John Robinson: Self Scientific

posted February 16, 2009 12:00:00 AM CST | 26 comments

It's almost peculiar that John Robinson is introducing himself so strongly this year. Six weeks in, the South Bronx native emcee already has two albums released and nationally distributed - Who Is This Man? and I Am Not For Sale, with plans for one or two more. The late '90s Stretch & Bobbito/Fondle 'Em Records alum has been recording singles and albums - with his group Scienz Of Life for over 13 years. He left New York a decade ago for Atlanta, and subsequently Los Angeles, and on a frigid Thursday afternoon, Robinson talks extensively back in his native city, in a crowded Manhattan cafe, about careers and paths coming full circle.

Before leaving to head to the same WKCR 89.9 FM signal that helped his career initially, John explains the jewels he learned from both MF DOOM and Company Flow on how to stay sharp artistically and commercially. Quick to pass credit to a list of friends and mentors, the Shaman Work Records President says he feels better than ever about his career, and says he'll release these albums until he's begged to stop. HipHopDX honors a true underground Hip Hop veteran, who's sounding better than ever, and dropping science and albums like an artist of yesterday and today in one.

HipHopDX: Youve kept a steady stream of releases coming out over the years. But tell me why in this young year, youve already released two projects and seem to be amidst a strong resurgence
John Robinson:
Honestly, the plan for 2009 is to be extra, super-prolific. I feel that with technology, it speeds up the life of records nowadays. Its almost like if youre not on it, and releasing one album every two, three years, you can get lost really quickly. Honestly, over the past few years, Ive been feeling extremely inspired. Ive just been going with the flow, with the releases. Usually what happens and Im sure artists reading this can agree, is when you finish one project, theres a big spurt that you get right after youre done that you just have to unleash. Thats been happening a lot. Really, Ive felt like since using my given name, John Robinson, it brought a new energy to what Im doing, and a lot of avenues to just expand on a different forefront. So Im taking advantage of that.

With these particular records, my main motive with Im Not For Sale was to connect and link with an international company, Fat City Records in the U.K., to really regroup my brand name and my whole market [overseas]. The Who Is This Man? [click to read] record, this was something I released because I wanted the people to get to hear it. Originally, the record was done and finished of July, 2003. Originally, it was supposed to release on a label I helped run, Shaman Work Records. Then it split to [MF DOOMs] label Metal Face Records. Due to DOOM just getting extra, super busy at the time and us touring together and things like that, it never saw the light of day. Then DOOM took a crazy, long hiatus up until now, when his new record [Born Like This] is getting ready to come out.

DX: Did his resurfacing have anything to do with your timing with these?
John Robinson:
Honestly, no. I already had it in place. It happened to be perfect timing. This Who Is This Man? record was already released in Japan and in Europe simultaneously. Now it hit the States [this year].

The record itself is aged. Not to say the music isnt timeless, its aged in the sense where the music, the actual production if it had come out when it was scheduled to originally, it wouldve been fresh, brand new beats.

DX: Weve since heard some of this stuff, namely on Ghostfaces Fishscale
John Robinson:
Theres since been a bunch of Special Herbs instrumentals that DOOM released [and Fishscale] [click to read]. I would say about 60-70% of that music has been heard in instrumental format. Because of that, Im Not For Sale I looked at more-so as the priority, and the this is the now me. I give thanks though that [Who Is This Man?] is surfacing and people are embracing it and its making its rounds.

DX: You mentioned technology. Coming from the Stretch & Bobbito era, is it hard to adapt to this faster pace and shortened attention span for music?
John Robinson:
Thanks to Bigg Jus, formerly of Company Flow, [its not]. When working with Jus, this is late 90s, early 2000, when he started his label Subverse Music, from then, he used to tell us, Yo, get on this computer thing. When we moved to Atlanta, we worked all of our aspects we moved as a unit. Scienz of Life, Bigg Jus, Kane USA and Skit Slim. We moved as a unit, but we all moved like a day-to-day operation, a nine-to-five. I happened to be the guy that was on the web tip. I was on that from then downloadable MP3s, FTPs, web design. Naturally, as technology turned, it was a blessing. To Bigg Jus credit, he called it then, 10 years ago.

DX: You left New York at the height of the underground movement. How would you compare the comradery going down to a place like Atlanta back then?
John Robinson:
It was received very well. One of the first links we made was with a publication that still exists today, in New York, which was Frank 151. That was one of the main connections we made. Actually, the first show we ever did in Atlanta, they sponsored us and brought us all down. With that connect and Ecko Unlimited and companies like that, that had their solid reach down there there was a Fat Beats there, we had a nice foundation of people that were already in tune. It wasnt hard at all to make the transition. Thats the beautiful thing about music, the network is so powerful all over the world. I feel like at this point, I can go anywhere and be plugged into some type of scenario, if its there. Atlanta is a place where there are a lot of transplants from all over the country. It showed us a different quality of living, honestly. Money is spent a lot better down there, thats for sure.

DX: You mentioned the transition to go from Lil Sci to your given name. Did you punctuate that transition with artistic changes too?
John Robinson:
This is the interesting point about that. Honestly, if it had not been for DOOM, I would have never used my given name. Ever. While living in Atlanta, every time I would call DOOMs house, it would trip him out. He knew me as Sci, and the Caller ID would say John Robinson. He said, That name sounds like a president or something. One day he came across some dialogue [of a record with that name] and [we started the concept].

Scis records were very narrative, third person. Im speaking like this is someone else Im talking about. Realistically, I think John Robinson represents the straight away businessman/influential and positive guy, but not so in-depth as Sci would be. Sci speaks about topics that would be spoken about in a spiritual classroom somewhere. John Robinson speaks about those same topics, in a way that could be told amongst a universal [collection] of people, and still touches that same emotion. That would be the difference. Even in terms of delivery, I dont tell many people this, but if you notice and listen to Sci on a Scienz of Life record, Sci rhymes like hes live on stage. Ad-libs, etc. John Robinson rhymes like hes sitting a room, rhyming to the whole world one person at a time. No ad-libs, its just real narrative, straight away. It makes a lot of difference. Honestly, these subtle jewels are things I learned from DOOM. That guy truly is a scientist to what he does. Theres a method to the madness. Every little thing he does, it could be the stupidest, silliest thing, theres a reason.

DX: What are you trying to say as an artist or a man in the statement I Am Not For Sale
John Robinson:
I Am For Not Sale has several meanings. The most general meaning is Im not for sale, you cant buy my soul, Im not gonna compromise my substance and integrity for a check. The mission and the movement is bigger than that. Even outside of that, no disrespect to the artists that do it, but Im just not that dude who goes to the shows and is pushing my CD all in your face, tackling you down to sell you a CD. Im not that dude. Id rather sell you who I am, and you be interested enough in me, who I am and what Im doing to go search for the music yourself. It means that as well. I dont want to sell the music, I want to sell the movement.

DX: Self-produced?
John Robinson:
No. I brought in a monster team of the now cats, in a sense. Flying Lotus [click to read] from L.A. Jneiro Jarel, who lives in Philly. IG Culture, whos in the U.K. Really, the entire record is cored around those three, where I wanted to bring a sound that sounded familiar to people, but was different than anything else I had ever done. Sonically, I feel that its instantly different. The intro even is composed by Carlos Nino & the Build An Ark Ensemble, but the vocals are done by Renee Neufville, formerly of Zhane. When you listen to the intro, its like, Where is this guy going? Its mellowed-out Jazz, reminiscent of the 1960s Jazz revolution or something. The record just goes uphill from there.

DX: You also have something coming with J. Rawls. I dont want to get too far ahead of whats going on either
John Robinson:
Ill speak on that. Ive been plugging that a little bit in ad-libs. The record is called The 1960s Jazz Revolution Again. Its a Jazz album. All the music primarily includes live instrumentation, along with Rawls [click to read] production. I consider it a very grown-up record. I feel like the younger people might not like this record, but thats why I made the other records. I might rock tuxedo on stage at a Jazz venue and do these songs. [Laughs]

DX: Heavy D just got a Grammy nomination with his Reggae album, and Queen Latifah succeeded in going to Jazz. I dont know if youre out for Grammys, but
John Robinson:
-- Put it like this: if fame comes because of what I do, I cant turn it down. But Im not gonna alter what I do to get the fame.

DX: Being from Uptown, and being so technical with your rhymes, a lover of Jazz, did the Harlem Renaissance inspire your art at all?
John Robinson:
Absolutely. I did a study of the Jazz Renaissance that led me to Harlem and Uptown and that whole side of where Thelonious [Monk] would play at Mintons Playhouse and that whole history of how that went down. Or when Miles [Davis] moved to New York and he met [Dizzie Gillespie] and [Charlie Parker], and a lot of that, that whole era definitely inspires me. I feel that that era is very closely linked with whats going on right now, and whats been going on since the early 90s with Hip Hop. I feel like those are legends of Jazz, and theres a lot of modern day Jazz musicians that are going on, but instead of playing horns, we have microphones.

DX: Whats the most meaningful verse youve ever written?
John Robinson:
You know what? I feel like the most powerful song that Ive written, that stuck with me was Black Gold. The reason I say that is because I can remember reading a magazine article about Nina Simone, and it spoke a little on her history a little after she passed. There were some things in there that I never knew. She had a song entitled Black Gold. Thats a dope title. Ironically, later that day, I was in the supermarket and I saw this National Geographic, and on the front cover [it said] Black Gold [in regards to the United States oil budget]. It inspired me to the point where when I went home and put on the music, and when I heard that track, I said, This is the Black Gold beat. It was like boom. It never really happens like that, where theres one of these occurrences that just builds a song for me. At that time, I felt truly that it wasnt even me, it was being channeled in a sense. It was a powerful feeling.

DX: Lastly, have you heard the opportunity to hear what DOOM is working on right now?
John Robinson:
No.

DX: Anything you expect out it?
John Robinson:
I would say this: what I have heard, Ive heard about six songs this was over a year ago from what was becoming the album with Ghostface [click to read], that never surfaced. Incredible material! I know DOOM voiced to me the fact that he was having an incredible amount of fun. Basically, they would send each other songs back and forth, cause I want to say they only did a couple sessions together, but they would send songs back and forth. DOOM might send [Tony] Starks the song first and Starks might [rhyme], and said hed get Starks verse and say, Oh my God, how am I gonna do anything to this? It would just go back and forth. It would inspire each other to kick it up a notch because theyre listening to [each other]. It was almost like a subtle battle. I did hear that, and I was able to hear several songs for what was becoming Madvillain 2. Im not sure with what happened with the Madvillain 2 with the remixes and everything that released [on iTunes], but I do recall him working on that.

For the Born Into This record, honestly, for DOOM taking this long to do this, it has to be something great. Even with the song that was leaked recently [Ballskin] [click to listen], I dont believe thats from the album. And it was dope. But I almost feel like that was a hoax, just like to put out there real quick to get peoples attention in order. I could be wrong. Im expecting something extremely incredible cause DOOMs a visionary and hes a snob when it comes to writing. Its to the point where when writing the Who Is This Man? record, he was upset sometimes at the fact that I may have made a mention of a word in song one that was on song seven, that same word. Like, you shouldnt even use the same word on a whole album. Im like, Damn! How is that possible? One time, per album. Im expecting to hear the most creative, extensive wordplay to whats going on, right now.

For more information on John Robinson [click here] or [click here].

Photographs by Robert Adam Mayer.

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