- Tue, 2010-05-18 09:22
BK-One is perhaps best known as Brother Ali’s DJ, but in the ten years that he’s spent establishing himself an untouchable reputation in that role, he has also released several popular mix tapes. Not satisfied at leaving it there, his first solo album Radio do Canibal is available now, inspired entirely from the components of records collected during a recent visit to Brazil.
I Like Music caught up with BK-One prior to his set with Brother Ali at Cargo, we chat about the birth of the Minneapolis’ hip hop scene, his richly varied musical past, the delights of stylistic cross-pollination and his 10,000 strong vinyl collection (and yes, that last bit wasn't a typo. 10,000!).
“I Like Music because…it’s able to express things that I think everybody feels, but most of us can’t find the words to describe." BK-One
ILM: Do you get nervous before performing?
BK-One: Not very often. I get nervous every now and then when we play in front of a crowd that isn’t already ours. Tonight’s crowd, theoretically at least, came because they know who we are and are excited to see us. I already know how that’s gonna go.
ILM: Apparently you killed it in Bristol last night…
BK-One: That was an amazing show! No offence to anybody, but hanging out before the show, sitting at the merch table and talking to people, I said to my friend Eric “I’ve got a weird feeling about tonight. I think a bar brawl or something is going to break out, or something crazy’s going to happen.” But then we got on stage and it was amazing!
ILM: The Bristol music scene has a reputation for being pretty open minded...
BK-One: You know what, I could tell that from just walking round the city. There are lots of youth hostels and murals and kids everywhere.
ILM: How do you feel about London?
BK-One: This is my third time in London. I feel that to really enjoy a city you have to know someone who lives there who knows where all the cool things are! Otherwise you end up at all the touristy things. The people I’ve met here have been incredible, but I’ve never had somebody take me out drinking and be like “there’s this gallery you’ve got to see,” or “check out this restaurant,” or “so-and-so has a DJ night on Friday, we gotta go!” So I still haven’t really experienced London. I need a good friend here.
ILM: What’s it like back in Minneapolis?
BK-One: Minneapolis has a really, really strong art and cultural scene. There’s a really strong theatre scene, a really well known theatre space, lots of independent places. A lot of artists come out of there, like the merch guy who’s travelling with us, Eric Inkala. He's a really well respected and dope painter.
ILM: And the music scene?
BK-One: I think people mainly think of Minneapolis for its underground hip-hop scene; The Rhymsayers record label and collective. But even before that we had Prince, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, then after that we had a strong Rock scene with guys like Dillinger Four and Lifter Puller, members of which then went on to the Hold Steady. It was out of that we birthed this independent hip-hop scene that’s so strong.
ILM: What has made it so strong?
BK-One: I think part of it comes from the extreme climate that we have there and the sort of geographically isolated place that we are. Our winter is six months long. And I mean actual winter! When you’re snowed in and it’s too cold to go and have fun and be sociable. In the summertime we get out, we really participate and interact with our city and people. But then there’s the other half of the year, that 's when you’re down in your basement working on whatever it is you’re passionate about.
ILM: How did hip hop first begin to infect the minds of Minneapolis audiences?
BK-One: The core members of Rhymesayers; Slug, Ant from Atmosphere, Musab (who was Beyond back then), and Siddiq, who’s now the president of Rhymesayers, had a lot of vision for building a hip hop scene where literally there was not one. There were rappers, but there wasn’t a crowd. You couldn’t throw a rap show and have a crowd of people come out. So Atmosphere just started opening up for whoever did have a crowd. Not trying to steal their fans, but just trying to find a place to do what he did. They figured that if they really believed in what they were doing, and kept plugging at it, then eventually people would identify with it and become a part of it. And that’s exactly what happened. They toured for years with bands like Dillinger Four and Lifter Puller, and they weren’t catering to their fans, they were just doing their thing. Sometimes they would get booed by the audience, and get a lot of puzzled looks. But they deserve a lot of credit. They built a hip hop scene there, and now it’s really strong.
ILM: What journey has your music taken in relation to that growth and development?
BK-One: It’s been random and lucky! Truthfully, I never set out to have a career in music. I’ve always been a huge fan of music, but I didn’t consider it as an option. It’s funny, I just got an email about a half hour ago from a high school student in St Paul, which is the sister-city of Minneapolis, who’s saying that he’s considering a career in music and wants some advice…That was never me. That just didn’t seem like an option. I just sort of fell into this position, and now work really hard to justify it.
ILM: So you've always been a music fan?
BK-One: I grew up in Milwaukee, which is five or six hours away from Minneapolis, and is considerably smaller as a Metropolitan area. I was a classically trained pianist, and then studied jazz for seven or eight years. I played vibes, the piano and the organ and toured for a little while with a jazz group. I played in a bunch of bands around the Milwaukee area, just doing covers of The Meters, and Fishbone, that sort of thing. Then I started collecting records when I was around thirteen or fourteen. By the time I moved to Minneapolis I had a huge musical background from a lot of different areas of music. I had experience touring and a big record collection, so everything was in place, but it just wasn’t the headspace I was in.
ILM: How did hip hop weave its way into your head?
BK-One: In ’96 a friend of mine who had also moved up from Milwaukee asked me if I would be interested in starting a radio show with him. The underground hip hop scene had really exploded and there were tons of interesting 12” coming out, and the radio wasn’t reflecting that at all. This was just after Biggie and Tupac had died, and you had all this trash coming out. I didn’t like the direction that radio was taking hip-hop, where previous to that I really loved listening to the stuff they were playing on the radio. So I though it was a fantastic idea to start a show.
ILM: How did that evolve?
BK-One: We were the first independent hip-hop show in the city, and through that I met a ton of people. First everybody who was involved in the local scene, then people from Chicago, California and New York who dropped by as they passed through the town. Above all I formed a really close working relationship with Ali and the Rhymesayers. As Ali’s career started, he needed a DJ, we were already friends and I already knew the music and had all the records…so it happened.
ILM: With a background so rich with musical genres, what keeps you interested in hip hop?
BK-One: Hip-hop is where I make my living, and put my artistic energy, but it’s definitely not the genre that I listen to the most. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like my modern hip-hop, but when I’m at home washing the dishes and I throw a record on it’s usually not the new whatever. I still listen to a ton of jazz, old blues, gospel, funk and soul. As my new record shows, I’ve been really obsessed with Brazilian music in the last several years.
ILM: What do you look for in a record shop?
BK-One: We just got off tour, this fall just past, with Evidence from Dilated Peoples, and he and I were record collecting buddies. He’s a producer as well, even though he’s better known for rapping. He's really DJ Premier style; chopping up sounds and rearranging them. We go to record stores together. Normally when you do that with another record-hound you’re fighting for everything, like animals trying to get as much meat off the bone as possible! But it wasn’t like that at all! We noticed that the two of us have very different collecting styles, because we have very different approaches to how we make our music. Where he’s looking for sounds, I almost never buy music that I wouldn’t listen to.
ILM: How do you channel your influences into your music?
BK-One: My process for making music is to listen to a ton of music, pretty much all day long, and it’s stuff that I like and it just gets stuck in my head. As I keep hearing things over and over again my brain begins to mutate them, and make connections between different songs, playing around with different ideas. Then I just end up spending several hours a day on the turn-tables, playing different records together and trying to find things that sound right together. Then eventually I sit down and start the technical process of putting things together.
ILM: How do you push yourself? How do you make sure your sounds are constantly evolving?
BK-One: Travel is both an inspiration and a hindrance. Where somebody like Ali only needs a pair of headphones and a pen and paper to practice his craft, it takes equipment for me that’s neither very portable nor very easy to set up quickly and easily in a hotel room.
ILM: He can just be sat on a train…
BK-One: Right! With travel I try to really process as much music while I’m on the road as possible. I spend a lot of my time listening to music and just taking notes.
ILM: What kind of notes?
BK-One: Just ideas for things that might fit together. They’ll be very technical sometimes. Also, my phone has little voice notes that you can leave, so I’ll sing ideas into it. They sound terrible, but they give you an idea! But to answer the original question of how I push myself further, every project that I do I overshoot what I think my abilities are. I try to do more than I’ve ever done before, and more than I even really know how to do. Then the challenge is figuring out “okay, with what you know, what you have and with what your experiences are, how can you make this work? You’ve already bit off more than you can chew, so how you gonna sort it?”
ILM: Can you trace your development when you consider your own back catalogue?
BK-One: The first couple of mix CDs were very traditional mix CDs. Here’s a song, I let it play, then I beat-match the next song and so on. The real artistry in it was making smooth transitions, and selecting music that sounded good together. Once I felt like that wasn’t really challenging me anymore I developed it. The next mix CD I put out, Set In Motion, about four years ago, was still a mix CD. But, rather than just having one song after another I took the drums from this song, the bass from this song, the vocals from this song…There was a cut-and-paste section that, rather than just bigging BK-One, I tried to tell a story with. It seemed nearly impossible to me, so I just told myself to figure out how to do it.
ILM: What was the story?
BK-One: I told a story about a dude hitting on a girl in a club, getting shot down and feeling shitty. On top of that I tried to incorporate more styles of music. Instead of just hip-hop, funk and reggae, I found afro-beat, bee-bop jazz, afro-Cuban stuff, eighties pop and tried to take these music styles that shouldn’t fit together and make them fit together. Once I’d done that, the next logical step for me was what I’ve just released now, my album. I was like, “okay, you’ve already played about with combining music, looping music, layering things,…the next logical step is to make an album and see how you do with it.” That was quite a challenge.
ILM: How did you approach the collaborations? How do you work with other musicians?
BK-One: My new album had to be nothing but collaborations. I‘m not a rapper. Trust me, you don’t want to hear me rap! Me and my partner Benzilla made all the music for it and then brought in the vocalists on each track. It’s different people for each song. So it appears that collaboration is a huge part of my career, but the truth is that I’ve really led a music career that’s been pretty independent. To me, collaboration involves compromise. I didn’t compromise with anybody. This was my album, and I basically said “you’re gonna be on this song, here are the parts you’re going to be on, this is what I need from you, this is how the song’s going to go, now do it.”
ILM: Did you present an idea for lyrics too?
BK-One: No. Part of being a smart, successful person in general is knowing what your strengths and your weaknesses are, then playing to your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses. I’m not a writer, and I’m not a rapper. So I knew better than to try to step into other people’s territory and tell them “this is what you should write about.” But in terms of structuring the songs and putting the different rappers together on the songs, who in a lot of cases had never worked with each other and in some cases had never heard of each other…
ILM: It must have been amazing seeing that chemistry…
BK-One: For sure! It was fun putting people next to each other, who maybe technically shouldn’t work together. Like putting Brother Ali and Scarface from the Geto Boys together. In some people’s minds those are two different worlds of hip-hop, and it shouldn’t work. But to me they have different backgrounds and different worldviews, they both have the same love of music, and similar themes in their music. I just I heard them fitting together. Actually, it’s interesting that this question should follow the last one, because in my mind the next logical step in pushing myself on from this album is a true collaboration.
ILM: How do you see that working?
BK-One: This was my album. It was my vision and I executed it. With a true collaboration I’ll have to compromise, I won’t have complete control over the finished product. So the next project that I’m working on is to executive produce for a French singer who’s done some work with Calexico in the past. It’s her album, so I’m gonna have my fingers all in it, but it’s her vision that I have to satisfy. It’s going to be really challenging, and it’s not sample-based music, it’s more based around melody and chord changes than hip-hop. That’s the new challenge for me; making something that’s more musical and more collaborative.
ILM: You’ve come a long way through working with Ali, what’s you relationship with him like now?
BK-One: We’re friends more than anything. We’ve been touring together for ten years now, and when we met each other we were both in quite shitty places in our lives. We were much younger. It’s ten years, but it’s a big ten years in our life. From early twenties to early thirties there was a lot maturing and growing. We kind of did that in tandem. Our working relationship is a real natural one. Both he and I have a really similar vision for what we want the live show to be. We both come from the same pedigree of hip-hop appreciation, and the same era of living hip-hop. We both come from a place where you weren’t allowed to be a credible hip-hop musician if you didn’t have an incredible live show, so that spills into what we try to present to people when we come out on tour.
ILM: Tell us all about this huge music collection you’ve built up!
BK-One: Well, it’s kept in my basement in Minneapolis. I have no idea how big it is. Somebody just asked me that for the first time earlier this year, and I couldn’t even begin to guess. It kind of has me curious though. I might go home and try to make an estimate.
ILM: So it’s a case of making an estimate rather than counting?
BK-One: Oh yeah. It’s maybe approaching ten thousand.
ILM: All vinyl?!
BK-One: Yeah. I have CDs and tapes as well, but what I’m talking about right now is the record collection. I’ve been adding to it since I was fourteen or fifteen. The genesis of it is that when I was studying jazz in Milwaukee my teacher, a guy named Biff Gribble, was probably the most passionate teacher I’ve ever had. Not just for music, just passionate, period. He had spent his life collecting jazz records and as much as my record collection is my baby and as fiercely as I guard it, it makes me appreciate him all the more. He brought his collection into the classroom and turned it into a library. He had spent his whole life collecting records, and it was so important for him that his students should fall in love with music, that he sacrificed his records to his kids, and said “borrow them, take them home, you don’t have to sign them out, I trust you to bring them back.” I think in the back of his head he was thinking “and if you don’t bring them back, you’ll have a fantastic jazz record that you can fall in love with.”
ILM: What an amazing guy!
BK-One: Yeah! It was through that, that I really discovered that music had a history. Cos when you’re thirteen or fourteen you listen to what’s on the radio, and what your friends are listening to. It’s contemporary music, and not a lot of it’s real great.
ILM: It can take time to realise you can do more than just absorb…
BK-One: That you can actively seek, exactly. Pouring through his record collection not only helped me fall in love with jazz, but made me fall in love with the idea that past generations had fantastic music, and that there was a real thrill in trying to dig it out. Plus, when you're that age, you’re spending allowance money. You’re not rich! Buying a tape or a CD back then was about $10, but buying a record was about $3. Even if you buy three records and only one of them turns out to be any good, it’s a good investment.
ILM: Is the majority of your collection jazz records?
BK-One: Yeah, a lot of jazz, a lot of soul and funk, a lot of soundtracks, a couple of random county and western records that I like! Obviously there’s a lot of hip-hop, some blues, then over the last three or four years I’ve really fallen in love with exploring other parts of the world, so there’s a lot of Brazilian records, African records, French records… I guess my favourite kind of music, as a blanket statement, comes from different musical traditions colliding with each other and produce something new.
ILM: Hence the Brazilian music in Radio do Canibal?
BK-One: Yeah, I was fascinated to see what happened when people who came from that culture, with a background in Bossa Nova, Samba and the folk music from the North intersected with the British Invasion rock music, jazz, funk and soul from America, Portuguese fado, reggae, African rhythms… And they didn’t steal it, or do covers of it; they incorporated it into something they already knew, and it made something new and exciting. Likewise, when you hear the blues intersect with rock.
ILM: Any prime examples from your collection?
BK-One: I have a jazz record by this great vibist named Gary Burton, which is a jazz group playing jazz arrangements, but they’re playing practically country-western music. On paper it sounds terrible, but it’s brilliant! That’s the kind of music I like. When people take different traditions and find something new to pull out of them.
ILM: What is it that keeps you collecting records?
BK-One: Part of the reason that I’ve always been such a collector of music, always wanting more to the point of a literal addiction, is because I feel like I want a collection that at any point in my life, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I have the perfect record to put on and say “that compliments exactly where my heart is.” There’s something about melody, and hearing someone really pour it out in their vocals, that does something that describing what you’re going through really doesn’t do.