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Manifest destiny

Indie-hop phenom K.Flay makes her way to the majors



To paraphrase a line from South Park's Chef: There's a time for experimentation; it's known as college. Take whip-smart Chicago firebrand Kristine Flaherty, who passed through Stanford University, double majoring in psychology and sociology, and wound up a rapper. Redubbed K.Flay, she released two EPs and recently signed to RCA, where she's now readying her full-length debut.

K.Flay's brash, biting rhymes recall genre-bending rapper Dessa, which makes sense since she's a fan of Minneapolis' Doomtree collective. She became attracted to that same do-it-yourself ethos after hooking up with fellow Stanford grad MC Lars. K.Flay subsequently guested on his 2009 track "We Have Arrived" — promising to toast haters like Eggos — and co-wrote his 2009 Single and Famous EP.

"He's a great friend and he taught me a lot about the punk rock DIY way of touring and running things, which was a great way to come up," she says from a studio in Los Angeles where she's putting some finishing touches on her debut. "Growing up, I was very directed, focused and regimented — not to say I'm different now, but music and this lifestyle offered a really compelling glimpse into an entirely different world."

Rap's deep influence is evident in K.Flay's tight lyrical flow and meter. But it's also clear from her Eyes Shut EP, released last January, that she's not strictly a hip-hop artist. She's intrigued by dance and indie rock as well, with grunge guitar and ominous low-end throb gracing tracks like "Stop, Focus," in which she imagines "an inversion of my destiny, so now the best of me's caught by surprise." "Easy Fix," meanwhile, is based around a minimalist breakbeat and droning keyboard fills. It's a loose amalgam that doesn't fit easily into any slot, and K.Flay's fierce intelligence keeps things percolating.

"I wasn't part of emcee culture — battles and all that stuff — growing up," she admits. "And so, in some ways, I'm an outsider in every genre I work in. It's liberating. It gives me a little freedom not to feel like 'Oh, I'm transgressing.' For me, there kind of are no rules."

K.Flay's hoping her adventurous spirit manifests equally intriguing music, but she's not doing it alone. Almost every track on the forthcoming album is a co-write. She's tapped a variety of dance artists, including Prodigy's Liam Howlett, and indie rock artists such as musician/producer Dave McCracken (Depeche Mode, Ian Brown) who'd already worked on the Eyes Shut track, "Sunburn." It's a fine example of her attempts to punch up the skeletal arrangements with burst of texture and drone, creating an ebb-and-flow tension between the spare and florid.

"Dave doesn't do hip-hop stuff traditionally — he's an indie rock guy and a programmer/keyboardist," she explains. "Because of that, it made something that was really strange and was a ton of fun to work on. I remember us staying up super late, programming different ideas."

K.Flay won't deny it's a little intimidating preparing your first full-length album for release by a major label, but she's excited by the challenge.

"This is my first album and I'm experimenting a little bit," she says. "If you don't like it, that's fine, but at least you can respect the energy and spirit of where I'm coming from."

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