Bahamadia is one of the most decorated artists in underground hip-hop. The Philadelphia emcee’s distinctive voice and smooth, yet impactful flow has captivated listeners since her 1993 DJ Ran-produced song “Funk Vibes” broke through—including late, great Gang Starr front-man Guru, who signed her to his production company (Ill Kid Records) and became her mentor in the mid ’90s. Her jazzy 1996 debut studio album Kollage is heralded as a classic and featured fellow Philly-natives The Roots (who also featured her on Illadelph Halflife that same year), as well as legendary producers like DJ Premier, Da Beatminerz, and Ski Beatz.

Since then, she has gone on to release several projects and work with a diverse mix of collaborators, from Talib Kweli on the Reflection Eternal track “Chaos” for Rawkus Records’ celebrated Soundbombing mixtape series to Jedi Mind Tricks on their second album, Violent By Design. Whether rockin’ with Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah, Slum Village, or Planet Asia, the Queen B has always represented for the culture and held her own as a lyricist.

Although she actually began her career as a percussionist and DJ—and music production has always been a passion—Bahamadia has forayed deeper into the craft with her latest project: a series of free-form EPs, each released as a seamless single track available for digital download, that she completely produced (and in some cases recorded) on her cell phone. While she rapped on the entire first installment of Dialed Up, which was released in 2013, she decided to recruit a dope lineup of other emcees including Geechi Suede (Camp Lo), Kev Brown, Rasco (Cali Agents), and Zumi (Zion I) to spit over her smartphone-produced beats for Dialed Up 2, only lending her own vocals to the project’s first cut.

UGHH spoke with the multi-talented artist to discuss the relationship between hip-hop and technology, the ideation of the so-called “femcee” and working with Guru and DJ Premier, as well as her long-awaited upcoming studio album, Here.

Bahamadia

First off, I wanna talk about your Dialed Up series. How did you come up with the concept? Was it born out of necessity, or did you just think it was a dope idea?

Actually, I had been toying around with the app for a while and came upon a stockpile of beats. After a while, I was like, “I need to lay some verses on ’em.” Next thing you know, it just evolved into that. Kinda like necessity too, in terms of wanting to just flesh my ideas out quickly—’cause sometimes, when you’re using hardware, it just takes a long time to get the idea where you want it to be.

To me, hip-hop has always been about innovation. It transformed turntables into full-fledged instruments that you can get lessons for, now. Do you see Dialed Up as an extension of that?

Certainly. I see music production as an extension of DJing, and I actually started out as a DJ before I was MCing. I was always into poetry in my younger years, as a youth, but then I got into DJing. I was DJing first. Actually, percussion was first. That’s how it all began, and then the poetry, and then the DJing—when I got introduced to the park jams and the dollar party stuff and all of that (house parties). I feel like that’s an extension of it, you know what I mean? ‘Cause the DJ is with the [one] who loops with the breaks, anyways, right?

What does producing music like this, on the go, do for you creatively? How does it affect the direction of your sound?

The direction of my sound is whatever it happens to be at the moment. On my first Dialed Up, [I made] the visual component to it because when I first did the audio component and put it up on Bandcamp, people didn’t believe that I actually did it [like that]—so I actually had to do a visual of it for them to see the process. It’s like a tutorial, as well. People, they like to be engaged. That’s the cool part about it; it’s the community. You get your support [and] tips—and everybody’s growing, and it’s like a collective of people creating on that piece. Even just feedback, [or] whatever. Again, the con to that is that people think that if they study every single aspect of what you’ve done—if they use the exact same tools that you use—if they even wear the same hat or do the same gestures or whatever, they think that those simulations are gonna impart that part of your creativity into them. And that’s not the case. You would have always had to have had that to begin with. Anybody that’s an innovator, or people that are prolific or whatever, you’re always gonna have people that are gonna emulate, or attempt to emulate, what you do. It just comes with the territory. Everybody has to start somewhere and be inspired…but acknowledge the source. Out of respect for the particular lane that you’re trying to develop; in yourself and your craft. That’s the issue. People discard people that have been before them, or that have laid down [the] foundation. There’s a lot of revisionism going around in the industry overall because of the internet, which is a very powerful and helpful tool for true DIY artists and entrepreneurs, and all of us in our culture. But the downside and the con, again, of that is there’s no balance and there’s no honor when it comes down to the practice of inspiration or evolving to another level with what you’ve been inspired from to begin with: the source. It’s crazy, because people come in and infiltrate our culture and exploit it. This is the only genre, this is the only culture, where they don’t honor the forefathers and mothers of the culture. In every facet of the culture—even in the business aspect—I think that people need to rethink that or we need to come up with some sort of mentor thing. In analyzing the whole spectrum of everything, I think that sometimes it’s because we haven’t had gatekeepers. We haven’t had those conversations start between the pioneers and the new school (the now generation) and the people that are currently dominating on the mainstream and in the traditional underground or the indie scene. It’s too segregated.

Speaking to that, are there any up-and-coming artists that you’ve been checking for that you’d consider taking under your wing and mentoring?

Well, I’m open. I’ve been working with youth for a while, over a decade now. I do creative workshops and stuff like [that]. Mentoring, I’ve always been doing that. The people that I’m checking for? That varies. It depends on what my mood is at the time. I don’t really listen to commercial radio, but things that currently come up in my feed, like the Cardi B’s and people like that—or the Kendricks or just different people. I mean, it just varies. I’ma tell you this: somebody that’ll catch my ear is someone that’s being their authentic selves and doing something really amazing with their music and with their craft.

Speaking of Cardi B, I actually wanted to talk to you about women emcees and the current ideation of the “female rapper.” I know you’ve spoken a lot about hypersexualization of women in the music industry and I was curious to know what you think about the success of Cardi B?

Hip-hop was founded on people, inner city youth, making something out of nothing, right? Celebrating your resilience, celebrating expanding things on being your authentic self and expressing yourself from an authentic place—being 100% who you are, right? Did she not do that, from social media to her current success in the mainstream?

I think so. Definitely.

That’s what I’m saying. For the people that argue that that’s not hip-hop, or the success is not whatever, whatever…I don’t even get into that conversation. That’s like politics and religion to me. I just don’t even have that, but I will say that building that presence from social media, from a free platform, to turning it into what she’s become. That’s to be commended. From a business standpoint, from just an entrepreneurial standpoint, and then as a woman in a male-dominated industry…it is what it is. But I just really, really have a lot of respect for the way her career has unfolded and what it’s become, and who she’s become as an individual.

Do you think that a woman can celebrate her sexuality on the mic and still be [considered] a boss, and can a woman’s sexuality ever empower her—or do you just see it as a promotional tool imposed by a male dominated industry?

I think that it depends on what the objective and the goals are of the artist or the business people that are promoting [that] particular imagery. There just definitely needs to be a balance, because for every sexualized female in the industry, there is definitely a b-girl component to it—or a person that’s in the middle of the two. I think that our voices have been marginalized and…oppressed, as women, in every industry. I think that our voices are varied, and I think that every component of femininity should be celebrated and acknowledged and respected—‘cause we have a right to express ourselves the way we determine to express ourselves. And in terms of femininity, I think only women should have the authority to define what femininity actually is, though. If we’re talking about the business of music, [there’s] the cliché “sex sells”—but to me it depends on the goal, and if we talking about authentic hip-hop culture or we talking about rap music from a commercial standpoint. Those are two different conversations, and I think people need to make the distinction between the two when talking about the success of mainstream artists or pop artists, as opposed to traditional or authentic hip-hop artists—‘cause they’re two different dynamics. They’re totally two different things.

What do you think about the term “femcee?”

Oh my god, what is it? [laughs]. What is it? [laughs]. Is there a “mencee” out there? [laughs].

[Laughs] Right. I hear you. Let’s talk, real quick if you can, about Here. You’ve been working on the album for a while now. Is there anything you can share about its progress?

Some of the delay was because I had a personal [tragedy]. One of the first major delays or readjustments was my mom had passed away.

I’m sorry to hear that.

That kind of blow—it took me a while to get my senses together and just focus in on the music. And then it was some sample clearance issues—because, me putting out my own stuff now, I just don’t want any possibility of anybody coming back and talking about this and that when it comes to publishing and the whole headache. Clearances and all that. A few things came on my radar that couldn’t be cleared and all this kind of stuff. And it was some changes too. You know, I grew from the time that I first started it to when my mom transitioned. My mindset…I was just a different person. That’s what’s been taking so long with it. I even had the cover art and the main core of the project done. It’s just that some of things, they no longer serve their purpose on the project. Sonically, I had to do some things that compliment what the core of the project is.

Are you producing a lot of Here, or is it mostly other producers?

I got a few other producers, but yeah, I’m on there. I got one of my phone beats on there.

Dope! Who are some of the other producers you’ve got involved.

Georgia Anne Muldrow is on there. She was on Stones Throw and all that. She got some really cool stuff. She works with everybody—jazz people [and] soul people. An amazing programmer and keyboardist. She’s really dope. And then Astronote. Did something with him, [J Brown] and a cool friend from the UK, Ty. I didn’t really go out after people. I wasn’t gon’ play the whole politics [thing]. I’m not chasin’ you down. I’m not gonna try to sell the vision. I’m established. I’m not doin’ all of that. I feel like at a certain point in your career, you shouldn’t have to be in the position to feel like you gotta audition for beats, and I’m not doin’ none of that. So the people that showed respect and got the vision, those are the people that I work with. But I’ve always been like that, though, in my collaborations (for the most part).

You’ve worn many hats throughout your career: DJ, poet, emcee, radio show host and more. Philanthropist. Do you want to dive even deeper into production, and would you say that’s like the next stage of your musical evolution—producing records for other artists on their own projects? Anything like that?

That’s actually how I started. That’s how I became an artist, because I always actually wanted to help develop artists, write for artists and build artists—build brands, in that way. But I could never get nobody to be serious, so I wound up being that person—and it just evolved into me making my first record and all of this stuff and became the career. But yeah, I definitely do. I definitely see myself at the helm of coordinating projects, even producing. Yup, all different facets—and also integrating the technology into it too, ’cause that’s just where we are and that’s where my interest lies (specifically with the educational component of it).

So it’s safe to say that you’ve always incorporated that DIY mentality, from day one. Even when you were workin’ with Guru in the ‘90s on Ill Kid Records, you’ve always had that control over your art?

Yeah, ’cause Guru was a support like that. Premier, as well. They were two people that really gave me the first lessons—the first industry people, and [Ladybug] Mecca from Digable Planets. They was the first three people that had a major impact in the industry and in our culture at that time that told me, “You can control your career and your vision. It should be 100% yours. It’s your voice.” Premier, he would tell me, “Don’t let the labels rush you into finishing your project, ’cause at the end of the day you’ll have to live with it.” And Guru just gave me carte blanche with the whole situation. I was actually in his production company, and he let me like basically dictate how I wanted the vision to go for the project, so I thought that was really awesome. Actually, I thought that was standard practice [until] I found out that it really wasn’t. When I started, I had creative control from day one.

That’s dope.

It is dope.

So, from the outside looking in, it would kinda seem that you’re approaching Here with a much different mentality than the Dialed Up series. You’re sitting on it. You’re making changes based on your life changes, and revisiting and taking things off. Do you think that Dialed Up was or is in any way kind of a response to the stress or thought that goes into putting together a studio album?

I feel like Dialed Up is like my release. The music is doin’ studio albums. That’s therapeutic, but the process is a little bit more intense—because it’s more focused and it’s more work. Dialed Up and projects like that, it’s just me—it’s a woman that just loves hip-hop, that just loves beats, and that’s just what you hear and see. It’s no nothing involved—so it is kind of like stress reliever. Yeah, it is—it’s an escape. Sometimes you can get kind of confined to the routine, once you become a professional artist. It kind of becomes routine, even if you have an eclectic approach to making your music. It still has a tense of formulaic aspects to it, in order for it to be powerful to your listeners. Even if they’re your core die-hard fans, they still expect a certain quality or level of art from you—and there is a formula for that. But when you doing some freeform stuff (live performance, improv, that kind of stuff), I guess you could kind of [compare] it to jazz musicians in that way—where they improv live, as opposed to studio work.

That’s a dope way of looking at it.

Thank you for even having me think on that, ‘cause I wasn’t even considering that. I was just doing it. It’s fun [laughs].

[Laughs] That’s how it should be, right?

Yup, yup! But it can be something much more, and that’s why I’m serious about it too.

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

“Can’t get you out of my head.” Immortalized as a Kylie Minogue lyric, this profundity was bookended by an endless string of “La-la-las.” With irony as a cheeky backdrop, the song worked. Better still, it’s unforgettable.

Monosyllabism FTW.

And so we arrive at the conundrum that is popular music: what is it about certain songs and certain artists that stick? While seemingly interchangeable artists wither on the vine?

For this, we turn to the obvious pairing of rap music and, um, neuroscience. UGHH sat down with three academics who study music’s effect on the brain—how the brain receives music and, ultimately, what drives our tastes in music. Basically, really smart people who say things like, “I find the intersection of neuroscience and musical cognition to be a particularly compelling area” and author things such as Flexibility of Temporal Order in Musical and Linguistic Recognition.

Polysyllabism FTW.

All kidding aside, those are the sage words of Dr. Brian Rabinovitz, an esteemed researcher and professor of Psychology at American University who specializes in neuropsychology, biological psychology, and cognitive psychology. UGHH also spoke with Dr. Jonathan Burdette, a cutting-edge neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and co-author of a fascinating study on musical proclivity: Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem. So, yeah. This writer will gladly defer to him. Last but certainly not least, we caught up with Dr. Amy Belfi, a cognitive neuroscientist at NYU who boasts a bevy of publications elucidating the very topic in question: how aesthetic experiences, e.g. listening to music, manifest themselves in the brain.

UGHH thanks these talented professionals for their time and also their good humor. To wit, these conversations yielded gems like: “The second part of your question was…What was the second part of your question? It was unanswerable. I know it was unanswerable.” and “That’s a great question and I have no idea.” And “You stumped me again. You’re going to think I’m an idiot.”—Dr. Jonathan H. Burdette.

[insert writer’s glee].

But let’s get into the meat of the matter, including the physiological truth that music myelinates your brain. Yeah. Myelinates.  Showers in myelin.

How did you initially get into music and how did that segue into your professional pursuit?

Dr. Belfi: I have been into music since my childhood. I played piano and sang in choirs from around age 10 through college. I attended St. Olaf College in part for its great reputation for music. I had contemplated majoring in music before I started college, but an AP Psychology course my senior year got me interested in the brain. So I majored in psychology but still was able to sing and play piano. I started conducting research as an undergrad and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience; luckily, I ended up at the University of Iowa for my Ph.D. I had a great Ph.D. advisor who allowed me to pursue basically any research interest I wanted. So I chose to study music!

Now, I study music cognition; how music relates to other cognitive functions like language, memory, or emotion. Some of the overarching questions that drive my work are: How does music evoke such strong emotional responses in listeners? Why do we like the music that we like? What is the association between music and personal, autobiographical memories? And some of the things I’m interested in are: studying the emotional impact of music; how listening to a song can transport us to a time from our past; how we develop musical taste or preference for certain songs. 

Dr. Rabinovitz: My musical and academic pursuits did not combine until I began graduate school. As a child, I did not have a passion for music, but I loved monsters and I recall being drawn to Iron Maiden’s album cover artwork. I believe I first became interested in their music when I was about 10 years old–purely because of the artwork–but when I heard the harmonized melody lines I was immediately hooked.  Music in many forms and genres has remained a major part of my life ever since. I began my undergraduate studies as a philosophy major. In my senior year, I took a Psychology class that introduced me to Neuroscience and the subject matter fascinated me. When I started graduate school, I had the good fortune of working with an advisor who was interested in both music and memory, and this allowed me to combine my interests in music and neuroscience. Now, broadly speaking, I study memory and metamemory, and I aim to further understand the effects of familiarity and individual differences on musical processing.

Dr. Burdette: I grew up in a musical family; my mother pushed music onto us and we all took the bait. I always played music. I sang, I played the viola, I played the piano. And once I had kids I really got into it. So I love music and I’ve also studied the brain. Naturally, the intersection has been an interest of mine. It’s like “What the heck is going on here?” Why is music one of the most powerful forces that we encounter as human beings? There’s very few things, very few stimuli, that activate so many different networks in the brain: cognition, language, motor, sensory, everything. The brain is on fire when you’re listening to music. So my studies have been attempts to reveal what musicologists have studied and continue to study: What is it about music? What’s going on with your brain when you hear certain rhythms or frequencies? What is the impact of worded music versus wordless? And I actually delved beyond that to determine, whether it’s hip-hop you like or if it’s classical music, are you activating the same networks in the brain as someone who likes something else?

What sort of brain activity occurs when music is taken in? How does it differ from responses to other stimuli, meaning via other senses or even via non-melodic noises?

Dr. Rabinovitz: There are essentially two major levels of physiological response to music. First is the lower level, where the ear transforms the sound into neural signals and then sends these signals to the brain. They enter the brain via the primary auditory cortex, an area that performs basic sound processing. This is where the initial creation of our perception of the sound begins. This applies not just for music but for all sounds we hear. The higher level of processing actually uses many areas across the brain and this is where our deeper appreciation for music takes place. The end result of that process is that the sound is transformed into electrical pulses. The brain is composed of cells called neurons and these neurons send messages back and forth in the form of electrical pulses. At this stage the processing becomes very complex and differs from person to person. These individual differences help explain the differences between people’s musical preference. This is where connections are made with memory and feelings. It is this higher level that accounts for individual differences.

Further, research has shown there is an area of the brain that is involved with tracking melodic structure independent of the actual notes. In other words, there is a part of the brain that processes the relationship between notes rather than the notes themselves. This in part explains why we can easily recognize a melody regardless of its key. For instance, if I sing “Happy Birthday” and start it on a C, I could start again on F or G or and you would still be able to recognize it as the same melody. This happens because of higher processing in the brain. When artists repeat melodic lines in different keys, they are taking advantage of this type of processing to provide an interesting change in the song.

What are some generalizations about popular music—meaning what techniques or gimmicks for audience response and receptivity do you hear? Consistency in sonics, key, tempo, etc.?

Dr. Rabinovitz: Repetition is the most obvious factor. Repetition allows for opportunities to transfer a song from short term to long-term memory. The chorus of almost every popular song, regardless of style, repeats at least three times and generally more than that. The same can be said for the main verse. Repetition increases familiarity. With repeated listens, you form a memory representation of the song structure and so you are able to predict upcoming passages.

When your predictions are accurate that can produce a positive feeling and is one of the reasons you enjoy a song more with repeated listens. Rap thrives on this with its hooks. But in general, popular music needs to walk a fine line between being interesting and catchy. This is really a battle between simplicity and complexity.

In general, our perceptual systems are excellent at noticing change. With auditory information we may notice change in many areas. One area is dynamics, such as sudden changes in the overall volume or sudden changes in volume within a single instrumental or vocal line. Another area is timbre, which refers to the sound of an instrument. For example, a melody may play once on a guitar, then on a keyboard. We hear that it is the same melody, but by switching instruments there is a noticeable change and change is inherently interesting. The artist has to keep the audience interested for the duration of the track so techniques like this are very valuable.

Another example might be repeating a melody while the drums or backbeat switch to half-time or perhaps double-time. When this happens, we feel the rhythmic shift, although the basic melody has not changed. These types of changes are particularly useful for popular music because artists need to capture the attention of the listener, but avoid being too complex. To be catchy, a song must be appreciated on the first or second listen. If there is too much change the listener may be alienated from the music. Examples of this kind of change might include introducing new melodic lines in every measure, frequently changing time signatures, or utilizing melodic lines that are so long in duration that it is difficult for the listener to keep track of them.

Dr. Belfi: Repetitiveness has a lot to do with memory for songs. Hearing a song or chorus–or hook in the case of rap music–over and over is a good way to remember it. Mode (major or minor) is a pretty large determinant of a song’s valence—valence meaning the emotional quality of a piece, be it positive or negative emotion. So major pieces tend to be perceived as happy, while minor pieces tend to be perceived as sad. But it’s hard to pin down how this relates to memorability, since people are drawn to different things.

Does rap music’s intrinsic spoken component lend itself more reading to memorability than does singing?

Dr. Rabinovitz: That is an excellent question and one that really needs more study to fully answer. Most of the research in this area has focused on lyrics that are sung because they contain both melody and linguistic content. We know that lyrics and melodies are highly interrelated. From a musical perspective, the vocal tracks in rap tend to be less melodic and more rhythmic. From a linguistic perspective, they contain a great deal of information and meaning. A rap song contains significantly more lyrical diversity than a pop song. This meaning can contribute to memorability. Further, if the lyrical content resonates positively with the listener, that will likely drive both repeat listening and memorability. Additionally, rap offers different levels of aggression in both the lyrics and the delivery. Those may combine in ways that attract or repel any particular listener.

Dr. Belfi: To my knowledge, I don’t think there is a ton of research out there in the music cognition world on rap music. However, there are studies that look at melodies paired with lyrics versus just lyrics alone; things tend to be remembered more when they also have a melody. So in that way, I might guess that rap music would be less memorable than music set to a melody. But rap music is very rhythmic, so this added rhythmic complexity might increase the memorability of rap music. It might become almost a motor or muscle memory type thing to repeat back a rap lyric.  

Dr. Burdette: That’s never been studied, as far as I know. It’s never been looked into. But it’s interesting. It’s basically rhythmic poetry. I do believe that dancing and music with groove you can dance to is a powerful feeling and is evolutionarily important. I mean, all those silly hooks in a lot of pop songs are residual dance hooks. Urban music is rhythmic, strongly grooved music. Rhythm is part of our upbringing. It’s second nature for children to enjoy music and to immediately start dancing if they hear music. It’s not until it’s beaten out of them by schooling and society that children really stop doing that.

So, body movement and music are very closely linked. It’s something you grow up with—your musical influences as you’re growing up and myelinating your brain and developing memories and emotions. That connection and the repetitiveness of the construction could definitely contribute. Our study explored the effects of several types of music. Traditionally, people have believed that listening to something with words will leave a different brain signature than listening to something without words. And we showed that this is incorrect; if you liked the Beatles’ “Let it Be” or Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” or Usher, your physiological responses were indistinguishable. Whatever you liked and for whatever reason you liked it, you had a similar brain connectivity pattern.

Are there different responses for music found pleasing straightaway Vs. unpleasant? Does brain activity actually change when a song is met first with dislike, then indifference, to finally preference?

Dr. Belfi: For the first question—yes. Research has indicated that when people find music highly pleasing—often looking at the moment when people experience musical chillsthose feelings of goosebumps—this activates the same brain regions important for other pleasurable activities. So music seems to be a very good way to evoke pleasure and reward. There are several non- mutually exclusive theories about how much evokes emotions. For example, music may evoke emotion though “emotion contagion”—the idea that a listener perceives an emotion in a piece of music and “mimics” that emotion; i.e. it is “contagious.” So if a piece of music is sad, the listener might feel sad; if it’s happy, the listener would feel happy. But, we know that this isn’t always the case. For example, some people enjoy listening to sad music—a powerful symphonic movement or song about lost love, for instance. Music also evokes emotion through its association with personal, autobiographical memories. So hearing a song might remind us of a good time in our life, which makes us feel good.

For the second question: This is something I’m currently looking at in a study I’m conducting. I’m interested in how brain responses unfold over time, as your listening to a piece evolves and your opinions about the piece change. We will have to wait and see!

Dr. Burdette: I can answer that one because that’s exactly what we measured. We played five pieces of music to people sitting in an MRI scanner. One was KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.” One was Usher. One was Brad Paisley. One was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And one was Chinese opera, which is unusual to Western ears and ultimately sounds weird.

We took everyone’s song that they liked the least—call it the dislike if you will—and looked at their brain patterns. We then compared those results to those recorded while the subjects were listening to their favorite songs. This really illuminated an important, powerful brain network called the Default Mode Network or DMN: It is your place in the world, how you interact with the environment, how you monitor the environment. People consider it the home of introspection or inferential thought, self-referential thought, self-reflective thought. I almost think of it as your soul. When the subjects listened to their least favorite pieces, that network was inert, basically. The anterior parts were not really connected to the posterior parts. It just was not firing, However, subjects listening to their favorite pieces showed tremendous activity in the DMN. The network was fully intact and alive. So we were actually able to illustrate the brain signature of what it is to prefer a piece of music.

Another thing we studied was the connection between your auditory areas—your listening areas of the brain—and the hippocampus, a place where humans encode memories. It’s certainly very involved in memory encoding. What we saw was this:  When listening to your favorite piece, your hippocampus and auditory areas were not in the same community. They were not in harmony, pardon the pun. Whereas if it was not your favorite piece, they were. And you could argue—we did argue—that when it was not your favorite, the listening areas and the memory-making areas were kind of in cahoots in trying to form memories. Whereas if it was one of your favorite pieces, you already had this strong memory component. One didn’t need the other; the hippocampus was kind of off on its own. It really did not play a part. It was retrieving memories, if you will, rather than encoding memories. Those were two big differences between like and dislike.

Dr. Rabinovitz: There are very different responses for music that is perceived as pleasant compared to unpleasant. Certain properties are somewhat universally considered unpleasant—highly dissonant music, for instance. The early stages of auditory processing in which the basic characteristics of the sound are decoded are similar for everyone. At the higher stages where the song is perceived as music rather than just a collection of sounds, you will see differences in brain activity between those who like and dislike the music. Even a single individual may go through a change in terms of this higher processing. Have you ever heard a song you didn’t like at first, but with repeated listens you grew to enjoy or even love it? The basic processing remained the same between your first and last exposure to the song. What changed was your higher order processing. This reflects a known principle in social psychology that familiarity breeds liking. Social psychologists apply this to people, but it can hold true for music as well.

In addition, we also notice change between songs. When you hear a great song and then a mediocre song immediately thereafter, that mediocre song seems even worse than had you listened to it by itself. And if you heard the same songs in the opposite order—first the mediocre one then the great one—that second song would seem better in comparison. This is known as hedonic contrast and has been shown to occur with visual stimuli, like artwork, in addition to music. The fact that we make comparisons between songs makes it important for an artist to select a good order for their tracks on an album. An artist’s worst song should not immediately follow the best song on an album. Of course, an artist can’t control what songs play before their song on a streaming site or radio, so they simply do their best to make every track the best it can be. Ultimately, if we knew the particular formula to make an artist memorable and beloved then everyone would use it, but the world would be a much less interesting place.

UGHH’s Conclusion: It’s probably no coincidence that melodic (read: sing-songy rappers) have a stronger hold on the listener’s ear. Meanwhile, that new school rap song you hated on first listen will become your favorite song if you hear it enough. Do what you will with that information.

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

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.

 

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