Category Archives: Interviews

Old To The New Q&A – Otis Mensah

Bringing the artistic worlds of Hip-Hop, spoken-word and poetry together in his music, Sheffield’s Otis Mensah is an individual on a mission, with the 24-year-old determined to blur boundaries, challenge categorisation and cross cultural divides via his unique and imaginative use of language.

Having spent recent years delivering a handful of ambitious EP releases, as well as sharing stages with the likes of Killah Priest, Homeboy Sandman and Brother Ali, this young man’s creativity has continued to grow, with Mensah’s philosophical view of the world providing listeners with the opportunity to see inside the heart and mind of a performer wise beyond his years.

Staying busy with his new #OtisMensahExists single series and the publication of his book “Safe Metamorphosis”, the talented wordsmith recently jumped on the phone to talk about his childhood introduction to Hip-Hop, how he approaches his craft and his admiration for underground rap hero MF Doom.

Obvious first question – how and when did you first discover Hip-Hop?

“I think it must have begun quite early. My dad was a Hip-Hop deejay in the 90s on pirate radio. We had two Technics turntables in the house, and as a child I think I just soaked it in, although I was never consciously interested in Hip-Hop too heavily at that young age. I mean, I liked some of the popular songs like “Stan” and other stuff you could bounce around to, but I don’t think I was showing an obvious interest in Hip-Hop at that point. But then, growing into my early teenage days,  maybe around twelve or thirteen, I started having this sort of craving to find an expressionistic outlet for a sort of new existential angst that I was feeling, being at that age, having a quarrel with identity, and maybe a little social anxiety. So I was looking for an outlet to put those feelings into. Around that time I started listening to grime and me and my friends would write raps and have fun clashes in the school yard (laughs). But at some point, whilst I appreciate grime and everything it means to the UK and everything it has become, I think for me at the time as a teenager, I felt there was a vulnerability lacking in the music. I didn’t consciously verbalise that in my head, I think I had a sub-conscious need for something that was more vulnerable where I didn’t have to pretend to be something that I wasn’t. I mean, as a teenager, you try to assimilate to your peers or to what you think it means to be a man. I felt I needed to portray a certain image and at some point that just got tiresome for me and I started to look for music that didn’t have to be anything. I found Hip-Hop to be an answer to that in many ways. So it was an interesting journey because I returned to what I’d already been exposed to when I was young.”

So the music you’d grown-up hearing in the background and considered to simply be your parents’ music then actually became your main focus?

“Exactly. That in itself made it easy when I wanted to discover more about it. Of course, we’ve got the internet, and I would consider myself a child of the internet, and that has made it so easy to find new music and new cultures online. But I could take whatever I found, go to my dad and say ‘Have you ever heard of this guy?’ and of course most of the time he would be like, ‘Yeah, of course I have.’ So I discovered people like The Pharcyde. I gained a new found love for A Tribe Called Quest.  I felt like I was starting to see myself represented, and my feelings represented, in the music that I started to fall in love with. That later developed into finding artists like Kid Cudi, who was so open about his depression and anxiety. Then I started getting into the more experimental stuff like Rhymesayers, Atmosphere, P.O.S., Aesop Rock. Then I really started to feel like I’d found a place where not only could I see myself and how I felt being represented, but I could also experiment with my own artistry. So then I went from just writing raps about anything to making a conscious decision to actually say ‘Hey, I want to be honest, authentic and true to myself in whatever I’m writing.’ Because not only had I found that doing that was going to be therapeutic to me, but in the same way that those artists I’ve mentioned created a sense of community and made me feel less alone as a teenager, perhaps I could do that for somebody else through what I was creating.”

Aside from the artists you’ve just spoken about, I’ve also seen you mention Del The Funky Homosapien as being an emcee who had an impact on you. He’s definitely a personal favourite of mine and a very unique artist. How were you introduced to his music?

“I remember hearing the Gorillaz track “Clint Eastwood” when I was younger and just loving it so much. Then, in school we’d have periods where we didn’t have work, it would be leisure time, and we could go on the computers or whatever. There was this website called Grooveshark where you could listen to music, which was before Spotify (laughs). It would give you recommended albums based on other music you’d listened to or other artists you’d typed in. Through that I discovered the “Deltron 3030″ album and I became obsessed with it. I loved it. I remember going to my dad and saying ‘Have you ever heard of Deltron 3030? It sounds like this guy who was on that Gorillaz song.’ My dad was like, ‘Yeah, that’s because it’s Del The Funky Hompsapien!’ So all these little connections were made for me and as those connections were made and I fell in love with the music of Hip-Hop, I also fell in love with the culture and wanted to understand the history of it all. I wanted to watch all the documentaries and, as I grew up a bit, also understand the socio-political climate the music was birthed from and how meaningful the music became and still is.”

Did you already have an active interest in writing and poetry before the interest in music came along?

“This is going to sound like I was some sort of young savant, but I wasn’t (laughs). These influences that I’m talking about I think were way more sub-conscious and way more implicit. They weren’t necessarily direct. Like, my dad didn’t hand me the mic when I was a kid or anything like that. But my mum had an inclination towards poetry and wrote poetry herself. I was always really inquisitive towards language and always had a bit of a fascination with words. I’m also dyslexic. So I would always mix my words up and put sentences together that didn’t really make sense sometimes. But I had this passion for language, and I think that same dyslexia became some sort of superpower in many ways because I was able to write a poem or write a rap and I didn’t feel the need to follow such a strong convention or structure. I was able to bend language a little bit more.”

Was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to fuse the worlds of Hip-Hop and poetry together in your artistry or was it something that happened organically?

“I think it all began with Hip-Hop. I think I had a tunnel vision way of thinking and it was all about Hip-Hop, learning about Hip-Hop culture, and it was all about writing to boom-bap beats on YouTube and stuff of that nature. I just fell in love with it. I think being so engaged with it as an artform, and seeing how it had impacted my life and how I all of a sudden felt this surge of unification, in many ways I was able to build my identity around Hip-Hop. Knowing that I found that power from Hip-Hop, it was only when I became maybe a bit more politically savvy or a little more inclined towards philosophical contemplation, I started to see that Hip-Hop and rap as an artform wasn’t being accredited as a viable and intellectual means of art and people weren’t seeing it as a true form of poetry. Like, I would listen to something like The Roots’ “Things Fall Apart” and then I’d go into my English class, and I actually loved English, but I’d wonder why I had to study something like “Of Mice And Men” and why couldn’t we delve into this other incredible literary piece of art that was so meaningful and impactful? It was at that point that I started to see the disaparity between the practical impact that Hip-Hop was having on my life and the impact that these novels I was reading in school were having. I couldn’t see myself represented in those novels, you know. I couldn’t see my feelings being represented fully and I couldn’t see my actual self being represented. So I wanted to stand in opposition against that. I wanted to stand in opposition against people trying to keep Hip-Hop out of the intellectual conversation and say ‘Hey! This is a potent form of poetry.'”

days over damson cover

Your 2016 project “Days Over Damson” came with the statement that “Nostalgia is the inevitable human curse” – what led you to that conclusion?

“I guess what I was talking about when I wrote that was my own personal relationship with nostalgia. I guess I was referring to this feeling of what I would call crippling nostalgia and a rose-tinted reminiscence. I think I tend to walk through life romantacizing certain moments that have happened. Like, for example, if I just played a performance last week and it was a great performance, I’m then always hindered by that experience in terms of thinking ‘How can I top that?’ and how does anything else then live up to that experience. So if you’re living your life like that, then in the grand scheme of things, it can really start to hinder your experiences when everything you do is comparable to the past. It can distort your present. But when I actually put that mixtape together, it was when I’d just left the college of music that I’d been going to when I’d left home to go and study. My experience of being away from home had included me having a strong social circle for the first time, being around like-minded people, being able to connect to artists. So feeling like I’d been stripped away from that when I came back home was sort of this debilitating experience which meant at that point I was only able to look back at what had come before and I wasn’t able to see into the future.”

You also dropped the concept-based EP “Computers Outside” in 2016. What was the inspiration behind that particular release?

“I think it was again based around this feeling of being isolated from the outside world, being isolated from a social group, and just spending time with my thoughts bouncing around the walls and me looking into a computer screen almost 24/7. It was around the time when the “Mr. Robot” television series had come out and I’d binged watched it and had this feeling of being detached from society after engaging in so much entertainment. I’d sort of lost touch with myself. Which sparked a thought around that feeling and the idea that perhaps we’re moving into a society that encourages that feeling moreso than something that’s more interpersonal or emotional.”

As you’ve continued on your journey combining Hip-Hop and poetry, do you feel you’re constantly having to deal with people’s perceptions, and misconceptions, of what to expect from you as you move between those two creative spaces?

“That’s a great question and I think about it a lot. What I’ve found is that I’m always trying to push my creativity first in the sense that I’m always trying to share a piece of art before giving people the chance to label it. So if I’m at a particular performance perhaps I’ll try and avoid someone announcing me using a certain label. I’ll go on, share my art and then describe to the audience what I consider to be the multi-faceted nature of my work. So I can say that I’m a poet who was born from Hip-Hop. Then there’s a dialogue that’s created and I can say, ‘Hey, what if we didn’t have this conditioning that exists, this white-washed, elitism conditioning that exists in literature and other ‘traditional’ art forms such as classical music and jazz?’ I’m trying to combat the conditioning that people have around that and say actually that Hip-Hop is poetry. So you’re right in asking am I juggling different labels and things like that because I think I am. But once I share the art I hope that it breaks down some of those barriers and perceptions, y’know. Sorry, that was a bit of a waffly answer (laughs).”

Not at all. It’s probably quite a difficult question to answer definitively because every experience you have is no doubt different in some way. But I think what you’ve said in terms of how you want your art to be consumed first before people get into the labelling process makes absolute sense. Now, the follow on question is that I’ve seen the ‘alternative’ label being used in connection with you and your music on a number of occasions. Is that a label you’re comfortable with or do you reject it?

“So I’ve been thinking about the nuance of this because, as I’ve said before, I would much rather the art be heard and someone make their own mind up about the music rather than be influenced by a pre-conceived label before they’ve even heard what I do. At the same time, I feel like every other musical genre is allowed to exist within its sub-genres, so you have psych-rock, you have prog rock, you have metal, death metal, indie rock. But then there’s a tendency for people to just slap Hip-Hop all under the same roof and usually it’s so misinformed. You’ll go into a CD shop and the labelling of the music is always so confused. You’ll see Migos next to Rakim and then you’ll see Rakim next to Sean Kingston. I find myself thinking ‘What are the preconceived ideas that are informing your decision to bunch all these artists together?’ I’m not opposed to labels entirely. I’m only opposed to them when they start to impact how people see the quality of my music, y’know. Like the way the ‘lo-fi’ label can lead people to question the actual quality of the music rather than using the term to describe the style or sound of the music. However, with the alternative label, I think it’s perfect because let’s say you’ve got Migos, J Cole and Kendrick Lamar. We can happily all say that they all contribute to the artform of rap. Perhaps they’re not all existing under the umbrella of Hip-Hop, but we can say that they’re all rapping. Now I’m happy to try and explain to a friend who possibly isn’t into Hip-Hop that artists like CunninLynguists, Murs, Atmosphere, I would argue they are alternative Hip-Hop. Though you never really use those labels when you’re in love with the music or invested in the music yourself, sometimes it’s just easier to help people understand because they may have a very limited idea of what it means to be a Hip-Hop artist.”

So you’re happy with the label if it’s used to describe you as being an alternative to the mainstream image of Hip-Hop that people outside of the culture may have, but not if it’s being used to describe a particular sound people might then expect to hear from you?

“Exactly. When the label becomes limiting, that’s when it becomes problematic. But at the same time, a label can be used for good to sort of steer people and educate them. If I say to someone that there’s this whole world of Hip-Hop that exists that they haven’t invested in, sometimes to ease them in you’ve got to give them a label because as humans we have this need to slap a label on everything to try and understand it. But then further down the line, those labels start to fade away and you start to see the music as Hip-Hop in its true context, y’know.

Labels aside, you also carry the title of being Sheffield’s first Poet Laureate. How did that happen?

“It happened in 2018. I was trying to put out as much music as I could. With that, certain opportunities arose like being able to play Glastonbury on the BBC Introducing stage, which of course was such an honour at the time. A video circulated from the Glastonbury performance and Sheffield’s then-to-be Lord Mayor discovered it and I think he did a bit of research into my work. He reached out to me about this role of poet laurate that he wanted to create as a means of championing what people were doing in Sheffield under this idea that there’s always this huge focus on London and the South and sometimes what’s going on artistically in the North doesn’t always get the national look. So it was a means to celebrate Sheffield and also I think break down the barriers of tradition that had been put in place. I think our former Lord Mayor Magid has always been about connecting with people on a human level and connecting with community. Even if that meant defacing traditions that might have stopped him from being able to do that. So in many ways it was a political choice, but also I think he saw that I was doing something different in the city artisitically, y’know.”

In the information you sent me about your new series of #OtisMensahExists single releases it refers to you as being “outside the London echo-chamber” as an artist. Is being accepted within the London scene something you see as a challenge or a goal?

“I had quarrels with myself and my partner about whether to even put that in the press release (laughs). I guess it’s polarising and you’re either going to want to hear more or you’re going to run in the opposite direction. I think that line about the echo chamber, it’s never representative of the people and the artists in London, I think it’s moreso a description in many ways of a long history of politics, national politics, the North-South divide and when money is injected into the country, what places are often left deprived. So it’s more a question of institions who always feel the lazy need to focus on one specific thing, one specific identity and one specific place. But in regards to the London scene, I think it’s incredible, especially everything that’s happening in terms of the resurgence of jazz. To me it’s so inspiring. So yeah, I don’t just want to continue doing what I want in Sheffield and then create my own echo chamber, y’know. I want to encourage collaboration. I also want to break down the barriers and perceptions that have been created by institutions to market specific sounds and attach them to specific places. So the echo chamber is more about how companies market people. I feel that’s the echo chamber. I feel in a lot of ways, the  heads of radio playlists, the heads of blogs,, magazines and newspapers, perhaps it’s more a burden of truth for them to face rather than the actual people and the artists in London.”

When you recorded last year’s “Rap Poetics” EP did you feel you had a point to prove from a Hip-Hop perspective? I ask that, not because it was radically different to your previous releases, but there was an overall feel and tone running throughout it which seemed to be you saying ‘I’m here and you need to take me seriously as an emcee.’…

“You’ve hit the nail on the head. I was exactly feeling that. My whole goal in the first place was to prove that Hip-Hop was poetry and not split the two things in people’s minds. So on “Rap Poetics” I wanted to get back to the roots of how I started writing in the first place and spend more time writing in a way that was fun for me. I think at some point I drifted away from writing because it was fun. It became about productivity and writing the next song. A lot of that was very introspective and in many ways it became quite suffocating. So with “Rap Poetics” I wanted to take it back to its roots, put myself forward as an emcee and play with language. I think it was also a build up and boiling point to a lot of frustration I had with the elitism in the art world and poetry world, the snobbery and the racism. So “Rap Poetics” was about taking all that frustration and putting it out. I don’t often look outwards when I’m working on material, often I’m looking inwards to see how I feel about society. “Rap Poetics” was about taking the artform that I love, looking outwards and projecting it back out. I felt hungry again, y’know.”

rap poetics cover

With the #OtisMensahExists series, you’re dropping a series of individual tracks over a period of time rather than releasing one full project. What prompted you to consider releasing your music like that this time around given that you’ve become known for cohesive, concept-driven EPs?

“I think people’s attention spans have changed and I’m definitely not judging when I say that because I also look at how my own attention span has changed. Often I find myself wondering if I have an attention deficit disorder, y’know (laughs). I have this love for bodies of work and full conceptual pieces of art. I see albums like books and I sit and listen to them like you’d appreciate a full novel. So I always want to keep that in mind when I’m working on my own music, but I thought perhaps injecting an episodic nature into the way I release music could help with the attention span situation. I wanted to use the term #OtisMensahExists as a means to say that amongst the noise of everything that’s going on, I hope you remember that I exist and if you didn’t know then now you do know that I exist. That was the beginning of a shift in the way that I saw art. I’d always viewed art as a means of catharsis and therapy and community. It was helpful to me on an individual level because I was getting my problems out, and then it’s helpful to the outside world because we’re unified by the sharing. But a lot of my art is about documenting my existence and especially in today’s fear-induced times there is an uncertainty about life and I’m often plagued by how mortal we are and how fleeting this life can be. With that comes this need I have to leave the Otis Mensah stamp on the world. So that’s where the statement Otis Mensah Exists comes from. Also, I created these songs as a pre-cursor to my debut album which I’ve already finished with The Intern.”

There’s a line on “Blowaway Dream” from the “Rap Poetics” EP where you say “I just want MF Doom to know I rap” – do you think he knows yet?

“He definitely does not know that I exist (laughs). So hopefully through the #OtisMensahExists campaign he will find out. He represents a mystery and an allure in Hip-Hop and I would love to be able to attain that kind of mystery behind my creativity. He’s steered himself away from that capitalist need to market yourself and has created an anti-image in many ways. His ethos and what he represents is extremely interesting to me.”

So when are you looking to release the full-length album?

“After the #OtisMensahExists series has played its due course. So sometime in 2021. So the first single from #OtisMensahExists is out on May 26th (note: this interview was conducted on May 21st) and a new track will be released every three weeks from then over fifteen weeks. I’m definitely excited to see what people think.”

Ryan Proctor

Otis Mensah’s numerous releases can be found here on BandCamp.

Old To The New Q&A – Juga-Naut

UK emcee Juga-Naut is the perfect example of someone with undeniable natural talent. It’s as if he was born to rhyme. Whilst the Nottingham-based wordsmith has undoubtedly worked hard to perfect his craft, the end result sounds so effortless it’s clear the lyricist-slash-producer is tapping into a place of pure creativity every time he puts pen to paper, picks up a microphone or switches on his sampler.

Having spent the best part of the last decade releasing a string of quality projects (some self-produced, some collaborative efforts), Juga-Naut’s work ethic and dedication have been unquestionable. A true student of the game, Jugz respects the history of the culture, drawing upon it at times for inspiration, whilst boldly stepping forward on his own path, delivering music that is unique, vibrant and larger-than-life.

With his latest album “Bem” dropping back in February, Juga-Naut jumped on the phone recently amidst the coronavirus lockdown to discuss his artistic development, family and future goals.

You released your latest album “Bem” to coincide with your 30th birthday – was the album recorded specifically for that purpose or was there already a project in the pipeline?”

“I always had the idea since I was young. For me, back then, turning thirty really meant adulthood. I already had a couple of songs, like the song with Liam Bailey which I did a couple of years ago, and one or two others. But a lot of the tracks on the album were made very close to the time of it coming out. But I’d had the idea of doing it for a long time, man. Like I said, from when I was young. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, if I’m still doing this then I want to do an album when I turn thirty.’ Of course, I’m still doing it so I made the album (laughs). Also, not being corny, but I wanted to give something out to people for my birthday. But yeah, I’d always planned to do it. I mean, I’ve got so many other projects on the go, but with this, I was like, ‘Yeah this has got to happen.’ As far as the name of the album goes, I didn’t actually think of that until quite late. The title of the album “Bem” is also my third name. It’s an African name which means ‘good’ or ‘well’ in Portugese. So when I thought of using that, I felt that it really fit what I was trying to do with the album and made it personal.”

We did our first interview together eight years ago when you’d dropped the “Marvelous Wordsmiths” project with Vandal Savage. Since then you’ve released eleven projects and maintained a consistently high level of quality in your music. How do you feel you’ve developed as an artist over that period and have you learnt any lessons along the way that you apply to your craft today?

“That’s a good question, man. I mean, the most obvious way to answer you is to say that I’ve literally grown-up during that period. When I listen back to some of the music I was putting out at twenty-two, twenty-three-years-old and then listen to the stuff I’m making now, the progression has been great. I was always good at rapping, but my actual sound and confidence in being who I am has really come out during that time. So I think that’s what I’ve really applied to my music, just me fully embracing who I am. We’re in a place now within Hip-Hop where you can create your own world that people really want to be involved with and buy into and that’s what I’ve really applied to what I do. I’ve got a formula in some ways, but I just try to make every project I do a cohesive body of work. When I look back to “Marvelous Wordsmiths”, that was a mixtape in our eyes and it was a bunch of other people’s beats, mixed with some of our own stuff, and we were just having fun. But with something like “Bem”, that’s a fully cohesive album, fully sequenced and thought out. I also understand now that something like the artwork used for an album is all part of the package. Everything together, the artwork, the sound, the sonics, it’s all super important.”

So would it be fair to say that on your early projects you simply viewed yourself as being a rapper, but now you consider yourself a fully-fledged artist?

“One hundred percent, man. I think we talked about it in that first interview we did, about both my parents being artists and me coming up around art and how that influenced me. Art comes in so many different forms and when you’re making an album, aside from the music, there’s the cover art to think about, you’ve got videos and the visual aspect of what you’re doing. I mean, I always wanted to be considered the best rapper, but that only goes so far. You can only be the best rapper to other rappers. And I’ve kind of got to that place, which is amazing. Some of the greats and some of my peers are holding me up there in that place and that’s what I’ve always wanted, but that doesn’t solidify you in history and pay the bills. I mean, it’s not even about just paying the bills, it’s about creating lasting pieces of work. You mentioned I’ve released eleven projects over the last eight years, but in my head I’m never doing enough. I’m in a weird place where I feel like I’m never doing enough but at the same time there’s so much music there that I wish people could go back and really get their teeth into. Of course, I listen back and there’s some stuff I wish I could have done better, but there are some real gems and some of those projects are really special. I had this thing where I really wanted to get as much music out as I could before I was thirty, so then any shine that comes from now on, people will be able to look back at everything I’ve already done and be like, ‘Okay, this guy’s not a new jack.'”

As much as you have clearly developed as an artist over the years, I think all the elements that make your music so good now have definitely been there since the beginning. Perhaps now though, your own increased confidence and self-awareness means that you’ve been able to refine what you do and how you approach your music?

“One hundred percent. It’s like when you’re cooking and you reduce everything down to create your stock. You just keep reducing it down until it becomes perfect. Then once you’ve got it, that becomes your formula and something that can be added to any dish. I mean, back with a lot of those early releases, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I knew it was right. I knew it felt right and I knew some of those things I was doing were what you were meant to do if you wanted to be considered an artist. I was just trying to do my best with it back then, so I’m really happy that effort came across even at that young age.”

“Marvelous Wordsmiths” was my introduction to you and I remember  looking at the cover art and thinking it was a somewhat random choice, but then when I listened to the project it did make sense in a way that I still can’t really explain…

“If it feels right and it’s genuine, that’s the key. It sounds cliché but if you’re doing something because it feels right then it just works and people will be able to hear that and see that. ”

juga-naut pic 2

You mentioned your parents earlier. Now, you’ve been working with your dad (aka Stickman) recently on the Cellar Sessions videos which feature his incredible drumming skills and he also delivers a really powerful spoken-word intro on “Bem”. What’s that collaborative experience like for you on both a personal and creative level?

“The intro on “Bem”, that’s a beat I did a couple of years ago. I recorded those drums in my parents’ cellar with one mic. I’ve done quite a lot of drum tracking and then used them on tracks. My dad just goes off. I let him do what he’s doing, he goes off for twenty minutes on the drums and then I just chop up whatever’s been recorded. I mean, it’s all amazing, but I’ll find the super gems and use those in different tracks. Both my parents are amazing artists, but they’re middle-aged now and I had that fear of missing the chance to solidify that talent in history both for myself and for them. I’m at a place now where I’ve got eyes and ears on me, so I can stamp that for them. They’ve both done amazing things in their lives and that doesn’t have to stop because they’ve had kids or whatever. My dad’s an incredible poet, drummer and visual artist, and my mum is an incredible painter and she makes clothes. She did the cover for my album “Bon Vivant”. She sewed the whole thing together, needle and thread, and it looks amazing. I mean, I wouldn’t be who I am without them and also the people we had around us, who were their friends. I grew up around art, so my whole feeling was like, it would be a loss in my life and our family history if we didn’t certify it by having them involved in my music. I hope to do much much more, but in a worse case scenario, if what we’ve worked on together so far was it, I’d be happy. But going back to the “Bem” intro, I asked my dad to come and record something for me, I told him to go straight off the top and he just did that.”

That intro was off the top?

“Yeah, he did that in two takes I think. He will go off! But it was important for me to get him on the album intro with me turning thirty because I wanted to show people that this is where I come from and this is how I was born and raised, man.”

I met your parents when you performed at Nottingham’s Rough Trade a few years back and heard some of their stories, including them seeing Run DMC perform in Manchester back in the 80s. I remember coming away with a better understanding of who you are and where your artistry comes from. I mean, your dad in particular is just magnetic in terms of his personality and passion for music…”

“He is, man, he is. My dad is the ultimate extrovert. I mean, I’m super close with all my family. But with my dad, he’s been through a lot in his life. He’s been through a lot of hardships and faced a lot of racism. His brother, who was also an amazing artist, took his own life in 1988. So he’s been through a lot. But he’s a true artist and a true eccentric. Every moment that he’s in, he’s truly in that moment. He lives for love and people and energy. That’s the key to what he does. My dad went to New York in 95 / 96 and was playing with all the jazz musicians out there, he went to the poetry clubs, he met Crazy Legs from the Rock Steady Crew and was drumming for him, all kinds of crazy stuff. That’s what I want to keep going. Hopefully I’ll be able to tour with him one day and do something on that level.”

So in a way, “Bem” is as much about celebrating your family heritage as it is about you turning thirty-years-old…

“I really wanted the album to be like the household we have and how it was when I was growing up, with different artists coming over and things like that. I also have to say rest in peace to one of our family’s best friends Pablo and also DJ Jazz Spirit who both passed away. I mean, some of my friends’ parents were so important and pivotal in who we are as well, man. The music was always there. I used to get lectured by Pablo for hours and hours, all of us, my brothers and our friends. He’d play a record and then we’d have to sit down to talk about it and explain why we liked this part and why we didn’t like that part. When you’re young you’re kinda like ‘What’s going on?’, but now I understand that was all part of my foundation. I mean, we’d sit there and listen to a whole John Coltrane piece and then Pablo would turn around and put EPMD on (laughs). Then he’d take that off the deck and put Fela Kuti on. Then he’d put a Roni Size record on. He did all that too f**k with our heads at a young age (laughs). Man, I could go off about it for ages, but the childhood I had was very unique and myself along with my brothers and friends are blessed to have had that. We’ve all been through different things, but that structure there that led us to love art the way we do was amazing, man.”

I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I’ve always felt that you sound particularly good over 80s soul and funk loops. Looking back over your catalogue, you’ve included a number of tracks fitting that description on various releases. Have you ever considered doing a full project based on samples from that musical era?

“I have, man. That’s always been part of my formula, to just put one or two tracks like that on each project because I haven’t wanted it to get too samey. But I’ve been thinking that I might grab a few of the best ones that I’ve done before, do a bunch more and make it into a cohesive album. If I do that, then my idea was to try and get one or two of those classic artists from that period involved in some way. That would be amazing, man. Or people that are doing that type of music now, because you’ve got a few artists out there that are on that vibe. But I’ve always just seemed to fit in that pocket; that 95-100 bpm straight soulful s**t. That music has always hit me and I’ve always loved it. That’s my favourite s**t, man. That 80s soul and rare groove sound. That’s my music through and through. But I’m definitely down to do a full project around that. I’ll be in the full three-piece crushed purple velvet suit on the cover (laughs). So if I do it, I’m going to go all the way.”

That 80s soul / funk flavour is the ultimate feel-good music. Even my five-year-old son Daniel loves that stuff. Obviously he’s heard a lot of music being played in the house and in the car since he was born, but before he could even talk I noticed he really responded to those 80s classics. By the time he was talking, Zapp’s “More Bounce To The Ounce” and Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” were two songs he used to ask to hear all  the time. But for some reason he couldn’t say Luther Vandross and used to pronounce it as Super Bandross!

“I’m using that as the name of the album – Super Bandross (laughs). Man, that’s amazing. But it’s music that speaks to your heart. This is the thing with that type of stuff, it’s just uplifting music. It’s upbeat. I’ve never been able to listen to sad music. I’ve always struggled to do that because music affects me so much. Music can make me cry at the drop of a hat. Chords in a song can really mess with you, which is why stuff like Roy Ayers and a lot of the jazz fusion artists, they really hit me because those chord patters they use just do something to me. It’s powerful, man. But when I perform live and I do those songs with the 80s samples, people love it. Even if they haven’t heard the original song before. It just hits them in a certain way and that’s what I want.”

You’ve dropped a few releases that feature you working specifically with one producer for the whole project – Micall Parknsun (“Six Bricks”), Sonnyjim (“The Purple Door”), Giallo Point (“Back To The Grill Again”). As a producer yourself, what do you look for in another producer that makes you decide you want to collaborate with them in that way rather that just handle the music yourself?

“Man, nobody’s ever asked me that (laughs). To be honest, all those guys you’ve mentioned, they’re my mates now. Obviously I love the beats they’ve done, otherwise I wouldn’t have used them, but it’s about the energy as well and me getting in touch with them and really getting where they’re coming from. I mean, one of the reasons I started producing when I was fifteen, sixteen-years-old was because I really didn’t like a lot of the stuff people were giving me, so I decided to give it a go as I’d thought it couldn’t be as hard as people made out (laughs).  But with Sonny, he’s got a good ear for straight raw loops and I got where he was coming from. With Micall Parknsun, I loved the drums and I love the way he chopped the beats. Plus, he was one of the first people from the UK who openly really promoted me and he didn’t have to. Before we even worked together, he was telling people about my music. Not too many people do that because there’s so much ego and weirdness out there. But the beats he sent me, he told me that he’d made them specifically for me, and they worked. Same with Giallo Point. A lot of the stuff he does is super grimy, but he told me that he had some stuff for me. He sent me a couple of tracks and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ So the rest of the beats were almost made to order for me and as they were coming through, almost all of them I was hearing were perfect for what I wanted to do. There’s something about Giallo’s beats though that make me want to write to them as soon as I hear them, which is rare. He’s got a great ear for samples.”

How does working with outside producers influence your writing process, if at all, compared with when you’re using your own beats?

“So the difference between me working on my own tracks and working on other people’s is that ninety percent of the time, whenever you’ve heard me on a beat of my own, I’ve literally made the beat and written to it that same day. If I leave a beat after I’ve made it and I keep listening to it, I just can’t write to it. My brain just switches off and I start thinking ‘You know what? I can hear Nas on this beat or Jadakiss.’ If that happens then I find that I just can’t write to it. It’s a weird, weird thing. So with my own beats, if I don’t write to them straight away I’ll just agonize over it and it’ll just turn to ash, man.”

Are we likely to see another VVV album with yourself, Cappo and Vandal Savage?

“Well, we have got another one in the works, man. We were already supposed to do one but everyone was just too busy. I mean, that first project was just for fun and was just all of us having a laugh. When we all wanted to get together, have a few drinks and record some music, that’s how that first project came together. So our deejay, International Jeff, he’s got a tape with about ten tracks done and it’s all on his beats. So that’s there and is yet to come. So there will be another Triple V album but it won’t be in the same vein of how we did the one before because it’s Jeff producing it, whereas before it was between me, Cappo and Vandal Savage doing all the beats. But everyone’s just doing different things at the moment with their own music and just life in general. So there will be another Triple V album, it’s just a matter of time, man.”

When the first VVV tracks and videos started to surface initially I wasn’t completely sure whether they were meant to be taken seriously or not. What was the inspiration behind you all coming together to form the group in the first place?

“All being at the forefront of what we do and all coming from Nottingham, it was a natural thing for us to come together to work on something. But when we started, it was really about saying let’s just make something and see where it goes. We didn’t just want to do the traditional underground UK Hip-Hop sound and be put into that box. Hip-Hop can be very conservative and there are just so many rules that people apply to it, but with that first Triple V album we just wanted to have fun. We were creating our own world with our own sense of humour, but within that there were some real gems and some really good music. I mean, we got a real cult following just from that album alone and I think it was almost cathartic for all of us just to get that out of our systems. I had so much fun doing the videos the way that we did and making that music. We all went on tour together and that was some of the funniest times I’ve ever had in my life. It was just absolute chaos and pure fun. man.”

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Previously you’ve talked about the politics of the UK Hip-Hop scene and how initially it was difficult for you to gain attention coming from Nottingham. Do you feel that’s changed now or are you still facing the same issues?

“It’s still the case, man. But it’s made me go even more Nottingham with it. I mean, I’ve done shows and worked with people all over the country and all over the world. But there are still people not paying attention. I did a podcast in London last year and one of the guys told me I was one of the only rappers he listens to outside of London. When I asked why he said it was because he couldn’t get with the accents. Now, that’s someone British saying that, so imagine what someone from Sweden or the USA might have to say about the music. But when it comes to people not checking the music out, I’ve often asked myself is it because of the way I look? Is it purely because of the accent? Am I not gangster enough? Am I not backpack enough? I wouldn’t say I’m a square peg in a round hole, but I don’t quite fit anywhere people want me to be. But the people who do know, they’re stone cold fans and that’s the beautiful thing about it. I guess to answer your question, I still don’t really feel embraced, but the whole world is listening to me now.”

You recently dropped a video for the track “Bone Marrow” which gives a massive nod of respect to Wu-Tang  and also uses the same Syl Johnson sample as the crew’s 2000 cut “Hollow Bones”. What made you choose to pay homage to the Clan and what impact have they had on you as an artist?

“It’s almost beyond words how much impact the Wu have had on my life. There’s just something so pure, so raw and grimy and real about their music. But that loop there, I was just listening to the original song and it’s one of those songs that really hits your heart because it’s pure Black pain that you’re listening to. The way RZA used it and flipped it on “Hollow Bones”, I was going to loop the same part, but then I decided to use a different part that didn’t have the vocals on just to have a little difference to it. But in terms of how they’ve influenced me, Wu-Tang is one of the most important groups in Hip-Hop history and they’ve had a massive influence on everything, from lyricism, to beats, to clothing, to slang. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time. I mean, I wouldn’t be the emcee I am today without Raekwon and Ghostface, and I wouldn’t be the producer I am without RZA.”

“Yellow Glow” is a personal favourite of mine off “Bem” and is a perfect example of the point you were making earlier about particular sounds in music being able to trigger certain emotions and feelings.  The verses from yourself, Taja and Oliver Rees obviously have a nostalgic element to them, but even without the lyrics that track would still you put in that place just off the production alone…

“I’m really glad you said that, man. Like I said earlier about music hitting you in a certain way, with the chords and the progression, that’s what I was aiming for with “Yellow Glow”. There’s both a happiness and a melancholy feel to it as well, which sums up life in general but also comes from looking back on the best memories ever and understanding those times will never happen again. But the two emcees featured on there, I feel that they’re the future. I’m still not at a place where I have enough reach to say ‘These are the next guys!’ and everyone jumps on them, but if I can do anything for those who are truly good people and who have talent, then I will. I’ve got a whole project with Taja, she’s an amazing emcee from Birmingham, and Oliver Rees plays his own instruments and as an emcee he’s amazing as well. But that track came together really well and I’m glad you brought it up because not many people have brought it up in the same way you just have so I’m really happy about that.”

So obvious final question, now you’ve hit thirty-years-old and reached that milestone, what’s next for you?

“When I look back at the plans I made when I was younger and the ideas I had of where I wanted to be by the time I reached my late-twenties / early-thirties, I’ve actually surpassed it. Not in terms of monetarily or receiving the recognition I feel I deserve, but when it comes to just releasing music, having a worldwide following, having loyal fans, having legends and people I look up to supporting me, I have all that now which is amazing. So the thing for me now is getting to a place where I’m financially okay to just put my own music out, have a label and put out artists I want to work with. I really want to be free to do what I want to do and not have to rely on anyone else. So the next step is about being at a level where I can tour every summer, put my music out, and have a strong enough following to be able to do this for the foreseeable future. It’s coming, man, it’s coming. I’m gradually picking up steam and behind the scenes my name is being talked about, it’s just about now getting my name to the forefront (laughs). Moving forward I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and hopefully get more of the world to listen to what I do. I want to have longevity. In twenty years time I want people to be talking about my music like, “Do you remember that “Bem” album that Juga-Naut put out? That was a brilliant album, let’s go back and listen to it.” I mean, I’m sending orders for tapes out to Japan which is crazy! When we did our interview eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking that I would end up sending cassettes to Germany, Japan and the US. But it’s definitely a beautiful thing.”

Ryan Proctor

The “Bem” album is available now at JugaNaut.BandCamp.Com.

 

 

Old To The New Q&A – Trauma 74

UK emcee Trauma 74 is a prime example of the old adage that all good things come to those who wait. A keen supporter and practitioner of Hip-Hop culture since the 1980s, the Bedford-based wordsmith didn’t release his debut album until 2017, the expertly-crafted “The God Given Image”.

With that initial project highlighting Trauma’s talents as an intelligent, well-rounded artist, the recent follow-up “Acceptable Citizens” builds on those strong creative foundations, with 74 handling the majority of the production whilst pushing himself lyrically as he offers his thoughts and opinions on the world around us.

Here, Trauma 74 discusses his childhood introduction to Hip-Hop, working with sonic ally The Passion HiFi, and the reality of balancing life as a family man with his rap endeavours.

What are some of your earliest Hip-Hop-related memories?

“I always loved music from when I was young. My mum has told me stories of how they thought there was something wrong with me when I was younger because I didn’t have a rattle in my pram, I had a seven-inch single on a pencil and apparently I used to spin it around and make mad noises. To be honest, when I think about my first memories of school, my head was just full of music. I used to make songs up in my head all the time. A lot of members of my family, my aunties and uncles, had a real keen interest in music with quite eclectic tastes, so I’d hear everything from Bob Marley to The Clash. I’d basically listen to anything back then, as long as it was music, so there wasn’t any one type of music that I was fixed on. But then my cousin played me a tape with Run DMC’s “Sucker MC’s” on it. Right at that moment I thought, ‘Yep! This is the one!’ I just dropped everything and that’s when I started to get a real hunger for Hip-Hop.”

Can you remember what it was about that particular record that grabbed you with such urgency?

“I do always try and look back and think what it was about that record, because it was immediate. I just dropped everything for Hip-Hop and wanted it so much. I started taping music off the radio and really just trying to find as much Hip-Hop as I could. You had the Streetsounds “Electro” compilation albums back then, so I started off buying all of those. Then when I went to middle-school there was a guy there whose brothers were older than us and they loved break-dancing. I thought they were the coolest people in the world (laughs).  I remember he had the Tommy Boy compilation that had come out and he also had all the “Electro” albums, so he used to tape me stuff. Then from there I was like, ‘Yeah, this is definitely what I’m into.’ But I was rubbish at break-dancing (laughs). That was not happening for me at all. Then from there we started rapping in the playground at school and I was like, ‘You know what? I want to do this properly.'”

So how did you make that transition from rapping in the playground to recording music that you felt was good enough to release?

“When I was in middle-school it was just about doing it to have fun. Then when I went to upper-school, I started to get involved in more things. I did a few battles at clubs with people, I used to rap for friends and stuff like that. But it took me a long, long time until I actually recorded anything properly for myself. It was 2003 when I first actually released anything, which was an EP. Up to that point, it really was just about having fun with it. I’d been writing and writing, amassing all these lyrics, but I became a bit notorious for being hard to get hold of. I never used to turn up to people’s studios. Or I’d come to do some projects with people but never see them through. I was just never really interested. But then a friend of mine gave me his Amiga computer as he was upgrading his set-up and he encouraged me to try the production side of the music. So once I started making my own beats, that’s when I started to get more serious about it all then. I was like, ‘Right, I want to have control over the beats I make and the lyrics as well.’ Before that, I always seemed to find myself sitting in studios trying to get across what it was I wanted to hear. I just found I had a lot of ideas that I wasn’t able to get across to other producers at the time.  Once I was able to do it all myself, I was able to try some of those ideas out to see whether they worked or not. Then from there, I just made beats for a long time. But then I got sucked into going out all the time and partying, so the music kind of fell off for me. I never stopped writing but I stopped making beats for a long time. That’s how things were for some time, until I met-up with Passion HiFi.”

Passion was already producing at this point, right?

“Yeah, he could make some nice beats himself, but he was also really good with the mixing, mastering and the more technical stuff. Some of my beats were a bit loud and all over the place, so he gave me some tips on different things I could do to get the sound I wanted to hear. He just helped me to hone everything a bit more.”

So when was all of this happening?

“That was around 2009 / 2010 that I hooked up with Passion HiFi. Literally, I’d gone that long hardly doing anything with music. I mean, that 2003 EP, people around me loved it, but when I listen back to it now it was as basic as basic can be. It’s not aged well at all (laughs). But “The God Given Image” album, that’s where it all really starts in terms of me putting out a proper project.””

“The God Given Image” was my introduction to you when it came out in 2017. Obviously at that point I wasn’t aware of your history, but I remember listening to it thinking that it definitely sounded like the work of someone who was very experienced at what they were doing and also very clear about who they were as an artist…

“That’s nice to hear. I mean, we worked quite hard on it. We did play it down at times and say, ‘Well, we’ve done what could get done within the time constraints we had.’ I mean, family and all of that has to come first. so most of that album was literally recorded in the evening when we had the chance, maybe on a Friday night when you’ve been working all week and you might not even really be in the mood to record (laughs). But if you don’t, then you’re going to have to wait for another opportunity. But at the same time, you also don’t want to go in and give a half-ass performance. So you have to draw from a lot sometimes to do what needs to be done. I mean, there were times when we were like, ‘You know what? We’re going to have to re-record that track’ because when we listened back you could hear that I wasn’t giving it my all.”

Well, that attention to detail and persistence to get it right can definitely be heard in the finished product…

“One thing I’ve always said, is that you see a of people putting out mixtapes and stuff like that. Sometimes the artwork can appear to be a little bit basic and it might not have a great mix to it. Or people put their projects straight onto SoundCloud and they disappear into that huge chasm of nothingness and nobody cares. Now for me, unless you’re releasing something that really looks like you’re bothered about it, I’m just not interested.  So I just wanted “The God Given Image” to sound right. I’ve always had a thing about an album not so much having a theme, but it’s got to have a feel.  It doesn’t have to be a concept album where you’re telling one story all the way through, but I like it when all of the tracks on an album fit together as one body of work. That’s how I wanted “The God Given Image” to sound. To be honest, I didn’t realise how much work would actually go into it as I’d never done an album before in my life.  So I went into that project almost being a bit naïve, and was like, ‘Actually this is quite hard.'”

Given that you’ve already mentioned the time constraints you experienced whilst making the album, did you, or do you, have a particular recording process?

“It’s a bit of weird process we’ve got because we’ll change a lot of the beats after we’ve finished tracks. Because we haven’t got the time, we can’t keep recording track after track to the point where we’ve got fifty or sixty tracks and then say, ‘Right, we’re going to pick an album from these.’ So it’s almost like we make the album, and then we change some of the beats. So we’ll listen to the whole thing and then might decide, ‘Okay, that beat doesn’t really fit with these other tracks’ and so we’ll change it and use a different beat (laughs). Before we know it, we’ve changed loads of tracks. But it’s fun to finally get there in the end, sit there with the album and be like, ‘You know what? This actually sounds alright.'”

Were you happy with how “The God Given Image” was received at the time?

“We came at it with no expectations. So I was quite happy with how it was received. We were realistic about what we thought the album would do. I mean, Passion and I are both in our forties, boom-bap isn’t a sound everyone wants to hear, but we knew there are people who do want that sound and at the end of the day we just made the music we wanted to make. Also, we were realistic about what we were actually able to do to promote that album. We did a couple of things, but we weren’t running around everywhere doing shows, meeting up with people and things like that. So we didn’t really throw ourselves out there massively. But for what we were able to do to promote it, I thought the album didn’t do to badly at all. I was definitely happy with the project.”

Did you already have plans at that point to work on another album after “The God Given Image” or did you intend for it just to be a one-off?

“Yeah, “The God Given Image” was going to be the album. That was going to be it. Because I’d gone so long not releasing anything, I just wanted to get that one album project out there. It was the same with Passion HiFi; he’d been doing a lot of work over the years and he was getting to a point where he was like, ‘You know what? I think I’m done with this now.’ He’d been mixing and mastering for a lot of different people, so he was really wanting to just focus on his own stuff. But after “The God Given Image” had been finished and come out, we were sat around talking and Passion was like, ‘You know what? Let just do one more. After that we’re done, but let’s just do it one more time.’ At that point, I wasn’t really thinking that it  was going to happen. But we sat down, talked about it and decided that if it was going to happen we couldn’t just make the same album again. It couldn’t just be a continuation of what we’d already done. At first, we decided we were going to try something a bit odd and weird, almost in the direction of Madlib or something like that. So we decided to make a load of beats, then have a listening session, choose the beats, write to them and that would be the album. But it was actually quite funny, because when we sat down to listen to all of the beats, we were like, ‘What have we done on some of these?’ There were some crazy beats coming out. We got to the point of recording and I think because we were trying to stray so much from what it was we’d originally been doing, that some of it just wasn’t working at all. But the lyrics were alright. So there we were again, with about ten tracks recorded that we then went back through to change with new beats.”

What was the thinking behind the title of the new album, “Acceptable Citizens”?

“We definitely wanted the album to have a theme and for the title to reflect that. We had a few titles, but they just didn’t work. But then Passion had seen a documentary about Jamaicans coming to the UK in the 60s and that term ‘acceptable citizens’ was used in the programme. Passion texted the title to me, I liked it and I also thought I’d be able to write around that. I wanted to go a little bit deeper this time around in terms of what I was saying and delve into some deeper life issues. Not to the point where I sounded like I was being preachy or anything like that, but just for me to talk about some of the things I see going on. So the album is about observation and me talking about the situations that I see some people in. And regardless of what’s going on in your life, at the end of the day, we all just want to be seen as being acceptable citizens.”

Obviously you finished recording the album some time ago and based on your social media posts over the last couple of months it had always been your intention to drop the album in April. But with everything that’s currently going on around the Coronavirus situation, the tone of the album definitely makes it feel like music for the times, in terms of you addressing certain issues within society and also encouraging listeners to evaluate what’s important in their own lives…

“My style has always been, yes, you will get a bit of showboating, but most of time I’m just simply trying to explain something. You look at someone like Bob Marley, he just always tried to explain things in his music in quite a simple way. It’s not always about using big words, but can you get your point across?”

The intro on “Rock Top” with you asking your children their thoughts on your music really made me laugh. Did you know your son was going to come out with the comment, ‘It’s alright, but you’re no Stormzy…’?

“That’s like an ongoing joke and I get that a lot. My son will call me Trauma 75, Trauma 72 (laughs). He loves teasing me. So I said I’ve gotta get you guys on it and you can do what you want.”

How difficult is it to balance family life with your musical aspirations?

“It’s hard. I’ve got a little studio set-up and maybe on a Friday or Saturday night I’ll sit up making beats until one in morning. I rarely try to do it when everyone’s up because it really can’t happen. With “The God Given Image” album, Passion and I were recording maybe a night here and a night there, doing one track at a time. But with this new album we tried to do whole days and maybe get four tracks done in one day. I mean, neither of us have really got the time to be doing this with family, work and everything else, so we really have to find time. Which is why. for the amount of time we have to put into it, I’m happy with what we’re able to achieve.

Whilst the album contains a lot of lyrical substance throughout, there are a couple of tracks in particular that I wanted to touch on. Firstly, what were your reasons for writing “Age”?”

“That was literally because we have this apparent divide in Hip-Hop where the older guys will be talking about how the boom-bap sound is the one, and then you have the younger guys who say the older heads should step-aside. It’s that cycle that constantly goes around that people always talk about. People get older, then moan about how the young people don’t show any respect. Then eventually those younger people get older and they’ll be saying the same thing. When it comes to music, age really is just a number and it doesn’t mean anything really. I’ll still love music regardless of how old I am. Plus, we could all learn from each other. So I just wanted to write something about that and how I feel about it. Like I say on the track, ‘Young became old, But your mind was never told.’ Because we are still young in our minds, really.”

And what about “SAL”, which stands for Self-Appointed Legend?

“That one is about how people want their empire before they’ve even done anything else. People will build a brand, and they’ve got hats, t-shirts, they might be putting on nights, but the music just isn’t there to support it. Then when they do make some music, they’re immediately calling themsleves legends. These titles aren’t titles that you give yourself as an artist, people give you those titles, and they definitely don’t come after you’ve released three tracks. It comes after a lifetime of music. So that track is really about letting some people know they need to get a grip –  you’re not a legend yet, we’ll tell you if you are.”

Finally, given that you weren’t originally planning to record a second album, do you think we can we expect a third album from you at any point?

“I was looking at Spotify the other day and I had both albums next to each other in the library, and after all the years I’ve been doing stuff, to be able to say I put two albums out, I’m happy with that. The work definitely went into the music and I enjoyed doing both of them, but I don’t know if I’m going to be doing it again any time soon. At least not for the next couple of years anyway (laughs).”

Ryan Proctor

The “Acceptable Citizens” album is available now at EvilTwinRecords.BandCamp.Com.

Old To The New Q&A – Jack Diggs

South London-raised producer-on-the-mic Jack Diggs has spent the best part of the last decade building a solid reputation for himself as a consistently talented individual, dropping solo efforts such as 2013’s brilliant “Dirty Finger Nails” album, alongside collaborative releases as part of both TPS Fam and Gatecrasherz.

Diggs’ brand of honest, down-to-earth lyricism coupled with his meticulously-crafted, sample-heavy beats have led to the UK representative gaining himself something of a cult following.

Recently, he teamed-up with Harlem, NY’s Revenge Of The Truence duo MuGGz and Tay Dayne to release the “Midnight Run” project. An impressive long-player which finds the two Rotten Apple rhymers sounding right at home over Diggs’ impeccable production.

In this interview, Jack discusses how he came to work with R.O.T, his thoughts on the UK Hip-Hop scene and the pros-and-cons of diggin’ online.

How are you finding lockdown so far?

“I drive a lorry for a living and today is actually my first day in lockdown (note:  this interview was carried out on March 31st). I volunteered to give up work yesterday. So lockdown is sweet so far (laughs). I broke my leg at the end of last year and was off work for four months. I was at home then and I didn’t get bored once. That was actually when I made the R.O.T album during the time that I was off. I had a new-born baby, but when she’d go for a nap, bam, I was on the MPC (laughs).”

So with the talk of lockdown being until May / June, you’ll probably be able to knock out a few albums in that time?

“Yeah (laughs). I reckon so as well.”

The only problem is that you’re not going to be able to go out to any record shops so you’ll have to get involved in some online diggin’ –  if that doesn’t go against the code?

“Nah, there’s not really any code (laughs). If you have to do it you have to do it. But to be honest, I’ve got a load of old records sat here that I’ve been going through. I just moved house, so I’ve been looking through a lot of my records and finding stuff like, ‘What’s that?!’ I always go back through stuff because your mood changes and you can hear different things. I might’ve listened to a particular record a million times, but maybe I didn’t hear something on it straight away, or I might have been feeling lazy when I first played it and didn’t want to go to the trouble of chopping something up (laughs). You always hear different things when you go back and listen to stuff again. When I was working, driving around the city I would always pick stuff up. If I drove past a record shop, I’d run in there and might gets something. But then that record might just sit in my crates for three months because life gets in the way sometimes and I just haven’t had an opportunity to do anything with it. Or I’ll buy something online and it’ll turn up but I just won’t do anything with it straight away. So I do buy stuff online, and, to be honest, there’s no real difference between doing that and actually going diggin’ I suppose.

I can obviously understand why producers  still do want to go out and physically dig because it’s all part of the experience of making music, but as a fan I’m going to judge you based on the quality of the finished product regardless of where  I’m told the samples came from…

“I used to be ‘No, you have to dig in the crates!’ But I’m moving away from that a lot now, as you get busier in life. I mean, I don’t really care, man. If you find a wicked sample and flip it in a really good way, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. The only thing I really have an issue with about the whole digital diggin’ is that there are lazy people out there. Lazy producers who will go online and they’ll search for something to use, and the first thing that comes up they’ll look to do something with it even though it’s already been flipped six million times! I hate that. It just gives life to the lazy digger and waters down the music. But as far as people diggin’ online, I really couldn’t care less, just as long as they’re not flippin’ the same old tired samples. The main thing for me is that you still have to look for stuff that hasn’t been used and be creative with it.”

So how did you connect with NYC’s Revenge Of The Truence? I think they’ve been really consistent with the releases they’ve put out over recent years but they haven’t had much exposure.

“I started going on Instagram a bit and posting up beat videos. Me doing stuff on the MPC and replaying beats. They just hit me up and asked if I had any beats that I might want to send them and that was literally it. It was all online. I knew their name as I’d heard some of their music but I went back to listen to more of their stuff like “International Waters” which I thought was wicked. So I was really gassed, man. I hit them with a bunch of beats and it went from there. Like you said, they’re consistent and their work rate is mad. I’d send them a beat and I’d have something back within a couple of days that I’d then spend time touching up. The whole album was done in about three months. It was wicked and we built a real connection between ourselves actually. I mean, I’ve already given them some beats for our next project.”

Were R.O.T  already familiar with your work before they started checking the videos?

“I think it was literally the Instagram stuff that introduced them to my music. I mean, I don’t think I ever thought to ask them ‘Do you know who I am?’ (laughs). They just heard my beats online and decided to hit me up. That was how it went. There wasn’t much more to it than that.”

How much creative input did you have into what MuGGz and Tay did with the beats after you’d sent them?

“You know what? I’ve worked with people in the past, I’ve sent them a beat and they’ll send you something back with very little input and no opportunity to restructure the beat around what they’ve done. It’s been mastered already but the chorus line is coming in on their last eight bars or something, which can be annoying. But R.O.T weren’t like that. They were really refreshing to work with. They’d record their rhymes over a beat, do a rough draft, send it over to me and then I could give them feedback and if there were any issues with anything we had a chance to talk about it. But to be honest, I pretty much liked everything they were sending me. But I said to them, before they mixed and mastered any of it, send me a rough of every track and then I could structure the beats around what they were doing lyrically. So that’s what they did. I had some ideas about adding music at the end of some of the tracks or using some dialogue and they just let me carry on. There was a lot of mutual respect involved throughout the whole process.”

You sometimes hear stories about producers sending beats to artists and not even knowing they’ve been used until the project comes out. But from what you’ve said, “Midnight Run” sounds like it was a genuine collaboration…

“Yeah man, it was. R.O.T actually came over to London after we’d finished the album. The “Shoot Out” video that just dropped was filmed whilst they were here. I took them around North London and we connected properly. They were actually over here to work with a guy in Birmingham but they went all around the UK to different places trying to get their name out there. It was wicked, man. We had a whole day together and shot three videos. It’s just a shame we didn’t have longer.”

How much awareness did R.O.T have of the UK Hip-Hop scene?

“They knew that there are people out here making music, but I’m not sure how much they knew in terms of the actual scene. They know that there are some bangin’ producers and rappers here in the UK, but in terms of the whole set-up of the so-called UK Hip-Hop scene I don’t think they were overly aware .”

What are your own thoughts on the present-day UK Hip-Hop scene? Do you feel it’s a cohesive, unified scene or do you think it’s too fractured nowadays?

“I love UK Hip-Hop and I’ve loved it for a long time but I don’t follow it that much now, I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s weird because when I came up making music, the UK scene was something that I could actually see. This was before the Internet. But you had your names there and standing outside of it looking in you knew what it was and you knew the make up of it and who was doing what. Now, I don’t really know. I mean, outside of say a label like High Focus I’m not really too aware of what the scene is. It’s just kinda like an infinite streaming platform of videos. It is quite oversaturated with certain people mimicking and duplicating certain sounds. There are definitely still some wicked artists in the UK, but I find myself listening to more on the grime side of things. A lot of UK Hip-Hop now is almost like a cliché of itself.”

With so much now happening online, do you feel the scene isn’t as tangible as it once was?

“When you had to go to the open mics and you had to go to the records shops, it filtered a lot of the s**t out. I mean, when we started going to events like Speakers Corner in Brixton, everyone was going there. That night was legendary to me. If you were jumping into a cipher there you had to be f**king good and if you weren’t good then you’d be told, ‘Nah, you’re s**t, you’ve got to get off the stage.’ It was militant.”

And if you were serious about what you were trying to do, you’d go away, practice, then return again the next week…

“That’s what we did as TPS Fam, me, Big Toast and Strange Neighbour. We used to go to Speakers Corner and loads of different jams all round London. We always had that hunger to just go and spit some bars. I mean, we were fans of the music, but our mentality was always to go to a jam, spit some bars and come harder than we did last time. That’s how we got to know certain people. But when we first started going to those jams we were just seen as those d**kheads who turned up and got pi**ed. But we ended up building relationships with some of those same artists we were trying to prove ourselves to.”

So it was important for you to be putting yourself out there as an artist in order to achieve that organic growth and progression?

“Before, you would get known locally and it would grow from there. Like, going back to Speakers Corner, if you got your name known at a jam like that then people would start listening to your music from that. That’s how quite a lot of people broke through at Speakers doing that. I remember Sonnyjim was a regular there. He’d come down from Birmingham and was in with a lot of the guys there. But now, you don’t really need to start by getting yourself known locally. With the Internet, you don’t really need to be anywhere, you just have to make sure you build an online following. So it almost feels like every artist is their own scene now”

Even though the Internet provides everyone with a platform , I think it still can be a huge struggle for talented UK artists to be heard by potential listeners because even if someone says they’re a UK Hip-Hop fan that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re open to listening to all forms of UK Hip-Hop….

“I fully agree. It’s kinda like on a smaller scale to how pop culture works. It’s almost like ‘Unless you’re being put on by someone I already love, then I don’t care about your music and I’m not interested.’ Some people are just so narrow-minded. If you’re waiting on someone to tell you what’s good and what’s bad, that’s just lame.”

Your 2013 debut album “Dirty Finger Nails” is a personal classic for me. I felt like that album was a genuine snapshot of your life at the time and I came away from the project feeling like I’d gotten to know you as a person…

“I appreciate that. Still to this day I am proud of that album. That’s the one that I probably won’t ever top (laughs).”

How do you feel you grew as an artist between “Dusty Finger Nails” and 2015’s “Blue Rain” album?

“When I listen back to “Blue Rain”, to me, it just sounds like such a frustrated album. I was going through some stuff on that album. With “Dirty Finger Nails” I was young. I had my views and opinions but really I was just going out and living life. With “Blue Rain”, that album was made at a time when I was really going through some s**t. So it’s hard for me to go back and listen to that album without thinking it just sounds like a lot of shouting and frustration (laughs). It just sounds like a real mix of confusion. I think there was just too much going on in my mind at that time.”

In terms of your beats, you definitely have a style but you avoid sounding formulaic. I’ve always thought of your production as being very cinematic and equally effective with or without vocals. There’s often a lot of movement within your tracks, particularly in the way you use string samples. What feeling are you trying to evoke when you’re putting your tracks together?

“I can’t make a beat quickly. Unless I know I’ve got a specific window of time or a number of hours, I’m not going to sit down and start making a beat. I know a lot of people with bash something out in thirty to forty minutes and that’s it done. But I just can’t do that. I mean, I don’t loop stuff, I chop shit. I’ll do like a hundred chops on one sample. So I have to have hours to do what I do. I get lost in it. I will literally sit there for three or four hours making a beat and then I instantly want to starting mixing it down and I’ll add more or I might take stuff out. I mean, a lot of people want beats that are just beats. But I like progression in music. I listen to a lot of jazz and soul, not because I’m looking for samples but because I just enjoy listening to the music. I want to feel something from it and that’s how I approach the music that I make. I get a bit bored with just loops. So when I sit down to make a track it’s about forgetting everything else and just getting lost in it. I don’t want anybody to talk to me. I don’t want anything else to be happening. I just want to sit there and make that beat and I want it to take you somewhere. A sample has to make me feel a certain way for me to be able to use it. Music to me is about connecting emotionally and mentally to something outside of ourselves.”

So do you have any other projects in the pipeline?

“I wrote and produced an eight-track EP a while ago but I didn’t really like it that much so I scrapped it and decided to just focus on the production. So that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m working with a few people at the moment, but I don’t want to give away too much as I don’t know if those artists are ready for people to find out about certain projects that we’re working on. But there’s plenty of music there and mainly it’s just production from me at the minute.”

So we could be sitting down to do another interview fairly soon then with all this new music you’re working on?

“You never know, you never know.”

Ryan Proctor

The R.O.T & Jack Diggs album “Midnight Run” is available now at JackDiggs.BandCamp.Com.

 

In Conversation With… – Lloyd Luther

I recently sat down with talented Leicester emcee Lloyd Luther for an in-depth chat about his musical journey so far. We covered a lot of ground, including Lloyd’s approach to his craft, industry politics and the impact of his music being used last year in drama series “Top Boy”.

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.”

dmx cover

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)

Old To The New Q&A – Ray West

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Bronx-based studio maestro Ray West is what you would call a real music man. A producer’s producer. Someone who is totally invested in their craft and fully immersed in their love of Hip-Hop, yet with a genuine appreciation for the musical genres that were used as the sonic building blocks of the culture.

First introduced to most via the release of 2010’s “Everything’s Berri” album with Diggin’ In The Crates legend AG, it was last year’s “LUV NY” project with the likes of Kool Keith and Roc Marciano which fully caught people’s attention, allowing Ray to showcase his unique, melodic lo-fi style of production to a wider audience.

Having remained busy throughout 2013 working with the likes of Left Coast artist Blu and dropping another volume of his “Pianos In The Projects” vinyl series, West is looking to kick-start the new year with the release of “Ray’s Cafe”, a collaborative project with New York mic icon OC that further builds on the BX producer’s reputation for challenging himself and taking his music in new directions.

If you need to get familiar with Ray West’s history then check the interview we did last year here – but otherwise, read on as the man behind the boards discusses the success of the “LUV NY” album, working with OC and his mission to always be original.

Overall, were you pleased with the response the LUV NY album received last year?

“I was real happy, man. I mean, I didn’t expect that album to get the attention it did at all. A lot of my stuff goes under the radar because of how we market the music on Red Apples. We don’t do big videos, we’re not up on YouTube all the time, we just try to put out quality and let the music speak for itself. So the LUV NY album was bigger that I expected it to be. I mean, there are always people who have negative comments, but for the most part the album was received very well. But, I also think there was a perfect storm that occurred around the album at the time we put it out. I mean, Roc Marciano was putting out his “Reloaded” album, Kool Keith dropped “Love And Danger” around that time, OC had the “Trophies” album with Apollo Brown still working for him. AG was promoting the “Mugshot Music” project and Kurious had just come off of the Bamboo Bros album. So “LUV NY” really benefited from what everyone else had already been working on. What was ill for me was that I’d also had some involvement in most of those other projects behind the scenes, whether it was having a production credit on Marc’s “Reloaded” or having conversations with OC and AG about their projects whilst they were working on them. So there was just a lot of activity among all the artists who were involved in “LUV NY” that I think really contributed towards the success of the album”

Plus, the LUV NY album sounded completely different to what any of the artists involved were doing on their own projects…

“Absolutely. That was something I was definitely conscious of because, given that all those artists are my friends and we’re around each other all the time, sometimes it can feel like you’re doing the same thing over because you treat their s**t like yours, and they treat your s**t like their own. So it’s easy to kind of get blinded by what everyone is doing and for one project to merge into another. But then when the LUV NY album was out there, I was listening to it alongside all those other albums and it hit me like, ‘This is really different.’ It just had a really unique feeling to it and that’s exactly what I was hoping for. With Red Apples as a label, I try to keep things based around concepts so each release can stand on its own. Like, all the “Pianos In The Projects” records fall under the same theme, and LUV NY is like the same thing. I mean, I feel like we could have any artist from New York on a LUV NY project and it would still work. The original idea behind LUV NY wasn’t so much about it being a super-group like it was picked up on in the media, it was more about it being an idea and a concept that could change and evolve moving forward.”

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On the subject of concepts, you have the new project with OC coming out in January entitled “Ray’s Cafe”. What’s the idea behind the release and how did you come up with that particular theme?

“That “Ray’s Cafe” title track that we put out online recently is actually the first song that me and OC ever made together, which was even before the LUV NY project. It was his first time being at my home studio in the basement. He came over, we hung out upstairs, had dinner with my family, then he came downstairs and that was his first time seeing the basement (laughs). Now, I’ve been down there for about the last twenty years, so it’s full of records, memorabilia and equipment. There’s definitely a lot of history down there and it has a certain feel to it. That first time OC came down there he made a joke about it being like Ray’s Cafe because he’d come and ate with the family and then came down to the basement with the walls all covered in graffiti with multiple rooms full of records. So we recorded what became the track “Ray’s Cafe” and I just thought that was a really great idea for a project. It just gave me the idea to do a bunch of joints that all had that same feel to them and we came up with the concept of us being in this old 70s-style jazz club. So we started working, getting together once a week, and boom! It was during those same sessions that we actually got some other joints that ended up on “LUV NY”, like “Legacy” and the “Acid” joint. They were both recorded during the “Ray’s Cafe” sessions and were beats that O was really feeling. I mean, the “Oasis” album that OC and AG did together had just dropped around the same time we started recording, so that’s how long we’ve been working on this “Ray’s Cafe” project.” But all of the production for the album was done with the jazz cafe concept in mind and OC really put his heart into it as well. The whole process was just amazing.”

So you were looking to create a very specific sound with your production for the project?

“Once the idea was clear in my head, I had different beats that were already in my stash that I thought would fit the concept, so I let OC hear those. Then I was also working on beats that were in tune with the foundation of the project that had been created already. I was going to certain types of records for samples that I knew would match the cocktail lounge vibe that we were aiming for.”

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Did the whole old-school jazz concept behind “Ray’s Cafe” also have an impact on what OC was bringing to the table in terms of his rhymes?

“Absolutely. O was always doing the songs right there in the basement. He never came to the house with pre-written rhymes except for “Legacy” which was the only track that was done like that. Every song for “Ray’s Cafe”, O would come over, we’d listen to the tracks we’d recorded already, we’d listen to some beats that I had in mind, then whatever beat OC wanted he’d sit there, write the rhyme and then we’d record it. Every song was done that way. I mean, we weren’t documenting it along the way, we weren’t taking pictures, we weren’t shooting videos, there wasn’t a hundred people over while we were recording, it was really just a private thing with me and OC just doing it for the love of the music. I mean, I don’t want to speak for O, but I really think he enjoyed that part of the process, coming over and not knowing exactly what we were going to do. We didn’t sit down and say that we needed songs about certain topics, O was able to write exactly what he wanted once he’d heard a beat that he liked. O could have done anything on the project and I think that sense of freedom brings out a really different creative energy. I really love the music we made together.”

The fact that OC was happy to work in such a spontaneous manner also says a lot about how comfortable he was with you as a producer and your creative process…

“It’s humbling, man. I mean OC is one of the greatest to ever do this. It’s just crazy to me and I appreciate the fact that I’ve been able to share the experience of working on this project with him. I mean, O also gave me ideas about how he wanted certain tracks to feel, like he’d pull out a song by a group like Heatwave which would then give me ideas about the type of samples to use. So we were really building the whole thing together and just helping each other out throughout the creative process. It wasn’t like we were just sat there sampling Blue Note records, there was all kinds of s**t going on (laughs). I mean, I’m a sample-based producer. I can create from scratch, but my whole process starts with vinyl. I’m really just a deejay with a sampler (laughs). I mean, I’ve gone further than just using a sampler in my music, but I’m definitely a deejay first and everything else comes from that. The process of making music for me started from records. That’s the soul in everything I do.”

The cover art for “Ray’s Cafe” states ‘Dedicated To The Preservation Of Jazz, Soul And Blues’. For me, Hip-Hop has always added to that preservation of other musical genres through sampling, with heads finding out where certain samples came from and then checking those original artists and being able to join the dots between the new and the old. Do you feel the connection to that musical foundation has been lost in Hip-Hop in recent times?

“Y’know, it’s deep what you’re saying and I guess that’s just like my life theory as well. I’m always preserving and sharing and that’s always been a part of Hip-Hop culture in our era, plus before us and a little after us as well. It was all about preserving the culture and sharing with others within the culture, whether that was about hearing some new s**t that you wanted everyone else to hear or finding some old Bambaataa flyer and putting it in some plastic to keep it safe. Nowadays, it seems that people aren’t doing that so much for some reason. But I don’t make my records with any kind of malice about that behind them, I’m kinda in my own world. I’m in my own world where I’m kinda like, this is what I do, if you’re not doing it like this that’s okay, but we’re about preserving the culture through making good music and contributing to the culture. I mean, the music that we make doesn’t always have to be talking about preserving the culture, it just has to contain that feeling that lets you know that’s what we’re about. I don’t want the music on Red Apples to be talking about saving Hip-Hop in every song, I just want our music to be considered good Hip-Hop.”

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When we did our interview last year, you spoke about how your 2010 “Everything’s Berri” project with AG confused a lot of people due to your minimalist production style. After the success of “LUV NY” do you think people understand now where you’re coming from musically?

“I think so, bro. Whether people like it or not, I think they do at least know where I’m coming from now. They’ve got it now. I mean, it is what it is. I’m happy to be original in what I’m doing and to know that people know that what I’m doing is going to be a little different to everything else they’re hearing. If you don’t like that kind of different stuff then you don’t have to listen to it, it’s okay. I know I have a certain sort of niche that not everyone’s going to feel and I’m comfortable with that, y’know. I’ve just always wanted to be myself with my music and that’s something I’m only going to do more moving forward. I think it works because there’s a lot of detail in the music and to an introspective listener I think they can really understand where I’m coming from. I try to make music that’s created by using a different palette.  It’s crazy though, because since the “LUV NY” project I’ve been getting a lot of emails and messages on Facebook from people who have gone back to listen to “Everything’s Berri” or who’re asking where they can get it from, but we don’t have many copies left (laughs).”

You mentioned listeners being introspective, does that also tie-in with how you view yourself as you always seem happy to take a very low-key approach to promoting your music etc. You’re not on Twitter everyday shouting about your own material…

“That’s totally where I’m at both as far as social media is concerned and also in real life. I’m a family guy with a wife and a son who just stays on the low. I don’t go out to deejay, I don’t really go to shows, I don’t do none of that stuff (laughs). I just wanna be in my basement, make music, share it with the world and then chill with my family and just have a peaceful life. I mean, I know I have to use social media to make sure people know the music is out there, but I try to keep it light and have fun with it. To be honest, I feel a little guilty when I’m posting my own stuff because I don’t want to blow-up people’s timelines, but I do have to do it a little bit (laughs). I just try to stay away from all the nonsense on there. It’s just crazy, man.”

In terms of other producers, who’s out right now that really inspires you to take it to that next level when you get in the studio?

“I have to say Madlib, for sure. I really respect the experimental styles that he comes with. I listen to Blu and think that’s he’s got a really nice raw sound. Ka as well and also Roc Marciano. Those are two brothers that are really making stuff that I love. Any new Dilla stuff that gets released I always try to check. Of course, the times that I get around Showbiz and he plays me some beats, I’m always like ‘Damn!’ His samples are always crazy and his drums are always knockin’. That brother has been blessed with a talent to just be able to create the perfect drums, man.”

I could definitely see you creating something special with Ka if you were ever to work together on a project as you both have that dope, stripped-down style to your production but you each have your own musical vibe…

“I would love to work with Ka, I really would. But as Roc Marc always says to me, Ka is like a Rakim as far as him being someone that is like a secret weapon, just sat in his lab working on his stuff, not really being seen by that many people (laughs). You don’t see Ka on features or doing a lot of stuff outside of his own material. But if the stars ever aligned I would love to do a couple of songs or a small project with Ka. He really does write profound, poetic stuff. I mean, I was lucky that he spat on “Nine Spray” off of Roc Marc’s “Reloaded” project because I produced that beat. But it would be dope to do more work with him because he’s a good dude and he’s doing his own thing and I respect it. That’s why I mentioned him when you asked about people making beats because you can tell from listening to his music that he really cares about what he does and is also very original.  But Ka knows that I want do more music with him, he knows (laughs).”

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What’s the status of the album you’ve been working on with John Robinson?

“We’ve got a full LP done with John Robinson and AG which is really crazy. John used a lot of his resources to get a bunch of jazz players to come through and play some horns, we had people coming through to sing and we were just able to incorporate a bunch of elements that we don’t usually have. So that really made it special. But then I also have another project with just me and John Robinson which is actually going to come out first. I did all the beats on the SP-12 and it’s kinda dedicated to the SP in a way. The project is called “Samples & Percussion” and we’ve got J-Zone on there doing the intro, then there’s about four vocal tracks with John and a couple of instrumentals. That came out really dope and we’re hoping to put that out in the summer next year. John Robinson is such an incredibly talented guy and he really gets what I’m trying to do with the Red Apples label.  So I’ve got the “Ray’s Cafe” project coming out in January, then we have the LUV NY cassette project coming in March, “Samples & Percussion” will drop in the summer and then in the fall of next year I’m hoping we’ll be able to drop the John Robinson / AG album. So I’m really looking to keep some sort of consistency for the next year.”

Is the forthcoming LUV NY project a cassette-only re-release of the album?

“So the forthcoming LUV NY release has Lord Tariq on it, El-Fudge, Kurious, Kool Keith, AG and Dave Dar, plus a couple of remixes from people like King Of Chill on the B-side. It’s like an EP, so on the A-side there’s new material and then on the B-side you have remixes. That’s what I meant earlier when I talked about LUV NY being like a theme that can be used to incorporate different artists. This next one is actually a little harder in terms of how it sounds and also has a little Latin vibe to it because of Fudge, Kurious and Dave Dar and the concepts behind their songs. Then Tariq is on there and of course he brings a certain amount of mystique to anything he does. But it all came together really well.”

So with all this new music planned for 2014, is it possible we might see a Red Apples or LUV NY tour in 2014?

“There were plans for us to tour but it never worked out. Considering how many people were on that LUV NY project there were a lot of different schedules to work around and we decided that we just couldn’t do it without certain people being involved. So I was trying to work something out that just never came together. But again, I’m not big on being away from my family so it has to be the right situation. I would love to come out there if the situation was right, but travelling isn’t a part of the game that I get really excited about. I’m addicted to the studio and my wife’s chocolate chip cookies too much, y’know  (laughs).”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Ray West on Twitter – @RedApples45

“Ray’s Cafe” Album Trailer

Old To The New Q&A – Efeks

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If you’re a fan of quality UK Hip-Hop, then you’ll probably already be familiar with the name Efeks thanks to his work alongside production partner Steady Rock as the duo known as Prose.

Combining Steady’s true-school beats with Efeks’ punchy rhymes, the pair’s debut album “Force Of Habit” was released in 2010 on their own Boom Bap Professionals imprint, immediately gaining Prose a solid base of support which the twosome quickly built on with the 2011 full-length follow-up “The Dark Side Of The Boom”.

Now stepping out on his own, the South London lyricist recently completed his first solo album “Contemporary Classic”. Dropping on the Revorg Records label, the impressive project features production from the likes of Jack Diggs, Keith Lawrence and Prose’s own Steady Rock, with Efeks taking the opportunity to allow listeners a deeper look into his world, penning personal rhymes covering everything from fatherhood (“You Know That”) and relationship issues (“Can’t You See?”) to the struggles of being an underground artist (“Make It Real”).

Here, Efeks discusses his journey as an emcee, lyrical influences and the elements required for a classic album.

Over the last few years you’ve released a handful of albums and EPs alongside Steady Rock as Prose. Taking it back for a moment, when and how did you and Steady first get together and start making music?

“It was roughly towards the end of 2003, early 2004. We met through a mutual friend of ours, DJ Philly. I was doing a music course at a local community centre and Philly was there doing another course and we got talking and he found out that I was trying to make music. I was writing rhymes but I didn’t really have any producers to work with. Philly told me that his flatmate, Steady, made beats and that he thought we should meet up. It turned out that we lived really close to each other, so we met up and Steady gave me tons of beats to listen to. So, I started getting to work with those instrumentals and a friendship and partnership formed from that really. Everything with Prose really happened quite quickly, as a few years before that I’d been working with various other people but it never really materialised into anything. I’d become a little bit disenchanted with it all to be honest as a lot of the people I was working with didn’t really follow through with what they said they were going to do. So I had the intention of doing my own thing and had just brought an MPC as well to try and start making my own beats. So Steady came in at the right time and I never touched the MPC (laughs). I mean, when me and Steady first got together he gave me about four beat CDs and he really gave me a new lease of life at the time to be honest with you. We didn’t immediately call ourselves Prose or anything like that, we were just working on music, but it all came together quite naturally over the course of that first year and then we put out our “Wasted Talent” EP which was the first thing that we did.”

I remember seeing Prose performing at London’s Jazz Cafe in 2010 supporting Jedi Mind Tricks and it really struck me at the time what a great chemistry you and Steady seemed to have onstage…

“We had a good chemistry from the beginning. Most of our early tracks were the result of what were almost like jam sessions, really. We’d get together, have a few beers and then start recording late at night after we’d spent hours talking about Hip-Hop (laughs). It was fun really and we were both kinda finding our feet with regards to actually making music and learning as we were going along.”

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Taking it even further back, when did you first start rhyming?

“It was when I was in high-school. I was actually rummaging through some of my old stuff recently after moving house and came across an old school exercise book and it had a rhyme written in the back of it (laughs). So that was about 1993 or 1994. I was about fifteen-years-old when I actually first started writing rhymes and I’m coming-up thirty-five now so it’s been awhile (laughs). But I probably didn’t really start taking my writing seriously until I’d left school when I was about eighteen-years-old. Before then I didn’t really have my own identity as an emcee and was just drawing off the inspiration from the rappers I was listening to and looking up to at the time. I was studying them and really just taking bits and pieces from everyone. It took awhile before I was really comfortable in my own skin as an emcee.”

Would you say that you feeling more confident as an emcee coincided with you starting to work with Steady Rock as Prose?

“Yeah, probably. It didn’t necessarily happen right at the beginning of me and Steady getting together, but I definitely grew into myself as an artist and a better emcee along the way.”

Who were some of your biggest influences when you did first start putting pen to paper?

“I’d have to say LL Cool J. “Mama Said Knock You Out” was probably the first album that I really studied. I played that album endlessly. I’d also have to say CL Smooth, Treach from Naughty By Nature, Nas, there’s just so many (laughs). But I’d definitely say Nas and CL Smooth were two of my favourites from the early-90s. I mean, “Illmatic” is my favourite album of all-time and “Mecca And The Soul Brother” had a massive impact on me when I first heard it. I loved CL’s style with him being introspective but being so fresh with it as well. Guru was another big influence on me as well and Gang Starr in general. When I first started writing I would always envision how my music would actually sound when I did get the opportunity and I never used to write choruses as I always used to think that there would be cuts on the hook like a Gang Starr track (laughs). I always hoped that one day I’d meet someone like DJ Premier who would be able to do all the scratched choruses. I look back at my old rhymes books and they’re just full of verses with gaps where the chorus should be waiting to be filled with scratches (laughs).”

Were you doing any open-mic events at the time and trying to get yourself out there into the scene?

“I did eventually. I mean, I never really grew-up around other emcees. I had friends who were into Hip-Hop, but they weren’t into Hip-Hop like I was. They were listening to all types of music and I was really like that typical bedroom emcee who was just writing rhymes at home. There was nobody that I could cipher with or feed off of who was also doing it at the time same time because none of my friends were rapping. It wasn’t until I was in my early-twenties really that I built up the confidence to go out there and be in that sort of circle. Before that I kept it at home and didn’t really tell anyone that I was rapping or writing lyrics. I just really kept it to myself. Then, like I said, around my early-twenties I started entering some talent competitions and then the thing that really kicked it all off for me was when I won a competition on DJ 279’s radio show on Choice FM around 2000. He used to do this thing called “60 Seconds Of Fame” and you’d basically ring up and spit over the phone for a minute. You’d go up against someone else and the listeners would call up to say who they thought was the best. Then, if you won four weeks in a row, you got to go up on the show, do something live in the studio and have a little interview. Winning that was probably the catalyst for me to really start taking things seriously as I got some good feedback and a few producers hit me up after the show and I made a few demos that started circulating. 279 actually played a few of the tracks, but then after those demos I had nothing else to follow them up with. That was around the time I mentioned earlier where certain things that people were saying were going to happen weren’t happening and shortly after that is when I met Steady. So when we started as Prose it was almost like I was starting again. It was a brand new chapter for me, really.”

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So bringing it up-to-date, given the following that Prose have built in recent years, why decide to step away from the group to do a solo album at this particular point?

“To be honest, I’ve always wanted to do a solo album. It’s always been one of my lifetime goals to put out my own album, something that was completely from me from the start to the finish. If anything, it was like a challenge for me to step out of my comfort zone, step away from what I’ve been doing for the past eight years or so with Steady and do something different. Obviously it’s not completely different and I’ve still kept the same musical ethic that I’ve always had, but it has given me the opportunity to branch out and try some different things. I don’t make music to make a living, so it’s got to be enjoyable for me to do it. So if it gets to a point where I’m not enjoying it as much, then there’s really no point in me doing it. Music isn’t putting food on the table for me, it’s something I do purely for my own satisfaction. But as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to have my own solo album just to give me that sense of achievement and to test myself to see if I was capable of doing it. I really just wanted to prove a point to myself that I could step out of my comfort zone and put something together myself that I could be proud of. Hopefully I’ve achieved that, although that’s down to other people’s opinions really. But as a body of work, I’m definitely happy with “Contemporary Classic”.

How much of a different experience was it for you putting together “Contemporary Classic” as a solo artist compared to putting together the previous Prose projects as part of a duo?

“I mean, some of it was definitely unchartered waters for me. Like, when I’m doing stuff with Prose, Steady will take care of the music. So from the get go, the responsibility was on me with “Contemporary Classic” to take care of everything in terms of reaching out to producers, getting the artists together to collaborate on the album, everything really was more or less organised by me. But as far as the beats, I really just kinda kept it to people that I already knew. The album was very personal to me, so I just wanted to really work within a small circle of people, people that I knew or that I’d worked with before. I really just took a family approach to the album. I mean, Steady has some production on there as well. But as far as the lyrics, I’d already been writing some of the tracks before I even got any of the music in. I just decided to put them to the side and thought that when I got the album together that those rhymes would be going on the project, it was just a case of finding the right music to go with them. It was actually Jack Diggs who gave me the first beats for the album. I’ve known the TPS Fam guys for a long time and we used to bump heads at a lot of events in the scene, particularly the nights that happened around Croydon. I had a conversation with Jack and I told him that I was looking to put an album together and he sent me about five beats straight away. That was really when the fire was sparked for me and every single one of those beats Jack sent me made it to the album. The music he sent me just hit me straight away. Jack’s production is soulful, but it’s still boom-bap, and it just really inspired me to be able to speak on different topics which is what I was looking to do with this solo album. I mean, if I was going to do everything exactly the same way as I’d done before, then I’d just really be putting out a new Prose record and there’d be no point in me branching out to do a solo album. The whole reason behind me doing a solo album was to be able to do something different and show people another side of me as an artist.”

Given the personal nature of “Contemporary Classic”, did you feel that you couldn’t express some of your more introspective thoughts through the music you were making as Prose?

“I think it was a combination of different things, really. Being sent certain beats for “Contemporary Classic” led me to explore some different subject matter and get a little more personal. I mean, I do have some introspective stuff on the Prose albums, but we’re more about just straight-up Hip-Hop, really. It was never the case that I thought I couldn’t write more personal stuff for Prose, it just never really came to me at that time. With this album, everything just seemed to coincide in terms of certain things that I’ve been going through in life. Also, with this solo album, obviously I’m just purely speaking for myself on there, so I did feel that I had a little more licence to just do what I wanted to do. There was no compromise with “Contemporary Classic” and I just followed my heart on there.”

Listening to tracks like “Identity Crisis” and “You Know That” it’s clear that you’re very comfortable writing rhymes that really dig deep into your experiences and emotions. Considering the way you first started writing rhymes, very privately and not necessarily to share with people, do you think that has influenced your ability to write those more personal rhymes today?

“To be honest, I’ve never actually thought of it that way. But now that you’ve said it, that probably has had an influence on how I go about my writing and how I’m able to convey some of that more personal subject matter. In the beginning, writing was a very personal thing for me and I was writing for myself. To be honest, I’ve always been quite apprehensive about putting out more personal material because you’re giving away a part of yourself when you share music like that. There were times when I was working on “Contemporary Classic” when I did wonder whether I should put certain stuff out there or just keep it to myself, but I do feel comfortable writing those sort of rhymes. But that said, it is difficult for me to listen to certain tracks around other people. I’d rather I wasn’t there when other people are there listening to some of the stuff I did share on the album. The personal material is very therapeutic to write, but I do still feel a little uncomfortable being around people while they’re listening to it. It’s like having someone open up your diary and reading it in front of you (laughs). I mean, I love the bragging rhymes and the battle stuff because that’s an integral part of Hip-Hop, but I wanted this album to show that I was also able to do other things as well.”

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So given the title of the album, what do you look for in the music of other artists that would lead you to describe it as being ‘classic’?

“To me, it’s about something that’s gonna stand the test of time. That’s all I’ve always tried to do with my own music. But a classic album to me is something you can still listen to it in ten, twenty years time, and it still sounds as good as when you first heard it or perhaps even better. A classic album has to stand for something and really be able to make its mark. With “Contemporary Classic” I wasn’t trying to be conceited with it and say that everyone should think the album is a classic, it’s more about me paying homage to what’s come before me, blending the old with the new, saluting the past and creating an album in the present that mixes the contemporary with the classic in terms of how it sounds and feels. I know the title might get misinterpreted and people might think that I’m trying to say the album is an instant classic, but it was more about celebrating the past and doing something in the present that can hopefully stand the test of time like the music from the people that influenced me.”

Why do you think it is today that a lot of artists out there really don’t seem to be making music with that same stand-the-test-of-time approach?

“I think a lot of people making music today aren’t really bothered whether the music they make is still going to be listened to in years to come. Everyone just seems to be obsessed with what’s happening now. Today, there seems to be this instant gratification culture that everyone’s caught up in. I mean, it’s just my opinion, but I think a lot of people today are just making music for the moment. It seems like a lot of people today aren’t even that worried about their music being considered as disposable. There’s just no real substance behind what a lot of artists are doing and I don’t mean that in terms of their music not containing political messages or anything like that, I just mean that even the artists themselves don’t seem to have any genuine belief in what they’re doing and you just can’t feel any passion in it. With certain artists, I think they’re under the impression that there’s some sort of formula and as long as they follow that formula then they’ll get the kind of success that they’re looking for. I mean, if you’re willing to compromise everything about yourself to get that, then good luck to you, but I’d much rather maintain my integrity and put out music that I’m proud of and genuinely happy with.”

One of the tracks that really stood-out for me on the album was “Technophobe”. Is that an accurate description of your views on technology and, if so, how do you balance that with using the tools at your disposable to promote your music like Facebook, Twitter etc?

“I am kind of a technophobe to be honest (laughs). I mean, I’m also poking fun at myself on that track as well, but joking aside, as an independent artist you really have no choice now when it comes to working with computers, being online and getting into the whole social media thing. You just have to get on with it and I’ve done that begrudgingly and taught myself how to do certain things. I’m not great with computers and I don’t really have that much time for them. But today, if you want to do anything with your music, you’ve got to be online and using social media etc. So I’ve sort of begrudgingly embraced it really.”

Is the social media scene something you’re not a fan of purely because of the technical aspect of it, or is there a more specific reason why you don’t necessarily enjoy it?

“It’s just an element of the process that I don’t relish and I don’t really look forward to. I’m quite a humble person and I don’t really like being out there telling people, ‘You’ve got to check this out. This album is the greatest thing on earth.’ I would much rather just let people discover the music organically and if they like it, then they like it, rather than having to force it into people’s faces. But in this current climate where everybody else is doing it, if you’re not doing it, then you don’t really stand a chance when it comes to people giving any sort of time to your music. You’ve got to be seen to be out there and active on social media, promoting your material, connecting with the so-called right people, raising your profile. There’s an element of pretense to it which I don’t really like and people get caught up in who’s considered to be the most popular, who’s got the most views, who has the most followers. It’s seems to me that people are interested in everything but the music (laughs). As far as all that is concerned, it reaches a point where the fire goes out of my belly very quickly for that side of things. I just want to get on and make some more new music (laughs).”

UK legend MC Mell’O’ is featured on “Contemporary Classic” – was there a particular reason why you wanted him on the album?

“MC Mell’O’ is actually a personal friend of mine. When we first met it was actually through us both going to the same gym and it had nothing to do with music whatsoever (laughs). It was one of those things where you see someone and their face looks familiar but you can’t quite work out why (laughs). That’s how it was with Mell’O’. The first time I saw him in the gym I was like, ‘I know that guy from somewhere.’ Then I was speaking to some of the other guys in there and they were saying that MC Mell’O’ went to that particular gym and I was like, ‘That’s who it is!’ So me and Mell’O’ just started talking, became friends and then eventually he found out that I did music and he said that at some point it would be great to jump on a track together. So when I finally started putting the solo album together, I had the idea for the “Open Mic” track and wanted to do a real old-school posse track and thought it would be perfect to get Mell’O’ on there. It was an honour for me to get him on the album and was a great experience to get him in the studio. That was one of the other things with the album, I didn’t want the guest artists just sending me their verses by email. I wanted to get everybody that I possibly could into the studio to record in person so that it really felt like a proper collaboration.”

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Given how much the game has changed over the last decade or so, what do you think is the biggest struggle that UK Hip-Hop artists still face in 2013?

“Speaking from a personal perspective, I think it still comes down to the level of exposure that artists are given. People are making good music, there’s definitely a market out there for it, but there’s still not enough people out there who’re hearing about what we’re doing. It’s difficult, because I’ve never been at that sort of level where I’ve ever had anything to do with ‘the industry’, so I can’t really talk from that perspective. But I would just like it if there were more outlets that let more people hear the music that artists here in the UK are making. Even though we’ve got the internet, there still seems to be less avenues in a way for underground artists to be heard by people outside of that audience.”

So you don’t think there’s really many outlets available to underground UK artists today that gives their music a chance to be heard outside of their own circles?

“There’s no real representation for the underground now on commercial radio like there was before. Taking 279 as an example, his show on Choice FM in London was a great platform for underground UK artists to have their music spun on the radio and played alongside major artists as well. That was a great outlet. But now that 279’s off the radio, there’s nothing really. I mean, for someone like me, my music isn’t going to be played by someone like a Charlie Sloth on 1Xtra. To be honest, off the top of my head, I can’t even think of any other deejays on normal radio here in the UK who have specialist Hip-Hop shows, other than maybe DJ MK and Shortee Blitz on Kiss who play a mixture of stuff. So I would say the biggest struggle faced by a lot of UK artists is that it’s still very difficult to get your music heard by people outside of the audience of listeners who would be looking for it anyway.”

Now “Contemporary Classic” has been released, what’s next for you?

“I’m not a hundred percent sure what the next move is to be honest, but I have got a few projects in the pipeline. The next thing that I’ll more than likely be doing is an EP with Jack Diggs that will be out on Revorg Records. Then, after that, I’m not really sure (laughs). I just feel that, at the moment, I’m in a great place musically, I’m happy with the people that I’m working with and I’m really just taking it one step at a time”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Efeks on Twitter – @SpecialEfeks 

Efeks ft. Manage & eMCeeKilla – “Every Move” (Revorg Records / 2013)

Old To The New Q&A – Verb T

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Photo: Jake Kiten Sampson-Field

Since his debut onto the UK Hip-Hop scene in the early-2000s as a young, new voice with  his own unique perspective on life, London-raised Verb T has quietly, yet confidently, built himself an impressive body of work, including album releases with homegrown producers such as Harry Love and The Last Skeptik as well as sharing microphone duties with talented lyricists like Jehst, Kashmere and Yungun.

Proving that it’s not always about who shouts the loudest, Verbs has successfully carved out his own creative niche in a rap game that’s largely dominated by ego, with his understated demeanour, sharp wordplay and willingness to allow a glimpse into his own personal world endearing him to fans looking for some depth and honesty in their beats and rhymes.

Officially joining forces with UK-based imprint High Focus in 2011 as part of The Four Owls (alongside Fliptrix, Leaf Dog and BVA MC), Verb T enjoyed further success with the label following the release last year of his brilliant solo album “Morning Process”.

With his eighth project, the self-produced “I Remain”, now available to the masses, the low-key emcee took some time out to discuss childhood Hip-Hop memories, introducing his music to a new audience and finding himself now regularly wearing an owl mask onstage.

What are you earliest recollections of being introduced to Hip-Hop?

“I always have to let people know that Slick Rick was the main reason I became interested in Hip-Hop. It was when I first heard “La-Di-Da-Di”. I’d probably already heard rapping before on other stuff if I really think hard about it, but this was around the late-80s and  I was a kid at that point around seven or eight- years-old. But when I first heard Slick Rick on “La-Di-Da-Di” I knew I wanted to rap. I remember being in the playground at school with my friends, trying to do little dance moves and stuff (laughs). Any glimpse of Hip-Hop that I saw on the TV, I was just drawn to it. I mean, I wasn’t trying to dress like any of the rappers I saw with the kangols and the trainers or anything, I just loved the music. It was quite random how I even heard “La-Di-Da-Di” for the first time to be honest. My dad had a really large vinyl collection and he had a bit of everything in there really. He wasn’t strictly a Hip-Hop head or anything like that, but anything that was out that was interesting or different musically, he would have it. So he had stuff like Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and he also had albums like De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising”. After Slick Rick, De La Soul’s album was probably the next thing I really listened to and I remember he also had the first Jungle Brothers album “Straight Out The Jungle”.  I mean, at the same time that I was hearing those records, I was still listening to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, MC Hammer, Michael Jackson and other stuff that kids were listening to (laughs). But Hip-Hop just stood above everything else to me. So then I started actively searching for it and I came across Max & Dave’s radio show on London’s Kiss FM. I always remember it used to be on during the week at the same time as “Eastenders” in the early-90s (laughs). So whilst my family would be watching the TV, I’d be sat there with a cassette in the deck recording Max & Dave (laughs). I just thought it was amazing that I could put a blank cassette in and record ninety minutes of free, amazing Hip-Hop which I could walk around with on my Walkman for the next week (laughs). I mean, this was back in the time when people were getting super advance promos that you’d hear being played on the radio months before an album would actually come out, at least over here in the UK anyway.”

So did you start experimenting with rhyming as soon as you first heard Hip-Hop or did that happen later?

“Almost as soon as I heard Hip-Hop, I started writing a couple of rhymes down. But initially, it was mainly just free-styling. Although, I guess because I was so young, I was really just mimicking what I was hearing the rappers I was listening to doing. But as much as I was mimicking them in terms of the styles I was using, as far as the content was concerned, I would be free-styling with my friends about school, my teacher, football, wrestling, stuff like that (laughs). But at that point, I didn’t really have anyone around me who was into Hip-Hop as much as I was. There were people at my school at the time who listened to Hip-Hop, but I was immediately obsessive about it. For example, I remember once I’d rented a video from the local shop and there was a trailer on it for Run-DMC’s “Tougher Than Leather” film and I just watched it over and over again. But after seeing that I just couldn’t find the video anywhere and I was so distraught (laughs). I was in my local shop like, ‘Why haven’t you got this video?’ So I was really having to try and find everything out for myself initially. But then when I got into my teens, that’s when I started meeting more people who were really into Hip-Hop which is also when I seriously thought about actually making music. It was also around that time that I first started going to London’s West End and going to record shops like the original Deal Real and you’d have people behind the counter in there like Pete Real, Shortee Blitz, Tony Vegas. I remember that was just a mad experience going to that shop for the first time. I’d already met Harry Love by this time and we’d go there together and just hangout in the shop. There were times when we even slept in Deal Real (laughs).”

Aside from the quality music that was sold there, Deal Real was such a great shop to spend time in because you never quite knew who you might see or what might happen…

“Exactly. There were always artists passing through. I remember kicking myself as I wasn’t there the day Big L and O.C. were in the shop when they were over in the UK. That shop was amazing, man. I just used to enjoy going there to hangout. I had so many good times in Deal Real. I mean, I love how the internet and social networking is really bringing Hip-Hop communities together, but it’s just not the same as being able to go to a place like Deal Real, bump tunes really loud, meet people and just share experiences. I mean, going to Deal Real regularly was how I pretty much met everyone I knew in the UK scene at that time. I just wish there was somewhere like that again. It always makes me smile thinking back to those times, man.”

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You dropped your debut Harry Love-produced single “Showbitchness” in 2002 on Low Life Records and it immediately made an impact. Considering you were a new artist, were you surprised by how quickly that single was embraced by UK Hip-Hop heads?

“Everything that Harry Love was producing at that time was just gold. A lot of people really haven’t heard the extent of the music he had back then. I mean, people are familiar with Klashnekoff’s “Murda”, “Showbitchness” and some other stuff, but there was so much unreleased stuff as well that Harry was doing that was just amazing. But when we actually recorded “Showbitchness”, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I just knew that we’d created what I believed was a classic tune. To be honest, the way we made that tune kind of took us both by surprise. When Harry first played me that beat, it was originally just a drum loop with a bassline underneath it. But I just loved those drums and the bassline was so thick, so I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s just keep it like that and I’ll write one long verse to it.’ I was thinking of doing something like a thirty-two bar verse and then sending it out to radio. So I went to Harry’s, showed him the verse that I’d written and he was saying that I should do a second verse and that we should work on doing more with the track. So as I was writing that second verse and the chorus, Harry was trying a few things out with different samples and then all of a sudden he was just like, ‘This is sounding sick!’ He played the track to me with the new samples over it and I almost lost it right there (laughs). I went straight into the booth after hearing it and we recorded everything I had (laughs). I think I might even have recorded the track all in one take. But after I’d done my vocals, Harry fixed up the beat a little bit and then he played it and we were both like, ‘Oh my god!’ We must have listened back to that track so many times that day (laughs). I mean, we weren’t listening to our own stuff in an arrogant way, we just couldn’t quite believe what we’d just made. It took us both by surprise.”

You just knew that track was something special…

“Yeah. But that was back when it could take quite a long time for stuff to come out after you’d recorded it. So we actually had that track done for a couple of years before it did finally come out on Low Life. I remember at the time actually reading a bit of bad press for it when the single came out. It got an awful review in Hip-Hop Connection. But then when I started playing it out and talking to people, I started to see how it was being received. I mean, in my head, it was always a classic. But at the time it didn’t seem to me like it had really hit in the way I wanted it to. I wasn’t doing as many shows back then and this was before social media, but then the more I started to get around I realised that tune was actually pretty popular.”

So here we are over ten years later and you’ve just dropped your eighth album, “I Remain”. How would you say your approach to making music has changed over the last decade, if at all?

“I think it’s still pretty much the same. I mean, even when I was doing my first project with Harry Love and Braintax, I was still approaching the music I was making in the same way I do now. I always wanted each song I made to be saying something, even if it was a track where I was just spitting and dropping punchlines, I still wanted to try and keep to a loose theme. I never made tunes just to make tunes. I would always think about where any song I made was going to fit on whatever album project I was working towards at the time. I’ve always looked at albums like they’re films and each song is like a scene within a film. You can always have your favourite scenes within a particular film, but they all have to work together as a whole. So I always looked at projects as being full albums with a particular feel or theme to them. I never made songs purely to try and cover bases on an album, just so I could say that I had my club banger, my radio record, and this and that. For me, it was always about, how are these tracks going to work together? How can I put this together in a way that will make people want to sit down for an hour and listen to the whole project rather than just picking tracks to listen to? That was how I first approached my music and it’s an approach that I’ve always kept. I’d say that maybe the only difference there is now in how I approach my music is that I don’t write lyrics as sporadically as I used to. When I was younger, I might have just thrown on a beat and started writing lyrics. Or I might have brought something like a new Mobb Deep album, and there might be a track on there that I really liked, so I’d just have that on repeat while I was writing my own lyrics. But now, I pretty much only write my rhymes to the beats that I’m planning to use them for. I guess I just have less time now to sit and write randomly, so when I do write there’s more purpose and focus in what I’m doing.”

You’ve been dabbling in production for some time now, but “I Remain” is your first totally self-produced project. Was it a daunting prospect starting the new album knowing that you were responsible for everything this time around or did doing it all yourself actually allow you to go in new directions creatively?

“Firstly, it was really daunting (laughs). I doubted myself so many times making this album because, when you think about it, throughout my career, I’ve either worked with or been around some of the top producers to come out of the UK. So I’ve had access to see how they work and how talented they are. I’d listen to what someone like a Chemo or a Ghosttown are doing today, people that have these grand, amazing sounding beats, and then I’d listen to what I was doing, which was a lot more lo-fi and moody. I kept asking myself if the beats I was making stood-up to what else was going on production-wise today. But then I had some good chats with different people, Kashmere specifically, and he was saying that me producing my own album and bringing my own sound to it is what would give the project its own individuality. So those chats made me feel a bit better about it and I decided that I wasn’t going to try and force anything to try and make a certain style or sound. I just wanted everything to sound like it had happened naturally and hadn’t come from me trying to sound like anything else that’s going on out there. Because of that, I think the album does sound different to anything else that’s out there at the moment. Plus, making the album that way and producing everything myself also led to me writing what are personally some of my favourite lyrics that I’ve ever written. So lyrically, for me, “I Remain” is my best album. But production-wise, all I can say is that I managed to get the exact moods for each track that I was hoping to achieve. That was really the most rewarding part of producing the album myself because, like you said, I was able to unlock different creative doors and take things in different directions because I was producing the beats myself. I might have been sitting there all day making a beat, and then I’d get this bolt of inspiration about what I was going to write about on a particular track or how I was going to flow. I guess, because it was me making the beat and putting myself into each track musically, the feel of the music then unlocked my subconsciousness when it came to what I wanted to say in the rhymes. I would get a couple of words that would flash in my head that related to the mood or feel I associated with a particular beat and would take it from there. I mean, making this album was actually really weird because verses were literally just falling into my head out of nowhere. When people talk about channeling voices or energy from different places, I imagine that’s what it would feel like.”

As much as there might be a lot of pressure involved in handling both the production and the lyrics on a project, I would imagine it also gives you a real sense of freedom because your own creative vision isn’t being swayed by any outside influences…

“Exactly. That’s spot-on. That’s what I’ve been saying to people, that when I get beats from different producers I’m being inspired by the music, but at the same time I’m also being influenced in how I’m thinking because of a certain mood that producer might have been in when they made that track and the emotions that they brought to that beat. But when I’m making the beats and writing the rhymes, there are no outside influences involved in the creative process and it just becomes the perfect way for me to to be able to express myself.”

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You’ve always painted yourself in your music as being quite an under-the-radar, almost reclusive character who’s very happy in his own space. How do you balance that side of your personality with the demands that are put on you as an artist in terms of performing, interacting with fans etc?

“It’s something I’ve got a lot better at over the years (laughs). I mean, it definitely has been a struggle for me to achieve that balance at times. In terms of performing, if people already know your music then you can sometimes just get onstage, perform your music and not really have to say much. But then there are times when you really have to talk to the crowd and you really have to engage with them. Years back, there were times when I was just too shy or nervous and didn’t really want to have to talk to anyone. I just wanted to spit my bars and leave (laughs).  I could perform the songs brilliantly, but I couldn’t really give a great performance overall because I just wasn’t able to really talk to the crowd. It was always easier for me back then if I had other people onstage to bounce off of. So when me and Kashmere started doing shows together with Ghost, the whole process became a lot more fun for me. Over the years, I think I’ve really come out of my shell a lot more. When I used to be at jams back in the day, I’d say hello to the people that I knew and then sit in the corner backstage a lot of the time (laughs). But I think it’s really a blessing that people are still interested in my music today, so nine times out of ten, when someone approaches me I’m more than happy to talk to them now. But every now and then you get someone who’s a little weird in the way they approach you and I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever get used to (laughs).”

I think sometimes people approach artists with a sense of over-familiarity because they might have got to know so much about that person through their music, but they forget that artist knows absolutely nothing about the people approaching them…

“Yeah, definitely. I get that a lot, especially after putting out “Morning Process” because it was quite an auto-biographical album and some people really relate to that s**t. On one hand, I love that people get something from that album that speaks to them personally. I’ve had some really interesting conversations with people who really got that album and understood exactly where I was coming from on there. I like that. But then sometimes, I’ll get someone just come up to me and be like, ‘So how are the kids?’ That can be a bit weird, man (laughs).”

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Prior to your success last year with the “Morning Process” album on High Focus Records, you’d been involved with the label’s 2011 Four Owls project “Nature’s Greatest Mystery” which really seemed to take on a life of its own and gained something of a cult following. Is what you bring to Four Owls different to what you do in your own music and would you say your initial involvement in the group gave you a new lease of life as a solo artist?

“What I do as part of Four Owls isn’t a million miles away from my solo stuff but it is definitely different. To be honest, I think all four of us are a little different on the Owls music than when we’re doing our solo stuff. But the thing I like when we’re making tracks, is that we’re all there trying to add our own particular element to the mix but we’re trying to create something together. So when I write to an Owls track, I’m not just thinking about me as Verb T the solo artist, I approach it with the whole group in mind. I mean, Four Owls is definitely a proper group. It’s not just a situation where we all send our individual verses in and then they’re put together on a track. We had a very clear vision for each track on the album and everybody was totally on-board with the project and there were no issues. I guess that’s why it’s harder to do a second album, because after doing that first one so naturally, now people might have different ideas of the direction they think a second Owls album should go in, although we’re all definitely dedicated to making it happen. But going back to what you were saying before, being part of the Owls definitely did give me a new lease of life. I remember we did one of our first shows in Oxford before we even had the album out and we were all a bit nervous about wearing the Owl masks in-case we looked stupid (laughs). But we came onstage in the masks and people were just like ‘Yeeaaah!’ straight away. I guess it was a bit of spectacle (laughs). Then we did a show in Bristol after the album came out which had sold out and we had this idea to walk to the stage  through the crowd in our Owl masks as the album intro was playing. So we were tapping people on the shoulder as we were making our way through the crowd and by the time we got onstage the whole audience had their hands in the air cheering and that was the moment when I was just like, ‘This is amazing!’ I’d had good times in music before that and done great shows before, but that was when the Four Owls started to feel like a phenomenon to me. It felt like we were the underground Hip-Hop version of the Beatles or something (laughs).”

So do you think it’s fair to say that your involvement with High Focus has introduced you to a new audience who perhaps weren’t already familiar with Verb T and your existing catalogue of work?

“Yeah, without a shadow of a doubt. I remember meeting Fliptrix all those years ago back in the MySpace days, hearing his music and just knowing that he was going to go on and do something big. We actually first met as we had a mutual friend who had a party in Clapham Junction that we both played at. As we touched on earlier, I don’t always chat to people I don’t know, but for some reason I went up to him afterwards and told him that I really enjoyed his set. We chatted on MySpace after that and he asked me if I wanted to be on his first album, which he brought out himself but it wasn’t actually on High Focus. It came out before he started the label. But I did a guest verse on that. Then, when Fliptrix was working on “Theory Of Rhyme”, which was the first High Focus release, I gave him some beats and did a couple of verses on there. From that album coming out, I just watched the High Focus thing explode, with that Fliptrix album and then the first albums from Jam Baxter, Dirty Dyke and Leaf Dog. After those albums came out, I started to notice when I did shows with Fliptrix that there was a whole new crowd coming out who knew all of those releases and artists. A lot of those same people didn’t know my music whatsoever (laughs). But this was a younger crowd who hadn’t really been around the scene that long and just hadn’t heard of me for whatever reason. So when the Four Owls album came out, that’s when the label really went to the next level because it created such a buzz and off the back of that I think a lot of those High Focus fans then went back to check my older releases. At that point I started to be viewed not just as an artist who’d worked with High Focus, but I was now part of this group that people were going crazy for. So people started to backtrack the same way that I did when I was first getting into Hip-Hop. I mean, the first Gang Starr album that I got my hands on and really loved was “Hard To Earn”, but then I went back and checked out “Step In The Arena” and their other work. But yeah, I think there is definitely a younger audience out there who might not necessarily be huge fans of UK Hip-Hop as a whole, but they’re fans of High Focus and that whole movement. So I think I’ve definitely been lucky to be able to be re-introduced to a new audience in that way.”

You mentioned Gang Starr a moment ago and your recent video for “Lost” was labelled on YouTube as being a Guru tribute. Was Guru a big influence on you?

“With Guru, I was just a fan straight-up. I always had a bit of an affinity to Guru because I had that same sort of monotone voice and I always approached rhyming the same way he did, in as much as that I didn’t want to have to shout or do crazy stuff with my voice for people to take notice. I mean, a lot of people did hate on my style back in the day and say that it sounded boring or whatever. That’s a criticism that I’ve received so many times over the years. But I would say that I definitely followed on from people like Guru in terms of someone having a really good, strong recognisable voice and keeping it calm on record for the most part. So with that track, I didn’t actually write the track about Guru, I just reworked a Guru lyric for the hook. I really just wanted to give credit to Guru and also Gang Starr as a group for the influence they had on me as a teenager coming up. I mean, even if I wasn’t a rapper, I’d still be a massive Gang Starr fan.”

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Photo: Jake Kiten Sampson-Field

It’s almost ten years since you and Kashmere dropped your joint Low Life release “Backhand Slap Talk” / “Technical Illness”. What are the chances of you reuniting for another project?

“We’re still good friends and we talk quite a lot. We’ve been planning on doing a follow-up for years now. We actually started recording a follow-up about five or six years ago and had a few tracks in the bag, but then life got in the way and although we were still in touch we just kinda stopped working on the project. But recently we’ve started talking about doing more tracks together, particularly with it now being ten years since we did that first project. I’d love to be able to say we could have something finished for next year to release as an anniversary type of project, although I can’t promise that one-hundred percent as obviously it’s not done yet. But either way, we’re definitely going to be working on more tracks together.”

This might sound like a strange comparison but the two of you used to remind me of a UK Nice & Smooth, with Kashmere being really animated and out-there like a Greg Nice, and you being more low-key and grounded like a Smooth Bee…

“I think in the past we definitely did have that type of dynamic going on. I mean, I was even more laidback then than I am now and Kashmere was even hyper (laughs). The funny thing is that, over time, he’s taken that hypeness and toned it down a little, and although I’m still laidback in my delivery, I put more energy into it now (laughs).  So I think together we’re now more like A Tribe Called Quest, where Phife was always a little hyper than Q-Tip, but both were just having fun as emcees (laughs). But if Kashmere and I did do another project together, that’s definitely what people can expect, just us really having fun with the music.”

Bringing everything full circle, when you first started making music back in the late-90s / early-2000s, did you ever envisage you’d still be here doing it today releasing music to an ever-growing audience?

“It’s a bit of both actually. I remember seeing footage of Tupac in a documentary and there was one part of it that really stood out to me, where Tupac is in the studio talking to the other rappers in there with him and he’s shouting at them saying that they’re wasting time and they just need to do their verses and move on to the next thing because it’s not guaranteed that you’re  going to be here forever and he needed to say what he needed to say. Now, I was never the biggest Tupac fan and I didn’t agree that you should just bang out whatever you can just to get some music out. But I did agree that if you were an emcee and you considered that to be your job then you did need to have a strong work ethic and that was what I wanted to do; I wanted to be an emcee and I wanted that to be my job. So that scene with Tupac has always stuck in my head because I’ve always felt that I can’t just sit on material once it’s done. I have to stay productive and keep creating because I might not always have the opportunity for people to want to hear me. My life could take a particular turn and I might have to get a full-time job and quit music or, for whatever reason, I might decide that the music thing isn’t for me anymore. So back when I started, I never wanted to do anything else and some people might have said, ‘Well, that’s just a dream.’ But, I would always think, why can’t that be the reality? If I put my all into it  and really work at it, then why can’t I make it happen? So I guess, out of sheer stubbornness, music is my career now and I still feel like I can take it up a couple of levels as well. But as an artist, I also think it’s important not to look too far into the future because you never know what’s going to happen. There’s no point thinking about what could happen, you have to think about what is happening now. Which is why, as an artist I’m always very much in the moment and am fully invested in whatever project I’m working on. Then once it’s out, although I might still love it, it’s then about moving on to the next project and always trying to stay as creative as possible.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Verb T on Twitter – @RealVerbT

Verb T – “Lost (Guru Tribute)” (High Focus Records / 2013)

Old To The New Q&A – Life MC

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Since debuting in the late-90s alongside DJ Nappa and Si Phili as part of Luton-based UK Hip-Hop crew Phi-Life Cypher, the talented lyricist known as Life MC has left a huge mark on the homegrown scene thanks not only to his work with the group, but also his quality solo projects and formidable live freestyle skills.

Having helped to influence a new generation of UK emcees with his thought-provoking rhymes and love of the culture, Life now stands as a veteran of the UK rap game, still active, still passionate, and, perhaps most importantly, still considered to be a relevant and important artist within the British Hip-Hop community.

Returning with his fifth solo album “Gift Of Life” (also Life’s first project since the unexpected announcement last year of the Phi-Life Cypher split), the dynamic emcee sounds as inspired as ever, dropping his trademark mix of quickfire punchlines and social commentary over hard-hitting Nappa production whilst also collaborating with the likes of Reveal, Genesis Elijah and Micall Parknsun.

Here, Life discusses his new album, the end of Phi-Life and divisions within UK Hip-Hop.

Keeping in the tradition of your previous solo albums, what’s the concept behind the title of your latest project “Gift Of Life”?

“I feel like I haven’t properly put myself into an album for a good while now what with Phi-Life Cypher splitting up. When we were first doing stuff as Phi-Life we’d try to do twenty tracks on an album for the fans and then you’d get reviews with people saying it was too much music (laughs). So with this new album, I just wanted to give a gift back to the fans in terms of how much music is on the album and I also wanted to be seen to be trying to put some life back into Hip-Hop, which is what I’m really trying to do now with all the different projects I’m currently working on. I just want to really put something back into Hip-Hop because the music has given me so much over the years and has really taken me on a good little journey. So that’s what the basic concept behind the “Gift Of Life” title is.”

I remember picking up a white label copy of Phi-Life Cypher’s “Baddest Man” EP from Deal Real Records in London when it dropped back in 1998. How difficult was it for you as a group coming from Luton to break into that London scene?

“It was probably a bit more difficult for us in terms of communicating and knowing certain people, but all in all, I don’t think it was that difficult for us really. We just made some good music and it got accepted. That was the one thing that I liked, that all the people that I was listening to from London at that time seemed to be feeling our stuff. So I don’t think it was actually that difficult for us at the time to get noticed. It probably did do you a favour as an artist at that time to live in Central London or something, but all in all I don’t think it was really that much of a problem for us to get on the scene. Anything that we did seemed to make an inroad straight away. Obviously the work we did back then with the Gorillaz helped as well because that actually happened before we released our first album in 2000, “Millennium Metaphors”. That definitely helped get our name out there. So yeah, I think it was all good, still.”

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You’ve always been known for your freestyle skills – when did you first become aware that was a talent you possessed?

“I came up through the whole Hip-Hop thing from day one when it was all about the electro and everything back in the 80s. I was a body-popper and I was in this crew and we used to battle every week. We’d go to this local club and it felt like a scene out of “Beat Street” (laughs). I just loved Hip-Hop from the first time I ever heard someone rap. I mean, I used to do reggae deejay-ing and still do. But from listening to Hip-Hop and hearing people rhyming, that’s when I started doing the freestyle thing. Back then, we were living on benefits and didn’t have much money, so at school, I’d do anything to try and get money and it soon became obvious to me that I could freestyle and people liked it. So it got to a point where people would pay me to sit in the school library and they’d bring me books to make up rhymes about. If I could rap for a certain length of time then they’d give me ten or fifteen pence (laughs). I was in a crew with DJ Nappa called Posse In Effect and we won this South East Rap Championships competition or something and all those things were just giving me the inspiration to want to become an artist and really do the music thing properly. What really woke me up in life was going to prison and then really sitting there and reflecting on what I wanted to do. I was sitting there thinking about how I’d talk about people like Malcolm X but didn’t really know what these people had done. So I re-educated myself while I was inside, obviously I had plenty of time to write lyrics and Nappa used to send me TDK tapes with beats on them that I’d put lyrics to. So when I first came out and started spitting stuff, Nappa was like, ‘Yo! This is hot! Do you realise what you’re doing here?’ Nappa called MCM from Caveman, I spat for him and he got me straight onto Kiss FM with them for Max & Dave’s show and I remember a couple of the rappers who went up there with them didn’t want to spit on air after they heard me (laughs). That was 1996.”

Would you say there was a Hip-Hop scene to speak of in Luton at that time?

“It was really difficult rap-wise in Luton because everyone was a dancer or a deejay. There wasn’t really that many people rapping. That was always the thing when we first started, that we had to look to London really when it came to Hip-Hop. There were a couple of young groups trying to do their thing around that time who would come around and cypher but all in all there wasn’t really nobody else in Luton except for ourselves. At the time and even now really, Luton has always been more of a reggae town with the sound systems and all of that. There was always a reggae sound-system culture in Luton so when we first started rapping people would look at you like you were a bit of an idiot (laughs).”

Your solo projects always feel like they’re of the moment rather than being a collection of tracks that have been recorded over time and then pulled together for the sake of putting an album out. Is that the case?

“Anytime I rhyme, even if it’s battle rapping, there will always be something in there dealing with reality because that’s what I’m about. Each of my albums are basically about how I feel in life at that particular time. I don’t really just do tracks here and there and then try to make an album out of them. I’ve always got a thought in mind about what I want to achieve with each album that I put out. But any album I put out will always touch on different aspects of life in some way because that’s what I’m about, talking about reality.”

As an elder statesman of the rap game now, do you feel even more of a responsibility to include some substance in your music than perhaps you even did when you first came out?

“I definitely do and I think that’s something that’s very important for me to do. Also, I’ve spoken to a lot of the UK artists of today or those who’re coming up now who tell me that they grew-up listening to my music and my style of lyricism was an inspiration to them and I can hear that in the way some of those artists rhyme. So, as a forty-four year-old emcee, I definitely feel a responsibility to the UK scene and to the younger artists to really contribute something worthwhile and that’s something that I’ve always been conscious of really. I think more emcees out there should sometimes realise that they do have a responsibility on the microphone and that what they do can have a big impact on the scene as a whole, so it’s not always just about you as an individual. At the end of the day, I want to be responsible in my music and I understand that even if people don’t understand all of the messages in my music, they do get most of them and it’s nice when people look to you as an influence. I enjoy that and I definitely don’t feel it’s a burden. I mean, I had people who influenced me, like seeing Rodney P, Sipho and Bionic when they were doing the London Posse stuff, and also the first time I heard Caveman when they came out in the early-90s. I remember reading Hip-Hop Connection and realising that Caveman were from High Wycombe and thinking, ‘Wow! They’re from a town that’s not too far away from where I am in Luton!’ Because back then, unless you came from New York or London, you sometimes felt like you couldn’t really do this Hip-Hop thing (laughs). So seeing MCM was from High Wycombe and knowing how much I liked his stuff, I was like, ‘If he can do it, then I can do it.’ So all of that stuff was an inspiration to me and I’m happy that I can inspire people in that same way today and that, fifteen years after I first came out, I can still be considered relevant and that people still feel my music and skills.”

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What’s the creative process like between you and Nappa when you’re working on one of your solo projects?

“When I decide to do an album, I usually have a period of about six months where Nappa will just continuously bring me beats and I’ll just keep going through them to find the ones I want to use. What I’ve found is that a lot of Nappa’s beats actually help inspire my lyrics because of the vibe of a particular track. Nappa’s music just brings those lyrics out of my head and I’ll sometimes get an idea or freestyle the first few bars of what then become full verses just because of the way that one of his tracks may feel. I don’t even really have to think too hard about it. It just happens. I’ve always been doing some work lately with other producers like Leaf Dog and also Bad Habits from Split Prophets whose music also has that same impact as well. Their beats do that same thing to me and just bring the lyrics out.”

There was a lot of talk some years back about there being a large generation gap developing within UK Hip-Hop between older heads and the younger generation of artists who were coming up at the time. Do you think that’s still an issue or do you feel that gap has been bridged now in some ways?

“There’ll always be a gap between the different generations of Hip-Hop heads to some extent because everyone has their own vibe and opinion of what they see the music as being. I mean, to me, I do feel there was a bit more of a scene when we were coming up, then when the grime scene came up that contributed to that generation gap to some extent as well because there were a lot of young rappers making music that some of the older heads didn’t feel had anything to do with Hip-Hop. But, really, there will always be a gap between different parts of the overall scene. I mean, the one I’m seeing happening now is between the battle rap scene and everything else that’s going on. I really don’t like it and I’ve been seeing a lot of things on Twitter between different people who’re involved in that part of the scene and I’ve been trying to call people up as an elder and tell them that I’m not trying to get involved in people’s business but that I think that all of us who’re part of the UK Hip-Hop scene have to keep in mind that the next generation who’re coming up might be kept apart because of divisions that people are contributing to today. It doesn’t benefit anyone when fans of certain events or artists don’t mix with the fans of other events or artists because of divisions that are being put in place between them. That does nothing for the UK scene as a whole and everyone always claims that they’re all about doing stuff to benefit the scene so it’s time everyone realised that for that scene to flourish and for us to build something for the future, sometimes we have to understand that it’s not all about our own individual agendas. That’s what the scene is really missing now is a little bit more unity and togetherness. But I think in today’s generation, everyone just wants to be a superstar and it’s not even necessarily about the message in your music, what you’re doing to contribute to the scene or anything else. It’s just all about you. But personally, I don’t think that’s healthy for the UK scene overall.”

I know some people feel that part of the problem with some of those within the battle rap scene here in the UK is that they’re not approaching it as being a part of wider Hip-Hop culture. It’s just a competitive sport almost. They might rap, but they’re not necessarily of the culture…

“It really doesn’t make sense to me because, battle rap or not, it’s still Hip-Hop. But what you’re getting is people becoming involved in the battle rap genre here in the UK who know nothing about the music it’s come from. They know nothing about the history of Hip-Hop, they don’t understand the culture or know about some of the music’s most influential artists. They just know about what’s happening within this battle rap scene, which I don’t think is good because that then means you’ve lost track of the culture when you need to know as much about it as possible to be able to help move it forward.”

With that in mind, you recently performed at this year’s Boom Bap Festival. Although it’s only in its second year, how important do you think an annual event like Boom Bap is to UK Hip-Hop?

“It’s very, very, very important, man. Even though it’s only once a year, it’s a time when you know that everyone has the opportunity to come together and celebrate our scene. It’s a great opportunity for networking, it’s a great opportunity for the fans to see so many of the artists they like performing in one place, and it’s also giving people a real sense of the culture of Hip-Hop that shows people that it’s about more than just the rapping element. So I really rate what everyone involved in the Boom Bap Festival is doing and I definitely think it’s good for Hip-Hop. I really felt that myself when I was there. Personally for me, it was great to see different people who I might not have seen for awhile. Like, it was great to see someone like Chester P, give him a hug and have a quick chat. So Boom Bap is definitely helping to bring back that sense of togetherness and unity to the scene.”

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You announced late in 2012 that Phi-Life Cypher had split and earlier this year you and Nappa released a lengthy video blog which gave some further insight into the reasons behind the situation. How difficult was it for you to walk away from a group you’d been part of for so many years?

“Like I said in the video blog, it wasn’t really a case of me walking away from the group, that was Phili’s decision. So after that, there was really no choice but to just carry on and get on with what we’re doing now as myself and Nappa. But again, like I said in the video, in the background of Phi-Life Cypher it was a difficult situation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always what it seemed to be to the fans. It was hard work. I mean, it had got to the stage really where it was like when you’re watching a movie, you’re thinking, ‘This is pretty boring, I don’t think I like it, but I’ll give it another ten minutes to see if it improves.’ But then it gets to the point where you’re so far into the movie that you may as well just watch that last hour and see it through. So that’s kinda what it was like with the situation within the group. But what I’ve found since not being in Phi-Life is that there’s now a massive difference in my productivity in terms of how much stuff we were doing as a group then and how much more stuff I’m actually working on now. I mean, I’ll never feel comfortable with the fact that the group ended and, as far as Phili is concerned, for me to know that we travelled the world together for fifteen years, we did all these things together, we spent so much time sat down together writing rhymes, I’ll never feel comfortable with the way it ended and the bad feelings that now exist. The whole situation has really affected me quite a bit, even with regards to it making it more difficult for me to do what I’m trying to do now with the music. Certain people started unfollowing me on Twitter, people who were working with me stopped working with me and wouldn’t even reply to my messages, things like that. But, at the end of the day, it’s a part of life and you just have to move on. I mean, you can be vexed and annoyed for a certain amount of time, but as a grown man I don’t harbor bad feelings or hate and nothing good can really come out of negativity unless you turn it into a positive. So that’s what I’m really trying to do now with the end of Phi-Life Cypher, is just turn that negative situation into something positive through the music I’m making and what I’m now able to do in terms of working with some of today’s younger artists and being able to collaborate with more people in the scene.”

You’ve mentioned on Twitter recently that you have a number of new projects in the pipeline – what can people expect next?

“The next project I have coming is with Bad Habits on production which really just started with me listening to Split Prophets, thinking they were dope, talking about maybe doing a track, then that turned into possibly doing an EP, and Habits just kept sending me beats and they were all just so dope. Initially, I started writing to about five different beats in about two days and I was having to tell myself to chill and just finish one (laughs). So when I got to about four or five tracks, I was like, ‘Yo! We can do an EP!’ But he just kept sending me beats, I kept writing and the next minute there was basically an album there that came out of nowhere that sounded really dope. So that will be coming out on Split Profits’ label. I’m pretty excited about that album. I’ve also done an EP with a guy called K The Original. Then my next album with Nappa is already recorded, I have about twenty-four tracks done for that. But then before that, there’s another EP coming out which has production from Leaf Dog, Mr. Thing, DJ LoK, Nappa and B109. I’ve also got a little group which I’ve started called Team Classic which is me, Nappa and a singer, which is still Hip-Hop but it has a soul, jazz feel to it as well which is really nice, positive music. It’s another way of making the quality music we want make whilst trying something different without trying to make something that has that typical radio sound to it.”

And after what’s just happened to Choice FM here in the UK, the traditional outlets for quality Hip-Hop are becoming less and less…

“Yeah, a hundred percent. It’s horrible to see that happening, but you just have to keep fighting the cause and hope somebody hears, man.”

So given that homegrown Hip-Hop artists making credible music still face so many obstacles today in terms of being heard, what keeps you motivated after all these years?

“Honestly, and I know this might sound corny or whatever, but it really comes down to my love and passion for the music. Growing-up and maturing, I’ve found that I just want to be more creative and for there to be progression in what I’m doing now. I want to be able to sit down in another ten years and know that I really made a difference with my music, whether that be to the UK scene overall or by influencing certain artists, whatever it may be. Plus, at this stage of life that I’m at, I’m in a difficult situation because for the last few years I’ve had a really bad spinal problem which has given me a lot of pain and mobility issues, which has meant I’ve been having to spend a lot more time at home. But being home a lot has reminded me of the time all those years ago when I was in prison and I realised that it’s still possible for me to do something, make a difference and contribute to the UK scene, which is all I want to do. I still want to see the UK scene continue to grow because it helped me and allowed me to travel the world with my music and make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve taken so much from the scene over the years and now I really want to be able to give something back. That’s my inspiration right now, man.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Life MC on Twitter – @LifeMC. 

Life MC ft. Reveal – “Beat Smashers” (LifeMC.BandCamp.Com / 2013)

Old To The New Q&A – J-Zone

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Many Hip-Hop fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when news circulated some months ago about Queens, NY resident J-Zone’s return to the world of music. As one of the game’s most creative and entertaining figures, the self-confessed Onion Ring Pimp left a large void in underground rap circles when he announced his self-imposed retirement from the microphone towards the end of the last decade.

After debuting in 1998 with the cult classic “Music For Tu Madre”, Zone spent a solid ten years carving out his own musical path, shunning mainstream trends and laughing in the faces of stern-faced Hip-Hop purists, all while filling projects such as “A Bottle Of Whup Ass” and “$ick Of Bein’ Rich” with his colourful humour, sharp observations and unique production.

But whilst pimps might not pay taxes, they do still have to pay bills, which was a cold fact Zone faced following the release of his 2006 projects “To Love A Hooker” and “Experienced!”, with the self-confessed Rap-A-Lot fanatic forced to enter into the world of nine-to-five hours, office politics and daily commutes.

Brilliantly capturing his transition from artist to tie-wearing work colleague in his 2011 book “Root For The Villian”, the chances of J-Zone releasing a new album seemed unlikely. Until now.

Returning with the poignant “Peter Pan Syndrome”, the talented producer-on-the-mic has crafted a project that finds Zone poking fun at certain elements of modern day living whilst grappling with his own place in life as a thirty-something musician refusing to be sucked into a life of conformity and the potential social consequences that accompany that decision.

A few weeks ago, on the eve of the release of his eleventh album, Zone Loc jumped on the phone to discuss his passion for playing the drums, adult peer pressure and the pitfalls of social media in his typically candid manner.

When we did our last interview in 2011 you’d just published your book “Root For The Villain” following your retirement from music. Yet here we are in 2013 ready to talk about your new album “Peter Pan Syndrome”. What happened?

“I had no intentions of making any more music at that point, at least not Hip-Hop. I was done with the J-Zone s**t and I still can’t really say that I’m fully back in it because most of my albums happen by accident. The book happened by accident. You just get inspired and you do something, but the problem is that when you create something you then have to do a whole bunch of other stuff with it that you never planned to do. I mean, even though this album is done, I still don’t want to get out there and perform (laughs). People have been asking me if I’m going to go out on tour to the promote the project and I’ve been weighing it up, thinking about it, and maybe if I could tour Europe I’d do it as I’d like to go back there. But I mean, I can’t remember the words to none of my old songs (laughs). The whole idea of performing is just so foreign to me now. But I really had no clue that I was going to do another J-Zone album. What happened was, I’ve been a musician since I was five and have always played an instrument or done something. So when I stopped making beats and rhyming in 2008 / 2009, I was writing for places like Ego Trip and then I did the book which gave me a creative outlet. But I didn’t have any musical outlet, so I was deejay-ing here and there. But after two or three years of not doing any music, if you’re a musician by nature, it’s easy to say that you’re going to walk away from the business but you can’t walk away from the music. Sooner or later, you’re going to get that itch. Around the time that the book came out I took up drums as a hobby. I wanted to learn an instrument and do something where there was no pressure to make money or anything like that. I just wanted to be able to enjoy it for what it is. So about six months in I really wanted to try and improve. I was watching a lot of old footage of Clyde Stubblefield and James Brown’s concerts and stuff like that…”

Did learning the drums give you a sense of creative freedom that you hadn’t been getting from Hip-Hop at the time you announced your rap retirement?

“Yeah and it also kinda tied in to the whole “Peter Pan Syndrome” thing as well. I mean, people make you feel like at a certain age you’re not supposed to try new things. It’s kinda this thing where once you graduate college you’re not supposed to learn anything new unless it’s going to lead to instant money or a better job. Nobody really puts three or four hours a day into something just to learn it once they reach adulthood because people have bills or want to start a family, things like that. So people look at you crazy when you tell them you’re going to try something new. But about six months in to learning the drums, I just started taking it really seriously. I was collecting vintage drums, RJD2 gave me some tips on how to record them to make them sound like old records and I just really got into the drums. But I still wasn’t good enough to be a professional drummer, it was just a hobby that I thought maybe I could do something with. Then I’d been playing for a year and I started thinking about how it would sound if I made some beats and did my own drums. The issue was always sound quality because live drums either sound great or really shi**y. To get them to sound like those breaks I used to sample you have to have certain mics, certain studio equipment and use certain techniques. I was creating breakbeats for people on the side and I was like, ‘Well, what if I started making beats again and I added this new thing that I’m doing with the drums.’ So I started making beats with live drums and they were coming out good. The tempos were a little faster than the stuff I usually made and the overall sound was a little funkier, so I was going to do another 45 single to follow up the “Drug Song” one I did last year. So I was looking for two songs to put on a 45, like an uptempo instrumental and a regular rap joint. I made two songs, but they weren’t right. I made two more songs, but they weren’t right either. Then before I knew it I had twelve songs. So I was like, ‘F**k a 45! I might as well just make an album.’ (Laughs).”

Were these actual finished songs or just rough ideas that you’d been working on that you thought could work as an album project?

“They were the songs you hear on the album. I’d made “Gadget Ho” and “Molotov Cocktail” and those were going to be the 45. Then I started making more songs and was like, ‘Nah, this would be a better song for a single.’ Then before I knew it I had all these songs and I could start to see the skeleton form for an album. There was a running theme throughout them with me talking about getting old because that was the only thing that I wanted to rap about as it was something that was on my mind. So once that outline formed I knew where to take the direction of the album. I mean, I didn’t even announce that I was doing an album until it was just about done. I couldn’t believe I’d actually done it (laughs). At first, I was just going to give it away to friends to show them that I could still make good music. Then I was just going to throw it up on iTunes and not actually tell people it had come out. Then I thought about doing some artwork. So little by little it just became a fully fledged project.”

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What makes the project work so well is the fact that, even though you’re addressing certain life issues that perhaps people aren’t used to hearing you talking about in your music, it’s still very much a J-Zone record. If you’d have tried to remake a “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” in a safe bid to please fans it could have easily sounded forced or awkward…

“Definitely. I mean, I’m always going to be me. But when you put something out, people are always going to want what they can’t have. I mean, I have a lot of different layers and I’m influenced by a lot of different things. So that means I can give you something like “Chief Chinchilla – Live At The Liqua Sto” or I can give you something like “Experienced!” because I’m a clown and a joker but I’m also a musician. I like West Coast exaggerated gangsta s**t but I also like the Jungle Brothers. I’m influenced by so much and it just comes out, but not everyone is always going to get it. I mean, I don’t know five people who all have the same favourite J-Zone album. I don’t really read message boards and online feedback to my stuff because it messes with your head, but I read this one thing someone forwarded me that had been written after someone had heard the new music and they were saying that I was on some new s**t with the beats which they said they weren’t really feeling but then they were saying that I was still rapping about the same old J-Zone stuff. So I was like, ‘Okay, so you want me to deviate from what I usually do with the rapping but then keep the production the same?'”

So, basically, you did it the wrong way around?

“Yeah (laughs) It’s like what do you want me to do? This is something I say to artists all the time and me and Vinnie Paz were talking about this recently because he was a little frustrated about some stuff, but, as an artist you really can’t win. Whatever you do, some people will like it and some people won’t. Some of your records will be more popular than others. One of the most valuable things that Danger Mouse ever told me was to just keep making music because, even if a certain record isn’t received very well at the time, when your career is said and done and you have a discography people are going to look at that as a whole and then that’s when they’ll be able to appreciate the peaks and valleys. So I’m trying to think long term in terms of doing what I want to do and just in terms of thinking about what a new album does for my catalogue as a whole rather than just trying to get a new project out there for the sake of it. I mean, people always say they want the J-Zone they heard on “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” or “A Bottle Of Whup Ass” but I’ll never be able to do that again. You’ll hear subtleties from that era on the new record, but it’s impossible to recreate those earlier projects.”

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This is something that we’ve talked about before, how certain artists who made such an impact on fans early in their careers are always tied to that initial material. So, even if someone like Nas made an album in 2013 that actually was better than “Illmatic”, fans would still say it was inferior because of the nostalgia and memories that surround that project for so many people…

“That’s exactly right and it really has less to do with music and is more to do with aesthetic and time. I mean, people tell me all the time that “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” or “A Bottle Of Whup Ass” was their theme music in college. Now, I could have have put “Chief Chinchilla” out when they were in college and made “Pimp Don’t Pay Taxes” today in 2013, and if I’d have put out one of my newer records back then, those same people would equate that record with getting drunk, getting girls and going to class and they’d equate “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” with having to pay bills and all the other responsibilities that come with adult life in the present day. Memories are attached to music so it’s easy to say ‘Oh, this album is the best!’ because you’re also thinking about the time period it came out in. But when you’re just talking about the music and being completely objective it’s a different thing all together. For instance, “Hard To Earn” or “Moment Of Truth” are technically the most well-produced Gang Starr albums, but “Step In The Arena” will always be my favourite Gang Starr album because I have so many great memories attached to that record. “Words From The Genius” by The Genius is obviously inferior to “Liquid Swords” but I’m always going to pick “Words From The Genius” because that came out during a great time in my life and “Liquid Swords” came out during a terrible time in my life. So my opinion on those two albums really has nothing to do with the music itself, it’s based on where my life was at the time I ingested the music. So, with this new “Peter Pan Syndrome” record, I understand that now. It’s something that we all do. I mean, if someone says they don’t like the new album, it really doesn’t matter to me. If someone says, ‘Well, it’s no “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes”‘ then that tells me they were probably twenty-one years-old when that album came out with no responsibilities and now they’re probably married to a big three-hundred pound woman who’s taking them to court, they’re in a lousy job and they’re like, ‘”Peter Pan Syndrome”? Whatever, man….'”

But “Peter Pan Syndrome” should really be the album that does resonate with that person in their mid-thirties who’s not really sure where there life is at right now…

“Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s why people like the “Jackin’ For Basquiats” track that I did so much because a lot of people’s favourite artists are out of touch. Now, I don’t really fault the artist because as you start to make money you get into buying million dollar paintings and business franchises. That’s natural. But you’re audience isn’t really going to change with you. The difference between me and Jay-Z is that he started from the bottom and made it to the top, whereas I came in at a certain level and stayed there the entire time (laughs). Regardless of what they sold, my records have always been made for the same guy, that blue-collar regular motherfu**er. Even though “Music For Tu Madre” was a much different record to “Peter Pan Syndrome”, both albums were made for the guy that’s in the same tax bracket then as he is now. I’ve always made records for the same person. I mean, even as I got older and more polished with my production and some of my records became less slapstick and clownish, all the records were still very youthful. Even though “To Love A Hooker” might be a little more mature than “A Bottle Of Whup Ass”, they’re all youthful records. I started my recording career at twenty-one and now I’m thirty-six, but my records have always been youthful, just in different ways.”

So with any music you’re making now it’s about balancing that youthful energy and humour with an honest reflection of being an underground musician in his thirties…

“Yeah and it’s a balance that I’m trying to maintain. See, I’m in an odd position. Like I said in my book, you have different types of artists. You have artists who became so successful that when their music career died down, they were already involved in other things. Someone like a Sticky Fingaz was doing the acting thing, Xzibit had the “Pimp My Ride” thing. It’s almost like rap was a springboard for them. They came in as artists but then they were able to use that to go in other directions with their careers. They never had to go into the nine-to-five world when the music started drying up a little. Then you have rappers who always had a day job. They’d work during the week and do shows on the weekend or maybe if they did something during the week they had to make sure they got onstage early as they needed to be up for work in the morning. So those guys always had a job on the side while they were also doing the music thing. But I fall into that very small percentage of underground artists who was able to make a living off music for ten years or whatever, but then I reached that point where I had to start looking for other sources of income. So I started looking for work around 2008  which was one of the worst times to be doing that as the economy was so bad. People my age were starting to go back to school because they didn’t know what else to do because they couldn’t find jobs. But I didn’t really have the money to go back to school so I was starting real low in the job market. It took me about a year to find a job for about nine bucks an hour. I hated it. I actually ended up working four jobs, doing about eighty hours a week, napping in the car between jobs so I didn’t get into a damn accident. I had two sports reporting gigs, I had a sales job at a gym and I worked in a school. So I was doing all of that in my early-thirties which is the time in life when you’re supposed to be established. People around you are getting married, having kids, buying houses and I’m like, I can’t do none of that s**t because I’m only earning about eighty bucks a day after working for twelve hours. Of course, being in New York  as well it’s all about class, status and money. So where I might have been able to meet a girl before because I was doing something interesting as J-Zone even though I might still not have had a lot of money, at that point I wasn’t even doing anything interesting and I still didn’t have a lot of money. Then, in the jobs I was doing, I’m getting dicked around by management and whatever. So it was a shock to go from being your own boss, running your own business and being an artist and entertainer, to having to start from the bottom in the worst financial time. It’s a hard pill to swallow. So it gave me an insight into that world that perhaps another artist might not have. You might have other artists taking about similar stuff that I’m talking about on “Peter Pan Syndrome”, like getting older and whatever, but if they’ve not been in that position that I was in then they might not know exactly how dire it is out there. I mean, maybe they are in that position, but not many people really want to talk about it. ”

So that whole employment experience really opened your eyes to a different world?

“Yeah. I mean, I’m not saying that other rappers don’t go through the same stuff I’m talking about, but not everyone wants to be so honest about it and admit that they’ve fallen from grace as they say and have had to start from zero. I mean, there’s really no reset button once you get into your thirties. Everything around you becomes a lot more rigid, it’s harder to change, you can’t undo a lot of s**t because as you get older mistakes are more costly. But it’s a different world out there today. I mean, nobody’s retiring at sixty like our parents did. People are having to work longer, people are changing careers instead of having a job for life. But I had no experience in the nine-to-five world, so going to employment agencies, I’m getting laughed out of there like, ‘What the hell is Old Maid Entertainment?’ I mean, I ran my own business and it took a lot of skill and will power to be able to do that, but they don’t really see that. You get on LinkedIn and all that s**t but that doesn’t make any difference. So you begin to get frustrated because you’re like, ‘Damn! By me dedicating all this time I have to Hip-Hop does this mean I now have to stay where I am for the rest of my life?’ I was scared and I’m still scared because I honestly can’t tell you what my next thing is going to be. I have no clue.”

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“Peter Pan Syndrome” isn’t necessarily the first step in a planned J-Zone rap comeback then?

“Nah, man. To be dead honest, with my life, I see about three months ahead. I don’t look any further than that really. I mean, I’m also helping to take care of my grandmother who’s ninety now. I’m in a very odd situation and in some ways it’s good but in some ways it’s bad. I mean, I’ve been trying to move but if you don’t have a traditional nine-to-five then you can’t rent without showing pay stubs from a steady day-job. It’s hard. There’s just different s**t going on. I’ve already decided that I don’t want to go back to school, partly because I don’t have fifty thousand in expendable cash to throw at a masters degree. I tried to do the teaching thing but then I realised my method of reaching kids when I was working with them wasn’t something that would be accepted by the administration.  It just wasn’t for me. Working with all these baby-boomers who’re pensioned up for life and trying to save their jobs by pushing test scores up but they don’t really give a s**t about the kids. Everybody working there is dysfunctional but then they’re worried about me wearing a weird haircut to work. I just didn’t do well there (laughs). So I kinda used “Peter Pan Syndrome” as a way to laugh at some of that stuff because humour has always been my coping mechanism for serious issues. But right now, I’m scared to death because I have no idea where the f**k my life is at or what’s next. I really don’t.”

I think a lot of people feel that way in today’s world though due to financial issues, lack of job security, relationship problems etc, but you just wouldn’t know it if you believe everything you read on social media…

“Everybody on social media gives you the highlight reel. Nobody wants to show the missed free throws or the bad dunks. Nobody’s going to show you that they missed five shots in a row. They’re only going to show you the highlights of the game because nobody wants to be seen as being less than superhuman. I mean, I’m struggling with a lot of things and to me my music is my outlet. But whenever you create something and come from an honest perspective you run the risk of people ridiculing you like, ‘Okay J-Zone, well why don’t you just go do this…’ but they’re not in your situation. I mean, people see me as just living in my grandmother’s basement or whatever, but taking care of  a senior citizen is a lot of f**kin’ work! It’s not easy. But when you put that stuff out there, people who are in the status quo position will tell those who aren’t in the status quo position that it’s easy to go out and get a high-paid job or get married because they’ve already done it. I mean, my best friend, he works a regular job and he’s like, ‘Okay, to get a job this is what you need to do. Just go to the employment agency, tell them you want work and they’ll give you a job.’ But he’s been working in the regular workforce since he was eighteen and he hasn’t had to look for a new job in about ten years. So he doesn’t really realise how much things have changed and he’s also not going into those employment agencies with a Hip-Hop resume (laughs). So there are all these little details and idiosyncratic things in my life that make it a struggle for me to get to the traditional adult life of nine-to-five job, wife, kids and all of that.”

But is that traditional lifestyle something that you actually want?

“I haven’t figured out exactly what I want yet but I’ve figured out what I don’t want (laughs).”

Sometimes that can be more important…

“Yeah, exactly. I mean, people look at me sideways when I say that I don’t want to have kids right now. But I’ve been something of a caretaker over the years with my grandmother, especially in the last five years or so. I’ve always had some kind of responsibilities so I’ve never really lived that whole wild bachelor drunken lifestyle. So here I am at the age where I feel like I should be settling down, but then on the other-hand I feel like I’m twenty-one and I just want to bomb the f**k out. But when you say something like that it’s easy for people who are in that traditional life to criticize you for it. I mean, I try not to judge people for the decisions they make in life because I’m not there, I’m not them and I don’t know what they’ve been through firsthand. But I know people who aren’t married and who don’t have kids who’ve deleted their Facebook accounts because the pressure was too much and they felt so bad about not being in this so-called ideal situation that they were seeing other people in. They were looking at Facebook like a constant reminder that they’d failed, when, in reality, you don’t know what’s really going on in the lives of those people. You could have a kid, but that kid could be sick. You could be married, but your wife or husband could have a drug problem. You don’t know what’s going on as you’re only getting half the story. As adults, I think we judge each other too quickly without knowing everything that’s going on. I mean, I thought it was bad enough when you went through peer-pressure as a teenager; you’ve gotta drink, you’ve gotta smoke, you’ve gotta have sex. But the pressure I’ve been dealing with in my thirties, that s**t is some major pressure. I mean, I’ve pretty much managed to stay on my course and avoid doing s**t that I don’t want to do, but it f**ks you up because the pressure that I’m dealing with now is based around time because all you hear people say is that time is running out. Which is something that I really wanted to address on “Peter Pan Syndrome”. I mean, there comes a time in everyone’s life where you have to make a decision and live with the consequences. If the pressure’s too much and you don’t really want to have a family or work a square job but you do it out of fear, there’s a chance that in twenty years time you’ll be like, ‘You know what? I’m glad I did it.’ But there’s also a chance that in twenty years you’ll be like, ‘What the f**k did I do?’

It’s like the concept of the mid-life crisis has been reversed now…

“Yeah, definitely. I mean, before, people would say that you were moving too fast, but now they say that you haven’t grown up quick enough (laughs). I mean, since I started promoting “Peter Pan Syndrome” I’ve had friends and other people come to me who are married with kids telling me that they wished they’d done what I did and chased their dreams so at least they would know now how it would have turned out. So I think a lot of what I’m addressing on the album is stuff that everyone around our age goes through in one way or another. Everybody wants the life that they don’t have (laughs).”

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So have you taken away any particular life lessons from your experiences over the last five years since you attempted to enter the regular world?

“I’ve learned how much life sucks when you stop dreaming. I mean, you do have to take care of your responsibilities and you do have to accept reality, which is something that I accepted when my music career didn’t end the way I wanted it to. I can live with that. I can accept it. But even though I’m not ever going to go around being the successful rapper supreme, which was never a realistic goal anyway, just being able to keep creating and making music is what keeps me feeling young and alive. I mean, I wanted to die when I was just doing straight work and didn’t have any creative outlets. When I love something, I don’t believe in outgrowing it. I mean, you might outgrow going out to the club and getting drunk every night, but when it comes to music, hairstyles, clothing, I still like the same stuff that I liked as a teenager (laughs). I just never outgrew Hip-Hop but you’re made to feel guilty about that at this age.”

Do you think being so involved in Hip-Hop has held you back in certain areas of life?

“Oh yeah, definitely. I think by me pursuing music and Hip-Hop seriously as a career when I was twenty-two, I unknowingly sacrificed a lot. The difference between then and now is that I know I’m digging myself into a hole by continuing to do this. When you’re young, the field is level, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become very aware of the fact that people who aren’t in this world really don’t respect the s**t. I mean, when you take that path and then later in life you start looking at women you might want to date or friends who have families, they’re looking at you like you’re crazy for still being involved in this. So for those of us who went the musician route full-time in our twenties and became accustomed to that lifestyle, now that we’re older, we’re realising, not that it was a mistake, but that we’re on a different boat with a different destination that’s riding a different current. You can’t really explain it. So unless you’re a huge successful artist, if you’re just a blue-collar musician still out there grinding, you just have to get used to people asking you all the time, ‘When are you going to wake up, give it up and come over to this side in the regular world?’ Well, I tried it and I couldn’t get any respect. People say go get a job? I went and got four jobs and I still couldn’t make a living (laughs). I was physically falling apart and I was broke and miserable. So I decided that if I was going to be broke and miserable, I’d rather be broke sitting up here having fun, writing books and making music in my own situation. I tried following the rules and that s**t didn’t work. At least now, even though my future has a huge question mark over it, I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”

So depending on how well “Peter Pan Syndrome” is received, will there be another J-Zone album in the pipeline?

“Like I said, I live maybe two or three months ahead, man. Would I like to get some production work? Yeah. Would I like to get some deejay gigs? Yeah. I’m still learning as a drummer, but a couple of people have already hit me up for some breaks so maybe I can find a niche doing that. I really just want to find my niche. I’m not really interested in re-entering the Hip-Hop arena and competing with other artists. I just want people to know they can come to J-Zone for something specific. I want to have certain things that I do very well, whether that be with the music or writing, and I’ll do those things as an independent contractor. Maybe scoring music for films and TV or doing voice-overs, things like that. I just want to solidify my brand, do certain things that only I can do, and build J-Zone into this entity that might not be famous but is hopefully something that I can turn into a decent living. That’s really all I can hope to get from it, man.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow J-Zone on Twitter @JZoneDontTweet and visit GoVillainGo.Com for more info.

J-Zone – “Gadget Ho” (Old Maid Entertainment / 2013)

Old To The New Q&A (Part Four) – Daddy-O

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In the final part of my interview with founding Stetsasonic member Daddy-O, the veteran artist discusses hearing Prince Paul’s work with De La Soul for the first time in the late-80s, recording Stet’s 1991 album “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” and seeing the music business from the inside out as an executive throughout the 90s – check Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Alongside DBC you produced the majority of UK rap act the Cookie Crew’s 1989 debut album “Born This Way!”. How did you approach that particular project?

“Let me say one thing, the Cookie Crew album was one of the most fun projects I ever did. Those two girls delivered everything I expected. Plus, we got to do some stuff musically that I’d wanted to do for a long, long time. I mean, “Shaft In Africa”, I’d been wanting to sample that on a record (laughs). It just never worked out with anybody. I mean, can you imagine me trying to use that sample on an Audio Two record? Really, man, working with the Cookie Crew I was having flashbacks to those old Grandmaster Flash tapes that I used to listen to before I started making records. I was thinking of all those breaks that Flash and them were cutting up on those tapes and a lot of those same breaks I was able to use on the Cookie Crew album. I was able to be more uptempo with my production on that project. But I just had such an incredible amount of fun doing that album. Plus, the mixes on that project just came out sounding so good, man. But a lot of that was London too, man. I don’t even remember the studio I was in, but that s**t was incredible, yo. To this day, yo, those mixes hold up against whatever.”

The overall sound of “Born This Way!” has definitely stood the test of time when you go back and listen to it now…

“One memory I have of that album was that working with the Cookie Crew I actually got to feel like a real producer. But I also had a weird experience with that record, and I don’t mind talking about it as I’ll talk about anything (laughs). So the Cookie Crew was done with me and DBC. The way that whole record came about was through Lisa Cortes, who’s now in film, but she was working at Rush and started this thing called Rush Producer Management, RPM. Basically, the whole idea was that they could have this whole other stream of income because they had groups like Stetsasonic with producers like Daddy-O and Prince Paul, Public Enemy who had the Bomb Squad, Grandmaster Dee out of Whodini and a few other people they were grabbing who were either the deejay or the production arm of groups that Rush was already managing. But when the Cookie Crew album first dropped we got a really good first review here in the States, but that first review was mentioning me and not DBC and he thought I did that. Now, even though we still talk, that was a real glitch in our relationship at the time. It was a really weird kinda situation, because I would never try to take any shine from him or nothing.”

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There were a few US / UK collaborations happening at that time in the late-80s with Ice-T signing Hijack, Professor Griff producing for the She-Rockers, you and DBC working with the Cookie Crew. It was a big deal to UK Hip-Hop heads because it really felt like the talent we had in our scene was being acknowledged and taken seriously…

“Exactly. But that was definitely a great experience for me working with the Cookie Crew on that first album. Then I also went on to produce the title track on their second project “Fade To Black”.”

Stepping back a little, can you remember the first time you heard any of the material Prince Paul had been working on for De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising” album?

“So Prince Paul came to me with the “Plug Tunin'” record before it came out and I really don’t know how to explain what I felt the first time I heard it. It was like the first time you heard Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin'” or Audio Two’s “Top Billin'”. It just had a totally unique sound to it. I was like, ‘Yo, I don’t even know what to say (laughs). I can get a deal with this for your tomorrow’ and Paul was like, ‘Cool!’ So I go see Ice-T and Jorge Hinojosa who I had a great relationship with and they were ready to set me up with Seymour Stein at Sire to talk about a great deal. I went to see Joel Webber who was over at Island, God bless the dead. He also liked the record. Then for safe-keeping I let Monica Lynch at Tommy Boy hear “Plug Tunin'” as well. I mean, really, I wasn’t even thinking about De La signing to Tommy Boy because we were signed to them as Stetsasonic and I wasn’t really in love with our deal to be honest with you. But I did it so that at least if a bidding war started then we had another label there. So within a week those three labels had all heard “Plug Tunin'”. By the following Monday, De La Soul were in the office at Tommy Boy and Monica was already offering them a deal. I was telling Paul that I had these other people over at these other labels who were interested but he was like, ‘The guys just want to go…'”

So De La’s Tommy Boy deal literally happened that fast?

“Yeah, that De La deal with Tommy Boy happened really, really fast. But musically, here’s what I thought. I thought that Paul had a bunch of silly things that he wanted to do. I mean, I think that you can hear that to a degree on some of the Stet records with tracks like “Music For The Stetfully Insane” and particularly on the “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” album with tracks like “Your Mother Has Green Teeth” and “Paul’s A Sucker”. I mean, some of those tracks could have easily been De La records. So, I thought that De La was the perfect outlet for Paul to be able to do that kind of stuff. But going back to “Music For The Stetfully Insane”, I think that track has one of the best Hip-Hop stories ever because Paul actually went on to make an album with Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic and all that track actually is was Bernie playing on the keyboard being sampled by Paul with a little bit of George Clinton thrown in there saying, ‘Good eeeevening.’ So that track was so prophetic almost because Paul then went on to do that album with Bernie and I think that’s so dope.”

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During that late-80s period you were producing and remixing for a variety of artists from different musical genres such as Levert, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Third World etc. Had you made a conscious decision to start working with people outside of Hip-Hop or did that happen purely through opportunities presenting themselves?

“I think it was both. I think it really started off with people just giving me different opportunities, but then once I actually took those opportunities  I started to see what it could become. It opened me up to the possibility that I could do certain things with other artists outside of Hip-Hop. But at the same time, as much as my skill set as a producer was increasing thanks to some of those outside opportunities, the fun level also increased for me as well. I mean, when you’re in there doing remixes for a group like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you’re able to mess around with all these different sounds that maybe I wasn’t able to before. Then it just becomes really fun and that’s exactly what happened and I just started working with more artists.”

So with both yourself and Prince Paul having been involved in different creative ventures during the years immediately following the “In Full Gear” album, what was the overall mindset of Stetsasonic when you started to work on 1991’s “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” project?

“It was very scattered. I mean, there are a couple of things about that album. Around fall of last year, I put the record on repeat for about three weeks and I remember calling Bobby Simmons almost every day like, ‘This album is a lot better than I thought.’ I hadn’t listened to that album for a long, long time. But after picking it up and listening to it over and over I definitely felt it was better than I thought it was. There are some really good moments on that record. But the mindset of the group at the time we were recording it was very, very scattered. Frukwan had left the group, which happened pretty shortly after we’d finished “In Full Gear”. We went back and forth on a couple of things but finally he just walked. Now, we knew we weren’t going to stop making music as Stetsasonic, but when we started making “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” almost everyone came to the project from their own perspective. Bobby came with his records, I came with tracks that I thought we should have been using, Paul came with his records and DBC came with his material as well. So we weren’t really working on tracks together like we had done on previous albums. It was just all very scattered.”

Is that why each format of “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” contained a number of different tracks because you’d amassed so much material with everyone bringing their different ideas to the table?

“No, that was just something that we decided to do to make things interesting. But that whole period was a very interesting time for us as a group. There wasn’t a whole bunch of clarity in terms of what we were doing. I mean, at that time, I was more of a producer then I was an artist to be honest and so was Paul. We’d both established strong identities in the music business that went beyond him being the deejay for Stetsasonic and me being an emcee in the group. In some ways, you could say the identities we’d built at that time were even greater than what we were known for within Stetsasonic. I mean, looking back on that period now, my opinion is obviously worth just one-sixth of what actually happened and everyone else would have their own opinion. But looking back on it, I would probably say that created some kind of thoughts from the rest of the guys who, when they came to the table for that album, Stet was all they had. So there wasn’t a whole bunch of other things going on for them. I mean, I’m saying I gave “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” my best, but who knows? I’m sure that from the point of view of the other guys, they might have looked at it like Paul and I didn’t put in as much as we could have done because of everything else we had going on. But like I said, when I listen back to the record now, there’s definitely some good material on there.”

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After “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” the group seemed to drift apart into different things. You continued producing and remixing for the likes Mary J. Blige and then dropped your 1993 solo album, Paul had set-up Dewdooman Records and then reunited with Frukwan for 1994’s Gravediggaz album. Did that separation happen organically or was there a moment where different members perhaps felt the group had run its course?

“It really just happened organically. I mean, there’s never going to be a time when as a group Stetsasonic is over because of the chemistry there is between us. Which is kind of what amazes us with Frukwan, but he’s a stubborn guy (laughs). But I mean, when you formulated what we did, and you have that kind of bond as a group, when it’s gone you really do miss it. I mean, we may not be the best act in the world or whatever, but we’re very good at what we do. The last show we did together was back in 2009 at the Knitting Factory in New York and we killed it. So there’s never been a time when we’ve said that the group is over. So after “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” I guess to say things moved on organically is probably the best way to describe it. I mean, we did what we did, and then life kinda continued on. I mean, at that time I always had the idea in my head about some kinda solo piece. Delite did too, I just don’t know why he’s never done it, although he said he’s actually working on it now. But at that time I really didn’t know what that solo project would sound like or what it was going to be. I actually cut a whole solo record before I did the “You Can Be A Daddy, But Never Daddy-O” album in 1993.”

Was there a major difference between that unreleased album and the music that ended-up on the “You Can Be A Daddy…” release?

“I’m sitting on it right now. It was called “The Odad, The Gun & The Children” and it was a beast. “You Can Be A Daddy…” was more towards bouncy, kinda fun production. My main concept on that whole record was what the reggae guys call ‘voicing’. So if you listen to tracks like “Intro Joint” or the “Swung It, Blunted, Brung It” record I was staunch on how I was voicing the tracks on that album and I achieved what I was trying to do. I mean, I like the record a lot but that’s mainly because of the voicing. But there isn’t really anything particularly deep on that record. In comparison, “The Odad, The Gun & The Children” was a very deep record. That project was all about politics, society and things like that. I mean, that whole album could have been the soundtrack to the Trayvon Martin case. It’s that intense.”

So why did “The Odad…” never come out?

“What happened was, I actually recorded “The Odad…” when I was on Tommy Boy and I turned the album in. Monica Lynch looked me in my face and told me we had two choices. She said that Tommy Boy really didn’t know what the album was, so they could put it out, but it would be with no promotion because they didn’t understand the project or know how to promote it. Or, she said they could just sign me a release and I could leave the label and take the record with me. So I left and took the record.”

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So was there a reason why you then decided to release a different album and recorded “You Can Be A Daddy, But Never Daddy-O” rather than put “The Odad…” out through Island?

“I actually attempted another album even before “You Can Be A Daddy…” came out. I attempted to do the type of thing that Uptown were doing with Father MC and Teddy Riley was doing with Heavy D. It sounded like crap, so I erased the tracks (laughs). But I attempted to do it.”

So was that your attempt to mesh what you were known for in Stet with the New Jack Swing / Hip-Hop Soul sound you’d been dabbling in through your production work for other artists?

“I think it was really just me trying to figure out what I should sound like in that particular year. So I came up with the idea of trying the Hip-Hop / R&B thing. I mean, I had enough production staff and singers around me at the time to really be able to try it out. I think I tried two or three tracks and once I listened back to them I just thought, ‘I can’t really do this.’ It was just too soft for my liking. But I think ‘You Can Be A Daddy…” was just a better fit all-round at the time in terms of me being able to do some of the things I wanted to do as an emcee on there. I didn’t have to get too deep politically on that album and it really allowed me to play around with some different production styles on there as well. I have no complaints about that record. PolyGram was so-so as a label but I had a good run with that album. I went number one on radio in a couple of regions with “Brooklyn Bounce”, I got out to tour and it was cool.”

Following the release of “You Can Be A Daddy…” you then made the switch from artist to music exec spending much of the mid-to-late 90s working for MCA and Motown. How have the experiences you had during that period influenced what you’re doing now with some of the digital business ventures you’re currently involved in?

“The reason I went to work for labels was to prove my friends wrong. My friends used to always tell me that labels would shelve artists and do this or that to them and I used to always say, ‘Nah. Artists are doing that to themselves. Why would a label shelve an artist? They’ve got a vested interest in these people…’ So I was always a naysayer back in the day when it came to that stuff. So my decision to start working for a label was based on me wanting to prove my friends wrong, get behind the veil so to speak and really figure some of that stuff out. So lo and behold, my friends were right (laughs). There were artists being put on the shelf and labels were doing all kinds of shifty things behind the scenes. So I learnt a lot about corporate lifestyle which was invaluable and I really was able to experience the business from the inside out. But ultimately, I was out of there, because I didn’t fit. I was yelling at the boss (laughs). I mean, if I thought a record was wack then I’d say so. I just didn’t believe that we were going to be able to convince people that a record was good if it was wack.”

So you were still looking at label projects primarily from a creative viewpoint rather than purely from a business angle?

“As an artist, I’ve always believed that if you do the right thing creatively then you’re going to stop traffic. If you hit the right note or say the right rhyme, everybody is going to be still and listen. It’s like that Eric B. & Rakim “My Melody” moment at the Latin Quarter that I was talking about earlier. I mean, I remember the Aleems who worked with Jimi Hendrix telling me that Jimi had once told them that artists go through life thinking that we control music, but really music controls us and it moves through us at particular times. I mean, that’s pretty profound and I kinda think the same way. But when I was at the labels, there were a lot of artists who just really weren’t putting that work in and I was saying so. But during that time I was really able to learn the inner-workings of a record label and the music industry which has been very relevant to what I’ve been doing now with some of the digital solutions stuff that I’ve been working on. Structurally the record business never had it wrong as it was always smart to have the marketing department, the radio department, the publicity department etc. What we didn’t like was the fat cats getting all the money while everyone else was running around like worker ants or something. So the economic structure of the music business was wrong. Now, for five or six years, they’ve been telling these kids that you don’t need a label, but it wasn’t the structure of the labels that was wrong, it was the economics behind it. So my challenge now with this company I’m heading-up, Cogo Fusion, is to digitize that experience. The easiest way for me to describe it is to say that it’s a record company in a box, even though that doesn’t totally sum-up what I’m trying to do with this. But I’m putting all of the experience I’ve had in the music business into this.”

Final question, do you think we’ll ever see another Stetsasonic album?

“I think so. I’ve been working on my own album for about three years now and I’ve almost finished that. So I think once they hear my record, we’ll be able to do something. Now, when I say hear my record, I don’t mean when I actually put it out, I mean when I have the opportunity to play it to the rest of the group because I haven’t been able to let anybody hear it yet. I want the group to hear where I’ve gone with it and I think that could help with the evolution of where we can go with what we’re doing as Stetsasonic. I think I’ve found a way to make grown Hip-Hop that isn’t based on being an older artist who feels like they have to keep reminding people all the time of what they’ve already done, if that makes sense. But what I’d want to see more than anything else when it came down to Stet, was us being able to make a new album with Frukwan. That’s the one thing I would really like to see happen because I don’t think I want to make another record without him. I just miss that voice, man. So that’s my dream, to make another Stetsasonic album with everyone involved.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow Daddy-O on Twitter – @ProfessorDaddyO

Stetsasonic – “No B.S. Allowed” (Tommy Boy Records / 1991)

Old To The New Q&A (Part Three) – Daddy-O

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In the third part of my interview with Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O, the talented producer-on-the-mic talks about working with the Audio Two, recording the timeless classic “Talkin’ All That Jazz”  and why Stet were always welcome in Miami – check Part One and Part Two.

1987 was a busy year for Daddy-O outside of Stetsasonic with you being involved in producing MC Watchout & DJ OZ’s “Blind Man’s Bluff” plus Positive K’s “Quarter Gram Pam” and Audio Two’s “Make It Funky” / “Top Billin'” singles which were both on First Priority. How did you come to work so closely with the First Priority label?

“Okay, so Delite was really the catalyst for that. Back then, Red Alert had this night at the Latin Quarter which used to be on a Tuesday, like an after-work night. It wasn’t all Hip-Hop, but it was still a Red Alert night. Now first of all, and I’ve said this before, without Delite there would have been no Stetsasonic. Just like Delite could probably say that without Daddy-O there would have been no Stet. But my reasons for saying that and his reasons would be totally different (laughs). Now, the reason I can say that without Delite there’d be no Stet, is because I hated everything. I hated everything, yo. I was such a hater back then (laughs). One time, Delite went to see Flash and them at the Peppermint Lounge and he came back saying how great it was. I was like, ‘F**k them, man. Are they better than us?’ I hated everything (laughs). Delite always used to tell me, ‘Just do it better. And if you’re not going to do it better than don’t talk to me about it, D.’ So Delite was the quintessential taste-maker in my opinion. He was the guy who knew everything that was going on just to try and figure out what was going to happen next. So Delite was hanging out at the Latin Quarter on a Tuesday night when everybody else was doing Friday and Saturday nights. I’m like, ‘What the f**k are you going down there on a Tuesday for?’ Delite would be like, ‘Red Alert’s playing and your man Lumumba be down there sometimes..’ and I was just like, ‘Whatever, man.’ So Delite was staying with me at the time and he always used to come back from those Tuesday nights singing ‘I like cherries ‘cos cherries taste better….’ and I’d be like, ‘What the hell are you singing?’ Delite would keep telling me that I had to hear this Audio Two song. Now, Delite ain’t got no singing voice either, so he was making it sound even worse, right (laughs). But Delite was like, ‘Yo, you’ve got to hear this record.’ But it was only Red Alert who was playing it and he was only playing it on a Tuesday night at the Latin Quarter. I don’t know if he couldn’t or wouldn’t play it on the radio, but he was only playing it on these Tuesday nights. So I went with Delite one night and I heard the record. Now, Delite had been trying to describe the record to me and had told me it was this bugged out song that sounded like nothing you’d ever heard before. But when I actually heard the record, I liked it.”

So how did that lead to you actually connecting with the Audio Two?

“What happened was, Stetsasonic had got a nice little name in the city. We started getting around. Now, we were doing a release party that was going to be at the Palladium. Not the main part of the Palladium, but the Michael Todd Room which was still a nice venue. We invited all these people and Tommy Boy invited a lot of people as well. So Nat Robinson from First Priority came along with MC Lyte and the Audio Two. I looked Milk in his face and was like, ‘Yo! If you ever need anyone to produce for you, then I’m here.’ Milk was like, ‘Word?!’ So I told him that I really liked their stuff a lot and next thing Milk was calling to Nat, ‘Dad! Dad! Daddy-O said he’ll produce us! Daddy-O said he’ll produce us!’ So Nat was just like, ‘Okay, we’ll talk about it.’ So that’s how I ended up working with the Audio Two and MC Lyte. Now, I’m trying to think how I got hooked-up with Positive K. I almost want to say that I got with Pos K through Lumumba Carson…

Because Lumumba was managing Positive K during the same period he was managing Stetsasonic, right?

“Yeah, that’s right. So I got hooked up with Positive K through Lumumba. But now that you’re saying it, I guess my mind just wasn’t on it that “Quarter Gram Pam” was on First Priority as well (laughs). I remember making “Quarter Gram Pam” before we did “Top Billin'”….”

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After Stet’s “Go Stetsa I”, Audio Two’s “Top Billin'” was the second official Brooklyn anthem you had a hand in producing and it had such a unique sound to it. What inspired that beat?

“It’s so funny that you’re saying what you’re saying because both of those records were just great mistakes (laughs). Like I explained earlier, “Go Stetsa” was a great mistake with us bringing in the live drummer to do the fills and rolls etc. Now, before I did “Top Billin'” for the Audio Two I was working on their single “Make It Funky”. Now, I’m in Staten Island at Nat Robinson’s crib which was Milk and Giz’s crib as well. I’d programmed the SP-12 to do some things for “Make It Funky”. I go upstairs to talk to Nat or whatever and Milk calls up from the studio and is like, ‘Yo! You’ve got to hear something I just did.’ We’re like, ‘Okay, what’s he done now.’ I mean, if anyone was going to be the producer in Audio Two it was going to be Giz anyway, right. Now, I’d been trying to sample “Impeach The President” but the SP-12 only gave you x-amount of time, so Milk couldn’t get the full loop in there. So all he got was the ‘boom-boom-kick’ and that was it. So now Milk has that boom and kick up in the SP bouncing against my “Make It Funky” drum pattern. So we heard it and thought it was dope and then Milk is like, ‘I wrote something…’ and he did the whole thing right there. Milk looked at me and was like, ‘Daddy-O, should I make it longer?’ and I said ‘F**k no!’ I knew exactly what we were going to do with that record and I told Milk right there, ‘This is a Red Alert classic. We’re going to go ahead and do this “Make It Funky” track but we’re not going to tell anyone about this “Top Billin'” record.’ The plan was to make the deejays feel like they found it themselves on the b-side of the single and it worked.”

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1987 also saw Stetsasonic drop the “A.F.R.I.C.A.” single which made a huge political statement against apartheid. Was that track something that the group wanted to do initially or was it something that Tommy Boy instigated?

“It was actually initiated by Tommy Boy but in a weird kind of way. Now, that track did end up on “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” but that was just because the Norman Cook remix was so hot and I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve got to put this on something.’ “A.F.R.I.C.A” would never have made it onto any album if Norman Cook never did that remix. His remix made me feel like it was something that I could put on an album. The original version, which I love, I just loved it being what it was as a single. So the original version of “A.F.R.I.C.A.” was a stand-alone piece that was what I always call Stetsasonic’s longest running record, meaning that long after that record was off radio, the Africa Fund had worked with us to put teaching guides in schools and all of that, so that record was constantly being used and referred to long after it came out. Now, what happened was, through Monica Lynch at Tommy Boy we met a guy from ABC 20/20 called Danny Schechter. He used to call himself Danny Schechter The News Dissector and he became a good friend of mine. Danny was just one of those erratic white guys, scruffy beard, almost looked like Captain Kangaroo, who was probably one of the earliest versions of a WikiLeaks or something like that. He was always challenging everything like, ‘This is what’s really going on.’ So he had an idea that he had taken to Monica with no particular group in mind. He said to her that apartheid in South Africa was a big issue and that he didn’t understand why no rappers were covering it. So, Monica brought the idea of doing the record to us. She told us that they were going to talk about doing a song to some of the other groups on the label as well, but that she wanted to hear what we thought about it. I immediately said yes, went home and did a little bit of research. Danny actually had a video tape and it was heart-wrenching watching that for the first time and seeing everything that was going on in South Africa…”

At the time apartheid was a topic that nobody really wanted to speak on in the Western world because, regardless of your skin colour, it was almost impossible to talk about it without having to confront certain uncomfortable contributing issues…

“Right, right. Absolutely. So Dan showed us this tape and straight away I was like, ‘We’re going to do it.’ Now, Delite, that was one thing that he wasn’t really with initially, but Frukwan definitely was. So we went into the studio, Frukwan, myself and Wise. Now the beat for “A.F.R.I.C.A.”, that came from Wise with him beat-boxing and we took that and made it into a beat. Then me and Frukwan wrote the rhyme. We wrote the whole thing. So by the time we brought Delite, Paul and DBC in, they were like, ‘Yo, that’s kinda hot.’ I showed Delite where he was going to fit in and that was it. We did it and it really worked out. Looking back on it, what was interesting was that “A.F.R.I.C.A.” was our first video as Stetsasonic. We used to have big fights with Tommy Boy because Monica Lynch used to say that videos didn’t sell records. So we never got the videos that you saw other artists at that time getting from their labels. So with “A.F.R.I.C.A.”, we were happy to be getting a video.”

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That record really made a big impact at the time because this was before the likes of Public Enemy and KRS-One were really dealing with politics in a major way in their music…

“Yeah, definitely. But it was really that 1990 Wembley performance in London for Nelson Mandela that opened a lot up for us. Even though we’d done a lot of other things around the record and apartheid with people like Jesse Jackson, that Wembley performance really opened things up. The crowd were receptive to what we were saying and that was great. I mean, that was a great day for us as a group. Going back to when Kevin Porter used to mentor us, he always used to tell us not to just look at ourselves as a rap group, but to look at ourselves as entertainers who could be on a par with a Prince or a Michael Jackson, who just happened to rap. So that performance at Wembley let us feel like we were real entertainers. I remember, we met Terence Trent D’Arby, Patti Labelle, Neil Young and just an array of entertainers who were huge at the time. Me and Bono from U2 were talking, just kickin’ it, and that was dope because we were being accepted by everyone. I remember Denzel Washington was there, we performed that song, I walked offstage and Denzel hugged me. But it just felt like the other artists there understood what we were trying to do and that was always something that Delite and I wanted to do for Hip-Hop, to get people to understand what Hip-Hop was about and what it could be. I mean, I’m still the same way today because I still think a lot of people have got it twisted in terms of what they think we are.”

Would you say “A.F.R.I.C.A.” was the catalyst which led to you addressing other political issues on 1988’s “In Full Gear” album with tracks like “Freedom Or Death”?

“I’d say yes, but in a weird way (laughs). I mean, “Freedom Or Death”  was something I made for Sonny Carson. That was always his line. I mean there were different things happening in New York at the time, there was the whole Yusef Hawkins thing, and Sonny had this whole ‘freedom or death’ thing that he was doing in response to that. Lumumba Carson and them hadn’t made any records yet. He wasn’t Professor X yet and there was no X-Clan at this point. So there was really no voice at that time to express what Sonny was talking about. I sat with Sonny one day and he explained the whole freedom or death concept to me and he said it exactly the way I wrote it. So I would say that “A.F.R.I.C.A.” did have something to do with us touching on other issues because making that record let us know that we could cover certain issues as a group because the challenge had been how do we make a record about something like apartheid and make it fun? I mean, you could make message records all day, but they’re not necessarily going to be hot. Plus, it wasn’t like we were making a song like Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” that was about the general ghetto that a lot of people already knew about or could relate to. There were specific names of people who were involved in apartheid in South Africa and different things that were going on, so in order to really express what was happening we knew that we had to put all of that into the record. We knew it wouldn’t have been enough to just gloss over it and say that apartheid was going on and that people shouldn’t like what was happening. We knew that wasn’t going to work. We had to go into detail. So then it was about how do we make that fun for people to listen to. But once we’d done it, that first time, we realised that there was no telling what we could do musically. So “A.F.R.I.C.A.” definitely opened up something for us as far as that was concerned and introduced us to being able to make songs about specific things. I mean, when we were recording “On Fire”, there were songs on there about specific things as well, but it was more about us being Stetsasonic…”

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There was definitely a noticeable amount of artistic growth between “On Fire” and “In Full Gear”…

“Right, right. Well, you’ve probably heard Chuck D’s story about how Stetsasonic and Public Enemy went on tour together and three albums came out of that tour bus – “In Full Gear”, “It Takes A Nation Of Millions…” and “3 Feet High And Rising”. I mean, whilst Public Enemy were making “Nation” we were making “In Full Gear”, so we were bouncing ideas off of each other all the time. But one story I always remember about “A.F.R.I.C.A.” is when we were on tour with MC Hammer, Public Enemy, EPMD and 2 Live Crew. I can’t remember exactly what year this was, but it was heyday Hammer, “U Can’t Touch This” Hammer. We were doing different spots and on some dates you got all of the groups, other times you might just get three of us. But as Stetsasonic we were used to opening up and we would trade with EPMD, so one night it was them opening and the next night it was us. Anyway, this one night, Hammer had flown in on his private jet, EPMD had opened up, we were getting ready to go onstage and the promoter came to us and said that Hammer was going on before us. We were like, ‘What?!’ I mean, when I say this was heyday Hammer, he had the full stage show with all the dancers and everything. So there was nothing we would do about it. Hammer went out there and killed it and then we’ve got to go on after that. So the rest of the group are looking at me like, ‘What are we going to do now, D?’ I was like, ‘I know how we’re going to do this. I want you to come out with me first Paul.’ Everyone was like, ‘Huh?!’ because the way we used to do it was the band would go out first and play a little, then introduce Frukwan, he would introduce Delite and then Delite would introduce me and we’d do the show. But I wanted Paul to just come out with me and I told him to get “A.F.R.I.C.A.” ready. So we went out there and I got on some real preacher s**t. I was saying how for years Black people had been singing and dancing. I made Hammer look like it was buffoonery that he’d just done (laughs). I talked a little about apartheid, told Paul to drop the beat, the rest of the group came out and we performed “A.F.R.I.C.A.” first before we did all our other records that people wanted to hear.”

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When you recorded “Talkin’ All That Jazz” were you expecting it to play such a large part in the debate surrounding sampling at the time?

“Absolutely not. “Talkin’ All That Jazz” was the only record on “In Full Gear” that I wrote for all three of us, me, Delite and Frukwan. Now, there’s a radio show in New York called The Week In Review with Bob Slade which is still on today. It’s a very, very informative show where they highlight certain things and talk about different issues. So what happened was, James Mtume was a guest on the radio show and he was talking about how Hip-Hop was creating this generation of uncreative musicians through sampling. He’s saying how it’s making people lazy and how the people who’re sampling don’t know how to play instruments or really know anything about music, blah, blah, blah. Now, I wasn’t able to be a guest on that particular show, but then Bob Slade brought me up on another show and I was able to talk about sampling from our perspective. So it kinda kept going back and forth between me and Mtume, but not directly. Now, Delite had already come up with the idea of doing a record called “Talkin’ All That Jazz”, but his idea was to do something similar to what Guru and Premier did later with “Jazz Music” and “Jazz Thing”. Delite wanted to do a record like that, really showing the similarities between Hip-Hop and jazz. We also wanted to show how, not being disrespectful, but in the same way that people thought Kenny G and Najee was real jazz, we felt the same thing was going to happen with Hip-Hop and that our own Coltranes and all of that would be pushed to the side if we weren’t being mindful. So that was originally what we wanted to do with “Talkin’ All That Jazz” and Delite had also come up with the idea of using the Lonnie Liston Smith “Expansions” sample.

Were you already a fan of “Expansions”?

“Yeah, yeah. I mean, “Expansions” was one of the records that people used to play out in the parks at those jams back in Brooklyn in the 70s. So I thought the original idea was cool and we were going to do it. But when this whole Mtume thing came up, I told Delite and Frukwan that I was going to write “Talkin’ All That Jazz” about that situation. I remember them both saying to me, ‘Are you sure, D?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this.’ So I put it together. Then we went in the studio and we tried to sample “Expansions” but it was too fast, so we slowed it down but it didn’t sound right. I guess if the time-stretch stuff that they use nowadays had been available then we would have done that. But it wasn’t. So, Prince Paul was already in the studio at this point working with De La Soul and Don Newkirk was also involved in some of those sessions. So Paul just said we should let Don play it. Bobby Simmons said that we needed to have it played using this cello type sound and when he pulled it up I told Don that’s what we were looking for. So he played those opening bars that you hear on the record. Then Newkirk said he was going to do something else with it, and that’s when he added some of the other keyboard parts that you hear on there. Then Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy had to get me on the phone with Lonnie Liston Smith for the rights to use his record. I remember I got on the phone and Lonnie said to me, ‘Young blood, you can have that, man. That ain’t “Expansions” no more, you done made something new.'”

Which basically proved the exact point you were trying to make with the record…

“It did (laughs). I couldn’t believe he was saying that to me. I remember him saying how he was proud of us for taking his music and making something new out of it.”

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Throughout “In Full Gear” you made a handful of references to Miami and there was also the track “Miami Bass”. What was your preoccupation with Miami at the time you were recording that album?

“At that time, I’ll tell you what it was in one word…

The girls?

“No, it was Luke (laughs). When Stetsasonic went to Miami for the first time when we did the Def Jam tour in 87 with LL Cool J, Luke took care of me like, man, I don’t really know how to describe it. It was like the royal guard came out for me or something, yo. He took me to the ‘hood and showed me around and from that point on there was like a carte blanch thing going on with Stetsasonic in Miami. All the way down to Luke telling us what to perform in Miami. I remember him telling us to perform “On Fire” and saying that they didn’t know anything else that we did down there (laughs). I was like, ‘They like “On Fire”?!’ and Luke said, ‘It’s the bass! That’s what they listen to down here.’ I was smoking weed at the time and I remember Luke taking me to this guy’s house to pick some up and when the guy opened the door he started jumping up and down saying ‘You’re “On Fire”?! “On Fire”, “On Fire”?!’ Luke really laid it out and it was such a great experience for us, particularly in contrast with other people on the tour like LL. He had a lot of pressure at the time and they didn’t really like him down there. But one thing about Stet which I really think went a long way towards how people accepted us was that we never sneered our noses at anybody. We always let the music speak for itself and we really won a lot of people over that way. I remember we were on tour in the Midwest one time with Public Enemy and we were getting ready to perform. There was this dude there who was saying, ‘Ya’ll Stetsasonic? Yeah, I like you, y’all okay, but Public Enemy are my boys.’ He had a little money and whatever.  I’ll never forget, we did the show, and he left Public Enemy and took us to the club and brought us all champagne (laughs).”

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You were featured some years back in Mikey D’s documentary “The Making Of A Legend” commenting on his infamous battle with Melle Mel at the 1988 New Music Seminar. What do you remember about that incident?

“That was just a horrible night, man. I don’t think anyone is ever going to forget what happened that night. I mean, I tell people all the time, when they’re talking about the greatest emcee to ever live, I always say Melle Mel. When people talk about the greatest rhyme ever recorded, I always say it’s Melle Mel’s rhyme on “Beat Street Breakdown”…

Melle Mel will always be one of my favourite emcees and personally I think his three greatest lyrical moments are “The Message”, “Beat Street Breakdown” and “World War III”…

“Yeah, I mean that rhyme on “Beat Street Breakdown” just encompasses everything. He didn’t miss out anything on that record. It’s all there. So I say all of that almost as a disclaimer because Mel will always be my hero. But, when it comes down to it, a battle is a battle. So he tried to come at Mikey D with some rhymes that he’d done before and Mikey really isn’t the type of emcee to come at or go up against like that. Mike is nice. So Mel came at him and Mikey tossed him (laughs). Then Melle Mel got physically mad and went and took the Seminar belt back. It was sad, man. I mean, Mike ain’t no super tough guy but he ain’t from no punk part of Queens either and he had enough massive in there with him that night to have turned that into something totally different. But the respect level was there. So I remember Mikey just looking at Mel, like ‘What?!’ There was definitely a sadness in Mikey that night like, ‘I can’t believe Mel would do that.’ I mean, it was an honour for Mikey to go up against Melle Mel, it would have been an honour for Mikey to have lost to Melle Mel, but he didn’t (laughs). It was tough to see that happen to Mikey, man. But Mel’s got those moments, man. Some years back I worked with a company called Sock Bandit on their documentary “Hip-Hop Immortals”. Now, when we did that we called Mel up to the office, and Melle Mel went on for about forty minutes cursing out 50 Cent and then we found out he didn’t actually know 50 (laughs). It was just weird. So Mel has his moments, man (laughs).”

You produced Bango’s “Ghettoish” for Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate compilation in 1988 and you also worked on a couple of tracks off the 7A3 album “Coolin’ In Cali”. How did you get involved in those two projects?

“The Bango track came about purely through me and Ice-T being cool and him liking me as a producer. He told me that he was working on the Rhyme Syndicate compilation and that he had this kid out of Cleveland with a little street edge to him who he thought I would like. Now, 7A3, I actually knew Sean and Brett already because we were from the same area in Brooklyn. But again, that came through Ice-T and Jorge Hinosoja, because Jorge was involved in putting that project together. Jorge was just a cool dude and when you were working with him, if he saw there was an opportunity, then he did it. So I knew Sean and Brett from East New York, I knew Jorge and Ice-T, so we just put it together and made that happen.”

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1989 saw Stetsasonic taking on a major role in the Stop The Violence Movement’s “Self-Destruction”. What do you remember about recording that single?

“There’s a couple of things that I always remember, like LL Cool J not being on the record. Now, there’s actually a performance we did on the Dr. Ruth Show that had LL on it that was really dope. He obviously didn’t have a part on the record, but the band played something behind him and he did a little something on there. LL was asked about “Self-Destruction” and why he didn’t participate and he said it was because of that beat that we used for the song. He said he hadn’t had a record out in awhile, he was due to be coming out with “Walking With A Panther” and he said, ‘Man, I haven’t been heard for awhile and I didn’t want to be heard after some time away on that beat.’ There were actually a few people who didn’t really care for the original track. Public Enemy actually didn’t really care for the track. Then D-Nice started throwing those extra parts in there from people’s own records. We actually didn’t say anything. So we didn’t know he was going to throw that part from the “Talkin’ All That Jazz” remix up under there because when we’d recorded our part we’d rhymed to the original track. So that was something I remember. Plus, I was right there when LL wrote MC Lyte’s rhyme and that really was an ill piece of history to see. LL asked Lyte to say her rhyme and she’d done this part rhyming all these facts together. LL asked Lyte who was going on after her on the record and she said it was me. LL was like, ‘You can’t go on before Daddy-O with that. You know how he’s going to come…’ So LL just took the pad from her and started writing the whole thing down which became Lyte’s verse. Then, one of my biggest recollections of making that record, which connects with what we were talking about earlier, is that the video shoot for “Self-Destruction” is where I first met James Mtume. He walked up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m James Mtume the narrow-minded.’ I mean, we’re really good friends now (laughs). But that was definitely a moment.”

Ryan Proctor

Check the final part of this interview here.

Stetsasonic performing “A.F.R.I.C.A.” at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1990.

Old To The New Q&A (Part Two) – Daddy-O

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In this second instalment of my interview with Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O, the Brooklyn-bred Hip-Hop legend discusses almost signing to Sugarhill Records, recording the group’s debut 1986 album “On Fire” and rocking the stage at NYC’s infamous Latin Quarter – check Part One here.

So how did you get involved in the Mr. Magic competition that subsequently led to Stetsasonic securing a record deal?

“I’m trying to think how we met Fly Ty because that’s how it came about. We met Tyrone from Cold Chillin’. I don’t remember exactly how we met Fly Ty, that’s something that Delite probably would remember better. But we met Ty somehow and he liked us, so he was kind of managing us for a time, and at the same time he was managing Roxanne Shante and I think he had Biz Markie as well. It was at the time when they were first trying to pull that whole Cold Chillin’ roster together. Ty was telling us that we should enter this rap contest that Mr. Magic was putting on. Now, we’d been entering different contests prior to the Mr. Magic thing. But as Delite so eloquently puts it, we always kept coming in second (laughs). I mean, I remember being beaten by this kid Mike in Brooklyn who was one of the baddest singers I ever heard, which was ill because he ended-up just singing on the train. But I remember Mike beating us one time. I remember losing to Father Taheem out in Queens. I remember all of that. It’s not like we were wack, but we just kept coming in second (laughs). I remember one time we had a tie and we got thirty three dollars and some cents because we had to split the one hundred dollars prize money with Doug E. Fresh and Busy Bee at a competition at the Roxy (laughs). I was mad because Doug came on with Ricky, Slick Rick, and that was the first time Doug had brought Rick out. They actually performed “Treat Her Like A Prositute” that night. I left early because I was so mad (laughs). I remember Delite coming to my house, explaining that we’d tied and giving me this money, but telling me that I shouldn’t have left (laughs).”

So what happened with the Mr. Magic contest?

“So anyway, Fly Ty told us we should enter the contest and we did it. I’m not sure how many times we performed before we got into the finals. It might have been twice or it might have been three times. But we performed in different boroughs of New York and every time we did it went really well and the people loved us. Each time we got boosted up to the next level.”

Who else do you remember being in the competition?

“I know there were other people who ended up making records who performed as part of the contest, but I can’t really remember who. What I do remember though is that we won so unanimously in the final and Coney Island was going bananas. Now the way it was set up, there were three labels involved who would each give a deal to the artists in first, second and third place. I remember Pop Art was the third place label, Tommy Boy was second place and Sugarhill Records was first place. I always tell people that if we’d been smart we’d have gone with Lawrence Goodman and Pop Art as that could have led us to Next Plateau with the link he had with Salt-N-Pepa and all the success they had. But that’s a whole other story, right. I mean, Lawrence told us that day that we should have rocked with him, but we didn’t. Then there was Tommy Boy, but as we’d won first place we weren’t really thinking about Tommy Boy at that time. So we ended up doing the Sugarhill thing and Fly Ty knew Sylvia Robinson and all those guys. So we won the competition and now Sugarhill are going to offer us this contract. We went up to Sugarhill Records in New Jersey and it was just a joke. It was like this crazy, whole pre-staged thing. I mean, the Furious Five were playing frisbee in the parking lot when we arrived, Melle Mel comes out from the back of the house with two girls up under his arms, like ‘What’s up Daddy-O?’ I’ll never forget, Leland Robinson, who was real young at the time, but he was out there with a new Toyota which was the hot car at the time. So he was cleaning the rims of his Toyota and then Joey Robinson Jr. drove in with a Benz.”

So they were really pulling out all the stops to show you there was big money at Sugarhill…

“Exactly. Now Sugarhill had two properties that looked exactly the same, one at the bottom of the hill in New Jersey and one up the hill. So we were at the one down the hill, and then they said they were going to take us to the other property up the hill as Sylvia Robinson wanted to meet us. So we went, and all of us in the group tell this story the same way, but we kinda felt like her Rolls Royce keys were strategically placed on the counter in the house and things like that (laughs). Sylvia kept saying, ‘The kids have been raging about y’all’, but when they gave us the contract it was just horrible…”

Locking you in for ten years with two percent royalties or something?

“It was exactly two percent royalties (laughs). It was four percent wholesale. But we were just like, ‘Yo, this is just…no.’ Not that our Tommy Boy deal ended up being that much better, but I did love the flexibility and the time that we had with Tommy Boy. So we told Fly Ty, we’re not rocking with Sugarhill. He was trying to convince us to go with them and saying how big they were as a label and if we put a record out on Sugarhill then it would blow up. But we were all just like, ‘This is wack!'”

So you decided to take the competition’s second prize of signing with Tommy Boy…

“That’s right. It was actually Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy who taught us what a hook was in a record because we didn’t know (laughs). Our first single “Just Say Stet” was originally a record we’d made that was just called “Stetsasonic” and the hook we ended-up using, ‘If you can’t say it all, Just say Stet…’, was originally just a line from one of my rhymes. Tom heard that line and was like, ‘That’s a hook!’ and we were like, ‘What do you mean?’ So he explained the whole thing about using that line as a hook. Then after the single dropped we started working on the first album, “On Fire”.”

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“On Fire” dropped in 1986 but that same year you and Delite appeared on the Incredible Mr. Freeze single “Back To The Scene Of The Crime” on Pow Wow Records. How did that come about?

“Freeze was another guy that I knew through Kevin Porter. It’s funny because at that time we were trying so hard to get on. But Stetsasonic’s road to getting put on was so different to everyone else’s (laughs). Now, Freeze was from East New York, he had a record deal, and he said to us, ‘Yo, I want you guys to rhyme on this.’ But to be honest, we weren’t really in love with the beat on that particular track…”

I always thought perhaps the reason you were featured on that single was due to the fact it was produced by Arthur Baker and the connection he had with Tommy Boy…

“No, no. Like I said, we already knew Freeze and at the time that he got his deal we were killing the park jams. Freeze wished that he was getting what me and Delite were getting in Alabama Park. I mean, once we started doing those Alabama jams, we got nice. Delite became everything I wanted him to become. I mean, D would say to me, ‘Yo, do I sound good?’ and I’d be like, ‘D, you don’t know how good you sound.’ I mean, his voice next to mine and the way we would bounce off of each other….”

When Stetsasonic’s first album came out I was still a huge Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five fan and I would judge any new group I heard against them. I always remember thinking at the time that, to me, Delite was to Stet what Cowboy was to the Furious Five in terms of how his voice had such a big presence on record…

“Absolutely. You nailed it one thousand percent. I loved the way we sounded together and what Delite brought to the group. I mean, we were really doing it out in those parks, so Freeze wanted us on his record because he’d already told us that he loved what we were doing. When we actually recorded “Back To The Scene Of The Crime” we didn’t even had a record deal ourselves. So doing that record was part of us trying to get on and get ourselves a deal.”

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At what point did Stet first start referring to themselves as ‘The Hip-Hop Band’?

“We started using that name when DBC first came onboard. We didn’t have Bobby Simmons in the group yet on the drums. But we started using the Hip-Hop Band name when DBC joined us because me and Delite looked around and said, ‘Holy s**t, we’ve got a band now.’ The band to us was always DBC, Wise and Paul, because those guys could play music all day, whether it be on the drum machine, the human beatbox or the turntables. Then you had the three emcees, which was me, Delite and Frukwan. I mean, if you listen to “On Fire”, you hear us talking about being the six-man band. One of the most prominent lines on “On Fire” that related to how we saw ourselves was, ‘If you call us a group, we’ll call you a liar, Stetsasonic is a band my man, We’re on fire!'”

So how did Bobby Simmons originally become involved with the group?

“Okay, this is a long story (laughs). When we did “Go Stetsa I” I had originally programmed the beat on the LinnDrum for that track and it was an old-school James Brown beat, right? But I wanted drum rolls. Now, me and Delite we had a friend called Nawthar Muhammad and he played the drums. So we asked him to come in and do drum rolls and cymbals for the track. I remember we were in Calliope Studios and I was telling him exactly where I wanted him to do a cymbal, do a roll, and he did it. But we had to play a little beat up underneath what he was doing so that he could keep the beat. It was so unplanned, but the drums on “Go Stetsa” are only three tracks. We had a mic on him and then a mic all the way on the other side of the studio in the bathroom that we used for ambience. So if you listen to my verse on “Go Stetsa” we dropped that ambience track out and then we bring it back. So that’s why my line ‘Brooklyn, New York is our hometown…’ sounds so tight because we took that track out. So it was so unplanned, because we’d talked to the engineer and he’d said we didn’t need to put extra mics on the drums if all we were doing was recording a roll.”

Bob Power of A Tribe Called Quest fame engineered that record, right?

“Bob Power was a pain in the ass (laughs). We taught Bob Power how to make all these types of Hip-Hop records. I’m not saying he wasn’t already a good engineer, but he really cut his teeth with Stetsasonic. I mean, this is obviously pre-D’Angelo and all of that. In fact, the reason he got hooked up with all of that was through me and Kedar Massenburg being connected, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, he was a good engineer but it was very difficult for us to deal with him back then because of what we were trying to do. Especially me and Prince Paul because of the type of guys we are. We are super spontaneous in the studio.”

Plus, with Hip-Hop still being relatively new, it must have been a completely different recording experience to what studio engineers were used to in comparison to working with artists from other genres…

“Right, right. So on and off Bob Power wouldn’t be available and we’d be happy when he wasn’t (laughs). So the reason we hooked up with Bob Colter is because we’d already tried working with all these different engineers and things just hadn’t worked out. I mean, we even tried the tech guy because we thought he might work as he knew so much about all of the equipment. One of the biggest problems we had was that we had this raw sound because we were still trying to mimick the whole two turntables and a mic sound, and the engineers used to always clean it up and we’d be like, ‘That’s not what we want!’ Then we’d go through this whole thing and they’d end up giving the music back to us how we originally wanted it and that was something they could have done two hours before (laughs). So anyway, one day we had Bob Colter in the studio, who we later found out was just as spontaneous as we were. So anyway, he pulls up the “Go Stetsa” track which we were getting ready to work on, but he only pulls up the live drums and the vocals, I guess because of the way the track was labelled. So then he’s getting ready to pull up the drum machine track and I just said, ‘Whoa! Hold up, hold up. Play it like that.’ I was like, ‘Delite, come over here. Do you hear this s**t?’ And that’s how “Go Stetsa” ended-up sounding the way it did with the drums. Which is a very long story to say, that experience then let us know exactly how we sounded on live drums and that we could use those live drums in a way that didn’t sound like some corny R&B record.”

Is that what then gave you the idea of putting Bobby Simmons down with the group?

“So getting back to Bobby, remember I mentioned DJ Scooter Love and the Kickin’ Coffin earlier? Bobby used to carry records for those guys and was already my boy from Brownsville. So Bobby was now the back-up deejay for Red Alert at the Latin Quarter when we started poppin’. He walked up to me one day and said, ‘Yo, D. I know you cut “Go Stetsa” with drums and you know that I’m nice on the drums. We should try it one time…’ and I just said, ‘Let’s do it!’ But it was an ill set-up the way we performed with Bobby in the Latin Quarter for the first time. Now, the best way I can describe it to you is if you look at the video to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Tramp”, you can see how the Latin Quarter worked. The stage they had was up top and then the dance-floor was at the bottom. We had to put Bobby and his drums down on the floor and then we were up top on the stage. But it turned out dope as hell.”

So Bobby was performing with Stet in a live context before he actually started working  with the group in the studio?

“Exactly. I mean, the live performances were coming out so dope that by the time we went into the studio to do “In Full Gear”, Bobby was officially in the group.”

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Touching on the Latin Quarter for a moment, what memories do you have of that particular spot?

“Overall, I remember that the Latin Quarter represented the underground. I mean, I know that word gets used over and over, but it’s really the only word I’ve got to describe what was happening in New York back then. I mean, at the time, Russell Simmons was really starting to blow with the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, he had Whodini, so the commercial part of being on the radio and getting big money for tours was starting to happen and a lot of that was happening with Russell. Russell was that guy who was doing all of that. But then there were the rest of us, and all the rest of us had to cut our teeth at the Latin Quarter. Now, this is obviously prior to us being managed by Rush a little later down the line. But when it came to the Latin Quarter, you had Stetsasonic, you had Ultramagnetic MC’s, you had Boogie-Down Productions, Lumumba Carson who went on to be Professor X in X-Clan was hanging out there with me as he was managing us for awhile, you had Just-Ice, even Kid-N-Play and a little later on the Audio Two. It was actually through meeting Audio Two at the Latin Quarter that I ended-up producing “Top Billin'” for them because Red Alert used to play “I Like Cherries” all the time. Of course, Red Alert played a huge part in the Latin Quarter, then along with Red came the Violators. So you had all of this real Hip-Hop that was happening in this place and it was kinda the polar opposite at the time of what Russell was doing with the tours and all of that.”

When you think back to that time, are there any particular moments that standout to you that really represent the Latin Quarter experience?

“One particular moment that I always think of when people ask me about the Latin Quarter was Red Alert playing Eric B. & Rakim’s “My Melody” for the first time. Yo, man, that might even be my most magical moment in Hip-Hop. That was the first time that any of us had heard it. I remember it coming on and just thinking, ‘What the hell is happening right now?’ The way the record started with the keyboard and then it goes into those drums was just crazy, but then Rakim’s voice came on and everyone was just like, ‘Yooooooo!’ I mean, none of us who went to the Latin Quarter knew Rakim at this point. Actually, Biz Markie knew Rakim because he used to be out on Long Island. But the rest of us didn’t know Rakim. We didn’t really know anything about him. The only tapes you could find of Rakim back then were Wyandanch High School parties or whatever from all the way out there in Long Island. I mean, it wasn’t like Rakim was coming and rhyming with people at the Latin Quarter or anything like that. So we still didn’t really know who he was. Which is what made it so ill when everyone heard that record for the first time. Eric B. was there that night though. I remember Eric coming in with his whole massive, Supreme Magnetic and all of those dudes. They were standing there with all these gold rings on and all of that whilst “My Melody” is playing (laughs). It was just the illest thing.”

Just to let everyone know that was their boy Rakim booming over the system…

“Man, that record was so hot that Red Alert played it three times in a row that night. I tell people all the time, that on the streets of New York, “My Melody” was killin’ “Eric B. Is President”. I think “Eric B. Is President” was a better radio record, but “My Melody” was the bigger street record.”

Considering the amount of legendary artists who were part of that Latin Quarter scene, how much of a sense of community was there amongst you all?

“I think it was the tightest Hip-Hop community I’ve ever seen. I mean, the only thing I’ve ever felt that could rival that was when Stetsasonic and Public Enemy shared a tour bus together, but that was just two groups, so it wasn’t what you would call a community like the Latin Quarter. There was so much of a community at the Latin Quarter that Lumumba Carson had actually created a Hip-Hop Coalition thing that Stetsasonic, MC Serch, King Sun, Eric B. & Rakim, all of us were part of that. Also, a lot of us were still doing day jobs at the time, so when it came to paid gigs, the Latin Quarter was one of the only places you could go as an artist. There were a couple of things that might have happened at the Rooftop in Harlem, but they had there own thing going on there. There were a couple of things that might have happened at the USA roller-skating rink out in Queens, but they had there own little thing going on as well. But when it came to some real Hip-Hop, the Latin Quarter was where it was at and everyone wanted to be a part of it. So much so that you had a group like Salt-N-Pepa, who weren’t frequently at the Latin Quarter, but, as I mentioned earlier, they ended up shooting their video for “Tramp” there because that place was a staple of New York Hip-Hop.”

It was the place that everybody wanted to be affiliated with in some way at the time?

“Absolutely. Let me tell you, one of my dopest Latin Quarter stories involves MC Hammer. Now, me and Hammer have been cool for a long time. But when I first met Hammer I met him as Stanley Kirk Burrell of the Holy Ghost Boys. He was the first gospel rapper I ever met in my life. He used to come to the Latin Quarter to watch Stretch and Tron dance. Now, that whole thing he used to do going across the stage that everyone called the Hammer Dance, that was Stretch and Tron’s thing. But the Latin Quarter was like a university or something, man. I mean, I can’t even front, there were some guys who went in there wack who came out dope (laughs). But you really had to be there to fully understand how important the Latin Quarter was, man. Every week there would be someone performing, every week Red Alert would be playing something new, there was the fashion, there was just all this stuff going on. I mean, Union Square was the only real equivalent to Latin Quarter, although they had a lot of problems with violence. But Latin Quarter got violent to. Man, it got so violent that it was ridiculous.”

People who were associated with the Latin Quarter seem to have differing opinions on how violent it actually was there. From what you remember, was violence a regular problem?

“I mean, people were getting robbed at Latin Quarter every week. People were getting robbed and all of that. But the security dudes, Robocop and them, they had a way of getting the trouble out of the club quickly. They did it the same way the guys at the Roxy used to do it early in the disco days. At the Roxy, a fight would break out, the guards would jump in, grab the guy, take him outside, and the party would just keep on going. That’s how they did it at the Latin Quarter as well. But I do remember there was this one particular night that was just the illest night. Paradise was my man and him and Stetsasonic’s then manager Lumumba Carson were cool, so we used to hang out up in the office. Now, the office in the Latin Quarter was also upstairs where the stage was, but it was across from the stage on the other side. Now, this one particular night, man, it just went bananas. We were all standing upstairs in the office just looking down watching this fight break out and it was nuts. People were throwing stuff and it was just really going crazy. I’ll never forget that night…”

Was this the infamous Jackie Wilson benefit event that so many artists have spoken about over the years?

“I don’t remember what night it was. All I remember was, yo, it was like something out of a movie. It was crazy. But like I said, there was always something happening at Latin Quarter, but they were just real good at isolating it quickly and getting it outside. There was a backdoor downstairs that was directly underneath the office and that gave them a pretty straight line to grab the culprit if they were on the dance-floor and then get them straight outside.”

stetsasonic pic 12

How true is it that “Go Stetsa I” was the Crooklyn stick-up kid anthem at the Latin Quarter?

“For robbing people? Yeah, it was (laughs). That’s true. I don’t know how that happened but it’s true…”

It probably had something to do with that ‘Go Brooklyn!’ chant…

“Maybe it was (laughs). But “Go Stetsa” was definitely the tuck-your-chain record in the Latin Quarter. Once you heard that drum roll, if you weren’t ’bout it then you needed to leave right then (laughs). I don’t really know where that started, but it might have started in prison. I had a homie who was locked-up on Rikers Island when “Go Stetsa” came out and he told me that people used to throw their shoes at the speaker when that record came on the radio. Not to cut the record off, but just because they were excited to hear it. So when “Go Stetsa” came on the radio in prison, people would start throwing their shoes at the speaker (laughs). That’s crazy.”

So dudes were probably coming out of prison and telling people how “Go Stetsa” used to make people go crazy when they were locked-up…

“Exactly (laughs). But yeah, that’s definitely true that “Go Stetsa” was the stick-up kid anthem. That’s not a myth. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. It was nuts. The one thing that we did love though, was that Stetsasonic, and also BDP, had a certain reputation. When both us and BDP performed at the Latin Quarter, no junk went on in the crowd. I can’t say anything about what would happen after, but while we were onstage nothing went down.”

Was that down to the respect the LQ crowd had for Stet and BDP as artists or was it down to the size of the crews that you rolled with?

“It was a little bit of both. I only remember one particular night when I had to get a little bit antsy with the crowd. Someone in the crowd had said something and I just said, ‘Stop the music! Man, they’ll take you out of here in a bag, man…’ and the whole audience started laughing because they knew. But overall, I think a lot of it had to do with the respect both us and BDP had, but it also had a lot to do with the actual entertainment as well. I mean, with Stetsasonic, there was a bunch of us onstage so people knew that was going to be exciting. But with BDP, there was only three of them, Scott La Rock, D-Nice and KRS-One. But to see them onstage was incredible. I mean, even to this day Kris is phenomenal, but back then they were just the illest thing to watch, yo. To watch Kris as a young kid, brand new, doing “Poetry”, we were looking at him like, ‘How the f**k did he come up with this?’ I’m listening to him and watching him as an emcee myself, thinking, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ It was bananas, man. But I would say, aside from Just-Ice, compared to Stetsasonic and BDP, the rest of the artists who would perform at the Latin Quarter didn’t really make the grade. They were okay, they did their thing, they rocked, but not like that. If I could describe it as one thing, they just didn’t keep it interesting enough for the crowd. I mean, with BDP, Scott La Rock would take the SP-12 onstage with them and things like that. So we were always doing something to make it interesting. Like, whatever was the hot record out at the time, we might drop that at the beginning of the show and say a rhyme over it, just to give the people something a little different each time we performed.”

krs_scott

What impact do you remember the news of Scott La Rock’s tragic murder having on the Latin Quarter community?

“I remember Lumumba calling me to tell me what had happened and I couldn’t believe it. We jumped in the car and went Uptown to confirm it. It was hard on all of us, man. Scott was Puffy before Puffy was Puff. Scott had three label deals before he died. He really was about his business and he was about the business of Hip-Hop. So Scott’s whole thing wasn’t just about making the music, it was about how we could be independent and in control of our own music. Scott wasn’t really with Stet being signed to Tommy Boy in particular (laughs). He’d say to me, ‘Daddy-O, you could have you own label.'”

So he had that sense of vision back then to understand how large Hip-Hop could become as a business?

“Exactly. But what made Scott’s death so tough was that, when someone close to you passes away and they’ve reached an old age you can make sense of it, but when it happens to a young person, it’s unexpected. Plus, what made it even more unexpected, was that we were all going through this huge period of growth in Hip-Hop and there was so much happening at the time, so for one of our heroes to get taken out like that, it was just real tough. Obviously we heard what happened around D-Nice getting into some beef over a chick, but then we started to hear rumours that the guy who did it wasn’t even no hardcore dude like that, so it was like ‘C’mon, man. That didn’t have to happen.’ So that was a tough one, man. But as far as KRS, I’m not saying that Kris wasn’t already dope, but it definitely did something to him on the rhyming side…”

There was definitely a huge difference between the KRS you heard on the “Criminal Minded” album in 1987 and the KRS you heard on 1988’s “By All Means Necessary”…

“To me, at that point, KRS-One became the best emcee in the world…”

As as fan, you listened to “Criminal Minded” and thought KRS-One was a great emcee, but you listened to “By All Means Necessary” and thought, ‘This is someone who’s really trying to teach me something here’…

“That situation definitely changed Kris and, this is just my opinion, but I think he felt he definitely had to make sure that Scott’s legacy stood for something. I mean, I wasn’t privy to any of this, but knowing the type of person that Scott was, Scott probably always told Kris to rhyme about the stuff he was talking about on “By All Means Necessary”. I can see Scott La Rock saying to Kris, ‘Yo, man. Why don’t you say something, man?’ So if there was anything good that came out of that whole situation, I guess you can say it was the impact it had on the music KRS went on to make.”

Ryan Proctor

Check Part Three of this interview here.

Stetsasonic – “Go Stetsa I” (Tommy Boy Records / 1986)