February 4, 2013 2:50 PM | By Sean Plummer

K-os explores rock and rap sides on BLack on BLonde

Vancouver-based artist inspired by Laurel Canyon’s “old ghosts”

k-os (© Nathan Denette, The Canadian Press)

The challenge of writing about k-os – a.k.a. Toronto-born rapper/rocker Kevin Brereton – is that an interview with the now Vancouver-based artist results in more good quotes than can be accommodated within the confines of my word count. In addition, Brereton’s answers to my questions are, not rambling but extensive, so extracting a portion of his response to a particular question seems akin to listening to only the chorus of a particularly interesting song.

Similarly, Brereton found that confining his musical interests to a single album was impossible with his latest project. Hence the release of BLack on BLonde, Canada’s first hip-hop double album. That descriptor is not completely accurate, though, as BLack on BLonde is (pretty much) divided into a hip-hop side (Black) and a rock side (Blonde).

It seems an adventurous move, releasing a double album in 2013, but Brereton, speaking the day before the album’s release during a sit-down interview at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, does not see it as such.

“I think one of my favourite pop punk bands, The Clash, was always like ‘We give people more bang for their buck.’ That’s what I’m about,” he says, referencing that band’s double album London Calling (1979) and triple-album Sandinista! (1980). “I think if that’s a risk I have to take just to experiment, to see where music lovers are at then it’s a risk worth taking.”

Brereton started work on BLack on BLonde in his Vancouver and Toronto home studios, and later recorded the entire “Blonde” side with producer Ryan Dahle (ex-Age of Electric, Limblifter) back in Vancouver. But the record was “really brought home,” Brereton says, when he went down to Los Angeles for several months, staying in his friend Canadian actor Hayden Christensen’s Laurel Canyon mansion.

“It really made me change my idea of myself, and I was really able to go back into the songs and finish them.”

Brereton found himself inspired by both Laurel Canyon’s natural beauty, as well as its “old ghosts” and “real LA ethos of singer-songwriter music,” the same ethos that inspired great records and songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell (“Ladies of the Canyon”), Graham Nash (“Our House”), The Doors (“People Are Strange”), and Neil Young (“Revolution Blues”).

Much of BLack on BLonde was also inspired by a “beautiful girl” and “trying to be in love in a place where love has value; where who you are with is known and people are looking at something.

“So, like, being in love with someone and being in a city where, if you are known and the other person is known, there’s all this other narrative about what that is. I think having to deal with really loving someone but then question my motives about... Like, people question my motives every day, but when you are constantly having to question how real something is [then] you can really be inspired to write about that, and that’s a big part of the record.”

Like many rap records BLack on BLonde is lousy with guest artists, including Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy (“CLA”), Brereton’s hero Black Thought of The Roots (“Try Again”), and fellow Canadian rappers Saukrates and Shad (“Spraying My Pen”). But his rock side means that he also collaborated with the likes of Sam Roberts (“Don’t Touch”), Bedouin Soundclash’s Jay Malinowski (“Billy Bragg Winners”), Sebastien Grainger from Death From Above 1979 (“Surfs Up”), and Metric’s Emily Haines (“One Time”).

I ask if he thinks his love of rock & roll has hurt his ascendance into the upper reaches of hip-hop royalty, despite constant critical acclaim (he has won four Junos) and the approval of peers like Andre 3000 (OutKast) and Kanye West.

Brereton’s answer is worthy of more extensive quotation than I can fit here, but over the next few minutes he points out that “there’s an idea of what black people do” when it comes to entertainment marketing, but that that there are “very different personalities in rock & roll,” as opposed to what is allowed in hip-hop. So the very different likes of David Bowie, Ted Nugent, Gotye and Thom Yorke “can all be themselves and they are still rock & roll.”

“I think it’s more Eurocentric society only wanting hip-hop to be a certain way. People don’t necessarily want a bunch of black rock bands because that would change the face of [music]. Every time a black guy would show up with a guitar, music changes. So subconsciously, again, I’m not trying to make this a racial [thing], but let’s keep it real. When Bob Marley showed up, things changed; when Jimi Hendrix showed up, things changed.

“But I have a lot to say on that,” he says. “I respect your question. I think it’s a great question. I don’t think that hip-hop in America or Canada knows who I am. I think the type of music I’m doing threatens the idea of what hip-hop is, and people very much like when they buy a certain brand of alcohol, when they put on a hip-hop album, they want to hear black guys talking about the black experience with a certain accent. They’re not into something that’s different yet. We’ll see what happens in the future.”

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