Saigon Details Quitting "Love & Hip Hop" Midseason & Derides Hip Hop's Imbalance
Exclusive: Saigon explains his hopes for a better mix of business and commerce in Hip Hop with his Squid Ink Squad imprint and how actor Omar Epps surprised him with his mic skills.
Click, clack, fire. The sounds of a weapon that when operated correctly, has the power to damage lives, influence the youth, and cripple millions. It’s a weapon that has been yielding a lot of attention recently in Hip Hop, and one that definitely caught Saigon with a stray shot. No blood was shed by the Brooklyn emcee, however, because the most damaging shots towards Saigon this past year weren’t fired from a pistol, but through eyes of a camera lens.
And the result of those Love & Hip Hop clips getting emptied? A twisted irony that has enveloped and almost defined Saigon in 2014. In audio form, he was a man providing progressive lyricism and uplifting ideals, but in television form, seemed to have been just another puzzle piece in what many say to be one of the most negative aspects of the Hip Hop culture. It left many questioning which Saigon is reality and which is fiction, but judging from recent dialogue and his latest single “Sinner’s Prayer,” the former appears to be the real Yard Father.
HipHopDX recently caught up with Saigon and discussed working with DJ Premier on his latest album, the ideals behind his new website and record label, and the marginalization of people on reality TV.
Saigon Compares Major Label Deals & Marketing To Slavery
HipHopDX: With everything that you’ve gone through regarding record labels, how does it feel to finally be releasing your own music, your own way, on your own label?
Saigon: Ah man, I feel liberated, so liberated as an artist. It feels like having financial freedom, like being rich, being able to do what you want to do. It’s using your own money to do your own things, and you’re able to delegate where you want the money to go and how you want it to be spent. All of that is so important as an artist, and these young guys that want to be in the game don’t realize a record deal is a bank loan with a very high interest rate. They wanna make sure they make their money back, so they gonna control where the money goes. So all of your artistic value is usually gonna be compromised, you know?
DX: How will your mentality as an emcee be assisting you in running Squid Ink Squad, and what are the label’s main objectives going forward?
Saigon: You know the label’s main objective is first to add some balance, not only add balance to the artform, but to the business model. I believe you should get paid for your work. I think slavery ended a long time ago, and a lot of these artists got slave deals. They’re in very terrible deals. We try to give artists transparent deals so they see where the money is being spent and they see where their money is going. And I feel from the first CD you sell, you should make money from it. It shouldn’t be a, “Once we recoup our money, then we make money, then you get paid” [situation], because it’s your hard work. It’s your art that they’re selling. So from that standpoint, we want to do that. As far as responsibility, I want to make sure there’s some responsibility in the artform.
They say black men are notorious in our culture with running away from our responsibilities, like single parents, fathers not being involved with the kids and things of that nature. I think there’s a reflection of what’s going on in the art with that stereotype, ‘cause nobody feels they have a sense of responsibility as a man. You gotta understand, this music is marketed to children. They’ll tell you you’re too old to rap or you’re too old to be in this genre, so they letting you know this is marketed for the youth. But if you look at the content of it, it’s all adult content; it’s sex, it’s violence, and it’s drugs. So are how you marketing sex, violence, and drugs towards children? And for Hip Hop, something that started in our backyard, something that started as a cry for help, for this to be the main representation? Such irresponsibility. It’s sad, man. It’s sad to look at because it’s like it became a commercial for Louis Vuitton, Mercedes Benz, and whatever the flavor of the week is. That’s what Hip Hop has become instead of teaching our kids certain things that Hip Hop has the power to do. Being that the kids love it, why not put something good in it? It’s sad man.
DX: On “Sinner’s Prayer” you spit, “We still don’t know the real definition of Congress, I love the Obama’s, Barack and Michelle, but it’s been five years and my block still hot as hell.” Now you’ve been outspoken about Obama’s presidency for some time now, is your patience starting to wear thin?
Saigon: What I’m starting to realize is, it’s starting to feel like that was just another “keep them complacent” bone. Every now and then to prevent people from rebelling, and not even saying that we have a rebellious spirit, but to keep people complacent, you gotta make it seem like you’re giving them what they want. Because if you remember, when Obama was running, his whole thing was “change.” That was what got everybody so riled up. Things are gonna change, everything is gonna change. Change, change, change. And every black person in America that voted for Obama was expecting change, and I haven’t even seen changes in the black community, not one. It’s actually worse! If you look at Chicago, look at some of these places, and it’s funny if you say Chicago because that’s Obama’s back yard, these kids are dying...like 20-30 kids every weekend. So why are guns still so accessible in black neighborhoods? You can’t as the President of the USA make it harder to access firearms? Why is it so easy to access a handgun for a young, black man? We can’t go get grenades and shit. We can’t go get rocket launchers and missile launchers, but we can go get firearms because we just kill each other with them? And that’s the main problem, because if they take away the guns, dudes would be fist fighting again. But you’d live to see another day.
Saigon Applauds Omar Epps’ Rhyming Skills On “Sinner’s Prayer”
DX: Your site features a clip of you explaining how Omar Epps bodied you and Pap during the recording of “Sinner’s Prayer.” How impressed were you with his bars, and do you think he has a chance to blow up?
Saigon: Omar doesn’t really need to blow up in Hip Hop, because he’s very rich [laughs]. But it’s funny because me and Papoose were making a joke before. I had sent it to both of them, and I put my verse on it to set the tone and let them know what direction I was going in. And I got Papoose’s version back… actually I got Omar’s version back first the next day! But I didn’t open it, and then I got Papoose’s verse back two days later. So I listened to Papoose’s verse and was like, “Pap went in,” so I was like, “Damn how is Omar’s?” ‘cause I hadn’t listened to it yet. So I called Pap and was like, “I ain’t listened to it yet, but what if it’s super wack, how do I tell him [laughs]? He’s a homie, like how do I tell him that we can’t use it? Or do we just use it anyways?” So we laughing and joking about it, then Omar sends this verse. I listen to it and I’m like, “Shit, he might have killed both of us.” Pap was like, “Get outta here,” and I was like, “Yo, he bodied the record.” He says some lines in that song man, like, “trying to hide from the eyes of God is really a joke,” which is true. A lot of people think they doing dirt like nobody sees them, but God sees all. Like, he always could rhyme, but I didn’t know he could rhyme like that.
DX: That seemed to catch everyone off guard?
Saigon: Yo... he caught all of us off guard and even had people online saying we helped him. I was like, “Shit, I wish. I’ll take the credit,” but we ain’t help him do nothing. If anything, we probably could’ve went to him for some help [laughs]. Yeah, he went in, and we’ve been working on some more stuff. Now he caught that rapper bug. I think he reading them comments of what people saying so now he like, “Oh they want more?” So I think you might be hearing a little bit more from O. He ain’t trying to come out as a rapper, but he wanna be like a sniper, every now and then put something out there.
DX: Speaking of your website, I read somewhere that you wanted HipHopMyWay.com to be like the new “Unsigned Hype,” what exactly did you mean by that, and how is that process coming along thus far?
Saigon: It’s coming along good, man. We got like 50 to 60 artists up there already, and now that the website is starting to catch on, they starting to get shine. It might not be like being on HipHopDX or being on AllHipHop, but it’s somewhere where people can go and check out what’s new...what’s bubbling. So it’s almost like a breeding ground before you make it to a DX. If they had this when I was coming up, I would’ve loved it. So I thought about when I was a new artist, standing in front of The Source magazine trying to get “Unsigned Hype,” standing in front of XXL just trying to get my music heard and just trying to get a platform. If there’s no platform for these artists, let’s create one. So I decided to create one for not just artists, but producers.
I wanted it to be all around Hip Hop like breaking artists, breakers, b-boys. That’s an element of Hip Hop that really don’t get no love because you can’t really package it and sell it. You can’t really package and resell some parts of the culture, so they get overlooked. But yeah, we talking about the real essence of Hip Hop, as well as the overall. We gonna cover the main things as well, like the news and what’s going on, and the gossip as well. At the same time, what I think makes HipHopMyWay.com so special is that we cater to people who can’t go nowhere and get no love. I remember being that artist [laughs]. I remember trying to get on HipHopGame back in the day. HipHopGame.com was the main website to get your audio up on, like, “Yo I’m on HipHopGame!” was a big deal to us. So I wanted to create somewhere like that for new artists, and hopefully they appreciate it.
How DJ Premier Helped Saigon Refocus After His Mother’s Passing
DX: You’ve said that this was the quickest album you’ve ever written. What made the ideas flow so effortlessly this time around, and how do you feel it stacks up against your previous albums in the trilogy?
Saigon: I was going through so much, and my mother died in 2009. When my moms died, I went into a very dark time in my life. My mother was my very best friend in the world, so I went through a very dark time. And during that time, I went through years without caring about my life. I was back in the streets, I didn’t care about music, and I didn’t care about my career. I had like three children; I got two kids a month apart because I didn’t care. I went through a phase where I didn’t care about nothing. It was like, “My mother’s gone, there’s no reason to live,” so I went and started being irresponsible. I got two kids, a daughter and a son, a month apart. If my mother was here, none of this would have been happening. So I went through a really dark, dark, dark period in my life. And I even ended up on a reality show [laughs]. Like, that ain’t even my thing.
I ended up on a reality show that I knew dealt with ignorance at its fullest extent. I’m up there yelling and screaming at a girl because we don’t know each other, but I bring her on TV without even knowing her. My life was troubling. So as an artist, when you go through all this BS, it’s at the forefront of your mind. You start to jot stuff down, and little things become songs. Even “Sinner’s Prayer” started when I was doing all this dirt, and I was like, “Damn, I hope I’m not doing too much where God don’t forgive me for this dumb shit [laughs].” And not even that I’m super religious, it was more so just saying I hope karma don’t come back and bite me in the ass for some of these stupid mistakes I’m making. Even though a lot of them were calculated mistakes, I would be like, “Is this going to make it worse?” So “Sinner’s Prayer” became a song, and I got a song called “Come Alive” where I was like, “I gotta wake up out of this darkness.”
This is the most honest album I ever did, and I went and got DJ Premier, because I always wanted to work with Premier. A lot of people don’t know this, but I like to use one producer for most of my projects. I think The Greatest Story Never Told Chapter 2: Bread and Circuses was the only one where I really didn’t. The Greatest Story Never Told, Just Blaze pretty much did the whole record. When I did All in a Day’s Work, I did the whole project with Statik Selektah. When I did most of my mixtapes, Scram Jones would do the whole mixtape. Even when I was working with Alchemist, me and Alchemist did eight or nine records. But I never worked with Premier up until this point. I had a project on his album, but we never had a Saigon/Premier record. We got four of them on this new album, and he just came with the perfect backdrop for what I had to say. So when I started working with him, the rhymes started coming easier, and I think lyrically, this is by far my best work.
DX: How was it in the studio with Premier, and how did y’all link up for this project?
Saigon: Well I had been waiting for this Premier beat for...not even exaggerating, for like 11 years. Preem will tell you, I’ve been waiting 11 years to work with him. It got to the point where me and Preem were about to fight, ‘cause I’m like “Yo man, what the fuck? You keep tellin’ me this and that.” Like we about to have a physical altercation? But he was like, “You know what Sai, you right, you right.” Because he knew I was right, and I wasn’t just trying to start shit. I’m thinking, “I love you as a big brother,” ‘cause me and him are close, but [he was] killin’ me! Before I retire, can the world hear Saigon and Premier together?
He actually gave one of my records to REKS. The last single on REKS last album, the Premier record, was my beat. So he finally gave me one, then he took it back and gave it to REKS [laughs]. I was like, “Ah, shit no.” He’s such an honorable person, he said, “You know what, Sai? Being that I made you wait so long, let’s go in. Let’s do more than one. Let’s bang out a few.” And when I get in that zone, when I get in my Yard Father Zone, we made some great records. We made some records that are gonna shock the people.
We did one with Big Daddy Kane… Ah man, it’s pretty damn nuts. I got another record called “Mechanical Animals,” where I took four generations of Hip Hop and put them on one song. It’s like Kool G Rap reps the ‘80s... Memphis Bleek, who is so underrated to me as a emcee ‘cause he’s been behind that big ass sun named Jay Z all his career [laughs]. It’s hard to shine behind Jay Z, but Bleek could really rap. But he’ll rep the ‘90s, I will represent the 2000s, then I got Lil Bibby from Chicago who will represent like the 2010s and the new, young era. And we all come together on one song to show that four generations of Hip Hop can rock on one record, and it can still sound incredible.
Saigon Details VH1 Production Fights & Rift With Erica Jean
DX: How does it make you feel that your time on Love and Hip Hop New York got so much media attention, but your appearance on Iyanla: Fix My Life didn’t seem to make waves at all? What do you think it says about the consumers as well?
Saigon: It goes to show you the state of our people. When I say “our people” I don’t mean black, I mean [the] state of young America, ‘cause I don’t think this is about color when we deal with the youth anymore. When little kids come up to me and say, “Yo, Saigon from Love & Hip Hop!” and they’re like seven or eight years old, I go, “Your mother let’s you watch that?” Because all they put the spotlight on is ignorance. We shot a lot of things that if they would’ve showed it, would have showed me in another light. But when they shoot you for six months, they’re gonna get some bad times as well. We shot for six months, and all they showed was the bad stuff.
I’ma tell HipHopDX some real shit. I quit in the middle of that show. This is why it came out bad and why VH1 kind of had something personal against me. I used to curse the producers out. Ask anybody...Peter Gunz, Joe Budden. I told them, “All y’all do is marginalize anything we do positive. Anything that makes us look good, you marginalize it, and then you put a spotlight on the negativity. I understand that it’s a reality show and you need drama, but where’s the balance?”
It’s almost like in Hip Hop, there’s no balance in that. They marginalize anything that’s remotely going to make you look like an intelligent individual. They want a love triangle. They want a cheater. They want scandal. I went up there with a girl I didn’t know, and once she figured out the more you argue the more camera time you get, all she cared about was camera time. So once them cameras went on, every little thing was an argument with her. I was like, “Yo, stop, we got our son up here, we don’t have to be up here acting like idiots.” And even before I brought her on, I told her, “If you going to be up here acting like these girls, don’t even do it.” She’s like, “No I’m not gonna do it.” As soon as she figured out the more you act like an asshole the more they keep the camera on you, she ran with it. Which is why until this day me and that girl don’t speak. So that show kind of messed up my friendship with a woman I have a child with, ‘cause I didn’t know her. I had the baby during that dark time. It was a girl I was having sex with, but the normal me would have used protection. I knew this girl for seven years, and we never had unprotected sex until close to my mother dying.
But yeah, anything that makes us look good they not gonna show. They got their favorites they cool with, so they never gonna make them look stupid. But when you just go up there it’s different. They got people with sex tapes who got kids on the show. The things people do for fame, Lawrence? It’s crazy. I got to see it firsthand, and its not even fame! The most you get out of this is somebody wanna take a picture with you. That’s it [laughs]. That’s it. This girl told me, “My fan base is bigger than yours.” I was like, “You got a fan base? For what? For me cursing you out? Now you got fans?” Like what do your fans like you for, for what? Your body’s fake. Everything about you is fake. We know that. It’s been documented. Everything about you is fake, [and] you have no talent, so what do you have fans for?
DX: The term celebrity definitely gets tossed around very loosely nowadays.
Saigon: Exactly. I tell people all the time, “I’m no celebrity, man.” Don’t confuse being popular with being a celebrity. And most celebrities who are endeared, are endeared for their talent. Whether it’s a great actor, a great singer, a great comedian, the ones that are endeared are admired because of their talent not just because they’re on TV. This reality show shit got everything so misconstrued, people think, “Oh just because I’m recognizable, I’m famous.” No you’re just recognizable. People just like to say, “Oh, I met this guy,” and that’s it. That’s the extent of it. I mean, JJFish is recognizable! If I see JJFish, I might want a picture with him just to laugh about it. I’m not even gonna lie. I’d tell people, “Look who I just seen,” but not ‘cause I admire him or cause I’m a fan. It’ll just be for recreation. And homegirl don’t understand that.
Why Saigon Links Hip Hop’s Lack Of Balance With Commerce
DX: I know you feel a lot of the artists in Hip Hop right now aren’t really saying much, and/or just don’t possess any lyrical talent, but what are some artists that you feel are holding it down for the culture?
Saigon: I think first of all, the industry is overcrowded. When we were growing up, you had to be good at it. Now anybody could do it. Remember Humpty, right? Shock G was such a genius. He knew how to make people believe he was two different people. One of them was a serious guy, and one was Humpty, the clown, which in itself was a talent. But now, all we got is a whole bunch of Humptys. And once one person says, “Hey! If he could do that, I could do that, because it doesn’t take a lot of talent.” So people see that, and then you have this guy pop up, that guy pop up. And all it takes is to get a hot song going [and then] next thing you know, you’ll be here for a day, [or] a week, and then you’re gone.
Where’s the guy that made the motorcycle dance? Where’s “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It?” Gone. Where’s the Laffy Taffy dance? Gone. Where’s “Walk It Out?” Gone. Shit is not art. Corporations know how to monetize it for that minute. They made the quick buck, then threw you back to wherever you came from. And now even if you wanted to come back, like, “Alright I’m serious now,” ain’t nobody gonna take you serious because they remember you as the clown. Everybody can’t be Tupac. Tupac had an excuse. He was a teenager doing Humpty and all that. When I see the kids get into it, I understand. ‘Cause when we were the kids, we liked to do the Humpty. We used to like to do the Running Man for hours. But when I see these grown ass men making these songs and they in their 30s and 40s? I’m like, “Bro, they got you.” Nas got a song called “2nd Childhood,” and it’s about those who don’t want to grow up. I think a lot of the artists that we have are in their second and third childhood. It’s just money, man. You know the saying, “Mo’fucka will do something strange for some change?” That applies to Hip Hop so much now, and that’s everybody’s excuse for not being responsible: “I’m getting money, I’m getting money.” Nicki Minaj could go butt ass naked, and when people start jumping at her throat, what she gonna say? “I’m gettin’ money, though.”
DX: Or the ever so popular, “I’m getting them checks though.”
Saigon: Yeah, it’s like, “Is that all you are, a person that gets checks? There’s nothing more to your character than that? You know what they say, it’s a pimps and hoes thing. Because the labels are the pimps, you understand what I’m saying? The labels are the pimps. And there’s a philosophy, anybody that understands pimpin’ and hoeing, that goes, “If a hoe don’t make no money, a pimp will go out there and sell his own ass.” Because all they care about is money, there’s no kind of moral, there’s no integrity, and that’s just what it is.
So you look at these people... One affected was homegirl from Love & Hip Hop. She’s willing to go on air, throw out a blatant sextape with her getting screwed in her mouth and her vagina with a five-year-old daughter, just for that 15 minutes of fame. Nobody shuns it. Nobody with a real voice shuns it. All the big artists are supposed to speak up.
Why don’t any of these big artists speak up about all these kids dying in Chicago? But let a new drink come out, [and] they’ll all be pushing it. But where’s our black voices? Where are our voices about all these kids dying every day? Why have they not done a summit? Why have they not done anything [tangible]? Why haven’t they said, “OK, we’re gonna get a press conference with all the biggest artists?” We used to do it back in the day when all the kids were dying. We went and made “Self Destruction.” When all the kids in L.A. were gangbanging and it got out of control, we went and made “We’re All In The Same Gang” with Ice T, Ice Cube, [and] all of the biggest artists out. Today’s dudes won’t even speak on it! Shit is sad. That goes to show you the state of our culture. Hip Hop culture is about growth and development. I used to learn how to read [from rappers]. I used to learn vocabulary words from rappers. When rappers like Kool G Rap would put out a song or KRS-One... I didn’t even know what philosophy meant ‘til I heard “My Philosophy.” I went and looked the word up, learned to spell it, all of that. You listen to Rap nowadays, what can you learn from someone repeating three words over and over again? But that’s the formula in 2014. Find the quote, repeat it, make up a sound, and that’s the formula for this beautiful culture that’s used to raise our babies.
DX: There was a time when you said you were ready to walk away from the music industry. Has the industry changed since then, or has it been more your evolution as an artist and man?
Saigon: I love Hip Hop. I just wanted to walk away from the business standpoint. I could never stop rapping, because I love to rap. That’s partially how I learned how to express myself. As a kid I was very shy, and I didn’t talk much. But I used to make these little raps, and the only person that knew I rapped was my sister. My sister was like my first fan. I was in a Rap group one time, and the only people that knew I rapped were the other members, because any time we were in public they’d be like, “Go ahead, you good,” and I was always like, “Nope.” People would ask if I rapped and they would say, “Yeah he raps around us, but nobody else [laughs].”
The reason it was always so hard for me with business was because I didn’t come into it for money. I knew the impact, good and bad, that Hip Hop had on me. Because there was a time when I was in the street and I would hear a Mobb Deep song, “To all the killas and the hundred dolla’ billas..." I was gonna split somebody’s head open when that song came on. When Onyx said, “Throw your guns in the air," I went and got me a gun and shot it off the roof. I cut three lines in my eyebrows ‘cause I saw Big Daddy Kane do it. So, these guys hold a lot of influence, and they know it. So they go, “OK, do I use my influence for good, or do I say fuck it and go for the money.” And 99% of them go for the money.
Did you ever watch wrestling growing up? Do you remember Ted DiBiase, “The Million Dollar Man?” He had this bodyguard named Virgil. And Virgil would do anything he said, and when Virgil would do it he would say, “Everybody got a price for The Million Dollar Man.” And that’s what it is. Corporations in Hip Hop became Ted, and these rappers are a bunch of Virgils man. They’ll do anything for a fuckin’ dollar. It’s sickening, but its what we up against.