Brownsville emcee/producer Ka is a largely enigmatic figure — until you understand his school of thought. I have been following him since 2011’s Grief Pedigree; his approach is as a conservationist. He reacts to and upholds a methodology that’s been largely excised. The doctrine is simple: music is special. Everything stems from that core belief.
The over-30 hip-hop consumer likely has fond memories of well stocked record stores. Before the digital revolution burst the bubble on CDs and tapes, artists had a lot more room to flex. It wasn’t unusual to bump into a B-side. Bonus tracks, remixes, promo cassettes, white label 12-inches, you name it. Justifying lavish physical releases wasn’t an issue. The sensibilities of the day said that music was to be lived with. Turning a profit was done over the course of six to 12 months, not six to 12 weeks. Promotion was an umbrella of an idea. It could mean a mixtape freestyle, or flyers on a lamppost, or an exclusive tune on a magazine sampler. Finding hidden gems in your favorite rapper’s catalog was more likely because the landscape allowed more concessions for it. I’d wager Ka creates with those concessions in mind.
These past two months have yielded three cryptic new videos. Each one delves deeper into the shadows. Inky performance shots are bookended by grainy black-and-white film clips. Anyone familiar with Ka’s previous work can probably conjure an image. Curiously though, all of them are listed under the moniker Dr. Yen Lo. If you’re anything like me, you thought, “who the hell is Dr. Yen Lo?” I posed the question to Ka and his producer Preservation in advance of their collaborative release, Days With Dr. Yen Lo, released last month via Pavlov Institute.
Ka: “Dr. Yen Lo is a group with myself, Ka, and my brother in arms, [producer] Preservation. We got together a couple years ago and decided we wanted to make some music together and…it was kinda corny, for me I felt, if it was just ‘Ka & Preservation’. We’re a little tighter than that so…I figure we’re doing music together, we should be a group. So we came up with the name Dr. Yen Lo.”
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The doctor/namesake “Dr. Yen Leo” is a character from Richard Condon’s 1959 best seller, The Manchurian Candidate.
Ka: “It was a book I read in the 90’s. It was one of those hard to find books back in the days. When I got my hands on it, I was interested in the book and that character always stood out to me. You know, he brainwashed these soldiers within a certain amount of days, to do exactly what he wanted to do. So that character was always kind of an intriguing character, Dr. Yen Lo and the mystery of him. And I always wanted to use it and I never had an opportunity to use it until I got up with [Preservation]. Soon as we talked about starting to make music, that very night I was like ‘yo, there’s this book…The Manchurian Candidate and I really love it’. From there we just built. He was interested in it, you know. We started doing it from there.”
Preservation: “I remember when he brought up. I was interested in just doing something as a concept, instead of just like…Ka produced by Preservation. I didn’t wanna, you know— first of all, I didn’t think he needed another producer, honestly. When we first met, when I came to see him in front of Fat Beats— I knew of him before, when I was doing some work on Gza – Pro Tools, I heard him on that Firehouse track in the studio. And then three years later, Mos reintroduced me to him. And then when I went to meet him when he was selling Grief [Pedigree], I was just coming there to support as a fan. As someone that respected this person’s art. So I was like you good, you know what I mean? You don’t need a producer [laughs]. Then we started sharing music and kinda kicking it on a friendship level. So when he told me about the concept, I was with it ‘cause I didn’t want it to be— if we were gonna do something, let’s do something different. Then it transformed into being a group.”
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The inclusion of producer and DJ double threat Preservation is an unexpected but welcome change. Their grand entrance as a duo came in the form of last year’s 1200 BC EP. The combination was dangerous and unassuming. The 5-song set can be summed as briefly as the EP itself.
Preservation: “1200 had nothing to do with Yen, it was completely separate. 1200 came out of an instrumental project that I did called September 1200. Which was an instrumental project I put out— half a year before that or something like that. I think I put it out in 2013 in September. And it was all Barry White beats made on the SP-12. I just did it because I share a birthday with Barry and I was like ‘alright, let me just do it just for fun.’ I did an instrumental record. And some of those beats that [Ka] was hearing while I was kinda mixing it at home, while we were working on Yen— he was like ‘woah woah, what’s that?’ I was like ‘these are some of the tracks that I might put on there.’ So we did an EP with some of the beats that could have been on that September 1200 instrumental project, BUT we did a separate EP that still had Barry’s influences, Barry samples and had Barry vocals on it. So that came out of that.”
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Either way, it was great for us music lovers. With the new record’s imminent arrival (it’ll be out by the time you read this), hindsight shows us how interconnected things are.
Ka: “We did 1200 BC together. While we were working on Yen Lo, we were working on it a couple years, I had put out The Night’s Gambit. Night’s Gambit was very much influenced by the work that I was doing with Pres. His influence and friendship is making me a better producer, I feel. What I was doing on that was…what I knew was about to come with Dr. Yen Lo.”
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There are added benefits to the one producer/one rapper configuration. With Preservation taking the helm as the project’s sole producer, Ka was free to funnel his energy entirely into emceeing.
Ka: “I hadn’t [enjoyed working with] a producer in a long time. And I definitely wasn’t getting custom made beats for YEARS. That’s what made me have to become a producer, because I wasn’t getting beats from anybody. It’s a different process when you’re doing the production. Having to produce, then rhyme on that production, I feel like you kind of have to trick yourself. My process is: I make the beat, then I put the beat away because I want the beat to be new to me when I’m writing. So it takes me a long time. But when I don’t have to ACT like it’s new to me, when I’m in the room, and he’s making something, and I get that excitement of wanting to write RIGHT NOW to this exciting beat, it was— I felt liberated. I really felt good. I was excited that I was totally, totally focused on just writing. I felt like, ‘yo, I’m about show off.’ This is what I wanted to be. I just wanted to be an emcee when I came in. Now I’m emcee, a producer, I gotta make videos, I gotta got to the record store, I gotta go to the post office— I’m doing everything. With Dr. Yen Lo, I was able to do what I dreamed of doing since I was a kid. I just wanted to be an emcee. So it was beautiful man.”
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Said beauty doesn’t come without its own currency. Comfort is a big deal to these two. They are both admitted hermits. The capacity for experimentation comes with compromise. The compromise that comes with crafting music together can’t be had without trust. These elements flow in and around each other. That never changes. The way they manifest themselves does.
Ka: “Before we met each other, we were both very hermit-ish. I didn’t work with anyone really, aside from Roc and, you know, I did a cameo with Gza. But my albums were very insular. It was all me. It was all me, in my crib, for years and years and years doing music and son was the same way. Just trying to hone what we did. I was trying to be the best emcee I could possibly be, and son was trying to be the best producer he could possibly be. And for years and years of doing this in our own labs, it was very interesting to open up to each other. Like, how we work. This is how I work, this is how he works. You have to trust a person in order to do that. As far as experimenting, being out of our comfort zone— we were already out of our comfort zone by working with somebody else. Both of us. It had to be comfortable for us to do it. The music after that was free. There was no like, ’let’s try to do something different.’ My theory or my approach to music is: I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m just trying to ride smooth.”
Preservation: Yea, I’m definitely hermit-ish [laughs]. I think that’s a big thing for both of us. I gotta know you, and we’ve gotta be friends. To get out that comfort zone, to be more comfortable with each other, you’ve gotta know the person to make music. That’s what I enjoy, that’s how I feel. Not enough people are— it’s kinda like ‘send this here.’ I don’t even know you, ‘can I get a verse?’ this and that, whatever. I’m not into that. But for me, as a producer, of course I went thought that time where I was trying to get placements on records and beat CDs here and there, left and right. After a while it was like…fuck all this shit [laughs].
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Looks like I’d be remiss to assign creative concessions to Ka alone. Birds of a feather flock, as they say. It’s a fast paced world. One that doesn’t always hold true to its values. Conveniences in the information age have made it somewhat taboo to tow a hardline. Those (unfairly labeled) old fashioned values are what helped polish rocks into diamonds. The insistence on a casual approach to art has stripped us of our right to discovery. Dr. Yen Lo are fully prepared to enforce your given rights whether you asked them to or not.
Ka: “I say this a lot. I don’t have Picasso directing me to his painting and saying, ‘yo. this right here is a bull, and this right here is a lady.’ you know what I’m saying? I’m not gonna do that for my art. You see a bull in there? Good. You see a lady? Good! Don’t ask me what I drew. That’s the reason why I don’t put lyrics. I just want you to just enjoy the art. Just look at it, listen to it, and love it. Or hate it. I don’t wanna tell you how you’re supposed to be. I feel like emcees, a lot nowadays, they wanna tell you how you’re supposed to like— ‘yo this right here was, you know…I was doing this!’ Just live with the shit, you know?”
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I can feel the roots my indoctrination digging into my skull. I have an overwhelming itch to experience their declamation for myself. When I petitioned Ka for an advance of the album, my request was swiftly denied. He offered a firm explanation. The twosome had planned their rollout down to the last detail. Their intention was for the world to hear the album at the same time. No exceptions. Not even for close friends and family. If kith and kin hadn’t heard the album, there’s no way in hell a press pass was going to get me a copy. I was disappointed about having to wait. I was also curious. I’ve been privileged enough to get behind the curtain. To sit on the side of the stage so to speak. At present, it’s rare for an album to be heard uniformly on it’s actual release date.
Preservation: “You want people to hear it when it’s meant to be heard. When the time is right. When you feel that the time is right. I always heard these crazy stories about how Rza used to keep— the clan wasn’t even hearing the songs when they were done [laughs]. He would keep them in this lock and key until he really, really had to drop it off. I’m sure that he tried his hardest to— sometimes it falls into the wrong hands. Artists in general try their best to be really strong on that. You want it to be presented the way you envision it.”
Ka: “I know, not to be cocky, but I know some people are very excited to hear new music from us. I want them to be excited how I was excited when I picked up a new album. I didn’t hear ANYTHING. You know, before all the internet stuff. You didn’t hear nothing about a song until you got the album and you opened it yourself. I feel like these live streams, listen to it the week before it drops, that takes away the excitement of it. I want you taking it home or running home and unwrapping it and can’t wait to put the player on. I need that from you because…it took us 2 years to do this! So, I’m glad now they know how to listen to us, but I want you to still be excited when it’s coming because it means a lot to us. I want you to be able to go home. To be excited while you’re unwrapping it, be excited for every song that jumps on, and be excited to press replay and ‘oh, I need to hear that again.’ If it don’t roll out the right way then you don’t get that.”
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For the true creative, a strong legacy may trump any material payoff you could hand them. They affect the world around them. They birth new ideas and expose potential. They inspire every other aspect of life. They get to live on. But it’s a very vulnerable existence, regardless of how much power it comes with. At the intersection of a new chapter, the reverberations of this event are having a deeper meaning for Ka and Preservation.
Preservation: “Each [project] for me is very different as a producer. Honestly though, this record, I’m probably the most proud of out of all of them. They’re all special to me, and they have certain meanings to me that are special. But I think this one as a whole— as something actually, that I’ve really been wanting to do for a long time…one person, one emcee…I’m really proud of it.”
I just wanted to be an emcee when I came in. Now I’m emcee, a producer, I gotta make videos, I gotta got to the record store, I gotta go to the post office— I’m doing everything. With Dr. Yen Lo, I was able to do what I dreamed of doing since I was a kid. I just wanted to be an emcee. So it was beautiful man.
Ka: “I did the best I could possibly do. I hope the people know that. And I hope when they listen to it, they appreciate it. I mean, if you know my work in the past, you know I’m not giving you no fluff. I’m trying to give you all nice cuts of good meat. And I won’t give it to you unless it is that. I hope the art just speaks for itself but, I would like people to know, this is a real bond, me and my boy. We really got together and we tried to bring out something special. And what came out of it for me is another album in the catalog that I’m very, very proud of, and I got a friend for the rest of my life. So, I’m happy with that.”
Preservation: “This album doesn’t even need to come out and I’d be…I’d be alright. To have a moment of my life that like yo, those 2 years, I made a friendship and a strong bond with someone, and we made something that we’re really proud of and that we love. I can’t even say much more, you know? To me, that’s just…that’s it. That’s the most important part, but yo…this shit is crazy [the two friends share a hearty laugh].”
Somehow, I wouldn’t doubt it. All hail the Brownsville candidates.