HUCK catches up with the white, suburban, college-educated rapper who doesn't care about being an underdog in hip hop.
There’s an old joke in which a young man, visiting the Stanford campus, sees a professor and asks: ‘Where are the bathrooms at?’ The professor replies: ‘Here at Stanford, we do not end our sentences with a preposition.’ So the kid rephrases: ‘Fine. Where are the bathrooms at, asshole?’
Kristine Flaherty, aka K. Flay, is neither the academic nor the rule-breaker archetype. She’s a little bit of both. Standard demographic boxes would pigeonhole her as a twenty-six-year-old, white Stanford graduate (with degrees in both psychology and sociology). But she’s also a female rapper/producer from the Bay Area, who’s opened for Snoop Dogg and Ludacris.
Flaherty grew up in suburban Chicago, an environment she describes as “a little Stepford Wives-y”. Aside from what she heard on mainstream radio, she didn’t come into contact with much rap. Then in 2003, she moved to the Bay Area and her ears were opened to underground hip hop. It wasn’t culture shock, she says, but rather “cultural inundation”.
“Growing up I was very regimented,” she says. “I was super focused on school and found comfort by controlling my day-to-day life. When I got to college that fell away. I was in a mind-state where I was ready to open up to different ideas.”
Impressed that local radio supported local artists like E-40, Flaherty immersed herself in Bay Area hip hop, taking influence from UK rappers like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley. “It felt similar to Bay Area stuff because it was hyper-local and non-traditional in rhythmic patterns and flow,” she explains. She played a few shows on campus but remained focused on her studies until graduation, during which time producer AmpLive – of hip hop duo Zion I – encouraged her to bring the technical side of beat production and mixing into a live setting.
Today, her live shows are a confident display. K. Flay stands behind her tabletop of electronic goodies and creates live beats. Once they’re good and looping, she steps out in front, throws herself around the stage and keeps audiences laughing with her stream-of-consciousness, almost Dadaist, banter.
She’s released a series of mixtapes and EPs, with 2011’s ‘I Stopped Caring in ’96’ and this year’s ‘Eyes Shut’ gaining recognition beyond the local scene. But a career in rap, post-Stanford, was never a conscious goal. “I sort of stumbled into it,” she recalls. “Everybody has this thing in their life, where you end up in a situation, even if it’s just a party on a random Saturday night, where you’re like, ‘What the hell happened to make me end up in this living room?’ That’s kind of how I feel about the music stuff.”
“Regimented, disciplined and sober” is how Flaherty describes her life until age twenty-three. Now, thanks to the touring lifestyle, she’s living “significantly faster and looser”. As such, she’s found herself questioning, “who I really was and which part of me was fooling myself, if either”. Her friends and family never envisioned her on this path. “They think this is the strangest thing ever,” she laughs, adding that her mother and stepfather attend every Oakland show.
But when it comes to fitting in, Flaherty thinks about those tick boxes a lot less than everyone else, despite the fact that she doesn’t fit the hip hop mould. “The female whiteness has been, more than anything, this weird novelty component which can initially discredit me, which I understand,” admits Flaherty.
But despite prejudice from haters, Flaherty thrives on changing people’s minds. ‘I didn’t want to like you but I did’ is a post-show comment she hears a lot. “It can work to my disadvantage but more often than not people are intrigued at the very least,” she explains. “Even though I’ve had bad shows and made bad songs, at the time I wrote or performed them, I was very sincere… It’s hard to really shit on someone who’s being genuine, even if you don’t like what they’re doing.”
K.Flay may not be alone in what she does, but she’s not about to fall in step with artists like fellow Oakland rapper Kreayshawn or Australia’s Iggy Azalea. For one thing, she doesn’t feel the need to sexualise herself or produce the next party hit. “They’re doing upbeat, party, ‘have fun’ music whereas my music is getting increasingly depressing as time goes on,” she laughs. “For the most part, in order for a female performer to be a viable artist on a mass scale, they have to be hypersexual. It doesn’t exist for males in a comparable way. I’m not making it a part of what I’m doing. I don’t know if that’s working.”
And as for acceptance? Even if it matters, she’s not about to chase it. “I have come to the comfortable realisation that not everyone’s going to like what you do,” she says. “We’re coming to this point where young people grew up with rap music as part of pop music. The way that people in their twenties understand hip hop is very different to how people in their thirties think about it. But one of the core principles of hip hop and rap is authenticity and self-expression.
“Besides, I like the fact that being a white female makes me a little bit of an underdog,” she continues. “People are ready to confirm that I’m terrible and that’s kind of cool. [Underdog stories] make the best movies… At the end of the day, I think it’s good to have more people in an underrepresented group doing whatever it is because it makes it less of a novelty. The more women who are doing it in a visible way, the better.”