Category Archives: Interviews

Old To The New Q&A – DJ Nappa

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Developing his passion for Hip-Hop in the early-80s, the UK’s DJ Nappa made his name outside of his Luton stomping grounds a decade later, providing the production which would help his crew Phi-Life Cypher grab the attention of heads in Britain and beyond when the group first began releasing wax in the late-90s.

Producing the majority of Phi-Life’s classic 2000 Jazz Fudge album “Millennium Metaphors”, Nappa has spent  subsequent years keeping his raw brand of drum-heavy, sample-flavoured beats largely in-house, ensuring the second Cypher album, 2003’s “Higher Forces, was a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, whilst also working on the occasional outside project in-between providing long-time friend Life  with strong sounds for his slew of solo albums.

With Phi-Life Cypher announcing their split at the end of 2012, Nappa has remained busy, still digging in the crates, still crafting guaranteed head-nodders and still remaining faithful to the true-school sonic ethics he entered the UK scene with all those years ago as an upcoming producer.

Having just released his instrumental “Late Night Beat Tape” project, a wide-ranging selection of obscure samples, top-shelf breaks and random soundbites, Nappa recently stepped away from his equipment long enough to discuss his early production efforts,  the never-ending search for the perfect beat and his creative process.

Sample this!

At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a producer?

“I had turntables and was already deejay-ing and collecting breaks and stuff. But it wasn’t until I heard Caveman’s “Positive Reaction” album for the first time  in the early-90s that I really thought about producing. The production on that album blew me away. It wasn’t the typical UK sound of the time and the album really struck a chord with me. After I heard that, I started putting bits and pieces together on a four-track. I had an Amiga with this tiny little silver box that sat on top of it which was the sampler. So you could play fours things at a time basically, but no more than that. So I started making little loops on there for awhile. At the time, there was another Hip-Hop deejay in Luton, a mate of mine called Johnny The Fox, and he used to be on pirate radio. He started a rave / dance type label called Furious Records and I put my first piece of vinyl out on there. It was a bit s**t though to be honest (laughs).”

Were you recording under a different name then?

“I called myself The Creator and there was one track on the single called “Time To Get Wrecked”, where I used a Pete Rock sample from “The Creator”, and another one was called “Scat” where I just had some drums and put this little jazzy scat sample over the top. It was terrible (laughs). I think I do still own a copy somewhere and I’m sure you can get it on Discogs for 50p or something (laughs). But that was my first venture onto vinyl in 1992.”

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So prior to you actually getting into production you were listening to breaks but not with the intention of doing anything with them musically?

“Yeah, exactly. It was all about the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. I think the first one I actually bought was Volume 12 with “Funky Drummer” on it plus “The Champ” and “Ashley’s Roachclip”. There was a guy I went to school with, Steve, it was his birthday one year, this would have been 1986, and he went down to Bluebird Records in Luton, which later became Soul Sense, and he brought a load of the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. I remember we went back to his house to listen to them and that was the first time I heard  The JB’s “Blow Your Head”. I was just like, ‘Wow! This is crazy!’ But at that point I definitely wasn’t thinking of making beats myself, I was just cutting the breaks up on the turntables. But like I said, it wasn’t until I heard Caveman that I really started to think about doing production myself.”

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I always credit Caveman as being a really pivotal group within the British scene and, for me, “Positive Reaction” helped usher in a new era of production in UK Hip-Hop that stepped away from the traditional Brit-core sound and started to delve into funkier, jazzier samples…

“It was all about the sample material that they were using on that album. I mean, before that time, a lot of the samples you were hearing being used, you already knew what they were because they’d been used before. But when I heard “Positive Reaction”, the beats that The Principal was putting together on there just made me say, ‘Wow! What is this?’ I can still remember hearing the “Victory” single for the first time om Tim Westwood’s Capital Radio show back in 1990. At the time, I had a Sunday night pirate show on Pressure FM in Luton. Now, this was when MCM was on Westwood’s show all the time and he was doing a lot of gigs around the UK with Westwood and I remember they went to Batchwood Hall in St. Albans. I went down there and kinda just threw myself at MCM like, ‘You’re the s**t! You’re the best! What are those samples you’re using?’ He was a bit like, ‘Okay, chill out, chill out’ (laughs). But MCM was cool and he ended up playing me some of the “Positive Reaction” album in Westwood’s jeep and then gave me the tape! I was just like, ‘Wooow!’ This was before it had actually come out so I was dropping that all over the place (laughs). But me and MCM swapped numbers and we started chatting on the phone and we’re still friends to this day. But he taught me a lot about music back then. For example, Kool & The Gang, back then as far as I was concerned they were some disco pop s**t, but MCM put me onto the proper Kool & The Gang s**t. There was a track on “Positive Reaction” called “You Can’t Take It” which used Kool & The Gang’s “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight” and MCM told me about that. Then I went and found the record and it just opened me up to this whole other musical universe that was out there beyond the breaks that we’d already heard people using.”

That was the beautiful thing about Hip-Hop back then, that as a fan you took an active interest in the records that were being sampled and would want to learn more about a Roy Ayers or a James Brown. That whole process really helped you join the dots between the music of the time and the music of the past…

“Yeah, there isn’t so much of that happening anymore. But back then, that was a real eye-opener for me because before that I had really just been listening to the  original breaks and I definitely wasn’t digging into jazz or anything like that. I mean, during that late-80s era a lot of the samples that were being used on Hip-Hop records were being sampled straight off the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. But when people started using the jazz samples, that opened up a whole new music world to me.”

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So how did things progress for you from working with that original Amiga computer set-up to coming out with Phi-Life Cypher in the late-90s?

“So, like I said, it was around 1990 when I first started getting into the production side of things, and for the next few years I was really just messing around on the Amiga. I was making loops up and then I’d play them to MCM when I’d go and check him in High Wycombe and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, they’re alright.’ He wouldn’t tell me they were s**t, but he was just being really cool about it (laughs). Now, at the time, MCM had an Akai S950 and he taught me how to use it. He even let me me borrow it a few times and bring it back to Luton. So that’s how I really learnt to make proper beats, with MCM teaching me how to work the S950 and how to sequence it with an Atari computer, which was the Atari 520. I’ve actually got an Atari sitting in front of me now that I still use, which is the Atari 1040 (laughs). But yeah, that would have been about 1994 / 1995 that I was working with the S950.”

Was that a revolutionary experience for you to go from using a basic computer set-up to then working on the same equipment that some of the Hip-Hop records you were buying at the time would have been made with?

“Totally. Even though there still wasn’t much sampling time on the S950 back then, it was about ten or twelve seconds, but that was enough. Being able to use that machine back then was a really big stepping stone for me. I was working at the time, digging roads, and I decided that I had to save myself some money and get my own 950. That was around the end of 1995 going into the beginning of 1996. So I saved some money and ended-up buying one off a guy in Crystal Palace that I’d seen advertised in Exchange & Mart.”

Do you remember how much you paid for it?

“I paid £570 for it second-hand which was a lot of money back then. Then, somewhere near Bedford, I brought an Atari ST and started really making beats. I already knew Life as he had a little crew with a studio in Luton and I’d always be messing with them. So I started making beats and giving them to Life. This was around 1996. Life was in and out of prison, I’d be sending him beats, he’d be writing and when we had the opportunity we would make little tapes. Life’s probably still got them somewhere as he’s got hundreds of tapes from back then (laughs).”

So once you’d mastered the S950 there must have been a massive progression in terms of the quality of the beats you were making at that time?

“Yeah, it totally jumped from what I was making messing around on my Amiga to what I was doing at that point. I’d learnt a lot more about breaks by then, partly because I’d also gotten to know Juliano from The Creators through MCM. I mean, Juliano’s on a whole next level with breaks, so when I met him for the first time in the 90s that was another eye-opening experience. It was like, at the time, you think you know everything there is to know about music, but then you realise that you actually don’t know (laughs). So meeting Juliano opened up another different musical world with the library records, the soundtracks, the European records…”

So would you say your beats were getting better at that point because of the familiarity you were gaining with the equipment you were using or because you were being exposed to a wider amount of material to sample?

“It was both, really. I was getting good on the 950, but then going digging with Juliano, taking trips with him up to Birmingham, he’d just be pulling out records and saying to me, ‘Take that, take that, and that one.’ I was just learning from him at that point.”

Were there any memorable digging trips from that period that still stand-out to you?

“Yeah, yeah (laughs). There was one time we were in Birmingham, I can’t remember the exact spot, but this was around the time when people were just discovering David Axelrod. We were in this shop and this place had eight or nine copies of the Electric Prunes album “Release Of An Oath”, with “Holy Are You” on it, and that was just at the time that it had been used on Fat Joe’s second album. I remember we all got a copy of that album and were like, ‘Daammmn!’ There was another guy that MCM knew from High Wycombe, this guy called Gus, this real upper-class posh dude. He didn’t make music but he collected breaks and he had the ill s**t. I think it was actually Gus who Juliano got the break from that he used on The Creators’ “Hard Margin” track with Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Gus was also the first person I knew to have a copy of the “Planete Sauvage” soundtrack. This guy just had crazy records. God knows what happened to him (laughs).”

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Were you spending a lot of money of records back then?

“I was buying records all the time. But it was Juliano who taught me about charity shops. I mean, I wasn’t going into charity shops before then (laughs). At that time, around 1996 / 1997, Juliano was doing a lot of trades with big American producers, going to the record conventions out in New York and doing trades with people like Q-Tip and Pete Rock. I remember, I’d always be carrying around a list of the records that Juliano was looking for. So there might be a John Schroeder version of “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” that he’d be looking for, I’d find it, give it to Juliano, he’d give me some really good stuff, but then he’d trade it with producers out in America because it was a British copy and they couldn’t get it out there. They were going mad for that s**t over there at the time. Whatever deals Juliano did with Q-Tip, he ended-up with all of the instrumental Tribe show albums in his collection. That was all through dealing British breaks with Q-Tip. But I got some of my favourite records off of Juliano, like my Tom Scott “Honey Suckle Breeze” album. I’ve definitely got some good records off him. I actually haven’t seen him for a few years, but Juliano was a real record collector.”

I remember going to Juliano’s house back in 1998 so that him and Si Spex could play me their album “The Weight” for a feature I was writing on them for Fatboss magazine. The interview never actually got printed as the album didn’t come out until two years later. But I can still remember how passionate Juliano was about the music he was playing me and that crazy neck-snap he’d do…

“You probably heard a lot of the same tracks that I did at that point that didn’t actually make the album. There was a Craig G track and also an F.T. track that never made the final release. But, that was the legendary Juliano neck-snap you’re talking about  (laughs). There was no head-nodding, it was his neck just snapping. That and his foot tapping (laughs). But that was around the time that Phi-Life Cypher were talking with Juliano about putting our stuff out. We’d made some demos, like “Drop Bombs”, which we’d recorded in Luton. We gave those to Juliano and he was looking to do his own label and put us out. But then with everything that went on with the Creators album, we sort of got lost in the mix. So Juliano passed our stuff to DJ Vadim and that was how we got the Jazz Fudge link.”

I can still remember picking-up Phi-Life’s “Baddest Man” EP on white label from London’s Deal Real Records back in 1998. Something that struck me immediately about your production on there was that it had a really clear, full-bodied sound to it. Was that something you set out to achieve once you started working in a proper studio?

“I wasn’t even thinking about that sort of stuff when we  were doing the “Baddest Man” EP to be honest with you. I mean, I found it really hard at the time because I’d never been in a proper studio before at that point and the studio we were using had never worked with Hip-Hop artists before. So I was just trying to make everything sound really loud (laughs). When we started doing “Millennium Metaphors”, Juliano mixed some of the album and was really good in the studio, but he liked to really compress everything at the time, so his snares and everything would be really hard. But we were also working with No Sleep Nigel and that man is just a beast in the studio.”

No Sleep Nigel is a legend within UK Hip-Hop circles thanks to his engineer work with Blade, MC Mell’O’, Hardnoise etc. Did you learn anything from working with Nigel in the studio?

“I mean, Nigel just kinda did his thing. A lot of the time, you’d put a track up for him, he’d stick his headphones on and you wouldn’t hear from him for hours (laughs). The one thing with Nigel was that if you started talking to him you’d never get any work done (laughs). He could definitely talk. I mean, he was a lot older than us, he was a big man and he’d have a story for everything. Once you got him started you couldn’t stop him (laughs). So you kinda learnt to just leave him, let him do his thing and you knew it would sound good at the end.”

What producers were you looking up to at that point?

“Prince Paul was always my number one. Then a little later when I was around Juliano, Si Spex and Mark B, I kinda looked up to what they were doing at the time. Then, of course, you had people like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, The Alchemist, Hi-Tek. All those guys at that time were making real good music that was inspiring me.”

You remixed the Mark B & Blade track “Ya Don’t See The Signs” in 2001 which was on the flip of the Grant Nicholas rock version with that single eventually breaking into the UK Top 30. How was that experience for you?

“Yeah. That was definitely a big thing for me. Mark B liked what I was doing and it was really a big step-up for me to do that remix. I remember I really wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to do it at the same time because I was feeling the pressure to deliver. But I wanted to try and make my version a totally different track to the original and, in the end, it came out nice.”

Unlike many producers, you’ve really limited the number of artists you’ve worked with over the years and a lot of your production has remained in-house on the Phi-Life Cypher projects and then Life’s solo material…

“There’s no real reason for it, it’s kinda just happened like that. I mean, I’ve done bits here and there. Even before Phi-Life came out, I produced something for a crew that MCM had back in the 90s called Next Wavelength for a single they put out on Blue Planet Records. I did some remixes for DJ Vadim and worked with a crew from Scotland called Belles In Monica. Then I also did the projects with Inja and I have the “Rebelbase” album with Cappo coming out. But to be honest with you, nobody really asks me for beats. So back then, everything that I was making was going into the Phi-Life material. ”

How would you say your approach to production has changed, if at all, over the years?

“I don’t think it’s changed too much. I mean, when I listen back to beats I did years back I hear them and might think they’re not something that I’d do now. But I don’t know if my approach to making music has really changed. It’s hard to explain. I just make beats (laughs). I mean, there’s a few bits on the new Cappo album that are literally just loops and I think that’s something that I’ve learnt, which is to just go with what sounds good. Before, I would have thought that I couldn’t just loop something, I’d have to put drums on it and everything. Whereas now, if it sounds good then I’ll just leave it. I mean, if you listen to some of the music being made by people like Roc Marciano, he’s just looping s**t, rapping on it and it’s amazing. I feel that Hip-Hop is coming back around to that raw beats and rhymes sound. Just straight, hardcore beats and rhymes. I mean, a few beats on the new “Late Night” project, I haven’t actually sampled anything. I just recorded the music and then pasted the track together like I was cutting tape.”

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What was the idea behind your new instrumental project “Late Night Beat Tape”?

“I’ve been sitting on a lot of those beats for ages. I know that’s something that you probably hear a lot of producers say. But sometimes you make beats for yourself, like, ‘If I could rap then this what I would want to rap over.’ So, a lot of the beats on the “Late Night” project are the type of beats that, if I could rap, I’d be rapping on them. I called it “Late Night” because I’m an insomniac and I’ll be there sampling s**t at whatever time in the morning just making beats. I mean, sometimes you’ll make a beat with a particular emcee in mind or you make something more straight forward with the intention of having someone rap on it. But then, as a producer, you also sometimes make those awkward beats that emcees will say they can’t rap over (laughs). So “Late Night” is just a collection of little bits like that, really.”

You definitely cover a lot of musical ground on the project, including soul, funk, reggae, jazz…

“Yeah, there’s a whole heap of stuff on there. At the minute, I’m kind of into electronic music, Tangerine Dream and stuff like that. I’m finding all of these really weird electronic loops. So there’s a few Tangerine Dream samples on the new project. There’s just a selection of styles on there. I didn’t really over-think it when I was putting it together. I think that if you love Hip-Hop then you’re going to love it. Maybe some people out there don’t like listening to instrumentals and want to hear an emcee on everything, but I think most heads will listen to this and think that it’s dope.”

Does it put you under more pressure when you’re working on an instrumental track knowing that there isn’t going to be an emcee on it to hold the listener’s attention?

“Yeah, it does. You have to make the track more involved and keep the movement going. If there’s not an emcee there that people are listening to as the main focus of a track then it’s very important to be able to keep the listener’s attention. I mean, sometimes you hear instrumental Hip-Hop albums and they’re boring because they’re just straight beats. So, as a producer, if you’re making instrumental stuff, I think it’s really important to make sure it moves and keeps flowing. I want people to listen to what I’m doing and enjoy it, not be thinking of what’s missing from a track whilst they’re listening to it.”

Do you still go out digging for vinyl regularly?

“I was actually out digging earlier today (laughs). I was out with Justice, the guy who’s putting the “Late Night” project out on his Modern Urban Jazz label. He’s from Luton as well and we’ve known each other on and off over the years. He was a big drum & bass man and put out releases of his own. He’s got his own drum & bass label but has always been into Hip-Hop, like a lot of the old-school jungle / drum & bass guys. It was actually him who started pushing me last year to put the “Late Night” project out there. I was just sitting on it and it was something that I would listen to, but I didn’t really know if anyone else would like it. But yeah, we were out earlier today digging. There’s only really one vinyl record shop still here in Luton, Vinyl Revelations, and the guy who runs it has got an outhouse, shed-type thing at his home which is just full of 45s. They’re not in any order or anything, you just have to dig through and see what you can find. But whenever I get a chance, I’m out digging.”

Do you have any other particular spots?

“Not really. I mainly go digging in charity shops, car-boot sales, places like that. There’s a guy who goes to Hitchin market every week with a load of records and everything he sells only costs a pound. I always get bits off him. So I’m still out looking for stuff. I don’t really get that whole online digging thing though, man. To me, it’s about going out, looking at the records, reading the liner notes, trying to find something that has that next big break on it. That’s the part of it that I enjoy most and sometimes you never know what you’ve got until you get home and play it.”

What’s the most you’ve ever paid for a record?

“To be honest, I’ve never had that one record that I’ve paid ridiculous money for. I love records, but I don’t like the fact that people put these mad prices on them.”

What equipment are you using nowadays?

“I got an MPC Renaissance when that came out, so I’m using that at the minute. But I’m having a headache with at the moment because it’s computer-based and my computer is a bit older and they don’t really like each other so there’s a lot of crashing and stuff (laughs). But the Renaissance is really good. It’s definitely a nice bit of kit. I just need a better computer (laughs).”

What happened to the S950 that you started on all those years ago?

“I actually got rid of that last year. I sold it to one of Mr. Thing’s friends, Mo Fingaz, so it went to a good home.”

Was it difficult for you to part with considering the personal history that was attached to it?

“Yeah, it was quite sad to get rid of it, but at the time I needed the money. I mean, all the Phi-Life albums had been done on that and a lot of other stuff. There were a lot of memories attached to that 950 so it was quite a big deal to let it go. But like I said, it went to a good home so I know that it’s going to be looked after.”

When you look at the newer generation of talented UK emcees, is there anyone out there that you’d particularly like to work with?

“I think M9 has been putting out some really good music. I think Fliptrix from the High Focus camp is amazing. Also, Farma G’s son Remus, he’s definitely dangerous. I think there’s definitely a newer generation of emcees and producers coming through now who know what real Hip-Hop is all about. They’ve watched and learnt from the people who came before them and aren’t just jumping on a bandwagon. So there’s definitely some younger dudes out there who are really making some good music, which is something that can only be good for the scene overall. But aside from the newer emcees, I’d still like to do a whole project with Micall Parknsun and also something with MCM as well because he can definitely still rap.”

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What albums, both inside and outside of Hip-Hop, do you listen to and think, ‘I wish I produced that project’?

“Outside of Hip-Hop, the first thing that popped in my head when you said that was Portishead. They were just on some next s**t when they came out. In terms of Hip-Hop, there are just too many albums I could think of that I love, man. My favourite Gang Starr album is “Daily Operation”. That’s the ultimate Gang Starr album for me. I’d also have to say Ultramagnetic MC’s’ “Critical Beatdown” and Diamond D’s “Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop”. Those albums just don’t age and are definitely some of the albums that have influenced me over the years, but I could keep naming others for hours (laughs).”

What’s next for you musically?

“Well, Life has an album out called “Sound Of The Underground” that has beats on there from Leaf Dog, Mr. Thing, DJ Lok and myself. But after that, there’s another Life album coming later in the year which is produced entirely by me. The “Rebelbase” album I’ve done with Cappo is all done now and just needs to be mixed and everything. Plus, I still have a lot of Phi-Life Cypher tracks that were recorded before we broke up that will see the light of day at some point. There are still Phi-Life fans out there and I think people would still like to hear that music. I mean, we’d basically recorded a whole album before the split and I don’t think it’s fair that the Phi-Life fans out there can’t hear that for whatever reason. But I just make beats and that’s really all I know. So whether they’re being released out there or not, I’m still going to me making more beats tomorrow.”

So going back to your favourite Gang Starr album, making beats for you really is a daily operation…

“Yeah, exactly. Whether anyone’s listening or not, I’m still going to be making beats. It’s something that’s ingrained in me now and I just still have that real love of music.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow DJ Nappa on Twitter – @Nappa72

 

Old To The New Q&A – Starvin B

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Queens, New York. From Run-DMC, LL Cool and Kool G. Rap, to Nas, Mobb Deep and Large Professor, not forgetting other rap giants such as A Tribe Called Quest, Organized Konfusion and Tragedy Khadafi, the Rotten Apple borough has a strong Hip-Hop lineage which has left an indelible mark on the art-form over the years.

Whilst KRS-One may have once dropped the infamous line “Queens keeps on fakin’ it…” on his 1987 classic “The Bridge Is Over” during the BDP / Juice Crew rivalry, history has proven over and over again that definitely isn’t the case.

In recent years, a new generation of Queens emcees have put themselves on the map, each with their own style and musical identity, but all sharing a passion for lyricism and a desire to remain true to the foundations of the culture which spawned them.

The likes of Meyhem Lauren, Spit Gemz and Timeless Truth have delivered some of the best Hip-Hop present-day NYC has had to offer, with all being worthy of adding on to the QU legacy, holding their microphones in one hand and the future of their home borough’s continued place in rap’s history books in the other.

Another artist more than capable of ensuring the Hip-Hop credibility of Queens remains intact is Starvin B. A naturally gifted emcee, the Indonesian / Irish lyricist has already built himself an impressive catalogue, including 2010’s “Uplifted”, 2012’s “Something In The Water” and his most recent album “Blood From A Stone” produced entirely by frequent collaborator One-Take.

Mixing sharp wit and street smarts with battle-ready punchlines and a vicious sense of humour, Starvin is the type of artist that you feel you’ve really gotten to know after listening to his music. Honest, creative and authentic, the native New Yorker’s brand of Hip-Hop wears its golden-era influences with pride whilst avoiding simply retreading old musical ground.

Speaking live and direct from the Galaxy of Queens for this interview, Starvin B discusses growing-up in NYC, working with childhood rap heroes and the creative process behind his “Blood From A Stone” album.

Do you remember when you were first introduced to Hip-Hop?

“It was as a kid, y’know. My mom actually put me on to Hip-Hop. My mom was a Public Enemy fan and she would show me the tapes. It was the beats that caught me at first. But Hip-Hop just really stood out to me as something that could give you a voice and allow you to speak out and say what you thought about the world and what was happening around you. So, I really have to give credit to my mom for introducing me to Hip-Hop. I mean, I’d heard Run-DMC before when I was a real little kid, but I didn’t really understand the music at that point. But what really got me interested was mom with her Public Enemy tape of the “Apocalypse 91…” album and I’d also probably have to say LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” album as well.”

How old would you have been around that time?

“Man, I’d have been about seven or eight-years-old. But like I said, before that I remember hearing Run-DMC and some other stuff that had come out, but I was young and I didn’t really know what I was listening to. But around those times when moms was listening to her Public Enemy tape, that’s when things started to get real crazy (laughs).”

What was it about that particular Public Enemy album that really drew you in?

“It was the “Can’t Truss It” beat. That beat was just something that I’d jump around and go crazy to as a kid (laughs). So it was that and also the fact that they were talking about social issues. I mean, I didn’t know anything about the injustices that they were talking about, but I just knew that something was wrong with the way the world was. Something was a little off. My mom coached me along with it as well and would talk to me about some of the things that Public Enemy were talking about on their records. So it was cool.”

You grew-up in Queens, right?

“Yeah, yeah. I grew-up in Woodside, Queens, Sunnyside, Queens, the Long Island City area…”

So were you aware at that young age that Hip-Hop was all around the neighbourhoods you were living in?

“Absolutely. I mean, I remember going to the store as a young kid and seeing people break-dancing on cardboard out in the street, people on the corner freestyling and stuff like that. So Hip-Hop was definitely something that was all around me at a young age. To me, back then, it just seemed like Hip-Hop was the main outlet that everyone seemed to be migrating towards. I mean, I remember thinking as a kid that there were a lot of cool things about Hip-Hop, but that there were also some weird things about Hip-Hop, like seeing people on the corner sucking dinkies. Grown men sucking on dummies?! (Laughs). I remember seeing that and thinking there was some weird stuff around Hip-Hop as well as the cool stuff (laughs). But I remember there was graffiti everywhere that I was growing-up and it was cool to be able to walk down the street and read the walls. I just thought Hip-Hop was dope. I mean, back then, Hip-Hop wasn’t everywhere like it is today. Now, you can walk into a Walmart, there’s rap playing and it’s considered normal. Back then, you’d walk into the supermarket and hear Lite FM playing or something. Hip-Hop hadn’t caught on with the mainstream like it has now. I mean, as far as what frequency I was on back then, it was popular on the street and amongst my friends, but it was really like a secret code, y’know. If you knew then you knew.”

I remember back then, growing-up here in the UK, if you even saw someone wearing their laces a certain way it let you know they must be a Hip-Hop head because it just wasn’t as widely integrated with the mainstream as it’s become now…

“Yeah, definitely. That was the code. It was all about the style of dress, a certain way you might wear something, certain things that you would say and slang that you’d use. I mean, there was nothing set in stone back then in the late-80s / early-90s, so people could come with their own styles…”

Exactly. There were definitely rules to the culture, in terms of not biting etc, but that encouraged people to be original in what they were doing and led to there being so many different flavours and styles in the music…

“Yeah, and we were listening to all of it. I mean, here in New York, Video Music Box was something that mixed all the different elements and flavours of the music together, so whatever was on offer and was good, you messed with it. I mean, really, there wasn’t a lot of artists to choose from back in those days, but most of what you were hearing back then was good because the music was still new and fresh and people were experimenting and bringing new things to the table. Of course, you liked certain things more than others. I mean, I never really liked PM Dawn (laughs). But one thing that I always look at now and think is crazy is how the social voice of Hip-Hop became less and less as the music grew in popularity. I mean, if that side of Hip-Hop was more prevalent nowadays, I think the whole world would have a different view on it.”

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When you were growing-up, did you spend most of your childhood in Queens or were you also getting out and seeing the other boroughs of New York?

“I mean, the neighbourhood I grew-up in is real close to Manhattan and is only twenty minutes away on the number seven train. So I’d go across to Manhattan as a kid and caught a little bit of what was going on back then, like the old-school Times Square with the peep shows and arcades. Then, when I hit about twelve-years-0ld, I started going out on my own, hitting the arcades, running around, going crazy and doing retarded s**t (laughs). But I didn’t really get into the real life of the other boroughs until I was about sixteen, going to places, coppin’ weed and stuff like that. But back then, I didn’t really understand any other borough like I understood Queens.”

What were some of the biggest differences that stood out to you between Queens and other New York boroughs?

“I mean, I didn’t really know about the rivalries that had happened between different boroughs until I was about fifteen or sixteen. At first, I thought everywhere in New York was pretty much a place that you had to adapt to. I mean, Queens, to me, was, and is, the most multi-cultural borough in New York. There’s a lot of different ethnicities in Queens. In my neighbourhood, there’s a lot of Dominicans and Colombians, then you also have a lot of Asians. A lot of people in Queens are from families who came from immigrants coming to New York. My pops was an immigrant who came to New York with a couple of dollars in his pocket and he just wanted to make it. So, even from a young age, I always thought that New York is the melting pot that it is. You never know who you’re going to meet walking down the street. I mean, I never had one dominant group of people in my life in terms of race and culture. So to me, it’s just like, people are people. But in terms of the differences between the boroughs, I always remember thinking that Manhattan was a lot more flashy. People always seemed to really want to spruce up their s**t and make it more of a spectacle. Coming from Queens, when you think about the style and fashions that Hip-Hop artists from the area were coming with in the early-90s, it was almost just like work gear. Carhartt jackets, Timberland boots, people were looking like they really worked and were about to put up a roof or some s**t (laughs). So Queens to me was always a little less flashy than some of the other boroughs.”

So when did you first start writing rhymes?

“When I was a little kid, I wanted to know the words to songs that I liked, like Main Source’s “Fakin’ The Funk”. I would sit there, play a little bit of the song, stop it, write the words down. Then play it and stop it again. I’d do that until I had the whole song written down. Doing that kinda taught me the pattern of how to write a rhyme. I did that to a bunch of songs, so I could learn all the words and then look cool as a kid when the song would come on (laughs). I did that with some other Main Source records, Brand Nubian, of course Public Enemy. That Public Enemy “Apocalypse 91…” album helped you out with that as well because they actually gave you the lyrics on the cover (laughs). Then the next thing you know, I was like, ‘Let me try and do my own thing.’ Now, here I am twenty years later still doing that s**t (laughs).”

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Was there a point where you felt like you’d made that transition from just being a fan to actually being an emcee in your own right?

“I mean, that feeling really came from me just showing-out, participating in cyphers and people telling me that I was that good. I was always just a fan who wanted to participate, but then there were a couple of moments that made me think that I might really have a shot at doing this properly. I’d be just rockin’ in the neighbourhood and people would be telling me that I was nice, which definitely made me feel good. I remember this one time when I was in sixth grade, we went to this ice-skating rink for a class trip and they started playing A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario”. Me and a couple of friends basically rocked the ice-skating rink just imitating “Scenario” (laughs). I guess because we were little kids it looked kinda cute and was a novelty, but it just felt good seeing people going crazy. There were teenage girls lifting me up in the air and stuff like that (laughs). It felt good. I remember, my boy Malik, he played the role of Phife Dawg in that, he was having a good time to. Plus my boy Tommy, who isn’t here anymore, rest in peace. We would just alternate who would take which verse (laughs). Those were good times. But that was a moment that really made me think, ‘Oh man, I really want to do this.’ I was still a little kid at that point though. So, in terms of me actually doing things myself, I was probably about seventeen when I started doing the open-mics here and there. There was one particular event that we rocked really good that made me think I could really do this. Foul Monday was there as well and he’s someone I still rock with today. So there were a couple of situations that happened which made me think I could do this, like when you’d be rhyming and a crowd would develop and people would tell me that music was something that I should pursue.”

Would you see other artists from Queens who were already putting records out around your neighbourhood during that time?

“Not really. I mean, you’d hear about people from Queens who were putting records out. There was always a couple of degrees of separation, like, you’d know someone who knew someone who was involved in something. I remember when Killa Kids from Queensbridge put out a record and I actually used to go to school with a couple of them. So when I saw they actually had a record out, that was cool. But in terms of established artists who were already out there, I never really saw anyone face-to-face or just saw them hanging-out. I mean, a couple of artists would pass through now and then, like you’d hear someone say that Mobb Deep were around the way. So you might see them, but it wasn’t something that would happen everyday, so it was still something special when that would happen. I mean, of course, you might have run into different artists in different neighbourhoods or if you were involved with certain circles of people, but I didn’t personally.”

When you first started rhyming did you have the intention then of releasing music to a wider audience or was it just something you initially intended to keep within your own circle?

“In my mind, when I was writing anything, I was writing it like it was going to be the most famous hit song ever (laughs). But really, it was just for the craft of it and to entertain myself, like, ‘How well can I write a rhyme right now?’ I never felt like I could rest creatively. I would always be trying to see if I could write something better than the last rhyme that I wrote.”

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Something that’s been very clear listening to the projects you’ve put out in recent years is that you obviously really enjoy the creative process that goes into writing rhymes….

“Of course. I mean, you’re the controller of your own world when you’re rhyming. You can take what life gives you and feed it back out in your own way with your own spin on it….

You can definitely tell that you’re putting real effort into your verses and not just writing down the first thing that comes into your head. Your style is very vivid and visual and you have plenty of quotable lines that stay with the listener after the music has stopped…

“That’s cool. I appreciate that. I mean, that’s the aim. As an emcee, I want to write rhymes that are timeless. I feel that Hip-Hop has really poor representatives right now, because so many people think that it’s all about them and their quest to get rich. Not many people are really doing new stuff right now or trying to bring new fans to Hip-Hop. I mean, I want to try and reach the girls who work in retail and listen to techno (laughs). I want to catch their attention because I’m doing something a little different to what they’re used to, so that if they heard my music they’d be telling people, ‘I heard this really cool song today.’ I mean, that’s how we all got turned on to Hip-Hop. That’s how you got turned on to Hip-Hop at one time. It might seem so long ago now, but at some point you heard something that was so odd and so honest that it really stood out and brought you into Hip-Hop and made you want to know and hear more. I just don’t think there are enough artists doing that today.”

You’re definitely right. For me, hearing Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” in 1982 introduced me to Hip-Hop and what intrigued me about that record so much was that it wasn’t like anything I’d heard before as a kid. I wanted to understand it. But I think part of the problem today is that a lot of listeners don’t have the attention span to peel back the layers of a record. They want to understand everything straight away and not have to try to decode what an artist is saying or find a deeper meaning in their rhymes…

“Definitely. But, as an artist, you have to be interesting enough to make people want to decode your stuff. Like, for example, if you think back to when Wu-Tang first came out, they were a lot more interesting than a lot of other artists that were out at the time. I mean, if you were to compare Wu-Tang to another act out at the time, like a Das EFX. That might seem like a weird comparison, but a group like Das EFX, they didn’t really have any deep substance in their rhymes. That’s not to dis them, but they were more about their diggedy-diggedy style and how they said their rhymes rather than being about substance. But with a group like Wu-Tang, when they came out, you really had to pay attention to what they were talking about because they came with their own slang and their whole approach drew you into their world and made you want to understand where they were coming from. Wu really started their own sub-culture in Hip-Hop. So, as an artist, I think it’s important to make what you’re doing interesting enough to make people want to get deeper into your music and try to understand what you’re about once they do hear it.”

Some years back you began working with fellow Queens lyricists Spit Gemz and Shaz Illyork and became affiliated with their movement The Opposition. How did that happen?

“It was really through the internet. Spit Gemz hit me up on the internet, told me that he’d seen that I’d done some stuff and that I should come by and try to work on something. So he brought me over to Goblin Studios in Queens, introduced me to everyone there and I’ve been working with them now for some years. So it was really cool. But we really just hooked-up on some regular checking-your-inbox type s**t.”

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Goblin Music Studios really seems to have become a focal point for a lot of today’s Queens emcees as well as attracting established artists from elsewhere in New York…

“Yeah, yeah. I mean, there aren’t a lot of places now that are able to facilitate what you want to do with your music but also be part of the music as well. I mean, with a lot of studios, you go there, you exchange money for the session, you rock for a few hours and then you take your stuff and leave. You don’t really care too much about the place itself or the studio dog (laughs). But Goblin Studios is a little bit different. It just has so much character. It’s kind of an edgy place. I mean, I knew Gob Goblin from back in the days. I met him in a cypher rapping when I was a teenager and he’s definitely a talented emcee in his own right.”

Was that before or after he was featured on a couple of the Beatnuts’ albums?

“That was actually during the time he was out on the Beatnuts albums. Then when Spit Gemz first took me to Goblin Studios I was like, ‘I know this guy.’ But it’s a different element in that studio. It’s like, a lot of that back in the days kind of energy, like high-school stuff, mobbin’ out with a bunch of kids, rockin’ on the corners. There’s always a bunch of people around the studio hanging-out, so that creates an audience for what you’re doing. I mean, there’s one side of the studio that’s about making music and being creative, then there’s the other side of it which is about hanging-out, drinking, telling jokes and then it might turn into a cypher and the next thing you know you’ve got a performance going on (laughs). There’s definitely a lot of different elements that are part of Goblin Studios that make it different from most other studios. Plus, there’s the fact that a lot of old-school artists come there to record now. I mean, Sadat X has been in there a lot, M.O.P. are there a lot, Sean Price. So the studio has kind of been a beacon to like-minded people and has drawn them there.”

It must be kind of crazy for you to be in Goblin Studios hanging-out with legends like Sadat X when twenty years ago you were writing down his rhymes so you could learn them…

“Yeah, I actually said that to Sadat. It is crazy. But you get over it. I mean, you don’t want to make too much of it and make it out like it’s some crazy, mystical thing, y’know (laughs). I mean, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people I grew-up listening to and I hope I get to work with more. You’ve always gotta pay homage to those who came before us in anyway you can, but I think the best way to pay homage is to make good music that comes from an honest place, reflects some skill and gives Hip-Hop some credibility back.”

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Given how vivid your rhyme style is, what’s your creative process when you sit down to write?

“It really comes down to whatever I feel when I turn on a beat and then I try to hold onto that feeling for as long as I can. So, often, I’ll get an idea from listening to a particular beat and it builds from there. Like, with the “Buddha Bless” joint on the new album, One-Take sent me a video of him making a beat with his son on his lap and it was that beat. So I started thinking about all the wild s**t that I did when I was a kid and I wrote the song hoping that One-Take’s kid wouldn’t turn out to be an a**hole like I was (laughs). I just put a more crazy spin on it with the things that I was saying on there. But when I’m writing in general, I really just try to stay free with what I’m thinking about and I really try to have fun with it.”

Considering how closely linked a lot of the current generation of Queens emcees are, Spit Gemz, Eff Yoo, Nutso etc, how much competition is there amongst you all?

“It’s always there. I mean, there’s a certain vernacular that people use in Hip-Hop, like, ‘Yo, you killed him on that song!’ But I really don’t try to take it that far. You’ve just got to be yourself and offer your own style. So I don’t really take it that far with those type of conversations because when you start thinking like that I think it can really affect your writing and you can starting coming across like someone who’s constantly trying too hard. I mean, there’s always competition, but you’ve just got to deliver by being yourself, and if you’re not doing that then people won’t be mentioning your name. As long as people are mentioning your name and checking for your music then you’re good. I mean, no-one wants to be known as the weakest link in the chain, so that competitive element is always there, but it’s not that intense or prevalent in every conversation we have. It’s not like we all sit around telling each other, ‘Yo! You really did me in on that song!’ There’s none of that s**t (laughs).”

You definitely all seem to support each other’s work as well through social media etc…

“I mean, I have no doubt in my mind that most of my real fans are rappers. I don’t have the fanbase that I need to have, and the reason that I have been able to gain any momentum is because other artists who do already have fanbases have shown people my music and told them that it’s something that they should be listening to.”

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There’s been an on-going debate in recent years about New York having lost its musical identity etc. Do you find yourself becoming frustrated with the New York Hip-Hop scene when major media outlets such as Hot 97 and different magazines / websites continue to front on a lot of underground NY artists who’re putting out quality music?

“Nah, I just don’t think people are really up on it like that. I mean, if you know then you know. People wouldn’t be complaining about the music if they really knew the sources to go to. They wouldn’t be complaining about the lack of New York Hip-Hop if they knew about certain artists. To me, the people who deserve to know about it know about it. For those who don’t know, and don’t try to look for it, then stay in radio land or wherever. There’s always going to be dope records out there for people who keep their eyes peeled. But I don’t get frustrated about it. I’m still going to do what I’m doing. It’s not really that much of a big deal to me. Whatever the end of the story may be, it’s all about the journey for me. Regardless of what is happening in the mainstream, I still have people who’re supporting my music and keeping it above water. It’s definitely not falling on deaf ears and there is still an audience and an appreciation for it. I mean, of course there are industry politics involved as well. If I had a huge budget and a lot of money to throw at my projects, then I know I’d be in a different spot to where I’m at right now. I’m at the stage where the money I make from music goes into making more music. I might have some money left from it here and there which I can use to pay some bills or buy some food, but otherwise the money is going back into the music. So, if people really want to see artists who’re not getting the attention they might deserve make it to a certain point, they just need to support them to the fullest extent. Buy the albums, buy the merchandise and go to the shows if they’re touring in your neighbourhood.”

You seem to have built up a very strong fanbase across Europe. Has that surprised you at all?

“I’ll be honest, the support is much greater from Europe than it is anywhere else in terms of fans buying the music and reaching out to collaborate on material. It was crazy at first when I saw that was happening. It was back in the MySpace days that started to happen with me. I noticed that people from Europe were buying my music and then producers from places like France and Switzerland started to reach out to me with beats wanting to work together. It was definitely cool and surprising when it started happening. But now, it’s really just part of the game. Those are the people who I’m making my music for now. You always try to aim at your target audience when you’re putting a project together, so I’m thinking about those fans all across Europe when I’m recording music now and hope that they continue to enjoy what I’m doing and come back each time I put something new out.”

Why do you think the support is so strong across Europe when you’re having to fight to get the same level of support at home?

“Me and a friend were just talking about that. I think the respect that people have for Hip-Hop in Europe is that much more intense because it’s not in your face. I mean, you guys out there aren’t from the place where it started and I think that means you have more respect for the origins of the culture. Over here, in New York, it’s like old news to some people. Whereas, to people elsewhere in the world, New York Hip-Hop culture is almost like a mythical creature. So it goes beyond just supporting the music and becomes about supporting that feeling of golden-era type s**t. People want that feeling of genuine Hip-Hop with honest lyrics that’s true to the history of the culture, which they’re not getting from hearing contrived music that’s made in a laboratory somewhere to brainwash your kids (laughs). I think in Europe there’s just more of an awareness that the feeling of Hip-Hop is going away and they’re trying to bring it back around perhaps more than people are doing here in the States. But yo, I’m trying to get to Europe as soon as I can. I just need to get my name out there more, keep making music and I’m sure it will happen.”

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The artwork for the new album “Blood From A Stone” is definitely striking. What’s the concept behind the cover?

” I love the cover art, I think it’s great. But I originally wanted it to be very scary-looking like a “Tales From The Crypt” comic. I just wanted the image to make people think a little and tamper with the idea they might have of what living in America or New York is really all about. I wanted to take an image of New York that’s glorified, the Statue Of Liberty, and make it something dark. I just wanted to show people that we’re not living in the land of freedom that some people think we are.”

“Blood From A Stone” is produced entirely by Brooklyn’s One-Take. You’ve featured his production before on previous projects such as “Something In The Water”, but what prompted you to work exclusively with him on this new album?

“I work really, really fast if I like a beat. With One-Take, he was around Goblin Studios and he’d leave me beats to check and he also started emailing me stuff. So when I was at home chillin’ and in the mood to write, I had a nice collection of his beats already. I mean, we’d already done a couple of really good joints on “Something In The Water”. So we just started stashing songs away. Then, by the end of last summer, we realised we had about twelve or thirteen songs finished so we decided we had to start thinking about how we were going to put them out. I mean, the songs on the album came together gradually, but it just worked out that they sound very cohesive as an album. But in terms of the beats, One-Take has a very golden-era sound to what he does and I like to rhyme over music that has feeling to it. So the album definitely isn’t contrived in anyway, it’s just natural stuff that came out of the two of us working together.”

What I like about One-Take’s production is that it’s definitely influenced by that golden-era boom-bap but it still has its own character and flavour. It doesn’t sound like someone just trying to emulate a DJ Premier or a Pete Rock…

“Yeah, it’s definitely original. I mean, One-Take has been doing this for a long time and he’s a student of the game. As a producer, you don’t want to fall into the category of sounding like another producer, otherwise people are just going to go and listen to the original rather than listen to the knock-off. So you have to be doing original stuff.”

You also have veteran NY emcees on “Blood From A Stone” like Shabaam Sahdeeq and Tragedy Khadafi. It must feel good knowing that your music is being embraced by those artists who came before you and left their own mark on the game…

“Yeah. But I really have to give a lot of the credit to that happening being down to me being stationed in Goblin Studios. I mean, Shabaam Sahdeeq isn’t necessarily an artist who records a lot at Goblin, although he’s always welcome to, but we did do the song together there as he happened to come by. We’d been talking and were both fans of each other, so that’s how that happened. With Tragedy, he’s an artist who records at Goblin all the time. So I met him over there, we got to talk and build, and I have a lot of respect for him in terms of his contribution to Hip-Hop and what he does on the mic. Tragedy is definitely someone whose opinions you need to respect and you have to listen to any advice he may give creatively. That’s why I’m honoured that he would even want to do a song with me. It’s a blessing. But I really have to say a lot of it came down to me being in the right place at the right time and that place was Goblin Studios.”

With the amount of artists who’re affiliated with Goblin Studios, are there any plans for a Goblin compilation project?

“I’ve been trying to do that. I might have to be the one that steals all the music out of the studio and just puts it out (laughs). I might have to just go in there with a USB stick, take everything, put all the music out, and then have everyone mad at me for a couple of weeks. But I’ve definitely been saying that’s something we should do. I mean, Gob Goblin himself is a tremendous emcee in his own right and there’s tracks in the studio that are laying around waiting to be released. But, he’s also a business-minded guy, so I think that’s part of the reason why a compilation hasn’t come out yet because he wants to make sure anything that does come out is done the right way.”

When you look at the newer generation of artists currently coming out of Queens, Meyhem Lauren, Timeless Truth, yourself, the borough definitely seems to be putting the New York underground in a choke-hold right now with a real collective focus on lyricism…

“Yeah. I mean, similar to what we were just saying about Europe, out of all the New York boroughs, I think we care more in Queens. I mean, Hip-Hop is like a sport really, and I think we take it very seriously, we put the training in and that shows in the way we express ourselves musically. It’s just what we do. I mean, in Brazil there are dudes who practice kicking a soccer ball around for fifteen hours. In Queens, we do rap s**t for fifteen hours (laughs). If you’re from Queens, then you know the code of what’s right and what’s wrong as far as what you want to hear in music. At the same time, you can’t put yourself in a box as an artist, but there’s certain s**t that’s just not going to fly.”

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So what future plans does Starvin B have?

“Well, I’m trying to see the whole world and put out as much music as I can. I basically just want to enjoy life, man. Eventually, I’d like to get into writing some screenplays and putting some visual art together. Maybe some short films, stuff like that. That’s definitely a goal of mine. I’ve always liked movies and I’ve already started writing some screenplays. I’ve read screenplays so I understand the format they’re put together in, like working on the dialogue and writing the whole scene out. I’m not really looking at focussing on a particular genre, I’d just like to tell some stories. But anything that I did would definitely be very closely based around real life because my problem with movies sometimes is when they’re just not realistic and I’m like, ‘That’s bulls**t!’ (Laughs). But the writing side of it is what interests me, I’m not trying to be an actor or a director. I’m sure I probably could do some acting, but that’s not something that I’m rushing to get into.”

What are some of your favourite films?

“There’s a lot of them. I could go everywhere (laughs). I mean, I really liked everything from “Ghostbusters” to “Edward Scissorhands” to “Taxi Driver”. Then there’s things like “Goodfellas”, of course. But that was everyone’s favourite movie (laughs). “A Bronx Tale” is another one. “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is an ill movie as well. I’d like to do a movie like that. But I like all kinds of movies. I mean, Disney’s “Fantasia” was an ill movie growing-up. “Fantasia” is a trip, man. There’s something about that movie that doesn’t feel like it was really made for a child’s mind. There was just something about that movie, man (laughs).”

So for anyone reading this who isn’t already familiar with your music, why should they now check out Starvin B?

“Well, they should definitely listen for the simple fact that I’m being written about right now. Somebody has chosen to do this interview and talk to me about my music. That would intrigue me enough. I mean, if you’ve read this whole interview I think that should be enough to make you wanna listen to my music. My music is something that’s done from a very honest place and if you respect anything with any grit to it, then you’ll like it.”

Any final words?

“Just for everyone to try to support. Also, I’m always down to network, so hit me up at starvinb@gmail.com. Anybody that’s wants to work can hit me up there. I’m doing this grassroots, so anyone who wants to work or collaborate, I’m the guy that you talk to.

Ryan Proctor

Follow Starvin B on Twitter – @Starvin_B

Starvin B – “Blue Note” (StarvinB.BandCamp.Com / 2014)

 

Old To The New Q&A – Shabaam Sahdeeq

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Photo by Monifa Skerritt-Perry

If you were an underground Hip-Hop head back in the 90s, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have some Shabaam Sahdeeq wax still taking up space in your vinyl crates.

Officially debuting in 1996 with his indie single “So Real”, the Brooklyn-bred emcee’s slick wordplay over producer Jocko’s smooth Patrice Rushen-sampling beat captured the attention of listeners in record stores the world over, leading to Sahdeeq quickly carving out space for himself in the then steadily growing independent New York rap scene.

Joining the likes of Mos Def, Company Flow and Talib Kweli, Shabaam soon found himself reppin’ the razor-blade insignia of the newly-established underground powerhouse Rawkus Records, dropping well-received singles such as 97’s “Side 2 Side” and 98’s “Soundclash”, whilst also making appearances on the label’s “Soundbombing” compilations plus the remix to then label-mate Pharoahe Monch’s monster 1999 single “Simon Says”.

Whilst label politics would see the Rotten Apple rhymer leaving Rawkus without releasing his own album, Sahdeeq’s reputation for dropping quality music remained unscathed thanks to both his collaborative work with Mr. Complex, DJ Spinna and Apani B. Fly as Polyrhythm Addicts and further singles with the likes of New Jersey’s Ran Reed (“Murderous Flow”) and golden-era great Kool G. Rap (“No Surrender”).

However, by the time Shabaam had settled at new label home Raptivism and recorded his debut solo album “Never Say Never”, personal drama and a brush with the law would find the lyricist beginning a four-year jail sentence just before the project’s 2001 release.

Having spent his time since returning home steadily working on music to regain his fanbase, Sahdeeq recently joined forces with Netherlands-based label Below System and is preparing to drop his long-awaited album “Keepers Of The Lost Art”, an impressive work of true-school Hip-Hop featuring production from the UK’s Lewis Parker plus DJ Skizz and Harry Fraud, as well as appearances from Spit Gemz, Skyzoo and Tragedy Khadafi.

In this interview, the Crooklyn microphone fiend discusses how he first found his passion for rhyming, being signed to Rawkus and the motivation behind his music today.

What are your earliest memories of Hip-Hop?

“I started hearing Hip-Hop at a very early age growing-up in Brooklyn out in the courtyard around our building. Older cousins and uncles would be playing Hip-Hop on their radios. I’d say the first record I heard though that really drove it home to me that Hip-Hop was something I wanted to be a part of was Run-DMC’s “Sucker M.C.’s”. I can remember copping a lot of vinyl singles back in the 80s, like Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show”. I’d also be listening to Hip-Hop on the radio, and back then in New York it was either Mr. Magic or Red Alert, so I’d be going up and down the dial listening to both stations and recording it on tape.”

You weren’t taking sides in the Mr. Magic / Red Alert rivalry then?

“Nah (laughs). I was rolling with both of them and really enjoying the music I was hearing them playing. I remember, at that same time in the 80s, I had an older friend who had a basement with a record player down there and he would be playing me early stuff from people like Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, things like that. So I was really being made aware of a lot of the music that was out back then. I mean, even before that, I’d heard the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” being played at the house parties that the grown-ups would have at that time. I liked “Rapper’s Delight”, but Hip-Hop was coming in from the disco era at that time, but after that is when it started to get rawer musically and that’s when I really started to get into it, from the early-to-mid-80s.”

At what point did you first start attempting to rhyme?

“So, I went from just listening and enjoying the music to freestyling over records and having fun joking around with friends. Then after awhile it was like, ‘Okay, we can really do this.’ So then it went from just freestyling in the park or the basement to actually trying to loop up break-beats and really wanting to do something with the music. I mean, I was rhyming with other kids who at the time I thought were amazing and that really put the bug in me to want to continue making music. What really did it for me in particular though was seeing the live battles that people would have. I had a friend named Kev, who was actually the cousin of my step-brother, and I saw him battle live and at that point I was really like, ‘Yeah, I wanna do that!’ It was live, it was raw and the stuff he was saying was like, ‘Ohhhhh!’ The energy was tangible and was different to how I felt when I was listening to Hip-Hop on a record. I mean, the records we were hearing at the time were more concept-driven and were being made for people to be able to relate to. But the battles were just raw material and were live in the flesh. Instead of saying a rhyme that maybe somebody listening could relate to, battling was all about chopping someone down according to what they were wearing, who they were and things that might have happened in the neighbourhood. I mean when I saw Kev doing that, we were outside in the street, someone was banging on a car to make a beat and it was just a great experience. That really made me want to start writing.”

During that 80s / early-90s period before you actually started making records yourself, do you remember seeing anyone performing live in the parks or at block parties who then want on to become a known name in Hip-Hop?

“Man, I saw a lot of people. I remember seeing Mikey D who went on to be in Main Source rhyming in the parks. I saw Biz Markie out in the parks before he actually got on. I remember seeing Redman tear it down in Queens before he went on to be a star. There were a lot of emcees during that time who were really live. I mean, a little later on, I was in a cypher with Big L in Harlem during Harlem Week before he ever came out with a record. There were a lot of emcees from that time who went on from just having the local fame to bigger things.”

Who was down with the Synista Voicez crew that you were associated with when you first came out?

“It was a collective of people like my step-brother, the guy who did the beats Jocko and also Nick Wiz, plus a couple of other people I knew in the tri-state area. We were trying to put something together but then everyone just went in their different directions so it never really happened like that.”

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Photo by Olise Forel for Moving Silence

In recent years Nick Wiz has dropped a series of “Cellar Sounds” compilations which have featured a number of tracks you recorded with him during the early-to-mid 90s prior to your debut single “So Real” dropping in 1996. Was the intention back then for you to drop a Nick Wiz-produced project?

“I was really just getting it together at that time. I mean, between Nick Wiz, Mark Sparks and Jocko, they were the producers that I did my first official recordings with. Before that it was about using a four-track, someone would sample a break-beat and we made a song. But when I got with Mark Sparks, Nick Wiz and Jocko, then it became more professional. We would actually go to the studio to make a song. It wasn’t just about freestyling over break-beats anymore. We were using sixteen to twenty-four tracks and I learned about doing layers, overdubs, punch-ins, hooks and how to really make an actual song. I mean, a lot of the songs that are on those Nick Wiz “Cellar Sounds” compilations were recorded when I’d moved to Jersey and first got with them. Those songs were what we considered demos back then. It actually feels a little funny for those songs to be out because those were the songs that we decided not to put out at the time (laughs). But since they have been out, I’ve had people tell me that they like this song or that song from those “Cellar Sounds” compilations and I’m like, ‘Wow! I never even intended for those songs to ever come out.'”

So were you actively shopping those demo tracks to different labels at the time?

“Yeah. I mean, some of those songs were actually the reason I ended-up getting with Rawkus. But prior to that, I was cool with Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito so I would send them those demos and some of them got played on air in New York. So then I’d have people asking me where they could get my records but the songs were never actually put out (laughs). I remember, “On A Mission”, which was recorded as a demo with Nick Wiz in 1996, that was played heavily on Stretch and Bobbito’s show. But it was such a polished demo that it was able to be played alongside actual records and it didn’t sound out of place. So later on, Wiz told me that he wanted to put all of those old joints out on his compilations because people were asking to hear that old stuff and wanted that element of nostalgia. So I was just like, ‘Do what you do.'”

So prior to Rawkus what other labels had you approached for a deal?

“I mean, I was building with a few labels at the time, like Nervous Records and also Capitol. I mean, I ended-up doing a deal with Capitol and was on the second album from the group Us3 which was called “Broadway & 52nd”. That came out in 1996. It was kinda like a poppy, jazz thing and I was really trying to shop them some of my raw Hip-Hop, but the label really just wanted me to do the jazzier stuff with Us3 for that particular album. So I was supposed to do a solo deal with Capitol, but that ended-up not working out because I didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do (laughs). I mean, that side of things was all new to me and it was a shock to see how certain things worked within the music industry. Some of the business end of things definitely flew over my head. But at the same time, I was just happy to be in the mix. Then what happened was, because things hadn’t panned out with the labels I’d been speaking to, that’s when we ended-up putting out the “So Real” / “It Could Happen” single independently in 96 which then ended-up getting picked-up by Priority’s Freeze Records and given wider distribution.”

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So that single must have been getting a nice buzz in New York for it to have been picked up by Priority / Freeze?

“Right. I mean, you had Stretch Armstrong who was playing “It Could Happen” heavily on his radio show, which was the more underground side, then you had Red Alert who was playing “So Real” heavily on his Hot 97 drive-time show. So the single was definitely getting some heavy buzz in New York and it was on the strength of that record that led to me dealing with Rawkus.”

At the time you put out “So Real” in 1996 the independent scene in New York was really starting to gain momentum. Was there a real awareness amongst underground artists in the city that they were contributing to a scene that was building towards something or was it something that grew organically before people had even fully comprehended what was happening?

“It grew into a scene out of necessity. People wanted to put their stuff out and the type of music that was being made just wasn’t resonating with the major labels at the time. So it was a case of artists trying to see what they could do on their own. I mean, even Jay-Z was doing the same thing at the time. He was shopping his music to labels around that same time, 94 /95, and they weren’t picking it up so he wound up putting a single out himself and then he got distribution through Priority for his “Reasonable Doubt” album. But it was a different climate then for sales and you could put a vinyl single out and it would sell and that’s what you built your buzz from. I mean, we probably pressed up about three thousand copies of the “So Real” single when we put that out independently.”

I remember picking that single up from Mr Bongo in London when it dropped…

“Oh yeah, I know about Mr Bongo. I remember when I was in London back in the 90s, I’d stay in Dark-N-Cold and would be freestyling in there with people like DJ MK passing through. Then you had Shortee Blitz who was at another store up the road from there…

Deal Real…

“Yeah, yeah, Deal Real. I’d be in the basement there with Shortee Blitz and Destiny just rhyming. Shout-out to my man Supa T…

The Sundragon…

“Yeah (laughs). I’d be down in that Deal Real basement with Supa T freestyling. Those were good times, man.”

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Were you already familiar with a lot of the NY artists who started putting independent records out during that mid-90s period?

“Oh yeah. I mean, all those people like Mos Def, Pumpkinhead, Jean Grae, Talib Kweli, we used to be at all the different events in the city. We all used to be in Washington Square Park freestyling. Everybody used to be there. Everything kinda happened simultaneously because we had events like Lyricist Lounge which was the springboard for a lot of New York artists who then went on to make records. I mean, the first time I ever saw Biggie live was actually at Lyricist Lounge and also Foxy Brown. A lot of people really got some of their first exposure at Lyricist Lounge and then took their music in their own direction depending on who they got put on by. The scene was definitely bubbling at that time and a lot of the people that I’d seen around before that point did wind-up making it onto records, whether that was on a lower, underground level or a higher level, depending on the route that they took.”

By the time both Biggie and Jay-Z had put out their second albums in 1997, as a fan of Hip-Hop, it really felt like a line had been drawn between the underground Hip-Hop world and the commercially successful artists. Some fans were really holding Biggie and Jay-Z up as examples of the music that was hurting Hip-Hop, but then when you’d speak to a lot of underground NY artists, they were actually fans of both of them. What were your thoughts on that at the time? 

“I mean, Biggie and Jay-Z were both lyricists. They took their route with the music and it led to them blowing-up. I mean, we all started on the same playing field. I used to see Biggie freestyling on Fulton Street when he was working on his music. But he got with Puff and Puff wanted to try different things with the music and the imagery which led to Big blowing-up. But he was still a lyricist. Same thing with Jay-Z. Then you had other artists who were maybe a little more stubborn who didn’t want to go that same route, so record labels felt that perhaps they couldn’t blow them up in the same way, so they were left to go their own route. But I definitely wasn’t mad at either Biggie or Jay-Z for blowing-up the way they did. It was just the way things went.”

So your attitude back then was that just because you were an underground independent artist, that didn’t mean that you couldn’t also enjoy the music that you were hearing on the radio that was being labelled as commercial?

“Exactly. It was all Hip-Hop. I mean, I was listening to Mase records and Company Flow records back then. Now, when I look back on it, a Mase record from back then is a thousand times better than what’s being played on commercial radio right now.”

Considering how many cyphers you must have seen and been a part of back then, are there any particular names that stand-out to you today when you think about emcees battling in the 90s?

“Yeah. I mean, seeing Big L battle live during Harlem Week, that was definitely a highlight from that time for me. I remember it was a cypher and everybody was taking their turn jumping in, then Big L came along and just shut the s**t down (laughs). After he rhymed, nobody wanted to rhyme anymore. He just dispersed the crowd (laughs). But I remember seeing Mase in those same cyphers during Harlem Week as well when he was with Children Of The Corn and he was raw. Herb McGruff was another one who would shut cyphers down in the street. Someone else who stands out to me from that time is Thirstin Howl. I mean, I saw Thirstin battle everybody (laughs). C-Rayz Walz is another one who I saw battle everybody. Another crazy thing I remember from when I was first coming out is when I was one of the headliners on the bill at a club in NYC and Immortal Technique was in there battling. This was before he even got big on the underground, but he was definitely someone who could battle anybody. He was in there that night slaughtering people. Mos Def was someone as well who I remember seeing crush people in battles when we’d be out in Washington Square Park.”

So how did you officially get signed to Rawkus?

“Initially, I came to them with “So Real”, but they felt it was a little too commercial because we had the Patrice Rushen sample in there and some singing on the hook. But the b-side, “It Could Happen”, that was more the style Rawkus were looking for. That particular track was getting a lot of play on the underground radio shows in New York, so that’s what made Rawkus decide to do a record with me and we dropped the “Side 2 Side” / “Arabian Nights” single in 1997. So now, “Side 2 Side” was still a little more radio-friendly and “Arabian Nights” was the underground record. That was my style at the time, to make songs that might appeal to slightly different audiences, and the same thing happened again with “Side 2 Side” getting some commercial airplay and deejays like Stretch Armstrong would play “Arabian Nights”. “Arabian Nights” has become the joint that everyone will tell me is my classic. So I always have to perform that track. That record was perfect for the underground and the concept just really seemed to catch the people’s imagination.”

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Considering you’d already built relationships with artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli from crossing paths in the NY scene, how did it feel to then be signed to the same label and technically be in competition with each other?

“There was definitely competition but at the same time the fact that we were all on the same label made it feel like we were all one big crew even though we weren’t. I mean, everybody was trying to do their own thing and blow-up in their own way, but we all realised that we were kinda in it together because the music that we were putting out wasn’t commercial music so we were all going to be facing the same struggles. I mean, it definitely felt different to go from rhyming in the park with people for us all to then be making records. It felt like things were moving to another level. But to be honest, I don’t think I was really fully aware of what was going on at that time. I mean, I wasn’t aware of how many records were being sold. I wasn’t aware of publishing. I wasn’t aware of a lot of things that I should have been aware of. I was really still in the ‘rhyming-in-the-park’ phase and it only really started to resonate with me what we’d achieved when the album deal with Rawkus came about and also the deal with Nervous for the Polyrhythm Addicts project. It was at that time that I knew things were really getting serious.”

One of your other Rawkus-released tracks that made an impact was 1998’s DJ Spinna-produced “5 Star Generals” posse cut with A.L., Eminem, Kwest Tha Madd Lad and Skam2. Was that track recorded with everyone in the studio at the same time and, if so, what do you remember from that particular session?

“That track was definitely recorded with everyone in the studio at the same time. I actually have a picture from that session which I need to get back from Mr. Complex (laughs). We recorded “5 Star Generals” at DJ Spinna’s studio in his basement in Brooklyn. Eminem and everybody was there, A.L., Kwest Tha Madd Lad. I remember I was the first person to arrive and I laid my verse first and then everybody else laid there’s down in the order that they’d arrived. I remember when I heard Eminem lay his verse and I was just like ‘Wooooow!’ I actually wanted to change my s**t after I heard that but Spinna was like, ‘Nah, man, it’s good. Leave it.'”

How familiar were you with Eminem at that point?

“I mean, I’d met him previously at some shows. I actually posted the ticket up online of the show we had together at Wetlands. It was hosted by Smif-N-Wessun and it was me, Eminem, The Outsidaz and a couple of other people. I remember someone had performed before me and had gotten booed by the crowd so Smif-N-Wessun were like, ‘The next person who comes up here had better be good.’ I went up there, killed it and got a lot of love from the crowd and at that point I was still relatively unknown. Then the same thing happened with Eminem, he wasn’t really known at the time, he was the white kid down with the Outsidaz, people didn’t really know what to make of him, but he got onstage that night and bodied it. I’d also met him another time at one of the first internet radio stations, which was 88HipHop.Com. Plus, a couple of my friends like Thirstin Howl and A.L., dudes who’d been at the Rap Olympics, they kept telling me, ‘Yo, you need to get this Eminem kid on a song. He’s gonna blow-up, I’m telling you.’ So we invited him down to the studio and he dropped that verse for “5 Star Generals”. The crazy thing is, it was whilst doing the paperwork for that track that Eminem ended-up meeting Paul Rosenberg through my lawyer at the time.”

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The album you were recording for Rawkus was never released and you ended-up leaving the label. Where did the Rawkus situation start to go wrong as far as you were concerned?

“I mean, we all were young and we all made mistakes. At the time I placed all the blame on Rawkus. I mean, the guys who were running Rawkus, Brian and Jarret, they were like twenty-four-years-old. We were all around the same age. They were learning the business at the same time as I was learning about the business. The problem was that they also had major investors in the company, like the son of Rupert Murdoch. So what they captured in the beginning with what the label stood for, I think they let that slip through their fingers by trying to be like the major labels they were supposed to be providing an alternative to. They started wasting money and really deviating away from what made the label a success in the first place. I mean, they got gold albums out of Mos Def’s “Black On Both Sides” and Big L’s “The Big Picture” so they became focused on replicating that and kind of sat everyone else on the label down, including Company Flow, which led to El-P going and doing his own thing with Def Jux.”

Do you think the success of the label took everyone by surprise, from the artists to the people who were running Rawkus?

“It surprised the s**t out of everybody, including the dudes who ran the label. I don’t think they really knew exactly what to do with it and it went crazy. I mean, Pharoahe Monch for instance, I don’t think they thought “Simon Says” was going to blow-up as big as it did, so they never cleared that “Godzilla” sample. Then when the single blew-up they were scrambling to clear the sample and by then it was too late. So there were mistakes that were being made. I mean, me and Pharoahe had the same management at the time, and I think that whole malaise behind that single and album kinda pushed my s**t under the radar. I mean, with Pharoahe and I having the same management, if he’s beefing with the label and they’re dealing with his management, that’s also the same management they’re dealing with when it comes to my music. So I was running around in the streets and I decided I wanted a release from the label. I told them that if they weren’t going to put my album out within a certain amount of time then they should let me go so I could run with the music. Rawkus gave me a release but they didn’t let me take any of the music I’d made with them because they knew I could have taken that and blown-up somewhere else. I had like five songs on that Rawkus album from Just Blaze and at that time his only real production credits were on the Harlem World album “The Movement” from Mase’s crew. He was still interning at The Cutting Room studio back then.”

So the Polyrhythm Addicts project “Rhyme Related” that came out via Wreck / Nervous in 1999 was almost like a release for you to be able to put music out without having to deal with Rawkus… 

“Exactly. That was the perfect avenue for me to still be able to get music out there and continue what I was trying to accomplish. I was actually going to do a solo deal with Nervous, but the way the paperwork was looking, I was scared to be caught up with them. That was also around the time Nervous were going through s**t with Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun, so I didn’t want to do a deal with them when I could see they were already beefing with their own artists.”

It definitely seemed that some of the labels that had established themselves during that independent era started to reflect the politics of the bigger corporate labels as time went on…

“Man, when money started getting involved and that money started getting big, s**t changed. I mean, if a lot of the labels at that time had just kept it official with their artists then the relationships would have remained strong and everybody really just wanted to work and succeed. But money definitely played a large part in things going wrong between a lot of labels and artists that came out of that underground scene.”

When you think back to that time, are there any artists who fell away from the music scene for whatever reason who you felt could have really left their mark on the game?

“Yeah, yeah. I felt that Kwest Tha Madd Lad could have taken it to the next level. I always felt that his rhymes were funny and witty and that he always made good songs. L-Fudge was someone else who I felt could have taken it to the next level. I mean, there were so many talented artists at that time who I thought had what it took.”

I always thought A.L. was nice with his rhymes…

“A.L. too. Everybody I had on that “5 Star Generals” record I thought had the potential to blow-up. Skam2 was crazy with the rhymes and concepts. I could go on for days about artists from that time who should have blown-up (laughs). But I think a lot of people from that era became discouraged and in some cases lost the love for it or decided that they needed to take another route outside of music because they had families to feed and other responsibilities. I mean, I do other things today aside from just music, but I really can’t let Hip-Hop go because I feel that I’ve devoted a large part of my life to this and whether I blow big or not I’m going to be making this music until I’m gone because this is just what I enjoy to do. I mean, if you put your heart and soul into your music then it’ll always connect with someone out there. I remember when I came home from jail in 2005, I thought the music thing was over for me because I was basically starting from scratch. A lot of people I’d come up with had blown-up while I’d been away and I felt like I’d missed my time and opportunity. I mean, my actual official debut album “Never Say Never” which came out on Raptivism in 2001, I went to jail right before it came out. So I never got to tour with it, I never got to do any videos, I never got to really do any promotion. Since I’ve been home I’ve dropped various projects but I’ve done everything myself, so they haven’t reached as many people as they could have because I didn’t necessarily have the money to put into them. But my new album, “Keepers Of The Lost Art”, that’s basically everything coming around full circle.”

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How did you approach making this new album as there definitely seems to be a concept behind it given the title?

“This album, I’ve basically been recording piece by piece for the last couple of years. Certain songs I made I put aside because I thought they would fit with this new project. I could have put them out on other projects but I wanted to save them for the official album, like all of the tracks I recorded with Lewis Parker. My whole approach to “Keepers Of The Lost Art” was that I wanted it to have that boom-bap feel and that classic 90s sound, but I also wanted to use some new producers and mix it all together in a pot. There are so many new artists today who’re trying to duplicate that 90s sound, but I’m from the 90s so I’m not duplicating anything, this is just what I do.”

You mentioned the UK’s Lewis Parker who is responsible for producing a large portion of “Keepers Of The Lost Art”. What drew you to his particular style and sound?

“Lewis produced about half of the album. I mean, I knew of Lewis Parker from when I used to be out in London in the 90s and we’d crossed paths back then. But a friend of mine actually took me out to his house in Queens a few years back when he was living in New York. Lewis started playing some of his beats and I was just like, ‘Yeaaaah!’ That was the sound that I wanted. Lewis has that golden-era sound with those sharp SP drums and it has that warm, analog sound with the ill samples. It was exactly what I was looking for.”

Lewis has been putting in work for about twenty years now and is definitely a master of his craft. If he’d have been born and raised in New York he’d have probably been right there alongside the likes of Pete Rock and Large Professor back in the 90s contributing to some classic East Coast albums….

“Ah man, definitely. He would have been up there with all of them. But I feel that the s**t he got now is enough for him to be mentioned alongside those names today.”

You definitely sound very confident about the music you’ve put together on “Keepers Of The Lost Art”…

“I feel like this album is the greatest work I’ve ever put together. I don’t know how other people are going to feel about it, but I feel that’s it’s my greatest work and I definitely think the planets are aligning for it. I mean, they played one of my tracks on Shade 45 with Sway as part of their “A&R Room” segment and it beat out Jay Electronica and Jay-Z’s “We Made It” track. I saw that and was like, ‘Word?!‘ I mean, I’m a Jay Electronica fan, but to beat him and Jay-Z on something like that was a big deal to me. So I feel that certain things are aligning and hopefully people will take notice when the album drops.”

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What are your thoughts on the current New York underground scene?

“I think it’s healthy, man. I do a monthly show out here in New York which is called “It’s Alive!” for obvious reasons because people keep saying that Hip-Hop is dead and it’s not. But we have a good mix of classic vets that come through like Tragedy Khadafi and Blaq Poet and they’re mingling with the new artists and different collaborations are coming out of those meetings. I just think the underground scene in New York is beautiful right now.”

Obviously it’s very different to the scene you came up in considering the technology and online social media outlets that are available to artists today…

“Yeah, it’s definitely a different ball game. I mean, now, you can reach other parts of the world within seconds. Back when I was first coming out, I didn’t know that I had people in places like England listening to my s**t until I actually went over there. Now, talented artists like Spit Gemz and Nutso can gauge who’s checking for their stuff using social media and by being online which means they can really promote themselves to the right people across the world. But at the same time it’s a gift and a curse, because those talented artists are having to deal with the game being saturated. People can just put some microwave s**t up on the computer and straight away they think they’re an artist. But what separates people is the quality of your work, how you put it out, who you’re working with and then the final frontier is the stage. I mean, you can put out whatever you want to on the computer, but when people see you live, that’s what’s gonna separate the true artists from everyone else. As an independent artist, your live show is one of the most important parts of what you do, because that’s your opportunity to convince people who might not already know you that they should be buying your s**t. Nowadays, with everything being so instant, you can kill it onstage, then people go home, Google your name, find all your music, your videos, and that’s what helps you build a fanbase.”

So after almost twenty years in the game, what lessons have your learned along the way that you still apply to to career today?

“So many, so many, soooo many. From the business side of things with contracts, to registering songs for publishing, to really owning your brand. But mainly, I just learnt to put out what you’re feeling from the heart and that’s still something that I do today. You shouldn’t worry about other opinions and let that cloud your vision. If you let that happen then you’re not really being a true artist and making the music that you believe in, you’re just trying to gauge what everyone else likes and then trying to fit in with that. That’s not being creative as far as I’m concerned and it takes away from the artistry. An artist should make the music that they like and then hope that people catch up to what you’re doing. That’s what being creative is about to me. So with this new “Keepers Of The Lost Art” album, I just want to play my part in keeping the art of Hip-Hop alive according to what I feel is captured in the four elements of the culture.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Shabaam Sahdeeq on Twitter – @ShabaamSahdeeq

Preview “Keepers Of The Lost Art” on Below System Records here.

Shabaam Sahdeeq – “Tranquilo” (Below System Records / 2014)

Old To The New Q&A – Supastition

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A true veteran of the underground Hip-Hop scene, North Carolina’s Supastition is no stranger to the ups and downs of the independent music world, having experienced a career which has seen him cross paths with reputable labels such as Rawkus and Okayplayer, whilst also sharing mic time on wax with the likes of KRS-One, Little Brother and Elzhi.

With his debut 2002 album “7 Years Of Bad Luck” introducing listeners to a raw, battle-ready lyricist, subsequent releases such as “Chain Letters” and “Leave Of Absence” found Supastition confidently carving out his own niche in the market, combining his uncompromising verses with production from the likes of Illmind, Jake One and Foreign Exchange’s Nicolay.

In 2008, Supa surprised many long-standing fans by deciding to step away from his original rap moniker, choosing instead to release his “Self-Centered” EP and subsequent “Splitting Image” album under his real name of Kam Moye. With the reason for the decision being given, partially, as the then Charlotte-based emcee wanting to evolve as an artist, the name-change confused some listeners, resulting in the RBC Records-released “Splitting Image” receiving a mixed reception.

Having publicly retired from music in 2010 for personal reasons, the rapper’s 2013 comeback release “The Blackboard” was met with open-arms (and ears) by loyal supporters, with the EP not only showcasing the Southern emcee returning to his trademark boom-bap sound, but also reclaiming the Supastition name.

Setting off 2014 with the recent release of his “Honest Living” EP, produced entirely by Germany’s Croup, the consistently impressive wordsmith is back with a new game plan and a rejuvenated passion for his craft.

Here, Supastition discusses his reasons for once again picking up the mic, the power of perception and his recent move to Atlanta.

You announced your retirement from the rap game in 2010 after almost a decade of releasing music. What prompted you to return at the beginning of last year with your EP “The Blackboard”?

“When I first started doing music, I did it just for the love and for the passion of it. So when it became a job for me, that’s when I began to hate it. So when I took those years off and just worked a nine-to-five and got to see what it was like to have someone bring you your paycheck every month instead of you having to chase people for your paycheck, I was coming home everyday and was like, ‘Yo, I don’t know what non-music people do.’ So I would still record and write, but nobody was hearing it and I had no intentions of releasing anything. But the thing that really made me get back into, I basically just started over and fell in love with the music all over again. I kinda stayed off of internet websites in terms of looking at music reviews and comments and just spent time listening to music that I enjoyed. So I avoided getting caught up in all the bulls**t music that people would be promoting online and I just focused on listening to the music that I liked and that I could relate to. Also, I was listening to different instrumental albums from producers and that would inspire me to sit down and write. So it really just came down to me falling in love with the music again and having that feeling to actually want to write and record.”

So it was really a case of you re-igniting your love for music in general as much as it was about your own music?

“Yeah. Plus, during that time that I was off, I got a call from Stoupe who used to be in Jedi Mind Tricks, and he wanted to do an album. Now, Stoupe’s not really an internet guy and a year had gone by since I announced I was quitting the music industry and he had no idea (laughs). So he was sending me beats and I was like, ‘Damn! Do I break the news to this guy or do I just roll with it?’ So I rolled with it and we ended-up knocking out a whole album together. Then it was after we finished that album that I started working on the “Blackboard” EP. So it was a slow transition back into it and really I just missed recording music. But I realised that instead of trying to chase the dream, there were people out there already who wanted to hear my music, so I wanted to put music out for them, rather than trying to chase the fans that everyone else has or focusing on trying to gain new fans. So I went into recording “The Blackboard” looking to make music for those people that had already been supporting me and really wanting to please them.”

Was it almost a liberating experience to cut yourself off from the internet for awhile and enjoy music the old-fashioned way again?

“Instead of following the hype that people would put out on Twitter or on their blogs, I would go into record stores and see that someone had a new album out. I would pick up the album, open up the CD and just ride around the city before I got home just listening to the whole album. I mean, when something new comes out now it almost get spoiled because of how it’s treated online. It’s almost like the difference between buying regular milk and soy milk (laughs). You buy regular milk and it only lasts you a matter of days, but you buy soy milk and that s**t will last you six months (laughs). So when I took that time off, I kinda stayed away from what was happening online because I feel that can spoil the music experience sometimes. So I went back to bumpin’ albums for like six months because I didn’t care about what was coming out every week and trying to keep up with everything. If I liked an album, then I was listening to it for six months because that’s the way that I used to do it when I would listen to an album like “Illmatic” for the whole summer after it dropped. So I really had to rediscover that feeling again.”

Prior to your retirement announcement, you’d released the “Splitting Image” album in 2009 under your real name Kam Moye. When we spoke at the time, you said the main reason for the name change was because you felt the music you were making then wasn’t as aggressive as the music people were used to hearing from you as Supasition so you almost felt trapped creatively by the expectations fans would have of any music you put out under that name. So with that in mind, why did you decide to still come back out as Supastition last year rather than Kam Moye?

“I guess with that, it was really more of a natural thing. I mean, the biggest problem I had with Supastition was that I never really knew what type of music people wanted out of me. I think the way I heard myself compared to how other people heard me was completely different. I mean, I’d look on some of these music sites like Pandora and it’d have a list of artists that were supposedly similar to what I did and I’d be like, ‘Yo! These guys aren’t like me!‘ But once I sat back and thought about how people heard me, I realised that they wanted music from me like they’d heard on “The Deadline” and “Chain Letters”. But with the Supastition / Kam Moye thing, at the time I did that, I really needed some type of  positivity in my life. I wasn’t surrounded by positive people at that point, so the only way I really knew how to bring out that element of positivity was through my music. So that kinda spurred me on to change the name and do the Kam Moye thing with the “Splitting Image” album. But since doing that I’ve learnt that I can have more of a balance, be Supastition and still make the type of songs that were on the “Splitting Image” album. I mean, if you listen to that album, the type of subject matter I was dealing with on there has been sprinkled throughout my albums since the beginning of my career. Even when I started recording under Kam Moye, people told me back then that it was all about perception and fans might not totally understand it. I mean, if McDonalds changed the name of the Big Mac tomorrow, there would be a million people that would say it just doesn’t taste the same (laughs). So I had to realise that perception is everything and people want to hear certain things from certain artists and I needed to come to grips with that.”

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In the years since you released “Splitting Image” you’ve been quite honest and open about the fact that you don’t think the album did necessarily connect with a lot of your core fan-base…

“I think that everything involved with it was just too much for people to digest at once. First of all there was the name change, then there was also a lot of features which I don’t think people were used to hearing on my albums. I’d never really had a lot of features on my albums, but when you get involved with labels they want features on your project to help it appeal to more people. So, it was almost like “Splitting Image” strayed away from everything that made me and I had to compromise with labels and distributors on guests. I mean, there was one guest in particular that I really didn’t want on the album and I had to fight with the label over it, but they were like, ‘Well, we’ve already paid for the feature so let’s put it on there anyway.’ I mean, when I go back and listen to that album, I do think it was a good album but it just wasn’t well-executed. I could have done it so much better. If you go back and listen to the Kam Moye “Self-Centered” EP that I put out in 2008, that’s what the “Splitting Image” album was supposed to sound like. But when you listen to the EP and the album back-to-back, they sound completely different, even though I was working with similar producers. But it was also a weird time for me to, because a lot of the producers I was working with like Illmind and M-Phazes started doing more non-sampled beats and that’s not the direction I wanted to go in. It was just a weird situation and too much for people to digest at once.”

Perhaps in years to come “Splitting Image” will become an album that people enjoy more in the wider context of your full discography?

“The comparison I use is that maybe one day people will look at it like Tribe’s “Beats, Rhymes And Life”. I mean, when I first heard “Beats, Rhymes And Life”, I didn’t really like it because it was so different to anything Tribe had done before. Consequence was on there and it had a different type of sound to their previous albums with the type of drums they were using. It was just hard for me to digest at the time. But now it’s probably one of my favourite Tribe albums (laughs). I mean, over the course of time, and as I’ve gotten older, it’s become one of those albums I can just put on, vibe out to and enjoy more now than I did when it first came out. So “Splitting Image” will hopefully become an album like that, with fans enjoying it more as time goes on”.

There was a line on the track “Indestructible” from last year’s “Blackboard” EP where you said how you “Never seem to please the elitists or the know-it-alls…” What inspired that particular lyric?

“Basically, when it comes to Hip-Hop purists, and I include myself in that, it’s very hard to please us. A lot of the things we say we want, when we get them, it’s still not enough (laughs). So that line was about me just continuing to do what I do, regardless. I mean, I’ve been making boom-bap music for the longest, but when it comes out, critics are going to give me a three-and-a-half no matter what (laughs). I know there will always be people out there who I can’t please, so I’m just going to make music for the fans who really enjoy what I do. Before, I used to really care about that and I wanted the purists and everyone to gravitate to my music, but it doesn’t always work out like that. I mean, there will always be people out there, especially online, who just like going against things and picking out what’s wrong. I always joke with a friend of mine, like, if Jesus was to return tomorrow there would be someone out there who would be talking about the fact he’s wearing sandals or they would have something to say about his robe (laughs). People find the weirdest things to complain about sometimes and are more likely to tell you what’s wrong with something before they tell you what they like about it.”

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What’s the concept behind your new “Honest Living” EP?

“At the time I’d stopped doing music, I’d been working at this one particular job for a couple of years. Y’know, going in everyday and just trying to be the best worker you can be, getting by. Then the company I was working for had lost a contract and so the entire operation was shut down and they were laying people off and all of that. I was just like, ‘Damn! This is almost like what I went through with music, with labels shutting down, distributors shutting down.’ So I was there thinking, ‘Where do I go from here?’ So anyway, everyone at my job got laid off, we were all unemployed, then shortly after that North Carolina became the first state in the US to cut federal benefits for unemployment. So you get a couple of weeks unemployment benefit and then that’s it. I was looking around and there were all these people who were out of work, then I’d watch the news and they were saying that employment was up! I’d be like, ‘I don’t know which jobs you’re checking.’ It was really hard to find a job at the time and that inspired me to sit down and write something because I felt I really needed to speak on this. I’d touched on working jobs in some of my songs before, but I really wanted to put something together for people who were going through it, people who were out there searching for jobs and people who’re working who feel under-appreciated at their jobs. So that’s basically what the “Honest Living” EP is about. Also, it’s almost like a warning to rappers, like, yo, you’re not always going to be on top. At some point, you might have to get a regular job and humble yourself, and that really takes a lot.”

It definitely seems like the gap between the haves and the have-nots in society is constantly shrinking. That comfortable, middle-class dream that people in our parents’ generation were sold is almost non-existent today…

“Me and my manager were recently discussing the same subject and we agreed that the middle-class has disappeared in everything. There’s really no middle-class with the economy, there’s no middle-class with music anymore, you’re either an independent unknown or a superstar (laughs). Nobody really cares about anybody in-between. It’s crazy how that’s happened.”

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Was there a particular reason why you chose to work exclusively with Germany’s Croup for the production on the new EP?

“I’ve had a lot of Croup beats over the years and as I started going through them I realised that I had more beats from Croup than probably any other producer I’ve worked with. So, I decided to record to a couple of them. Then I had rhymes that I’d recorded to some other beats but perhaps the production wasn’t really what I wanted. So I would send my vocals over to Croup and he’d remix it and literally create the music around my verses. We talked about it and I told him that I wanted a smooth, melodic vibe to the beats for this project. I mean, Croup has really proved himself to be a consistent producer and he’s been working with me since I put out “The Deadline” in 2004. He’s a humble guy and it’s real easy working with him. “Honest Living” is probably one of the most stress-free projects I’ve ever done and I definitely intend on continuing to work with Croup in the future. I love doing projects with just one producer. It’s almost like the difference between eating from a buffet or having a chef prepare something especially for you (laughs). That’s how I felt sometimes when I was working with bigger-name producers on some of my albums, you’d get to the buffet and everybody’s already taken all of the good stuff. So there I am at the buffet eating the macaroni and cheese when really I want some quality steak cooked exactly how I like it (laughs). I like having a producer tailor-make a beat for me and that’s how it was working with Croup on this new project.”

The production on the EP’s lead single “Eardrum” really reminded me of some vintage mid-90s Erick Sermon material with that warm bass, those melodic keys and the Redman vocal sample on the hook…

“Right, right. That’s what it reminded me of when I first heard it as well. I mean, when Croup sent me that beat I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ It reminded me of a Redman / Erick Sermon joint off “Dare Iz A Darkside” or something like that. I was such a huge Hit Squad / Def Squad fan, so when I first heard that track I just thought it was perfect for me. I already liked the beat, but then when I heard that Redman sample on the hook, I was just like, ‘I’m going to murder this!’

Now that you’re balancing your working life with making music, do you feel you’re actually in a better creative space today than perhaps you were when you were concentrating on music full-time?

“I do. I mean, when I listen back to the music I’ve put out over the years, I think I recorded some of my best material when I was still out working before I was able to really start making a living off of music. There’s something about that struggle that gives me a certain edge and certain type of inspiration. It’s almost like when you listen to someone like an Eminem. I mean, to me, some of his best music was made when he was struggling. But then it’s gets to a point where it’s a case of how long can you rap about struggling when you’re not actually struggling anymore? I mean, when I started doing music full-time, I was travelling the world experiencing all these different things, so it was hard for me to go back and write the same type of music that I had been making. I was still getting inspiration, but it was a different type of inspiration. I mean, your mentality is definitely different when you’re relying on music full-time. Whilst recording this “Honest Living” project, going to work everyday and doing what I had to do, I could just make one hundred percent pure music and be okay knowing that whoever felt the music would gravitate towards it and support it, and if people didn’t like it then that was okay as well. When music is all you have to rely on, it’s easy to reach a point where you’re mentality is ‘If this album doesn’t sell then I’m screwed.’ I never wanted to get to that stage. I’m a dedicated father and a dedicated husband, and when you look at it, there aren’t too many happily married famous musicians (laughs). So with me, it actually feels better doing music on these terms because, like I said on the EP intro, when music is all you have, you can start doing a lot of things out of desperation. I got into music just because I wanted to make some dope s**t and that’s still how I feel about it.”

Was the job situation in North Carolina one of the biggest reasons for your recent family move to Atlanta?

“Yeah, that’s probably about ninety percent of the reason why we decided to move. There weren’t really a lot of job opportunities in North Carolina. Plus, there was also the education system which was a concern. I think North Carolina is one of the lowest paying states as far as teachers are concerned and sooner or later that starts to reflect in the quality of the schools. I mean, we’d go to our daughter’s parent / teacher meetings and we’d be some some of the only parents who would show up. So there were a number of things that contributed to the move. But now, we have more family, friends and opportunities in Atlanta than we had in Charlotte. Plus, when it came to my music, it was becoming really difficult to book shows locally because it was always spots that were either a hundred capacity  and less, or it was five hundred or more and there was nothing really in-between. There wasn’t really any college radio, the biggest record store in the area was closing down and becoming an F.Y.E. It almost felt like I was fighting a losing battle and when I decided to get back into music I vowed that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes that I had done before. I just couldn’t continue to have this loyalty to a place that as a whole didn’t support me. I mean, I do have supporters in North Carolina, but even they would tell me that I wasn’t being supported enough by my own town. So, overall, the move to Atlanta was a good thing to do, firstly for my family in terms of what we want to accomplish for our kids, but also for my music as well and what the scene in Atlanta has to offer.”

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Now you’re somewhat detached from the full-time music rat-race that you were once a part of, has that allowed you to really sit back and appreciate what you have achieved in your career?

“Exactly. That’s the perfect way to explain it. I mean, when I was a full-time artist, you’re comparing everything you do to other artists or other people you know in the game, and sometimes it would get frustrating because I’d feel like I wasn’t moving fast enough or that I hadn’t done enough. But I really didn’t realise how much I’d done until I stopped. It’s almost like I was travelling the path but was never looking back at my footsteps. But when I sat back, I thought about how I got into this music game just because I wanted to see my name on a record and to have people listen to it. So when I stopped to think about it, I’ve come so far past that point that I feel like I have achieved success. But when you’re in that music industry rat race, it’s easy to think that you’re not getting far enough fast enough. But when I took a break from music and looked back on my career, I realised that it was something to be proud of, and that in itself had something do with me wanting to start recording again.”

In the early stages of your career you were always quite outspoken about your frustrations with the music industry. So after all these years, has your opinion on the industry changed at all?

“To be honest, I still hate the music industry today as much as I did back then (laughs). But the biggest difference today is that artists have a lot more options and we don’t have to depend on people to do things, which is one of the things I used to dislike about the industry the most.”

So with your new approach to making music, do you have other projects planned or is it a case of you releasing music as and when time allows?

“I definitely have plans and it’s really great that I have a manager now who can really help keep things in perspective and figure things out while I’m just kinda living life. We still have the album with Stoupe and we’re really trying to work out all the marketing and distribution for that record, which has taken close to two years to get out of the way. But it’s funny how life works and how sometimes when you don’t try too hard, more things come your way (laughs). I’m constantly being approached by people who want to do things, so I’m really just playing things by ear and going where it really moves me. I’m also planning to do more producer-based projects, where I just team-up with one producer to put out an EP or album. I’m also definitely planning to start working on a new solo album before the end of this year. But in the meantime, hopefully this project with Stoupe will come out before the summertime and then there are a couple of other projects in the pipeline that I can’t really speak on. But I’m definitely working, man.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Supastition on Twitter – @Supastition_NC

Supastition – “Two Weeks Notice” (Supastition.BandCamp.Com / 2014)

Old To The New Q&A – JW Hype

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If you miss the days of high-top fades, James Brown loops, fat gold chains and matching sweatsuit / sneaker outfits, then Chicago’s JW Hype might just be the artist for you.

Mesmerised as a youngster in the 80s by the seemingly endless flow of new styles and sounds pouring out of the then equally young culture of Hip-Hop, JW spent just as much time studying beats and rhymes as he did studying his school-books, immersing himself, like so many others of his generation, in music from the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim and EPMD.

Fast-forward some twenty-five years later and Hype has gained himself something of a cult online following with his own brand of back-to-the-future throwback rap. Drawing heavily on his golden-era influences, the Chi-town producer-on-the-mic’s two recent EPs, 2012’s “Return Of The Hype Era” and 2013’s “Back 2 Work”, found JW flawlessly recreating the funky, uptempo feel of the classic records so many of us were doing the Running-Man or the Kick-Step to in 1989.

Also available as a limited edition vinyl release on the Chopped Herring imprint, Hype’s two free downloadable EPs instantly take the listener back in time, with the rapper’s slick flow, quick wit and dope beats sounding authentic enough to make the uninitiated wonder if they’ve stumbled across a demo-tape from the First Priority vaults upon first listen.

Here, JW Hype discusses his reasons for wanting to pay homage to late-80s Hip-Hop, favourite rap videos and his thoughts on the music of today.

Get busy, y’all!

What are your earliest recollections of Hip-Hop?

“Man, I can take it way back (laughs). I’m in my mid-thirties so I remember hearing the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio when I was a kid. I used to break-dance when I was in second, third grade, plus my uncles were all deejays, so I was familiar with groups like Newcleus and music like that. But I would say the time when I started actually developing my own tastes was around 86 / 87. I would say that’s when I really fell in love with Hip-Hop through hearing people like Rakim. I had an uncle who was in high-school when I was still in elementary school, so I remember him bringing albums over like “Paid In Full” when that first came out, the first Public Enemy album, and other stuff like MC Lyte, Sweet Tee, Three Times Dope. So I would always be going through his tapes and taking them outside to listen to and that’s when I really started developing my own tastes in terms of what appealed to me musically.”

Was there a local scene to speak of at that time when you were growing-up in Chicago?

“I mean, I grew-up in the suburbs but we were frequently back and forth to the city. My uncle, he was from the city, so he was bringing this music to me. I mean, I was already familiar with it and new what it was, but he was bringing it to me en masse. I had a few friends around me at the time, all elementary kids, and we were all listening to rap. We were all deep into Hip-Hop (laughs). We would figure out different ways to get tapes and go to the record store together. So I wouldn’t say there was really a Hip-Hop scene around us at that time. I mean, growing-up in the 80s, it was really an eclectic time for music and you had pop, rock, whatever, and we were familiar with everything but we just really gravitated towards Hip-Hop.”

What was interesting in the early-t0-mid 80s was that a lot of the same musical technology of the time, such as synthesizers and drum machines, was being used across a variety of genres, from pop and soul to funk and Hip-Hop… 

“Oh yeah, definitely. Especially when you get to the more electronic sounding records, like the Eurythmics and groups like that, there was definitely a lot of the same sounds and technology being used in different genres that really crossed barriers in a way.”

So given that you were listening to music from different genres as a kid in the 80s, what was it about Hip-Hop that really drew you towards it over anything else?

“I think I always liked it on a sub-conscious level, but the record that really made me consciously say ‘This is for me’, I would have to say that was EPMD’s “You Gots To Chill”. The reason why was because I had that Zapp “More Bounce To The Ounce” record that they sampled on there. I loved that Zapp record. Then when I heard what they’d done with it on “You Gots To Chill”, I was like, ‘Okay, this is something I could do.’ I mean, I didn’t even really understand what they were doing in terms of sampling, but it made me realise that I didn’t need a band or anything like that to make music. But when I then realised I didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of sampling, I decided to start rapping (laughs). But yeah, EPMD’s “You Gots To Chill” was the record that really did it for me. I wanted to be a kid rapper back then (laughs).”

Did you ever pursue the idea of actually making records back then?

“Not at all. Like I said, I was living in the suburbs at that time, so making records or anything like that really wasn’t a reality for me. Rhyming was just something that I really loved to do. It was just a serious, intense passion.”

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So moving a little more up-to-date, when did you first get the idea to start putting together whole projects based around that late-80s throwback-rap sound?

“I was already making music and doing production for people on a local level. I was also doing little remix projects here and there. Plus, I did my own album in 2008, “Where Da’ Sidewalk Ends”, which was a local release. There were a couple of songs on that album which were like throwback songs, and they were the songs that everyone seemed to love. So I started thinking that, at some point, I wanted to put a whole project together in that same style. Time went on, but the thought never went away. So I finally did it and that was 2012’s “Return Of The Hype Era” EP. It was just something that I’d always wanted to do because I felt that era had never really been revisited like that. I think people have more tried to revisit the mid-80s, but hadn’t really done the same thing with that 1987 – 1990 period. I mean, for me, those years really laid the foundation for everything that came afterwards in the 90s. In my opinion, there were a lot of artists that released classic music back then that don’t necessarily get mentioned as often as they should when people look back at that time. I mean, you look at a Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud for example, they put out a classic album. Paul C. was ahead of his time with the production and lyrically and flow-wise they were doing things on there that a lot of rappers didn’t really pick up on until later. It’s important that records and artists like that are remembered which I think sometimes get forgotten.”

That period was definitely a great time to be a fan of Hip-Hop because the music was making huge creative leaps and you were literally hearing things being done for the first time, whether that was musically in terms of sampling or lyrically with the subject matter emcees were bringing to the table and the different rhyme styles they were using to deliver it…

“It was just a really experimental time where it seemed like all the artists were just trying to top each other creatively. Everyone was doing their own thing but it was all building towards something. The artists of that time seemed to have a sense that they were building something, even if they weren’t exactly sure of what it was at that point. But that just added on to the greatness of it all, because it just felt like there was a greater cause behind the music other than it just being about making money and fame. People were doing it for the love of the art and to add-on to the culture. I mean, as cliched as that sounds today, that’s really what it was. Plus, something else that contributed to the overall creativity of that time was the fact that this was right  before the sampling laws started to come in. I mean, you’ll never hear another album like “It Takes A Nation Of Millions…” with so many different samples all crashing together in just one song because financially now it would be impossible to make an album like that with all of the clearances you’d need.”

On the subject of sampling, how did you go about choosing the samples you used on “Return Of The Hype Era” and its follow-up “Back 2 Work”? You used some very well-known samples on each release, so was it a case of you picking samples that were used on some of your favourite records from back-in-the-day and seeing if you could flip it a little differently or make a track that could stand next to those same golden-era records?

“That’s almost exactly how I did it. I mean, when you listen back to the music of that golden-era time period, a lot of the same samples were used over and over for different records. It seemed liked people really didn’t care about how many times a particular sample had been used, it was more just about, ‘Okay, I want to rap over this.’ So I worked on “Return Of The Hype Era” with that same mindset, as if I was actually making that release during that time period. So I didn’t go into it worrying about if the samples had been used before. I just used the music that I wanted to use. But moving forward, I think I will be using different samples that haven’t necessarily been heard before because I think I’ve made the point that I set out to make with “Return Of The Hype Era” and “Back To Work”.”

Have there been people who’ve been confused by your music when they’ve heard it?

“Yeah, a few people have definitely thought it was something that was old, and then they’ve gotten confused when they’ve heard some more up-to-date lyrical references and then they’ve realised it’s actually something new (laughs). But to me, that’s a massive compliment if someone does hear the music and thinks it did actually come from that late-80s era because that means that I did my job.”

Playing devils advocate for a moment, what would your response be to people who might criticise your music and say you’re holding on to an era in Hip-Hop that’s never coming back?

“I would point to someone like a Mayer Hawthorne. I mean, he’s pretty much doing the same thing that I’m doing with Hip-Hop but in an R&B format. When you listen to his music you can’t really tell whether it was recorded in the 60s or now. I think that artists like myself or a Mayer Hawthorne are needed in our respective genres because there are people out there who do want to hear that sound that I’m making. There are people out there who still love that sound and someone has to do it. But also, I’m not trying to bring that era back as such. I mean, I know that era has gone (laughs). But I also think a style of music can never really die. You can’t kill a particular style or sound. I mean, artists might stop making a particular style on a massive level, but that doesn’t mean that it no longer exists. When you look at rock, it’s changed on a huge level over the years, but that doesn’t mean that someone can’t go into an old studio like the Beatles would have used, pick up all of their old instruments and make an album today like they would have made back then.”

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Given the number of different golden-era influences that can be heard in your music, what prompted you to focus so heavily on the Juice Crew in particular for last year’s “My Dedication” single?

“I was obsessed with the Juice Crew when I was younger. They were really the first crew where everyone involved was just dope. I don’t think that had really happened in Hip-Hop before the Juice Crew where individually everyone was just great on their own. Not only that, but they were hugely influential at the time. I just felt that if I was going to do something to show respect to the Juice Crew, I really needed to accentuate it. I mean, me and my buddies, we were just obsessed with the Juice Crew. They really were like a phenomenon to us.”

The recent clip you dropped for “Get Hype” features footage from a long-list of classic Hip-Hop videos. Are there any videos in particular that stand out to you from that late-80s era?

“Let me see. I loved that Big Daddy Kane video for “Lean On Me”. I remember when that came out, everyone was just so hyped about that video and I really think they took the dancing to the next level with some of the moves they were doing. I loved MC Lyte’s “Paper Thin”, which was always just a classic video to me. Also, Gang Starr’s “Words I Manifest”, EPMD’s “You Gots To Chill” and I can’t forget Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'”. I could really just watch those videos all day long (laughs).”

During that time-period there were so many different styles co-existing, from the gangsta rap of N.W.A. to the politics of a KRS-One and the humour of a Biz Markie, but it all fell under the banner of Hip-Hop and was given equal attention and exposure by the Hip-Hop media at the time. Do you think we’ll ever get back to a place where there’s such a balance in terms of the music that’s being presented to the public?

“I don’t think so. I think the music and the industry around it has just grown way too much for that to happen again. I mean, back then, Hip-Hop was a counter-culture artform and I think that was something that helped it because it was something that was out of the ordinary. I mean, you had your mainstream, but then you had your counter-cultures. Today, rap isn’t the counter-culture anymore, it is the mainstream culture now. There isn’t really that sense of community that you had back in the day. I mean, because Hip-Hop was on a much smaller scale back then and there was only a relatively small amount of people involved in it, it made it feel that much more special. But now? I’m really the wrong person to talk to about rap right now because it can get real dark (laughs). I mean, the last person I was really paying attention to was Joey Bada$$ and that whole movement, but they’ve even become very disappointing in terms of where I thought they were going to go when they first came out.”

With that in mind, do you think we’ll ever again see another universally acclaimed classic album that really captures the attention of everyone within the culture in the same way that a Run-DMC or a Public Enemy did back in the 80s?

“I mean, every generation has their classics but I don’t think the albums that are called classics today will still be considered classics in years to come or celebrated in the same way as the classics from our generation. I mean, in terms of what’s coming out now, I don’t see there being an album that’s considered a classic by everyone.”

So the fourteen-year-0ld kid listening to Drake’s “Nothing Was The Same” or a Rick Ross release today isn’t going to be celebrating those albums in twenty-five years time in the same way that thirty-something fans from our generation still cherish albums like De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising” or Big Daddy Kane’s “Long Live The Kane”?

“It’s actually a very good question and, thinking about it now, one of the reasons why I don’t think that will happen is because I don’t think the respect level is there from the fans.  I don’t think today’s fans have the respect for the music that people are making today, regardless of whether they actually like it or not. I mean, you look at someone like a Drake, people have labelled his albums as being classics, but in ten or twenty years time, are his albums going to be mentioned or cherished like the classics from back in the day are by us? I really don’t think so. Which is partly down to the mentality of today’s so-called fan and also because the music that a lot of these artists are making doesn’t stand on anything. It doesn’t really have any substance to it. But when you look at the albums that we consider classics today from the 80s and 90s, even at the time, there was a respect level for the artists, the music and the culture around it that made us really consider what people like Rakim and Kane were doing  as something that was special and ground-breaking. So some twenty years later, we can have these anniversaries and still celebrate those albums because they’ve stayed with us for all this time. But twenty years from now, I don’t think a fourteen-year-old kid today is necessarily going to be celebrating a Drake album in the same way, because I don’t think the music has that type of staying power.”

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If, as you say, the level of respect that today’s younger fans have for current artists has declined compared to the past, do you think that also has something to do with the fact that, aside from the quality of the actual music being made, so many fans today are also aspiring artists themselves?  

“I think that’s definitely a part of it, but I also think that the audience that listens to the music today isn’t the same type of audience say, from our generation, who have the same level of expectation from artists today as we did back then. I think the audience that today’s mainstream rap attracts is the lowest common denominator of individual. Back in the day, the people who were attracted to Hip-Hop weren’t your typical crowd of kids. It was a smarter kid, a more eclectic kid, a kid who willing to step outside of the box. Whereas today, nothing about the music is really outside of the box. So there’s no respect level towards what these kids are a part of, because they’re actually not a part of anything in the same way that we felt that we were part of a culture. We felt like we were a part of Hip-Hop back then and it gave us a sense of identity, but the music today doesn’t give kids that same sense of identity like it did for us because a teenage kid today listening to Rick Ross, their mom is probably listening to the same thing when she turns the radio on in the car (laughs).”

Would you say the music today is almost just an accessory to an image-driven fantasy lifestyle that’s being pushed by many popular current artists?

“No-one’s really truly invested in these artists. There’s no bigger picture culturally around what they’re doing. The music that’s considered popular now, so much of it isn’t even really attached to the culture of Hip-Hop. I mean, when I hear some of the music today, I don’t think deejay, I don’t think break-dancers, I don’t think the Bronx. It just doesn’t embody that spirit of Hip-Hop, and if I can’t feel that spirit of the culture in the music then to me it’s just rap music. I mean, I wonder sometimes today if the people listening to this stuff are actually music fans. I think there’s a small number of people out there who’re genuinely into the music and everyone else is just here for the show. They want to know who’s beefin’ with who and all of that kinda stuff. I don’t think they’re even really listening to the music they’re saying they’re fans of.”

So what’s next for JW Hype?

“My goal is really just to continue putting out projects. I mean, I’m not looking to make any money off the music I’ve been putting out because I couldn’t possibly clear all of the samples. So I’m just putting it out for free and hopefully it’ll grow to a point where I’m able to do shows. What I’d also like to do is involve some of the older artists from that golden-era period and get them on-board as well. I just really want to keep making music and having fun. I haven’t decided if the music I make moving forward is still going to be under the same name, or if I’m just going to keep the JW Hype brand for that old-school flavoured material and figure out a way to perhaps put out some other material. But to be honest, I think I’ve only really just scratched the surface with the music I’ve put out recently and I think there’s still a lot more people out there who would appreciate what I’m doing if they heard it. It’s just a case of getting more blogs and websites on-board with what I’m doing to really be able to penetrate the audience that I’m trying to reach. So I definitely think there’s still a lot more work to be done.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow JW Hype on Twitter – @JW_Hype

JW Hype – “Get Busy” (JWHype.BandCamp.Com / 2014)

Old To The New Q&A – Majestic Gage

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Born and raised in the birthplace of Hip-Hop, Bronx emcee Majestic Gage takes his craft very seriously. It’s that same dedication to the art of lyricism which led to the 28-year-old wordsmith being recruited by NYC’s mighty D.I.T.C. to stand as one of the crew’s next generation of artists (alongside A-Bless and the now sadly deceased Tashane), building on the classic foundations set by the likes of Lord Finesse, A.G. and O.C. with genuine raw talent and a true love of the culture.

Having already recorded with established Diggin’ In The Crates affiliates D-Flow and Milano as one-third of Barbury’N, Gage has also been taking his own steps to showcase his skills, recently dropping the solo track “Fair Warning” produced by Harlem’s Ty Ahart.

With heavy involvement in the forthcoming D.I.T.C. compilation and his own projects on the horizon, Gage is determined to earn his props and respect the old-fashioned away, by displaying authentic microphone techniques rather than relying on gimmicks or being forced to embrace popular trends.

Here, the BX resident discusses his initial forays into rhyming, being co-signed by legendary producer Showbiz and his thoughts on New York radio.

What are some of your earliest Hip-Hop memories?

“My earliest memories of Hip-Hop are just hearing it around the house. My aunt, my mom’s younger sister Keisha, she used to always play Hip-Hop and I’d be hearing songs like Audio Two’s “Top Billin'”, other songs by Rakim, and I just used to walk around the house and listen to them. I used to think that rapping was cool, but at that point in time I never thought about actually doing music or anything like that. I mean, I was real young around that time, about seven-years-old, maybe even a little younger. So Hip-Hop was just something that I would hear in the house that I thought was cool and I used to rap along with the lyrics and I’d see the videos on TV.”

Although you were obviously very young at that point, did you have any awareness that the music you were hearing actually started in the same borough of New York that you were being raised in?

“I wasn’t aware at that age that it had happened in my borough like that. But, I used to watch “Beat Street” all the time (laughs). That was one of my favourite movies when I was little. I used to watch that movie over and over and over. Then, as I got older and a little more into the music, I started going back and listening to a lot of the older stuff which gave me some of the history behind the music. I mean, my mom wouldn’t even let me listen to the new stuff that was coming out, like when Biggie was first coming up and artists like that. She would not let me listen to that stuff due to the content of the music (laughs). So I used to listen to a lot of older artists like Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane and stuff like that. In fact, listening to KRS-One on “South Bronx” was actually how I really found out that Hip-Hop started in the Bronx (laughs). Looking back on it now, that was kinda fortunate for me, because I got to hear that stuff first and to know where the music came from. Plus, like I said, I was watching “Beat Street” and seeing the break-dancers and people putting graffiti on the walls, which was all just intriguing to me. But I still wasn’t actually rapping at that time. It was just cool to me to see Lee and them get down at The Roxy (laughs). I must have watched that movie about a hundred times.”

So being exposed to that older material helped you join the dots between what had happened in the 80s and the newer artists who were coming out at that time in the early-90s…

“Exactly. It was just fortunate for me to be exposed to that older music before I really heard the new stuff at the time, rather than starting to listen to the music where my era started in the 90s and then having to go back.”

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So when did you actually start rhyming? Was it something you made a conscious decision to pursue or did it happen more naturally?

“Man, I remember this like it was yesterday. I was nine-years-old and I was in the fourth grade. It would have been around 1994. It was the beginning of the school year and my teacher gave us a homework assignment where we all had to go home and write a rap about ourselves. Then, when we came back to school on Monday everybody had to say their rap in front of the class. Now, my step-father used to rap back in the day, so when I went home I got him to help me with the rhyme. But aside from that, I’ve always had music in me anyway as my biological father is a musician and plays guitar. So anyway, my step-father helped me write this rhyme and I memorised it, even though it was probably only about six bars long (laughs). So I went to school on Monday, I said the rhyme in front of the class and everybody went crazy (laughs). That was a real rush and it was something I’d never felt before in my life. I mean, I was a pretty shy kid and I wasn’t someone who talked a lot or anything like that, but doing that in front of the class just made me feel some sort of way and I just couldn’t really explain it. But my teacher liked the rhyme so much that she brought me down to the second grade class and they all sat down in a circle around me and I said the same rhyme in front of these second graders and they were going crazy again! That feeling just came back (laughs). So, after that, I was like, ‘That was pretty ill.’ So what I started doing was, my step-father had a bunch of rhymes that he’d written back in the day….”

Was your step-father someone who was known for rhyming back-in-the-day or was he just doing it more as a past-time with his boys because Hip-Hop was so prevalent in the Bronx?

“Nah, he wasn’t really known for it. I mean, he was around people like Showbiz and them back in the day being from the Bronx, but he was rhyming just to rhyme. He didn’t put anything out or really do anything with it. I can’t even remember the name he said he used to rhyme under. But he had a whole bunch of rhymes written down and I used to go home from school and just read them. Then I started changing little words in the rhymes and I would learn those. But what happened is, after a certain amount of time, all of my step-father’s rhymes ran out (laughs). Now, I would change the words in his rhymes, spit the rhymes to my friends and everyone would be like, ‘Whoa!’ So when they eventually ran out, I had to start writing my own rhymes (laughs). I started rapping with my older brother, who had been writing rhymes before me. He was the person who put me on to people like Biggie and 2Pac. So we were writing our raps together and making little tapes to let our friends hear. Then, as I hit my teenage years, there weren’t really many people rhyming in my junior high-school, so my first ciphers were in my neighbourhood with some of the kids around there…”

Were you confident about your skills at that time or did it take awhile before people started saying that you were nice?

“Okay, so it was 1998 and I was about thirteen-years-old. I had mad raps already that I’d written and different song ideas. So this was around the time DMX had put out “It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot”. I remember, it was night-time and me and my boys were on our way to Harlem. We were walking down the block in the Bronx going past this restaurant called the Shrimp Box. One of my boys was like, ‘Yo! That looks like DMX!’ and I was like, ‘Nah!’ Now, we used to play games like that if we saw someone that looked like a celebrity. So I thought that’s what he was doing. We went across the street and my man Shawn was like, ‘You should go in there and rap to him, yo.’ Man, I was scared (laughs). I was petrified and was just like, ‘Naaah’ So Shawn said, ‘I’m going to go in there and talk to him.’ So he went in there, came out and was like, ‘X said that you ain’t no real rapper if you can’t go in there and rap to him.’ So I sucked up all my nervousness, went in there, gave DMX a pound and he was crazy cool. He was in there with his wife and a couple of his boys, I spit my rhyme for DMX and he was bobbing his head. Now, the whole situation was crazy to me because this was when DMX was at the height of success and he was right there in the Bronx. He called his manager right there on the spot, but he never picked up. But that’s when I really started thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve really got to get on this music thing, because if DMX says I’m nice then I must have something.’ I mean, X was one of my favourite artists back then.”

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That must have really been an incredible moment for you as a young emcee to be given props by one of New York’s biggest artists at the time…

“Yeah, definitely. What was funny though was when I went back to my ‘hood and I’m telling people, ‘Yo, I rapped for DMX!’ everybody was like, ‘You’re lying!’ I was like, ‘Yo! I rapped for DMX on Third Avenue in the Shrimp Box!’ He autographed my dollar bill, so I showed them that and they just told me it was fake (laughs). But that was dope though to meet DMX like that. But it was after that, when I went to high-school, that was when I started to have my first battles. I’d only ever been in ciphers before and had never really battled, but people were telling me that I was nice so I was kinda itching to battle. I’d seen people battling before and always wanted to test those waters. So once I got into high-school, it was on (laughs). I remember a kid approached me within the first two weeks of starting high-school, he just walked right up to me and was like, ‘Yo! You wanna battle?’ It was just me, him and his man, nobody else was even paying attention and we just started going at it. We ended-up getting escorted out of the hall because everyone had to go to class, but I felt like I’d won so I was telling people that I’d battled him and that I ate him (laughs). Now, I wasn’t knowing that this guy Dave was considered the king of battling in the school. So, I was in the gym one day and he came up to me with mad people and was like, ‘You said you ate me? Let’s battle right now!’ We battled each other everyday after that (laughs). Every time he saw me, we battled. So I would go home and write my little raps because I knew he was going to come looking for me the next day. That went on until he gave me my respect and was like, ‘Okay, you’re nice.’ But that whole situation really helped me sharpen up my skills.”

At that time in the late-90s, Bronx rappers like Big Pun, Fat Joe and Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz were really holding their own against other NY artists like Jay-Z, DMX and Nas who were starting to make mainstream noise. Were you looking up to BX artists like that as a young kid or did their success make them feel a million miles away from where you were at?

“I mean, Lord Tariq and them, as young emcees we definitely looked up to them. I’d never actually seen Tariq or Money Boss in person because I’m not from their section of the Bronx. Tariq was from the Soundview area and I’m more real southern Bronx, around about the 150s and the 130s. But I did used to see Fat Joe back then. Joe used to have his store on Third Avenue, right next to the Shrimp Box where I met DMX (laughs). This was when he first came out with his 560 clothing line and he opened up his store in the Bronx. So, Fat Joe used to be up there all the time and I remember Shyheim used to come through as well. I remember seeing Big Pun up in there one time as well, but this was before Pun had even come out. I just saw this big dude up in the store and thought it was Fat Joe’s brother (laughs). But Joe was from Forest which isn’t too far away from my projects, so he used to always be around the area.”

So how and when did the link with D.I.T.C. happen?

“I hooked-up with D-Flow first. My man Dunn Dee had known Flow for years because our project buildings aren’t too far from each other. So Flow and Party Arty used to be in my hood all the time and they knew my man Dunn Dee who I used to rhyme with and then he actually ended up managing me. I put a mix-tape out called “The Landlord” around 2004 and while I was working on my second mix-tape project, Dee let D-Flow hear the first one. He came to my hood and I guess he liked the mix-tape because he was like, ‘Yo! You should come to the studio and record.’ So the first time I went there me and Flow actually did a song together. It wasn’t even planned or nothing like that but he heard what I was doing and was like, ‘Yo, I’ve got something for that too.’ The song actually came out dope (laughs). So I just kept going up to Flow’s studio to record and then after awhile he approached me and my man Dunn Dee and told us that he wanted me to be a part of Get Dirty. Flow broke everything down to me and told me that he still wanted me to do my music the way that I was doing it, but that I’d rep the brand and all that. I was definitely cool with it and I met Party Arty and all of that. Arty was crazy cool and he treated me like a brother from the gate. Both Flow and Arty really treated me like family from the jump.”

Did you have to get the official stamp of approval from Showbiz?

“The first time I met Show, I’d gone to the studio with D-Flow to record. We’d gone down to D&D, which is now HeadQCourterz, and that was the first time I met Show. He didn’t really pay attention to me at the time because he wasn’t even really there for that. I just gave him a pound and that was it, y’know. But then Flow kept saying that he was going to tell Show that we should do a group and he was telling me about Milano. But anyway, Flow kept saying that he was going to tell Showbiz about me. So, I waited patiently and it was probably about a year after that when Flow took me down to D&D and let Show hear my music. All three of us were sitting in the room listening to my music and Show was saying that he liked it and that he also really liked my concepts. That was something that I always tried to do, have concepts, because I can rap all day but I really wanted to show people that I could actually structure a song. So anyway, Show liked the music and it was on from there. But the first few times we went to the studio after that, we didn’t even record no music, we were just in there having conversations and building. That’s what I like about Show, the fact that we didn’t just jump straight into the music, we were in there having conversations about everything from just life in general to Hip-Hop and whatever else.”

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Considering at this point you were starting to mix with some real Hip-Hop legends, were you fully aware of the legacy that Diggin’ In The Crates had already created?

“Yeah, I definitely was. I mean, I used to see A.G. around my hood and I already knew that he was a legend because the older guys around me were putting me on to the music that Show & A.G. had already put out. I always thought they were dope, Show with the beats and those drums…”

It’s almost impossible to talk about Showbiz without mentioning drums… 

“Exactly (laughs). So to have the opportunity to actually work around people like that was just so dope to me. When Show first told me that he liked my music I went home and I was just so happy (laughs). I went home to my girl like, ‘Yo! He liked my s**t!”

When you then started recording with D-Flow and Milano as Barbury’N, did you feel a lot of pressure considering they were already established and respected, while you were a new name to a lot of people? 

“I definitely felt that pressure but I liked it though (laughs). I knew that people really weren’t expecting anything from me because most people had never really heard of me before. You had Milano, you got D-Flow and then you got this kid Majestic Gage and I knew people were going to be like, ‘Who’s that?’ But I feel that whole situation really helped me get better as an emcee and it really let me showcase my talents alongside two already respected lyricists. I’m just really glad that both Flow and Milano let me work with them on the Barbury’N music like they did because they were already veterans and they really didn’t have to let the young boy into their circle. So I really do thank them for that.”

Barbury’N – “Living At Still” (D.I.T.C. Entertainment / 2011)

Lyricism is obviously something that’s very important to you, but what keeps you on that creative path of putting so much effort into your writing considering how quick people are to accept simple, throwaway rhymes today?

“Number one, it’s just because I love to be super lyrical, y’know. That’s the era I came up in when dudes were just super nice. You had to be nice. That’s just something that I’ve always stuck to regardless of what the climate of the game might be. But also, I keep doing it for people like yourself who’re still checking for it. I do it for people who still want to really listen to lyrics. So I don’t mind going against the grain with my music and swimming upstream because I feel like the game’s going to come full circle and it’s going to get back to being about people’s skills. But that’s why I still make my music like that, because I know there’s still people out there that love to listen to music like that. That’s what I love to listen to. I mean, I understand that not everyone can be lyrical. But I have the ability to do that, so why not put my best foot forward every time and deliver that, y’know.”

Also, with the Diggin’ In The Crates affiliation and lyricism really being at the heart of the music the crew have released over the years, you really have an obligation to carry on that tradition…

“Definitely. The core D.I.T.C. fans won’t expect anything less than that. So I definitely have to deliver on that aspect. I mean, sometimes I think it was destined for me to land in this position with Diggin’ In The Crates because they’re such a staple of the Bronx. Obviously, Big L was from Harlem and O.C. repped for Brooklyn, but the original members like Diamond D, Lord Finesse, Showbiz & AG, they’re all from the Bronx, so I definitely think it was meant for me to be here.”

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Recently there’s been a lot of discussion around New York stations like Hot 97 not being totally supportive of underground New York artists and Old Man Ebro’s Minors / Majors comparison has generated a lot of feedback. What are your thoughts on that?

“I mean, I tell people all the time, the climate of the game is so different now that you don’t need stations like that to win. You don’t need Hot 97 to win. You don’t need Power 105 to win. I mean, it’s great to get your records played on there and it definitely helps, but you can still get your music out there without them. Plus, the deejays up at those stations, they can’t really choose what they want to play, they get told what to play. I mean, I run into people all the time that say they don’t want to hear the same ten or twelve records all day. But as far as the artists here in New York who do still cater to that traditional sound, they’re coming up and it’s through others means of winning aside from the radio. Dudes like Action Bronson and Joey Badass, they get radio spins now but they put that work in themselves so the radio had to take notice. Then you’ve got other artists like Spit Gemz who’re doing their thing. I mean, the radio situation is what it is, but as New York artists we can’t lose our identity through trying to follow trends because trends only last so long, y’know. I just feel like we shouldn’t be making records just to get them played on the radio. I mean, we’re at a point now where some dudes have hooks that are longer than there actual verses (laughs).”

What’s the status of the forthcoming D.I.T.C. compilation project that was announced last year featuring yourself, A-Bless and Tashane?

“All the music for that is done. I mean, A.G. and Show have got some other things that they’re working on and obviously they announced the remix album project with a variety of producers working on there. But the compilation is definitely still in the pipeline and all the music is done, all the videos are done and everything. A.G. is on a bunch of joints on the album, but it’s basically just focusing on the next generation of Diggin’ In The Crates. Show and them didn’t want to take too much of the shine away from us by having everyone on the album. But I do understand that when some of the fans see that name Diggin’ In The Crates they do want to hear the original members. I do get that. I read the comments on the Internet and everything. But this compilation project is about those same original members passing the torch to us so we can continue that legacy. I mean, a few years ago you had people talking about the generation gap in Hip-Hop and how some of the younger cats didn’t respect the artform and how some of the older cats weren’t giving younger artists a chance. But now that gap is actually being bridged by what D.I.T.C. are doing, some of those same fans who were talking about that generation gap don’t want to accept the music. But this isn’t something that you see happening a lot, with respected older artists putting out talented new artists and really embracing what they’re doing. But those negative comments didn’t surprise me when I first started reading them. I mean, Showbiz prepared us for it early on and he told us that there would be people out there who didn’t want to accept us as part of Diggin’ In The Crates. So when I started seeing those comments, I was just like, ‘Show said this would happen a looooong time ago.'”

Everyone really represented in that D.I.T.C. cipher video that was released last year with A.G. and DJ Premier, but it was definitely sad to hear about the passing of Tashane not long after that…

“Yeah, definitely. I mean, it was so dope to put that video together. Myself, A-Bless and Tashane all had a really good relationship already because we’d been recording songs together before we actually did that video. We were all just hungry. So for the three of us to be around Premier, Showbiz, O.C., A.G. and Lord Finesse, it was just dope for them to let us rock out like that. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I can remember Tashane joking around like, ‘I ain’t got my rhymes, son. Let me hear what you got?’ I was like, ‘Nah, son.’ (Laughs). But Tashane was just super talented and creative. He was passionate about everything he did. Even when he was just talking, you could hear his passion when he would just speak. That was just him. Everything he said, he meant it, although he was also a joker as well. But when it came down to that music, he was definitely on it. So him passing was definitely a real loss.”

So what can people expect from you next as a solo artist?

“I got music, y’know. I could put out a project tomorrow if I wanted to. But I don’t want it to get mixed up with the D.I.T.C. compilation. I’ve got some songs that I want to release, so I’m going to be putting those out with some visuals just to keep feeding the people something. Then, eventually I will be dropping a project. Hopefully that will be sometime this year. I just really want to be consistent with putting the music out because nowadays people can forget about you real quick. But I’m not going to put just anything out for the sake of it. I definitely want the music I put out there to really leave an impression on people. So this year, I really want the people to be able to get to know me better through my music.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Majestic Gage on Twitter – @MajesticGage

Majestic Gage – “Fair Warning” (Majestic Gage Music / 2014)

Old To The New Q&A – Keith Science

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Although he’s been making beats since the 90s, New Jersey-based producer Keith Science might not be a familiar name to many. Keeping his talents under the radar from everyone other than his closest friends and family, Science has only been making his unique brand of sample-based boom-bap production available to the masses for the last couple of years.

Aside from dropping his debut instrumental project “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” in 2012, the NJ beat junkie has also worked with Kool Keith and the UK’s very own Mista Spyce of The Brotherhood fame.

Keith’s latest release, the hypnotic “Hypothalamus”, finds the talented music man once again putting his own spin on the traditional sounds of East Coast Hip-Hop with sublime results.

Here, Science discusses his passion for 90s Hip-Hop, the art of sampling and his personal approach to making music.

How were you initially introduced to Hip-Hop?

“Okay, well I’ve been a musician my entire life, y’know. When I was growing-up my dad was a blues guitarist and my uncle, who was real close with the family, he was a rock guitarist. So I grew-up primarily as a guitarist, playing different styles of music, and I really always wanted to keep the range of music that I listened to as diverse as possible. As a musician, I was constantly looking for something to inspire me. I was definitely listening to rap music as I was growing-up in the 80s and you had “Yo! MTV Raps” on all the time and I would watch that. But then when I heard what was happening in Hip-Hop in the early-90s, it hit me like a ton of bricks. That early-90s East Coast feel is just such a magical sound and I’d never really heard anything like that before. It was just so captivating and so creative. The music I was hearing gave me this unbelievable feeling compared to anything that I’d ever listened to before. Now, this was probably when I was about eighteen-years-old. That’s when I really fell head over heels in love with Hip-Hop. I mean, before that I’d been playing the guitar, writing my own music, and that really seemed like it was the direction I was going to go in. But then when I really got into Hip-Hop, it just changed everything.”

Can you remember some of those first early-90s albums you heard that really gave you that feeling you mentioned?

“Absolutely. The first album that comes to mind is “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest. I was just glued to that one instantly. But the album that really did it for me and made me a Hip-Hop fan for life was Gang Starr’s “Daily Operation”. When I heard that it just changed everything. I can’t even really explain it. I mean, first of all, it just sounded so different to the other Hip-Hop records that I was listening to at the time. It was Premier, y’know (laughs). He’s the greatest ever. But there’s something about that “Daily Operation” album, even to this day, that just reminds me of why I love this music and why I want to be involved with it.”

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For me, “Daily Operation” is the album that bridged the gap between the straight jazz loops Premier had been using on the first two Gang Starr albums and the boom-bap sound that became his trademark…

“Absolutely. I think you’re right on that. Also, that album is deceptively simple. It’s so simple but also so rich in terms of the creativity heard on it. “Daily Operation” is an album that literally gives me chills. I mean, if you listen to something off it like “Soliloquy Of Chaos”, that track in particular just puts you in such a trance the second it comes on and you don’t want it stop, y’know (laughs). It’s amazing.”

So as you were really starting to immerse yourself in Hip-Hop, was it a journey you were making on your own or did you also have friends at the time who were listening to the music?

“It was actually my friends who helped me get into it. A friend of mine had moved from our town to another town in New Jersey and over there they were listening to a lot of Hip-Hop. So he would come back with a lot of tapes and we would be listening to this stuff and were just being blown away by it. Some of the guys in this group of friends had already been listening to Hip-Hop and really studying it. I mean, I would see my friends all huddling around the stereo listening to a new Hip-Hop track and they would really be speaking in-depth about each different sound and the way the samples had been layered, all this kinda stuff. It really just blew my mind because before then I’d never really seen anyone sit there and really analyse music like that. So it taught me a lot about how to approach the music when I did start making beats. Plus, with the musical experience I already had and being able to play various instruments, it was just a real natural progression to me.”

So is that where the Science part of your name comes from, seeing your friends really studying the music and then doing that yourself?

“Exactly. The name was definitely born out of that original group of friends I had back in the early-90s. It just came from me studying Hip-Hop and I really feel the stuff I learned from being around those guys at that time are lessons that I still apply when I’m making music today. Unfortunately, I don’t know if many people still listen to music and study it in that same way today. I think a lot of people now jump into this style of music without even attempting to study the history which I think is a huge mistake. But I definitely think there seems to be more of an interest in that old sound now among the newer generation that are coming up which is pretty amazing.”

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Speaking of studying the history, when you first started really listening to Hip-Hop in the early-90s were you aware of the rich heritage that New Jersey already had with the whole Flavor Unit movement, YZ, Poor Righteous Teachers etc?

“I kinda learnt about it as I went along. I mean, when I first got into the music I used to just study it all the time. I was so into it that I wanted to know everything about it. At one point, I was almost like a walking encyclopedia. Unfortunately, it’s not like that anymore as I can barely remember what I did yesterday (laughs). But there was a time when I was very dedicated to learning about the music and culture of Hip-Hop and making sure that anything I did didn’t violate the original principles.”

So did you start making beats almost immediately?

“Pretty much. What happened was, my uncle, who I mentioned earlier, had some old studio equipment. So back in the day he got hold of an old Tascam four-track cassette machine and he also got a couple of drum machines and a keyboard. So there was equipment around and I already knew how to work the stuff because I’d been using it for years. So when I started hanging-out with my group of friends who helped get me into Hip-Hop, one dude was an emcee and he wanted to make a beat. So he was asking me about it because he knew I had access to equipment. So I said I’d call my uncle up and see if he’d let us borrow some of the stuff. So my uncle let me borrow the four-track and the drum machines and my friend, who went by the name Swift Wisdom , he had a really cheap sampler. So we just started messing around and the first thing we did, I helped him make his beat because he already knew what he wanted to do and I knew how to use the equipment. So once that first beat was made, I was like, ‘You know what? I could learn how to do this and really go crazy with it.'”

Were you trying to shop beats at this point or were you really just keeping what you were doing within your own circle?

“Yeah, I was just keeping my beats within the crew. To be honest, I really didn’t feel like I was that good back then. I needed to learn and grow. I was still experimenting and it wasn’t really my time yet. Furthermore, on top of that, I really had bulls**t equipment (laughs). So it would have been really difficult for me to approach a big name emcee or something when I didn’t feel my beats were good enough. Or even if it was a good beat, it would have been made on crappy equipment so you wouldn’t have been able to record with it.”

Who would you say were some of your earliest influences when you started making beats?

“I’ve obviously gotta say DJ Premier as he was such a huge influence on me and there’s no way I’d even be able to do what I do today without what he did first. I was a huge Pete Rock fan, then there was Diamond D, Showbiz, Buckwild, all that D.I.T.C. stuff. Plus, all the Tribe stuff was a huge influence on me.”

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Those influences can still definitely be heard in your music today because you’re very much about drums but there’s often a lot of melody in there as well…

“No doubt. I can’t tell you’re listening, man. That really is my thing so I’m glad you noticed that. The type of beats that I really liked the most back in the 90s were the ones where the drums were really hard but there was a nice semi-friendly melody going on over that with the samples and everything. There’s just something about the marriage of those two things together that I really like. I mean, one beat that immediately comes to mind when I think about that is DJ Premier’s remix of Fat Joe’s “The S**t Is Real”. That beat is hard as hell but it’s got a nice melody behind it as well. So that’s something I always try to do. I mean, not all of my beats are melodic, but that is a huge part of what I do. I think being a musician by nature, I always try to make things sound as musical and as organic as possible.”

I think that’s always the challenge with instrumental Hip-Hop, for a producer to take it beyond just being a good beat for someone to rhyme over and to make music that stands on its own, keeps your interest and doesn’t make you think, ‘I wish there was an emcee on this…’

“Right, absolutely. You’re exactly right. You’ve got to have some substance in there. That’s one of the mistakes I think I made as a young producer, I didn’t have enough layers or changes in the music I was making. Now, I’ve come up with a formula that works for me and I really try to make a song out of every track I do, even though there are no vocals. That’s something that’s especially evident to me on this new project “Hypothalamus” compared to the previous album, “Vessels Of Thought Volume II”.”

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So were you producing consistently throughout the 90s? Is there any particular reason why you didn’t release any material during that time?

“That’s a good question and, to be honest with you, I did actually stop making beats for awhile. When Hip-Hop started to decline towards the end of the late-90s, I really started to get frustrated. I wasn’t happy about the direction the music was moving in and it made me lose interest. Also, around that time, I’d been doing a lot of music projects that included some stuff outside of Hip-Hop and I just felt burnt out. I felt like I didn’t even want to mess with music for awhile. Then my brother, who goes by the name DJ Uncut Raw, he and I got hold of some equipment at some point and we started making beats together. I mean, he’d got into it a little bit through being the younger brother watching me as we were growing-up. So we started working together and that was the first time I got an actual sampling drum machine. We built a studio in a friend’s house and were over there all the time. We had local emcees just coming through and we were just having fun with it. This was around the early-to-mid 2000s. Then I got to a point a couple of years ago where I decided that I wanted to try and formally release my music. So “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” kind of just started off with me making a beat-tape for me and my friends to listen to and a lot of people liked it, so I just ended-up formally pressing it up. I mean, I’m a pretty private guy. I’m not that person who’s trying to be all up in the cameras and everything. I’m just doing this because I love this music and I can’t sit back and just watch the art of sampling die.”

What is it about the actual act of sampling that really draws you in and keeps you feeling so passionate about it?

“The thing is, I use a really old style sampler and I do that for a reason. It’s because it has a certain, beautiful organic sound to it and that’s what really excites me about sampling. That sound is the sound of Hip-Hop. But it’s that whole process of sampling and achieving that sound that you’re hearing in your head that really excites me as well. I mean, a lot of people wouldn’t even want to touch the equipment I make my music on because that old equipment is hard to use (laughs). I mean, my new album “Hypothalamus” only has twelve tracks on it, but that album took me a whole year to make. I can’t be one of those people who pump out ten beats a day. I can’t do that. I’ll start a beat and maybe won’t go back to it until a month later when I’m really inspired by something or a particular idea grabs me. But to really answer your question, you can just do so many things when you’re sampling. The most exciting thing for me is to take sounds and try to make them sound completely different. I mean, the samples that I took from vinyl and used on the new album, you’ll never be able to figure out where I got them from (laughs). I don’t want to give away any tricks, but there’s so many things you can do with sampling and I really wish people would try to challenge themselves more and see what they can come up with. I think anyone doing this just needs to at least try and elevate themselves above what they’ve already heard being done. That’s how you end-up doing something creative. I mean, I love Hip-Hop more than other style of music but I’m open to listening to anything and I can be inspired by anything as long as it’s something that’s pure and great. Music speaks to you in general and if you want to be a good, well-rounded artist I think it’s important for you to listen to other genres and really study how different types of music are put together.”

What equipment do you use?

“I use an old Akai S2000 rack sampler for everything. If you look at the whole history of Akai, it’s probably the cheapest sampler they ever put out (laughs). But the reason I chose this machine is mainly because I didn’t know of anyone that was using it. Premier has the S950, Pete Rock did the SP12oo thing, but I wanted to use something that nobody else was using. So I decided to give this particular machine a shot. When I first started using it, the learning curve was definitely huge (laughs). It wasn’t pretty when I first started with that machine but I think I’ve got it now. I mean, I don’t use Pro-Tools or anything. This whole “Hypothalamus” album was mixed on my old analog recording console. If I could record to tape I would, but it’s just way too expensive at this point. But a lot of the equipment I use today is the stuff that was being used in studios back in the 90s. For me, it’s more fun sitting in front of a recording console than it is sitting in front of a computer screen with a mouse. I just think that all of this computer software used today makes it harder for people to differentiate themselves and really put their own character into their music. I mean, the way I work, it takes forever, but I run every single individual track in at its own time. So if I get the foundation of a beat down, before I go and record it I might sit there and mess with the sound of the bass drum for an hour or something (laughs). Then I’ll record just that track, then I’ll run in another track like the snare and layer it like that. So every single sound on my tracks gets attention. It takes forever and a lot of people wouldn’t want to do it like that, but that’s when you can have full control and really make what you’re doing musical.”

So do you think relying too heavily on computers whilst making music takes away from the creative process?

“It’s too easy to sound like everyone else when you’re involving computers too much in the recording process. I mean, I try to keep computers totally out of music if possible. Now, like I said, these days it’s too expensive to record on tape, so you have to stick with digital, but there are so many things that you can do to mess with samples and get a more organic sound than just relying on a computer. As I said, I don’t want to give away any secrets as it’s taken me twenty years to develop some of the techniques I use, but I just think producers out there should challenge themselves more and explore the other things that can be done with samples rather than just doing the obvious stuff. There are a lot of great rappers out there and I think that when it comes to a lot of people who have complaints about Hip-Hop today, it’s really the production that’s ruining it for them. I just think that a lot of the computer-based production being heard today sounds very sterile and stiff and doesn’t have that loose, organic bounce to it like it should. Those are the kind of things I try to focus on specifically when I’m making my records.”

You definitely have a real talent for creating particular moods in your music and really taking the listener somewhere on each track…

“When I make my music I just try and take my brain to another universe or something (laughs). I don’t even really know how to explain it. But it really feels good to hear people say that because it means they’re really listening and getting what I’m doing. I mean, my music is designed that way and it is made to tap into certain moods and hopefully take you somewhere as you’re listening to it. That is the ultimate goal, to create some type of emotion that really sticks with you after you’ve listened to the music.”

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It was actually the work you did in 2012 with the UK’s Mista Spyce that put me on to you. How did you hook-up with him?

“First of all, big shout to Mista Spyce! To be honest with you, he’s really part of the reason that “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” even happened in the first place. I started posting some beats online, some of which would actually end up on “Vessels…”, and Spyce was one of the first guys to really listen and give me the nod of approval. He immediately wanted to work together, which we did and we made a couple of great tracks. Spyce was really encouraging and it kinda helped give me the confidence to formally release something and he continues to be supportive.”

If you could choose one emcee to work with, is there anyone in particular who immediately comes to mind?

“Now, this is a totally unoriginal answer and probably every producer will say the same thing, but I would definitely like to work with Nas. As far as I’m concerned he’s the greatest and there’s nothing else really to talk about (laughs). Nas is the type of emcee who can really light up any type of track. Someone else I’d like to work with is Jeru The Damaja. I’d really like to do something with him. But in terms of working with different emcees, we’ll see what happens in the future as a lot of people really still don’t know that I’m even out there yet. I hope I do get to work with more emcees but it’s tough to find the right people to work with. I mean, I’m not an emcee, but the one thing I will say about my beats is that I can see how some of them might not be considered easy to rap on (laughs). But as much as I enjoy making instrumentals, when you put vocals on a track it just takes it somewhere else and opens up a whole new level of creativity.”

And when it comes to other producers, is there anyone who you really think is setting the standard today?

“Hell yeah, The Alchemist. I really love what he’s doing and he really seems to always think outside the box. He’s just a true original in my opinion. I mean, I loved that s**t that he did with Prodigy on their “Albert Einstein” album. That album is really creative to me. The first two tracks on that album are just so good and you really get pulled in quick. That s**t is just hard! But musically Alchemist is just so unpredictable and I’m always excited to hear what he’s going to do next. Alchemist is definitely someone who, to me, is elevating the art of sampling and really showing what you can do with it.”

Now that “Hypothalamus” is out, do you have any goals for the next twelve months?

“All I can really hope for is that this album lets people know that I’m out there and if people want to work together then come and see me (laughs). I mean, after getting “Hypothalamus” out there, I haven’t even really made a beat in the last few months. I’ve been having to take care of a lot of business stuff with getting the vinyl finished and everything. But my girlfriend always tells me that the creative process needs a rest sometimes and I’m kinda in that rest period right now (laughs). I can’t wait to get back in that studio but I just have to wait until that inspiration hits me. I mean, sometimes it’s like that and you just have to wait until it’s the right time. For many years I felt like I was just making music for myself, so it’s great to have reached a point where people are receiving the music in the way it was intended to be received. It just makes me want to work harder.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Keith Science on Twitter – @KeithScience 

Check “Vessels Of Thought Volume II” and “Hypothalamus” on BandCamp.

Keith Science – “Logic Gates” (Central Wax Records / 2014)