Lord Finesse is an artist who really needs no introduction. A founding member of the legendary NY-based Diggin’ In The Crates crew, a former affiliate of Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate collective and a successful solo act in his own right, the Bronx-bred producer-on-the-mic is considered one of Hip-Hop’s most revered talents, with albums such as his 1990 Wild Pitch debut “Funky Technician” ranked as undisputed classics within rap circles.
Having not released an official full-length collection of new material since 1995′s “The Awakening”, Finesse’s name has remained in the spotlight via a number of one-off single releases, live deejay sets and production work for the likes of Brand Nubian, Freestyle Professors and Vinnie Paz.
More recently, the Funkyman teamed-up with the reputable Slice Of Spice label to polish off some unreleased gems from his vaults, which have then been made available as collectable, limited-edition vinyl-only pieces.
This relationship with Slice Of Spice has also helped Finesse to once again focus on his own solo work, with the L-O-R-D now pushing ahead with his heavily-anticipated album “The Underboss”, a project which has been hinted at numerous times over the years but persistently delayed.
As part of this official return, Lord Finesse recently embarked on a tour of Europe, accompanied by turntable talent DJ Boogie Blind and a renewed sense of purpose. Touching down in a number of cities including London, Glasgow and Copenhagen, the “Here I Come” tour was successful in its mission to allow Finesse to reconnect with fans and announce his plans for 2013, including, of course, that new album.
On a mid-November Sunday night, following the last of his thirteen shows in thirteen days, Lord Finesse and I huddled backstage at Leicester’s Music Cafe for an impromptu interview, with the Hip-Hop icon keen to discuss his future endeavours as well as reminisce on some memorable career moments.
Right about now…the Funk Soul Brother…
Have you been surprised by just how well this “Here I Come” tour has been received because the response to shows on Facebook / Twitter etc has been close to fever pitch?
“I know I worked hard putting this show together with my man Boogie Blind, so I can honestly say that we definitely put the work in to give people something to remember. But to actually see the response and feel the results of that hardwork isn’t something I’ve ever felt before on this scale. I mean, I’ve done plenty of shows before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as focussed as I have been during this run of shows. We really thought this one out like with the background music, me telling the stories, how the whole show builds up as it goes along. This is probably the first time I’ve ever done a show where I know there are specific points that people will consider to be highlights, like when me and Boogie jump on the turntables together and things like that. I just know I put in a lot of hard-work and it feels good to see it pay-off and have people leaving each show like they just left church or something (laughs).”
Did you feel that you had to put more effort into these shows because you’ve been away for a minute?
“It was definitely due to the fact that I’ve been away for awhile, but secondly it was because I’d also had a chance to reflect on my earlier work. When you’re away for awhile you really get the chance to hear what other people have to say, like ‘Why don’t you ever perform this track?’ or ‘Why don’t you do this during your show?’ So as you’re hearing these different opinions it gives you a chance to think about how you can add certain elements to what you were already doing in order to really give the people what they want. I mean, I’ve been away from the performance side of things for a minute, but I’ve still been hosting events which has allowed me to add a whole other comedic element to the show which also helps people to really get caught up in what you’re doing. So it gets to the point where it doesn’t even feel like two hours have gone by when the show ends, instead people are still wanting to see what I’m going to do next.”
Something I’ve noticed at recent shows here in the UK from artists like Large Professor and Sadat X is that there definitely seems to be a younger fan element in the crowd – would you agree with that?
“I’ve noticed that as well. Obviously, each show has had a lot of original fans there, but I’ve definitely noticed those younger fans this time around. When it comes to them, I just want to make sure I leave a very clear impact so they know exactly what they can expect from me in the future. It’s good for the younger generation to be able to see a real Hip-Hop show from someone who’s really doing the songs, who isn’t rhyming over their own vocals, somebody who’s freestyling, somebody who’s doing the whole package.”
For many of those younger fans, artists such as yourself were probably their introduction to Hip-Hop in the 90s so this would perhaps have been their first opportunity to see you live…
“My goal with this tour was to set the bar real high so that those younger fans left knowing what a real Hip-Hop show is. A lot of people today are paying for these over-priced tickets to see artists who ain’t even putting in a third of the effort I’m putting in onstage. I wanted people who might not have experienced this type of show before to leave every night knowing that there is a significant difference between what someone like a Lord Finesse does and what a lot of these other artists are out there doing, even if they own their records as well. It’s not even about having a hit record when you’re onstage, it’s about who can really execute and translate what they do on that stage. Now, I don’t have what people would consider hit records, but I can still make sure the songs I do have translate well onstage.”
Your music has always contained a lot of personality though which helps in a live setting…
“I mean, I learnt a lot about live shows from watching KRS-One. KRS-One’s live shows are always phenomenal and I always sit there and study how he does it, his order of songs, the crowd participation. KRS has always been a big influence on me when it comes to rocking a crowd.”
During the “Here I Come” stageshow you talk about different moments in your career – which memories still really stand-out to you?
“I’m still here, that’s what stands-out the most to me (laughs). From 1989 to 2012, I’m still here and people still show me love and respect and are still waiting for some new Lord Finesse s**t. I consider myself blessed and humbled at the same time to still have people out there who care about what I’m doing now and who also care about the foundation and legacy of my name. That’s something you really can’t purchase, man.”
Although there always seemed to be a lot of unity amongst New York artists of the early-90s, how high was the spirit of competition within D.I.T.C. at the time considering there were so many classic albums coming out from the likes of Brand Nubian, Main Source, De La Soul etc?
“It was always competitive because we were battling and wanting to make sure our music was incredible and able to stand-out and compete with any other music out there. So we always thought that the music we made had to be incredible, because we’d listen to an album like A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” or Main Source’s “Breaking Atoms” and others that really made us say ‘Damn!’ So you always wanted to make music that was better than anything else you’d heard and even if you said at the time that you weren’t consciously thinking like that, you had to be listening to something that had you wishing that when you did your next project it came out as dope as that.”
Was there ever anything that came out of the D.I.T.C. camp itself that made you think ‘I wish I’d made that record..’?
“Oh, no doubt (laughs). Diamond’s first album “Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop” made me feel like that and also Showbiz & AG’s “Runaway Slave”. See, what you have to understand is that back then everyone’s projects were elevating what everyone else in the crew was doing and pushing people to really deliver their best work. I mean, Diamond had dropped “I’m Not Playin’” with Ultimate Force in 1989 and then my album “Funky Technician” came out a year after that. So my first album had everyone in the crew like Diamond, Showbiz, AG and Fat Joe saying ‘Damn! This ni**a ‘Ness made it, I want to do this s**t.’ So there was always an inspirational aspect to what we were doing back then in terms of the impact the music we were each making had on the other members of the crew.”
And in that sort of group situation nobody wants to be viewed as being the weak link in the chain…
“Yeah, like I remember the first time I heard Showbiz & AG’s “Soul Clap” EP and how Show was chopping the samples on there. When I first heard “Catchin’ Wreck” I’d just come home off the Ice-T / Rhyme Syndicate tour and hearing how Show had chopped some of the same stuff that I’d already used but had done it so differently, I was just like, ‘Yoooo!’ I mean, I wasn’t even really doing production back then. But then when I heard Diamond’s first album as well, that was when I really thought that I needed to step it up. To me, “The Awakening” was a reflection of that, in terms of me really putting my own project together and chopping up all the samples, doing the skits, and really wanting to make something that could stand next to what the crew had already put out. I also remember listening to Big L rhyme as well, hearing him freestyle, and really feeling like I had to write some s**t to match what he was doing. There was never any jealousy or anything like that, it was just always competition. I remember hearing the demo of “Devil’s Son”, I was going somewhere and Show pulled up in the car and he was playing it and I just thought ‘Wow! What the f**k made this ni**a think of this s**t?!’ It was just crazy back then (laughs).”
Personally, Fat Joe’s first album “Represent” was always one of my favourite Diggin’ In The Crates projects…
“Man, Diamond did a number on that album with the production….”
True, but that beat you gave Joe for the opening track ”Livin’ Fat” was incredible…
“Yo, I appreciate that. But that s**t Diamond did on there with Apache and Kool G. Rap was crazy! Man, those were definitely the days. I mean, if I could go back and change anything in my career, I wouldn’t (laughs). People ask you that question sometimes and you leave them hanging because really there isn’t anything I would change as far as my own career goes because going through the adversity I faced at times only brings experience. Anytime you’re facing an unknown factor or obstacle, whichever way it goes, you’re still going to come out of the situation with experience you can put to use.”
This year there’s been new projects from O.C., Showbiz & AG, you’ve been out touring, Diamond has announced he’s working on something new – do you think we’ll ever see the crew unite for another D.I.T.C. album?
“I would say yeah, but it has to be bigger than just throwing a record out there, man. To me it’s more personal than that. If we’re just going to do music and throw it out and that’s all it’s going to be, then I don’t wanna do that. It has to be about more than that. I’d want to tour with it and really show people what a D.I.T.C. show would be about in high-definition, with everyone doing their classics and the new material like the way you see Wu-Tang doing it. If it’s just about going in the studio to do an album and we’re not bringing a whole story or really outlining what we’re going to do beyond that, then I’d rather just do what I’m doing. I’ve got a story, there’s things I wanna follow, there’s things I wanna do. I came out of retirement for a reason. What I’ve been doing with this tour is only just scratching the surface of what I have planned. I’ve got some s**t I wanna do and I see the plan, so for me to be diverted from what I’m doing it would have to be for something big.”
If a new group project happened do you think Fat Joe would be a part of it or do you think he’s in a different place now musically considering the commercial success he’s had in recent years?
“Man, I don’t know what that dude’s doing. I just don’t know. I speak to Show all the time, I speak to AG, I speak to O.C., I even spoke to Buckwild recently, Diamond’s out there in Atlanta. I don’t speak to Joe as much. I don’t know what he’s thinking and that’s not meant in a disrespectful manner, I can only speak on the people that I’ve talked to. But if we were to do something I’d just want it to be something so tremendous, and if it ain’t gonna be tremendous then I don’t want to waste the time of the fans. Plus, getting seven chefs in the kitchen to cook one meal ain’t an easy thing to do because everyone’s used to running their own ship now. But me personally, I haven’t done anything since 95 / 96 so now I’ve seen something I really wanna do and I’m going for it. I’ve been dropping the rock on a lot of my situations and now is the time for me to really lock myself away. So after this tour cats might not see me for two or three months because I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
There’s been a lot of talk and rumours in recent years about new Lord Finesse music without any finished product seeing the light of day in terms of a full-album – why the delay?
“I only can do music that I really love. I’m not going to sit there and throw some s**t out just to throw some s**t out, that’s never been how I’ve operated. I’ve always had to be fully one thousand percent into what I’m into to really put that effort forward. I just wasn’t in that mode where I felt I could do that, so why cheat the fans by just throwing something together to make a couple of quick dollars.”
Was it partly down to the way you saw the rap game changing both in a business and creative sense compared to how things were during the golden-age you contributed so heavily to?
“It was partly down to the way the game was going, it was partly down to Big L getting killed, it was partly down to me losing my grandmother. I just didn’t love it the way I used to love it. So I had to really take a step back and reflect on what made me happy about making music and really just dig deep within myself and understand where I was going to go with it if I was going to step back in. Now, my hunger is there again, so the time is now. That’s why I said I don’t want to get diverted because you can have ideas and then be distracted and if those dreams you had never come to fruition a part of you will always feel empty and that will always f**k with you and have you thinking about what could have been. Right now, that’s where I’m at. I have something I want to do musically and I’m thinking about what’s gonna be. So right now I can’t worry about what anyone else thinks, I’ve got to do what’s gonna make me happy.”
Back in the day there were a lot of technical limitations in terms of sampling etc that Hip-Hop artists had to overcome and yet you were able to create timeless music, whereas today, even with advances in technology, many people still struggle to make quality product – what are your thoughts on that?
“That’s why I look at the game now, with all the technology people have, and I’m thinking, is this really the best s**t y’all can come up with? Let me give you my analogy I use to compare our generation with the new generation. If you were taking a maths test back in the 80s and the 70s, the teacher would give you the test, some scrap paper and a pencil. You had to show the working out you did for each equation on the scrap paper to prove that you knew how to get the answer. If you just gave the answer but couldn’t show how you got there people might think you cheated on the test. The teacher wanted to see that you really understood and knew what you were doing when it came to answering the questions in the test. So with that being said, that’s what it was like for us coming up in the production game. People wanted to know that you’d really put the work in when it came to diggin’ for samples and that you really knew how to work the equipment and make it do what you wanted it to do to make those beats. Today, kids are allowed to take maths tests with calculators and they still can’t get every question right, so what is that telling you? It’s the same with music today, people have all this limitless technology but still can’t come up with something great that will stand the test of time. So, it lets you know that technology is great, but you still need the person using it to have imagination and creativity to get the best out of it.”
What would you say to people who might try to slap you with the ’Mad Rapper’ tag given your opinions on the quality of some present-day Hip-Hop?
“See, what they try to do is curb your answers by calling you a mad rapper, so that when you don’t like something you can be called a hater and things like that. That’s bulls**t! It’s just my opinion. But that’s what they do hoping it’ll stop people from giving their honest opinion because if you say you don’t like something they’re gonna call you a hater, so then some people might not actually want to say they don’t like something. No! If you don’t like something then say it, because if enough people tell some of these artists that their s**t is trash then it’ll actually resonate that it is trash. You can’t tell me that today every record is a hit record, every artist out is hot, that nothing is wack. Back in the day if your s**t was trash then people told you it was trash and you had to come back and do better. But nowadays, when I listen to stuff, I don’t call it trash anymore because maybe that’s too harsh for some people to deal with, so I just say it’s not for me (laughs). I mean, I’m a grown man and I come from that funk and soul era and a lot of the music today just doesn’t touch me, man. I’m trying to touch people with my music, and not like one of those foul priests either, I’m trying to touch people the right way (laughs).”
Another highlight you mention during your show is touring Europe with Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate in 1990 / 1991 – how much of an impact did that experience have on you in terms of you seeing how far your music had reached at that early stage in your career?
“Travelling on a tour across Europe for a month-and-a-half with Ice-T at the age of twenty-one, that is definitely going to have an affect on you. It let me know that I had a fanbase that were supportive across the world and that I could continue to make the music that I loved knowing that I didn’t have to make radio records or club hits to still be able to travel and do things that other artists with commercial hits weren’t able to do. So that experience really opened my eyes to making sure, as an artist, you always utilise the tools and the blessings that you have, which is something I still try to make sure I do today.”
What did you think the first time you saw the UK’s Hijack on that Rhyme Syndicate tour?
“Damn (laughs). They had a performance, man. At that time, I wasn’t really used to the whole performance aspect. I was just a straight emcee who would come onstage, the beat would come on and I’d just kill it. Hijack were bringing fake dead bodies out, they had all types of other s**t going on, and I remember watching them thinking ‘What the f**k is that?’ But they had a show. What I’ve been doing on this tour is give people a show. You really have to make sure you give people their moneys worth and something to remember everytime you hit the stage.”
Putting you on the spot here, what would you say are your three favourite beats that you’ve produced either for yourself or other artists?
“I would say Dr. Dre’s “The Message” is one, Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts” is two, but the third one is hard, it could be “Check The Method” because of the musical aspect, it could be “Brainstorm”, or it could even go to Xperado “All Night”, which is the joint Joey Bada$$ just redid, because what I did with what I had on that track was just some other s**t.”
I think one of your best beats has to be Big L’s “Street Struck” - I remember being almost hypnotised the first time I heard that when “Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous” dropped…
“That could be one of my favourite beats as well because we took notes from the sample, echoed those notes and then replayed them and added other elements to the track. So if people can dissect what I used on that I’ll give them a hundred dollars, for real. You’re only going to know what I used on there if somebody that was close to me tells you what I did with that record. Nobody else will be able to tell you that, nobody.”
With the constant threat today of lawsuits etc do you ever think about not using samples so much anymore or does it just make you use them in a more creative way?
“Nah, I’m always going to do what I do. It’s just another challenge. People feel like they’re not going to sample anymore and talk about how they’re going to play everything on a track?! Man, unless you’re Teddy Riley, Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder then cut it out, man. You’ve gotta be someone like a Roy Ayers to really understand the technical skill involved in playing some s**t. Some of these ni**as sound like they’re retarded on those keyboards and what they’re doing really doesn’t have any soul or feeling to it. I’m always going to sample. I’m like Leonardo DiCaprio in that movie “Catch Me If You Can”, man. I really see it as a challenge. If y’all ni**as really think you can catch what I’m doing, okay, I’ma see y’all. Let’s see if you can really tell people what I used and what I did without researching the people around me.”
So what can people expect from Lord Finesse in 2013?
“Inspiration. Fans and artists who’re frustrated with the state of real Hip-Hop will be able to look at what I’m about to do as a new blueprint. That’s all I can say. I’m just about to have fun all over again. I’m still rhyming, it’s still straight beats, there’s still that funk and soul in the music, it’s the same thing people know me for, but this new album “The Underboss” will be like “The Awakening” times ten. No electronic commercial s**t, I’m not doing that. Just believe and have faith that when I come back on the scene you’re going to be able to get with it.”
Footage of Lord Finesse and DJ Boogie Blind rocking the turntables in Manchester, England.