Hip-Hop Legend Big Daddy Kane On The Music Biz, Brooklyn Gentrification And Trump

07/24/2016 07:18 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2016
© Ben Arnon 2016

Big Daddy Kane, who epitomizes Brooklyn rap music from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, recently performed in downtown Brooklyn’s Albee Square as part of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s 10th Anniversary Celebration.  During the past ten years, and beyond, there have been significant changes that have taken place across Brooklyn, and especially in downtown Brooklyn. Not only has the skyline changed dramatically, but the socio-economic dynamics of the area have shifted enormously. I was curious to hear Kane’s thoughts about Brooklyn as well as the music business so I interviewed him.

© Ben Arnon 2016

Ben Arnon (BA): We’ll begin with some music-related questions. Who are your favorite hip-hop artists of all-time?

Big Daddy Kane (BDK): That’s tough. I guess Melle Mel, Nas, Kool G Rap, and Public Enemy. Definitely Public Enemy.

BA: Who do you like on the music scene today?

BDK: I like Logic. I like Kendrick Lamar.

BA: Outside of hip-hop which other recording artists or bands have influenced and inspired you over the years?

BDK: Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Barry White.

BA: What’s the most memorable moment of your career thus far?

BDK: Probably Patti LaBelle cooking fried fish and collard greens for me the day I recorded my vocals for “Feels Like Another One” or Quincy Jones putting me on the phone with Ella Fitzgerald to rap my verse that I wrote about her on “Tribute to Birdland” and she didn’t understand anything I said.

BA: From 1988 to 1994 you released six albums, almost one per year. I think there was a one-year skip in there. According to your website, after 1994, you’ve only released one more studio album, in 1998. Why is that? Does it have to do with consumer tastes and trends changing? Is there something on the record label side that went down? Something else?

BDK: Well, the string of releases essentially ended after the first four albums. We did “Long Live the Kane” and I caught the bug.  I realized pretty much everything I did wrong with “Long Live the Kane” and went right back in and did “It’s a Big Daddy Thing,” because now I had a more universal approach. I think “Long Live The Kane” was pretty much a real boxed-in mindset with me just doing what I represented in the hood.

After the success of that, I was able to tour the world and see what was happening in other places, like Los Angeles and London.  I had a broader perspective and I was able to really paint it in “It’s a Big Daddy Thing.”

After that, I was unhappy with the label, so I dropped two trash albums to try to hurry up and finish up my 5-album deal so that’s why they were coming so fast after that. I was trying to hurry up and get out of the deal.  I guess Warner Brothers caught on after “Prince of Darkness” and they just stopped me and made me freeze for a year.

I was glad they did because at that point in time I started realizing that the streets were saying “Yo, they say you fell off. You whack.” I had time to really regroup and get all the right producers like Track Masters, Easy Mo Bee, Large Professor and really do a good Kane album.

After the album came out I think I messed it up. I don’t blame it on Warner Brothers. I don’t blame it on the producers, I think it was my fault. “Looks Like a Job For” I think is a great album production-wise and structure-wise. I think that it was me who made the mistake because I was spitting a lot of dope rhymes, but I didn’t realize that with artists like Method Man and Biggie and Nas, the flow had changed. Cats were behind the beat more, they weren’t that rapid-fire like I was accustomed to doing so I think my style was out-dated.

BA: If you had realized that at the time what kind of changes do you think you would have made?

BDKI’d have just really slowed down my flow. Basically how I rhyme now when people hear my new product. My flow has slowed down a lot. Times have changed with a new generation of rappers and I wasn’t aware of it. It was the type of thing where I’m rhyming and people are still, “Yo, he’s incredible, he’s dope.” People are loving my rhymes so I’m not realizing the difference with what new artists were doing.

BA: Do you think there was a golden age of hip-hop, or is it just always evolving and moving into new spaces?

BDK: I actually think there was a golden age of hip-hop. I would say from 1979 on up to probably 1993. The reason I would call that the golden age is because that was the era of MC’s, not artists.

It was the people that were doing it for their love of hip-hop. Their focus wasn’t really being the next Michael Jackson or next Prince or, if it’s a female rapper, next Madonna. Their focus was just being the dopest MC. It was more the passion for hip-hop and hoping to have that approval of your fan base. As opposed to years later where it became the type of thing where you’re doing it as an art form, where it’s cool to say other people write for you.

Today you have artists. You don’t have too many more MC’s.

© Ben Arnon 2016

 BA: Do you think you’ll release another studio album at some point?

BDK: I don’t know.

BA: Is it something you’re interested in?

BDK: Not at this time.

BAWhat are you most interested in at this point in your career? What are the goals that you set for yourself today?

BDK: I’m more focused on film, getting more into film and doing more acting. And I love doing features. Right now I’m featured on a few songs. I’m cool with that.

BA: I want to switch to some broader topics. When I met you recently, you had just performed at the Downtown Brooklyn 10th Anniversary Celebration. It’s a little ironic.  Obviously downtown Brooklyn, and the rest of Brooklyn, is not just ten years old.  But there’s been tremendous change in Brooklyn during the last ten years. Where you were performing recently there’s a whole new mall going up where Albee Square Mall used to be. Tell me about the changes in Brooklyn from your perspective.  Start with some memories you have of Brooklyn when you were growing up in Bed-Stuy.

BDK: Back when I was a little shorty, I remember seeing Tomahawks and Jolly Stompers, the gangs that were in Brooklyn. They used to come by with their Lee suits and Pro-Keds on. I remember seeing them. They’d come to downtown Brooklyn and you would move out the way.  You’d clear a path for them cats.

I remember how hip-hop was in the ‘70s. You had Master D, who calls himself DJ Lance now, Vandy C and all these cats. They would come out and they were cutting up the disco breaks.  In Brooklyn as soon as you threw on “Love is the Message” that was when the mic line formed. Everybody wanted to rhyme off of “Love is the Message.”

It seemed like everybody had pretty much the same rhyme. The one about “The two blind boys having a fight and the deaf policeman heard a noise” or “In the age of one, my life begun” rhyme. That’s what you heard.

Then I remember the ‘80s when sticking up people, snatching people’s chains and gazelles and boom boxes came into play. The drug dealers started getting popular and hip-hop was becoming real, real strong. 

Then traveling to different boroughs. You could tell where a cat was from by his sneakers. You see a dude in some shell toes, you knew he was from Queens. You see a dude in some Filas, you knew he was from Brooklyn. You see a dude in some Air Force Ones, you knew he was from Harlem. You see a dude in some Pumas, you knew he was from the Bronx.

BA: What about gentrification? There’s a lot of conversation about it. Bed-Stuy is right at the heart of it. If you go on AirBnB today, there’s probably 2,000 bed and breakfasts that are being leased out throughout Bed-Stuy.  People from all over the globe are discovering Bed-Stuy, whereas they might not have in the past. There’s also a lot of home ownership that’s turning hands and a lot of brownstones that were owned by multiple generations of black families are turning over to, in many cases, non-black residents now.  There’s a lot of conversation about gentrification.  Some people see it negatively and some see it positively.  What are your thoughts about it?

BDK: My view is that I would love to see people united and loving one another, working with one another, supporting one another. I think that’s a beautiful vision, so anybody trying to bring that about, I’m all for it. However, I would hate to see people pretending to unite people just for the sake of relocating them.

White people moving into Brooklyn, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think that’s fine and I think that’s beautiful, but to hear about certain black people whose rent is getting hiked up so high and they’re not able to get leases renewed. Now that I think is wrong.

BA: This next question is an even broader topic yet very relevant to the current events and climate of today. What are your thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement and other social movements taking place and what must be done to make sure that they lead to lasting, powerful change?

BDKI think that all lives matter. . .black, white, hispanic, Asian, whatever. I think that all lives matter, but I think that the reason we say Black Lives Matter is because, for some reason, it seems like there’s a lot of people in America that don’t realize that we want to be treated as equal as police treat a white person that gets pulled over.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have seen situations with certain black people resisting arrest. Not saying that’s a reason for killing someone, but I’m saying that I can see how something can escalate to that level. I’ve seen a lot of situations where black men are cooperating and still end up with a bullet in them. I totally understand, believe in, and support Black Lives Matter.

BA: Earlier I asked you about the most memorable experience you’ve had in your career.  What is the biggest challenge that you’ve ever faced, whether it’s in the music business or outside of the music business.

BDKI guess it was a little of both. It was inside the music business and outside the music business. I’d say it was dealing with life after getting jerked by my accountant. Having to figure out how to re-group and start everything all over again.

BA: What year was that?

BDK: Probably between 1997 and 2003.

BA: Was that type of scenario pretty common for a lot of your peers in the music business?

BDK: Absolutely.  And I must admit, there were people, like Rick James and several others, that sat down and talked to me about how this industry works and about protecting your money. Even Jalil from Whodini.

There were people that came to me and tried to educate me and I honestly thought I was doing the right thing because, in my mind, I was making the right investments and had the right people behind me.  But I just didn’t actually have the right people behind me.

BA: There are a lot of stories of recording artists from back in the day, especially R&B artists, getting swindled.  Artists who got paid with a Cadillac but they really deserved millions of dollars. Do you think with your generation and your peers, was it largely accountants and lawyers or was it also a lot of stuff that the record labels were doing? Perhaps shady record deals so that you never actually made net profits and there were all kinds of creative accounting tricks taking place?

BDKYou see, the shady deal that was going on with the record label was something that was fixed by the accountant. The shady record deal was corrected by the accountant, but then the accountant turned around and got me. This is a story that’s happened with many artists.

BA: Is there anything else that you think is important that we haven’t spoken about?

BDK: Yes, I would love to talk about this Trump thing. Here is what amazes me. There was a black man that once ran for president and he referred to New York as “Hymietown.” Because of that, it cost him many, many supporters and pretty much ended his campaign.

Now we have someone that constantly makes all these racist remarks and it strengthens his campaign. I’m worried about Donald Trump, but I’m more worried about what America will be with his supporters. 

It’s just amazing to me because basically what Trump has been doing is pulling the white sheets off.

© Ben Arnon 2016
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