Ka’s Path to Hip-Hop Greatness


Over the last four years, the Brooklyn-based Ka has been quietly blessing those in the know with a steady stream of some of the most essential hip-hop coming out of the city today. But this is just the latest chapter in a two-decade-plus career, and despite ascending to a position somewhere between cult artist and critic’s darling, he exists firmly away from the mainstream spotlight. The low-key position suits him, and he embraces his role as a fortysomething rapper with a day job at the FDNY.

He’s releasing his latest project,  Honor Killed the Samurai, on August 13, and distributing it personally outside the former location of Other Music from 2–4 p.m. that day (it will also be available to buy online). Before you buy direct from the master himself, here’s a chronological guide to his path to greatness.

Natural Elements, “I Mean This” (1994)
After appearing at open mic nights around the city as part of the independent hip-hop scene of the mid Nineties, Ka formed ties with the Natural Elements collective. Guesting on the group’s self-titled debut EP, his smooth but husky flow perfectly rides the rugged and dusty “I Mean This,” complete with a lyrical grab from Guru forming the hook. Ka left the group before they snagged a deal with Tommy Boy, although he also notched an appearance on Natural Elements’ contribution to the first Lyricist Louge compilation, in 1998.

Nightbreed, “2 Roads Out the Ghetto” (1998)

For this record, released on the same Fortress Entertainment label as the Natural Elements EP, Ka joined forces with the rapper Kev to record as Nightbreed. The group’s sole release has just three tracks (all produced by Charlemagne), and the melancholic “2 Roads Out the Ghetto,” where the two MCs drop emotional and introspective verses about overcoming a situation stacked against them, is the choice pick. These days, don’t expect to scoop up the vinyl for much less than a hundred bucks.

Ka, “Iron Work” (2008)

After nearly a decade away from hip-hop, during which he settled down into civilian life, Ka picked up the pen again and began writing what would become his debut full-length album. The self-released Iron Works recast him as a rapper capable of penning street scriptures from a mature and worldly point of view. Over taut production that veers toward the eerie noirish side, he tackled subjects like police brutality (“Mr. Officer”), the fleeting nature of young life in low-income environments (“Sunday to Sunday”), and the dynamics of the hustle (“247365”).

GZA feat. Ka, “Firehouse” (2008)
According to hip-hop lore, a CD of Ka’s Iron Works found its way to the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, who then invited Ka to guest on his Pro Tools album. Over late-Sixties-soul-sampling production by Roc Marciano (who’d soon become a regular Ka collaborator), the gravel-voiced rapper begins by talking about how he’s going to “rep for every block that I ever lived on — Hull Street, Lafayette, Decatur Street,” before he reflects on his days subsisting “amongst the slime and the crime” of Bed-Stuy and Brownsville. Paying homage to the Wu, the “block scholastic” MC also drops references to Ghostface and Ol’ Dirty Bastard in a later verse.

Ka, “No Downtime” (2012)
After another four-year break, Ka dropped Grief Pedigree, the album that might be his opus. “No Downtime” opens with him declaring, “I admit, not from an environment to let a child flourish/In the streets, slim physique, wild courage.” He skillfully sketches his formative years against a turbulent backdrop whose chaos is mirrored in his rhymes: “I go back when City was really thug/Cops loco, choke holds, billy clubs.” While “No Downtime” is hooked around a sweet Seventies soul sample, much of the rest of the self-produced album plays out against stripped-down, off-kilter, and frosty atmospheres — a blend that signaled Ka’s sophistication, and his status as a rapper of choice for hip-hop connoisseurs.

Ka, “Our Father” (2013)

The following year gave us another classic KA album. Sonically and thematically, 2013’s The Night’s Gambit picks up where Grief Pedigree left off. The project’s first single, “Our Father,” resonates like an avant-garde incantation, with KA’s preacher-esque voice balancing religious and street-life slang and imagery over production moved along by metronomic wood blocks.

Ka, “To Hull and Back” (2014)

Relinquishing production duties to DJ Preservation (Mos Def’s tour DJ), the 1200 BC EP indicated a new direction. Included is another team-up with Roc Marciano, “Fall of the Bronze,” that fades out mid-verse after less than two minutes — another teaser for the long-rumored Metal Clergy project the duo is rumored to be crafting. Most powerful of all is “To Hull and Back,” where, over melancholic strings, Ka gets as introspective as he’s ever been: “You named them hustlers, killers, fiends, ex-cons/I called them cousins, aunts, pops, moms/To you, hoodlum, crackhead, gun mens/To me, just neighbors, classmates, young friends.”

Dr. Len Yo, “Day 0” (2015)
Forget the major-label releases that dominated much of 2015’s hip-hop coverage — Ka and Preservation’s Days With Dr. Len Yo project was eons ahead of any other rap release that year. (As Earl Sweatshirt put it, “No questions asked, if you don’t know now you know.”) Broadly inspired by The Manchurian Candidate, Ka alludes to mind control and political machinations over Preservation’s production, which often eschews the tradition of sampled drum loops in favor of hazy, twisted atmospherics. (Connecting the dots to Ka’s breakthrough with GZA, the album is mixed by Scotty Hard, who worked similar engineering magic on tracks from Wu-Tang Forever.) Days With Dr. Len Yo is a heavy listen at first — but with time it unfurls as a master class in the art of rap writing.

Ka, “30 Keys” (2016)
Billed as “The Superfly Single,” this svelte two-track project, which Ka dropped this year, won’t be appearing on Honor Killed the Samurai, and the blaxploitation-themed “30 Keys” is the lead song. Set to ethereal piano-based production cooked up by Roc Marcy, Ka coins another rhyme for the ages as he laments, “With flaming aim, became the best in the gutter-field/From the ‘Ville, but I wish I had another skill.”