Around the time Dr. Dre’s The Chronic blazed its way through the charts, a young boy on the Tulalip Reservation named Kisar Jones Fryberg began to listen to hip-hop. He also studied poetry, his personal favorite being that of Shel Silverstein. Using his own observations about reservation life—single mothers, jailed dad's, alcoholism, heroin use and the struggle to survive. It wasn’t long before Fryberg recorded his own poetry on a boom box, and his lyrics and music eventually found their intoto a 2005 single “About the Rez.”
Fryberg has since become “Komplex Kai,” and has made three albums. At 28, Komplex Kai has a new video, “Do Right,” in which he talks of wanting a better life for his children. Indian Country Today Media Network had a chance to ask the Tulalip rapper about his beginnings and thoughts about the future of Native hip-hop.
Komplex Kai—What is the story behind your name?
When I first started out in music, I came up on old-school Hip-hop. I started battling in my area with local rappers from my crew. I tried to make my lyrics more complex. Kai is just an abbreviation of my real name, which is Kisar. Ask anyone who knows me—I’m wordy. I talk a lot; I’m a wordy type of guy.
In “About the Rez,” there are a lot of specific issues that you mention, such as heroin abuse, alcoholism, incarcerated fathers and single mothers struggling for survival. Is there one or more instances that stand out that had an impact on your lyrics?
There are multiple things and instances without getting too specific and stating names in one way or another. I've dealt with those specific things. Whether through a family member’s experience or my own life experiences, I've come across or experienced firsthand all of those things. I still see those things today, some within my own family as well as our communities. All of this impacts my writing, what I write about, and the issues I choose to tackle with my lyrical content.
Who in hip-hop influences you?
A lot of West Coast artists like N.W.A. and all the members within N.W.A., especially [Dr.] Dre. When he put out The Chronic, I was only four or five. I heard it, and the beats fascinated me. That’s when I knew I enjoyed hip-hop as an art form. Tupac especially—that’s the highest form of poetry in hip-hop music, in my opinion. With ‘Pac, from our generation, I think he really was able to do that in a very good way. As I got older, DMX, Eminem, Nas—some artists from the ‘90’s that came a little later. I would definitely say ‘90’s hip-hop had the biggest influence on me.
What are some of the things you want to see better for your own children that you mention in “Do Right”?
Some of the themes and subject matter in “Do Right” I'd love for them to avoid altogether. Like when I say “the state only knows my Case Number and not my name,” I’d hope they never have one of those of their own or face some of the struggles or decision making that can lead to dealing with legal trouble or some of the other things I've encountered throughout life. All around, I hope for a better life for my children and would like to see them do better than I did, and have more positive experiences throughout their life and less of the negative.
How has your music changed from “About the Rez”  to now?
I pay a lot more attention to detail as far as the technical side of recording goes. How this line is falling in the pocket, trying to take more time on my hooks. On the technicalities of making music, I think I’ve elevated my game in that area since then.
The one thing I love about that track, it’s just raw. I was 17-18 at the time. All technicalities aside, it definitely captured a moment in time. I go back to it and look for inspiration, even to this day.
What is hip-hop’s appeal to Native youth?
As Natives, we have our own culture—it’s ours, and we do things our own way. That’s a positive. At the same time, hip-hop is presently, in my opinion, the culture of America. That’s what we do—we’ve got to live on both sides. Putting those two cultures together could be influential in a positive way.
What are your current music goals?
I’m always trying to get better musically. I’m always trying to do things that I haven’t done. Whether it’s meeting a new producer, whether it’s laying different kinds of music, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone. I’m always trying new things with the music itself.
What do you think it would take to get Native hip-hop—Native rap—more mainstream?
There’s a lot of Native artists. I’m always trying to keep my ear to the streets. First things first, we try to connect within the Native community, whether it’s from rez-to-rez or state-to-state. We’ll try to continue that movement as we have been.
I think, a lot of times, we might have to play their game a little bit. When I say “play their game,” don’t be afraid to make a song that might appeal to people outside of our community. Once we create a certain amount of success, then we can bridge the gap and say, “This is our real story—I made a song you can dance to. Now here’s a song to let you really know where I’m coming from and what our people are going through, our struggles, and what we’re trying to accomplish with this movement.”
Check out Komplex Kai's facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/KomplexKai
ICTMN's Brian Daffron can be found on Twitter by following @briandaffron.