Letâ€™s be honest, the concept of committing representations of hip-hop culture to celluloid hasnâ€™t always panned out. For every Juice and 8 Mile, you have a Carmen: A Hip-Hopera, and alluring as Mrs. Carter is, well – you can polish doodoo but that doesnâ€™t make it gold. Strange, seeing as rap is definitely one of the most inventive art forms there is. Even the recent Notorious biopic, while offering a pretty faithful recollection of the life of Christopher Wallace, didnâ€™t place his story properly in the context of New Yorkâ€™s music scene in the mid 90â€™s.
By chance, fate or design, The City Of Godâ€™s Son was released the same week as Frank Whiteâ€˜s story hit multiplex screens. The project is the result of a collaboration between video artist and director Kenzo Digital, salsa legend Joe Bataan and Oscar nominee Victor Quinaz. The City of Godâ€™s Son adds a new spin to the words of some of New Yorkâ€™s most storied lyricists, weaving in dialogue by Samuel L. Jackson, Delroy Lindo, Laurence Fishburne and Al Pacino.
The story follows four friends named Nas, Jay, Ghost and Biggie as they grow up in an unnamed urban sprawl, encountering various pitfalls and triumphs along the way. COGS harks back to an era before high speed broadband cable had stretched its fibre-optic tentacles around the world. When the radio was pretty much the only way to hear the new joints that were being released. The good old days at The Tunnel where rappers who talked tough on wax were regularly relieved of their shine. It was a time of unbridled genius, when classics were not defined by Billboard standings, but rather their artistic integrity.
Vintage verses detailing the glamour and the grit of the New York underworld circa 1995, have been re-contextualized, forming part of an intriguing and labyrinthine plot. Beats courtesy of Digital also help draw the listener into this audio movie (watch out for the monstrous reworking of Carly Simonâ€™s 80â€™s classic â€˜Whyâ€™). With Part 1 of the saga available for download and big plans for the project coming to fruition this summer, Kenzo took some time out to break down the philosophies behind COGS and where he plans to take his project (and the art form) next.
Format: What are your earliest memories of hip-hop culture?
Kenzo Digital: The first record I heard was Run DMC “Sucka MC’s”, and the first tape I bought was either that Run DMC album or Kid N Play’s first joint. When I was a kid I was really into a lot of different stuff, skater culture, hardcore music like Fugazi and Black Flag, and always hip hop. Then when ’91 or ’92 rolled around I was fully into graffiti and hip hop kind of took over my whole life, that whole 90’s NY sound created by RZA, Premier, Pete Rock, Diamond D amongst others just turned into the perfect soundtrack to what my life was about at that time.
Format: What drew you to the 1990’s in particular when you were looking for source material?
Kenzo Digital: The 90’s were the most potent cultural years in my lifetime, so I’ve always gravitated towards that music and that style aesthetically. I am a big fan of Dre and Snoop, Outkast, Pharcyde, UGK and Eightball, but found that I was really into the darker and more traditionally soulful sound that was 90’s NY hip hop. I was a deejay for a while too, and had this mixtape series called “Beasts from the East” that featured predominantly NY artists. The one thing I loved about 90’s hip hop in NY and being a deejay was the sheer amount of b sides, remixes, and just alternate cut versions of songs that were out there. That amount of output just seemingly no longer exists. You could put entire albums of the amount of rare and unreleased Mobb Deep or Wu Tang or Bootcamp joints that were just out there at the time. After Napster those records were easily accessible, so this project is bringing back some of that element of exploration and surprise.
Format: During the era this project harks back to, there were a plethora of extremely talented MC’s. What made you choose Nas, Biggie, Jay and Ghost for The City Of God Son?
Kenzo Digital: I wanted to really connect the mythical world of film characters and rapper personas, and tie them in through story telling and visceral word play as much as possible. To me, those particular rappers really respectively represent a different style of story telling that I felt best represented the characters I was trying to create. Each with their own distinctive style, and all within kind of the same generational aesthetic and general subject matter so the overall styles complemented each other. Plus, and perhaps most importantly those are a good chunk of my favorite rappers period, in addition to Kool G Rap, KRS, Slick Rick, Kane, GZA, Rakim, and Grand Puba to name a few. While not a rapper, I also chose Joe Bataan because I wanted to flip the concept of sampling. Joe is a heavily sampled artist, and I wanted to create kind of an alternate universe where instead of Nas rapping over a Joe Bataan sample, you had Joe telling a similar tale of street survival over remixed/recontextualized Nas record that ties in history to the present, and myth/fiction to actual cultural history. This is my way of paying homage to these artists that inspired me in multiple genres of music and film, and the predecessors of this kind of long form musical narrative like Prince Paul’s “Prince Among Thieves” and The Last Poets “Hustlers Convention”, in addition to more avant-garde sound artists like John Cage.
Format: How long was the process of finding all of the vocal samples you used for the project?
Kenzo Digital: A looooong time. Painful process, I have nightmares of the amount of sheer organization and transcribing that went into that. A lot of trial and error.
Format: It would have been much more of a challenge to pull this sort of project off ten years ago – How important has the internet and 21st Century technology in general been to you in spreading the word about City Of God’s Son?
Kenzo Digital: Absolutely, and in this day and age where it seems that the traditional avenues of distribution seem to be fighting against technology culture, I wanted to create something that was made specifically for this kind of distribution and marketing and was available for free to the masses as more of a cultural statement. I hate hearing all this industry jargon about spins and Soundscans from consumers who actually have bought into the industry hype so much so that sales and marketing dollars actually play a role in whether an artist is listened to or respected. Here is a free project where the measure of its success has absolutely nothing to do with money, and is more about forcing a cultural push to expand the audience’s palette for more effective and honest story telling.
In 2009 hip hop cultural is so commercialised that it feels like every artist with exception to a few, are just artists for money. Not to downplay the importance of business and financial security, I absolutely respect that, and am a victim to that in my own right. But just like the intro to Nas’s “Illlmatic”, where he says “I’d be doing this with or without a record deal”, I wanted to tap back into that uncompromised raw inspiration and motivation, and tip my hat to those artists that inspired me for those formative years of my life. This was made for no other reason than to please me, and other like minded people who have a thirst for something new. It’s my way of paying respects to the architects of the culture, and my attempt at redefining remix culture to a whole new level. Also, as far as the music industry is concerned, there is a very big ongoing debate over the internet’s effect on the industry.
Kids nowadays because of the digital music trade, no longer have a connection to the ceremony that is waiting in line for an album to drop, buying that album, looking at the cover art, collecting that tape or CD, the communal experience that is the album’s first listen, and having some kind of sentimental attachment to the actual object; whether that be your pristine copy of Eric B And Rakim’s “Paid in Full” that no one can touch or your designated CD for rolling a spliff on. So here I am creating something that is musically driven and freely sharable, but the real experience is the installation, and that is how the communal appreciation, and expansion of the project can be experienced in its intended form. That of course being fairly limited and exclusive due to seating restrictions unfortunately.
Format: Have you had any feedback from any of the artists/actors whose voices you’ve used?
Kenzo Digital: No not yet, and I’d love to hear what all of the talent in the project would think. I’m sure those guys are really busy but I would hope that they would listen to it in the proper fashion (at night, on headphones, no distractions, zone out etc) to get the full impact. I would love to hear what they think, and i would love to work with them.
Format: You also produce music videos. Who have you worked with in that field?
Kenzo Digital: I come from the art video world, I’ve done a lot of video and installation work for video artist Nam June Paik. I also direct and run my own production company called Kenzo Digital Media, we do primarily commercial/industrial and film work. I worked on music videos back in the day, and got back into it in 2008 but more in the interest of utilizing the music video format to create pro-Obama propaganda.
I directed Taz Arnold from Sa-Ra’s video “Vote Obama” which was like a ringtone with a video. Kanye, Jay, Shepard Fairey, Fab Five Freddy, and a bunch of other people showed love and made cameos. I also directed Miri Ben Ari’s pro-Obama video “Stand With Me” that featured Russell Simmons and Marc Ecko. I would love to work with Kanye, Gnarls Barkley, MIA, Santogold, NERD, or Lupe to do some really innovative stuff. But my primary focus remains film, I’ve had films in festivals like Tribeca and was nominated for a Rockefeller Film Fellowship in 08 so I am most interested in creating long form powerful narrative.
“The one thing I loved about 90’s hip hop in NY and being a deejay was the sheer amount of b sides, remixes, and just alternate cut versions of songs that were out there”
Format: Who would you say your influences are when it comes to the visual side of you craft?
Kenzo Digital: Nam June Paik is a mentor of mine and a big influence, especially in the way he trasnformed TV into an artists medium. I would also say Andy Warhol, Dali, and Christo as far as fine artists go, and Kubrick, Tarantino, David Fincher, Sam Fuller, and Melville as my favorite directors amongst others. Obviously “City of God” was a big inspiration in this as well.
Format: You’ve done some production for Taz Arnold of Sa-Ra’s solo album. Is there anyone that you are really keen to produce for?
Kenzo Digital: Hell yeah, I would love to do a full on concept album with all of the rappers in City of God’s Son, Nas, Jay Z, Ghostface, Raekwon etc. Also Amy Winehouse, Gnarls Barkley, MIA, Santogold, Gorillaz, Jay Electronica, Killah Priest.
Format: How did you come to hook up with Joe Bataan and Victor Quinaz?
Kenzo Digital: I’ve always been a big fan of Joe Bataan’s music. In 2006, when I started this project I reached out to him and told him about the idea. He is a visionary and musical genius and he was excited to be part of something bold and innovative. I also sought him out because he is also one of the first artists to release a rap record, his record “Rap O Clap” coming out right around the same time Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight”. Victor Quinaz is an amazing writer/director and classmate of mine from Carnegie Mellon University. I’m a big fan of his work and thought he would be perfect for City of God’s Son. He has an amazing project called “Purple Majesty” with Danny Glover and Ron Brown about a crack addicted detective in Washington, DC in the 80’s. Look out for that.
Format: How are the preparations coming for this summer’s installation. Any word on whether or not there will be a film version yet?
Kenzo Digital: Installation is coming along beautifully, I am preparing something that will expand the viewer’s mind and open their ears to another dimension that exists between sound and image. This project is really about using the listener’s sense of music and film nostalgia to tell a story, and encouraging the listener to re-imagine and visit that world through memory and sonic direction. I’m big on retaining that aspect of the project in terms of keeping the visuals open ended and non-literal for the installation. There are things bubbling about what will be the direction of the film itself, but too early to disclose at this point in time.
Format: When are you planning to release the second instalment?
Kenzo Digital: The second instalment will be released after the summer of 09.
Format: What are your personal top 5 hip-hop films of all time?
Kenzo Digital: In no particular order: Wild Style, Krush Groove, Style Wars, Juice, and 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s. I liked Belly too. Although I’m still waiting for that definitive 90’s flick, I got something for that…
Format: You laid out a serving suggestion for the City Of God’s Son (listen at night, uninterrupted and through headphones). Would you consider releasing the remixes as a body of work in their own right or would you see that as detracting from the original vision you had for COGS?
Kenzo Digital: Remixes are cool, and there are some great producers that really finesse that. This project was birthed in response to how bored I had become with not just the kind of music being created, but the format. I think the individual songs can stand on their own, however putting the music within a larger dramatic context adds another more engaging element to the whole plot that takes it out of the realm of just music, because its now more of a matter of whether it conveys the scene properly, not just how hard the track hits.
If your listening to it as just a track here and there, you are short changing yourself, and I would encourage people to listen to the whole thing (several times even). There is a lot of detailed dramatic reference in there that can be missed if your looking for just a quick listen. I understand we live in the age of the ADD generation, but that doesnâ€™t mean that all things should cater to that audience because at the end of the day, that is a weakness, period.
Format: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Kenzo Digital: In addition to the City of God’s Son installation/film and pt. II, I am working on Taz Arnold from Sa Ra’s solo album, both music and video, and have several film projects in development, including a biopic of Joe Bataan’s life and musical career, and a documentary about graffiti arts relationship to street and high fashion.
Format: Finish the following statement: Kenzo Digital is….
A paradigm pusher