Boston Globe, June 2, 2006
CAMBRIDGE—It’s been a busy season for MC Kabir. The local hip- hop stalwart has just released his third album, “Peaceful Solutions.” He earned an item in last week’s New Yorker, and MTV’s South Asian channel has asked him to guest VJ. He’s about to get married. And, of no less importance to this committed educator, his students at the uber-Cambridge Shady Hill School are honing their raps for their final concert presentation.
Kabir, 29, is a Cambridge creature, one whose domain extends from local stages to the genteel acres of West Cambridge, where he teaches hip-hop and physical education at the school and gives music lessons to individual students.
Affable, with a husky, gentle-giant presence, Kabir receives a visitor in the apartment he shares near Harvard Square with his fiancee, Rebecca Foy. The flat is an appealing disorder of keyboards, sound equipment, books, and records, amid which three cats lounge with authority.
We chat beneath framed montages of clippings and souvenirs from the Red Sox World Series and Patriots Super Bowl campaigns. He may be an international kid, half-Indian and half-Italian, who came to the United States in the late 1980s, but Kabir has embraced Boston with the fervor of an authentic townie. Put in hip-hop terms, he represents the Bean to the fullest.
“Oh yes, I definitely represent Boston,” says Kabir, who’s at the Paradise with the Coup on Wednesday. “I love Boston so much. Many times the thought has crossed my mind to move to another city. But I honestly don’t think I’d be happy anywhere else.”
Of the Boston hip-hop scene, much maligned for underachievement, Kabir speaks with a refreshing blend of enthusiasm, tempered by realism.
“I feel privileged to have worked with some of the artist pioneers of Boston hip-hop, like Ed O.G., Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, Esoterik,” he says. “But there are some terrific hip-hop artists coming up, on the right track to do good things. Whether they’ll have crossover appeal or become something more than local celebrities is another question.”
That question is one that bedevils Boston hip-hop artists, and, by extension, Kabir himself. As it is, he’s got an oddly segmented fan base, limited in part by his sophisticated lyrics and local-boy lifestyle priorities.
“There’s definitely a large base of high school kids who are feeling it,” he says of his music. “Not as much in college, maybe… . But there’s also a lot of people in their late 20s and 30s who are looking for more out of hip-hop. They can see the connections that I’m making to that early ’90s era of hip-hop.”
At the same time, Kabir’s distinctive background earns his work greater reach than that of your average conscious-lyrics schoolteacher-rapper from a provincial market. His father, reporters never tire of mentioning, is Harvard economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, a widely published Renaissance man.
“The whole son-of-a-Nobel-Prize-winner angle is played out,” Kabir grumbles. But his matter-of-fact testimonial style means that the topic comes up in his lyrics, albeit in the context of family stories, as in the elegiac “Letter to My Grandma.”
And it’s fair to imagine that the New Yorker item, written by another Harvard faculty offspring, Larissa MacFarquhar, owes at least partly to the academic celebrity angle. (This reporter should mention he once took classes from the elder Sen.)
But one of hip-hop’s axioms is “It ain’t where you from, it’s where you at.” It’s a double-edged statement that means that anyone, irrespective of origin, can be an MC, but that once they are, they had better bring the goods.
Kabir brings the goods. His thoughtful, uplifting lyrics the new album contains exactly one mild obscenity and easy pace recall conscious-rap hero Common. Kabir’s sound brims with the experience of a skilled multi-instrumentalist.
“What I like about him, he doesn’t just know how to rhyme, he makes beats and he teaches kids, which I appreciate,” says David Crump, a Boston hip-hop educator. “He’s got his own style. He’s definitely a student of hip-hop. He’s like a throwback MC.”
“As someone who has studied music and has really developed my ear, I think I’m in a position that a lot of other MCs aren’t, and I want to get the most out of myself. Whether it’s from Indian music” at this point, he breaks into a deft recitation of Indian classical scales “or just coming with a sick flow that people relate to on several syllables.”
Kabir credits his lyrical adroitness to his years spent obsessively freestyling an essential art of hip-hop, in which MCs improvise as they rhyme, with a premium on humor, endurance, and technical wizardry.
“For five or six years I lived, ate, breathed freestyling,” Kabir recalls. “I remember loving that process, making people laugh, never knowing what I was going to say next. We would go to certain parties because there would be other MCs there.”
Competitive emulation honed Kabir’s flow the fluidity and forward propulsion of his rapping, with meter shifts, intricate extended metaphors, and cascading internal rhymes. It separates him from much of the “backpack” or nerd-rap crowd with which, given his themes and vocabulary, he might be bunched.
All this leaves Kabir in a niche of his own. Burdened growing up with mixed identities and multiple expectations, he’s moved not always easily, he hints from “Cultural Confusion,” the title of his first disc, to “Peaceful Solutions.” He credits his twin passions of music and teaching for his own inner peace.
“I’ve learned the value of patience from teaching,” he says. “The album is about rechanneling negative energy, in a global political sense, but also about everyday interactions that make you a more peaceful person.”