Lins Honeyman spoke at length to Kay Sade of the duo THEKNUBLACK
It's a widely-held belief that the US east coast hip-hop scene is a vibrant and ever-evolving one with numerous acts pioneering new sounds and styles to ensure that their particular version of the genre takes a foothold in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Refreshingly hard to pigeonhole, one such act is the New Jersey-based duo TheKnuBlack who, with the release of their well-received latest album 'Ohana', have embraced the influence of their hip-hop forerunners whilst pressing forward with a sound that is very much their own.
Consisting of rapper KnuOrigen and rapper/singer Kay Sade, the duo came into being in 2015 under the name Out Of The Blue after both members had spent their formative years individually honing their musical skills. Whilst still at middle school, KnuOrigen - then known as plain old Darren Hagood - started writing poetry and music and, during his college years and brought on by his parents' move away from his hometown of Los Angeles, he began penning songs that stemmed from his own experiences - music aimed at striking a chord with those who felt out of kilter with society.
Meanwhile over in Ewing, New Jersey, his future musical partner Kay Sade grew up writing and performing in instrumental ensembles whilst soaking in the influences of the formative hip-hop scene from an early age. Forced to put her college education on hold due to financial struggles, Kay Sade turned to her musical skills and entered the genre of Christian rap. During this time, KnuOrigen would stumble upon Sade's remix of the Nicki Minaj hit "Whatever" via his brother in-law Ki'Shon Furlow which would prompt the pair to tentatively start working together. Whilst finishing her college career at Nashville's Belmont University, Kay Sade earned a degree in audio engineering whilst continuing to develop her skills as a producer, writer and performer.
Sharing a love of hip-hop and animation as well as a desire to communicate something of their Christian faith through their musical output, 2015 saw Sade and KnuOrigen release the mixtape album 'Blue Gene Origins' followed a year later by the Rapzilla exclusive 'Van Goh' before changing their name once and for all from Out Of The Blue to TheKnuBlack for their latest album 'Ohana'. I caught up with Kay Sade shortly after the release of the album and I began by asking if she was pleased with the reaction to 'Ohana'.
"Even when we released the artwork before the album came out, people were saying they thought that it was going to be a great album and we were just hoping the music was as good as the artwork," Kay responded. "However, the response once it came out was pretty overwhelming. We weren't expecting such a good reaction - we just wanted it to reach more people and getting a good reaction too is such a blessing."
Containing a mixture of fully fledged songs and musical interludes, 'Ohana' is a diverse and fluid piece of work that defies categorisation. I asked Kay what was at the heart of the new album. "Quite often, our songs are in the form of stories," she advised. "With 'Ohana', we wanted to make it a musical story and start off with the darker part at the beginning and then move to more excited, happy, colourful songs like 'You Belong With Us' and 'The Kids That Can'. We chose the topics of the songs based on how the music felt. Both of us have experimented with so many different sounds, I think the diversity in our sound just comes out when we make music. We don't have one particular sound that we stay with all the time."
"'Ohana' means 'family' in Hawaiian," continued Kay in answer the question of what the album title means. "Both of us are really inspired by Disney and one of our favourite movies is Lilo & Stitch and we love talking about Disney scores and Pixar music and stuff like that. We were trying to think about what would be a good theme for the album and it had to be something that was really important to us. We want to bring people with different viewpoints and ideas together and help everyone come to an understanding of the Gospel. Even if those people don't initially believe in Jesus they might realise that we all have common threads within us. The idea of family is pretty permanent regardless of whether or not you have disagreements with people - it's like the hub that holds everything together despite everyone's differences, opinions and personalities so we thought it would be fitting to name our album along those lines."
It seems the sense of belonging that can be found in the concept of family is important to both Kay and KnuOrigen. "Both of us have felt slightly on the outside growing up - not completely unpopular but not the most popular either," she recalled. "We always had friends at school but we were friends with the kids that people thought were a little bit strange. As a result, we resonate with other people who don't quite fit in. We also have friends who are very extroverted and popular and we want to create a place of belonging for both types of people. We want our music to be fun and inviting for the popular person but we have stuff in there that only the deep thinking, stay-in-your-own-head type of person will tune into. We try to embrace being a misfit or an outcast instead of seeing it as a fault or an issue. Instead, God made us this way - we're cool with it - and that's what we want our music to reflect."
It's clear that Kay Sade's desire to make her own style of music goes back to her earlier years. "I started making Christian remixes of secular songs at college," she recalls. "Maybe a year and a half later, my first song - a remix of a Nicki Minaj's 'Whatever' - got uploaded to the Christian hip-hop website Rapzilla. It got about three thousand plays in a day or two. The wife of (Christian hip-hop artist) Ki'Shon Furlow was my childhood friend and she found the song online. She recognised me from my profile picture and sent the link to my remix to Ki'Shon. He had previously been working on a project with KnuOrigen and told him that he should have a listen to my track. Knu then reached out to me and told that me that if I ever needed any help with mixing and mastering just to let him know. After he got in touch, I listened to his music and I realised that he was on a completely different level of creativity from the norm but was still staying within the bounds of Christianity. We then decided to try and start a duo together and the rest is history. It's such a small world as it turns out that Ki'Shon's and KnuOrigen's wives are twin sisters and the three of used to ride our bikes together every day when we were kids!"
Whilst both members of TheKnuBlack bring a great deal to the table, Kay Sade is quick to point out what makes her musical partner special. "I like to call KnuOrigen's style 'rap theatrics'," she enthused. "As well as being in our animated videos as a character, Knu is really animated in real life in the way he performs. You see his dreadlocks flying around and he just looks like a cartoon character. His voice is amazing too - he just brings colour to our music. I bring a little bit more of a mellow quality to our sound - maybe a darker, cooler tone. I love working with harmonies on backing vocals and that helps to fill out the songs. When we write a song together, each of us fills in the gaps left by the other person."
With their Christian faith remaining an integral part of who they are as human beings, I asked Kay where it all fits in in terms of their music. "We are beyond that 'are you a Christian rapper or are you a rapper that's a Christian?' argument," stated Kay referring to the age old question about whether Christian artists should be part of the mainstream or form part of sub-culture. "We're happy to be called whatever anyone wants to call us. We are Christians and we are rappers. The music I used to make before me and KnuOrigen got together was explicitly Christian but we both came to an understanding that we like allegory a lot - using parables or creating worlds that help explain what's in the Bible in terms that aren't exactly literal. I love CS Lewis and we wondered how we could tell the Christian story in a way that our favourite authors and favourite producers have done in the past. We have two animated characters that follow us in our music videos - one is an ape and the other is a black sheep and having those characters go through trials and live out different situations in the videos also helps when it comes to communicating our Christian faith. If people really listen to our songs then I think they'll hear the Christian message."
I suggested that there is also an overriding theme of rising up against adversity with one track in particular - the defiant "The Kids That Can" - being a case in point. "I used to live in Nashville and I was flying back there from somewhere," said Kay as she explained how the song came about. "KnuOrigen had sent me an instrumental and asked me if I had any ideas to take it further. I was looking out of the plane whilst listening to the instrumental and I just got this really inspirational feeling that I could jump out of the plane and still be alive. Because of that feeling, I put down a little voice memo of a lyric for Knu's track and, from that moment, we knew it had to be an inspiring sort of song. Knu came up with the 'oh no, not the kids' refrain which is a really catchy phrase that people can latch onto. When he came up with that, I realised we had to jump on that idea and the verses came really easily. That song is a little different from our usual stuff but it paid off and people seem to like it whenever we perform it."
Another stand out track on 'Ohana' is "Colors Of The Wind". "That track features a Christian songwriter called Caylody and she was one of my good friends and classmates back in Nashville," Kay explained. "My dad told Caylody one day that she should write a song with me instead of us just hanging out together eating Chick-Fil-A all day. We didn't get to do it whilst we were still in school but Knu and I had this amazing instrumental track and we figured Caylody's voice would fit perfectly on it. We worked with her on Skype for a few hours and bashed out the melody and the words and then she played guitar over the track we'd made. This song was quite a personal one but we wanted it to be a celebration of God giving you creative ideas that you wouldn't have come up with otherwise. God is the ultimate creator so, if creating is what you're good at, you have some pretty strong advantages as a follower of God."
TheKnuBlack's creative output is not limited to music with animation playing a large part in the videos put out by the duo. "The visual side to our art is really important to us because it explains a lot about the ideas in our songs," Kay commented. "We want to do live shows with pyrotechnics and background visuals but, until we're able to do that, we have animators that we work with. We can ask them for a monster flying through the air only to be shot down by a cartoon van or we can ask them to make our characters look cute and awkward. That all gives a personality to our songs and it helps people understand them. Also, it's important to create an image for your band beyond what people are hearing because that helps get your brand recognised a little bit more."
In closing, I asked Kay what is on the immediate horizon for TheKnuBlack. "Right now, both KnuOrigen and I are working on solo EPs," Kay replied. "After that, we'll work our way up to the next TheKnuBlack project and we're excited to find out what shape it will take."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.