When My Eyes Closed: King Reign - 1975 to 2016 A Q&A with an Artist Missed
Published Jun 30, 2016"It turns out I don't have nine lives, but don't cry for me." King Reign
Toronto's Kunle Thomas, better known as King Reign, died of a heart attack on June 28, 2016. He was only 40. A shock.
Not enough people heard his music and felt his art, but the man was supremely and diversely talented. He was wise and, like his album title, sincere.
I was honoured two years ago when Reign's manager, David "Click" Cox, asked me to write a little promotional blurb for that LP.
Over the course of an hour-long conversation, Reign was chatty and honest and warm. But the result of that conversation — one that touched on family and religion and beginnings and legacy — amounted to a couple hundred words in a press bio.
It didn't convey that Kunle Thomas was a proud son, brother and father of a young daughter and son. An artist with a big hopes, a stack of ideas and pure intentions.
Here are Kunle's words in full from that afternoon in early 2014. I hope they make you understand the person we lost, encourage you to listen to Reign's songs, and consider donating to his children's trust.
Asked about being a dad, Kunle said, "When you have somebody in your life that's always happy to see you, you can't lose."
What are your earliest memories of music?
When I was four of five, I got a Fischer Price record player and I got Teddy Pendergrass's "If You Don't Know Me By Now" 45, a Mini Pops record, and a Bill Cosby doing Fat Albert record. I used to kill that Teddy and that Fat Albert record; the Mini Pops drifted away. Those were the first songs I played constantly on my own, but in my house my dad played jazz and calypso and ska, a lot of R&B.
I remember the drumming and the African beats that my dad, my uncles and my mom would play. The first rap I memorized was the Jody Watley joint with Rakim ["Friends," 1989]. I wrote down the lyrics to his verse. After that I tried it myself and never went back. My dad played records all the time, so I wanted to have my own.
They had this thing called the Workshop in Toronto, and my dad would travel around Canada doing African dance and drumming. My mother was part of it, and that's where they met. So I was born into that. It's been going on for more than a decade now, the Afrofest and all these festivals. I have uncles that have done [musical] things in Trinidad, too, so I get a lot of my influence from that.
Where were you born? Toronto?
Yep. Born and raised in Toronto. I was born on Eglinton West, which was filled with Italians and West Indians back then. I moved to Scarborough when I was five. My mom is from Guyana, my father from Trinidad, and they met at the Workshop. They used to perform at Harbourfront. That was a home for me back in the day. I remember how the Harbourfront smelled and all that. I told people in Grade 2 or 3 that my dad owned Harbourfront. I thought he did because he was managing it and we could go in the back. I said that on a [school] trip to Harbourfront.
I've heard you were drawn to hip-hop though its melodies. Can you explain?
People forget, we were breakdancing to that. There were a lot of R&B records you were breakin' to. There wasn't a lot of just breakdance instrumentals. Hip-hop had a lot of melodies back in the day. A song like "If I Ruled the World" caught me more than "Rapper's Delight." Especially when I started to do my own thing in the '90s, that's what I started doing. The guys I came up with, we all sang our own hooks. We weren't the greatest singers, but we added some melody into it.
And I love all forms of music. I don't listen to hip-hop alone, like I did as a teenager. You re-find old things. I built my catalogue out of Columbia Record House, when you could buy all those albums for a penny. I really reconnected with the music I was about. All the music I love has melody. I'm half Trini, and I love calypso music. And the melodies in calypso are some of the sweetest in the world. I'm glad you asked that — that's what I'm going back to.
Describe your high school crew.
In high school, we were Da Moove. How it started was, me and my boy D-Naps, Dwight Crossfield, I found out he was writing rhymes too and could rap. He found out I was rapping because I kept it to myself for a long time. He decided to go into a show, and we got a band together, which consisted of a bass player and a drummer. We played [A Tribe Called Quest's] "Check the Rime," and the place went crazy. We didn't expect that, so we just kept rapping longer than we were supposed to. We had half-an-hour or 45 minutes on stage, and we weren't supposed to do that.
It was the real TV experience — girls pulling on me at the front, wanting to come onstage. You know how you get that power for the first time? Wow. Really?! And these were older girls to me. I was like, "This is great." I felt like people reacted to what I was doing, and I didn't expect that. They didn't know people could rap like that in their school. So we decided to go to the studio after that. He was the one who took the initiative; I can't take credit. I might have just kept writing to myself. Once we did that show, though, it was a done deal. We went to a jazz musician's studio — I actually had summer jobs there after. We recorded two or three songs, then Naps went away to school. I quit for a few years, and then I came back with this King Reign shit.
So when did you get involved with BrassMunk?
Agile is family; our parents are cool with each other. They didn't go to school too far from me; we're all in the 'Borough. I remember seeing them performing while I was doing my solo thing. In the mid-2000s I got signed to Sony and had put out "Looking for Love," "Uptight," "Guilty Party," [with Saukrates] and "No Man." Those songs helped me get the deal across the border, and Agile came and told me May 19 had left the group and they wanted me to join the group for an album as BrassMunk featuring King Reign for the full album. Sort of like you see Mathematik all over the Freedom Writers' album [Now] but he's not officially in the actual group — that's the deal I had with Brass. But once we started working on the album, I was on pretty much every song, so let's just call it BrassMunk, it's all good. We were already fam. We had friends in common, and our mothers were tight. Me and Sauks have a family connection, too, and we didn't know about that until we made a couple joints.
You've collaborated a ton. When did you decide you wanted to make a name as an individual?
I stepped aside from the music industry for a while. Even when we started the first group, me and Naps knew we'd pursue solo success. I like collaborating. I like the creative aspect of finding how to put our styles together. That was dope. Me and Brass did a good job on Fewturistic.
Why did you step away from music?
My dad used to call it "Black Power Days." Everybody has their time of finding themselves. Those were days that I was reading a lot and doing what you do in your early 20s. There was a lot of reading and activities that didn't involve going to the club and listening to hip-hop. I listened to Sade. I knew I wanted to do my solo stuff, and I needed to know what my direction was. That sparked my whole journey. I didn't want to embarrass my family, but I didn't want to be politically correct all the time. I can be the most appropriate person, but I can be the most inappropriate person. I didn't see how I could be an artist and still be this person who's finding himself. Then I realized: it's music.
You can find a balance after you go to the extremes. That's where I'm at now. The song "Grey" is kind of about that point where you think you know everything. I was debating pastors and various religions. I was downtown talking to Muslims. When I was in Trinidad, instead of looking for girls, I was talking to old pastors and imams and Rastas and Haitians, debating about religion. Life and spirituality was really a passion for me — still is. I feel, as a young man, you have to go through that to come out and find your own place. I would confide in my uncles, and they'd tell me they went through the same thing. When you grow older, you find out what the balance is for you, but you have to go through it yourself.
Songs like "Dear God" and "Audacity of Hope" lead me to believe you're a heavy thinker.
That's just part of me. I think I overanalyze things sometimes. That's the balance I'm talking about. Knowledge is one thing, but wisdom is knowing what to do with knowledge. That's what I'm still learning now.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced, career-wise?
The business side of it and recognizing my worth as an artist. As an artist you go into this thing because you love it. I was in the school band all the way through high school just because I love music. I didn't care what music we were playing — I loved that music too. We played "Pomp and Circumstance," and that was my shit. I love doing it, so you can get me for cheap. I'm a cheap date. So from the business aspect, soaking up what I learned when I was signed to Sony, this game is about taking advantage of every little thing you can get.
If we're talking, and you tell me "Blue Rodeo" would be a good title for song and you should get them on it — you're supposed to get paid for that. I do that all day. But learning how to monetize that, it took me a while. When you realize you should be who you are, but just approach it in a business manner. I was the guy who would hang out in the studio all day because a session might go down. I love that, but it was the hardest part. Everyone goes through that learning curve. Think of the hustlers in hip-hop — they came out on top because they were on the business. Whereas I was doing it for love. I would cipher for nothing, but that verse or that mixtape could have been monetized. I'd just put it out without focusing as much as I should.
So is that why you're independent now?
Yeah, because I'm learning that. And Click went through that in his own way. Now we're coming together with what we've learned from the major label experience and doing it fresh. All the stuff on the new album is new shit. We still got good music, still got a passion for it — that's not changed. Now there's more experience and more focus.
Why pick up a King Reign album over something else?
Everybody has their own era of when they really enjoyed hip-hop. For me, that was when everybody had their own style. I add my own style, always have. It's been tried and tested, and I've stuck to it. That gives me the confidence that it'll do well. The biggest complaint from my fans is, I don't put out enough music. People will like it. You don't have to be everything to everybody. There's gotta be at least a couple hundred thousand people that will like my shit, that will feel the same way.
There are no boundaries on my record as far as topics or the direction I'll go sonically. I put thought into my music, so that makes me feel I can compete. That resonates. The voice might draw you in, but the fact I'm actually saying something will stay with them. Even in Da Moove days, we were thinking of the UK because we had a jazzy style and played our beats live. We weren't totally relying on samples, but we'd still put the tape hiss underneath so it would sound grimy, and we'd give it big drums. We signed with Mercury and were focused on the UK market, finding people that vibed with the same music we did.
Which specific songs are you excited for the world to hear?
This joint called "Sincere," produced by Pro Logic. I'm curious to see how they take "Pretty Girl Lost," and I'm working on a feature for that. Another joint by Agile called "Chemical Romance." A song for the heads about racial profiling — I'm curious how the streets take to that one.
So you've felt racially profiled?
Oh, yeah. I get pulled over all the time. I remember being in traffic court and the lawyer asked me if I felt profiled. I said, "Yeah." I felt like going in for an hour-and-a-half on it. They asked if I wanted to file a complaint, but I said, "Nah, I'm good." It happens in the car and the feeling people have when they see a young black guy — it's not just a black thing anymore. It's insulting. I take it to heart, the kind of person I am, if people think you're violent. I've never robbed anybody in my life, but I've had people cross the street [to avoid me] when I'm walking home.
"Pretty Girl Lost" sounds interesting.
People often talk about the trials of a girl who's not seen as pretty or attractive, but there's a whole saga that goes along with girls who are seen as pretty but are alienated because of it. They called it "slut shaming" now. In these situations, they were put on the outside by other girls; they ended up being loners in their own world. You could blame them and say they're stuck up or too high on themselves, but that's not the case a lot of times. Sometimes that's a defence mechanism when people look at you differently or when girls start calling you a ho, or guys call you a ho because they didn't get through. Before I had my daughter, I knew nice girls with bad reps — and they weren't any more promiscuous than the girls who were hating on them. And I know that for a fact. They're pretty, but they live a sad life. It's a gift and a curse. Everybody has gifts they receive and pain they receive — that's where that came from. I wanted to find another angle to talk about subjects that have been touched. That's what I do.
What's fatherhood like for you?
That's the best thing ever. All this stuff we're talking about, I don't care. It could go away. At the end of the day, when you have somebody in your life that's always happy to see you, you can't lose.
Why title the album Sincere?
My music is really organic, so it's another way to say organic with regards to the sonic side of it. The beats have that vibe where there isn't just a formula. This is something we took time with. I tell a lot of stories on there, and they are sincere stories. I'm not naming names, but I'm keeping the true meaning of the story without being so literal.
What are you most proud of?
Making music that people like. If I can do what other musicians have done for me, that's cool. When I was younger I didn't think it was possible for us to be as big as artists from the States — that's why I didn't pursue it. There were a few guys who had a video and did small shows, but no one was breaking through.
What inspires you to write these days?
There's a song on the album called "When My Eyes Closed." He played me the beat, and when you hear the story, it's like Slick Rick's "Indian Girl" story. [The Great Adventures of Slick Rick] is an album that shaped me as an artist. He played the beat and it inspired a whole story from music. A lot of the music we're coming up with inspires me to write now. Before, you would just write raps — there were no beats. Now we have more beats that we can handle. This next record after Sincere is already conceptualized in my head. I know where I'm going after, and that's how this next album will be totally done. I'll do the music first, and let the music guide the lyrics.
You're working on a movie, too, right?
I acted in a movie. It was the first audition I ever went to. A friend sent me this audition two years ago out of the blue. I'm the only non-actor in it. I got the part to be a psychologist in a comedy. You can see me in my Cosby sweater on the website. It's a feature film. They put a lot of money into it. I'm doing voiceovers for it in December. I'm the black guy in the movie; it's not hard. The director says I'm a natural. It's Canadian, like a Corner Gas or Office Space type of humour. Lemon Crackers, it's called.
Why dip into filmmaking when you have so much potential in music still?
Because storytelling is my main thing, I've thought about getting into the visual side of it. I did daddy daycare for a couple years and decided to go back to school to Centennial [College] for past two years to bring music and visuals together. Now that I'm directing, I know it's not easy, especially pleasing artists. The edit could make you look horrible, especially after all the time and money invested into the video. "Looking for Love" and "Guilty" — those two I was happy with. I found a love for the videos early. I'm shooting a short for "When My Eyes Closed." I'm not the selfie guy. I'd rather do it this way — put together productions and shoot stuff. I'm learning how to shoot, direct, edit and have it up in a day. I did a gig for Canada Goose where we shot their fashion show and had it edited for the next morning. Film money is better than music money.
What would fans be surprised to learn about you?
I like a lot of new stuff. I'm not a bougie hip-hop head. You know that song "What Does the Fox Say?" — that's my shit. I'm in school right now, and I'm jamming that shit all the time. That's the music I like. I wasn't doing it for people to hear. I like everything. I like to sing and act, too. On Sincere, I go all over sonically and have some fun with it. "God Complex" is about religion. I want people to know they haven't seen exactly who I am yet. That's why I want to keep putting out music. Your going to get a better picture as every album comes out.
What would be your ideal legacy?
An artist like a Sade or Bob Marley. One of those artists where you can pick up the record without waiting to hear the single first. An artist you can depend on — that's what people should know me as. Same thing with D'Angelo or Counting Crows. I'm going to buy the record. That's the kind of artist I want to be. No one has to hear Prince's single to go to his concert. As I get older, I want to be that artist where people could hate the new album but still come to the tour. I could be 65, but they come about to support me because of the catalogue. Maestro's another one. He did a show at Massey Hall recently and it was packed.
Why King Reign?
I was Reign, and on some MC shit, I threw King Reign in there once for a rhyme. When I got signed to Sony, they said we have to keep the King in there. I wasn't against it. Reign stands for Rhyme Energy In God's Nature. It was more a take off King of Sorrow — I'm taking my pain and learning from it. I'm the conqueror of sorrow.
Check out King Reign's performance of "Sincere" for Exclaim! TV below.