There’s that song-you know the one. Starts off with that unmistakable swing of the bass and oh-so-addictive handclaps. Plunking piano gives way to rhymes coming atcha fast and furious… wait a minute, did that guy just name-drop Yonge St.?
And hey, isn’t it the same tune that’s been the number one video on MuchMusic for the past couple of weeks? There’s that dude in the beat-up army jacket and rumpled fedora toting a guitar as he walks by that park you pass every day. No bling, and the only dancers involved are a couple of fully-clad guys going the jazz swing.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few months, you’ll know that the song is called “Crabbuckit,” and it’s by an artist quite unlike any other. K-os, otherwise known as Kevin Brereton, ain’t your usual rapper. For one thing, he’s also a fine singer. And a guitarist. Plays the piano, even. He’s not from the mean streets, unless you count Whitby as ghetto. His latest album, Joyful Rebellion, takes all his diverse influences-from Nirvana to Michael Jackson-and doesn’t merely regurgitate them, but rather blends them all up into a cohesive whole that’s as hard to pin down as the man himself is. And that, says k-os, is the entire point.
“I’ve always maintained that stereotypes also allow you to defy them,” k-os declares over the line earlier this month. His insane schedule-trips to the U.S. for the American launch of his record, promotional tours to different cities to appear on radio and TV-has forced us to reschedule the interview so many times that we’ve both lost track, and he’s still fighting a cold from the week before. But that doesn’t stop him from offering up a jumble of thoughts so quickly that you’re forced to pay close attention.
“So they’re negative in the way that they keep you in, but those same stereotypes, when you go beyond them, people sit up and take note,” he continues. “As a black man, I look at what they put on BET and MTV everyday-I’m not dissing that music, it has its place, but they see black people only resonating a certain level of intelligence or diversity.
“Before D’Angelo there was Omar, before there was Donovan, there was Bob Dylan, and before Bob Dylan there was Muddy Waters. There’s always the influence before the mainstream. Before Elvis, he was listening to someone else, just before Justin Timberlake there was Michael Jackson. And so on this record I just kind of stepped out and said, ‘Hey, I don’t care, these are my influences.’ I didn’t try to hide them-I just went that way, and I think people can relate to that ’cause it’s a little more honest than doing a song that Lil’ Jon would do, you know?”
Maybe that’s the trick, then. Maybe listeners are finally tired of being force-fed hip-hop that bears little to no relation to reality whatsoever. Instead of rhyming about Courvoisier and copping a thug pose, k-os sketches stories about disillusioned b-girls (“Neutroniks”), cooks up rock’n’roll epics (“Dirty Water,” the duet with Roberts), and sings sweetly about redemption (“Hallelujah”).
“The illusion that people believe to be you, you can sort of use that to push things,” he offers. “The fact that I have a certain colour skin and I look the way I do and my voice sounds the way it does and that I rap causes people to expect this, but when they hear the sound of Sam Roberts they’re like, ‘What? How did he know him?’ Meanwhile every guy at my high school, we all listened to everything when we were growing up-Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, whatever. Canada’s a different place, and once people start to realize that Canada’s really ethnically diverse and that we grew up with different kinds of people in our classrooms, and all different kinds of music, people drop that charade of trying to be American and only playing one type of music. It’s kind of banal and boring to me, you know?”
Whether trying to follow his hairpin-turn responses to a question or listening intently to his rapid-fire rhymes on the record, k-os’ unusual handle-it stands for Knowledge of Self-begins to come into focus. Joyful Rebellion comes three years after k-os’ debut opus Exit, so brashly titled because the MC declared it wasn’t just his first offering to the world of music, but also his last. He didn’t want to play the game, he said. “Hip-hop is dying/It’s all Darth Vader/So pick up your mic and swing your light sabre,” he spat on that record. The state of hip-hop may not have changed much, but k-os has-he’s still calling out wack MCs (on the blistering opening track “Emcee Murdah”), but he’s as hard on himself as he is when turning the microscope (or should that be microphone?) on the music and culture he loves.
“On [funky Michael Jackson tribute] ‘Man I Used to Be,’ we just kept doing the first verse over and over, and it wasn’t happening,” he recalls, “and then when I finally changed it to that first line, ‘The things I said I wouldn’t do, I did them,’ it was such a relieving way to open a song, because the conscious rappers aren’t supposed to say that. Dudes who are trying to put a message are supposed to present a squeaky-clean image of themselves. And to talk about ‘the man I used to be’ and the things I’ve done wrong, it’s like a repentance song. I’m testifying.
“I think on my first record I was more concerned about coming off as that guy, but now the image I’m trying to maintain is that of a person who’s well-rounded. I feel like I’m a wizard as much as I’m a warlock. I feel that I’m a great musician as well as just an ignorant person who just can’t remember what I played in the studio, but it worked for that time! I think if everyone seeks to be well-rounded, then they’ll realize they love all kinds of music and all kinds of people, and that’s where the world is really supposed to be at, you know.”
And so after a decade of making music, the rapper/singer/producer who defies categorization finds himself not just on the verge of major mainstream success, but fully immersed in it. For all his discomfort with the big, bad industry, he’s on a major label in Canada (EMI) and the U.S. (the much-admired Astralwerks, home to the likes of the Chemical Brothers). Things are starting to take off for him south of the border, with peers like the Roots giving him props, and strong reviews from the critics. But, true to form, k-os scoffs at the notion of the elusive Stateside breakthrough.
“If they catch on, hey, lovely. If they feel that it’s dope, cool, but I’m making this for music lovers, and there are music lovers in America and they’ll catch on to it even if it only sells so many copies. But I’m not going to try to go get a flat in New York and work it, you know.”
Clearly more important to him is being part of the burgeoning local and national scenes. Before his album came out and sucked him into the black hole of promotion, it was commonplace to catch k-os at every other indie gig in town cheering on his pals. He’s the one on everyone’s lips these days, but k-os is anxious to drop some other names.
“There’s dope kids in Canada! Sarah Slean [whom he samples on ballad “The Love Song”] is sick, Sam Roberts’ album kills half these American guys trying to do rock, y’know what I mean? I don’t know what to say, man. Everybody from Buck 65, those Broken Social Scene cats, Tangiers, The Dears, who are getting big, big props in the UK right now. It’s like, what?
“Forget Toronto-Canada! We’ve got talent-we just need some self-esteem and my thing with this record was, if people in Canada like it, that’s a big thing. If people in Canada are endorsing this as an urban record or Black music, and it’s doing well as far as people buying it next to Young Buck or Lloyd Banks, then that means that people have pride in this. They’re like, ‘Yo, I’ll buy this-it’s 100 percent Canadian, and it’s good.’ We need more of that-because once people see that there’s one, two, three, four records like that, then people will stop caring about the U.S. and we’ll have our own infrastructure, and we need that.”
k-os plays the Opera House tonight, but it’s… sold out (you snooze, you lose!). Sorry.