Mr. Complex ft. Kalmoo – “Slaughter” (MrComplex.Com / 2012)
Originally recorded in 2003 the NYC emcee has put together a video for this track to promote his new album “Swiss Chocolate Cake”.
Mr. Complex ft. Kalmoo – “Slaughter” (MrComplex.Com / 2012)
Originally recorded in 2003 the NYC emcee has put together a video for this track to promote his new album “Swiss Chocolate Cake”.
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)