You can think of Kenan Bell’s arrival as a shining star in the constellation of hip-hop as one of the slowest-developing coming-out parties ever.
Bell grew up in the lily-white Los Angeles suburbs challenging stereotypes. He’d look askance at anybody who assumed because he was black and tall he played basketball. He’d smile knowingly at anybody who expected him to be more gangsta than skater. He’d fidget nervously, self-conscious about his high-pitched voice, when anybody presumed he should be a rapper.
“I never wanted to be that guy, the one who plays to everybody’s expectations,” Bell says. “But I have started to realize who I am, that I have a deep love for hip-hop as an art form, that I need to do this.”
“Picture a bookworm with a ghetto blaster,” he raps in his song “Sounds Awesome” — and if you can imagine that in a 6-foot-5, sunglasses-sporting, argyle socks-favoring package, you have one snapshot of who Kenan Antony Bell is.
Now the 26-year-old, who has spent the past four years teaching spelling, vocabulary and handwriting to fourth- through sixth-graders, is ready to drop his own words on a hungry legion of hip-hop purists.
Bell’s debut album “Until the Future” is hip-hop for people who know their Basquiat as well as their basketball, who are as liable to quote Langston Hughes as MC Hammer, who can party as hard to a soundtrack of Kool Moe Dee as the Offspring.
His songs — biting yet playful, bumpin’ yet tuneful — were birthed in the journals he started keeping as a child. “I kept a diary, but I would write the entries in rhymes,” Bell says. “Every once in a while, I’d tell my friends, ‘Let me audition this for you guys,’ but I was too shy to perform. I always felt like kind of an ugly duckling in the vocal department — I’d get clowned for my voice.
“I was even shy being the ‘K’ in the Thanksgiving play in elementary school.”
Not that you’d know it now.
Boyhood pals Jason Burkhart, now the rapper’s unhinged hype man, and Jon Siebels, the former Eve 6 guitarist, kept after Bell to step to the front, and their rock-oriented production was too catchy to resist. After a long day of teaching, it wasn’t uncommon for Bell to walk to his car and find a CD of backing tracks waiting for him.
The music sprang from the friends’ wide-ranging common interests — Bell has a deep, abiding love for old-school hip-hop but is just as likely to name-check Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament, Michael McDonald, Sade and the Cocteau Twins as he is Arrested Development.
Recorded over parts of 2008 and ’09, “Until the Future” manages to be smart, sassy and sensitive, a rump-shaking liturgy from somebody who can wrap his brain around the existentialists but who might lose his heart to the girl at the next table.
From his first live show in January, 2008, Bell proved he can party hearty as well as smartly. Besides Burkhart and Siebels, his live band has boasted such ace players as Josh Klinghoffer, Eric Gardner, Matt Reagan, Nicholas Johns, Joey Rossiter, Kevin Harp and Seth Johnson.
Emerging from the Los Angeles indie scene — Bell did a residency at the respected Silver Lake club Spaceland — the band has opened for such varied artists as De La Soul (on its 20th anniversary tour), Jane’s Addiction, Dizzee Rascal, Kool Keith, Illinois and the Heavy.
Bell’s exuberant live performances belie his bookish past, but he’s not trying to prove anything, except his commitment to a new era of hip-hop.
“I never think, ‘If the haters could see me now …’” he says. ‘That’s not what motivates me. It’s the kids coming up who I feel deserve something better than the rap that’s out there right now. It’s the same passion I have for the kids I’ve been teaching — passion for the future and the future of this music.”
His song “Like This,” appeared on the video game NBA 2K10, was released as an iTunes single in November. And the single “Good Day,” unveiled in mid-December, boasts the B-side “T.G.I.F.,” featuring a collaboration with West Coast pioneer Aceyalone.
“Until the Future” will be released on March 30, 2010 (the birthday of Bell’s mother Charisse) on Siebels’ new label, Sonata Cantata Records.