New York-based rapper Soul Khan is making moves, both literally and figuratively.
Once known as a titan of the burgeoning battle-rap scene, Soul Khan’s focus these days is making music. Lots and lots of music. Since retiring from dismantling opponents to focus on his art, one thing’s become clear: Khan is a hungry, creative emcee. His vast network of personal and professional acquaintances unite to make each album or EP unique, vivid; in December of 2012, he concluded a run of digital EPs inspired by John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme with the final installment, Psalm.
When Soul Khan graciously agreed to take a few minutes away from the process of moving apartments to chat with us, it became imminently clear why he’s so good at what he does: he chooses his words carefully, never slipping into a sense of false bravado. Even in casual conversation, he’s full of insight and humility. Soul Khan spoke to Popblerd about his upcoming projects, his relationship with fans via social media, and the now-infamous litany of questions he receives about his past as a battle rapper.
Drew: One thing I wanted to discuss with you was your prevalence on social media, particularly Facebook. I’ve noticed you engage with a lot of your fans on a lot of music and non-music-related issues. How important is social media in how you reach your fans?
Soul Khan: I think social media is very important, ’cause it helps separate those of us, of varying levels of commercial renown and acclaim… those who have a superficial, patronizing, and kind of shallow relationship with fans — which I think, more artists than not placate us with a lot of gestures of vanity and craven attempts to sell more — it distinguishes those people from those of us, like myself, who actually do value them, and do see them as integral not just to our commercial success, but in validation of our artistry. You know, that’s the thing: there are a lot of artists, even good ones, who their management tells them, “You should talk to the fans. You should tweet that. You should retweet some people.” And like, that’s not original. That’s not real. That’s not knowing the people who are animating your progress as an artist and giving you a reason to keep on going. So social media, for me, is great, because it allows me to genuinely see — even when I don’t get to respond to every comment, I read every single comment. I read every comment on Facebook, every comment on Twitter, I read every comment on Youtube. And it’s not out of vanity — it’s out of, I genuinely want to know if I’m doing right by the fans.
And in the process of engaging the fans, do you ever get sick of the battling question that seems to rear it’s head? It seems like a lot of people bring it up amidst unrelated topics — “when are you gonna drop another battle?,” et cetera. Does that bother you?
I think the reason — I understand where it’s coming from, because a substantial amount of people who are coming to like my Facebook fan page or follow me on Twitter first heard of me through battle rap. That doesn’t mean that it discredits my music, since a lot of the fan retention is through music, but I understand if their question is “Why don’t you battle rap anymore?” or “Are you ever gonna battle again?” That may be the first time that they’ve ever reached out to me. If you type in “rap battle” or “battle rap” on Youtube, I am literally the first result. I don’t know how that happened, but — every person who searches on Youtube the phrase “rap battles” or “battle rap” sees me first. So I’m gonna get that, and that’s not their fault.
Speaking of the music, I wanted to discuss your recent series of EPs, the Love Supreme series. How does each installment relate to the John Coltrane record — what’s the unifying thread there?
Well, the themes of each EP were different. The only unifying theme was that I named them all after songs by John Coltrane, from his record A Love Supreme. That’s the only unifying theme. Each one is about something different. Acknowledgement is about self-worth, and Resolution is about finding, I guess, a purpose to keep going… it’s also kind of self-help-ish, kinda… [laughs] so there’s more meat to it, more substance. Pursuance is about things worth fighting for, and the last one, Psalm is about… I guess I’d boil it down to “simple answers to complicated problems.” Whether that’s a sentiment, or an action, or an answer to a question, like a factual answer, there are moments that help us find closure. And that’s what that EP was about. But yeah, with the EPs, there’s no relation, except they’re produced by people I really like, both in my crew and affiliated with it, and they’re all named after John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. In order, mind you.
Another common thread in your music is your collaborations with [frequent hook singer] Akie Bermiss. [I botch every possible vowel sound in Mr. Bermiss’ name.] I hope I’m saying that right–
Akie Bermiss. [Pronounced AH-key Ber-MEECE.]
It’s all good — no one ever gets that right. I never say it aloud on songs, which I should probably start doing. That’s actually completely my fault. You were saying?
Well, he’s featured on a good amount of your songs, and it seems like his voice and his hooks are a great compliment to the textures of your music. How far back do you go with Mr. Bermiss?
I’ve actually known Akie for almost ten years — he’s one of my best friends from college. It was by a very fortuitous chance meeting that that all happened. We were in a rap group together in college, and then when I left college, that rap group ceased to be. And then, you know, I was a founding member of the Brown Bag All-Stars — actually, I don’t even know if I’m technically a founding member of Brown-Bag All-Stars. Brown Bag may predate me by a couple of weeks. [Laughs.] In any case, I didn’t get to work with him musically too much ’cause he’d stopped rapping, and it didn’t really come together until like 2010, when I had him come sing a number of hooks for my first album, Soul Like Khan. And they came out fantastic, and we kept going.
On the topic of things that really inform the landscape of your music, there’s a lot of interesting beats, and it seems like samples are pulled from some really interesting sources — there’s a Grass Roots sample, for example [“Wellstone”]. Is that something that you have input in, or do producers bring you beats fully formed?
Well, you know, I have contributed samples before. Not at all on Psalm, because it was produced by this gentleman Abnormal, who I’d never even spoken on the phone with until the project was done. And most of the songs were sample-free. And with Pursuance, I trusted Audible Doctor to do his thing… with Resolution, I just let Marink do his thing… it’s funny, I extend a lot of friends who are producers samples, not so much for my own music, but just because I think they’d like them. I always say something like, “oh, just save this for me,” and then when it comes down to it, I’m like “nah, I don’t need beats right now, just keep this for yourself.”
It seems like a common thread in your lyrical content addresses misogyny, treatment of women, that sort of thing. How important is it to you to buck the notion of what some people see as stereotypical hip-hop content?
Well, I think everything’s kind of already been done. That I want to hear, at least — that my mind and ear are comfortable with, or even not comfortable with — that I’d ultimately enjoy. If you cover old ground differently than other people have covered it, that’s all good. Or if you introduce new ground into a style that’s already been done, that’s also okay, you know? It’s tough to describe — I kind of try not to do anything that comes off to most people as cliche, unless it’s, like, self-aware, and with sort of a wink or a nod to something that it’s a musical allusion to. I don’t wanna sound unoriginal, but at the same time I get tired of experimental for the sake of experimental. Some people would find that mindset detestable, but at the same time they’re also apologists for often really derivative, same-old same-old rap shit. I have a lot of pet peeves with a lot of hip-hop journalism that I can’t speak critically… it’s why I think that my manager would never let me be on any panel discussion.
Worried you may ruffle some feathers?
Yeah, or I’d tear some feathers out. That’s the problem.
So what’s on the horizon for you? You seem to turn out quality music at a really quick clip.
I’m working on two full albums, actually, one free and one for sale. The one that’s free is produced by a whole bunch of people, both in my crew and outside of it, and the other one is pretty much entirely produced by J57. So that’s gonna be my upbeat-sounding foray into, hopefully, mainstream hip-hop, and we’ll see if anyone lets me in.
And when you say mainstream, is that in terms of the sound as well? Or just the method of distribution?
The method of distribution. Now, mainstream hip-hop is — it’s more or less coming back to about as much variety of subject matter and style as there was. I think people forget that deep into the ’90s, people criticized, like, r&b creeping into rap, but it was still over beats that now we identify as more hip-hop. So it’s — I don’t sit around being crotchety about the state of hip-hop. It’s pointless. There’s too much out there, and it’s like — there is something for you. It’s just going through, trusting sources to find it efficiently. And you’ll get it. Otherwise, complaining is a lot less helpful than doing. And I complain a lot, but I complain less than I used to.
On that note, do you have anybody in the world of hip-hop, mainstream or otherwise, that you’re really into currently?
Besides my crewmates in Brown Bag All Stars — which I always recommend everyone checks out — my homies in the Holy Order, YC, ScienZe, and Sene, who I always gotta plug. I really enjoyed the Good Kid, m.a.a.d. City album, by Kendrick Lamar… I dunno, like the stuff that I listen to, probably everyone else already listens to as well. I couldn’t put too many people on to some stuff they’ve never heard of. You could check out Abnormal, who produced my last EP. He’s an amazing producer, and I think he’s gonna do a lot of things. He’s only — I think he’s still 19, if a day older, so he’s got an incredible future ahead of him.
And you’re performing at SXSW this year, correct?
Yup! Yeah, it’s cool — I got two stages lined up right now, we’ll see about a third or a fourth. It’d be nice, but two is better than one.
Do you have any projected dates for new music at this stage?
Sadly, no, it’s still to be determined. 2013, for sure. Always check out soulkhan.com for music — or any page or social media platform you can imagine, or web 2.0 platform… it’s just that slash Soul Khan. Facebook.com/soulkhan, twitter.com/soulkhan, Youtube, Soundcloud… that’s all me. So check it out.
Popblerd would like to thank Soul Khan for setting aside a few minutes to give us some insights and updates. Hip-hop fans interested in hearing a unique, fresh voice in the genre would do well to heed Soul Khan’s advice, and check out the myriad platforms through which he makes his music available to the masses. Further links to Khan’s music are below; once again, thanks to the man himself for chatting with us!