Moka Only on Skirting the Line Between Jazz and Hip-Hop

by | Mar 21, 2017 | Interviews and Features

We recently caught up with multi-award winning Canadian hip-hop artist Daniel Denton, aka Moka Only, to get a sense of what makes the insanely prolific MC and producer tick. It’s not often, after all, that a single artist hits triple digits in their discography…

Last year you released your 100th album! When you dropped your first LP in 1996, had you already planned on releasing that much music?

No, I never really looked into the future. I’ve always been in the moment and never had a set game plan.

But you still released 100 albums! That’s odd, by any artist’s standard.

All that was personal goals and something I wanted to do. In hip-hop, nobody has ever really done that; you look at Madlib, El-P, J. Dilla, etc. and no one else has done it. I guess a part of me kinda wanted to see if a label would catch onto it, but really it was more of a personal goal for me to see if I could do it.

Your music is heavily influenced by jazz. Do you consider yourself more of a jazz musician than a rapper?

I got into jazz when I was really young, even before hip-hop. I just found jazz on my own…in the back of my head, I always wanted to be a jazz artist, but didn’t feel I had all the skills, so I channeled that energy into hip-hop. The way I did it was to marry both worlds together. Another thing is a good chunk of hip-hop music is influenced by jazz. Now that has fallen out of favor in recent years, but to me the golden era of rap was influenced by jazz.

For instance, two of my favorite albums are Thrust and Manchild by Herbie Hancock – to me jazz is classic. The genre shouldn’t be abandoned to fit the flavor of the month. Jazz music is the most important music to come out of America and it should be given more respect. 

Do you write the majority of your lyrics or just freestyle stream of conscious?

I kinda like freestyle on paper – some of the songs are freestyled, but mainly its complete stream of conscious on paper. Overall, I’m just trying to capture a moment and that’s equally as important as rappers who write scripted lines on a notepad. But when it comes to music, I’m seriously stubborn and it’s my way or no way, that’s my privilege. I have to be happy with it (laughs). 

Moka Only

Moka Only

You’re a hard rapper to pinpoint. Lyrically you’re similar to Q-Tip and MF Doom, but producer-wise you’re like Pete Rock or J. Dilla. Which rappers actually made you want to rhyme?

Honestly, you hit the nail on the head. As far as favorite emcees and producers, Q-Tip is hands-down my favorite for beats and rhymes. At the same time, I’m very wary about what I listen to, I like to be on my own and not easily influenced. That’s why for a long time, I didn’t work with a lot of people. But I guess because I use certain cuts and samples you can compare me to Q-Tip or MF Doom, but really what I try to do comes from my own perspective.

What about working with Ishkan or Illa J?

Oh yeah, for sure those producers influence me. And even the Ayatollah collaboration EP with me and the producer Ayatollah was fantastic, but those were Ron Contour lyrics I used for that one.

So, who else are your favorite emcees?

I think my favorite emcees are people that are concentrated on things that are autobiographical and not inventing pure fantasy. But at the same time, I do appreciate emcees who are a certain way like grimy storytellers such as Mobb Deep or Biggie. I have created my own characters before like Ron Contour and that was just a way to get out of myself. Ron Contour is like your eccentric uncle.

Last time I checked you were using a digital audio tape machine, a Portastudio with 8 channel mixer, two keyboards and a Jackson electric guitar. Do you still have the same recording setup?

Wow, that was a while back, I change it up every month! (laughs). I have a LOT of vintage equipment. Right now, I’m still using the Portastudio 24, but I rarely use more than eight tracks. I’m familiar with Pro Tools and other DAW rigs, but I don’t need them to make a sound. Pro Tools is the same as Logic and they’re both recording devices, it’s all digital. So, it doesn’t matter so much what I record with, it just matters what I put on it.

So, let’s go back to music influences. You play the piano as well as a few other instruments. Who are your favorite keyboard and synthesizer players?

George Duke, Bill Evans, Ahmed Jaffar, Bud Powell…Robert Glasper is really good too. Really a list of my favorite jazz musicians would be saxophone players. Players like Wayne Shorter, Eddie Harris, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, and Horace Nelson.

You’ve been an independent artist now for over twenty years. What pre-empted your decision to never rely on a major label?

Well, it’s not that I wouldn’t rely on a major label, but basically, they aren’t interested in what doesn’t have a lot of commercial appeal. I think some of my songs could be Top 40 hits, but the music needs money behind it and exposure.

Moka Only

Moka Only

As a Canadian recording artist, is it easier for artists there to get government grants and funds for creative and artistic endeavors?

Nah, I don’t do any of that. I got a few Juno awards, but that didn’t really do much for me. All it is, is a trophy. I appreciate it, but it’s an award, that’s it. Now, the Grammys are different because that can change your life, but that’s also because the U.S. has 300 million people whereas Canada has [about] 35 million people. The Grammys are a huge machine with the world’s eyes on it; it’s a whole different can of worms. Like, when was the last time you watched the Junos on TV? I haven’t watched it hahaha!

You’ve lived all over the West Coast (Vancouver, San Francisco, Seattle). How does that influence your sound and vibe?

There’s something calming about being on the Pacific Ocean, whether it’s San Fran, LA, San Diego. That scenery is even reflected in jazz music, a lot of the cool jazz movement was attributed West Coast jazz. Yeah, Miles Davis set it off, but a lot of cats on the West Coast quickly picked up and embraced that cool jazz.

At the age of 43, how do you keep your creative energy fresh year after year?

All music is a reflection of life and I’m still alive! As long as you’re living you can channel creativity. It’s also a bit different for me because I’m a solo artist and not in a band. When you’re in a group, that’s a whole democracy. People have jobs, kids, wives, separate lives; but I get to focus on what I want to do first.

Tell me, how did you come up with the song “Blue in the Drums” off Milky State?

Well I don’t want to give away the full secret, especially in terms of sampling (laughs), but I’ll tell you this. I heard a 1960s pop song on AM radio and the melody instantly reached out to me, I loved it. The lyrics just came to me instantly, like you know how some people say they feel like they’re down in the dumps? Well I was like, I’m blue in the drums. Like maybe if I’m down that may show or reveal itself through my music.

What about your album Desired Effect? That’s one of your best releases, can you talk a little bit about the production behind that?

Hmm, basically I had a major label deal and everything fell through. You can hear a lot of my personal turmoil throughout that whole album. I wasn’t happy – I wasn’t happy with the label situation, my management, it was just a difficult period. The only good moments during that time period were the actual recording sessions. It was therapeutic and the music allowed me to get everything off my chest. 

As you get older, what do you feel about the current state of hip-hop?

I see it being very divided, but truthfully, I live in my own world. But yes, the music has been divided in terms of lyrical content and image. You know you’re not going to hear a Top 40 rap song where Diamond D and Lil Yachty are mentioned in the same sentence. 

As an independent artist, why have you avoided using a traditional website?

Because people don’t check websites anymore. Not that I don’t support having one’s own website, just saying lots of people check social media first these days. You can go directly to the artist on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, whatever. But for all intents and purposes, people can go directly to and that acts as my website. You can also access all my records and merchandise on Bandcamp, iTunes and Spotify.

So far, what have you planned for 2017?

My main plan is to promote what it is already out there. I’ll be revisiting all the albums I came out with last year and dropping videos for them. I just dropped three new videos and I’m working on some top-secret stuff with the crew. Like I just finished producing Dave Psy’s new album and I’m really anticipating the release of that. That album will be called Playpen – I’ve also been working on some straight-ahead jazz albums.

Any last words of up-and-coming emcees and songwriters?

Kinda cliché, but do what you want to do and speak from a genuine place. And if you’re writing fantasy, that’s cool, but do it the best you can and to the best of your abilities. Learn music history, not just hip-hop history, but all music history. Learn world history and about the Earth. It’s important to know the foundation; without a foundation, everything turns to dust.

Follow on Twitter @MOKA_ONLY

Photos by Stacy Archer