When members of any well-established Hip-Hop group start announcing plans for solo material it usually means said group is due to split imminently over arguments about finances and creative control, with at least one member destined to either drop off the radar completely or damage the crew’s legacy with sub-par releases.
One exception to the rule, however, has been West Coast trio Dilated Peoples.
Cali Hip-Hop junkies Rakaa Iriscience, Evidence and DJ Babu made a huge impact on the independent scene of the late-90s with classic singles on Beni B’s ABB imprint such as “Third Degree” and “Work The Angles”. The talented threesome then turned their underground popularity into a productive major label partnership with Capitol Records, resulting in four well-received albums that largely stayed true to the group’s original musical blueprint.
In recent years, however, all three Dilated members have stepped out to record solo efforts, with the group itself remaining intact whilst Ev, Rakaa and Babu each took on new musical challenges and shouldered the individual responsibility of guiding their respective projects.
Through a combination of quality music, hardwork, perseverance and constant touring, Venice, Los Angeles producer-on-the-mic Evidence has subsequently built himself a strong solo brand and cult following. Clearly not taking anything for granted regardless of his status as an already respected figure in the rap world, releases such as 2007’s brilliant album “The Weatherman” and 2008’s follow-up EP “The Layover” showcased the sound and passion of an Evidence determined to succeed or fail on his own terms rather than lean on any previous successes.
Last year’s “Cats & Dogs” project (the emcee’s first on the Rhymesayers label) further solidified Ev’s reputation as a legitimate solo act, featuring the weather-obsessed wordsmith weaving verses full of both personal reflection and claims of lyrical supremacy over impressive production from the likes of DJ Premier, The Alchemist and Sid Roams.
In London earlier this month for a one-off gig at the city’s Jazz Cafe venue, Evidence took time prior to hitting the stage to discuss the effort that goes into promoting an independent project, the dangers of being an artist on Twitter and his hopes for the forthcoming Dilated Peoples ‘reunion’ album.
I remember we did an interview back in 2004 when Dilated’s “Neighborhood Watch” dropped and you said you felt some fans thought all you did was watch “Wild Style” all day and that you weren’t perceived as being a real person living a real life. Two solo albums and one EP later do you still feel people have that perception of you or do you think it’s changed now?
“Definitely the latter. The whole reason that statement came up around the time of the “Neighborhood Watch” album was because of the “This Way” record we did for the project with Kanye West. Before that we’d done “The Platform” and “Expansion Team” and they were both very much albums that our fanbase expected us to make. “Neighborhood Watch” was still very much the same as the other two, but we just happened to have a single featuring a big artist with some singing on the chorus which confused some fans. That reaction really made us aware of how much we were the poster children for people who were spraying on walls and stuff like that (laughs). It tripped us out a bit because although that’s a part of our lives and we’re immersed in what we do, we didn’t fully realise what our music represented to people until that point. So, for me, this solo thing has been about getting back to basics and going back to what things were like when we were dropping music on ABB Records, just grinding it out. So it’s more about the people’s champ kind of thing (laughs). With the Dilated albums we were on a major label with money being pumped into what we were doing. We had videos, radio play and with that comes a lot of different things. The route I’m going now feels natural and I’ve been through a lot to be able to understand my place, what I’m building and what it means to me. I mean, I don’t ever want to be comfortable, because once you’re comfortable that means you’re not elevating or pushing yourself, but I definitely know who I am and what I’m doing right now which is a good thing.”
When you were recording the Dilated albums for Capitol how much of a balancing act was it to not let the industry politics of a large label influence the music you were making as a group?
“We had a big budget but the music we made didn’t reflect that and it was very much the music we wanted to make. I mean, we had to fight to put certain singles out, like “Worst Comes To Worst” which is still our biggest record. To the label that was just a song and wasn’t something that they really understood, but once it got out there we were charting here in the UK and doing crazy s**t like “Top Of The Pops” off that record. Now, the Kanye record didn’t even reach that same level, which I took as a real lesson that if you stick with what you believe in then sometimes it can supercede your expectations. But that said, I definitely wouldn’t take the Kanye record back because it was one of the best experiences I ever had and the song has definitely stood the test of time. The crazy thing is that we actually recorded that song before Kanye became the huge artist he was when it dropped. At the time we made it he was just a producer we thought was dope who’d worked with people like Talib Kweli. I mean, when it dropped a lot of fans had something to say about us making a record with Kanye but in time a lot of those same people have come around to it and are now at shows with their hands in the air singing that s**t.”
Your most recent solo effort “Cats & Dogs” has been out for almost a year now but there’s still a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the project from fans, media etc – have you been surprised by the album’s staying power?
“It’s a blessing, man. It really is such a blessing. I think with all the solo campaigns I’ve done I’ve devoted a certain amount of time to it knowing that it’s not going to have the same sort of push that the Dilated albums did. So I already know before I start that I’m going to have to stay out longer to push my projects to get them to a level that the group albums were at in two months. Now you’ve got to rock it for a year. I’m still dropping new visuals for tracks off the album and am staying on tour promoting it. I told myself that I’d do it for a year following the album’s release last September and here we are now in July and we’re still working it. I mean, it catches on slower as an independent album, the rise and fall isn’t as fast as it might be with a major label release. If I’m out there touring and putting my heart and soul into the shows and putting out new videos then one thing’s feeding the other. If you keep pushing it consistently then it still feels current and doesn’t give people the chance to think of it as an album that came out almost a year ago.”
There also seemed to be a lot of work in the lead up to the “Cats & Dogs” release to make people aware of the project which is something that some artists today don’t necessarily seem to understand the importance of….
“I credit a lot of that to Rhymesayers. They have a really good understanding of how to work things independently. As a label they’ve also really believed in the record and didn’t throw in the towel a couple of months after it came out. They’re definitely focussed on making people backtrack and check the album out. I mean, you’d be surprised at how many people say they know the record or like the record, but still haven’t actually purchased the album yet.”
“Yeah, I mean it’s only natural. I like a lot of records that I still haven’t gotten around to buying yet. It doesn’t mean that I’m not a fan of that artist or of that particular record. I mean, there’s different degrees of being a fan of an artist. You can know absolutely everything about an artist, or you can just say you like a particular album they put out, and either way is okay with me. I use the Radiohead example all the time, nobody can name the band but everyone knows the name of the lead singer. It doesn’t mean that just because you can’t name everyone in the band that you’re not a Radiohead fan. So I’m just hoping that one way or another I’ll reel people in, whether it’s through live shows or word of mouth, and then when the day comes that I wake up and feel like I’m beating a dead dog then the campaign is done and I’ll just let the album live and put out something else.”
On the subject of fans, artists today are able to have much more interaction with their core audience via Twitter, Facebook etc. How comfortable are you with using social networking to communicate with fans?
“I feel comforable using those outlets but they’re dangerous. They’re super dangerous. I’m not naming names, but there are people who I looked up to that I followed on Twitter or Facebook and it just really turned me off. Now I don’t even listen to your music because I don’t even like you. That’s f**ked up. I mean, I never knew that much about Jon Bon Jovi but if I was following him on Twitter I don’t know if I’d be the fan that I am. But then on the other side, some people are slick with it and that might actually make you like them even more as an artist. But the way I see it is that the whole social networking thing makes normal people famous and famous people normal. Music is a big part of it but as a fan if you believe in an artist then you believe in them. You’re looking at what they wear, how they move, where they go and what they do. It’s intriguing, but then if you find out that someone is talented but they’re a d**k then the mystique is gone and it’s over.”
You’ve also been building quite a following on Instagram with your photography…
“I mean I was doing the photography thing long before Instagram but there was just never really a place to post it and put it out there. My mother was a photographer and she passed on so the whole thing means a lot to me and I’ve got all the cameras and all the other stuff. I went to college for photography to please my mother, so the whole thing definitely isn’t new. Ironically, I found Instagram after we’d decided to name the next Dilated album “Directors Of Photography”. DJ Babu pointed it out to me and I thought it was really cool, even though at the time I didn’t think it was going to become as big as it has done. The initial plan was for us to have all these pictures on Instagram and then use those pictures on our album cover and everyone would be wowed by it. It was only really popular in Japan when we got on it and here we are millions of users later (laughs). But I still think it’s cool and I think you can tell a lot about someone on Instagram from the way they treat their photos to what they choose to take pictures of. It’s just like looking at someone’s Twitter but with a much more creative side.”
Do you think you have a style of photography in the same way that people would consider you to make a particular style of music?
“Probably (laughs). I mean, I think if you look at my feed on Instagram you can definitely tell that it’s all the same person taking the photos. But I’m still developing that side of what I do, although I definitely love it and when you have that passion for something the learning curve goes up quickly.”
Do you also consider it to be another way of letting fans into your world outside of the music?
“The cool thing is that I haven’t really posted any picture of myself, it’s all mainly just what I see while I’m travelling. So there are a lot of people who follow me on Instagram who’ve just found me on there who don’t actually realise I rap or do the music thing, they just like the pictures. So that’s really a huge compliment to me. But it’s almost like I’m living dual existences on some Clark Kent / Superman s**t, like the photos on Instagram is my day job and the music is the night-time s**t. But it’s really, really dope.”
As you mentioned, you’ve been doing a lot of touring for “Cats & Dogs” – does that experience give you a different perspective on your music in terms of how audiences in particular parts of the world might perceive a certain song etc?
“I find that it’s all exactly the same. If you put your heart into your music and you believe in it then that will radiate and people will understand what you meant by a certain song wherever they are. Now, rocking for people that have never heard of you and rocking for people who already know you are two completely different things. But rocking for people who know your music is the same to me anywhere in the world.”
“Cats & Dogs” is definitely a more personal album compared to your previous material. Did that subject matter work its way into the album naturally or did you actually sit down with the intention of digging a little deeper this time around?
“2010 was a bad year for me personally and that was also the time I was recording “Cats & Dogs”. So my personal s**t started to get in the way of my music to the point where I started writing about it a lot. Some of it became really dark and depressing and some of it was very theraputic. So I decided to keep the theraputic s**t and get rid of the stuff that felt overly down. But it is harder to put out something personal that might be saying I don’t have money right now or that you’ve been hurt compared to just putting out raps about rapping. If you’re putting something personal out and people don’t like it then that’s going to hurt you more than someone just not liking your punchlines. So it was definitely nerve-wracking but the reward is that much greater if it translates and the audience are able to relate to what you’re saying.”
Was there anyone in your camp who felt that perhaps you shouldn’t get too personal on the album in case core fans felt it wasn’t what they were expecting from you?
“No-one really told me not to do it. Alchemist did tell me that this is supposed to be fun and to remember that, which was good to hear. I mean, being deep is the s**t and I love to do that, but it was good to hear that from someone at that particular point in the process. But nobody ever said anything to me like ‘I don’t think you should do this.’ It was more people saying that they liked certain songs more than others. But I mean Alchemist told me once that he didn’t like “Mr. Slow Flow” and that’s my biggest record so sometimes you just have to trust your own judgement and stick with what you believe in.”
On the flipside, given the amount of one-dimensional emcees out there today do you feel that people are actually looking for artists to be more personal in their music?
“Only if it’s real and you’re not going Emo just to do it. There’s definitely a fine line and some people are able to do it really well. I mean, someone like Kanye West, to me everything that I hear him say I think really is him. Like when he’s talking about how he wet the bed until a certain age, some people might think that’s too much information but that’s what he really wanted to say and because of that I think it comes across as genuine. So if the artist is being real with what they’re saying then it can really come across well, but if you’re just doing it to do it then it’s almost like you’re looking for a different form of shock value.”
On the album track “It Wasn’t Me” you say “My music and my graf are living separate lives” – do you miss the freedom you had before you were a recognised artist to be able to go out on regular graffiti missions?
“I don’t miss getting arrested (laughs). Legal is good. At the end of the day it’s all about doing something creative. From graffiti to rapping to producing to drawing to photography, it’s all an extension of something creative but the outlets may morph and change as time goes on. But to me it’s all coming from the same place.”
When you think back to the 90s independent era you came up in what experiences immediately come to mind?
“Just doing early shows during the Rawkus era with Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Eminem, all these people who were just coming up. It’s been so dope to see where every went and the paths they created for themselves. Just the little things standout to me, like being able to go to a record store like Fat Beats everyday just to hang out and then you might see a particular artist or something might happen with people rhyming which was always dope. Then the radio in LA with “The Wake Up Show” and what Mike Nardone was doing. It was all beautiful s**t. But then you can’t say that the new outlets today like a blog or whatever aren’t just as important to artists coming up right now. I mean, before the era I came up in people were talking about Chuck Chillout and Red Alert, so the wheel just keeps turning. That whole 90s independent scene was a dope era if you were there, but you can’t tell people to listen to that stuff today because it was so dope and then tell them that what they’re doing isn’t because it’s not from that time. You just can’t force it on people like that. Either you were there at the time and you got it, or people who weren’t there will find the music in their own time.”
With Dilated Peoples coming back together to record your first new album in over half a decade are you curious to see how the process will work now you’ve all established solo careers in the meantime?
“Definitely, hell yeah. I mean, when we were recording those Dilated albums we were sleeping on each other’s floors and that kind of s**t and it hasn’t been like that everyday for quite awhile. But I think the reason why this album could be the best record we’ve made is because we’ve all had the time to grow and do stuff individually but yet the support has stayed tight and we’ve still done shows together as a group. The reason it could be bad is if we weren’t tight as a unit and were fighting over s**t and just emailing our verses in (laughs). But if we do what we’re setting out to do, which is from August to December of this year just live the s**t together, then we should be able to deliver the album we want to make.”
“Cats & Dogs” is out now on Rhymesayers Entertainment.
Evidence ft. Aloe Blacc – “The Liner Notes” (Rhymesayers Entertainment / 2012)