Kat Ouano///The Keys to Crown City
Before I met Kat Ouano I would never have guessed that there were young boys and girls in Kansas playing classical piano competitively. Not for the love, not for their parents, but for the judges. Kat knows all about it because she was one of those youngsters. Recently I went to the Elbo Room in the Mission and watched Kat burn up the keys for the Crown City Rockers.
The Elbo Room was packed like a rush hour Muni, sweat droplets were condensing on the ceiling, people bobbed and nodded frenetically to the beat—and then Kat played her solo. With the rest of Crown City behind the curtains, the crowd’s energy fell upon Kat like a camera lens coming into focus. She wound hip-hop around classical music like audio braids. This is how Kat orchestrates when she plays—she started by giving judges goose bumps in Kansas, but now she spends her time in the Bay Area teaching people how to dance at hip-hop shows.
What time does your best work happen?
At night, when there’s no real distractions and you can be awake without bothering anybody and without being bothered. I’m a night owl, that’s why I can’t stick to any real job because then your life becomes centered around this fixed schedule. You can’t go outside of that boundary because then the next day you won’t be able to function.
If you make music while you’re exhausted your music will be exhausted, monotonous. You get the same tone in everything and you’re thinking why is it so dull? Maybe because you’re starting it at 4 o’clock in the morning(laughs)! They’ve always said a true musician has a day job, you’ve seen those bumper stickers, but it’s like, you know, it’s got to be a balance of being a true artist and knowing where you’re going if you want to live well.
I guess it’s the romantic ideal.
Yeah, I love the romantic ideals. It makes life worth living instead of just working for somebody else … If I go a couple of days without making any kind of music, not playing, not making a beat or not hanging out with the guys and just talking about shit, I’ll just turn into a weird-ass weirdo that’s mean and grumpy and doesn’t want to make a decision, and I have to ask myself what’s going on? Then we’ll get together and have a rehearsal and I’ll think, “oh yeah, this is what I need to be doing all the time!” But then there’s those devils in there, like, “Here, we’ll pimp you, take a job and we’ll give you all this money!”
Just so that people know a bit more about the history of Crown City Rockers, how did you guys originally find each other?
We started out as Mission. We actually all met in Boston because me, Max (Max MacVeety) and Headnodic (Ethan), all met at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Headnod knew Moe Pope from the streets and then me, Headnod and Moe moved in together. Moe knew Raashan (Raashan Ahmad) who had lived out in Boston before and was convincing Raashan to move back out to Boston from Pasadena. Raashan knew Woodstock from Pasadena and Raashan convinced Woodstock to move out to Boston, and that’s where we formed. That’s also where the name Mission came from because we were all living in Mission Hill in Boston. And then we all moved out to California for a while and that’s when we released our first album, Mission One. Then the UK band Mission asked us to change our name.
How did you come around to that name?
Raashan and Woodstock are from Pasadena and Pasadena is the “crown city”, I guess it’s like the crown of the valley, and so that’s where Crown City came from. Rockers just sounded cool, it sounds like an old break-dancing crew, or like an old roller derby team (laughs).
So now that you’ve been out here for a while, how would you compare the two different hip-hop scenes?
Wow, they’re totally different, like in Boston everything is a hustle, you’re constantly moving and everything is constantly moving around you. It’s a different atmosphere. I don’t want to say grimy, but it’s more gritty and has a little bit of a rougher edge, whereas out here it’s all smoothed-out and more chill. You can kind of get lost in letting things happen, it’s more relaxing, but it still has that funk, that chill, party feel. But actually I haven’t been back to Boston in so long. It’s this fantastic idea in my head of how it used to be. That goes along with the spirit of being young, I want to go back now and get that hustle back (laughs)!
I’m curious to know how the process was of adapting your classical training to hip-hop music?
I guess there’s a direct correlation with performing in general. When I was playing classical music competitively in Kansas it was performing for the judge. It was to keep the judge totally focused and interested. It’s the same thing with a show, you have to keep the audience totally with you no matter where you’re at. If you’re really excited then they should be excited as well, if you’re really intense then they’re hanging on every note.
Performing in general is … theatrical. In classical music you can get a heart beating really fast depending on what you’re playing and how intense it is. With a hip-hop song it’s the same thing, you know? That song “It’s The” that I play, that’s a classical piece morphing into a hip-hop song. It’s the perfect marriage of those two. I’d be playing a Beethoven piece or something like that and just imagine a beat behind it because the tempo is there; it’s like a zone that you’re in.
So do you have a good sense of what the audience is feeling most of the time?
Totally, but it changes with every audience. Depending on the audience, it’s like a chameleon effect, you’re trying to feel what everyone is feeling so that you’re all in that same little bubble. Say one night your playing a show at a little bar, there’s maybe like five people there drinking beer or whatever. There’s not a huge stage, it’s just our amplifiers and a tiny PA, so we’ll just tone it down a little, make it a little more jazzy, free it up. We don’t have a real set list, we’ll experiment with them but it will be relaxed. Then the next night it’s a huge stage, a huge crowd, lights and everything. With more people you have to exaggerate your energy and really bang it out so that everyone can get a taste.
How do you decide where to place your notes in the songs?
It depends on the song. The process is that there is no process (laughs). We’ve tried everything—including trying to have a process—but that just gets thrown out the window. It can range from us just jamming, having a good session while Raashan is writing and bam, there’s the song. Or we’re jamming and somebody presses “record” during the session and we find one bit that works and we go off of that. Maybe we’ll move it around but that piece is what we build off. Or someone comes up with a beat that just sounds totally cool, like Woodstock made a beat one time and said, “Could you guys try to replay this and make it sound better?” There’s five people in the band so we have five filters for the music, and if one person says, nah, that’s not bumpin’; it needs something else, then it needs something else! And all of us are nit-picky as hell! That’s the quality control (laughs)!
Where do you see hip-hop going in the next few years?
Well, I see a lot of hip-hop bands coming up these days which I think is great because so many of the kids out there see hip hop as just being about a deejay and an emcee, which is definitely what it is, but they need to be exposed to more live musicians to really experience how music is created on an instrument rather than just samples.
So is that where you would steer hip-hop?
Hell yeah! I’m a musician! I would also make hip-hop shows more entertaining, If you’re going to go to a hip-hop show, it should give you something that you’ve never seen or felt before. Sometimes they’re just so boring and everybody there is angry (laughs). It’s like okay, maybe that’s the show in itself, maybe you just go to be all tough and everything, but I know you feel different (laughs)! Come on, show it!