Large Professor On '90s Babies, Nas & Rakim's Relationship And Lupe Fiasco's Rights To "T.R.O.Y."
Exclusive: Large Professor touches on everything from this era's digital record diggers to why Rakim didn't nurture Nas to what Lupe Fiasco should have done to avoid his current controversy.
Large Professor noted on “The Entrance” from his 2008 solo release, Main Source, that he tends to wave off media with a “Nah on the interview.”
When you do get the rare opportunity to talk to the veteran producer/rapper, (with already 23 years logged in the Rap game at just the age of 39), he is usually respectful but reserved when replying to pesky intrusions from interviewers. And so it was more than a pleasant surprise when the bespectacled beatmaker opened up during his recent interview with HipHopDX to reveal his thoughts on everything from the indifference to music history shown by some ‘90s babies to the long-rumored indifference Rakim displayed towards Nas during The Don’s demo-recording early days. The man born William Paul Mitchell concluded his conversation with DX by even taking the time to satisfy the curiosity of long speculating liner notes readers by breaking down once and forever precisely what his contributions actually were to Eric B. & Rakim’s Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em.
Prior to the completion of that album, the then high school student served as understudy to the late Paul C. (who was tragically murdered in 1989, after the average-appearing white guy helped to make Hip Hop truly more multicultural, sidestepping stereotypes by beating SP-1200s into submission for his shocked and awed Rap clientele). Paul C.’s protégé subsequently took his mentor’s tutelage and applied it to crafting classics for the likes of Kool G Rap (“Streets Of New York”), Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (“Act Like You Know”), Diamond D (“Freestyle Yo, That’s That Shit”), Nas (“Halftime,” “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”) and countless other esteemed emcees, not to mention his handiwork for the timeless full-length from his onetime group, Main Source, Breaking Atoms (which includes the formal debut of the aforementioned Nasty Nas).
Twenty years removed from his breakthrough to becoming one of the most prominent purveyors of boom bap Hip Hop, the Queens, New York native guided DX through selections from his fourth solo project, Professor @ Large (due June 26th from Fat Beats Records), before making his aforementioned revelations regarding Rakim and Nas’ relationship and addressing the protocol he believes Lupe Fiasco should have followed to flip the classic Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth track that Large Pro had a little something to do with.
HipHopDX: Let’s start off with what is hands down the biggest revelation on Professor @ Large, from the first track, “Key To The City.” You really “grew up down the road from Fran Drescher” from The Nanny?
Large Professor: Word up. Yeah, she came up in Flushing. As a matter of fact, [references to Flushing are] a part of the theme song [to The Nanny].
DX: You didn’t know her or nothing though, right? ‘Cause she’s like [15 years older than you].
Large Professor: Oh, nah, nah, I ain’t know her.
DX: I just thought that was like an out of leftfield reference. [Laughs]
Large Professor: Yeah, no doubt. [Laughs]
DX: Now, the most important question I have for you about your new album is … why didn’t you turn that outro beat at the end of “Straight From The Golden,” “Happy Days R Here” and “LP Surprise” into a full track? That used to kill me when Pete [Rock] would have them ill-ass snippet beats at the end of songs and not use ‘em for full tracks.
Large Professor: Right. It wasn’t something I felt like I could put as a whole song. It was just something that [was intended to sound like] the sun going down or something like that. That type of loop right there where you can just [envision] the sun is going down or you riding into the sunset. That’s how that struck me.
DX: I think that’s dope that you refer to music in terms of weather. ‘Cause I always do that. Like, this is a morning song, this is a nighttime song.
Large Professor: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
DX: Do you think about that when you’re making tracks? Are you sitting there like, “Alright, I’m doing a sun-is-rising song right here”?
Large Professor: Yeah, definitely. All the elements, all of life, I can translate that musically. Like, some beats I’ll be like, “Yo, this is that [42nd Street] shit.” Like, “This is that Times Square shit.” That’s why I wrote “Key To The City” like that, ‘cause it just reminded me of the action down there in Times Square. It was like a dip, dip dive kind of thing, so it was like, “Yeah, this is that city shit right here.” A lot of times the beats will just tell you what to write.
DX: Speaking of telling you what to write, you didn’t spit to three of the tracks on Professor @ Large – “Barber Shop Chop,” “Sun, Star & Crescents” and “Back In Time” - instead opting to just let the beats ride. How could you not wanna spit to that neck-snapping “Back In Time” beat?
Large Professor: It was more like a new way of doing an album. It’s like, I’m not the most lyrical rapper and all of that; I’m more of a songwriter. And these days everybody rhymes, so it’s like, yo, alright, you listening to my album but yo, here’s a beat where you could [rhyme to it]. … And it kind of lets [each full song] breathe a little bit. ‘Cause when you listen to it it’s like, alright, cool, he rhymed on that, rhymed on that, [and then it’s like] ooh, he kinda loosened it up a little bit. … It’s not just more rhymes, and words and words and words. I ain’t want it to be like a lecture from a professor or nothing like that.
DX: No lectures from the Professor. [Laughs]
Large Professor: [Laughs] Word up.
DX: Just honestly though, do you really have the same passion for spittin’ as you do for producing, or is rhyming more of a means to an end?
Large Professor: Um … yeah, I definitely do. Like I said, I’m more of a songwriter. So it’s not like I’m a crazy rhyme-animal just going in the ciphers and spittin’. If I hear the beat and I say, “Yo, this is what that beat is telling me,” I can write a nice song that’ll go hand in hand with it. … I mean, I can do that forever, man. I’ll just hear a beat and be like, “Yo, this is what this beat is telling me to say” and take that [and run with it].
DX: But you don’t have like a whole closet full of books of rhymes just stacked up.
Large Professor: Nah, nah, nah, I just got like scriptures, ‘cause it be on some Biblical shit too. … When I listen back to the songs, even from [20 years ago], it’s like these songs are just hand in hand with the ways of the world today. A song like “Hard” or like “Looking At The Front Door,” to this day people is telling me [how those songs moved them]. I mean, at that point in life that’s where I was at, but now I’ve moved on from that. But there are people that are that age that are like, “Yo, man, that song struck me so much.” So it’s like when you have that, that’s crazy right there. It’s just you growing in life and you just writing as you still learning.
DX: When you listen back to them songs do you hear the 18-year-old, or are you impressed at the insight level of you as a teenager?
Large Professor: Yeah, some of ‘em I hear the 18, 19, 20-year-old. I hear like, “Some of that shit right there might be a little naïve.” But, for the most part [I’m impressed].
And to be able to put it in words - because for me, coming up and getting in trouble and things like that, it’s like you gotta find a way to do what you doing but where you not getting in trouble. Where you can express yourself and you can purge. There were guidance counselors, group home counselors like, “Yo, why don’t you just write a song instead of acting on some dumb shit.” [And I was like], “Yeah, I do like music, so word, I’ll give that a try.” And ever since that, it’s just been on from there. That’s my way of purging and putting it out there, instead of going out here like you read in the news all of the time: Yo, he got angry and he just fuckin’ murked the whole shit. It’s like, nah man, instead he wrote a song and he just purged.
Now, sometimes when I listen to some of the songs, like a “Mad Scientist” or something like that, I listen back to it and it’s like, “Damn, some of that shit shouldn’t have even been on the record,” and it kind of hurts and shit. But when I listen to it [I’m also] like, yo, that stamps that time.
DX: A quick off-topic question I gotta ask you as a producer many consider one of the greatest of all time: Whodini, Run-DMC, Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow producer Larry Smith, the man who was essentially Dr. Dre and DJ Premier in one, is he officially the greatest Hip Hop producer of all time in your mind?
Large Professor: He can be. He can be, definitely. I mean, that’s a daily thing. Like, tomorrow it might be Davey D to me. So definitely, Larry Smith is up there though, with the early [Hip Hop producers], and especially with the instrumentation. That dude was putting them joints together. I’m more of a sample fan. I like to hear like, yo, he flipped this sample, ‘cause that just gives me [that feeling]. Like, yo, it was records involved with it. It might be Jazzy Jay one day. So it’s like, that [changes on the daily]. Definitely, Larry Smith is up there though. Kurtis Blow was a crazy producer as well.
DX: Who were the guys who were like the icons that you were modeling yourself after? Like, Marley Marl and them?
Large Professor: Yeah. Definitely my mentor Paul C., Marley Marl, 45 King, dudes like that. I really started getting hype when Hurby Luv Bug [came with Salt N Pepa and Kid N Play]. I started getting hype when I starting hearing dudes was flipping records and samples, ‘cause I was really into the core essence of what Hip Hop is: dudes cutting up breaks. Like, when I would listen to the Cold Crush Brothers’ tapes and the Kool Moe Dee tapes and hearing them [rhyme over breakbeats] and finding those records like, “Oh! They using these records and they know what that is and they flipping some old-time shit but in a new way and they just using that part right there.” Yo, that shit just … the light went on.
So, when I started hearing like 45 King [and Latee], “This Cuts Got Flavor” and I checked and I caught the Fatback Band joint, [“Put Your Love (In My Tender Care)”], and I was like, “Oh, shit! This is what he used?” That’s when it just started going crazy for me. I really got hungry.
DX: I kinda feel bad for some of the younger cats today, because of the decline in sampling they don’t have the motivation to go dig in their mother’s record collection.
Large Professor: Yeah, but a lot of them now, ‘90s babies, them dudes ain’t even [trying to flip samples]. And then you got the online diggin’ now. Everybody’s talking, “Yo, I dig online.” What’chu mean “dig?” That’s just searching. That’s Googling.
It’s just a different time, man. I don’t knock ‘em, because I know they don’t know [why they should dig]. It’s just a different feeling, man, just grabbing the record and knowing what the record is. That’s how we came up. Records were toys when we were children. I got mad pictures of me with little portable record players and records. So them shits was toys, and we were little kids so we fuckin’ with the record and shit. And moms would grab your arm like, “No! You’re supposed to just play it and leave it alone.” So that was a toy for us. They look at them shits now like, “What the fuck is that?”
And then, in this compact era where everything is in a hard drive like, “Yo, I got 500 terabytes on this little key right here,” for somebody to have records and going to old records [for source sounds] it’s like, “Nah.” I understand it man, but that for us coming up, that was just something that we did, and I still love it from childhood days.
DX: Did you ever think about kinda like transitioning though? ‘Cause you did “The Hardest” for AZ and Styles P, which is like some futuristic shit. When I found out you did that I was shocked, ‘cause that’s like some straight synth-driven stuff. So did you ever think about switching over more to that stuff?
Large Professor: I’ve done a lot of synth stuff but what happened was, with 1st Class I got my ASR-X Pro and … I figured it out. I cracked the code, I was like, “Alright, cool, this is the new way for me to do some beats, man. All the sounds are already in there.” It was a millennium move, it was like, “Yo, alright, so I’ll just do the beats like this.” And then once I did it like that, and I started putting some songs together [and discovering that] I can use all stock sounds and get busy like that, people started coming at me like, “Yo, but he don’t use samples no more” and all of that bullshit. That was at a time when I was really paying attention and it really mattered what the reviews said. So that kinda deterred me from doing that more. Even though, like with “The Hardest,” I still sprinkle that in there a little bit.
But, especially with how the cycle goes, right now I feel like we in that time that people appreciate them breaks. And I’ve been deejaying a lot lately – that slot opened up for me – and I’ve been kinda testing like, yo, let me see if I can take ‘em all the way back to this time and boom, throw that on. And people’s reactions have been crazy, so I’m like, well then I can just hook up my [boom bap] shit and just throw it out there. But, I could do the synth shit too, man, definitely. That shit is … that’s easier.
DX: I wanna go back to LP’s new LP. You talk on the head-nodding “Kick Da Habit” about how you’re never gonna give up making music. But was there ever a time when you seriously contemplated not bangin’ out beats for a living?
Large Professor: No. And, I don’t make beats for a living. I just live for a living. When you know what this world is about, all you gotta do is just live.
But making music, man, that’s something that [I could never give up]. I was just over a distant relatives house and he’s transitioning to whatever and he had mad, mad records right there and it was like, “Aw, I ain’t ever know.” And it was just like, “Yo, if you want the records, take the records.” I was like, “Wow.” So now I’m sitting here with even more records, and I’m going through these joints and I’m like, "Wow, man, this is really like fuel for me." Even if I don’t sample records, just listening to music and knowing the history of the music industry and just seeing the artists from the past, that’s my thing with looking at old records and listening to old records. You get to see how the music industry has grown and morphed into some other shit. It ain’t only about just taking the little pieces and bits of the songs, it’s like, yo, I’m reading the covers and you getting these people’s stories and they lives. So it’s like, [making music] is just my hobby. I live for a living.
DX: I need to switch gears here and ask you as the man who hooked Pete Rock up with that timeless Tom Scott horn sample for “They Reminisce Over You,” I gotta get your thoughts on Lupe Fiasco’s flip of “T.R.O.Y.” for “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free).” In your opinion, was Lupe within his Hip Hop rights to reinterpret that track, or should he have left it alone?
Large Professor: [Lupe Fiasco] was good. My thing with him was he should have as soon as the first note dropped on that it should have been, “Yo, big up Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. I love y’all brothers. Get back together. We love y’all and I wanna pay homage by doing a twist on this song.” I think that would have been 100 right there.
But, it’s not like that these days. Like I said, I look at a lot of the records from back in the days, and it was a format. Like, if you touched somebody’s music you kinda like gave it up to them right then and there. Like, boom, but I’ma do my version of it. It was like, we gonna pay homage first. There’s no homage today. With the artists today, there’s little to no homage. But the ones that do pay homage are the ones that are 1,000 in this. Those are the ones where it’s like, He’s the leader. … There’s a long history, way before these artists of today, way before me [of paying homage to your predecessors]. So if he would have paid that homage I think it would have went different.
Honestly, when I listen to it, it sounds like they played it all over and they kind of nailed it up. Like, I’m listening to it for flaws and like, Did they really disgrace this? And it was like, "Yo, that shit sounds kind of ill to me."
DX: Would you be personally offended if an artist wanted to flip say “Looking At The Front Door” and they didn’t holla at you?
Large Professor: Dog, as soon as “Looking At The Front Door” came out Lisa Lisa and [Cult Jam] did they thing [with it for “Let The Beat Hit ‘Em”] and they didn’t holla at all. They didn’t pay no homage or nothing and they just did it. So I’ve been over that feeling. It ain’t even take years for that to happen to me. That happened like automatically. “Looking At The Front Door” came out and then Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam came out like two months later. So I got an early dose of that. And they didn’t say nothing. Like, it wasn’t in no interviews like, “Yo, we jacked that shit from the Main Source shit,” or nothing. It was just like, yo, we took it, and we went gold off of that.
So when you get that early dose like that it’s like, alright, this is what the game is about. You start figuring it out. I came into the game thinking you thrive off of skills. Like, if your skills is ill that you gon’ go gold, you gon’ go platinum. That’s how I came in the game thinking, like, If your shit is ill, you gon’ do it. And it was like, nah, if you on the right label you’re gonna do it. Okay, yeah, of course you gotta have skills to begin with, but along with that you gotta be on the right label, and they gotta promote you, they gotta do videos and all of that shit for you [to blow up]. So I was just learning some wild shit right there. It was like, Oh shit, these people that took our whole idea flipped it and went gold. Ain’t paid no homage or nothing. And because they was on a bigger label, that’s just what it is. And you can’t go out here and say nothing.
That’s just like I felt The Beatnuts pain when Jennifer Lopez used [“Watch Out Now”] for “Jenny From The Block.” When I was talking with them I’m like, “Yo, remember I been went through that, where it’s just like some straight they just nabbed the shit from niggas.”
DX: But you know the younger cats are like this is hypocrisy. Like, y’all nabbed it from the cats back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Large Professor: Yeah, true, but just putting that combination together [of a known Hip Hop track with a Pop singer] that’s just like you throw on some blue shell-toe Adidas, you throw on this brand of jeans and you throw on this shirt right here and then somebody else puts that same outfit on and you know they seen you do that.
That’s why I don’t understand [the Lupe Fiasco and Pete Rock controversy]. It’s like, you don’t have to [pay homage] but it would have been nice. You would have been double coated if you would have paid homage. But you ain’t have to, because it’s free reign on all of that. But, when you give it up – I always tell anybody that Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay and them is the ones who got me into listening to records. When I used to listen to Zulu [Nation] tapes it was like, “Yo, these are the records that pops got right here.” I always give it up to them, man. And that’s one reason why I’m still here.
DX: Speaking of artists holla’n at you, you know I gotta ask if Nas got at you for Life is Good?
Large Professor: I went to the session; I definitely gave him some joints. Nas is a master crafter builder. If people only knew the thought process that goes into Nas’ projects, they would really appreciate that man a lot more. I did give him some joints, we’ll see if they make it on there. I know he vocaled some joints; I know he put it all together. We’ll see.
His process when making a project, it’s really a project. It’s not just like, Yo, I’ma slap some songs together. There’s a thought process that goes into this. So, I maybe [made the album], maybe not, I don’t know. But he definitely has more joints [from me]. I mean, we still have joints from Nastradamus sessions. We still have joints from God’s Son sessions …. So, I’ve been here for a lot of the albums, and we have a lot of songs just in the cut. And like this project, I’ve given him more songs so … we’ll see.
DX: It sounds like you don’t take it personal though when Nas’ first producer doesn’t still get credits on his latest stuff.
Large Professor: Nah, nah, nah, ‘cause it’s just [pauses] you know, this is music. It would be nice if all the long everything would have been [together]. But, nah, he gotta build how he does and his idea. And if I give him a beat and it don’t fit that project idea, then it ain’t nothin’. Nah, we good. We brothers, so outside of that, that ain’t nothin’.
DX: While I’m asking about Nas, I gotta ask about your revelation during his recent Behind The Music episode that Nas and Rakim actually spoke back in ‘89/’90 when you snuck Nas in on Ra’s studio time, and that Ra actually gave Nas the thumbs up on what he was doing. I never knew that happened; I never knew they had even spoken. But I just wanted to know, truthfully, wasn’t Ra actually a little aggy about that whole situation, that these younger cats were taking his time to do their thing?
Large Professor: Nah, Rakim wasn’t aggravated at all. Rakim was on his own thought process, like his own thought track.
I mean, because we were divvying up a lot of time between [Rakim and Kool G Rap]. G Rap was working on his joint, [Wanted: Dead or Alive]. Eric B just had the studio booked. The studio was just booked. And, at that time, he was executive producing G. Rap’s album, he was executive producing his own album [with Rakim, Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em]. And, sometimes G. Rap took like a big break in between [his recordings] and so [Eric] was like, “Yo Paul, do some beats or do whatever you want, but I need something to come out of every session.” And so I was like, “Yo, I got my man down the block in Queensbridge, he rhymes.” “Alright, Paul, get him in the studio, man. Let’s just make sure every session counts.”
And so when Rakim came in it was like, “Yo Ra, check this out.” And he really listened to it and was like, “Yeah, alright, no doubt baby pa.” You know, that kind of thing. And, the only thing with me is that I really wish brothers would have had they real mogul hat on, where it’s like, “Alright, yo, let me hear something else.” Or like, “Yo, who is that?” He kinda was just like, Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s alright, now let me get to work.
I just wish he would have been a little bit more [trails off].
DX: Of a mentor kind of thing?
Large Professor: Yeah. Something like that, definitely.
DX: I always thought it wasn’t so much personal or anything but that the media kind of did that in when they started anointing Nas “the second coming.”
Large Professor: Right.
DX: I always just speculated that Ra took a little offense to that and that’s why he never really worked with Nas.
Large Professor: Right, right, right.
DX: You don’t have any extra insight into that, if that’s true or not?
Large Professor: Well, with Rakim and Nas, it wasn’t nurtured.
The dudes [in the Paid In Full Posse] who were co-signing Nas couldn’t really get to Rakim like that, like Supreme [Magnetic], [DJ] Hot Day, Ant Live – Ant Live was Eric B’s brother. Like, a lot of times when I’d be doing the sessions I’d be in there getting busy and I’d be doing Nas shit and Supreme would come in and be like, “Yo, that shit is hot!” Or Hot Day would be in there and be like, “Yo Paul, that shit is hot right there, y’all doing good” kind of thing.
But Rakim was kinda in his own zone, where it was like, “Yo, be quiet.” Like, “When Ra is here, just let that man think.” We gonna chill and let him get his work done kind of shit. So, you know, for it to be like that to begin with, you wouldn’t come and overlap and be like, Yo Ra, by the way, Nas man – It was just good that he came in on it and that he did have knowledge of [Nas]. I wasn’t even trying to push the issue. I wasn’t like, Yo, you should sign him! It was just like, nah, now Ra gotta get [in the studio] and do what Ra gotta do. ‘Cause that’s the God right there, so it’s like, “Alright, we gotta turn this shit off, wrap this shit up real quick and let Rakim do what he gotta do.”
I just wish Rakim was more – Rakim took precedence over everything in there. When Rakim rolled up it was like, "Yo, alright, get in your place, do what you do now. Like, straighten up and shit." That was the kind of [vibe]. I just wish Ra would have been like, "Yo, young blood, you should have did like this," - you know, that kind of thing. But, he had to write an album, so I guess that’s where that [lack of attention towards Nas] came from. But I know if we would have had his blessings, it would have been just some stellar shit. Like, these dudes have just got the hierarchy.
DX: One more ’89 question, I gotta ask it while I got you here, can you clarify once and forever what you actually did on Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em? What you did, what Paul C. did, and what Ra did himself behind the boards.
Large Professor: Well, on [the title-track] a lot of that is Rakim and [Rakim’s brother] Stevie Blass. That’s instruments right there. That’s playing the bassline. They played the shit over. But I noticed in the beginning they had the drum loop and they had The Commodores’ [“Assembly Line”] shit in there, and I took the “huh” out of it. We went through a few different drum loops. That’s funny you brought this up because I was going through my tapes the other day and I heard where I put another drum loop with it and I was like, “Wow, I remember that.” But, we didn’t want the “huh” in there, so I had got the “huh” out of it. That was all for that one, me just tweaking it up with some edits and shit like that.
DX: And did you do that throughout the album? ‘Cause I know you did like [the whole track for] “In The Ghetto.”
Large Professor: A lot of the beats I did from scratch, like “Step Back.” A few of ‘em I did from scratch. Like, I totally did [the track].
DX: I was always under the impression that Paul had pieces in place and you kinda just took the pieces and put ‘em together after Paul passed.
Large Professor: Nah, Paul, he entirely did “Run For Cover.” There were a few other ones, um … “Untouchables,” Paul did that entirely. And then a few of them other joints I did entirely.
DX: “No Omega”?
Large Professor: “I’m the alpha with no omega.” I know I did the drums on that. I think Rakim started that and I put all the drums on there, like all them Kool & The Gang drums I threw on there. ‘Cause that was just mad crazy drums. Rakim liked the way I did drums. And then with some of the joints you even got some good musical schemes [from me] and so he was like, “Yo, lay that one down.”
DX: “Mahogany”? Who did “Mahogany”?
Large Professor: That was all them. That was Eric B & Rakim.
DX: Aw man, I thought you could claim credit for that classic.
Large Professor: Nah. And that was one of the best ones on there. My joints sounded more dusty.