Swigga Interview (Natural Elements Series)
Swigga may have changed his name from L-Swift over 10 years ago, and fortunately for hip-hop fans, that’s not the only thing that changed. Inspired by a new outlook and some real life ish happening in real life, Swigga stepped up his musical output and rapped with a hunger reminiscent of his days with his original crew, the much-revered Natural Elements.
After a solid solo run, which included a grip of mixtapes along with a new crew, The Northeast Wildcats, with Eddie Brock and Al Giddy, he’s back with A-Butta and Mr. Voodoo as Natural Elements. And yes, they’re still ripping it for those who doubt. To prove it, the crew’s dropping NEp, an EP of all new Natural Elements tracks overseen by longtime producer Charlemagne and Scram Jones. Swigga takes some time with HipHopGame to talk about the new music, memories from the first NE run, his solo music, and much more in this in-depth and of course exclusive interview.
It’s great to see Natural Elements is back. How does it feel to have the NEp dropping with more new music on the way?
Well, it feels great. It feels liberating. It feels very timely. All of those things. It feels like the universe put us to do this right now.
What took so long to get everybody back together?
It wasn’t about getting the people back together. It was more allowing time to do what it do. Like me and A was never on bad terms or anything like that. It’s just that I went through some shit in 2002 and the group disbanded right after that. It was more like we went on to do our solo things and our solo ventures. I went on to do a few mixtapes. A was in a rock group but he was doing solo stuff too and we got up to do 2Face in 2009. Then we started getting up with Voo (Mr. Voodoo) around 2010. Nobody made us do this. Everything we were doing was on our own accord. Before, it was people pushing us to do something. Now we understand ourselves as a brand and as an entity even more now. Time doesn’t present pressure to us at all.
With the solo projects, like your mixtapes and group Northeast Wildcats, do you feel like you were able to try new things that wouldn’t have worked within Natural Elements?
Yeah, absolutely. Me as L-Swift, and that was strictly in the ‘90s, I wasn’t having as much fun as I am now as Swigga. I was able to do the Cross Country mixtapes. I changed my name 11 years ago and back then, no one was trying to hear New York rappers rapping over southern or west coast beats. When I did it, I didn’t care. Now it’s like the norm. Back then, though, it was abnormal and people looked at me like I was crazy. I always knew it would turn into that and I was tuned into what was happening in the regions and hip-hop as a whole. Those projects definitely gave me wiggle room to do whatever I wanted to do. When I do Natural Elements stuff, I understand what our core fans want from us and I deliver that.
Absolutely. We always looked at our music like we wanted to make it a legacy thing as opposed to a being hot for the moment thing. Even though we had the crazy buzz in the ‘90s, we didn’t look at that like it’s our peak. Now we’re just adding onto what we did before so our entire body of work can be compared to any group in any genre, not just in hip-hop.
Did you feel like you had to get to know A-Butta and Mr. Voodoo again as Natural Elements?
Nah. Working with them is not contrived. There was no business involved. And I feel like when you let the business be involved in the creative process, you jeopardize the creative process a lot. You put a lot of extra-strenuous work on your creative part. We made sure that we did a lot of music without anybody around. No A&Rs or managers or nothing. So when Charlemagne came through with the beats and his samples, he would give us the idea and it was very organic and very natural, as our name implies! (laughs)
You’ve always had such a great sound with Charlemagne. With this project, he sampled some very well-known records, including “Call Me Maybe.” Why did you guys go with such well-known samples?
We were going to put this NEp out for free, but our supporters, they wanted to support us, retail-wise. We said, “You know what? Let’s just put it out on iTunes. The creative process that we had back then, we didn’t want to tamper with it and think about how big the sample was or how small it was. We didn’t weigh those factors in so it made it so that the process was very free-flowing. The business didn’t get in the way. When we add the business in, it’s afer the creative process. We know when to bring the business in. We didn’t know that before. We would either bring it in too soon or bring it it so that it affected the creative process, and we’re very cognizant of it now. There’s nothing in the creative process that has changed. It’s still the same ingredients.
Are you guys really able to not talk any kind of business at all when recording?
Yeah. I think that’s a big mistake that artists make. I don’t try to tell people what to do, but those are two different things. To me, it’s like a football player. What his agent has to tell him about what’s going on with his contract has nothing to do with what’s going on on the field. For us, the field is us being in the studio and stuff like that, so we don’t let that affect how we play on the field. It can mess with you or mess with your flow if you do that. It’s like mixing business and friendship. But when you build a great team, you can allow both of those things to happen simultaneously. That’s what makes successes and it creates longevity. For us, with our fans, we have longevity. Other people might not look at it that way so we have to create a whole new level of consistency. We’re happy about it and we’re more excited about it than before, believe it or not, about our music.
What are you guys considering as success today, especially taking into consideration how much has changed in the past 10-15 years?
Well, the main goal is to get rid of the red tape between us and the audience and supporters. That’s the main goal. After that, when it comes to expectations and sales, we don’t look at it like that because if we did, we would look at it differently and we would go about it in a different way. But we know that we have the potential to be successful, sales-wise, depending on how we market it and promote it and how much we put out, consistency-wise. That’s why people loved us back then, because we were consistent with music. Now, we want to have that same consistency, but there’s business behind every move instead of just putting out the music and letting the people have it. We put wheels behind it. It has its little legs aside from what we do creatively.
A lot of artists aspire to have timeless music. Once you have timeless music, what you like 10 years ago, people in 20 years will like it. When we look at how people like our music from back then, it lets us know that we know how to make timeless music, which is not a normal thing to be able to know how to do. The people that know how to make timeless music are very wealthy and they have a lot of accolades and a lot of awards. We’re not even competing with just our genre, but whoever’s legendary. We want to be looked at on that level, but if we want to be looked at as rap too, then yeah, but when we make songs that are still talked about, we know it’s a precursor to the songs we’re making now and 10 years down the line. It’s very fulfilling to be able to record music under that guise.
When you were making music in the late ‘90s, did you know it would have that lasting value and impact?
Charlemagne was very cognizant of it. He doesn’t look at the music as just rap. Yes and no, though. We knew that it was original because of the response we got at the time and we knew that if we continued to make unique music that it would have the opportunity to withstand the test of time. But we knew if we did trendy music that it wouldn’t withstand the test of time. So we knew that. But as far as people hitting us up and spitting lyrics from freestyles that we did, it’s amazing, yo. Especially for a new person who never heard of us and they Google us and they see all kinds of stuff and they go to YouTube and they don’t even know we did something, it’s very fulfilling. It feels like we have something to pass down. We could be a case study on how to have longevity and your own sound and be original.
You also have fans who weren’t even around during your first run. What does it mean when they go back and learn your history?
That’s amazing. See, the thing is, the listeners and the fans and the consumers are smarter than the industry thinks they are. So when they hear something, they know when it’s authentic because it’s something that transfers and is intangible that they feel when they hear it. Remember, they’re not meeting these people but they can hear it through the music. I definitely think that we know how to transfer that over and how to resonate with the people in that way. It’s an unspoken thing. But they get it.
What do you remember most about all the college radio you guys did?
I remember getting on the train, getting 40 or a 64 ounce, and just being focused. I didn’t put anything in my way to make me not focused. When we went down to those stations,we young guys that just had something. See, in the studio, the way that Charlemagne had us trained, we were always used to having lyrics on deck. Charlemagne could drop something and we had to be ready. We knew if we could transfer the way that we freestyled in the studio to the radio then we would have something and we could do something unique on the radio. When we actually got it to transfer over to the people hearing it on college radio, it was like, ‘Oh, man!’ I remember going to Stretch and Bobbito at 4 in the morning and Redman would be there and people would have the tapes in the morning. That used to mean a lot and it still means a lot.
When you listen to radio shows today, every rapper comes with a prepared verse because they know they’re going to get asked to freestyle, and sometimes it’s even a verse from a song. What do you think about that?
Well, I think that happens more on an underground level. You’re going to get tested to see if you are who you say you are. But on the mainstream level, or whatever you wanna call it, you’re not asked to rap. Rick Ross can go to Angie Martinez and he’s not asked to rap. Flex likes to make people freestyle. It depends. You gotta just know how to do it at the drop of a hat. You can get to the point where nobody’s going to ask Kanye West to rap unless it’s Sway, but if he does rap, it’s not like it’s back then where all you had to care about was the rhymes where 100% of your time was concentrating on your raps. I think it depends on the level you’re at. The further you get, the more you’re gonna have to not rhyme! (laughs)
Is the art of freestyling dying?
I think the authentic hip-hop, people are smarter than people think and that’s one of the criterias to say that you’re a good rapper. You have to know how to freestyle. If you don’t know how to freestyle, but you’re a very good writer, then you don’t have to know how to freestyle too. It’s like battle rap. Battle rapping is a different level of lyricism. I wouldn’t expect a rapper making a song in the studio to be on the level of a battle rapper’s lyricism because it really wouldn’t fit in a song, but it would be great in a battle or vice versa. You have to have it because it’s a necessary, but you could survive without it.
He’s been very instrumental to my career, pun intended! (laughs) When I met him, he was already a supporter of NE. He already used to listen to us on the radio. When I met him, he was rapping. I didn’t meet him as a producer. As we became closer friends and I knew he did beats, we got closer than we were. He did some joints on Cross Country, my first release as Swigga. He basically is my Charlemagne to Swigga as Charlemagne was to L-Swift. He really understands where I want to go with it and he incorporates his ideas and we have a great working relationship. We have a lot of stuff coming out. We have a lot of unreleased stuff and a lot of stuff we want to release in the coming years.
That’s great. What’s some of your favorite work that you’ve done with Scram? I’d have to say mine is “Cruise Control.”
I don’t know. If you ask him, he would say “4 Shots.” I love that song too. I don’t really do the gun rap thing no more. I sprinkle it in a little bit now. “Cruise Control” might be up there. But of course the ones that we didn’t release yet are some of my favorites, I’m not gonna lie! But “Cruise Control” was done in ‘03. That was one of our first songs. Another one of my favorites is “Voices in the Attic” off Scram’s project Hat Trick. That was a bonus cut. A lot of people try to front on Scram as an MC but truthfully he’s tighter on the mic than most MCs!
Has the process changed between you two over the years?
Not on the personal level. On the business level it’s different. When Scram started getting more credits on different people’s albums and was required to make more beats for different artists, I couldn’t be at the capacity that I was back when he didn’t have all that traffic. When I come in and I hear a beat, I don’t just assume that I can take that beat, that it’s automatically mine, like I would do back then. I know that it might be for French Montana or whoever asked him to send him beats. I respect that and he knows that. For example, last night he was in the studio with Raekwon and he told me to come through and just hang out. I said, “Nah, you and Rae are recording!” I don’t want to cross that line between friendship and business, just like he would do with me. I give him that same space, but we’re still friends in real life. We respect each other’s boundaries, basically. We respect each other’s boundaries very well.
Is Scram kind of an honorary member of Natural Elements at this point?
With Scram, you’re going to see more of his work in the future. We went back and forth with the three man weave. He knows when we were doing that with Charlemagne and he loves that about us. He really loved that style. There’s times when before we would do it, we would have that pen and the paper around. But now all three of us right in our heads and we all go in the studio and I say my lines in the booth and I get out and Voo is ready to go on. Voo comes out and A is ready to go on and we don’t even know what the other person is going to say.
We did the “All Hail” track like that. Scram loves when we do that and we’re going to work with him a lot more and he’s going to give us a different sound because the Scram and Natural Elements sound is different from the Charlemagne and Natural Elements sound, in a slight way. As we work more with Scram, you’ll hear what I’m talking about. We have much more work to do with him.
He first heard of me through Natural Elements and he knows that’s my backbone and my foundation. He’s always welcomed it. He always said to just bring the guys through. He’s very adaptable to it and many situations. When he works with us, he kind of goes into a mode and he knows our strength. He wanted us to go back and forth because he knows that us going back and forth is what he loved about us. Other people have done it now but we feel like we do it in a unique way.
In one of our first interviews, we talked about your name change from L-Swift to Swigga. Do you feel more like Swigga or L-Swift when you’re with your NE crew?
Well, there’s no coming back from Swigga. I feel like L-Swift for certain things, especially with the way that I interact with the group when we go back and forth. But it’s more Swigga because I’m more in command of my flow and more in command of my cadence and how I want to come across. That’s more Swigga because Swigga’s more on point when it comes to that. I definitely feel like, like I told you back then, that was going to be my name and I wasn’t gonna change it back. And now it’s gave me such wiggle room that I feel like I can do whatever I want, solo-wise. I feel like I can do whatever I want, solo-wise, and I couldn’t do that back then.
Sounds like you’re happy about the change.
Yeah. Very happy. It gave me exactly what I needed. Yeah, L-Swift is dope, but I’m in the driver’s seat of my career and my life. I think everybody should be like that. Whatever your decisions are that you make, it doesn’t matter about other people’s opinions. Don’t not listen to them. Hear them, but you gotta do what you gotta do because you gotta make your decisions at the end of the day. But I love that I did that. And to tell you the truth, a lot of people changed their name because it wasn’t going well for them. L-Swift was doing well for me, but the changes I was going through at the time, it was making me do that. But I felt comfortable when I did that. And L-Swift didn’t care about the business part of it at all. Swigga cares about both equally, 50% business and 50% music. And I’ve always done my business after every play that we make outside of the studio. That’s the legacy that I’m building.
You’ve done the solo music and your group the Northeast Wildcats. Will you bring back the Northeast Wildcats at some point?
Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I got a lot of creative energy. 2Face, all that stuff, I have many homes for these tracks. It’s just that I have to strategically place them. I just want people to know that I’m going to always put out NE stuff alongside whatever other stuff I’m doing. The Northeast Wildcats, when they come, that’s very natural for me too. That’s in my veins. And I have many business strings that I want to pull concerning Northeast Wildcats. There’s a lot of things we can do from the branding standpoint.
Well, Charlemagne brought that in. He focused a lot on the original way that hip-hop sounded. What he said was that in the beginning, all groups didn’t do verse, verse, verse. They mingled with each other and they mixed rhymes. He said he wanted us to do that but not in harmony with each other. He wanted us to just trade lines with each other to make up verses. We first did that with me, Voo, and Ka. Big up my boy Ka. And after that is when A-Butta came to the group and then we did it with “2 Tons” and “Bust Mine.” But we did it for the first time in ‘95.
How much have you heard it since then?
Oh, man! It’s crazy. We don’t have no sense of entitlement. I know that sounds funny. We’re not like, ‘Yo, people have to know that we were doing that.’ If people do it because they heard us do it, that’s fine. Cool. We care about what our fans know and what our fans know is that they heard us do it first. They have evidence too because they can go to YouTube and know the year that we did it. We have many forms of proof. That’s not the point. We don’t care if people bite off of us if it adds to their music and makes them better. By all means. That’s hip-hop as a whole.
Ka was an original member of Natural Elements and he’s seeing a lot of solo success recently. Have you stayed in touch with him?
I’m very happy for Ka. Me and him text every now and then. Me and him have a very ill relationship. Me and him used to have a job together. We used to work together at this spot and this is like in ‘95 when we were messing with Def Jam and that whole situation. He was always like an older brother to me. He used to teach me about how you move in Brooklyn and Brownsville. He showed me how to put a razor in my mouth. I had never done that. Me and him were really close. Fast forward to now and when I see him editing his own videos and doing his beats, Ka don’t do stuff unless he does it his way. He wouldn’t be happy doing anything else unless he does it his way. Back then, when he separated from the group, it’s not like we had a meeting where we said we wasn’t messing around anymore. It was like how we’re getting in the studio now. It happened naturally.
When A-Butta came into the fold, Ka went into his group and we continued with me, A, and Voo. We did the 2Face stuff right in between that, like the “Hey, Hey NYC” and went to England and when we came back, it’s when that little transition happened. That’s why me and Ka are still cool. You’ll probably hear some records in the future. I’m just happy with him getting his just due and his reviews were phenomenal and people respect him for what he do and he’s got his stuff with Roc Marciano. People respect him for what he do and I’m elated for that.
Did you hear his last record The Night’s Gambit?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m a fan of all of his music! I always know that when Ka sits down and says he’s going to do an album, it’s going to be phenomenal. I just want the people to hear it and for it to resonate with him. Then the end justifies the means. When I see Ka ascend to that level where people respect him for his art, it puts a smile on my face because I know that’s all he wants.
The Incomparable Shakespeare told me about hanging around you guys back in the day. What does it mean to you to see people who were around you as kids start to make progress in the game?
Man, whoever went through Natural Elements, its was like an institution. If you went through that with Charlemagne and Vidal and Charlemagne’s brother Randy, if you went through that regiment back then, it’s like going through an ill military school, like an aviator school, where you know how to fly on a different level. I know whoever you see around me, when they’re in fruition, they’re going to be breaking ground in different ways. It’s amazing to see what could happen if you don’t let the length of time stop you.
What’s it like working with people today that you worked with over 15 years ago?
It’s very cool to see people transcend to where they are now. We saw Young Guru the other night and he recorded a whole lot of the Tommy Boy album when we were in D-Dot’s studio. It’s great to see people like him and Just Blaze. Just Blaze is a big fan of what we do and he shows us a lot of respect when he sees us. To see all of those people and to know that they liked us back then is amazing. I cherish that because they treat us the same now when they see us.
Not everyone is still doing it, either.
As long as you’re still doing what you love. We took the long route, the scenic route. I don’t expect everyone to be in that state of mind and to give it the time that we gave it. It’s like whatever you’re happy doing. But if you live with regrets from it, then that’s something that we can’t do nothing about and help you with that, but on our end, we’re doing what’s making us happy. All the stuff we’re doing is fun. People think that we’re bitter. But as far as our lives and what we’re doing, we’re very happy with what we’re doing and what we laid down in the past.
Well, no, because I’ve moved so many times. A-Butta has a cool collection because he has some stuff at his grandmother’s house and Voo has stuff at his mother’s house. My life is so turbulent that I left stuff at different places. I have an L-Swigga collection! (laughs) But I don’t have a super L-Swift and Natural Elements collection like I should. I want to collect stuff from fans or either sign stuff and let me hold it and take pictures with it and stuff! (laughs) Word!
Is there anything you wish you had?
Certain original records. I can’t wait to meet Nardwuar. He’s probably got some ill shit for me. But yeah, definitely some records and certain flyers from certain shows that I had fun at. And like a lot of overseas stuff because people do stuff overseas, like write certain stuff or have certain tapes. They would write graffiti on tapes and certain stuff like that because they get real creative. But it’s cool though. I’m gonna collect new memories.
Do you have a favorite Natural Elements song?
Not really. I could tell you some of my favorites. I would say, like, of course “Paper Chase.” “Life Ain’t Fair.” “Second Hand Smoke.” “Tri-Boro.” What else? To mix with the new joints, I love “All Hail.” I love everything on the new NEp. Word up!
And there’s an NE album coming next, right?
Yeah. We want to drop that this year. We’re just doing new stuff right now. But we want to put that out this year too.