Kay Clifton is a serious man. Onstage — and, today, sitting at his kitchen table, sipping a glass of Minute Maid — his tired face is often obstructed by the deep hood of a sweatshirt. Only rarely smiling, he makes blinkless eye contact and delivers conversation — and lyrics — in twisted, baritone paragraphs. He is well-spoken. Professional.
And yet over the past 12 years, the 27-year-old Spokane-bred rapper, more popularly known as Quiz, has seemed to straddle an invisible barrier between conveying mature, philosophical and existential ideas and staying childlike as an artist.
He was dubbed “Quiz Kid” when he was young because he was so ahead of his time as a rapper. Clifton says he had a hard time in school because of his mouth. But the quick thinking and sass that got him in trouble in the classroom made him an asset on the mic.
“[Rapping is] real mental, but it’s kind of got this jock appeal because [you’re] actively convincing other people, or a person that you’re rapping against, that you’re superior,” he says. “Enough for them to think that they failed or everybody else to think that they failed.”
But soon, as Clifton honed his skill, he learned to treat his songs as “therapy and expression.” Making music became less about what the crowd thought of him, but the enrichment he was gaining from it.
“Once I started gaining life experience, I guess my style was found,” he says. “My stuff has always been pretty abstract. … People [started] to be able to pick up the concepts out of something so vague. I think that was my awakening.”
Clifton took his game to Seattle for a few years but eventually moved back to Spokane, where he hooked up with other like-minded rappers and beatmakers through Bad Penmanship, a loose local hip-hop collective. In Gun of the Sun, Clifton became a foil — the droll, fatherly voice of reason — to rapper Freetime Synthetic and his upbeat, bouncy flow.
Today, Clifton is far from your average rapper. His voice is unique. But it’s how he uses it — his cadence and delivery — that makes Clifton unique in the wide, well-trodden world of hip-hop.
On his year-old solo record, Not a Mixtape Vol. 1, and in his collaborations with French producers Rorostalingrad Villa, his head spins in contemplations of love, life and death. It’s Aesop Rock meets Del, his deep voice articulating stories that are dreamy and imaginative — childlike in the way they wander and explore. And yet in each of his songs there’s a weary, tired feeling of disappointment — numbness, even — flowing beneath his voice. Life is just beating him down. He’s been up for days. He can’t take the bullshit anymore.
Clifton says he’s hit a wall lately with writing new lyrics — he doesn’t feel like he has anything pressing to say. But he’s channeled his energy into making more beats and heady electronic music. The kid — and the artist — in him refuses to force it. But the adult seems to nag at him to try harder.
“I could force it and write stuff that probably seems great to anyone that’s not me,” he says. “But I’m not going to do anything I don’t want to do.”
Clifton, who doesn’t have a job, makes music all day, every day. He scrolls through his laptop to play one song that he assembled over the course of 10 hours the day before. He says sometimes he wakes up in the morning and starts writing right away — to harness the imagination of his dreams.
“I used to make up songs in my head when I was a kid about the stuff I was doing, like, ‘I’m playing with my dump truck, dumping out the dirt.’ [In rap], you can do that with everything — you just make it sound cooler than a little kid humming a song to himself.”
Right now he feels like he’s at a crossroads. Words aren’t coming to him, but his electronic stuff has opened a new avenue. He wants to share that music, but he’s resistant to marketing it online. The kid in him still hopes to be known beyond the Northwest one day, but the adult has come to terms with the fact that his art has to please him first.
“There’s gotta be thousands or millions of artists throughout the history of time that no one knew who they were or their works went unpublished. … That doesn’t make it invalid,” he says.
“Me experiencing my own work, I mean, that should be enough right?”