Kentucky isn’t really known as a hip-hop stronghold. Though the Nappy Roots make music with a neck-snapping Southern spring, and the CunninLynguists are the region’s deep thinkers, it’s been tough for rappers trying breaking out of a state known for its bluegrass music. It’s like the spirit of Bill Monroe never left.
“It’s not like we’re in New York or L.A., so I feel like we have to really scrap,” says lyricist Allen Poe, a Kentucky native who recently released his new EP, Lightbulb Over My Head While I’m Thinking, a collaboration with producer Teck-Zilla. “But when you see some people [like Nappy Roots and CunninLynguists] come up, it bolsters your confidence.”
Kentucky isn’t that far from the East Coast; it’s just one state away from the Mason-Dixon line. As a long-time veteran of the Lexington rap scene, Poe has seen its geographical position create a melting pot of different sounds and flavors.
“So many people just do so many different styles of rap here that you can get away with doing just about whatever you like,” he says.
Poe makes music for hip-hop traditionalists. The rapper’s discography is united by a golden-age ethos—all scratchy soul samples, smooth boom-bap drums, snatched movie dialogue and complex cadences. It’s a style that reflects Poe’s rap education: While all his childhood friends copped the country-thick sounds of Cash Money Records, he grew up in Frankfort, Kentucky on a diet of Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and other heroes of the east. As teens, Poe and his friends would retreat to their basement lair and trade their latest rhymes over cassette tape beats.
An undergrad student at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green between 2000 and 2005, Poe was also required to spend one weekend a month at a local armory after signing up to the National Guard. The rest of his free time was spent writing rhymes and honing his skills on the battle rap circuit. “It felt like a sport and an art combined,” Poe recalls.
Music would have to be temporarily shelved, though. Shortly after Poe graduated, he was deployed to Iraq. A critic of the Bush administration’s decision to invade, his experiences in the Middle East left him feeling deeply conflicted: “I felt I was potentially willing to risk my life for something I didn’t believe in.”
Kentucky as a whole is expected to vote for Donald Trump this November. Poe, who was a big supporter of Bernie Sanders, describes himself as “bewildered” by the country’s political climate right now, singling out the demonizing of Muslims as being particularly grotesque.
“When I was young growing up, I had these questions in my mind like, ‘How could there ever have been a huge segment of people who disagreed with what Martin Luther King was trying to do?’” Poe says. “I feel like it’s a recurring thing. We’re really not above a lot of the things I feel like we should be above as humankind at this point.”
Following his military service, Poe—now a newlywed and a father—returned to Frankfort and reconnected with the same friends who years earlier ignored his calls to cop Enter The 36 Chambers. Getting in touch with his roots inspired him to pick up rapping again and, in 2011, he put out his first official mixtape.
On top of his regular recording, Poe became a blogger with thewordisbond.com, a site dedicated to covering rap music that’s off the grid. It’s there that he connected with fellow writer and Nigerian beatmaker Teck-Zilla. A fan of Poe’s 2014 release How Gardens Grow, the duo started collaborating, with Teck tailoring his instrumentals to suit the rapper’s style. The result is Lightbulb Over My Head While I’m Thinking, a throwback project inspired by a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi speech about the conscious mind.
“He presented it to me last year and he gave me all these notes,” Poe explains. “Everything you hear minus my vocals is what he sent me. It almost sounded completed audio-wise and I just had to fill in the blanks on it.”
At just 12 minutes and seven tracks, Lightbulb is more of a sprint than a marathon. The urgency is relentless. “Retro Scapes” sees Poe examining life’s journey and “taking an inventory on where I’ve been and where I’m at.” The playful beat and oblique wordplay is DOOM-esque, and Poe’s relaxed flow is a throwback to Slick Rick.
Elsewhere, “Where The Credits Are Due” matches Poe’s laid-back stylings to a smooth Curtis Mayfield sample, while “Jazz Overture (Intermission)” is a short segue, all freewheeling saxophone and jazzy-as-hell scat courtesy of soul singer Maka. “That’s all on Teck,” Poe says. “I think he has a … collective of Nigerian-based artists who I think he tries to feature and include on some capacity on just about everything he does.”
Poe is keen to keep up the momentum. There’s music in the pipeline with L.A.-based producers Beatnick Dee, among other collaborations. His goal right now, though, is to establish connections with artists in the hope of setting up a regional tour at some point in the next year or so, and take some of Kentucky’s finest on the road.
“I think that we have a strong thing, as in everyone here supports one another in whatever ways they can,” he says, citing the open mic nights and local radio shows as some of the outlets keeping Kentucky rap alive. “I think the rappers around here really do a great job of trying to take on as many roles as they can to try to put it out to the wider spectrum or population here that hip-hop is a viable genre, because Kentucky is not known for that.
“I would say that in the past five, maybe 10 years, it’s really starting to pay off. You’ll start seeing a lot of rap artists getting placements at really big festivals, which was unheard of probably more than 10 years ago, so I think we pushed really hard to make it a viable genre when that hasn’t always been the case.”
—Dean Van Nguyen