words by Nate Patrin
photography by Peter Jamus
It's easy enough to say that Allan Kingdom has style. As a '90s baby who grew up under the era of the hip-hop auteur – emcees who emphasized their personal aesthetic in evolutionary ways, through fashion and internet presence as well as music and video – he's spent much of his young, yet long-building career putting together a complete package of self-expression. As a producer/emcee/fashion plate the Twin Cities resident has already carved out a spot that owes more to the fluid borders and far-reaching idea-fusion of internet culture than it does any Minnesota-rooted hip-hop precedent. But it's what that style says about him, what it means, that really stands out.
Born Allan Kyariga, the twenty-year-old artist has already put out a succession of EPs (including 2013's Talk to Strangers) that dig deep into issues of identity, reputation, and putting on a number of faces to a still skeptical public. The sound through which he filters those experiences should be loosely familiar and welcoming to fans of far-flung indie rap: his production style draws from cloud rap's synthesized haze and the liquid fog that permeates the air whenever the lines between digital hip-hop and futurist R&B start to melt away. And his voice – suffused with hiccupy tics and chatty flow, mixed in with a singing style that jumps from introspectively smooth murmurs to space-flight funk drawl puts him in the same league as artistic, brainy crowd-movers like Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver. With an upcoming debut full-length, recorded with the similarly adventurous Ryan Olson (Gayngs, Poliça), he seems ready to complete the process of finding out where he fits – and who he can connect to so they can fit with him."
Greenroom: So how'd you get started? What pulled you to music?
AK: "I started making music from the moment I can remember – I just started writing. I wasn't really introduced to hip-hop at an early age like most people in my generation. My mom is from East Africa, so I was just listening to a lot of African music, and a lot of mainstream R&B like Lionel Richie, Bob Marley and stuff. I always wrote poems and songs, I didn't really know what rapping was until about 4th or 5th grade, about 2002-ish. I just started writing it, but I didn't really know what to call it.
One way I got into hip-hop, this church, there was this dude there, his name was Martin and he was a musician and he played every instrument – drums, guitar, piano. And there was a studio above the church. I was like nine years old and I told him I wanted to rap, and he let me record there. I had a Christian rap CD when I was like nine. My mom made me cross out some of the words in my lyrics and put Christian words in there. That was my first recording experience. And ever since then I was into it. This was when I first moved to the Twin Cities."
GR: What was some of the first hip-hop you heard that really clicked with you?
"The first artist that really grabbed me was Andre 3000. That was like the first one I felt like I could relate to. And then Pharrell, Kanye West, Kid Cudi That was just like a succession of rappers I ended up relating to. A lot of the rappers I like aren't just rappers, the ones I see as idols are people that are just creators, and they happen to rap. Renaissance type dudes. I never really realized it, but back then, when I heard them, I just knew that they rapped. But the more I learned about them, the more I realized they were multidimensional people."
GR: They had their fashion style and visual aesthetic...
AK: "Yeah, they had it all down. And it was all a part of the reason I liked them, too. I just think visually, especially in this age and this generation, it's part of being an artist. I feel like a lot of people talk about how things are shallow now because you have to be incorporating visuals, you have to have style. But I feel like it just pushes you to be an overall better person. The 21st century, everything that's happening now with technology, people want to see and hear everything. It just pushes you to be on point all the time rather than, in the '70s or '60s, where the singer would just have to go to the studio and just sing and then leave. And that was their only job. The only pictures people saw of them were when they had photo-shoots and put up posters around town. These days it just pushes you to be a better person, just to make sure you're on your Ps and Qs all the time and I really like that. I think it's harder in a way, but that makes it cooler."
GR: How did you go from writing to the production side of things? Was that part of wanting to hold down all the different aspects of being a musician?
AK: "Yeah, everything that I did came out of necessity, of not having things. I started producing and playing with loops early on. Like, eight or nine, in Reason and Sonar [production software], and just putting stuff together. So I knew generally how recording worked at a really early age. I've had a long time to get my process down, which is a really cool thing to have. A lot of people, if they choose to start when they're 16 or 17 it's only two years of experience by the time they're 19. 'Cause I'm 19 now. But being exposed to it, I just put myself in positions from an early age where I'd always be around it, 'cause I knew that's always what I wanted to do. I've been around music for ten-plus years. Nobody in my family did music or anything, it was just choices that I made, schools that I chose to go to. I could surround myself with it and always be around it.
I went to this school called Creative Arts [a high school in St. Paul], and met my main creative partner, Sergio – he goes by Checho. He was making my beats for me at that point, and then he stopped, he didn't want to do that anymore. So, all right, I'm not gonna pull beats off the internet 'cause it's corny, I'm just gonna learn how to do it. I just taught myself how, there was a production class there, which is the reason I went. Booka B, he was my production teacher. When I first started learning ProTools, he was the one who taught me the basics. That was the basis of everything, and he let us use the studio in the school and the equipment, and we'd just stay after school and just learn stuff."
GR: Did you start working with the video and visual aspects around the same time, or a little later?
AK: "That was a little later, that was around when I was 15 or 16. I always knew that I had to get my content out a certain way, I knew I couldn't just make songs and just drop 'em. When I was in high school I used to make mixtapes, print it at a corner store, then pass them out to people I knew that I went to school with. I knew I had to get it out – it wasn't as good, but they know who I am, so it worked. After that, I got into the internet more – I wasn't going to do any shows yet so I needed to let people know who I was. I was creating this sound, and I knew I couldn't just jump in front of a crowd and present a sound to them with no context. I feel like people had to grow on it. And I wanted to show them how I thought. Checho was really into videos, that's what he did in high school. He kinda went that way, and I leaned more towards production, and so we started shooting videos together. I started putting out a lot of videos, just got into it, it became another way to express myself."
GR: One thing I noticed, fashion-wise, your sense of style – I've heard it described as the “Northern Gentleman” look...
"Well, we were going over a concept for a photo-shoot [for Greenroom], and I was just thinking about the best words to describe what I was trying to portray, what's going around stylistically in this region. But I also wanted to make it relevant to who I am, where I've grown up. I've always lived up North – Winnipeg, then Wisconsin, then I moved here, so I've always been around it. I feel like this style up here is nice, and I just want to incorporate it with other things that're relevant. I'm really into the Northern Gentleman look, I've never heard it be described as that, but I really like that.
I feel like as a '90s baby, a lot of the things that've influenced me have been from the internet, even other places in the world, culturally. My father's from South Africa -- I don't stay with him, it's just been me and my mom, but it's being exposed to different cultures. And taking these things from the environment here that I really like. I'll look at the trees, or certain colors or certain architecture, just the way the city's built, that inspires me to look a certain way. It's almost like I want to blend in with my environment, but it almost makes you stick out more. If I were walking through this path in the forest, how would I look the most natural?"
GR: And I know that listening to Talk to Strangers that there are some aspects of self-reflection, thinking about identity, drawing in all these different influences as a means to build your self-expression. What's the most important thing that you want to say with that sort of outward aesthetic?
With my aesthetic in general, I don't know what I'm gonna dress like next month. I know what direction I'm gonna go, I have certain ideas that I think I wanna portray within my wardrobe. Sometimes I have a character for myself, sometimes I think in five years I'm gonna look like this when I have the fabric and the materials and the resources to produce it. And then I end up doing it. But then other times, I don't know what I'm gonna look like two months from now. Right now that's just one thing I'm just basing my wardrobe off, it describes me and the region I'm from, my influences – I think for now it's cool, but I'm always looking to evolve.