Dilated Peoples' emcee talks about waiting for the inspiration to release his solo debut, remembering Guru, and the '90s L.A. underground's views on Fashawn, Blu and company.
Just over a decade ago, the Dilated Peoples released their full-length debut, The Platform on Capitol Records. As Just-Ice said, "I know, I was there." That May morning, I distinctly remember standing outside the Record Exchange on Pittsburgh's Forbes Avenue, waiting for the lock to turn at 10 am. Three minutes later, I was stripping the plastic and reading the liner notes - names like Alchemist, Defari, Planet Asia, Discman in hand, playing what is surely one of the best albums of the so-called "underground Hip Hop" era.
In a greater sense, Dilated isn't underground at all. They worked with Kanye West - twice. The group has globetrotted on numerous tours, and released four major label albums, all while remaining true to one's and two's, triple optics and four elements of Hip Hop.
Group fully in tact - but honest about their legacy and relations, emcee/manager Rakaa Iriscience is finally preparing his solo debut, Crown of Thorns. Released through Decon - the same label Evidence released product with for years, the album is entirely based on the inner-workings of things, or as Rakaa calls it, "politics." In a recent discussion with HipHopDX, the former advertising major in college speaks about making this dense work, the Los Angeles underground awakening, and sharing the literal and metaphoric microphone with Fashawn, Blu and members of the new generation.
HipHopDX: "Delilah" is my favorite song on Crown of Thorns, and probably the illest beat I've seen Evidence cook up to date.
Rakaa: I got the beat, and I actually wrote that song twice. That was the second song [I recorded for Crown of Thorns]. Originally, I wrote a whole 'nother song to it. I fell in love with the beat. I wrote a whole song to it, way more in depth, crazy storytelling, all these crazy details and everything. I listened to it afterwards. From a technical level, I wrote a great story. This story does not let the song - it doesn't let the music shine through. I felt like it wasn't just a song about the finding the right music for my lyrics, it was about creating a feeling that translates in any language. It's funny that you say that [about the beat], because when I wrote it, I said, "this beat is too crazy!" I had to rewrite it to let the beat live.
DX: I'm a sucker for any Rap record that has a woman's name in it. Just Ice's "Latoya," LL Cool J's "Dear Yvette," Ghostface's "Camay," and so on. "Delilah" is an interesting story. Great emcees walk a fine line between fact and fiction. Tell me a little bit about what inspired that song...
Rakaa: [Laughs] I did "C.T.D." first, that [DJ] Babu produced. "Delilah" was the second song that I recorded, and the third beat that I picked for the album. Pretty much, that was one of the pillar songs. I wanted to create a couple songs that would inspire me to create the rest of the record. "Delilah" was one of those songs - I inspired myself to complete the album by listening to that song repeatedly. The song is not so much a literal story about one person. It's definitely, definitely inspired by one person in particular, but the story itself pulls from a couple other life experiences, a couple of other relationships. To be perfectly honest, the story also pulls from - not that it's something I'm necessarily proud of - but it pulls from me being on the other side of it too. It's [inspired by] things I've said or the look I've put in people's eyes because she was hurt by something that I did. I can feel what the pain of betrayal is, and feel that's it's more than just pain. When you really have that type of connection with somebody, and there's betrayal, you're mad but you're hurt. You're sad, but you're reflective of good times. You might've had great sex, [so] you're feelin' like, "I still want to smash that," but "fuck her." The song itself, I wanted to capture not just me telling a story about a relationship, but I wanted to use a story from a relationship that I had, and pull from various other life experiences to explore the politics of relationships.
The whole entire Crown of Thorns is purely political. But what people might not get right away when I say that is that there's more to politics than just government politics. There's relationship politics, there's L.A. graffiti politics, there's Hip Hop politics, business politics, there's politics in almost every aspect of life - not just government, and I touch on that too.
DX: Is that synonymous with "conflict"?
Rakaa: It's synonymous with protocol, tradition, conflict, nepotism - a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that aren't necessarily shown as part of the process. Inner-workings. There's inner-workings going on behind the scenes of every aspect of life. Included in that is conflict. But it's not always conflict just because it's political. There's more to it. There's other agendas.
DX: I remember being at the store, waiting for the key to turn to buy The Platform in 2000. I have to give it up to Sway & King Tech for putting me onto Dilated. You were my guy in the group, the same way some people are Q-Tip fans and some people are Phife Dawg fans. All that being said, as Evidence and Babu have really solidified solo careers, why has it taken you this long to deliver a solo work?
Rakaa: Dilated [Peoples] have been goin' on. We not only spend a lot of time in the studio, but we spend a lot of time on the road. If I'm on stage, I'm creating, so I feel like I'm expressing myself. I've been blessed to be invited onto so many side projects, whether it's guest appearances on people's albums, or whether it's purely charity projects, or political agenda, whatever the case may be, movies, video games, to making change in the world - we stay busy. So for me, taking a lot of the time was doing a lot of the business for the group. I guess I positioned myself, not purposely, but out of necessity and understanding of the business, I became the group's de-facto manager, booking agent outside of North America, and all the videos and stuff. But there was still that passion in me to push forward and make this record. I'm looking at [Evidence] and what [Mr.] Slow Flow is doing; I'm watching Babu, and he's working with some of our favorite artists and he's on tour. Me, I didn't have that lane. I didn't create that lane for myself like they did. I think what was happening was I was really watching it, really checking it out, and really getting hype about it on a daily basis, I just really didn't have anything to say.
I don't want to grab the microphone and start talking because I know how to rhyme words at the ends of sentences. What had happened was, I had felt like the things I wanted to say, I had already said. People were catching up, coming up to five years later, six months later, two weeks later and say, "Oh, that's what that's about." You can only get the punchline if you have the context of what the components are. If I drop a line that people don't have any context for, okay, that rhymed, but what does that mean?
For me, I had to figure out a couple things. I really wanted to have something particular to say. But I also wanted to have the ability to condense what I had to say into metaphoric nuggets. So I'd drop little gems and jewels and things. If I can take a whole song of something that I can drop into one line in another song, then it's gratuitous and maybe redundant. With everything going on - family issues, personal issues, world [issues], economy [issues], the things that were always on the forefront of my mind just didn't jive with what I wanted this album to be. I think that I felt like I needed to get to the other end of whatever that transition was. Once I did, once I recorded a couple songs, I felt like it just opened up and allowed it. That was it, man. I was never in any hurry. I was never trying to catch a phase, trying to catch a generation or an era or anything like that.
DX: It's crazy too, 'cause this like KRS-One's Sneak Attack. From the time this was announced till it hits shelves is not long at all. Two months, maybe? To go off of what you said, I listen to a song like "The Observatory," this sounds like songwriting that took time, and does not waste words. Plus, you brought Mad Lion back!
Rakaa: [Laughs] That's interesting. I grew up in L.A., and Mad Lion [moved] out to L.A. at a certain point. He was around, and we were in the same circles. I'd never say we were tight or linked on any level. He was just somebody [whose music I liked]. I hadn't seen him in a few years, but I knew he was somebody who was heavily involved in how-shall-we-say California progressive medicinal movements. He got in that early, and he's a major player. I think he had been doing some stuff [musically], but I think his main focus was on this endeavor. If you see him and the situation, you'd see it's working very well for him.
Fast forward to I was mixing "The Observatory." I did the chorus myself. I'm in the studio with my man Sea-Sick, who mixed a couple of the joints down. [He's] like, "Mad Lion's on the phone." [Apparently, Mad Lion was talking about his desire to get back into music]. I'm like, "We gotta do something down the line. Stay in touch." He's like, "No. No. No. I want to be on this album right now. That song right there... [He could hear it in the background]...Send me that joint right now." I'm like, "I'm mixing it down right now." He's across town. He literally took the files, did the intro, the outro, and sent it back to me the next morning. We sent it to Sea-Sick, and he mixed it down. That was that. It was something that caught me by surprise. The crazy thing about it is, originally, with my timetable being what it was...I'm down with Capleton and the whole David House crew. I have some family in Jamaica. I was in the studio, thinking, "If I had the time, I'd [love a Dancehall artist on here]." I had just been bumping [Mad Lion's] "Take It Easy" like two days before. For a quick second, Mad Lion's [name] flashed in my mind, [especially] 'cause I had [KRS-One] on the record. It's just crazy that it came it out that way.
DX: You have a line, on "Crown of Thorns," "We could have done more, probably / But we did what we did properly." I'm curious to know, is that line, that statement about a personal relationship, or is that about Dilated?
Rakaa: That whole song is kind of, to a certain extent is about the group. But the group kind of becomes a metaphor for family and everything else. To a certain extent, yeah. You look back in life, and we've been in this game a long time, and you ask, did we do everything we could have done? Nah. I don't think so. I'm a work-horse, so I always think we could have done more. As individuals, did I do everything I could have done? Did Babu push the line as a deejay and a producer? Did Ev as an emcee and producer? Did I push the line as a host, a manager, a booking agent, as an emcee, as a graphic designer? Nah. I think we did do what we did at the highest level it needed to be done. Looking back on it, no matter how people respect our work ethic, I always feel like we could have done more.
DX: Along those lines, my colleagues and I were recently talking about the late '90s, when you guys, Jurassic 5 and Planet Asia. You guys are married together in history for the simple fact of what you collectively did for the L.A. underground in getting major label record deals. All three groups and entities seem in good places now, making dope music. But how do you look back at 10, 12 years ago at that movement? When you see those guys today, is there a look in the eye or in the handshake in knowing what you accomplished, even if in a could-have-been way?
Rakaa: [The first] Word of Mouth [Tour] was incredible. Word of Mouth 2 was amazing! Again, where was Word of Mouth World, or Word of Mouth 3 or any follow-up. So that's what I'm saying: we did Word of Mouth 1 and 2 "properly," but we could have done more "probably." When you listen to everything, I really feel like a lot of stuff has caught up. I don't see everybody. Chali 2na and I hang out more than probably anybody else. I see him on a social level, we hang out and chill. When I do bump into Akil...I just saw [DJ] Nu-Mark the other day at the studio with Babu. It's like seeing like somebody you were [in] a war [fighting alongside] a long time ago. You know. There is that. The same with [Planet] Asia. We didn't necessarily tour together a lot during that time, but we fought the same fight. We were on the same line, protecting each other's interests, directly or indirectly. Honestly, that was the last era where the streets were really dictating what the movement was gonna be. To be honest, in the south, there's a lot of that. After us, it got into that whole things where the record labels said, "We know what's hot. How about we sign these guys and turn them into stars." That era you speak of was very important. We brought a lot of people into the game, and we built a lot of bridges. That whole time was great. I have a lot of love and fond memories for that era. Chali 2na's on this record. His record just came out on Decon [Records], he's doing another one. I just got back from Fresno from doing a show with Planet Asia a week ago. We bump into each other all the time, that's family. Peace to the whole Gold Chain Military movement. We're all still cool. We know what we come from and what we're up against.
DX: After the success of The Platform, Capitol Records seemed to believe in you guys with Expansion Team. It felt like you guys had a bigger budget, and could really live out the fantasy. That said, a bit of that album was recorded in New York's D&D Studios, and you had DJ Premier produce "Clockwork." What did that all mean to you guys, in that moment?
Rakaa: [Laughs] D&D [Studios] was like our east coast base. We were from L.A., obviously, ABB Records was our indie label that we were rollin' with at that time, heavy. It's based in the Bay. Working on The Platform, working on Expansion Team, just working, period, down that line, D&D was second home. We'd order soul fixin's, and go to the bodega. Honestly, I'd have spent a lot more time there had I known Renzo Gracie's Jiu-Jitsu school was right across the street. [DJ Premier], that's basically his office. [He owns it now] as HeadQcourterz [Studios], but at that time, Studio B was Premo's exclusive domain. Nobody goes in there without Premo's consent - I don't care if he goes on tour for two years, you don't go in that studio. We got kind of welcomed to that scene. D&D showed love to Dilated off-top. Obviously, we spent time and money in there, but more importantly than that, I'm from Rocksteady Crew and the [Universal] Zulu Nation, so I had a lot of east coast family, east coast love anyway. It was a comfortable fit for us when we were on the east coast - they had [Philly] Blunts in the vending machine and a pool-table. [Laughs]
Preme, that's big brother right there. He has more youthful energy than people younger than him, and more more maturity and perspective and ability to hold that down than people older than him. He's one of those people that can link with anybody, as he's also one of the realest people you'll ever meet. I love Preme for that. He's shown Dilated nothing but love from the very beginning, and kind of went out of his way at times to push us [at shows and on radio]. He has a play-list, there's a million people sending him tracks, and he can only play 20 or 30 people. We've found our way onto that elite list many times. Preme, Biggest Gord and everybody over there, the whole Year Round [Records] movement definitely helped Dilated get where they are today.
As far as Guru, rest in peace. That's a heavy situation, man. Obviously, Dilated, from how a group was set up, wasn't necessarily patterned after Gang Starr, but a lot of our sound, and how we approach music...Gang Starr is definitely one of the architect groups of our style. Even though we don't sound like Guru necessarily, to be able to hear that clarity and deliver every word was something we could appreciate. A lot of what you hear on [Crown of Thorns] has to do with not being afraid to expand and do new things, like he would do on his Jazzmatazz. We toured with Gang Starr [and] Rage Against The Machine. We chilled with them every night. We chilled with them [a lot] at D&D Studios. We did [a lot] of spot-dates together, Dilated and Gang Starr. I don't really deal with [Solar] that much, but when Guru went on to do the [Street Scriptures 7.0] project and all that stuff, we even did some shows with him on that, as Guru, solo - with homeboy.
Guru was fly. He'd pull up in the [Mercedes] Benz, cell-phone out, fly sweatsuit [maybe with a beautiful woman]. He wasn't an old dude. He was too young! It was something that caught everybody by surprise. Most importantly, there was so much drama and nonsense surrounding it that the truth was convoluted - the truth which was harsh and already hard enough to deal with. It was convoluted by this nonsense that continues to surround the situation. My memories of Guru are rockin' stages, him havin' a twinkle in his eye when a fly lady walked by, and them havin' one back maybe. Him havin' a lil' somethin' to sip on, and somethin' to burn, and just being a cool, super-fun cat that could switch super-fast to super-serious if you wanted to build. He was never too drunk to build. That's Guru to me. That's our big brother. All that other shit... he will never be replaced. I just reached out to 'Preme, "All that extra drama aside, y'all know what you did. Y'all know what you guys were to each other. All that extra shit, nobody knows. My condolences to you, and please send my condolences to Guru's family." Everything else will be dealt with by karma.
DX: Right now Ice Cube and MC Eiht have really let the younger guys know that they can have the torch when they've earned it. That's fine. Here, on the emcee level, I felt that it was also going on too, but never said. In a lot of ways, Evidence did it on his Layover album, putting Fashawn and Blu on it. You're doing that too, on Crown of Thorns. Did it take a while for you guys, as pioneers, to share the mic?
Rakaa: As far as the scene, in general, Dilated comes from that bridge era - that transitional era. When we started, there was still the misconception that if you didn't have a record deal, you weren't worthy of having a record deal. Now, people are more confused - like why would you sign a record deal if you didn't need to? Things have definitely changed. We come from pre-Internet, pre-Pro-Tools, pre-blogs. Access was extremely limited, so you had to earn your way through - either play the [battle] game and defeat somebody, be slick, [or] be lucky. Everything now has changed now, to where [if] nobody wants to hear your record, put it out and spend all day posting it to blogs. Maybe someone'll hear it. You can basically eliminate any type of filter in your life. "I'm gonna do it anyway." That's a two-edged sword. It [raises the question], "Who is the gate-keeper?"
It should be in the hands of the artist. When several artists and the scene says, "This person's dope, and they should be on," [then it's time]. A person like Fashawn, to speak on him specifically, before Ev [told me], I had never heard of Fashawn. Ev was like, "I'm working with this dude Fashawn," [and] I'm thinking of Al Tariq [f/k/a] Fashion from The Beatnuts. No disrespect to either of 'em, 'cause I was like, "Dope! I ain't heard from Al Tariq in a minute!"
Ev's not gonna just put anybody on a record - [especially] when we haven't really put too many people on. It had to be somebody who was ready on the mic. So I check out the work [Fashawn] does with Ev, it's dope. I check him out live, he's dope. I put him on tour with Ev. Ev has the [Layover Tour] coming up, and Ev says, "I want to bring Fashawn out," alright, cool. I'm sending out pictures, flyers and EPKs all over Europe. I'm thinking, "This is the perfect hand-off. Just look for your blockers, and don't fumble." [Laughs] "You will run this in!" He took that tour and smashed it! I got a call every night from promoters [asking], "Who is this kid?"
He's a young dude. He's very respectful, humble and at the same time, confident. That's what I like in a young [emcee]. I don't want a cocky and arrogant guy who hasn't done shit. At the same time, don't be scared of me just because I have done shit. [Laughs] He had that [balance]. At the time, I think he was 19, from Fresno? This dude needs to be heard by the world. When I was doing "Aces High" , I definitely wanted to show that lineage - without being [heavy-handed]. We consider him family.
If someone's gonna take the mic, you want them to be as good or better than you. It should always progress. Parents want their kids to be [more successful] than them. You want the best for the next generation. I think he's one of the people. There's a quite a few, but he's one that can stand on stage alone and rock a crowd like a long-term veteran.
DX: One of my favorite singles of all time is "Rework The Angles," and shot out to Sway & Tech - and DJ Revolution for putting it on This Or That so people like me could hear it. However, I put it to you - what's your proudest verse?
Rakaa: That's actually a really good question. That's pretty crazy, man! As far as stuff that's been heard before, I would say probably my verse from "Reach Us" [from Neighborhood Watch]. I like that a lot. Also, "The Eyes Have It," I say, "I've been a security guard at Guitar Center / A food service worker / And a tele-marketer ..." [from 20/20]
Rakaa: It's such a cerebral, glidy song. In our concerts, it almost acts like an interlude. We're rockin' it, but it's more of a movement, a wave. Our shows, a lot of times, get very high energy. That's very [mellow]. It gives things a chance to reset. That verse was one of the first times I was really I let people in. [I] put up walls. Ev told me that I paint things for people to see, but I'm not actually talking from [experience]. I realized, at that point, that I was very protective of myself. I started consciously sprinkling family stuff, etc. After that song, it made me want to do more, say more and tell my story.