[Interview] Soul Khan talks “Psalm EP,” the term ‘femcee,’ and memories from Fat Beats

Interview by: Martin Bauman

If you’re a fan of Grind Time and King of the Dot, the name Soul Khan should be familiar to you. For two years, the Brooklyn-based emcee made a name for himself in the battle circuit, establishing himself as one of the most popular and successful battlers on the circuit. Then, in late 2010, he retired from battling and turned his full attention and energy into making music. Since then, the Brown Bag emcee has released an impressive body of work, from his free album Soul Like Khan in November of 2010 to his latest EP, Wellstone. He’s also put in a ton of work with his group, the Brown Bag AllStars, whose work has earned respect from the likes of DJ Premier. Now, he’s promoting his latest solo offering, the Psalm EP. The Come Up Show caught up with Soul Khan ahead of his EP release to discuss the project, his thoughts on the term ‘femcee’, memories from Fat Beats, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Something pretty amazing happened to you last week; a fan paid $222 for Soul Like Khan. What was your initial reaction to that?

Soul Khan: At first, I didn’t believe it. I legit thought it was like a scam, initially. [I thought] it was some kind of a phishing e-mail, that like, if I clicked to go to my PayPal account, it would steal my account information or something. I thought it was an elaborate hoax, because first of all, not only is Soul Like Khan not $222 for regular price, [but] it’s actually free. People can donate as an option if they like, and that would be dope if they do – and a lot of people do, to my frequent delight. But no one’s ever donated $222. But I logged into my PayPal; I double-checked [and] verified that it was real, and it was pretty mind-blowing! Very validating.

TCUS: You were in Toronto not too long ago, opening up for Phonte. What was it like opening for one of your favourite emcees?

Soul Khan: It was really cool. It’s funny, my presence there was sort of incidental. I was supposed to be headlining my own show – at least, to my understanding – through a college that booked me in Toronto, but it ended up getting folded into [the Phonte] show. And, you know, I could ask for worse opening bills. People were very receptive; I’m a big Phonte fan, [but] I didn’t know how other Phonte fans would react to my music, and it was a very warm welcome. And also, I’ve done a bunch of shows in Toronto before. I headlined my last one, my wife’s from Toronto, and I used to battle there, so I have a well-established presence.

TCUS: You’ve obviously become familiar with Toronto over the years, what’s your opinion on the music scene here?

Soul Khan: I think it’s ill, there are a lot of great emcees [and] a lot of wonderful producers. Canada at large has some amazing deejays. I think it’s a place with a lot of great local, internal support – I wish you got more love outside of Canada, because the talent is the same calibre as anyone in that branch along the States. I guess it’s a matter of people taking a shot and giving it a chance. The internet makes it a little more likely, but I understand it’s still tough to penetrate into the US market if you’re not here. But yeah, I really love the Canadian hip-hop scene.

TCUS: I’d like to rewind for a little bit. You started rapping at age 12, how did you get your start?

Soul Khan: I wrote a rap on a paper plate, and it kind of sucked. [Laughs] I really wasn’t that great – if I even am now – until college, maybe. And even then, I was sort of passable. I think I was on a level that I wanted to present to the rest of the world once I got out of college, and I started working with Brown Bag, after I went to work at Fat Beats. My early rap days were just because everyone who listens to rap wants to rap. That’s really where they came from: a far-flung fantasy. Now, I’m a rapper, but back then it was a little preposterous. My timing and rhythm was all off, and I definitely wasn’t ready to be put into an active duty yet.

TCUS: You mentioned college, what was your time like at Bard College?

Soul Khan: It was great! I learned a lot [laughs], granted there were social aspects, and community service, and other things that fit well with school. I went there first and foremost to get an education; I wish more people who went to college did that – not even to get a job, just to get an education. In my mind, that’s one of the key fallacies of the modern mindset towards education. People think of it as a means to get a job, but it really should be a means to enrich yourself. You should better yourself so that you can qualify for a job, not go to college so you can get a job. I was constantly challenged in school, because I wasn’t the best high school student – I didn’t really give a damn about anything – and I was shaken up into wanting to be a mature participant in an academic setting. I realized how valuable that is.

TCUS: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but MCA actually used to attend Bard College before dropping out.

Soul Khan: Oh, I’m aware! [Laughs] Yeah, that’s really dope.

TCUS: Has he had an impact on your music at all?

Soul Khan: I would say the Beastie Boys movement was something that obviously, if it weren’t for that, I don’t know if people who look like me would have as established of a place in hip-hop. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be where we are right now – I don’t want to say white guys, because it’s not just about white rappers, it’s also about anything that doesn’t fit the old, popular conception of what a ‘rapper’ is. My music itself is not influenced by [MCA], but certainly the ground was broken by him.

TCUS: You live in New York now, but you’re originally from Woodland Hills, California. What drew you to New York?

Soul Khan: I think I was just too restless in California, and I wanted to be somewhere else. As wonderful as it is and was, it ultimately didn’t fit – and I think I detected that from an early age. I went with that instinct, and it was the right choice, honestly. I wish everyone in the West Coast well – my mom’s still out there – but I’m not really as acclimated to it as I once was. The last time I went back, I actually felt kinda out of place.

TCUS: You mentioned Fat Beats earlier. I had the chance to speak with Koncept earlier this year, and he told me about Brown Bag’s history and the importance of Fat Beats Records. If you could pick out one memory from Fat Beats that you hold above all the others, what would it be?

Soul Khan: I don’t know if I hold it above all the other ones, but the one that jumps out as really cool was when Pacewon and Planet Asia were there – I think maybe Planet Asia was there for an in-store – and Pacewon, Planet Asia, Koncept and I got into a cypher and it was filmed. That was really neat. That sort of captured the essence of what Fat Beats was for me. Also, once, I started randomly talking to 88-Keys about something – I can’t remember right now – but it was cool that people wandered into the store, and sometimes it takes you a second to realize “oh wait, this was x or y person who is significant in hip-hop.” I’d start chatting them up, just on a very regular, human level, and it gives a real human face to all the culture you grew up with. It was also cool, sometimes Bobbito would come in, because he would cut [Deejay] Eclipse’s hair, and he’d be like “yo, is Eric around?” [Laughs], “oh, yes…. Eric.”

TCUS: What did getting the DJ Premier cosign mean to you?

Soul Khan: Oh, everything. It was pretty phenomenal. Also recently, it’s funny, sort of in that same realm, Bumpy Knuckles has been really heavily promoting Brown Bag stuff, so it’s wild that anyone whose music I grew up on gives me any sort of acknowledgement. That’s insane to me.

TCUS: You’ve got a new EP out called the Psalm EP. What can you tell me about it?

Soul Khan: Psalm is four tracks with a bonus track, and the four regular tracks are all produced by a producer out of St. Louis named Abnormal, who I met on Twitter, actually. The theme of it is simple answers to complicated problems. It’s the fourth in the series of EPs that are all named after titles of songs from [John] Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. In order, [there] was Acknowledgement, then Resolution, Pursuance, and now Psalm, which is the last of that series of four. The subjects range from me rapping about rapping, to a song about my memories associated with my tattoos, to a song about an old woman trying to understand why she’s not grieving for her dead husband, and another song that’s just sort of general and my musings about life. So in a short time, it runs the gamut of different things, but they also have common emotional and thematic qualities. That’s what Psalm is.

TCUS: You just released a song called “The Machine”, featuring Akie Bermiss. The chorus stuck with me: “we all feel so connected, yet we all feel so alone.” Can you elaborate on this?

Soul Khan: It’s one of the songs where the hook definitely means something, but the verses may stray away from that a little bit here and there – because the verses are kinda like just general rap stuff. But the hook is important, because I really think it’s important that people not get into group-think, or just buy into whatever is circulating virally online. I think communities are important; human connections are important; independent and original thought is important; and having your own tastes, and your own feelings, and your own views, and your own values is important; and I think a lot of it gets lost right now, because we live in a time of retweeting, and reblogging, and Facebook sharing, and meme posting, and stuff like that, and not actual discourse. I mean, some people would say that is discourse, but it’s not really discourse, it’s just an echo chamber. That’s what the hook kinda deals with, because I’m just getting to the point where I’m like, “what will it take?” I’m tired of having tried to outrap everybody or out-personality them, or you know, out-tweet them… [Laughs] It literally makes me want to pull a Fight Club and just destroy all their records, you know? Not that I will, for any legal authorities. I won’t blow anything up [laughs].

TCUS: You’ve been collaborating with Akie Bermiss for a long time now, how did you two first meet?

Soul Khan: He is actually two years my senior out of Bard College. He graduated ’05; I graduated ’07. I met him in my first year, and he was actually sticking around campus after he graduated to teach piano and also be a paid accompanist for the college’s music students. He became one of my best friends and best music collaborators. We actually had a rap group together in college – fun fact: he used to rap, by the way – and he said that him being in a rap group with me helped him quit rap [laughs], but he thankfully remained a singer. At some point, I’ll get him to rap again, I promise.

TCUS: Akie is also feature on your song “Not Like That”, which you just put out a video for. What was the inspiration behind this song?

Soul Khan: “Not Like That” is a bonus track on Psalm, and it’s also originally on Wellstone – which is produced by Deejay Element, it’s available at DJBooth and my website. I got tired of hearing songs about women and for women, and about gender equality, or about feminism, or about sexism, where the beat and the tone of it was just so patronizingly softened, as if female hip-hop fans who listen to the same things – who listen to Wu-Tang, who listen to Pete Rock – don’t want beats like that. You don’t get a hip-hop head who’s a woman who’s like “you know what? When I hear a song about things that are more pertinent to women, I want to hear wind chimes, and saxophones, and stuff like that,” [laughs]. That stuff’s so patronizing, and I find that even underground hip-hop heads [will be like] “this one’s for the ladies…” Like, come on! Just give it an honest try. One person who does it well – granted, he also does R&B style stuff – but who I respect when he does adult songs for grown-up women is Phonte. I always respected that. But I just wanted to have a real banging song for women, basically.

TCUS: On a somewhat related note, Psalm One recently tweeted a suggestion that people should start calling male emcees “mancees.”

Soul Khan: I think that’s the funniest thing in the world; I think that’s amazing.

TCUS: What’s your opinion on the distinction of “femcee”?

Soul Khan: I don’t use that term. And I’m not a crusader about it to the point where I’ll be like “well, you’re shutting the cause back by using it,” because even if you could argue that that is the case, I think it’s not significant enough. But language does matter, and I feel like you don’t need to distinguish [between male and female emcees]. Like, why distinguish? My sister, she’s a really successful stage actor – she’s in a great play called Old Jews Telling Jokes, it’s blowing up off Broadway right now – and I said ‘actor’, because I don’t say actress. My sister told me – and I took this to heart when she told me this a number of years ago – “you wouldn’t say ‘lawyeress’ or ‘doctoress’, or something like that.” You wouldn’t differentiate based on gender, because it creates this bifurcation that inevitably leads to an unequal treatment. It just does. Or [it leads to] a different treatment, and not just giving people their due for their merits as a performer, or whatever function they serve in society. The gender distinction in language just doesn’t help, and one of the great things about English is that our language doesn’t have gender, usually. We don’t have that [distinction] like romance languages do. So if we could shy away from terms like ‘femcee’ – unless we start using terms like ‘mancee’, just to show the absurdity of it – you know, there’s no reason for it. And even then, it just doesn’t even enter in conversation.

I think people go too far to try to be inclusive of women in hip-hop in a patronizing way. It’s very important, when you’re talking about equality in the arts, and inclusion in the arts, it’s different from inclusion and equality in, like, a social policy, and economics, and equal pay, and stuff like that. Those are things that are very cut and dry, and it’s a policy thing. When you’re making public policy about things that pertain to the gender gap, that’s something that you legislate, and you should force it, because it’s how it should be under the law. If you’re talking about an earnest, genuine, respectful, and not patronizing effort at inclusion of people of all genders in an art form, it’s more delicate, because you don’t want to soften critical standards. I think it’s important to stress, if it’s patronizing, [and] it’s not giving it the same rigorous, critical treatment as you would [give] other art products by any person of any gender, then you’re not doing that person a service. You’re giving [them] that sort of extra shot, and it shouldn’t really enter in the conversation. You should be conscious, and make an active effort to make sure that good artists of all genders and all stripes are represented – that is important – but you have to do it in a careful, artistically and socially responsible way.

TCUS: To switch directions a little bit, I want to go back to something you said regarding why you don’t battle anymore. In a video you posted on YouTube, you said “no battle rapper who has a successful music career on the level that I want to achieve is an active battle rapper. That’s not me hating, that’s scientific fact.” Can you elaborate on this?

Soul Khan: Yeah. And when I say ‘level’, keep this in mind: I’m not even talking about money. I’m not even talking about, like, the number of YouTube followers, etcetera. There’s different branches of success you can have, and different types of acclaim you can earn. The type of music career I want, and the type of legacy and path I want to take, has not been taken by any active battle rappers right now – or even recent battle rappers, and by recent, I mean the sort of Grind Time, King of the Dot, Smack/URL period. I’m not saying it can’t happen, and I never said it couldn’t happen; I’m saying it hasn’t happened, and I base most of my actions on precedent. If I’m going to speculate about the future, it had better at least be informed by some good data, and there is none yet that tells me I should do anything differently. One of my old colleagues, Tsu Surf from Smack/URL, is actually going on tour with Joe Budden – another Jersey rapper – and that’s a really cool development. I wish the best for him, and I hope that goes somewhere, but that type of thing doesn’t happen very often. I’ve often argued though that that might be one of the only ways that battle rappers can go in that direction: if an established emcee really aggressively and actively puts them on in the music world.

TCUS: I put Iron Solomon in the same category as you, because he just had his debut album this year. I asked him this question, and I’d like to get your opinion on it too. Do you think there’s a misconception about the songwriting ability of battle rappers?

Soul Khan: I think my friend put it best: it’s not that battle rappers make bad music, it’s that everyone makes bad music. And it’s easier to be a battle rapper than it is to be a good musician, so you’re going to have an over-representation of bad musicians among battle rappers – not [even] an over-representation, it’s going to be representative of the same proportion of people who are good and bad rappers in society at large. Most people just suck at making music! Most people are not good at something [laughs]. It’s not a bad thing, it’s the nature of being a person, and having flaws and talents. I’m pretty terrible at football. Like, I’m horrible at football. I’ve never played football well; I just won’t, unless I am personally trained by someone. I’m also really bad at AP Chemistry – I might be able to try it again, but I don’t have a reason to. Similarly, most people are terrible at rap. For most people, rap is like what football and AP Chemistry were for me.

TCUS: Earlier this year, you spoke about your first commercial full-length album, and how it will be sample-free. What more can you say about the album?

Soul Khan: I can’t really say anything else yet! It’s in such a formative stage that anything I would say right now would be conjecture and subject to change pretty dramatically. If we check back further on in the year, I’ll definitely have more to say.

TCUS: And you’re working on that with J57?

Soul Khan: Yeah, he’s producing every single track, except for one. Even the track that he didn’t produce sounds pretty squarely in line with the other beats that J made.

TCUS: I’ve got one final question for you: what does music mean to you?

Soul Khan: Music means everything to me; I cannot get through a day without music. I require it for every difficult period in my life, [and] every happy period in my life. Silence is excruciating for me. I can stay quiet myself, but silence is what’s difficult to handle for me – and music is the best way to fill that void. It’s the most therapeutic cultural product for me. And I like making it for other people; I like when others enjoy my music. As I say every time I do an interview, I don’t make music for myself, I make it for others.

TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you’d like to say to the people out there?

Soul Khan: I’m glad to be on the show, and make sure you go to soulkhan.com and cop Psalm. It’s a heck of a project, and it’s gonna be nice to get back to doing albums again. And shout out to Brown Bag AllStars, as always – that’s the team, and that’s the army, if you will.

TCUS: Absolutely. Well, thank you very much for your time today, I really appreciate it, and best of luck to you in the future!

Soul Khan: No problem. Word up, thanks for having me, man.