K-OS opening for URSULA RUCKER at the Reverb (651 Queen West), Friday (November 16). $18. 416-760-3332. Rating: NNNNN
you'd think k-os would be ready for all the fuss around him. In the almost 10 years the Toronto MC/singer, born Kevin Brereton, has been making music, he's gone from obscurity to the future of Canuck hiphop and back more times than he cares to remember.
Now, with his long-delayed debut album, Exit, finally finished and set for a February release, it's just about go time. But he's still having second thoughts.
The instant he sits down over a heap of midday fries at the Rivoli, the garrulous Brereton launches into a lengthy bit about learning how to work within the machine, and breaking down the word "compromise" into a half-dozen different meanings.
Brereton argues that he's been working on Exit for 29 years, and to call the album long-overdue is an understatement.
K-OS seemed set up to break out years ago. Once managed by former Raptor and current BET host John Salley, Brereton released two well-received hiphop/soul songs, 93's Musical Essence and 96's Rise Like The Sun. Then he just vanished.
A three-year hiatus followed, during which hazy rumours surfaced about the stripped-down soul record K-OS was working on. Then, as quickly as he'd disappeared, Brereton reappeared as part of NXNE 1999, tearing the lid off the Reverb with a furious set of raw acoustic soul and hard rock.
So what was the problem -- artistic confusion, label politics?
K-OS says he removed himself from the scene just as his popularity was peaking.
"During that whole time, I had a record done. In fact, there were several completed records," Brereton explains. "But those records were pretentious and derivative. All I had were my influences -- A Tribe Called Quest, the Fugees, the whole Native Tongues vibe -- and I was still trying to figure out who I was.
"Can I sing and rap in hiphop? Is that allowed? Those were the things I was trying to figure out. People sabotage themselves when they're not ready. I wasn't interested in that.
"Everything changed in 1996 when I bought an acoustic guitar," he claims. "I wrote the song Heaven Only Knows and realized that there's a beat inside every instrument. There's melody, but you still want to knock your head."
The beats on Exit are all about melody. The album's unpolished sound is built around acoustic guitar and raw breakbeats. In an era of clinical, high-gloss hiphop production, a track like Follow Me, which features the MC rhyming and crooning over a prickly flash of flamenco guitar, is thrillingly organic.
That feel also opens the door to other sounds. The diverse record goes from rootsy hiphop and unrefined soul to a bit of sternum-rattling roots reggae called Superstar. Oddly enough, the disc ends with another song called Superstar, this one a soaring pop track that's more Radiohead than Kid A.
Like Brereton's decision to both sing and rhyme, the range of styles presented is more than just a novelty. Each sounds authentic, rooted in the strum of an acoustic guitar.
"As simple as it sounds, I listen to all sorts of music and want to reflect that in what I do," Brereton insists. "The reggae is part of me and so is the second Superstar, it's just in that Oasis-Radiohead-John Lennon language.
"People assume that black people don't speak that rock language, that it's just for white kids. The song just proves that we can."
Part of that is simply Brereton reflecting who he is. During a summer playback for the album, he stunned many of the hiphop heads in the cramped studio by talking about growing up as a huge fan of New Order and Depeche Mode, as well as Boogie Down Productions and Slick Rick.
As befits an artist whose handle breaks down into Knowledge Of Self, Brereton is shockingly honest about where he comes from -- not a rough block of rep-enhancing housing projects but the middle-class hiphop mecca of Whitby.
"I can't deny who I am," Brereton laughs. "I'm from Whitby, Ontario. I was one of three black people in my high school. My best friend had a U2 jacket. When he used to come to my house to eat roti, I'd play him Jam On It and he'd play me Echo & the Bunnymen and Siouxsie & the Banshees. It was weird, but as long as there was a melody, I could get on it.
"Yeah, I'm a dark-skinned black man whose parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, but I'm also a kid from Whitby who used to listen to CFNY, and to deny that isn't knowledge of self."
Brereton insists that all these different sounds and influences are tied together through his lyrics. Exit is about as far away from the concept of hiphop as Jay-Z-inspired escapism as you can get.
It's a very spiritual record, at times sounding as much like a gospel album as a hiphop/soul set. Brereton boasts about spending two years in libraries reading up on world religion to avoid sounding preachy, and he's very open about his spirituality and its influence on his music. That's hardly surprising considering K-OS comes from a family of Jehovah's Witnesses.
"My name is K-OS -- Knowledge Of Self," he nods. "That's what I preach, and that's what my spirituality teaches me.
"Each track deals with knowledge of self, exiting, trying to get out of this quagmire. Hiphop is stuck in this maze, and it doesn't have to be like that.
"This is an exit away from people thinking that music is just entertainment. "Ooh, don't make me think during music. I work all week and now I want to escape.' That's wack.
"As long as I keep that focus," he says with a stare, "I could do accordion music and rhyme over it and it would sound dope."