Karniege is a busy man. When not running his graffiti-inspired Big Kid Designs, the Brooklyn rapper rhymes side by side with most of New York’s hardest, creative MCs and beat makers. These collaborators include Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire in a group called Mighty Joseph, who just released Empire State, and Uncommon Records’ founder and visionary producer Nasa, who Karniege hooked up with for the psychedelic B-boy stance of From the Left. Here, one of the progressive underground’s most prolific personnel talks about the latter project and about beats, rhymes, and New York City life in general.
On From the Left’s “The Truth,” you say “My hip-hop’s much different than yours, kid.” That, along with album title, indicates you and Nasa are conscious of doing something that contrasts the norm. What’s that mean to you?
This project is an experiment in being free and having fun. We didn’t care about what critics or people would say. If the beat was hot at the time or the rhymes matched the beat, if our thoughts worked together, let’s see how it comes out. We originally did a single for Def Jux and we had Aesop Rock and El-P on there. With that single I saw the vision -- Aesop and El-P are considered the more weird indie rappers or whatever, and my man Access Immortal and I are more like the street kids, and we’re coming together on that song. The whole concept of From the Left is an album with that feel.
A lot of people say what they’re against. But what characterizes your music and makes it stand on its own?The main key with this album was how much Nasa can be himself and how much can I be myself. From the Left is also a pun, because I’m a lefty. Hip-Hop is at a stage where it’s matured enough to be able to go into a different realms and still be accepted as hip-hop. My whole thing is just get inspired off life, period.
You also say, “Once written, already a classic.” What’s your standard for writing rhymes?
I always imagine my peers hearing my verse, like I’m in cipher or studio. Those are gonna be the people giving me the most honest criticism. That line, too, is exactly what it is. I see ourselves making timeless music. But anything you hear my voice on, I’m not giving you random nonsense. I’m giving you thought-provoking music that you can relate to. You can relate to it from various angles. You can open it up. It’s like a chef writing out his best recipes in a cookbook, or a speech -- like a Martin Luther King speech. People are still quoting Martin Luther King like he’s still here today.
Are you trying to bring intelligence back into hip-hop or it just part of you?
It’s part of me that comes out. Whatever knowledge I obtain or I have, I like to give off to people. But at the same I realize that guns are real, people do get shot everyday. It is a reality. Some people feel it’s not cool to rap about politics and social issues; they’d rather rhyme about cars and jewelry. But if the world were to stop and we went to war, you can’t take your jewelry to war with you. You’re gonna die with that jewelry on or someone will probably kill you and take it from you.
Cats need to pay attention to the legends of Kane and KRS-One and Slick Rick and know that there was a message and that this is what hip-hop has come from. You don’t have to be in the ghetto ignorant. You can pick up a book and read; you can leave your neighborhood and explore different adventures. But it’s various things. I wouldn’t put my music in one setting -- intelligent rap is here, guns are here, that’s it. To me it’s all the same thing, but it’s knowing when to really speak on it.
The older '80s artists come up. But who do you look to in the modern era as inspiration?
Of course, you have your foundation. From disco music to '80s hip-hop and other genres of music, like calypso, classical, reggae. Some of us grew up in weird neighborhoods, where you were a black kid but you’re hearing meringue and salsa all night.
As far as my influences in modern times, there’s not too many, but from the '90s, I felt like that time was really giving you that raw hip-hop, with the crews like Cella Dwellas, Boot Camp, Wu-Tang. You had Biggie running around, early Jay-Z freestyles, Organized Konfusion and then even Pharaoh Monch leaving to go solo. There’s not too many crews right now bringing it like that. I like the Clipse -- those kids are crazy. I’m still a fan of Mobb Deep. I even listen to G-Unit. If it’s fresh, it’s fresh; that’s how I rate it. If you can rock your head to it and you make be believe in the story you’re selling to me, I can get with it.
Manhattan and Brooklyn have changed a lot in the last ten years with gentrification and the rising cost of living. It seems more sterile than it used to be. You grew up in Flatbush in the '80s and '90s. Do you notice these changes? How does it tie into art and hip-hop overall?
I was building on this, too, about how they’re trying to get rid of so much graffiti. One of the things that moved the city was murals, just on a handball court. You could be driving somewhere in a cab or with your family, and next thing you know, you see this whole end-to-end wild style. For a hot second, you see a piece of art and then you’re gone.
Just to see that type of movement, just to see cats having fun, blasting their music, and then someone throwing out the cardboard and starting breakdancing -- all these things were taking place around the city. Now they’re trying to clean up New York, but these are some of the elements that brought New York to where it is today. They’re trying to wipe the slate clean and aren’t giving people food for thought. Even though graffiti might have made the city ugly, look at the artists that have come out of it and are doing something positive for the community.
How many hip-hop artists have come out of the community? They might not necessarily be rapping anymore, but they’re still in the industry contributing what they know. They’re trying to change New York and make it seem more modern and refined, especially after September 11. But to just rebuild the whole city, the dynamics of everyone -- condos are getting built on what were once empty blocks, and middle class and poor people are getting wiped out of their neighborhoods so that somebody who has a bigger income is coming in every year. Push it off to the side and clear it out and it’s not giving people that visual excitement.
When I go to to other countries, people are doing the same thing we did back in the day, but now we can’t even do it. I went to Canada in October, and you see pieces and characters that someone did. The visual aspect is there. Places have so much more movement because they have graffiti, they have festivals. New York is a little sterile, and we need that vibrancy, those street concerts, raw cats busting out not for a fee but just for us. A lot of people are now clashing the corporate side to the actual culture side of it, and that’s another problem. In the hip-hop world and New York, we’ve become desensitized to different things.
You’re a visual artist too. Where do you see rap and visual art overlapping?
Sometimes they’re different zones and sometimes they’re kind of like the same thing. When I look at some of the art pieces I do, I laugh to myself and say this is what the hook of a song would look like, this is the visual aspect of a hook I did on a song, or this is the verse or body of a song. Graffiti, rap, breakdancing and deejaying all speak the same language; it just got split up. If a DJ is cutting, imagine the B-boy breaking -- it gets to the point where he’s moving to the DJ’s record. His movement transcends into graffiti lettering, and that transcends into rap, the music, the actual sound of the culture.
I definitely feel like the visual aspect is becoming more intertwined with the music, because of the day and age we live in and the technology. You’re able to push a button and stretch someone out -- they look like a totally different person and you’re able to play with this character. It’s like digital clay. In my career, I’ll be combining all those aspects because that’s what I grew up on. Graffiti was my first love.
On the Left’s sound really starts to get deep on the track “You Don’t Know,” and from there on out it’s really tripped-out and heady, culminating in the outro “Headache Med.” Do you consider this release “psychedelic”?
I think that’s part of it. Any project I deal with I like to customize. I have the project with Vast right now called Empire State, and it sounds nothing like From the Left. I have other projects coming out later this year, and everything has its own customized sound and lyrics. Sometimes in the studio, I wasn’t meant to write it at home, I create right then and there on the spot.
To me the record sounds like a mix between an acid trip and psychedelic, just the funk. That’s what I was getting at. The funk. Take it how you want it. The cover shows what I was going for. Even though it’s from the left, it’s funk coming from so many angles.
Do you feel like you’re part of a movement and that you’re making a mark?
I felt like I made my mark the minute I jumped out of my mother’s womb. But it’s a long uphill battle. I’ve been rhyming for almost fifteen years. I feel strongly part of a movement. Every avenue that I’ve touched so far has been part of a movement. Just having my first single on Def Jux, that was big for me at the time, and everything thus far is another steeping stone to me making my mark.
A lot of people don’t give themselves enough credit to keep consistent with anything. Everybody wants everything now. We want it accessible. It takes people away from that dedication and determination. You might work on something for two years and then be like, "I can’t take it, I’m done." There’s a part of you that has to become numb to that and go for your gusto. You’re gonna get people hating on you, you’re gonna have some supporters, but whatever it is you feel you have in your heart, you give it your all so when people look back, they can’t say you half-stepped. Like Kane said, “Ain’t no half steppin’,” that’s how we operate around here.