Rapping with the AbbotHunter student hones his rap skills
Imagine the usual suspects in any New York City subway car: the youngster selling overpriced Welch’s Fruit Snacks for his alleged school basketball team; a girl enthralled with Fruit Ninja; a young man scribbling furiously in his notebook or typing away on his phone.
That young man could be Hunter senior and Queens native Stefan Gale, writing lyrics. Gale is an aspiring rapper; he recently released his newest mixtape Bandit, hot on the heels of AfroPicks & Lemonade, which was released this August. He’s collaborated with artists and producers from the Upper East Side to the Netherlands via what Gale calls “a creative commons” website for artists that connects musicians across the world. Like Nas and the members of Run-D.M.C. before him, Gale uses the streets of Queens— and the commute from those streets to Hunter’s turnstiles—as inspiration for his rap songs, which he produces under the pseudonym Kensei Abbot.
“I find sometimes when I write something in one sitting—maybe from 68th Street. and Lexington to Main Street—and I can record it that same day, it actually comes out better than if, say, if I write it, sit on it too long and come back to it,” Gale says. The Creative Writing major attributes this to the draw of perfectionism: “I’ll scan a line too much and think, ‘This doesn’t make sense or I don’t like it or they won’t get that.’ I just have to remind myself that it’s not about that and focus on what I’m feeling in the moment.”
In a way, this sums up what you might call Gale’s musical philosophy. While he appreciates the polish that a vigorous revision process may bring to a song, Gale’s interests lie in the raw and the real. “I hate the idea of someone taking a song and working on it for three years or months, going over every line and making sure everything sounds a certain way. I don’t like heavily editing things, trying to make something perfect. Nothing’s perfect, “so that takes away from its authenticity,” he says.
Accordingly, his music’s subject matter tends toward the gritty. “Last night I felt somebody cut me but it must have been the breakup,” he spits in the opening lines of “Pulp.” Later on the track, he raps, “I’m a single shade away from living in the dark part of memories.”
“I don’t really like the happy endings kind of stuff—I don’t like the love and all that,” Gale explains, adding that darker subjects allow him to explore the “abstract and ambiguous.”
But while Gale certainly isn’t afraid to explore into heavy subject matter like drug use, he puts a unique spin on the content, often peppering it with pop culture references. “Could it mean that we could be a force like Lucas?” he poses in “Mr. Manhattan,” referencing Star Wars. “Subway Mantra (Come Out)” begins with a sample of “Eleanor Rigby,” while audio from Pulp Fiction plays over “666 Seahawks” and other tracks.
Gale’s pop-culture savvy gives the music a unique flavor, and illustrates his myriad of influences. He cites Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem and New York rapper Cage as inspirations, and the name “Kensei Abbot” is drawn from Japanese culture. (“Kensei” means “sword saint” in Japanese, and was a title bestowed upon peerlessly talented swordsmen.)
Gale also names 70s-era Chinese kung fu films as reference points, but though his inspirations are global, the seed for Gale’s musical talent was planted at home. “My father has always been heavy into [music]—he’s a bass player. He always had records around the house,” Gale says. “I was always around it, going to studios and events focused around music and performance, but I was never connected to it personally.”
His interest was piqued after attending a Cage concert in 2008. “Seeing an [underground] artist performing live and speaking to us showed me that I could do this. I could be that person on the stage.”
Gale knows he isn’t there quite yet. He balances a busy work and school schedule that makes it tough to commit hours on end to his music and writing. Like so many college students of any discipline, Gale says he is still trying to find a niche. “I want to delve into my own identity. I don’t find myself sounding like anybody else. I want to create my own sound and image through the lyrics.”
Gale’s journey is reflected in his music. His songs vary in style and sound, indicative of an artist exploring what fits him best. He aptly describes a recent mixtape, AfroPicks & Lemonade, as having a “summer vibe.” Indeed, the opening track “Every Morning Vibes” floats along with a summery ease, a perfect track for a breezy rooftop soiree. Meanwhile, the ebullient horns and catchy hook of “Hur$t Sweatshop” read July block party.
Gale abandons the casual flow on other tracks, like “Here We Go Again” off his mixtape 15,000,000. There, he delivers his lyrics with convincing urgency over a stripped-down beat, while on “Dopeman” he spits lines with staccato precision.
With the ability to take on so many styles, Gale’s struggle comes in defining himself. “I’m trying to find exactly what my image is, or if I even need one. As of now, it’s kind of like an artist trying to put the pieces together, and I feel like I’m a few pieces away from the puzzle,” he says. But no matter how the finished picture looks, Gale stresses that it must be its own unique entity. “You have to find your own style. In terms of the messages, the flows, the structure—break out of it. Don’t follow. Create your own lines on the page.”
Check out Stefan Gale/Kensei Abbot’s music on http://kenseiabbot.bandcamp. com, 800Kensei.blogspot.com, facebook. com/800bills or http://www.youtube.com/ eighthundredbills.