Before anyone misinterprets this story as another eulogy for the “Golden Era” of hip hop, or a diatribe written by a guy old enough to remember the debut episode of Transformers, let me just say that this story is about hip hop. The late eighties through the nineties will always be a special time for me. If I utilize a disproportionate amount of ink on rappers and producers either from that time period or who emulate or evoke the style of music from that period, I say, “tough shit, newbies.” Very few artists are making genre-transcending records like Ready to Die or Illmatic, and even fewer are creating music that redefines hip hop like Funcrusher Plus. This is also not for lack of trying. Perhaps we can lay the blame on Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, or the collapse of Rawkus Records, but again, I am not composing a diatribe here. For better or worse this age of modernity (complete with blogs, iPods, digital distribution, Myspace, etc.) has created new business models enabling artists to remain just that: artists. Even though an independently-minded label such as Rawkus folded into one of the five (or is it three now?) majors, labels like Rhymesayers, Stones Throw, Def Jux, and Nature Sounds have managed to create artist friendly environments, maintain huge followings, and continue to push hip hop culture forward always with an eye on its origins. It is two members of the current roster of the Nature Sounds label that this un-eulogy/not-quite-a-diatribe is all about. When I was presented with the opportunity to interview Masta Killa and Pete Rock, I jumped at the chance to talk about hip hop, their relationship with independent label Nature Sounds, and to hear their points of view. What trails is the result.
Known as the “Chocolate Boy Wonder,” “The True Master,” and “The Soul Brother”, Pete Rock is no stranger to the underground. His days as a DJ/radio personality are as memorable as his music. His days with long time radio partner, and Juice Crew founder Marley Marl on Future Flavas were a personal favorite of mine. The show was one of the few opportunities to hear real hip hop on commercial radio. However, Pete's solo career has also carried him through a single release on Loud Records, and several subsequent releases on BBE/Rapster. Pete explained to me what the attraction was to Nature Sounds:
“I think they let a person fly. No one is hovering over anybody’s shoulder telling them how to make their music and that was one of the problems I had with the last label I was on [BBE].” Pete furthers, “Some person just came out of nowhere and crawled from under some rock and was trying to tell Pete Rock how to make his music, which to me was ridiculous cause I've been in this business long enough to know that I never seen his face before or after. The thing I love about Nature Sounds is that they give me creative control of my own project. Also, Devin [Horowitz] being the nice guy he is, you know, reaching out to me. Wanted to give me a shot and do music for him. As you know the music business is based on relationships, and he was a fan as well. It was great to meet him and talk to him and work with him.”
Masta Killa mirrors similar sentiments. “As far as my relationship with Nature Sounds [goes], sometimes you come across situations that are not even about the money. Some situations just feel right to you. Sometimes you have to go with how you feel. You could be making a ton of money and feel like shit at the end of the day because you don't even like what you're doing and you don't even feel good about where you're at. I might not be making a ton of money, but my relationship [with] the way Nature Sounds handles business has been all positive. I'm no stranger to the independent world because Wu-Tang started independent before we actually signed to a major. I'm always a fan of the independent, because it is where you find the rawest of the raw. Independent, and mixtapes nowadays. It's like in street ball compared to the NBA: NBA dudes is nasty also, but sometimes you gotta go back to the foundation to find that raw talent. So you might need that raw talent so we gotta go find it obviously we gotta go find different looks to keep it spicy.”
Masta Killa was the last remaining original member of the Wu-Tang Clan to release a solo album, a full ten years after his debut on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'”, and the first to release a solo album on an independent record label. Killa's sophomore release Made in Brooklyn is already on shelves, and is his second with Nature Sounds. Of all the members of the Clan, I would describe Killa's releases as the most Wu-like in execution. Killa explains, “That sound right there is me. Really, that sound is my brothers. My sound, that's the Wu sound, I mean my chamber is the Wu chamber. I'm the 9th member, so I'm basically all the 8 that you see, that's me. I know the sound that I'm looking for.” And with the stable of producers working with Nature Sounds, “I was able to take different producers and still produce the same sound, it gave me a more creative space . . . just different producers period. Like Pete Rock, [MF] DOOM. I know the sound that I want.”
[Masta Killa] was never an MC before he came into the Clan. But he came, he studied, he hung out with us all, and he was the original disciple who was brought into the fold. He kept it real throughout, and he's among the most real now.
RZA – The Wu-Tang Manual
Masta Killa continues, “For real though, I was a fan of them even before I came into my own. As I was growing to come into my own, I was a fan of my family. For me to keep that sound, that's what I want to hear.”
With labelmate Pete Rock lending production work to Made in Brooklyn, I was curious if this was a convention of the label or something else. “How can I say this? I am a huge fan of the Wu-Tang Clan,” confesses Pete. “To me they're like the new Juice Crew.”
He continues, “To meet Masta Killa after hearing him on so many of those Wu records was amazing. I'm a fan of certain rappers and how they do their music, I thought it would be a perfect match to deal with anyone from the Wu-Tang clan. When I got with him, I made sure I brought at least 60 or 70 beats to play to show him how much I love music and where I'm at with it. We sat there and he was blown away by almost everything I played. I'm sorry I didn't get to do more for him. I only did the one song which is called 'Older Gods' which is just like an old school drum beat where I chopped up an old 45 that sounds pretty nice. It was just a match made in heaven if you ask me. He does the type of rap that I like to hear, it was meant to be.”
The desire for this collaboration was mutual, “I've been wanting to work with Pete for years. I respect Pete as a producer for what he's been doing since C.L. Smooth. I know he's a dope producer and I know when we come together he's definitely gonna have something that I'm gonna love to skate on,” elaborates Killa, “Everything just happens in time, and it grew together, and it came out beautiful both [recordings] that we was able to put down.”
The second recording is featured on Pete's forthcoming solo album NY's Finest. “The song called 'The PJ's' which we did with Raekwon,” specifies Pete, “to me was one of the dopest raps that I've heard in a while. As far as being real, these cats, there's certain people that just stress being gangster and with these guys that was a real way of life that was going on in their hood. The way they interpret it into music is amazing. I always like to hear a story being told and the way Raekwon and Masta Killa did it. It was just like man, the beat and everything just sounded real hood.”
Masta Killa entertainingly explained a little about the process of linking up with a producer such as Pete. “I'm not just there as an MC, I also know the sound of how I like my music to be so we put our heads together and collaborate on things. I studied from RZA many many years with sound and things of that nature, I do a little bit of it all. I'm looking to be the next Quincy Jones out this motherfucker [laughs], you know what I'm saying? Seriously though, I think it's what you come together with people and build instead of just looking for what's already there.”
With both artists happy about their situation with Nature Sounds, they commented on their new projects, “I didn't try to do too much different from No Said Date,” tells Killa, “from the fans point of view, they said they loved No Said Date so I didn't really want to differ too much, but I wanted to come back and give them another dose of the same potency.” Pete reveals, “I can't wait to get it out there. We have Slum Village, Red Cafe, Raekwon and Masta Killa, a singer Rel, Papoose (he's the new underground mixtape king). I got a few people that I got on standby ready to do stuff, a new guy named Jae Millz from Harlem, my new artist E Villes, Styles P. and Sheek Louch from the Lox, I did a song with them. Also Royal Flush from Queens, he's still on that dopeness to me right now, and a few more surprise guests that I'm trying to get, I'm trying to lock down now but I don't want to say their names and then Karma comes and [laughs].”
I spoke with both artists about a lot of other things relating to hip hop specifically their past careers including group efforts and solo projects. I could probably have shared more of that, but again I did not want to compose some diatribe about the superiority of the past. Instead, let me take us back to 1992 and 1993 when I had a part shaved in my head, steady rocked combat boots, and had considerably less facial hair. It seemed like “classic” material was being released every other day in hip hop and the radio was just straight banging. The only way I can possibly approximate the feeling that I had when I first heard not just Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but specifically “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” is to say it was like every single time, even today, when I hear those now infamous sampled horns on Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).” For me, that indescribable feeling is hip hop.