Soul Khan’s music came to me through the suggestion of a friend. We actually missed a show of his in Rochester, NY, prompting me to do some research.
Like a true music nerd, I turned to his website and countless YouTube clips to hip me to what I’d been missing…the world of the battle MC.
I was amazed. I’d seen battles take place in clubs and on the street. Of course I was conscious of the battler, the dude who goes toe to toe letting verbal jabs fly to the laughter and cheers of a massive crowd, but I never realized how impressive these battles truly were. Not only was the winner earning a little cash, they were winning bragging rights. And lets face it, the rap game is more about confidence that anything else.
I needed to know more about this dude with millions of views, a series of thorough EP’s and a team of true hiphop heads called The Brown Bag Allstars. I reached out and Soul Khan was gracious enough to chat with SGH about his craft, the choice to leave battle rapping behind, his crew and what’s coming next for this Brooklyn by way of Los Angeles MC.
Shiny Glass Houses: From Cali to Brooklyn, battle MC to recording artist, tell me a little about Soul Khan. Where does the story begin?
Khan: It actually goes from recording artist to battler to recording artist, beginning as a teenage rapper and fan in LA, going away to college in upstate New York, and moving south to Brooklyn, where I started taking rap seriously as a job. Every great thing begins with a pilgrimage.
I worked at Fat Beats before it closed and that’s where I met my crew, Brown Bag AllStars. We all collectively brought our group and solo efforts to new levels. In the course of this, I got mixed up in battling, which was a nice boost of name recognition, but at the end of the day only good music will retain music fans, so I had to refocus on that alone.
SGH: After listening to your debut, Soul Like Khan, front to back, over and over again, I can’t ignore the pedigree. The lyricism, the construction of the verses, the cadence and unique delivery…it all fits together perfectly. How do you approach writing a song? Any similarity to preparing for a battle?
Khan: I approach writing as one approaches gardening: in overalls and a floppy straw hat. Nah, actually, I just try to think of ideas, emotions, and images that move people, stitch them together in some fashion that makes sense, and send them out on these piping hot Protools files for the engineer to mix down.
Before I even hit the conceptual stage for a song, I sing and sort of scat on the beat a bit to flesh out what kind of flows and tones work. Nothing’s worse to me than going back and thinking, “Aw, I should have spit it this way.” That is a crippling regret. Stuff like subject matter is always important, too, obviously, but the range of subjects that both I and an audience give a shit about is more limited than people think. I also hate experimentation for experimentation’s sake. It’s a vain, shitty thing to do for an audience-sensitive project like a commercially sold song.
SGH: You built your brand on the battle stage. Why leave battling when you did? How did fans react to the news?
Khan: Because I kept hitting walls with respect to promoting my music. The conversation was all about battling and then music as a secondary concern. By dropping battling, I saw an immediate change for the better. I loved what battling did for me in terms of making fans happy, but it wasn’t what I wanted to keep doing. Some fans were supportive, some weren’t, and all were disappointed, but being a grown-up sometimes means not just caving into popular pressure against something you really know isn’t right for you.
SGH: So you make that conscious move to record music and the result is Soul Like Khan. How did it come together? I was blown away by the temperature and feeling of the album. It has a pulse that doesn’t let up. That sort of final product must make you proud?
Khan: Thank you. Soul Like Khan, because of all sorts of detours from studio time deficiencies, to day jobs, to group commitments, and beyond, took three years of writing and recording. The recording was ultimately all redone through 2009 for continuity’s sake and as your reaction thankfully indicates, that move seems to have paid off. It makes me happy that the album is considered a modern staple by so many people who downloaded it, but it does raise the stakes on the next projects, both free and for sale.
SGH: What’s the story on your crew, The Brown Bag Allstars? You guys recently completed an EP?
Khan: The Brown Bag AllStars is a crew of rappers, producers, and DJ’s, who met and formed a group at Fat Beats in 2007. It consists of myself, Koncept, rapping-producers J57 and Audible Doctor, producer and DJ Deejay Element, and hook yelling DJ E Holla. We just completed and released Brown Label Part 2, which is available for sale at www.BrownBagAllStars.com and it’s easily our best work. Those who don’t have it are missing out and listening to weaker shit.
SGH: Your series of EP’s is an ambitious move. What’s the creative drive behind them?
Khan: I just wanted to get better at making thematically and tonally unified small projects that hopefully fit together once you line them in order. We’ll see whether I succeeded once this last EP, Psalm, is released on December 11th.
SGH: What motivates you to create? Where do you draw your inspiration?
Khan: I draw my inspiration from other rappers and other music, books, poems, film, paintings, my life, others’ lives, and above all, a ceramic wolf statue on my desk.
SGH: Another full length? A deal? Touring the globe? What’s on Soul Khan’s plate?
Khan: One more EP, available at www.soulkhan.com, a free album, a completely NOT free album, and hopefully more resources and taste makers waking up to what regular folks already know to be true; that I am different from these other motherfuckers and can be of greater use to a larger audience. We’ll see what happens next. I take nothing for granted but discount nothing, as well.
SGH: If you could jump into a cypher with two rappers, living or dead who would they be?
Khan: Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought.
SGH: LA or Brooklyn?
SGH: Last but not least, your drink of choice?
Khan: Muskoka Mad Tom IPA
Big shout out to Soul Khan for taking some time to talk while he readies his newest EP, Psalm, for its December 11, 2012 release date. He’s doing a show on December 12, to celebrate the release at Public Assembly (www.publicassemblynyc.com). Be sure to come out and support if you’re in the NYC area.