Are you and Saigon completely done on The Greatest Story Never Told?
Yeah. We mastered it already. I’m going back in to fix one thing with this one record. We have a “Preacher Part 2”. Some people are familiar with the original version because it leaked a couple of years back. I have a few things to fix with that and then we’re going to plug that into the album sequencing. But yeah, we’re done.
This album definitely took some time.
Yeah and it’s a good feeling to be done. We actually did the final mastering on my birthday, so that was a nice birthday present. That was on January 8. We had already done the first mastering, but you’ll go in and master your album and that’s usually your first reference and then you go back in and make revisions. A couple weeks back that we posted on the blog that the album was finished, that was done after the first round of mastering. The final mastering was done on January 8. It was like having a baby on your birthday.
It seems as though you were very meticulous with this album.
Well, yeah. The thing is, the bulk of the songs were done in the first year and a half of recording, but then it’s like, once you’ve got your groundwork done, it’s like, ‘Okay, we have a good groundwork of songs.’ That’s when you have a good collection of songs. How can you make them make sense and be cohesive? A lot of times people will slap and throw records together, and I’m not taking anything away from anyone else, but they don’t all necessarily have that cohesive sound.
If you look at Jay, it’s a perfect example. Look at American Gangster or The Blueprint versus maybe The Blueprint 2. People regard that as one of the maybe lesser albums, but when you listen to the songs on it, those are some great records. It’s just the sequencing and the cohesiveness might not have been there. So it’s like, my thing was having been through this process of being involved of putting a lot into albums, I just really wanted to make sure that the cohesiveness and the attention to detail was there and that’s kind of the way I approach a lot of the things that I’ve worked on.
Freeway’s album, that first one, it wasn’t like, how can I put it…All of those songs were done quickly, but then it was a matter of going back and refining them and making changes. That album was done probably a year to a year and a half before anybody heard it. That's the same with a lot of the albums that I’ve worked on. The Blueprint was done in a weekend, but then again, that’s Jay-Z and he’s an alien.
We could talk all day about that album, but for the most part, it’s just a refining process that you have to go through. A lot of people don’t know this, but it’s not an urban legend with Dr. Dre. There were two other Chronic’s that were supposed to come out and I’m not saying that to compare myself to Dr. Dre. There were two entire albums that were scrapped before he finally came out with 2001, so it’s like, and again, I’m not comparing this album to any of the other ones, but when you’re striving for perfection given what you have to work with, you have to keep on going back and revising it and just making sure that everything really fits together so that when people listen to it, they can listen to it all the way through and they can pick out their favorite songs and their favorite sections and just keep it on repeat. I want you to really just listen from beginning to end and just take it in as an album and to do that it takes time.
Is The Greatest Story Never Told cohesive enough for you?
Put it this way – for me, personally, there’s the saying that great movies are never finished, they’re just abandoned. I think I’ve reached that point now where you just kind of have to abandon it, and what I mean by that is that there are always going to be things that I wish could be a little tighter or redone if I had more time, but it’s like, you can’t hold it any longer and it’s just time to let it go.
How have you seen Saigon grow as an artist and how did you try to help him grow?
What I will say about Sai is that in terms of growth, what really has struck me for the most part is really his growth as a person. I can look at that from my dealings with him. How can I put this correctly? For example, I think that throughout the process of recording, he acts very much on how he feels and he really doesn’t bite his tongue.
So some things that would happen early on, I would have to talk to him, like, ‘We don’t necessarily need to do a whole lot of talking. Let the album speak for itself. The goal here is not to sell millions of records. It’s to make something that’s going to have an impact and is going to last.’ I think towards the end he saw that and he understood that.
We went back and forth as far as what sales would determine whether the album was a success or not. I had seen how the market was changing and how sales were dropping dramatically. I used to say to him, ‘Listen, by the time this album comes out, if we go gold or if we sell 4-500,000, I’ll be ecstatic’ where his numbers were more, ‘I want to be at 9 million.’ I’ve seen how this industry works and operates and how things have changed. I think he more so realized how much more work we had to do than just making good records. There’s more to establishing yourself as an artist than by having a successful album, and by “success” I mean having an impact on your culture. It’s also not about selling 8 or 9 million records and then disappearing. And then as an artist, I just really wanted to bring out in him songwriting and how to make records that can rope people in by having them connect with you on a personal level.
And it took awhile for us to get that groove just because we’re coming from two different angles. For example, I used to stop him and be like, ‘Do it this way, do it that way.’ I think in the beginning, he didn’t have anybody doing that with him. He used to tell me that was unbelievable because every producer he had ever worked with, he would just go in the booth and do a 16 and they would be like, ‘That’s hot.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it probably was hot, but it was for a different purpose. You weren’t necessarily making an album before. It was just two or three hot 16’s. Now it’s time for us to make records with meaning.’ That’s not to say that every record has to have a message or a moral or that every single record has to make you think, but now we have a purpose. We have 15 chances to do that on this album and we have to take advantage of each one. I think the most growth I’ve seen in him is him knowing what it actually takes to put together a whole album. In looking at the end result of two and a half years of work, he definitely sees the value of the world and his second album will definitely come a lot easier to him because we have a better understanding of what we have to do and he has a better understanding of what he has to do.
Did you ever get frustrated reading Saigon’s HipHopGame interviews or MySpace blogs where he would be dissing Atlantic or saying something else that was probably news to you?
You know, I would read. That first one really frustrated me because it put me in a position where I had to talk about things that I necessarily didn’t want to talk about yet. And if you look at the first blog that I wrote, it wasn’t so much a response to him like most people tried to make it out to be. It was more so a clarification. It was like, ‘All right, he had to go put certain things out there right now. Now I have to clarify what was being said.’ When someone is speaking out of anger, they will speak on topics in a very broad manner. They won’t say, “I don’t have any of my recording budget left and this is why” or “Atlantic won’t do X, Y and Z” but they’re not saying why.
There’s pretty much a reason for everything. It’s usually not “my record company is screwing me over” or “my production company is screwing me over” or “this sample clearance is screwing me over.” Then people tried to say that one sample has held up this entire album for the past year and that wasn’t the case. The sample clearance issue was holding up “Come On Baby”, which we wanted to be the first single, for a couple of months. I had to go in and clarify things and that’s what that blog was about.
Sometimes it is frustrating to have to go and do that when the time is not right for it because then people make it out to be a publicity stunt and things like that and the last thing that I have time for is stunts. Throughout my whole thing, probably the most frustrating thing about that, and this just comes down to us just being two different people and us having two different philosophies, is that I just wanted the music to speak for itself. Throughout my entire career, I haven’t really ever had any drama that anybody can ever twist as a publicity stunt. I pride myself on that. Nowadays everybody has a beef with somebody. Producers are making YouTube videos beefing with each other and there's a new rap beef every day. I knew that those blogs and me being in a position where I would have to respond, I think that was really the most frustrating thing about that. I’ve always made it very clear that if I do ever address anything along those lines of things that he’s said, it’s not out of a beef with him. It’s more so being on the strength of clarifying certain things that he may be saying out of anger but he’s not saying clearly.
And him being a new artist and him doing this for the first time, a lot of times I would feel his frustration and a lot of times I would agree with him. My thing was that this might not be the best time or the best avenue to express these things. A lot of times when you express yourself on these things and you don’t have an album coming out, a lot of times the people are like, ‘You’re doing a lot of talking but where is your album?’ Because at the end of the day, they’re not looking for you to be a motivational speaker. They just want to hear your album and then they will be more accepting of the things that you have to say. So I think that was probably really the only frustrating thing about that. It was like, ‘Dude, let’s just get this album finished and get it out. We can do the talking later. Let’s get the foundation to the masses first and then we can talk about whatever you want to talk about.’ For me, that was the most frustrating thing, really. Other than that, he was just a new artist speaking his mind. And I do agree with not all, but a lot of the things that he said in his blog entries and interviews.
Do you think Saigon had too much freedom to do whatever he wanted early in his career which meant that you had to work on a lot of the finer points of emceeing with him?
Yeah. That’s why me and him used to end up going back and forth a lot. I’m sure a lot of people have seen that “Saibonics” video. That was more comedic, but that was just one example of things that we would go back and forth about. We might spend a whole night going back and forth sometimes about the right way to say a line, but at the end of the day, that’s my job as a producer to do that.
In my initial approach, it was to let him do him. That was really my initial approach for the first year. He had beats from me and whoever and once every other night, I would see where he was at with things. If you go in as an artist, you say, “Okay, you’re Saigon and I’m Just Blaze and from now on I’ll be watching your every move,” you restrict that person artistically. “You got some beats from some other producers? Go in and do you. I’ll check in with you once in awhile to see where you’re at and I’ll come in at the end to see where you’re at and harness it and rope it in. So go and do four songs on your own and I’ll come in and let you know what I think and what is wack, what’s good and what has potential. I’ll tell you what two to put aside for the album. Go do some more. I’ll hear those and put those away for the album and for my mental file.” Once he does that, it’s like, ‘Okay, now we can go ahead and really start putting things together.’
The only thing that I probably really regret about the situation or the one downside for me, personally, the thing I didn’t like was how fast everything happened and a lot of people don’t know this, but when everything was announced as far as him signing a deal with me at Atlantic and when all that happened, me and him hadn’t known each other that long. I’m just getting to the beginnings of how it all happened, but once we had met and had been talking and whatnot, I gave him a couple of beats, one of them which ended up becoming “The Letter P” and a couple of other records and I was just like, ‘Rap on these and let’s see how they sound.’ And then at that point, you’re just trying to see how you mesh and how he sounds on my beats. I didn’t give him my best beats in the world. Those were just a demo. I was just seeing what it would be like if we were to do some work together.
So he heard the beats and he’s writing and I’m starting to get songs back. In the meantime, his manager that he was working with at the time was really trying to speed things up for a record deal and was trying to force things in motion a lot faster. And I understand why he would do that. He’s a manager and he was trying to do the best thing he felt for his artist and Saigon had been grinding it out for a few years. But once word had started to spread that Just Blaze was working with a new artist, all of a sudden people are interested without even having heard a song and my thing was, “Hey, I’m trying to establish a rapport with the guy and do some work and spend some time together, because if we basically do this, it’s gotta be the same kind of chemistry like a Gang Starr where you have the producer and the artist.” You have to let that chemistry develop over time.
Then people at Atlantic are offering us a deal without even having heard the music. That’s due to the fact that I had done what I had done and he was a new artist that had a crazy buzz in the mixtape scene. They hadn’t even heard a song. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re still trying to feel each other out.’ I kind of regret that things happened so quickly because it made people anticipate things a lot sooner than they should have.
Once the word got out that the deal had been signed, people started expecting an album within two months. By the time the label announces that an artist has been signed, there’s material recorded and there’s a single slated and that’s because there was more marketing. You might be signed and developing your album for two or three years. Now with the way the market is, you look at a lot of the guys in the South or where someone already has something bubbling independently, the next thing you know, they’re making a big announcement but the product is already ready to be launched. In this case, the product was still in its infancy and the announcement was already out there, so at that point, do you scramble to put something together? That’s what some people do in that situation and they no longer have a situation anymore. They’ll take the first 14 songs they do and put them out.
It doesn’t work like that. That was the most frustrating thing to me. It creates a false image that the album has been done for three years and it’s like, ‘What are you guys waiting for?’ It’s not like the album has been done for three years. That’s not the case. I posted the picture of the mastered CD and if you look at the date on it, it’s December 18, 2007. You wouldn’t have seen that image two years ago. Best believe if I had an album sitting for two years, I wouldn’t have been as silent as I have over the past two or three years. I would have something to say too. But the album wasn’t done like that. Of course we were recording songs that we definitely wanted to use, but did it exist in the state that it’s in now? No way. We couldn’t have got it done any faster only because me being as busy as I am and with me working on as many things that I’m working on, it would take time away, but it didn’t have that much of an impact on the album getting done. But I think that that is my biggest regret. In my perfect world, people wouldn’t have found out about the deal until maybe a year and a half ago as opposed to three years ago.
You can look at a lot of artists. Nas took two years to make Illmatic. Game was sitting around for God knows how long until he got it together. It’s not like he was sitting around. He was developing. And you can give 50 as much credit as you want for getting the project moving along, but at the end of the day, Game had to rap. He was developing his rapping while he was sitting at Interscope for two years. The Game that I heard back in 2002 was not the same one you heard on The Documentary. Sometimes you sign someone off of the potential you see in them and then hopefully it develops. It's the same thing with a lot of great artists.
With Philadelphia Freeway, we worked on that album for at least a year and a half or two years. I really wish that so much information hadn’t have leaked out so early, but everything happens for a reason. Because of the information leaking out, Saigon was able to get the Entourage thing going, which I wish would have happened in the following season, but it did get him some awareness in a market that had probably never heard of him before.
When I interviewed Saigon, he said he wouldn’t mind going independent in the future. Do you think you and Saigon will be able to work together long enough to have a discography like a Gang Starr?
What I said as far as Gang Starr, I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense that that’s what I’m trying to make us into. What I’m saying is that in order to have the duo where one person is the DJ and one person is the rapper, you have to have a certain rapport with that person, even if it only lasts for one album. Dre and Snoop only did it on Doggystyle and after that they only reunited on certain records here and there. But in order to get that chemistry and understanding between each other and to understand where that person is coming from, you have to have a rapport with each other and you have to have experience being around each other every day as people, otherwise the disagreements and the arguments that are going to arise in the studio are going to have a whole different basis.
In other words, if you don’t understand where I’m coming from, do you expect me to understand where you are coming from? We did have issues in the studio and it was coming from me wanting what was best from the album and Saigon wanting what was best for the album and us coming to a common ground. If you don’t have that rapport and understanding with each other, it just turns into two dudes having an argument.
And as far as him working independent, we’ve already started talking about things as far as when we want to release the next album. I think that when he talks about working independently, and he’s expressed this to me, I think he’s just tired of the major label situation overall. And it’s really not unwarranted. I don’t feel like Atlantic has done everything wrong in this situation. I honestly feel until up about a year ago, up until the time that we put out “Pain In My Life”, we hadn’t given them much. That goes back to people’s perceptions being wrong and knowing what the label had in their hands and what they didn’t.
I don’t want to get into the whole “Label versus the Artist” situation, but it was a new artist not understanding how certain things might have worked and then on top of that, the label was actually dropping the ball on certain things themselves, so I can completely understand why he would say that. If I were him I would probably say the same thing.
At the same time, as far as me and his relationship, we would talk every night about how great the album was coming out and how much we really put into it and I think he honestly appreciates me a lot more now on a personal. Our relationship is solid. This is what I was saying to people when they were saying that he was retiring and people were saying, “Doesn’t he have a contract? How can he retire?” I don’t control that man’s destiny but I love him like a brother. Whatever he wants to do I support him on that.
Did the “Come On Baby (Remix)” go as far as you thought it could go?
No, I really feel like in that aspect, it’s kind of like, my whole thing with that record was, ‘This is not the record that we’re putting the money behind.’ In other words, we have records. We know what records can be the hit records. “Come On Baby” was supposed to be a mixshow record.
We were going to put some money behind it, but the whole “Come On Baby” situation got screwed up because of the Prodigy incident where once that incident happened, the record got pulled from Hot 97 due to the fact that it took place at a Hot 97 event. Saigon is good with Hot 97 again, but initially it was perceived that he was up there trying to start trouble with Prodigy and that wasn’t the case. My only problem with him in that situation was the he never should have been there. He didn’t go there with a lot of people and when the Mobb goes somewhere, it’s not just Prodigy and Havoc. I’ve known those dudes for years. That really hurt the whole thing.
New York is not a popping territory right now the same way St. Louis wasn’t popping before Nelly. Nelly had to lock down his state and his region for it to really pop off. When the West Coast wasn’t really rocking like that, Dre and Snoop had to lock down the West. You had to lock down your initial region at one point.
We were finally in the process of doing that. The record hit No. 13 at Hot 97 and then to have the record pulled, it really hurt the situation because it’s like, ‘Wow, the No. 1 station in the region, in the tri-state area, is pulling the record and a lot of other stations were following suit with that as far as stations in the surrounding areas.’ Those other stations might not necessarily pull the record, but they’ll see that it’s not on that rotation list anymore, so they’ll pull their support on it because if it’s not rocking in the hometown, where’s it gonna rock at? If you’re from New York and your record gets pulled in New York, don’t expect people in Florida to start rallying behind it. So that really hurt the situation.
By the time we came back with the remix, even though it featured Jay, the record had already been pulled by the No. 1 station supporting it, so it was going to make it a lot harder to get a revamped version of that record back in rotation. That being said, I think that the record was doing initially well. I feel like Atlantic probably could have put something behind it on a mixshow level just to get it worked. So it definitely didn’t go as far as it should have, but I think from people’s perceptions, they thought that we were trying to use that as our money record, like our 5 or 10,000 spinner but it was never supposed to be that. It was supposed to be our mixshow shot and get played until the real record came out and once that didn’t happen, it was like, ‘Okay, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and not necessarily do the records because we already had the records, but just revise the plan again.’ I really regret that the Prodigy situation went down like that because it indirectly affected the record’s lifespan.
On another note, I've known Mobb personally for over 10 years, more so P than Hav. So it just kind of bothered me because those were two artists that I had relationships with. Obviously my relationship with Sai is much different, but those were two artists that I had relationships with. Me and P used to hang out and did some work together years back. He'd come by the crib and sometimes I'd try and teach him how to make beats or I'd go check him out in L.I. That whole crew, the ones that rapped anyway, was basically like some of the first dudes I got cool with when I was coming up in the business, around the Hell On Earth era. I was there when Havoc made the “Quiet Storm” beat, which was supposed to be for a Noyd solo album, and a lot of his other bangers from around that time, so that was inspirational for me to see a lot of those records go from start to finish like that. We weren't necessarily great friends or anything, but I was real cool with those guys and I was a fan, of course. Having to be in a situation like that, it’s disheartening to me on a personal level to say the least.
What are your expectations for The Greatest Story Never Told?
At this point, I don’t really have expectations. I know what I would like to see but I don’t have expectations. The thing with me is that I’m not the type where I’m going to brag about the album or make any projections about the album. The only thing I can say is that when you hear it, listen to it all the way through and then pass your judgment on it.
I’m not talking about bringing the East Coast back either. I’m about bringing good rap music back and I think that if you listen to the album, you’ll appreciate the amount of work that went into it. I hope people appreciate it and that’s pretty much it. I don’t know what to expect. One of the things that I will say about Atlantic and it’s not even necessarily a criticism of them, it’s just the way the marketplace is right now, but the way that I feel about Atlantic and the record companies in general is that the art of building an artist to the public and the art of developing an artist is dead.
Nowadays everything relies so much on where you’re from and who you’re associated with. That’s kind of like the discriminating factor behind everything now. Today if a record doesn’t necessarily take off on its own, nowadays a record label doesn’t really know what to do with it. Labels are really reactionary as opposed to being proactive. It’s not just Interscope and it’s not just Def Jam and it’s not just Atlantic and it’s not just Columbia. There are very few people in the industry left who understand the science of making a record and pushing it properly. Now the artist and their people have to do it themselves. We’re about to have a bunch of meetings this week to strategize how we’re going to do that on our end. It would be nice to get that from the label but you can’t rely on it. You have to start doing that yourself. We know the product is good and we know the general timeframe for our release. Now what are we going to do until then? It’s up to us, really.
How do you see major labels surviving and evolving in the future?
You can’t rely on the old business model. The old business model is dead. We have to face it at this point and I think they know that. It’s like, remember when people blamed the internet for declining sales and bootlegging? The only thing the internet has done is it’s definitely stepped up the level of bootlegging because it can happen so quickly now. Say when Brand Nubian’s “One For All” first leaked and it was on tapes back in the day, it took weeks for tapes to spread. Nowadays you press one button and your album is in the hands of millions of people.
At the same time through, you have Kanye, 50, Alicia Keys, and Jay selling hundreds of thousands of units in their first weeks of sales. Certain artists can still hit those numbers for now, but these are artists that have been preparing for this moment and they’re able to last in the marketplace. This is something that they’ve been preparing for. It’s a lot harder for new artists to receive that type of acclaim and come out the gate with high sales, especially with a physical medium like CD or records or whatever. They can’t just rely on CD sales. I think it’s going to have to be some form of an advertising-based model probably.
Look at YouTube. They sold for how much? They sold for a crazy amount, I forget the number. Look at what MySpace sold for. These are the best types of hustles ever. They sold for hundreds of millions of dollars and they didn’t have any content. The users had to give them their content. “Give us your content and then we’re going to go and sell the fact that we have your content for billions of dollars.” Why? Because it had millions of eyes on it per day.
When have you ever seen a company that didn’t provide any content to its users sell for millions of dollars? It makes no sense when you try to apply that to an old business model, but with the rise of the internet, it makes perfect sense. These labels have to realize that with these new artists. The music industry has to really revamp their business model where maybe a superstar artist gives their music away for free but the only place that you can officially get their music is on their page, which would cost a lot more to advertise on than say, a B or C-class artist.
Or maybe the advertising might be at the venues where they’re going to perform at, like the deal Madonna did. Madonna doesn’t have a record deal and she doesn’t need one. At this point now, she’s selling her own merchandise in conjunction with another company – 50/50 with the shows, the merchandise and the advertising. They’re all tied in together. The market has to switch to a completely different model if it’s going to survive. You have these artists who used to sell 3 or 400,000 and now they’re selling 30,000. They’re going to come out again and maybe sell 5,000 now. Who knows? And it really gets on my nerves when these artists go and complain about these labels to a certain degree because it’s not necessarily the people that run the label on a day-to-day that are the main ones to blame. It’s the people that are much higher up. I wish I could find the quotes from that speech that someone, I think it was a chairperson of Universal or something, I'll find it, gave a few weeks back. He was basically admitting that in the past he did understand the internet and kinda still didn't. It was hilarious. Dude was really technologically clueless, which is a big reason why we are where we are.
Looking that the criticism that Jay has received for being president of Def Jam, how much of that do you think was justified?
I don’t know his day-to-day business dealings so I can't really comment on that all the way with specifics, but remember when Kingdom Come was coming out and you had that huge media blitz with Budweiser commercial and football games and basketball games and wild publicity that you had never seen before? People were talking about how Jay had probably spent $20 million.
Jay has gotten to the point where he doesn’t have to spend money on his own advertising anymore. Companies want to be in bed with him. He didn’t walk into Budweiser asking them to put his song in the commercial and this is how much I’m going to pay you to do it. Think! What company wouldn’t want to get in bed with him? Budweiser or Heineken or whoever would step to him and they wanted to work with him and they wanted him to give him his name and his likeness to use. “Okay, how much? I have an album coming out, so this works out perfectly.” Think about it. He didn’t have to spend money. When you get to a certain point, your money makes money for you and part of Jay’s fortune is his name and likeness. And he’s always been about only lending that to a few select things that will benefit him. When it comes to spending money for his own albums, Jay probably spends less on his albums than artists that have sold a quarter of what he sold. Think about it. He takes care of his people, but what producer is going to charge Jay $100,000 for beats? It’s not going to happen. As far as people who do artwork or video, who’s going to charge Jay huge amounts of money? Not many people because they want that on their resume. I think the turning point was when he sold millions of records on Volume 2 and he spent, like, no money. I remember him saying that he spent so little money on that album and made so much on it and made a name for himself. I think that’s when he realized that he could let his name and his likeness work for him.
And in terms of the artists, in some cases, some of those artists just really made bad albums. I don’t care. No artist would ever want to admit that and I think some artists heads are so far into the clouds that they don’t realize that they’re not connecting with what’s going on in the streets and they don’t know what the streets or the pop audience wants. If you’re not making records that connect on a broad level to the street, who rarely buy albums, with rare exception, or on a broad level to the pop audience or the teeny-bopper audience, then why do you feel that you should sell a million records? Who are you trying to sell them to?
In some cases it’s a different, more difficult struggle. Like how Freeway’s album sold 30 or 40,000, whatever it sold in its first week. I’m not going to get in-depth because into our personal politics and all that other nonsense, but just think about it like this – at this point we all know that since the breakup and all of the other things that happened, the Rocafella situation is in transition right now. So being that the movement has slowed down and you are a product of that movement, it has to go above and beyond you making 12 good songs if you expect to sell more than 40 – 50,000. The average artist who sold a couple hundred thousand a few years ago, that’s not what they’re doing now. You have to go above and beyond making a few good records. You’re not just going to come out and sell a ton of units on the merits of having a good song alone these days, unfortunately.
Even with myself, I'm a product of that same dynasty as well. I still have the same amount of love for everybody, but at the same time, it’s like, I can’t just go out and make good beats anymore. I have to go and connect myself to other things to maintain what I'm doing. I’m doing this LRG campaign or this Smirnoff commercial, scoring the NBA Ballers game, doing DJ tours around the world to build my international presence, maintain this little label situation, a lot of things other things are happening as well, and it's still not enough. You have to do more than just go in there and make 14 good records and be like, ‘Okay, why isn’t it selling?’ because the marketplace doesn’t just require making good records anymore. It’s crazy, man. I feel for anyone trying to break in this business. Re-breaking in is even harder sometimes.
When I first came around, Beans had just gotten there, Bleek was on album two. If you look at everything that exploded and everything that happened afterwards and we had this great run and then we got our second wind and then our third wind, how are we gonna get that fourth wind unless everybody gets back under the same roof again? I really hope that can happen somehow.
It’s like, if you look at any great crew that had a run, okay, they, at one point or another, we’re all connected and they were all working together. When Puff had that first run and he had the Hitmen and Mary and Total and Mase, Big, The Lox…I’m not saying that they all were working together all the time, but they were all there in Daddy’s House working like a machine. You had Nysheim or Deric making a beat and then you had Chuck to do the overdubs on it and Stevie J might put some strings over that and then Chuck might put some live drumming underneath it. You had a well-oiled machine of production and songwriting.
At Baseline with Rocafella, you had the same thing. I was always there working on beats. You had Kanye bringing stuff in. You had the other producers we worked with on the regular. You had Jay working in the A room. You had Freeway writing in the B room. You had Chris and Neef just in the front writing some rhymes. You had Bleek and Beans and everybody was bouncing ideas off of each other. Cam and Juelz might have been there. You will never see Cam and them back in the picture again of course, that goes without saying. But you see my point.
You had all of these people that had these different talents or whatever and they were all in the same place. There was a synergy there and there was an excitement there because every day, good music was getting made. You had your posse cuts and you had your features. You had me making a beat and Jay turning it down and Mack walking in like, ‘You’re bugging. I’m going to go in and do this record right now’ and we would go in and do that record right then. And we would stop what we were doing and go and do the record. You might have Bleek turn something down and Jay saying, “You’re crazy, watch how I do this.” It was crazy. There was a synergy and there was a machine running. I'm not saying it centers around me being there per se, or any one person, but whatever happens, the team needs to be back under one roof.
Nowadays you can’t be like, ‘Let’s put Freeway in the studio with Just Blaze for two days.’ I haven’t seen this man in God knows how long and we already had issues, which I put to the side and gave it a shot anyway. You can’t expect us to recreate that magic that we had when we made Philadelphia Freeway by sticking us in a room for two days. Yeah, we went in, don't believe everything you hear on records.
You can’t just expect to call Kanye West out of nowhere and be like, ‘I need a beat CD real quick send one over.’ You can’t do that anymore. Now I’m not saying that we can’t bring in back the whole collective movement where it might matter where we as real hip-hop artists can come back and sell a respectable amount of records, but that synergy has to be there. I’m not going to speak on the individual situations within the family business. I don’t speak on anything unless somebody puts my name out there publicly and even then I try to fall back from it, This isn’t a criticism of a label or of a person, it’s me saying that basically, if we really want this to work, then we have to get back under one roof. My attitude towards the situation hasn’t changed, but I can’t work with one person for one day and another person for two days and then say, “Aight, peace, we done here.” That’s not going to work.
And for a couple of the artists that have made their complaints and took shots at Jay, I don’t know Jay’s everyday business dealings. We have a relationship but I’m not in his office every day. But I know that sometimes, a lot of artists...when they make a product that isn’t that great, or doesn’t do well, it’s always easier to blame that label, especially when one of the executives at that label is somebody who’s sold a lot of records and is still doing well today.
Then you have some artists where it's like, you like them and are a fan, but they just aren't hot right now. Do you go release that album and put a ton of money into it knowing that more than likely, the market just isn't interested in it right now? And then if you let them go or drop them, you get accused of not respecting the music or that person's stature or their artistry or whatever, et cetera, but if you keep them on without releasing anything, you're hating and/or trying to hold them back.
I don’t know all the specifics, and I'm sure he made some mistakes. We all do. But he also had successes... And when it comes down to it he had staff below and above him. It's not a one man show. He was just the only one who happened to be a public figure, from my perspective.
Jay-Z was rumored to be named the president of Apple’s new music label and that didn’t happen. Do you think Jay would be a good fit as president of a digital label?
I think a move like that would be good. I think that some artists, they don’t need to make albums, to be perfectly honest. It’s coming back full circle to the past where it was a singles-driven market. Go look in your parent's closet and see how many 45's you find from artists that never put out full albums but had lots of 45's out.
So something like iTunes, where it’s obviously a single-song driven marketplace, is a great thing for the most part. I think the best thing to do sometimes is just to destroy and rebuild. So I think him doing that Apple thing, if that were the case, might be the beginning of destroying and rebuilding. I haven’t seen any indication of that happening though.
You worked with Jay-Z on American Gangster and you’ve been working with him for awhile. Has the creative process with Jay-Z ever changed?
I think the only difference between now and then is that I’m more comfortable with my role whereas before, I was young as a person and in my career. When you’re in that situation, you’re going to be a little timid because you’re very appreciative of being in that situation and you don’t know the person that well yet so you kind of tiptoe around.
For example, like, when we worked on The Dynasty album and we did “Soon You’ll Understand”, there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t initially in that beat, like sound effects and overdubs and what not. I was like, ‘How do I ask if this is okay?’ I didn’t really know him and I didn’t want to screw the situation up because if you don't know him he can come off as very unapproachable. I asked him if it was okay to add the wind chimes and thunder and all that. He looked at me like, ‘Yeah, I mean, go ahead, do you.’
After awhile I realized that the worst he could say was no and that part of what got me there in the first place was me doing me. I can’t remember the last time he was like, ‘There's no way we can do that.’ He usually trusts my vision.
The only time we had a bit of a problem was on “American Gangster”. If you notice there is no hook on “American Gangster”. That was supposed to have another artist on it who was...unavailable at the time. (laughs) We waited and eventually I took it upon myself to try and make something else happen because there were only three days before the album had to go to mastering. By the time I got things going, I was left with literally a day to make a hook happen. We almost got it done, but ultimately we couldn’t get it 100% finished to Jay's satisfaction. My hands were tied and I pretty much just left it the way it was.
When you started “Ignorant Shit” with Jay, did you think it would be as crazy as it did?
I was disappointed when it didn’t go on The Black Album, but everything happens for a reason. The record was very elusive for years after it leaked because there was never a non-DJ version. Just things that people spliced together. One of the holy grails for collectors was to find a clean version of that record. For me, when it finally did drop, because of the fact that it was so elusive for so many years, it garnered the record a lot more attention because the record that nobody could get their hands on for years was finally dropping. I’m actually happy that it came out when it came out.
Speaking of looking for that holy grail, how much time do you spend digging today?
Not as much as I used to just because really, like, my focus hasn’t been on necessarily making beats for people. My focus for the past year or so has been getting this album done. I only took on two or three major projects this year, obviously the biggest being the album. And I’ve just been focusing on that. I go record shopping here and there, but you also get to the point where you have so many records. I literally have, I couldn’t even tell you…You can’t even see the floors or the walls in my office – that’s how many records I have.
I have a couple of dealers who just come to me and bring me records and they know what I like. Instead of me having to dig for hours and hours, they say, “Okay, I’m going to see Just Blaze and I’m going to bring him these two crates of records.” I’ll go to the record stores because there will be some stuff that they’re up on. I don’t get to do that as often as I’d like, but now that things are really slowing down with this album, I want to get back to the artistic side of it and actually making beats and really just switching it up.
You’ve accomplished more than most producers could ever hope to. Is it ever hard to stay focused and motivated on upcoming projects?
Sometimes I do wake in the morning and I'm like, ‘What am I going to do next?’ because you’ve done so much already and I don’t like to retread and do the same thing over and over again. So that’s one of the reasons why I started to focus my attention heavily on the album and scoring and things like that. That’s not to say that I’m not going to make beats anymore, but you have to find new challenges and things to do that fit within the realm of what you do.
I feel like I’m a little to old to be playing the “Hey, listen to my beat CD game.” That’s not to say that I’m old, but I got in the game when I was young. I got into the game when I was 19. It’s been 10 or 11 years now. It’s about your accomplishments. It’s about saying, “How can I make my accomplishments work for me over the next 10 years?” as opposed to saying, “How can I accomplish that again?”
What does an artist have to have to motivate you to work with him?
He’s just gotta strike me on the personal, really. Just some fresh talent with something new to offer. I get calls and I’ve gotten calls for certain artists who have the No. 1 record in the country or the No. 1 this or the No. 1 that. But when I listen to it, it’s like, ‘I can’t see myself doing this.’ You can’t just chase a check every time.
I have to do what I personally feel. Put it this way – some southern artists may sound weird working with me, but if I can bring them into my sound and they can bring me into their sound, then it can work, like a Bun B, or like with T.I.’s “I’m Talking To You” or “The King's Back”. It’s because he’s well-rounded enough to adapt to me and I can adapt to his flow and his tempo. But then you have some artists who are wildly successful from that region where they have that one sound and that’s that.
For me to go that route, it wouldn’t help anybody because...Say something like snap music or whatever, that market isn’t producer-driven. It's not about who's doing those beats. It’s about the dance that goes along with the record and who the latest “Young” or “Lil’” is. It’s not really producer-driven. I say that to say that the people who are going to be fans of those records aren’t going to be my fans. It’s not going to win me any fans, per se. On that same note, the people who have been following my career and do appreciate what I do or the young kids that I get messages from on MySpace all the time who want to be like me when they get older or look to me as an inspiration, it might turn them away from me because I'm primarily known for something else.
It’s like a lose-lose situation. I’ll make some money, but I might lose some respect of a lot of the people who are fans of me and of what I’ve done up until this point. The people who are into the other stuff, it’s not going to make them start checking for me because that music is not producer-driven anyway. It just has to strike me as different enough to where I can do something that I haven’t done before. That’s really where I’m at right now. I’m entertaining things that have nothing to do with hip-hop at this point, whether it be dance music or rock music or some kind of fusion or whatever. It's switch-up time, otherwise I’ll suffer the same fate of the people before me as far as not changing with the times and not using your old successes to build new successes.
Do you ever look at producers that inspired you and say, “I still respect you but I can’t end up in your shoes”?
Yeah because some of them didn’t change with the times and some of them did change but it wasn’t the change that the people wanted to hear. Some of them had personal issues that stopped them, which I completely understand because I’ve been there! See, the one thing that hasn’t changed throughout the years is that hip-hop has always been a very youth-oriented playing field and the other thing that hasn’t changed is that people always say they want something different and then when they get it they don’t want it.
I had a long talk with Q-Tip about a year ago about this. He was like, ‘Hey, listen, would you rather be The Beatles or X Artist? X Artist is somebody who’s a very huge, popular pop artist today but hasn't been considered groundbreaking in years. And there’s certain artists that fit into that critique.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He was like, ‘Well, listen, X Artist has always been hot, has never really fallen off, has always really had a lot of controversy leading their record sales or used that as a means for record sales, has always jumped to whatever new producer has the hot new sound and they’ve done that for the past 20 years whereas The Beatles had their success, they had one of the greatest runs ever and then they went and just started experimenting with sounds and what they wanted to do as artists and they always maintained the people’s respect. So while the general masses may love X Artist and will always have an audience, they don’t necessarily command the artistic respect that The Beatles do.’ He said, “Me, I’d rather be The Beatles.”
I understood what he was saying. Tribe had their first three albums and everybody loved them and they were classics and then they did Beats, Rhymes and Life and it was a departure and people didn’t like it as much, but it still did well , but when The Love Movement came out, the masses didn’t appreciate it and they kind of hated on that album. Then he went on and did the Kamaal the Abstract thing and it didn’t get the chance to see the light of day because it was so different, but at the same time, you still have to respect him as an artist for going in all these different directions as opposed to re-treading the same thing over and over.
People always complain that the new album is just like the last one but when the new album is different, they trash it and they don’t necessarily give it a fair chance, not because it’s trash but because it’s different. That’s always been a constant in hip-hop. Anybody who’s ever tried to switch it up and tried to go in a different direction, they almost always get ripped into for doing it. It’s hard. It’s not as easy as people think to just go in and switch it up and still stay relevant. When I think about at a lot of people that I looked up to and I see how they tried to switch it up or knew when not to, I have a whole new respect for them. I’m trying to avoid that pitfall but avoiding that pitfall doesn’t necessarily mean that you can stay making beats for the next 20 years.
Look at the RZA. He had the success that he had as a producer and he went to another level and started scoring movies. He got with the right people and he found a whole new in for himself. Sometimes you have to find new lanes that keep you connected to your old ones because you don’t to totally lose what made you hot in the first place but you definitely have to branch out.
When you’re making beats, how much do you try to grow with each beat versus doing what got you to where you are today?
It really depends on what I’m doing and also on what the artist wants. There’s still people that come up to me and they say, “I need a ‘P.S.A.’” You don’t understand, “P.S.A.” is a moment in time that will never be recaptured. There were so many things that went into that record. There’s a lot more too it than just having a beat that sounds like such-and-such. That was a moment in time that you won’t be able to recapture. You don’t want a record that sounds like that because the people will be able to tell that you’re trying to make a record that sounds like that. I’ve had artists that do that and I realize it and it’s like, ‘They want me to come up with another ‘P.S.A.’ and it’s not going to work.’
I do try to maintain a certain musical integrity in what I do and I think that’s what’s a constant, like “Show Me What You Got” doesn’t sound like “Why You Hate the Game” and that doesn’t sound like “Kingdom Come”, but there’s an integrity in those records that you can’t particularly front on. Some people loved “Show Me What You Got” and some people hated it, but from the musical standpoint when you get into the instruments, you can’t hate on that. That record was meant to be performed live. When I made that beat, I didn’t expect it to be the lead single for Jay-Z’s comeback album. I knew Jay was going to be touring with a band, probably Amir and the Iladelhphonics and that was a record that they could rock. That record was going to be a showstopper where the bass section could get busy and the horn section could get busy. If you ever saw that record with a live band performing it then you'll get it if you didn't before.
I don’t try to retread my successes but I do try to recreate that feeling of real music. I think that’s a common thread that a lot of them have. People tell me that they were in church and the choir has gone into the ending of "Why you Hate the Game" or the choir starts off their performance with the "Hovi Baby" intro. Those are some of the most crazy things and you think that you would never see that in places like the church, but there’s a certain musical element in the some of my records that lend themselves to that.
There’s certain rock bands that have done the circuit in New York City and they’re opening up shows to “Hovi Baby” and records like that. That’s what those records were made for. They were made to inspire real music to be made in a market where it happens less and less. I think that was really the beginning of the next step of my evolution, like, ‘We need to take it away from the kick, snare, hi-hat and fresh loop and chopping some samples up to just doing something that’s more organic and something that different people from different walks of life can like as opposed to making just a regular hip-hop record.’ I’ll always love hip-hop and I’ll always do it and I love records that are just a kick, snare and a loop but I have to depart from that sometimes and really grow musically. Otherwise I’m not going to inspire myself anymore. I just recorded a 24 piece orchestra for this new Marsha Ambrosius record. I'm super hype about that one. It's sinister, sad and hard all at the same time. Dre got on the phone when he heard the demo like, ‘Okay, I see where you are going with all this. Come out to LA and get this orchestra cracking now. I will get you on a plane tomorrow!’ I appreciate that he shared the vision on that one. If anyone understands what I'm talking about, it's him. He will take a sample and loop it and leave it at that when necessary, the next day he's got full scale arrangements and scores on his records. You can't stay in one zone.
Is there any one artist out there that you would give free beats to?
Free beats? I don’t know. I mean, it’s not always about the money, but I can’t think of anybody. To give somebody beats for free, it would have to be an independent artist who doesn’t really have the money to pay me and I haven’t heard any new artists that I would give a beat away to like that. Obviously if you’re a major artist then I don’t have to give you a beat for free, if you’re broke or have a low budget, we can work something out if like you.
You can look at what I did with MF Doom. With the "Cookies (Remix)” I just called Doom like, ‘Yo, I gotta beat for a remix. Let's do it real quick.’ The stuff I did on Stones Throw, I didn’t really charge them for that. That was like, ‘I like your movement and I like what you are doing. I know that you don’t really have the money to pay me like that. Let’s just do some work together.’ I did that with Saigon at first, like, ‘Take these beats and see what you can do with them.’ It wasn’t like, ‘It’ll cost this amount of money.’ Sometimes you just have to go in there and make that music. Money will come.
I know you’re big on gadgets. What are your favorite gadgets that are coming out in 2008?
It’s kind of quiet right now. I know that Apple has something up their sleeve with the Mac Book Air (interview was conducted before the release/announcement of the Mac Book Air) and the speculation on what they’re going to do, if half of the speculation on what they’re gonna be is true then it’s going to be crazy. I think the new operating system that Google’s working on has the potential to be crazy. I don’t know how revolutionary it’s going to be off the bat or if it’s going to have the impact that the iPhone did, but I think that the fact that they’re making it open source, I think there’s a lot of good things that can come out of it aside from bringing them one step closer to taking over the world.
What else? That new Blackberry looks like the same thing. It doesn’t look groundbreaking. I think the biggest thing that’s probably going to come out this year is probably going to be the new iPhone. It may not be the best thing to come out this year but it’s going to be the biggest thing. The iPhone isn’t the best thing to come out in terms of features, but you can’t deny its features or user interface. You can’t deny its design. Apple is a design and lifestyle company first and foremost. Every feature that the iPhone has had, another phone has probably had that too for the most part. Some other phones have had forever, they just packaged it very well. I think the new iPhone, which they’ve already confirmed, will probably be the biggest thing unless there’s some surprises. It’s really too early in the year to call it.
I think the biggest thing that I’m excited about on the tech front is just the fact that hard drives and flash drives have gotten so cheap and the capacity is only getting bigger. In my laptop right now I have like 600 gigs of storage and I’m thinking about five years ago when having a 40 gig hard drive was a big deal and now I have 600 gigs of internal storage in my laptop. Late last year some geniuses at MIT figured out a way to give you a terabyte of storage on a flash device. And they may have it available to consumers this year. For people who might not understand what that means, you know how you have your pocket flash drive that might have 4-6 gig’s or maybe 8 gigs? Now you can get 1,000 gigs on your keychain. Put it this way – the top of the line iPod is 160 gigs. That holds what, 40,000 songs? Now picture that times almost 10. Obviously I don’t think anybody would ever need 400,000 songs in their pocket, but just the storage possibilities are going to be crazy.
Would you ever release a white label of your unreleased beats like other producers like Premier have done?
I’m going to do something like that. I’m not sure what it’s going to be. I’m not sure if it’s going to be beats that I’ve already done versus just an instrumental collection. I’ve been throwing around a couple of ideas and it might not even end up being a hip-hop thing. It might end up being something completely different. But as far as hip-hop, I’m going to release something like a rarities collection of things that never came out. I have to find it, but I have a version of “I Really Mean It” without Cam. It’s just Juelz I think. I’m the only person who has that. So it’s like things like that, I know those are things that people would want to hear and I have them. I might not do something like instrumentals but I might do a rarities collection.
I know you’re a big MF Doom fan. Would you ever do any work with Doom in the future?
If anybody could ever find him for more than five minutes. Every time he turns up it ends up being an imposter. I don’t know. Egon at Stones Throw said that he’s actually popped up and he’s ready to work. It’s a possibility. Who knows. When I was ready and I was really gung ho about it, he went into hiding for a minute, which he does from time to time, even from his closest friends. Even they can't find him. It’s not in the plans, but plans change.
I remember Saigon telling me you played him some MF Doom music.
He had heard about him but he had never heard him. I played him the remix I did and he didn’t get it. (laughs) But to be honest, when my man Dave first played me Doom, I didn’t get it either. I was like, ‘Turn this off!’ I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t like him until I heard the Madvillain bootleg, which came out maybe a year or two before the actual album. I heard that stuff around the same time when I met the dudes from Stones Throw. That’s when I was like, ‘Wow.’ The beats were so dope.
The stuff that I didn’t like was the Viktor Vaughn stuff. I didn’t like any of that stuff at all and that’s what my man was trying to push on me. I still don’t like that stuff and it’s mostly because of the beats more than anything else. But when he’s got some good beats, he’s money. It’s definitely a personal thing. Sometimes the ’93 in me just wants to hear somebody who has dope rhymes over dope beats without a contrived hook or anything like that.
Speaking of Stones Throw, how underrated is Madlib today?
He’s definitely underrated. He’s always been underrated, but I think that he almost kind of prefers it that way. Dilla definitely stayed in his circle and stayed in his zone and just worked with who he wanted to work with. I think Madlib is more apt to try to work with bigger artists. I was trying to get him to work with Jay and he did send me some stuff for Jay. At the same time, he’s cool with…Put it this way – he’s cool with just sitting in his house and making the amount of beats that he makes. He’s a musician and an artist at heart. It’s not so much about the business. If it was, he wouldn’t just be in his house making beats for hours on end and making beat CDs with 150 beats on them. He loves what he’s doing. I don’t think he minds being underrated and I don’t think he really cares as long as he’s able to make the kind of music that he wants to make.
You’ve worked hands-on with the most commercially-successful artist ever yet you’re a huge underground head.
I like what I like whether it’s mainstream or commercial or whatever. I like a lot of underground stuff, but also to be honest with you, there’s a lot of new stuff going on in the underground. I have no idea what a Brother Ali or a Slug or Atmosphere sounds like. The thing about me is I like what I like no matter where it comes from. That’s not to say that I don’t like those guys, but I don’t know their music. I’m not the type that’s just like, ‘I'm gonna listen to these guys just because they're underground or something.’ I spent the last few days in my house analyzing the similarities and differences between Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand. I just sat in my house and listened to them for the past two days. I didn’t even listen to any hip-hop except for this one beat CD Madlib gave me five years ago. I just like what I like.
As far as the underground thing, I think people just use that as an excuse. The term “underground” used to refer to the fact that you haven’t broken through to the mainstream yet or you weren’t necessarily conforming to the mainstream. It wasn’t a style of music. It was just where you were at as an artist, like, ‘He’s underground. He hasn’t broken through yet.’ Now it’s “What kind of music do you do?” “I’m underground.” How is that? How are you an underground artist? What do you do? Do you rap underground? Shut up.
A lot of times people are underground because they’re wack. They haven’t broken through and they probably won’t because they don’t want to be the norm and they don’t want to have any rhythm in their music and they want to go over people’s heads. It’s like, ‘The lyrical syllable mineral is vital to the nth degree of polyphonic rituals, inskimmittable!’ Shut up! You probably won’t cross over and have any success outside of the success that you’ve had.
There is no such thing as an “underground style”. Not when I was coming up anyway. It was a place where you were at, like, ‘Right now we’re stuck in the underground but we’re trying to break through.’ That’s what rap’s greatest heroes tried to do. Big L used to be at the radio station with who? Jay-Z. Big L was one of the underground heroes and him and Jay would go and do the Stretch circuit and all of the underground radio circuit. That was the thing. In the highlight of New York’s underground scene, people were making good hip-hop but they still had their eyes on the prize. I think what it turned into is that people trying so hard to go against the establishment that they’re turning into scientists. I don’t know. They go over my head...and I’m a smart dude.
When we were talking a few years ago you were going to a lot of shows and open mics in New York. Do you still go out to as many shows today?
Nah. I don’t really have the time anymore. And the thing I’ve noticed is that the venues don’t really exist like they used to anymore. If you look back, you had The Wetlands and Trammps, et cetera. You have S.O.B.’s right now and that’s it. You have one other place and I can’t think of it. It’s pretty much dead. It’s like if you’re in New York, you’re either on mixtapes or you got a record out. There’s kind of no in-between anymore. Let’s say Stretch and Bob came back on the radio and let’s say the Dirty Dozen came back. Jay Smooth still has the Underground Railroad, but let’s say all these shows came back. Who from New York would they play now? That whole open mic, artist showcase scene doesn’t exist and it’s pretty much dead.
I’m not really doing that too much unless there’s a specific reason for me to go. I have to take a backpack with me whenever I go. It doesn’t matter where I go. People go, “Are you a backpacker now?” I’m like, ‘No, but I know I’m going to get 10,000 CDs by the time I leave...Oh, make that 10,001. Thanks.’ Sometimes you just want to go listen to some music and be out. It’s hard to do that.
Are you able to listen to everything you get?
No, it’s not possible. I’ll take chances here and there and listen to it, but I’m usually disappointed. Somebody will send me a crazy, creative message on MySpace and I’ll say, “Fine, I’ll listen to it” and then I’m usually disappointed. I try to listen to as much as possible because I know that the next superstar is out there but you can’t listen to everybody. I couldn’t hire enough people to listen to everything I get.
As a producer, when do you decide when it’s time for you to raise your price?
It’s all relevant. It depends on how many hits you have out and what you accomplished so far in your career and how many hot records you have out at the time. Once your name is at a certain part and your name commands respect, I’m like, ‘I’m not going to charge below this price but I can’t charge more than this because I don’t have 10 records out right now.’ It’s all relevant in terms of where you’re at in the marketplace right now. Even though Pharrell doesn’t have a ton of records out right now, he can still command a ton of money. Dr. Dre is still Dr. Dre and he can still charge a certain amount of money. At the same time, when you’re the new kid and you have the biggest record, the No. 1 record in the world out, you can get that money for the time being, but as soon as everything goes off the radar, you’re won’t be back at square one but you’ll be back at square two or three because you haven’t developed that track record or that history yet. So it’s really all relative on your output.
Are you still into drum and bass today as much as you were a few years ago?
I used to spin it back when I was DJing. That was years ago. I never, like, actually did any drum and bass records. I was into that scene more so when it was still kind of, in a weird way, it was kind of like a bastard cousin of hip-hop because if you listen to those records, a lot of that early stuff, they were cutting up a lot of breakbeats from early rap records. If you ever listen to “Close Your Eyes” by Acen or something like that, which is a record I’ve referenced before, they were cutting up LL’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”. They were cutting up Ultramagnetic MC’s. It’s kind of like an extension of hip-hop.
Eventually they moved onto a heavier jungle influence and the BPMs started getting faster. Maybe if I started doing drugs I could have kept up. I don’t know. It just wasn’t for me. It started getting too fast and too crazy. I used to spin a little bit of everything. I’m from Jersey and house was popular. I used to spin techno. I used to spin early drum and bass when it was called “Breakbeat”. Every once in a while I'll hear something new that's fresh. it just got so out of hand and so crazy. I appreciate the programming from an artistic standpoint. I listen to it and say, “Wow, these guys are really going in on their computers,” but it doesn’t have the same soul to me. Ahh, there is this one ill joint I heard called “Pusherman”. I got put up on in Australia. I think it's by DJ Redeyes or something. He killed that “Chic” sample.
Baltimore house is a big thing now and again, being from Jersey, we’ve been into that stuff for a long time too and I like the direction that that scene is going. As far as drum and bass and techno and things like that, I think I’ve reached a point with where I’m at with hip-hop where with certain artists. You would rather just have the memories of the specific time and just leave it at that instead of trying to jump back into it now.
What do you think of Sylvester Johnson suing artists like Michael Jackson and Will Smith over the “Different Strokes” sample?
Put it this way – As an artist and as a songwriter, I can’t say he’s not entitled. The songwriter in me and the person as somebody who writes music and makes music, he’s entitled to get what’s his. At the same time, these artists have to understand to a certain degree that they laid down the foundation with these works of art that they have contributed to us years ago. It was the foundation for us and the inspiration for us as artists when we didn’t have what we do now and you have every right to get what’s yours, but take into consideration that when you go and do these things, some of these records that you’re talking about, the sample laws didn’t exist in the form that they’re in now. It also wasn’t against the law to sample your break when we did it. Take that into consideration. Don’t treat it as if it was a malicious case of thievery. I think that’s what I’m really trying to say.
It’s like the difference between murder and involuntary manslaughter. Obviously that’s a whole different degree of wrongdoing or what have you, but the principle’s the same. It wasn’t against the law. This is what we were all doing at the time. Take that into consideration when you determine the number you want. Make it where it’s mutually beneficial to both of us. There have been certain times when I have taken the artist who we’re sampling and reached out to them and said, “Hey, listen, this can be mutually beneficial for the both of us. We can work it out to where everyone’s happy and everyone feels that they got what they’re owed, or we can figure out something else and you can walk away with nothing and I’d rather not see you walk away with nothing as an artist who hasn’t sold a record in years. The money can be there for all of us involved or I can turn around and get a live band of musicians and do something similar but different enough where you can’t sue me for it. I’ll still have the feel I need and you’ll have nothing and I would rather see you eat because you laid down a foundation for us and I’d rather see you eat off of that.”
It kind of bothers me when you see artists trying to sue people for millions upon millions of dollars later. Let’s say I cleared this sample for my album and the artist would see a certain principle or percent of that song in terms of the publishing or the licensing. That number would be nowhere near the amount of money that you’re trying to sue me for. In Will Smith’s case, it may have happened in a time when the sampling laws weren’t as stringent or maybe they didn’t even exist. Work with me not against me because I would rather be able to call on you later for something if I wanted to use another one of your breakbeats. We could do some business and I could put money in your pockets or I could turn around call Amir or my little brothers from 1500 or Nothing and that results in…nothing for you.
That’s why I appreciate artists like an Isaac Hayes or the Stax guys who will say, “You know what? Take my music. As a matter of fact, I’m going to give you individual parts of my music so you can sample them and then we’ll work something out when it happens so that everybody is happy.” George Clinton has put out outtakes of his music. Other labels have put out CDs of individual parts of their songs especially for DJs and producers to sample with the understanding that if they give us that material and we use that material, we’re going to work something out. At the end of the day it comes down to doing business with these guys. Why would you want to sue someone for millions of dollars? You might get that payoff but a lot of these artists didn’t make millions of dollars off of those records that they used from you. Now what you’re doing is you’re taking money out of another musician’s pockets. We’ve all had our struggles in society.
Instead of trying to push our culture forward and our culture is really an extension of your culture, as soul and funk are the godfathers of hip-hop and R&B as we know it, so you gotta eat, but when you try and sue somebody for millions of dollars when some of us don’t have millions upon millions of dollars, you’re basically putting us in the hole and you’re stopping the culture at that point. So it’s like, get your money but don’t try to rape us. All you’re doing is you’re stopping the progress of what we’re trying to build here. Instead of trying to sue somebody for millions upon millions of dollars, you may only be entitled to $100 grand or $50 grand, but now we have a working relationship where if I want to use another one of your breakbeats, we can talk about it, kick it and keep it moving. I would really like to see some of the older artists understand that and take that position when they’re dealing with artists who have sampled them.
Have you always cleared the samples you used?
Pretty much. I pretty much always cleared the samples that I used because I don’t want to run into that situation. Also every producer has snuck something in there in one place or another. If it’s something that’s very recognizable that I feel I should clear, then I’ll do it. And I really haven’t had any super-sample lawsuits. I’ve never been sued for anything and I’ve never really had any major problems, but I’ve run across artists who wanted way too much and I had to keep it moving.
How do you keep Baseline Studios ahead of the technology curve?
Really, the way technology has gotten, to be honest, it’s gotten to the point where if you’re a college student with a decent computer and a decent microphone, you can make a quality album. A lot of the gear that’s at Bassline, we keep our computers up-to-date, but as far as the hardware and stuff, that’s not going to change. There are no new pieces of outboard gear that we need to purchase, or very, very few. All of that hardcore studio stuff, that’s going to be good for the next 20 years. The standards are not going to change. Keeping up with technology is very easy. It’s about keeping your Pro Tools up-to-date and keeping up with Apple’s new Logic and all of the different plug-ins and what not. As long as you keep your computers up-to-date and your software up-to-date, it’s not hard. You also have to maintain the equipment that you do have.
Is there a release date for The Greatest Story Never Told?
There’s a timeframe. I think what Atlantic wanted was, it’s kind of like a catch 22, I think they wanted an album in hand before they would commit to a release date whereas we had the bulk of the album done and we could put the single out and it might not work. I don’t like it where, say, you do an album and you say, “These two records are my singles and this is what I want to put out to push the album.” Those two singles might not necessarily work and this is what I was talking about when I was talking about how they used to push artists. You might get four singles before the album dropped.
Look at Brand Nubian. You had “Feel So Good”, “One For All”, “Slow Down” and “Wake Up”. And the album didn’t drop until “Slow Down” was out, so you had a three-single setup. With Run-DMC, you had “It’s Like That”, “Sucker MC’s” and “Rock Box” before you had the album. That was three singles. It wasn’t like there was one single they were putting out and then the album was coming out. I could give you a million examples of that. My thing was, ‘All right, let’s just say you have your album. You put out what you might feel like are the singles and they might not work. That doesn’t mean you have to scrap the project. You might just have to go back and do a remix or something.’
Remember, before The Fugees came out with the second or third joint no one cared. The “Nappy Heads” joint wasn’t even on the album because it came out too late and was only on the 12". They may have striped it on to the album later. With today’s marketing costs, that might not even be possible. In today’s market, you don’t know if the singles are going to necessarily be the ones.
“Pain In My Life” and “Come On Baby”, both of those were just buzz records but they took on a life of their own Saigon got a week of hosting BET’s Rap City off the strength of “Pain In My Life”. Their people liked the message and “Come On Baby” was just such a crazy record. That record did what it did on its own. Then when it’s time for the real singles and the real videos, you can’t help but be a little bit nervy, like are they going to do what they’re supposed to do? I didn’t want to commit to mastering the album because it’s expensive and it takes a lot of time to do. I didn’t want to do that if we would have to go back and do another record or two.
But you get to a certain point where you have to just give them what they want and we went ahead and mastered the album. Once we started to get to that phase, they started talking release dates and time frames. As of the last conversation that we had, we were looking at releasing it sooner than folks expect and we’re actually getting ready to put out the next record which is called “Believe It” any day now. I just have to go back and edit it for radio because radio is not going to play a record that’s over 3:55 or 3:50 in terms of the length and it was originally five minutes long. We cut it down to four. I went back and did another edit to get it the way radio wants it. So that record will be out any day. And I actually just came back from a series of very big meetings in reference to all of this, so expect an announcement and a change very soon.
What happened to your blog The Megatron Don?
I’ve gotten a lot of messages about what happened to my blog. To make a long story short, my host company really screwed me over and we’re working on getting it back up. They said I must have gotten hacked and tried to deny responsibility and that wasn’t the case at all. Basically they were upgrading their servers and a lot of my databases got corrupted in the process. I'm working on trying to get everything back to the way it was. I don’t really want to bring it back haphazardly. I really did that whole thing myself last time, as far as the programming and what not when I had some time on Memorial Day weekend or Labor Day or something. This time around, I'll outsource it and just maintain and update it. FMWJ, stop B.S.’ing and let’s go!
What do you want to say to everybody?
There’s not much more I can say. If anyone is still reading this, they have more patience than I do, I would have stopped at part one! So thanks for taking the time to do that. We've been talking about doing this interview for four years so I had to overkill a bit. To everybody who’s been waiting for the album, we appreciate the patience. And to anyone who has shown supported my endeavors over the years. Thank you. One love.