An Interview With K.A.A.N.
Nowadays, it seems like a new star in the hip hop world is discovered every week. The Internet has given rappers from all corners of the nation a platform to broadcast their music, and anyone has the chance to be discovered, at any time. Just look at guys like Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Chance the Rapper, A$AP Rocky, Big K.R.I.T., Action Bronson or Danny Brown. Five years ago, no one really knew who any of those MCs were. Now, they’re all stars in the rap game and have been universally respected by newcomers and old heads alike. They grace the covers of magazines, have won multiple awards and even have their own cooking shows. In hip hop, you can never truly know where the next big thing will show up.
This brings us to K.A.A.N. Like most of the MCs I just mentioned, K.A.A.N. has gotten his start online. For the past year and a half, he’s been steady uploading tracks to his SoundCloud page, gaining more and more views as the weeks push on. But, K.A.A.N. isn’t like most rappers in the game. He’s not chainsmoking blunts on a stoop somewhere, waiting for his break. He’s not spamming blogs on Twitter, pleading for them to post his music. Instead, K.A.A.N. works masonry six days a week as a way of funding his dream of being a full-time rapper. For K.A.A.N, isn’t about the fame, glory, women or money. It’s just about the music.
You were born and raised in Maryland? What was that like?
Growing up in Maryland was kinda like everywhere else, I guess. I was born and raised here. When I was younger we all lived in this trailer park.
During your childhood, what were your first memories of hip hop?
Tupac. Lots and lots of Tupac. When I was ten or so I bought every Tupac CD. I bought all his music. My parents played him, Nas and Biggie in the car and stuff. I listened to other guys, like Eminem, Jay-Z, Big Pun, O.C., Big L, a lot when I was younger too.
Tell me about the first time you recorded.
First recording session I did was at this studio in Baltimore called Manaray Records. I paid for two hours and bought a beat off one of their engineers. He used a Wu-Tang sample in the beat. It took about an hour to record the song, and I didn’t have anything else prepared, so I just watched the engineer mix down the track. I actually ended up using that first beat I ever bought on my first mixtape. I rewrote the whole song, and called it “Monk from Xiaolin.”
Where did your flow come from? Did you have to work at it for years to spit as this level? Were there any rappers’ flows that you studied?
I honestly don’t even know to tell you the truth. I guess it was just organic. I never really would practice rapping that much. I’d spit some of my favorite rapper’s verses and shit but it was never really the focal point. I always tended to focus more on the words, the stuff I was actually saying. I would kinda listen to Big L’s flow here and there but I wasn’t studying intricate guys like Bone Thugs or anything.
K.A.A.N. stands for “Knowledge Above All Non-sense.” What inspired the name?
Well, I just really wanted something that was natural and genuine. I wanted something that represented me. It came to me when I first started rapping and I’ve just had it ever since.
When did you start to put out complete tracks and upload them to the Internet?
I really started to put my songs online about a year, year and a half ago. So not that long ago at all. I’m learning a lot. I didn’t really start rapping until like three and a half, four years ago so I’m still pretty new at this.
When did you start to gain some traction online?
Right around the time I dropped my first video, “KAANCEPTS.” I think it was about a year ago. That’s when people started to give my stuff a listen.
How did you and your management link up?
I got in contact with my manager through a dope young producer I did a song with named Sgull. He’s from Connecticut, I did a song with him on my project Abstract Art, and we just stayed in contact with each other. Still to this day. I’m going to release a song I did to one of his beats in a week or two. He DM’d me on Twitter one day, and said he knew someone that wanted to help out. I told him yeah, that’s cool, and that I always am looking for people that want to work hard, and build. A few days after that I got in contact with my manager Fola. At the time I was working with someone else as my manager, but we were not seeing eye to eye on how things should go. Nothing was getting done except for music being put out on my end, but really nothing on her end honestly. She would go missing for long periods of time, and then hit me up like “hey what’s going on.” After a while I was just tired of the same bullshit over and over again, so I just started working with Fola solely, and we been just been working ever since trying to make things happen.
Have you done any live shows yet? Do you plan on touring?
I’ve done some small stuff here and there but nothing major for live shows yet. I’d really love to tour but at the same time there’s honestly too much going on right now for me to be on the road for a while.
Have you reached out to anyone to collab? Anybody from the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area?
A couple people have reached out to me. Termanology and Archetype hit me up a while back. I just don’t really want to go around asking other rappers to work with me, you know? It’s mad corny to me. I want to make it on my own terms. I wouldn’t want to get big just because someone else dropped my name a bunch of times or put me on.
Your first mixtape Abstract Art has been well-received all across the Internet. Congrats on releasing a high-quality project. How pumped were you to finally put that out? How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it?
When we put it out it was like the second draft of that project, the second take of the entire thing. And honestly, I was kind of just over it for real. Just wanted to throw it out, and start working on the next project. I would describe it as introspective, honest, realistic hip hop.
What’s your writing process like? How do you put a song together?
I honestly write all the time. I write everyday. I have a full time job, so any other time I have is dedicated to writing and putting together new songs. When I’m not working, I pretty much spend all of my free time writing and recording.
Do you really work for a contracting company?
Yeah, I actually really do work for a contracting and masonry company. Monday to Saturday, six days a week. My days are usually from 6 am to 3 pm, or even sometimes 4 pm. I’ll wake up at 5 am and get home at like 4 in the afternoon usually. And once I get home, it’s back to the music. After work, I always either record or write.
What motivates you to spit with so much intensity even after working a full-time job? What keeps you going?
The fact that I fuckin’ hate what I do every day (laughs). I stay motivated so I can get out of this job and become a rapper full-time. It’s not that hard to keep going either. Rapping is honestly what I love to do the most. It’s not really a struggle to do something you love, you know? Hip hop is always fun to me, so it doesn’t feel like a job at all.
You spit over everything from Craig Mack to Fetty Wap to Adele. What do you look for when selecting beats? Are there any dream producers that you’d want to work with?
Whatever I can rap over to be honest. When I was younger I use to spit over lots of 90s instrumentals, even stuff like old Rakim instrumentals. When you focus so much on the words you can kind of spit on anything. For dream producers, I think it would be great to work with guys like 9th Wonder or Just Blaze. I’ve always liked the stuff they put out.
This year has seen a slew of spectacular hip hop releases. What projects have you been steady playing, if any?
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is something I play a lot. That’s one of the best albums to come out in a long time. Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside too. I’ve been steady playing Logic’s debut album from last year. I don’t always listen to a lot of modern stuff. I still play lots of Eazy-E and N.W.A., and Illmatic by Nas quite a bit.
You mentioned before that you listen to everyone from EPMD to Earth, Wind and Fire. Are there any other artists that people might be surprised that you listen to?
I mean I just like music. Period. I’ll listen to anything. I am a huge fan of everything Kurt Cobain did. Ever since I read his book a few years back, I’ve been big into him. HBO put out a great documentary about him called Montage of Heck earlier this year and that was really dope too.
Are you working on a new project or are you taking a break after Abstract Art?
I don’t take any breaks. I’m always trying to put out new songs and material, even with my job now. I’m going to keep dropping new tracks and EPs as the year goes on and I plan on dropping a completely new mixtape next year as well.
Rappers often are role models to their young fans. Do you think there’s a moral obligation to be a positive representation to them? This can often be a major quandary in the hip hop world; what are your thoughts on it?
I think it is definitely important to be cognizant of how you portray yourself through your music. You have to be true to your self, and your character, but you have to be aware that there are people who follow you, and want to be like you whether you want them to or not. You just gotta be careful of what you put out cause it can affect people, positively, or negatively.
Hip hop has power not only in America but globally as well. It can bring focus to important issues. Right now in our country, tensions between blacks and the justice system/police are at dangerously high levels. Guys like ?uestlove and Talib Kweli have been out in the streets fighting for black equality and are trying to spread awareness. Do you think more rappers should be doing this? What is your opinion on the subject?
I definitely think more rappers should take on that responsibility. It’s like these are the people that support you, and your career. These are the people that pay for your music, shows, and anything else you sell to them. You owe them more than just a few lines in a song. You have to be out there with them to make them understand that you get their struggle. The same kids out here getting shot are the same one who buy your CDs.
Do you think you deserve more exposure? You have a lot of talent but haven’t been mentioned on a lot major sites and blogs. Why do you think that? Why not sell out to get big?
I think the exposure, and all that, will come when its time. It’s all about patience, consistency, and timing. This Internet stuff is all smoke, and mirrors. You’ll have guys with investors, and be signed to labels low key, and will have the machine behind them, but not say anything to make they’re come up look organic when its was strategic. The funny thing is people really believe the shit they see. They really think these guys can get millions of views, and start popping up out of nowhere, and do shows all over the place just off the strength of throwing out songs online, and the reality of it is it doesn’t work that way. It’s called the music business for a reason. These labels want to make money, and the best way into fooling people into thinking something average, or just new in general is great is by using perception. Give it the bells, and whistles, shove it down peoples’ throats until it becomes relevant, and watch it blow. Me personally I have far too much pride for all that. I’ll do masonry work for the rest of my life before I become apart of some fake ass shit. To me, that shit is just plain embarrassing.
How important is it to you to put out genuine content and stay original to the core foundations of hip hop?
In my opinion it’s everything. I personally liked artists that had real stories to tell, the ones that kept their artistic integrity. You have to be one hundred percent honest in your music, because today’s average listener doesn’t think for themselves. They believe what ever they are told, or shown. The flip side to that is the culture vultures that only see dollar signs with the art, and prey on the ignorance of listener knowing they can say literally anything on a song. Long as its got a catchy hook, and melody, it’s a hit. To me, content is forever and will always be the most important thing. Not that other shit.
Hip hop right now highly emphasizes production, and often songs are carried by the beat. That Drake and Future mixtape is a good example of this. Why do you think fans and the overall game in general focus so much on “how” songs sound these days rather than “what” they’re saying?
I think guys adapted to the landscape. They cater to what the people want, and they want that dumb, watered down shit. They don’t want to think. They want to zone out to a beat, and feel like they relate to what the niggas saying when he’s not saying anything that you should want to relate to. To each his own, but me personally I’m not bout to play a niggas record, and be like damn that was deep. I felt that, and it was just some misogynistic, materialistic bullshit. It’s funny as fuck – people will hear a song where a nigga will be talking about the most shallow shit, and be like “yo I really relate to that.” Really? You relate to this nigga talking about the thirty strippers he fucked, or how he grinded, and is getting his money, and all the other cliché bullshit you hear in rap music? The reality is you don’t relate, and odds are you’ll never live that life. People just want to be entertained, and sex, drugs, and ignorance is usually a main form of entertainment for a lot of people. But there is real shit out here getting love. Mick Jenkins, Logic, Los, Khelani, Michael Christmas, Chance, Childish Gambino, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, etc. There is real relatable hip hop and artists out here. You just gotta find them.
Hip hop started off as a way to progress and celebrate black culture in America, and escape oppression/racism. It aimed to break down stereotypes and show to everyone that black culture was so much more creative, influential and powerful than the country had made it out to be. Now, it seems like rappers are instead glamourizing negative stereotypes of black culture just to gain publicity. How does that make you feel as an artist?
It’s crazy when you think about the whole spectrum of the situation. So you have Melle Mel put out the song “White Lines” in 1983, and it’s about the negative effects of cocaine, and other drugs have had on the black community. Specifically the inner city black families. Fast forward to now, and you have guys making records where they boast about selling drugs, and are cool with that image. It started becoming more popular in the 90s, and just grew as the genre grew. I think it has to do with the low quality of life a lot of minorities have with in this country, and have had for years and years. In my opinion, if that’s the life you lived then you have to speak on it. That was apart of your life. What I can’t vouch for is a lot of these guys that claim all this stuff that they didn’t even ever do. “I killed somebody, I caught a body, I moved bricks”- but they never actually touched drugs in they’re life, or killed any body. A lot of it is fake or for a look. It’s like people will see a bunch of tattoos, and hear a bunch of curse words, and think “wow he’s really about that life”, when in reality that artist they thought was real, or authentic, isn’t.
Where is K.A.A.N. going to be a year from now?
In a perfect world a year from now I’ll be waking up everyday, and doing music for a living with the people that work hard with me. My cameraman Faiz, my manager Fola, and my engineer Orbt. My goal isn’t to get rich off making music. I just want to wake up and focus on my craft. If I can get to a point where I’m paying my bills, and employing my team of people around me then I’m straight. I don’t need recognition, fame or none of that stuff. It’s just all about the music.
Interview by Ben Pinette