There are very few people in the Triangle who have been impacting and influencing North Carolina’s hip-hop community for 18 years and counting. From two promising label deals, to curating self-produced open mics and a hip-hop festival, to managing VibeHouse, a studio space for creatives, and now, most recently, hosting a radio show that centers issues of race, equity, and social justice within the Black community, Kevin Thomas (Kaze4Letters) seems to have done it all.

But there’s a small downside to quote-unquote “doing it all”—you can’t really do it all. While Thomas has a long list of accomplishments, and he has invested time and energy cultivating the Triangle’s hip-hop scene, there were almost seven years between album releases.

In the early 2000s, Kaze made a name for himself as a skillful battle rapper. His debut, Spirit of ’94, was released in 2003 on his own label, Soul Dojo. Eventually the album garnered the attention of Raleigh’s super producer, 9th Wonder, who remixed nearly 75 percent of the project and prompted a rerelease titled, Spirit Of ‘94: Version 9.0 via Brick Records

Thomas has experienced the highs and lows of the music industry. Arguably, though, the lows—a label deal flopping, for instance, or losing a studio partnership due to differing visions—have allowed him to continually reinvent his role in North Carolina’s musical ecosystem. While being forced to work from home, the pandemic has given the husband and father—and current arts and culture director for the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership—the space to prioritize his artistry.

In October, he released A Thousand Shades of Black. through the independent label United Masters, a route that enabled him to retain 100 percent ownership of his royalties. With the release, Thomas has returned to his indelible core identity: Kaze4Letters the emcee.

INDY: What aspects of your process changed with A Thousand Shades of Black?

Kaze4Letters: It’s crazy, what quarantine has made happen. It put me in a space where I had to stop! There isn’t any more VibeHouse—I had to close that in July, so that put me in the house with all of my equipment. March and April seemed like it was the end of the world, and it caused me to focus in a different way. At that point, I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I was like, ‘Yo, if this is this is how we’re going out, I want to focus on making sure that I leave a piece of art that really represents how I want to be thought about.’

I’ve been working behind the scenes to become a better songwriter, producer, and singer. I’ve been able to carry harmonies in a way that’s true to me. I think this moment is me evolving into the realest version of myself. I come from playing in the band. I grew up messing with the violin, playing the trumpet. My dad was a jazz dude. There’s so many elements that I did not present in the early incarnation of myself. I didn’t present everything that has influenced me.

Would you categorize the content as similar that of A Thousand Shades of Black?

I’ve been heavily influenced by Chuck D, KRS-One, Nas, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. I have always taken from them an understanding [that] there needs to be an element of the message that represents the culture. You know, even when we’re being creative, it’s still gotta slap—but there’s an element of responsibility. If you really call yourself an emcee, you are in tune with the culture of hip-hop. And there’s certain messages that need to be broadcasted. Hip-hop is the voice of the people.

With this album, I wanted to take some risks. I wanted to push the envelope and show that I’m an artist. I haven’t shown everybody the whole bag, and I wanted to push myself to make something that isn’t perceived as some Kaze shit, where everybody knows he’s gonna rap! Nah, I’m gonna show you a broad range of my different influences.

With this project, it’s evident that you were intentional with the creative decisions.

I produced seven of the songs on A Thousand Shades of Black. The fact that Kaze makes beats may be a surprise to most, but if you go back to the original Spirit of ’94, I produced all of the records except for one. This project has allowed me to tap into my producer bag and showcase my skills.

I wanted to offer something different, so there’s a photobook. [INDY photographer] Jade Wilson shot 30 incredible images to go along with the album. I’ve done three videos; “The Ultimate,” “Crossroads,” and “Wake Up.” For “Crossroads” and “Wake Up,” I worked with 90 Degree Filmz, a production team that consists of two videographers who are awesome.

It’s been a collaborative effort, working with them to develop concepts, and they always nail it. I’m really proud I got my visuals looking more like movies now, and that’s definitely having an impact with the presentation by allowing people [to take] my music more seriously. We also shot a documentary about the album with Taylor Adams from Scrapt Productions.

I had to get with the current era. I’m from the era of put one album out every year or two. This is the era of “What have you done for me this week?” or even, “What did you post two weeks ago?” So that’s what people are seeing from me now … a new commitment to consistency with putting out engaging content and material. I now know I can’t drop and then fall off the map.

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