“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anchovies album cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB: It got emotional in the studio…

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB:  I like mayo bro…

There goes your white side again…

[EVERYONE LAUGHS]

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

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

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

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

AB: It definitely don’t smell like roses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PA: Baller belly. I run hella fast though.

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

PA: Your arms are short though.

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

YOU got arrested? For what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Duval Clear Became Masta Ace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Influence of SlaughtaHouse On Eminem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masta Ace

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long did that last? Like 20 years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 Cent and Eminem meet in NY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around when were you hitting up the Lyricist Lounge shows?

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

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

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

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

That Lyricist Lounge Show on MTV is legendary….

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

Wordsworth Mirror Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

our world today album

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

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

When did you move to Florida?

I got here about 12 years ago.

Have you been teaching the whole time?

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

So, why Florida?

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

Wordsworth graduation

And you’re still learning…

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

Wordsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sex Addiction, Reinvention, and the Long Road To Fame

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

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

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

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

A Fresh Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building the Archetype

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

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

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

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

In Between Times

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

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

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

When Self-Examination Meets Maturity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating A Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

A True Rap Artisan

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

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

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

A Gift or a Curse

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Photo Credit: npr.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#2 Your Manager is the Lock & the Key

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

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

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

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

#3 Squad Deep – Your Entourage

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

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

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

#4 Do The Knowledge – Educate Yourself

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

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

#5 Stay on Top of The Bag – Fiscal Responsibility

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

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

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

#6 The Mind and Body Are ONE – Health Discipline

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

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

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

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

#7 Be Gracious to Everyone

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

#8 Thank Your Team

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

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

#9 Play the Long Game

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

#10 Samples – If You Borrow, You Must Pay

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @sophchang

Facebook: sophchangnyc

Instagram: @sophchangnyc

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

 

Long Division: Exploring The Roots of Hip-Hop’s Commercial Vs. Underground Rift

In July of 1997, hip-hop forever changed. Read on as noted writer Jerry Barrow dissects that fateful era, fueled by schism of the Underground Vs. The Shiny Suit Era.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapper Tracey Lee

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

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

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

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

Not quite.

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

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

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

Company Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take that, take that.

Watching Saba tower over his packed New York City crowd, pouring his soul out through the speakers, it’s hard not to smile. He’s clearly doing much more than making a name for himself as an emerging artist, even in the midst of insufferable loss. The 22-year-old Chicagoan from the categorically violent West Side has been dealt a rough hand. But once his fingers tighten around the mic, he triumphantly is rewriting his story, one bar at a time. 

Saba (born Tahj Malik Chandler) stands at the center of the dimly lit stage at Webster Hall on an unassuming Wednesday evening. Bursts of booming bass, laced with chants from the crowd decorate the venue walls, as Saba punctuates the ambience with lyricism trembling through half-full plastic cups of PBR. The whole scene commands all sorts of shaky-yet-determined smartphone documentation. With a vibrant assortment of curious 20-somethings and day-one devotees taking the lead songs like “Monday to Monday,” “The Billy Williams Story,” and “World in My Hands,” it was clear that these are the exact moments Saba has been chasing.

Along with his trusty affiliates and collaborators—a close-knit group of like-minded musicians known as Pivot Gang—Saba embarked on his first-ever headlining tour earlier this year: a 19-date trek scattered with boundless reaffirmations that years of hard work are finally paying off.

“I think we had a moment every night, before the show or after the show, where we’d just be looking at each other, like damn,” Saba later reflects back home at his grandparent’s house in Illinois. “Our jaw was just to the floor from being in awe, every night, in whatever random city we’d be in.”

The promotional run for his debut studio album, 2016’s Bucket List Project, turned into a movement—with bright-eyed fans swarming Saba the second he stepped off stage, hopeful to get the opportunity to talk his ear off about what’s on their own bucket list and how his music deeply resonates with them.

Much to the delight of those in attendance, Saba stuck around, happy to listen and entertain. Even the security team in New York permitted the sold-out affair to stretch well over its allotted time so grinning, sweaty fans could get their handshakes and thank yous into the single-digit hours. With the tour’s magic indisputable, reality hit once the music fades: none of this almost happened.

Two weeks prior to hitting the road in mid-February, Saba’s cousin Walter Long, Jr.—a member of Pivot Gang who released music under the monikers John Walt and dinnerwithjohn—was fatally stabbed during a fight on the street in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

The heart-shattering news was, at first, enough to have Saba reconsidering going on the tour entirely, something he divulged to a sea of onlookers during the New York pit stop. While running through his catalog, his raw, emotional ad-libs couldn’t completely veil the fact Saba was rhyming through heartbreak. But still he pushed on, turning the piercing pain of losing a squad member into eternal motivation to continue working toward the vision they shared.

“[The tour] was the most special thing I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life, especially because of my cousin,” he somberly admits. “Walt was supposed to be on a lot of those dates with us. We were all in a really weird emotional space. But we were so blessed to be there at all.”

While the shows were full of scenes straight out of a movie that Joseph Chilliams (Saba’s older brother), MFN Melo, and Miami’s Sylvan LaCue all experienced together, the grim reality is that they haven’t been able to properly grieve through the past few months’ calamity and chaos.

“It hasn’t really processed, since we’ve been gone so much, but it’s been the most beautiful last few months of our life, and I know Walt has everything to do with that,” Saba explains. “We’re trying to get a foundation and scholarship set up. Every day is weird but we are pushing through it. We’ll make it happen one way or another.”

Following his untimely passing, Walt’s presence hasn’t dissipated. With conviction, Saba’s actions promise it never will. Leading the audience in a memoriam chant rattling louder than some of the set list’s most passionate and catchy hooks, the Pivot Gang’s visionary leader repeated Walt’s name into the microphone until his voice began to wear. While sporting his signature beanie atop his shoulder-length locs, Saba also donned a light blue denim jacket adorned with an embroidered portrait of his cousin. With the cursive words “Long Live John Walt” beautifully stitched on the back, Saba wore the custom threads with pride, carrying the reminder that those who you love never truly leave you.

“It’s so weird to even have to think like, yeah, I am keeping his legacy alive,” Saba says, his voice tender from fighting the urge to shake in disbelief. “We played basketball yesterday and that’s how he got his name, from playing ball in high school. I do very much feel his presence in everything we’re doing.”

Saba is wise to combat every heartbreaking setback hurled at him by turning to his music. Arguably, such is par for the course for those growing up in a city that has long been tied to its reputation of being plagued by senseless violence, experiencing over seven hundred murders in 2016 alone.

“Everyday somebody you know is gone, or somebody you see every day is gone,” he says. “It’s crazy difficult to be in that and to keep to yourself in hopes that things will change.”

Despite his story being lined with loss, returning to the soft-glowing optimism buried beneath his hardships is very much an integral part of Saba’s character. No stranger to receiving stomach-churning phone calls that can permanently change his world, Saba is fully aware he hasn’t had an easy ride. But he doesn’t let his tragedies constrain him, either.

“Shit is hard,” he says. “Everyday somebody you know is gone or could be gone. The amount of shit you go through living in Chicago as a young person is crazy. It’s just a place where you never know on any day what that day is going to look like, what’s gonna happen, what call you’re gonna get.”

While Pivot Gang found inspiration for its name in a classic episode of Friends (the one where Joey and Chandler help move a brand new couch up Ross’s humorously narrow stairs), the wisdom to keep moving forward was born out of a place of survival, particularly after experiencing death.

Months before Saba released his second mixtape ComfortZone in 2014, his uncle unexpectedly passed away in his sleep, doubling as a wake up call to create with intention and urgency, further proving the mantra behind their moniker is reinforced daily. When one chapter ends, another has to begin. No person or city is exempt from that, although Saba knows Chicago may be more accustomed than others.

“Chicago is the most beautiful city that I’ve ever been to,” he elaborates, not allowing his hometown’s rough edges to detract from its potential. “I think that’s the thing that a lot of outsiders don’t get. I used to have an answer in mind regarding what the city needs. It needs so much help. But I do know there are a lot of artists in the city that are changing Chicago and saving Chicago. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

The fact that the days aren’t promised was further augmented at the top of this year, when Walt called him to reveal that he survived an entire clip being emptied into the side of a car he was in. Such gut-wrenching events are etched into the increasingly common picture of what it’s like to grow up in Chicago. Knowing this all too well, Saba leaves himself no choice but to keep his inner turmoil at bay and look toward the light. This very concept is etched into every song on the Bucket List Project, and is one he keeps close to his chest.

Navigating through a path littered with the uncertainty that life’s next cruel plot twist could be lurking around the corner, Saba’s courageous perspective is lauding him as one of Chicago’s most promising upstarts. From performing at open mics in Wicker Park as a teen to gracing the stage of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015 alongside Chance the Rapper, the growth that he has experienced is an inspiration.

Such unfiltered tenacity shines through his catalog, and in embracing his story over a refreshingly eccentric neo-soul-meets-rap-inspired soundscape, he’s winning over a widespread audience. In 2013, his first collaboration with Chance the Rapper, “Everybody’s Something,” helped elevate him to a new level—with eyes fixating on Chicago’s prospering rap scene in ways they haven’t since artists such as Kanye West, Common and Lupe Fiasco first put on for the city and garnered national attention. After collaborating with artists such as Mick Jenkins, Taylor Bennett and Eryn Allen Kane, Saba reunited with Chance, creating 2015’s “Angels”—a track that has since seen over 70 million streams on Spotify.

“Every year has been better than the last,” he exclaims. “Making beats for my brother and his friends when I was 13 was one thing, but I had to really step my game up. Now everybody is still trying to out-rap everybody, but those early competitions had a huge effect on what my everyday life is like now.”

From Chi-town legend Twista to industry mainstay Sway Calloway rooting for him, Saba’s new normal includes Chance showing up as a surprise guest during his most recent headlining set, seeing his name selected for The Source’s coveted Unsigned Hype column and landing a nomination for XXL’s 2017 Freshman Class. Despite this growing list of accolades, Saba is trying his best not to get his mentor, FRSH Waters, too excited.

With their friendship dating back to when Saba was 13, FRSH helped put Pivot Gang on the map over five years ago, even guiding Saba to the right rooms to introduce him to Chance and Noname. After getting into some legal trouble, FRSH has since assumed the temporary role of being the group’s unofficial head coach, offering sage advice from behind bars.

“It’s been kind of crazy because he hasn’t been able to see what something he started has turned into,” Saba says. “We try to downplay everything so he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out on too much.”

With more people to make proud than just himself, Saba’s optimistic spirit is taking charge. As he rises as Pivot Gang’s rightful leader, it’s hard not to see how his path mirrors that of Chance’s, whose ascent to stardom stemmed from his early work with his former Save Money crew alongside Vic Mensa.

Although the Pivot Gang has been home basking in their recent triumphs, they haven’t slowed down. A tireless Saba is no exception, performing an assortment of one-off shows at various colleges and already diving headfirst into his next studio effort. His hunger is also presenting him with options for his first real apartment, with the support of his loyal legion of fans affording him the luxury of being able to leave his childhood home.

“I’ve never moved in my entire life so this will be a big deal,” he says modestly. “I’m so excited to have my own thing. I’m trying to make sure I have at least two bedrooms, one for my bed and I want to have a studio in the other room, so we’ll see how that goes.”

His preferences for where he wants to live are strikingly minimalistic, such as requesting natural light and solid neighborhood food options. True to form, Saba’s priorities lie within his music.

“I built the studio in my basement now, and it’s been down there for years and years and years,” he says, detailing his plans for his new studio. “I’m excited to start from scratch and see what it turns into over time.”

While going through what accumulated in the same studio he recorded his first project, 2012’s GETCOMFORTable, Saba struck gold. During the coming-of-age cleaning process, he unearthed a dust-covered box full of cassettes he recorded when he was a young boy.

“I haven’t even listened to them yet because I don’t have a cassette player,” he says. “They’re just sitting there, waiting to be heard. I’m sure some of them are terrible but there could be some gems, too. I kind of remember them being fire…”

With the potential behind those sonic treasures staring him in the face, so is the reminder that his cousin isn’t there to listen along with him.

“I’m still adjusting,” Saba says, glancing at the material possessions peppered throughout the family home. “When I look at the refrigerator here, there are photos of us when we were little and an emptiness kind of takes over my whole body in a way. When I go to the basement where the studio is, he was there with me the day before [he died] so like his hat’s down there and a bunch of his random shit. You know, stuff you wouldn’t take with you if you knew you were coming back the next day.”

As he carefully inspects his belongings and Walt’s, Saba is at an unavoidable turning point, and a heavy one at that. He’s now able to turn his passions into a paycheck, but being tasked with these acts of growing up aren’t burdens made totally easier by his newfound success. However, the promise of a new home base and the months ahead are tipping the scale away from the darker side of Saba’s truths.

“I’m keeping open-minded,” Saba says. “I’m excited to tour again. I don’t even want to be home right now. I’m just going to do everything in my power to keep this momentum going and keep everything we’ve built alive and strong.”

While checking out apartment listings, Saba’s mind can’t help but wander back to FRSH and the brighter days awaiting them both.

“It’s so close to him being able to come home and see for himself,” Saba says, explaining that he recently received a letter from the prison detailing that FRSH’s sentence is slated to conclude this Summer. “I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am. We’re just going to lock him in the studio and turn him into Future and make him do like 80 mixtapes.”

As Saba keeps watch on the horizon and eagerly reviews the blueprint plan of attack FRSH drew up from prison, his music, his determination and his family—in blood and in brotherhood—are all he has. And for Saba, that will always be enough.

As PackFM reaches the milestone of turning 40, the Brooklyn-based emcee says of his generation: “We are the Teddy Pendergrass-es of hip-hop.

PackFM isn’t thinking about rapping right now.

He isn’t thinking about gripping a microphone, flowing over a beat, or even putting together a new album. “I’m just trying to live life, and see what life is like outside of hip-hop, the Brooklyn-based emcee explains.

“I listen to hip-hop, but I’ve never been able to live where I don’t have the pressure of completing a project. For 20 years straight that was my life. Now, let’s chill for a minute, and just enjoy life: take walks, get that real balance in there.”

PackFM—who celebrates his 40th birthday this month—explains that when it comes to his music, the ellipsis has become a period.

His career resume is thick. With two solo studio albums released on the legendary QN5 label—2006 UGHH People’s Choice Album of the Year, whutduzFMstand4, and 2010’s I F*cking Hate Rappersplus the 2002 Extended F@mm EP, Happy F*ck You Songs (with Tonedeff, Substantial, and Session) and a plethora of collaborative efforts, PackFM explains, “I’ve said everything that I’ve had to say.”

“I was doing music for 20 years,” he continued, “everything I went through, I put out, somehow, someway. So now it’s like alright, let’s experience some new things, so that in five years or so I’ll have some new stories to tell that people might want to relate to.”

On the subject of creating relatable music, he notes that being older in hip-hop means new topics can, and should, be tackled. He says of his generation, and the generation before his:

“There should be an adult-contemporary section of hip-hop. We are the Teddy Pendergrass-es of hip-hop.”

The Teddy Pendergrass-es of hip-hop, however—and the fan base that should be copping those albums—currently have their focus shifted elsewhere. “All they do is complain,” PackFM notes. As if the people who are closer to what they do want to listen to (and are in their age range) aren’t making music anymore, when that’s totally not the case.” He continues, “A lot of them are still making music today, and it gets ignored because all people want to pay attention to is the music from young people that they don’t like … Did you know Ghostface put out an album like a year ago? Your favorite artist is still making music for you.”

Fans of PackFM, who’s been a key player in NYC’s indie hip-hop scene since the days of the infamous Tunnel nightclub, may one day get new music from him, but right now he’s excited to dive into endeavors outside of emceeing. “I have a lot of other talents I want to explore,” he explains. “Let me just really find my life in a whole bunch of other areas. Whether that translates into songs later on in life, who knows?”

Even if he isn’t recording, PackFM will still hit the stage, and he says the age of the songs he performs isn’t a concern of his. “Most of the songs I do I approach with the idea that I want to be able to listen to this in a decade,” he explains. “I’m always gonna want to do ‘Click Clack and Spray,’ because graffiti is a great art form that I have a great appreciation for. I love being involved in it, and the super amped up songs that I do, those are gonna be fun no matter what.”



Fun is something older hip-hop fans have always enjoyed, but as PackFM recently gleaned from an Uber driver during a ride, the new generation of listeners is almost solely about fun.

“It’s not, ‘He’s so dope, and he’s spitting fire,’ it’s ‘Oh, this song is fun, we all know it, let’s have fun to it,’” he says. “They’re just looking for that song they know to come on so they can keep having fun. It’s an entirely different approach to music, and entertainment, than we had. Ours was all about quality, and how good it is. There’s is just how fun it is to bug out to this song.”

This may sound like an older emcee griping about younger rappers, but PackFM actually has nothing against the younger generation of hip-hop artists, as he’s quick to say that just because he may not like their music, it doesn’t make them any less valid.

Using a sneaker metaphor (because he can’t not be hip-hop), he explains, “I love Nike sneakers, but I only like three or four pairs. I don’t like every shoe Nike puts out, but I don’t get mad because they put out sneakers I don’t like. I just don’t buy those sneakers.” For him, hip-hop is the same way.

When it comes to hip-hop music, I don’t have to like everything that has the label of hip-hop,” he says. “And I don’t have to get offended because something that’s labeled hip-hop (isn’t my taste).”

One thing he’d like to see from artists of all ages is a little more authenticity; but he remarks that it has to start with artists, and fans, accepting, and embracing, who they really are.

“People know about the whole partying, and drinking, and smoking, and all this shit, and then you look at (an artist’s) Facebook pictures and they’re wearing fucking grandpa sweaters, and they’re at baby showers,” he jokes. “Why do you have to put on a costume to be accepted with your art? This is who I am four days a week, but when I rap I gotta put my hat on backwards, and wear a flight jacket from 1996? You should be able to be you, and put your art out there and have it be accepted … I think that’s something that needs to be tackled.”



Although PackFM admits that when it comes to dealing with this, he doesn’t have the answers, he has one suggestion: eliminate the age. “I just feel, in general, the hip-hop community needs to let go of this stigma they have of age, whether it’s younger, or older.”

Perhaps this will be something PackFM tackles when he decides to record again, but up next on his agenda are new life experiences. A recent eye opening one involved taking a real vacation, since so much of his traveling was previously for world tours which covered North America, Europe, and Australia. “I remember the first thing that really hit me was going on a real vacation, actually traveling and not having to rap,” he recalls. “It made me realize there’s a lot of life to be lived out there that’s a lot different than we do as emcees, when we do that as an occupation.”

PackFM will likely pick up a mic again, it’s in his DNA. However, he’s currently much more excited to pick his next flight to a destination with no stage. Hey, he’s earned it.

The first voice heard on TLC’s 1992 debut album Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip is that of a random white guy on the Intro, pontificating on the allure of the all-girl trio. “Maybe it’s just one of those Black things that people get into,” he surmises with goofy confidence. “It’s just a fad I think.” He punctuates it with his distaste for their baggy clothes, claiming they “don’t really look like women,” and politely closes with “…but they’re pretty cute.”

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of TLC’s debut, but also 15 years since Left Eye passed away. She would have also turned 46 years old this year on May 27th.

A group like TLC, but more specifically Left Eye, was the most confusing type of woman for the hip-hop landscape. Sexually feminine bragging with masculine confidence was the forte, and from that mold came so many artists both hyper-sexualized yet designed for mainstream consumption. It all started with TLC and a fork in the road that arrived too early for a group who might have pushed even further beyond revolutionary had Left Eye remained at the forefront.

25 years ago, America was at its boiling point. In politics, ’92 is oftentimes referred to as the “Year Of the Woman,” due to an uptick in the number of female elected Senators for the first time in American history. In the middle of the year came the L.A. Riots, following the verdict of the Rodney King trial. But just a few months earlier, on February 25th, TLC dropped their first album. The release was bookended on that date by pop-rock goddess Tori Amos’ debut Little Earthquakes, where she bravely channels her trauma from sexual assault into beautiful music, and ironically the legendary Boogie Down Productions’ final collective release Sex And Violence.

Sexual violence was at a staggering high, clocking in at over 150,000 sexual assaults annually. While the Riot Grrrl movement was well underway—bringing a batch of feminine rock voices into the sphere while detailing those sex crime rates—Hip-Hop was in the midst of a switch-up. The New Jack Swing Era coupled with an escalating interest in the Atlanta hip-hop scene gave birth to acts like Kriss Kross and Another Bad Creation, arguably just offspring of New Edition. Salt-N-Pepa were easing into a poppier comfort zone, as the following year they would drop Very Necessary, the most successful female rap album of that era. Queen Latifah would also drop her socially conscious “U.N.I.T.Y.” in 1993, so 1992 was prime time for a new female act to emerge.

The brainchild of L.A. Reid and his then wife Pebbles, TLC— aka T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli—at first glance looked like they were slapped together for the ultimate kitschy hodgepodge of femininity. Dressed in baggy denim in hues of indigo, orange, red, and green, along with oversized t-shirts from the then infamous Cross Colours (Clothing Without Prejudice) clothing line, TLC commanded eye-popping attention.

Condoms were pinned to their clothes along with neon Band-Aids checkered along their pants. Their de-facto leader Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, wore circular glasses with one lens popped out and replaced with a bright condom. She also wore a giant neon hat and most of the time her pants were unbuttoned and her belt was unbuckled. Their debut single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” arrived at the close of ’91, but gained momentum once the album dropped. Loosely named after a classic Temptations song, the track flipped the script with mantras of wanting sex whenever TLC needed it—“in the mornin’ or the middle of the night.”

In the video, the girls are dancing with water guns and giant baby pacifiers, as Left Eye does a proud march around a giant room with a live band, boasting about taking the D regardless of size or flaccidity. The song did surprisingly well despite its content. Co-penned by Left Eye and Dallas Austin, it hit #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching #2 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks. It was also nominated the following year for a Grammy Award for the Best R&B Song. Really though, it was one line of thread woven throughout an entire album of self-expression.

When you stripped away the aesthetics, TLC was the most socially conscious female act of their time. A female Public Enemy in fact, as Left Eye had the double duty of being Flavor Flav and Chuck D, where one moment she was playfully animated and another delivering the hardest bars on the track. At times she even sounded like Chuck D, using her cadence as a flexible instrument with extreme tonal highs and extreme tonal lows.

[39 seconds]

Their songs were a mixed bag of meanings. “His Story” was set to the backdrop of the Tawana Brawley rape trial, where TLC waxes philosophical about [white] men’s sides of any story being perceived as the truth. “Depend On Myself” and “Bad By Myself” harbor similar sentiments of independence yet expressed differently. “What About Your Friends” (which would be their third single) was about distrusting friends in the midst of fame. “Something You Wanna Know” is a gentle emasculating anthem, placing the man in the seat usually reserved for a woman as this time she calms his anxieties about her faithfulness. Meanwhile, “Shock Dat Monkey” is all about cheating. “Hat 2 Da Back” (their fourth single) challenges societal norms for how women should dress, and the Left Eye solo track “This Is How It Should Be Done” emphasizes that their fame was far from overnight. “Das Da Way We Like ‘Em” even has all of the girls rapping, a glaring example that Left Eye should be the only one with those privileges. Production came from the likes of then hitmakers Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, and Marley Marl. The LaFace Records project was executive produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface.

However the album didn’t really move units, taking four years to go quadruple Platinum, an easy feat for many of that era to hit way earlier.

As ’92 progressed, things started changing. Censorship trickled in, as condoms on their clothes were replaced with just a bunch of multi-colored Band-Aids. During their performance on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, Left Eyes trades her condom specs for what looks like a giant flower over the lens.

When “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” was performed live, Left Eye’s line “two inches or a yard, rock hard or if it’s saggin’” was often changed to some variation of “2 da back is my hat and my pants keep saggin’.” While Chilli and T-Boz were both the seductive singers of the group, the brunt of the censoring fell upon Left Eye. By April, their second single would be their turning point.

“Baby-Baby-Baby” would become TLC’s meal ticket into the pop world. Reaching #2 on the Hot 100 and topping the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, the single was sung-only, led by T-Boz and Chilli on the verses and Left Eye pretend-harmonizing. There was still the coy undertone of sexual self-assurance, but it was placed within an overtly romantic context. “If you’re gonna get me off,” T-Boz sang, “ya gotta love me deep.”

The video looked like an episode of A Different World (one of the most popular Black sitcoms at the time), where the girls attended an HBCU and found their boyfriends via #dormlife.

It was cute, but it marked the beginning of the end of what TLC could have become. Sure, “What About Your” friends followed, as did the final single “Hat 2 Da Back,” but by “Baby-Baby-Baby” it felt like a race to the finish for Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip’s life cycle. TLC’s brazen sexual prowess also became a point of contention, as a riddle circulated about them and their peers so eloquently rehashed on the b-side to the Pharcyde’s biggest single “Passin’ Me By” on a song called “Pork”:

I heard ABC and BBD caught HIV from TLC. Is it true? I hope it ain’t because I really had some plans to fuck the shit out of Chilli.

[4:50]

If TLC and their label had any expedited plans to move them as far away from Hip-Hop as possible, this was certainly the kick in the ass.

Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip was the first and last time TLC was regarded as a Hip-Hop group. From then on they would become an R&B group, as Left Eye’s contributions would gradually be phased out. As time progressed, their rawness and edginess were polished and packaged for a mainstream audience. Perhaps it was the way to go. The primarily sung CrazySexyCool would arrive in 1994, with the chart-topping hit “Waterfalls.” “Waterfalls” became their greatest selling single, but the pricey video would be the catalyst that tipped them into going broke. And sure it carried the same socially conscious spirit of their debut album, but Left Eye’s poignant rap verse that ties together the whole song is oftentimes edited out on the Radio Version. Even by FanMail’s “No Scrubs,” the song carries some message but Left Eye’s verse is an afterthought—tacked onto the music video version.

While the group had moments of both social consciousness and hip-hop awareness checkered throughout their career, their debut was the kickoff. They would never chase those waterfalls again.

Through a history lesson plus a Lifetime biopic, we know how the story of TLC went: bankruptcy, shady label dealings, tumultuous relationships, and the passing of Left Eye in 2002 (ten years after their debut).

Their imprint in music history usually comes with the tagline of a cautionary tale, yet on their debut album they made magic when magic was desperately needed. The block was hot, and TLC rose to the occasion. Ironically, 25 years later, the block is arguably hotter than ever. Perhaps Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip deserves another go’round to remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.