'City Of God's Son' Re-Imagines NYC Hip-Hop

Artist Kenzo Digital has created an audio gangster movie using millions of Jay-Z, Nas, Ghost and Biggie samples. Watch the trailer and read an interview now.

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Complex Original

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cityofgodsson_postersmall.jpgWhen you hear the words "hip-hop opera," you probably think about that wack-ass MTV movie with Beyoncé from 2001. But considering the fact that hip-hop has such strong a tradition in storytelling, the two art forms should really find a less corny way to get along. Enter City Of God's Son, a unique new project that fuses sampling culture with the type of gangster storytelling that would make Scorsese proud.

Created by artist Kenzo Digital (who directed Taz's eye-popping "Obama" video last year), the project consists of a 60-minute audio adventure created entirely out of samples. In the City Of God's Son's coming of age story, we follow three friends Nas, Jay-Z and Ghostface as they navigate through a surreal, alternate reality version of New York. Look for appearances from supporting characters like Biggie, Samuel L. Jackson, Raekwon and Lawrence Fishburne.

Whatever you want to call it'a hip-hopera for the blind, an audio movie, a "Beat Cinematic" (as Kenzo calls it)'City Of God's Son is a one-of-a-kind experience. Watch the trailer and read an interview with Kenzo below...


Complex: It seems like it must have taken you forever to search through and put together so many samples. How long did the project take you?

Kenzo Digital: I was a DJ and record collector from high school, and never fully took the step into music production. After a couple of years of deejaying and doing mixtapes and blends, I naturally would have gone into music production but ended up going to art school for visual art at Carnegie Mellon which further delayed my exploration into music production. So 2 years ago I came up with this project and started making beats to make this project happen. While making beats, I was also digging through a lot of interviews, movies, and all kinds of materials to get the dialogue right. That was a huge process in and of itself, recording, organizing, transcribing, editing. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. 

Complex: The project seems more influenced by gangster movies than any traditional remix albums. Maybe the only thing in music that's even similar is Prince Paul's Prince Amongst Thieves album. Where did your initial inspiration come from?

Kenzo Digital: Yeah, I'm a big fan of Prince Paul in general, and that project is dope, but I am not trying to recreate or make a new version of his project. This is sample-based and conceptually more about the practice of sampling as an artist's medium, recontextualizing things to make them new outside of their intended use. I'm a filmmaker/visual artist originally, so I've always been into how sound and image relate to each other. The original idea came from two things, one being my experience listening to Raekwon's Cuban Linx'and all of Rza's work in general'and Nas' Illmatic when I was a kid running around the streets late at night as a graffiti artist, and trying to recapture that feeling of adventure and mystery through the art and music that transformed the city into a mythical place. It's also my response to how boring and unoriginal hip-hop culture has become, and this is my attempt at reinjecting some form of mystery and intrigue into these characters that have been overexposed and run into the ground with reality TV, video blogs, and our society's obsession with celebrity culture. Here is a project where I am recreating these characters into larger than life characters within this Shakesperian/Greek Tragedy style story, all while humanizing and deconstructing them as characters within a fictitious plot that draws from parts of their rapper personas. It's a testament to how life imitates art and how in this instance art can imitate life.

Complex: It's kind of unusual to ask people to listen to one hour-long MP3 all the way through. How should people listen to the project?

Kenzo Digital: Yeah, well part of my boredom with hip-hop music also stems from the radio single focused format that pop music prescribes to. Music has become such a disposable medium with songs being made for specific purposes'club songs, love songs etc. I wanted to break that mold and create something that functions more like a long-form narrative music/movie piece, with songs functioning as scenes and verses functioning like dialogue, no hooks, no filler bullshit. This is a form I have coined "Beat Cinematic". This project should ideally be listened to at night, with headphones and no interruptions, but as long as you have an hour to dedicate towards listening, you will enjoy it. I understand that in today's ADD culture that could be inconvenient for some people, but part of this project is to expand the listening experience beyond the traditional established venues, and give a unique dramatic payoff that has not yet been explored in music. This project is also recorded in binaural 3D audio, an old technology that utilizes headphones to deliver a fully immersive world through sound design and music production that I feel pushes the visceral nature of the world. But beyond the music, it's also important to understand that the music is really just an appetizer to the cinema/opera installation version of City of God's Son that I am putting on this summer at an art gallery in New York. At this event, you will experience the project in a psychedelic operatic art installation that will really push the boundaries of how one absorbs sound and image, and how they connect to this story. It will be a one of a kind experience. City of God's Son is also a trilogy, this particular installment being just the first of three. In addition to being marketed to music and film fans, I'm also trying to push this out to the blind hip-hop community.

Complex: On one hand, this seems like an homage to that '90s New York hip-hop culture. On the other hand, by using their own words to make a sort of gangster movie narrative, it kind of points out how rappers can live in a sort of Scorsese movie fantasy world. Did you mean for it to be critical in any way?

Kenzo Digital: Funny you mention Mr. Scorsese. I met him when I had a film in Tribeca Film Festival in 2005 and mentioned this project in passing as I had just started working on it. I am a big fan of his films and a film head in general, and through this project wanted to create an epic crime satire that commented on the glorification of the gangster lifestyle and the role that media culture plays in that. I also wanted to pay homage to the artists that I felt best portrayed this aesthetic and defined that era of music that I still to this day feel is the most potent cultural time in hip-hop history. In many ways, as much as this is a crime drama coming of age story, it is also a very anti-gangster story.

Complex: How did you end up getting Joe Bataan to do the narration?

Kenzo Digital: Joe Bataan is a great soul singer form NY who emerged in the '60s and '70s. He is an innovator and visionary in his own right, and I felt his voice in particular carried a lot of the feel and texture that I also like about Nas' voice. I also wanted to work with Joe because he is a very overlooked icon within hip-hop culture, his song "Rap o Clap" being one of the first hip hop records ever, coming out right after Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight". The first time I heard his music was actually on The Fugees' The Score album'his song "Gypsy Woman" was used in the background in one of the skits. I dug a little deeper and sought out his records and was a fan from that point forward. But that is part of what I'm trying to get at with this project, is the emphasis of history and its importance in culture, and paying my respects to those who innovated and created.

Complex: Jim Jones just starred in a hip-hop play. What's it gonna take for you to get Nas, Jay and Ghost to star in an actual live action version of this?

Kenzo Digital: Who knows, I'm sure politically and business-wise that's a pretty tall order, especially considering the live format. But I would love to work with those artists on more conceptually-driven projects that really can redefine the genre in some form of cross medium music/film experience. In the end, I am just a big fan of their work, and want to reinterpret the genius that is their work and reintroduce it to a younger generation that may not fully know how deep and critical this music and culture is outside of the mainstream big business it is today, all within a larger commentary on the state of the culture and our society's obsession with celebrity.

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