The 40-year-old talks the gentrification of Brooklyn, being a new old rapper, and the problematic gendering inside the hip-hop world.
You'd be forgiven for expecting Ka to want to make up for lost time. But for someone who is simultaneously an elder statesman in hip hop and a recent arrival, every move he makes—on record and in his career—is calculated and polished.
At 40, the Brooklyn rapper—birth name Kaseem Ryan—just put out his third solo album, The Night's Gambit, in five years. That's a productive string of work for anyone, but more impressive considering that those three albums constitute the entire body of his published solo work. As an artist, he's obsessively deliberate—perhaps to a fault. Though he says he has scores of unpublished songs from the last two decades, don't expect a torrent of recordings to flood the market. "I don't put out mixtapes," he says with a dismissive tone. "I'm trying to be the illest so I can't afford a weak bar. I ponder and mull over these verses and songs too much to just give them away."
It's a paradox for the MC who sets an ambitious goal: immortality through his musical legacy. Despite that, he's one of the most humble musicians I've ever spoken to. Both at the beginning and the end of our hour-long phone conversation, he thanked me and expressed gratitude that I would even consider talking to him. Though Gambit (which he self-produced and self-released) has received universally positive reviews, he's still not convinced the demand is even there for him to play shows. "Nobody beatin' down my door for no tours," he says, not quite lamenting it, just stating fact.
He says he's ready: To go on tour, but also to lay the groundwork for his legacy. His albums are slow burners. He knows his songs are unlikely to make it into radio rotation. He acknowledges that he isn't a flashy MC. But given time—if you sit with his music the way he wants you to—he knows you'll come around to recognize the skill and the artistry. Because Ka is an old school rapper, a storyteller who evokes a New York that's still here, but has been pushed to the edges in Bloomberg's tenure. He doesn't shy away from the reality of Brownsville, his home neighborhood that serves as the centerpiece of much of his music. "It's nowhere near what it was. But it's not a nice place. I'm not a millionaire yet for me to repair it. That's my job to do if I'm ever blessed enough."
And much like his music career, he doesn't expect anyone's help.
"Until I get the money to fix it, then I don't expect nobody else to fix it."
Noisey: Are you satisfied with The Night's Gambit now that the public has had it for a bit?
Ka: I'm ecstatic with it, man. Any time you put some art out, it's always good to get some positive feedback, you know? Especially in this climate, you put something out and 15 minutes later there's something new. I'm trying to make art the matters. I'm always working on new music. I haven't performed the album yet; I'm just waiting to see like, if people even want to see me perform it. I don't even know. I like the music to set in first. I don't want to do a show the day after the album came out because nobody knows it. I know I don't like those shows. I like to go to shows where I know the words. I'm giving it some time for it to settle in. The next stage is shows. Right now I'm working on some other projects that I'm invested in.
Any hints on those projects?
I like to keep 'em quiet. I'm not really like a hype dude, like "I got this joint coming, I got this joint coming." It takes me a little time to work on these projects. I've been doing something for a little while but I want to make sure it's right before every body knows.
You're basically doing it all at this point, correct?
I do it all, man. I'm the record label, I'm the only artist, I'm the distributor, I'm the video guy. I'm everything, man. But it's out of necessity. I wouldn't be talking to you now had brought in someone else. I went to a couple labels with Grief Pedigree and they all told me no, like "We'll pass." I kinda started bugging, because I'm like, "I think I got something dope here!" It kinda fucked me up when they just passed on me. It might have been the age thing. I don't know if they even listened to the music. Like, they looked at the marketability, like, ain't nobody fucking with him. I always thought hip hop was one of those genres where they didn't care about your looks. It's all about the music. It was a little bit of a wake up call, but I knew I had something dope with this album. I knew because I heard it myself, like, shit is a hard album. It forced my hand to figure out. How do I get my shit on iTunes? How do I make vinyl? How do I distribute this shit? How do I get it in stores? It was good. I'm glad everybody told me no. It made me a stronger artist.
Are you still relying on a job as well as doing music?
I have a full-time job. The music is a hobby.
I've read that you're a firefighter.
People say it, I haven't ever spoken about my job, and I try to keep it about music. I let people think what they want to think. I do have a job, and it pays for the freedom I have with my art. I'm so lucky.
Do your coworkers know what you do on the side?
It's funny, I never spoke of it, but with Grief it was kind of hard to hide. A couple of the cats was into hip hop. I thought I was going to be able to hide because I thought they was, like, radio listeners. And I know I don't play on the radio. But lo and behold, some of them have satellite radio and I was getting a little run on satellite radio so one of them was like, "Yo that sounds like Ka." And he went a researched it, saw a couple videos, that's how I was exposed at work. But they respect what I do. A couple of them do know.
I never think of it like that. I've been doing music since I was, before teenage. I was rhyming since I was a kid, like 8 years old. The music is the most important thing to me because it's been my passion since I was a kid. You know, a job is a job. That's what I do to eat. I don't make music that I can afford to eat off. It's just what it is. I didn't come in in the '90s where the art form that I'm doing could quite possibly have gotten me gold plaques, platinum plaques. I came in in a time where what I do is pretty much a niche market. It's just always for the select few. That's what it is. I have to work to do music that I love. If the two ever meet, the two meet. But I'll be retiring, I'm fortunate enough that I can retire soon and I can continue to do the music. Maybe the two will never meet. My job will end some day, but the music will not.
How did you finally decide to put out Iron Works [in 2008]?
I had done plenty albums. I was doing music forever, I've never stopped doing music. If somebody was to get my computer, they'd see a catalog of Ka that's like, "What the fuck is this?" Thousands of fucking songs. I wanted to quit. I wanted to stop because I felt like I was getting too old. I got caught up in the like, "Yo, you're too old to rap." I started to feel like ashamed of the fact that I still rhymed. Like, your time has passed. I'm a realist. But I also felt bad that I had nothing physical to give to my people that I've taken so much time away from doing the art. So I was like, "I'm gonna put this album together and do this just for them." And I'm gonna give it to everybody that I love and tell them, "Thank you for being such a good friend to me and I'm sorry I took so much time away from you." So I did the album—I put my heart into it and I printed up a thousand CDs and I gave it to everybody that I love and everybody that I knew and their associates and all that. That was supposed to be it. I did that album with the intention of getting it over. I'm gonna stop this rap shit and I'm gonna just go be a pedestrian. It just so happened that it wasn't the end. It was actually the beginning.
That's when GZA called you.
A friend of mine gave GZA the album. And this is crazy because he gets music all the time. And for 20 years, it's like, "Yo I'm dope, I'm dope, I'm dope." And someone gave him the CD not even like, "Yo I'm dope," but like, "Yo my friend is dope. You should listen to him." And he listened. And by the grace of God he really listened. And he came back reporting to my friend, he was like, "Yo. Tell your friend that he's ill." And that was enough for me. You know I'm saying? GZA—one of the most lyrical dudes in the history of the art form—said that I was ill. I was like, I'm aight. I'm recognized in my art form by a fellow artist. I'm ready to die now. It wasn't just that, he said he wanted to do a track with me. And he called me and brought me to the studio and we did "Firehouse." It was dope. It was emotional for me because I've been doing this for a long time without anyone paying attention to me, so I really felt like I could do something. Like, you're a writer, right? You been writing and writing and writing and no one ever reads none of your pieces. That shit'll fucking destroy you. So that's where I was at, just at the point where I was really like in the turmoil and it was really good to have someone listen to what I was doing on a grander scale. And they could've hated it! I didn't give a fuck if everybody said they hated it. They had to listen to it in order to hate it.
That wound up being more than just a guest verse. You got a feature spot on that track.
When I went to the studio he had a beat for me. Like "I been listening to you and I got a beat that I think you will really dig." And he played that track, which Roc Marciano did by the way. And he played that track and I was like, Yo, this is for real. Like, this is right up my alley. And I went into the booth and I had a verse ready. And I spit that verse down and he looked at me and pressed the button to speak and said, "Do you have more?" And I was like, "Yeah, like twenty years of more." And he was just like, "Yo, do your thing." So he let me shine on the whole song. And that was big because I knew the history of GZA. He did this for Killah Priest on Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. And Killah Priest is a phenomenal MC! So the fact that he put me in the same kind of classification that he thought I was good enough to give a whole song on his project, it was an honor. A crazy honor.
Do you think you'll work with him again?
We never done music together since that, he's busy. Wu-Tang—they schedule is crazy. So I try to stay out of his hair. What I do like to do, I just like to give him all of my projects. As a thank you, like this is what you did for me and for the art, and allowing me to speak. So every time I put a new project out I make sure I hit him. I did see him one time at a show and I didn't think he'd remember me or anything, I just wanted to give him a pound and a hug on some thank you shit, and he remembered me like "Yo what up Ka!" And it just felt good that it wasn't just a song. He's a good dude, man. A real good dude.
Is it weird for you to be coming up at your age? Do you even think of yourself as "coming up"?
You are right. Coming up. You didn't know me in the early 2000s. You're aware of me now in the 2010's. It is kinda bittersweet. I really wanted it when I was younger. I thought I was gonna be an MC and I was gonna make a lot of money and be able to buy nice houses for my moms and shit, get my people out the hood. I had these grandiose dreams of saving everybody, just what I saw, hip-hop was making so much money. But that didn't happen. I felt like I let people down. At 40—I wanted it at 20 but I really needed it now. Because it would have been like I did something for so long and had absolutely nothing. I've been honing a skill and a craft. I have a room full of books of rhymes, hard drives now that if I'd never been able to share, I'd have been a grumpy old fucking man. I didn't get the monetary success that I thought when I was in my teens and my 20s, like, yo I'm bout to get paid. But I love it now because I'm being really true to the art form that I love, that helped make me who I am.
Do you think it's more meaningful to you now than it would have been back then?
Now being the person that I am, I appreciate it more. I ain't famous. Let's not get it fucked up. People do love the art that I do. At 20, I might have been disappointed that, you know, nobody know me. Now, I know that when they talk about the greatest of all time and they don't mention me, or they talk about the illest verses of the year or they talk about the best songs, best albums of the year and I'm not mentioned, it don't bother me because I know that the people that know my music, I'm in their mentions. Anybody who has my albums that really, really fucks with me speaks highly of it. And that's great. I'm not on a mass scale. You ask a kid who the illest MC is, they might not know Ka. You give that kid my CD, though, and you tell him to sit with it, I think he'll come back in a couple months and I might be on that list.
Do you keep up with the latest in the scene?
I try to. But there's so many artists now, I can't keep abreast like I used to when I was young. When I do my project I kind of shut everything down. I go through phases when I don't hear anybody, and then I finish a project like, I'm trying to catch up and listen. I try to stay aware. I might walk past an MC and not know that they're poppin'. But I know.
What are your thoughts on the underground versus commercial worlds of hip-hop?
A lot of underground MCs only fuck with the underground. I'm not on it like that. I just love hip-hop. I know what commercial is, and I can appreciate commercial for what it is, but I also appreciate the underground. From the whole gamut, I like anybody who does it from the heart and does it well.
It seems like people are more willing to listen to both of those things these days.
If you can't appreciate what Drake does, can you really say that you're into hip-hop? He wants to be a big rapper. But if all you listen to Drake and you don't know MF Doom, do you really like hip-hop? That's the test of if you really love the art. If you just listen to the radio and you expect them to feed you what hip hop really is, then you're sheep. You're one of the masses. If you love something you want to find everything else about it. Part of the search is finding out all aspects of the art form.
What about women in rap?
It's male-dominated, I know. I thought MC Lyte was crazy when I was growing up. I thought she was one of the illest. Man or woman. She was just ill. What hurts the women's scene is the sexuality—not the art, but how the companies feel they need to package the woman. That hurts the artistry. In order for them to be on a commercial level they have to be sexual. They gotta show cleavage, they gotta shake the ass. All of the more popular female MCs from the Lil Kims, the Foxys and now the Nicki Minajs, they have to have a certain sex appeal. The ones that we thought was ill—the Lady of Rages, the Lauryn Hills—they was dope. I don't know if they came in 2013 if they would survive. Like that girl Rapsody—that girl can rap. I don't think she'll ever be looked upon as commercial. Not because she can't do commercial stuff, but because she wears Jordans and a hoodie. She just worries about being a good MC. A guy, you don't have to be sexy in order to be a star and shit. But women have to show a certain sex appeal. It's unfair. It's really wack.
What will it take for that to change?
We need the right person. I remember when white MCs was not that. At the time, I didn't think that shit was ever gonna change. They been around since the beginning. I remember Beastie Boys, and they was just like Beastie Boys was an anomaly, like they wasn't even real. For years, if you were a white MC rhyming, it became a punchline. Until Everlast. Everyone thinks Eminem, but it was Everlast's "Jump Around" that everyone was like, "Oh wait, hold on." They doin' it raw, they respect it. It paved the way for Eminem to come around and be not laughed at. Now it's like color is not even seen. Hopefully gender won't be seen soon neither. I want this shit just to thrive, because there was a time that I thought this shit was dying and that scared the shit out of me. The sentiment was like hip-hop is dead, and I was like I can't understand how this is. This art form is too powerful.
When did you think that hip-hop was dying?
It was when the radio that I was listening to started sounding all the same. I was never used to radio sounding like that. That's when I finally realized that we had no control of the art anymore. We meaning the block. I'm from a time where we determined what was dope on the radio. I was the kid who went to the DJ at the block party like, "Yo. Put that 'La Di Da Di' on! Play that Sucka MCs!" I'm the one who told them to play that shit. And if you play that stuff enough, now it's a jam and then the jam came on the radio. It was never the other way around. The song started on the block and then got to the radio. Now the song starts on the radio and then goes to the block. That was the big transition. Instead of the kid telling what's dope, the kid was being told what's dope. That was a big loss for the music. Radio programming is real. You play a song you hate over and over and over and over, you'll find something you like. All of a sudden that melody will stick. That is the magic of music. That's what they did on the radio. That's when I thought it was dying. All of a sudden it was the same theme—I'm rich, you know, I got the flyest shit. And that was the only game that was on the radio. There was no Native Tongue equivalent. There was no conscious rap equivalent. It was nothing, only just that.
I want to ask you about New York. How have you seen the changes in Brownsville?
There's no CitiBikes in Brownsville yet. It's not as bad as when I was growing up and shit. It's nowhere near what it was. But it's not a nice place. I'm not a millionaire yet for me to repair it. That's my job to do if I'm ever blessed enough. I know what the 'Ville needs, but I don't have the resources to do that yet. It's not gentrified like Williamsburg or Bed-Stuy or Harlem. It's still far out from the city. The projects are there. That's the most concentrated area of projects in the city. It's not even just the projects. It's a hard area. The shit you see over there just raises you. It made me a man. Official real issues. Not no bullshit. It's not where it should be. Still abandoned buildings. Still potholes in the street. Until I get the money to fix it then I don't expect nobody else to fix it.
Do you feel like it's your responsibility to document that area of New York?
That area of New York is overlooked. We have so many people that are not from New York now. They walk the streets oblivious to what New York is and was. They're surprised when something pops off. As gentrified as Bed-Stuy is, they shootin' on the block and they like, "Oh god they shooting!" Yeah, they used to shoot every night over here. I feel like if you don't know that, you setting yourself up to fail. You'll find yourself on the wrong block. You'll get fucked up. I feel like the art is so ritzy now, it's so clean and so beautiful. It's a little to sanitized for my taste.
Do you expect the gentrification bubble to burst?
New York is the mecca. It's one of the world's capitals. It's a financial hub. You know what I always thought, like me, personally, Todd? The city starts pricing everybody out. Every apartment is a million dollars and every home is two million dollars. And you're gonna force everybody who doesn't have that kind of money to leave. But they're not gonna leave totally. You're gonna force them to my area. Brownsville. East New York. The Bronx. If everybody got that kind of money, you still need someone to serve your food and clean your bathrooms and shit. You don't want them living with you but you want them living close enough so that they can get to you. They're pushing these poor people into the more impoverished areas and there's going to be a break down at some point. New York City has always been rich or poor. The extremes are crazy. There was a time when I was coming up in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, we was attacking the rich. I robbed people. It's what it was. Now it's kind of more a police state, but I don't know if the police gonna be able to hold it if things don't change.
When did you notice that change?
It was under Giuliani. I felt like I saw way more police on the streets. We ran the streets, I never really saw police. Under Giuliani I started seeing lots more detectives.
As a New York City artist, do you ever bring 9/11 into your work?
I have. Every song that I do is not for everybody else to hear. I dealt with a lot of shit that day. I lost a lot. Those songs are the ones I use for therapy. Just for me to get off my chest what I think about.
You seem like you keep a lot of the work you do to yourself.
A lot of this stuff is just for me. I don't know if guys do that these days. Back in the day, artists had so much material for themselves. Now I think they just throw it out as a mixtape. The market made it so that even your rough drafts, you just put it out there as music. You can pawn it off as a mixtape. Mixtapes now are like albums, but if you say "mixtape" it doesn't get judged as harsh. If it's good it's good. If not, oh, it's just a mix tape. I don't put out mixtapes. The songs that I have that don't make the album are songs for me. My philosophy is that I take a lot of time with this shit. I'm trying to be the best MC that ever walked the planet. That is a feat in itself, because there's been some amazing MCs. In order to compete with these dudes, I want to have perfect rhymes. I want to have nothing that's like, man that was kind of a weak bar. I can't afford that. I ponder and mull over these verses and songs to just give them away. I always put it like this to my people: If you give somebody a diamond, they treasure that fuckin' diamond. If you give somebody a diamond every day, then after 300, 400, 500 diamonds, that first diamond you gave them don't mean shit. I'm trying to write diamonds. I gotta give 'em to you and let you sit with it. Polish it. Until you get tired of that diamond, I'm not gonna give you a sapphire.
Have you always considered your legacy so carefully?
I've always thought of that. I've always that about mortality because I've been dealing with death since I was a kid. So many of my friends have passed on. I always thought I was next. I always thought, if this was the last rhyme that I write, I want it to be the dopest rhyme that I write. At my eulogy, if my moms got my art and posted my work on the wall, I want people to be like, "Damn that was ill." I always wrote with the intention of my legacy. I know you don't live forever, but I felt like music is the way that I could live forever. Pac is still alive. Biggie's still alive. Bob Marley is still alive. Beethoven is still alive. Because of music. I knew that from when I was young. 300 years from now when someone picks up Grief Pedigree, they'll be like, "This dude is that dude!" Or like 500, 1000 years from now they pick up Night's Gambit, they be like, "What the fuck?" I need my shit to be timeless pieces. That's why I never mention shit that's like, now. I need you to pick up that song and you don't know when it was done.
Todd Olmstead is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. He's on Twitter — @toddjolmstead