The legendary Pharoahe Monch weaves vivid, unsettling rhymes around eerie Nottz production from the forthcoming “A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism” album with guitarist Marcus Machado and drummer Daru Jones.
Masta Ace & Marco Polo ft. Pharoahe Monch – “The Fight Song” (@FatBeats / 2019)
The Juice Crew legend confronts his battle with multiple sclerosis via powerful, personal rhymes (assisted by an equally engaging Monch performance) on this cut from the Marco Polo-produced album “A Breukelen Story”.
There are some things in the world of Hip-Hop that are as good as guaranteed. Wu-Tang will always be for the children, DJ Premier will always be the king of the scratched hook, and Pharoahe Monch will always deliver a memorable show.
Regardless of how many times you may have witnessed the gifted Queens, NY emcee rock a stage, you never leave feeling like you’ve simply watched an artist going through the motions, or that Monch hasn’t given a performance his all.
Pharoahe’s latest sold-out gig at London’s Jazz Cafe was no different.
Backed by turntable titan DJ Boogie Blind and talented UK band Ezra Collective, with Kamron of Young Black Teenagers fame acting as an engaging hype-man, Monch expertly navigated the mixed crowd of older heads and younger fans through sixty-plus minutes of intricate verbal gymnastics, pounding beats and brilliant showmanship.
Arriving onstage with minimal fanfare, the Organized Konfusion lyricist spent a few moments silently pacing back-and-forth like a boxer on fight night, focussing on the task at hand before launching into an urgent blast of the Black Thought-assisted “Rapid Eye Movement” from his recent “PTSD” album.
Closely followed by spirited performances of the synth-heavy”Agent Orange” and police protest song “Clap (One Day)”, Monch took the opportunity to comment on the recent Stateside events in Ferguson, encouraging everyone in the packed venue to clap their hands as he passionately rhymed acapella, resulting in a poignant moment of interaction between artist and audience.
Whilst the sweating emcee exited the stage for a short break, it was left to Boogie Blind to entertain the crowd, with the X-ecutioners representative dropping a quick-fire routine which found LL Cool J’s timeless “Rock The Bells” being skillfully deconstructed and reconstructed at breath-taking speed, once again proving that turntablism is something that really needs to be seen as well as heard in order to be fully appreciated.
As the lights were turned down low and a single chair placed centre-stage, Pharoahe made his return to dramatically deliver two of the darkest tracks from “PTSD”, the moody “Time2” and sombre “Broken Again”.
Sitting down, head in his hands, Monch communicated the raw emotion of each track’s subject matter via his body language and facial expressions as much as he did through the actual lyrics, at one point using a toy gun to simulate his own death.
After a brief display of skin-tight musicianship from the members of Ezra Collective, Monch lifted the mood, encouraging the crowd to sing the hook of his Rawkus-era single “My Life”, which then led into the intense gospel-feel of the Alchemist-produced “Desire” and the radio-favourite “Oh No”, with Pharoahe pausing to pay a sincere tribute to the late Nate Dogg.
Taking a moment to give Kendrick Lamar props for his latest album, the boundary-pushing wordsmith encouraged the crowd to respect the craft of lyricism and help “preserve the culture”, as right-hand man Kamron stood to the side nodding intently.
With the horn section who had arrived onstage moments before then replaying the opening Godzilla sample of Monch’s signature late-90s banger “Simon Says”, the audience was immediately turned into a rowdy mass of jumping bodies, as the grinning emcee gleefully delivered the track’s infamous instructional hook.
Returning for a brief encore which included the Organized Konfusion classic “Bring It On”, the veteran microphone fiend graciously thanked the crowd for their continued support, leaving the stage to the sound of Keni Burke’s 80s quiet storm anthem “Risin’ To The Top”.
In a rap world which finds here-today-gone-tomorrow acts consistently receiving undeserved accolades and attention, Pharoahe Monch continues to stand as a shining example of genuine talent, creativity and artistic authenticity.
Organized Konfusion’s 1994 single “Stress” found Monch posing the question, “Why must you believe that something is fat just because it’s played on the radio twenty times per day?”
Over two decades later, Pharoahe is still providing a worthwhile alternative to the redundant and shallow product which is repeatedly being pushed and promoted by the mainstream music industry.
Thankfully, if the capacity crowd at this particular show was anything to go by, there are still plenty of people out there who’re willing to listen.
Footage of Pharoahe Monch performing “Broken Again” and “The Jungle” at London’s Jazz Cafe.
Cormega – “Mega Philosophy” (The Slimstyle Recording Corporation) – A true veteran of the pitfalls of both the inner-city streets and the music industry, Queensbridge icon ‘Mega joined forces with the legendary Large Professor for this pure and honest dose of East Coast Hip-Hop. Backed by both Extra P’s impeccable beats and appearances from the likes of Raekwon, Nature and Black Rob, the NY lyricist ensured this album lived up to its title as he dropped jewels and life lessons throughout.
Pawz One – “Face The Facts” (Below System Records) – Grounded in the streets of LA but looking much further than the end of his block for inspiration, West Coast emcee Pawz One packed his debut album with insightful, heartfelt commentary on everything from self-empowerment and police brutality to back-in-the day memories and his love for Hip-Hop. Standing out from the crowd with a strong sense of individuality and a good ear for quality production, the Cali microphone fiend ensured he separated the fact from the fiction on his first official full-length project.
Supa Dave West – “Beat Boxing” (Redefinition Records) – Having supplied the likes of De La Soul, Common and Ghostface with some sonic flavour over the years, Queens, NY-raised Dave West demonstrated his versatility behind-the-boards with this speaker-busting instrumental effort, sculpting tracks that ranged in style from futuristic boom-bap and synth-heavy vibes to feel-good funk and old-school block-party beats.
Jack Jetson – “Adventures Of Johnny Strange” (RLD Records) – Promising to “hijack your plane of existence”, UK emcee Jack Jetson dropped one of the most lyrically entertaining releases of the year with “Adventures Of…”, a non-stop barrage of verbal mischief and mayhem. Think Dennis The Menace meets Canibus and you’re halfway there. With colourful, psychedelic wordplay exploding over brilliant beats from the multi-talented Leaf Dog, Jetson proved himself to be a genuinely gifted emcee with a lively imagination.
MindsOne & Kev Brown – “Pillars” (Ill Adrenaline Records) – This expertly-executed EP delivered the goods on each of its eight tracks, resulting in a relatively short but intense listening experience. Combining Maryland producer-on-the-mic Kev Brown’s trademark basslines, basement-style beats and direct lyricism with the sharp rhymes of MindsOne, the elegantly rugged “Pillars” quickly became yet another worthy addition to the steadily expanding Ill Adrenaline catalogue.
Rocdwell – “Daily Chronicles” (Rocdwell.BandCamp.Com) – With a passionate, captivating rhyme style falling somewhere between Freeway and Sugar Ray of 90s favourites Double XX Posse, Detroit artist Rocdwell’s album of “adult contemporary Hip-Hop” found the lyricist dropping down-t0-earth rhymes over hard-hitting, soul-tinged production, with “Daily Chronicles” designed to act as a motivational soundtrack to assist us all as we battled with the trials, tribulations and everyday struggles of life.
People Under The Stairs – “12 Step Program” (Piecelock 70 Records) – Combining their shared passion for fun-fuelled b-boy antics, funky breaks and beer, West Coast duo Thes One and Double K filled their eleventh (!!!) album with their usual upbeat, feel-good flavour, proving yet again why PUTS have remained one of Hip-Hop’s most consistent and reliable acts since debuting back in the late-90s.
Edo.G – “After All These Years” (5th & Union) – Proving the old saying that there’s strength in numbers, Boston’s Edo.G successfully enlisted the help of fans in 2014 for this Kickstarter-funded album. Featuring production from Pete Rock and 9th Wonder, plus appearances by King Magnetic, Camp Lo and Chuck D, “After All These Years” achieved a healthy balance between golden-era throwback vibes and present-day relevance, with Edo embracing his elder statesman status as he attempted to school the masses.
Meyhem Lauren & Buckwild – “Silk Pyramids” (Thrice Great Records) – Combining gritty Rotten Apple attitude, a passion for fly apparel, and an unwavering pride in his home borough of Queens, Outdoorsmen member Meyhem Lauren’s heavily-anticipated collaboration with D.I.T.C.’s Buckwild lived up to expecations, delivering a hefty, slang-laden slice of traditional New York straight talk.
Habitat & DJ Severe – “Empire Building” (Boom Bap Professionals) – Having already left a dent on the UK Hip-Hop scene as part of Lincolnshire’s Heavy Links crew, emcee Habitat struck out on a solo mission to claim new musical territory, armed with sharp lyrical darts, the battle-hardened boom-bap of producer DJ Severe, and the support of lyrical allies such as Oliver Sudden, Chrome and Luca Brazi. No tricks in 2014, it was time to build.
Army Of The Pharoahs – “Heavy Lies The Crown” (Enemy Soil Records) – The second of two albums released by the East Coast collective in 2014, “Heavy Lies The Crown” found the AOTP emcees at their creative best, with the likes of Vinnie Paz, Celph Titled and Esoteric dropping vivid, larger-than-life imagery and bone-crushing punchlines over dramatic production from C-Lance, Stu Bangas, DJ 7L and more. Rough, rugged and raw.
Apollo Brown & Ras Kass – “Blasphemy” (Mello Music Group) – Taking on a variety of subjects, including religion, racism, financial recession and the rules of the rap game, West Coast verbal heavyweight Ras Kass and Detroit producer Apollo Brown crafted an album perfectly suited to today’s confusing times. Further proving the Cali lyricist’s well-deserved reputation as one of Hip-Hop’s most formidable wordsmiths, and adding yet another chamber to Brown’s already impressive discography, “Blasphemy” provided a robust mix of thought-provoking rhymes, microphone bravado and pounding, sample-heavy beats.
Es-K – “Serenity” (Cold Busted) – A concept album dedicated to the memory of a close friend, the aptly-titled “Serenity” found Holland-born producer Es-K inviting the likes of D.I.T.C.’s Andre The Giant, C-Rayz Walz and Boston’s M-Dot to wax lyrical about the pain of loss, the beauty of cherished memories and the fragility of life, with poignant results. Providing a warm, hypnotic soundbed for the sincere and heartfelt verses of the album’s featured artists, Es-K excelled himself musically, delivering soulfully soothing beats which gave the project a moving, ethereal feel.
Diamond D – “The Diam Piece” (Dymond Mine Records) – Succeeding in blending old-school production values with a contemporary feel, the Diggin In The Crates’ producer-on-the-mic pulled together a generation-spanning group of emcees to bless “The Diam Piece”. The likes of Skyzoo, Rapsody, Freddie Foxxx and Grand Daddy I.U. all stepped-up to the mic-stand with solid performances whilst Diamond worked his dusty-fingered magic on the beats.
Shabaam Sahdeeq – “Keepers Of The Lost Art” (Below System Records) – Approaching his first proper album in almost ten years with both the wisdom of experience and an ever-youthful passion for his craft, NYC’s Sahdeeq sounded like he hadn’t missed a beat since his debut during the mid-90s independent boom, lacing quality production from the likes of the UK’s Lewis Parker, Harry Fraud and DJ Skizz with his thoughts on life and Hip-Hop.
Pharoahe Monch – “PTSD” (W.A.R. Media) – In less-skilled hands, a part-autobiographical, part-conceptual album covering topics such as substance abuse, mental health and emotional stress could very easily have been a creative disaster. Yet, with “PTSD”, Organized Konfusion’s Monch succeeded in effectively dealing with such potentially sensitive subject matter whilst still taking the opportunity to indulge in some good ol’-fashioned verbal showmanship, recording an album which balanced soul-stirring moments with competition-crushing verses of sheer lyrical excellence.
Tunnel Movement – “Overlooked” – Following in the musical footsteps of other Windy City talents such as All Natural and Common, Chicago duo KwoteOne and N.O.A.H. crafted an impressive sophomore album full of life-affirming rhymes and solid, soul-laced beats, which, in this instance, hopefully didn’t live up to its title.
Raf Almighty – “G.T.F.O.M.Y.” (Effiscienz Records) – A product of his 90s-era Baltimore environment, Dirt Platoon member Raf Almighty brought a fiery combination of life experience and lyrical grit to the table on this uncompromising solo project, finding his ideal musical backdrop in the concrete-cracking production of France’s DJ Brans.
Sunblaze – “Dirty Rican LP” (SunblazeHipHop.BandCamp.Com) – Representing BK to the fullest, Rotten Apple resident Sunblaze evoked images of shadowy project hallways, street corner ciphers and scuffed Timberland boots with this rugged project firmly rooted in the tradition of East Coast boom-bap. With Timbo King, Pumpkinhead and Tragedy Khadafi providing lyrical assistance, Sunblaze utilised his street-related, razor-sharp rhymes to add on to the legacy of the City Of Gods. Boriquas on da set!
Apathy – “Connecticut Casual” (Dirty Version Records) – Drawing on his New England stomping grounds for inspiration, Demigodz member Apathy took listeners on a twisting journey through the underbelly of Connecticut for his fourth solo album, combining personal memories, local folklore and political intrigue with masterful penmanship on this largely self-produced and thoroughly captivating release.
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.”
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.”
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…
“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…
“Yeah (laughs). I’d be down in that Deal Real basement with Supa T freestyling. Those were good times, man.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Follow Shabaam Sahdeeq on Twitter – @ShabaamSahdeeq
Preview “Keepers Of The Lost Art” on Below System Records here.
Shabaam Sahdeeq – “Tranquilo” (Below System Records / 2014)
Marco Polo ft. Organized Konfusion – “3-O-Clock” (Soulspazm Records / 2013)
The talented Canadian producer reunites Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po for this track from his forthcoming album “PA2: Director’s Cut” which also features Masta Ace, Inspectah Deck, Large Professor and more.