The ancient Egyptians believed that the human soul was made of five parts, one of which was the Ka. The Ka is what distinguished the living from the dead and when the Ka left the body is when death occurred. Although for years now we’ve heard the sentiment that Hip-Hop is dead, deep in Brooklyn, rapper Ka still clings tightly to its life force, where perfecting the craft is part of his daily routine. I had a chance recently to speak to Ka, where we talked about his time in music, love for lyrics, an upcoming project with Roc Marciano and ageism in rap.
Where are you from and when did you start rhyming?
I am a Brooklynite, born and raised in Brownsville Brooklyn. I’ve been an emcee for years, can’t even tell you how long. I knew when I heard “La Di Da Di” for the first time I wanted to be an emcee. So since the early 80’s. Took me a long time to get to this point, but I’m here.
You have a long history that people may or may not be aware of. How did you start and when was the start of rhyming for a career?
I started rhyming on the block, trying to be the best one on my block. Which I never succeeded in being the best one on my block, lot of dope dudes on my block. My cousin was one of the better emcees on my block and I was tryna follow behind him and then I got introduced to Mr. Voodoo and I started going up to the Bronx to record with Charlamagne. We had group called Natural Elements which was L Swift, Mr Voodoo and myself. At the time, my style – see I was still experimenting with styles, I wasn’t really good, it took me some time to get where I’m at now. So I knew I wasn’t good so I bowed out of Natural Elements and A Butta took my spot and they sounded way better without me. They had a great album, I wish it would of came out though back when they was on Tommy Boy. They ended up putting it out independently a couple years later.
LISTEN: Ka – “I Mean This” (from Natural Elements The EP 1994)
So after Natural Elements, were you still pursing music?
After that, I took some time and joined a group with my boy Kev. His rap name was Oddbrawl The Lyrical Juggernaut, which indeed he was that. One of the best rappers I ever came in contact with. He was my best friend, but he was also a phenomenal talent and I learned a lot from him. Taught me a lot, just working on different styles – you know, he was a genius a far as i’m concerned. He was rhyming backwards and would do all types of fly shit that wasn’t even in my head to do. We had a group called Nightbreed, never had an album out, but we dropped a single, “2 Roads Out The Ghetto.” We tried to get signed, we just didn’t make it. This is in the mid-90’s and at the time, this is what some people call the “Golden Era.” At that time there was so much talent out that you could get lost even if you were dope. You could pick any and everybody and they would be dope, so we got lost in the shuffle. We just felt like maybe we should get jobs, you know be family men and things of that nature. So that’s what we did, we quit. It was a tough decision because we both loved it. We said we quit but as an artists, lyrics keep coming to you so everyday I was struggling with should I be doing this, should I not be doing this? You know fighting myself like this is a young mans dream. I’m older now, need to be responsible, you know, do what everybody else is doing: go to work and live your life until you die type shit and I just couldn’t do it. I felt like I was dying everyday, I wasn’t rhyming and I’m hearing shit on the radio like…you know it was tough, I wanted to hear my own music. Luckily I had the support of family and beautiful friends that were just like ‘Yo just do it, fuck chasing a record deal.’ And I did. It took a lot of courage cause I’m older now, so you know the diss at one time was you 30/40 years old and rhyming. Those were disses, doesn’t even matter if your dope or not. Just looking at your age like ‘look at this stupid nigga still rhyming.’ So i just had to put that shit to side and say ‘fuck what people say, I’m just going to my thing’ and I did.
LISTEN: Nightbreed – “2 Roads Out The Ghetto b/w Ruckus” (1998)
This is how your first album came to be?
Yeah, I went and put out an album with some friends of mine. I met a guy in the Bronx, he did the beats, I did the rhymes and I was dabbling with some beats- did like two beats on the album. The album was called Iron Works and I just put it out. I wasn’t really expecting it to be in any stores, I didn’t even put it up on iTunes when it first came out. I just printed up a 1000 copies with the intention of giving away a 1000 copies to anyone who wanted to hear it. I gave a lot of them away, I’m sure people were throwing them shits in garbage like ‘I don’t know you, you not on the radio’.
How did you link up with GZA?
Luckily I had a friend who sat with Iron Works and listened to it and was like ‘this is dope lyrically.’ Which I always had something to say, I just had to find a way to say it and on Iron Works, I felt like I found me. So he gave it to somebody that gave it somebody that gave it to GZA and by the grace of God he listened to and was like “duke is nice.” I was fine with that being the pinnacle of my career, one of the best lyricists ever said I was dope, I’m good. So he tells my man, ‘I’ll do a joint with him’ and I thought that was game and it was cool if it was game because I was just happy he listened to the album. Then one day I’m at work and I get a call, ‘Yo GZA said come through to the studio. He doing a joint and he wants you to come through.’ I’m figuring I’m gonna get there and they gonna be crazy dudes in the studio doing a posse cut. I’ll get 16 bars or whatever, but I get there and it’s just him. Soon as I get in he’s telling me ‘Yo I was listening to your album and I think I got something right up your alley.’ He put on a beat that Roc Marci made and it was “Firehouse” – soon as I heard it I was like “yeah I’m good.” Went in the booth, laid the first verse down and he was like ‘Yo, you got more?’ and I’m like “Yeah you know, I got 20 years of more. I’ve been doing this in secret for years, so I’m ready to open that door now and let ’em know.” It was a good co-sign, he let me just rock on the whole track, so it was beautiful.
LISTEN: GZA (feat. Ka) – “Firehouse” (2008)
Was that your introduction to Roc Marci?
So from then I was like “Yo, who did this beat?” and found out it was Roc Marci, so I put the wolves out. I found out who Roc Marci was because this is the sound that I needed – please can I find this dude, I need to work with him. I didn’t know he was an emcee at the time, it’s funny, I knew he was an emcee at the time because I had the UN album [UN Or You Out] but I just didn’t put two and two together. I just thought he was a producer and just wanted to work with him because his sound is ill. So I find him and speak to him and he’s telling me ‘I’m not really a producer, I’m more an emcee.’ Then we started building and the rest was pretty much history and we started talking every day. He became one of my best friends and he was coming out with an album, so he put me on his album (Marcberg) which was a classic album and to be the only feature on it was dope.
And he’s also the only feature on Grief Pedigree [“Iron Age”], where at the end of the track he gives you quite the co-sign.
Yeah, seeming like now my lane is pretty open now – I got nice little path. I’m not know by too many people, but the ones that do know me, they cherish me and that makes me feel good. It’s like I’m speaking to them, I’m speaking for them; they love my sound, they understand the time I put into my craft. Which it takes me a lot long time to right verses man. So they respect it and I be loving that they be respecting it. Then I put out a Grief Pedigree and people saying all the right things, some calling it a masterpiece, some people call it a classic. I’m just glad they speaking about it and they loving it.
You been at it long time. What’s been your motivation through the years?
That I love it, I love the art form. There is nothing I am might more passionate than Hip-Hop. That shit saved me, I started writing from a dark place. I grew up in bad conditions, seen a lot of awful shit, lost of lot of things- I was a man when I was a child. I was seeing and dealing with things that men had to deal with, but as a kid, and if it wasn’t for Hip-Hop as my escape, listening to it and also doing it, I don’t know where I would’ve been. I wanted to honor the music that help mold me, that help kept me sane. When shit was fucked up at home, or I lost a good friend, or I’m hungry, I could go write a rhyme. That shit took me to a place that nothing else could take me take me to, so in order to honor it and honor the gift I was given, I had to continue to do music. I knew I had something to say and I figured that if I wanted to hear what I had to say, I figured there’s at least one other person wants to hear it. And if I can let that one other person hear itm who loves it like I do, it was worth me continuing to do it.
People really appreciate that it’s a complete album. What is your approach to an album?
When I do an album, I try to make it a complete work. I first come up with the them…I’m funny, I name the album before I even begin the recording process, it gives me an avenue where I want to be. I came up with the title Grief Pedigree and that shit was powerful to me. I was saying it to myself like that shit is cold, I feel like it’s me. I can’t even tell you how many friends and family I lost in my years of living. I only feel like there is a couple moments of joy, then I’m going through a stretch of sorrow, or some misery, or some bullshit. The man I’ve become is because all the things I’ve had to do without, so I wanted to speak that in record form and that was the lane I wanted to go in. I did it on Iron [Iron Works] and I did it on Grief [Grief Pedigree], but I’m sure that’s just the artist I am, I’m a dark artist. Some people stimulated by parties, they go to parties, they feel good, they want to do music. Me, I’m in the house, I’m depressed or something and I want to do music to get it off my chest. It’s my therapy basically.
What do you think you bring to music?
Just hope, a trueness, an authenticity, an unpolluted-ness, an unbiased sound. I’m not doing this for anything else other than the art. I know the music I do is not some multi-million dollar selling product. I know that shit, but I just choose to do it still. I’m not trying to get on a joint that’s like ‘Yo this might get on the radio.’ That doesn’t even cross my mind. I wanted to make the art that felt like the art that I grew up listening to. All people that I say are legendary was just doing it from their heart. I know cause you can hear it in the music and I don’t want that to die. I don’t want people to get caught up on the formula of whatever is playing on the radio that what’s ‘hip-hop’, and if you not doing that, then why you even doing it. I think that’s wrong, that’s not art. I wanted to preserve the art and I don’t want that to die. That shit scared me when I heard Hip-Hop is dead. When I first that sentiment, that shit had me fucked up for a minute, for real. No, this shit can’t die, this shit too important. I felt like the death of it was probably because every following had the same formula: trying to get on, trying to get on, trying to get on, instead of just doing music from your soul. I knew I would never be polluted. I would never do this with dollar signs in my eyes. I wanted to do it cause this shit is pure, this shit is bigger than me. So I hope that’s what i’m bringing to people, an honesty. If you don’t see any honesty on the radio, I don’t know, you may…some of those artists may be genuine, I can’t say for certain, but Ka is though. That’s my lane.
Lyrically, you are very careful with your words, not much hyperbole or bravado. Why is being so precise so important to you?
I’m bleeding on my songs. These records are pieces of me. I take time with each one cause I want them to be perfect. If you gonna criticize me – criticize my style, my flow, beat selection, but don’t criticize my lyrics (laughing). When you start saying that I’m not saying nothing or that didn’t sound right, then I can’t listen to your criticism, cause I don’t know if you listening to it right. I don’t know if you know what you are talking about because I pride myself in my rhymes more than anything. I hear so many rhymes, that in my ear sound so bad that it fucks with me that it became that people don’t even listen to lyrics. I came from a time of people listening to lyrics and seems like they do that anymore. Now we just letting a lot of shit pass and I’m like that’s not good, why the fuck you listen to that? I didn’t want to be that, I wanted my pen to be my most powerful pen in the world and that’s what I’m aiming at. I want to be the best writer ever. That’s a fucking tall order that I’m trying to reach, but I’m trying so that’s why I make sure everything is very precise and cold.
You address a lot of painful topics in several of your songs in an era where most artists don’t put themselves out there like that.
I put myself out there cause I’m sure of who I am as an artist, this is what I want to be. I don’t need to give you anymore, I don’t need to give you any less. Sometimes, I may give a little bravado, sometimes you know I’m crying in that verse. I don’t even know if I can perform some of these songs with out getting emotional. Lot of the bars just ain’t bars, these are life. Like I say on “Vessel”, ‘You might hear better, but there’s no truer verse.’ These are not just rhymes, this is something bigger than that. Hip-Hop is something that’s big to me so I don’t slack at all.
It seems like you writing from a different point of view on Grief Pedigree than you did on Iron Works. Did something happen in between albums or is the transition just a natural progression?
I think that as I get older, I just get more reflective. I hope nothing else happens to me cause I’ve been through enough tragedy that I got so much to pull from, so maybe I was pulling deeper on Grief. I don’t really know, I’m zoning when i’m writing. You can’t even talk to me when I’m writing cause I can’t even hear you. I get into my own little world and I start pulling from so many different times in my life. I don’t know, maybe on Iron I was pulling from a younger time.
I did realize that Iron Works seems more in the moment whereas Grief Pedigree seems more reflective.
It probably is cause as an old man you get more reflective. You think about the past a lot more when you get older and when you’re young, you’re thinking about the now and the future. I guess we’ll see where I’m at on the next one.
So I’m sure you feel that time has been to your benefit as an artist?
Oh I know it has, I have life experiences. I’ve lived a life and a half. I think without my age I couldn’t speak about a lot of things. I lived through the crack era 80’s, survived the crazy 90’s and then with the depression of this decade – people out here dying for crumbs in the street, who else can talk about all that? I don’t know, but I can though. And i’m still here to talk about whatever is coming next. I do really believe my age helped me cue I wasn’t a prodigy. I wasn’t a Nas at 17 – he was ready. He was like born into this shit, you know Large Professor – these dudes were geniuses. I wasn’t a genius, I had to work hard to get good, so I needed that time.
Since you’re moving forward without any sort of expectations, how does it feel to receive such a strong reaction for Grief Pedigree?
It’s beautiful. Like i was saying, I was doing this in the dark for so long, just rhyming to myself and I got books on top of books of rhymes that no one will ever hear. Just rhyming cause that’s all I really know how to do. Before, I do something and my lady would say ‘oh that sounds nice’ and now I don’t have to bother her no more cause I got someone in London telling me that’s dope or ‘that line is ill.’ So it feels good to be able to share, to have people to be able to respond whether positive or negative. With the love comes the hate too, so I was prepared for it all. I was ready for someone to say it was wack and I kinda got that anyway when I did the GZA album. Everybody was saying that shit was garbage, I was like ‘Wow, I thought I had it, maybe I still ain’t ready (laughing) I don’t know. I don’t think it was that bad I thought it was dope.” They was killing me, but now it feels good to get a little love. It feels really good.
You do your own videos as well, how did you get into film?
My first video “Cold Facts” was the first thing I ever did. I was on YouTube watching an instructional video on how to use iMovie and I started to edit. I spent one afternoon with it and looked at it and thought it [“Cold Facts”] was dope so I put it up on YouTube. My lady was like, ‘this looks good maybe we should get a better program,’ so she got me a gift, got me Final Cut Pro and I’ve been learning how to use that. So no film experience, never went to school for it. It was all out of necessity. We living in a digital age, and in order for my music to get out there the way I wanted, I had to have a visual aspect to it. I can’t just tell people to listen to this song, they don’t listen. You tell them to watch a video and they’ll sit and watch a video. I didn’t have any for Iron Works and I’m sure that’s why nobody heard that album but I have six for this album and I’m sure that’s what help propel the spread of Grief Pedigree.
I noticed that a lot of people have commented on your cinematography. Have you worked with cameras in the past or do you have any background in photography?
Nah, just got a camera. It was a gift from my lady and I always wanted to do cameras since a kid, but photography is rich mans’ game. Lenses and all that cost money and I didn’t have all that. Always liked them, always had an eye for it – would comment like “that’s a dope picture,” but couldn’t partake in it until recently. So I got a camera, started taking pictures. Then started with the videos and looking at locations and being like “yo, this looks ill,” this speaks me right here. A lot of the imagery is dark, you see it in the pictures I post on my tumblr or the look of my videos. They kinda got that murky feel, but thats the music, that’s what I’m drawn to. I’m not drawn to the glitter.
A video such as”Decisions” captures the the concept of hope with the simple use of some light, can you elaborate on this?
Yeah (laughing). I was able to go up to the school and do that one, but I felt that was like a schooling kind of song. I wanted to be able to show that, that one was for the shorty’s. Not really for them personally, cause I’m cursing in the song, but it was for the people to know that the decisions you make can affect you forever. And I think one the of biggest decisions a kid can make, is staying in school, so I wanted that sentiment. I wanted that image of being in school – being both the student and teacher.
Was “Decisions” planned ahead of time? Due to the brighter aesthetics, It seems like this video was setup by the darker videos that were released prior.
Yeah, exactly, that’s what it is. Keep somebody in a dark room and put them in a lit room, shit don’t even need to be that bright and they squinting their eyes. All of this is by design. I’m just trying to carve my lane. I want to be the only one in my lane.
Do you plan on doing videos for all the tracks on the album? The album seems to be sequenced like a movie.
I don’t know if I’ll have the time. I want to start working on my next album and I’d love to do a video for each song. Actually depends on how I feel cause I’m artist and I may be ‘alright, I’m done with that.’ I got some new shit I’m working on already as well as the album with Roc Marci, so who knows.
Yeah I read somewhere that you and Roc have combined for a group called Metal Clergy. How much has has been recorded so far?
We got about 10 songs recorded so far. It’s crazy cause I hate when everybody says, “the album’s gonna be dope” and I’m not too braggadocios, but I’m not gonna lie, the album is crazy (laughing).
The both of you have very good chemistry.
Yeah man, it’s dope. We’re producing the album together, he got some songs, I got some songs. We still got a couple joints to do but that shit is cold. I’m blessed cause of all the people he could choose to work with. I know he gets offers all the time, he is the star of this type of sound right now. So it’s good, for him to be calling me dope is good to hear. I think it’s going to be a special album. All I wanted to do was special albums, I just want to do music thats’ forever music that’s always treasured by Hip-Hop fans.
LISTEN: Ka (feat. Roc Marciano) – “Iron Age” (Grief Pedigree 2012)
Are their going to be any features?
I don’t know. Right now, it’s just the both of us, so we got to sit down and figure out if we want to incorporate anybody else. I would love it if it was just me and him, but that’s just the type of person I am. I like to keep it close knit, like to keep it tight. It seems to be more potent that way.
Will the public be seeing music from you for years to come – perhaps the Frank Sinatra of rap?
Yeah i’m gonna be an old man rhyming. What I would love to do is break that age barrier of people thinking your old or dated. I don’t really like that sentiment in Hip-Hop. People will still go and spend a $100 to see the Rolling Stones, but they won’t do that for an older Hip-Hop artist. We tend to drop are artists off at an old age home to never be seen again, and I think we should age a little better in Hip-Hop. We should respect it more and that’s a perspective we don’t have. I would love to hear an older man rhyme. I love to sit around and listen to the O.G.’s in the neighborhood, so why wouldn’t I want to listen to them rhyme? That shit is wisdom to me, dope stories and funny stuff- you know they got it all.