MOKA ONLY with the QUARTERTONES and DJ SERIOUS at the Drake Hotel Underground (1150 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, August 18). $15 (door only). 416-203-3509, www.ramosent.com. Rating: NNNNN
It ain't easy being Moka. Sure, it looks like he's having a blast in his new video for Once Again, romping around the Beaches with his numerous girlfriends, his downy 'fro billowing in the summer breeze, not a care in the world. But behind the scenes, things ain't as sunny as they appear.
Think about it. Since the early 90s the Langford, BC, child has gone from the local freestyle ranks - hawking tapes out of the trunk of his car Too $hort-style outside high schools from San Diego to Toronto - to showing and consistently updating his eccentric, jazzed-out, low-end, stress-free version of hiphop and soul music before the whole continent on three spandex-tight BattleAxe solo LPs: Lime Green, Flood and Lowdown Suite.
But because he was in one of the country's biggest hiphop acts during the early 2000s, he's been typecast by most people as that guy who sang all those catchy jingles on Swollen Members' hooks. (And, man, did those ever get annoying.)
Tonight at the Drake, backed by the top-notch Quartertones, he's officially unleashing album quatro, The Desired Effect. Moka's trying to break the Swollen paradigm with this LP, and it's forced him to walk the tightrope between underground and mainstream. He's striving to commit to his true love ("the dirt"), but he must also make his record shiny enough to move units, so he can, you know, have money to live.
The album's strong pop aspect was also a bit of a compromise, he concedes, for his new distributor, Nettwerk. As a result, The Desired Effect is so aurally polarized, it might not really help clarify his image.
Popular but misrepresented, famous but not rich, long-established but at a point where he has to prove himself all over again - what could possibly make Moka Only's situation worse?
"I have a hemorrhoid, man," he confesses suddenly in his familiar West Coast twang over the phone from the warehouse district of East Vancouver where he lives and records. (Apparently, it's also the place to score crack.)
"I don't know how the hell I got one. Never had a hemorrhoid in my life, and it's really disturbing me. I gotta take care of this before I go on tour, man. It's fucking with me, dude. It's really causing me some stress right now. I don't know what brought that up."
I do. I've just inquired about his first single, which was produced by the Matrix (the trio of Scott Spock, Lauren Christy and Graham Edwards, who added the quintessential pop shimmer to Avril's Complicated and Sk8er Boi and glazed and basted songs by Britney Spears and Hilary Duff). Guess he'd rather not talk about it. I keep pressing.
"Yeah, that's about as shiny as you're gonna get me," Moka says of Once Again, a banked two-year-old Swollen track originally intended for a release on Virgin America. It's definitely sparkly, and it really sticks out on the enjoyable but uneven stir-fry that is The Desired Effect. The CD is his most outgoing effort, with guest shots by MF Doom and grub-textured production by k-os, Jay-Dee and Oh No, whose berserk organs sound like the work of a hockey organist on crack (perhaps picked up in Moka's neighbourhood).
"This wasn't an album where I tried to sit down and make a focused effort thematically," he admits. "It's not that at all. It's basically a compilation from a three-year period. I could've sat down and whipped something up from start to finish, but I wanted to go at it from a different perspective. So I just dipped into the stash and assembled what I thought went well together."
If there's any testament to Moka's total infatuation with music, it's that stash. Heaven forbid, if anyone wanted to rub him out tomorrow, he could release enough posthumous shit to put 2Pac's ghost to shame.
"I got ADAT after ADAT tape filled up with music," he begins, taking inventory. "I have four different hard drives filled up with songs at my house and another at the studio. I got tons of stuff, man. I got half-finished things and beats that were dumped onto cassette tape even, cuz it's a whole different vibe sonically."
So now that he's released his most accessible joint, expect his next album to be on some ol' next-dimension shit. He welcomes the chance to have full creative control, as he had with BattleAxe.
He denies being a control freak, but despite an expensive music video on national rotation that will assuredly be his highest-selling album to date, Moka will hit the mean streets after our call to sticker ads for The Desired Effect. Let's just say he's never been afraid to take charge of his career.
"Yeah, I gotta have my way. I am flexible. I'm smart about things, that's what I have to say about that. But if I can get my way, goddammit, I'ma take it."
Moka's soul still carries some of the post-breakup depression suffered when he left Swollen Members one member less swollen. He addresses the grief in one of his new songs, the 100 Grand Remix, which has him explaining why he felt more like six than seven figures.
"I knew I was doing what I had to do," Moka explains, "but I felt a little bit sad about it because we had accomplished so much. We did some stuff that no hiphop group has ever done in this country, and I'd been around them solidly for, like, a three-year period.
"I felt a little bit down about that because I was like, 'Okay, I need to jump back into my solo stuff, but how am I going to do this?' So I tried to come up with an attack plan, and I felt just a little bit, how you say, malaised about it."
There's a pause, and I hear him laughing a few feet from the phone.
"Man, what the fuck? Keshia Chanté's big orange tour bus just rolled up outside my house. I think Keshia's a bit lost, cuz this ain't the neighbourhood for that kinda stuff."