There are two kinds of crazy in this world — crazy you stay away from and crazy that manifests itself as brilliance. Krizz Kaliko knows both ends of that extreme, whether by design or not.
Born Samuel William Christopher Watson, at age two — well before becoming musical co-conspirator to Midwest rap legend Tech N9ne — he developed vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes loss of pigmentation. His eyelids and lips are splotched white and he cuts an odd figure; in a crowd or alone, he’s impossible to miss.
“Growing up, kids would pick on me and kids would bully me,” he says. “They’d throw rocks at me and chase me home, because I looked different. It hurt. It changed me. Made me sad. But then, also, it made me do things to alleviate that sadness. I learned to sing. I learned to dance. I learned to rap. I was a fat little kid that didn’t look like anyone else — naturally, that became my biggest asset. Somehow, I became pretty popular.”
Kaliko was reared in the racially-diverse suburbs of South Kansas City, Missouri. His mother was a singer of local renowned gospel group; father, the superintendent of a Sunday school. He first stretched his vocal cords in the choir, and, had it been up to his parents (they divorced when he was just 4-years-old), he’d have gone on to a fine career as an attorney. After two years at Penn Valley Community College he quit school. Something else was tugging at his soul. Something from his youth.
“My stepfather used to whoop on me,” Krizz says, “He was fresh out of the pen, and he was a terrible dude. He was physically abusive and crazy, institutionalized crazy. Not only was he crazy, but also a criminal. He made his bones robbing banks and committing other serious crimes. For Kaliko, step-pops is an enduring source of much psychological pain.
“He terrified me” he says. “When people weren’t around and my mother wasn’t there, he’d abuse me. And nobody believed what I said. It was like I was the crazy one. I thought about killing him all the time, I’d think about it endlessly. Visualizing it, how I’d do it, I was that mad. I would get weapons from my friends — bats, knives, or whatever it would take. I thought: I will kill him in his sleep. And then miraculously the boogie man disappeared, he and my mother split up.”
Carrying his childhood scars, Kaliko spent his teens and early twenties drifting, not especially successful or unsuccessful at anything, he opted to not continue with college. He went on to hold a series of odd jobs. He was a grocery store clerk, corrections officer and even a customer service rep for VoiceStream (later to be known as T-Mobile) meanwhile, he quietly pursued music by rapping and singing, not hewing to any conventional standard for what it should sound like.
“I was just a fan,” he says. “And that allowed me to go in many different directions. I could identify with country songs, gospel songs, Christian rock songs, songs that were meant for dancing, commercial songs, non-commercial songs. I was and still am, a liberal thinker. I enjoyed everything, and through music I could do anything, be anything. Most importantly, I could be myself.”
One artist who appreciated Kaliko’s approach was rapper Tech N9ne. The pair met in 1999, through DJ Icy Roc, who once dated Kaliko’s sister. After paying Tech the whopping sum of $500 to feature on his solo album, the Strange Music co-founder discovered Kaliko’s diverse skill set. He asked him to appear on “Who You Came To See,” from his 2001 album, Anghellic, and then they began performing together locally. It lead to a years-long series of collaborations — Kaliko writing, producing, featuring on, touring with and generally being a musical wunderkind in the Strange Music family.
“It was like I was his musical muse, and he was mine,” says Kaliko. “We learned from each other. On stage, in the studio— nobody has believed in me, wanted more for me, wanted the entire world to hear and know and understand my talent, more than him.”
In 2007, Kaliko officially linked with Strange Music. Since then he’s released five albums, each one more confessional, more expressively oddball than the previous. Songs in his oeuvre include: “Bipolar,” “Misunderstood,” “Freaks,” “Rejections,” and “Scars,” as well as appearing on many others, endearing him to society’s misfits. In recent years, he’s also become more clear-headed about who he is and what he wants to do musically.
“For years I rapped and rapped well,” he says. “The fans enjoyed it, I enjoyed it. I made some good music, but it was time to try some new things.”
That much is clear from his new album, Go, where he ditches rapping almost completely. Instead he commands listeners to the dance floor, belts out melodies, softly croons, plaintively coos while generally seeming to enjoy himself more than he ever has before. Yes, nearly a decade into his career, Krizz Kaliko is rebranding, rebirthing — or as he’d say, returning to his roots — as a full-fledged singer. Pop, rock, R&B, trap, funk, no genre is off limits, no scale unsung.
“I just wanted to make timeless music, songs that could play twenty years from now,” he explains. “Go is a roller coaster ride. It starts out as dance, but then there are other parts where one might listen on a pair of headphones, because it’s very meaningful. Other songs you might turn up in your car. Through it all, I’m speaking from the heart.”
The album is chock full of earworms, songs both aesthetically-appeasing, yet also immediately captivating and catchy. Case in point: the brooding “Stop The World;” folky anti-depression ode, “Happy-ish;” or the shout-along “Didn’t Wanna Wake You.” Not completely abandoning hip-hop, songs like “More,” featuring labelmate Stevie Stone, and “Orangutan” — with Strange Music all-stars Tech N9ne, Rittz, Ces Cru, JL, and Wrekonize — invoke the crew’s knowing, trusty Midwestern flavor. Mostly though, Go is a new sound; all frenetic, inspired energy. It’s the biggest, broadest, most accessible project Krizz Kaliko has ever made.
“The truth is I’m an unlikely guy to be a pop star,” he says. “Look at me— I’m a big dude, I have vitiligo, I get anxiety attacks, and I’m bipolar. But Top 40 radio and a global audience, that’s what this music is worthy of. I’ve always been an unlikely dude to do anything, whether it’s music, working with Tech N9ne or even being alive. Frankly, the odds being against me, that’s good, I like that. I have trust that the music will ultimately reign supreme.”