I’m great, man. I’m really excited about The Undisputed Truth coming out.
Are you happy with how The Undisputed Truth came out?
I feel really happy with the way I did it. I was real happy with the response I got from Shadows on the Sun in 2003. After that point, my life changed a lot. I learned a lot about making music. I have a much clearer picture of what I think I can do in hip-hop that’s unique and is my own.
I wanted to make an album that reflected all of these things that I was really going through. My entire life really changed from being a working-class, poor person to becoming a full-time musician and going through the divorce that I went through that was really ugly. I kept custody of my son the whole time and I basically had to rebuild everything. I left my marriage with nothing but an MPC, a pair of Nikes and a couple of records. I have no family around me, so I rebuilt my whole life. I wanted to make a record that reflected that.
It took longer than it probably should have taken for me. I was pretty overdue for putting an album out. Realistically, ’04 and ’05 came to an end and then ’06 came to an end and it was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I wanted to tell the story because I was doing all of these things and I believed that my life would be what I wanted it to be someday. I was kind of waiting for that to resolve itself and come full circle. It did that. I was able to make an album that really reflected every part of those life-changing moments.
I was married for ten years and I was just realizing that there’s no way, as hard as I tried to make it work, that it wouldn’t. It was impossible. You have to capture that moment where you’re not mad anymore and your mind is made up and you have to just do what you have to do. I had to tell my son that his family was changing and it wasn’t going to be the same as it was. You have that moment where you realize how fucking alone you are. You go through those things and then you realize your relationship with music. I had those moments too. Then the record comes all the way around to being good and you realize it’s your life and it’s what you wanted to do. This is what I believed could happen.
Would you say The Undisputed Truth is more personal than Shadows on the Sun?
I don’t want to say if it means more or less. I think I focused a little bit more on exactly what it is that I’m trying to do, which on this one was to make these songs and capture these moments. I wanted everything in the song to make you feel how I felt when I was making the song at the times or how I feel now about those subjects. The music and the way that I wrote the songs and the way that I recorded it, every piece of it should really just convey that feeling. It’s all about feeling above everything else. That mood kind of takes you over if you’re really fucking with what you’re doing.
A lot of your music has always come across as very personal.
I think every time you step out there, you’re giving at least a piece of yourself. Even a shit-talking, freestyle kind of deal, everything that you do shows people who you are and shows how you want to present yourself. I think that I’m one of the biggest fans of hip-hop ever, in the history of this shit. I always believed that. I still am now. You can get a sense from a guy from the way he approaches this shit. You can tell the difference between someone who really cares about this shit versus who’s just rattling it off. There are ways that you can tell who’s really trying to be thorough and who’s really trying to create a body of work with all their different points. That’s where I’m at with this shit. Anytime I do anything, including a guest appearance, I’m trying to make even those 45 seconds be me. I try to do that all of the time.
How important are songs like “Take Me Home” to you?
I think that it’s the most important thing, man. That’s why I named the album what I did. I think that as I started to do different things and travel in different circles of people, I was able to be up close and personal with people and MCs that I grew up idolizing in hip-hop. I wasn’t quite sure about it before, but being around them really solidified it for me that the thing that makes Rakim, Melle Mel, KRS-One, Chuck D and Ice Cube, the things that made these people great is that it’s who they are as people. They act like who they are. Over time, the more you hear from them, the more you start getting the sense of who these people are. It’s magnified when they get on stage who they are.
There’s this whole movement of people who call themselves “True School.” I feel them. I would include myself in that. But I think this thing that we might be overlooking is that we have different life experiences. I’ve had different life experiences from other people. I should really take who I am and amplify it in the music and just make it as pure as I possibly can.
A song that we did for Shadows on the Sun and we threw on at the last moment as a joke was “Forest Whitaker.” I basically made that as a last-minute thing. I’m describing myself as an albino and other shit, and there are few people who will look at me like, ‘That’s my exact story too,’ but there are people who connect to the human side of it. It made me realize that it doesn’t matter what your specific shit is. Everybody goes through shit in life and everybody has things that are important to them. It doesn’t matter what it is, but if you present it as real as you possibly can, then that human element will take over and do the rest for you.
Did you know how you wanted The Undisputed Truth to come out or did it really create itself as you made new songs?
I did. I really had an idea in mind for the album that I knew I had to make. I knew the topics that I needed to talk about, but I didn’t want to address them the way they’ve been done before. I knew that the shit our government does is so in-your-face that it’s impossible to get away from. You can’t just remake “Welcome to the Terrordome.” You have to think about who you are and ‘how am I going to put me into this?’ And on my divorce song, I couldn’t just do some Eminem, “fuck this bitch”-type of thing. You have to see how you really feel about it and I wasn’t really sure about it.
When we started recording The Undisputed Truth, I would put my son in bed around 9:00 and Ant started showing up around 10. He would call me and I would come outside. I wouldn’t even know he would be coming by and he’d tell me to get in the car and we were going to make a jam that night. I went to his house and waited for something to hit me that fit the mood that I was in. I sat there in his house and wrote 90% of those songs. He would play something and I was like, ‘That sounds like how I feel about my son or how I feel about these dudes in hip-hop that have no class or that sounds like the way I feel about these young, poor people ending up in the army because it’s the only way they feel they can have a decent life.’
Is that why you dropped “Truth Is” as the single?
Yeah. I felt like it was just kind of a good way to set up this album and show people, ‘This is where I’m coming from.’ I think a lot of fans who have been involved in hip-hop for a long time and really love it are looking at hip-hop like, ‘What the fuck happened?’ We’ve been looking at that for years. It’s easy to blame money and it’s easy to blame the industry. It’s easy to blame TV and the media and whatever else. I think that there’s kind of this thing that we do where we look at the dudes that are on the radio and we just naturally shit on them and certain topics and whatever. I think the deciding factor in all of this is ‘how real is this?’
That’s the thing that I think those of us who have been involved in hip-hop for awhile look for. This is a message that is not available anywhere else. There’s something inside me that isn’t connecting to anything. There was music that I connect to because the truth can not be hidden. That was the thing about the music and that’s what the fuck is missing. You look at the great MCs that we have now and they’re few and far between because people are not being encouraged to be who they are as a human being. You look at leaders like Nas and Jay-Z and you can see that they’re clearly being who they are on stage, in the record and in the movie. That’s who they are.
But then you have a thousand other young people that are really just being pressured to be another version of those guys. My whole thing is that we really just have to be who we are and we have to be confident enough in ourselves to do that. There was a time when there were no rules set up for KRS-One to do what he did but he thought about what he wanted to do and what was inside of himself and he was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to say this shit as loud as I can and if you don’t like it, then something’s wrong with you.’ People come along like that and break the mold and I know it’s real. I’m going to present it like that too. That’s what we’re missing, somebody to come along like that.
I’m not just going to conform to what you’re doing. I can do my thing. There are not a lot of people in this world who have my exact experience. It’s just not happening. I’m an albino dude. I’m a Muslim. I was in a white family and was basically raised by black peers and elders in the Midwest. I lived in different places. I got married when I was 17 and I was out on my own at that age. I’m going to present these things the way I see them and I’m not going to care or worry if the streets think it’s hard enough or if the whiteboys are going to be offended by the things I’m saying. Some of the realities that I know exist, I’m not worried about. I know that the things that I’m saying are real to me and that’s all that matters to me.
How important is it to you to expand beyond the Rhymesayers crowd and touch the people who may not be aware of what you’ve done or what you’re doing?
I feel like there’s people that may dig what we’re doing. And if somebody doesn’t dig me, that’s fine with me. I’m okay. I’m not tripping. If somebody doesn’t dig me, then I’m not for them. If what I do doesn’t please you, that’s cool. I don’t think you’re a hater for not liking what I do. But I do feel there are people out there who might appreciate what I’m doing who haven’t heard me yet. That’s why the first few years, I did the underground stuff. I toured with Murs and the Living Legends dudes, the Cannibal Ox and Def Jux dudes, MF Doom, Immortal Technique…I did all of those kinds of things and then I also did Brand Nubian’s tour and I did some things with Big Daddy Kane.
I know that there’s some 35 year-old brothers who stopped listening to hip-hop because it’s just watered-down versions of what already happened, but some of those dudes might connect with this shit. If they don’t, they still can’t say I’m wack. You can say my shit’s not for you, but I know that I’m thorough, solid and that I’m coming correct with my shit. I’m not worried about that. Anybody who could connect with this shit and it makes sense to them, I would at least want everyone to have a chance to decide for themselves if this is for them and if they want to fuck with it. If not, peace, see you later.
Can you take us behind the making of “Freedom”?
That’s the idea that you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make your life what you want it to be. You can’t be afraid to sacrifice for that. You have to stand on your principles. That song basically talks about that moment right after I left my ex-wife. My mother had just died of cancer, my father lives on the East Coast and my brother is away at school. I have this little boy and I was basically on my ass, alone. I didn’t know what would happen. And on top of that, I had just become self-employed. That sounds like some shit and that sounds like fun.
But my DJ had a job that he loved for years and he got fired because he kept coming on tour with me. I got these people looking to me like, ‘What are we doing? What’s going on?’ If you’re a single dad and you’re broke with a job, you’re broke ‘til Thursday. If you’re an independent musician, you’re broke until someone calls you to come do a show. By the time you split it all up, you come home with $500 and you have to make it stretch. Fuck it. I believe in what I’m doing. I don’t know when the clouds are going to break. It may be ten years like this, but eventually, if I stick to what I’m doing and I’m patient and I’m consistent, this will be okay. The idea behind that one is that nothing is given to us.
Like the dude says in The Departed, “Nobody gives it to you. You have to take it.” I don’t like movies where white people say the n-word. I know they say it in real life, but something about it, it’s like, ‘Fuck you.’ But the other part of it was so real to me. Nobody gives it to you and you have to take it. That’s as real as it gets.
Is it ever an issue with you balancing songs about yourself, politics and others where you just rip it?
It definitely is. I think the thing is that I basically do it all on a personal level. I’m not saying that I have the answers for everybody else. I’m just saying that I know how this shit feels inside me, even the political things. I try not to preach with any of this shit. I tell you what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen from this shit. I’m telling you what it looks like from where I am. I do all of it from that way. As somebody who tries to be as thorough as I try to be, and that’s not to say that I never slip, I try to be on my shit. I try to be pretty fucking thorough.
From this place, I just see a lot of people doing this who don’t even like doing it. I see them backstage and they get on stage and they’re forewing, they’re stressed and they’re mad. They hate what they’re doing. Then you see people who are clearly in it for all these bullshit reasons. There’s people with no class. I don’t know how dudes used to carry themselves before I became an MC and I saw professional musicians, but so many of these people have no class from the way they carry themselves. They have no professionalism or respect for their artistry or for any of the people around them. It’s disgusting to me. It makes me sick to my stomach. I’m like, ‘Man, if you don’t have that respect to do this thing and you don’t care about carrying this the right way, then fuck you. I hope something bad happens to you.’
Then you’re around Rakim and he’s incredible. He’s one of the most classy individuals I’ve ever been around. It’s insane the way he conducts himself around people. It’s beautiful to me. From where I see things, this is how I look at it. I don’t even call my fans “fans.” I don’t think people are looking at me like I’m something other than what they are. I look at them as “supporters.” I think they see me as a dude like them trying to do his thing. Just the way that I try to give them as much as possible in every way and talk to them and interact with them, and I mean talk to them for real, that’s important to me. The politics to this shit and the side that I know, this is the way I see things. If you do it like that, then it’s all cohesive and you can talk about any old thing because it fits with the rest of it. These are all my thoughts.
How was it working solely with Ant on this project?
Before Shadows on the Sun, I never had a producer before. I had a DJ. I used to make the beats for everybody when I was a kid. When I had groups or when I was doing songs, I was making beats for myself. So when I first started working with Ant, I basically had the songs and then I would just bring them to Ant’s house and find the music. On this one, I kind of went into it and was pulled into it. He told me, “You’re not going to think any longer about how to approach this record. You’re just going to do it.” I wrote the songs there and that was how I approached it and saw how I wanted to structure the song. It’s always been a 50/50 thing working with Ant, but on this one, I think he was definitely more involved in the way the writing went down. He made this record happen.
You haven’t dropped an album in almost four years but you’ve been able to stay on the road. How important is touring to you?
It’s everything. It really is. I don’t want to say it’s “everything,” but it’s as important as an album. And in some cases, it’s more important. The reason people really dig our stuff is because of the connection that they feel like they have with us. To be in front of them and for them to watch me perform these songs and actually present them…like the songs you heard on the CD, I’m going to stand there and present them to you. And then for me to watch them anticipate it and react to it, it’s really big, man. Words can’t really describe it. It’s bigger than any marketing plan. It’s bigger than any video. It’s bigger than anything. That’s the way we earn our living too. A lot of the money we make from albums, we spend. We reinvest or try new things or try to expand what we’re doing. We are able to earn a living and the only way to have a semblance of a regular life is to tour.
You can look at an artist who either doesn’t tour or they’re not that good live. They’re just not that convincing live or they just don’t tour. You look at an artist like that and you look at an artist who’s similar and they tour and they’re good enough to impress the people with what they’re doing, the success and the sales and everything about them, it’s a night and day difference. At Rhymesayers, we try not to fuck with people who don’t tour. In two months, we did 60 shows. We’ll do that and I’ll come home for three weeks. We’re talking about doing the Paid Dues Tour and then I’ll come back and we’ll go out to Australia and the fall will start and we’ll do the whole thing over again.
Does all the touring present your older music from being forgotten?
The touring definitely keeps it alive. With touring, you kind of breathe new life into a record. But I won’t wait that long in between albums again. There was a specific reason why I did that one like that. Definitely the touring does add life to an album if you’re really able to go out and translate it on the stage for people. But I think that also if you make a quality-enough product, it doesn’t wear off quick. Also if you have something unique that you’re not hearing a newer version of…like if you basically make a record about how you’re underground and how you hate George Bush, okay, somebody else is going to put out that same record in three months.
Once you put a record out abut how you’re from the ‘hood and you sell dope and that’s what you really do and you only rap to make some legit money and all the hoes want to fuck you, somebody else is going to drop an album like that next week. You have to do something unique. If you just do what everybody else does, then you always have to come back. Then you have guys like Jay-Z who dropped a record every year and there’s classic shit on all of them. As long as you give people a quality-enough product that means something to them, then it doesn’t die as quick.
With all of the touring and promotion that goes into being an artist and releasing a new album, does it ever get hard being a father?
I’m about my family the exact same way I am with my music. I take it very seriously. It’s an extremely important thing to me. I try to be as thorough as I can and really do as much as I can with that situation as well. They do fuel each other, but they also battle each other. Anytime I’m investing time in one, I feel like I’m neglecting the other. Every day that I’m home, I get my son to school and I make him breakfast. I’m there when he gets home. But in the meantime, I’m working. I would love to be that dude who’s at school all the time, but I just can’t. I have to work too. It’s the same way with my work. I would love to put in more time than I do. Every time that I’m not doing something with work, I’m just like, ‘Man, shit, I really need to be working on that.’ They’re always at odds with each other. All you can really do is try to balance them the best you can because neither one of them is going anywhere.
The Undisputed Truth got pushed back a couple of weeks. Was that a good move?
Rhymesayers just got new distribution through Warner, so with that kind of transition, they had to make sure that everybody at Rhymesayers had the time to do what they needed to do. It was just kind of a necessary thing to make sure, logistically, everything happened.
You’ve been with Rhymesayers for both albums and your Champion EP. What does that mean to you?
That means everything to me. The situation that I have at Rhymesayers, I couldn’t have anywhere else. I know that. I’m truly a partner with those individuals. Siddiq and Slug, those are the founders of the label that are still there. There are some other ones and they kind of moved on to other things. Those are the dudes who started the label and we really are partners. We sit down and we figure out what makes the best sense for all of us and what we can do to make each others’ jobs easier and make things work. I’m given a lot of freedom. I couldn’t really do what I wanted to do at other places. I can really do it here.
Realistically, I should have come back in ’05 or ’06 after Shadows on the Sun. I think a lot of labels would have really forced and pushed somebody to just put something out. And if you don’t comply with them, you’re dead to them and they move on. Rhymesayers didn’t do that. They knew that I was doing something that I needed to do. They were like, ‘Yeah, okay. What do you need to do to help you, financially, logistically and everything?’ It was amazing.
”Uncle Sam Goddamn,” when we made that song, me and Ant were like, ‘We have to make a video for this.’ Us being artists, we didn’t think about a cuss word being in the title and the fact that the song is too long. I just wanted to make a video that’s a visual of what the song is. Rhymesayers was like, ‘Yeah, okay. Nobody’s going to play it so try to keep the budget low. If nobody plays it, we’ll try to do the YouTube thing.’ They supported me and that was enough.
How are you gauging the success of The Undisputed Truth?
There are so many different levels to gauge that on. Creatively, I feel already like it’s a success. I feel like it was the next step for me. The most important thing is to connect with the people. The numbers may reflect that and they may not. But I’m going to know on the tour. This tour that I’m going to do in April is going to be my first headlining tour. I’m supporting myself and people who are coming to the shows are coming to the Brother Ali show. It’s not MF Doom’s show and Brother Ali is there too. This is going to be the test to see if Ali’s messages are resonating with the people. That will be the real test because in terms of longevity, this is the support part of it. Everybody has a core fanbase or a core support group that is there with you. And as long as you’re true to yourself and true to them, they will be there.
The main thing is like, ‘Okay, can we reach outside of them a bit?’ That’s a numbers thing. We have our numbers that we need to break even and how many we have to sell to at least make our money back. We have sales goals. I’m going to get out there and do whatever I can and I know they’re going to do whatever they can in the office. I’m not worried. To be honest with you, I’m not. I’m not worried, I’m not anxious and I’m not apprehensive. I think as long as everybody’s doing the best they can and doing what they can, the best that’s meant to happen is going to happen.
Will there be as long of a layover between The Undisputed Truth and your next album as there was between Shadows on the Sun and The Undisputed Truth?
I really don’t think so. I’m not setting a date, but I really don’t think so. We’ve already started kind of working on the next album. We started making songs and thinking about how we wanted to approach the next one. Once I get back from tour, we’re going to start working on the next one. I will never be that overdue again.
As an independent artist who’s developed a great following by making the music you want to make, what advice would you offer to other artists coming up?
I feel like I’m still working on trying to do something. This is my first headlining tour. I’m not saying this as an expert or an authority. I’m not the teacher, I’m still the student. But what I do know is that you have to bring a certain level of respect to your art. The more respect you bring to whatever you’re doing, the better. It shows how prepared you are when you go to do shit and in your shows. It also shows in your expectations of other people. I see artists with low expectations for themselves and high expectations for other people. “My label isn’t working me right.” Well, motherfucker, you’re not working yourself right. Your live show sucks and your rhymes sound like you wrote them in 20 minutes. It sounds like you made a quick beat and dropped it. Why should other people work on your shit harder than you do?
Artists complain that the fans are picky. Yeah, they’re picky. They have so much shit to listen to, motherfucker. Do something. Motherfuckers want to talk about the crack game so much. The hypes don’t like your shit. They don’t like the high, so they’re not re-upping. I think motherfuckers tend to look every direction built themselves and their own talent and their own dedication and their own principles and work ethic and shit like that. They want to put it on someone else as the reason why they’re not making it.
Also, don’t concern yourself with things that don’t make sense and things that don’t matter in your scenario. I know a lot of dudes that make a CD at home and then they want to have a manager and they want to make a contract to do a song together and some dumb shit like that. Just do what makes sense for you at the time and just look at the level you’re on. Don’t pretend to be bigger than you are. Just be the best you can for the stage you’re in. If you’re the brand new dude without an album and you’re opening for Redman when he comes to your city, be the best opener you can be. Don’t try to be bigger than what you are. Just be the best for the stage you’re at.
What do you want to say to everybody?
I’m here and I’m doing me. I’m trying to present something quality and something real. Forget all the things that you think you may know about me, about where I come from, about whatever you think of the circle that I’m in or whatever. But really, really fuck with my shit. Download it if you have to. But really give it a listen. If it’s truly not for you, that’s fine with me. But I need motherfuckers to know that I’m coming correct with mine. And at the end of the day, that’s all you can say. You can say, “This dude is doing it to death and it’s not my thing.” But don’t front on me like there’s holes in the shit. There’s no holes in the shit. It’s solid.