This past Saturday, New York City-based rapper Ka stood outside the building that formerly housed the Fat Beats record store on 6th Avenue in Manhattan and sold vinyl and CD copies of his new album, The Night’s Gambit, ahead of its Tuesday digital release date. When he announced the one-man pop-up shop via his Twitter account, he framed it as a chance for him to meet his fans. I’m a fan. Ka made what’s ended up as my favorite album of last year, Grief Pedigree. I went along not just because I wanted to get my hands on The Night’s Gambit early, but because I wanted to reacquaint myself with the old-fashioned, physical way of acquiring music — where you’d read the liner notes and song credits on the way home before having heard much more than the album’s first single. We’re in the instant era of digital downloads, but going to meet Ka to buy a vinyl record felt rewarding — and not just in a sentimental way.
Ka used to be in a rap group called Natural Elements back in the mid-’90s but left to lead an apparent life of nine-to-five normalcy. Grief Pedigree was a stellar but unhurriedly-burning gem, fueled by Ka’s devoutly hushed rap style and minimal beats that reaped creative benefits from negative space. Ka also has a strong bond with Roc Marciano and despite being something of a critic’s pick though, Ka’s music exists at a literal underground level — calling it subterranean (in the positive sense) would be apt; he admits his music is “a hard listen” for the first 20 or so times. He seems to enjoy it this way. It’s a good fit.
On Saturday, I arrived just after 2.30pm. The short walk up 6th Avenue from the West 4th Street subway station was a brief nostalgia jaunt. The left embankment is still held down by a series of long tables hawking repurposed media: CDs from R.E.M. and Van Morrison, a line of ring-worn vinyl records including Lou Donaldson’s Everything I Play Is Funky, and a Folsom Daddies DVD (still sealed) in a green milk crate next to some tattered adult magazines (no longer sealed). As I neared the street-level doorway of the old Fat Beats spot at 406 6th Avenue, I was expecting to see some form of a cliched crowd: A gaggle of stereotypical be-backpacked white rap nerds who probably still owned a Rawkus lanyard at home. But the eight or so people congregated around Ka came from wider walks of life. There was the guy with his pregnant lady who told Ka their two-year-old daughter listens to Grief Pedigree every day (the tyke is also a Taylor Swift fan). There was a button-shirt, tight-jeans and fluorescent sneakers guy who told Ka he works in an “upbeat, upscale” restaurant and that he was was going to try and sneak The Night’s Gambit on this evening. (“This is not upbeat music!” joked Ka.) There were the two kids who talked about how 50 Cent recently mentioned Ka and asked whether he was going to sign to G-Unit. Ka laughed and said he thought it would be a waste of money for 50 Cent — he doesn’t make the sort of music you can package to the masses — and that Fif’ should spend his money elsewhere.
The stream of fans was continuous for the hour or so I was there; there were always four or five people waiting to meet Ka. He marshaled the bijou gathering and took the time to talk to each person, beginning by asking their name (and seeming to remember it). In an age of Internet snark and comments section cynicism, it was touchingly earnest to witness. One kid in a black Champion hoodie and grey NY cap approached Ka with an A4 moleskin notebook and asked if he could read him something he’d been inspired to write by Grief Pedigree. As he recited the short poem, Ka listened attentively with his head bowed towards the orator. He seemed affected. He gave some feedback. He probably inspired the kid to fill up many more notebooks. Ka engaged in tech talk with another guy who said he worked at a recording studio: “Don’t over-mix things,” he said. “They always do that now. I want to hear the vocals — it’s called rap music for a reason.” And when an aspiring rapper told him he had come to something of a stumbling block with his writing, Ka told him not to worry, that it would it be done when it’s done; that’s how he makes his own music. It produced a spark of confidence in the kid’s face — but it also spoke volumes to the way Ka makes music that stirs people so directly.
For my part, I greeted Ka with a standard handshake (the elaborate rap shake-and-hug is not for me) and asked him if he had any vinyl. He reached down to a brown cardboard box stacked next to his green rucksack filled with CDs — The name “Ka” was written on the straps in black sharpie — and pulled out a shrink-wrapped copy of The Night’s Gambit. As he handed it over, I felt like I was in another era: Excitedly glance at the cover then instinctively flip it over to read the tracklist and credits. There was the obligatory Roc Marciano cameo (on “Soap Box”) and two songs whose names were familiar (the eerie first single “Our Father” and the rap-album-title-referential “Off the Record” which was released as a video that morning), but the rest were new to me. There was a track called “Peace Akhi” which brought to mind ex-Beatnuts member Al Traiq’s similarly-titled mid-’90s song. There was “Knighthood,” that I guessed might mirror the cover art and run with some sort of chess motif. And there was a closing song called “Poor Thoughts” which, based on Ka’s previous music and humble persona, I imagined to be a stripped-down sermon. But until I got home to listen, I didn’t know. And that mix of guessing and anticipation felt like a rare joy in an age of instant acquisition.
As I took the short walk from the subway to my apartment, I can’t say I noticeably quickened my pace — but I did feel an increasing flutter of excitement as I neared home. I wanted to hear the record in my hand, the one whose shrink warp I had ripped so its author could scribble my name on the cover and now clung clammily to my arm in the sticky July heat. Inside, I placed the record on the turntable and sat down with the album cover. As a snatch of static gave way to the opening vocal sample and ghostly vibe of the first song “You Know It’s About,” it felt like the next stage in a journey worth traveling.