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.

Musically, 2017 was a great year for hip-hop. Contrary to tired arguments concerning the mumble rap phenomenon, real shit flourished this year—from both seasoned veterans and relative newcomers. In the mainstream, JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar dropped stellar albums, arguably influenced by underground aesthetics. No I.D. laced 4:44 with some soulful, dusty, chopped up sample-driven beats that theoretically sound right at home within the underground landscape, as JAY spit some of the most thoughtful and relatable bars of his career. DAMN. featured Kung Fu Kenny’s impeccable artistry, drops by the legendary DJ Kid Capri and production by underground powerhouses 9th Wonder and the Alchemist. Even Action Bronson managed to keep his major label deal without crossing over or switching up his style, releasing his sophomore Atlantic Records project Blue Chips 7000 this year, as well.

But you already know about those albums. Instead of providing yet another bloated list of expected titles (sprinkled with a couple of offbeat selections for good measure), UGHH’s year-end wrap-up features a healthy mix of the 2017’s most celebrated independent releases, some overlooked gems, as well as an under-appreciated, yet a well-publicized joint or two (’cause we’re fair like that).

Disclaimer: UGHH primarily functions as an online record store, so we only considered LPs that are available for sale on our site. If we’d considered others, we might have included Conway’s G.O.A.T. project, The Seven by Talib Kweli and Styles P, Cashmere Dice by Da Villins & DJ Skizz or any one of the many other strictly digital underground releases that dropped this year. Also, lists are subjective by nature, so take this for what it is: a suggestion of dope shit to check out, if you haven’t already. Hit the forum if you think we forgot something more deserving.

10. Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

Less dusty than his debut studio album, evolving young Joey Bada$$ still keeps it unequivocally hip-hop on his sophomore release. He also forays into overtly sociopolitical subject matter, tackling issues like police brutality and our nation’s abusive relationship with the Black community (metaphorically on the song “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)”). A couple of our other favorite tracks are “Rockabye Baby” featuring ScHoolboy Q and “Super Predator” featuring Styles P.

9. Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues

Though technically not all that underground, we still decided to include The Saga Continues on our list because we feel it deserves more credit than received in its generally mixed reviews. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a proper studio album; it’s really more of a producer project assembled by longtime Wu-affiliate Mathematics—who forged a sound somewhat reminiscent of 36 Chambers, only not as organic or raw (most likely a result of the process by which it was made). Still, the beats knock, all participating Wu members come correct and the refreshing nod to their roots should be appreciated by true Wu fans. In addition to new collaborators like the late Sean Price and Chris Rivers, longtime Wu associates grace the album, as well—including Streetlife and, most notably, Redman (who is featured on multiple songs). Some of its strongest joints are “Fast and Furious” featuring Hue Hef, “Pearl Harbor” featuring Sean Price, “G’d Up” featuring R-Mean and Mzee Jones, as well as “People Say” featuring Redman.

8. The Alchemist & Budgie – The Good Book, Vol. 2

The Good Book, Vol. 2 isn’t your typical producer album or beat tape. In fact, it’s a fusion of both, with only some of its songs featuring rappers. Furthermore, Alchemist produces one half of the project, while Budgie handles the other, resulting in a Grindhouse-like double feature made cohesive by the fact that both sides are composed using samples of religious-themed music (the double CD even comes packed in a Bible-shaped case). Alchemist rains down the fire and brimstone—providing some grimy, soulful, chopped-up, minimalist raw shit to scrunch your face to—and Budgie supplies a juxtaposing funky, R&B-driven vibe that’ll have you clapping your hands harder than the congregation. “A Thousand Birds” featuring Conway and Westside Gunn, “Message For The People” featuring Durag Dynasty, “Pray For You” featuring Royce Da 5’9” and “Looking for a Blessing” are some of Alchemist’s toughest tracks, while Budgie shines on “Ride For Me” featuring Traffic and Dreebo, “By My Side” featuring Evidence and “Bel Air Baptism.”

7. Statik Selektah – 8

Statik Selektah accomplishes the near-impossible with his eighth studio album by achieving a perfectly balanced polished, yet gritty sound. He also bridges gaps, featuring a diverse mix of emcees representing different schools of hip-hop—from legendary to emerging and underground to mainstream—all over his signature jazzy, boom bap production. The LP’s standout cuts include “Put Jewels On It” featuring Run The Jewels, “But You Don’t Hear Me Tho” featuring The Lox and Mtume, “No. 8” featuring Conway, Westside Gunn and Termanology, “Go Gettas” featuring Sean Price, Wais P and Tek, “Nobody Move” featuring Raekwon and Royce Da 5’9″ and “Disrespekt” featuring Prodigy (who we tragically lost this year).

6. Milano Constantine – The Way We Were

Perhaps one of 2017’s more slept-on bangers, this is one of those rare albums you can listen to over and over again without having to skip a single song. From start to finish, DJ Skizz and Marco Polo lay down a boom bap soundtrack that’ll make you nod your head so hard you’ll need a neck brace—on which the D.I.T.C.-affiliated “Barbaric” MC evokes Golden Era New York rap, reminiscing on “The Way We Were,” but without feeling tiresome or gimmicky. This is that shit to reverse gentrification. Our favorite joints include “British Walkers,” “Cocaina” and “Rasclat” featuring Big Twins and Conway.

5. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

Some might argue that its Grammy nomination should automatically exclude Laila’s Wisdom from our list, but considering the extensive dues Rapsody has paid in the underground (and the overall quality of her work), we felt it not only appropriate, but necessary to include this album. Featuring production from underground staples and longtime collaborators 9th Wonder, Nottz and Khrysis, the LP is a soulful sonic masterpiece—and, as always, the Jamla artist delivers pensive, poignant, razor-sharp rhymes in her distinguishable Southern drawl. She really goes in on songs like “Chrome (Like Ooh),” “Black & Ugly” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, “You Should Know” featuring Busta Rhymes, “OooWee” featuring Anderson .Paak and “Nobody” featuring Anderson .Paak, Black Thought and Moonchild, as well as the album’s title track.

4. Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge

When Roc Marciano emphatically states, “Motherfucker, this is art,” he isn’t lying. One of hip-hop’s most imaginatively twisted minds, Marciano vividly depicts familiar, grimy, street visuals in an entirely original style. On Rosebudd’s Revenge, the MC pimp-struts the line between insanity and genius over bare-boned, largely self-produced beats that effectively showcase his laid-back, monotone flow. Though often pegged as a storyteller, he doesn’t simply tell tales. Instead, Marci himself is the story. “History,” “Better Know,” “Gunsense,” “Marksmen” featuring Ka, “Pimp Arrest” and “Here I Am” are among the album’s most memorable tracks.

3. Meyhem Lauren & DJ Muggs – Gems From The Equinox

On Gems From The Equinox, DJ Muggs varies between minimalist and boom bap production techniques, driven by heavily altered and distorted samples that range from soulful and funky to ominous and menacing—a style that pairs nicely with Meyhem Lauren’s baritone vocal timbre. Slightly experimental and almost psychedelic, the combination of vibes results in an overall trippy listening experience that manages to sound both classic and visionary at the same time. Some of the LP’s defining cuts include “Camel Crush,” “Hashashin” featuring Conway, “Aquatic Violence” featuring Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire and Sean Price, “Redrum” and “Tension” featuring Action Bronson and Muggs’ Cypress Hill group-mate B-Real.

2. Planet Asia & Apollo Brown – Anchovies

Planet Asia and Apollo Brown are both in rare form on their beautiful collaborative effort. An immaculate blend of streetwise raps and stripped-down production, Brown shows just how much can be done with sampling alone—composing a symphonic experience void of added drums, relying solely on the source material for percussion. The result compliments Asia’s poetically aggressive lyrics and stream-of-consciousness style, helping his vocals shine. Another strong showing for the minimalist movement, Anchovies’ bars and beats are in perfect harmony. “Panties in a Jumble,” “The Aura,” “Dalai Lama Slang” featuring Willie the Kid, “Deep in the Casket,” “Fire” featuring Tristate and “Nine Steamin’” featuring Guilty Simpson are a few of our favorite tracks.

1. Sean Price – Imperius Rex

Despite having passed two years ago, Sean Price proved to be hip-hop’s MVP in 2017. Besides appearing on a few of this list’s entries (as well as a couple of the year’s other prominent releases), he also dropped one of 2017’s best albums, hands down. P’s posthumous masterpiece Imperius Rex sounds as deliberate and thought-out as any of his traditional studio releases, and features some of his most exciting work to date. On “Clans & Cliks,” two of hip-hop’s most respected super groups—Wu-Tang Clan and Boot Camp Clik—form an alliance that would extend to other 2017 releases by P’s Heltah Skeltah group-mate Rock (Rockness A.P.) and Wu-Tang’s Masta Killa (Loyalty is Royalty), as well as Wu’s aforementioned project (The Saga Continues). Imperius Rex also pairs Ruck with other legends like Prodigy and Styles P on “The 3 Lyrical Ps,” as well as DOOM on “Negus.” Of course, his Boot Camp brethren and a few other longtime associates are featured, as well—while Alchemist, Nottz, Harry Fraud and Marco Polo are among those who bless it with hard-hitting boom bap beats. Regardless, P spits some of his most memorable bars on solo offerings like “Definition of God,” “Rap Professor,” “Refrigerator P!” and the title track. Imperius Rex is full of straight bangers, back to back, from one of the underground’s most prolific artists—earning it the number one spot on our list. riP!

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

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