Picture the evening. It’s Thanksgiving. Friends have gathered in a North Carolina home, packed with love and laughter, focus centered on DJ Hero. The rich scent of food presumably filling the air along with joyous ruckus, a celebration to appreciate. Thanks to be given. Now, picture what it would take to build that type of relationship, to share this particularly close bond. For four years and counting, Murs and 9th Wonder have shared Thanksgivings just like this one. Four years of a bond this close.
It’s been said that friends are the family we chose. For some emcees, producers can have that same effect. For four projects, including their latest effort, Fornever, Murs and 9th have taken their partnership to new heights musically and personally and, well, there are those Thanksgiving dinners to prove it.
Independent, underground Hip Hop had heard of Murs and it had become familiar with 9th Wonder. Murs had his Living Legends gig, a stand out member of the eight-man west coast collective. Plus, he had Felt with Atmosphere’s Slug and a slew of other side projects (The 3 Melancholy Gypsies, The Netherworlds, The Underbosses and more). 9th had his hand in making Little Brother a respected group that gave the early 2000s some much needed boom bap nostalgia, thanks in some ways to Fruity Loops and an extensive record collection. Unafraid to challenge listeners and to face expectations head-on, 9th took the task to remix Nas’ God’s Son, flipping it much like he’s done with many a sample, to become God’s Stepson, a remix album that would garner much praise and interest.
That remix project started it all for Murs and 9th, too. Prior to what we know as the duo’s debut, a friend suggested that Murs work with the North Carolina producer upon hearing 9th’s take on God’s Son.
“It was the year 2002 or 2003 when I first heard 9th,” Murs admitted. “Well, someone had played me ‘Speed’ by Little Brother before, but I don’t think I was hearing 9th. I was more hearing Phonte and [Rapper Big] Pooh because I’m more of a lyrical person. But, my best friend pushed me because I don’t have good taste in beats. I’m still learning about music so I listened to my best friend. I was like, ‘You should pick the beats.’ He said, ‘You need to get with this dude [9th Wonder]. This is the dude.’ So, I tracked this dude down.”
He had a little help in doing so, according to 9th. Ian “ID” Davis stepped in, putting the two on the phone and allowing them to link up.
“Ian Davis was like, ‘I got this kid that wants to work with you,’” 9th recalled. “He put Murs on the phone and Murs had heard what I had done with God’s Stepson or whatever. He was like, ‘Look, man, I want you to remix my EP.’ Once I sent the beats, he was like, ‘Man, I’ll just come out there and do an album with you. That’s how 3:16 [The 9th Edition] came about.”
“Yeah, I finally got the beat CD and heard it,” Murs said, remembering those days. “I was trying to write the stuff and send him stuff. It just wasn’t coming out right. He was giving my beats to Masta Ace and shit. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m coming to your house, man. I don’t know you but I’m coming to your house. We’re going to rap and make songs.’”
Their first album together, released on El-P's Definitive Jux Records, a Downtown New York independent imprint, 3:16: The 9th Edition, set quite a precedent. Murs and 9th opened up their fan bases to the other, while making music that felt organic and raw, with 9th’s now patented snares and kicks matching Murs’ heartfelt stories of love (“The Pain”) and loss (“Walk Like a Man”). Rave reviews followed and the duo reestablished their partnership with 2006’s Murray’s Revenge, distributed by Warner Brothers and released on the fledging Record Collection label. Two years later, they dropped their third collaboration, a pay-what-you-like release, Sweet Lord, and with 10 tracks on each release, they had a formula in place. That formula, said 9th, has given their projects some guidance.
“Every time Murs and I have done a project, it’s been basically the same way. It was kind of trial and error for the [3:16], but then once we got the formula down, we do it like that for every record. The formula is that I chose all the beats. I chose about 15 beats and we narrow it down to 10. The way we do it is, as Murs hears the beat that I chose for him, he picks the topic and the song title right then and there and then he writes to that title.”
“I hear the music first before I come up with anything,” Murs added. “I don’t pre-write for 9th…[The topic] is already there. The track has already done that battle for me.”
It may seem as though strong partnerships always agree but as experience would show, that isn’t always the case. Many times, it’s the differences that allow a pair to shine with each difference acting as a complement to the pairing. Murs and 9th, for instance, are not alike. No matter how much they may seem to be similar, they’ll be the first to tell you that they are not one in the same and they don’t always agree on everything.
Case in point, when I ask 9th about his proudest song with Murs, he says “Love and Appreciate” off of Murray’s Revenge but Murs just laughs at that and disagrees.
“That’s so soft! That’s weak shit. That is some weak-ass bull-crap. Now, I’m going to have to make ‘Love and Appreciate Pt. 3.’ I know that’s coming,” he joked.
“It’s the proudest record because I fought so hard! He didn’t want to do it,” 9th explained.
“I didn’t want to do that song…Aw, man, you have no idea,” Murs says of how hard the song was to make. “I’m the most peaceful, pro-love rapper there is so if it was hard for me to get that record done, no one else was going to do that record.”
How’d they settle it?
“I always do what he says, always. I’m man enough to admit that. I never had a choice. I just kept trying to get him to change his mind. Like I say, I can write that song in my sleep. It wasn’t challenging for me. It was just stuff that I didn’t want to say. To me, it doesn’t need to be said in a rap. My biggest beef with Lauryn Hill is that I don’t think “reciprocity” belongs in an R&B song. It’s too many syllables! You should just rap! If you’re going to say ‘love and appreciate,’ you should just sing! It comes to a level where there’s Rap and then there’s R&B and that’s crossing over. It’s basically like a lounge song. Maybe I’ll love it when I’m 70 and I could do it in Vegas, like Frank Sinatra.”
That isn’t the only disagreement they’ve had. In fact, Murs would later explain that they’ve gotten into shouting matches full of “Fuck You’s.” But within those differences, there is still a level of respect that Murs alluded to and it’s not a one way street for the duo.
As 9th began to ponder his answer to the most surprising part of Murs’ personality, he quickly found, “Just how weird he is.”
“To him, I believe it’s normal,” he adds with a bit of a laugh. “He explained to me that nobody wanted to mess with the weird kid, so that’s the thing about him. No one wanted to mess with him because he walked to the beat of his own drum. From that day on, I saw he was a real dude. He didn’t try to perpetrate to be anything other than that.”
So, the kid who once walked through Mid-City Los Angeles known as "weird cuzz" now finds himself with 9th, a producer who was recently caught in an impulsive Internet dispute with his former group mates from Little Brother. While Murs stays out of the situation, he also added that he’s only known 9th to be a true, loyal “friend for life,” despite all disagreements, no matter how heated their arguments have gotten.
“I can say this. I’m going to say this and I know he might not like it. But, I’m going to say this,” Murs said building up some anticipation. “It’s funny, because people try to say he’s non-confrontational. He’s very confrontational! He can be very up front. But, he knows that I love him and I know that he loves me. So, when we go at it, we leave it in the room. We have gotten into yelling matches like ‘Fuck You!’ ‘No, fuck you!’ Then it’s ‘Alright, let’s go home.’ So, when you have a friend in him, you have a friend for life.”
According to Murs, 9th cemented this after working with Jay-Z and Beyonce. During the time spent with the megastars, he was a hired-gun for many, slated to produce more hits for acts including Mary J. Blige. But, all of that didn’t matter more than his word to Murs.
“He called me, walking out of a studio after a late night session with Beyonce and Jay-Z and said, ‘Murs, I just want you to know before it hits the Internet. I’m in New York. I’m working with Jay-Z. I was just there with Beyonce and them. I gave them a beat CD to take home, but I didn’t give them none of your beats!”
A surprised Murs was dumbfounded on the other line.
“I was like, ‘Man, you don’t know me! Give all of my beats to Jay-Z!’ [Laughs] But, his loyalty and the fact that he’s such a man of his word…I get mad at him for being late or whatever but on the real, he’s a friend for life. …So, it’s interesting what’s going on in the Internet now. You’ll notice, you’ll never hear that guy, no matter what anybody says about him, you’ll never hear him say anything bad about anyone else for the most part. In him, you’ll have a friend for life. I’m a fan, so I believe Little Brother will get back together, but he’s a friend for life. He’s not a negative person. At the core, he’s one of the most peaceful and kind dudes. He’s one of the most positive human beings I know…It’s not a front. He’s a peaceful guy. He’s about his family, his business and his art.
When I asked Murs if they share any similar qualities, he laughs before saying they merely share an appreciation for God and family.
“So, where do you differ?” I followed-up.
“Every other way possible [Laughs]. Me, I’m more of a life and energy person but God, or whatever you want to call it, definitely brought us together because we balance the fuck out of each other.”
That balance is present in their latest release, Fornever. By now, Murs and 9th have dropped their fourth project together, a symbolic effort that also changed the dynamics of their “formula.” Instead of the calm, quiet North Carolina “boonies,” they decided to record in the home of the Dodgers and Lakers. The buzz of traffic, scent of smog and overall heat of California has infiltrated their music more than ever. On Fornever, they get some assistance from Suga Free, Psycho Realm’s Sick Jacken and two tracks from Kurupt, including an extended verse for the album’s closer, “Live from Roscoe’s.” All of these guest spots came as a direct result of Murs’ standing with the west coast acts.
“I had no idea,” 9th says when he begins talking about Murs’ connections. “You see him, the way he wears his hair, you would not believe the alliances he has in the L.A. streets. You would never think that but he knows some serious players, some serious people in the streets of Los Angeles. Whether it be Latinos, Asians, it doesn’t matter, he knows them. That’s one of the reasons we got Kurupt on the record. He knows a lot of folks, man. It’s amazing.”
Tha Dogg Pound lyrical sharp-shooter lends more than one verse to the album, acting as the star guest that opens and closes the project, a Los Angeles veteran that ties it all together for Murs and 9th.
“I’m in L.A. so I’m dreaming,” 9th says of his meeting with Kurupt. “I remember Kurupt from Dogg Pound and all that, of course, but when he was on 'Tru Master' with Inspectah Deck and Pete Rock? Like, come on! We need it! So, when Kurupt got on Fornever, Murs brought him to the studio. We were all starry-eyed like ‘That’s Kurupt!’ Once I played the beat for him, he was like, ‘That’s the one!’ He just got on it and was like, ‘Tabernacle / Pterodactyl / Apple kush plants / Medical shops, I go and sample kush plants.’ I was like, ‘Yes! Do that!’ It was a dream to have him on there. He loved it! He did two records. On one of the records, he did a 40 bar verse! ‘Live at Roscoe’s’ is 40 bars!”
That’s a key difference fans will find with Fornever. While their first few albums featured 9th’s compadres, this album is tailor made for Angelinos, with Murs getting a chance to pick the guests for once.
“Every time he comes over here, I put all my people on it. So, he was like, ‘Yo! Let’s put my people on this.”
“A lot of people don’t respect our lyricists,” Murs chimed, talking about why he chose the artists he selected for this album. “Suga Free is a lyricist. You may not like what he says, you may not like how he says it but if you’re not smiling at the end of his verse on this record, something’s wrong with you. We had Psycho Realm on there, too. To me it’s important to include Latino culture because that’s a part of my shit! I try to do a little Spaniglish here and there in all my raps because that’s a heavy influence on me. People also think that Latino emcees can’t spit. That’s why I definitely had Jack on here.”
The Los Angeles vibes are felt throughout the album, starting with the title, coasting through the audio and shining on the cover.
“Even with the artwork, we had [Photographer, Director] Estevan Oriol do it, who’s a L.A. O.G. Even the name Fornever, is what I used to hear old cholas say in South Central [South Los Angeles].”
That vibe is what sets this album apart from the others, bringing a different life to it.
“Being in L.A., it’s aggressive, it’s cocky but it’s beautiful…I just think that it’s a vibe I always have to bring with me to North Carolina. Now, I didn’t have to,” he said of this album, adding that it might be seen as more “fun” because of how comfortable he was during the recording session. “I was comfortable. I was able to go home, for once. Usually, I go to his house [9th’s home in North Carolina], I record and then go back to a hotel room where I’m just pacing. When I’m smoking cigarettes, I’m smoking cigarettes and just pacing for 12 hours trying to figure out how intricate my stories will be. Like, when I wrote ‘Walk Like a Man,’ I cried, yo. And it’s like that when I’m away from home. And he lives out in the boonies, so it’s just me in a hotel room by myself in the boonies, thinking about shit I’ve been through with motherfuckers I know or situations that I’ve encountered and trying to channel it all and make it as real as possible. This time, I was laid back. Everybody in the room was from L.A. I’m eatin’ Roscoe’s [Chicken & Waffles] while we’re doing this. Kurupt is smoking Newports with my little brother. We talk about dudes we know and what happened around the corner. I was in my space. Yeah, I was a little bit more cool and calm because I was with my family and friends and my new friend who gets to be a part of my west coast family now. That’s probably why it’s a little more playful. I tried to lighten up a little bit, because Sweet Lord was fun but it wasn’t as fun as this.”
Don’t let the “fun” element fool you. While the album is decidedly more fun-filled than previous releases, this album still packs a punch, something that also comes from Los Angeles. It’s Murs’ deliberate jab at those that are anti-left coast emcees. As long as Murs has rhymed, he’s maintained a level of lyrical dexterity that he feels is underappreciated by some, especially those that claim West coast artists aren’t worthy of lyrical praise.
“People think that that people from the West coast don’t spit. There’s a lot of rappers from the west coast, which I hated growing up, they felt like they had to sound like New York. I’m the only backpack rapper from L.A. that motherfuckers are like, ‘When I listen to you, homie, you represent!’ When I open up for Snoop Dogg, DJ Quik and Dogg Pound, people are like, ”Yo, my nigga, you do it! You’re one of us. You don’t look like you’re one of us but you still do it!’ A lot of dudes form here feel like they gotta sound like Nas or Rakim to be considered and respected as real Hip Hop. But, I’ma say my R’s hella hard and I’ma say ‘hella.’ I’ma say ‘homie,’ and talk about King Taco, and I’ma talk about heinas, rucas, and the Dodgers. I’ma be me and I’ma sound like me and I’m still going to be respected as a lyricist. No one can say I’m not a lyricist. I’ve read as many books as Nas or anybody else you may want to compare me to but make no mistake, I’m from California, unapologetically. California is in your face. We’re not about a bunch of loud talking or a bunch of bullshit. To me, it’s like earthquakes. Since they can happen at any moment, we’re prepared for anything. We’re super aggressive and up front about ours.”
This is no ordinary Rap collaboration. These two artists may have started as complete strangers in the middle of rising careers, but they now stand as friends that share an extremely close bond, which brings us back to those Thanksgiving dinners we began talking about early on.
“Yeah, he’s now spent four Thanksgivings in North Carolina with me,” 9th said. “This last Thanksgiving, it was just my kids and DJ Hero! [Laughs] Yeah, Nick came by and they spent Thanksgiving with us. It was beautiful,” he noted before explaining how it usually is around the house.
“My whole family is there, man. It’s a wild time. We have a great time, man. My mom and my wife prepare him special meals because he’s a vegetarian. They say, ‘We have to get him special stuff!’ They really go all out for that chump! They spoil him,” he joked.
“It’s great,” he says before repeating “great” six times for emphasis as he explains what Thanksgivings are like with 9th. “I love his whole family. His cousins, nephews, his wife, his wife’s aunt, his wife’s grandmother…They’re a great family. It’s just great people to be around. His house is beautiful. The energy in North Carolina is beautiful. We lay on the couch, take a nap, play with the kids. This last time, we played DJ Hero a couple times, played some Madden, watched some movies on Blu-ray and played Twister with the girls. Just fun shit, man, family stuff,” he says.
“It became a tradition. It became a family. It became awesome.”