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Interviews

Kenan Bell

by Ted ChaseMay 19, 2009

  In the conversation, Bell discussed touring with Illinois, playing industry shows, his whole ensemble, the upcoming Until the Future, his love of rap & his issues with it, what he’s doing for hip-hop, remixing the likes of Duran Duran, XTC, and The Smiths, being a rapper and schoolteacher, holidays, The Mailman, and whatnot…

QRO: How was the recent SoHo House Hotel ‘members only’ private party?

Kenan Bell: To be honest, it was super-bourgie, but it was a good mix of people.  It was good to play in front of such an affluent crowd and whatnot.  I felt like we somewhat turned some heads.  Some of them were trying to enjoy their meals or whatever…

QRO: Oh, so there were like meals there?

KB: We were in the actual ‘club level’ of the SoHo House.  It was supposed to be rooftop, but the rain didn’t permit that, so we came indoors.

I was fearful that we might be disturbing some people’s meals, but during the show, to see some movement in the crowd, they’re not outside in the dining area and whatnot.  They were into us.  It was dope.  It was good to be there & share the music with them.

QRO: How was the stage set up?

KB: In our immediate vicinity, people were sitting, kind of around the perimeter of the room, in couches.  It was kind of like a ‘spoken word-type setting’, if you will.  They were seated around us – I even had a chair on stage with me, sat a little bit during the performance.

It was very low-key, no pressure.  The patrons, they were stuck inside the actual dining area.  They were eating, watching us.  Everybody seemed to be moved by it, in some respects, bouncing back in forth.  So it was good to have any movement in there at all.

QRO: How was your last tour, out west with Illinois (QRO spotlight on)?

KB: It was dope.  We started at SXSW (QRO recap), did some shows there.  We left from there, headed up the coast.  We had our first headlining show at The Echo in Los Angeles.  We had an amazing turnout there.  It felt really good, very, very affirming to be at the helm of a performance, of having to draw in a good amount of business.  There were a lot of people who were there to see us.

That was cool, went up the coast.  We had excellent shows in The Bay & Pacific northwest.  We got to stop off at the Redwoods, see the forest a little bit.

We’re from LA, so it was cool to have the Illinois boys staying with us in our home, kind of showing them around the parts.  When we were in Texas at SXSW, we also stayed together on a ranch, at Hank Sinatra’s Ranch.  We’re very close – these are our family.

It was a good run – it was arduous.  I had to get back to Open House the night after we played in Seattle.  I teach in L.A., so I had to get back to Open House.  Twenty hours in the car – some guys opted to fly home, but it was my car that we were using.  Our guitarist and myself we just switched our shifts driving.  Man, it was hectic, but I did it, and I was able to be in the classroom and handle that business as well, so it felt good to be able step away and get on the road, and I felt like we did good work on the way.

QRO: What do you think of ‘industry showcases’ like SXSW, or CMJ (QRO recap)?

KB: I think it’s cool.  I’ve only been exposed to very few industry shows.  The SoHo House was somewhat like a showcase, only in the respects of people sitting, and watching, and not being as proactive or interactive as normally we would appreciate.

But I‘ve felt eyes on me my whole life, and I’m not really opposed to ‘sharing the talent’, if you will.  I figure that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.  Anybody who’s apt to listen and who wants to receive it – whereas, we encourage people to actively enjoy the show and dance and let loose.  I understand you may be in a cubicle all day in your office, pent up, but allow that time for your release, you know, for your emotions to be expelled or whatever, while we’re there, doing our work, in our office.

If somebody came to your place of business, and you worked in a corporation, and they put their feet on your desk and just throwing your stuff around, you wouldn’t be approving, you know?  It would be a little disrespectful.  Whereas they wouldn’t see it as disrespectful.

It’s good when people are there, and it’s good to have a captivated audience.  I feel like, if they are at a showcase setting, if they’re out there sitting and criticizing and making, passing judgments and whatnot, I just want to impress.  Not just for the sake of impressing or having them like us, but it’s just like: I just want to perform my best at all times.

It doesn’t really matter to me how the crowd is responding.  I mean, in some respects, it does: there is a margin of error that we can ‘blame’ or use the crowd as scapegoats, because they wouldn’t get into it.  But essentially, we’re there to do a job – the mail runs even on rainy days, snowy days.  You have to do your work.

I don’t mind the industry showcase – I feel like if there’s anybody in the industry that doesn’t know of us, they should come and observe us, so they can catch on.

QRO: Do you think Cinco de Mayo’s gotten too commercialized?  Do you think we’ve lost the true meaning of the holiday?

KB: I think with holidays in general, there’s such a commercialization, it’s hard to get away from that.  If you have opportunities to sell products, it’s almost like it is our God-given right, as Americans, to turn it into a consumer holiday, or somehow take advantage of the situation.

QRO: It’s not even our holiday…

KB: It’s not even our holiday at all!  We do have a large Hispanic, Latin American population in the country, and it is good to represent for the Mexicans, for the struggling – I mean, in L.A., we observe César Chávez [Day] in school, or when I was in school, we would observe it.  There definitely is a respectful attitude that should be – it’s observance, it’s almost like paying that ‘reverence’ to whatever in the past.

As opposed to making it – I don’t drink, really, so it’s not like a holiday for me to just…

QRO: Yeah – just running up to it, it’s been all those Corona ads…

KB: Tequila, Corona, Pacifico, whatever…  They are promoting – it is a Mexican market, being that these beer factories are south of the border, but you definitely do lose sight of the holiday.

Just as we do on Christmas or on birthdays, where people may be kind to somebody just because that was the day they were born, many years ago.

I always like to bug people out, 12:01 AM, on the day after their birthday, when they’re still trying to get love, it’s like, “You’re birthday’s over – so we’re going to go back to the way we were treating you the day before…”

I’m not saying to not acknowledge somebody’s birthday, but there’s definitely a misrepresentation in the holidays and a commercialized approach to the celebration.

QRO: Do you have touring plans after this May run?

KB: After this?  No, no, no, no, no – not all, not all, really.  We pretty much have nothing scheduled at this point.

My U.K. booking agent and lawyers and whatnot, publicists, are trying to get some things in line for the next release.  We were in the U.K., just this last November, had some success there – came actually right on my birthday, right before Thanksgiving, we flew back.

It was cool – we left on the day of the election.  It was good to be in another country, and be exposed to their perspective of America and going through change and whatnot.  So it was cool, being there, so I look forward to hopefully getting into the European festival market.  That’s really, I think, our aim, as far as the booking agents are concerned.

But as far as that, we have a tentative release for the fall, so I figure, the summer, we’ll just be on the road.  As soon as I’m done with teaching this summer, it’s like I just want to be as active as I can and promote the music.

We have no plans at this point other than to get on the road.


QRO: What is your ‘touring ensemble’?

KB: It can consist of – when we’re in L.A., locally, San Diego, we’ve had up to twelve members on stage with us.  But, essentially, there’s a small nucleus of about three-to-four guys.

The band consists of myself, essentially, and the keyboardist, and the guitarist – we wrote the music together.  But it’s more like a production team, and how are we going to get this music out?  Obviously, I’m gonna perform the vocals and do all this, but what’s the best way to present it to the audience?

In assembling the band, we want to keep it very loose, have a revolving roster, and allow for if time constraints or scheduling conflicts or whatnot to not affect our performances, and we can always just defer to other players.

The bassist, Matt Regan, Jonathan Siebels guitar, Jason Burkhart on keyboards, and either Kevin Harp on drums, or when we’re on the East Coast, we have Seth Johnson.  So typically it’s about four + myself, but it has doubled, and we’ve had up to twelve members, including some illustrious ‘rock-type legends’.  Being in L.A., we have some friends in our circle who respect what we do the way we do what they do.

But the band at any given night can be the boys from Illinois can come on stage, or invite the crowd up to play keyboards – if there’s a girl in the audience that Jason is attracted to, I’ll ask her to come and sit on his lap, play keyboard with him…

It’s very fun –

I don’t want people to feel like they’re going to a show to simply ‘watch’ something, to simply judge something, be in observation of something.  You can observe it, but you also need to partake in that as well.

  Hopefully, I’d like to have the entire crowd be in the band, singing along with me, or clapping, in unison – it’s definitely a harmonious thing that we’re attempting to do.  I could have very easily just set out with Jason as my DJ or hype-man.

QRO: Have you always performed with a ‘full ensemble’?

KB: Yeah.  I mean, we’ve had a few shows where we’ve had to adjust, just because of sound restrictions or space requirements or whatnot.  But essentially, yeah, it’s always been a drummer, a keyboardist, and myself, at least.  At least us three, a trio.  I have done a show with Jason and myself, just us two, him on keyboards and back up, and me rapping.

It’s gone over well in all different capacities.  I feel like the versatility allows for us to just do more, just be more ‘fruitful’, I guess.

Kenan Bell playing “Good Day”, with Chris Archibald & Martin Hoeger of Illinois, live at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY on May 5th, 2009:

QRO: You previously toured U.K., and before that you played with Dizzie Rascal in L.A.  How do U.K. and American compare?

KB: People were like, ‘Oh, you were on tour with Dizzy?’  And I was like, ‘Well, we did a show…’

We did a show with him in our hometown, and it was well received.  The U.K. market, just like he has had success there, teetering on the fence of garage, and dance, dancehall, drum & bass, rap – it’s all together, much more mixed.  The boundaries there are very vague.

QRO: In America, it’s so

KB: They’re with a Sharpie.  They’re in the ground.

QRO: It’s black & white – literally

KB: You’re either going to be this or that – you have two choices.  There you go.

Over there, our crowds have been as diverse in complexion as they have been in musical taste, as they have been, probably, in occupations.  And it’s, like I said, very eclectic.  Culturally, it’s a melting pot there, and it’s cool to see the crowds there – even in America, we do have crowds where there will be a diverse racial make-up, demographic will be of many different people, but London is like the ‘Los Angeles of Europe’.  The United States is large, and Europe is large – you do get this hodge-podge of cultures and whatnot; the U.K. is times ten.  It’s like on HGH – it’s blown up there.  I see so many people of color interacting with people of lighter pigment, or whatever, different walks of life, different musical interests, but there is a commonality.

That’s what I’m saying – I wanna bring people together, as opposed to trying to carve these ‘definitive lines’ where it’s, ‘Here’s a boundary: if you like rock music, then we’re over here in rap, so you stay over there.’  It’s like, ‘You come over here, or all come over there, and meet you…’

It’s all-inclusive. 

I definitely don’t want to deter anybody from the music or have anybody not feel as if they could find a home in the sound.  I feel like I’m homeless in my sound

, so if you’re looking for some definitive answer on what genre it is…

People ask me, ‘Can you describe the music?’  It’s like, ‘No!  I spent the past year recording the music and writing the lyrics – it can describe itself.  Can I sit here and describe myself to you?  That’s a ridiculous question.  How narcissistic of you to ask me to describe myself to you.’  You know, ‘You tell me.  I can’t see what you can see, so you share your perspective, input with me, your opinion, just like I do with the music.’

I feel like the music has no home, and is welcome everywhere.  So it’s dope…

QRO: Have you ever gotten any blowback from saying you “hate the hip-hop of the last twenty years”?  Or did you even say that?

KB: There was one comment…  One of the first pieces I did, this dude who wrote for The L.A. Times.  He asked me something about the whole ‘rapper’ term – there’s so much negative connation that is normally surrounding that word.  I embody rap music, I am a rapper, I am hip-hop; that is essentially my genetic make-up.

It would almost be like being a brother, and seeing your older brother, who you had looked up to for so many years, getting caught up in drugs, having all these babies out of wedlock, many different women that he’d married in different countries, let’s say – just breaking a lot of laws, morally degrading.  Just a lot of the things I see in it is not how I am, and not how it allowed me to see the world.

So I almost feel disrespected in somebody slanderously… representing my family’s name, let’s put it like that.

I definitely don’t ‘hate the music’.  I appreciate the progress that these artists – some good, and some bad – that they have allowed for the music in a new platform and be cast in a new light, be received on a global scale.  Hip-hop is a beast!  I definitely do not hate hip-hop; I love it.

It’d be like seeing an old girlfriend, you guys didn’t ‘break up’ or whatever, but now you see her messing with these dudes that you know are treating her wrong.  It almost hurts you to see them mistreat her, but, in the same sense, you didn’t do everything that she needed you to do while you guys were together.  I feel an obligation to not only improve the overall outlook and perception of rappers and of rap music.

I heard something on TV today, talking about Al-Qaeda recruiting Somalian radicalists using hip-hop in the videos.  And I listen to the video, and I heard very little hip-hop!  That’s almost something you just ‘throw in there’ – ‘You hate Al Qaeda, you don’t like hip-hop either, let’s just do something…’

I don’t deny – it’s not like I ‘denounce’ my family or ‘denounce’ hip-hop in any way.  What I said was, with the negative connation, I feel like my music can embody better things.  And there was a time when I cringed at the idea of simply being referred to as that, or having that represent what it is that I do, because of the limitations of being boxed into it.

I hate for somebody to invite their friends to a show, ‘Oh, what kind of music is it?’  ‘It’s hip-hop, it’s rap.’  ‘Oh – I don’t want to get shot!  I’m not going there…’  The image in your mind is always so negative.  I just like to change those opinions, those views.

I had a very bad experience with a rap show in like ’91, or maybe even earlier than that, I was like a toddler or something.  Somebody had a gun at the show at the Coliseum in L.A., and it only took one person to see it, and somebody screamed – and all of a sudden there was a stampede.  I almost was trampled – somebody picked me up and put me on a wall, just so I didn’t get ran over.  It was very traumatic, but I think that pretty much is the reason, in every way– It was an M.C. Hammer concert, I think.

In so many ways,

I feel like I can be an ambassador for at least a new, fresh perspective.  If the rap music of the past twenty years has gotten kind of worn down, or gotten as uninteresting as a lot of the music is that I hear.

QRO: Do you think you’re a little more of an ‘ambassador’ when you play shows to more ‘indie’ crowds, like when you’re touring with Illinois, for instance?

KB: Oh yeah, it feels awesome.

Playing with Diz, it’s like, ‘Okay, yeah, they’re used to rap, but they’re still not used to what we do.  There’s still a different take on it.’  Wherever we are, I feel like the advantage is ours.

There are very few MCs that I feel like, even in my youth, as a performer – I’ve been writing raps for fifteen years now.  I see nobody.  I’m fearful of no one.

Just like, when we have shows, it’s almost like that challenge to go out there and win them over, if they’re not typical rap fans – a lot of people will tell me, ‘I used to love rap music.  I loved what it was.  It’s kind of deterred from that.  I don’t have the same affinity, the same love for it that I used to have.’  But then the see our show, and they come and tell me after the show, ‘You’ve almost reincarnated that love’ or ‘you’ve almost re-sparked that interest’ – so it’s like, ‘Dude, that’s what I doing.  That’s what I’m here for.’

QRO: Do you ever get the comment, ‘I don’t like rap music, but I liked your show…’?

KB: Oh, yeah, a lot of times.  It’s like an oxymoronic – Is it a slap?  Are you trying to say I’m this?…

Either way, I’m optimistic – but I’m a realist as well.  If I hear that, I hear if for what you said, but I recognize what you’re not saying.  And I know what you mean, but I still am appreciative for you at least speaking your mind.  I don’t take it as offensive.

I don’t consider my music ‘rap music’.  What I do is rap, but the music is hip-hop, the culture is hip-hop, the language is rap.

If you don’t like rap music, you probably don’t understand it.  There’s a lot of rap music that is voiced from a perspective that I could never understand, I could never truly relate to some of the hardships they experienced because my life was not as such.  So it’s like, you’re not supposed to like that music.

So, if you don’t like that rap music, but you enjoy what I do, you can call it what you want.  I don’t even care.  I’m gonna profess forever that I’m a rapper, and I’m trying to teach fools how rap should be represented.  Essentially, I feel like that’s my goal.  That’s what my aim is.


QRO: Where are you on Until the Future…?

KB: It’s done – it’s been done for almost nine months now.  We got mastered mixes back, mastered instrumentals.  We’re like deep in it.

It’s not ‘old’ to me, but the recordings are dated.  I feel like I’ve made so much progress tremendously as a performer, as a writer.  Just in the studio, performance-wise, recording-wise, I feel like there’s just been so much growth in the year.

It’s an accurate depiction of where we were at that time, but it’s just that that time is not today.  So I’m very anxious to share those musics with the people, just continue to promote those, as well as engage in recording some more music.

So, like I said, it’s been finished.  Hopefully like a mid-Fall, third quarter release.  When school’s in session.

QRO: What is the process behind making a remix?  How do you pick the original song?

KB: The remix will start: maybe one of us in the camp has heard something.  We did an XTC remix – my dude saw it on VH1 Classic or Where Are They Now? or One-Hit Wonders, one of these type shows, heard it and said, ‘You know, this would be rad for you.’  So we flipped it.

I came home from work and my roommate Jason; the track was already pretty much constructed.  I did what I needed to do with it to make it ready for me to write to it.  I sat with it – what I like to do is, I’ll become absorbed with the music.  It surrounds me for as long as I can.  In my car, I’ll pull up to my house and sometimes sit outside for thirty minutes after, in the drag, just being with the music.  In my sleep…

I like to just really engage myself into the craft of it.  In learning the other’s music, in listening to their original composition.  Really interpreting what it was– okay, if that’s what they came out of the studio with, what was their mindset going into it?  What were thinking about?  Culturally, what was going on at this time in America or in their country, if it was England or whatnot?  What were they experiencing?  What was their motivation or their catalyst for recording that music?

The music, it writes itself.  I’ll sit with it for as long as I need to, to just really kind of engulf myself in it.  And after then, I’ll just go into writing.

The Duran Duran one, Neil Diamond – all the songs spoke to me.  And I just pretty much wrote what I thought the artist was saying, in my own perspective.  It was something with which I had a shared experience.  Like the Duran Duran one, the track “Save a Prayer”, that I’ve loved for so long, to be able to put my own spin on it.  I mean, it is a remix, but it’s like a cover song – it’d be like covering somebody else’s material, but implementing your own ideas and thoughts into it, based on what frame of mind they put you into when listening to their music.

Their music is the boundary or the barrier to my art that I’m trying to just fit in their frame.  So I really do want to make sure that I understand as well as I can what it was that they were trying to put out there, and then just see, how can I reinterpret that?

It’s an awesome experience – and quick.

QRO: When you make remixes, like you did with Good News: The Mix Tape, how much contact before – and after – do you have with the original artists?

KB: We have not had.  It’s kind of a funny, nowadays.  So many rap artists releasing sampled material, or remixing.  Especially when you’re selling the art, you have to have some clearance, publishing-wise or whatnot, for the rights of the material.

But what we did, we’re just giving it directly to the people.

QRO: Yeah – since Good News is free to download on your website, does that mean there’s no commercial infringement?

KB: That kind of negates the whole ‘legality’ of it.

They really don’t know that we did it.  If they do find out that we did it?  Then we won, success.  And if they found out that we did it to the point that they seek pressing charges against us, then we truly won, because there’s no punitive damages – we haven’t done anything, we haven’t made any money, you can’t win anything, you can’t take anything that we’ve made off of your material because we haven’t made anything off of it.

I feel as if it’s almost like I’m trying to bring it back into today’s world.  We did a Smiths remix, and Moz is Moz – he’s got this huge, iconic image, persona.  I was kind of – not timid to do it, as soon as I heard the first measure of music, I knew wanted to remix the song.  It wrote itself – I saw it visually, I saw the lyrics.  Morrissey (QRO album review) is one of my favorite lyricists, writer, songwriter – he’s amazing.

It was easy to do that, but it’s almost like, in putting it out, there’s such die-hard Smiths fans, I wasn’t sure how they were going to receive it…

We had unanimous, awesome response, on like the Morrissey solo blog – there were people contacting us from all over the world, stoked on the art, stoked on even just the gesture alone.

  It wasn’t like we had taken his music and put our own ‘booty mix’ to it, done something that would be somewhat degrading, or potentially unflattering.

It’s almost like ‘paying homage’, in an honorable way.  I really am motivated by their art, and I really just want to share their canvas.

QRO: What’s it like, being the rare rapper/teacher?

KB: It’s fun, I guess?  If it’s rare – KRS-One (QRO photos) was teaching at Harvard…

QRO: But usually it’s that they became rapper, then teacher.

KB: True that, true that – I’m a teacher/rapper.  But, like I said, I’ve been rapping since sixth grade.  I’ve been a rapper since I should have been listening to my teacher in the classroom, and now here I am, teaching the kids spelling and vocabulary.  Teaching them about things through the rhyme and music, just the same way we teach the ABCs to kids using rhythm and rhyme and cadence and whatnot.  It’s no different.

It’s performance.  When I’m in front of the classroom with the kids, I’m trying to make them believe that I know all the questions that they’re asking the answers to.  You have to be convincing.  It’s not much different.  I enjoy both aspects of my life almost equally.

The performance aspect is one that I truly do love.  And I’ve learned so much more.  Like I said, it was a year and some change ago that we started, and I was somewhat timid, initially, to be a performer, to put my art out there to be criticized.  Just to be ‘critiqued’.  It’s a very honest attempt at music, at least that’s what I’m trying to be, I really want to be sincere and genuine with my craft.  And also be continuing to promote progression in it.

Just like the same desire I would have in any profession to be the best, strive to be the top of your company, top of your class, I have the same ambition for the rap.  But I love it.  I love it both.

QRO: When your cousin [Utah Jazz great] Karl Malone had his one season with The Lakers, 2003-2004, did you get lots of requests from friends for free tickets?

KB: Yeah, everybody was after me…

I’m was hating, though – I’m not a Lakers fan at all, actually.

QRO: You cited The Lakers in that one song, though?

KB: I said “’87-’88, Magic was my favorite player / At no time came to Mike / Showtime, see you later”  Like Michael Jordan?  The transition…

I love Magic; I love the way the team played together.  Nowadays Lakers is not a ‘team’.  Even when they had Malone, it was like a ‘purchase dynasty’, and you saw how that did.  They were all crying in the playoffs, they didn’t win.  I wanted him to win a ring because, after the career that he had, he deserved legendary status, but I feel like he still earned it regardless.

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