By Desirae Gooding
I considered this – the seated area directly near the theaters of Suffolk-Selden’s Islip Arts Building – the perfect spot to interview budding rap artist Kenny Brown – choosing to release his music under the moniker, Bernie Brown. The halls of the place are always littered with noise. Quotes are spilled from the lips of Acting majors. Energy is abound here. In speaking with Brown, a Liberal Arts major, in his fourth semester at Suffolk – beginning in 2012 – I began to understand that I was correct in my choice. He belonged here – there was a lot of life in him, too. “Bernie” claimed to have a love of all genres of music – everything from rock to folk – and drew much influence from them. “I use a lot of different musical styles [in my work] …” he says, “Sometimes I sample songs.”
Brown – more often than not – invites other budding artists, who share his love of the genre, to join him on a track; this collaborative group has been dubbed, The Anthill as, according to Brown – “Anyone [with enough talent, and a love of rap] can contribute if they want to.” – I understood the metaphor, anthills are never built by a sole insect.
Throughout the course of our interview, I came to learn that Brown’s musical abilities fit the very definition of an acquired skill. “It’s funny because a lot of people think that you need to be really good at playing an instrument to make music with it, but a lot of the things that I record with, I totally suck at,” he says, while laughing. “A lot of the things that I record with, I only know enough to record a little four-measure piece that I just make up on the spot … I couldn’t even perform it [again] if I tried, but I can record it – and mess with it, and make it sound good.”
Kenny plays – or records with – nine instruments in total. “The bass, the harmonica, [my sister’s] flute …” he lists off. “The guitar, trumpet, mandolin, this little whistle – kind of like a recorder – oh, the violin – I can’t play it, I really suck at the violin – but, I record with it. [And the] banjo – I suck at the banjo, too – but, I’ve recorded some stuff that sounds pretty good on it … and, then a few random percussion instruments – but, that’s just hitting something,” he laughs. “I’m always trying to get better at those, but I don’t have too much time to put into it.”
The Newfield High School graduate states that, while having been enrolled in band for the majority of his public school career, he didn’t enjoy himself – considering involvement with his school’s music program a bit of a chore. “My mom made me and my siblings all play an instrument. … I wanted to quit every year, and she would never let me … she made me take private lessons, and stuff. Looking back,” he adds, “I really appreciate it, but at the time I [thought to myself] ‘Goddamn it, why do I have to do this?!’ … I don’t even know why I didn’t like it, I had fun at times,” he admits. “I guess I really didn’t appreciate the style of music … looking back, I wish I took it a little more seriously.”
An apparent regret was clear in his voice – but, in speaking with him it became clear, that perhaps his disdain for the childhood lessons – both the incredibly broad structure of the teachings, and the style of music – served to spur his passion for creating music later on. “I got into poetry, and found this program called Garage Band that I started messing with. … Ironically, one of the best things that happened to my development as an artist was … getting into a car accident,” he laughs. “I got a pretty nice insurance check from it … and, I used it to buy a bunch of instruments, [and] an interface to record with. Sometimes people give me [the instruments], sometimes I buy them.”
Of his writing style – the rap along with the beats – Kenny says, “I don’t like writing, as much as free-styling. When I write, I tend to get lost in my own head, and write stuff that’s really indirect. … So, it’s hard for people to understand completely. … If I’m writing a song that I sing …” he explains, “I’ll make it pretty simple … but, when I’m rapping fast, it’s just too much fun to use a lot of metaphors and word-play, and crazy rhyme schemes – I just don’t control myself … and, end up with some really obscure stuff that’s really hard [for the listener] to pick up.” This brought a smile to my lips, in saying it, he seemed to shine a spotlight on the pure joy he felt when performing.
Brown began scrolling through the songs he had written, picking out the “obscure” lyrics he felt no one would understand, and strived to reveal their meaning. “Like here,” he says, “It starts off pretty simple … but then, ‘King Tut’em and bud’em, pickin’ off tree leaves …’ I wrote this when I was on a break with my girlfriend. I was talking about something dying before it’s ready; an untimely death or end to something.” He speaks about when the song begins to “dissolve;” seemingly spiraling into the mesh of his thoughts – the meaning becoming less and less clear: “And then, I go into to saying, ‘Tree leaves burning up, sizzlin’ fizzlin’ …’ and that reminded me of Pop Rocks, and then that reminded of rock n’ roll …” The list punctuated with his laughter, “… and then that reminded me of rock, paper, scissors … and, then it sorta goes on from there.”
His statement about the rift in his relationship prompting lyrics intrigued me a great deal, and I found myself asking if Kenny had incorporated a lot of “personal experiences” into his work. “Yeah, I definitely do,” he responded, “… but, sometimes it’s not that obvious … It’s funny, because I try to make it [obvious] – but, it doesn’t really work that often …” He continues to search through his songs as he speaks, every so often pointing to a line here-or-there, some making reference to the devoutly religious identity he once clung to, others making reference to a relationship that he’d kept alive out of guilt: “Wax and sticks are next on the list. Kiss a wrist to stop the flow.” Or to his late sister: “Rock the funeral shroud from a sister and pop blisters to expel the poison.”
We spoke about what Kenny hopes to achieve by continuing to create music, as well as his plans after Suffolk. “I don’t really know what the goal is, exactly,” he answers, honestly. “I guess just try to share things that are relatable to people, and hopefully inspire somebody – or at least entertain them.” Although the appeal of a glamorous rock-star life may be the deciding factor in terms of after-college plans for most aspiring artists, Brown seems to be at odds with the idea. “It’s hard to say [what I’ll do],” he says, “On one side being a performing artist, and on tour, and everything, seems like a really attractive career path, but on the other hand it seems that it’s really hard to lead a normal life like that.” He speaks about the complications that may arise from such a lifestyle, if he ever decides to start a family. “It seems like nobody who does that can have a successful marriage; it would be really hard to be a father if I had to travel the country to work.” After some thought, Kenny began to elaborate on the type of lifestyle that he considers ideal. “My ultimate goal is to be a professor of music,” he says, “… and then, to produce music on the side – have a home studio. If I could get a full-time job as a professor, and tour only during the summer. That would be pretty cool. I think I’d like that.”
In terms of goals closer to the present, the aspiring artist plans to relocate to an area where – he feels – his work will be better received. “I want to move to the City after this. I’ve been to a few open mics around here, but the scene is not that receptive to hip-hop. In places around here, it’s only people with acoustic guitars singing – so, nobody expects that. They don’t really get what I’m trying to do, and don’t necessarily appreciate it as much as a crowd who’s looking for that.”