Earl Sweatshirt certainly had a newsworthy 2015 – highlighted by his album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – in addition to the rumors and speculation that he and Tyler, The Creator’s relationship had soured which led many to doubt if Odd Future’s actual future was murky at best.

Just prior to bidding adieu to 2015, Earl’s comments to Spin on the state of rap – specifically his distaste of Eminem’s new music despite once being a diehard fan – led many to question if he had overstepped his bounds.

“If you still follow Eminem, you drink way too much Mountain Dew and probably need to like, come home from the army, Earl said.

While he ended up facing the vitriol of both Eminem fans as well as genre junkies who didn’t believe that he had earned enough stripes to speak despairingly about an industry veteran who had paved the way for “shock” acts like Odd Future, casual observers couldn’t help but also appreciate his candor which showed that fandom doesn’t need to disappear once an act has gone mainstream.

Perhaps lost in his barrage of tweets, Earl Sweatshirt avoided any further criticisms of rap in 2015 in favor of a more positive outlook on a project and emcee who may be relatively unknown to even those that closely follow hip-hop.

Who exactly is Kaseem “Ka” Ryan? More specifically, what was it about his album, Days With Dr. Yen Lo, which made it climb to the top of Earl’s list of rap records in 2015?

Here’s everything you need to know about an artist you should definitely be checking for in 2016.

He was a high school basketball phenom

One of the biggest invitations a high school basketball player can get is a summoning to the Five- Star Basketball Camp. Since 1966, the camp has produced more than 600 NBA and 10,000 Division I players – with notable alumni including Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, LeBron James, Grant Hill and more.

Grant Hill and Ka actually shared the same court when Ka attended Five-Star.

“I played [basketball] in high school,” he told Complex. “That saved me from being in a lot of situations. I don’t know nobody who was from the hood that I was from that didn’t play basketball. From the most knuckleheads to the most nerds, they all played ball. That’s what it was. That’s how we socialized. We’d go to the park, and we’d play ball. I’d go to either 271 Park, I’d go to Howard Projects Park, I’d go to Kelly Park… That’s how we just got off a lot of our angst, was through playing ball. And not everybody was really good, but it didn’t matter. We just played ball. I played a lot. I was fairly decent. I knew I wasn’t going to go to the pros when I went to Five-Star camp. Grant Hill was there and I was like, ‘That’s good, and I’m just alright.’ Five-Star Camp was my first time seeing guys from all over the country and testing my skills against theirs. That’s when I realized that I’m going to be a medium player. On the street I’ll be good, but as far as taking it any further than that then I knew I wasn’t going to be there.”

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He’s an industry veteran

Ka has steadily put out music for two decades and may actually see his career taken to a whole other level in his 40’s thanks to the acclaim for Days With Dr. Yen Lo.

Having recorded alongside groups like Natural Elements and Nightbreed – both of whom came up alongside other acts like Essence, Raidermen, DJ Premier, Northeast Wildcats, Scram Jones, I.G Nexus and Kenny Diaz in the mid ’90s – his first solo album , Iron Works, was released way back in 2008.

He got an early co-sign from GZA from Wu-Tang

Following the release of his debut solo album, Ka was ready to call it quits after nearly 20 years of emceeing.

“I just wanted to prove that I didn’t waste 20 years of mastering a craft without anything to show for it,” he said. “I did that album to give to my loved ones.”

After an acquintance mentioned that she thought GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan might enjoy the project, Ka thought nothing would come of the offer.

“She gave it to him and he listened to it,” he said. She reported back and was like, ‘He thinks you’re ill.’ That was enough for me. One of the greatest lyricists ever thought I was ill. I could’ve stopped there. That could’ve been it.”

Soon after, Ka made an appearance on GZA’s 2008 project, Pro Tools.

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He is supposedly a firefighter by profession

Although he had never confirmed into publicly, information floating around on the web suggests that Ka is actually a firefighter by trade and was promoted to Captain in the NYFD in 2009.

“I have a full-time job,” he told Noisey. “The music is a hobby. I haven’t ever spoken about my job, and I try to keep it about music. I let people think what they want to think. I do have a job, and it pays for the freedom I have with my art. I’m so lucky.”

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He’s a jack-of-all-trades

According to his official bio, Ka states, “Since I don’t depend on my music to eat, it’s given me the freedom to have fun and not expect anything from it.”

The emcee further cemented the notion in speaking with Noisey in 2013, stating, “I do it all, man. I’m the record label, I’m the only artist, I’m the distributor, I’m the video guy. I’m everything, man. But it’s out of necessity. I wouldn’t be talking to you now had brought in someone else. I went to a couple labels with Grief Pedigree and they all told me no, like ‘We’ll pass.’ I kinda started bugging, because I’m like, ‘I think I got something dope here!’ It kinda fucked me up when they just passed on me. It might have been the age thing. I don’t know if they even listened to the music. Like, they looked at the marketability, like, ain’t nobody fucking with him. I always thought hip-hop was one of those genres where they didn’t care about your looks. It’s all about the music. It was a little bit of a wake up call, but I knew I had something dope with this album. I knew because I heard it myself, like, shit is a hard album. It forced my hand to figure out. How do I get my shit on iTunes? How do I make vinyl? How do I distribute this shit? How do I get it in stores? It was good. I’m glad everybody told me no. It made me a stronger artist.

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“Dr. Yen Lo” is a reference to The Manchurian Candidate

When the album Days With Dr. Yen Lo was released in May of 2015, Pitchfork remarked, “Ka lets his words phrase themselves, recalling NYC-area forbearers like Guru and Rakim.”

The reference to “Dr. Yen Lo” actually comes from The Manchurian Candidate which started as a 1959 political thriller novel by Richard Condon and was later adapted into a feature film by John Frankenheimer in 1962.

“I always wanted to use that character, Dr. Yen Lo, he was very intriguing to me,” he said. “And he only had a number of days to brainwash these people. Most people have seen the movie. He had a couple of days with these soldiers, and he made them believe in the idea to make this one guy a hero so that he could become an assassin and could be placed in a certain position. The book was dope, but that character, man… I just never used it until now..”

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.