I caught up with Houston legend and South Park Coalition leader K-Rino shortly after the release of his ‘Book Number 7’ LP in the summer of 2007 for Hip-Hop Connection magazine. And with his new album ‘Speed Of Thought’ set to drop in September, Southern Hospitality proudly presents the interview in full, available for the first time. Enter the mind of a lyrical legend…
You and Scarface started Houston rap in the early ’80s, right?
It wasn’t just me and ‘Face, there was people that came before us even. You had people like Wicket Cricket, Jazzy Red, and there was people who started around the same time I did like Klondike Kat and Dope-E [both members of Rino’s South Park Coalition army] – those guys might have started a year or two before me. I just was fortunate enough to be one of the first artists in Houston to release a record. I released my first single in a group called Real Chill in ’87. The original Ghetto Boys [original spelling], before Scarface and Willie D joined the group, they dropped the same year, so those records were really the first two records to drop out of the city of Houston. And I was definitely the first one to drop out of South Park. So, we wasn’t the first, but we was right there.
What was the scene like back then?
It was real primitive back then because it was new. Hip-hop was just being exposed on a nationwide and a worldwide scale. It was just starting to bloom and blossom on a mainstream scale with people like Run DMC, Whodini and Kurtis Blow. Back then we was just doing it for the fun because we used to admire those groups, but once we got to the point where we started realising we could make records as well, then the scene started accelerating a little more and it’s been going non-stop since then.
People treat hip-hop from New York’s golden era as being somehow more authentic than southern rap from the same period, how does that make you feel as someone who’s been rapping since ‘83?
Well, I disagree when they say it’s not as authentic as New York hip-hop from the same era because we grew up in that golden era, so we’re rooted in that era. Now, a lot of the stuff that we did was definitely influenced and based on artists that was doing it in New York. We admired those cats, we respected them and a lot of what we did was based off of them. Now if they were to say it’s not the same now as it was in the golden era then I would agree, because we were on some major, major heat back then and Houston has a lot of respectability in the underground.
Do you feel any sense of fatherly pride when you see young Houston artists getting rich and famous?
Yeah, actually I do. It’s more big brotherly as opposed to fatherly, it’s just a situation where those guys came up listening to our music and we had some degree of influence on them and when we come across them the majority of them tell us that and pay homage and show love to us, so it’s a situation where I’m proud of anybody that comes out of Houston that’s doing it big on the mainstream level, I just want the subject matter to improve. I want the relevance of topics to improve. And I think that’s one of the things that’s missing from the Houston scene and that’s contributing to the lack of longevity of some of these artists. They remain stagnant because of the superficial subject matter and their light goes out after a short period of time.
What separates K-Rino from your average rapper?
Relevance – the blessing of having the ability to be timeless in subject matter. The greatest thing is to be able to put in a record you made 10 years ago and have people not know if you made it 10 years or 10 days ago. And I think that’s because of the things that I’ve been blessed with and a lot of the people from SPC are blessed with, based on the fact that we came up in an era where diverse topics and subject mater was the order of the day. You couldn’t make an album with 10, 15 songs on it and you talking about the same thing on every song, you had to mix it up. That’s the purpose of an album. People tend to tell me that the words I speak on my records still hold meaning and still carry weight today, even when its some of the older stuff. So I know that the biggest quality you can have as an artist, whether its rap, R&B or whatever genre of music you’re into, is timeless music that can span generations and bridge the gap between generations. and can pick up new fans and new listeners that might have been in diapers when you first started doin’ your thing, but now they jumped on board and say ‘I’m a fan’.
Is it hard to make a living when you’re not signed to a major label?
Not where we from. Houston is the independent record label capital of the world. Because we came from the south, and they don’t respect the south, the east coast look at us for some reason as having a lack of intelligence and look at us like we dumb. They never respected us. It was always anything associated with the south was below them. So we had to start our own labels because the major labels wouldn’t sign us. And when they did sign us, the deals were so beat up and messed up that eventually we would either lose the deal or just get out of it because it was nothing that was ever in our best interests. So we started our own labels and sold tens of thousands of records independently by going through regional distributors, making eight dollars a unit as opposed to being on a major and maybe making less than a dollar a unit. Down here we making more money than guys that own major labels and we selling 50,000 units and make more than those cats that’s going gold on majors. So we really pioneered that out of necessity because nobody wanted to deal with us. So now they respect our hustle, they respect the fact that we doin’ it the way we do it, but they still don’t respect us from an intelligence standpoint because they feel superior to us for some reason. We’ve got some of the most intelligent businessmen and business-minded individuals to ever enter the game, but because of the southern drawl that we have they think we country so we slow. Hip-hop originated on the east coast and we all know that, we respect that and honour that, but at the same time you’ve got to let it go at some point and respect the fact that God blesses everybody. Being first, that’s a blessing in itself but don’t disrespect people who came along and grab the torch or baton and run with it – now we’re all in this together.
Houston was in the spotlight a couple of years back with the success of tracks like ‘Still Tippin’’ and ‘Sittin Sidewayz’, but now the spotlight seems to be moving westward to the Bay Area. What can Houston do to maybe get back in the spotlight?
The first thing that has to happen is the artists who are already in that position have to grow. Because you cant talk about rims and cars and sippin’ drank forever. It’s so continuous, its so redundant, but it doesn’t stop. And that’s what irritates artists like myself who’ve been doing it for years, who’ve seen it when it was good out here. And that’s what irritates people from other regions and parts of the world and gives Houston a black eye. Because any time we go anywhere around the country or the world, one of the first things to come out of their mouths is ‘what’s up, you got some surp?’ But don’t everybody mess with that stuff. That’s not what Houston’s all about. So, the fact of the matter is, the second thing they have to do, is those labels who are reaching down and saying Houston got something going on, they gotta stop searching for that type of artist and they gotta be diverse in their search and say ‘let’s see what else they got going on down here. We got some lyricists down here. We got some political rappers down here. We got everything any other major city or region has as far as talent, we got it down her in Houston. They just have to reach for it. It’s like a line of robots that are copies of a formula that worked five years ago.
You’ve been described as a soul nourisher, why do you think you get so much respect as a lyrical emcee?
One reason is because longevity always constitutes a level of respect to people, because they can look at it and say ‘this man has been able to do this for this many years and … make a libving and …’ – and that warrant some respect in itself. Also, the things that I try to talk about are things that can help an individual out of a situation. Me telling you how pretty my watch is and how many diamonds I’ve got in my mouth is not gonna help you when your lights are about to get cut out or your husband is beating you or you’re hooked on dope. Those things are not going to help you, so I try to speak to those things in certain songs so if a person does come across one of my CDs they can possibly get something out of that that will nourish their soul and maybe turn them in a direction that might help them. The best thing that somebody will tell me is that my music helped them through a hard time or lifted them up. I think that’s what garners me a little respect and makes people appreciate what I do.
You frequently rap about spirituality and you dissect a lot of the myths perpetuated by different interpretations of Christianity especially, do you think there’s a need for more religious debate through rap and what do you think God has planned for your career?
I think that rap is a platform that allows that type of expression. Whether there’s a need for it is a matter of opinion. I would say possibly there is a need for it especially if you feel lies have been told to a society and you have come across the truth to those falsehoods, then yeah that needs to be exposed and cleaned. If one of your missions in your music is to save lives and help people then yeah. I think God has put me in a position to learn that things that were being perceived as truth are falsehoods and, if I can prove them, it’s only right that I express it in my music. It’s an each one teach one concept. I’m blessed to know it, but I don’t talk like it was ‘of me’, like I created it. A lot of things I’ve learned and talk about in my music are directly from the teachings of the Honourable Elijah Muhammed, so I don’t take any credit for those things.
It’s hard to imagine any emcee, past or present, really handling you on the mic in terms of intelligence and delivery, do you think there’s anyone out there that stands a chance?
You know the thing is that I look at God as being such a great God that he’s not just gonna sprinkle one person with that kind of talent. God likes to prove over and over again that he’s God and he’s the supreme being. So, yeah, he gave me a strong dosage of it, I’m not gon’ lie, but I can listen to people like Canibus, KRS-One from back in the days, Chamillionaire from Houston, Papoose from New York, Rakim – there’s a lot of artists I came up to and some that have come after me, so I don’t ever put myself above anybody but I know that I can stand next to anybody. Don’t get it twisted, I can stand in the room and if a cipher break out I can hold my own with anybody, but I don’t put anybody down and try to say I’m superior or that nobody’s on my intelligence level because I don’t know what the next man knows. So I’m just grateful to be in the conversation. At the end of the day I just want to be in the conversation whey they talk about all the greats. I don’t mean the MTV or VH1 version of the 50 Greatest Rappers list, because they mean the watered-down cats. You’ll never see Canibus’s name on that list but it should be. You’ll never see mine on that list. But when the real conversation breaks out, and people who are knowledgeable on every region, every mainstream and underground artist are involved, when that conversation breaks out and my name’s in it, I’m cool. I’m cool.
Your albums are always very cohesive, with strong concept tracks, messages and the tendency to educate more than entertain. Can you describe the mental process you go through when writing and recording a K-Rino album?
It’s funny because I’ve never told anybody this: when I write, I visualise people. I see people, I see faces when I write. I visualise people listening to the song as I’m writing it and visualise their response to the words I’m writing – and I know that helps because it gives me an idea of how they’re gonna react and what they’re gonna like. That’s why when I come up with a line and its a good line, I see people instantly. I try to look three or four times past the surface, so when I think of a good line I’m not going to stop after writing that line down, I’m gonna think of three or four other variations or ways to say it that could possibly make it better. So it’s a tedious process when I write, I can’t speak for anybody else but when I write it’s a tedious process and it’s very detailed. It’s like a film because once its recorded people will dissect it and trying to decipher the words, so I could put together a bunch of pretty words and flow it and say it nice and when it first touches your ear it sounds good, but when you break it down it gotta be right.
What is ‘Book Number 7’?
If you look on the cover there’s seven notebooks on the ground. A lot of people misunderstand and think it’s my seventh album. It’s not my seventh album, it’s my seventh rhyme book. In other words, all the songs and albums I ever made are contained in those particular books. Just by chance I started writing a new album at the beginning of starting a new book. So the first line I wrote was written on the first page of the seventh book. Number 7 of course is also the number of God, the number of perfection, so it was really right on time.
There’s a track ‘Imagination’ on your new album that’s almost impossible to decipher, can you explain it and has anyone cracked it yet?
[Laughs] ‘Imagination’ was really just a song where I was trying to really go deep and just twist people up like that. Sometimes I get confused when I dip back through it but I was in a zone where I was locked into the full comprehension of where I was going with it. But really it’s just me making up a bunch of stuff, crazy thoughts. I don’t get high but in my mind I was thinking that people that smoke week or get high are gonna love this song. Put it his …. To what the next thought might be.It migh have been a blade of grass or a door knob. It’s jus t a situation where whatever particular person that I was think ing of whe.. I made from him of and whatever that person though up that made him think of him. It could go on and on. That songs .. have never stop.
On ‘The Me You Don’t See’ you say “Ignorance seems to get more blessing than realness” – why do think that is?
Because the masses of the people are ignorant. The masses of the people don’t have knowledge, wisdom and understanding, so ignorance is more relatable. Like I was saying, when people are talking about sippin surp …. And booty bouncin’, –and that’s cool, whatever turns you on – but at the end of the day its not saving lives, its not helping, its really hindering. So ignorance is getting more blessings than realness because these are the records that’s going gold and getting played in the club or on the radio. So realness is a turn off to people because if an artist doesn’t know how to relay it and comes across as preachy its gonna turn people off because, like you said, they want to be entertained rather than educated. People would rather be fed garbage than good food. People eat donuts and candy all day but when somebody says you gotta eat these vegetables, they like ‘ah man I don’t want that’.
How different is K-Rino the rapper to K-Rino the man, do you philosophise to your peers as well as your fans?
K-Rino the man is still struggling to be a manifestation of some of the things I write about in my music. When you hear me say things on ‘The Me You Don’t See’, that’s really me in confession. It’s me telling you that I’m still struggling with the same things you go through. I’m no different, I’m no saint. As a person I’m still working on myself. I don’t smoke or drink but I have other issues that I struggle with just like anybody else. I had song on ‘Worst Rapper Alive’ called ‘Who Am I?’ It went [raps]: “Who am I? I’m only a man just like you/So don’t put me on a pedestal, I’m just like you”.
It seems like the mental process you go through and the album end product makes for a very personal relationship between you and the listener…
Without a question man, and that’s how it has to be. It has to be a mirror. I have to see myself in my words and when that person listens to that CD they have to be able to see themselves. That’s where the connection comes in. I believe a person has to get their money’s worth because the ones that still have faith and go and buy records are getting cheated when they’re getting 20 tracks with only two good songs on it.
You’ve got a mix CD out on Wolftown Recordings – an independent British label – what drew you to Wolftown since you’re not someone who generally does the mixtape thing?
They reached out to me some years ago because my buddy LATE listens to my music. We connected and I just seen how cool those cats was and they were some individuals that really really believed in my music and that’s always a good thing when you have people who really feel the same way you do. And since then Tricksta, LATE and Jai Boo and all those cats have been on a quest to get me heard in the UK and I’m really grateful to them for that because its like they’re going out of their way to make sure that I’m heard. And I listened to their album ‘The Villains’ album and now me and a few of my SPC boys have been a fan of them. It’s just a situation that was meant to happen and I’m glad to be collaborating with them on this mixtape.
K-Rino – ‘A Lyrical Legend’ is out now on Wolftown Recordings. ‘Book Number 7’ and ‘Triple Darkness’ volumes 1-3 are also out now on Black Book International. ‘Speed Of Thought’ is out in September.
A shorter version of this interview was published in Hip-Hop Connection magazine.