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Staying in Control Through Complete k-os: An Interview with the Veteran Toronto Rapper

The Toronto rapper tells us how he's found order and success in his decade and a half long career.

by Ian McBride
Sep 30 2015, 5:16pm


Photo by Geoff Fitzgerald

If you surveyed the average Canadian rap fan who was born in the mid-to-late 80s about their favourite local rappers, it’s likely that k-os would be near the top of their list. Even though many have heard of the eclectic rapper thanks to both his stellar solo work and the pair of songs he’s done with Drake, k-os still flies under the radar at times. “I don’t feel that my music is underappreciated,” says k-os when we talked on the phone. “I just feel like it’s complicated enough, that it’s challenging enough, that for someone to really get into it, they really have to like it.” For k-os, his ideal position is below the radar. “All the other stuff that happens and the fame is an illusion, and sometimes the illusion is so big that it starts to affect who you are as a person, and that’s why I’d be the best-kept secret.”

Born Kevin Brereton, the Toronto native became a staple in Canadian music when he started making music in the early 90s. At one point, former four-time NBA champion John Salley actually managed him while he was playing for the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls in the mid-90s. “He managed me for a while and helped me get a record deal,” says Brereton. “Salley just showed me the ropes about what the music industry was really about.” In 2004, his single “Crabbuckit” won two awards (2005 MuchMusic Video Award for Best Pop Video and a 2005 Juno Award for Single of the Year) and received significant airplay on Canadian radio stations. It was at that point when he realized that he had a legit chance of making a career out of music. Fusing hip-hop with funk, rock, and reggae, he began to carve out his own lane by working a diverse section of artists including Saukrates, Sam Roberts, The Chemical Brothers, Black Thought and Drake.

He has faced various types of adversity during his career, one example being how notoriously difficult it is for him to work with people.“You can't really know the people you bond with and vibe with immediately or over time, unless you come across people that you actually don't vibe with at all and may never work with again,” explains Brereton. “It’s a game of appreciation. First of all, appreciation that some groups of people think you are talented enough to invest in you and pay for you to make art, and secondly, appreciating every experience as a bridge to the next lesson and experience.” But as far as he’s concerned, it’s all worthwhile as long as he can continue to create music. “I am in this line of work because I love it and I think I am good at it, so as long as I can create my art, all the difficulties that come with this experience are blessings in disguise, and lessons leading to wisdom,” says Brereton.

Brereton, like many other musicians, has dealt with personal struggles while working in the music industry. At one point he was into the party scene. “I really didn't drink till after the record Joyful Rebellion, and I did it mostly to see what it was like,” states Brereton. “It was fun, but it was also somewhat of a downer.” His song “Sunday Morning” relates to his partying experience. “Sunday Morning to me, is about a guy who's trying out a lifestyle, but knows it’s not going to last and actually realizes, while he's living that lifestyle, that he will be happier when it's all over,” explains Brereton. “That echoes my exact sentiments about 'partying.' Everyone knows it’s not healthy mentally and physically, but if you can be aware of that throughout the experience, you can learn about it—why people do it—and most of all, talk about it in a fun and intelligent way.”

Adding to his list of struggles, there was a time earlier in his career where he had housing issues, despite coming from a good upbringing. “To become who I am now, I had to see what else was out there without fully becoming it,” says Brereton. “So I went on a journey of observation. Plus, I am a fan of Bob Dylan, and basically tried to do everything he did. So I went all out like a hobo emcee.” Although obstacles have been put in his path during his time as a rapper, Brereton has prevailed and risen above. With a career spanning over 15 years, five studio albums, two of which—Joyful Rebellion and Atlantis: Hymns for Disco— have gone platinum, he’s finally dropped his sixth studio album Can’t Fly Without Gravity. “Without going into each and every song, this project is just a guy who’s starting to realize that no one’s stopping him from doing what he’s doing,” explained Brereton.

Noisey: Was there one particular moment when you realized that you had a legitimate chance of making a career out of music?
k-os: I think when “Crabbuckit” came out, and I used to hear it all the time, in peoples’ cars and stuff. I think when your songs get into the public and they like it. That sounds so cliché, but when your stuff gets played on the radio and you’re no longer in control of it, that’s when you think, ‘Okay, this is no longer me just making music in a studio.’ Or signing a record deal in some back office, or sitting in front of a record executive who says, ‘This is great, man!’ People are now embracing it, and I think that’s the only legitimate way I can see that you have a chance at it. And even then, you’re getting put on the radio, you’re CanCon.

You might just be getting played because people want to support you, but when it actually starts to take hold and people know the song. The specific moment I remember is that I was walking in the CBC building on Front Street. As I was walking, a lady was walking towards me, she was walking really fast, and it was making me a little nervous. So when I move to the right to get out of her way, she’d move to the right, then I’d move to the left, she’d move to the left, and then all of a sudden she’s like, ‘Crabbuckit! Oh my goodness!’ And I had this moment in my face, I was like, ‘Thank you.’ She didn’t look like someone I’d hang out with, she didn’t look like someone I knew. So that’s when you start realizing that you’re affecting things just outside of your reality.

Has your musical style changed since the release of your debut album, Exit, in 2002?
It’s a difficult thing, man. Everybody wants to be something that eludes them. I’ve gone through a lot of stages when I first started rapping I was really about trying to change things. Up until Atlantis, all the music I made, I wanted to go out there and change reality. Mostly because I hadn’t lived reality, I didn’t know you couldn’t do that. It was a social consciousness of that person, who did “Heaven Only Knows” and Exit, and all that. Joyful Rebellion was a little bit of me starting to realize that, ‘Okay, you could rebel, but you gotta have a good time. It’s a joyful rebellion.’ Around Atlantis, there’s a lyric in a song called “Crucial,” that says, ‘I don’t wanna change the world / I only want to stop pretending.’ That was where I started to realize, ‘Okay buddy. You’re not here to change the world. You’re not prophetic, you’re not different than anyone else. You’re just somebody that’s saying that to seem different.’ I’m not saying it’s not a good thing to go out there and wanna do the right thing. I’m just saying, you have to do that because that’s just you. I wasn’t doing it because it was just me, I had an agenda, and I think that’s something that no person can live up to.

From Atlantis on, then Yes!, and BLack on BLonde, I decided, ‘Okay, look, I’m gonna not try to be anything other than myself.’ The music got a little bit more complex, it got a little bit more dangerous, it got a little bit cooler. And I loved that stage, because those three records saw me step away from, ‘Oh, three-time Juno Award winner, and all the music industry stuff.’ And I just started hanging out with Metric and Broken Social Scene, and all these indie bands, The Dears. I started playing guitar a little bit more, I started to go on tour with bands that weren’t necessarily hip-hop bands. It wasn’t like I was trying to be indie rocker, per se, but I was intrigued by all these bands that were just being themselves, with no agenda. I’m all those people now. I’m that guy from the beginning who had an agenda, I’m that guy who has no agenda, I’m that guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, I’m that guy who wants to be around cool stuff. But I’m okay with all those people, and they’re all in there now. It’s really a journey, the journey of releasing the idea of what k-os is. The name of k-os stands for ‘knowledge of self.’ But in that, you can only really have knowledge of self if you’re just observing yourself, and you have no image. How can you know yourself if you’re trying to be something?

What’s the story behind your new album, Can’t Fly Without Gravity?
I’ve watched hip-hop evolve from a child, to where it is now. The one word that bothers me the most in hip-hop is the term, hater. I think it gets to me because it seems like it’s the truth. Sometimes when someone doesn’t like what you do, or you hear that someone said something negative about you, or people aren’t feeling you, you can only be like, ‘Wow, these people are just hating on my music.’ So, I think the term "can’t fly without gravity," is coming from the idea that if you wanna do something and you wanna excel at it, or quote unquote "fly at it," if you wanna take off, if you wanna blow up, if you wanna make money, if you wanna change the game, in the sense of elevate the game of anything, whether you’re a doctor, if you’re a heart surgeon that wants to come out with a new way of heart surgery, there’s gonna be gravity, and that’s just how it is. It’s here, it’s been here since we got here and it’ll be here after we leave and die.

Gravity is just a part of what makes the world work. And it works the same way when you have a career or trying to make a record. You want that to take off, something’s gonna pull it down. It could be people, it could be an opinion, it could be your own actions that you’ve done, that you were unaware of, it could be karma, it could be anything, but that’s gravity. I think Can’t Fly Without Gravity, hopefully, is the new way for people to look at, at least in the hip-hop community, the negativity that happens when you try to transcend the forces that pull you down.

Ian McBride is a writer based in Waterloo. Follow him on Twitter

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