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K-Penn Interview with Max Bunster at Star Theater 4/20

(Thursday, April 20th 2023): The Star Theater was hosting national act Dizzy Wright for a stop on his “It Gets Greater Later” tour. Dizzy brought a few openers and also had support from a few performers based locally. A bill like this can be daunting for an artist, especially the one tasked with going on stage first. A room full of potential new fans however, can be a valuable opportunity to seize. Portland rapper K-Penn is no stranger to rising to such occasions. The house music faded and the attention of the crowd was soon forcefully yanked in by a clearly seasoned MC ready to do his thing.

K-Penn left the vocal backing tracks at home and brought only thumping instrumentals and his staggering stage presence. When asked by some excited new fans after the show about whether or not he had ad-lib tracks playing, he said “Nope, I just did both”. With a solo MC act, it can be daunting to come up on stage and spit over just a beat. A backing track can fill out and bring a sound more reminiscent of the studio version that embodies the full vision of the song. K-Penn brought a burst of energy and crowd interaction that kept everyone in the room keyed in on his every bounce and bump.

Dublin Pub, located on the outskirts of Southwest Portland, has become a point of interest for underground hip hop in the city largely due to the home K-Penn and culture blog/artist collective “Realest On The Rise” has made there. The scene they’ve fostered there is focused on bringing deserving local talent to the forefront. K-Penn himself is certainly on the rise, and if he has his way, he’ll be continuing to further the efforts to put Portland on the map as a home for phenomenal talent in the rap game.

Insights on the recent LP release, “Real One”, his career as an indie artist in Portland, and his 4/20 show at the Star can be found in the following interview conducted after the show. (KP: K-Penn, MB: Max Bunster).

MB: Tell us a little bit about your recent debut album release, “Real One,” and the process of making it.

KP: Honestly I felt like with “Real One” what I was trying to obtain was like, some of my favorite artists like Dom Kennedy, there’s always been a certain element of hip hop tracks that have an R&B influence to make them pop-centric almost, so I was almost going for a certain bag where the K-Penn sound was epitomized to something that was still true to hip hop but accessible to radio where people from different cultures and different music backgrounds can be like, “yeah I appreciate this,” as opposed to more hip hop heads or people deep in hip hop appreciating it just for the rap aspects.

MB: But crossing both simultaneously you’re saying.

KP: Right, it crosses both. That’s what I wanted to try to do was not compromise the art by making it too accessible, that was sort of the balancing act.

MB: Would you say that manifested in more of a lyrical or production-based approach? Or both?

KP: A production approach with a certain amount of lyrical integrity. When you try to make something with the idea of “this is going to radio” it can screw up the whole project. But if I make something that I like that just happens to have no cussing, then maybe it might work! It can be hard to find sometimes, but if I find the right beats and the right producers to help me access that part of my musical brain then by all means I’m with it. It’s just a matter of meeting those people, and I was lucky to be able to meet them within the timeframe of working on this project.

MB: How long were you working on it?

KP: A little over two years. It’s the longest time period that I’ve ever spent between projects. It’s 16 tracks that I cut down from like 30. I really wanted to make it something that I could finally put out and then go on a little EP run before working on another album like this in the future. I don’t want to force it.

MB: So you’re dropping “Real One” and other projects as mostly an independent artist but with a connection to a brand known as ROTR (Realest On The Rise). Can you explain a little bit about what that is and your relationship with it?

KP: ROTR is something I created as kind of like a collective at first when I was like 13, we just created this thing that was supposed to represent putting the real shit first and the bullshit behind us. Just trying to elevate and bring real hip-hop to the forefront and represent what we think is good within the culture. Eventually, I want it to turn it into a media empire, of sorts. Right now it’s more of a blog, playlisting, there’s a record label type aspect with me dropping stuff… eventually, I want to do management-type stuff, where we’re able to have our artists retain their masters and we work as, like a promotional agency almost. When you leave you go on to your own things, but when you’re with us we try to get you out to as many people as possible. Bring the real shit to the forefront.

MB: Including being attached to ROTR, what have been your strategies as an independent artist for growing your fanbase and promoting projects, especially a large one like the one you just came out with?

KP: Honestly, I would say because I’ve had to be my own manager basically my whole career from like 2012 til now, I’ve always tried to experiment with new marketing strategies and tried to live and learn and find what works and what doesn’t. Right now I’m just trying to get in front of as many new people as possible, I feel like a lot of my music has been more for me, and centered towards people that are directly in my fan base already as opposed to bringing in new people intertwined with it. I feel like changing up the music with this new album, playlisting, and trying to get myself in front of new demographics. Sometimes what happens, when you keep throwing stuff out into your own little pond, you can only get so many fish. My goal is to go into different things and be in front of new faces. That, and doing a lot of performances, especially at The Dublin Pub, that’s sort of been like the guerilla marketing tactic.

MB: You mentioned throwing shows at The Dublin every month. You’ve really seemed to foster a scene there for independent local rap/hip-hop artists. How did that relationship get built?

KP: Well, I had one connection with a different venue, but the person working there ended up leaving. I was looking for a place to do consistent hip-hop/rap/R&B shows, but a lot of people don’t really want to give a chance to a predominantly black cast of performers doing hip-hop/R&B because they feel like it’s going to be rowdy or bring in a different demographic than what they would want. That was really hard to find without being taxed out’ the wazoo by the venue. That’s what we were struggling with at first, and then luckily my homie Ky Roberts was able to hook me up with a co-headline spot there. From there, I was able to use my people skills and credibility to talk to the owner and convince them I had the opportunity to bring consistent crowds for these shows.

MB: There definitely is, usually a pretty decent turnout. You’re certainly bringing them traffic and returning customers every month.

KP: We’re trying to show people we’re really doing it, and doing shows consistently. We’re really trying to bring an elevated experience and new artists to the forefront too, that you may not have heard of. People looking for a nice experience on the weekend once a month, $5 at the door, to come get some beers with the homies, chop it up and listen to some dope live music.

MB: That’s really cool that you’ve been able to build that. I know that’s definitely an issue with this city for smaller artists within that genre; finding spaces to perform on a consistent basis. Jumping off of that, what are some of the ways that you’ve seen Portland hold that community back, but also any ways you’ve seen it grow?

KP: It’s been interesting, I’ve had experiences doing assistant videography for Mike Video, doing affordable videos with a lot of artists just trying to get our name out there. Being able to see different areas of the Portland hip-hop scene through that has gotten me to see the different ways that people collaborate with each other. Now I feel like we’re getting to a state where people are more consistent to be like “Yo I fuck with you and what you’re doing,” and they share it, getting new people finding that person’s music… just people helping each other. You still get the crab in the barrel effect though because it’s a small pond and everyone wants to be the king of the pond. Almost to the point where it’s like a weird intimidation factor where people feel like, “If I heighten this person up too much, it’s going to take me out’ the market”. It’s almost like a weird corporate type of game and I’m like n***a this is music bruh, you know what I mean? Like you gotta make your bands somehow, but at the same time, it’s like, when money starts to take over the integrity of the art, at that point you’re just gonna get kicked out for a suit. I just feel like the one thing is just being organic and trying to just be as authentic as possible in terms of like, just trying to be you and not trying to fake the funk. You ain’t gotta lie to kick it.

MB: Hell yeah, I fuck with that for sure. This is not the first time you’ve opened up for a national act at The Star, do you notice a bump in new fans after a show like this?

KP: Oh, for sure. I think of it like, a performance is a performance to me. I’m always gonna take it like it’s game time, but with the smaller shows (at The Dublin) I kinda know the people that are coming are probably gonna know me more, so I’m able to fuck around and experiment. Like, y’all came into K-Penn’s world knowing you’re coming into K-Penn’s world. Over here, when I’m at bigger venues like this, it’s like, “how can I give them a preview to something where it’s like, I don’t know this cat, but what I saw was dope so I’m gonna look him up.” That’s the main goal.

MB: Yeah, I can definitely see how that would affect your setlist choices

KP: For sure it’s like, I wanna do certain songs but that doesn’t mean people are gonna wanna look me up. They might be like ,“that’s cool” but I need to do more than that if I just have 13 or 15 minutes.

MB: Overall, how do you feel about how it went tonight?

KP: Honestly, as long as I feel like one person out of the crowd, because like, I’ve done shows at big-ass venues where you think there’s gonna be hella people for your set, and then you go out there and it’s like two people… it’s like your mom and someone else. So at the end of the day, whenever there’s at least one person who comes up to me and is like, “Yo I fuck with that!” that’s a win. That’s one person that didn’t know me before.

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