Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fear the Poet: An Interview with Gel Roc

Gel Kevorkian

    Gel Roc of EX2, Massmen and The Cloaks has a voice that is instantly recognizable to anyone who is a fan of the Project Blowed movement. He has contributed numerous verses to projects by the Blowed alumni and his collaborations read like a list of who's who when it comes to independent west coast hip-hop. Whether he's recording with EX2, working with longtime collaborators AWOL One and Mascaria, or dropping a guest verse, Gel is always putting in work, effectively documenting L.A.'s underground scene. Gel took some time to chop it up with me about his early years as a b-boy and graffiti artist, the formation of EX2, his work with AWOL, Mascaria, Joe Dub and Xczircles, The Cloaks project and the latest EX2 record, Common Thread.

Could you talk about your earliest experiences with hip-hop and graffiti? What inspired you to start making music?

    Yeah, man. I started getting into music because of a lot of my family influences. My parents were heavily into music. I started collecting records at an early age, going through my mom's record collection, and I had uncles who were in bands, so music was an influence early on. Later I got into break dancing and then I went through the skateboarding phase. So hip-hop, early on, poppin', break dancing, skating, that eventually led into high school and graffiti. I hung out with a bunch of the homies that were already up on game. Eventually everybody turned out to be the crew that I'm still runnin' with twenty two odd years later, Life Seen Differently heads.

That would be the LSD crew? Can you talk about your connection with them and your experiences with graffiti?

   In high school, it started out with a bunch of homies that were from BK, which was Beyond Kings, out of La Mirada, Whittier. And also TB, Trouble is Back. Then there was LSD. Back then, a gang of homies were all part of different crews. I started out writing Reins with TB, then eventually got into BK, and then BK kind of migrated into LSD. So it was this natural evolution of all the homies who had different little clicks and the serious mainstays eventually became LSD heads over time. It was the established crew you graduated to. So there's different generations of the L. It started in 1989. It was BAS, Bombin' All Suckas and in '91 it officially became Leavin' Suckas Dead. So there's a lot of history with the crew. It's hard to do it justice in a brief interview but a good reference of our roots can be found in the book The History of Los Angeles Graffiti Art, Vol. 1. The experiences and wild ass trials are well documented. Nowadays, the collective is still pushing pretty tough with new blood and some vets still active in the streets. I get out and paint yards and walls when the crew gets together for meetings and shit.

So that's how you connected with AWOL? Through graffiti?

Yeah, that's the origins, but actually, me and AWOL, Roach, Deeskee and others have ties from the party crew days too. AWOL used to DJ. Vyrus from EX2 was part of a party crew. Me and a couple homies from LSD were from the party crew scene. So we actually knew each other from all of that, as well as the graffiti world. Tony kept doing his thing and started recording demos out of his parent's spot in Whittier. Eventually I got brought back into the loop through music. Next thing you know, we were recording Noise in the mid-90s. After that, I just kept writing with EX2 and started hanging out with [AWOL] all the time. Because before, back in the graffiti days, I was always freestyling with everybody. Everybody always knew I was into hip-hop back then. I was always freestyling and shit, but I never took it serious because I didn't have any way to record. When I got the opportunity to record with Tony, I started doing as much as I possibly could and that's pretty much how it got down, you know?

I'm glad you mentioned freestyling, because I always thought it was cool that you freestyled so many verses on the EX2 records. So that's something you've been doing since the beginning?

    Yeah, man. I'm kinda moody, so I write a lot of shit but a lot of stuff that I do is on the spot. I write a lot on the spot. It depends on who I'm writing with. If I'm dialing something in that's real super focused, like with EX2, or I'm just amongst some really good writers - there's a time and place for everything. Sometimes, back in the day, with EX2, we'd get into sessions and I would stay on that freestyle mode and I always liked to do the least amount of takes as possible. Whether it's combining a written or kicking a freestyle. I've done that throughout my whole career and there's probably freestyles on every project I've put out, including the new EX2. Me and Regret have a freestyle song on the new EX2 and I know I have some other freestyle verses as well. It's just how I get down, but obviously inspired by the Blowed.

One of the things I wanted to ask you, with your work with Mascaria on The Void project, or your work with Xczircles on Beautiful Tragedy, it sounds to me like maybe the subject matter is inspired by the production. Like, on Beautiful Tragedy, the beats are kind of somber and reflective, and you were really introspective on that album, whereas on The Void, the production was more spacey and psychedelic, which seemed to inspire the lyrics. Would you say the lyrics were inspired by the production or is it the other way around?

    It's a little bit of both, but yeah, the production is definitely what inspired a lot of these projects. Going into The Void - Mascaria is a super creative type and definitely on some dark, sinister production and I think The Void really displays his personality. So it was more of a challenge for me to do a record with him on that level and really get deep into character. So yeah, production definitely drives a lot of what I do and I know exactly how a project is gonna sound based on the producer that I'm working with. Like, the Joe Dub record was a little bit more reality based.

And that's Mascaria rapping with you on The Void, right?

    Yeah, he did all the production and he rapped with me on that as well. He didn't really rap on the Laws & Flaws album, which is another one he produced. So we just kept building - we had some good momentum - and he wanted to do more rapping at that time so The Void was a good venue for him to do that.  You know, we pushed The Void out, which is a project I'm really proud of.

Can you talk about how you hooked up with EX2?

    I remember hanging out with AWOL and he invited me to the Brainfish. The Brainfish was a local show he was throwing. And I remember seeing Syndrome and Vyrus serving some fools from the east coast and I was like, "Oh, those fools are dope!" We just kept hanging out and eventually we ended up recording at AWOL's spot, like I mentioned, for some of those early projects. Vyrus was instantly, like, "Yo, Gel is on the roll call, for sure." We just clicked out the gate and the rest is history, but I ended up just hanging out with everybody and just ran with it. I've always been the type that had a lot of drive and didn't want to waste a lot of time. I always tried to document everything and recognized that we were doing something special. I just knew everybody around me was super talented. From the graffiti world, from the hip-hop world. So to me, it was like, we gotta get as much recording in as we can. So that was, sort of, my role, to make sure everything was legitimized. I just recognized what was going on in the scene. Things were starting to kick off. It was a special time. The L.A. underground scene was thriving and I didn't want it to be for nothing. I was always trying to get everything recorded and trying to put a vision behind everything. That's how a lot of the projects got put together. I just wanted to make sure everything was driven behind where we're from and just reppin' the town and whatnot.

Sirk did some production for the first few EX2 releases, but has he been involved behind the scenes on all the EX2 albums? What is his role when he's not providing beats?

    Yeah, Sirk has always been the Abolano Records label head. He used to do his own thing. He used to put out little mixtape compilations with other local emcees. I think he had one of the Black Eyed Peas on a tape he did back then. When EX2 hooked up with Sirk, he recognized us from the Three Eyed Cowz tape. That was prior to Undersounds, which is the first album we started recording. And he became accessible to us with a dope studio and we were like, "Cool! Now we have a legitimate studio where we can record, vibe out." He basically built Abolano Records around us at that time. He had the means and he became that person that was doing the production, doing all the graphics work - I would bring all the pieces from LSD heads, like Pang One, and he would put it all together. He was the one who really brought it all together. I would give him all the ideas and Sirk was always the one that was the real driver behind the label and made sure everything came out with the visuals that we needed to do for what we did, man. He's still behind everything that we're doing today. He's a big part of EX2, history and present.

You mentioned Three Eyed Cowz. I personally love Noise and The Evil Cow Burger and I know they're now considered underground classics. Do you have any memories you could share about the recording of those projects?

    We did most of the recording at AWOL's home studio. The biggest memory I have of recording Three Eyed Cowz was driving to San Francisco to work with Tommy V and doing one of those songs with Tommy V, Rashinel, AWOL, myself. That was probably the biggest memory I have, being out in Frisco and meeting up with, like, Global Phlowtations and doing all kinds of stuff out there. That was all the old school stuff.

EX2 lyrics always had a strong battle edge. Is that something you were into prior to the Blowed or was that inspired by your experiences there?

    We already had that mentality from backyard parties, testing local emcees and bagging sessions that led to us battling each other for fun. We made sure our presence was felt at open mics, no doubt. And yes, we definitely went to the Blowed and had our fair share of experiences, for sure. That was a true battle ground back then.

    I think one of our first battles with Blowed heads was us and Kali 9, with Khynky Rhead, Slant and Puzoozoo Watt, but that one didn't start at the Blowed. There's a lot of stories and memories. Some of that shit kept on until we battled side-by-side at a B-Boy Summit in San Diego in some 310 vs. 619 ciphers. Those were some of the best times, man. I remember one year we traveled to Cincinnati to Scribble Jam, the year Undersounds of the 562 dropped. We ciphered and battled out of state heads that I won't mention, but are household names today that may surprise you. We didn't do shit in the actual Scribble Jam battle though. We were away from home and partying [laughs]. I'm pretty sure I was the only person that entered but I was on a good one and jumped on the mic when they called someone else up who lagged getting to the stage. I blew my shot to place because they knew I wasn't that person. May have been the year Sage Francis won it. Don't recall exactly.

I know you were part of Massmen. Was there a connection with Massive? Is that where the Mass from Massmen comes from?

    No, they're independent of each other, but Massive, he's family. He was always producing along with Fat Jack. I think that just happened to be more of a coincidence. Unless there's some history I'm not aware of. Massive was actually the vocals in the background on "Slow Lights." I don't know if a lot of people know that. But he was the guy doing the car jacking in the background of that song. His ties with Massmen are tight. He produced some of the early EX2 stuff and was a mentor to some degree. He took us and Roach under his wing and would come around with beats and shit to work on.

One of my favourite tracks you've done was "Dead Poets" with Existereo, produced by Longevity. Do you have any memories recording that?

    Existereo was working on that first album, Dirty Deeds & Dead Flowers. Him and Longevity invited me over. Longevity was making a lot of beats at that time at Deeskee's house, where him and 2Mex and Subtitle were living at the time. They had that slammin' ass beat and we came up with the chorus on the spot and we knocked that song out. That's a personal favourite of mine as well. Longevity's got dope beats. He's definitely someone that's in my line of sight that I need to build with. Everything comes together over time, you know?

EX2 took a bit of a hiatus after Nemesis. Did you record Laws & Flaws to fill in the gap or did you always have plans to do solo albums alongside the EX2 projects?

    Yeah, I just kept pushing and doing as much as possible. Solo shit was just the natural next step for me. For the last few years I've been working on multiple albums at one time, group works and other projects on my own. I really just like working with different people to see where I can push boundaries, trying to hit different audiences with different production.

You seem like you're connected everybody and have done some great posse cuts, one of my favourites being "Cease to Amaze." You had guys like Tommy V and Zagu Brown, who weren't really releasing too much around that time. Can you talk about bringing everybody together for that track?

    "Cease to Amaze", on Laws & Flaws, you know, I was always at the Blowed. I was everywhere where there was a hip-hop show in L.A. There were just too many people to do individual songs with everybody. I was the kinda dude who was trying to connect and do songs with everybody, like, "Let's do a song." So, you know, if I didn't have time to do a song with everybody, it'd be like, "Ok, let me do a song with Tommy V and Zagu and 2Mex and L'Roneous, etc." So that's how I view posse cuts. It's trying to get as many homies on a song, who I didn't get a chance to work with, and keep this documented. The underground hip-hop scene in L.A., and even abroad and beyond L.A., it's history now. So I'm always trying to work with as many people as I can, people I respect and want to hear music from.

Speaking of beyond L.A., you recently did a project with TDM out of Virginia, called The Element Tree. Can you talk about how that project came about?

    Tree Dust Muir is Ovate, Abomination, Toobz, who does artwork and vocals, and Rezult, who does production as well. That really started with Vyrus. He moved from Whittier to Atlanta, I think in 2006, 2007, and he hooked up with Tree Dusk Muir. They started doing production for his album, Silent Kaos. Before that album came out, we hooked up with those guys and I'd go out to Atlanta to work with Vyrus. So basically, I was out there maybe once a month, in Virginia, and we ended up getting that whole album done in, like, four months. That album was a collection of songs that Vyrus and I did with TDM around the time that Silent Kaos was recorded.

You had a low key project with Joe Dub recently. I really love that project, and I think Joe Dub really captures the 80s with his beats. Can you talk about that album and explain the name From the Vault?

    Yeah, that album was actually started quite some time ago. I recorded, like, three, four songs back in 2005, 2006. When I was out in Hawaii, I visited Joe and he gave me a bunch of those beats. So I recorded a few of those songs over the next year. And in the last, I don't know, four years, I went back and grabbed those beats and started to flush out that project. But I always felt like it was an older identity. Even Joe, I think, today, would be like, "I love this project, but let's do something current." So when it came out, I was like, "Ok, it's all revised, remixed and remastered. We'll put it out, but let's call it From the Vault." So it was old to me, but new to the world when we dropped it last year. I dropped it low key because I didn't feel like it was the most current project. But all the close homies around me, they really dug it. So I like that it came together the way that it did.

It was cool that you had J-Smoov on there because there isn't that much material by him out there.

    Yeah, and J-Smoov was one of those guys I was always saying, "Yo, we gotta do something!" So that was an opportune moment to do that. I was recording a great deal with Self Jupiter from Freestyle Fellowship, and J-Smoov popped in mind, to do that song with him and Jupiter. So that's how that came about.

Can you talk about recording the Beautiful Tragedy album, and how it came about?

    Beautiful Tragedy, I got a chance to hook up with Xczircles. At the time, I thought he had some really dope production. I don't know if people realize how dope he is. The production he was doing, along with where I was, recording in my own studio, was a good time to capture a lot of progressive song writing on my own, in between EX2 projects. I felt that album was really reflective of where I was at, at the time. There's a lot of substance and growth in that album. I felt more matured as an artist during the writing of that record. It was also dope to get my old school homie DJ Drez to do all the cuts on that one. I'm real proud of that record.

And you had another beast of a posse cut on there, with Longevity and... Shit, I can't even remember who else. You had like twenty emcees on there.

    See, I forgot I even had Longevity on that one! Zagu, again, was on that album. Mestizo. You know, I just try to build as much as I possibly can, man. There's a lot of dope emcees out here, so whenever I get a chance I'm always trying to work with people and keep building.

So obviously you've done a lot of work with AWOL over the years, and you guys go way back. You had the Life After Death mixtape a while back, but can you talk about what was behind the decision to do a project now and what inspired The Cloaks project?

    Well, we had done so much work over the years. We've just been really down homies. We were always kickin' it and doing songs and features together and we felt it was well overdue for us to do a project together. So we did that Life After Death mixtape as a sort of precursor to this album. And we started working with Awkward. He just seemed like one of the dopest producers to fuck with on some current shit. But at the same time, we knew we'd go through the beat selection and find something that we thought was reminiscent of where we started, but just extremely current. That was the whole purpose, really, to work with someone who was really progressive with the production. Two, three songs in, we didn't even really have a name for the album, and then one day Tony called me and said, "Yo, I got it!... The Cloaks." And, you know, the way me and him work, songs get started off text message jokes and bullshitting on phone conversations. That's how things take life for us, when we're building. Songs could just be us sitting in a room, talking shit, and then, boom, we start writing. So The Cloaks was just this impromptu idea that he had and next thing you know, I was turning out a verse and he was like, "Oh shit! This is it." And then the whole thing, the concept, just fell in line and started taking structure and took a life of it's own. The identity became, "Fuck all these selfie taking social media rappers. Let's do something that pushes anonymity and is different than what anyone is doing.

And you guys really put effort into making cool packaging, and unique merch, like the action figures. Is all that stuff still available?

    The vinyl is still available, I think we have a few CDs left but we sold out a lot of the merch. The Cloaksmen are all sold. But yeah, man, The Cloaks, the packaging, it was just Abolano Records putting out good projects that the fans and supporters can depend on. From the LMNTL Work EP, to Undersounds, to Nemesis, to Resurgence, all those records, we feel really good about the artwork and we feel like we set a precedent for what the artwork should be, including The Cloaks, which came out on Abolano Records. From Resurgence and Beautiful Tragedy, we take a lot of pride in that. And that comes from a lot of the graff heads I work with, in my crew, and the likes of Ghostshrimp and Albane Simon who is responsible for The Cloaks layout and imagery, but Sirk dials all of that stuff in behind the scenes to maintain the vision that I keep feeding him, like, "It's gotta look like this. It's gotta sound like this." He does all that stuff. So currently, he's wrapping up the new EX2 album, Common Thread.

I thought it was great that you got Gonjasufi to rap on the album because everybody focuses on his singing, but I always liked his rhymes!

    To be honest, I thought he was gonna sing on that song! But he just turned it around and spit a rap. I met him back on Pepsi on the Record, when he just went by Sumach. I think that really had to do with our roots because when I reconnected with him for The Cloaks, that was our frame of reference, rapping in San Francisco, when we were younger. So full circle, even though he's established himself more as a singer, I think he just kept it exactly where we started and that was super dope 'cause he just did that verse and I was super hype!

Are you guys planning on doing a second Cloaks record?

    Yeah, we've actually already started the second Cloaks record. We're about three, four songs in. We're still collecting beats for that project. That'll probably get released in spring of 2016. Awkward is still a producer.

He's from the U.K., right?

    Yup, Awkward is from the United Kingdom. He does music with a lot of people out here and we just had an opportunity to do The Cloaks project with him, and we just wanna keep things going. We're real happy with The Cloaks and all the homies that supported it, so we got that next project in the chamber.

So you mentioned the new EX2. That's being produced by Xczircles...

    The new EX2 project is produced by four different producers. Xczircles does about a third of it. Calm, from LSD, does about a third of it, and Boise from CBS does a third of it. And there's one song produced by Leineken. So technically it's three primary producers, which really brought together a cohesive sound. And the Leineken track, it was sort of an impetus to the whole album. I had been doing some solo touring and Digit was with me. We went to Frisco with Tommy V, and we hooked up with the homie Haez, did a random song and then we were like, "Ok, this is the start of the new EX2 project." Tommy V and Haez are on the new project. The rest of the project we recorded at my studio, here in Whittier.

So what can people expect from the new EX2, in terms of the sound?

    The new record sounds like some 2015 EX2 shit. It's got Tommy V, AWOL, Origin. It's got a posse cut with Ellay Khule, Existereo, Subtitle, Escape Artists with Zxcircles and Aamir, NGAFSH, Riddlore?, you know, all these heads are on this album. This album is pretty much headed up by Regret, Digit6 and myself - and, of course, Vyrus is on the record as well - and then those features and guest appearances bring it full circle. But it sounds like some traditional EX2, but 2015 vibe, so we're really proud of the record. We accomplished what we set out to do. It's 17 songs deep. The production is dark, like you'd expect from an EX2 project but definitely some bangin' underground hip-hop. And it's got cuts all throughout the record by Otek and Roach the DJ. Deeskee did the mixing and mastering on the album. So it's got that EX2, La2thebay feel to it. It sounds real traditional, from our camp.

    We're real proud of this record, mainly because Digit was locked up for most of the 2000's, so he missed from Nemesis to Resurgence. So to get him back in the mix, full circle, he really crushes this whole album, you know, getting a lot off his chest and saying a lot of stuff he's been wanting to say over the past two records that he missed out on. So I'm excited for him and for all of our fans to hear this new record, especially with him in the mix.

So other than The Cloaks and the new EX2, do you have any other projects in the works?

    Yeah, I'm also working on an album with Megabusive. It's called Hip-Hop Against the World. It's produced by Megabusive and he raps on there with me. It's currently being mixed by Deeskee. It's probably three quarters of the way done. That'll probably drop in 2016 as well. I'm excited to get that out and let people check it out. Beyond that, I have multiple projects that I'm working on. I have another album with Avatar that features The Shape Shifters and Onry Ozzborn. There's individual songs with everybody from EX2, Acid Reign, Neila. It's just an opportunity to build with everybody from Project Blowed and Los Angeles and keep everything movin'.

Lost Filez ov Eternia

Hip Hop Brazil 

Check out the new underground hip hop blog by long-time Beetbak supporter John Henry from Brazil!  There are some gems on there, and I'm sure there are more to come.  Welcome!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Sound For Sore Ears

Walkman Hits

Thank you once again, Cody, for the hookup with this fat underground release!  Sporting one of the dopest covers in the history of album artwork, Dojah released this tape back in 1998.  I'm not sure if he was doing this on the anonymous tip, or if he just had really poor marketing skills, but his name is absent on both the cover and the tape, as is that of all guests.   Either or, I like to think the music speaks for itself.  Half of this tape was posted up way back on the mighty Ghetto Tyylit, with the exclusion of the intro, outro, interludes and instrumental pieces.  While it's true those excluded pieces don't do much for the album (covers of "The Banana Boat Song", the "Pink Panther" theme, and "Don't Worry, Be Happy" would be strange inclusions on any release, especially on a project which is otherwise so accomplished), I think it's important to present this album in its entirety, warts and all.  
Big Shawn from Bored Stiff appears on "R-A-P", and a couple emcees I can't identify show up on "Let' em Have It".  Beats are appropriately stoney and sample-based in that '98 flavor. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Last of a Dying Breed: An Interview with A.K.M. of Cypha 7

Astro Pimp

    Afterlife O.G. and member of Cypha 7 and the Get Dat Money Boyz Choir, A.K.M, has always used his commanding voice to spit unfiltered reality rap. His rhymes detailed hardship and struggle, and how "Knowledge, wisdom and understanding" could be used to overcome. In recent years, A.K.M. has been keeping a low profile, focusing on family life, occasionally popping up on tracks with the Tabernacle MCz and Soul King. I recently had the opportunity to speak with this elusive emcee and he kindly broke down some history for me.

Can you speak about your earliest experiences with hip-hop and some of your early influences?

    Man, I would say with hip-hop, I was born in '78, so I remember having the Beat Street record on my Fisher Price record player and going to see those flicks, and that was my first introduction to hip-hop. At the same time, the older cats on my block were break dancing and breaking out the cardboard and you could see it in the environment, you know? I didn't start actually rapping - I didn't think I could do this [laughs] - until about '92. I was probably in the 8th grade when I wrote my first rap. I spit it at school. Actually, I think it was 7th grade because there were 8th graders there in the mix. So, the 8th graders were like, "Oh, that shit was dope!" So I felt validated. That was my first little cipher and the older kids thought it was dope. After that, I started writing on computer paper, the kind that used to have the little holes on the side, like, the old computer paper. I used to write on that because it reminded me of a scroll. So I could just write and write and not break up the paper if I didn't want to.

    My influences were, like, King Sun, Ice Cube, of course, LL, Kool Moe Dee, EPMD. Around '92, that was it. I was into more east coast shit, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest.

So would you have been pretty young then when you started going to the Good Life?

    Yeah, I got introduced to the Good Life because I had a summer youth employment job at Southwest Jr. College in the audio/visual department, and this brother was really dope - a jazz singer out here named Dwight Tremble - he was the head of the audio/visual department, and there were a couple older cats who worked there with me. I was the youngest. So I was probably 13 or 14 when I got that job. And this brother named Bo had brought some tapes from the Good Life, a Freestyle Fellowship tape, and something else. I can't remember. It might've been Volume 10 or CVE maybe. But he brought two tapes in particular, I remember. And I was like, "Where did you get this from?" And he was like, "It's the Good Life!" So that summer I started going to the Good Life religiously. That shit was like a Thursday night ritual. I was somewhat of a juvenile delinquent. And the Good Life would end at like 10 o'clock if I recall right. So it wouldn't be too late if you were takin' the bus. That was the ritual: try to get a nickle bag of weed and a 40 and go to the Good Life.

I heard that because the Good Life ended early, people would rhyme in the parking lot afterward and that's where the name Afterlife came from. Is that right?

    You know, I'm not sure. I know I was on Afterlife Recordz, but I wasn't with them, per se, back then. It wasn't until later, when I formed a group, then we got on Afterlife Recordz and got more known, individually and as a group. Just being around, fools don't really know you. We used to have what's called "blow up." Either you "blow up" or you get "please pass the mic." So [laughs] I never got "please pass the mic." I had a couple calendars and every Thursday was marked, "Blow up, blow up, never got a chance to rap, blow up." Then as I got older, it'd be "blow up, hosted with so-and-so, hosted with Funky Trend, blew up." So every Thursday had something that said what happened in a couple words.

It sounds like it would be pretty traumatizing to get "please pass the mic", so I'm glad you didn't have to go through that.

    [laughs] I'm not sure if I would'a kept rapping.

How did you hook up with Shaheed?

 Shaheed's a couple years older than me. Maybe three or four years. So when I was in junior high, he was in high school. And he went to school with and was in a group with my next door neighbour. They went to South Torrance High School. That's how I met Shaheed. When they went out on the weekends and went to hang out and shit, they let me tag along. Then I got in their group, which was me and this brother named Kesi - he was really dope - and me and Shaheed, and we were Rhyme Network. That was our group, the Rhyme Network. And then Kesi went solo. He did his Busta Rhymes thing and went solo. But once he went solo, we started doing more paid shows and pressing up tapes and CDs. So, for whatever reason, the duo was better than the trio, or we got more accomplished.

You mentioned being part of Afterlife Recordz. Can you talk about how you became part of Afterlife and how it all came together?

   Man, from my recollection, one night - it was at Project Blowed. It was after the Good Life. Good Life was going on simultaneously, but a lot of the backbone of the Good Life switched to Project Blowed because you could cuss on the mic and it stayed open later and it was right across the street from Leimert Park. So it was a different dynamics because at the Good Life you couldn't cuss and it ended at 10 o'clock. So, Project Blowed was going on simultaneously. And this good, good, good brother named Riddler was doing a lot of the beats and engineering at Project Blowed. So one night after we performed, we talked to Aceyalone - I don't know if he approached us or we approached him - but we ended up having a conversation about, "Where can we record at?" And he hooked us up with Riddler and FSH. And they had a spot, CVE Headquarters, off of Normandy and 80-something, not to far from the L.A. Riot Epicenter on Normandy and Florence. They had a studio not too far from there. That's when we started recording with Riddler. And I was into vinyl, so I would always bring vinyl to sample. I was really into vinyl - old music and shit. So we started recording over there and doing more shows.

    Medusa was a big part of our shows. She had different connects and would always put us on. Then a situation arose with this dude Adam. His folks was, like, millionaires and shit. We went to his house one day and it was ridiculous. Like, some Beverly Hills shit. They brought down the silver platter with sandwiches and oranges and shit [laughs]. I forget what his dad did, but it was something in entertainment. I know Busdriver's peoples were big into entertainment as well. Matter of fact, Busdriver's pops was a producer on Moesha, so some cats, like Tray Loc - who was also managing us for a second - they would make guest appearances on Moesha. Their little rap scene on that show, that was taken from the Good Life. So through those connections we were able to form Afterlife, which was some revolutionary shit, in theory. In theory it was really dope. In practice, it kinda fell apart. But in theory, we were our own owners and that shit was cool. It was a situation where [CVE] just pulled us in. 

    We was on some vinyl, split vinyl. With every vinyl you'd share it with another group on the flip side. So we shared a vinyl with OMD, which was 2Mex and Xololanxino. We got close with them too. Me and Shaheed ended up being roommates and 2Mex and Xinxo had a place that was just around the corner from us. So we'd soak up shit from them 'cause they were on their own independent thing, they were pressing their own CDs up and just maxin' on they market. So that was that whole era, you know what I'm sayin'? We were at the right place at the right time. Everyone was recording out of the same spot and had the same affiliations and shit. It was a few of us, man. It was Eastside Badstads, and Busdriver, and Chu Chu and Legion, Hip Hop Klan with Ellay Khule...

You mentioned Adam. Is that that the same Adam who was part of Legion?

    Yes, yeah! Yeah, yeah.

FSH and Riddlore always had a certain sound with their production, but a few tracks on Pages From tha Book of Life sounded a bit different. You mentioned bringing records to sample. Were you involved in the production side of things?

    Yeah, exactly. Definitely. Some of it, they had already. Like, "You guys can fuck with this." But especially the interludes were records I bought. I would go diggin'. I was fortunate enough to live close to this thrift shop that had stacks and stacks and stacks of records. I would always read the back or the inside covers of the records and tapes and I'd see who they sampled. And I would remember and shit, so I would look for those artists and then, just from diggin', I would get a feel for what I liked in terms of the year, the record label and the instruments that was being played. Those were the three main factors. And sometimes the artwork would attract me to it. If the art was fly, or I knew the artist or the label then I would fuck with it. And some shit was just a gamble, if it just seemed like some rare shit, you know what I'm sayin'? I wouldn't say I was a producer but I definitely had input on what I wanted to hear.

One of the things I always liked about your music was that you rapped about reality. You painted a picture so that people who maybe didn't grow up in the same type of environment got invited into your world. And you had a lyric, "Raised in a world that's fucked up, or is it us?" I always loved that, how you were doubting yourself. It was very real. Is that something that you made a conscious effort to do or was it a case of you just writing and that's what came out?

    Man, with writin', I recognized that were two - at least two - aspects of emceeing, which was freestylin' and then writin' songs and shit. And I just wanted to be as vivid and expressive and original and down to earth and real as possible. 'Cause I think rap, coming up in the hip-hop era, you had, like, hip-hop to me was an album within itself. You had the Kid 'n Play, you had the N.W.A., you had the 2Pacs. You had different things that were characterized through different artists. And I just wanted to be more than just a metaphoric, "I run like feet and I chew like teeth" [laughs], you know what I mean? I didn't want to be just all metaphoric. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted something that would be timeless, that would be relevant forever because it's some real shit. Like, it's coming from where it's coming from. So I guess I made a conscious effort, but at the same time when you're in a creative process, you set out but it depends on what it is. Sometimes you rhyme to the beat, and it's like, "What is this beat talking about?" Sometimes you'd write around a concept and find a beat to go to it, you know what I mean? Sometimes they would come together at the same time.

After Pages from tha Book of Life you guys released a couple EPs, Tha Inner-G and Cypha 7 Has Not Been Mixed Diluted or Tampered with... Was it your intention for those songs to be part of an album or were you just recording?

    We'd be just recording at that time. It'd be like, once we have seven songs, six songs - 'cause I just wanted everything to be dope. You know, Nas' first album was only nine songs and every one was different and dope in their own way. So I wanted an album short, to be seven or eight songs. And I wanted the song titles to sound like book titles. So really, it was no intention. We'd get to so many songs and be like, "All right, this is a project. What we gon' name it?" And we happened to link up with J.B. - he was a drummer for Medusa - and one day - this shit is crazy - one day he gave us a beat tape and there was a number on it. And I waited and procrastinated until one day I was like, "Fuck it! I'm callin' the number." And he was like, "Man, my phone is getting cut off tomorrow! You wouldn't have been able to contact me and shit!" After that, we'd go to Santa Monica and fuck with him. And this other cat named Nate, - he's a big DJ in  Los Vegas now - his name was DJ Spider, and we'd go to his house and record with J.B. I don't know if the song with Shock G is on any of those CDs, but Shock G saw us perform one night and he was really cool and down to earth, and he was like, "Ya'll dope! Anything I'm able to do as far as music, I'll fuck wit' you. Here's my number." I don't know if it made it on there, but you could see on those albums, all the production was by J.B. I think Tha Inner-G and the other album were all produced by J.B.

One of the trademark songs for Cypha 7 was "Astro Pimp." That song popped up on a bunch of projects. Can you break down the concept for that song?

    Wow, man! [laughs] It's funny. People would hit us and be like, "Yo, I got what you were saying! I got what the meaning was," and they'd say some really profound, deep shit and I wasn't even intending that [laughs]. You know, I was in my Jimi Hendrix mode, I guess, as far as drinkin' and druggin' and that shit just came out, man. I remember the night I heard the beat, and I was like, "This shit is dope!" And I went to the car and did some extra shit, just drinkin' and druggin' and writin' and when I came back to the studio, I had "Astro Pimp." And one of my good brothers, Wise, he came to the studio - I think he had given us a ride to the studio that day - and he added some shit on it. The part where it goes, "Well, you should follow through! Astro Pimp!" He be talkin' in the beginning, matter of fact.

You mean Otherwize?!

   Nah, not Otherwize. He was one of the Gods and shit. He was like, "I wanna talk on this shit." I don't think Shaheed was there that day. It was just some spontaneous shit. They just played the beat that night and I was loaded. I played it for Shaheed and he was like, "Man, what the fuck? Lemme get on this shit too!" So we went back and recorded Shaheed's verse on it later. But yeah, that was just some shit, man. Probably if I listened to it again, I could give you something a little bit deeper [laughs] but in real life, that's just how it came out. It was basically a fly, funk induced outer space metaphor for higher perspective. P.I.M.P. stands for Powerful Instrument of Musical Proportion.

The last Cypha 7 projects were from 2004. Have you and Shaheed ever talked about doing a new album since then?

    You know what, man? Actually, yes. To answer the question directly, yes, but not seriously. Shaheed lives in a different state, but with technology, if we really wanted to, we could do another album. But we were talking about putting out our old catalogue on iTunes, Soundcloud, all the new technology we got and if we could distribute our old stuff first and then maybe perform at the next Project Blowed reunion. That's pretty much the extent of it. I know [Shaheed] got some solo stuff he did not too long ago. I have a whole album, Moment of Impact, which is pretty much done. I just lost momentum, I guess, or lost desire for the whole hip-hop game. Not for the music, but for the game. But Born Allah, he's pullin' me out of retirement. I'm featured on some shit with Born called "Swordplay" which is supposed to be on a Wu-Tang mixtape or something, with Killah Priest and some other people. That's supposed to be droppin' soon. I can't front, man. With that shit, I'm kinda on my own dick. I rap like I used to and when I hear it, on some Back to the Future shit, it sounds fresh to me. I would definitely say look for "Swordplay". When I record it and then I hear it later, I wanna listen to my shit, if I lost my memory, I wanna think, "That shit was really dope!" If I ever got amnesia or whatever, I wanna hear my old shit and think, "Man, that cat is really dope."

You were also part of The Good Brothers project. Can you talk about how you became part of that?

    Same shit, man. Riddler put us on. Riddler is a really good dude. He always looked out for Cypha 7. We appreciated each other musically and lyrically. Whereas I felt like it was some other cats who may have been more in competition with us, in the hip-hop world. I always felt like it was enough, like, you can't be a better me than me! We all rap, but you can't be a better me. So let's all eat an put each other up. Riddler exemplified that. Any opportunity he had where he thought we'd be a good fit and we would shine on, he would definitely put us on. So Riddler hit us up and told us to come to the studio for that. We didn't even have anything ready. He just called us up, like, "Come to the studio and do something. We're doing a project." We came through and you could tell, like, half of my rhyme is kinda recycled from "Jump Off the Planet" 'cause he just told us to come right to the studio, put on the beat, like, "Fuck it."

Other than your work with Born Allah, all I've heard from you is your recent mixtape, A.K.M.Bo Slice Vs tha World. Can you talk about putting that together?

    Man, that was just a mixtape effort and it's like a solo effort and the process for that, for me, was just going online and choosing mixtape beats and shit. Shit that I felt wasn't overused, per se, that was recognizable but not overused. So, that was just the process, puttin' in my best effort. I dunno if you saw the artwork. One of my boys photoshopped my face onto Kimbo Slice's body. That shit is ridiculous and funny to me [laughs]. Yeah, I think a lot of times, you know, it's not super duper clever to come up with A.K.M.Bo Slice, but I like it. It's kinda rugged, on a hip-hop tip. So from that, I just wanted to do some songs about that and shit.

When I asked Born Allah about what you were up to, he mentioned that you were focusing on your artwork. Is that visual art you're working on?

    Yeah, man. I paint, and matter of fact, if you've seen Tha Inner-G artwork, it's a baby - a fetus inside the womb - with a mic on the umbilical cord. I did that. In fact, I did it just for the album so I painted it real small. I did it CD size. So, it wasn't big, it was actually that size. I lost it though [laughs]. I could do another one but they're all one of a kind. It'll never come out just like that. So my shit is on that kinda tip. I'm working with some, like, a mix of collage with spray paint and acryllic. It's fun. I did an art show a couple years ago at Leimert Park. I have a few more pieces now. When I get twelve - I'm pretty much at twelve, I just have to do a little refinement - I wanna do a little calendar, you know, post cards and posters and shit and start there. I hope I get recognized.

So we talked about your art and you mentioned Moment of Impact, but do you have any music planned for the future you'd like to talk about?

    You know what? No real business plan like that, man. It's really on the hobby tip for me now. I do got brothers that be mashin'. I'm on a song with Born and SK that's really, really dope, called "Cold as Ice" and we're lookin' to do a video for that. And you know, I can be pulled out any time to do some shows and shit. I'm still dope. I still got it. I'm in better shape then I was back then [laughs]. I can perform. It ain't nothin' for me. So if the moment and opportunity arises for me and Shaheed to do some shit or just like you pulled me out for this. My wife, she know I rap and shit, but she was like, "You doin' an interview?" So I can be pulled out to do it but I'm just not into it as a profession. I'm not as invested as I was before. You know, just travelling for free shows, just to get recognized. It was necessary at the time. I don't regret it.  Even if it was rockin' for two people, it made them Cypha 7 fans and they could spread the word. It was in the name of hip-hop. It's the game I don't appreciate, you know?

Friday, August 7, 2015

Underated Collaberated

I Used To Be...

Thank you Cody for hooking me up with this!
"The Co-Op Vol.1" is a classic underground tape from 2000, aptly named because of it's many wonderfully gratuitous group efforts on the mic.  Before the "Chuck Taylor Presents the Capitol's Best Collection" album, this street level production (along with the Cuf's "Cufilation" release) represented the voice of the Sacramento underground.  Led by emcee-producer Anonimous, The Underated Collaberated collective was home to a gang of talent, including members of the afore-mentioned Cuf; as well as of Verbatum and Socialistik, plus many others.   The label, Sound Cultivator Productions, I believe, was also Anonimous' project.  Along with two other emcees on this release, Fiasco and Kgee, Anonimous went on to form The Rebels Of Rhythm (not related to the J-5 Rebels), and also Hollywood Kill (also with Kgee).  His name is also attributed to production work for L'Roneous and Hieroglyphics.
Sonically, this release is as beautifully gritty as you want it.  Anonimous' beats are sample-based, unadorned, and heavy.  They are unnerving - sometimes they're jumpy, sometimes they shamble forward, dragging their feet, shaking their chains.  Unexpected, jarring sounds often enter the mix, raw and scoured.  Listen to the opener, "The Most Hated", or "A Story" to catch the meaning.  Musically, it's captivating, and a perfect backdrop for these emcees, who aren't really the wine and roses type.  Krush is on this piece after all.  They spit raw - there's nothing very glamorous about The Sac anyway.  
It's hard to imagine this release being as old as it is.  It's from 2000, 15 years ago now.   If this was rock music, it would officially be fair game for the classic rocks stations on the radio.  Listening to this tape tonight, I'm struck by that sneaky, persistent passage of time.  Not because of the music - to me, this still sounds fresh and undated - rather it's due to the mannerisms, lyrical content and subject matter of the various voices here.  At some point in time, I'm not sure when, I stopped feeling that almost tangible connection to the underground in a current sense, and began experiencing it as a dear period of time in my past - in a nostalgic sense.  And by the grey hair growing on my temples and the wrinkles forming on my face, it's clear I'm no longer 20 years old.  Listening to the trials and tribulations of the various performers on this release, I can see they can only come from the unhindered and unburdened shoulders of young people, with just one foot out the door.  However, I listen to this without any sense of mourning for my youth - and its the reason I keep coming back to music like this, made my young people, or people who were once young - because it takes that kind of young energy for me to be inspired.  This music is rough, sometimes abrasive, but it's also beautiful and breathtaking - this is music made by minds that aren't afraid to experiment (in fact, it never occurred to them to be afraid), with naive reflections on life that are almost painful in their unguardedness.  
I'm also struck listening to this music, that I've been living and loving hip hop for the great majority of my life.  I was born in the seventies, became Aware Of How Shit Is in the eighties, and once I heard Public Enemy there was no turning back.  I've seen the passage of time and how hip hop has changed with it, and I appreciate more than words can express how it has embraced with open arms people of all ages, races, and cultures as it too has grown.  It is with this, as I listen to The Underated Collaberated, that, despite hearing it through a tunnel of age and experience, I feel as in tune and supported and in love with the culture as ever - despite the fact I'm probably twice the age now as some of the voices on here.  I can't claim to represent or speak for hip hop in any way, I would never presume that, but I think it's safe to say hip hop is not a fad to just grow out of.  It's not a young man's game.  It's for life.  There are children practicing their battle raps, there are kids in their teens making their own recordings, there are the grown folks who keep it working, and there are the elder statesmen, like Chuck D, whose voice I still find as crucial as it was back in '91.  Hip hop is infinite.  No matter where I am or where I will someday be, I call it home.  And for that I have infinite thanks.