Big Daddy Kane's impact on hip-hop culture is incalculable. It would be impressive to only note that Kane recorded certified classics such as "Raw," "Set It Off" and the irrefutable "Ain't No Half Steppin'," all culled from the seminal 1988 long player Long Live The Kane. But the Brooklyn-born MC, along with MC Shan, Masta Ace, Craig G, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante and legendary producer Marley Marl, was also a member of the virtually impregnable Juice Crew, arguably the prototype for the modern hip-hop collective. Kane was also a trendsetter who oozed swagger a full two decades before MCs began to overuse the term, with his unmistakable high-top fade cut and his playboy image. Yet behind the style there was serious substance. With his lightning fast delivery, willful manipulation of the English language and his innate gift of gab, Kane is indisputably one of the best MCs to ever do it. Recently, he performed at a 20th anniversary celebration of his career and is embarking on a mini-Canadian tour this month, showing and proving his ongoing relevance. Word to the Mother.
You're one of the very few MCs to put a live song on their album ["Wrath of Kane" on It's a Big Daddy Thing]. How important is your live show?
It's very important. I feel that it's very, very important. I feel that in the music industry there are so many artists it's easy to be forgotten because it's so cluttered. But if you're a great live performer what happens then, it's now like... it becomes a manner of an energy selling. It's bigger than just the song. You have your artists like a Public Enemy or a 2pac they have songs that touch you because of things that are happening in your life. It makes people like you in a way that's bigger than the song.
Talking of bigger than the song, you were a member of the Juice Crew, which was one of the prototypes for crews we've seen in hip-hop onwards. What are some of the pros and cons in being involved in something like that?
At that point in time, the beautiful thing about it was radio access, 'cos Marley Marl and Mr. Magic had their own show on WBLS in New York. Also having a unit like that could create, like, a touring package. I mean it [was] a good thing.
Do you think as you went on in your career that you were restricted as an artist? You obviously had the R&B influences that you wanted to explore, but the heads weren't always willing to go there with you and on your third and fourth albums and you were still putting out good songs like "Stop Shammin'"[from It Looks Like A Job For...", stuff that a lot of people didn't really get to hear.
No. I mean, when you talk about "Stop Shammin'," that was a situation where the label at the time wasn't taking care of the project. I mean it was my last album [with them]; they knew I was getting ready to go over to MCA so they just really put the album out like, things are done. They had the radio buzz for "Very Special," they ran with that you know while radio was feeling it and after the buzz died they just pretty much forgot about the album. So therefore other songs like "Stop Shammin'" and other stuff on that album like "How U Get A Record Deal," stuff like that never really got the right exposure because they never wanted to push the album, because it was the last album [in the contract.] Now as far as the other stuff, a lot of the stuff that I probably tried, I tried a little too premature. You know, because by the mid-'90s, you know, it was like Puffy was making it with artists rhyming over disco and club beats and singing hooks. It was pretty much the same thing I was trying to do and everybody was ready for it then. And plus, I think he used a different approach, whereas his whole objective was making you dance. I didn't really have an identity for what I was doing. I was just basically doing music, so it wasn't the type of thing where I'm coming to you like saying "Hey what's up brother, I've got something new, this is some dance shit right here. This is gonna make you party." I'm just like "Here's the new Kane song." I've always called Puff like the greatest promotion person in this world - for himself and for his artists - better than anybody I've ever seen in my life. I mean he understood it from, I guess, from a marketing standpoint, whereas I didn't really know how to get it across to the people. I just knew how to make music.
Talking of contemporary artists, Jay-Z referenced you specifically on his song "Do it Again." I believe you guys worked together in the past. Did you ever see the potential for him to be where he is right now at that time?
Where he is right now? No. I saw the potential in him to be recognized as a great lyricist. Was he your hypeman? I'm not entirely sure what the relationship was?
No he wasn't a hypeman. What he was, was a kind of like what I would do with Biz [Markie] before I made records. I did [it] between the show, and he would call me out in the middle, so he could take a break. I would come out and rhyme for about five minutes. That's what would happen when I was on tour so I could take a break and do an outfit change. I would call Jay-Z and Positive K out on the stage and they'd just come out and rhyme, sort of like a cameo.
You also mentioned Biz Markie. People know you mainly as a lyricist, but you were writing for some other people and you were also were a producer, not a lot of people know all of these things. Do you feel you need credit for some of these things?
Did working with Biz help you with part of the persona others may not have seen because there was a lot of humour in Biz's stuff? That wasn't necessarily as prevalent in your solo work.
What it is, is don't get it wrong. It's not like I sat down and said "OK this will be a dope idea for Biz - a song called 'Pickin' Boogers,'" that wasn't the case. Biz would come to me and say "I want you to write me a song called 'Pickin Boogers.' You know real funny, you know about boogers. And in one of the verses I want you to be able to have me sing this: 'Hey mom what's for dinner. Go up your nose and pick a winner.'" This is Biz telling me this... "My rhyme flow it needs to be like this 'A zigga zigga zigga zigga zigga zigga-eyeah/A zigga zigga zigga zigga zigga zggga-pyeah.'"
I guess [Roxanne] Shante was a similar type of deal?
Nah, Shante was a little different. It was really like [Cold Chillin' label founder] Fly Ty [Williams] saying "Yo, Shante needs some real, real lyrics we can't do this no more." There's more female artists coming out at that time, [MC] Lyte, [Queen] Latifah... It was like Fly Ty, he was like a coach and a record exec, because you know prior to "Have a Nice Day" [note: written by Big Daddy Kane], Shante did all of that off the top of her head, like none of that stuff is written. She did it off the top of her head like from "Roxanne's Revenge" on up to whatever came before "Have a Nice Day." So she needed some written stuff. I was like, how do you want it?; you want it in the style that she rhymes in? Ty was like "Nah, I want it your style but I want her to be a female Kane." What I tried to do was go "Ain't no Half Steppin'" style , 'cos I knew what Ty wanted, but I knew that giving Shante all those words to say was going to be too hard for her. He wanted like "Raw," "Set it off," but I knew that was going to be too hard for her, so I gave her like Ain't any Half Steppin.'"
What's your relationship with the Juice Crew at this point, do you stay in contact with them?
Oh, yeah I just had my 20th anniversary [party]. Biz came; we did "Just rhyming with the Biz." [Masta] Ace and Craig [G.] came to do "The Symphony" and Marley [Marl] introduced it in the Ohio Players granny voice, like he does on the song. It was beautiful. Me and Biz we still do a whole lot of shows together, me and Ace talk every once in a blue moon. Me and Shante, we talk on the regular.
What does it make you feel in your achievements in hip-hop to know there's a documentary coming out about you?
Um, I mean it's cool. I mean it's always good to document your history. 'Cos for some strange reason black history has a tendency of getting lost. So I think it's beautiful to have the ability to document it.
How does it make you feel to have people say their fathers listened to you?
Yeah, like that's the funniest thing. A kid will be like "Yo, you're Big Daddy Kane? My father listens to you!" It kind of makes you feel like one of the Platters or Temptations or something. [Laughs] You feel like you're super old. But then again on the flipside it's cool to see like someone that's two or three generations after you excited. It's not that they're like "Who? So!"' It's like they're still excited to know who you are.
You were a very influential MC in terms of style? How do you think emcees are managing their images at this point and do you think they're better worse or just different?
You don't really mean MCs you mean rappers, right?
OK, go with that.
I'll say this. If you come on stage rocking the same LRG shirt and Ed Hardy jeans that two people in the crowd have on, then what makes you different than them? If you come on stage and on your song, you're the only voice on your song, but on stage you got ten other people, and two of them are hypemen screaming shit that you not even saying on the song....[trails off] I think that a lot of artists today don't understand the art of performing, of basically being stars. I remember, I'm not even gonna talk about rap artists right now, I'm gonna talk about R&B artists. With New Edition it would get to the point where kids would have their New Edition posters; say like it was in a household of sisters. Each sister would have also have an individual poster of the member of New Edition that they liked. Now that's star power. The type of thing when kids will go and buy your cassette tape twice or CD twice so they'd have one for the house and one for the car. The type of thing where when bootlegs was first poppin' and that's what people were doing, they were buying the bootlegs because they were cheaper. The only thing you get cheaper, you had chicks that wouldn't buy the bootlegs because it didn't have a picture and they thought he was fine. They wanted that picture. That's star power. Even in the sense of like Public Enemy, being able to make someone say "To hell with this jewelry, I'm gonna rock this Africa medallion." Ain't nothing sexy about that Africa medallion, but it's a powerful statement that people cared about and wanted to represent because they really felt the message in Public Enemy's music. That's being an artist, that's having that star power. And I feel that a lot of artists today don't necessarily have that and it really makes their careers deteriorate. It makes it that tomorrow they are forgotten artists.