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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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From Drag Rap to Jet Life: An Exploration of NOLA’s Intricate Rap History

Amanda Mester takes us on a journey through NOLA's solid hip-hop history

In the southern corner of Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, majestic oak trees and breathtaking statues keep a watchful eye over Congo Square. It was here, in the Square, where slaves were granted a few hours on Sundays to congregate with one another—a sparse few moments during otherwise atrocious living conditions, which allowed them to take part in traditions of their native African countries. Of these rituals, drumming would prove to be the most influential. Generations later, the African drumming preserved at Congo Square would constitute the fertile crescent in which Jazz was born, and from the most American form of music would sprout the elements of music we hear today, including Rap.

Though Jazz is arguably the Crescent City’s most enduring musical fingerprint, its place in hip-hop history is invaluable. Though frequently overlooked and hyperfocused on the “bling bling” era, NOLA’s expansive influence in Rap music stretches across a swatch of subgenres, and is of course responsible for Bounce music. From rapper Tim Smooth’s early success in the ‘90s to today’s generation of emergent talent, there have been significant chapters in New Orleans’ underground and mainstream Rap scenes, both of which are products of the city’s unusual history, forced to alter course in the wake of the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina.

Rap’s nascent history in New Orleans began much like it did in other cities outside of New York. In the early days, Sound Warehouse on Chef Menteur Highway provided burgeoning hip-hop heads a place to cop 12 inches, and eventually mixtapes found their way to town in the early ‘80s. Trips to the movie theater to see Beat Street and Breakin’ inspired local kids to pick up some cardboard from the backs of supermarkets and breakdance, and friends with turntables became focal points of social gatherings. But it wasn’t long before the city began adding its own elements. Talent shows sponsored by radio station WYLD began grooming the styles of artists like Rappin Roy, an early progenitor of the Bounce sound that would soon come to define the region.

With 1991’s “Where Dey At?,MC T. Tucker and DJ Irv ushered in the New Orleans Rap identity. A confluence began to appear, with Rap’s already established “New York Sound” merging with Southern sensibilities. As underground emcee and key player in the city’s DIY hip-hop scene, Truth Universal explains, nightclubs played an integral role in the fermentation of the lively local sound. “The first recording of that [song] was at this Uptown club called Ghost Town, in Hollygrove,” he says. “We had a 30-minute long tape of them performing the song. DJ Irv was spinning The Show Boys’ ‘Drag Rap’ back to back while Irv said ‘Where dey at at? Where dey at?’ So it was a DJ backspinning the break, and an emcee freestyling, and that was one of my earliest memories of New Orleans doing this thing called hip-hop.”

Ghost Town Lounge NOLA
“Ghost Town Lounge”

Bounce was born, and what has since become known as the “Triggerman” beat became a staple as commonplace as a bowl of gumbo. Soon enough, a roster of NOLA rappers, producers, DJs, radio personalities and labels emerged with names like 39 Posse, Big Boy, Bust Down, Cheeky Blakk, Ice Mike, Jubilee, KLC, Parkway Pumpin’, Take Fo’, Tre 8, Uptown Angela, Wild Wayne, and others, becoming hometown heroes with the illuminated marquee signs to prove it. As the local scene came into its own, Master P and Birdman were beginning to put New Orleans on the proverbial map, establishing No Limit and Cash Money Records, respectively.

As with Rap culture in other cities, New Orleans had easily identifiable lanes in the music scene. Artists like The Psychoward and Da Ruffians offered up what Truth Universal calls a more “underground, more traditional hip-hop as we know it.” Big Boy Records would prove to be the home for much of the more “gangsta” Rap, with artists like G Slimm putting on for their city. Right in the mix of all of those lanes, “right in between the street stuff and the backpack stuff,” were artists like MC Thick and Tim Smooth, the latter signing with Rap-A-Lot Records and credited with laying the foundation on which the city’s first “superstar” rappers would emerge. As he describes it, these artists created “boom bap with New Orleans flavor in it.”

Ever since its founding in 1718, the city of Nouvelle Orleans has always been framed by the influence of the Mississippi River. From trade to culture, the river defined how the city would develop, channeling its influence into every facet of life—including Rap. EF Cuttin, a venerated New Orleans presence entrenched in the city’s underground for three decades, uses the river to explain the forks in the local Rap scene, dating back to its earliest manifestations. “On the East Bank, the sound was Bounce, but on the West Bank, including Algiers, Jefferson Parish, Marrero, and all those hoods, there was a more ‘gangsta Rap’ vibe,” he explains. He recalls hearing the emergence of Bounce, which he says reminded him of the bass heavy music prominent in his native South Florida—particularly artists like Gregory D, Mannie Fresh, and Sporty T. He goes as far as to say that Bounce would go on to inspire artists like Nelly, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, Drake, and others who incorporate the “sing-song delivery” that he says began in New Orleans in 1992. MC T. Tucker & DJ Irv

The same year MC T. Tucker and DJ Irv were laying a foundation, Bryan “Baby” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams founded Cash Money Records, just one of a crop of new labels sprouting in New Orleans in part seeking to capitalize on Bounce’s growing presence. Though perhaps most associated with the “bling bling” era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cash Money sowed the careers of local giants like Kilo G, Lil’ Slim, PxMxWx, U.N.L.V., and others. The Williams’ early formula (the brothers recognized the value in relentless self-promotion and citywide word-of-mouth) included peer-to-peer marketing techniques like selling Kilo G’s 1992 debut LP The Sleepwalker directly out of the trunk of their own car, and that self-sufficiency would come to define an entire business model for New Orleans-based labels. Cash Money Records in NOLA

Once Mannie Fresh joined the Cash Money family in 1993, the business acumen of the Williams brothers became more prominent and within five years’ time, Cash Money Records was home to B.G., Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Magnolia Shorty, Ms. Tee, Turk, and the Big Tymers. 1998 proved to be a watershed year, one in which the label’s hometown heroism and nationwide success would merge in the form of Juvie’s 400 Degreez, a quadruple-platinum juggernaut that remains one of Cash Money’s two best-selling albums to date (Drake’s Views is the other, proving the label’s staying power has extended well into its third decade). Though a handle of previous releases had already made significant noise, Juvenile’s third LP made New Orleans a focal point, arguably the first album to do so on such a large scale. The Williams brothers and their roster of talent had brought the Magnolia Projects to New York City.

On the remix to his single, “Ha,” Juvenile teamed up with JAY-Z and the proverbial map was unfolded. Together the two rappers spun a symbiotic tale with their respective regional flair, forging a relationship that would elevate the Gulf Coast’s presence on the charts for years to come.

It was around this time that 3D Na’Tee, a native of New Orleans’ 3rd Ward neighborhood (the same ground that birthed Birdman, Juvenile, Louis Armstrong, and Master P), became aware of local representation in the mainstream. As she tells UGHH, for a young kid yet to identify her passion for rapping, seeing artists from around the way in music videos was a major inspiration. “I remember seeing the ‘Ha’ video and there was a guy in my class [who was in it], and that is one of my fondest memories,” she says. “I just remember Cash Money being neighborhood superstars. It felt like people we could actually touch. People that looked like us, who put our slang and our vernacular on the map. The way they were talkin’ in the videos, the way they were dressin’, the way they were actin’…I can go outside and see my friends, my neighbors [doing the same]. Hearing them and seeing everybody from my neighborhood, just the whole vibe – everybody wearin’ the Reeboks and the Girbauds and all that.”

The Hot Boys, Cash Money

Homegrown record-label entrepreneurship was also the brainchild of Master P. With 1990’s No Limit Records, Percy “Master P” Miller would break ground on what would become the future home to New Orleans icons like C-Murder, Fiend, Mia X, Mystikal, Tre-8 and TRU (The Real Untouchables, a group comprised of brothers Master P, C-Murder, and Silkk The Shocker). After relocating from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Crescent City native would eventually go on to ink a historic deal with EMI/Priority Records, essentially making Miller an exporter of Third Coast rap music. His own 1996 LP, Ice Cream Man, would go on to reach platinum status though its follow-up would prove to be the “breakthrough” work of his recording career. Ghetto D expanded the Southern influence he was already yielding and brought his name (along those of Mystikal, Silkk The Shocker, Fiend, Mia X, and Pimp-C) to the top of the Billboard charts. With fellow trailblazers Cash Money achieving similar commercial success, New Orleans proved to be as influential a rap presence as any other city entering the new millennium.

EF Cuttin would make his mark in what he describes as the jazzier, boom bap chapter of the underground scene in New Orleans. Along with Blaknificent, Raj Smoove, and a host of others, he became part of Psycho Ward, a huge crew of “East Coast leaning” New Orleanians who created hip-hop influenced by the likes of The Native Tongues. Founded in 1994 by Chill and Mac, the crew would spawn into multiple variations. “We formed a nucleus, because the entire collective became not only the Psycho Ward, but also the Fugitives, who I think are the godfathers of the underground scene in New Orleans,” EF Cuttin explains. He lists venues like Cafe Istanbul (now the world renowned Blue Nile Jazz club) and Dragon’s Den as early breeding grounds for the scene in the early to mid ‘90s, and formative influences on the branding of Psycho Ward’s signature sound. In 1997, the crew would drop its first album, www.psychoward.com, on D.E.O. Records. Eventually, founding member Mac got signed to No Limit Records, helping give the “New Orleans Wu-Tang Clan” even more exposure.

Years later, EF Cuttin and Truth Universal would cross paths in an important way, bringing the New Orleans underground scene into the 21st century. Truth Universal is celebrated in his own regard, responsible for founding the preeminent open mic events in New Orleans with a hip-hop focus. Getting his start as an artist, he dropped “Dashiki Dialogue” in early 2000, right after the Mic Check 2000 MC battle event at what was once called Cafe Brasil. To most, however, he is a mainstay of the city’s Rap scene because of his decision to launch the Grassroots! showcase, a monthly event where the underground flourished. “There was a void [in the NOLA Rap scene] I wanted to fill,” he tells. He began to notice, in other cities, there were events and venues catering to hip-hop artists better than in his hometown. Crediting the late Jonathan Moore of Seattle with creating the kind of atmosphere he envisioned for New Orleans, Truth points out that spaces catering to underground Rap were few and far between; an emptiness compounded by a lack of strong radio support and virtually no consistent home for artists to perform their music. “I saw everybody else had their own space, and thought we should be able to do that too,” he says. “I was looking for a place for nearly a year, and ended up finding this place called Neighborhood Gallery.”

Truth Universal
Truth Universal

This theater (on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard) would become the de facto home for New Orleans’s vibrant underground hip-hop scene and the Grassroots! showcase. Beginning in 2002, he—along with DJ EF Cuttin and MCs like Lyrikill—cultivated a space in which artists who didn’t fit the more commercially marketable New Orleans Rap music could express themselves openly. EF Cuttin explains the importance of Truth’s vision: “What he decided to do was create the opportunity.”

Simultaneously, artists like 3D Na’Tee were making New Orleans a hub for battle rap, using street corners on Canal Street as stages. Incorporating the same ancestral ties to playin’ the dozens as battle rap in other regions, it developed its own brand of style and became known as “ribbin’.” “I remember being on Canal St, and everybody from different schools—Kennedy, Warren Easton, just different schools from around the city—and I would get off and wanna battle, and I’d be the only girl. I never lost a battle,” she recounts. Growing up around the corner from the family of No Limit Records in-house producer KLC, 3D took advantage of what she calls the city’s “one degree of separation” between artists and rap in front of her cousins at any opportunity she was given. Places like the Sewer would serve as venues for rap battles, and the let-outs of clubs like The Duck Off, her marketing avenues. Burned CDs were her capital, and her blueprint stood out from those of her peers. “I know a lot of others tried to get on Q93. I never had a song in heavy rotation on any of the stations in New Orleans,” she explains. “My thing was focusing on the people, passing out my CDs, and battling people. I was more guerilla style.”

It would be a blueprint that artists would resort to ingeniously after a horrific tragedy dismantled the infrastructure. Truth Universal was on an already planned hiatus when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, a catastrophic event that prevented him from picking Grassroots! back up until 2007, when it was reborn at a different venue, Dragon’s Den. Even 12 years later, the effects the devastating storm had on the city’s Rap scene cannot be overstated, says EF. “I was one of the first people back when they opened the city. A lot of people evacuated and became spaced out [across the country],” which drastically impacted the way artists could collaborate with one another. Where joint trips to the studio once existed, email exchanges became the norm, weakening any sense of community ties in the city. Three weeks after the storm, he returned to the city and began working to get the scene back on its feet. With the help of radio station 104.5, the voice of New Orleans Rap would soon reemerge.

“We would get calls from everywhere. Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Florida, Texas, asking questions about what’s going on in the city,” says EF of hip-hop’s nationwide response to the aftermath of Katrina. “We were carrier pigeons to family members scattered across the country. It was a weird time, because a lot of people lost a lot. But, at the same time, it also awakened a sense of urgency in a lot of the artists. A lot of the artists that came after Katrina really, really put their stamp down. They used the storm as a springboard to say ‘you know what? I gotta go and do my own thing.’” He points to Curren$y as such an example. “When he left Cash Money, we were like, ‘man…you wanna do that?!’ He’s on top of the world now, which is amazing,” says EF. “He’s one of those guys, to me, that kind of used what he saw when he was forced out of town here, in New Orleans.” Lil Wayne and Curren$y

In the years following Hurricane Katrina, journalist Alison Fensterstock became a student of the local Bounce scene in town, picking up where Times Picayune, Offbeat, and shareblogs left off years prior. After seeing Big Freedia perform at Club Caesar’s under the bridge in Gretna, Louisiana and frequently tuning in to Q93, she began putting her pen to paper and documenting the state of Bounce post-Katrina. In 2008, she and photographer Aubrey Edwards began work on the photo essay project, Where They At: New Orleans Hip Hop & Bounce in Words & Pictures, an online repository that is equal parts oral history and photography collection.

As Fensterstock explains, “Katrina cracked a giant hole in everybody’s world. But eventually, people started coming back, maybe because of nostalgia, or it was just another phase, or both. Even after [the storm], the scene seemed as nebulous as it does today.” Part of that has to do, unsurprisingly, with geography. The city has never been a standard stop for touring musicians in hip-hop, despite what she calls “a huge radio market.” As such, the city’s scene has suffered from the logistical headache presented by its location. “If you’re in the Southeast, you’re probably gonna go to Atlanta and Houston and Miami. It’s kind of a detour to skip all the way down to New Orleans. So, basically, it’s a third tier market here,” she explains.

That reality, in turn, negatively affects the local music industry. As she puts it, “New Orleans has historically been a great content producer, but there’s never really been a real industry to build infrastructure around it here. Cash Money is kind of a weird outlier. And No Limit, but especially Cash Money. We’ve always had music that everybody wants to listen to, and come and sample, but we’ve never had the performance or the marketing or the recording.”

As with any city, the underground scene in New Orleans has its flaws. For most, naming more than a few true underground MCs from the city is a challenge, something locals are painfully aware of. Unlike most other cities, New Orleans is steeped in such rich musical history that kids are picking up instruments at very young ages. As such, musicality is approached from a different perspective than most other cities in which hip-hop is thriving. EF says it’s easier for hip-hop artists in other cities to pull a lot of fans and sell out local venues, whereas in New Orleans, a lot of the folks in the crowd are there to see “why you’re on stage and they’re not.”

A majority of the time, he says, locals are coming out to shows not out of solidarity but instead competition. “The scene today is so much different than what it was even five years ago,” he explains. “Back then, you had this crew, this crew, this crew. It was all splintered with everyone doing their own thing.” However, things began to shift, he says. The NOLA Underground Hip-Hop Awards morphed into the NOLA Hip-Hop Awards, eradicating one of the most organized and concerted efforts to salute under the radar and hyperlocal Rap talents. “When we decided to recognize ourselves after not being recognized for so long, the people who were ignoring us decided to go and say ‘well, why can’t we be a part of it?’”

3D Na’Tee, a recipient of NOLA Hip-Hop Awards for Best Lyricist, Best Mixtape, and Best Female Artist, echoes EF’s sentiments. “I notice a spike in the support I get at home whenever I go somewhere else,” she says. “I did the BET Awards cypher and sales went up on my website. People from New Orleans [were buying my music]. I can see that in my analytics. These were people who already knew about me. But now they’re, like, ‘oh shit, let’s get on her before the world does.’ I call it the ‘Best Kept Secret Syndrome.’”

Today, the underground hip-hop scene in New Orleans is thriving, to a degree. 3D Na’Tee, Dee 1, Don Flamingo, Alfred Banks, and others are shining examples of local acts who have found success at home and elsewhere. Through her prodigious use of the internet, 3D’s guerrilla-style blueprint continues to pay off in 2017. With nearly 30,000 YouTube followers, her weekly “T. Mix” videos. in which she flips other artists’ songs, show off her undeniable talent.

Curren$y remains one of the city’s preeminent organizers of local rap shows, particularly via his weekly Jet Lounge events at the House of Blues. Through his own imprint, Jet Life Recordings, his role in elevating the presence of New Orleans artists in the blogosphere and nationwide tour circuits is just as vital for today’s scene. Trademark Da Skydiver and Young Roddy continue to accumulate buzz, while Alfred Banks just charted thanks to his March 2017 LP The Beautiful. Don Flamingo is a recent Roc Nation signee who earned considerable exposure through his collaboration with The Lox on the “Slanguage (Remix).”

Without question, Cash Money’s fingerprints are heavily present in the city’s myriad contemporary manifestations. 3D Na’Tee credits the Williams Brothers and Cash Money artists with creating a lane based on regional pride and unadulterated authenticity. “Those guys were always about what they wanted to talk about. Back then, they didn’t care what was goin’ on in hip-hop, they didn’t care that New York was poppin’.” She says that “seeing Cash Money comin’ out and sticking with Mannie Fresh, sticking with their sound, that’s how guys are doin’ it now.” Artists like Curren$y are “not runnin’ anywhere else to get discovered or to bite somebody else’s sound. They still have that essence of New Orleans. “And I think we get those things from Cash Money, from No Limit. We don’t care about what’s goin’ on in the rest of the world.”

The sound is changing, and waters are being tested. Truth Universal and EF Cuttin’ recently dropped a project called Publicity Stunt, essentially an exercise in boom bap meets trap, from a veteran’s perspective. Pell has earned himself buzz for stepping well beyond the bounds of traditional hip-hop, flirting with elements of what has been called “Dream Rap.” Alfred Banks, a creator of bona fide underground Rap, has evolved his sound in a way that has earned the ears of more mainstream fans.

Lyrikill says that, because of the impact New Orleans has had on music and culture, it’s only right that the underground hip-hop scene is diverse and unique. “It’s been an honor witnessing such staples as Psychoward DJs, Mic Check battles, Grassroots!, Industry Influence, Soundclash, Supreme Street, and DMC,” he says. “These homes of hip-hop culture have created a current generation of talent with immense opportunity, and I look forward to the barriers they break.”

Of course, Lil Wayne has proven to be one of the most important artists in ensuring that NOLA’s “Bling-Bling” era heyday was not a fluke. From his platinum-selling solo debut Tha Block Is Hot to the 2005 founding of his imprint Young Money Entertainment, he’s had an integral role to play in the careers of current chart-toppers like Drake and Nicki Minaj. He remains a presence in his native city, with his annual Weezyana Fest concert helping to bring local talent to a major stage.

But even in all its disparate forms, one universal characteristic remains prevalent in all hip-hop emanating from New Orleans: if you listen very closely, the ancient drums of Congo Square are still setting the rhythm.

Special thanks to 3D Na’Tee, Truth Universal, EF Cuttin, and Alison Fensterstock.

Further reading:

“New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap,” New York Times, 2010.

“Grassroots! Hip-Hop Series Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary,” Offbeat, 2012.

“In New Orleans, Party Buses Drive The Legacy Of Bounce Music,” the FADER, 2017.

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

 

Trae Tha Truth continues to put out quality music, but perhaps his biggest gift is uplifting his hometown.

Recently celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his infamous local holiday Trae Day, the Houston native is finding that his purpose in life isn’t just behind the microphone. Last month, Trae partnered with the Houston Public Library to provide scholarships to assist 75 high school students on their collegiate journey. It also brought out some of the community’s best and further solidified Trae Tha Truth’s footing as a legend of the city.

More recently, Trae’s helped in the Hurricane Harvey relief effort and rescued numerous people by boat. He told a local news station that his own feeling of helplessness is what drove him to save others. He also posted about the pain of seeing Houston drown and called for unity. “We Will Get Thru This And Come Out Stronger…” he wrote, in part. “Yo Pain My Pain…”

Trae Tha Truth

Musically, Trae’s recently released Tha Truth Pt. III is a force to be reckoned with. His self-proclaimed “best album yet” certainly isn’t just the product of a statement for promo purposes. Feature-laden, the project showcases everyone from Texas newcomers Maxo Kream and Post Malone to rap OGs like T.I. and Wyclef Jean. It’s also a lot more personal overall than Trae’s been in his previous work.

Speaking with UGHH recently, Trae Tha Truth broke down his latest album, charitable endeavors and even his mind state. He’s accepted his roll as an OG in this rap game, yet still believes he’s a vital part of the Houston hip-hop scene. We certainly agree.

Do You…. You Won't Do Mine…. 3…..K I N G T R U T H

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What’s been going on besides music in your life?

I just did a partnership with McDonald’s. I’m the first rapper to do that. I’m the part owner of a company called Bumpboxx, [I’m] the VP of Grand Hustle [Records]; I’m in a little bit of everything.

Musically, you recently put out Tha Truth Pt. III. What were your goals in making that and how did that all come together?

I don’t think I really too much thought about it. I do so much music. I’ve got over 2,000 records so it’s like I just do it, man. I think for the album, those are just the records that fit. It’s just a couple weeks’ process. The thing to get the album done was a couple weeks’ process, but it’s another few weeks of me critiquing it and make sure it sounds right, the mixing is right, all the breakdowns. I’m a real professional when it comes to my albums.

Do you record specifically for an album though, or do you record a bunch of records then put them together at the end?

I just record whatever mind state I’m in at the time, and when it’s time to start recording the album I go in. I don’t really piece together. All my albums are whatever mentality I’m in at that time.

You’ve been quoted as saying this is your best work to date. Why do you believe that this project is your top effort?

Yeah definitely, and I stand by it and it is my best to date. I only think I’m getting better from here. It’s just where I’m at mentally, being in the zone or just creative-wise, the passion, and this is the first time I really opened up a lot about my life in general. So this is more personal and more dope.

You have a lot of features on this project…

People be saying that, but I actually didn’t. It became that way when I put “I’m On” on it. I have 16 features on it, so before then it wasn’t that many features.

Well, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. They fit in pretty well within the album. I guess why did you choose who you did on this?

I didn’t really start the project saying, “I’ve got to get this person.” It’s just as is. I’m close with a lot of people who weren’t on the album, so it wasn’t personal. I just recorded it as time goes by.

One of the tracks is “Too Late,” which features Post Malone. Texas connect on this one, I guess you could say. He also fits in interestingly with his vocals, which I wasn’t expecting when I saw that you’d be collaborating with him. How did that come together?

Well, my original style is on that, it was only right—and him coming from Texas, being big bro, it’s like I’m embracing it now and it’s what we do best. It turned out dope.

You also have the joint “Pull Up” with Maxo Kream. Being that you’re both from Houston, I’m sure he gets a lot of his inspiration from you. Talk about putting him on that track and the role you play as an OG.

He came to the studio when we were actually in the process of working. It was like perfect timing. He actually watched me and my engineer make the beat and we started vibing, man. He went in there; I let him throw a verse on it. I’m that type of person that I’m all for trying to help people from Houston on my projects, so it was dope.

I’m real picky with everybody who’s going to be on my album. I knew it would be a good look and I’m sure he’s seeing it as a good look because a lot of people like the song.

In The City Of Houston… @playboicarti @maxokream

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Do you think Houston’s in good hands via the newer generation with people like him and others?

I think it’s all going to work out man. If all goes well the way it’s supposed to go with Tha Truth III, the attention’s always going to be with everything I’ve got going on. If all goes well it’ll be enough of the certain ones who make the dope music to come behind and create a wave because it’s always a wave in different regions. So if it’s not that, we can’t have another wave in Houston. It’s all about timing, and this may be the time.

On the track “Can’t Get Close” you talk about the death of Money Clip D, one of your best friends who passed away a few years ago. How does his passing affect how you create music now and moving forward?

It definitely [did affect it]. At first, it took the wind out of me, man. For about a year, I was just out of it. I ended up picking myself one day and saying, “I’ve got to get to it.” And knowing I’ve got to get to it, it was like I’ve got to make him proud as well as others who are still here believing in me.

I’ve got to go out here and make the best of it, man. Musically, that’s where I’m at. And plus you know, [there’s] a lot of struggles and trials and tribulations I’ve overcame over and over, so it’s like I’m becoming numb at this point. The best years are to come.

Trae Day 2016 Recap by Trae Tha Truth on VEVO.

You just recently gave out scholarships to 75 kids in coordination with the Houston Public Library, which is crazy. Talk about that initiative and why you’ve decided to be a part of this kind of philanthropy.

We did an event last year and last year was more small, but we tried it. This year, it grew and I feel like it enhanced our message and intensity, and it was also the 10-year anniversary [of Trae Day] and everything we did was way, way bigger.

Of course me being a rapper with my own holiday, it spirals into me having a key to the city, then spirals into Congress ending up giving me awards and my name is in the books for stuff I do. All of it is turning out for the best—and not just for me—for the people of the city I’m able to help.

What’s it mean to be able to provide kids an opportunity you might not have had growing up?

It’s not even necessarily all that. It’s also providing a memory that they’ll remember—whether it be school, whether it be just having friends that they know are supporting them and all kinds of different stuff—so definitely it’s a blessing. I’m a firm believer in you receive blessings from standing with others, and I’ll always do that.

You end Tha Truth Pt. II with the track “I Will Survive,” which kind of is a perfect lead into Pt. III. How are you surviving these days and where are you at during this portion of your life?

I’m a lot more comfortable than I was before. It’s a process, but I’m a fighter so I believe I’ll make it happen. That’s just where I’m at with it now. I feel like I’m in a good space. “I Will Survive” is probably my favorite song. I’ve evolved, I’ve done a lot of business entities and other things so it’s all turning out cool.

What’s next for Trae Tha Truth?

I really plan on getting everything going for this album. I don’t want to take anything away from this album, but I plan on jumping on tour real soon. I’m doing a little bit of everything with it and it’s turning out to be real amazing.

Listen to Trae Tha Truth’s Tha Truth Pt. III album below.

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It was during a concert in April of 2016 that famed Project Blowed, and The Visionaries, emcee 2Mex knew something was seriously wrong. His right foot had swelled to the size of a football four days prior, and he was unable to stand up on stage. Seated, he could only remember the lyrics to a handful of his songs.

The catalog the Los Angeles indie hip-hop legend was forgetting is vast, spanning nearly 25 years, and, when combining his solo, and collaborative efforts, 20 full length albums.

It encompasses a career that started in 1993, when 2Mex rocked the open mic nights at the famed Good Life Café—the LA hot spot for indie hip-hop in the ‘90s that was chronicled in the award-winning documentary This Is the Life—and continued when he co-founded the hip-hop duo Of Mexican Descent with Xololanxinxo, and joined forces with LMNO, Key Kool, Dannu, DJ Rhettmatic, and R.ēL.Z.M. a.k.a. “Lord Zen,” to form The Visionaries (who gave us the absolute classic “If You Can’t Say Love”).

On stage on that fateful evening in 2016, however, none of that came to mind for 2Mex. “I literally started losing my functions” he recalls, “I didn’t know I was slipping into a coma.”

After the show, 2Mex called his sister to take him to the hospital—luckily, St. Bernadine Medical Center in San Bernardino was only one minute away—but before she arrived to pick him up, he had another unnerving experience.

“I went to the bathroom to go pee, and by the time I got to the bathroom, and pulled down my pants, I had already pissed myself, and I didn’t even feel it. There was no feeling at all. I was like, what the fuck, and it just scared the shit outta me.”

Once at the hospital, 2Mex learned what was really going on—Diabetes, which he had no idea ran in his family—was killing him.

“I had gangrene in my foot. My foot split open in my hand. It was grotesque. Even when they tried to save my foot, and tried to scrape all the gangrene off, the whole time they were telling me, ‘We’re probably gonna have to amputate.’”

After four days of effort trying to save his foot, the doctors made the call to amputate his leg from below the knee. According to 2Mex, “I was in so much pain, it was the right call.”

While he says he never fell into any kind of depression during this time, 2Mex easily could have, as he admits he knows he played a role in his health problems. “I’m just a grown man who didn’t take care of himself,” he explains, noting his diet—which he says included drinking a two-liter of soda per day—was one of the main culprits that led to his issues.

The stress of being an artist, and not just releasing his own music, and booking his own tours, but throwing shows in the LA area for big name acts like De La Soul, which required him to fill venues with capacities in the thousands, exacerbated the situation.

“The doctor asked me, ‘Do you live a stressful life,’ when I was first in the hospital. I just looked at him like fuck yeah I live a stressful life. I was like, underground hip-hop artist, independent artist, working for myself, generating my own income, throwing shows … I honestly didn’t sleep too well. I traveled a lot. I wasn’t married, and don’t have kids, so I didn’t have that stability. I was just flying by the seat of my pants.”

One reason 2Mex had been leading his life this way stemmed from a tragedy he experienced 16 years prior.

“In 2000 my best friend, Memo, died in my arms, and ever since he died I’ve had this weird sense of urgency where I never want to pass up on anything. That’s one thing that I’ve learned. I’ve learned that I need to pass up on things. I can say no to things…I’d say yes to everything… I tried to do everything for everybody that I could, and I realized I was driving myself into the ground. When the shit happened with the leg I actually got to lay in bed for six weeks. All my stresses, everything got suspended for a second.”

Not only were his stresses suspended, he was reminded of the amazing support system he has surrounding him.

Knowing 2Mex was without health insurance, his fellow Visionaries emcee Key Kool set up a GoFundMe campaign to help with medical bills. To date, the campaign has raised over $34k.

Even more than just the financial aspect of things, 2Mex says the emotional outpouring of support has floored him. “From the moment I went to the hospital the support was so overwhelming that I never had time to be sad. I had thousands of people on the internet reaching out to me. All my family started coming over and staying with me. I had hundreds of visitors.”

The support continued after 2Mex left the hospital, as after a quick stint at a rehab center, which he says he was kicked out of for being too good, he stayed with his parents for two weeks. He found an issue with that living situation, however, noting that parents are gonna parent.

“I love my parents, but I had to get out of there quick, because they wouldn’t let me get up. They’re parents. I’m their baby. They wouldn’t let me wash dishes, they wouldn’t let me get up and do anything.”

2Mex found an apartment in San Bernardino, moved out on his own, and continued to set recovery goals for himself.

“I found a good spot. Where I live now, I’m right across the street from two supermarkets and a 7-11. That was my goal, I got a place… Maybe the first month I lived here, I was in a wheelchair. I would roll out the house, and roll down the street to the supermarket. The supermarket was downhill, so the way back was uphill. I would have to put the grocery bag on my lap. I had to learn so much. Then I got the prosthetic, and I was in the walker, so I would hobble my ass over there. Eventually, the walker led to a cane, and the cane led to nothing. Even walking, I couldn’t carry shit, but now I can carry shit. That was my big goal, to be able to carry a case of water.”

During this time, 2Mex was also working his next album, Lospital, which is due out August 15th. It’s a project that was born while he was still in the hospital.

While he notes the first two and a half weeks he was in the hospital were spent in a heavily medicated haze, “As I started weaning off [the pain meds] I started conceptualizing the album. Once I gained consciousness, people started visiting me. I had my phone, and I was too drugged up to really write, so Instagram was kind of like my pen. What I would do was I would document all the people who came to visit me. I would make them dance, and all kinds of stupid shit. I took all the videos from my friends that came to visit, and we made the ‘Lospital’ video. I made the video to say thank you to the people who came to visit me.”

In addition to working on the album, and his recovery, 2Mex has become a motivational speaker, visiting schools, and hospitals, to tell his story. He’s especially proud of the fact that because of his visits a few schools in the Boyle Heights area have changed their cafeteria menus.

“I’m actually the perfect guy for this,” he explains, “I have no shame, first of all, and I have no problem standing in front of thousands and people, or hundreds of people, or five people.”

“I’ve become a surrogate helper when it comes to this situation,” he adds, saying, “I’m happy to take on that role.”

The concept of turning tragedy into triumph will never be played out, and 2Mex is a shining example of it in hip-hop.

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Wins & Losses: The Life & Times Of Pharoahe Monch

Jerry Barrow digs deep into the history of Pharoahe Monch and how he evolved into the legend that he is today.

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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Dipset Forever: From The Pre-Digital Age To Post Social Media, What Happened To Our Favorite Harlem Rap Crew?

The legacy of Dipset will outlive any Instagram post about the legendary Harlem rap crew. Marisa Mendez details the journey of Dipset and her personal place in their saga.

Social media has been both a gift and a curse, particularly when it comes to the “celebrity.” The average late 20-something to late 30-something has been through every era thus far, from building web pages on 1-2-3 Publish for their AOL profile, to being on Facebook when you had to have a college email to sign up, and joining Twitter when no one was really quite sure what it was. And through each of these phases, we’ve gotten that much more access into the lives of our favorite celebrities, slowly stripping away the mystique that they were so intangibly veiled in during the heyday of pop culture magazines.

While at times that aspect has been kind of cool (your celeb crush can be just one DM away), it also gave us one of many moments that we can never un-see: Jim Jones, the shit-talking, bandana holding, kufi smacking, down-for-whatever embodiment of the hardest music, crying on camera as he talked to Funk Flex about being taunted by Cam’Ron in Instagram comments, who then responded by taunting him further on a live stream. How did we get here?

To a younger crowd, they really didn’t see anything other than two rappers whose catalogues they know mean something somewhere go at it on social media. They see these public beefs all the time. To those of us who were there to experience The Diplomats in all of their glory, however, it truly felt like the sad, un-heroic and very not diplomatic end to an era that was more than just music. Damn you, social media.

In 2003, you’d be hard-pressed to walk down any street or through any mall and not see The Diplomats’ influence. Whether it was clothing adorned with their logo, men proudly wearing pink, or paint splatters and bandana patches strewn about a t-shirt or a pair of jeans, Cam’Ron, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Freekey Zekey’s presence in pop culture was eminent. If you visited my bedroom at the time, you’d think I was born into a family of Bloods the way it was adorned with red Diplomat bandanas.

“G-Unit was popping and so was The LOX, but I think it was different because G-Unit was Queens, LOX was Yonkers, but Dipset being Harlem—I think that Harlem swag was important,” Hot 97 personality Funk Flex recalls. “And what made it exciting was it was a reinvention of Cam, and then the introduction of Jimmy, Juelz, and Freekey Zekey. So I think Cam introducing artists was really exciting.”

Prior to that period, Cam’Ron saw moderate success as a solo artist. He’d put out two albums through a joint deal with Epic Records and Untertainment, and scored a hit with the “Roxanne”-sampled single “What Mean The World To You” in late 2000. Through a friendship with Dame Dash, he was able to parlay a Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam deal for both himself and his group once he was off of Epic, and Killa cemented his status with the platinum-selling Come Home With Me in 2002.

Though we’d heard a verse or two from Jones and even Juelz on Cam’s prior releases, it was Come Home With Me that introduced his Harlem crew to the masses. The album’s first two singles, “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma,” both featured Juelz Santana, and both hit the top 5 on the Billboard 200. Don’t get it twisted, though. Sure, the mainstream masses couldn’t get enough of the flamboyant group and their catchy tunes, but they had the streets on lock with their Diplomats mixtape series, too.

In March of 2003, the group released their debut compilation, Diplomatic Immunity. On the day of the release, all four of them were scheduled for an album signing at FYE on 125th St. in their hometown of Harlem. The place was packed with fans waiting to catch a glimpse of the hometown heroes, and Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke stood off to the side, taking it all in.  

Diplomats Volume 2 cover

As the time grew closer for the foursome to make their awaited arrival at FYE, chatter of something big happening began buzzing through the record store. Soon, Cam, Juelz, Jim, and Zeke appeared atop a double-decker bus, and money rained down on the streets of Harlem like a scene straight out of Paid In Full. It caused such a commotion that the in-store had to be shut down, and no one met the rappers that day. I was devastated, but it was proof that the new Harlem legends had arrived.

“It’s gonna forever be embedded in hip-hop as one of the dopest albums done by a group, so I’m grateful for that,” Un Kasa says of the certified-Gold project. He was introduced as part of the growing group by not only having a spot on the opening track of the double-disc album, but having the track actually named after him. It seemed to be Cam’Ron’s formula; recruit talent, give them a platform and let them shine. This would later prove to be what their very downfall was contingent upon, however.

Myself and Juelz Santana at Hot 97’s Summer Jam 2017 – the only photo I cared to ask for!

 

With the success of the group album on their side, they rallied behind the “next up,” Juelz Santana, and released his debut through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam later that year, with their branding in full gear. With the help of his mother, Juelz launched both a store on the block he grew up on, and a website that included a forum, leaving no dollar untouched and capitalizing on social media before social media was even a thing.

Santana’s Town, located on 151st St. and Amsterdam Ave. in Harlem, became the unofficial hub for the group and their affiliates; a less buttoned-down version of the office space they held at Roc-A-Fella at the time. Through the message boards on his site, fans from all over would arrange meet-ups at the store, which eventually became a breeding ground for even more talent throughout the years. A young Stevie Rodriguez would drop by every now and then, eventually turning the opportunity into an internship at Diplomat Records. He’s better known as the late A$AP Yams. You’d find a young Karen Civil on any given Sunday at the store as well, and she too figured out how to turn the opportunity into a job under Duke Da God for years.

The first day I ever met Juelz Santana: March 29, 2003. We were outside of his store in Harlem.

I actually met Karen at the taping of a Dipset special for Much Music about a month after the failed FYE attempt; a taping we’d both learned of from a posting on Juelz.com.

“Is anyone here from the message board?” I remember Karen asking in the lobby of the TV studio. There weren’t a lot of young people there, as this was also a school day, but of course I had cut school once again. This time I had convinced my best friend to do so with me, though. (This is the same best friend who’d gone shopping with me on 125th St. the previous Summer and introduced me to my very first mixtape Diplomats Vol. 2. She’s a real one.)

“Me!” I responded excitedly, looking around to see if any of the rest of us were there. Nope, it was just her and I. As we exchanged usernames, we realized we’d already “met” on the forums, and we quickly bonded and formulated a plan for max TV time on the special. This would be both of our first times meeting the whole group, and with Karen already being out of high school, she was able to start working with the group within a year or so.

Years later, she’d end up using her relationships to get me an internship under Funk Flex at Hot97, and I worked my way up from there. My working relationship with French Montana around the same time of my internship came via an introduction from Max B—who was a longtime friend I’d known since hanging around the Dipset store. One of my closest friends to this day? A girl I met on Juelz.com, who also happened to live in New Jersey and was the same age as me. My friendship with Lil Wayne? It developed via my friendship with Mack Maine, who I’d been sent to interview in college for my friend’s online magazine….a friend I’d also met on Juelz.com. Whether they’re together now or not, their influence made an impact that will far outlast their prime.

There was something about this Harlem crew that appealed to everyone in a way, and I think that really added to their popularity. Top 40 fans had catchy hooks to bop their head to, underground enthusiasts had bars to dissect, women had bad boys with a rugged sex appeal to hang up on their walls, men had trendsetters to pick up new fashion trends from. Dipset were Harlem’s very own ‘90s boy band.

Myself, Max B and Carol at Club Speed in 2006

By 2004, tensions rose at Roc-A-Fella, and the group soon found a home at Koch, while Cam’Ron got a solo deal at Asylum. He made sure the deal came with an office space for Jim and Diplomat Records, and the label started putting more energy into the other acts they’d brought into the fold in recent years. The group’s second compilation album was released that year, introducing newer acts like JR Writer, Jha Jha and .40 Cal, and continuing to give a platform to their day ones. Jim also released his debut album that year via Koch, and things still seemed to be harmonious within the group as a whole.

Their reign continued in 2005. That year, there were three releases from the group; another compilation (this one under Duke Da God’s imprint,) Juelz’ sophomore effort, and Jim’s sophomore effort, Harlem: Diary of a Summer. The latter spawned quite a few hits, which came as a bit of a surprise, as Juelz had been bred to be the next big rapper out of the crew, and Jim seemed to really be hopping on the mic merely because he could. Still, fans were happy to have such an onslaught of music, and no one seemed to notice that they were making fewer appearances as a crew, and way more on their own.

My college dorm room in 2005 with my favorite Cam’Ron Purple Haze poster. The girl I’m with is my friend Liz, who I’d also met on Juelz.com. Today, she manages Fabolous.

“The downfall of it, I feel like everybody became their own entity and they became their own bosses with their own entourage,” Un says. “In the beginning, it was just Diplomats—one crew, one family. Once money and success comes into play, everybody steps out on their own and gets their own individuality. What happened with that is success and money breaks up everybody if it’s not projected in the right way. It went from just being Diplomats to being Byrd Gang, 730, Skull Gang, Purple City. Everybody had subsidiaries of what Diplomats was. Cam was the head honcho at that time, but then once everybody became stars and got successful, the breakup came.”

By 2006, Jim scored the biggest hit of his career with “We Fly High (Ballin)” and a shift in the regime became apparent. The song dominated airwaves and pop culture, eventually raking in what Jim says was $27 million, just for Koch alone.

“The tension started when Jimmy got his deal. It was around before that, but that was the beginning of the tension with Jimmy doing his own thing and having to fulfill his own agreements with whoever he was doing business with,” Shiest Bub notes. He was an intricate part of the formulation of Dipset in the late ‘90s, and eventually spearheaded one of Dipset’s many sub-groups, Purple City. “Even if Cam was getting money out of it, he still had to focus on that. Then [Jim] got a girlfriend, Chrissy, and that wasn’t a good look because Killa felt, ‘She’s a street bitch. Everybody had her, you’re praising this bitch, you look weak. I’m Cam’Ron, you’re supposed to be Jim Jones and we’re supposed to be bigger than that. That’s all you’re settling for?’ And then it was a bunch of ongoing shit of niggas living their lives and not including niggas. If you see a nigga fuck with certain niggas and you’re in a jealous industry, it happens.”

In 2006, Cam’Ron released his street film, Killa Season, and there was no sign of Jim Jones. The split was apparent, but as fans, we remained hopeful. As a few years went by, there was still no sign of reconciliation, and the powerful movement had resorted into a topic that was reminisced upon during barbershop banter. There were rumors of jealousy between Cam and Jim, and years down the road, we’d get confirmation of it. But how could it have gotten to this point, when it was Cam who set up the platform for the very opportunities that caused the tension?

“Jim knows what Killa likes; him and Killa like the same type of shit. But when you do something for someone for so long and that person treats you like Killa does…,” Shiest trails off. “Killa had so many injustices done to him in the music industry that it trained him to be like that, and he wanted whoever to fuck with him to be prepared for that kind of heartbreak also. It was like super tough love, to the point where it’s not even fair.”

Thankfully, it seemed that Funk Flex was going to be able to get the band back together. In 2010, much to the surprise of fans, he announced that the guys would be reuniting and touring, kicking things off with a show at home in NYC. Unsurprisingly, the reunion didn’t last very long.

“I’m one of those people who just fall into habits. Music is a great thing, and I’m greedy, so I want to see The Fugees, I want to see Run DMC, I want to see Dipset, I want to see EPMD,” Flex says. “Once someone says that something isn’t happening anymore, you want it more.”

And it became even more disappointing for fans, who had actually never seen the group truly tour as a unit, even at their peak.

“We never went on a whole Diplomat world tour. Diplomats probably one of the biggest entities in rap in the last 15 years that never did a tour,” Un points out. “You’ve never seen us on stage as a whole—me, JR, Hell Rell, 40 Cal, Jha Jha, Stack Bundles. You never saw that.”

In the years following, we’d see the rise of social media, which Un says only further divided the group, particularly Jim and Cam.

“We all could have mended things before it got too out of hand. You know, we all came in the game pre-social media,” Un recalls. “The only social media we really had was probably MySpace, and then Twitter came later. Once people was getting the avenue to just voice their opinions and just say what the fuck they want to say, that’s when shit really got messy.”

But something else we saw during this period was actually positive; newer groups were popping up, and you could see the clear influence The Diplomats had on them from their heyday nearly a decade earlier. Spearheaded by A$AP Yams, the A$AP Mob’s presence in 2011 and 2012 was just what Dipset was made of, and you didn’t even have to hear the group’s star, A$AP Rocky, praise Cam and his crew in interviews (as he often did) to know that. Wiz Khalifa became a superstar and brought his Taylor Gang crew with him, all under the influence of Killa and Co. In fact, he loves them so much, he actually tattooed “Purple Haze” on his legs in homage to Cam’s 2004 album.

A screenshot of Wiz Khalifa’s 2014 Angie Martinez interview at Hot97, where he discusses his love for Cam’Ron and shows off his Purple Haze tattoo.

In 2015, Funk Flex tried once more for a reunion, slightly over four years since the last one. There were promises of a huge tour, a new mixtape, a new movement, but after a sprinkle of shows and one lackluster song, that too fell apart. If it hadn’t been apparent before, it was clear now—things would never be the same.

“The thing is, I don’t think that they mended the relationships yet,” Un says of why it didn’t work out the second time. “It was just an opportunity that they took. I don’t think they were all the way eye to eye yet. It was like Flex loved them so much, he didn’t want to see a legacy die.”

Jim, Juelz, myself, Freekey Zekey and Cam’Ron at Hot97 during their reunion announcement in January of 2015.

Ever the optimist, Flex still sees a chance to make things happen.

“I still think the mixtape is going to happen. If people can get together twice, they can get together a third time, so I’m confident it will happen again.”

It’s 2017 now, and instead of new music, we get Cam’Ron and Juelz on Love & Hip-Hop, the reality show that Jim kicked off a few years back. We get Cam and Jim sparring in Instagram comments. We get an emotional Jim detailing the downfall of the empire while talking to Flex, and a typical Cam response from his dining room table on an hour-long Instagram live stream. This isn’t the group we grew up on, but it’s the group we’re going to have to accept.

“That shit will never work out. The movement’s over, and it’s literally because of Jim and Cam,” Shiest says. “It’s like damn, all this legacy and all these talented people, and it just lies upon them two niggas. That’s some bullshit, but it is what it is. Nobody cares now, because everybody has their own lives that they have to lead.”

For now, we’ll just have to clutch our Diplomats bandana tightly and bump “I’m Ready” during summer cookouts, fondly reminiscing over that time the group threw chairs during a concert brawl that was broadcasted on Smack DVD, or the time they held down the Summer Jam stage in place of Nas as he went over to Power 105 to diss all of Hot97, resulting in an epic batch of shit-talking and diss records on Diplomats Vol. 2. All good things do come to an end eventually, and even if they do put those differences aside one more time, things still will never be the same.

“It definitely hurts not to see the bird flying high,” says Un, “but when I see groups like A$AP Mob, it puts a smile on my face because I know where the influence comes from.”

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

 

 

In driving to pick up O.C.—he of the glasscutter voice, seminal Word…Life and Jewelz albums, and membership with archetypal rap collective Diggin’ in the Crates—I was reminded of the words of another iconic Brooklynite: “I come scoop you in that coupe, sittin’ on deuce-zeroes.” Very different context, naturally, but similar logistics. My head swirled during the trip: how best to couch this, how to balance D.I.T.C.’s vestigial clout and current appeal.

Then it occurred to me: allow the truth to be its own preface. D.I.T.C. has had a volatile history: brushes with the law; the slaying of rising superstar MC Big L; rifts amongst the remaining members. “Like Lord Finesse always said,” O.C. would reflect, “we’re all Alphas. And when you get that many chefs in the kitchen, there are bound to be problems. Shit, I didn’t see Finesse for three years prior to making [2016’s] Sessions album. It really bothered me when I went to Sean Price’s wake. When I arrived, everybody said Finesse had just left. So on top of feeling like it’s déjà vu—with Diggin’ and Big L—I didn’t want to see ‘Nesse on these terms. That woke me up. I was like, ‘Yo, I gotta let this shit go. I don’t care who apologizes to who because this could’ve been me or you. I don’t wanna go out like that. So I apologized; I don’t care who was wrong or right.”

So the story is about growth, personal and artistic. D.I.T.C. still has the power to captivate in the now while retaining rights to the past: “Some consultants recently told us that D.I.T.C. is a multimillion dollar brand,” O.C. would remark. “That surprised even us.” But commas and zeroes don’t accurately author D.I.T.C.’s legacy—a legacy that lives in the hearts and minds of listeners who, for the past quarter century, have held its projects and members up as benchmarks. Count this author among those refusing to let go. Note the insert, an art piece that hangs on my wall. It’s a mockup of a Helly Hansen jacket emblazoned with Big L’s classic single “Put It On.”

But growth can only be called growth if it’s perpetual, a lesson artists and fans alike struggle with: “A lot of people still want that 1994 shit,” O.C. would growl. “So it’s like, ‘Keep listening to that album. You’ll get exactly what you want.’ But people don’t understand. Nobody’s the same person they were 20 years ago. I can’t possibly make the same kinds of records. I wouldn’t try to. But that’s what has my drive so high right now; I’m feeling like I’m back in ‘91 or ‘92, grinding in my mom’s basement. When I had to take the train everywhere. I do the same thing now. It could be three in the morning and I’m coming back from Showbiz’s studio uptown. I’ll take the train, smelling the stinky-ass piss and seeing all the homeless people. All that shit is fuel for me. It gives me something to talk about.”

As it turned out, it gave O.C. and me plenty to talk about, too.

Fresh off his successful solo album Same Moon Same Sun (1st Phase), the veteran rapper discusses all things D.I.T.C.—from the birth of the collective to its current status, and the legacy of Big L.

Let me get this out of the way early: my MySpace name back in the day was Big_L_RIP.

O.C.: Wow. MySpace.

Yeah. Figured I’d lock in my credibility with that one. Moving on…

O.C.: [laughs]

Most heads know the Big L genesis story: how he accosted Lord Finesse while he was record shopping in Harlem, spit for him, and basically two weeks later appeared on the “Yes You May” remix. Tell us a story that only you know.

O.C.: After the Jewelz album came out, “Dangerous” was popping. This was the first time I got real radio play—despite having no ads, no video, no nothing. Fat Joe was on my ass about doing a video, like “Yo, that record could go.” Fast forward, Showbiz told me and L to meet him at this crib he had around the corner from Harlem Hospital. We walked in. and he gave me and L separately two bags; like two bags each. He’s like, “Yo, y’all gonna do an album together.” L was like, “For this, dogs? Shit, you got any more?” We started laughing. Show bagged us up and gave us some bread—quite a few g’s, just to start—just for the idea. We knew it wasn’t no free money; Show really had a vision about us doing an album together.

Which obviously never materialized…

O.C.: Yeah. The first record we did was called “Get Yours.” Diamond D got added to it later, when it appeared on the Black Mask soundtrack. That was the only record we ended up recording for that album; he got murdered right after.

Here’s something that has always confused me about L: rap is one genre in particular that deifies the dead. Even still, L hovers in this nebulous space; he’s beloved by an underground sect, but you can’t ask the average fan about him, whereas you can ask the average fan about much lesser MCs. What was Big L like?

O.C.: Quiet on the surface, but a beast when you pushed him. For instance: Showbiz would be randomly in his hood somewhere, spittin’. He would call L and wake him up, wherever he was at: “Yo, I got $500 for you, hop in a cab and come uptown real quick.” L would get out the cab, yawning, like, “What up dog?”—real cocky and dismissive. And he would shut down a whole cypher. L was not normal. He had rhymes upon rhymes upon rhymes. He was so genius that he had specific shit for people that he never met. I feel like when he went on the radio with Jay-Z, his whole shit changed. He found his pocket and it was scary. He scared a lot of dudes.

What about his creative process?

O.C.: Fluid, man. Constant and fluid. Like, I heard the inception of “Ebonics” on the road, touring for Jewelz. We was in Europe, on Spirit Airlines or some shit. He’s like, “Yo, dogs, check this out: When I’m lifted I’m high, with new clothes on I’m fly, cars is whips and sneakers is kicks…” and I’m like, “Ok, what comes next? He said, “That’s it.” I was like, “Get the fuck away from me, man. You woke me up for that shit?” And he’d do that shit all day. That’s how his mind worked. I took it for granted at the time. But now I look back on it and just shake my head.

Speaking of looking back, how does his death sit with you now, especially since D.I.T.C. has been getting a lot of recent burn: Fat Joe’s success, the Sessions album, and your solo stuff?

O.C.: Think about it like this: Me and L toured before he got murdered. After we came home, we always spoke, but I didn’t physically see him after that tour. And I’ve always regretted that, even though it was something that couldn’t be helped. I had to let go—not in the sense of forgetting about him, but I don’t want to celebrate his death. There’s enough of that. I’m not putting up pictures and shit anymore on the anniversary of his death. People ask me “Yo, you not doing that?” Who the fuck is you to ask me that? This was my peoples. And I’m not explaining it anymore, either.

That’s why I did the record “Real Life” Parts 1&2. I held on to this shit because it really happened in those streets that night. I was pissed at him because he didn’t show up to the studio—not realizing he was laid out. I think Show took it the hardest because he and Fat Joe actually went down and seen him: his boots sticking out of the bloody sheet. But Show and Joe both packed it away, because they’re not emotional dudes; they’re not going to show their feelings. But if I’m dealing with it from a distance, imagine how they’ve dealt with it? Imagine how people deal with things like that in general, man. It’s everyday. Then they got L’s brother Lee as soon as he came home: Finesse sat with Lee in an IHOP that day and he got murdered that night. Then L’s mom died. That’s not just tragedy; that whole family basically disappeared.

That disconnect is another of rap’s unsettling nuances: how the subject matter can be genuine pain to the artist and nothing but a clever line to a listener. So let’s reminisce on better things. How did D.I.T.C. come together?

O.C.: Diggin’ got a backwards-ass story: we came out as individuals, and then came together. As opposed to coming out as a group and then branching off, D.I.T.C. was always a production company prior. But I’m happy things happened that way; we didn’t want to be another Wu-Tang Clan.

Walk us through the specifics.

O.C.: Our history is so weeble-wobble, it’s crazy. I don’t even remember meeting some of these dudes. It was just like, all of a sudden everybody was around and we were crewed. I have to make up some lies about how I met dudes [laughs]. Initially, it was Diamond D, Showbiz, Lord Finesse, and unofficial members like Kid Capri and DJ Premier, because Show taught Preem how to use the SP12 [E-mu SP-1200 sampler] and the 950 [Akai S950 sampler]. There was another unofficial-but official-member of DITC; his name is Ogee, and he produced on my debut album.

But here’s the longer version: in 1991, I went on the first Source Tour with Organized Konfusion, because I had just done “Fudge Pudge.” It was me, Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, The Almighty RSO, and MC Serch. Serch kept asking me if I was part of Organized Konfusion, but I think he was just fishing. Sidenote: I don’t give Serch enough credit, man. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here—me or Nas. Period. He gave me a career. He gave Nas a career. A lot of people are eating because of MC Serch.

Anyway, Finesse had to leave the tour to do the Trespass soundtrack because he was signed with Rhyme Syndicate. So Ice-T flew him out, and he came back with Buckwild for a few dates. That’s how we three met. That’s how my relationship with Diggin’ started. And that’s where the D.I.T.C. history starts. After the Source Tour, me and Buck started doing demos. It wasn’t no, “Yo, you wanna get down with us?” I went uptown to Buck’s crib and we just started doing demos, early Word…Life shit. We had three, four versions of records like “O-Zone.” Buck is the unsung hero of Diggin’; he got like 50 plaques in our studio—the most of anyone. But Word…Life was his coming out party.

I didn’t meet anybody else until I got the album deal on Wild Pitch. I hadn’t met Big L, Fat Joe or Diamond D. I hadn’t met Show or A.G. yet, but they were already together. Finesse had put Show & A.G. together. That was some crazy shit; Finesse and A.G. had gone to different high schools. Somehow Finesse heard that A.G. was the nicest in his high school. A.G. heard Finesse was the nicest at his high school. This is a time when people used to go up to each other’s high school and battle. So ‘Ness and A. got busy. Sidebar, they battled DMX too. But that’s another story.

Big L, you know about: once Finesse heard him, he was like “I gotta let Show and Diamond hear him.” This kid is in high school and, next thing you know, L got a deal on Columbia. And Show and Finesse are the executive producers of his album. It’s just crazy, man. I love this life: you never know how things are gonna unfold. How destiny plays a path.

Fat Joe happened because Diamond D is a genius. He seen something in Joe. Sidenote: the only person I never been around too much is Diamond. Diamond never even produced a record for me and I just realized that recently. Man, he never did a solo joint for me. But Diamond is Diamond, and he is the O.G. of the crew. And I don’t mean in age, but in stature. He can’t do nothing wrong for me; it’s nothing but respect.

So, back to Joe: he was in the streets, wilin’, and Diamond was like, “Yo, you need to get into this music shit.” Diamond just saw something in him. But Joe wasn’t hearing it right away, because his brothers and his mans was still in the streets. Then he started going to Finesse’s shows. From his mouth, it quickly became “Finesse, you’re the best rapper” at that time. But really it hit home when he realized, “Oh shit, you can make a living off this? Like this shit is possible?” It became what he wanted to do. But Joe said from jump “I want to be a star, I wanted this.” He created that. He wanted super stardom from day one.

That never bothered you?

O.C.: That actually helped us.

You figured it elevated the crew.

O.C.: Yeah. Because none of us can run from that D.I.T.C. brand. Not even him. I don’t care what he did with Terror Squad or Remy Ma; he’s always tagged with D.I.T.C. Every question from this magazine to the nondescript magazine that you’ve never heard of that did an interview with him, always ask him about D.I.T.C. He can never escape that. None of us. So it’s all love.

Here’s the funny thing, though. Before Joe dropped “All The Way Up,” there was talks of a D.I.T.C. tour. And people’s fronting on the bread. Fast forward a year after that shit went Platinum, and people like, “Yo, ‘Ness. Can we still work on that?” And Finesse is like, “You know the prices went up, right?” On top of that, the billing has to be Fat Joe featuring D.I.T.C. now. And It’s supposed to be like that. I’d be happy to take his scraps.

Even still, I feel like it’s my time to wear the D.I.T.C. brand on my back. I’m doing what Sean P did for Boot Camp. Everybody in D.I.T.C. has had the chance to lead: Finesse, Diamond, Show & AG. I feel like it’s my time now. That’s why I’m following up [Same Moon Same Sun] “1st Phase” with “2nd Phase: Road to Perdition.” There’s an appetite out there. I know it sounds insensitive, but Big L brought worth to the brand by dying. Nobody asked for that. That sounds ugly, but it’s the truth; the ugly truth. So I actually call us “D.I.T.C. Immortals” now. I tag everything D.I.T.C. Immortals. We didn’t know what we was. We just was making music. But this shit is special, man. You can’t talk to the dead. So I’m gonna keep creating as long as I keep breathing.

Speak your piece in the comments below or get the conversation started over at the UGHH forum.

Sex Addiction, Reinvention, and the Long Road To Fame

Nicole Cormier talks to underground legend Tonedeff about his extensively complex career, battles with sex addiction and crafting what he calls "Etsy Rap."

Being underappreciated commercially arguably leads to being celebrated within the world of underground hip-hop. At the same time, earning accolades from purist acolytes—like being namechecked as one of the top five MCs or having your name thrown around during conversations of the greatest of all time—doesn’t exactly translate to tangible success. It’s hard to pay the bills on props alone. But one enviable boost that comes from being unheralded in the mainstream rap game is the ability to assume complete creative control. To that end, the singer, MC, entrepreneur, and producer known as Tonedeff has taken his vision and constructed a whole new artistic level.

A true one-man band, Tonedeff has manifested and cultivated all aspects of his music. This encompasses production, design, writing, engineering, marketing, and distribution. Since the ‘90s, he’s been challenging not only himself, but his fellow MCs to push further artistically. Over the course of his lengthy career, he’s dropped two full solo albums as Tonedeff—2005’s Archetype and 2016’s Polymer—as well as several EPs and collaborative projects. As a singer/songwriter he’s also released music under the name Peter Anthony Red. Tone also served as the label head for two imprints, QN5 and Quintic, where beyond merely developing artists, he’s created active communities—particularly with the former, which at one point had a very active forum of dedicated fans.

To fully understand why Tonedeff is a hero in a game full of villains, take a look at his craft and the music he’s made.

A Fresh Take

When the 2001 project Hyphen dropped, Tonedeff was only 25. Full of vigor, he was fresh, confident, and ready to put his own mark on what was already being done; moving it forward a few steps. Fully entrenched in the battle rap mind state at the time, he was a New Yorker, ready to take over. “I was trying to be competitive and be cool, and honestly rule the world,” he recalls. “I really thought in my mind that I was gonna be a big deal.”

Although the project was limited in distribution, several of the tracks still serve as milestones in his career, including “Competition Is None” and “Move In/Ride Out.” Other songs, meanwhile, like the obnoxiously catchy “Spanish Song” showed his sense of humor as he broke down his own language barriers while experimental cuts such as “Fast” blurred the lines between hip-hop and electronic music.

Dripping with ego, his early verses showcased a competitive instinct that had him exploring a variety of styles, which was mostly unheard of at the time. “‘Move In/Ride Out’ was probably the first bounce style, chopper track I did,” he says of the track that birthed his first music video. Tonedeff managed to make the tune truly stand out, sounding unlike any other track at the time—mixing in his vocals and unusual inflections with a striking sense of humor.

“I hear a lot of hope and a lot of cockiness very early on,” he muses. “At the end of the day, I hear it a lot from rappers coming up, how you’re supposed to be cocky. But when I hear my shit, I’m like, ‘Just you fucking wait, buddy! Life’s coming for you real fast.’”

“I think my mindset when I was writing the early stuff was seeing what was out there, trying to be competitive,” Tonedeff explains. “My competitive nature drove me to: ‘Oh, you’re doing that? I’m gonna do it times ten’ and ‘Oh, you’re rapping fast? Well, I’m gonna be the fastest fucking rapper on the planet’ to ‘Oh, you’re doing punchlines? I’m gonna have punchlines upon punchlines, all the way’ to ‘Oh, you do rhyme schemes? I’m gonna rhyme every syllable in this sentence with the next sentence and the 52 subsequent sentences.’”

Now that he’s outgrown that era, it’s easier for Tonedeff to look back and reflect. “It was OCD and fucking insecurity that bred that level of competitive nature,” he declares.

It was also during this time that he spits his often-jocked verse on Cunninlynguists’ “616 Rewind.” As he remembers it, “I really started playing with the triplets a lot, and nobody was doing that shit anymore,” he points out. “When I figured out that I was the only one in that space doing that, I went full tilt with it and developed the fuck out of it.”

“Velocity,” a feature on Substantial’s Substantial Evidence, really punctuated Tone’s fast rap intensity, literally setting the stop watch for the style to become a subgenre of its own.

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But he had to start somewhere, and his early music still rocks just as hard now as it did then and it serves as the foundation Tone still builds upon today.

Building the Archetype

When you hear Tonedeff spit, it’s his pointed and articulate lyrics and effortless cadence—both normal and double time—that catches the most ears initially. When you sit down and actually listen, though, you see that he did something that no one had done before, especially not in rap. He’s been pushing the envelope of what a rapper is since the beginning of his career, and with his debut studio album Archetype, he showed what unapologetic male emotion sounds like.

From lust to longing to understanding, Tonedeff highlights all of the human feeling that we try to hide, especially in our youth. His prophetic wisdom is on full display as he waxes about the music industry and humanity itself. In “Porcelain”—one of the few tracks he says he can still comfortably listen to today—he tosses his ego aside and tells the tale of unrequited love that we’ve all lived at least once in our adolescence. “Masochist,” meanwhile, speaks to the ugly sadism that an artist accepts when giving his all to his craft. “Politics” tackles the music industry with the kind of foretelling insight that has only revealed itself as spot on as the track and industry aged.

Although easy to brush off as a novelty tune, “Pervert” is an aggressive stab at crass humor and it’s served as even more than that. While it’s gross and silly, it also oozes with self-awareness, and in turn, he’s created a pronounced camaraderie with the troves of sex-starved fans who maybe thought they were weird for feeling that way. Of course, as listeners later find out, the lines in that song reveal an addiction that shaped his life.

“In terms of sex addiction, if I had access to the Fort Knox vault of pussy—in terms of the ones they lock away, the ones you can’t get to, aka the supermodels, the singers, the Hollywood starlets—if I had access to that, I mean Jesus Christ, I don’t know if I’d still be alive,” he allows. “So maybe there’s a self-preservation aspect to this fear of mass appeal that I have. Who knows. Even on an underground level, it’s pretty harrowing. I don’t know if I want that. I mean, I do! I’d love that, but I’d love it too much, I think.”

In Between Times

Tone has taken a long time between creating his two full-length projects, yet he didn’t take any time off. In fact, if anything, he broke new ground. “I had a real breakthrough on my writing around ’08 to ’09,” he notes. “Up until that point, I was really playing the game. Everybody was on the punchline wave, and I felt like I mastered that stuff. I was kind of bored after a while.”

“I got into this truth kick,” he adds. “All the stuff I was listening to, singer-songwriter wise, pointed me in that direction.” This is around the time he started writing for the infamous Chico and The Man project and his other collaborations with Cunninlynguists, including “The Distance,” which appeared on their album Strange Journey Volume One.

“I really started to dig into my own psyche,” he says. “I really enjoyed it, and it was way more challenging than talking about how big my dick was in comparison to the Eiffel Tower. I really wanted to say something that only I could say and talk about experiences that only I’ve had—which, in my opinion, makes it the most unique work.”

When Self-Examination Meets Maturity

His second album was initially released as four individual EPs (Glutton, Demon, Hunter, and Phantom). Each was an expression a different part of his personality and each had a distinct sound. The EPs dropped before the release of the opus, Polymer in 2016. Polymer approached things completely differently, not just musically but also with the packaging. The themes in Polymer revisited many of the premises touched in Archetype, but with new insight and with the kind of self-awareness that is rare in hip-hop.

“These are my definitive works,” he asserts. “I can take any song on that album  and feel proud that I pushed myself into a new space. It was super challenging and I love it. The best stuff and the masterpieces come from unique places—from the void, out of nowhere—and it hits people like a ton of bricks. Because they were looking one direction for ten years and then something comes and smacks them from the direction they weren’t even looking in.”

Although the psychological exploration Polymer takes had the potential to break him down, instead, the creation and expression helped him work through some of the baggage he’d been carrying around with him. “A song like, ‘More Like You’ is something that I’ve literally carried with me since childhood,” Tone explains, pointing to the relationship he had with his father. “Working through a lot of the aggression issues and the self-esteem issues and things I’ve carried with me my whole life was something I didn’t even want to approach.

“I was dealing with all these other demons and showing all these other scars,” he goes on, “so being able to record that song and even being able to just write it, helped me categorize and organize all these thoughts.”

Tracks like “Glutton” and “Filthy” examine his unhealthy relationship with sex, while “Demon” addresses his battle with anxiety. But some of that unexpected healing came with finally letting go of the egotistical characteristics of a musician. “‘Competitive Nature’ is another one where I felt relief after writing it because I’d been carrying a lot of that shit,” recalls. “Being an MC or a super rapper, you’re supposed to be infallible. You’ve got it all figured out, and the reality is, nobody does.

“Being real in hip-hop is not very common,” he adds. “I wanted to write that out and talk about how that shit leads to more misery and more insecurity and you’re not really being real unless you can let that shit go. It was nice to talk about those feelings of insecurity, watching the Grammys and wishing I was there. These are real fucking things I dealt with in the music, and now I’m ready to move past it.”

Although he says chronicling these darker parts of his personality has served as a healing journey, he knows the potential to revisit these vices is always just around the corner.

“It’s a really dangerous, volatile game,” he says of making the album. “To have to put yourself in those spaces, you could easily relapse and go down the well again. To me, it would be phony if I wasn’t there, in those moments. It’s only in that moment, when I was that low that I could write something that real. And now I get to listen back to it and marvel at it and laugh at it and pick it apart from higher ground. I’m stable now and can see it for what it is and put it into a box and say, ‘Ha ha, that was me! I made it motherfucker!’”

Beyond serving as an emotional depository, Polymer is also an incredibly beautiful album. “Phantom” and “Control” both showcase the strides Tonedeff has made as a singer and they push the boundaries of antiquated idea of genre. But that’s kind of what he’s always done—and not just with his music.

Creating A Universe

What Tonedeff has achieved in music has continued to raise bars. When he broke into the music on a more official level, though, he also built an empire along with it. QN5, a label that’s been home to a plethora of other strong, independent acts like Cunninlynguists, Substantial, PackFM, and the indie supergroup Extended Famm was created from the ground up. Tone has helped plenty of other artists build their careers with his production and support.

“Production is what I love to do, first and foremost,” he reveals. “Maybe that’s something people don’t know about me; I’m first and foremost a producer, and I always have been. And the rapping thing was something secondary. I enjoy it, but I get way more enjoyment out of making and creating the music than I do out of writing.”

In 2012, while working as Peter Anthony Red and hanging up the MC title momentarily, he built another label, Quintic. Still in its infancy, however, his new label doesn’t fit neatly into a box. “It’s not hip hop,” he stresses. “It’s whatever the fuck I want it to be.” So far, Quintic’s roster boasts a Danish singer-songwriter named Fjer and a sharp-tongued lyricist named Lucy Camp. Discussing this subsequent community, Tone reflects on some of the moves he made in the past, moves that although not widely acknowledged, broke new ground.

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When promotion for the never released (and widely anticipated) Chico and The Man album with Kno of Cunninlynguists arrived in 2011, Tone embarked on the single most impressive, engaging form of (pre-viral) marketing that the internet had ever seen. An intensive, multi-site scavenger hunt emerged on the active forums of QN5.com sending information hungry fans all over the web decoding secret messages, translating Greek and cracking passwords to find out more.

Long before this hunt, Tone had already created a following that was so passionate that fans answer to their own name—two, in fact: Blue Schoolers or Auralarians. Like the one who named them, the fans are intelligent. They dissect every verse, drawing parallels to his other work, and they are always hungry to learn more. This was fostered on the well-done web universe of the QN5 website, which created a sounding board and socialization space in the highly populated forums.

As another example of his instinctual marketing prowess and progressive approach, Tonedeff created one of the first label-based podcasts, WQN5, which tapped into his ability to connect and understand people. Eventually he teamed up with PackFM to create another weekly podcast called “Tacos and Chocolate Milk.” That broadcast showcases the fun and feisty personalities of the friends and labelmates. Beyond these endeavors, Tonedeff also created a cartoon character Squijee, who was equal parts cute and vulgar.

A True Rap Artisan

Tonedeff’s latest innovation will come in the form of a documentary called Polyoptics, which chronicles Polymer. Set to be sent out alongside the physical pre-orders of the album, the film proved to be something of a major undertaking. “I’m not sure people understand what I did here,” he says. “I have not leaked any of it because I don’t want anybody to see it until it’s out. It’s been a lot of work. Jesus Christ, it’s been BRUTAL! All caps.”

He’s in the finishing stages and hopes to have it finished and shipped by the end of the Summer, but since he’s doing all the work himself it’s taking some time. Beyond the full length documentary, the pre-orders will also include other goodies like an art book and who knows what else.

“There’s so much extra shit included, and it’s just me doing it all,” he says. “This is as artisanal as it gets. Truly as artisanal as hip-hop music can ever be. One dude crafting this entire universe in all these different mediums, hand delivered to them by that dude who made it. This is Etsy Rap. I might as well make some Polymer doilies while I’m at it.”

A Gift or a Curse

As a multi-talented hero in a game filled with placid clones, you can understand how not getting his due could be extremely frustrating, especially for a perfectionist like Tone. But as they say, some things happen for a reason. Fame isn’t often kind to the mind of an artist, as he notes.

“There’s an inherent fear that I have of mass appeal, because I know what comes with it,” he concludes. “I’ve experienced fame in a very limited level, and I’ve had moments where the spotlight was on me for a day or a week and it was nice. The way that people react to fame literally disgusts me. It’s revolting to me. On that front, my anxiety would be through the roof because I’d never trust anyone’s motives.”

In a perfect world, the art would be all that matters.

“Imagine if there were artists that were literally doing ideas that they thought were cool and they didn’t have to worry about charting or Spotify,” he poses, before concluding, “Sure, it’s utopian, but it’s really about getting competitive about the audience. And so you’re catering your work to what you think people will like and that completely defeats the purpose of art.”

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Jean Grae’s Attack Of The Attacking Things: An Oral History

Jean Grae's debut album 'Attack Of The Attacking Things' put the renowned artist on the map. Jerry Barrow dissects the album from the mouth of Jean Grae herself, among other players.

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.

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So you feel that you’re about to be hip-hop’s next luminary emcee? Well, before you allow your growing audience on Soundcloud to gas you even further, there are several things that artists need to take into consideration. Sometimes you might have to bend your ear toward someone who has made their bones and left some skin in the game; someone who can proffer applicable tenets of wisdom based upon their own hands-on experience.

Photo Credit: npr.org

One such individual who has proven herself to be an indelible figure behind the scenes of the industry that you strive to impact is the self-titled “Music Business Matriarch,” Sophia Chang. To describe Ms. Chang in a nutshell, she’s “Hip Hop’s Truth;” but that doesn’t even begin to detail the impact she’s had on the careers of several rap and soul music artists over the years.

Ms. Chang made her way to New York City by way of Vancouver, BC in 1987 to work for the legendary singer/songwriter Paul Simon. After her eye-opening educational stint working for Simon, she leveled up in the industry—providing her expertise to the Marketing department at Atlantic Records, the A&R department at Jive Records, and running A&R Admin and Operations at Universal. Those gigs in and of themselves are enough to solidify and garner respect across the industry, but Sophia’s grind was (and still is) quite perpetual.

She eventually went on to provide management services to artists, limited almost exclusively to male rappers save for a couple of R&B talents. So you already know that in this testosterone-soaked business that she forged her way through, she’s not one for the bullshit. Her former client roster reads like a who’s who of the Golden Era of hip-hop and soul: the RZA, the GZA, Old Dirty Bastard, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, Organized Noise, Blackalicious, Raphael Saadiq and D’Angelo. If those names don’t really resonate with you, up until 2016 Sophia was the acting General Manager of Cinematic Music Group, the label and management company for Joey Bada$$, Pro Era, and Mick Jenkins.

The multi-faceted executive has had her hands in everything from producing runway fashion shows [Vivienne Tam, Project Runway All-Stars] to developing projects for film and television [HBO copped a script from her]. Her radar is fine-tuned to knowing where the checks are and ultimately securing “the bag” for her clients. Her most recent executive role was as the Vice President of Business Development at MedMen—a leader in the medical marijuana investment industry. She currently has taken her foot off the executive gas pedal to sit back and pen her first book entitled, Raised By Wu-Tang—a memoir detailing her life and career in hip-hop. Sophia was gracious enough to break away from penning her upcoming memoir to discuss the things that she feels both aspiring and established artists need to center their business around. Here are her Ten Rap Commandments.

#1 All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Don Passman

The first advice I would give to any artist or manager that aspires to be in the business is to go buy the book, All You Need to Know About the Music Business. I’ll never forget seeing Daddy-O [Stetsasonic, Tommy Boy Records] on a panel maybe 25, 30 years ago and he said “Look, anything you want to do…you want to be an audio engineer, you want to go into publishing…someone has written a book about it.”

Don Passman’s book is exhaustive. It is very, very clearly written. It’s not dense and doesn’t feel like you’re reading a legal document despite the fact that he’s an attorney. When I was the GM at Cinematic [Music Group], I bought copies for the whole office and I made everybody read it chapter by chapter and we would have a class every week. It was literally like a class. That’s the first piece of advice I’d give to anybody.

#2 Your Manager is the Lock & the Key

Don Passman says it in his book: “Your manager is the most member of your team.”

Your manager will often hire the rest of your team. And if you already have those people in place, he or she—if they are a good manager—will make sure they are all communicating properly, that they are working in concert and will report back to the artist what is going on. The artist does not have time to deal with the quotidian minutia. It’s about creating a balance between being able to create and also just being aware. The person that will key you into your professional life is your manager.

First and foremost, you have to believe that your manager believes in your vision and is passionate about you. I think it’s very important that an artist feels like their manager feels as passionately about their craft and their vision as they do. You have to believe as an artist that your manager always puts your interests first, not theirs. Management is a service industry. It is not about and never about the manager. An artist can always survive without a manager. A manager cannot be a manager without an artist. Artists have to look for a manager that understands that this is a service industry.

You want a manger that can help expand your vision. To me they are the center of the wheel—all spokes feed into the center of the wheel.  If your manager does not know how to have a hard conversation with their client then…the famous lawyer John McLean said, “there are managers and there are damagers.”  In my opinion, if you don’t have the courage to have a hard conversation with your client, you’re a damager. You’re a liability. Not only are you not good, you’re a liability. You’re holding the artist back.

#3 Squad Deep – Your Entourage

When I talk about an “entourage” I mean more so your boys. I understand completely why someone would want their entourage around them. Again, if I was 18 and suddenly I am touring the world, I’d want my friends around me. [For example] “I never traveled to France before. I’ve never been to Japan. I don’t know the language. I don’t know the culture. I want a comfort zone. I want to have the comforts of home travel with me.” So, I completely understand it, but the problem occurs when they get out of control. It is always up to the artist to keep their entourage under control.

That’s one level of it. The other level of it of course is that it is extremely costly. The bunk on the bus, the hotel room, the food, and the flights; it costs a lot. I’m not saying don’t take out an entourage, but more mature artists really don’t. They do it when they’re young and they don’t do it when they’re older because they start to look at the numbers. Make sure you keep your crew in check. Have to.

The problem with artists when you think about the world that they are in is that they are the stars. The whole world treats them like they are the center of the universe.  Everybody is so obsequious; they are surrounded by sycophants. Do not hire sycophants!

#4 Do The Knowledge – Educate Yourself

Again, I would start with that book. He covers everything in that book. Everything. I would also ask questions. That’s how I got a lot of opportunities that came to me. I’m not afraid of being ignorant because there is so much I don’t know. You have to have a degree of humility and just ask a lot of questions. You can’t just act like you know everything all of the time, because first of all that’s preposterous since nobody knows everything all of the time. Second of all, you create an atmosphere that is more intellectually stimulating if you exhibit intellectual curiosity yourself. You get the book. You ask questions.

I also encourage everybody to take on mentors. I think artists would really benefit from having mentors and those mentors could be other artists. Like, if I were an artist I would want the RZA to mentor me. He knows so much, he’s so brilliant. He’s read probably 100 times as many books as I have. He’s traveled the world. He’s done so many things. He’s had so much success. He’s made many mistakes. He’s very, very honest. He won’t try to hide behind anything.

#5 Stay on Top of The Bag – Fiscal Responsibility

You have to find a responsible business manager or an accountant and you have to pay your taxes. I know so many artists who’ve gotten in trouble with the IRS because they haven’t paid their taxes. You cannot evade the IRS. [It was Ben Franklin] who said that the two things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes.

I always break it down: If you make a dollar, consider fifty cents of it gone. Gone! Like really…if you make a hundred grand, you’re really making fifty grand.  So let’s say that you make a dollar as an artist. Fifty cents is already gone to the taxman.  Fifteen percent goes to your manager. You’re left with 35 cents. Ten cents goes to your booking agent. You’re left with 25 cents. Five cents goes to your [other] manager. You’re left with 20 cents. You’re left with 20 cents on your dollar. You should think that way. You have to be fiscally responsible. There are countless stories of artists that have gotten in trouble with the IRS.

When you are in a position that you actually have enough money to buy something meaningful, buy something with lasting equity—a house as opposed to a car. Look into investing. Look into the stock market. There’s money to be made there. At least look into it as an option.

#6 The Mind and Body Are ONE – Health Discipline

It’s a grueling lifestyle at best. You’re either in the studio and once you’re finished recording, you’re out promoting, you’re out on tour and then back into the studio. There’s very little respite. It’s not like a 9-to-5 and your body can get used to a certain rhythm. It’s so unpredictable and it has to take its toll on the body. It’s very hard to exercise regularly when you’re in the studio at all hours. It’s also hard to eat well. If you’re on the road you’re eating shitty road food, and I believe that your body is your temple. You have to feed it good food. It’s very hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Then again, it’s a social business—there’s drugs, there’s alcohol, there’s sex. This goes without saying: you have to protect yourself. Just be responsible for you and the other person.

I think that depression is rampant in hip-hop, and I think it’s an epidemic and nobody talks about it. It’s a really big f@$%!g problem. I feel like I’ve heard Kendrick Lamar talk about being depressed in his lyrics and if I ever met him face-to-face I would say, “I want you to come out and talk about this.” Kid Cudi is obviously depressed. There are many…Fat Joe talked about it on the [Spotify] Mogul podcast. Joe was depressed. If I had my druthers…what I wanted to do since I lost Chris Lighty was I wanted to have a forum around this, but it’s really hard to get people to talk about it publicly. So it’s this vicious cycle that happens.

And look, I don’t have a depressive nature, so I can’t speak to how hard it would be to talk about this and admit this. And I’m also not a famous person who is supposed to be impenetrable and be this warrior where there’s no crack in the veneer. I’m not saying that it’s easy to talk about something like this, but I’m saying that it’s necessary. I’m saying that people need to start coming out and talking about their own experience with depression so that we can lift the stigma off it. So rather than going out there and talking about Molly, Percocet, Lean, and all of the prescription drugs you take to get high, why doesn’t somebody start talking about why you need to get high all of the time? I have no judgment of doing drugs and getting drunk, I don’t have a problem with that, but the second it starts to affect you and those around you negatively and have a negative impact, you have a substance abuse problem.

You asked how do we make it better? For me, it’s everything. Racism, sexism, homophobia, depression, any of these things; it all starts with a conversation. I’m trying to have bigger conversations. I’m doing interviews like this, giving lectures. I’m getting out there and being public and speaking from my 30 years of experience in this industry and I’m talking about it. I’m trying to create a space where other people feel like, “Oh ok, you know what, we should be talking about this.”  Like 90% of the people in the room have thought about it, but haven’t talked about it.

#7 Be Gracious to Everyone

You know, everybody falls at famous people’s feet. It’s a cult of celebrity. They get whisked into doors. They never have to wait in line. They always get the corner table. Right? An artist lives this kind of unreal life, and I’m not saying that they don’t deserve it. I’ve enjoyed some of those benefits being with them. The whole world builds up this sense of self-importance that can be very hollow. If you are weak of character, you will allow it to make you think that you are better than other people; that you are entitled in a way that you are not. You have to say thank you to people because they are working their asses off for you.

#8 Thank Your Team

The problem is with artists [at times] they tend to be so narcissistic, so egomaniacal and so self-centered that they have a hard time thinking of people outside of themselves. They always have to remember that it takes a village. Nobody does it on their own! It takes a village and you have to acknowledge your team.

Now…the cynical side of me (the pragmatic, practical side of me) thinks you should also be nice to that intern because that intern could be running the record company in four years. And the difference between dropping you and supporting you might be how you treated them that one time.

#9 Play the Long Game

The long-game strategy is again to look into investments. A lot of artists just look for the fast money. Sometimes that makes sense. It often makes sense. Especially if they’re saying, “I want to buy house, Sophia. I need a down payment. Get me the cash.” I get it. And even that’s a long game strategy because you’re investing in real estate. I think it’s really important that—and I’ve only learned this myself in later years—that we need (and when I say “we” I mean people of color…and when I say “we” I really mean women of color) to start truly understanding our value of what we bring to the table and when appropriate, we should be fighting for equity.  

#10 Samples – If You Borrow, You Must Pay

You have to understand the science of sampling. There are whole industries built around catching samples [laughs]. There are companies salivating with every Def Jam release. They will comb through, listen, and look at the credits. Let’s say they hear whatever sample by whatever artist. They look at the credits and notice that the artist wasn’t credited in the publishing or in the songwriting. They will reach out to the artist and say, “We think there’s been an infringement on your copyright. Let us go after your money and we’ll get paid for it.” That’s one thing. There are industries built around catching samples. I’m not saying the publishing companies. I’m saying industries that go to publishing companies who are watching everything that comes out.

The other thing artists have to understand is that lyrical interpolations, although not technically samples, are copyright infringements. There are record companies and the majority of the claims against them are about lyrical interpolation as opposed to actual samples. So let’s say that a rapper says, “Cash rules everything around me/ cream get the money…” not as the chorus, but just as part of the verse. That’s a copyright infringement. They need to clear that. People do that all of the time.

See, back in the day when I was doing A&R and I was leading sample clearance for Jive [Records], there was this rule that rappers didn’t sue rappers. That’s not the case anymore because the music business has imploded; nobody’s selling CDs anymore, nobody’s selling music anymore. The business model has collapsed, and it means that record companies are looking for other sources of income. One of them is sampling. On the publishing side you interpolated or infringed upon my copyright. You have to be really, really careful.

I understand how essential sampling is to hip-hop. I get it. I talk to many producers about it. I’m never going to question that. The truth of the matter is that you should pay the people whose art you have used in your own. It’s just the right thing to do.

Sophia can be found dropping gems on her blog http: sophchang.com and on social media:

Twitter: @sophchang

Facebook: sophchangnyc

Instagram: @sophchangnyc

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