Q&A: DJ BK-One Goes Canibal"/>
Minneapolis-based DJ BK-One is best known for standing behind the tables holding down Brother Ali for the last decade, but today, he releases his own full-length album, Rádio do Canibal. The album, which blends samples and rhythms from a wide swath of Brazilian music, features some hometown talent-- including Ali, Slug, Toki Wright, and P.O.S.-- as well as MCs ranging from Black Thought to Scarface. The result is an independent hip-hop showcase with a studied perspective, thoughtfully composed arrangements and production with a cultural glimpse that elevates the album from a collection of rap records to a cohesive composition.
I got a chance to chat on the phone with BK-One last Friday while he and the other members of the "Fresh Air Tour"--Brother Ali, Evidence and Toki Wright--were prepping for that night's show. He talked his own travels that inspired Rádio do Canibal and his creative process crafting the album, how the Brazilian tropicalia is a lot like hip-hop, and his musings on the connections between Seattle and Twin Cities' music scenes. Below, listen to one of my favorite tracks on the album, "Mega" featuring Haiku D'tat, and after the jump, read our conversation.
How's the tour going so far?
It's been going really good. We just did the longest drive of the tour, from Colorado Springs to Salt Lake City, so we're all pretty exhausted. But the shows have been great, the turnout has been really good. Whenever you hit the road promoting brand new music, you're always curious to see what the reaction's going to be. You really don't know until you get in front of the crowd, so it's great to see all these people reacting well to all the work you've put in.
Do you perform music off Rádio do Canibal during your set?
Well the album features rappers spread out all over the country, so I can't really perform those. What I have been able to do is the song that has the nine-piece brass band on it, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, "Tema do Canibal." The way I built that song was that I programmed the drums first, 20 different drum and percussion loops that I made into this big sound collage. Then I had the brass band come in and play over it. So I've got all the horns triggered on the keyboard, and so I'm playing those parts live and scratching in all the percussion and drum things, and that's been super fun for me. I've been out promoting Ali's music for ten years. This is the first time I've had something that's mine specifically, so that's been a lot of fun for crowds.
What's the story behind the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble?
They're a nine piece brass band, and if I'm not mistaken seven of them are all siblings. Their dad is a guy named Phil Cohran, who was a pretty famous trombonist in Chicago. He played with Sun-Ra and a lot of progressive jazz groups. All these sons of his put together this incredibly funky brass band. They spent years playing out on corners and selling CDs out of a hat, then moved out to New York and were playing in subways. In the last couple of years, they've gotten noticed by people in the jazz world, and have done work with Mos Def and progressive hip-hop artists. My background was in jazz music, I was touring as a jazz musician before I started DJing...
What did you play?
I started with piano, but realized there was too much competition. So I taught myself to play the vibes. It should be said though that I'm a much more talented DJ than a jazz musician. I'm a huge follower of jazz, so it'd be insulting to the music to act like I'm a talented jazz musician! But it was a lot of fun.
What inspired you to create this album, your first full-length production offering?
This is my album, but it also has a co-producer, Benzilla. He's a really talented younger dude from Minneapolis who's done some really great production work for Toki Wright and I Self Divine. My background is really in DJing versus production. A lot of things I do with DJing really resemble production, in terms of looping, layering, taking records that don't have anything to do with each other to make something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. But, that being said, I don't have a background in the physical chopping and programming of drums.
When I got back from Brazil a couple of years ago, I found myself with two or three crates with new, amazing music, and I knew I wanted to do something with it. I've put out about 5 or 6 mix CDs over the past 7 to 8 years, and the goal of that is to really spotlight other people's music, to take music that does something to me, and put it in a certain context so that it appeals to people. With each mix CD I've made, I've left more and more of my own fingerprint on it, less "look at these people" and more "look what I'm doing." So this project was really a natural progression. I'm still interested in featuring other people's music, but I want the final result to be something new, something that has my name on it, something that didn't exist before.
Coming home with all this incredible music... it took me a year or two to sort through it all and figure out what the logical thing was to do, but I knew that ultimately I had to make my own project. So I got in touch with Benzilla, since I have so much respect for the work he's done, and the two of us spent a little more than two months crafting the music that would make the basis for this. I gave him a vision of, "this is what I want the music to sound like, these are the records I want you to use, these are the drums I want to work with," and then I sent him off. We'd check in every week to see what he had done. So he did all the programming, and I would take what he had done and do editing and sequencing work, and bring in session musicians on a song-by-song basis, really trying to figure out how to take a good beat and make it a song. Then I brought in all the guest artists, from the singers to the brass band to the MCs.
It's obvious from the quotations in the album insert (English translations of Portuguese soundbytes of Brazilian musicians) that you're invested not only in the aesthetics of Brazilian music but also the history and culture behind it. What brought you down to Brazil, and how did your experience there inspire your music?
I spend somewhere around 200 days a year on average touring the country or the world, sometimes, with Ali as his DJ. Remarkably enough, when I get home, usually what I want to do to relax is to travel more. My wife and I do a lot of traveling mostly outside the US. We live in Minneapolis...I know it gets rainy and gloomy in Seattle, but it gets downright uninhabitable here. And it's not just how cold it gets, it's how long it lasts. It's like six months of winter, and it gets pretty soul-crushing. So, one of the rewards for putting up with all the traveling that my wife gets is cashing in frequent flyer miles and get somewhere new every year. Lots of Central and South America, since my wife is fluent in Spanish and has lived there... good bit of Europe, Central and Southeast Asia... I mean we picked Brazil as one of our trips... as for why we picked it, it's pretty obvious, I mean it's Brazil.
Part of the fun with all of these places that we go is that I'm always in a new city and always looking for what records to have there. We've only been on this tour for a little shy of a week and a half and I've already hit up four record stores, and as soon as I hang up with you I'm going to ride my bike over to a store someone hipped me to already. Same goes for when I get overseas.
The fun of record hunting in Brazil for me was the fact that I knew so little about the music when I went there. I had some of the basic level records that infatuated America back in the sixties, like Antonio Carlos Jodim, which were really amazing, but in terms of really knowing the history, key players, record labels, I went into it not knowing. I was just saying to Ali the other day, if I come across a record I don't recognize in the United States... since I've been collecting, I can pretty much recognize whether it's going to be good or not, based on the label, the session musicians. In Brazil, I didn't have any of those hints. I started off blind without any clues or pathmarkers. That was the fun of it. I gave myself a crash course. I brought a portable turntable with me, and I'd hit swap meets, bookstores, thrift stores. I'd bring what I found to the room, put it on the portable turntable, study the back covers and pick it apart, trying to figure out, "when I go back out tomorrow, what do I know today that I didn't know yesterday?"
So over the last couple of years since I came back with the music, I grew completely infatuated with it, and really educated myself a lot more about the history of the music, and the history of Brazil itself, since music doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Is there a particular genre or era that captured your ear?
There's a couple of sections of Brazilian music that I'm particularly interested in. Every country has its own variety of cheesy pop music which is pretty worthless overall, and Brazil is no exception. But really, across the board, almost every part of their music is interesting to me. The folk music that comes from the North is cool, the bossa nova that was for the intellectual crowd in the sixties, you know the college crowd, especially the more sophisticated and hip stuff is cool. Samba is awesome, but the stuff that really, really interests me, and also in a way gave me the idea to make this album-- connected the pieces to be like, "oh this is kind of what you do"-- wasn't not one genre, was more like a pattern I saw. There's a lot of Brazilian music that borrows heavily from other cultures, and when I say borrow I don't mean copy. You'll hear Brazilian musicians whose percussion borrows really heavily from Africa, then arrangements and chord structures that borrow greatly from American jazz, and then have production styles and instrumentation that borrow from British invasion, instruments that borrow from the Portuguese, rhythms from funk and blue and reggae. And then they'll add elements that are more familiar to them, like that folk music, samba. And the result is something that's completely original, their own thing, that just synthesizes all these parts.
The main movement that really prided itself and advertised that aspect was called tropicalia, which is groups like Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil. They called it "cultural cannibalism," which is where the name of my album came from, literally "Cannibal Radio." And you'll see this synthesis in pop music, MPB or Música Popular Brasileira. I love to see clashes of culture that shouldn't make any sense together on paper, but because of peoples' exposure and historical circumstances, things get combined and you see what happens. It reminds me of my job as DJ. I got a room full of records, many of which come from vastly different sections of America or the world, records that on paper shouldn't have anything in common, and I make a context so that there's a common thread that runs through them. That's what hip-hop is, that's what Afrika Bambaattaa was doing thirty years ago. I guess that's the element of Brazilian music that I love the most.
How long did this project take?
All the records that are the inspiration and form the bedrock of this album I bought three years ago. I've been listening to them constantly since then, and all that time I spent marinating was part of the process. When I called Benzilla, when I started chopping samples... it literally went from me calling Benzilla to me turning it in as a finished project in three and a half months.
Dang. That's a really quick turn-around.
Yeah. And it was exhilarating, it's funny. Even with mix CDs, which theoretically should not take me nearly as long, since you're taking music that already exists... I literally have a mix CD that took me just shy of two years to make. I tend to be very nitpicky about the things I do, spending a week bugging out over a ten second thing in a mix CD. Being that way means I can look back and be proud of what I've made, but it's not a really fun way to operate as an artist, for obvious reasons. The best artistic expression and creation is spontaneous and fast and impassioned. And that's not how I've really operated in the past. So this first album that really represents me, has my name in it, it's cool that I was able to put it out so quickly. I created a climate for myself where I didn't have the opportunity to be that dude who bugs out over details.
Of course there was the logistical side of getting MCs to get their shit together, like, "dude I really need that verse!" But I had people committed, people I could count on. Probably the most challenging part was getting people on the same page, to have the same vision. Expressing the concept of the album was really important to me.
So of those three and a half months, a little more than two of those were eaten up making the beats, and then I needed two weeks to mix it, and then I had a one month window to work with all these collaborators. It was an incredibly short window, and it led to a couple disappointing things, a couple songs I was excited about that didn't happen.
For example, the last actual song on album is a collaboration with Brother Ali and Scarface, but that track was originally created for Tunde Adebimpe together with MF Doom.
Oh, that would have been awesome.
Yeah, that sentiment is doubled for Doom, since that track "Blood Drive" that Slug is on was meant for him too. If I had two more weeks it would have happened. It was a self-imposed hard deadline, but I had to prep for the tour. It made no sense to put so much intense work and get 95% there and head out on tour and not have that album to show to people for a long while.
Are you planning on embarking on a similar project highlighting music from somewhere else?
You know, that just came up in the band, Ali was asking me the same question, I have no idea. Amazingly. Because those who know me, I've got four or five things that I'm super excited about working on in the future. When I came up with the idea of making this album, it was with the understanding that I would follow it up with a project that was 100% different. Now that this is done, not even out and I'm getting so much positive feedback, I want to take a second and catch my breath.
One idea I've been bouncing around... earlier this year, I told my wife, you know with touring on the road, "you're not gonna see me before December." So we decided to go to Thailand and Laos, and I found some incredible records, fifteen to twenty of them, that I'm really excited about. So now I'm thinking about making a 10 minute long instrumental song called "One Night In Bangkok" with the records I found there.
I've always thought the Minneapolis hip-hop scene and the Seattle hip-hop scene are kindred, maybe it's just because Rhymesayers has a lot of ties out here. Do you have any reflections on Seattle's hip-hop scene, and who should we be listening out for in the Twin Cities?
Hmm, yeah. There's definitely parallels to Seattle and Twin Cities' approach to hip-hop. They're not cities that the music industry is beating down doors to find new artists from. And in other cities, like Chicago or New York, to get into hip-hop means you kind of already have a personality written out for you: this is what you wear, this is how you talk, this is what your music sounds like. In Minneapolis and in Seattle, there isn't already a culture so strong that you can be a part of, so the artists have had a chance to define themselves. Seattle has a little bit longer of a history, in terms of artists recording and finding success... we don't have a version of Sir Mix A Lot.
Beyond the parallels, there is a connection: it's Bean One, Jake One, Vitamin D, John at Under the Needle Records. Actually, I Self Divine is responsible for that really: he knew about Vita, Jake, Bean, all the really dope producers in Seattle, like ten years ago and was trying to tell everyone at Rhymesayers about them. Otherwise... we got a chance to play shows with Blue Scholars out here, and I was really impressed. I can tell they got that same do-it-yourself approach. They've really hustled and created a market where there wasn't a market for them to fit into. So I really respect them for that.
As far as the Twin Cities, Benzilla, as a producer, and in terms of MCs: up and coming is definitely Toki Wright and I Self Divine... I Self Divine's been doing things for ten years now. On a smaller level, there's acts like Big Quarters, Mictlan and all the Doomtree dudes. In this town, there's at least 50 artists who you could go see on any weekend, and any one of these dudes, if they have enough hustle and are smart enough, and get lucky a little bit too, any one of these dudes could be the next big thing.
Sounds a lot like Seattle too. Thanks!