Filed under: Interviews
For some reason unbeknown to me I’m yet to throw up a link to my Freddie Foxxx interview that dropped over at Jeff’s spot. Missed it? Get there immediately.
So here we go with the second installment of my interview with the mighty K-Def. This time around we talk in more depth about how his creative process has changed over the years with a particular focus on computer technology, an overview of how The Article EP (what do you mean you haven’t downloaded it yet?! Get on it!) came about as well as reminiscing over some of his extensive back catalogue. I’ve also thrown in one of his lesser known cuts in the shape of Mic Geronimo’s ‘For Tha Family’ for your listening pleasure, a beautiful slice of K-Def orchestral phatness.
Just to give you an overview of things to come from the K-Def camp, these are the releases pencilled in for 2008:
Beats From Da ’90s (Instrumental)
Collard Greens (Instrumentals with some guest MCs)
Analog Past (Instrumental)
Digital Future (Instrumental)
Rest assured that as soon as I know more about them, so too will you. Enjoy the rest of the interview and check in on Friday for a beat deconstruction that focuses on one of my favourite K-Def produced joints of all time: see you then.
From Da Bricks: You’ve spoken a lot there about new technology. How has using Logic and other digital programs changed the creative process for you? Did it take a complete shift in mindset?
K-Def: I can tell you this much. If I hadn’t jumped on the computer in ’98 I wouldn’t be doing tracks no more, I would have just been known as K-Def the producer from the ‘90s that did these hits and that’s it. I wouldn’t have did Ghostface, I wouldn’t have did the KRS One or the UGK or the Diddy, none of that stuff would have ever come out. I would’ve given it up because the computer and Logic taught me how to play. I don’t know how to play a whole full song but I know how to program play. I can actually hear what I’m listening to and replay it back which I couldn’t do when I was on the MP, it just wouldn’t allow me to do that. Now everything is keys and I get to hear music better now and I get to see my music better now and do complex things that I could never do on my machines. I love it, I love it to death. I feel like I’m a Logic expert now, I’ve been on it for twelve or thirteen years now since it was version 2.5 and Cubase since it was version 3.0 and I just love the computers man. I love the technology, I love the virtual instruments. They’re making great, great sounds now, they’re getting better and better and the more you learn how to play the instruments the better they sound when you record them so it’s really great.
That gives me all the happiness in the world to be able to turn on my computer and know that I can produce a track that day. I can have EQs, I can have compression on my tracks, edits, I can have it mastered and mixed. Those are things I couldn’t do when I was on the MP unless I went upstate to Marley’s studio and get on the SSL board and waste a whole bunch of electricity, and all that just to make a beat that probably wouldn’t have ended up on nobody’s album. There was a whole bunch of extra time that was being taken that I don’t have to take no more and I get better results than I did then. I’ll never go back. I use the MP for drums every now and again or when I’m in the mood for an MP beat I’ll do it but anything that I produce is going to be pretty much on the computer. I’m sold on that. That keeps me going, it keeps me happy and helps me not to have to rely on having a band or getting hired musicians. I got everything I need in my own little studio in my house and I can do anything that my brain tells me to do. I couldn’t pull that off before, I’ll be honest with you. It was just too expensive and too time-consuming.
FDB: Are you happy with the changes they made for Logic 8?
KD: Logic 8 is actually great. They did a lot of overhauls to it. Put it like this: the way it looks for a new user it’ll be great because he doesn’t know, but for me, coming from the earlier versions, Logic 7 Pro is actually a lot more stable than 8, but 8 has the greatest plug-ins of all time. I did the American Gangster album through Logic 8 as far as the final mixing and mastering and it definitely makes a difference in sound. The sound is a whole lot better than Logic 7. The compressor plug-ins, the EQs… they are fantastic, I love ‘em to death.
I use Logic for the more complex stuff, but then I use Cubase if I want to sound like my old stuff from my MP days. Cubase is more my analogue funk machine, whereas Logic is my digital composing machine. I use them both as tools, I don’t pick one over the other and I know them both on expert level. The best thing about Logic is that when I get my mixes done they really sound good compared to any other program, even Cubase doesn’t sound as good as Logic when I get to mixdown. Logic is my inspiration, but Cubase is like my tool when I want my drums to sound funky and MPC style, with quanitzing and the right fills and those really intricate loops where if I was on a machine it would take a lot of edits to get it really tight. On Cubase it’s just a case of warping or time stretching where it just snaps everything right to your beat where you don’t even hear it. It’s the best. Cubase is my main program for making the hot beats. UGK was done in Logic, KRS One was done in Cubase as was Diddy’s ‘We Gon’ Make It’, Ghostface’s ‘Over’ was done in Cubase, Jayo Felony’s record was done in Logic. It just varies: anything that came out was one of those two programs. Believe you me, I’ll never turn back man. They make me happy and wanna keep on making beats everyday. I don’t knock anybody who uses what they use but I just think that with technology that those two programs are the best of the best. If it wasn’t for them I would have stopped making beats a long time ago.
FDB: Let’s talk a little more about The Program project with Dacapo. How did you guys hook up?
KD: He came through from a friend and he was telling me his story; he’d be working with a bunch of guys and they’d go into the studio and it would seem like it would never get to him when it was time to record and he wouldn’t get a chance to get his songs done. The first time I heard him he reminded me of Large Professor, this guy reminds me a little bit of C.L. Smooth… he started reminding me of too many guys who I used to like and I was just like, I got a lot of soul records, I got a lot of breaks and a lot of stuff that would fit his style so we decided to work on something. We did a song and he sounded pretty good man and I thought we could do something together. For some reason, he just had an ear for the tracks he was hearing and was like “I want to do that… I want to do that,” and my style of music just fit his style of rhyming.
We wound up doing an EP that we’re gonna have for free download and we have an album also that we just finished completing. It’s looking really good and we’ve actually started on another album as we speak, we’ll probably be recording again this week. We just gonna keep movin’ because I just feel like he’s a dedicated guy and he really loves his craft. You can tell he’s been into hip hop and the real essence of hip hop, the songs that made a real difference in his life and has influenced him as a person. All I try to do is just complement him by giving him tracks that make him sound the way he would want to sound and not somebody else dictating to him what he should sound like. He’s got the freedom and the opportunity to kind of pick what he wants to pick and that gives him the chance to do it the way he wants to do it. I’m really pleased with that, and I think in time he’s gonna get better. He’s a young guy, this is new for him and hopefully with my guidance and coaching and him having the understanding to make a great record we’ll have a couple of hits under the belt soon.
FDB: I think it’s great stuff. With the downloads you are obviously addressing an online market. Is that something that excites you or worries you?
KD: It excites me more because the physical products are very tough to sell now. I look at some of the biggest artists like Kanye and 50 Cent, and if these guys are not selling no more like that… I’m not even on that level they’re on. I feel like there has to be a better way where the music can get to the people without them having to physically go to a store and buy it. Those days of going to the store and going to buy vinyl and all that… the DJs are always gonna do it, but most people are lazy, everybody got credit cards now so pretty much everybody wants to sit at home and browse around on their computer and see what the can find and have it mailed to their house. Everything’s got so simplified now.
I look at it that it should be a plus as far as I’m concerned, because as far as selling CDs and vinyl through major labels, there’s a lot of red tape involved in that and you have to wait a really long time to see any profit or money back from that, when everybody else is trying to get paid before you do. I think that there are just too many people involved in projects that have to get paid before you get paid and then if the project doesn’t really fly off then you don’t get paid. That’s the part that scares me more, dealing with those companies that don’t give you that 110% push where you can see a little profit and you can look forward to having a second or third album with the company. It’s not like that anymore. At the moment you’re lucky if you come out with an album and if you do, they’re only looking at pushing one song off the album. For me personally, if I got the digital downloads and people are buying it I don’t have to pay all these people out. If it only generates 5000 sales, that’s 5000 sales that came to K-Def, not 5000 sales that came through the company and have to go to this person and that person… by the time it gets down to you, you’re looking at pennies. I think it’s a better way to go and I think it’s only gonna get better because there are more and more big companies getting involved in it and I really want to take advantage of this moment before it gets too big and they figure out a way to rob the artists and the producers online. I don’t want to be on the outside looking in. It’s hard to get into record labels now with deals and everything because they’re not signing any groups or giving any deals out and that’s destroying the future of hip hop and the music. Online is definitely the way to go.
FDB: What about your label Ghetto Man Beats, us that just a vehicle for you to release stuff or do you have other artists signed as well?
KD: Definitely. It’s there to let people know that I have a company, I put stuff out and I love to do joints with other companies that are doing stuff. I take it seriously and I have skills that are just more than just making beats when it comes to the music. Me having a company solidifies that. There’s graphic design in this company, there’s photography, music, DJing, editing, mixing, mastering… pretty much everything involved in the music the company Ghetto Man Beats can get down and do. That’s one of the main focuses right now, having the company stand on its own and be able to do things other than just K-Def making beats for the company there are other things that can transpire from it.
FDB: Jersey is obviously your home and you still live there. How do you think it has managed to establish such a strong sense of its own identity regarding hip hop when it is in such close proximity to New York?
KD: There’s an old saying that states that although it started in the Bronx, hip hop made money in Jersey. Jersey was around the money makers and New York was more the culture end of it, you know what I’m saying? The cultural aspect of it was New York bound and Jersey took that culture and figured out how to make money and a profit from it. That’s what I’ve been around. I was around the Sugarhill Gangs and I saw all that era and for me, I’m not from New York but I got footprints all over New York. From day one when I was a kid when The Rooftop and the Latin Quarter and Union Square and all those spots was open I was a young kid and that’s where I learned a lot as far as the culture. When I came back to Jersey I was looking at the bands and rappers coming in and they were actually doing records over that were really breaks at the time.
Now that hip hop has turned so big the way it is today, people forget that even though I’m from New Jersey, don’t think I’m country, don’t think I’m corny, don’t think I’m lame, don’t think I don’t know what time it is because me and my peoples were only ten minutes away from Manhattan. Going to Manhattan was just like going to another town: it was nothing. I learned a lot, you picked up your dos and your don’ts, street codes… New Yorkers feel like we were trying to be like them or better than them but I just want to clarify that I’m from Jersey, but everybody from New York lived in New Jersey so don’t talk about it, be about it. If you gonna represent New York then go live in New York, I represent Jersey and I still live here. I think I know as much as any other New York guy with producing and DJing and everything else, I just happen to live in Jersey. I wasn’t dumb enough to stay in Jersey all my life, I did get out. That’s the difference: I got out when I was a kid. I got put in situations in New York where I was scared for my life, and from that point on it made me realise how seriously I had to take hip hop and the culture. I don’t think a lot of these new cats understand that. I was at the Raising Hell tour at Madison Square Garden where I saw people get cut and stabbed and beat up, and that was at a rap concert! I was there when KRS One threw PM Dawn off the stage at Sound Factory. I’ve seen a lot of things that show that the only way you get respect is not where you from but actually how nice you are doing what you do and where you at to do it. I felt like if I was as nice as I could be I could show New York that I could do it as well because I was in New York every other day, be it record shopping, being down in the Village, the Bronx, Queens, wherever it was, I was always a part of seeing how they looked at the culture. I vibed from that. There’s not a lot of people in Jersey who could be how I am. As far as I’m concerned you might as well say I’m from New York because I spent my share of time over there.
FDB: When you look back over the last 15 years or so, what do you identify as the best records that you’ve made?
KD: The best records to me? I would have to say the Real Live album. The early stuff, I didn’t look at myself as a producer because I was young, it was going so fast and I was doing so many projects, and it was only when I did the Real Live that I got serious about being an artist and taking on a lot of the business responsibilities that I didn’t have to take when I was just making beats for everybody else. I would say that the Real Live project was a real good project. I don’t have too much to say about the early ‘90s stuff because I really wasn’t paying attention like I am now. My mind wasn’t even set as like being a producer because I was under Marley Marl’s wing at the time and I was really doing everything for the company and not really for me. The Lords Of The Underground and Da Youngstas and the Tragedy, the Sah-B, the World Renown, I was just looking at it like whatever, to be honest with you. It was only when Real Live came into the picture and you know, Jayo Felony, the Ghostface and all the newer stuff I was doing gave me more seriousness in making it happen. I felt good about everything I did after I left Marley Marl. I felt good about those projects because I was on my own two feet doing it by myself and it felt better having been underneath somebody else for so long and not getting the full recognition that I should have got. The Real Live made me feel good because I’d never done a full album except that one.
P-Diddy – ‘Come To Me (K-Def Remix)’ (Unreleased)
So here it is: part one of an extensive interview I did with K-Def recently. A great interviewee, he sheds light on a whole range of subjects including projects from the past, present and future as well as getting into some of the intricacies of his production processes in what has to have been my most enjoyable interview to date. Audio-wise, as well as the link to the free EP with Dacapo, I’ve also included an unreleased remix that K-Def produced for Diddy. Get that mouse button clicking!
This first part includes discussion of the World Renown LP, the unreleased albums from both Sah-B and De’1 as well as a K-Def’s feelings about the issues surrounding sampling in the contemporary game. In the second half of the interview dropping on Wednesday we cover his current production set-up, approach to digital downloads and even reminisce over his personal favourites from his truly slammin’ back catalogue. To finish off the week, I’ll also be deconstructing one of my favourite beats from the Real Live LP. Celebrate: it’s K-Def week people!
From Da Bricks: Let’s start with some of the projects that you’ve worked on that never saw a full release. Why did Warner decide to shelve the World Renown LP?
K-Def: Wow… at the time I think Warner Bros was dealing with a merge and their rap department basically wasn’t doing that great. It was a subsidiary called Reprise, the urban department they had at Warner. It really wasn’t lifting off the ground, I think they had like The Bush Babees, a couple of other groups… When we had all the albums done, or almost done, I don’t think Sah-B’s album got done but I believe De’1’s album was pretty much done ‘cos I did a couple of other records with him that nobody ever heard that didn’t get released. What happened was that the Elektra/WEA system was shutting down and they were merging with Atlantic and a lot of other companies and at that time a lot of the independent subsidiary companies off the majors were all folding. Sah-B only had a single, but we were working on the album at the time, but eventually they just said that Warner was folding. Nobody really went into depth with it, but I don’t believe it was because of the projects because as far as I’m concerned I really believe the World Renown album was a great album, it had a lot of great stuff and it was for that time. But I don’t know, I couldn’t really even tell you the full 100% reason why it didn’t come out, but what I do know is that the record label itself just went under.
FDB: The Sah-B album must have been pretty close because it states on the back of the ‘Summa Day’/ ‘Some Ol’ Sah-B Shit’ 12’’ that the album was imminent.
KD: Right. I think Atlantic had something to do with it as well, from all the stuff that was going on. I don’t think they wanted Warner to be a rap label, they wanted to keep it more to the movies and the rock/pop stuff. I’m pretty much sure that Marley Marl has everything in the vault still so the albums do exist so maybe at the right time they’ll be released one day. I released the World Renown on my MySpace and I didn’t have the full master copies of it, just an old tape of it. I cleaned it up as much as possible and just reissued it out because I was trying to get it from Marley at the time but we didn’t come to a conclusion on having it released. The year somebody comes around with the right paperwork and the right business maybe the albums can be released. I can definitely let you know that the World Renown was definitely completed, I’m not quite sure if Sah-B’s album was ever completed and I’m pretty much sure that De’1’s album was completed. As far as why they didn’t come out, I don’t know… Marley has it so I think it will just be a matter of when he lets loose.
FDB: With the internet it would seem like the right time to do it, wouldn’t it?
KD: I would think so. That’s what’s selling right now, CDs and albums aren’t selling that much but downloads are of course really big, so I would think that would be the best way to go about it. There’s so much bootlegging and stuff going on, and I think that’s the reason why a lot of stuff hasn’t been released yet, because you release something now and a few months later another country has got the record and is selling it too, so once they can change those laws and fix that, I guess a lot of vintage stuff that happened in the early ’90s will get released.
FDB: How has the World Renown album done on downloads?
KD: For it to be 13/14 years for it to be released… it’s not doing that great. If people know about it, but it just took so long that it was just like, ‘I want to get the album but it’s not my top priority now because it is what it is,’ you know? I had intended to put it out a few years ago, I was going to put it out with Marley, we had somebody that was going to put it out but that didn’t work out. After that, everything just tapered off and died off. I just got frustrated and was like, ‘You know what, I got a copy of it I might as well go ahead and put it out, I know they’ll be a few cats who’ll buy it.’ It’s not the best quality as if it came out the studio fully mastered but it is the full-length songs where nobody else really has it and anybody who does have a copy it sounds terrible. I figured it’s great for history for it just to be out. It sells, but it doesn’t sell a whole lot.
FDB: Am I right in thinking that Seven Shawn and John Doe are Marley’s cousins?
KD: John Doe is Marley’s cousin and me and Seven Shawn are cousins, on distant paths, but we’re related. Basically that was a crazy time right there, John Doe just got out of jail and he said he wanted to do ten songs and hook up with Marley and come out with something. We did ten songs, Marley heard the beats, but wasn’t really feelin’ John Doe at the time and I started messin’ with the Lords Of The Underground right from there. Long story short after that it was all over with. John wound up hooking up with Seven Shawn maybe a year or two later down the line and we started working on their album. Those were the memorable golden days, the mid-‘90s was a great, great time, it was really great.
FDB: So tell me about some of the projects you’ve got coming up.
KD: K-Def is gonna have a lot of tracks coming out this year and it’s not gonna be through no majors, it’s gonna be all independent as far as I’m concerned and it’s gonna be all great, hot material, none of this throw together stuff. A lot of stuff I have from the ‘90s that was never heard before, those beats are gonna get released on certain albums. There’s gonna be a lot of great things going on. I got an album Beats From The ‘90s that will be dropping which is like all the instrumentals for stuff I did in the early ‘90s, stuff I did for Positive K, Artifacts, a lot of good instrumentals that will be appealing to the DJs to actually do blend mixes and have some of that old ‘90s culture that people are still trying to make today. I’m just doing a little bit of everything bro, I’m doing a whole lot of everything. I got so many beats that I’ve been doing. I got sample stuff, stuff that’s just strictly played with no samples at all.
FDB: You’ve mentioned there that you’re taking a range of approaches to composition now and sometimes playing over. What’s your approach to sampling now?
KD: The sampling that is going on now, I look at it like I really don’t try to change my style and I try to keep that same old sound, but use technology and engineering to make it sound clear like today’s music. A lot of people are just using MPCs and machines and that’s how I started at one time, but at some point you got to get older, more mature, you gotta use technology to your advantage and learn new technology. There’s a million and one records out there that still haven’t been used that you have to go out and search for, but a lot of these guys, nobody’s really doing it, but I’m doing it for sure. As far as what I’m trying to bring back, I’m trying to bring back that ‘90s sound but I’m trying to have it where it can go to mainstream because it’s so clear just like any other down south or mid-west record that’s out: it can compete with sound quality but still actually have samples in it.
When I was doing records in the ‘90s… ‘Funky Child’ had like five samples, but you know what, you take five samples that made a classic record for me but I never seen no publishing off it, I never ate off it, and I have to clarify this because people need to understand. If everybody’s keen on that ‘90s hip hop sound then there need to be someone to go to the lawyers and tell them that they need to make a new rule on publishing because in order for you to make those records that you did in the ‘90s then you gotta sample like five or six records in one song and if you do the math, everybody’s taking a percentage of your publishing and you’re not gonna eat. You get a whole lot of props but you ain’t making no money from it. I’ve been doing that for ten years! I’ve been sampling and doing what everybody wanted me to do for ten years on those machines and I didn’t make no money from it. You know why? Because I was just sampling, sampling, sampling, sampling, not knowing any better that there’s a strategic way to sample. A lot of the new guys that I see now, in the last five or ten years, they been sampling, sampling, sampling and they’re not doing it strategically where they can get away with doing it without clearing it. It’s not the same how it used to be and you have to be smarter now, because I know already that you’re not making any money off sampling. There has to be a new law behind that shit, where if you sample somebody’s record the publisher can’t take 50% of the record, they can only take say 30% and give the producer 20% because the producer did the work, you know what I’m sayin’? Until they can come up with that law, it’s gonna be rough, it’s gonna be really rough out there.
I’m keeping it real: I would love to do what I did in the early ‘90s and stay focussed on that with MPs and all that, but I do this not for the money, but to get better at my artform and to let the world know that I’m really good at what I do and that I have a great passion for it, but I still need to make money from it too because this is how I make my money and I’ve always been making my money like this since I was a teenager, you know what I’m sayin’? I can’t do that anymore: you gotta change with technology and that’s what K-Def did. As computers came onto the scene, I jumped right on the computers and started making music on the computers and I used that to my advantage. Now, I feel outta place trying to use an MPC again, it just doesn’t make sense. I can’t make a hit song like I did in the ‘90s, because the first thing I’m thinking is it’s going to take a whole bunch of sample to make this song and I’m not going to see no money. It’s a great record and it’s a hit record and everybody else who made the records in the ‘70s that I sampled from, they’re the ones that are eating from it and I’m sitting here twiddling my fingers with nothing and I did all the work for it. There has to be some kind of way where that changes. I just feel that they’re really hard on producers when it comes to sampling, but people still want to hear them because it’s what they love to hear, and yet producers are getting thrown into the shit every time!
Filed under: Interviews
2007 has been good to Rawkus (more of this in the very near future). With a slew of quality releases and a clear focus on the importance of the digital game, there seems to be no stopping the label of late. I recently spoke to Barak Yalad, an MC whose recent affiliation with the Rawkus imprint via the Rawkus 50 should stand him in good stead in a market now heavily saturated with the great, good and downright awful. Although his first albumLoss For Words does feel somewhat inconsistent, there’s more than enough on show here to indicate that Barak could be someone to look out for in the future, and ‘Bewitch’ in particular has received some heavy play from me over the last couple of weeks. Here’s how it went down…
From Da Bricks: Congratulations on making the Rawkus 50. For those not in the know, can you fill people in on what it is exactly?
Barak Yalad: Basically, Rawkus is re-emerging and they are doing something that no other record label has ever done before. They’re pushing out 50 of the hottest MCs, a lot of searching, time and juggling has gone into finding the right artists to be a part of this camp. We got picked out. Rawkus was looking for well developed artists with a fanbase that were already making a lot of noise. That’s how they made the selections, and it’s a good start for a lot of underground hip hop artists and for the label to bring its name back up to what it was. After laying low for a bit it’s their way of coming back up, fresh to the world again.
FDB: It must feel good to be associated with the label after their previous successes.
BY: Man, it’s like a dream come true. For me back in the day I grew up listening to Rawkus: Company Flow, Big L, Mos Def, Kweli… I always dreamed of being a part of that. It was a label suited for artists such as myself and it feels kinda freaky now that dream has come true. I was like ‘wow, I’m hanging out with the president of Rawkus!’ [laughs] It’s pretty cool right now.
FDB: I know they’re linking to the audio on iTunes and Amazon, but do you intend to get a physical product out there as well?
BY: Definitely. Right now a lot of my CDs are in stores and I’m hustling them on the street when I’m doing shows: CDs are there, t-shirts are there, all kinds of merchandise is ready to go. I’m trying to set up some kind of distribution so I can get my music out there and overseas. I’m setting up a network at the moment through PayPal to CD Baby and Amazon so fans can still get the hard copy. That’s the diamond right there! You want that to put in your archive. The digital is one thing, but we’re definitely pushing our own hard copies as well.
FDB: Is there any chance of Rawkus being involved in that or will you have to do it independently?
BY: It’s gonna be an independent job. They’re doing the digital distribution through Iota to 125 digital distributing networks. They’re holding that down. The reason they’re doing that is that people aren’t really buying CDs anymore unless you’re a megastar, you know what I mean? Everyone is getting everything online now, click of a button, put it in the iPod: people just wanna listen to the music. It saves on manufacturing and all those different costs.
FDB: At the beginning of the album you state that you’ve been MCing for 18 years. Can you talk me through your journey up until this point?
BY: I started out at 14 years old. I realised I had a pretty raw talent there, I’d trash talk to my friends and things like that. At first they didn’t believe that I could rap because I was such a schoolboy! [laughs] Eventually, I started coming out with flows from nowhere and I found it easy to do. Most people look at it like it’s really difficult, but to me I just rhymed a couple of words and that’s it!
FDB: You’re lucky! I guess it came naturally.
BY: It started to grow after a time. I was doing a lot of venues at 16/17/18 and was very much involved in the graf and b-boy scene. I was really a dancer. This must have been around ’91 or ’92. As far as hip hop, I was grown into it, because when I was 10 or 11 years old I was already in it. But as far as MCing, that developed when I was 14 when I realised I could actually do it. That’s when I started doing all the shows and putting myself out there.
But this is my first album after 18 years! My thing was that I didn’t want to be one of these local artists who were like ‘yo, I’m on like my 18th album’. I didn’t want to put myself in that circle so I made a promise to myself that I would not drop an album until I got a deal.
FDB: So what’s the story with this album?
BY: Some people have asked me if I’m happy with my first album and I am, but it could have been a lot better. I felt the project was a little rushed, and a lot of the songs were things that I had done in the past and were recycled over new sounds. I’m currently working with the Justus League and in particular Kemistry, a Justus League affiliate, so we just updated some of the older stuff. The album is called Loss For Words because when I finished that’s how I felt, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it! [laughs]
There is a deeper meaning to it though. When you listen to some of the things I’m breaking down, it reminds me of something that my Grandma used to say which was ‘a hard head makes a soft behind’. If you keep trying to teach people about the system or the government and how we should move forward it can be lost: there are a lot of hard-headed people out there. It gets to the point where you have to let a man tend to his own soil, and when they do they might be like ‘wow, this guy was right all along’, but you have to learn the hard way. That’s how it works. So it got to the point where I felt I’d said all I could say with Loss For Words and there wasn’t anything more I could say to you. I said everything I could say. [laughs]
FDB: I did feel that the album had a lot of variety to it and wondered if that was intentional or the result of mixing and matching old with new. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
BY: When the album was being created, my producer Young Cee was throwing beats at me that were just blowing my mind and it was a case of matching stuff together: this’ll go with this, that’ll go with that. That’s pretty much how it worked. There wasn’t any real science behind it, but me and Young Cee rode together perfectly on it.
FDB: How did you hook up with the guys from the Justus League?
BY: That’s pretty interesting. We have a unit in Massachusetts called Ceremonial Masters, and we used to bump into different people when we were doing venues. In the midst of all of that I was meeting a lot of different DJs, and one of them was Wreckineyez from Atlanta. He happened to be connected Little Brother and a lot of different people, and he told me about this group of producers who he thought I should meet. He was DJing one of my shows and he brought along some of their sounds and I was blown away. I invited them to come to one of my showcases and bring their MPC or whatever they were making beats on to do a live beat show. We connected really easily and we just kept up from there.
At the same time, Young Cee hooked up with Slopfunkdust, the A & R for Rawkus. He was the first guy that heard the ‘Bewitch’ song and it was on from there. Young Cee has actually produced for a lot of artists, Little Brother, Skyzoo, Ed O.G…. his list goes on. I just happened to be with a producer that was doing heavy things for other people and pulled some strings to get where I am now.
FDB: Let’s get onto the rhymes. I was personally struck by a likeness in your style to Pharoahe Monch and Mr Complex. Would you say that those people have been influences on you?
BY: A lot of it is just my own vernacular, but at the same time, a lot of these brothers I grew up listening to. When I write, my flows constantly change up and I’m always on something different every time. But having grown up listening to Pharoahe, Mos Def and Kweli and those sort of people who are still around today, a lot of those elements are definitely in my blood. I look at those guys as real hip hop: expression through words. From Rakim to De La to the Fu Schnickens, there are so many artists who I could name that have influenced me over the years.
FDB: You handled some of the production on the album as well didn’t you?
BY: Yea, I am a producer and have been producing for quite some time. I’ve made a lot of beats for a lot of local artists that are still trying to get discovered. Actually a lot of my songs were originally over my beats. The song that got noticed by Rawkus was ‘Bewitch’ and they were blown away by it.
FDB: That’s definitely my favourite on the album.
BY: It really got them. So when they found out I was working with Young Cee from the Justus League the said that I should work with him to do the album. So I left a lot of the production up to him and I wanted to focus on my rhymes, I wanted to really write.
The second album Pressure Point is gonna be next level. I got a lot of treats on it, it’s going to be fully developed with storylines… it’s going to be like watching a movie.
FDB: How far along with it are you?
BY: I’m hoping to drop that by next summer. We don’t know who it’s going to be under so there’s still a lot of time to figure stuff out.
FDB: Is that going to happen with the Justus League connections?
BY: Yea, it’s gonna be with them and a lot more other producers. I’m even dealing with a producer out in Sweden called 12 Bit. I’m really working with producers from overseas as well, there’s so many great producers in Europe.
FDB: Europe does seem to be a market for artists who would consider themselves to be ‘real’ hip hop, having traditionally supported lots of underground American acts. Do you perceive a difference between Europe and the US?
BY: Hip hop in the US is at a standstill. It feels bogus if you ask me. Everybody’s into the jewellery and the chains, violence and guns that is a part of hip hop as it is the word of the streets. Then down south you get the partying and snapping which is again a part of hip hop, but there are a lot more elements in hip hop and right now America isn’t exercising. It’s sad, because the kids out here are being polluted with this madness. Nothing wrong with looking nice, with wearing jewellery… Slick Rick had jewellery! [laughs] the real problem with it is that it’s saturated and there just isn’t room for anything else out there.
The overseas market does seem to be more about music, and although who you are is important, there does seem to e more of an attitude that if you’re hot, you’re hot. All the elements seem to still be going overseas, and that doesn’t seem to exist anymore here in the US. You find certain places, but you got to know where to go. I’m in New York and I don’t even see it!
FDB: Are you from New York originally?
BY: No, I’m actually from Springfield, Massachusets. That’s like my foundation. From Boston, to Springfield and then onto New York. I’ve been here for 6 years now, so I’m still new here, but it’s long enough to say I rep it. [laughs]
FDB: I wish you the best with it all man.
BY: Take care, peace.
Da King & I – ‘Flip Da Script’ (Remix)
taken from Flip Da Script VLS (Rowdy, 1993)
If you’ve been tuning into FDB for a while you’ll know that one of my discoveries of the year has been the fantastic Contemporary Jeep Music from Brooklyn duo DJ Majesty and MC Izzy Ice aka Da King & I. The definition of slept on, the crew’s first and only full length really is a forgotten gem, and if you’ve still failed to check it out then you’re playing yourself something terrible. It was a great pleasure for me to get in contact with the production half of the duo, DJ Majesty, and discuss things past and present: apart from being a hero, he’s also one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of talking to about hip hop. Here’s how it went down…
From Da Bricks: I’m really happy you agreed to the interview man, I’ve been listening to hip hop for a long time now and when I first heard Contemporary Jeep Music at the beginning of the year it blew me away.
DJ Majesty: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
FDB: Why do you think it endures as such a slept on release?
M: At the time, when we first put the album together, it was kinda an experiment. Not as far as us doing what we do, but for the label Rowdy it was. It was the same label as Monica. At the time they didn’t really know anything about hip hop because they were from Atlanta and we were from New York, so when they put us out no-one really knew what the project was until a couple of years later. People such as yourselves, on blogs and stuff have been like ‘yo, that album was so crazy! I don’t understand!’ but we didn’t get the promotions. We didn’t bicker about it though, we just did the music we felt we were supposed to do. We grew up around Special Ed, Chubb Rock… I came up under Howie Tee, he showed me a lot of stuff. Being in that environment, that music was kind of normal for us, it’s just what we were always around and what we heard so when we felt that we had a chance to do an album, that’s the way we were gonna do it. We didn’t think about the money, we didn’t think about anything like that, we were just doing music from the heart and that’s just the way we do music.
FDB: Can you fill me in on how you and Izzy got together and on some of the earlier releases like the ‘Soul Man’ 45?
M: Wow, you went back! ‘Soul Man’ was actually produced by Howie Tee. Me and Izzy lived around the same neighbourhood and we kinda grew up together. We actually met through Chubb Rock who was a friend of mine who lived two doors away from me. I used to go to Chubb’s crib and just listen to records. I didn’t know how to do beats, but I always had ideas from the block parties and breaks, so I would bring breaks to Chubb and Howie. They would use the record but it wasn’t like I produced it, I’d just bring them ideas.
One day, me and Izzy were sitting out and we decided to form a group. We used to do most of our music using pause tapes, and we used to bring our music to Chubb and Howie’s place to critique it. How the group really got going was when I went to get a 950, my Moms was gonna give me the money, and I went to World Music and that’s when we started venturing out and doing our own music. I bumped into Shadez Of Lingo who were also on Rowdy at the New Music Seminar. We had an agreement that whoever got hooked up first would reach out for the other group. They kept their end of the bargain and introduced me to Dallas Austin and the rest was history.
FDB: The Shadez Of Lingo album is another example of something that has kinda picked up attention long after its release through blogs.
M: Right. We really vibed musically and gelled really well together. I think the problem with hip hop right now is that guys are scared to take chances and be themselves. That’s what’s really making the music stagnant. It’s not so much that hip hop is dead, I just think the creative process of being free has been lost. Everybody’s scared to take chances, and if you can’t just be yourself then you’re kind of scared to live, you know what I mean?
FDB: So when did the two of you start work on Contemporary Jeep Music?
M: In 1992. I was in the movie Juice that came out in ’92 and we got signed in June. The funny thing about it is that we did all of the singles in one day.
M: Yea, because that was like all the pre-production from the house. I had the MP-62, the 950 and an eight track board. When the politics came into play, that’s what took the rest of the album so long. We had ‘Flip Da Script’, ‘Krak Da Weazel’, ‘Tearz’, ‘Let’s Take A Trip’ and ‘Ghetto Instinct’ all done in one day.
FDB: That’s crazy.
M: We didn’t know how the business angle was supposed to turn out, and when we got into the politics of them picking singles, and ‘you can’t do this kind of sample’ type thing that’s what kind of messed us up with our flow. We probably could’ve done about 80 songs back then because we used to just work, work, work and we figured out the rest later.
FDB: When I talk to people about the album, I tend to describe your production style as being quite playful, with lots of different samples coming and going throughout each track. What was the genesis of that style?
M: Pretty much my upbringing, man. In my household we listened to all kinds of music, from jazz, to David Bowie and onto James Brown so coming up my ear was always tuned to different kinds of music. That, and being around lots of different individuals who liked lots of different things meant that I was never the kind of guy to say ‘I’m gonna sample horns’, or ‘I’ll sample jazz breaks’, I just sampled whatever I liked to hear. I like to feel good, so when I go to choose my samples I choose those that’ll make you feel good.
The funny thing about Contemporary Jeep Music was that we used a lot of samples that other people rocked, but they didn’t rock it like we did. We never felt like samples were sacred ground that you couldn’t go over again, so we’d look for things in records that other people hadn’t seen.
FDB: One example of that is the piano loop from ‘Mr. All That’ that had already cropped up on one of the Spencer Bellamy produced tracks on the preC.I.S.E. MC album.
M: How did you remember that?! [laughs]
FDB: I interviewed Spencer recently so had been listening to the album again.
M: That’s crazy! Yea, we both used the Ramsey Lewis joint. That’s my boy too. We all used to be in the basement together. Me, Spencer, Howie Tee, Chubb Rock… so many people used to come to that guy’s basement it’s not even funny. Just what he did with two 950s was amazing to me. He taught me patience, he taught me to listen to the whole record, arrangement, just watching him doing his thing was crazy. He’d take something that 50 people had used but it would be his that you remembered: his was always the most distinctive. I would say it was him and Marley Marl that were groundbreaking to me at that time. The things that they did were like ‘woah!’ [laughs]
FDB: Another thing that really strikes me about the album is the cohesion between beats and rhymes. What was the process for you working together as a pair?
M: Everything we did pretty much started as a concept. We always thought about something before we did the beat. He’d be like ‘I wanna talk about girls’, so we’d make sure that there was some emotion in the beat. When he rhymed over it, it was more believable, because the content felt the same as the energy from the music. That’s pretty much how we did it.
FDB: What part did Izzy play in production?
M: He’d suggest where to put a change, or to add a bridge, or which beats should go with which samples. We were open-ended when it came to ideas, we were never selfish when it came to the production route. Anybody could come in a room with us and contribute if they had some ideas! [laughs]
FDB: You mentioned earlier about Dallas Austin, what was his involvement in the project?
M: The record label was his and he kinda geared us up to be ourselves. He came in and said ‘for you guys to be different you need to avoid pigeonholing yourselves’. What I really noticed about him was that we were the same age, but he had that knowledge and individuals around him to guide him, so he was ahead of his years. He’d produced Boyz II Men, Madonna, every popstar you could name he had produced when he was only 22 years old, so it would’ve been dumb for me not to listen to him. He knew what he was talking about. I just sat back and listened whenever he talked about putting together songs, and that’s where we got our ideas from. He told us to arrange our rap songs like R & B songs, have it change up with a bridge or something, and that’s why our music always changed and why there were lots of things going on. That’s what I got from him.
FDB: One thing that always surprised me about the album was the cover art, because it seemed at odds somewhat with the content of the album. How did that come about?
M: We were from Flatbush and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn at the time. We knew musically we were different, but we still wanted to fit in. Visually at that time it was the Timberlands, Carhartt, and we wanted to lure people in just from the look. When they got the album, we hoped it would blow them away because it wasn’t what they thought it was going to be just from the cover. It was kind of like a double standard: you looked at the package and think one thing but when you open it up you got a little bit more.
FDB: I guess that contrast is fitting with the name of the album as well, where you’re still paying tribute to more street level records but offering something different musically.
M: The funny thing about the album title was that we came up with it on a tour bus with Teddy Riley. We were on a promo tour with Wreckx N Effect, Teddy and a few other guys and Teddy listened to a few tracks from the album. He was like ‘wow, it’s kind of real laid back and smoothed out’. I was like ‘that’s not really what I was going for!’ but he was like ‘nah, it’s laid back, but it’s hip hop, jeep bangers’. That’s how the name was born.
FDB: I know you posted a credit on the Yall So Stupid album around the same time.
M: Yea, I did ‘Plant’ and ‘Bootleg Beatdown’ on that album.
FDB: Did you have anything more to do with those guys because they were on Rowdy as well, weren’t they?
M: When we were mixing the album they came in and they asked us if we did production for anybody. At that time, we didn’t really like to work with other people that much because we were so concentrated on the concept of the group, but when they asked I offered them a few beats and those were the two that were on the album.
FDB: Did you post any other production credits at that time?
M: Yea, I worked with Missy, Timbaland’s first two albums, SWV. I did a lot of R & B work after that because I was trying to work with other rappers but for me, I gotta get motivated to work with certain cats and sometimes their subject matter just doesn’t do it for me. I wanted to challenge myself and go in a whole different direction, that’s why I didn’t do a lot of rap production at the time. I also worked with Medina Howard, did a remix for MC Lyte, a few other bits and pieces as well.
FDB: So what have you been up to since then?
M: I kinda faded into the background. I had a couple of songs with Elektra, I did some Keith Sweat stuff, some LSG, stuff that’s out there but I’m not the cat to get in the videos and shout my name so if you don’t look at the credits you’re not gonna know.
FDB: Do you approach R & B production in the same way you do hip hop?
M: It depends. With Missy, she’s kinda abstract. Getting with her was a challenge because she doesn’t like you to do any pre-made beats, so that made me work on the spot with a concept. She wants to be a part of the whole situation. Working with her got me motivated and inspired, because let’s say she’d be on a Stevie Wonder vibe but on that day I might be in Jimi Hendrix mode! [laughs] To have to turn it on and off, it takes your production to another level. It’s still sample based but there’s a lot of instruments as well.
FDB: Do you play any instruments?
M: I play the guitar a little bit, the keyboards a little but. I wouldn’t say I’m a keyboardist but I can play enough to get the job done.
FDB: What about Izzy? What happened to him?
M: He fell back for a minute. He started up an internet company that he’s working on now. He still always rapped, that wasn’t the problem, we just felt like we didn’t really get the just-do we deserved. Instead of being angry, it was just time to tackle something else. But now, we’re like seven songs deep on a new joint so we’re just going to keep going.
FDB: Is the way that you work together still the same?
M: It’s the same, it hasn’t lost a thing. People are gonna think ‘wow, I can’t believe they didn’t drop a second album!’ because it’s still timeless stuff… maybe this one will last another ten years! [laughs]
FDB: How would you describe the sound of the new album?
M: Wow… I would call it more heartfelt in terms of concepts. We’re not talking about money or anything like that, we’re talking about the regular working class guy that’s still trying to pay his bills. Those are the people we’re trying to reach. It’s still sample based but it’s a new twist on the samples. I’m chopping up a lot of breaks like you never heard ‘em before. That’s going to be the main theme of the album.
FDB: When are you hoping to have that done?
M: We want to finish by the end of the year, so we’re trying to get it out during the second quarter of next year. The thing is that we’re fifteen years on, we’re grown, and we want to do it because we feel like there’s people out there who we left a void and we just want to add on to whatever we had back there, I’m not trying to really make any new fans. That was the real motivation for the new joint.
FDB: I can’t wait to hear it. Have you got a distributor lined up?
M: Nah, we’re gonna do this one independent. We may get some international distributors, but now with the internet you don’t need to get bogged down with one situation or one label. I know it’s going to be a growing process, a tour here for a month or two, a tour somewhere else, so to be stuck in one situation… we’re not a million a week group. I don’t think a label would be into us.
FDB: So what role do you see the internet playing in this one?
M: We’re gonna set up a website where you can go and download the album. But just as far as getting out to people it’s just so much easier, you don’t even have to leave your living room to meet new people. We don’t need to waste a load of money on posters and stuff like that like when we first started.
FDB: And what do you make of the internet hip hop scene? Is it something you regularly engage with?
M: I love it because it educates cats that don’t know. People often don’t know the history of certain types of music, and I think the golden age era hip hop should be the blueprint for any type of hip hop that you’re doing. That’s when you had so many different styles, so many different artists, but we were all in one big pot. You didn’t feel like you had to be one way. Now you have a Jadakiss, a 50, but it’s pretty much the same pot. Back then you had Slick Rick, BDK, Kool G Rap, KRS One, Public Enemy, Black Sheep, Pete Rock, Gangstarr, all different styles and we all loved ‘em. We all took something from everyone of those artists but now there just isn’t that versatility that you got back in the 90s.
I think what people like you are doing is such a great thing because you’re giving away so much information and educating people. I was blown away when I saw what you’d written about us because it made me feel like we’d accomplished something and that people had absorbed our music. That made me feel good! [laughs]
FDB: That’s great, thank you. So who are you still checkin’ for nowadays?
M: I like Common a lot, I love his music because he always brings that punch with the lyrics and his production never lost a step. I like Kanye… I love something from everybody. I may not like the whole album, but there’s definitely something I love from everybody. I like Just Blaze, Dr Dre of course… loads of stuff. The only thing I’m not into is the empty raps, you know the snap raps, it’s good for some people but it’s not my thing.
FDB: Thanks again for taking the time out to chat man.
M: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Big shout out once again to Majesty for filling us in on all of the ins and outs of Contemporary Jeep Music and things to come in the future. To say I’m excited about the prospect of new material from the duo is such a ridiculous understatement that it’s not even true. Keep your eyes and ears peeled people, we may have our hands on a few exclusives here at FDB in the near future…
Gnawledge Records (stream available for Rhyme And Beats)
Although I’m lacking the exclusive angle here (Tree Beats has already commented on the album over at his spot), I was privileged enough to be able to have the opportunity to chat to Gnotes, an up and coming MC from Boston, about his new album Rhymes & Beats over the phone this week. Although some of the album isn’t exactly to my taste, an overall sense of quality and detail coupled with standouts such as ‘Check Dos’ and ‘Dodgey Bullets’ mean that you’d be a fool not to check it out. The above link will take you to the Gnawledge Records website where you can stream the album in its entirety and if you’re convinced then it’s available on Amazon.
From Da Bricks: Congratulations on the album man, I hope it all turns out well for you.
Gnotes: Thank you very much man, I put in a lot of work on that album and it seems like people are starting to give a good response back, you know what I mean?
FDB: I know you’re from Boston and you obviously have quite eclectic taste in music. What were your early experiences of music?
G: I started playing the guitar when I was ten years old. I was listening to a lot of different music before I started listening to hip hop, so when I was young I was playing punk, garage type stuff and grunge. I really got into hip hop when the west coast thing started blowin’ up, so it was really Dre and Snoop that turned me onto the whole artform. From there, a lot of my influences are from the older cats on the east coast, Pete Rock and people like that. Once I got into it there was no turning back!
FDB: I noticed as well that you have had several releases out before now, but I haven’t ever caught wind of them. Can you talk me through some of those earlier releases?
G: This is the fourth release that Canyon [Gnawledge Records founder] and I put out, but it’s really the second strictly hip hop album. The first album was entitled Broken Spoke, that was a hip hop album cut from the same form with a lot of world influences, but it was kind of just a stepping stone. We put that out in 2004. From then we did a spoken word album that was kind of just a collection of poets who were all competing in slams and stuff, and we had some musicians on it as well. I did quite a lot of guitar on that album. That was primarily Canyon’s brainchild. The third album, Inthrumental, was essentially a hip hop album but it was basically dusty breakbeats with a lot of live instrumentation. There’s no words on the album, it’s strictly musical, some sample based material, lots of live trumpets and I play a lot of guitar and do the MPC drums and so on. So the album before this was essentially a blank canvas, almost lounge music.
FDB: So how did you hook up with Canyon and Gnawledge in the first place?
G: Canyon used to be a journalist and he was reviewing a poetry slam that I was doing, and my Broken SpokeLP was essentially recorded by then. I was looking for a way to put it out and trying to start my own little independent label. Canyon was coming from the other end of the spectrum. He was looking to start his own record company but didn’t really have an artist to work with. The two of us got together and it just worked out really well: we had a lot of the same goals, ambitions and influences. Shortly after we met one another we put out Broken Spoke and travelled to Cuba for the tenth annual hip hop festival, and really just the type of work ethic that he has and the way that I like to work… we just vibe really well together.
FDB: You’ve already mentioned about some of your different production roles, for the new album can you break down the production? Is it lots of live instruments, MPC based, and do you still use samples?
G: It’s a little bit of everything. There’s four outsourced beats on the album out of fourteen. Personally, as a musician as well as an MC, I take a lot of pride in making the music. I think you lose a sense of soul when you have producers and rappers who haven’t even met each other paying for music, ya know? There’s a lot of sample based stuff, although I try to chop it and make it as obscure as I can. I have a lot of Latin records, a lot of old Brazilian music, so for example ‘Samba Tryst’ is based around one of those old Brazilian songs. From there, I put it in my MPC, cut it up and put the drums over it, and then almost every track I put live bass and guitar on it as well and as much as I can I get Afro DZ Ak to come and play trumpet on the track ‘cos I feel it adds a lot of life to it. Any track you listen to the skeleton is probably from a sample and then layer it up from there. The sample used on ‘Throw Ya Nickels Up’ is a cello and then I added live bass, drums from the MPC and live guitar. There’s a mix in each of the tracks.
FDB: Obviously you do rhymes as well, so when you’re thinking of the concept for a track is that the rhymes that come first and then the beats or the other way around?
G: It kind of varies with the projects. With this album I really focussed on the music. Primarily what I’m doing now is making a beat and then from the emotion of the music I go from there for the topic of the rhymes. Sometimes the sample I use may give me a framework to go with. For example, ‘Missing You’ was a Charlie Pride sample that says ‘missing you’, so that kind of speaks for itself in terms of direction. I primarily work on the music first, then the rhymes and then go back and rework everything.
FDB: So do you still see them as on a level playing field for you personally? Are you still involved in spoken word at all?
G: The spoken word scene got pretty tired for me pretty quickly to be honest. Being lyrically taut is a huge requirement for me, it’s just that being an instrumentalist means that I want the framework I rap over to have some musical substantiation. That’s the key focus for me. It’s not that I focus less on the rhymes, but I think it’s more important to get the music correct. You know, once I’ve done a song I rework it 15 or 20 times until we get it right, and that’s the role that Canyon plays. He’ll listen to a song and say whether the snares are too loud, maybe I’m emphasising the wrong word or he might question what I mean in a particular verse and then we’ll go back and re-record it. I probably recorded each song on the album at least 7 or 8 times.
FDB: Can you tell me a little bit about ‘Throw Ya Nickels Up’, the first single from the album?
G: That’s a more political track. I try to walk the line between mentioning socially relevant topics and being too overbearing. Music is a celebration and the last thing you want to do is put out a song that’s just a downer [laughs]. You want something that challenges people’s intelligence and avoids just stating the obvious. ‘Throw Ya Nickels Up’ is a politically driven song, I think instrumentally it kind of pointed in that direction. The drums are huge and then once I put the guitar in the hook it just seemed like a motivation for a ‘power to the people’ type of song. There are 4 or 5 tracks on the album that are very politically driven but it also walks the line between mentioning what I do as well.
FDB: You have a lot of collaborations on the album. How did those relationships come about?
G: Afro DZ Ak plays trumpet and he rhymes on one of the tracks. He played 7 tracks on Inthrumental, the two of us met and just instantly clicked. He’s on kind of the same vibe as me, he’s an MC but also an instrumentalist, so he plays piano and trumpet and I do guitar, bass and drums so the two of us have actually worked together a lot and I’m producing part of his album right now. Kabir, who features on ‘Tower Of Babylon’ is an MC from the Boston area who I met through music and is a great friend, very talented guy who has been around forever and put out a number of records. They’re all kind of driving from the peace poem, revolutionary segment of my peers. I have friends who are just straight rappers, a little bit more hood style, but the people I was looking for with this album were socially relevant and intelligent. Noni Kai, she sings on ‘We Can Roll’ is a singer from a band in Boston called The Eclectic Collective and she was actually just at my apartment working with another musician and I was writing ‘We Can Roll’ at the time and I just stole her for a minute and got her to sing and it worked out beautifully in just one take. The final collaboration is Elemental Zazen, another very talented cat from Boston who has a new album coming out soon. He’s actually the MC in another band that I play for, so when I’m doing a live show I’ll do a set with my DJ and then I do a set playing guitar for Elemental Zazen as well.
FDB: You’ve toured with some big hitters recently like Devin The Dude and CunninLynguists. What was that experience like?
G: It was great man. Devin The Dude is one of my favourite MCs so the opportunity to do anything with him is great. Obviously he’s a much bigger blip on my radar than I am on his. I saw him a couple of days ago in Boston and he’s an unbelievable cat, a great person to work with, just a really talented guy. It was just a pleasure. As far as touring and playing shows goes that’s my love, so being able to rock a show with the CunninLynguists who I’ve been listening to since I was 16 is a big step forward for me to be able to get my name in the same ring as people who I listen to.
FDB: Is there any potential for collaboration there do you think?
G: Yea, I mean Elemental Zazen has already worked with Kno from CunninLynguists as he produced like three songs on Elemental’s album that’s coming out. Much like anything else, a lot of this business has to do with networking and I really do hope to have Kno make some tracks for my next album. The more people I meet in the game who are further ahead than me and more established than I am the better. They all seem to treat me with respect because they know I’m coming from a pure place with the music. As long as I continue to put out quality work there’s no reason why I couldn’t get some bigger names on my next release.
FDB: In a more general sense, what do you make of hip hop at the moment? Do you still have a lot of time for people making music now?
G: I think if you talk to any MC who is cut from the same cloth as me the first thing they’ll say is ‘fuck the industry’ and stuff but I think if you look at any music whether it be punk, rap, rock, folk or whatever the stuff we are spoon fed through MTV and the radio is garbage, so ultimately it’s up to the listener. If you love the music then you find other artists who aren’t being shoved in your face with huge cars and half naked women on it: you can find beautiful music. The thing with hip hop for me is that the way it is marketed is really destructive socially. Essentially what you have is a black artform, and I realise I’m saying this from the perspective of a white MC that is now characterised by really strong stereotypes and destructive messages being sent out about the urban community that is being consumed by wealthy, middle and upper class white kids who kind of see it as their dose of reality. Unfortunately when you look at the music the labels are putting out it really just perpetuates a lot of stereotypes and a lot of negative things: that’s my biggest problem with it. But you know if I’m in a club out dancing and I hear a commercial song it can sound good, there still needs to be a niche for that, but it’s shame that it strangles everything else with stereotypical rap bullshit. I don’t hate it, it’s there and it exists in all genres. It’s a testament to how powerful hip hop can be that it’s on loads of commercials and I still have a lot of hope and I think the listenership are getting tired of all that bullshit too and seem to be leaning towards more emotive, constructive and positive music.
FDB: Obviously your main point of focus at the moment must be Rhymes & Beats, but have you got other projects lined up?
G: Canyon is out in Spain at the moment on a Fulbright scholarship and his project is to record a multi-lingual, international hip hop album kind of tracing the roots of human migration through Spain and how that affected its music. So I’m actually going out there to record an album with a bunch of MCs from Spain, France, Morocco and really all over Europe and we’re starting that in January. Beyond that I’m doing other production work and playing with my band so I’ve still got a lot going on.
FDB: I wish you the best with it man.
G: Thanks man, peace.
Not only has it been a pleasure talking to artists of late, I also think that the increasing interview activity in the blog scene in wider terms is an interesting indication of the ever-growing profile of online hip hop spots. It’s good to see artists taking the time to engage with the internet heads… long may it continue. I’ve hopefully got a few more in the pipeline in the near future, so stay locked.
Make the most of the remainder of your Sunday: beer, TV and a comfy sofa is the order of the day round my way. That’s what Sundays were made for, isn’t it?
Eddie James – ‘My Thoughts’(Unreleased)
Seth Marcel – ‘Hardcore’ ft. Aki
taken from So Necessary(Unreleased)
When I wrote my recent post on three producers who I wish I’d heard more from, little did I know that it would lead to not one, but two interviews with the artists I mentioned. I’ve waxed lyrical on two occasions about Eddie James’s work here at FDB on the sensational AK Skillz 12” from ‘96: both ‘One Life Ta Live’ and ‘East To West’ are truly slammin’. I had the pleasure to talk to him last week, and I really appreciated his openness and friendly, upbeat manner which made it a true joy.
From Da Bricks: As I said to you the other day, that AK Skills 12’’ has been one of my discoveries of the year. Does it surprise you that 11 years later someone living in the UK is writing about it on a blog?
Eddie James: You know, it’s funny because Skills [director of Tru Criminal Records] called me up and was like, ‘Yo, you’re never gonna guess what I’ve seen. There’s this blog, and it’s about you!’ You never really know… I knew that I was doing something special back then. I talk with Just Blaze who I met essentially through MySpace, and we had met a couple of times before but he didn’t know that I was the guy who did that record. I asked him for some advice, and he was like, ‘Is this the Eddie James who did ‘East to West’ on Tru Criminal?’ He remembered my name from then even though he didn’t remember who the other artists were. I haven’t actually heard ‘East To West’ or ‘One Life Ta Live’ since ’97/’98.
FDB: Can you talk me though the construction of those songs?
EJ: I was using an MPC 60 through college and I was a part of a group called Channel Three, kinda like Main Source in a way where we were all DJs and producers. When I graduated from college I couldn’t take the equipment! Syracuse is about four hours from the metropolitan NYC area, so when I moved back down I copped an SP 1200 and the 950. The problem with the SP1200 was that it didn’t have a lot of sample time, maybe a total of about ten seconds. For ‘One Life Ta Live’ I multi-pitched a note from a Minnie Riperton song or something like that. I just took the keys. Part of my thing is that I’ve always been known to have drums: neck snappin’ and clean. If you listen closely ‘One Life Ta Live’ reminds me of a Pete Rock track, and the high hat is one that got used a lot, taken from an O.J.s’ record called ‘Give The People What They Want’. Listen to that record and you’ll hear the high hats, that’s where everyone used to rape them from during the early ‘90s.
FDB: It’s interesting that you’ve picked Pete Rock because the producer it really reminds me of is Buckwild. Would you say that’s a fair comparison? Has he been an influence on you?
EJ: Buck is my friend man. There were only three producers responsible for the Tru Criminal movement: myself, Buck and Domingo. I really loved Buck’s production on the AK Skillz track that was on the EP. It was a hard, hard record.
‘East To West’ was one of the first times I ever used the 950. It was simple, the drums were hard and the melody was soft. My father was a jazz artist and so I got a lot of my influences from his records. Pete Rock flipped the same sample and he used to play my record followed by his on the Future Flavas show with Marley Marl. We did the same thing with it, filtered it and let it run. AK was great on the vocals again and it feels like we were doing something special at that time.
FDB: Whatever happened to AK Skillz? I heard at one stage that he’d done a little time in prison. Is that right?
EJ: Yea, he did some time. AK was a strange guy man. He was good people, but he was the type of person that would talk in riddles all the time. You never really knew what the hell he was sayin’! [laughs] When it came to rhymes he was incredible. He reminds me of Nasty Nas, but you know the early stuff. If you listen to his verse on ‘Live At The BBQ’ it really reminds me of AK, you know the Queens rappers, they have the same cadence. Unfortunately, the streets are the streets and some people can’t get out of it. I haven’t spoken to him in about eight years bro. I wish him well, wherever he is.
FDB: How did you hook up with the Tru Criminal label and get your start in the production game?
EJ: The guys who ran Tru Criminal were my college buddies. We all went to Syracuse together and they kinda brought me along with them. I’m actually from Syracuse so I wasn’t actually in the tri-state area so it was hard for me to get a hold and compete with the producers. I used to DJ a lot in battles and stuff like that, and I knew I could do the scratches that Jazzy Jeff was doing and I carried that approach over to production. If your beats didn’t sound remotely like Pete Rock, Extra P or Ali Shaheed Muhammad then you really wasn’t doing it right. It wasn’t like I was bitin’, but any person who says they’re not a reflection of somebody then they’re fucking lying.
FDB: I guess that’s the nature of all art. There is always a basis on things that have gone before.
EJ: Take someone like Timbaland. He’s one of my favourite producers but there’s someone in the UK he’s jacking samples from: I don’t think anybody is truly original. I’d like to think of myself as a good collage of a lot of producers.
FDB: How come the label released such a limited amount of material?
EJ: That whole movement came at a time when things were changing. The music changed around ‘97/’98: I’d say Puffy really fucked shit up! Really, that’s when underground records started becoming really underground. Tru Criminal actually got a deal with New Line, and received some national coverage on some Rush Hoursoundtracks.
For me, I started to produce for some other groups like Born Suspicious who were Derrick Coleman’s cousins from Detroit. Derrick was also a friend of mine from college. Those records were alright, but nothing really to go crazy about.
FDB: It’s clear from your MySpace and your more recent material that Dilla has been a big influence for you. What do you think it was about his production style that made it so special?
EJ: The first record of his I ever heard was the ‘She Said’ remix for Pharcyde. That record really hit me. As well as that there was Beats, Rhymes & Life, which to me was a fucking incredible album. A lot of people say it’s too dark for Tribe, but that album is incredible. I knew there was something different about their sound: the melodies were still the same but the basslines had more sub-bass that really attracted me to it. I checked the insleeve and saw that some cat called Jaydee had been involved in the production. My old manager used to work for Jive Records and I can remember meeting Dilla years ago at Battery Studios while he was working on the Keith Murray record. He had a sense of not really giving a fuck when it came to basslines and drums. I used to quantise my drums just to be on the safe side but he was the first producer to not really do it and if you listen to his music the bass kicks are sometimes a little bit off or maybe the high hat, but always on time and the basslines were just incredible. I’d never heard anything like it, and from that point on I was a fanatic. I finally wound up meeting him again because we recorded at the same studio in Detroit. He was a constant professional and just a good person man.
The music speaks for itself; the guy was way ahead of his time. Everybody is using the hard kicks and the claps now but if you listen to the Slum Village albums he’s rockin’ those same claps that everybody eventually used. The D’Angelo Voodoo album uses a clap that ended up on everybody’s records like three years ago. The Trakmasterz ran that clap to the ground! I saw him work as well and at the beginning it sometimes looked like a song wasn’t going to work but when they were finished they were incredible.
FDB: According to Discogs your output is limited to that Tru Criminal phase, but what else have you done between then and now?
EJ: Since then I’ve gone onto work with the likes of Jadakiss, Joe Budden, Obie Trice and my cousin Seth Marcel on On Point Recordings owned by Derrick Coleman. Seth is one hell of an MC man. I was working on a project with him that started in 2000. I didn’t really do that much between ’97 and then. I was still working in the industry, I worked for Def Jam for a while, and I just compiled a library of beats. It’s not like I hit hard times, but it was just a funny time and a lot of guys didn’t want to hear the backpack shit at all. People were sampling big ‘70s records and I just wasn’t with that shit, but I was always producing. Unfortunately the Seth Marcel record was never released. About 2003, a lot of money was spent but no real results followed so it never came out. I did a couple of remixes, like I did a Britney Spears ‘Toxic’ remix, and I worked with R Kelly’s old group Public Announcement; I did a remix for them that featured Big Daddy Kane. It’s just been a case of odd production jobs here and there.
I’m now working with someone called Candice Jones, and I think she’s going to be that one. It’s kind of funny, you go full circle from hip hop to R ‘n’ B but I keep the same approach to making music now as I did in ’97. She’s gonna be my claim to fame, for real. I’m doing about 50% of the upcoming album, and I think she’s also working with Raphael Saadiq on the project right now. There’s also somebody called Sinatra who I’m gonna be working with and he is definitely going to be somebody.
I also do music for television; I’ve been doing that since 2004. I license music for different shows like the Oprah Winfrey show, CSI, MTV Cribs… different avenues bro!
I got a wishlist of people I want to work with in the future when I finish my projects. I got the right person to broker my tracks now in Skills so I’m trying to get on some bigger projects. More soulful, you know like Angie Stone, hopefully Bilal and maybe Common, so I’m just trying to get with the right guys.
FDB: How do you view the culture in this phase of its development? Where do you see it going from here?
EJ: Hip hop is definitely not dead! It can’t be dead. Kanye sold damn near a million copies in a week. Two months prior to that Finding Forever was the number one record in the country. I mean Finding Forever? Common?! Two weeks after that Ear Drum was number two. However, things have changed man. The A & Rs pretty much want to be the fucking artist now, and they glorify some of the fucking shit coming out now. I guess it’s a reflection of our youth right now; I DJ and sometimes I find myself playing bullshit records. All that South shit I just can’t get with it at all. I like some of it, I like T.I., I like Jeezy because they keep it real gutter and I can believe them, you know what I ‘m sayin’? I like UGK and Eightball. I can fuck with that because they’ve been doing it for a long time but all these other guys, I don’t even know their names, but it’s fucked up. But then you look on any corner, every ‘hood and the suburbs and this is what young people are listening to man. I guess my shit is old now, our shit is old. Finding Forever and Ear Drum, there’s the hope right there. Common sold like 200,000 records in the first week, that’s pretty amazing.
There’s only a couple of producers in the game now who I’m really checkin’ for. I still think Dr Dre is amazing, I don’t care what anybody says. His shit is always cutting edge, his drums and basslines are crazy, you know that theatrical hip hop that he does. I put him high up on a pedestal. I think Madlib is absolutely incredible. I heard bits of the Percee P jump off, I got the India Beat Konducta album. It pisses me off all the Dilla fans who hit him up on his website like ‘we miss you’ and ‘you were fucking God, but where the fuck were these people when he was alive and doing it. It’s the same thing with Madlib, he’s big amongst his community but to the masses it’s like, whatever. I guess you’re never really nothing until you pass away. It is fucked up.
FDB: Just to wrap things up Eddie, I know you’re a family man now. How has that affected you as a musician?
EJ: I appreciate you saying musician because I like to consider myself as one. I had to cut the sampling out because a couple of times I did do some work and I got taxed on it and in about 2002 I started playing keys. The whole family thing really hasn’t really changed my approach because I find myself still listening to the same shit. The good thing is that I’ve matured a lot and I think my music is now as mature as it’s gonna get. If you listen again to ‘One Life Ta Live’ or ‘East To West’ I had the same approach: if it’s ’97 or 2007 I still have the same approach. I call it ‘hard love’, hard drums with melodic keys and that has always been my approach.
I had a death in the family when my son Morgan passed away in 2005. The record on my MySpace page called ‘Perfect Angel’ is dedicated to him.
FDB: I’m really sorry to hear that.
EJ: It was a crib death, and if there’s such a thing as rock bottom then that’s it. I guess if I can get through that then I can get through anything. My music has gotten a little more meaningful now, and with the next body of work I do you’ll see a growth in it. It’s still gonna be the same hip hop shit, R ‘n’ B or whatever. Children will do that to ya. As long as my four year old keeps bobbin’ his head when he comes in the lab then I know I’m doing alright.
FDB: It’s been really great to talk to you Eddie.
EJ: It’s good to talk to you too man, stay blessed.
Let’s hope we hear more from Eddie in the future and that he gets the recognition he deserves. I’ll be hipping you to anything that he drops, and make sure you go and check out his MySpace and show him some love. Damn shame that Seth Marcel joint never made it out: ‘Hardcore’ is real tasty street record. Props to the man for sending me over some of his unreleased material as well; I hope you enjoy them as much as I have been.