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.

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We’re back at it with another installment of Catalog Shuffle, where artists get their entire discographies thrown into a playlist and give the stories behind randomly selected songs. This month features rapper/producer/book author/filmmaker Blueprint. We go through both his solo work and work with Soul Position (his group with RJD2) and talk about storytelling, Cincinnati riots, the time that he sampled one of hip-hop’s most notorious samplers, and how a single computer programming command helped him write a song on one of indie hip-hop’s most beloved debut albums.

Blueprint “Untitled” (Sign Language, 2009)

Blueprint: Sign Language was my first attempt to make a real instrumental record with the MPC. I made [2004 instrumental album] Chamber Music before then, but used the EPS-16 for that. I always wanted to make a “real” instrumental record like a DJ Shadow type thing where it was all samples within the MPC for the most part.

But when I made “Untitled,” I was starting to get into playing instruments more. That track came about because I had always been a fan of Terrence Trent D’Arby. “Sign My Name” has always been one of my favorite songs of his. He’s an unsung ‘80s kind of guy. He’s got a couple dope hits, but that record was always at the top of my crates. One of the last songs on that album [“As Yet Untitled”] is an a cappella. I would listen to it and wonder why nobody had taken this a cappella and put music to it. This was before the whole mash-up craze was really cracking.

I couldn’t do it with the MPC because I didn’t have enough sample time. So I did it how I was doing it with Chamber Music where I was just flying in samples and dropping them into my 12-track [recorder]. I would mix around them and move elements around. I didn’t have the ability to time-stretch the samples. I had to make it work to the tempo that I kind of guessed. Some parts were perfect and some were a little off. I only had 20-30 seconds of sample time, so I just kind of made the beat around what I thought should be there.

Was Sign Language the last record where you used the MPC as your primary tool?

It might have been. Either that or maybe the Blueprint vs. Funkadelic record. Those were made around the same time. 

Blueprint “Kill Me First” [1988, 2005]

This is fucked up to say, but you could put this song out today and its message would still resonate.

Blueprint: I agree. What’s funny is that my man Swamburger [from Solillaquists of Sound] called me a little while back saying, “People think we gotta talk about police brutality on every song, but you was talking about it on 1988!” That shit is still relevant. It’s fucked up, but it’s very true.

I was living in Cincinnati right before the riots in 2001. There were three incidents in a row where a Black man had gotten killed. One of them got choked to death on camera by mall police. A month later, another guy died in police custody; there was foul play. Cincinnati at that point was maybe nearly 50% Black, and each of these incidents was making things more and more tense. The news was reporting about it constantly. The next thing you know, Timothy Thomas got shot in the back and killed by police running through an alley. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was working downtown at the time in the Kroger building. The area was mostly corporate, but one street over was one of the most dangerous and craziest hoods called Over-the-Rhine. I used to catch the bus to get to work and had to go through there. The shit you would see going on was just wild. Super hood shit. Not funny hood shit like how I tell funny hood stories on my podcast [Super Duty Tough Work], this was fucked up hood shit, like “I need to get the fuck up out of there” hood shit.

I could see the area from where I was working in the IT division and saw motherfuckers running through downtown destroying shit, breaking windows. It was right around the time that we needed to leave. There was a four-lane street that separated all the corporate shit from the hood shit. I walked out of my office and needed to cross that street to get to the parking lot—on the hood side.

As we get to the corner, there’s literally a hundred police officers in riot gear standing in front of us. On the opposite side of the street is a couple hundred people trying to get through them to get back into downtown. The cops were riot ready, and we were escorted over. It got so bad that the city went through three days of a 7PM curfew; you had to be off the streets in Cincinnati. That climate was basically the backdrop of that song. I had CJ the Cynic on there because he was a Cincinnati dude, too. I had to get somebody who was from there who understood that feeling, that there’s no guarantee that even if you are acting peacefully that you’re going to get out of there. Motherfuckers are dying in custody and it made us really uncomfortable.

Blueprint “Never Grow Old” (Deleted Scenes, 2012)

Blueprint: As an artist, when you get older you can go one of two routes. You can try to be hip and young, never speak about age, and attach themselves to whatever is new. Or you can grow and express your reality as you experience it. I always felt comfortable just expressing where I was at. And age is something we have to think about as artists. What you talk about in the public eye is judged by people. The way you act and your age don’t always coincide. There are young people who have seen crazy intense things and were forced to mature very early; and people who are older who haven’t seen as much, and they may have a younger perspective.

“Never Grow Old” was me trying to capture the sentiment that age is not always a number, but it’s how you see the world. You can be young in age and old in mind, or you can be old in age and young in mind. I thought the best way to express that was through the concept of relationships. I describe what sounds like a young chick; she’s riding a bike to class and is super energetic and happy to be in school. And then there’s this guy who drives a Cadillac and is all even-keel in the back, not excited, and you would think maybe he’s the older guy because his demeanor is of someone who’s seen a lot. But then you see that he’s a guy that was in the military really young and is just now doing the things that a lot of people his age had already done. When they hang out, she’s like, “I’m the one who’s supposed to be old; so I need you to act your age instead of acting all old.”

When you write a song like this one, are you basing these characters around people who in some way already exist in your life? Or are you thinking about concepts and then building made-up characters to serve the song’s message?

Blueprint: It’s everything. I see people and their qualities and characteristics. At the time I don’t think I’m going to make a song about it, I just see their energy or perspective and think it’s dope. I don’t think about it at all until I’m writing and telling stories where you have to think about characters. How do you tell stories? There’s so many ways to approach songwriting, and sometimes the easy way is just telling people, “You’re only as old as you act,” and that’s it! That’s the easy way to do it. I always try to think of a different way. I don’t want to get bored. I try to think of the slickest way to approach a subject. I try to think about people and stories and what would happen when this type of person comes in contact with a person or thing from a different place.

Soul Position “No Excuse For Lovin’” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

Blueprint: Parts of that one were drawn from a girl who I used to be friends with in college, way before I ever started writing. We were just great friends, never anything romantic. And she was with this dude who used to put hands on her. I might have been 18 at the time, but I was like, “Yo, you can leave anytime you want.” This guy didn’t even go to school with us; he lived in another city. And I’ll never forget how she was always like, “I can’t leave because I don’t think anybody else loves me like him. I don’t think I deserve more.” I never had a response to that.

That’s such an honest answer. It’s obviously not healthy, but it’s very self-aware. It’s not like she was making excuses.

Blueprint: What can you say to that? “Well girl, start feeling good about yourself”? That’s all you can say. I saw her for the first time since college about a year ago. I’ve been out of college about 15 years. I saw her at the mall randomly and she said, “You was right, you kept telling me to get rid of that dude. I got two kids by him, I can’t stand him, but I finally got rid of his ass. But you was right back in college.”

She was the archetype of the person in the story. That was the first time that I felt like I was writing for people who weren’t artists or writers, who didn’t have a voice. That was one of the first times where I was like, people are going through things I haven’t personally experienced, but maybe I need to use them to inspire a story about a topic.

Soul Position “Candyland Part 2” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

When I first heard these songs/interludes [note: three different versions of “Candyland” pop up throughout the 8 Million Stories album], I thought it was such a great idea. It’s not crazy complicated, but it’s so dope. And you don’t even notice that the lyrics don’t rhyme, either.

Blueprint: Those lyrics were inspired by Ghostface on Supreme Clientele when he was describing scenes of his childhood in the ‘80s. “Candyland” was one whole song with three verses, but none of it rhymed and there was no chorus that you could possibly put there. So I was like, this could be a dope way to bring the record together and make them three individual songs.

As far as the lyrics not rhyming, I didn’t even write them in alphabetical order [as they appear on the songs]. I just wrote all the shit I could remember, and then because I was a computer programmer at the time using Unix, there was a command called sort…and this is some super nerdy shit, but you could take a text file and apply this command and it sorts it however you want. So I wanted it to be alphabetical. I sorted it with Unix, all these memories. And it came out like “A-Team, Activator.” And it was like, “Yo this is the shit, now I can actually rap it!” It was hard to put together because it didn’t rhyme, but when I ran it through that command, it spit out these three alphabetical rhymes. As long as I put a rhythmic cadence there it would sound dope.

Mission accomplished. And that is definitely one of the most nerdy rap origin stories I’ve heard about a song.

Blueprint: [laughs] I think Soul Position started all of that nerd-core shit. The first computer science guy really rapping about it. I’ve met people from that world who told me that that inspired them to rap. I wouldn’t be surprised if 8 Million Stories started nerd-core as we know it.

My Melody (Chamber Music, 2004)

I was mostly using my 12-track to track things on that album. I didn’t have much sampling time. At that time, I was really into DJ Shadow and Prince Paul, and how free Prince Paul was in terms of what he would sample, especially on the vocal side of things. I was watching a Charlie Rose interview with Puffy, where he was talking about melody. And at the time I hated Puffy. This motherfucker ruined rap. In 2001, the consensus with all “hip-hop heads” was that Puffy ruined rap. I would come home and just set my VCR to watch the next day. I went to sleep or something and I went back and listened and was like, “Yo, this guy has said some brilliant shit.”

That was the time that I turned the corner and stopped hating Puffy—when I realized it was no accident what he was doing. He understood pop music and trying to do something similar with rap. He also signaled to me why so many underground records or indie records aren’t as successful as pop. Maybe it’s not just the marketing dollar, but also maybe it’s the melody.

Blueprint “Rise and Fall” (Adventures in Counter-Culture, 2011)

I know you’ve talked about this song and the rest of the album in your The Making of Adventures in Counter-Culture book. But I’m curious to know—now that you’re so far removed from that album—what are your thoughts now when you hear it?

Blueprint: I think it’s fucking incredible. It’s weird that it’s one of those records where I’m like, “Wow, I made that.” There’s a point when you make a record and you’re too emotionally attached to evaluate. That one took me a while to detach myself to where I can listen to it as someone outside of myself. I almost have to forget the process of making it before I can listen to it.

Now, I’m super impressed with it. It’s like a statement of what I can do. How far I can take this shit. There’s only a couple of conventional moments on that album, but they mess with other genres so heavily that it’s not conventional in that sense. I don’t think there’s a record like it on Rhymesayers, and I don’t think that there will be one like it afterwards.

You’ve played that song live a lot, too. More than a traditional hip-hop song that might evolve in a live set, that one has changed in a broader sense. You jam it out more, adding to the intro, changing the melody of the hook.

Blueprint: Yeah. That song is one of the ones that we used to figure out the live show. How to use the bass live, how far can we go, re-arranging everything. When I started messing with it, I realized I didn’t technically have to do adhere to anything on the record because it’s new, and people don’t know the arrangements.

I listen to it, and it’s one of my favorites because it just makes me feel good whenever it comes on. It’s not over or under produced, and that’s always something I try to watch. Not throwing too much shit in there, and just keeping what works. That song really works, and there’s only 2-3 instruments.

That album in general isn’t really over-produced. It’s minimal, but tasteful. When songs like that get released, have they typically been stripped down from their original versions, or do you sometimes just build a track piece by piece and stop when you get to the second or third element of the beat?

Blueprint: I always start with a bunch of shit. I have demos of that song where it was at half the speed and had a bunch of shit going on. From there, I keep things that work and for things I don’t like, I’ll start to pull out. As a producer, I start with a lot and try to slowly chip away and pull things away until the only things that are there are absolutely needed to convey the mood I want to convey. So for “Rise and Fall,” there’s a bassline; a weird arpeggiating synth, and then an additional synth in the chorus. But the melody of the bassline is what really makes it dope. I didn’t feel the need to put a bunch of stuff over there. The more I put on there, the more I would compromise it.

Blueprint “Where’s Your Girlfriend At?” (1988, 2005)

You have a lot of songs in your catalog that are really dark and heavy. But then there’s a song like this that is totally not that at all.

Blueprint: The chorus to that song is where it started. That whole statement was a running joke, when we used to make fun of each other. Whenever someone was annoying us, talking about some shit that we didn’t want to talk about, one of us would go, “Hey man, where’s your girlfriend at?” It was just us being assholes. I wanted to name a song after that where we just chant it.

A lot of my music is serious but I do also make music with a funny element. I needed that on 1988. The music for the beat itself reminded me of Benny Hill, when he’s running in circles trying to squeeze girls’ butts. So I felt like I needed to rap about some Benny Hill shit.

Blueprint “Fist Fight” (King No Crown, 2015)

Blueprint: That’s a deep one. I wrote it in 2011. My brother was living with me at the time because he had had a stroke. Him and my mother came to live with me while I was out touring. When I got back from a tour, my mom was upstairs and there was a therapist who was over working with my brother. He couldn’t really walk at the time; he was relearning. My studio was underneath his room. I was playing music, but I remember hearing him fall. I rushed upstairs and my brother was really torn up. It really hit him how he couldn’t walk. He had lost his physical ability. His decisions had caught up with him and he had deep regret about a lot of it. He expressed it to me. It hurt him that we had to take care of him. I remember when he had fallen, and I walked in to see if he needed help, because he was nearly 300 pounds at the time. But they didn’t want me to help him up. He had to learn to build up the strength not just physically, but also mentally because there will be times that I won’t be around. That situation inspired that song. I started writing about it immediately.

It ended up being a message to anybody who had fallen. As I was standing in that doorway, I just wanted him to fight to get back what he’s got and not just lay there and cry. But you can’t just yell that at somebody. You’re rooting for them, but they have to do it for themselves. I wanted someone to hear that song and know that even when you have taken losses, you have to get back up.

Blueprint “Anything is Possible” (1988, 2005)

Blueprint: Production-wise, I always wanted to use [the song’s main drum sample] “Sucker MC’s” somewhere. It’s hard to put anything on those drums because they sound so dope by themselves. But I found a sample that sounded good. The rhyme was about the mentality that it takes to really be successful; I started that record right around 2002. That was right when I started doing music full-time and I feel like at the time I had perspective on how my life had changed—and how it would continue to change—and how it was happening because of sacrifice and never giving up.

I was looking back at college, because there was a point in my third or fourth year that I didn’t want to be there. I did not like college at all. I had more money in high school because I could work. In college, I was so busy that I was broke all the time, but I was surrounded by wealthy people. Wealthy students driving BMWs and Benzes, and I was eating ramen every night—and it was awful. I also ate that boxed macaroni and cheese with the powdery cheese every day for four years. So with that rhyme, I was looking back and remembering how I almost gave up then, but I didn’t and look how I benefited. And then when I looked at rap, there was time when O thought it wouldn’t work out but now look, it’s taken off. It just reinforced that anything is possible when you stick with it and put in the work.

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Every successful rapper has an equally talented underground counterpart—emcees they are compared to for sharing some common history, creative influence, social inspiration or rhyme style—who, for varying reasons, never attain the same level of notoriety. Regardless, some maintain rewarding independent careers, trading fortune and fame for modest but loyal cult followings, often enjoying more longevity than the average mainstream artist.

Then there’s that special brand of underachiever—the extremely gifted kind whose talent and originality should help them easily break through the monotonous hordes of dime-a-dozen spitters, but inexplicably remains in relative obscurity, perpetually slept on, despite their undeniable skill.

Then again, not every emcee shares the same ideal of success. Some, as Al-Shid told Guerrilla Grooves Radio last year, don’t need fame; they “just want to be felt.”

In the roughly two decades that Shid’s been in the game, he’s never released a proper studio album. Although he did drop a couple of mixtapes with his Sound Bar Recordings crew in the mid 2000s, he’s mostly known for his earlier work with rapper, producer and breakbeat aficionado J-Zone—the super powered sample chopping wizard with an ingenious, albeit oddball musical aesthetic.

In fact, the majority of Shid’s available catalog is limited to guest appearances on Zone’s eccentric, sometimes straight-up ridiculous, but always inventive and masterfully produced projects—often appearing as the sole rapper on full songs, as opposed to just spitting single verses. Incidentally, his imaginative concepts, hard-to-catch punchlines and long-running multiple entendres have always left fans hoping he’d release his own full-length LP (preferably Zone produced). “As a producer I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of great MCs, but Al-Shid is the only one I still have recordings of verses he left on my answering machine in 2001,” Zone posted on Facebook earlier this year. “By far my greatest musical chemistry ever with an MC and in my personal top 10 MCs of all time.”

Most of his fans were probably introduced to the Roosevelt, Long Island rapper on Zone’s 1998 debut, Music For Tu Madre. Both SUNY Purchase students, Zone met Shid in college and featured him on two tracks off his senior project turned first album—“So Pretty” and “S.H.I.D.” Reportedly written when he was only 17, the latter was the initial installment in a series of songs designed to showcase the emcee’s lyrical prowess—on which he revealed that the hyphenated section of his name is actually an acronym for “Still Holdin’ It Down.”

Shid has appeared on almost all of the rapping producer’s projects since, originally as part of the somewhat mismatched Old Maid Billionaires crew (alongside over-the-top Old Maid Entertainment founder Zone and offbeat label mate Huggy Bear). On their early records, Shid’s distinguishing cadence, effortless flow and complex wordplay stood out, often requiring back-to-back listens to catch every clever line. Take, for example, his solo offerings “Recess” and “The First Day of School” off Zone’s second album, A Bottle of Whup Ass, released in 2000.

Although clearly sharp-witted, Shid wasn’t known for social commentary or particularly thought-provoking content, however. In those days, the depth of his lyrics tended to lie in their construction, rather than the ideas they conveyed. Like a less flossy Big L or Eminem minus the temperamental introspection, Shid relied mostly on shock value and, of course, his verbal dexterity to turn heads. “Al-Shid was there to knock somebody out, to let them know we weren’t a novelty act,” Zone explained to the A.V. Club.

Shid was always a consummate storyteller, though, evident in songs like “190”—another track off Zone’s sophomore LP, on which he accounted some of the problematic outcomes of alcoholism.

Around that time, Shid joined Zone on tour in Europe, performing for only $70 here and (at most) $200 there. Regardless, rocking with Old Maid overseas became one of his fondest musical memories. “We were sleepin’ in promoters’ cribs [and] these small ass hotel rooms, doin’ these little small venues,” he told TheBeeShine. “It wasn’t the best financial situation, but it was the greatest experience I had in hip hop—’cause that’s when I felt like, you know what, I’m doin’ it.”

In 2001, Zone dropped his third project, an Old Maid label compilation of sorts called Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, which included the fifth installment of “S.H.I.D.” The fourth was released on the b-side of the album’s first single, “Live From Pimp Palace East,” while parts two and three were presumably never put out.

Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was significantly well-received, especially considering its 9/11 release date (which impacted the crew’s ability to properly tour the project). It even garnered the attention of Atlantic Records, who allegedly intended to re-release it. Zone, however, doubted the likelihood of their proposed plan and opted to remain independent—claiming they “weren’t sold” on Shid or Hug, despite their interest in the LP.

It wasn’t until early 2002 that Shid dropped his first solo 12”—a tongue-in-cheek cut titled “Ign’ant,” featuring Zone’s dynamic production. With razor-edged bars, like his assertion as the “hottest thing to hit the streets of New York since Building 7” only months after September 11, the song was a strong demonstration of the artist’s abrasive wit. It was on the single’s b-side, “Fight Club,” that Shid delivered some of his most elaborate puns, however: “I symbolize for simple eyes that can’t see the meaning / For coke heads that’d rather sniff lines than read between ’em / Your brain’s like a uterus, I provide the semen / Which means I’m fuckin’ with your head ’til you start conceiving.”

Shid really shines on his conceptual tracks, though. Later in 2002, for his second solo release, the rapper expertly employed mathematic terminology to berate gold diggers and the men that succumb to their seduction on “M.A.T.H.”—another b-side, and one of his most popular songs to date. Unfortunately, it would be his last Old Maid 12” record, as the trio amicably parted ways to explore other musical avenues soon after.

Although Shid would appear on Zone’s next two LPs—Sick of Bein’ Rich in 2003 and A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work in 2004—by 2006 he had established his own clique, Sound Bar Recordings. Together, the “SBR Animals” released a little-known, short-lived mixtape series ironically titled Fly Rap Money.

Besides guest spots on Zone’s Chief Chinchilla: Live at the Liqua Sto in 2008 and Peter Pan Syndrome in 2013, Shid hadn’t put much out since he dropped Fly Rap Money II: The Compilation a decade ago. That is until 2015, when he resurfaced to release a collaborative mixtape with lifestyle brand This Respek Wear (which became well-known for challenging Cash Money Records founder Birdman’s infamous use of the term a year later). They also shot a couple of videos to accompany the project, one of which was for Shid’s “Black Kings” song with Super Scott and Sound Bar affiliate Big Apple.

In 2015, Shid also dropped “Shotgun,” an ambiguously produced digital single featuring Zone’s drumming. Though still riddled with his trademark wordplay, both songs were a departure from Shid’s earlier music. “Black Kings” explored sociopolitical subject matter not typical for the emcee, while “Shotgun” was significantly more contemplative and introspective. For fans of his work with Old Maid, however, the absence of Zone’s distinctive production was brutally apparent. Still, Zone assured more music from the unofficial duo to come on Twitter—but did not specify in what form.

Unfortunately, they did not end up dropping a full-length Shid project (besides a catalog album of their previous collaborations), but they did still make good on the promise. Later in 2015, Shid released a familiarly braggadocios and punchline-heavy Zone-produced single, “Clubba Lang”—at the end of which Zone jokingly referred to the song as “‘Still Holdin’ It Down Part 47,’ [or] something like that.” “Clubba Lang” would also be featured on Zone’s 2016 Fish-N-Grits LP, along with a secondary track by the pair called “Dreamcrusher.”

Most recently, however, in the wake of the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement, Shid released a poignant song about police brutality titled “Fire In My Heart”—once again straying from the formula of his early work.

Over the years, Shid has proven himself an increasingly well-rounded emcee who has yet to lose his integrity or artistic edge. Although he’s regrettably never been the “center of attention like the letter n,” contrary to his claim on the original “S.H.I.D.”—in regards to sheer lyricism, he has always managed to hold it down.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

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This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

On a steamy, sun-splashed late Saturday afternoon in late Spring—in the Northern Liberties section of the City of Brotherly Love—we are gathered around an outdoor table, underneath sets of raised train tracks, outside a neighborhood dive called The El Bar. It would still be eleven days before Summer 2017 was scheduled to officially begin, and ten days before the music world mourned the premature passing of legendary emcee Prodigy of Mobb Deep.

Sitting across the table are Teef and Big Cuz, each engaged in a “Citywide Special” salute: clinking shots of cheap whisky in one hand before throwing that back, then washing it down with a long swig of domestic canned beer in the other. It’s a combination that, at the cost of good taste, costs just $3.50, making it the best bang-for-your-buck buzz you can find in Philly. “To E-Dubb,” goes the shared toast prior to the proceedings. This in tribute to a far less storied artist in the annals of rap history to pass in 2017 than Prodigy, but a younger peer much more central to this pair’s own shared story and friendship: Evan Sewell Wallace aka “E-Dubble”.

They first met E-Dubble a few years ago, just a few blocks away, at a local live music venue and bar called The Fire. It was there that a Philadelphia-raised, Wissahickon High School basketball center, twenty-turned-early-thirtysomething rapper named E-Dubble could often be found. He would cast a large shadow via his considerably large frame, while seated at the corner of The Fire’s bar in between sets, or lurking outside in the shadows by the steps outside the venue, painstakingly penning new rhymes, into one of the notebooks that he carried around with him at all times.

E-Dubble garnered a degree of underground hip-hop fame earlier in the decade, via his year-long “Freestyle Friday” series, in which he released a new addition to the series every Friday, for 53 straight weeks from February 5th 2010 to January 28th 2011. The series spawned songs like “Let Me Oh (Freestyle Friday #9),” which have now racked up nearly 14 million views on YouTube.

The “Freestyle Friday” series also helped him use that following to help build his independent Black Paisley Records label, which he used to release a plethora of singles and mixtapes, an EP and two studio albums, over the course of his too-short life and career. His last album, Two Tone Rebel, dropped in the Fall of 2016, with a follow-up Two Tone Rebel II, planned for release in the Spring of 2017.  

Tragically, E-Dubble did not make it to see this Spring. He went from tweeting out an invite to fans to a Two Tone Rebel video shoot at The Fire on January 13, to posting an Instagram update from a hospital bed after falling ill from a rare virus a week later, then fighting for his life over the following weeks in a hospital, before passing away on Valentine’s Day.

Big Cuz is one of The Fire’s longest tenured figures in the venue’s local rap scene. He’s been coming down to The Fire to promote parties, rock open-mics, perform and host rap shows since 2002. In addition to recording his own rap projects, he’s also growing his #MostSleptOn mixtape DJ series, while recently beginning to branch out into broadcasting locally on Philly FM radio. He’s the type of dude who knows everybody in the Philly underground, who his neighbor-turned-friend-and-now-roommate Teef explains, “always ends up hosting, even if he’s not hosting.”

While still wrestling with the still-fresh shock of E-Dubble’s untimely demise, Cuz fondly reflects back on his friend and occasional musical co-conspirator: “My first thought when I met him at The Fire was ‘GODDAMN, YOU BIG AS SHIT!,’” a sudden feeling Big Cuz recalls with a laugh, “I think that might’ve been the first thing I said to him, too! E-Dubb was cool, laid back. He didn’t really traverse around town too much. He pretty much would just go to The Fire, but once in a while we’d come over here too. He was actually the first one who put us on to Citywides.”

Latifius White, aka Latifius Maximus III, aka “Teef”, is a Willingboro, NJ-bred, Philadelphia-based rap artist. He’s the third generation of his family to record and perform music professionally. It’s a calling that he does not enter into lightly. Long before his friendship with Big Cuz, then later E-Dubble were forged at The Fire by proximity and shared interests, Teef, an Air Force veteran, was literally forging things in fire for a living as a welder—a skilled trade he still plies whenever he needs to make ends meet when rap can’t cover it. Despite growing up on rapping for fun as a teen, he was hesitant to actually try doing it for real, because the lofty standard set by his forbearers was not one he felt he could rise to by rapping.

Teef’s grandfather, Fats Domino, is a pioneering music legend and member of the first class inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His mother, Karen Domino White, was a popular Gospel artist recording for Priority Records and executive produced by Black Market Records owner and Brotha Lynch Hung producer Cedric Singleton in the mid-‘90s, while Priority was putting out many profane, multi-platinum, rap classics via their Death Row and No Limit subsidiaries.

When speaking on his familial musical heritage, Teef explains humbly, yet matter-of-factly. “I was raised around music,” he recalls. “I played piano and tenor saxophone growing up. I didn’t really get the gall to get up there and say I’m a rapper until like two years ago. It took me awhile. My mother is a gospel-singer, with a seven-octave range. I was just rapping, you know? So, I didn’t think about stepping out there like that. It basically took me getting laid off from my job at some point, but having just enough money saved up to be able to say ‘fuck it’ and give it a go.”

It was that decision that led to Teef, who’d been promoting R&B shows and parties locally for years, to finally booking his first show at The Fire, where he shared the stage with E-Dubble, Big Cuz and DJ Wrecka. The friendship between these two roommates and their new gentle-giant friend, with the rhyme books, record label, production/songwriting chops and high-end home recording studio, all bloomed from there, with a deep love of hip-hop being the foundation they could collectively build upon. Before long they were supporting each other, both on and off-stage, ripping shows and cutting one-off teasers like “All the Way Up (215 Remix)” last year, while formulating more ambitious plans for the future.

Teef: “We’ve got mad stories—together and one-on-one with E Dubb. He was a good brother down the block, you know? Definitely had some plans ahead, and we’re certainly still feeling the loss of a good friend. I can only wonder what could have truly grown from the three of us, seems like we had barely even scratched the surface.”

Big Cuz: “The whole thing with E-Dubb, was that we were supposed to have a really big Summer. He was gonna drop the two projects (Two Tone Rebel and Two Tone Rebel II), and then we were gonna set up a tour. So, like, we woulda been on tour right now…he always had tracks on deck, he had the studio. He was always trying to get it right, sending tracks. “Me and Teef, we’re hustling right now, trying to fill it up, because we got plans, fuck that, we got shit to do.”

After a couple of hours spent chopping it up at El Bar—walking the backstreets of Northern Liberties to avoid the police, fire truck, and ambulance-draped scene due to an overturned vehicle in the middle of Frankford & Girard, stopping at a local pizza joint for a slice, then making the trek over to Big Cuz and Teef’s apartment which houses their makeshift studio—day has now officially turned to night. We make tentative plans to get up again, for a show at The Fire, with an open invitation from both to peep a recording session in action whenever Teef is a little less exhausted, following two straight days and nights of ripping and running.

“Works for me,” comes my reply, while busy trying to keep my own head together, on the way to cover the Camp Lo & Friends show, taking place later a little further down the street at Johnny Brenda’s, before having to drive myself home in the wee hours, then be up in a suit, ready to deliver some words on mic to the group gathered at my own childhood friend’s memorial service later on that morning.

Guess that’s how life, love, or music work. All plans are subject to change, in the blink of an eye, at any given time. While sometimes when you lose a partner, some part of that part two that they’d been planning but never got to do, lives on through you.

E-Dubble, Rest in Peace.

Best of luck, Cuz & Teef.

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At the intersection of Crenshaw and Exposition Boulevards in a section of Los Angeles bordering Leimert Park, an unassuming health-food market opened its doors in the 1980s. The Good Life Cafe would soon become a hub for the creative pursuits of those living in its surrounding area, a fertile crescent of sorts that helped birth the city’s progressive Black arts movement similar to the role South Central’s storefronts played in housing the early West Coast Jazz movement half a century prior. The Good Life’s open-mic events served as a springboard for an entire generation of vibrant minds, nurturing their creative potential after having schools stripped of the arts programs so crucial to fostering a positive outlet for young promise. There, a group of likeminded kids would usher in an evolution by borrowing the improvisational genius of Jazz greats and the contemporary stylings of the burgeoning culture of hip-hop.

Photo Credit: @FreestyleFellowship

Freestyle Fellowship—today comprised of Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter—are the progenitors of Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Daveed Diggs, Open Mike Eagle, and countless others who emerged from the same fruitful land, boundless and immune to the constraints of genre. With 1991’s To Whom It May Concern, the Fellowship introduced themselves as a hip-hop group, independent in spirit but wielding an appeal that embraced togetherness. 1993’s Inner City Griots elevated them to another plane entirely, one involving major labels and expansive exposure. Along the way and in the years since, much of Los Angeles’ sound has been earmarked with their influence, extending right into the present.

One need look no further than Bananas, Leimert Park’s monthly progressive music and arts series led by VerBS to see the movement’s contemporary embodiment. “I’d like to think that we’re thought of as positive, creative people. That energy carries on, whether it’s called the Good Life or Project Blowed or Bananas or Droppin’ Science, or whatever,” says Myka. Earlier this month, Nocando—a Project Blowed staple and Los Angeles legend in his own right—dropped “Mykraphone Myk,” an homage to one element of a living, breathing beacon whose light has never dulled.

Freestyle Fellowship hasn’t released a studio effort since 2011’s The Promise, but with a forthcoming nationwide tour and new music up ahead, the Sunshine Men are again taking to the horizon. But first, let’s take it back…

We Are the Freestyle Fellowship…

Myka 9: Freestyle Fellowship happened in the first place because there was camaraderie between cats already doing something in common, which not many people at that time were doing. Some of us grew up together, and the rest of us kicked it at the same spot, which was the Good Life. I came up with the name. I was with Aceyalone at the time, when I made up the name. We were thinking of calling our core crew the Heavyweights. But even before, we were using the term “freestyle” to describe what we were doing. I was sitting in my mom’s apartment in Los Angeles in this neighborhood called The Jungle, and we were right by the front door. I was leaning against the black bar that leads into the stairs and the patio. Ace was there vibing with me. He agreed and I agreed. We decided to call our group—because of the spiritual quality of it, as well—a Fellowship.

Jeff Weiss, hip-hop journalist: As much as they were pigeonholed as the “conscious alternative” because they came out of an open-mic scene at a health-food cafe where you couldn’t curse, they had the strength of street knowledge as much as N.W.A. Self Jupiter got locked up for armed robbery. The rumor was that Suge Knight wanted to sign P.E.A.C.E, but he was too wild for him. Myka was an originator, Microphone Mike from K-Day.

The Fellowship Shop is from the West Coast…

Myka 9: In Los Angeles, we had the good herb. The good weather. Then, you had the music programs in school, and they took those out of the schools. At the same time, we were getting on to hip-hop, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was just a culture of having a good time. When I was in the 6th grade, in like, 1981, hip-hop was already established in that regard. It wasn’t just the sound of the trains and the traffic and the horns. I think that LA contributed to Freestyle Fellowship and the youth coming up because, when the music programs were taken out of school, cats who had a musical interest had to find another outlet. They were beating on drums, they were beating on walls, on washing machines, on windows. Those elements of wanting to be heard, wanting to be seen, all contributed to the Fellowship.

Murs: We think we live in a crater, in a valley. But as you zoom out of that from a bird’s eye view, it’s actually the footprint of Freestyle Fellowship. They’re not acknowledged, but they’re so ingrained in the landscape that you take it for granted.

Jeff Weiss: They embodied a playful, vibrant wild style without ignoring the lingering dangers lurking in the background. That’s the classic LA dialectic—light and noir, a cookout and a fire fight, bullies of the block lost in pure thought.

Once or twice, when I used to rock at the Good Life

Myka 9: Before there was a Good Life or any open-mic arena for MCs, the only place I knew of was Ben Caldwell’s [KAOS Network]. Places I would go to when I was younger and comin’ up were the coffeehouses that appealed to, like, that Beatnik generation. I would frequent at least five or six different coffee shops here, as well as street performing in Venice and Hollywood. We were like, “OK, the coffee shops work and the street performing works.” That led to me hearing about the Good Life. People started coming to Freestyle Fellowship shows and more people would come, and more people would come. People seemed to be impressed, and so that was always very fortunate for us. We were getting a lot of accolades back then, and some press, and just a good feel of energy at the time.

Nocando: [Freestyle Fellowship] made a home for a bunch of artsy kids like me who thought they could be successful by not being a stereotype and by not copycatting. Project Blowed was the home for people where you could do you. And Low End Theory, those guys are all fans of the dudes from Leimert.

Murs: People in my generation remember this probably. “Inner City Boundaries” was going to be a smash single. It was going to be their “Passin’ Me By.” It had a lot of positive messages, and it was showing a side of LA—Leimert Park and the alternative Black side of LA—that wasn’t getting a lot of play. Pharcyde had a silly energy, but Freestyle’s culture was based off consciousness. Part Rasta, part Nation of Islam – they just had so much intelligence. Every Thursday we were in a health-food cafe, you know? Ava DuVernay, one of the best directors in the world, came out of Good Life. She’s on Project Blowed, rapping her ass off. There’s not a female rapper than can compete with a female rapper that came out of the camp. And that’s a scene that Freestyle Fellowship helped create. Snoop [Dogg] got his start at the Good Life, and the Good Life was what it was because of Freestyle Fellowship.

Can You Find the Level of Difficulty in This?

Myka 9: When there was a Tribe, as in A Tribe Called Quest—when people who came together to do the same thing was called a Crew or a posse, or even a clan—we were more inclined to consider ourselves something different. We didn’t wanna be the Freestyle Tribe. Freestyling was mainly what our concept was, as far as the way we were rapping, to encourage people to think of it as a more spontaneous, improvisational art form, as opposed to just busting a rap.

Self Jupiter: I knew it was different because up until that time, I’m a consumer of hip-hop, and my forefathers were the people that I listened to; the hard dudes like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane. And they wasn’t doin’ nothin’ like that. The thing was, your whole idea in the perfect situation [is] you wanna be able to be in front of Rakim and you want respect. Our whole thing was basically imagining being in the room with our peers. We had a chance to go to the New Music Seminar over in New York, and I remember being at the park with Busta Rhymes and Leaders of the New School and gettin’ high and blowin’ their minds to where they didn’t wanna rap no more. You wanna keep in mind that you don’t wanna go over people’s heads, especially when they’re hearing it for the first time. It’s all an expression of communication, and that’s always key. You always wanna be an optimal communicator, ‘cause it’s easy for someone who doesn’t understand you to be like ‘oh, they on some bullshit’ or whatever.

Murs: I’ve heard rumors that Leaders of the New School were doing shrooms with the Fellowship when they came out to visit. I could probably go as far as to say that except for Das EFX, they’re the most stolen-from group that never gets credit. People will tell you this—and I don’t know how true it is—but they taught the Pharcyde how to rap. They were a dance group. They weren’t rappers. This is all myth and urban legend, but I believe it. They would ask the Fellowship how to rap. To have them go on and sell more records…I don’t even know how they feel [about it], as far as being bitter or whatever. But wouldn’t you be?

Myka 9: Hip-hop was being original. Having your own style, your own vibration. And I was proud of mine. It was looked upon as humorous if you were jacking someone’s style. I always tried to be in a more gracious mindstate of, ‘Hey, there’s nothing new under the sun.’ It’s not like I was going to patent this style or that style. I just wanted to inspire other people to be open and to innovate different styles of rapping or whatever they were doing. But it’s been discussed. I guess when people start catching on to this or that, it’s kinda hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

Murs: For me, “Can You Find a Level of Difficulty in This?”…there’s not a rapper alive who can outrap any verse on that song. They are the best rappers in the world.

Nocando: Just imagine Young Thug 20 years ago, just a crazy, versatile freestyler. Or an Ol’ Dirty Bastard type thing. Just wild, freeform, unpredictable. Things people can do now, the Chance The Rappers and Kendricks and Young Thugs…you can rap into Pro Tools and erase something when you mess up. But [Freestyle Fellowship] were doing that 20+ years ago, on tape. The stuff that people are doing now, with technology, these guys were doing 20, 30 years ago, and they were doing it with a pen and a pad.

Jeff Weiss: They could rap about homelessness and lampoon carpetbag rappers, invoke Ingmar Bergmann films and raise the level of virtuosity to stratospheric levels. East or West, no one could match their dexterity, wordplay, and poignant subject matter.

Innercity Griots

Myka 9: We dropped To Whom It May Concern and record labels got interested, one of which was Island 4th & Broadway. [J. Sumbi and Mellow D] decided not to roll with the deal and do their own thing, and stay independent. Some of us decided to take that deal, and that’s how we came up with Innercity Griots.

Self Jupiter: We had a big budget, and we were young kids. Our name was blowing up. We met Ice Cube, Jam Master Jay. For the production, we had a lot of live elements on Inner City Griots, which was home to me because my granddad was a musician, so that was just how it’s supposed to be. We had four or five different songs that didn’t go on Inner City Griots. But it was just so gravy, the process of making an album that they don’t do nowadays. You just relish those days now, ‘cause they gone.

Murs: They came out with To Whom It May Concern and got signed to 4th & Broadway/Island. They created Inner City Griots and were rapping like no one in the history of Rap had rapped. Like, on “For No Reason,” there’s nothing you can do that they didn’t do already. And they weren’t even rapping that fast on that one! I think, when Jupe went to jail, the label was like, “Fuck it, that’s the end of that group.” That was right when “Inner City Boundaries” came out, I think. And whatever stopped the momentum there, be it that Jupe went to jail and [the label] kinda fell back on ‘em, everyone knows that [the group] was about to get worldwide shine. But because “Inner City Boundaries” didn’t go where it should have gone, they kind of broke up too soon. Had that gotten the push that [Souls of Mischief’s] “‘93 ‘Til Infinity” got—‘cause it was just as good of a song—it would have led to, hopefully, Aceyalone’s solo album [All Balls Don’t Bounce] going Gold.

Jeff Weiss: I first heard Freestyle Fellowship in high school when a friend bought me the Innercity Griots CD. I hope to fully understand it before I die.

Respect Due…

Self Jupiter: The people that know us and how music is now, you can say our presence is felt. We’re older dudes now, so people who grew up listenin’ to us. When you do so many shows at UCLA, USC…there’s doctors that grew up listening to us. We was doing so much. And you never know who was in the audience. They had kids, you know what I mean?

Jeff Weiss: Their work was crucial to LA hip-hop history because it completely obliterated all stereotypes of what an LA rapper should be. For people who thought that LA was either Dr. Dre or Young MC, it forged an entirely new lane that bridged the poetic and abstract with bullet-ricochet street Rap.

Murs: They were the group for the alternative Black person. I hate to use the term “rapper’s rapper,” but they are the rapper’s rappers of Los Angeles. They were the N.W.A. of substance for LA. N.W.A. are what they are for gang culture, but as far as motherfuckers rapping their ass off, Freestyle Fellowship was that. I guess the best way to describe it is: subtract Living Legends, who came after; they were the original West Coast Wu-Tang [Clan]. I considered getting a Freestyle Fellowship tattoo. I hear stories that D’Angelo was sleeping on his floor and got his whole swag from Myk’. Kweli came up under them. So much of their swag, like the mysterious, Jazzy, soft-spoken, baritone, handsome man qualities. You know. He’s like a Black James Dean for a lack of a better term. And Jupe had his own thing. And P.E.A.C.E. was just so gangsta but conscious and he freestyled and man…

The Future?

Jeff Weiss: Their legacy is ubiquitous, from the Low End Theory, whose principles were birthed from the greater Project Blowed constellation; to Chance the Rapper, who has cited Aceyalone as a chief influence; to Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly was only novel to anyone who had never seen The Underground Railroad [band] back Freestyle Fellowship. They were ahead of their time then; they’re ahead of this time now.  

Self Jupiter: With Daddy Kev and Low End Theory, they’re not all rappers, you know? They’re a bunch of musicians who knew a level of dopeness and by us existing, they knew a level of where you have to be. The bar was high on all levels, and it transcends music because we were a group; a team. It was more about somebody having your back at all times. Family. Freestyle Fellowship. Our consciousness transcends music, and that’s why you have the Kendrick Lamars, the Chance The Rappers, and even when it comes to the producers who worked on our music. They were definitely cutting edge.

Murs: I hate to use the term, but they were definitely ahead of their time.

Myka 9: There’s a Fellowship tour coming in a couple months and a new project. I think the brightest moments are the ones to come.

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“I would like to hope me sticking to my guns about being who I am, and not worrying about what other people think, has changed the viewpoint of what Boston music is.” – Moe Pope

When Boston emcee Moe Pope started rhyming, he heard a common critique of his work. “I remember when people were like, ‘This dude don’t even sound like he’s from here,’ as if that was a bad thing,” he says with a laugh.

What separated Pope from the majority of his peers was that he wasn’t partaking in the fervent Boston-centricity that had overtaken the scene in the ‘90s.

“When I was growing up, if you weren’t wearing a Celtics jersey or a Red Sox hat in Boston, spitting about all that is Boston, you weren’t getting no love on the radio,” he explains. “I wasn’t doing that at a certain time, so I didn’t get much play here when I first started out.”

Although Pope is quick to note he was actually a fan of much of his hometown’s hip-hop scene back then, rock n’ roll was his first musical love. With that love—and a strong desire to simply be himself on the mic—his individuality can be pointed to as one of the reasons Pope has become one of the most influential artists in modern Boston hip-hop.

When everyone else was going right, he went left; and now he sees a plethora of Boston artists embracing their unique personalities.

“Everyone who’s making noise in the city right now is really different. From Joyner Lucas, to Millyz, to (Cousin) Stizz, to Dutch (ReBelle), none of them sound the same.”

Pope—already different thanks to his musical background—also picked up the mic significantly later than his peers. “Most of the people I knew had been rapping since they were 13…I was probably closer to about 19 when I started.”

The advantage to being a late bloomer as an emcee is that at 19, a person knows themselves much better than they do at 13. Pope notes there’s a downside, however, and it’s one he still wrestles with today.

“You always feel you’re not up to everyone’s level because you started later. There is a slight insecurity level, or a chip on your shoulder, because you’re thinking, ‘Is this good enough? These guys have been doing it so much longer than me,’” he explains. “I think I carried that into my later years, as well. I still feel like that. I still feel like I have more to learn, that cats have been doing it longer, and it came easier to them.”

Some would argue that it looked like things came easily for Pope, whose first group, Mission—which later became Crown City Rockers after his departure from the group—became an underground hip-hop sensation just a year and a half into Pope’s career. Pope, however, never took the accolades to heart.

“I always thought it’s not me who they’re talking about; they’re talking about the group as a whole,” Pope expresses. “It felt good to be a part of something, but it’s also like I hadn’t reached the status that I’d wanted to yet, so it doesn’t matter if someone says you’re dope, or if someone says you’re amongst some of the best in the area, or some of the best in the city, I was always trying to measure myself a little bit differently, outside of the city. I always felt like I still had something to learn.”

For Pope, that learning has come not just from other veteran emcees (and those who came before him) but also from the city’s exciting young talent.

“I listen to all these young cats—from Dutch (ReBelle), to Cousin Stizz, Michael Christmas, definitely Latrell James, Tim Nihan. These people are out here doing a different style than what I was growing up with, and still delivering some very thought provoking music. There’s a lot to learn from.”

Pope continued, noting inspiration has been a two-way street: “When I met all of these cats back in the day, they were at different stages of their careers, obviously, not everyone was at the same spot, but some asked questions, some just observed, some told me later on that they got this record (of mine) when they were in high school, or they bumped this record (of mine) for years before meeting me, and stuff like that, and that, to me, is humbling, especially when I’m trying to figure out what makesTHEM tick, and how they spit. I love what they’re doing, and I’m trying to figure out how I can better myself through listening to them.”

Bettering himself has been a theme for Pope—who became a father at 19—and immediately dedicated himself to being a good dad (as well as being a good student) while diving into a hip-hop career. He also became involved in Boston’s City Year program, which rewards participants with money for college for a year of community service.

During his time in the City Year program, Pope had a revelation. “It just kinda changed my perspective on life a little bit,” he says. “How life is just so much bigger than just me. As a teenager, you’re just figuring those things out. I think being a teenager back then, or just period, you think about life in a certain sense of everything is about you. And then all of a sudden you get smacked in the face with the reality that life isn’t really about you. It’s way bigger.”

This, in turn, has continued to influence Pope’s music—including his latest album, Torch Song, which is a collaborative effort with producer The Achitype that was released earlier this year under the name STL GLD. It’s the latest in a long line of albums for Pope, which include the 2001 Mission album One, the 2004 Electric album Life’s A Struggle, the 2007 Project Move album Love Gone Wrong/Butterfly Theory, 2008’s Megaphone, 2010’s Life After God, and 2013’sLet the Right Ones In.

With individualism currently at the forefront of Boston’s hip-hop scene, it would be fair to say that Moe Pope can (and should) be credited with helping his area’s artists embrace their uniqueness. Pope, however, not only feels he still has work to do, he feels his best work is yet to come.

“Rapping-wise I feel like I’m getting better in my older age than I ever was when I was younger, because I’m not afraid of failure at this stage,” he says with confidence. “I try things out now that I would never have when I was younger, because I was afraid of what this person might think, or if it wasn’t with the times, or if it wasn’t what other people were thinking about at the time. Now I just create, and I worry about all that other stuff later…There’s a complete freedom to that.”

It’s a freedom that leads to great music, and as long as this Pope preaches, his scene will continue to listen.

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Since 2012, Westside Gunn and his brother Conway The Machine have built a devoted fan base, while becoming the most dynamic duo since Ghostface and Raekwon or even Mobb Deep. The brothers each have released countless mixtapes and albums, including Westside Gunn’s critically acclaimed debut album Flygod in 2016. They’ve built their following with some of the best hardcore rap filled with haute couture designer name-drops, old school WWE homages (see their Hall & Nash EP as one example), habitual gunplay onomatopoeias (doot-doot-doot! bddddddd!!), and drug game noir about their poverty-stricken Buffalo, a perennial selection in national polls as one of America’s deadliest cities.

“To my niggas using Corrlinks hold your head

Remember Chine Gun used to piss in the bed

Remember hot dogs getting boiled for the party

Off White fatigues, lord, Griselda’s the army”

(from “Looking Like The Greatest” featuring Conway and Benny off Hitler On Steroids)

Having seen it all, the 35-year old Westside Gunn’s confidence level is as heightened as the mountains of upstate New York. His motivation to succeed and expand his reach beyond his home base of Buffalo, New York to Atlanta comes from growing up fast having children as a teenager. The Flygod speaks about his life mission to financially support his children down South instead of Buffalo and his business savvy. “When you go back from Buffalo to Atlanta, and you got two kids already, now you gotta get money,” he says. “The genius I am, I figured, ‘Hey, it’s money and its supply and demand. What’s in Buffalo that’s needed that I can bring from Atlanta? What’s Atlanta need that I can bring from Buffalo?’ A couple of big chains and foreign cars later, where else I’ma live?”

Westside Gunn

When most people would retreat in despair upon similar circumstances, Westside Gunn welcomes the challenge of fatherhood by running to it instead of away from it. As he was being a breadwinner to provide for his kids, Westside knew that he had a purpose to stake his claim in the world via rap music and bring his friends with him for the ride.

The Formation of Griselda Records

Originally titled Street Entertainment, Westside Gunn renamed the label in 2012 after the late Colombian drug empress Griselda Blanco. But most of the Griselda Records camp has been through a litany of life hardships along the way towards stardom. That includes, but not limited to, losing their lifelong compatriot and rhyme partner Machine Gun Black’s life to gun violence. Conway details the crew’s trials on fan favorite “The Cow.” Conway was shot twice in the head, suffering from Bell’s palsy, plus served two years in prison. Westside Gunn served multiple years in federal prison, and their longtime partner in rhyme Benny The Butcher was jailed for several years in New York State prison as well.

The collective of Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny the Butcher, and his late brother Machine Gun Black coalesced as friends during their grammar school days when they were called Forerunners. Before their run-ins with the law, their label was originally named Street Entertainment. Benny further explains why being from Buffalo gives them the impetus to fight for their recognition.

“Coming from Buffalo, it was harder, but look where we are,” Benny says. “The thing about it is that we’ve been rapping for so long that you can go back and Google me about how I’ve been here. I’m like a folk hero for Buffalo’s music scene. If we came from any other major city, we probably would’ve been popped by now. I’m 32 years old. In my region I’m considered a legend. Conway, too. We been doing rap, so it’s like a relief for the city. It’s like ‘Oh shit, those dudes did it!’ And it’s not like we’re new dudes who popped up out of nowhere.”

The Flygod is far from being a rookie to the game, but there was a point in time in which he stopped rapping for seven years when he was dealing with his legal matters. But some would argue that he’s one of the hottest rappers just getting started.

The hip-hop community has had mixed reactions for the 2017 XXL Freshman Class cover, and many fans of Griselda have begrudged that Westside Gunn and Conway deserve to be on the cover. Wes doesn’t necessarily look at the recent issue without him on it as a snub. Instead, he’s quite diplomatic and acknowledged that he’s not a freshman in terms of his age, tenure in the rap game, and how to he’d like to market himself.

“I love it, they’re doing their job,” Wes opined. “Anybody in the industry would love to be on a cover. But it’s about the right cover. I would love to be on the cover of XXL, but not as a freshman. You know what? All that shit is for kids. When you go to these festivals and these concerts, that’s the wave right now. I don’t got a problem with none of them. I’m happy for them because they young, they getting money and they pursuing their dream. That’s their lane and everybody ain’t in that lane. For whoever is in that lane, they pick the best.”

Their endless references, skits, and song titles like “Peter Luger,” “Sly Green,” and “Free Chapo,” or similes involving Rayful Edmonds, the magazine covers for F.E.D.S. or Don Diva would seem more apropos for Griselda’s music content than an XXL Freshman Class cover.

The Griselda Sound

Much of Griselda’s music content eviscerates jocularity and prudence, accompanied by melodic dark beats that sound like a street gang marching toward enemy lines. With his business partner and brother Conway, Benny, and formidable producer Daringer, their fledgling label Griselda Records has a sound comprised of boom-bap and soul samples of ‘90s East Coast gangsta rap. Benny broke down their musical inspirations from that time period: “That CNN, Wu, and Mobb era, you hear that in our music and the beats,” Benny explains. “Like how Prodigy mentioned ‘dirty fingernails.’ And when you listen to CNN, Mobb and Wu, they were like the John Gotti gangster type of rappers, street frontline rap. Not like no B.I.G. or Jay-Z in suits, but crime boss mob shit. It’s more impactful. We real street frontline niggas; so that’s where that comes from. That’s what we listened to, and we took a lot from that.”

The sound of Griselda Records is simultaneously invasive and mellow with samples of seventies heavy metal guitar riffs, prog rock, fusion jazz, and mellow soul samples that pour out of your speakers like molasses. Daringer—who began making beats in 2005 after deejaying for several years in Buffalo’s underground hip-hop scene—programs and records his beats on his laptop’s digital MPC Studio and ProTools while on tour. But he always seeks organic analog equipment, including an MPC 2000xl and MPC 2500 with a turntable and a Fender Road telecaster guitar to create his minimalist, industrial boom-bap beats with the pace of 60 to 70 beats per minute. The producer explains his approach to his beatmaking for Griselda’s projects:

“I sample breaks, but a lot of the times I take breaks that may be common to some, I pitch them down and get them in that slower tempo, it kinda disguises theme a little bit,” he says. “Once I slow these records down and the breaks as well, it gives me a certain sound and it just sounds grittier, to make the mood a bit darker. [They] actually preferred these records to be slowed down. We have the upbeat stuff too, but even our upbeat stuff isn’t that fast at the end of the day. That’s just the zone that they like it.” He continues, “When you speed it up, you get that classic boom-bap ‘90s hip-hop feel or sounds altogether. All the past productions play a huge influence of how I listen to records and pick out samples and use drums. Heads were really digging back in the day and that shit inspired me to keep that art still going. A lot of people think that it’s easy to find records with the internet nowadays to go on and find some stuff, going the easy route. You can, but I always put more time and effort and every dollar to my name to find shit. It’s always about taking that extra step.”

Strengthening The Griselda Movement With Rap Legend Co-Signs, Hate, and Perseverance

 

During the Griselda on Steroids tour stop at New York City’s Webster Hall in June, rap legends including Raekwon, Styles P and Jadakiss, Roc Marciano, and the late Prodigy came to give their props to Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny. It was a manifestation that Griselda has ascended as the one of the strongest movements to come out of New York State.

Westside Gunn explains why he eschewed the festival circuit in order to be seen as a headliner on his own tour and sell his crew’s GxFR merchandise, which are all the rage amongst his fans:

“The first time I wanted people to see me was our own [Griselda] tour,” he says. “Now I want to do all the festivals, the A3Cs, the SXSW’s, whatever. We could’ve been doing those forever. But it was about first time I want people to people to see me in the flesh, I wanted it to be some shit that we do.”

 

They don’t take this showing of gratitude for keeping New York’s legacy alive for granted. Benny still believes there is a lot for his cohorts to keep the fight going because of industry shadiness they’ve experienced. “In the industry, Griselda is still taking everything we get,” he adds. “Nobody handed us nothing. You watched the [Funk Flex] freestyle. Flex don’t even wanna fuckin’ crack a smile or he didn’t even want to say, ‘Yo they dope!’ or as soon as we got off the air he exchanged numbers with Conway and told us, ‘People don’t do it in one take like y’all did it.’ He didn’t wanna say nothing on the air because that would be handing us his co-sign because he knows what that means. But it’s too late because we got co-signs from the Jadakiss’s, the Mobbs, Wu-Tang Clans, and all that. We see the shady behavior because of where we’re from.”

Beyond the traditionalist New York sound, Conway recently stepped beyond their comfort zone to show how he can rework the most popular rap songs of the year in Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping “Humble” to show his artistic range on his most recent mixtape Reject On Steroids.

“I like the record. I was working on Reject On Steroids mixtape and I liked [the beat]. When I do my mixtapes I like fucking with different instrumentals and all of that,” he says. “But I love that [Kendrick album] and that record. When I found that instrumental I said ‘hold on, lemme see how I can play with this one real quick.”

Conway

Conway—who’s known for his physical aesthetic, along with his muscular delivery and baritone voice—shows love to wanting to work with more West Coast artists of his element. He states his love of old school R&B artists. “I fuck with ScHoolboy, Kendrick, and MURS. I wanna work with Bobby Brown. I wanna work with Stephanie Mills [laughs].”

Now that Westside Gunn is seeing his hard work finally pay off, he and Conway introduced in March to their fans that they’ve joined forces with Eminem to become the next group act that will revive Shady Records and be the next way under Slim Shady’s watch. But to mark their first song with his camp, they paid their respects by naming their first song for Shady after their fallen comrade Machine Gun Black.

Westside Gunn declared that their music will remain the same in their creative process without having to acquiesce to Eminem’s prototypical sound for crossover appeal.

“It’s still gonna remain Griselda. It don’t matter who you with,” Gunn says. “Shout out to Shady and Interscope. Just keep expecting the grimy, raw shit. Ain’t shit changing at all. Don’t think just because we got signed that we’re about to switch or change our style up. Everything you ever heard is gonna remain the same. The formula’s there. You’re never gonna stop Griselda.”

Photo Credits: Shady Records

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Some music is so original, creative and straight-up good that it never gets tired or played out. Actually, timeless is such an appropriate one-word account of the Juggaknots’ catalogue that, despite only dropping two studio albums literally a decade apart, the all-sibling trio has managed to maintain their status as underground legends—still invoking excitement in the most dedicated hip-hop heads, even over ten years after their last release.

Juggaknots

In fact, their discontinued debut became such a sought-after cult classic that original vinyl pressings of the album supposedly sold for upwards of $100, before its eventual re-release. Unfortunately, while definitely celebrated within certain circles, the Juggs never achieved the widespread notoriety they deserved—remaining somewhat of a well-hidden secret, albeit a personal favorite for many.

Early in their career, however, the Bronx-bred group seemed destined for a different path—penning a major label deal with East West/Elektra Records circa 1994 and joining the ranks of signees like Das EFX and Missy Elliott. At the time, the Juggs consisted of brothers Breeze Brewin and Buddy Slim. Queen Herawin, their sister, “kind of fought her way in” later, as Breeze joked on Rap Is Outta Control with DJ Eclipse last year.

Incidentally, Slim had earned himself a reputation for producing R&B tracks, allegedly working with acts like Horace Brown and Missy’s seminal group Sista, which helped the Juggs secure their contract. Regardless, the siblings’ stint on the label was brief, and they lost their deal without even dropping a single. Toward the end of their tenure, the group was called into a meeting where various East West artists were instructed to share what they’d been working on. “You heard like a Missy joint, and this joint and that joint. 8-Off [Agallah] had ‘Ghetto Girl,’” Breeze recalled. “We played ‘Jivetalk’ … and it was like somebody died.”

Although East West may not have shared their vision, someone else did—Bobbito Garcia, who hosted the fabled Stretch and Bobbito radio show on WKCR in the ’90s and owned an influential, mostly-vinyl label called Fondle ’Em Records (a “division of Tickle ’Em Label Group” and “subsidiary of Squeeze ’Em Entertainment,” as was proudly printed on their early 12” records). Bobbito built his brand working with artists who’d been dropped by majors, and would eventually help launch the indie careers of emcees like MF Doom (another Elektra castaway) and Cage (who was previously signed to Columbia). Following their first release, a project by Kool Keith and Godfather Don as the Cenobites, the ragtag label put out the Juggaknots’ 1996 debut—a roughly mixed nine-track masterpiece of material that East West hadn’t known what to do with.

While Slim definitely held his own trading “Troubleman” verses with Breeze, it’s a shame he didn’t rap more on the project—as his gruff baritone voice and in-the-pocket delivery perfectly juxtaposed his brother’s higher-pitched timbre and frenetic, multisyllabic rhyme schemes. That being said, the Brewin established himself as an exceptional lyricist and songwriter throughout the LP. With advanced wordplay, strong punchlines, original concepts and a distinguishing flow, it’s not hard to understand why in-the-know fans consider him one of the best lyricists to ever touch a mic. Most impressive on that album, however, was his knack for imaginative storytelling. “Breeze should write movie scripts, with his intuition and wit,” Bobbito affirmed in the liner notes of the indie’s 2001 closure compilation, Farewell Fondle ’Em.

According to the label on the original pressing of the Juggaknots’ first LP, the album was technically self-titled. It has also been referred to as Clear Blue Skies, however, after one of the project’s most revered cuts. The de facto title track featured Breeze rapping as both a white father and his son, arguing about the latter’s interracial relationship.

The harrowing song “Loosifa,” another poignant hip-hop mini-drama, told the tale of Smokey—a reformed stick-up kid who got a job in a maternity ward and lost his shit after being forced to discard a stillborn crack baby. He then decided to dole out some street justice and take down a local crack house, sacrificing himself in the process and leaving his pregnant wife a widow.

Breeze’s personal favorite, however, was a thriller titled “I’m Gonna Kill You”—on which the rapper accounted a torrid love affair and ensuing death threat, resulting in a paranoid episode with an unexpected plot twist.

Although its original run was limited, the Juggaknots’ LP grew so popular that the group decided to put it back out as Re:Release in the early 2000s, along with eleven new tracks. On CD format, the album was more accessible than its predecessor and flew off the shelves of indie record stores like Fat Beats (where, incidentally, Breeze worked for some time). It has since been reissued twice more, most recently as a blue vinyl double LP with three new mixes earlier this year. The 500-copy limited edition may be worth investing in, even to owners of the original, just for the nod-inspiring “Supaman Original Tape Mix” of “Watch Your Head.”

In between reissues of their classic debut, the Juggs have managed to stay considerably relevant—although only releasing music sparsely, mostly in the form of singles and guest appearances. They formed a short-lived supergroup called the Indelible MC’s with J-Treds and Company Flow (El-P of Run the Jewels, rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len), dropping two singles in ’97 and ’98, respectively—one of which (“The Fire In Which You Burn”) was featured on Co Flow’s influential Funcrusher Plus LP, as well as Rawkus Records’ famed Soundbombing mixtape, and the other (“Weight”) on the first Lyricist Lounge compilation.

Breeze has typically been at the forefront of the effort to uphold their legacy, appearing on projects by J-Zone, Marco Polo, Tame One of the Artifacts, Cannibal Ox, Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock and as one of the Weathermen (alongside Camu Tao, El-P and more). Most memorable, however, was Breeze’s work with legendary producer Prince Paul—starring as Tariq on his sophomore album A Prince Among Thieves, the bar-setting hip-hopera, in 1999.

Breeze got the part after sending Paul an early Juggaknots demo while still signed to East West, hoping to enlist his services on their would-be label release. Much to the Brewin’s surprise, years later, it was Paul who would recruit him—supposedly seeking him out and finally getting in touch through Eclipse at Fat Beats, who hired Breeze to work at the iconic store.

Although the concept album featured guest spots by legends like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Sadat X, Kool Keith and De La Soul, Breeze was selected to be the classic LP’s protagonist—and the honor was not lost on the grateful MC, who killed the role. Unfortunately, though well-received, the Tommy Boy gem failed to propel his career in any significant way, however—and he didn’t end up dropping another proper studio album until seven years later, with his brother and sister.

Following a few dope singles, as well as a 2004 conceptual compilation mixtape called The Love Deluxe Movement, the Juggaknots finally put out their second LP in 2006. Use Your Confusion was noticeably different than their first, in that everything about the project seemed more polished, marketed and deliberate—from celebrity features (Slick Rick and Sadat X) to expertly-executed thematic concepts (like a whole song about smiling). Even its advertised “hologram cover art” was a far cry from the Juggs original Fondle ’Em white label.

Herawin also really came into her own as a lyricist, on the project—skillfully going bar for bar with her brothers. Eventually, she even beat Breeze to a solo release, dropping her own album, Metamorphosis, in 2015.

Of course, the Brewin has remained active over the years, himself—sporadically dropping singles and videos. He even penned a response to Kendrick Lamar’s infamous “Control” verse a couple of years ago, triggered by Kenny’s line “the juggernaut’s all in your jugular” (most likely intentionally taking it out of context), as well as the Compton emcee’s claim to be the king of New York. Unlike some of his peers’ attempts, Breeze’s diss was more the good-natured imparting of elderly wisdom from an underground veteran to a relative newcomer than it was a straight up schooling.

In fact, as a whole, the Juggaknots have aged gracefully—never seeming out-of-touch, despite prolonged hiatuses, perhaps indicative of their shared vocation as actual school teachers. Their last project, however, was another collector-oriented vinyl release, a 2015 compilation of pre East West demos called Baby Pictures (c. 1989-1993).

They really haven’t put a body of new music out together since 2006, considering, making them a year overdue on their one album per decade average. It’s all gravy, though, because their existing catalogue is ageless enough to hold the group’s legacy down for a lifetime.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

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What does it mean to speak to the wind? On Lando Chill’s upcoming record, The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind, communing with nature is synonymous with communing with the soul. Inspired by Paolo Coelho’s acclaimed novel, The Alchemist, Lando’s new album catalogs his own internal pilgrimage. The novel’s protagonist, Santiago, quests through the desert in hopes of becoming the wind and freeing his soul; a quest that is driven by an innate desire to fulfill his Personal Legend—his destiny.

For Lando, the greatest takeaway from The Alchemist is coming to terms with the fact that not every question has an answer, yet your fate is still in your hands. “The most poignant line from Coelho’s novel [for me] is: ‘the greatest lie one has ever believed is that he or she is not in control of their own fate,’” he says, footnoting that major portion of his Personal Legends relies on “breaking the stereotypical boundaries in mainstream hip hop.”

Photo Source: tucsonweekly.com

Speaking specifically on how the novel gave him this sense of control, Lando feels “as though the story of

“as though the story of The Alchemist altered my perception of who I could be and why I was limiting myself in every respect, because I thought I was stuck on the track of life. When in actuality, what I could control was me—and in turn if I could know myself and control how I interpreted life’s good or bad, then I could control my own fate, or path.”

The influence is intricately woven into the fiber of his album, from the lyrics right down to his own self-painted artwork. “You see the book throughout the album—not necessarily always in tone or imagery—although it is present,” he adds, “but how I interpreted the realization that one’s purpose is created from within and how to manifest your dreams just as I have manifested mine.”

The influence is intricately woven into the fiber of his album, from the lyrics right down to his own self-painted artwork. “You see the book throughout the album—not necessarily always in tone or imagery—although it is present,” he adds, “but how I interpreted the realization that one’s purpose is created from within and how to manifest your dreams just as I have manifested mine.”

Going track-by-track, Lando Chill highlights which verses were directly inspired by The Alchemist with UGHH, as we dissect the verses’ relationships to the novel.

Break Them Shackles

Chorus

Say we gotta look good when we break the shackles one day,
We finna look good when we break the shackles one day,
We boutsta look good when we break the shackles one day,
We finna look good when we break the shackles one day,
I spokes to the wind and I’ll tell you what the sun say.

These shackles represent any system that keeps someone from their Personal Legend; instead trapping them in a state of helplessness. Just as The Alchemist’s Santiago hopes to transcend the physical world and become the wind, Lando Chill wants to emancipate himself from the claws of institutional racism, depression, toxic masculinity, and any other affliction that is holding him back from his Personal Legend.

Discussing shackles, Lando explores the dichotomy of constraint and progress:

“Understanding that our imperfections make us beautiful, but that they should not shackle your growth into becoming that better person—not just for yourself and the people around you—but for this land we pillage and the water we poison. All is one and one is all, and until we speak to the wind, and see ourselves as the water and rock, we will perish. And the world with us.”

Lando also references the pivotal book scene, where the wind blows up a sandstorm so Santiago may speak to the sun. The sun is the only natural force that can see the “Soul of the World”: the spiritual energy that unifies all living beings. Speaking to the sun is critical for Santiago, because only after he communes with the desert, the wind, and the sun can he finally turn himself into the wind. This cut details the benefits of taking a spiritual and emotional journey: self-love and a greater understanding of the world. It is the landmark for Lando Chill’s departure as well as his arrival into self-actualization.

The King of Salem

INTRO

Keep it,
Realer than silicone,
For real is never home,
Be bottle our melatonin,
To barter for better phone,
Kick fodder with the thing you call god for a better home,
Now piety makes him deaf,
So we gotta use megaphones,
Now,
Quiet as kept for our souls we forever own,
I’m skipping some steps on this highway to martyrdom,
Leaving a mark upon heart made of many stone,
Maybe ya life would feel right if ya love was strong.

This intro plays on the complex relationship of religion and spirituality within the novel. Though Santiago has haunting, recurring dreams about being in the sacristy of a ramshackle church, in order to pursue his Personal Legend, he must forgo the church in order to explore the world. God, as we understand it, manifests in the novel through communing with nature and listening to the desires of one’s soul. As Lando notes, strict piety seems to fall on deaf ears. In order to be heard, one must speak “The Language of the World,” which can only be understood and spoken once the “language of your soul” is understood. This “Language” represents the unity of all things, empathy, and the force that links all of humanity. The Alchemist implies that people must look inward and invoke their own spirituality, as opposed to relying solely on organized religion.

No Paz

Verse 1

Said the G men lurk at the edge of our turf, warfare where them shots aim fair as the system,
Box every nigga in a cell,
Get a check in the mail so them head count numbers ain’t dippin’,
While the motherfuckin’ police trippin’,
Tippin’ the scales, in favor of the rich politic type stiff who would rather bullshit with his gifts right quick than ever try to listen,
To the plight of the poor, whatchu fightin us for? With them four-door tints and them canines,
Boy step down for they hit you with that slave mind,
No prob to kill just to save mine,
With them blue C notes in a gold cash clip with some shit that the police took from the drugs crimes,
Gats from the back leave you loose from the C9,
And deader than the Amazon’s grapevines.

While this track is grounded in the gross reality of systemic inequalities, the novel’s key motif of fear is present when we take a closer look at this verse. Across the novel, Santiago is no stranger to hardships—constantly threatened with death, being captured, and grappling with a crippling fear of loss. Similarly, Lando’s lyrics about the lurking government agents hunting Black men summon those same anxieties of innocent life hanging by a thread at the hands of outside forces. However, fear does not permeate Lando’s flow or his bars, “because true men of the desert are not afraid.”

“No Paz” is a testament to Lando taking the same sage advice given to Santiago: “Don’t let them see that you’re afraid,” because fear will only act as another shackle to steer you away from your Personal Legend.

O Sicario e o Padre

Verse 2

Figured that limitless is closer than what we think it is,
A modest life leads to the smoothest route,
I guess as smooth as dad’s heart that shit petered out,
Metered like a boxing bout,
It’s when life takes that dive in the 10th is what you see what life’s really about.

The final few bars on this verse refer to the character of Santiago’s heart and have Lando assuming the cautionary role of the Alchemist. He warns against living a life with no risks, embodying the Alchemist’s adage: “wherever your heart is, that is where you find your treasure.” All throughout the novel, Santiago feels deep anxiety over his heart, at one point admitting to the Alchemist that, “my heart is afraid that it will have to suffer.” The Alchemist constantly assures Santiago that he must follow his heart despite his fears, or else he will miss out on the great treasures of life. He must pursue his Personal Legend, because the mundane fate of being relegated to a simple shepherd’s life will be an even greater loss.

The Boy Who Spoke to The wind meets The Alchemist

Wind & the Rain

Verse 1

I guess I’m destined for defeat,
Said that land to the sea,
The sun smiled in pain,
While that moon, it wept to sleep,
Every soul that ever stirred,
Simultaneously,
Took that great sigh of sadness for that,
Land of the bleak
I guess the meek lead the meek like them
Shepherd-less sheep,
Guess these people legislate behind that
Suit and a tee,
Let’s be that sweeping decree,
A dead prophet who’s got love for that sea,
Not to part for parting means the end of life within we,
Said that land to the sea,
And the moon to that deep,
See that sun die in pain,
Now while that moon wept to sleep.

Let’s imagine that fear does dominate one’s psyche; what would that look like? Sheep. Santiago’s sheep are a major motif throughout The Alchemist, representing all those who are imperceptive to (or directed away from) their Personal Legends. Because these sheep do not pursue their Personal Legends, they’re unable to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. By slighting the elements and their own souls, these “sheeple” only propagate the sickness of ignorance. Hence the sun’s pain and the moon’s tears. Moreover, should Santiago abandon his Personal Legend, he will return to the placid life of a shepherd. Should Lando accept defeat and shy away from his destiny of creating art, he must return to the monotony of being another sheep, following the very systems he is aiming to unravel with his music.

O Alquimista

Spoken word

The sky and ocean,
Brother and sister,
Meet at the horizon to speak about why people pout,
When such a place they before them,
A land forsaken by the many who forget its name,
Who spread blame with hot knives over oil slicks and human shit,
Fed to our indentured orange jumpsuits with numbers for names,
You see they were people before the system failed them,
And raised your profit margin,
Like the nigga jargon you cop for them likes,
You see,
The sky and ocean,
Brother and sister,
Meet at the horizon to speak about why people pout,
When the water runs clean and they dream about bullshit,
Not if they can make it through the night alright,
You see the sky and ocean,
Brother and sister,
Meet at the horizon to speak about why people pout,
When such a place they before them,
When such a place they before us.

As no good hero goes unchallenged, The Alchemist’s main antagonist manifests in the form of the desert. The desert represents all of the obstacles that bar people from realizing their dreams and desires. In that respect, Lando Chill invokes the symbol of the desert while exposing the evils of institutional racism. The desolate imagery on this cut references the symbol of the desert. With the desert in mind, we get a clear narrative: these fraught systems are the obstacles standing in the way of Black Americans. Just as Santiago must listen to the desert to free himself, Lando Chill must track a magnifying glass over these systems in order to dismantle them and gain greater control over his fate.

O Alquimista translates into “The Alchemist,” one of many songs that was directly inspired by the writing of Coehlo. Not only is the title a reference to the Alchemist that the boy Santiago meets as he is nearing his journey’s end, but also to the cryptic clarity bestowed upon him by the Alchemist and subsequently, the wind.

Per Lando, “It’s the duality in life; the fact that many of us are coming into this world with a death sentence—not at the fault of the mother who brings life, or the father who seeds it, but at the hands of those whose only motive is the money. Colonialism, white supremacy, an oppressive patriarchy, conquest, and manifest destiny; these are our true enemies, built by the brokers in a broken system. The only constant is death, with the fleeting finality of life pushing one forth upon a path paved with privilege or pain; yet it is truly what you do with what experiences you find in life that shapes the cobblestone road toward the grave.”

Heartspace

Real Outro

We’ll never call,
You’ll never know,
And when we die young,
And nobody grows old,
Just cherish your journey,
And try to stay gold,
And when the time comes,
All you’ve got is your soul.

In the context of the novel, gold becomes synonymous with knowledge and the time needed to achieve your own Personal Legend. In fact, the Personal Legend of all metal in the novel is to eventually be transmuted into gold. As the Alchemist explains to Santiago, tooling lead into gold requires patience and a deep knowledge of evolution. There is no progress without self-awareness. The practice of evolving dingy metals to stunning gold mirrors Santiago’s own growth as he achieves spiritual clarity. On the final verse of the album, Lando fulfills his Personal Legend by placing the journey into the listener’s hands, hoping they learn something from this project and pursue their own Personal Legends as a result.

This album is a testament to Lando Chill taking the Alchemist’s advice: “You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say.” By listening to his heart, giving a voice to those who struggle, and exposing the systems that plague our society, Lando demonstrates his ability to speak “The Language of the World.” Speaking and hearing “The Language” is what ultimately allows Santiago to become the wind, and gives his soul the freedom he’s been questing for.

In tandem, using this album as a study of the world as he knows it, Lando Chill goes from being The Boy Who Spoke To The Wind, to becoming the wind in his own right.

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Welcome to the inaugural edition of Catalog Shuffle. The concept is simple: put the entirety of an artist’s discography into a playlist, throw it on shuffle, and have them talk about whatever songs randomly pop up – whether it’s one of their biggest songs or an obscure b-side that time forgot. For the first installment, we talked to RJD2, whose solo career/group albums/random production credits easily present over 300 songs to select from. Get ready to get your shuffle on…

RJD2 Peace of Mind

Photo Source: Spin.com

RJD2 “Liquid Luck” (Inversions of the Colossus, 2010)

RJD2: I literally think this is the first time I have discussed this song since the record was released. That song started with the drums in the MPC, and because they occupy so much sonic space, my vision for it wasn’t to make it hyper complex with interesting chord changes and voicings. I was basically looking for something more riff-oriented that was a little easier to digest. Usually, once I sit with a groove, I can hear whether there could be a vocal component on top or not. And that felt more like a scratch record. I’ll do 15-30 songs and it will slip my mind that scratching on a record is an option that is in my tool chest. And then I’ll remember. This was one of those songs.

Inversions is the companion record to your 2010 album The Colossus. How do you typically decide what makes it onto a record and what goes on a companion album?

RJD2: Most of the songs on a companion record are songs that didn’t seem to fit with the original incarnation of the record. Many years ago, I did this record In Rare Form that was just instrumentals of tracks I had produced for rappers. They were album cuts, they never became singles, so the instrumentals were never released. Being a DJ, one of my prized hip-hop records is the instrumental record of [Gang Starr’s] “Step Into the Arena.” At the time, it was a hard thing to find as a DJ, and really valuable. It’s impossible to tell someone in the modern era about the novelty of an entire instrumental record on vinyl, pre-Serato. Kids literally can’t understand that concept when every instrumental record is on YouTube today.

So that has always been my motivation to put instrumentals out because I’m a DJ and you want to have these things out there; it’s a useful tool. Inversions was more driven by my desire to release the instrumental versions of the vocal cuts from The Colossus than it was to put out a b-sides record. An album of instrumental versions of the vocal songs would just have been an EP, so then I filled it out with other tunes.

When you make a record, at some point in time you have an album done and you’re happy with it. But by then you have this creative momentum going and you can’t turn it off right away. You coast on fumes for a period after turning in a record for mastering. Sometimes songs get recorded after the record is done, but just weren’t done in time to make it onto the original album.

The Insane Warrior “Then You Hear Footsteps” (We Are The Doorways, 2011)

This is one of the more bonkers songs on a particularly adventurous side project. You’re most known for instrumental hip-hop, which is typically straight 4/4, with a meter that doesn’t really deviate. So how does a record like this happen?

RJD2: “Night on Bald Mountain” was a huge influence to this song. It’s on Bob James’ One. That album as a full-length piece is one of my favorite recordings of all-time. Obviously “Nautilus” is a big deal, but that whole record front to back is a really fucking huge deal to me. For the longest time, as a hip-hop guy, I owned four copies of One only because of “Nautilus.” After years, I decided to sit down and listen to this record. You get out of “beat digger mentality” and start listening to records and absorbing them as entire pieces, specifically records that at one point in time were just “buy it for the break” records.

“Night on Bald Mountain” is really manic. It sounded like a soundtrack to me. It’s keeping in the theme of the Insane Warrior. It’s got really weird changes, really angular. It’s hyper-tense. So when I first put the hi-hat sample on “Then You Hear Footsteps” into the MPC…I don’t remember why, but it started as a thing in 7/8 [time signature] and it led me down this path. Oftentimes, when I’m working on songs and I come across some weird curveball of sorts—like an odd time signature part of the groove or chord change that are abrasive sounding—my instinct will be to soften the effect of it, to sort of pad it in a way. And this was one of those times where I wanted to ditch that.

One of the things about doing a side project record is that I can throw out all of the rules I have when I make RJD2 records. That’s why the Insane Warrior record is so fun because it’s a chance to break all of those rules intentionally. Instead of softening the blow of this weird, odd time signature quasi-proggy thing, let me just go whole hog with it and see if I can do this thing on my own—with an MPC, some horn charts, and some synths—and get it to a place where it’s really weird.

Soul Position “1 Love” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

RJD2: I think one of the beauties of just sitting at an MPC and making a lot of beats is that you fall into the groove or habit of only reacting to the immediacy of the beat. You’re not thinking about anything. It’s a beautiful place to be. I don’t remember the session of making that song at all. At that time, me and Blueprint didn’t really have too much to think about. When you don’t have a catalog to create the context of what you’re working on, all you care about is, “is this dope or not?”

That’s a fun record for me to listen to. I use part of it in my shows to do an MPC routine based off that beat. It reminds me of the fact that something doesn’t have to be hyper-thought-out to be enjoyable. It’s a really obvious chord change and there’s nothing special melodically about it, but something about it as a cohesive groove just feels good.

“Don’t Get Played (feat. Amos Lee)” (STS x RJD2, 2015)

This whole album sounds more live than most things you’ve done. Did you set out to make a record that was all live and then decide to do bring in [Philadelphia rapper] STS, or did working with him make you want to make it more “live”?

RJD2: Honestly, it wasn’t too thought out. We did that song “See You Leave” for the More Is Than Isn’t record. It was really fun, and we lived in the same city, so I thought it would be good to work with him some more. I would send him a batch of beats, and I was so used to sending 15 beats to rappers and only getting one beat back with demo vocals on it. But with STS, if I sent him a batch of beats, he’d send six demos. I thought, “Holy shit, this guy is super prolific.” It became obvious right off the bat that we weren’t looking at just a song, we were looking at an EP. That quickly became an album because he was writing so much.

In terms of it sounding live…that was just me being me. Some of that record is MPC-based, but I was embracing a live sound. I wasn’t trying to make it sound like it came out of an MPC. There’s a lot of rap records that have been made using live instrumentation that are…

RJD2 and STS

…sucky?

RJD2: Sucky, definitely. There are a lot of shitty records. And then there are others…I mean, Dre is the most obvious example where they occupy their own sonic territory. They don’t sound like a band, they don’t sound like the Brand New Heavies, or a guy with an MPC; they sound like their own thing. So I look at Organized Noize, Flying Lotus, Dre, DJ Quik, and Scott Storch as producers whose records have live instruments that are really dry. You can tell it’s a human being playing, but it doesn’t sound like a guy playing in a room with a microphone. It’s very studio-esque. Almost unnatural in a way, but I don’t mean it in a bad way…

It sounds like it’s perfectly in the pocket spatially, almost like an instrumentalist is in like an ISO chamber in space.

RJD2: Exactly. Those early Organized Noize records don’t sound like a band to me. I think The Chronic is the flagship of that sound. That type of style made me feel like I could make this STS record. It doesn’t sound like a band, and it doesn’t sound like all samples.

That song was one of the first that we recorded and the last that we finished. I think we went through four demo’ed versions of the chorus, but I just couldn’t find the performance that worked for the song. I had been a big fan of Amos Lee and talked to him sporadically via email, and it clicked to me right at the end that he should do it. We weren’t even sure it would make it, it happened so close to mastering. We almost cut the song, but he pulled it off super fast; within a week, he sent the files back and it was mixed.

RJD2 “The Horror” (Deadringer, 2002)

This is kind of a classic staple song in your catalog. But I have to ask: do you get sick of playing it live?

RJD2: No. It’s fun, especially when I have my band with me. We can do things with it that I can’t do on my own. I chop up the samples in the MPC and instead of having a click track, I’m playing the MPC on top of the rhythm section. It has a breathability. It’s really fun in that environment.

The truth of the matter is that at that time I was making Deadringer, I was just trying to make something cool. I got so lucky that I made a record that resonated with people, but it’d be a lie if I told you that I had these grandiose ideas of trying to make this magnificent piece of art. I was just trying to make good music. It’s kind of like a baseball team. They play a shitload of games in a season. If you were to ask them about that one game against the A’s a third of the way into their season, they’d be like, “Dude, we were winning games and losing games all the fucking time. I have no memory about that specific game…”

It’s a brick in a building where you know the building, but you may not have specific context or memories for every single brick.

RJD2: And bricks were constantly falling off the scaffolding as you were building the building. At the time, no particular brick felt like it was the critical brick. When you’re continuing to have successes and failures, no one particular success or failure at the time feels significant at all.

Sure, but it was the first song on your first real album and you made an EP named after it. It must have felt somewhat significant.

RJD2: Sure. It went first on that record because I didn’t want to ease into the record. I wanted to come in as bombastic and loud as you possibly could. The EP thing that came afterwards was just kind of happenstance. We did a single, and then we thought should we do a maxi-single. And then I had a bunch of extra songs so we just made it an EP.

RJD2 “Before Or Since” (Deadringer: Deluxe/The Tin Foil Hat, 2009)

RJD2: I did this boxset when I was launching my record label in 2009. Part of the set was the reissues of Deadringer, The Horror, and Since We Last Spoke. We did a deluxe version of those records and for the CDs, as a bonus I put tracks that were recorded during those respective album eras but not released. For the vinyl buyers, we took those six songs and put them onto The Tin Foil Hat EP. It was like a compilation.

RJD2 “Rules For Normal Living” (The Third Hand, 2007)

Is The Third Hand [an album in which RJ broke from his formula of instrumental hip-hop beats to feature his singing and more traditional song structures] a weird record for you? There was a backlash against it at the time that sort of seems ridiculous now. I hesitate to use the term “ahead of its time,” but maybe that’s what it was? The way people draw lines in terms of restricting genres seemed a lot stricter ten years ago.

RJD2: We’re into the realm of hypotheses now, but I don’t know. DO people still hate me for that record? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way – if I handed off that record to Aaron Livingston or Jordan Brown or any of the vocalists I know who can sing way better than me, would it have been received differently? Possibly.

Right after putting it out, it seemed like an insane thing to do. [laughs] But when I was working on it, it didn’t. It seemed logical. But I’m so glad. I’m happy that I made that record and I’m happy for that experience and process. I’m fine to have a clear line in the sand drawn. “Don’t expect me to do shit.”

It kind of broke all the rules, so now you don’t have to adhere to any rules.

RJD2: For people who were hoping that I would do the same type of thing over and over, that might have been their departure point. I look at the Foreign Exchange, and I have so much respect for those guys and they’re inspiring to me because they’re just being them. And I’ve got to be me. I have no fear about putting out music I feel strongly about because now you’ve been warned in some way. I also feel, like you said, that we are in a different time now.

On that record, were you making tracks as you normally would and then the next step was writing lyrics and singing on top of them? Or were you compelled to get the lyrical ideas out and you made music to accompany them?

RJD2: Definitely the former. I just started making songs. Sometimes you’re recording a song and it screams “instrumental” or “vocal.” They were all coming out as “vocal” songs. I needed to sing something so I just started writing lyrics. I’ve never been a lyric-driven guy. I listen to [Brazilian composer] Caetano Veloso, and I literally don’t understand a single word, but I still enjoy it. The lyrics have always been gravy to me. If someone writes a really clever lyric, that’s just icing on the cake. For music to be there to serve a message is foreign to me.

So I was just making demos and hoping that someone would come in and sing them. I didn’t really pride myself as a singer. I basically had the whole record done, and I was not having any luck finding people to execute the songs better than I could so I just stopped trying. “Fuck it, I’m not a great singer by any stretch but hopefully the songs are good enough for someone to listen to.” I played it for XL and they thought the songs were good enough. [laughs]

If I’m being totally honest, it’s not my personal favorite record that I’ve made. And for the record, Deadringer isn’t, either. I don’t think it’s the best, but I’d like to think it’s not the worst. [laughs]

RJD2 “Portals Outward” (Dame Fortune, 2016)

RJD2: Both this and the first song on the album [“A Portal Inward”] were supposed to invoke an image of like a tunnel where there’s one way into the record and multiple ways out. And if you see that through the lens of a guy who’s unhealthily into science fiction movies, you can come up with a narrative there. “A Portal Inward,” you’re coming in, and there’s only one pathway into this thing. And then “Portals Outward,” once you’ve experienced the album, you understand that there’s multiple way out of it. It’s kind of a bunch of different vignettes that are supposed to sound different and inspire different moods whereas the first one is more monochromatic, if you will.

Diverse “Uprock” (One A.M., 2003)

First of all – what happened to Diverse? He recorded a fantastic debut album in 2003, and then…nothing.

RJD2: I don’t know. I think shortly after that record he chose to pursue something else. I want to say teaching. I’m not exactly sure, it’s been a long time.

Whether it’s by design or not, you’ve had more of a career as a singular artist or as part of a group versus being the guy shopping beats and getting random placements on records. I remember reading an article in Scratch magazine where you were lamenting that you sent some stuff to Common but that it never panned out…Is that something you’re still interested in, getting beats on other artists’ records?

RJD2: I still kind of feel the way that I did when I did that interview. It’s always a thing that I wish I had the opportunity to do more. But something that I’ve learned is that it requires a lot of time and energy. A lot. When I first started making records, my mentality was like, “Oh, I’ve got my little crew of guys that I do stuff with, indie guys, small fry dudes grinding it out in this modern version of a chittlin’ circuit, but guys like Common and Nas, those are real artists. And the people producing for them, those are superstars.” Now, that’s not to say that they aren’t; the producers who made Illmatic are definitely superstars, but mid-tier guys trying to get what they now call placements…

I always envied those guys. I would send stuff around, and you’re going back and forth with the manager. It turned out to be a lot more work than I thought it was going to be, and required a level of constitution that frankly I don’t know that I have. I can’t do 30 emails with no response. You get older and I just don’t have that in me to maybe get to a 31st email and then we’ll play a game for a bunch of weeks, and I’ll still never speak to the actual artists.

The irony of it is that I always thought those guys were the “real producers” and I was just making it up as I went along, and I didn’t know what I was doing. And then I talked to a few guys doing that, and it never dawned on me that guys in that world would look at what I do and would be jealous of my ability to exist as a solo artist. Like, “I wish I could just put stuff out, you think I want to just be working at the mercy of A&Rs and artists that I may not even really like.” After hearing that, it changed my perspective a bit. There’s guys I’d still love to work with musically, but I’ve got my own label that’s working fine for me. I can tour. It doesn’t keep me up at night that I haven’t broken into that. I still wish I could, and there’s guys I’d love to work with.

But it’s also impersonal in a way that I don’t want to do it. There’s a point in which, yeah, it’d be cool to be super-hot feature producer of the moment, to some degree. But even the term “placement” sounds like a business transaction. [laughs] It’s not art.

RJD2 “June (Remix) (feat Copywrite)” (The Horror, 2003)

RJD2: “June” was definitely a song people liked. I didn’t realize the benefit at the time of just having singles out that weren’t the same type of thing. Different tempos, moods, vibes. In hindsight, I realize in some ways it can make the listener feel like they found an Easter egg in a video game. “Wow, this thing is different. I liked ‘Good Times Roll,’ and this song ‘June’ is different, but I really like it.” That was not at all intentional, but I got lucky.

I pulled something off with “June” that I wasn’t entirely sure I could. It’s six minutes long, with a three-minute section with no rapping. I didn’t know if I could make something interesting to listen to. I tried to execute something similarly interesting when I did the remix.

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