I met Ka on a cold windy afternoon on 6th Ave in Manhattan, where he entrenched himself with a small quantity of CDs and vinyl under a storefront that was once Fat Beats NY. In another time this place was a Mecca for underground hip-hop, a venerable destination for both artists and listeners, an iconic landmark of a bygone era. Very little of that remains now, aside from a few lonely stickers. But while the history hovering above Ka’s enterprise gave it decidedly nostalgic overtones, his choice of setting didn’t seem entirely wistful. For years NY hip-hop fans associated this spot with rappers selling their music in person — Ka was just continuing that tradition. The simple practical familiarity of the location figured just as highly in his intentions as any ‘spiritual’ meanings.
This was Ka’s second date of selling his new album Grief Pedigree in this fashion. The first date (two weeks prior) marked the album’s CD release. This follow-up outing was meant to give diehard fans an early shot at grabbing the newly pressed vinyl versions. By the time I joined in around 4pm he was already out for an hour with no sales. Despite unfavorable weather conditions and slow trade, the man was in good spirits. — Interview by Alex Piyevski
Alex: What made you want to see your album in the street?
Ka: I wanted to see the people who appreciate the music, that’s the biggest thing for most artists. I’ve been doing music for a long time. For years I was in the dark, nobody knew who I was. All I had was my close friends around me, telling me it was dope. By selling in the street I was able to shake the hands and give a pound and connect with people that feel the music.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Brownsville Brooklyn, born and raised. A 70s baby, so I’m a little older. I’ve seen NY change quite a bit from when it was real real rough to now, when you can walk your kids in the street.
Do you see changes in your neighborhood?
My neighborhood hasn’t been gentrified yet, but they say it is coming. But it’s different in Brownsville and East NY. I don’t know if it has the same appeal as Bed-Sty. They don’t have the beautiful homes over there, the brownstones, it’s still hood over there. Still, it’s not what it used to be. It was raw. It has improved, but I’m not gonna say that’s where you want to raise your family, if you have a choice. If you’re doing it [there] then you’re going to have some grown up kids. That’s what it did to me, raised me fast.
How do you feel about the way NY has changed in general?
I’m torn. A lot of the new comers come to NY and they think it’s sweet. They move like its sweet. Sometimes the hood inside of me says ‘you couldn’t have done that in the NY that I grew up in, you would’ve gotten yourself hurt up.’ But then as a grown man I also understand that I wouldn’t want the kids today to live through the same shit I did. Everyday not knowing if you’re going to get shot or you’re going to get cut in the face. As an older man I’m glad that it changed for the better, the knucklehead in me thinks it’s soft now. (Ka laughs) And you hear it in my music too, I do want piece in my life now but I’ve been groomed so long… almost 40 years of having a certain mindset… I think you can hear that.
How did you start making music?
Music was an escape. Lotta shit you just gotta get out. There are certain ways people do it, they get it out physically, they get it out through their cries. I write.
We pause the conversation while Ka makes his first sale. Ever gracious and grateful for the support he greets his first buyers like old friends and for a few moments we all chat together amiably. After they leave we start the interview again, huddling against the wind and chaos of 6th Ave traffic and construction. Ka talks about what drove him to music and sites Slick Rick as his first major influence.
Ka: I heard Slick Rick and I wanted to rhyme. He was a god. That’s the one that made me want to pick up a pen. I loved it [hip-hop], I saw it [hip-hop] since its birth, I partook in it, but when I heard Slick Rick rhyme I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
What about him specifically that stood out so strongly for you?
Ka: He was… so cool, so smooth, I never heard anything like that. It was just put together so well. It was more than just a song – it was a piece of art. I just loved how he did it, I didn’t think anybody else did it like that. I tried to do my rendition of it, and I wasn’t any good… it took time, I knew it was gonna take time, and I was dedicated to it. I’m still working up to it.
How old were you when you started? When did you record your first song?
I was 12. I recorded my first song around 89/90. It was horrible, but you couldn’t tell me that at the time. I played it over and over. I played it for my little sister and she was reciting the words, it was beautiful. I played it enough to the point of tricking myself into thinking that flow was aight, but it was horrible. It was with my boy Nike, he had a song called ‘Clown Ass Niggas’, we were just yelling on it, it was crazy. I swore I had butter rhymes, and it was horrible but you know… At the time he let me rock and that was my first introduction to the studio. And I liked it. I knew I wasn’t right, but I knew I would get better. It took a long time for me to get better. I wasn’t a prodigy like some kids.
Nas; Large Professor – the shit he was saying as a teenager is on par with a 40 year old man right now. I wasn’t that dude, I had to practice, get my shit together. Then I had to live more, I had to have a lot more life experience so I could cull from a lot of different things. Hopefully that’s coming through in the music.
Some of Ka’s friends join us, there just to support and hang out. One of them is Rondell, who tells me the story of how he met Ka in college during the mid-90s, where the two found common ground over a mutual appreciation of hip-hop. During their first meeting and conversation Rondell mentioned a liking for Ka’s own stylings, unaware that he was speaking to the very subject of his praise. Yet Ka did not reveal himself, not until the topic came up again a little later on. It’s a funny detail but it’s also telling. This kind of modesty about his music is still a prominent trait of Ka’s personality, one that became even more evident as our interview went on. It extends almost to a fault, occasionally maybe bordering on mild shyness. Make no mistake, he IS confident about his current work, but this confidence is never flippant and was obviously hard earned.
You debuted officially/professionally with Natural Elements?
Ka: That was the first group I was in, and again I was the weak link in that. Those kids were fabulous. I don’t know if they liked my sound or the realness or what. They knew even though I was saying it bad I still had something to say. They saw the potential and I appreciate that, I love them forever for that because they gave me a chance to see what it was all about and they taught me a lot. The discipline… I had to learn how to write a song, putting together a hook, they taught me structure. It was like boot camp. Charlemagne was the only producer and we were battling for beats, arguing about who is the best on this one and that one. Kind of like Wu-tang, on some ‘yo I sound better on this one it’s gonna be my beat!’ That made us become stronger. It was great.
How did you link up with them?
I went to school with Mr. Voodoo. We were just bullshittin’ one day in the hallway, rhyming, and he invited me up to the studio to meet his producer. It was all the way up in the North Bronx, it was a troop coming from Brooklyn. But it became a routine, going up there every Saturday, honing our craft. I met all the characters – L-Swift, Charlemagne, Big Tim, Raidermen. I learned a lot from them, it got me right. It got me to where I wanted to be.
Why did you part ways with them?
Well, I didn’t. We’re still cool, we still speak. It’s just… musically we were going in different ways, and I felt like I was bringing them down. They were more lyrical than me; they were flipping a lot of fly shit.
I left Natural Elements and went to start my own group, Nightbreed. The dude I was rocking with in that, Kev, he was a childhood friend. We used to play ball together, he was rhyming in the park one day in a pseudo battle and I thought he was ill. So I approached him about starting a group together.
In Nightbreed I got a little better. I still think Kev was better than me, I still tell him that today. Kev was ahead of his time, he was a very talented man. I learned a lot from him too. After trying it we got close to a few deals, but they kept comparing us to other people. They were like…(KA sucks air through clenched teeth and makes a face indicating doubt and displeasure.) And after a while we felt like we were getting older now, like we need to get jobs and be grown men.
Being a grown up doing music, especially the music we do, you have a time limit on it. If I was doing rock or jazz or blues I could do that till I was 90 years old. You do hip-hop, after you’re into your 20’s it’s like ‘what are you still doing that for?’ It’s not considered an art like everything else. It’s sad because it is. And then you get the pressures of society, ‘[hip-hop] that’s a childhood dream, go get a job’. You hear really condescending shit like ‘you’re still trying to learn?’ We let that affect us. I got a job, he got a job, I got married, he got married. We just lived our lives.
But there was something eating at me, I felt like I HAD to do it. I was doing it quietly until my lady told me ‘you just need to do this, who cares what they think!’ And that’s where I’m at now.
So that’s when you started recording again?
Yea, I started recording again and I did Iron Works [Ka’s first solo album]. I did Iron Works with some more friends from The Bronx I went to school with, they were doing the production. They were just getting started in production. I didn’t really care, I just wanted to do it. I put a lot into that album lyrically. I put years into that album.
There is a noticeable growth and progress in your music, from Natural Elements to Nightbreed to Iron Works to now. Do you think it was a matter of aging and learning and experience?
It was aging. It was aging and going through a lot of shit I was going through. Decade difference… that’s real. You grow, become different person in a 5 or 10 year span. I definitely did. That helped me mature vocally, timing wise, my cadence, my voice, knowing what I wanted to say. It takes time for an artist to know what kind of artists he wants to become. And I learned that, I know what I want to be.
My flow, delivery, I feel like it’s a quiet rage now. Everything I’m saying is very passionate, I really feel it. Some of the songs I can’t even perform without getting emotional. It’s hard, some of these songs… just saying it… (Ka pauses, affected for a very brief moment) It’s not just lyrics. When I talk about one of my friends that got murdered I see him and I’m sad he’s not with me right now. ‘Spoken memorial to all my losses’ – when I say that shit it’s real. Saying it right now I’m getting all emotional. I flash and see all my friends that I wish I could share the album with.
So yea I noticed the style change. The years helped me out. And life experiences made me the artist that I feel like I am today.
So you just write, that’s how you practice? Just write and write and write?
You know what, it’s constant. Sometimes it’s not even something I do intentionally. I’m home and I get a couple of lines and I gotta write that down, like I need that right now. And I’m mad if I don’t put it down on paper and I forget it, I’m fucked up for the rest of the day. Feeling like I had an ill bar, and just from that bar could spark a song, and from that song could spark an album. But yeah, every day I do put something down on paper. Every day.
How many songs do you have written? If you write like that you have to have a lot more than 11.
I’ve done a thousand songs. But some of them will never be heard. Some of them aren’t intended for public consumption. It’s personal, just working out my feelings through the writing. Shit that I listen to and think ‘they won’t understand this.’ I’ve done an album where I know nobody would ever hear that album except me. I think as an artist some stuff has to be personal. Everything can’t be for public consumption.
What I do put out… I feel like this could help people. I like that I’m getting tweets and emails saying that my album is helping people go through something. That shit is beautiful, it’s sad and beautiful at the same time. I’m sad that these people had to go through some of the same shit I had to go through for me to evoke that same feeling. But it’s beautiful that they know that somebody went through it the same way and survived it and coped with it the right way.
By 4:45 pm, about 2 hours after Ka’s arrival, what started out as a sales date and an interview has become something of a gathering. Our group has swollen to about 10 people, some talking with Ka, others just hanging out talking amongst themselves. I step away briefly to warm my hands and then rejoin the conversation at Ka naming some places he would like to tour. He mentions Australia, where he feels he would be welcome based on their response to his music. From European locales he singles out England and Germany, another two places where the album is getting positive attention. He proudly mentions a few sales in Paris, hoping those buyers have big mouths and will tell their friends who will tell their friends. From there we start talking about his music’s slow growing appeal.
Ka: It’s going to be a slow build, I know that. The album is not a one time listen album. You listen to it one time and you go ‘alright…’ (Ka shrugs to pantomime his point.) You listen to it the third time you say ‘oh word?’ You listen to it the fourth time, ‘oh shit!’ Then, after the hundredth time, ‘this shit is fucking beautiful!’ That’s how I think and that’s how I write, with that intention. It takes a patient ear to really fuck with it, and not many have patient ears. So if it does build [momentum] it’s gonna be slow.
Alex: You put out the singles from this album only via video. What was the logic behind that?
Ka: For years I’ve been trying to tell people to listen to my rhymes. When you give them a visual, you don’t have to tell them to listen anymore. I just tell them to go watch the video, and it’s easier for them to be like ‘oh yo the video is dope!’ But then they’re playing it and they might pick up something. I didn’t have any imagery for the first album, so I wanted to have it for this one. But it had to be on my own terms. So I just did one every month, to get a little buzz going. It seems to be working. It did work. On the real, I thought my friends would just tell their friends and I would have maybe 200 views. And I would’ve been happy with that. I’m up to like 20000 views now, and every day it goes up more and more, people get hipped to it (As of time of transcription the video has over 30000 hits on YouTube.)
It’s a good feeling. The videos were a big part of why people even know that I’m around. That was the idea of the videos, so people could know who I was, so they could see me. And while they’re seeing me they could hear me at the same time.
Intermission: The Bullet.
The back cover of the CD version of Grief Pedigree shows a bullet engraved with Ka’s name and the album title. The same bullet appears on the center sticker of the LP. I initially assumed it was photoshopped, but I was wrong. As you can see from the picture above, it’s very real.
Ka: I’ve been on both sides of the gun. I’ve always had a fascination with guns, since we were young. And I also know the destruction of guns, it took a lot of my friends family and loved ones. I have a love/hate relationship with them. That’s why on Iron Works I’m writing with a bullet, on this one I got a bullet as album art.
I wanted to put my name on a bullet because of the term ‘bullet got your name on it.’ Now I own and actually physically possess the bullet that has my name on it. I’m hoping that it’s good karma. The way it’s engraved is beautiful, it’s just a nice piece to have. The person that did it is a master engraver; he has actually done Super Bowl trophies before. It’s a complete part of the artwork for Grief Pedigree. It represents the album.
Every time I look at the bullet, I’m happy. When I’m old it will remind me of when I did Grief Pedigree. Hopefully I will have something else that represents every I album I do in the future.
By 5:15 pm the gathering is in full swing with Ka presiding against 3 different recording devices pointed in his direction . He remains patient and affable, careful to address every question and point. When buyers approach he barely misses a beat, according them deserved attention while continuing to oblige us. He is visibly pleased when the interviewers and listeners show detailed familiarity with his work and past history. At the most comfortable moments a palpable sense of community spreads through our impromptu circle, and the format of conversation starts to move away from Q&A formality.
Alex: Let’s talk about your collaboration with Roc Marciano, how you met, etc.
Ka: I got introduced to Roc Marciano by way of GZA. I did a song on GZA’s album [Pro Tools] called ‘Firehouse’. I asked GZA who did that [Firehouse] beat and he told me about Roc Marci. So I’m thinking he’s a producer. I had the UN album too but didn’t even associate him as the same dude. I just thought he had a sound I liked and I wanted to work with him. I got in touch with him, we started clicking, and then he told me he rhymed, he was more of a rapper than a producer. I scooped him up one day, brought him to the lab, we started building. We hit it off immediately. He’s from the same places as me. He told me he really liked what I did on ‘Firehouse’, he said ‘I was upset at first when I heard GZA didn’t rock on it but then I when I heard your verse I was glad you rocked on it’.
He told me when he first went into this [rap] he didn’t get into it to be doing it by himself and I felt the same way. I didn’t want to be a solo artist really. So we decided to do a joint together. At the time he was still working on Marcberg, and that’s how I got on that album. He said ‘let’s do an introduction, show the world how we sound together’.
We kick it all the time, if not every day then every other day. We started working on Metal Clergy [Ka and Roc Marciano’s group name], the project is called Piece Be With You, like the hammer piece [gun]. You know how they say in Catholic religion ‘peace be with you’, so it’s like piece be with you.
Same kind of duality you have with the bullet.
Exactly, I like to have a lot of double meanings in my work. We got about 9-10 songs together. I think the album is a special album. I find myself listening to that a lot too.
Is it done?
The album is not done. I think we’re 80% done, Roc says we’re about 70% done. The shit is dope man. I know everybody thinks they’re the dopest, and I know everybody ain’t dope. But that album is dope.
You and Roc had a somewhat similar trajectory of career, you both started out in the mid 90s and you both progressed since then. The same way you’ve worked on your craft and improved, it seems like he’s done the same. He had joints with the UN, but maybe didn’t stand out as much…
AAAAH not exactly…. See I was wack in Natural Elements (the surrounding crowd protests in unison), and on Nightbreed my man Kev is dead nicer to me (the crowd disagrees again). On UN, I heard Roc and I thought that kid is special. So I think as far as timeframe it might be the same, but I think he’s been special for a long time. It took me a little while to come into my own, but I have it now.
What do you think differentiates you two, considering you have a similar style and approach to music?
Ka: I think the difference between me and Roc is… when you listen to Roc the first time you get it, you hear it and you think it’s special, its dope. I don’t have that. You gotta give me like 5 listens. It takes about 5 listens, and if you’re not patient enough to listen for those 5 times then you’re gonna think it’s a wack verse or that it was alright but kinda boring.
It’s funny because the people that really fuck with me and the people that don’t fuck with me, they argue. The ones that do say ‘you’re buggin the fuck out that verse was crazy’ and the others just think ‘that verse was regular, what did he even say there?’ But with Roc you hear it on the first try, something slick and something funny that makes you go ‘what? what the fuck was he saying?’ With me it’s more like ‘ohhhh wait hold on, damn, I get it….’
I like that, I think with the album you’ll hear that. It will make the album exciting. You’ll get the first hit off of Roc, and from listening to him on repeat you’ll catch up to me too. You’ll say ‘oh Ka sounded alright too’. That’s all I ask for.
It’s like taste buds. If it’s sweet and spicy, the sweet comes first and then all of a sudden you get the spicy come at you… I be the habanero, it’s all good (Ka laughs).
On the topic of other similar rappers, we talk about our mutual appreciation of AG’s recent creative resurgence which has also been marked by an age-wizened perspective. Somehow that turns into a discussion of progressing the classic 90s rap sound. One of the people in our group mentions how Ka’s music differs from that formula and I take the chance to talk about this more directly…
Alex: You obviously come from the pedigree of 90s rap, but what you’re doing doesn’t feel like a throwback. It feels more like you’re pairing it down to the essence.
Ka: I’m honored that you say that. Of course I love 90s rap. ‘88 and ‘95 are arguably the two best years in hip-hop. With me personally, I give ‘95 the edge, there’s just something about it. And I lived through both eras. I was already in high school in ‘88, in ‘95 I was already in the streets. Of course I’m influenced by ‘95, but it’s 2012. I couldn’t give you the ‘95 sound with the same ‘95 feel. I want to give you the ‘95 feel with the 2012 sound. Some people say I did it, and I’m glad some people are equating it with the new New York sound. I like that sentiment, I like that I’m part of that movement. I’m not the only one – Roc Marciano is doing it, AG is doing it, there are a lot of other cats doing it. I just like that I’m even mentioned in it. ‘Oh yea Ka, what about Ka’… that’s all I want, that’s all I’m really doing it for. I’m not trying to be a star of this shit, I just want to be part of it.
The movement is a good movement, but the sound we love is close to death, people don’t really respond to it like they should. We’re bleeding on these songs. These aren’t just verses, these are months. I spent a month in a hook, and then another two months and another hook. Those are moments in life. For people to not really appreciate it, to dismiss it… as an artist it’s kinda hard. But to know that somebody in their room right now is listening to my shit, or listening to our shit collectively, thinking ‘those dudes are the truth right there’ – that makes me go home tonight and finish that song I’m working on right now that’s gonna fuck them up for the next joint [album].
The crowd floats questions of possible collaborations, I mention AG, someone else mentions Alchemist. Ka likes all these ideas but is typically humble and reserved about them.
Ka: I’d love to but right now I’m still up and coming. I’m not sure many heads would even know who I am. When it gets to a certain point when they know me a little… if I get invited to something that’s dope, yeah. AG is a vet, if he even knows I exist that’s a beautiful thing. I’d be honored if Alchemist offered to do a joint with me. But also, at the moment I’m waiting on beats from anybody that knows and appreciates my sound and thinks ‘Ka would body this.’ And I’m trying to do it myself too. This album [Grief Pedigree] WAS self-produced.
This turns conversation toward production, and somebody asks for more details on Ka’s process and progress in this area. Natural Elements producer Charlemagne is referenced as a possible early influence. We also note that Ka’s previous album Iron Works featured only 2 of his own beats.
Ka: I learned a lot from Charlamenge. He was a talent. He would flip samples in ways that made you go ‘damn, that was the sample?’ I myself never had the intention of being a producer, I couldn’t give a fuck about that, I just wanted to be the best rapper on my block. But then necessity comes into play. I don’t want to start asking people for beats, begging for them, and then a producer gives me something half assessed because they’re keeping their best for whoever is hot at the time. So I started fucking with the beats myself.
I started doing it, and again I was not good at all. Then I started learning my own sound a bit. Roc Marciano helped me out a lot; he showed me how to dig. That was an honor. Aside from Roc being an ill writer, he is a dope producer. His beats are crazy. He told me ‘you already got an ear, you rhyme so you know what you want to rhyme on, go find it’. And he was right, and that’s how I got to Grief Pedigree, to the decision to do it all myself.
Alex: So the minimal style of production you use, that was a deliberate conscious choice?
That style is definitely intentional. I don’t want my music overproduced. I want to be the last instrument on the track. That beat aint done till I’m on it. If you play my album with no vocals, it might be boring to you. You’re waiting for me to get on it, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. If I get beats from another producer, he’s giving me dope shit that’s already done and I feel like I don’t even need to be on it because it’s already done.
So who/what do your next album to be? What you were just talking about, you knowing what you want to be, describe it in short.
Ka: I want to be the hip-hop version of Sade. You know how you put her on, you’re going through something fucked up, you put Sade on… (pauses)… I love that lady. She helped me through a lot of shit. I want to do that for anybody who wants a hip-hop version of it. I want to be that for them. She wasn’t like Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey and that’s cool. Sade is that shit thought, steady coasting. Every album was crazy. And she’s still that shit, she’s still doing it, still on the radio.
Would you be cool with having a career like her? Put out albums once in a great long while and just chill on that and let it sit?
Ka: I would love a career like that. My problem with the current attitude is that everybody is coming out with too much music too fast. You gotta miss me. You gotta be able to miss an artist. You come out with something, next week another one, then between albums you got three mixtapes… how am I supposed to miss you? How am I supposed to be ‘damn I wanna hear that new whatever shit.’ I want people to think ‘where the fuck is Ka, I haven’t heard a [new] album from him in 3 years?’ And then all of a sudden you hear I got something new on YouTube and you feel it’s coming again and you feel excited again. I want people to miss me.
And this isn’t even all intentional, I can’t write that fast. What I’m writing takes a long time. Because I have to live it. I can’t just come with a song every week. If you’re a listener of me I hope that you don’t expect to hear a million mixtapes, because I’m gonna disappoint you. I’m sorry. I craft my music, it takes a long time. I do it and I think it aint right and do it again, and again. I’m looking for perfect rhymes.
So when do you think the next album is coming out?
Iron Works came out in 2007, so it’s been five years from the previous to this one. Hopefully I don’t gotta wait that long. I started digging already for the next album. But then you don’t have to wait that long anyway because I’m doing that joint with Roc Marciano. So I got something in between this one and the next one.
When is that [Metal Clergy] coming out, any idea?
I have to wait for when his joint comes out, then we’ll start chopping on the 20% or 30% that’s not done yet.
Are you on his next album too?
Ka: Yea I got blessed with a little cameo.
At this point I step away for reasons of practicality and politeness. My hands are literally frozen around the recorder, I have gathered almost an hour of tape, and there are others around braving the weather with questions of their own. Still, I feel no urge to leave. At some point during the afternoon, being there with Ka and a group of friends and strangers has taken on a familial quality. In that moment, in that place, we are a fellowship. Even as some splinter off and disappear into the night the spirit of camaraderie stays, permeating what by now ceased to be an interview and has become simply a conversation among music fans. Nobody is taping anything anymore; we are now shooting the shit in a way that’s never meant to be on record. We talk about current trends and past glories, exchanging ideas about how rap music has evolved and where it’s going. An indeterminable amount of time passes.
And then it’s done. Reality invades our little rap bubble, and we all realize we still have things to do, and we go our separate ways. As I leave I glance back up toward the former Fat Beats windows, and despite many long years of avowed cynicism I do feel a sudden twang of … something. Regardless of the past, on this day we made a tiny piece of our own hip-hop history happen on that very spot.
KA: I just want people to know this is not bullshit, when I’m talking it’s real. If you don’t like the sound then hopefully you like the feel. I know music is both sound and feel. I want to have a pure sound and a pure feel. I’m hoping it comes across. I’ve been doing this since I was a little baby; I want to be doing this till I’m an old-ass man. I want to be doing this forever.