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?

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