KILLER TAPE

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I Got So Much Faith In This Little Dude Kendrick.

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Been sitting on this one for too long. Figure Dre Day + a week before Kendrick’s two shows at Roseland here in NYC is as good of a time as any to get it up.

The below comes from a conversation with Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith about two weeks before good kid, m.a.a.d city hit retail that fed into a piece on Kendrick and TDE that ran in Billboard the week of GKMC's release.

I’d met the TDE team a few days before this call at 30 Rockefeller where they were shooting Kendrick’s television debut performing “Swimming Pools (Drank)” on Fallon. After the taping, the crew headed downtown for a quick in store appearance at the Soho Apple Store as part of the location’s ongoing interview series. Chuck Creekmur moderated, Ab Soul showed up and joined Kendrick for another quick performance of “Swimming Pools.”

The crew was hungry and it was getting late. We got separated in the scrum after the in-store and I headed back to BK with plenty of color already in the books. Top and I jumped on the phone a few days later and I really enjoyed our conversation. He’s an industry outsider who’s pushed through all of the setbacks and slammed doors to build the foundation of an empire, and I always find those types of success stories particularly inspiring. 

He doesn’t seem to do a lot of interviews (at least not now/yet), which, while understandable, is still unfortunate because he’s been through a lot while navigating TDE to where it is today. With so many web-and-road-focused independent campaigns out there basically adopting and building on the back of what’s essentially the Rostrum/TDE model (rooted in the never stop, never rest blueprint sketched by mixtape Weezy), I’m sure there are a lot of folks who could gain a lot from his perspective. 

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation: 

You guys piled into the van and that was that.

All the fans bogging you down.

Yeah, I can’t go out in public.

I see working at Billboard does a lot for you, man.

You know…

So, first off, congrats on everything – it’s a long time coming. The music is fantastic, and the excitement is definitely there. I know you guys put in a lot of work over the years to get here, so congratulations. I just want to talk a little about the road getting here and where things are going from here. For some reason I didn’t quite know that you were producing R&B records at one point?

Yeah when I first started, I grabbed a producer and he produced some records on B2K. At that time, producers were getting a lot of money. I was just being a copycat – step on his toes, and get me some money, too. I ran around with him a little bit – ran into the B2K guys and we produced a few records for them.

So you weren’t really a producer, you were more a manager?

Exactly, yeah, yeah… I couldn’t make a beat to save my life man.

So in terms of your interest in music – was it you thought it would be a good decision business wise – this is a good hustle, I see what my uncle is doing – what was the motivation?

That’s exactly what it was. My uncle was making some good moves and he had some artists that was making a lot of noise – and it looked kind of easy. You wanna find someone who could rap or sing, and put the music out there. I thought it could be a couple of months – I could be on top of the game. I never really see myself working a 9-5, so I always had it in my mind that once I left the streets I’d have to find something quick and easy and I thought the music was that.

So your uncle – was he doing stuff that we might know? Who was your uncle?

Yeah he did a lot of stuff with Bobby Brown, Kirk Franklin – a lot of people. I don’t really want to put his name out there. He was doing a lot of work and making a boatload of money – so just seeing that, it looked so easy. I was there off the bat – I built the studio, never start working. I had it built for seven years before I even started messing with it. It was in my head automatically; once I finished doing whatever I was doing I was going straight to music.

Do you know about how much you put into that studio?

I put about $100,000 into it.

Damn.

What I did was I had a house at home in Carson – I built a room on the back. I spent about $30,000 - $40,000 on the room and I spent about $50,000 – $60,000 on it quick.

Damn.

And I’m mad right now, because I probably could go spend $15,000 – $20,000 and have everything I had back then.

So you sunk about $100K into the studio at the back of the house – and it sat there for a good seven years?

Yeah, I built it in ’97 and waited until ’04.

And 2004 was when you hooked up with the producer that got you placements with B2K?

Yeah his name was Demetrius Shipp – he had done a lot of work with Tupac and a bunch of other people – he had a lot of placements. I knew him; he used to have some issues some time. He wanted me to ride with him and talk to some folks about his business, and you know me; I’m an opportunist, so I said yeah. From that point on we were kind of partnering up, and I’m trying to manage this dude, and I don’t know what’s going on but I’m just thinking about collecting this money – let’s go collect this money, you know what I mean? I made a few dollars, which got me ready for bigger and better things – bigger and better opportunities.

About how old were you when you started working with the producer?

When I started working with Meech? 2004, that was eight years ago – I was young, I was real young.

Are you gonna tell me, or are you gonna keep that one close?

I’m gonna keep that one… I was young, man.

So you started working with him… You hooked up with Jay Rock around the way, right, and you guys start putting records out with him?

Yeah, what happened was – the thing with me and Demetrius, we’d done it for about a year and it kind of fell off. The street started getting hot. I was thinking it was time for me to focus on getting this music thing going, which I thought was going to be an overnight thing. I was looking for artists, and I heard one of the Jay Rock mix tapes. Me and Jay Rock from the same neighborhood, so I got my hands on some of his music, so I started looking for Jay Rock. He thinks I was trying to discipline him on some bullshit that he was doing, but really I was trying to find him to get him in my studio. Every time I’d try and find him, he’d break and run – thinking I’m coming around for the wrong reasons. But I finally caught him sitting on his porch and I told him – I got a studio, heard your music, let’s get you over and do some music. I got over there and locked him in the studio. You want to hear something funny, though? When he first got there, guess who was recording? Me! I tried to learn how to engineer a little bit. I knew once I decided to go the music route, I knew I had to learn something about the music, work Pro Tools a little bit, and record a little bit. Once Punch started locking himself in over there I showed him how to handle that and he took over from there.

So these days Punch does a lot of the engineering for you guys?

He started out doing a lot of the engineering you know, and then Derek Ali came around – he the mix master now.

So I talked to Punch earlier, and just got off the phone with Dave – heard about how everything went with Jay Rock, Warner, and how that situation unfolded. Can you talk a bit about that - just about how you guys built the opportunity for Jay to get the deal with Warner and what happened once he got the deal?

We went and worked on a few records and we met Naim Ali. I kept giving him music, and he was impressed - he saw that Jay Rock had some talent in him, and we brought him four songs and he loved them. The situation started there. He signed us up there at Warner Bros. We worked on an album…We finally got a record that we loved with Lil Wayne, Will.I.Am, produced by Cool and Dre. It was going crazy, up to about 700, 800 spins a week. The new guys came in and they just shitted on our record. They came in, brought in Gucci Mane, [and] the other rap dude that was saying “Ay” all the time from Atlanta. They didn’t have no love for Jay Rock or what we were doing – they just shitted on our record. Me and Punch flew out to New York and asked for a release and we got out of that situation. We learned a lot from our situation. They really shut us down, we really felt like we were on our way.

Can you talk about your learning curve with the industry? Like you said, you just got in and it’s not like you studied music or the industry necessarily. Can you talk about what you’ve learned along the way? 

One of the main things is to keep doing what we do. Don’t depend on nobody else in this business, don’t let them change up what we doing. You always got to stick to our guns, and just keep pushing hard with what we doing. Whatever deals that they bring to the table extra is cool, but if we do what we plan, and work our plan the way we work it, we can win, you know what I mean? It’s not really to trust the words of everybody – we ran into so many people that said they were gonna do this, do that, and you think people are going to come through, but they don’t – and you get a lot of disappointment that way. The main thing to me is staying focused and doing our thing – don’t let anyone else control you. As long as we do us, we good. We learned that from the Warner situation. We went in and signed a deal – we thought the label was going to make everything else happen. And we got a little lazy and laid back a little bit, you know? But after that situation, we had a meeting and we told each other, Hey we are going to control our own destination. We are going to keep pushing and make everyone come to us.

Obviously you don’t get a record with Wayne, and with Cool and Dre, with Will.I.Am without a lot of work. So it must have been…to watch that record rise – I know you were pushing to get that in front of people, and to get it on radio and everything, and then to watch it all disappear, it must have been incredibly frustrating.

Man, it kind of like broke my heart. You work so hard to get somewhere, and then you finally feel like you’re there and they say, No that’s not it. Because at the time we got Wayne, he had just sold over a million copies in one week. Out of the love he had for us, he gave us the track for free, [like] “Here you go Top Dawg, you know I fuck with y’all, get this record for y’all.” Punch, Jay Rock, Kendrick flew out of town… we took months to get this done. They stayed in the studio all night while Wayne knocked out 20 verses waiting to get our shit done. Then I had to make a phone call, it finally got done. When it got back to me, we couldn’t find the Wayne verse. Everything was just crazy and when we finally got it right, we thought this is it, hottest niggas in the game, hottest producers. And guess who stopped us? It was crazy.

And the deal with Jay Rock and Warner – that was a standard artist deal?

Yeah, it was a standard artist deal.

So you come out of that meeting…thinking we’re not doing this again (laughs). And you start working it heavy independent. Can you talk a bit about where you think you were doing things right? And where you needed to get better?

I think we made all of our fuck ups during the time at Warner Bros. And we learned towards the end when we saw them fucking up, we started picking up the slack. The main thing was the Internet. It kind of levels the playing field, you know? We can’t go compete with them on radio, but can’t nobody stop us from putting it up on the Internet. So our whole thing was to make good music, keep putting it out there, keep promoting, get some visuals up on the ’Net. And everything started working out. We had built a little momentum with Jay Rock, people had started to know who he was. That situation with Warner, it fucked us but it still helped us, and I do appreciate the opportunity that Naim gave us. Through Jay Rock, we still touched and we travelled and we kind of got our name out there. It was easy getting on that ’Net and just working because I had the right artist that just loved to work. These dudes wanna be in the studio, they wanna work, they wanna win. And they like me: I go hard, man. I went crazy on these dudes to show them this is how bad I want this. And they got this understanding. They want it as bad as I did, and that’s what made it happen, that hunger. We got to go out there, we gotta work ourselves, ain’t nobody gonna do shit for us. The producer Sounwave and all these guys in there making the beats. We start making great music, getting these videos up. I think actually I probably shot our first video with a little camera… Matter of fact, me and Kendrick in the studio shooting a video. Everybody had nine jobs, doing everything we can to win. And that’s what made us a strong family. We all know what each other needs, and it just worked. People saw what we were doing, followed up on that, they respected that and they started supporting us.

Right, that’s great. And you can see that. You were saying Dave shot videos, and you shot videos… I was like, Dave does everything, man.

I mean, everybody, man. Even if we on tour, you might see one of them dudes selling merch. We a family, and we know ain’t nobody gonna pick the slack up like we do. When you’re working for yourself, you go harder. We got a tight knit family. It’s hard to bring anyone in, because we’ve built this thing over the past eight years. We all know each other. I’m the warden over there at this penitentiary, who keeps these 10-12 dudes in there and they know, I put these dudes in the hole for the week so they do what they do.

I hear you.

It’s a good thing. I don’t try to be like, I’m Top Dawg, this is how it should go. I do that at certain points, but really it’s like, these guys can override me on shit. Sometimes I’m not on point with everything. I’m still learning today. All this shit is still new to me. We all on certain decisions, it’s a team thing. They out vote me on shit. It’s going to go the way they voted. The key to them respecting me is me respecting them. Everybody knows I’m not the dude that’s gonna say it’s this way or no way. You got a lot of dudes that go that way, but that builds hatred in the camp and it bubbles up later on down the line. With us, six, seven, eight years and no hatred.

Right.

We fight sometimes, but no issues that bubble outside.

With you, do you talk to anyone outside the camp who you get advice from, perspective from, or insight from?

There’s a few people I talk with. I used to talk to Jay Brown a lot, and he used to give me advice. Recently, I’ve been talking to the elite now. I’ve been on the phone with 50 Cent for two, three hours; I talked to my man Baby. They pretty much give me the insights on a lot of shit. Both of these guys have been in the game for a long time, sold a lot of records. I respect their opinion on certain things, but I called my uncle, too. He gave me a lot of info on the game, too. I’m always trying to learn something. Once you stop learning, then it’s over with, you know? It’s crazy, like, these guys… before I really started doing the music, it’s always the stuff I rode with and fucked with, and for these dudes to advise me on certain things, or to call me? That makes me feel a certain way. Getting that respect from these guys, that’s really holding their own. Birdman’s been doing this for years, and you know, it’s a good feeling, makes me feel like I’m doing something right. 

No, I hear you. It’s a testament to what you guys have built. It’s undeniable at this point.

The craziest thing is we not satisfied. We not where we wanna be yet. Even though people look at us and tell us, y’all are on top, or whatever. But we know it’s a lot of work to be done. We’ve done a lot but we haven’t sold records. This is our real first release, that’s some real serious shit. This is gonna set the tone for TDE.

How do you feel going into that? Is there any anxiety, or is it just bold confidence?

Just confidence and excitement, man. I got so much faith in this little dude Kendrick. Everybody used to say that was my little pick or whatever, because he’s always been on point. I think he was born to do this. Everything comes naturally to him. He’s always been a team player. He sat back to let Jay Rock do what he was gonna do, instead of being impatient at a young age. If he had a record that was crazy, and I told him I wanted it for Jay Rock, he never argued. He said it was the best thing to do. At a young age, 16-17 years old? Man I wanted everything. If you had told me to give something great to someone else, we would have been fighting. But with him, when I first met him, when he first rapped for me, I tried to play like I wasn’t interested, and he wasn’t doing shit, but this nigga was rapping his ass off. And that day I knew he was a star. I think I gave him a contract the next day. Normally I try to wait it out to see if I can do something for somebody, but I said I had to sign this nigga right now. His overall talent man, he the best rapper alive. -BMI-

Catching up on all things Kevin Gates and started thinking about Young Buck. Def hear something similar there - the touch and feel of the streets (both present more bruised and bruising brawler than bankrolled boss), the congested, throaty flow. Freddie Gibbs and, to a degree, Webbie also come to mind. Not sure what that means for Gates’ potential in the long run, Buck blew (and then fell) basically because of 50, Gibbs has struggled to get off the ground in any meaningful way despite his clear gift, and you could argue that Webbie lucked into his hits (nothing about “Gimmie Dat” says, “This is going to work!” beyond the core until it does), except that you can’t ignore that he did it. Twice.

Regardless, figured it was worth a quick post to throwback to some early Young Buck. I always struggled with how slick the whole G-Unit machine became after Get Rich - the stuff that’s rough around the edges has always held more appeal to me - but there were records on Straight Outta Cashville that pulled me in, if just a few (“Do It Like Me,” “Prices On My Head” and “Shorty Wanna Ride” stand out). Watching this video all over again it’s even crazier how dramatically the Buck, 50, G-Unit thing all unraveled in the end. Related: always liked "Blood Hound"-BMI-

Kevin Gates, The Luca Brasi Story

I Be that Pretty Motherfucker aka What It Look Like aka the Aesthetics of the world according to B. Dot (WIP)

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First thing’s first: I don’t have this completely worked out. But here goes…

Last week, there was a flare up between B. Dot and Jordan Sargent over Sargent’s review of Chief Keef’s Finally Rich for SPIN.com. In his review, Sargent called the album “one of the best rap albums of the year and one of the best major-label debuts in recent memory” and B. Dot called him on this assertion (rightly, I think, but that’s another matter), publicly and on Twitter, implying that Sargent’s critical foundation was shaky at best, largely due to the fact that B. Dot sees Sargent as a commentator existing far outside the hip hop sphere/universe or whatever. Sargent responded first with a GIF taken from Keef’s “I Don’t Like” video and then, well, I don’t really know what happened after that because while I know this play, flame, troll Internet shit is somehow part and parcel with online spats/discourse, I don’t really have a lot of respect for it so I tend to lose interest quickly. (I say, cut the cute crap, say what you mean and stand by it, but what do I know.)

Anyway, the back and forth got me thinking about something that’s been on my mind a lot over the past few years, and Rembert’s post today on race and racism (which references the B. Dot v. Sargent thing as an example of the continued blurring of so-called, and long assumed, racial boundaries) coupled with the impending official release of A$AP Rocky’s debut LONG.LIVE.A$AP, made me think today might as well be the day to try to sort it out.

 Basically, while there’s probably a hint of race undercurrents seeping into B. Dot’s commentary on Sargent’s critique, I’d be surprised if that was actually the issue, as Rembert implies. Rather, and I think B. Dot’s pretty specific about this, the frustration comes from hipster media (in this case, but I think the same frustration could extend to many voices in mainstream media as well, if the source had originated there) weighing in on, and then elevating, a work of art created by a clearly troubled and troubling member of a culture both long marginalized and long on the defensive, particularly re its darkest corners and offshoots. And this is not a conversation – at least not what you’re reading here – about race, but about hip hop as those who have lived and battled for it for years know and love it. (B. Dot beat me to this point this afternoon on his own behalf in response to Rembert’s post, so… yeah.) Condemnation from the outside world has always come quick, and often as blanket statements that seize on one or two examples, ignoring the nuance and value of the many discussions being had both by and within the culture. B.Dot’s reaction to Sargent’s super positive Keef review is just a good reminder there can be danger in over celebration as well. If Keef is to be celebrated, the thinking is, that celebration needs to come from within, and the general sense seems to be that hip hop doesn’t quite know what to make of Keef just yet.

If hip hop isn’t to be subjected to the same artistic critiques and critical standards as set by the same critics as any other genre doesn’t that in some ways diminish it as art?

So where does Sargent’s license come from beyond the simple fact that SPIN cut him a check to wax poetic about Finally Rich? I’d argue that what we’ve seen in the past decade plus, but particularly in the past five years, is an ever-evolving push to define and describe hip hop in and on purely aesthetic terms. I don’t know Sargent, but I’m guessing that he – like Noz, who didn’t specifically come to Sargent’s defense (at least not that I saw), but who was also advocating for seeing a lot of what Sargent found in the Keef project, namely a playful, unique (arguably innovative) approach to making rap records – would likely argue that he was simply looking at the body of work for what it was as presented and doing his job: critiquing it. After all, the logic goes, if hip hop isn’t to be subjected to the same artistic critiques and critical standards as set by the same critics as any other genre, doesn’t that in some ways diminish it as art?

Keef’s approach is unorthodox. Where B. Dot (and many others, across the spectrum) would likely argue that’s because Keef is actually bad at what he does, namely rap, Sargent (and many others, also across the spectrum) instead chooses to see a minimalist leader of the avant garde unafraid to try new things and buck tradition. Critics are critics and differing opinions should be expected as it comes with the territory. But B. Dot’s I’m right, you’re wrong position comes from something else, I think, more like, “Criticism is fine, but let’s not get carried away. There are still standards to uphold, after all.” (A stance that gives Jon Caramanica’s take on the Keef project, which manages to praise and downplay at the same time, a much stronger foundation to stand on and therefore avoid the controversy that’s ensnared Sargent.)

But this is where rap finds itself on a slippery slope of late, I think, and a slope that’s become especially treacherous ever since the hip hop community stopped taking Rick Ross to task for his background as a correctional officer in his life before rap and instead embraced him for painting pictures bigger than rap had ever seen. With Ross, suddenly, aesthetics trumped everything, even reality, and even within the hip hop community. Nothing mattered but the sound and the presentation, and Ross in all his glory, knew how to package both. It was great music. Period. And that was all that mattered.

Drake’s rise pushed the aesthetic argument even further. By presenting himself as the perfect curator of look, feel, and presentation for the Internet age, Drake arrived as an artist whose aesthetics were so on point down to every word he put down on page, you had to fuck with him (even if, and in spite of the fact that, he was a former child actor). The mixtape art was excellent. The way the project arrived was so “organic.” And once we got past whether or not he’d sign a deal, the biggest controversy in that first year was whether the (Kanye West-directed) video for “Best I Ever Had” had the right “look” or was it offensive to women? In the end, it was a small blip on the radar, and Take Care is such a perfectly constructed gilded rose petal of a modern rap album that Drake can conduct an interview with Complex and talk about experience showers and lines of scented candles, and we can all get a kick out of it, and quickly let it go, like no shit, that’s Drake. (And Ross and Drake certainly didn’t pioneer this approach. Hip hop has long been aesthetic obsessed, and Jay-Z’s Blueprint was a mission statement if ever there was one about just how much could be gained by sticking close to the art rather than chasing radio airplay. Kanye’s whole career is built upon grandstanding on this very creative cornerstone.)

Like any viable music, hip hop has always been heavy on craft, and the construction of a record or a rhyme can trump meaning or message because the core fans and the practitioners can all appreciate the value in good form. But because of the conditions of its creation (it’s a form literally born out of a lack of resources; declines in urban education spending -> kids underemployed at school trained in little more than simple mechanics -> hot-wiring city grids to throw awesome parties in the park), and the constant marginalization of everything around it, including the people who make it, the communities they’re from and the people who champion and consume it, it’s an art that is almost impossible to consider outside of the context that created it. Chuck D famously called hip hop the “Black CNN” and in many ways that characterization still holds today. It’s admittedly a bit of a logical stretch (bear with me), but looking solely at the aesthetics of a rap album without considering everything around it – who made it, how, why, where and with whom – is almost like critiquing the aesthetics of a broadcast news piece on Sandy Hook. Sure, there’s always room for media criticism, but in the affected community, nobody really gives a fuck whether or not the network used the appropriate B roll footage and/or what you thought about that. Shut up and get out of the way. (Then again, there’s the counter argument - art is art is art - as presented above.)

Still, the community itself is changing. Blame the Internet or the free time afforded by the post-industrial age or the Pitchfork effect or all of the above and more, but on the whole, the hip hop community is becoming more obsessed with aesthetics than ever before. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city was presented as a fully realized work of art from the get go, demanding even in it’s “a short film” subhead that it be looked at and considered as such. And it was incredibly successful on all fronts, giving critics something to geek out over and parse, fans something to bump, and peers something to consider as they walk into their own projects. (To me, one of the really great things about good kid is just how exciting it is to think about the 14 year old kid/future MC who fell in love with that album this year, and the music he/she will make in five to 10 years.)

Chuck D famously called hip hop the “Black CNN” and in many ways, that characterization still holds today.

All of which somehow brings me to A$AP Rocky who has unapologetically etched his name onto the rap wall in a gritty futuristic scrawl and demanded almost nothing more than that - what you see in him. As a result, what you take away from all things A$AP is all brazen aesthetic. This is a guy built on how he looks, how he presents and how he and his team moves, and he’s obsessed with it. He’s young, fly, he’s Pretty Flacko, he’s the guy who’s pulled and borrowed from the best of all worlds and created a debut album that plays like beautiful rap decay, a nihilistic exercise in the far limits of all aesthetic everything at the expense of, and perhaps in place of (and in search of?), anything else. It bangs, he bangs - the night is very dark, and the darkness is bleak, raw and tragically beautiful. The end. And while the critical conversation is yet to come (despite the early leak, the big critical pieces have yet to arrive), so far the hipsters and the rap kids all seem to agree: like Drake and Kendrick before him, all signs point to A$AP Rocky being the next big thing. Long live A$AP indeed.

So as the community changes, so, too, does the conversation – inside, outside, about and around it, the culture and its art. And while this change is something that can, and in many ways probably should be embraced – the more people who engage with the music and recognize its power and prominence and take it seriously, the better we’ll all be able to understand each other (at least one hopes) – it’s also something that gives many of the people inside the community (B. Dot say, and many others) cause for concern. And understandably so.

A$AP’s is a debut album that plays like beautiful rap decay, a nihilistic exercise in the far limits of all aesthetic everything at the expense of, and perhaps in place of (and in search of?), anything else.

Until very recently, hip hop was discovered and incubated internally. The narratives of emerging stars were uncovered, shaped, defined and considered almost exclusively by the hip hop press for the hip hop community, mainly because they were the only outlets bothering to invest in actually paying attention. As a result, by the time an artist took off in the mainstream, the hip hop community had already sorted out where it stood on an artist, vetted what the artist meant, cosigned him or her and was already looking ahead at where the community would go from here. All that was left to do was to wait for the calls from the mainstream press to play talking head and make the next big thing in the hip hop world make sense to the world at large.

But recently, particularly in the past year (and with ever accelerating pace), that has started to change. With distribution democratized by the web and access to everything available to everyone all the time, the runway between arrival and takeoff for any new artist (across genre) has collapsed. This is not news. Yes, artists like Kendrick, J. Cole and Mac Miller (and even Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) can still remain relatively unknown beyond the hip hop community until the very moment that they arrive at the top of the charts, but with a generation of writers and editors raised on the music (whether close to the community or not) and well aware of its commercial and cultural viability not to mention a sea of websites with a bottomless pit of content to feed, all of us - everywhere - are all simultaneously chasing the same stories, threads and personalities. But it’s that claim everything mandate necessitated by the never ending hunt for traffic that brings with it the very real fear within the hip hop community that someone with the wrong lens but a bigger screen and more eyes will get the opportunity to define someone or something in a way that’s just fundamentally all wrong. (The Jay-Z is black black moment in Esquire, for instance.) It’s not all fair game. Certainly not yet, and it might never be. Because of the confluence of so many things - race, socioeconomics, shared cultural history, internal morals, codes, etc. - hip hop isn’t just art on the canvas. It’s more complicated that that. And that’s the way it is. 

Which brings me to this: One of the really fascinating, and frankly at times frightening, developments of the past few years to me has been the rise of the weight given to Pitchfork reviews not only by hip hop fans but, increasingly, by the artists themselves. On a certain level, you have to respect it and understand it – Pitchfork has built a powerful platform as the leading critical voice in music online mainly by at least attempting to take a critical mass of music releases seriously and worthy of critique, so there’s that. (And it’s done so, as Jayson Rodriguez pointed out today, at a time when the core hip hop mags – and many music books, for that matter – have marginalized or eliminated their own critical takes.) Plus, as an artist, what more can you ask for than to be taken seriously as exactly that – an artist? All of the individuals that make a community may make the community, but on their own they (we) all want to be taken on their own and recognized for their own individual greatness and achievements. The gold thread doesn’t/can’t always see the tapestry; sometimes it just wants to be seen as a gold thread and have that be something great on its own. But culture is culture and every thread always becomes part of the fabric and to B. Dot’s point, a real effective critique has to be able to weave it all together or it simply falls apart. And when the things that fall apart in your hands are delicate subjects, well that’s when it becomes problematic at best, and offensive at worst.

It’s 2013. Let’s not be offensive or ignorant. Let’s be informed. Let’s respect the culture (s/o Elliott and RESPECT.). Let’s be great. The community, the culture and the craft deserve it. We all do. –BMI–

It’s my time to shine so fuck y’all

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Last week, T.I.’s eighth album (the last under his current contract with Atlantic Records) Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head shot to the upper reaches of the Billboard 200, notching a No. 2 bow with 179,000 sold according to Soundscan. The sales frame was good for a 19K improvement over first week sales for 2010’s No Mercy, which notably arrived with Tip back in prison for probation violation, no real single ahead of it and everyone except for his hardcore fans pretty much down on him for his persistent legal troubles. The release was generally panned as a lukewarm, if that (though if you ask me, I still say that album was written off without anyone even really bothering to listen to it, but that’s another story). Trouble Man also didn’t have a strong single leading into release, but certainly benefited from several factors including his hit TV show (T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle), a series of well received leaked songs from the album, and perhaps just as important, his freedom, which makes the project part of a comeback narrative was supposed to have launched No Mercy and then, of course, didn’t. 

Last Friday, I was included in an email chain about whether or not Trouble Man marked the return of the King or was rather one last grasp at power by a fading figure that was destined to fail. The overall sentiment on that thread seemed to boil down to two things: it’s way too soon to count T.I. out, and it comes down to the music (as it always does) and Tip has several records on the project left to work yet. I’m inclined to agree, and will add here another point I’ve made in conversation about Trouble Man - it’s a strong album that should (assuming all goes right - no legal drama, the music stays strong, and, say, that teased T.I./Toomp project comes together) set up a blockbuster follow up. Trouble Man loads the bases with good will and fan support. The next one could be another Paper Trail-like grand slam. 

Before all of that, though, there’s still Trouble Man to work. The album slips from No. 2 to No. 5 on this week’s chart, with 74K sold, but should hold high in the charts for a while depending on single performance. (“Hello” with Cee-Lo or “Can You Learn,” featuring R. Kelly, are both said to be in consideration for the next push, with the Pink record “Guns and Roses” almost certain to go to radio before Trouble Man is put to bed.)

I had the opportunity to catch up with T.I. just before Thanksgiving to talk a bit about Trouble Man, comebacks and more for the Dec. 1, 2012 issue of Billboard. As always, not everything made the piece. Here, we talk a bit about perception and reality, the flaw in the philosophy of his sentencing and who really deserves his concern. 

When you were here and playing the record, you mentioned that you felt like you were apologizing to the wrong people during the last album cycle. Who are you thinking of when you say that? Who do you have in mind?

I mean, I’m just saying like people… I was apologizing to people who weren’t worthy of my apology because they didn’t care about me one way or another. They don’t have my best interest at heart. They don’t know [like] whether I stay out of trouble, or whether I got in trouble, they was gonna say fuck T.I. anyway. Just simply because. They didn’t care one way or another, they just really hopped on the bandwagon of people who were criticizing someone for doing something that was commonly believed to be bad. So. Whereas there are also people who believe in me and who put a lot of their energy into what I do; energy and livelihood into what I do. And those are the people got apologies. However, those are the people who didn’t require apologizing to. They didn’t require… It was more so, man, we know who you are, the man, we know your heart, we know how you are on the day to day, not just on the day that you happened to make a bone brained decision, we know how you are on the daily, and we judge you based on that, based on how we know you are on the daily not how you may have been when you made that decision. And those are the people who mean the most. The people who I was apologizing to, they weren’t going to respect my apology because they didn’t care in the first place. Yeah, right. Yeah, okay, yeah, you apologized so what? We don’t care. Get out my face. You know what I’m saying? So it’s kind of like if you hold your hand out to shake somebody’s hand and they slap your hand down. Now what? You gonna hold it out again? Hell, naw. So you know what? If it’s fuck me, then fuck you. Because you got your own shit going with yours over there. It may not be the same shit I’m dealing with, but you got things to deal with. I may have legal issues. Lot of people out there got moral issues, you know what I’m saying? Now, who’s to say which one is worse? So I mean, that… I think that was my point. And I learned that from people in prison. People in prison had to tell me that. You know? I mean, they really just had to say, “Hey listen, brother. I did less than what you’ve done, and I got X amount of years. You know what man? At the end of the day it’s about you, your kids, your family, and the people you know love you because you can’t please everybody else. You can’t. You just simply can’t.” So, you know what I’m saying, I’m content with who I am.

I may have legal issues. Lot of people out there got moral issues, you know what I’m saying? 

My family is proud of who I am. So as long as I got them on my side, I don’t really need the rest of ’em. The rest of it going to come and go with the music because if I did everything right, never went to prison, stayed out of trouble, and never made a jammin’ ass album, they wouldn’t give a fuck about T.I. anyway. So let’s get back to what’s important. You like me for making music and entertainment, you know what I’m saying? So let’s get back to that. All these other things about me being a role model and having responsibilities, and do this and do that. Like, that’s too much. That’s more like you know me personally. That’s too much. Now I owe you more than you owe me. You crazy? I can’t tell you, oh, you drinking and driving? You ain’t got not business drinking and driving. Aw, man, you had a baby outside of your marriage? You ain’t supposed to be having a baby outside of your marriage. See, I can’t do that to you. But then when you hear about my shortcomings, you get to come and you get to chastise me. That’s not fair, and now we have an uneven relationship. You get to come chastise me, but I don’t get to do it to you. That’s not fair.

 

Right.

 

That was the perspective that I spoke from when I said that.

 

But then, through a part of your arrangement, I know you put it all of that community service time. Any perspective on that? I feel like you’re not talking specifically about that, but maybe I’m wrong?

 

I mean, true enough, I upheld everything that was in my agreement. I did all my hours. I spoke. I stayed out of trouble. I didn’t do anything. Now, after I had served my sentence. After I had completed hours. After all of this was said and done, true enough, I made a bad decision. Arguably because it was an overload of just, you know what I’m saying, like it was just, it was too much. That was just too much. I’ve always been present in the community. I’ve always been the first to stand up and help whenever my help was needed. It did not take a federal mandate for me to do that. I’ve been doing it ever since even before people knew who I was, even when I show up and people would be like, who are you? I was still doing it. You know what I’m saying. So that to me is never in question because if you go and you check my background, you can see times dating back as far as 2001, 2002 when I was speaking to juveniles and I was talking to boys and girls clubs, and I was helping people giving out turkeys and doing a Christmas drive, I’ve been doing that for years. So that’s not the point. The point is now what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to turn me into a politician. That’s what I felt like. I felt like, now you want me to be a poster child for always doing the right thing. And you set that standard too high for me. I can do it for a little bit, but eventually, man, you set that standard too high for me. I’m not going to always do the right thing. I always want to. But nobody is going to always do the right thing. And for you to put me out there as the face of, this is the poster child for always doing the right thing, you have set standards too high for me, man. I can’t live up to this. I can’t. I can do it for as long as I can, but eventually, I’m going to have a shortcoming. And when I have that shortcoming, you’re going to come down on me. Why? Because you have made me this poster child, where anybody can agree that if you have been practicing bad habits for, let’s say, let’s take me for example. If you have been practicing bad habits, for me it was, I started smoking, selling drugs, just you know doing bad shit, breaking the law, probably when I was like 12 years old. Okay? I got arrested 2007, so that was 27 years old. That’s 15 years here. That’s 15 years I’ve been smoking weed, toting guns, breaking the law, and doing wrong.

The point is now what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to turn me into a politician.

Okay, that’s 15 years. Now, 2007 [going into] 2008, they say they want me to do nothing wrong. Okay, so in a year’s time, you expect for me to just revert 15 years worth of habits in one year’s worth of time? That’s impossible! It’s not impossible, but it’s improbable. You shouldn’t be… A person should not be expected to do that, just cold turkey get everything out of here. And I did it. I did it. I did it for a year. What messed me up was when they sent me to prison. Once you have adopted a new way of life, you’ve adopted a new model of thinking, and acting and behavior – I’d already gotten the point. They sent me to prison, okay now, all these ideas, and theories and these beliefs, these new mannerisms, I have to throw all of this away because now it’s about survival. Because now I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to survive in here, you know what I’m saying? If I stay how I was, this person that I was before you sent me here, I’m going to get slaughtered in here, so I can’t do that. So now it’s about survival. Now, when I come home, I’m not the same person as I was when I went in. That’s not my fault. Who sent me there? You did. And now they expect me to come back… all of these things they expect, or expected… I’m not trying to speak down on them, but I just don’t think it was… man, they standards are too high. Their standards are too high. So, I mean, I think… I think I did damn good given the circumstances. -BMI-

A few weeks ago, I got into a brief Twitter convo with J. Williams and [??] about Gotti’s storytelling skills. They’re slept on. Not that this record showcases that. (For examples of Gotti spitting yarn, check this and, to a somewhat lesser degree this and this. One of his strengths as a storyteller, I think, is his commitment to very real places, people and things. His songs are littered with concrete references. It’s a plus.) But “What Up” is one that I go back to on the regular. It’s my stay down, keep grinding, don’t sweat the setbacks anthem. Still. -BMI-

*The meanest Gotti record ever.

**The Gotti Next I wrote for VIBE back in ‘05, which I’ll always remember not for the fight in the stands that leads the piece, but for Gotti standing outside the studio before the show, putting his chain on, and asking me: “So what you think? Do I look like a rapper?”

Was digging around online as we close this week’s Billboard and caught this post on UPNORTHTRIPS re today being the sixth anniversary of the release of Wayne’s Carter II. What’s there to say? Filing on the fly, I feel like so much and so little.

This album was such a revelation, right? Better, to me, than Tha Carter III. I always respected Carter III and I always understood what people - and so many critics - responded to about it (even if I still think that part of the response was that Carter III was out, Wayne was and had been hot, and it was time to respond to Wayne). But Carter III was Wayne’s mind exploded. Tha Carter II was that mind - one of the sharpest, especially with the pen - focused.

Still, it’s a bit of a weird project with essentially two intros that falls apart a bit at the end. And my perception of it is certainly helped by the fact that I somehow came across a leak of the album several weeks before release that was only about 12 tracks long, which led me to think that the project was a lot leaner and stronger than the actual retail release turned out to be. Either way, though, this is an album that packed unapologetic street heat, more chiseled than Tha Carter and less colorful than Tha Carter III. And it was a banger.

Week of release, I sat down with Wayne in a hotel room high above Times Square for an interview that was originally slated as a feature but scrambled to a cover after “Fireman” started to take off.

I hadn’t seen him since we’d done our first big story together - for BLAZE, ahead of his debut - in late 1999. He was watching Sportscenter, which would later become something of an interview signature, and eating Blow Pops. He wasn’t yet the sometimes elusive almost always explosive Lil Wayne that he would later become. We weren’t on the bus and the room wasn’t filled with smoke. We talked New Orleans, the Hot Boys, gangs, drugs, the new Cash Money, Trina and more. Aside from his publicist, we were the only ones in the room.

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So, yeah. Happy anniversary to Tha Carter II. If you’re interested, you can read the VIBE story here. -BMI-

*Check a young Curren$y in the video. Also: this record still bangs.

—T.I. - Sorry ft. André 3000 [Explicit]

Everyone’s going to talk about the 3 Stacks verse here, and they should. It’s bonkers. Intricate. Honest. Vulnerable. And an answer to the question/s that haunts every Big Boi project and appearance (understandably, at this point, much to his frustration). T.I. has even given the verse top billing, building anticipation for the song at every turn in the run up to Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head by touting it as “Dre’s best verse since OutKast.”

At a recent appearance at the Soho Apple Store in NY, Tip talked a bit about the process of landing the verse.

"Dre is an… interesting individual," he said, on stage for a taped Q&A with All Hip Hop’s Chuck Creekmur. “You don’t really ask 3 Stacks for a verse. It’s more of a suggestion. Something you put in the air. And you’ll get a call from him, like, ‘I’ve been thinking about doing something.’ And you say, ‘Okay, well that sounds great.’ And then you wait. And then you get a call, and he’ll say, ‘I’m really feeling good. I think I’m going to do something.’ And you’re like, great, you just let me know. And then you wait again. And then he’ll get in touch, like, ‘I think I got it!’ And you’ll get the verse, and then you’ll realize… he shitted all over you on your own song.”*

It was a funny moment, and a moment of humility from a guy not known for backing down from a good boast. And it’s true, on first brush Dre’s verse completely overshadows everything. It’s that good.

But listen again. Sit with it.

Get over the shock of hearing 3 Stacks directly address Big Boi, OutKast and his own motivations for running from his fame. And listen to what Tip has to say and how he chooses to say it:

"My philosophy: profit off of my properties

Get it, flip it, we got to be rich, that broke shit is obsolete

Possibly off of my rocker, watch how you watching me

Sophisticated psychotic, Fly as a pilot

Officially solid

All that you wish you could get I got it

Unlimited titanium, n***a, what’s in your wallet?”

Both Dre and Tip are kicking real life here, as they know it. Dre’s always seen himself as the most human and Tip’s always seen himself as superhuman. They both rip. And they’re both talking how they walk it.  They just happen to walk in very different shoes. -BMI-

*Not an exact quote, but pretty damn close.

**Having trouble with the audio player. It’s via Atlantic official Soundcloud. Open to insight if someone has it, but in the meantime you can find the record here.

Been spending more time with Troy Ave lately. (It’s a Brooklyn thing.) Caught him at a couple of CMJ showcases (including Tumblr’s, so there’s that), and it’s been cool watching him grow his profile as a different kind of new New York voice, trading on a different idea of swag. (As my guy Felipe pointed out months ago here.) Over the holiday weekend, he popped up on this track from Fab’s S.O.U.L. Tape 2. Hard not to hear a young 50 in there, huh? Another thought: it’s time to revisit Heat.

More Troy Ave - or as he just put it on Twitter, “All my new shit,” here. -BMI-

Been enjoying watching Trindad James’ "All Gold Everything" take off. Record’s damn near impossible not to like, and I’m psyched that some good folks - Baller’s Eve and Motion Family - are involved in the push. Saw some Twitter chatter yesterday suggesting that “All Gold Everything” was going to be the song of the winter. Doesn’t seem far off.

The talk made me pull the video back up just to check it one more time before ducking outta the office for the night (which btw, is a great way to end the day). Listening to TJ stroll through the first verse, I thought - again - he sounds familiar. And, once again, I couldn’t place it before I had to run.

This am, tho, I was on the train headed into the city and there was a kid with the panda hat on asleep on her mother’s lap. I started thinking about “All Gold” again, and I realized what I was hearing in the song: Bohagon.

Guessing a lot of folks outside of the Southern circuit don’t know him, but I was always a fan. Deep fried don’t give a fuck rubber band flow slapped onto beats built to beat you to the floor. Good combo. Even went to Boston (of all places) to write a "Next" about him back in the day. I’ve got a hard drive somewhere with a pretty sick Bohagon tape on it from those days, but I don’t remember who hosted it or what it was called. I’ll have to dig it up this weekend. In the meantime, there’s “The Streets” above and this record featuring Yo Gotti here, ‘cause you know, why not? -BMI-

Curren$y and Harry Fraud’s “Cigarette Boats” project here (via Soundcloud), in case you haven’t caught up on it already. Those who know me know I believe in Curren$y - "Reagan Era" and "Animal" are among faves - and Fraud’s just got a great thing going on. Plus the artwork’s solid. Gotta respect it. -BMI-

Curren$y and Harry Fraud’s “Cigarette Boats” project here (via Soundcloud), in case you haven’t caught up on it already. Those who know me know I believe in Curren$y - "Reagan Era" and "Animal" are among faves - and Fraud’s just got a great thing going on. Plus the artwork’s solid. Gotta respect it. -BMI-