when we last caught up withK-OS, the Toronto MC was about to release his long-overdue debut CD, Exit, and was already finding it tough to fit his vision of conscious, progressive hiphop into the mainstream.Hypercritical of hiphop's commerce-driven, innovation-free culture, the record was as much a State of the Union address as a remarkably self-assured debut. K-OS's public statements on the music industry, a business he'd famously avoided dealing with for years, ranged from disdain to outright contempt. Not the ideal way to have your first album break big.
Nearly a year after Exit's release, though, and K-OS has changed his tune. A current American tour has only strengthened his disgust with the hiphop mainstream, but the outspoken MC is more conciliatory these days, even occasionally sounding like a music biz team player.
"The last year has really been eye-opening and occasionally embarrassing," K-OS concedes from Chicago. "Six months ago I said a lot of things out of fear rather than love, and put limits on myself before I even got out of the box. I'm learning that this music-industry thing is what you make of it, so now I'm trying to control my reality rather than having it control me.
"A lot of artists are fearful of that control. They're so happy to be signed and so happy to have that song on the radio that they don't embrace that opportunity. My first reaction was to lash out. Now it's evolved somewhat. I still believe the industry is corrupt and manipulative, but I'm not going to let that control what I do, so why should I worry about it?
"On our last tour, I realized that this music actually means something to people. I started to wonder, "Why am I being so self-centred when this music is actually reaching people?' All this is really about is making music and connecting with people. The rest of the industry bullshit is just that -- bullshit."
In large part, K-OS's mellowing toward the big, bad music industry isn't the result of changing his message, but of hooking up with like-minded people who share his vision.
His current tour with New Age soul crooner India.Arie and Detroit underground stars Slum Village puts him in familiar company, as has his induction into the wider family of Philly hiphop revolutionaries the Roots.
"I had a life-altering experience in New York a few weeks back," K-OS shouts. "I was in New York, seeing the Roots, and Cody ChesnuTT came onstage. It changed me because he came on, plugged in his guitar and black people started to move like they remembered they liked Sly & the Family Stone.
"The next night, I did this corporate showcase for people like MTV and Giorgio Armani, which was really depressing, but Cody came backstage and started quoting my lyrics back to me and telling me how much they meant to him. It was a mirror, and it was incredible. We need those mirrors to tell us we're not just crazy people rapping over guitars and Indian drums, trying to be self-centred, eccentric revolutionaries. That, to me, is more important than worrying about some guy trying to tell me what my new single is going to be."
If anything, a year in the trenches has only solidified what K-OS was on about before. He still wants to burn the music industry down, but perhaps now he'll set some strategic fires rather than just toss in a firebomb.
"I'm having these conversations with India and Slum and Cody and the Roots," he continues. "It's like there's this revolution coming in the music, and we're all involved. People are connecting with each other on their own, without managers and labels, making sneaky calls saying, "Let's go to Europe,' and "Let's all do this track together.'
"Everyone's working on their own but trying to make those links, and it's coming together. It's a movement, man."firstname.lastname@example.org
K-OS opening for INDIA.ARIE at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (December 6), $39.50-$69.50. 416-870-8000.