I’ve talked to a lot of artists in my day – one thousand? Certainly more than 500, I’ve long since stopped keeping count. As the chef cooks plate after plate or the construction worked rivets bolt after bolt, so do I interview rappers. And in all that time, I don’t know if I’ve ever talked to someone like K.A.A.N.
Over the course of all those interviews a common story line has developed, a shared DNA. Maybe it’s a parent, more often an older brother or cousin, but in the middle school years they hear some music that blows their heart and minds wide open like a screen door in a hurricane. They’re inspired to start writing down some early raps, rhyme at the lunch table, record some music mostly as a joke with their friends, but a serious music career is largely still a fantasy. They try college although their heart’s not in it and slowly but surely decide to take the plunge into seriously following what’s clearly been their destiny all along – music.
There are some variations – Jay IDK’s path was interrupted by a prison stint, EarthGang finished college, Anderson .Paak had early success in high school, stopped making music for years and then came back to it - but without exception those are the broad strokes. Rappers are like Olympic gymnasts or classical violin players, if you’re not at least seriously practicing by high school, it’s already too late to ever be elite.
K.A.A.N. is the exception. And that’s why he’s a DJBooth and A3C Top Prospect.
K.A.A.N. - and I realize now that I don’t know his real name, although that’s in line with a certain rapper-interviewer code of ethics - has spent his entire life in the DMV area. His parents played some music around the house, his Dad listened to hip-hop, but as he put it when we talked, “My parents worked, that’s all they were really worried about, providing for us.” There was no cool older cousin putting him onto the classics, no rappers he idolized. By the time he graduated high school his sum musical experience consisted of occasionally freestyling alone in the car when he was bored. He'd never even so much as wrote down some raps he was too embarrassed to show anyone else.
College was adopted and quickly dropped, replaced by bland but decent 9-5 jobs. Target, a stint at Jo Ann Fabrics that lasted all of a week, K.A.A.N. was working and living. That’s it. And then he went to a Logic concert, felt inspired, and at the ancient-for-hip-hop age of 21 wrote his first rap down, ever. He had no mentor, no one to guide the way, still no concept of rapping as a profession. But he felt compelled, and that compulsion was enough.
I knew nothing about how music was made, all I knew was that I wanted to try it.
It's remarkable to start rapping that late in life, the latest I've ever heard of. But such a late start isn't the whole story, the whole story is how undeniably good he became that quickly. Like everyone he started out echoing his favorite artists, in his case Curren$y, but he quickly found his own voice with a speed that runs laps around most. Technical fast rapping can be learned, and to be sure K.A.A.N. is neurosurgeon precise, but bringing that level of passion and heart to the music without hiding behind mere skill is something it takes most artists years and years to develop.
All that real world work experience K.A.A.N. accumulated before even first breathing on a microphone also puts him in the rare position of truly, genuinely coming into the music industry clear headed and independent, not just financially but mentally. He has no cloudy-eyed illusions of success, no aspirations to become the next big thing. He sees all the traps laid out before him, traps that have swallowed more artists than I can remember, and so far he's wisely avoiding them. When your only dream is to make great music that means you're no longer working at Target, your dreams are entirely in your own hands.
There's really no such thing as a struggle, it all depends on what your goals are. I'm laying the groundwork myself, I'm not waiting for someone to swoop me up and make me rich. That's not going to happen.
The disillusioned part of me, the part always wary of falling into hyperbole, doubts the truth of these words even as I'm typing them, but they're not an exaggeration. When I first heard K.A.A.N. a few months ago now I assumed I had been sleeping on some veteran emcee for a decade - not really. He only started releasing music two years ago, began writing down his first raps ever just a few months before that. I didn't know he was a rapper because until recently he didn't know that he was a rapper.
He seems to have emerged fully formed, crash landing on the typical rap planet with superpowers unattributable to his common upbringing. Maybe that will translate into mainstream success, maybe it won't. Frankly I care as much about those false idols as K.A.A.N. seems to. I'm just happy to be telling a different story, because with a beginning so unique, there really is no way to know how it will end.
NOTE: We've partnered with A3C for our current group of Top Prospects. Over the next few months we'll be unveiling three other selected artists, culminating in what's sure to be the greatest musical performance in the history of human kind during the A3C festival in October, along with a boat load of other great content we're currently in top secret production on. Stay tuned...
TICKETS: Tickets to our A3C TopProspects show are now on sale. You can cop tickets to just the TopProspects show here (a festival pass will also get you in), or get a $20 discount on a festival pass by entering the code 20topprospectsa3cwhen you buy.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.
Original illustration by Joshua Hayden aka JHAY. Follow him on Instagram.