Saturday, July 23, 2011

No 414: Kenan Bell

A new profile in the Guardian is out on rapper Kenan Bell, a favorite and affiliate of Blood Is One:

Hometown: La Crescenta, Los Angeles.

The lineup: Kenan Bell (raps), Jason Burkhart (beats), Jon Siebels (production).

The background: What do Sting, Tom Bailey of garish 80s pop-dance trio the Thompson Twins, and new LA rapper Kenan Bell have in common? Not a lot, as it turns out. But they are all former schoolteachers. In fact, the 25-year-old Bell, who recently toured Europe with Dizzee Rascal, still is one, spending his days at a private school in Montrose where he teaches something called Language Arts to 4th, 5th and 6th grade kids. Next question: what do MGMT, Morrissey and Kraftwerk have in common? They are all Bell's friends on his MySpace. There's a good reason for this. He has remixed MGMT's Weekend Wars and created a track, titled Save Your Life, based on samples from the Smiths' eerily beautiful account of an abortion, This Night Has Opened My Eyes. We're not sure about the Kraftwerk connection, but we're looking forward to Bell's version of Morgenspaziergang.

If you're already thinking Bell is not like most rappers, there's something else that sets him apart from his peers. He hates hip-hop, and he loathes the idea that he might be seen as a rapper. "I used to pray, like, 'Please, lord, don't let me end up as a rapper,'" he has said. This perhaps explains his insistence on keeping his day job and treating recording and performing as extracurricular, after-hours activities. His distaste for most hip-hop of the last 20 years – since the so-called Golden Age of Hip-Hop, ie that period between the chart hegemony of Run DMC, Beastie Boys et al and the release of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising and Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet – and desire to distance himself from the hip-hop hordes also probably explain his use of rock samples, and the references to Jim Morrison in his lyrics.

Growing up in the suburbs of LA, his friends included goths, skate-punks, indie kids and ravers. On his MySpace the labels he attaches to his music are "shoegaze" and "emotronic". He counts his students and their parents as his biggest fans. "I've sold more albums to my students than anyone else," he says. Not that he's some sort of Sesame Street hip-hopper rapping his way through the alphabet while balancing a multi-coloured puppet on his knee. On the title track of his debut EP, Good Day, he raps about sex, decadence, miscegenation, sexual and racial equality and the impending 2008 presidential elections over grinding, distorted guitars, and even though there's a message/moral halfway through - "nothing in this world comes without a consequence" – the track actually sounds more powerful than preachy. On Save Your Life he doesn't flinch from the realities of AIDS and abortion, while on Celebrity he pillories label addicts, druggies and delinquent pop tarts who think babies are fashion accessories. It's downbeat and occasionally discordant, but it's good stuff.

The buzz: "Kenan Bell's nerd-chic appearance, easy-like-Saturday-morning delivery, and smoothly blended samples make for the kind of hip hop gone missing since the early '90s."

The truth: There's something oddly appealing about this rapper who hates rappers and has a track called Enjoy on which he sounds thoroughly depressed.

Most likely to: Turn up late for lessons after a long night spearing the vain and vacuous.

Least likely to: Use an overhead projector.

What to buy: The Good Day EP is released on November 17 by Cutlass, followed by the debut album, provisionally titled Sounds Awesome, in early 2009.

File next to: KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, De La Soul.


Tomorrow's new band: The Tough Alliance.

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