With an impressive roster of artists including L’Orange, Oddisee and Apollo BrownMello Music Group has successfully set the bar for unique talent in today’s hip-hop scene. Originally intended to be an EP produced by Black Milk, the very first album signed by the label back in 2008 was what would become Kenn Starr’s latest album. Due to scheduling issues at the time, Starr decided to take on the project and make it his sophomore solo record.

His debut album, Starr Status, was released with a different label almost ten years ago, and the rapper wanted to ensure its follow-up would be worth the wait. Square One dropped today (Jan 27) and features collaborations with Kev Brown, Oddisee, Black Milk and Sean Born, among others. Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble spoke with Starr last week to learn about his musical influences and why he’s living proof that sometimes life just gets in the way.

How did hip-hop come into your life?

Pretty much, for as long as I can remember, all of my older cousins and uncles played hip-hop around me. Yeah, my earlier memories – Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee. I was always around the music, so it was kind of a natural transition for me to get into it. I’ve been rhyming since I was like ten. It’s always been there. I never even thought about that question matter of fact. I’ve never not known hip-hop.

I catch a lot of people off guard with that one. When did you decide to make it more of a full-time gig?

Well, I think I started pursuing an actual career with it more aggressively in my late teens. I was in a couple different groups. You know, just going through the typical hustlin’ for money for studio time and cuttin’ demos and all that. It finally paid off around 2003 when I signed my first deal with an independent called Halftooth Records out of New York.

Who would name as artistic influences or inspirations?

My golden era, like the cats who really were most influential in my formative stages, I would have to say Common, Mos Def, Kweli, The Roots, De La Soul, Digable Planets….A Tribe Called Quest, definitely. Midnight Marauders is like the one that set it off for me. It was just that era of music that really formed my whole style.

Your debut album Starr Status dropped in 2006, but you were working with Low Budget Crew in the early 2000s. Do you think Low Budget Crew assisted in your success as a solo artist?

Oh, most definitely. Being a part of a collective with so much talent. I always say this, even if I had no interaction or relation with these fellas, I would still be a fan of them. I owe so much to Kev Brown, Oddissee – just dope individuals, man, and still sharp and skilled, and being around cats that made me want to perfect my craft and step my game up. Being around that for so long, it definitely had a tremendous effect on me as a solo artist.

What’s it like being part of the Mello Music fam?

It’s a wonderful experience. Shout out to Mello Music Group…..I’m glad to be a part of what they’re doing right now because they’re putting out consistently great hip-hop music. There’s other comparable labels, but to be part of a label that you would buy a record from not even knowing who the artist is just because it’s coming out on that label, that type of vibe, I can do nothing but applaud their consistency. And to be a part of that, it’s a blessing. I’m glad I got the opportunity.

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Yeah everything I’ve heard from them is dope. Your upcoming album Square One is scheduled to drop next week on January 27. How is it a reflection of your growth as an artist in the years since your last release?

I always prided myself on making really honest music. I think this album is going to reflect that. It’s going to continue that tradition. I really just get into kind of where my mindset has been over the past several years in between Starr Status and the new project. I think people will be able to see the growth, you know, creatively. As far as just the experience, I feel like I’m a more well-rounded person. I didn’t have a lot of life experience when I did my first album. Now, I feel like I can bring a better level of maturity to the music, so I hope that that’s reflected in the music.

Did anything contribute to the time gap between the two albums?

I mean, it was a lot of different factors that played into it, but mainly just life. Life has a way of humbling you. Shortly after I dropped my first project, I started working full-time. I’ve had a couple of false starts with trying to put projects out in between and, you know, just personal issues and all of that. Next thing you know, I look up and it’s been nine years. I really feel fortunate to even still have an opportunity to put music out on this level because, you know, that’s a lifetime in today’s hip-hop time. So, yeah, I’m just appreciative.

I interviewed Black Milk last week, and he mentioned being more interested in the production side at the moment. What was it like working together on the new album?

Actually, I didn’t get an opportunity to work with Black directly. Mello Music Group was able to make that connection happen. Shout out to Black Milk. We were initially slated to do a project together, but it kind of didn’t work out. But, you know, nothing but love for that dude. This was some years back when I first started interacting with Mello Music Group. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the face-to-face experience, but looking forward to maybe it could happen in the future.

You should reach out. He’s down to work with anyone interested right now. What are your plans for 2015? Are you going to tour?

Nothing slated yet. Hopefully, a tour situation pops off. My number one goal, even if it doesn’t happen by the end of the year, I really want to get to South Africa. I don’t understand why, but I love the fact that such a large portion of my fan-base is from South Africa. They show me love like no other place in the world.

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Yeah, they love their music down there.

It’s craaaaazy….I actually had a show scheduled for Johannesburg a couple years ago that fell through, so I want to see that through and get out there and reach out to the people.

You should put it out there. I’m sure they’d be happy to bring you out.

Shoot. I’ll have to make an announcement, and tell these promoters to make it happen. Everybody I know who’s went say it’s a life-changing experience. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Is there anything else you’d like to share or promote?

Just the album. Everything is about Square One on January 27. I hope the people take the time to listen. I hope they enjoy it. You know, I just want to keep the momentum going and continue to give them more material.

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