You could say he was one of the most underrated figures in the KC music scene. That appears to be changing.
Last year, Watson struck out on his own, leaving Tech’s Strange Music label, the crown jewel of Kansas City hip-hop, after 20 years of creating unique vocal stylings on the hooks of many Tech hits as well as his own music. Next month, Watson will launch his North American tour, with stops from Canada to Florida.
And he has branched out beyond music, way beyond, to voicing Netflix cartoons. You can hear him as the anti-hero Dinobot on the Netflix animated series “Transformers: War for Cybertron” and, as of earlier this year, as the voice of Leroy Smith on “Tekken: Bloodline,” based on the popular fighting video game.
“I was a counterpart to Tech N9ne. People saw us as a group and a package,” says Watson. “I had to be able to separate to let my light shine brighter as well. Tech is the forefront of the label, and me being his hype man and co-writer, and I needed you to see Krizz Kaliko and control how it was being done.”
From the Black church to Tech N9ne
When he was young, Watson, now 48, had no idea his talents would lead him into music as a career. Like many other music legends, he started off in the Black church.
“My mother was a choir director at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church down on 14th and Truman Road,” says Watson. “So we were heavy in the church when I was a kid. My dad was a superintendent for Sunday school. I felt so embarrassed and I didn’t want to sing.”
Watson would gain more confidence in his musical ability as he grew older, eventually entering into the world of hip-hop dance, competing in talent shows. He knew he had the skills of an entertainer but had no idea how he would make it.
Following a bad breakup in 1999, he needed some sort of release. Everything would change when he was introduced to an up-and-coming rapper by the name of Aaron Yates, known to most as Tech N9ne.
“I felt like I needed an outlet. I paid Tech to get on a feature. He was so impressed with how I did things that he started having me help him with his singers, and then I just became the singer, rapper and his partner basically,” says Watson.
Watson and Tech began two decades of collaborations, bringing together a complex blend of genres to create what would become the label’s signature sound. By fusing hip-hop, rock and soul into deep, introspective sounds often dealing with personal subject matter, the duo began to set themselves apart.
In 2008, Watson released his first solo project, “Vitiligo,” a reference to the autoimmune disease that has left white patches on his face. This would be the start of Watson’s longstanding trend of sharing personal and often taboo subjects as a form of therapy. Watson stands as one of the first local rappers to address personal struggles with mental health through his own battle with bipolar disorder, anxiety and suicide.
“It just set the stage for me to be totally transparent with everything that I had been going through. I had been labeled bipolar and had all these things. I have been on so many psych meds. I am constantly battling mental health issues,” he says.
Watson says seeing the honesty that his mentor was able to pour into his music gave him the courage to dig deep within himself to create music authentically. The Kansas City native has created a nationwide following based on his unique sound as well as the stories he tells with his music. For Watson, the most important part of the experience has been helping fans during their own dark times.
“I have always talked about my life and sang about my life, and it ends up helping these people,” he says. “The biggest comment I get at meet-and-greets is how I saved their life because they were going to commit suicide. I have been at the brink of suicide at numerous occasions. So I go out and talk about what helps me.”
Over the years, Watson’s musical style has become ingrained in the DNA of KC hip-hop.
“He gave Kansas City’s hip-hop scene a depth of character,” says rapper Alan Wayne, a KC native who performs under the name Alan Wayne The Pradagy. “He changed things with the sound and especially what we do with our hooks here. That was Krizz Kaliko. He took our rap scene and introduced some actual musicality to it, and it spread. He was a breath of fresh air, and I think he is underappreciated.”
Wayne, 40, creates music much like Watson’s, blending eclectic and poetic lyrics filled with personal experiences. The Lincoln Preparatory Academy graduate has been lucky enough to work side by side with Watson in the studio and feels Watson has inspired artists to be vulnerable and honest.
“He got a lot of great music,” says Wayne. “He has this song called ‘Bipolar,’ and it is a perfect composition of music. Mental health is a trending thing now and that is good. But you can tell when somebody’s story is true to them and it sounds like a real cry.”
Though he was a cornerstone of the Strange Music family, Watson made the choice last year to start his own label, Ear House Inc., with the hopes of expanding and evolving the Krizz Kaliko brand into various facets of media and entertainment.
Ear House Inc. is run out of the basement of Watson’s South Kansas City home. A full studio equipped with recording equipment is not only used for music these days. After the pandemic stopped all touring, Watson began to brainstorm other avenues to reach fans. So he got on Twitch, the livestreaming platform for gamers.
“One of the reasons I joined Twitch is because I needed a platform I can use from here and broadcast out,” says Watson. “Everything you want to hear comes from this house. Anything that goes in your ear that comes from me, comes from this house.”
At the urging of his wife and manager, he began to think about getting into voice-over acting for animation. Watson, who grew up with a talent for vocal manipulation, would get his big break while hosting a gaming event in Los Angeles. While showing off his range of impersonations, he caught the attention of the producers of the Netflix animated series “Transformers: War for Cybertron.”
Playing Dinobot, a character from a beloved series he grew up with, was a lifelong dream.
“I have always been a huge Transformers fan. To be one of the voices on there, for me to have that on my resume is huge, and knock it off my bucket list,” says Watson. “I spoke Transformers into existence. I told them my dream voice-over would be Transformers.”
Due to his highly praised work on the Transformer project, Watson was approached by producers for yet another animated series, “Tekken: Bloodline.” He voices the character of Leroy Smith, an African American martial artist.
“I grew up playing Tekken. I can remember playing the game growing up. I can remember playing it down at my cousin’s house. We used to play Tekken all the time,” says Watson.
Watson is excited for the recent interest in animated features targeted at the nostalgic connections to adults. In the last year, Netflix has released several animated features based on older properties, such as “Voltron: Legendary Defender,” “Masters of the Universe,” “Castlevania” and “League of Legends: Arcane.”
“It is not just for kids anymore,” he says. “The first anime I can remember is not ‘Dragon Ball Z’ because I am older than that. It was ‘Voltron.’ Cartoons were really geared toward kids. They decided that things needed to be entertaining for adults. Adults are taking the kids to see movies, so adults need to be entertained as well.”
With an increase in the popularity of anime, Watson is looking to fill some of the gaps in diversity within these mediums. He hopes to find new roles where he can challenge himself behind the microphone as well as becoming acquainted with a new legion of fans connected to his work on screen.
“Look at Megan Thee Stallion, she dressed up as an anime character and twerked in Japan,” he says. “I want to go to Comic-Cons. I want to go to Comic-Con representing Dinobot and Leroy Smith. I want to experience it on that side. I want to go and talk and do interviews like this and do the voices.”
But first, he has his tour, launching Oct. 7 with St. Louis native Nelly in Grand Junction, Colorado, and then swinging across Canada with Method Man and Redman. Starting Nov. 17-19 he will be touring across Florida with music artist Jerren Benton. Kansas City dates are pending.