Kastaway: The Art of Tradition

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Photo courtesy of Ricky Martinez

Chicago emcee Kastaway and Swedish producer Cam the Downrocka made an international connection to create one of 2022’s bests albums. “The Art of Tradition” is a 10-track album that is a must listen for Hip-Hop purists. The title of the project is indicative of the albums’ sound, as Kast and Cam deliver dope beats and rhymes that are reminiscent of Hip-Hop’s golden era.

The Art of Tradition is produced entirely by Cam the Downrocka who also provides the albums’ cuts. The project features appearances by Dominick Giovanni, Rach, and Chapee.

The Real Hip-Hop had a spirited discussion with Kastaway about how he found his way in Chicago’s Hip-Hop scene, why he is reinvigorated to rap, working with Cam the Downrocka, and their album, The Art of Tradition.

TRHH: Why’d you title the new album The Art of Tradition?

Kastaway: Alright, so the Art of Tradition is because we wanted to put it on vinyl from the jump and we wanted to take it back to the days where the DJ’s had the vinyl and they had the crates like you. We was paying homage to that, straight up that, and you already know the sound if you listen to the album you know it’s straight up two turntables and a mic, that’s all it is. I mean, of course we got the beat machine, too.

TRHH: I love the feel of this album. It feels good. What was it like creating The Art of Tradition?

Kastaway: Alright, I’m gonna give you the whole truth, I was making the Art of Tradition when I was making El Pilón. So, when I made El Pilón I took a break. I remember I just started recording, I was working from home like everyone else, Cam sent me a bunch of beats to pick from because he was working on an album and he just wanted me to pick one to rap on I think. I ended up rapping on all of them in one day. All of those tracks with the exception of two were made in one day. I remember one was made like almost a year prior and it was just a feature, it wasn’t meant to be like a Kastaway and Cam Rocka album, it was just a feature. I did that and I did that quick. I remember doing it in like 15 minutes and I’m like, “He ain’t even gonna like it.” He started rocking with it I guess and that’s when he asked me for another feature.

So, we did all of the joints and we thought the album was done. He made one more beat which was “Time Limited” and him and Max who owns the label that it came out on, they were suggesting I work with Dominick Gio. We both got similar names and stuff like that and we ended up vibing and we did Time Limited. I did the majority of the album in one day, it wasn’t really a real process, but I can tell you this, I forgot I made the album. I literally was on the El Pilón hype, I was working on “My Life in Music 3: The Revelation” album and then I had the brain surgery. When I came back home for brain surgery I kid you not they sent me the album back like, “Yo, check this out.” It was mixed and mastered. I forgot my guy mastered it. I forgot all about it! I came back and I was like, “Hold up! When did I do this?” I didn’t remember.

TRHH: Due to the surgery?

Kastaway: You know what, it was a surgery, I was caught up in the hype of the other two albums, I just wasn’t thinking. And we haven’t talked about it, and Cam helps me with all my other albums, he does scratches. We never really talked about it so I forgot all about it and then I came home from surgery it was like the next day and I remember sitting in my back whatever that is, deck. It’s not a balcony, it’s not fancy enough to be called a balcony if you ask me, but I was sitting back there chilling. I’m talking to my man who works at the pressing plant and then all of a sudden, I get this folder shared with me. I’m like, “What is this?” and it was the album and I listened to it and I’m like, “Yo, it’s too fire! Hold on. Don’t put this out just yet, let’s do the vinyl.” And literally we did the vinyl and it came out. So, it was an album that I had fun making. I was just literally having fun, that’s why it’s not a lot of social commentary or personal stuff. I was just rapping. I was just rapping and I was having fun, that’s it.

TRHH: So, you say you did it in two days, did you write the rhymes in those two days or were they rhymes you had in the stash already?

Kastaway: No, I wrote the rhymes and recorded everything. In fact, I could tell you I rapped from 10:00 AM to midnight. I was just rapping, just rapping and the last song I did was “Dow Jones” that day and I remember my throat being in crazy pain, because you know I got throat issues. I was hurting but I’m like, “I’m gonna get this intro done!” I actually watched the Devil’s Advocate that day, so it was interesting. I’m watching Devil’s Advocate while I’m making this album and then that’s what gave me some of the lines of Dow Jones, believe or not. So, yeah, I did it in one day. Literally less than 24 hours and it was fun, it was fun. But I didn’t see it the way you all hear it now, Cam put that together – like the structure, the in between stuff. He did ask me to do “P.S.A.” He sent me the beat and he just wanted me to talk some shit.

I don’t know why I was thinking of Guru and just Gang Starr and the way that they would talk smack on some of the interludes. It just gave me that feel, right. Also, ironically, I was listening to Hard to Earn a lot at that time. I had just bought the vinyl and I was just playing it, of course I already know the album but when you got the vinyl, especially me, when I got the vinyl I was tweaking because it was hard to find! So, I was happy to do that. I was listening to that album and I was listening to Return of the Boom Bap. I was listening to those albums around the same time. I’m not saying that they inspired the sound because that’s the way Cam do beats. His beats are all like that, but I was already kind of listening to that so I was in this competitive spirit. Guru liked to rap about rap and KRS-One is always talking smack! So, I was in that state of mind.

TRHH: It’s funny, I always tell people if an alien came to earth and wanted to know what Hip-Hop was I’d give them Return of the Boom Bap and Resurrection because to me

Kastaway: Yo, it’s funny you mention Resurrection! On the song “Responsible” he scratches Common. I don’t know if they did that on purpose because they know how I feel about Common. That was the first track I did on this joint because of Common’s voice and because it was a scratch from Resurrection. So, it’s funny you mentioned that and it ties into this album, too.

TRHH: To me those two albums personify Hip-Hop and this album, The Art the Tradition, is in that same vein. So, it’s interesting because it’s just rapping – it’s just beats and rhymes. It reminds me of just spittin’. It’s just like you said, it’s not heavy on social commentary, stories, this and that, it’s just rapping and that’s up my alley.

Kastaway: I remember you saying that when we spoke one time. For me, I don’t know if I should admit this, so when we got the vinyl back my guy Drew, my brother who owns 606 Records, this is up his alley. He loves this stuff and I’m like “Man, I don’t know how if I like this album. It ain’t talking about nothing.” I feel like it’s my mission to use my voice for something useful, so I felt like I ain’t saying nothing on here. But I guess I’m saying a lot because a lot of people love it, and I was just bugged out like, “Wow.” I just didn’t expect people to like it because I know people are used to me talking about certain things.

Maybe they needed a break from it. They needed a break from it. It’s an amazing album, I slept on it. I slept on it out of all my albums, I slept on it. I slept on this one because I didn’t want to be looked at as a “rappity rap” rapper. Even though I’m a lyricist – I will never say I’m not a lyricist, I am a pen, but I don’t want to rap about rap. To me, with everything I’m going through, with everything going on in the world, I just feel like it’s so much for me to talk about. But then it also could be fun and I didn’t think about that. It could be fun and I didn’t think about that.

TRHH: I think the best of artists blend it all together. So, you can have your social commentary, you can have your battle rap, you can have your storytelling, you could have your party records, just blend it all together.

Kastaway: That’s always been my goal. On my last two projects I always wanted to be well-rounded, but I didn’t want to be like a Slaughterhouse. I like listening to them but after a while it’s like, “I need a break” for me. Give me something else. I like a lot of R&B, so I need to listen to that. Somebody texted me and I forgot who it was and they said this album is really easy to listen to. They said even though it’s rappity rap rap it’s not too much. It stops at the right time, that’s what they told me, and I was like, “thank you.”

TRHH: You mentioned “Responsible” and on that song you speak on getting jerked by a friend at the start of your rap career. How did that change the way you moved throughout the rest of your career?

Kastaway: I think it helped me and it hurt me right. I was like 17-18 years old and I was just getting into the underground scene and when that happened it pushed me away and it brought me around more so like the street guys who rap. And they’re not rapping the way I’m rapping. My family, we’re like the North Lawndale Jackson 5 or something. We all rap and everyone’s good in their own right. My cousins were either on their super street shit or they were on that female stuff. I was the boom bap guy. I was the guy that listened to A Tribe Called Quest and all that stuff. I was that guy but I didn’t trust the guys in the Sub-T scene and all that stuff. I just didn’t trust them because of my experience with a few that were in there, I’m not going to say any names, they screwed me I felt like.

So, I just backed away and I was doing the street thing. Really my style was a little bit of Sub-T, but my body and my heart was with my family, which is in Lawndale. I feel like they made me not fit in, so I feel like it hurt me in that sense because you know you had like this underground crowd, they all know each other, and I’ll be the one that’s not the most popular in person. Stream wise I’m doing well, but they didn’t know me because I kind of secluded myself from them. If that didn’t happen I would have had the best of both worlds – I would have had the streets and this equally. It hurt me in that sense, but it also helped me because it helped me find my own style, my own sound, my own producers, and do things that a lot of those rappers who was in Sub-T and a lot of the rappers who was in the street weren’t doing.

Whether it’s this album, or whether it’s El Pilón, or My Life in Music 3, when you hear a Kastaway record on certain beats you know that’s mine. Because Krikit Boi is my guy. He’s from the West Coast and you got a Chicago guy rapping on West Coast stuff, with an East Coast style occasionally, that’s me. So, it gave me time to develop my own soundscape. And I feel like if I was around all these people I would have been trying to impress them. And I probably would have been even more of a rappity rap guy and the boom bap wouldn’t have been as smooth. I like The Art of Tradition because it’s smooth. Resurrection is smooth. I like smooth music. I probably would have been super-aggressive and been on the, “I’m the most lyrical, criminal!” Nah, I’d rather be lyrical without saying I’m lyrical.

I think that that’s where it helped me. It helped me creatively and it helped me create my own sound and my own network. It was a blessing and a curse, but it turned out to be more of a blessing because the world is smaller now. Back then the internet wasn’t popping the way it is now. I appreciate Instagram because I get to talk with people I wouldn’t get to talk to back then. There’s other rappers who I like and I say, “Yo, you fire” and they’ll be like, “likewise.” Before I wouldn’t have had that conversation, not in the Sub-T type of crowd because I would have been too competitive. I wanna be the best but I also wanted to impress them at the same time because they gotta like you for you to be the best. So, it worked out.

TRHH: On the song “N.I.C.E.” you say, “Just because it’s poppin’ don’t mean we all love it.” What did you mean by that line?

Kastaway: I had that line in my head since I was a kid, bro! Just because something’s popular don’t mean it’s fire, bro. You could be programmed to like something. I look at our kids, they probably don’t even know what they like and don’t like, but because it’s thrown in their face so much it just becomes a part of who they are. It becomes a part of their identity and they just do it and they don’t even know if they like doing what they do and it’s the same thing with music. They don’t even know if they like this!

I knew this was crazy when I was in high school and Little Brother – The Minstrel Show came out and 92.3 played “Lovin’ It.” They were playing it occasionally and my niece was singing it. My niece is not that much younger than me, but I didn’t know she would like that type of song. Little Brother wasn’t on the radio before that, and I was a fan. I had The Listening before The Minstrel Show came out. My niece was singing that hook and I’m like, it’s because it’s on the radio and they’re playing it, it’s popping. Just because you popping all the time don’t mean we like it, bro. We don’t, and that’s the truth with a lot of stuff. A lot of things are popular, don’t mean we all love it.

TRHH: On the song “City Confessions” you talk about growing up rough in Chicago, but then you say you’re grateful to the Chi. It reminds me of Common on “Respiration when he said, “I’m surrounded by hate, but I love home.” What is it about our city that despite its blemishes we still revere Chicago?

Kastaway: Man, I don’t know what it is, I’m gonna keep it one hundred. I was in New York a few weeks ago and I was entertaining moving out there, but my heart is just Chicago. I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s like a big dysfunctional family. We fight each other, we argue with each other, but when it comes to people on the outside you are not infiltrating our city. If you got two guys who are in New York, they’re from Chicago, they don’t rock with each other in Chicago, but a bunch of New Yorker’s or California people want to fight them, those two Chicago people sticking together.

Chicago is like a melting pot of everything. It has everything you want the same way New York does, but to me it’s just less messy. Not saying New York is a nasty place, I like New York a lot and I love Harlem. That’s the only place that made me say, “Okay, I wish we had a little bit of this in Chicago.” We might have it on the south side but I’m from out west. South side is big and there are some areas where it’s like you can be free to be black. I mean you can be free to be Latino and you don’t have to worry about it. I’m from out west, it’s just always a problem being black.

Going back to Chicago, that’s the trouble. When you’re black you have so much trauma, you’re paranoid, your own neighbor could kill you, or a cop could kill you, or anybody could kill you! You learn so much from growing up within that. It makes you so much smarter, it makes you so much more intelligent, more hungry to succeed. I don’t know, it’s something about Chicago – it’s home.

I’m kind of happy you compared it to the Black Star song with Common because they do have that same vibe and I never put them two together. That’s my favorite Black Star song on the album – that one! They both give me that same feel like it’s cold, but it’s beautiful. I can’t put it into words, it sounds all over the place, but I love Chicago, bro. I grew up on chicken wings and mild sauce. I’m from it, I love it. It’s beautiful. So many types of people, but I think where the hate comes from, the hate is from certain areas where we’re all fighting for something.

Back when I was growing up, the streets are different now, but in the streets, you were fighting for something. You were fighting for money, fighting for property, fighting for real estate, you’re fighting for something, so ain’t no friends. Same thing in the rap scene – you fighting to be the best, you fighting to get signed, you fight to be popular, ain’t no friends. If we remove the things that cause us to fight it’s all love. I think I started loving people more when I stopped being so competitive and I stopped fighting for shit. I don’t rap to be the best rapper no more. I rap because my soul wants to. I’m not competing with nobody.

Somebody could make a whole diss track about me and I will consider responding. I’ll be like, “What are you dissing me for?” I’m cool as hell, I love people. I got a funky attitude sometimes, I ain’t gonna lie, especially when I get no sleep. The only thing that makes us hate each other in Chicago I think is when we’re fighting for something. It kind of makes me think about the way society has programmed us, especially black people. They put us in these areas and they’re happy to see us fight. I feel like I’m happier when I’m not fighting and that’s when I love Chicago. I start realizing how much I love the city when I’m not in those environments where I have to fight.

TRHH: I think one thing that contributes to the fighting is the division and segregation that we have. Speaking about New York; New York is a city that is not segregated like Chicago is. That’s one of the things I love about it is everybody kind of lives together.

Kastaway: I love that! Oh, I love that! I think that’s why I enjoyed Harlem so much because you gotta think I’m a black guy raised by a black and Puerto Rican family which is rare in Chicago. For me to feel comfortable sometimes I need to be able to identify with both worlds together. I was in Harlem seeing blacks and Puerto Rican’s and all them getting along. I’m like, “Oh shit, I could be me!” I could be as black as I want, I could carry all my Latino influences all I want. In Chicago, at least in the areas where I was quote unquote “fighting” I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that, but now I don’t care. I created my own environment. It’s all good.

I’m glad you liked that song, again I was like questioning that song. I got that beat and I wasn’t sure about it, but the bass in it was knocking, so I did it. I didn’t plan to write that verse, it had some of my favorite lines on there, I’ll tell you. When I say, “Spit it clear through the loop to train your mind for the cool/weather in the world our spirit is tethered to.” When I say “I spit it clear through the loop” I’m talking about the loop of the beat but I’m also talking about the loop of Chicago, you know, the train. And then “to train your mind for the cool” I was also saying Lupe tying it to The Cool.

So, it was like all that stuff was just flying through my head. I like that song. The bass in it was really dope. I know I’m the emcee, but I gotta give a lot of credit to Cam, man. Cam did his thing on these beats man and just structuring the album the way he did. That DJ on the front of the song, that wasn’t there when I rapped on it. None of that stuff was there, none of the skits, none of that. Certain samples wasn’t there, everything was just drums and a couple sounds here and there and I just rapped on it. Cam did this thing.

TRHH: What do you hope people take away from The Art of Tradition?

Kastaway: I don’t even know, bro. I just want people to enjoy it, that’s all. I’m gonna keep it 100, I just want people to enjoy it. I feel like this album was a blessing to me in a way that I didn’t expect. This album really, really stopped me from quitting, or at least taking a long break. I just felt like too much was going on in my life and then when I seen the response to it and I see the vinyl selling out as quick as it did, I was like, “Dang!” And then to be mentioned in this boom bap review book and then have a journalist from HipHopDX take a picture on Instagram with the vinyl, it’s like, “What?” I guess I want people to just feel good when they listen to it and then I want people also to appreciate boom bap, like seriously.

Boom bap is an art. It is really an art and you can do so much with boom bap. This album taught me that and I feel like it taught me almost like my purpose in making music. I have a tendency when I’m making an album, like my last album I put a Caribbean influenced song that had no business being on the album, none. I was so conscious like “Yo, people need to dance. I want my Caribbean side of the family to dance, I want the Puerto Rican’s to dance.” But not everybody wants to dance. Some people just want to sit down and listen. I’m happy now that I know that [laughs]. I feel like OK, thank you. I like dancing. don’t get it messed up, I like dancing. But the way my mind and my spirit has been going I just want to rap, y’all. I just wanna rap. I just wanna rap, I just want to be a poet, I just want y’all to listen. Of course, I want y’all to bounce and do all that too a little bit, but I want you all to listen, man.

I hope people take away that listening is cool, boom bap is cool, boom bap is dope, it don’t all sound one way. I love Griselda, but this album told me we could still do that throwback sound. There’s different types of boom bap you can go back to. There’s the grimy stuff, but then there’s the Pete Rock & CL Smooth. You can go back and get that feeling again. You can go back and get the Gang Starr feeling again, Beatnuts, things like that. It’s not all the Griselda sound and it taught me that. Even though I grew up on the Gang Starr’s and Pete Rock’s and all that, I’m a huge Griselda fan and I would say things like, “Oh, ain’t nobody taking it back like they’re taking it back,” but we are! We’re just doing it in a different way and this boom bap is really diverse. It’s not just grimy all the time — it could be soulful, it can be fun.

I know I said a lot, it’s all over the place, but this album really, really got me excited. I made two albums because of this one, two! I was working on one, it was sounding one way, but then I started another one. Let me tell you now, this other one, if you like Art of Tradition imagine that, but the traumatized version of me. So, what I mean is it’s darker and I’m telling my truth, but it’s still fun, it’s still bars on top of bars. This is the light side of me, get ready for the dark side of me, but nothing but boom bap. Ain’t no Caribbean, ain’t no double time flow, just straight boom bap, straight up. If this was 1992, we going to 1995. I want Chicago to feel like New York in 1995 because it’s a lot of dope emcees out there and they put out dope product and I want all of us to be great with all these great albums coming out. I want to contribute, so get ready. Wait ’till you hear this one. I just finished it Saturday. I can’t wait for y’all to hear this and that’s because of The Art of Tradition and people like you who really put this album up there. Get ready.

Purchase: Kastaway & Cam the Downrocka- The Art of Tradition

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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