Dark Gable

Big Daddy Kane: The Hip-Hop MC on Las Supper, Madonna, Jay-Z, and What’s Next

Curtis Stephen talks to Big Daddy Kane about Las Supper, Madonna, and what’s next for the hip-hop star.

Olivier Middendorp/Hollandse Hoogte, via Redux,Olivier Middendorp

Big Daddy Kane (né Antonio Hardy) hasn't released a solo album since 1998, but retirement is the last thing on his mind. In fact, don't call it a comeback—he's been here for years. Widely acclaimed as one of hip- hop's greatest MCs, Kane first grabbed the public spotlight alongside the Juice Crew, a 1980s-era rap collective whose iconic roster featured producer Marley Marl along with lyricists MC Shan and Kool G Rap.

As everyone from Slick Rick to MC Lyte reigned supreme during hip-hop's New York–centric heyday of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Kane held his own by delivering rhymes—punctuated by clever quips—that seamlessly veered from rock-the-mic braggadocio and playful romance (he dubbed himself “Dark Gable”) to sociopolitical commentary. And while Kane sparked controversy among rap purists for collaborating with R&B artists, he also crafted a blueprint for his protégé, Jay-Z.

And now, at 44, Kane—a father of three who resides in North Carolina—is exploring uncharted territory once again. His fusion band, Las Supper, has just released their debut album, Back to the Future, which is steeped in the pop-soul catalogue of Motown and Stax Records. He's also gearing up for a solo European tour that begins later this month. Kane spoke to The Daily Beast about his Las Supper venture, posing semi-nude with Madonna, and his hometown of Brooklyn.

In the video for Las Supper's first single, “I Believe in Love Again,” you're performing at a 1950s-style sock hop. How did this collaboration come about?

Big Daddy Kane: This project has been three years in the making. It's [singer] Showtyme, [R&B band] Lifted Crew, and me coming together. I met Lifted Crew when they were my backup band at a show that I did at B.B. King's. It meshed together perfectly, and we realized that we could create a refreshing sound. It's feel-good music that everybody can enjoy. Honestly, I truly feel blessed to still be doing what I do.

It's been 25 years since you debuted with the critically acclaimed album Long Live the Kane. How did you approach writing songs for it?

Early on I was a fan of Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers. I liked the way that he used a bunch of words to rhyme together in one line. And I picked up sarcasm by watching the older cats at the barbershop. They were just out there talking and saying slick lines to one another. I also got inspiration from Smokey Robinson. He had a unique way of painting a picture. I loved how he could make the word “public” rhyme with “subject” just by pronouncing it differently.

At the time, rappers were evaluated based on their lyrical content and technical proficiency. What's your view of today's commercial hip-hop scene?

Since hip-hop was embraced commercially, quantity is in higher demand than quality. It kind of reminds you of the disco era with the emphasis on hot singles as opposed to great albums and artists. One of the biggest problems now is the lack of artistic development. When I came up with KRS-One and Rakim, everybody had to step their lyrical game up to build a fan base. People were taking off $5,000 gold chains to wear little $10 leather medallions that represented peace because that's what Public Enemy was about. Once the artistic development comes back, that will change the pace of things.

You were panned for working with Barry White and Patti LaBelle. In retrospect, how do you view the criticism?

If other rappers had the opportunity, they would have taken advantage of it. Who wouldn't want to work with Patti LaBelle, Barry White, or Quincy Jones? If I hadn't gone on the road with Patti LaBelle, then I wouldn't have brought Jay-Z on the road with me. When I saw her leave the stage to change clothes and allow the background singers to keep the show going, I said, “That's something I wanna do.” So in the middle of my show, I would leave the stage and Jay-Z would come out and rhyme.

How did Jay-Z come to your attention?

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There was a guy who lived around the corner from me called Fresh Gordon. And he wanted me to make a tape with [rapper] Jaz-O. When I went to Gordy's house to make the tape, Jaz asked if his man could rhyme on it as well. That was Jay-Z. So I said, “Cool.” After we got through, some of the cats asked me if I could help Jaz-O get a record deal. I told them that I liked the skinny light-skinned dude [Jay-Z] better and that I'd rather work with him. That's how we connected and started working.

In 1992 you were featured in Madonna's explicit Sex book while posing with her and Naomi Campbell. How were you recruited?

Warner Brothers sent me, Madonna, and Color Me Badd on a promotional tour to visit kids in the hospital. We were at a hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side where a lot of the kids were excited to see Madonna and Color Me Badd. But some of them didn't know who I was. Madonna was saying to them “That's Big Daddy Kane, one of the greatest rappers in the world.” And she was even singing the hook to “Ain't No Half Steppin’.” After we finished, she asked me if I could pose for her book and I said, “Cool.” No hesitation.

You also made history and drew some backlash by appearing in Playgirl. How did that happen?

It came about by joking with my publicist at the time, Gene Shelton. He said, "We did everything from Right On to Essence. What's left?” I said, "Playgirl?" So we pursued it and the shoot was wonderful. A first for hip-hop. A lot of my male fans thought it wasn't a good look for me. But as for the female fans, I think that month was the magazine's highest sales for black women between the ages of 18 and 25. What can I say? I like breaking ground and exploring new things.

You were born in Bedford-Stuyvesant. How do you view the social and economic changes currently happening in many Brooklyn neighborhoods?

I think it's interesting. But at the same time, I think a lot of the history is going away. The Regent movie theater, Albee Square Mall, and [record store] Beat Street are all gone. That's why it's easier for me to live elsewhere because it's all a memory. Brooklyn is in my head and in my heart.

After helping to popularize flattops in the ’80s, the hairstyle is gradually making a comeback. Any plans to grow one again?

Honestly, I thought it would come back. But I'm still surprised to see it. No matter how much it comes back, though, it's something that I won't relive again. I don't care if they rename it “The Kane Touch,” I'm good.