Underground Report: K'naan and J. Rawls & Middle Child

posted May 25, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 11 comments

If rap is a form of modern-day poetry and rappers are the servants of the craft then Knaan is crowned King. Pounding irreplaceable beats on the drum beneath his lanky hands and anyone lucky enough to see his shows can attest to Knaans crazy abilities to rock that drum - Somali-born Canadian exhibits the true meaning of Hip Hop by simply, being himself. For Knaan, that includes blending poetry and Hip Hop with acoustic beats and a story of war, struggle and hope. Champion in exhibiting realities of warfare in his home of Somalia through African-inspired blends and dope story-telling, its no surprise that Knaan has been invited to tour with Damian Marley (and stay in the house and studio of legendary Bob Marley), perform with Mos Def and join the line-up of worlds most famous musicians for the Live 8 benefit concert of 2005. As he gets ready to release The Dusty Foot Philosopher Deluxe Edition on June 24th, HipHopDX sits down with Knaan to discuss his live band approach to shows, his ties with the Marleys and his views on his peoples struggle.

HipHopDX: I waited a minute for this interview, youre harder to track down than Obama.
Youre just saying that to me.

DX: Im serious. Are you still in Jamaica?
No, Im in L.A. now.

DX: You were working with Damian Marley in Jamaica. Can you tell us about that?
K: Damian
and I grew to become sort of like family, so we were just doing songs and music ideas and working on tracks and things like that. As an extension from the tours that weve been on together, we just started to work. And then we went to Jamaica and they gave me their fathers old house and studio and I spent three months recording there.

DX: Bob Marleys studio huh? What were you recording exactly?
An album.

DX: Your future release?

DX: How did you and Damian meet?
We met on the Welcome to Jamrock Tour when his album was released. I did a world tour with him for that. I think people who worked with him knew who I was and wanted to establish a relationship between my band touring at the time and him, Damian, who has become this big star because of that one Welcome to Jamrock album. And when I met him, Damian told me that a lot of people he respected, and elders that he knew even from his country were saying to him that he and I should meet. And so finally we did and thats it.

DX: The Dusty Foot Philosopher Deluxe Edition is set for a release on June 24th. In what way is this version different from its previous release, 2005?
Theres been re-recorded songs; Ive kind of re-vocalized some songs, remixed some songs, to kind of make it feel...When you go on tour for a long time you start to see things you would like to fix in your songs. And I got a chance to do that because it was going to be re-released. And so I did that with a few things and a few mixes over, and theres also a new song in there with M-1 from dead prez.

DX: Now in terms of labels, are you with Interdependent Media as well as A&M/Octone, Records [Maroon 5s label]?
Nah. Im signed to A&M/Octone Records but The Dusty Foot Philosopher is being released by Interdependent Media.

DX: If Rap Gets Jealous passionately attacks the lack of standards in Hip Hop presently. "So how could rap quench my thirst? I dont even hear verses no more/ I hear jerking off punks with lip glosses and purses/ I dont see nobody operating shit anymore, I see nurses." Elaborate...
That just means its not up to par right now. Its kind of like words of disappointment as well as encouragement. Because when you love something and it lets you down by not being itself, you get angry at the thing. But you get angry in a sense that you would at a child, you know? And so you say, You need to do better, and thats what that song is about. Its saying that Ill just leave the genre if you dont up your game. So that part of the song is just about how everyone is doing the mundane, same old thing, whereas in what Hip Hop used to be is a fresh expression of the self rather than a uniformed one of ideas of the capitalist society. So its kind of yelling at them, saying, Please do something else otherwise Im out - 'cause I just cant afford to be a part of it.

DX: Lip glosses and purses are you portraying mainstream rappers as lacking masculinity?
I guess thats what it kind of does but its not likeits sayingthe idea there is more about the shiny kind of gloss. The idea that you have this kind of gangster version of yourself, this idea, but I really think youre just by saying that you are [a gangster] it makes you kind of a sissy. And thats kind of what Im talking about.

DX: Your shows consist of a live band, you playing the drums, the whole nine. Did you ever second-guess your instrumental approach to live shows that perhaps it wont be accepted by the Hip Hop crowds who may be used to turntables and prerecorded beats?
I never thought of it; I really didnt. Cause I just never really cared. It wasnt like I was out there to be accepted - I was out there to do what I do. I never really thought to seek acceptance from a certain audience. Im not really that kind of an artist who tries to go around pleasing certain crowds so that he can belong into something. I already have my own identity, I know who I am, I know where Im from and I play the music that pleases me. And then, if you enjoy it then its great. But if not Im certainly not about trying trivialize for anyone else. And I never thought there would be a point to me having turntables because turntables can only really play stuff thats pre-recorded. And Im a human thats living and has experiences so what if I dont feel exactly like that melody that day, am I gonna have to play it because the turn table says so?

DX: Makes sense. Much of your realities deal with the realities of war; what is peculiar about war poetry?
Peculiar? Nothing for me because we know war poetry. Where I come from theres neutral poetry, theres love poetry, theres peace poetry, theres war poetry; so, all of it exists, except the kind of war poetry that I do is anti-war poetry. And I dont see any contradiction with poets who are participating in war as I surely would have been if I had been left there a little longer. Theres no contradiction because in the way that I look at poetry and the way generally my country looks at poetry, its not an elitist thing. Its not for the pompous who sit around [with their] legs crossed drinking tea and discussing the validity of such and such novel. We come from poetry and thats what Im talking about.

DX: Your grandfather was also a poet. Do you know the origins of poetry in Somalia?
The origin I dont know. It must go way back. Long ago theyve been dubbed by ancient Greeks as the "Nation of Poets" the people of Somalia. And its something that exists; its in everything for us. Our number one form of expression is poetry and almost every household possesses a great somebody whos a poet. Its just a part of life for us.

DX: When your father moved to New York from Somalia to help the family back home, why did you ask him to send you Hip Hop albums before you even understood English and so the lyrics on those albums?
Cause I heard it once played. Somebody played me something and it had a rap verse in it and I thought, Thats what I want. So when I got this opportunity to speak to my father on the phone, I explained to him what it was he said, Oh oh okay, thats new here; thats whats called rap music. And I was like, Yeah, whatever it is I want more of that. He just happened to luckily fall upon Eric B. & Rakim. So he got me that. And I was listening to a real deal when it was new in New York.

DX: You won BBC Radio 3 award for World Music in the Newcomer category in 2007. In your opinion, what is it about The Dusty Foot Philosopher that caters to the global audience as a whole as opposed to just one region?
The message; its a global message. In Canada, it won the "Hip Hop Album of the Year." Over there, the world, I think its genre-transcendent. Mainly, the sound has something to do with the way we play certain songs. Still, I think more than that its genre-transcendent because of the global message thats within the music.

DX: I read your opinion piece on the effects of colonialism, particularly as it pertains to Somalia. Taking into consideration the colonialist tactics to divide the Somali people - as well as US funding of oppressive governments and Ethiopias consistent attempts to control Somalias cost and land - is there anything left for the Somali people to do to help themselves or are their hands shackled with the outcomes of war?
I dont know what a voiceless, powerless people can do. Theyve taken up arms as much as they can to defend their right to be free and to live. I dont know what else there is to do. I think its a question of what the world and those who do not want to live with the guilt on their conscience - I think its more a question for what the rest of the world is going to do. Because we all know Somalia has been really stripped of its power. I dont think that the population over there can actually control their destiny anymore; unfortunately, that is a sad state for a people to be in. But theres nothing left for them to do. Its poor and just thinking of how to survive; and if you dont do that then you take up a gun and you get killed and if you stay, you get killed. There are no options for Somali people. I think the rest of the world has to be responsible enough to look at the events that are going on before that comes back to haunt the rest of the world.

DX: Why did you choose to film Soobax [click to view] in Kenya?
Initially, because I would have risked everyones lives to take them to shoot in Mogadishu. But eventually it started to make sense to have filmed Soobax [in Kenya]. Soobax is the sentiment that is an outcry from the powerless abroad. Its not the powerless who are inside the country. The outcry is from those who are made to leave. So it made sense that I would shoot the video in Kenya which has the largest population of immigrants and refugees from Somalia; so it was the right place to do the video.

DX: Interestingly enough when I was doing work with the UN in a country that also suffered from aggressive warfare, Bosnia-Herzegovina, I heard Soobax playing in a small town of Mostar. I thought that was significant
Wow. That is very significant

For a man with a dual career (music production and teaching), J. Rawls sure knows how to use his time wisely. We dont know how well he pars in the teaching department but we are certain that his Soul, Neo-Soul and Hip Hop compositions are on the quality end of Hip Hops production spectrum which can be credited to Rawls preference to sampling as well as his Jazz influence. He completed more projects than producers without an additional responsibility of education the youth, which include four solo album releases (2001-2007), as well as various collaboration projects including five solo joints with The Lone Catalysts partner, emcee/producer J. Stands, and two joints via 3582. One of Rawls most notable gigs was his production for Black Star, consisting of Yo Yeah and Brown Skin Lady, (and who can forget the good hair Intro from Chameleon Street, 1989?) As J. Rawls returns from deejaying in the UK, France and Ireland, ready to release his collaboration project with Middle Child, Rawls and Middle (June 10th), HipHopDX digs into Rawls' thoughts on his current projects, the quality of Hip Hop and the balance between his two passions (oh and Middle Child creeps in to answer a couple questions.)

HipHopDX: You just came back from deejaying in the UK. How was that?
J. Rawls:
It was great! I deejayed in London, Dublin Ireland, St. Etienne, France, and Marseille, France.

DX: What are some of the cultural differences you noticed between Ireland and the US?
One thing I noticed is that people in Ireland know how to party! They kick it until all hours of the night, even on weeknights. I noticed the streets were trashed - and it looked really bad. Then in the morning when I woke up, they were nice and clean and the city was beautiful again. The city workers did an excellent job of cleaning up at night.

DX: Talk to me about your album with Middle Child, Rawls & Middle.
Me and Middles album is a classic J. Rawls type album: Hip Hop mixed with Soul flavor. We just had fun making this album and we were not stressed at all about it. I think you can hear that in the music. We just took our time and enjoyed making an album.

DX: What is it about Middle as an artist that made you want to collaborate again?
She is an amazing talent. We clicked from the moment I first met her. She was all over The Essence of Soul [click to read], my 2005 album, and I knew with our chemistry that we would end up doing a project.

DX: Dont Lock My Drummer Up. What was the inspiration behind this joint?
Middle Child:
This song was actually a quick response to a real situation that had just happened. The drummer I worked with on a show got into a home situation and there was a threat of the police showing up. He called me like a day before the gig with the situation going in the background. So, I got in the lab with Rawls that evening and started playing the Rhodes and singing "Don't Lock my Drummer Up." It was the last thing I needed at that time. I had been through a lot with bands. It's still that way sometimes.

DX: By Your Side. En Vogue/Prince-ish influenced. How did it feel to experiment from your subdued/Jazz origins?
It felt great. Middle suggested that and I am so happy she did. I have wanted to try some different ideas with my music and this gave me a great opportunity.

DX: Was the title inspired by Sades By Your Side?
No. I love Sade, but that never entered my mind until this question. It was just the part of the chorus that I chose to emphasize.

DX: J., youre from Ohio. Was it through MOOD that you ended up doing production on Black Star's album?
Of course! [Donte] and them are my fam and yeah, I met Kweli through them; actually, I met Te through [Lone Catalysts partner] J. Sands.

DX: Why havent we seen collaborations with either Kweli or Mos since Black Star?
Good question; you would have to ask Mos or Kwe.

DX: Whats in the works for The Lone Catalysts?
We just finished a new album; it's called Square Binizz, and its pretty hot. Twelve joints straight to the point

DX: When is its official release?
Square Binizz is out in Japan; its getting heavily downloaded on blogs now. But [it] will be officially released in the states in the next couple of months.

DX: What is the groups biggest challenge right now?
Finding good distribution is our biggest challenge right now. I think that is a lot of cats biggest problem: getting the product to the people. Also marketing.

DX: What do you teach?
I teach business and computers. I teach college and high school.

DX: Is it difficult to balance teaching with creating music? How do you find the time to focus on both professions?
Its very hard; thankfully, I love doing both so it makes it easier. I usually work on music at night when I put my kids to bed. That is my time to myself, when I can be most creative.

DX: Are the youth as misguided as they appear to be?
Well I would say yes, but my dad said they thought the same thing about us, so I guess its not that bad. The main difference I see is, when I was growing up we had some positive rap in the mainstream. Now I cant think of too much at all that the youth have which is positive.

DX: What is your current vision as an artist? For what kind of listener do you create music and what sort of mood are you going after?
Im always going after any type of mood the music conveys. I have done beats and people are like Aww, this beat is dark, while I was thinking it was light and airy. So I dont mind what mood they get; as long as they get some mood, I am cool with that. I am not really trying to go for a certain listener, but I am trying to get people to listen. My current vision is for me to keep doing music and to try to touch as many genres of music as I can. I hope to do a rock album one day!

DX: We hope to hear it one day. Where does Hip Hop stand on musics spectrum of quality right now?
That is a great question. [Laughing] Not really sure. I may be a bit biased. I am not really on Hip Hop right now. I really listen to other music like Jose Rodriguez and Koop. Hip Hop-wise I like Kanye [West] - anybody that samples. That is Hip Hop to me.

DX: What producers, in your opinion, are creating heat right now?
JR: Kanye
- I love that Homecoming [click to view]. Wajeed, Flying Lotus, Nottz its a bunch of cats doing it.

DX: What producers, in your opinion, are credited as good yet are overrated?
Hmmm. Im not sure about that one. There are a bunch of producers that are overrated at one time or another.

DX: The news is plagued with most recent reports on the casualties of recent disasters in Burma and China. In your opinion, should Hip Hop artists influence attention to these disasters, since a large chunk of their profits come from the global world, not just the US?
Of course, but the major artists making big bucks dont think about that kind of stuff. Its sad really.

DX: What are some of the trends we are seeing in underground Hip Hop currently?
I havent noticed anything exciting. More and more people are sounding like they are just trying to find a sound or find their way.

DX: What are you working on right now?
Im working on an album with John Robinson. Together we are called Jay Are and the name of the album is The 1960s Jazz Revolution Again

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