Canadian rapper and producer Kevin Brereton, best known as k-os (pronounced "chaos"), brought his lush, old school fusion of alternative hip-hop, rock and folk to The Alternate Side recently and spoke to Alisa Ali about the impetus for his fourth album Yes!, which dropped last spring. The socially conscious rapper also explained his reasoning behind his unique "Karma Tour," a pay-what-you-can trek through Canada, and why he initially had his doubts about the online venture in which he offered every track on Yes! to be remixed by listeners, resulting in the Yes It's Yours (Fan Remix Album).
K-os just wrapped up road trip with Drake this weekend, but returns to New York on May 21 to kick off yet another tour with Flobots at Gramercy Theater.
While chatting with Alisa in Studio A, k-os and his band rolled out three songs: "Burning Bridges," "I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman," and the older "Sunday Morning" from 2006's Atlantis: Hymns for Disco.
Alisa Ali: You've arrived at Studio A with an entire band and live instruments. Why is that often uncommon in hip hop?
k-os: For me, I can chalk it up to two things. [First], being Canadian, coming from a place that produced Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. Really singer/songwriter based. I was always conflicted as a kid when I'd see those artists or see specials on them as opposed to whatever hip hop I was listening to. [I'd wonder] what's the connection between this music that I love and this music that seems a little more sophisticated or thought out? And the second factor was The Fugees. I saw them on "Rap City" around 1996 and it was the first time I'd seen someone rapping over guitar. Wyclef had a guitar. They're freestyling, he's just playing some simple loop on his guitar, and it turned into folk hip hop. Just by changing that juxtaposition it changed the whole idea of hip hop. It became like Bob Dylan or something. Also, The Roots. Those three [things] made me think I should be able to do stuff over turntables and rock a crowd in the traditional hip hop way, but it's going to be a lot more interesting for me to do it if I add instruments, play them and learn to get my head around them, which I'm still trying to do.
Alisa: You're clearly into collaborations, you've worked with The Chemical Brothers [in the past], and on Yes! you work with [Metric's] Emily Haines and [You Say Party, We Say Die's] Becky Ninkovic. How did you hook up with them?
k-os: Those girls? I used to make out with all the time (laughs). Well, not Rebecca 'cause she's married. Just friendships, man. I think when artists meet each other they kind of know that they're supposed to do something together and then you have to wait for the proper time. The thing with Emily is that I've known her for years - she's been in my videos - so it's been a kind of ongoing thing. A genuine initial spark of knowing you have a connection with someone. Same with Murray [Lightburn] of The Dears, who is on the track ["Uptown Girl"]. He's like an older brother to me and keeps me honest. He's a great composer, a great mind of music. All those people on my record - like Saukrates who I've known since '91. He's someone I looked up to, actually. He was pre-Drake era, if you want to talk about the ages and eras of hip hop, the pre-Drake era, well Saukrates kind of ran it. He was the first guy to do tracks with Wu Tang [Clan] and Common Sense. He was kind of a precursor for [all of us].
Sometimes the friendships are nurtured by the fact that you're going to work together but you never really know when you're going to get to that point. And this record was that point when I knew I wanted to tap into those things and really make something happen because people do grow apart too. So you have to get that song in there. It's like that last sex before you breakup. You know you've got to get it in there because you know it's kind of done. Sorry to keep it real, but as I see it (laughs).
Alisa: "Sunday Morning" is from your last record ... and I love the video to it.
k-os: That track was actually another collaboration with a friend of mine, Sebastien Grainger from the [defunct] band Death from Above, now Sebastien and the Mountains. It's crazy because when you make music on both coasts - I live in Vancouver [on the] west coast of Canada and I also live in Toronto in the east - most of the band, the drummer specifically, lives in Vancouver so when I'm out there I work with him, but I have to sub in and work with different people when I'm in Toronto, and that's where [Sebastien's] from. It was a cool collaboration.
Alisa: You have some great videos. I'm really into the "I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman" video which is kind of like a Western take on the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage."
k-os: Or "Dukes of Hazzard." But "Sabotage," I never heard that one! Maybe because we're running and we have those subtitles and the briefcase. It's very Spike Jonze-y as well. Micah Meisner, who did all of the first videos, is a huge Spike Jonze fan so that always seeps through doing music, some of the ideas and frames come from our childhood watching those videos. Video for me explains the song a little bit. People are always asking me, "what kind of music is it? Is it hip hop, R&B or funk?" And I think the video [sets up a dreamscape] that takes you away from all of that questioning. Videos saved me in a way because if you just listen to the music, it's hard to visualize. For me video is a good artistic statement to be abstract. Growing up in Canada watching everything from Tribe Called Quest to OutKast to T.I., the idea of being from Canada and being black ... I control video because I want to present an idea of someone black from Canada who was different than in America. That takes a lot of thought to figure out how you're not going to be a reaction or offend somebody or be completely insecure but present an idea of yourself that's positive. Maybe more real to what it's like growing up north of America. That's why videos are important and why I strive so hard in them. I don't want to just be a Canadian artist trying to do what my favorite artists are doing. I love them and they inspire me, but I use video to do my own thing.
Alisa: You also did the "Karma Tour" in which you didn't sell any advance tickets, it was just a pay-whatever-you-want show. How did that turn out?
k-os: It was amazing. You got everything from a $100 bill to a pennies. I think about a week before people started panicking, someone brought up the idea of [making the cap at least five dollars]. And I was like, you can't have something called "Pay What You Can" and say five dollars plus more. I think the energy of it more than anything, aside from the monetary thing, was the crowds. How the crowds reacted differently when people are in a show for free or when they've paid what they could. There's a different energy and I haven't felt that energy in any shows I've done in Canada. Also, how well you have to play. Sometimes people pay after [the show] too, so some people reserve their judgement until after your show too. So there's that idea of "we'll rap for food." I think if you think of it as super fun and an experiment, it's cool. I think every band should try it, just to see how they feel about the songs they do. Sometimes it changes your set list or your [stage] energy.
Alisa: Another experiment you did was the remix album that you included with your new record Yes!. A separate CD of remixes made by fans.
K-os: I wasn't hype on that at first. I was like, "no," at first. Sometimes your tracks are personal. You don't want people to hear how you did stuff. There's a lot of mystery. Musicians have this thing, when you're trying to create sonics and sounds, you don't want people to know what you do or how you do it. I'm sort of protective of that process. So with this, you give people a track with everything you've done and they kind of mess around with it. Even though I wouldn't want to go through it again, sitting and listening to some 125 remixes of my song was definitely an experience. It [made me cringe] but then [you realize] that these guys killed it. Again, as a psychological process, I'd recommend it to other artists. Throw your stuff out there and see what people come back with because it gives you a whole different take. People put [a song] at half speed, they speed up your voice, they sing on top of it, they put their own raps in. It's like ... wow. It's a good landscape to check out other people's reaction to your music.
Alisa: You played the closing ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Was that cool?
k-os: Our performance wasn't aired in America, but regardless, it was a lot of energy. Someone asked me if I were nervous about it, but you didn't really have time. It's not like a performance or the energy of being backstage with your boys and the crowd knows you're ready to go on. It's more like you're just a cog [in the wheel]. But once you get on stage and the music starts, that's your time, you own that four minutes. But everything else goes by so quickly ... and then we kicked your ass in hockey so that was the best part of the whole thing.