Interview: K'Naan — On everything from Kanye West to Metallica…hip hop ain't ever been like this before…
Fri, 14 May 2010 10:57:41
K'Naan has been around the world—in more ways than one.
Physically, hip hop's most creative young storyteller has dazzled crowds everywhere. Musically, on Troubadour, he traverses the map just as much. From ripping it up on "If Rap Gets Jealous" with legendary Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett to firing off hypnotic, heartfelt rhymes on "America" alongside Mos Def, K'Naan's got the whole world in his hands. The MC espouses truth in very verse with an honest style that's as poetic as it is powerful. Plus, he's constantly weaving tales across this sonic landscape, and each one is as unforgettable as the last.
K'Naan sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive interview about Troubadour, what's inspiring his new music, a kinship with The Constant Gardner and so much more…
On Troubadour, you hearken back to old school hip hop by telling a lot of stories. Was that part of your initial intention?
I don't know if it was my intent, but I think it might be my talent [Laughs]. It's basically what I do with my songs. Older records are usually packed with stories. Maybe because I have these stories, I'm urged to tell them…
Early hip hop was rife with those kinds of tales, but not so much in recent years. You capture that old tradition with a fresh spin. Do you tend to freestyle these ideas to the music or are you writing out lyrics prior to stepping into the booth?
I record my ideas to music. On Troubadour, it was less writing and more me standing in front of the microphone taking myself through these stories and conditions and telling them. I'd write down some of the more thought-out lines—which might be funny or clever—so I wouldn't forget them. I've been practicing this discipline of not letting the actual writing process get in the way. I won't call it freestyling though.
You're not focusing on the process itself but, rather, you're letting the songs speak through you.
Exactly! I'm just trying to be as brutally honest as possible with whatever the mood of the song is, instead of having a pre-destined idea of what a song should be. I don't write like that all.
Does traveling and seeing different parts of the world exert a significant influence on the music?
Yeah, I think so. I'm blessed to have traveled the world, toured, lived different places and experienced various environments. I think that definitely expands your mind. It's nice to have all of that under my belt but also to be really aware of what's happening in the streets. When you combine those worlds, it makes the music more interesting.
You cover the whole spectrum of hip hop but you also manage to rock seamlessly with Kirk Hammett (Metallica) and Adam Levine (Maroon 5).
Those are people who have been supportive of my music and are genuine fans of what I do so it wasn't a difficult thing or a business exchange. The members of Metallica don't do anything outside of Metallica. You couldn't really buy Kirk Hammett's time, but he was a genuine supporter and fan of my songs. When I called him to do the song, he was like, "Yeah, let's do this!"
Have you been a Metallica fan for a long time?
Yeah! I think they put on one of the greatest live shows. I've learned a lot from bands who have long-term careers and continue to put on incredible concerts. People are fascinated by what they do on stage, and I love that. Master Of Puppets is something else too—it's great songwriting! Sometimes, both hip hop and metal get a bad rep for not saying "something." Often people don't understand that culture and they get lost in the sound. With hip hop, they don't really hear great stories these days. I think the collaborations make for a great example of what it can be.
If Troubadour were a movie what would it be?
I would probably compare it to The Constant Gardner because it weaves general political knowledge with the idea of how the slum operates, and it also paints beautiful visuals of what would generally be considered a disaster. People don't really know how to write beautiful things about disasters. They just make them grim and sad, whereas in my songs, there are tough situations but you find the beauty in them. You find the hope in them too, and I think The Constant Gardner does that. I'd also say City of God and Once. You've got to see Once. It's a remarkable film. I think it's the best depiction of how the creative process of music works. I've never seen a film that was better at revealing the actual creative process. There's a simple love story that weaves it together, but you watch music being created.
Are you working on new music right now?
Fortunately and unfortunately, at the same time, I'm back to my creative gear. As an artist, you have different modes. Sometimes, you're in record mode and, sometimes, you're in touring mode. I happen to be really busy traveling the world and touring. Inside, I'm in record mode though. It makes for a tough situation because I'll be playing at night and coming into my hotel at 1 am and writing until 5 or 6 am. Then I have to do things morning [Laughs]. It's crazy.
What direction is the new music going in?
I have no idea! I've been spinning to old Daniel Guichard records; he's a legendary French artist. I've been listening to some Greek music from the '40s. I don't know how much that'll influence me, but that's what I've been messing around with.
You've created a sound that can go in any direction or feels natural.
That's good that you say that and recognize that. One of the most fortunate things about my music is you can't really confine me or expect me to do something. You just have to wait and see what I might do. I love that as my musical life. When Kanye West did Graduation, all hip hop lovers were like, "Oh my God, this is the truth; this is the gospel!" Then he came out with 808's & Heartbreaks, and everybody was so mad at him. I never want that to happen to me. I don't want to build false loyalty with my fans. I want them to be loyal to the possibility of me changing and ever-changing.
What do you think of Troubadour?