Even on a rainy day, Koan could always find solace writing rhymes at the concrete picnic tables under the gazebo in his Ninth Ward childhood yard.
“It was at those tables that I really found hip-hop,” he says. “If you could go to heaven, for me, that’s where I would be—at those tables, with the music, and it would just be… hip-hop.”
On his debut album, Chronicles of a Dying Breed, hip-hop artist Koan Kenpachi immortalizes those tables in the track, “Forever”— “Sittin’ at them concrete tables for hours / dedicated to the culture, and the world was ours.” Little did he know then where those first rhymes and his hard-working nature would take him in the future—from rap battles on the block to E.O.E. to his solo recording debut.
Music was an early obsession for Koan— “my first love”—and from the start, he surrounded himself with every genre of music he could get his hands on. He attributes this love of all music—from Bach and Chopin to Clyde the Family Stone and KC and the Sunshine Band to Radiohead and the Chili Peppers—to his family’s vinyl collection and growing up in the genre jumble of the 1990s.
“I just enjoyed taking it in, it was what I did to relax,” says Koan. “I’d turn off all the lights, sit in this little tight corner and play records. Everything changed around then, when I was 7 or 8—music changed my life. I wanted to hear all different styles of music—I just took it all in. There was nothing I didn’t like.”
About that same time, the music store Werlein’s came to St. Cecelia, where Koan was in second grade, to start up a music program. Though his initial preference was drums, his grandmother suited him with the saxophone his uncle once played. Just a few years later,
Koan realized that picking up a horn was the best decision he could’ve made.
After playing saxophone through elementary school, junior high and his early marching band career at Alfred Lawless in the Ninth Ward, Koan switched to trumpet; he “fell in love with the sound of it” after listening to Dizzy Gillespie albums with his grandfather in his early teens. It was also around this time that he began, often at those concrete tables, to set the stage for his future career in hiphop.
What started as a pastime with friends— hazy evenings on the patio, hanging out and writing rhymes—soon became rap battles among friends and against other rappers in impromptu lyrical spats around the neighborhood. Koan’s hip-hop mission became clear at a Hieroglyphics show at Tipitina’s when members of the crowd were invited to rap on stage.
“I was with a friend of mine, and he just sorta pushed me up on the stage,” says Koan. “That’s one thing about my friends, they have always been very encouraging. They were always comparing me to people who were already doing it, so after awhile, I started believing it myself.”
While he may have initially needed a nudge on stage, Koan naturally and immediately assumed his position.
“It was maybe a few hundred people, but I didn’t get a butterfly in my stomach,” he continues. “When I got down, everyone was dapping me and giving me hugs, and after that, that really turned something on—maybe I should be doing this.”
After Katrina, Koan embraced the stage again as the MC and trumpet player for E.O.E., a funky hip-hop group with roots in world music. E.O.E. allowed Koan to tour the country and establish a national fan base, as well as learn how to put together a tour—an experience he looks back on as both extremely educational and a vital step toward his solo recording debut.
“They’re a crazy talented bunch of musicians, but E.O.E. was a compromise, and I just always wanted to do this [solo] record,” says Koan. “I didn’t always have the freedom with E.O.E. to do whatever I wanted to do. So with this record it was cool, ‘cause I could do precisely what I wanted to do without compromising anything.”
That freedom came the day Koan met multi-instrumentalist and producer Sean “Sean C” Carey, who at the time was making beats in the studio with local rapper Juvenile and his crew. The younger brother of Koan’s best friend heard Sean C, and recommended his straight hip-hop style as the perfect fit for Koan’s rhymes. Koan respected the Bostonite’s “East Coast-flavored hip-hop,” and they quickly collaborated on the track, “Casual Encounter, Pt. 1.”
“I think somewhere between me being in the booth doing that song, it was kinda like, ‘Yeaah, we can really do something,’” says Koan. “The concept of Chronicles of a Dying Breed, I’ve been thinking of since I was a teenager. And then now, finally when I met Sean, it was able to come to a reality.”
Recorded at Nothing Studios on Magazine Street—the former studio of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor—the album’s 14 tracks were conceptualized by the two artists together and produced with all live instruments—no samples. The beats and lyrics hark back to mid-90s hip-hop, which Koan calls “the Renaissance period” of hip-hop, when “everything was good—so original and full of soul.”
“Hip-hop started to lose that along the way, and hip-hop today is very soulless,” he says. “It seems to be economically driven; it’s not really an art form anymore. People are just doing whatever they can do to get paid. And that’s not really what I fell in love with about hip-hop.”
The title of Koan’s recording debut conjures that same sentiment. The album itself aims to reverse the trend with live, quality production and thoughtful, intelligent lyrics that reach beyond the typical topics in popular hip-hop—money, power, sex and violence—for a deeper meaning steeped in social issues and the daily realities of his community.
“The greatest thing ever that hip-hop ever did, to me, was when you put on a new record with your friend and it just does something to you like, ‘Whoa. It’s so good.’ It’s a euphoric feeling,” says Koan. “So what I wanna do is to just give that back to people. I want people to put the record on and just enjoy themselves.”
Looking back on a lifetime of loving hiphop and poetry, and more than a decade of dreaming this debut into a reality, Koan dedicates his anxiously awaited album to two of his biggest and most beloved supporters— his cousin Takia “Snoop” Sims and his grandmother, who gave Koan his first saxophone in elementary school. He recalls a particular New Year’s Eve party at Snoop’s house when all the younger people were hanging out and freestyling in the backyard, and her heartfelt encouragement was another crucial push for Koan to follow his hip-hop dream.
Unfortunately, neither is alive to see Koan’s successes today. He has dedicated this effort in their memory and in gratitude for their constant love and support. “This is really all for them,” he says.
Hot off the heels of this debut, Koan is already full of ideas for the next record, which he says will reveal a bit more about himself personally. And if this first attempt has proven anything, Koan and New Orleans hip-hop are anything but a dying breed.
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