Steven Laws, the Imperator of Rhyme, is a Good Life O.G. and CEO of By Any Means Music. He's been rapping since hip-hop's infancy and continues to record music today. In part one of this interview, Imp and I discuss his early history, the Good Life, Rick Konvick, and his first studio album Evolution of a Man. Stayed tuned for part two, where Imp speaks on battling Eminem, some of his more recent albums and his plans for the future.
On "Why We Do This" you describe first hearing your brother rap in '79 and being inspired to get into hip-hop. Can you talk about that?
My first experience with rap music - I was sittin' on the steps in Baltimore. I was living in Baltimore. I ran away from New York. You know, I had an abusive father so I ran away when I was 12 years old. And in 1979, not long after I ran away, my brother had come down for Memorial Day. And I was sittin' on - Baltimore has row houses - and I was sittin' on the marble steps - the stoop, we called it the stoop - with this girl named Nookie. What's up, Nookie! I actually see her on Facebook still to this day. And we saw my brother on top of my grandfather's trunk, just movin' around, bobbin' around and people start gatherin' around! And I'm sittin' with this girl, and she's like, "What is your brother doing?" So I was like, "I don't know. Let's go see." So we go over there, and he was doing a lot of old school rhymes. He's doin' "I was walkin' down the street with a joint in my hand/ I blaze it up here with my man/ I took a hit, maybe three or four/ and then I fell into a door/ they was jammin' hard in this discotech/ I paid to see, I said 'what the heck?'" Y'know, he was saying a lot of old school rhymes. Now mind you, I had heard no rap music. Nobody in Baltimore, to my knowledge, had heard rap music, at least in my vicinity. I was in east Baltimore. So I'm like "wow!" I'm blown away. I mean, he's literally standin' on the top of my grandfather's trunk, all these people standin' around. This is in 1979.
So when he was finished, I was amazed. I mean, this is my brother! He was down from New York. He was visiting. And, like I said, I had ran away from New York. So we get to talkin' and I'm after what it is and he tellin' me, "It's rap music. This is what we doing in New York." So, I'm like, "Okay, keep sayin' your raps to me!" He was only there for three or four days, the Memorial Weekend. So, you know, he kept repeatin' his rhymes to me and by the time he left, I had memorized his raps. So once he left, I'm runnin' around, I took his name and everything. He called himself DJ Flame. So I took his name and everything, I'm walking around, saying his raps, using his name. Then some months later "Rapper's Delight" came out. And some people were knockin' at my door like, "Your brother's on the radio!" So they thought it was my brother. But I'm like, "Nah, that's not my brother." That was pretty much my initiation getting into the rap game.
That's the guy who produced "Grooving", right?
He definitely did the first "Grooving" then we ended up hooking up with Battlecat, and me, him and Battlecat redid it again. And Wiz Wonder, if you look into it, he started a group called Blak Forest which had a few different emcees in it. So me and Wiz, we grew up on Browning Blvd. and DJ Quik actually, I didn't know, but he actually lived on the street. If you listen to his raps he'll say Browning in 'em. But we called ourselves the Boulevard Crew. We started doing stuff together. You know, he had records, he was a DJ, way back then. So we'd make little raps and stuff. Some of that stuff is gone. I don't think I have too much of what we did. I have a couple but we had a lot and we did a lot of stuff, and going back east, I had one cassette and I was passing it around and somebody tore it up, hating on it. So that got lost and I don't think he has it either.
At that point, by that time, I had started writing. So I started off biting my brother's stuff, repeating his stuff, but pretty much in L.A. is when I started writing. And I started writing more about what was going on. Obviously my brother was my first and primary influence, but after that I would say, like, Melle Mel, you know, "The Message." I was on some more political stuff. I was on party stuff. Count Coolout and Super Rhymes, they were similar rappers. Super Rhymes was actually a rapper called Jimmy Spicer. So I would kinda see what these guys had goin' on.
The west coast hadn't really made a lot of noise at that point. Later, I think, Toddy Tee was one of the early people who came out. He made a song called, "Batterram." And then we get up into that era when the crack had hit in L.A. So me bein' in L.A., not long after, a couple years later, that's when the crack had got real crazy out here in L.A. That's when the streets were dangerous. We had the murder capital out here. And I got caught up in the hustlin' and selling drugs. And I would take the money I made to buy different things, so Wiz could make some beats, to do this, to do that. You know, he had things on his own but I contributed to a few. You know, I would find a drum machine or something like that. So Wiz pretty much was doin' my stuff and my rhymes went from political to more talkin' about stuff in the streets. I was talkin' about the cocaine. A lot of things are lost. I still remember the raps, but the recordings are gone. I won't ever get those unless some miracle happens and someone has a tape.
Is Old School Vibes pretty much all you have from that time?
I have to check my computer and I have a few cassettes I have to go through. I think have a few other things, but from that era, pretty much, me and Wiz, you know, we did a lot of stuff together but I've just lost so much stuff, loaning stuff to people, never getting it back or it getting destroyed or something.
You recently posted a picture on Facebook of you with Kool Moe Dee. Is there a story behind that?
Oh, yeah! They had a radio station called KDAY - they actually still have it - but it was on AM back then and they were the ones who played rap music. I won their last rap contest they had before they went off the air, and Kool Moe Dee was the judge of who would be the winner. That was in North Carolina. I won, I dunno, I won a thousand dollars, a trip to Washington, D.C., a year supply of hair supplies (laughs), so it was fun. Meetin' these people, going to BET, that was actually Rap City that did that. The Mayor, he was the host. I think I do have video footage of that. I won for L.A., not the overall contest. My song was "Forty Acres in a Mule", you know, a positive black thing. I think the brother that won was from North Carolina and I was feelin' his rap, his swagger and everything. I've always been like, "Listen what I'm sayin'." It took me a while to even be that concerned with the beat. I always was so concerned about what they were sayin' and what's the message. Most people, first thing they like is the beat, then the hook, then the swag. So if you got swag and you have a cool style, they don't care what you sayin'. And that's not my angle.
So you were at the Good Life pretty much from day one?
Yeah, in the 80's, at that point, after Wiz, I stumbled upon the Good Life. I was at a park. Once again, it was KDAY. It was a lot easier to get on the radio back then. It's virtually impossible now, unless you're on a major label or somethin'. Back then, you kinda could. They kinda felt that if you're a rapper you can come and perform and they'll give you a little airplay, stuff like that. So I was actually performing for KDAY at a park one day - I think it was with X-Clan - and Sonny Carson, he was the manager of X-Clan [and Professor X's father]. I used to run around with Macadoshis. He rapped with 2Pac. He's still a good friend of mine. So me and him hung out all the time and we was at a park called Marcus Garvey and they were having a rap show and I think KDAY put me down to perform. And I met Sonny Carson. He was a gangbanger from New York but he changed his life. They made a movie about him called The Education of Sonny Carson. So he ended up being a manager for X-Clan. So, when I'm performing I meet Sonny Carson and he told me, "Come up to Hollywood and hang out with us." So me and Macadoshis went up there and, you know, some of the brothers wasn't feeling us, but Sonny was feeling us. So once we get to talkin', he found out who my father was and he told me my father used to look out for him when he was a kid so he really felt like he wanted to help me out. This was Sonny Carson! So we had a good bond, had a couple drinks and we ended up walking down Hollywood Blvd. singin', "No Justice! No Peace! No Justice! No Peace!" There was a shooting, the police killed somebody or something. So we walkin' down Hollywood Blvd. We marched all the way to this club. And he was teaching me about the game. He said, "Whenever you go to perform, soon as you get on stage you get your money before you start singin' or rappin' or anything." So that was real cool that he knew my father. I think he ended up passing away.
But you were askin' me about the Good Life. So that same day, someone gave me a flyer. I think it was Rod (aka Arcane Blaze). B. Hall and Rod are the people who did the Good Life and I believe he gave me a flyer to come to Underground Radio 'cause that's what it was called. Once again, I say on my Evolution of a Man album, the Good Life is a health food venue and the event was actually called Underground Radio or Underground Railroad - it was one of 'em. And when I first went there, it'd be two or three people in there initially and then it started to grow. I ended up being a soundman at some points, I brought my sound system, I was security (laughs). I was real versatile. I did whatever I had to do. I'd be the host. Then it went to bein' packed in there. I think that was more toward the late 80's, like '88 or something like that.
I was a big fan of your Digging in the Tapes mixes. Have you ever thought of doing a third one?
I recently thought about doing it again. My situation isn't that good right now. So I'm kinda in a transition of regrouping and getting my life together. That's why I haven't been doing much and doin' stuff like that. Once I get more situated, where I'm a bit more comfortable. You know, I got a gang of studio equipment and it's in storage, you know, so I need to get situated first before I can get set up and start taking care of business again. I mean, I would love to do that again. I've lost a lot of cassettes and tapes and videos. So much stuff is just gone. I remember one time I had got frustrated and I had stories I had wrote, raps I had wrote and I had a trash bag that was full of raps and everything and I dunno, it was some things I was going through with my spouse back then, and I was just frustrated like, "It ain't gonna work", or whatever and I put all that shit on the grill and I damn near cried. But I burned all that shit up, man. It was stuff I wrote when I was a kid, when I was like twelve or thirteen. I was like, "This shit ain't..." and I regret that, man.
You posted a really dope Konvick track recently. I've heard about a "Konvick tape" and I read Ab Rude say Konvick recorded an album with Punish. Do you have any info about that?
Konvick has a ton of music! Yeah, Konvick, rest in peace, was a friend of mine. He's been recording for a while. Volume 10 gave him his name, the name Konvick. His real name was a Richard Abdullah. So people just call him Rick, Rick Konvick, very few people call him Richard. But he was a heavyweight, man. I told Konvick before that I consider him the west coast Biggie. I've recorded him, I've done beats for him. Konvick was dope. He had that voice, he had them vintage stories, when he was rapping, all his thug stuff, his gangster stuff, you know, that was true! That was him! We sat and talked, you know, I can't share them stories (laughs). But he definitely has a lot of music. Rifleman probably has a bunch of Konvick stuff, Freddy Fred probably has some stuff, I have some stuff.
Speaking of Freddy Fred, he produced most of Evolution of a Man. Can you talk about recording that album?
Lemme give you a story on Freddy Fred. I was at a copy place, gettin' some copies made and I knew the guy doin' the copies. He had a store. And Freddy Fred came in there sayin' he was having an audition for rappers that night. So my homeboy introduced me to Freddy Fred. He was lookin' for a rapper to produce. He had this studio in Hollywood he had rented. So I said, "Yeah, I'll come through." He had maybe about ten to twelve different rappers and he was playin' beats. Everybody was just rapping, takin' their turn. There was no structure. And Freddy Fred had some people and I guess it was unanimous and he said, "Everybody said I should produce you." So that's how that ended up startin'.
The thing with me and Freddy Fred, we had different visions. He had an idea about what he wanted to do and I had an idea about what I wanted to do. And I'm from New York. I'm an aggressor. If I'm trying to do something, I'm not trying to sit around and wait for somebody to do something. I'ma get up and get out and try to make it happen. So Freddy Fred, the label he had was Piranha Records. He had a cold logo. It was a piranha fish with an afro with an afro pick in his head. It was a cold logo. And maybe I was wrong, but he was tellin' me, "Imp, you're doing a lot of stuff and we gon' get a label to do that. You don't need to do that." I was makin' t-shirts. I was makin' flyers. I was makin' CDs. And he thought that was hurting the brand, putting stuff out that's not top notch quality. But I was like, "Man, people gotta hear this." So that didn't end our friendship but it ended me being on Pirahna Records. I was more aggressive and he was more wait for some big money.
So we went into the studio. Wiz used to work at a studio out there so they gave him love and let him do something and we recorded damn near that whole album out there. It was a gang of weed, a gang of beer. I mostly drink, at a certain age I don't really mess with the weed, but I drink. But we had a good time recordin' that stuff. Rifleman came through, P.E.A.C.E. from Freestyle Fellowship - he's the one singin' on "Trust No Man." Volume 10, that song we did, we did that at his house. A few songs I didn't do there. I just thought Freddy Fred was a dope producer. He always had a remix. You would finish up a song - that's why "The Realness" had a remix, and "Go with Me" had a remix and I think he had a couple more but you'd think the song was done and Freddy Fred be like, "No, no, give me the keyboard" and he would add something else. I really like that. I really appreciate him for what he did.
You seem like you've always been business minded and had DIY approach. Before By Any Means Music you had Straight Off the Streets Productions. Have you always wanted to run a label?
That's just pretty much understanding that I have to be a label. You have to understand, put it like this, when I started recording, when I would go to the studios, they was tellin' me I was old. When I was 20... 21. Even then they were telling me, "You old. Why you trying to rap? This is a young boy's game." Like, when I was recording "Forty Acres and a Mule" I really remember the guys at the studio that was tellin' me why was I tryin' to rap, "You too old to rap." I went through that at the Good Life. I used to battle P.E.A.C.E., Rifleman, quite a few rappers. I would sit down and rappers would get up and diss me, and I would get up and diss all of them. I would battle. That's one thing I was known for at the Good Life, was battling. 'Cause number one, I was being hated on 'cause I was from New York. And I wasn't boasting and braggin' I was from New York, it was my accent! I never joined a gang. I always walked alone. So in that environment, I had to deal with that. "Oh, you old school. You old." I'm dealing with this shit from the rappers and the professionals. So here I am, much older now! But I'm still doin' my thing.
Lemme tell you a story. I sold a guy the Old School Vibes tape, right? Way back. This is at the Good Life. And months later, he came back and he told me, he said, "Man, that cassette was wack as fuck! I want my $5 back!" I was like, "Cool." I ain't trippin', you know. I'm a humble person. I'm not no punk or nothin' like that but I don't like trouble and problems, so I said, "Okay, give me the tape." He says, "I ain't got the tape. I threw the motherfucker away!" Now we got a problem. I said, "Man, you better get out my damn face, you know what I'm sayin'? If you had the tape I would'a gave you the $5 back," but it was like months later, after I sold it to him. Boom, turn around, and I see him at the Project Blowed. Now the Good Life started before the Project Blowed so this was after. So I see him and he raps and gets booed off stage! He had the nerve to talk about me and they booed him straight off the stage.
So I embrace it. That's why I say old school. When I put Old Dog New Tricks out, a lotta people said, "Don't say old. If you say old, nobody gonna want to buy it. People don't like to hear old." But I said, "Fuck that! I'ma do what I'ma do!" So I call my shit Old School Vibes, I have Old Dog New Tricks and I got Old Dog New Tricks 2. I got about fourteen songs demoed and they've been demo for so long. I just was in the car playin' 'em, and I was like, "I gotta finish this joint." And after that, I just need to sit back figure out what I'm doing, where I'm goin'. You know, I made a beat last night for the first time in two years...
Check out part two here.