Open Mike Eagle Interview

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I initially discovered Open Mike Eagle on a search for new music from the ever reclusive MC Paul Barman. Their collaboration was enough for me to check out 2011’s Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes, an album I wound up loving because it stretched the possibilities of what rap was supposed to be. In a genre that seeks to confine creativity, Mike Eagle (and his partners in the Hellfyre Crew by extension) refuse any such thing.

Open Mike Eagle has so many interesting things to say on and off the mic, so it’s almost a guarantee no two interviews will be the same. He’s been a guest on Marc Maron’s hugely popular WTF podcast, he’s a semi-regular on Jeff Weiss and (his Hellfyre bretheren) Nocando’s Shots Fired show and you can find a growing array of coverage on him as he continues to build his reputation.

Mostly keeping my questions confined to music (his hailing from Chicago/feelings on the city’s drill scene and history with LA’s Project Blowed have been covered a lot by this point), I spoke with Mike about his newly released LP Dark Comedy, his creative approach and a number of other random things.

Most of your albums are based off of themes, tell me about Dark Comedy.

I don’t know if there’s a theme as much as a tone of laughing at being self-aware and knowing how ridiculous and dark things are around. The way that I seek to deal with things is to write things that I think are funny, so at least half of the album is attempting humor. Some things are honest observations which tend to get a little dark, so those two sides come together to make the record.

A lot of Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes dealt with the importance of vulnerable black manhood. Tell me about where you were coming from with that album.

A lot of that album was a response to seeing people talk about my first album. I was becoming media literate in terms of how writers and consumers view Hip Hop, their expectations of it and their expectations of black men. A lot of what went into that album were notions I was railing against in terms of what kind of box people tend to want to keep a black man and a rapper in, in terms of what they expect content and image wise.

“Nightmares” was when I became a fan. Was that a catchy attempt to draw new listeners in?

Honestly I just make songs, I have a hard time knowing if one song is standing out over the rest. I just make stuff that I like, luckily when I give it to label people and friends, they’re like “that’s the one right there” (laughs) and we end up pushing those out as singles. I cant say that I was making any attempt to do anything different than usual, I just liked that beat and that was what the beat made me want to do.

Your style can be described as abstract but at the same time very melodic at points. How do you find the balance between the two?

I think it’s a sum of my influences. The Hip Hop I’ve really liked has always been very melodic, and a lot of the emcees I’ve liked have been unafraid to deviate from reality to find things to rap or write about. It’s just naturally where my aesthetic is, it’s not like I’m necessarily trying to do that on purpose, but melody is important to me so I try to make sure that’s in there. Being able to be free with my content is also very important to me, so those values come out in my writing and recording.

“4NML HSPTL” was mostly produced by a guy named Awkward, his name very much fitting the style of that project. What were you going for there and how was it received?

I was trying to make an album that had the narrative of an indie film. I had this whole story in my head about this guy that ends up at a mental hospital that’s specifically for rappers, but I didn’t explain it to much of anybody. I think it caused people to not want to make interpretations on what certain things mean. I wouldn’t say it’s my most well received album, but there’s definitely a lot of people that like it. I think it was a little denser than what people were expecting and I didn’t necessarily help that in not talking about it.

“Your Back Pack Past” was way ahead of its time, explain the concept of that song to me.

I was seeing a lot of writers, consumers and rappers very influenced by underground music in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, and as deep as they were into it is how much they try to stay away from it now. They try to act like that time never existed and anything from that time is invalid, bad or weaker somehow. That song was a message to them like “We see you” (laughs), we have the old articles and pictures. It’s the kind of thing I write hoping people will hear that and not do that anymore. It’s not like it’s a message that could change the world, but when I make statements like that I’m hoping maybe we could stop people from feeling that’s the way to go.

On Qualifiers you said “Fuck you if you’re a white man that assumes I speak for black folks/ fuck you if you’re a white man who thinks I cant speak for black folk”. Why was it important for you to make that point?

The reality is both sides of that coin are negative, some people naturally choose one side and then some people think they’re being more sophisticated if they choose the other side. Both sides are wrong, if you look at the dominant culture in the American experience they have this luxury that I haven’t heard described as privilege. If a crazy white person goes out in the middle of the street and shoots up a bunch of people, it’s looked at as just that guy…

If it’s one of us, it’s because it’s our race.

We almost feel like we have to defend it. We feel connected in a way, and I don’t know how much of that is what we naturally bring to the table and how much we’ve been oppressed by perception. We feel like the worst of us represent all of us all the time, we always end up feeling that way. I made that statement with the hopes that one day we can get to a point where that’s not the case, where we can see ourselves just as individual and have the other cultures see us as individual as well.

We share an affinity for MC Paul Barman. Why do you think the black audience struggles to grasp left of center Hip Hop?

I don’t think they struggle, most of the time they’re just not exposed to it honestly. A lot of black consumers of culture do so in kind of a passive fashion, people see what’s on the radio and they aren’t necessarily seekers. I think it’s just a case of them being exposed to less, that’s changing with the youth of this generation because there are more seekers. I think the people who held back Paul getting his just due were white people honestly. I think a lot of white rap fans were uncomfortable with him and they stood in the way of the impact he could have had.

I’ve never played his music for a black person with them enjoying it, they were like “What the hell is this?”

My family likes it. To me, most people who like Doom could like Paul. They don’t rap the same but it’s the emphasis on the writing and wordplay over anything else. Black people would be able to build a bridge that way, but you’d have to be in that door a little bit already.

You have a line where you say “My crew can chew up every dude in your top four”. If you can speak on behalf of Hellfyre Club, how would you describe the crew’s aim or mission statement?

We’re the antidote, we fight the thirst monsters everywhere and we’re knights of the thirst quenching. We’ve figured a lot of stuff out, and as we roll out music it’s do what you will with it.

In Wu-Tang Clan every member had a different purpose or style. How would you describe your place fitting in Hellfyre Club?

I’ve compared it to elements sometimes. When we were on tour, I was like Nocando is fire, Milo is earth, I was water and Busdriver was wind. It’s hard to draw the distinctions for us as real people, we have our own lives and places we differ individually. I might be too deep into it to try categorizing.

I recently heard an interview where you said Midnight Marauders was your favorite Hip Hop album, a sentiment shared by myself and others. What made that album so beloved to you?

I was always into beats first, and even beyond that melodies and chord progressions. The production on that album always carried me away, there was something about what Tip was sampling and how he was doing it with 12 bar loops. The music had all of this movement and life to it, and the cover had everybody on it. I didn’t know it at the time but that was a high point for quasi-positive black things going on in rap that everybody could be involved in.

It was high quality music, I was around 14 and really getting deep into Hip Hop, that album accessed me. I used to fall asleep listening to it and wake up listening to songs on repeat, that relationship came along with that album at that time. It kills me when I think about it because you couldn’t make that record today legally due to sampling, so it’s really of a bygone past.

You’ve also said your favorite Flipmode cat was Lord Have Mercy, why was that?

I just liked his voice and he was a crazy writer, he was a beast on the mic. I still have a bunch of obscure Lord Have Mercy songs. I always liked rappers who I imagined wanted to sound like monsters and his rhymes were super tight.

You shouted out Lil B on “Very Much Money”, I happen to be a fan. What do you make of him?

Sometimes I’m a fan, sometimes I’m not. I think he’s really innovative and he does something special and unique, it’s just not always for me. When it is for me, it’s great. Some songs I’m like “That’s awesome” and some songs I’m like “I cant do this”. For a long time I was nervous to listen because I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not and I really don’t like being trolled, especially not by rappers.

I don’t like being trolled by music, because the access I give somebody when I listen to them is nothing to be toyed with, I don’t want nobody playing with my head on that level. I stayed away for a long time but I think he’s a unique dude he’s really pushing this thing forward in his own way. He’s very art rap.

Would it be fair to say you’re discontent with the state of black music?

I don’t know, I think a lot of black people make really good music. I don’t know if it’s the state of the music so much as it’s the perception of the music and the delivery system to the music that I have a bigger problem with. If you turn on MTV Jams, there’s still a bunch of videos that look like they were made in 1998 with girls and cars. That’s not everything that’s going on, it’s just everything that’s being shown. I’m discontent with the lack of outlets for alternative visions and voices, they’re not put in a position where people can see them.

As a cultural participant and observer, what would you say is the biggest problem Hip Hop faces in 2014?

The biggest issue is perception. That limits what people expect from the music, what people define it as and what people are willing to invest in it. Ultimately, I want to see rap music respected on the same level as movies. There’s an independent movement with different kinds of voices, right now everything in rap is summer blockbusters in terms of what’s put out there.

There’s this entire arthouse indie movement making really good stuff, and somehow the craft has to be elevated in terms of perception where people understand that this is just as valid. No other genre gets pigeonholed and literally defined by one aspect which is the most popular style. There’s so much room given to other genres of music, let alone other art forms. What’s holding Hip Hop back is the fact that people think it cant be anything other than one thing in terms of mass media culture.

Follow Mike Eagle on Twitter, Dark Comedy is available for purchase today.

Questions & Answers with J-Live

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Coming up in a time where the underground was purposely brash and pretentious (i.e. some emcees thought making money equated to selling out), J-Live turned Hip Hop on its axis as something new altogether. He made it cool to be smart (boasting “I got Allah’s street knowledge plus a college degree”), he was lyrical while being comprehensible, he was witty and he just seemed to have the time of his life representing the culture with his earliest work.

J-Live’s debut The Best Part featured production from DJ Premier, Prince Paul, Pete Rock and a new at the time 88 Keys. The album was shelved, bootlegged, and finally released in 2001, as he surprisingly bounced back just a year later with the equally potent All Of The Above. Bridging the gap between the ages, J-Live’s True School concept pays respect to his influences while simultaneously remaining relevant making music that feels good in this modern age. On the road promoting his brand new LP Around The Sun, J graciously took time to speak with me regarding his legacy as a veteran who’s still in demand and what it means to represent the Nation Of Gods & Earths (Five Percenters) in Hip Hop, along with other tidbits.

As a bonus I’ve made a mix of 15 songs for newcomers and old fans alike to enjoy. As a long time supporter, it was an honor to speak with one of my favorite acts.

To start, what can people expect from the new album Around The Sun?

The meaning behind it is continued growth. I have a sort of niche and a style and I’m not really trying to deviate from that so much as let it evolve as I grow. They can expect what they’ve expected from the last few albums, really dope Hip Hop, ill flows, I’m dropping jewels along with great beats. It’s just a good album to ride out to and play the whole thing non-stop.

When you came out with The Best Part and All Of The Above, you had so many creative ideas. Where was all of the creative energy coming from at that time?

“Braggin’ Writes” came about because the break was so perfect and there was nothing to do with it. I didn’t want to just loop it so I just decided to go back and forth on double turntables with it. “Stir Of Echoes” was inspired by the movie and just the concept as a whole. “Them That’s Not” was  a story that evolved out of an old song, and when the beat switched up like that I wanted to progress like that with the beat.

On this album there’s a couple of moments like that, there’s a song called “Eight Minutes” that’s kind of a play on Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show “ [“Six minutes Doug E. Fresh, you’re on”], but it’s talking about how the light you’re getting from the sun is eight minutes old. The song “Not Listening” plays on the idea that rappers aint got nothing to say and it’s hard to garner attention, but I wanted to flip it in a creative way that was playful with the crowd and that’s been going great on the road.

As a NBA player progresses, it becomes less about athletic ability and more about knowing the game and trying to win. Jordan’s not dunking all over you as much as he’s killing you with the mid-range, I haven’t been as concerned with inventing a new style as much as polishing mine and making sure the lyrics have that much more weight behind them.

What have the challenges been of going 100% indie with Mortier Music?

I’ve been 100% indie since the whole thing with [my original labels] Payday/London flopped, it’s just that rather than being in association with another label, I’m taking on that role as the label. It’s been a great challenge, I know the ropes pretty well but I’m still building my team as far as people I can depend on and the best practices for the things I like to do along with maintaining a certain schedule to stay on.

With each project life gets in the way. I would have dropped an album every year if not twice a year in some instances, but the last album was in 2011 which seems like eons ago in today’s times. I’m trying to evolve as far as the way the industry evolves. Things are more digital now, the news cycle is a lot shorter, access is a lot greater, applying those ethics into today’s market and atmosphere has been the biggest challenge.

How has would you say Hip Hop and the business changed since the days when you first came out, especially in the internet age?

It’s a double edged sword being that the playing field is a lot more level, but there’s a lot more competition for people’s attention. Coming up, it took so much to make a record, if you wanted to have a DJ spin your breaks at the show, once upon a time you had to press up instrumentals on vinyl or go ahead and make temporary dub plates. If not that, you had to be creative with recreating the production method on stage. Now you got Serato, you can pretty much bounce your instrumental and you’re good to go.

In that same way, people can publish themselves now. They’re not depending on a label like the big and successful labels that have a machine and marketing dollars behind them to stand out. Anybody can do this, but you really gotta do it well if you want to make your mark.

You’re based out of Atlanta now, what is the Hip Hop scene like there compared to your home town of New York?

It’s pretty dope. I’ve lived in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York and it seems like everywhere I go you can find that niche of indie artists that are doing their thing. It transcends where you are, coming up in New York there were so many different venues like Wetlands, Tramps and S.O.B’s which is still there, fast forward today there’s spots like LPR.

In Atlanta you have a similar kind of vibe where there’s always something going on with likeminded artists. Beyond Hip Hop and music people move to Atlanta whether it economically makes more sense or they have family there already. On the music scene it’s a real cool sample size of the whole country, cats are there from Cali, Detroit, Florida, the Carolinas, Boston and New York. Atlanta’s indie scene doesn’t sound like Atlanta per se, as opposed to being Atlanta Hip Hop it’s Hip Hop in Atlanta.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about the Five Percent Nation. As a member, how did you discover this way of life?

When I was going to college at SUNY Albany, a lot of the brothers that I was getting with were just studying life and that happened to be the culture that we gravitated towards. There were about 16 of us at the time, we say many are called but the chosen are few and about four or five out of that group really stuck with it and adopted this culture as a lifestyle and a philosophy. It’s been great for me, it’s helped me keep my life balanced and in order.

Five Percenter ideologies have been found in your album titles. How does that relate to Around The Sun?

The lessons talk about how fast the planet rotates while it’s revolving. All of the text in my album titles are somewhere in the lessons, from The Best Part where they say the babies are the best part and you take the best part for yourself. All Of The Above is caused by the son of man, fast and pray to see the hereafter [the meaning behind the album title The Hear After].

With Around The Sun, I’m trying to find the phrase or term within the lesson to keep the consistency that reflects what I want the album to be about. The album’s about growth and example of continuing to shine the way you’ve been shining and move the way you’ve been moving. Every time you make it another year, you’re basically taking another trip around the sun.

There have been a ton of Hip Hop acts in the NGE. If you could name a few songs that would explain the culture to an outsider, what would they be?

“Wake Up” by Brand Nubian. “The Ghetto” by Eric B & Rakim. “One to 31” by J-Live because that goes into lessons specifically as it pertains to me individually, there’s a ton of Poor Righteous Teachers stuff and I’d throw some King Sun in there.

How do you personally define knowledge of self?

It’s pretty simple, it’s literally that. If you’re studying yourself, you’re pretty much made of the same stuff as the universe. To know the universe is to know yourself and vice versa, as above so below. Whether you’re talking about an electron circling around or you’re talking about the earth revolving and the sun on its path, or just the way the universe works, you can apply these governing forces of nature to yourself and life around you.

If you can acquire enough knowledge or the right knowledge to get yourself grounded, the peace that comes with that makes you rather formidable in my opinion. Nobody knows you better than you, nobody can tell your story better than you can, the more you know about yourself is the more you accept and understand. You say “I’m not gonna lie to myself or the next man about who I am. I know what I can and cant do, I know what knowledge I can and cant acquire.” It’s really just about getting your shit together and putting your priorities in order so that you can really thrive.

What were your thoughts on Jay-Z rocking the pendant?

I don’t really think much of it. He has the Universal flag on, I don’t really rock gold like that but I have a wooden one [laughs]. If someone sees me rocking it and they do a double take because they saw Jay-Z wearing it, if they want answers about it I’m definitely a credible source. That man can wear what he wants when he wants. As far as somebody having questions for him, the backlash and controversy is because that flag has meant something before he wore it and it’ll mean something after he wears it.

Whether he’s wearing it or not, that doesn’t change the meaning behind the Universal flag, the sun, moon and stars or that 7 and a crescent just because he’s rocking it. Now if he can answer those questions then great, more power to him. But at the very least it might just mean that he’s been influenced by somebody who can answer those questions, and you might want to do the same.

You’ve entered into DJ’ing with your series Hot vs. Dope, what has been the concept behind that?

Hot vs. Dope is just about advocating good music, breaking the barriers and trying to blur the lines between indie and commercial. A lot of times people feel they need to ride for one style of Hip Hop, I come from an era where you would pretty much hear all the different flavors at the same time.

On the late night mix shows like Red Alert and Marley Marl, it wasn’t about just playing trap music, conscious music, gangsta music, West coast or Southern music, it was just about playing dope shit. All of that can be dope or wack depending on how that artist comes off on that one particular song. If you lose those rules and try to unlearn those conditions, you end up exposing yourself to some great stuff.

If you say “I’m willing to listen to an artist I never heard of on a label I never heard of on the off chance that I might like it”, you open your mind up. Part of a DJ’s job is to break records and play not just what you’re dying to hear and what you’re gonna beat him in the head about playing, but to play what you didn’t even know you wanted to hear until you’re moving to it.

What would you say keeps you inspired after all this time?

The fans. If they weren’t clamoring for more music and telling me how the music I’ve made so far has effected them or inspired them to make music or get through life the way I listen to Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and The Roots, then I probably would have stopped by now. But it’s a beautiful thing to give back the way that something’s been given to you, and Hip Hop shaped and guided my worldview as the soundtrack to my life. The fact that I can do that for somebody else is really what keeps me going.

As a O.G. in the game, Who are you checking for today out of the younger generation?

That’s kind of a blurred line. When you say the younger generation, I’ve been in it so long that you could be talking about Homeboy Sandman even though he’s around my age [laughs], you could be talking about Oddisee even though I’ve been working with him for years. I’m digging what Michael Christmas is doing, I’m checking for TiRon and I actually have a crop of cats that I’m bringing up. One is named Rome Supreme, the other is So Severe, I think people will be pleasantly surprised to hear them once they start to discover them.

Also there’s J. Nolan.

That’s my dude right there. That’s what I mean when I say the lines are blurred, he’s been making consistent records since 2009 and people are still just starting to discover him. I’m just trying to help that along. I’m literally walking Rome and So Severe through how it’s done, on some mentorship. With J. Nolan it’s like “I see what you’re doing, let me help you along”, but he’s gonna be great regardless of whether he gets help from me or not.

There’s never been a shortage of dope artists. As far as who I’m checking for I want to throw Masta Ace in there because I grew up on his stuff and not only is he consistently making music, he’s so damn relevant in the now. If you’ve never heard “The Symphony” and he was a brand new artist to you, he’d still hop into your favorites. I got so much respect for him.

Going back to the skits on The Best Part, in 2014 what do you think it takes to be a great MC?

Proliferation. You gotta be prolific, constant and consistently hitting cats. You cant really rest on your laurels at all, you have to push the envelope. The beautiful thing about that question on that album was people took it from different perspectives. Some people were thinking sales and fame, some people were thinking talent and some people were thinking about the live show. Depending on the angle you’re approaching it from, there’s so many different ways to answer that question. I would just say be consistently great, continue to grow and let people see the growth as you do it.

Questions & Answers With Dee Phunk

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Im pressed for time, so no super fancy intro here. I go back with Dee Phunk and Rare Form some time now. They throw a dope annual Dilla party in New York called Donuts Are Forever. The 8th edition is this Sunday, Torae is hosting, DJ Jazzy Jeff is spinning, all good people. The flyer is at the bottom of our conversation. Get familiar.

P.S. Proceeds from the party go to help kids in East New York, a part of Brooklyn I’ve never been to because I hear said kids being helped or a close relative could be prone to violence. But I digress. Read below to learn about the party and my dude’s Dilla fandom.

From my understanding New York’s party scene has changed drastically. Tell me about New York nightlife in 2014 and where Rare Form fits in.

Nightlife is definitely different. There’s still a scene, Rare Form started 10 years ago there were a lot more clubs and the city was a lot more lenient. Since then the government here has been very stingy about who they give cabaret liquor licenses to, a lot of places don’t really last long and they get scrutinized by the government. There are clubs in the city still but the majority of them are very high profile and there’s a shift now where a lot of places are actually opening up in Brooklyn.

I live in Williamsburg, a lot of places are opening up here and in Greenpoint around industrial areas, places that are away from residential areas where they can make noise without bothering anybody. Transplants are moving in, they complain about noise. Bars, restaurants and clubs cant really live like that. So it’s become a very different scene and throwing parties is still a challenge where you have to know people and pitch what your ideas are. If you stick with it, you can do it. I don’t do it full time, I still have a full time job but it’s still a good thing to do on the side for sure.

What would you say are some keys to throwing a good party?

Number one you should really have a good base of close friends and family, that will help you get started off. Rare Form was very lucky in that when we started we had friends from all over the country, and we just started throwing the types of events that we would like to go to. It’s important to have friends that can help you get the word out, a big social media presence is very helpful these days. Getting people out the door and to your party is half the battle, and you have to have an angle that will get them there. As long as you have a fan base that will help you out and there’s a good angle, if it’s something people want to come to they’ll come.

Take me back to the beginning with Donuts Are Forever. How did the party start?

Rare Form is four of us, me and my partners Tara, Kristy and Eric. We were all very much music heads and the year after Dilla passed it was just a very matter of fact thing where we were talking one night and we said “Hey, maybe we should do a tribute to him”.  We knew there was enough music to fill up a 6 hour party from  10 PM to 4 AM, we didn’t know the magnitude of how many people would come but we knew there was an audience.

We actually went to a smaller Dilla tribute in the city and we said “We can do this too”. We had a mailing list for the parties we had been doing already, we put it together and we were very overwhelmed by the number of people that came. We didn’t realize how much of a reach Dilla had, people came up from Philly and it was a good problem to have where people couldn’t get in, there was a line around the block that night in February. It was a simple idea, it was something we would go to even if we didn’t throw it. We were lucky enough to have DJ Scratch headline the first one with DJ Soul and the rest was history where we decided to do this every year.

What were some of your earliest memories of hearing Dilla’s music?

I never got to see him live unfortunately. The first time I was cognizant of his work was the Office Space soundtrack, “Get Dis Money” was on there which was kind of random, but the song was very much my style of music with the drums and the soul behind it. Then I realized that I already knew his work from Beats, Rhymes and Life and I just didn’t realize it was him. I actually love that album and a lot of people don’t or they love it and don’t think it’s the strongest work from A Tribe Called Quest. I didn’t realize he worked on that album until I went back and looked at the liner notes.

My fondest memories of his music are being up all night on AudioGalaxy and Napster looking up all of his stuff. That’s where I found all of these remixes and I just went down the rabbit hole and fell in love with his music even more, no pun intended.

What was it about his music that made you such a big fan?

It was really the soul aspect of it. He was very good at doing soul production, I love all of the Hip Hop, but things like his work for Toshi Kubota, Nine Yards, Rhian Benson and Four Tet showed he was really good at remixing R&B songs. That’s what made me a big fan, all of his soul remixes made his snares stick in my head.

Who would you say Dilla had the greatest chemistry with and why? 

I would say he had the most chemistry with Slum Village, they defined Detroit’s underground as far as I’m concerned. They blazed a path where they didn’t sound like anyone else in their city at the time. When people speak of the Detroit sound, they helped build that. I’m sure it was very organic where they were kids who were messing around, but they built something that cant be duplicated.

If you could name five Dilla records you love, what would they be? 

My favorite Dilla beat would be “2U4U” by Slum Village. Phat Kat’s “Cold Steel” with Elzhi was one of his best Hip Hop beats, he was very versatile where he could go from the smooth stuff to a more hardcore sound and that beat is really crazy. The Nine Yards “Find A Way” remix was the one song where his versatility blew me away. We listened to A Tribe Called Quest and Slum, but I remember when I first found that song online I played it over and over.

If you’ve ever been to a Donuts Are Forever party, for some reason when Common’s “The Light” comes on there’s a religious aspect to it. Everybody kind of catches the holy ghost, I don’t know why that is but everyone is singing in unison and it’s a very spiritual song. Also I’ll say “Wild”, that’s one that came later on and it showcases his emceeing pretty well. People don’t take for granted that he rapped, but he was actually a very dope emcee and it’s hard to find people that can do both well.

What have been some of the greatest memories of the party so far?

One of the best memories so far was the fourth one when ?uestlove DJ’d it. He took a nerdy approach, he has all of these resources available to him working at the NBC Studios with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon, leading up to the event they remade a bunch of Dilla beats. Instead of playing a regular set, he played a bunch of their remakes. He actually did that for the party, that was one of the craziest ones we’ve done.

The second one with House Shoes, he’s the ambassador for all things Dilla. He keeps the legacy alive and holds the torch, he’s done a very good job of that. The fifth one at Santos was where we had the most people stop through to hang out. Rich Medina and DJ Spinna spun it, Ali Shaheed Muhammad came through to hang out, Robert Glasper, Illa J and Juju from The Beatnuts were there. Over the years the vibe is still there and people are flying in from out of town for this. It’s crazy, hopefully we can make more memories.

What would you say has been the key to the party getting bigger and bigger?

It’s basically word of mouth and supporters, that’s really it. We don’t have a crazy press machine behind us, there’s four of us with Kristy doing our PR and Okayplayer has been involved for the past two years. We get the word out but we don’t have the news or the media behind us to push this. The people who come back every year and make this a destination for them, that’s what keeps this going. It’s just a love for Dilla’s music. We can’t do it without his fans or we would have stopped doing it already, we appreciate the undying support.

Speaking of fans, a lot of people feel a way about new fans jumping on the bandwagon after Dilla passed on. How would you say the party bridges the gap between new and older fans?

We don’t discriminate as far as whether you’re an old or new fan. I know people who have come to our party not knowing a thing about Dilla and they’ll recognize a Janet Jackson song or Q-Tip’s “Vivrant Thing”, and then they hear the other stuff they don’t know in the same context. I was one of those guys that didn’t like people who were on the bandwagon after he passed away.

From doing this party I realized we do it not just for the fans, but to put people on that might not know about him. I know people that have went and bought his music after a party or they went and bought a Common album just to hear more of his work. I like the fact that this party can be an educational tool as well, it’s all good music. Whether you’re new or old, it’s absolutely fine at the party. As long as you do your research and go back, it’s all good.

If you could pick another artist to do a whole tribute party for, who would it be and why?

I’d do one for The Neptunes, they were game changing producers and they’re still producing now. They’ve done many things in many different genres.

What would you say is the ultimate vision for Rare Form and Donuts Are Forever?

We actually were just talking about this recently. I don’t know how many more years we have in us, we hope to keep going but the fans dictate how far we go. People are still coming out for it and we still have a lot of people on our bucket list to DJ it. If it’s ever possible, our goal would be to take this internationally and tour with it.

Other cities do their own Dilla events, Detroit has Dilla Day, LA, Philly and DC have events and that’s great, we support them 100 percent. But there are main cities that don’t have the resources and people in these cities don’t have the means to get it mobilized, so we would love to take this party to other cities and countries. His music is worldwide and we’d love to take this all over the place, it takes money and sponsorships, which we haven’t really had over the years. It’s a very homegrown grassroots event and it still is, now eight years strong. As long as people will keep coming to it, we’ll love to keep doing it and we’ll try to make it grow.

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Questions & Answers With Jean Grae

BET Cypher Taping - Day 2

(Photo: Derek Reed)

I like laughing, I like women and (big shock here) I like rap music, so it should come as no surprise that I’m a Jean Grae fan. When I was in my (admittedly pretentious) “keep it real Hip Hop” phase about a decade ago, she was in my crop of underground favorites. Then Jeanius leaked a good three years before seeing a shelf date and I was really sold. Then after a bit of a hiatus Cookies Or Comas came out proving she was still here kicking ass and taking names. Then the “Kill Screen” video happened (more about that below), then three…no make that FOUR EPs happened between this past fall and winter. Oh yeah, a self written/directed sitcom and an audiobook on top of that.

Jean Grae recently took time to talk with me about her endless well of creativity, the status of her long anticipated next LP Cake Or Death and why although it should be self explanatory, it’s wrong for a producer to steal her music and take credit for creating it.

After bad dealings with Babygrande Records and then Blacksmith not being in business anymore, you’ve gone completely indie and made a  bigger name for yourself with the help of social media. What has that transition been like?

It never really felt like much of a transition, I’ve always been as hands on with my projects as I am now. It’s kind of nice having technology catch up to what I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time. So it’s been really easy actually.

Doing everything on your own terms, what has been behind the sudden boost in productivity with you doing everything from directing your own videos to producing your own music and writing a web series?

It’s interesting that people are like “Oh wow, it’s cool that you’re starting to do all of this”. Even back in the Natural Resource days, from the inception of anything that I was working on I was super hands on making beats for everybody. Again, it’s just technology that’s allowed me to be as productive as I want to. You don’t have to go to a label and say “I need a deal” or wait for release dates or anything else. It’s pretty much the same way I’ve been operating, but now I’m able to release more product because I don’t have to wait for a middleman.

On the Herbaliser song “Generals” you played a bunch of different characters and lately you seem to be having a lot more fun with your delivery. Where does the creativity come from with you using your voice to do almost anything?

I’ve been doing voices for a super long time, I used to do a lot of voice-over work. But going back to the ’90s when Bad Seed did the song “Shit Is Hot”, we were playing around and using voices like Beavis and Butthead. I think it’s always been playful and “Generals” came about because we were sitting there listening to the track and Jake & Ollie (The Herbaliser) were like “This sounds like a posse track”. I figured “We don’t really have a posse but we do have me, so I’ll just make my own group” (laughs), and anything like that seems like the common sense thing to do. If I have skills I’ll just use them instead of waiting for someone else. I don’t like waiting for people.

I recently saw you comment about never using the same flow twice. Is that true?

That is absolutely true. I’m a very competitive person and a lot of rap has been driven by that and since nobody really challenges me, the best part of doing anything is to challenge yourself to see how you can do better. No matter what it is, I made a great poached egg yesterday but I want to try to make it better today. It’s always about trying to challenge yourself to evolve and get better on a different level.

I’ve watched the “Kill Screen” video frame by frame and slowed it down…

I’m so sorry (laughs).

With so many scenes cut and spliced together, can you tell me the plot or is that still a mystery?

Actually, what you gotta do is tie it into all of the albums. It’s a really long story that I started telling 10 years ago about this character who’s an assassin, and I like to do Easter eggs and puzzle pieces so people can put the story together on their own. So while that video may seem disjointed and you’re like “I don’t know what the hell is going on here”, if you go back and listen to everything from all of the Gotham Down cycles the entire story is explained. It’s always explained somewhere else, I just like people to look for the information. So I’m not gonna tell you where it is, but it’s on the Gotham Down cycles.

You’ve been singing in a lot of your music since way back in the day and a lot of your material is rooted in the details of your personal life. Could you ever see yourself going full on R&B for a project?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it R&B but I definitely enjoy the singing melodies and arrangements. I don’t know if I would put it in the R&B genre but maybe I’d do a project, and if I did it would have to be super throwback ’90s R&B or I’d just take it completely left field and invent some new type of shit that I haven’t thought of yet (laughs).

Between Twitter, your interest in improv, the Hellpit Faeries Christmas EP, and now writing your own sitcom with Life With Jeannie you have a very comedic personality. Do you aspire to break into comedy as a side profession?

I think from being super young it was kind of my first real dream. I started doing some stand up stuff almost two years ago and since then it’s just been great to work with people like John Hodgman, Hannibal Buress and Wyatt Cenac. I’ve been having a lot of fun realizing how close the worlds are together, and writing Life With Jeannie gives me a chance to expand on that in the way that I want to. I get to write the jokes that I want to see and really be a part of it, so yeah I guess it’s kind of an all encompassing thing.

You recently put out the State Of Eh audiobook. Would you ever consider publishing a memoir of your experiences as a musician and/or as a woman in Rap?

It probably wont be about being a woman in Rap. I need about 30 more years to tell everyone the whole story (laughs). There’s so many things, people have no idea about any of the behind the scenes stuff, I’ve had a really interesting life. I totally plan on writing a few books, but a memoir would have to wait because I feel like there’s going to be way more adventures. It would be silly to do it now.

You did the Jeanius album with 9th Wonder & Khrysis, is there any other producer you’d be interested in doing a whole project with?

I don’t know right now, I’ve made a lot of music recently and I’m trying to focus on other things. I have so much fun working together with 9th & Khrysis, I’d love to do something with Jon Brion.

Speaking of producers, are you at liberty to discuss the recent controversy with Cam from Justice League stealing your work?

I was just taught in kindergarten as I thought we all were taught to not steal. I kind of have really strong feelings about it, it just wasn’t cool. Then for him to have the nerve to come back like “Leave me alone”; dude you cant go steal someone’s bike with them saying “You stole my bike” and you’re like “Yeah, but oh my God leave me alone.” He’s crazy right now, just in general as a rule in life don’t steal shit, but especially don’t steal shit and then try to pass it off as your own. That’s even worse.

You had a role in the film Big Words and now you’re doing Life With Jeannie. What made you want to get into acting?

I had been talking for a long time with Neil Drumming who wrote and directed Big Words about the script he had been working on, he asked if I’d be down to read it. I loved the script and with him asking me to be in it, I was like “Absolutely”. Life With Jeannie was always something I really wanted to do and I’d never pick anyone else to be me unless we’re doing a super cool episode where we picked a couple of people. I never pick any new genre or job that I’m breaking into, it’s just a lot of things I’m really into and it’s like “I feel I can do this really well, so I should just go on ahead and do it.”

Being that you are such a creative person, is there anything you haven’t attempted yet that you’d still like to pursue?

Good question, I don’t know what’s left (laughs). My brother got the visual arts side of things, I’m not the greatest at that and I don’t want to step on his toes. At some point in the next five years I’d love to have a very small restaurant.

What can you tell me about the much talked about Cake Or Death?

Cake Or Death is done and it’s such an interesting project that I know when I get to releasing it I’m going to stay on that for a while. I wanted to do the other stories before getting into something like that, it’s a really heavy album and there’s so much to do visually. I kind of wanted to give myself room to finish this season of Life With Jeannie and then do videos from the Gotham Down and Jeannie projects, then settle into Cake Or Death as soon as Life With Jeannie ends to ride the year out with that.

It was kind of a great chess piece for me to keep and I think it’s interesting that people keep asking for Cake Or Death and focusing on the name. For all you guys know I could have put out Gotham Down Deluxe and called it Cake Or Death and no one would know. I’m giving myself room to move around and play around and then take a little bit of a rap vacation while still being able to work on it. But it’s around, I’m definitely not doing Detox (laughs), it’s totally coming out. It’s timeless music so it doesn’t really matter when it’s released.

You’re still considered a very niche artist who’s almost passed over by bigger outlets. What do you think it will take for you to receive your just due?

I think people maybe missed a bunch of things, it’s not necessarily that I got ignored by people. I definitely made a choice to be like “This is the kind of music I want to make and these are the kinds of things that I want to be involved in.” I understand what the formula is for making popular music and being that kind of an artist and I don’t necessarily want that. I understand how to hustle, grind and network to get in exactly where I want to be. I don’t think they’re ignoring me as much as it’s like “We’re both not going to play the same game” and that’s cool. I enjoy the freedom of being me and being able to do whatever I want.

For all things Jean Grae, hit up jeangrae.com and jeangrae.bandcamp.com

Questions & Answers with Antman Wonder

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Flashing back to 2008, I used to make ends meet in Philadelphia by promoting different products in on assigned street teams. One day I worked with a dude named Anthony, we kind of hit it off talking about Hip Hop, the sitcom Arrested Development and women. He was a producer who frequented Just Blaze’s Megatron Don online forum, I was an aspiring audio engineer who wrote about music (suffice to say the latter became more of a hustle though I’d still like to learn the ins and outs of a studio), so I figured he’d be a good dude to know.

I was initially skeptical because everyone in Philly talks about what they’re doing but hardly anyone winds up being bigger than a local sensation (I remember a hilarious argument Ant had with a dude who swore his name rung bells all over the place, said dude is still pretty much unknown), come to find out my man was actually talented. He had some of my favorite production on Add-2’s Save Our Souls mixtape (Add-2 is the latest addition to 9th Wonder’s Jamla roster, wake up if you’re sleep) and then when I heard The Present I was fully convinced he was going places.

I decided to start doing these interviews realizing I had quick access to a decent number of talented people, so I reached out a few months ago thinking I would just rap with Ant about the forthcoming Memories Of The Fewture and his background. He said “I’m laying low right now, but we’ll have a lot to talk about soon”. As fate would have it, he had a whole LP with Skyzoo in the works, An Ode To Reasonable Doubt released this past December 4th. We’ve both come a long way from street promos and I love to see my folks rise from the bottom. Antman Wonder recently took a break while in the studio to talk with me on topics including his inspirations, how AOTRD came about and why he likely wont be going Hollywood anytime soon.

You’re from Philly which is a really musical city. Would you say that contributed to you wanting to do music?

Honestly I dont even think that had anything to do with it, I think it’s just the time and the era and the music that engulfed me. I could have been from anywhere but the music of the era I grew up in and the era before that was great. The older generation always made sure that I had good music in my life.

Who would you say were your greatest production influences?

Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, David Axelrod, Minnie Riperton albums. There’s a lot as far as musicality is concerned but when it comes to arrangements in Hip Hop it’s DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, everyone who set the groundwork. There’s a ton of them, Pharrell, Timbaland…

Dilla.

The thing with me is everybody kind of hopped on this Dilla bandwagon, I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t completely familiar with Dilla before he passed. I knew the name and as it turned out Dilla made some of my favorite songs of all time and I didn’t even know it was him that produced them. I was a fan and didn’t even know I was a fan as opposed to everybody who’s like “I loved everything he did” and they didn’t talk about him when he was around.

I was heavily influenced by Dilla without knowing it, so I think that speaks more than people claiming they followed everything he did. That dude influenced me and he wasn’t braggadocious about it, that speaks volumes to he was. He wasn’t a giant name like Pharrell and Timbaland but he was around in that mid ’90s era.

There are thousands of beatmakers and producers on the internet now. How would you describe your particular style and sound?

I wouldn’t compare myself to anyone else, I really don’t work on comparisons. I try to separate myself by just going off the essence of what’s been instilled in me from growing up. I don’t let too much that’s going on influence me, I try to achieve timelessness by focusing on what’s stuck with me throughout time. As far as other producers go I have my favorites, I’m a big Black Milk fan but I just do what I know how to do. I never really sat around comparing snares and melodies, but I don’t sample a lot so if anything sticks out it would be that.

So you prefer to play everything live as opposed to sampling?

Not everything, I program music and if it can be done live then I’ll do that. I prefer everything to feel organic no matter how it comes about, I don’t care if I use a cup and a pencil like Timbaland did. Whatever it is, I want it to speak to you and I don’t think everything should sound so robotic and contrived. I really just try to let it all flow naturally, a lot of times it doesn’t come naturally and I just decide not to produce, so I work a little bit slower these days.

What instruments and equipment do you use in the studio?

I never really speak on that, I like to let people imagine. My boy started calling me Antman Wonder because people could never tell what was sampled and what wasn’t. I have an array of things I can use and the way I trained myself is I can pretty much use anything, there’s never one consistent thing. I’ve used everything from FL Studio (Fruity Loops) to Logic and Reason, I started with Sonar and Cubase back in the day. I still have a MPC sitting here, I got the Maschine, I’ve been through all of it. There’s no go to, it’s whatever is at my disposal.

You mentioned being a Black Milk fan a minute ago. Is there anyone else you find yourself listening to who inspires you to stay sharp?

My inspiration doesn’t really come from people that would be considered in my genre. I listen to KING and their musicality inspires me, they’re perfect to me. If someone’s music gives me a certain feeling, I want to be able to give someone else the feeling I got. It’s never a thing where I want to take someone else’s technique, if I feel a certain type of way about a song then I’ll be motivated to say “I want to make somebody feel like that”.

I like Terrace Martin and of course my homies Skyzoo and Add-2. I listen to dope Hip Hop for inspiration with my work ethic more than it inspires the music I make.

Tell me about how An Ode To Reasonable Doubt came together.

From my end it started with hearing “Bring It On” back in 1996, every producer has looked for that sample and nobody has been able to find it, so I figured I’d recreate anything that moved me that much. I sat down one day, took it apart and recreated it with my imagination. I put it out there and Justice League’s manager Ivan heard it, he said I should do a whole project like that. I started on it and stopped because I was working on Memories Of The Fewture, then Illmind came across my music and played Memories Of The Fewture for Skyzoo. Skyzoo hit me up last year and said “I want to do a Reasonable Doubt project”, which got the ball rolling and that got me to finish it because I was less than halfway done when he hit me up.

We executive produced it together, he picked which songs he wanted to do and I recreated them. I started it in 2012, on Skyzoo’s end some kid told him he should do a Reasonable Doubt tribute in 2011 because he had liked the way Elzhi’s (Illmatic tribute) project was done. When Skyzoo came across me, I guess that was just perfect for him.

It’s funny I was supposed to do a EP with Add-2 before he signed with Jamla. Then he got with them and did a EP with Khrysis and I ended up doing a EP with Skyzoo who’s a former Jamla artist, so it’s a small world. I didn’t even know that me and Skyzoo would fit together well, but we did which is why we put out Sleeping Giant 2  before the Reasonable Doubt project.

So how has it been received?

Honestly, the ratio of love to hate has been crazy. I expected a lot more animosity, I barely got any and I’m very thankful for that. Primo told me he loved the album, so I’m blessed. It could have went a totally different way where people were throwing pitchforks at me. I’m glad our project worked out because it was a very big risk, I saw what happened to the kid who did that joint with Lupe with the Pete Rock T.R.O.Y. sample. The whole internet went crazy on him, that’s a potential career killer. That kid remade one song, Reasonable Doubt is one of the greatest albums of all time. I’m dealing with an album that has the likes of Ski Beatz, DJ Premier, Irv Gotti, and DJ Clark Kent, the titans. If you screw over that, people will come for your neck.

For a dude with so much talent, why do you choose to keep such a low profile?

I want the attention to be on the music and not on me. It seems like the reason we’re having such low quality music is because everyone stays relevant by face value and based off of the things they say as opposed to the music. Everything is about what this person did but the news isn’t about their albums, promoting your album based off of the news you make is just backwards to me.

I always want it to be about the music, I don’t need to be in videos and doing extra stuff. The lifestyle is nice but it just takes away from my gift. I believe I’ve been blessed with a gift and I feel I would be spitting on that if I made it about me and not the gift I was blessed with.  I’m not that great of a person to be all in people’s faces like “You should pay attention to me” (laughs). I enjoy my music a lot more than I enjoy talking.

Finally, with Memories Of The Fewture being long awaited, what can people expect from that and what else do you have coming up?

This year is gonna be really stressful but it’s gonna be great because people are opening up their ears. I was supposed to drop Memories Of The Fewture back in 2012, it was supposed to be the last thing I did in music. I was quitting and I didn’t want anything to do with it, but some people heard it and passed it around, and that’s how I became the dude who other producers gravitate towards. What you can expect from it is my imagination, it’s like going on a field trip through my brain. I like time based things, which is why I really liked doing the Reasonable Doubt project, it’s something that gets encapsulated and can be timeless if treated right.

On this project I pulled from everything I grew up on, not just Hip Hop but TV, video games and everything I heard musically. We’re not just shaped by what we choose to listen to musically, we’re shaped by things we just hear in passing. If you hear a theme song from a show you grew up on, it’s gonna do something for you. I didn’t want it to be one dimensional so I included elements of everything that structured me, a big part of me is put on display with Memories Of The Fewture.

As far as the rest of the year, I’ve been working with Jahlil Beats, I’m supposed to be working with Rockwilder, my man Focus from Aftermath, and Illmind. There’s a lot of stuff I did last year that hasn’t even come to light, certain things I cant even speak on yet but hopefully it all comes to light. I know I’m gonna do my part, I dropped the Ode To Reasonable Doubt instrumentals and I’m dropping Memories Of The Fewture in February. I look forward to all of it, hopefully it’ll be an explosive year.

Questions & Answers with DJ R-Tistic

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(Photo: Milan Carter)

DJ R-Tistic is a part of my circle where I live (more like I’ve become a part of his circle, same difference), we get along because we have the shared experience of being FAMU alumni who are hardly ever extra acting.  Living out his dreams, he has to roam amongst the turned up crowd and mingle with bourgie and hood folks (neither are my thing for opposite reasons), but really he’s one of the most regular people I know. I aspire to one day be as successful, well respected and still low key as he is.

I spoke with the homie recently where he laid out a blueprint for DJ life and revealed (not surprisingly) he played a small role in the foundation of what has become the present LA club sound.

What initially inspired you to become a DJ?

I always had an interest in music, it just took a while for me to connect that with DJ’ing. I was making beats in ’94 or ’95 because my dad had the equipment, and in high school I considered DJ’ing but I knew it would have been too much because I had to have equipment, speakers and everything else. What really got me into it was college in Florida, we would go to clubs and hear songs from the East coast and Midwest, but we didn’t hear our songs at all. We would have house parties playing our own music if it was a LA party, if it was a New York or Chicago party I’m playing their music. I was just playing on a Windows Media playlist until we actually decided to invest in the equipment to actually do it as a side job.

Going into 2014, what do you feel about the state of the LA party scene?

Right now the black Hollywood scene is pretty much the main thing that’s here as far as Rap/Hip Hop is concerned. The mix scene is always gonna be here, but as far as the black party scenes clubs are faced with people buying bottles vs. filling up the dance floor with a million people. It changes things for DJs because it’s not just playing songs to make them dance the whole time, a lot of times they prefer to hear certain anthems and new hits.

I’d say LA’s party scene is in the top three right just because of the energy of us having our own music for once. We haven’t had our own music to party to in the clubs since the mid to late ’90s, and even then our music wasn’t really made for parties but because it was LA music we partied to it. This might be the first time LA has had its own party sound, it came from the 2009 jerking movement and at this point it’s kind of been refined. I even think R&B artists are gonna start using that sound too, over the last few months Mariah Carey has a song with DJ Mustard and I think by next year people like Beyonce and Mary J. Blige will be using it because there is no real upbeat R&B sound right now. I think it’ll all tie in and it might get us the number one spot next year.

What would you say it takes to be a good DJ?

The main thing is reading the crowd more than anything else. I’ve seen DJs who had no technical skills still kill it because they knew what the crowd wanted. You have to be diverse enough to spin for different crowds, you cant just get used to your crowd and think that’s all you need. Whatever crowd you have, you have to be in tune with them. A lot of DJs might be technically great and into the DMC battle style, but they might not know how to read a crowd and whether they want to be hype and aggressive or just dance. You have to know exactly what they want at that time and be able to get there.

A lot of times you have to pace yourself because if the crowd wants to dance at 10:30 and you’re going until 2 AM, you don’t want to burn them out. It’s about being in sync with them, you have to picture yourself being in the crowd like “What would I want to hear if I was out here?” You might love a DJ Quik song or a Chaka Khan song, but just because you love it doesn’t mean that’s what the crowd wants to hear at the time. Also it’s not about being diverse to where you know a little bit about everyone’s sound, but you have to know how to go deep with whatever types of sounds you’re dealing with at the time.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career as a DJ so far?

There’s a few that are close. As far as an event of high magnitude, I would say this year’s Paid Dues festival is number one overall. As far as a party I’ve done, the School Daze HBCU party I spun in 2012, that’s the best party where I was the sole focus. On a creative side as far as mixes and producing, I would say The Timeline mix I put out earlier this year.

Tell me about how The Timeline came about.

My friend Ashton sent me this mix called A Hip Hop Odyssey four or five years ago, it was similar to what I did but the songs went by a lot faster, it was 800 songs and around 60 minutes. I thought it was dope but the songs went by too fast and it mainly focused on the East coast, I said “I wanna make a West coast version of that” and Ashton told me I should. I started that in 2009 and spent 30 to 40 hours on it and in 2010 I gave up because it was just too much.

I pretty much felt there was no mix that served that purpose, you’ll hear a mix that has all ’90s West coast music, a Bay area mix, or a mix that goes from the ’80s to now but you never hear one that ties everything in at one time. I wanted to highlight everything from Chicano rap to jerking, the ’80s, G-Funk, hyphy and every single style that we’ve been known for.

I attended the School Daze party you mentioned a few moments ago and you definitely killed it. What was it about that night that was so magical?

There’s a few more that are right around that level like 2009 FAMU Homecoming, I thought I killed it but there I was the opener and I didn’t have the whole night. With School Daze, I was the only DJ up there for 4 hours and the feedback on Twitter was crazy, when you get hit up from strangers you know you did a good job. Your friends will always say you killed it but people were looking for me and adding me on Facebook off that party.

A lot of preparation went into that because it was one of those events where I knew I could do more than I’m usually able to at the club. I was able to go way deeper than the surface songs for each region and the crowd was pretty much there for everything I had. I was playing songs the crowd had never heard in LA before and songs they hadn’t heard in 5 to 10 years.

From the outside looking in, DJ life seems fun. If you could pick a few things that annoy you the most about it, what would they be?

I hate the fact that people want to just hear what’s new vs. what’s good, a lot of folks want to hear what’s on the radio rather than what’s out there that they haven’t heard. When it comes to timing, people might think 10 to 11:30 PM is easy but that’s really the hardest time, because when the crowd walks in they want to hear whatever they want and at that time you’re just trying to warm them up.

I might be playing something from the late ’90s or early 2000’s and people might say “He’s playing too much old stuff, play some new songs”. I used to think it was just me, but when I started hanging with other DJs it happened to them too.  People will say “Can you play some songs from this year?”. You ask what song they want to hear, they’ll say new Drake and Lil Wayne, not even caring about the specific song. They just want to hear stuff that’s new maybe because it makes them feel younger or in style because they’re dancing to a new song.

I also don’t like the fact that promoters pretty much want us to do their job. That gives us double pressure, we already deal with making sure the music is on point and keeping the crowd there. I can bring in 80 or 100 people if it’s the right event, but I’m not gonna bring my crowd to an event that they’re not gonna enjoy. A lot of promoters don’t realize that DJs have crowds that wont come out if it’s not an event they want to be at. When you have clubs with crowds that are seen as being hood or ratchet, if your crowd hates it then they might stop coming to your events altogether. In this current scene they want DJs to promote more than play music sometimes. Aside from those things…

The groupies in the booth.

People think it’s an amazing thing, but the groupies in the booth are pretty annoying. I cant lie, it makes us look good if you see a picture with a DJ and a hot girl on both sides, but half the time they’re annoying. You try to be nice because it’s a good look to have them at your events, but they’ll ask to play the next song and I’m like “You can ask me what to play”. They ask to scratch, you say no and they’ll scratch anyway, then the music cuts off and the whole crowd just looks at you. I’ve had to signal security over at times because girls that look good are spoiled and they think they can do whatever they want to. I’m too serious, I don’t care about groupies being there. Maybe when the party is over it’s all good but when I’m in the middle of it I’m at work, don’t bother me.

What has been your most challenging gig to date?

There have been a few in different ways. Rock The Bells 2011 wasn’t my fault but I’ll take some blame. MF Doom was supposed to come out, between each act there’s supposed to be a 15 minute gap but 35 to 40 minutes had passed and he still wasn’t there. The crowd was getting restless, they weren’t mad at me but they were mad that he wasn’t there. I hear a few boos from the crowd and I played “All About The Benjamins” because I figured it was a big East coast song from the ’90s, not realizing this was a Hip Hop crowd that probably didn’t like anything commercial. They had been grooving with me before that, but at that point it probably wasn’t the best move, I played that and started hearing more boos.

For 5 or 10 more minutes it was a struggle where every song I played they were coming at my head. At this point Murs came out and said “Doom probably isn’t coming”, and he performed some songs. From there it was all good but in that moment I couldn’t tell if it was me or if the crowd wasn’t happy because Doom wasn’t there. Whenever I do big events now I’m almost 110% prepared so that if the crowd ever wants to go against me I can still keep them in check.

Who’s one DJ you’ve seen spin that really impressed you?

Kid Capri. He was able to go from Hip Hop classics to old ’70s and ’80s classics to new songs and when he was dropping songs in at certain points I started taking that from him. He’d throw in the middle or even the end of a song where I’d start it from the beginning.

You have an extensive knowledge of LA Hip Hop stories. Tell me a few that the average person may not have heard.

The first time I met Game was the day his album got pushed back. It was September 2004, I met him right when he was on the phone with whoever at Interscope and he was in a real pissy mood. He was on the G-Unit cuts and they were coming to FAMU Homecoming that year, I asked his business partner Fat Rat if Game was coming and he said “He aint coming, he aint fuckin with them G-Unit niggas like that.” I was confused because that’s who put him on and helped him get hot. He said “We used them to get out there but we aint fuckin with them. Game already got disses waiting for them.” The only one he was cool with was Tony Yayo, he had disses waiting for 50 Cent and Lloyd Banks.

That was September 2004, I said I was gonna wait to see how this played out. By March, 50 put out The Massacre and said he was dropping Game from G-Unit. I already knew it was going to happen, people thought he had just then gotten kicked out but hearing about it so much earlier let me know that it really just was a business move for him.

I’ve known DJ Mustard since 2008, he was probably producing back then, but he was just getting into it while jerking was still popping. I would play parties for his uncle and Mustard was setting up the equipment for one event, while testing the sound out I played a random song from Florida called “Low 2 Da Flo” by Lil Kee. Mustard kind of stopped and he was like “What’s this? This shit is dope”. When it was over he told me to play it again, he was vibing to it and from there he took that sound along with everything going on down South, the Bay and in LA, and that’s where he got his club sound from. As a DJ he was way better than me back then at 17 or 18 years old, he was way ahead of the game.

What advice would you give to a younger kid who wanted to be a DJ?

Study. If you’re too young to go to a club, pay attention at a party or just listen to the radio and take notes. A lot of times your style happens from the database you have in your head. It all comes from the research you do, also try to become cool with a DJ by helping them out with their equipment and take notes from them if you’re serious about it. Watch Youtube videos, I got a lot of stuff from there, especially when it comes to technique. You cant really learn to play songs from there to see crowd reactions, but study Youtube to get your technique together. Listen to the radio, music changes every few months with something new that comes in and something else that goes out at the same time, make sure you keep your ear to it so that you know where it is at the time.

You recently won the West Coast region for the McDonald’s and Complex Flavor battle. What’s next?

The winners for each region go to New York for the third round. It’s been a good campaign that started off extremely stressful because of the votes being so close and everybody having to campaign. I didn’t think people would be voting for me as much who didn’t know me. The random fans decide it every time they go on Complex and other places where it was advertised, that helped me get a larger lead. It’s made me see my random mixes might be bigger than I realized if people saw me and voted from that.

It’s going good, now I have to prepare a 10 minute set for New York. My main weakness is I’m not an amazing scratcher, I’m decent at it in the clubs but I’ll have to tighten up on that. I’m just going to focus on my strengths which are mainly the transitions, song selections and overall energy with playing songs and bridging them together. I’m ready for that to happen, I have a couple of weeks to prepare for the New York trip in the middle of January and I’m hoping everything goes according to plan.

Follow DJ R-Tistic on Twitter and Facebook

Questions And Answers with Tasty Keish

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(photo: Richard Louissaint)

While I take great pride in what I do, my only competition is the personal standard I set for my work. I don’t feel like I need to be the only game in town and I actively big up other people even if we’re doing similar things. I don’t have much ego or self-importance when it comes to my art, and in this age of online superstardom it’s been tough to just find normal people who are grounded while producing dope content. Through a number of shared associates, TK In The AM was a show I kept hearing about and finally decided to check out, hoping to enjoy it because my weird rule of networking is we cant really rock if Im not feeling what you’re doing or vice versa.

As fate would have it I was pretty blown away that there was a kindred spirit out there who understood everything I aimed to do with creating radio (real talk, humor, left of center music) and Im not ashamed to say she does it better than me when you factor in how in tune she is to current events and matters of substance (suffice to say, not quite what I do). The next step was throwing up a hail mary and reaching out in hopes she would check out what I had going on (often like pulling teeth even with the people who already know you online). Testament to her generosity and curious nature, she kept her word and wound up enjoying Go In Radio as I suspected she might. We’re now mutual supporters, I tune into her live show each time Im by my computer and I’m humbled that she’s excited to hear whatever craziness I’ll say next.

TK took a few moments to talk to me about her show, her history in radio and a bunch of other things after a long day of helping a friend move, proof that a lot of you motherfuckers aren’t as busy as you pretend to be, but I digress. I hope you enjoy getting to know about her here and eventually become listeners due to my recommendation. Should I ever quit my operation I’ll know the people are in good hands with her on the airwaves.

Who were your original influences as far as broadcasting is concerned?

I always think of Wendy Williams first. There are different stages of Wendy, I would like to clarify and say early 98.7 Kiss FM Wendy when she first got to New York I know she was crazy and probably coked out half the time but if you can function on that level then you are a superstar. I’m not as crazy about TV Wendy Williams and when she was on 107.5 WBLS, but I respect whatever hustle it takes. The next person is mother Oprah, I don’t agree with everything she says but she paved the way. An unconventional influence is Lucille Ball because she was one of the first TV bosses, she co-owned Desilu Productions with her husband as a B actress doing I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show. They were like “We’re doing all these shows, we might as well open up our own studio” which is kind of what we did with Bondfire Radio. She went from B actress to a boss signing all of the checks, that’s a huge inspiration for my life.

Also Angie Martinez, she’s the radio everyman. Everybody comes up there and if you’re an artist you don’t feel threatened talking to her, she’s gonna give you some good questions where you can speak and have your moment, but for the listeners she asks just the right questions to make you feel like she kind of went in even though behind the scenes she’s probably like *wink wink wink* “I’m gonna ask you this”. She makes you feel good as a listener and as a subject.

What would you say are some keys to compelling broadcasting?

Consistency, come on the same time every day. Just because you’re online radio doesn’t mean you can take a break or say “My show was on at 8 last week, I’m gonna push it to 8:30 because I don’t have time”, you have to make time because this is a time driven medium. If you come on at 7, then you come on every week or every other day, your job is to show up consistently. You also have to be consistent in programming with your format and conversation, if you’re that guy then be that guy. If you want to change it up you have to be smart about it. You cant just come in there and be a nun when you were mad raunchy before, do something in between.

Also there’s interactivity, we have the chatroom which is awesome and I love how people reach out and communicate to us, we love communicating back and I think that’s the thing that drives our show to be better than a lot of other shows. It’s a live, consistent, interactive experience.

What’s been the secret to your show blowing up in less than a year?

Word of mouth for sure. It’s hard to get people to do anything, but once we get one they always bring a friend and there’s that other layer where the listeners become friends with each other. They’re tweeting each other, talking amongst each other in the chatroom and hitting each other on Facebook after the show. When we talk about a topic they weigh in too and find out they have something in common or at least a good argument will come from it. I think that also drives them to come back, wanting to participate where you weren’t always able to participate in regular radio and TV. Now we’re opening up those floodgates again.

You’re on the scene quite often in NY at different events. What inspires you to stay on the scene?

I love ambiance and events as far as hosting and doing panels. Interacting with humans, there’s an exhilaration you get when you get on stage. The host sets the tone for the whole event, I love being that first person to grab the audience, make them smile and get them juiced up before the artist comes out and hopefully they don’t ruin it for me (laughs). Also we do a lot of community service with Bondfire Radio and I just think it’s important to do, I don’t have money to be giving away and putting in a basket at church but I have time. Why not give time that’s tangible and that I can see somebody was affected by? It feels good to help someone else, whatever you can do whether it’s buying a homeless dude a Snickers bar or buying him a bottle of liquor. That liquor could save him because the withdrawal from alcohol is a problem, but that’s a whole other story (laughs).

What initially inspired you to create an alternative form of radio?

I have no idea, I was one of those kids that really loved music and the radio. I was loving that there were people on the air who enjoyed interacting as much as I enjoyed listening. They were giving away prizes and doing things to make people feel happy, and then they brought the music. I would make pause tapes and instead of letting it have a straight mix I would jump in as a fake announcer, I was doing that when I was seven or eight years old. I think it just stuck with me even though I had periods in my life where I wasn’t even thinking about it. Once I made the decision in college to go all the way, I’ve never looked back. To start a radio show from scratch and build a studio makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing with my life.

Similar to my show, the music you play isn’t the every day material that people are accustomed to always hearing. How do you stay up on slept on artists?

The artists are either someone I know or someone that knows someone, this is a small world and when you’re doing events you’re going to bump into people. I’m discovering music all the time, but I would have to give a lot of the credit to my co-host Conscious who’s also my music supervisor. He’s one of those guys who virtually digs crates online, he looks through Soundcloud and continually clicks music until it hits, then he asks me “What do you think?” It’s gotten to a point where he knows my tastes and I trust him to take the show in a great direction.

We’ve been able to mix it up to where we’re not just killing you with brand new electro-black-neo-future soul shit, we’re also bringing you some old school, a tiny bit of mainstream and keeping a nice little mix so if you’re body rolling at your desk it’s appropriate for you at work or if you want to turn up a little bit, we’re gonna give you that balance from conscious to ratchet every day.

You have a unique way of injecting humor into the news and more serious topics that makes me want to hear what you have to say. How do you balance the conscious material with the ratchet talk?

I don’t know about balancing it purposefully, we kind of take the days of the week as where the temperature will be. We try to keep Mondays chill, easy and low key, we’re not going too hard. Wednesday is hump day so you want to turn up, we have Air Out Wednesdays to get your blood going and then Fridays are sometimes no holds barred. When crazy shit happens like R. Kelly and Lady Gaga on SNL, I had to turn up on that (laughs), wherever the world and current events take us, you get a natural reaction. I’m not gonna stifle myself but I’m also mindful that Mondays you might not want to hear me cursing in your ear but Friday when you got your check and you’re ready to go, then I’m turning up for you a little bit.

What would you say separates TK In The AM from other shows?

I think as far as morning shows go we’re getting to a place where we can be compared to other people a little bit, and it’s cool as shit. I think that’s what separates a lot of radio shows from each other, can you be put in a upper echelon or are you just a needle in a haystack like a lot of these other shows? With online radio you become a needle in a haystack, you have to do giveaways to make yourself stand out but we just do what’s organic to us. We bring people on the show that we enjoy and talk about stuff that we enjoy, it’s no frills and it’s fun. I think people miss normal people having fun and making them laugh.

You’ve been very passionate about what’s been going on with Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Take me further through your feelings here.

It’s a lot, but I’ll say it’s gross when you have this island which is inhabited by people that look alike on both sides and you’re telling me that I cant stay on your side of the island because I was not born there. That’s racism against yourself, which is bullshit and it goes really far back to the revolution and the 1937 Parsley Massacre. There were Haitians executed and it continues to happen every day with people being exported, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. My brain does not compute how that could be an accepted thing, and I live in (Amerikkka) so I should know better that this is a normal thing. But for some reason my brain is not computing how we can both look the same and you can kill me or send me back to wherever you say I came from. I don’t think it’s fair, people don’t need to be going through the bullshit just to feed their families.

Tell me about your event coming up out here in LA.

I’m excited, every now and then I take a long weekend to go somewhere and the work never stops so we’ll be broadcasting partially in New York and partially in LA and after that I’m having a lunch meet up for my West coast listeners. Slowly the numbers have been coming up and I really appreciate them because we come on at 10 AM Eastern which is 7 AM out there, to see yall in the chatroom or tweeting us at that time is a huge deal. I just wanted to meet folks in person as much as I could, have some lunch and see what they look like. Note: we’re all getting separate checks at lunch (laughs).

What would you say is your end goal with broadcasting?

Last year was the start of TK In The AM and Bondfire Radio, of which I’m now a part owner. We’re building new programming and every month we’re adding one to two new shows. I didn’t even know this would be a thing that was going to grow the way it did, but when you have enough people that are down for you that want to do more than TK In The AM, I was like “We need to grow this.” Last year I didn’t think I was going to be a radio station owner, that was not a part of the equation but now it is and I’m running with it, so my goal is to provide the best programming possible that wont zombify our listeners. I want to give them input and joy, I’m just trying to bring joy to the people out here and do the Lord’s work as far as broadcasting goes (laughs).

If there’s anything else you want to air out, feel free.

I just want to say thanks to my team for building this thing and doing it for pennies on the dollar, we haven’t had dollars and we’re still working on that. Also the listeners for sure, they keep coming back to tell us what they want to hear and we’ll keep bringing it.

TK In The AM can be heard live Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 AM to 11:30 AM EST on Bondfire Radio, with rebroadcasts available on iTunes .

Black Milk Interview

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Whether he’ll take credit or not, many  consider Black Milk to have played a huge role in Detroit’s resurgence after the untimely passing of J. Dilla. Rapping and producing with skill that few can compete with, his contributions have amazed and kept hope alive in an underground scene that even tends to be stagnant at points. What I really appreciate is how he has turned quality music into a business model while remaining humble and always letting his music speak for him. I was fortunate enough to speak with Black as his heavily anticipated new album No Poison, No Paradise is now hitting stores. If you haven’t, familiarize yourself with Tronic and Album Of The Year, major highlights of his relatively short career to date.

You’re an artist who challenges himself creatively with each project. To start, what can fans look forward to with No Poison, No Paradise? 

They can look forward to hearing a different side of me lyrically this time around. That’s the main thing, even more than the production which is like a mixture of all three of my previous projects. There’s more raw soul sounds like Popular Demand, upbeat electronic stuff like Tronic and a little bit of live instrumentation like Album Of The Year. You kind of get all of those styles of production in this new album and lyrically there’s a lot of conceptual storytelling this time around.

Working with BR Gunna helped you get in the game, but from my understanding the business wasn’t right. What lessons did you learn from that experience?

It wasn’t just business, there were creative differences also. That was the start when I was first getting into the game and dealing with people in the industry, so I wouldn’t trade anything and I don’t regret it. Like you said, I learned a lot business wise and it pushed me in the direction to do my solo thing. I’m glad I made the decision then to start taking creative control over what I do as well as being more hands on with my brand.

You went on record saying that Slum Village was your favorite group. What influence if any did they have on you musically and what was it about them that made you such a fan?

When I first heard their music probably back in ’98, it was just something that connected with me that I didn’t have with any other Hip Hop music at the time. Of course I was already a fan of other groups’s but something about Slum’s music and style connected with me. Originally I didn’t even know they were from Detroit, my older cousins used to always play their music and Slum Village influenced my style rhythmically where there’s a pocket and flow that comes with recording music and the lyrics come after. Them and J Dilla were a big influence on what I do right now.

After Dilla’s passing, would you say Detroit sort of looked at you to fill that void? 

I don’t think Detroit really looked at me to fill a void. The whole Hip Hop scene of Detroit was just looking at itself like “What are we gonna do?” as far as not only keeping his legacy alive but taking a note from what he did, continuing to put out a certain level of quality music from the city.

With the Random Axe project, did you find yourself competing with Guilty Simpson and Sean Price lyrically or were you more concerned with making sure the production was tight? 

I never really found myself competing. You definitely want to come with your best verse being next to those guys because they’re lyrical beasts, but for the most part I don’t feel any kind of pressure. It’s just like you have to come with your best every time and that’s how I am even when I’m doing songs without people featured on them. With Random Axe, I do focus more on the production side of things in making sure the album has a cohesive flow to it and I put verses on whichever tracks I feel need to have my voice on them.

You did the Caltroit project with Bishop Lamont. What was that like working with the Aftermath camp and did it help you gain exposure on the West coast?

I think it actually did help me gain a little bit of exposure because as you mentioned Bishop was on Aftermath at the time and that was a major label, so the project got a bit of a major push. It kind of put me in a space where I got exposed to fans of mainstream commercial type of music, Caltroit had a nice response when we dropped it and I still mess with Bishop to this day.

You do all of your own production. If you could pick another producer to do a whole album with you rapping, who would it be and why?

I would probably try to get in the studio with somebody like Jake One, Nottz, or El-P. El-P has real dope production and I think it would be interesting to see what I sound like over his style because it’s totally different from what I do.

What haven’t you attempted to do musically that you would like to try?

There’s so many places I want to go musically, sound wise I’m experimenting every day. The album just dropped and I’m already in the lab onto a new sound. My mind is always going and thinking of new ways to approach Hip Hop production, so who knows where I’ll be in the next year or two.

You did an album with Fat Ray and an EP with Danny Brown, is there anyone else in Detroit you’d love to do a whole album with?

Yeah there is, I don’t know if I want to mention anyone right now but I try to keep my eye open for who I think I could have chemistry in the lab to make projects with. I’m definitely down to always work with other Detroit artists.

A big thing in your production is the drums. Aside from yourself, who would you say has had the craziest drums in Hip Hop?

Of course it would be Dilla, it would be Primo and Pete Rock. I would also say Timbaland too, he has a unique thing with his rhythms, patterns and his drum sounds.

A big surprise was you working with Jack White from The White Stripes. How did that collaboration come to pass?

He hit us up, it was simple as that. He emailed my manager and at first we didn’t know if it was real or not (laughs), then once we confirmed it was really him we talked. He has his own label Third Man Records where he puts out crazy 7 inch and 12 inch vinyl with crazy art designs and packaging, he does these one offs with different artists. He said he always wanted to work with a Hip Hop artist from Detroit but he couldn’t find the right one that made sense for what he does, and since I produce also he thought it would make sense to collab. I went down to Nashville with my band, hooked up with him and some of his musician friends, we got in the studio and jammed for a little while and came out with a couple of tracks. It was probably one of the craziest experiences I’ve had in music.

Detroit has been in the news a lot lately, with the bankruptcy situation and Kwame Kilpatrick just being handed down some serious jail time. What are your thoughts on how the city has been run politically?

It’s pretty sad the way our politics are ran in the city. It affects the community but the thing about Detroit is no matter how dark things get or if the city is on hard times financially, the sense of community and pride is always there. So hopefully things turn around sooner than later.

What do you want your music’s legacy to be when it’s all said and done? 

I want people to look at me as an artist that never followed trends, just moving at his own pace and as an artist that was able to have an effect and make a mark on music history. I just want to make timeless music that people enjoy and will be playing at events, clubs and parties a lot of years from now.

The Foreign Exchange Experience

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(Photo by Jati Lindsay)

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The first time I heard Little Brother’s “Whatever You Say”, my mind was blown. This was before they had a record deal, just a random site had that, “Speed” and maybe “The Yo-Yo” up. I immediately obsessed over everything Justus League related I could find, material that’s now all but disappeared aside from someone’s hard drive in North Carolina.

We frequented the same online watering hole for some time, but I first met Phonte at a LB show at BB King’s in New York, I think I was on a date with my girl at the time. 2 girlfriends later, The Foreign Exchange’s Leave It All Behind was the soundtrack to my new relationship fall of 2008.  The next summer there was a brief shot of me in the “I Wanna Know” video (2:56-2:57 to be exact) and a few months later I wound up meeting up with a new interest for the first time at the same BB King’s venue for a Foreign Exchange show. To say that courtship didn’t end well or smoothly would be putting it lightly, as 2010’s Authenticity gave voice to the bad period I was just starting to emerge anew from.

Fast forward through Phonte’s remarkable solo album Charity Starts At Home, this is my second time interviewing The Foreign Exchange this year, a group whose music has served as the soundtrack to my ups and downs. It’s been great to witness their growth artistically and personally, as sort of a parallel to my ongoing evolution. As a bonus, I made a mix of hoping to capture some of their label’s essence (track list after the interview). The Foreign Exchange’s new album Love In Flying Colors is in stores tomorrow.

Phonte, before you knew there would be a Foreign Exchange, what initially drew you to Nicolay’s production?

I felt like I heard somebody that listened to the same music I did, but he was able to put that through a Hip-Hop filter. He was somebody that I could tell listened to Prince, Radiohead, rock music and ‘80s synth pop music, but he still had a love for Hip-Hop and he could make that shit bang. What I heard in him that I hadn’t heard in any other producer was the ability to do so many styles in several different genres, but they all sounded good and convincing.  None of his styles sounded like a stretch and that’s just something you don’t really find, it’s really rare to find someone who can pull that off.

Connected was sort of a Hip-Hop album with some singing on it, everything since has been sort of R&B/Soul with a rap verse here and there. What caused you guys to want to undergo such a drastic change up musically?

Nicolay: Just drastic changes in life, everything that happens in life shapes you. 10 or 11 years after first meeting and creating music, we’re obviously no longer the same people. We’ve evolved, grown, lived and loved, which reflects in the music we make. It wasn’t ever really a conscious shift, every album we’ve done is just a reflection of where we are at that moment in time.

Phonte: The music we make now leans more towards the music that I want to hear now. When I made Connected I was very much into Hip-Hop, but now I’m not in that same place anymore. While I still think Connected is a great album, that is the one I’m probably the most distant from in 2013 because so much has changed since then.

So with Leave It All Behind being the first album on your own label, would you say the title was an extended metaphor for everything from recording for someone else’s label to people leaving behind their perceptions of you as Hip-Hop artists?

Phonte: I would love to tell you that was the thought, like “Yeah nigga, I was a genius, I had that shit all figured out!” (laughs) but I think when writing that album the title just dealt with making a fresh start. In my mind I didn’t really expect people to be as surprised by Leave It All Behind as they were because I had been singing on records doing hooks since (Little Brother’s) The Listening and even on the Zo! And Tigallo Love The ‘80s record that came before that.

To me Leave It All Behind wasn’t as much of a departure as it seemed to other people, but once it came out I saw that people were like “what the hell?” The title signified starting new with me and Nic doing it on our own label, it kind of represented a reset button in my career. I had been doing Little Brother for so many years and that album was kind of like my second wind.

The group’s slogan for each album has been “Never the same band twice”. What can fans expect this time around with Love In Flying Colors?

Nicolay: A different band (laughs), that really says it all for us. At this point we pride ourselves on that, for this record it’s not even a new chapter, it’s a new book.

Phonte: I see how the phrase “Never the same band twice” could be misleading because if you don’t have any consistency then what the fuck are you? If you just release a different album every time (and tell people) “This is a rock album, this is a punk album, this is a ska album, this is a opera album” (laughs), we don’t mean it that literally. We just never run out of ways to invent our formula. If we was a restaurant we’d serve steak and potatoes, but I got a million and one ways to serve steak and potatoes. It’s so many different recipes and ways I could flip it that the steak I cook on Tuesday aint gonna taste like the steak I cook on Thursday.

So with this record I think they can expect to hear us and it will definitely sound like a Foreign Exchange record, but I think people can also hear that we done changed up the formula and made some god damn incredible fucking steak and potatoes (laughs).

Your roster has changed up a few times, who all is in the Foreign Exchange Music Group now?

Nicolay: Right now it’s obviously Phonte and myself, Zo! is one of our mainstay artists and he just had ManMade come out in May and we’re still very much promoting that. We also have Jeanne Jolly whose album Angels came out last October on our label, we have a pretty small roster but that’s always been intentional. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t take on a lot more just because we are very bare bones with our staff. It’s always going to be the direct people that we work with and our own releases.

You’ve developed a reputation for your stage show, tell me about how that’s been a key element to The Foreign Exchange’s success?

Phonte: That’s what keeps you going. If people just wanted to buy your records and listen to them at home they could, but the live show is about giving people an experience to remember. People download albums, listen and dissect them shits within a matter of minutes (laughs). An album can leak and in an hour people will be on Twitter saying it’s classic, or it can leak and people don’t even be talking about it the next week.  Music in our society now has become a lot more transient, but the live show is where people get the experience.

They might not remember all the songs on your album, but they’ll remember “I saw The Foreign Exchange back in 2011, that shit was crazy”. That’s kept us alive because people know that our shows are gonna be a good time and a completely different experience unto itself from our albums.

Nicolay, some of your fans may not realize you worked with Wiz Khalifa at an earlier point in both of your careers. What has it been like to see him become such a big name in rap?

Honestly I’ve loved it, we worked together around 2005 and even back then he had a strong team around him and their goal was to get him to that major level. They really did it and I gotta hand it to them, I have a lot of respect for that hustle. I haven’t seen him since but he’s a really good dude and I’m happy for him. I had great experiences with him and I wish him all the best.

What would you say has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned running an independent operation?

Phonte: There are several. Just knowing that no one’s gonna work harder for you than you will for yourself, the buck has to stop with you. If you’re signed to a label of any kind it’s easy to pass the buck like “The label didn’t promote me”. But when you’re truly indie like we are, it makes you extremely accountable because there is no one else to pass blame to, we are the alpha and omega.

I’ve also learned there’s power in staying small, we may not have the power to get a record on the radio tomorrow but in lieu of that we have flexibility. You can change on the spot and if you want to shift directions at the drop of a dime, you can do that. I’ve found that to be the most rewarding, most people have aspirations of getting bigger but I’ve found so much comfort in working with a small group of people and continually seeing success with them. It just makes your life so much easier and less stressful.

Phonte, you live tweeted Breaking Bad last week (Season 5, Episode 14 “Ozymandias”). As a fan of the show, how do you see it ending from here?

Oh my god, I have no idea. I know that Walt’s last convo with Skyler was protecting her, but he was also saying a lot of shit that he and a lot of viewers were wanting to say to her for a while (laughs). I don’t think he’s going to be able to protect her completely because there’s still the issue of that DVD that Jesse made giving up the whole fucking operation.

I think the Nazis is gonna make their way onto Arroyo Drive, they coming soon. Maybe he comes back to protect Jesse, I really don’t know how it could go at this point but that last episode was one of the best, if not the best episode of the whole series. That shit was incredible.

Speaking of tweets, people appreciate all of the honesty in your music but sometimes get taken aback by your honesty through social media. What do you say to some of how you may be perceived on Twitter?

It happens! (laughs) It’s nothing really that I can say, people perceive you however they want to perceive you. With me it’s not about being right, wrong, good, bad or whatever else, it’s just about being consistent. The same way I talk it on the tweets is the same way I walk it in the streets, there’s no duality with me. I am who I am, there’s some people that don’t like that and there’s gonna be some people that ride with me because of that. You cant really worry about it either way, you just gotta keep being you and all I do is try to present my authentic self.

________

Track list:

Lose Your Way

Greater Than The Sun

I Wanna Know

This Could Be The Night (Tall Black Guy Remix)

If She Breaks Your Heart

Everything She Wants

Zo! feat. Jesse Boykins III – If I Could Tell You No

Fight For Love

All The Kisses

Be Alright

Median feat. Phonte & Big Remo “Turn Ya On”

Right After Midnight (from Love In Flying Colors)

To Be Yours

Sweeter Than You

Dont Wait

Return Of The Mack

Zo! feat. Sy Smith “Greatest Weapon Of All Time

Come Around

All Or Nothing/Coming Home To You

Eyes To The Sky

Zo! feat. Phonte & Choklate “Making Time”

If This Is Love

Make Me A Fool

Zo! feat. Chantae Cann “All Is Well With Love”

Daykeeper (An Evening With The Foreign Exchange version)

Jay Cue Interview

jaycue

In my early obsession with Odd Future and all of their affiliates, I went on to discover The Jet Age Of Tomorrow. Half of that group is Matt Martians, producer for The Internet, the other half is Hal Williams (aka Pyramid Vritra) and to call him a musical genius is putting it lightly. As it would turn out, Hal was also a part of another crew called NRK, mostly comprised of kids along the same wave of inspiration as Tyler The Creator who looked up to Pharrell’s original compositions.

One of NRK’s brightest moments to date was Jay Cue’s Pyramid Life. As ambitious as a debut can get, he sings, raps and produces his ass off, and the album resonated with me from the perspective of a frustrated kid just trying to make sense of the world around him while working his hardest to be recognized for his talents.

After releasing the R&B EP Asleep At The Keys last year, Jay Cue’s sophomore album Visions Of Utopia released last month and it’s proven further growth as he continues reaching for the stars.

I picked Jay Cue’s brain a few weeks ago about NRK and his short albeit bright career to date, with any luck he’ll one day succeed in his mission of getting listeners to dream big along with him.

To start, tell me about your crew NRK. What does the acronym Nobody Really Knows mean and how did it the crew begin?

We’re a collective of musicians that started before high school, but I joined in high school. We were friends before we started doing music together, it includes me, Pyramid Vritra, Tyler Major, Pyramid Murdock, Gloomy Pyramid, Pyramid Quince, Andre McCloud, Mr. Northstar, Lui Diamonds, KC 2.0, and Floyd Mables. As time went on, we went by Nobody Really Knows and our symbol is the pyramid because we were starting to make top notch stuff and though a few people would catch on and listen, we always felt like we were overlooked.

The pyramid symbolizes our friendship and when you think of a pyramid there are always speculations or people’s opinions of how they got there. People say Egyptians built them and some people say aliens, but nobody really knows for sure because they weren’t there. We’ve been escalating and the more we rise, people are going to wonder how we got there, but nobody’s really gonna know.

The title track to Pyramid Life was loosely based off of MellowHype’s “Chordaroy”. Talk to me about Odd Future’s influence on you and NRK altogether.

NRK actually introduced me to OF’s music back when the only release they had was The Odd Future Tape. When I first heard it I was losing my shit, we played the hell out of that tape. OF has influence but I draw inspiration from a lot of places, you could say they influence my production that really stands out. I feel like my presence on the microphone is not one you can nap on, but I got that from other places. But Odd Future definitely influenced us because we listened to them in their early days and ever since then we’re really big fans to this day.

Who else inspired your rapping and production?

My rapping was definitely inspired by Cassidy, he’s probably my biggest influence. People would always seem hella confused when I told them my favorite rapper was Cassidy because they would only hear his radio songs, but I used to listen to his freestyles and battles when I was coming up and starting to write my own stuff. My flow and the aggression I incorporate into my rhymes, I get that from him. Also, when I was a kid my dad used to play A Tribe Called Quest a lot, one of the first rhymes I memorized and could spit was Phife’s first verse on “Buggin’ Out” when I was in elementary school.

As far as production, definitely The Neptunes, Pharrell and Chad’s work has always been some of my favorites from middle school to now. Also NRK, because they started me on production. I didn’t even produce, I was starting to record music but I was just rapping and singing.  I didn’t start producing until I was in NRK and they got me hip to the programs, so they’re an influence not just because they got me started, but the crew’s sound as well. I was surrounded by them making beats, so I would just latch onto what they were doing.

Asleep At The Keys found you showing off your singing talents, did that help you gain recognition as more than just a rapper?

Yeah I think so, because I was singing on Pyramid Life too but I guess it didn’t stand out as much because there was way more rapping. But with Asleep At The Keys I wanted to show people I had way more to offer than just rapping and that I could put out a project that has absolutely no rapping on it that’s still enjoyable. Once I put it out, I saw that people enjoyed the direction it went in. I think that was a good look.

Some of your songs such as “Not Listenin” and  “Awesome Sauce” have to deal with doing things on your terms, is that a running theme in your music?

I guess it’s a natural running theme, I don’t aim to make that my personal theme but I write from the perspective of what I’m going through at the time or something that happened in the past. I guess when I wrote those songs my mood was “Fuck off”, it’s funny you mentioned those two songs because they do tie in with the same theme. “Awesome Sauce” is kind of angry and “Not Listenin” is kind of sing-songy, when the mood strikes, that’s what comes up.

In a big collective like Wu-Tang, they all have different roles and styles. What would you say is your role or style in NRK that helps you stand out?

I think it’s that I’m the only one who can sing (laughs). I think I’m also the loud one, when you listen to NRK’s music collectively it’s chill and for more of a mellow mood. But my presence and tone comes off fierce but at the same time I can put out Asleep At The Keys.  I don’t like labels, I’m me.

A lot of Visions Of Utopia sounds like a floating dream sequence. Was that intentional like you’re dreaming about blowing up? What is your definition of utopia as the album’s concept is concerned?

I definitely wanted to make it a cohesive theme where I had this vision of this pefect place. My utopia would be having a NRK mansion as I stated on the title track. We always talked about having this big ass mansion that we lived in and even though that’s unrealistic, it’s your own utopia. A place for you to live and have everything that you want, the album deals with my idea of a perfect life.

For example, the song “GPS” deals with wanting a girl and then “Sample Cup” is about totally not wanting a girl and just having fun. No matter what my mood is or what I perceive utopia to be, I would still have a vision of it when writing the album. Where I was isn’t where I wanted to be, and I’m still not there but I have the vision of that perfect place.

Despite all of your talent, enough people aren’t paying attention. What do you think contributes to you still being slept on?

Lack of visuals, videos are a huge factor in getting noticed nowadays and I don’t have any. It’s a work in progress though, they’re coming soon. Once I start cranking those out, people should start to discover me more.

Where do you draw up the ambition to keep going despite being the lack of big press?

This is something I love doing. I used to sit around bored as hell but I got a keyboard and a mic right here, so there’s endless possibilities. I always feel like even if I didn’t “make it big” or whatever I would just keep doing it because it’s something I love to do.

Have you ever considered using your voice for vocal coaching and ghostwriting for other R&B artists?

I couldn’t teach anyone with vocal coaching, but I’d be down to work behind the scenes  doing songwriting for other artists.

Who would you like to work with that you haven’t yet, whether it’s you on another producer’s song or someone over your production?

I definitely want to rap with Curren$y, that would be cool as hell. If Pharrell could layer a hook of mine with his vocals or adlib a song, if he were just in the same room telling me to do something while I was making a song, that would be cool. Also Toro Y Moi and it would be cool to sing on a song with Mayer Hawthorne.

In the end, what is your ultimate goal with your music?

My ultimate goal has always been to be able to live comfortably just doing music. It’s something I want to be doing forever, I want to keep progressing and learning new things. As I do that, I just want to be able to live just making music as a source of income. I definitely also want to inspire people, Visions Of Utopia was an album that I hope people got inspired by.

I try to make music for people to feel, my intentions are for you to feel some kind of emotion. It doesn’t matter if you feel the way I felt or how I intended for you to feel when I wrote the song, as long as you feel something besides boredom (laughs). Just sit back, relax and enjoy what you’re hearing.