Twenty-five years ago, Melle Mel put South Bronx's "jungle" on blast, pointing to blighted buildings, streets lined with broken glass pipes and burned out, depressed people. Melle Mel wasn't glorifying this side of the Big Apple, though. It appeared rotten, so viewers got "The Message."
Current videos' aerial perspective of the 'hood bypasses blight and focuses on a happy, 'hood-rich lifestyle that lives in directors' imaginations. But Lincoln Heights native Kool Ken challenges listeners to face the music with his conscious single and video, "How Many More," where he addresses the streets' staggering mortality rate due to drug-related violence. In both, he plaintively asks, "How many more have to die?"
In the video, Ken is a community watchdog speaking on behalf of fed-up youth and residents. Ken says he's isn't afraid to stand against negative and misleading messages aimed at younger listeners by juxtaposing truth, and suggests that his contemporaries do the same.
"Quit telling them it's cool to get an easy buck, it's cool to sell drugs," Ken explains. "They're trying to say, 'It's entertainment,' but what they fail to realize is that media is raising our children.
Families aren't. You got these kids out here emulating what they hear and see in videos and it's a lie."
Owning a modest home and car, he isn't hungry to become a millionaire; coaching track and wrestling and writing for his indie label, Zone 15 Produkktionz, satisfy him.
"My goal is to reach 1 percent of the world," Ken says, smiling. "That's all I want; if I can reach that many, then I've made a difference."
After learning first-hand how the music industry hustles starving artists, Ken believes hustling to land a deal with a major label is bunk. Ten years ago, while living and networking in Atlanta's progressive music scene, Ken sold a track for $10,000 hoping to get a foot in the door. But he soon regretted his decision once the song charted for another artist and he never saw a dime of royalties.
"That was one of the worst mistakes I ever made in my life," he says. "I was poor and trying to eat, and I get $10,000, so I'm like 'Yeah, I sold a track!' "
Ken quickly saw his fattened pockets didn't hold his songs' true value, and he realized his independence meant autonomy.
"I wanted (to own) my publishing," Ken explains. "I shouldn't have to go get a business loan, and a record deal is a business loan."
Affable and unassuming, he's an anomaly in today's configuration of rappers, where the tear-the-club-up image prevails. Because many associate his genre with negativity, Ken feels he has to make an excuse for Hip Hop when he tells people it's what he does.
"That's the only thing that's portrayed," Ken explains. "There's many, many positive artists out there. I'm not the only one."
For Ken, making music he's proud of is paramount. Eclectic and catchy, he describes his sound as Hip Hop with a bit of Neo Soul that flaunts his inner-musician side. As he abstains from profanity, his jagged edge would be his Rock influence.
"I just wanted to do music where kids didn't have to feel bad about listening to it in front of their parents," he says.
Dubbed "Kool Ken" as a boy, Ken says he never propagated negativity. But after larger-than-life griots like 2Pac and Biggie died, Ken realized it was time to become vocal, as urban music became increasingly vulgar and debasing.
"I just felt there was no balance in today's music," Ken says. "At least 2Pac, even though he had some negative songs, he still had some powerful stories."
Ken points out that today's "gangsta" perpetuates apathy and ignorance, while many earlier rappers were more or less activists. Whether media widens its kaleidoscope to showcase conscious artists like Ken remains to be seen. Ken says he feels artists and media are equally accountable, but until both sides reach a united front, he's concentrating on making what little noise he can alone.
For more on KOOL KEN, go to koolken.com.