“I’m Inspired By Pain” — An Interview with Ka

The Brownsville representative talks pain, gentrification, New York rap, The Manchurian candidate and much more.
By    December 8, 2015

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“Space is everything”, says Ka.

We’re sitting in the foyer of Brooklyn Museum, amidst noisy school kids, an arrangement of Rodin sculptures and a huge, wooden Mickey Mouse-meets-Spiegelman Maus plastic by BK artist KAWS. We were supposed to meet outside on the stairs of the building, but the days’ unbearable humidity forced us into the artificial AC-haven of the entrance hall.

New York climate is weird these days, but then again, maybe just weird for folks who have never lived in a place where catastrophic weather becomes a thing. Tropical Storm Joaquin has just been pronounced a full-blown hurricane and will hit the city any day now. Half of Brooklyn carries around broken umbrellas and clammy hoodies, so does Ka. “This shit is too muggy” – agreed.

Now in his early 40s, Kaseem Ryan has become a master of negative space. Everything that makes Ka’s take on East Coast lyricism so serenely spectacular has to do with what he leaves out: the words he doesn’t use, the pauses that he allows to let the beat breathe, the drum loops that are sometimes barely audible, sometimes not even there in the first place. The harrowing emptiness of the Brooklyn streets at night that are the real star of Ka’s youtube channel.

In a sense, it feels almost strange to encounter him as the humble, super-approachable interview partner that he is. In the gritty ambience of his four albums “Iron Works”, “Grief Pedigree”, “Night’s Gambit” and, most recently, “Days With Dr. Yen Lo” alongside producer/DJ Preservation, Ka rarely appears to be a real person. His voice hangs over the beat like an apparition, a growling narrative voice that is essentially bodiless.

He took his time to hone this specific style, more than 20 years to be exact. First as part of the Tommy Boy-signed 90s crew Natural Elements, later with Nightbreed. “Iron Works”, the slept on compilation of left overs that initiated his time as a critically acclaimed solo act, was supposed to be a farewell to music. Instead – with a little encouragement of GZA – it paved the way for one of the most unlikely comeback stories the New York underground has brought forth. With three back-to-back-to-back masterpieces to his name, it’s about time to catch up with the elusive MC. —Julian Brimmers 

You don’t live in Brownsville anymore, right?

Ka:  No, no more. I moved out of the ville and lived in a couple of areas in Bed-Stuy since. Bed-Stuy is big, a couple of blocks I named on some songs, like Lafayette, for example.

I just walked down Broadway to Myrtle Avenue yesterday. It’s crazy how the demographic on the streets changes so abruptly once you turn right into Bushwick.

Ka: Yeah, the lines are not even blurred, they are pretty drastic. It goes from bodegas to patisseries within two blocks.

 How was that in Brownsville?

Ka: The block I grew up on is not gentrified yet. The whole New York is not what it was. That’s good, and that’s bad. It’s good that the kids are not living as dangerous as we used to live. It’s a safer place on a whole. It’s bad, to me, just because people that come here think New York is soft, is sweet now. That’s not the New York I grew up in. And I don’t want you to think it’s all like that here. There are million dollar homes now on blocks that I used to call the hood. So where are they pushing all the poor people to?

Well, where?

Ka: The areas that haven’t been gentrified yet are Brownsville and East New York. That’s just Brooklyn, packed and packed with impoverished people. Where are you gonna push them to next?

Did you have any mentors in Brownsville?

Ka: Smooth Tha Hustla lived around the corner from me. We were good friends, Smooth, Trigga {tha Gambler} and me. We played basketball together in 271 park. Smooth was great, he took me to his producer… who didn’t like me (laughs).

Would we know him?

Ka: Probably, it was D.R. Period. He just didn’t like my sound. But Smooth was great, they both were super talented. D.V. Alias Khrist, do you remember him? I don’t know what block he was on, but he used to hang around. Those were my friends and I was very proud when they made it. I was happy for them. They were the only known persons that I knew at the time, but of course I was aware that Masta Ace came from Brownsville, obviously M.O.P., Steele from Smif-n-Wessun, Sean Price…

How do you feel now he’s passed so untimely?

Ka: I miss Sean Price, he was just a really good dude. I met Sean later on, he was just a perfect gentleman. I miss what he was as a person, I miss what he was as an artist. I’m sure there were other dudes from the ville, but those were the ones that stuck out to me.

Someone affiliated with Sean tweeted shortly after he died that, if there is an independent rap artist you like, you should tell them now. Just because Sean wouldn’t have had any idea of how much he meant to people.

Ka: I don’t think that he knew his impact, no. The love that he got when he died, I would have loved him to have seen that. That’s with every artist, when they die there is a sudden influx of love. Show those persons love while they are alive! I speak to a lot of underground artist and people don’t know how close they are to quitting. Your favorite underground artist is probably on the verge of quitting right now. People don’t understand it, they take it for granted that he will make more music. Then all of the sudden he goes away and they’re like, ‘what happened to him’? On this underground level you have to comment those artists, because you know they’re not doing it for money. In a sense they’re the purest artists because they do it for the love of the craft. It’s a beautiful thing. And if you’re not getting the money, you’re not getting exposure, you’re not being played on the radio – you need that love on social media. You need all these intangible things that inspire you to say “I’ma do this for the listeners”. I wish fans did that a little more. It’s tough to be a not-acknowledged artist.

You seem to have a very devoted fan base, in Europe especially. Folks that get each release the day it is out…

Ka: Wow. I hope that’s because they feel a genuineness in it. It’s obviously for a more mature audience. You have to be a listener. You gotta be somewhat intellectual, I feel, not smart or anything but a little bit aware of what I’m talking about. There’s no star here, I don’t have no pixie dust on me, nothing. I’m just giving you exactly what I can give you, in the best way I possibly can. That’s it. Also, I don’t give a lot of stuff, I might take two years to do an album. But – I hope – you listen to the album for two years.

What might play into that: you make music that requires concentration. You can not listen to it while doing something else, except going for a walk maybe. Which is a unique listening experience these days.

Ka: It is more cerebral. If you’re listening half-heartedly, you gonna miss a lot of things. I don’t want you to sit down every time you listen to a Ka record. But if you want to really absorb what I’m saying, you may have to take some time. If you just like the song, the pacing of it, the melody, you can do other things on the side. But on the initial, if you wanna know what I’m talking about, you might wanna fall back and chill for a second.

I’m inspired by pain, by heart-ache. It’s very moody. Not fake moody, I’m not trying to make you cry or sit and ponder. It’s just stuff that I feel and when I feel it, I happen to have a gift of writing down exactly how I feel. By doing that, I think people can feel it too, which is beautiful.

You’re in charge of everything you release. Is that more liberating or more of a burden?

Ka: It was a necessity at first. No one wanted to hear an MC my age talking about things that weren’t necessarily party-related. The sound of the times is more ‘turn up‘. I get it, right now we are more in a drug culture again, taking drugs as a means to be free and liberal. That is not really what I do. So on the one hand there is music and on the other there’s the music business. I’m into music. If you’re into the business side, you better cater to what these people wanna hear. Music, on the other hand, is forever. That’s my opinion. I wanna do music that you could pop in 100 years ago and 100 years from now and still get that feeling. So there was a necessity for me to do my own thing. There just was no label going to sign me. I had to figure out how much money I needed to record. How much to pay artists to do my album cover, how much do I need to mixdown an album. How much money do I need to make CDs and vinyl?

The press plant problem is a pretty big issue in the states, right?

Ka: It’s an issue, yes. Now that vinyl is the hot thing to do, it takes forever for a person like me. When record day comes all the major labels are doing re-releases of their stuff and I’m pushed back. They probably want a couple hundred dollars plus, I can’t afford that. But I’m happy I’m doing my music, even if I had to learn how to go to the post office and send boxes to Germany. What’s the rates for packaging, are my stockings right? I learned how to do it and I can do what I want. Nobody tells me to do an EDM remix. I don’t need an EDM remix.

Who does…

Ka: [Laughs] Some people do.

Funny that you mention shipping to Europe. I used to write for a German HipHop mag called Juice when “Grief Pedigree” came out. I believe our editor in-chief at the time wrote you an email asking for a promo copy and you couldn’t believe someone from Germany asked you to send a CD.

Ka: [Laughs] Yeah, I know Juice Mag. I get that a lot from College radios and such asking me to send them promo copies. Sometimes I’m trying to do that, especially for foundations or libraries – if they want the music, I will get them a CD. If they have the money they pay for it, if they don’t and they just ask nicely, I send them a copy.


Are you a sneaker head?

Ka: I used to be. I didn’t like how the culture changed, I wasn’t gonna wait in-line for sneakers. I feel like the kids gave the power to the companies. I used to go to sneaker stores and if the pair was a hundred dollars, I told the guy I had 85 and still get the sneaker. Then it flipped over, people had to wait in line for a week and you can’t even try it on, and you pay 200 $ for a 100$ shoe. I know what it used to be and I don’t wanna give the power to the companies like that. I wear sneakers that everyone can get now.

What record stores do you go to in New York?

Ka: I go to Academy in Brooklyn, that’s in Greenpoint on Oak Street/Franklin. They’ve got a good rotation, I pick up some gems every now and then. When I go to the city I maybe go to A-1. And every time I travel, I try and go to record stores.

You sold your last record in front of Other Music, right?

Ka: Yeah, it’s funny, I don’t really go digging at Other Music. You can, but it’s more like a modern store. I just wanna go to an old school record store with used records. But Other Music is definitely a store that supports me. I think they’re the only joint in the country that has all my stuff. That’s why I sold “Days With Dr. Yen Lo” in front of their shop.

How did that become a tradition?

Ka: It’s funny man. “Iron Works”, I didn’t sell that, I gave it away. The first traditional release was “Grief Pedigree”. I didn’t know how to get it to people, aside from mailing it. So I was like, what if I go on Twitter and tell people that I stand outside and people may come get it from me. Make a pop-up shop real quick. Not a lot of people came, a few did and I was very appreciative of them. Again, that was more a necessity and now it’s become more of a tradition. I like the fact that I get to connect with people, shake their hands… because people don’t see me, I don’t do shows, really…

Why is that actually?

Ka: It’s weird, it’s just… I just wanna make music. I would love to do shows but right now, I don’t know if people would come out. I’m not sure… Eventually, my plan is to have enough music out, so you can’t ignore me anymore. “Yo, he made ten amazing albums, what the fuck is going on. How come he is not on this festival.” I need people to be outraged [Laughs].

And yet, you just played Pitchfork Festival.

Ka: Yeah, that was great. I was glad that Pitchfork showed me love. I didn’t expect it, because if you look at the line-up you had major names. You had FKA Twigs, you had St. Vincent, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick… I feel like someone threw me a bone. Somebody in there was like, “what about Ka”. I appreciate those people. If they’re rooting for me, I wanna give them music to root for.. It’s good to know that all the time I’m taking away from my family is appreciated. I’m doing this for them.

You’re saying you don’t do that much but you put out a major release every two years now. That’s quite prolific…

Ka: I mean, it was three records, “1200 BC” with Preservation was just an EP. “Iron Works” came out in 2007/2008. But that was supposed to be it. I was quitting, I was over. That was a collection of my whole life, just to give away to my friends. And then, you heard the story, GZA listened to the album and all that. Then I went back in and thought, okay, maybe I shouldn’t quit. I just wanted to make one whole album and came out with “Grief Pedigree” in February 2012. “Night’s Gambit” in June or July 2013. May 2015 it was “Days with Dr. Yen Lo”. That’s two years between three albums. We were working on the EP, while we were working on “Days With Dr. Yen Lo”. Preservation and I had been going over to his house for two years, working and working. The sessions that I wasn’t in that “Days with Dr. Yen Lo” pocket, that was “1200 BC.”

Interesting that both releases stem from the same sessions. The EP does have a different vibe.

Ka: Oh, totally different vibe. For Dr. Yen Lo I was in a certain zone, I knew what I wanted to do with that. We knew the sound we wanted, we knew the music we needed, the tone we had to have. The tone of “1200 BC” was kind of pre-determined through an EP that Preservation had released earlier.

Does it help you to work within some sort of framework? “Night’s Gambit”, for example…

Ka: … had the chess motive, yeah. The chess intro for “Peace, Akhi” I took that from The Wire. I also took something from the movie Fresh, and even from the recent Sherlock Holmes where they talked about chess. I was all over researching chess motives in movies. My father told me how to play chess when I was six. It was always in my life, playing in the park or at home. It’s a strong game, if it even is a game, I don’t know. Chess is something else [laughs]. To give myself a direction like that is good, it is a form of discipline for me. These albums have to be fun for me, too, and if I put my own spin on something, it makes it fun for me to write. It’s good to have a little idea before I go in.

I liked the pun in the title. Much like sacrificing a figure on the board, you sacrifice your nights to create art. How do you juggle your private life and the creative process?

Ka: Oh God, I’m living two lives, man. I’m trying to be who I am in the day and then trying to feed my soul at night with being the artist that I want to be. I want to respect the culture and give back what it gave to me. The reason I’m alive right now is because of hip hop. You hear people say that sometimes and you’re like ‘ah, that’s bullshit’. That shit is real. It made me want to be a smarter person. It made me want to read, so I would write better rhymes. It was that important to me. It gave me drive, I wanted to be the best MC there ever was. Hip Hop don’t have a museum like this yet but if we have, I want to be a wing {laughs}. I want to be my own fucking room, the Ka chamber right here. “At the time he was doing it, there wasn’t a lot of light on it, but yo, we went back and checked it, that shit was incredible” – that’s what I want. Van Gogh, he wasn’t revered, he cut his ear off and killed himself later on. That man wasn’t known until years after his death – he needed to have known what he was during the time he was alive. I’m not planning on killing myself or anything [Laughs].

Don’t you feel better now that there is some kind of attention compared to when you compiled “Iron Works”?

Ka: Oh, I do! I’ve said it in an interview before: the difference between one listener and no listener is a universe. There is a dope MC out there that you and me don’t know about. Trust, there is someone in his or her room, dying, ‘why does no one care about my shit’. When they get their one listener that loves him or her, it’s an awakening. You can breath. You become free.

Did you ever talk about the labels that turned “Grief Pedigree” down?

Ka: Nah, a couple of labels said no. I don’t want to put them on blast because, no matter. But I left the meetings feeling rejected. I listened to “Grief Pedigree” and thought, this is an incredible album, but maybe I’m biased and I don’t know. Luckily I have a great support system, my lady was like “so what, learn how to put it out yourself”. In my head that was not special. My old thinking was, if a label doesn’t put it out and legitimize it, it wasn’t worth it. I had to break that old way of thinking. I just had to give it to the people that needed to hear it. And that legitimizes it in the end.

The album format seems to play an important role for you. Is that part of an old way of thinking?

Ka: I know it hurts me that I’m not making songs. I have dope songs that no one will ever hear, because they didn’t make the album at the time. I do like some of those songs, but they don’t fit on nothing. iTunes made it that we are in a song-centric era. You listen to track 3, 7, and 9, and then you shuffle it. But I wanted to make albums since I was a kid. An album is not supposed to reach you at the first listen. Right now, we’re at an age where there’s Mona Lisa on the wall, you look at it for 30 seconds and go “I only like the eyes and the lips, take everything else away”. The tree in the back makes the fucking picture, you know I’m saying. You might not like track two, right now, but that shit fits on the sequence of the album. I’m trying to make beautiful albums.

Which used to happen all the time, you listened to songs so much that your favorites kept changing…

Ka: One Nas album that I really loved was the second one, “It Was Written”. I didn’t like the track “Suspect” at all, until month later, it was playing and I thought “This shit is incredible, what the fuck was wrong with me?” I giggle when it comes on now, like, how did I not like this song?

Exploring one concept per album seems even more important for “Days with Dr. Yen Lo”. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea of you working with another producer on a full record. Just because the formula you’ve found on “Grief Pedigree” and “Night’s Gambit” seemed so specific. In a weird way, Yen Lo seems even more refined, even more Ka, maybe. How did you do that?

Ka: Because I did music with a friend. We acquired a friendship before we started doing music. The music that I do is very personal, so is his. Preservation is a brother now, a truly great friend of mine. If we never do another album I will still know him for the rest of my life. If you’re going to do an album with a person who is your friend it’s a different thing. It’s like playing basketball with someone you grew up with. I’m throwing the alley-oop, I know he’s gonna catch it. The chemistry made the album. He listened to what I did already, and he made it his business to put his spin on it. I was very open to it. Of course we had our back and forth but we narrowed it down to the songs that we found were a great representation of the two years that we worked together. We really made a group together. This is Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth,, this is – you know what – this is Gang Starr. We are one. Dr. Yen Lo is one and the album wouldn’t have got made without the second half.

You also shared responsibilities for once.

Ka: What was dope about it: I got to be just an MC. Whereas before, I used to put on so many hats for an album – producer, MC, as well as this and that – and this time I could just rap my fucking ass off. And I had a producer that was only making beats for me. Who has that in 2015? He’s a very stand-up dude. Every producer that knows they’re good wants to give out beats, want to get placement on this, placement on that – Pres don’t give a fuck [Laughs]. He don’t care, like I don’t care.

So who came up with the Yen Lo concept?

Ka: That was an idea I had from this book that I read years ago, “The Manchurian Candidate”. I always wanted to use that character, Dr. Yen Lo, he was very intriguing to me. And he only had a number of days to brainwash these people {laughs}. Most people have seen the movie. He had a couple of days with these soldiers, and he made them believe in the idea to make this one guy a hero so that he could become an assassin and could be placed in a certain position. The book was dope, but that character, man… I just never used it until now..

That’s a pretty far out concept for an album, he’s not even a lead character in the story…

Ka: No, he’s a side character but I knew I had to use him for something. And when Jean {Preservation} and I got together I explained to him what Yen Lo was about. We watched the movie together a bunch of times and all the song titles represent the day that the characters spend with the Doctor.

So there is a structure to the numeration? I couldn’t figure from the record…

Ka: This is a secret between me and Jean. It’s just something we wanted to do, maybe years from now we will tell what it is but we had a plan for this. Everyone is thinking, should I get them in order, are there meanings behind the numbers… can’t give everything away {laughs}.

Grief Pedigree and Night’s Gambit seem to be part of one cycle…

Ka: …one train of thought, definitely.

Is Yen Lo in a way a vehicle to free yourself from talking about your personal past?

Ka: I was able to talk about things a bit different. But I will always talk about the past because it has molded who I am, it made me think the way I think. “Days with Dr. Yen Lo” was more a call to the state of the art and what I feel the art is either lacking or what I might not approve of. “Grief Pedigree” was a young man hurting. That shit was real. “Night’s Gambit” was a look into my soul, more sophisticated I felt. “Grief…” was definitely raw, rage. “Night’s Gambit” was rage but more honed, more precise. Yen Lo felt like I was stepping back to tell you more about my ideas.


The video for “Day 912”, did you arrange those books in the first shot on purpose?

Ka: Oh yeah, the books are in the order that we wanted to show. Ralph Emerson, Baldwin, Iceberg Slim – from not hood to hood, we read everything {laughs}. The cover of the album is a page from the book, too. I feel like kids don’t read enough anymore, we don’t read enough. Growing up I wasn’t a strong reader. In class they want you to read and you’re kind of ashamed that you just don’t read that well. Again, because of hip hop I became interested in reading. Hip Hop made me want to read and be more intelligent, be a more well-rounded person. I hope some kids want to be dope MCs and they better fucking read [Laughs].

The vocabulary you use is quite unusual. You also seem to enjoy the wordplay aspects of battle rap culture.

Ka: Battle culture nowadays is incredible, these cats are remarkable. The time they put in, the slickness of their performances, you have to respect that. That’s a part of the art form. When I put slick lines like that into mine, they still serve the song, but battling is an offshoot of the culture that is really exciting.

One thing that might be somewhat similar to a capella battle rap is the way that you work with dramatic pauses in your cadence. You have those in your beats as well.

Ka: Space is everything.

Let’s talk about “Peace, Akhi”, for example. That one is very gutsy in it’s reduction, musically it’s not more than one piano note, a bit of atmosphere and very quiet percussion.

Ka: It’s very minimal but it gives you… even I get goosebumps listening to “Peace, Akhi”. That’s one of my favorite songs from my own catalogue. “Vessel” is another one. It’s those special songs. I would throw “Day 777” in there as well. That’s that lane. Those overly lyrical dudes tend to flood the music with syllables, but you have to create space, time to breath.

That only works when you are very economic about your words.

Ka: Exactly, if it’s not needed, there is no reason to say it. I could sit down and write a verse with you right now – but it’s the editing that takes so much time. It can take me two month to finish a verse that took me two minutes to write. The other day I was talking to Roc Marc, we were joking about something: it took me two fucking days to write two lines. I knew it was a fire line but if I don’t say it right it might go over some heads. So I came back to it, came back to it for two days and now it’s perfect.

The piano note on “Peace Akhi” almost becomes an exclamation mark.

Ka: Yes, it hits where it needs to hit.

Was “Peace Akhi” an important step towards stripping it down even more on “Dr. Yen Lo”?

Ka: It gave a direction, yes. I wanted elements of this in my album. Jean is an incredible digger, his music library is crazy. We sat in his house and figured we needed the music to be even more stripped down. Let’s make this even more naked, like, I like this beat here but, can we take this bit away? It was a lot of that. The most incredible album hip hop has to date is “Illmatic”. That’s what I’m trying to reach for, I’m reaching for above that, if that is even possible. That is a beautiful album, no fat on it. Lean cuts.

I noticed you keep describing albums and music as “beautiful”. Is that the key characteristic you’re striving for?

Ka: I want “beautiful”. Not “dope”, or “fire”. Certain things are masculine, certain things are feminine – art may be feminine, even if it is really rough. When you look at how art is crafted, beautiful is the best way to describe it, so I want my art to be fucking beautiful. I want a rose that is beautiful and dangerous on the stem.

Another stylistic thing that you do is the way that you layer your vocals, your adlibs. It’s not just doubles on your verses, it almost feels like another narrative voice comes in at times.

Ka: I love the doubles. Take your favourite songs, do you ever find yourself saying the adlib track? That’s real. Listening to Lost Boyz, Freaky Tah – RIP – was a genius. His adlib tracks were fucking incredible, he was the song. Knowing his importance, he was a model of what adlibs need to be. I study this shit, he was a master. If you start to recite the adlibs that means I won [Laughs].

One of the final lines on Yen Lo says “now destiny is one death for me, not a 1000″. Can you elaborate on that?

Ka: Have you ever heard the phrase “a coward dies a thousand deaths”? You’re so scared to do something that you die in that fear. I have no fear of the things that a lot of people are afraid of. I lived that live. The things that people are scared of because they may get hurt or even die, I don’t have those issues. That’s what that line meant for me. When I die, it will be the first and only time that I die. Although I never like to tell people exactly what to think of my music. This piece of art we’re looking at right now, I don’t have instructions for people how to look at it. You get from it what you get.

Does fear not affect your life anymore? Maintaining a normal daily routine can be scary enough.

Ka: Yeah, but I only fear God. There’s not a man I fear on this planet. I know what I did in my life and you can’t scare me with nothing.

At what age did that change for you?

Ka: From my teens to my early twenties I was a different person. I was uncivilized, a savage, now that I think about it. I put people first now, I wanna be a man of the world. I wanna be a noble person, help people. I wanna be beneficial and just a good human being. At that time I was not good at all. My mother was disappointed in me, shit like that. Now I want to give back to people who love me. I wanted to honor my friends that passed away, so their name lives forever.

It feels like there is a whole lot of purpose in what you do.

Ka: It’s love. It’s being a grown up. No one can tell me about being poor and hungry. I was poor, I was fucking hungry, I did anything to eat. But you can’t tell me that this is the path you want for your life. If it is you are not growing. I wanna be better. I wanna be a healthy person, wise, able to be beneficial to my nieces and nephews, my cousins, as well as to the stranger on the street.

There is a reason I am here, I don’t know why. But I’m not supposed to be here, I know that. I had guns held to my face. There must be a reason I am alive as a 40 year old man right now. Maybe it is art and helping people through it. Until I find out it is gonna be this.

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