New York rapper Ka has carved out a small, unique corner for himself. As hip-hop beats get progressively more crushing, Ka's drums dissipate to the point of nonexistence. While young stars emphasize melody and play with tone; Ka raps with soft, careful, consistent phrasing. And as more rappers vault from unknown to ubiquitous behind a SoundCloud hit, Ka focuses resolutely on the creation of albums. He's 44, and has only been releasing solo albums since 2008.
"Since I was eight years old, I wanted to be a MC," he tells Rolling Stone. "That was the first career I wanted. It didn't happen to me the way I wanted in my 20s, where I could take care of my family, and we could just be rich, and I could put my boys on."
Ka currently works as a captain in the New York City Fire Department, a fact that the New York Post used as the basis for a recent hatchet job titled, "FDNY veteran 'bad-mouths' cops in double life as rapper." Ka briefly addressed the paper's racist fear-mongering on Twitter last week: "With love comes hate … can't have one without the other. Be prepared for both."
His atypical path leads to a different set of stories, and Ka believes he contributes an idiosyncratic viewpoint to the hip-hop ecosystem. "I don't hear this perspective in the art too much: the man who's lived the life already, got out of it, now is trying to lead the honest life, and can talk about how if you stay on the right road, you can get to this," he says.
Recently, Ka seems to have hit his stride: a four year hiatus followed 2008's Iron Works, but his latest album, Honor Killed The Samurai, is his fourth in five years. Ka spoke with Rolling Stone about his new record in between sets of pull-ups and bar-dips in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
Why did you decide to organize this album around the idea of the Samurai?
When I was young, there used to be something called Drive-In Movie on Channel 5. After the cartoons come on, Channel 5 would have Kung-Fu flicks on Saturday. As I got older, I got into the Japanese movies, which weren't all fighting for hours — they come in with the sword, the fight scene's over in an instant. It was about all the other things going on: story, honor. It spoke volumes to me.
Of [hip-hop], I'm a samurai. I'm holding on to something that's not treasured anymore: lyrics. If I don't respect that, there's no honor in it for me. I got so much from the artists back in the day, the Rakims, the KRS-Ones, the Slick Ricks. They were telling their story, making songs, and entertaining, but there was knowledge being passed on — each one, teach one. I felt that started to die out in the art. It was, "I'm just getting money." Commercially, an agenda was put into place just about partying. I know how to party. We know how to party. But that's just a small part of life.
A lot of my music is like, why wasn't shit better for my family, my friends? Why did I have to see the crack era? Everybody in my family was on crack. I felt like my youth was just stolen from me. A lot of my music is me trying to come to grips with that and make sense of it all. Why did I have to live through that? To be the artist that I am today — that's how I justify it. To affect people that's going through hard times now. This ain't a fair world, but I wish it was.
The Night's Gambit had a chess theme, Days With Dr. Yen Lo drew from The Manchurian Candidate — what do you get from working with these themes?
My mind is all over the place. I'm pulling from everything to get these lines and bars that I think are slick. If I don't put some blinders on me some way, I feel like I won't be focused. I like the process of doing albums. It keeps me sharp; I feel like I'm in school again. I get into another topic and go crazy in that topic and learn something else and make myself more intelligent. The final is the album. And I'm trying to get a fucking A+ every final.
How did you learn to produce?
I don't see myself as a producer. I just want to write. When they speak of great MCs, I just want to be spoken of. But I know the museum I need to be in, and a lot of people don't. Producers send me beats and think that it's good for me. I hear it and I'm like, "Are you even listening to what I'm doing?" You don't put dinosaur bones in the Guggenheim. You put that in the Natural History Museum.
Why do you choose to play down the beat so much in your songs?
That's me being a writer, growing up and being like, "Did you hear what I said?" and seeing people zoned out on the beat — "This beat is fire." I used to get jealous: The beat ain't better than me! So it started quieting down to where I could let people know: I spent three months on that verse. I spent a lot of time on this one line. Did you hear that line? I went to quieter beats, and I started really digging them and felt like I flow on them in a way that evoked a feeling. That's where I'm at right now. I want to create nice songs, but I want to do that shit that Tupac used to do. A Tupac song came on, you'd get goosebumps. How did he put feeling in that song? That's what I'm trying to do now.
Has the decline of record stores made it more difficult for you to find stuff to sample?
That's the most time-consuming part of the album. I did all my digging for Grief Pedigree at Big City. When that closed down, that hurt me. But there's still spots. What makes it easier for me is that I don't think I'm looking for what everyone else is looking for. If somebody sees [DJ Premier] leave the store they're going into, they might just not even go into the store now. I don't have that fear — I think he's looking for something different than what I'm looking for. Now if I see Roc Marciano leave the store, I might not go in. If I see Preservation, Alchemist or Madlib leave the store, I probably don't need to go to that store.
What are you looking for?
I couldn't even tell you. I'm just looking. When I hear it, I know. When I find something, I'm instinctively like, I can't wait for them to hear this! But I get nervous as an MC like, am I gonna be able to give what I need to give on that beat? And up until the album releases, I'm hoping that nobody uses it. I'm in constant turmoil. Roc Marciano showed me what I should be digging for. He was like, "You know what you want to rhyme on. Just go find it." I still don't consider myself a producer. I just find what I need to rhyme on.
Did you see that Earl Sweatshirt called Days With Dr. Yen Lo "the greatest album" of 2015?
I haven't met him, but I want to give him a pound and a hug for that. That young boy is amazing. He is an amazing artist to be so fucking young. I can't wait to hear him when he's my age. When Earl Sweatshirt is 44, he's going to be incredible. He's incredible now. I can't wait to hear his perspective.