Alfred Howard says he never really wrote anything until he was 22 years old, when he gave up getting drunk: "I drank as much, as long as I could remember. I mean that's all I did. I always had so much going through my mind and didn't know what else to do."
He's 25 now, and the Boston University transplant has already written and published a book of prose-poem-travelogues called Serpentine Highway. He's recorded a mostly improvised album of the same name, an ambitious jazz-rap fusion on which the MC is backed by his band, the K23 Orchestra. He's also recently shared stages with two of his biggest heroes-San Diegan Karl Denson (ex-Greyboy Allstars) and Zack de la Rocha (ex-Rage Against The Machine).
"When I stopped drinking and got sober, I just had to do something with all my thoughts and energy," Howard recalls. "I was riding a bus [across country] and by the time I arrived, I'd filled a journal. One of the pieces I wrote was a poem to my girlfriend, and after I'd read it to her, I decided I was an MC.
"Just like that," he says. " And now it's all that I am. This is all I do now."
Howard has relentlessly gigged at spoken word and nightclub spots for three years, slowly building a buzz among hip-hop heads, jam bands and post acid-jazzbos with the K23 Orchestra. A band of completely disparate misfit-savants, he says K23 has taken his art into unexplored territory.
"I don't really know anyone who's doing what we do," he says after a marathon practice session with the band (whose name is taken from Tom Robbins' book, Jitterbug Perfume). Sitting in his converted-bedroom in Mission Hills, Howard clears a space for us to sit.
"If you listen to my roll call on [the song] "All Praise' and then look around my room, you'll see how completely wrong my influences are," he laughs.
True enough: Bob Dylan... Miles Davis... Radiohead... Murder City Devils... Jane's Addiction... Neutral Milk Hotel.
"I've been way into Modest Mouse lately," he shrugs. "So to be labeled hip-hop-putting aside what Miles [Davis] said about all labels being cages-is just not really what we are at all."
Also true enough.
Al Howard & K23's second effort, Kudra, is really their first cogent statement of purpose, an eclectic manifesto where the better moments of burning fusion and prog-jazz percolate within a driving, Bitches Brew-like maelstrom. To some, it's confusing, hippie phazz. But to discerning, sympathetic ears, it's a stylistic revelation-for San Diego, anyway.
After being co-produced by local stalwart Sean Hart (Wise Monkey Orchestra), the new album is sure to raise Howard & K23's visibility; but the frontman is just happy to have such a great band behind him-along with his formerly booze-addled mind-clutter.
"I got to meet Perry Farrell because of this writing thing," Howard beams. "I got to recite my poetry for Zack [de la Rocha] and sit in with Karl Denson at Street Scene."
Recently, he read his spoken word piece "Definition of Patriotism" at UCSD's Che Café-first to hero de la Rocha personally and later as part of a benefit for convicted activist-civil liberties martyr Sherman Austin. He offers to recite it for me.
"It's short," he promises-though no lobbying is necessary.
"George W. Bush is not the president of America," he recites, with the singsong phrasing of an African griot's melodic drone. "Coup d'etat post-millennial hysteria/ using media weapons of mass deception to fuel the mass distraction/ there will be massive repercussions/ to this war against weapons of mass destruction...."
There's more to that "short" poem-his idealistic, leftist-radical ideas weave political headlines into occasionally clever mind-fuck couplets. Howard's verses sometimes fall straight off the shelves at Rhymes 'R' Us. Far more often, however, he's capable of turning simple raps into mesmerizing, vocal-bebop narratives.
At his best, Howard's words sound like they're taken verbatim from a Nikki Giovanni-Def Poetry Jam collaboration, a blue-collar, anti-complacency slam for society's dispossessed. Performing, Howard evokes the archetype of the perpetual outsider, one who's fated to walk alone in dissent-but he comes across in person as if he could connect with anyone.