Building on the musical blueprint set out by golden-era partnerships such as Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Gang Starr, NY emcee Rashad and Boston-based producer Confidence’s new album “The Element Of Surprise” is the sound of two individuals with a true love for Hip-Hop coming together to celebrate their influences, whilst also looking to add-on to what has come before them.
Having worked with the likes of Big Shug, The Last Emperor and Slaine, Confidence’s masterful brand of sample-heavy boom-bap provides Rashad with a hardcore-yet-soulful soundscape over which to drop his fluid rhymes, ranging from the boastful (“Pen On Display”) to the reflective (“Days Of My Youth”) to the political (“Rumors Of War”).
Released via the Ill Adrenaline label (which also gave us Beneficence’s impressive “Sidewalk Science” album earlier this year), “The Element Of Surprise” is welcome proof that true-school Hip-Hop is still alive and well in 2011.
Here, Rashad & Confidence speak on how they initially came to work together, their passion for 90s Hip-Hop, and giving props to Diggin’ In The Crates legend Lord Finesse with that album cover.
How did the two of you first start working together?
Confidence: “Rashad hit me up on MySpace at the end of last year. It’s funny because I hardly check MySpace anymore but occassionally people will hit me up on there to say they want to buy a beat or something. I put out a mixtape last year called “ReCon” which included a bunch of remixes I did of classic 90s tracks and Rashad had heard that and he hit me up to say he wanted to buy one of the beats that I’d used on there. In the meantime, I went to his MySpace page and listened to the tracks he had on there and he had this one song that was just him rhyming over a J Dilla beat and I heard his voice and immediately knew that he had talent. I was really drawn to his voice and then I started to hear the flow and the lyrics and by then I was thinking that instead of Rashad just buying one beat from me it would be so much better if we could work on a whole project together. For an emcee like Rashad to come looking for me, that’s something that happens about once every ten years (laughs) so I knew I had to take the opportunity to work on something with him. The first single we put together was “Brand New” which was actually the beat that he originally wanted and then from there we’ve just been putting in work all year to record “The Element Of Surprise”.
Rashad: “Confidence’s beats had the sound that I had been looking for. I always wanted to rhyme over production that had a gritty and soulful sound. Finding a producer like Confidence was like striking gold. I was surprised that with the talent he has he wasn’t already signed to some label as an in-house producer charging ten thousand a beat.”
Were the majority of the beats used on “The Element Of Surprise” already recorded or were they made specifically for the album?
Confidence: “Aside from the single “Brand New” only one other track on the album uses a beat that I already had. The other ten tracks were all made fresh and chosen by Rashad out of a bunch that I made. He’s real picky about the music he rhymes over which is good because I’m picky to so we were really able to make an album that has a consistent feel that really fits Rashad’s style as an emcee.”
Rashad, the album contains a good mix of both ego-driven rhymes and more conceptual lyrics – which do you prefer to write?
Rashad: “I first started rhyming when I was about 13-years-old. As a kid I was fascinated with the way emcees put words together and could talk about any subject matter through a rhyme. I like writing both concept-driven rhymes and songs that are pure lyrical displays. I think you have to be able to do both to show you’re a well-rounded artist.”
Confidence, you’ve been making beats for some years now but this is your official debut album as a producer – do you feel that you’ve actually been able to deliver a better product given the time you’ve had to master your craft compared to what an album from you might have sounded like, say, five years ago?
Confidence: “That’s a great question and I truly believe that everything is about timing. If the timing’s not right for something then it’s just not meant to be. But I do believe the time is right for this album and over the years I’ve really been able to hone my sound and develop it. I’ve always had good beats and have always received good feedback from people but to me my music is always evolving so even though I might’ve had some good stuff over the years, when I listen to it now I know it’s not as good as the music that I’ve been making over the last year. The objective for me has always been to be one of the best and time will give you that as long as you focus and just keep working on your craft. I definitely feel it was worth the wait and because I’ve reached that point where I’m consistent with the quality of my music, anything else I put out will be just as good or even better. I mean, you should always strive to improve on what you’ve already done otherwise you shouldn’t be doing it.”
“The Element Of Surprise” definitely has a golden-era feel to it – what was it about the 90s that makes that period so special to both of you?
Confidence: “Firstly, that was the era of the music I really grew up through so that’s always going to be special to you. But even though there were so many groups out during that time the quality of the music was just incredible and there were so many good songs being made. It seemed like there was always something new coming out for you to check that as a fan was something you’d get excited about. There was so much variety.”
Rashad: “Hip-Hop’s golden era was important because of the sound and the emotion that was put into the music. Hip-Hop during that time had a certain type of energy. It was more organic and raw back then. Skills played a big part as well but it was just a different feeling back then.”
Confidence: “To me, the 90s signalled a new era in Hip-Hop and it came with a new sound, particularly on the East Coast, that showed how far the music had developed creatively. Plus, being around New York it seemed like everyone was involved in some way because everyone seemed to have a cousin or a brother who knew someone who knew someone (laughs). It was just such a great time for the music and it was incredible to be a part of that as a fan. There was that whole jazzy, boom-bap sound and producers were just finding and using all those incredible loops.”
Whose idea was it to recreate the cover from Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth’s 1990 classic “Funky Technician” for the album artwork?
Rashad: “That was Confidence’s idea as he wanted to pay homage to the greats.”
Confidence: “Yeah that was mine (laughs). I was a big Lord Finesse fan and loved tracks like “Hip 2 Da Game” and “Check The Method”. Originally, when it came time to think of an idea for the album cover I was thinking I’d just be in the background as the producer and that maybe the cover would just be a shot of Rashad or something. But then my man Benny from our label Ill Adrenaline suggested that Rashad and I should be on the cover together which I thought would be kinda cool. So after Benny had said that I started thinking and decided that I wanted to use the cover to go back and pay homage to the 90s in some way and I always remembered that Lord Finesse album cover. I thought it would be pretty cool to do that because the way it was shot meant that I’d still be in the background as the producer and Rashad would be in the front as the emcee. I really wanted the cover to show that the album was paying homage to that 90s era but with our own spin on it. I wasn’t sure how some people would react when they saw it, but so far most people who understand the reference seem to like it and can see where we were coming from with that. There has been some talk of us biting the album cover, but I just don’t think the people who said that really took the time to understand why we did it. If we’d used that cover and then made a wack album then we would’ve deserved to be ridiculed, but we knew how good the music we had was so we wanted to take that chance and hoped that by recreating the Lord Finesse cover it would go some way to making those who understood the reference want to check out our music to see what we’re about.”
Have you had any feedback from Finesse regarding the album cover?
Confidence: “I tried to reach out to Finesse on Twitter just to make him aware of what we were doing. I sent him a message and had changed my profile pic to the album cover so I thought that if he saw my comment it might make him curious when he saw the pic. I really wanted him to see it and be like ‘I can’t believe someone used my cover. This better be good.’ But I haven’t heard anything back from him so hopefully when the album starts circulating Finesse will see it. It’s not even about wanting him to acknowledge it, I just want him to see it so he can see that we were just trying to give something back to the culture with this album and really give thanks to those who came before us. It really would mean so much for someone like Lord Finesse and other artists from that time period to respect what Rashad and I have done with the album because I was so in-tune with the music of that time that I’d like them to know the influence they had. In years to come, people are going to look back on artists like Finesse and D.I.T.C. and view them as the Miles Davis and John Coltranes of Hip-Hop because of the sound and style they helped create with their use of sampling. They’re legends as far as I’m concerned and should be immortalised.”
Confidence, you’ve mentioned before that you don’t like to use the term ‘underground Hip-Hop’ when talking about your music – why is that?
Confidence: “I don’t really like to use that term ‘underground’ when I’m promoting our music, I prefer to describe it as ‘authentic’. The term ‘underground Hip-Hop’ had real validity in the 90s when artists were so limited by the channels they had available to them to get their music out there and heard. But I feel that now in 2011 the term ‘underground’ pigeon-holes your music and suggests it’s only meant for a particular audience of a particular age when there’s so much more awareness of Hip-Hop out there now. I mean, you have new fans who’re in their early-20s who’re grabbing onto the type of music that we’re making and enjoying it and I don’t think that’s got anything to do with us being considered underground, it’s more to do with that authentic Hip-Hop sound that we put into our music that these younger fans are perhaps experiencing for the first time. I think describing music as being underground means that you’re not expecting it to reach many people, whereas describing something as authentic relates to how the music actually feels and sounds which to me is something very different.”
A lot of great Hip-Hop has come out of one emcee / one producer partnerships – what are both the advantages and disadvantages of working like that?
Confidence: “No drawbacks at all. We really wanted to get back to that one emcee / one producer formula that was used by so many great artists we came up listening to. Working together like that just enables you to really achieve a consistent sound and means you’re able to take the listener on a journey rather than every track on an album having a different feel to it which can sometimes come over as very disjointed. I think sometimes artists feel pressured to try and please everyone when they record an album so they try to do a little of everything, but with “The Element Of Surprise” we were really trying to put together an album that would be timeless. I want people to be able to put our album on twenty years down the line and still love it.”
Rashad: “The main advantage of a one emcee / one producer unit is that you have two people giving their input on the project which results in a better album. With two people you always have someone else to critique what you’re doing instead of relying on your own opinion. There really aren’t any disadvantages to working with one producer unless the producer is trash and doesn’t know how to be diverse with their sound.”
So will there be another Rashad & Confidence project or is “The Element Of Suprise” a one-off?
Confidence: “I’d like to do another album with Rashad but because he’s so damn picky with the beats he likes it could take some time (laughs). It’s definitely a possibility and it’s something we have talked about so we’ll just have to play it by ear.”
Rashad: “There will definitely be another Rashad & Confidence joint coming as long as Confidence is down. Every album has to be better than the last and we we’ll keep hitting the game hard with gems.”
“The Element Of Suprise” is out now on Ill Adrenaline Records.
“The Element Of Surprise” Album Snippets