Montreal-based artist talks about what makes a good MC and compares beats to "bears" and "twinks."
Montreal-based hip-hop artist Sikh Knowledge is an anomaly in a number of ways. He is the ultimate hip-hop all-rounder, working as a producer, MC, and DJ. He draws influences from outside the genre, threading bhangra, Punjabi folk, reggae, and electro into his diverse sound. He has a day job as a speech language pathologist, and he is, as far as anyone knows, the world’s only openly gay Sikh producer and rapper. He’ll be making his Toronto Pride debut this weekend, playing two free shows on Saturday. He took a minute before heading down to Toronto to talk about everything from how his sexuality influences his sound to what he looks for in an MC. Read the edited and condensed interview after the jump.
You’re a producer/DJ/MC; which one of those things came first?
Producer, for sure. It started at the temple, growing up. I was just kind of thrown into performing and making music, then I started producing reggae and hip-hop early on in high school, when I was about 14. I started rapping shortly after I started producing. I started rhyming when I was 17 or 18.
You’re an out gay Sikh hip-hop artist. Those things don’t usually go together. What’s the response been to your sexuality from both the Sikh community and the hip-hop community?
The Sikh community shows me 80 per cent love, 10 per cent hate, and 10 per cent just questioning and agnosticism. I think people within the community are still kind of afraid to address it. If I go to the temple, kids will say “Oh, you’re Sikh Knowledge, that’s so cool. What are you working on next?” rather than coming at me with some kind of homophobic slur. And I do have a professional life outside of music as well… I’m a speech language pathologist, so that kind of trumps the opinions of our elders. If you’re a working professional, that makes you immune to a lot of crap from them.
In the hip-hop community, it’s good. I don’t come with being gay as the first thing on my resume, you know? [MCs] hear something you’ve done, they like it, and they reach out. If someone has a problem with me being gay, I’d never know about it, because they would never reach out to me in the first place. I get nothing but love from my Montreal colleagues.
Who are your favourite MCs to work with?
What makes an MC a good MC to work with?
Someone who’s an instrument in themselves. When I receive the a capella, there’s no jazzing up that needs to be done, in content or in style. There’s very little that needs to be added or devices that need to be used to make them interesting. Humble the Poet has the illest content in the world for me, I love what he rhymes about, and his flow is good, too. Shogun is ultra-creative and has the most amazing flow ever. They can just give me a capellas and I work around that. I don’t even have to be in studio with those guys.
Have you ever turned down an MC because you weren’t feeling them?
For sure. I’ve turned down remix opportunities because of that. It just ends up being that usual content, or stylistically the status quo. That doesn’t mesh well with me. I like clever and intelligent design. I think it’s interesting hearing beats from a gay producer, because it’s a different take on something that’s inherently macho. When lyrics come off to me as too heteronormative and kind of the usual crap, tough guy-ness just doesn’t fly with me, unless it’s done in the spirit of being funny, or speaking out on something in a very real way. But I’ve passed up opportunities to remix those sorts of things.
So, are you saying your sexuality influences the way you make beats?
Yeah, absolutely. The way I progressed as a producer, when I started, the more rugged it sounded the more I loved it. It was like the bears of hip-hop beats. But then I started to appreciate that people just want to smile and dance, but I still couldn’t get with the twinks of music, which is super electro, 130-beats-per-minute, trance-y kind of shit… So for me, the question is how can I keep it grassroots and bear-ish, and still leave room for conventional beauty that people can appreciate? That’s why I love J. Dilla and I also love Diplo, even though they’re miles apart. Diplo just gets people to move, and Dilla had a flair to make people think and appreciate the beauty behind what he did.
My sexuality does influence the way I make beats, because I have this huge desire to communicate beauty the way I see it. In many professions, that’s what gay people do. If I can get a little philosophical here, it’s nice to think that gay people bring beauty to the world, and that can be a function. Statistically, gay people find themselves in design, in professions where aesthetics are important. I’d like to think my sexuality influences the aesthetic of the beats.
What are you most looking forward to about playing Pride?
Being outdoors in front of a crowd, being myself on stage, introducing that audience to a homosexual guy who’s not what media portrays gay people to be. I have a beard, I’m not white and I love hip-hop and reggae, and I rhyme. That’s not what the world is used to, and that should change.