You recently released the As He Goes In mixtape. Are you happy with how that did?
Oh, the feedback’s been great. First off, I got lucky because the Buck 50 Kutter DJs volunteered to do it on the strength and those kids are amazing. Together, with them and with Rob Swift endorsing it the way that he has, we’ve gotten love all over the place with that mixtape.
The funny thing was that I gave them 45 songs. Tons of those songs have features with well-known artists on it and they cut out everybody else. They just wanted people to hear my voice and just focus on me and that alone blew me away. Also the fact that it came out as good as it did. I was surprised at that.
And it’s been 10 years since I’ve done a mixtape. The last mixtape I did was The Fly Ass Mixtape, that DJ Static cut up for me. That was, like, in 2001.
You were overdue for a new one.
You could definitely say that.
What made you want to drop more original songs on As He Goes In?
Well, my whole thing, my M.O., is back to the essence. I’m an MC. Not just on some “I like rapping and I want to be famous.” I get a release from doing it. And I remember there were ways of doing things back in the days when it was like MCs respected the other parts of the culture also. So for me, it was important to have legitimate DJs legitimately cutting up this project to keep it in line with the essence of what it’s all about for me and why I do it.
But I can’t knock anyone else. They’re trying ot improve their life and get out of poverty to whatever they’re trying to do with it, so they might be doing something else and using other people’s beats to get themselves out there. But for me, this is what I gotta do.
“When You Fall,” was one of my favorite songs off the mixtape. How did that come together?
That song started off as a bit of a rant. So many underground songs point at the mainstream dudes and the dudes who want to go mainstream and knock them for that. I went like that for the first mixtape, but then I realized there are all sorts of people in this game who fall for certain reasons so by the third verse, I was talking about underground rappers and why they fell and their egos and the bitterness that they felt. I was glad I didn’t stay on just the mainstream. I was able to pick on everyone in that song, even myself.
Have you ever felt the need to check yourself sometimes?
Yeah. It’s a struggle to maintain some humility when you start getting some props for this. For someone like me, I’ve been on the verge of something big happening so many times in my career. Now I take everything with a grain of salt and appreciate the moments. It could very easily turn into something where everyone tells me I’m this or so-and-so tells me I’m a legend so I’m going to go around acting and talking like a legend. But for me it’s more about what got me started doing this in the first place and I have to go back and realize that it’s that release and that feeling of MCing. They had this whole week-long celebration this week for the closing of Fat Beats and I’m sure you heard about it where they had all of these events going on.
I was out there on Thursday and I was talking to the MCs about why isn’t there a cipher going on. Maybe that wasn’t the day for it and I put the word out. On Saturday, we had the most massive cipher out there in front of Fat Beats and all the underground heads and legends were standing on the sideline, not participating, and I felt bad for them. They forgot what this did for them. They forgot how good it felt to be in the cipher and to be heard by the heads around them and to feed off that energy. But to me, it was essential to make that happen and I think that’s part of the thing that just keeps me grounded and I love that.
What does the closing of Fat Beats mean to you?
At first, I didn’t think it was gonna hit me so hard. I thought it was just going to be another store closing, so what? But the more I went down there for the different events, the more the memories kept coming back. I thought about it one day talking to some heads and if I had to clock the hours and overall time I’ve spent there, I’ve probably spent a good six or seven months of my life either inside of that store or outside of that store. That’s a pretty long time to be anywhere. That’s the first place I saw my records displayed on a rack, and prominently displayed. That meant the whole world to me and that gave me hope that I can somehow contribute to this culture that I love so much. So all those memories started flooding back this week and it still hits me pretty hard that it’s over, that another place that we as a culture used to congregate is gone now.
We definitely have the online outlets, which is beautiful, but it’s not the same dynamic as being in front of each other and talking about what we like and what we dislike. Fat Beats was one of those places. It’s like the bar Cheers closing in Boston and how those dudes would feel if they didn’t have no place to go and scream, “Norm!” anymore or anything like that.
If you spent six or seven months outside Fat Beats, Percee P must have spent six or seven years.
Dude, Percee P got tenure. I’m surprised that they didn’t fly him out specifically out for that. I was looking forward to seeing him more than anyone else. I remember one year when I was pretty much homeless and I was couch-surfing, I spent a summer next to Percee P selling my CDs, hustling and trying to eat. That was one of the realest times for me, ever. It was me, Percee P and a few other people standing out there every day, just trying to get that money. And the dudes from Fat Beats were fairly respectful of us. They let us just chill.
That was always cool.
It is. I think those cats too, they understand where they came from and how fortunate they were to have a spot like that. They struggled throughout the years, that’s for sure.
Other artists have said it’s not the fans’ fault the store is closing, but if they were making more money, they’d probably still be there. Do you think the fans are responsible for Fat Beats closing?
I mean, it’s definitely one of the reasons. I can’t be upset with them for that. It’s just so convenient to get music other ways nowadays. It would be great if they wanted to support the artists and if they had the mindset that they wanted these guys to eat. But I don’t think the fans understood how important it was for the artists to have that outlet. I don’t think it was intentional on that, but if they had bought more it would have kept Fat Beats and a ton of other record stores in New York City alive. I don’t think it was malicious on their part. I just think they didn’t know how it would affect them. I think a lot of them think we’re holding a lot more than we actually are because of the big images people put out there. They might not think we need anything. There were a lot of sad faces at Fat Beats this week.
I get that, but when I was there this summer, there was only one other person in the store and that was just to pick up a show flyer. On top of that, I bought two albums that were $15 each when I could have gotten them on iTunes for $9.99.
It’s so convenient right now not to do that. The only thing that would motivate them is that they want to go and make sure that these guys have this place to have this outlet. But it’s not fair to expect that from them.
What’s your favorite memory from Fat Beats?
1998. I did an in-store, my first in-store at Fat Beats, and it was packed. It was for the single I did for Bronx Science Records. It was “On the Mic” and “Refined.” “On the Mic” was the first time that the name Stronghold was put on a rhyme or record. And I drew the cover. It was a comic book cover and I was so psyched about the whole thing. I signed autographs and ciphered with the crew. Stronghold was brand new at the time and we were super hyped-up. Afterwards we were talking pictures with my boys outside of the store. For me, that was one of the highs of my life. Words can’t really describe it. This dude came up to me outside of the closing and hand me that record to sign. I almost started tearing up because it brought back everything right then and there. I signed it the same way I sign all the other ones, by drawing something extra to the drawing I already have on the cover.
Your new album is As He Goes On. Are you looking at this as a testament to your longevity in the game?
It is. And possibly a word or two about where I’m at right now because I may be thinking of an extended and maybe permanent hiatus after this album. If this were going to be my last, then this would be how and what I want people to remember me for. This would be everything that I pretty much wanted to say with this art form. And I’m going to take a long break to go back to my first love, which is art, visual art.
Are you talking about taking a few years off?
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, maybe a verse here or there. I can’t front on my peoples. When they ask for something, I’ll come through with it, but there’s not going to be another album for a long time, if even.
Did the climate of the music industry lead you to that decision or did you just want to focus on art for a long time?
Well, you know something? Unlike a lot of other forms of music, I think it’s really easy for hip-hop artists to get stale because I think a big part of it is the amount of words we use when we’re putting together songs. The average rock or folk song can fit on one page. The average hip-hop song, you have to write four or five pages to go through it. I think they have so much more room to say more but with us, once you’ve said everything, at a certain point you kinda gotta step back and ask yourself if you’re just becoming repetitive and just rehashing the same shit over and over again. I feel like right now anything I can possibly say at this point in my life I’ve said. I really have nothing else to say. I haven’t had anything to write because I feel like I already got it out of my system already. Maybe 10 years from now I’ll have more life experience and knowledge and have more to add on. I don’t want to become one of those stale images of someone who’s just doing it to do it. But yeah, it’s got nothing to do with anything to do outside. It’s just a personal decision.
How would you describe the content of As He Goes On?
It’s mature. I’m about to turn 40 in December. I hope that it comes across as someone who is about to turn 40 in December. At least I’d like for people to leave that album getting that from me and hopefully hearing that, I’ve grown and learned a few things. I’d also like to think of the album as being responsible as well, when I think about it.
Are you satisfied with how the album came out, especially if it’s your last one?
I am. I am. I’m super-psyched. I’m super-happy with it. I got to work with pretty much everyone that I’ve ever worked with throughout the years, with a few exceptions. But all of my close friends and buddies who do production got a song on there and the features I’ve gotten on there are people I met recently who I’ve developed a good bond with or they’re people I’ve been friends with for over 10 years. That’s also another good feeling with it. On that note, it’s like a family feeling. Even if the listener doesn’t fully get it, everyone involved will get that feeling from it and everyone who knows me will definitely get that feeling from it.
What producers did you want on this?
I went back to my friend DJ Static. I went back to this dude Daneja who’s amazing. He came through on 2 tracks. My man Swae the Reconstructa One from Madison, Wisconsin, who I met years ago, came through with a track. My man Davey Treez, who did the Breez Deez Treez project and Dirt E. Dutch, who did the Troublemakers project with me, they’re on it. I got a track from Dr. Butcher from Rob Swift, who also appears on the project. My first rhyme partner from 1992 called Roksteypood, who I recently caught up with via Facebook, he’s doing production now and I got a track from him on the album also! This album reaches back. This album reaches far back.
Did you get anyone from Stronghold on there?
I got L.I.F.E. Long on there but not a definite Stronghold cut. The essence of Stronghold is still there, but everybody is pretty widespread right now. It’s gone from more of a crew to more of a fraternal organization. We’re all there on call but everyone is in their own life and doing their own thing.
Did you do the artwork for the “I Know” video?
A lot of people are assuming that, but no, this artist that I know, Arjen Noordeman, did it. He drew over 3,000 frames by hand on some he enjoyed the project and he was looking for something to add to his portfolio. It was the most amazing luck that he decided to choose our project to work on for that.
It came out great.
Yeah. He did his thing. I’m blown away. That’s the kind of thing you can’t even repay a person for. I’m just forever grateful. Anything he needs in the future, I already told him, I got it. The only thing I drew was some background elements that he ended up animating, but that was it. Every other frame he ended up doing himself.
I thought that was all you.
Yeah. A lot of people are giving me credit for that and I’m feeling bad about it. It’s all Arjen. It took him nine months to work on it. It’s a labor of love, for real.
Where can fans find some of your artwork?
BreezArt.com. I gotta update it. The other thing that I’m taking a hiatus for is I’m gonna start working on a comic book. I got an amazing script from this writer named Dave Grilli and it’s a really good angle on the superhero drama and it’s something I’ve been fiending to do for a long time. And I’m training on that. I used to teach drawing and illustration for a good part of my life, from when I was 17 to 30, almost, and a big part of that was working with middle school kids at Boys Harbor up in Spanish Harlem.
Yeah. That’s why when you told me you were a teacher, I was like ‘nuff respect because those kids are no joke! Those tweens are crazy! Those kids used to bust my ass! (laughs) But it’s so rewarding when you get those moments with them and you can see that they’re still vulnerable and you can see that whatever mystique or front they were trying to put up, there was still something in there that was innocent and shapeable and if you had a part in shaping that, that’s like the most rewarding thing ever.
Could you see yourself getting back into teaching?
I could. Definitely in the long run, I could. I’d like to go back to school and finish up. I went to school for two years for illustration and didn’t finish. That’s something I would like to get back into. I would like to get back into teaching.
You’ve got some awesome stuff on your site.
Thank you. Basically I was a background artist for Marvel and D.C. comics back in the early ‘90s. I was doing all these backgrounds for all these different books and then I got bit with the rap bug. I was forced to make a decision. I was going out to shows and would get into work late. I said I couldn’t see myself doing the rap shit too late in life but I could draw comics until I was 50 or 60. That’s what I did and it’s kind of where I’m at right now. I’m so happy that I’m where I’m at right now.
When you look back on your career, do you have any regrets?
Some. I wish I was a little easier on some of my managers. I was one of those super-eager artists. I would always come to the table with 15-20 ideas and I wanted them to execute all of them and I swore that any of those would be the one to make it big for us. I swore by those ideas. I’ve had about eight or nine managers throughout my career and the last five years, I pretty much represented myself. So for that, I definitely wish I had been a little bit easier on the people I had worked with.
And I wish that I had looked for more feedback. There’s a big thing in the underground culture where if you’re cool, I’m cool but let’s not say anything about each other’s art and I think people should let go of that and seek feedback. A lot of dudes are living off their egos and they need to understand that if they would just ask for some feedback, they could elevate their game 100-fold with just one comment. If I could have been more proactive with that, my music could have gotten out a lot sooner.
I’ve always been surprised why you were never bigger than you were.
I definitely appreciate that. If I had reached out a little bit more or at least looked for direction from other people, even strangers or people I didn’t know so well, or the people I looked up to and if I had asked them for advice on the music itself and how to go about making it, I think they could have helped me refine that sound a little bit quicker. But I definitely appreciate that, man. Thank you.
No doubt. When you look at all the collabs you’ve done, what are you most proud of?
Wow, there’s a lot of collabs that I’ve done. “Land of the Gun,” that’s the one I’m most proud of. That’s the one I did with Technique and that was when he was releasing Revolutionary Volume 2. He had such a message at the time and that was the only voice I heard on that. I crafted my verse and chorus and it’s one of those few times where both artists get on the same page and it’s not about doing your own style and trying to outshine everybody else. It was about making the song dope and poignant and that’s exactly what he did. I’m super-proud of that one right there.
The other one I’m happy with is the one I did with my boy Chali 2na for the one Fat Beats record I ever came out on. Chali 2na was the same way. We went back and forth on an Eric Krasno beat. I wrote four-bar verses and left open spaces and he sent it back and he played off every last word from my four-bar verses. It sounds like we were in the studio together. That was also amazing.
The way I approached collabs, I was always going to be the one that heads were going to remember. That was my competitive side! And I’ll still do collabs. I don’t front on my peoples. I’ll still come through on demand. It’s still what I do. I’ll still find something to say. I’m always good for 16. It’s just that when it comes to putting together a collection of thoughts, that’s a lot of work and that’s just something I don’t have in me right now.
You cut your teeth on the battle circuit. What’s your favorite battle moment?
The Blaze Battle from 1998. That was, like, the first big-level, high organized battle that I had ever been on with large media exposure and all of that. I was real happy with that because for one, I had to fight my way to get into the battle, because I wasn’t invited initially. And two, I lucked out in getting to that last round and I had to dig deep. A lot of times the last round is really, really horrible because everybody is on E, but on this battle, I was able to edge out Lonnie B, who was beasting on everybody the whole night. Lonnie B was running through people. For that, I was super-happy. The only thing with that one was Proof, who used to be with D-12, was in that battle. Proof probably would have won the whole thing but he battled this girl in the second round and went real foul and ended up saying some stuff that was real disrespectful to her. The crowd booed him. If he didn’t do that he probably would have taken the crown.
How did you approach battling Cappadonna in the ’99 Blaze Battle?
I didn’t even pay attention to everything he was doing! Sometimes people dance around like that to try to throw you off their game and to minimize the fact that you’re getting at him. That’s why I wanted to make a point of him dancing to let people know that I was in the moment, I was going to get at him and I was going to get at him some more. I didn’t get distracted by that.
I think it’s amazing that you didn’t start laughing at the two-step.
I’m saying, man, in battle mode, I’ve watched the dog whisperer and how dogs get in the red zone and they just focus on wanting to kill another dog. When I get in battle mode, I’m in the red zone and I don’t care what the other person is doing. I want to take them out. It was funny in retrospect. When I watched it later, I was cracking the fuck up. But when I was in the moment, I was like, ‘Win, win, win.’ I wish I had taken that mentality into the next round and not try to have met Sunkiss the same way he had came at me.
Whatever happened to him?
I have no idea! But you know, I was on some stupid altruistic hip-hop shit and since he came at me with writtens, I was going to come at him with some writtens and it just didn’t work.
Have you ever busted out the Cappadonna two-step when your wife is yelling at you?
(laughs) I busted out that. I busted the remote control. I bust holes in the wall. All sorts of shit! (laughs) I’ll do the dance and do a song about it. It’ll be the latest craze, like the Soulja Boy shit.
You can call it “I’m Not Listening to You.”
(laughs) We joke about it, but someone is going to make a song about it. They’re going to pull up that video and realize it looks kind of hot.
Cappa’s dance is hypnotizing.
(laughs) You know what’s funny though? RZA wasn’t even gonna battle that night until Cappadonna lost and that’s why he jumped into the battle at the last minute, to avenge his fallen brother. It was cool but it was also tragic because he ended up losing to Moonie D.
Why was Wu-Tang even there?
You know, they were on some truthful shit also, even though people didn’t really realize it a lot of times. They were on such a level that they didn’t have to be. They were really on some truthful shit and it was all about defending the honor. Their boy lost a battle and they were going to jump in. That’s how we used to do it on the corner. If you lost a battle, everyone on the corner was looking to get back. Double A.B. beat my man C. Rayz Walz and when I saw him on MTV, I went extra-hard because he came out with some bullshit lines about my man.
Is the essence of battling still in hip-hop?
It’s hard to say, man, because if you talk to the dudes doing it, they’re totally into what they’re doing. Personally, I feel like it’s part stand-up comedy and part MCing, which is cool. It’s definitely entertaining. The entertainment value is there. But it’s definitely not the same where heads were samurais and you kept your sword by your side and you were always ready to go and at any minute it could be on. We used to walk around the streets asking who wanted to battle, yelling it out at the top of our lungs, waiting for someone to jump up. I remember going to shows and dudes onstage were asking who wanted to battle and I remember running to the stage to get up there and battle. That’s the school I come form. Maybe it’s the natural evolution of it and that’s how it’s supposed to be, but it’s definitely not the same.
What would it take to get you back in a battle?
It would have to be someone who respects the culture and has as much to put on the line as I do.
Good luck finding that.
I know. Good luck seeing me battle again! (laughs) But I’ll do an MC challenge. I just did one over the weekend.
How did that go?
Oh, it went great. It’s the thing that EOW does. It’s more skills than a battle. There’s five rounds of competing and I ended up tying for first place. It was the first time that happened at an EOW MC challenge. It was sick. As soon as they start getting some footage up from that, hopefully it comes up soon because that was one of the illest MC challenges they ever had. I gotta give a shout out to Rabbi D for holding it down with me in the final.
You could probably do those challenges all day.
Totally. It’s like an exercise for me. Can I still freestyle? Am I still good off the top? Can I still rock the cipher skills? Just going through the motions lets me know that my skills are still sharp. It’s funny because at one point I was rhyming about being 39 and to check the stamina. It’s funny. Most of the kids are 20-25 and maybe one dude was 30 but everyone was happy to have been a part of it. And me, I was just glad to represent for the O.G.s.
No doubt. Looking at the album, what do you hope As He Goes On does for you when it drops?
Offer me some peace of mind and some closure. Really, it’s more for me than the listeners, but if anyone does get anything out of it, I would like for the older dudes who really don’t have a lot to relate to anymore because even the older MCs tend to rhyme about juvenile subjects, for lack of a better way of putting it, so it’s for the older guys who are putting in work and going to their 9-5s and supporting their families and struggling. I want this album to be for them more than for anyone else and I’ll be super-happy if a few of them pick up on it.