Issue #109: Grief Pedigree by Ka
April 16, 2018
Released On February 11, 2012
Released By Iron Works Records
Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas. American Gangster, 2007
One huge thing that I think everyone misses about the legacy of The RZA is that he made hip hop so intimate. He took it out of the club, and brought it to your headphones by making audio-movies that were seemingly best enjoyed one person at a time — on your headphones. I grew up in apartments for most of my life. I always wanted to play drums, but my living situation made that an impossibility. That, and my father is an extremely cautious man. I was banned from even having my bedroom speakers at a reasonable volume, so my headphones became my world. I digested every morsel of music on headphones. I learned to DJ on headphones. I learned to make beats on headphones. And to this very day, I still make and mix all of my own music on headphones (note: I also still live in an apartment). For records like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or Ironman or Supreme Clientele, the absolute best way to enjoy them is on headphones, laying in bed with the lights off, pillow over my face to prevent any distractions or additional sensory stimulation. Ka’s Grief Pedigree is one of those albums.
The overall sound of the record is vintage New York. It’s the exact minimalist sound that made me fall in love with hip hop in the first place. In fact, when I first heard Grief Pedigree, I called several friends and recommended it by saying “it’s exactly like the first time you heard the classic Wu stuff.” What I meant with that statement was that there is a cohesive, grimy, continuously guttural vibe that carries us through Ka’s life on the streets of Brownsville. Part of the reason I admire this record so much is that not only did Ka deliver a masterful performance on the mic, with only one feature, mind you, but he also produced the entire record himself! Some of the records have drums. Some of them don’t. There’s no hiding behind massive 808 bass drums or extra instrumentation. The music is raw, and, by its minimal nature, makes you pay attention to the lyrics in ways that you normally wouldn’t. That, and you’re already listening to the record with your full attention on headphones. And then there’s Ka’s voice. His gravely bars hold that much more weight for the simple fact that he doesn’t have to raise his voice. It’s kind of like when Sonny in Bronx Tale calmly told the biker gang “now you’s can’t leave.” His production style accommodates his delivery perfectly, or is it the other way around?
PSA: You know you’re knee deep in graduate-level-rap-nerd-talk when anyone quotes or makes reference to any Gravediggaz record.
Remember that line in Gravediggaz’ “Diary Of A Madman” where RZA says “about to die from thirst, that’s when the minister / quenched my jaws with a cold glass of vinegar”? Well, that’s what Grief Pedigree is — rap’s cold glass of vinegar.
The entire album is haunting. Even the clever “Decisions,” which is by far the lightest moment on the album, refrains that “a simple right or left could mean life or death.” Ka works in pain and angst the way other artists might work in oils or clay (boom, A Christmas Story reference). I swear, he talks about the hood and the accompanying drug trade in the simplest, yet slickest ways I’ve ever heard. The metaphors at play here are extraordinary. For instance, there’s “Cold Facts” where he talks about “pyrotechnics with no alarms / I blew up the block, and I sold the bombs.” Even better, on “Up Against Goliath,” he proclaims that he’s “up against Goliath, to bring butter home / I’m David on the pavement, sling another stone.” There’s even a few bits of dark humor along the way, like on “Every…” where he pines “from amazin’ days, and nights excitin’ / where you get played for playin’, and learn how to fight by fightin’.” The point is, where his voice is short on volume, he’s a giant with the lyrics.
I appreciate this record so much because it’s uncompromising. While all of his peers were making New York City sound like Atlanta, Ka stood strong, and put together a masterpiece without having to venture outside of his own neighborhood. And he put together this masterpiece fully aware that it would go under the radar, completely unappreciated by the masses, but he did it anyway. For the art. If that isn’t the prototype for what we do here at OYR, then I don’t know what is.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Kaseem Ryan — Brownsville FDNY firefighter by day, hip-hop dignitary by night.
Blonde, tall, crystalline blue eyes… my first mentor taught me so much about art, presenting yourself, and grace. A former advertising executive for Coca-Cola, she had somehow landed back in Auburn, Alabama, running an art gallery where I learned to be a photographer. Once, in expressing frustration that one of the older white male English professors I had would never listen to me in class, choosing instead to relentlessly call on the few lower-classman men in the room, she told me to speak lower, not louder. “If you’re quieter than they are and just keep talking, eventually they’ll shut up, lean in, and listen,” she said, matching frame samples to a watercolor. That seemingly contrary advice played in my mind all week alongside Grief Pedigree, a surprisingly calm hip-hop album from Ka. Overwhelmingly subdued, the album plays best in one listen, a flowing, hypnotic expression. Ka has said in the past he felt beaten by the talent in the field when comparing himself to other rappers, even in his previous group Natural Elements. On this album, though, his sophomore solo attempt, the juxtaposition of those quietly compelling beats against socially aware lyrical content doesn’t measure up to his self-evaluation. Perhaps his unaffected vocals could be viewed as less than by some, but there is power in that voice you have to lean in to hear.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
If you haven’t been listening to the I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats podcast, I highly recommend jumping in, whether or not you’re a fan of John Darnielle and company. The discussions typically veer into territory related to the creative process, and the “Jenny” episode includes a deep dive on form and the benefits of creative restrictions. Well worth a listen. It’s a tried-and-true paradox — the idea that challenging yourself to draw between certain lines can result in a renewed sense of freedom. Ka got me thinking about that paradoxical approach when I was listening to “Decisions.” The strict lyrical structure reminds me of two of my all-time favorite hip-hop performances: the nimble, homonym-happy track from Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt album, “22 Two’s,” and Big L’s “Ebonics,” which serves as a dictionary for hip hop neophytes, with a “X is Y” structure (my favorite iteration: “If you got the dragon you got bad breath”) that serves as a close parallel to the “X or Y” equation you hear on Ka’s “Decisions.” Like those other brilliant pieces of writing, the themes “Decisions” touches on are serious (“A simple right or left could mean life or death”), but the formal backdrop sets the stage for an exhibition of structural inventiveness that uplifts. And “Decisions” gets a warm, nostalgic boost via looping production that makes masterful use of a sampled Hammond B-3 organ, just as Kanye West did at the start of his undeniable Jay-Z collaboration “Otis.” It’s a formal sense of fun balanced with a palpable sense of command — and it sounds masterful.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
My favorite sentence on Ka’s website is on a page called Guidelines: “Please have patience with your order, I don’t go to the post office everyday.” Talk about keeping it real! I first came across that line back in 2016 when I was grooving hard to the spare beats and smart rhymes on his album Honor Killed The Samurai and thought I would order a copy to give to a young cousin of mine. Unfortunately, my gifting schedule was too tight for such vague promises and I ended up going with something else. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think every hip hop fan, especially of the east coast gritty variety, should be up on Ka. I connect to his deep New York roots and the “grief pedigree” he has from growing up in a tough neighborhood where you always had to be on high alert. While Manhattan Valley (now part of the Upper West Side) was never as brutal as Brownsville where he’s from, it was no joke having people constantly angling to get something of yours away from you — and often succeeding. While Ka doesn’t quite achieve the heights of some other NYC legends (Prodigy, for example — a definite influence here) at their best, there’s an admirable consistency to his work, perhaps due to the complete lack of commercial striving behind his music. He makes it clear in interviews that he doesn’t need to make any money off of his records thanks to his job as a Fire Captain in the FDNY, so everything he does is for the love of it and the pursuit of excellence. All that said, I came to his story via a dim awareness of Natural Elements, the ’90s collective he was a part of, and then The Knight’s Gambit, the 2013 follow-up to Grief Pedigree, so many thanks to J. Clyde for giving me the impetus to look back a little further in Ka’s career. And I found a number of new favorite tracks from him. Take your pick from “No Downtime,” “Decisions,” “Up Against Goliath,” or “Born King N.Y. to hear him at his hypnotic best. But enough of my yakkin’, let Ka tell you who he is: “The gifted narrator /Gunmetal gray rhymes, your scripts is lavender / Poor all my life, but rich in character / Wise civilized, don’t make me flip to savage ya / The proven wizard that move deliberate / Way of tools exhibit the rules are rigid / Reside and abide, or lose your gizzards.”
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Interestingly enough, every track on Grief Pedigree has a video as sly as this.
I don’t listen to hip hop all the time but it’s a genre that has a lot of aspects I enjoy, so I’m always happy when a hip hop album comes up on Off Your Radar — if nothing else, it forces me to spend a little more time with the genre in a particular week than I might have otherwise. Ka’s Grief Pedigree is pretty much exactly what I want when that happens, too. As with the Ka album I was previously familiar with (The Night’s Gambit, his 2013 follow-up to Grief Pedigree), this album has an unrelentingly dark mood that emphasizes the dead-serious intensity of Ka’s lyrics and delivery. The persistently ominous musical backing tracks, produced in minimal, repetitive fashion by Ka himself, only further underscore the mood he’s attempting to create. While standout tracks are relatively rare — the foreboding funk of “No Downtime” is most noteworthy — Ka’s ability to paint a musical and lyrical picture of desperate living in a world of desperation, crime, and neglect is all but unparalleled. Songs like “Vessel” juxtapose stark, hollow beats with harsh lyrical tales of street-level survival in a world with no mercy. It’s not glorified or romanticized, just described in an unflinching manner that makes it hit much harder than the cartoonish gangsta tales that are always most popular in the hip hop world. This isn’t a fun album, by any means, but it’s an incredibly worthwhile listen, one that will suck you into its world if you let it.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
As a music fanatic, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying that there are some albums that, for one reason or another, are slow burners, requiring several listens before I begin to recognize how wonderful it is. Ka’s Grief Pedigree falls squarely into this category for me. When I first listened to it, I was on my way to work and, frankly, this album deserves to be more than a soundtrack to a commute. Because I was focused on not missing my stop and ignoring the loud group of teenagers next to me, the music was largely relegated to background noise which is not a great way to make a first impression. My second listen to Grief Pedigree didn’t fare much better: I was sitting at home and reading a book, once again putting my focus elsewhere. It wasn’t until my third listen when I understood that I was going about it all wrong: this is a highly lyrical album and by putting it on in situations where I either couldn’t hear the lyrics or I wasn’t actively listening to them, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. Ka is a sharp lyricist, using homonyms and double meanings to his advantage, painting images in a matter of seconds that it might take some entire paragraphs. “No Downtime,” a song about Ka’s experiences growing up and hustling in the city, has a lot of clever lines that highlight not only how important Ka’s lyrics are, but Ka’s mastery of using language as an art form. “In the city eatin’ til the apple was a core” is a line that stuck out to me, and after browsing Genius to see what else I was missing, I came across “I’m the hustle, you the running man,” an insult that both illustrates Ka’s abilities on the streets, and compares two dances from different eras. There’s a lot of unpack in that one song alone, so I’m positive that there are hundreds more couplets and one-liners scattered throughout each track that I haven’t caught yet. I know I said that it wasn’t a smart idea for me to read while listening to this album, but with the sheer number of lyrical references and double entendres on Grief Pedigree, I could make an exception if what I’m reading is a lyric sheet.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
I’m a big fan of succinctness, and I imagine that’s glaringly obvious. Still, it’s worth mentioning explicitly in light of Ka’s Grief Pedigree: 11 songs, 36 minutes, one feature, no skits. The no-bullshit-ness of it all it noble. Hell, I wish more rap albums would study Illmatic. But even with a lean runtime, there’s still much to explore (including a Fight Club clip!) — particularly Ka’s concise fatalism, the album’s main throughline. He makes pithy, matter-of-fact observations like, “A simple right or left could be life or death.” He also uses clever and darkly comical wordplay to advance his position: “Waltz up with the nina, no dance lesson.” And when he states that he celebrates all of his blessings, it’s no great leap to assume he includes a MAC-10—described as “reliable” — in that list. His cold and calculated delivery, reminiscent of an assassin, tells you he’s speaking from experience. His slick, languid flow matches the album’s August-humid production, too. The heat is suffocating like the Everglades throughout, mirroring the inescapability of Ka’s worldview. So of course the album’s sunniest song is also its bleakest. Honestly, it wouldn’t make sense any other way. Four years prior to this album, Ka made an appearance on GZA’s Pro Tools where he declared, “I tour with toast ‘cause drama’s always close.” Given Grief Pedigree’s content, I don’t doubt that.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Over relaxed but florid beats, Ka’s cursive flow swells around reflective detections & empathetic admissions.
Much of the time, when faced with a straight up hip-hop / rap based pick for the newsletter, what ends up being my main takeaway is the lyrical depth. This week’s 2012 selection by J. Clyde lands within this same ball park. However, Grief Pedigree isn’t all about making listeners lean on the narrative for an enjoyable experience. Sure, there are electronic strings and repeated melodic motifs that help to hold up the eleven track record. Nevertheless, the way the sounds are shaped and paired (sounds of vintage vinyl cracks and pops, organ that seems filtered to a mono-like quality of sound, and quiet studio piano that could easily fit into any modern dub or ambient track,) make the musical framing of Ka’s narrative’s entertaining and fascinating as well. This bit of sonic texture and stylistic diversity gives the album a default level of good replay value, if for no other reason than listeners would need to give the music and lyrical sides of the album undivided attention respectively. Add to this the use of historical spoken samples — and one’s referencing a New York City of the past at that — and some listening to Grief Pedigree can come away with fun conceptual bonuses that perpetuate a connective listening experience, should you happen to be from, or frequently visit, the Big Apple. Then of course, it’s interesting to dissect and really take in what each track has to say verbally but admittedly, that takes some dedicated energy and if you’re not partial to hearing n***** (regardless of the grey social complexities of the term’s inclusion on rap tracks of different artists), it might take extra patience to get to the end. Hopefully thought, this one element won’t be a full deterrent for anyone out there curious to hear non-run-of-the-mill hip hop.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
While I like a lot of music, and a lot of different genres, rap has never really been a favourite of mine. That being said, I do like to give everything a chance and I found that this album had a very nice laid back vibe to it, which is a nice contrast to some other rap albums that almost excel at being “in your face.” The backing tracks have a great flow and I like how each track kind of just blends in to the next, making it more of an overall listening experience as opposed to listening song by song. Ka’s vocals also have very nice rhythm and his lyrics are more varied and in depth. He raps about life experiences rather than money, sexy women, and how famous he is, and this just makes it more relatable even if his life experience is vastly different than yours or mine. I also really enjoyed that some of the songs had a spoken word intro / outro. Just an unique twist and adds something extra to this very special hip hop album.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
“Magician this scripture, flame on paper, no pages smokin’ / Feel this realness, I ain’t on stage just boastin'” — that line pops up in the opening track to Grief Pedigree. Along with mentions of drugs, crime, and violence, it puts Ka’s lyricism within the catch-all topics of hip hop culture that most sadly recognize. It’s braggadocious, but in a tangible way that you can feel throughout his record, and by putting it in the forefront of the record, he allows himself about a half-hour to prove that it’s not bluster — it’s truth. A few songs later, on “No Downtime,” he opens up in a very subtle manner that reinforces that bold claim by showing off his insatiable work ethic and the anxiety that certainly must come with it: “We, never at ease no downtime / I’m sick with it, y’all niggas sound fine / From where it’s hard, a man stressin / Either starve or pull a transgression.” It’s this ability to couple real observations and vulnerable admissions with the familiar topics and guideposts that give you a sense of who he truly is, and I don’t just mean where he’s been and what he’s seen. The Brownsville neighborhoodof Brooklyn shaped who he is and he’s proud of it — according to his own annotation, the song “Born King N.Y.” is in reference to BKNY (Brooklyn, New York) — but it’s also clear he’s not defined by it as this crucial line in album stand-out “Vessel” states: “Everybody all over the fucking world man/ If you’re a live nigga, it’s just your music, it’s for you.” You’ll find empowering lines like this throughout Grief Pedigree which all add to Ka’s ridiculously impressive DIY ethos. Not only did Ka produce, write, and record this record himself, but he also directed and edited all eleven music videos that accompany the songs here, but what else should you expect from someone who’s a full-time New York firefighter and part-time hip-hop luminary? The double-life must weight on him to some degree though. In “Decisions,” he casually asks: “Is this lust or do I love this shit?” You only need to listen to one song off of this imposing album to know the true answer to that ridiculous question.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
The End Of History by Fionn Regan
Chosen By Guest Contributor Jess Abbott (Tancred)