K-os: Reppin’ Hip-Hop ‘Til Death

14 years ago view-show 603,207

By Quibian Salazar-Moreno

      Toronto’s K-os is one of the few true hip-hop heads who still incorporates the four elements into his music. He’s one of the few emcees who continuously showcases a plethora of graffiti art and b-boys dancing in his videos as well as actually using a DJ to cut and scratch throughout his music – something rarely seen nowadays.

      At the same time, his music pushes the boundary of just rapping over a beat type of hip-hop, but essentially creating soulful and meaningful songs from a hip-hop perspective – it’s not just a bunch of rap songs. That’s where K-os excels. His new album, Atlantis: Hymns for the Disco, ranges from straight up b-boy jams to down home blues to reggae to even some acoustic rock. But all of it is done with the soul of a b-boy who grew up living, breathing, eating and sleeping hip-hop with side dishes of Bob Marley, Led Zepplin and Bob Dylan.

      We caught up with K-os while in Fort Lauderdale on his way to visit his parents in between shows and found out the science behind his new album, his thoughts on what critics think and what he thinks of being called a ‘male Lauryn Hill.’


What does the album title, Atlantis: Hymns for the Disco, mean?


I don’t know what it means. I know the Hymns for the Disco part was because I was partying and a lot of these songs I wrote on Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings after I went out. And I tried to calm myself down a bit. There’s a lot of energy when you’re going out, hanging out drinking, meeting girls, but it was really unfulfilling. So I was trying to find a way, because I come from a very spiritual, religious upbringing, and I was just trying to find a place to ground myself. The Hymns for Disco comes from the hymns for the disco, it’s not like they’re songs for dancing, it’s more like they’re songs to play after you come from the disco, that’s where that part comes from. The Atlantis part was for, so many things man, I can’t even tell you, from Katrina to the water situation on the planet to me listening to Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan and the blues to the fact that I’m a Pisces and Aquarius. There’s just too many factors to explain the Atlantis part but the Hymns for the Disco  was definitely me saying, ‘You know what, here are some songs you can definitely play on a Sunday morning or Saturday morning, after you’ve gone to the club.’ You can still feel hype and happy and even dance but it’s different that your regular kind of club music, ya, know?


The album is real personal because listeners learn quite a bit about you when they play it. Was that the intention or did it just come out?


I remember when Lauryn Hill was being interviewed for the Miseducation album and they asked her if it was a concept album. She said it was the concept found me. That always stuck out to me, that it was a concept that found me. In other words these things just happen to me, these ideas, these realizations, these epiphanies just happen to me and I made music from it. It wasn’t that I just sat down and said, ‘I’m going to make a personal album.’ I think it was just time and that I felt strong enough to say things about myself and no matter how they were judged to at least know regardless of how they were judged that they were personal confessions and that’s a beautiful thing.


You’ve been pretty vocal about not lending your music out for use in commercials, but your song “Sunday Morning” was used in an NFL promo on CBS. Did you know about that?


Yeah, that was some thing that happened after the fact. I didn’t solicit my music for that. I think there’s a certain, I don’t know how it rolls when they do TV shows or whatever, but your music is out there and they can choose to use it. But I didn’t have a problem with that. My brother was a football player and I played sports in high school. I think the thing with corporations is sometimes selling a product is hard for me, depending on what that product is. If I really relate to that product or even use it… I mean, I use condoms but I would never do a condom commercial. That’s as easy as I can put it. It has to make sense to me and it has to not compromise the song. It’s funny because everyone after that song played on the NFL was like, ‘Did you write that song for football players?’ It’s kind of cool because it shows how strong the artistic expression can be. That was a song I wrote for me but it ended up relating to that so amazingly, so that’s cool. I was cool with it, I thought it was fun.


On the album you mention your mother taking you to church and your dad being a preacher, what kind of spiritual upbringing did you have?


My parents are Jehovah Witnesses. We went to a lot of Jehovah Witness churches in Trinidad, in Toronto, in the suburb I grew up in. It’s a sect of Christianity that my dad got involved with in their late 20’s.


Are you still involved?


My parents are, for sure. I think that’s how they even got together. I think my dad even told my mom, “You know, I want to get married to you but you got to deal with this religion first.” It’s a basis for them for sure.


Are you aware you have pretty big Christian fan-base?


Well, yeah. I’m not that aware, I don’t really investigate it. But I would assume that. I think that there are a lot of people that would understand the life I’m living because maybe they’re living the same life, ya know? Then again, someone said that they heard my music played in a strip bar and I was surprised. But all kinds of people relate to it, ya know?


You’re huge in Canada but in the U.S., you’re pretty much underground. How do you feel about how your music is received here?


Well, Canada is pretty much the size of California right? So America is huge. So what I’m doing in Canada with the music I’m doing is way easy to penetrate. There’s not a lot of Black music out there and when they get something they enjoy, it sticks out. I’m thankful for my success in Canada, in fact, it kept me sane. As far as America, like I said, I’m on a tour bus right now going to play Jacksonville, Virginia, Rochester, you know, places I’ve never been. It’s just America is so huge. There’s a big difference in population. And I think with this record, with songs like “The Rain” and “Sunday Morning”, I think people here in the U.S., might get it more because there’s a lot of soul references, more so than my other two records. But I just think it has to do with the bigger population. It’s funny because my brother lives in Atlanta married to a girl from California, my parents live in Fort Lauderdale and I’m about to see them today. My other brother lives in Africa so I’m the last in my family living in Canada. But I really don’t come to the states that much, I love Canada, my boys live there. I visit my parents once a year, and my brother I just went to his house for the first time this year.


In reviews of your music, you’re often called a “male Lauryn Hill”, what do you think about that comparison?


That’s an honor, yo. She’s a queen. Lauryn Hill is the queen of this ish. To tell you the truth, if groups like The Fugees and The Roots didn’t exist, I would have lost my way, ya know? I said that on my record in the liner notes that if it wasn’t for The Roots, Eric B & Rakim, Mos Def and Outkast, these bands as a Canadian kid coming up, I would have lost my way. So any comparison to that woman, to me, is an honor. At least I’m a ‘male Lauryn Hill’ and not a ‘female’ one. I’m glad they choose to say I’m a ‘male’, as opposed to what, a ‘female Lauryn Hill?’


So, originally, Exit was supposed to be your only album, but now we have three. How are you feeling now? You still want to do music?


Oh yeah. I was listening to a piece from KRS-One and Mecca from Digable Planets and the Dead Prez cats, they were doing a panel. And one of the guys, I think it was Grandmaster Caz and he said hip-hop is like a fountain of youth. Then I just kept thinking like, you know right now I want the dirtiest, nastiest DJ Premier sampled, full of record static, low budget recording hip-hop record ever. That’s what I feel like I want to do right now. So I’m hype right now because I feel like I’m ready to move on to the next thing and just have a DJ, two dancers and just me on stage and just wreck it like that. Yeah, I’m ready to go. Yo, don’t even put that in the interview because someone will try to do it before me! We got to keep that on the low!


Reading what critics have written about you, a lot of them don’t get you. They don’t get your music, they don’t get what you’re talking about, does that frustrate you at all?


Nah. They didn’t get Miles Davis when he started flippin’ his ish. You know how many bands end up being so popular after they’re gone or after they finish their thing? You know, when people don’t get me, it makes me feel good. I never considered myself to be down the middle ya know? I’m on tour with the Gym Class Heroes right now and these 15 year old girls are seeming to get it, and that’s fun. They seem to understand the music. I’m making leaps and bounds in different directions so certain people get it because I think the music has a message and it needs to reach kids. Whether the critics get it… what do critics get? Critics get the most obscure thing. They hate the bands their girlfriends like and they like the bands their best friends like. I really don’t care anymore, ya know, I’m sorry your girlfriend likes my music. I’m sorry about that.


So what’s your stance on the ‘hip-hop is dead’ conversation?


Death is a part of life right? So it’s only right that things die and they breathe again. You live in a forest, how many trees die but how many trees are born again? All you see is the forest. For Nas, again one of my top 3 emcees, he has the right to say that. It might be dying but it’s going to be reborn again in a different form and it’s exciting to see how it’s going to be reborn. I’m excited about hip-hop moving on. I don’t think that cats who listened to Whodini or the early hip-hop, I don’t think when hip-hop changed, they might have not liked Das Efx. But it was banging and the kids liked it and you could play it in a club. It’s only right in universal laws that the younger kids are going to like a form of hip-hop that might be out of touch to me. I have to find what I like about it, whether it’s 808 drums or whether it’s the sound of Kanye West putting on Twista and people vibing off that. I hear the things that I like, and I take from that and I enjoy what I can. But I don’t expect a 15-year old kid and me to vibe on hip-hop, especially when I was a kid at a Leaders of the New School concert with my chest against the barricade. I’m true to this, I’m true school. So I just got to find what I like about the new stuff and use that in my music to reach people. SO that’s okay, the generation gap is cool, I like space between me and them younger kids.


One of your hottest tracks from your last album was “Emcee Murdah” and people are still rocking out to it. You even mention it on the new album. Are you still getting responses from that?


I think for a lot of hip-hop heads, that was their favorite track on the album. I think if you’re a true hip-hop head that moved you the most. People might have expected me to do another one of those but you can’t do another one of those man. That’s years of frustration in three and a half minutes, yo. So I love that I track, I still perform it today in my live show, and I’ll probably perform forever, it’s my funnest track to perform too. [At the end of “Black Ice”] I just wanted to let cats know cats don’t worry, I see you, and that I was an angry emcee. I might seem a bit more happy now or more rock n’ roll but that doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge the points of that song. It was a rites of passage, yo.


So the first single, “Elektrik Heat: The Seekwill”, is that actually a sequel to “B-Boy Stance” then?


Yeah, for sure. It was “Superstarr Part Zero”, “B-Boy Stance”, “The Seekwill”, they’re like triplets and they all serve a purpose. They take you back to the breakbeat. It was about the rapper not worrying about how much money he was going to make on the publishing and just rapping over a breakbeat. I discuss that with my management today, “You’ve spent so much money on that sample”, but I just believe we have to dedicate music now to the lost art of hip-hop, rocking over a breakbeat, ya know? There are just certain sounds that are hip-hop. Like in reggae music, it’s the same thing. So “Superstarr” is what it was, “B-Boy Stance” is definitely for the b-boys and “The Seekwill” is like making sure that even though there’s no other songs on the record like that, I can still show cats, you know what, I can still do that, I can do a whole record of that if I wanted to. But I would get bored with it quickly, I’m a musical schizophrenic.


A real personal song on the album is “The Rain”, what’s the story behind that?


When I was making my first album, Exit, there was an Ethiopian girl I was dating who I thought I was going to marry. About two weeks after that album came out she broke up with me. She couldn’t handle the whole touring and my life started to change a little bit in Canada. So I was carrying that emotion around for awhile but I was finally able to be honest about it. I think that any anger I had, like “Emcee Murdah” and stuff, yeah it was about hip-hop or was it really about a woman who represented hip-hop that I used to go to hip-hop jams with and loved hip-hop, and then broke up with me? I started to get angry and as a man I expressed that anger through bravado. But I think “The Rain” is me being pretty vulnerable about it, ya know.


Are there any last words?


I would just say that I go by the words of KRS-One, that hip-hop is something you live, rap is something you do. For the people who follow my music, this might not be a rap record, but it’s definitely a hip-hop record. It’s coming from a hip-hop way of doing things and I just hope more people can understand and expand upon hip-hop and make it more about hip-hop and not just rap. I think rap is amazing but we need to focus on b-boying, we need to focus on graffiti, we need to focus on turntablism, all of those things that are part of the four elements of hip-hop. We also need to focus on experimentation I think hip-hop artists need to experiment. Hip-Hoppers experimenting is such a fun thing to watch. We see it with Andre 3000 and Gnarls Barkley and Lauryn Hill and Mos Def and The Roots. I’m just trying to carry the same torch they’re carrying and have fun at the same time.