“It’s going to take you three years to transcribe this shit. It will be like a Shaw Brothers movie. Three years and then you come back an expert in calligraphy and you take down the evil tyrant who has taken control of the town.”
I’m half an hour into a three-way call with rappers Has-Lo and Castle, who are set to release their collaborative album, Live Like You’re Dead, at the end of July. Has-Lo has made a sage prediction about the implications of the interview, an hour of which remains. The rest of our conversation will involve imaginary scenarios in which they hire a bodyguard at shows to inspect toes, Has-Lo’s long-winded synopsis of multiple Killa Season scenes (complete with Cam’ron impressions), and comparing the Myspace days to the Cube Link era. Interviewing the Mello Music Group signees requires minimal participation. It’s a Friday evening and both artists carry on—Castle in North Carolina and Has-Lo in Philly—as though they have nowhere else to be. The first prepared question is not asked until the two exhaust all their jokes about releasing a sex tape, which include the listing of potential co-stars: lady at the grocery store resembling Angela Basset, lady from the Payless store, and Dawn Lewis of En Vogue.
Castle wants to know if Has-Lo is referring to young Dawn or older Dawn, which only side tracks us further from discussing the album. Oddly, this is how Live Like You’re Dead came to be, recorded during Castle’s visit to Philly, where ideas formed in inside jokes and non-stop banter. They are two friends who felt their solo work was too brooding to include sophomoric thoughts on the form-flattering hug of yoga pants and puzzling over whether the term “morning wood” still applies if you wake up in the afternoon.
“He and I will be talking about women and talking very deeply about the way that the cheek of the ass will meet the legs,” Castle says. “But we’ve never been freed up enough from convention to put those talks into a song.”
Chronologically it looks as though Has-Lo crafted a re-vamp of Castle’s 2013 album, Return of the Gasface (The Has-Lo Passage), which led to Live Like You’re Dead. Has-Lo says they were friends trading songs long before he touched the stems from Gasface.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that we’re not working together because we met each other as label mates,” Has-Lo says. “We’ve been friends for years, way before I signed to Mello. This is just the first album we actually completed.”
It’s a rare insight into the process, but the conversation is cyclically hijacked from discussing topics like the allocation of production duties, aesthetic, tone, and potential touring. Those topics yield little meat in the grand scheme of our interview. By luck, Castle makes a joke about the definition of real hip-hop, inspiring a trade-off of belittling “real hip-hop” claims to being reserved for stuffy individuals in head wraps who burn incense and carry only anger and judgment. Has-Lo apologizes for the tangent, but it leads to a rare thread of austere discourse on being pigeonholed into a fraternity both prefer to avoid. Neither understands the critical impulse to label their music throwback or golden age. Castle is given the opening statement, criticizing the term “real” as arbitrary:
“It doesn’t belong in art in any sense,” he says. “All the word does is add this unnecessary hierarchy and divide to the whole community.”
Has-Lo struggles with critical analysis that hinges upon terms like “old school,” “golden age,” and “boom bap” applied to his music, particularly in that it excludes him from being considered progressive.
“It’s so insulting,” he says. “To work hard on something and have someone date stamp it because they couldn’t be bothered to take a couple of minutes to think of a more befitting adjective. Stop saying corny shit about my music, you bitch you.”
The two are realistic in knowing you cannot control the public perception entirely, but they want Live Like You’re Dead to be understood as an artistic expression, and they give zero fucks if that makes them sound pretentious. In their minds it’s possible to listen to their album and follow it up with Juicy J’s Stay Trippy. And why not? Castle’s “Hey girl, I see you with the art degree / Why you working at Shoney’s?” couplet would make a fine complement.
“Some people are so matter of fact about stating what my intention was, you’d think they were in the studio with [me],” Has-Lo says.
In the case of Live Like You’re Dead, Has-Lo and Castle are making the intent direct and inviting listeners into their process, so that no one can misread the writing on the wall.
“If there’s any concept to the album, it’s to exist as a fly on the wall to our friendship,” Has-Lo says.
Tracks like “Yoga Pants” and “Big Ol’ Ass” illustrate the pervy and raunchy side of their banter, “D.L.S.” is the closest the two allow the music to touch on golden age with a recognizably Tical-ian sample, while “Hennessy Yak Rap” is the “Behind The Music” moment of the album. Castle says it was a mic check freestyle that evolved in the moment into a character.
“To us it was representative of the older dude while you’re in the barbershop,” Has says. “He hears that you rap and says he used to rap. He spits you this rap that you didn’t ask to hear and it’s entirely ridiculous and out of date.”
Regarding the barbershop archetype, Castle notes that “as time progressed it gets more and more disrespectful.” Deterioration with time is instrumental in Castle’s artistic process and in his ability to wear on a topic until it’s at its lowest grade.
One of the delays the two most likely experienced in completing the record is that the rapport they share is full of trapdoors, segues, tangents, and distractions. In their banter Has-Lo is the diplomatic one, only slightly hesitant to fly too far off the cuff. As for Castle, he invites the criticism, taking the philosophy that he’s aware that he’s offending you, and that’s what makes it funny—and also appropriate—for him to do so. The awareness separates him from the truly offensive and small-minded.
For example, the recording is interrupted by obnoxious white noise from Has-Lo’s end. It’s coming from a car on his street in Philadelphia, blasting Reggaeton. Has-Lo has a theory on the phenomenon. “Why is it usually two homies just stuntin’ playing club music? You’re not playing Raekwon. You’re playing club music.”
Castle interjects with his thoughts on the lyrical substance of the genre, referring to the language as “Reggaetonese,” continuing as though he didn’t just make that up.
“That’s not a language,” Has-Lo interrupts
“What else are you going to call it?”
“Spanish,” Has-Lo says emphatically.
We return to the album, particularly “Yoga Pants”. Has-Lo describes the writing process as a “WorldStar moment.” It diverts the conversation to a debate in which Has-Lo takes the high road and Castle recklessly joy rides on the low road.
Castle: “We love WorldStar for the record. End quote.”
Has-Lo: “I think WorldStar is one of the most exploitive platforms towards black people that exists in modern popular culture today.”
Castle: “WorldStar is the only place on the internet that I can find videos of hood rats fighting over Facebook and having their mother and their children all jump in. It’s beautiful.”
Has-Lo: “It’s black exploitation.”
Castle: “It is what it is. It’s frightening that I gain so much entertainment from it.”
Has-Lo: “It’s frightening that the most racist people in the country can look at this website and say, ‘this, son, is why you should hate all niggers’.”
“We agree on a lot of things,” Castle says. “We’re also capable of disagreeing with each other and still able to hear the other person’s point of view without exploding on them. Yes, we have our moments where we’re like ‘Yo, you are fucking wildin’ right now.’ But it’s over things like there’s no way Stacey Dash doesn’t take it up the ass.”
After Castle attempted sabotage on Has-Lo’s chances with Dawn Lewis earlier, he elects to make no comment on Stacey Dash’s bedroom preferences. He had a hall pass to consider, stating “this is no way to land the account.”
Feeling like we’ve come full circle, there’s little more to be mined from our wearisome exchange besides Has-Lo describing his favorite scenes from Killa Season and a hypothetical scenario in which every pair of toes is inspected for proper pedicures on camera by Has-Lo and Castle before permitting entrance into their shows. Their interview technique is tangential and verbose, but in making Live Like You’re Dead it was a different philosophy: brevity.
“In the absence of any heady or serious themes, the cohesion of the album and the pacing of it still had to be intact,” Has-Lo says. “Just because you’re not rapping about anything in particular doesn’t mean people want to hear you rapping about it for 27 tracks.”
“With rap you have to condense information anyway,” Castle adds. “It’s really important you get your point across as soon as possible.”
Has finishes the thought with, “If someone is being super average, it’s like ‘Well, you could have cut four tracks off of this and it might have had a shot at that seven rating, son.’ Might have gotten four stars, son. If you’d just done some editing.”
Has-Lo & Castle’s Live Like You’re Dead is out now on Mello Music Group.