Published Jan 01, 2006Who is this guy? This was the question asked by many heads back in 1994 when they first saw K-OS's "Musical Essence" video airing regularly on MuchMusic. The striking sepia-toned video, filmed in Toronto's Chinatown district, introduced K-OS's effortless blending of butter-smooth MCing and singing, and his jazzy, melodic production. At a time when there were few media outlets open to domestic hip-hop, videos were one of the only ways Canadian hip-hop artists could spread the word. The reaction to K-OS was a prime example, as he was vaulted from virtual obscurity to being earmarked as a promising artist to watch.
Now years later, he's finally emerging with his first full-length release Exit, and some people may again be asking "Who is this guy?" But given his experience with the music industry and the artistic growth he's experienced in the intervening years, he's not your typical debut artist. His time in and out of the public eye has allowed him to mould a sound that explores many avenues and influences but is still rooted in hip-hop. In a way, the career setbacks and soul-searching have helped him to assert his own artistic identity. In short, he had to ask himself the very same question before he could even begin to answer it on record.
K-OS, born Kevin Brereton, points to a portion of childhood living in Trinidad as a key period in his musical journey. Missing Canada, he surrounded himself with music and maintained a limited connection with North America via Top 40 radio. He began singing, emulating artists like Terence Trent D'Arby and Michael Jackson. Returning to Canada as a teenager, he found hip-hop culture was in full effect. "I was feeling a little bit out of the loop," he says sipping on sangria and orange juice at Toronto's Rivoli. "So when I came back to Toronto, dealing with a little bit more of an urban setting, I was like Wow, this is what happened to music when I was gone.'"
He began to hang out with friends who would rhyme in ciphers and was asked to sing hooks. Eventually he was persuaded to start rhyming and despite difficult forays he describes as a "rite of passage," he was encouraged to continue by friend Nigel Williams, who is now the MC in the jazz-funk band the Pocket Dwellers. Despite the fact his voice did not possess the raw unvarnished quality that MCs like Biz Markie favoured (if they even dared to sing), he persevered despite being doubted. "I definitely knew that hip-hop was my way to express what I wanted to say and I think that's what drove me," he says. "Necessity is the mother of invention and the necessity to say something couldn't be contained in a singing song. The measure and the rhythm of it was more conducive to being on the surface or metaphorical. In hip-hop you can say the, and, the, and. You can speak your words."
He also got encouragement to pursue his blend of singing and MCing from hearing Q-Tip experiment on a few tracks of A Tribe Called Quest's classic sophomore effort The Low End Theory. The Native Tongues collective that, along with A Tribe Called Quest, included the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul were very influential to K-OS. "My father wasn't around at the time, he was at work in Trinidad," he says. "They say that when boy's fathers aren't around they make their own heroes. I think the Native Tongues kinda embodied positivity, organic black music, things my father did like, so I just gravitated to that." However, when his father returned, he basically told K-OS that if he pursued music rather than school he would not be able to live at home any more. Consequently, K-OS jumped to Carleton University in Ottawa where he took courses in Islam and music theory, yet continued to work on music. Taking an EPS sampler to a friend he knew in a 24-track studio, they covertly recorded tracks together at night. Among the songs he recorded in these sessions, was "Musical Essence," a song made from the first beat he created.
After half a year at Carleton, K-OS came back to the Toronto area to attend York University and found that many of his artist friends, like many independent Canadian hip-hop artists at the time, were trying to secure VideoFact grants. He applied for a grant, was accepted, and filmed a video for "Musical Essence." The video was soon getting regular rotation on MuchMusic. Having pleased his father by going to school, K-OS left York as soon as "Musical Essence" broke he was already paying more attention to music than books.
He remembers the responses of some people to the track. "It was like Where did this guy come from? This guy's from Whitby!' After that people started to ask me to go on tour. It was kinda overwhelming at the time, but in another way it was a great response to get from the first beat you ever made." But not all feedback was positive. The tour he was asked to join was the 1995 Hip-Hop Explosion tour, one of Canada's first cross-country hip-hop jaunts, but K-OS encountered some resistance at the Toronto stop.
"The negative feedback came to its peak at this show I did with the Rascalz and Ghetto Concept," says K-OS. "These guys read this article where I was asked where I lived, instead of Trinidad, and I must've spent a year or two living in [Toronto's] Flemingdon Park and the Don Valley area. These guys were like He's not from my area!' If I was from the area and sounded like Mobb Deep it would've worked, but at that time, I was so positive that it felt like I was bringing too much of a happiness to the area." The dissenters ended up bum-rushing the stage and the incident sparked a period of deep self-reflection for K-OS.
"That's when I first started to break out of my hippie love thing. I realised there were people who had an adverse reaction to love," he says. "Not that they didn't want to be loved because of some pseudo African-Canadian complex. It was because it didn't feel right to them, it felt like you were misrepresenting them. That's the time I felt, well maybe hip-hop isn't just how I see it." He felt an obligation to fine-tune his work so that, while others may not always like it, they would respect it. His self-analysis was reflected in "Elemental," a collaboration with Toronto hip-hop producers Da Grassroots that eventually appeared on their 1999 album Passage Through Time.
While some didn't get what K-OS was doing, many people recognised his talent, including veteran basketball player John Salley. The former Detroit Piston was playing for the then-fledgling Toronto Raptors franchise in their inaugural 1995-'96 season. Salley, already known for his involvement in entertainment ventures, was the presenter when K-OS won a MuchMusic Video Award for "Musical Essence," and started to school him on the industry, eventually becoming his manager. Through Salley, K-OS got to work with former Tony! Toni! Toné! and Lucy Pearl member Raphael Saadiq, a producer who'd worked with D'Angelo and A Tribe Called Quest. A video for the song "Rise Like The Sun" began to air, bringing K-OS more attention from record labels, including an offer with BMG. Just as he was ready to sign, a change in upper management nixed it. Despite this, he continued working on his planned debut, called Missing Links.
"There were a lot of missing links, that was a good title," he jokes when I mention trying to set up an interview that never happened for an album that never came out. "I guess a lot of links got missed." Despite not having a record deal, K-OS was now a recognised figure and he wrestled with balancing his personal beliefs with the demands of the music industry. "I went through a lot of mental checking, cringing, thinking Should I have said this? How shall I dress? How do people perceive me?' And yet still have the firm family base, the religiously philosophical base to keep God or something bigger than you as the focus," he says, referring to the influence of his Jehovah's Witness parents. K-OS eventually withdrew from the industry scene, marking a significant change in his approach and attitude. "After the BMG thing happened, seeing how the issue went, I was like, I just wanna make beats,'" he says. "I started to go into this deep finding myself stage and thought I'm never doing this unless it's on my terms.'"
He began to study Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judiasm and Rastafarianism among other things, coming to some personal revelations on his own. "First of all I stayed away from the industry, I stayed away from people in general," he says. "I started to study all religions and try to make some sense of that. But more than anything I started to get in touch with what I really wanted to do, not what I was supposed to do and I think that's the definitive point in everybody's life." After spending a few months staying with Salley in L.A., he was eventually convinced by the Rascalz's Red 1, whom he'd befriended on the Hip-Hop Explosion tour, to come to Vancouver. Working out of the Rascalz's studio programming beats, K-OS received encouragement from the group and their Figure IV collective. "It was good having a bunch of people around you, the first time I had a crew," he says. "I thought These guys are feeling it and they're pretty critical.' I never had a crew cos I was always a bit self-conscious about my difference from everyone."
During this time he contributed to the Rascalz's 1999 album Global Warning, slinging a thoughtful verse on the single "Top Of The World" and singing the hook of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" on "Fallen." But despite the support of the Figure IV crew and management, K-OS felt his music falling into the trap of doing what he was supposed to do. He drafted an acoustic guitarist, planning to record songs rhyming over guitar. In about three days, he recorded 11 songs with this approach.
In 1999, at an urban music showcase during Toronto's NXNE festival, he took to the stage with Vancouver band Namedropper. The powerful set drew on K-OS's charismatic stage presence and a diverse musical palette that previously hadn't been hinted at in his music. Ending with the band kicking out the jam and K-OS furiously head-banging, the performance roused the notoriously aloof industry crowd. It also helped to set in motion the circumstances that have finally led to his debut full-length release. The acoustic tape he recorded had been circulating, and he began performing in record company offices with Namedropper guitarist Russ Klyne. It soon became a matter of which deal to sign; he eventually settled with Capitol in the U.S.
Having recorded constantly by the time he got the deal, K-OS had a better sense of himself as an artist than the last time he had dealt with a major label. His soft-spoken tone has become more definitive and forthright, his eye contact more concentrated, as he states views on his artistic expression. "I think the definitive point came when I gave myself over to the fact that I'm not American," he says. "The fact that in Toronto, we're all first generation something and we're kind of awkward, and we don't really have a slang or way of speaking. I just put that on tape, with my influences," he says. "Whether it was Tribe, Fugees, John Lennon I was listening to a lot of Beatles at that time Radiohead, all that stuff. I just put it in a big pot: here it is. If you don't like it, then maybe you don't like what Canada does, cos this is what I think the majority of people listen to."
While K-OS defined his approach, he was simultaneously dismayed by the increasing commercialisation of hip-hop culture and the lack of avenues for music closer to the genre's origins. His dismay was deepened when he believed one of his own musical influences had shirked these values to go for the fast buck, something outlined on his track "Freeze." Astute heads will recognise that the song cannily features several Q-Tip rhymes from different A Tribe Called Quest songs and K-OS's contention "You used to rock/Now you paralysed it." Q-Tip has received a decidedly mixed reception to his post-ATCQ image and material and K-OS admits he wrote the song after seeing Q-Tip's booty-shaking "Vivrant Thing" video. But it's evident he regards him highly, confirming he was his favourite rapper and anticipates a rumoured ATCQ reunion. "It has those quotations," he says, "but when it's all said and done it's more trying to voice how I felt about hip-hop in general. But he had to be the catalyst because of all people, he represented organic hip-hop."
As "Freeze" demonstrates, a recurring theme on Exit involves the reinterpretation of something that already exists and recontextualising its meaning. "Fantastique" will get older heads hyped for its cribbing of a few lyrics from Special Ed's fantasy spy-themed narrative "The Mission," but K-OS's twist is in personalising the lyrics, applying them to his own artistic re-emergence. He combines this with an organic approach to the music most of the tracks are founded on acoustic guitar accompaniment and his voice, with any beats or samples added as layers over this foundation. Occasionally the arrangements remain sparse, as on the flamenco-style excursion "Follow Me," mirroring the stripped-down style of his recent live shows.
Recorded mostly in Vancouver, with Namedropper and with valuable assistance from DJ Kemo of the Rascalz, Exit travels down several sonic paths. Two versions of the song "Superstarr" underline this. The first version sports a quaking dub bass line and was spontaneously inspired by a documentary on reggae legend Peter Tosh, while "Superstarr Part 2"'s shiny guitars and polished production is more akin to emotional British pop-rock.
"The beautiful thing about language is that I have a whole diaspora that I can choose words from and then make my own language," he says. "If I got mad because I had to use these words, what good would that be? If I complain that I'm not using these words, then do I really want to communicate with people? Do I really want to say something? Look at music as if it's a language. Now, how can we use those words, those bass lines, those chords, those intonations to say what you want to say."
Given the stylistic breadth of the album, the underlying messages that ultimately bind the record together could be missed. K-OS refers to the music as "the clothes I'm wearing, so I can change," but lyrically the theme of how people can look beyond and escape the reality presented to them something K-OS no doubt marinated on during his time away is a recurring theme. On "Heaven Only Knows" he describes a robotic, mundane existence, urging people to use their own agency to seek truth for themselves. Even the love songs, such as "Higher" and the interpretation of Prince's "7," seem to reach beyond mere sentiment. As Pangea Project MC Kamau says on a spoken word interlude, "With love on our side they can barely stand against us."
But how willing are people to hear someone telling them these things on record? K-OS seems to realise that not everyone will want to listen. "How many times can you say Heaven Only Knows' to people?" he asks. "That's something you can only say once. You can't keep saying those things unless you somehow say those things in a different way." Conscious of sounding too preachy, the incorporation of these themes into Exit is subtle, subsumed into the musical presentation.
After bumping into K-OS last year on a TTC train, we briefly talked about how messages are delivered in music, mentioning how Dead Prez had co-opted the generally hedonistic Southern bounce sound and slapped their Marxist-informed rhetoric atop the beat on their single "Hip Hop" it essentially made the message of their music easily accessible. It's clear a similar aim informed the making of this record. Now K-OS talks freely about using what he calls a "pop sensibility." Not what he calls the "aesthetically top-heavy and image conscious" version of pop, but one that means popular reaching as many people as possible.
"My urgency is to communicate with people, it's not being liked," he says. "I'll use whatever language I have to to do that." While he has clearly made progress in finding out who he is and what his purpose is, he knows his faults and limitations are part of that equation. "The hardest thing for people is to grasp your message because you are a flawed individual," he says. "Even if you can go into a vocal booth for five minutes and make things seem pristine, you yourself could be desecrating that message. Why would you want to be called anything other than just a person who's trying to live up to those things?"