Is the dancefloor a place to talk about race? The histories of House and Techno have been an evolving discussion about race and authenticity, but few tracks address it directly. Even fewer tracks address it as a question. Kevin Knapp (Leftroom / Gruuv) is bold enough to ask the question, “am I Black enough?”
Jack O’Shaughnessy has a few questions about “Black Enough”. And Knapp has a few answers.
Jack O’Shaughnessy: How did this project come about? Did you come up with the lyrics first and then approach Marc or did it happen another way?
Kevin Knapp: It was funny because at the time I was just beginning to work on tracks with artists who’d always inspired me like Audiojack, Matt Tolfrey and Inxec, and I was just concerned internally about whether I was giving the appropriate amount of “soul-induced” treatment to our collaborations. I believe I’d just finished recording [at Marc Kate's studio] the vox for “Like This”, a track I did with Audiojack, and Marc asked me to take a stab at a track he’d written. I still had a fair amount of energy and was feeling inspired so we just jumped right into it.
I’ve always had control of two different vernaculars, as it was necessary for me growing up. I went to very proper schools, and both of my folks are wordsmiths in their own right, so I have a passion for speaking and enunciating properly. But I am also big Kev the African American, aesthetically speaking, so when in certain environments growing up – at the barber shop, with my cousins and extended family, on the athletic field, etc. – I developed a more stereotypical way of speaking. As a result of my possession of these two dialects and my unique upbringing, I always wondered if my hood speech came off as disingenuous – thus giving rise to the internal inquiry you hear in “Black Enough.”
Marc and I had some discussions over the course of our working together, which we’d done for quite sometime, regarding my emergence as a soulful vocalist and my feelings about it. The interesting thing is that Marc and I initially had a difference of opinion as to whether the track should come out or not. I originally was reluctant to put this track out because I felt it was too sensitive of a subject matter to be heard on the dance floor, and I felt it was the wrong forum. Marc has a knack for bringing the best out of folks through encouraging them in the right ways so that their message can be heard. That was evident in his help and during the the process of bringing this track to life. The other pleasant thing about this process was my ability to trust Marc’s barometer on what would play or be interpreted appropriately, and what would not because I was somewhat apprehensive. I think we struck a nice balance with the project and the truth is, the project would not have seen the light of day if he’d not kept after me to speak my truth, so to speak. He’s a homie for that for sure.
Do you think there a premium placed on the perception of “blackness” in dance music?
A “premium on blackness”? Haha – this ain’t hip hop! Well shit, I suppose even that’s changing …
But part of your internal dialog that makes up your lyrics in “Black Enough” has to do with your own sense of authenticity. One of dance music’s criticisms is that it can lack soul, therefore do you see dance music looking towards “blackness” and “soul” as a means of achieving a sense of authenticity (the same as hip hop artists seeking to “keep it real”)?
I’ll start by saying, perhaps I’m in the minority, but I’ve always viewed dance music through a different lens than “soulful.” The way I always describe my sound or what resonates with me about the genre is how it’s headie on the top, and gangster and thumpy on the bottom. I grew up on a steady diet of classical, indie rock, and jazz (among other genres as well), so everything in the higher frequencies of dance music, melodically speaking, really reminds me of bits and pieces of those genres; it’s often dissonant, creating tension, and that feel of an itch one can’t scratch. But it will always be undeniable to me that the bass line, kick, and funk in the low end resonates with me because of my passion for underground hip hop. However, the marriage of those two concepts has never left me with the impression that dance music was soulful as a genre, in the ethnic cultural sense of the word. Of course, I understand the African-American vocalist has always been in heavy rotation on house records, but I did not come into this genre listening to that, I came into it listening to Lee Burridge, James Holden, and Sasha.
To answer the question in the second way I feel it can be interpreted is interesting to me because it involves a concept I did not understand until a couple of years ago. It used to be that someone would throw on a Janis Joplin or Cat Power record and start screaming from the mountain tops about how soulful they are. This used to confuse the hell out of me because I was like, “These [artists] are about as far away from R&B as you can get” – that comment obviously applies more to Cat Power than Janice, as the cadence and melodic structure Janice used was definitely blues and R&B-tinged, she just did not implement the vocal runs and pronunciation in the same way. What I realized through my confusion is that [the term] “soulful” has become analogous with anything that is heartfelt or speaks from the heart. The concept is more expansive than Anita Baker or Dionne Warwick. So, to answer your question through that lens, I don’t know that dance music looks to African-American-influenced tunes or the ethnic interpretation of soul music to give itself soul in an expansive sense. That being said, to the extent these influences are present in dance music, I feel like it does bear influence on it’s authenticity, just as any credible influence would.
Despite its roots in African-American culture, dance music has become the sound primarily for those of European descent (as well as Europeans themselves), what role, if any, does race play in the scene today?
Haha – I can see it was never your intent to discuss puppy dogs and rainbows – daaa-mmnn! Actually, I consider club culture to be a pretty good cross section of all kinds of folks. Electronic music crowds are generally a sanctuary for anyone who wishes to kick it, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or who they get down with physically speaking. I actually don’t think race really plays even a negligible role in our community, especially not in any negative way. It’s pretty damn close to ideal I’d say.
That being said, there is an obvious R&B slant to the tunes that peeps are pumping out at the moment, and I still think it’s fair to say that many of the R&B artists worldwide are of African descent. You can hear these kinds of sounds and melodies present in house tunes for sure. So I guess on some level one could say that a portion of African-American culture is even being celebrated to some extent, along with the myriad of other influences present in the house tunes I love, and it’s one of the major reasons I’m so in love with the genre.
What’s next on your agenda as a vocalist?
Well, I’ve got a couple of live shows that I am really looking forward to in the Fall. One for a local outfit called Sound, which I’ve been looking forward to for sometime now, and then another with them where I’ll be performing live with Matt Tolfrey. He’s just finished his debut album, Word of Mouth, and I feel blessed to have worked on four different tracks with him. It’s the biggest music project I’ve ever been a part of so I am super jazzed about it. I am also hoping to get over to play a few gigs with him at some of the bigger clubs in Europe later this year. I’ve also got a record coming out with Audiojack in the next couple of month called “These Days” that I’m really excited about. Burnski and I have also been working on a few ideas at the moment so I’m staying pretty busy.