This is a guest post from D’Andre, our Musical Ear.
East Oakland native, Harris the Know it All has had been buzzing in the Bay Area music scene for quite some time. He has performed at SXSW’s Audible Treats showcase, and his well received album Weekend Rapstar not only displayed his lyrical and vocal skills, but also put his innovative production on display.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Harris the Know it All to discuss the state of Bay Area music, “Town Techno”, and using music as a tool to express disdain with current public policy.
Many Bay Area rap fans feel like the Bay Area has yet to receive proper recognition in regards to the region’s contribution to hip-hop culture . While artists like Too $hort, E-40, and Mac Dre have represented the Bay on a national stage, there are still a number of Bay Area artists from the 90’s and 00’s that should have received national exposure, but for a variety of reasons were unable to breakthrough with hip-hop fans across the country.
Currently, the state of Bay Area hip-hop is in a good place. Artists such as Nef The Pharaoh, Iamsu!, and G-Eazy have been able to develop a devoted Bay Area fan base and simultaneously generate a following outside of California. With the success of a cadre of Bay Area artists, hip-hop fans from across the country are looking to find other Bay Area talent that could make waves nationally. Harris The Know It All is definitely that artist.
DB: One of my favorite songs of yours is Town Biz. I’ve always loved that heavy bass Oakland artists have used over the years. What was your inspiration in making that song?
Its actually kind of funny because I don’t do a lot of music with the Bay sound, which being from East Oakland is pretty rare. I would say that with the majority of artists from this region I usually kind of hear that sound in their music. I’ve had so many different musical influences, and they kind of bare themselves in the music that I do, so I’ve never really had a distinct Bay Area sound. So for this song I wanted to do something with a distinct Bay Area sound. I just wanted to pay homage and do a little ode to where I’m from and the experiences growing up and being from Oakland. Even with the little Keak Da Sneak sample at the end, it’s kind of a little shout out to one of the cats that’s been holding it down for the Town for a minute.
DB: You describe your music as “Town Techno”, that’s an interesting name. How did you come up with that sound?
Well, I kind of came up with the sound, but I did not come up with the name. I guy by the name of TK Other Realm came up with that name. Before I went solo I was in a group by the name of League 510. We had a little success, we had a video that came on MTV when they came out here for My Block the Bay. We did a little tour and built a little fanbase. It didn’t end up working out and we all went solo. But that sound was born there, the League 510 sound was kind of a Town/Bay Area/Pop/Techno/Electro fusion mix. That’s mostly just having so many other influences, we wanted to bring in all these other types of sounds we were diggin, but still have some slap to it. So as a producer I definitely still kind of have a lot stuff that vibes in between those genres.
DB: You’re known for your rhyming and singing skills, but you are also a phenomenal producer. How is your approach to making beats similar or different from crafting your lyrics?
There are a lot of similarities, I’m a very visual person. I think I draw a lot inspiration from things that I see, and also I’m very influenced by sound. I think Inspiration for me kind of comes from an array of places. I might hear a sample randomly at work that I hear playing on the radio station, and I might decide to flip that sample or take that core progression and do something with that. It kind of comes from all over the place. I never really start anything formulaically, it’s kind of whatever comes to me first. Even when I write songs, the first thing I write down might not be the hook or the verse, it might end as something I use in the line of a bridge or something. So it kind of comes together as the ideas flow out, and I find places for them and I think that’s very similar for when I’m writing or producing. I try not to be formulaic, I like to just let it flow on both ends.
DB: I recently went out on a Saturday night in Oakland, and I almost went crazy when I realized I was the only black person in the venue. As an Oakland native, how do you feel the city has changed?
Wooooh. A lot man. A lot. I recently turned 30 years old, I turned 30 years old in February. So I’ve done 30 years here in Oakland. The culture, the people, a lot has changed, some for the good, I don’t want to say some for the worst, but some for the not so good. I feel like my biggest thing is that a lot of the positive changes that are happening, and the things that are making Oakland a better place,the people who deserve to reap the benefits of all that aren’t here. The natives who were here through the hard times, who always kind of rallied for that changed, who tried to implement that change, but were removed through gentrification or through whatever other method, a lot of them aren’t here to see the changes for the better.
That being said I do kind of find myself on the fence, as someone who has been lucky enough to stick around, that I do get to go out and enjoy those things. Sometimes I have to take a step back, and say, wow, I’m not really sure some if some of these things would be possible without some of the gentrification that’s gone on here.
That’s a really interesting subject, but it’s changed a lot. I would say some things, we still got a long way to go, trying to get the crime rate down and do a few more things in the community. I kind of feel like it’s slowly progressing. I don’t feel as threatened, this might be coupled with being a youngster, and thinking about when I was a teenager, but what I definitely don’t feel now when I travel around Oakland is the threat I once felt as a youngster. The Town used to feel a little more dangerous to be honest. Even with all of the progression they are having downtown, which they call Uptown now, back in the day you didn’t really want to be down there at night. Now there’s a real nightlife. It is definitely a trip to behold, but that’s the kind of progression you want to see in your city, but a lot of that is because they had to remove the people that they felt were the source of those issue originally. It’s kind of a cyclical thing, where I’m like yea we want change, we want growth in the community, we want things to be better, we want to feel safe in our communities and go out at night and have a good time, and know that we can be more neighborly, but it seems like one of the methods they have tried to implement that is through gentrification.
DB: On your track Blackout, you talk about a variety of things, but I noticed your emotion got pretty intense when discussing President Obama and police brutality. As Obama’s presidency comes to a close, do you think a stain on his time in office will be how he addressed the high rates of police brutality in African-American communities?
Only by the people who are very conscious of it. I don’t think as a whole America views it as an issue still. Even after after all the examples of it, I still don’t think it’s right there on the forefront of the issues that America wants to deal with right now, which is part of me getting riled up. To have a black president and have that not be one of the forefront issues, that kind of got to me a little bit. I’m definitely not an Obama hater. He’s done some good things. The older i’ve gotten the further I’ve actually gotten away from politics, no matter who the president is we are going to be bombing other countries, and there’s going to be a lot of foul shit still happening. You get kind of detached, I kind of find myself there at that point. The song really wasn’t a “I hate Obama” thing. I definitely realize I’m reaping the benefits of Obamacare now, he’s definitely done some good things for us. But to me I felt like the violence against African-Americans by American police forces across the nation is at an epidemic rate For a while we were hearing about some shit weekly. It was just like, how is this not being brought up and talked about and attacked by our black president? That just kind of got to me.
DB: As an East Oakland native, do you feel like you have a responsibility to incorporate social justice topics into your music?
Yes, I do feel that responsibility. Something I’ve kind of quarreled over the years with being an artist, is that the the world is so vast, there’s so many topics to talk about, there’s so much music to make. I don’t have to do that, I don’t have to keep that as a message in my music. But me personally, how i feel about it as an artist, I have to keep that message in my music. Not that it has to be in every single song, but best believe in every three to four songs that I put out, at least one of them will be bringing up some social justice issues. That’s what compels me, that’s what makes me pick up the mic. The power that I always felt that the mic gave you to voice certain opinions and affect change. I still kind of feel like we really didn’t get the chance to see the type of change we could’ve got from Tupac, or from some of are more revolutionary thinking artist if they were able to continue on with that message. So that’s definitely something that keeps me at it and drives me. As I do get older I definitely start to consider what am I doing this for. That’s what keeping me going, knowing that eventually my message is going to reach people when I put it out, that’s what really keeps me going.
DB: When can we expect more music from you?
I am about midway through working on an album it’s called StarGazzer, it’s about nine tracks. This has been an idea I’ve been playing with for a while, even going back to the League 510 days, we kind of had this alien theme. Talking about how we did feel like we were aliens in our own town, because we didn’t necessarily identify with what seemed to the dominant mindstate of the Town and East Oakland, you know predominantly “cuttin up” for the most part. We were kind of good kids, kind of the more creative types, so we did feel kind of weird or alienated because of the type of things we were into, and the type of music we were listening to wasn’t necessarily in line with what you were “supposed” to be doing if you were doing from the Town. So that’s kind of where this whole alien theme was born, and I’ve kind of kept going through my career as I went solo. So this tape is about me using outer space as a scapism to kind of deal with the harshness of growing up in East Oakland. It’s kind of about me being a space traveling superhero dealing with the issues that arise in the Town. It’s a very creative endeavor, I want to challenge myself a little bit more, and I feel like this is a good way to do it.
When is the next time we can catch one of your performances?
I don’t have anything booked right now, I definitely want to get to the Monday night open mic at Somar in Oakland. That’s going to be where I try out a lot of the material that I’m working on. Hopefully when I put some new music out, I’ll start booking some venues but you’ll definitely catch me at Somar at the open mics.