“Music is my outlet and my therapy,” says Ka. “I need it in order to kind of be sane. It helps me shake those dark images that I’m always seeing. And I think people can hear that. I ain’t just doing this to be doing it, I have to be doing it.”
After a stint in the moderately successful hip-hop group Natural Elements between 1993 and 1995, Ka more or less retreated from rap music until 2008, when by chance a friend passed his album Ironworks to GZA. The Genius was so impressed that he invited him to guest on ‘Firehouse’, a song Ka all but stole. Ironworks, which Ka released on his own label, didn’t make much of a splash, but the following album Grief Pedigree was better in almost every way, sparking interest in this rapper long out of his thirties with the gravelly monotone, dark bars and knotty boom-bap beats. On his third album, The Night’s Gambit, Ka sticks to that sample-heavy sound, even weaving chess imagery into the record’s narrative fabric. But a new attention to space ensures The Night’s Gambit is both bleaker and more contemporary than just throwback hip-hop. Like Gunplay and Tree, Ka raps best when he’s at his most broken, and there’s enough harrowing, haunting material on The Night’s Gambit to break anyone.
I knew there was no way Ka wouldn’t be genuine and interesting to talk to, but even so I was surprised by how candid and generous he was.
You grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. How would you describe it?
Where I’m from, Ocean Hill, Brownsville… you don’t really know it’s bad until you leave and go to other places. Growing up, home is home, your friends are your friends and you’re doing things like regular people, but once you start getting a little older and maybe you start seeing other places on TV or go to school outside of where you live, you start to see people who live a little differently. Soon you start realising that you’re living in an area that’s really impoverished, and that ain’t how living is supposed to be. So you start making moves on your own so you can go and get that.
I have a love-hate relationship with my blocks. It’s still the same in the Brownsville area now… Williamsburg is Williamsburg now. Brooklyn’s been gentrified, Fort Greene’s been gentrified, Bed-Stuy’s been gentrified but Brownsville is still Brownsville, East New York is still East New York, and there are forgotten areas in Brooklyn, like Bushwick still, where people still live hard. There are still kids that live as hard as I lived, as hard as my friends lived. That’s where I’m from and where my people are from. You know, we weren’t bad people, just hungry. Hunger’s going to get you up outta your house and go do something.
And is hip-hop now your way of making things good?
Now I know things I used to do as a kid weren’t right. I’m not trying to be important or anything, just talk about the block, and the people that aren’t with me and the people who are with me still. In some sense I’m being like a reporter, I’ve been so affected by what I saw that I just can’t help but talk about it. If I can bring a little light to the area then that’s my responsibility.
I’m not a rich man. If I was a rich man, I’d be building parks and libraries and centres all around the hood, because I didn’t have that. I played basketball with no nets. And I would have wanted someone who was from that neighbourhood getting rich to let ’em know we still over here, we still living hard. Just let them know about this area.
The hip-hop that I grew up and loved was impoverished music, by poor people for poor people. It was aspirational, like, “Eventually we gonna make it good,” but the hip-hop now that they’re playing on the radio is celebratory music – “We’re poppin’ bottles, we’ve got so much money that I’m wasting it. You poor and I’m rich.” That’s the hip-hop that’s playing on the radio now. There is a time to celebrate, but there’s a time for loss, too.
What other music did you love when you were growing up?
I wasn’t buying shit ’cause I couldn’t afford shit but the radio was better back then, and I grew up in the ’70s so disco was still around, and I listened to a lot of that. My pop was into jazz so I listened to a lot of that, and my mom was into R&B. In Brooklyn, we’ve got a heavy West Indian and roots culture so I listened to a lot of West Indian and Caribbean music. And when I first heard hip-hop, I was blown away, and it just took over everything.
Grief Pedigree and The Night’s Gambit are pretty far from the Natural Elements stuff but your sound is still pretty old school. Where do your samples come from; do you spend a lot of time digging?
It’s so time consuming. I listen to so much music; I go to a record store and I’m there all day long and I’m listening to everything, every genre. You never know when you’re gonna find that right sound so you’ve got to listen to everything. That’s why it takes me so long to do an album, because it takes about a year to find the twelve quality enough samples to use. That’s a lot of work. For me, digging is like a music lesson. I wasn’t exposed to all the different kinds of music growing up, so this opens up whole new levels for me. I’m listening to kinds of music I wouldn’t normally listen to, like Turkish music, or this Russian album, or this South American or African album I would never have picked up. It was all hip-hop, R&B and reggae when I was growing up, and jazz. So now I’m listening to everything. It’s great.
What’s the last good record you got?
The last good one? You know what, I don’t like telling, I like to keep some of my digging a secret! Haha, pardon me, I can’t answer that, my bad.
What about current rappers, who are you feeling?
I’m no expert on who’s ill, but I listen to a lot of the young kids, like Chance the Rapper. I think if he carries on what he’s doing, he’s going to be a great talent. Roc Marciano is one of my closest friends, I think he’s one of the illest around right now. And I like this kid in Chicago, his name’s Tree. I feel like I’m doing a disservice to people by saying names because everybody should be celebrated. A lot of the people are not getting the shine they deserve.
I still listen to the older cats, the people I grew up listening to. They still doing it. Sometimes I want something different, sometimes I want something I’m familiar with, sometimes I want something more experimental, some new flavour. But when I’m doing records I shut everything down because I don’t want to be influenced.
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You and Tree and Roc Marciano don’t really sound the same but there are definitely parallels, like both you and Tree use vocal samples in a really interesting way, and you got your shine a bit later than most rappers. What’s your view on being older than other rappers when they became successful?
I’d have loved to have been noticed in my twenties and my teens, but at this age I appreciate what I have now and I don’t know if I would have appreciated it back then. When you’re young, you don’t have the presence of mind to know what’s going on around you, but when you’re older, you start to become a little more reflective and more appreciative of things because you understand what loss is. I appreciate the hell out of that shit.
Grief Pedigree was a big album for me; it was the first time anybody’s cared what I have to say about anything. I was dying that I wasn’t doing the music that I wanted to do. I mean, I was doing it, but I was like an artist in the basement making paintings and nobody ever came down to see them. It’s hard when you get eyes on shit you’ve been doing for a lot of years, but I’m glad I let someone into my basement finally, and they got to see my art, and they spoke some good words about it. I don’t think a million people will appreciate my music, but I’m happy if one person appreciates it.
I know who I am now. I’m not reaching for nothing, I’m just doing what I love. I like that I got it now. I wanted it at 20; I needed it at 40.
I understand you like to keep your day job separate from making music. Is that more a practical thing, or do you think relying on music for income will hurt your creativity?
A lot of people don’t like me. I’m boring to a lot of people, and I know that, like, “His raps are so monotone, like he’s talking or something,” you know. I’m not for everybody, I’m not trying to be for everybody. You like it, that’s all I care about. You like this shit and I’m happy. But I know if I had to rely on art, I’d be starving. I also know that if you’re gonna make pure, pure, pure art, you have to separate it from money. I treat it as a hobby, a really passionate hobby. So it’s for both of those reasons — so I can put a roof over my head and eat, but also so that I can be free with the art and not have to worry about doing what anybody else wants me to do.
You seem to be very protective of that artistic freedom, doing the raps, beats and videos yourself, as well as running your own label. Why do you do that?
It’s money that I fuckin’… I had to work overtime to make this album. I don’t have distribution. I don’t have shit. I’m off the radar – but you can still download all my all three of my albums off iTunes and so on. That’s huge; the fact that anybody and their mother can just put the albums on anywhere in the whole world, that’s big. But it’s not enough. I’m from a physical time, and I know that when I really, really like an album, I need the physical copy of it.
But then what I did with Grief Pedigree and The Night’s Gambit, I went one day and told people on Twitter — I don’t have too many followers, but I told people and they told people, and a couple of blogs and websites picked it up — I went out and over a three-hour period on the day the album was released I was like, you want to buy it, come and buy it. The first time I did it with Grief Pedigree I was out there and nobody came for like an hour, and you don’t understand what it was like man, so many emotions, blaming myself, like why did I do this? It was horrible, but then people came and it was beautiful. This time, for The Night’s Gambit, a lot of people came. I just wanna carry on doing that.
So did selling your records yourself bring you closer to fans of your music?
You know, I don’t even like calling them fans, because fan stems from fanatic. I think the people that listen to me have to be a little bit sensible and cerebral. They’re just listeners. If you listen to Ka you gotta be a listener because you gotta grasp what I’m saying. I don’t want a million fanatical boyband fans. Three years from now nobody will remember this or that band. I want 10 people who are really feeling this shit, who are telling other people “You don’t understand, Ka’s better than everyone!” That’s what I want.
I do have a close connection with my listeners though, ’cause they bring me light. When people finally meet me they’re just like, I know that man, I know his friend Dajuan that got murdered, I know his friend Hector that got murdered, I know his uncle that got murdered, and so they approach me like a long lost friend. These people give me the life to continue. When I’m working on the next album, I can be like, yeah, they’re gonna like this, they’re gonna love this line right here.
When I was selling my record on the street, they were giving me hugs, they were supporting me and what I do. That means the world to me. I write rhymes, and people tell me, “Your rhymes helped me through a moment in my life that was real dark” — it’s about that. This is the gift that I’ve been given, I’m blessed to be able to give people some kind of support system. Come on, man! Who’s fucking with that? Nothing! Nothing is fucking with that. It’s give and take, you know.
Rap is often about taking, but you seem to do a lot of giving. How does that work out?
I feel like I’ve taken away a lot too. I did a lot of bad things in my life, man, and these are my years to try and get my scales kinda even, so… I’m giving a lot but I have to, because I took a lot. When I’m ready to do a new joint, some old memories will come back to me, or I’m dealing with some shit that I haven’t dealt with since I was 12, so much shit that I’ve been through that I need to speak on that I haven’t spoken on yet. That’s why I got to take so much time between records, because it takes me a lot of time to recoup. It’s exhausting.
You know, it’s funny because when I was growing up, I hated that we was poor, I hated that we was dirty and I hated that we was hungry and shit, but now that’s my motivation for doing music that I feel is beautiful, and that maybe ten other people think is beautiful too. I feel like I had to go through that, I had to live that in order to do this. Now those times don’t feel as bad – I wasn’t just hungry for nothing, I wasn’t just broke for nothing, I wasn’t just cold for nothing. It was for this – whatever this is.