The man who gave DMX and The L.O.X. a signature sound speaks about mentoring Max B and French Montana, transitioning to rapping, and some interesting words for Diddy's Hitmen.
A fundamental part of the Ruff Ryders dynasty, Dame Grease is a producer that has never second-guessed his worth or his ability to craft music. He might say that is being super confident, but the key in ay walk of life is being super-successful and Grease is just that.
Embroiled in the music industry since 1996, Dame Grease has been able to adapt to his surroundings quite easily. From his production on the groundbreaking Def Jam debut (It's Dark and Hell Is Hot) from DMX in the late nineties to the mid 2000s when he found himself facing new challenges on his lonesome, the Albama-born musical mastermind has never doubted his moves. He doesn’t bother with tentative steps, he strides boldly with his head held high and music coursing through his veins.
Sharing memories of those early days when he joined Ruff Ryders and how he holds himself responsible for waking New York up from its new Millennium slumber, Dame Grease proves there is plenty for the taking if you are game in this exclusive interview with HipHopX.
HipHopDX: You have had a lengthy career and in the early days you came across extremely aggressive as a producer, would you say that is the same today?
Dame Grease: Both go hand-in-hand. Back then, the rappers were aggressive and so the production had to be aggressive. But now there aren’t that many aggressive rappers and that’s the reason I rap aggressive, to keep the edge on it.
DX: Obviously your early work involved DMX and Ruff Ryders, DMX being a particularly aggressive rapper, was that aggression encouraged by X or was it you trying to get ahead?
Dame Grease: A bit of both actually. It was him as a rapper and then me as a producer and just how hungry I was at that time.
DX: What encouraged the use of the EPMD sample on "Get At Me Dog" off of It's Dark And Hell Is Hot?
Dame Grease: I mean ever since I heard ["So Whatcha Sayin'" by EPMD] I knew it was a loop and when they used it, I knew the original record, which had a groove to it that was rocking already. I didn’t want to go over-produce it so I slowed the sample down and put some hard drums on it and chopped it up. I actually used the record how I would deejay, you know, bring it back.
DX: You also sampled Diana Ross on that album as well. How deep in your roots are Soul and Funk?
Dame Grease: My family is from Alabama, so a lot of Soul and church music was there. I was born in ’74 so I was hearing Disco music, the upbeat, grooving sort of sound, then you had the crack days where everything was crazy and then it was gangsta music.
DX: Do you believe that producers should be able to deejay?
Dame Grease: I don’t know. It’s kind of funny because in Hip Hop and music, you dabble in everything before you find what your niche is.
DX: How did you figure out what yours was?
DX: Have you ever felt that same chemistry with another rapper that you had with DMX?
Dame Grease: Yeah, the thing is, when I look at it, to be a good producer you have to differentiate. Not everyone is going to be DMX; you have to find out the flaws and the highlights with rappers, what the weaknesses are of different artists so you know how to roll with the music. Look at Max B, a totally different artist, but yet both passionate about what they do. The sound of their music is totally different but there is still soul and passion. My job is to give them a sound.
DX: You spend countless hours in the studio creating a rapport with the artists you work with. Is that something that is missing in music today and not just Hip Hop?
Dame Grease: To tell the truth, I won’t say it’s missing. If you don't have that chemistry you aren’t going to find anything brand new. Not to take away from hits now as there are hits on the radio and they’re selling. But to find something new with an artist, you have to sit down and learn.
Rock & Roll artists do that which is why you might find a different sounding group. You have all the players, singers, producers – they’re jamming for months and looking for it you know. Now a lot of music is custom made by the producers and then sent to the artist to fill the blanks in.
DX: Does that take away the fun for you?
Dame Grease: No, it just takes away the chance of finding that brand new super artist as no one is taking the time to bring that out of the person. But there will be another one coming soon...it’s me. [Laughs]
DX: Now you appeared to step back of the scene a few years back, the mid 2000s. Is that something you do?
Dame Grease: I try not to keep my ego in there; I like to use my brain a lot as it is the smart thing to do. You think about it, I had my first hit in '96/'97 and to still be relevant in 2011, it takes a lot not to jump in and burn yourself out in different things. The thing for me is, as a producer, knowing what my niche is. I choose to step back. The whole role back then was to put together a new sound, create a new movement, which is what I am about. It’s not just about artists; it’s about movements for me. I chose to fall back from the whole industry scene and take it back to the streets with the mixtapes, with the hottest music because I know how to make platinum music and if I see the industry is not going towards that sound, I have to go back to the root that made that sound familiar and that is how I re-invented myself. From there, that’s when I hooked up with Max B and French Montana. I did stuff with Travis Porter, I had a track on the Game [R.E.D.] album - I had to reinvent myself.
DX: Was that easy?
Dame Grease: No, and of course it was a super pay cut. [Laughs] But when you can apply what you got, you are just doing something all over again.
DX: You say it was a pay cut, but you still went ahead and did it.
Dame Grease: Yeah I still did it because I love music. I also saw the bigger picture. I lost two managers because a lot of people couldn’t see what I was seeing and I had to go for it. My thing is, I am not about Kanye West, about image. I am a humbler dude but I am super-arrogant.
DX: Really? You don’t come across as arrogant...
Dame Grease: Maybe super confident then. [Laughs]
DX: Or even subtly confident.
Dame Grease: I don’t believe in snarling at people and putting folks down. I just apply myself.
DX: Did losing managers take a toll on you personally?
Dame Grease: Actually, no. It was kind of strange. Anyone will tell you this, when you believe in something you just keep pushing for it. At the same time when I did my Goon Musik album with Babygrande [Records], when shit was dark and quiet, I was about 10 minutes away from being on that damned milk carton. [Laughs] All I had as my talent. I put out a single and keeping it 100 for HipHopDX, after doing all that music for DMX and after doing all that stuff for The L.O.X., people started thinking I was crazy when I was telling people how to make this song, so I went in and made the song I heard and that song was "Sour Diesel" , a hood classic. I had N.O.R.E. and Styles P on it. Radio and video was through the roof. I know what I know so I went in and did an entire album.
I rapped on every beat, I was like, "No one is fucking with me so I will fuck with myself," and I put that album out. Max B did a verse on Connecticut Kush. We did that song and it just shot through the roof. At the same time I was starting the next album, Goon Music 1.5, Max B and I had a talk and he said "Grease, I got you." So I gave him the ideas and concepts I had. I wasn’t looking to be a rapper, I was a producer you know, but Max would come in and say "Rap on this song." So we did that and then French came onto the scene and I started working with him on his mixtape and I started grabbing at another fanbase as an artist. I am not saying that is bigger than me being a producer – I will never leave my day-job.
DX: There are only a few producers who have been able to be successful as rappers….
Dame Grease: Yeah, and that’s the thing with me, trust me, I love lyrics, I love bars, I love working with rappers and bringing that talent out. The thing that I do, I don’t go into that lane, I respect that lane. I do the most creative stuff, like out of a movie by myself, as I’m not trying to go into the artists or rather lyricists’ lane, as it isn’t my shit. I go into the lane to make songs to make you feel good, the ambience songs. Its not about me giving you the hardest bars, I just give you groove songs.
DX: So going back to Goon Musik, did you achieve with that what you set out to do?
Dame Grease: I probably made a couple of stacks, but the thing for me with that was it was a seed, which grew into a plant and then a tree you know and that was what my managers didn’t understand. They wanted me to go in a different lane and I wasn’t prepared to do that. I knew Goon Musik was a seed, didn’t really know what it would bloom to, but I knew it was a seed. I just my all into planting it and it blossomed into a whole new readjustment to this time right now.
DX: Are you happy where you are right now?
Dame Grease: I’m happy; I’m at a beautiful cross roads. The shit I am about to put out is spectacular.
DX: Do you ever doubt your work or is that where the subtle-confidence comes into play?
Dame Grease: If there is anything I doubt, I ain’t going to do it.
DX: Is that experience?
Dame Grease: Yes, it's experience mostly and of course you have to sit down and fine tune things and know things that don’t work and what does work and know what you’re here for and if you are going to hit that target. Actually I test it on myself and see if I can hit the target in small waves. I add that up with the artists I am about to put out and try to say central. I keep testing on myself now, as I know what it is about now. The thing is, when I test these different lanes they end up making different movements and the kids that follow me get into these movements, I empower them to keep it moving. I am the moving man.
DX: It never gets stale doing different things with different people then?
Dame Grease: Like I was telling someone the other day, I work with a lot of different artists. I work hand-in-hand with French Montana, developing his sound and then I work with Jae Millz on the Young Money sound. It’s good to help them develop their own sound but then I am on the new L.O.X. album, right back where I started
DX: Going back to the early days what sort of a buzz was that for you back then?
Dame Grease: It was happening fast, that was the thing. When you have guys that do what they do naturally, you just drink a beer, smoke a blunt and go in the studio and make magic. It was a sound that shook the world. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears on X’s first album, [It's Dark And Hell Is Hot].
DX: Do you still put the same effort in today that you did when you were working back then, as obviously you become accustomed to things as you move on?
Dame Grease: Yes I do, I put the same effort into everything I do today, just like I did back then.
DX: One thing I have always wondered about was that Phil Collins sample clearance, how did you manage that?
Dame Grease: That wasn’t easy, as at that time, Phil Collins wasn’t clearing samples for nobody, rappers or no one. I remember Lyor Cohen [who was then] at Def Jam went and sat down with Phil Collins himself. Real shit, he sat down and talked with Phil about X and explained that he was a kid who was not disrespecting the record but was coming from the heart and he played the track for Phil and he dug it. He kept all the publishing, all the money but he did clear the sample. [Laughs] As you see though, the whole of Def Jam [Records] was behind that album. The CEO took the song to Phil himself as opposed to having assistants deal with it, he took it personally and that shows how he believed in that projects.
DX: As people are losing out on making money with illegal downloads has sample clearance become easier now, considering it is another way of making money?
Dame Grease: Yeah of course. When you look back a lot of artists didn’t want their artwork being sampled or used or having someone else talking bullshit on it and that was real shit. But then some artists whom probably did clear samples find they are making another million dollars on a song that they made back in 1968 and the dude who didn’t want their music touched are like, "You made another million?"
People started clearing samples, as it was a business for the original artist and the future artist. So its not just the artist that is using the track now that is taking all the money, the person who made the track is making money also. It’s like reselling music.
DX: What’s going on with Vacant Lot now?
Dame Grease: Over the years I have chapterized Vacant Lot up a little bit. It’s broken down to Wave Gang which is another of my companies but which sees us all working with different labels independently. I formed Lott Muzik that is young and fresh for the new artists I work with. I try to keep everything in its category but blend it with a new sound.
DX: Is it easy for you keeping on top of the business?
Dame Grease: I am not going to lie, over the years I grew accustomed to it. You should see me, if I had cameras on me all day; I am like a fucking robot. Today I’m putting mixtapes together for a couple of people, I might be making beats or rapping on a beat for someone. The days are just filled with different things. The phones are always ringing. Now I have the blog, which is getting great traffic, I am trying to apply to the blog what I do to music. Every blog has the same content and I am trying to do that shit differently too. We cover technology, of course Hip Hop, girls, information and that’s the most part.
DX: Diddy approached you back in the day to join The Hitmen, a move you ever regret?
Dame Grease: No, hell no - definitely not. I wouldn’t still be here if I joined The Hitmen. The thing I was doing by myself, I was better than The Hitmen by themselves. Remember, I make all my own beats, there was 10 of them working on one beat. They hated me, as I was just one guy cracking their ass. They were getting like a penny for a song and I was taking it all for myself.
DX: You have also put your name to a software programme I believe.
Dame Grease: Yeah the Greasalizer, it’s a part of the Music Maker series. I supplied my own custom loops and keyboard samples so you can create your own thing. I am going to be doing another one with a lot more features. It’s funny as of every producer that came out; I’m the key one that looks to the future. I’ve been tipping the internet since 2002 so when the whole game came into this I was already there. People were accustomed to seeing me then already.
DX: Is it a no-brainer then for you to get involved in spreading the knowledge?
Dame Grease: I’m a businessperson and when I say that, I use my knowledge to generate money. Trust me, I gave away a lot of free knowledge, that’s where I am at right now. Like we talked about I stepped back for a couple of years just to accomplish a new sound. I mean you gotta remember New York shit was depleted a couple of years ago. I want you to write this too, I personally brought New York back and I’m going to tell you how.
Guys were sitting around saying that they "were bringing New York back" and I would say "That’s the first mistake – saying you are bringing New York back." There you are admitting that shit it fucked up. So what I did, I started reaching out to a lot of key artists in our region, putting it together. Styles' [Super Gangster, Extraordinary Gentleman] album, the ["U Ain't Ready 4 Me"] joint with Beanie Sigel, I put that together, Hell Rell and Young Dro's ["You Know What It Is" from For The Hell Of It], I put that together, [Cam'ron] and T.I.'s ["Crown Me"]; I put that together and from all those things and the Goon Musik album, from there we started to make our wave. That solidified a new Northeast sound and even though the Wave sound is 25% Ruff Ryders' sound, it was still a new sound. Even artists from different regions wanted to get music like we were putting out. At the same time it wasn’t New York shit, it was a new New York City flavor that people wanted to be with.