First Look Fridays: Ka From Brownsville

Brownsville-bred rapper Ka in a still from his self-directed video for "No Downtime"

A “first look” at Brooklyn MC Ka is actually more like a long, unflinching gaze. A quick listen to his austere, stream-lined lyrics, or just a brief glance at his self-directed videos (like “No Downtime,” premiered here) will pull you right in. No fluff, frills or facade to see past, Ka gets straight to the point. In his recently released album Grief Pedigree, (out now–purchase on iTunes) Ka’s storytelling is unwaveringly honest and unapologetically straightforward, offering an unusually calm, level-headed insight into a tumultuous world.

Ka has been writing rhymes since his childhood. But–although listeners of Stretch & Bobbito’s legendary rap show on Columbia University’s WKCR FM may recognize him as a member of the group Natural Elements with L Swift and Mr. Voodoo–he has remained for the most part under the radar. And maybe staying out of the limelight is precisely what gave him the space to develop a sound that is both “conscious” and “street.” This is where Ka strikes genius—paying scant attention to the categories that have polarized hip-hop culture, he draws connections that most don’t, bringing together strength and vulnerability, confidence and humility, ambition and patience. Ka straddles these divides by sincerely giving-a-f**k where it counts, and supremely not-giving-a-f**k where it really doesn’t matter.

On the eve of his performance at the infamous Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival (tomorrow at 4pm in dumbo, BK alongside Busta Rhymes and Clear Soul Forcesfull details here) OKP had the chance to sit down with Ka and discuss his music, and naturally he immediately delved into deeper issues like the struggles of working independently as an artist, the social issues plaguing hip-hop youth, and redefining masculinity in the hood. His matter-of-fact tone was a breath of fresh air in the hyper, ego-driven scene that has become the norm in the music industry, and his candid wisdom shows art is more than an avenue to fame and fortune, but a vital tool for self-definition and healing.

When asked recently (backstage at The Roots Picnic) what he thought about the current state of hip-hop, Yasiin Bey FKA Mos Def replied simply: “Listen to Ka from Brownsville.” Read on to find out just what he’s on about.

OKP: What was your process for making Grief Pedigree?

KA: I got a late start, I thought it was all over. But I was like you know what? I want to do it and I love it. It wasn’t feelin’ like none of the art was speaking to me, so I said, F**k it I’ll do my own music. That’s how the first album came about, and then I was like I got more sh*t to talk about, so I went back in there to do it again. I have to do it. if I’m not doing music, I feel like something’s not right in my life…it’s kinda bugged.

OKP: What inspired the title Grief Pedigree?

KA: I always liked the term ‘pedigree.’ Like when you’re talking in the hood you say “You know my pedigree,” meaning you know where I’m from, you know what I’m about. I always liked that sentiment. My road has been kind of rocky, I’ve lost a lot, I’ve lost friends and family members. I’ve never really had a nice, clean run of just good times. Like I’m still trying to recover and then something else happens. I was in a constant state of regret and grief. So I said fuck it, that’s just my life, that’s my pattern, why not claim it.

OKP: Speaking of which, where are you from?

KA: I’m from Brooklyn, Ocean Hill, Brownsville. Saratoga, that’s my block. The world don’t know where that is, but I say it like everybody’s supposed to know. Just growing up and being proud of where you’re from, it’s bittersweet. I love that I’m from that block and I hate that I’m from that block. I love that I’m from there and I survived it, but that block brought me a lot of– grief (laughs). But it’ll always be in my heart. I grew up there till I was 21, 22 and then I moved to the Stuy. I’m still in BK, but I’m not in the most treacherous neighborhoods anymore, I survived all that and I want to live in peace now.

OKP: How does that influence your music?

KA: It’s in it all. I wouldn’t want you to listen to a song and not know where I’m from. It’s not like I’m saying “Brownsville-Brownsville” every song–or even Brooklyn on every song. I’m looking for a feeling. I want my sound to be synonymous with the place. You know how a certain area has a sound? Like you don’t have to know where every artist is from to be like that’s a Southern artist, or that’s a California artist. I want people to be like that is a Brooklyn/Brownsville artist right there.

And I want my own stable sound. I guess cause I’m older and I’ve been doing this since I was a child, I’ve been writing all the way from the 80’s up to now, and I’ve been through so many transitions of different styles, trying to hone my skill, my style. And I got to thank all the rappers that came before me that was doper than me, that made me be like, Damn my last rhyme was corny, I gotta get better.

OKP: Who were some of those artists?

KA: Everybody influenced me. From the commercial rappers to the most underground rappers, to the rappers that you’ve never heard of that was just from my block, the cats around the way. I won’t name one because I can’t name them all. Everybody that’s ever rhymed before, and people that have never rhymed, people that tell me they listen to the music and they are inspired by it. And the other aspects of the art, the dancers and DJs and anybody that fucks with hip-hop, the writers. If you love the art and you do it with any kind of passion, I’m automatically inspired by you. I want to give you something to dance to, I want to give you something to feel, I want to give you something to write about, I want to give you something to DJ.

OKP: How did you get to where you are now, musically speaking?

KA: Initially I wanted to do it like everybody wanted to. I wanted to be Slick Rick, I heard “Ladi-Dadi” and it fucked me up. I was like this is crazy and I want to be doing the same type of sh*t, of course I was nowhere near the skills of that man, I believe he was a genius. But instead of doing it off the top of my head I was like, I gotta write this down, I’m gonna start writing my shit down. I didn’t know how to write rhymes, I was writing like a book, written out like an essay. Writing it like that, I was always having a problem. If I put a paper down for some time and picked it back up, I didn’t know how to rhyme it. Because I didn’t write it in the right form, I was just doing it on my own. Then my boy who also rhymes, we were chopping it up and he had a book and he opened it up, and I was like “Whoah, your sh*t is all neat.” He was like “Yeah, you gotta write it like this, the end of the line has got to be the rhyme.” I was like “Thank you, man” and I started writing like that. It was a blessing.

Now I’m doing what I love, but I probably could have been a doctor or a engineer. But in class, if the teacher said something I was interested in, I automatically started thinking about a rhyme, it was like a curse. It just started consuming me and I started writing and writing and I never stopped. And then it became not just writing, I would write to escape certain things. If I was going through something, I would just write it down, just to get it out. I couldn’t stop, because everyday I’m walking and I hear something and I’m like “f**k” a rhyme will just come into my head now. I don’t fight it no more, I just walk around with a recorder.

I’m not really into the fantasy kind of rap. What I really feel, the shit that really inspires me, that shit gives me goose-bumps, is the rap where I feel like a man or a woman is really exposing themselves on a track. That’s the kind of music I want to do.  Shit where while I’m doing it, I’m getting emotional while I’m writing. That’s how I know if something is good or not, if I’m in the room by myself crying while I’m writing, it’s probably a good rhyme, (laughs) you might not hear it because it’s too revealing, but that’s a good fucking rhyme to me. Or if I start laughing like “Oh sh*t, wait ‘til they hear this.” I want to make perfect rhymes. I don’t want people to go back like “what was all the hype about?” I want my sh*t to be forever rhymes, with triple, quadruple meanings, layers. I rhyme to live. If I’m not being myself, what’s the point? I’m a grown ass man now, I have no problem showing weakness and showing strength. It’s the yin and yang. It’s part of life.

OKP: What does it mean to you to be a grown man?

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