Chino XL Reveals The Struggles Within Family, Instances Of Vulnerability
Exclusive: The veteran emcee expands on some of his most life-changing moments, explains how he translated a portion of them to music, helping him and others get through tough life encounters.
No other genre in the history of American music has ever played a more tough-guy persona so obviously than Rap music. Whether it’s through the accounts of street life on wax or the constant chest pounding of a strong diss record, Hip Hop has never been one to shy away from portraying a hard body life but usually one to look down upon more sensitive matters.
Traditionally, music in general has always been a place for artists to not only make something that grooves but also, something that can be heart-felt. When it comes to Hip Hop’s history, few do emotional records better than Chino XL. Soon to be releasing his first album in six years, Chino spent a lot of time in music endeavors outside of the studio but fought with many personal matters inside of his heart.
“A lot of the internal issues and a lot of the things in my past affect my present,” he says. “I just kind of felt like the pen was just kind of like going in it’s own direction and it was just kind of what I wanted to get out of my system like for good.”
With 20-plus years in the game, Chino XL has seen and been through it all. His lyrics are never candy and roses but are always real and when it comes to expressing vulnerability, he wants to make clear that sensitivity should not be confused with weakness.
“When you connect with an artist on a level that you feel it’s your own personal reference, your own guide or your own inspiration and it feels like it helps you get you through your day without screaming, it’s magnanimous to you,” he explains.
HipHopDX recently caught up with Chino XL as he detailed his newest album, RICANstruction: The Black Rosary, his career over the past five years and how music can help one deal with painful struggle in life.
HipHopDX: First off, what’s been up man? What’s been up with Chino XL recently?
Chino XL: Basically chillin.’ I’m like your quintessential - as corny as it might be, your historical cliché artist, the creative crazy-type when it comes to having to promote and having to do all that stuff, it gets a little strange for me sort of because you make all of this stuff and you’re not exactly in the spaces that you were in when you made the music so it gets a little weird, it’s kind of strange like you’re putting your kids up and like, “let’s examine them,” so I’m kind of going through that a little bit, it’s a little weird but other than that man no complaints, I’m cool.
DX: It’s been six years since you’ve dropped a studio LP and before we get into it, what’s it like just releasing an album after all this time?
Chino XL: Well the promoting part of it, it can get a little weird sometimes because you don’t wanna become a cheap commercial for yourself. You wanna be as genuine as you possibly can and true to the project and the space you were in when you created the music. It definitely wasn’t a getting back on the horse thing because I do so many guest appearances and so many shows and it’s funny 'cause [Immortal] Technique always tells me that because I do so many guest appearances and stuff like that it keeps me sharp. Other than the promoting aspect of it and talking to people about the music [it’s] definitely a labor of love man.
DX: Obviously you know how to adapt to changing times, that’s why you’ve been around for 20 years but do you ever feel nervous about the type of reaction you’re going to get with releasing a new project, a new LP like this?
Chino XL: Nah not really because you’ve gotta look at it from two different ways. Because I’m not really interested in the commerce aspect of it, I’m not nervous about it at all. As far as creative goes, I’m not nervous either, I feel like the tide and going back to what you were saying about the times and the times evolving I feel like there’s a renaissance in interest in lyricism so there’s no better time for me to drop. I’ve seen the change in maybe the complete dynamic of where commercial music and underground music have separated so much that I don’t think the fans and the people who love the music are confused anymore, they know where to go to get the kind of drama they want so it feels good to be around in a time when there’s lots of live festivals that are catering to the music of the golden era, which I enjoy so much and I feel a product of. It’s really a great time my man people really do care about lyrics again.
DX: Even though there are those lines that define what is commercial and what is underground I think a lot of those lines are blurred too. Someone like a Kendrick Lamar can eat by doing both but not having to change much of himself and make good music. Do you feel like those lines have been blurred more too?
Chino XL: Absolutely. I think the music itself is being appreciated more from the outside in. I think that the people who have paid their dues love the music and when I say, “Paid their dues,” that doesn’t necessarily mean a career. I mean paid dues as in put their 10,000 hours into being wizards and masters of their craft. I think people learn to appreciate what we do as artists, as a community and as a culture of hip-hop music and part of a lyricist that we don’t have to blur the lines on what is what anymore. It’s more like, “Okay, this person gets down to what they get down to and see the music the way they see it.” And we might not be necessarily classified in the same group of music, however the way they feel about what it is that they do is passionate in the way that I feel about my music is passionate and the two meet on a certain level cause we all grew up loving Rakim or whatever the Rakim of the time was to them. Personally, when I see an artist like Kendrick Lamar, they stay true to what he does and being so well-received across the board definitely makes me happy.
DX: Speaking on your latest album, RICANstruction: The Black Rosary, what can fans expect on this one?
Chino XL: A lot of it is introspective, a lot of it is very dense, very dense composition, a lot of exercises, I did a lot of alliterations, there’s lots of wordplay, metaphors, oxy-morons, there’s just a lot of work and craftsmanship into it and it’s definitely a journey and an encapsulation of what I’ve been feeling and what I want to express for probably like the last four years so for anybody who is a supporter of my music, they’ll be able to listen to this one and it is definitely not disposable. It was definitely like, “Okay, when he did these other projects you could tell this is what’s going on in his life cause he explained it and this one doesn’t fall short of that.”
DX: Right and those concepts you mention, the metaphors and wordplay are typical of what you do anyway. The “Rican” part of the title playing off the fact that you have a Puerto Rican heritage but also perhaps a reconstruction or a reemergence back into the hip-hop scene since it’s been a while and there are so many new artists out vying for publicity?
Chino XL: Definitely, and I like the way you noticed that there was more than one entendre in the word “RICANstruction.” Sure, it’s more built from the inside out in that it is a lot of me reconstructing myself but it isn’t as much as the actual journey as much as it is how you view your own journey and how you color your own journey, how you feel about your own journey and how your own journey can affect others. I realized that one gift that I have is that I’m a writer who inspires writers to write and I’m proud of that so that’s just one of the aspects of my own reconstruction. When you feel it and you feel like the winds are blowing and it’s time to get out there and inspire, it’s just time to do that and I really feel like this is the time because there is a certain void of a depth of music that I notice that people really crave for because everybody doesn’t always have good days and everybody’s fantasy is not to have a big car and to be in the club and get the girl with the biggest ass, I mean it’s great but that’s not everybody’s interest. There are people with a lot of different struggles going on and those are internal.
DX: You get really personal on this thing too. You talk about abuse you’ve suffered as a child, and some other personal subjects. As you mentioned, this is a very introspective album but why is now the time to come forward with this?
Chino XL: I’ve always discussed those issues whether it be on my second album, [I Told You So, on the song] “Water” and especially on Poison Pen I do that a lot. One of the songs from [RICANstruction: The Black Rosary], "She Wants Revenge," one of the lines is like, “It’s the time of your life and you don’t even know.” Always been a weird thing with me is wanting to get past a lot of the issues, like I said a lot of the internal issues and a lot of the things in my past affect my present so when you’re having that good day or you’re having an inspiration in your life or an epiphany, you want to be in the present and you wanna be clear and I just kind of felt like the pen was just kind of like going in it’s own direction and it was just kind of what I wanted to get out of my system like for good, if that makes any sense? So then you leave all of that inside the booth, you leave it on the stage, you leave it on the paper for your own self and then you give it to the world and then when I’m at shows or whatever, I remember not too long ago a guy comes up to me at a show and says, “My wife would really like to talk to you if you’ve got some time,” and I’m like, “Okay.” So I went over to talk to her and she was just literally crying her eyes out letting me know that the song I have called “Water” affected her and it made her feel like she could go on. And as corny as that might seem, as you start to go through this creative process and journey you start to realize that that is how you fit in. There’s a huge tapestry of music and creativity in the world and well where do I fit in? And that’s really what you can thank a certain amount of longevity for because you have the ability to see what really matters and to me, being able to make that connection. I remember performing “Wordsmith” for an at-risk youth group with Immortal Technique. He took me to one in Oakland, California and when I did the song, I was amazed by how many people knew the song already, I thought I was introducing them to something new and they’re like, “No.” That song, for anybody who’s studying something or wants to be something in life, it lets them know that it’s okay to go in internal and focus and want to achieve things that people think that you can’t do. I don’t know it’s just a time to un-bottle all that and for me to explore some new avenues of creativity.
DX: Hip Hop especially has a tendency to make everyone into a tough guy or tough girl. You mention that experience with that woman at your show as, “corny” and I’m sure that a lot of people may look at it that way but could that possibly be a problem, that emcees are looked down upon when they tell true stories that have helped people through difficult situations?
Chino XL: Definitely. I should have used the word “cliché” and not the word “corny,” but it is good that you do bring that up. I think so for sure I mean, I was working on a film and Scarface was directing it and the first thing that came out of my mouth when I met him for the first time, and obviously he’s the one who booked me, I was like, “I really wanna thank you for some of the music that you did that got me through some tough times.” And it’s so real and it sounds like just like I said, “So cliché and so typical,” but when you connect with an artist on a level that you feel it’s your own personal reference, your own guide or your own inspiration and it feels like it helps you get you through your day without screaming, it’s magnanimous to you. I was in Boston or in the Boston area and I did “Wordsmith” and I had my eyes closed through half the song and when I opened my eyes, there’s just a sea of people with cell phones and lighters up and that’s the type of thing that makes you keep going especially if it’s a song that you really just roll because that’s how you felt, you had no plans, no diagram. You had no schematic and demographic of, “Oh I’m gonna try to reach.” This is just really how I see my life the day of. But sometimes man maybe it’s not an artist’s fault, probably a lot of artists have a lot of songs like that but maybe it’s pressure from commerce and from the commercial world that suppress those kinds of thoughts because maybe they’re not as marketable. People diagram plans on how they’re supposed to be, coming up with something that they feel everybody can relate to so it’s a big mystery wrapped in an enigma dude but it seems to me that the music that lasts is music that people lived with, for me personally and I think myself and a lot of people that are my friends that are true music lovers, we’re a good gage of the longevity of music so hopefully I can fit into that big tapestry somehow.
DX: A lot of timeless music is usually partially based on the fan’s connection with the music. But speaking of the more personal tracks, on this project, “Father’s Day” is the track that is perhaps the most emotional. And anyone can bring up tough situations but you aren’t just raw with emotion, you’re raw on how you put it all together. I’m sure it wasn’t the easiest thing to write but maybe, what was the process and what were you hoping to deliver from it?
Chino XL: I knew from my own self I needed to make a song about that. My daughter having cancer at 10 months, I didn’t know how I wanted to put it together per se. I had kind of tried to do it years ago and it just didn’t pan out exactly right so I kind of tried to tackle it again. There were moments where I just couldn’t get through it. I tried to get past, there were ways I just tried to get past how I felt about it myself and know that it was a piece of technology that needed to get out there, a piece of emotion that somebody really needed and when you talk about things like cancer and sickness and death, as crazy as it might sound, you feel like you’re all alone going through it. I don’t know if it’s environmental, I don’t know what’s going on in the world right now but everyone’s life is so stricken by cancer it’s amazing and in my own personal case, my daughter was 10 months and we had to fight this thing and there was nothing, I felt helpless, there was nothing that I could do accept support her, pray, leave her to doctors and give her the best care but there’s nothing that you can do yourself, you know what I mean? And that faith, it was so humbling, it was so hard to get a grip on. Of course making a song couldn’t match what it was like in real life but as far as the creative process and in a microcosm of feelings, it was a small struggle that was very indicative of the way that it felt and then on top of it, I actually remember playing it for my little girl too. It was a very very emotional thing also but I mean it’s my story but it’s so many people’s story. So many people are dealing with it with themselves and it’s such a courageous thing that they go through and such the support systems that families become that I wanted to share my little story with it and to show people that it affects everyone and it can affect anyone at anytime and I don’t mind being a person that for all my invulnerabilities that we’re all vulnerable to that. I bet you that if Superman was a real person, his family would probably have issues with it too.
DX: I’ve heard that you’re a member of MENSA. I know you don’t like to bring that to the forefront but is there anyway you’d like to speak on your involvement with them?
Chino XL: I’ll just say that it’s an honor. Anything that highlights being intelligent instead of the opposite is good because, for sure, man, in this country we have to start noticing the children and promoting education to children. We’re really rewarding too many people for bad behavior and we need to start focusing on the fact that the people with the bad behavior can get right and focus on the fact that if you’re intelligent and a growing person, you need to be rewarded in your neighborhood not looked upon as a nerd or a geek and we should really get past that.
DX: What’s next for Chino after you drop this double CD?
Chino XL: Um, well obviously touring to bring the music to more places but I’ve already started working on my new project and I’m happy with it so far and I can say that there will never be this long of a space between projects again. In the last four years, I’ve been in this game since I was 16, in the last four years or five years, I’ve done more shows than I’ve did in my whole career before that, I’ve done more guest appearances than I’ve did in my last four years before that so yeah, just working on a new project, working on new projects too. I’m working on some stuff and I’m happy with it and I just can’t wait to for RICANstriction: The Black Rosary to get to the world so I can kind of move past some of those feelings and some of that energy and get onto the new one.