often paints a picture of hip-hop as a homogenous genre full of artists
striving for attention and superstardom, but some in hip-hop aren”’t concerned
with the glitz and the glamour. One such artist is Toronto-based K-Os, a
multi-dimensional musician who often transcends the sounds generally associated
with the genre. With a combination of charisma and intelligence, it wouldn”’t be
surprising to see K-Os reach the status of Andre 3000. He frequently takes
sonic risks, and that holds true for his most recent album, Atlantis: Hymns
for Disco, the most apparent here being his decision to sing more. But for
an artist who”’s known for melding genres, this is just a natural step in his
own evolution. He sat down to speak with us about his new album, religion and
what he likes to order when he”’s at the bar.
Hymns for Disco definitely has a different sound to it than Joyful Rebellion, which was commercially successful. Are you worried that the success won’t be replicated?
No, because I think that once you’ve had that type of success, at least in my home country, that sort of speaks for itself. I was more concerned with being able to do something that felt real — songs I could perform. Sales was a secondary kind of concern. At some point I had played three or four songs that were on my record so many times that I got sick of them, and I don’t think people understand how that is when a song gets popular and you keep playing them over and over again. I think you kind of want to gravitate toward new material.
Having a commercially successful record has its positive ideas and points, but sometimes you want to create something that’s not popular, because as a music lover — whether it was indie rock or independent hip-hop — I gravitated toward music that wasn’t popular at first. I never really gravitated toward music that was always popular. As an artist I feel the same. Commercially viable equals popular, and you have to deal with repetition. And as an artist, that’s probably the biggest prison — to keep repeating yourself. So I was actually happy to move onto something else, something new where I could just experiment.
You were also winning a lot of awards for a while. Do you care about getting that type of recognition?
No. Awards are kind of things that show people are listening to what you are doing, and that’s important, but I try to focus on loving the music. I won a lot of Junos, which are like Grammys in my home country. I got nominated this year again and it’s like a virus or disease, because if you keep winning them you want more and you get concerned about it. So my whole way of approaching is to think that those things are there to show people are listening and that in itself is the award. To me, having people hear what you’re doing is the most important part about being an artist. Whether you win or not is just politics; the idea that people recognize your music and it’s out there is the important thing.
What led to or influenced the difference of sound on the new album?
Just hanging out with different people. In Canada we go to the bar a lot; we drink a lot. A lot of people that are on this album, a lot of the sounds on the album, are inspired by hanging out with my friends ï¿½ drinking, then talking with friends and then going to the studio. It was very simple. It wasn’t that I thought, Where am I going next? I got bored of things, and I started to get enlightened and excited by other things. I think the thing about evolution is that it should be a natural process. It really just came with sharing music — some rock-band dude going “You’ve never heard of ‘Pattern Recognition’ by Sonic Youth?” and me going “You’ve never heard Artifacts’ ‘Wrong Side of the Tracks?'” With sharing music comes sharing new ideas.
There seems to be more singing on this album. Is that something you’re comfortable with? Could you do a whole album where you wouldn’t even rhyme at all, just sing?
This record is the closest to that. I think that singing is a very vulnerable thing, at least with my voice. I really don’t have a low baritone voice; my voice is very melodic, and that’s something I was sort of embarrassed about — well, not embarrassed, but nervous — because it was pretty vulnerable. In the era of hip-hop I grew up with, there weren’t a lot of people singing. I think this record is more that side of my personality, expressing myself in that way.
I can do one record with any type of music. I’m sort of a musical schizophrenic. I can’t stick to one type of music, but I think the singing happened because I wanted to be okay with expressing myself that way even though people assume or put me in the hip-hop category, which sometimes means you can’t show your vulnerability. In rock ‘n’ roll music, whether it’s Thom Yorke or David Bowie, you can have bravado and testosterone and you can also be vulnerable. That doesn’t exist in hip-hop. As soon as you start singing, they’re like, “So, you’re singing a lot on this record.” But if David Bowie rapped, people would be like, “Wow.” When rappers or hip-hoppers show their vulnerable side, people are surprised by that, and maybe I kind of wanted to go there to see what it was like to be more vulnerable.
Do you feel sort of like an outsider in hip-hop?
No. I feel like a Canadian; that’s kind of outside already. That’s basically the only difference, which basically now comes down to about seventy-five cents on the dollar. So, an outsider, yeah, but when I come to New York and I see 125th Street or I go to Queensbridge, these are all things I’ve heard about first in rap songs. So I feel like an outsider, but I feel as if I’ve always been in touch with the culture in America. I’m more of an outsider because I’m not from the United States as opposed to my style in hip-hop. I mean, is Kool Keith an outsider? If he’s an outsider, then I’m an outsider. That’s how I see it.
What was the biggest risk you took with this album?
Maybe the statement from KRS-1 — Rap is something you do, but hip-hop something you live — is true. KRS-1 constituted a lot of ideas in hip-hop, but that’s a major one. You could be a store owner as a hip-hop head, but as long as the attitude is hip-hop, that’s the bottom line. So my record is not a rap record, but it’s still a hip-hop record. I actually based writing a lot of music on that. Some of the drum sounds — even on the rock songs — were me comparing the drum sounds to a Premier record, for example, and seeing if it stands up. That was the biggest risk I took, in trying to prove if it’s true. If I sing on this record or if I play guitar, am I still hip-hop? But hip-hop is what you live. So if you’re living hip-hop, whether you’re painting or building a building or drawing, it’s going to come out as a hip-hop statement, regardless of whether or not it’s a rap statement or a graffiti statement or a deejay statement. Maybe hip-hop is bigger than the elements of hip-hop, and it’s just an attitude.
The video for “Sunday Morning,” which is very well done, seems to have a theme of segregation. How did that come about?
My life. Hanging out. Going to a hip-hop club and seeing one type of people, then going to a hipster club and seeing another type of people. I was like, What if you did a video where you were comparing both sides to the same music? It seems like segregation, but because they’re dancing to the same song, I think it’s more about unification. It shows my ideals: What if you had two different sets of people dancing to the same song, not really concerned with each other’s reality? Which is kind of what the world’s like anyway. All around the world, there are parties going on where they’re both playing “Walk It Out” — at a hipster party or a hip-hop party. I wonder what would be the difference if we could see two different parties at the same time.
I’ve never seen your live show, but is it predominantly a white audience?
Usually I’m so drunk I can’t tell, and it’s hard for me to look at the audience because I call it soul pressure. It’s hard as a human being to have so many people looking on you, so I kind of focus out and just blur my eyes and see a whole bunch of people. I would say it depends on where I am, but I would say it’s predominantly a mixed crowd. I don’t know; maybe I have to check my Myspace friends list. That’s a better temperature. But I don’t think it’s predominantly anything. It’s predominantly music lovers, I think.
You touched upon being a Canadian hip-hop artist, but also being a black artist, do you feel there are certain expectations for what type of music you’re making?
I don’t know. I don’t even know what black means at this point. Is it Paul Wall? I don’t know. I think black is an idea that anyone can appropriate. I think Eminem proved that. He wasn’t a black guy, but he kind of sounded like one. He kind of dressed like one. He hung around a lot of black people. So maybe it’s more of an idea than it is a reality. It’s hard to say. I mean, it’s a pretty deep debate. I have a friend, Saul Williams, we talk about this all time — about the black attitude. What is it? Is it a walk? Is it your hairstyle? For me, being black simply just means having soul, and maybe that’s why people look at Justin Timberlake and be like, “He’s kind of black.” Maybe he just has soul.
Maybe people with soul all express it the same way, whether you are James Taylor or Aretha Franklin. I consider myself more of a soul artist than a black artist. I’m a black artist by default: by the skin tone I have, by melanin. I think it’s weird to call me black. It’s kind of obvious. Can you be more creative than that? I consider myself as more a soul artist, someone who speaks from his soul.
There’s been talk about your religious background. Do you follow a specific religion?
I don’t. I grew up in a Judeo-Christian sort of sect. My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, my dad was a minister, or an elder. So I went to church three times a week until I was seventeen years old. So it was forced upon me until that age, but I’ve spent a lot of time since then investigating a lot of other religions, and they’re all pretty much the same. It’s basically everyone’s idea on how the world started. My religion at this point is hip-hop basically: peace, love and having fun. Which I employ everyday. That’s what I try to do. I try to be peaceful and spread love and have fun. I think there are a lot of people in this world who believe in hip-hop as their religion, too.
You said you like kicking back at the bar with friends. What’s your drink of choice?
As of now, it’s a beer called Saint Paul’s or Saint Peter’s. I can’t remember. It’s a fine beer that I only found in two bars in Canada. I don’t really drink beer, but it’s the only beer that I sort of ask if people have, but no one really has it. It’s something really different. It’s really good. Otherwise I just drink wine, chardonnay or Jack Daniels.