An MC and an academic, Kenan Bell is a Montessori English teacher and aspiring hip-hop luminary. He consorts with the likes of De La Soul, Aceyalone, RJD2, performed an ambitious rap over a Smiths track on his eclectic Good News: Mixtape, and is about to release his breakthrough debut album Until the Future on March 30. Somewhere between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas Mr. Bell (as he is known to his students) took the time to answer some questions about the life of a gentleman and scholar.
“Throw your hands in the air and wave 'em around like you don't got no cares, lying to yourself don't get you no where, now that's a double
negative so don't go there.” It's neat hearing the English teacher side of you come out on the track “Chlo.” I'm interested in both the parallels and perpendicular cross sections of both your respective
academic and hip-hop careers. What are these connections to your hip-hip persona and your academic?
Frankly, the person I am on stage is the same dude I was in the classroom. The platforms are quite similar aside for the obvious differences. My students were receptive to my lessons because I presented them in a different fashion than most. I feel that my musical presentation is one that reflects the same principles. I have the same desires for the audience as I do my kids.
My goal isn't necessarily to teach or preach, but I
want to lead by example and express my beliefs articulately. While I
was still teaching everyday eight to five and playing shows every now and then,
it did present a challenge. Performing at one a.m. on a school night and
having all that adrenaline pumping through me made it tough to get a
good night's rest and the children definitely do not allow me to be
tired at any time. I appreciated the growth that the lifestyle gave me,
but I'm glad to no longer have to hustle back home after touring to set
up my classroom for Open House.
Hearing and seeing your performance of “Good Day” with Illinois is
impressive and shows the infinite realm of possibilities that can be
achieved with a great band capable of crafting together soundscapes
while you provide great conscious rhymes. Are you seeking out to
challenge others in the game to step it up?
It is not my mission to encourage others to do anything other than be themselves. This is how I believe my music should be represented. Initially, I just wanted that wall of sound behind me so I would be confident enough to deliver my message. I wrote and produced the music
with my team envisioning putting it on display with a live band. The
recordings have both programmed and live instrumentation as well, which
comes naturally given my vast array of influences. I hope people will
be inspired by my honesty to do what feels right regardless of what's
popular or trendy. As far as my lyrics are concerned, YES! RAPPERS
PLEASE STEP YOUR GAME UP OR STEP ASIDE!!
I also like that line in “Good Day” about “I write pages I don't text.”
What is your perspective on the creative process when words and
expressions are transmitted via mobile devices, social networking
mediums, user generated content wiki sites and the diminishing arts of
visceral pen and paper idea-drafting?
I am a product of our culture just like the next (wo)man, but being at the mercy of technology is a scary thought. I remember my previous writing
sessions would consist of me starting a bunch of rhymes and never
finishing them, only to ball up and throw the papers away in disgust.
Now, I can use my mobile device to jot down ideas throughout the day
and reflect on new experiences in ways that they write themselves. The
personal one-on-one interaction is a dying idea as kiosks and robots
take over our lives. Communication and language has a tremendous impact
on social development and progression so I'm very cautious and very
conscious how I choose to use my words. Being a Spelling teacher, I
have obvious issue with abbreviated text talk in a formal literary
environment but I understand its purpose is similar to a stenographer
writing shorthand. I figure you have to adjust with the changing times
and I've run outta space in most of my Mead Composition Books. Save
Are you anti-sampling? What are the pros and cons to live band back-up versus playback samples at gigs?
I love the art of sampling! I came from the School of Fruity Loops and Jason, a member of my production team and I honed our skills on a demo version of the program. We used to sample anything and everything from Elton John to Lamont Dozier. The roots of rap are in other musics and if not for sampling, I may not have been exposed to as many different genres at such a young age. There is enough room in hip-hop for everyone to put
their own spin on it and essentially that is what this art form is
about. Hip-hop is FOREVER.
How do you approach which sounds you want to have as a
tapestries on your tracks?
It can be extremely costly touring with musicians, but for me the
alternative is not an option. Jason and I have done a few shows with
just tracks, me MCing and him on keys and its gone over pretty well.
People are kinda bored with the old routine rap show where there's 20
dudes on stage, all with mics and white towels and one DJ hidden in the
back pretending to mix on his laptop. It can be replicated in a
classic format and be appropriate and well received, but I feel a void
even when I'm just missing a guitar player.
Not only does it provide
more visual stimulation to have the full band, but the entertainment
value goes up with each piece. I have a rotating roster of musicians
that will play on any given night though we've maintained a nucleus
consisting of myself, Jason and our bassist Matt for almost all the
shows in the past two years. There has been times in California where
we've had double digits on stage and it's been successful and other
times my vocals have gotten lost in translation so my live show will
always be evolving even though I'd like to continue to have multiple
musicians to help make it liver. I got the best band in the world and
we never practice. But that's gonna change when I get home from tour.
The chemistry that is Jason Burkhart, Jon Siebels, and Kenan Bell is something that I can't quite explain. Our production process is so special and unique that all I want to do is be in the studio. By surrounding
yourself with people whose ears you respect and trust, the writing
process becomes painless. Sometimes we will listen to old records and
borrow beats for a sonic foundation and begin layering sounds starting
with a Moog part or a 12 string guitar. Then we may add a programmed
MPC drum loop or Roland-909 samples into the mix and some Rhodes or B3
organ chords. After that maybe a live bass line to mirror the
synthesized progression and a live drum kit, complete with shakers and
tambourines as well as a percussive loop Jason may program in Ableton
to fill out the rhythm section.
Other instrumentals have started with us banging on glass bottles, choir stands and metal lamp shades in the studio and recording those sounds to build the beat around. So it definitely varies, but its a magical experience.
What are some of the difficulties between juggling life as a hip-hop
inventor/iconoclast and still being a role model for your students?
Iconoclast?!?! Wow, that's deep yo. I hope my students understand the sacrifice involved in following and pursuing your dreams and remaining
true to yourself. It was tough to juggle the early mornings with the
late nights, but they made it easy on me by always being so receptive to my lessons and generally energetic about learning. They understand me as a person and respect my values. Students have questioned the honesty in
my music as they wonder why I speak so truthfully and accurately about
I've also had kids blatantly ask me about my sex life and
they've been disappointed by my efforts, or lackthereof. I'm not the
biggest party animal and don't really drink or smoke cigarettes so once
again I'm ultimately trying to lead by example. But I've taught my kids
to be their own role models and also to be responsible for their own
success or failure and to be accountable for their actions.
Your buddies De La Soul have been enjoying a weekend residency here at
the up-scale Yoshi's jazz club in San Francisco. Are you guys in on a
collective movement for upping the ante of expression in the rap world?
De La is responsible for me being me, myself and I. Any part that I've played in the movement that they started 25 years ago is simply because
of them being themselves and not being afraid to express their
perspective, even if it meant going against the grain. Having toured with the
brothers, we forged a solid bond based on these principles that I will
never forget. If I'm even being mentioned in the same sentence as such
pioneering visionaries, I must be doing something right. Big ups to Mase, Pos, and Dave and my dude Bill Ray too.
People described De La Soul's performance last Friday night as having a
real professorial element as they schooled a caviar eating audience
about hip-hop. Could a new trend of
MCees as teachers be the answer to California's current woes in the
I don't know how the Governator would feel about a bunch of rappers schooling our State on similes, but it could work with the right clientele. I'd head up that team if the opportunity presented itself. It goes
without saying that something's gotta change. MCs in the classroom would
definitely be refreshing and revamping the curriculum could breathe new
life into the educational system.
The “Untitled” track at the end of Until the Future is bathed in a
glow of harpsichord synthesizers and Thom Yorke-y vocals that stands
out from the rest of the album. What is the story on this progressive
“Untitled” is one of my favorite tracks on UTF. I love all the music, but there is a reason it is last on the album and untitled. The guest vocalist is Chris Richards (Deadly Syndrome, Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic
Zeros) and Nick Johns is playing the B3. I like how the song has a
crescendo feeling as it culminates my first full length, but it's that
progressive feeling that sets the right tone for the next record. If I look at my music chronologically, I want it to play out like the perfect day, from glorious sunrise to magnificent sunset. It was the last song recorded for UTF and it's pretty symbolic. The intro guitar lick on the first song ''Like
This” reminds me of a early morning spent cruising PCH in a T-top
Camero and I believe “Untitled” embodies the emotion of the burnt
orange California sun descending from a purple and blue sky horizon,
only to take a dip into the deep, blue Pacific Ocean. Nice Life.
A nice life indeed! Until the Future hits the stores March 30th on Sonata Cantata Records. Kenan Bell is currently on a national tour with RJD2 in promotion of his debut album.