K-os

by Carl Wiser

Have sludgy beats and boorish, predictable lyrics infested your hip-hop? K-os has the cure.

One of the most dynamic and original vocalists in the game, k-os (Kheaven Brereton) has been at it since the early '90s, when he was part of the Toronto underground scene. Drake (and to some extent, K'naan) have broken big in America, but k-os and his Kanadian kohorts - Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Choclair - haven't yet crossed the border.

K-os is best known for his 2004 album, Joyful Rebellion, which contains the kinetic delight "Crabbuckit," the closest he's come to an American hit. The song is a great example of his buoyant beatmaking and flair for metaphor: if a crab tries to climb out of the bucket, the other crabs will pull it back down. Apple wanted to use the song in a commercial, but he "wasn't comfortable with it." Which brings us to another key point: He's motivated by artistry, not remuneration. This means he has no use for standard industry practice, so he'll release an album only when the cosmos aligns.

The stars are once again in position, and his sixth album, Can't Fly Without Gravity, comes out September 4. The lead single is the celestial "Spaceship," a song he had ready for his 2013 set Black on Blonde, but held back until he could wrap his mind around it. In the land of k-os, sometimes songs take a while to reveal their true intent.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): "Spaceship" is a terrific tune, and I understand that it's been around for a few years. Did the song change in those few years since you released it?

k-os: No, "Spaceship" hasn't really changed. It was what it was in the beginning. It's a very childlike song. I think what has changed is my attitude towards it. Sometimes as an artist you create something and you're just a little bit shocked that you've created it. And whatever that creation is - it could be a happy song, a sad song, a weird song - sometimes you don't really expect that to come out of you at a certain time.

So for me, the song has sort of changed in meaning over the last three or four years, because it's become something that's to be looked upon as a beautiful thing in the sense of the childlike aspects we all have when we start making music.

A lot of us, we start making music, and even the way our voices are, how we approach making music, what sounds we're trying to put out there, are very innocent because we haven't had any experiences in the world that we're about to get catapulted into. But then after you get into that world, sometimes your music changes because your lifestyle changes. So when something comes out of you, it's almost like seeing a picture of yourself from high school or public school, a candid shot of laughing or something, and you're kind of like, Wow, that's me?

And I think that is how the song changed to me. In our photo culture, we react to those photos in a scared, almost negative way, because we don't know how to really handle that. But it's part of life, man. There's going to be things that you do that outshine who you are in the moment now.

That's part of the beautiful thing about social media: you can go back and see the positive things that maybe you forgot about. And "Spaceship" reminds me of that, for sure.

Songfacts: Are there other songs that have surprised you where they changed meaning on you?

K-os: Yeah. "Crabbuckit." It's one of the first songs that I put out in Canada. It's one of the first songs that got me some notoriety in my home country. Then it came out in America and people felt it. It was supposed to be used in an iPod commercial, but I was, like, No. I wasn't comfortable with it.

It's interesting you asked that question, because it's a song with a pretty straightforward meaning, and it's a blast of fun. It happened at the very beginning of my career, and now when I listen to it, it's amazing, because it's like my experiences have caught up with the song.

The chorus lyrics are "No time to get down, because I'm moving up." I was obviously experiencing some kind of gravity or such. But after so many years of hearing that over and over and over again, I realize why people like that song so much. It was hard when I was walking down the street and people would scream that song out, or some kid who's 21 now would say, "Oh, my mom likes that "Crabbuckit" song. That's what they knew me of, and I kind of felt weird about it.

But, as I mature and have more experiences, I realize the innocence of it and how on point and clear I was with the statement: just shake off the crabs in the bucket. Try to stay positive. So that's another one that surprises me now when I play it or hear it coming out of a radio station or someone's car or something.

Songfacts: How did you get the metaphor with the crabs in the bucket?

K-os: It was a friend of mine, John Salley, who was managing me at the time. It was his first year playing for the Raptors, and he'd heard my music by some kind of happenstance, and he found me and phoned my house. He played on many NBA teams, from the Chicago Bulls to the Detroit Pistons. He and his wife, when they go to a certain city, they like to support artists - It's just something they do. And I was the one that they picked.

So he's an American dude that's gone through a lot, and he used to use the term, the New Orleans saying, "It's like crabs in a bucket." If you try to take a crab out of a bucket, they all hold onto each other. So just because one's trying to get out, everyone tries to hold onto it.

If I told him I was going through something or somebody had an issue with something, he was like, "Naw, don't worry, it's just like crabs in a bucket." And I always thought it was a good metaphor, because the way those crabs do it, it's really a natural, unintentional thing that we as humans might look upon and say, Wow, they're holding each other back. But it's just the way it is.

So I found it deep in the way that it was such a natural thing, but also deep in the way that human beings tend to want to be individuals and not want that to happen: they don't want people to hold onto them when they're trying to get out. They deny that when it's kind of a natural thing for humans to sort of latch onto someone who's doing something positive.

So I thought it would be a good basis for the song, and it just fit. That's kind of a tricky thing to say in a singing song, but it just fit. And then that's when I was like, Okay, I'm going to use this. So it all came together.

Songfacts: That was one of the most original songs of the era - it got your attention immediately. Although in America for some reason it wasn't a huge hit.

K-os: I think in America, anything's a huge hit that has a certain amount of power behind it. I remember around that time there was a Ray Charles movie [Ray, starring Jamie Foxx]. And I remember my dad making a lot of conversations to how in that song, "Crabs in A Bucket" sounded like "Hit The Road Jack" to him, because he's a huge Ray Charles fan.

So there was a lot of things going on, and my gut and my feeling as a musician is always that we're all channeling each other. So whereas maybe in Canada, it was about "Crabbuckit," maybe in America it was about "Gold Digger" by Kanye West. You know what I mean? It all had a similar Ray Charles kind of bluesy thing.

I was pretty good friends with Kanye at the time, too. He came up to me one time and said he was a fan. So who knows what influences what.

But as an artist, it's just a magical thing when you put a sentiment out there, and next thing you know, it's being cross-germinated by so many ideas. I really think that's what makes the world go 'round. And I think in the next 50 to 100 years, humans are going to start to really tap into the fact that nothing is original to itself: everything's sort of feeding each other.

I appreciate the compliment, though, that it was one of the most original songs. Because I also feel that it was a good time. There hadn't really been anything in - if you want to use a politically correct term - "urban" as opposed to "black" music. There was nothing established in Canada in the pop way of that yet, and people could say, Hey, this guy's from Canada and he's doing something that's soulful and funky and dance-y. We haven't had that yet. So I think that was also being celebrated at the time, as well.

Songfacts: Tell me about your song "Steel Sharpens Steel."

K-os: That's my favorite song on the record. It's funny, because I'm on Dine Alone, which is primarily a rock label, and they like it. They think it's cool, but they never really thought it was their favorite. They have other favorites.

And that's not a bad thing. This happens when you hand in a record: everyone has to choose what their favorite is. But I just like it because for me it captures a certain element to music I've been trying to get to for a long time, which is the softer vocal, more romantic side, and the hard, kind of punk rock steel-ish side.

That song has very much of a two-faced element to it, where when you listen to the verses, it's guitars and it's like a motor just zesting after you. And then when you get to the chorus, there's this release, it's almost like Supertramp or Air Supply or something from '70s rock. Operatic a little bit. And then it goes right back into the hard stuff.

So that's why I love it: because it's hard to achieve that in a song. Usually if a song is going one way, it kind of forces you to stay in that personality. But if you can arrange it in the right way and if you're genuine in what you're trying to put across, you come across a musical situation, a musical landscape that allows you to explore the super-macho side of rock and roll, and also the super feminine side of rock and roll. Because I think everyone from Robert Plant to Mick Jagger to anyone that we've loved in rock had a macho side, but they also had a feminine side, too.

It's a sentiment of a man and woman's relationship: "steel sharpens steel" is another metaphor that you sharpen another knife with a knife. Just like steel sharpens steel, one person's wit sharpens another person's wit. I think it's a biblical reference. [Proverbs 27:17 - Iron sharpeneth iron; So a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.]

So it's a positive look at two people who hang out, who are both strong people, but they make each other smarter. That's the core of the song, and I feel that comes out with the two styles in the song: the soft side enhances the hard side, and the hard side enhances the soft side. Weirdly enough, on a yin and yang level, I think it works.

Songfacts: I'm getting the sense that you have to come up with something different in your songs before you're satisfied with them. Not a traditional hook, but some way of making it so it is something you've never heard before.

K-os: Yeah, I think every artist would do that if they could. For me, that was my philosopher's stone - why I got into music. I always used to look at the careers of people that I liked, and I never could really understand how someone could go into the studio and make one type of music and be known for it for the rest of their life. But I do get it, because people have a certain style that they wear with clothes, and they won't wake up one morning and wear polyester pink suits just for doing it. So it's not a negative thing. Habit is very much at the core of how human beings operate.

But I think if you can cross every boundary in the art you make, it makes more of a statement about respecting other people's cultures than holding up a sign or posting something on the Internet or telling people on and on and on that you like rock and roll music: "Oh, I love rock and roll." If a hip-hopper can make rock and roll music and a white guy from Red Deer respect it, I think that says a lot more for how you feel about a person's culture than just saying, "I like this" or "I like that."

That's why I loved Eminem when he came out, because it was the first time I witnessed someone that looked like that who made music that made me feel he respected and loved hip-hop enough to create the deepest creation that you could within that music.

It's not about just being different, it's about respecting art and playing that funny game, like, Is this art going to allow me to come up with a song that's genuine? Like "The Dog Is Mine," can I actually make a rock song that maybe could hang out in the '70s and be played on a radio station? I hope so.

So that's what I do when I chase these different genres and try to sound different.

Songfacts: One of the themes that just about every songwriter hits on is love, and that shows up a bit on this album. And it shows up in a real complex way on the Joyful Rebellion track "The Love Song." Can you talk about that whole approach?

K-os: Well, connecting "The Love Song" to this? I feel like my early rap music was really not about that. Not that it was asexual, I just didn't have sexuality or relationships between men and women on it. But I think when you're a hip-hop nerd or a musical nerd, your relationship is with the music.

And that's why "The Love Song" says, "This is not a love song, it's a sonnet," in the sense of it's more about the poetry. In other words, this is some poetry, and that's my love song. The love is about the art and the poetry.

And I don't think that's a bad thing. I've discussed it with other artists, and they all agree that sometimes the best hip-hop is made by people who aren't going out there to get girls, etcetera.

But that's also a very unnatural way to look at art, because most art is inspired by love. A big part of why you get into music is because you are weird, and no girls really like you. So you go to your bedroom and retire and you try to come up with something that's going to ease your pain, or at least get a girl to like you. If you deny that, then you're denying some of the core reasons why people get into music.

I started in my bedroom at a early age, so bringing that up to where I am now, actually becoming a musician and having a bit of success, I've been able to not really control, but be aware of the situations I get into that way. But the bottom line is that everything I do that's musical that I feel touches the next level is done because I met somebody, maybe a girl, who influenced me or said something. It could be someone who influenced me in the positive way that I felt the feeling of love I never felt before. Could have been someone who was honest enough to tell me something about myself I've never seen.

When you choose to open, let someone in your heart and your mind, you're going to see things about yourself that you've never seen before, and I think most great music is made when you have a muse like that.

So it's something that I struggle with, because no artist wants to be dependent on other people to write great music. But at the same time, the best music comes out of real-life situations of somebody who isn't a musician, who's driving their car to work at 9 a.m. and spills their coffee and all of a sudden the song comes on that you made, and they relate, not because you're a rock star or doing it for a living, but because you said something very human and actually pedestrian and normal that everyone can get with.

So you have to be as honest as possible, but you also have to try not to exploit your position. There's that saying: If people could be played for inspiration, there'd be a lot of people in the world who'd be rock stars and multi-millionaires. So you've got to respect the fact that if someone inspires you, you're taking from that. I think as humans evolve, we'll realize that's a very true statement, as well.

Songfacts: When you write lyrics, do you write them in one shot for a song?

K-os: Great question. Tricky question. I don't know where my lyrics come from. I have no idea, and it's always going to be a mystery to me. Sometimes I listen back to some of the stuff I wrote, and I don't know how I ended up rhyming this with this. It just sort of happens.

And that's the one part of my music that I never really can say is calculated. I make a piece of music and sit around with it - music comes first 90 percent of the time. I've got the bed track and I've got my headphones on. I'm out for a walk or I'm in a car with the music blasting.

Then I just start saying stuff on top of it that the music feels like what it should say. The song's already telling me what it should say.

Paul McCartney says that most of the songs are already written, you just happen to be the person that is chosen to capture that one. Paul McCartney said he wrote that song "Yesterday" one morning when he was on a boat. He just woke up and he wrote this thing. He went to all the members in the band, to George Harrison, to Ringo, and asked, Have you heard this song before? And they're like, No, never.

Finally he got to John Lennon, who was probably a little more critical. He's like, No, no, you wrote that. And that's how he wrote "Yesterday." But he swore it must be something he'd heard before.

So a lot of times you write stuff lyrically and if it sounds good, it's because it's a culmination of every great lyrical song you've ever heard, and you've just taken all of them and done your own version. I think that's probably the bottom line of where lyrics come from.

So it's never a one-shot thing in the sense of I sit down with a pen and a pad. But it's definitely a one-shot thing that once you're on that train and you're riding it, it just all starts coming to you.

Kheaven's Can't Fly Without Gravity track "Crucify" is based on an etherial sample from the Cole Porter song "De-Lovely," where Ella Fitzgerald sings:

Control your desire to curse
while I crucify the verse
Songfacts: Well, talking about some great lyrics and coming up with them, the Cole Porter lyric you lifted for "Crucify," that's a phenomenal way to say it: "I crucify the verse." Can you talk about coming up with that song and if Cole Porter is an inspiration for you?

K-os: I heard that song when I went to see American Hustle. I'm very much a solo movie goer. If I have a free day and I've answered all the emails and I have nothing to do musically, I just go check a movie out. I remember here in Vancouver I went to a theater to see American Hustle a couple of years ago. I'm a huge Amy [Adams] fan, huge Christian [Bale] fan. And Jeremy Renner in that movie is amazing.

There's a part of the movie where Christian Bale starts befriending Jeremy Renner, even though it's kind of a setup. He's just befriending him. So Jeremy Renner takes him out for dinner, him and their wives. They have a great time and start drinking wine, they're partying. A couple songs come on, and there's this montage of them singing these songs.

One of the songs that comes on is this Ella Fitzgerald/Cole Porter song "It's De-Lovely." I'm sitting there in the movie theater looking at people like, are you guys hearing this?! This song?

People were watching the movie, but to me, as a rapper, as an emcee, to hear Ella Fitzgerald say, "Control your desire to curse while I crucify the verse," I immediately went on wi-fi, regardless of how annoying it was to people, and started Googling this song. I made all my little notes and saved all these links in my phone and continued watching the movie.

As soon as I got out of the movie, I went home and sampled the song, and I put the beat together in 15 to 20 minutes. Boom. And then the verses came really easy.

But I'd never heard someone sing that before. And to crucify the verse, I mean, what more could you want? There's so many metaphors in that: to say something so powerful that you kill it, for it to rise again. Or to do something so well that it ceases to exist, but in ceasing to exist, it's immortalized. There's so many ways to look at it.

A lot of rappers will say, "You murdered the verse," because hip-hop comes from a street mentality. But "crucify" has more of a classy vocabulary thing than just "murdered." Murdered leaves me feeling hollow. Crucifixion feels like there was a purpose for the ending. It's an ending of memory. It's an ending of people's experiences, which is why human beings are so afraid of it they don't know what to do, because all we are are memories, and the idea that that's going to end scares us so much.

So to "crucify a verse" could also be to kill it from people's memories, but to some extent, that's how I feel about true-school hip-hop. I don't call it "old-school" or "golden era." I say "true school." The school that schooled everybody and has been crucified by the new generation. They know that it's there, and they know how powerful it is, but they've killed it a little bit because it's hard to live up to.

So that's my subversive statement about where that's coming from: Come on, you guys know that you crucified the Tribe Called Quest verses, come on, admit it. You know you crucified all the De La Soul and the Public Enemy [Crucifixion ain't no fiction]. Everything that everyone loves right now is from that, but no one wants to let it keep living.

I feel some rock and roll goes through that too: People are Twittering they don't know who Paul McCartney is. That's a definite crucifixion of a music that is everybody's favorite song on the radio. Whether you're Taylor Swift or Metric, you have some sort of thing from The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

So that song comes from the vault of not knowing where it came from, but just going with it. It's like riding a wave in surfing: You're at the mercy of the wave, but if you're smart enough and you're intuitive enough, you can figure out the body language of the wave and ride it. That's how I felt about that song and that sample. And I'm happy that song was out and people got to hear it.

Songfacts: Well, now that I know you're a movie guy, that makes some sense out of the song "Vous Deux" [full title: "Vous Deux (Denzel Washington)"]. Is Denzel Washington one of your movie heroes?

K-os: Yep. And that's because my mom loved him so much. That was the one guy my dad was alright with. If he came on television, my mom would go, "Ooo, ooo," and my dad had really nothing to say. And my dad has a lot to say usually. So I think my dad in his subversive way allowed me to see what kind of dude Denzel Washington was, but my mom also did the same.

So I grew up with that kind of guy being an icon, and then getting over it as I got into high school. Then as I matured and started watching movies, I'm like, this guy is a great thespian. This is not just a childhood thing because my mom was into him.

I've seen every Denzel Washington movie - I think he's an amazing actor. And I think his choices are amazing. With the roles he chooses, he's very intuitive, as are all my favorite actors: Marlon Brando, Christian Bale, those guys.

So Denzel Washington is name-checked there, but really, really, really, if you listen to that song, if people check that song out, it does sound like a song from a Denzel Washington movie, as he's getting out of a limo or something and it's that romantic part where he's in a tuxedo and he's going to meet somebody, a lady or his friends or something.

A lot of his movies, like Malcolm X and Mo' Better Blues, where he's wearing suits and looks great, I just picture this as a song someone's going to put on when they're on their way to an event, or they're feeling kind of classy.

I hate to use this term, because in using it, it sort of takes away from it, but if someone's "feeling themselves," that's the song. And Denzel has told me that he feels himself in a way where you know that he does, but it doesn't come off as gaudy or weird. You just know that he's got style and it's cool. There's very few people that have that swagger who don't offend you or come off cheesy.

The song "Boyz II Men" is an all-star collaboration of Canadian rappers. Appearing on the track are: Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, King Reign, and Shad.

Songfacts: You got a dream team together for "Boyz II Men." Tell me about that.

K-os: "Boyz II Men" is more '80s, '90s nostalgia. The first guy on that track was Saukrates, so that first verse that you hear is Saukrates. Everybody can thank him for that song, because I think everyone kind of vibed off his verse. I sent that around to sell it to the rest of the guys - everybody's always saying, "Let's get everyone on a track." But if the song and the music isn't something that people feel, it's not going to work.

Everyone rapped in the order of the song, and they tried to sort of outdo or better the next guy. My verse is the shortest on there, because really I had nothing to say after it. Everyone spits about 24 bars on that track, and I must've rapped for 16, because I was like, This is more about me going, "Look what I did."

I do a verse, but this is also my shout-out to them, because aside from Shad and King Reign, that circle was the crew - Kardinal, Choclair, Saukrates - that were doing that thing way before I was as little kids. I was this kid from Whitby [Ontario] that came from Toronto and saw these guys killing it, and they helped me become better and they embraced me.

I've known all these guys since I was a kid. I've known the first three guys, because I was a kid with them. And then King Reign came up to me in a club called the BamBoo - which is now Ultra on Queen Street - with a demo tape and said, "Hey, can you check this out?"

He starts saying things to me like, "I know you have a song called 'Rise Like the Sun,' but the sun doesn't actually rise. It's the illusion of the earth going around."

He went into some crazy stuff, and I was like, "You're funny." He gave me this tape - I loved it, and I did a song with him. He must have been about 18.

Same thing with Shad. I got put onto him by a girl named Anna. I went to see his show in Toronto when it was just him and a guitar, and I was like, "This kid's amazing." So I've known those two since they were kids, and now the boys are all men.

So the title is really about celebrating that: A generation of hip-hop that influenced the world in my opinion is now grown and we're still all here doing it and kicking it. And nothing is more beautiful than what the original idea of hip-hop was: to get together with your boys and instead of getting into trouble or going to hurt somebody, you got on this rap track.

You know, "Rapper's Delight," one of the first rap tracks, is a bunch of rappers rapping. Hip-hop is very much a group sport. It became an individual sport when the industry realized they could make superstars out of it. And that's not a negative thing. That's all good, too, and serves its purpose. But I think that's why this song's going to have impact, because people are going to hear the original purpose of what this was about, which is hearing everybody's style in reference to another guy's style. It's that contrast that gives you the excitement that you hear when you listen to the song: all these guys doing their own thing, bringing their own take to this beat and then every single time a guy switches, a style switches. It makes you excited about hip-hop again.

I want this song to make kids who never heard this type of hip-hop in real time - as opposed to going on the Internet and looking at a throwback - to hear this as a current update of a music they should really check out.

Songfacts: How do you feel about music videos?

K-os: Oh, man, I love 'em. I direct them. My next one's probably my most ambitious one yet: It's got dialogue, it's 11-minutes long. So I'm just wrapping that up now. But music videos have always been a way for me to explain my music to people, because it is a little bit quirkier, or left of center. And I think if you use your music video as a way to explain visually what you're doing, it's always going to be fun.

Also, coming from the background I have, there's a lot of images in music videos that are cliché to the culture I come from - call it black culture, hip-hop culture, street culture, ethnic culture. And I think I can use the music videos to shift that and show different images that maybe didn't exist before.

That's what excites me about music videos, is trying to create an image of somebody who's a rapper or someone from the street in a way that people have never seen it. John Singleton and all the great directors that I love, Steven Spielberg, everybody who has ever done anything great, Martin Scorsese, they use a stereotype for sure, but they also use that stereotype to shine a light on different types of personalities and characters that push the art form. And to me that's how music video should be used, as opposed to just reckless fun where someone watches a music video for five minutes and they laugh their head off, like an Eminem video or something. I have yet to do that. I take it seriously and that's why I love it so much.

August 28, 2015
Get more at k-osmusic.com

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