The son of Louisiana blues player and club owner Tabby Thomas, King - he added the surname in the early '90s - grew up jamming with stars like Buddy Guy and Slim Harpo. He absorbed all the traditional blues techniques, but knew from his teen years that he wasn't interested in being a Muddy Waters knockoff. "My friends and I were more likely to listen to Rick James than Skip James," he says.
By 1993, after releasing a couple of fairly traditional blues albums, King was ready to chart his own course with a record called 21st Century Blues ... From Da Hood, peppered with hip-hop beats and King's rapping. But King's record label, Warner Brothers, balked upon hearing the demos. According to King, the music was seen as "ghettocentric," a charge that baffled the singer.
"I told them this is the blues that people are experiencing now," he says. "It's not the sharecropping and cotton-picking and Jim Crow blues."
After a sojourn in Europe, King finally got 21st Century Blues recorded, but the incident left him disenchanted with music industry "gatekeepers" who define and categorize music that, King believes, they don't understand. "A lot of young African-Americans get pushed away from the genre because they don't dress appropriately for the gatekeepers," complains King. "They say you can't bring that turntable, you can't have braided hair and baggy pants. That's not the blues, they say."
King believes that if the blues is to remain a living art, the music must reflect its culture. He points to a song on his newest CD, Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues, called "9-11 Interlude."
"If the music doesn't reflect the culture it comes out of, it becomes useless," says King. "I mean, when cars and telegrams were new, people wrote songs about that. But if you mention the Internet in a blues song, some people say, 'Hey, that's not the blues.' Well, what do you mean? If I'm trying to e-mail my woman and she won't e-mail me back, that's the blues."