UnLearn’s music is a lot like those old school Pringles ads. Once you pop, you can’t stop. Hearing an UnLearn banger, which requires a soulful backdrop for his thoughtful razor-sharp lyrics, will leave you replaying his albums like a Super Bowl replay, all the while asking, “How the #$%& isn’t this guy blowing up?”
The Washington Heights product, who’s blazed mics from coast to coast, stops by HipHopGame to talk about his latest project, The Sleeping Giant, his upcoming album The Wake Up Call, his inspirations, and much more in this exclusive interview.
It’s great to have some new UnLearn music on the iPod. How did your latest project, The Sleeping Giant, come together?
I wanted to put together a sampler for my album, The Wake Up Call. Kind of like what artist use to do back in the days. Before an album came out, they would put four or five snippets on a tape and release in the streets to build a buzz, but I didn’t want to tease my fans like that. So I took a batch of songs that I had been working on for movie soundtracks and other projects along with some album snippets and interview clips to create a project that would serve as a prelude to the album, slowly setting the tone for what you can expect to hear on the album. I wanted it to feel like an audio documentary.
The last few projects I’ve put out have all been to ramp up anticipation for my debut album. Even though I’ve been releasing music for years, I call this my debut album, because this will be the first album I will ever charge money for and release on multiple platforms – CDs, iTunes, et cetera, which is a drastic departure from the free digital music I’m known for releasing through the years. The Sleeping Giant is a “mixtape” that aims to put the music for The Wake Up Call into context.
I love the title of this, especially because I’m still shocked at how slept on you are as an artist. Is that what inspired the title?
That’s exactly what inspired it! I’ve always been slept on or underestimated, but I’ve learned to embrace this, because it allows me to over deliver with my music. People who’ve never heard me are surprised and impressed by what they hear and people who have heard about me, are always impressed by my growth as an artist and how far I’ve come. It’s an interesting position to be in this far along in my career.
I have an interlude on this project where I really break it down. Essentially, people will forget and not care about your presence until you make your presence felt. When a sleeping giant finally wakes up, people finally take notice and realize that he’s giant. They are first hand witnesses to his size and strength and can’t help but to be in complete awe of his power. They can’t help but notice because the giant is smashing shit everywhere, things are collapsing all around. That’s the hype I’m on, I’m a giant who was sleeping, and now that I’m waking up, I’m smashing everything and anything you thought was dope is about to collapse.
When you put a song together, you don’t just throw a verse or two together and put it out. How important is it to you to have three verses on a song, especially because that’s not as common anymore?
It all depends on the feel of the song and the thoughts that I’m trying to express. Usually, I keep the three verse formula because I see my songs like an essay; you have your introduction, which is the first verse, the body of your point, which is the second verse, and you bring it to a conclusion in your third verse.
I have some songs on my album where there are only two verses. Sometimes, it’s two long verses, one long verse or two short verses and a bridge. Maybe I throw a sound clip in there from something I’ve watched or heard, maybe there’s an instrumental solo or something. It all changes, dependending on the feel of the production and the thoughts I’m trying to get across. On my more recent music, I play around a lot with song structure, to explore the various ways I can relay my message.
You’re killing it on “Pain and Glory.” How did that come about?
I’ve been working on this new vibe in my music to come across in my lyrics as honestly and as vulnerable as possible about myself. My honesty and vulnerability is important in order to set the stage for me to tell my story. The piano sample on the beat sounds like a children’s toy. There’s an innocence to the melody, but then the drums come in to disrupt that innocence. That’s my life in a nutshell, a man with disrupted innocence. There’s a very introspective, but uplifting feel to the record, which gives it a broader appeal. It can serve as the last song on an album or the intro. It could stand alone as a single for a movie soundtrack or TV show. It’s a record I’m very proud of.
Another dope project you released was The Bad Dream EP. Did that come out the way you envisioned it?
It came out better and I’ll tell you why. Most of the songs I recorded for the project were supposed to be on The Wake Up Call album I’ve been working on for the last three years, so the songs didn’t sound like mixtape records, they were heavier. They had more body and substance in the production and the subject matter. The album wasn’t ready, but I wanted to put some new material out, so I just released it, out the blue, no promotion or anything. I released it on New Year’s Eve 2012 as a means to start the new year right and motivate me to finish my album
There was actual “songwriting” involved on that project. The whole feel of it demanded that it be called an EP rather than a mixtape. For the first time, in a long time, I was putting myself in the mindset of a true “artist”, not just recording songs and putting out something haphazardly, but rather, choosing songs that reinforce a specified narrative. Some of the records on that project are some of my best work lyrically and musically, in my opinion. I said to myself, “These songs are telling my story.”, which is something I’ve been focusing on a lot more as I have gotten older.
Naturally, for any artist, your upbringing and how you grew up molds the person you are and serves as the foundation for the person you will be, hence the name of the record, The Foundation. Those early life experiences shape your outlook and your values. In the first verse of that song, I wanted people to learn about the people and experiences that shaped me and my thinking. My upbringing is my Ace in the hole, because there’s no body out here in this music climate with a story like mine; Dominican kid, who looks Black, raised by a White mother, who used to sell drugs with her Colombian husband. My whole childhood, I was told that my family and I were something that we really weren’t. I feel it necessary to reveal, more and more, the circumstances that I come from, because it puts my music and my personality in the appropriate context. I was conditioned by my childhood, as we all are, and as an adult my challenge and pursuit has been to break down that conditioning and establish who I am on my own terms.
“Flash Mob” with Deeda Tree is one of my all-time favorite Unlearn bangers. How did that song come together?
That’s one of my personal favorites too. My kids even love that song. I’ve been working with Deeda Tree for a while now, he now goes by the name Yusef Shafeeq. He mixes most of my records now. He actually became a fan of mine from finding my music on HipHopGame, and then started sending me beats. Between him and my other homie Sincere Noble, some of my personal favorite songs have been on their production. They help develop my sound as an artist. They are co-authors in my story telling.
He sent me the beat and I fell in love with the drums and the guitar sample. The arrangement and programming make the beat sound like something that would play during a riot scene in a movie, hence the name Flash Mob. It was also around a time when young kids in Philly and also in London were protesting poverty and were actually raiding stores for food, so it was socially relevant as well.
We actually recorded a video for it, on location in Chicago where he’s from, in the middle of a protest for the Nato Summit that was going on out there in 2012. D directed it along with help from Chan Hartman, who’s a documentary filmmaker. Because of the quality, we’ve never released it, but I’m sure we can use the footage for something one day. We also did all these interviews with protesters as to why they’re protesting and what kind of change they want to see in society. By the end of us shooting almost 15 takes in the middle of a 3-4 mile protest march, when it was over 80 Degrees, we were both dehydrated. We almost ended up flash mobbing a White Castle for water and juice! To this day that is the most deserved cup of water I have ever had in my life. It was an amazing experience!
A lot of your music seems to be inspired by what’s happening socially. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
The short answer is, Everywhere. We are all in this plane of existence to experience as much as we can, good or bad, in order to evolve and expand our own consciousness. The Artist, is the one who wants to express this experience and share it with others to hasten their own evolution. Artists are the torchbearers that guide humanity to a new way of thinking. All the things I experience, whether it’s reading the news, raising my kids or fighting with my wife become part of my lyrics. I’m drawing from what goes on socially, because I am a citizen of this world. It’s very difficult for me as a person to be apathetic or to turn a blind eye to the plight or pleasures of other people, whether they live with me or their on another continent halfway around the world. I feel that all of it matters and all of it will affect you on some level, at some point of your life, so why not be aware of it and speak on it? Society tries to make us numb to what happens to others. We ignore poverty in our pursuit of wealth. We ignore the plight of our planet, because we then have to confront our own consumerism. Corporations and politicians have made us loving slaves to their agendas, cattle prodding our attention from one direction to the other. We’re being programmed not to care about what’s important in order to care about what’s not important. This is why many of us can walk by homeless people and not even smile at them or say, “Good morning”. The “do for self” mentality we’ve been programmed to feed into is what keeps us on the wheel in the gerbil cage, while other people are planning out our lives for us on a larger scale.
It’s almost scary sometimes because there are things I’m inspired to say in lyrics, might not have happened to me, but sure enough, a few months or a year later, it’ll happen. That speaks to the power of words and human consciousness. What we speak can and will manifest itself into our reality. Which is why you definitely have to watch what you say, even when you speak to yourself.
I think you always do a great job of picking beats that suit your lyrical style. What do you listen for when you’re going through beats?
A long time ago, almost in another life, I used to be an A&R for an indie record label. I also interned for A&R’s as a teenager, so much of my job consisted of listening to beats that fit the artists on the roster, including myself. I pick dope beats because I know myself. I know the moods I am looking for when writing a song and I look for beats that can help me articulate and create those emotional textures. Any time I sit and listen to beats I ask myself, “Does this beat help me tell my story?” and, “Is this beat next level?” I’m also trying to see if I am pushing the envelope of creativity by choosing certain beats. I’m a socially conscious artist, but I don’t want to be pigeon holed into a certain kind of sound or production that’s considered “Real Hip Hop” or “Underground.” I draw influences and inspiration from all kinds of music, thusly, I want those influences to carry over in my song choice and beat selection. I learned it’s not just about my lyrics and spitting, it’s about creating a song that’s going to set a certain mood and put people into a certain frame of consciousness, taking the power of words and the power of music to their fullest potential.
A lot of albums are clocking in around 40 minutes. With nine dope songs here, I’m curious why you didn’t expand this into an album.
Like I said, most of these songs were supposed to be on my album The Wake Up Call. I recorded them specifically for that project, but since that project wasn’t complete, I still wanted to put something out to give me some momentum going in to the release of my first official album. I’ll tell you right now, I’m breaking that 40 minute rule. I think of albums like a movie or a good book. My favorite book and movie was Malcolm X, the book was over 400 pages and the movie is over 3 hours long. You can’t eloquently tell the full story in 40 minutes! Maybe you can, but not the story I’m trying to tell. Part of us expanding our consciousness is first broadening our attention span. This ain’t junk food music, this is 4 to 5 course food for thought. I can’t even let you into the restaurant of my thoughts without a nice jacket on, heh! You’ll have to listen to my album in phases, like binge watching a season of Dexter on NetFlix.
What should we expect with The Wake Up Call?
On my album, I want to show people the experiences and challenges of someone, striving to be better and have better, while still dealing with my own vices, lusts and attraction to the temptations and tinseled distractions of this world. My main vice in life has always been women, so many of the songs parallel this societal and internal struggle with a man’s relationship with a woman, all the conflicts and compromises that come with loving or lusting after someone, even though this person might not be good for you. That’s the world we’re in right now. The current state of the society we live in, is working against our growth as a species. We know this, yet we can’t break away from the bullshit. I’m trying to narrate the experiences and thoughts that come before, during and after a person realizes they need to make a major change in their life.
Each song on the album embodies either a moment of reflection or a moment of decision. I recall a lot of deeply personal events and reveal certain conclusions I’ve come to over the last 3 years and declare that I deserve more than what I’ve been given by the world, so it’s time for me to give it to myself then share it with everyone else. On some level we all know we want something more out of life, but our day to day bogs us down with preconditioned needs and programmed desires. The Wake Up Call will attempt to chronicle the process of rejecting this programming and withdrawing from it all to pursue the truth that’s inside all of us.
What do you hope this project does for you?
I hope this project opens people’s eyes, not only to me as an artist and as a force, but for themselves as well. I want people to hear this from beginning to end and take notice. I really want the campaign for this project to solidify my position as an artist, for people to relate to who I am and the story I am telling. For people to see that you can still be socially conscious and have a broader appeal.
At one point you were working with Domingo on a project. Is that still happening?
Domingo is the big homie and a dope producer. I wanted to do a project with him a few years back, but life got in the way, we could never finalize it and give it the attention it deserved. In addition to that, my ears have changed since then, so my choice in production has evolved. I still have beats from him in the stash that I’ll use for other projects, but my artistry is heading in a different direction right now. I gotta take this journey before I double back and check in with the past. I still think he’s amazing at what he does. You can’t listen to his beats without wearing your timbs, so I make sure I keep a pair in my closet, specifically to wear when I listen to Domingo beats.
When should we expect The Wake Up Call?
The Wake Up Call album is almost done. I’ve stopped obsessing over it and now have a release date, April 15th. I wanted to drop it on a date that was significant to me, then I realized that the 20th anniversary of the Nas’s Illmatic album was in April of this year. Illmatic was the album that inspired me to be an artist. That’s the album that made me buy my first book of rhymes. I’ve changed my name from UnLearn to UnLearn The World, partially to pay Homage to the song, “The World Is Yours”, so I think it’s only right to drop my first album on the same day as the album that start it all for me. I actually wanted to drop it on the same exact day it was released 20 years ago, April 19th, but that doesn’t land on a Tuesday, so instead it’s April 15th. I’m really excited to see how the people respond to my growth as an artist.
You’ve worked with some great producers, from Jake One to Domingo to Wyldfyer. What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your career?
Each of those producers you mentioned have produced beats for at least three of the top five best MCs in Hip Hop History – Jay-Z, Nas, Big Pun, etc. The fact that my music is on their production is an accomplishment itself. I wear my music like a badge of honor. It’s a testament that my talent is at par with the best in the history of this culture. I’m proud of the fact that I have used my music to show my evolution as a man. It’s my music that has served as the platform for me to sit on the advisory boards of nonprofits, creating curriculum for helping young kids. My music is why people listen to me ramble on a weekly podcast for an hour or more. My music is why, year after year, people are still interested in who I am, without any big co-sign, without a huge hit record or major single. The fact that I am in the midst of this industry, with my soul still intact is my accomplishment. More than anything, my sense of self is what I value and what I hope to maintain as my message continues to reach more people.
You do so much by yourself – no manager, no team. Do you enjoy controlling your own image and taking your career in the direction you want it to go?
My gift and my curse is that I am very hands-on. I have a recent song called “One Man Movement,” on my mixtape The Sleeping Giant, which just came out because that’s what I truly am. My career is my destiny and naturally, I want my destiny to be in my own hands. I don’t like to be beholden to people. When I was younger, everything that was given to me was always made to feel like a charity. It was always thrown in my face and a later date, as if I didn’t deserve what was being given to me, so the very little I have now I feel I’ve earned from my own doing, no one can take credit for it.
It doesn’t mean I don’t want a manager, and it doesn’t mean I don’t want a team. I actually think I need those things, at this point in my career, to help propel my movement to the next level. No one can do it alone. With that said, I want the final say as to the image and message I put out into the world, for better or for worse.
It’s hard to find people who are going to be as interested and involved in your vision as you are for yourself. No one will believe you until you believe in you. I’m already a true believer of self, so it’s just a matter of finding people who have a vested interest in me sharing what I have to offer with the world. Not just someone who’s looking for a check, or to exploit my talent for personal gain. I don’t want to be around Yes men, at the same time, I don’t want to be around people who think I work for them or that they are doing me the favor by being interested.
I guess if and when I build a team, it will be with creative and passionate people who truly believe in what I’m trying to do and have full faith in me that I am the one to do it. People who are willing to lend assistance to the Idea that is UnLearn The World, not just the man. People who recognize that you can still be part of something big and play an important part without being out in front. This industry has too many people trying to be stars. You got interns trying to outshine the people they work for, because they want to be recognized as “The Man”. Everybody wants to be in that number 1 spot because of the prestige it holds, but not everyone is built for that. I learned from the book 48 Laws of Power, don’t outshine the master.
Even as a brand myself, I play my position. I’m not trying to be Hip Hop’s next super star. I’m trying to carve out a special space for myself in this game, because I have a very unique gift that is best used, and best serves Hip Hop in the lane that I’m in. I choose to speak to the hearts and souls of our people, providing them a reminder that we are part of a larger design and by speaking to the better angels of our nature, we can raise our level of awareness and take back the humanity that’s being snatched from us.