In June, the White Mandingos released their charged up debut, The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me. While each member has carved out their own respective niche in the music industry—journalist, Punk musician, rapper—their getting together isn’t exactly haphazard. In some ways, the fact they joined forces in the first place is as interesting as whatever music they would decide to release; thankfully, The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me is a fitting reflection of the type of experience, intelligence and all-around humility each member brings to the table.
When DX spoke with the group, the racial discourse that drives their album was on full display before a single interview question had been asked: the conversation quickly launched into the cultural and racial politics surrounding the island of Hispaniola. While it seemed like a marginal tangent, Murs was quick to remind us that these types of conversations represented the thrust of their work in the first place. Besides the after-effects of slavery on the Dominican Republic and Haiti respectively, the White Mandingos answered all questions about getting together in the first place, Murs moving out of his comfort zone in the booth and Sacha Jenkins’ journalistic perspective on the band’s reception in the media. Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer also joined the conversation, though his time was somewhat more limited.
The White Mandingos Reveal Their Creation Story
DX: Can you just run down the creation story of how you guys got together in the first place? Sacha, I know you and Darryl hooked up almost 10 years ago.
Sacha Jenkins: I was a journalist for a lot of years and before that a music fan. And Bad Brains was one of the biggest influences for me, not only musically, but in terms of my own identity as a young, Black kid that was into heavy music. I was into Jimi Hendrix, I listened to The Who, and I grew up on Hip Hop. I was involved with lots of different music, but Bad Brains had a very special place in my heart. I wound up interviewing Darryl, and the first time I interviewed him he was just the biggest asshole on the planet. I was just like, “Damn I wish I never talked to this guy; he was such a meanie.” And then I wound up interviewing him a few years later when they were releasing this record which had all these rare demos of stuff from way back that actually Adam Yauch had played for me, but I’d never got my hands on it. So I was excited about the record. I spoke to Darryl, and we hit it off. I told him I always wanted to do a Bad Brains book, and he invited me up to hang out with him up at Woodstock. That was about 1996. And ever since then we became friends.
I was in little hardcore bands growing up and messing around with guitar and stuff. So I’m in Darryl’s house playing instruments, and he’s always very encouraging like, “Why don’t you try this? Do this [or that]; let’s mess around.” And for me, it was just like, “Wow, one of the greatest musicians in the world and one of my biggest influences is nice enough to encourage me to play music and is willing to collaborate with me.” So, just playing around for years and this White Mandingos thing came together. There was another emcee who was interested in working with us, and back in 2003, we wound up recording a bunch of songs. We actually had a lot of interest from labels, and we were poised to open up for Big Daddy Kane. That kind of went sour, everybody went their own way, and everything just kind of went away. And then, literally I was just cleaning my house, fairly recently, found the music, played it and said, “Wow, this is amazing.” I called Darryl and said, “Yo, do you want to do this?” and he said, “Yes.”
Sacha Jenkins Explains Murs’ Introduction Into The White Mandingos
DX: So Sacha, how did Murs come to mind?
Sacha Jenkins: Murs came to my mind because I’ve been seeing him doing his thing for a lot of years. And I knew that not only as an emcee coming from the West Coast. I saw his ability to touch lots of different people and move in lots of different circles. I think as a Black kid in America it’s hard to find—you know when you can move in that many circles. To me that’s just that ability to speak in different languages, and I don’t mean speak proper, White Mandingo. I mean being able to relate to a lot of different people, accept people for their differences and come away with something interesting that influences who you are. And I see Murs as a guy—you know he’s been in lots of different crews and he’s collaborated with lots of different people. I always felt like what he was doing was very open minded and smart. I didn’t know him, but based on his music and how he moves I was like, “Yo this is a smart dude, someone I can relate to.”
You know I grew up with Havoc from Mobb Deep and Nas went to my junior high school. I grew up in the shadows of the Queensbridge projects in the ‘80s with crack and lots of crazy shit, and I was kind of a different kid growing up. I felt like Murs had a similar sort of experience. He was from the hood, he understood all these things and came out of that experience but was able to translate that experience in ways that elevated who he was and what his capabilities were. So I got his number from a mutual friend, and I said, “You don’t know who I am,” and he said, “Yeah I know who you are.” And I said, “Well I want to do a band with you and Darryl from Bad Brains called White Mandingos.” This guy doesn’t really know me, but off the rip, off the first phone call he says, “Hell yeah.”
What kind of guy does that? A guy who's a little crazy, but also a guy who is exactly who I thought he was, which was an open-minded, creative person who’s not afraid to take chances. I think that the record is a real reflection of his experiences and, not just in the hood, but his experiences as a man who has grown up in the music industry. [Murs] has all these important experiences and has been able to translate that into success. And success isn’t just money. Success, I believe, is cultural currency and respect, and the dude had all of that.
Murs: You talk a lot, man.
DX: Darryl did you know Murs?
Darryl Jenifer: I knew he was a West Coast emcee, and with that dread on his head he reminded me of H.R. [from Bad Brains]. But as a OG, he’s been doing this a long time. But I heard of him, yeah; it’s not like I know rappers…you know what I’m saying? I’m not from that school. I could tell that Murs was really smart.
Murs & Sacha Jenkins On The White Mandingos’ Album Narrative
DX: Murs, what was your perspective?
Murs: I am a recent convert to Bad Brains, and by recent I mean like ‘08 or ’07. I had tried getting into it before, but it just wasn’t clicking with me. I wasn’t ready. But the album he did with Adam—was it Adam, who was it from the Beastie Boys that did the [Build A Nation] record?
Sacha Jenkins: Yeah, Adam Yauch produced Build A Nation.
Murs: I really got on Build A Nation, and I got it. There was enough Dub and Punk that it touched me that way. When I got the call from him, I was recently just playing the fuck out of that album over the last two years. And I had been a fan of Sacha longer, because I’m just a fan of Hip Hop journalism. So talking to Sacha Jenkins was almost a bigger deal to me than hearing about being in a band with Darryl at the time. I had done my homework, and I had seen them perform recently, but Sacha was a big deal to me as well. I can’t really put one above the other. Sacha asking me to do anything was an honor to me. Sacha asking to interview me—I would be stoked—but Sacha asking to be in a group with him is great.
And I thought it was an interesting perspective. As we worked on it, it became more interesting to me to have someone on the journalist side end up on this side, and really end up on this side…like having him deal with the labels and helping him with that. Having him do an interview with me, and having us not get picked up by certain press; it’s interesting to see his reaction.
Sacha Jenkins: Fuck Pitchfork. Sorry about that...fuck Pitchfork, though.
Murs: It’s so funny to hear a journalist react like that—especially a journalist like Sacha that’s been bashed on and threatened by rappers, now be angry at the media. That’s how a lot of newer, younger rappers get, because as you get more seasoned you learn not to take any of it personally. Journalists are usually the ones that are like, “Why do those guys take it so personally?” it’s good to watch that as an artist that’s been around for a little bit now.
And from the perspective of working with Darryl, dude has been around making music and studying music since the ‘60s and playing actively since the ‘70s. He’s someone that kind of put the Beastie Boys and put Minor Threat on. I don’t even know if there is a Hip Hop equivalent to Darryl Jenifer. And there is no Rock equivalent, because he is the Rock equivalent of Darryl Jenifer, so it’s amazing. The stories he can tell and the experiences he’s had…he’s done the same thing that I guess I’ve done in my short amount of time: be on a major label and be indie and kind of kill it in both ways. Well he’s killed it; I think I’ve sort of survived. He can tell you stories about George Benson, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Mos Def, Ms. Hill and Madonna. Who does this guy not know, and who knows him and doesn’t respect him? You bring up his name to musicians, and they know his shit, like, the motherfucker can really play.
And the same thing with Sacha’s writing, so it was a no-brainer for me. I’m a sucker for a side-project or whatever you wanna call it. [Sacha] gave me the idea of a kind of Rock opera, and then I hit him back with an outline the next day. It was weird for me, and it was a lot of pressure on me, because I’m like, “Fuck! I’m sending something I wrote to Sacha Jenkins. Fuck, like I might end up with typos and grammatical errors.” I wish I could have just rapped for him, and then I wouldn’t have felt like he could judge me as much. But for me to [do] the outline for a story was kind of daunting.
Sacha Jenkins: For me, as a writer—or an editor or whatever the hell I am—when he turned in what he turned in so quickly, it was so fluid and so thoughtful and creative. I’ve collaborated with a lot of people—whether it’s producing television, doing books, plays or whatever. And I was just like, “Wow, this guy just blew me away” in terms of his writing ability. And that’s what I always liked about his music. He’s a storyteller, and I think that that’s the foundation of what Hip Hop’s all about. I think some people have lost track of that. And the way that he tells stories—it’s not like some kid is gonna feel like it’s from the ‘80s—he’s been able to continuously tell stories in a very contemporary way. I think a lot of rappers struggle with that. So I don’t think of Murs as just a rapper, I really look at the foundation of what he is as that of a writer. I think if you can rap your ass off about absolutely nothing and entertain a person, and that’s a plus. But when you can actually rap your ass off and say some things… I’ve no idea what this guy is going to do, and he’s just in the booth dropping what he’s dropping. And I’m just like, “Wow, who the hell is in his brain, like who is talking to this dude? Where is this coming from?” So that’s been my experience working on the record.
How Murs Adapted To Rhyming Over Rock Tracks
DX: That’s awesome, it sounds like a very cool circle of mutual respect.
Murs: A circle-jerk if you wanna call it that.
DX: Murs, what was this transition into a different style of delivery like? Obviously there’s a lot of rapping on the album, but you’re also working from a different angle than usual.
Murs: Musically, as far as—and I’m not there yet—me learning and trying to work on sort of harmonies and melodies, and I’ll call it cadence because I’m not that deep into notes and things, it was hard man. I went to Darryl like, “Some of this I don’t think I can rap to,” because I don’t like rapping fast. I can do it, but I’m at an age where I know my role. I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and I was like, “That’s not my strong-suit.” And Darryl told me, “You don’t really have to rap that fast, you can just straddle it. Like H.R. usually does this.” He just gave me [advice]; it just opened up my whole thing. I’m a real musical person in that the music just brings something out of me.
Like the title-track “The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me,” I listened to that beat a bunch of times like, “Yo, there’s this Dub thing, and in the middle there’s the guitar stabs.” I [didn’t know what to do] for like two weeks…maybe a month. I kept thinking, “What the fuck do they expect me to do with this?” And then one day I was driving in my car, it was just like, “Take cocaine and mix it with baking soda,” and I was like, “This is it.” I wrote the whole song, and then I was like, “I’m gonna say, ‘Swag’ in the middle.” It just came to me ‘cause I think the music is laid out so perfectly, and I love that. That’s why I loved working with 9th Wonder—when producers paint me into a corner, I think that’s some of my best work, because I have zero musical input to put in anything.
So if you give me a track like that, I feel like it’s a challenge and I rise to it. And a lot of it came from me listening to the guitar and trying to follow the pattern and the rhythm and mimic that. Listening to a lot less Rap over the past three or four years has also helped me. And things like the “Guilty Of Being White” cover, I really wanted to do that. I remember people telling me about it for so long, and I sat down and watched the Minor Threat documentary talking about that song. I was like, “Yo, if I was your age, and you made that song, I’d fucking kick your ass,” you know? But, a White kid growing up in DC, I got it. It was just weird for me. I don’t think a surf-punk from LA has any business making that song, but a White kid growing up in DC in the ‘70s and the ‘60s and probably being a victim of the Black Power movement, I really got it. When I first heard it I was like, “Fuck this guy,” and even watching him explain it I was like, “Fuck you.” And then, thinking about all this in DC [and the time], I get it. I understand. I thought it was important to do that song, and that’s a lot of screaming. At the end of [our] version you can hear me say, “I can’t do it anymore.” I have friends in hardcore bands, and [they] go out there, scream [their] fucking faces off every night, and I could barely get through one take of that song without feeling like I was gonna die.
So, I don’t know if I answered the question, but I think Punk is an energy. Punk and Hip Hop are very similar energies, so coming with that wasn’t really hard, but the music is what really brought it out. I don’t know why they think I can rap, anyone could rap to half the shit they were making.
Darryl Jenifer: I know some of the Rock aspects of White Mandingos maybe would jump out at like a hardcore singer, so I just look at it as, “If you want to spit flurries, cool. But you don’t necessarily have to.” You can break up what you’re gonna do like a percussion instrument, where it’s more about what you’re trying to say or just trying to flex rhythm with words. So sometimes I’d suggest a particular flow.
You know I was a B-boy a long time ago when [Hip Hop] first came out in the early ‘80s. I wrote rhymes back then. I thought it was cool, so I kicked my own raps. But I always thought I was too old to rap, even though I was like 24. I would’ve been pretty good if I had stuck with it, but my whole shit was more about composition and music.
Sacha Jenkins: That’s what’s interesting about it to me. You know me and Darryl produce the songs together, and I’m kind of the bridge between both of those guys. I’m the guy who grew up in Hip Hop and Hardcore at the same time—although Darryl knows a shit-load about Rap and was there from the beginning. I’m kind of like a bridge as far as generations. And in terms of the sensibilities, we were playing together. Honestly we were just going with what we felt would be different, interesting and fresh. [We were] really working to come up with music that had all these elements, spoke to the heart and soul of both of these communities but also had a tone and distinct identity.
For instance, a song like “Mandingo Rally,” I was always a huge Bad Brains fan. And we have access to all these Bad Brains songs. What’s a sample that we can flip? So we flipped “Rally Around Jah Throne,” and it’s fast as hell. So when Murs is saying, “Some of this stuff, what the hell am I gonna do with it? It’s x-amount of bars.” When he’s breaking it down to me and how it all works, and I’m like “I don’t know, I’m not a rapper.” So I wasn’t even thinking in terms of like…
Murs: I wish we could put out an instrumental version of this record so mothafuckas could really hear what I was doing.
Sacha Jenkins: Right.
Murs: The loop is off. The loop is fucking off; It’s not even a 4/4 loop.
Sacha Jenkins: Right, exactly. Well, that’s the thing; a lot of Wu-Tang Clan’s stuff is off. To me that first Wu-Tang album is Punk. That is a hard-ass, Hardcore record, and that’s why it’s stood the test of time. It changed people’s sensibilities when it came to production in music. That’s why an artist like Neil Young…I’m a huge Neil Young fan, because if you listen to his music you can hear all kinds of fuck ups. You can hear all kinds of things that are off: people off-key [and] you hear shit falling down. But it’s really all about the performance. For me, it was inspiring to hear what this dude was dropping from outside the booth and when he explained afterwards. Like I said, I’m not a rapper. He’s like, “Do you understand what I had to do to turn this into something in terms of how I had to flow to make it work?” Yeah, I guess if there was an instrumental record, people who are fans of the art of Rap would literally see what the hell this crazy dude had to do to make it work.
DX: So on a couple levels this album is a discourse on race and identity. Obviously there’s the narrative itself, but I think more generally it speaks to the question of what constitutes Black music and what it means to be Black in America. What were you trying to drive at here?
Sacha Jenkins: I think identity in general is something that most people grapple with—especially in America where there are so many different labels, so many different boxes that people put you into for various reasons. For me, I realize that in my golden years, I sort of created my own identity in that. Yes, my mom’s from Haiti, and yes my father is African-American. My experience encompasses the entire slave experience on this side of the world, and it also encompasses the formation of America—inside of me is America, in terms of what came together to create the individual that I am today. But, in the process of becoming the person that I am, at a young age I was dealing with different kinds of things that people felt was [weird]—growing up across the street from the projects, being into Rock, being into skateboarding was just a foreign thing.