“Apollo Brown and Planet Asia” sounds like the best Saturday morning cartoon to never exist.  It was inevitable that the two heroes of the subterranean hip-hop scene—though established on opposite ends of the Aughts—would eventually cross paths. For one, they each play nicely with others.  Apollo, a producer from Detroit, has stacked his catalog with collaborative projects featuring Boog Brown, Hassan Mackey, Guilty Simpson, OC, Ras Kass and Skyzoo. Planet Asia, a veteran lyricist from Fresno California, came in the game as one-half of Cali Agents and is currently part of Gold Chain Military and Durag Dynasty. Along with his own lengthy solo catalog, Asia also boasts collabs with DJ Muggs, Madlib and Gensu Dean. Secondly, they both have a wry sense of humor.

“I met Apollo at a Lil Uzi Vert show,” Asia jokes about their first meeting.  Brown protests vehemently before it’s corrected that their introduction was actually a Ras Kass party at Escala in L.A. Their first musical collaboration was on the track “Nasty” from 2012’s Dice Game with Guilty Simpson. This was followed by an experiment in 2014, Apollo’s Abrasions: Stitched Up EP.

“Obviously I’ve been a fan of Asia for a long time. He had an album called Abrasions with Gensu Dean, and I was kind of jealous because I’d always wanted to do an album with Asia. So I told Mike (at Mello Music Group) you gotta let me remix the album or something or put out an EP. So we came up with this idea for Dean to remix five joints off the Dice Game album, and I did 5 off the Abrasions album. Something about the way Asia sounds on my beats is crazy.”

The trifecta was completed when Asia went toe-to-toe with Westside Gunn on “Triple Beams” from Apollo’s 2015 compilation Grandeur.

“That really made people say enough is enough, we need a goddamn album,” says Asia. “That Dice Game was a monster and that’s when it got sparked, but when he dropped the compilation we didn’t have no choice. The fans were about to kill our ass.”

“The fans be bullying man. They will bully you into stuff,” Apollo confirms. “It was inevitable anyway. We just made it happen. I had a concept and sound that I wanted to go for. I had most of the beats already kind of mapped out and it was just a certain sound that I wanted to go for. I had a script and needed the perfect actor. And Asia was the perfect actor.”

The finished collaboration is Anchovies, a 15-track master class in “Fly exotic thug shit.” UGHH caught up with Apollo Brown and Planet Asia to get the secrets to serving up fresh soul food and when to hold the mayo.

Anchovies album cover

A lot of the early commentary about Anchovies has been how minimal the sound is. Was that intentional?

Apollo Brown: Absolutely. This is the kind of sound I started making when I first started making beats in ‘96. When I had fun making beats. There is a lot more to it these days. I’ve always been a fan of just minimal, chopped up loops with minimal drums. There is something about it that just grabs me. I didn’t add any drums to this album. Any drum sounds you hear, I beefed up out of the samples. I wanted it to just mesh really well and I wanted the vocals to be prominent, not the drums.

The minimalist shit has been going on for a minute. Madlib has been doing it. KA does it. Roc Marci does it, Westside Gunn and Conway. This is where it’s at for me.

Planet Asia: I’ve [known] Roc Marci for 15 years or some shit and we used to talk about not having drums on beats. I don’t make beats so I used to have to sift through a lot of producers. I used to tell them don’t give me no drums. Sometimes they would send me a beat, and sometimes they’d start the beat with just the sample playing and I would hit ‘em back saying, “I only want the beginning part. I don’t like that part when you bring the beat in.” A lot of my shit in the early 2000s was me doing that, but now I have producers I can go to for that sound. Everybody wants to overproduce and get a placement.

That’s what made “You Love Me” a stand out for me. I like the way the voices came through the track.

AB: I’m all about voice, delivery, and content. And when you got an emcee that has all three…not all emcees have all three. Asia has all of them. I love it. My whole mentality was niche. That’s why I named it “Anchovies.” They aren’t for everybody. You either love them or hate them. And that’s what this album is. If you get it, you get it.

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

Asia, those beats moved you to really open up and get personal. What was your approach to writing to the beats?

PA: You gotta attribute half of it to Apollo because he was on some Cus D’Amato shit with me. I had to get up early, run eight miles, and then get to the studio. Like he said, he made the beats like he did in ‘96, I felt like that’s how I was rhyming more, on some High School shit. I had four of the beats and wrote one of them in Europe, “Duffles.” I wrote that in Germany. We took it back to the cafeteria. That’s how I feel. You may not have had all the equipment, but you had an Akai sampler and a sequencer and you just looping up shit, and the emcee is just rhyming. Loop that shit up, and let me get busy. I think hip-hop has gotten too fucking technical. I was watching the VMAs and none of the fucking Black artists had any soul. Everybody else was doing soulful shit and we were the ones with the super spaced out techno beats.

AB: Exactly. All the music out now is sounds and words. I need feelings.

PA: I’ve gotten beats from producers I love and sometimes a beat can be too big for me. I feel like I’m fighting it. I don’t wanna feel like I’m fighting the music as an artist, and sometimes I think the producers don’t think of the emcee.

AB: As a producer I’m not trying to go tit for tat with the emcee on the same song. I sit the vocals up a lot higher now. The way I made the beats, there was room for the vocals.

PA: You can hear that on the Abrasion album remixes. It’s a pet peeve of mine for my lyrics to be moved, and Apollo is the only artist I’ve heard put my lyrics to a different beat and it sound better than the original. You ain’t put my shit on some goofy pattern. You gotta have real rhythm to do that. You get a lot of chaos in that.

AB: I’m all about the pocket. That’s my white side, man.

PA: [LAUGHS HYSTERICALLY] You are dumb, bruh. Those loops, man. He finds those ones.

And all of the songs were recorded at Apollo’s house?

AB: We don’t do email albums. You know my usual process is I send the beats out to the emcee, they write, and I fly them to my studio. We knock it out in a few days, get it recorded, get some of the viral media and whatever else. But this guy wrote 90% of the album in the studio, which is against all of my rules. Writing in the studio is nothing but time, and time is money. Write it at your crib and then when you come to me we can knock this out as fast as possible, but it didn’t happen that way. I’m getting a lot more open, but it used to be a strict rule. When you working with creative minds like Skyzoo and Asia who write in the studio, I can’t interrupt that process. Your track record speaks for itself. I’m not gonna interrupt that.

PA: I used to write raps at home. You that little kid with a salami sandwich and a beat tape you just happy to have a beat tape. But after so many years I really get the urge to rap when I HAVE to rap. I need some kind of pressure to rhyme.

AB: We made the whole album front to back in six days. Everything was written right there. Some of the beats were made on the spot.

PA: Yeah, two or three songs a day. It ain’t hard when you got good music. The newest joint on there was the “Avant Guard” song. When I heard that beat I said, “Shit! I gotta have that. Let me jump on this NOW.” The “Pain” song was one of the last ones I did because it was a subject that I didn’t want to talk about, but I feel better that I released all that pain on a record.

AB: It got emotional in the studio…

PA: I cried when I wrote that. It’s a true story. Everything in that song is real. My cousins both died in the same store two different times in the same exact way. Somebody drove by and shot one and another dude was driving off and he shot my other cousin. I had two aunties that died the same week of cancer, back-to-back. One day after another. And one of my aunts that passed, it was her grandson that got shot. My cousin.

You got Willy The Kid, Guilty Simpson and Tristate as the guest artists. Why them?

PA: Those are like my comrades. I got numerous songs with Will. I’m into that type of shit. I’m more of a group type of person anyway. I love having different colors. It’s like having a different instrument. Guilty Simpson is like bringing out a 12 gauge. Willie is like the 007 dude with the silencer, and Tristate is like an AR-15 or some shit.

That’s a lot of violence. So Apollo, you brought out those “Metal Lungies” horns on “Duffles”…

AB: If you know it, you know what it is. Though I like mine better. I won’t even front. But mine’s more minimal. I’ve always heard it with drums, and I feel like that sample had enough in it already. The drums and break in it is enough. Just beef it up a little bit and leave it like that. I made it my own. I had to calm the horns down a little bit so Asia could cut through. They were screaming.

PA: He took a lot of mayonnaise off that sandwich so we could have a perfect sandwich.

AB:  I like mayo bro…

There goes your white side again…

[EVERYONE LAUGHS]

PA: You should’ve never said that at the beginning.

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

The first track, “The Smell” made me think of The Matrix where Agent Smith is interrogating Morpheus and says it’s the smell that kills him. What does the rap game smell like to you right now?

PA: It’s a bunch of men, so I think it smells like draws and breath. [laughs] Like a fuckin’ locker room.

AB: It definitely don’t smell like roses.

PA: I think hip-hop is in a good space for what we do. I can tell you from a person that’s been on Interscope Records, a mainstream, with all the yada yada, that was the best and worst time. The music that I’m making now is what I really wanted to do when I first came out. But in the era I came out in there was a lot of politics just to make music. Me being from the West Coast first of all and not sounding like the average West Coast artist, I had to go through a lot of stressful shit with music as a young man. Now this type of music is accepted and there is a lane where people enjoy grassroots, organic hip-hop. There is a lane for us now and there is a lane for the weirdo shit too.

You dropped the video for “The Aura,” how many more are you releasing?

AB: We have three. I hate doing videos. I hate photo shoots. During a video I’m Eric B all day. You know how he’d be in the background looking like a security guard. Just straight up Nation of Islam. That’s me all day. I look stupid. I look like a dumb ass every time.  Every time a video comes out I’m like WTF are you doing? It’s a necessary evil.

PA: I’m gonna get you a bigger chain [laughs]

AB: I don’t need a bigger chain. My chain is good. But my videos, I do the same thing in every video. I don’t know what to do with my hands. I don’t know if I should bob my head or stay still. I’m not that dude that points at the camera. That’s not my personality. So I look the same in every photo. I look like an asshole.

PA: “I don’t know what to do with my hands.” That’s some shit Sean Price would say. “Yo B, I don’t know what to do with my hands in a video. I look goofy right now.” It gotta be natural.

AB: I don’t have rap hands. I don’t like props, I don’t like cliché shit. I’m not gonna be in a video with an MPC and shit or a boombox over my shoulder. Or standing on some train tracks in front of a bunch of graffiti. I almost screamed when me and Ras Kass did a video (“Humble Pi”) and I had headphones walking down the street. You wanna put headphones on me right now? So now I can’t hear shit. It’s like putting turntables in front of me and shit on the ground in the middle of nowhere. I think the wire for the headphones actually fell out of my pocket and was dragging on the ground. I didn’t notice it until the video had like 60K plays.

PA: I think we just gotta give you plates of food to eat.

AB: I might do that and that might become my thing. That might work. Get a plate of food and just eat in every video from now on. Like a real plate of food. I do have a video where I was eating ice cream. Just me and Roc Marci in the “Lonely and Cold” video. But I just be looking dumb as shit in videos. I can’t count how many times I do the “Birdman hand rub.” Rubbing my hands together like it’s cold, and it’s 80 degrees outside.

PA: That’s how I feel about photo shoots. I don’t know how to stand.

AB: Right, and you a skinny fat dude. Your tiny shirt is over your Ethiopian belly. Skinny shoulders with the Ethiopian belly.

PA: Baller belly. I run hella fast though.

AB: At least I’m fat and the rest of my body is fat. Not just my belly. It goes along with it.

PA: Your arms are short though.

AB: My arms are mad short though. My limbs are short. They stupid short. Last time I got arrested, the cop had to put two of them on there because I couldn’t put my arms behind my back, bro. He had to put two sets on there.

YOU got arrested? For what?

It was real dumb stuff back in the day. Nothing serious. I don’t have a record. Was a suspended license or some dumb shit like that.

PA: Yeah, we can’t do dumb things. We gotta go out the country. That’s why I be wondering how all these gangsta rappers [act hard]. You not gangsta, you got a passport.

AB: Yeah, if you were a real gangster you wouldn’t have no passport.

So I guess my last question was spinning off the food thing. With all the artists you’ve work with, is there anything ever left over? Would you ever take all these lyrics and make a super posse cut with Ras Kass, Skyzoo, OC and Planet Asia?

AB: That’s actually a good idea, I never thought of that. That would be kind of sweet ‘cause I got stuff left over from every project. I can make a 12-minute album of just mad 16-bar verses where everybody is talking about something totally different. The whole song would be random as hell.

PA: Call it the RAF album, Random As Fuck. Apollo got the throne man.

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums.

It’s the fifth day of school for Mr. Johnson’s 7th grade reading class. Posters of Nas’s Illmatic album decorate the walls of the Florida middle school classroom and copies of books by Eminem, Jay-Z, and LeBron James sit on his desk.

“I gotta lot of things up on the wall that the kids can identify with,” says Vinson Jamel Johnson, aka rapper Wordsworth, the Brooklyn-born hip-hop veteran who has made Ft. Myers, Florida his new home. “I’m actually in the Eminem book; there’s a photo of us together back in the days. They’re willing to hear me because I’m willing to meet them halfway. I know the slang they use and the things they like. I teach the lowest reading level, and one of the kids asked to borrow my Return Of the King book. If I can get them reading I’m good with that.”

50 Cent and Eminem meet in NY

Johnson’s love affair with words began more than two decades ago when he was a SUNY Old Westbury student, writing his term papers in rhyme form—a skill that would morph into a career emceeing alongside his partner Punchline (As Punch N’ Words) and later with OGs like Q-Tip, Masta Ace, and Prince Paul. Wordsworth lived up to his pen name by wielding a confident yet subdued rhyme style rich in assonance that stacked couplet after couplet like Jenga blocks made of helium, never succumbing to gravity. When he wasn’t beating tracks into submission, he was narrating vivid tales from the hood like “One Day” which anchored his 2004 debut Mirror Music.

“That was my proving [album] to come from being a battle rapper/backpack MC to being a storyteller,” he says. “My whole mind state was rapping about things and life. I didn’t want to fall into that category, which is why I’m still here now. I was under pressure a bit, but I figured it out. That first album helped me become a better artist and a better writer.”

Since his debut, Words has released two albums as part of the group eMC and four projects as a soloist, including his latest, Our World Today, produced entirely by Sam Brown. So UGHH caught up with the MC-teacher after a long day of educating the youth to talk about how he’s incorporated all of his experiences— from performing on The Lyricist Lounge Show to recording tracks for Netflix Cartoons—into a successful career as an accomplished MC and educator.

In preparing for this I tried to remember the first time I heard you rhyme. It’s between Black Star’s “Twice Inna Lifetime” and Tribe’s “Rock, Rock, Y’all” from The Love Movement, but I’m not sure which was first. How did you get on two of the most anticipated albums of 1998 with no record deal?

Well, basically all of us were running in the same circles in the ‘90s: Kweli, Mos [Def], Jane Doe, me, and Punch were doing the same open mics at the Nuyorican, Wetlands, S.O.B.s. We all pretty much clicked just being around each other. Kweli and Mos were looking for somebody else to jump on a feature and at the time me and Punch had a cool buzz. So we went to the studio and laid it down [“Twice Inna Lifetime”]. We were honored to be on that project with them knowing they had a lot of clout at the time. They were signed to Rawkus and we were still trying to get a deal. Then around that time it worked out because A Tribe Called Quest stuff was going on at the same time. We got on The Love Movement because we did a Lyricist Lounge event at Tramps. Biz Markie was supposed to host, but he couldn’t make it and Q-Tip hosted. So it was a blessing because Q-Tip hosted, saw us perform and then called about us the next day. Within two weeks we started working on stuff with Tribe.

At the time Q-Tip had a label, and at one point his crew was gonna be all of us: Me, Punch, Jane Doe, Mos and Kweli as a CREW…kinda like Wu. That was gonna be the crew and we were all gonna sign to his label. There is actually an ATCQ record that we all did…it might have been a Dilla beat. It winded up being an interlude on The Love Movement album. [There’s] a beat on there that we actually rhymed on and didn’t use. [Instead] we did “Rock, Rock Y’all.” When we recorded “Rock Rock Y’all,” Q-Tip put up $100 for anybody that did they verse in one take. I came close. I think I messed up on my 12th bar though. Q-Tip went in and knocked his out with no problem. That was a cool session. That record shows you where we were going with the crew situation.

The irony is I remember Q-Tip was hosting another Lyricist Lounge event and I believe Rah Digga performed. I handed him my cassette back then, and I know it probably ended up in the trash. But back then you had so much hope. You think it’s a lotto ticket, so I handed it to him. Years later I was recording songs with him. Sometimes things just work out.

Around when were you hitting up the Lyricist Lounge shows?

The Lyricist Lounge stuff was going on in ‘92 or ‘93. I went to events not knowing it was Lyricist Lounge. It was more of a word of mouth thing. “We going to this spot and they rhyming.” Those were some cool events, man. Lines were crazy, always packed. You got to see a lot of raw talent.

Were the shows how you built your buzz in the city?

Our initial way we got notoriety throughout the city was on Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito with Red Hot Lover Tone from The Trackmasters. The Stretch and Bob show launched everything. That’s why when I went to open mics and said my name, they knew me from the Stretch and Bob tape. That’s what got us into the office to get on the Lyricist Lounge album.

We recorded the EP [Punch N’ Words EP] after I did the TV show, maybe in late 2000. It was just to catch all the hype of me doing the TV show. The producer was Curt Gowdy. He was part of Trackmasters. He did NORE, The Firm, Nas’s “Shoot Outs.” He took us as his boys and [we] put out the EP project with him. He produced the single for the Lyricist Lounge album as well.

That Lyricist Lounge Show on MTV is legendary….

Yeah it was crazy. We lived in a mansion in West Hollywood behind the Wiltern Theater in Cali. Me, Def Jef, and Thirstin Howl III came out. Punch. We just had a stable of writers and rappers; the job was to write rhymes. All night, every day. We rhyming. There was a point I lost my voice for a week. We were finally getting paid to rhyme. I was doing it on the corner in the street and now I’m doing it with my boys. What’s better than that? And the best thing about it for me is we brought people on the show we came up with. MTV rented it for a few months just like “The Real World.” We just had mad friends moving in from Wyoming and stuff. It got crazy. I was almost gonna live in Cali. I got a call from New York at Christmas, and I was in my shorts from playing basketball. It was snowing out in NY.

Wordsworth Mirror Music

Then in 2004 you released your debut Mirror Music on Halftooth Records. If you could have done anything differently with MM, what would you have done?

I don’t think there’s much I would have done differently. I’m here because of that album. I think if I second-guessed myself I may not [be here]. There was a lot of pressure for dudes to make club records. Underground dudes were on this bubble of hating being underground and transitioning to making songs. There was so much pressure that dudes were trying any and everything to be relevant. At the time I had Oddisee, who produced the single, making that transition. I’m glad I did it the way I did it because the integrity of the record still stands.

What was it like being on an indie like Halftooth Records?

I really appreciated being on there because they were taking a chance with me. Some of these underground labels were trying to transition into the commercial world. They were some young dudes trying to get it going. They had me, Oddisee, Kenn Starr, Median. Some people don’t get a stepping-stone at all. I’m not the type to be like “They should have put mad money behind me.” They did what they thought they could do. I think you gotta take those stepping-stones and keep building upon them.

You definitely had some interesting stepping-stones, like creating eMC with Masta Ace, Punch, and Stricklin. How did that happen?

It started because we were both putting a single out with this dude JF. JF was putting out a project with me and Punch, and Ace was producing a single for Stricklin. JF ended up playing our stuff to Ace and he said, “I like these dudes, I wanna put them on [“Block Episode” from Disposable Arts.] After a couple months we wound up going on tour together. We toured for years together, where me and Punch would open up and Stric would watch with Ace. And the fans saw us rhyme together so much that they said we should be a group. Then we recorded a song called “Four Brothers,” and from there made the eMC project. We did two albums and an EP as well. One of our biggest songs was “Charly Murphy” and he got to hear it. He bigged it up on his Twitter. Stric told me one of this boys said he had a show in Milwaukee and he came out to the record. That was one of our first singles on the EP. He was just naturally funny.

And around that time you did the Baby Loves Hip-Hop project with Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, and Scratch from The Roots as The Dino 5. It was like a Kids Gorillaz.

Yeah, and Chali 2na (from Jurassic 5). It was ill, man. Paul liked to do stuff that was not of the norm. I was on his Politics of the Business album with Chubb Rock and DOOM, “Chubb Rock please pay Prince Paul the $2200 you owe him.” That was a rough one, Paul.

Oh, that had the De La Soul “Peas Porridge” beat. I remember that one.

That was crazy for me. Paul got wind of me and asked me to do some stuff. I went out to his crib and from then we built a cool relationship. Then he called me for Dino 5. We had the same publishing administrator and he’d call me for other things like the SpongeBob [SquarePants] Movie soundtrack and the Dexter’s Lab hip-hop experiment album. I went to talk to some kids in Milwaukee where Stric is at this thing called True School. I told them I did “Back to the Lab” and these grown kids bugged out because they remembered it from their childhood. Paul realized that with me doing TV, I’m not just a rapper; he knows I can write anything. He knows I know there is a difference between cartoons and songs for my album. Recently we did “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” on Netflix, Season 1 Episode 2. It’s a dream for both of us because we’re cartoons playing ourselves. It’s so cool. I just spoke to Paul last week; it’s so dope to know that if I have an idea for something that deals with different genres, I can call him up just to get his take on it.

On your 2015 album New Beginning and on the new project your stories are so descriptive that I wonder if they really happened. How much of it is true?

I’ve been through a lot of things. They repeat. Breakups happen forever. Whatever I’m talking about is either things I’ve been through or things people I know have been through. That album to me, up to that point was my best album. It was kind of the Part 1 to Our World Today. The same person did the artwork: different color, same font. After I did that album I did an EP called Blame It On the Music with JSOUL through HipNOTT Records. That had a song called “Satellite” which became my first #1 College Radio record. That was the project in between me working on this project with Sam Brown.

Since you mention the artwork—because I wanted to ask about the show you photographed for the cover of Our World Today—where was this show and what made you want to use that?

That’s in Switzerland. It was an eMC show, but there are moments in the eMC show where we do our solo stuff. A friend of mine Isabelle took that photo and sent it to me. I thought the photo was just kind of epic and we changed the color a little. If you look on the back of the CD you can see Stric and them. I like the representation of the MPC in there.

our world today album

The funny thing is I look at the cover now and I don’t see a stage, I see a classroom.

Sometimes when I’m in the classroom I feel like this was my calling. Everything accumulated up to this. The story behind me becoming a teacher is not just about me needing something to do. My daughter’s grades fell, and I went to see why. It turns out she had a substitute teacher, and the sub told me right then and there, “I’m a veterinarian. I don’t know what I’m doing.” So I go down to the Principal and ask what’s going on in the classroom. I’m livid. So she says we don’t have enough qualified teachers, so we just got random people in these rooms. I’m vexed. So I say I’m gonna become a substitute so I can teach my daughter’s class. That was my mission. So I go through all the hoops and hurdles. When I go down to the district to hand in my paperwork, this white lady says to me, “You don’t need to be a sub, there’s a lot of Black kids who need you in the classroom. They need role models. You should be a [full-time] teacher.” I said that’s the illest question I’ve been asked in my life. If these kids are out there wilin’ I have an opportunity to fix it. This is a white lady telling me that my culture and my race need me. When she said that to me I stood staring at her for like three seconds before I said “You right. Let me get this going.” I talk to the 8th graders and they see a Black male teacher and they listen to me. They know I know the rap stuff but they see me in the building. I’m Mr. Johnson. It’s definitely one of the biggest decisions I’ve made in my life thus far.

When did you move to Florida?

I got here about 12 years ago.

Have you been teaching the whole time?

Nah, I’ve been touring with Ace for the past 15 years. I was touring, working part-time gigs, too. I was working at Guitar Center. You get all of your equipment like 40 % off. So I could tour and keep my job. I was [working in the] warehouse and anytime I needed to tour I could tour. When I got a mortgage, you can’t rely on rap money all the time. I’m a realist, brother. It’s such a rollercoaster ride and you gotta put your pride aside and do whatever you gotta do and figure it out. It wound up being the best thing, coming down here. First I was a little culture shocked about how slow it is, but then it ended up being a blessing in disguise.

So, why Florida?

My wife’s parents bought a home down here and she got kind of homesick. We were living in Jersey and when I went out on one of those tours, she was down here looking for homes. I came back and put money down on it, and she’s closer to her family now. Happy wife, happy life. When I became a teacher it inspired me to get my Masters degree and do other things, so I’ll be good rapping or not. I started teaching in 2015. I teach 7th grade reading and 8th grade TV production. When I was doing TV, I paid attention to what was going on. I absorb from everybody. I watched the directors, the wardrobe. I wasn’t just there to be rhyming. I was hired [here] to do reading but they knew I had a TV background. I knew how to do the directing and stuff from life experience.

Wordsworth graduation

And you’re still learning…

I got a Masters in Music Business from the University of Miami. The journey is crazy, man. When I graduated from SUNY Old Westbury, I graduated writing all my stuff in rhymes. That took me to another level in college. Last year I was honored as one of the Top 50 graduates of SUNY Old Westbury because of what I’ve accomplished. The irony was I received the award from the president, Reverend Calvin Butts, who we know had it out for hip-hop. But years later after I graduated, I was the university guest speaker to introduce him. The world works in crazy ways. I was writing my “People, Power, and Politics” papers in rhymes— African Studies, Langston Hughes. I wrote about so many topics in rhymes and I still have the papers to this day. People always asked me for years if it’s true but they never saw the papers. I posted it on IG because people didn’t believe me. Then when I started teaching I started developing a songwriting curriculum, techniques to avoid writer’s block. I taught a 3-month course at this studio The Vibe Recording in Fort Myers. I charged people and wrote the whole curriculum. The studio is actually an accredited school for engineering, so why not combine the two? So I got my masters at the University of Miami in nine months. I think I’m the fastest person to get out of that program. I started in March and graduated in December. I’m trying to make sure if I’ve been doing this all this time, that the transition makes sense: to talk on panels and became a public speaker. I want to chill in a few years. After I graduated they did a story on me on the U of Miami web site. I’m appreciative of all that stuff. That blew me away.

Wordsworth

In the midst of all of this you’re recording music as well. How did you link with the producer Sam Brown?

I posted on Instagram that I was looking for beats and somebody tagged me to his IG page. So I heard a couple of them and I was like I can mess with this dude right here. I reached out to him to send me some beats. I did New Beginning and had never met Donel Smokes. We spoke on the phone but never met, so I figured I could do another project like that. Me and Sam went back and forth on the phone and we met about a year ago. He kept sending me beats and I knocked them out. The whole thing took about a year and some change. The “Hero” record, we just did that one last month and “The Election” record I did maybe three months ago. I always think about what is missing and added it on. That’s how it came together.

That “Election” record definitely stands out. Do you remember what you were doing on Election night in 2016?

I remember sitting in my guest bedroom in the back. That’s where my studio is, too. I’m sitting in there watching TV and hoping the numbers are wrong. Everybody was watching that joint like a race thinking she gonna catch up. Then after a while, once those Midwest states started coming in, I couldn’t watch the rest of it. I had to turn it off. I had to wake up with that brutal news.

But you channeled that pain into a great album. Why should people go and listen to it?

Because it’s mutual thoughts that aren’t necessarily being heard or spoken about all the time. And mutual emotions. When you hear a song like “Each One Teach One” where the parent is acting more like a friend, you can reflect on that. Everything on that album you’ve either been through it or know somebody who has been through it. I don’t even curse on the album. I haven’t cursed since the Punch N’ Words EP when I was still growing. The album is about what is going on today and what has been going on for years. Each song, almost anyone you pick, you gotta feel it. Even if you had no music and just said the rhyme to yourself, you’re gonna feel it.

 

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums

Pharoahe Monch is having a come-to-Satan moment. Huddled in the cockpit of an ebony two-door chariot, he is holding church for the wild. The car’s speakers vibrate with sonic fury as he nods his head immersed in his own creation, coming close enough to his steering wheel to trigger his airbags. His words saturate the cabin with the veracity of someone who has cheated death and has returned from the guts of hell to tell the tale.  Some of these songs (like “Ya-Yo”) will be untethered within coming weeks, while others have a less definite release date. But these hymns bear the distinct mark of an emcee who has spent the last two decades-plus pulling us through the dark side of his psyche with no shame. The enchanting anarchy of “Agent Orange,” the supernatural headbanging of “Let’s Go,” and the lyrically prodigious extended metaphors of “Gun Draws,” are all manifested in these new unreleased compositions.

A few hours before this impromptu private concert, Monch (born Troy Donald Jamerson, Jr.) is pacing the halls of the UGHH offices waiting to shoot a promo video for his UGHH-powered showcase. Between takes he is seated at a wooden table sipping a discrete amount of brown liquor from a plastic cup. He and his manager are playing French Montana’s new song, “Bring Dem Things,” which samples his Organized Konfusion classic “Stress,” and nod to producer Harry Fraud’s pastiche of Buckwild’s Charles Mingus manipulation. If you’d told a younger Monch in the ‘90s that New York rappers would be sampling his songs, he’d probably flash his signature gap-toothed smile, chuckle through his beard and tell you to kick rocks. But this is his reality. Two decades after sample clearance derailed his biggest, “Simon Says,” he is on the other side of the equation.

But how we did we get here? Monch’s origin story is filled with so much death, drama, and near misses that you’d think a radioactive spider had bitten him.

From humble beginnings doing LL Cool J-style karaoke and a Snoop Dog cameo that could have healed a divided culture, to turning down two of the biggest names in Big Apple hip-hop during a bidding war, Monch has had a career unlike any emcee. He slides his cup to the side and folds his fingers on the table as he details his ascension to Bad Motherfucker.

A few weeks later, Pharoahe Monch doesn’t just play the song “Ya-Yo” at his concert powered by UGHH, he unwraps it like a time capsule he dug up from the Ed Koch era ‘80s when B-boys laced their cigarettes with white girl. He turns to his DJ Boogie Blind for a co-sign on the covert habit, but gets a stern plea of ignorance. The lifelong asthmatic teases his fans about his vices before he goes full Steve McQueen in Bullit.

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

“It sounded like a car chase, so that’s how I wrote it. With the drama,” he says satisfied with the song’s first live test drive. “The fun part about being a writer is staying on the cusp of coming up with some new shit, throwing people a curve ball. It’s not advocating cocaine use. It’s advocating dopeness.”

An official release of “Ya-Yo” will have to wait until he comes back from the festival circuit in Europe and can shoot a proper video for it. For now he is just trying to figure out if his Apple TV will work overseas, but the weight he’s carrying will have no problems getting through customs.

When did hip-hop first come into Troy’s life?

It was definitely an artistic/cultural thing. I felt like drawing and characters and letters and graffiti [were] as much hip-hop as anything. So if you could strike the right images or flip the right things in your black book, you were a part of it. And we would share our black books at Art & Design [High School]. I was surrounded by New York City Breakers, Mr. Fable, Mr. Freeze, and all of those cats. I was engulfed in the culture early. The first time somebody brought equipment out in Queens, I saw somebody lay some linoleum down, and I said “This is incredible!” I was a little kid. This was on my block. So by the time I got to HS, I said I have to be part of this culture. And it wasn’t that I had to be an emcee to get signed, but I had to make my name in this shit somehow. But when I got to Art and Design, I was looking at everybody else’s shit like, “You really not that nice, B.” I’m still talented, but in comparison…are you going to be drawing for Marvel? Probably not.

Do you remember your audition for the school?

Definitely. My pops was driving me to the school and I was drawing on the way. I was a fuck up. I was a class clown at A&D. My personality really switched 180 degrees. There would be courses where the first week of school the teacher would lay out how many quizzes there would be and I would raise my hand and say, “Fail me now. I’m not doing that shit.” I was really wild. Not a thug, but I didn’t care. I had monster movies to watch and football to play and music to do because I knew I could make the shit up in summer school or whatever. I was like you not gonna have me doing all this homework over the weekend, man.

Because there was some place you had to be on the weekends…

Going to the park jams was different from the clubs. There was literally an air in the way the weed filtered through the atmosphere at outside jams; the people and the heat in the Summer was a different vibe. The way shit echoed you could hear it from blocks away. I was like this is the most exciting shit ever. We had started writing and rapping and people knew, opportunities would come, to go behind the rope with Grandmaster Vic and get on the mic. I was shaking scared just like Nas said. “I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.”

How did you know this?

It was a process, before Organized Konfusion, of very wack ass shit. But what was dope about starting the group is we were able to sense we were pretty bullshit before it even left the basement. We would listen back to the tape and say “This is horrible.” The grading curve was Grandmaster Vic and The Boss Crew, Infinity Machine and all the mixtapes, not even what was on the radio at the time. The way people were putting routines together…it just didn’t feel like that. I was beat boxing and doing all kinds of crazy shit. I was like, this is horrible. Prince was like you gotta have some bars, B. You’re not even filling the tape up. We were in the basement trying to find our voice and harnessing our craft. We spent every other day going over my man’s house and doing it live. DJ Tystick,  he was the only one I knew who had equipment. The dope shit about getting into shape then was that it was live to tape. The way cats were learning back then was sharpening us as well for what was about to happen. You would stop after a few beats and routines, but during the verses you better learn all the way through. When we got to the recording stage it was so competitive that if we weren’t doing shit in one take we were clowning each other. It wasn’t funny. It was serious business.

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

Was there ever a point where you said maybe this isn’t for me?

I always knew it. I went to my parents and looked my father in the eye, getting my story straight and saying, “I’m not going straight to college.” Me and Larry are gonna start this group and what we’re thinking is—and he was looking me in the eye—he said you have 365 days to make this shit pop. After that you on my time. This was a little after graduation from Art and Design. I’d gotten accepted to Hampton University. It helped that they were supportive because that’s where we were working out hard, in my crib. It afforded us the space to exercise.

So what happened over that next year?

We got signed to an independent in the neighborhood. These are secrets that I haven’t told. There are vinyl records pressed up, but only so many copies were made. I don’t even feel like saying the names. Before we stumbled upon Paul C, we were with an independent and we did this record and they were like, “We want y’all to do it like LL, love, a little softer.” And I’m on the joint like, “I’m alone, I see you…” [laughs hysterically] I’m not even gonna say the name, but it was under Simply II Positive.

**Editor’s note. We found it. Sorry, Monch**

There were real talented people around us. All the musicians from Queens, Kevin Osborne, Tom Brown, all those Queens dudes that played on “Jamaica Funk” was in the studio. So we was trying to do straight live shit, no samples. But I was already over here with it. So we tried that, it was what it was.

We were in the studio working on some demos as STP, and Paul C (Paul C. McKasty) walked into one of our sessions, grabbed a tape and walked back out. Then he called the next day and said y’all are fire and I gotta work with y’all. And that was the beginning of real professional structuring in my mind. When we started working on the demo that eventually went to Bobbito, Paul was the one that said you gotta cut the bars down to 16 and I was like “Bars? 16?” He’d stop the session and say “go home, listen to your favorite group and work on your arrangements because I can’t work with y’all like this.” Four songs into the demo, just getting ready to shop it, Paul C got murdered. I’m pretty sure that’s a chapter in my life I can talk to therapists about. I never felt anything like that before so I know I didn’t know how to deal with it. I couldn’t understand how we’re just getting ready to get our shot, and the producer that Ultramag, Super Lover Cee, Rakim [worked with was killed]…I’m pissed at God, I’m pissed at everybody. I was just torn up. Then detectives were calling my crib. And we were young.

The demo had already touched Bobbito, but now we’re stuck in a situation where we don’t have that guidance anymore. Bobbito is telling me he shopped it to Russell Simmons along with Nas and he passed on both. I was telling Bobbito recently that we saw Russell in the club, and he was like, “You know what? I’ve been listening to y’all shit and I’ve been giving it some thought. Here’s my number, call me tomorrow.” The first thing he said: “Simply II Positive” was the worst fucking name in the history of hip-hop. “Y’all gotta change that name.” We were like what’s a hip-hop group name without numbers? I was like. “STP! Like the oil! And he said, “that’s even worse.” So we changed the name and he gave us a verbal offer to sign to Def Jam. Hollywood Basic came in and doubled the Def Jam offer. This was around ‘89 or ‘90. We were like “we gonna go out West and do this shit with Disney.” And they were like “you can have creative control, we love what the demo sounded like.” But they were fucked up, too, because they had Naughty By Nature and Cypress Hill. And I remember they passed on Cypress because they couldn’t see Latinos saying the N-word in their music. I was listening to their demo like “what the fuck?”

Where did you work on that first album, Organized Konfusion?

We worked on it out here. It sounded experimental because we lost our mentor and they gave us creative freedom. We would go in the studio with records. We did a lot of shit on the fly, that’s why it sounds so loose and experimental.

“Releasing Hypnotical Gases” was definitely experimental.

I was a huge rock fan, and the joints that I was loving the most had these tempo changes. But I don’t even know how to program a tempo change like that in an SP-1200, to go from 89 BPMs to 95. There wasn’t even enough sample time to do that shit. So I went to the engineer and said we need to splice this record with this record. We literally had to cut the tape in half. That’s the inspiration from going from one vibe to another vibe on the song. That shit is just dudes from the hood who saw people get murdered in the club, murdered at the jam, splattered, skull meat. Also being comic book nerds, how do we incorporate this? What is your voice that no one else has? You’re super visual, so you have to put this in your music and take some chances.

You followed that by releasing Stress: The Extinction Agenda, which sonically seems to pick up where Releasing… left off, more so than “Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken.”

It’s amazing. I was just talking to Buckwild. Even on Hollywood Basic, we did the “Chicken” shit and they said, “This gotta lead. It’s funky, playful and everybody loves chicken.” So I said, “What are we following with?” So they gave us the “Fudge Pudge” and we can do this. I just didn’t feel like that joint represented Prince’s powers as a lyricist and what we embodied. So just hearing Buck give me that beat for “Stress,” we didn’t even write it yet and I said this is the single. I know what this is already. The bass line is dark, the horns are weird. I called my A&R Casual T and said this has to be the single and we have to shoot a video for this. My mind was expanding and it had stress in it [and] all of these different sounds. So we wrote the record, shot the video. Michael Lucero directed it, who also shot Souls of Mischief’s “93 Til Infinity,” so you know what his eye was like. He was a blessing. At that time I was 265 lbs and I’m filming the video and he can tell I’m being subtle. He said look, man, you’re a big guy. I need you to fuckin’ be in this video like a big guy. You look like you’re 4 foot 4 and 80lbs right now. He reached me. I said I gotta embrace this fat shit right now. I mention him in that video because it was a cool point in my career to be like, “This is who you are.” Once we saw how the video came out we said we wanna work with him more and he passed away. Right after “’93 Til infinity.” This is just bugged.

After Stress you released the final OK album, Equinox on Priority Records. That album turns 20 in September. What was your focus, individually and as a group going into it?

It was fly ‘cause we had already started working with Rockwilder. Buckwild had exploded as a producer. We had the connections now. So it was a matter of do you want to follow trends or stay with these perennial type producers? I knew that I wanted a theme to run throughout it. I think if we’d had more tutelage we could have pulled off the story album thing better. But as I listen back to that record—we were working with Bob Power—we were still learning but there were some really bright spots in terms of the production and the way it was sounding and that stuff was inspiring us as well. I still think that we were still trying to find what Organized Konfusion was and what it meant. I know it meant to people, high-end lyricism. But video-wise and branding-wise, I think we were still searching for what it meant for our fan base. We got clear-cut love for who we were, but I think the name Organized Konfusion allowed us to have a range of different sounds. I don’t know whether that hurt us or helped us because it wasn’t able to be packaged neatly. Because it was so wide.

But before you got the answer, you guys closed the shop…

The ending of Equinox was tumultuous. We shot the “Somehow Someway” video. We felt that the group still needed a promotional push and wasn’t getting broke properly into the mainstream. On the “Somehow Someway” song we were supposed to get Snoop, he actually recorded for the video, because that’s his line. But we couldn’t get the clearance. He did it because Snoop is dope like that. He filmed it on camera and they had it sliced into the video [but] his label said we couldn’t use it. So I was disgruntled. Po was disgruntled.

That would have been an amazing thing to heal the whole “East Vs. West” thing at the time.

Snoop will bust a Pharoahe Monch rhyme in a heartbeat. He loves the culture and he loves hip-hop and you could tell back then. Just for him to do that for us…Tim Reid probably connected the dots. He was the promotions guru at Priority. So I was disgruntled with the major label situation, so I took a hiatus.

Priority offered me a solo deal, but I was like nope. I went back home back to Queens like “What does it all mean?” [laughs] Finally you got some dark tendencies and you need to get that shit out of your system. That’s why that album was called Internal Affairs. It was really supposed to be therapeutic. There was supposed to be therapy sessions between the songs, but I was starting to like the songs so good I said fuck the skits. That’s where “PTSD” is from. Stress from the Stress album. That’s the period I’m talking about on that album. There was no Googling what was happening to me. I was in clubs until the sun came up. I couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t want to think about what I think about to myself. I knew DJs so I would just be in the booth sitting out of view. Not even standing.

But you did eventually release that solo project and recorded a literal and figurative monster of a song, “Simon Says.”

It was an “Ah.” moment. I’m just chilling with my best friend, who happened to be our original DJ. His name is Tystick, and we were both Monster Movie fans, and at the time Tower Records was poppin. He had just landed a great job as a bus operator, so he buys like $300’s worth of CDs of music. People used to do shit like that. He picks up the Godzilla shit and he’s at the crib down the block from me and he says, “I think you want to come down to the house.” He presses play—the whole CD is insane. To this day, there’s like nine things on that CD that I was [going to use] but I got to the [“Simon Says” sample] so I take the CD and chop it up, put the drums under it. I see the vision of the son.  and I didn’t have enough sample time to put the intro in. I could, but I didn’t have Pro Tools. I had a s950, I sampled it, but I couldn’t add it onto the beat tape. I was working with Lee Stone so I got with Lee, we added the intro to A-DAT for people who even know what that is. I know I’m bringing back memories. We used the frequency on the 950, the tone, for that same tone and we just pitched it. We were working with Troy Hightower at the time, and you know Rawkus had the budget. And for a very simple beat, he mixed the fuck out of that record. And if he reads this interview, he spent a day on the kick for that song, which I now know he was jerking me for my money. Because it doesn’t take that long to EQ a kick! All day it’s [beat boxes kick drum]. I didn’t know that at the time, that he was stretching the budget. It sounds impeccable to this day, but whatever.

And then Charlie’s Angels happened. The copyright holders of “Gojira tai Mosura Theme” by Akira Ifukube hear the song and you get a cease and desist…

We had a year where I got an excessive amount of money from the record and then Charlie’s Angels happened. To this day my manager sitting with me right now will attest that we still get letters and emails, video games that want to use that song. It was a moment of uneasiness with that song. I remember the office going crazy the first time we played it. The owners had the “we got one” face. But as the business process went—I brought them the sample info and the CD it was kinda like, I had a feeling of uneasiness in my stomach. And that’s when I should have stepped up. I said it’s gonna pop, but it’s gonna fly under the radar. But then Funkmaster Flex was like “LADIES AND GENTLEMAN!” We were like “here is the info” and we struggled with it to the end. Whatever shady shit that was…we got beat over the head for the Maxwell sample on “Queens” as well [because] the record dropped before the clearance was done. They hit us hard. Records were being shipped backed then. They hit us for $30 or $40K. So when I saw Maxwell at Joe’s Pub he was like, “Yo you flipped it…thanks for the check!”

Then what I call your second debut, Desire, is released eight years later. That turned ten earlier this year. Why was there so much time between the two projects?

I had to hire music and sample attorneys for the “Simon Says” lawsuit, I had to hire separate attorneys to get out of that contract. And it was a lot. It brought me down on the music industry. Again, I was unsure about releasing music. I was holding onto a lot of it. I remember being on tour with Mos [Def] and Talib Kweli, and Kweli’s manager at the time, Corey Smith, was asking me where’s the music at? “You gotta let music go, you can’t hold onto it. It’s a disservice to you and the fans, spiritually.” I was like, “I need a label, etc.” and Corey changed my perspective a bit. I almost went indie at that point. I recorded “Desire” and “Push” and “Body Baby” as well. We garnered a bidding war between Sony, Puff, and Universal Motown, and Steve Rifkind. So I had three labels coming at me with deals and bidding over each other. That was crazy for that time. I felt good about the music because my lawyer at the time said it would never happen again and it happened again. I demanded a meeting with Jay-Z when he was running Def Jam. I played him “Gun Draws,” and Jay was like “Woooo! That’s cinematic. I see that.” I didn’t think he’d be mind blown over that record but he was. But monetarily the logistics of the industry were such that if he gave me this much money, he won’t be able to follow through with the project. He was being honest with me. And Steve Rifkind was like [bangs table] and Puff was like whatever Steve Rifkind says, double that. And I wondered if the music was going to work under the Puff/Bad Boy moniker. If Puff wanted me to go on the air and yell “Bad Boy,” how was that gonna work? And I also needed money, so Steve made more sense. He loved the record. So I wanted to see if there was an in-between, where a level of undergroundness would make sense. Even though “Body Baby” was strong it wasn’t a straight radio record. It was about staying ahead of the curve. Then Lil Wayne dropped “Lollipop” and shut everything down.  

Then you went to “War” and reflected on your PTSD with your last two albums…

The “WAR” album was really dope because I was about to go where I’m going right now with the current music I’m working on, and I think I would have been way too ahead of the curve. So we decided to stand on the soapbox and do a Pharoahe Monch rap record, shooting for where we stand for the people. Independent. Partnered with Duck Down. It was so successful for us on an indie level. Independently we trumped what I did on Desire.

And what about now? What’s next?

I’m hustling now. I got this one record called “Ya-Yo” that’s an extended cocaine metaphor and another record that’s called “Yellow Brick Road” that’s another cocaine metaphor. And this record “24 Hours” with Lil Fame, some kind of realistic situation where I’m check-to-check, I need my money and people aren’t paying me. So I know someone who will get me my money. So I get Lil Fame. These records are the last that you’ll hear from Pharoahe until he transitions to 13. Then I go into the darkest, hardest bars. I’ll play them in the car for you if you like…

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It sounded like putting someone in a sleeper hold, but dancing while you were doing it.”

The phrase “for the culture” has become a ubiquitous catch phrase in rap circles, but it really applied to the actions of hotel owner Stanley Bard. For five decades, he stood sentry over the famed Hotel Chelsea, a New York landmark built in the 1800s and purchased by his father in 1940. Bequeathed to Stanley in 1957, the 250-unit tower at 222 West 23rd St became a commune and incubator for artists from all walks of life. Eccentric bold-faced names like Robert Mapplethorpe, Stanley Kubrick, and Arthur Miller walked the ornately decorated halls and called The Chelsea home, due in large part to Bard’s lax leasing policy, which gave creative minds room to flourish without the stress of possible eviction. Its magnetic appeal was undeniable, but the legend was nurtured as much by the lives that expired between the walls as the ones who lived in it.

“That’s where Sid Vicious allegedly murdered Nancy Spungen,” Jean Grae says matter of factly of the infamous relationship between the late Sex Pistols bassist and his girlfriend. “So for the decade I was living there, the elevator on the right would always randomly stop on the first floor and we’d say, ‘Hey, Nancy, get in.’ So while I’m very hip-hop, I’m very DIY about everything, which is also very Punk. I’ve seen all of the gentrification. It doesn’t get any harder gentrification than that.”

It was in this environment that a twenty-something Tsidi Ibrahim embarked on what is now called adulting. The South African native had been living in Brooklyn—recording and performing as part of the trio Natural Resource but took over her family’s apartment in The Chelsea. Her mother, jazz singer and anti-apartheid activist Sathima Bea Benjamin, had moved back to South Africa. Her brother, pianist Tsakwe Brand, left behind a treasure trove of production equipment, and the emcee/singer, who was now going by Jean Grae, was ready to spread her wings as a solo artist.

“I think it was the culmination of me living alone, really coming into being an adult and deciding what that was going to look like, as well as my musical voice,” she says of her debut Attack Of The Attacking Things, released on August 6th, 2002 by indie label Third Earth Music. “The great part about it is that I had this amazing recording studio in my bedroom so I was making beats and recording my own stuff everyday. And then Kimani Rogers approached me and said let’s make an album. That was the beginning of what became a theme for me. Someone asks, ‘Hey can you do this?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yup.’ Then walk away saying, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’”

Kimani was an artist and label executive who met Jean’s friend and co-conspirator Mr. Len in the late ‘90s when he interviewed Company Flow for his indie hip-hop magazine Off The Top. It was the group’s first interview, and he and Len remained friends afterward. While recording and performing with his group The Masterminds, Rogers made the rounds in the Giuliani-era New York hip-hop scene and met Jean through Len.

“With rap you got to Wetlands a lot and I met Jean at one of the Lyricist Lounge shows,” Rogers recalls. “She was still [going by] What? What? And that’s around when we were starting Third Earth Records. At one point I was like you’re featured on all of these records, what are you doing? She lived at The Chelsea Hotel back then, so I went back there and we’re sitting in the lobby talking about what she wanted to do. And she was quite open to doing an album.”

Attack Of The Attacking Things was a declaration of independence written on wine-stained papyrus. Pliable, enduring, and a little out of place, its mere existence was as much a testament as the stories held within in. With a distinctly monotone brush, Jean painted an aspirational portrait of herself and her community. Less preachy than it was cautionary, she communed with both distilled and ethereal spirits over sparse and disciplined drums. It was the diary of a Xennial trying to bridge the canyon between her infinite potential and the instability of the world she inherited, but remembering to laugh along the way. She fought, fucked, and fermented feelings—assuming more faceless personalities than Arya Stark in order to capture as many angles of the human experience as possible.

“There was a lot of smoking of cigarettes and drinking,” she remembers of her recording sessions. “Just sitting at that desk a lot. I called it Project Heat Studios because it was a big building with old radiator systems, and you can’t control the level of heat coming out. You can’t open the windows so you just have to sweat. It was hot and loud and the best thing about being in the Chelsea was that you could turn up your fuckin’ speakers and nobody is gonna complain about it. Something happened in the middle of recording and I may have blown out one of my speakers, so I couldn’t fully mix it the way I wanted it. So there should be a diagram to mixing it in the CD booklet. I was always ridiculous.”

But more than just an album for the sake of an album, Attack was a meeting of like minds who shared a cynical view of the world.

“She was different and she was weird,” says Kimani. “That’s what it was. Being weird, quirky and odd fit into Tarik [fellow Mastermind’s emcee] and I’s personality. It felt like a natural fit.”

Fifteen years later, Jean appreciates the work she put in then, but knows that she has come a long way from her copious similes and “creatively” mixed beats (thanks to a blown speaker).

“There are things on there that make me cringe,” she confesses. “But there are also some things on there where I’m like these are some really interesting choices. Like waiting so long for something to rhyme. I was finding myself, but I was really comfortable with who I was in a very conversationalist kind of way. I wasn’t technically as good [as I am now]. I was literally trying to find my voice and play around with things. I wasn’t here yet at all.”

But looking back helps you appreciate the progress you’ve made and with at least ten different projects released since then and an Extendo clip full of guest appearances, it’s only right to pay homage to where it all began for Jean Grae the soloist: Attack Of The Attacking Things.

ARE YOU STARING AT MY TITLES?

Jean: I work on music backwards from the future. The project is already done in my mind, and I’m just here to fill in the blanks. I’ve always worked like that and abandoned the idea of linear time, especially when it comes to art. It works for me. [So] I always kind of start working on titles first and then work backwards. There were a few original titles. The first one was Prom Night because I had a terrible prom night. It sucked balls. I didn’t actually graduate from LaGuardia High School, but I’m in the yearbook. So I wanted to do it over again and the vision was the album release party would be prom, etc., but I did not do that. The second title was supposed to be Whatever Becky, which stuck for a long time. But I decided against it at the last minute. Faces of Death was popular and When Things Attack was popular, so I was like Attack of the Attacking Things, and it made me laugh. I’ve been making jokes for a long time. My first rap moniker was created as a joke because I wanted people to do an Abbott & Costello routine every time they announced me. So it was interesting to take an album that was conceptual and talking about life and saying, “Eh, don’t take yourself too seriously.” I was trying to give an all around idea of who I was.

The Album Cover Art:

Jean: The designer’s name is Venus. I think in retrospect, I felt like that was the beginning of me really being, “I do all of these multiple things.” This album is not just me [rapping]. I’m producing it. I’m engineering it, the artwork, the marketing. I’m not just doing one thing, so it was important for me to get that point across. But I don’t think anyone cared. It was so blatant. The imagery couldn’t have been any more direct, but all of those things get ignored.

I really enjoy weapons. I love weapons. I used to bring a lot of weapons to the club. I had a cane that opened up into a sword. I used to go to the club so much no one would question me. I wore ninja stars on my neck as chains. An arm strap that had darts in it. But the juxtaposition of knives and flowers is something I’ve always stuck with. I want something structured on one side and organic and the other. I’m extremely pragmatic and operate off of logic, but you have to use your imagination to get those things done. [I was] doing these hard-ass technical raps, but being vulnerable simultaneously. With me coming into adult womanhood and understanding relationships and where I was, I was thinking about what kind of woman I was trying to be. Snakes are cool. I fuckin’ like snakes. Then years later, when I got my right sleeve done there are flowers, a serpent, and the idea of understanding that you can be all of those things as a young woman. And do all of those things.

Kimani: I remember taking the artwork down to Caroline’s to get it printed and they were like, “What is this?” and I said I don’t know what it is. It’s going to look weird on the light box at Fat Beats on 6th Avenue, but that’s what she wants, so that’s what it’s going to be. To me it was genius.

The Skits:

Jean: I probably went to recording skits before I did anything else. In my mind—in albums that I love—if there aren’t any skits in there to tie it together, then it doesn’t make sense to me. So I wanted to have Apani and Lyric (now known as Sara Kana) on the album having conversations on the phone. That was my life at the time, so I wanted to present that snapshot. So I think that’s the first thing I wanted to work on.

“What Would I Do” produced by Mr. Len

Jean: I’m a huge fan of The Wiz. It never stops being a theme in my life for anything I do. For the last six or seven years I’ve been ending my show with “Ease On Down The Road.”  “What Would I Do ( If I Could Feel)” was Nipsey Russell’s Tin Man singing in the junkyard. The imagery of it is amazing. I wish we could have done a video, but we had no budget. It’s so melancholy that he’s crying over his wife who crushed him. Clearly he has so many feelings over it but he’s like, “I can’t feel.” It’s me [sharing] my feelings…knowing that I really want to pursue this career [but] I kind of have to be numb about it. The idea of putting myself all-in and being hurt that it’s not being received the way I want it to, but still enjoying it so much and loving it so much. What would I do if I could feel all of my love for this?

Mr. Len: I made that beat in my apartment in South Orange after watching wrestling. Pre-Pro Tools days. I had the beat on a mini disc when I let her hear it. Both that and “Knock” were on that disc and both beats ran for 3:42. I do a weird OCD thing sometimes. I liked the idea of sampling The Wiz and did try sampling it for the hook. It just didn’t match right with the sample. 

“God’s Gift” produced by Masta Ace

Jean: I remember Len and Lord Sear had a great night at Joe’s Pub. We spent a lot of drunk evenings there having a good time. Except Sear started pulling the fire alarm when he didn’t like the crowd and shut the whole night down. I remember being on the stage and Ace was there and I said hey I’m working on this album and he said he’d be interested in doing a beat on it. So he gave me a beat tape—a cassette tape—and I picked one.

It’s very Jay-Z “Big Pimpin.” I like the idea of being able to step outside of myself and be someone else. The other song that I wanted to work on that I never got to do was a carjacking song, but I wanted to be the car and give the perspective of someone breaking into you. I spent so much time recording the album that I never got to do that song.

Block Party” produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen)

Jean: Nasain Nahmeen was [my production alias] after Run Run Shaw. It made me laugh and it sounded super Muslim. If you got the joke you got the joke. The hook was “get out your house, get off your block” because I’ve had the privilege of seeing the world, but it started from me not being from here. Being able to go on the road with my mom and my dad or by myself. I was touring with Natural Resource when I was 17 or 18.

I made “Block Party” as a response to a Jamie Foxx comedy special, where he talked about going to South Africa and when he got off the plane the thing that hit him was the “terrible fuckin’ smell.” And that isn’t true at all. Why would you, as this Black man from America…you see Africa and you come back and perpetuate this idea of what it is? I wanted to punch Jamie Foxx in the face so fucking bad. You have an audience and a platform. You have a responsibility to not do that, so why are you being a shitty human being? It was about making it possible to travel and for the people who do travel, you have a responsibility. You can do better.

“No Doubt“ produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen)

Kimani Rogers: “No Doubt” was one of my favorites. It knocked a little bit—and at the time Len and I created [the group] Roosevelt Franklin so Len was DJing for What? and there were often times where I would play hype man for her. That was one of my favorite songs to do live, because it was angry.

“Thank Ya” produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen )

Jean: I’m sure I had been digging somewhere and was extremely happy when I came across the [Allen Toussaint “Worldwide”] record. It was the beginning of the idea of re-recording vocals and hooks to make them seem like they were already part of that song. But people tend to disregard all of the harmonics and arrangements, and the 20,000 tracks of vocals I’m doing. Or people are like, “I didn’t know you sang” and I’m singing all over the album.

I understood what the album was gonna be, and clearly I’m not making a record for the clubs. I was in clubs every night and when I go I want to hear club music. I don’t want to hear myself; I’m fine with different music being for different things. I do think of songs about what time of day or which speakers you’ll be in front of, or if you’ll be in a car. There are certain songs I call “sunset/sunrise” driving over the bridge songs. That’s a very specific sound. Or there’s your “walking to the supermarket music.” Although my life was very party-oriented at the time, that’s not what this album was.

“Lovesong” produced by Da Beatminerz

Jean: I went to their house and worked on the beat there. I wanted to write something that could help people understand more about relationships. It was inspired by one of my favorite love songs of all time, The Cure’s “Lovesong.” That song is so short, but it’s so emotional. To be able to convey that level of emotion with just his voice and that hook…I wanted to do my version of what that would feel like—to pull emotions out of people and starting the story in third person, and by the end of the song I could say it was me.

DJ Evil Dee: I always have fun working with her. Jean is a genius when it comes to recording stuff with her. I also remember I was sick and she bought me some tea, some ginger and orange so I could feel better. I made that beat specifically for her. I was just trying to be different.

Jean: When I finished recording the song I said, “This feels like it’s not enough. I want to go back and add [the original of The Stylistics’ “Stop Look And Listen”] to the beginning of the song.” Kimani was like THIS IS GONNA BE A PROBLEM LATER, but they were really great about it. We didn’t have to pay a shit ton of sample clearance.

Kimani: We got a letter from The Stylistics’ lawyer basically saying we’re very thankful you guys chose this song. However, you’ve used way too much of it without contacting us. So they said we had to pay a small amount of money and chop the intro off any future pressings. They recognized that we weren’t selling millions of records or anything. I don’t think we had to pull them off the shelves. That was the only time we got anything close to trouble over samples.

“Get It” produced by Jean Grae/ Nasain Nahmeen  

Jean: As a huge M.O.P fan, I wanted something that felt really soulful, but slow and dirty. You walk really slow down the street to it, but you can also get in a fight. It sounded like putting someone in a sleeper hold, but dancing while you were doing it. I always wanted M.O.P on the “Get it” Remix.

“Knock” produced by Mr. Len

Jean: I just wanted to rap. It felt like there’s at least four people in the car and nobody’s talking and you’re probably high. There’s a lot of New York head nodding at a stoplight. Let’s just go drink some Hennessy.

Mr. Len: The sample is “Help On the Way” by The Grateful Dead.

Truthfully, didn’t have any plans for that beat. Jean heard it and said, “I’m taking this one.”

“Live 4 U” produced by Ev Price

Jean: Ev Price is from Brooklyn Academy family. Block McCloud, Ev Price, and Metaphor we were spending a lot of time out in Staten Island, and Ev always had like 80,000 beats. When I heard that one, it sounded really delicate, and that’s what I wanted.

I remember that it had to pull emotions out of me. I gotta cry while I’m writing it or I didn’t nail it. My mom was always incredibly supportive of whatever I wanted to do, especially my music career. But I wanted her to know how much it meant to me. Her not being present during the recording of the album, I wanted it to be a snapshot for her to know and understand. She sacrificed so many things to raise us and not fully fulfill all of [her] musical destiny. She liked it. You never knew when she was going to cry about something.  The sequencing of the album was important to me, and that song doesn’t work as a number two or three. It’s weird if you open a conversation with talking about your parents.

“Fadeout” Produced by Koichiro

Jean: That’s a terrible way to end an album. I should’ve had some kind of resolve after that. Younger me thinks it’s a good idea, but older me thinks maybe not end on your best friend’s death. Koichiro was married to Apani for a time; Japanese dude who had a lot of dope beats. I remember being over there thinking, “You should do something for this album.” And again this album was done in such a short time, thankfully I was around so many talented people I’m like, “Yeah, that beat, lemme take it. Gotta finish this album.”

Right before I’d started recording, my best friend Demetrius—a very talented dude, friend of the family but no intimate relationship—was moving to Miami and we didn’t get a lot of time to hang out. It was one of those things where I should be talking to this person more, but you put it off. Then I got a call one day from someone saying they were looking for me. They told me Demetrius was at a party and either fell or got pushed off of a 27-story balcony. And then they said 1) I was difficult to find and 2) Nobody wanted to tell me. So I spent a few weeks distancing myself from the world. Because that happened before the album, when Kimani asked me to do this, it was the driving point for me to do it. So I wanted to end the album with that song because it was the idea of coming full circle and doing those things. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, so you have to create your own destiny and keep up with it.

EPILOGUE

Jean: I think my general idea about doing things is I enjoy money and you should do it as best as you fucking can, but I wanted to do [this album] for me. And I just wanted to make really good art. The sad part for me is it did just fall under one thing. It’s sad that it took this long to talk about this album, the production, why I wrote it. I went into it a bit naïve, thinking that it would be received as just a rap album where you could talk about those things and it not be a “Female” rap album. I believe what I tried to do with this first album was say, “Here are all of these sides of me.” But when it gets out, you can’t control it. No one is able to look at you as a full human being with all of these facets and feelings.

Mr. Len: I was cool with how the songs came out. I wished I could have mixed them, but then she couldn’t call them “dirty mixes.” The album title still gets a giggle and headshake from me. It’s a very Jean Grae title. Looking back, I still see it as a solid record. Like a lot of projects from that time you question how much better the reception could have been with a bigger budget. But the budget, or lack thereof, is the reason it sounds like it does.

Kimani: I, for better or for worse, generally let people do what the fuck they want to do. I’m a big fan of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He was unorthodox and did weird shit and it was kind of the same thing with Jean. She was really off. But it made sense to me. If someone has to actually tweak the knobs [to mix the songs], that’s funny. Who cares? Probably no one did, but she was the artist. I was an artist, too but I was like do whatever you want and I’m gonna try to get people to listen to it. Everyone has free reign so it was mixed “creatively,” but I didn’t care because I was happy we had a Jean Grae record. It gave us some credibility as a record label and made me happy as a fan of hers that she was putting a record out.

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums.

 

Hip-Hop has defied consensus since its inception; even about its inception.  For example, while most would stamp Kool Herc’s 1973 back to school jam in The Bronx as the genre’s official birthday, Kurtis Blow might tell you for that for him it was more like ‘72 when he hooked up two component systems to rock his friend Tony Rome’s birthday party in Harlem. Either way, once the street born art form migrated from rec center and park jams to traveling DJ tapes and recorded vinyl, it created vocal factions that were loyal to two goals: purity or profit. In the years after Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” broke the seal by giving the lyrics of an established MC (Grand Master Caz) to a neophyte (Big Bank Hank) to perform, an uneasy alliance was forged between the MC and the corporate entities that sought to profit.

There was still a vocal and consistent belief that “skills” and “paying dues” mattered even as rappers became the default voice of popular culture. The rebellious, youth-driven lifestyle that informed and inspired the music still held sway on what was placed on record for mass consumption. As hip-hop’s mouth pieces in the ‘80s and ‘90s enjoyed the spoils of Gold and Platinum plaques, daytime radio play and award show recognition, they stood on the shoulders of the giants from the ‘70s who simply wanted to be recognized as “the best.” So a humbling exercise was instituted. Mantras like “keep it real” and “no sellout” were repeated with fealty in the early ‘90s. Much like the dystopian film The Matrix, the underground was conceived as a place closest to the core center where those born free, unplugged from the machines, would continue the battle for autonomy.  

At times, some of the “hardcore” would become too hot to contain, breaking through the layers of bureaucracy, spilling above ground like magma. Lyricists that were more substance than style could still garner the elusive and coveted recording contract and ascend to new heights, but they rarely strayed TOO far. If the label wanted a “hook” for a song, you got your DJ to scratch it or got your boys hanging out in the studio to scream into the mic. Some still held on to traditions like having an actual DJ, dancers and the like to complete “the crew.” But this wouldn’t last.

Those appendages were sacrificed in the name of fiscal responsibility and duos and groups became increasingly less common (only to be later manufactured into super teams of solo stars to bolster rosters and marketability. What? You thought the NBA started that?)  The hip-hop star was adorned in flashy clothes and paired with a beautiful woman to either sing his hook, dance in his videos or raise his sex appeal with female consumers. This would most visibly manifest on July 2, 1996 when Nas’s It Was Written was released on the same day as De La Soul’s Stakes Is High. On the one hand you had the underground Prince who’d clearly bought into the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the major label A&Rs. And on the other hand was the veteran group who was warning us all about what was at stake if we continued down that path. The purists and those for profit had their de facto leaders, but the schism wouldn’t reach its point of no return until a year later to the month in 1997.

In the world of music there was no more singularly impactful event in 1997 than the murder of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace.  His March 9th death (a date branded into the collective memory of hip-hop fans thanks in part to an LL Cool J diss recorded by Canibus) was a right cross following the left hook of Tupac Shakur’s death just six months before on September 13, 1996.  It was a seismic event for those who knew and loved Biggie, but for one neophyte MC it had a particular resonance.

As a Philly born rhyme practitioner Tracey Lee was signed to Bystorm Entertainment and was part of the fraternity of Howard University alumni to find success in film, TV and music. His label owner Mark Pitts was managing The Notorious B.I.G. and his debut album “Many Facez” was one of the most anticipated debuts of the year thanks to his hit “The Theme (It’s Party Time).”

“It’s damn near surreal, man. Prior to his death it was sunny days, the weather’s perfect. The single is doing well, we got the record with Biggie,” Lee says of that pivotal moment in his career’s infancy. He’d recorded a duet, “Keep Your Hands High,” with Biggie for his debut and was with him that ill-fated night in L.A.

“But then March 9th comes and we walked out of that door of the [Petersen Automotive] museum together. For some reason I wasn’t feeling right and he asked me what was wrong because we were headed to an after party at the Playboy Mansion. ‘Put a smile on your face, we in LA. Let’s get it.’ So I perked up and we got in the car. Then like five minutes after, we get the call. Biggie got shot.”

Rapper Tracey Lee

Tracy Lee’s album Many Facez would be released on March 25th, 1997 the same day as Biggie’s Life After Death, the posthumous follow-up to the Ready To Die. If having to compete with that wasn’t hard enough, Lee’s heady, conceptual debut about navigating multiple personalities (ending with the murder of one) was a departure from his blithe and bouncy lead single, which leaned heavily on Malcolm McLaren’s “World’s Famous” for its infectious appeal. Where most MCs up to that point could get away with having a raucous lead single “for the radio” while satisfying the streets with album cuts, something was changing.

“Me being on the cusp of underground and commercial, I think it hurt [me],” Lee says in hindsight. “Back then people were so ‘You gotta be this way or that way,’ especially with the concept for the album. When people heard “The Theme,” this was the perception that you got. So anything following that record has to be in that same vein. [But] the rest of the album was very underground compared to the lead single. I had a song called ‘Repent’ that embodied the split.” The dark confessional opens with a preacher lambasting MCs who “make records for bitches” and scratched in a line from EPMD’s “Headbanger” (“To hell with the bitches and the so called fame!”) to underscore his point.

“I was a firm supporter of the underground and wanted to make a distinction between the commercialism side of hip-hop and the purity, as far as the music was concerned.” But Lee was stuck between a rock and a hard place, being held to the standards of the shiny suit soldiers but not benefitting from it. Puff had not granted him “sticker rights” to even advertise that Biggie was on his album, possibly fearing confusion since their releases were dropping on the same day. Lee was also slated to open for Biggie on his upcoming tour, which now wasn’t happening.

As Puff Daddy seized the Billboard singles charts from Toni Braxton and The Spice Girls by serving up sanitized versions of hip-hop classics like “The Message” and posthumous Notorious B.I.G records, veterans like KRS-One, The Lost Boyz, and the Wu-Tang Clan stood at the ready.  Balance was sure to be restored to the realm that Summer in ‘97, right?

Not quite.

The Blastmaster from The Bronx, KRS-One, borrowed from the Bad Boy playbook for his third solo release, building his lead single “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight)” on a mix of hip-hop nostalgia and pop appeal. Producer Jesse West layered The Mohawks “The Champ” with an interpolation of Blondie’s hit “Rapture” into an undeniable groove that was then remixed by Puff Daddy and Stevie J. The combo gave KRS the biggest single of his career, and his third album I Got Next peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts, becoming his highest selling album to date. The man who once rapped that “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality” had colluded with reigning avatar for excess in rap. And won.

It’s crazy to think that a rap group could out underground KRS-One, but 1997 was that kind of year. Two years prior, the son of billionaire Rupert Murdoch invested in a hip-hop label called Rawkus Records, founded by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer. After building a catalogue of 12-inch releases, they signed the New York based trio Company Flow (comprised of rapper/producer El-P, DJ/producer Mr. Len and rapper Big Juss) and released their debut Funcrusher Plus

If Puffy was hip-hop’s ringmaster—an accessible, charming crowd pleaser with a 1,000-watt smile—Company Flow was the drunken carny with elephant shit on his shoes banging the ringmaster’s wife.

Company Flow

Their sound was defiantly cavernous and muddy, the perfect soundtrack for anyone looking to take a hot, steaming dump on whatever was moving “above ground.” Intentionally or not, they became the vanguard of Rawkus’s anti-establishment rap brigade.

The group’s DJ Mr. Len cut his teeth interning for a management company whose roster included CeCe Peniston, DeVante Swing from Jodeci, and Poetical Prophets (who would later become Mobb Deep). That led to a gig at Jive Records in their dub room where Len got a crash course in record label politics. So—for better or worse—he knew what a major label was capable of when his group signed with an indie like Rawkus.  

“I remember having a meeting up at Rawkus about where they were NOT going to concentrate on pushing Funcrusher Plus,” says Len. “They were like, ‘We’re not going to concentrate on the urban market,’ and I was like ‘What the fuck?’ I’m from the Bronx and I live in Brooklyn. Why wouldn’t kids like me [be the target]? And that was a sign that there was a difference between what Puffy and Company Flow were doing. Puff had Stretch Armstrong do a mixtape, and I remember Stretch proposed to put a Company Flow record on there and Puff said no. It had nothing to with him being on some ‘Fuck Co Flow,’ it was him not knowing what we were about. This was like ‘95 or ‘96. I’m trying to remember which song. If it wasn’t “8 Steps” maybe it was “Corners” or “Vital Nerve.” He just wasn’t into it. I remember not taking it personally. I thought it was weird that Stretch wanted to try it but you gotta test the waters.”

When Funcrusher Plus dropped in late July of 1997, Puff’s “solo” debut No Way Out had already been out for several weeks and was marching towards 24 consecutive weeks of chart dominance. The “suit and tie rap” was in full effect for juggernaut visuals like “It’s All About The Benjamins,” but he still kept a pair of Timbs under the bed for album tracks like “Young Gs” and Black Rob’s “I Love You Baby.” But for those that slept in their hoodies and liked their “bubbly” brewed with hops, there was no compromise.

“I didn’t really know about the whole DIVIDE thing until way into it and the album was out,” says Len. “In the UK they were yelling at shows that ‘Puffy is a Poofter!’ Which is like calling him a f*ggot. People were like ‘Fuck shiny suits!’ But it was funny to me. If you saw me walking down the street in a shiny suit, you would laugh and ask ‘What are you doing?’ You talking about dudes from Harlem and The Bronx, hardcore dudes. So when you see them dudes in shiny suits you gotta laugh, whether you know them personally or not. That turned into ‘Fuck mainstream.”

The mainstream—what was easily identifiable, marketable and adaptable—fueled the entertainment economy. If something worked, you could best believe there would be twenty copies in the pipeline right behind it. But things didn’t always become popular organically. Some would even argue that organic popularity is a pipedream and that it’s ALL manufactured. While some form of audience manipulation has always existed in music, it seemed to come to a head in the late ‘90s.

Thanks in part to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eliminated the cap on nationwide radio station ownership, one singular entity emerged as the dominant force in radio and music, Clear Channel, now known as iHeart Media. In 2002 The FMC (Future of Music Coalition) released a report “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?” which distills the impact of Clear Channel’s radio monopoly:

Consolidation is particularly extreme in the case of Clear Channel. Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations — 30 times more than congressional regulation previously allowed. No potential competitor owns even one-quarter the number of Clear Channel stations. With over 100 million listeners, Clear Channel reaches over one-third of the U.S. population…

Format consolidation leads to fewer gatekeepers. A small number of companies control what music is played on specific formats. Coupled with a broad trend toward shorter playlists, this creates few opportunities for musicians to get on the radio. Further, overwhelming consolidation of these formats deprives citizens the opportunity to hear a wide range of music.

In short, a paradigm shift in music distribution was occurring which would have an undeniable impact on a genre like hip-hop that was still growing. Payola was already choking out access, but now playlists were ensuring that only a limited number of artists would get played on the air regardless. This facilitated widening the chasm between “commercial” and “underground” hip-hop.

“Although looking back it would seem that the Telecommunications Act helped shift the power toward the majors in 1996, I must be honest to say that at that time, when I was an A&R at Profile, I had no idea it existed,” says Will Fulton, a veteran label executive who signed acts like Camp Lo and Smooth Da Hustler at Profile and Ja Rule and Mic Geronimo at TVT.

“It did seem like it was becoming more of an uphill battle for independent labels, though. There had been a number of labels in the early to mid ‘90s (Profile, Nervous, Select, Wild Pitch among them) that had been able to make an impact. The independents (and those independently controlled labels with P&D deals like Loud) could move faster, and were generally more in tune with the hip-hop fans. You know, a lot of larger labels fit that GZA line, “he don’t know the meaning of dope, when he’s looking for a suit and tie rapper that’s cleaner than a bar of soap.”

“They had people up there at the top who didn’t know what they were doing regarding hip-hop,” Tracy Lee says of his label’s distributor, Universal. “My man Garnett Reid, God rest his soul, was an integral part in taking Universal where they needed to be in regards to promoting hip-hop records. If it weren’t for him I can’t imagine where that place would’ve been.  They didn’t know what to do with ‘The Theme’ until Garnett got it to Red Alert. That was the tipping point because everybody followed suit.  We took the record to Flex and DJ Clue but none of them would touch it until Red Alert played it.  That was our gateway to the radio.”

But before long, the labels adapted. According to Fulton those “Mountain climbers playing electric guitar” realized they needed to bring the Garnett Reid’s of the world in-house to not just work the records, but to make them.

“A&R-producers like Irv Gotti figured out how to get the street and the radio. And of course, Roc-A-Fella and Bad Boy. The majors were making good records; Universal, Sony, Arista,” says Fulton. “I remember one day in 1996 or 1997, Profile president Steve Plotnicki was looking at Billboard, and he asked me and fellow A&R Chris Landry if we liked any records in the top ten. I don’t know what was selling at that time, maybe Fugees? B.I.G.? But I said, yeah, there’s a lot I like there. And his response was that meant it was time for independents to get out of hip-hop. That the only way indies could have a shot, he argued, is if people in our position hated the top ten. That stuck with me.”

Before long, many of those smart and agile indie labels were bought by the majors—who then consolidated the talent, budgets and influence. The music oligarchy had two dominant hands, the labels and radio, pulling all of the strings. In some instances, artists fought back. The Wu-Tang Clan released their long awaited group follow-up Wu-Tang Forever in June of 1997 but found themselves in a war with their hometown radio station, Hot 97. They were slated to headline the annual Summer Jam concert but were on tour in Europe with Rage Against The Machine—a paid gig. The radio station refused to fly the 9-member plus crew to New York for the show, so when they eventually touched the stage Ghostface Killah cussed out the station and on air personality Angie Martinez. This led to them being blackballed from the airwaves and the physical building for a decade.  While they had a hand in this, it became a rallying point for artists and fans who didn’t like the direction New York radio was going in anyway.

Adding to the anti-radio fervor was a KRS-One interview about his record “Step Into A World.” Despite boasting on the record that he was “relying on talent, not marketing and promotion,” he in fact did pay Funkmaster Flex’s Franchise Marketing company $40,000 to promote the record and play it on the air. The latter did not happen and he blew the whistle so to speak. But in a 2006 interview with writer Thomas Golianopoulos Funkmaster Flex flat out denies KRS’s claims: 

“You paid me to do something and the record didn’t play because I wasn’t supposed to play your record,” he counters. “That’s not what you asked me to do. You asked me to promote your soundtrack. You asked me to put up posters. I play too many nightclubs to take money for records. In a nightclub, you can’t bribe a guy to dance on the dance floor. I can’t have a record that I play on the radio that I won’t play in the clubs.”

So in essence, what got played on the air and in the clubs became synonymous. And what got played in the club in 1997? Lots and lots of Bad Boy.

Already scarred from the “East Vs. West” feud that resulted in the deaths of two mega stars, Puff Daddy went on the offensive against faceless “haters” who wanted to stop his ascent. It was a genius bit of gaslighting that underground fans fell for hook line and sinker.

“If I’m shadow boxing, I’m not fighting you. However, you’re now able to stand in front of me and say you dodged a punch and you hit me,” Mr. Len explains. “So underground heads, as we’re now known, we’re all shadowboxing. So Puff comes out saying ‘You guys are haters’ and we’re like ‘We’re not even talking to you, b.’ And then he adds, ‘Haha and you not makin’ any money! We ain’t never gonna stop!’ Stop what? What are you talking about? And you do end up hating these motherfuckers. You seriously gonna make a $500,000 video and wear a shiny suit and I can’t laugh at you? No one trolls harder than Puff, and it’s beautiful. No one rises to the top without some competition or drama. But you never heard Co Flow diss Puffy. If you heard me DJ a party you heard me playing Black Rob’s ‘Whoa!’ and Biggie records. There wasn’t a cat in the underground who could say they didn’t like ‘Unbelievable.’ That shit was incredible.”

Granted, there were definitely men like Jeru The Damaja and Suge Knight who took direct shots at Puffy and his ilk on and off record. It wasn’t all in Puff’s head. But he did masterfully manipulate the culture by taking away the ability to critique what he was doing. No one wanted to be a player hater.

Maybe it’s being a DJ and having a direct connection with audiences on a regular basis, but Len has a more pragmatic perspective on the rift twenty years later.

“The people could have revolted against the [Bad Boy] sound. But they didn’t. The underground embraces the elements of hip-hop more and are gung-ho about culture. But there are kids who just want shit that sounds cool and get amped to it. We got into this competition and two decades later you really start to understand the casualties of war. Most of the artists you looked up to and loved, they’re fuckin’ broke. That’s what that line did. You’ve got at least 10 years of songs about haters and can’t name one. It’s fucked up. Then you got a whole other half-decade of hip-hop songs about hip-hop. The shit becomes redundant. That’s what that separation did.”

But with the diminished utility and influence of both the major label system and the radio, where does this leave the “divide”? After two decades of war, do we even know who the enemy is anymore?

What exactly is ‘underground’ when Souls of Mischief’s ‘93 Til Infinity’ is being played in national TV campaigns to sell Gatorade and a Yasiin Bey instrumental like “Twilight Speedball” is used to promote hotels in Las Vegas? Sprite may have swapped Nas and AZ for Lil Yachty, but Kendrick Lamar is the voice of the NBA Finals. Run The Jewels—which features El-P, an alumnus of Company Flow—is being played in trailers for Marvel movies and video games.  The purists are more profitable than ever.

Between satellite radio and streaming services like Soundcloud, Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL and Apple Music you have to work to NOT find music you like, so we can’t place blame at the feet of the Funkmaster Flexes of the world anymore. However, with hip-hop’s continued splintering across style, age and sound we will keep fighting under various banners, because sometimes what we dislike defines us more than what we support. Plot twist. We’re all players and we’re all haters.

Take that, take that.

“They said it was tight up here. I ain’t know it was this tight,” Camp Lo’s Geechi Suede jokes under the indigo stage lights. “I would tell y’all to put your hands in the air but you might hit the person next to you.”

It’s an ungodly 1am on a Saturday night at New York City’s famed Blue Note Jazz club. The anxious crowd is filled with beautiful people who are hooded, capped, locked, and weaved. It’s your favorite Black rom-com from the ‘90s come to life, the perfect setting for a hip-hop homecoming. Geechi Suede is joined on stage by his partner Sonny Cheeba and a live band to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of their debut album Uptown Saturday Night. The Blaxploitation-era inspired work stands as one of the most unique and resilient rap debuts of that decade, mostly because it played by its own rules. The two MCs, who share a first name and birthplace (more on that later) challenged and enthralled listeners with an encrypted rhyme style that made you question everything you’d learned about language. They rapped in cursive with alien penmanship that mere ink and paper couldn’t contain.

It’s raining Alizé, I’m floating through the Holland tunnel swerving
I’m digging on the Sheba pulling cheeba she be splurging
We lurking with the chrome cause we be murking from the boogie
And shitting on them crabs cause they jive fake and woolly

Distinguished by silken smooth voices and a fashion sense that traded the jeans, jerseys, and construction boots of their Bronx, NY breeding for fluorescent fedoras and hard bottoms, Camp Lo carved out a place in hip-hop that was somewhere between rap group and time-traveling superheroes. Under the guidance of MC and producer Ski Beatz, the duo forged a distinct sound to match their Avant-garde style. Which is why two decades later, fans that probably left their kids at home with grandma are crammed elbow-to-elbow to be transported back to 1997.

From the cover art and song titles to the videos, Uptown Saturday Night was a collage of old school influences and a reflection of how Suede and Cheeba each saw the world. Born Saladine T. Wallace and Salahadeen T. Wilds in Bronx Lebanon Hospital under the Cancer and Virgo zodiac signs respectively, Suede and Cheeba use the push and pull of “thought” versus “heart” to describe their relationship. Suede’s stage name is a dressing up of Geechi Dan Buford from 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night film starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. “He came down the block with this suede mustard jacket on, and from then on I started calling him Suede,” says Cheeba, who himself went by Cochise from Cooley High before settling on the lead character from the Kung Fu flick The Street Fighter. But the Cooley High references would still surface in their constant allusions to Stone and Rob, the two weed smoking hoods, and of course in the title of the first single.

In the Beginning…

While the album was recorded at D&D Studios, the foundation of Camp Lo was started on the streets of the Bronx and solidified in Ski’s Harlem studio apartment.

Ski Beatz:  I met Suede in the Bronx. I was living on Valentine Ave. That was his neighborhood. He was a young kid trying to rap. He used to come up to me saying “Yo I’m trying to get into this music thing.” He knew that I was with Original Flavor at the time and kind of in the game. He was full of energy. He didn’t know anything about how to put a song together, but he definitely had the heart.

Geechi Suede: I was already working with Ski before I met Cheeba. He was takin’ me out to DJ Clark Kent’s house and stuff. Then I’d head down to VA.

Ski Beatz: I remember taking him to Clark Kent’s house to record a song. The name of it was “I Heard You Could Rhyme Kid.” It came out pretty good. I taught him song structure, and he got to hear his voice laid down over some beats. After that one song I lost touch with him for like a year. But when I got back in touch with him he had Cheeba with him. Before they were Camp Lo they were “Cee-Lo” like playing dice. I heard them rhyme with the back and forth, and the contrast was dope. The ‘70s slang, it was cool.

Geechi Suede: We dipped from Ski for a second to develop ourselves more. We was messing with Danny Dan the Beat Man over on 183rd. We did a song over a Stevie Wonder track from “Inner Visions.” It was called “Rolling Lo Style.” That’s where we developed the back and forth style. After we put down six or seven joints with him we felt like we were really up.

The Collab-O

By the time Cheeba and Suede reconnected with Ski, he had a second album with Original Flavor under his belt (and an earlier 1990 project with the Bizzy Boys) and money for a proper studio setup, which included an SP-1200, an AKAI S950, a turntable and a Fender Rhodes. His revolving door at 1119 110th St. saw talent like Rah Digga, The Outsidaz, Jay-Z, Jaz-O, Cam’ron and Mase pass through it.

Geechi Suede: The first song we did with Ski was “Camp Lo (Bust Ya Down).” It was in his studio apartment with a studio in it [laughs]. That was where everything pretty much came together. We did “Suga Streets” there, “Coolie High Is Life,” and “Short Eyes.”

Sonny Cheeba: That was right after high school, and I tried to dabble in a little telemarketing. You know how you gotta convince people to stay on the phone so you can sell ‘em something? You had the quota and all that. Then I tried the supermarket shit because I just had a son, trying to get bread anyway possible. But for the most part it was just studio time.

Will Fulton, A&R Profile Records: Dame Dash was living in the next building. They had the whole Roc-A-Fella’s thing, before Roc-A-Fella Records, it was a name Tone Hooker came up with that included Jay, Sauce Money, Original Flavor, and then the larger crew. Then a bunch of other crews were recording in this space. So Ski is a real scientist with music. He can do a record from start to finish, and at that point his studio system was very specific. Camp Lo wrote at Ski’s studio and then made versions of the demos at D&D.

Ski Beatz: I just remember us recording four or five songs every night from scratch. Which was kind of crazy. Everybody is there: Suede, Cheeba, Tone Hooker. Dame would come through and check us out. I think Jay-Z came to a couple of sessions. It was good energy.

Coolie High Gets Priority

After recording the demo it was an early version of “Coolie High” that got the label execs at Priority interested in a single deal.

Ski Beatz: We got the demo done and Tone Hooker (T-Strong) he was managing them at the time. He took the demo up to Profile Records. That was actually his first label; he wanted to go to all the labels to shop it, but Profile hopped on it as soon as they heard it. Will Fulton heard it and loved it. The crazy thing is we didn’t use any of the songs from the demo [we made] on the album.

Will Fulton: Before working at Profile, I had been at TVT Records in 1994 and signed Ja Rule as part of Cash Money Click and Mic Geronimo. I moved over to Profile in 1995. But before that I’d interned at Jive. I happened to be at Jive and someone played me a tape at an A&R meeting there, and they turned it down. I’d been a college radio DJ and was really looking for a certain thing. I wasn’t really looking for Camp Lo, because they were so different from anything I’d expected, but I knew immediately I wanted to do whatever I could to be involved. I was an instant fan. I took the tape home, and I listened to it and wore that tape out.

There was something about Camp Lo where their music was extremely cinematic. First, I could just tell right off that their ideas about what they wanted to do seemed so fleshed out. Second, Suede’s bionic flow and Cheeba’s voice—who was Cochise at the time—it was like he drank a bottle of maple syrup before he started rhyming. I hadn’t seen or met them at that point. I’m not sure I met them until right around the time that I signed them.

The single budget was like $12,000 all in. I remember taking it to Jim Mahoney who ended up being President of Fat Beats later, but he was Head of Radio Promotions. I played it for him, and he was good with it. He got where it was going. There weren’t a lot of groups that sounded like them. If you can imagine in 1995 you had Biggie and Craig Mack and Biggie had just started doing the more chill Big Poppa voice, but everybody was hype, hype, hype! So Ski was producing Jay, who was basically talking and Camp Lo who was whispering. They were very much their own thing, and the label went with me because we had just done “Broken Language.” I did what I could to put the group’s vision forward. When “Coolie High” started to take off, the label’s commitment got to be more. That was a slow and amazing process.

“Coolie High” was the de facto introduction of Camp Lo to the world. With its breathy, low pass filtered vibes the two poets invited ladies into their lair filled with lust and libations. They may not have understood everything they said, but it sounded good.

Sonny Cheeba: People heard me say “Trey shots of life for all night you dig it.” I’m talking about nutting three times that night with that jawn. “Trey shots of life.” The shot of life is sperm in the body! Motherfuckers were like “What does he mean?” You gotta think.

Ski Beatz: Jocko made the original beat, took the Janet Jackson sample (“Funny How Time Flies) and chopped it up. But Will asked if I could redo it. They had a girl come in and sing it, get some live keys. We got Jocko’s consent obviously. His version is not on the demo. I did the [earlier] one with the Michael Jackson sample (“Lady In My Life”), but we knew we couldn’t clear that sample. Jocko came and used Janet Jackson and we loved that version too, but Profile made me go in and redo it so we wouldn’t have to clear it. That’s not Janet singing in the video version; that’s another girl.

Geechi Suede: We were definitely on the (MJ sample) before LL. “Hey Lover” joint came out in ’95, but that was the record that got us signed, the “Coolie High” with [that sample]. We owe a lot to the Jacksons.

Will Fulton: We replayed a very similar riff with live musicians and that was tough for the group because they were hooked on that original version.

The Jocko version was a way to come in with something new. Early on people didn’t necessarily see the vision. Not until the video for “Coolie High.”

Geechi Suede: D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar album was playing the whole fuckin’ time we was shooting [the video]. It was definitely in Union Square not too far from Nell’s. It was a really nice restaurant. My uncles flew in, my family was there, and pretty girls on set. That day we went looking for the clothes we wanted and then told the stylist which stores to go to. That was a trippy moment being on the set of your first video. It’s not like today where you can go with one person with a camera and shoot a video. This was a movie set with dollies and all that. At the end of the video, Will Fulton was like, “I wanna do a toast to this moment” and he pulled out a half pint of Hennessy and he poured us a cap full.

Sonny Cheeba: But it felt like a double shot…

GS: That’s why during that night scene niggas had a whole other swerve [laughs]. Because it was right before we shot the last scene. And that was like our first time [drinking], and that shit definitely had our energy in a whole ‘nother lane.

Will Fulton: This is a group at the time that had all these songs related to drinking, so I said let’s do a toast. I had no idea that Suede had never really touched it before. He just told me this recently. We had gone to this little park on 12th St and 2nd Avenue across from the place, Flamingo East, where we shot the club scene. I said, “Let’s do a toast,” and the rest was history. That’s such a corrupt label guy thing to do. It wasn’t the last time that Hennessy appeared in this story.

With the video to “Coolie High” making the rounds on “Video Music Box” and BET, the group caught the attention of Maceo from De La Soul who thought they’d be perfect to take out on tour. The relationships formed on the road would prove instrumental in the creation of the two veteran cameos on Uptown Saturday Night.

Geechi Suede: On the tour we had a stop in St. Louis and we went out to eat. When we came back, our room was right next Trugoy’s room and we heard this beat coming from outside. We was like “WTF is that?” and we knocked on the door. He was like, “Y’all fuckin with that?” So when we got off the tour we went out to Long Island to record “B-Side To Hollywood.”

Ski Beatz: That shit was dope. De La knew Camp Lo had that Native Tongue-ish thing going on, and they are master producers. They knew the sound I was going for and that shit sounded great. I never felt like it wasn’t gonna fit. I was honored that they wanted to do something. We’re all fans of De La Soul.

A stop for gas in New Jersey held another magical moment, a chance meeting with one of Suede’s musical influences, Ish aka Butterfly from Digable Planets who would appear on “Swing.”

GS: Me and Chee were the last ones to get off the bus and he was like “I think I saw your man, Butterfly,” and I was like “What?” We chased the nigga down.

SC: He thought niggas was gonna stick him up.

GS: We ran up on him and I hit him with the “Coolie High” tape and said that we were on the road with De La. Later on I’d found out that one of his boys called him and told him about the song, and that one of the guys sounded like him. We locked in after that. That was another magical thing that happened on that tour.

It’s crazy when I look back at how the universe was working. Everything was happening naturally, not forced at all. To go on tour with De La after trying to dress like those brothers, I was trying to sound like Ish and capture his voice. That shit was crazy, straight dream shit.

Ski Beatz: I remember being in the studio mixing the beat, and I kept trying to change it up and Ish kept saying “Keep it like Dat” trust me. And Ish is like a big brother to Suede. He’s been following Ish since the beginning of his career, so when he finally met him and got him to do the song I know that was a very exciting moment for Suede.

Luchini AKA This Is It

With the album almost complete, the label wanted a strong single to follow up “Coolie High,” and the group answered with their ode to opulence, “Luchini.” The song has proven so durable that it was recently given new life when Nappy DJ Needles mashed up the lyrics with Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Boy” instrumental.

Ski Beatz: The album was wrapped up and done but [the label] was saying we need something for the radio, we need spins, etc. Amazingly that was the last song and I remember digging and finding that Dynasty (“Adventures In The Land Of Music”) sample and said “this is crack.” I called up the guys, and they said it was dope. The verses and hook came together quick. I remember being in D.C. and we were talking about dropping “Luchini,” we were still performing “Coolie High” but we knew people were gonna love Luchini when it dropped.

Will Fulton: The restaurant [where we shot the video] is now called Dizzy’s on 8th Avenue and 9th street on Park Slope, Brooklyn. We had been talking with Cheeba and Suede about doing something that was really referential to the diner in “Coolie High.” So there was one with the diner and bar, and said it was going to be perfect.

Geechi Suede: One of the dates we had recently did in Japan, Cheeba was DJing and he dropped the Bobby Shmurda shit because he was a big fan. Not too long after that the blend dropped. And Nappy DJ Needles is our boy in St. Louis who DJs for us anytime we go through the Lou. It was like a rebirth of that record for these heads now.

Ski Beatz: That blend was dope. When I saw Camp Lo’s lyrics flowing to that beat—and not to take away from how people are rapping now, their lyrics are just timeless. The flow is golden.

For the third video the crew went with “Black Nostaljak,” which seemed like an obvious choice considering Camp Lo’s whole vibe was a throwback.

Black Nostaljack AKA Come On

Will Fulton: I remember calling up Todd Mayflield, Curtis Mayfield’s brother, about the “Trippin out” sample for “Black Nostaljack.” I found the call sheet for it and it says when Jimmy Walker comes in etc. That was a dream come true for me and for them. Everybody had grown up on “Good Times” and there was the Ernie Barnes “Sugar Shack” painting connection, which inspired the painting on USN. We had Dr. Revolt, who is one of those classic old school graffiti guys, paint the guys in that style for the cover. So we thought we should do some “Good Times” [angle]. Somehow it was magically possible that they would do it and Profile would pay for the building of the set. The budgets were tiny by major label standards, but we got something decent. It was a build out inside a loft. And we got to use the theme song in the beginning and used the same film they used in the ‘70s. That’s why it has that hue.

Sonny Cheeba: Everybody had a crush on Thelma (actress Bern Nadette Stanis), but nobody wanted to tell her. For the most part it was a good time, especially when we did the “Krystal Karrington” joint at the end.

GS: [That video] was supposed to be “Rockin It (AKA Spanish Harlem)” for the third single. Why we didn’t do it, Chee?

SC: I think cats thought “BN” was crazier because of the sample.

GS: We felt like “Rockin” was the first of its kind blending [latin and hip-hop] and it was just gonna cross shit up crazy. Because you see it really worked well for Wyclef with the Santana shit, those were big records. I feel like Spanish Harlem was the first of its style.

Ski Beatz: At the time I was living in The Bronx with a Puerto Rican girl and her moms and her brother. Everyday they would have [Merengue] blaring out the windows so that was embedded in my DNA when I was working on that album. I love that music, and I said we gotta do something with that. It was so BX. I don’t know where I got the record though

GS: But “BN” was dope. It was super dreamy with JJ and Thelma, and it’s funny how they was just able to make the set look like [“Good Times”]. It was dope that they were able to pull that off.

Ski Beatz: Ill Will, he picked the sample. He said you’ve gotta chop up this Curtis Mayfield sample and that they were getting “Good Times” actors for the video. I don’t know if I would have ran with that as the second single. I would have done “Kristal Karrington” or “Sparkle.” That’s why we put it on the end to keep that edge. But the label wanted to keep them smooth.

Will Fulton: The radio and higher ups were the ones who picked “Black Nostaljack.” From ‘96 to late ‘97 it was more difficult for an independent label to get anything on the radio. It became a Universal and Arista-owned game.

Though Camp Lo had built a reputation for being slick-talking playboys, their more mischievous alter egos Stone and Rob always lurked beneath the surface. In fact, the album was originally going to be called A Piece of The Action, and had leaned more towards the darker tracks like “Killin ‘Em Softly” and the lead track, “Krystal Karrington.” The latter was featured in an early episode of Marvel’s “Iron Fist.”

“Krystal Karrington”

Ski Beatz: Remember the old VHS tapes? I had an old VHS tape of the “Bionic Woman,” and I heard that background in one of the action scenes when she was fighting and I said, “Yo, I gotta chop that up.” I might have been one of the first people to sample from a VHS tape back in the day. Maybe not, but to sample the “Bionic Woman” I knew nobody was thinking about that.

GS: “Krystal Karrington” was initially a drop for DJ Chubby Chub. We were doing a drop for him over that beat and when we heard that shit back we was like…

SC: Time for another 24.

Will Fulton: That version (featured in “Iron Fist”) was the tape demo. I didn’t notice right away, but Ski told me that’s the demo version. You’d have to listen very closely that the vocal performances are different. I had made a cassette sequence when the album was called “A Piece Of The Action,” and it was a lot of the darker tracks that had been like that song. [There was] another song called “Crystals and Istols,” At the time the early incarnation of the album was darker. But “KK” was definitely the hard Camp Lo record. It was more gritty.

As if having their vocals mashed up with a millennial stick-up kid anthem wasn’t enough testimony to their timelessness, Camp Lo’s early demo was resurrected in a collection called On The Way Uptown. Will Fulton found the tapes in an old storage space and passed them along to the guys after attending the release party for their 2015 album Ragtime Hightimes.

Will Fulton: So I found the cassettes and brought them to Ski, and Ski had Zack Weeks master it and they put it out. I wonder how many ‘90s groups threw out cassette players and their cassettes along with it. There is a lot of stuff that got lost. All of the amazing music from that era just went in another direction.

One of the rescued tracks was a song called “Hollywood At The Disco” that featured the same “Rain Dance” sample as Lil Kim’s “Crush On You,” which was ironically produced by Ski’s mentor The Rhythm Fanatic.

Ski: I used the sample before him, but like I said it was a demo and we never used the song. Obviously he didn’t hear my demo, and I ain’t know he was gonna produce “Crush On You.” That’s how it goes with samples. It’s cool that we were on the same vibe because he taught me how to make beats.

The group came full circle shooting videos for “Piece of the Action” and “Suga Streets” at the end of 2016. For the former they stomped through the streets of Philly clad in leather sleeves and low brims, but for the latter they returned to the scene of the crime, 2130 110th St. where it wall began. It was like a scene from the mind-bending, existential film Waking Life, where the idea is to “remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving.”


Geechi Suede: We time travel in music a lot. We go to the past and the future, but I don’t think we ever be now with it. We never with what’s going on with the moment. I think the fact that we play with time like that keeps us out of the category of being dated. Praise Be to Allah we just have a built-in flow to us that definitely ain’t got nothing to do with time.

Sonny Cheeba: The people on the set didn’t know “Piece of the Action” was 20 years old either. They thought it was fresh off the press.

Ski Beatz: Their lyrics are so fuckin abstract, it’s like a Rubiks Cube and you’re trying to put those colors together. They don’t say dated things in their rhymes like “Tim Boots, Moet and gold chain Jesus Piece.” Instead you hear “In Switzerland I dance by the moon.” C’mon man, that shit is artwork. That shit is poetry. They wasn’t writing rhymes, they was writing with kaleidoscope pens. Every time I recorded them I was just amazed at the shit they was saying. “How he gonna say that with THAT? What the fuck is Cheeba talking about? But it sounds dope!”

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