Before Drake became best friends forever with every famous rapper on the planet, k-os was Canada’s best-known emcee. For nearly ten years and across four studio albums, the dreadlocked troubadour carried Canadian hip-hop on his shoulders (with some help from Kardinal Ofishall). But to call his musical style merely hip-hop would be doing it an injustice. K-os sings, he plays acoustic guitar and he doesn’t rap about bitches and bling. He borrows more from acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Wyclef Jean than from street rappers. In Canada, he runs with bands like Metric and Broken Social Scene. His bold new album Yes! features a song called “I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman” which samples the theme from The OC. On opening track “Zambony” he raps “I am not indie rock/I am West Indies hip-hop.” But that’s not quite true. K-os’ schizophrenic sound defies music journalists’ penchant for categorizing, and it’s why he’s stayed relevant for so long. Here he is talking about why Obama makes it okay for rappers to wear pink shirts, and passing the torch to Drake.
You’ve rapped about the state of hip-hop many times. Why do rappers more so than any other musicians in their genre rap about the state of their genres? Why I think rappers do that is because they slowly feel their genre of hip hop dying, so it’s a way to stay fresh. And that’s what people love about hip hop, it’s always fresh. That’s why rappers talk about the state of hip-hop, because they want to rap themselves into relevance. If it’s an old school guy moving into the future by talking about the state of music, you make yourself relevant outside of the music. Rakim was the first rapper to rap about rapping. Nobody was rapping about the rhyme, but then he came along and he would start talking about the rap, and it made him so much more relevant in hip-hop. You become hip-hop at that point.
So what’s the current state of hip-hop? We’re moving to more people taking chances. I think Kanye was a big part of it, I think Jay-Z’s last record and where he went musically with it showed that. I think Obama being President, and Black people being like, Okay, we’re in the White House now. It’s like, one foot is here so I can put my other foot here. Now we have a stance. Now that someone is in that high form of office, it frees up artists to just be artists. Jay-Z doesn’t have to be Obama, Biggie Smalls doesn’t have to be Obama. Now artists can just go do weird things and wear pink shirts if they want to. Now the kid on the block isn’t going, Oh, you’re breaking protocol by looking like that, or not being black enough, so I won’t listen to your hip-hop. Hopefully hip-hop is in a renaissance where it’s about to do some really cool stuff. That’s my Canadian, golden, hopeful, utopic idea of what’s about to happen.
Do you consider yourself a rapper or a songwriter? Songwriting is first, and that’s why I like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, because they were songwriters.The Roots are my favorite band and changed my life. Those bands made songs. So when I approach hip hop, I approach it from the songwriting basis. Especially the beginning of my career, when I performed just acoustically, a lot of those songs that were hip hop songs started in small studios just playing guitar. When Jimmy Fallon did that Neil Young cover of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, that all made sense to me. I’m not from the streets, so I’m not going to jump off the streets into the studio, that’s not me. I’m probably going to be the guy who is listening to the new Bon Iver.
You’re not as well-known in the U.S. as you are in Canada. How does that affect you? I call it being in the fridge. The landscape of American music is so different, because it’s so competitive and there’s so many people. In Canada, it could be like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, and Metric all existing at once, and that doesn’t happen in America. It’s always one dude. Without so much competition in Canada, I was able to develop my music as I wanted it to be developed. I never felt like I had to conform my music so it would get played on the radio. In America, it’s not a cakewalk like that. I think it’s great when I come to America and no one knows who I am. It’s really inspiring for my music and my creative process to be somewhere and not be seen as something that already has an idea to it. It’s almost like aging backwards. If my music was to come out in America tomorrow, I would be a new artist when I’ve been doing this in the fridge, in Canada for ten years. It’s a beautiful thing, selling out places in Canada, and playing clubs and carrying my own gear in the U.S. How can that not make you really appreciate both sides of it?
Who is the best rapper working today? I will always say Black Thought of the Roots. I think he’s proven himself to hold all that down. I also like Jay Electronica right now. I’m a huge Mos Def and Andre 3000 fan, so I would say those four. And just off of the strength of the historical David and Goliath thing that he just did, I’d have to throw Drake in there as well.
As a fellow Canadian hip-hop artist, were you surprised by how quickly Drake rose to prominence in the U.S.? When someone dies, people say they still can’t believe it, because they’re in shock. I think the same thing happens to me when people live like that. Death is one thing, but when someone pulls a feat like that, I still haven’t really taken it in. I think it’s just one of those great stories. He’s a thespian, and a lot of times actors understand music just as well as they understand theatre. There’s some kind of link between him being a rapper and him being an actor. There’s something about that that’s allowing him to have a different perspective than everyone else. I mean, there are a whole bunch of factors, I’m not just going to chalk it up to his acting, but as someone who is a senior to his sophmore in music, I feel like I he did something that no one does, that no one did. That’s why I have to throw him in there.
Do you know if Natalie Portman has heard the song you named after her? Yeah, actually if you go to my label’s website, you can watch Entertainment Tonight Canada play it for her.
Yes! is released in the United States today.