Going green: Rob Crooks (left), Ismaila Alfa (centre) and DJ Kutdown (right) make up Magnum K.I.
Ask the guys in local hip-hop trio Magnum K.I. where they’re from and they’ll tell you they’re products of the battles.
MCs Ismaila Alfa and Rob Crooks developed their skills while participating in freestyle battles where participants faced off against one another to determine who the best rapper was. Meanwhile, DJ Kutdown first made a name for himself in his native Thunder Bay as a battle DJ.
“It was really fun, really pure,” Crooks said of being a 17-year-old participant in the competitions that were an integral part of local hip-hop events, like the annual Peg City Holla. “I was under the impression you couldn’t call yourself an MC if you couldn’t hold your own in a hip-hop battle.”
Crooks, now 27, recalls facing off on a few occasions against Alfa. Alfa, seven years older than Crooks, usually won.
“But we don’t battle anymore,” Crooks said with a smile. “It would be too much of a clash of the titans.”
While they may no longer compete, Crooks is quick to point out the way freestyle battles shaped the music that’s on Magnum K.I.’s new self-titled, full-length CD.
“(Battling) shapes the way you perform. You want to make sure that what you’re saying is being heard and that you’re saying something that’s worth hearing. We don’t just throw away words (in Magnum K.I.). We want to say something that’s meaningful.”
Released in January, the new album is the follow-up to the group’s 2008 debut EP, Gun Shy. Over the course of 10 songs, the trio mixes jazz, reggae and pop elements into its hip hop, and features guests like Peanuts & Corn MC John Smith and jazz-folk songstress Suss.
Crooks says that while he used to look to traditional New York hip hop as the epitome of the genre, he sees the trio’s experimentation as inevitable.
“As you mature as an artist, you want to make something that’s your own. We explore different things (musically) that are maybe more natural to us (and) reflective of the life we live.”
For Crooks and Kutdown, who teach hip-hop production and scratching at drop-in centres through Graffiti Gallery, and Alfa, an on-air personality at CBC Radio, that means including a positive outlook in Magnum K.I.’s lyrics.
“When we got to a show, it’s about having fun and vibing out,” Crooks said. “I do like depressing music sometimes, but I want to have fun when I’m making music and I want people to have fun when they’re listening to our music.”
Alfa and Kutdown first collaborated in 2000 when the latter joined Frek Sho, the legendary hip-hop crew Alfa joined forces with in 1993. In addition to touring North America together, the duo has released 10 CDs and two vinyl EPs together. They added Crooks to the Magnum K.I. line-up after he contributed significantly to the writing and recording of both Gun Shy and the self-titled full-length.
While the group is focused on its plans for the future, which include touring in May, memories of past freestyle battles come up every once in a while, Crooks says.
“Ismaila and I joke about it all the time … but we’re not trying to prove we’re the best rappers anymore. We’re just trying to make the best music we can.”