Cory ‘Cormega’ McKay’s place in the hip-hop history books was secured in 1994 when a young Nas shouted-out a then incarcerated Mega on One Love, the passionate lyrical letter to a jailed friend included on his classic Illmatic debut. “Wassup with Cormega? Did you see him? Are ya’ll together?” Nas asked his imprisoned homeboy, leaving listeners worldwide wondering who the man known as Mega Montana actually was. But heads closer to home on the streets of Queensbridge, New York already knew exactly what the individual behind the name was all about.
Born in Brooklyn but raised in the notorious QB housing projects, Cormega built a local rep for himself as an upcoming rapper at a young age, recording with the likes of Marley Marl and DJ Hot Day. Mega’s hip-hop career aspirations would be cut short, however, after the fledgling lyricist found himself sent to prison after taking just one too many illegal risks in the streets. After being released in 1995, Cormega came home to find he was potentially hot property in the rap game, thanks mainly to his known association with Nas. Appearing on the QB don’s 1996 project It Was Written alongside Foxy Brown and AZ on the track Affirmative Action, Mega subsequently signed a deal with Def Jam. Thanks to the ever-growing buzz surrounding his blunt-but-thoughtful verses, Cormega was then asked to join the rap super-group The Firm with Nas, AZ and Foxy Brown, a joint project helmed by West Coast production giant Dr. Dre and East Coast hit-makers The Trackmasters. Politics would prevent Mega ever being heard as part of the Firm, however, when a dispute between himself and Nas’s manager Steve Stoute led to the gritty MC being replaced by another Queensbridge artist, Nature. The incident led to the dissolution of Mega’s longstanding friendship with Nas and was followed by further bad luck when Def Jam shelved his completed debut album The Testament.
After finally being released from his Def Jam contract in 2000, Cormega changed the direction of his career by launching his own independent label Legal Hustle, releasing his first long-awaited album The Realness in 2001, the same year that Nas attacked Mega on the harsh dis track Destroy & Rebuild from his Stillmatic project. Undeterred and buoyed by the critical acclaim his official debut album had received, Cormega returned the following year with The True Meaning, another slice of unapologetic street-hop that saw the grounded rapper working with the likes of The Alchemist, Buckwild and Hi-Tek.
Five long years have passed since a new Cormega solo album has been released, with the industry veteran choosing instead to drop side projects such as 2004’s Legal Hustle compilation, his unreleased Testament debut, and a collaboration album last year with fellow QB artist Lakey The Kid. Now returning with both a DVD project and an instrumental album, Cormega kicked it with XXL to talk about his life as an independent artist, the importance of avoiding rap beef, and the status of his forthcoming solo album, the tentatively-titled The Inevitable.
It’s been half a decade since you released an album of new solo material. Why the delay?
In 2001 I made The Realness, then in 2002 I made The True Meaning. After that I wanted to take a little break because my daughter was born in 2002 and also I’d just won a Source award which was big for me back then, so I felt I deserved a break. Then in 2004 I put together the Legal Hustle compilation and in 2005 I finally released my old album, The Testament, which should’ve come out on Def Jam. Then in 2006 I stopped what I was doing so I could work on the My Brother’s Keeper album with Lake. So that’s what held-up the new Cormega solo project. But from here on out I’m going to be consistently dropping material on people because I understand the nature of the business and I don’t wanna be outta-sight-outta-mind.
You’re about to drop the Legal Hustle Presents Got Beats project. What made you decide to release an instrumental album?
A lot of people used to contact me on the Internet and saying they wanted beats or they’d request certain instrumentals of mine. So I decided to get some fresh new beats from a bunch of producers, combine those with some of the beats that people have been asking me for and see what happens. I have people on the album like The Heatmakerz, Ski Beatz and J Love.
What can people expect to see on your forthcoming DVD, Who Am I?
The DVD is three hours and fifty seconds long! It contains various videos from throughout my career, studio footage, you’ll see my regular everyday life, you’ll see me performing at shows. It follows me from 2001 to 2005 and it really answers a lot of questions people might have had about who I am as a person and certain controversies that have surrounded my career. The thing I’m most proud of about the DVD is that it’s not just me on there talking sh*t. It’s not like a lot of these typical street DVDs where you have the artist on there trying to act a particular way. Instead, you’ll see other people giving their insight on me. I have Marley Marl on there, Tragedy, Nature, ACD, Blaq Poet, KL, G.O.D., a lot of people from Queensbridge. I don’t have Mobb Deep though and I was trying to get Havoc on there but I had to finalize the project before we could make that happen. But there’s a real mix of people who knew me from the street life and people who know me from the industry, and they all answer the question of what type of person they think I am. It‘s real interesting.
The DVD trailer circulating on the Internet shows you in a couple of clips making the point that you’re out in the ’hood without any security. Do you feel that rappers today don’t feel comfortable being amongst regular everyday people like that?
You’re right, a lot of rappers definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. But let me clarify something, that trailer isn’t a Cormega-approved trailer. That was something that was just put out. I’ve noticed myself that it says “no security” a couple of times and if I’d have done the trailer I wouldn’t have put that on there like that because I wouldn’t want people to think the whole project is about me trying to push a certain image. I don’t think I really need to prove to people that I can go to the ’hood because I think people know that about me already. I’d rather people focus on other aspects of the DVD. For example, you’ll see me going to visit people in hospital and other stuff. I’m a people person.
(Official “Who Am I?” DVD trailer)
Your career suffered a number of false starts in the late-90s with both the Firm situation and also your problems at Def Jam. What did you learn from those experiences?
From the Def Jam situation I learnt that labels don’t care about artistry, they care about sales. You can have the wackest album on the whole label and your project can come out and get more promotion than an album from the most talented artist on the label, because labels base all of their decisions on what’s hot at a particular moment and what’s going to sell. So I learnt that in the industry you really have no friends because people will shake your hand, they’ll compliment you and tell you all kinds of different things, but then the next thing you know they’ll put you on the shelf and f**k-up your whole life. Everything ain’t always what it seems and you really can’t trust too many people in this industry. You really have to expect the worst when you get into the game and then if something good happens then that’s a blessing. From The Firm I learnt that everybody’s really out for self. After the Firm situation people really thought it was over for me and they counted me out, but I re-established myself. See when The Firm situation was going down I knew I wasn’t going to be in the group because it was all politics. But nobody in The Firm revolted and said, ‘F**k that! Mega gotta be down.’ If they’d have stood up it would’ve never been an issue but everyone was pacified by their check.
The feud you had with Nas has been well-documented but you performed with him during his Hip Hop Is Dead tour last year. What’s the current status of your relationship with Nas?
I ain’t got no beef with Nas. That sh*t is old. He brought me out at his show last year and it was a good experience. It was incredible. But I’m trying to an artist, so I don’t want to be getting caught up in no beef. See, a lot of new artists today think that beefing with someone is the only way to get in the game and get some attention. But what a lot of artists don’t realize is that when the beef’s over nobody cares about you no-more. So you really have to concentrate on establishing yourself as an artist, because that’s what’s going to enable you to maintain your career, not trying to thrive off of beef. I mean, when Nas and me had beef my record sales actually increased, so I could’ve benefited financially by keeping the beef going. I got more magazine interviews when I had beef with Nas than when I didn’t have beef with Nas. But I had to have the self-respect and dignity as an artist to step away from that. I’m not trying to be no gimmick. I actually got into an argument at the time with Vibe magazine because they were doing a story on Nas and they called me up for some input and wanted me to dis him and I didn’t want to. I’ve never spoken on that before, but f**k it. I’m proud of the fact that I left the beef alone because it means that people focus on my music first and foremost rather than what I have to say about someone else.
(Cormega performing with Nas on the “Hip-Hop Is Dead” tour in December 2006)
Staying with The Firm for a minute, what’s your opinion on Foxy Brown’s current legal situation. Do you think the punishment fits the crime or do you feel it’s just another case of a rap artist being made an example of?
I can’t even comment on Foxy Brown. No comment.
People were surprised to see you come out as an independent artist after your Def Jam deal failed instead of signing to another major label. Whereas today, given the current state of the music industry, everyone seems to be going independent. What are your thoughts on that?
When I first went independent I had other artists looking at me like I was crazy. But people need to understand that I did have major labels wanting to sign me after I left Def Jam. The main reason I put The Realness out independently in 2001 was because I was thirsty to have an album out as I’d been waiting since 1998 to drop something. So even though I had all these other labels looking to sign me at the time, they wouldn’t have been able to put my album out as quickly as I’d have liked. Then once I started going independent I never turned back because I soon realized that I could put out an album that might sell 50,000 copies and make more money than from a gold album on a major. So when artists were looking at me a certain way back then, I was laughing at them because they really didn’t understand the benefits of an independent situation. Although a lot of these major label artists were getting more exposure than me, I was actually making more bread than them. What people fail to realize is that by the time a major label has recouped on the marketing and production costs that go into making an album, the average gold-selling artist is only just breaking even. The average artist on a major label makes their money from doing shows, not selling records. I’ve barely been doing shows over the past two years and I’m still able to keep up with the big boys. The funniest thing to me is that, when me and Nas had beef, people had the perception that I was still in the projects broke and mad. Meanwhile, I was probably the richest rapper from Queensbridge at that point. Everything that I wanted at that point in my life I could get. I was the one who was taking the kids from the projects to Great Adventures and paying for transport and park admission. The independent game is the best thing in the world for an artist. You just have to get a good lawyer, study the game, and you can’t act like a diva because ain’t nobody gonna pamper you. If you can grind, then you can make money.
Queensbridge has always played an important role in hip-hop, from the days of Marley Marl and MC Shan through to artists such as Mobb Deep and yourself. Do you feel that the area’s legacy is being properly maintained by the new generation of artists coming out of Queensbridge today?
There’s always gonna be talent in Queensbridge. I’m telling you, QB is a f**king cesspool of talent. But the thing with Queensbridge is that there are people in the streets who have legitimate beef with each other. So, this rapper coming out might be down with a particular crew who have beef with another crew that this other rapper is down with. So what f**ked up Queensbridge was the dissension amongst all of us because of the differences between certain people. That’s why there was never any real unity between all the artists coming out of Queensbridge. It’s like, when we did the QB Finest album in 2000, people really didn’t know how to play their position and thought they were better than the next man or were the top artist. Now, Nas is the top artist from Queensbridge, whether you like him or not. Mobb Deep is the top group from Queensbridge. You have to accept and respect that, but some individuals felt that because they’re a street ni**a they can’t play certain positions because of who they are. But rap and the streets are two different things. So in the streets you might be that ni**a, but in the industry Mobb Deep and Nas are those ni**as. That’s what rappers in the ’hood need to understand, but people’s egos got in the way. I always give props to anyone who deserves props. I mean, I think Havoc is probably the most talented person from QB because he raps good and his production is amazing. Even when me and Nas had differences, I would still tell people I thought he was one of the best rappers out. I mean, Queensbridge will always be a focal point of hip-hop, but if we’d have had unity Queensbridge would’ve been even bigger and stronger than it is today.
On your street single Sleep Well you say “I ain’t trying to be another dude caught in the past” What did you mean by that?
Some people are on their own d*ck so bad because of what they did yesterday. But if you spend all your time chasing yesterday, you’re disrespecting today and tomorrow. Some people feel that because they were a gangsta back in the 80s that you’re supposed to salute them and give them all the props in the world. But if what you did in the 80s doesn’t pay the bills now, then I don’t wanna hear that sh*t. Even some rappers feel that because they were the hottest sh*t before, you gotta automatically respect them. Some people are real Hollywood with their sh*t, but if you’re an asshole people will always love to see you fall. That’s why I try to stay real humble.
You’re currently finishing your next solo album The Inevitable. What can fans expect from that?
Yo, I’m telling you, the next Cormega solo album is going to be a breath of life for hip-hop. I got production on there from Ayatollah, Emile, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DR Period, Lil’ Fame and Nottz. Plus, I got a song on the album called Fresh with KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Grand Puba, Parrish Smith and DJ Red Alert. I got another song with Tragedy and Havoc. It took a while to put the album together but I’m proud of it and it was definitely worth the wait. I never like to predict what I’m gonna sell, but I know I’m not gonna sell out. If the album doesn’t live up to what I say, I’ll quit. I gotta lot of tricks up my sleeve.
Cormega ft. Large Professor – “The Come Up” (Legal Hustle / 2002)