MichaelAngelo x Primo Profit

Interview conducted by Jordan Commandeur

MichaelAngelo is a Boston beatsmith with deep roots in the scene. While his official debut was his Commerciante D’Arte compilation that dropped just this year, he has been an integral part of Beantown’s reinvigorated Boom Bap movement for years. While his comp featured buzzing names like CRIMEAPPLE, Rigz, and Estee Nack, it’s his two tracks with up-n-comer Primo Profit that standout the most.

Primo is a Boston emcee of Colombian descent who is just as comfortable rhyming in Spanish as in English. And while he’s just starting to appear on tastemakers’ radars, he has done tracks with everybody from Conway The Machine to CRIMEAPPLE to Dave East. We chopped it up with both artists about their work together, the Boston scene, that infamous trip to Colombia with DJ Muggs and crew, and much more!

Mike, you’ve been a integral part of the Boston scene going back quite a few years, speak on your involvement.

MichaelAngelo: It’s an honor that you say that, but I can’t take too much credit because some of these other producers you hear like Grubby Pawz, Evilldewer, etc. have been doing it just as long as me. Early on I linked up with emcees like Krumbsnatcha, Reks, and some of the ST Da Squad members like Snuk, who had features on my production by Slaine, Term and Jaysuan. But working with another rapper from my city, Phinelia, is what ultimately got me more recognition than anything else. Shouts to Phinelia.

I was also pretty heavy in the Pittsburgh scene around that time. Did stuff for Living Proofe and Varsity Squad (Beedie and Jon Quest), who were really active at that time. Landed One Be Lo and Kool Keith features with them, which was dope.

From being a part of the Boston scene I met rappers like Estee Nack, who I’ve been building with for years now. I also met al.divino when he was a teenager and it’s dope that they are all finally getting the shine they deserve.

You have one 7″ out with CRIMEAPPLE and you’re about to drop another.

M: Yes, I am. Langosta, which we did a video for, is the A-side and I got a unreleased B-side as well that’s produced by myself and Buck Dudley. But this will be part of my new 7” series. Next up is Daniel Son, then al.divino, and then Estee Nack. Collectors really don’t want to miss out on these records…I’ll be revealing why you’re gonna want all four 7”s very soon.

Speak on your relationship with CRIME.

M: I met crime at Primo’s video shoot in NYC. From there me and Primo always met up with Crime and Buck when we up there, and vice versa when they are out in Boston. Always good times and laughs with those two. That eventually leaded us all going to Colombia with DJ Muggs, which was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

You’ve put out material with FXCK RXP and City Yard Music, but the Botero 7” you put out yourself. Will you be working with any more indies going forward or are you gonna keep self-releasing?

M: Yeah, I did the Botero Statue 7” on my own. The pressing took a little longer than expected, It would’ve been nice to have it drop when the Botero Statue video dropped. But I wanted to have the records in-hand before I put them up for purchase. A lot of these pre-orders people are doing are actually funding the vinyl and it takes forever for the consumer to actually receive it. This next 7” series will most likely be independent, unless someone wants to pick it up…but then again, I would only really consider a couple labels.

We’ve heard you’re also working on a couple EPs with some buzzing names.

M: Yeah, I have a few EPs in the works. One with MAV from Da Cloth, one with Jamal Gasol, and one with Rome Streetz. They are all pretty much done except for the Rome Streetz EP. [We] still working on doing another 3 tracks or so. Also, me and Primo have something in the works but we’re only half way done. Then after those I still got two big projects I’m releasing that I’m not talking about just yet.

Primo, how did yall link?

Primo Profit: I first linked up with MichaelAngelo in 2012 through Juanito Colombia, who now happens to be our engineer. We were already familiar with each other from being in the Boston Hip-Hop scene but it wasn’t until our engineer made the connection that we actually met up in person, sat down, and worked.

Your music positions you as a proud Colombian. Speak on your background.

PP: My background both here and Colombia is what makes me who I am today as an artist and a person. I come from a very prideful ethnicity and I feel up until recently, we have been misrepresented within Hip-Hop because we are always mentioned, but there has never been any authenticity behind it.

Yall went down to Colombia with Muggs and CRIMEAPPLE. What is the scene like down there? I saw yall performing and it looked live.

PP: The Hip-Hop scene in Medellin right now is thriving. The culture has been alive for well over 30 years over there, but I feel like now is when they are finally starting to create an industry with it. There is a lot of talent out there and they definitely have a lot to offer.

As far as the show, the show was beautiful. My brother CRIME invited me on the trip with him and DJ Muggs, and once we told a few people we’d be out there, they set-up a show within a week and the outcome was a successful. Real supporters came out that night. Muggs must have signed at least 50 copies of vinyl that fans came to the show with. The energy was amazing and we gave the people of Medellin a night they will always remember.

What other producers you working with right now?

PP: At the moment I’m wrapping up my next project. As far as producers, you will see some you know and some you may not yet. Peace to MichaelAngelo, Teyo, Buck Dudley, Vinyl Villain, Giallo Point, Don Carrera, and the homie AvenRec, who is an amazing producer out of Medellin, Colombia. All these producers blessed me with the soundscapes you will hear me narrating over on my next release.

Primo Profit 1

38 Spesh press

It may seem like the Rochester scene just came out of nowhere in the last couple years, but the truth is that names like Eto, Pounds, and 38 Spesh have been out here delivering quality product for damn near a decade. And being a native of the city, DJ Green Lantern has been attempting to shed light on the area’s talent for a grip of years as well. For example, he has consistently worked with Spesh since as far back as 2005.

This Flour City MC/producer was lured back to the streets while Trap was dominating Hip-Hop sales, but when he saw his homies like Benny The Butcher and Eto starting to make waves around 2016-17, he knew the time was right for a comeback. He made his return in grand fashion in 2018 by dropping collab projects with Mafioso rap godfather Kool G. Rap, Buffalo’s most buzzing, Benny, and The Jacka’s protege, Joe Blow. Then, he sparked 2019 with two solos before February 2. Whoa!

Below we get some answers about how the artist formerly known by the full name 38 Special has been maneuvering in the game since he stepped back in. He speaks on everything from his upcoming project with DITC to his respect for the author of 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene, to his favorite piece of production equipment.

Interview by Jordan Commandeur

While a lot of heads may think you’re a newer artist, you have been grinding on the scene for more than a decade. Tell us a little bit about your history and your catalogue.

I started out working with DJ Green Lantern when I was around 16 years-old. He would put me on his mixtapes. I put out my first mixtape in 2008 with Green it was titled Out On Bail. After that I put out several more projects, but I really started to take rap more serious in 2018 when I dropped Stabbed & Shot. 

You have also known and been recording with Benny The Butcher for years. Speak on yall’s history.

Me and Benny has been making music for over 10 years together. We put out our first CD together in 2008 titled Cocaine Cowboys. He had signed to my label in 2015, but in 2017 I had decided to not do music anymore, and then he signed with Griselda. 

Is there any deeper significance behind the name 38 Spesh?

Nah, 38 Spesh is just short for 38 Special, which is my favorite firearm.

Tell us about the Rochester Hip-Hop scene. There seems to be a lot of names buzzing in that area right now.

There is a lot of talent in Rochester. Lookout for names like Eto, Klass Murda, Pounds, and Black Geez. There is too many to name but soon the world will recognize the talent coming from this city.

5 Shots

You have played off Robert Greene’s instructive manual 48 Laws of Power with both your 38 Laws of Powder and 38 Strategies of Raw albums. Was that book a big inspiration?

Yes, I’m a big Robert Greene fan. I like his style of writing. I have read all of his books.

38 Strategies

You have a very laidback flow and it seems like listeners miss a lot of your best punchlines because of your nonchalance. Do you think you’re underrated lyrically?

Yes, I feel I am a very underrated lyricist at the moment but all that is about to change. 

We have noticed that you are doing quite a bit of the production on your more recent releases. When did you start getting into production?

I started producing at the age of 15 years-old. I started taking production more serious in 2018 as well.

Do you have a preferred piece of equipment or program?

I work on the MPC Touch right now, but I work on several different MPC models. My favorite MPC is the MPC Xl 2000.

We definitely have got to ask how the Kool G. Rap collab album came together. That is a huge honor to take the title ‘Son of G Rap’ and have the godfather of Mafioso Rap actually co-sign!

It was a honor to do that album with G. DJ Premier introduced me to G after I told him about the Son Of G Rap concept. After meeting with G and playing him a few of my songs, he said he felt honored that I was doing the project.

So we’ve heard you have some big projects on the horizon. What can you tell us about the joint album with DITC?

I have a project with DITC fully produced by me, Buckwild, and Showbiz. It’s called 38 In The Crates. It’s coming soon!

 

While Griselda Records’ buzz has been growing for years now, the spotlight was firmly on Westside Gunn and Conway. When listeners started to take note of Benny The Butcher’s detailed reality raps, it was clear the label was more than just Hall & Nash. Benny wasn’t along for the ride, he was an equal waiting in the wings for his chance to shine. Well, in a very similar way, Benny has a couple of names to introduce, and he has established a label, BSF Records, to bring them out.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you will have noticed the name RickHyde credited as producer on a number of Benny bangers. However, until about a month ago, not many outside the BSF inner circle knew that he was just as nice on the mic. All of a sudden he announced his debut, Plates, was on the way and it wasn’t a producer comp, it was a rap album by Rick with production from others. Then a couple of weeks ago the project hit and surprised Griselda fiends and critics alike.

We at UGHH were so impressed with the LP that we immediately reached out to Rick to see if we could be his first interview. Get to know Buffalo’s latest threat below. – Jordan Commandeur

RickHyde 5

Tell us about exactly what section of Buffalo you’re from.

I’m from the Lower Eastside, the intersection of Dodge and Michigan to be exact. I mean, it’s your typical hood [laughs], drug dealing, shots fired, and wild shit you shouldn’t be exposed to as a kid. It’s gotten slightly calmer over the years but shit used to be lit.

How long having you been down with Benny?

My bro Mars actually brought me to the studio where Benny, Conway, and West used to record. That was like ’04-’05. Benny was in and out of jail back then but we still was in contact. Then, after like ’08-’09, it’s been Batman and Robin since.

You have had some big beat placements in the last few years but I don’t think anyone knew you rapped until you started promoting Plates. How long have you been producing? Rapping?

My first ever placement was in ’09 I did a joint for Benny, French Montana, and Chinx called, “Bout Money.” I had started making beats like 6 months before that. Then I got introduced to 38 Spesh in 2010 and I produced a bunch of records on an old classic called, Cocaine Cowboys. Yo, this CD was like Stabbed & Shot [but] in 2010, complete FIRE! From there I kind of peaked,working with French, Waka Flocka, Uncle Murda, and more. Currently I’m working with Conway, Skyzoo, and others. I been rapping since 7th or 8th grade. It’s just natural. But producing kind of took the floor because the shit I was coming up with was just wavy.

Who are your biggest production influences?

My production influences are first and foremost my son, Myles. Dude is a genius and he’s only 9! His soundscape is impeccable and he has the sauce [laughs]. I also fuck wit Diesel
(Daringer), Shay, Metro Boomin, and my boy Keyz is flames! He produced that Ty Dolla Sign and Jeremih record and countless other shits. Um, Tay Keith is dope, Boi1da, Mike Will, Swizzy, V Don…a bunch of niggas. It’s a bunch of us new niggas that’s wavy.

What’s your favorite piece of equipment or program?

My favorite program is probably Reason. It’s what I know, plus the stock soundcard is probably the best quality sounding shit on the market.

The passing of your mother clearly had a big effect on the music on Plates. Speak on it.

I mean, it’s self-explanatory. Your mom is your everything! I lost my mom to colon cancer. She was only 47. My mom was in her bag and this is after she damn near lost everything. My mom was probably the most diligent person ever. She was gon’ get her’s regardless and that’s where I get my fighter spirit from. Plates is an ode to the last 3-4 years with my mom. I had quit my job ‘cause it wasn’t enough. I finessed me a few jugs to keep shit rolling, not only for myself, but around the crib. It was rough ‘cause mom dukes jive broke the cancer news to us jive late. But just watching the fight she endured, I could never give up on myself or my talent.

Tell us a little about the BSF team. Other than yourself and Hottie, is there any other artists?

Um, BSF is pretty solid. Who you know is who it is. Me, Benny, City Boy, Hottie, Jake, Shay,
and next up is the youngest LoveBoat Luciano. They be trying to gang relate us and all types of other madness but we just a bunch a niggas who been making music together for 10+ years! That’s why the sound is so mature and professional. Vet producer DJ Shay did 5 beats on Plates, not to mention he seems to be the lynchpinof the Buff scene. Speak on the OG. Yeah, Shay is the big homie. He basically discovered us all at different times and places in Buffalo and brought us together as a “label.” Real shit. None of us would be at these points in our careers if it wasn’t for Shay. Gotta acknowledge that.

I’m sure it was coincidence but did you hear UK emcee Ric Branson used the same
photo as you used for the Plates cover for his recent A Few Good Men EP?

Never heard of ‘em but I Googled it. Ay man, great minds think alike, I guess. The artist that did it for me is from UK, I’ll ask him.

RickHyde Plates

Got any upcoming beat placements you can tell us about?

Of course! I’m working on something with Skyzoo, 38 Spesh, Freck Billionaire, Benny, Con, West, myself, since I’m a rapper now [laughs]. But I want everybody to tap into what I deem, “The Buffalo Sound.” Beats that come right on and HIT! Grimy, trap, boom bap, whatever, I bet that bitch HIT though.

Pharoahe Monch and Mickey Factz headlined a UGHH-powered concert at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, New York on August 12, 2017. Months later, Mickey released a collaboration between the two emcees on the deluxe edition of his Nottz-produced album, The Achievement—which features an insanely stacked lineup of other guests as well, including Royce Da 5’9″, Phonte, Styles P, Skyzoo and more. On Monday, just over a year after the UGHH show, Mickey dropped a video for his “Masterpiece” remix—on which Pharoahe replaces Blu, who rocked the original—splicing together footage from their performance with some appropriately artsy Mr. Goodevening-directed visuals shot at the Queens Museum and the Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan.

Both immaculate wordsmiths, Mickey and Pharoahe trade verses using the word “piece” (or “peace”) as a catalyst—referencing everything from guns and pendants to chicken and religion. “Peace sign to the streets that riot / The piece rise when there’s peace and quiet / The peace dies when the heat get fired,” Mickey spits on the Whitney’s outdoor terrace, standing before a statue of a rifle scope’s crosshairs by Rashid Johnson. Inspired by the iconic Public Enemy logo, the steel sculpture is titled “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” after the group’s song off their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—a fitting choice for the concept of the song and video.

Photos by Adam DelGiudice

Queens-native Pharoahe also delivers parts of his verse in front of the 1964 New York World’s Fair Unisphere at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the Queens Museum is located. The Unisphere has been featured in other classic videos like the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” and fellow Queens representatives A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour.” Incidentally, the theme of the fair—which the Unisphere was designed to symbolize—was “peace through understanding.”

After peeping “Masterpiece,” check out a UGHH exclusive promo spot for the aforementioned concert—in which Mickey, Pharoahe and I Am Many (who also performed) reflect on some of their least-favorite bars.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

Photos by Adam DelGiudice

BROWSE MICKEY & PHAROAHE PRODUCTS IN THE UGHH STORE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the wait?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have to get out of your own mindset?

Nah, I just go to that creative place.

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

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

Write for anyone else you can mention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

BROWSE PRODUCTS FEATURING KNOWLEDGE IN THE UGHH STORE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s it like touring with Kweli?

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

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

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

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

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

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

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

A common refrain I hear echoing from all directions these days is “Yo! What’s up with UGHH?!” From some angles it’s fueled by the genuine curiosity of people wanting me to share what I’m up to. The other extreme has kept me up at night—sometimes working until 3AM—out of concern.

Over the past few months, I’ve received encouraging and disparaging words via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, online reviews and even through a couple of Better Business Bureau inquiries. Many of these inquiries I’ve taken the time to answer, but I haven’t had the time to address what’s going on publicly.

In short, to keep it Internet, here is what’s up with UGHH:

So, how did we get to the point wherein I’m wading through a blaze wearing a t-shirt with the new UGHH branding and sipping an Old Fashioned out of a mug? Let’s discuss.

Failure By the Numbers

2017 started off relatively strong with us paying off a hefty amount of the six-figure debt that UGHH had previously incurred. Things looked positive as we were able to increase revenue at a steady clip. We then had the best Record Store Day that UGHH had ever seen. After that, we dipped back to pre-Record Store Day revenue levels expecting that revenue would, at least, remain flat as we ramped up other efforts for growth. So, we proceeded with our plan to invest in high-quality editorial content.

Revenue slumped considerably through Summer 2017 as the magazine ramped up. We continued to pay off old debts and then the revenue sharing portion of our acquisition deal kick in early July. In other words: more money was going out while much less was coming in.

The goal of UGHH Magazine was to invest in high-quality journalism and develop long-form, well-written stories to remind people that we are the definitive source for underground hip-hop. Those articles were also meant to drive users to the site, which we hoped would encourage record sales. Unfortunately, the investment in editorial content didn’t yield much in the way of traffic or sales. The chart below indicates that the magazine content only saw 20k visits and yielded $152 in direct sales in 2017.

Even if we zoom out and look at the editorial content through a branding lens (considering some readers may have learned of UGHH through the magazine, and then come back later to purchase) we can only attribute 249 purchases and ~$10k in revenue to that.

No matter how you slice it, we lost a lot of money on investing in editorial content.

As a digital marketer, I know that when it comes to content marketing, you need to invest in it long-term before you see results. Naively, I believed that since we had a built-in audience and longstanding brand, creating content would cut down that timeline.

I was wrong. That won’t be the last time I’ll need to admit that here.

Around the time of our content ramp up, we also augmented our approach to Paid Media. We very quickly zeroed-in on the most optimal advertising channels for UGHH. The problem? There is very little volume for direct response marketing in underground hip hop, and a brand strategy would have proven too costly until we found more solid footing. I still believe this site ultimately needs a media component to thrive, but we did not execute it effectively in 2017.

Ultimately, the year ended with little cash in the bank. Together, my partners and I decided to invest more cash to keep the business going. We decided to personally invest in UGHH because we believe in our brand and its mission.

Sales are not sustainable

Being that we are in retail, my next statement will be obvious, but it’s worth saying to give a fuller picture.

Our customers are highly reactive to sales.

As you might imagine, that’s a terrible expectation to set in a buyer/seller relationship, because there are a ton of customers that will only shop during a sale.

UGHH is a relatively low margin business which means that, irrespective of our price to you, we don’t make much profit from the sale of each product even at full price. But, I get it, I’m no different from you, I’m always searching for a deal.

In the research we did early on, it’s clear that we historically haven’t been the cheapest option because we’re not a distributor and we don’t command enough volume to get preferred pricing from distributors. So, when we run sales, it gives us a shot in the arm with regard to revenue, but then when we have to pay our vendors, partners and staff it just doesn’t add up.

While I haven’t had time to validate this hypothesis, I suspect that’s part of how the previous management got into the rut that they were in.

Running a sale also leads to a huge influx of orders. Being short on staff, this influx was something that we weren’t prepared for. As a result, UGHH’s customer experience suffered throughout the holidays and, ultimately, into 2018. To keep it short: sales need to be more strategic to be effective.

And then there were two

From a technical perspective, UGHH is held together by bubblegum and duct tape. Throughout the past year, there was a tremendous amount of resistance against updating UGHH to a more modern, improved technology stack. As I write this, UGHH is using three distinct platforms: WordPress, Shopify, and a legacy homegrown solution for the forum.

On the fulfillment side of things, there are perhaps hundreds of disparate scripts to sync a secondary database with Shopify, manage inventory and queue up product for ordering and shipping. Frankly, there is no reason that everything aside from packing can’t be automated.

Since last year, my goal has been to bring everything on to WordPress/WooCommerce so we can easily integrate everything and quickly/continuously make improvements. Unfortunately, that did not happen on the original timeline we had planned, and in mid-January (after some key departures) managing the technical components of fulfillment fell entirely on my plate.

Our E-commerce Associate and I were left to our own devices to keep things going. Big shout to him for being resilient throughout this whole process and stepping up in a variety of ways to make things happen. He is definitely the biggest personnel win that has come out of my short tenure of running UGHH.

Unfortunately, the documentation for the management of fulfillment was lacking, referenced computers or files we didn’t have access to or the processes were so convoluted that it wasn’t something that could be efficiently managed by someone without a surplus of time.

So, I did what any self-respecting web developer would do. I wrote my own shit!

It’s all still a work in progress as I have been plugging new holes and fixing bugs as we go, but I’ve simplified and automated most of what was previously done manually. Processes that once took hours now take minutes. In fact, the process of writing UGHH’s new code has been the one thing that I’ve really enjoyed throughout this tumultuous time. Once we launch our new site, there will be additional efficiency gains and we will be able to serve our customers better than ever before.

However, in the short term, these improvements came at a couple losses. At one point during the migration to WooCommerce, emails about historical and pending orders were accidentally sent to a lot of customers. Also, because there were only two of us to manage everything, and I’m split between many responsibilities on other businesses, focusing on building for the long term slowed things down.

I Failed You At Communication

We sent mass emails out to customers when there were big delays, but we did not do a decent job of answering all the email inquiries. We also didn’t establish phone support once the previous management abandoned it.

And when I say we, in this case, I mean me.

As the showrunner over here, any of our failures are ultimately my responsibility. Yes, I recognize getting behind in orders and not communicating effectively are hallmarks of a fraudulent online business. I assure you that it was never my intention for anyone’s order to get delayed. Rather, I thought that the more valuable thing for me to do with my limited time was to sit in front of the computer and bang out the code to get things working better so orders could actually get shipped.

Nevertheless, we fucked up and I apologize to any customers that were negatively affected.

In fact, as we’ve gotten caught up, our customers began to receive hand-signed notes from me because our lack of communication and delivery delays were completely unacceptable.

To that end, we’ve hired someone just to manage email responses moving forward. Every single message we’ve received is getting a response and we expect to be finished with that in the next few days. Other than that, orders are continuing to be shipped in the order in which they are received unless items are out of stock or backordered.

So Ambitious

“I’m different. I can’t base what I’m gon’ be off what everybody isn’t” -Jay Z

I approached this venture like I do anything else I do in life — with uncompromising ambition and optimism. Despite my personal high functionality and various accomplishments, I’ve never seen anything I’ve done or wanted to do as especially hard or requiring exceptional talent. The sobering reality is that not everyone is on board with or capable of making what I see so clearly into a reality.

In hindsight, I still don’t see anything that we’d set to do as being something that could not get done. However, the goals we set out to accomplish were too ambitious for the combination of people that worked on them. Also, I have been an ineffective manager and, to overcome that, I recently completed a management course and I’m continually devouring books to improve those skills. Nevertheless, the order of operations with what we did was exactly backwards.

In other words, what we’ve been working on since I’ve taken over fulfillment operations is what we should have done first. Had we done that, I’d be sharing growth charts with you rather than telling you why we’ve hit bumps in the road.

We should have focused on identifying opportunities to attain efficiencies with the e-commerce and fulfillment operations and paid off all the debt. Once everything was stabilized and we established a step function of growth then we should have been expanded into more exciting opportunities like the magazine.

I believed that we could do the opposite. Again, I was wrong.

Dancing on Quicksand

“Saw a side of myself that I never knew. I’d probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do” -Drake

I’ve watched enough Scandal and helped enough brands through crises to know I’m supposed to make this all look easy. I’m supposed to act like none of this bothers me. I’m supposed to just look at this like a bad acquisition, cut my losses and sell it to the highest bidder. I can’t, I won’t and I’m not.

As corny as it sounds, UGHH means a lot more to me than that and it’s taken a considerable toll on me, my personal relationships and my family to keep this ball in the air. It’s not just “a business,” it’s something that I feel is an extension of me and my partners and the more adult way that we express ourselves through this artform.

I’ve personally struggled through a variety of things over the past year and I don’t share that looking for sympathy. Rather, I share it to clarify that I’m just trying to do the right and most effective things across the board and have simply made costly mistakes.

The Path Forward

“That’s another difference that’s between me and them: I smarten up, open the market up” – Jay Z

The path forward is actually quite simple. We’re doing what I said we should have done previously, focusing on being the greatest underground hip hop record store possible. I still believe in growing toward the Media direction, but we need to develop the step functions that will help us get back to profitability first. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Focused Mission – Admittedly, we went into 2017 with 19 tactics that UGHH could leverage to generate more revenue. For 2018, we’re going to whittle that down to a handful of initiatives and put the weight of our resources behind those. The core of that mission is being the best online record store and the home for the underground hiphop community.
  • Improved Website – In the next day or so, we will have launched a new website on WooCommerce. Bare with us; we ask for your feedback once its launched so we can rapidly make improvements once this is live. This will position us to continually roll out features and functionality in support of our core mission.
  • Improved Fulfillment – We’ll continue to hire extra support on the fulfillment side as we grow and we’ll bring on seasonal support as we head into higher sales seasons like Record Store Day and Black Friday.
  • Improved Customer Service and Communication – This is our biggest immediate focus for improvement. We understand the need to be able to reach someone about your order and are correcting that right away.
    • Improved Phone Support – You can now reach UGHH Customer Service by phone 24 hours a day and 365 days a year at 866-311-5320. For those of you that are UGHH Premier members, your priority customer service line is 877-218-0176, also available 24/7.
    • Email Support – We now have someone solely dedicated to answering your emails. As she is working through the backlog, I’d recommend that you call one of the numbers above if you need immediate assistance.
  • Improved Customer Experience – I have no illusions about what we’re competing with for your business. I do know that we are capable of giving you a more personalized and higher quality experience then you’ll get elsewhere. We’ll iterate towards being a company that is more personalized and customer-centric. I don’t want us just to be another place that is going to send you things in a brown box. I want to be the company that is giving you a curated experience and knows who you are when you call us.
  • Focused Product Efforts – With us finally moving to a platform where we have more control over how things operate, we’ll be developing and publishing a roadmap of the improvements we’re making. The goal is to deploy new features and functionality on the site every two weeks. UGHH is becoming more of a “product” rather than just a “website.” You can expect things like an improved forum, mobile app, a streaming service in the near future — all personalized for you.

Back Like We Never Left

“Always trying to let go of anything that’ll burden me. That’s the reason you can feel the tension and the urgency” -Drake

I understand that we have undermined the trust that the previous management worked hard to establish. Some customers will never order from us again. I completely understand and I sincerely apologize for failing you as a businessman, rap fan and someone who has devoted a large part of his life to this music.

Perhaps, in the future, you’ll give us another chance.

In the meantime, were’ going to keep pushing forward to make this site and this business better than it has ever been. For anyone that still has questions, you’re welcome to email me directly (mike at ughh dot com) and we’re also hosting a livestream on the UGHH Facebook at 4:30pm on 4/20/2018 where you can ask me anything. I promise not to be too Mark Zuckerberg in my responses.

To those that have supported UGHH over the years and will continue to do so, I thank you so much for sticking with us. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to following through on everything I just said.

-Mike

This Record Store Day, UGHH has decided to celebrate a hand-picked mix of still-active underground legends with recent releases, canonized underground icons and a couple of cult favorites—creating exclusive sale bundles to salute some of the artists who have made a significant impact on the culture. In doing so, we aim to illustrate underground hip-hop’s longevity—as well as its staying power.

There has been a lot of debate about the state of the underground, recently. Some believe that, thanks to internet technology and the power it gives independent artists to reach wider fan bases, the underground has become the new mainstream—while others attest that, as long as a corporate music industry controls the majority of what does and doesn’t become successful on a mainstream level (despite some exceptions), the underground will continue to exist. Although it is clear that exactly what the underground is has evolved since the polarized “Rawkus Era” of the late ’90s, when emcees were either “independent as fuck” (to quote Company Flow’s old motto) or soulless commercial puppets (with no in-between), we at UGHH subscribe to the ideology that being dubbed underground is more than just an indication of one’s financial status or level of notoriety—and know firsthand that, musically, the underground is very much alive and healthy.

 
Speaking of Rawkus Records, considering that it’s funding was actually provided by the son of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch, maybe the financial divide between underground and mainstream hip-hop was always a little more complex than once perceived. Regardless, unlike many mainstream artists (who tend to come and go, catering to a fickle corporate music industry that’ll sign and discard talent at the drop of a mixtape), underground emcees and producers often maintain longer, more influential careers. Just ask DOOM, Pharoahe Monch or El-P, to name a few—and try to remember all the one-hit wonders with platinum singles that came and went during the 30 odd years each have been in the game.

In the words of the great DJ Premier, who recently dropped his second PRhyme project with Royce Da 5’9” and remains as influential as ever: “Underground will live forever, baby. We just like roaches: never dyin’, always livin’…”

 

“And on that note, let’s get back to the program…” — Preemo

 

This year, underground Long Island legend Roc Marciano released the sequel to his gritty, soulful masterpiece Rosebudd’s Revenge, one of “UGHH’s Top 10 of 2017”—a contender for one of 2018’s best, as well. Though RR2: The Bitter Dose is only available to pre-order, the original joins his album with former group The UN, UN or U Out, his solo debut Marcberg, his sophomore release Reloaded and his 2013 mixtape The Pimpire Strikes Back in our Roc Marci vinyl bundle.

Having released one of this year’s strongest albums to date, we felt it only right to salute versatile Detroit producer and emcee Black Milk with a bundle. The CD version contains his three most recent joints: No Poison No Paradise, If There’s a Hell Below and, his latest, FEVER—as well as his collaborative project with Danny Brown, Black and Brown! Though FEVER is not yet available on wax, the vinyl bundle includes all of the other aforementioned albums, in addition to Tronic and Album of the Year.

One of the most consistent and celebrated artists the underground has ever spawned, London-born, Long Island-raised DOOM is a cultural icon. With over a dozen albums and collaborative projects under his belt, created using various aliases, the masked super villain has not slowed his conquest for world domination—releasing his most recent collaboration with Czarface this year. In our CD bundle, Czarface Meets Metal Face is offered alongside his fraternal group KMD’s Black Bastards, his solo debut Operation: Doomsday, Madvillainy (his Madvillain collaboration with Madlib), his sophomore album under the MF DOOM moniker, Mm.. Food, and The Mouse and the Mask (by DANGERDOOM, his group with Danger Mouse). In the vinyl bundle, Mm.. Food is replaced by KMD’s first album, Mr. Hood.

What is there to say about Detroit legend J Dilla that hasn’t already been said. Considered the G.O.A.T. by many, Dilla influenced an entire generation of producers—and his signature style has been emulated time and time again. One of the most original, timeless and universally-loved artists hip-hop has to offer, Jay Dee unquestionably made his mark on the game before passing in 2006. Our CD bundle includes his early work with Slum Village (Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 1 and Fantastic, Vol. 2), Ruff Draft and his Champion Sound album with Madlib (as Jaylib)—while the vinyl version swaps Donuts for Ruff Draft, and also includes posthumous releases The Shining and The Diary.

Before his untimely death in 2015, Brooklyn representative Sean Price had already become an underground icon in his own right. One of rap’s most consistent lyricists, his tongue-in-cheek wordplay and inimitable, pocketed flow earned him the number one spot on UGHH’s Top 10 of 2017″ list for his posthumous masterpiece Imperius Rex last year. Though he established himself as half of Heltah Skeltah and a member of the Boot Camp Clik, to celebrate his memory, we’ve created a vinyl bundle of his always-stellar solo studio projects: Monkey Barz, Jesus Price Supastar, Mic Tyson, Songs in the Key of Price and Imperius Rex.

Hailing from Connecticut, Apathy is a Northeastern fan-favorite who built a rep as part of the Demigodz crew. In 2017, he released the acclaimed self-titled Perestroika, a group project with D.I.T.C.’s own O.C., and followed it up with a solo offering this year. The Widow’s Son features a ridiculous cast of collaborators including Pharoahe Monch, M.O.P. and AG, as well as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Nottz and Buckwild on production—and both albums join Weekend at the Cape, The Black Lodge, Honkey Kong, Connecticut Casual, Handshakes With Snakes and Dive Medicine: Chapter 1 in our CD bundle, while the vinyl version excludes Weekend at the Cape, The Black Lodge and Honkey Kong.

Elusive, Bronx-bred trio the Juggaknots are true artists’ artists—revered by practically every emcee that arose from New York City’s underground hip-hop scene in the late ’90s. Though the all-sibling group of Breeze Brewin, Buddy Slim and Queen Herawin only release projects every decade or so, their existing two studio albums, Breeze’s starring role on Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves and some sporadic vinyl releases have managed to uphold the group’s legacy—despite most of their projects’ limited availability. Just last year, over 20 years after its release, a reissue of their classic self-titled debut flew off of UGHH’s shelves—so we decided to secure some rare 12″ vinyl singles (“She Loves Me Not,” “New $/Sumday,” “WKRP In NYC/Generally/J-Solo” and “Berzerkowitz”), as well as the even rarer CD mixtape The Love Deluxe Movement, straight from the source and offer them as part of our exclusive Juggaknots bundle.

In anticipation of Record Store Day, UGHH is introducing a new column for all the crate diggers, producers, DJs and general music history buffs—“Dig Deep.” Each installment will focus on a different song that has been sampled or otherwise repurposed by hip-hop artists in a significant or meaningful way, exploring its legacy and cultural relevance. To set the series off, music journalist El Scribes has examined the story behind the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit”—reportedly recorded 79 years ago today, on April 20, 1939.

 
Billie Holiday’s 1939 lynching commentary “Strange Fruit” is one of the most evocative and unsettling songs in American history—and unfortunately, at a time when radicalized Tiki torch-wielding racists parade unashamed in the streets and unchecked police violence continues to ravage black communities, is still very relevant today. In fact, it has remained a somber depiction of American racism for almost 80 years, having been covered, sampled and reimagined at least 30 times by a diverse range of artists since its conception, from Nina Simone to Pete Rock to Kanye West. Although written about the actual practice of lynching, the song has almost become a metaphorical representation for the entire history of the systemic oppression of black people in America—the “blood at the root” belonging to the slaves on whose backs our nation was built and the “blood on the leaves” signifying the present-day manifestations of that disturbing legacy.

 
The story behind “Strange Fruit” actually begins in 1930, when two black men named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith allegedly killed a white man named Claude Deeter in a botched robbery. They were also accused of raping Mary Ball, Deeter’s female companion, but most historians doubt the likelihood of these claims. Regardless, without trial or conviction, Shipp and Smith were brutally beaten and lynched by an angry mob the following day—a sordid historical event loosely recounted on the song “Strange Fruit” by Missy Elliot and Skillz affiliate Danja Mowf, off his 1997 Word of Mowf album (which, of course, contains interpolations of the Billie Holiday original).

 
Lawrence Beitler, a member of the aforementioned mob, took and subsequently sold thousands of prints of an infamous photo that has since become iconic of the Jim Crow South. Incidentally, the morbid practice of documenting lynchings and redistributing the images as a form of white supremacy torture porn supposedly inspired the first line of “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” Regardless, 15 years before Dylan, this particular photo also inspired a schoolteacher from the Bronx to write what became one of the most important songs of the 20th century—arguably the first popular protest song.

Abel Meeropol first published the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” as a poem titled “Bitter Fruit” in 1936 under his writing alias Lewis Allan, Lewis and Allan being the intended names for his stillborn children. Also an amateur musician, Meeropol created accompanying music—which would later be changed for Holiday’s rendition—and renamed the piece. He and his wife, who were communists, eventually became famous for adopting the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—another prominent communist couple who had been accused of espionage and executed during the second Red Scare—after meeting the boys at W.E.B. Du Bois’ house.

 
A few years after publishing the poem and letting some other singers perform the song here and there, Meeropol met Holiday at a legendary jazz club in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the first fully integrated nightclub in the country, where she performed regularly. Ironically called Café Society, a mocking jab at the era’s equivalent to today’s trust fund socialites, the club was a haven for the open-minded—a revolutionary venue where blacks and whites could both work and play side by side. By way of the club’s owner, a man named Barney Josephson, Meeropol gave “Strange Fruit” to Holiday—and it was at Café Society that she would first perform the song for an astonished audience.

 
As is the case with most important songs, “Strange Fruit” was instantaneously controversial. So much so that Columbia, her record label, refused to put it out—forcing Holiday to take it to Commodore Records, a smaller, newer, more progressive independent label producer Milt Gabler opened out of his record store in 1938, only a year prior. After the song’s commercial release in the summer of 1939, despite little radio play and numerous bans, it received critical acclaim and sold over a million records. The song’s success even led the Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was established to investigate communist influence in the New York City public school system, to question whether or not the Communist Party had commissioned Meeropol to write it.

 
Allegedly, even Holiday initially didn’t know quite what to make of the song—but after an eerie silence that lasted a little too long for her comfort following its first Café Society performance, the crowd erupted in magnanimous applause and “Strange Fruit” soon became her signature show closer. “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” said Meeropol. “Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have.”

 
Holiday brought Meeropol’s words to life with a gruesome authenticity only a lifetime of racial discrimination could invoke. After countless renditions and derivatives, Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” remains the most poignant and bloodcurdling. It serves as both a stark reminder of our nation’s violent past and its lasting effect on our present—the ongoing dehumanization of the black population. With police brutality at the forefront of the racial debate in America, and images of state-sanctioned terrorism against black people circulating in the media like never before, “Strange Fruit” incites an all too familiar sense of injustice—even almost eight decades after its release.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Dig Deep” is UGHH’s column dedicated to exploring the history behind some of hip-hop’s most iconic samples—helping to preserve the legacies of their original creators and celebrating the ingenuity of their reuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Laughs]. You’re right. Exactly!

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

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

THE SONG WAS “SCUM,” I THINK.

Yeah, “Scum!” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DID YOU GUYS RECORD ANY MATERIAL FOR THAT?

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

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

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

ANYONE YOU CAN NAME?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

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