K’naan Interview

Next Project:Troubadour (Out 2/24)
Twitter:K'NAAN on Twitter
Website:K'NAAN's Website

In the world of rap, danger sells, and there has never been a shortage of emcees willing to speak on the struggle of growing up in the mean streets.  While the violent crime and extreme poverty that plague America’s inner-city areas are no joke, one thing the game seems to sorely lack is a sense of global perspective.  Here to change that, however, is K’naan, a Dusty Foot Philosopher who spent his formative years surrounded by unimaginable strife in Somalia’s war-torn capital city, but escaped from that hardship to tell his story to listeners everywhere.

After achieving widespread critical acclaim with his 2005 debut, the Somali-Canadian emcee/poet is preparing to bring his border-crossing take on hip-hop to a wider audience with the February 24th release of his sophomore album, Troubador.  Singles “ABCs” and “Dreamer,” as well as featured cut “Somalia,” offered DJBooth readers a glimpse of the well-traveled perspective K’naan will bring to the forthcoming LP, which earned a ‘Solid’ four out of five spins from our resident reviewer, Nathan S.

In an exclusive interview with our own DJZ,” K’naan steps into the Booth to discuss how dreams and ambition helped him rise above hardship, which up-and-coming artists have what it takes to inspire the next generation of emcees, and his experiences recording at Bob Marley’s legendary home studio.

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K'NAAN Interview Transcription

DJ Booth:  What’s goin’ on, everybody?  It’s your boy “Z,” doin’ it real big, and joining me inside the DJ Booth is a Somalia-born, Toronto-raised emcee who first arrived on the scene in ‘05 with his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher.  Now, four years later, he’s set to share his worldly experiences on his long-awaited, major-distributed sophomore album, Troubadour.  Please welcome my man K’naan.

K’naan:  Hey, how you doin’, Z?

DJ Booth:  I’m doin’ all right, can’t complain.  I’m on the phone with you, right?

K’naan:  It’s a pleasure, man.  Thank you for having me.

DJ Booth:  No, the pleasure is all mine.  Thank you for joining me.  As I mentioned in the introduction, you have been a part of the quote unquote “rap game” since the release of your debut in ‘05.  However, this past fall at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, you spit a real nice cypher with Hurricane Chris, Bun B, and Q-Tip, and I felt like that really helped you build your buzz up in the states.  Since I love putting artists on the spot, and because I can, can I have you duplicate that performance and spit a freestyle for me right now, right here on the phone, inside the Booth?

K’naan:  You wanna hear the same thing?

DJ Booth:  Totally new, something totally off the top of the dome – if you wouldn’t mind, of course.

K’naan:  I wouldn’t mind at all.  That’s what I do, that’s my job, man.

DJ Booth:  Beautiful – I’m ready whenever you are, sir.

K’naan:  Well, let’s talk about what’s goin’ on.  I say Africa, we go hard… [listen to the audio to hear K’naan’s full freestyle]

DJ Booth:  I appreciate you doing that.  Let me tell you something: there are artists, there are emcees, there are performers, there are poets, and then there are storytellers – you told me a story right there.

K’naan:  Yes, sir.

DJ Booth:  There’s a big difference between your average artist and someone who has something special; you, my friend have something special.

K’naan:  Thank you, man.

DJ Booth:  Thank you.  I appreciate you also saying that that’s your job.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked an artist to spit a freestyle for me, and they’ve said something like, “Aw, not right now, I couldn’t right now, maybe later,” and then “later” came, and it still didn’t happen.

K’naan:  [laugh] Yeah.  You gotta go with what you know, I guess.

DJ Booth:  We’ve got you on the phone for a reason: we want to find out more about you and what this album has to offer, but I want to dig a little deeper first.  Somalia, the country that you are from, is synonymous with strife and extreme poverty.  What are your immediate thoughts when you hear Americans complaining about the current economic climate of the country, knowing what you know about yours?

K’naan:  It’s kind of a blessing and a curse for people, when these sort of things happen.  Truly, I can appreciate the difficulty that these kinds of things cause – no one wants to have these sort of issues at their front door – but America has always been under kind of a false sense of security, and because of the majesty of how industrialization built up this nation, you have this sense of, “Well, nothing can really go wrong here.”  I think that is not truly human.  That kind of thing takes the humanity away from people.  People need to know that there are risks, people need to feel the pressure of things, people need to know that things can fall apart, and that is when we create the best of ourselves, when we redefine our humanity and our art and our perspectives.  I think it’s a good perspective shift.

DJ Booth:  By the same token, you were present in your homeland when the Somali Civil War broke out in the late ‘80s.  Having bore witness to what I’m sure is unthinkable violence and disturbing visuals of some of your friends and family murdered, what immediately comes to mind when you hear fellow rappers label their neighborhood or their streets as quote unquote “dangerous?”

K’naan:  Well… [laughs] I guess danger is, in itself, perspective.  I remember when we came from the conditions you just described, and we moved to New York in the early ‘90s, and we moved to Harlem, I remember where we lived, Lennox and 121st, Harlem was, in that area especially, considered kinda rough.  I just remember me and my brother walkin’ around like, “Oh, man, it’s great here!”  I’ve lived in these neighborhoods; I lived in South D.C. when it was considered the capital of murder, I lived in Minnesota when it was considered the capital of murder.  I know how that can be rough, and I truly appreciate it, but there’s a different level of rough, you know what I mean?  We come from a different levels of rough, and I think people complain about their issues, but just as long as they understand that that’s not the only thing, that’s not the only hardship that’s goin’ on in the world.  My music helps to do that, in a way: show people, “Yo – all right, you have it rough, but people have it rougher.”

DJ Booth:  One of the sentiments that I feel you echo very well throughout the album is something that I preach daily: if you think for one second that you have it bad, there’s someone somewhere out there in the world that has it much, much worse.  Obviously you’re fortunate to live a far better life now.  Would you say that your music tells the whole story of all there is to you, or is there far more that you plan to reveal to the world in the future?

K’naan:  I think my thing is slowly revealed.  I think that I’m doing now what I need to do to introduce myself and my music to the people.  Musically, you’ll see that the Troubadour album is a musical album, and it’s an interesting album; I know myself and I know that my musical ideas and my writing get more interesting, but right now you give people a dose of what they can swallow, you know?  I’m just introducing them to my environment and what made me.  And when they are aware fully of what made me, then I’ll truly be able to go all-out and express who I am.

DJ Booth:  Let’s discuss the new album.  You mentioned a second ago, it’s titled Troubador.  Your friends at the record label were nice enough to send me an advance copy and I listened the whole thing.  I’m extremely impressed; I liked every track, which is something I haven’t really said about very many albums over the last three or four years, and I’d like to discuss a few with you.  The first is “Dreamer,” on which you basically admit that you wouldn’t necessarily be alive today had it not been for the dreams that you dreamt while growing up.  So, walk me through some of these dreams that you had as a child, and, if you could, try to put into perspective how close you might have been to not seeing them through to today.

K’naan:  Obviously some people are aware of the kind of environment I grew up in in Mogadishu during the war.  I just remember, there were certain moments – this is not a war story, nor is it tragic, but, as opposed to the gun violence, which I had seen every day, it’s the other kind of little moments that really, really get you.  I can’t explain this to people who haven’t experienced these sort of things, but people who have been through it know that it’s like, sometime people think it’s the explosions, but really it isn’t; it’s the quiet moments.  I remember walking, I was supposed to fetch my grandfather, who lived out on another block, and it was a really hot day, and I felt thirsty.  I was waiting till I got up to my grandfather’s place to drink some water and then walk back, which I usually did.  And then when I got up there, I didn’t find my grandfather, he wasn’t there at the house, so now I have to walk all the way back to the house, more thirsty than I’d ever been, and the sun is hotter, and I’m walking back, and for a second I looked over the hood that I lived in and saw, for the first time, true [destitution], which I had never seen before.  Because of this physical thirst that I was feelin at that moment, I saw [destitution] – I saw the bottom.  I just looked it over, and for a moment I thought, what if I was one of the millions of people who will never leave, who will never have the option to see a better life?  And that moment just really struck me, and then I shook it off and said, “I’m never allowed to think that again.”  I was about eight years old, and I thought, “I can never allow for that thought to creep into my mind again.  I will do something else.  I will change my scenario and my life.”  And that’s when I was able to really do it.

DJ Booth:  Was that moment of clarity something that a lot of the people that you grew up with also would have had, or do you feel like you stood out from the mindset of, “I’m going to settle?”

K’naan:  I don’t think most people would have thought that, especially most people my age.  When I said my thoughts out loud or my dreams out loud, most of the guys in my neighborhood would have been like, “Ah, man, that sounds great, but that ain’t never gonna happen, kid.”

DJ Booth:  Yeah – you proved them wrong.

K’naan:  Well, I think between dreams and fortune and some gift, when you mix them up, it’s a good recipe to prove a lot of things wrong.

DJ Booth: The next track I’d like to talk about is “Rap Gets Jealous,” in which you allude to the fact that guns and violence simply don’t bother you in the way they once did, because of your presence with them as a youth.  Do you feel you’ve become completely desensitized to these things?

K’naan:  I’m getting back my natural sensitivities, but it’s been years.  I remember when I first left – just before I left, in fact – I remember a friend of mine, a homie came by, and just kinda snuck up on me.  My mother was in the distance watching this, and she didn’t know what my friend was gonna do, and he didn’t see my mother, but she could see both of us.  I can’t see him and he’s behind me.  He comes up with a loaded weapon, just behind the back of my hair, and starts to fire up into the sky, just brrap, brrap; it took me a second for my instincts to kick in and look back.  I didn’t jump like you should naturally.

DJ Booth:  It wasn’t instantaneous…

K’naan:  Right – I just took a second, and I looked back and just kinda slapped him, like, “Yo, don’t do that.”  And my mother saw that and she said that was one of the moments she knew she had to get us out.  We were losin’ our humanity that way.  We should respond to those things, we should jump.

DJ Booth:  Looking back on everything that you went through, could you imagine being the adult you are today having not gone through it, and still be able to be the artist that you are and the man that you are?

K’naan:  Absolutely not.  That’s why, it’s weird for people to hear me say this, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  I wouldn’t pray for it to happen to nobody else, but I wouldn’t change it for me.  I couldn’t have been who I am now, I couldn’t have the true appreciation for life that I have now, I couldn’t have made the music I make now.  I feel privileged to have gone through certain difficult experiences. 

DJ Booth:  The new album was recorded at 56 Hope Road.  Of course, that’s Bob Marley’s legendary home studio, and, listening to the product, I noticed a distinct reggae-tinged feel to so many of the records.  How much did the recording of this album and the environment in which you recorded it play a part?

K’naan:  Well, I never know until I hear it from other people that it has played a role.  I was, like anyone else, taken by the moment of being in such a legendary home, his environment, his living room, havin’ food in the places where he composed songs.  These are massive things for any artist.  So, having spent like four months in his home, this was a big thing for me, and I just kinda let it stay in the back; I wasn’t trying to let it overtake me.  I just made the music that I thought I was making, with the inspirations I thought I was getting, and the result is still the same to me, but I hear from other people, other artists, “Oh, man that’s beautiful – that feels like you did record it in this kind of place,” you know what I mean?

DJ Booth:  Absolutely.

K’naan:  Also, though, we did use some of his instruments to record, like the B-3 Hammond from Exodus, we did use the organ.  I did have his guitarist come through and do some riffs on the album.

DJ Booth:  I was doin’ a lot of research on you, and I read that your first introduction into hip-hop was “Eric B for President” – a classic, classic song.  If you could hand-pick a few artists whose sound you’re really digging, right now, and have that be the introduction to someone who has not yet come into contact with hip-hop, besides yourself, who else would you select, and why?

K’naan:  Probably Lupe Fiasco.

DJ Booth:  Okay, my man from Chicago, very nice.

K’naan:  And probably Mos Def.  I mean, we’re talking about new artists, I suppose, and Mos Def doesn’t really fit into that.  Nobody’s really new; even Lupe ain’t new, but new to the scene, to people… you know, Charles Hamilton.  People need to know that this is a special gift.  It’s weird when people hear a rap song and they’re like, “I could do that!”  And it’s true: they can. [laughs]

DJ Booth:  They can try.

K’naan:  Yeah.  There’s nothing going on, there’s nothing intricate about it.  But if they heard a Lupe song, I don’t think they’d be like, “I could do that.”

DJ Booth:  You’re right.  Anybody could rap, but the difference is, not everyone can rap well.

K’naan:  [laughs] Yeah, exactly.  And a lot of people are not rapping well, so basically we [return] to the statement, “Everybody could rap.”

DJ Booth:  Like I said earlier, there’s rappers, and then there’s artists, and then there’s performers, and then there’s emcees – you can classify ‘em any way you want to, but really it comes down to, are you a storyteller, and is what you’re saying translating to me in a way that not anybody could?  And that’s exactly what you’re doing!  Give everybody a website or a MySpace page, something so they can find out more about you, and, of course, this wonderful new album, Troubadour.

K’naan:  Yeah, myspace.com/knaanmusic.  Also my website, thedustyfoot.com.

DJ Booth:  I thank you so much for takin’ the time to join me inside the DJ Booth.  It was a pleasure, and I wish you nothing but the best of luck, my friend.

K’naan:  Thank you so much.  I appreciate it.

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