Back with a Vengeance
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, underground Hip Hop music reached new creative and sonic heights. Collections like Rawkus' Soundbombing series typified New York's burgeoning independent scene, while in later years, collectives like the Army of the Pharaohs and the Weathermen took the underground by storm. And during that era of Hip Hop, few other artists repped Boston's budding scene better than 7L & Esoteric.
Now, after four years of solo and side projects (which included work with the aforementioned AOTP), the Beantown duo has returned with their fifth album 1212, courtesy of Fly Casual Creative. Yet in the short time between their 2006 release A New Dope and now, the face of Hip Hop has changed dramatically with the Internet's ever-expanding influence. 7L & Esoteric talk with HipHopDX's Underground Report about how they've grown as artists since their 2001 debut The Soul Purpose, but also how their love of old school Hip Hop still continually informs their music today.
HipHopDX: 1212 is your first album as a duo since 2006's A New Dope. What was your goal in terms of sound and the overall direction that you guys with this being your first album as a group in four years?
Esoteric: I think we were kind of just taking the direction we always set out to take, but just keeping a really natural flow and not putting too much thought behind it where it’s we’re trying to diffuse a bomb or something like that. We’re just making a Rap record and I think a lot of the people we were influenced by set up and made Rap records that way. Sometimes a little bit too much calculation and premeditation goes into making a lot of the newer Hip Hop releases and I think this joint [1212 isn’t that]. [7L] hit me with some beats, I made a few beats and I just laid down whatever came to mind. It was a natural progression for us.
DX: One of the things that really jumped out to me on this album is that songs like "Bare Knuckle Boxing" and "12th Chamber" almost feel like a throwback to your older albums. At the same time, however, you guys have definitely taken a step forward in terms of working with new production styles and song concepts. What was your mind frame with regards to approaching the various aspects of song writing for this album?
7L: I think that one thing over the years that we’ve always been known for was…just having our kind of sound: quality beats and lyrics. I think with this [album], as far as us collaborating…on beats or whatever…I think that was definitely coming into this record and on [2006’s] A New Dope…with this [album], it was kind of an extension on that, where as on A New Dope, I think we were experimenting with new sounds. I think we kind of brought it back to what we’re known for [on 1212], as far as dope beats [with] a more Hip Hop base…[the collaboration] came out more natural. Like [Esoteric] said, we weren’t forcing anything, so I think the process was more just going with the flow. What he’s been working and what I’ve been working on…and putting those sounds together was the way it came out.
DX: 1212 also features one of the first songs where I’ve heard you guys reach across the country for features with the guest verses from the Alchemist and Evidence on "Drawbar 1-2." As a fan of both the late '90s underground Hip Hop from both coasts, what was it like to work with them, despite the 3,000 mile difference?
Esoteric: It was an honor to work with them; we have a tremendous amount for both of those guys. We feel that we’re like-minded artists despite the 3,000 miles separation between Boston and L.A. We’ve listened to their records…they’ve listened to ours. We all came up on Gang Starr, we all came up on EPMD, and we know that those guys are making serious moves. I was talking to Evidence and it was supposed to be a joint with just me and him rhyming…I didn’t even consider Alchemist rhyming, but he had told me that Alchemist had engineered the session that he had recorded his vocals for or whatever and that he was really feeling the beat…[which] is the ultimate compliment. I told 7L and he said, "Yo, he should get a rhyme on it"…[Alchemist] actually did the ad-libs on my verse, so it would kind of make sense…that was an honor that he said the beat was crazy. He’s [one of] me and L’s top five producers.
DX: The album is very lyrically focused, particularly on the more concept-driven tracks like "I Hate Flying." I don't know if this was at all an effect of the direction you took on Saving Seamus Ryan, but Esoteric, how did you condition yourself for this more thematic style of rapping?
Esoteric: When me and 7L first started out, I was freestyling on a radio that I had, and that was what I was kind of into – freestyling, battle rapping, talking about how dope I am. [The emcee] that 7L was working with at the time was into the same thing. We always kind of vibed off of each other in that sense, who’s got the dopest Polo shit on and just bagging on each other. That was the kind of Hip Hop that we gravitated towards and made and concentrated on for the first half of our career. As we got a little older, I started thinking about challenging myself writing and trying different things, touching on different concepts that people probably wouldn’t expect me to [concentrate on]. ["I Hate Flying"] was one of the ideas that I had because everything about that song is legit. I’m terrified [of flying]. I fly a lot, and when you do things a lot, you’re supposed to get used to it. I just can’t get used to the idea, so every time I fly, it’s a white-knuckle affair, and I figured since 7L has this beat and I though it fit the vibe of it. When you’re boarding certain airlines, you hear soothing music, so I just kind of wrote to that beat and I really wanted to nail home the concept.
DX: Definitely, On the production side of 1212, you guys seem to kind of blend the funkier, more synth-based sounds that from A New Dope and the classic sample-driven elements of The Soul Purpose. How did you go about fusing your individual production styles together for this LP?
Esoteric: I just started looking at it more as less as a mechanical, deliberate thing. I look at it more as art, putting it out there for people to interpret. We know that we’ve paid our dues. We’ve been doing our thing since the mid-‘90s, and we are definitely historians and know the ledge as far as Hip Hop goes, so nobody can take that away from us. In terms of branching out a little bit…if it sounds dope to our ears, then that’s just how it is…we have no hesitation with that. When we took it to one extreme with A New Dope, and maybe another extreme with The Soul Purpose, and maybe met somewhere in the middle…with 1212, it just kind of came together with the progression and evolution of us as people. [7L] and myself both get bored with a lot of Hip Hop these days, so some outside influences can trickle in because everything is so cookie-cutter today.
7L: I think with this [record], when we started working on the material together, it was coming out a certain way. It wasn’t like a planned thing, ‘Well this has to have this element, and maybe you come in and add this.’ It was just kind of like what we were working on musically, what was coming naturally to us. If it does sound a certain way and it does feel like it sounds like it’s combining certain things, I think it’s just more like Esoteric said, that it’s those things that we were gravitating towards and those are the things that we were working on at the time. It wasn’t a planned thing, like "Oh, the last records was A New Dope or that people really like The Soul Purpose." It really was just the material we were working on.
DX: For this last question, I wanted to take it back to 2003 with 7L's We Drink Old Gold mix with Tall Matt. The tape was a fantastic blend of mid-'80s boom-bap Rap, and it's not too surprising since everything from the real crisp drums to the sampling style really hearkens to that era of music. How do you think this era of music affected the way you approach music?
7L: We came up on a lot of that…mid-‘80s, early ‘80s...along with Run-DMC and Whodini, there were a lot of artists out there who were on a much lower scale level as far as like exposure, and we were influenced by all of that. I think back then, Hip Hop was much less commercialized. It was at its] rawest form of the music…that influenced us a lot as far as we went about making records, because growing up, we studied those records and that’s kind of how we learned to make it. We just figured it out on our own. It’s not like today, where on the Internet, a lot of things are readily available for you, information-wise or whatever it’s going to be. If you want to find something out, you just go online…but back then, it was buying records and finding out who produced what, and then finding that producer on another record, jus kind of like…learning it yourself and making it your own way as far as figuring out how to make the beats and the music and all that. It definitely influenced us a lot, and I think it comes through in the music a lot.
Esoteric: I completely agree with what he’s saying. Hip Hop originated in things that aren’t necessarily Hip Hop and turning them into something Hip Hop can relate to. Back then, you weren’t going to have the most serene, clean sound; you were going to have something rough and rugged. At that’s just [like] the Bomb Squad when they were making beats for Public Enemy. It was just like chaotic sounds because you’re blending so many different sounds from so many different worlds together. That’s just kind of how we were drawn to music, just taking something that isn’t Hip Hop, making it Hip Hop and through that lays the creative side of things. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about bringing the creativity back to Hip Hop; don’t keep making the same bullshit beat on your keyboard. Let’s do something that sounds off the beaten path and scare people.
Gas Mask Music
As the American auto industry continues to plummet into economic oblivion, it's ironic to witness the incredible amount of new Hip Hop talent that has come out of the squalor of Detroit. From Eminem to Guilty Simpson to Black Milk, Detroit has quickly become a veritable Mecca for soul sample-heavy, street-approved Hip Hop. Yet while Em, Guilt and Milk all enjoyed critically acclaimed album releases this year, perhaps the most exciting newcomers coming out of the D is the Left - a trio consisting of emcee Journalist103, producer Apollo Brown and DJ Soko.
DX caught up with the three artists to discuss their stunning and atmospheric debut Gas Mask. Like 7L and Esoteric, the Left are tired of the homogeneous nature of modern Hip Hop music and want to bring back the golden era flavor on which they were raised. They hope their blend of armed with minimalist drums, crackling samples and street-wise rhymes will provide a new perspective on a musical genre that has become hampered by the lack of individuality.
HipHopDX: All three of you are fairly established in the underground music scene. How did you guys come together to form the Left?
Apollo Brown: To keep a long story short…me and Journalist met maybe a couple of years back now. We met through the emcee Finale out of Detroit. We were introduced…and it was nothing right off the bat. I heard dude spit, but I didn’t know anything about him really until I was listening to this mixtape…that he was on. He didn’t have a whole song on the mixtape, it was like a 16 [bar verse]. But the one 16 stood out in my head more than anybody else on the mixtape, and there were a lot of prominent emcees on this mixtape. It was like a DubMD mixtape from a couple of years ago [Hip Hop Renatus]. So I’m sitting here, listening to this verse, and I was like, "Yo, I’ve got this dude’s number in my phone…why am I not calling this dude right now?" I gave him a call…we were actually just talking about doing a couple of joints…just to kind of get familiar with each other. The few songs turned into doing the whole album.
Journalist103: It was kind of ironic. You just get a chance to see how pretty much fate, for the most part, because me and [DJ] Soko were just talking about…getting beats from Apollo Brown, and I was like, "I don’t even know if I should waste dude’s time because I ain’t got no bread, and I know he’s going to charge because these beats are retarded"…so when he called me right after me and Soko had that conversation…we hit it up, [and then] he said he wanted to do an album with me. So it turned from me wanting to get one beat to doing a whole album.
Apollo Brown: We all know that Journalist is one of the best emcees in the city [of Detroit]. He commands your attention and he commanded mine…nobody I’ve worked with so far really meshes with my style and my sound like Journalist does. We’re both on the same page when it comes to that grimy flavor, that real [early and] mid-‘90s boom-bap…hard, soulful sound. We just mesh. And Soko was already Journ’s deejay, and we definitely needed some scratches, so mixing going on. I mean, why not bring Soko into the fold?
DX: Unlike many modern Hip Hop groups, you actually have a deejay in your group as a member. How important is it for you guys to keep that aspect of Hip Hop alive?
DJ Soko: I’ve been deejaying for Journ since 2007, and they both approached me about bringing me into the fold I think about two weeks into the recording process…me personally, I think [the deejay] is vital because it really is unheard of [to have a deejay in the group]. You hear about, "Oh yeah, I use so-and-so as my tour deejay," but you rarely hear, "This is our deejay, he’s considered a part the group"…I feel like nowadays, it’s kind of changing a little bit. You’ll find that some cats will just include a deejay because for a long time, a lot a people hadn’t been including a deejay. Sometimes, it’s almost like you’d find people include the deejay almost as a novelty, not really trying to be true to the art. It’s refreshing; you don’t see it a lot, and I feel real good about the dynamic [of the producer, the deejay and an emcee. It just fits.
DX: As I was saying before, you are fairly well established artists within Detroit. Apollo, you just had your album The Reset come out earlier this year, and Journalist, you studied under the late Proof of D12 and have been a member of other groups like the Mountain Climbaz. What opportunities does working in a group like The Left afford to you that working solo doesn't?
Apollo Brown: We’re a very diverse group of people, man. When people see us walking around…they’re like, "What are these three people doing together?" because it’s a weird look. You’ve got this little Asian, and then you’ve got an Orthodox Muslim with a kufi on, a beard and his garb, and then you’ve got me…we’re three different people, we come from three different backgrounds…and types of experiences...we’ve got three different ideas when it comes to making music, and it comes together well. We have three ideas, but we also have very similar tastes and very similar values when it comes to real Hip Hop.
Journalist103: I think the idea’s the same. Like Apollo was saying, we all have different experiences, but when it comes to the overall music, like if [asked us] who are some of our favorite musicians, you’re pretty much going to come up with the same list [for all of us]…this is some bullshit that they’re out here playing on the radio. It sucks. I get in my car and I don’t turn the radio on unless I just want to see what the young folks are listening to nowadays…and there’s a song that I’ve had stuck in my head, oh my God I can’t get it out. It’s so catchy but it’s garbage. Then there’s what Gas Mask brings to the table…we rely so much on computers that actually hearing the voice of the rapper or hearing the scratches or just listening to the drums the producer came up with, we’re missing that. We’ve got too adapted to the synthesized stuff, so it’s time to put your gas masks on.
DX: Speaking of Gas Mask, the album is really a spiritual throwback to the golden era of Hip Hop. The sampling is fantastic and the drums and the rhymes are always really on-point. How do you feel you are upholding the spirit of underground Hip Hop and in light of the and other releases like Roc Marciano's Marcberg, do you feel that underground Hip hop of this caliber is coming back into the fold?
Apollo Brown: I mean, for instance, me and Journ, we’re in our thirties, so we grew up in the early ‘90s, mid-‘90s, listening to the great [Hip Hop] music ever. That was an influence right there, and in my case, I’ve always preserved it. Boom-bap has always been something that’s been partial to me. I never really got into any other type of Hip Hop; just straight boom-bap, soulful [music]. That’s another thing: nowadays, a lot of this music lacks soul, and it lacks feeling…when you listen to it, does it take you anywhere? Does it make you just sit back and think about something? Nah, a lot of music doesn’t. I try to do that with everything I do…preserv[ing] the boom-bap sound. It’s not hard at all. I think it’s coming back, I hope it’s coming back. There are a lot of producers out there that are just like me that still create that sound, but you have a lot of other producers out there that are trying to wipe it out. You never know; they always say good Hip Hop comes full circle, but is it really? I’m not sure.
DX: On top of the '90s feel, the album has some fairly politically charged content. In that respect, what does this album Gas Mask represent for you?
Journalist103: A lot of times, when people create an album, they have an agenda. The only thing that me Apollo initially came up with was conforming. We’re not trying to conform, and if you look at society and politics today, it’s normal to do what everybody else is doing. If everybody voted for [George W.] Bush, then you should vote for Bush, too. If everybody’s voting for [Barack] Obama, then you should vote for Obama, too. Why? What is the reason why? Why should I do that…this how we came up with the name the Left, because we’re not trying to do what everybody else is doing.
During the ‘60s, when the Black Panthers started getting popular, they had a lot of white people really started helping them because they looked at them as a movement. The more white people started helping them, [the white people] got their own name: the White Leftists. And now, because they weren’t doing what most would expect white people at that time to do – to hate back people or anybody that wasn’t white people, being caught up in all the bureaucracy…[people were like] ‘What? What do y’all have to complain about?’ And they were like, ‘It ain’t about what we have to complain about, it’s about the difference between right and wrong.’ They were the minority of their own people, and nowadays…if you even think something that makes half a bit of sense, you’re looked at as strange.
That’s the only thing with this album; we’re just putting it out there like, ‘Hey man, think. You ain’t got to be like everybody [else], do you?’ If this dude wants to the lean back, snap with it, whatever, okay fine. That’s what they do in the ATL; we don’t do that in Detroit. Do you; be who you are because they’ll have more respect for somebody [who’s] just being themselves [instead of] trying to be like something else…everybody’s just all one way of thinking…if everybody’s getting ready to jump in the fire, are you going to jump with them? That don’t make sense, so that’s what we’re trying to bring to the table.
DX: Definitely, and it's funny you mention that, because I feel like over the past couple of years, that's been the general mood or tone of a lot of Detroit's Hip Hop scene, from Black Milk to Royce Da 5'9" to yourselves. What is it about Detroit that makes for such good and really honest music?
Journalist103: that’s a very good question that I’m going to try my best to answer. But to be honest, man once me and Soko started working together…even though I knew a lot of Detroit rappers, because I came up under Proof and D12, and even though I know just about everybody…I never really checked for them. I could be a jerk like that sometimes. We would see each other at shows…but once I got the chance to separate myself and actually just listen to everybody’s music, I was like "Whoa! I didn’t realize that we were that dope." That blew my mind…there were always stories of how people received [Detroit rappers] overseas in Germany and London and wherever else. I was like "Yeah right," because I used to tease Proof about it, about him being better [received] than Eminem in certain places. But it’s true: they love anything that comes out of the D, and I see why.
I don’t know if it’s just because it’s probably the most dangerous city you can live in, I don’t know if it’s because of the history with Motown…I don’t know if it’s because it’s like Detroit is almost like a mixture between New York and Mississippi…I don’t know if it’s the hunger, the pain, the history…Detroit rappers, man, I’ve been listening to them and it’s like…I’ll be in a trance, like ‘Where is this coming from? How does it work?’
Apollo Brown: Detroit has a lot of character. Everywhere you go, there’s something that speaks Detroit, and everybody outside of Michigan, everybody in the U.S., everybody overseas, the only thing they’re searching for is Detroit music. All the emcees…[and] all the producers coming out of Detroit, and everybody’s just speaking through their music.