Published Feb 15, 2013Back from a four-year hiatus, Canadian hip-hop star k-os has returned with the double album Black on Blonde. Divided roughly in half along rap and rock lines, the album nevertheless incorporates k-os' inimitable meshing of styles of old-school rap tents mixed with pop and rock vocals. The album also boasts a number of collaborations, everyone from Canadian 80s pop star Corey Hart to Black Thought of The Roots and is a record k-os had been working on for some time. Exclaim! Caught up with k-os shortly after the album's release and the artist, who has never been shy to express his opinion had a lot to say.
You've been sitting on this record for a year and a half. Were there any temptations to change it a lot?
No, everything started happening on its own. I keep saying this, a lot of the collabos just came because there was so much time. People like Sam Roberts and Jay Malinowski and different people. If I was doing it in the regular span of a record I might not have got them on the record. You're talking about Sam Roberts, who has a family and stuff, it's like, okay, four months later he actually did hear the track, a month later he's like with it and then two months later he does the vocal, so that's like a six month period it took to get him on the record and I feel like you can't really rush a person like that, it's all timing. The same with Black Thought. I mean I've been trying to get on a track with him since 2008. So if the record didn't take that long to incubate, I don't think it would have gotten the depth of the perception of the guests that don't sound like just "Oh, let me hop on the track." These are like real collaborations and I feel like in history, in whatever, 100 years from now, people will look back on these songs and they'll stand the test of time. There are no real changes because things were happening so slowly that when the song lists started to come together I just knew that certain songs even in the order. On the black side I start very much with "trap music," with Corey Hart [on "Like A Comet (We Rollin')."] What I'm proud [of with] that record because it moves through pop and by the time you get to "One Time," it's just the beat starts getting grittier and then it's "Mojo On" and then "Spraying my Pen" and then you get to the Black Thought track. By the time you get to "Spraying my Pen," it's the antithesis of the first track. For me, making that album also what's being lost today is that you're taking people on a journey over ten, 12 songs as opposed to just dividing songs up on iTunes and people just grabbing it, which is cool too but again there were not many changes because those things happened naturally and I would also say I need a track like that like this and then I'd make one and it would fill the spot that's the good thing about having stuff for so long — things just sort of fell into place.
But it was calculated to say this album was rap and rock. I think a lot of people would say that "Aren't you already mixing those two?" Why would you want to break it up?
It's a good question, it's a good question. I think the easiest way to answer that question is on the rock side, it's "Sunday Morning" vs "The Dog is Mine." I think "Sunday Morning" got played on rock radio, people considered it a rock track. But "The Dog is Mine" is what happens when you are allowed to explore a little bit and you're not worried if a hip-hop aesthetic is going to be achieved. I feel like "Born to Run" and all these songs, I was concerned about throwing in a little breakbeat, a little funk groove into the music a little bit more because… or the guitars weren't as crunchy or electric because I wanted to make sure a hip-hop head would hear it and I would allow them into my space too. Because that hip-hop head is myself living in my own head and I'm like, I'll nod to it and I'm like, "Something's off here, this is like going towards… it's not fulfilling my hip-hop jones." So, a lot of my records were like that. Almost like a schizophrenia. Almost like someone psychologically just split the atom and said "OK, you don't have to do that anymore." It's almost like when twins are achieved, it's like two cells actually do split to make different people, but within the same womb. And I feel like that the best way to describe this record "The Dog is Mine" is what happens when you allow an artist [to] just go ahead and make some rock and roll music. Same thing with the Sam Roberts song ["Don't Touch"]. I'm specifically very proud of "Blondes," which is a song I did in five minutes, which is a demo that I came up with but inside of it, I was really vibing off songs like the [B-52's] "Rock Lobster" and certain songs from the '60s and those things were never allowed to make my record because I would be like "Where would this fit aesthetically?" Because, again back to what I said earlier, putting a record together, you want to make sure the listen is cool for people. So that was always my big factor, having like 20 odd songs in my playlist and having to pick 15 or 12 and I'd be like "Oh this can't make it." I won't even tell you the amount of sperm that didn't make it to the egg as far as songs that were made for Yes! or Atlantis or Joyful Rebellion simply because they didn't fit. But with this record I feel like I can put things in categories. It was really a concept that found me when I had six really cool hip-hop songs and about four rock songs. I was like, "what if I just did two records?" And I kinda got geeked off it in my apartment for a while, all excited, running around like "That's it!" It's like a eureka moment when you're like "Wow, I don't have to conform to like putting all this on one record. I think the double album format may work for me in the future as well, whether it's jazz and reggae, whether it's classical or just straight piano [or] a country record. All of these things I want to explore. That double format very much works for me. I always get jumped on for making future predictions on what I'm gonna do, but how I feel right now is that the double format really kinda works for me.
I hear what you're saying, but incorporating what might be termed authentic hip-hop seems to be really important to you. Other artists may be like, well this is just me and maybe i don't want to rap that much anymore — like Andre 3000 for example — and you're just going to have to follow me. But you're saying you still want to appeal to the person that only listens to hip-hop. How important is that to you?
My rap skills on this record have improved. I'm going through a period where I'm feeling confident with rap now. And I'm not saying I couldn't rap before. I'm saying now I'm just fully in my own persona. I got excited when I heard the demos, 'cos again you don't want to say too much in the interviews about how good you are. But any musician who is trying to improve their trade... If you're a carpenter, you know if you are building a house and you start to put bricks together, if you're doing it at a quicker pace and it's more symmetrical, you don't need to use certain instruments any more. You can see things. Same thing with rap. I felt that a lot of my lyrics were just coming to me, I wouldn't have to write as much stuff down anymore, or freestyle. So for me, I got excited and I'm like "Wow like I'm really confident with rap now," and that's also why I kept it in there because I think around Atlantis I listened to some of my raps on the song and I'm just like, "Ah, they're ok." To be candid even some of the raps on Yes!, I listen back and I'm like, I wasn't concerned about the rap. I was concerned about the song. I'm of the Quincy Jones school and it's ok to improve on a record, it's ok for people to listen to your old records and be like "wow he got better," because that makes you interesting. Because if you spend 600 takes trying to get it perfect, there's nothing to ascend to, y'know. So there's a lot of looseness on my raps on Atlantis, even on Joyful Rebellion. I think it was a bit more adamant proving I can rap and then like you said Andre 3000, like come with me on this journey of like Atlantis and "Sunday Morning" and "Born to Run" on Yes! is a similar thing. but rapping against dudes like Saukrates on that Natalie Portman track really helped me because you realize, you know he rapped first on that track and the first time I was in the studio, I was like "Nah I gotta come again," until finally I sent in my verse to him and he's like "Dude you're killing it." So he helped me out a lot as well, having him as a partner has improved my rap skills and that's why I continue to honour him by putting him on my records and showing the world that he's like probably the best I think in [Toronto] , y'know and spearheaded Canada and spearheaded the movement, quiet as kept. So Soxx has been a big kind of, like Raekwon would say when I met him, he helps me add on, you know, you gotta keep adding on to your skills. That's how Raekwon put it when I first met him. As long as you're adding on to stuff then you're getting better, so that's why I think the rap is important because I felt really confident about my rapping on this record. and a couple of people who are hip-hop heads, a couple of people in reviews I've read, people echo that as well. It makes me smile, because you know then OK , cool, you're in tune with yourself.
You did mention Saukrates there, "Spraying My Pen" is a track with him, and Shad on is on it too. In terms of Canadian hip-hop artists, it's a pretty strong lineup.
It is the line-up. That line-up isn't going to be beaten for a long time. I'll put it out there. I think that song is going to go down in history as the thing to beat as far as "The Symphony" song in Canada. I know we have some great ones. I think "Hate Runs Deep" [by Saukrates and Marvel] is cool but as far as just going in for 32 bars just straight rapping, that's gonna be a tough one to outdo, I feel. I feel lucky to be on that track. But you go ahead.
Well, all I was going to say was that musically it's very interesting and very minimalistic and makes you focus on the lyrics. How did it come about?
I can tell you I made that beat one afternoon. I gotta shout out [Toronto DJ] Kaewonder for his record collection and he informed me, we won't get into it, informed with some sounds and I kinda chopped up some stuff and I just had the raw music done. And I sang the hook and then I dropped a verse on it and then I kept it. And I played it for a couple of people and they were like "That's fire." It was just me on it at that time. The [album] came near to being finishing up and I went back to the song, I'm like "You know what? Let me hand this over to professionals. So I handed it over to Nick from [Toronto production crew] Da Grassroots, who just added some drums for me and that ended up making the track. He's so subtle with it, being a Grassroots lover and understanding hip-hop drums, so when you add it to my music it's almost like a lullabye/quiet storm canvas that allowed me to just rip it. And then I gave it to Soxx and I was like, "You start this off." And he just ripped a crack in the whole song. I scrapped my verse first and then I'm like, "I'm not rapping after him. Let Shad rap after him [laughs]," know what I'm saying? Shad is very much like a young lion, I don't think he even knows or cares who he is rapping after. He's just that guy right now. And I knew it and that was a perfect set up. That's the whole part of production people don't understand — arrangement, who raps after who, you know — and it left me, whose record it was on, to redeem it and make sure I came correct with my verse. So it's very much in the golden era when you want to feature somebody. You want the track to kind of bounce through the whole thing and I'm just lucky we got Da Grassroots, to Soxx through to Shad. We basically covered a generation of hip-hop in, whatever, four minutes, and I really like the song. Super proud of that one, and getting a lot of comments on that track.
A lot of people just worked on that one record. Is there a core of people that you work with?
A lot of it just starts with demos. ASR-10. Kardi uses it, RZA used it. What I do is assemble everything in the ASR-10 and I just build from there. As far as everyone on the record, I've either toured with or I hang out with [them]. There's no one on this record that I haven't had a deep conversation about life. Even Black Thought, the way I vibed with him on the Roots tour and the emails that went back and forth are always really, really... this isn't surface stuff, this is real love, you know what I'm saying? Like ?uestlove, he played my birthday party before, you know? The Roots are very much considered to be fam and vice-versa. I'm like a young Native Tongue version of them in Canada. I feel with a live band growing out of that culture and somebody that I'm friends with. From Emily [Haynes] back to Jay [Malinowski] who lives around the corner from me in Vancouver. I'll meet him at the local bar spot and we'll just go in on life and music. I'm about to do a feature on his record hopefully, so he's like gonna send me that and I'm going to do something. About all these people are friends, so yes, there's a core group of people, but I'm not just saying come and cough on the track. I feel like that's the big difference with me. I know there's been collaborative efforts for higher causes, but I really feel I'm the first guy, probably with "Dirty Water," to even contemplate having an indie rock artist on my music. I'm hard pressed besides the Judgment Day soundtrack back in the day when they teamed up with rock artists and the hip hop artists. That's very much been my ethos on every record. you know "Valhalla" [from Atlantis] had Kevin Drew, and Justin Peroff playing drums on that track. It 's always been part of my ethos to include the independent rock scene in Canada because I feel it's the same thing. You know the way the scene works and what's hot and what's the latest band, it's very much like underground hip-hop as far as understanding. I feel that it works the same way so sometimes people can collaborate with each other on the basis that they respect each other without having to be known in the mainstream. It's like "Oh, I checked your record because it was something I went online and sought out. Most of the records of the people I'm talking to, that's how I did it. I actually found those records and listened to them. I didn't need to be directed or there wasn't a big pop hit on the radio. Well, some of them were like Jay of Bedouin Soundclash had a huge hit, but a lot of the times these people I could have found them because we were just great friends you know.
I think we had a previous conversation where you did say BSS were kinda like the indie Wu-Tang
You know what I mean? And I find Emily [Haines] to be someone very much that I'm inspired by and that I get along easiest with, probably her and Justin [Peroff], but I find that musically the way that she approaches music and the seriousness of the way she approaches her vibe. I really respect that and it's a big muse to me so, I'd love to keep collaborating with her as long as it sounds natural you know.
You said the word muse and, I know it's not on this album, but the Natalie Portman thing. Did you ever like—
Ha! [ET Canada reporter] Rick Campanelli, I think when she was here for the Toronto Film Festival, you can kind of go in my Youtube section…
Oh yeah I think I did see that, when he played her the track...
Rick was like do you know k-os and she was like yeah I know of k-os. and the deeper story behind that is, well, I won't get into it, but she had known of the Rascalz and she liked the song ["Top of the World"] I did with them from way back. So when he's like, do you know k-os, she's serious. She's a hip-hop fan and he's like "Yeah, here's a song called 'I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman.' He wishes he knew you," and she thought it was kinda funny. But I didn't write that song so much to be like I want to meet her. More a statement on celebrity culture and it kind of worked out the right way because in saying that when everyone found out she got pregnant [and was getting married] I got all these texts "Too bad, huh?" Are you serious? You actually think I wrote that song because I had a mission? There's nothing about that video about her, there's nothing in the song about her. The title came because I wanted to call it — I couldn't call it "On the Run," because Soxx wanted to use that on his record and I couldn't call it "I Can't Make You Love Me," because there's a Bonnie Raitt song called that and everyone thought it was like blasphemy for me to call it that. So I kept on putting off the title and one morning I was in my bed hungover and my publisher was like "You've got to tell me a name right now." I'm like "I don't know, I wish I knew Natalie Portman." It was like "Are you serious right now?" I'm like "Yeah, I wish I knew Natalie Portman." And that was it. It wasn't even something I thought about. I think what had happened before I had a discussion the night before with how obsessed everyone had started to become with celebrity culture and I felt like by just naming it that, the song ended up on blogs and everyone wanted to know if I liked her and all this stuff. "Did I meet her yet?" And I was like "Wow, this is even a truer statement than I even said," because when you listen to the song and watch the video we don't reference Natalie Portman whatsoever. God bless her. She's a great human being and I'm a fan of her work on the screen and off, especially off the screen, but for the charity work she does and the good things she does, [and someone] that's part of my favourite movie franchise Star Wars as well and doing positive things for women in the community and doing things outside of her culture and I thought someone young people could look up to. It really had nothing to with me meeting her or wanting to meet her, it really had more to do with using that idea to get the song a little more attention and shine a light on how much people y'know... even when doing this record, the person who inspired a lot of these songs is an actress, and me and my publicist had to decide whether we wanted to let that be known, because we didn't want this record to be like that be the focus. I think that was a smart thing because no one is really focusing on that. They know there's love songs on the record. "The Dog is Mine and "Nyce 2 know Ya" are both subject matters dealing with women, but no one really cares who it's about, but candidly, yeah it's a well-known person, but that doesn't really matter. I learned my lesson with the Natalie Portman thing, just as I keep quiet about that, [I'll] keep my muses to myself.
OK, so I guess we're not gonna find out who it's about?
You've been spending time in L.A., right?
Yeah, that's why i was in L.A, 'cos I was like working at Hayden [Christensen]'s place and I was like seeing this person.
There is a link between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, for sure.
Yeah, they were in the same movie.
All I was going to say about that is, well, it's [Hayden Christensen's] house where you working on some of this record. So I just wanted you to talk a little bit about what that environment was like and being in L.A. working on the record.
That's a great question. Can I get into that? Because I think that's important. I spent a lot of time in a place called Laurel Canyon where the house was. It's very much a singer-songwriter's haven. You've got Graham Nash, you know Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison apparently had a house there. And the list goes on… Almost like the Batcave, I would leave this residence in the hills and go down to Melrose and where things were going on and I'd soak up this environment, just observing. It was just blowing my mind how the city operated and people's level of career orientation and then how many people were just trying to get theirs, get theirs, and the celebrity this, celebrity that so I was dealing with that for the first time. I'm kind of a known person in Toronto, but in Toronto, they don't have those systems. I don't walk down the street, people don't really…Canada doesn't really have a star system. It's not something that makes anyone any money, so people take at face value, like for real, they take people at face value no pun intended. But in L.A., I found myself going to certain parties and being seen at certain places and it was such a big deal, right? So I was dealing with that in Hollywood and being pulled into that reality and then going back up to this house at night, which was like an empty mansion, like ten, 12 rooms, probably more, writing songs and very much like "Nobody Else," "One Time," what else on that record? I would say "Nobody Else," "C.L.A." A lot of the pop stuff came from me being inspired by L.A.., listening to the local radio stations, how much pop-punk was existing in L.A. and I would listen to these punk radio stations and get hip to some of these bands I'd never heard of like late, late late at night radio stations and just catch a vibe off L.A, But in that there was still a duality because it was very much delving into Hollywood, there was a commercial side versus the beauty of the nature, the hills. I had a good balance. I was very, very blessed and lucky because I think if I was living on Melrose or off the core or North Hollywood or wherever it was I wouldn't make the same record. And then I get back to Vancouver after that whole thing and it's like "Wow!" It just allowed me to like put the icing on the cake as far as the record, as far as the songs. now I'm back home in Canada and a silence came over me, not the buzz, like everyone being so career-oriented, everyone is a little bit more laid back, they do things for a little more reasons. I very much have a lot of good influences on this record and that's why you hear the hodgepodge. I know someone at Exclaim! who reviewed my record said it was a jarring listen when you listen to the pop versus the more records that...a lot of Canadian critics and people want to hear from me or want to hear from hip-hop. Canada has a pop complex, they don't know how to deal with pop music, they don't know what to do when their indie people go pop because pop is bad here. They don't understand what that means. Someone like Justin Bieber who plays lots of instruments and is super talented won't be considered independent even though he's very much an independent artist, he started out on Youtube etc. etc., but as soon as you go pop you have less credibility and authenticity when pop is just a style of music to be covered. If you're a good musician you should be able to do a good pop song and then move on to the next thing, but Canada has a complex when they don't allow people to make pop music as art. And I feel that's why a lot of our musicians, a lot of our system sometimes can be boring. A lot of our music is boring sometimes because people are afraid to... even artists are internalizing that, if something is too pop they don't want to do it, no one wants to put their face on the album cover. Everyone's Justin Brooders, y'know, everyone's just so like, "I'm so indie, I'm so not gonna show my face," but at the same time it's like, you don't get it. I got into music to have fun. I'm very much super proud of the movement [on BLack On BLonde] from the Corey Hart, trap music, a beat done by Kemo from the Rascalz to "Spraying My Pen," I think that movement is historically gonna be shown that , you can do pop and dirty, nasty underground Black Thought hip-hop and that vocal I do on that song is recorded on an iPod headphone in my computer — that's how raw that is. But then you go to a song like "C.L.A." or "Nyce 2 Know Ya" and those songs are big studio songs — T-Minus did "Nyce 2 Know Ya" — so I got all that on my record. Like that's my statement on the black side. You can be pop and you can be underground. You don't have to choose, but unfortunately people want you to choose and anything that's dispelling or any comment people are making about the record, they are always like is like "Oh it's so pop, he went for these big pop songs." It's like yeah, why not? We're musicians. It's like if it was jazz would it be more credible? Because it went to the jazz arena, would people be like that would be more credible for me to try, if it's pop all of a sudden it doesn't have the same credibility. I really think that Canada needs to reinvestigate their relationship with pop music and stop putting people just 'cos they're pop artists not in the same credibility range as people who make gritty underground, maybe less lo-fi , more lo-fi music. That doesn't make it cooler. Sometimes that just makes it more boring. So I had to sound off on that because I knew I'd be talking to you, that was one thing I wanted to bring to the interview, that I wanted to talk about based on the specific review of my record — which, I thought was a great review but I don't know why it's so jarring to hear somebody doing pop music versus underground music. That's a great achievement if you can pull it off. Unfortunately not many people can pull it off.