Trinidad-born Canadian k-os is as dedicated to preserving hip-hop as he is revolutionizing it. Within his genre-hopping productions, you'll often hear traces of classic breakbeats, party-starting rhymes and other bedrock elements of hip-hop. But you'd be hard pressed to find sampled loops, programmed drums and hollow braggadocio. This MC/vocalist/producer refuses to use equipment such as the Akai MPC, and since releasing his 2003 debut, Exit (Astralwerks), he's been known to bring orchestra-size groups of musicians into his recording sessions. With his ambitious production methods and progressive lyrical styling, k-os is helping to change the way hip-hop is made.
Originally a singer and pianist, k-os began his adventures in producing and rhyming upon becoming disillusioned with the stagnant state of R&B in the late-'80s and early-'90s. As he recalls, “I got into hip-hop because it was the only music that was raw enough to make me feel like, ‘Yeah!’” While he became enthralled by the tunes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Public Enemy, it wasn't until he saw The Roots perform circa 1995 that he realized live instrumentation could be implemented into hip-hop production. “I thought, ‘Isn't this amazing? These guys are making hip-hop as opposed to sampling hip-hop.’ And that's when my quest began to do the same.”
After getting bored by messing with the drum pads on a friend's E-mu SP-1200, he found his first tool of choice in the Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard. “I was like, ‘This is the machine for me,’ ‘cause it had keys so I could sample, but I could play stuff out,” k-os says. “Once I learned how to program on that, then I was free because I didn't need to go to anyone for beats.”
You can still find the trusty ASR-10 in his studio among an array of other vintage gear. But to k-os, finding the right musicians to capture his sonic vision is more vital than buying the latest equipment. “I just believe how you use technology is way more important than the technology itself,” he says. “For me, I love the fact that I can bring in a whole bunch of players and have two people playing on a track who didn't know they were going to be playing on a track [together].”
Spontaneity is key for k-os. And on the rare occasion that he uses a drum machine, such as the Ensoniq ASR-X, he keeps his freestyle approach in effect. “What I do is run the recorder, and I record five minutes of banging on a drum pattern,” he explains. “I don't even sequence it. That's how I use a drum machine — almost like live to tape.”
Although, when bringing together a full string section, multiple guitarists, percussionists and other players to perform his compositions, things get a little trickier. But that's the part of the process k-os lives for. “I think you can create all kinds of weird collages,” he explains of his orchestra-like setup. “It's more of a collage as opposed to a painting, per se. So everything starts as collages, and you file it down to get some structure.”
For his latest album, Atlantis: Hymns for Disco (Virgin, 2007), k-os began the recording process by completing all of the collaged music before embarking on the songwriting. That forced him not only to write more focused compositions, but it also opened up an introspective side that he's rarely tapped into. Take the melancholy strings and piano on “The Rain,” which evoked a stirring ballad from k-os that helped close the wounds of a past relationship. And with the album's single, “Sunday Morning,” the soulful, hand-clapping rhythm inspired a celebration of the days he would return home to his family after a weekend of reckless partying.
“I wanted to make songs that were actually happy, [where] I get to celebrate my life and have fun but still address some of the things that I think are wrong with abandonment and escapism,” k-os explains. “That's where the [the title] Hymns for Disco comes from. When my record was done, everyone was like, ‘Do you have hits?’ I was like, ‘I don't know about hits, but I have hymns.’ Hymns are songs that are ancient.”