Music fans love stories of humble beginnings: tales of busking on street corners, writing songs in dank apartments or, in the case of most hip-hop artists, freestyle battles among friends and peers. These rap battles can be fun or competitive, but there’s something pure and authentic in them that music fans recognize. They can tell that it’s done for the love of the game.
Local MC, producer and spoken-word artist iD the Poet’s first freestyles weren’t on the suburban streets of L.A. where he grew up; they were in a rather unlikely place.
“Actually, I was working on an assembly line in a fish cannery in Alaska,” says iD, whose real name is Kurt Kohnen. “I just went there to work for a summer after I graduated high school, and it was some serious Laverne & Shirley-type shit, but way harsher. It was in the middle of nowhere. I’d written rhymes and poetry, but nothing ever became of it. But on the assembly line, there’s just all these characters and hooligans: guys from West Africa, ex-convicts that were 45 years old— all these different characters—and we’d just freestyle to try and make each other laugh. This was by no means a bunch of hip-hop heads; most were just old dudes who probably used to rap in prison.”
He laughs, reminiscing. “God, I would never want to hear any of my rhymes that came out of that.”
He makes it sound like he started rapping accidentally, or out of sheer boredom, but he hasn’t really stopped writing or performing since moving to San Diego in 1999. Like a lot of local MCs, iD started in the slam-poetry and spoken-word scene, but, at home, he was using his computer-programming skills to make his own beats. Eventually, he found his way to performing during hip-hop nights at places like Kadan and Landlord Jim’s, where crowds would eat up his gruff, deep voice and introspective, politically tinged lyrics.
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On the surface, it might not seem like iD has a lot to show for almost a decade’s worth of work—three solo albums, dozens of live shows and multiple side projects. But he says he’s never measured success by conventional standards.
“I’ve played sold-out shows with guys like Guru and Eligh from Living Legends,” he says. But, he adds, “a career highlight for me would be playing for 20 people that are super-stoked and listening and walking away with something real.”
While iD’s early material was often acerbic and political, his most recent project, a collaborative album with Dusty Nix called Bully Free (which is free to download on iD’s website), is more personal and thematically constricted. The George W. Bush years gave him plenty to write about; while he maintains that things are still plenty fucked up, he says that, in the past, he found it easier to tackle politics and consumerism rather than the issues of everyday life.
“Early on, the political stuff would just come easy to me, whereas the personal stuff, I just wouldn’t put it out there,” he says. “It wasn’t a conscious shift. But having gathered all of these songs, because I’m always writing, I just finally had to let it all out.”
Taken together, his body of work can be looked at not only as continuously evolving, but also as a clear representation of someone who makes music because he loves it. And music fans love the humble, hardworking underdog.
“I’ve been doing this for so long. Not nearly as long as others, but long enough to realize that all these things—winning awards, getting reviewed, getting a headlining gig—at the end of the day, you still have to go back and work on your craft,” iD says. “Some people are going to be more true to that fun hip-hop sound, whereas I could really give a fuck if it makes people’s head nod or just makes them stand there and stare. As long as I’ve got their attention, as long as they’re not walking away, as long as they can hear what I’m saying, that’s fine with me.”