It's an empty Thai restaurant on a grey Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia. All that can be heard are string covers of '80s Pop on a 15 minute loop. As I prepare to interview a long-respected emcee face-to-face and goes through his notes, door chimes signal Cormega's arrival. In a black leather jacket and matching Yankee fitted, 'Mega carries himself like he rhymes - with a quiet intensity.
The emcee that Nas shouted out on "One Love" has had an assortment of independent and major label deals, dating back to 1991. For a seasoned entertainer, Cormega verges on shy. His eye contact is limited, and the Queensbridge emcee seems to be one of the handful of Rap stars that prefers listening over speaking. On the other hand, once the man starts talking, his charisma and reflections pour out almost endlessly. Not only can one see why 'Mega managed to be one of the most successful independent east coast rappers of the last decade, one can also see how he could have run the block - in his past life.
Today, Cormega and HipHopDX discuss his new life, echoed throughout his third (technically fourth) solo full-length, Born And Raised. The conversation applies lessons learned from four years served of a 15 year maximum sentence at Midstate Correctional Facility. 'Mega takes his hustler's wisdom and reflects on music as medicine, the respect he has and has not recieved, and why the new generation glorifies yesterday's criminal, and ignores yesterday's artist.
HipHopDX: You're one of the more successful emcees who's spent significant time in prison. Based on that experience, how do you think Hip Hop fans listen to music differently inside versus outside the prison walls?
Cormega: Inside, music is escapism. Even on the outside, music talks to you when you’re in a bad mood. Music will take you away. I don’t care who you are, if you’re street, if you’re the coolest regular guy, if you’re preppy or if you’re a gangster, if you’re in a terrible situation, all you need is a pair of headphones. Close your eyes, and you’re anywhere you want to be. “I’m not in this room when my eyes are closed. I’m in Maui,” or something. That’s why people in jail take to music. That’s the only freedom you have. The music that you’re listening to is the same thing that a billionaire’s listening to. Same song. Same feeling from it. That’s one of your only freedoms, so music is super-important in jail.
I think a lot of people in jail relate to my music ‘cause they know I came from there, and I speak the truth in my songs. In “Dirty Game,” the last verse, I’m talkin’ about how people in jail, some of them would rather go to the gym and get big. I said [during my incarceration], I would go to the law library. When I went to the law library, I found inconsistencies in my case that I was initially incarcerated for. Every jail has smart guys. There’s guys in [the libraries] while you lift weights and shoot basketball. That’s a trap. Every jail you go to has workout facilities, television and all that; they want you to do that shit.
When I went to the law library, I found inconsistencies with my case, put in motion for an appeal and I came home.
Cormega: Exactly. I had five to 15 years; I ended up doing close to four. I’ll take that any day instead of doing 15 years. So basically, what I’m telling you on that record, I’m telling you that I found inconsistencies in my case. So to every person that’s in that situation, you can do the same thing. When you’re jail, I had a C.O. look at me with the utter disgust and say, “convict.” The mindframe in jail is that you can’t make it when you come home. You’re gonna come back. There’s people in jail that’ll tell you that – C.O.’s or facility guys say, “You’ll be back.” That’s real. You don’t know what you’re gonna do. So me makin’ it, and [inmates able to say], “I did this with ‘Mega,” “I walked the yard with ‘Mega,” such and such, that gives them hope. They can say, “Oh, he stayed focused and [stayed out of prison].” That gives them hope. I’m a champion for that.
DX: When Tupac Shakur was incarcerated, the music he listened to is what connected him to the C-Bos, the E-40s, the Rappin’ 4-Tays. As you spoke about the importance of music, what were you listening to?
Cormega: Marvin Gaye. A lot of R&B, but Marvin Gaye was significant. I listened to some Rap too. At that time, when I was in prison, there was a musical revolution happening. [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic [click to read], that was around the time that Snoop [Dogg] [click to read] was a god to people. That’s when [Nas’] [Illmatic] and [Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage] [click to read] came out around the same time. Everybody used to debate on which was better. [Chuckles] I didn’t listen to that much Biggie; I didn’t like Biggie much, till I came home.
DX: You have a track on your album that’s my favorite, “Live & Learn.” What’s the most recent lesson you’ve learned in life?
Cormega: Wow! That’s a good question… some of the things I’ve learned recently is that success and happiness don’t always come hand-in-hand. You could have [one and not the other]. There’s times, when I was younger, comin’ up, when I used to want a Rolex or this car and that car; I used to want things. When I got them things, there was days where I sat in my crib, by myself, with mad money, everything I wanted – the Rolex, all that, but I wasn’t complete. That’s one of the most important things that I learned: that it doesn’t define who you are, it’s just a necessary asset in life.
I’ve learned that there’s a difference between somebody bein’ cool with you and somebody bein’ your man – like, “that’s my man, that’s my homeboy.” A lot of people I grew up with, I look at some of them as, they’re cool, but I don’t look at them as my man anymore. We have different views, we do different things – we see things differently. I spoke to one of my friends recently, and he was talking to me after I hadn’t seen him in a while. He was like, “Yeah son, I don’t know why you don’t like me…” I was just letting him talk. But in my heart, I’m like, “I don’t know what gave him the impression that I don’t like him.” I basically told him, “It’s not about you, it’s about me.” It wasn’t me not liking him; I needed to fall back and see things for what they were.
A lot of my lessons that I’ve learned recently, I give you in my music. I give you the jewels. Another lesson that I’ve learned recently is nothing’s promised, nothing’s guaranteed, so you have to enjoy life. This year, I probably did the most things, more than any year of my life.
Another thing I’m learning is that…the most important thing that I’ve learned as an artist is you have to be content. You have to set an agenda. I can’t be a first-week sales person, leave that up to the [artists on major labels]. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. I’ve seen a lot of artists come out with product and after the album comes out – if the first week is not where they wanted it to be, they just abandon the project. Don’t do that. There’s no business in extistence that automatic [success]. Google didn’t blow up instantly. People call themselves “hustlers.” That’s not a self-descriptive word. If you’re a hustler, it illuminates through you. People will say you’re a hustler. Ron Artest is a hustler. He doesn’t sell drugs; he’s a hustler on the court. When I did The Realness [click to read] and sold 14,000 the first week, and I did The True Meaning and sold 14,000 the first week, I wasn’t looking at the numbers! I was looking at the love that I got – from the people, from the fans, the critics and the media. That’s the thing I’ve learned to not chase. I’ve got to master my circle. I’ve got to be the best ‘Mega and not worry about anything else.
DX: On the same song you say, “Tomorrow’s not promised, today is a gift / The present, that determines, what your legacy is.”
Cormega: [Continues] "…yesterday, you can never relive / To pursue it is a question of what your relevance is.” That right there is so deep. Especially in this game, there’s so many people that’ll say, “Man, back in ’83, I had m’fuckin’ Mercedes, I was doin’ it.” Nobody wants to hear that. I said, “to pursue it is a question of what your relevance is,” ‘cause those who chase the past, how important are you right now? If you’re doing something right now, the past is gonna be a fond memory…that could be the basis of everything you do. I was just droppin’ jewels on that.
DX: The first time I ever met you was at S.O.B.’s. It was like 2004, and I think it was Lord Finesse’s birthday party. You got up onstage and spit “The Saga” accapella, and you kept it movin’. But I’ll never forget, you got on stage and said, “Yo, I just smoked a blunt with Diamond D.” Your appreciation for Hip Hop music comes out in any interview I’ve ever read or completed with you. You talk a lot about others, I’m curious to know, what are some of the folks in Hip Hop that have been appreciative of you?
Cormega: Guru [click to read]. That was a surprise to me. I seen Guru in a club one day and he was like, “Yo, you’re like the illest.” His man was like, “Yo son, he loves [your music].” Him paying homage to me…when I did a remix of “Men At Work” with Kool G. Rap [click to read], Kool G. Rap was looking at me like, “Dude is crazy!” The look he was giving me. Sean Price [click to read]. Recently, Sean Price was like, “Yo, you bodied me on that song, ‘Radiant Jewels.’” Him sayin’ that, “‘Mega, you nice, son.” Him saying that was big for me. A lot of artists can’t keep it real like that, or they wouldn’t. So I told him, I said, “I know you gonna get me on the next one.”
I’ve been paid my respect. [My man Guyzie], he’ll tell me, like, “Yo ‘Mega, you don’t understand how big you are, or how much respect you’ve got. You look at yourself as you’re just one of us, ‘cause you keep it real with niggas, but you’re an ill person, an ill lyricist [that] niggas respect.” I never really look at it like that, so I guess that’s one of the things that keep me goin’, ‘cause I always feel like I’ve got something to prove. I always feel like people are sleepin’ on me, or don’t give me the credit I deserve.
The most humbled I’ve been is by the fans. I’ve been to California, and I met a Mexican brother, he got something from The Realness [tattooed] across his back. I’m doing a show at B.B. King’s a few years ago, and I met this white girl – I’m talkin’ ‘bout beautiful, and she has one of my quotes tattooed on her foot. I [was shocked]. There was a time when I did a show in California, and somebody [reached out on my website]. Their brother, I believe it was, was excited about coming to the show – but they got killed before the show. When I got to the show, I was touched. I started cryin’ on stage. I seen the kid cry, he was hurtin’. I was [performing] “Fallen Soldiers” and I was cryin’ – just got emotional. I was thinkin’ in my head. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house – gangstas and regular people alike. The fans humble me, they’ve given me the compliments. When people like Grandmaster Caz come up to me, that’s like getting a warm blanket. I sincerely love Hip Hop. I don’t love the Rap industry; I love the music. I love Slick Rick, Kool G. Rap, T La Rock, Sha Rock. I think Lauryn Hill is a Top 10 emcee – not female rapper, I’m talkin’ Top 10 emcees, period. So, Tragedy [Khadafi] [click to read] gave me my credit. [A reporter asked Tragedy to name the best rappers], and Trag said my name. I was surprised. I get credit. It’s like the older I get, I get more respect than I’ve had previously. Sometimes I’ll see a magazine article or an interview online and the writer might say “a great artist like Cormega.” Recently, SLAM magazine was talking about something, and they [wrote], “You would hear something like Fabolous [click to read], Jadakiss [click to read] or Cormega exuding from the jeeps,” so I treasure that. But the fans are the biggest compliment ever.
DX: You mentioned Caz, you mentioned T La Rock. Over the last five years, “Mega Fresh X” has turned into this undertaking. From the intro to the production to all of the guests, you’ve literally been telling me about this record, playing it over the phone, etc. since 2003. Now that the people get to hear it, what do you want that record to be? What do you want that record to mean?
Cormega: I just want people that’s in they forties and fifties that really want to like Rap to say, “Yeah! These are the guys I used to love.” I want younger people…my young dudes like that song; that surprised me. I don’t really have no intention for that song. My intention was just to pay homage. The same way that we’ve always glorified drug dealers – the thing I don’t get is some people will say, “Oh yeah, fuck that old rapper,” but they’ll kiss Alpo’s ass. Alpo is older than them! Fat Cat is older than them! John Gotti [was] older than them. We give the people that do wrong credit for the wrong reasons, and we downgrade people that did the right things. Me having KRS-One, [Big Daddy] Kane [click to read], Parish Smith of EPMD [click to read], Grand Puba [click to read] of Brand Nubian and Masters Of Ceremony and [DJ] Red Alert [on a Buckwild track] from Diggin’ In The Crates [click to read], that’s a dream collaboration! No matter what it does, that’s one of my favorites forever.