New York

Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind,” (Illmatic, Columbia Records, 1994) prod. DJ Premier, interviews plus live performance

[Intro]
Yeah, yeah
Ayo, Black, it’s time, word (Word, it’s time, man)
It’s time, man (Aight, man, begin)
Yeah, straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap
Where fake ni**as don’t make it back
I don’t know how to start this shit,
yo... now

Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”

Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*

What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:  

[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.

Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)

The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”

Such splitting allows for a change in delivery (the second verse is more fluid, especially when Nas opens up about his lyricism, in the lines above and when he compares himself to a “smooth criminal”).

This doubling is particularly interesting, and found elsewhere in hip-hop lyricism. Other genres use personae and multiple perspectives, but in hip-hop there’s often a meta aspect linked to the MC drawing attention to the act of writing itself. Nas puts forward a persona commenting on others at the start, to return to this writing of the character at the end: “I lay puzzles as I backtrack to earlier times/Nothing’s equivalent to a New York state of mind.”

References to writing exist in other genres: writing letters to former lovers, or receiving letters, for example, but hip-hop adds another dimension. Writing itself is a core theme, linked to ideas of reputation/status (killing off the competition etc) and survival. I write therefore I am.

None of this is abstract, at least not with my preferred MCs who allow for depth to come through not only on an intellectual level - via references, as Nas does here name-checking “Scarface” the film character, the rapper maybe - and making space for an emotional charge. You sense it here, Nas’s lyricism is not an exercise, a chance to show off, it’s an extension of his self and how he feels. Key to this is the intimate nature of hip-hop; the fact that rap is a spoken art, all the while playing with notions of authenticity and truth.

I understand the emphasis on analysing the line-by-line brilliance that consumes so many fans and critics alike. It makes sense, as a measure of the MC’s skill, as a way of consolidating community bonds. See here the Genius breakdown of “N.Y. State of Mind”, and impressive commentary on the following lines:

Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep—'cause sleep is the cousin of death

Here’s the take of one commentator:

“A truly classic rap line evoking ghetto drug dealers' “one eye open” sense of paranoia; perhaps inspired by the Talmud (which tells us sleep is 1/60th of death) or the Iliad (where Hypnos and Thanatos – i.e., “sleep” and “death” – are described as brothers)

This line’s 1st degree meaning is evident: sleep is a deathlike, inert state of consciousness

At the 2nd degree, “sleeping” is slang for being inattentive or negligent; a drug dealer who is robbed for lack of vigilance is said to be “caught sleeping”

Nas never “sleeps” – i.e., he’s never “caught sleeping” – because being an easy target could lead him to getting shot to death.

And, to top it all off, what’s New York City’s nickname?”

And another: “Sleep is the cousin of death” is also a Congolese proverb. While yet one more writer notes the parallel with one of the most famous speeches from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

(Nas, in an accompanying video for the Genius transcription says that the lines come from before he was born, from Africa).


II.

The New York nature of the track is not confined to the rhymes; it’s reflected in the title, of course, taken from a Billy Joel song from 1977, here covered by Barbra Streisand:

And music, most famously in the “false start” that opens the track. In this video DJ Premier describes the recording process – “20 people” in the booth alongside Nas, asking him to pass the Henny and weed, and explains how the famous “false” start came about …

This awkward opening reflects Nas’s youth/shyness (DJ Premier refers to the way Nas used to hide his face when recording a verse). It also enacts a key aspect of his craft as MC, the way he draws attention to his rhymes as process, as if he is bringing his verses into being as he raps them. Countless MCs boast about their greatness, Nas does this too here, but what is distinctive is the way he allows for what seems to be a spontaneous element, as if he’s making it up then and there – just like a freestyle. I’ve written about this before. It’s something distinctive about his rhymes, the way they have an energy to them, a liveliness.

And yet, as DJ Premier explains this wasn’t made up, it was the real thing, Nas was freestyling and responding to a  friend. Then recorded the verse in one take. That said, listening to it now it seems to convey a (fake) modesty. He raps: “I don’t know how to start this shit, yo …” to kick into one of the most extraordinary verses ever recorded, after the steadying “now …”

All this reflects something else that’s very New York, the freestyle culture kept alive via radio shows. (It’s more than likely the same culture existed elsewhere at the same time, but is less known to me). See the messy to-and-fro set-up, where the MCs banter along with the host, name-checking people who have supported them past and present, such as this very long intro on a 1993 Nas freestyle on the Stretch & Bobbito show, pre-Illmatic:

Keeping it loose like this does two things: it reinforces the fact that rap/hip-hop is part of an oral tradition, of people shooting the breeze playing with language in an improvised way, while also being a crucial part of the performance, allowing the audience to be wowed by the genius of the rhymes that come after it. It’s as if the MC is so cool, so good that they don’t need the formality of a worked-out introduction, it comes so easily to them – their speaking poetry of this quality and magnitude, it’s as natural for them as breathing.  

It also enacts a consciousness where hip-hop draws on Black American musical/cultural traditions, where improvisation is a key element, if not the most essential element – the sign that a musician is blessed, as heard in jazz and other forms of spoken-word performance from the 60s and 70s.  

The DJ Premier beat also has a disassembling aspect, in contrast to the other more melodic beats on Illmatic (see Pete Rock’s emphasis on certain words in “The World is Yours”, something that is quintessentially Motown, or the formal song-based structure of the Large Professor instrumentals).

“N.Y. State of Mind” starts on a single drum sound, which Nas then repeats in the “yeah,” but what makes this very New York is the high-pitched single note repeated like a bell (cf: Easy Mo Bee). This interest in emphasis individual notes (rather than melodies) is one reason why hip-hop music-making is so radical (though this too could be part of the jazz inheritance).

The piano comes in, again as a single note to supplement; on second hearing, it sounds like two piano lines, or the three-note keyboard line and piano. The skill of Nas’s rhymes is the way he maintains the energy; you could listen to his rhymes on that basis alone, the rhythm of them, slowing becoming more groove-like at two points, as previously mentioned. His control is impressive.

The three-note melody and perhaps more comes from Joe Chambers’s “Mind Rain” from his 1978 Double Exposure album:

(Other samples mentioned on the Genius site are “Live at the Barbeque” Main Source; “Mahogany” Eric B & Rakim; “N.T.” Kool & The Gang and “Flight Time” Donald Byrd).

Interestingly the original Joe Chambers piece has a similar mood the the instrumental, of music being in formation, in development; it has a reflective, unformed quality to it, albeit grounded by the low notes (the beginning of both pieces of music especially remind me of the other).

Here’s the full album, Double Exposure, which was recorded in 1977 in New York; with Chambers on “p, e-p, dr, perc” and Larry Young on “og, syn.” As one of the commenters says, enthusiastically: “One of the very few duo albums in jazz using mainly the piano / organ format!! Probably the only one. Hats off to drummer Joe Chambers who shows his skills on the piano here. Joining with space brother Larry, this tops everything. A deep spiritual gem from the great Muse label!!!”

Have a look at this video where DJ Premier speaks more about the Joe Chambers sample and how he used it:

To close, a live performance of “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas in formal attire/sunglasses at the Kennedy Center, backed by an orchestra and DJ from 2018 (with Korean subtitles):

 *(From above: T: “Weak answer” .. HHL: “Elaborate then. Not one line in this song is specific to the 1990s/T: “Still a very weak answer. You talk to me about something you engineered out of bizarre ideas, I talk to you about THE MUSIC.

HHL: Lmao I'm basing my argument off of the lyrics, it's not just my opinion. Nas was born in 1973, so he's writing a lot about his early experiences of life in Queensbridge. Crime in New York (a primary focus of the song) didn't start in the 90s, it was something that he grew up with (hence "the dungeons of rap"). Violent crime in NYC began to skyrocket in the 70s during white flight and continued into the 80s during the crack epidemic. He makes references to Scarface (1983), The Message by Grandmaster Flash (1982), Al Capone (early-mid 1900s), etc. Even the sampled beat in the song is a jazz record from 1977.

T replies: “Blah blah blah blah ...... no.”) For those who’d prefer a “90s-era fan mash-up video,” go here.

Six Beats: Godfather Don

Described by Immobilarity1 as “an evil, dark version of Large Professor, production-wise,” Godfather Don fits into one stream in the 90s NY underground associated with Kool Keith (The Cenobites, Ultramagnetic MCs), but is also known for his solo releases as producer and MC.

Despite some Godfather Don tracks tolling thousands of clicks online - “Status” has notched up 1.2 million views - the music I’m seeking out rolls in the tens, or hundreds, if lucky (okay this is a slight exaggeration, let’s say low thousands on average). Much if not most of his music seems to be overlooked. So this is written in part as a desire to balance things out, amid all of the hip-hop hagiography that exists of the usual suspects. Now and always, I’m interested in the artists who get lost in the mix.

Unlike Large Professor though, Godfather Don’s music is not trying to recreate a song in a conventional sense, with the exception perhaps with the first beat included here (and a few other examples of the same). There is nothing remotely symphonic, or lush and orchestral or even “jazzy” (as the genre is commonly misunderstood when applied to 90s-era beats). Nor is there anything slick, or too refined about Godfather Don’s instrumentals. This is music made of clay then perfected into object of beauty.

None of this is to suggest that the music if simple is basic or unskilled. In fact, this music is art because it doesn’t try to be something different to what it is - a hip-hop beat recorded and conceived in a certain environment, within a certain mindset. It sounds genuine, as if you sense the character of its maker (but this might be projection on my part). Added to this, as I will mention below the sound quality is beautiful in itself.

Most of Godfather Don’s music is instrumental hip-hop as deep soundscape, highly introspective dominated by two sonic impulses; speedy and manic, as heard in the delicate, skittery drums and then the broader ponderous weight of other samples, sounds that might be a vibraphone, or an organ (it’s hard to make them out). Added to this the mastery of key hip-hop elements, his drums are especially inventive – very rarely are they pushed to the forefront as you’d expect, usually they’re kind of evasive, hiding out in the recesses - and the quality of the recording of his music, and you have a fine producer; someone to return to, to rediscover.

None of his music is chilled-out, relaxing lo-fi in the slightest thankfully, it’s music with its own energy and personality. Within its parameters it is bold and intense. And yet on first impression, Godfather Don’s music is so unassuming, especially when you remember that it came out of that era of uber-producers, staking out territory and reinventing the form. It is anti-epic, anti-saga. Some of these beats might have been included in my writing on hip-hop quiet if I had been listening to them at that time.

Narrowing this selection down to six was difficult; six is my self-imposed limit now and into the future (I’m not a great believer in all-encompassing, everything-ever-recorded-by-one-particular-artist lists that proliferate in music journalism, I find them tiring). Be aware, though that there are many other Godfather Don instrumentals I wanted to add to this group, I hope that if you like these beats you will be inspired to go looking for more online.

Other decisions were made too, whether or not to include his humour (see the apparently linked beats following a theme, “My Driver’s Downstairs,” “Call Me A Cab”) or the beats that were retro-80s (“Just Mix it Yourself” or “Video Taping,” say) or to focus in on the work he did with Kool Keith

but decided against all of these ideas. Best to keep it direct and focussed, simple even, like the music itself.

“Born Rodney Chapman, Godfather Don is a Producer and emcee from Bushwick, Flatbush, New York.

Godfather Don first appeared in 1991 with Hazardous, released on the Select Records. The album established the Godfather as an MC influenced by the blatant, hard-hitting style of Chuck D. A few years later, the Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC’s' The Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group’s standout, Kool Keith. He has also provided remix work for likes of Nas and House Of Pain as one half of The Groove Merchantz, whom he shared production/remixing duties with Vince “The Mighty V.I.C.” Padilla. Aside from his Hip Hop based repertoire, Godfather Don is also a professional saxophone player, and regularly plays improvised Jazz music with his band The Open Mind.”

From Genius listing on Godfather Don 

Not sure about the reference to Chuck D, which is repeated on Godfather Don’s Wikipedia page; for me the approach of the two MCs, style and content, are oceans apart. Okay some Godfather Don tracks - see this 1992 “Pull da Trigga & Step” - is Chuck D-esque, maybe, but the parallel seems like a bit of a stretch, to me.

 “The Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC'sThe Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group's standout, Kool Keith. The Cenobites EP was issued on Fondle 'Em Records, which was started by New York b-boy, DJ, and man about town Bobbito Garcia. The material on the EP had originally been recorded as gags or promos for Garcia's underground hip-hop radio show on New York's WKCR. The Cenobites EP was then reissued by Fondle 'Em as a full-length LP. Throughout the 1990s, Godfather Don continued to work as a producer, working on tracks from Kool Keith, Hostyle, and Ayatollah, among others. In 1999, he released his second album, Diabolique, on which his flow was very similar to the bludgeoning raps of his 1991 debut. The album included cameo appearances from Kool Keith and Sir Menelik, and appeared on the Hydra Entertainment imprint, for which Godfather Don continued to record, releasing several 12" singles and Instrumental hip hop albums.

In the 2000s, Don was known for his work with Screwball, a Queensbridge hip hop group, producing much of their 3 albums.

In 2007, Don resurfaced with 'The Slave Of New York E.P.': an EP of previously-unreleased archive material in association with hip-hop website Diggers With Gratitude who tracked him down and worked on putting this project out. 150 copies of this six track vinyl E.P. were released, with the first 45 copies having signed sleeves. The material used was recorded before and during his time with Hydra, with the title track coming directly from a cassette that Don had given to Bobbito to play on WKCR. Due to the resurge in interest, Don was then asked to release a CD compilation of material by another label, titled The Nineties Sessions, out now.

On May 21, 2011 Don dropped another EP of previously unreleased material titled "The Reformation Circa. 1999" a collaborative effort between Mic-el The Don, (who featured on tracks from the "Diabolique" album) and Godfather Don. The EP was recorded sometime in the late 1990s, it is one of Godfather Don's last full bodies of work in the hip-hop genre before he moved on to a career in Jazz music.”

Wikis, Godfather Don

1. “Styles By the Gram” 12”(Properties of Steel, Hydra Beats, 1996) plus “Slave to New York” (The Slave of New York, Diggers with Gratitude re-issue 2007)

To start with what may be my favourite Godfather Don beat, though as you’ll see I had trouble narrowing it down to six here – it kept getting extended so the self-imposed limit means nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all, or very little let’s say. Here’s the track with the rhymes.

It could be said that this beat sounds like many other instrumentals from that era and location. There’s nothing so radical or surprising about it, but the sound of the recording is superb and I love the way the music comes back with a minuscule inversion after the moment of the silence; there’s something very smooth about the way Godfather Don manipulates these (familiar) details.

Added to this the layered horns and sound effects, billowing and echoing all around it. WhoSampled states that the three-track Godfather Don release samples the Pete Rock/CL Smooth instrumental “It’s on You” (The Main Ingredient, Electra, 1994).

The site also claims that the Pete Rock track sample comes in at “0:00 (and throughout)” on the Godfather Don Properties of Steel release, not sure how that works. It’s true that from my online search it seems Godfather Don had some favourite samples that he returned to, but it’s unlikely he repeated just one sample throughout the entire release. Here it is with other tracks on this 2010 reissue, dubbed with a very cute retro promo styling, the “definitive Godfather Don singles collection” on its cover sticker. It has one of his better-known tracks “World Premiere” on it.

Here’s the full The Slave of New York ep.

2. “Burn” (Diabolique &/or 12”, Hydra Entertainment, 1998 - release info unclear if either includes instrumental version)

“1997. Produced by Godfather Don” – info below the video, that’s it.

What’s interesting about this instrumental is the contrast already mentioned above between the two kinds of sounds; the nervy, speedy insistent drums/percussion that skip along and sheer weight and heaviness of the other sounds. I really like the way Godfather Don allows for this contrast in his music between the lightness of drums (in itself kind of surprising, remember how many/most instrumentals from this time made the drums super-imposing and dominant, indeed it’s seem to be a characteristic of the era’s signature sound, at least on the East Coast) and then the other darker elements.

Apparently this instrumental includes a sample from Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?” - this is something else I noticed about Godfather Don the repeated sampling of his peers, or almost peers amid the more predictable 70s picks:

If true, and it may not be, it adds another - funny - dimension to Godfather Don’s title. Remember Biggie’s lines: “I burn baby burn like Disco Inferno/Burn slow like blunts with yayo/Peel more skins than Idaho potato …”

3. “Stuck Off – The Realness” (Hydra Entertainment. 1995)

Another perfect piece of music for me, I would have definitely been a good fit for my essay on hip-hop quiet if I had heard it back then. The beat samples Mobb Deep/Havoc’s “Shook Ones II” instrumental (1995):

and … Big Daddy Kane’s “Just Rhymin’ with Biz,” feat. Biz Markie (1988) - apparently - this song came up a few times in the WhoSampled information on the Godfather Don beats included there:

You can’t get more divergent sources of inspiration than the two above (if it is accurate) - splicing the two up, putting them alongside each other reflects a sense of humour not always it seems associated with Godfather Don’s musical output.

Compare the Godfather Don/Havoc beats to get a sense of the personal style of both producers. The Havoc beat is built from a small number of sonic elements, as is the Godfather Don, but has a dramatic sense of building towards something, developing and transforming as if it were a fragment from a movie soundtrack; some moment of drama, close to the cliff’s descent where the sea is swirling ominously below. The sounds are sharp, expertly judged in terms of the choice and the execution.

In contrast, the Godfather Don is shockingly simple, apparently undeveloped. The sounds are muffled, but carry within this a warmth and resonance – as if this is the principal goal of the music. A lot of music writers use the term “minimalist” when referring to hip-hop, without exploring what it might mean outside of being simple, or unadorned. Minimalism is about turning attention to the sounds, a small number of sounds; turning the focus inward (for some composers it might have been to encourage a depth in the listening, a form of contemplation as the elements become the most important aspect of the music, rather than the execution overall).

For me, all of the above makes sense when listening to American composers, especially, associated with minimalism (Riley, Adams, Reich) even if they did not embrace the term for their music, but the pieces that I return to are intense; they carry within them a force often lacking in the so-called-lo-fi hip-hop beats I think are frequently mislabelled in this way. For this appellation to make any sense the sounds themselves need to be “simple” – as in the Godfather Don beat - you can’t have a flashy jazz horn sample lodged alongside a loud basic boom bap beat and then call the music minimalist just because the producer chose to leave it like that for the duration of three minutes or less. It needs to be understated in all senses and yet touch you in a profound way.

Here’s a useful very short introduction to minimalism in music with an excerpt from an interview with Reich and mention of his piece, “It’s Gonna Rain” from 1965/1968. Check out too this interesting Reddit music theory thread debating whether or not US minimalist composers influenced hip-hop as a genre.   

4. “Yeah”/” Where'z the Skillz” (The Ill Funk Freaker EP, One Leg Up Records reissue, 2009 - not clear again if includes instrumental versions)

No information that I could find online about the samples, listen to those beautiful drum sounds that sound close to a bassline and so kept back. All the elements coming forward, but receding constantly and the “jingle bells hi hats! So 90s!” in the words of one listener. The drums in this are really something special; I listen to a lot of New York instrumentals from the 90s, with vocals and without and it’s rare to find beats this creative in terms of the core elements that sound so strong too, after all this time. Here is it with the rhymes over it, the recording is a bit unbalanced with the beat as the key element, the vocal line hard to make out, but this makes it kind of interesting too.

5. “Fame” (Da Bomb single, Hydra Entertainment, 1998)

This is a pure beauty. It’s surprising that there isn’t more of a Bowie/hip-hop overlap, especially considering how deeply immersed Bowie was in Black American source music (his album Young Americans that featured this song, his least favourite on the album was a love letter to these musical roots). As always, it’s the odd details in the beat that make this so special, that shift in the drums sound just over 35 seconds in, for instance and the way one sample from the original track is repeated at the start then disappears entirely to be replaced with another swathe from the song. Godfather Don shifts the hook to make it a critique of his peers, sounding lifted from 80s rap. It was released on the “Da Bomb” record.  Here’s the Bowie original instrumental from the Young Americans album, 1975.

And from the same year, Bowie looking high and malnourished, impressing the Soul Train dancers with his stylish moves (in all his emphatic lip-synch glory, caressing the mic):

Below the YT video there’s this comment on his performance: "I'm very drunk in this" David Bowie told Russell Harty in 1975 referring to his Soul Train TV appearance. "I was very nervous so I had a couple of drinks, which I never do and I really shouldn't have. It's lovely. It's very funny."


6. “Creepin’” (Hydra Beats Vol. 3, Hydra Entertainment, 1997)

(That noise just before 1’30” makes it for me).

Coda:

*Six Beats.

Not a best-of list, not a list with any kind of broader import, six beats, six tracks, six songs by an artist that click with me. Zero significance outside that metric.

Versions: Randy Weston "Ganawa (Blue Moses)" - 1972, 1991, 2006 & 2013, plus interviews & live performances

“Mozart belongs to me, Dizzy Gillespie belongs to me. There’s no separation because each are geniuses and through music they described where they live. I love Russian music, with Stravinsky you hear the spirit of the people, so if we look at music as one, which I do, we have a lot to learn.”

Randy Weston, Interview - 50th Montreux Jazz Festival 2016



“In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms (co-authored with Willard Jenkins), Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.

Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.”  Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”

Ted Panken, “For Randy Weston’s 89th Birthday, A Recent DownBeat article (2015)



“Ganawa (Blue Moses)” Blue Moses, CTI, 1972

Originally arranged by Melba Liston, officially re-arranged by Don Sebesky. Trumpet – Freddie Hubbard Flugelhorn – Alan Rubin, John Frosk, Marvin Stamm Trombone – Garnett Brown, Warren Covington, Wayne Andre Bass Trombone – Paul Faulise French Horn – Brooks Tillotson, James Buffington Tenor Saxophone – Grover Washington, Jr. Oboe, Clarinet, Flute – Romeo Penque English Horn, Clarinet, Flute – George Marge Flute – Hubert Laws Piano, Liner Notes – Randy Weston Synthesizer [Moog] – David Horowitz Bass – Ron Carter, Vishnu Wood (track 2) Drums – Bill Cobham Vocals – Madame Meddah

(The above are the album credits)

Randy Weston, according to online sources, didn’t like this record. Thought it was too clean, over-produced, yet four decades-plus on it retains its interest - largely because of the line-up of musicians - and impact, to a degree. (The same original power that made it a “hit” for CTI within jazz circles at the time of release). The Rateyourmusic description spells out how/why Weston rejected the finished product, first calling it: “Progressive Big Band, Afro-Jazz” in bold, then with “Berber Music, Gnawa” hiding in tiny font below. (Discogs has it as: “Big Band, Fusion, Modal.”)

Weston had returned from five years living in Morocco (after a visit to Nigeria in 1961 with Nina Simone and other Black American musicians) and assembled a group of other jazz greats to join him on what is his best-known album.

Listening to it you can hear how the piece’s brassy, big band display is an uneasy fit for the musical influences you imagine Weston wanted to pay homage to in this work; even his earlier recordings were more interior, more deconstructed, less showy and bombastic. Thom Jurek’s AllMusic review takes a more positive view, noting that the flashy horns “frenetic, minor-key piano lines, knotty, Middle Eastern Eastern-sounding charts, and skittering North African rhythms push the listener into a new space, one that stands outside of CTI's usual frame in, and into, the exotic.”

Yet this notion of the music being “exotic” (and emphasis on how the “listener” might hear it) backs up Weston’s complaint about it not being true to his vision, as does the sleeve image, according to a review in LondonJazz the Pete Turner cover photo features “the stare of a mystic, focused on infinity — a psychedelic, solarised image drawn from Turner’s visit to the Far East.” The review quotes the photographer: “This is a holy man, in Benares, India, near the Ganges,” taken while he was “on assignment covering Allen Ginsberg.”

There is little to suggest that Randy Weston had any interest in India - at that point - or any affinity with a beatnik like Ginsberg. His attention was solely focussed on his own “ancestral” roots in Africa. In interviews included here - from Montreux 2016 and Open Democracy 2012 - Weston makes it clear that the “African” influence was there in his work and self from the beginning, instilled in him by his Panama-born father who repeated that he was an “African born in America” alongside the perspective of his mother’s Virginia family. This was then mirrored by the world he saw all around him of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn New York in the 1930S-1940s of his youth. It could be seen in the way he played piano, he tells us; he like all other Black American jazz musicians played the piano as if he were playing the drums. The (memory of the ) drums never left us, he explains.



AMY GOODMAN: Langston Hughes dies in May (1967).

RANDY WESTON: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And before the end of the year, you’ve moved to Africa.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that decision and where you went.

RANDY WESTON: Well, I’m sure it’s because of Marshall Stearns. He was on the State Department board. That’s for sure. Unfortunately, Marshall died before I had a chance to thank him. But I was chosen to do a State Department tour of 14 countries in 1967 of North Africa and West Africa and Beirut and Lebanon. And I put together a great band: Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Bill Wood on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, and Chief Bey on African drum. And I took my son with me, as a teen—he was 15, Niles, at that particular time. And we had a wonderful, wonderful tour. And I requested, whatever country we went to, I would like to be in touch with the traditional music of that country.

And so, we spent three months in Africa. And it was a good test for me, because, you know, you can write music about Africa in New York, but the test is when you play that music on the continent itself.

When I play music in Africa, I tell the people, “This is your music. You may not recognize it, because it came in contact with European languages, it came in contact with European instruments, you see. But it’s your music, you know.” And I always had Chief Bey, because Chief Bey always had the African traditional drum. So we had a big success in Africa, because it was not only a concert, but having the people understand the impact of African rhythms in world music, whether it’s Brazil or Cuba or Mississippi or Brooklyn, whatever. If you don’t have that African pulse, nothing is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: So you move, Randy Weston, to Morocco. Why Morocco?

RANDY WESTON: Morocco was the very last country, and that’s when I wanted to live in Africa, because I wanted to be closer to the traditional people. And when you do a State Department tour, you have to make a report: what you like, what you didn’t like, etc., etc., etc. So I stayed in Rabat for one week working on this report. And so, I went back to New York. About one month later, I got these letters from Morocco saying the Moroccan people are crazy about your music, and they want you to come back. So I had no idea I was going to be in Morocco, because, number one, the languages spoken are Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish—very little English, you see. But the power of music is the original language, is music, right? So I went back and ended up staying seven years. And that’s when I discovered the Africans who were taken in slavery who had to cross the Sahara Desert. I discovered these [inaudible]. I discovered their music, the Gnawa people in particular in Morocco. So that really enriched my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Gnawa people.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, the Gnawa people, they’re originally from the great kingdoms of Songhai, Ghana, Mali, you know. And during the invasion from the north, they were taken as slaves and soldiers up to the north. But they created a very powerful spiritual music. And so, I first met them in 1967, and we’ve been together up until this day, because when you hear this music, you hear the origin of blues, of jazz, of black church, all at the same time. You realize that. In other words, what has Mother Africa contributed to America? What has African people brought with them? Because when they were taken away, they had no instruments, no language, no nothing. How did they take these European instruments and create music? But when you hear the traditional people, you realize, music began in Africa in the first place. And the music is so diverse, because the continent itself is so diverse. So if you go to the Sahara, you’re going to have music of the Sahara. You go to the mountains, you’re going to have the music, because African people create music based upon where they live, their environment. So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so I was influenced by the Palladium, by the black church, by the blues, Mississippi. So where you—you know, it is the foundation of what you do.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play “Blue Moses” a little bit?

RANDY WESTON: Of course. [playing “Blue Moses”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, you often quote the Somali poet Moussa.

RANDY WESTON: Yes. Yeah, he said—Moussa, I met him in Nigeria in 1977. He said, “Randy,” he said, “I’m going to tell you one thing.” He said, “The first thing that changes is the music, because music is the voice of God, is music.” He said, “Music is our first language.” We think French or English or Arabic or Spanish is our language. There was a time we didn’t have those languages. The language was music, because we listened to the music of the birds. We listened to the music of Mother Nature. We listened to the wind, the sound of thunder. So, he says, “When you have ordinary music, you’re going to have ordinary times.” Yeah, and I’ll never forget that, yeah. And when you have creative music, you have creative times, because music—you can’t see music. You can’t touch music. Music is the king of the arts, you see. And so, music is everywhere. But we tend to take music for granted. But imagine our planet without music. It would be dead, because all people have their music, you see.

Black History Special: Jazz Legend Randy Weston on His Life and Celebration of “African Rhythms” Open Democracy, 2012. Watch the video interview here.



“Blue Moses,” feat. Pharaoh Sanders, The Spirits of Our Ancestors, Verve, 1991

To understand how Randy Weston might have liked the original 1972 to sound like (and be, in essence), listen to these recordings from 1991 and 2006. I won’t describe them. The music is far more eloquent on the subject than I could ever be.

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Pharaoh Sanders - tenor saxophone, Alex Blake - bass, Jamil Nasser - bass, Idris Muhammad - drums, Big Black - percussion, Yassir Chadly - percussion, karkuba, vocal. Arr: Melba Liston, prod. Jean-Philippe Allard/Brian Bacchus

“Blue Moses,” Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Trio, Zep Tepi, Random Choice, 2006

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Alex Blake - double bass, Neil Clarke - percussion, prod. Paul West.

“Blue Moses” Randy Weston and Dar Gnawa of Tanger, New School, New York 2013

“The Gnawa in Morocco, like African-Americans in the United States, were taken as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and developed a unique and very spiritual music and culture. Gnawa music is one of the major musical currents in Morocco. Moroccans overwhelmingly love Gnawa music and Gnawas 'Maalems' are highly respected, and enjoy an aura of musical stardom. On October 13, 2015, Abdellah El Gourd and Dar Gnawa of Tanger joined New School Jazz Artist-In-Residence, pianist and composer Randy Weston for a discussion and demonstration of various aspects of traditional Gnawan music, and how this African musical tradition has influenced Weston's own compositions. The two first met in 1968 after Weston moved to Morocco and continue to perform together around the world, nearly fifty years later. It was El Gourd who initiated the pianist into the riches of Gnawa music. Weston explains, "The Gnawa people and their music represent one of the strongest spiritual connections I've ever experienced." Dar Gnawa of Tanger, a group of traditional Moroccan musicians led by El Gourd, performed and were joined by Randy Weston on piano. This program is part of the Randy Weston Artist-In-Residency series at The New School for Jazz, produced by Phil Ballman.”

Information from below the YouTube video

To close, a touching performance by Randy Weston and Alex Blake at the memorial service for Freddie Hubbard, recorded December 2008 at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Randy Weston (April 6, 1926-September 1, 2018)

"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”


Writing about an artist always involves multiple, sometimes contradictory, impulses: your motivation is greatest when writing on something that clicks with you, but you also need to be true to how the artist sees themselves and their work. Not to reproduce their perspective so much as show respect to the artist’s vision, otherwise the project doesn’t make much sense. Still choices are made. Rather than me unpicking Cormega’s recent more philosophical work, my interest here is to focus on “Killaz Theme,” with “Unforgiven” as the coda.

This is a partial – even personal – perspective on Cormega’s work. It’s not an overview of a career, but writing inspired by some of his music, and possibly work that he would like to transcend. (This is speculation on my part, which may be wrong: he’s said that “Killaz Theme” is a favourite track of his, but also said in the DEHH interview that he never wanted to glorify crime, which “Killaz Theme” and “Unforgiven” might do to a certain extent).

This work flows from questions and thoughts about the way the desire for justice – and the associated themes of betrayal, injustice, the quest for revenge – are represented in various musical genres, starting with dub reggae, but also all forms of Black American music to end with hip-hop. There is so much talk of “the struggle” in hip-hop (and reggae), what I’m interested in thinking about here is how those forced to endure such conditions might reflect the emotional toll such oppression takes on their private selves in their music.

Around the same time I (first) listened to “Killaz Theme” on repeat, I’d broken my typical rule of keeping it eclectic and kept my focus firmly fixed on dub/reggae. Listening to the Cormega/Mobb Deep track, within this space came as a jolt. Not only for the work’s poetic intensity, but the way it undermined reggae’s dominant conceptual framework; that is a belief that wrongdoers will be judged, that Jah sees all. Despite the image of reggae as the genre extolling “one love,” underpinning much of the lyricism is righteous anger and faith that on the final day of judgement the inhabitants of Babylon will be punished. Frequently dub/reggae lyricism builds on clearly defined polarities, between those leading a godly life and those committing all kinds of crimes, encouraging listeners to choose the right path.

This is deeply “biblical” - Old Testament in nature – and tough, even if the denunciation of the devil and longed for day of judgement is sung in the dulcet tones of Twinkle Brothers or Carlton and the Shoes.

Belief that the world’s wrongs will be brought to justice is equally deep in Black American tradition and musical culture; the other day I watched an interview with bell hooks where she slipped a casual reference to “Babylon” in her reply, not skipping for a breath, but it’s been there from the beginning, in the Spirituals in the Blues.

Think too of gospel, even if frequently there is space for contemplation and a questioning tone, amid the bombast of the chorus, where the soloist makes such themes personal. See, for instance, this really beautiful piece, “Do you believe” by the Supreme Jubilees (It’ll All Be Over, Sanders & Kingsby, 1980/81) that includes the rhetorical question: “What if you live a sinner’s role, at the end of time you must surely lose your soul.” Or Aretha Franklin’s sweet medley “Precious Lord You’ve Got A Friend” which is deeply comforting, providing solace; both the way the music of the chorus rises and the amazing vocal performance of Franklin, urging us to “meditate on him.” This is far removed from the stark clarity of dub reggae’s fire and brimstone call for reckoning, despite the religious roots of both.

Late 60s/early 70s jazz includes many implicit/explicit meditations on judgement and racialised justice: too many to detail here. Indeed the oeuvre of certain artists embody this territory, in terms of their work’s lyrical content, but also in their pure being – see Nina Simone:

Within Soul/R&B the general, all-encompassing shifts to the personal so that critiques of “smiling faces” and “backstabbers” abound: see the Undisputed Truth’s classic song of 1971 that was covered by David Ruffin three years later with an incomparable introduction. For the most part the “judgement” aspect of the lyricism remains personal, spelling out betrayals, the feelings of regret and loss linked to relationships between lovers and friends. While the genre’s political songs from the ‘70s favour a descriptive approach that rarely condemns those perpetuating the system or the injustice: see the Stevie Wonder penned “Heaven Help Us All” that has been described as the song expressing the essence of Motown or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Want to Holler).”

With this in mind a song like Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” is striking, the slowed-down groove and song’s lyricism focuses on the “we” - and the potential loss - not the “they “ responsible for causing the narrowly averted environmental disaster; the only lines registering the malfeasance links it to greed: “That when it comes to people's safety/money wins out every time.”

One of Curtis Mayfield’s greatest songs, “Stare and Stare” conveys a typically nuanced perspective while tackling social issues; the target of the critique remains multiple, fluid. Sadness and despondency dominate here, as Mayfield expresses his disappointment that doing good and brotherhood mean nothing, noting that on the shared space of the bus “a sister is standing and no-one even cares” and that “some people boarding, different color than us/They hate to mingle but no one makes a fuss/The thing about it, there’s no one here we can trust ...”

II.

“Killaz Theme,” Cormega, feat. Mobb Deep, prod. Havoc (1998)

“That’s my favorite song I’ve ever done with Mobb Deep. I just had to have that on my album. The reason I called it ‘Killaz Theme’ was because Havoc had a brother named Killa Black, God bless the dead, he died. When I heard the beat and I heard the chorus where Havoc’s saying, “We wanna kill you,” I just imagined his brother smiling and singing that type of shit. It reminded me of his brother, so I basically named it after my brother. I named it after Killa Black.

“I leaked that shit in ’98 because it was just too dope and I was on the road. I was on the shelf [at Def Jam] but I thought my album was coming out that year and it didn’t, so I just leaked that song to see what people thought of it, and people went crazy.

“I think Havoc did some beat for me and then he used it for something else. So ‘Killaz Theme’ became the make-up beat and oh am I glad he used that fucking first beat, because it was way better than what he did for me originally. When he did it, I came to the studio and Havoc was asleep behind the big studio console. He’d been drinking so I remember he was asleep and when I came he woke right up, pressed the button on the machine, laid back down and all I heard was, ‘We wanna kill you.’ And the beat came on and I was blown the fuck away. I was like, ‘Whatever the fuck Havoc just did, he needa do it again. Go to sleep all the time.’ That’s one of my favorite tracks ever out of my entire catalog.”

Hip-hop/rap as a genre is awash in lyrical violence; MCs frequently recount acts of violence they’ve witnessed or committed against enemies, friends who have betrayed them and former lovers while including boasts of their ability to cause physical and other harm. Rhymes also recount systemic violence; police profiling, murders, mass incarceration, the denial of the means of economic survival, schooling and housing segregation.

Most of the time such themes, including the more abstract/political frameworks, are presented in first-person narratives, encouraging us to see the stories as an extension of the artist and their lived experience; notions of truth, being authentic, keeping it real are ways people judge the worth of the rhymes. All this leads to an interesting doubling, or tension. In an art-form that is extremely artificial (see the emphasis on language/lyricism) the MC is frequently judged in terms of how true they are to their personal experiences.

Alongside the personal struggle narrative and MCs boasting of their skills, the other key lyrical theme in hip-hop – maybe even the key theme – is seeking revenge against those who’ve betrayed you. This also plays out in all the media-friendly “beefs” between the MCs (something that is almost unknown in other musical genres) - a major source of entertainment for all those looking on.

All this operates on the level of the interpersonal and the individual gripe, rather than some imagined Armageddon hailing justice on the maintainers of the corrupt, racist system. Of course there are exceptions: Public Enemy brought the noise in 1988 and warned of the current white supremacist neurosis so evident today in the United States, maintaining a clear-eyed desire for justice that would not be out of place in any of the most ferocious reggae songs of this ilk, other artists too mined this territory: from Paris to Dead Prez to Killah Priest to Ras Kass to Geto Boys, the list goes on.

“Killaz Theme II” - recorded in 1998, included as a bonus track on the 2001 The Realness album (and also Cormega’s 2005 album, The Testament ) reworked some of the lyrics from “You Don’t Want It,” prod. Godfather Don and later inspired the Lloyd Banks tribute and was used as a sample on a Conway The Machine track, “Mandatory” feat. Royce 5’9”.

In the comments below the YouTube video for “Killaz Theme” there’s speculation about who is the target of the repeated threat - We want to kill you (that's right)
We want to kill you (no doubt, that's right) … Is it Nas, the subject of a famous beef with Cormega that inspired some of his best songs, or someone else, or no person in particular?

The fact that the target of the threat is not identified is central to the song’s power. The important thing is not who suffers, but the desire (among the victims) to cause damage and inflict the harm on those who have wronged them. Despite talk of forgiveness and letting go, those who are victimised and expected to bear the brunt of it on a daily basis inevitably feel angry and long for justice; heard above a whisper it might sound just like this. Such music enacts the elemental voice of those forced to live in the shadow of persecution. Havoc in the final moments intoning “We want to kill you” has an almost meditative quality that sounds extremely real, as if we’re hearing voices from the underground.

Notice the way the song is put together, from the three MC verses to the instrumental. The beat by Havoc, all swirling strings builds at certain points as if the soundtrack of some kind of twisted romance where certain words are doubled for emphasis (“armed robbery”). Listener comments say the beat borrows from The Twilight Zone soundtrack (I haven’t been able to check or disprove this). There’s something erotic about this music. Not in the conventional sense of two people, but something more general and elemental: it sounds like a lust for revenge, as if it is all that these MCs desire, above all else (“that’s right”).

Prodigy’s verse ends on the lines:

Put this in heavy rotation
Overdose music,
it’s therapeutic to the user
Drive awhile under the influence of this
Careful cause you might just crash and shit
Total your whip and still pull my tape out your deck
Me and Mobb tryna connect,
like thirty-thousand dollar links
Unpopable, unstopable, topple

Maybe because of the fact that it is so raw and unfiltered, as Prodigy notes, this “overdose music” is “therapeutic to the user.” Something lost in all the condemnations of rap/hip-hop violence is the fact that listening to this kind of music allows those who feel stepped on, disrespected and worse to feel vicarious power; the rousing music of Havoc’s instrumental reinforces this.

That said, I know that there’s a risk in me over-stating the universality of the track and its impact, especially since Havoc’s verse suggests that it might be specific to the three MCs and conflicts they face closer to home:

Got drama with my clique
I’mma take it to the source QBC representative,
I’m just tryin to live
If I can’t get to you,
I’mma take it to your kids
Spray your crib, fuck it son, somethin’ gotta give If I can’t live,
then ain’t nothin’ gonna live

I’m just tryin’ to live.

Coda:

Cormega, “Unforgiven” The Realness, prod. Gold Fingas (Spank Brother)

“I just wanted it to be gutter. There’s a certain raw Mega that people used to really like. Even now people say they wish I would do some shit like that and be that raw person, but I’m not that person anymore in life. I wanted that record to be hard and I’d already released a hard edge song, but I wanted something new that no one ever heard, so that’s what ‘Unforgiven’ was.

“That was a raw fucking record. The producer’s name isn’t actually Spank Brother, it’s Gold Fingas. What happened was at the time he didn’t have a producer name back then, and The Realness was a rushed album, so the credits and the artwork needed to be turned in early because it takes a certain amount of time for the album to get printed. So I needed a name for him and at the time he ain’t have no name. I was trying to get in touch with him but I couldn’t so I didn’t know what to do.

“So Spank’s brother produced it…it was the last day to turn the album in and we still didn’t have a name for him yet, so I was like fuck it. Put Spank’s Brother because that was my man Spank’s brother. So that’s how that name got on there. And when I do the sequel to The Realness, I’m gonna try to bring every producer that was on the first one on the sequel, so when he appears on the sequel, God willing, he’ll be Gold Fingas.”

The track includes the unforgettable sample from Yusef Lateef’s Symphonic Blues Suite, Fourth Movement : Passacaglia (Suite 16, Rhino Atlantic, 1970),

The same sample was used in IAM’s 1997 track “Un bon son brut pour les truands” (L’Ecole du micro d’argent, Delabel, 1997)

***

You swimmin' with the sharks and the water is tainted
If you feel it in your heart (bring it)

In praise of: Havoc/Mobb Deep (“Apostle’s Warning,” Hell on Earth, Loud Records, 1996), notes towards an essay, part 1*

Exiting the office to rue de la Chapelle, near Marx-Dormoy on the city’s northern edge, I notice the drop in the weather. Even if the change won’t last and the unseasonable sunshine will soon return, I’m happy to see the “grey” that Henry Miller once wrote is full of meaning for a French person, or Parisian.

Mobb Deep instrumentals capture the constricted atmosphere of Paris for me, even if the music is indelibly tied to its city of origins, New York. This is music for Paris when it’s cold, not raining so much as cold; the chill that comes in through badly sealed windows of (my) our apartment/s, entering our bones as we wait outside. It’s music of faces in my neighbourhood, in and around Château-Rouge and Barbès, immigrant locations where the hotels advertise the fact that they have rooms with hot running water, shared showers in the hall.

I’m writing this fully aware that no other group better conveys the essence of the city New York in the 90s than Mobb Deep. If you wanted to re-visit that era in a social or psychological sense, this music takes you there. Mobb Deep’s music lets you feel what it was like in the city and boroughs, to imagine what it was like walking around the streets, steam spiralling up from the lower depths of the subway.

And as with any great art, this music while individual is part of a continuum. Listening to the “Apostle’s Warning” instrumental, I hear Lou Reed’s skittish ad libs during 70s live performances, spiking a vein, pulling a tourniquet sharp by his teeth, and the dense wash of Suicide: it’s punk-ish, unreconstructed, keeping things hidden, below the water-mark. The precise becomes universal. Music which represents New York comes to evoke Paris in the imagination of an Australian and so it goes.

This is the music of big cities, weighed down by history, where our shadows and ghosts co-exist.

Not so long ago I listened to an interview with Robert Wyatt where he said that his career has been devoted to recreating a certain sound, over and over again in all its permutations, that expressed something of his character and was personal to him. One sound over and over again, returning to the source. This is something I also believe in terms of how I hear and write about music. As even though I became an adult in a diametrically opposed environment to that of Prodigy and Havoc (on the other side of the earth, in another time-zone), returning to listen to Mobb Deep some years back convinced me of the rightness of this path as a listener and writer (as this early excitable almost-giddy-fan-missive shows). None of this has changed.

Mobb Deep’s music also has another deep personal significance, as someone who went to the 2015 show at The Bataclan, only weeks before the massacre took place; a shared trauma that remains deeply felt here in Paris, even if it is rarely mentioned.

(See this essay on Prodigy that I wrote following his death last year that explores this more ….)

Often it’s said that Havoc gets overlooked in all those best-of-producers-lists. This is true. It’s not my place to make an assessment of his career, since the 90s or in terms of its influence on others. Such assessments tend to miss the point anyway. No-one would compare novelists like this: no-one would bother saying that J.D. Salinger, a writer whose one masterpiece influenced all U.S. writers in his wake is less important/worthy than Saul Bellow. To do so would be a disservice to both, denying the achievement of one, when diminishing the other.

There are few albums from the same era that master the symmetry or strange mood of his music (let alone the adventurous use of samples). Yes, there are other New York 90s-era producers who are more inventive, risk-taking or elegant, who might be more skilled in terms of their creations, who have had more varied careers, but few create music that sticks with you in the same way. There’s something deeply affecting about the simplicity and control of Havoc’s production. Then, judging it from a European perspective, this work can be heard at the very foundations of French rap and there is a direct line between it and the sound of London rap, and grime.

I.

“Apostle’s Warning”

Two things impress me each time I hear this instrumental; first the extraordinary depth and beauty/weirdness of the first 20 seconds or so that originally reminded me of a kind of cowboy “Raw Hide” cry, à la Wu-Tang Clan, but in fact is a super-clipped sample of Michael Jackson’s version of “People Make the World Go ‘Round” from his 1972 album, Ben.

For this alone the track would be impressive, just on the basis of the way the sample is used. The second thing is harder to express in words, but relates to the way expectations are up-ended in terms of how the sounds are placed; where are the drums here, in relation to the bass-line; which is more dominant, and what, in fact, is that bass sound? It’s so rare and strange and intense.

[Verse 2: Prodigy]
Yo, my empire strikes with the strength of poisonous snakes
My entire unit loaded up with snake ni**as that hire stakes
We pull off a high stakes, great escapes, expand, shift team downstate
Dreams of growing old with my son to live great
Little man I'm plannin' to enhance your mindstate
The rebirth, a ni**a who lived an ill life
The one before me was of an even more trife
My understandin', I'll raise you with precise plannin'
And put you on to the whole game of this planet
But I gotta survive in order to follow through
Plans to live lotto, me and my little kicko
Any man tryin' to stop us, he get wet tho
He couldn't withstand the snake bite, there is no antidote
Don't you put your hands too close and try to approach
I won't snap at you I'm goin' for throats
And when you feel my bite, ya sing high notes
I peeped you from deep and then you got cut close
My formulae: I live life do or die
Stare into the eyes of a deep wiseguy
Prodigy, turnin' ni**as to protegés
My protegé, I advise ya ass to make way
Make way...for fully-auto gun spray
You're small prey, I'll easily bait and trap game
This man is half mad scientist-half sane
Create a rhyme labyrinth like poisonous cannabis
Here, take a toke of this deadly rare vocalist
Overpower y'all, tiny noise like locusts
Like sunlight thru a magnifying glass I'll focus and burn
A hole straight thru ya brain and leave ya open (Oh shit!)
And let the venom soak in
You start sweatin' and goin' thru convulsions from dope shit I writ
Leavin' ni**as stuck, I let stick
Trapped up in a web of a ni**a that's sick
I'll wrap you up in cocoon, get caught up in the midst
A dangerous, it's risky business fuckin' with this
Contender number one I put you on top of the list
You're the best challenger so far, I'll give you this
But peep this (What?) fatal shots that solar plex
Man Down...now who dares to go next?
Like General Monk Monk orders to chop necks
I send a message to my whole clique to bomb shit
Atomic, no time for calm shit
We hyperactive when it’s time to Vietnam it
Ya whole alliance gets singlehandedly bombed-ed
Take heed to the Apostle's Warning
Word up!

*My plan is to write more on Mobb Deep instrumentals, this is just the start of it: and to write on the ones that get less attention, this is why I started with “Apostle’s Warning” here, so this is just an intro again for a project that’ll be returned to at some point.

Related article: “Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/”Up North Trip” (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995) published 21st June, 2017

"I'm always trying to keep pushing myself:" an interview with Roc Marciano

First published in Passion of the Weiss

Roc Marciano saves his sharpest darts for wax. In conversation, the Hempstead Long Island MC wastes few words, offering up extremely focused replies to all questions. He's not unfriendly or hostile, as much as he's ultra-pithy, always getting the heart of what he is trying to express without any excess.   

None of this comes as a surprise when you think about the music that Roc Marci has released, starting with his 2010 Marcberg that ushered in his MO of putting out largely self-produced projects defined by his singular vision.

In this universe, not much happens lyrically – Marciano’s trademark style depends on the layering of images, super dense wordplay. The rhymes are obscene, poetic and violent, yet frequently marked by a kind of nostalgia, while enacting codes of the street.

Tracks like “Bedspring King” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose marks out new territory, thick as it is with the narrator’s lust and maybe more subtle emotion, operating in a way that resembles “Pray 4 Me” (on the first RR). 

It’s rare for musicians to be 100% comfortable speaking about their work in an abstract way; they’re musicians for a reason, not theorists or writers. Their music speaks for them. In this sense Roc Marciano’s reticence is also to be expected, and yet despite his persona and the hyper-controlled nature of his rap style (barely shifting from his trademark monotone), there is an exuberance about his music as well.

Take, for example, “Herringbone” from the first Rosebudd’s Revenge, with its dramatic build and unexpected beat-switch that completely transforms the track’s mood. This experimentation and interest in breaking with convention is a key aspect to Marciano’s art and one of the reasons why he is a key influence for so many younger MCs/producers.

Interview (part 1) with Out Da Box TV, 2012

You often don't have drums or have minimal drums in your tracks. Why is this? 

Roc Marciano: For me as an MC I enjoy the space. Sometimes the drums, you know, the program I feel like it takes over the groove and doesn’t allow me the same space. A track with no drums gives me the space to do more.

I want to talk to you about "Tent City," could you talk about it in more detail? It's an extremely intense track. 

Roc Marciano: “Tent City” yeah, I just knew when I found it, immediately I knew I wanted to do something with it, I thought the sample was real ill with the horn in the background, and I was reading Miles Davis when I was making the album so a lot of the horns are sticking out, they’re like the most important sounds. It’s like a mixture of soul and jazz, I really enjoyed making that track.

It’s a totally different sound for a hip-hop song, were you conscious of the fact you were doing something so new?

Roc Marciano: Nah, not really, I mean usually I’m just doing what I want to do I don’t really care if it’s new or not, I’m always trying to keep pushing myself and trying to find more inspiration, doing the same thing is boring, so it’s interesting to find stuff like that.

You seem to be quite intuitive the way you work, you often use the word “organic” when describing your work process and said once you “don’t like to force music.” What did you mean by that?

Roc Marciano: I don’t like to make music “just because,” you know, ‘cause I get bored. I have to feel it, I’m always looking for stuff, you know, that makes me want to be creative, it’s not just me it’s also the music, we’re doing it together, so that when I get music that touches me it makes the process a lot smoother.

It’s still primarily sample-based, isn’t it, you’re not using live instrumentation?

Roc Marciano: No, I’m not but I’d like to start. I’m going to use live instrumentation in the future.

I saw in an interview that you said you’d love to work with musicians. You mentioned Funkadelic, Ohio Players and Isaac Hayes as inspirations. All these great artists from the '70s. Talk to me a little bit more about that. 

Roc Marciano: Well, you know, I really admire those musicians, those artists made some music that’ve done a lot to inspire me, so I feel like to pick it up where they left off that’d be a great thing. That’s some of the greatest music ever made in my opinion, I would love to be able to follow in their foot-steps.

Something else I really like about your work is that you place the samples in a really creative way, the vocals are really low in the mix a lot of the time and there’s a very, very strong contrast between the vocals and the music. You’re also often leaving the samples quite raw, they’re not mixed to merge with each other. How conscious is all of this when you’re making your music?

Roc Marciano: I’m conscious … I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, when you hear it that way it’s mainly me creating music, you know and still having fun, I try to make sure that I’m still having fun. Me doing it the way I want to do it allows me to keep having fun.

When you’re listening to Funkadelic, and artists like this, are you thinking about how they positioned the sounds in their music?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah that’s pretty much what I am doing. I don’t want to mess up anything, my goal is to work with the sounds from the samples. I feel that what they were doing was already live and dangerous enough, all I’ve got to do is get in the middle.

Can you speak to me about the song “C.V.S” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: My guy Don Cee made that beat, I feel like that’s a continuation of what I was already doing, it’s a progression, when I heard it I was like that’s definitely going to fit in with what I’m doing. I think that track is real ill.

Let’s talk about the producers who have worked on the album with you. The guys from Arch Druids have come back to work on this. You’re quite a loyal collaborator, you have guys you work with repeatedly, they have been working with you a long, long time. What is it about those producers that you admire so much?

Roc Marciano; I mean we all see eye to eye with what we’re trying to do musically and we’ve been working together for so long, over the years, they’re like brothers you know, it’s like you continue to make music with your family, you know, you’re in your comfort zone you get better results that way.

You’ve also got Action Bronson, Knowledge the Pirate on the album. Do they feel close to you like family as well?

Roc Marciano; Yeah, definitely but not only that it’s cause it’s fun, everyone is where they’re at because that’s where they belong, like I was saying earlier it’s organic.

Your music often has dramatic shifts in your music, often about half way through a track it completely changes direction. What are you aiming for here?

Roc Marciano: To keep it fun, I don’t want to bore the listener, it’s already hard to keep it entertaining when it’s just one man and one voice, so to keep it entertaining you have to have all those elements in it to surprise you, so it’s not just my voice over and over and I’m not just rapping and rapping through the whole project.

Could you speak about Alchemist? You’ve done lots of work together and I read how he’s been important as a supporter keeping you going when you at one point were thinking about stopping music. How has he influenced you and your work?

Roc Marciano: I always just thought that Al was dope, you know what I’m saying. He’s a good friend, not to mention, but you know he’s just super ill. I knew of him before we started working on Reloaded, I was always just a fan, you know, I admire his work ethic, he’s a beast.

Some time back you chose five beats/hip-hop tracks that were your favorites, all were from the late 80s/early 90s (Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin’”, EPMD’s “It’s My Thing”, Main Source’s “Just Hangin’ Out”, Pete Rock/CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You T.R.O.Y” and Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?”). How would you compare your style with that of the Golden Era MCs from New York?

Roc Marciano: Probably in terms of the lyricism, you know the way I focus on the lyricism, with my lyrics I’m pushing the culture forward lyrically you know on from what the guys in the ‘90s were doing, in the Golden Era that was considered to be a big part of making music.

You’ve said that you think it’s important to update your style from what the MCs were doing back then, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Pushing it forward, making it better and better and to improve, so that’s pretty much what I mean by updating it, by updating it you are constantly improving it. It’s like an operating system on a computer, even though you buy a new computer it’s constantly updating the operating system so the computer runs better. I feel like that’s what I do with the music myself, you know, the style and production and choice of samples, just keep improving.

What’s interesting about your lyricism is that you have lots of images, you layer them and focus on setting the scene, not really story-telling so much. You’ve talked about how you’d love to work with DOOM and mentioned Kool Keith as an influence. Have those two MCs inspired your lyricism?

Roc Marciano: I would definitely say Kool Keith, I’m a fan of DOOM, I caught on to DOOM late, I was already doing what I was doing. As far as Kool Keith, he’s definitely somebody who inspired my style. DOOM I was like as soon as I heard his music, yeah, this dude is ill.

Kool Keith has a similar style to you in some ways, in terms of layering lots of words that rhyme together that are kind of absurd or surreal. What do you think?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah, I always thought that Kool Keith was pushing the feeling of being in an uncomfortable state and I liked that.

What do you mean by an “uncomfortable state”?

Roc Marciano: Not doing the same thing over and over, if you keep doing the same thing, if you keep picking the same beat over and over that dates, a lot of people are like that beat’s hard - that’s hard, that’s hard, well that (attitude) dates. I would like people to hear songs and be like that’s kind of strange, what’s that? That’s what I mean by being uncomfortable.

Which song from Rosebudd’s Revenge 2 would you say conveys that feeling?

Roc Marciano: Most of the album from “Tent City” to “Kill You” to “C.V.S” so many, it’s not like every day hip-hop you know what I’m saying? A lot of it is strange, risky, edgy.

Thinking about New York now, the city is extremely important for you in terms of your work and what you do, you grew up in Hempstead, Long Island you have said you can hear it in my music, it’s in my blood, growing up there it was a place with a lot struggle and a lot of love. Can you talk about where you grew up and how it connects with your work?

Roc Marciano: Well, I grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. It’s a hard question to answer ‘cause I feel like wherever you come from it’s going to be a huge influence, it’s like your culture. It’s pretty much all I know so that’s why it feeds into my music. It’s like anybody else’s hometown would influence their art.

You’ve said that this place had a rich culture, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Everything, from the people from Long Island hip-hop culture, from Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul, you know what I’m saying, and just the people it was like a melting-pot of people from all these different places, especially in my area, it was definitely interesting, very rich.

You’ve said that you’d love to work with Ghostface Killah. What is it about his work that impresses you so much?

Roc Marciano: It’s super ill, man, you know, super ill – from the stories, some of my favorite bodies of work come from that brother, Supreme Clientele, Iron Man, you know, he’s a monster of an artist.

When you were asked who you would like to do a full album with, you said Cormega …

Roc Marciano: Yeah, definitely I’ve always been a big fan, we have worked together, and we’ve got more work that’s yet to come out, definitely somebody I’ve always admired as a lyricist, it seems pretty natural to me.

One thing that’s really great on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge is the way the songs are placed side by side, how they work together. When you are creating a record what’s running through your mind in terms of what you want to achieve?

Roc Marciano: Just to make a great body of music that’s always the plan, it never changes, no theme or concept would ever change the aim to make an album that sounds good from beginning to the end.

You often say how important it is for you to develop as an artist and to progress, how do you think that this record is a development in terms of the first Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: As I say I think everything’s improved from the beats to the rhymes, everything is improving.

In a melancholy mood: On hip-hop quiet and instrumental music

In 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki published "In Praise of Shadows," an essay that recognized “beauty (lay) not in the thing itself, but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates.”  The Japanese novelist celebrated what he called an “Oriental” (see Japanese) love for art, architecture that bore the “marks of grime, soot and weather … that call to mind the past that made them.”

Central to Tanizaki’s argument was that Westerners through their art and approach to life sought to “expose every bit of grime an eradicate it,” while Japanese people believed that beauty in art came from its “relation to life,” while embodying the fact that “our ancestors forced to live in dark rooms” discovered that beauty came from the “glow of the grime.”
  
Darkness as a word and concept is often associated with hip-hop, usually in terms of the musical genre’s lyrical content. My interest here is to develop the idea of darkness, or shadows in the Tanizaki sense, in terms of music, using three instrumentals from the 90s by Onyx, Miilkbone and The Speedknots as examples of an aesthetic that I’ll call hip-hop quiet.      

Tanizaki’s essay made a big impression on me when I read it many years ago and then stayed in my mind as I started listening to hip-hop again, seeking out artists that I had frequently never heard of, largely by chance online. Most of my attention was given to generally little-known, obscure instrumentals by East Coast artists from the 90s.  Something about this music touched me, especially its emphasis on mood and the way it upset expectations. In a culture that so often celebrates display and boasting, this music was introspective, private and (often) had a sweetness to it.

“Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere,” Tanizaki wrote. “When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses.”

Certainly, this introspective quality is not confined to these instrumentals, running alongside them are examples from better-known producers [from Pete Rock, Nujabes, J Dilla, for example] who created music of delicacy, refinement and grace in the same period or later. Yet, the fact that these instrumentals exist in a kind of parallel universe, are not widely known or appreciated is central to their appeal in this context. 

The music of the celebrated producers, moreover, is marked by the character of their makers; it has a confidence and logic, or design behind it, so that you can recognize the artist’s voice immediately when you hear the music. In contrast, the output of these frequently forgotten producers is lo-fi, naïve, basic in its technique while operating in a hard to define space within the culture and as music. 

Madlib, possibly, is a producer with feet in both camps; interested in keeping his beats “unfinished,” conscious of the power of keeping elements unfiltered and material, and yet there is a self-awareness (and often humor) in his music that makes it different in tone. 

When speaking of this ‘quiet,’ I’d prefer to keep it open to interpretation, other than to note that this music for me is defined by emptiness and mystery. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense of no form, no clear organizing pattern that corresponds with our expectations about musical development, enacted via the use of stasis and repetition.    

One of the most interesting aspects of hip-hop production is the way individual sounds are often more important than melody or development. This reflects a debt to jazz, where the interplay between the individual and the group is made manifest in a focus on sounds in isolation, distorting them, twisting and shaping them to return to the key refrain. Jazz solos are one instance when this happens.        

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop then you need to strip away the elements, to break it down, as we will see here in these instrumentals they’ve already done much of the stripping away for you. The music also represents non-movement, a refusal to connect in a way that might offer comfort to the listener. In effort to explore this further, let’s consider three instrumentals to see how their bare aesthetic creates a unique sound, as examples of hip-hop quiet.

I. Onyx, “Last Dayz,”  (produced by Fredro Starr; Def Jam Records, 1995)

Take Onyx’s, “Last Dayz” from 1995, for example. The repeated vocal sample transforms into a sound in an unknown language, similar to how in UK electronic act Burial’s 2007 song “Near Dark’’, a warping of sampled words takes place, weaving in and out of almost naked drums. This brings us back to the quality of emptiness. Perhaps you could make connections with minimalism, but to me that word lacks the emotion this instrumental conveys. 

Particularly striking is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds—the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring swirl and comfort of the bass-line, the stop-start effect between them that operates like a conversation. Then, around two minutes in, the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops and then restarts, broken and then returning to the center? The beat is following its own poetic logic, exposing an emptiness at its core. To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own space, listen to the track with vocals: 

Underneath the bombast of the lyrics, all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery, or emptiness.

II. Miilkbone, “Keep it Real” (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success. A commercial failure can become prized, simply for it’s rarity; an obscure sample can reawaken an interest in—and even reinvent the artistry of— musical trash from the past. The music is shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn. 

Little-known samples operate as a code between producers and fans, separating those who recognize their esoteric sources from those who don’t. Fans striving to pick out even the most niche samples their favorite producers deploy turn sample-hunting into a serious pastime. The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to sample-hunting) due to copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space. 

All of this explains how Miilkbone—the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his LP Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later)—can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best “one hit wonders”, Miilkbone's “Keep It Real” has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the twenty-first century. Produced by Mufi, the track’s distinctive mood has kept it alive.

Central to the singular nature of this instrumental is Mufi's skilful and imaginative use of a sample from “Melancholy Mood,” the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio. Have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here.

As with the Onyx instrumental, the elemental simplicity of “Keep It Real” is what makes it so powerful. The music is carried by a lack of adornment; the sounds in their pure form can breathe. Much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates in so much contemporary “soul-based” production—where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism or the MC's delivery in the process)—is side-stepped.

This quiet is also found in the sharp contrast of the beat’s sounds. There’s the insistent and jagged horn sample, the piano on a constant repeat. They create a false naïveté to the music, which is affecting. Simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. Again, the strange kind of non-momentum is present—that stop-start—so the song often seems to be on the cusp of development. 

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own internal space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the MC.

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it on the Stretch and Bobbito show the same year it was released. It has been used in a BET awards ceremony and by various MCs.

Most importantly though, almost two decades later Freddie Gibbs repurposed the beat in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repeatedly chants the song's title—“The Ghetto,” over and over— echoing the original jagged sample embedded in the instrumental. Gibb’s subject matter, the sample, and overall sound of Mufi’s beat becoming one.  

By using this sample Gibbs and his producer are asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone cut, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

III. The Speedknots, “The Zone” (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998) 
 
As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious, with little or no development. It starts suddenly three seconds in, with all the effects brought in at the same time, then follows an almost mathematical precision of 30 second intervals. At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, and then at 2 minutes there is a perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop Joseph Schloss explores the idea of “ambiguity” in hip-hop production. Schloss relates ambiguity to the “idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded.” He writes: “Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

Earlier, Schloss explains that the very nature of creating sample-based music out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates the sounds in their original form and then how they are recreated. He writes that the, “aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities [the fact that the music is live and also not live], but –quite the contrary—to preserve, master, and celebrate them.”

Ambiguity here refers to an unclear meaning or to multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make you think, they make you feel. Central to this is the stop-start of the beat alongside a strong emotion of longing; none of this makes this music soft or sentimental, quite the reverse. 

Not so long ago, I read a commentator argue that he felt that the intellectual component of Black American culture is often downplayed and dismissed. This surprised me as someone who returned to hip-hop after listening to jazz for many years. As any jazz fan knows, the intersection between the mystical/the intellectual/the political is central to the genre, from the 60s onwards, with no issue or complication. 

Thinking about these instrumentals in terms of their quiet, their emptiness and darkness, is one way of recognizing their achievement, while making connections with other cultural moments, whether it is an essay on Japanese aesthetics or Spiritual Jazz, or whatever it might be. And yet, there is something unique about these instrumentals, indelibly located in a time and place, which makes them timeless.   

Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/’Up North Trip’ (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995)  

Prodigy, the hard-nosed Queens rapper who kiln-fired New York hip-hop into a thing of unhurried attitude and stoic elegance as half of the duo Mobb Deep, died Tuesday in Las Vegas. He was 42.
— Jon Caramanica, New York Times, June 20, 2017
My handicap took its toll on my sanity
My moms got me at the shrink at like 13
And doctors called the cops on me
’Cause I be throwing IV poles and they ignore me
I’ve gotta try to calm down and breathe
I can only hold it but for so long — put me to sleep.

'Ladies in the house say yeah,' so Prodigy says, as he saunters the Bataclan stage. Yeah, comes the expected reply. 'Check that out,' he says, feigning shock and surprise, 'We're Mobb Deep, not Common or Mos Def or some shit.'

One month before the famous Paris venue, The Bataclan was the site of terrorist attacks in November 2015, I went to see Mobb Deep's two-decade anniversary show marking the release of their Infamous record. 

During the set Prodigy stops everything to ask the support staff to change the lighting, to make it red, like the interior of a sweaty bordello - more dramatic than the previous natural-style lighting scheme, as the group goes from one hit to the next. 

Very, very early on, one of my first pieces of writing on hip-hop, published on this site, was on Mobb Deep. When writing it, I wanted this piece to be similar in style to a letter, directed to someone like me – looking in on a culture that was not hers: both faux-naïf and directive. Part of it went like this: 

If I were asked to recommend an album to a hip-hop novitiate, I’d suggest they listen to Mobb Deep’s ’The Infamous’ ... Or maybe something from Big L 

(Maybe I’d choose this one - big l Harlem’s finest vol 1 & 2 full album - for the urgent delivery ... and smarts). All this might seem perverse for two reasons; well, none of the records above provided the déclic moment for me as I started listening to hip-hop seriously (second time around) last year. None of these records were what first made me think I should spend a bit more time here with this music, making connections that made sense to me (…) Being authentic is often discussed in relation to hip-hop; this notion of the MC being real, or representing his/her life and then the fans think about this when assessing the quality of the music.

For obvious reasons then this is impossible for me to do - how could it be otherwise? So, what then appeals to me when I listen to these records? The sound, basically. This music still stands up, unlike some of the wittier, more literary, more sonically adventurous hip-hop from the same era (some of which sounds really twee to me now, even though I liked it a lot then). 

Besides, as a woman liking art that is foreign in terms of my experience is nothing new - I think one of the key aspects of being female is living this, on a daily basis to the point where your appreciation of something includes an expectation that it won’t be something you know personally. And this is no problem - not everything you like, or appreciate, needs to be a mirror. 

Here is part two of the same interview with Prodigy …

Since the 60s so many people have spoken about love being what the world needs now etcetera. I disagree, what we ‘need’ – if you favour such expression - more than anything, and especially now, is curiosity about those who are different to us, driven by respect. This is how I relate to Mobb Deep – and others in the constellation; ‘there are no stars in the New York sky
They're all on the ground …’

What interests me then, as now is how we can engage with – and even love – art that does not speak to our experience; how the genius and sheer clarity of certain voices can cut through bringing people together through the shared appreciation of art, whether it be music, or literature, or film.

Now, I know about issues relating to appropriation – and am starting to feel just a bit awkward, where is the late Prodigy in all of this, the apparent subject of this writing? But in my world-view this is the highest compliment to offer an artist, as E.M. Forster famously stated: ‘only connect’.

The scene in Howard’s End that introduced this phrase was a stolen kiss between two of the novel’s characters that becomes part of an internal monologue:

It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

When I think back to the time when I started listening to Mobb Deep, again in earnest, there was no intellectualising/no theorising required: I just liked it. I liked the sound; the way it seemed like we had a direct line to the artist's brain, with all the intelligence and humour to be found there and the way this music summed up a particular moment in music, the way it typified a city and an era.

I liked the way the wordplay never seemed forced, while it expertly buttressed the immediacy of the story to be told. This notion of story-telling in hip-hop often rankles with me, especially when it becomes overly smart, arch and knowing, but within the Mobb Deep universe you had both: amazingly constructed narratives that were filled with intense feeling.

And then if you believe that hip-hop as a genre is distinctive in the way it offers a voice to the unheard, in Mobb Deep you had this, in excess – and yet this was music that could cross borders, with ease: I mean, contemporary European rap is drenched in a Mobb Deep influence.

As with the greatest art in any genre, the intrinsically specific could make sense to people with no immediate life experience that resembled what they were hearing/or seeing because it was personal, located and true - just like a diary written by someone in an occupied zone, or during war-time. At its best, Mobb Deep’s music could offer everything, at once. See, for example, 'Trife Life’ – a Mobb Deep song that initially triggered my interest for its wit, self-confidence and extraordinarily smart construction of a narrative, with suspense and momentum:

(Just love those early rhymes: 'It's just another day, drowning my troubles with a forty
That's when I got the call from this brown skin shorty
She asked me where's my crew at, said we could do whatever
She got a crew too and said that we should get together
I said, "Aight, just call me back in a hour
So I can take a shower and gather up the manpower"
Then I hung up the horn
And I thought to myself that it might be on
Cause this trick isn’t pick up the phone to call me in years (Why?)
Ever since I left the ho lonely in tears…'

It’s so exact and funny, it makes me laugh every time I hear it, you can imagine the expression on his face during the phone call and the shift from excitement to trepidation – when he remembers how it ended last time - as if it were a scene in a film. You can hear the youth in the expression, how it was pure and essential.

This could be the voice of any pretend-macho young guy who is feeling nervous in New York, Cleveland, Marseilles – any place, the world over, it is individual and universal at the same time. No games; this music is funny, in parts, while expressing deep feeling related to a specific situation: ‘complete’ – as the French say. It was that simple.

Just like a woman standing beside me at The Bataclan that night, singing and screaming and shouting pretty much every single word of every single song, despite not even being born, or maybe just a little kid in 1995, the year that Mobb Deep released The Infamous.

This young woman, just like me, probably wouldn’t feel the need to explain her preference and give it form, all she knew, and knew deep in the core of her being that there was something about this music that clicked. She liked it, it was that simple – and that complex.        

Mobb Deep’s the Infamous is as bold, as clear as The Stooges’ Funhouse : it has the same force and desire to be heard, to stake out territory. I love the simplicity of it, the complete nature of the aesthetic; there are no weaknesses, no gaps.

By simplicity, I mean simple like a meditation; or simple like anything that matters in this world, in fact. Simple like a kiss, or a decision to act; simple like a thought, a memory. The music I grew up with, the nasty guitar music of the Melbourne underground scene was similarly ‘simple’ - focussed on the impact, not showing off fancy technique. There was no need.

***

"UP NORTH TRIP" TRACK INFO

Written By Prodigy of Mobb Deep & Havoc

Recording Engineer Louis Alfred III

Mixing Engineer Tony Smalios & Q-Tip

Mastering Engineer Leon Zervos

Executive Producer Matt LifeScott Free & Mobb Deep

Recorded At Battery Studios (New York, City)

Release Date April 25, 1995

Verse One: Prodigy

It all began on the street, to the back of a blue police vehicle
Next come the bookings, the way things is lookin
It’s Friday, you in for a long stay
Gettin shackled on the bus first thing come Monday
Hopin in your mind you’ll be released one day
But knowin, home is a place you’re not goin for a long while
Now you’re up on the isle
And the position that you in got you refusin’ to smile
But keep in mind there’s a brighter day, after your time spent
Used to be wild, but locked up, you can’t get bent
Thought you could hack it, now you’re requestin PC
You’re fragile, it ain’t hard to see
Niggas like that don’t associate with me
I’d rather, get busy to the third degree
Cause the war in population’s on infinitely
If this was the street, my razor would be a mac demon
Hit you up, leave your whole face screamin’
What you in for kid - bustin nuts?
Cats heard of me in street stories told inside this trap
Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight...

Here’s a description of the making-of the track,  published in Complex, 2011 

Produced by: Mobb Deep

Prodigy: “That song is basically a song dedicated to our people going in and out of jail back then. A lot of niggas would get locked up, come back home, get locked up, and come home.

"Niggas were selling drugs and if you’re out there on the block selling drugs, you’re constantly getting caught. You can’t get away with that shit for long, especially if you’re a small-time hustler for clothes and sneaker money.

“That was probably one of the ones that we started writing in the projects at Hav’s crib. He had a couple things. Our first sampler we had was an EPS 16 plus. It was a big-ass keyboard.

"We had that for a little while, and when the MPC came out we bought that, and that was it. A little record player, a little mixer, and that’s all we needed. We had the big ass cheap speaker with the carpet on it, like block party speakers.”

Havoc: “You don’t have no job, you’re trying to eat. And it could be somebody that you got beef with, so you might have to shoot a mothafucka because you not gonna let nobody play you. So it’s just all sorts of challenges growing up in the hood. That’s just one of those songs that brought that fact out.”

Matty C a.k.a. Matt Life (Executive Producer and A&R for Loud Records): “Q-Tip enhanced the drums on that lovely. If you listen to ‘Up North Trip’ you’ll hear the snare kind of bouncing a little bit. Cracking a little more [than normal]. Tip gave it a real nice crack compared to what it originally was. He just beefed the drums up on that one.

“Tip also worked with me closely on recommending certain engineers that were great for mixes. Hav and P would always do their own drops and Hav would always—and I would always encourage him—be the producer and do the final check on his own shit.

“The way that Tip contributed to the project was so cool because he wasn’t in there trying to say, ‘Yo, I’m the mixer for this, I’m taking credit for this.’ He was doing great in his career and he had mad love for us.

"He was just in it to help out and make sure it comes out right. Obviously, he got a nice deal. But it was really just trying to see Hav come up and really steer this ship with this group of emcees that he’s got.”

To choose one to represent the whole: ‘Up North Trip’ from the breakthrough, The Infamous record from 1995. Constantly playing with contrast, starting with the use of 70s schmaltz for the samples - ‘I'm tired of giving’ Spinners From the LP "8" released in 1977 on Atlantic Records. 

Even if there is a similar territory in the lyrics, expressing one man’s despondency: ‘When the truth becomes in question standing right before your eyes moving on to something better keep the strong alive I'm tired of giving but its you that keeps me hanging on So tired of giving (so tired of giving) can't get from falling down So tired of giving can't get up from falling down’ it's far from the same kind of psychological mood.  

The track also featured 'To Be With You' by The Fatback Band, later known as Fatback - love that detail - from a 1973 single; apparently the group had 'substantial success in South America, especially in Brazil with 'Money' and 'Backstrokin'.

You can see the depth of Prodigy’s lyricism when you compare his two verses in 'Up North Trip'. The first starts by setting the scene, using a ‘once upon a time’ beginning almost and the second person to involve us in the story and intensify a sense of proximity. He addresses us directly, using ‘you’ as if the action he is about to describe is our story as well.  

Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight

All of this suggests that what is to follow is a kind of cautionary tale, but there’s a degree of venom there, attacking his audience almost: who are you to judge me?

This subject matter and approach reminds me of first-person narratives from the past, say convict narratives, where the narrator is ready to share his vile and malicious deeds to spare others the same cruel fate, and yet it’s not that easy, mono-dimensional, because he is not seeking our absolution.

In Prodigy’s final verse, the perspective is quite different: 

Then I pause... and ask God why
Did he put me on this Earth just so I could die
I sit back and build on all the things I did wrong
Why I’m still breathin, and all my friends gone
I try not to dwell on the subject for a while
Cause I might get stuck in this corrupt lifestyle
But my, heart pumps foul blood through my arteries
And I can’t turn it back, it’s a part of me

This is amazing for the depth of feeling that comes through, the self-doubt and questioning tone, as he states:

Too late for cryin, I’m a grown man strugglin
To reach the next level of life without fumblin
Down to foldin, I got no shoulder to lean on but my own
All alone in this danger zone

But rather than offering his Soul up to God, as might have been the case in one of those 18th or 19th narratives of wrong-doing and repentance, Prodigy then reiterates his criminal, or outsider mindset: ‘Time waits for no man, the streets grow worse
Fuck the whole world, kid, my money comes first.’ 

Ambrosia for Heads interview: BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk, Rodrigo Brandão)

BROOKZILL!: a hybrid musical project, part Brazilian street samba/part Brooklyn, NYC “old school” - defined by travel and transcendence, mapping out connections to discover that the heartbeat of both musical traditions starts in the same place.

Recorded over a 10 year period in Atlanta, Brazil, New York, Throwback to the Future is imprinted with the personality of its makers: Ladybug Mecca, Digable Planets MC with her effortless cool; the high-energy enthusiasm and eclecticism of “producer extraordinaire” Prince Paul; producer and musician Don Newkirk, with his strong Funk sensibility; and the gravel-voiced Brazilian MC, Rodrigo Brandão.

Listening to BROOKZILL! reminds me of a French verb that has no direct translation in English: dépayser which means “to feel disoriented” (or “have a change of scenery“). Lost in the English translation, though, is an idea embedded in the French that refers to taking your country out of you. As the spirited BROOKZILL! collaboration makes clear, there is definite joy and freedom to be found when there are no distinct borders or markers setting out the path. Most of Throwback To The Future is in Brazilian Portuguese (the first language of Brandão, and also Ladybug Mecca, who was raised by Brazilian musician parents in the U.S) with no translations provided. Sounds come and go, drawing on various traditions, creating surprising intersections, familiar and strange at the same time. Certain tracks are playful, with wry references to Hip-Hop; others are dark, sombre and mysterious.

None of this is meant to suggest Throwback To The Future is a tacky, exploitative version of musico-tourism; quite the reverse. In many respects the BROOKZILL! record is defined by its seamless fit, while also offering up a home-coming for Ladybug Mecca, who pays homage to her Brazilian heritage in a way that seems deeply personal.

During a recent interview with Ambrosia For Heads, Ladybug Mecca explained that the BROOKZILL! project was ‘about unity – bringing two worlds together that can transcend anything.’ She continued: “Lyrically we touch on subjects such as personal growth, love and transcendence, celebration of loved ones who have passed (but) unity summarizes it best.”

BROOKZILL!’s Throwback To The Future, with its unexpected guest-artist list (which includes Count Bass D, Del The Funky Homosapien, DJs Kid Koala & Mr. Len, Gil Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, and a number of Brazilian musicians, including some who had previously performed with Pharaoh Sanders) links the U.S. Hip-Hop underground with Brazilian music, while upsetting fixed notions of what a Hip-Hop-inspired project can or should be.

Stream Throwback To The Future by BROOKZILL!.

Ambrosia For Heads: Paul, you’ve said that this project is all about capturing “the essence” of the two musical genres – Hip-Hop and different forms of Brazilian music – can you develop this more?

Prince Paul: You know, a lot of times, especially nowadays people focus more on what a musician looks like, they go, “Yeah, I got this fabulous record out – with a video!” Everything is visual, everything is marketing and promotion. What we’re doing more or less is stripping this record back to the essence: the drum and the beat, which is both in Brazilian music and in Hip-Hop music and back to melodies and vibes and feelings.

The music is definitely the driving force: the melody, the lyrics, the feeling of the drums … It’s soulful, catchy, the music captures your spirit and soul in the moment and that’s where we have taken this.

All the tracks (on Throwback To The Future) have a melody, a vibe and a feel to them. I tried to make one of those records where you can close your eyes and go on a journey and see where it takes you, as opposed to: “Oh man, I’m gonna skip that track, oh man, this one’s horrible.” [Laughs] I tried to make everything feel and vibe a certain way and that to me the essence of both genres.

Ambrosia For Heads: How would you compare the Hip-Hop beat and the beat in different forms of Brazilian music?

Prince Paul: Rodrigo?

Rodrigo Brandão : Okay, I would say the 4/4 rhythm of Hip-Hop is like the bread of a sandwich. You can put anything inside that beat and it’ll fit, you know. If you do it the right way, it’ll fit. It’s the same with Brazilian music because if you do it properly you’ll see the African heritage, so the poly-rhythms of African music then translated to the Brazilian continent, which is a country but the size of a continent … The Hip-Hop beat is universal and I see that as the bread of a sandwich, and what we’re putting into the sandwich is what’s making it unique and very different.

Ambrosia For Heads: P-Funk is a key influence for BROOKZILL!, Newkirk, could you talk about this more?  

Don Newkirk: I think that music from that era set the tone for hip-hop in general – that was the soundtrack, you could say, that the early Hip-Hop artists pulled from when they, or when we, started making Hip-Hop: it was that music from the ’70s; the Funk scene, James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic.

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you break it down more, with reference to “Mad Dog in Yoruba” as there seems to be a strong connection there.

Don Newkirk: Definitely, especially with “Mad Dog [In Yoruba]” – the song is a great example of that influence: the horn arrangements, the groove itself, the drums. It all connects. The break element, that song is like a musical break, you know a B-Boy break almost.

When we started doing the horns, Paul was like, “Yeah that’s the vibe right there.” I think that certain things are ingrained so much in your subconscious it just comes out of you. “Mad Dog” is a good example of the B-Boy element, the Funk element from the ’70s. We didn’t set out to do it like that, it wasn’t like: “Let’s make this.’ After we made it we realized how much it borrowed from that vibration of the ’70s.

Ambrosia For Heads: It also has an Afro-beat vibe, linking with what Rodrigo was saying before.

Don Newkirk: Yeah, definitely. One thing I learned after Paul and I had the opportunity of working with the great Bernie Worrell – R.I.P. Bernie –  music in general is relative. It doesn’t matter if it’s classical or funk. There’s always a relation in there, what you’re seeing in the Afrobeat and the Brazilian vibration, the Afro-Cuban beat like Rodrigo says everything starts with the drums, starts with the rhythm: it all goes back to African rhythms basically.

Prince Paul Drops a Mixtape Highlighting Digable Planets’ Ladybug Mecca (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: The interplay between the MCs on this track is striking, can you talk more about this, Rodrigo, Mecca.

Rodrigo Brandão: Ladies first.

Ladybug Mecca: My verse is more rooted in the Hip-Hop genre, there’s not one particular subject matter, it’s touching on anything that came to mind. Rodrigo and I vibed so well, we were like brother and sister from the moment we met. It was just easy for us to conceptualize records and to throw it back and forth in the true Hip-Hop form. It just came very naturally for us.

Ambrosia For Heads: For those who might not know the language, what are you rhyming about?

Rodrigo Brandão: What I can say, basically, what I can say about this whole project is – we didn’t look to achieve a certain sound, or certain style, we just let it flow. After we looked at the baby to put on a name on it. Have you heard of Eshu?

Ambrosia For Heads: [Pauses] No, I don’t think so.

Rodrigo Brandão: He is probably the most powerful of all gods (in Yoruba culture), he has the power to do whatever he wants and change whatever he wants real quick, so this song in a very abstract and non-intentional way describes the power and the size of actions of Eshu. The track is about him and his power.

Ambrosia For Heads: Gil Scott-Heron’s main collaborator through the 70s, Brian Jackson features on “Nascido No Ceu” how did he get involved?

Rodrigo Brandão : Brian Jackson is one of those icons, you listen to your whole life. When you actually have a chance to interact with him, he’s just a dude, he’s your brother, like the coolest man ever. People like him should be the power in the world. If you have the chance to kick with them, to vibe with them, you just take it. Brian Jackson is one of those unsung heroes. His music with Gil Scott-Heron is so timeless.

He’s pretty much the fifth member of the group, the first show that we did at SOBs in New York, it was just the four of us, and Brian Jackson on stage.

Ambrosia For Heads: Was there any conscious design behind the way the musical elements were used in that song?  

Prince Paul: Rodrigo touched on it and Newkirk, not just this track but the overall feeling of the album, we just played music for the sake of making it, which is pretty foreign nowadays. People go into the studio with a goal in mind, we were like let’s just make music so we gave Brian Jackson no direction. It was, take the music, whatever you feel is right.

A lot of the elements and the music is what the musician feels, just about the only direction I would give anyone is,”That! Repeat that verse! Do that stab over in this area.” [Most of the time] it was whatever they felt that was how we went with it. That translates to the whole album, it’s your soul speaking to the instrument. And that’s what I really think is the beauty of it. It’s like when we do interviews, people ask us to describe whatever, it’s really hard, because it just is. [Laughs]

Prince Paul Pushed More Boundaries With His Prince Among Thieves Film (Video)

Ambrosia For Heads: Can you talk about the recording process now, as the project took 10 years. And can you provide an overview of the record, do all the tracks use live performance, are some sample-based only, or a mix of both?

Prince Paul: I would say it's inspired by being sample-based. The melodies you hear, me and Rodrigo would sit down and go, “We like that. That’s the kind of vibe we want for this song. Let’s move it into that mode.”

Going back to the title, Throwback To The Future I have to reference doing things now and the way things used to be done. The easiest way to [complete the album] would have been like “I’m going to send you some beats and we can swap back and forth over the Internet, whatever.”

But we made a conscious decision to be in the same place at the same time so the distance is what made the process so long. Rodrigo comes to New York to my studio, we get the skeleton of it together, man, we go to Brazil with Newkirk to get the musicians, we go back to Atlanta. We go to Brooklyn to mix it, you know. [Laughs] Wanting to keep the tradition of us being together, it took a minute; when you’ve got families and life kicks in, you look up and it’s 10 years later.

Ambrosia For Heads: Newkirk has said it was very “old school” in that 95 % of the recording sessions had all four members in the same room, why is this important for a record like this?

Don Newkirk: I think it’s important for all records. The nature of music is communal; people are meant to be in the same room together. People used to hang out around a camp fire, or smoke a peace-pipe or sit on the plains of Africa with some drums and just go at it, have fun. Music is a communal effort, man.

As time went on [musicians] got more and more segregated, not just vibrational but that too. The creation of music became segregated and it’s an oxymoron when you think about it, because music is supposed to be something that brings people together. People come together and feel good, or feel whatever it makes you feel, it takes you on a journey …

That’s how we used to do it when we were younger. That’s why the further back you go in music the more feeling you start to pick up, it doesn’t even matter the genre. I don’t care if it’s Hip-Hop or R&B, there was more feeling because there was people in the room sitting there vibing and then there is an almost an angelic force when people are in unison, in a vibration it’s like a lot of angels and ancestors come in and inspire you.

That just doesn’t happen when you’re by yourself. It’s hard for me to work like that. I can’t just send people tracks, or people send me tracks and then write a song, you miss the full intention of it. You miss the complement of someone else’s words, or notes, or melodies.

Ambrosia For Heads: Mecca, could you describe the role Brazilian music played in shaping your delivery –  remembering that you were raised by two Brazilian musician parents?

Ladybug Mecca: Portuguese was my first language and when I entered an American school, I started to learn English, but it’s interesting that I would still speak a combination of English and Portuguese as a young person and even in my teenage years. I think the use of both those languages naturally would affect my art and the way my thought process works, how to express an observation or feeling.

I don’t know how to put it into words … my use of space and pauses in my delivery is one way of saying how [this background] affects me.

Ambrosia For Heads: There’s a kind of private quality, a holding back and control in your work that reminds me of Brazilian singers.

Ladybug Mecca: [Pauses] That’s the first time I’ve heard that kind of comment. It’s very possible as for most of my life, the first music I ever heard was traditional old school Brazilian music, my father had a radio that was tuned in to Brazilian music. It was a constant for us. There definitely has to be a direct relationship.

Digable Planets Reflect On Their Travels Through Time & Space And They’re Still Light Years Ahead

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you choose a Brazilian singer who has a strong connection with what you do?

Ladybug Mecca: I would say Clara Nunes. I vibe with her a lot, everything about her story resonates with me.

Prince Paul On Which Grammy Album He Got No Credit For, Magic Of Gravediggaz (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: To close, “Todos os Terreiros” is surely the key track in terms of the record’s Hip-Hop/Brazilian hybrid sound…

Prince Paul: If anything shows the way Rodrigo and I worked it’d be that song. He’d come in and say, “This is what I’m thinking, these are the sounds I want to use.” I’d sit there and think, “Mmm, how am I going to work this in with head-nodding?”

One good thing about Hip-Hop and you can see this historically, you can put any genre in that 4/4 beat and it bangs, but this one I was actually scratching my head going, “Let’s see if this will work.” [Laughs] I said, “Yo, I’m going to do the opposite of what this rhythm calls for, because it’s melodic and soft which is nice, so let’s throw in some boom bap in there.” That’s the result of the two worlds coming together.

That track is all over the place, meshing spacey synth sounds and traditional Brazilian sounds and throwing in some occasional boom bap drums – with which, for me, you can never lose. It could be a wedding march and if you throw in some boom bap on it, it works.

Ambrosia For Heads: What are your future plans, I see you’re planning some tours.

Prince Paul: Our plan is to travel the world. And if we were able to travel outside the atmosphere and into the universe [laughing] we’d go there too.

Paris-based Australian journalist, Madeleine Byrne writes on music and politics. To read more of her work, included extended interviews/essays, and other Hip-Hop related writing, visit her website

Marco Polo Interview

When asked to identify the key element of his aesthetic, Toronto-born New York-based hip-hop producer Marco Polo answered simply: ‘the drums.

Drums are always the centre of my beats; they’re always hard-hitting, aggressive: you feel them, cause that’s how I was brought up as a fan of producers like DJ Premier, Large Professor. It’s all about the kicks and the snares, you know. And then of course the musical elements too: it’s a vibe. To answer your question, I think what defines my beats, what people probably know, it’s my drums.’

Having worked with many of the greats since coming to New York in 2003 (Pharoahe Monch, Rakim, Masta Ace, Large Professor, Torae among others) and also new generation voices, Marco Polo has marked out a defined niche within the hip-hop genre; that builds on the past, while creating a sound that is distinctively his own.

What immediately strikes you about Marco Polo’s music is its impact; there is something complete - or totalising - about it. Whereas many hip-hop producers allow space between the elements, letting in an airiness or lightness of tone (or irony) Marco Polo’s music is about how the elements come together in a united front. There is an intensity to this music that rarely lets up.

***

In a 2015 article a Guardian journalist made the rather outlandish claim that Marco Polo was keeping the New York hip-hop sound alive - or to be more accurate, he claimed that Marco Polo 'defined' the sound of New York hip-hop. While this journalist's statement is something I'm sure Marco Polo would never agree with, it's interesting to compare his production with one of his key influences, DJ Premier (who many believe is the sound of New York hip-hop). 

For Marco Polo, DJ Premier is a key influence and inspiration: 'the king of drums ... (who) set the bar for drum programming’. But there are definite differences between the two producers. Most of the time, DJ Premier’s music is driven by a hard beat, but his arrangements appear to be sparse (appear to be are the key words here). The music is so pure so that the elements can be heard in isolation and the structure is exposed via a highlighting of each part: the drums/the MC/samples/the DJ scratching over it. When listening to this music you can recognise and appreciate the work’s inherent logic: its elegant classicism.

In contrast, Marco Polo’s production style often feels like a ‘wall of sound’ with elements working together, moving in different patterns and directions, backed up by the emphatic beat. This approach reminds me of a 70s rock aesthetic (though Marco Polo stressed that ‘at the end of the day I’ve got to bring it back to hip-hop, it can’t be too rock n’ roll’) or perhaps some of the wilder funk exponents from that era.

Marco Polo is best known perhaps for an early track featuring Masta Ace, 'Nostalgia' released on his first Port Authority record in 2007 (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records) -

a gentle paean to greats from the past, with a soft pitter-patter of a beat that stops and starts up again, following the rhyme of the MC. The fact that Marco Polo is forever associated with this track is a little surprising as since then he has marked out much darker territory, not only in his two producer-led efforts but also his work for MCs. Indeed, his oft-repeated statements regarding his ambitions, or what the sound of true hip-hop is for him, usually include the words dark, soulful and grimy.

In 2007, Marco Polo's Port Authority album offered an exhaustive roll-call of well-known names (the aforementioned Masta Ace; O.C.; Large Professor; Oddisee; Kool G Rap; Supastition; Sadat X ...) 

The overall impression gleaned from the record was its statement of supreme confidence from the then 28 year-old (Marco Polo was born in Canada in 1979) who had only turned up in the City a few years previous and a showing of his virtuosic skill. Six years later, in 2013 Marco Polo returned to this terrain with a follow-up record called Port Authority 2that included a similarly daunting number of MCs - 40 from across the United States. An obvious question to ask was why he kept returning to this imagined location, Port Authority, what kept bringing him back there.

Marco Polo: The Port Authority bus terminal is a hub in New York City, pretty much in Times Square if you were to take a Greyhound bus anywhere from Canada or outside New York it’d end up at the Port Authority. And when I first moved to New York I took the bus from Toronto and that’s where I ended up so that was my first impression of the city when I walked out onto the bus station. Now it’s much better, but before it used to be super grimy around there, with a lot of homeless people and hustlers; it was a pretty ‘lively’ couple of blocks surrounding that station, so it was a fitting introduction to New York.

It’s cleaned up around it (now), but any place where you have tourists and foreigners showing up, you’re going to have the scum of the earth waiting for you to do bad things, like hustle you for a couple of bucks, or sell you weed. I’m sure it’s the same in any city, when you go to the bus terminal you got to keep an eye out for shady characters, you know (laughs).

Port Authority 2 similarly featured an impressive group of MCs - Talib Kweli; Masta Ace; Rah Digga among many others and included a reunion of Pharaohe Monch's earlier group, Organized Konfusion and a track dedicated to a late member of Gang Starr, 'G.U.R.U' that featured Kweli and Dj Premier, while featuring a raft of DJs scratching over the beats (DJ Revolution, Shylow, DJ Linx, DJ Romes and DJ Premier himself). 

I asked him about 'mood' when putting these two albums together and how important it was to think about the records in their entirety.

Marco Polo: Very important, I grew up with albums that had a theme to them, with leads and segues. You want to make something that flows. The great albums of my time all had that, like De La Soul and Prince Paul. Prince Paul is credited as the one who invented the interlude. It was cool, something different it’s not just music with spaces between, it puts you in a zone. It’s like listening to a story. Even Pete Rock on his Soul Survivor record he had all these amazing beats that would fade in, like ten seconds and fade out between songs. They were like crazy beats and you’d be like, ‘Man I want to hear someone rapping on that, I want to hear it longer.’ And it’d be gone.

It’s really important. Listen to Doctor Dre, his work literally sounds like movies; he’s got the intros and voice-overs. I was really lucky to have Michael Rapaport who is a great actor and a huge hip-hop fan to narrate them. It was amazing, it makes it cool, when you listen to something top to bottom, it puts you in the zone.

MB: Listening to that record I noticed there was a lot of scratching on it, it was a really important element of that record. Would you say it was a key, unifying driver in Port Authority 2?

Marco Polo: Absolutely, it’s part of hip-hop; one of the key elements of hip-hop. I’m a fan of scratching, or scratch hooks on songs. I’m a big fan and I’m blessed because I’ve got some of the world’s best DJs at my disposal: Revolution and Shylow. Shylow does pretty much 90 per cent of my cut hooks and he’s a master of it. It’s really important to incorporate this in the music. Sometimes you get the rapper to come up with a vocal hook and sometimes you get the DJ to do scratches; let’s do cuts. The song’s called this, okay find rappers who say that. It’s a whole mission to dig for acappellas. Yeah, you got to show love to the DJ.

Once again, DJ Premier and Marley Marl cause they were cats cutting up lines and stuff on records back in the day. Something about that that I’m just drawn to.

MB: I think it adds a real beautiful texture to the record because of the way it adds to the track construction; I mean the scratching comes in at different moments for emphasis. When do you use scratching in a song?

Marco Polo: (pauses)

MB: Is it like a sample that you place in a song to provide emphasis, or drama?

Marco Polo: Yeah, you can use it however you want to use it. Most of the time, we’re using scratches to make the chorus of a song, the hook. But sometimes, there are really no rules: it could be a bridge, or part of a verse when the rapper wants you to scratch to connect to a line he’s saying. We just try to be creative with it, cause literally at this point everybody has done everything.

You record it over the beat just like a sample, that’s essentially what it is – a sample of a rapper’s voice or something whatever he decides to scratch.  

Since then Marco Polo has produced for a number of important acts - including Pharaohe Monch, providing the music for three of his tracks on the 2014 release PTSD. What follows is a record of our phone discussion that covers Marco Polo's ongoing respect for Masta Ace; his collaboration with A-F-R-O (his next release) a focus on how he makes his beats; his current love for 70s prog-rock and how proud he is of his production work on Monch's classic album, PTSD.  

 

This week Marco Polo is leaving for a six-country European tour with his long-standing friend and collaborator Masta Ace who is promoting his sixth solo album The Falling Season, supported by MC Stricklin (one of the members of the group, eMC with Masta Ace himself).

Back in 2003 when Marco Polo was working as an engineering intern at The Cutting Room recording studio in Manhattan – doing what he has described as ‘grunt work-fetching coffee, cleaning up, answering phones- (before landing) a gig as an Assistant Engineer/Manager’ - a chance meeting with Masta Ace jumpstarted Marco Polo’s career as a producer.

Marco Polo: He came through for a session with The Beatnuts and I gave him a beats CD and he picked two beats, one that became a song called ‘Do it Man’ - a song on his album called A Long Hot Summer (2004). At the time he wasn’t able to compensate me so what we worked out was that we would do a trade, in trade he recorded the song for me that people know as ‘Nostalgia’ - which 100% the song people know me for in the underground, close to five million views and on my first producer album Port Authority (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records).

Since then we’ve definitely worked on some stuff, a few songs here and there he was on my Port Authority 2 – I worked on the eMC album, but more importantly he asked me to come on the road with him when he travelled and DJ for him. And after this tour we’re going to work on an album together – a Masta Ace/Marco Polo album, which I’m very excited about.

MB: My friends who are into hip-hop have a huge amount of affection and respect for Masta Ace’s work over the years, how would you describe the value and importance of what he does?

Marco Polo: With Masta Ace, one of the things that make people all over the world – not just the US market – gravitate towards him is his ability to lay down a lot of emotion and amazing story telling in a simple way when he rhymes. He’s not beating you in the head with complex rhyme patterns, you know like in an Eminem style, but at the same time he’s Eminem’s biggest influence. Masta Ace has this way of talking to you in a personal way that is very simple, so people are able to feel it, you know.

And also in terms of his beats selection: Masta Ace has got a very good, picky ear when it comes to beats. He’s just amazing at making albums and connecting it all. This is what has kept him relevant after all these years, as opposed to a lot of guys from his era who have disappeared or not been able to be that consistent: Masta Ace is that dude. Twenty years – thirty years – and he’s still making music that people want to listen to and that’s very difficult to achieve.

KIC Beats was unable to do the tour; it is to promote Masta Ace’s album, The Falling Season (and will also feature) Stricklin, another dope MC. We’ve done this show many times all over the world, so it’s going to be like a reunion for us, rocking together again.

Following the European tour, Marco Polo will release an album he produced for the teen wonder A-F-R-O …. ‘Yeah, me and A-F-R-O have an ep, it’s about seven songs, maybe eight songs, it’s called A-F-R-O Polo - it’s done, we’re just mixing and mastering it now. I hope in the next few months it would be put out for people to hear.’

 

MB: Can you talk a little about the project; what was it that interested you in working with A-F-R-O?

Marco Polo: I didn’t even know that A-F-R-O existed, the only reason I knew of him was RA the Rugged Man, I work with him and he brought A-F-R-O to my studio and told me about him and said, ‘Yo he’s dope. You’ve got to check him out.’ RA the Rugged Man discovered A-F-R-O through a contest he had for MCs and A-F-R-O won, RA the Rugged Man flew A-F-R-O to New York and basically brought him round to a bunch of producers that he wanted A-F-R-O to work with and I was one of them.

Luckily he ended up in my studio and we just had good chemistry and we recorded more than just a couple of songs. We had a great time. I love his energy. He’s an incredible rapper. But what I love about him is he’s so young and he’s so culturally respectful to the roots of hip-hop. It’s different for a kid at 19 to be on that vibe these days because things evolve. He speaks to a lot of people who remember the golden era. We had a great time and yeah, the ep came out really nice. I’m excited for people to hear it.

MB: Is there anything particularly different in terms of what you’ve done with this ep?

Marco Polo : Production-wise I don’t think it’s anything super different; it’s definitely a little bit more raw. You know there’s a lot of break-beats, a couple of songs we made in the studio, I made the beat and he’d just rhyme. I would pick drums that he liked and then I’d make a beat. There were some beats I had already made; it was just kind of like having fun until it all made sense. It’s not like I’m experimenting, you can still expect the typical hard-hitting Marco Polo production, with A-F-R-O on it.

 

Let’s focus now on what Marco Polo is talking about when he speaks of his ‘hard-hitting'production style. On YouTube there are a number of videos where Marco Polo talks through his production techniques. In one he breaks down his work on Pharoahe Monch’s track. ‘The Jungle’ from the 2014 album, PTSD.

Starting with a ‘bunch of sounds’ (acoustic guitar, choir, clavinet and bass …) Marco Polo says how each - when played in isolation - is ‘so cheesy’ (perhaps the worst of them sounding as if it came from a pretty awful guitar-solo, he likens it to ‘some Bon Jovi-ass sounding guitar’) but when layered ends up creating a very distinctive mood: simple and threatening. Marco Polo adds how quantising the beat can be ‘your enemy’ in that it can make the music sound ‘stiff’ and that he always tries to make the bass notes come in late to provide a funky, natural feel. Then he refers to what he calls ‘the stabs’ - the repetition of certain notes in a track, which are, in fact, the defining element of his aesthetic.

In the video, he also adds how he loves the ‘movement of breaks’ - I found this comment interesting, so I asked him to explain this more.

Marco Polo: Basically, you know (pauses) one of the biggest challenges … Okay so let’s simplify this for readers who aren’t producers. A break-beat is essentially a part of a song a drummer played, a human being playing an instrument, so it’s going to have human elements to it in the timing so it’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be like a computer with a metronome, it’s going to have a feel to it because it’s a human playing it, so it’s going to be a bit more funky, it’s going to be late, or early or off. All of this things essentially give it a natural, human groove because it’s a human playing it.

So when producers think about break beats you’re essentially breaking up a human made rhythm for two or four bars so it gives you a really natural feel, as opposed to when you chop up sounds and program them on a computer because then you’re in the hands of a piece of machine to make your rhythm and depending on how good you are as a programmer it can be really stiff and not sound natural. What separates the good producers from the great is the ability to take these machines and computers and make these beats that feel human, right.

That’s the challenge, so if you eliminate the part when you program the drums yourself and you just loop the break-beat, you’re ahead the game rhythm wise by having something that just feels more natural. 

In the end, it’s important to use breaks because it makes my beats, or anyone’s beats sound more natural and less stiff and robotic. But when you use them you’re repeating a human rhythm in one, two, three, four bar loops you know capturing the human inconsistency of a human playing drums, as opposed to chopping up individual kicks and snares and relying on technology to make it sound natural. There’s lots of producers who can take individually edited kicks and snares and make it sound natural when they’re using MPCs or machines and some are not so good, so the way around it is looping a breakbeat that is part of a record where it’s just the drums playing.

MB: This idea of the movement is it to make it sound more fluid?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s basically to make it sound more funky, more natural.

MB: I think you’ve talked about the importance of creating a live band sound, now this is something I’ve come across repeatedly where producers talk about this being one of their key goals – almost to reproduce how it sounds to, you know, hear a jazz band or a funk group from the 70s, say – why is that so important? It seems a bit contradictory. 

Marco Polo: For me, it’s not really about trying to create the sound of a band, it’s to put a bunch of sounds together that make sense, you know; that feels natural, that feels like it was meant to be. It’s like adding different moods and textures. It’s challenging cause if you’re a sample-based producer like me where you’re taking all these different sources from vinyl, or it could be MP3s, or whatever. You’re taking parts of music that were recorded in different studios, different time eras, with different equipment, so how do you make all this make sense so it doesn’t sound like a fucking mess. That’s the art of sample-based production it’s finding a way to take all these different textures and sounds to make them gel together, to make a new composition and a new idea. For me that’s one of the most challenging and yet rewarding and fun things about making beats. I think a lot of people like that about me they see me taking so many different sources from songs in different keys, different tunings and you have to make it all work. I love it, that’s like my favourite part.

MB: I noticed that in one of your videos, from ‘Making the Beat’ video series (on his production work for Torae’s ‘Double Barrel’ in 2009) you said choosing six samples from six completely different records is the challenge, the essence of what you do, is that right, is that what you’re saying now?

Marco Polo: Yeah, something like that. I don’t always do that. Sometimes if I’m making a beat and I’m like it would be cool to have a horn sound, I’ll go through my jazz records and find something and see if it will work. It’s tricky, cause you’re finding songs that are completely not the same tempo, or different keys, so yeah essentially putting in that extra work to find those types of sounds it’s like the icing on the cake for a beat to be complete for me, the little details.

MB: Your talking about these sounds, there’s obviously differences in sound quality in terms of the recordings as well, are you using lots of technology to try and equalise them. What kinds of post-production work do you do to make them at the same level?

Marco Polo: You know I have a couple of programs that I use on my laptop where I will do some processing, whether it’s making them louder, or eq-ing them or adding some reverb, so I will do some of that. I’m a big fan of delays and time stretching specifically is probably the most important one cause if you’ve got a horn sample that’s a 120 BPM and my beat is 90 then you know I have programs or I use the MPC to time stretch the horn to match the tempos. There’s definitely a lot of things I do to make things work; just I don’t think about things, it’s first nature to do it. Absolutely, when you’re working with different sources I have to put in work to make it make sense.

MB: It’s this constant challenge and balance, isn’t it, between using technology and using material that’s already been ‘found’ then trying to make it sound natural, it’s interesting.

Marco Polo: Yeah, talking like that it sounds like a lot of work, I guess it is. For me it’s just like what I do. It’s first nature, you know.

MB: Returning to your beats now, I think you were saying how you like to layer a beat, so you’ve got the kick and the snare, and then you’ve got a hi-hat from another record, a splash of percussion from another record, is that a fair representation of how you construct a beat, layering it from different sources?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s always going to be like that. I mean there’s no set way I have to make a beat. I usually start with drum sounds, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to start with the sample first just cause I like to throw curve-balls into my routine so I’m not always doing the same thing. Yeah, essentially it’s very rare to get the drum sample and the musical sample from the same record, it’s definitely possible if you have a sample with parts that will open up, but it’s rare.

So for the most part I’m taking kicks and snares and all these pieces are coming from different records, so that’s essentially what’s happening.

MB Is that something a bit distinctive in terms of what you’re doing?

Marco Polo: No, everybody does that. I might do a little bit more, or be drawn to certain sounds a bit more. You know all producers, what they do over a certain time is that they start accumulating a library of sounds they like to use again and again in their beats you know. Certain producers will have drums that they’ll use a lot so that when you hear a beat, you’ll go, that’s a 9th Wonder beat, that’s a DJ Premier beat. You’ll kind of know, it’s similar, you know cause you’ve heard it before that’s you essentially making your own signature sound. Over the years I definitely have signature drums and other sounds that I use. I try not to use them all the time, but I go to them because a) I know they work and it’s part of who I am as a sound.

MB: One thing you’ve been talking about recently is creating your own samples - using live musicians, recording them and sampling them – is this something you’re going to be doing more and more of, can you talk more about this?

Marco Polo: Yeah, sure. I have somebody I’m working with, a musician who is amazing. He plays guitar and all types of stuff and once in a while we’ll get together and we’ll just compose music – not beats, music, essentially things I would sample. It’s a real learning process. I’ve done a bunch of stuff with him. I have music that we’ve made. I’ve recorded some guitarists from Italy, guys who play jazz guitar and they’ll come to the studio and play tons of guitar – at no tempo - and I’ll record it and I’ll stash all these sounds. If I have a day where I have to make a beat where I can’t be using any copyrighted materials, it has to be original then I have all these sources to use that won’t be a problem, so I’m definitely doing that.

But it’s not my main focus. At the end of the day I’m not stressed about samples, I just try to make something that I love and worry about everything else later. But I am incorporating live musicianship and making more beats myself where I’m composing everything myself using programs and playing chords, trying to make stuff sound like samples. It changes. One day I’ll be in that mood, the next I’ll be like I want to hear something off vinyl. It all depends on how I feel when I wake up.

MB: Is all this also being motivated by sound quality, are you able to control the sound quality better if you record it yourself?

Marco Polo: I can definitely control it, but the thing is … The problem with technology is as much as they try to make things sound vintage, it’s never really going to be perfect. The reason why things sound so good on vinyl from the 60s and 70s is cause they’re using classic recording studios, with old gear that just had a warm vibe to it. It’s almost impossible to duplicate it. They’re trying to make stuff to emulate these old consoles, plug-ins and compressors. They come close, but it’s really difficult to make stuff that sounds like from that era. People can do it very well, but the average person cannot. So for me I definitely do my research to work out what people do to make instruments sound dirty, vintage and warm and have all those things you’d get off a record. I’m getting pretty good it at but it’s definitely every day I’m learning new tricks.

 

Many, if not most of the most important hip-hop producers have a certain thing for music from the 70s. One critic has claimed that it could be that many of those producing music in the 90s and since, for example, were young children growing up listening to their parents playing music from that era, so such music has a sentimental alongside musical import for them. While producers themselves often cite the sound quality from 70s era recordings as a reason for the fascination; noting how the recordings have a warmth lacking in more recent releases. 

During the interview there was a funny moment where I confidently asked Marco Polo about the link between his instrumental version of 'Astonishing' (here's the record version) released on his Port Authority 2 in 2013 and featured Large Professor, Inspectah Dec, OC and Tragedy Khadafi - and Ghostface Killah's 'Nutmeg' (relased on his 2000 album, Supreme Clientele) following a fan comment, linking the two. It turned out there was no, zero, conscious connection, even though Marco Polo kindly said that perhaps it sounds like the kind of beat Ghostface might have graced, might have favoured if it had been at his disposal, or offered to him. 

Apart from the linked high-pitched 'pow' sound on both, there is a connection and this is to a 70s cinematic/Blaxploitation soundtrack feel found on both records; often I think that Marco Polo's beats could have been on some kind of histrionic Italian horror flick from the 1970s, where the lead actors freeze in horror, repeatedly (or walk around sets in long flowing white dresses, not saying very much). It's a mood thing, a taste preference that distinguishes his work. Other than that there are certain techniques that link his production ethos with the era and this includes what he refers to as 'the stabs'. 

MB: From first listen, and especially when listening to the instrumental versions, take for example ‘Astonishing’ - what really struck was what I felt to be an influence of 1970s rock and electronic music from that era. While when you were talking about ‘The Jungle’ you talked about the importance of ‘stabs’ - repeated notes – and for me this connects your music with 70s rock, The Who (for example the track ‘Who are you’) …

Marco Polo: Yeah, definitely.

MB: If I were to say what makes your work distinctive, I’d say it’s this influence. What do you think about that comment?

Marco Polo: (pauses) It’s 100 per cent right. I have so many beats (laughs) I tell my boy Shylow, I need to retire the stabs. I’m just drawn to it, the repetitive notes, the same note over and over. It just has this vibe to it, I’m just drawn to it. I love it. It’s aggressive; it’s grimy. It’s hip-hop, you know.

One of the biggest, most commercial successes for hip-hop is something like Dr Dre's ‘Still Dre’ that incorporates the piano stabs. It’s like a rhythm – a hard, simple rhythm. It’s very easy for me to make beats like this and when I hear the samples, I’m very drawn to them. It’s a very accurate statement. I’m actually making efforts to move away from that because I’ve done it so much, yeah. But in a heartbeat I can go back and make a beat with stab sounds, I love it (laughs).

I mean ‘the stab’ - I don’t even know if it’s a real term; I just call it the stab cause that is what it means to me – but you can find it in all genres. You can find it in RnB music, in rock, in soul. But I am influenced by early music, I grew up in a household where my dad was playing 70s rock all the time. I’m influenced by everything really. I just love music, so.

MB: You’ve talked about Cream being played in your house when you were growing up …

Marco Polo: Absolutely - Disraeli Gears

MB: Cream and Miles Davis; it’s a funny combination …

Marco Polo: That’s my Dad, and it’s a blessing he was so open-minded. Even him playing those different things when I was growing up, I didn’t understand it then but it was so cool. (His Dad is also credited with introducing him to the first hip-hop record that really clicked with him: A Tribe Called Quest's 'Bonita Applebum').

The moment you say you just listen to one thing, you losing out; especially as producers, you’re playing yourself. If you just listen to soul, you’re playing yourself. The other genres of music will open you up to new sounds and it will make your production way more versatile, different and you can go to different zones and feelings.

Lately I’ve been going through a progressive rock phase where I’m finding progressive rock records. This shit is crazy, I love it and it’s also going to change your sound by going in different genres.

Some people like to stay in their zone, but for me I like to change it up. I don’t want people to get bored of my beats and go, oh it’s another Marco Polo beat. I want it to be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ Cause that’s how it used to be with cats like DJ Premier, he’d use all kinds of different samples, but the way he chopped them was unique and you’d be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ It’d make you scratch your head, ‘Where did he find that? What is that?’ I want people to do the same with my beats, I want them to have no idea what’s happening, or where I got them.

MB: Are you talking about English prog rock, or?

Marco Polo: It’s not specific to a country, I’ll look up that genre and do research. It could be bands from the UK, it could be bands from Italy, from Finland, from Sweden, from Germany, from the United States. Whatever falls in that genre, and if I’m uneducated or unaware, I’ll educate myself.

God bless the Internet, cause it’s really helpful these days cause you can just go and learn. You can find a kid in Spain who loves prog rock and will list all these albums he loves. It’s like going to the library. I look these groups up, I find the music and I learn about it. And man, a lot of it’s bad. But once in a while you’ll find that gem and it’s worth it.

MB: What interests you about the music though?

Marco Polo: The weird chord progressions; the sounds, the recording, the drums the vocals. The thing about progressive rock or that symphonic stuff is it could be so many things, it could be synthesisers from the 70s to a crazy flute player on acid, just going crazy over drums and a bass-line. And it’s still got a bit of funk to it, you know. I don’t like things that sound too rock n roll for hip-hop. I’m never going to be down with that. It’s still got to have a funk and soul and interesting musicality to it. 

Widely acclaimed by the music media and fans alike, Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD is a genre-defining release, while so distinctive it could not be mistaken for the work of any other artist. Marco Polo produced three tracks on the album: ‘The Jungle’; Rapid Eye Movement’; and ‘Time2’. I asked Marco Polo to talk about these tracks and also explain how it was working with Pharaohe Monch.

Marco Polo: First of all I’m glad you brought it up because I love all three of those songs I did on that album. I’m proud of all three. Having a song that has Pharaohe and Black Thought over my beat, that was a dream come true. Two of the best emcees in the history of hip-hop trading verses, I’m just so proud of those three songs. All three of them.

Pharoahe is not what you’d call ‘a normal (guy)’ - he’s not average. He’s above average; I always joke he’s like an alien, he’s not from this planet that is how good he is at MC-ing and his thought process is not from this universe, it’s on another level and I’ve been blessed to experience it in the studio, seeing him rhyme, the stuff he writes and how he puts it together. You know it’s just a saying, he’s not from this planet, he’s that far advanced and amazing and skilled as an MC.

He is different. Like I remember when I was recording the verses to Time2 and he was doing this stuttery thing and I stopped him, I was like, ‘Yo, it’s too weird.’ I almost tried to get in the way of his genius. It was such a learning lesson cause he was like, ‘Nah, let it be what it is.’ I didn’t understand it. It was like my brain wasn’t ready for what he was doing. Now when I listen back to it, I’m like Oh my God, I tried to stop this incredible verse where he’s basically rapping like someone is having a hard time talking, or stuttering. It’s the second part of the verse on Time2. It’s crazy. He’s incredible (laughs).

And I love all three of those beats they’re so different from each other.

MB: ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ is so beautiful, it’s a phenomenal track. It does sound like a band to me, the way you’ve got this rolling drum, I think it is, which has this really 70s feel. The actual beat itself is really complex.

Marco Polo: Once again, it’s kind of like the stabs: the real repetitive sound (sings it). I’m a big fan of repetition like a lot of the best hip-hop production is something repeating over and over again. I don’t think hip-hop beats should have too much going on in them for the most part. It gets distracting. You want to create something that hypnotises you and you get in the zone and once you’ve hit that you add the finishing element.

Most of that beat is repetitive piano stabs and the drums and there’s a change that repeats and then goes back to the part with the repetitive piano. That whole record sounds dusty, it’s an interesting beat for me because there is no real melody; it’s a bunch of cool sounds and really hard drums. 

Hip Hop Forum digital magazine Interview: MC Sha-Rock

Had the great honor of speaking with MC Sha-Rock, the first female emcee in hip-hop culture and original member of the Funky Four last week for Hip Hop Forum digital magazine.

In this interview she takes us back to what it was like being there at the birth of hip-hop, being part of the first ever performance by a hip-hop group on Saturday Night Live, how she developed her distinctive style - so beloved by DMC of Run-DMC and her role at the new Universal Hip Hop Museum being set up in the Bronx.

Thank you so much MC Sha-Rock for everything you have done and continue to do to keep hip-hop culture alive.  And have a look at this rare video from 1980 featuring Sha-Rock, with the Funky Four ...

Nothing better; this is a glorious performance - at once innocent and wry, ironic, highly skilled (everything, almost that I love about hip-hop).

HHF: Thank you so much for talking with us at Hip Hop Forum,  MC Sha-Rock. It’s a great honor to speak with you – one of the most important pioneers in the hip-hop movement; the first female emcee in hip-hop and one of the inventors and founders of fly-girl and b-girl culture. Share with us now how it all started for you …

Sha-Rock: Well, at the whole onset of the hip-hop culture you had to start off as a b-girl as that was what was going on at the time. You had the music, the culture and the sounds of certain breakbeats that were playing so I started off as a b-girl first. Then I winded up getting a flyer for people who wanted to audition for a group; and at the time the group was not the Funky Four, but it was the Brothers Disco.  They were trying to form the Funky Four group. So I auditioned for the Brothers Disco in 1977-1978 and I became not only the first female emcee of hip-hop culture, but also the first female emcee in an all male group, so my activity started before as a b-girl and then I transitioned to an emcee as part of an all male group.

HHF: What was it like in the Bronx at that time?

Sha-Rock: The atmosphere was crazy cause you’re talking about the inception of the culture as we know it. You may hear people like DJ Kool Herc, who is the Father of Hip-Hop, you know he might say that hip-hop started in 1973, but to be honest with you if you’re talking about the people: the hardcore emcees who were rhyming to more than just one rhyme, I mean we were going for more than 16 bars, more than 18 bars (for us it started later). We’d rhyme until the next emcee who was part of your group would pick up where you left off.

For us in New York City we were creating an era, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were young kids, with little or no resources in the South Bronx where the radio wouldn’t play rap music. They really frowned on hip-hop music and the type of music we were listening to. We were breakdancing and going around to different parks and different school yards. The radio didn’t respect it at that time, so you’re talking about a culture that was building up from the b-girl and b-boy to the DJ – the way a DJ would cut a record, from Flash to Theodore to DJ Breakout and Baron …

There was so much going on at that time, with all the elements of hip-hop; it was like a phenomenon. But at the time we didn’t know what we were doing. All we knew was this is what we looked forward to on Friday and Saturday. We were able to get our street cred from just being out there in the parks and we were like celebrities in our own prospective area at that time.

So when you’re talking about 1979 when the world was then able to hear rap music, that was the era when rap music was no longer contained to the streets and the parks, it had then moved into the clubs into people’s households and bars, with the Sugarhill Gang or when we the Funky Four did the first record in 1979. We changed the game as to how hip-hop was portrayed by letting the world in and it was no longer contained in the Bronx, or Manhattan or New York.

HHF: You just mentioned DJ Kool Herc, I know you’ve talked about him before as being a really important person in terms of your development as a hip-hop artist.

Sha-Rock: Well, Herc would play the breakbeat, or DJ Breakout or Baron, or Grandmaster Flash would play the breakbeats of a song. Say James Brown had a song out they wouldn’t play the whole song, they’d just play the breakbeat and then you’d start b-boying and b-girling.

Herc played a significant role in hip-hop and also in b-boying and b-girling because he played the type of music that allowed the b-girls and the b-boys start breakdancing because you couldn’t do that in the clubs that played disco music.

Herc was the one who really allowed the b-boy and the b-girl to express themselves in a manner that respected that dance element of hip-hop culture. A lot of people don’t know who Herc is, but we do owe him much respect and much honor because he gave us that avenue, he gave us that vehicle for us to do what we loved and that was breakdancing and listening to the breakbeats.

HHF: So this audition to join the group that’d become the Funky Four was in 1977, right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, late 77, early 78. I auditioned and at the time, I don’t know if the Brothers Disco was looking for females, all I know is that I heard Melle Mel on tape. I never heard any other females who were out there, but I thought I could do just as good as the guys did because I was influenced by James Brown. I was influenced by Nikki Giovanni. I was influenced by Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Jackson Five. So once I heard (other emcees) rhyming on tape I thought I could do the same, or even better – not knowing that I was about to make history and become the first female emcee of hip-hop culture.

HHF: And you were so young, you would have been a teenager at this time …

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I was like 16 years old just coming from junior high school to high school.

**

HHF: Can you remember the first rhyme you wrote?

Sha-Rock: The first rhyme that I wrote was: ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped/For all you fly-guys I will hit the top.’  That rhyme has become synonymous (with me) and was on the t-shirt, ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped’ that was photographed in 1980. That was one of the first rhymes that I wrote and always used to solidify who I am, and who I was at the time.

I was like a celebrity in my own area but I was humble as this was something I loved to do like the other guys who was out there with me at the time, the Funky Four. We were a group that set the standards. Lots of people have heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but the Funky Four were like the unsung heroes of hip-hop at that time.

We created a lot of different styles and contributions to the culture. We were the first rap group that was on national TV. We were from the streets; we weren’t a group that had been put together in 1979 like some other groups were. We were from the streets in New York City, together rocking in the parks and the schoolyards and the youth centers, even before we made a record.

HHF: Let’s talk then about the Funky Four and the line-up …

Sha-Rock: I was part of the original Funky Four. The original Funky Four consisted of myself, Raheim – who went over to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five later on –  K.K. Rockwell and then Keith Keith. We were the original Funky Four.

I winded up leaving the group for a month or two and then I came back to the group – I became the plus one more. During that time there was just two members they added Li’l Rodney C and Jazzy Jeff. Once I came back I became plus one more, but I was originally part of the first group.

HHF: Thinking about your music, I noticed in an interview you said that something special about the Funky Four the group’s ‘rhyming and harmonizing’. What do you mean by harmonizing?

Sha-Rock: Well, harmonizing back then was when we’d take (the tune) from a sitcom from TV, say you have ‘Gilligan’s Island’ you may have a commercial. Take a commercial or a sitcom and whatever the music was, we’d change it into a rap style and we’d harmonize, go back and forth and do chants and go back and forth in the group: not singing but harmonizing in a tune that maybe was on TV at that time.

For me, I used to rehearse my rhymes because when I said it I wanted people to be mesmerized by my voice. I wanted them to leave the party and say Sha-Rock is a dope emcee, I’m going to come back and see her again. What I would do was practise my delivery in the mirror and I would write my rhymes and say them in a way that people can understand but also relate to it, so they felt they were a part of my rhymes. They felt they were a part of me.

That was the whole idea back then to include the people who came to see you. You had to make them feel that they were a part of your life. They were part of your rhyme. They were part of hip-hop. That’s what I learned growing up as one of the pioneer emcees, it was never about me, it was never about the group, it was making sure that people who paid their two dollars or their three dollars to come see you, when they left, they said, I’m going to come back next week because I, Sha-Rock is the dopest emcee, or the Funky Four is the dopest group here in New York City.

It was about making sure the people who came to see you was included in what you were doing. It wasn’t about you. It was about them. It was about making sure they came back, because unfortunately unlike today we didn’t have the music, the songs all around us. Nowadays when you have rappers, or emcees their songs are being played on the radio, when they go on concert people know their songs; so they’re hyped, they’re dancing up and down, cause they know their songs. They have it easy now. They have the best of both worlds.

When I was starting out you had to prove yourself to your audience. You had to prove yourself to the hip-hop community because they were not playing our songs on the radio. So we were young entrepreneurs with little or no resources. How you got your street cred was being the best you could be for your audience. They were crucial. If you wasn’t making the cut, they wouldn’t come and see you. It wasn’t easy for us then, because we didn’t have that outlet of  radio playing our songs.

When they really did start playing hip-hop songs on the radio in 1979 it was only a select few that would get on the radio. They wouldn’t play two, or three rap songs at one time. As a hip-hop emcee you had to prove yourself on the street cause you didn’t have  the opportunity to get heard on the radio.

HHF: But maybe though you were also closer to the community because of this …

Sha-Rock: Absolutely, absolutely.

**

On the 14th February, 1981 The Funky Four plus one performed on Saturday Night Live – thereby making history as the first rap or hip-hop group to appear on US national television …

Sha-Rock: When we did ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Deborah Harry of the legendary group, Blondie – could have chosen any of the rap groups in New York City because she was very aware of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but what she did was went she sought out us, simply because there was a female member in the group. She wanted the world to be able to see that – yes, you might have seen the Sugarhill Gang, but this (the Funky Four) was a group on the streets of New York City, one of the baddest groups in New York city – if not the baddest – but they also had a female. They wanted the world to see on a whole different level that this is a female that was rocking back in New York City and a pioneer.

I can commend her for this, because what she did was expose us to more than just the community or Tri-state area, she exposed us to the world. And we made history and we maybe didn’t know this until a decade later by becoming the first hip-hop group on TV,  and not just the first hip-hop group the first original hip-hop group that wasn’t only a rap group.

HHF: I watched the SNL video today, it’s a great performance. The DJ, was that the regular DJ you had for most of your performances?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, DJ Breakout.

HHF: Another Funky Four video I found is you guys doing ‘Rappin’ and Rockin’ The House’ shot at the Kitchen in 1980. That’s a beautiful performance, so sweet and controlled: perfect. Do you remember that show?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I do remember it. You see this is the thing. The Funky Four was the only group that were performing in those types of places (like the Kitchen in Manhattan). You’re talking about a whole new genre of music that we were breaking in that era. These were punk rockers, these were punk rockers who were listening to all different types of punk rocker songs and whatever. When we brought hip-hop to them, they were loving it because we were known for bringing a whole new style of music to punk rockers, they can incorporate and have fun at the same time. We was the first group to bring hip-hop to different genres of people, who would not normally listen to rap music.

We always wanted to perform for that genre of people, because they loved it. They felt it. They’d jump up and down and be mesmerized. It’s a good feeling when you know you’ve been accepted by other cultures and other genres of people who normally wouldn’t listen to this type of music. That was a good feeling we knew we were being accepted by this crowd of people, who would follow us all over the place. We’d pack out the Ritz, we’d pack out the Kitchen – all these venues in Soho,  downtown Manhattan.

In order to be good you needed to play in these venues and we’d go down there all the time, you know, go down to the Village.

HHF: Still many decades on, the music is still great. Let’s talk about ‘That’s the Joint’ which is probably your most famous track. Talk a little about the musicians who played with you.

Sha-Rock: Okay, so what we did, well this is what hip-hop is all about. Every song you hear – let’s just say ‘Rappers Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, that song is called ‘Good Times’ (by Chic) a song we were rapping to that song on the streets of New York prior to the Sugarhill Gang. That was the song that was part of the hip-hop community that every emcee was rocking to, what Sylvia Robinson did at Sugar Hill Records she heard the song, put the Sugarhill Gang together and put out the song and it became a hit.

Everyone who was part of Sugar Hill Records used the same band because ‘That’s the Joint’ was the hottest song out at the time – I’m talking about the original music – we took the song and made it a hip-hop song. A lot of times, a song that maybe an R&B artist did, and then a hip-hop person came along it ended up selling more records than the actual, original artist did.

Now the Sugarhill band was very good at imitating what the original artists did. They would change it a little bit, the beats to make it sound different. But the Sugarhill Band was a good band to make the music and make it sound exactly how we wanted, or a little better. The Sugarhill Band created all the music.

HHF: Talking about labels, you first released a record with Enjoy Records in 1979. As far as I understand it this was the record put out by a hip-hop group in the US ..

Sha-Rock: Yes, yes. Funky Four plus one. So we’re talking about Bobby Robinson he owned Enjoy Records, he asked around who is the hottest group in New York City? Now of course Grandmaster Flash was out, but he was told to go to the Funky Four plus one, so he approached our manager and said he wanted to do a record with us.

We used a friend of ours, by the name of Pumpkin who was a drummer (to play on the record).  The rhymes we used were rhymes we normally used on the street of New York, we used them every day. It only took us like an hour or so to do the record; simply because we already had our rhymes. Everybody in the group knew when to come after the next person.

And Pumpkin, what he did was he did the same thing on the drums and did it in one take. We didn’t have to go back and forth. Everything was done live in a little studio at the back of Bobby Robinson’s record shop; recorded in one take and boom! It was a hit. The Funky Four plus one ‘Rappin’ and rockin’ the house’ was the first longest-running rap record in the history of hip-hop.

HHF: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this time?

Sha-Rock: For me this was the golden period, the inception of hip-hop and set the standards of what hip-hop is supposed to be, or what Mc-ing and the elements. It was the blueprint of it all. For me I think and for a lot of emcees who were there you have the best of both worlds. You see how it was back then and see how it is now. I’m fortunate enough I have both; other women can’t speak on what it was like from the 70s, hooking up the equipment and carrying the crates, you know and not getting the money for what you did (cause that wasn’t an issue at that time).

It was just rocking for the love of your peers who are coming to see you.

When people say you should have made the money, look at what it is (as a business) today that doesn’t bother me because when I leave this world, the best thing that I got was the joy and the knowledge of what it was and what it should be and what I helped create as an emcee and as a pioneer and as a woman in the culture of hip-hop.

That’s my payola. I can talk about what it was and how it was and how it should be and what it’s meant to be.

HHF: In an interview you’ve talked about a ‘code of ethics’ in hip-hop culture, is that what you’re referring to now; hip-hop as a way of being, a way of living?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I am. My thing is that a lot of times, people say the emcees of today, the rappers of today don’t respect the culture. They don’t do this and that. My thing is that we’re not here to judge the youth because unless you teach, unless you inform how do you blame them for not knowing anything? You have to give them options, you have to let them know. You have to inform. You have to educate and then you let them decide on how they’re going to move around. We as elders of hip-hop culture should never – how do I say it? – point fingers at the youth of today. Unless you out there educating and informing them as to what the culture was built on then you have something to say.

If you give them tools to work with, let them decide on how they’re going to move: until then you can’t judge them cause they know not what it was, or what it was meant to be. Not saying you have to conform to what it was, but if you have a general knowledge of what it is it makes you a better artist. Then all you have to do is adapt and incorporate to take it to  a whole another level, instead of staying in that one box. It gives you a better understanding of where you’re going and how you can have longevity.

HHF: Are you talking about knowledge of the different elements of hip-hop culture?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m talking about everything; I’m talking about graffiti, I’m talking about MC-ing; I’m talking about b-girls and b-boys, I’m talking about all elements. In order for you to understand what hip-hop was built on, the culture, it’s good to have an understanding of where it comes from. Even when you’re talking about breakdancing and all that stuff, all that was being done prior to hip-hop culture. What we did we just enhanced it to a whole another level. If you can expound on that and where it come from it can only make you a better artist, a better graf artist, make you a better b-girl, b-boy, emcee.

If you have the elements and the formation of everything and how it came into play. You can then have longevity in the game and adapt to what is going on now, or try to have that song or dance move or specific art-form that twenty, thirty or forty years down the line people can go back and remember your worth.

Or they can say a rhyme you did, or play a song on the radio whenever it is thirty, forty years down the line people can say:  ‘That’s my joint, that used to be my joint.’ If you are an artist, you want to make a song that will stand out many years from now, so if you can learn from other people and learn how you got to where you are: it’s a good thing to incorporate this knowledge of what it was before.

**

HHF: Now you featured in the classic movie, Beat Street from 1984 with two other female emcees (Debbie D and Lisa Lee) doing the track ‘Us Girls’ can you talk about how this came about?

Sha-Rock: At the time I was under contract at Sugarhill Records, Debbie D and Lisa Lee were not under contract, so they were holding an audition down at the Roxy, a club down at 18th street in New York so a lot of hip-hop people would go. It was really a skating-rink but they hold hip-hop functions. Harry Belafonte was holding auditions for Beat Street – so I’d gotten a flyer. Debbie D was a soloist and Lisa Lee was part of the Afrika Bambaataa camp. Me and Lisa was pretty tight, I was under contract to Sugar Hill Records but also part of the Funky Four group.

But we were going through a break-up with Sugar Hill Records, so I didn’t know if Sylvia (Robinson) would let me be part of the movie. There were many people trying to be part of the movie: one of the ladies there said us three girls are the best female emcees in New York City and we really want to be in the movie. So we got called down that Tuesday, we went to audition and Harry Belafonte said we want you to be in the movie, he said sign it here and we’ll let you know what’s going on. But I said I’m part of a record label, but the other girls are not so I might have a problem being in the movie if I have to sign, what do I need to do?

He said, who are you signed to? I gave him Sylvia Robinson’s information and said, can you call her and see whether or not she’ll allow me to do it? So I was nervous cause the rest of the girls , they weren’t under contract so I was thinking, man they’re going to get in the movie and I won’t be able to be in the movie. I guess Harry Belafonte worked it out with Sylvia Robinson, before I knew it he told me I could to it.

The agreement they made was that they would use the Furious Five and they were going to write the hook for Beat Street – so that’s how I was able to do it and that’s how the Furious Five got to do it, how Melle Mel was able to do the theme song, it was me putting Harry Belafonte putting him in touch with Sylvia Robinson.

HHF: Let’s now talk about your style, your delivery. As you know you’ve got some serious fans: say, DMC from Run DMC who has talked about the way he loved the way you used the ‘echo chamber’ on your voice and how hearing you ‘changed (his) life’.

Sha-Rock: Right, right …

HHF: While DJ Grand Wizard Theodore has celebrated you for the way were able to ‘tell a story that we can all visualise ..’ Thinking back, what were you most trying to achieve in terms of your style and content?

Sha-Rock: As I said before, and I want to give a shout-out to DMC for him to say that – as a multi-platinum selling artist and as guy … Most guys these days and back then would never give a female props, simply because you were in contest with the males and no male wanted to say a female was just as good, or better than them.

When he said that I was happy, but it’s a gift and a curse cause he’s saying I was better than a lot of males out there. For someone of his status to come out and say that was the ultimate. What he was saying was that I was the first to use the echo chamber, the echo chamber was an instrument that would repeat the word you said. If I said, ‘yes, yes y’all…’ It’d repeat what I said, ‘yes, yes y’all.’ My manager, Jazzy D would hit the echo chamber to make it precisely timed so everything would connect, sharp. So what DMC is talking about is when he heard my voice on a cassette tape, I guess he was going to school up in Manhattan, my voice used to be on tapes with the Funky Four and float around every borough of New York City.

So when it was time for him and Run to make their album, he told Davy D that he wanted to sound exactly like me using the echo chamber. I never knew this until he made a tape and wanted me to have it so I could get my props, as Sha-Rock from the Funky Four plus one to say that I inspired him when making the Tougher than Leather album to add on the echo chamber.

He’s basically talking about my delivery and my rhyme and how I used the echo chamber for my rhymes to be on point and take my rhyming skills to a whole different level.

HHF: DMC also liked the content about what you rhymed about too; he said loved the fact you rapped about everyday subjects that were relevant to young people: taking the subway, going to school, sneakers … everyday stuff, talking about your life.

Sha-Rock: Basically we talked about stuff in our era, we talked about basic teenager stuff and what was going on in your community, or your surroundings at that time. As a person,  you’d brag and you’d boast about you was an an emcee, or as a female, without being derogatory. You’d say stuff that was more like you’d like people say, hmm but it wasn’t too derogatory.

With the Funky Four we did tell stories, me I told stories about my everyday life. You’d brag on: you could do this, or do that, or I’m the best female in this town, I’m the best emcee. You’d basically be bragging on what you did, to show your audience that you were the best of the best, but still show the respect to the next person who was rhyming.

You’d be like, ‘They’re good, but I’m still the best.’ That’s what I used to rap about but at the same time being respectful to the next female, still saying, ‘I’m the best.’ People loved it back then because even though you were bragging about yourself, it was kind of true. You’d just boast about you as a person; that’s what emcees did, they’d tell a story and incorporate different aspects of their lives and put everything together.

HHF: Now just to finish, can you talk about your role as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum that’s being developed now. Can you talk to me about the Museum itself, I went online and saw the site (http://www.uhhm.org/): it’s going to be a virtual museum, but also have a site in the Bronx, is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, it’s going to be in the Bronx, what we’re trying to do is have the Old Courthouse in the South Bronx, that is the location we’re trying to secure. It’s going to have a virtual element, people will be able to see people like Kurtis Blow talking like he is right there with them. You’re going to have material from artists back in the day and from today. The Bronx is where hip-hop started, but this museum is not just about the Bronx it’s about artists from all over the world. We want people to understand this, when the museum opens up it’s not only about the Bronx and New York City, it’s about the history of artists from everywhere.

The Bronx is the best place to have it, because it started there, but it’s the Universal Hip Hop Museum.

HHF: And what are you doing as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop?

Sha-Rock: My basic duties is to preserve the history of women in hip-hop, so this is one of the things I’m very adamant about, I’m proud to be part of a project of this caliber because I think that a lot of men and women don’t understand that women have been at the forefront of hip-hop since the inception. A lot of people say women started in the 80s cause they just know Salt n Pepa, or MC Lyte or Roxanne Shanté. Those women have brought a lot to this culture and did a lot for the music industry and should be commended for leading the way and carrying on the hip-hop culture, but there have also been women at the front-line from day one.

It’s very important that when we have the history and culture of hip-hop that we preserve the history of women past, present and future. This is why I’m very adamant that we maintain all the history, from the Nicki Minajs to the Sha-Rocks; to the Roxanne  Shantés to the Iggy Azaleas, regardless of what people say these are people who still contribute with their music to hip-hop. It’s important for us to preserve the history for many years to come.

When you talk about it, and this is no disrespect to the guys, a lot of the time it’s like they were in it all by themselves moving this culture forward and that’s not true. The women were on the front-lines and they still have a role moving the culture forward. My job is to celebrate women, to celebrate all women around the world who have contributed to hip-hop culture and we will preserve their history in hip-hop; that’s what it’s all about.

HHF: I noticed in June this year there’s going to be an event in New York linked to this, ‘Women in Hip-Hop’ is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m holding an event under the Universal Hip Hop Museum on June 3rd through to June 5th. The first night is going to be a celebration at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, in New York City on Friday night.

We’re expecting women from around the world to come and support each other in hip-hop, whether you’re a b-girl, or a graf artist, or an emcee, or if hip-hop has touched your life in any way. Those three days are you for you to come to celebrate with us.

It’s not all the time we get this chance to do this, I’m very adamant that we need to be in the house together celebrating each other, as women. The first night is a celebration. The second day, June 4th is a forum, we have people like Angie Stone from the first female group from the South, the Sequence, she’s going to speak and perform. We’re going to have lots of different women who are going to come together and celebrate women. And we’re going to be looking for the new school as well, women in hip-hop today to come out and celebrate with us as well.

At the forum we’re going to have speakers come out and talk about the industry, the entertainment industry and their experiences. The third day we have a women in hip-hop picnic, where people will come out and celebrate in a park and we’ll have fun, cause that’s what hip-hop is about, having fun with no worries; no nothing and women coming together.

We will show the world that this needs to be done every year, for women in hip-hop: us getting together, making sure we celebrate each other in hip-hop. We are women from the front-line who carry hip-hop in our hearts to this day.

HHF: Total respect to you MC Sha-Rock for speaking with Hip Hop Forum today and wishing you well for all your work keeping hip-hop history and culture alive. Thank you for your time.

Sha-Rock: You’re welcome. Thank you.

To  learn more about MC Sha-Rock – including the book she wrote about her life in hip-hop, Luminary Icon – have a look at her official site http://mcsharockonline.com/

For information about the Universal Hip Hop Museum, go to http://www.uhhm.org/

In a melancholy mood: writing on hip-hop quiet (instrumentals from the 90s)

Onyx  'Last Dayz', Miilkbone 'Keep it Real' (prod. by Mufi), The Speedknots 'The Zone' (prod. by Stress & War)

'When I asked Samson S. if he would sample a song because of what it represented to him, he was unequivocal in his response:

'Not based on that fact alone. I don't care how much that record meant to me, if it's not poppin' .... I go on straight sound, man. You know, 'Do I like it?, Does it sound good to me?' that type of deal. I don't really get all up into this mystical shit'. 

Samson S. cited in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop, by Joseph G. Schloss (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), interview 1999, p.147

***

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop you need to strip away the elements, break it down and then hold back some more. For many years I listened to King Tubby ... 

and Augustus Pablo,  marvelling at the way the sonic elements were used; how at certain points they would recede and then come forward, but that there was a totalising vision or aesthetic where you could hear the imprint of the producer.

(Once I was told that in early dub recordings you could hear not just the sound of the producer, but also the sound of the particular studio where it was recorded in Jamaica). 

Inevitably then, I came  back to listening to hip-hop with the same sensibility.

But what interests me most in hip-hop is a kind of emptiness. Rather than focussing on the elements, I appreciate the way this music represents a no-movement - a stasis. I developed this idea in my essay on Black Milk

What impresses me is the way the producers take pleasure in the simplicity of the repetition; keeping it unadorned. Take, for instance, this instrumental by Onyx,  'Last Dayz' from 1995 ... 

Everything about this is extraordinary for me; from the repeated vocal sample that becomes nothing more than a sound in some unknown language. Something you can see continue in the much later work of Burial, for instance 'Archangel'from 2007. 

Returning then to this quality of emptiness, what I would like to call hip-hop quiet. Perhaps you could call it a form of minimalism, but for me this word is inadequate because it lacks the feeling that comes through.

Start with that female vocal sample and the beat - I think I recognise the word (melody) but I'm not sure and the static sound that has come to represent 'warmth' or history, but has now become so over-used it verges on being a cliché. 

Particularly striking to me is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds: the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring mystical swirl and the comfort of the bass-line, alongside the stop-start effect that operates almost like a conversation. And then at one point, around 2 minutes in the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops? And then restarts; broken and then returning to the centre; how are we meant to relate to something that remains  separate to what we expect?  Here the music is following its own poetic logic, making manifest a kind of emptiness at the core.

To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own beautiful space, listen to the track with vocals: 

With all its fabulous bombast, offering a kind of apocalyptic vision (albeit strangely censored on the YouTube video version). And underneath it all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery.

II.

Miilkbone, 'Keep it Real' (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best 'one hit wonders', Miilkbone's 'Keep it real' has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the 2000s ... and this is where it gets interesting.

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success, whereby a so-called musical failure - in a commercial sense - can become prized, as within this milieu something forgotten is more appealing just because it's unknown. 

Little-known samples operate as a kind of code between producers and fans; those who can hear it, those who recognise it. And the music is also shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn.

The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to this) because of copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space.   

It is for this reason Miilkbone - the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his lp Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later) - can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Produced by Mufi (on my initial search I couldn't find anything online about him, other than very basic credits, 'an old school producer from Capitol Records ...' on my second, more recent look I found more info on him: he was quite well-known at the time, working with big-name artists) this instrumental is another example of hip-hop 'quiet' for me. Indeed, its distinctive mood is what has kept it alive.

(Central to this is Mufi's highly skilful and imaginative use of a sample from 'Melancholy Mood' the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio, of course: have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here).   

As with the earlier Onyx instrumental, what I like about this is its elemental simplicity: the way the music is carried, or not, by a lack of adornment. The sounds in their pure form are allowed to breathe.

Also avoided is much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates so much 'soul-based' production in hip-hop these days, where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements in an effort to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism, or the emcee's delivery in the process).

This quiet is also to be found in the sharp contrast of the sounds: the insistent and jagged horn sample, is it? and the piano on a constant repeat. There is a certain false naïveté about this music, which I appreciate, in that simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. 

Again, I notice the strange kind of non-momentum - that stop-start - and the way it often seems on the cusp of development, with the quietest sample, in the background, acting like a bridge that goes nowhere.    

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the emcee.  

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it the same year on the Stretch and Bobbito show; it has been used on a BET awards ceremony and by various emcees.

Most important though, almost two decades later, Freddie Gibbs re-applied the music in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repetition of song's title, 'The Ghetto' echoes the original jagged sample - the location/subject and the sample/sound becoming one.  

Without getting too abstract or meta, I wonder if by using this sample Gibbs - and his producer - is asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

This is fascinating for me the way hip-hop constantly re-applies this notion of layering and echo, obviously via the sampling - hidden, or in this way explicit - or the track construction itself and then through direct acts of homage such as this. 

III. 

The Speedknots, 'The Zone' (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998)  

One US friend (Mike Jordan) told me: 'Speedknot is street slang for when someone hits you real hard that swelling/ bump that pops up on your head ..' and then told me that there'd been another rap group from Chicago with a similar name.  

Another friend (Sim Telfer), from Australia, tracked down the release on Discogs and said 'there may be more info via the record label 'Bloody Hook Records' and the Producer 'Stress'...' On Discogs it said that 10 had the 12-inch release from 1998, while another 105 people wanted it; the last copy sold was in November, 2014 and the bids ranged from: ' €175.54 to  €263.31 the median being  €219.42'. 

Other than that nothing* can be found about this amazing piece of music, or the producers. They have been lost into the ether, or at least lost in the recesses of the Internet. 

(*Nothing, well this isn't entirely true: it might or might not be that Stress is a well-known Swedish producer who started creating music at the age of 14 and was later signed by Jay Z's Roc-Nation. I could spend some time searching down information, but prefer not to - I don't feel like being a teacher.

Instead I much prefer the idea that the forgotten producer is someone with a certain stutter - and rapid eye movement, even when awake - hiding out in his mom's basement somewhere in New York City: something like this perhaps. Someone posted 'The Zone' on YouTube two weeks ago, I checked out the boombap-linked Facebook page thinking it might give up some clues: no, nothing).

As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious. It could provide the soundtrack for a few scenes from a Hitchcock film, spliced and transferred to the new era, where people record videos of buildings above their heads on their phones - in that half-light before everything turns dark (to then rapidly delete them afterwards). 'The Zone' is music of buildings and cars and city streets re-imagined by someone holding onto memories of a sea that he has never seen, perhaps other than on TV.  

There is no development in any sense in this music: it starts suddenly, three seconds in with all the effects brought in at the same time and then follows an almost mathematical precision, following 30 second intervals (almost). At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, of course, and then at 2 minutes there is a stunning perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens, but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

Joseph Schloss in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop explores 'ambiguity' in hip-hop production, linking it with 'signifyin(g) following the argument developed by Gates in 1998. Ambiguity, Schloss relates to the 'idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded'. 

“Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

— Joseph Schloss, Making Beats (2004, p.160)

Earlier Schloss writes that the very nature of creating sample-based music, out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates both the sounds in their original forms and then how they have been recreated. He writes that the 'aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities (the fact that the music is live and not live, ed's note), but - quite the contrary - to preserve, master, and celebrate them'.

Ambiguity in this schema refers to an unclear meaning, or multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet for me none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make me think, they make me feel something. For me this music embodies mystery; reticence and uncertainty.

Central to all of this is the stop-start of the beat, alongside a strong emotion of longing.  None of these elements makes this music, sweet, soft or sentimental .. quite the reverse.              

(Just before I was ready to leave this writing on 'The Zone'I found one of the track's producers - War (Bixby) who it seems was also a member of The Speedknots, as always by chance, when I saw he self-identified on some YouTube comments).