Canada’s Eternia isn’t a talented female emcee, she’s a talented emcee, period. Raised on a steady diet of hardcore 90s Hip-Hop, the Toronto-born artist has been rhyming since her mid-teens, steadily building a strong base of loyal fans over the years thanks to an undeniable mix of lyrical skill, powerful stage presence and a disarming honesty both on and off the microphone.
Refusing to pander to the tastes of the masses, Eternia has managed to retain her dignity throughout her career by avoiding the usual female-rap pitfalls of performing half-naked or rhyming solely about sex, sex and more sex. Eternia isn’t one to deny her femininity, but she’s not about to reduce herself to a simple gimmick in order to shift units or get a few more Facebook friend requests either. Eternia wants to be judged purely on her music first and foremost, and deservedly so, because, as anyone who invested in a copy of her 2005 debut album “It’s Called Life” will confirm, this lady has more in common with the strong, independent fire of legendary icons such as MC Lyte and Queen Latifah than she does the fantasy-driven exploits of a Lil’ Kim or a Trina.
Yet as many gifted female rappers already know, refusing to become a walking stereotype can lead to a life of underground obscurity. An existence not without its successes, but one that must become increasingly frustrating when the mainstream music media continue to ponder the supposed demise of female emcees, as if no-one of merit has smudged lipstick on a microphone since Lauryn Hill began to favour strumming a guitar over spending time with a pad and a pen.
That said, Eternia’s latest project “At Last”, a full-length collaboration with Canadian producer MoSS, could just be the release that makes those who’re sleeping revaluate their opinions of what they should expect from a female artist in the modern rap world. A potent boom-bap driven blend of battle-ready bravado (“Any Man”), conceptual storytelling (“Dear Mr. Bacardi”) and sincere self-reflection (“To The Past”), “At Last” features Eternia and MoSS at the top of their game, sharing a natural chemistry that infuses the album with a magnetic energy, with Eternia clearly revelling in the opportunity to test her lyrical mettle against respected figures such as Joell Ortiz, Rah Digga, The Lady Of Rage and Termanology.
Ladies first? Yes, indeed.
I can remember you telling me in the Autumn of 2007 that you were planning on working with MoSS and here we are three years later with a completed album from the two of you. What led to you deciding to work together on a full-length project?
“I didn’t really decide to do an album with MoSS, it was kinda in the stars and just happened for me (laughs). MoSS saw me open at a show in summer of 2007 in Winnipeg, Canada. I was the opening act for Masta Ace, Toure, Marco Polo and EMC. He approached me during sound check, shook my hand and told me had my album. We were familiar with each other’s music, which was really dope. After I performed, I remember being at the merchandise stand at the end of the night and MoSS told me ‘I see a whole album in my head when I see you onstage.’ So he was really inspired and the thing that sold MoSS on my artistry was my stage show, and he wasn’t just talking about working on one song together and seeing how it went, straight away he wanted to do an entire album. So then I was thinking was he going to be a man of his word because oftentimes people talk and get excited but then don’t follow through. But that happened in the July of 2007, and by November of that year we’d already recorded the first two or three songs for the record. The first song we tracked in the studio was “32 Bars”, which is one of the opening tracks on the album, and if MoSS was here right now he’d tell you that as soon as he heard that track he knew the rest of the album was going to go well (laughs). We were recording throughout 2008 and halfway into 2009 and actually wrapped the mastering and mixing of the album in June 2009. So it took a year and a half to do the record, but that was mainly because I’m in New York and MoSS is in Toronto and we only tracked together in the studio. We didn’t record anything remotely or send music back and forth over email.”
I was going to ask you if you recorded the album together in a studio the old-fashioned way or if a lot of it was done via the internet with MP3s etc….
“The only thing that was done over the net was MoSS sending me beats to write to and I would write to them in New York. But when it came to tracking, mixing, all that, we did everything together. I go back to Toronto like every three or four months, so every time I went to Toronto we’d bang out like three songs. So we basically did that three or four times over the year which is why it took so long (laughs). I actually made MoSS come to the studio because usually he’s just used to giving artists beats, so I think this was the first time he’d actually produced an artist like he did with me. It was definitely the first time I’ve ever had just one producer for a full project, and he was able to work closely with an artist and give his feedback directly to me in the studio. So it was a first for both of us and I think we both learned a lot.”
As this was the first time you’d worked with just one producer on an entire project did that have any impact on your creative process?
“I think it allowed me to become a lot more confident and comfortable with my sound. Whenever you get a beat it really dictates how you write and what you write. Sometimes I don’t even know what sort of subject matter I’m going to write about until I hear a beat, and then literally the way a beat sounds or feels will make me say ‘This is a song about family’ or ‘This is a song about someone who’s pissed you off.’ The beat will tell me what I’m writing about. So when you work with a whole bunch of producers, you might be challenged more, but the finished product can be all over the place. So I definitely feel that with this project, what we wanted to achieve and what we did achieve is a very sonically consistent album. You’re not gonna get confused when you listen to this album, you’re gonna know who Eternia is, what she represents and what kinda music she makes. The same goes for MoSS, if you didn’t know what kind of producer he was before hearing this album, you really get the full sense of his abilities on this project and I think he’d agree with that statement. We really wanted to achieve a sound on this album and create our own sonic brand.”
You actually started promoting “At Last” just over a year ago with the “Road To Release” video blog series. Why did you decide to start pushing the album so early given that it’s only just now being released?
“I’d love to say it was this really well thought out strategy, but the reason why we started promoting the album a year ago is because we really didn’t know what label the album would come out on, what the release date would be, anything. So instead of sitting on our hands or shopping the record behind the scenes with no buzz, we wanted to create a reason for fans to want to buy the record and also for labels to want to sign us. So really the reason we started “Road To Release” a year ago was to create a buzz so that we could even get the record out. DJ Sav-One from UndergroundComeUp.Com played a huge role in the “Road To Release” series and, in fact, I think it might’ve initially been his suggestion. It was a lot of work putting those together as I edited them all myself. But people started talking and once we started meeting with labels they knew who I was because of the blogs so I really couldn’t have planned it better.”
You’ve always prided yourself on having a very personal relationship with your fans – how do you maintain that accessibility and constant feedback without letting it cloud your judgement in terms of what you need to do as an artist?
“That’s a very good question. I’m the kind of personality type that takes human relationships very seriously. For example, if I have a conflict with somebody, and it might even be someone I don’t know particularly well, but it just weighs on me because I like everything to be peaceful. So it stresses me when I can’t respond to everybody or when emails go completely unread because I can’t keep up with it all. DJ Sav-One has picked up a lot of the slack around what I used to do in terms of responding to people and keeping fans up to date. So he logs into a lot of my accounts, but anytime an email is sent saying it’s from Eternia it is from Eternia, he would never respond to someone under my name. But what he will do is give me a heads up or forward certain emails on to me that I need to respond to quickly so I don‘t drop the ball on anything. I’m really not that big as an artist, I’m not Beyonce or anything so it’s funny that I’m even saying this (laughs), but when I go out sometimes I feel like there might be people in the room who’ve hit me up on Facebook or somewhere and I haven’t been able to respond to them and that stresses me out because I wouldn’t want anyone to take that personally. So I guess over the last year the accessibility fans have to me has had to be curtailed a bit, which is why Sav-One is the main contact now as my business partner for a lot of things relating to Eternia.”
Do you take it as a compliment that fans feel like they can communicate with you on such a personal level?
“Definitely and I feel like I’ve built lifelong fans for that reason, because people have been able to contact me and I’ve responded in some way. I think a lot of my fans feel like they know me as a person rather than just as Eternia the artist. I would never take any of my supporters for granted which is why it stresses me that I can’t always respond to everyone directly, so it’s definitely a juggling act between trying to do as much as I can to be accessible and communicate with fans, without that taking away from what I need to do as an artist. I’m really bad at multi-tasking, so whereas some people are really good at doing all these different things at once, I need to focus on one thing at a time. Like now for instance, whilst we’re doing this interview, I’m not on the computer checking emails or looking at something else. For me to feel like I’m really being effective at something I have to be just doing that one thing. Which is also why when we were recording “At Last” I didn’t work on any other projects.”
There’s quite a cross-section of featured artists on the album – how did you decide who you wanted to work with?
“I remember we were in the studio one day and MoSS was asking me about dream collaborations and to just name people that I’d like to work with, so out of that list of names we managed to make about sixty percent of those collaborations happen, with people like Ras Kass, Rah Digga, Jean Grae, Tye Phoenix, Rage, Maestro Fresh Wes. We reached out to Rah Digga through her management and they’d already been familiar with my music for a long time, and Rage obviously worked with DJ Premier who MoSS also works with so that was pretty much a family thing. What was cool was that everybody who featured on the album already had an awareness of both my music and MoSS, so although there was a business element to it, the collaborations also felt personal. That really showed me that sometimes the world might not know who you are, but your peers will and that’s very validating.”
Do you also feel that the fact you’ve held your own on “At Last” against some extremely respected lyricists means that perhaps those people who’ve dismissed you in the past will have no choice but to take notice this time around?
That’s a good question because until someone reminds of it, like Sav-One or MoSS will say ‘Hey, you realise you just went toe-to-toe and held your own against….’, I don’t even really think of it like that. I think haters and critics will always be haters and critics regardless, so the bigger you might get or the more you might prove yourself as an artist, I don’t think anything will ever shut them up. Most of them are just insecure people who like to talk shit. But the people who were already supporting me, I’d like to think they knew I could rap before I collaborated with any particular artist. I always knew that I could hold my own against artists that other people rate and who I also listen to and respect. I mean, some of the artists I’ve worked with on this album I’ve listened to since high-school so it’s an honour to get on a track with them. So in the end, it’s about me being able to tick the box on a personal level and say that I achieved an ambition to record with people who I’ve looked up to over the years. It’s comparable to us being played on Peter Rosenberg’s Hot 97 show last month or being in the latest issue of The Source in the Under The Radar section. Things like that are personal dreams that I always wanted to be able to say I did and now I can, which is cool. It’s not about me throwing these things in people’s faces, it’s about me being able to cross certain things off of my wish list (laughs). So at this point it’s not really about proving myself to anybody else as I’m pretty comfortable with myself. I don’t necessarily think I’m the best emcee of all time, but I definitely think I have talent and an ability to rap.”
You must get tired of talking about the whole ‘Where did all the female emcees go?’ debate, but given that XXL just ran an article posing that same question, what are your thoughts on that topic considering there still are female emcees such as yourself, Invincible and Jean Grae out there making music?
“The main way that I feel about that I articulated last year on my track “Sick” which was written in direct response to pretty much what you’re talking about. I was listening to Shade 45 and the people on the station were literally whylin’ out saying ‘RIP to female emcees’ and playing Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown records from the 90s. I was just astounded by their ignorance and lack of awareness and knowledge of what other music is actually out there. I haven’t read the XXL article you mentioned but have read other articles like it, and sometimes it feels like a slap in the face, but other times I just think that the people writing these articles aren’t professional in what they do and aren’t bothering to do their homework or even Google (laughs). If they were to sit down and type ‘female emcees’ into Google then they’d answer their own question about where the female rappers are and that article would be void in my opinion. So to me articles like that indicate a lack of knowledge from the journalist and also a lack of desire to expose new female emcees who’re obviously working hard. Perhaps to them, if someone’s not signed to a major label like Nicki Minaj then they don’t exist, but that really is just ignorant to think that way and that whole argument is just redundant. I think a lot of the time journalists at some of these magazines are scared to co-sign anyone that isn’t on a major or who hasn’t already been co-signed by the Dr. Dres, Eminems, Jay-Zs and Lil’ Waynes of the world. But that’s the difference between being a leader or a follower. The saddest part about an article like the XXL one you mentioned is that propaganda and hype in the media can really impact people’s thoughts and opinions, so there will be people who’ve read that article now walking around thinking it’s true instead of looking for themselves.”
Given the buzz that “At Last” has created and the obvious chemistry that you and MoSS share, are there plans for the two of you to work together again in the future?
“We never really planned past the release of the album but that wasn’t because we’re not open to working together again as a duo. We literally just took one step at a time and this step was just ‘Let’s do an album together’, which is a big commitment in itself these days for one artist to work with one producer for an entire project. So I think we’re open to opportunities that might be offered to us in the future, but no we’re not currently working on another project.”
In 2007 you posted a blog on your MySpace page that expressed a lot of frustration towards the rap game and hinted at you possibly putting the mic down for good, yet here you are in 2010 with a new project and sounding very enthusiastic. What changed?
“I’m glad you asked that. I do remember where I was back then and I viewed the project with MoSS in November 2007 as really like the light at the end of the tunnel. At the time I was at the end of my rope and I was ready to try something else in life from a career point of view. Then MoSS came along with this amazing opportunity to work on an album, and at the time he really didn’t know that he saved me from not actually doing this anymore. I believe that it was God who lined that up and I also believe that it was a big strong message to me not to quit. I remember MoSS saying to me on the phone that he wanted us to make an album that reminded us of why we were making music in the first place and why we loved Hip-Hop. Now he didn’t know at that time how close I was to throwing in the towel so when he said that it really hit me like a brick. So “At Last” really represents a sigh of relief to me. Also, I was baptized last year and that really changed the way I perceive everything in life, so it’s not about external measures of success or failure anymore, it’s about where God wants me. So everything in life has a different shade to it now based on my belief system. My priorities and focus in life have changed now and what makes me happy has changed, and that’s all happened since I wrote that blog in 2007. So thank God for that because if those things hadn’t changed, I don’t think I’d still be making music today. Recording “At Last” has really been like hitting the reset button.”