Transcript and audio interview with Toronto-based hip hop artist k-os. Conducted at the Bombshelter Pub on University of Waterloo campus, October 4th 2002 as part of the ‘Exit’ album tour.
Clips from interview, interspersed with music, from WPIRG radio show on CKMS 100.3FM in Waterloo:
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Full unedited interview (as transcribed below):
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Greg: Why did you go to Carleton, and why did you stop going to Carleton?
k-os: I went to Carleton mostly ‘cause of my father. He’s a computer engineer and he did pretty well in school. He just always wanted me to have some sort of plan to fall back on, so I was getting a lot of pressure in my house to do something academic, ‘cause I was just at home making beats and not really trying to concentrate on any scholastic endeavours. He didn’t really give me an ultimatum, but he began to get very frustrated with me and I could tell in his attitude that if I didn’t do something scholastically, it would be harder and harder for me to do music in my house. So what I basically did was, Carleton had a January acceptance, so I just kinda enrolled, got in, and then I took like one course, Introduction to Islam or something, and the rest of the time I was at the studio. In fact that’s where I recorded my first music.
Then I had gone to York the following year, tried again, but again music interrupted, ‘cause my video came out, then I had to go on tour with the Rascalz and Ghetto Concept and all that, so after York I was just like, I want to just continue with this music thing, and then maybe see what’s up with school. And more and more, I’m kind of leaning towards that way now, also to do something more academic, you know.
G: So does that mean you think you’re satisfied with what you’ve done musically.
K: I’m not satisfied as much as I’m just trying to .. I feel like it’s going to be easy for me to continue it, it’s going to be easy for me to finish off what I’ve started with this album and be in a position to make different choices.
G: Talk about your musical journey, from starting out to where you are right now.
K: I guess you could call it a natural progression. One thing I was always aware of was I never wanted to force anything. I wanted things to feel for me and also to appear to the people who were listening and watching me, that everything was happening naturally. I didn’t want it to seem contrived or prefabricated, and I think that was accomplished because I was very paranoid about the choices I made throughout the songs I put out of how it sounded and I was a bit sort of paranoid too about people seeing me develop, but I think that ended up being a good thing, of people watching me go from whatever I was doing with Musical Essence to where I am now. They feel they’re a part of your life. Something about that first video, I feel people saw me go from like a boy to more of a man kinda thing, saw me grow up, grow a beard etcetera. I think that has an effect on people, and they feel they know you and they can relate to you and you’ve just been around, and you’re something in their consciousness, so I think it was great the way it happened, and I wouldn’t wish it any other way.
G: How about your spiritual journey, from where you were when you started in music to where you are now.
K: My parents were very, very religious, so a lot of that was set for me from probably 0 to 16. It wasn’t till I was around 17 or 18 that I started to make choices of my own and investigate miles and mounds of paper and religions. That journey has just continually shown me that you just have to have faith in yourself and a lot of the secret and answers lie within. People always search outside for answers, but spirituality is about how you feel, how you relate to the God within you, how you relate to the infiniti and the greatness within you that’s already there. I think that the prime battle everyone’s going through is happening within.
G: You say battle …
K: You know, battle, ‘cause the world is one way and what you would like to be may be another way. In other words, the world might be one way but who you want to be inside might be different, so you’re forced to deal with your environment that’s going one way, but you’re also forced to deal with the feelings you have inside. For those of us who aren’t extremely fitted for pop culture or whatever the world dictates, there’s going to be a battle there because you start to end up seeing that you don’t really fit in, and then you either spend your life trying to fit in, or spend your life fighting not to fit in. I don’t know, it’s kind of weird.
G: How have you gone about dealing with the environment …
K: The first thing is that you can change people, no one man can change the world, those are important things to remember I think, and I think the other side of it is, you can actually affect your own environment, and when you affect your own environment then there’s these trickle down effects, there’s these domino effects that happen outside you, but first you have to fix yourself. Complete freedom starts within yourself and then it goes without. If you try and change your environment first, then you’re trying to fight something you have no control over. If you change yourself, you start seeing new vibes, you start pulling different people into your environment, different people start becoming attracted to you, you start becoming attracted to different people. It’s kinda like if you rent a Hyundai and you’ve never driven one, all of a sudden you start noticing all the Hyundais on the street. It’s the same thing with spirituality, once you start noticing universal laws, your life, your outlook starts to change.
G: I heard you talk of hip hop as religion, and then there’s spirituality, and religion and spirituality aren’t the same thing …
K: Well, no, religion is just the observance of your spirituality. All religion is, if someone was to be spiritual and to live a certain way, it would be someone documenting that way of life, and trying to follow it. Because you see, religion first came out of people trying to follow other men, so they had to document the lifestyle they were living so that they could follow other men because they maybe didn’t go within themselves and try to make those changes so they would naturally live like that.
So religion then becomes like driving lessons, it’s like, some guy might drive a tractor on his dad’s farm since he was 10, so when he starts driving a car, he has a natural .. he understands things about using the steering wheel and the equipment, that he doesn’t have to be told by a driving instructor whereas someone who’s never driven before needs to be shown a diagram and dadadadada ..
It’s the same thing with religion. Some people naturally find their relationship with God, and then there’s other people who see that and want to be like that, so they ask those men, well how did you do that? And then they start telling them, and then they watch them pray five times a day, so they do it .. So religion isn’t this bad thing that was made up by people who were spiritually inclined, ‘cause the most spiritual men, from Jesus Christ on and on and on will tell that you have to see God within you, the kingdom of God is within you, but I think more importantly religion a lot of times is something that’s there for people to follow.
And that’s why I said hip hop is religion, because people have to grasp it as religion first before they can grasp the spiritual aspects. They have to see that it’s sacred, they have to see that they can’t just copy it, and use it for a Pringles commercial, etcetera. If it’s religious then maybe that’s a good way of communicating to people that it’s not an entertainment only, that there’s a religious aspect to it, and that’s why I said that.
G: So following something is okay?
K: Following something is okay, everyone follows, it’s just what you’re following, you know what I mean. If we didn’t follow, money wouldn’t work. If we didn’t follow, everyone would bump each other when we got on the train. There has to be, the universe has some order to it, it’s just, mankind has the option of not following, and so therefore he’s a free moral agent, which actually makes him very unique creations, is that unlike a lion or a dog or something, we have the ability to go against natural law and that allows us to be free, within that freedom to disobey. It’s kind of the genius of creation, but I think sooner or later man will figure out that there is a way to do things, whether he wants to run away from it or not.
G: In your lyrics, you talk about getting people to realize they aren’t who they think they are …
K: That more comes from what I just said, is that the people who we, the images we try to put out to people, the images that are pushed upon us, might not always be who we are, we might just be those things because we think it’s cool to be it, or something in our soul feels that we’ll be fulfilled if we’re this type of person, but maybe that’s not who we really are, maybe we’re something deeper that .. maybe we need to look in a different type of mirror, and not just compare ourselves all the time to what society says, maybe we really need to see who we really are. It’s just a metaphor for self-awareness, and seeing what’s beyond the surface.
G: So how do you go about doing this hip hop, do you have a daily routine that you fit in that allows you to accomplish what you want to?
K: No not really, I kind of just do what I feel.
G: Like you were saying how it comes natural, just kind of let it come
K: Yeah, it’s kind of like riding a surfboard you know, hip hop would be the wave, and your job is to figure out how to .. you can’t try to attack the wave, you can’t try to conquer it, basically you have to just ride it. It’s the same thing with hip hop, you just got to get a feel for the natural movements of how it goes and know when the wave is moving this way, you move that way. You get very sensitive to this giant, this natural phenomena of hip hop.
G: and just doing it, you learn it more,
K: You learn it – yeah, you fall down, you get up, you make mistakes, you learn.
G: I want to talk about your trip out to California, about getting away from everything, seeing things in a different way. What was it about that, that really made it work so well, or help you out, or ..
K: Probably because being at the centre of that whole Hollywood entertainment capital of the world, it made me start coming to some important decisions about who I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do, or how I wanted my career to manifest. I guess it just forced me in a corner to realize that I didn’t want to be like what was out there, and I think it was just a good lesson in what not to do.
G: Something I wanted to talk about here was … hip hop, and issues around race and stereotypes and prejudices and misunderstandings …
K: Hip hop is a music that has been evolved out of the ghettos of inner cities, whether it’s in Jamaica or the United States. Inner cities are composed of all races, from Portugese to Black to White, however this music has ended up being primarily Black and Latino, and now with the arrival of Eminem etcetera it’s now being branched out into. Other cultures are starting to grab onto hip hop and see that they can be a part of hip hop too. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with other cultures participating in hip hop, I just think that there’s been a lot of Black music that has come out of the ghettos that have been exploited and sort of changed to fit more of a pop format. In a way, the record companies are like musical colonists, it’s like they come into a music, they take it over, and they use the resources to create whatever they want.
That’s my biggest issue with pop culture and Black music, is that people don’t give anything back to the music, they just take it and exploit it, so that the lovers of it don’t even want to touch it anymore.
When I was on a farm living with my grandmother, with my family, in Trinidad when I was a boy, my grandmother used to tell me not to touch the puppies when the dog had just had puppies, because if you touch them too much they start smelling the human touch and they don’t want to touch the puppies anymore, so don’t interfere with that. But I think that’s what happens with a lot of Black music, is that it starts at a certain level, and then all of a sudden people exploit, people touch it and they change the feeling and the smell, and it ends up we have to move on to something else. That’s why hip hop was created, no-one was feeling what was going on in the seventies and eighties music so we created something new, and I think people are on the verge of creating other new things now too.
That’s my biggest issue with race is, that people should respect these underground street musics that sort of grow, because it’s vital to the pop culture. It drives pop culture, it informs pop culture, and the biggest racism issue in hip hop is that the true originators of this music, whether it’s KRS-One or whoever, are never recognized for who they are, it’s always some band like NSync. It’s never New Edition, it’s NSync. Michael Jackson gets made fun of, but Justin Timberlake imitates him, it’s like, I don’t know, people take the music and do what they want with it, you know.
But music is for all of us, it should be for everybody, if you respect the cultures of the people that created it. That’s why, there’s other music like Spanish music and some deeper stuff, that’s harder for people to just take it and manipulate it, so they just leave it alone. But I find Black people are always open to letting other cultures into their music. As long as you’re good and you make people dance and laugh and have fun, they’re down with you. That’s beautiful but dangerous at the same time.
G: Something else I wanted to ask you about was the stereotypes that people have of hip hop music, who don’t hip hop music, and how they see it, and also how your music is making it more accessible, like I know you’re on CBC radio .. so is that something you intended to do?
K: I think it comes back to these types of conversations that are perceived as pseudo-intellectual, you know, you become a spokesperson and people like the CBC or the more intelligent aspects of our media will want to gravitate to you because they probably always wanted to talk about hip hop but there wasn’t really a good dialogue. I think people are attracted to this music because it’s saying something, because it seems positive, you know, the cover’s green, it’s about ‘let’s go, let’s move forward,’ you know. I think because that happens, people are open to trying it. It’s kind of like a new dish that people aren’t afraid to try, this sort of album. It’s just Exit
G: And there’s singing on it, not just rap
K: No, there’s everything on it, yeah, there’s all kinds of just whatever I felt like doing, it was done, you know.
G: There’s no swearing on it
G: Not at all. That’s not common in hip hop.
K: It’s a challenge, I mean I swear in my regular conversations, but I think if you have time, if you have a three-and-a-half minute song that might last forever, you should choose your words wisely, you know. You want to pick words that are going to mean, every single word’s going to mean something, and sometimes those words do mean something in the right context. I’m not saying you can’t swear and make it mean something, just in my case I didn’t find any use for that.
G: How about the Canadian hip hop culture versus the American hip hop culture
K: The realization is that we basically are American. Canada is becoming more and more American so it just forces the MCs in Canada to have to compete with the States by making music that sounds American. If you’re not creative enough to try to find something that’s different, and not everyone .. like I had a fluke, I started singing before I was rapping, so I sort of have that as my sort of thing that’s a bit different. Not every rapper, if you’re just straight rapping, it’s harder to find something to gravitate to, that people are going to like. I don’t really blame some of them, but on the other hand we do need to be creative and we need to make music for our own country first before we make music for other people
G: There’s this great synergy – Figure IV, West Coast, Toronto .. they’re uniting Canada maybe? How do you see that?
K: I don’t know, I don’t see them uniting Canada, I more see it like the Rascalz when they first came out, just represented the four elements of hip hop and you can’t come any more raw than that and people were attracted to that. I think that’s what drew people to that group of people, was hip hop, and just like this new video I put out for Superstarr, it’s unbelievable how many people get drawn to you because you’re doing real hip hop, because it’s like an art form, a martial art, people are intrigued by it. So I wouldn’t give it up to any kind of management company or label, as much as I would give it up to the hip hop, you know.
G: so is Superstarr part 2 hip hop?
K: No it’s .. yeah, well the attitude is because it’s talking about people wanting to be superstars. Even if you check that Peter Tosh interlude before it, it’s kind of saying you know, we know that everyone’s sort of been trying to fool us from the beginning, they want to divide people and make them into superstars. That song’s really about people thinking they can use their personalities to blind other people, and think that’s their superstar, and that’s a big aspect in hip hop, with the blind bling blind blind bling bling, it’s the same thing. And it’s funny, people are just basically blinded by the bling, you know.
G: What’s the difference between blinding somebody and showing them the light?
K: I think that the light’s always already there. Showing people the light isn’t showing them something they haven’t seen before, it’s showing something that they already know to be true, whereas if you blind someone sometimes it’s too much for them. You know, some people when they’re sleeping, when you turn on the light, they say thank you ‘cause it’s time to wake up, other people want to throw something at the lamp. It’s the same way with the truth. Some people you show them the light because they’re open to it. Showing people the light has nothing to do with you, it has to do with the mindset of the person who’s looking
G: You talk about highs and lows, are those analogies for something .. marijuana
K: No, yeah I used to smoke a lot of weed but I stopped when I came to certain understandings about why I was smoking, so now it’s more about .. I drink a little bit now, I drink quite a bit, and to have some glasses of wine, but marijuana to me was something that I dealt with. I think it opened my mind to certain things, and once it was open I didn’t really need it anymore, ‘cause I just started to see things like that, just all the time
G: Is that like when you said your eyes say stuff that your heart couldn’t believe? [in the album liner notes]
K: Yeah, exactly, that’s what it is. People, when your eyes are open to certain things, it’s like this has sort of been going on all along but you never really were receptive to what was going on, you kind of maybe blinded yourself so you didn’t have to deal with this, the consequences of seeing the truth, you know.