Knowledge the Pirate is true to his name in more than one sense. Overt references to a lifestyle of plundering and smuggling aside, the rapper broadcasts his signature brand of streetwise, brutally honest storytelling directly to the people—operating outside the jurisdiction of music industry regulators. By offering the digital download of his debut album, Flintlock, exclusively on his website for a full month before making it available on the major streaming services—and physical copies through an array of small, yet influential independent labels—Knowledge has surgically removed corporate middlemen and gatekeepers from his business model with a cutlass.

Loyal to his small band of affiliates and preferring to collaborate organically, Knowledge only includes less than a handful of producers and one feature on his studio debut—the latter being Roc Marciano, New York City’s poster boy for raw, gritty, vivid street rap (who also produced a few of Flintlock’s tracks, alongside Elemnt, Mushroom Jesus and Knowledge himself). Having made memorable contributions to all of Marci’s projects since 2012’s Reloaded, it’s not hard to see why he considers the UN standout a best friend and brother. In addition to the ominous, yet soulful and descriptive, almost cinematic quality of their music, the two share somewhat similar stories as disenchanted mainstream music industry castaways who found independent success on hip-hop’s high seas.

Marci, of course, came up as a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad—and his 2004 UN album, UN or U Out, was originally released on Carson Daly’s 456 Entertainment. Knowledge, on the other hand, got his big break after Will Smith’s former bodyguard, Charlie Mack, witnessed him battle. He eventually signed a deal with Teddy Riley and went on to record with Wreckx-N-Effect, Blackstreet, Nutta Butta and even Pharrell Williams—staking his claim as “the first gangster to rap over Neptunes’ beats” in his Twitter bio to this day. He has also stacked some major writing credits, working with artists like Will Smith. Recently, however, Knowledge mostly collaborates with Roc and a few other players in the budding renaissance of grimy New York shit.

Marci has implemented similar strategies when rolling out albums in the past, releasing them completely independently for a limited period of time before making them available on other distribution platforms—and Knowledge seems to have taken this approach to heart. With a Complex video premiere for his song “Long Gaze,” great reviews, a limited tape run that sold out within 24 hours and a special edition gold vinyl pressing that already sold out before its October drop date, the strategy has proven itself bountiful.

UGHH chopped it up with Knowledge about Flintlock and its independent release, his relationship with Roc Marciano, the state of New York hip-hop and his history as a ghostwriter.

Seems like Flintlock has been getting a great reception. After decades in the game, how does it feel to finally drop your debut album?

I feel like a proud father when his baby is being born.

Why the wait?

Because there wasn’t no money in it. The sound that we grew up on wasn’t relevant. Shit shifted down South, and I didn’t come into the game to give my art away for free, so I fell back until me and my brother Roc Marciano figured a way to monetize it and get money.

People say the reason New York fell off in the mainstream is ’cause cats don’t have unity here. Others think it’s ’cause a lot of New York artists started jackin’ other regions’ sounds. What’s your take on all that?

Both reasons—but we’re here to show the opposite, which is unity and staying true to our roots. That’s hip-hop.

You guys are often credited for bringing back that authentic New York sound. What do you think about the state of New York hip-hop, right now?

It’s looking great, ’cause we’re giving the people the blueprint to an authentic sound that is infinite. The future looks great.

A lot of your newer fans know you for your work with Roc Marciano, but you originally came up battlin’ cats in the ’90s… Any crazy battles worth mentioning?

Nah, a few famous niggas ducked me, but I won’t mention any names. My brother Rich brought me to meet Cassidy when he first signed to Swizz. We spit a few lines. It was around the end of my battle era and he was just coming in the game, and the boy was hard. Definitely one of the best to do it.

After you were discovered by Charlie Mack, you eventually did some work for Will Smith—which you’ve been pretty candid about in the past. You’ve also worked with Teddy Riley, Wreckx-N-Effect, Blackstreet and Nutta Butta, to name a few. What’s it like writing with or for dudes whose music is pretty different than your own?

Working with one of the world’s greatest producers like Teddy Riley was an honor and is one of the reasons I am the versatile artist that I am today.

Do you have to get out of your own mindset?

Nah, I just go to that creative place.

How did you get into ghostwriting? Did cats just hit you up like, “Yo, I like your flow. Can I buy some tracks?” Or did you go out actively looking for folks to shop tracks to.

Mostly unreleased music that they heard—or through word of mouth, and then we would end up collaborating together.

Write for anyone else you can mention?

Nah, I’d kind of like to keep that anonymous.

You’ve credited Roc Marci for kind of getting you back into the rap game when you took a little hiatus after the whole Teddy Riley situation… What is it about Roc that inspires you (and vice versa)?

Besides him being my brother [and] best friend, he’s one of the best lyricists [and] producers. I told him many moons ago, the only way I was gonna do this music shit was if he started producing more—and here we are. We have been inspiring each other to strive for greatness.

I notice y’all keep a tight circle, musically. Anybody you got your eyes on workin’ with in the future—whether producers or other emcees? Who, besides y’all, do you think is holdin’ the torch for New York right now?

I like to let things happen naturally, so you never know. As far as producers, I’d work with Alchemist, DJ Muggs and Large Professor. As far as names holding it down and pushing the culture forward: Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny, Mach-Hommy, Tha God Fahim, Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren, etc. Keep up the great work.

You and Pharrell still in touch? Would you ever work with The Neptunes again?

Pharrell is my brother. We came up together. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but that’s family and you never know what the future holds.

Can you tell us about the web series you’re about to drop?

No doubt. It’s called PIRATES… Briefly, it’s about the disenfranchised youth that come from dysfunctional homes and how they have no guidance except the streets and gangs because of the generation gap. The water flows under the bridge, and this is the birth of the PIRATES. Coming soon. This will be an epic, life-changing web series.

Why have you decided to only release the Flintlock download on your website?

Because artists get robbed for their art by streaming platforms and we like dealing directly with our fans—no middle man—so the whole experience becomes personal. We have the best fans in the world and it’s a blessing that they will go where we say to go buy our music.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

BROWSE PRODUCTS FEATURING KNOWLEDGE IN THE UGHH STORE.

Hailing from Cincinnati, rapper Speed Walton (formerly Buggs Tha Rocka) follows in the footsteps of Ohio’s long list of musical innovators. In hip-hop alone, from Camu Tao and RJD2 to Kid Cudi and Stalley, the Buckeye State is a veritable hotbed for the kind of artists who refuse to be boxed-in by convention. True to that tradition, Speed has made a name for himself through several different projects—each with its own unique style and sound. Whether with his group the Space Invadaz (alongside Cincinnati hometown hero Donte from MOOD), with his old experimental fusion band Gold Shoes or as a solo artist, Speed has become a local celebrity in his own right—even earning him recognition at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for multiple consecutive years.

Speed and Donte joined Talib Kweli on the road for his Radio Silence Tour this year. MOOD, of course, helped launch Kweli’s career by featuring him on their underground classic Doom in 1997 (which was partially produced by fellow Cincinnati native and Kweli’s Reflection Eternal group-mate Hi-Tek). Now, the Space Invadaz are signed to Kweli’s Javotti Media platform and are working on their debut album for the indie label. Speed is also recording his own solo studio debut, Real Name Speed, and recently dropped some luminous visuals for its first single, “Black Mozart”—then hit the beach for its second, “Night Fall,” and finally took it home with the laid-back, hazy “Purple Flowers” video.

UGHH chopped it up with the Cincinnati emcee to talk about his new projects, touring with Talib Kweli and working with his childhood heroes, as well as making music that attempts to bridge the gap between different schools and styles of hip-hop.

I understand Speed is your birth name, and that you’ve been spittin’ since age six. Tell me about your family. Do you come from a musical household?

Speed Walton Bey is my name. My family mostly played in jazz bands or in church—so yes, music has always been part of our household.

You used to go by Buggs Tha Rocka. Why the change?

Just felt I evolved and wanted to be as transparent as possible, so [I] wanted to just go by my actual name. It’s who I am—and as far as my music goes, it’s the same… Just me telling my story or things I seen, giving the listener all of me in [my] pure essence—good or bad.

Real Name Speed drops later this year. What can you tell us about the project?

I think this album embodies who I am as a person and artist—a great introduction into my mind and world. It’s just different musical elements I am inspired by and stories and emotions I have experienced. It’s mellow and chill, lyrical stoner vibes, for sure.

Who’s involved, in terms of features and production?

Mostly, it’s in-house producers from my city that I love working with. [I] wanted to be as authentic … [to] what I, as an artist, and Cincinnati, Ohio represent—at least on my side. I thought that was very important for this album, so I have my fam Hop Trax, Ill Poetic, Sal Dali, JRDN, J. Rawls, Homage (CVG)… I think that’s it. Hope I ain’t missing anyone.

I peeped the video for “Black Mozart” and was wondering: why Mozart? Why not, say, “Black Chopin” or “Black Bach?” Do you have any personal connection to Mozart’s music?

Yo, that’s a good question [laughs]. Honestly, I knew that Mozart published his first works at the early age of eight, so I kinda had that in mind—seeing [as] I started really composing at six, and my family and people in the neighborhood always felt I was a prodigy because of that. I just think it was because I was [in an] environment that allowed me the freedom to be creative, and it was just a part of me—and the other half of me … just thought it was a fly way to start off a verse [laughs].

In the song’s second verse, you say, “My budget right now won’t let me get my ideas out.” If you had unlimited resources, what would you like to be doing that you currently can’t?

I would have symphonies doing live instrumentation, a crazy Kanye West stage show, all types of crazy ideas for features… It just takes a wild budget for this creative imagination. I have to take things to the next level, trying to push the culture forward.

I feel like when an artist rocks over sample-driven boom bap beats, they are often pigeon-holed as some sort of Golden Era nostalgia act—no matter how groundbreaking or forward-thinking their music actually is. How would you describe the music you make, and where do you think the future of hip-hop is headed?

I agree with you, with that statement. I tell people all the time, I [just] love music. I’m not in a lane or any box people may try to group me in [just] because I’m one of the [last few] artists spitting at a certain type skill level that purists resonate with. I love bars and stories. That’s just me, but I love music and I think that reflects in my beat selection. I’m hands on with everything, so that’s all calculated. I wanna be an artist the Golden Era can dig, and the now and future generations can always dig [too]… At the end of the day, it’s just about if it’s good or bad, when it comes to music—no matter the lane [or] style.

Ohio seems to breed a lot of hip-hop artists who think outside the box and sort of fuse genres and styles. Do you think that’s indicative of anything unique about the scene?

I think it’s in the middle of the world—the heart of the U.S.—so it’s a melting pot of different people [and] different musical styles. From funk bands to indie [and] experimental bands, Ohio breeds unique styles. Something in the water, I guess.

Your group the Space Invadaz is dropping an album on Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media platform later this year, as well. I know you and Donte have each worked with Kweli in different capacities in the past, but how’d y’all link up? Can you elaborate on your relationship?

I always was a fan of MOOD and the Doom album. I grew up [on] it, and Donte had a certain style and voice that was unique to me. Always thought he was one of the most underrated, but greatest emcees alive—and he is from my city, Cincinnati, so it made sense to link up once I knew he was a fan of me. We met [at] a hip-hop panel at the University of Cincinnati. We talked and recorded the same week, and we been down ever since. When the opportunity came about to put out music with Talib Kweli and his label, it only made sense [that] me and Donte drop a project together. The chemistry was there, and Kweli and him have a long history, so [it] was [an] organic move.

What’s it like touring with Kweli?

It’s great touring with a hip-hop legend. I learn so much game. To have his respect is love. He showed me how to grind independently. He took Kanye West on his first tour and gave him a shot. Same for me. Kweli took me on my first tour, so him telling me that story … kinda just fueled me even more to go harder—’cause Kanye West is one of my biggest inspirations. It just let me know the end goal to be global is in close reach.

Have you guys been working with Kweli in the studio at all, lately?

Yeah, we just recorded a record with D.R.A.M., and another one off the Space Invadaz album—a crew record joint. Hip-hop needs more of those. [They] used to be the thing, back in the day. But [working with him is] awesome. Talib is a vet. Donte is a vet. It’s a whole crew of real lyricists, so everybody gotta go hard—every verse, every song, every performance. Steel sharpen steel.

You’ve cited Kweli and MOOD as some of your influences, coming up. Do you ever sit back and think, “Damn, I’m working with my idols?”

All the time. I always make sure I give the people who show me love and whom I respect the flowers while they can smell ’em. Don’t cost nothin’ to show humility and spread love, so I always let them know [that] I know I’m blessed and thankful for their guidance on my journey—and a seat at the table with rap’s elite.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Beneath The Surface” is UGHH’s column designed to unearth the underground’s deepest and brightest gems—exposing and celebrating some of the best emerging emcees, producers and DJs on the scene.

Contrast is a powerful creative tool, reflected in Black Milk’s very name and impeccably utilized on his latest studio album, FEVER. Emotionally raw, yet melodically polished, the well-balanced LP drops Friday, February 23 on Mass Appeal/Computer Ugly—and could easily be a case study on the artistic principle.

Musically, it is a bit of a departure from the renowned Detroit producer and emcee’s last two solo projects, which were much more somber and menacing in tone. An organically soulful cocktail of jazz fusion and funk-infused rhythms, with a twist of electronic textures for good measure, FEVER is one of the artist’s most fluid bodies of work to date. Lyrically, the project showcases some dismal, sharp and thought-provoking commentary about modern society and the current sociopolitical climate in America—touching on everything from institutionalized education and organized religion (“True Lies”) to “fake woke” misogynists and the emotional effects of social media addiction (“Laugh Now Cry Later”), as well as capitalism’s taxing toll on human relationships (“Foe Friend”) and much more. The result is a complex listening experience that is paradoxically hard to swallow, but somehow still manages to go down smooth.

Hip-hop is full of rapping beat makers and self-producing emcees, but few who are equally as talented on both the MPC and the mic. Even fewer continue to push the envelope in both disciplines throughout their careers, and fewer still have as much to say as Black Milk. FEVER is indicative of his growth, both as a producer and songwriter—and as a man. UGHH spoke to the multi-talented artist about how the energy on FEVER developed, his ever-evolving creative process, social media-induced anxiety and the Random Axe sequel that would have been, were it not for the untimely passing of group mate Sean Price.

YOU’RE GOOD AT CRAFTING A UNIQUE SOUND FOR EVERY PROJECT, WHETHER YOU GO MORE SOULFUL, ELECTRONIC, JAZZY OR WHEREVER WITH IT. WHAT WAS THE VIBE YOU WERE GOING FOR WITH FEVER?

It was one of the first times where I kinda wanted to do a vibe that was I guess a little more laid back, a little more calmer—more vibe-y, I should say, than my previous projects… That was just the natural wave I was on, at the time, when creating the album. Wasn’t any particular reason. That’s kinda what I was trying to go for sonically. In terms of the topic, I named the album FEVER [to represent] the temperature being kind of high, in the climate that we’re in—in the world and the country, with all the craziness that’s going on… Everybody’s emotions [are] on edge. It seems like most people, no matter what side of the fence you’re on (in terms of politics), have anger [about] what’s going on.

SONICALLY, IT’S A LITTLE MORE… I DON’T KNOW IF THE WORD WOULD BE UPBEAT, OR JUST REAL SMOOTH… I WAS WONDERING WHAT KINDA HEAD SPACE YOU WERE IN WHEN YOU WERE CREATING FEVER, AND HAS IT CHANGED AT ALL SINCE YOU DROPPED IF THERE’S A HELL BELOW?

I think with every album, especially with a person like me that drops albums every two or three years, it’s more so just always a reflection of where I’m at personally, at that time. It’s the same with this new album. It’s just kind of reflective of where I’m at in the world I’m living in at this moment—’cause this world is different than the world we was living in, or the world I was living in, three years ago… This album was kinda made with the new president [and] the new government that we have [in mind], and … [with] all of the issues that’s going on right now in the world, so that’s why the vibe of the album is kinda like up and down sometimes.

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT STRUCK ME WAS THE JUXTAPOSITION OF THE CONCEPTS AND THE SOUNDS, ’CAUSE YOU’RE DROPPING REAL HEAVY BARS OVER … ETHEREAL KIND OF BEATS.

Yeah, a little more feel-good type… [Laughs].

YEAH. WAS THAT BY DESIGN, OR DID IT JUST KIND OF NATURALLY HAPPEN THAT WAY?

Yeah, I can say honestly man, I started the album before a lot of these issues and this new presidency kinda came about. I started the album before everything happened, a little over a year ago, so when I originally went into it, yeah, it was kinda … like, “I’ma make a feel-good album.” You know what I’m sayin’? “I’m gonna make something with feel-good vibes on it, ’cause I feel like my last two—Hell Below and No Poison—those were more dark albums. I’ma change lanes a little bit and do something with a little more feel-good vibes into it.” Like I said, the weight of the world pushed me into a whole other space. I kinda was forced to still talk about some things that might have a darker tone to it, so that’s why you kinda get a mixture of some of those good vibes with some of those darker vibes—it’s just ’cause that was my intention, originally, but the world just didn’t allow me to stay on that [laughs].

LISTENING TO “LAUGH NOW CRY LATER” FEELS JUST LIKE SCROLLING THROUGH MY TIMELINE ON SOCIAL MEDIA… YOU REALLY CAPTURE THAT WEIRD COMBINATION OF DEPRESSION, ANXIETY AND ANGER AT THE STATE OF THE WORLD, MIXED WITH MOMENTS OF HUMOR AND ENTERTAINMENT—AND IT’S LIKE FLIPPING THROUGH EMOTIONS LIKE TV CHANNELS. EVEN SONICALLY, WITH THAT FRENETIC, ALMOST DIGITAL SOUNDING BASS LINE AND THE EFFECT ON THE VOCAL SAMPLE, YOU WAS REALLY DOING SOME WORD PAINTIN’ THERE. WERE YOU TRYING TO CREATE THAT EFFECT, WHERE THE BEAT MIMICS THE CONCEPT?

Yeah, that particular song started with the beat—and the actual song concept, the lyrics, kinda came from a conversation I was having with one of my friends about that particular subject… Man, do people really realize the kinda emotional roller coaster that they’re on when they’re scrolling through social media, [or] just being online in general, on a daily basis? … I don’t really know if people really are aware of how they’ll be furious about one topic one minute, and then just see a meme or something about that same topic that will change their entire emotion five minutes later, you know what I’m sayin’? … That’s where the concept for the lyrics came from.

WHEN I FIRST PEEPED “LAUGH NOW CRY LATER,” I COULDN’T HELP BUT THINK OF THAT GUILTY SIMPSON LINE FROM “CHEWBACCA” OFF THE RANDOM AXE PROJECT. WAS THAT AT ALL INTENTIONAL? WAS THERE ANY BEHIND THE SCENES CONNECTION OR INSPIRATION THERE?

[Laughs]. Yeah, definitely! After I had the conversation with my guy about what we was talking about (that gave me the idea for the song), I don’t know why that phrase “laugh now, cry later” came to my head. Of course we all know it’s a popular phrase—it’s been around—but when I thought of the phrase, I naturally thought of Guilty because, on the flip side, that was my favorite bar of the entire Random Axe album. That’s like one of my favorite Guilty Simpson lines ever. “I’ll carve a smile right next to your frown, like laugh now, cry later.” I love that line, so I naturally thought of that line when I thought of the title… [Laughs]. Guilty definitely was in mind when I put the record together.

IT MAKES SENSE, TOO, ’CAUSE THE RANDOMNESS OF SCROLLING THROUGH THE TIMELINE AND SEEING ALL THE DIFFERENT STUFF KINDA GOES IN LINE WITH THE IDEA BEHIND RANDOM AXE.

[Laughs]. You’re right. Exactly!

SPEAKING OF WHICH, I HEARD A RUMOR THAT RANDOM AXE WAS WORKING ON A SECOND ALBUM BEFORE P’S PASSING. WAS THERE ANY TRUTH TO THAT?

Yeah, definitely. We definitely was on our way to jump into that. That’s why I had the Random Axe feature on my last album, If There’s a Hell Below. I can’t think of the song title right now, off top, but it was the song with Random Axe on my last album… That was supposed to be the planted seed and the spark to get everybody excited for the Random Axe project, ’cause that was literally the next project that I was gon’ work on after Hell Below dropped—but unfortunately P passed, so we ain’t get a chance to get that project done.

THE SONG WAS “SCUM,” I THINK.

Yeah, “Scum!” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DID YOU GUYS RECORD ANY MATERIAL FOR THAT?

Nah, that record was the newest record that we had recorded. We didn’t get a chance to record anything after that, after Hell Below. That’s pretty much the last official Random Axe song that’s ever been recorded. I know P had a lot of verses that he recorded, but it didn’t feel right just trying to put something together and it not being the actual process with all three of us in the room. I didn’t wanna make it low budget like that, just for the sake of having another project.

YOU’VE DROPPED SOME [OTHER] CLASSIC COLLABORATIVE ALBUMS, [TOO]. ANY THOUGHT TO WHO ELSE YOU’D WANNA LINK WITH FOR A FULL PROJECT, IN THE FUTURE?

Not really anybody in particular, but I definitely wanna do more collaborations. The last couple of months, I’ve been getting in the studio with a few different artists and producing just records and songs. Hopefully those records will come out.

ANYONE YOU CAN NAME?

I want to, but you know how that goes… [Laughs].

YOU KNOW I HAD TO ASK, THOUGH [LAUGHS].

Of course! I been gettin’ in the studio with names people are familiar with—a couple of newer artists that’s on the up-and-coming that have pretty good followings, right now—so hopefully some of them records come out. Right now, that’s kinda been my thing (besides doing my own solo stuff), is trying to make more of an effort—’cause I didn’t make too much of an effort in the past—to do more collaboration work with different artists.

MIKE [KING], THE OWNER OF UGHH, WAS WONDERING WHY YOU AND BLU HAVEN’T DROPPED A “BLACK & BLU” PROJECT.

[Laughs]. I know, man. It’d seem like the obvious. Me and Blu actually talked about that a while ago, a long time [ago], but it’s just one of them things where we just never got a around to it. The idea was always there… Me and Blu got the chance to work on a few records together, but never got the chance to do a full LP.

[BACK TO HELL BELOW], ON “WHAT IT’S WORTH” YOU SAID YOU “NEVER WAS ONE TO GO TO ANOTHER ONE JUST TO FEEL VALIDATED” IN REGARDS TO “WORKIN’ WITH THE LATEST OUT.” … IS THAT WHY YOU CHOSE NOT TO FEATURE ANY OTHER EMCEES ON [FEVER]?

Not necessarily, man. When I went into the album, I really didn’t have any features in mind—and by the time I got around toward the end of the process of the album, I kinda noticed that, “Damn, I didn’t really put any features, especially rap features, on the album.” But I was pretty much done, and I feel like I got my message and point across … without having to have any features disrupt that, so I was like, “I’ll shoot for that on the next album, and be more conscious about it.” It wasn’t on my mind at the time, actually. I was just writing all of the lyrics and not even thinking about features. I didn’t really realize it until I was done at the end, like, “Damn, I didn’t even really put no features on this joint.” [Laughs].

WELL, YOU DO HAVE SOME DOPE MUSICIANS INVOLVED—LIKE CHRIS “DADDY” DAVE AND DARU JONES ON DRUMS. HOW’D YOU LINK WITH THEM?

I just started kickin’ it with Chris recently, bein’ out here [in L.A.]—bein’ in similar circles. Me being a fan of him as a musician, and [him being] a fan of me as an artist, we’ve been gettin’ in the studio lately, just working. It was just one of those things where I had him come through and play on some stuff—and then with Daru, I’ve just known Daru for a long ass time, man. You know, he played on my album Album of the Year, which was back in 2010, so it was good for me and Daru to link back up for the first time in like eight years… I [also] had one guitarist playing all the guitar parts you hear on the album, a young up-and-coming musician named Sasha [Kashperko] from Detroit. All of the [keyboard] parts you hear is this cat named Ian Finkelstein, another young, really dope keyboard player out of Detroit. Those two were kinda like the glue for the entire album. There was me, of course, doing what I do with production, and having Ian and Sasha do what they do, as musicians … adding that additional musical element on top. I gotta really give it up to those guys.

I WAS WATCHING THAT VIDEO YOU POSTED—THE “FEVER STUDIO SESSION” JOINT—AND I WAS WONDERING ABOUT YOUR PROCESS. I’M SURE IT DIFFERS A LITTLE FROM TRACK TO TRACK, BUT A LOT OF THE VIDEO WAS YOU KIND OF DIRECTING THOSE MUSICIANS INVOLVED—AND I WANTED TO KNOW, ARE Y’ALL ESSENTIALLY CREATING YOUR OWN SAMPLES TO CHOP UP?

For the most part, with me, my process always still—from the beginning all the way to this day, I should say—is always built from records… Just digging. Diggin’ for dope records, and dope music and dope artists (stuff that’s untapped). A lot of the times, I either go chop it up myself in the drum machine—make a beat out of it and maybe have some musicians [play] on top of it—or there’s other times where I might just hear something and I might just have the band totally cover it, you know what I’m sayin’? Cover what I’m hearing or what I like—a melody that I might have caught on the record—and be like, “Yo man, listen, let’s do something like this. Let’s build on this, right here.” I might either leave what they did alone, or I might even take what they done and chop it up and make something crazy. Yeah, it could vary… There’s tracks on the album, for example a track like “True Lies,” which [are] entirely live. I didn’t take anything on there [and chop it up]. That’s all of them guys just playing straight through. [Then there are tracks like] “Laugh Now Cry Later,” or you could say something like “Will Remain,” where you hear the beat and you could hear the extra live guitar sprinkles of beat on top. It just varies.

I NOTICED YOU’RE USING A TOUCH NOW (THE MPC TOUCH). HAVE YOU STOPPED USING THE 3000 ALTOGETHER, OR DO YOU USE DIFFERENT MACHINES TO ACHIEVE DIFFERENT SOUNDS?

This album was entirely [made] programming on the MPC software, inside the MPC Touch, and working in Ableton, as well—and Pro Tools. That’s kinda been my production foundation for the past year.

HOW DOES CREATING BEATS THE WAY YOU DO NOW, AS OPPOSED TO TRADITIONALLY SAMPLING STRAIGHT FROM THE RECORD INTO THE MPC AND JUST PUTTING IT OUT LIKE THAT, [EFFECT YOUR WRITING PROCESS]? DO YOU FEEL LIKE IT CHANGES YOUR APPROACH TO SONGWRITING, AT ALL?

Somewhat… I’ve never done away with any of the stuff that I used to do, totally. You could still hear elements of what I used to do maybe on my first album, Popular Demand, all the way up to now. It’s more so about just me adding extra layers on what I’ve started and just keep growing… With each album, you’re gonna get a little bit of something that maybe reminds you of something from the past, but it’s gonna still be something fresh, and new and progressive… I still dig for records, I still chop up samples, I still work with musicians—and I’ve been doing that for a while now. Definitely my songwriting has probably changed more than anything, in comparison to my production. I take that way more serious than I did probably when I was younger, on my first album—’cause at this age, and with all the stuff that’s going on in the world, I feel like I have way more to say.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

BROWSE AVAILABLE BLACK MILK PRODUCTS IN THE UGHH STORE.

Central Florida’s own Sean Shakespeare may be relatively new to underground hip-hop, but he spits like a seasoned veteran. One-third of the group Table For Three, Sean has been earning local props for his intense, in-the-pocket flow—and was even featured in Orlando Weekly as one of “14 local artists who are reshaping the Orlando music scene.” Teaming up with producer Swamburger and his Second Subject collective, the emcee and producer have developed a fresh sound—vaguely reminiscent of the early aughts-era Def Jux and Rhymesayers aesthetics that first introduced the lyricist to the underground, yet unique to the unofficial duo and perhaps a little more rooted.

On February 22nd, they are releasing Sean’s first solo studio project—a celebration of his ancestry and the evolution of Black music in America, appropriately titled Bloodline. UGHH got up with the emerging lyricist to discuss the project and his charitable endeavors, as well as discovering underground hip-hop (the genre) through a video game and our company’s unbeknownst role in inspiring him to start rhyming.

How’d you get your name? Why do you think it suits you?

I was born with the last name Shakespeare. Don’t know why my parents named me Sean, though. Sean’s an Irish name and I like whiskey, so I guess the stars aligned on that one.

I can’t front, when I saw the cover for Bloodline, I was expecting something much bleaker and maybe more angsty—but was surprised by how upbeat and energetic it is, despite touching on a variety of serious social issues. Was that a conscientious decision, or more indicative of who you naturally are as a person?

Yeah, I’d say it drops a clue on who I am as a person. I’m an observer and a calm dude. Bloodline is an observation of self and society. I’m always challenging the way I think. I flipped the map [on the album cover] as a play on perspective. There is no true up or down. As people, some of us tend to defend what we’re used to or comfortable with before applying any objective reasoning, you know? The list of things that applies to is almost infinite. I just wanted to shine a light on that a bit.

Tell me about the title, Bloodline. What does it mean to you, and how would you describe the underlying theme of this project?

I named the album Bloodline as a statement for my cultural identity and lineage. Slaves had their identity taken from them, which started the process of a people rebuilding an identity of their own. Slaves sang early versions of gospel hymns as we know them, which greatly influenced blues, soul and even jazz musicians. Disco came along with influences from those prior genres, which was the main ingredient for break beats in hip-hop. Eventually, I come into existence looking back at it all like, “Damn, I’ve got a pretty dope bloodline.” This album celebrates that.

Let’s talk about “Ghost.” You pack a lot into that track. What inspired it?

I’ve always thought of myself as a ghost in the flesh, wandering around, doing what I do. Other than that, I’m just a series of choices. I make the choice to get as good as I can at my craft. There’s no finish line. The lyrics in the song are just reminders of that.

The production on the album is really dynamic and compliments your rapid-fire style and complex rhyme schemes nicely. Can you elaborate on your process with Swamburger? How’d you guys link, and how would you describe the sound you two have developed together?

I met Swam at Austin’s Coffee in Orlando a few years ago during an open mic they do every Monday. He took interest in Table For Three—a hip-hop trio I’m part of with Jamar X and TKO—and started putting us on some of his shows. Some time after, he and I started working on music together. The process is dope. Usually, I’ll just go over to his studio and he’s already going ape shit on the MPC. We’ll talk concepts, and I’ll write as he’s building the beats. Swam’s got a seasoned ear for layering samples, choosing drums and creating patterns, which gives me room to stretch all the way out creatively. The sound is hip-hop, point blank—fresh and gritty.

The album also features veteran underground emcee Blueprint. How’d that come about?

I’ve been bumping Blueprint albums since high school and met him at a show he did in Miami like eight or nine years back. Since then, I’ve opened for him a couple times on shows Swam put together—once with Table For Three, then again with my own set. After I wrote the first verse and hook for the song “Be,” I just heard Blueprint’s voice and style being perfect for it. Swam agreed and hit him up. Swam laid a fire verse down too, and that was that. Definitely one of my favorite tracks to date.

What was your introduction to underground hip-hop? What [else] were you bumpin’ back in high school?

Story time: it’s funny ’cause I got into underground hip-hop as a fan through playing Tony Hawk on PS1 when I was a git. That’s where I first heard artists like Aesop Rock, Loot Pack, Busdriver, Murs, Eyedea & Abilities, Atmosphere and Del the Funky Homosapien. I was only like 10 years old at the time, so I didn’t understand how much more of their stuff there was out there. In middle school, my older brother gave me a CD that had a lot of Aesop Rock and Atmosphere on it. The more underground artists I learned about, the less I listened to the radio. Doing this interview is wild, ’cause in high school UGHH.com was everything to me. The music I actually wanted was always there. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have started rapping when I did, if not for UGHH.com. One day, I got an instrumental CD with my order. I listened to it in my car on the way back from skateboarding in Miami and started freestyling with my friend Matt Ramsey over it. After that we would freestyle pretty much every day. I was hooked.

Dope! Who would you like to work with in the future? Who are you checkin’ for, these days?

There’s a lot of artists I’d be interested in working with. P.O.S is definitely up there. We have a good bit in common, based on what he writes. I just did a short tour with Carnage the Executioner and we talked about working together soon. I’m stoked on that. Doing a track with Aesop Rock would be tight. Killer Mike and El-P would be tight. Sage Francis is definitely on that list too, as well as Brother Ali, Murs, Earl Sweatshirt, Homeboy Sandman, DJ Shadow, 9th Wonder, Madlib, Dope Knife, Toki Wright, Joey Bada$$, Anderson .Paak, Aftermarket and Alexandra from Solillaquists of Sound, to name some. [Those] are the same artists I listen to pretty regularly.

What do you like best about the Orlando hip-hop scene?

There’s a dope community vibe here. It’s small, but not too small. I like that I can go anywhere any given night and run into someone from the hip-hop scene.

From your experience, do you think it’s easier or harder to get exposure coming from a place like Orlando, as opposed to bigger cities like New York and L.A.—where a lot of the scene is centralized, but there are also many more artists trying to break through?

I’ll put it like this: a buzz or trend that starts in N.Y. or L.A. has a better chance of translating to Orlando than the other way around, for now. The city’s growing pretty fast, so I’d say that influence on the industry will grow with it.

What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?

I’m working on the next album, as well as a new Table for Three album. Aside from that, I’m putting together a foundation that will buy instruments for high school kids that can’t afford to buy the instrument they learn in band. Ten percent of my album sales get tucked away for that, right now.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Beneath The Surface” is UGHH’s column designed to unearth the underground’s deepest and brightest gems—exposing and celebrating some of the best emerging emcees, producers and DJs on the scene.

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

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

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

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

Bahamadia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think so. Definitely.

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

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

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

What do you think about the term “femcee?”

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

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

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

I’m sorry to hear that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s dope.

It is dope.

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

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

That’s a dope way of looking at it.

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

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

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

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below the Heavens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exile: Yeah, whoa, what a trip!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about now?

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

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

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

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

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

BROWSE AVAILABLE BLU & EXILE PRODUCTS IN THE UGHH STORE.

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

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

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

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

After all this time, why now?

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

What was so special about “PROXY”?

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

So his death put certain things into perspective…

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

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

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

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

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

LR Blitzkrieg

Do you have a release date for the album?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where do you go from here?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Trae Tha Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have a lot of features on this project…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View this post on Instagram

In The City Of Houston… @playboicarti @maxokream

A post shared by traeabn (@traeabn) on

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

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

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

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

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

Trae Day 2016 Recap by Trae Tha Truth on VEVO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for Trae Tha Truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPEAK YOUR PIECE IN THE COMMENTS BELOW OR OVER AT THE UGHH FORUMS

Pharoahe Monch is having a come-to-Satan moment. Huddled in the cockpit of an ebony two-door chariot, he is holding church for the wild. The car’s speakers vibrate with sonic fury as he nods his head immersed in his own creation, coming close enough to his steering wheel to trigger his airbags. His words saturate the cabin with the veracity of someone who has cheated death and has returned from the guts of hell to tell the tale.  Some of these songs (like “Ya-Yo”) will be untethered within coming weeks, while others have a less definite release date. But these hymns bear the distinct mark of an emcee who has spent the last two decades-plus pulling us through the dark side of his psyche with no shame. The enchanting anarchy of “Agent Orange,” the supernatural headbanging of “Let’s Go,” and the lyrically prodigious extended metaphors of “Gun Draws,” are all manifested in these new unreleased compositions.

A few hours before this impromptu private concert, Monch (born Troy Donald Jamerson, Jr.) is pacing the halls of the UGHH offices waiting to shoot a promo video for his UGHH-powered showcase. Between takes he is seated at a wooden table sipping a discrete amount of brown liquor from a plastic cup. He and his manager are playing French Montana’s new song, “Bring Dem Things,” which samples his Organized Konfusion classic “Stress,” and nod to producer Harry Fraud’s pastiche of Buckwild’s Charles Mingus manipulation. If you’d told a younger Monch in the ‘90s that New York rappers would be sampling his songs, he’d probably flash his signature gap-toothed smile, chuckle through his beard and tell you to kick rocks. But this is his reality. Two decades after sample clearance derailed his biggest, “Simon Says,” he is on the other side of the equation.

But how we did we get here? Monch’s origin story is filled with so much death, drama, and near misses that you’d think a radioactive spider had bitten him.

From humble beginnings doing LL Cool J-style karaoke and a Snoop Dog cameo that could have healed a divided culture, to turning down two of the biggest names in Big Apple hip-hop during a bidding war, Monch has had a career unlike any emcee. He slides his cup to the side and folds his fingers on the table as he details his ascension to Bad Motherfucker.

A few weeks later, Pharoahe Monch doesn’t just play the song “Ya-Yo” at his concert powered by UGHH, he unwraps it like a time capsule he dug up from the Ed Koch era ‘80s when B-boys laced their cigarettes with white girl. He turns to his DJ Boogie Blind for a co-sign on the covert habit, but gets a stern plea of ignorance. The lifelong asthmatic teases his fans about his vices before he goes full Steve McQueen in Bullit.

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

“It sounded like a car chase, so that’s how I wrote it. With the drama,” he says satisfied with the song’s first live test drive. “The fun part about being a writer is staying on the cusp of coming up with some new shit, throwing people a curve ball. It’s not advocating cocaine use. It’s advocating dopeness.”

An official release of “Ya-Yo” will have to wait until he comes back from the festival circuit in Europe and can shoot a proper video for it. For now he is just trying to figure out if his Apple TV will work overseas, but the weight he’s carrying will have no problems getting through customs.

When did hip-hop first come into Troy’s life?

It was definitely an artistic/cultural thing. I felt like drawing and characters and letters and graffiti [were] as much hip-hop as anything. So if you could strike the right images or flip the right things in your black book, you were a part of it. And we would share our black books at Art & Design [High School]. I was surrounded by New York City Breakers, Mr. Fable, Mr. Freeze, and all of those cats. I was engulfed in the culture early. The first time somebody brought equipment out in Queens, I saw somebody lay some linoleum down, and I said “This is incredible!” I was a little kid. This was on my block. So by the time I got to HS, I said I have to be part of this culture. And it wasn’t that I had to be an emcee to get signed, but I had to make my name in this shit somehow. But when I got to Art and Design, I was looking at everybody else’s shit like, “You really not that nice, B.” I’m still talented, but in comparison…are you going to be drawing for Marvel? Probably not.

Do you remember your audition for the school?

Definitely. My pops was driving me to the school and I was drawing on the way. I was a fuck up. I was a class clown at A&D. My personality really switched 180 degrees. There would be courses where the first week of school the teacher would lay out how many quizzes there would be and I would raise my hand and say, “Fail me now. I’m not doing that shit.” I was really wild. Not a thug, but I didn’t care. I had monster movies to watch and football to play and music to do because I knew I could make the shit up in summer school or whatever. I was like you not gonna have me doing all this homework over the weekend, man.

Because there was some place you had to be on the weekends…

Going to the park jams was different from the clubs. There was literally an air in the way the weed filtered through the atmosphere at outside jams; the people and the heat in the Summer was a different vibe. The way shit echoed you could hear it from blocks away. I was like this is the most exciting shit ever. We had started writing and rapping and people knew, opportunities would come, to go behind the rope with Grandmaster Vic and get on the mic. I was shaking scared just like Nas said. “I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.”

How did you know this?

It was a process, before Organized Konfusion, of very wack ass shit. But what was dope about starting the group is we were able to sense we were pretty bullshit before it even left the basement. We would listen back to the tape and say “This is horrible.” The grading curve was Grandmaster Vic and The Boss Crew, Infinity Machine and all the mixtapes, not even what was on the radio at the time. The way people were putting routines together…it just didn’t feel like that. I was beat boxing and doing all kinds of crazy shit. I was like, this is horrible. Prince was like you gotta have some bars, B. You’re not even filling the tape up. We were in the basement trying to find our voice and harnessing our craft. We spent every other day going over my man’s house and doing it live. DJ Tystick,  he was the only one I knew who had equipment. The dope shit about getting into shape then was that it was live to tape. The way cats were learning back then was sharpening us as well for what was about to happen. You would stop after a few beats and routines, but during the verses you better learn all the way through. When we got to the recording stage it was so competitive that if we weren’t doing shit in one take we were clowning each other. It wasn’t funny. It was serious business.

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

Was there ever a point where you said maybe this isn’t for me?

I always knew it. I went to my parents and looked my father in the eye, getting my story straight and saying, “I’m not going straight to college.” Me and Larry are gonna start this group and what we’re thinking is—and he was looking me in the eye—he said you have 365 days to make this shit pop. After that you on my time. This was a little after graduation from Art and Design. I’d gotten accepted to Hampton University. It helped that they were supportive because that’s where we were working out hard, in my crib. It afforded us the space to exercise.

So what happened over that next year?

We got signed to an independent in the neighborhood. These are secrets that I haven’t told. There are vinyl records pressed up, but only so many copies were made. I don’t even feel like saying the names. Before we stumbled upon Paul C, we were with an independent and we did this record and they were like, “We want y’all to do it like LL, love, a little softer.” And I’m on the joint like, “I’m alone, I see you…” [laughs hysterically] I’m not even gonna say the name, but it was under Simply II Positive.

**Editor’s note. We found it. Sorry, Monch**

There were real talented people around us. All the musicians from Queens, Kevin Osborne, Tom Brown, all those Queens dudes that played on “Jamaica Funk” was in the studio. So we was trying to do straight live shit, no samples. But I was already over here with it. So we tried that, it was what it was.

We were in the studio working on some demos as STP, and Paul C (Paul C. McKasty) walked into one of our sessions, grabbed a tape and walked back out. Then he called the next day and said y’all are fire and I gotta work with y’all. And that was the beginning of real professional structuring in my mind. When we started working on the demo that eventually went to Bobbito, Paul was the one that said you gotta cut the bars down to 16 and I was like “Bars? 16?” He’d stop the session and say “go home, listen to your favorite group and work on your arrangements because I can’t work with y’all like this.” Four songs into the demo, just getting ready to shop it, Paul C got murdered. I’m pretty sure that’s a chapter in my life I can talk to therapists about. I never felt anything like that before so I know I didn’t know how to deal with it. I couldn’t understand how we’re just getting ready to get our shot, and the producer that Ultramag, Super Lover Cee, Rakim [worked with was killed]…I’m pissed at God, I’m pissed at everybody. I was just torn up. Then detectives were calling my crib. And we were young.

The demo had already touched Bobbito, but now we’re stuck in a situation where we don’t have that guidance anymore. Bobbito is telling me he shopped it to Russell Simmons along with Nas and he passed on both. I was telling Bobbito recently that we saw Russell in the club, and he was like, “You know what? I’ve been listening to y’all shit and I’ve been giving it some thought. Here’s my number, call me tomorrow.” The first thing he said: “Simply II Positive” was the worst fucking name in the history of hip-hop. “Y’all gotta change that name.” We were like what’s a hip-hop group name without numbers? I was like. “STP! Like the oil! And he said, “that’s even worse.” So we changed the name and he gave us a verbal offer to sign to Def Jam. Hollywood Basic came in and doubled the Def Jam offer. This was around ‘89 or ‘90. We were like “we gonna go out West and do this shit with Disney.” And they were like “you can have creative control, we love what the demo sounded like.” But they were fucked up, too, because they had Naughty By Nature and Cypress Hill. And I remember they passed on Cypress because they couldn’t see Latinos saying the N-word in their music. I was listening to their demo like “what the fuck?”

Where did you work on that first album, Organized Konfusion?

We worked on it out here. It sounded experimental because we lost our mentor and they gave us creative freedom. We would go in the studio with records. We did a lot of shit on the fly, that’s why it sounds so loose and experimental.

“Releasing Hypnotical Gases” was definitely experimental.

I was a huge rock fan, and the joints that I was loving the most had these tempo changes. But I don’t even know how to program a tempo change like that in an SP-1200, to go from 89 BPMs to 95. There wasn’t even enough sample time to do that shit. So I went to the engineer and said we need to splice this record with this record. We literally had to cut the tape in half. That’s the inspiration from going from one vibe to another vibe on the song. That shit is just dudes from the hood who saw people get murdered in the club, murdered at the jam, splattered, skull meat. Also being comic book nerds, how do we incorporate this? What is your voice that no one else has? You’re super visual, so you have to put this in your music and take some chances.

You followed that by releasing Stress: The Extinction Agenda, which sonically seems to pick up where Releasing… left off, more so than “Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken.”

It’s amazing. I was just talking to Buckwild. Even on Hollywood Basic, we did the “Chicken” shit and they said, “This gotta lead. It’s funky, playful and everybody loves chicken.” So I said, “What are we following with?” So they gave us the “Fudge Pudge” and we can do this. I just didn’t feel like that joint represented Prince’s powers as a lyricist and what we embodied. So just hearing Buck give me that beat for “Stress,” we didn’t even write it yet and I said this is the single. I know what this is already. The bass line is dark, the horns are weird. I called my A&R Casual T and said this has to be the single and we have to shoot a video for this. My mind was expanding and it had stress in it [and] all of these different sounds. So we wrote the record, shot the video. Michael Lucero directed it, who also shot Souls of Mischief’s “93 Til Infinity,” so you know what his eye was like. He was a blessing. At that time I was 265 lbs and I’m filming the video and he can tell I’m being subtle. He said look, man, you’re a big guy. I need you to fuckin’ be in this video like a big guy. You look like you’re 4 foot 4 and 80lbs right now. He reached me. I said I gotta embrace this fat shit right now. I mention him in that video because it was a cool point in my career to be like, “This is who you are.” Once we saw how the video came out we said we wanna work with him more and he passed away. Right after “’93 Til infinity.” This is just bugged.

After Stress you released the final OK album, Equinox on Priority Records. That album turns 20 in September. What was your focus, individually and as a group going into it?

It was fly ‘cause we had already started working with Rockwilder. Buckwild had exploded as a producer. We had the connections now. So it was a matter of do you want to follow trends or stay with these perennial type producers? I knew that I wanted a theme to run throughout it. I think if we’d had more tutelage we could have pulled off the story album thing better. But as I listen back to that record—we were working with Bob Power—we were still learning but there were some really bright spots in terms of the production and the way it was sounding and that stuff was inspiring us as well. I still think that we were still trying to find what Organized Konfusion was and what it meant. I know it meant to people, high-end lyricism. But video-wise and branding-wise, I think we were still searching for what it meant for our fan base. We got clear-cut love for who we were, but I think the name Organized Konfusion allowed us to have a range of different sounds. I don’t know whether that hurt us or helped us because it wasn’t able to be packaged neatly. Because it was so wide.

But before you got the answer, you guys closed the shop…

The ending of Equinox was tumultuous. We shot the “Somehow Someway” video. We felt that the group still needed a promotional push and wasn’t getting broke properly into the mainstream. On the “Somehow Someway” song we were supposed to get Snoop, he actually recorded for the video, because that’s his line. But we couldn’t get the clearance. He did it because Snoop is dope like that. He filmed it on camera and they had it sliced into the video [but] his label said we couldn’t use it. So I was disgruntled. Po was disgruntled.

That would have been an amazing thing to heal the whole “East Vs. West” thing at the time.

Snoop will bust a Pharoahe Monch rhyme in a heartbeat. He loves the culture and he loves hip-hop and you could tell back then. Just for him to do that for us…Tim Reid probably connected the dots. He was the promotions guru at Priority. So I was disgruntled with the major label situation, so I took a hiatus.

Priority offered me a solo deal, but I was like nope. I went back home back to Queens like “What does it all mean?” [laughs] Finally you got some dark tendencies and you need to get that shit out of your system. That’s why that album was called Internal Affairs. It was really supposed to be therapeutic. There was supposed to be therapy sessions between the songs, but I was starting to like the songs so good I said fuck the skits. That’s where “PTSD” is from. Stress from the Stress album. That’s the period I’m talking about on that album. There was no Googling what was happening to me. I was in clubs until the sun came up. I couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t want to think about what I think about to myself. I knew DJs so I would just be in the booth sitting out of view. Not even standing.

But you did eventually release that solo project and recorded a literal and figurative monster of a song, “Simon Says.”

It was an “Ah.” moment. I’m just chilling with my best friend, who happened to be our original DJ. His name is Tystick, and we were both Monster Movie fans, and at the time Tower Records was poppin. He had just landed a great job as a bus operator, so he buys like $300’s worth of CDs of music. People used to do shit like that. He picks up the Godzilla shit and he’s at the crib down the block from me and he says, “I think you want to come down to the house.” He presses play—the whole CD is insane. To this day, there’s like nine things on that CD that I was [going to use] but I got to the [“Simon Says” sample] so I take the CD and chop it up, put the drums under it. I see the vision of the son.  and I didn’t have enough sample time to put the intro in. I could, but I didn’t have Pro Tools. I had a s950, I sampled it, but I couldn’t add it onto the beat tape. I was working with Lee Stone so I got with Lee, we added the intro to A-DAT for people who even know what that is. I know I’m bringing back memories. We used the frequency on the 950, the tone, for that same tone and we just pitched it. We were working with Troy Hightower at the time, and you know Rawkus had the budget. And for a very simple beat, he mixed the fuck out of that record. And if he reads this interview, he spent a day on the kick for that song, which I now know he was jerking me for my money. Because it doesn’t take that long to EQ a kick! All day it’s [beat boxes kick drum]. I didn’t know that at the time, that he was stretching the budget. It sounds impeccable to this day, but whatever.

And then Charlie’s Angels happened. The copyright holders of “Gojira tai Mosura Theme” by Akira Ifukube hear the song and you get a cease and desist…

We had a year where I got an excessive amount of money from the record and then Charlie’s Angels happened. To this day my manager sitting with me right now will attest that we still get letters and emails, video games that want to use that song. It was a moment of uneasiness with that song. I remember the office going crazy the first time we played it. The owners had the “we got one” face. But as the business process went—I brought them the sample info and the CD it was kinda like, I had a feeling of uneasiness in my stomach. And that’s when I should have stepped up. I said it’s gonna pop, but it’s gonna fly under the radar. But then Funkmaster Flex was like “LADIES AND GENTLEMAN!” We were like “here is the info” and we struggled with it to the end. Whatever shady shit that was…we got beat over the head for the Maxwell sample on “Queens” as well [because] the record dropped before the clearance was done. They hit us hard. Records were being shipped backed then. They hit us for $30 or $40K. So when I saw Maxwell at Joe’s Pub he was like, “Yo you flipped it…thanks for the check!”

Then what I call your second debut, Desire, is released eight years later. That turned ten earlier this year. Why was there so much time between the two projects?

I had to hire music and sample attorneys for the “Simon Says” lawsuit, I had to hire separate attorneys to get out of that contract. And it was a lot. It brought me down on the music industry. Again, I was unsure about releasing music. I was holding onto a lot of it. I remember being on tour with Mos [Def] and Talib Kweli, and Kweli’s manager at the time, Corey Smith, was asking me where’s the music at? “You gotta let music go, you can’t hold onto it. It’s a disservice to you and the fans, spiritually.” I was like, “I need a label, etc.” and Corey changed my perspective a bit. I almost went indie at that point. I recorded “Desire” and “Push” and “Body Baby” as well. We garnered a bidding war between Sony, Puff, and Universal Motown, and Steve Rifkind. So I had three labels coming at me with deals and bidding over each other. That was crazy for that time. I felt good about the music because my lawyer at the time said it would never happen again and it happened again. I demanded a meeting with Jay-Z when he was running Def Jam. I played him “Gun Draws,” and Jay was like “Woooo! That’s cinematic. I see that.” I didn’t think he’d be mind blown over that record but he was. But monetarily the logistics of the industry were such that if he gave me this much money, he won’t be able to follow through with the project. He was being honest with me. And Steve Rifkind was like [bangs table] and Puff was like whatever Steve Rifkind says, double that. And I wondered if the music was going to work under the Puff/Bad Boy moniker. If Puff wanted me to go on the air and yell “Bad Boy,” how was that gonna work? And I also needed money, so Steve made more sense. He loved the record. So I wanted to see if there was an in-between, where a level of undergroundness would make sense. Even though “Body Baby” was strong it wasn’t a straight radio record. It was about staying ahead of the curve. Then Lil Wayne dropped “Lollipop” and shut everything down.  

Then you went to “War” and reflected on your PTSD with your last two albums…

The “WAR” album was really dope because I was about to go where I’m going right now with the current music I’m working on, and I think I would have been way too ahead of the curve. So we decided to stand on the soapbox and do a Pharoahe Monch rap record, shooting for where we stand for the people. Independent. Partnered with Duck Down. It was so successful for us on an indie level. Independently we trumped what I did on Desire.

And what about now? What’s next?

I’m hustling now. I got this one record called “Ya-Yo” that’s an extended cocaine metaphor and another record that’s called “Yellow Brick Road” that’s another cocaine metaphor. And this record “24 Hours” with Lil Fame, some kind of realistic situation where I’m check-to-check, I need my money and people aren’t paying me. So I know someone who will get me my money. So I get Lil Fame. These records are the last that you’ll hear from Pharoahe until he transitions to 13. Then I go into the darkest, hardest bars. I’ll play them in the car for you if you like…

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