Kaze should’ve blown up by now.
The Virginia-born, Durham-based MC (pronounced “kah-zee”) has been a veteran of the Triangle hip-hop scene for more than a decade. He was there in 9th Wonder’s apartment, splitting pizzas and making beats, years before 9th became the superstar producer he is today. He’s emceed hip-hop open-mic shows in Chapel Hill, where a young Greensboro teenager named Jermaine showed up a few times to rhyme. (You may know him today as rising young star J. Cole.) He’s done tours with Ghostface Killah and the Clipse and opened up shows for Common, 50 Cent, etc.
As the man himself says, “I’ve done every feasible thing that I know how to do.”
Sitting in the Cary Barnes & Noble one recent Sunday afternoon, the 36-year-old Kaze (real name: Kevin Thomas) looks back on what he’s accomplished these past 10 years – mostly, what he’s done right and what he’s done wrong. The ball started rolling in 2003, when he independently released his debut album, “Spirit of ’94.” A year later, his old pal 9th Wonder offered to remix the whole project, supplying his own signature beats. It was eventually released as “Spirit of ’94: Version 9.0.”
Even with 9th co-signing on him, Kaze wasn’t a part of his Hall of Justus/Justus League circle. Being the type of artist who wanted to make a name for himself on his own terms, Kaze persevered. “I was on the outside of that, but it kind of left me in a situation where I had to, like, be independently creating opportunities for myself,” he says.
Kaze did go on to land some short-lived opportunities. In 2007, he got signed to Rawkus Records, which released his 2008 album, “Block 2 the Basement.”
“They dropped my album in the dark,” he says. “Nobody even really knows if that album even came out. It’s kind of a straight-to-digital release. I pressed my own copies just because I wanted hard copies available.” Things didn’t get better when he moved over to Universal Motown in 2009, where he released a mixtape with DJ Whoo Kid.
“I’m doing everything to create momentum,” he says, “and the label situation did nothing for me.”
By 2011, Kaze found himself right where he began, as another Triangle rapper looking for a shot. He admits to being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “When you’re just chasing the right to do this as an occupation, it’s a constant fight and a war,” he says. “And it’s just, like, so many times, I’ve been this close and, after that last time for it to not have worked, to kind of be, like, have people ask what happened to you and, you know, have a son come into the world and I lost my job. It left me literally at square one.”
It certainly didn’t help that he has been in the scene for so long that people assume he’s comfortable being a local favorite. “I think that, here, people are familiar with me,” he says. “It’s kind of a familiar – like, an old hat, in a sense. Where it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s Kaze. He’s right there. He’s down the street.’”
Of course, he knew he had to change things up. “The defining thing that’s helped me succeed has maybe also been the thing that’s kind of slowed my progress. It’s that it’s been a one-man show with me for a long time, and based between Durham and Chapel Hill. And, now, at this point in my career, I’m looking to say, OK, what else can I attain or do based here.”
One thing he’s definitely done is gone back to his independent roots. Earlier this year, he dropped a mixtape called “Black Kennedy,” a collection of tunes that has the rapper discussing, among other things, his journey so far and what’s he looking to obtain in the rap game at this point. The album also includes guest shots from local MCs like Jozeemo and Wreck-N-Crew.
Ultimately, even if he doesn’t take the rap world by storm, Kaze wants to remind everyone why he’s still doing what he does. “I do it because I love it,” he says. “I do it because this is who I am. This is who I’ve grown to be. Because I do have a story to tell. Because I am part of Carolina’s hip-hop landscape. Because I am a lyricist. Because I am a storyteller. Because I’m capable of making good music that’s representative of our area.”