Today, as New York music lovers line up for CMJ Week shows, Complex is throwing its own event, in Brooklyn. (You can RSVP to it, here! It's free!) It's amazing to see Ka's name up on the bill, as he's taken a long, long road to get to this point. (Well, not physically: he's originally from Brownsville, just a mile or so away from where the show is taking place.)
But his journey has been defined winding hills and valleys, with notable blips on the radar during Stretch & Bobbito's famous radio shows way back when. After years of being unheard, he caught the attention of Roc Marciano, GZA, Mos Def, and Erykah Badu, earning praise from all. His talent went unrecognized, but he won't be for much longer.
Interview by Jeff Rosenthal (@itsthereal)
You've gotten stellar reviews from pretty much every critic that's listened to your album, including the New York Times and Pitchfork, who have all praised your gritty street honesty. I have to ask: Now that you're blowing up, when are you going to put out a video of you on a yacht with a bunch of naked women feeding you pineapple?
Blowing up? [Laughs.] That would never happen, Jeff. Never! I could be a trillionaire, but that never happened on my block, never happened in my life, so I will never do that. My music is too...I speak to a different kind of person in my music. I'm not speaking to the ones that even want to be laying up with a bunch of naked women on a island in Tahiti, drinking Mai Tais and all that. That's not my thing. I'll always be gritty and put pretty artistic looks in my videos.
You're from Brownsville. This Complex show is going to be in Greenpoint, which is rough in its own ways. Like, when the line at the organic cheese shop is so long and you just want havarti NOW. How prepared are you for Greenpoint, and are you going to bring security?
I am my own security. Like my man Guru said, "I'm not a sucker so I don't need a bodyguard." I might ride my bike there, just because I know it's Greenpoint. You know, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I might just get on my Fixie and ride over there, nah mean?
I read an interview of yours where you say your friend Kev rapped under the name Oddbrawl The Lyrical Juggernaut. Is that the best rapper name you've ever heard? Did you have any before Ka?
Um, yes. Kev, that's my brother, and that was the best rapper name ever. "Oddbrawl the Lyrical Juggernaut, blows the spot on the spot." Man, he was great. He was Count's brother. I miss rhyming with him, I miss the group that we had together, Nightbreed. I used to rhyme under K.A. when I was with Natural Elements—K-dot-A-dot—so it's kind-of the same thing. Ka, K.A. At the time, he was Oddbrawl the Lyrical Juggernaut and I was K.A. the Verbal Swordsman or something like that. Those are years ago, back in the days, man.
I feel like you should bring back the long name. You're running around with GZA, seems very Wu-Tang-y.
Yeah. The long name's funny, man, because Ka is...you can't Google me! Cirque du Soleil kills me, they have that show, Ka. But it's cool. I like my visibility: I'm not for everybody, so I don't want to be seen by everybody. I like that I get lost with my Ka name.
I wish the team's name was different. The Brooklyn Nets, when you say it fast, sounds like it could be a girls' volleyball team, but it's all good. I wish...you know, when you live in Brooklyn, you're a Brooklyn Knight, right? I wish they were the Knights. That would've come off a little harder.
The '90s are so present these days, what with nostalgia creeping closer and closer, but there are parts of the '90s that haven't carried to 2012. Like, me, I think we should bring back the phrase "John Blaze." What's your favorite bit of '90s slang?
It's funny, I don't really relate slang to any time period. When I speak certain things just come out. I don't remember if it was '90s or the '80s or even the '70s because I lived through all of those times. I used to always say—when I was about to get into a fight—"I'ma fly that knot" or "I'm gonna put that head to bed." These are terms that are like, "I'm gonna knock you out." I think that was '80s, but I don't remember. Those terms are always great, though. "I'm gonna put that head to bed."
Jay-Z recently played eight nights at Barclays, an arena that he has some financial stake in. As someone who grew up around the same time and around the same place, what does that mean to you?
I was at the show the first night and I was very excited. I was proud of the brother. I know it had to be a surreal moment for him too. He came from the same kind-of lane that I came from. Even the idea of taking part in something so big as bringing the home team back to your home borough is so great. I wish I could give him a pound for that. I'm proud of him. That was great; it meant a lot, and it means a lot to the borough.
I hope that we, uh, have a good team. [Laughs.] You know what I'm saying? I've been telling people for a while, though, that I wish the name was different. The Brooklyn Nets, when you say it fast, sounds like it could be a girls' volleyball team, but it's all good. I wish...you know, when you live in Brooklyn, you're a Brooklyn Knight, right? I wish they were the Knights. That would've come off a little harder, but we can't change the name now.
No, let's start a write-in campaign!
Yeah, right? The Brooklyn Knights! You live in Brooklyn, you're a Brooklyn Knight.
Although "Brooklyn Nights" almost sounds like something you'd seen on Cinemax, or a primetime 90210-type soap opera.
No, no, Knights like, with a K. [Laughs.]
CMJ week, as a festival, puts the spotlight on a lot of emerging musicians and exciting possibilities. As someone who's been around for a little while, where do you feel you fit in that framework?
What's funny is...even with the history I have, I'm a new artist. Nobody really knows my past. I'm not on the radar of a lot of people, so I am a new artist. I'm no longer K-dot-A-dot; I'm Ka. This is my second album, but my first album was...I gave it away to people. There wasn't a release date for it, no one was anticipating it.
No one was anticipating this album: it just came and it just so happened that the right ears heard it and they spoke highly about it. So, I'm honored to be in that lineup with guys that may be the future of music, or these are people that you need to listen to. I'm amazed that I'm even mentioned in that.
I wonder if it feels a little overwhelming for you—all of this attention, whatever it may be—after so long?
It does, man. I know where I was, musically. I was dead, musically. I was just doing music for myself, writing in my room, writing rhymes that I could just throw away because, you know, nobody cares what I have to say. So the fact that now I go do a show and people are reciting my rhymes, this shit means...it means everything to me.
I'm living now. You know what I'm saying? Over the years, I was frustrated. Like, how can I break into that lane of being heard, how can I break that glass ceiling? That I'm getting that now, it's just a great feeling. I can't explain it, it's just really dope.
I was dead, musically. I was just doing music for myself, writing in my room, writing rhymes that I could just throw away because, you know, nobody cares what I have to say. So the fact that now I go do a show and people are reciting my rhymes...it means everything to me.
Not to get off topic, but your situation, to a lesser degree, reminds me of this documentary that's coming out which is getting a lot of Academy Awards attention, and it's about this guy named Rodriguez, who...
Yeah, I saw the movie! Sugar Man. That shit was amazing. That shit was amazing for me because I know that feeling. It was over for him! I went and got a job. It was over for Sugar Man; he went and got a job to provide for his family. He was dead musically, and somewhere over in Africa he was a fucking star. Like, I don't know that, I'm not a star or anything, but...[Laughs.]
I know the struggles he had to have gone through. To abandon something that you love, that you have talent for, and it just comes to you because it comes to you...to say, "You know what, I've gotta be a Man now and go do Man things, like put away these childish dreams?" I was happy for that brother, man, that he finally got to see that his music was moving people. That was dope.
There aren't that many second chances in hip-hop, or anywhere else for that matter, and for you to be afforded one is sort-of incredible. I'm happy for you—I don't even know you, and I'm happy for you. Is that weird?
Thank you, I really appreciate it, a lot. I feel like people are rooting for me and I love it. I get emails from people thanking me for my music. I read them all the time and I'm like, "I want to thank you for thanking me!" The struggles that I had to go through...you know, I quit. I hated that I ever even wanted to rhyme. Like, why did I even start this bullshit?
People don't even care about hip-hop, they don't care about it no more. People were saying hip-hop was dead...and it's like I dedicated all of these years. I could fill up a whole room with the rhymes that I wrote, the papers and notebooks, all for naught. It was really bothering me, you know? I look back on it now, and it's like...they want me to do a show for Complex. [Laughs.] It's crazy.
You're going to be sharing the same stage as Alchemist. Did you ever run into him way back when?
No, I never met Alchemist. I can't wait to meet him! He said some good things about my music. One of my boys tells me—Roc Marci—he knows him very well, and he's always hanging out in the studio with Alchemist. He said Al's like, 'Yo,' always talking about my music, always mentioning my music. "You ever heard Grief Pedigree, this album by this kid named Ka?" It's great, man. I've respected him and listened to him for years and years.
You do a lot of things yourself: You produced your own record, you shot your videos, but I was amazed to learn that you send out your own records. Besides the fact that kids these days don't understand what a physical record is, could you just take a second out and explain for a very young audience what a postage stamp is?
[Laughs.] You order with me online, I write out the address. I actually put the stamp on it, and I send it out, yes. There's no email, I can't email you the album. I have to send it out physical to you, and yes, I have to go to the post office, wait on the line. But I have a relationship with one of the tellers now—she kinda calls me up. She sees me every day with these fucking records in my hand. Now I got a rapport with her, so she does it a little quicker. I'm my own distribution. We got it all covered now.
To attend the "Judgment Night" concert, which will feature performances from Action Bronson, Interpol's Paul Banks, Alchemist, Spaceghostpurrp, Ka, and many others, RSVP here.