Underground Report: El Da Sensei & Q-Unique
DX's Underground Reports crosses the "wrong side of da tracks" to kick it with The Artifacts' El Da Sensei and The Arsonists' Q-Unique about their new projects.
Although it started as a dance-friendly permutation of Jamaican reggae sound systems, Hip Hop has since exploded into a massive global culture. While many underground emcees can attest to the fervor with which European audiences receive their music, few experience it like Artifacts alum El Da Sensei. Back in 2008, the Brick City rapper collaborated with Polish production duo the Returners on an 11-track album titled Global Takeover: The Beginning. The album was a head-turning throwback to the golden era of Hip Hop when dusty funk and R&B samples were the norm and the emcee would get the PM Dawn treatment if he wasn't up to snuff with his bars.
Picking up right where they left off, El and the Returners are back Global Takeover 2: Nu World, courtesy of Coalmine/Asfalt Records. Boasting features from Sean Price, Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples, Bekay and many more, Da Sensei talks to DX about his relationship with the production duo, maintaining lyrical consistency and working with fellow Jersey emcee Treach of Naughty by Nature.
HipHopDX: Global Takeover 2: Nu World is second full LP you’ve done with The Returners handling production. What made you want to get back with them so soon after the first Global Takeover?
El Da Sensei: We had planned on doing another one, but the first [project Global Takeover] was pretty much an introduction and it was our first time working together, so the chemistry wasn’t all the way there. I was on tour with them a lot in the past three years, so once I started hearing the beats that they were coming with…I was like, “Well, this is pretty much what we’ve been talking about [for this next project],” as far as finding our sound [together] and getting cats that we know would complement what we were trying to do.
DX: You’ve worked almost exclusively with one or two producers on each of your albums, whether it’s with Buckwild on Artifacts’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place or Illmind on your solo LP The Unusual. Do you prefer working that way?
El Da Sensei: Anybody that I hear, I don’t care if it’s a new producer or if it’s Shawn J. Period on [1997’s That's Them] and now today, as long as it sounds hot, I’m fuckin’ with it…I just feel like if [a producer is] new, I won’t say it’s more hunger that you’d hear in the music, but it’s pretty much…if the sound is there, whoever it is that’s [making] it, I’m working with him, so there’s really no discrimination…I just feel that with new cats, that’s what’s keeps it current…because everybody’s trying to follow what’s new. I have to be in the loop to know who’s a new producer who’s hot and if I can get a chance to work with him, then I’m doing it. That’s kind of [how it is] with The Returners; they’re like my little army on the other side of the globe where I feel as though they can compete with cats from [the United States].
DX: Definitely, and The Returners are bringing a really classic, hardbody style of beats. As someone who’s had his hand in all four elements of Hip Hop and produced such dope music as yourself for so long, what was it like to work with to a production duo so geographically removed from the origins of Hip Hop?
El Da Sensei: I want to say it didn’t surprise me [when I first heard them], but [it did]…when I first met them, they were like 18, 19 years old…and for them to be students of Hip Hop [with] one guy being a deejay [DJ Chwial] and one being a producer [Little]…these dudes [were] babies when we [rappers from the ‘90s] were putting these records out…I just think that in Europe, they study what more we did more in the ’90s than what we do now as far as the 2000s…for me, it’s really a plus to be working with them because they pulled this shit out of me, too…[they] dug for all these records in their home [in Poland]…that’s the one thing that’s cool about working with them. They kind of have their own sound. All my friends say the same thing [in listening to them]: “Yo, these dudes are not from Poland”…it just shows you that they paid attention to [Hip Hop] a little bit closer than you think they do.
DX: I had heard that they had sampled strictly Polish records for this album. Was that an intentional decision on your parts, and if so, why go with that as a sonic theme?
El Da Sensei: [Their sample choices] came from a conversation about trying to have an original sound…I don’t care where you’re from, when you’re digging for records, you’re going to come across the same shit that everybody else has…I don’t care if you’re Pete Rock or [DJ Premier], you’re trying to find the record that the other person doesn’t have…it’s the same thing when you’re listening to Polish music. I had to sit back and listen to the shit that they listen to, and I was saying that it sounded like home, but they were singing in Polish [laughs]. They’ve got Polish funk, Polish R&B…it’s funny that in the '70s and '80s, all these Polish [musicians] had their own brand of what I would be American music…so when I’m listening to the breaks, I’m like, “Damn, this is something that would be [from] home.”
DX: On the other side of the album, you pick up exactly where the first Global Takeover left off with respect to your lyrics. What was the process like for you to maintain that kind of lyrical consistency?
El Da Sensei: Well, it’s pretty much who I am and…my style. I don’t want to sound like anybody else, and that’s pretty much what we wanted to do anyway. As far as me [as a lyricist], [Chwial and Little] know that I’m going to come with battle rhymes…the majority of the lyrics are not going to be something that are going to bore you. It’s not going to be something where you’ve got to feel like you’re getting talked to or that I’m preaching. [My lyrics] or going to be about Hip Hop and pretty much what I know and what I’ve learned in doing this [as a career]. I wanted to give them the hardest records that I could give them, even for somebody like me. Where I come from, it’s not so much…”thug” hard, but hard [as in] hard rhymes [and] hard delivery…I think when I listen to the message that we brought in the first [Global Takeover], this [new album] is more [us] paying attention to what we’re trying to do…we got a little bit deeper…[and] more adult when it came to songs like “Good Time”…we felt like we had to step it up.
DX: Absolutely, and one of the songs on the project that really jumps out to me with that in mind is “Goin’ to War” featuring Treach [from Naughty by Nature]. Everybody loves New York Hip Hop, but I’ve always been a fan of New Jersey’s Hip Hop scene, whether it’s Naughty, or Redman or Lord of the Underground or Artifacts. Was recoding that track extra special for you, seeing as both you and Treach come from New Jersey?
El Da Sensei: Hell yeah, man. I sent [Treach] a [text] message [about the song] from Poland and he answered me right back like, “Yeah man, let’s do it.” It was funny, [because] I knew he was on the road, they were going to Iraq and everything…I had nothing but patience for him…I guess a month or two later, he hit me up like, “Yo, I’m in the studio, come through”…My verse is already done, and I get there and I’m coming up the stairs to the studio, and I just see him sitting there…with the pad in his hand, and the beat’s playing loud as hell. They’re all looking at me, shaking their heads like, “Yo, this is the beat?”…[Treach] did [his verse] right there in my face. That moment in time was no different when a song with Sadat X, no different than when I did “Frontlines” with Organized Konfusion. These people are my peers, and to know where [Treach] comes from…I remember when I used to come home from work and I saw [Naughty by Nature’s] “O.P.P.” on TV every five minutes. I remember where they come from, and I feel proud, that when [The Artifacts] came out with “Wrong Side [of the Tracks],” to be amongst the dudes from [New] Jersey. We all knew each other…and when [Tame One and I] made that record and they showed us love, it was like we joined the club. For me now, to get to do a song with [Treach]…it was a treat and a notch the belt to say how many cats get to do a song with dude knowing that he’s…a Grammy Award-winning, platinum Jersey [artist]?
Man in the Box
Although few would argue in favor of the artistic merit of Limp Bizkit, rock and rap are two musical genres that are inexorably linked in their histories. From artists like Cypress Hill and Public Enemy sampling Black Sabbath and Slayer, respectively, to even Hip Hop's early days interacting with New York's art-punk scene at the Roxy in the '80s, Hip Hop heads have always been down throw up the devil horns. Few artists embody this musical relationship like Arsonists/Non-Phixion emcee Q-Unique. Over the years, the Brooklyn native and Rock Steady Crew member has worked extensively with fellow metal enthusiasts Ill Bill and Necro, and even formed a band called Stillwell with Korn bassist Fieldy.
Although his latest Fat Beats release Between Heaven and Hell isn't overtly metal in sound, Q-Unique told DX that grunge acts like Alice in Chains and Nirvana were key sources of inspiration for this album. He explains that these artists pushed him to find express the grittier side of life and maintain a rock-influence in his production.
HipHopDX: Between Heaven and Hell is really dark, and in terms of lyrics and production, it didn’t bullshit or pussyfoot around anything. Was there something specific that inspired that?
Q-Unique: [The album] is based on who I am as a person, number one, and it’s also based on some of my musical influences. This is going to sound funny, but for a long time in my life I’ve been a big Grunge Rock fan, like Alice in Chains and Nirvana. A lot of those bands, what they do is, lyrically, they just speak this dark reality about life and about their situations. I’ve always been to that sound and to those types of lyrics and that type of aggression. It’s just what I come from, and also I feel like I’m one of those people that just serves as a balance. There’s a lot going on in commercial Hip Hop and it’s almost like – and again, I use rock [as] a comparison – it’s like…Glam Rock versus Grunge Rock. I remember when there was Poison and they were teasing their hair, and Kurt Cobain came in with his greasy hair and simple three chords. It was totally opposite [of glam rock]. There were a lot of people who enjoyed that realism. It was created, it wasn’t glossed; it was just give-it-to-you how it was, straight and with raw emotion, and that’s the kind of artist that I am.
DX: Absolutely. One of the things that comes through with this is how detailed and gritty your storytelling abilities are, and I really see this happen of the song “Crack Era”. The song sounds so real and so in depth that I was wondering, was it inspired by a specific experience or just from your daily observations?
Q-Unique: I feel like, again, I think were in a place right now in music where people are trying to find where the reality is…people are looking for what’s real. There’s nothing real anymore…“Crack Era” is a straight-up rundown of my personal life. That’s real, man. I’m leaving myself vulnerable to give you a piece of who I am, and hopefully, it resonates with you in a way that it touches your soul and it makes you feel, “At least this guy’s telling the truth. At least this guy’s real,” because a lot of us, especially in Hip Hop, we don’t know who [or what] to believe…some of use don’t even care what we believe, we just listen like robots. For me, I’m going back to a place where you’ve got to kind of speak the truth in what you’re saying. That’s the [era] of Hip Hop that I came from; if you weren’t telling the truth, you got punched in the face. I resonate with that, and with my first album [2004’s Vengeance is Mine] I did kind of the same thing, although there were certain songs…where I went over the edge…[but] I saw that the fan base was really into those [very real and personal songs], so I was like, “Let me gravitate more towards those…and let me get out of the whole saying this wild shit,” because after a while, how many more times am I going to tell you how crazy I am or how ill I am or how great I am? I’m just not there anymore.
DX: That really shows, because at the very beginning of the album on “Listening Problem,” you touch on your brother’s passing. First off, condolences, I can’t imagine how hard it is to lose a family member like that, but for you, and feel free to answer as little or as much or not at all if it’s too hard, did that tragedy impact the sound of the album?
Q-Unique: I mean, [his death] was a huge impact. He was my younger brother…we were close, and of course it had a huge impact because you go through all of these different emotions, from being very angry [to] being very sad [to] being drained emotionally, with maybe little doses of happiness because you reminisce on moments and things and you laugh about certain situations. But it definitely had a little effect on where I as going [with the LP], but I also had, outside of him passing [and] just looking at the whole music industry, [a desire] to not want to be angry to a point where I just shut up, but [to take] my emotions and just doing what I do [with music] but to an extreme…instead of saying, “Look at the state of Hip Hop, it sucks!” That’s a waste of time, who the Hell wants to listen to somebody complain about Hip Hop? So I feel like, I’m just going to be me, I’m just going to be real and if the hardships of my life [are] where it’s at, like Alice in Chains, like Nirvana, and that’s where I’m at, then that’s where I’m going to go.
DX: In the same vein of keeping it real, another song on the album that really resonates with that is “BK, BX, BK.” What tripped me out about that song is how you say you got this education in Hip Hop by being from Brooklyn, which produced some of the best rappers ever, and being raised in the Bronx, which is the birthplace of Hip Hop. In that respect, how did coming up in those two boroughs affect your perspective as an artist?
Q-Unique: Just being in the Bronx at the time I was in the Bronx was godly because I got to see Hip Hop when it was a little baby, when the Sugar Hill Records started going out there and Run-DMC were just on the come up, and graffiti was on the trains, and some of the Rock Steady Crew members used to come through my block…for me just to be there and witness all of it, it was crazy. You couldn’t ask for a better situation for a person that would be involved in Hip Hop…I was just this kid absorbing all of this. When I went back to Brooklyn, that’s more when I got into…taking my lyrics seriously, and then that’s when the whole Arsonists thing unfolded.
DX: I’ve heard you say this in other interviews that you feel like you have two sides to yourself, and that makes sense since that you’re a member of the Rock Steady Crew and schooled in the arts of Hip Hop, but there’s part of you who has a love of Grunge and Rock music. In that respect, where do you see these two sides come together on this album?
Q-Unique: I think working with Fieldy [of Korn] in our band Stillwell has helped me really take a different turn with this album where it was more thought out when it came to writing hooks. I tried to simplify them a lot more than I usually would. If you look at a lot of the hooks from back in the day, they’re a lot more wordy…[also,] if you hear some of the songs with the change-ups [like “Mr. Lopez”]…that’s rock. Rock has those kinds of change-ups. Hip Hop is a very redundant machine and rock…has breakdowns and solos and different parts to a song. I tried to do that with a couple of the songs, but “Mr. Lopez” would be that one song…where I brought the two mentalities together. I kept my album Hip Hop because I always feel like there’s that fine line of…Rap-Rock or whatever…but the mentality of creating certain songs was in more of a rock mentality.
It’s gotten to a point [with Rap-Rock] where it’s more of a mentality than trying to be obvious with it. With [Stillwell], I’m not really rapping like that…I went to singing classes and I did all of that. Plus, my parents were musicians, so I already knew what I was doing…I think it’s more bringing a mentality and fusing it that way [so that] people can kind of sit back and pick it apart that way and be like, “Oh, I hear some Hip Hop influence in there, it’s not direct, but I get it.” It’s the same way you’re telling me that [you] kind of hear in [my album] that there is rock influence, and yeah, you’re right, “Mr. Lopez” has that, even though it doesn’t sound like rock, it has that rock mentality of change-ups…it’s just more finding an angle and fusing [those] mentalities.
DX: Another thing that I noticed about the album is how your production has really seemed to progress even further than what it was on Vengeance is Mine, which is saying a lot since you were already a dope producer back then. What did you do differently for this album?
Q-Unique: It was definitely a couple of things [that I did differently]…now I’m thinking about it, it wasn’t only the metal change-ups [that I did different]. I don’t know how well I used the influence, but I was thinking back to Hank Shocklee [of the Bomb Squad] with Public Enemy and how crazy all the sounds he put together meshed, but it just sounded so incredible to me…I miss that when Public Enemy used to make those kind of records with all of this sound but it was still all one piece. It goes back to “Mr. Lopez” again [as to] why I put so many damn sounds and different things going on because of those [type of records], which metal people gravititaed towards. It’s like a cycle; Public Enemy was one of those groups that the Rock world was in love with.
Another thing [I did different] was vocally…I kind of calmed down my tone [on some of the songs]. I noticed that on earlier recordings, it sounded kind of like I was yelling a lot of the time. I remember I was chilling with this dude that worked for a radio station and he was somebody that I knew for a while, and he was like “If you wouldn’t yell on everything all the time, it’d be kind of cool because you’d get that difference,” and his advice stuck with me. If you notice, I’m not yelling on everything this time around. Personally, I don’t I needed to yell to get my point across…so those two major changes helped [make] the difference with [Between Heaven and Hell].