France’s Skillz Beats pulls together a selection of indie favourites from the likes of Black Star, Big L and Company Flow.
France’s Skillz Beats pulls together a selection of indie favourites from the likes of Black Star, Big L and Company Flow.
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.”
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)
The UK producer puts a bass-heavy twist on this late-90s Rawkus favourite from the Detroit motormouth.
In the first instalment of this interview with NYC’s Mr.Complex, the Rotten Apple resident spoke on coming up with Organized Konfusion, releasing his first 1995 single “I’m Rhymin'” and his more recent work in the world of film and television.
In this concluding part, Complex discusses his reservations about returning to the music game, the story behind his recently released “Swiss Chocolate Cake” album and his hopes for the future.
The engine to his comprehension is just too complex.
In the late-90s artists within the independent scene like Mos Def and The High & Mighty were capitalising off the success of their singles by releasing albums but that wasn’t something you did immediately – was there a reason why you didn’t release a full album at that point considering the success of your first releases?
“I remember when I started to put out singles that I was getting crazy props from Pharoahe was like, ‘You’ve really got the ball in your court right now. Take your time and get your material how you want it. Don’t rush.’ But I think maybe I should’ve rushed and dropped an album in 1997. But around that whole time it felt like I was having to re-set the people around me each time I put a single out because I was working with different labels. I mean, the first single came out on my own thing, then “Visualize” came out through Raw Shack, and then after that I was working with Nervous Records as part of Polyrhythm Addicts. At the same time Rawkus was trying to get me, and they’d signed me to release “Stabbin’ You” as a single, but they were sitting on it for so long that I dropped “I’ma Kill It” just to get back out there. But it always felt like I was re-setting because I was working with all these different labels.”
After Organized Konfusion dropped their last album in 1997 Pharoahe Monch almost started his career over and seemed to approach being as a solo artist as if he was introducing himself to the rap world all over again – was it strange for you to see your mentor in that situation?
“It was weird because he was someone I would look to for advice given that he was more experienced in the business than I was and had already put out albums. At that time Pharoahe was riding around with me everywhere after coming off of the Organized Konfusion situation and people were always like ‘Oh s**t! That’s Pharoahe!” (laughs) So Pharoahe had come up to Rawkus with me and then the label started asking me if he’d consider doing songs with this artist or that artist. So I told Pharoahe he should talk to them and the next thing you know he had his own solo deal with Rawkus and really started taking off.”
That must have been a very busy period for both of you (laughs)…
“It was funny, because I was rolling with Pharoahe doing his shows, doing Polyrhythm Addicts shows and doing Mr. Complex shows all at the same time. I remember doing three shows in one night (laughs). There were days when I didn’t even know where I was going to be the next day because I was doing so many shows. I would be on a plane sometimes with barely a days notice. Pharoahe would call me up, ‘We’re going to Amsterdam.’ I’d be like. ‘Okay, when?” He’d say “Tonight” (laughs). It was fun but at the time I really didn’t know it was going to end. It’s easy to start taking that sort of thing for granted. I remember I was working through that whole period at the post office doing night shifts (laughs). I’d get no sleep during the day, then I’d be working or doing shows, so at times it felt like I was really killing myself (laughs). But then towards the end when I was doing the group thing with Polyrhythm it really started to kill my spirit because we didn’t get it to pop the way we wanted it to. We were fighting each other and it was kinda depressing. I mean, we were doing shows for really small crowds just to get a couple of dollars. Then I’d go home to my wife and family, now ex-wife, and hear stuff from them about what I should be doing, so the whole music thing really got depressing. 2005 and 2006 was a real hard time as I was almost homeless, having to sleep on friends couches while I tried to rebuild myself.”
Having gone through those disappointments and experiences as an artist, how has that influenced the way you’re approaching your music career today?
“It’s gonna be a different feeling because I know how to have fun with it now. I’m going to attack it differently. I do have a few reservations about whether people are going to look at me now and say ‘Who is this old man? What the hell is he talking about?’ (laughs) But I keep thinking back to my last show in 2005 in Germany with Kurtis Blow on the bill. He kept telling me all these stories and in the same way that you were asking me earlier about being a part of the 90s independent movement, I was asking him about being a part of that first wave of rappers and how he continues to do what he does. And some of the issues I’m dealing with now regarding how fragmented the Hip-Hop audience is and how a lot of my original audience might not even listen to Hip-Hop much anymore or have any real interest in what I’m doing now, those are all things that older artists have gone through before us. So now I’ve got to find my audience again or let my audience find me. I mean, just a matter of years ago on MySpace I had ten thousand fans, now today on Facebook I have seven hundred (laughs). So where have all the people who were coming to my shows gone? Where are all the people who were buying my records? How do I make sure those people know I have a new record out?”
Your recent video for the “Holy Smokes” single is definitely memorable – where did that concept come from?
“Where did it come from? I don’t know (laughs). I just knew that I wanted to do something a little crazy that would make people want to watch it again. I played around with some ideas and then decided on having the girls beat me up (laughs). I did actually get caught a few times while we were shooting. One girl really caught me in my adam’s apple and another one stood down on the back of my leg with her high heels on. Most of the girls in the video are actresses that I’ve worked with before on other projects who always said I should let them know whenever I was doing something with my own music. So I really wanted to do something that would standout because the one thing the Internet has done has made it very easy for anyone to make a track or put a video out there, so if you’re competing for people’s attention along with all this other stuff you have to make sure that what you do is entertaining and will be remembered. There’s more to being an artist than just getting an account on Facebook (laughs).”
So how did the “Swiss Chocolate Cake” album originally come to be recorded and why was it initially left on the shelf?
“The first time I ever went overseas in was to Switzerland in 1997. Years later, around 2002, I found this record in a friend’s office that was a compilation album from a Swiss producer called Vasi. I looked on the back of the cover and there were a bunch of artists on the record and one of them was actually the promoter who had originally got me out to Switzerland for that first trip. So I reached out to him and he booked me for another show out there in 2003 with DJ Crossphader. I was then introduced to Vasi and some other guys and we went to the studio the day after the show and I recorded about four songs right there and then. At the time, it still was quite a big deal for a Stateside artist to be working with producers from Europe, and it was really humbling for me because they were really happy for us to be working together. I was due to fly back to New York, but I told them that if they brought me out to Switzerland again I’d do a whole album with them. In total we ended up recording about seventeen songs, but then after we’d done all the recording everyone went back to what they were doing, everyday life got in the way, and nothing happened with the project. So when I started wondering what had happened to all the tracks, some of the ones I found had already been mixed and some of the others needed a little work, but out of that I decided on the ones that would then make the album. It’s funny to get behind a project containing music that I recorded almost ten years ago because I find myself second-guessing the project and wondering if people would get into it. But then I listen to the album, and it is good. It’s something different from me which is cool and the great thing is that people who didn’t know the story behind the album heard the music and didn’t think it sounded like something that had been recorded years ago.”
So with both “Swiss Chocolate Cake” and the “Forever New” album dropping this year are you looking beyond 2012 as far as your music is concerned or does the future depend on how these projects are received?
“I mean, I’m hoping that the “Swiss Chocolate Cake” album will be enjoyed, but do I think it’s going to be an album that people are forever rewinding and playing again? I really don’t know because in today’s market it’s hard to say something like that. I just really wanted to get it out of my system because I felt it wasn’t a project I could release after the new album that I’m working on now. It had to come out before “Forever New” as a way to try and get a little buzz going again. But what will happen after I release the new album later this year, I really don’t know. I mean, the fun I had touring with L-Fudge and Crossphader a decade ago seems like a lifetime ago now. So if I start touring again and I’m not enjoying it like I used to or I’m constantly fighting with promoters for money like towards the end last time, then that’s not something I can do anymore. But when everything started to slow down the first time around, I always said to myself that if I did get back out there making music and travelling again then I’d definitely treasure every moment the second time around.”
“Swiss Chocolate Cake” is out now on Sub-Bombin’ Records.
Mr. Complex – “Holy Smokes” (Sub-Bombin’ Records / 2012)
Photo by Jazzy Star
Making his name during the 90s independent Hip-Hop explosion, Queens, NY lyricist Mr. Complex gained a strong fanbase thanks to his confident wordplay, leftfield story-telling and ear for quality production. Early singles such as 1995’s Pharoahe Monch-produced “I’m Rhymin'” and 1997’s DJ Spinna collabo “Visualize” are today considered to be key releases in the development of the underground scene of the time.
With Organized Konfusion as early mentors, it was always clear that Mr. Complex would be more than just a blip on the Hip-Hop radar. A string of releases running into the new millenium further cemented the cocky-yet-likeable emcee’s reputation as a reliable source of true-school beats and rhymes, both as a solo artist and as part of the group Polyrhythm Addicts with Spinna, Shabaam Sahdeeq and Apani B. Fly (who was later replaced by Tiye Phoenix).
Yet following the 2007 release of the Addicts’ “Break Glass” album, Complex seemed to quietly slip away from the music game. No blustering announcements of retirement. No angry website interviews complaining about the state of Hip-Hop. No final attempt to make some quick money from his catalogue by re-releasing earlier product. In recent years, Mr. Complex simply became a name that would be mentioned in rap-related conversations and greeted with a “Where is he now?” reaction.
Now offically back from his musical hiatus, Mr. Complex looks set to leave his mark on 2012 with two album releases plus other projects relating to his longstanding interest in the film world.
In the first part of this interview, the NYC wordsmith speaks on his new-but-not-new album “Swiss Chocolate Cake” which drops this Valentine’s Day, reuniting with old friends and his memories of coming up with Organized Konfusion.
So obvious first question – where have you been?
“Well, the name Mr. Complex came from the multiple talents I had, from drawing and writing to music and film-making. So when the music stuff started to slow down, with stores closing down and downloading, plus everyone being a rapper on the corner selling their CDs, it was really getting hard to make a living. At the same time I was getting older and becoming a family man with bills and responsibilities. So the film stuff sorta slipped in there and I started working on a lot of TV and film projects which really consume your time. I mean, if I’m working on a movie, I could have a month where I’m getting four hours sleep a day. So if you get caught working on back-to-back projects, before you know it a whole year has gone by and it didn’t even feel like a year (laughs). Then the next thing you know another year has gone by. I mean, it’s funny because I started doing the film stuff around 2003 and was heavy into it in 2004. But at the same time I was still releasing music and it was cool because I could be on set with someone like Will Ferrell and get him to do a skit for my album and be working at a job but still be able to put music out. But then the music really started to slow down and next thing you know six or seven years have gone by.”
What film and television projects have you worked on?
“When I first started I was PA-ing on “American Idol” and the final season of Dave Chappelle’s show, so I was there when all the craziness went down. I was working on a lot of independent movies. You’d have to look at IMDB or something to get the full list (laughs). But some of the big movies I was involved in were like “American Gangster” and some of Will Smith’s movies. I worked on a lot of food TV shows, I worked on Ice Cube’s “Are We There Yet?” show, “Law & Order”. It’s funny because on some of the TV shows they might throw me in a scene if they need an extra. So on “Law & Order” they put me in a scene around the same time the last Polyrhythm Addicts album came out. They didn’t know who I was in terms of my music, so it was funny to start getting phone calls and seeing messages like ‘I’ve just seen Mr. Complex on TV’ (laughs). I was in a scene in the Biggie movie “Notorious” as a deejay, but you’d barely notice it unless you knew it was me (laughs). I’ve also been directing some music videos at the same time. I did Pharoahe Monch’s “When The Gun Draws” video, Stacy Epps’ video “Floatin'”, three or four videos for Black Skeptic who now goes by the name Kyle Rapps, and also a video for Detroit’s Invincible. But now I’m going back to my own music and this first album I’m putting out this year “Swiss Chocolate Cake” is an album I recorded in Switzerland about seven or eight years ago that’s been sitting around for so long and I decided I really needed to get it out. I’ve also started recording some new stuff which is an experience because I haven’t actually recorded music for some time now.”
Are you working with anyone in particular on the new project?
“I’m back in Queens where I started and I’m working with a producer who was a friend of mine in high-school called Mortal-One who’s pretty much undiscovered. Back then he wasn’t about the music like that, but he was around with Prince Po so he was always part of the camp. Now, my first producer when I first started, his name was Omega Supreme and he was also Organized Konfusion’s early deejay. I started recording when they started recording, around late-80s / early 90s, and Supreme was the one who pretty much introduced me to a lot of people and he passed away a couple of years ago. At the funeral I got together with some of my old friends, and one of these friends, Mortal-One, also learned from Omega Supreme. So he was like, ‘You’ve gotta come over and listen to what I’ve been doing.’ So putting this new music together has been like a family thing and a reunion which has also been very emotional.”
With the new album coming out of those circumstances it must really add a deeper meaning to the actual creative process?
“Exactly. So this new album I’m working on now, which I’m going to call “Forever New”, this album is like the best stuff I’ve ever done to be honest. But I’m still working on getting that finished. So when I came across the “Swiss Chocolate Cake” album again and realised it was still a hot album, I thought putting that out first would be a good way to get people familiar with me again before I put out the new, new album (laughs) which should hopefully be out around summer. So this year I’ve got a lot of things on deck. I’m also primed to get a feature made this year as well. I have a few scripts, one of which I’ve been trying to shoot for awhile called “Revenge Of The Soundman” which is music-related and crazy but it was taking too long to get that one done as there were too many people involved. But then I wrote a whole other script with D-Stroy from The Arsonists which I’m planning to start shooting in April. It’s real low-budget, I’m probably going to use Kickstarter to raise some funds, and then I’m going to knock the movie out. The title of the project is “The Funny Thing About Trying To F**k” and it’s just bananas. So my plan is to get this “Swiss Chocolate Cake” album out, get the buzz back up and then get things happening with these other projects.”
Going back to your music video work, being an artist yourself do you have a personal rule that you’ll only work with artists whose music you like or do you view video direction as a job first and foremost?
“Being an artist and making the music that I do, I’m constantly surrounded by other artists who’re sorta on the right lines for me to work with. So most of those artists will come to me first, so it’s not that far of a stretch for me to do a video for someone like Invincible. Artists that I don’t really associate with whose styles are a little different probably don’t even know who I am or what it is that I do, as it’s not like I’m really out there heavy pushing the video director thing. I did, however, just recently shoot a video for an artist whose music isn’t necessarily my style and he didn’t know anything about me as an artist at all. I thought it was a challenge for me to listen to his song and come up with a video concept for a track that might be outside of what I would normally listen to. But it was funny, once we got on set some of this artist’s friends were like ‘Are you the same Mr. Complex who put out records? Ah man, I’ve got your s**t in my crate.’ Then the artist was looking at me like ‘Who the f**k are you?’ (laughs). Then he got a little sceptical thinking that maybe I wasn’t going to put my all into his project because I’m an artist myself. But I’m a professional so I put on a different hat when it comes to the directing thing. I mean, I have turned some songs down that people have come to me with, so I don’t think it’s going to get to the point where I’m making videos for Gangsta Gangsta Skinny Pants (laughs).”
The independent music game has changed considerably since you were last releasing product – has that affected your approach to how you’re promoting and pushing these new projects?
“It’s real different today and it’s funny how many people will tell you that you have to do this and have to do that now to make a project successful. But as far as I’m concerned there’s really no rules to it. Before the music thing I was in advertising, so I learnt a few things here and there about how to promote a product which are still valid today. People keep telling me that you need to be putting out all these mixtapes and giving songs away for free, paying publicists to then push those songs, so then I’m like ‘Well, if you’re doing all of that how are you supposed to make any money as an artist today?’ People get worried about putting an album out that nobody knows about, but as far as I’m concerned it’s your job as an artist to work hard after you’ve put it out to make sure people do know about it. I’m not going to try to promote a project by throwing out a bunch of random, unrelated songs on a mixtape that weren’t good enough to actually make the album I’m promoting. That’s just not my style. I’m still going to go up to the radio shows to rhyme, I’m still going to be doing shows, I’m still going to be doing interviews and doing what I need to do to let people know I have an album out.”
It’s seventeen years now since you dropped your debut three-track 1995 single “I’m Rhymin'” which featured production from both Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po of Organized Konfusion. For those who don’t already know the story, briefly explain how you hooked-up with Organized?
“Basicall we all went to the same high-school back in the 80s. There was me, Prince Po, Pharoahe Monch, and we also had Percee P, Kwame and a few others in that same school who went on to make a name for themselves in music. We were tight on the Queens side and me and Prince sat next to each other and I would hear him rhyming and used to be amazed. I was still too shy at that point to rhyme until some years later.”
So when did you actually first start rhyming in public?
“What happened was, a guy on my block that I grew-up with, he was a little older and he used to have a studio in his basement and always had a lot of musicians coming over. Do you remember Tom Browne’s single “Funkin’ For Jamaica”? His keyboard player named Kevin Osborne used to play in this guy’s basement. There used to be a few other emcees who used to be there and I’d go over there and watch them jam. Then one day I just opend up and was like, ‘Y’know I can rap?!’ This would have been around 1986 / 1987 so they didn’t believe me at first because they just thought of me as being a baby (laughs). So I started rapping and they liked what I did and wanted me to do some stuff but I told them that instead of that I’d bring Prince Po over. Then he started rapping for them and really wanted to get into it. I mean, at the time I was just rhyming for fun, but Po was really serious about it. So he then started bringing Pharoahe over with him as well and they started recording which led to them getting their first single deal as Simply II Positive MC’s before they were known as Organized Konfusion. I watched things grow and I started going around with them and coming out of my shell, going to park jams with them and being like ‘Yo! Let me get on the mic for a minute.’ So it really just started from there for me. ”
So what were you doing around the time Organized Konfusion got their deal and came out in 1991 with “Fudge Pudge” featuring O.C.?
“At that time, O.C. lived just across the street, so it was more me, Pharoahe and O.C. building together. Then they started doing the Organized thing, putting records out and touring. I was still recording and was being managed by a guy at the time who was also managing the R&B singer CeCe Peniston. Then she dropped that record “Finally” which blew up and they started touring heavy and left me at home for about seven months. I was like, ‘Damn! Right when I was starting to get things going.’ I’d been recording some demos so I started trying to do the beats myself and that’s when my friend and producer Lee Stone started helping me out. It was at that point that I really started to develop the sound and feel of Mr. Complex as an artist. Before that, the people I’d been working with had been trying to get me to have more of an R&B flavour because of the other artists they were working with, so they didn’t really understand how I wanted the music I made as Mr. Complex to sound. They were trying to tell me that I could be a clean-cut, story-telling Fresh Prince rapper as he’d just started doing television at the time. But that just wasn’t me. I mean, I can tell stories in my rhymes, but not in the same way the Fresh Prince would have (laughs). So I started going to Pharoahe’s crib a lot, playing him stuff, getting him to chop beats up for me, and that led to me getting in The Source’s Unsigned Hype section in 1995. So after that I just decided to press up the demos and do it myself, which was the single “I’m Rhymin'” that also had “Against The Grain” and “Feel Me” on it.”
When you dropped that single it was part of the first wave of 90s New York indie releases – were you aware at the time that there was a real underground movement building that would go on to have such an impact on Hip-Hop?
“Nah, we weren’t aware that the underground independent scene was going to become what it was. At the time, we were just looking at pressing up your own single as another way to try to get signed to a major label. We weren’t thinking that we didn’t actually need a label behind us; putting our own music out was to us another way to let the major labels know that we were out there and serious about making music. O.C. had got signed to MC Serch’s Serchlite Music and I was there when that happened. I was also there when MC Serch signed Nas as well. So I was in the studio listening to the songs they were making and thinking that they were the next generation of Hip-Hop artists to break through and get signed to a label, and then after that it would be my turn to do the same. It was just after that period that I pressed that first single. At that time, it was Serch’s man Mark who managed me, and he brought me to this guy named Georges Sulmers who was setting up a label called Raw Shack. He told me that he had an artist he was working with called J-Live and asked if I could do anything to help them out. So I took J-Live’s stuff down to The Source and that was how he got in Unsigned Hype. Then Georges pressed up J-Live’s record “Braggin’ Writes” and I was watching how both his record and mine were doing in 1995. But it wasn’t until around 1997 that I’d say I actually saw there was a movement happening. Before that, like when I was in The Source and putting my first record out, people would call me to book me on shows, but I was doing shows with people like Ja Rule and Nine who were both already signed and getting played on the radio. But then things started to change a little and it really became apparent that there were a lot of artists out there on the underground doing the same thing. Stretch & Bobbito were really supporting what these artists were doing, you started getting booked at the same shows together, then Rawkus came along and it really seemed like it was the beginning of an underground reign. It was crazy because I remember when I dropped the “Visualize” single with DJ Spinna in 1997, I was getting booked to go and do shows in places across the world that people I knew with deals didn’t even know about (laughs). I remember at the time Organized Konfusion were just putting there last album out, and they went out to Japan for a couple of shows and did some tour dates in the US with Artifacts and The Beatnuts, but they weren’t hitting Europe heavy like I was at the time.”
Were you surprised when you found out how much love your records were getting from Hip-Hop fans overseas?
“Yeah, it definitely surprised me. See, where I failed on the first record was that I didn’t put a phone number or any contact info on it because I wasn’t thinking that people would want to work with me off the back of it. I remember a distributor calling me from Jersey telling me they’d got my number from someone in Canada, who’d got it from someone in Chicago, who’d got it from someone in Florida (laughs). They took the last hundred and fifty copies I had of “I’m Rhymin'” and then a few days later called back asking for another thousand, and then another thousand. The second single on Raw Shack did have contact info on it but that went through the label. So I still didn’t really know how I was being felt. I’d seen a couple of things here and there in magazines but I still didn’t really know. Then when I finally got to travel overseas it really bugged me out. It really hit me that both of those records I’d done at the time had really done their thing.”
Part Two of this interview is coming soon.
Mr. Complex’s new album “Swiss Chocolate Cake” drops February 14th on Sub-Bombin’ Records.
Mr. Complex – “Against The Grain” (1995 / Core Records)
Footage of Mos Def and Talib Kweli performing the Black Star banger “Definition” at Paid Dues 2011.
(Duck Down Music)
There are rappers. There are emcees. Then there’s an artist like Pharoahe Monch. A virtual demi-god amongst discerning Hip-Hop heads, the lyrical king from Queens has been amazing listeners with his verbal gymnastics for precisely twenty years now, having debuted in 1991 as one-half of Organized Konfusion alongside childhood friend Prince Po.
The pair’s debut single, the upbeat “Fudge Pudge”, was definitely a dope head-nodder that sat well amongst the jazz-infused sounds of the time from the likes of Main Source and Tribe, but it only hinted at the lyrical explosions that were to be heard on Organized’s self-titled debut album released later that same year. Cuts such as the complex “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” and concept-driven “Prisoners Of War” found the pair playing with flows, verse structure and language like poetical mad scientists, mixing the influences of golden-age heroes such as Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap with their own love of comic books, science-fiction and vocabulary.
Although the duo released three albums as a partnership, it’s 1994’s “Stress (The Extinction Agenda)”, OK’s darker sophomore effort, that most fans consider to be their best, thanks to its almost flawless blend of brilliant wordplay and classic dusty-fingered production. It was also with this album that Organized stans really began to argue over who was the better out of the two, Monch or Po?
To say that Pharoahe consistently outshone Prince would be unfair, as both were masters of their craft. However, on their 1991 debut the pair had seemed evenly matched, yet on its follow-up Monch did begin to gain more attention, not necessarily because of what he was saying, but how he was saying it. Classic Pharoahe verses on the album’s title track and the legendary Buckwild remix of “Bring It On” found the former musical student of the late, great Paul C. gleefully playing with the constraints of structured rhymes, stretching out lines for effect, stuttering words, adopting different vocal tones, and generally rubbing the faces of lesser emcees in the enormity of his lyrical might.
All of which meant that by the time Organized Konfusion went their separate ways following 1997’s “The Equinox”, the rap world was hungry for a Monch solo project. A craving that was satisfied by 2000’s Rawkus-released “Internal Affairs”, which of course featured the timeless crowd-pleaser “Simon Says”.
But after such a memorable beginning to his solo career, Pharoahe’s output over the last decade has been sporadic to say the least, with Monch not releasing a follow up to the critically-acclaimed “Internal Affairs” until 2007’s “Desire”. So it’s something of an understatement to say that lyric-lovers have been heavily anticipating this new album from the self-proclaimed “God’s gift to vocabulary” since news broke of Pharoahe’s partnership with independent powerhouse Duck Down. With great power comes great responsbility, as the saying goes.
Straight off the bat, let it be said that “W.A.R.” is a good album. Is it a classic? No. Is it an album that sounds like it should’ve taken four years to complete? Probably not. But does it sound as though Monch has gotten lazy with the pen or lost his creative spark? Definitely not.
Although Pharoahe’s delivery may be a little more subdued and refined than his earlier excursions on wax, that doesn’t mean that his lyrical prowess has become any less impressive. One of Monch’s best performances on the album comes early on the Exile-produced “Evolve”. Over ethereal choir vocals the talented lyrical technician toys with his flow and cadence, delivering playful lines such as “So phenomenal with mics I don’t like myself, Sadomasochist emcee, I bite myself…”, subtly building a complex web of wordplay that hits from every angle with punchlines, metaphors and rhymes within rhymes.
The Marco Polo-produced title track sounds like theme music to a protest march, capturing the essence of Monch’s renegade rap persona perfectly with stomping drums and a searing rock guitar solo from Living Colour’s Vernon Reid. Amidst the chaotic soundbed, Pharoahe covers media manipulation, genetic experiments and New World Order dictatorship, claiming that he’s “guilty as charged if intellect’s a crime”.
The anti-police brutality anthem “Clap (One Day)” finds Australian producer M-Phazes doing his best DJ Premier impersonation, whilst the soulful “Black Hand Side” features a sensitive-yet-streetwise Styles P pouring out heartfelt ghetto angst as Monch ponders the future of today’s younger generation as they attempt to navigate their way through the senseless violence of the inner-city.
The Diamond D-produced “Shine” is another immediate standout, with the D.I.T.C. member supplying a warm backdrop of thumping beats and melodic chimes, as the asthmatic emcee boasts how “each line of speech is designed to transcend time”, with songstress Mela Machinko’s gritty vocals adding an organic dimension to the track.
“The Hitman” is proof of how a skilled lyricist can make familiar subject matter sound fresh, as Monch targets music industry politics and the lack of support for underground rap artists, attacking the obvious without saying the obvious (“If you are not performing fellatio for radio rotation, What’s the ratio for radio play at your station? If you’re not paying to play the record is dead, Puts a whole new spin on Radiohead”).
On the inspirational “Still Standing”, a beautiful blend of soaring strings and horns, Pharoahe ponders how challenges he’s faced both personal and professional have shaped the man and artist he is today.
Whilst fans will have little to complain about when it comes to the quality level of Monch’s rhymes throughout “W.A.R.”, the same cannot be said for some of his beat choices. “Let My People Go” is built around solid but unsurprising production from Fatin “10” Horton, whilst performances from Jean Grae and Royce Da 5’9″ on “Assassins” are hampered by a track that just doesn’t have the impact to match each emcee’s dynamic vocal presence.
“The Grand Illusion (Circa 1973)”, a rock/rap hybrid, also fails, sounding like a cross between an outtake off the last album from The Roots and a hungover Rage Against The Machine.
Yet that said, “W.A.R.” is still a strong effort that will do nothing to damage Monch’s reputation as one of the most advanced microphone masters of his generation. To still even be in the music business two decades after your debut would be considered a success by some, but for Monch to still be considered one of the best in his field twenty years after first unleashing his skills on the world is a testament to both his integrity and artistic individuality. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take the NYC legend another four years to drop his fourth solo album.
Or would an Organized Konfusion reunion project perhaps be too much to ask for?