With 2007 having seen new albums from legendary artists such as KRS-One and Public Enemy, and with Internet message boards buzzing about forthcoming material from the likes of Rakim, EPMD and Brand Nubian’s Grand Puba, it’s safe to say that the spirit of Hip-Hop’s fabled late-80s / early-90s golden-age is being kept well and truly alive by a string of lyricists who’re not ready to hang up their microphones just yet. New Jersey native and former Tuff City recording artist Anthony ‘YZ’ Hill can also be added to the list of true-school cats from yesteryear still making noise in the new millennium with quality music that’s simultaneously retro and relevant.
Initially coming to the attention of the wider Hip-Hop community with the 1989 release of his Tony D-produced “In Control Of Things” single, YZ’s lyrical blend of street-savvy swagger and afrocentric politics endeared him to rap fans hooked on the intelligent but raw music of acts such as X-Clan and BDP. An album soon followed in the form of 1990’s well-received “Sons Of The Father”, which found YZ dropping science over a head-nodding selection of sample-heavy beats. A sophomore project, “The Ghetto’s Been Good To Me”, was released in 1993.
Fast-forward almost 15 years and YZ can now be found living in Atlanta with his family, still working hard in his ongoing attempts to uplift Hip-Hop culture and address some of the potentially controversial issues currently surrounding it. Aside from his forthcoming album “Muad’Dib” (which is preceded by the banging single “You Know Me”), the entrepreneurial MC is also involved in a number of other ventures through which he is able to satisfy both his creative tendencies and feelings of social responsibility. With a Hip-Hop-based talk show on the Grapevine Radio network, The Dollar Project (a non-profit foundation to help the homeless), and various television plans in the pipeline, it’s clear that YZ is a man of action who doesn’t believe in wasting either time or an opportunity to build.
HHNLive.com recently kicked it with Mr. Masterplan to talk about, amongst other things, his beginnings in the music game, old-school rap beefs and media motor-mouth Bill O’Reilly.
RP: How and when were you first introduced to Hip-Hop?
YZ: The first time I was introduced to Hip-Hop I was visiting some cousins out in East Orange, New Jersey when I was about 8-years-old. As we were walking down the street both of my cousins were singing this song, ‘To the Hip-Hop….’ and I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ My cousins were like, ‘Man, you’re square. You ain’t heard that?!’ They made me feel like I was from another time zone or something (laughs). Obviously the record they were talking about was the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and I knew right then that when I got back home I had to find out more about that record and what that sound was. At the time I was living in Paterson, New Jersey and I used to run with this crew called the Zodiac Crew, which was like a little gang. So in-between shoplifting here and there and fighting, doing the silly shit kids do, I was banging on stop signs singing and rapping. I actually became very good at it early on, so by the time I was 9-years-old I was already starting to write songs.
RP: So how did you make the transition from rhyming for fun to making records?
YZ: I grew-up in north New Jersey right next to New York, but then my family moved to central New Jersey which is closer to Trenton and even Philadelphia. So everything I’d learned in Paterson I took there. Growing-up as a teenager, battle rapping and break-dancing were really popular and we’d go to local parties and rip up any mics that we could. So what ended up happening was we built a name for ourselves in that area of New Jersey. That was how I met Tony D and we became fast friends and then business partners. We started a company called Two-Tone Productions, the name coming from us both being named Tony and him being white and me being black. I was probably about 16-years-old when we started the company. The demo we recorded got around and it ended up in the hands of a guy named DJ Woody Wood who was a mix deejay with Lady B on Philadelphia’s Power 99. A guy called Jeff Mills got my number from Woody Wood and called saying he wanted to meet me. We met at a Dunkin’ Donuts near my house and after talking to Jeff he asked if I wanted to record a song. So me and my homeboy G-Rock went to Evergreen Studios a week later and made our first record, “I Am What I Am”, which we put out on a small label in Trenton called Rockin’ Hard Records. But seeing that situation let me know that I could do the label thing myself. So there was another guy with a label called Diversity Records. I acquired half of that company and that’s when Tony D and I went back into the studio and recorded “Thinking Of A Masterplan” and “In Control Of Things”. We pressed that up on our own label and the record ended-up becoming pretty popular, with “In Control Of Things” becoming the theme to Marley Marl’s radio show on WBLS. We were really getting a lot of love from the whole tri-state area and on college mix shows and that’s basically how we made a name for ourselves.
(YZ – “Thinking Of A Masterplan” – Tuff City / 1989)
RP: What was the story behind your 80s beefs with both Poor Righteous Teachers and the Flavor Unit camp?
YZ: Because rap is based on battling and a whole bunch of machismo bullshit, you’re always going to have some sort of beef between somebody. I was always very forthright in speaking my opinion, which caused me some problems early on. Now, Poor Righteous Teachers signed to my record company when they first came out. I met Wise Intelligent at this little cookout and Diversity Records, the company I co-owned, signed Poor Righteous Teachers. Tony D took to being a nuisance at that point, and don’t get me wrong, Tony and I are friends and he might tell things a little differently, but everything I’m saying to you now I’d say to him. But Tony would get in Wise’s ear and create the friction that became the beef between PRT and me. He would take songs that I’d recorded and play them to Poor Righteous Teachers, which is why you might’ve noticed our styles then were so similar on certain songs. Now with Flavor Unit, that was a whole difference case. Tony was starting to get frustrated about people using beats that were similar to his. He was working on this project called “Music Makes You Move” which was supposed to be an instrumental break-beat album. Tony asked me if I would be on this joint basically aimed at the people who had used his beats, which included Flavor Unit, my Tuff City label mate Lakim Shabazz, Gang Starr, Big Daddy Kane and a few others. That song was never supposed to be just outright dissing or being disrespectful, it was just supposed to highlight what had happened with some of Tony’s beats. But Tony added some profanity and comments towards other artists. Obviously with Tony being the beat maker and YZ as the voice, it was me who was going to catch all the heat off of that.
RP: So as an artist who has experienced first-hand how a spontaneous studio idea can escalate into a heated situation with another artist, would you advise today’s upcoming rappers to stay away from beef?
YZ: I would because nowadays it’s a bit different. Don’t get me wrong, guns and violence were around back then as well, but we weren’t so quick to shoot each other. Nowadays, it seems like the youth don’t really have any true respect for life and when beefs happen in Hip-Hop now you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Words are probably the most powerful thing on this Earth because they spread so quickly. I mean, you could say something today and ten years from now those words might still be touching people. So when you have kids losing their lives over words, I just think artists should back away from being blatantly disrespectful towards each other because it seems to be a very dangerous time right now.
(YZ – “Return Of The Holy One” – Livin’ Large / 1992)
RP: After a relatively successful run as an artist things seemed to go quiet for YZ in the mid-90s aside from the odd guest appearance. Did you make a conscious decision to step away from the game at that point?
YZ: In 1993 I moved to New York and I had a company called 720 Sound. At that time I was very deeply embedded in the game and had acts like UTD with Mos Def, 8-Off The Assassin, and Legion Of Dume with Schott Free who went on to A&R at Loud Records. We had offices in the same building as The Source magazine. I was just 20-years-old. What ended-up happening was, the people I had signed to me who I worked very hard for every day, they really couldn’t see the clear picture. I felt like it almost became a baby-sitting job. At the time (legendary New York street ball player and hustler) Pee Wee Kirkland and I were business partners, so I told Pee Wee that I was going to move to Atlanta, still run the business from there and let him deal with things in New York. When I moved to Atlanta everything was fine in the very beginning, but Pee Wee really couldn’t handle the day-to-day ins-and-outs of the music game and things just kinda fell to the wayside. I moved to Atlanta because I really just wanted to take a small step away from the hustle and bustle of New York. I didn’t necessarily want to step away from the game, but I did want to get away from the nonsensical, lackadaisical attitude of some of the artists I’d been dealing with. Not to say all of the artists were like that, but some of them were. So I never really stepped away from the game completely during that period, as I always took an interest in what was happening in Hip-Hop and put out little projects here and there.
RP: You released the album “The Legend Of Floyd Jones” in 2002 but have gone on record saying you felt the project was misunderstood. What did you mean by that?
YZ: That album was actually supposed to be an ode to Pee Wee Kirkland. What I did was I took a fictitious name and things that I’d been through and then put it together within the shell of Pee Wee’s life. I got great reviews for that album, but in all of the reviews I read nobody actually knew it was YZ’s voice they were hearing. To be honest, aside from this new album I’m about to drop, I think “The Legend Of Floyd Jones” is the most conceptual album I’ve made. But sometimes people don’t want to see different sides of an artist, so when people started finding out it was me behind the record they had a problem because some of the subject matter didn’t fit with what they expected to hear from YZ. Now I don’t know any man who isn’t multi-faceted and rappers have always had to bear the brunt of “keeping it real”, but when we do keep it real we can only keep it as real as the people want to hear. But personally, I love that “Floyd Jones” album.
RP: What can listeners expect from your new album, “Muad’Dib”?
YZ: The title “Muad’Dib” comes from a character in Frank Herbert’s science-fiction book “Dune” who was the liberator of the sand people. With what I see going on in Hip-Hop today, I think the music needs to be liberated and the audience needs artists who can give them good Hip-Hop and balance things out with something of substance. The game really doesn’t have enough balance right now, and to me balance is the key to life. I began recording the new album just over a year ago and finished about four months ago. When I started hearing projects like the recent albums from Common and Kanye West, it got me thinking that maybe my album is right on time because people obviously do want to hear something different right now. I’m very blatant about addressing certain issues on the new album so it’ll be interesting to see how people react to it.
RP: There seems to have been a lot of renewed activity amongst some of rap’s golden-era figures in recent times. How much of that do you think is down to Internet sites like MySpace showing artists that there is still an audience out there for their music?
YZ: I think the Internet on a whole is very important to music nowadays in general because it gives people the chance to share their music on a worldwide level rather than just on a neighbourhood level. When I first came into the game you would just rock your neighbourhood and somehow if you rocked your neighbourhood enough your name would start to spread and that was how you were able to build a career. Nowadays artists have the world at their fingertips and can share what they want with who they want online. Now as far as golden-era artists are concerned, I don’t think sites like MySpace are solely responsible for any current success a particular artist might be having, although they do play a part. But honestly, I think what keeps some our legendary artists around is the same thing that keeps artists like Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley around. They made music of substance and that will always stand the test of time and be remembered. Nowadays, so much of what you hear in the rap scene is redundant. You have to wonder which artists will be remembered in years to come and whether the fans today would still want to buy a new album from those guys in the same way that people like KRS-One and Public Enemy are still able to sell new projects 20 years after they first came out. It’s sad because labels now don’t want to really invest any time or money into developing an artist. It’s all about the quick fix and labels are just giving us fast-food music and forgetting that we need some fruit and vegetables as well.
RP: Moving away from music for a moment, what do you think Obama’s chances are of becoming the next US president?
YZ: To be honest with you, after seeing the last two elections here in America, I don’t really believe in the electoral process anymore. I honestly think that it’s a big farce and I don’t want to get too far off your question, but I think there’s an agenda being met right now and I think that, should Obama win, it’s because it would be part of the bigger agenda that the powers-that-be are working towards. The reason I say that is because, what better time to put a black president in power than when things are really terrible and then they’ll have to bear the brunt of that and be used as a scapegoat. Plus, I don’t think corporate white America is really ready for a black president yet. However, I do think the people are ready to see some changes. I think it’s very important that we see a leader who can inspire the next generation to be conscious about the movements they make, conscious about the need to look after the planet they’re living on, conscious about the political ramifications of people’s actions. Someone needs to really be able to reach out to the youth and make them think about what their future is going to be like and how they can play a role in shaping it.
RP: Hip-Hop itself seems to be something of a political hot potato at the moment following the Don Imus incident earlier this year and the seemingly endless targeting of rap by media commentators such as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. How much of a negative impact do you think that sort of reporting has on the white mainstream’s view of black America?
YZ: I think the people that have a problem with the black community are always going to have a problem with the black community. But to be honest, it’s not the youth that the Bill O’ Reillys of the world are looking to engage, it’s their parents and grandparents who’re probably already stuck in their views of Hip-Hop and the black population anyway. So if Bill O’Reilly thinks the solution to some of the problems he addresses lies in alienating the same youth he’s actually talking about then he’s got it all wrong.
RP: What amazes me about figures such as Bill O’Reilly is how hesitant they are to enter into any genuine dialogue about some of the issues they’re raising concerning Hip-Hop – it’s either their way or no way. Would you agree with that?
YZ: The bottom line, I think, is that someone like Bill O’Reilly is so fixated on Hip-Hop because he knows that just the very word is going to help get him ratings. I don’t necessarily know if he feels one way or the other about Hip-Hop, but if he can get ratings off of talking about it that’s what will keep him paid and in a job. I mean, commentators like Bill O’Reilly thrive off of controversy just as much as some of the artists they’re criticizing do. I don’t think that what Bill O’Reilly does is productive in regards to the youth because he’s not constructive or open-minded in the way he approaches the subject of Hip-Hop and his supposed concerns about it.
RP: Speaking of media commentators, you currently host a popular Hip-Hop show on Grapevine Talk Radio. How did you become involved in that?
YZ: My association with Grapevine started out with me being asked onto a talk radio show because they wanted to address Hip-Hop. After I’d been interviewed on the show I think the people at the network were really taken aback by the fact that they’d heard all this negative feedback about Hip-Hop but here was someone who could talk about it from an intelligent standpoint and perhaps show people they might be wrong about some of their opinions on the music and its culture. So they asked me if I’d be interested in starting my own radio show. I had to think about it for a minute because I wanted to make sure that if I did it the concept behind it made sense. So I came up with The Afterthought Radio Show to see if we could get people interested in some of the dialogue currently surrounding Hip-Hop and in just over four weeks we had 300,000 people listening to us. What that told me is that there are a lot of people out there worldwide who want to see some changes happen in Hip-Hop. So with The Afterthought I wanted to establish some sort of link so that the artists of the golden-era would be able to share some of their knowledge of that particular period in Hip-Hop’s history that people might’ve missed, but also debate some of today’s current issues surrounding the music and also supporting some of those artists of today who’re making music of substance.
RP: As someone who’s now involved in music, radio and television, where are you looking to take your career next?
YZ: Even if it comes to the point where I’m no longer recording music as an artist, I will always be involved in Hip-Hop on some level because I have a genuine love for the music and the culture. I’m about to be like the Oprah Winfrey of Hip-Hop and really take it there because someone really needs to stand-up, speak out and do what’s right for this music.
(D-Nice Presents: True Hip-Hop Stories / 2007 YZ Interview)