In 2010/11 songwriter/rapper Kaleb Vitae (K.One) announced his arrival within our national music industry through a series of Top 40-charting singles recorded with Jason Kerrison (Walking Away) and hip hop dancer-turned singer J. Williams (Night Of Your Life, She’’s A Killer, Want To Rule The World). In 2012 he released his album debut, ‘Far From Home’, and toured the country with boy band Titanium on their Come On Home tour. Martyn Pepperell caught up with K.One to background his imminent second album, ‘Out Of Thin Air’.
Snapped up, off the back of an EP of demo recordings, by Illegal Musik, Kaleb Vitae moved from his Masterton home to Auckland and began to aggressively pursue a full-time career in music. Having spent seven years working as a silviculturist in the forestry industry, Vitae approached songwriting, recording and performing with an iron-clad work ethic. Coupled with a love of hip hop and RnB that stretched back to listening to Tupac cassette tapes in intermediate, things locked in for him quickly.
Three years on, he sits on the verge of releasing his sophomore album, ‘Out Of Thin Air’, the follow up to his 2012 debut, ‘Far From Home‘. With this consistently strong new release K.One says he has found his own musical voice.
“I feel like myself on this album,” he explains, sitting across from me in the studio room at Illegal Musik CEO Mark Arona‘s home in West Auckland. It’s a Monday morning, and while American neo-soul legend D’Angelo’s latest album plays in the background, K.One and crew are recovering from playing several shows out of town over the weekend.
“There is nothing on this record that isn’t me,” he continues. “I’ve been myself on this record so much, and it just happened. I wasn’’t trying.”
‘Out Of Thin Air‘ is framed up by mid-tempo dancefloor beats and guest vocals from the likes of Brooke Duff and Pieter T. Within those confines, K.One presents natural-accented thoughts on his past, present and future. Stylistically, the album situates him within a similar musical space to that occupied by American rappers Macklemore, Pitbull and Flo-Rida. While he leans on the brand of club grooves and memorable hooks utilised by these commercial figures, K.One details his songs with storytelling narratives more closely related to Roc Nation artist J. Cole.
“I relate to J. Cole as much as I related to Tupac,” he enthuses. “I love great rap storytellers like Nas and Saigon. I loved listening to Tupac when I was 12; he made me feel like I was from California. With J.Cole, a lot of his life stories resonate with me. He had a solo mother and hung out with gangsters, but was into school. I feel like we come from the same place with these stories.”
K.One recorded his first album ‘Far From Home’ with Illegal Musik’s in-house producer Inoke Finau (N.O.X) in an intensive 10-day session.
“I just went and laid my rhymes, then left them with N.O.X.”
While that experience was successful, with his eyes on a follow up recording it was time to become more involved in the process. Between releases, K.One built himself a small home studio. He spent hours watching YouTube tutorials, and learned how to record demos with Logic Audio.
“N.O.X is a musician and a producer, not a beatmaker,” he explains. “We have to write our songs and bring them to him, and then he builds the music around them.”
Given N.O.X’s approach, the easiest thing to do was find loops and write to those, which, in a roundabout way, lead to the new album’s piano-heavy sound.
“I’ve always loved piano, and I’ve always loved intro tracks on hip hop albums and mix tapes,” he reflects. “The start of a lot of J.Cole and Drake albums and mixtapes tends to be piano heavy. The sound just really appeals to me.”
As a result of this process, K.One ended up writing all of the vocal parts on the album (apart from Pieter T’s feature on I Wanna Tell You). He finds verses quick and easy to pen, and the real heavy lifting happens around the choruses.
“Once I have a hook down, the whole song comes together naturally.”
While he admits to moments of trying too hard to please other people in the past, during the creation of ‘Out of Thin Air’ K.One relaxed and sunk into his skin.
“I let go and realised I’m cool, and I don’t have to try for the person I thought I needed to be.”
Across its running time, the album places a premium on positivity. There were two driving forces at work here: fatherhood and settling into a happy home life. K.One has two daughters who live in Masterton with their mother. As they enter their teenage years he’s been looking at music differently.
“My daughters are at an impressionable age where they are starting to listen to ignorant commercial rap and RnB. These songs are everywhere in the online age, and it makes me realise that’s not how I want to portray myself or have them look at me. I want to make sure it’’s all good.”
Alongside that, his first few years in Auckland were a wild ride he admits, but right now he’’s in a stable and happy relationship and surrounded by good friends and family. A few years ago he went on a health and fitness kick that increased his self-confidence and gave him a new window into what his live show could be.
“I consider doing shows to be a workout now. I go out there to come off exhausted and drenched in sweat.”
Coupled with that energy, came the writing of verses and chorus which, while rooted in his personal stories and struggles, also serve as a source of inspiration and connection.
“I really get a kick out of someone being able to relate one of my lines or songs to their lives. If I can help people, I love it. I get messages from people all the time. It’’s huge to me. My music is based on my experiences, and they really resonate with that. I’’m rapping in a very NZ way with these songs, and that came naturally, but I also want to teach kids that it’’s cool to be from here. It’’s all about connection; connection is everything.”
Although N.O.X produced the majority of ‘Out of Thin Air’, it also features one guest production from P-Money.
“Working with P-Money was my first time going outside of Illegal Musik for production,” K.One reveals. “He was on it, and we hit it off. He’s a producer, not a beatmaker. I tried to work with a bunch of NZ hip hop producers, but the drive wasn’’t there from a lot of people. There were long lapses between communications. Whoever wasn’’t keeping up got left behind, but P-Money made it.”
He also had some close friends come in and lay down horn and keyboard parts on some of the songs.
“I wanted everything to have a really live feel. I was lucky to have some boys who love playing music as much as I do. They were always down to come and play in the studio.”
With a clear understanding of how his album came together and what it’’s about, the question still begs itself, ‘why the title?’
“‘Out Of Thin Air’ stems from something my mother used to say,” he laughs. “I would come home from school and ask what was for dinner? She would always say, ‘Thin air’, but come dinner time, there was always something on the table. We didn’t have the most, but there was always a meal. It’s just homage to the whole idea of creating something out of nothing.”
Which is exactly what Kaleb Vitae has been doing, and continues to do with his music. His story is far from over.