In Baltimore's progressive hip-hop scene, probably no one works harder than Frank Yaker, better known by his stage name, King Rhythm. Since the early 90s, Yaker has been experimenting with samples and electronic music, including drum and bass beats and more world music-inspired rhythms. His first album, What's Left, released in 2003 by Quartermass Records, found Yaker collaborating with his old friend Kevin James (MC Son of Nun), attempting to fuse the disparate worlds of DnB and hip hop. His latest release, Hardships & Head Ships, leaves much of that sound behind in favor of more psychedelic rock experimentation. I talked to Yaker via email.
SPLICE TODAY: I'd like to start with a little background: Can you tell me about some of your early influences, what led you to hip hop, when you first started recording and performing?
KING RHYTHM: I first started producing and rapping around '93, I took it very seriously from day one. My first performances were around 2000, they were mostly at Raves and club nights when DJs were spinning Techno, House and Drum & Bass. At the time live electronic music was pretty rare and I had to bring an enormous amount of equipment with me just to do the simplest things.
My earliest influences were mainly Golden Era Hip-Hop. Pretty much every artist on Def Jam at that time, Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, Ice-T, Ultramagnetic MC's, Organized Konfusion. I could name a million more; most rappers back then were original, biting was a sin. Beyond Hip-Hop, I listened to a little Industrial, stuff on the Wax Trax! label as well as Invisible Records and some others. I also listened to Techno, House, Drum & Bass, and a lot of the early electronic/dance music that was coming out.
I got into Hip Hop because in comparison to Rock, the words were a lot clearer and easier for me understand. I realize this sounds simplistic but it's true, it was one of the original draws for me to the music. I remember listening to most Rock songs and just not understanding what they were saying. When I heard somebody rap, even if I didn't get the full gist of what they were talking about, I could clearly hear what the words were. I also was attracted to it because it was very new, raw, underground, and rebellious. Rebellion and youth go hand in hand and being the most rebellious thing out at the time, it was a perfect fit. When I first started seriously listening to music and began gauging what I did and didn't like, I realized I didn't enjoy the sound of the electric guitar very much, for the most part it just sounded like noise to me. Melody didn't do much for me either. I was far more intrigued by drums and grooves. Since Hip-Hop had the drums upfront this was another attraction.
Another influence that I realized years later for me was the band Yes. I do remember hearing them at a young age; they were the first group that I can remember that was very complex and elaborate. I didn't realize how much they affected me until recently, but I will say they probably planted the seed in me that always whispers in my ear, "Do more, go further, there are so many places to go."
ST: Your latest release, Hardships & Head Trips, has a whole different sound to it; you've kind of broken away from straight electronica. Who'd you work with on the album and how'd it come together?
KR: My last album, What's Left, was basically Drum & Bass meets Hip-Hop. This record is prog/psychedelic rock meets Hip-Hop. Basically, after What's Left I knew that I didn't want to write any more Drum & Bass or even electronic music for a long time, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. I dig a lot of different styles of music and have spent a lot of time producing them all. Because of this I needed to impose some limitations on myself, otherwise the possibilities would be endless—not a good place to be if you actually want to complete something. My first thought was just to take it back to the essence of Hip-Hop: sample-based beats and rhymes. This was the starting block but it led me to needing more limitations because there is an infinite amount of music out there to sample from. I decided that every sound on the record had to come from vinyl between the years ’65 and ’75. This was a great and inspiring limitation to work with but it also proved to be very challenging. In the end out of the 1000-plus samples that I used there were only two exceptions. One was a sample from after ‘75 but still from the 70s and the other was a sound that was from a CD. Sometimes things just work and it's best not to fight them.
Another limitation that I imposed on myself was that every production technique that I used on the record had to have been capable with the technology available in the years that the samples were from. Again, I think two processes slipped though the cracks. These limitations definitely helped me get moving but completing the record was not easy. Because of the Yes influence that I mentioned earlier and the fact that I wanted to incorporate a lot of prog/psychedelic/shoegaze and even classical influence that I was peeping at the time, the record took another turn and I set out on a journey that was really grander in scope than I realized that I was capable of while maintaining some level of sanity. I tried to make every song a masterpiece, or at least what I consider a masterpiece to be. Most of the arrangements are complex with multiple parts and changes. Some songs are more like two songs in one. On top of all of the music and the complexities involved with it, I had to write the lyrics and rap and make it my best work ever. I am very proud of my lyrics, some of the songs are very personal and I really said exactly what I wanted to, no compromise. In the end I reached the goal that I set for myself and I am so happy with the record but I do know that I will never make a record like this again. I learned so much in the process and I wouldn't trade that knowledge for anything but it took about three years which is basically insane, way too much. So to answer your question, the entire record was done by me; I produced, rapped, recorded, mixed and arranged it all myself. I have one guest appearance on the album by K-The-I??? who is an amazing MC that has a totally original style.
ST: How about your production work: When you're producing a song for Height, for example, are you approaching that song in the same way you would approach your own stuff or is it different work entirely?
KR: When I produce music for other people I generally keep them in mind and try to do something that I feel will suit them specifically, that's not to say that I am always right. I can compose something that I think is totally wrong for the person and they will think that it's perfect. It has gone both ways for Height; I've played him some music that I think is perfect for him and he doesn't think it's his cup of tea. On the other hand, he has taken some of my music that I didn't think would suit him at all and moved it in amazing directions that I never would have imagined. When I produce music for myself I usually have concepts in mind as well as personal techniques that I try not to give other people. That's not to be selfish, there are just certain things that I consider very personal.
ST: I wanted to get your take on something that I asked Height and Emily from AK Slaughter a while back: Do you think there's a kind of rift in the hip hop scene here in Baltimore, between the Baltimore Club music and the more pr ogressive hip hop (Mickey Free, Height, PT Burnem, etc.)?
KR: Sadly, I'm assuming you’re talking about divisions between races. In the end so much is based on race. Our country was founded on slavery and we still haven't dealt with it; we’re still dealing with the effects of it. We have a long way to go as a country and as individuals. We have to talk, talk, and talk. I do think relations are better than ever. The young people today are very open-minded and a lot of that old way of thinking is not reaching them. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, poverty, hatred towards immigrants, war—it is easy to be frustrated and overwhelmed or just turn a blind eye to it. I believe music is here to bring people together and open peoples minds. I look at it as a responsibility and I don't take it lightly. I truly believe if you are given a platform to speak you better not waste the people’s time. You have the opportunity to reach and help people. Say something relevant, make it count.
ST: Hardships & Head Trips has been out a few months now, what's next? Will you be touring at all this summer?
KR: Right now I'm finishing up an EP that I plan to release soon for free. These are mainly songs that don't really belong anywhere else but work well together. I am also working on a new album that I am really excited about. After playing more shows, seeing a bunch of bands play and checking what the audiences react to, it became pretty obvious to me what I want to do. I'm not very sure how everything will work out but I have been developing new techniques that will be great to perform live. Technology is getting so good now the tools actually exist for me to perform the way I could only have dreamt of when I started. I could give you details about how the music is going to sound, which is radically different from Hardships & Head Trips but in the end it's really how you perceive it. I can play you a track that is all electronic and noisy and say this is inspired by Sly Stone and you'd probably look at me like I'm crazy. I will say that I'm working on a bunch of new styles and sounds, new rhythms. For the time being I'm going to keep playing locally but I will be heading out on tour in the near future.