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

Monosyllabism FTW.

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

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

Polysyllabism FTW.

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

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

[insert writer’s glee].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobb Deep & Kool G Rap – “The Realest”

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

Prodigy – “Money Is a Weapon”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prodigy & Cormega – “Three”

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

Mobb Deep – “It’s Over”

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

Prodigy – “Bang On Em”

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

Prodigy & Nas – “Tick Tock”

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

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

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

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

LR Blitzkrieg Is Back…For the First Time

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

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

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

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

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

After all this time, why now?

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

What was so special about “PROXY”?

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

So his death put certain things into perspective…

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

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

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

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

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

LR Blitzkrieg

Do you have a release date for the album?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where do you go from here?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gospel Of Sampling According to Vanderslice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample:

Stavros Xarchakos – “Palikari Dipsasmeno”

Sampled by:

Dilated Peoples – “Reach Us”

Bryson Tiller – “Self Made”

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

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

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

Sample:

Tommy Butler – “Prison Song”

Sampled by:

Future – “Mask Off”

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

Rule No. 3: Stop sampling the same songs.

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

Sample:

Incredible Bongo Band – “In a Gadda Da Vida”

Sampled by:

Nas – “Thief’s Theme”

Nas – “Hip Hop is Dead”

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

Now for an overused sample.

Sample:

Sister Nancy – “Bam Bam”

Sampled by:

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

Jay Z – “Bam”

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

Also sampled by:

Sean Price – “Jamaican”

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

Wiz Khalifa & Chris Brown – “Bomb”

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

Closing Thoughts:

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

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

Godspeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juicy The Emissary

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

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

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

Attention Kmart Choppers

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

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

 

Attention Kmart Choppers on Bandcamp, Spotify

Full Kmart Tape Collection on archive.org

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

All 11 Instagram Videos of Juicy making Kmart Choppers

 

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

Once again we’re back with another Catalog Shuffle, where artists get their entire discographies thrown into a playlist and give the stories behind randomly selected songs. This month’s guest is producer Nicolay. As one half of the duo Foreign Exchange (along with Phonte Coleman), Nic has never been afraid to explore new musical territory with his group and solo projects. In going through his tracks, we talk about how Okayplayer message boards changed his life, the influence that electronic music has had in his own career, and how Neil Young inspired one of the darker albums in the FE catalog.

Nicolay

Nicolay “Memory Lane” (City Lights, Vol. 1.5, 2005)

I feel like if I put someone on to your current music and then played them stuff from this era, they might not be able to make the connection that it’s by the same artist.

Nicolay: This is an interesting place for us to start because this was all kind of the same era when I was working on what ultimately became [The Foreign Exchange’s debut album] Connected. City Lights represents what wasn’t used on Connected, to put it bluntly. I had really gotten into beatmaking and a lot of that process was nothing more than continuous exploration and experimentation, often involving samples. “Memory Lane” is interesting if only for the fact that it’s a sample of a Minnie Riperton song of the same name. I wasn’t trying to hide it. It was briefly considered for Connected, but a lot of the obvious sample-heavy stuff ended up on the cutting board because we had other really great stuff that was a little more developed.

This time was really just my figuring out that I love making hip-hop beats. It’s the Rosebud of The Foreign Exchange [laughs]. It was also when I began thinking that I had something I could contribute, whereas for a long time I just wanted to be a fan. It took me a few years to realize hip-hop was evolving in a direction that I thought opened itself up to me, especially with the music that J Dilla was creating. That discovery is how I (and so many other people) all got on Okayplayer.com [where Phonte and Nicolay first met and began collaborating online]. We were all different people, but I think we all had something in common. In a nutshell, the story of Okayplayer and The Foreign Exchange are parallel to one another.

I would guess your process has changed a lot in terms of how you create music today versus your process back then.

Nicolay: There is literally not a single element that has remained the same. At the time, I didn’t have access to gear, a lot of instruments, or good speakers. It was much more renegade than I think people realize. Phonte represented that on his side where they were recording vocals under some of the most hilarious circumstances in those days. I think what was so strong about what we did is that you don’t hear that in the music. When I listen to the earlier stuff now, I think it still translates and I’m incredibly proud of it. I can hear what I can do better, but it takes 10-15 years to figure that shit out.

I’ve always had the mindset that I just need to release music continuously, because that is ultimately the only way I’m going to learn how to do this shit. Ironically, my first album [Connected] ended up being a relatively successful record, and to the end of these days, anything you do is going to be compared against that—which is a blessing and a curse. I’ve learned so much that I didn’t know at the time, even on a technical level.

Nicolay “My Story (feat. Kay and Sy Smith)” (Here, 2006)

Nicolay: I moved to the States after the success of Connected. Phonte was still very focused on trying to make Little Brother as big as it could be when they were still signed to Atlantic, so that was definitely the priority in his life and career at the time. We had always figured Foreign Exchange was a side project that maybe at some point we would revisit. I was trying to figure out what I could do at this point. I started getting calls from people that wanted to work. I was interested because I felt like I could further my producer brand, but at the same time I wasn’t going to give them any sort of Connected stuff and just dish out the magic like that. I realized I didn’t want to be that guy who just does a few beats here and there, working with random people. Creatively speaking, that hasn’t ever really appealed to me.

I figured the best way to further my career was to keep doing albums versus spreading myself all over the place. Here was a reaction to the success of Connected in the sense that you see me kind of pushing back a little bit. The album doesn’t feature Phonte, which is interesting now that I’m looking back at it. I intentionally kept the music a little more “simple,” because I really wanted to showcase a different side of myself that was more of a straight-ahead boom-bap sort of sound. Everybody loved how pretty Connected was. Here was me kind of trying to be gritty, with mixed results. That album to me is like a 6/10. It serves a moment in time when I was kind of ready to uproot my entire life and just come here to unlock the next level for me.

“My Story” foreshadows the album that I would do with Kay in 2008, TIME:LINE. It was our first shot at it. Sy is another frequent collaborator. Despite everything I just said, this song is the most Connected-sounding track on Here. It’s the most lush and evolved-sounding; an exception to the rule. I loved it so much at the time. It’s got a nod to Jaco Pastorius in it. It’s not sampled, it’s replayed. I tried to sneak it in there, but people made it out fairly easily. If you had to put together a Top 20 of stuff I’ve done, this would be in it.

The Foreign Exchange

The Foreign Exchange “All That You Are” (Connected, 2004)

Nicolay: “All That You Are” happened towards the end of finishing Connected. At that point, we knew what we were doing. The first couple of tracks we worked on were two people who hardly knew each other. I mean, we had spent a fair amount of time on Okayplayer at that point, so I guess we did know each other—enough to know that there was no bullshit involved. We knew we had enough in common that the risk was kind of minimal.

As much trust as you could have with somebody on the Internet in 2003.

Nicolay: It really sounds crazy looking back. But as those of us who were aware of what that Okayplayer world was, I feel like we did know each other in a way that kind of mattered. You may not have known personal things, but you knew sort of what page you were on with somebody. It was early on in the evolution of the Internet, so it had its own sort of trial and error. If you look back at it, it kind of foreshadows the entire Facebook experience. It was so niche when it started that it was very powerful because I think even though there were a lot of different people, at the end of the day they had something in common. I hope somebody one day does a serious kind of research of that entire phenomenon: the Okayplayer phenomenon.

It’s funny because I always say that site changed my life, but I realize who the fuck I’m talking to right now…that site REALLY changed your life.

Nicolay: It kind of made my life. Not only did it bring Phonte and I together, but we kind of rode that wave all the way to where we could. [Record label] BBE really liked the story of these people who had never met, yet made something that was more than decent.

Do you guys still collaborate in that way?

Nicolay: We’ll get together and listen to stuff in the same room. I might go and hang out with Tay and he might play me some stuff that he’s done that he would otherwise send me MP3s of, but the hamburger is still made very much in two separate parts of the kitchen. There’s a practical reason for that, as we live two hours apart, but there’s also some of what I call our Clare Fischer superstition. Prince had a collaborator named Clare Fischer who was the string arranger for a lot of his stuff, starting in the ‘80s. They worked remotely and Prince loved him so much that he became convinced that magic should never be broken, so he went to great lengths to never meet the guy. And he never did. I think Phonte and I always looked at it that way. We’ve never created in the same room, face-to-face. It started as a limitation, but at this point, it’s just how it goes.

The Foreign Exchange “Asking For a Friend” (Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey, 2015)

How did the elements of house music start to infiltrate your creative process? It wasn’t really present in your earlier work that was more Dilla-influenced. Were those genres always in your playlist, but you didn’t know how to incorporate it? Or did your love for that music come later?

Nicolay: Connected has a decidedly hip-hop-influence, but we probably could have started making music in any number of genres. I was more exposed to a lot of house stuff when I first started making music, but just like with hip-hop, I never could find a way in to contribute. I did a remix of [Connected track] “Foreign Exchange End Theme” that was a full-on, hard-house club sort of track. It came out primarily in the UK and kind of showed us that we could expand outside of just hip-hop. We could get away with it as long as we made it dope and weren’t just doing it for the gimmick.

Phonte and I have both always been huge dance music/house heads. Coming from Europe, I’ve always been very fond of it, whether it’s Kraftwerk or Jazzanova or 4hero. Phonte is just a very curious and continuously thirsty listener. He listens to more music than anybody I know, and he’s very deliberate in what he listens to. It’s really rare that you can stump that man. He’s got very deep house music knowledge.

As freeing as hip-hop can be, it can also be very limiting especially because of the audience, which is not always as open-minded as it could be compared to something like indie rock, where fans will essentially take whatever they can as long as it’s dope. Over time, we’ve sort of tested our fans to see if they were open to new kinds of music from us. We may have lost some of the Connected fans, but now we’re in the luxurious position where we can pretty much do whatever we want. As long as we don’t make it corny.

Even hearing you mention indie rock just made me think: Is the next Foreign Exchange album going to be indie rock?

Nicolay: [laughs] It could be. A lot of fans called Authenticity an indie rock album because it was stripped down and less optimistic. Phonte and I are very big into indie music like Flock of Dimes, and here in North Carolina, there’s a lot going on with Merge Records. You’d be crazy if you didn’t listen to it and take something out of it that you can appreciate and interpret and translate into what you’re doing.

Nicolay “Give Her Everything” (Here, 2006)

Do you miss sampling?

Nicolay: Yes. But that song actually contains no samples. This was 2006, so I can talk about this now. At the time, we were skirting around using all these tracks that had some prominent samples involved. I’ve never talked about this, but it had an Eddie Money sample. It’s not in the final track because BBE felt a little nervous about it.

They didn’t want to give up that Eddie Money.

Nicolay: Right. They definitely didn’t want to give him everything. We had cleared some other stuff; we weren’t trying to be illegal with it. But BBE is a small label so you can only do so much, and Eddie Money looked like it was going to be a tall order. My man Eddie at BBE was A&Ring Here, and he had the idea to get his guy who was a singer/guitar player to come in and replay it. The whole replaying of samples is a touchy subject because for one, it kind of feels like cheating. Making an interpolation absolves you from using the actual recording, which is normally the main obstacle in clearing samples. But it also doesn’t normally have the same sort of feel. I was nervous about doing that, but we did it for a few tracks on the album.

I’d never met the dude before. I flew to NYC for some of these sessions. The guy laid down this one lick, and he hit it on the damn nose, so much so that it broke away from sounding like Eddie Money. I took the recordings of him and processed it in the same way as I did with the original sample.

I joke about it and call it my “Moby track.” It’s sort of like a hip-hop-infused Fatboy Slim-ish feel from the ‘90s when they started putting hip-hop in a lot of stuff with prominent vocal samples.

The Foreign Exchange “House of Cards (Live)” (Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange, 2011)

Nicolay: Authenticity came out in 2010, and it was a big departure right after we had been Grammy-nominated [for Best Urban/Alternative Performance on Leave It All Behind’s “Daykeeper”] and were basking in the sun for the second time in our careers. We stepped away from LIAB and realized that we had taken a really big chance. At the time we didn’t really give a fuck about stuff like that, but the Grammy nomination was the official acknowledgement that we made the right decision. That album became big and made us think, “What can we do next?” Due largely to some personal life circumstances like Phonte going through a divorce, Authenticity became very different than what people were hoping for.

I’m a Neil Young stan. He made “Heart of Gold” on [1972 album] Harvest, which intentionally propelled him to superstardom. To sort of sabotage all of that, he went on tour and not only didn’t play any of the songs from Harvest—an album that has sold millions of copies—but he brought a rock band with him and had these two-hour Vodka-fueled wild shows of nothing but new material where he was spinning out of control. I think he even aborted the tour halfway in. Then he released a live album of that tour [1973’s Time Fades Away]. It was a very dark and depressing and ugly album; it even sounds bad. But it’s a great record.

That always stood out to me as a lesson. Authenticity is our Time Fades Away. A lot of FE fans were really ready for “Take Off the Blues Part 2,” and they didn’t get it. Authenticity had more of a singer/songwriter kind of feel, so doing an acoustic take [with the Dear Friends: An Evening With Foreign Exchange live album] made a lot of sense. We figured we could record an acoustic version of it but that could be kind of sterile, so why not bring fans from all over into the studio so they can witness it? We held a contest and got 75-80 people who had no idea what we were going to do at all. We did the whole thing on the spot, with no rehearsal outside of the morning of when we figured out the different arrangements of the tracks. That was the first time I’ve played guitar publicly.

Our fans maybe didn’t fully pick up on it because our regular live show is very different from the stripped down, MTV Unplugged style. It’s not a representation of our live show at all. It’s a hidden gem in the FE catalog and worth seeking out because it has some cool and different arrangements. I think it was a seminal moment in our development.

The Foreign Exchange

The Foreign Exchange “Something to Behold (feat Darien Brockington & Muhsinah)” (Leave It All Behind, 2008)

Nicolay: This was one of my final sampling moments. One night I was going through my ‘40s piano music collection on vinyl. Phonte really liked that track. Everything that makes it on a FE record has to pass through him first. Whenever we work on a record, I’ll do specific things for it. But if it doesn’t resonate with him, it won’t make the cut. It always goes in a different direction than what I may have envisioned at first, which is great. This harkens more back to our Connected days if you will, which we need a little bit of to go with the “Daykeeper” sort of stuff.

Nicolay “Satellite” (City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, 2009)

Nicolay: Phonte calls my City Lights projects [the] companion pieces that highlight some of the more adventurous material that wouldn’t work on a FE record. Shibuya is a companion piece to Leave It All Behind. It’s from the same time period. And if you really look at my solo records, they’re incubators of ideas that we revisit in a more focused way later with FE. Shibuya kind of connects to [2013 FE album] Love in Flying Colors.

At the time, we gave each other carte blanche to do whatever, and that coincided with me going to Japan for the first time at the end of 2006. I only got to spend a week there, but it blew my wig off. It was a completely different world, unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. I came back from that trip thinking that I didn’t want to limit myself in any way, shape, or form. Anything that I feel that is worth pursuing, I just want to do it. I don’t care if it doesn’t have a hip-hop snare; I just want to fully tap into what I know is my talent. Part of that was my wanting to walk away from sampling because it was limiting me musically. I regard some sampling producers as high as I can think of, so it’s nothing I look down upon. I just wanted to write songs, do changes, and play my own basslines.

“Satellite” was the first time I did something of a suite—where it’s like four tracks in one that share a lot of musical, melodic, and harmonic material. It’s part of my impressions of my trip to Tokyo. As always in these things, I don’t want to just be like appropriating Japanese koto music. I want to pay homage, but not steal their shit. It doesn’t sound like Tokyo per se, but it has elements that tell me about what I experienced. It has a real frantic pace, with a lot of synthesizers that I really let loose.

The Foreign Exchange “Call It Home” (Love in Flying Colors, 2013)

Nicolay: There have been a few moments in the career of FE [when] we knew we were doing something we had never done before. This song is kind of the FE in its absolute nucleus: just me and Phonte, no guests or background vocals. We’ve had people come in over time to do various things and expand the sound, but when it all boils down, the magic of the FE is just sort of how my mind connected with his. And to this day, that’s how it works.

I wasn’t really sure if it was going to be a bit too far. “Call It Home” is definitely my paying homage to my European influences. I deliberately put stuff in there that you could link to the Prodigy or Goldie or 4hero. Once Tay gets a hold of it, it takes a completely different turn, and I love that about us. It’s like taking your baby out of your hands and watching someone else put clothes on it and be like, “Yo, you’re going to make this child wear bright fucking neon?” But it works. We couldn’t stop listening to it. It represented another moment of growth.

It also showcases the sheer prowess of Phonte as a songwriter. [We] are like brothers, we’ve built up so much together. But sometimes I take a step back and look at him and am in complete awe. Here’s somebody so comfortable in expressing themselves, yet he does it in a way where people relate to it so hard. It’s an incredible talent, let alone his Little Brother stuff that has so much brilliance in its own right. But just seeing his growth as a songwriter has been a crazy ride.

The Foreign Exchange “I Wanna Know” (Leave It All Behind, 2006)

Nicolay: “I Wanna Know” is the first track we made for LIAB. It was our reunion where Phonte and I rekindled the FE project. A lot had happened with Little Brother at the time. After 9th Wonder left, the roles got reversed and FE became the main project for Phonte. “I Wanna Know” is definitely in the Top 5 in terms of fan reception, when we play it live. It’s a song that connects with what so many people feel and want to say. Phonte is such a master at embodying that role.

We’ve spent a lot of this conversation talking about wanting to push your sound forward and not revisit territory you’ve been in before. So what are your feelings about your more popular songs? Do you feel like you’re over it, or do they hold a special place for you because fans love them so much?

I’ve had to learn to become comfortable with the process of putting things out there in the world and knowing someone is going to let you know how they feel about it, especially in the age of social media. When someone feels like we were swinging for something and not really hitting, it can be difficult. For [older fan favorites like] Connected, I have to step back and distance myself because to this day I get questions about why we moved away from that sound or if we’re going back to it.

In my golden years as a music fan in the late ‘80s and 90’s, I couldn’t send Prince a tweet saying Sign o’ the Times is the bomb but this other album isn’t hitting. Or imagine a situation where you sent A Tribe Called Quest a Facebook message saying The Love Movement is not hitting the way Midnight Marauders is hitting? It’s a new phenomenon that is very interesting. I knew a lot of people would always look back to older material of ours, not just because of the music; but because of where they were at in that moment of time. Some people were starting to get on their own feet—whether in college or the first steps in their lives as adults—and we could never try to replicate that moment. It would come off as pathetic and it wouldn’t really deliver. It’s always been clear to us that we should try to do the opposite. Instead of writing a new chapter, start a new book.

Now that over a decade has passed, I can re-appreciate how successful it became. But I can’t lie; it’s interesting when you’re fighting against your own legacy. I’m very fortunate and don’t want to seem like I’m complaining. It’s a little more complicated than that. You’re just aware that you’ve created something that people love very much, and it’s a beautiful thing. We just have made a decision to not always give them more of what they want, which is more of the older stuff.

www.theforeignexchangemusic.com

twitter.com/nicolaymusic

https://www.facebook.com/NicolayMusic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost Town Lounge NOLA
“Ghost Town Lounge”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hot Boys, Cash Money

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

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

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

Truth Universal
Truth Universal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diplomats Volume 2 cover

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myself, Max B and Carol at Club Speed in 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

It sounded like putting someone in a sleeper hold, but dancing while you were doing it.”

The phrase “for the culture” has become a ubiquitous catch phrase in rap circles, but it really applied to the actions of hotel owner Stanley Bard. For five decades, he stood sentry over the famed Hotel Chelsea, a New York landmark built in the 1800s and purchased by his father in 1940. Bequeathed to Stanley in 1957, the 250-unit tower at 222 West 23rd St became a commune and incubator for artists from all walks of life. Eccentric bold-faced names like Robert Mapplethorpe, Stanley Kubrick, and Arthur Miller walked the ornately decorated halls and called The Chelsea home, due in large part to Bard’s lax leasing policy, which gave creative minds room to flourish without the stress of possible eviction. Its magnetic appeal was undeniable, but the legend was nurtured as much by the lives that expired between the walls as the ones who lived in it.

“That’s where Sid Vicious allegedly murdered Nancy Spungen,” Jean Grae says matter of factly of the infamous relationship between the late Sex Pistols bassist and his girlfriend. “So for the decade I was living there, the elevator on the right would always randomly stop on the first floor and we’d say, ‘Hey, Nancy, get in.’ So while I’m very hip-hop, I’m very DIY about everything, which is also very Punk. I’ve seen all of the gentrification. It doesn’t get any harder gentrification than that.”

It was in this environment that a twenty-something Tsidi Ibrahim embarked on what is now called adulting. The South African native had been living in Brooklyn—recording and performing as part of the trio Natural Resource but took over her family’s apartment in The Chelsea. Her mother, jazz singer and anti-apartheid activist Sathima Bea Benjamin, had moved back to South Africa. Her brother, pianist Tsakwe Brand, left behind a treasure trove of production equipment, and the emcee/singer, who was now going by Jean Grae, was ready to spread her wings as a solo artist.

“I think it was the culmination of me living alone, really coming into being an adult and deciding what that was going to look like, as well as my musical voice,” she says of her debut Attack Of The Attacking Things, released on August 6th, 2002 by indie label Third Earth Music. “The great part about it is that I had this amazing recording studio in my bedroom so I was making beats and recording my own stuff everyday. And then Kimani Rogers approached me and said let’s make an album. That was the beginning of what became a theme for me. Someone asks, ‘Hey can you do this?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yup.’ Then walk away saying, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’”

Kimani was an artist and label executive who met Jean’s friend and co-conspirator Mr. Len in the late ‘90s when he interviewed Company Flow for his indie hip-hop magazine Off The Top. It was the group’s first interview, and he and Len remained friends afterward. While recording and performing with his group The Masterminds, Rogers made the rounds in the Giuliani-era New York hip-hop scene and met Jean through Len.

“With rap you got to Wetlands a lot and I met Jean at one of the Lyricist Lounge shows,” Rogers recalls. “She was still [going by] What? What? And that’s around when we were starting Third Earth Records. At one point I was like you’re featured on all of these records, what are you doing? She lived at The Chelsea Hotel back then, so I went back there and we’re sitting in the lobby talking about what she wanted to do. And she was quite open to doing an album.”

Attack Of The Attacking Things was a declaration of independence written on wine-stained papyrus. Pliable, enduring, and a little out of place, its mere existence was as much a testament as the stories held within in. With a distinctly monotone brush, Jean painted an aspirational portrait of herself and her community. Less preachy than it was cautionary, she communed with both distilled and ethereal spirits over sparse and disciplined drums. It was the diary of a Xennial trying to bridge the canyon between her infinite potential and the instability of the world she inherited, but remembering to laugh along the way. She fought, fucked, and fermented feelings—assuming more faceless personalities than Arya Stark in order to capture as many angles of the human experience as possible.

“There was a lot of smoking of cigarettes and drinking,” she remembers of her recording sessions. “Just sitting at that desk a lot. I called it Project Heat Studios because it was a big building with old radiator systems, and you can’t control the level of heat coming out. You can’t open the windows so you just have to sweat. It was hot and loud and the best thing about being in the Chelsea was that you could turn up your fuckin’ speakers and nobody is gonna complain about it. Something happened in the middle of recording and I may have blown out one of my speakers, so I couldn’t fully mix it the way I wanted it. So there should be a diagram to mixing it in the CD booklet. I was always ridiculous.”

But more than just an album for the sake of an album, Attack was a meeting of like minds who shared a cynical view of the world.

“She was different and she was weird,” says Kimani. “That’s what it was. Being weird, quirky and odd fit into Tarik [fellow Mastermind’s emcee] and I’s personality. It felt like a natural fit.”

Fifteen years later, Jean appreciates the work she put in then, but knows that she has come a long way from her copious similes and “creatively” mixed beats (thanks to a blown speaker).

“There are things on there that make me cringe,” she confesses. “But there are also some things on there where I’m like these are some really interesting choices. Like waiting so long for something to rhyme. I was finding myself, but I was really comfortable with who I was in a very conversationalist kind of way. I wasn’t technically as good [as I am now]. I was literally trying to find my voice and play around with things. I wasn’t here yet at all.”

But looking back helps you appreciate the progress you’ve made and with at least ten different projects released since then and an Extendo clip full of guest appearances, it’s only right to pay homage to where it all began for Jean Grae the soloist: Attack Of The Attacking Things.

ARE YOU STARING AT MY TITLES?

Jean: I work on music backwards from the future. The project is already done in my mind, and I’m just here to fill in the blanks. I’ve always worked like that and abandoned the idea of linear time, especially when it comes to art. It works for me. [So] I always kind of start working on titles first and then work backwards. There were a few original titles. The first one was Prom Night because I had a terrible prom night. It sucked balls. I didn’t actually graduate from LaGuardia High School, but I’m in the yearbook. So I wanted to do it over again and the vision was the album release party would be prom, etc., but I did not do that. The second title was supposed to be Whatever Becky, which stuck for a long time. But I decided against it at the last minute. Faces of Death was popular and When Things Attack was popular, so I was like Attack of the Attacking Things, and it made me laugh. I’ve been making jokes for a long time. My first rap moniker was created as a joke because I wanted people to do an Abbott & Costello routine every time they announced me. So it was interesting to take an album that was conceptual and talking about life and saying, “Eh, don’t take yourself too seriously.” I was trying to give an all around idea of who I was.

The Album Cover Art:

Jean: The designer’s name is Venus. I think in retrospect, I felt like that was the beginning of me really being, “I do all of these multiple things.” This album is not just me [rapping]. I’m producing it. I’m engineering it, the artwork, the marketing. I’m not just doing one thing, so it was important for me to get that point across. But I don’t think anyone cared. It was so blatant. The imagery couldn’t have been any more direct, but all of those things get ignored.

I really enjoy weapons. I love weapons. I used to bring a lot of weapons to the club. I had a cane that opened up into a sword. I used to go to the club so much no one would question me. I wore ninja stars on my neck as chains. An arm strap that had darts in it. But the juxtaposition of knives and flowers is something I’ve always stuck with. I want something structured on one side and organic and the other. I’m extremely pragmatic and operate off of logic, but you have to use your imagination to get those things done. [I was] doing these hard-ass technical raps, but being vulnerable simultaneously. With me coming into adult womanhood and understanding relationships and where I was, I was thinking about what kind of woman I was trying to be. Snakes are cool. I fuckin’ like snakes. Then years later, when I got my right sleeve done there are flowers, a serpent, and the idea of understanding that you can be all of those things as a young woman. And do all of those things.

Kimani: I remember taking the artwork down to Caroline’s to get it printed and they were like, “What is this?” and I said I don’t know what it is. It’s going to look weird on the light box at Fat Beats on 6th Avenue, but that’s what she wants, so that’s what it’s going to be. To me it was genius.

The Skits:

Jean: I probably went to recording skits before I did anything else. In my mind—in albums that I love—if there aren’t any skits in there to tie it together, then it doesn’t make sense to me. So I wanted to have Apani and Lyric (now known as Sara Kana) on the album having conversations on the phone. That was my life at the time, so I wanted to present that snapshot. So I think that’s the first thing I wanted to work on.

“What Would I Do” produced by Mr. Len

Jean: I’m a huge fan of The Wiz. It never stops being a theme in my life for anything I do. For the last six or seven years I’ve been ending my show with “Ease On Down The Road.”  “What Would I Do ( If I Could Feel)” was Nipsey Russell’s Tin Man singing in the junkyard. The imagery of it is amazing. I wish we could have done a video, but we had no budget. It’s so melancholy that he’s crying over his wife who crushed him. Clearly he has so many feelings over it but he’s like, “I can’t feel.” It’s me [sharing] my feelings…knowing that I really want to pursue this career [but] I kind of have to be numb about it. The idea of putting myself all-in and being hurt that it’s not being received the way I want it to, but still enjoying it so much and loving it so much. What would I do if I could feel all of my love for this?

Mr. Len: I made that beat in my apartment in South Orange after watching wrestling. Pre-Pro Tools days. I had the beat on a mini disc when I let her hear it. Both that and “Knock” were on that disc and both beats ran for 3:42. I do a weird OCD thing sometimes. I liked the idea of sampling The Wiz and did try sampling it for the hook. It just didn’t match right with the sample. 

“God’s Gift” produced by Masta Ace

Jean: I remember Len and Lord Sear had a great night at Joe’s Pub. We spent a lot of drunk evenings there having a good time. Except Sear started pulling the fire alarm when he didn’t like the crowd and shut the whole night down. I remember being on the stage and Ace was there and I said hey I’m working on this album and he said he’d be interested in doing a beat on it. So he gave me a beat tape—a cassette tape—and I picked one.

It’s very Jay-Z “Big Pimpin.” I like the idea of being able to step outside of myself and be someone else. The other song that I wanted to work on that I never got to do was a carjacking song, but I wanted to be the car and give the perspective of someone breaking into you. I spent so much time recording the album that I never got to do that song.

Block Party” produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen)

Jean: Nasain Nahmeen was [my production alias] after Run Run Shaw. It made me laugh and it sounded super Muslim. If you got the joke you got the joke. The hook was “get out your house, get off your block” because I’ve had the privilege of seeing the world, but it started from me not being from here. Being able to go on the road with my mom and my dad or by myself. I was touring with Natural Resource when I was 17 or 18.

I made “Block Party” as a response to a Jamie Foxx comedy special, where he talked about going to South Africa and when he got off the plane the thing that hit him was the “terrible fuckin’ smell.” And that isn’t true at all. Why would you, as this Black man from America…you see Africa and you come back and perpetuate this idea of what it is? I wanted to punch Jamie Foxx in the face so fucking bad. You have an audience and a platform. You have a responsibility to not do that, so why are you being a shitty human being? It was about making it possible to travel and for the people who do travel, you have a responsibility. You can do better.

“No Doubt“ produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen)

Kimani Rogers: “No Doubt” was one of my favorites. It knocked a little bit—and at the time Len and I created [the group] Roosevelt Franklin so Len was DJing for What? and there were often times where I would play hype man for her. That was one of my favorite songs to do live, because it was angry.

“Thank Ya” produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen )

Jean: I’m sure I had been digging somewhere and was extremely happy when I came across the [Allen Toussaint “Worldwide”] record. It was the beginning of the idea of re-recording vocals and hooks to make them seem like they were already part of that song. But people tend to disregard all of the harmonics and arrangements, and the 20,000 tracks of vocals I’m doing. Or people are like, “I didn’t know you sang” and I’m singing all over the album.

I understood what the album was gonna be, and clearly I’m not making a record for the clubs. I was in clubs every night and when I go I want to hear club music. I don’t want to hear myself; I’m fine with different music being for different things. I do think of songs about what time of day or which speakers you’ll be in front of, or if you’ll be in a car. There are certain songs I call “sunset/sunrise” driving over the bridge songs. That’s a very specific sound. Or there’s your “walking to the supermarket music.” Although my life was very party-oriented at the time, that’s not what this album was.

“Lovesong” produced by Da Beatminerz

Jean: I went to their house and worked on the beat there. I wanted to write something that could help people understand more about relationships. It was inspired by one of my favorite love songs of all time, The Cure’s “Lovesong.” That song is so short, but it’s so emotional. To be able to convey that level of emotion with just his voice and that hook…I wanted to do my version of what that would feel like—to pull emotions out of people and starting the story in third person, and by the end of the song I could say it was me.

DJ Evil Dee: I always have fun working with her. Jean is a genius when it comes to recording stuff with her. I also remember I was sick and she bought me some tea, some ginger and orange so I could feel better. I made that beat specifically for her. I was just trying to be different.

Jean: When I finished recording the song I said, “This feels like it’s not enough. I want to go back and add [the original of The Stylistics’ “Stop Look And Listen”] to the beginning of the song.” Kimani was like THIS IS GONNA BE A PROBLEM LATER, but they were really great about it. We didn’t have to pay a shit ton of sample clearance.

Kimani: We got a letter from The Stylistics’ lawyer basically saying we’re very thankful you guys chose this song. However, you’ve used way too much of it without contacting us. So they said we had to pay a small amount of money and chop the intro off any future pressings. They recognized that we weren’t selling millions of records or anything. I don’t think we had to pull them off the shelves. That was the only time we got anything close to trouble over samples.

“Get It” produced by Jean Grae/ Nasain Nahmeen  

Jean: As a huge M.O.P fan, I wanted something that felt really soulful, but slow and dirty. You walk really slow down the street to it, but you can also get in a fight. It sounded like putting someone in a sleeper hold, but dancing while you were doing it. I always wanted M.O.P on the “Get it” Remix.

“Knock” produced by Mr. Len

Jean: I just wanted to rap. It felt like there’s at least four people in the car and nobody’s talking and you’re probably high. There’s a lot of New York head nodding at a stoplight. Let’s just go drink some Hennessy.

Mr. Len: The sample is “Help On the Way” by The Grateful Dead.

Truthfully, didn’t have any plans for that beat. Jean heard it and said, “I’m taking this one.”

“Live 4 U” produced by Ev Price

Jean: Ev Price is from Brooklyn Academy family. Block McCloud, Ev Price, and Metaphor we were spending a lot of time out in Staten Island, and Ev always had like 80,000 beats. When I heard that one, it sounded really delicate, and that’s what I wanted.

I remember that it had to pull emotions out of me. I gotta cry while I’m writing it or I didn’t nail it. My mom was always incredibly supportive of whatever I wanted to do, especially my music career. But I wanted her to know how much it meant to me. Her not being present during the recording of the album, I wanted it to be a snapshot for her to know and understand. She sacrificed so many things to raise us and not fully fulfill all of [her] musical destiny. She liked it. You never knew when she was going to cry about something.  The sequencing of the album was important to me, and that song doesn’t work as a number two or three. It’s weird if you open a conversation with talking about your parents.

“Fadeout” Produced by Koichiro

Jean: That’s a terrible way to end an album. I should’ve had some kind of resolve after that. Younger me thinks it’s a good idea, but older me thinks maybe not end on your best friend’s death. Koichiro was married to Apani for a time; Japanese dude who had a lot of dope beats. I remember being over there thinking, “You should do something for this album.” And again this album was done in such a short time, thankfully I was around so many talented people I’m like, “Yeah, that beat, lemme take it. Gotta finish this album.”

Right before I’d started recording, my best friend Demetrius—a very talented dude, friend of the family but no intimate relationship—was moving to Miami and we didn’t get a lot of time to hang out. It was one of those things where I should be talking to this person more, but you put it off. Then I got a call one day from someone saying they were looking for me. They told me Demetrius was at a party and either fell or got pushed off of a 27-story balcony. And then they said 1) I was difficult to find and 2) Nobody wanted to tell me. So I spent a few weeks distancing myself from the world. Because that happened before the album, when Kimani asked me to do this, it was the driving point for me to do it. So I wanted to end the album with that song because it was the idea of coming full circle and doing those things. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, so you have to create your own destiny and keep up with it.

EPILOGUE

Jean: I think my general idea about doing things is I enjoy money and you should do it as best as you fucking can, but I wanted to do [this album] for me. And I just wanted to make really good art. The sad part for me is it did just fall under one thing. It’s sad that it took this long to talk about this album, the production, why I wrote it. I went into it a bit naïve, thinking that it would be received as just a rap album where you could talk about those things and it not be a “Female” rap album. I believe what I tried to do with this first album was say, “Here are all of these sides of me.” But when it gets out, you can’t control it. No one is able to look at you as a full human being with all of these facets and feelings.

Mr. Len: I was cool with how the songs came out. I wished I could have mixed them, but then she couldn’t call them “dirty mixes.” The album title still gets a giggle and headshake from me. It’s a very Jean Grae title. Looking back, I still see it as a solid record. Like a lot of projects from that time you question how much better the reception could have been with a bigger budget. But the budget, or lack thereof, is the reason it sounds like it does.

Kimani: I, for better or for worse, generally let people do what the fuck they want to do. I’m a big fan of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He was unorthodox and did weird shit and it was kind of the same thing with Jean. She was really off. But it made sense to me. If someone has to actually tweak the knobs [to mix the songs], that’s funny. Who cares? Probably no one did, but she was the artist. I was an artist, too but I was like do whatever you want and I’m gonna try to get people to listen to it. Everyone has free reign so it was mixed “creatively,” but I didn’t care because I was happy we had a Jean Grae record. It gave us some credibility as a record label and made me happy as a fan of hers that she was putting a record out.

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

 

The indie hip-hop boom of the early aughts was an era teeming with all the right elements for a creative renaissance: previously unheralded voices/contributors to the culture, classic records, and an unprecedented connection between fans and artists thanks to the emerging presence of the Internet.

But even the digital archives are susceptible to people and movements falling through the cracks, and we’re far enough removed today to look back at some of the faces plastered on the sides of our musical milk cartons and wonder, “What the hell happened?” There are few artists that better fit this particular scenario than Chicago’s very own Diverse.  

A lyricist with densely packed, often-abstract bars—and an impeccably hypnotic cadence—Diverse (born Kenny Jenkins) was putting it down for the Windy City in an era that predated Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and the other rap superstars that have since repped for the Chi. His first commercially available release, 2001’s Move EP (Chocolate Industries), showcased the type of emceeing that typifies the era from which it came, sporting a fairly-prominent Talib Kweli influence and dusty, jazz-inspired production bolstered by live instrumentation (including the Roots’ original bassist Joshua Abrams on the title track).

Move’s success led Diverse to pursue music full-time. In 2002, he became a bigger blip on the national radar (particularly in New York) with his Mos Def-featuring single “Wylin Out” from the Chocolate Industries compilation Urban Renewal Project (which also featured the likes of Aesop Rock, El-P, Souls of Mischief, and Mr. Lif). The song (produced by Prefuse 73) got the remix treatment from RJD2, but also more prominently showcased the fact that Diverse could hold his own with the rapper now known as Yasiin Bey—which was quite a feat in 2002, considering this was a guy whose previous album was Black on Both Sides.

The stage was set for the next level up, and Diverse’s 2003 follow-up full-length One A.M. is what separated him from the would-be emcees. It’s also what warrants closer inspection of his career, and provokes some head-scratching when addressing his relative MIA status since (more on that later). Clocking in at a trim 41 minutes, the record is an almost too-good-to-be-true alignment of some of the best talent in underground hip-hop at the time.

RJD2 provided production for five of the album’s songs—including the break-neck funk of “Explosive” featuring Quannum Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, the haunting stomp of “Big Game” (with Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire), and “Under the Hammer,” which found the Chicago rapper paired with the deadpan delivery of Jean Grae. Add in tracks produced by Prefuse 73, Madlib, and even Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, and the One A.M. album quite frankly feels like stumbling upon a box of vintage rookie cards from some of hip-hop’s future greats.

Although the slew of impressive names both behind the boards and on the mic definitely made for a star-studded lineup, it’s worth noting that Diverse himself never got overshadowed at his own gathering. An obvious student of the game, Diverse was able to hold it down on his own, professing his love for the craft of rhyming on “Just Biz” and effortlessly integrating melody to his sharp flow on the relaxed head-nodder “Leaving.”

Meanwhile, opening tracks like “Certified” and “Uprock” didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to what has now become the somewhat-hackneyed “underground rapper rapping about rapping” formula, but it’s again important to consider the context of the recordings. If you subscribe to the idea that rappers utilize their voices like a jazz musician approaches his instrument, Diverse had clearly clocked many hours in his woodshedding efforts. Multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, an angular flow that contorted and transformed throughout 16-bar passages, tonal control that prevented against the type of monotony that was often a deal breaker for so many of his peers – this guy was the complete package. Though he may have lacked the punchlines and over-the-top personality necessary to become a breakout superstar, his proficiency as a rapper (and clear ability to make the right choices when it came to songs/beats) makes the fact that this is the last album that he has officially put out even more puzzling.

After touring to promote One A.M. (including a spot on the 2006 Storm Tour with Aceyalone, Ugly Duckling, the Processions, and MayDay!) and gaining some notoriety via song placements on the soundtrack to Capcom’s “Final Fight Streetwise” game for Xbox and PlayStation, there was talk of a second album entitled Round About. But beyond a pair of unofficial mixtapes featuring random unreleased songs and collaborations, the sophomore LP never came to be. A 2008 7-inch single, “Escape Earth (The Moon),” pairs a beautiful Clair de Lune sample with a dirty breakbeat and features Diverse weaving together a vivid narrative with an appropriately spacey theme. He hasn’t officially released anything since.

The idea that somebody in his shoes could just disappear is unfortunate but not exactly shocking, either. Fans and participants alike are no doubt aware of the type of grind that having (and maintaining) a career as an independent artist requires. Even the most talented and creative minds can sometimes get sucked up in the trappings of the real world, motivated by factors either financial, personal, or both.

And the fact that the Chocolate Industries label would subsequently go through a series of internal conflicts between its label managers as well as the typical financial woes many indie operations faced in the age of rampant illegal file-sharing in the mid-to-late ‘00s certainly must have played a part in the abrupt silence in Diverse’s story (after putting out records by the likes of Lady Sovereign, Vast Aire, Ghislain Poirier, and the Cool Kids, the label has been dormant since 2012). But all of that is largely speculative, as there is no clear narrative as to exactly what happened.

Also frustrating is the fact that, by the modern standards of the Internet, it would appear that Diverse never existed. The man has no public social media accounts (active or otherwise), making the search for his current whereabouts and musical output limited at best – though there have been some breadcrumbs. He popped up on Black Milk and Bishop Lamont’s 2008 collaborative project Caltroit, and also made an appearance on the guest-heavy Stones Throw producers Quakers compilation album.

In 2014, Diverse teamed with Chris Hunt (drummer for Atlanta-based experimental electronic band Cloudeater) to form Holoking, an outfit that showcased Jenkins’ trademark abstract style against a backdrop equally as amorphous and musically ambitious. The duo released two songs (“Superhuman” and “Wise Fools”) that actually make a strong argument for more ’00s rappers to reinvent themselves in a more adventurous band setting. A 10-song EP was said to be in the works—but it would seem that it has yet to see the light of day. Holoking’s Internet/social media presence has been similarly abandoned, with no real updates or activity in the last few years.

Based on his track record, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not we’ll be getting more music from Diverse in the future. One can hardly fault anybody from wanting to keep the rigmarole of the music industry at an arm’s length, so if his exile is self-imposed, so be it. Nor does it feel appropriate to eulogize the career of an artist who may very well still be active or on the brink of popping his head above ground to share new music with the world once again. But as we move further away from a reality of stumbling upon tattered old vinyl in the back of used record stores as a means of discovery, it’s important to shed light on the unsung heroes and forgotten (or perhaps completely overlooked) gems of yesterday. For many fans of underground hip-hop, the music of Diverse may come as a throwback to a now-bygone era of hip-hop; or as an undiscovered and pleasantly welcome surprise.

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