Kenan Bell: An Indie Rapper’s “Language Arts”

Kenan Bell: Until the FutureKenan Bell: “Good Day” (Until the Future, Sonata Cantata, 3/30/10)
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Hip hop has a long and proud academic tradition. Some of its noblest icons include Large Professor, Dr. Dre, and the Poor Righteous Teachers. East Coast outfit Main Source successfully executed Breaking Atoms in 1991, and countless emcees have been known to drop science. Yet few, if any, such lyricists actually built up experience instructing a grade-school classroom.

Los Angeles rapper Kenan Bell likewise has an intellectual, slightly nerdy approach to his atypical hip-hop fusion, melding high-minded lyrics with a live-band, indie-rock-leaning sound on his debut album, Until the Future. As one of Bell’s own lyrics sums it up, “picture a bookworm carrying a ghettoblaster.”

But with an atypical sound comes an atypical résumé. More than just schooled in the ways of beats and rhymes, Bell actually drafted up lesson plans in math and language arts as a Montessori schoolteacher. According to Bell, his neighbors ran a private school, where he did ROP training while taking classes, which ultimately led to student teaching after college. He was offered a position as a teacher shortly thereafter, a turn of events that he describes as “almost like a divine opportunity.”

“I’d have shows at 12:30 [a.m.] and have to be in class at 8 the next morning. It was crazy stuff, just having to balance that. But it’s something I always had a heart for.”

In fact, teaching was something that Bell pursued long before deciding to make the leap into being a full-time performer. However, balancing the two ultimately would be difficult to maintain, and ultimately, he chose music.

“I just recently resigned, and it’s still a fresh wound,” Bell says. “It’s something I loved to do and have a passion for. But there was a shift. I’d have shows at 12:30 [a.m.] and have to be in class at 8 the next morning. It was crazy stuff, just having to balance that. But it’s something I always had a heart for.”

Though Bell hadn’t always envisioned himself as a rapper, music has long been a passion of his, having grown up listening to his brother’s Arrested Development albums, vinyl that a cousin of his in New Jersey pressed, and an extensive list of rap legends. “I was into Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, Hammer, Nas, any of the cats that were doing it in the ’90s…before my mom took my rap tapes away, after she found out about some of the messages in them,” he says.

Even at an early age, however, Bell took to writing journal entries, which evolved into lyrics over time. Still, Bell contends that until a few years ago, it was mostly in the interest of having fun.

“Conceptually, at a very young age — about 3rd grade — I started writing,” he says. “Not even from a lyrical, rap standpoint — they were just journal entries. It was more stream of consciousness. I would incorporate some Snoop Dogg lyrics, but without some of the content that wasn’t appropriate for that age. In high school, junior or senior year, I started writing raps in class, when I was supposed to be taking notes, and I’d record some stuff with my friends. We wouldn’t record anything seriously — Christmas albums and things like that. It was never really a professional pursuit.”

Bell has only recently been indoctrinated in contracts, management, and other aspects of the industry’s business side. But perhaps more surprising is that he hadn’t even performed live until 2008. Part of his reluctance to take the stage came from shyness, but Bell also is very humble about his role as a performer, staying genuinely excited about the idea of being part of a greater whole than seeking the limelight.

“I had never really performed ever,” Bell says. “Having friends in the band performing with me, and not so much having to be the sole act, did release some of the tension. It’s a learning experience every step of the way. It’s kind of like an adolescent going through puberty. I’m glad I got over it early on.

“I’m a reserved type, a private dude,” he adds. “It was a change in lifestyle, from being in the classroom from 9 to 5 to being on tour. You just have to adjust and use that platform for what you want it to be—more like you’re part of something.”

As a lyricist, Bell has a playfully verbose and witty flow, but as a writer, he’s methodical and focused. Whereas some rappers are all too eager to point out their freestyle skills, Bell spends a lot of time with the music to bring out his best work, sometimes keeping a song on an endless loop before he’s finished with his verses.

“I definitely do take my time and methodically construct the rhymes,” he says. “I write to a tempo. I can write in rhymes to any beat on the radio. I wrote probably eight verses to a Smiths song, ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes.’ Some songs I don’t, but I like to sit with the music for a while and vibe with it. I like to be…not tired or delirious, but I like the wee hours of the morning — maybe fall asleep with it. I’m always writing, conceptualizing, and memorizing. I try to place puzzle pieces in proper form and fashion.”

Kenan Bell may have packed up his chalk and yardstick, but as he ponders where his career takes him, he muses that he’s merely addressing a larger pool of pupils.

“I don’t know if it’s something I’ll return to, but I have a new platform, and new parameters to my classroom,” he says. “I just want my art to shed some light on my experience.”

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