How To Be An Honorable Artist, According To Ka
During his Red Bull Music Academy lecture, the Brownsville rapper and producer went deep on his creative evolution and how he stays true to his own artistry.
Ka isn't just a rapper and producer; he's also a "model of perseverance." So said lecture host Jeff "Chairman" Mao last week when he introduced the Brooklyn artist to the fresh-faced participants at this year's Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal. It turned out Mao had twisted Ka's arm into making the short flight up from New York. "These kids don't know who I am," Ka said with a smile, explaining his initial reluctance. That might've been true for some of the audience, but by the end of the session he had everyone on their feet in a lengthy ovation. New and longtime fans alike were taken with the honesty and humility he showed in sharing how he carved out his own unique place in rap.
Because Ka's been through it. He's lived a lot, and learned a lot, and there was nothing about the art of being an honorable artist that he was going to sugarcoat for RBMA's 2016 class. After years of recording demos with various groups throughout the '90s, but always missing out on that elusive record deal, he put music on the back-burner to become a fireman in his late 20s. But Ka never stopped writing rhymes, and, in 2008, at the age of 36, he eventually self-released his debut solo album, Iron Works. In the years since, he's stayed resolutely DIY, putting out music on his own Iron Works label, and building a cult fanbase that fiercely admires his poetic wordplay and the cathartic intentions that stem from his childhood in Brownsville.
"I was born at the right time, when disco was dying and hip-hop came about," he said. "Soon as I was hearing Melle Mel talk about bill collectors at my door/ scared my wife when I'm not home and all that, I was like, They talking to me. Like, this is what I'm seeing, I'm not going to no parties, I'm out here in the street and it's rough and that's when it became like an escape. As a young kid, you write a little song trying to be a rapper and then it became, like, that was the way for me to pull away from all this shit I'm seeing, get a little composition book and write. I've been doing this forever and it's helped me out."
Here are some of Ka's words of hard-earned wisdom about making your own way in the world as an artist with honor.
Learn from the people around you
[In the early '90s] there was a crew in New York called Natural Elements and they were an underground group and they were getting a lot of acclaim. One of the dudes, the more famous of them, Mr. Voodoo, we went to City College together. Everybody knew I'm rhyming, so he must've saw something: "Yo, just come to the studio." So I got into Natural Elements. Charlemagne was the producer, he produced for all of us — Big Tim, G-Blass — it was a bunch of us and we'd go to the Bronx every Saturday and be in the studio and he'd making beats for all of us. "That's for you, this is for you," and we battling for this beat and all that, but that helped me get to know the structure of songs. Back then I was writing rhymes, I had pages and pages. I had a duffle bag of just raps on receipts and [on the] back of [bus] transfers. I was rapping just to rap, but they let me know, "OK, this is how you make a song: you break that up, and this is a bar right here, and this is a hook, and this is that." They helped me become a better artist, it was a progression to start making songs.
I was dead garbage back then. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew I had something to say, [but] it takes time to find your voice. Some kids are prodigies, yo, they got it, like, immediately. I was not a prodigy. It took me time to find my voice. I got help though — Natural Elements was one of the stages to get me to another plateau. [Then] I did another group with my boy — God rest his soul, one of my best friends — Kev, we had a group called Nightbreed and this was in the later ‘90s and he was stellar, so it stepped me up to be better. Doing songs with him, I'm like, Yo, his parts are incredible man, my part is kind of corny. But this was my man, he loved me, you know what I'm saying? We did songs and eventually I got up to snuff, and then you know that was another plateau.
Get a real job to let your artistry run free
My job made me be the artist that I could be. I never have to compromise myself because I know that I'm able to eat from my job. I do what I want to do artistically without anybody telling me a thing. I'm the record label owner and I'm the only artist so I let my artist do what they hell he wants to do, and I just pay for it.
As artists, we all are artists over business. That's how we get manipulated over time. "I just wanna do my art" and "I don't want to read those papers and those contracts." If you're your own boss, you won't jerk yourself. I know some of you are probably like, "I'm an artist, I'm not working, I'm not getting a job." But just know that you're speaking to an artist who has a job because I'm not compromised in any way.
I'm a fireman. An N.Y.C. firefighter. I've been doing it for 17 years. It's a dangerous job as we all know, but it's a beautiful job. I wanted to pay back some of the dirt that I used to do back when I was younger so I was like, What's a noble profession? Teacher? I don't think I had the patience for the kids. [Being a] firefighter appealed to me more so that's what I do. That's probably why some songs I'm a little different in the voice. That smoke inhalation is a motherfucka but that's me. That's what I do.
Make your music for yourself
I didn't know what a passion was until this hip-hop shit, and it wouldn't let me go — like, I couldn't stop. I think about rhymes all the time, like, yo, when I'm talking to somebody and they say something, I'm hearing the rhyme that next to that would go perfect. I listen to other people's songs, and I'm like, He rhymed that wrong, he should've rhymed this like that, shit would've hit right. So I couldn't stay away from this shit; it was like, I'm trying, too. I threw books away, I threw all my notebooks away, I was like, Not doing this shit no more, fuck this shit, ruined my life. But I couldn't stop man and you know, so I came back, with the help of people that just loved me and it was like, yo, just do it.
[Iron Works, Ka's 2008 self-released solo album] was the first free material that I did — not free as far money-wise, [but] free as far as I don't care. I didn't give a fuck what nobody thought, like this is my shit right here. I'm giving it to you, love it or hate it, but this is me. This is my contribution to hip-hop. All these years since I was 8 years old I wanted to be a rapper, I had nothing to show for it. I'm like, This is crazy, let me do an album. And, you know, technology was around to the point that I could do an album and it wasn't like an album-slash-demo [for] the majors to hear it so I could get a record deal. No, it's I'm doing the album [and] as soon as I give it to you, you could use it as a frisbee or you could bump it — it didn't matter, you know what I'm saying? And it was great to just finally do music like that, you know? It was like a breakthrough for me: Boom, I'm doing it like an artist.
Choose your collaborators wisely
I only do music with people I consider friends. That's just a decision that I made. I feel like I can't do songs that are emailed, I can't do that. I have to be able to communicate and be friends with a person. I know the power of music and I know music is forever but I need to know if your energy is right. It sounds weird but I can't do a song with a person just because they sent me an email. I'm an older person so I know kids are like, "What? You don't do emailed songs?" But yeah, that's me. I have to get with a person, we go to the studio together, and do songs; that's how I work.
Do it yourself so you don't have to depend on anyone
You go to a producer and they have a beat that is really, really good — they're not giving it to me, they're going to give it to the person who is going to make that beat heard. And I can't even fault them on that. If me and Kanye are in the same room and this producer has a beat, who do you think he's going to give the beat to? Because Kanye is going to make it where the world is going to hear it. That producer is, in turn, going to get more work. So I understand but I'm not in that game. I'm not trying to play your beat games, so I'm going to make my own. I make my own beats and I rhyme to my own beats. If I make something that's dope, I'm the only one sitting on it knowing I made something that's dope. It just got to that point where I wanted to be more self-reliant.
Of course, I wanted to write the rhymes, then I had to make the beats because I didn't want to ask the producers for any beats. Then I'm sitting home with my wife like, "How do I make people listen to this now?" So I'm like, "Let's get a video done." So I'm calling people like, "Yo, can you do a video?" "30 grand." "$30,000 for a video?" Like, I'm not a rich man. So, now I'm like, "Can we shoot a video?" My wife is amazing, so she bought a camera. She went out in the middle of the night in these hoods, shooting videos with me, and we took it home, edited it, and was like, "Is it good? I guess it's good, let's put it on YouTube." So I guess a couple of people started checking it out and things happened.
Make peace with not being cool
Hip-hop ages and it's a youth sound. While I was young and rhyming, I didn't think about it until I didn't get on. Other genres, you ain't official until you're 50.
Are you prepared to do something that isn't cool anymore? That's a passion. What I'm doing suddenly isn't cool anymore. Writing rhymes as a 40-year-old man, that ain't cool. Whatever the hot genre is right now and everybody is doing that, are you going to be prepared to do that when it ain't cool anymore? It might be somebody right now — a 60-year-old in their house still doing disco. That shit ain't cool no more. But he loves that shit and I gotta salute that man for that.
So I'm the 40 year old still fucking rapping and it took me a long time. Support from people who love me who told me, "Yeah man, you could. Who cares how old you are?" If I'm the 30/40/50/60-year-old rapper who still has bars, then what can you say to me? I'm still doing what I love, then what can you say?
Figure out what really matters to you
[With] every album, I'm trying to learn. I wasn't really too good at school so now it's my opportunity to become a smarter man. Growing up, I always liked the karate flicks, then I saw the Japanese flicks where it wasn't all the pageantry — it was just like, one sword swipe and the fight's over. As a kid, I'm like, this ain't exciting, but growing up, this became dope to me. I just started diving into what a samurai was and their code of honor, and I started getting into it more and more. I think them taking their lives for honor was just something that I felt like I was doing for my art.
Like, you know, the aspect of hip-hop that I do — I pride myself [on] the lyrics — I feel like that's not really important as much anymore. I want my pen to be perfect, that's what I'm striving to be: I'm an amazing writer. [But] nobody really cares about that in art right now, you know? So it's like, in samurai perspective, I'm hurting my career: "You writing all these rhymes but you're not on the radio." But I don't really care about that, I'm doing what I want to do. I'm taking my life in a way to treasure what I treasure.
Embrace your own evolution
I'm in my 40s. You ever hear an old man like, "Keep that noise down, keep that noise down." I'm that old man. Keep that noise down. Even for me, I don't wanna hear no yelling. Y'all will get there one day, y'all will understand me. So, I couldn't continue to be yelling. My youthful angst rap days are over; I did that already, it was cool. I'm becoming something else. I'm in my mature rap stage where [it’s] very introspective. It's like I'm dreaming; my dreams aren't yelling. So, that just made me bring it down. I think I was yelling back in the day because I wanted people to be like, "Yo, did you hear that? Did you hear that bar? That bar was crazy." Now I'm like, you catch it at your leisure. I don't want you to catch everything on the first listen. I want you to listen to it years from now and be like, "Oh, that was crazy." And the fact that I didn't yell it made it more profound, I feel.
Know your audience
[There’s] a lot of reasons why I don't do shows. One is I don't know if this is show music. Like, this is personal to me — this is personal music, for now. I did the Pitchfork festival a couple of years back and it was great, the people were great, but they were all looking at me like this [makes stern face]. And not to think they weren't happy because once the song was over they clapped and all that, but it just felt weird to me. Like, Did I just drag these people out here to be all somber? They could've did that shit in their house. I'm bringing you out here to actually maybe make you cry. I don't wanna do that.
I'm probably depressed — who knows? I haven't sat with anybody — but if you listen to the music you'll be like, "Yeah, this dude is depressed." But that's what I'm doing. I'm pain in the spoken form, that's what I'm giving you. Five albums of pain in the spoken form so I feel like this is my lane, my pocket. If you're coming to me for party songs, don't come to me. I'm not your dude, I'm not him. You just lost your favorite uncle and you just wanna know if somebody can get through this pain? Yes, you listen to me and I've been through that and we can get through it together.
Never explain your work
I don't want to annotate my rhymes because you might hear something that's incredible to you and I don't want to fuck that up by saying, "I really said this..." The thing I always say is when [I’m] looking at a painting or a sculpture, I don't have Leonardo Da Vinci telling me, "This is what I was trying to do." I just want to look and get what I want — whatever the feelings and what I come up with. So when you're listening to me, I don't want to be in the back of your head like, "Nah bro I said this right here." Like, "Yo, listen it's coming right now, this is crazy." Nah, I want you to just appreciate it. Love it, hate it, whatever how it is but I want it to fall to you how it falls to you.
Above all, do you
I've always been around people of honor and, to me, it's just you following your path and not compromising. This is my passion, this is what I want to do. It's not what's poppin' right now, but a man of honor is going to do what they do regardless of what the outsiders say. That's me. I'm doing what I do regardless of what the noise might be, so that's artistically honorable to me.