What does Long Island, a slightly obsessive phobia of death and a grocery store have to do with hip hop? Can’t put the pieces together? Just ask KEVORKIAN, the rappin’ ass half of the duo, A Tribe Called Death, and he’ll point you in the right direction.
Although the San Francisco area is where KEV now calls home, his east coast roots shine through when ripping mics over delicately layered tracks built by a mystery man known simply as BOATS. While a 9-5 job may have technically linked the duo, their love for authentic, dope music is the tie that binds them.
Shiny Glass Houses caught up with KEVORKIAN and chopped it up about everything from Twitter to poetry to the oddball legend of New Jersey’s Redman. He was poised, funny and revealing as the conversation stretched over an hour. The message was clear. ATCD wants you listen up, and pay attention because death is coming.
SGH: How did you get started in with music?
KEVORKIAN: I’ve been writing forever. I’ve written six books of poetry. Like poems and sonnets. It’s not really rap. It happened during a time when the internet was just booming with Myspace and all that. I didn’t have any means to record music, and I was into rapping when I was in Boston (in college). I wasn’t really any good yet, but I started to think that maybe I could really do this. This was like 99′ when I was listening to a lot of Thistin Howl and Eminem. And Kool Keith was having his whole renaissance, that whole underground shit.
I guess that’s what’s going on again, in a weird or different way. I feel like now, the skill set or expectations are not necessarily lowered, but people are more willing to accept people in this whole thing . As before you needed to be ill. Like crazy and lyrical to get any approval. Now you still need to be lyrical, like when Redman came out, even though people don’t really recognize him as lyrical. They remember him as this clown, this wild personality.
SGH: Right, he has that goofy personality, but in his own way he’s on his smart guy shit. Yet people don’t really give him credit for that.
KEVORKIAN: Exactly. He’s cool because he knows how to balance that. He’s interesting, like when I was a kid…I have to go way back here. When I first started rapping, my old shit was really lo-fi. I never had anything mastered. I did some stuff with Ear Peace records, I have a mix tape with them. A lot of shit was produced by BOATS, but it was never really mastered.
SGH: How did the whole Death Gang thing come about. How did you link up with BOATS?
KEVORKIAN: Mike, or BOATS, he’s from out here, Cali. I was writing my books, self publishing in 2004. I had just moved to California and I was writing a lot then. That was my mission. I gave up on rapping at that point, because I didn’t know it was possible to do it for free because I like to make something out of nothing. I’m a poet. If you look at my books and shit, I really wanted to be like Walt Whitman or Alan Ginsberg…something epic, something American. So I wrote a book called Testing The Drink.
Mike (BOATS) is from an artistic family and he’s into music and graffiti. He’s into heavy metal and 90’s hardcore. So he read the book and thought it was ill and something different. We took the shit from the book and recorded it. We weren’t trying to do a lo-fi thing, but we never got around to mastering it. We were drinking a lot and having fun. We’d bang out mad songs. On Myspace we were calling ourselves Re:micks, before A Tribe Called Death.
BOATS gets really into the whole Brian Wilson, Phil Spector thing. He’s into filling the empty spaces, and creating the wall of sound. He wanted me to write more, songs with 16 bar verses, and I didn’t think I could do that. So things kind of went on the back burner and I went back to writing my books.
SGH: So once you got your shit together did you start focusing more on writing lyrics than writing poetry?
KEVORKIAN: BOATS realized that I starting getting serious with my shit, putting songs together and promoting myself. I had written a whole album. I write all my shit a cappella. I count the syllables. I have a ton of shit written. I do that so I can work with any beat. All the soundcloud stuff we’re slowly trickling out. That’s what we’ve decided to do. BOATS takes his time with his production. We’re paying attention to each song. We are trying to do lots of collabo’s, but take our time. We will be doing shit with Deli Mane and Blam Lord in the future.
That’s how we work. If you are artistic and creative, we’ll fuck with you. There’s no ego involved. That didn’t work for me for years. I’m establishing this brand A Tribe Called Death because it wasn’t working with just KEVORKIAN. It starts working when you start being unique. So I’m trying to turn it up. People don’t want to hear a normal dude, they want a dude turned up to ten. You want to be entertained. I want to make shit that I’d want to hear as a fan. I want to go crazy.
SGH: Like calling out KEVORKIAN on your tracks? Letting people know?
KEVORKIAN: Right, I never did that shit when I first started rapping. Mike Jones and Gucci, they do it. It’s genius. If people only hear that one song, they need to hear my name more than once. I want them to remember it. I want attention.
SGH: You mentioned Redman, what types of shit do you listen to? I listened to your soundcloud stuff, I could tell you were a writer right away. Just by listening to your verses I could tell you loved words.
KEVORKIAN: There’s a lot of Jersey dudes that are slept on. I can’t rap fast, so I loved dudes that were lyrical but weren’t fast but could still do unique shit. Like Young Zee from The Outsidaz. I like that dudes cadence, he’s got a higher pitched voice like me. Like Ad-Rock from the Beasties, as far as cadence. As far as lyrics go, the greats like Nas, Kool G Rap and Wu Tang.
SGH: Listening to your songs, I definitely didn’t pick up west coast type of sound. It’s clear you’re from the east.
KEVORKIAN: Yeah, Freeport. Freeport, Long Island is where I’m from. I’m not out in the Bay to be a Bay area artist. The Bay is mad important to me in terms of developing over the years. But, if I was still in NY it would be harder for me to be a rapper. Out here, I can use that influence to help me tell stories and phrase shit.
I studied in Boston, so people pick up on accents. For me, I take pride in the texture of my voice. I want to sound like my dad, I hope my kid sounds like me. I definitely took a 180 and took more pride in it. I’ll write whole verses where I really play up to my accent.
SGH: When I listened to your song, Green Velvet, that’s where I heard an authentic sound from you, in the tone of your voice.
KEVORKIAN: That one was definitely inspired by KRS-One. When I was writing the lyrics to that, I was thinking about a lot of his shit. That whole “edu-tainment” style. Saying some shit that may or may not be true. He dropped wacked out knowledge on people, so I said shit that was opinionated. Like as a rapper, why was I talking about Catholic Reformation and shit? Not like Irish pride, but looking at yourself with some cultural perspective. Looking at who we are and why we act that way.
SGH: Are you the type of person that writes for a few hours each day? Or is it spur of the moment, when you feel it?
KEVORKIAN: I used to write every single day. But now that the ball is set in motion, and we have mad songs, the writing slowed a little. But once I have the first line, I just write and go with it. I write it out and cut lines to fit it into the track. I’ve been rapping for fourteen years. I’ve been writing forever and went to school for it. But I honestly thought no one would take any interest in it. Back in the day, I thought I was the man and thought it would pay off and it didn’t. I never lost interest, but it wasn’t easy.
SGH: How much has Twitter helped?
KEVORKIAN: Twitter is fucking crazy. That’s how Death Gang came about. We recently shot a video in New York, and that whole thing was crazy. All of that is from Twitter.
SGH: Is that how you got down with the whole Mishka culture as well?
Kevorkian: That, to me is crazy. When we shot the video my dad and I drove into Brooklyn, he’s old school a blue-collar guy his whole life, worked for Con-Ed and grew up in the projects. And when we drove into Brooklyn he dropped me off at the Mishka store and I was amazed at where it was. Mishka brings you right into the heart of the city. They’re cool. They’re showing you the part of Brooklyn that hasn’t changed. The Mishka thing is all about politics and hustling your shit on Twitter. It helps that we have a genuine, good sound, but I’ve also been wearing their shit since 06′.
SGH: I’ve been supporting their brand for about two years. I know if I roll by someone wearing a hat or tee shirt, I automatically know they’re into the same stuff I’m into.
KEVORKIAN: That’s part of my logic too. For the past three years Mishka’s been influential for lots of successful independent artist, from Action Bronson to Party Supplies to Mr. Muthafucking eXquire, everyone…the resurgence of El-P’s work. I’ve been reading their blog for a while and I read it every day. Mishka puts me on. I’ve been on their blog four times now. They list who the livest is.
I read who Nick (@NicholasVogt is a contributing writer for Mishka and an artist who records as Deli Mane) listens to, and I realized he was into the same shit as me, and since I read it every day I sent him a link to my shit. We hit it off and ended up doing a remix for our song, “Ray Liotta”, which we recently shot a video for.
SGH: I love that “Ray Liotta” track, can’t wait to hear the remix. I love how Twitter brings lots of artists and genres together, almost by accident. Hip hop for me came after my love for punk and alternative rock, so I’ve always blended the lines.
KEVORKIAN: When I was really getting into music, there were so many good punk and hardcore shows on the east coast at that time. Now reminds me of that whole fusion type thing. Artists are into other shit besides hip hop, guys like ShowYouSuck are into hardcore and hip hop, it’s cool.
SGH: I just recently got into ShowYouSuck’s music, that whole Chicago scene is taking off, very much like that’s going on in the Bay Area and New York. It seems like the whole DIY thing is back on the rise, like the 90’s all over again.
KEVORKIAN: Exactly, people used to make fliers and post them everywhere. Now you do it through their tumblr. It’s pretty cool. Thank God for this whole social media push. I can’t imagine people listening to my shit…there wouldn’t be an avenue for it without it. It’s all about creating an open dialogue between people who have similar tastes and sounds. I think that’s part of it. I don’t know if people are going to make money on it. I don’t know how many people have heard our shit. Which is why we only have the soundcloud page rocking now. People pick up mixtapes and listen to them, then move on to the next mixtape.
Our logic is, give each song the attention you’d give an album. Back in the 90’s music was more disposable. Singles were so popular. Singles made money. We would rather put out quality songs so people know what to expect. We want people to think that when Tribe Called Death puts out a song, it’s the best product we got. Our album is done, but we need to finish mixing and mastering it.
SGH: It’s cool that people on Twitter, artists and writers, are willing to help each other. Do you think if Twitter was around back in the day it would have been the same type of push for artists?
KEVORKIAN: I don’t know if it would have been as accepted. Competition was pretty tough in the 90’s, I don’t know if artists would have been so receptive to different types of people rapping and getting noticed. Now it’s cool though. Bryan McKay (@bryanmckay, director/designer out of Boston, MA) shot that “Ray Liotta Remix” video in Brooklyn for free. I do collaborations and songs for free. Maybe we can pay Bryan someday for the video, maybe someone will pay me to rap eventually, but right now everyone is helping everyone and that alone is building some social equity. It’ s a good time to build and politic and make connections.
If someone gets signed, then maybe a little bit of money comes around. All these cats on Twitter, they are building their own followings and it’s real. I love that people know my music from Twitter. It’s cool to throw songs out there and see how people respond. I know what I want to do artistically. I’m a different person now than when I started. All those reasons I wanted to be a rapper from ten years ago have kind of faded into the background.
SGH: I hear you, but being in that different mind state probably helps you stay concerned with turning out a quality product. I love Twitter, it helps people build their sound and their scene. But on the other side of it, there’s an awful lot of “pop up” crews and rappers these days…
KEVORKIAN: We started in this whole Twitter thing, but we want to take that idea and bring a bigger, fuller sound to it. Not just computer recordings. We want to finesse our shit. BOATS is good at that side of things. After our album is out, we’re doing an EP with Deli Mane, with all BOATS beats. The other album I want to do is with Sorta Human. Lots of collabo’s. The album we’re about to put out doesn’t have a lot of guests. It’s a lot of me. Our next projects will feature everyone we fuck with.
SGH: Social media has definitely given people courage. Has it entitled too many people? Are there too many people with their feet in the water?
KEVORKIAN: I want to play nice. I don’t want to come at people, but I think the old era, it was meaner. Maybe a little more competitive. More real. I mean, I’m playing the game too, sitting at home tweeting about shit. However, in real life I do come from Freeport, Long Island, which is a real place. It’s blue-collar. I do represent my past. I’ve been living good in Cali for a while now, but I grew up crazy. I have a crazy family, we’re all weird, but real. A household of people fighting. It was real, you know? But I flip a switch and I’m KEVORKIAN. That’s me.
SGH: What’s the story with KEVORKIAN and all this death business?
KEVORKIAN: Ultimately, I’m scared of death, of dying. That’s why I’m obsessed with it. The whole Tribe Called Death thing, it’s an acronym for Don’t Enjoy Any Thing Here. I want to figure out what the fuck we’re doing here, and nobody has an answer. I think about what happens when we die on a regular basis. I don’t want to die. And I think art is created by people who want to be immortal. They want their work and their vision to be carried on for all of eternity. That’s why I do it. I’m going to die, and all of my life I’ve been figuring out ways to cope with that.
Check out the last verse of “Kreayvorkian”, I spell out my name a whole bunch of times. I want to yell it out, and give it power. It will stand alone. A few years ago, a co-worker of mine heard me say I was going to call myself KEVORKIAN and he instantly started laughing. He said that was the stupidest name ever. He didn’t know who was Kevorkian was. From that day on, I ran with it. And I made it a point to call it out on songs as much as I can.
SGH: The album is done?
KEVORKIAN: It has to get mixed and finished up, we will probably have about sixteen songs on it. It has a theme to it. It tells a story. I want to show a progression through the very dark side towards a more hopeful side. There is a light, there’s a brighter future to where it’s headed. A drug trip is always like that…you go crazy and then you crash. The album will plateau like that. We will tell a story with it for sure.
SGH: You said you don’t drink much anymore, but I have to ask, as I always do…what is or was your drink of choice?
KEVORKIAN: Straight up Coca Cola. I got a song called “I Drink Beverages”. Mad boring, but I always drink Coca Cola. I love soft drinks.
Be sure to check out
www.soundcloud.com/atribecalleddeath for all ATCD’s music and you can follow KEVORKIAN on Twitter at @ANIMALKRACKA and BOATS @BOATSx. Independent music is stronger than it’s ever been, I’m just happy to be witnessing it all…