“The God is back,” Divine confidently states on “I’m Back,” one of his new songs forcefully capturing ears for its gritty and introspective lyrics over a smooth beat that drips hip-hop with every kick and snare. When listening to the track, fans can’t help but hear Divine’s confidence throughout the song. And why shouldn’t he be confident? After stints in jail, working with Rakim and taking time to map out his moves in the ever-changing landscape of the rap game, Divine has weathered the storms and is still standing strong. Check out our exclusive interview with the Brooklynite as he discusses his upcoming album Ghetto Rhyming, working with legendary producers, what he learned from Ra and much more.
Your new album Ghetto Rhyming is dropping this summer. How’s it sounding right now?
It’s sounding real crazy. The album is in the last stages of post-production and mastering, which is being done over in Germany by Broadway Mastering. We’re trying to drop the album in July. It should be ready to go. Tentatively sometime in July it’s officially going to be in the marketplace, the latest August. But this release is actually the pre-release street version of the album and then we actually dropping the official album.
This is your biggest release to date. Are you ready?
Oh yeah, indeed. For those that don’t know, I had released a promo single back in 2005 entitled, “King of New York” and it received great reviews. It was on college radio and a lot of people do know me from that. But now, this album is what’s popping off. Again this album is the pre-release street version of the actual album. The actual album will have industry producers such as Nick Wiz and Domingo, and we trying to secure Ayatollah and Coptic as well. These producers all have a history in the industry and that’s going to be for the official Ghetto Rhymin’ album. But what we releasing initially is the pre-release street version of the album.
When you do a pre-release street album, how do you balance giving fans high quality music but still knowing that you’re holding back the best?
Releasing a pre-release street album initially came out of me having personal setbacks and the album being held back for so long, yet the material still being so strong. So the label decided to use it as a market introduction of Divine to build the anticipation and momentum for the release of the actual album which will be another stronger body of work. It’s also because I’ve been working for a long time. I’ve been working on my music for a while so I have a lot of material in the archives. There’s a lot of music that’s been done and recorded and is in the post-production stage. At the same time, I keep quality. It’s always high quality from Divine and people know that. As the new stuff comes, it’s going to get better and when you get the pre-release album and the official album, you’ll be pleased with them altogether. You’re going to hear a lot of progression and a lot of different stylization as far as my skills are concerned. It’s going to be a quick progression simply because I’m constantly working but not always releasing my material right away. I go in the studio and I stay in the lab working, man. I just stock pile joints and take my time with everything, but it’s always high quality regardless.
When you talk about progression, how have you grown since “King of New York” and our last interview?
I think the progression and growth is more about the time and influences, what’s going on in society and what’s going on in the bigger culture of hip-hop today, as well as the particular music zone I was in at that particular time. The things I’m talking about on the street album are what were going on a few years ago, but it still applies to what’s popping off today in this day and time. My album and music is timeless, man, it’s not time dated or era based in the sense of what’s what in worldly pop culture, but I still keep it relative to the day and time we’re in. I talk about universal things and something that’s going to always apply no matter when and where it is because I have mostly conscious lyrics and spiritual content and I try not to get too caught up on the latest cars that are out or the latest dance that’s out or whatever it is in the culture of hip-hop and the pop culture of the world that’s going on. I try to stay alert and not stray too far from the focus of my message and dropping my jewels. Regardless, I put a real good balance on it overall so I got something that everybody can relate to and get something from.
How did you get all of the big-name producers like Domingo and Ayatollah down to work with you?
Initially, because I was affiliated with Rakim on the business side of things from a while back, as well as affiliated with Bill Blass, Rest in Peace, Rakim’s point man. I was a big street hustler, and Blass and myself got it in on a street level for a minute out here in Brooklyn way before I met and connected with Rakim. Blass was known throughout the streets of Brooklyn and behind the scenes in the music industry by his connection to Kool G Rap, Rakim, etc. Rakim’s my dude on a personal level. He’s a cool brother and from that experience with Rakim, a lot of people gravitated towards me and eventually saw that I was an independent artist and was out doing my thing. I didn’t and don’t have an official album out but people saw my affiliation with Rakim and it of course made people take notice and look at me differently. If you’re associated with Rakim in any way, it’s a big thing because Ra’s so big. The way it eventually worked out with Ra was on a business level, he just continued on his way to do his thing and I went my way to do my thing. I think it was a blessing though, because I don’t have to come out under Rakim’s shadow and be second-guessed from that perspective, because a lot of people see similarities in us on a personal and a musical level already. I’ve also been especially compared to Nas as well, who has been compared to Rakim. It’s like a circle with Rakim, Nas and now with Divine coming out being compared to both Rakim and Nas. However, people are seeing me for who I am and what I’m doing and that I really have my own unique talent and that sound that’s going to take hip-hop to the next level by bringing it back to what it was. One of the promotional slogans that the label uses for me and my music is; “explore a new era in hip-hop,” and rightfully so.
So, as far as the producers and the big names, I would reach out to people, build and politic and they would see that I have the talent and the skills and they would open the door for me. It’s been great, man. That’s why I shout out brothers like Nick Wiz, Domingo, Ayatollah and Coptic who have worked with some of the greatest MCs of our time. People opened the door for me, man, and I want to make sure I do my part.
What did being around Rakim teach you about the game early on?
Man, it’s like I was held back for awhile as far as my release and my record in not coming out. I was held back for a long time because I was incarcerated for a long time. I built my business acumen up and my style and my skills up while I was away. Even inside prison, I was getting crazy accolades and I was being compared on the level of Nas, Rakim, Wu-Tang, etc. And convicts are some of the hardest critics you got. I would perform in front of these dudes and I would do that purposely to hone my skills and strengthen my style. I felt like when I hit the streets, it was going to be crazy. Building up from that, it was a great time for me and it made me who I am today.
When I came home my first performance was here in NYC and I met the legendary producer Marley Marl that night, who is ironically from Queensbridge and produced Eric B. and Rakim’s first hit songs “My Melody” and “Eric B. Is President”. Later that year I met Ra’s people and they immediately saw the similarities between me and Ra and they wanted to connect me with Ra to possibly get me to be a part of his personal rap group or crew at the time The Last Platoon. So I was supposed to connect with Ra through his people way back but it didn’t work out then. Seven years later I linked up with Ra and we attempted to do some things on the business level, but unfortunately everything didn’t pan out like we wanted. I’ve met a lot of people through my experiences with Ra, being on tour with him and just watching him do his thing, someone who I admired and inspired me as an MC and who I felt was the epitome of an MC and hip-hop, I felt it couldn’t get no better than this. Being around him, I caught the whole aura and how he does it from the inside, and I just did the knowledge. I saw from behind the scenes how it all goes down from the perspective of one of the greatest MCs to ever do it. I was in the studio and recorded with him in the studio and he taught me a few things. He’s made me a greater MC and a greater person, because he a real humble dude to be so great within hip-hop. I saw a lot of him in me on a personal level and we got a lot of similarities personally and in character as well as in physical appearance. It’s just certain things you can’t create, re-create or emulate so you just know it’s just what it is and what it’s supposed to be by nature of the universe. But at the end of the day it was more business and personal between me and Rakim than musical. Either way, I got love for Rakim and it was a great experience building with that brother. And I really learned being around Ra that if the hip-hop game is going to love you, they going to love you regardless of how long you been doing it, etc., so just do your thing, be humble and appreciate it all.
How will the pre-release street album Ghetto Rhymin’ be different from the official album?
On Ghetto Rhymin’, the pre-release street album, I worked with some great up-and- coming producers from the US and overseas. I executive produced the album with my man and my main US producer Ill D, along with Supreme Records' executive D. Ayatollah. There are eight different producers I worked with on the album; four are from the US, and four are from Sweden. Ill D, Bova, Mr. JPatt and Godspeed are from the US; and Prov P, Dj Whopper, Devastate and Agillaz are from Sweden. They all blessed me heavily on this joint, so they’re like my official production team, you know. Got nothing but love for these dudes, they about to hit the industry with heat for real. I reached out to a lot of overseas producers because it’s really crazy how a lot of these overseas producers have that strong hip-hop sound that I grew up off and that I vibe off of and they hungry, so I gave these dudes the opportunity and they blessed me.
There’s a lot of slept on talent overseas, man. For example, I was also able to connect and work with a team of French dudes named AlterProd/AlterBeats that do photography, graphic design, videography and beats. For this release they came to the US and we did a photo shoot and some video work together and they hit me with some beats. They actually designed the street release album cover too, but the official release will have a different cover that they also designing. Anyway, on the official album I’m going to have more known and industry established producers. Also, on the pre-release street version of the album there aren’t any real features or big names, I only got a couple singers on there but that’s it. There are a lot of other things going on right now and a lot of fans are used to seeing big name features, or features period, on albums; but I’m bringing it back to where there were no features on albums. I figure if you’re an artist and people like you for who you are and what you do, that’s who and what they want. If they want to hear another artist, they can go cop that artists’ joint. The street album is all Divine, man. No co-stars are needed. But on the official album I’m going to compromise and give people what they used to and have a few known artists feature that compliment what I do, you know.
What is the overall direction of and concept behind Ghetto Rhymin’?
First off, Ghetto Rhymin’ is not only a title. It’s more of a statement of exactly what I do. Ghetto Rhymin’ is what I do. I’m a hood dude from the streets and the ghetto and I grew up on hip-hop and rhyming. If you look at the artist, my name is Divine. Divine is something scarce, sacred, holy and pure. It means godly or godlike. So, it’s a title and a statement of what I actually do. So, the concept behind the album is simply summed up in my name and the title, again it’s "Divine Ghetto Rhyming," period. Put it all together. That basically embodies everything that I do with hip-hop. Divine is the spiritual and conscious aspect, the ghetto is the ‘hood, and the rhyming is the hip-hop. Hip-hop is from the streets, from the hood, the ghetto. So I’m always divine ghetto rhyming. I rhyme about everything the ghetto encompasses.
On a deeper level, it's like God being in and coming from the ghetto, the hood, rhyming, and expressing everything the ghetto encompasses in the art of rhyming and rapping; spitting that rhythm and poetry. It's like how Jesus, who was divine or God incarnate, went to, and was in the "ghetto" of that time amongst the so-called lesser and outcasts of society; the cutthroats, robbers, thieves, and murderers preaching and spreading the Gospel to spark the desire in these people to be Godly and righteous people and come out of the darkness of their sins. It was the same with Master Fard when he came, he was regarded as the coming of Jesus, God incarnate, and just like Jesus he too went to the poverty stricken outcasts of society and was in the ghetto teaching and spreading his spiritual wisdom and lessons to uplift a people and bring them out of ignorance and a mental death. As well as the same with the Father Allah (Clarence 13X Smith). These brothers were and are all regarded as being prophets and more. The true meaning of a prophet is ‘a divinely inspired poet’, one who professes and expresses positivity and/or the word or wisdom of God; and who better to write, speak, sing, or rap the word and praise of the Most High than a poet? I’ve always considered myself an urban poet. Thus, you don't have the prophets of today coming with Bibles and Qurans, they coming with microphones in their hands man. I'm doing exactly what those brothers before me did, I'm a divinely/Godly inspired poet bringing divine knowledge, supreme wisdom, and universal understanding to the masses worldwide, and all those in the ghetto in particular, through the music I create to bring forth enlightenment. So, that’s the science and concept behind my album and my name; and the title echoing it.
On the surface, my album is about divine ghetto rhyming, Godly or spiritual, street or hood hip-hop/rap, period. But in depth, it has several meanings within itself for those that can detect. You know, you always have to speak the language of the people man, I'm not trying to fly over anybody's head, I want the world at large to grasp who I am, where I'm coming or came from, and where I'm trying to go. I know I have to feed and drop the knowledge, high-science, and jewels real slow and easy as not to alienate anybody. So I keep it real accessible for everyone on Ghetto Rhymin'. Not to mention, the consciousness in the ghetto, in the hood right now is at zero, it's dead. It's being said hip-hop is dead, and I know and understand why, but I'm trying to change all that, I'm going to do my duty wisely man, resurrect this, do my part and just try to bring it back, you know. That’s what Divine represents. I’m trying to bring back the positivity, man. All those brothers who have came before me, were and are regarded as prophets and divinely inspired poets expressing positivity and all the words and wisdom of the Most High. Who better to rap or speak the word of God than a poet? And that’s what Divine is. I’m a poet. If they call me a prophet or whatever the case may be, I’m a prophet then, and to me that’s a divinely inspired poet. I’ve always considered myself a poet and I’m just trying to uplift the world, man, and uplift hip-hop and open up the floodgates for the other brothers who are in the same lane as I’m in who don’t have the support or don’t have the recognition or the ability to bring their music to the masses.
And it’s all in the name, man. That’s why I’m Divine, man. I came into Knowledge of Self a while back when I was incarcerated. That’s when I got Knowledge of Self from a brother who was a part of the Five Percent Nation of Islam now known as the Nation of Gods & Earths. I got that knowledge and I got that spark and I saw how it could be used in hip-hop and I have to carry the torch and get it back to what it was. Now and days there’s no messages in music anymore. I loved artists like KRS-One, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, King Sun, etc. I grew up on that kind of hip-hop and it’s not prevalent at this point in time but I’m going to do what I do. I’m going to give it that modern-day feel so people can relate to it more and it can flourish again. I think it’s going to be showing and proving through the music, man. I’m a brother that’s real-deal. I’ve been through the streets and prison and all that a Black male goes through in American society. People are going to see that I’m a down to earth and humble person and I’m real. Its actual facts and if it ain’t that, it’s nothing.
Is it harder today to gain new fans even with your background because of how many new artists are finding ways to get heard online?
That’s a good question, and it’s a double-edged sword. I think it’s a lot easier now compared to five years ago. I think five years ago, it was harder. The internet is crazy and artists have access now regularly through the internet to a worldwide audience. Because of all the online opportunities there’s a lot more artists that can get music out and build a remarkable and solid fan base. The downside is the over-saturation of sub-par and mediocre music flooding online so the new age fan is more skeptical because now everybody and anybody can make music and get it online and is doing so. So, there’s a lot more scrutiny of a so-called new artist emerging in this new internet age. But it’s also leveled the playing field a lot from a business perspective for the independent artist who isn’t signed to a major record label but is still commercially viable and can make money selling records. Also, record companies aren’t putting money behind certain projects as quick because they want to make sure their money gets returned so they use the internet as an initial launching ground and test market for new music and artists before doing so. It’s cost-effective and proven. But I think five years ago, it was much more hard man. Now it’s easier to reach out to your favorite artists or whatever it is and build a rapport with them or whatever the case may be whether you’re a fan or a fellow artist that wants to collaborate. The economy is also a reason for that. It’s harder to make money these days and a lot of these artists are independent artists and it was hard to get features four or five years ago from your favorite established artists but now they want to get money from wherever it comes in so you see a lot of unheard of or emerging independent artist with features from big name/established artists now.
Does the free downloads that come with having an online presence bother you?
Nah, man, you take it for what it is and right now, the internet is crazy. You got to bless the fans these days with the free material to give them an incentive to get them familiar with you and to buy your music. It’s like the norm now to give away free music and fans expect that. You give it to them and do a good thing in their eyes or they just rip it any way wherever they can find it. If they eventually really feel you as an artist, and feel your music, they’re going to support it and buy it. CDs aren’t selling crazy like that anymore and even big name artists aren’t selling crazy units like in the past. The economy is in a slump and to make any money you got to lose some money, hence the free downloads and all that. The internet is the new record label. The structure of a record label and the dollars they put behind a project, all that big money’s not really needed to get known and be known through hip-hop anymore. If people like you, they’re going to find you, man. There’s no easier way than going online, man, whether it’s an album, single or a mix CD. If the streets say an artist is hot, then the fans are going to find you. Such as myself, like I didn’t have an official album out to date but I had a lot of online presence and promotion and those that know me, know me, they know Divine. My fan base grew rapidly from my internet presence and accessibility to the potential fan. Now they know I have that real classic hip-hop and that’s because of the internet, it’s because of the MySpace and the Facebook and the HipHopGame.
You’ve also worked with Tragedy Khadafi. What was that experience like?
It was great, man. Tragedy Khadafi is another artist I admire and that inspires me. I don’t admire many artists and I’m not easily impressed with or inspired by dudes. I’m my own man and I’ve always been my own dude. I don’t look up to people or follow dudes, I’m a leader and I never been a follower, I open and stay in my own lane. But with brothers like Tragedy Khadafi, besides just being a hip-hop legend and a Queensbridge legend, I felt like I had a lot in common mentally and spiritually with him and I love what he do and how he do it. Working with Trag’ was great. It was something I was looking forward to make happen, I reached out and it popped off. We did a single I’m about to drop digitally online entitled, “Camaraderie (Real To Real)” right after the album and hopefully get a video done for it when he’s released, which hopefully will be this year. He will also be on the official Ghetto Rhymin’ album. I’ll also be looking to and be working with some other big name artists for the official album. You’ll definitely see some big name artists who are in the same vein as Divine. My man, my brother Honor Allah from Honor Management got me linked in. He’s vital to making that happen for me.
One of the qualities I’ve always respected about you is that you stick to what you want and don’t fold to making music that doesn’t represent you.
Indeed. Exactly. Everything I do represents me, exactly who I am. I’m not into following trends, I like to blaze my own trail and set trends. There are too many gimmicks in hip-hop now. I’m not a gimmick and my music isn’t a gimmick, it’s real, and reality equals Allah’s light. R-e-a-l. Nowadays when you listen to music, it’s not what it used to be – lyrical and complex rhyme schemes. It’s not about that now. It’s ABC lyrics and that’s not what I vibe off of, man. I don’t even listen to hip-hop like that no more or a lot of artists, but I keep my ear to the streets and I hear what’s going on. But I’m here to bring that east coast NYC hip-hop back. I’m trying to bring it back to lyrical complex rhyme schemes and the real classic hip-hop sound. I don’t feel I have to do anything else. If the beat or song is hot and the lyrics are ill, that’s all people should need. I stick to my guns. I don’t have to sell a million records. I just strive to make great music with a message. I just feel I got a duty to the people, the fans and hip-hop culture on a whole, so I’m going to uphold that position.
I’m with a great independent label here in NYC, Supreme Records, and they’re behind me. They let me do what I want to do creatively and they want to usher in my sound, which is really that classic hip-hop sound. I’ve definitely test marketed a lot of my music and we’re finding that people really want that conscious hip-hop back and they want that real hip-hop back and I feel like that lane is wide open. Ra been did his thing. Nas came and conquered. People look at Nas to come back out again and do what he do, but there's not a lot of conscious artists out there with commercial viability. Nas was and is really like an underground artist but he’s had a lot of crossover and commercial viability and success from day one. Now there’s a vacuum for the style and type of hip-hop that I do and that’s what I’m trying to fill. Hip-hop is screaming out for it and it’s what’s needed at this point in time. And there’s nobody doing what I do how I do it, period.
What would you say to your doubters?
Man, I would and could say a lot but I’m going to say this – don’t doubt the clout, the proof is in the science, man, and the science is in showing and proving. I’m going to show and prove who I am as a person and who I am as an artist. I’m going to show and prove who I am as a lyricist and who I am as a songwriter and who I am as a producer. That’s what it is. When it’s time for Divine to do his thing, it’s going to be done. I’m a real street dude and I’m authentic, nothing made up or fabricated; no gimmicks with the God. I’m me man, Divine Allah. Regardless, you’re always going to have your haters, your detractors and you’re always going to have your doubters and all that, but what I’m about to do is show and prove what it is. I been held back too long, but now it’s my time, I’ve been waiting for this and hip-hop’s been waiting for this, and now the wait is finally over, straight up. Peace.