Brownsville KA: from Natural Elements to a second life in rap

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“I'd rather point a pistol at your head and try to burst it!” The rapper KA is talking to me on the phone from his home in Brooklyn when he breaks into rhyme and recites a line from the Bronx-based Boogie Down Productions' “Poetry,” a song that helped chisel the early wave of golden era New York City rap into a steelier form. “I always liked the harder stuff, that street shit, anything that was knuckle-headed and hard,” KA had explained moments earlier. “I was too young to go to parties but I wasn't too young to know what crack vials on the ground were and to know what guns were about.” His genial voice tempers the stark flashback. “Listening to dudes talk about real shit, I got goosebumps.”

That feeling of prickly excitement is detectable in KA's own late-blooming and now critically-adored rap career. He refers to himself as “a 40-year-old rapper” at one point in our conversation. After something approaching two decades since he first attempted eek his way into the music industry, KA is now reaping plaudits for last year's Grief Pedigree album and The Night's Gambit, a new project which he self-released back in July by standing outside of the location of the now-closed Fat Beats record store on 6th Avenue in Manhattan and selling vinyl and CD copies to fans in a hand-to-hand manner. They are a pair of timeless albums in the sense of mining from a lifetime of experience without pandering to the whims of musical fashion. In a hushed brogue that borders on a series of incantations, KA raps like the unheard conscience of block corner scoundrels Jay-Z, Pusha T and 50 Cent. They are bodies of art as much as rap albums; they present KA as an author as much as a rapper. And they seem underscored with the sense that KA is channeling much of the pantheon of rap history that has gone before him. Fittingly, he met the music close to its inception.

“The first time I heard hip-hop was like '78 probably,” recalls KA. “That's when I heard it on the radio, I figure I was five or six-years-old and as soon as I heard it it was over. I knew as a child this was for me — I was chosen for it. It was my music.”

Before then KA had been dabbling in what would become the last embers of disco music; jazz was also a background fixture in the house he grew up in. Following hip-hop's inaugural charge, a young KA would diligently flip between three New York City radio stations to catch the new rap sounds: “Growing up it was 92 WKTU, it was WBLS and it was 98.7. Then I remember 92 WKTU dissolved and 'cause I was a kid I was like, 'Damn, now I only got two radio stations to listen to?' I was just now listening to hip-hop and then it changed to like a rock station. It actually hurt.”

In the wake of Melle Mel's 1982 Bronx reportage “The Message,” KA's rap-centric soundtrack slowly began to take on a harder tone. As the '80s clocked on, he became smitten with the rhymes of Rakim and B.D.P.'s almighty mouthpiece, KRS-One. He'd hear their voices emanating from the competing rap radio shows of Mr. Magic on WBLS and DJ Red Alert on Kiss-FM. These songs, which at their most persuasive pared booming and street-savvy verbals with raucous, attention-demanding drums, became his template. “Anything that was soft, like “Rappin' Duke,” turn that shit off,” he says. “That wasn't me.”

Ensconced in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, KA witnessed hip-hop's rapidly rising popularity. Everyone wanted to be a rapper of sorts. Fortified by the area's bleak environment — the well-wrought tale of poverty and public housing, guns and drugs — KA found himself surrounded by rappers who shared a similarly steely-eyed take on the world they were charged with surviving. He recalls living down the block from Smoothe da Hustler, a rapper who in tandem with his brother, Trigga the Gambler, scored a rap hit with 1995's slang spectacular “Broken Language.” Further up the block, just beyond KA's sector, were Billy Danze and Lil' Fame, the cornerstones of the Mash Out Posse. KA recalls swelling with neighborhood pride when his friend Smoothe hit with “Broken Language.” Then he cuts short the anecdote to break into the song's rhyme: “The block locker, the rock chopper, the shot popper…”

By now, KA had already taken his own baby steps in rhyme. He received an early pointer from a friend he says went by the moniker of Nike who taught him how to craft verses, not endless lines. “I was just writing it on the paper and wherever the lines [of the paper] stop the lines stop!” he says then adds a laugh. “My friend told me, “How you gon' follow that?” I told him I knew how the rhyme went. He was like, “But in the future if you want to say that you're not gonna know where it stops.”” At that he showed KA his own rhyme book, with verse sectioned up into four line segments. “Before that moment, I was in my basic stage,” he says. I ask him if he always rhymed under the name KA even back then and he says he did, but he was trying to force it into an acronym: “It was K dot A dot, so at one point it was like Killah Assassin, all the wild shit.”

“Back in those days it wasn't about making a record,” he continues, “it was about getting your demo tape and shopping the demo around and hoping they think it's dope and then getting access to a studio once they put the money in. That was the process, just like E.P.M.D. said: “Please listen to my demo.”” I ask KA what his demo tape was like. He's scathing about it: “It was wack. I had one song that might have been half decent but it was a bunch of fuckin' bad rhymes.” I ask him about the half-decent song. “I don't know if it was half-decent or I just played it enough to brainwash myself,” he says. After a pause he adds, “My demo wasn't good enough to get a record deal, how about that?”

Undeterred, KA continued to feel his way through the industry in the hope of finding some sort of access to one of the record label gatekeepers. Part of this involved appearances at the Lyricist Lounge open mic nights where, after the booked talent had performed, he describes a rowdy free-for-all with aspiring rappers attempting to elbow their way to the microphone. Being involved in this scene caught KA his first career break.

Comprised of freestyle-proficient rappers Mr. VooDoo, L-Swift and G-Blass, Natural Elements were an underground New York City group championed during the mid-to-late-'90s independent rap scene. KA found his way into their ranks. “They knew that I rhymed and I thought I was pretty good by then,” he says. Under the A&R watch of veteran hip-hop talent scout Dante Ross, Natural Elements were offered a development deal with Def Jam. “It was four songs, they gave us money and a studio and we did those songs and let the label look at them. I guess if they like it then they sign you to a real deal,” he explains. Despite revealing in the initial spark of industry excitement — “I thought it was on 'cause we were at the Def Jam offices!” KA says — the development deal petered out. At that point, KA decided he was holding the group back. “Every time my verse came on, I didn't like it,” he admits. “I felt like I was the reason Natural Elements never got a real deal.”

KA exiled himself from Natural Elements. Another rapper, A-Butta, stepped in. KA calls his replacement “a perfect fit” and Natural Elements scored a deal with Tommy Boy, although their anticipated album became continually held back from release. (Asked if he was ever officially a part of Natural Elements, KA takes a second to consider his answer and says, “You know what? I don't even know! I think I was in the group 'cause we did joints together, but it was kinda loose.” He recalls that a couple of hundred dollars was all he profited from the experience.) Off the back of this, KA rebounded and teamed up with the rapper Kev to form Nightbreed, a group whose 1998 indie rap 12-inch “2 Roads Out The Ghetto” was released on the same Fortress Entertainment label that also hosted some of the Natural Elements members' solo endeavors. The vinyl record goes for good money now as a collector's piece, but never created the necessary spark of interest at the time. With that, KA says he took a step back from the rigors of trying to break through to the record industry and settled back into the role of a fan — albeit “a bitter fuckin' fan. I was the mad rapper in the true sense of the term but I still loved hip-hop; if shit was dope I always picked it up.”

The rap world sped on around KA, but at some point he caught another case of the goosebumps and decided to record an album he called Iron Works. He self-released it in 2008. KA's ambit was simple: He wanted to share his music and his musings with his family and friends. This purity of making music as a hobby paid off as one of those privy to Iron Works helped get it into the hands of the GZA, the Wu-Tang Clan's de facto lyrics buff. GZA requested KA appear on the album project he was putting together, Pro Tools; he grasped the opportunity and laced the song “Firehouse” with his guttural voice. “I approached it as a man this time,” he recalls. “In Natural Elements, I just went in and I was rhyming, but this one I approached knowing that there's a million MCs that would beat my shit right now and I didn't want to waste the opportunity I had.” KA had finally found his industry in — and done so in a similar manner to the old-fashioned goal of getting a demo tape into a gatekeeper's hands. From his relationship with GZA, he forged a bond with Roc Marciano, a rapper who was in the process of turning a spell in Busta Rhymes's Flipmode Squad and as a member of the Pete Rock-endorsed group The UN into a solo career. Since then, the two rappers have appeared on each other's albums and become something of the torch-bearers for an underground-leaning strain of New York City-forged rap that revels in its grittiness and the maturity of its architects.

This ideal of succeeding in a second life runs strong through KA's music. Many of the songs on The Night's Gambit are swaddled in religious references. The backdrop to this is his Brownsville upbringing. On “Barring The Likeness,” he raps how he “did dirt that won't wash away” and that he “lost [his] innocence on the porch of tenements.” The spirituality and the harsh background mesh uncannily and produce music that resonates with an incorporeal charm. There's none of the lobotomized gaze of the born again believer though — it's more the sincere sense that KA is rapping as resolution to make up for past sins. He's writing from a different perspective. “Said it before, had Berettas that went pop/ For years made it hot, now I'm trying to better the block,” is how he phrases it on the edifying “Nothing Is.” The atonement takes place over production, which KA handles himself, that favors atmospherics over the boom and bap of a snapping drum line. “Jungle” conjures up the blighted tumult of a ravenous city through swarming strings. The music is a bedding for KA's words, whether you take them as literal accounts of street-corner indiscretions or as broader spiritual lessons. KA has kept the steely content of those '80s classics he was so smitten with but channeled it through production that mirrors his age and place in life.

Prompted by references throughout The Night's Gambit, I ask KA if he's a religious person. “Yeah,” he says, “but mostly I'm trying to be righteous. I just want to be a good person again. I felt like I've done some bad shit and I regret tons of it and I just want to be good now at the end. I guess that's something.”

We move on to talking about how the life KA leads now compares to the sentiment of his music. He indulges a laugh and says that after listening to his albums people always approach him with the misconception that he's “on the verge of suicide or I'm angry or about to start crying all the time. But music for me is like one of those pressure valves: It gets near to the top and I do another song and it goes back down. Then it repeats. I'm not walking around all day long with a screwed-up face and on the verge of tears. I'm trying to live and enjoy my life.”

I ask KA what enjoying life means to him. “It's gonna sound real corny,” he says, “but it's just living. I've been around way too much death and I know that living is better. I appreciate being able to just go and take a walk in the park, the things I never did as a kid. Like I never learned to fish, I never flew a kite as a kid. I bought a kite last year and went out with it to Prospect Park. I felt like a nerd but it didn't matter. I was hoping nobody knew me but I was happy, man. I was in the park with a kite like a big kid.” There's a lightness in KA's voice as he wraps it up: “That's living to me.”

KA's The Night's Gambit is available through his website.