K-OS | Amalgamated Chaos

k-os, a.k.a. Kevin Brereton, is a man of many influences and cultures, all of which meld into his music and result in the diverse sound he is known for. Consistently nailing a combination of genres, his newly released fifth studio album, BLack on BLonde, exemplifies his unique hip-hop stance and sound, his rock’n’roll instrumental ability and his Trinidadian upbringing, which work together to create something original, brave, and fun. And, as Peter Marrack finds out, he’s achieved this all while retaining an envious childlike excitement that makes it all the more enjoyable for us, and him.

k-os sat in front of his computer, his hands slick with sweat. He just got off the phone with his label. The news was bad. Outside the windows of his Gastown pad, which is in the heart of Vancouver’s urban hood, there is a fantastic view of the mountains. On a normal day, k-os would be excited to chill out by the water, but not that day. His label had just called to tell him he’s out of time. They needed his fifth studio album, BLack on BLonde, now, and that last verse he’s been waiting on hadn’t arrived in his inbox. It’s a verse he’s been waiting on since Jean Chrétien was up on the hill.

“I was in my bedroom and I sent Tariq an email,” says k-os. “I was like, ‘dude, if you don’t want to do this just let me know.’” k-os is referring to Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought of The Roots. k-os and Tariq met in 2000 while touring. The two hit it off and Black Thought suggested they do a song together. At the time, k-os was blown away that his idol, “his Jay-Z,” a man he considers the best emcee of his generation, would want to make music with him. But now it was happening. He’d already sent Trotter the beat for “Try Again.” It just wasn’t happening fast enough. 

“I hadn’t heard anything in a week or so, but that day he hit me right back,” says k-os. “He’s like, ‘I’m going to the studio this afternoon. You’ll get it.’ In my brain I was like, ‘yeah right.’” k-os sat there in his bedroom, eyes fixed on the computer screen, waiting, like a little kid peering through the window of his favourite toy store, at that red fire engine. That’s the kind of childlike anticipation, that restless agitation, the inner-child breaking through, k-os says is responsible for his sound on BLack and BLonde, as well as what he calls his “big kid dreams” – in this case, snatching Black Thought.

“I just remember looking at the email,” says k-os, “And a new message comes up: Tariq Trotter. There was an attachment too. I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God. This is not for real,’ and I listened to the verse. That wasn’t him just dialing in. He’s killing the song.”

It may be hard to believe a multiple Juno Award-winning musician, who’s travelled the world performing and has a platinum plaque to his name, could get this amped, but it’s real. k-os says he’s purposely kept his inner child alive, because it’s the key to good music. Even when he was learning to play the guitar, he says his teacher, band mate and guitarist for Vancouver’s Salvador Dream, Russ Klyne, would take away his guitar book and say, “No, no, no, you stay ignorant.” Klyne wanted k-os to approach the instrument like a child would.

Which is easier said than done. A lot of us lose track of our inner children, and never find them again. k-os must have done something special to keep his.

When we linked up over the phone, k-os had already taken heat from critics for the pop influences on the BLack side of his latest album, BLack on BLonde. Marketed as two halves, the BLack is the rap side and the BLonde the rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, hip-hop critics such as Exclaim!’s Kevin Jones broke down the BLack side further, to underground and pop, and complained about the incongruity of these two influences coming together, calling tracks “regrettably elementary”.

This kind of criticism is not new for k-os, it comes with the territory of his unique sound. It also comes hand in hand with growing popularity, something that can be unsettling at times, especially for his traditional family. In fact, he says his parents started to worry about him when people kept calling their house having heard his songs on the car radio, TV and heck, even on the CBC! This was back in the mid-2000s when Joyful Rebellion came out. k-os’s parents worried about how popular their son was getting. “My parents have been married for over 40 years,” says k-os. “My dad’s a minister. He was always on me like, ‘This is not what you’re supposed to be doing.’”

Having discovered music in Trinidad & Tobago, in a small farmhouse atop a chicken-populated hill, k-os says it was shocking to walk the streets of Toronto and have people’s parents approach you singing “Crabbuckit.” But that was his reality. And, ironically, it’s probably the eclectic influences he picked up from his family in the Caribbean that made, and still does make his music so accessible to all kinds of people.

“My uncle was in a jazz band in Trinidad, my grandmother plays guitar and four or five different instruments,” says k-os. “All my uncles play music by ear.”

k-os, born Kevin Brereton, was just eight when his father, Terrence Brereton, moved his family from the Toronto area, to where he grew up in Laventille, Trinidad. He says his grandmother, who lived with the family in Trinidad, was the kind of woman who sized you up and decided what you were about. She would then give you an instrument to match your personality. k-os says he was given a Yamaha melodica, a free-reed instrument that looks like a keyboard but you blow through it.

“I played that thing every day from eight to 10 years old. I wrote a song maybe a year into it and performed it in front of my grandmother and my uncles,” says k-os. “They were like, ‘you’re good! Keep doing it.’”

k-os says the musical epiphanies piled up while he was in Trinidad. His uncle, Rudolph Charles, pioneered the Steelband movement that dominated the Trinidadian music scene for many years, starting in the sixties. What Charles did was take the steelpans discarded by local oilers on the island, cut a couple grooves into them, and whack away. k-os says he remembers the “bang bang bang bang” in the backyard as his uncle fashioned more instruments. “It was mind-blowing. I was like, ‘what, you can build your own instruments!”

In the late eighties, when the family finally moved back to Whitby, Ontario, a suburb comparable to West Vancouver, k-os brought with him his melodica and all the influences he’d picked up from his grandmother and uncles. As he got into Canadian culture, he picked up on hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll and pretty much everything he came into contact with. Then he blended it all together.

“For years people came up to me going, I don’t like hip-hop but I like your music,” says k-os. “At first I thought it was a big diss to my culture, but then I realized they were saying, ‘I wasn’t really into the music until I heard your version.’ Sometimes people get caught up in cultural identities, what’s cool and what’s not. They just need to open themselves up.”

With that in mind, it’s more interesting to look at (rather than knock) the fresh sounds k-os explores on BLack on BLonde; from the freshly-interpreted “Wonder Woman (As My Guitar Gently Streets),” with its steady beat and distorted vocals, to “Spraying My Pen” an all-Canadian posse-cut featuring Shad and Saukrates.

“I think it was kind of punk rock on my part to be like, ‘I’m going to give you some underground jams and I’m also going to give you some straight pop and if you can’t handle it then you can’t handle it,” says k-os.

A risky play by anyone’s standards, k-os feels confident about the variety of records on BLack on BLonde. People have believed in his vision from day one so why should this be any different? One of k-os’s earliest supporters was basketball star John Salley, who he met after Salley left the Detroit Pistons to play for the Toronto Raptors in 1995.

While k-os knew Salley was a veteran in the NBA, with a vast knowledge of insider trades and the politics of entertainment, he hadn’t quite grasped the significance of their friendship. After Salley threw a notorious party in Toronto–that ended with someone’s car in Lake Ontario–the Raptors benched him. In frustration, Salley left for the Bulls, where his friend Michael Jordan played, and he took k-os with him. It was in Chicago that k-os got to make beats out of Salley’s hotel room at the Waldorf Astoria and see for the first time the aging star’s collection of Slum Village memorabilia–hip-hop beatmaking pioneer J. Dilla’s original group.

“He just wanted to fund the arts,” says k-os. “He’d find artists. He had Slum Village when he was in Detroit. He was like, ‘that was the artist I was helping out at the time.’ So I followed him. Later, when he got traded to the Lakers, we moved to a house in South Central, L.A. He was like, ‘this is a rough area, but I think it’s going to be good for you.'”

And he was right. Many of the hit songs from k-os’s breakout album, Exit, including “Patience”, were crafted in John Salley’s house in the heart of the L.A. hood. Salley also advised k-os to always look twice at contracts and dissuaded him from signing bad record deals that were piling up on his dresser in the mid-nineties. Salley even got k-os out of some bad existing deals.

“One day we were watching the NBA draft and he was like, ‘Doesn’t this look like a slave trade to you?’” says k-os of his time spent with Salley. “He would just say crazy things that would set my brain off on a different way. It made me think of it as less glamorous than it was. He always encouraged me to stay true to myself.”

Which, at the end of the day, is why k-os has settled in Gastown on the West Coast for the time being. After spending so many years in Toronto, soaking up the attention of being a pop star in (arguably) Canada’s most American city, he’s returned to his roots and found solace in the natural setting of downtown Vancouver.

“My culture and heritage is West Indian, it’s tropical,” says k-os. “I like cities because hip-hop is very much born out of tension in the city, but again, rap is not a part of every kind of music I do.”

So it’s with a veteran’s wisdom and a child’s spirit that k-os approaches his music. For all its island pizzazz, there’s a hard, true and unflinching line that cuts through his art. To dismiss it as pop is like calling Jean-Michel Basquiat a doodler, or dissing Andy Warhol because of his fame. It doesn’t add up. 

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