The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday January 28th

5 Questions: Kaze

Kaze can be credited for almost the complete history of hip-hop in Chapel Hill. The most well-known emcee to come out of UNC and the town, Kaze is also a hip-hop historian of sorts, versed in the history of the game and founder of Hip-Hop Nation, UNC’s resident hip-hop appreciation club. Kaze is back with a new mixtape and a new record deal to go along with a gaggle of shows. Before Kaze makes his way back to Chapel Hill for a show at the Library on Friday celebrating his new First in Flight mixtape, he caught up with Dive for five questions, catching us up on him and his take on the current status of hip-hop in North Carolina.

Diversions: What has been going on in the life of Kaze?

Kaze: I’m down in Atlanta, I’m in this Red Bull Emcee competition. They flew in some of the ten best freestylers. Basically the competition, we’re going to be surrounded by these flat screens and they’re going to be giving us these images while they play the beat and we gotta freestyle off the top based upon what we see. The judges are, like, Talib and 9th Wonder and the winner gets $1,000 and studio time.

Everything has been real positive in the past year. This past fall I entered at contest that was having. The winner was getting a record deal with Steve Rifkand at SRC/Universal/Motown and $100,000. So, I entered this contest last October and it went on for about four months, each week we had to satisfy some type of industry requirement. One week we had to make a song with a beat they gave us and the next week we had to turn in the video, the next week we had to get a feature from somebody famous and so on. When it came down to the end of the contest, it was me and this other cat from Philly – LF Daze – and it ended in a tie. So, he got $50,000, I got $50,000 and we both got deals with Rifkand and SRC. That happened in February, so with that it was like everything with me was starting all over again. It’s a whole new opportunity to reintroduce myself to everybody and to those who know me continue to give ‘em that lyricism and stuff they know.

Coming from getting that deal I’ve continued my grind, doing shows. I just put out a mixtape two weeks ago that I collaborated with Eminem and 50 Cent’s DJ, DJ Whoo Kid, called First in Flight. Along the same lines, I’ve been shooting videos to support the mixtape and to create as much of a grassroots buzz that’s possible. I just released the first video last week for the track I did with 9th Wonder, “I’m Fresh,” and I’ll be releasing a new video every two weeks, basically bombarding the Internet letting everybody know about my new situation and taking a new step forward in my career.

Dive: Talking about your deal with SRC/Motown/Universal, how’s the situation over there working with such a big name like Steve Rifkand?

Kaze: The biggest asset of being involved with that situation is the power that his name has; it’s a key that opens most doors. A lot of doors were closed to me just because in this industry a lot of things are based off of cosigns, who you know. It’s a shitty part of the game but the sooner you accept it the faster you can start moving around it. With having that association and having worked with 9th Wonder, it’s allowing me to make moves I hadn’t been allowed to make before.

At the same time I think a lot of people think that getting a record deal is some Willy Wonka s--t. You get the golden ticket and you’re straight, and it doesn’t work that way. The situation that I’m in now, I’m having to work harder than I’ve ever had to work before and come up with new strategies because, when you’re signed to a label it’s like the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and I gotta compete with Drake and Kanye and all these cats that have already got the leg up on me. I gotta find a way to make a place for myself out here. The label looks at you to see if you’re going to make a spark for yourself before they even lift a finger.

So, in that sense it was a blessing, because that’s all I’ve ever known, having to do everything for myself anyway. Now, at least it’s like I have the keys to open doors and get into the outlets I need to to make this thing successful. Definitely the level of work has stepped up but it’s a challenge I’m up for and this is what I’ve been working on my whole life, so it feels good to finally be in a position where I can make some things happen.

Dive: You worked with DJ Whoo Kid – the official DJ of G-Unit – on First in Flight, how did that collaboration come about?

Kaze: As part of my getting signed to the label I personally hired a pretty well known publicist in the industry who’s been responsible for the birth of a lot of careers as far as PR and she actually had the relationship with Whoo Kid. At the time I had been trying to do a Gangster Grillz mixtape cause I thought that was going to appeal more to the cats in the South and in that sense doing something different. But she had the connect with Whoo Kid and Radio Plant, his new Web site, and she put us in touch with one another and made it happen.

Like I said, it’s another one of those connects that without being signed to SRC and being with Steve Rifkand, Whoo Kid probably wouldn’t have even considered it. With me coming into that situation it’s making people more open and giving me a second of their time to listen to me. Now, the fact that I made that project with Whoo Kid means I’m on Now it’s on Radio Planet. Now it’s on all the mixtape sites. It’s put a whole ‘nother set of eyes on me besides the underground that already knew me. I’m getting that association with the G-Unit, Shady, SRC and all of that and it’s lending momentum to the movement of what I’ve got going on.

Dive: You mentioned trying to appeal to more people in the south and a lot of your music is steeped in lyricism that is more reminiscent of New York. Where did that New York flavor come from?

Kaze: I’d say that New York vibe definitely comes from my influences and the music I came up on. I just came up in a different era. That’s why the name of my first album was Spirit of ’94, because those were the emcees that even compelled me to even want to pursue this as an aspiration, you know? The NaSs and KRSs and even the early Rawkus when it first came out and early Def Jam. At that time people were really into hip-hop and if you were listening to hip-hop nine time out of ten you were listening to an artist from New York. That was something that I absorbed and took to heart as what it took to be an emcee. That’s where my definition of an emcee came from, seeing KRS and LL Cool J and Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, people that were pioneers in the game.

I think what evolved for me over time was the desire to establish my own identity, you know, because I’m in North Carolina and a cat from North Carolina rapping like he’s from New York is a fail to me. The aspects of is that we are just never going to establish our own identity the way that Atlanta has or Chicago has. They’ve gone about their own way of doing things. And that’s just a transition I’m making now with my own music is establishing what North Carolina is that is different from Atlanta and New York and Cali. That doesn’t mean I start talking with an accent or start trying to dumb my shit down to sound country it’s just more along the line of relating to more of the experience of Mid-Atlantic, southern living. What it is to be in North Carolina is different than Alabama yet it’s different than Virginia. I think we have a lot of talent and a lot of stories to tell to give North Carolina a definition. Where we are located is the best of the South and the best of the North, it’s kinda right in the middle and that’s what I’m trying to do.

People have become familiar with what they think North Carolina’s sound is and it’s people that pioneered it like 9th Wonder and Little Brother and even Petey Pablo that have made it easier to be from North Carolina. Now you see J. Cole with Jay-Z and Roc Nation, it’s not a strange thing to be from North Carolina anymore, but I think at the same time we have to cultivate what is our niche that is going to last the test of time cause I feel like the scene has yet to blow up yet. It’s hot, it’s touched on, but we have yet to have that Atlanta moment and I’m trying to be one of the people to make that Atlanta moment happen for North Carolina.

Dive: You’ve tried some new things on First in Flight – Auto-Tune, singing hooks, “Best I Ever Had” remix – that aren’t characteristic of your previous works. Were you trying to crossover and get some commercial appeal and a broader audience, or experiment, or … what’s up with that?

Kaze: I appreciate that you even say that because I think that the thing for the cats that knew me from before that would have scared them about First in Flight is that I’m getting away from what they knew and in turn trying to be popular, but in a sense I have to try to be smarter. If I come at you street and preaching at you and trying to hit you in the head with knowledge and you’ve never met me, that’s not even anybody I’d want to hang around, you know what I’m saying? I’d rather people get to know my personality and see the diversity in what we’re going to do and then once they get that understanding, like this is hot, this is cool, then bring you home to an album where we can go into a deeper subject matter like I have past. “Blood Thicker than Oil,” talking about the Iraq war. “The Stereotype,” talking about racial inequality. Things that I’m going to continue to do. These are things that I’m going to always continue to have in my music. But for me to come from the underground and be signed to a label that Akon and David Banner and I continue to rap like I’m at Local 506 is not going to do me or any body a service right now. And it’s not forgetting where I came from it’s more, like, okay, let me push the ball so that we’re even commercially viable. If I come out on SRC and sell 10,000 records, it’s a wrap, you know what I’m saying? I’m not saying that I should change who I am or change the way that I’m presenting myself. It’s just that I’m trying to find ways to evolve and ways to incorporate melody so this song can be played on the radio. Like what I did with Drake’s song. I didn’t take it and emulate it, I took it and made it mine. I tried to take it and stick it to that song, saying like, this is that easy to do and turning that energy on my behalf. You know, because there’s some people that don’t want to listen to Mos Def and Talib Kweli because they feel like I don’t want to hear that. So, if you listen to Drake and Lil’ Wayne and, shit, Lil’ Boosie, or whatever, then I got something for you too. Maybe that’s the song that catches their ear and then they research into the album and into the total body of work.

At the same time, for those that think my singing hooks is something new, you can go back and listen to my first album and a couple joints on Block 2tha Basement, and I sing the hook. That’s something I’ve always done, trying to incorporate melody into the songs and something I’ve been holding back on doing. It’s at a point now where I’m comfortable enough with myself to show all aspects of what I’ve got to bring to the table. It’s more than me just being an emcee, you know? I like the hooks. Even when someone else sings ‘em, I write the hook. I basically try to show myself as being versatile, not just a one-trick pony. More along the lines what I tried to do on this mixtape, was just to show all aspects of myself. From the beginning of the shit I come in with something familiar and by the end it’s damn near a love song. But I’m trying to bust down all the walls of the little box that people have been putting me in, like, ‘Well, he sound like Little Brother,’ or sounds like this, or that’s underground Kaze. I’m trying to destroy all those constraints so when we move forward we can do whatever we want. Like, if we want to do a whole conscious album we can do that, or If we want to do a dirty south song we can do that.

I think that what people should trust of me is that I’m never going to do no idiot shit. I’m never going to be out of my character even when I’m rapping over a hard dirty south beat it’s going to be Kaze rapping over a hard dirty south beat. Doing it the way Kaze would do it, not the way Plies would do it. I think the part of the South that is missing right now is that part of the South that I came up on, that I knew to be good. That Outkast, that Goodie Mob, that UGK. That honest approach to doing southern music and establishing that identity. In the South it’s a lot of soul, I grew up in the church, people grow up singing, my father used to sing, he was in a jazz band, and incorporating that harmony is part of incorporating that soul that came even as far back as black people singing during slavery times. Still that’s part of the soul of the South and if I don’t incorporate that in my music I feel like I’m leaving a part out.

With this new approach I’m showing versatility to be able to get on a track with whoever on any kind of beat with any kind of topic, it just feels good to put that out there. I know it raises a lot of eyebrows of a lot of people. You’ll never see me use Auto-Tune as a crutch, I really can sing. It’s one of those things like, you know what, the 15 and 16-year-olds, this is their generation and what they have done with this. With what Jay-Z says about the death of it, I agree with that as well because I do feel like people have used that to make up for not having talent. Not everybody, but a lot of cats out there. And if that was the case for me it would be something different, but I feel like this is a tool that has been used by Roger Troutman and many other people and I’m like, okay, if I use it on one song then so be it. I think along the lines of you’re going to gain some fans and you’re going to lose some, but at the end of the day they’re going to know the reality of Kaze. That’s pretty much my reasoning for doing tracks that people hadn’t really heard out of me before.

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