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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost Town Lounge NOLA
“Ghost Town Lounge”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hot Boys, Cash Money

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

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

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

Truth Universal
Truth Universal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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Wins & Losses: The Life & Times Of Pharoahe Monch

Jerry Barrow digs deep into the history of Pharoahe Monch and how he evolved into the legend that he is today.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

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

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

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

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

Do you remember your audition for the school?

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

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

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

How did you know this?

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

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

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

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

So what happened over that next year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Releasing Hypnotical Gases” was definitely experimental.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about now? What’s next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diplomats Volume 2 cover

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myself, Max B and Carol at Club Speed in 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sex Addiction, Reinvention, and the Long Road To Fame

Nicole Cormier talks to underground legend Tonedeff about his extensively complex career, battles with sex addiction and crafting what he calls "Etsy Rap."

Being underappreciated commercially arguably leads to being celebrated within the world of underground hip-hop. At the same time, earning accolades from purist acolytes—like being namechecked as one of the top five MCs or having your name thrown around during conversations of the greatest of all time—doesn’t exactly translate to tangible success. It’s hard to pay the bills on props alone. But one enviable boost that comes from being unheralded in the mainstream rap game is the ability to assume complete creative control. To that end, the singer, MC, entrepreneur, and producer known as Tonedeff has taken his vision and constructed a whole new artistic level.

A true one-man band, Tonedeff has manifested and cultivated all aspects of his music. This encompasses production, design, writing, engineering, marketing, and distribution. Since the ‘90s, he’s been challenging not only himself, but his fellow MCs to push further artistically. Over the course of his lengthy career, he’s dropped two full solo albums as Tonedeff—2005’s Archetype and 2016’s Polymer—as well as several EPs and collaborative projects. As a singer/songwriter he’s also released music under the name Peter Anthony Red. Tone also served as the label head for two imprints, QN5 and Quintic, where beyond merely developing artists, he’s created active communities—particularly with the former, which at one point had a very active forum of dedicated fans.

To fully understand why Tonedeff is a hero in a game full of villains, take a look at his craft and the music he’s made.

A Fresh Take

When the 2001 project Hyphen dropped, Tonedeff was only 25. Full of vigor, he was fresh, confident, and ready to put his own mark on what was already being done; moving it forward a few steps. Fully entrenched in the battle rap mind state at the time, he was a New Yorker, ready to take over. “I was trying to be competitive and be cool, and honestly rule the world,” he recalls. “I really thought in my mind that I was gonna be a big deal.”

Although the project was limited in distribution, several of the tracks still serve as milestones in his career, including “Competition Is None” and “Move In/Ride Out.” Other songs, meanwhile, like the obnoxiously catchy “Spanish Song” showed his sense of humor as he broke down his own language barriers while experimental cuts such as “Fast” blurred the lines between hip-hop and electronic music.

Dripping with ego, his early verses showcased a competitive instinct that had him exploring a variety of styles, which was mostly unheard of at the time. “‘Move In/Ride Out’ was probably the first bounce style, chopper track I did,” he says of the track that birthed his first music video. Tonedeff managed to make the tune truly stand out, sounding unlike any other track at the time—mixing in his vocals and unusual inflections with a striking sense of humor.

“I hear a lot of hope and a lot of cockiness very early on,” he muses. “At the end of the day, I hear it a lot from rappers coming up, how you’re supposed to be cocky. But when I hear my shit, I’m like, ‘Just you fucking wait, buddy! Life’s coming for you real fast.’”

“I think my mindset when I was writing the early stuff was seeing what was out there, trying to be competitive,” Tonedeff explains. “My competitive nature drove me to: ‘Oh, you’re doing that? I’m gonna do it times ten’ and ‘Oh, you’re rapping fast? Well, I’m gonna be the fastest fucking rapper on the planet’ to ‘Oh, you’re doing punchlines? I’m gonna have punchlines upon punchlines, all the way’ to ‘Oh, you do rhyme schemes? I’m gonna rhyme every syllable in this sentence with the next sentence and the 52 subsequent sentences.’”

Now that he’s outgrown that era, it’s easier for Tonedeff to look back and reflect. “It was OCD and fucking insecurity that bred that level of competitive nature,” he declares.

It was also during this time that he spits his often-jocked verse on Cunninlynguists’ “616 Rewind.” As he remembers it, “I really started playing with the triplets a lot, and nobody was doing that shit anymore,” he points out. “When I figured out that I was the only one in that space doing that, I went full tilt with it and developed the fuck out of it.”

“Velocity,” a feature on Substantial’s Substantial Evidence, really punctuated Tone’s fast rap intensity, literally setting the stop watch for the style to become a subgenre of its own.

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But he had to start somewhere, and his early music still rocks just as hard now as it did then and it serves as the foundation Tone still builds upon today.

Building the Archetype

When you hear Tonedeff spit, it’s his pointed and articulate lyrics and effortless cadence—both normal and double time—that catches the most ears initially. When you sit down and actually listen, though, you see that he did something that no one had done before, especially not in rap. He’s been pushing the envelope of what a rapper is since the beginning of his career, and with his debut studio album Archetype, he showed what unapologetic male emotion sounds like.

From lust to longing to understanding, Tonedeff highlights all of the human feeling that we try to hide, especially in our youth. His prophetic wisdom is on full display as he waxes about the music industry and humanity itself. In “Porcelain”—one of the few tracks he says he can still comfortably listen to today—he tosses his ego aside and tells the tale of unrequited love that we’ve all lived at least once in our adolescence. “Masochist,” meanwhile, speaks to the ugly sadism that an artist accepts when giving his all to his craft. “Politics” tackles the music industry with the kind of foretelling insight that has only revealed itself as spot on as the track and industry aged.

Although easy to brush off as a novelty tune, “Pervert” is an aggressive stab at crass humor and it’s served as even more than that. While it’s gross and silly, it also oozes with self-awareness, and in turn, he’s created a pronounced camaraderie with the troves of sex-starved fans who maybe thought they were weird for feeling that way. Of course, as listeners later find out, the lines in that song reveal an addiction that shaped his life.

“In terms of sex addiction, if I had access to the Fort Knox vault of pussy—in terms of the ones they lock away, the ones you can’t get to, aka the supermodels, the singers, the Hollywood starlets—if I had access to that, I mean Jesus Christ, I don’t know if I’d still be alive,” he allows. “So maybe there’s a self-preservation aspect to this fear of mass appeal that I have. Who knows. Even on an underground level, it’s pretty harrowing. I don’t know if I want that. I mean, I do! I’d love that, but I’d love it too much, I think.”

In Between Times

Tone has taken a long time between creating his two full-length projects, yet he didn’t take any time off. In fact, if anything, he broke new ground. “I had a real breakthrough on my writing around ’08 to ’09,” he notes. “Up until that point, I was really playing the game. Everybody was on the punchline wave, and I felt like I mastered that stuff. I was kind of bored after a while.”

“I got into this truth kick,” he adds. “All the stuff I was listening to, singer-songwriter wise, pointed me in that direction.” This is around the time he started writing for the infamous Chico and The Man project and his other collaborations with Cunninlynguists, including “The Distance,” which appeared on their album Strange Journey Volume One.

“I really started to dig into my own psyche,” he says. “I really enjoyed it, and it was way more challenging than talking about how big my dick was in comparison to the Eiffel Tower. I really wanted to say something that only I could say and talk about experiences that only I’ve had—which, in my opinion, makes it the most unique work.”

When Self-Examination Meets Maturity

His second album was initially released as four individual EPs (Glutton, Demon, Hunter, and Phantom). Each was an expression a different part of his personality and each had a distinct sound. The EPs dropped before the release of the opus, Polymer in 2016. Polymer approached things completely differently, not just musically but also with the packaging. The themes in Polymer revisited many of the premises touched in Archetype, but with new insight and with the kind of self-awareness that is rare in hip-hop.

“These are my definitive works,” he asserts. “I can take any song on that album  and feel proud that I pushed myself into a new space. It was super challenging and I love it. The best stuff and the masterpieces come from unique places—from the void, out of nowhere—and it hits people like a ton of bricks. Because they were looking one direction for ten years and then something comes and smacks them from the direction they weren’t even looking in.”

Although the psychological exploration Polymer takes had the potential to break him down, instead, the creation and expression helped him work through some of the baggage he’d been carrying around with him. “A song like, ‘More Like You’ is something that I’ve literally carried with me since childhood,” Tone explains, pointing to the relationship he had with his father. “Working through a lot of the aggression issues and the self-esteem issues and things I’ve carried with me my whole life was something I didn’t even want to approach.

“I was dealing with all these other demons and showing all these other scars,” he goes on, “so being able to record that song and even being able to just write it, helped me categorize and organize all these thoughts.”

Tracks like “Glutton” and “Filthy” examine his unhealthy relationship with sex, while “Demon” addresses his battle with anxiety. But some of that unexpected healing came with finally letting go of the egotistical characteristics of a musician. “‘Competitive Nature’ is another one where I felt relief after writing it because I’d been carrying a lot of that shit,” recalls. “Being an MC or a super rapper, you’re supposed to be infallible. You’ve got it all figured out, and the reality is, nobody does.

“Being real in hip-hop is not very common,” he adds. “I wanted to write that out and talk about how that shit leads to more misery and more insecurity and you’re not really being real unless you can let that shit go. It was nice to talk about those feelings of insecurity, watching the Grammys and wishing I was there. These are real fucking things I dealt with in the music, and now I’m ready to move past it.”

Although he says chronicling these darker parts of his personality has served as a healing journey, he knows the potential to revisit these vices is always just around the corner.

“It’s a really dangerous, volatile game,” he says of making the album. “To have to put yourself in those spaces, you could easily relapse and go down the well again. To me, it would be phony if I wasn’t there, in those moments. It’s only in that moment, when I was that low that I could write something that real. And now I get to listen back to it and marvel at it and laugh at it and pick it apart from higher ground. I’m stable now and can see it for what it is and put it into a box and say, ‘Ha ha, that was me! I made it motherfucker!’”

Beyond serving as an emotional depository, Polymer is also an incredibly beautiful album. “Phantom” and “Control” both showcase the strides Tonedeff has made as a singer and they push the boundaries of antiquated idea of genre. But that’s kind of what he’s always done—and not just with his music.

Creating A Universe

What Tonedeff has achieved in music has continued to raise bars. When he broke into the music on a more official level, though, he also built an empire along with it. QN5, a label that’s been home to a plethora of other strong, independent acts like Cunninlynguists, Substantial, PackFM, and the indie supergroup Extended Famm was created from the ground up. Tone has helped plenty of other artists build their careers with his production and support.

“Production is what I love to do, first and foremost,” he reveals. “Maybe that’s something people don’t know about me; I’m first and foremost a producer, and I always have been. And the rapping thing was something secondary. I enjoy it, but I get way more enjoyment out of making and creating the music than I do out of writing.”

In 2012, while working as Peter Anthony Red and hanging up the MC title momentarily, he built another label, Quintic. Still in its infancy, however, his new label doesn’t fit neatly into a box. “It’s not hip hop,” he stresses. “It’s whatever the fuck I want it to be.” So far, Quintic’s roster boasts a Danish singer-songwriter named Fjer and a sharp-tongued lyricist named Lucy Camp. Discussing this subsequent community, Tone reflects on some of the moves he made in the past, moves that although not widely acknowledged, broke new ground.

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When promotion for the never released (and widely anticipated) Chico and The Man album with Kno of Cunninlynguists arrived in 2011, Tone embarked on the single most impressive, engaging form of (pre-viral) marketing that the internet had ever seen. An intensive, multi-site scavenger hunt emerged on the active forums of QN5.com sending information hungry fans all over the web decoding secret messages, translating Greek and cracking passwords to find out more.

Long before this hunt, Tone had already created a following that was so passionate that fans answer to their own name—two, in fact: Blue Schoolers or Auralarians. Like the one who named them, the fans are intelligent. They dissect every verse, drawing parallels to his other work, and they are always hungry to learn more. This was fostered on the well-done web universe of the QN5 website, which created a sounding board and socialization space in the highly populated forums.

As another example of his instinctual marketing prowess and progressive approach, Tonedeff created one of the first label-based podcasts, WQN5, which tapped into his ability to connect and understand people. Eventually he teamed up with PackFM to create another weekly podcast called “Tacos and Chocolate Milk.” That broadcast showcases the fun and feisty personalities of the friends and labelmates. Beyond these endeavors, Tonedeff also created a cartoon character Squijee, who was equal parts cute and vulgar.

A True Rap Artisan

Tonedeff’s latest innovation will come in the form of a documentary called Polyoptics, which chronicles Polymer. Set to be sent out alongside the physical pre-orders of the album, the film proved to be something of a major undertaking. “I’m not sure people understand what I did here,” he says. “I have not leaked any of it because I don’t want anybody to see it until it’s out. It’s been a lot of work. Jesus Christ, it’s been BRUTAL! All caps.”

He’s in the finishing stages and hopes to have it finished and shipped by the end of the Summer, but since he’s doing all the work himself it’s taking some time. Beyond the full length documentary, the pre-orders will also include other goodies like an art book and who knows what else.

“There’s so much extra shit included, and it’s just me doing it all,” he says. “This is as artisanal as it gets. Truly as artisanal as hip-hop music can ever be. One dude crafting this entire universe in all these different mediums, hand delivered to them by that dude who made it. This is Etsy Rap. I might as well make some Polymer doilies while I’m at it.”

A Gift or a Curse

As a multi-talented hero in a game filled with placid clones, you can understand how not getting his due could be extremely frustrating, especially for a perfectionist like Tone. But as they say, some things happen for a reason. Fame isn’t often kind to the mind of an artist, as he notes.

“There’s an inherent fear that I have of mass appeal, because I know what comes with it,” he concludes. “I’ve experienced fame in a very limited level, and I’ve had moments where the spotlight was on me for a day or a week and it was nice. The way that people react to fame literally disgusts me. It’s revolting to me. On that front, my anxiety would be through the roof because I’d never trust anyone’s motives.”

In a perfect world, the art would be all that matters.

“Imagine if there were artists that were literally doing ideas that they thought were cool and they didn’t have to worry about charting or Spotify,” he poses, before concluding, “Sure, it’s utopian, but it’s really about getting competitive about the audience. And so you’re catering your work to what you think people will like and that completely defeats the purpose of art.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARE YOU STARING AT MY TITLES?

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

The Album Cover Art:

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

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

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

The Skits:

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

“What Would I Do” produced by Mr. Len

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

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

“God’s Gift” produced by Masta Ace

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

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

Block Party” produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lovesong” produced by Da Beatminerz

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

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

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

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

“Get It” produced by Jean Grae/ Nasain Nahmeen  

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

“Knock” produced by Mr. Len

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

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

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

“Live 4 U” produced by Ev Price

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

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

“Fadeout” Produced by Koichiro

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

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

EPILOGUE

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

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

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

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Catalog Shuffle: Blueprint

In this edition of Catalog Shuffle, Sean Kantrowitz travels through time with the renowned Blueprint with stories on his groundbreaking catalog.

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

Blueprint “Untitled” (Sign Language, 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

Blueprint “Kill Me First” [1988, 2005]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Melody (Chamber Music, 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blueprint “Anything is Possible” (1988, 2005)

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

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

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David Banner’s Black Fist Is Still Up (And He Wants You To Step Into “The God Box”)

David Banner proves that pivots are necessary in hip-hop. He talks with UGHH about being self-made and where he plans to go.

David Banner’s journey in music is like a boomerang; first thrown in the mid-‘90s. Forming the down home Mississippi duo Crooked Lettaz (with Kamikaze) at around that time, he gave footing to the argument that The ‘Sip had something to say. When Grey Skies came out, it changed everything.

Hits like “Get Crunk” and “Firewater” were underground classics and propelled a young David Banner to temporary fame. It was a window of time pushing him to make a decision about where his career was heading; and from there he chose to ink a deal with Universal Records after perhaps the biggest song of his career, “Like A Pimp” (with Lil’ Flip), blew up.

Years later (and after more mainstream success), Banner continued to find himself through life and his music. He was underground, went mainstream, and then began easing himself back into what he had started. It’s not that he ever lost his message, but it never seemed like he was in the right space. During a recent interview with UGHH, the Jackson (or Jack-Town as they call it in the South), Mississippi native explained why now everything is coming full circle for him.

Recently releasing his latest seventh solo studio album The God Box, David Banner ended his seven-year hiatus from music with some really “Jammin’” tunes. The LP incorporates the easy-listening, 808-based splendor he’s commercially known for and the conscious lyrical messaging his more contemporary image holds. It’s like preaching the gospel over a live band with the boomerang returning right on time.

It’s been a while since you’ve put out an LP. What’s it like just putting out music again and getting that feeling that you’re going to be presenting something to the public that they’re going to consume?

Psychologically it’s crazy because there’s good and bad aspects of it. When you put out an album, there’s this fever for people to want to be around you or your phone to start ringing again. You can’t walk through the grocery story without being stopped a million times—which I’ve been homeless before, so that’s a good problem to have—but [there’s] so much information and so many people calling and texting.

I’m a more zen-like, peaceful person now, and I’m finding that true success is about centering yourself and centering your spirit. When you have an album out it’s not an easy thing to do. Like I said, I came out to the wilderness to do this interview. What rappers do that?

I’ve talked about this before; I so wanted to tell Dave Chappelle he wasn’t the only one that wanted to go to Africa. I just couldn’t afford it at the time [laughs].

[Laughs].

I just ran to Baltimore. That’s all my frequent flyer miles could take me to [laughs]. What I’m saying though is that it’s awesome. This is the first time in my career that I’m starting to hear the talk I want to hear. I’m finally starting to hear “classic album” talk. I’m starting to hear people respect me for my lyrical depth. As many hit records I’ve produced—from Lil Wayne to Chris Brown to Maroon 5 to Quincy Jones—I’m finally getting respect for my production even from all the stuff that I’ve done.

You mentioned being able to do more of what you want on this album. How did you decide what you wanted to present fans on this LP?

Ummm. It’s funny, man, and I don’t really have a deep answer for it. I just write about how I am mentally. I’m a different person now. I’m sober now, I’m not high, so I think my thought process is more clear. I’m a little bit more focused. I’m able to reach places through meditation that I could only get to by smoking weed or being drunk or some shit. I just talk about where I am. I have a deep vested interest in the salvation of melanated people of this world, the safety of melanated people of this world. The treatment of African people is similar all over this fucking Earth, and why is that? Nobody seems to care. The fact that I can make jammin’ music that people can dance to, study to.

I think one of the underrated elements of the album is that it’s very Mississippi, and it gets that way heavy on “My Uzi.” You feature Big K.R.I.T. and he’s someone—at least in interviews I’ve done—who’s point to you as someone that’s been a big influence on him. Explain that bond and where that came from.

Well the thing is, I learn from K.R.I.T., also. K.R.I.T. is a special being. He’s a special person—and to be honest with you, if I could’ve created in a lab the next person to come after me, I don’t think I could’ve created a Big K.R.I.T. I couldn’t have hoped for a better person. Just his spirit and how much he loves the culture. I haven’t met too many people who real life love the culture as much as he does. When K.R.I.T. hears wack shit he gets mad. I be like dawg, calm down. It’s a song, bruh. He real life gets mad. He be like, “Big bruh, you see what they doing to the music?” [I’m like] “It’s alright man, chill out bro.”

The thing I like about K.R.I.T. is there’s an underlining competition between me and him, but it’s not an emasculating competition. It’s not I want to embarrass him or I want to see him harm or hurt his feelings. It’s like it’s two alpha males who really care and are really emotional about this form of music. He makes me better and I hope I make him better.

I was supposed to be the only person on “My Uzi.” I told K.R.I.T. I wanted him to jump on the album and see what he liked and as soon as he heard Pimp C’s voice he was like, “That one.”

Of course [laughs].

When I wrote the first verse, I didn’t write it from a competition standpoint or nothing like that because I don’t compete against other Black people anymore. It was more like a story-type of thing, and then when K.R.I.T. jumped on there and did what he did I was like, “Hell nah. I’m not going to get nobody else get me on this track.” I got on the third verse and stepped it up. I didn’t write it from the perspective of somebody else being there, so the song had another feel. If you end up listening to the record, the music rise, the track rise and keeps going and then just when you think the song is over, we took you to Never Never Land.

I also want to tell people that at the end of “My Uzi,” that’s not a sample. John Dempsey, who scored Passion of the Christ [and all of the Ironman movies], that’s an actual, original composition he made and composed for me. That’s not a sample. I paid for that.

Also in the Mississippi realm you have Tito Lopez on “Black Fist.” He’s always been another guy who does conscious-based hip-hop and is super appropriate for this track. How does he fit in and also, how does this track and even album fit into today’s political climate, or at least how you see it?

One of the things I truly believe is that Tito Lopez is one of the greatest lyricists in hip-hop. Period. I will put Tito line-for-line against any rapper on this earth. For me to be able to help him bring his perspective to the world is something that I’m honored to do. Tito’s outlook on the world in so many cases matches how I see it.

I think when you have two people on the track who are coming from different perspectives, but believe in the same thing, it helps to bring a certain level of synergy. He’s able to bring one perspective and bring people to the table; I bring people to the table and we talk about the matter at hand.

Actually, I think Tito had the dopest line I ever heard and definitely one of my favorite lines on the album. He said—and I’ve never really thought about it—he said, “We have to play where they lynched us.” If you think about when Black people would get killed or the [Ku Klux Klan] would come for their family—white people never did it in their neighborhoods. They would always go to the Black community.

Imagine if your uncle got hung from a tree and his kids got to go play in they yard the next day or there was a burning cross outside. Think about the psychological ramification of having to play in the same places, in the same woods, the same yard that your people were killed or raped or murdered. That is a constant reminder of how America feels about you. Tito Lopez was able to say that and encapsulate that in one line. I think it was epic.

Yeah, he’s one of those guys. Do you feel though that emcees are more pressured to rap consciously today due to the increasing amount of stories coming out about police brutality, our president and racism in general?

I don’t really know because the three artists you’re talking about now, that’s all they know and all they have been. It’s a way of life for us. We don’t know the pressures that rappers who don’t historically speak about those types of issues [face] because we’ve always talked about it.

If you go back to my first album, I talked about [George] Bush. Actually, with the exception of my second album, most of my albums have always been spiritual, more than anything. So I don’t know the pressures than they have, but I do think our people are waking up.

I think America’s waking up in general and that’s what I was telling people. I thought [that was] the positive aspect of [Donald] Trump. [It’s] that Trump is ripping the veil off of America’s face and showing America what everybody’s already known—maybe besides a whole section of white people—where America stands as it pertains to race relations and the value of life outside of white people. You’re better able to deal with social issues and speak the truth when you really put it on the table. I think with Trump’s presidency, it was thrown in everybody’s face. Black people were basically like, “This is what we’ve been telling y’all since we came over here.”

You literally just went into my next question, bringing up Trump and the comments you made right after he was elected. I was going to ask if you regret that, but it sounds like you’re still behind that, and I understand why. It reveals what certain white people think…

That’s historically what [white] people have been thinking the whole time is the thing I think we don’t put together. Then you’ve got to understand that they were taught that behavior from somewhere. For them to feel bold enough to say it means in a lot of cases those parents also echo those same emotions.

Not to make a lot of this about K.R.I.T. but he said something like that to me once. He said, in Mississippi, you know when white people don’t like you by making it clearly known. Is that true in your experiences growing up there as well?

I do see a difference. I always tell people that white people in Mississippi are the greatest white people on the earth and people ask me why and I tell them, “If a white person likes you in Mississippi, they will die for you. If they don’t like you, they’ll try to kill you; but at least you’ll know where you are.”

Do you think things are playing out like you thought they would since making that statement in November?

Of course. And now people are seeing what I’m saying. A lot of people thought I was crazy and now people are saying, “You were right, Banner.” No matter what somebody does, it is still our responsibility to react in the proper way. We can get all the signs in the world, but if we don’t stand for ourselves it’s going to historically stay the same way.

I wanna take you back for a moment because I’m a big Crooked Lettaz fan and I love Grey Skies. “Get Crunk” is a classic, and I’d love to know about how you and Kamikaze came together with Pimp C for it and your opinion of his legacy.

The thing is, at the time we did “Get Crunk,” Pimp was and will always remain a folk hero to our people. Pimp C is bigger than rap to me. When I first did “Get Crunk,” it was amazing even being around someone we looked up to—that talked like we talk and went through the same experiences and were interested in the same things.

After “Like A Pimp” came out, I started writing him in jail and we became friends, all the way up until his death. Just to have that man in my life… I am proud of myself, but no matter how big I get, I’m still a fan. Snoop is my friend, but I’m still a fan. Scarface is a mentor; I’m still a fan. Pimp C was a close friend, still a fan. I’m just honored to be able to know them. I’m so happy that I was able to find a way to get him or get his voice on this album.

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Rising In The West: An Oral History Of Freestyle Fellowship’s Rightful Place In The Sun

Amanda Mester explores the long history of Freestyle Fellowship, told through the memories of Myka 9, Self Jupiter, Murs, Nocando, and journalist Jeff Weiss.

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

Photo Credit: @FreestyleFellowship

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

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

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

We Are the Freestyle Fellowship…

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

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

The Fellowship Shop is from the West Coast…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can You Find the Level of Difficulty in This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innercity Griots

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

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

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

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

Respect Due…

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

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

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

The Future?

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

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

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

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

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The PROBLEM With Second Chances

Problem's endured enough problems in the game, but the stars are finally aligning. UGHH chops it up with this artist on the rise.

Rapper Problem has been a relevant name on the West Coast music scene for nearly a decade, yet if there’s one thing he’s learned from the tutelage of Snoop Dogg, it’s that the game comes in waves.  

Every time it appeared that he was geared to reach the proverbial next level, fate would rear its ugly head and bring Problem back to square one. How in the world did Chris Brown and Rihanna’s fight stop his money? You’d be surprised. But with conflict comes clarity, and the Compton native has consistently leveled up with each setback.

With a solid team and a new perspective, Problem hit the reset button in 2016. Starting from the ground up, he began rebuilding the bricks he’d haphazardly laid during the initial height of his visibility from 2011 through 2014; but of course it’s not a simple feat. You wouldn’t know that from watching him, though.

While many artists aren’t even able to get one successful run, Problem’s already knee-deep in his second coming, and UGHH had to know how he did it. We caught up with him recently at his L.A. studio and discussed his new mindset, the choice to remain independent, attending “rap college,” and much more.

You initially signed a deal in 2009, but it didn’t work out. How did that even come about?

I was writing for Snoop at the time, who I’d met through Terrace Martin. He and I knew each other from just being in the streets and the whole LA music scene. Everybody that’s kind of lit right now, we kind of all just had some type of story where they either stayed with somebody or was all in the same spot. But I met Terrace when I just randomly fell into this traphouse we was working in. We had an MPC in there and he just came in one day and just fucked with it. We’ve been linked ever since. At the time, he was getting into the Snoop shit real cool. Snoop needed writers because when he released Ego Trippin in ‘07/‘08, he was moving a whole lot and that was his way of putting new people on. So I wrote a song about his life, and they brought me on staff. After that, my thing was, “Shit, if I’m running around with all these people and I’m around everybody in the industry the way they coming through here…if I can’t work something out of this, then I ain’t hustling.” So my whole thing was like, let me get something going. I remember one night after a session in Atlanta, I played the song “I’m Fucked Up” and Snoop was like, “When we get back, put it out.” I got back and put it out, and about three months later, it’s tearing up the streets out here. Universal reached out and offered the most money for a single deal, so we took it. But it was just a two-single deal.

So once you fulfilled that, you left?

Yep, I was done after that. This is crazy as fuck, actually. So the first single, the radio version of it was called “I’m Toe Up.” Dolla, may he rest in peace, at the time he had a record called “I’m To’ Up.” So, it was a conflict there. Then my second record was called “Whatever You Like.” A week later, T.I. dropped “Whatever You Like.” The label was like, “If you get it to 35 spins, we’ll light it up.” I get that bitch going, and then Tip’s record dropped and it was a wrap. He was the biggest thing in the game, you know?

So the label couldn’t get behind that, huh?

At the time, the Internet wasn’t a way they measured anything. They really just checked BDS. They weren’t able to just type something in and see how lit I had the city. It was more like, it’s not reading good on BDS so it’s not happening. It was more that type of shit. My label was in New York; I was on Universal Republic. They’re not out here, you know? That’s how it went; but like, I learned the system. So I started doing a few other things and me and my homies got together and was like fuck it, let’s just try it ourselves! That’s when I created my label, Diamond Lane.

That’s a lot to deal with at one time. Did you ever start doubting yourself and start thinking maybe another direction would be better for you?

I didn’t get discouraged then because at the time, it was a bunch of different things. I was really doing well with writing for other artists at the same time. After the Snoop Dogg relationship, I got a gig to write for Puff, and then I wrote for Chris Brown. He had an artist called Lil Scooter. Scooter was his backup dancer; 14-years-old. Nigga was supposed to be the next thing out here. I wrote on this song for him that featured Chris and was produced by Polow Da Don—who at the time was the biggest thing going! They were setting up Scooter to be the one: Disney Channel show, reality shit, all of that. They dropped the record…and the Chris and Rihanna incident happens four days later.

What is your luck?!

That’s what was going on, so it got to the point where I can’t depend on nobody else. We gotta put the dream in our hands. My boy Bird, he got the vision on shit like that. So he came with the plan, and my job was to handle the music. He handled the business, and that’s when Diamond Lane got going.

So now y’all get in the groove, and you get a great look in 2012 on E-40’s “Function.” Then the following year you had another hit with “Like Whaaat,” and another in 2014 with Rich Homie Quan’s “Walk Through.” That’s a pretty consistent string. How are you feeling at this time?

I felt like I had the city on lock! It was buttoned up! We didn’t even want to get no deal; we was doing it ourselves. We turned down a lot of money, and a lot of that was because they would want ownership and they would want to control my production or control this or that. But, our thing was like, what we did got y’all this money. Why would you want to come in trying to restructure? Again, it’s not a time like right now where they’ll just come in with the money and let you do what you do. Nah, they wanted to come in and try to control the whole play. It’s about owning your shit and being able to put your shit out when you want. And nah, no amount of money is worth that.

Were there any slow periods between those hits where you started to get nervous again?

Not during that time because “Function” came, and my tape Mollywood dropped the same day the “Function” video dropped, and that started a streak until Mollywood 2 came, and “Like Whaaat” was on that. Then it was a wrap. Then “Bout Me” dropped with Wiz Khalifa, then Eric Bellinger’s “I Don’t Want Her” dropped, and the records were just coming. I had records here and there in little spots, different shit. So nah, it was flowing. What slowed everything down to me was just…that shit kinda just came so fast. You could say you’re ready for something all day, but it comes at you and it’s just me and two others trying to handle it all. You get what I’m saying? It was a lot of decisions that, now looking back, we see so many things we could have handled differently. On top of that, I started getting comfortable. I always felt like, “I could always do another one of these or another one of those,” you know what I’m saying? Then there was the battle of feeling like I have to do club ratchet shit, but that wasn’t in my spirit anymore. I started training, I stopped doing Molly and I was refocusing my life, but they wanted me to do those kinds of records still. I feel like that was just a lot. Then the beefs! I had different beefs with different artists and the temperatures are always changing. You’re hotter than them at one point, then they get hotter than you so they’re controlling the climate and having everyone against you. This game is fickle. It was all that type of stuff mixed with my personal growth and different personal shit.

Then you see YG, Ty Dolla $ign, and DJ Mustard really killing it in 2014 and leading the movement of the West Coast resurgence. Were you kind of frustrated like, “I should be at the forefront too and I’m not as big as them?”

I was frustrated, but it was because of the reason why I wasn’t at the forefront, not because they were at the forefront.  If you look at Ty’s first Beach House mixtape, I wrote five songs off that. Even with Mustard, we’ve all worked together. So we go through our thing and I’m not saying they had anything to do with it, but the fact that people knew it was a thing between us made people choose sides. That’s what was frustrating. I got burned in a lot of different situations, like being taken off the Fast & Furious soundtrack. I got taken out of a lot of situations because people didn’t want to cross them because they were so hot. So that is what got frustrating.

In situations like that, do you start getting jaded?

Not me, because I don’t do music to get famous. I do music because I love doing music. I’m like a gym rat, but with the studio as my gym. I like creating music, and not just rap but music period! That’s what I love to do. So my thing was like nah, I’m not about to stop. I know this thing comes in cycles. I learned from the game I got from Snoop. Like, I really went to rap college! My first big “job” was Snoop Dogg, and DJ Quick is mixing the whole album. All my heroes growing up, they were banging shit in my head every day as an adult about waves and temperature changes and sticking with it and making sure you stay you, and different shit like that. So my thing was, I have bread and I got my skill up; I’ll wait this shit out! Climate change is inevitable for anyone, but only the good niggas stay. I remember when people were talking about how Kendrick Lamar was dead for a minute. What the fuck kind of sense was that? Now he just dropped his biggest album ever. So, that’s just how the game goes, and understanding that kept me going. “Walk Through” was a stay afloat joint for me. I got another plaque; I kind of keep my name up just a little bit. Then I had a couple others like the Rams shit and it’s like yeah, we just have to chill for a bit and we’ll be aight.

So then you had a few years of a quiet period, but in the last year, your visibility has been so much crazier than it had been. What do you think you can attribute to that?

Building a team and starting to really understand how shit works. This is going to sound so old, but I started to really understand Instagram, SoundCloud; I didn’t give a fuck about none of that before. Like, I didn’t understand the power of it, and then I didn’t understand how people perceive it! Like, I’m the type of person that will call you on your birthday if I know you, and to the world, it’s a diss that I didn’t post them on social media! So, understanding different shit like that helped, and the fact that my music—it’s me. That’s me now.

You’re no longer feeling forced to put out a certain type of record?

I like what I’m doing at this minute right now. I definitely felt at a point that I had to do ratchet stuff, but I don’t feel like that anymore.

Have you remained independent?

Yeah, I’m still independent right now. It’s Diamond Lane, no slashes. That’s not a fake independent thing either. We’re not like—not saying anything about other secret deals. I know that comes up a lot.

What would you tell the young Problem who was in the studio with Snoop and them?

That’s crazy. I think I’d tell the younger me: “Don’t assume that people are going to understand what you’re saying or what your message is or what you’re trying to get them to understand about you. Just say it.” There were so many times I’d be getting so mad wondering why they don’t get it, when I could have just been like, “Hey, this is what I was talking about.” A whole lot of shit could have shifted a different way.

Are you happy?

Yeah. I really am.

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From Griselda To Shady: The Story of Westside Gunn and Conway’s Meteoric Rise

Brothers Conway and Westside Gunn are taking over the game. Dana Scott chops it up with the dynamic duo on their beginnings and where they plan to go with Shady Records.

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

“To my niggas using Corrlinks hold your head

Remember Chine Gun used to piss in the bed

Remember hot dogs getting boiled for the party

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

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

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

Westside Gunn

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

The Formation of Griselda Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Griselda Sound

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Conway

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Shady Records

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