Chilling, man. I’ve been working every day, all day. That’s what we’re doing over here. It’s a 24/7 grind.
You just released the Autografh album sampler. How’s the feedback been so far?
Incredible. I can’t even front. It has been doing incredible and I appreciate all the support I’ve been getting. I’m glad everybody is taking to it the way I wanted them to. It’s really doing phenomenal.
Why go with the free download on the sampler?
I wanted to give back to the people and make sure that they had a real, finished product that was official. People have been waiting for Autografh for awhile. I wanted to give it to them like that because this is the new way to promote music. I’ve been online since the beginning of my career. I think the labels are scared of the internet because it hurts record sales, but you have to know how to use it. It’s the only media besides TV and radio to really connect with your fans. I always tap into the online community and give them material first.
The other reason I did this for free is because a lot of people get it confused based off “MySpace Jumpoff.” They may not know who Grafh is so I made sure they knew who I was. If I’m the best chef in the city, how are you going to know if I never give you a plate?
The sampler is very street.
I wanted my fans to understand. That’s a part of my history. There’s really no commercial shit on there. It’s really not for the radio. This is intended for the fans to get to know Grafh. This is the initial handshake. I had to give everyone an example of who I am and the only way to do that is to keep this whole sampler street. Fans can get confused and they need to know what my story is. There’s nothing fabricated about me. I’m not playing some fake-ass character just to entertain you. I’m a real dude. The fans really need to know what time it is. I need them to understand.
What was your inspiration for “Lil’ Kenny”?
When I was growing up in my own crib in Queens, this kid Kenny lived downstairs. His mom was a drug abuser. In all honesty, I changed his name. I didn’t really want to put son’s name out there like that on that level. He was a kid I raised when I was young. I was in eleventh, twelfth grade and I had to take care of him. I didn’t even know how to live, but his mom was abusing drugs and couldn’t take care of him. She was a real crackhead asshole. He would come over and do his homework and I was like his parent. His mom wasn’t doing her job. To make a long story short, she went on the road with the nigga and killed him.
It was a crazy experience. I was a kid myself. At that point in my life, I was thinking, ‘Why does everybody I get close to leave?’ I had just seen my father get murdered and his man got shot in the back. That was right around the time my father came back in my life. I was really screwed up in the head at that time. I didn’t want to be close to anybody.
You talk about becoming desensitized to violence on “Cold N Heartless.”
Yeah. That’s me saying I’m numb to pain in general. I think the whole world is numb to pain. The pain doesn’t even bother me anymore. I don’t have a negative reaction to the things that happen in my life anymore. You watch the news and you hear that somebody gets shot and it doesn’t even affect you. You’re like, ‘Honey, what’s for dinner?” You don’t even blink an eye or feel any type of emotional connection. A dude gets shot and it’s like, ‘Whatever.’
Everybody is numb to what’s going on in the world to some degree. I think it’s the way society has conditioned us. Especially coming from New York City, we’re the coldest city in the world. I’ve been all around the world and this is the coldest city in the world. I can guarantee that. We step over bums and people get addicted every day and nobody gives a damn. You could be out in the streets, homeless with kids and I guarantee you people would drive right past you. Nobody cares and unfortunately I’m like everyone else. I don’t give a shit. I try to be as selfless as I possibly can, but due to the conditioning of my society, I don’t give a fuck and that’s why I can make it through my days. I can go to war with anybody. I don’t care.
Have you ever thought about leaving New York?
Moving out? I wouldn’t leave my city. I love my city, to tell you the truth. But I would definitely get a crib in another city. My cousin just got a crib in Atlanta. I love Atlanta and I like LA. I like Miami and I like Houston. And I like London a lot too. Shout out to everybody overseas. I actually spent the whole month of December in London, running around and having a blast.
The last time we did an interview, “MySpace Jumpoff” was just starting to make a buzz for you. Are you surprised at all by the response?
No. Not really. People don’t really understand. They think I made the song for fun. I made the song as a marketing tool to really tap into the internet community. I saw the growing population on MySpace and I had to find a way to get everyone’s attention on MySpace. As the President of Black Hand, we’re going up against all the majors with millions of marketing dollars. We have to outsmart them. I made the record for the chicks and to get the attention on MySpace. I was surprised by how fast it blew up online. It blew up in like a week. To tell you the truth, that song could have been bigger. That song just took off so fast. It took a week.
MTV called me right after that and I went on MTV and told them about it. That shit got so huge. As soon as I shot the video, MTV threw it right in rotation and it was on and popping from there. That song made me a lot of money. It worked like a charm. It was a marketing tool and it worked out. But I don’t want people to get it confused. I make all types of records for all purposes and intents. I can do stuff like that and it’s not out of character. I can make party records, introspective records, records that make you want to cry, laugh, think or kill yourself. Nine times out of ten, I make something dark and meaningful because I normally wake up in a bad mood. But some days I’m all right.
Did “MySpace Jumpoff” give you a new fanbase?
That song gave me a whole new fanbase across America. That song expanded my fanbase like crazy. I got a video rotating on MTV. That was my first real taste of mainstream success and it made me a whole lot of money.
Where do you draw the line between trying to make new fans and making songs for other people versus catering to the fans who already love Grafh for the hard, dark music?
That’s a good question. You know what’s funny? I’ve been trying to draw that line my whole career. What I’ve found is that there is no way to draw that line. There are three types of Grafh songs. On my MySpace, I have the mixtape Gangsta Music with Prinz. That mixtape is hosted by Kay Slay. That is all the hard, street, gutter shit. Then I put out a tape called Ladies’ Night. That’s hosted by Lazy K and that tape is for the girls. There’s R&B remixes and party tracks. I do those records too and that’s another side of Grafh. And then I have the Autografh sampler. That’s twelve tracks from the album that are introspective and meaningful. That’s a part of my history. I want people to understand those because that’s who I am. Those are the three sides of Grafh.
The next project will be more balanced. I can’t draw the line. I make music depending on what I feel. I’m not in a bad mood every day and I can’t make a “Cold N Heartless” record every day. Some days I want to party and some days I just want to talk to my fans. Some days I’m in the crib getting brains from a chick. You just go through different things and draw from different experiences.
You’ve always had an interesting ear when it comes to picking beats. What do you look for in a beat?
It’s funny, because when I pick tracks, the thing I look for is space and a particular groove and melody. I look for the right amount of space on a track. Some dudes make tracks that are too busy and there’s no room for me on it. Sometimes I do pick beats that other people wouldn’t pick. I like to try different things and push the envelope. I can do so much and I have so much to offer as an artist. Everybody’s not going to like everything. Some dudes won’t like the street shit and your other fanbase might want to party. Other fans will be depressed and be going through some shit. The dark music can help them get through their day. Grafh makes all those records. I don’t crossover. I make the world crossover to me. I make the music I want to. I make the music for me and whoever appreciates it, I love it. That’s how I go about creating.
Is the Autografh album done?
Just about. I’m adding a few tracks and moving some things around. I’m still doing new shit. I never stop working. My grind never stops. I’m always recording records and trying to do something new and something fresh. I want a new, fresh sound on Autografh. It just has to be fresh and new, whatever I’m doing. I’m definitely trying to change things up. There’s going to be a lot of fresh, new things on Autografh. If it’s crack, it’s going to make it.
How does Autografh sound so far?
The album is crazy. That’s the reason why I leaked the sampler. I couldn’t keep holding the music away from the people. I felt like I was cheating myself and the fans. The music is crazy. I have music that people in my ‘hood compare to 2Pac’s records. They told me to put it out and I was holding back. Then I figured I needed to give this to the people so they could understand who Grafh is and what I do. They really have to understand who I am and what I do.
I’m a big fan of making records that have impact. I think music is supposed to make you feel a certain way. If you can’t do that, then you’re wasting your time. I’m trying to make sure that you get it and that you feel something. The worst thing to do is to blend in and be average. I’d rather have niggas hate me than feel nothing. Love me or hate me, but say something. Being average is a nightmare to me. I don’t know how niggas can live being average. That idea is crazy to me.
How frustrating is it that Autografh took so long to come out?
It’s definitely frustrating. It’s not something I wished for. But me being who I am, I’m not willing to compromise. I could have come out on Sony and I would probably be a millionaire, but that wasn’t how I wanted to come out. They don’t even know how to market hip-hop over there. When you want to do things your way and maintain your integrity, it takes a little bit longer. I’m good with that. As long as it comes out my way, I’m good with that. I don’t need no A&R. We have our own engineers, cameramen, everything. We have everything in-house. The next deal that I do, which we’re in negotiations for now, is going to be done my way. I’ll bring the label the finished product. We don’t have to be friends. Just cut the check and beat it.
You’re going independent for Autografh. What motivated that decision?
Right now, we have two other offers on the table. We might go with someone else right now. The shit is looking like it’s going to be bigger and that’s based off the sampler leaking online. I’m trying to decide now where I’m going to go. There are two others involved and I’m trying to decide right now, but I’m going to get what I want.
How hard has it been to stay relevant throughout all your label situations?
I can’t say it’s hard when compared to a regular 9 – 5. To me, it’s more mental. I’m a machine that’s built to kill and destroy. I’m a cool guy, but with a mic in front of me, I’m built to destroy. There’s nothing I’m better at. I went to St. John’s University and I was majoring in Finance. I wasn’t really chasing rap. I was going to be a businessman and open up my own franchise. I was paying cash for the tuition off dirty money. I was doing me. That’s what I was doing with my life. I wasn’t chasing rap. It just came to me because I’m talented.
I thank God for the gift every day. This shit just comes to me. That’s why I feel like it’s God-given. I don’t sit in my crib and try to flow a certain way. I thank the Lord that I have this certain gift. It’s not hard. You just have to stay working. Staying relevant is the most important thing in the world. You can be rich and irrelevant and you won’t make any cultural impact. You won’t have a voice. The fact that I am still relevant and that I still do have a voice is something that I love and appreciate because a lot of dudes are not relevant. A lot of dudes at the top of the chart are not relevant. If they speak, nobody will listen. If I speak, people will listen.
We’re doing a prison tour. We’ve done over 1,000 jails so far. We’re going to go overseas with that too. I’ve done Rikers Island 1,000 times. Shout out to Mutulu Shakur for setting up an ill event for us in Florida. I brought Jae Millz, Maino, D-Block and Papoose with me at different times. Not a lot of artists can have a voice like that. We’re giving back to the people in the struggle who we feel represent Black Hand. If you go to the bottom and your voice is still strong, then you’re golden and the work that you put down means something. It’s all about being heard. If you don’t have a voice, your money and your power is irrelevant.
What would you be doing right now if you graduated from St. John’s?
(laughs) I don’t know. Everyone graduates and doesn’t know what they want to do. I was just trying to get a better situation for myself. I wasn’t going to be hustling because I knew somebody would tell on me or I would get shot. I knew there wasn’t a future in that. God put this music thing in front of me and I’m thankful for that. I’m going to make sure I kick down a thousand doors with this and bring my niggas into it. I don’t want my niggas to be ducking the law forever. That shit is not cool. Every day you’re hustling, you have to be lucky. The police only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky every single day.
When I get in, I can’t wait to take niggas with me. I’m creating jobs for niggas in my community. I’m taking them around the world with me. I’ve been around the world on hip-hop and I’m appreciative for that. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, I would still be in the same place doing the same shit.
Are you still cool with Dame Dash?
Yeah. He’s not really focused on the music anymore. He’s my dude. We come from a similar environment and he understands what the struggle is about. We’re actually going to do a film deal with him about the life of Chazz Williams, the CEO of Black Hand. His story is crazy, from doing 15 years in prison to robbing banks…
After my father died, he took me under his wing and showed me how to move in the streets. We’re still working on that. Now everybody wants to be involved because we got some big-name actors involved. We’re also negotiating a Black Hand Pro-Keds sneaker deal.
When Dame was with Jay-Z on the Roc, I was never really signed with him there. We never signed the deal. We’re both real niggas and we did a handshake deal. Dame did a press release and all that, but I never actually signed because him and Jay had whatever they had and fell out before the situation happened. We were always independent. We were always Black Hand.
Is Chazz Williams involved in the music side of Black Hand or does he stay on the business side of things?
Both. He’s an extraordinary businessman. He’s one of the last of his breed. He’s one of the last OG dudes who get it. A lot of the niggas from that era are either dead or they don’t hold no weight in the streets. He gets it. He’s incredible. He’s a college graduate with a Masters in Business. We did a project called The Black Gangster and it had Jay-Z, Ja Rule and other artists and we did 100,000 on it. That was all off of grinding. His business game is crazy. He comes from the struggle and he knows what music to put out to get niggas to respond.
What’s going on with Shalone and Prinz?
Prinz just about finished up his album. It’s called Angel With a Dirty Face. He’s just working and staying busy. Shalone just started his own label but he’s still fucking with Black Hand. He’s doing his thing real major too. Me and him are getting money and that’s never going to go anywhere. That’s my dude right there. He’s doing his thing. He’s getting ready to release his album as well.
What do you have to do from here on out to make Autografh successful?
I just have to stay busy and stay working and think of creative ways to make it. As President of Black Hand, we have to focus on getting the project out right and getting the album out to the world. We’re just weighing our options with the majors and seeing who’s talking. I might be doing a new interview real soon talking about what I decided to do. The main focus right now is getting ready for this summer release.
What do you want to say to everybody?
I want to thank those who supported. Those who don’t know, I want you to download the music and enjoy it. I hope you can relate to some of the shit I’ve gone through and some of the shit I say. I hope it means as much to you as it does to me when I wrote it.
And to the competition, run harder.