Victor “Kool A.D.” Vazquez was a member of the rap group Das Racist, which had hits like “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and “hahahaha jk” that mixed Dada sensibilities with straight-up hip-hop. Around the time the group was winding down, he released Joke Book, which featured pithy narratives, satire, and jokes. In 2016, he released his first novel, titled OK, on Sorry House Press out of New York.
Kool A.D., a native of California, makes me think of the drink Kool-Aid, and also the Merry Pranksters that followed Ken Kesey on his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test travels, which were well-documented by Tom Wolfe. This also makes me think about OK, a mystic journey through the cities of the United States. Drugs are consumed against the backdrop of the Obama-era police state that is culturally opposed to many of the symbols repeatedly referenced by the main characters, recent convert Muhammad X and his wife Khadija.
My friend Spencer runs Sorry House Press, and he put me in touch with Kool A.D. His previous work with the band Das Racist and his own solo rap records had captured my interest and imagination over the past seven years. The same way the Pranksters galloped across the America of JFK and LBJ in an effort to find true freedom, the characters of this novel thirst for spiritual, social, civil, and political liberation. Who would have thought a book in the mode of the Great American Novel could feature repetitive references to Allah, leftist politics, Rastafari, and William S. Burroughs?
We discussed this and other questions over email.
The Rumpus: When did you start writing fiction? What was that writing like?
Kool A.D.: Haha. I don’t know, like maybe first or second grade? Kinda derivative stuff, reworking of common kid’s book themes: a slimy monster under the bed, a race of mushroom shaped aliens who come to visit earth, a pretty decent one where a lil jungle kid wanders around the rainforest finding animals. I remember going off on the illustrations. I was hella nice widdit.
Rumpus: Drugs are an extremely big habit for most of the characters in the book, although a mother during pregnancy is not involved in drug use, which brings up this connection between drugs and the affirmation of life. This character can resist drugs, as there is a higher calling to life and motherhood, and other characters can (mostly) healthily enjoy drugs and possibly understand both the benefits and limits of drugs. How did you develop this perspective, as a person and an author (or both, same thing, etc.), towards drugs?
Kool A.D.: I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself, other people, the world, consciousness, etc. from using drugs. I think if you approach them with the right attitude they can be like immensely beneficial. I think the stigmatization and criminalization of them causes way more problems than it means to solve. Various “wars on drugs” throughout history have killed millions, enslaved millions more, destroyed families, are usually just thin pretenses for mass incarceration, mass surveillance, ethnic cleansing, population control, etc. I think the larger picture of economic disparity, mass miseducation, systemic racism, etc. is usually removed from the public conversation on drugs. There is so much more context outside of the actual physical effect of the drugs. In general, I think drugs all too often get a bad rap, especially from people who have no idea what they’re talking about. That being said I also understand that drugs aren’t for everybody, I think it’s an issue of personal freedom of choice.
Rumpus: What are some of the drug-related books you’ve liked? Why did you like them?
Kool A.D.: I dig Hunter S. Thompson a lot mostly because the drug stuff seems very secondary, sort of journalistically noted but not central to what’s going on in the writing per se. I like Tao Lin and he’s pretty druggy but in a similarly casual way. I’ve always dug druggy music. I like Joyce and Burroughs, they’re real druggos, too. It’s less about the explicit reference to drugs though so much as the playful, inventive, freewheeling nature of the writing itself, the actual various drug influences on the consciousness.
Rumpus: Why do you think you prefer older writers to newer writers?
Kool A.D.: I’m not against newer writers; I just don’t actively seek them out. I like reading prolific writers, like when I find a vibe I like I want to read thousands of pages of it, which just like, as a method, according to the linear nature of time and shit, tends to favor older or dead writers. And just there’s like way more of them, like hundreds of years’ worth haha.
Rumpus: The narrator/protagonist of this book—Muhammad X—includes a lot of cultural/religious references and symbols outside the kind you might find in a lot of traditional American fiction, where a lot of cultures were excluded and some still are. How intentional were you in loading these references into the book and how much is it more a result of a character/narrator that you created?
Kool A.D.: I think syncretism is an essential engine for faith and liberation within the context of the African diaspora, and just a useful global concept in general. I try to stay syncretic, smurl meh.
Rumpus: How did you choose the names for the main characters? They’re very distinct and full of meaning.
Kool A.D.: It was all a pretty automatic, kind of impressionistic exercise. It was fun, the names really shaped the characters, which really shaped the action.
Rumpus: There’s also a cool mix of spiritual ecstasy and humor when the different references and symbols are juxtaposed in these stream-of-consciousness sentences. Had you ever read anything like this when you were beginning writing this?
Kool A.D.: I think there’s like no shortage of influences ranging from like Aimé Césaire to Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs and them, but also like Charles Bukowski, Amiri Baraka, Saul Williams. I don’t know. I pretty much list off dozens of influences in the book. I’m a fan of like “free” writing, which I guess could mean almost anything. I was mostly just trying to keep writing no matter what and see what happens. The first novel I wrote was even more experimental, I guess to the point of being kind of hard to read at points. The second time around I tried to reign it in a little without losing the free and easy feeling of writing it. I guess I was concerned with making it fun to write first of all, with the hopes that that would then make it fun to read.
Rumpus: A line I read several times over was from later in the book in a conversation over politics:
I don’t believe in capital per se or a priori but I do occasionally believe in personal capital vis-a- vis psychic energy exchange. I use the word “capital” only poetically.
Do you think that this type of perspective and worldview could eventually be shared by the majority of people? Is it already? How does such a mindset come about and how can it thrive?
Kool A.D.: I’m kind of wary of like fully advocating any single perspective or worldview, I have my little ideas and I think they’re cool and whatever but I don’t want to suppose how I think is how everybody else should think. That being said, when it comes to “-isms” it seems like the widespread application of an ideology centered around such an abstract and arguably inherently flawed concept of “capital” is most likely one of the main reasons why so much shit is fucked, and I think “-isms” centered around, say, concepts of “the social” or “the commune” or the absence of hierarchy, or whatever, despite being just as subject to being abstracted into meaninglessness, seem to gesture toward something a little more human. But that’s all just semantics. I think all too often theoretical political/economic conversations get murky and lose track of the basic things they’re ostensibly about: how do you get everybody fed, clothed, housed, educated, access to medicine, etc., how do you get cops to stop killing people in the streets, how do you get nonviolent offenders out of prison, phase out prisons and crime altogether even, how do you prevent wars, how do you make a world where people are healthy and happy, etc. and how do you reconcile these lofty ideals with actual, pragmatic, real time strategy in the meantime, in the face of such constant brutal injustice, without losing a sense of optimism, etc. I think solving those kind of problems likely requires a more fluid thinking less hampered by constructed dogmas, requires some poetic thinking, in other words.
Rumpus: Do you think this disconnect between the ideal and the practical is why left-wing movements in America have trouble gaining broad electoral power? Meanwhile, Republicans have few or no ideals and are very practical in terms of what they do care about (social control, greed, etc.).
Kool A.D.: I think that there has been a long and storied history in America of left-wing movements being actively, systematically, violently destroyed, disrupted, infiltrated, sabotaged, etc. by the U.S. government and its various intelligence agencies and that remains a greater challenge to their existence, traction, popularity, etc. than any sort of ideological infighting. I also think that a lot of left-wing movements aren’t particularly concerned with electoral politics because they view that system as rigged, irreversibly corrupt, essentially irreparable, something that should be dismantled, replaced altogether, and that the more important work is done in the grass roots: organizing workers, protesting, boycotting, striking, creating worker-led cooperatives, bail funds, legal defense funds, radical education, radical libraries, community gardens, food programs, medical programs, etc.
Rumpus: In many ways, despite it rejecting the white capitalist power structure, the book has a very “American” mood and narrative, with characters constantly traveling, exploring, and finding new experiences, like many of the great novels through American history. Do you see it as being in that lineage or does that feel off base to you?
Kool A.D.: It’s like a very tragically American book at the end of the day, probably among its biggest flaws to be honest. [Laughs] I can’t help it; I was born and raised in America. In an attempt to write more honestly I wrote it hella quickly and automatically and did very little editing and so there’s a patently American illogic to it all.
Rumpus: California is the landscape of the book. Very vivid and alive. How does CA influence you?
Kool A.D.: Yeah, I’m from the Bay Area and my home base is down south of the border in Baja now. I feel like pretty much all of my work is very much tied to the feel of that Pacific coastline, be it explicitly or just in the vibe.
Rumpus: What makes that specific area different than other areas in the US?
Kool A.D.: I think geographical influence overall is pretty hard to parse via like any rational, prosaic means; like I said, it’s a vibe. But I mean yeah if you want to point to like “objective” things there’s the fact that California is the most racially/ethnically diverse region on earth and one of the most geographically diverse too: greatest distance between high (Mt. Whitney) and low (Death Valley) elevations in closest proximity (WILD IMPORTANT—but, naw, for real, seems relevant enough to mention…), everything from beaches to snow-capped mountains, to deserts, big cities, small towns, farmland… I don’t know man… The Panthers, the hippies, the Hell’s Angels, the Gold Rush, LSD, Hollywood, Silicon Valley. It’s one of the largest marijuana producers in the world; it’s a geography that for whatever collection of reasons produces and disseminates much of the fabric of the earth’s tangled web of dreams and ideologies, a major economic and cultural force, and yet kind of carries a mythical outlaw quality, somehow seeming marginally less colonized, more physically removed from the historical seats of governance? Like it still feels like disputed lands, like its own nation? That’s the myth at least. But it’s a mythical land, and myths are integral to the creation of reality, blah blah, etc.
Rumpus: How screwed do you think we are because of Trump and Republican control? How do you see your own work evolving in the next years?
Kool A.D.: Things seem pretty spectacularly fucked but maybe according to the numbers not even much more fucked than before. Like, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised, you know, being that America is a stolen land born out of genocide and slavery whose global dominance was achieved by centuries of brutal imperialism governed by an ideology centered around white supremacy and xenophobia parading as a democracy that oscillates between a fascist right and a conservative pseudo-left. And yeah, I think this is a particularly horrifying corner we’re turning right now but it’s not like there was no precedent. I think the work that needs to be done is the same work that has always been needed, the same work that a lot of people have been doing for years now, everybody should be listening to and taking note from the activists and organizers who’ve been fighting these battles since before it was made obvious to fight them and listening to all the marginalized communities who had it bad before Trump and his team made it even worse for them, looking for solutions outside of the unjust system placed before us. I’m not sure what direction my personal work is headed. I try not to overthink my process. I just continue to put in the work and the work in turn helps to inform me where I’m going.
Author photograph © Hawa Rahimi.