Like a bank robber, she asks for hands in the air. On cue, the packed club becomes a forest of swaying arms. The woman on the mic with the smoked-out voice calls herself K.Flay. She sounds like Billie Holliday rhyming verses of Emily Dickinson over some sad girl trip-hop. But like Tupac, K.Flay hits hard when she punctuates her phrases. The Stanford grad can spit streams of tongue-twisted syllables with the speed Bruce Lee punches faces. On her first studio album, after releasing four mixtapes and three EPs herself, she’s proven she can also do it delicately with the catch of a pop hook.
Tonight, all eyes are on her, as she stands tall, and boasts, ”giant on the mic, they callin’ me Paul Bunyan.” Meanwhile, her blue ox of a drummer, Nick Suhr, rattles the walls of the club like a one-man stampede. A few songs later, the two play a percussion duet. Headbanging to the boom-bap, K. Flay embodies the beat as she pounds the skin of a drum. The rhythmic dynamic she and Nick create is as sexy as it is intense. Hard and loud. Or soft and soulful. Bragging. Aching. She mixes it up, and with each song, she makes new fans.
After the standing-room only show at Los Angeles club The Echo, for at least an hour, as Friday night becomes Saturday morning, K. Flay [aka Kristine Flaherty] signs autographs, poses for pics, gives hugs, and makes unique memories. When she finally unwinds in the green room, the San Francisco/Brooklyn-based rapper took some time to sit down with Playboy and talk about her music, her love of hip-hop, and the empire she’s building as one of best emcees in the game.
PLAYBOY: Your new album is called Life As A Dog. After years of making mix-tapes, how did you approach your first full album?
K. Flay: I was signed to a major label (RCA) for over two years, and when I left last year, I was sort of in a state of disarray, psychologically. You’re part of this infrastructure, and then suddenly, you’re untethered. Everything I’d worked on while I was signed to the label was off-limits since it’s owned by them. But it ended up being a very good place for me. Over the course of four months, I wrote everything for this record. It’s very much a moment in time.
PLAYBOY: Working the road with your drummer, Nick Suhr, who’s a beast on his drum kit, how much fun is it for you creatively, and how important is your partnership?
K.FLAY: It’s awesome. He’s basically like my little brother. What’s interesting is that, from a studio and recording standpoint, everything is samples. But, Nick and I have been playing live together for three years. I think there’s something interesting about having recorded music be discernibly different from live music. Obviously, the words and melody are the same, but it’s a unique expression. With Nick, I can create a live experience that’s more like … live, punk hip-hop?
PLAYBOY: You bang the shit out of that drum when you and Nick play the percussion duet. Were you a beat junkie as a girl?
K.FLAY: All I used to want to do is headbang. It’s funny because I never used to make music; I just loved to headbang. I loved to operate physically as a drum. And now, I get to do that in a more real way.
PLAYBOY: You joined acts like Enter Shikari, Terror and Air Dubai for 2014’s Vans Warped Tour this summer. What was it like doing a major festival?
K.FLAY: It was kinda like psychological warfare in the sense that you wake up at seven-thirty morning and at nine-thirty you get told when and where you’re playing. It may be 10:45 in the morning. It may be 8:30 at night. From a performance standpoint, being emotional and vulnerable at 11 in the morning is very… difficult. There are many people who are, like, grumpy at that time. Y’know? [laughs]. It’s the first time I’ve ever had coffee onstage.
PLAYBOY: How involved are you in the creation of your music videos?
K.FLAY: I’m very involved. In a weird way, I’m sort of a moron when it comes to visual performances. For most of the videos I’ve done, it’s been me and a director, who is a friend—I’ve never worked with anyone who’s not a friend. Which is awesome. We have a new video we’re finishing up for “Make Me Fade [which came out this week] I think videos go one of three ways: they can be very literal, super-pop. Then there’s the extreme opposite of that—avant-garde, with super-artsy scenes. And there’s something in the middle. I hope that’s where we’re living.
PLAYBOY: You’re a woman in the hyper-masculine world of rap. Assuming you confront obstacles and meet conflicts based on your gender, do you consider yourself a feminist?
K.FLAY: Totally. The whole team—we’re all feminists. I travel with, I work with, and I love in my personal life, men; and I think that it’s an incredibly dangerous misconception to paint feminism as “in opposition to men.” There’s a conception of feminism that’s restricted to womanhood, when it’s clearly not. It’s a variation on the process of marginalization. As a white woman, I experience a kind of sexism, but other women experience different, multiple types of marginalization. Being embedded in the hip-hop world as a white woman is a bizarre thing. It’s both troubling and encouraging. They’re all kinds of emotions happening at the same time.
PLAYBOY: You tour like crazy, you’re out on the road a ton. So… would your rather drive through Texas or Florida?
PLAYBOY: Better name … Aubrey or Archibald?
PLAYBOY: Pick one … Nirvana or Buddhism?
PLAYBOY: Same … Otis Redding or Ol Dirty Bastard?
K.FLAY: [long pause] Otis Redding.
PLAYBOY: What’s your favorite cuss word?
K.FLAY: The one I most frequently use, just by virtue of language, is shit. But fuck is obviously like the most useful – it covers good and bad. Like, you can’t have sex with someone and say shit and have it mean something good.
PLAYBOY: What if the guy’s like, “Yo, baby, you were the shiiit.”
K.FLAY: (laughs) Well, yeah. That would work. Fuck is evocative in a very different way.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.