Interview with k-os
by Jeanne Fury
His name is pronounced "chaos," but the letters in k-os's name stand for knowledge of self. The less disruption in k-os's life, the better. The artist, born Kheaven Brereton, has been working towards putting his self-realization to music since his debut, 2003's Exit. Aptly titled, the album was a mass exodus from what hip-hop represented at the time. K-os sang out against gangsta life, violence, and degradation and employed instruments as diverse as the two cultures he grew up in: Trinidad and Toronto. Exit was a magical mystery tour full of soul, dub, reggae, and dance elements, and was named International Album of the Year at the Source Awards. The following year saw the release of Joyful Rebellion, which again focused on what wasn't being talked about among hip-hop's big-shot lyricists. By illuminating the vulnerable, more complex corners of a rapper's psyche that others pretend wasn't there, k-os took the shine off of everyone's bling. And now he's back with Atlantis – Hymns for Disco, an album that features members of Death From Above 1979 (now defunct) and Broken Social Scene, indie rapper Buck 65, and others. The danceable rhythms and eclectic beats flowing through the tracks are weaved around k-os's wordplay in a psychedelic web of light and dark, all emitting the same message: know thyself. K-os recently spoke to Virgin Mobile.
VM: Your last album Joyful Rebellion was a response to the constrictions you felt by hip hop stereotypes: you have to be gangsta, riding on 50-inch rims, and kickin it at the strip club with a giant entourage. But here's you and it was honest really stood up to conventional wisdom. What was the aftermath of Joyful Rebellion for you like?
k-os: There was no real aftermath, I think. Whenever you have something passionate to say you almost in a way sorta believe that everyone wants to hear it. I think I felt disappointed outside of Canada because it was something that the Canadians were really feeling but I think in the U.K. and America, places where I have gone and love the culture and the music there, maybe it was a bit too strong of a statement for someone from Canada. People thinking, "Oh this guy's not even from America, is he dissing American music?" I didn't think there was an aftermath in my home country. In fact, in the streets of my hometown there's a certain level of understanding and respect for the things I said on that record. But I think outside of that, I don't know if people really got it, you know? Maybe I made some kind of alien music (laughs), which to music-lovers is always great. It can sometimes become a wet blanket if you actually enjoy what's on the radio and enjoying the party and here's some guy saying "hip-hop is this, hip-hop is that, hip-hop should be this, hip-hop should be that." So the aftermath is like a bit of embarrassment but now that I'm mature and now that I'm having a good time because I think the greatest lyricists are really subtle and they're really open-ended on the way they made their statement. They didn't force it down people's throats so that when a person was ready to hear that thing it was right there in the same song that they liked before but they might have been like "I didn't hear that part" and so that is what this new album. That last album ended up breeding that kind of persona in me that was a gift, that was the jewel that I was looking for on this new album like how to say the same things I'm saying with just as much passion but giving people a choice to swallow that if they wanted to as opposed to making it so clear in the music that it might even block them from liking the melodic sense and the grooves of the music because they're too caught up on some lyric that's just way too direct for the form of music that you're using whether it's dance music or hip-hop. It's jubilant music so if you're going to say something you kinda have to stick to the type of music that you're dealing with.
VM: Atlantis is getting a proper U.S. release soon, but it's been available for a while in Canada, so can you just tell us what was going on back when you were making the album?
k-os: I guess I have to be really honest because there was a dark cloud that was over my head from the last two records is that I broke up with my girlfriend of three years – the girl I wanted to marry – I broke up with her at the very beginning of my first record which was Exit. Both my records have it's a woman I happen to love a great deal and I think now looking back, not letting go of that also created an idea of pain and anger that was being expressed and protest. And this record, after touring and having success with my last record, I think I evolved a bit. I was having a lot more fun you know, I was going out more and meeting people hanging out with girls, doing things I'd do when I was a teenager and not thinking about the future, if I'm going to get married or is my life going to turn out to be something. I can hear that in the music now, that fluidity, that flow the whole idea of the blues and Atlantis those things have left me a lot of the pain that's being expressed like that song "The Rain" is my final statement on a situation that happened to me four or five or six years ago because I was actually aware enough to talk about it now. So I was being inspired by living a good life: having fun, going out, partying with friends, taking trips, driving through the countryside, all those things I used to do when I was a teenager before I was trying so hard to make a musical statement. I just lightened up a little bit. I was being inspired by the fun-ness of life.
VM: So it's kind of like how k-os got his groove back.
k-os: Yeah basically because I was looking at myself now and I laugh in a way that I haven't laughed. I know how this sounds, in hip-hop we're not supposed to be vulnerable people but I laugh and then I cry. I laugh because I can't believe I haven't laughed like this for so long. And then you have to think, "What is it in life that stops people from laughing like this?" It's basically yourself. Because you get caught up on things and the pain that happened. I'm not going to pontificate in this interview that everyone needs to be happy. I mean, we all need to go through what we need to go through to get to the other side. I'm just happy that I got to the point where I was ready just to stop being sorry for myself and enjoy the fact that I get to make music for a living. And hopefully that's reflected by how this record is received by everyone. And if it isn't then I can listen to it on my own and go, "That's fun, that was fun."
VM: You've admitted that you're insecure, and worried that people won't accept you for being different. But then you make Atlantis and your inclusion of indie artists and like Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979, Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, Sam Roberts, Buck 65 makes me think you don't care about what the hip-hoppers are gonna say about Atlantis.
k-os: Yeah I mean it's true. I was with these guys at a bar in Toronto and I see these dudes. You forget how good they are until you see them play because they're your friends and you're havin' a beer with them. But these are guys that I spent relentless hours with pontificating on the ramifications of the universe, you know? When it's time to get a drum part – you want a rock n roll drum part? You get Sebastien Grainger. You know what I mean? You want a certain harmonic feeling in the music? You call up Sam Roberts or Kevin Drew. And these guys showed up in a second. And there's always a fear, you know, because you're friends with people and you've never done music together and you hope that it turns out cool. But no doubt it was a representation of how I feel about my music. These are the people I hang out with; this is what I really sound like; this is what I dance to for right now. But you know what? I was also in the front row for the [early '90s hip-hop crew] Leaders of the New School concert and Wu-Tang Clan [concerts], getting crushed by the metal barricade. I grew up with the hip-hop kids, but that never stopped me... I think of the way the world was at that time–hip-hop was reaching out and touching everybody. I started in one place but I think I've always sort of been in denial about other influences and this record is definitely about taking other influences and weaving them, like sewing them into things I know for sure.
VM: Aside from the eclectic sounds on Atlantis – traditional hip-hop, r&b, soul, dub, whatever – it is such a beautiful record. In my mind, I kept going back to the fact that it's got some really beautiful music.
k-os: Yeah because one of my biggest worries with the music that I grew up with, which is hip-hop, is that you have these moments, like some song like "'93 Til Infinity" by Souls of Mischief or some song by A Tribe Called Quest or some beautiful De La Soul song and some of these songs never got out to the beauty and melodical sense that this music has. I feel that hip-hop is underrated that way. You can listen to Paul McCartney, or Bowie, or Thom Yorke. These guys they sing and it's got the beauty of the music as well as angst. That's always what I was looking for, that kind of good paradox or juxtaposition was beauty and angst and how they work together. How one hand washes the other if you do it correctly. Songs like "Black Ice" and "Cat Diesel" is me sitting in front of some crazy string composer going, "No it's kind of like this" and I'd hum it to him and he's like "Oh okay" and he's making a notation. Then you hear this thing that you hum being played by like 12 or 13 men and women playing these string instruments and it blows your mind. It all comes from a simple way of looking at things. And knowing and loving Al Green and Otis Redding and giving them a chance to maybe feel what they felt. That's where the beauty of the record comes from, for sure.
VM: You've said in print that you're a perfectionist, and it takes effort on your part to embrace your earlier work. Were you competitive with yourself like that as a kid?
k-os: I remember being 15 years old and waking up and going "Today I'm going to do everything perfect." I'd get out of my bed and walk perfectly to the sink. Try to wash the dishes, I'd be perfect. And it took so much effort, I was like, "Screw this! (laughs) This is no fun!" But what I find from that and having that memory from when I was a kid and having my mom and these crazy hair-brained things I tell her... As a kid I always had a new concept that I was going to deal with. I just think that music, in three-and-a-half minutes teaches that. My biggest problem is when I go into a bar and get drunk or something and people think, "Is this guy like his music at all?" I know metaphysically, psychologically because of the record button, you can go back and redo a song. When you meet someone for the first time, you can't re-edit the conversation. It's going to be you in real-time. So again, almost to take the edge off the arrogance and the ego of creating a good piece of work, for sure I'm a perfectionist. But I'm no way like that in my real life. I mean, I think in my real life I try to abandon myself so that when I do music, I can settle down. You know you have these things and you're about to leave the studio and [the musicians] are like, "Okay, anything else?" and you're like "Nah, it's cool." But then you run back in and you're like, "Can you fix this? Because it's really bugging me." (laughs) That's how I approach music. You're making something like food for people. Someone's going to take it and listen to it and you have to give them the best you can, you know?