LR Blitzkrieg Is Back…For the First Time

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

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

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

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

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

After all this time, why now?

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

What was so special about “PROXY”?

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

So his death put certain things into perspective…

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

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

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

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

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

LR Blitzkrieg

Do you have a release date for the album?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where do you go from here?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gospel Of Sampling According to Vanderslice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample:

Stavros Xarchakos – “Palikari Dipsasmeno”

Sampled by:

Dilated Peoples – “Reach Us”

Bryson Tiller – “Self Made”

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

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

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

Sample:

Tommy Butler – “Prison Song”

Sampled by:

Future – “Mask Off”

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

Rule No. 3: Stop sampling the same songs.

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

Sample:

Incredible Bongo Band – “In a Gadda Da Vida”

Sampled by:

Nas – “Thief’s Theme”

Nas – “Hip Hop is Dead”

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

Now for an overused sample.

Sample:

Sister Nancy – “Bam Bam”

Sampled by:

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

Jay Z – “Bam”

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

Also sampled by:

Sean Price – “Jamaican”

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

Wiz Khalifa & Chris Brown – “Bomb”

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

Closing Thoughts:

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

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

Godspeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juicy The Emissary

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

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

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

Attention Kmart Choppers

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

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

 

Attention Kmart Choppers on Bandcamp, Spotify

Full Kmart Tape Collection on archive.org

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

All 11 Instagram Videos of Juicy making Kmart Choppers

 

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

Masta Ace Talks His Influence on Eminem and Successful Middle-Aged MCs

Dana Scott and the legendary Masta Ace talk career highs, influencing Eminem, squashing a 20-year beef with Onyx, and how a misunderstanding with Cage led to one historical diss track.

Hip-hop culture and rap music are now on the horizon towards 50 years of existence. Artists from the Generation X demographic are finally embraced and praised by millennial rap fans without being quickly dismissed as geezers in their dotage. Hip-hop’s longstanding ageist rationale has finally been eclipsed by quality of product released by forty-somethings and fifty-plus artists.

Is it fair to say that “50” is the new “20” in hip-hop? This streak for the middle-aged from rap’s Golden Era began with 51-year-old Dr. Dre’s Compton soundtrack in 2015, and stayed the course this past year: A Tribe Called Quest reemerged with arguably their best album since 1993’s Midnight Marauders; Kool Keith remains a respectable MC at age 53 with his latest album Feature Magnetic; E-40 continued his streak as a gold-selling artist while knocking on the half-century mark at 49; De La Soul’s crowdsource-funded album …And The Anonymous Nobody shot up to a brief No. 1 spot on the Billboard Rap chart; 44-year-old Ka’s Honor Killed The Samurai being lauded as of the year’s best albums; 46-year-old Fat Joe was as relevant as ever going “all the way up” to the top of the charts and winning Grammy nods with his Remy Ma-assisted smash single and remix with 47-year old Jay-Z of the same title. Meanwhile, Jay-Z’s 4:44 set the bar on how to define the “grown man’s rap era.”

Enter Masta Ace into this equation. The former Juice Crew Crooklyn Dodger returned in 2016 with his retrospective The Falling Season that was praised by his longtime fans. Ace celebrated his 50th birthday this year alongside a list of hip-hop icons to show him the love for his formidable catalog that’s going almost 30 years strong. A lot has changed for him since he dropped his legendary initial verse on Marley Marl’s 1988 classic “The Symphony,” but a lot has remained the same to prove himself as a respectable artist and producer. The once-signature sideways-worn houndstooth capped emcee spoke with UGHH about his unexpected entrance into the rap industry, being a former football player, the importance of his masterpiece SlaughtaHouse to Eminem’s career, settling old rap beefs, and why he avoids judging this current hip-hop generation’s music.

How Duval Clear Became Masta Ace

Talk about your pre-Juice Crew days and your experience trying to get on in the music industry.

There was no “trying to get on.” There was none. I was in college, I rapped, and I had no concept of making a demo. I didn’t even know nor understand what that was. I got into the game by chance. I was home from college on Christmas recess, and my boy was going to be in this rap contest at U.S.A. [rollerskating rink]. He asked me if I wanted to come along—I entered, I winded up winning the contest, and first prize was six hours of studio time with Marley Marl. That’s how I got on.

Being a student at University of Rhode Island, do you recall the dope old school and underground rap shows on WRIU 90.3 FM during the ‘80s and ‘90s?

Yeah, I was there in the mid-‘80s. I used to be an intern there, and I used to do rap promos for that station. I would love to hear some of those today if I could find them. I was up there a couple days a week consistently.

What did you learn the most from Marley Marl during those initial six hours spent with him in the studio?

In the early sessions, I didn’t really know what was happening. I was just rapping. I wasn’t paying attention to the button pushing or none of it. It wasn’t until we started to work on my album Take A Look Around that I started to learn stuff. What I learned in working on that first album was how to program and the “low end theory” secret, or what I call “the booming system” secret. On LL Cool J’s album Mama Said Knock You Out, there’s a deep undertone sound to every song that’s called a 40 hertz tone. Marley has that sound going through L’s whole album to give it this “low end” that nobody else’s records have. He taught me how to do that, and I took that knowledge with me. That’s when I started doing it for SlaughtaHouse, and really Sittin’ On Chrome is where I started to use that in my music to give it that bass. I was always talking about bass, jeep systems, and the boom to give it that knock.

How The Falling Season Examined Masta Ace’s First Love of Football

You have a documentary about your history as a football player and a high school coach. Plus, your latest album The Falling Season is centered around your teen years at Sheepshead Bay High School playing for their varsity team.

It’s just a mini-documentary of me telling the story of my high school team at Sheepshead Bay High School basically getting rid of the program. They changed the name of the school, the team colors, it’s like a whole new team now. It’s not even called the Sharks anymore, and I don’t even know what they call them now. But they had a sort of a going away party for the team, and I just thought that it needed to be documented. They brought back guys from the [year] that the team first started which is 1978. There were guys who were there from ‘78 to the early 2000s. They invited us all out, they bought us lunch, and they sent us all off on the last day of the season. It was a bittersweet experience, and I wanted some of the guys to talk about our coach. He doesn’t coach there anymore, but he was a huge influence on a lot of us. I wanted that to be heard and seen.

Were you trying to be recruited and join a Division 1 college football team before you enrolled at University of Rhode Island?

In my mind, I knew that I wasn’t D1-A, so I went to URI which at the time was considered to be a D1-AA school. So it was a step below 1-A, but I should’ve went D2. But in the mind of an 18-year-old, I’m like “D2, please!”

Your ego can get in your own way if you don’t manage it well as an ambitious, notable prep athlete.

It does, so that way of thinking honestly robbed me out of a college athletic experience. Because if I had gone D2, I probably would’ve gotten on the field and actually played. I would have probably played all four years at a D2 school.

The Influence of SlaughtaHouse On Eminem

Eminem has repeatedly cited you as one of his main influences in his career. What’s your take on that comparison of your songwriting and rhyme styles?

I think it’s really simple. My album SlaughtaHouse came out in 1993. [Eminem] explained to me that when it came out he was broke, just struggling like everybody else. He was in high school. He and his boys from D12 would ride around in a beat-up car, and that’s the album they played for that whole summer of 1993. And music is the kind of thing where depending on what was happening in your life when it came out, it has this influence on you, where every time you hear that piece of music, it takes you back to a happier time, or a time when “man, it wasn’t about money” or “we were just us chillin” riding in a beat-up car. I think people make too much of him listing me as his influence because he’s listened to other people. He’s listened to Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and other people. I think people gravitate towards me because I was an unexpected name for him to say. Everybody that he’s mentioned were kind of the typical influences, or cats that you hear sort of agree are the greatest. And then people are like, “Wait, Masta Ace? What?” That made people look more to what I was doing to see what the similarities were. I don’t think there was any, but [he] expressed to me that he loved that album as one of his influences as far as it goes.

Do you find it beyond coincidental that the supergroup in the second wave of Eminem’s Shady Records label is called Slaughterhouse?

That was interesting. I don’t know if he named them, or if somebody else did.

It seems like a natural transition for him to have that group title on his label’s roster.

I don’t know if he’s ever answered that question of how that group got that name, or what the science is behind the group with that name. I haven’t seen him or anyone from that group go on record that they got the name from my album. Until someone goes on the record and says that, I won’t say that it’s a fact.

When Masta Ace Went West To Bring G-Funk To Brooklyn

In the book Check The Technique: Liner Notes for Hip Hop Junkies, you briefly touched on how you had the same lyrics from “Jeep Ass Niguh” from SlaughtaHouse as does your song “Born To Roll” from your Sittin’ On Chrome album. What made you decide to keep the lyrics the same for both songs, and were you surprised they were both fan favorites?

“Born To Roll” was supposed to be a remix with the same lyrics but to a different beat. I was doing the lyrics to “Jeep Ass Niguh,” and when I added that Jungle Brothers sample “I was born to roll” [from the title track of their Done By The Forces of Nature album] I said, “Maybe I should just name it that.” But I didn’t think people would believe that it was a whole new song. When people heard “Born To Roll,” a lot of people didn’t know I had a song called “Jeep Ass Niguh” that came out before with the same lyrics. So it became a totally different brand new song to a lot of fans. My true fan base knew what it was, but my brand new fans that only knew me from the radio or strictly “Top 40” fans, they had no idea. They thought it was a new song, and they fell in love with it.

East Coast rap fans and artists knocked you for sounding like you were veering too much towards a West Coast G-funk sound. How did you feel about that?

You know, fans are very fickle. Arguably, I was the first East Coast artist to step out in that way to the extent that I actually shot my video in California. So that made it even more of a stamp that, “Oh, he’s really on some West Coast shit.” But bottom line is my record label at the time [Delicious Vinyl] was in L.A., so it was easier for me to shoot it there. I feel like I kind of took all the bullets for those who came after me, and took those risks. You know, Onyx had their video with bouncing cars and the whole shit in California for “Slam.” So I took all the shots; it opened up a door [where] there were no rules. Because as much as people persecuted me for going that route, they saw that it was successful and that they were loving that shit on the West Coast, the Midwest, and down South. So cats just tried to figure out their own formula, and how it would work for them.

Masta Ace

How Today’s Hip Hop Generation Is Finding Their Way Like His Days of Youth

Many rap artists today don’t want to be defined as “rappers.” Is this breed of artists devaluing the importance of the artform of emceeing or do you believe otherwise?

I don’t really know what today’s generation is trying to do. I’m trying to not judge because I feel like it’s young kids trying to figure out what it is that they’re doing. Maybe for them the plan wasn’t to look back and see what everybody else did, and then use that as the model. Maybe they want to do their own thing. I get that. When we were young, we were doing weird shit and people who were older than us didn’t understand what we were doing: big giant fat laces; the Kangol hats; the Lee patches sewed on. We did a lot of weird stuff that was weird for that time. So that being said, I don’t think what I have to say—with regard to what this new generation of rappers, emcees, or artists—of what I’m trying to do because they’re not cut from the same cloth that I’m cut from. There’s nothing I can say that can frame what it is that they’re doing.

Ace Clears The Air About Past Rap Beefs and Power of Forgiveness

“Acknowledge” is a pinnacle battle record that became one of your underground classics. Have you ever later made amends with anyone that you have battled with on record?

I made amends with the High and Mighty right after that record came out. It was really a misunderstanding. The people who said that [they] dissed me got it wrong. Yes they were at this event, and yes they were onstage rapping, but the lyric that was said wasn’t said by them. They had brought this other rapper onstage, Cage, who said a rhyme and had my name in it. The mics weren’t that great, so people didn’t quite catch what he said. But since my name was said in some kind of metaphor, and it sounded like a diss. So the guys that are there who are friends of mine heard it, and looked at each other and were like, “Yo! Did this dude just diss? Yeah, I heard it? I heard the same thing.” And they all came back with that story but they didn’t know that Cage wasn’t part of High and Mighty. They told me that they’re three white dudes up there and one of them dissed Ace, so High and Mighty dissed Ace. After it happened, and I got the real story, Cage even sent me the rhyme to show me, and I said, “Oh, this is not a diss at all.” I actually apologized to them on the radio. I told them I would, they didn’t ask me to. I told people it was a misunderstanding. But we never got the chance to sit down and talk on that level. I haven’t had many beef issues like that, but I made a song about Fat Joe called “10 Top List.” And then he and I wound up face to face having a conversation [where] nobody got jumped or beat up. We kind of just mutually respect each other and left it to where it was at, if you want to call that making amends. And I had an issue with Onyx that I just cleared up last Summer.

How long did that last? Like 20 years?

Yeah. It started in 1993 when I dropped SlaughtaHouse, and endured until this year. We saw each other in ‘93, and allegedly squashed it. But it was never really squashed because anytime I would see Sticky Fingaz he would avoid me or not look at me. We stayed on opposite sides of the room. There was always tension. But we started having shows together. The last three years or so, we were on festivals together and sometimes sharing a backstage area. And so we’d be in the same green room, like I’m over here and he’s over there. Me and Fredro have been cordial since then. But once again this year, Sticky Fingaz and I had another festival together, and I went over to his room and said, “Yo, let’s talk this out. This shit is stupid. What’s the tension about?” I laid it all out, and I had never gave him dap until that day. I had never dapped him from the time Onyx came out until this August.

Masta Ace Reflects On Successful Middle-Aged MCs In This Era

Ka is a fellow Brownsville native like you and Sean Price. Does it make you feel proud that Ka and many other middle-aged MCs like yourself are holding their own against younger competition in hip-hop?

For me, hip-hop never really had an expiration date. I feel like that because I’m in that age group. it was only for the young people that said you can’t do it past a certain age. I never felt that way or believed that. To see Ka come out to do his thing, that’s what it is—if you’re a good rapper, you’re good regardless of your age. If you can rhyme, let’s go. I’m all about skill level. When I see his thing reppin’ for the ‘Ville, there’s a few people from Brownsville that I didn’t even know where from Brownsville. So big-up to him, and obviously Sean Price, Rest In Peace.

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

Higher Learning: Wordsworth Is Hip-Hop’s Class Act

Jerry Barrow and rapper Wordsworth talk music, higher education, and the transition from performing for crowds to educating the next generation.

It’s the fifth day of school for Mr. Johnson’s 7th grade reading class. Posters of Nas’s Illmatic album decorate the walls of the Florida middle school classroom and copies of books by Eminem, Jay-Z, and LeBron James sit on his desk.

“I gotta lot of things up on the wall that the kids can identify with,” says Vinson Jamel Johnson, aka rapper Wordsworth, the Brooklyn-born hip-hop veteran who has made Ft. Myers, Florida his new home. “I’m actually in the Eminem book; there’s a photo of us together back in the days. They’re willing to hear me because I’m willing to meet them halfway. I know the slang they use and the things they like. I teach the lowest reading level, and one of the kids asked to borrow my Return Of the King book. If I can get them reading I’m good with that.”

50 Cent and Eminem meet in NY

Johnson’s love affair with words began more than two decades ago when he was a SUNY Old Westbury student, writing his term papers in rhyme form—a skill that would morph into a career emceeing alongside his partner Punchline (As Punch N’ Words) and later with OGs like Q-Tip, Masta Ace, and Prince Paul. Wordsworth lived up to his pen name by wielding a confident yet subdued rhyme style rich in assonance that stacked couplet after couplet like Jenga blocks made of helium, never succumbing to gravity. When he wasn’t beating tracks into submission, he was narrating vivid tales from the hood like “One Day” which anchored his 2004 debut Mirror Music.

“That was my proving [album] to come from being a battle rapper/backpack MC to being a storyteller,” he says. “My whole mind state was rapping about things and life. I didn’t want to fall into that category, which is why I’m still here now. I was under pressure a bit, but I figured it out. That first album helped me become a better artist and a better writer.”

Since his debut, Words has released two albums as part of the group eMC and four projects as a soloist, including his latest, Our World Today, produced entirely by Sam Brown. So UGHH caught up with the MC-teacher after a long day of educating the youth to talk about how he’s incorporated all of his experiences— from performing on The Lyricist Lounge Show to recording tracks for Netflix Cartoons—into a successful career as an accomplished MC and educator.

In preparing for this I tried to remember the first time I heard you rhyme. It’s between Black Star’s “Twice Inna Lifetime” and Tribe’s “Rock, Rock, Y’all” from The Love Movement, but I’m not sure which was first. How did you get on two of the most anticipated albums of 1998 with no record deal?

Well, basically all of us were running in the same circles in the ‘90s: Kweli, Mos [Def], Jane Doe, me, and Punch were doing the same open mics at the Nuyorican, Wetlands, S.O.B.s. We all pretty much clicked just being around each other. Kweli and Mos were looking for somebody else to jump on a feature and at the time me and Punch had a cool buzz. So we went to the studio and laid it down [“Twice Inna Lifetime”]. We were honored to be on that project with them knowing they had a lot of clout at the time. They were signed to Rawkus and we were still trying to get a deal. Then around that time it worked out because A Tribe Called Quest stuff was going on at the same time. We got on The Love Movement because we did a Lyricist Lounge event at Tramps. Biz Markie was supposed to host, but he couldn’t make it and Q-Tip hosted. So it was a blessing because Q-Tip hosted, saw us perform and then called about us the next day. Within two weeks we started working on stuff with Tribe.

At the time Q-Tip had a label, and at one point his crew was gonna be all of us: Me, Punch, Jane Doe, Mos and Kweli as a CREW…kinda like Wu. That was gonna be the crew and we were all gonna sign to his label. There is actually an ATCQ record that we all did…it might have been a Dilla beat. It winded up being an interlude on The Love Movement album. [There’s] a beat on there that we actually rhymed on and didn’t use. [Instead] we did “Rock, Rock Y’all.” When we recorded “Rock Rock Y’all,” Q-Tip put up $100 for anybody that did they verse in one take. I came close. I think I messed up on my 12th bar though. Q-Tip went in and knocked his out with no problem. That was a cool session. That record shows you where we were going with the crew situation.

The irony is I remember Q-Tip was hosting another Lyricist Lounge event and I believe Rah Digga performed. I handed him my cassette back then, and I know it probably ended up in the trash. But back then you had so much hope. You think it’s a lotto ticket, so I handed it to him. Years later I was recording songs with him. Sometimes things just work out.

Around when were you hitting up the Lyricist Lounge shows?

The Lyricist Lounge stuff was going on in ‘92 or ‘93. I went to events not knowing it was Lyricist Lounge. It was more of a word of mouth thing. “We going to this spot and they rhyming.” Those were some cool events, man. Lines were crazy, always packed. You got to see a lot of raw talent.

Were the shows how you built your buzz in the city?

Our initial way we got notoriety throughout the city was on Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito with Red Hot Lover Tone from The Trackmasters. The Stretch and Bob show launched everything. That’s why when I went to open mics and said my name, they knew me from the Stretch and Bob tape. That’s what got us into the office to get on the Lyricist Lounge album.

We recorded the EP [Punch N’ Words EP] after I did the TV show, maybe in late 2000. It was just to catch all the hype of me doing the TV show. The producer was Curt Gowdy. He was part of Trackmasters. He did NORE, The Firm, Nas’s “Shoot Outs.” He took us as his boys and [we] put out the EP project with him. He produced the single for the Lyricist Lounge album as well.

That Lyricist Lounge Show on MTV is legendary….

Yeah it was crazy. We lived in a mansion in West Hollywood behind the Wiltern Theater in Cali. Me, Def Jef, and Thirstin Howl III came out. Punch. We just had a stable of writers and rappers; the job was to write rhymes. All night, every day. We rhyming. There was a point I lost my voice for a week. We were finally getting paid to rhyme. I was doing it on the corner in the street and now I’m doing it with my boys. What’s better than that? And the best thing about it for me is we brought people on the show we came up with. MTV rented it for a few months just like “The Real World.” We just had mad friends moving in from Wyoming and stuff. It got crazy. I was almost gonna live in Cali. I got a call from New York at Christmas, and I was in my shorts from playing basketball. It was snowing out in NY.

Wordsworth Mirror Music

Then in 2004 you released your debut Mirror Music on Halftooth Records. If you could have done anything differently with MM, what would you have done?

I don’t think there’s much I would have done differently. I’m here because of that album. I think if I second-guessed myself I may not [be here]. There was a lot of pressure for dudes to make club records. Underground dudes were on this bubble of hating being underground and transitioning to making songs. There was so much pressure that dudes were trying any and everything to be relevant. At the time I had Oddisee, who produced the single, making that transition. I’m glad I did it the way I did it because the integrity of the record still stands.

What was it like being on an indie like Halftooth Records?

I really appreciated being on there because they were taking a chance with me. Some of these underground labels were trying to transition into the commercial world. They were some young dudes trying to get it going. They had me, Oddisee, Kenn Starr, Median. Some people don’t get a stepping-stone at all. I’m not the type to be like “They should have put mad money behind me.” They did what they thought they could do. I think you gotta take those stepping-stones and keep building upon them.

You definitely had some interesting stepping-stones, like creating eMC with Masta Ace, Punch, and Stricklin. How did that happen?

It started because we were both putting a single out with this dude JF. JF was putting out a project with me and Punch, and Ace was producing a single for Stricklin. JF ended up playing our stuff to Ace and he said, “I like these dudes, I wanna put them on [“Block Episode” from Disposable Arts.] After a couple months we wound up going on tour together. We toured for years together, where me and Punch would open up and Stric would watch with Ace. And the fans saw us rhyme together so much that they said we should be a group. Then we recorded a song called “Four Brothers,” and from there made the eMC project. We did two albums and an EP as well. One of our biggest songs was “Charly Murphy” and he got to hear it. He bigged it up on his Twitter. Stric told me one of this boys said he had a show in Milwaukee and he came out to the record. That was one of our first singles on the EP. He was just naturally funny.

And around that time you did the Baby Loves Hip-Hop project with Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, and Scratch from The Roots as The Dino 5. It was like a Kids Gorillaz.

Yeah, and Chali 2na (from Jurassic 5). It was ill, man. Paul liked to do stuff that was not of the norm. I was on his Politics of the Business album with Chubb Rock and DOOM, “Chubb Rock please pay Prince Paul the $2200 you owe him.” That was a rough one, Paul.

Oh, that had the De La Soul “Peas Porridge” beat. I remember that one.

That was crazy for me. Paul got wind of me and asked me to do some stuff. I went out to his crib and from then we built a cool relationship. Then he called me for Dino 5. We had the same publishing administrator and he’d call me for other things like the SpongeBob [SquarePants] Movie soundtrack and the Dexter’s Lab hip-hop experiment album. I went to talk to some kids in Milwaukee where Stric is at this thing called True School. I told them I did “Back to the Lab” and these grown kids bugged out because they remembered it from their childhood. Paul realized that with me doing TV, I’m not just a rapper; he knows I can write anything. He knows I know there is a difference between cartoons and songs for my album. Recently we did “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” on Netflix, Season 1 Episode 2. It’s a dream for both of us because we’re cartoons playing ourselves. It’s so cool. I just spoke to Paul last week; it’s so dope to know that if I have an idea for something that deals with different genres, I can call him up just to get his take on it.

On your 2015 album New Beginning and on the new project your stories are so descriptive that I wonder if they really happened. How much of it is true?

I’ve been through a lot of things. They repeat. Breakups happen forever. Whatever I’m talking about is either things I’ve been through or things people I know have been through. That album to me, up to that point was my best album. It was kind of the Part 1 to Our World Today. The same person did the artwork: different color, same font. After I did that album I did an EP called Blame It On the Music with JSOUL through HipNOTT Records. That had a song called “Satellite” which became my first #1 College Radio record. That was the project in between me working on this project with Sam Brown.

Since you mention the artwork—because I wanted to ask about the show you photographed for the cover of Our World Today—where was this show and what made you want to use that?

That’s in Switzerland. It was an eMC show, but there are moments in the eMC show where we do our solo stuff. A friend of mine Isabelle took that photo and sent it to me. I thought the photo was just kind of epic and we changed the color a little. If you look on the back of the CD you can see Stric and them. I like the representation of the MPC in there.

our world today album

The funny thing is I look at the cover now and I don’t see a stage, I see a classroom.

Sometimes when I’m in the classroom I feel like this was my calling. Everything accumulated up to this. The story behind me becoming a teacher is not just about me needing something to do. My daughter’s grades fell, and I went to see why. It turns out she had a substitute teacher, and the sub told me right then and there, “I’m a veterinarian. I don’t know what I’m doing.” So I go down to the Principal and ask what’s going on in the classroom. I’m livid. So she says we don’t have enough qualified teachers, so we just got random people in these rooms. I’m vexed. So I say I’m gonna become a substitute so I can teach my daughter’s class. That was my mission. So I go through all the hoops and hurdles. When I go down to the district to hand in my paperwork, this white lady says to me, “You don’t need to be a sub, there’s a lot of Black kids who need you in the classroom. They need role models. You should be a [full-time] teacher.” I said that’s the illest question I’ve been asked in my life. If these kids are out there wilin’ I have an opportunity to fix it. This is a white lady telling me that my culture and my race need me. When she said that to me I stood staring at her for like three seconds before I said “You right. Let me get this going.” I talk to the 8th graders and they see a Black male teacher and they listen to me. They know I know the rap stuff but they see me in the building. I’m Mr. Johnson. It’s definitely one of the biggest decisions I’ve made in my life thus far.

When did you move to Florida?

I got here about 12 years ago.

Have you been teaching the whole time?

Nah, I’ve been touring with Ace for the past 15 years. I was touring, working part-time gigs, too. I was working at Guitar Center. You get all of your equipment like 40 % off. So I could tour and keep my job. I was [working in the] warehouse and anytime I needed to tour I could tour. When I got a mortgage, you can’t rely on rap money all the time. I’m a realist, brother. It’s such a rollercoaster ride and you gotta put your pride aside and do whatever you gotta do and figure it out. It wound up being the best thing, coming down here. First I was a little culture shocked about how slow it is, but then it ended up being a blessing in disguise.

So, why Florida?

My wife’s parents bought a home down here and she got kind of homesick. We were living in Jersey and when I went out on one of those tours, she was down here looking for homes. I came back and put money down on it, and she’s closer to her family now. Happy wife, happy life. When I became a teacher it inspired me to get my Masters degree and do other things, so I’ll be good rapping or not. I started teaching in 2015. I teach 7th grade reading and 8th grade TV production. When I was doing TV, I paid attention to what was going on. I absorb from everybody. I watched the directors, the wardrobe. I wasn’t just there to be rhyming. I was hired [here] to do reading but they knew I had a TV background. I knew how to do the directing and stuff from life experience.

Wordsworth graduation

And you’re still learning…

I got a Masters in Music Business from the University of Miami. The journey is crazy, man. When I graduated from SUNY Old Westbury, I graduated writing all my stuff in rhymes. That took me to another level in college. Last year I was honored as one of the Top 50 graduates of SUNY Old Westbury because of what I’ve accomplished. The irony was I received the award from the president, Reverend Calvin Butts, who we know had it out for hip-hop. But years later after I graduated, I was the university guest speaker to introduce him. The world works in crazy ways. I was writing my “People, Power, and Politics” papers in rhymes— African Studies, Langston Hughes. I wrote about so many topics in rhymes and I still have the papers to this day. People always asked me for years if it’s true but they never saw the papers. I posted it on IG because people didn’t believe me. Then when I started teaching I started developing a songwriting curriculum, techniques to avoid writer’s block. I taught a 3-month course at this studio The Vibe Recording in Fort Myers. I charged people and wrote the whole curriculum. The studio is actually an accredited school for engineering, so why not combine the two? So I got my masters at the University of Miami in nine months. I think I’m the fastest person to get out of that program. I started in March and graduated in December. I’m trying to make sure if I’ve been doing this all this time, that the transition makes sense: to talk on panels and became a public speaker. I want to chill in a few years. After I graduated they did a story on me on the U of Miami web site. I’m appreciative of all that stuff. That blew me away.

Wordsworth

In the midst of all of this you’re recording music as well. How did you link with the producer Sam Brown?

I posted on Instagram that I was looking for beats and somebody tagged me to his IG page. So I heard a couple of them and I was like I can mess with this dude right here. I reached out to him to send me some beats. I did New Beginning and had never met Donel Smokes. We spoke on the phone but never met, so I figured I could do another project like that. Me and Sam went back and forth on the phone and we met about a year ago. He kept sending me beats and I knocked them out. The whole thing took about a year and some change. The “Hero” record, we just did that one last month and “The Election” record I did maybe three months ago. I always think about what is missing and added it on. That’s how it came together.

That “Election” record definitely stands out. Do you remember what you were doing on Election night in 2016?

I remember sitting in my guest bedroom in the back. That’s where my studio is, too. I’m sitting in there watching TV and hoping the numbers are wrong. Everybody was watching that joint like a race thinking she gonna catch up. Then after a while, once those Midwest states started coming in, I couldn’t watch the rest of it. I had to turn it off. I had to wake up with that brutal news.

But you channeled that pain into a great album. Why should people go and listen to it?

Because it’s mutual thoughts that aren’t necessarily being heard or spoken about all the time. And mutual emotions. When you hear a song like “Each One Teach One” where the parent is acting more like a friend, you can reflect on that. Everything on that album you’ve either been through it or know somebody who has been through it. I don’t even curse on the album. I haven’t cursed since the Punch N’ Words EP when I was still growing. The album is about what is going on today and what has been going on for years. Each song, almost anyone you pick, you gotta feel it. Even if you had no music and just said the rhyme to yourself, you’re gonna feel it.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost Town Lounge NOLA
“Ghost Town Lounge”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hot Boys, Cash Money

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

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

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

Truth Universal
Truth Universal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

 

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…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diplomats Volume 2 cover

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myself, Max B and Carol at Club Speed in 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

[bandcamp width=640 height=120 album=3947387472 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=236078246]

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.

[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=146151933 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=907747558]

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.

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