WXPN favorite Kuf Knotz isn’t the first musician in the history of hip hop to go solo after a history of band collaborations. He is, however, one of the major names in Philadelphia’s hip hop scene—and, when the former frontman of BurnDown All Stars and The Hustle announced the upcoming release of his solo debut earlier this year, we couldn’t help but get giddy with excitement. Now that we’ve got a copy of BoomBox Logic at our desk, we can say with complete assurance that—even if the path that led Kuf to a burgeoning solo career might be a well-traveled one—the result is an album that takes listeners to a bevy of new places. Prior to his record-(pre-)release show at World Cafe Live tomorrow night, Kuf spoke with The Key about dealing with band dynamics, working with Drexel University’s student-run MAD Dragon Records, and his willingness to sign the dotted line. (Potential major-label suitors, take note…)
Kuf Knotz: Honestly, I really enjoy it. I’m big on collaboration. Having a band is like a meeting of the minds—everyone has their own influences that they’ve grown up with. With Burndown All Stars, someone would give one of the MCs a beat, and they would bring their own stuff to that. If everyone was grooving on it, we’d present it to the band, and they would either learn it or do their own take on it. Then each MC would write their own lyrics. With my own bands like The Hustle or Subtle Ground, a lot of times it was material I’d worked on previously. I’d bring it to the group, like “Are you feeling this?” And, if they were, we’d do our own interpretation or switch it around, with each one of the band members putting their own flavor to it. It was cool. It was a dope group dynamic.
KK: [Laughs.] Well, the only problem that I ran into with being in bands was other people’s availability and willingness to play out.
TK: It’s not easy when you’ve got to rely on a bunch of other people and work with their schedules.
KK: It’s so true, man. It’s crazy. I kept running into that same problem. I’m the kind of person who’s like, “I’ll do anything I can to get my name out there.” I don’t care if it’s playing in front of 10 people—that’s 10 people who haven’t heard my music before, so I’m all about it. But it’s different for people in the band. Especially if it’s not their own thing, you know? Playing in front of 10 people might not be as enticing for them because they’re just playing the bass or whatever.
TK: Seeing as how most of your band-related experiences have been positive ones, what were the circumstances that led up to your decision to go the solo route?
KK: It’s something I always wanted to do. Even when I’ve been in other bands, I’ve always had a side thing going on, where I’d be recording my own material. Different circumstances prevented me from putting it out or finishing it. I think it was all about the timing. You know when the time is right. I loved playing with The Hustle, and it was great. But then the bass player’s father got real sick, so he had to leave the band, and then our drummer was finishing grad school and was going to start looking for work. It didn’t leave us with a lot of time to play and go on tour and record. Like, The Hustle had been together for a year and didn’t even have an EP recorded because of everyone’s schedule. I had the itch to create, to write new music.
TK: So what did you do?
KK: I have a studio that I go out to in Spring City. I would go out there on weekends all the time and create new music. I put a whole album together and had someone come out to videotape and photograph the process of making the album. So I had this whole album concept and an idea behind it, and I didn’t want to sit on it. I took it to Andy, who was at Ropeadope at the time, and asked if he was interested in putting it out or working with it. He thought it was a great album. So we were going to do it with Ropeadope, and then he was like, “Let’s take it to MAD Dragon and see if they have any interest in it.” And they were willing to put it out. I talked to everyone in The Hustle, and I was willing to do both projects, to keep working with The Hustle. But everyone just felt like it would be better if we went our own ways. There was no animosity or anything. It was just really cool.
TK: That’s an interesting setup that MAD Dragon has over at Drexel.
KK: I didn’t know much about the program before I was introduced it it. When I first heard about it, I was like, “That sounds interesting.” But it also brings up a lot of questions. Because, you know, they’re college kids. And college kids like to party, to have fun, to go out. So, what’s going to drive them to be interested in what I’m doing?
TK: What do you think does drive them?
KK: The fact that they’re interested in being in the music business and being successful in what they do. I think that puts a fire under their ass…The kids man, they work hard. [Laughs.] They take it serious. Having worked with them the amount of time I have, I’m really impressed. I’ve really enjoyed the experience.
TK: Like you said, a large part of the MAD Dragon program at Drexel is preparing college students for a career in the music industry. Of course, depending on where you fall on the independent-vs-commercial-music spectrum, that can be a slippery slope. As an artist, how do you feel about potentially becoming part of that machine?
KK: I’m all about it. I’m not opposed to big labels because, honestly, the bigger the machine the better. The more exposure, you know, the more out there you can get. As an artist, you go through that struggle. You know, do you want to keep doing what you’re doing for the love of it and not compromise your music? Or do you want to become famous and have your music all over the world and have a big company behind you?
TK: Do you think the two are mutually exclusive?
KK: I think any hip hop artist would want all that if it was possible without compromising their music.
TK: That’s the big question, isn’t it? So, if some major-label executive in a suit sat you down and started talking about your album’s profitability and possibly changing your music to make it more appealing to a designated audience, what would be your response?
KK: I’m hoping that it does come to that point. [Laughs.] But when it does, I definitely wouldn’t be into making something that is, like, “hot” right this second. I couldn’t do that. I listen to some of the songs on the radio today, and I honestly struggle with just keeping the radio on. There are plenty of artists out there that I’m a fan of, who have stuck with the type of music they want to make and been successful. If I could have a career like that—where I could sell out TLAs all over the country—I’d be happy with that. You can make a living on the road selling out 2000-person venues.
TK: That’d be a pretty good life.
KK: Exactly. [Laughs.]
TK: As far as the upcoming album, what was the thought process behind the title, BoomBox Logic?
KK: Well the boombox part is a shoutout to that era in the late ’80s the early ’90s, when the whole culture of hip hop was very big. Breakdance, graffiti, turntablism, MCing. When you think of that era, you think of the big boombox, the linoleum tiles. But you’ve also got to be logical in the sense that you’ve got to make something appealing to today’s audience as well. With the kids now, the 20- to 30-year-olds that are buying music right now, you have to have something that appeals to them as well.
TK: Well, in that regard, BoomBox Logic does cover a lot of musical territory. But how do you manage to squeeze so many different influences into an album without losing the album’s sense of identity as a whole?
KK: That’s something I definitely thought about, because you hear some albums and you’re like, “That’s cool—but it’s not really consistent all the way through. You’ve got some music way out here and other stuff way over there.” So, when writing the songs, I tried to keep them all in the same realm. There are different musical influences throughout each song. But I felt like if I kept them consistent, people wouldn’t be like, “What is this?”
TK: If BoomBox Logic, as a complete album, has one consistent identity, what do you think it is?
KK: I would think it’s an upbeat, positive hip hop album…Previous albums I’ve done have been more serious and all. But I think performing live with the band changes the songwriting process. When you’re performing in a band, it’s about energy. You see people moving and dancing. But with the more laid-back, [introspective] songs, people go to the bar to get a drink. Or they go to the bathroom. [Laughs.] Some people will stick around and be into it. But it’s the upbeat songs that get the crowd into it.
TK: The album does have its share of upbeat crowd-pleasers. However, I read an interesting quote in the press section of your website that said something to the effect of you not wanting to have too many serious-minded songs like “Party Queen” and “Clock Tickin’” on the album, but that you still felt the need to include a couple of those types of songs. Why is that?
KK: For me, in general, with life everything is a balance. Nothing is all good, nothing is all bad. You have to be aware of everything. “Party Queen,” in particular, is a song about a close friend of mine who is a heroin addict. I felt like that is something I wanted to address and put out there. “Clock tickin’” is a look at myself. For some people, I’m sure they can relate to needing to have some quiet time, to find some personal space and grow.
TK: But, between the two different types of songs, you’re more of a good-natured party-jam kind of guy?
KK: [Laughs.] Oh yeah. —Matthew Borlik