K.Flay’s performance at The Echo last week was the first hip-hop show I’ve been to where the music was primarily crafted by the emcee live onstage while she rapped. One song started off with an electro beat as K.Flay took the microphone and shot out words — “light,” “sound,” “glitches” — in a rhythmic repetition. Then she walked to the very front of the stage, her animated hands converging with her lyrics during the performance.
K.Flay was all over The Echo’s stage that night, producing live beats, sharing percussion duties with her drummer Nick, and rapping from the edge of the platform. Her cool voice melted on the microphone, but it was her quick tongue that caught my attention as she rhymed her way into people’s eardrums — I honestly couldn’t understand what she was saying during most of those moments, but I did catch some fans mouthing off the lyrics while rocking it out.
Before all of this, I had the opportunity to talk to this up-and-coming female emcee. So who is K.Flay? First impression upon meeting her was that she certainly gave off that Bay Area vibe, which I think is a good thing. She was raised in Chicago, lived in the Bay Area during and after college, and now resides in New York. She’s laid back, easy to talk to, and funny.
Stepfanie: What do you think of Los Angeles? Have you been here before?
K.Flay: This is probably my eighth show here. I’ve been to different places around the city, and I’ve recorded a lot here. I like LA. Two of my best friends live down here, so it’s really nice.
S: And now you live in New York?
K.Flay: I do, although I still have home-ishness in Oakland. So it’s kind of quasi-bicoastal living.
S: How has living in New York affected your music?
K.Flay: Well, I think has been a good thing for me creatively. When you’re shaken out of your comfort zone, you’re really forced into experiences both bad and good; it’s really good material for lyrics and content. On the flipside, just being in New York, there is so music happening in Brooklyn and so many shows to go see, ways to get inspired from a sonic perspective.
S: Is there anything specifically that drew you to NY?
K.Flay: No. I had a roommate willing to live with me. As I look back on it, I don’t really know why [I chose New York]. I’ll probably stay there for another couple of years but not really longer than that. I like California a lot. I’ll probably come back to the West Coast. But then again, two years ago, I probably wouldn’t say I would live in NY. [Sarcastically] So basically, nothing I’m saying you can count on.
S: What do you want your listeners to portray your music as? I’ve heard electro hip hop or just hip hop?
K.Flay: Well, you know, I think it’s evolving, so it’s hard to say. There’s definitely an electronic component to it, so it’s not really indie hip hop in a more traditional back-to-roots sense. But it’s really not electronic music. There is an indie hip hop sensibility. I was saying to someone the other day that it’s indie hip hop with electronic elements and pop sensibility. It’s not super futuristic, crazy experimental kind of stuff. At its heart, there are definitely pop influences and elements that I use in my music.
S: Do you use other genres in your music also? What do you usually listen to?
K.Flay: I listen to music that I probably would never be able to create, but right now I like a lot of female vocalists singing about sad things — it’s a common theme. One of my favorite bands is Metric. We actually had a day off and our touring schedules were aligned, so I got to see them in Denver.
S: So are you more into the mellow stuff rather than sad?
K.Flay: Yeah, I do like that new Cat Power record a lot. That first Liz Phair album is a big one for me that I love. I was listening to the Garbage record the other day. I like that sound and spirit of the mid-90s, the new rock. On the flipside, I do listen to a lot of hip hop and love that as well.
S: Did you always listen to hip hop?
K.Flay: You know, not really until high school. Of course I heard it on the radio, and it did exist in the pop music sphere, but in high school, in earnest, is when I started listening to Outkast. It’s when I started getting into a little bit left-of-center hip hop. And then in college is when I really got into it. I was in the Bay Area where there was a lot of cool music going on, and there still is.
S: Like hyphy music?
K.Flay: Yeah, man, it was at its peak when I got there. It was an interesting time to be there, to witness a very vibrant local movement.
S: Other than musicians, what else influences your music?
K.Flay: I think it’s two-fold. Part of it is just — this sounds a bit cheesy — but life experiences are ultimately the father for what I create. Some of it is actual life experience that I’ve gone through, and some of it is vicarious. Speaking with my friends and seeing what’s going on with them.
I also read a lot of books; I’m kind of a book worm. Often when I’m reading I underline a word or a phrase and that somehow triggers something like, “I like the way they said that.” I think any kind of fiction writing, novels or songs, it’s about capturing some unique part of that experience and saying it in a novel way. Anything that helps me re-envision or experience an emotion or reframe it in a different image — that’s ultimately what’s inspiring.
S: Can you give me an example?
K.Flay: This isn’t a book, but I have a song called “We Hate Everyone.” That song and that idea was derived from me shooting the shit with a friend. We were complaining. We were having an email exchange back and forth like, “Ugh, we hate everyone.” She was like, “That would be a good song.” And that just spurred it. That’s one example, but you never know. Often times I’m just having a conversation with someone, and I hear something that gives me an image. I have another song, “Sunburn,” the first line of the chorus is “Watch as I spin these blades.”
At this point K.Flay, the photographer Emi, and I start to discuss an anime series called Beyblade because of a unique object within that series that inspired the lyric above.
K.Flay: That’s such a cool image — a top spinning — and so “Watch as I spin these blades” came from me talking to my friend about his kid. You never know. Maybe this interview will inspire something — “Sitting on the couch, you got a red sweater…”
Off to the side, her friend Emily mentions something about freestyling.
K.Flay: Not right now. It’s too early for a freestyle. I have this thing whenever someone asks me to freestyle, I start singing an awkward song. I’m not a big freestyler. [Singing is] a good response, I feel.
S: I read an article saying that you have this theme with working in isolation. Why is that important to you?
K.Flay: This last record I actually didn’t work in isolation. It was a collaborative effort, which is cool for the songs or productions. I was often in the room with other people. The project I put out before that was a mixtape called I Stopped Caring in ‘96. That was done in total isolation. I just spent a year touring alone.
Right now I have a drummer who plays with me, but up until this point, it was just me. It was great and super fun, but at times it did get lonely, especially with touring. There was so much downtime, and I was by myself doing whatever. It was good though. It helps you grow when you’re forced to be independent in that way. I made this record just in a basement by myself. Understandably, that affects the end product.
S: What made you decide to bring in a drummer and not other instrumentalists?
K.Flay: For hip-hop stuff, the core, outside from the vocalists, is the beat. It always seemed like the first logical progression in the show. I ended up meeting Nick, who drums with me, and he’s from San Francisco as well. It was just a really good fit. There is something really raw and vital and interesting about electronic music, someone singing, drums, and to create dynamics within that.
S: How’s the tour going so far? What’s the most memorable part of it?
K.Flay: The tour’s going great. All of these are cities that I toured in the spring, but it’s great to be on the road like this. My orientation has always been to become a legitimate touring act, someone who can play live music and travel and hopefully win over crowds. I want to just keep getting better and better, improving, and keep pushing the boundaries of it. The performance is a mix of sampling, singing, rapping, me triggering stuff, and a little bit of drumming on my part as well. It has kind of like a rock, DIY, punk energy, but obviously it’s a hip-hop show.
S: I think most people have some form of escape from their reality, like guilty pleasures such as reality TV shows. What’s a guilty pleasure for you?
K.Flay: I wouldn’t say it’s guilty, but I read a lot. I think reading is pretty much what I do. Even on the road, I’m in the back of the van just reading. It’s good me-time. The thing about a book, which is different from television, is that it’s fully engrossing. To me, a TV is something in the background. Maybe you’re watching football and you’re talking to your friends or you’re on the internet or you’re on your phone. But when you’re reading, you can’t be on your phone; you have to be in [the book]. That’s what I do to escape. I also like cooking, but I can’t cook on the road. When I’m home, I do.
S: Who thought of the concept of brushing your teeth in your video for “Rest Your Mind” ?
K.Flay: Oh, yeah. That was me. So I’m really messy when I brush my teeth naturally. I had this idea of [brushing teeth] because it’s a funny image. There is something compelling about all of the suds. Felix and I had done the track, and I told him I had an idea for the video. Like, “Are you down?”
S: So it was random?
K.Flay: Oh, yeah. It was random. It cost only five bucks. All we had to do was get a toothbrush and go to the bathroom.
S: What is one question you would’ve liked most interviewers to ask you but didn’t, and how would you respond?
For this question, K.Flay paused for a moment. I told her that it could be anything, and I started throwing out ideas. Although it defeated my original question, she decided on taking a question I threw out about being socially conscious.
K.Flay: Well, I just stole your question, but I think it’s important, and I make an effort to be as engaged as possible in what’s going on with the world. Particularly now, in this current time, it’s very easy to spout off a one-liners without actually understanding what you’re talking about. I’m guilty of this too, but I think it’s a good thing to make the effort to understand an issue or understand what’s going on in the world and spend a potentially annoying 30 minutes reading the news.
S: So which issue right now captures your attention?
K.Flay: Right now, the election is big on my mind as it is coming up very soon. So here’s my message to the people: Just register to vote. It’s really easy. It’s kind of crazy how tens of millions of people don’t vote in this country. In school, it was cool, it was always fun when there was an election. I personally like to vote — I like filling out forms — so go out and vote. A lot of people say that, but it’s a good idea. It’s like when people make suggestions on drinking water. “Drink a lot of water. Vote.” Same category of shit.
S: Anything else you want to add?
K.Flay: It’s because you said “add”.
S: [LAUGHS] That’s pretty corny.
K.Flay: Yeah, I’m super corny. I have corny jokes. But at least they’re all on the spot. Want me to make up one right now?
There was a pause. After a couple of minutes…
K.Flay: How is a floor judiciously formed?
The answer was “a wood panel.”
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