K-os returns more crucial than ever: 'People need to hear from me right now'

For his first release in 5 years, the Vancouver-based rapper teamed up with Kaytranada for an EP that he says fills a void in today's hip hop.

The Vancouver-based rapper teamed up with Kaytranada for an EP that he says fills a void in today's hip hop

'I feel so much anger and love and joy for what's happening right now. But it's like, bro, this protest shit, this is my daily struggle being a Black man in Canada.' — k-os ( Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

K-os is one of Canada's most consistently successful hip-hop musicians. It's been almost 20 years since he released his striking debut, Exit, and subsequent albums like Joyful Rebellion, Atlantis: Hymns for Disco and Yes! yielded earworm hits like "The Man I Used to Be," "Crabbuckit," "Sunday Morning" and "I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman." 

He has been largely off the radar since his 2015 album, Can't Fly Without Gravity — "All I've done from 2015 to 2020 is make music," he says — but now he's returned with a new EP, entitled Boshido. Just five tracks long, the project is produced entirely by Polaris Prize-winning Montreal DJ Kaytranada, and finds k-os in experimental form, taking him back to the essence of his hip-hop roots. 

Over his career, k-os' musical eclecticism and organic meshing of rapping and singing forged an inimitable sound that incorporated R&B, pop, soul and rock, and was always undergirded by his bonafide hip-hop origins. In doing so, he's carved out a musical identity that can't easily be replicated and is undeniably his own.

The first track, "Free Style," stays true to its name, as you can literally hear k-os going through the gears to produce improv rhymes on the spot. "Smells Like Cream Spirit" finds the rapper in swaggering form, affirming his rhyme prowess to those who lack his mic-wielding experience. The soul-streaked "On My Kanye" prominently samples the infamous Kanye "How Sway?" interview alongside k-os' distorted rhymes.

With the release date of May 29 pencilled in long ago, k-os had no idea what the state of the world would be when the project dropped. A global pandemic had already drastically reconfigured the world in the first months of 2020, and the unrelenting reality of systemic racism garnered undeniable magnification after the brutal death of a Black man named George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, sparking worldwide outrage and anti-racism demonstrations. 

This turn of events clearly played on k-os' mind. On his social media accounts, just ahead of Boshido's release, k-os posted one of the EP's tracks — a Kaytranada remix of his 2004 Peter Tosh-inspired track "Crucial" — with a collage photo featuring the faces of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Aiyana Jones and many other Black Americans who died during encounters with police. 

The track's opening lyric, "This is an emergency/ they shot down in the dark," provided a stark backdrop to the photo and seemed the logical place to start when CBC Music connected with k-os in Vancouver. 

You have that picture of all the Black people that have been taken by police brutality and the "Crucial" remix underneath it. What is it that you wanted to apply to that? 

People get caught up in the moment, they think it's just one thing. And people forget, the lyrics in "Crucial' are, "This is an emergency/ they shot down in the dark." It's just been like this. You know what I mean? It's just been this rough. I feel so much anger and love and joy for what's happening right now. But it's like, bro, this protest shit, this is my daily struggle being a Black man in Canada. I was feeling how people are feeling now when that song was made 15 years ago. So it's just the irony of it, something that's a piece of music that's so dated, but so in tune with what's happening now. That's why everyone's all upset. That's why this whole thing is happening, because this has been happening for hundreds and hundreds of years. You know, you listen to Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," and you listen to that now as if it was yesterday. Why? Because we're still under certain circumstances. 

So I saw that picture on the internet one night, out of the corner of my eyes scrolling. I screenshotted it and then woke up the next morning and just did it because I was like, "Yeah, that's an important picture." Yes, yes, it's about George Floyd and everything that happened but it's also just about years and years of this shit. And I don't know, it just feels spooky to me when I put the music on top of it. I was like, wow, this is exactly why this is such an important issue right now. I don't want to be known as the artist that thrives in a sad time, you know what I mean? Everyone is like "Yo, you got an amazing EP. Now how do you feel?" Yeah, I'm happy but I'm sad. Because it's like, how do I tolerate that? There's so much bullshit happening. So don't get it twisted. Yes, I'm excited that I have a voice out there, but it's just not the ideal circumstance of what you want.

I imagine that the "Crucial" remix was something Kaytranada did by himself because that's what he does, but the other records were ones that you guys actually connected on.

Three or four girls who were my good, good friends were like, "Kaytranada remixed 'Crucial.'" I didn't really think anything of it. Since then I got signed to Dine Alone [Records] and the guy who was my product manager was like, "Yo, have you really, really checked this Kaytranada out? You should listen to it." And I did and I was blown away. I consider myself a producer, too, so I don't think someone's gonna touch my work, especially a song like that, and do something better with it or do something just as good? I would say it's better in the sense that it's suited for a younger generation. I was like, "Oh my goodness, this is crazy," so we got in contact. And one day he just Dropboxed me, literally, like 40 beats. He was so stoked that I reached out to him and he was such a fan. I still have at least 15-20 beats that I haven't touched on my computer from Kaytranada. 

So what you got was just the tip of the iceberg as we started to work. He would send emails, like, "You know, my name is Kevin, too. We should just make a group called Kevin." It was our joke at the time. So the songs that people are hearing on Boshido was us starting to make this album called Kevin, but then he started blowing up on his own. He was a little harder to reach because he was dealing with his own career.… I can't thank that guy enough. What a gracious dude. Also, just a music lover, and Montreal, man, the shit sounds like it was made after the club in Montreal, late at night. 

How do you deal with the fact that what you're good at, no matter how good you are at it, no one really wants to hear it because the actual genre has just become old. No one prepares you for that.- k-os

Can you talk about why you picked these five tracks to put together and how the meaning of Boshido applies to these tracks?

So first of all, bushido, which is [correctly] spelled B-U-S-H-I-D-O. I've been into Zen Buddhism for a while. The way of the warrior, bushido, came to me out of this idea that you have to always be in hip-hop mode. In other words, bushido in the sense of everything that you do, should reflect your way of life. You're not just a warrior when you pull out a sword and fight somebody, everything that you do should be the way of that. As far as hip hop, it's like, if you're not aware of how I see the art of hip hop, I've always seen it like a martial art. Another big part of it too is that the way of the warrior is like you just have to be sharp. And you have to realize where times are at. So yes, I saw the COVID-19 [pandemic] and there are some things happening in the world that made me realize that I think lyricism and being about something as an artist is more relevant than it's ever been. I've always been that person. You know, to me, I kind of thought people need to hear from me right now. 

I just picked the tracks that were best going to communicate where I'm at right now, and communicate something lyrically that I think is missing from hip hop, especially Canadian music. No one's really lyrical or saying anything. It's just all club music, but now the clubs are shut down. OK, what's the music of the struggle now? It certainly isn't trap music. 

So where are you at now? 2015 was the last album. And then I think some of these songs date back to 2016, so there's been at least three years there.

As far as where do you see me now? I have four or five albums in the vault. I'm going to be honest, I have so much material because all I've done from 2015 to 2020 is make music with different producers, like MSTRKRFT. I have so many songs. So now that people are open to me, I'm ready to drop those things. 

Prince, who's a hero of mine, that's one of the things he talked about: You got to have a vault, man. You're not no artist if you don't have a vault. What's in the vault? Six, seven albums ready to go right now. Let's go! So that's where I'm at. I'm so happy that I spent the downtime during the trap revolution making records. 

I didn't stop because, you know, it's hard when the type of music that you do becomes outdated. I'm sure there's a lot of rappers who are my peers who just stopped making music. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with the fact that what you're good at, no matter how good you are at it, no one really wants to hear it because the actual genre has just become old. No one prepares you for that. 


Del Cowie is a Toronto-based music journalist and editor who has worked as a writer, producer and researcher for the Peabody and International Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary series Hip Hop Evolution. He has also worked as a producer for CBC Music and was hip-hop editor at national music magazine Exclaim! for over a decade. Additionally, he has contributed writing on hip-hop music and culture to NOW, NOISEY and XXL among other publications. Cowie has served as a judge for the Junos, the SOCAN Songwriting Prize and the Prism Prize and has been a member of the Polaris Music Prize jury since its 2006 inception. Since 2015 he has produced and presented Before the 6ix, an ongoing panel discussion focusing on Toronto hip-hop history in association with the Toronto Public Library.