Can you talk about your early experiences with hip-hop, before EX2 formed?
I first started rapping when I was a kid going to, like, just regular family events, weddings and stuff like that. If there was a band, I would be the person trying to hit the band up, seeing what kind of songs they could play and shit and just grab the mic and entertain the family and things like that. Then in my high school era I met up with some of the homies - we ended up forming EX2 when I was a sophomore. They had a DJ at the lunch period so some of the homies and I would get trash cans and turn them shits over and stand up on 'em and grab a mic and rap. Just 'cause it was always fun to be in the spotlight with that kind of shit, you know what I'm sayin'?
So then around '93 EX2 was formed with me, Regret, Vyrus and this homie, Origin and we spent a few years gettin' our shit together. Around '96 is when I met Gel. He was a graffiti writer for LSD which was a real active crew over here in Whittier. So when I met him I was like, "Oh! You're from LSD. They're really dope!" He was like, "Yeah." He was a fan of EX2 and a fan of AWOL so he got put down with EX2 and he started doing graffiti for us, kind of like an exchange, you know what I'm sayin'?
AWOL was the one who put me on my first project. He put out, like, this mixtape. It was a compilation called Noise. I had known AWOL for a few years but he got the homies from EX2 to come and do some shit. So AWOL was the first one to put me on an actual project, and around '94 was when we first started going to Project Blowed so a lot of stuff, for me, got really opened up. When I started going to the Blowed I got hip to Freestyle Fellowship. I got hip to Hip Hop Kclan, CVE, and the cats who were doing the choppin' and the whole Good Life movement, really. And that was the early set for my career as a musician.
Can you talk about the recording of Noise and Three Eyed Cowz? Did AWOL just have his own home studio?
Yeah, AWOL had an apartment where he stayed and he had a room where he would record with his DJ equipment set up or whatever. He was the first person I saw who had a sampler and who was putting his own stuff together, his own beats. And AWOL was known all through Whittier already. I would say he was probably the most O.G. out of Whittier.
Right, 'cause he even had the Midevil Hermits in the early 90's.
Yeah, he had a song called "30 Feet Unda" with Midevil Hermits on a record compilation called Spittin' Lingo. That shit was hard! His homie Pancreas and a couple other homies he had from Midevil Hermits, they were all O.G. But AWOL was way ahead of his time. I would say, in Whittier, he's the root of the tree of all the underground shit because he was the one who knew what was up with the whole Los Angeles game and he was from Massmen or whatever. From my perspective, AWOL gets the most respect just for being O.G. like that. He used to record stuff just right in his crib. We recorded all the Three Eyed Cowz stuff - Tommy V had some vocal tracking equipment, an 8-track tape deck or whatever. I think AWOL did his recording on an 8-track too. Some of the Three Eyed Cowz stuff was recorded in San Francisco when they went up to visit Tommy V and his homies out there. That's how he met Nonaim and got Rashonel on a track, or whatever. All that stuff was self-recorded. AWOL was doing all the recording and engineering and all that.
I know the first EX2 release was the LMNTL EP but Undersounds of the 562 was recorded first, right?
Nah, see, when we were trying to put shit together, Gel was the one who was really business oriented. He was the one who wanted to put together a plan or a project, you feel me? 'Cause we were just doing the homie shit, recording just to hear it and bump it for people. Gel was like, "We need to put some money together and we need to get Massive, who was another one of AWOL's homies, to do some tracks for us." So we all put some money together. I think it was like $50 each, so, you know, a couple hundred bucks and we shot it to Massive and he put some tracks together for us. The Undersounds was being recorded kind of at the same time. Most of it, though, was recorded after we recorded the stuff for the LMNTL EP. The reason it was kind of held as it's own project was because the production was done by Massive where Undersounds was all Sirk. Sirk was like the big financial backer, basically. He was the homie, you know? We all kicked it. We were really close. He was part of the crew. He was the one who did the business end of, like, trying to get us published. He did the distribution and he was up on game on a lot of the networking that needed to be done. And he'd also make his own tracks and he did most of the recording for the EX2 projects.
The last project we did, Resurgence, by that time it was already Pro Tools era, you know, home DAW era so, I mean, I have my own equipment. Gel has Pro Tools at his crib. So that was a little more of a collaborative movement in terms of who was recording what. But for EX2 stuff, it would always end up getting shot to a dude named Meno, who did some engineering and recording for Psycho Realm and some other pretty big bands. He had, like, an O.G. and really high tech and very professional set up - a big ass room and a big vocal booth and all that - so a lot of the stuff that we recorded after Undersounds - we recorded a lot of stuff there too, now that I think about it. We used to shoot him some cash and go and do some sessions there. Those were the times where we had to figure out where to record whereas now we can just record at home or whatever.
Was Undersounds intended to be an album, or was that more a collection of tracks you had recorded?
Yeah, see, Undersounds, back then we would record, like you're saying, that was our way to pass the time. But everything we were recording, as a crew, was going into the collection like, "Oh, this is gonna go on our next album." So everything we all did was something that was going to be submitted to be part of an album. And there wasn't a whole lot of things that we recorded that didn't get used. We don't really have a lot of unreleased tracks. Everything we recorded we would pretty much put out. But we were mobbin' hard as a crew. Everything was for the crew, and everything was going into our collection, so you could say everything that was recorded was intended to be released.
Your lyrics always had a strong battle edge. Was that something you guys were into?
Oh, yeah! I mean, not really on the circuit, like the way that it is now, like the focus on hype, with King of the Dot and all this organized battling. For us, that whole flavour was something that came from being beginners in what we were doing 'cause we were trying to promote and boost our self image and boost ourselves. A lot of times, as a rapper, you gotta come with that tough shit. So we had this little criteria, like, "Does it sound Element tough?" If it sounded Element tough it probably would work. But as far as the battling background, that shit really picked up when we started going to the Blowed. 'Cause at the Blowed, that's what it was. If you were out in the street, or in the cypher, people were going to be testing you. And if you were on stage and if you're not doing something people are impressed by they would boo you the fuck off. So knowing that you're having to face that kind of energy when you're trying to put something together makes you want to sound like you're trying to overcome that energy. We had a great time doing it. I mean, I had a great time doing it. I enjoyed having that level of feeling like I had to prove something to people. That was kind of, like, a by-product of what that energy feels like when you have to face against it, you feel me?
One of my favourite tracks from the whole 4-track movement was a posse cut you did with Masters of the Universe, Global Phlowtations, the Shape Shifters and Tommy V, called "Pepsi on the Record." Can you talk about any memories you have of recording that?
Yeah, yeah! Oh, of course, yeah! We had gone up to the Bay to do a show over at Berkeley. Tommy V was the one that was networking and getting people involved in it, so Tommy V invited EX2 to come up. We rolled up, as a crew, in Sirk's SUV. So that day, when we were recording that song, [laughs] Tommy V's spot where he was crashing and shit, was not very big. So the whole fuckin' day was people, wall to wall, packed. We were basically shoulder to shoulder against the wall. Shit, dude, people were coming through and bringing their people, so there were probably fifteen or twenty people in the room and Tommy V just kinda - he had to extend the beat a couple times 'cause more people wanted to come through and there were a lot of people visiting to do that show. But yeah, that was a session that was very packed, a lot of activity, a lot of laughs, a lot of bullshitting. It's something I will never forget. It was a good experience.
Whereas Undersounds felt more like a collection of tracks, Nemesis felt like more of an album. You had more outside producers like Daddy Kev, Deeskee, Mike Nardone. Was that intended to be an album from the start?
Yes, absolutely. You see, after Undersounds we made some contacts with people who were into the same sort of sound as us. Nemesis is, like I said, when we started doing stuff at Meno's. He's got his shit together and is very professional with the way he puts it together. So the sound you hear on Nemesis is a result of the growth that took place after the Undersounds of the 562 came out. We'd get all our recording in one spot where we'd have it all mastered by Meno. And, yeah, like you say, Gel was doing some networking, so he got some hookups with Daddy Kev. I asked Mike Nardone to make a track for me. I shot him a little bit of cash and he put together that "Look Away" track for me. So we felt like we were concentrating our resources into sounding more professional. So Nemesis, definitely, the difference in the sound you hear was us taking our art more seriously and having a bit more recognition amongst people we were functioning around, shit like that.
After Nemesis, I didn't hear much from you for a while. Were you taking a bit of a hiatus, or were you still active at that time?
Yeah, when Nemsis was almost done was when I had my first kid, who is fourteen now, and I got married. So around that time, I started working as an ironworker which is what I still do now, you know, in the union. So I would have to be up and ready to get to my construction job at fuckin' four in the morning and shit so there was a little bit less time available for me to be kinda just runnin' the streets, going wherever, just freelancing with my time. So when you take a hiatus or have other shit to concentrate on you always have in the back of your mind, when you're doing your grind, like, "I wanna do this. I wanna put this together," but you have less trial and error time with your music and when you do something you have to get it out. I mean, we would always be chillin'. I would always see the boys and just kick it but as an artist I just had less time having to raise my kid and being a new husband. So that was the result of having less time. And after that, after I got used to it, and a few years down the road, I figured out how to get some equipment in my crib so I could record at home. So that kinda was the inspirational necessity for me to start putting together my own equipment. I mean, now I record everything at the crib. I got my own Korg keyboard. I got a 16 track Yamaha with motorized faders and all that. Plus we got the software and all that shit. For a while I was spending time getting technically proficient, being able to upgrade computers so I could get my recording shit at home so I didn't have to be away from home to still be able put my sound out, you feel me?
In terms of your production, you had a co-production credit on Nemesis. Was that your first time producing?
Yeah, Nemesis was when I started fuckin' around with Sirk's keyboard and shit. We would be hangin' around so much he'd say, "Why don't you do something?" And I wanted to try to put something together so he'd let me fuck around with his MPC. Getting used to using that shit is a whole 'nother... that's when it was more than just rapping. It's more than just putting lyrics together. There's a lot of technical proficiency and quantizational fuckin' knowhow that you have to have to make something sound the way you want it to sound when you hear it in your head. That's a journey, man. That takes years to be able to actually manifest something that you wanna hear. Like, if you try to make a track and if you don't know shit about it, it'll sound nothing like what the fuck you wanted. Things will be out of time, things will be out of sync. So learning how to get things all locked in takes some concentration and serious want to. You have to have the drive, you know?
I was pretty impressed that you were able to get "When You Wish Upon a Star" into a hip-hop format...
[laughs] Yeah, I did. That's another thing. I have this CD turntable called Master Temple. So basically I can slow down the play of the disc and make it take longer for the sample to finish but it'll have the same pitch as it had originally. So all this turntable equipment where you can make it delay or speed up without having it sound like chipmunks, that's a pretty high end capability that we have now so that's made it a bit more easy for me to do that. And, now, a lot of the samples I pick, there's a reason the sample is chosen. It was kinda like I was putting that track together because it had a drive behind. It was supposed to be for somebody and was supposed to impress somebody. You would never pick "If You Wish Upon a Star" if you were trying to sound tough but if it's something that has somebody's name and you have three samples that have somebody's name and you have to pick one of 'em and if you let go of trying to take yourself so seriously, you can find a way to lock it in and make it sound like a hip-hop cut and everything. And I like it. I think it's dope. Everything drives off your own inspiration and what you're trying to create.
Yeah, it sounds like with your solo stuff you're colouring outside the lines more and doing stuff you wouldn't really hear on an EX2 record, especially in terms of the production.
I'm trying to throw shit out the box and, you know, hip-hop and music, for me is my heart. Pretty much anybody who's an artist is trying to find a way to expand their demographic and get more people to listen to their shit. At some point you have to sound like something maybe you never wanted to sound like before to see if you can get some more fans or whatever.
So was Exodus like Undersounds where it was more of a collection of tracks that you put together later?
Yeah, Exodus was basically when I was starting off on my own and recording my own shit and networking for myself. So much like how Undersounds was like, "I'm just recording shit and when we come together we'll figure out what to put out," Exodus was like that. I knew it was gonna all go together eventually but there was no real focus. Like Nemesis, we were like, "We want it to sound like this." Resurgence was like, "We're gonna have one producer only and it's gonna sound like this." And we were very driven on Resurgence to be focused on each other's shit. I think Resurgence is the dopest album we ever did simply for the fact that it sounds like the most collaborative effort in terms of artistic connection with all of us as emcees. And Mascaria made those beats and he knocks shit out! He's a really dope producer. So with Resurgence we had that focal point. And Exodus and Nexus was a little more freelance 'cause I was doing it on my own. I think it has a good sound but it doesn't sound as focused. You have a very good ear for what exactly is the backstory in terms of concentration and focus of what the goal is. You got a good ear.
I actually listened to Resurgence again this morning and was thinking how it sounded like your most cohesive project. All the Nexus tracks I've heard were from Mascaria as well and had that same cohesive feel. Was Nexus supposed to be entirely produced by Mascaria?
Yes. Well, he was the one I ran with the closest in terms of producers at that time so I did want him to be... Yeah, basically because of the way Resurgence sounded when I decided what was gonna be on Exodus and what was gonna be on Nexus, I decided I was gonna try to keep the same producer as a solo producer for that album so in the interest of having that same cohesiveness that was the decision that I made. But still, when you have four people who are communicating with each other on a daily basis and pushing each other to get stuff done it's gonna have a much different sound than one person who's pushing themself. With EX2, we could build off each other real cool. Resurgence was, I think, the first album, as far as I remember, where people were finishing their verses before me. I was brought a track with two people on it already and I'd be like, "Ok, I just get to pick up the baton and carry on from where this is at." The first albums weren't really like that. Most of the time with the tracks I was on, I would be the first one rapping on it. At that time, we just went along with however it built. Whoever was ready first got to drop first. By the time we got to Resurgence I might have my verse done first but we might put me third. That's the way we did it in the end even though I would have it written first. So people could build off of me a lot which I think is great. I like having that influence on the crew members and I'm always very team focused and trying to get people to open up their creative strand or whatever. With Resurgence we made a lot of decisions that were different than before where we just let things flow how they did.
So Gel was the one who kind of orchestrated Resurgence? Was he the one who organized that project?
Well, Gel was always the one who was kinda putting together the projects. He was the one who was always goal oriented, like, "This is going to be the next project." And I appreciated that. I always looked up to him in terms of his business approach to music whereas Vyrus and I, when we started the crew it was always just to be emcees. In order to have a professional end result, you have to have different aspects of the trade covered. Gel and Sirk were the business aspect of having the whole trade covered for us. Myself, Vyrus, Regret and Digit were more just grab the mic and let cats know what's poppin' and shit. Gel was always like, "Ok, let's not let all this out right away." Gel would always put some away in a safe, you feel me? We would sometimes not see eye-to-eye on some decisions but as a collaborative whole, for the most part, we let Gel and Sirk handle those kind of decisions because we had other shit we were focused on. I was never really complaining about how they were handling that. So I thought that was good.
So are Bullyzsquad and Force MCs two different crews?
Bullyzsquad is basically a crew that was created by the Goodlife Bullyz because when I started kickin' it with Rifleman he would have us come through on Tuesdays. So when I got down with Worldwide Chopperz Anonymous and all that shit, I met Kazue at a Goodlife Bullyz show. And Kazue is very people oriented and is always trying to make moves in terms of getting people together to do shit. So Kazue noticed that I was wearing some Star Wars Adidas shit and he was like, "Man, what's up with this shit? Where did you get that?" So we started talking about who might be interested in rocking that shit as a group, and getting a bit of an image or a gimmick going with it. And he mentioned Rifleman. He mentioned CR, and I was like, "Man, these are people I grew up listening to over the past twenty years." Honestly, I thought they were some of the dopest emcees in the world so I was like, "Shit, dude, you think those dudes would be with that?" And he was like, "Yeah! I was already showin' 'em and they think we should talk about it. You should come through to Rifleman's on Tuesday." So I was like, "Alright!" So I went with Kazue and we talked about it and we kinda figured out we were all gonna be about it. So I started picking up stuff for the crew. So basically I laced up the fuckin' look for the crew. As far as I was concerned, it was a great opportunity.
The Force MCs was something that was created when I was barely starting to get down with the Goodlife Bullzy and then Bullyzsquad was a creation that CR and Rifleman told me and Casper about after we were kickin' it with them for a while and doing shows with them or whatever. And they was like, "We're gonna make the Bullyzsquad and we want you two to wreck it." And of course Casper and I were like, "Yeah! That's cool!" So Bullyzsquad has a couple other members who go to Rifleman's every Tuesday because basically we're the squad that kicks it with the Bullyz. The Force MCs is something we pull out every once in a while when we want to dazzle with the overall appearance, plus there's a lot of people who are into Star Wars as much as me. That's something we pull out when we want to get into some spacey shit. The Force MCs is Casper, myself, CR, Rifleman, Ksar, DJ Lala. That's, you know, kind of like a little All Stars team.
So could you ever see a Bullyzsquad album being recorded?
Oh, yeah! That's what Casper and I are working on right now is the Bullyzsquad's first album. We got a lot of tracks done. So even though there are others who are affiliated, Casper and I kinda took the Bullyzsquad name and we're the ones who are putting a project out under that name. There's other people who you see who rep the Bullyzsquad and they're affiliated but the majority of the music so far that's being put into a project - the creative and recording end of the Bullyzsquad is headed by Casper and myself, unless, Rifleman is putting something together 'cause Rifleman, of course, has the juice to record and put music out under whatever the fuck name he wants. He's like the godfather of this shit, you feel me?
What's the significance of 228?
Back when I was in high school there was this tag team and taggers would be bangin' like gangsters. And my birthday is 2/14 but that was too close to 213 which is a tag banging group and I wasn't trying to get mixed up in any of that bullshit. So I had a girlfriend who's birthday was 2/28, so I was like, "Ok, I'll use that as my number," 'cause people would put little numbers when they were tagging and shit and I wanted a number to tag. And then, actually, the significance that manifested itself later was 2/28 is the day that my divorce became official which I thought was kinda funny because it was a day where my freedom in terms of doing what I wanted to do became renewed. It just happened to be on the day 2/28, 2013. Even though the tagging shit really isn't an issue any more; number one, I always stay with the name that I picked from the beginning, but sometimes when you just ride with it things gain meanings in the end. 228 is just the number I chose but there's always a reason people choose shit that plays out later on.
Can you talk about your love of Star Wars? What resonates with you so much from those movies?
Oh, sure, sure. Watching the movies is incredible. Just the belief in yourself, the whole force, believing you can change the galaxy and of course the high tech aspect, the lasers and the light sabers and shit. The light sabers is what locked me in. Them motherfuckers are dope! And the crew, me and Vyrus would kick back and be blazin', watchin' them when we had a day off, and we would just kind of trip on the story line, the acting and stuff. I always kind of identified with the Emperor because he's so evil and manipulative and that's so opposite to how I conduct myself. So when I talked to Kazue about doing this shit, he wanted to be Darth Vader so bad and he was like, "You should be the Emperor." And when he said that, I was like, "Yeah!" Because, to me, I think it's funny. The Emperor is so evil and that shit is so different from how I am but I always liked the Emperor's lines, the things he says, because he's so driven towards destruction. So I was down to be the Emperor.
I got the Emperor Palpatine trench coat. I've always been Adidas since I started rapping. I'm one of them people, like I don't like wearing cross labels. I don't like wearing Nike kicks, an Adidas sweatsuit and a Puma hat, you feel me? So I've been buying all Adidas forever and when I found out Adidas made Star Wars shit, I was like, "Oh, shit, I need that!" That was the thing that made it really hip-hop. So the Force MCs, our look is all Adidas. That, to me, is even tighter! I got the Emperor Adidas trench coat. I got the kicks that have glow in the dark lightening on the motherfuckers. I got a bunch of other shit. To me, the most important shit is I got all different kicks for the crew. Kazue got some AT-walker pilot sneakers. Rifleman got some black camouflage fuckin' Rogue Squadron shell toes. CR got some super skates that have fuckin' Chewbacca slam dunking on the motherfucking tongue! Lala does breaking so I got her kicks with see-through bottoms with the Luke and Vadar light saber fight so you can see it when she's doing a handstand or whatever. Casper got this sweater that had a light saber fight on it. Casper doesn't really like shell toes so he was a difficult one to find something he would rock. Ksar got - when he said he wanted to be the Emperor's guard, I was like, "God damn, dude!" 'Cause Ksar is a fucking beast, dude. So as far as the story line goes, this dude's gonna be my front man! So I got him some Royal Guard kicks. Not too long ago, since I got the trench coat, which is reversible, it's also red. So I took a little time to get another trench coat so he could rock the red one with his kicks. It took a while to put that look together but if everybody's doin' that, it's pretty impressive. The Star Wars thing, I've just been a fan my whole life. And when I saw the Adidas crossover, I knew we had to do that. Nobody rocked it because everybody was treating it like collectors items. I was like, "We should just say 'fuck that!' We should just rock it on stage and in the streets! Let people see what's up!" And I didn't see any sign of anybody being an Adidas Emperor before so I made a page as the Adidas Emperor and took it serious as one of my AKAs. I took that identity.
Those rings you have in your pics are dope as fuck!
Aw, thank you! All that shit I put together, it's all just shit I bought off Ebay. My rings and shit, every once in a while I be on Ebay. Eventually I got it to where I got everything except my wedding finger covered, all with Star Wars jewelry and shit. It's not really something you see a lot.
So you were saying you consider Rifleman to be one of the best so being on his King of the Chop album must've been like a badge of honor, and you were chopping your ass off on those tracks, holy shit!
Oh, thanks dude. See, the thing is, Rifleman, when I started kickin' it with him, he's the type to really let a motherfucker know what they need to do to upgrade your shit. So where other people would just say, "Oh, you're doing good," even if I'm doin' good, Rifleman will go "Ay, you need to do this. Why'd you fall off the pattern there? You need to do it like this." So now, working with Rifleman, he's really helped me to refine, and he basically gave me that chop. I used to be able to talk fast and smash it in, but Rifleman was the one who was like, "Nah, you don't just have to smash it in. You have to smash it in and make it land!" So he pushes me a lot. He treats me like family. He does the same for Casper. He's got Casper's chops up significantly as well. So when you hear a difference in your music you cannot help but recognize who led you to that point. Rifleman is the fuckin' G! Mister CR too. These guys are real people, man. When you come correct with them, they treat you like you belong. Where a lot of people in the world would manipulate their way through shit, get what they can, Rifleman, CR, the Goodlife Bullyz, the whole Project Blowed, they recognize when you put in effort and when you're around they pay it back by putting you up on game. That's why you're gonna see me catchin' a bullet for Rifleman if I have to. He's the reason I'm upgraded and the reason I impress myself now. He's got a fam in me and I appreciate the treatment!
You talked about a Bullyzsquad album, but what are your plans for the future in terms of recording?
A lot of people have been getting at me, telling me that they like the old EX2 sound but I always liked the chop sound growing up. So the more I get my freedom in terms of feeling like I can do different types of chops, I'll be doing that. As far as Bullyzsquad, Casper's kind of the front man for putting this all together. I've been spoiled. I basically just have to write raps. Every once in a while I feel like I need to make my own track like this thing I did for the Cali Classics modeling thing. That's stuff I just take home, make something that sounds a little bit more radio friendly or whatever. Bullyzsquad, we're just trying to cut up the streets and shit. Let people hear that raw, that gritty, I don't give a fuck about anything type of chop. When I'm at home, doing my own shit, I'm trying to expand my demographic a bit and trying to sound a little bit more people friendly, so that's basically what you're going to hear from Syn in the future. You're going to hear Bullyzsquad, World Wide Chopperz, and you're gonna hear some music that's trying to make difference in terms of who listens to my music.