By Brandon E. Roos
Reinvention is a word seldom used in the Hip Hop world. The term is often reserved for Pop or Rock, and even then it often signals a change in marketing more than any sort of true transition. Yet in the case of Blueprint, the emcee half of Soul Position and the man behind everything found on his sophomore solo release, Adventures in Counter-Culture, there's no better way to describe the artistic, and personal, transformation that he experienced over the five years it took to finish the album. Whether it was throwing away his own rule book or deciding to give up drinking, Adventures in Counter-Culture offered Blueprint the type of total and complete change rarely seen in Hip Hop, one that has forever changed how he pursues his craft.
HipHopDX chatted at length with Blueprint about the finer points of such a complete transformation. In addition, we touched upon the sad legal state of sampling in Hip Hop, Rhymesayers having his back despite a five-year hiatus, channeling the Kid Cudi sound before it existed, and how a name like Blueprint can really complicate a Google search.
Adventures In Counter-Cultures As A Breakthrough Production Approach
HipHopDX: Reading up on what it took to create Adventures in Counter-Culture, it seems like the album redefined you as an artist and led to a significant life change in the process. Can you speak a bit on that point and talk about how the process, and even the music itself, changed not only your process as a musician but your your outlook on life?
Blueprint: One of the first things that changed was the way I was doing music. I think I had kind of realized that I could do a lot more and that I wasn't necessarily doing it at the time. In discovering that, it kinda made me start just re-evaluating everything I was doing and just throwing away the assumptions and the rules and everything I had about music. That was first, and then as I changed the music, I started noticing that, to make the record that I wanted to make, I had to kind of change my entire life in terms of the time and dedication I was putting into it. Before, I was sampling a lot and making beats was a lot different. I guess it was a little bit easier because I wasn't necessarily relying on myself 100%. When you're sampling, you can just take music in bits and pieces from other artists and that can kind of jump-start your ideas, but once I started realizing that I had to do the record I wanted to make, I had to kind of re-learn everything musically and sit down and have the patience to become the musician that I wanted to [be].
It took a change on me socially as well because I couldn't kick it the way I wanted to originally, so I think the quest to become a better musician ultimately led me to try and become a better person. The time I had to put in I had to put into becoming proficient at my art form. There were no short cuts, be it sitting down at the piano for three or four hours a day or making sure I wasn't in a bar like I used to be, or [that] I wasn't out kicking it like I used to – you know, all those little changes. The dedication that it took [to create] the album ultimately made me change and ultimately become a better person because of the dedication that was needed.
DX: Since you had just spoken on getting back to the music and being a better musician, was that something that you had kept up in some capacity over the years, or had it fallen by the wayside in favor of sampling alone? Did you have to sort of get back into the swing of playing piano and other instruments?
Blueprint: I think I kept it. The only issue was that I was so wrapped up in the rules of Hip Hop that I was never 100% comfortable just taking it there. A lot of guys that came up on '90s Hip Hop, we're used to R&B being the enemy of Hip Hop. Back in the day, A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, [and] tons of people would kind of draw lines in the sand, where [Hip Hop was only if] you were sampling and you were rapping, but if you were actually playing something or you were singing, it wasn't real Hip Hop. But I think it was just like a set of rules we had. Hip Hop is just being creative. It's taking something out of its context and being creative. I think that's the more important rule of what Hip Hop is. It's all these genres that from the beginning were a part of it and expanding it, but I think at some point Hip Hop just became, I don't want to say a parody of itself, but it definitely started becoming really insular, where like it was defined by everything that was before it as opposed to branching out and becoming something new and creative like it should have been, and I think I was subject to all those same rules that everyone else was – trying to quote unquote “keep it real” when I think that as an artist, I was always capable of doing more. I just always held back and toned it down.
DX: Speaking on the aesthetic, I wanted to ask a couple questions about sampling because I know you had said that on this album you were trying to get a bit away from sampling due to the legal issues with clearing samples. What did that change – the decision to rely more heavily on your own melodies – do for your process? Was it really stifling or did you get to a point where it opened you up creatively?
More Instrumentation And Less Sampling
Blueprint: For me, there was a point there, and now, where I was kind of in between. I was still sampling and then there was a point where I would keep the stuff I wasn't sampling, where I was just playing and writing my own melodies separate. I think through doing that, I kind of gained my process where the process, for me, changed, from listening to records for three or four hours a day, maybe going digging every weekend, buying new albums . . . That part of the search I don't do any more.
Now, the process has switched to where [I'm] basically sitting down in front of a keyboard for two to three hours a day and trying to write riffs. I might write ten or fifteen riffs in a day and maybe only two or three of them are worth even exploring further. It's not that much different when you look at how many records you would listen to before you hear one loop that's worth chopping up or something like that. The biggest difference is that you're 100% responsible for things that come out, so it's a little more rewarding in that sense. It's more challenging, but it's more rewarding.
Like everybody else, I still chop up drums. I still mess with breaks. I still use smaller samples to support my melodies that I've already gotten, but I don't rely on somebody else's melody to create a song any more. I may take a horn stab from something else and combine that with other stuff that's not sampled, but overall my thing is I've kind of progressed to the point to where I'm really comfortable now just writing my own stuff, and I'm now getting happier with the process. Even though it takes a little longer and you have to be more dedicated, I'm happier with it.
DX: On a larger point, how do you feel about the sampling issue right now in the music industry? Do you feel that it forces produces to rely on more than a sample, or that it's stifling where Hip Hop came from, since it was essentially created from the break?
Blueprint: As a fan, I think the sampling laws kind of killed the east coast sound of Hip Hop. I think that by itself . . . If you look at, I ain't gonna say the fall of east coast Hip Hop, but I will say the point to where east coast Hip Hop doesn't sound like east coast Hip Hop, because east coast Hip Hop was primarily sampled. The guys down south and [on] the west coast were playing stuff out. You listen to a Fat Joe record [now and] it sounds like a down south record. A lot of east coast artists, they don't really have a sound, and I think that hurts the east coast because that's what they were defined by. I don't know if east coast Hip Hop can be as good without those guys sampling. And even the guys who are on top – Jay-Z, Kanye [West] – they still sample, so I think the other guys who can't afford it are really hurting right now.
I don't necessarily want to say the inability of people to sample is altogether a good thing. I think you should have options. I think it should be more affordable. I think it should be realistic. I don't think you should have artists who sell less than 40 or 50 thousand records, or guys who are putting out mixtapes, worried about sampling. I don't think guys at the beginning stages of their career should have that hanging over their head because I do think it stifles creativity.
There's nothing like a good sample because it's all there for you, [but] it still takes a good ear to hear it. Ultimately, I'd like to see sampling come back, but I think it's gonna come back in a form where guys are just real renegades about it – they just take what they want and ultimately just make the music free. And I think that will probably be the only way that we can kind of take it back to where it was, is to say “You know, if you guys are gonna sue us for this, then we're just gonna make it free.” And hopefully, it being free will reduce the lawsuits and allow guys to be creative and still reach the people [they] want to reach with it.
DX: Right. I guess that's where the rise of the Hip Hop blog and the free mixtape has helped combat that to a certain extent, but at the same time, if a song becomes a huge hit and if the artist gets sued by the original owners of the music, it's tough because you get the exposure but you really don't get any profit from it. It's the same with sampled artists who seek 100% of the profits even though artists go about it legally. In the end, you get little more than exposure.
Blueprint: It's true. And oddly enough, I've heard rumors of guys getting sued over things that they've released for free. That's something recent. I don't think it's anything that actually completely went to court and settled yet, but I heard that they're trying to get courts to estimate how much exposure was gained from [an artist] using that sample, and then turning that into a dollar sign.
DX: I've never heard that before. I know of some people that have just taken the hit because they know that the exposure is worth whatever profits they may have lost, but going after free songs like that? That's an even scarier point.
Blueprint: Yeah. It's not cool. I've sampled drums, [and] at first I was like “Oh, cool” because all my friends were like “You're cool as long as it's drums.” And then the more exposure you get, everybody's like “Wait a minute...that one drum sample... You could get sued over that.” There's guys out there trying to copyright drum breaks now, and they can actually get you for a drum break, so you may never know. It's gonna eventually get to the point where no one can sample simply because of the greed involved. As the industry makes less money, I guess they want more ways to make money, and suing people and sample clearance becomes a more important thing.
DX: Switching gears, with the five-year hiatus between albums, was there any push from Rhymesayers to get you to release anything quicker than you did or were they always really good with you taking your time?
Blueprint: Actually, they were really good about me taking my time, and the weird thing is that in my mind, I wasn't really taking my time. [Laughs] In my head, I was busting my ass, but I think there were definitely moments where I got impatient. I think in 2008, it might have been 2009, I was like “Yo, I have to come out in 2009. If I don't come out in 2009, everything's gonna be fucked up and my career will be over.” I think I was just at that rushed spot where I wasn't done but I was close and I just didn't have the faith that I should have to keep going.
Honestly, Rhymesayers [Entertainment] never, ever pressured me to finish it up. They were just like “Hey man, when it's done, it's done.” And oddly enough, there were a couple of times when I felt it was done initially and I would turn in a version of it. They would say “Well, how do you feel about it?” And I was like “Yo, I feel pretty good about it.” And they would say “Well, do you think you could take it further?” And I would say “Hell yeah.” And they would say “Well, just take it further then and call us back when it's done. We'll talk again.” So I would say okay and I would disappear for another five or six months, or a year, take it a little further and then come back. The last time that I turned it in, they were like “How do you feel?” And I was like “I think I nailed it.” And they were like “Cool, set a release date.” It was that simple.
Years Before Drake, Kid Cudi and Kanye West's Electronic R&B Sound
DX: That had to have been real comforting knowing that they had your back like that.
Blueprint: Yeah, especially because [the album's] so different. There were points where, at the beginning of the process, it was a little rougher, because I started the record in 2006, and there were songs on there like “Wanna Be Like You” that I was doing then. This is before [Man On The Moon: The End of Day by Kid] Cudi, this is before 808's and Heartbreak [by Kanye West], before [So Far Gone by] Drake, before all that stuff, so at the time everyone loved it but there was no “lane” for it, especially from a label called Rhymesayers. We were all kind of like “Okay, this is dope, but who's the market? Is there a market for this? Are people gonna understand this?” At the time, without some of those other things coming out, it might have still been more difficult to get the record out or to feel confident about having it on the market, because in 2006 there wasn't anything like it out, or any emcees that were singing and doing beats. There was really no precedent at that point. It's become a little bit easier as the lane has opened up, and I think Hip Hop in general has become more eclectic, which has helped. The climate has changed.
DX: Yeah, that's somewhat of a scary place to be as an artist. There's that market for it now, but before it was just uncharted territory.
Blueprint: Yeah, there was none. [Kid Cudi] didn't exist. And we were like “Well, this is awesome, [but] what do we do?” [Laugh] I remember we would have conversations, we would say “Who out there sounds like this?” This was me and the label, and we couldn't come up with anybody who sounded [like it] to even say on a one-sheeter or a sticker “reminiscent of” or “sounds like” or “for fans of this, you have this.” That didn't really exist at the time, and it took me longer to finish it, but I think [that] ultimately was to my benefit.
Sobriety Sharpens Skills
DX: You had spoken about how a lot of your process back in the day was more about going out and drinking and partying a bit after you had been working on your music or touring. Do you think that by really accepting sobriety and embracing that part of your life, that you were able to aim for this larger sound? Do you think that it helped you focus and see where you thought you could really go musically?
Blueprint: Oh yeah, I think so because at a fundamental level, when you're going out drinking and kickin' it, even though you may be a talented musician, it's still gonna be hard for you to really say you're 100% dedicated to your craft or that your agenda is 100% on the art. As long as I was going out, drinking, hollerin' at chicks, there's no way I can say this is 100% about the music. I can say “Oh yeah, I'm out here drinking, I'm out here rapping because it's cool and because I'm making money.” I think that's what a lot of people do: they get caught in it. So I think when I stopped drinking, and as I made my transition to stop drinking, I was finally able to kind of see things as different, maybe even look at music like “Yo, this is not just some shit that everyone is given.”
I've been blessed with an opportunity that a lot of dudes would give their fucking arm for: to be able to live off of their music, have a fan base that cares enough to support them, even after a five-year hiatus from releasing an official record. I started really looking at how fortunate and blessed I was. Sometimes you can reverse it to where you start looking at the benefits of that job as the reason you do it. The benefits of being an artist may be tons of free time, it may be free drinks at certain places, it may be notoriety and chicks and money, but that's not why you did it. You did it because you're an artist. So I think when I stopped drinking, I was able to come back to that conclusion again and get back to the original reason I started doing it, which was strictly for the art, strictly for the progression and not just to be safe and get along with my friends and be noticed. I didn't care about that shit. I did it for the gusto and the art and the progression of that shit. Not drinking allowed me to return to that mind state a little faster.
DX: That's a great revelation. It must have been great to finally remember why you did music in the first place instead of following that path to a place that may not have brought you back to that conclusion.
Blueprint: Yeah man. And that's not what I envisioned when I started this record. [When] I started this record, I was like “Oh yeah, I'm just gonna do this record. It's gonna take me a year or two. I'm gonna be the same motherfucker and I'll finish it and I'll go out and keep doing what I've been doing.” It's actually been the opposite. Everything about doing the record changed my whole life, and my life actually made me a better artist, which was probably what I should've done at the beginning. I think as talented as we are as artists, we can still do more if we're focused.
DX: Is that essentially where Adventures in Counter-Culture comes from title-wise, that you were counter to the lane or focus that you were in before, and this was you venturing into this new idea and / or new musical space that you weren't sure of but followed anyway?
Blueprint: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely. It totally – for the first time, I was creating music without an agenda.
I talk to friends about it sometimes. During the process, I started identifying all the patterns that I had about doing music because you can't break the rules if you don't even know your own rules. I started noticing that a rule or a pattern that I had in the past was that I always had to have a theme. I always had to have an agenda when I did a record: “Okay, this record is for these people” or “This record is about that” or “This song is for that” and I would [categorize things] before I even wrote the song – “I'm gonna sit down and do a fast beat today” or “I'm gonna do some real grimy shit for the next week.” What I realized is that as long as I had that agenda, the music that I worked on would never be as ambitious as if I just sat down and just did whatever the fuck came to mind that day. Wherever the music takes me, that's where I go now, whereas before, I would kind of set the course ahead of time, like “this is where I'm gonna go.”
It's easier when you're doing a record called 1988. It's laid out for you: this is what it sounded like in 1988. It gives you a starting point, an easy framework, but it's so much more difficult to say “I'm just gonna sit down and all these musical influences that I have, I'm just gonna let whatever comes out come out.” And I'm gonna work on this record until it's done. I'm not gonna set a time or a date or anything like that, I'm just gonna do it and then I'm gonna hopefully bring together all this music in a way that makes sense. That was the only agenda that I had, but I had to completely separate myself from the old agenda to get to that point.
DX: I'm sure, after five years too, it was probably a struggle for you internally wondering if the fans that were there from before would still stick around too.
Blueprint: Yeah, and that was something I didn't completely understand. I didn't completely understand how things would change. So that's something where I think everyone else around me – obviously Rhymesayers kind of understood [because] they actually are looking at the climate and saying “Okay, This is what could possibly happen with this record.” And I think they understood early on that there's gonna be some people I lose during this time, either from the time off or from changing my style, but they felt like “What he's doing, as ambitious as he's making it, he's gonna open himself up to a whole other list of people and opportunities that he never would've had had he done the same thing again.”
DX: Now that that creative wall has been broken down, do you feel like the output is gonna increase and be a lot quicker?
Blueprint: Oh yeah. Definitely. There's never gonna be... I'm not taking five years between records any more. And you know, the good thing about this is that I never stopped doing music this time, whereas in the past I would put out a record and then I would kind of stop doing music. And then, you know, I was drinking, so sometimes when you drink, you just want to do shit when you're inspired, and that was my thing. I would only do music when I was inspired, but since I stopped drinking, I do music just because I need to do music. Inspiration or not, if I sit in the studio for a few hours, I'm gonna come out with something that's okay, even if it's not great, but if I do that for a week, something good's gonna come out of it.I don't stop any more and I think that is gonna be what makes sure that I have no more hiatuses, no more periods like that.
I've got a huge jump-start on my next record right now just because for Adventures in Counter-Culture I did at least 70, 80 songs, whereas before I was only doing 15 songs – I would do 15 songs for an album and then we'd put 13 of them on the album. That was a lot different, whereas this one I did 70 songs, 80 songs, and now I think I can still keep up that kind of output without being so emotionally attached to it to where I can't release it or I try to hold on to it. There's no reason to hold on to anything anymore. I want to be putting out my best shit all the time. Hopefully next year I can drop. I want to put out something again next year.
Great Name, Bad Rap SEO
DX: I'll get you out of here on this: do you ever get people who ask if your name is some kind of obvious Jay-Z reference?
Blueprint: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, there's definitely some people who say that. There are some who will hear me and they'll go “Oh, he's a new artist. He stole that from Jay-Z. Jay-Z's already got an album called Blueprint.” And I'll be like “Hey man, I was putting records under this name before he chose that.” And it's not like he's the first one to do that. KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions had an album called The Blueprint (Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop), but they don't go back that far, so they're just like “Oh, Jay-Z . . . ”
Yeah, I try not to sweat it. It fucks up the Google search though, so maybe one day I'll just be Printmatic or something to improve my Google search results.