Once again we’re back with another Catalog Shuffle, where artists get their entire discographies thrown into a playlist and give the stories behind randomly selected songs. This month’s guest is producer Nicolay. As one half of the duo Foreign Exchange (along with Phonte Coleman), Nic has never been afraid to explore new musical territory with his group and solo projects. In going through his tracks, we talk about how Okayplayer message boards changed his life, the influence that electronic music has had in his own career, and how Neil Young inspired one of the darker albums in the FE catalog.

Nicolay

Nicolay “Memory Lane” (City Lights, Vol. 1.5, 2005)

I feel like if I put someone on to your current music and then played them stuff from this era, they might not be able to make the connection that it’s by the same artist.

Nicolay: This is an interesting place for us to start because this was all kind of the same era when I was working on what ultimately became [The Foreign Exchange’s debut album] Connected. City Lights represents what wasn’t used on Connected, to put it bluntly. I had really gotten into beatmaking and a lot of that process was nothing more than continuous exploration and experimentation, often involving samples. “Memory Lane” is interesting if only for the fact that it’s a sample of a Minnie Riperton song of the same name. I wasn’t trying to hide it. It was briefly considered for Connected, but a lot of the obvious sample-heavy stuff ended up on the cutting board because we had other really great stuff that was a little more developed.

This time was really just my figuring out that I love making hip-hop beats. It’s the Rosebud of The Foreign Exchange [laughs]. It was also when I began thinking that I had something I could contribute, whereas for a long time I just wanted to be a fan. It took me a few years to realize hip-hop was evolving in a direction that I thought opened itself up to me, especially with the music that J Dilla was creating. That discovery is how I (and so many other people) all got on Okayplayer.com [where Phonte and Nicolay first met and began collaborating online]. We were all different people, but I think we all had something in common. In a nutshell, the story of Okayplayer and The Foreign Exchange are parallel to one another.

I would guess your process has changed a lot in terms of how you create music today versus your process back then.

Nicolay: There is literally not a single element that has remained the same. At the time, I didn’t have access to gear, a lot of instruments, or good speakers. It was much more renegade than I think people realize. Phonte represented that on his side where they were recording vocals under some of the most hilarious circumstances in those days. I think what was so strong about what we did is that you don’t hear that in the music. When I listen to the earlier stuff now, I think it still translates and I’m incredibly proud of it. I can hear what I can do better, but it takes 10-15 years to figure that shit out.

I’ve always had the mindset that I just need to release music continuously, because that is ultimately the only way I’m going to learn how to do this shit. Ironically, my first album [Connected] ended up being a relatively successful record, and to the end of these days, anything you do is going to be compared against that—which is a blessing and a curse. I’ve learned so much that I didn’t know at the time, even on a technical level.

Nicolay “My Story (feat. Kay and Sy Smith)” (Here, 2006)

Nicolay: I moved to the States after the success of Connected. Phonte was still very focused on trying to make Little Brother as big as it could be when they were still signed to Atlantic, so that was definitely the priority in his life and career at the time. We had always figured Foreign Exchange was a side project that maybe at some point we would revisit. I was trying to figure out what I could do at this point. I started getting calls from people that wanted to work. I was interested because I felt like I could further my producer brand, but at the same time I wasn’t going to give them any sort of Connected stuff and just dish out the magic like that. I realized I didn’t want to be that guy who just does a few beats here and there, working with random people. Creatively speaking, that hasn’t ever really appealed to me.

I figured the best way to further my career was to keep doing albums versus spreading myself all over the place. Here was a reaction to the success of Connected in the sense that you see me kind of pushing back a little bit. The album doesn’t feature Phonte, which is interesting now that I’m looking back at it. I intentionally kept the music a little more “simple,” because I really wanted to showcase a different side of myself that was more of a straight-ahead boom-bap sort of sound. Everybody loved how pretty Connected was. Here was me kind of trying to be gritty, with mixed results. That album to me is like a 6/10. It serves a moment in time when I was kind of ready to uproot my entire life and just come here to unlock the next level for me.

“My Story” foreshadows the album that I would do with Kay in 2008, TIME:LINE. It was our first shot at it. Sy is another frequent collaborator. Despite everything I just said, this song is the most Connected-sounding track on Here. It’s the most lush and evolved-sounding; an exception to the rule. I loved it so much at the time. It’s got a nod to Jaco Pastorius in it. It’s not sampled, it’s replayed. I tried to sneak it in there, but people made it out fairly easily. If you had to put together a Top 20 of stuff I’ve done, this would be in it.

The Foreign Exchange

The Foreign Exchange “All That You Are” (Connected, 2004)

Nicolay: “All That You Are” happened towards the end of finishing Connected. At that point, we knew what we were doing. The first couple of tracks we worked on were two people who hardly knew each other. I mean, we had spent a fair amount of time on Okayplayer at that point, so I guess we did know each other—enough to know that there was no bullshit involved. We knew we had enough in common that the risk was kind of minimal.

As much trust as you could have with somebody on the Internet in 2003.

Nicolay: It really sounds crazy looking back. But as those of us who were aware of what that Okayplayer world was, I feel like we did know each other in a way that kind of mattered. You may not have known personal things, but you knew sort of what page you were on with somebody. It was early on in the evolution of the Internet, so it had its own sort of trial and error. If you look back at it, it kind of foreshadows the entire Facebook experience. It was so niche when it started that it was very powerful because I think even though there were a lot of different people, at the end of the day they had something in common. I hope somebody one day does a serious kind of research of that entire phenomenon: the Okayplayer phenomenon.

It’s funny because I always say that site changed my life, but I realize who the fuck I’m talking to right now…that site REALLY changed your life.

Nicolay: It kind of made my life. Not only did it bring Phonte and I together, but we kind of rode that wave all the way to where we could. [Record label] BBE really liked the story of these people who had never met, yet made something that was more than decent.

Do you guys still collaborate in that way?

Nicolay: We’ll get together and listen to stuff in the same room. I might go and hang out with Tay and he might play me some stuff that he’s done that he would otherwise send me MP3s of, but the hamburger is still made very much in two separate parts of the kitchen. There’s a practical reason for that, as we live two hours apart, but there’s also some of what I call our Clare Fischer superstition. Prince had a collaborator named Clare Fischer who was the string arranger for a lot of his stuff, starting in the ‘80s. They worked remotely and Prince loved him so much that he became convinced that magic should never be broken, so he went to great lengths to never meet the guy. And he never did. I think Phonte and I always looked at it that way. We’ve never created in the same room, face-to-face. It started as a limitation, but at this point, it’s just how it goes.

The Foreign Exchange “Asking For a Friend” (Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey, 2015)

How did the elements of house music start to infiltrate your creative process? It wasn’t really present in your earlier work that was more Dilla-influenced. Were those genres always in your playlist, but you didn’t know how to incorporate it? Or did your love for that music come later?

Nicolay: Connected has a decidedly hip-hop-influence, but we probably could have started making music in any number of genres. I was more exposed to a lot of house stuff when I first started making music, but just like with hip-hop, I never could find a way in to contribute. I did a remix of [Connected track] “Foreign Exchange End Theme” that was a full-on, hard-house club sort of track. It came out primarily in the UK and kind of showed us that we could expand outside of just hip-hop. We could get away with it as long as we made it dope and weren’t just doing it for the gimmick.

Phonte and I have both always been huge dance music/house heads. Coming from Europe, I’ve always been very fond of it, whether it’s Kraftwerk or Jazzanova or 4hero. Phonte is just a very curious and continuously thirsty listener. He listens to more music than anybody I know, and he’s very deliberate in what he listens to. It’s really rare that you can stump that man. He’s got very deep house music knowledge.

As freeing as hip-hop can be, it can also be very limiting especially because of the audience, which is not always as open-minded as it could be compared to something like indie rock, where fans will essentially take whatever they can as long as it’s dope. Over time, we’ve sort of tested our fans to see if they were open to new kinds of music from us. We may have lost some of the Connected fans, but now we’re in the luxurious position where we can pretty much do whatever we want. As long as we don’t make it corny.

Even hearing you mention indie rock just made me think: Is the next Foreign Exchange album going to be indie rock?

Nicolay: [laughs] It could be. A lot of fans called Authenticity an indie rock album because it was stripped down and less optimistic. Phonte and I are very big into indie music like Flock of Dimes, and here in North Carolina, there’s a lot going on with Merge Records. You’d be crazy if you didn’t listen to it and take something out of it that you can appreciate and interpret and translate into what you’re doing.

Nicolay “Give Her Everything” (Here, 2006)

Do you miss sampling?

Nicolay: Yes. But that song actually contains no samples. This was 2006, so I can talk about this now. At the time, we were skirting around using all these tracks that had some prominent samples involved. I’ve never talked about this, but it had an Eddie Money sample. It’s not in the final track because BBE felt a little nervous about it.

They didn’t want to give up that Eddie Money.

Nicolay: Right. They definitely didn’t want to give him everything. We had cleared some other stuff; we weren’t trying to be illegal with it. But BBE is a small label so you can only do so much, and Eddie Money looked like it was going to be a tall order. My man Eddie at BBE was A&Ring Here, and he had the idea to get his guy who was a singer/guitar player to come in and replay it. The whole replaying of samples is a touchy subject because for one, it kind of feels like cheating. Making an interpolation absolves you from using the actual recording, which is normally the main obstacle in clearing samples. But it also doesn’t normally have the same sort of feel. I was nervous about doing that, but we did it for a few tracks on the album.

I’d never met the dude before. I flew to NYC for some of these sessions. The guy laid down this one lick, and he hit it on the damn nose, so much so that it broke away from sounding like Eddie Money. I took the recordings of him and processed it in the same way as I did with the original sample.

I joke about it and call it my “Moby track.” It’s sort of like a hip-hop-infused Fatboy Slim-ish feel from the ‘90s when they started putting hip-hop in a lot of stuff with prominent vocal samples.

The Foreign Exchange “House of Cards (Live)” (Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange, 2011)

Nicolay: Authenticity came out in 2010, and it was a big departure right after we had been Grammy-nominated [for Best Urban/Alternative Performance on Leave It All Behind’s “Daykeeper”] and were basking in the sun for the second time in our careers. We stepped away from LIAB and realized that we had taken a really big chance. At the time we didn’t really give a fuck about stuff like that, but the Grammy nomination was the official acknowledgement that we made the right decision. That album became big and made us think, “What can we do next?” Due largely to some personal life circumstances like Phonte going through a divorce, Authenticity became very different than what people were hoping for.

I’m a Neil Young stan. He made “Heart of Gold” on [1972 album] Harvest, which intentionally propelled him to superstardom. To sort of sabotage all of that, he went on tour and not only didn’t play any of the songs from Harvest—an album that has sold millions of copies—but he brought a rock band with him and had these two-hour Vodka-fueled wild shows of nothing but new material where he was spinning out of control. I think he even aborted the tour halfway in. Then he released a live album of that tour [1973’s Time Fades Away]. It was a very dark and depressing and ugly album; it even sounds bad. But it’s a great record.

That always stood out to me as a lesson. Authenticity is our Time Fades Away. A lot of FE fans were really ready for “Take Off the Blues Part 2,” and they didn’t get it. Authenticity had more of a singer/songwriter kind of feel, so doing an acoustic take [with the Dear Friends: An Evening With Foreign Exchange live album] made a lot of sense. We figured we could record an acoustic version of it but that could be kind of sterile, so why not bring fans from all over into the studio so they can witness it? We held a contest and got 75-80 people who had no idea what we were going to do at all. We did the whole thing on the spot, with no rehearsal outside of the morning of when we figured out the different arrangements of the tracks. That was the first time I’ve played guitar publicly.

Our fans maybe didn’t fully pick up on it because our regular live show is very different from the stripped down, MTV Unplugged style. It’s not a representation of our live show at all. It’s a hidden gem in the FE catalog and worth seeking out because it has some cool and different arrangements. I think it was a seminal moment in our development.

The Foreign Exchange

The Foreign Exchange “Something to Behold (feat Darien Brockington & Muhsinah)” (Leave It All Behind, 2008)

Nicolay: This was one of my final sampling moments. One night I was going through my ‘40s piano music collection on vinyl. Phonte really liked that track. Everything that makes it on a FE record has to pass through him first. Whenever we work on a record, I’ll do specific things for it. But if it doesn’t resonate with him, it won’t make the cut. It always goes in a different direction than what I may have envisioned at first, which is great. This harkens more back to our Connected days if you will, which we need a little bit of to go with the “Daykeeper” sort of stuff.

Nicolay “Satellite” (City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, 2009)

Nicolay: Phonte calls my City Lights projects [the] companion pieces that highlight some of the more adventurous material that wouldn’t work on a FE record. Shibuya is a companion piece to Leave It All Behind. It’s from the same time period. And if you really look at my solo records, they’re incubators of ideas that we revisit in a more focused way later with FE. Shibuya kind of connects to [2013 FE album] Love in Flying Colors.

At the time, we gave each other carte blanche to do whatever, and that coincided with me going to Japan for the first time at the end of 2006. I only got to spend a week there, but it blew my wig off. It was a completely different world, unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. I came back from that trip thinking that I didn’t want to limit myself in any way, shape, or form. Anything that I feel that is worth pursuing, I just want to do it. I don’t care if it doesn’t have a hip-hop snare; I just want to fully tap into what I know is my talent. Part of that was my wanting to walk away from sampling because it was limiting me musically. I regard some sampling producers as high as I can think of, so it’s nothing I look down upon. I just wanted to write songs, do changes, and play my own basslines.

“Satellite” was the first time I did something of a suite—where it’s like four tracks in one that share a lot of musical, melodic, and harmonic material. It’s part of my impressions of my trip to Tokyo. As always in these things, I don’t want to just be like appropriating Japanese koto music. I want to pay homage, but not steal their shit. It doesn’t sound like Tokyo per se, but it has elements that tell me about what I experienced. It has a real frantic pace, with a lot of synthesizers that I really let loose.

The Foreign Exchange “Call It Home” (Love in Flying Colors, 2013)

Nicolay: There have been a few moments in the career of FE [when] we knew we were doing something we had never done before. This song is kind of the FE in its absolute nucleus: just me and Phonte, no guests or background vocals. We’ve had people come in over time to do various things and expand the sound, but when it all boils down, the magic of the FE is just sort of how my mind connected with his. And to this day, that’s how it works.

I wasn’t really sure if it was going to be a bit too far. “Call It Home” is definitely my paying homage to my European influences. I deliberately put stuff in there that you could link to the Prodigy or Goldie or 4hero. Once Tay gets a hold of it, it takes a completely different turn, and I love that about us. It’s like taking your baby out of your hands and watching someone else put clothes on it and be like, “Yo, you’re going to make this child wear bright fucking neon?” But it works. We couldn’t stop listening to it. It represented another moment of growth.

It also showcases the sheer prowess of Phonte as a songwriter. [We] are like brothers, we’ve built up so much together. But sometimes I take a step back and look at him and am in complete awe. Here’s somebody so comfortable in expressing themselves, yet he does it in a way where people relate to it so hard. It’s an incredible talent, let alone his Little Brother stuff that has so much brilliance in its own right. But just seeing his growth as a songwriter has been a crazy ride.

The Foreign Exchange “I Wanna Know” (Leave It All Behind, 2006)

Nicolay: “I Wanna Know” is the first track we made for LIAB. It was our reunion where Phonte and I rekindled the FE project. A lot had happened with Little Brother at the time. After 9th Wonder left, the roles got reversed and FE became the main project for Phonte. “I Wanna Know” is definitely in the Top 5 in terms of fan reception, when we play it live. It’s a song that connects with what so many people feel and want to say. Phonte is such a master at embodying that role.

We’ve spent a lot of this conversation talking about wanting to push your sound forward and not revisit territory you’ve been in before. So what are your feelings about your more popular songs? Do you feel like you’re over it, or do they hold a special place for you because fans love them so much?

I’ve had to learn to become comfortable with the process of putting things out there in the world and knowing someone is going to let you know how they feel about it, especially in the age of social media. When someone feels like we were swinging for something and not really hitting, it can be difficult. For [older fan favorites like] Connected, I have to step back and distance myself because to this day I get questions about why we moved away from that sound or if we’re going back to it.

In my golden years as a music fan in the late ‘80s and 90’s, I couldn’t send Prince a tweet saying Sign o’ the Times is the bomb but this other album isn’t hitting. Or imagine a situation where you sent A Tribe Called Quest a Facebook message saying The Love Movement is not hitting the way Midnight Marauders is hitting? It’s a new phenomenon that is very interesting. I knew a lot of people would always look back to older material of ours, not just because of the music; but because of where they were at in that moment of time. Some people were starting to get on their own feet—whether in college or the first steps in their lives as adults—and we could never try to replicate that moment. It would come off as pathetic and it wouldn’t really deliver. It’s always been clear to us that we should try to do the opposite. Instead of writing a new chapter, start a new book.

Now that over a decade has passed, I can re-appreciate how successful it became. But I can’t lie; it’s interesting when you’re fighting against your own legacy. I’m very fortunate and don’t want to seem like I’m complaining. It’s a little more complicated than that. You’re just aware that you’ve created something that people love very much, and it’s a beautiful thing. We just have made a decision to not always give them more of what they want, which is more of the older stuff.

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The indie hip-hop boom of the early aughts was an era teeming with all the right elements for a creative renaissance: previously unheralded voices/contributors to the culture, classic records, and an unprecedented connection between fans and artists thanks to the emerging presence of the Internet.

But even the digital archives are susceptible to people and movements falling through the cracks, and we’re far enough removed today to look back at some of the faces plastered on the sides of our musical milk cartons and wonder, “What the hell happened?” There are few artists that better fit this particular scenario than Chicago’s very own Diverse.  

A lyricist with densely packed, often-abstract bars—and an impeccably hypnotic cadence—Diverse (born Kenny Jenkins) was putting it down for the Windy City in an era that predated Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and the other rap superstars that have since repped for the Chi. His first commercially available release, 2001’s Move EP (Chocolate Industries), showcased the type of emceeing that typifies the era from which it came, sporting a fairly-prominent Talib Kweli influence and dusty, jazz-inspired production bolstered by live instrumentation (including the Roots’ original bassist Joshua Abrams on the title track).

Move’s success led Diverse to pursue music full-time. In 2002, he became a bigger blip on the national radar (particularly in New York) with his Mos Def-featuring single “Wylin Out” from the Chocolate Industries compilation Urban Renewal Project (which also featured the likes of Aesop Rock, El-P, Souls of Mischief, and Mr. Lif). The song (produced by Prefuse 73) got the remix treatment from RJD2, but also more prominently showcased the fact that Diverse could hold his own with the rapper now known as Yasiin Bey—which was quite a feat in 2002, considering this was a guy whose previous album was Black on Both Sides.

The stage was set for the next level up, and Diverse’s 2003 follow-up full-length One A.M. is what separated him from the would-be emcees. It’s also what warrants closer inspection of his career, and provokes some head-scratching when addressing his relative MIA status since (more on that later). Clocking in at a trim 41 minutes, the record is an almost too-good-to-be-true alignment of some of the best talent in underground hip-hop at the time.

RJD2 provided production for five of the album’s songs—including the break-neck funk of “Explosive” featuring Quannum Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, the haunting stomp of “Big Game” (with Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire), and “Under the Hammer,” which found the Chicago rapper paired with the deadpan delivery of Jean Grae. Add in tracks produced by Prefuse 73, Madlib, and even Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, and the One A.M. album quite frankly feels like stumbling upon a box of vintage rookie cards from some of hip-hop’s future greats.

Although the slew of impressive names both behind the boards and on the mic definitely made for a star-studded lineup, it’s worth noting that Diverse himself never got overshadowed at his own gathering. An obvious student of the game, Diverse was able to hold it down on his own, professing his love for the craft of rhyming on “Just Biz” and effortlessly integrating melody to his sharp flow on the relaxed head-nodder “Leaving.”

Meanwhile, opening tracks like “Certified” and “Uprock” didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to what has now become the somewhat-hackneyed “underground rapper rapping about rapping” formula, but it’s again important to consider the context of the recordings. If you subscribe to the idea that rappers utilize their voices like a jazz musician approaches his instrument, Diverse had clearly clocked many hours in his woodshedding efforts. Multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, an angular flow that contorted and transformed throughout 16-bar passages, tonal control that prevented against the type of monotony that was often a deal breaker for so many of his peers – this guy was the complete package. Though he may have lacked the punchlines and over-the-top personality necessary to become a breakout superstar, his proficiency as a rapper (and clear ability to make the right choices when it came to songs/beats) makes the fact that this is the last album that he has officially put out even more puzzling.

After touring to promote One A.M. (including a spot on the 2006 Storm Tour with Aceyalone, Ugly Duckling, the Processions, and MayDay!) and gaining some notoriety via song placements on the soundtrack to Capcom’s “Final Fight Streetwise” game for Xbox and PlayStation, there was talk of a second album entitled Round About. But beyond a pair of unofficial mixtapes featuring random unreleased songs and collaborations, the sophomore LP never came to be. A 2008 7-inch single, “Escape Earth (The Moon),” pairs a beautiful Clair de Lune sample with a dirty breakbeat and features Diverse weaving together a vivid narrative with an appropriately spacey theme. He hasn’t officially released anything since.

The idea that somebody in his shoes could just disappear is unfortunate but not exactly shocking, either. Fans and participants alike are no doubt aware of the type of grind that having (and maintaining) a career as an independent artist requires. Even the most talented and creative minds can sometimes get sucked up in the trappings of the real world, motivated by factors either financial, personal, or both.

And the fact that the Chocolate Industries label would subsequently go through a series of internal conflicts between its label managers as well as the typical financial woes many indie operations faced in the age of rampant illegal file-sharing in the mid-to-late ‘00s certainly must have played a part in the abrupt silence in Diverse’s story (after putting out records by the likes of Lady Sovereign, Vast Aire, Ghislain Poirier, and the Cool Kids, the label has been dormant since 2012). But all of that is largely speculative, as there is no clear narrative as to exactly what happened.

Also frustrating is the fact that, by the modern standards of the Internet, it would appear that Diverse never existed. The man has no public social media accounts (active or otherwise), making the search for his current whereabouts and musical output limited at best – though there have been some breadcrumbs. He popped up on Black Milk and Bishop Lamont’s 2008 collaborative project Caltroit, and also made an appearance on the guest-heavy Stones Throw producers Quakers compilation album.

In 2014, Diverse teamed with Chris Hunt (drummer for Atlanta-based experimental electronic band Cloudeater) to form Holoking, an outfit that showcased Jenkins’ trademark abstract style against a backdrop equally as amorphous and musically ambitious. The duo released two songs (“Superhuman” and “Wise Fools”) that actually make a strong argument for more ’00s rappers to reinvent themselves in a more adventurous band setting. A 10-song EP was said to be in the works—but it would seem that it has yet to see the light of day. Holoking’s Internet/social media presence has been similarly abandoned, with no real updates or activity in the last few years.

Based on his track record, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not we’ll be getting more music from Diverse in the future. One can hardly fault anybody from wanting to keep the rigmarole of the music industry at an arm’s length, so if his exile is self-imposed, so be it. Nor does it feel appropriate to eulogize the career of an artist who may very well still be active or on the brink of popping his head above ground to share new music with the world once again. But as we move further away from a reality of stumbling upon tattered old vinyl in the back of used record stores as a means of discovery, it’s important to shed light on the unsung heroes and forgotten (or perhaps completely overlooked) gems of yesterday. For many fans of underground hip-hop, the music of Diverse may come as a throwback to a now-bygone era of hip-hop; or as an undiscovered and pleasantly welcome surprise.

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

 

We’re back at it with another installment of Catalog Shuffle, where artists get their entire discographies thrown into a playlist and give the stories behind randomly selected songs. This month features rapper/producer/book author/filmmaker Blueprint. We go through both his solo work and work with Soul Position (his group with RJD2) and talk about storytelling, Cincinnati riots, the time that he sampled one of hip-hop’s most notorious samplers, and how a single computer programming command helped him write a song on one of indie hip-hop’s most beloved debut albums.

Blueprint “Untitled” (Sign Language, 2009)

Blueprint: Sign Language was my first attempt to make a real instrumental record with the MPC. I made [2004 instrumental album] Chamber Music before then, but used the EPS-16 for that. I always wanted to make a “real” instrumental record like a DJ Shadow type thing where it was all samples within the MPC for the most part.

But when I made “Untitled,” I was starting to get into playing instruments more. That track came about because I had always been a fan of Terrence Trent D’Arby. “Sign My Name” has always been one of my favorite songs of his. He’s an unsung ‘80s kind of guy. He’s got a couple dope hits, but that record was always at the top of my crates. One of the last songs on that album [“As Yet Untitled”] is an a cappella. I would listen to it and wonder why nobody had taken this a cappella and put music to it. This was before the whole mash-up craze was really cracking.

I couldn’t do it with the MPC because I didn’t have enough sample time. So I did it how I was doing it with Chamber Music where I was just flying in samples and dropping them into my 12-track [recorder]. I would mix around them and move elements around. I didn’t have the ability to time-stretch the samples. I had to make it work to the tempo that I kind of guessed. Some parts were perfect and some were a little off. I only had 20-30 seconds of sample time, so I just kind of made the beat around what I thought should be there.

Was Sign Language the last record where you used the MPC as your primary tool?

It might have been. Either that or maybe the Blueprint vs. Funkadelic record. Those were made around the same time. 

Blueprint “Kill Me First” [1988, 2005]

This is fucked up to say, but you could put this song out today and its message would still resonate.

Blueprint: I agree. What’s funny is that my man Swamburger [from Solillaquists of Sound] called me a little while back saying, “People think we gotta talk about police brutality on every song, but you was talking about it on 1988!” That shit is still relevant. It’s fucked up, but it’s very true.

I was living in Cincinnati right before the riots in 2001. There were three incidents in a row where a Black man had gotten killed. One of them got choked to death on camera by mall police. A month later, another guy died in police custody; there was foul play. Cincinnati at that point was maybe nearly 50% Black, and each of these incidents was making things more and more tense. The news was reporting about it constantly. The next thing you know, Timothy Thomas got shot in the back and killed by police running through an alley. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was working downtown at the time in the Kroger building. The area was mostly corporate, but one street over was one of the most dangerous and craziest hoods called Over-the-Rhine. I used to catch the bus to get to work and had to go through there. The shit you would see going on was just wild. Super hood shit. Not funny hood shit like how I tell funny hood stories on my podcast [Super Duty Tough Work], this was fucked up hood shit, like “I need to get the fuck up out of there” hood shit.

I could see the area from where I was working in the IT division and saw motherfuckers running through downtown destroying shit, breaking windows. It was right around the time that we needed to leave. There was a four-lane street that separated all the corporate shit from the hood shit. I walked out of my office and needed to cross that street to get to the parking lot—on the hood side.

As we get to the corner, there’s literally a hundred police officers in riot gear standing in front of us. On the opposite side of the street is a couple hundred people trying to get through them to get back into downtown. The cops were riot ready, and we were escorted over. It got so bad that the city went through three days of a 7PM curfew; you had to be off the streets in Cincinnati. That climate was basically the backdrop of that song. I had CJ the Cynic on there because he was a Cincinnati dude, too. I had to get somebody who was from there who understood that feeling, that there’s no guarantee that even if you are acting peacefully that you’re going to get out of there. Motherfuckers are dying in custody and it made us really uncomfortable.

Blueprint “Never Grow Old” (Deleted Scenes, 2012)

Blueprint: As an artist, when you get older you can go one of two routes. You can try to be hip and young, never speak about age, and attach themselves to whatever is new. Or you can grow and express your reality as you experience it. I always felt comfortable just expressing where I was at. And age is something we have to think about as artists. What you talk about in the public eye is judged by people. The way you act and your age don’t always coincide. There are young people who have seen crazy intense things and were forced to mature very early; and people who are older who haven’t seen as much, and they may have a younger perspective.

“Never Grow Old” was me trying to capture the sentiment that age is not always a number, but it’s how you see the world. You can be young in age and old in mind, or you can be old in age and young in mind. I thought the best way to express that was through the concept of relationships. I describe what sounds like a young chick; she’s riding a bike to class and is super energetic and happy to be in school. And then there’s this guy who drives a Cadillac and is all even-keel in the back, not excited, and you would think maybe he’s the older guy because his demeanor is of someone who’s seen a lot. But then you see that he’s a guy that was in the military really young and is just now doing the things that a lot of people his age had already done. When they hang out, she’s like, “I’m the one who’s supposed to be old; so I need you to act your age instead of acting all old.”

When you write a song like this one, are you basing these characters around people who in some way already exist in your life? Or are you thinking about concepts and then building made-up characters to serve the song’s message?

Blueprint: It’s everything. I see people and their qualities and characteristics. At the time I don’t think I’m going to make a song about it, I just see their energy or perspective and think it’s dope. I don’t think about it at all until I’m writing and telling stories where you have to think about characters. How do you tell stories? There’s so many ways to approach songwriting, and sometimes the easy way is just telling people, “You’re only as old as you act,” and that’s it! That’s the easy way to do it. I always try to think of a different way. I don’t want to get bored. I try to think of the slickest way to approach a subject. I try to think about people and stories and what would happen when this type of person comes in contact with a person or thing from a different place.

Soul Position “No Excuse For Lovin’” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

Blueprint: Parts of that one were drawn from a girl who I used to be friends with in college, way before I ever started writing. We were just great friends, never anything romantic. And she was with this dude who used to put hands on her. I might have been 18 at the time, but I was like, “Yo, you can leave anytime you want.” This guy didn’t even go to school with us; he lived in another city. And I’ll never forget how she was always like, “I can’t leave because I don’t think anybody else loves me like him. I don’t think I deserve more.” I never had a response to that.

That’s such an honest answer. It’s obviously not healthy, but it’s very self-aware. It’s not like she was making excuses.

Blueprint: What can you say to that? “Well girl, start feeling good about yourself”? That’s all you can say. I saw her for the first time since college about a year ago. I’ve been out of college about 15 years. I saw her at the mall randomly and she said, “You was right, you kept telling me to get rid of that dude. I got two kids by him, I can’t stand him, but I finally got rid of his ass. But you was right back in college.”

She was the archetype of the person in the story. That was the first time that I felt like I was writing for people who weren’t artists or writers, who didn’t have a voice. That was one of the first times where I was like, people are going through things I haven’t personally experienced, but maybe I need to use them to inspire a story about a topic.

Soul Position “Candyland Part 2” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

When I first heard these songs/interludes [note: three different versions of “Candyland” pop up throughout the 8 Million Stories album], I thought it was such a great idea. It’s not crazy complicated, but it’s so dope. And you don’t even notice that the lyrics don’t rhyme, either.

Blueprint: Those lyrics were inspired by Ghostface on Supreme Clientele when he was describing scenes of his childhood in the ‘80s. “Candyland” was one whole song with three verses, but none of it rhymed and there was no chorus that you could possibly put there. So I was like, this could be a dope way to bring the record together and make them three individual songs.

As far as the lyrics not rhyming, I didn’t even write them in alphabetical order [as they appear on the songs]. I just wrote all the shit I could remember, and then because I was a computer programmer at the time using Unix, there was a command called sort…and this is some super nerdy shit, but you could take a text file and apply this command and it sorts it however you want. So I wanted it to be alphabetical. I sorted it with Unix, all these memories. And it came out like “A-Team, Activator.” And it was like, “Yo this is the shit, now I can actually rap it!” It was hard to put together because it didn’t rhyme, but when I ran it through that command, it spit out these three alphabetical rhymes. As long as I put a rhythmic cadence there it would sound dope.

Mission accomplished. And that is definitely one of the most nerdy rap origin stories I’ve heard about a song.

Blueprint: [laughs] I think Soul Position started all of that nerd-core shit. The first computer science guy really rapping about it. I’ve met people from that world who told me that that inspired them to rap. I wouldn’t be surprised if 8 Million Stories started nerd-core as we know it.

My Melody (Chamber Music, 2004)

I was mostly using my 12-track to track things on that album. I didn’t have much sampling time. At that time, I was really into DJ Shadow and Prince Paul, and how free Prince Paul was in terms of what he would sample, especially on the vocal side of things. I was watching a Charlie Rose interview with Puffy, where he was talking about melody. And at the time I hated Puffy. This motherfucker ruined rap. In 2001, the consensus with all “hip-hop heads” was that Puffy ruined rap. I would come home and just set my VCR to watch the next day. I went to sleep or something and I went back and listened and was like, “Yo, this guy has said some brilliant shit.”

That was the time that I turned the corner and stopped hating Puffy—when I realized it was no accident what he was doing. He understood pop music and trying to do something similar with rap. He also signaled to me why so many underground records or indie records aren’t as successful as pop. Maybe it’s not just the marketing dollar, but also maybe it’s the melody.

Blueprint “Rise and Fall” (Adventures in Counter-Culture, 2011)

I know you’ve talked about this song and the rest of the album in your The Making of Adventures in Counter-Culture book. But I’m curious to know—now that you’re so far removed from that album—what are your thoughts now when you hear it?

Blueprint: I think it’s fucking incredible. It’s weird that it’s one of those records where I’m like, “Wow, I made that.” There’s a point when you make a record and you’re too emotionally attached to evaluate. That one took me a while to detach myself to where I can listen to it as someone outside of myself. I almost have to forget the process of making it before I can listen to it.

Now, I’m super impressed with it. It’s like a statement of what I can do. How far I can take this shit. There’s only a couple of conventional moments on that album, but they mess with other genres so heavily that it’s not conventional in that sense. I don’t think there’s a record like it on Rhymesayers, and I don’t think that there will be one like it afterwards.

You’ve played that song live a lot, too. More than a traditional hip-hop song that might evolve in a live set, that one has changed in a broader sense. You jam it out more, adding to the intro, changing the melody of the hook.

Blueprint: Yeah. That song is one of the ones that we used to figure out the live show. How to use the bass live, how far can we go, re-arranging everything. When I started messing with it, I realized I didn’t technically have to do adhere to anything on the record because it’s new, and people don’t know the arrangements.

I listen to it, and it’s one of my favorites because it just makes me feel good whenever it comes on. It’s not over or under produced, and that’s always something I try to watch. Not throwing too much shit in there, and just keeping what works. That song really works, and there’s only 2-3 instruments.

That album in general isn’t really over-produced. It’s minimal, but tasteful. When songs like that get released, have they typically been stripped down from their original versions, or do you sometimes just build a track piece by piece and stop when you get to the second or third element of the beat?

Blueprint: I always start with a bunch of shit. I have demos of that song where it was at half the speed and had a bunch of shit going on. From there, I keep things that work and for things I don’t like, I’ll start to pull out. As a producer, I start with a lot and try to slowly chip away and pull things away until the only things that are there are absolutely needed to convey the mood I want to convey. So for “Rise and Fall,” there’s a bassline; a weird arpeggiating synth, and then an additional synth in the chorus. But the melody of the bassline is what really makes it dope. I didn’t feel the need to put a bunch of stuff over there. The more I put on there, the more I would compromise it.

Blueprint “Where’s Your Girlfriend At?” (1988, 2005)

You have a lot of songs in your catalog that are really dark and heavy. But then there’s a song like this that is totally not that at all.

Blueprint: The chorus to that song is where it started. That whole statement was a running joke, when we used to make fun of each other. Whenever someone was annoying us, talking about some shit that we didn’t want to talk about, one of us would go, “Hey man, where’s your girlfriend at?” It was just us being assholes. I wanted to name a song after that where we just chant it.

A lot of my music is serious but I do also make music with a funny element. I needed that on 1988. The music for the beat itself reminded me of Benny Hill, when he’s running in circles trying to squeeze girls’ butts. So I felt like I needed to rap about some Benny Hill shit.

Blueprint “Fist Fight” (King No Crown, 2015)

Blueprint: That’s a deep one. I wrote it in 2011. My brother was living with me at the time because he had had a stroke. Him and my mother came to live with me while I was out touring. When I got back from a tour, my mom was upstairs and there was a therapist who was over working with my brother. He couldn’t really walk at the time; he was relearning. My studio was underneath his room. I was playing music, but I remember hearing him fall. I rushed upstairs and my brother was really torn up. It really hit him how he couldn’t walk. He had lost his physical ability. His decisions had caught up with him and he had deep regret about a lot of it. He expressed it to me. It hurt him that we had to take care of him. I remember when he had fallen, and I walked in to see if he needed help, because he was nearly 300 pounds at the time. But they didn’t want me to help him up. He had to learn to build up the strength not just physically, but also mentally because there will be times that I won’t be around. That situation inspired that song. I started writing about it immediately.

It ended up being a message to anybody who had fallen. As I was standing in that doorway, I just wanted him to fight to get back what he’s got and not just lay there and cry. But you can’t just yell that at somebody. You’re rooting for them, but they have to do it for themselves. I wanted someone to hear that song and know that even when you have taken losses, you have to get back up.

Blueprint “Anything is Possible” (1988, 2005)

Blueprint: Production-wise, I always wanted to use [the song’s main drum sample] “Sucker MC’s” somewhere. It’s hard to put anything on those drums because they sound so dope by themselves. But I found a sample that sounded good. The rhyme was about the mentality that it takes to really be successful; I started that record right around 2002. That was right when I started doing music full-time and I feel like at the time I had perspective on how my life had changed—and how it would continue to change—and how it was happening because of sacrifice and never giving up.

I was looking back at college, because there was a point in my third or fourth year that I didn’t want to be there. I did not like college at all. I had more money in high school because I could work. In college, I was so busy that I was broke all the time, but I was surrounded by wealthy people. Wealthy students driving BMWs and Benzes, and I was eating ramen every night—and it was awful. I also ate that boxed macaroni and cheese with the powdery cheese every day for four years. So with that rhyme, I was looking back and remembering how I almost gave up then, but I didn’t and look how I benefited. And then when I looked at rap, there was time when O thought it wouldn’t work out but now look, it’s taken off. It just reinforced that anything is possible when you stick with it and put in the work.

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Welcome to the inaugural edition of Catalog Shuffle. The concept is simple: put the entirety of an artist’s discography into a playlist, throw it on shuffle, and have them talk about whatever songs randomly pop up – whether it’s one of their biggest songs or an obscure b-side that time forgot. For the first installment, we talked to RJD2, whose solo career/group albums/random production credits easily present over 300 songs to select from. Get ready to get your shuffle on…

RJD2 Peace of Mind

Photo Source: Spin.com

RJD2 “Liquid Luck” (Inversions of the Colossus, 2010)

RJD2: I literally think this is the first time I have discussed this song since the record was released. That song started with the drums in the MPC, and because they occupy so much sonic space, my vision for it wasn’t to make it hyper complex with interesting chord changes and voicings. I was basically looking for something more riff-oriented that was a little easier to digest. Usually, once I sit with a groove, I can hear whether there could be a vocal component on top or not. And that felt more like a scratch record. I’ll do 15-30 songs and it will slip my mind that scratching on a record is an option that is in my tool chest. And then I’ll remember. This was one of those songs.

Inversions is the companion record to your 2010 album The Colossus. How do you typically decide what makes it onto a record and what goes on a companion album?

RJD2: Most of the songs on a companion record are songs that didn’t seem to fit with the original incarnation of the record. Many years ago, I did this record In Rare Form that was just instrumentals of tracks I had produced for rappers. They were album cuts, they never became singles, so the instrumentals were never released. Being a DJ, one of my prized hip-hop records is the instrumental record of [Gang Starr’s] “Step Into the Arena.” At the time, it was a hard thing to find as a DJ, and really valuable. It’s impossible to tell someone in the modern era about the novelty of an entire instrumental record on vinyl, pre-Serato. Kids literally can’t understand that concept when every instrumental record is on YouTube today.

So that has always been my motivation to put instrumentals out because I’m a DJ and you want to have these things out there; it’s a useful tool. Inversions was more driven by my desire to release the instrumental versions of the vocal cuts from The Colossus than it was to put out a b-sides record. An album of instrumental versions of the vocal songs would just have been an EP, so then I filled it out with other tunes.

When you make a record, at some point in time you have an album done and you’re happy with it. But by then you have this creative momentum going and you can’t turn it off right away. You coast on fumes for a period after turning in a record for mastering. Sometimes songs get recorded after the record is done, but just weren’t done in time to make it onto the original album.

The Insane Warrior “Then You Hear Footsteps” (We Are The Doorways, 2011)

This is one of the more bonkers songs on a particularly adventurous side project. You’re most known for instrumental hip-hop, which is typically straight 4/4, with a meter that doesn’t really deviate. So how does a record like this happen?

RJD2: “Night on Bald Mountain” was a huge influence to this song. It’s on Bob James’ One. That album as a full-length piece is one of my favorite recordings of all-time. Obviously “Nautilus” is a big deal, but that whole record front to back is a really fucking huge deal to me. For the longest time, as a hip-hop guy, I owned four copies of One only because of “Nautilus.” After years, I decided to sit down and listen to this record. You get out of “beat digger mentality” and start listening to records and absorbing them as entire pieces, specifically records that at one point in time were just “buy it for the break” records.

“Night on Bald Mountain” is really manic. It sounded like a soundtrack to me. It’s keeping in the theme of the Insane Warrior. It’s got really weird changes, really angular. It’s hyper-tense. So when I first put the hi-hat sample on “Then You Hear Footsteps” into the MPC…I don’t remember why, but it started as a thing in 7/8 [time signature] and it led me down this path. Oftentimes, when I’m working on songs and I come across some weird curveball of sorts—like an odd time signature part of the groove or chord change that are abrasive sounding—my instinct will be to soften the effect of it, to sort of pad it in a way. And this was one of those times where I wanted to ditch that.

One of the things about doing a side project record is that I can throw out all of the rules I have when I make RJD2 records. That’s why the Insane Warrior record is so fun because it’s a chance to break all of those rules intentionally. Instead of softening the blow of this weird, odd time signature quasi-proggy thing, let me just go whole hog with it and see if I can do this thing on my own—with an MPC, some horn charts, and some synths—and get it to a place where it’s really weird.

Soul Position “1 Love” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

RJD2: I think one of the beauties of just sitting at an MPC and making a lot of beats is that you fall into the groove or habit of only reacting to the immediacy of the beat. You’re not thinking about anything. It’s a beautiful place to be. I don’t remember the session of making that song at all. At that time, me and Blueprint didn’t really have too much to think about. When you don’t have a catalog to create the context of what you’re working on, all you care about is, “is this dope or not?”

That’s a fun record for me to listen to. I use part of it in my shows to do an MPC routine based off that beat. It reminds me of the fact that something doesn’t have to be hyper-thought-out to be enjoyable. It’s a really obvious chord change and there’s nothing special melodically about it, but something about it as a cohesive groove just feels good.

“Don’t Get Played (feat. Amos Lee)” (STS x RJD2, 2015)

This whole album sounds more live than most things you’ve done. Did you set out to make a record that was all live and then decide to do bring in [Philadelphia rapper] STS, or did working with him make you want to make it more “live”?

RJD2: Honestly, it wasn’t too thought out. We did that song “See You Leave” for the More Is Than Isn’t record. It was really fun, and we lived in the same city, so I thought it would be good to work with him some more. I would send him a batch of beats, and I was so used to sending 15 beats to rappers and only getting one beat back with demo vocals on it. But with STS, if I sent him a batch of beats, he’d send six demos. I thought, “Holy shit, this guy is super prolific.” It became obvious right off the bat that we weren’t looking at just a song, we were looking at an EP. That quickly became an album because he was writing so much.

In terms of it sounding live…that was just me being me. Some of that record is MPC-based, but I was embracing a live sound. I wasn’t trying to make it sound like it came out of an MPC. There’s a lot of rap records that have been made using live instrumentation that are…

RJD2 and STS

…sucky?

RJD2: Sucky, definitely. There are a lot of shitty records. And then there are others…I mean, Dre is the most obvious example where they occupy their own sonic territory. They don’t sound like a band, they don’t sound like the Brand New Heavies, or a guy with an MPC; they sound like their own thing. So I look at Organized Noize, Flying Lotus, Dre, DJ Quik, and Scott Storch as producers whose records have live instruments that are really dry. You can tell it’s a human being playing, but it doesn’t sound like a guy playing in a room with a microphone. It’s very studio-esque. Almost unnatural in a way, but I don’t mean it in a bad way…

It sounds like it’s perfectly in the pocket spatially, almost like an instrumentalist is in like an ISO chamber in space.

RJD2: Exactly. Those early Organized Noize records don’t sound like a band to me. I think The Chronic is the flagship of that sound. That type of style made me feel like I could make this STS record. It doesn’t sound like a band, and it doesn’t sound like all samples.

That song was one of the first that we recorded and the last that we finished. I think we went through four demo’ed versions of the chorus, but I just couldn’t find the performance that worked for the song. I had been a big fan of Amos Lee and talked to him sporadically via email, and it clicked to me right at the end that he should do it. We weren’t even sure it would make it, it happened so close to mastering. We almost cut the song, but he pulled it off super fast; within a week, he sent the files back and it was mixed.

RJD2 “The Horror” (Deadringer, 2002)

This is kind of a classic staple song in your catalog. But I have to ask: do you get sick of playing it live?

RJD2: No. It’s fun, especially when I have my band with me. We can do things with it that I can’t do on my own. I chop up the samples in the MPC and instead of having a click track, I’m playing the MPC on top of the rhythm section. It has a breathability. It’s really fun in that environment.

The truth of the matter is that at that time I was making Deadringer, I was just trying to make something cool. I got so lucky that I made a record that resonated with people, but it’d be a lie if I told you that I had these grandiose ideas of trying to make this magnificent piece of art. I was just trying to make good music. It’s kind of like a baseball team. They play a shitload of games in a season. If you were to ask them about that one game against the A’s a third of the way into their season, they’d be like, “Dude, we were winning games and losing games all the fucking time. I have no memory about that specific game…”

It’s a brick in a building where you know the building, but you may not have specific context or memories for every single brick.

RJD2: And bricks were constantly falling off the scaffolding as you were building the building. At the time, no particular brick felt like it was the critical brick. When you’re continuing to have successes and failures, no one particular success or failure at the time feels significant at all.

Sure, but it was the first song on your first real album and you made an EP named after it. It must have felt somewhat significant.

RJD2: Sure. It went first on that record because I didn’t want to ease into the record. I wanted to come in as bombastic and loud as you possibly could. The EP thing that came afterwards was just kind of happenstance. We did a single, and then we thought should we do a maxi-single. And then I had a bunch of extra songs so we just made it an EP.

RJD2 “Before Or Since” (Deadringer: Deluxe/The Tin Foil Hat, 2009)

RJD2: I did this boxset when I was launching my record label in 2009. Part of the set was the reissues of Deadringer, The Horror, and Since We Last Spoke. We did a deluxe version of those records and for the CDs, as a bonus I put tracks that were recorded during those respective album eras but not released. For the vinyl buyers, we took those six songs and put them onto The Tin Foil Hat EP. It was like a compilation.

RJD2 “Rules For Normal Living” (The Third Hand, 2007)

Is The Third Hand [an album in which RJ broke from his formula of instrumental hip-hop beats to feature his singing and more traditional song structures] a weird record for you? There was a backlash against it at the time that sort of seems ridiculous now. I hesitate to use the term “ahead of its time,” but maybe that’s what it was? The way people draw lines in terms of restricting genres seemed a lot stricter ten years ago.

RJD2: We’re into the realm of hypotheses now, but I don’t know. DO people still hate me for that record? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way – if I handed off that record to Aaron Livingston or Jordan Brown or any of the vocalists I know who can sing way better than me, would it have been received differently? Possibly.

Right after putting it out, it seemed like an insane thing to do. [laughs] But when I was working on it, it didn’t. It seemed logical. But I’m so glad. I’m happy that I made that record and I’m happy for that experience and process. I’m fine to have a clear line in the sand drawn. “Don’t expect me to do shit.”

It kind of broke all the rules, so now you don’t have to adhere to any rules.

RJD2: For people who were hoping that I would do the same type of thing over and over, that might have been their departure point. I look at the Foreign Exchange, and I have so much respect for those guys and they’re inspiring to me because they’re just being them. And I’ve got to be me. I have no fear about putting out music I feel strongly about because now you’ve been warned in some way. I also feel, like you said, that we are in a different time now.

On that record, were you making tracks as you normally would and then the next step was writing lyrics and singing on top of them? Or were you compelled to get the lyrical ideas out and you made music to accompany them?

RJD2: Definitely the former. I just started making songs. Sometimes you’re recording a song and it screams “instrumental” or “vocal.” They were all coming out as “vocal” songs. I needed to sing something so I just started writing lyrics. I’ve never been a lyric-driven guy. I listen to [Brazilian composer] Caetano Veloso, and I literally don’t understand a single word, but I still enjoy it. The lyrics have always been gravy to me. If someone writes a really clever lyric, that’s just icing on the cake. For music to be there to serve a message is foreign to me.

So I was just making demos and hoping that someone would come in and sing them. I didn’t really pride myself as a singer. I basically had the whole record done, and I was not having any luck finding people to execute the songs better than I could so I just stopped trying. “Fuck it, I’m not a great singer by any stretch but hopefully the songs are good enough for someone to listen to.” I played it for XL and they thought the songs were good enough. [laughs]

If I’m being totally honest, it’s not my personal favorite record that I’ve made. And for the record, Deadringer isn’t, either. I don’t think it’s the best, but I’d like to think it’s not the worst. [laughs]

RJD2 “Portals Outward” (Dame Fortune, 2016)

RJD2: Both this and the first song on the album [“A Portal Inward”] were supposed to invoke an image of like a tunnel where there’s one way into the record and multiple ways out. And if you see that through the lens of a guy who’s unhealthily into science fiction movies, you can come up with a narrative there. “A Portal Inward,” you’re coming in, and there’s only one pathway into this thing. And then “Portals Outward,” once you’ve experienced the album, you understand that there’s multiple way out of it. It’s kind of a bunch of different vignettes that are supposed to sound different and inspire different moods whereas the first one is more monochromatic, if you will.

Diverse “Uprock” (One A.M., 2003)

First of all – what happened to Diverse? He recorded a fantastic debut album in 2003, and then…nothing.

RJD2: I don’t know. I think shortly after that record he chose to pursue something else. I want to say teaching. I’m not exactly sure, it’s been a long time.

Whether it’s by design or not, you’ve had more of a career as a singular artist or as part of a group versus being the guy shopping beats and getting random placements on records. I remember reading an article in Scratch magazine where you were lamenting that you sent some stuff to Common but that it never panned out…Is that something you’re still interested in, getting beats on other artists’ records?

RJD2: I still kind of feel the way that I did when I did that interview. It’s always a thing that I wish I had the opportunity to do more. But something that I’ve learned is that it requires a lot of time and energy. A lot. When I first started making records, my mentality was like, “Oh, I’ve got my little crew of guys that I do stuff with, indie guys, small fry dudes grinding it out in this modern version of a chittlin’ circuit, but guys like Common and Nas, those are real artists. And the people producing for them, those are superstars.” Now, that’s not to say that they aren’t; the producers who made Illmatic are definitely superstars, but mid-tier guys trying to get what they now call placements…

I always envied those guys. I would send stuff around, and you’re going back and forth with the manager. It turned out to be a lot more work than I thought it was going to be, and required a level of constitution that frankly I don’t know that I have. I can’t do 30 emails with no response. You get older and I just don’t have that in me to maybe get to a 31st email and then we’ll play a game for a bunch of weeks, and I’ll still never speak to the actual artists.

The irony of it is that I always thought those guys were the “real producers” and I was just making it up as I went along, and I didn’t know what I was doing. And then I talked to a few guys doing that, and it never dawned on me that guys in that world would look at what I do and would be jealous of my ability to exist as a solo artist. Like, “I wish I could just put stuff out, you think I want to just be working at the mercy of A&Rs and artists that I may not even really like.” After hearing that, it changed my perspective a bit. There’s guys I’d still love to work with musically, but I’ve got my own label that’s working fine for me. I can tour. It doesn’t keep me up at night that I haven’t broken into that. I still wish I could, and there’s guys I’d love to work with.

But it’s also impersonal in a way that I don’t want to do it. There’s a point in which, yeah, it’d be cool to be super-hot feature producer of the moment, to some degree. But even the term “placement” sounds like a business transaction. [laughs] It’s not art.

RJD2 “June (Remix) (feat Copywrite)” (The Horror, 2003)

RJD2: “June” was definitely a song people liked. I didn’t realize the benefit at the time of just having singles out that weren’t the same type of thing. Different tempos, moods, vibes. In hindsight, I realize in some ways it can make the listener feel like they found an Easter egg in a video game. “Wow, this thing is different. I liked ‘Good Times Roll,’ and this song ‘June’ is different, but I really like it.” That was not at all intentional, but I got lucky.

I pulled something off with “June” that I wasn’t entirely sure I could. It’s six minutes long, with a three-minute section with no rapping. I didn’t know if I could make something interesting to listen to. I tried to execute something similarly interesting when I did the remix.

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Orlando, Florida undoubtedly has more of a reputation as a sunny vacation getaway teeming with theme parks, but a closer look reveals the city is a cultural melting pot when it comes to its hip-hop music scene.

A couple hundred miles North of the sleek decadence of Miami and twice that distance South of the hotbed of definitively “Southern” hip-hop that is Atlanta, Orlando has a somewhat fractured identity when it comes to its sound—a trait that is no doubt further impacted by the transitive nature of the city. While this list is by no means the definitive, all-encompassing guide to every musical entity that has and currently calls Orlando home, consider this the CliffsNotes for the City Beautiful.

NIKO IS/Colours of the Culture

One of the more recent Orlando artists to land on the national radar, Brazilian-American rapper NIKO IS inked a record deal with Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media label in 2013 after putting out a slew of local projects (most notably his 2012 mixtape Chill Cosby). His freestyle-like flow and bugged-out personality/musical aesthetic—which often embraces an international and decidedly-jazzy vibe—were the driving forces behind his 2015 LP Brutus, which featured guest spots from Kweli, CyHi the Prince, and Kool A.D. of Das Racist.

Working alongside producer/creative partner Thanks Joey, NIKO also formed Colours of the Culture, a collective of visual artists and musicians who joined the fold of Kweli’s movement. Their 2015 compilation Roy G Biv: What A Colorful World heavily featured the production of Thanks Joey, raps from NIKO, and collaborations with Thirstin Howl III, Styles P, and Orlando artists such as Palmer Reed and Anthony Cole.

When he’s not touring internationally with Kweli, NIKO maintains a prolific recording career. He recently dropped his four-song EP songs.4.people.who.break.hearts in February and is also known to pop up at various local Orlando venues unannounced to test out new material.

Grind Time Now

Battle Rap has become a ubiquitous force in popular culture in the past decade, and Orlando-based battle league Grind Time Now played a huge part in helping to elevate the platform to what it is today. Founded by David “Drect” Williams and Joshua “Madd Illz” Carrasco in 2008, GTN would soon grow to have divisions throughout the major markets in the United States as well as in Canada, Europe, and Australia. In its heyday, Grind Time Now was tapped to join the ranks of national tours such as Vans Warped Tour, Rock the Bells, and Paid Dues Festival, and made household names out of battlers (many of whom called Orlando home) like Jonny Storm, Madness, Dizaster, Illmaculate, The Saurus, Hollow Da Don, and Dumbfoundead.

Internal turmoil between Drect, Madd Illz, and West Coast partner Nicholas “Lush One” Hyams eventually led to Grind Time Now’s diminished presence in an increasingly crowded field of Battle Rap leagues. However, the company does still operate in a more scaled-back incarnation today. And though the league’s battles still occur across the country, the fact that Madd Illz—still an Orlando resident—remains the sole founder attached the brand means that the city still continues to maintain its connection to one of the historic forces in popularized online battle rap.  

Solillaquists of Sound/Second Subject Recordings

Though hip-hop today certainly seems less bound by confining definitions of genre and style, there was a time when things weren’t necessarily so free-spirited. In this way, Orlando quartet Solilaquists of Sound proved to be ahead of the curve, as the group seamlessly blended elements of electronic, funk, soul, rock, and afrobeat into their musical stew as early as 2002.

After signing with ANTI-/Epitaph, releasing a pair of albums (2006’s As If We Existed and 2008’s No More Heroes), and wowing audiences around the world with their one-of-a-kind live show, the collective spread their wings to create a more encompassing, community-driven haven for artists unafraid to push against the grain while still remaining definitively hip-hop.

At the core of that movement is Second Subject Recordings, a record label/artist collective founded by Solilla emcee Swamburger. Its roster includes rapper E-Turn (who is slated to release her next project in conjunction with Ceschi’s Fake Four record label), DMC USA Supremacy Champion DJ SPS (who currently tours the country with classically trained hip-hop duo Black Violin), and future soul duo Chakra Khan (featuring Solilla producer DiViNCi and vocalist Alexandra Love).

DiViNCi has also taken the live drum machine performance skills that he showcased in his group and taken it to stages across the world, touring with and producing for Ms. Lauryn Hill, as well as working behind-the-scenes with companies like Akai and Ableton to lend some of his creative ideas and direction to their most popular production/live performance tools.

Doxside Music Group

Wearing a decidedly East Coast aesthetic on their sleeves as a badge of honor, the Doxside Music Group crew has been making noise in the Orlando underground as far back as the late ‘90s. What’s remained consistent over the years has been the squad’s dedication to hard-hitting beats and a mean approach to lyricism that has become something of a rarity in the current climate of rap.

Founded by producer IMAKEMADBEATS (who has since relocated to Memphis, TN and launched his own Unapologetic. label), the collective’s flagship emcee is MidaZ the BEAST, a scribe who has been tapped to contribute to projects from the likes of Alchemist, Marco Polo, and Oh No; he’s recently focused his efforts on his slightly avant-garde LOOPS projects, which feature freeform raps over minimally-produced samples without drums.

Producer/rapper TzariZM has consistently remained a present force in the crew with his own projects as well as through collaborations with other artists in the industry. He recently produced Homeboy Sandman’s “Clarity” single, and teamed with Planet Asia in 2014 to produce the west coast rapper’s Via Satellite album. Doxside member/rapper/producer Okito recently launched SKY5, a media production company that offers music production and video services for fledgling artists in the Central Florida area.

Do you represent Orlando? What’s happening on the scene at the moment?

Chart-topping Floridian figures like DJ Khaled, Trick Daddy, and Rick Ross have all but guaranteed the Sunshine State a seat at the table when it comes to representing the South’s role in popular rap music of the past few decades. But anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Florida can tell you that just as the state itself has more to offer than the popular South Beach stereotypes, the scope of hip-hop that is created there goes beyond the sound of the most popular artists whose music expands onto the national radar.

There’s probably no better example of said phenomenon than Asamov, the Jacksonville-quartet, whose lone 2005 full-length And Now… (6 Hole Records) stands as one of the more overlooked albums from indie hip-hop’s renaissance era. Similar to the way in which North Carolina’s Little Brother boldly embraced a musical aesthetic that betrayed the status quo of the region from which they came, Asamov’s brand of hip-hop was decidedly more boom-bap-friendly than what audiences up North might have expected from a collective that called Florida home.

Powered by the sample-heavy production of group member Willie Evans, Jr., the brothers Asamov—J-One-Da, Basic, and Therapy (now known as Paten Locke)—treated the songs on And Now… with a fun, loose vibe that saw the four emcees seamlessly trading bars with one another from verse to verse, harkening back to the type of group interplay that was rare then and damn near non-existent today.

And they weren’t alone in their mission. And Now… also featured production from then-ascending producer/6 Hole labelmate 9th Wonder, as well as guest spots from J-Live, Wordsworth, Akrobatik, Cassidy, and Mr. Lif, who was featured on lead single “Supa Dynamite”—a song that flipped the same sample that Jay-Z and Alicia Keys would use on their enormous hit “Empire State of Mind” four years later.

When Paten Locke relocated to Jacksonville from Chicago-by-way-of-Boston in 1995, the music of buzzed-about Willie Evans, Jr. immediately caught his attention.

“That, to me, was the sound of Jacksonville. I hadn’t quite heard that take on sampling; that dude is just Southern, and there was such a great emphasis on being funky,” Paten recalls. “A lot of indie hip-hop from that era just had a lot of stiffness going on. Willie and I talked a lot about what it means to be funky—interjecting humor, being very rhythmic, and just trying to swing as much as possible in all aspects.”

“Everything we did was just fun and natural. We didn’t tend to overthink things. The way we put out music was never forced,” he continues. “I think that a lot of that had to do with the fact that Willie made a particular sound of hip-hop that we all liked and it was its own thing. I imagine it’s what it was like with J Dilla and the people who grew up with him.”

In the midst of working on his second local release and intrigued by the rapper/producer/DJ triple-threat vibes that Paten brought to the table, Willie and his roommates J-One-Da and Basic began collaborating more frequently on newer material. Though the group never explicitly set goals to record an album together, things organically evolved to the point that they collectively caught the interest of 6 Hole CEO/ex-MLB player Desi Relaford. After signing a record deal and releasing their debut, Asamov hit the road, bringing their brand of hip-hop to audiences across the country.

“Out West, they have always showed love. I think that’s because they looked at us like the up-and-coming outsiders like they were at one point. In the Northeast, there were a lot of folded arms, like ‘who are these clowns?’” Willie says. “We were used to not always getting love and not really caring about that. Jacksonville is a very fickle city in terms of appreciating any art form, but very specifically hip-hop. Because we were making a kind of hip-hop that didn’t fit with the scene, we knew how to just do our thing and win audiences over.”

It’s at this point that we reach the “Behind The Music” Act II Break part of the Asamov narrative. Coming off their breakout year in which they snagged national coverage from Billboard, URB Magazine, Okayplayer, and HipHopSite—who named Asamov “Rookies of the Year” in their 2005 year-end review—a bizarre cease-and-desist order from the estate of science-fiction author Isaac Asimov not only resulted in a halt on new retail orders for And Now…, but also forced the group to officially change their moniker to The AB’s (The Alias Brothers).

“Looking backwards, I think that the cease and desist took the wind out of our sails. We pivoted, but I think that not everybody pivoted mentally,” says Willie. “My thinking was, ‘let’s change the name and keep going.’ Some of us were down, and some of us were maybe a little less enthusiastic. We started working on new stuff, and essentially we got pulled off course as offers for individual deals started popping up. And I think what happened is that we all sort of winded up taking the path of least resistance.”

Willie shifted his focus to a solo album to be released via 2007’s Rawkus 50 deal, an initiative that saw the historical indie powerhouse provide digital distribution and endorsement for 50 underground artists. Paten also released a project through said initiative with his side project the Smile Rays, while Basic and J-One-Da shifted their focus into launching their b-boy-centric Bofresco clothing line. Though half a dozen Asamov Alias Brothers songs for the second album were finished or close to completion, the dynamic had shifted when it came time to reconvene.

“We were all in different mental spaces, both artistically and life-wise,” says Willie. “When we made the first album, we all basically either lived together or saw each other every day, but along the way, everyone seemed to shift their laser beam focus towards their particular thing.”

But unlike those same “Behind The Music” groups whose dissolution stems from internal tension or drama, Asamov’s members are all still friends and frequent collaborators. The Bofresco clothing line is still active and Paten and Basic continue to DJ both in Jacksonville and across the globe. Willie has put out solo projects both instrumental and as a rapper (the most notable being his 2011 Introducin’ album via High Water Music), and he and Paten also create music in their own newer group, Dumbtron. Paten, meanwhile, has put out solo records, is one half of southern hip-hop duo Full Plate, and has toured/collaborated with the likes of Edan, Mr. Lif, and Black Sheep.

“I definitely feel like if we made another record, it would have put us more in the conversation. But as a person doing it in a group, I can only be happy with whatever the experience was, good or bad,” says Paten. “Throughout the whole process, I remember thinking that it was always more important to be friends than to do anything else. For me, if I can still bug out and laugh with these cats, then I’m good. They’re my favorite dudes, and I was lucky to be able to hang out and create with them. I’m very proud of what everybody’s doing now. If we really thought about it, we all could have predicted how things would turn out because we’re all following the path of the temperament that we all displayed at the time.”

Though the members of Asamov have a refreshingly centered and grounded take on the course of the group’s career, they do also agree that And Now… represents a special place in time for their journey in music—and more importantly, their personal lives. Because the four of them continue to have an active presence in one another’s paths, the idea of a reunion isn’t exactly a pipe dream, either.

“Of course I want to make music with them again, because what we make together is not something I can do by myself,” says Willie. “If the opportunity presented itself again, I would jump on it with the quickness, but at this point I wouldn’t care if anybody bought it or downloaded or listened to it. We all still talk and doing it again would be something that I would love, but I’m generally happy with what we’re all doing now. My friendship with them is far more important. We can never make music again as long as I can call one of them and cuss them out whenever I want to.”
He pauses.

“But if they came in right now and said they want to rap, I definitely got beats.”

Use the coupon code “ughh” to watch the 2016 short documentary “Recollection: How Asamov Began” for FREE:

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