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Blu & Exile Talk A Decade Of Dominance And Missing Material

"Now I’m ready for the underground to drown the mainstream!" – Blu

Prior to the early aughts, the line between underground and mainstream hip-hop was drawn with a fat cap. In the mainstream, the hustler, West Coast gangster and East Coast mafioso rappers reigned supreme—while the underground was a little less discriminating. It was a home to everyone from thought-provoking, revolutionary-minded “conscious” emcees to Golden Era revivalists, verbose backpackers and intentionally off-putting horrorcore acts. With everything in between, the underground was unified in one way—its shared disdain for anything deemed commercial.

By 2007, that all changed, however. Aided by advancements in Internet technology, underground artists were able to reach more and more fans. On the flip side, the Internet also changed the way people consumed music—and some indie rap institutions failed to adapt. Furthermore, with the crossover success of artists like Eminem and Kanye West, who wouldn’t have traditionally been considered as commercially-palatable, the corporate music industry recognized that there was more room for (and money to be made from) a variety of voices in the mainstream. That year, Kanye—who had a reputation for pairing underground emcees like Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) with artists like JAY-Z and Freeway—destroyed 50 Cent in their 2007 record sales battle, arguably signifying the end of an era for both mainstream and underground hip hop alike.

At the same time, out in Cali, two other visionaries teamed up to break down barriers, themselves. Also in 2007, rapper/producer duo Blu & Exile dropped their beautifully executed debut, Below The Heavens—a unique blend of sounds and styles, void of gimmicks or musical fads. Both progressive and nostalgic, experimental yet rooted, the limited-release was propelled by Internet word of mouth and soon became a highly sought-after cult classic. Ten years and some reissues later, Blu and Exile have decided to revisit the material they created at this important epoch in hip hop-history, releasing In The Beginning: Before The Heavens. Serving as a prequel to their debut, the product of its early sessions, In The Beginning is a testament to the timelessness of true art. UGHH chopped it up with the dynamic duo to break down their decade.

Whenever you have a debut as celebrated as Below The Heavens, there will always be those fans who want a return to that sound or moment. I know you’ve said you don’t really feel that pressure when creating in the past, but is In The Beginning in any way a response to that sentiment?

Blu: Oh my God, yes! Fans always request “Below The Heavens” more than any other piece in my catalogue, and I like all my material, so it was a no-brainer for us to re-release songs from that era.

Blu says you recorded 75 songs while working on Below The Heavens, but you only had about 40 to choose from for In The Beginning, correct? Any idea where those missing tracks are? You keeping ’em on ice for the 20th Anniversary?

Exile: We’ve been trying to track down these songs for a minute. No one has the songs anymore! This was back before I had a laptop and before we had our own recording equipment, besides a four-track cassette recorder, so we didn’t really fuck with hard drives—to be able to keep [them] for ourselves. It was [all] in the hands of the label. They say [the music is] on a damaged hard drive, but I don’t believe it. They released some songs from the old sessions on a reissue of Below The Heavens, so they must have it! Diego, please give it to us! I love ya! [laughs]. We have so many more songs!

Blu: Man, there are only two people left on Earth with those songs. If we had access, I would have put [out] a couple of others we made — like “American Dreams Pt. 2” and “Searching To Find The One.”

Exile: Yup! Both songs are me and Blu going in bar-for-bar, actually. We need to find those! [laughs]. Fire!

Below the Heavens

What made you guys decide to revisit your old material? Were you just feeling nostalgic, or did you seek it out with the intention of releasing it for the anniversary? Has that been the plan for a while, or did it happen more organically?

Blu: Actually, I just recently started collecting a lot of old songs from my catalogue after my studio and hard drives were robbed. After gathering like 15, I had Exile check them—because he was actually thinking of re-releasing my first album, California Soul. That album is actually the material on ice.

Was it weird hearing all your old songs again? Was it like stepping back in time, or more like hearing ’em for the first time?

Exile: A little of both. It’s a great feeling; hearing them back and reflecting on all the work and time we spent on the music.

Blu: Man, I dig it. It was a great era for me musically, so naturally the songs from the sessions came out nice, as well. Even though they didn’t make the album, I enjoy listening to them a lot. I wish I could listen to my music a lot more, but unfortunately I do enjoy making music to feed my daughter, as well [laughs].

Blu, on “Soul Provider,” you spit a line: “The showstopper, rock spots and flow proper / No album out at Fat Beats, but still know how to pack seats with no problem.” Now Fat Beats not only carries your music, but also helps put it out. How’d it feel to listen back to that line, considering your career since?

Blu: That had to be the first song on the tape [laughs]!

Exile: Yeah, whoa, what a trip!

On “Back To Basics,” you said what you’re gonna do for Black music is “chop it up, loop it and rap to it.” Besides the obvious, what did you mean by that? What’s the message there?

Blu: That was a line dedicated to real hip-hop. Back to basics.

Exile, you told Billboard you wanted “Constellations” on the original album, but that Blu didn’t. It ended up being the first joint released off In The Beginning. Blu, why weren’t you feeling it for Below The Heavens, and what changed after revisiting it?

Blu: Originally, Miguel sang on it with his homegirl, but we only found the earlier version. I liked the song, obviously, [since] we re-released it—but originally we could only afford 15 songs on the record out of 75. So I had to be choosy and decisive, you know?

Exile: I’m glad it didn’t make the album. I think sonically it didn’t make sense for the classic.


When you guys were working on Below The Heavens, did you realize you were onto something so special, or was it just business as usual, at first? While recording, did either of you ever think, “We’re about to drop a certified classic that people will be talking about 10 plus years from now, right here?”

Blu: I was just hoping people would hear it! Our label was going out of business, at the time, and we only pressed up 3,500 CDs—and the CD just had a single ship. We didn’t [even] have money for a photo shoot or videos anymore, so the success of the album was a farfetched wish. Not to mention the complete album leaked a year before it was released. People wanted it, but I was sure it was over—as far as hitting [anyone] with a gem “out of the blue,” you know? But it made it.

I’ve heard you guys have different mentalities when it comes to recording and putting out new music. Blu, you like to drop raw, rough mixes at will, while you’ve claimed Exile is a little more methodical and calculated with it, in the past. Can either of you elaborate on this dynamic a little? Do your styles ever clash, or do you think you end up balancing each other out?

Blu: Really, I’m blessed to work with Exile. I am a fan of his production, and he is a perfectionist, so he has the will to produce artists well. I love making raw shit, and he does too, so we connect there—but most times he tosses my ideas out the window [laughs].

A lot of folks cite Kanye West beating 50 Cent in their record sales battle as the start of the decline of gangsta rap’s dominance, which ultimately helped open the doors for a lot of underground cats to get on in a major way. In turn, some consider it the end of a Golden Era for underground hip-hop. You released Below The Heavens that same year (and recorded the material for In The Beginning prior). Before then, the line between underground and commercial hip-hop was drawn and very clear, but kind of became blurred after. Where did y’all feel like y’all fit in that environment, back then?

Blu: My first album was commercial as fuck, and it had me talking to major labels like Interscope and Death Row. Then I met Exile, and his production reminded me of my favorite music: like Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla, and Hi-Tek. We did a few songs and got signed to do an album, and I already had it in mind to make a hip-hop album reminiscent of the Golden [Era]—dedicated to the underground, this time, and not the majors (since the title [was] “Below The Heavens,” which means the underground). I was also aware of artists [and labels] like Self Scientific, Little Brother, and Stones Throw, so I knew we couldn’t do no half-assed album with such great music…being made in the underground.

How about now?

Blu: Now I’m ready for the underground to drown the mainstream! Especially the West Coast underground!

What’s good with a new-new album? If y’all were to start working on a brand new project, do you think you’d approach it similarly and try to give the fans something familiar, or would you experiment with the sound next time around?

Exile: We are going to make another classic with all that we’ve learned, [throughout] the years. We’re the unsung heroes of the West! Hip-hop, we got you!

Blu: We’re gonna do a trap album [laughs].

Snag a copy of Blu & Exile’s In the Beginning: Before the Heavens on CD here or pre-order the vinyl here.

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

It was the dead of Winter. 1995. It’s late on a Saturday night in a land far away, at a time long ago, back when there was no Internet. There was only basic cable, so what’s a 15-year-old boy supposed to do? I used to masturbate to rap video hoes on Urban Xpressions on Channel 48 ‘cause it was local access and they would always show the “raw” versions the videos.

In between Patra and Wreckx-N-Effect videos, I remember seeing the gas flame on the stove, the red Hennesy jersey (not “Hennessy, ”but Hennesy with one S), the drum intro. “Shook Ones” changed my life forever that night.

My mother had just recently died of cancer, my grandfather got diagnosed with cancer (they gave ‘em nine months to live. He’s still alive and kicking with no treatment. FTW.), and my brother would die at the hands of the local police a year later.

‘95 and ‘96 were two of the hardest years of my life, and my ONLY coping mechanism was rap music. Mobb Deep was at the top of the list. Prodigy was my favorite rapper. He WAS New York street rap, and when executed masterfully, there’s nothing better.

I didn’t know Prodigy well, yet I felt his death the way people felt John Lennon’s death. It sent a shock wave through social media. Anyone who’s anyone showed respect, and I can truly say we all lost one with his passing. I’m extremely grateful for his contributions, and even more grateful that I got the dream opportunity to get him on a song this year—which was YEARS in the making. I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from losing someone like Prodigy. For all of the true Prodigy heads like myself, I wanted to share some of his greatest deep cuts.

Mobb Deep & Kool G Rap – “The Realest”

The first time I ever heard “The Realest” was on Thug Thursdays. After Stretch & Bobbito split and were doing every other week, Stretch Armstrong played “Thug Muzik” and “The Realest” back to back. It was not only my favorite Mobb Deep song ever, but maybe my favorite song of all time. It was also my first official introduction to the Alchemist who became my favorite producer and REALLY gave Prodigy a second wind. It’s crazy how you can go from The Infamous to Hell on Earth to Murda Muzik, then you add someone like ALC and the whole dynamic changes for the better. It’s fucking incredible to this day.

Prodigy – “Money Is a Weapon”

Ignore the date on the embedded video; this was one of the last things they leaked before finishing HNIC 2 when P went to prison. This is Prodigy at the absolute top of his game. 2007-2008 was nothing but incredible music. Some people may recognize the beat; 50 Cent used the same ALC instrumental for “The Mechanic,” which is probably why this song never went much further than this video. I prefer “Money is a Weapon,” and I think you will as well. The video is gritty and raw, the music is gritty and raw…what more could you ask for?

Prodigy, Un Pacino & H Brando – “They Want Me Dead”

This is the hardest shit ever. Un Pacino and H Brando are Far Rock street legends. They’re in a group called Hard White alongside Scott Cane, Boogz Boogets, and Mumbles. They were breaking through around the time Un Pacino illustrated some of the realest rap shit ever, only to go down hard for a home invasion. Prodigy was already in prison when Product of the 80’s dropped, and it’s just raw. It’s everything I want in a street record. The intro alone is Un Pac listing federal prisons that he may or may not end up doing time in. Sid Roams’s eerie signature backdrop plays perfectly. Product of the 80’s is a GREAT record that unfortunately missed a lot of listeners, which could be due to Prodigy being in jail. When you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind.

The Almighty RSO ft. Prodigy – “The War’s On”

Do yourself a favor and just skip to 1:52 in the video. You don’t need to see Benzino and his Bostonian Goon Squad ruining this ridiculously ill Havoc beat. Prodigy absolutely kills it. “Fuck a pearly white gate, all that bullshit is fake, the only gates I see is if they send the God upstate.” And this was ’96; this was post-Infamous when Prodigy was pretty much the most in-demand street rapper in the business. This passed everybody by because, again, even pre-Eminem beef who the fuck wants to hear anyone on this song except for Prodigy? Maybe Dart Adams (hi, Dart)? Prodigy flamed the shit out of this song and it should’ve been something in the tuck for Mobb Deep to use. Incredible verse.

Mobb Deep & I20 – “When It Comes To Beef”

Alchemist looped up Isaac Hayes; Prodigy and Havoc both spit vintage verses. This is off ALC’s Insomnia mixtape, which is flawless in its own right. Prodigy spits a cryptic flow about his cousin Craig catching bodies at Wendy’s, a sneak diss to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony for no real reason, and it’s just what makes Mobb Deep great. Less is more in every conceivable fashion, leading to an incredible listening experience. This came out in 2003. It’s 2017, and I still don’t know who I20 is. It doesn’t matter. He provided the hook and kept it movin’ apparently. Was he cousin Craig? Hmmm.

Prodigy & Cormega – “Three”

My favorite song off the original HNIC album. This shit is no frills: the Alchemist beat, no hook, and both verses are fire. This is riding music. Point. Blank. Period.

Mobb Deep – “It’s Over”

Havoc killed the Eric Gale sample, and this was during a lull—if you could even call it that. I loved the Free Agents mixtape. It wasn’t well-received, but this was the B-side to “Solidified” on the 12″ and I thought it was clearly the highlight of the Free Agents mixtape. “You know you love our style, get off our dick.” It’s some smooth G-shit especially for 2003, when the music was clearly shifting toward a whole new paradigm. They stayed tried and true to what they do best. I love “It’s Over.”

Prodigy – “Bang On Em”

You could pick any song off Return Of The Mac, but this is my personal favorite for selfish reasons. The sample is The Montclairs, which I had JUST flipped maybe a few weeks before I heard “Bang On Em” and retired my low rent version for good. I was astonished by how Alchemist flipped it. P spit that futuristic, yet vintage street shit, and a few days later I heard the whole project. I said it then, it was an instant classic. Now in 2017, I think Return Of The Mac is the last classic album. It’s the only album in the past decade where you don’t have to skip a single track. It flows seamlessly, the synergy between Alchemist and Prodigy is perfect, the features were minimal and effective, and I’m going to listen to Return Of The Mac as soon as I’m done writing this.

Prodigy & Nas – “Tick Tock”

The best song off Alchemist’s 1st Infantry album. Nas and P sound like they did in the Infamous days. It illustrates a tale of growing up in NYC, and the beat is some of the smoothest laid back G-shit you’ll ever hear. I remember when I first heard the leaked Nas verse, no one even knew Prodigy was on it. Then when the full version was on ALC’s album, I skipped everything to listen to “Tick Tock” first. It’s one of the best Alchemist beats of all time.

Prodigy & Big Twins – “What A Real Mobb Do”

There was a snippet of Prodigy driving around in his Porsche listening to this song. It never came out on anything officially, and I remember searching far and wide for days. It leaked on the net via Tapemasters, Inc. This shit is a rugged Alchemist beat with P just spitting. It’s around the time they were doing Return of the Mac, as several songs off that were leaked via mixtapes like Stuck On You and Legends. This song never went beyond the Internet I don’t think, which is a damn shame ‘cause it’s the hardest shit out there.

Vanderslice has produced for the likes of Prodigy, Action Bronson, Styles P, Jadakiss, Evidence, and Freddie Gibbs. His upcoming project “The Best Album Money Can Buy” is slated for a Fall release. Check out his beats here: https://vanderslice.bandcamp.com/

LR Blitzkrieg Is Back…For the First Time

“I feel like a lot of ‘90s rappers and early 2000’s rappers are stuck in that sound and don’t know how to get out of it or don’t know how to merge that sound with what’s going on today. I do not want to be one of those rappers.”

Being an OG in hip-hop usually comes with a large catalogue of songs, features, and albums, but for LR Blitzkrieg, the path to veteran status has been unconventional. The Brooklyn-bred emcee is dropping his first solo LP after a 20-year career in the hip-hop underground. He’s built a reputation off his battling skills in New York City’s Washington Square Park, and starting MCMI Records alongside his crew, The Plague, with fellow local legends GMS, Wild Child, and the late Pumpkinhead.

We spoke with LR Blitzkrieg about the release of his solo debut single “PROXY” (the video features UGHH owner Mike King aka iCON The Mic King), and his upcoming LP Outta Nowhere. The cover art for the album is a photograph of a tornado forming over a farmhouse and Blitz explains how it is linked to the title and his stage name. He also delves into music as social consciousness, the current state of hip-hop, and where his music fits within the confines of being an independent artist.

Are you ready to finally release this music after so long?

Yeah man, I really am. I have been sitting on these songs for all long time. Since, I wanna say 2013, but yeah man I am excited. Especially about “PROXY”

After all this time, why now?

PH [Pumpkinhead]. I was speaking to him one day and I told him I wanted to do this solo thing and he was behind me the whole way. Right away he told me he wanted to executive produce the album, because he knew way more producers than I did and immediately started linking me up with producers.

What was so special about “PROXY”?

So the first person PH hooked me up with was Hezekiah, who I got a joint with on the album, and then Hezekiah put me in touch with Ness Lee, a dope emcee/producer from Atlanta who produced about 90% of my upcoming album. Ness sent me a beat, and I had no idea what to do with it so I sent it to PH and asked him to give me some direction, and he was like “I got you.” Seven hours later, I’m walking home and he calls me back hyped like, “Yo I got a hook for you!” That’s the part that is like a prayer, which goes, “Now I lay me down asleep / I pray my Lord my soul to keep / and if I don’t die before I wake / when I wake up we gonna spend all this cake.” Then I just sat on it for like a year to work on these other dope beats Ness kept sending, and I just forgot about that one for a minute. But when PH died in 2015, I knew I had to get back to album, but mostly get back to “PROXY.”

So his death put certain things into perspective…

PH died so unexpectedly, and when I really thought about it I remembered that my best friend in high school was shot and killed at a movie theater on Christmas Day, and another friend me and PH had that died when I was in junior high school. So it hit me that I lost three of my very best friends throughout my life, and it made me start thinking about all these other people you see being shot by police. I wanted to encapsulate everything I was feeling into one song. I wanted the song to show that I am here now, but I never know what is going to happen, so I am not going to wait to have fun and enjoy my life. At the same time I want to do it for these people who aren’t here anymore, which is why the song is called “PROXY.”

The last shot of the video is very striking, with you having a gun to your head after being pulled over by the police. What is it that you want people to take away from that image?

The video is like a trojan horse, and I wanted it that way, because I wanted to give everyone that feeling of a good time, but hold on there is another reality and it is the reality of the world Black people live in. This is what we deal with everyday; and not just for us to see it, but live it. For the people who don’t understand that to see it and be like “Whoa! This is real!” That’s what I want that image to show. Our reality.

So then what kind of conversation do you want people to have after watching “PROXY”?

I want to have so many conversations about this song—not just about the song or the video—but the artwork as well. For the single, I redid the cover of midnight marauders using the faces of people who left a lasting impact before and after dying. The cover has the faces of Phife Dawg, Sean Price, Emmett Till, Freddie Gray, Sean Bell, and Sandra Bland. I want people who don’t know who everybody is on the cover art to go online and look up these people and learn why they are so important. There are a lot of conversations I want people to have, but the main one is about why situations like Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Sean Bell are happening. How can we fix it? What are the things we can put into place to try and change the way things are? You know this song to me is why Colin Kaepernick is taking a knee. I didn’t initially make “PROXY” for that reason, but when I shot the video I was hoping that it would help somebody think a little bit differently about what we deal with in the world.

LR Blitzkrieg

Do you have a release date for the album?

Not quite, because I am still working on a lot of the tracks—but as for cover art, I have always been fascinated by supercell storms and how they form over places really out of nowhere and obliterate everything in its way. It goes with my name BlitzKrieg, which basically means “lightning war.” So like a supercell storm, it is has a fast attack that you’re not ready for. It’s the unexpected.

Would you say “PROXY” and Outta Nowhere fit into the genre today?

“PROXY” I’m not so sure about. The beat is kinda odd to me, and I can’t really place where it fits in today’s music, or if it even fits at all. I don’t think it sounds retro, but I don’t think it’s the “trap sound” of today. I do think the LP will fit somewhere in the middle, just because I try not to make music that sounds retro, or that has that ‘90s sound. If it’s boombap, just for the sake of being boombap, then I don’t want to do it unless I’m making a retro song on purpose. I feel like a lot of ‘90s rappers and early 2000’s rappers are stuck in that sound and don’t know how to get out of it or don’t know how to merge that sound with what’s going on today. I do not want to be one of those rappers. I think all of my songs will have a place in hip-hop, but as far as the sound, a lot of my album doesn’t sound like “Bodak Yellow.” But I think people will be able to appreciate it.

So you aren’t one of those “back in my day” kind of artists?

Not at all. I personally like a lot of stuff that is out right now. I don’t like it all, but I like a lot of it and definitely appreciate the energy these artists bring to the music. A lot of veteran emcees just don’t like what is going on in hip-hop today and they have a feeling of entitlement like then was better than now. Look, I don’t necessarily like the repetitiveness of what it is, but it is a business; so if a beat works they’re going to make that beat 1,000 times. You know it is the same trap beat with a couple of electronic sounds over it. I like the sound, but I want to hear other things, and my album is going to have a nice balance of sound.

There is a cameo in the video of iCON The Mic King (owner of UGHH) in your video. How did you get our fearless leader in there?

Man, iCON has been a really good friend of mine for a long time. I’ve known iCON for about 15 years now, and we met when he was still in Philly and he is family with one of my crew members, PackFM. It’s funny how we got him in the video. I went out to A3C in ATL, and in a kind of spur of the moment my brother was like, “Yo let’s go to Vegas and shoot the video this weekend!” I was like yeah let’s go. So when we get to Vegas I’m looking through Facebook and I see that iCON is out there. I hit him up and tell him, “Yo we gotta hang out!” The next day he hits me up, and we hit up the race track and I’m like dude that will fit perfectly in the video. So we head out to the track and he got like a McLaren and I had a yellow Lamborghini and we tore the track up. Man, it was a lot of fun. iCON is a lot of fun.

You are also one of the founders of MCMI. What’s it like being an independent artist with his own label?

It sucks! I mean look it gives you the freedom to do what you want, but it is a lot of work and if you don’t have the team to give tasks to then everything falls on you. That’s why I’m here on three hours sleep uploading shit to ASCAP, YouTube and every social media site or talking to the venue to make sure everything is good for my event. Me and GMS pretty much do everything for the label, and PH was also a part of the company. Unfortunately, he isn’t here anymore; but yeah a lot falls on us, especially with my brother touring his album and working on his second album right now.

How difficult is it to balance your career as a rapper, and your life outside of music?

I have been in hip-hop for over 20 years, and I’m just putting out my first single, but I have been featured on a lot of stuff. So to put something out that’s your own is completely different, and for me to have waited this long was partly due to the daily grind of having a job and making a living.  I don’t know if I would’ve done that any differently, because I have a lot of friends that are independent artists or underground hip-hop artists that have put out albums, have toured, and gone places and seen things and have done all that stuff, yet they don’t have anything to show for it right now. They are forced to make more music, more content, and try and force it out in order to live—rather than doing it because they need to or want to express something that they have inside of them.

So where do you go from here?

You know, I probably have another six songs past this album, so there will probably be some other projects. I just want to focus on putting this one out, because I know the music is good and people are going to like it. So where do I go from here? I don’t know. But I know that I am always going to make hip-hop music.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gospel Of Sampling According to Vanderslice

"There are WAY more records in the world than there are mp3's and YouTube videos. Be unique. Go do something different."

The art of the sample: where does one begin? It’s been a staple of production since the 1980’s. Whether it’s a drum break, a sound effect, an “ooh” or an “ahh,” sampling has been the cornerstone of most modern music. The art was frowned upon by a lot of sampled artists during the hip-hop takeoff, considering most of what was going on in rap was lost in translation by the sampled guys. However, hip-hop pushed through like it always does, and innovated as it always has. Back then most of the artists who ventured into sampling had no access to large-scale studios and used what they could to create something special and unique. Sampling was and always will be a staple of music.

Now, the art of digging for samples is whole other adventure that has significantly changed over the years. I want to preface my next words by saying they will absolutely read like I’m an old curmudgeon, but it is what it is. I take this very seriously. Music pays my bills, primarily because my style is bred from samples that you’ll probably never unearth. Why? Because you don’t dig how I dig. I hold my samples in my hand still, and most are worth more than your mother’s mortgage (including that $200 you pay to occupy her basement…I see you). Anyway, so the record store is a level playing field. It doesn’t matter how famous you are, how talented you are, who you know, or even how much money you have. If you have a single dollar you can find something in a record store. There is a serious lack of ethics when it comes to sampling—partly because it was bred out of necessity, partly because the elders would rather throw up roadblocks than encourage and teach the youth, and partly because people are scumbags. The more accessible something becomes, the lower the barrier of entry gets. Eventually the standards fall. Rap music without sampling is everything you don’t want in your life. It’s synthetic and cold. There’s no feel to the music, so there’s no emotion in the music, and the listener is left with an empty feeling they replace with “Molly and Percocet.”

That’s why I’m here; to remind everyone of the value of sampling with finesse and not bastardizing it for the sake of grab someone else’s creation as a lazy way out of creating your own. I am going to omit the obvious. I’m not going to mention drum breaks a la “Substitution” and “Impeach The President.” I’m not going to talk about James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Kool & The Gang, etc. This is more in tune with simply things that I hear that annoy me as a fan and as a producer. I know the “Amen” break was sampled 2500 times. Nobody gives a fuck; that break is shit anyway. It’s hard to tackle the issue of sampling because SO many people just do it wrong. So many people are looking for a hit or a quick fix; most people don’t know shit about arrangement or progression. Then you have the flipside of kids who only want to make beats that already sound like someone else’s. You have to take and use your influences, and apply them to YOUR music. Have something identifiable for the listener to relate to and feel. That’s the whole gig. Give the listener something they can feel.

Over the years, sampling has become sort of a lost art. Very few people dig for records and even fewer people dig for samples. As rap music becomes more corporate, more diluted, and less artfully done, the music will suffer. The keys on a piano sound exactly the same on every piano. An A-flat is always gonna be an A-flat. DJ Mustard is not a genius. The sad state of affairs we’re currently in is our own fault. People are led by the urge to profit off what they’re creating, as opposed to creating itself. EVERY corner a kid can cut in 2017 is getting cut. They don’t go buy records and try to make something that they identify with. No, they go look up “hot Alchemist sample” on YouTube and then sample a poorly encoded, lo-fi, no feel, YouTube video and do their best impression of Alchemist. I’m going to illustrate this the best way I possibly can.

There are four simple rules—and if you are going to sample, please for the love of God and all things holy: STOP DOING THESE THINGS. Here are the rules you SHOULDN’T follow.

Rule No. 1: If you can’t do it better than the original, then don’t do it at all.

Sample:

Stavros Xarchakos – “Palikari Dipsasmeno”

Sampled by:

Dilated Peoples – “Reach Us”

Bryson Tiller – “Self Made”

The Dilated Peoples beat is sublime and is produced by Joey Chavez & Bravo. Together they make Sid Roams aka the last purveyors of quality street rap music. Bryson Tiller’s shit is buns: 808 kit, lazy chop, and a bad mix make for things all bad. The Bryson Tiller joint is so wack, if you go search for it on YouTube, the first page is like four instrumental versions. Do yourself a favor and just go listen to the Dilated joint.

Rule No. 2: If it’s a hit, leave it on the goddamn shelf.

This goes both ways. I’m not talking about P Diddy and Trackmasters sampling “Juicy Fruit,” I’m talking about everyone hearing “Mask Off” by Future, finding the sample, and then sampling the OG. You are a SCUMBAG if you do this. PERIOD.

Sample:

Tommy Butler – “Prison Song”

Sampled by:

Future – “Mask Off”

Insert 500 try hards here for everyone else who tried to flip this sample better. Just search “Mask Off flip” and grab a bucket to vomit into. Young Metro and I don’t trust you. This was hands down the best execution of the sample. Don’t even try it.

Rule No. 3: Stop sampling the same songs.

Here’s an extreme example of an artist sampling a song twice.

Sample:

Incredible Bongo Band – “In a Gadda Da Vida”

Sampled by:

Nas – “Thief’s Theme”

Nas – “Hip Hop is Dead”

Incredible Bong Band’s “In a Gadda Da Vida” was masterfully used by Salaam Remi on “Thief’s Theme” and then poorly used by will.i.am on “Hip Hop is Dead.” This is an abuser of Rules 1 AND 2. It’s a perfect highlight of everything that can go wrong with sampling.

Now for an overused sample.

Sample:

Sister Nancy – “Bam Bam”

Sampled by:

Run-DMC – “Down With The King” (Ruffness Mix)

Jay Z – “Bam”

According to my calculations, I can recall 50+ songs that sampled this shit. I only hope that Sister Nancy is eating a full plate as opposed to Ruff House who probably owns the sample (insider gag lulz). Pete Rock’s “Down With The King” remix was killer, Jay Z’s most recent usage in “Bam” was also dope. What’s really crazy is how the value of the 45 plummeted after it was reissued. That’s probably why there are 75 versions of it out there, you beat jackin’, CD samplin’, reissue ownin’, YouTube diggin’ hacks. STOP SAMPLING THIS SHIT.

Also sampled by:

Sean Price – “Jamaican”

My favorite flip, it’s a very straightforward beat produced by Khrysis. Sean P rides it flawlessly. You don’t need anything more than this and the original sample. It’s hardbody.

Wiz Khalifa & Chris Brown – “Bomb”

The worst flip of any sample of all time. This is so extra in every sense of the word and is unpleasant to listen to.

Closing Thoughts:

If you want to sample, take 20 dollars and Google “record stores near me” and turn your location on for three minutes so the FEDs can spy on you *cues dramatic music*. Then just go to a record store, buy whatever you think looks good in the dollar bins, go home, and start there. You can get a USB turntable for 99 dollars. It’s an investment in yourself that will ultimately help you expand your horizons as an artist and more importantly, as a listener. There are WAY more records in the world than there are mp3’s and YouTube videos. Be unique. Go do something different. Even if your first beats are breaking all of these rules, you get a grace period of 1 – 3 years before that becomes a felony offense. Everyone that started making beats was garbage when they started. It’s a combination of effort and time that will develop your skill set. Anything less is uncivilized. Don’t put your beats on Soundcloud three weeks after you started and get that American Idol ego. Put the time and effort in and grow into yourself as an artist. Sampling is a path to enlightenment when it’s done properly. The rest of you guys can go back to using your MIDI controller keyboards rocking on those broken (stolen) VST’s pumping out the same two-finger melodies until the cows come home.

If you need me, I’ll be in the Gospel section pushing this shit forward.

Godspeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anchovies album cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB: It got emotional in the studio…

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB:  I like mayo bro…

There goes your white side again…

[EVERYONE LAUGHS]

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

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

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

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

AB: It definitely don’t smell like roses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PA: Baller belly. I run hella fast though.

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

PA: Your arms are short though.

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

YOU got arrested? For what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Department Stores, Elevator Music, and Obscure Cassette Tapes: The Story Behind Juicy The Emissary’s Attention Kmart Choppers

When I listen to it, it brings me back to the Kmart days.

When Aurora, Illinois resident and IT employee Mark Davis obtained his first tape recorder in 1980, the ability to capture sound at the young age of seven awakened a lifelong fascination with documenting and cataloging audio. “I had this thought in my mind where I wanted to preserve recordings that I made,” says Davis.  “I always felt that anything that was voice recorded should be preserved.”

A resident of Naperville, Illinois during his younger years, Davis’ fixation with audio preservation took an unexpected turn when he landed a job at the local Kmart in October of 1989. From his first day on the job, Davis was intrigued by the Kmart-issued cassette tapes that played throughout the store during the day. First manufactured by the Tape-Athon company and later churned out by Tower Sound and Communications, the Naperville Kmart ran the cassettes until the tape inside was threadbare before replacing them. “These things ran for 12–14 hours a day for one month straight,” Davis explained in a YouTube video.

Davis described the songs on many of the tapes as “stock, generic, muzak, type of songs”— picture the soundtrack to a long escalator ride in a crowded mall or an extended wait in a doctor’s office. Listening to muzak on repeat for an entire work week might sound miserable to the modern music connoisseur, but Davis found himself enjoying the tapes after a while. “When you work these shifts and you hear these songs over and over again, it’s not that you love the songs, but you get to know and you get to like them,” he says. “And these were songs that…you didn’t have Shazam [so] you had no idea where to get them.”

As his first month at Kmart flew by and October gave way to Thanksgiving, Davis noticed the Tape-Athon cassette from October sitting near the store’s audio equipment. With no policy on the books dictating the fate of expired tapes, the young and opportunistic Davis rescued it from the trash can. After preserving the October tape, he continued saving tapes from the local landfill for several years until he’d amass quite a collection. “It wasn’t like an obsession, but I really made a point of making sure that I had ‘em. When I was in college I had people at the store that would keep them for me,” he says.

With the Naperville store now closed and Kmart continuing to shutter their doors across the country, Davis held on to the tapes for over a quarter century as a nostalgic reminder of both a bygone era of American consumer culture and a formative time in his life. “I was 16 years old and Kmart was my first job, which lasted for ten years,” he told Vice in a 2015 interview. “I loved Kmart as a company and they were good to me and I met so many good friends.”

Davis finally decided to upload his anthology of discarded media to the website archive.org in a collection called Attention K-Mart Shoppers in September of 2015. Filled with muzak, the occasional popular song, and original Kmart corporate ads, the tapes became an instant hit with audiophiles and defunct media junkies around the net, gaining over two million views in less than two years.

It wasn’t long before the treasure trove of obscure sounds made its way into the hands of Denton, Texas producer and Street Corner Music artist Juicy The Emissary. An instant fan of Mark Davis’ intriguing backstory and the music contained within each cassette, Juicy saw the opportunity to build an album out of a 59-tape archive as a perfect attention grabber for today’s distracted music fan. “I really think having a gimmick is how you get people’s attention,” he says. “If you don’t have a gimmick, pretty much nobody’s gonna listen to your shit.”

Juicy The Emissary

After previewing a few snippets of Davis’ cache, Juicy spent several days listening to every single tape and capturing any sound that might fit his new project. “I basically wanted to use as much of the tapes as possible,” he says. “Whatever was usable or really good I tried to find a way to fit that in there.”

From there, Juicy meticulously sorted every sample into folders on his computer. Then he went to work deconstructing the samples and getting them ready for his compositions. Using the digital audio workstation Reason 4 and a simple M-Audio keyboard, Juicy used the samples to play out different melodies and patterns that eventually turned into a collection of seamless tracks. While discussing his unique workflow, Juicy is careful to point out that he doesn’t like to restrict himself by dedicating each recording session to a specific song. “I don’t think like, ‘I’m working on a beat’ — I’m just working. Whatever I’m working on might turn into a beat, or two, or three beats,” he explains.

Juicy started posting his Kmart creations in a series of 11 Instagram videos in 2015 and soon caught the ear of Street Corner Music owner House Shoes. Eager to add Juicy’s project to Street Corner’s impressive instrumental discography that includes esteemed producers like Ras G and Jake One, Shoes reached out to Juicy in the comments of his final Kmart-related video from late 2015. The Instagram compositions eventually turned into Attention Kmart Choppers, one of Street Corner Music’s crown jewels and Juicy’s most impressive album to date.

Attention Kmart Choppers

Though his efforts might sound more ambitious than a traditional instrumental album, turning 59 retail store-specific tapes worth of samples into a fluid listening experience falls in line with a typical Juicy project. “With a lot of my projects I like to try to tie everything together to make on cohesive, extended listening experience,” he says. “A lot of the samples that I’m looking for, I’m thinking of that application.”

Davis is well aware of Juicy’s seamless instrumental journey—and he’s thrilled with the creativity and vision needed to execute such a project. As he discovers more albums that use his cassettes as a primary sample source, he’s proud that his odd tape collection has inspired others to repurpose the sounds of his youth. “I’m actually quite honored,” Davis tells of Juicy the Emissary’s vision. “I find it very interesting because it shows me how creative people can reuse something that can kind of be monotone for face value. When I listen to it, it brings me back to the Kmart days.”

 

Attention Kmart Choppers on Bandcamp, Spotify

Full Kmart Tape Collection on archive.org

Video of the Naperville Kmart via 1990, taken by Mark Davis

All 11 Instagram Videos of Juicy making Kmart Choppers

 

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

Masta Ace Talks His Influence on Eminem and Successful Middle-Aged MCs

Dana Scott and the legendary Masta Ace talk career highs, influencing Eminem, squashing a 20-year beef with Onyx, and how a misunderstanding with Cage led to one historical diss track.

Hip-hop culture and rap music are now on the horizon towards 50 years of existence. Artists from the Generation X demographic are finally embraced and praised by millennial rap fans without being quickly dismissed as geezers in their dotage. Hip-hop’s longstanding ageist rationale has finally been eclipsed by quality of product released by forty-somethings and fifty-plus artists.

Is it fair to say that “50” is the new “20” in hip-hop? This streak for the middle-aged from rap’s Golden Era began with 51-year-old Dr. Dre’s Compton soundtrack in 2015, and stayed the course this past year: A Tribe Called Quest reemerged with arguably their best album since 1993’s Midnight Marauders; Kool Keith remains a respectable MC at age 53 with his latest album Feature Magnetic; E-40 continued his streak as a gold-selling artist while knocking on the half-century mark at 49; De La Soul’s crowdsource-funded album …And The Anonymous Nobody shot up to a brief No. 1 spot on the Billboard Rap chart; 44-year-old Ka’s Honor Killed The Samurai being lauded as of the year’s best albums; 46-year-old Fat Joe was as relevant as ever going “all the way up” to the top of the charts and winning Grammy nods with his Remy Ma-assisted smash single and remix with 47-year old Jay-Z of the same title. Meanwhile, Jay-Z’s 4:44 set the bar on how to define the “grown man’s rap era.”

Enter Masta Ace into this equation. The former Juice Crew Crooklyn Dodger returned in 2016 with his retrospective The Falling Season that was praised by his longtime fans. Ace celebrated his 50th birthday this year alongside a list of hip-hop icons to show him the love for his formidable catalog that’s going almost 30 years strong. A lot has changed for him since he dropped his legendary initial verse on Marley Marl’s 1988 classic “The Symphony,” but a lot has remained the same to prove himself as a respectable artist and producer. The once-signature sideways-worn houndstooth capped emcee spoke with UGHH about his unexpected entrance into the rap industry, being a former football player, the importance of his masterpiece SlaughtaHouse to Eminem’s career, settling old rap beefs, and why he avoids judging this current hip-hop generation’s music.

How Duval Clear Became Masta Ace

Talk about your pre-Juice Crew days and your experience trying to get on in the music industry.

There was no “trying to get on.” There was none. I was in college, I rapped, and I had no concept of making a demo. I didn’t even know nor understand what that was. I got into the game by chance. I was home from college on Christmas recess, and my boy was going to be in this rap contest at U.S.A. [rollerskating rink]. He asked me if I wanted to come along—I entered, I winded up winning the contest, and first prize was six hours of studio time with Marley Marl. That’s how I got on.

Being a student at University of Rhode Island, do you recall the dope old school and underground rap shows on WRIU 90.3 FM during the ‘80s and ‘90s?

Yeah, I was there in the mid-‘80s. I used to be an intern there, and I used to do rap promos for that station. I would love to hear some of those today if I could find them. I was up there a couple days a week consistently.

What did you learn the most from Marley Marl during those initial six hours spent with him in the studio?

In the early sessions, I didn’t really know what was happening. I was just rapping. I wasn’t paying attention to the button pushing or none of it. It wasn’t until we started to work on my album Take A Look Around that I started to learn stuff. What I learned in working on that first album was how to program and the “low end theory” secret, or what I call “the booming system” secret. On LL Cool J’s album Mama Said Knock You Out, there’s a deep undertone sound to every song that’s called a 40 hertz tone. Marley has that sound going through L’s whole album to give it this “low end” that nobody else’s records have. He taught me how to do that, and I took that knowledge with me. That’s when I started doing it for SlaughtaHouse, and really Sittin’ On Chrome is where I started to use that in my music to give it that bass. I was always talking about bass, jeep systems, and the boom to give it that knock.

How The Falling Season Examined Masta Ace’s First Love of Football

You have a documentary about your history as a football player and a high school coach. Plus, your latest album The Falling Season is centered around your teen years at Sheepshead Bay High School playing for their varsity team.

It’s just a mini-documentary of me telling the story of my high school team at Sheepshead Bay High School basically getting rid of the program. They changed the name of the school, the team colors, it’s like a whole new team now. It’s not even called the Sharks anymore, and I don’t even know what they call them now. But they had a sort of a going away party for the team, and I just thought that it needed to be documented. They brought back guys from the [year] that the team first started which is 1978. There were guys who were there from ‘78 to the early 2000s. They invited us all out, they bought us lunch, and they sent us all off on the last day of the season. It was a bittersweet experience, and I wanted some of the guys to talk about our coach. He doesn’t coach there anymore, but he was a huge influence on a lot of us. I wanted that to be heard and seen.

Were you trying to be recruited and join a Division 1 college football team before you enrolled at University of Rhode Island?

In my mind, I knew that I wasn’t D1-A, so I went to URI which at the time was considered to be a D1-AA school. So it was a step below 1-A, but I should’ve went D2. But in the mind of an 18-year-old, I’m like “D2, please!”

Your ego can get in your own way if you don’t manage it well as an ambitious, notable prep athlete.

It does, so that way of thinking honestly robbed me out of a college athletic experience. Because if I had gone D2, I probably would’ve gotten on the field and actually played. I would have probably played all four years at a D2 school.

The Influence of SlaughtaHouse On Eminem

Eminem has repeatedly cited you as one of his main influences in his career. What’s your take on that comparison of your songwriting and rhyme styles?

I think it’s really simple. My album SlaughtaHouse came out in 1993. [Eminem] explained to me that when it came out he was broke, just struggling like everybody else. He was in high school. He and his boys from D12 would ride around in a beat-up car, and that’s the album they played for that whole summer of 1993. And music is the kind of thing where depending on what was happening in your life when it came out, it has this influence on you, where every time you hear that piece of music, it takes you back to a happier time, or a time when “man, it wasn’t about money” or “we were just us chillin” riding in a beat-up car. I think people make too much of him listing me as his influence because he’s listened to other people. He’s listened to Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and other people. I think people gravitate towards me because I was an unexpected name for him to say. Everybody that he’s mentioned were kind of the typical influences, or cats that you hear sort of agree are the greatest. And then people are like, “Wait, Masta Ace? What?” That made people look more to what I was doing to see what the similarities were. I don’t think there was any, but [he] expressed to me that he loved that album as one of his influences as far as it goes.

Do you find it beyond coincidental that the supergroup in the second wave of Eminem’s Shady Records label is called Slaughterhouse?

That was interesting. I don’t know if he named them, or if somebody else did.

It seems like a natural transition for him to have that group title on his label’s roster.

I don’t know if he’s ever answered that question of how that group got that name, or what the science is behind the group with that name. I haven’t seen him or anyone from that group go on record that they got the name from my album. Until someone goes on the record and says that, I won’t say that it’s a fact.

When Masta Ace Went West To Bring G-Funk To Brooklyn

In the book Check The Technique: Liner Notes for Hip Hop Junkies, you briefly touched on how you had the same lyrics from “Jeep Ass Niguh” from SlaughtaHouse as does your song “Born To Roll” from your Sittin’ On Chrome album. What made you decide to keep the lyrics the same for both songs, and were you surprised they were both fan favorites?

“Born To Roll” was supposed to be a remix with the same lyrics but to a different beat. I was doing the lyrics to “Jeep Ass Niguh,” and when I added that Jungle Brothers sample “I was born to roll” [from the title track of their Done By The Forces of Nature album] I said, “Maybe I should just name it that.” But I didn’t think people would believe that it was a whole new song. When people heard “Born To Roll,” a lot of people didn’t know I had a song called “Jeep Ass Niguh” that came out before with the same lyrics. So it became a totally different brand new song to a lot of fans. My true fan base knew what it was, but my brand new fans that only knew me from the radio or strictly “Top 40” fans, they had no idea. They thought it was a new song, and they fell in love with it.

East Coast rap fans and artists knocked you for sounding like you were veering too much towards a West Coast G-funk sound. How did you feel about that?

You know, fans are very fickle. Arguably, I was the first East Coast artist to step out in that way to the extent that I actually shot my video in California. So that made it even more of a stamp that, “Oh, he’s really on some West Coast shit.” But bottom line is my record label at the time [Delicious Vinyl] was in L.A., so it was easier for me to shoot it there. I feel like I kind of took all the bullets for those who came after me, and took those risks. You know, Onyx had their video with bouncing cars and the whole shit in California for “Slam.” So I took all the shots; it opened up a door [where] there were no rules. Because as much as people persecuted me for going that route, they saw that it was successful and that they were loving that shit on the West Coast, the Midwest, and down South. So cats just tried to figure out their own formula, and how it would work for them.

Masta Ace

How Today’s Hip Hop Generation Is Finding Their Way Like His Days of Youth

Many rap artists today don’t want to be defined as “rappers.” Is this breed of artists devaluing the importance of the artform of emceeing or do you believe otherwise?

I don’t really know what today’s generation is trying to do. I’m trying to not judge because I feel like it’s young kids trying to figure out what it is that they’re doing. Maybe for them the plan wasn’t to look back and see what everybody else did, and then use that as the model. Maybe they want to do their own thing. I get that. When we were young, we were doing weird shit and people who were older than us didn’t understand what we were doing: big giant fat laces; the Kangol hats; the Lee patches sewed on. We did a lot of weird stuff that was weird for that time. So that being said, I don’t think what I have to say—with regard to what this new generation of rappers, emcees, or artists—of what I’m trying to do because they’re not cut from the same cloth that I’m cut from. There’s nothing I can say that can frame what it is that they’re doing.

Ace Clears The Air About Past Rap Beefs and Power of Forgiveness

“Acknowledge” is a pinnacle battle record that became one of your underground classics. Have you ever later made amends with anyone that you have battled with on record?

I made amends with the High and Mighty right after that record came out. It was really a misunderstanding. The people who said that [they] dissed me got it wrong. Yes they were at this event, and yes they were onstage rapping, but the lyric that was said wasn’t said by them. They had brought this other rapper onstage, Cage, who said a rhyme and had my name in it. The mics weren’t that great, so people didn’t quite catch what he said. But since my name was said in some kind of metaphor, and it sounded like a diss. So the guys that are there who are friends of mine heard it, and looked at each other and were like, “Yo! Did this dude just diss? Yeah, I heard it? I heard the same thing.” And they all came back with that story but they didn’t know that Cage wasn’t part of High and Mighty. They told me that they’re three white dudes up there and one of them dissed Ace, so High and Mighty dissed Ace. After it happened, and I got the real story, Cage even sent me the rhyme to show me, and I said, “Oh, this is not a diss at all.” I actually apologized to them on the radio. I told them I would, they didn’t ask me to. I told people it was a misunderstanding. But we never got the chance to sit down and talk on that level. I haven’t had many beef issues like that, but I made a song about Fat Joe called “10 Top List.” And then he and I wound up face to face having a conversation [where] nobody got jumped or beat up. We kind of just mutually respect each other and left it to where it was at, if you want to call that making amends. And I had an issue with Onyx that I just cleared up last Summer.

How long did that last? Like 20 years?

Yeah. It started in 1993 when I dropped SlaughtaHouse, and endured until this year. We saw each other in ‘93, and allegedly squashed it. But it was never really squashed because anytime I would see Sticky Fingaz he would avoid me or not look at me. We stayed on opposite sides of the room. There was always tension. But we started having shows together. The last three years or so, we were on festivals together and sometimes sharing a backstage area. And so we’d be in the same green room, like I’m over here and he’s over there. Me and Fredro have been cordial since then. But once again this year, Sticky Fingaz and I had another festival together, and I went over to his room and said, “Yo, let’s talk this out. This shit is stupid. What’s the tension about?” I laid it all out, and I had never gave him dap until that day. I had never dapped him from the time Onyx came out until this August.

Masta Ace Reflects On Successful Middle-Aged MCs In This Era

Ka is a fellow Brownsville native like you and Sean Price. Does it make you feel proud that Ka and many other middle-aged MCs like yourself are holding their own against younger competition in hip-hop?

For me, hip-hop never really had an expiration date. I feel like that because I’m in that age group. it was only for the young people that said you can’t do it past a certain age. I never felt that way or believed that. To see Ka come out to do his thing, that’s what it is—if you’re a good rapper, you’re good regardless of your age. If you can rhyme, let’s go. I’m all about skill level. When I see his thing reppin’ for the ‘Ville, there’s a few people from Brownsville that I didn’t even know where from Brownsville. So big-up to him, and obviously Sean Price, Rest In Peace.

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Higher Learning: Wordsworth Is Hip-Hop’s Class Act

Jerry Barrow and rapper Wordsworth talk music, higher education, and the transition from performing for crowds to educating the next generation.

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

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

50 Cent and Eminem meet in NY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around when were you hitting up the Lyricist Lounge shows?

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

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

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

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

That Lyricist Lounge Show on MTV is legendary….

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

Wordsworth Mirror Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

our world today album

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

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

When did you move to Florida?

I got here about 12 years ago.

Have you been teaching the whole time?

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

So, why Florida?

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

Wordsworth graduation

And you’re still learning…

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

Wordsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

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