets Bob Dylan kind of verse, totally fits. I don’t know about America, but it probably feels like a Canadian classic because it really sounds like the prairies – the western [landscape] of Canada. I don’t think anyone’s done that in Hip-Hop, they always try to make it more city-like or street, ‘cause they grew up listening to Nas or whatever. He’s really an interesting MC ‘cause he’s completely original; I’ve never heard anyone who sounds like him. I get some flack ‘cause Hip-Hop heads are like, “Why that guy? He’s weird!” The weirder the better to me; I think Greg Nice is kinda weird.

AllHipHop.com: Last question. On the bonus track, you say, “I live in the moment like a why to a how” Break that down for me.

K-Os: The instant you do something, and someone asks you “Why?” or “How?” you have two choices. You can either imperialize by that question, and figure out why you’re doing something and why it’s gonna happen, or you just do it – be who you are. “Living in the moment like a why to a how” paralyze momentary existence. I kind of observe the fact that it’s not about why or how, it’s more about that people are provoked to ask the question, and you’re getting them to think. I hold on to that.