Exclusive: Blueprint explains how his deal with Rhymesayers Entertainment challenged him to be a better musician. He also revisits "Chamber Music."
Columbus, Ohio emcee/producer Blueprint is no stranger to the game. Since 1999 he’s released hundreds of songs in via solo LPs and collaborative efforts like Soul Position and Greenhouse Effect. This week, he’s set to release his 13th solo effort in nine years.
HipHopDX recently caught up with Blueprint to discuss his new album, Deleted Scenes. Released through Rhymesayers Entertainment, Deleted Scenes consists of previously recorded tracks left off of his last album, Adventures in Counter-Culture. Accordingly, Deleted Scenes is a continuation of the same story, though Blueprint notes that the message is “more positive.”
Having observed the state of Hip Hop as a participant for over ten years, Blueprint’s wisdom is captivating. Discussing the first single from Deleted Scenes, “The American Dream”, he notes that values from prior generations have gotten lost along the way. “We look at the people who flaunt the excess the hardest as the biggest examples of the American Dream,” he says. “Meanwhile, the majority of residents have a hard time meeting their basic needs.”
It goes much deeper than that though. According to Blueprint, major labels have capitalized on this sentiment, which has taken some power away from independent labels. He also says it’s up to Independent artists to remain engaged with their fans to counter the effect of materialism on The American Dream.
Blueprint Explains Making Deleted Scenes Out Of Adventures In Counter-Culture
HipHopDX: Deleted Scenes is the new album and it’s comprised of some of the better tracks that didn’t make the cut for your last album, Adventures in Counter-Culture. Stylistically and artistically, what would you say the relationship is between these two albums?
Blueprint: Adventures in Counter-Culture is more exploratory and as that album developed, people were watching me change. It started out fun, then I was drinking, going through an entire change and seeing that I was stagnant. And by the end of that album, it ended on a kind of hopeful, optimistic note about the future.
Deleted Scenes, from what I’ve seen so far, it starts at the ending and it sticks to that throughout. It starts with a more optimistic theme like, “Okay, now what do you do?” So as far as the song context, they’re positive- with the exception of one or two that are real serious- but overall it’s just more positive. The reason some of them didn’t get put on [Adventures in Counter-Culture] was because the theme was more different. I wanted [Adventures in Counter-Culture] to have kind of a rollercoaster feel to it, but Deleted Scenes I kind of wanted to have a really specific feel throughout. So all of those tracks naturally go together a lot easier.
DX: And the first single, “The American Dream,” you talk about financial responsibility as well as how easy it is to spend cash. Could you speak on that track and tell us what the message is?
Blueprint: With “The American Dream,” the first thing I think of…everyone thinks about the American Dream, but everybody has a completely different interpretation of it, to where one person’s dream of what it takes to be happy here can be so simple that another person can completely overlook it. And even for ourselves, we overlook how we were looking at it back then. In the song I’m speaking about how when I was a teenager we just wanted the simplest things; we just wanted fresh clothes so we wouldn’t get picked on at school, and we wanted to have cheap cars that we could drive to the malls, so we worked for that. We understood the American Dream at a fundamental level, but as you get older it completely changes. You still have to do a lot of the same things, but you still have to be aware that your dream is going to get you caught up in a lot of things. And working hard is a hard part of that; it’s what people define the American Dream as.
DX: That connects well with Adventures in Counter-Culture too because [on that one] you’re talking about different ideals of the American Dream. Would you say that the traditional sense of the Dream is getting lost today?
Blueprint: Oh, completely. If we look at what our parents and our parents’ parents were looking for, their American Dream was a lot more solid in what it was. I don’t think they had as much bombardment with consumerism as we do now. We get caught up and think the American Dream is something that just looks good on the surface but doesn’t have a lot underneath it, and it ends up being something that we chase in order to impress others. I don’t really feel like that sentiment existed with my mother or my grandparents, I feel like with them, their dream was really basic as far as, “Look, we just want to be accepted, we just want to have dignity, we want to have a right to pursue financial-spiritual happiness in the American context.” You look at it now, people kind tend to define American Dream as, “Okay, how much more do I have than the other person?” Or, “How much excess can I flaunt?” And we look at the people who flaunt the excess the hardest as the biggest examples of the American Dream. Meanwhile, the majority of residents have a hard time meeting their basic needs.
DX: And especially with people like Kim Kardashian getting all this attention and limelight, how do you think the fight against popular media culture and these twisted ideals of the Dream are going?
Blueprint: Well I think they’re [popular media] winning. [Laughs] I think materialism and conservatism [are] a strong force, and everybody that lives here are subject to those forces, and we are inundated with those images of excess everyday. Just conformity, be it religious, political; it takes a strong person number one, to actually be aware that that web is there, and then number two, to seek to break free from that web.
It seems to me like the number one problem I have with people who are caught up in it is that they don’t even know it’s there. It’s so subversive that people think that they have total control, and they think that everything that they like is their choice, not that they were funneled through a certain path and that that is the most actual fault of being funneled through that system.
So I think the awareness part is the hardest one, and without the awareness it’s hard to get people unplugged from that system.
DX: That’s also something that Hip Hop has been a victim of in recent years. But at the same time we’re getting a lot of new fresh personalities and new identities. Do you think today, emcees are more following a path of counter-culture than in years prior?
Blueprint: I’d say yes and no. I’d say yes in terms of how individual they are as artists. I think that’s a positive. I’d say no in terms of how tied to the system they are.
Ten years ago I would have predicted that major labels would not still be able to sign the hottest, most popular independent acts. But if you look, they’re still being led down that path and funneling [through] that system, and every time one of those guys signs into that system, it takes a little bit of power away from the movement and the excitement that they generated as an independent artist. That’s my biggest disappointment. It’s not that I don’t want them to be successful; I just look at the ones who have managed to stay completely independent and be the most popular independent artist at that moment. I really give those guys a lot of props, because that seems harder to do, even though I thought it would be easier now. The system is very strong now, and the powers-that-be really don’t want the artist to have control and ownership of this art form.
DX: So you think once that idea starts getting more embraced, we take away some power from major labels?
Blueprint: Yeah, completely. There are less major labels now, but there are less independent labels now. There are more successful independent artists, or artists who are making noise I think, and there is more of a structure for them to be successful. The media - at least on the Internet- is not consolidated. You still can make your noise locally and you’re not just waiting on The Source or XXL or these two or three print outlets to validate and or create publicity anymore. And when that’s the case, I think that’s the perfect setting for the artist to start taking more and more ownership. That’s what I’d like to see, because until you have ownership, you’re really unable to speak the true message of independence and counter-culture. You’re still at the mercy of the people who are writing checks.
DX: Absolutely. Switching gears a little bit, in a previous interview with HipHopDX, you said that during the Adventures In Counter-Culture recordings, you were focusing on becoming a better musician and trying to sample less than you usually did. With these last two albums and your pursuits going forward, would you say the days of you sampling a whole riff from a track are coming to an end?
Blueprint: I’d say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if I send something down the Rhymesayers [Entertainment] funnel, if something goes down that way, I have to be very, very mindful. In those instances I’m probably not going to sample that much outside of drums and really small pieces of music, not loops at all, though.
But as far as releasing my own stuff, I’m still finding outlets where I can release my projects with a lot of samples on them. I have a few things I’m working on now that are real heavy sample-based, but those are going to be projects that I try to release for free just to try to avoid getting sued. But I still sample a lot, it’s just that when it comes time to assemble an album for Rhymesayers, who’s distributed by [Warner Music Group], I have to be a lot more careful there.
DX: When you’re making music as opposed to sampling, are you using just a keyboard or do you mess around on other instruments as well?
Blueprint: I start everything at the keyboard right now. Most of the time when I’m in the studio, I’ll sit there for an hour to three hours and just see how many riffs I can write on the piano. Some days I’ll write two or three good ones, some days I’ll write nine or ten good ones and I’ll start there, ‘cause it all starts with the melody. Once I’ve got a melody that’s really strong, that’s when I’ll say “Okay,” start the writing process and see how far I can take it.
But from there, that’s where I start everything, because from the keyboard, you can compose and can pretty much explain what you need to be played to session players. So even songs of mine that are on guitar, like “Radio Inactive”, it started at the keyboard and then I taught the music to live musicians. Then I actually sampled them playing the riff, chopped it up and made the sound like it was still chopped up, even though it was my original music being played.
Blueprint Revisits Chamber Music Album
DX: Your discography and catalog are huge, and you’ve produced so much material. When you’re making beats, what would you say the difference is- if there is any- between your approach on the last album versus an album like Chamber Music?
Blueprint: You know what? Those are kind of similar in that on both of those records versus most of everything else I did in my career, I really did them for me. When I was doing Chamber Music, that was back when there weren’t a lot of Instrumental Hip Hop artists. I think I started working on the record around 2000, and I was into like Prince Paul and DJ Krush and DJ Shadow, and just like - if you look at [De La Soul's] 3 Feet High and Rising and how it used all the vocal samples and stuff, I was in love with that. So I started making Chamber Music as a bugged-out, instrumental album for myself to see if I could do it.
The same thing kind of applied to Adventure in Counter-Culture because there’s a lot of things on there where I would be working on them and I’d be like, “Man, you know what? I think I could make a ‘80s track,” or, “I could make something that’s got horns and guitar and sounds like something that maybe a singer/songwriter puts together.”
So I followed a similar path on those two, but I would say that those two are different from everything else in my catalog. Everything else, I had a specific goal and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to set out and do this specific thing. This specific kind of record.” But Adventures in Counter-Culture and Chamber Music are both probably the freest records I’d say in terms of what I wanted to do going in.
DX: Thinking of a beat like “Pendulum Master,” which is so unique and just incredible, would you say there’s a creative element that carried over from those albums, in that you have the same idea for what you want to lay down on both albums?
Blueprint: Well for a track like “Pendulum Master," the weird thing about that one- and most of the stuff on Chamber Music - is that I only [had] about 15 or 20 seconds of sampling time when I made that record, and I didn’t have a turntable with Pitch Change on it. So as I was making Chamber Music, I would just listen to record after record after record, and I would have one idea, and then I would have to find samples that were already in pitch, perfectly in key. That whole cut-and-paste style of dropping in samples was a template for Chamber Music.
But I was just going wit the flow. Same thing with [Adventures in Counter-Culture], like any time I found something, be it like a Phil Collins drum-break, I’d be like, “Man, that’s pretty fresh,” and then I’d throw it with another idea I already [had] and eventually you’ve got four or five things which are all from different sources. Put ‘em together, and then you start fine-tuning it, and you find that they kind of go together and it creates something unique when you throw all those things together.
So a lot of the time, I kind of take that approach where I’ll just sit down there and whatever comes to me, be it a record or a riff, I’ll kind of develop it, and then I’ll look around and see what else I have, and then I’ll add it to that. It’s trial and error because sometimes a lot of these things don’t fit together naturally. But one you find one that sticks, you kind of keep pushing it as far as you can take it.
DX: That’s really cool, man. On another note, you’ve been blogging on your website for three years now, when you’re online, what is it that usually makes you say, “I’ve got to write about this”?
Blueprint: You know, oddly enough, I think a lot of my topics come from people in my Facebook timeline either doing stuff that’s real dumb or real smart, you know? I’ll be inspired by people saying something that’s awesome, or people are reacting to somebody else saying something. And I’ll see the emotional response that’s there. There are certain people I follow on Facebook just because they’re characters; not because I’m tight with them or anything, but because they have something that’s ridiculous everyday. And there’s certain people who are really socially aware, conscious and their interests [don’t] hang to me.
So when those things collide, between that - and even between just talking to my friends outside of the Internet- those topics are the ones that I try to expand on, especially if they’re topics that involve a lesson, or growth or just learning something. Those are the ones I try to pull from.
DX: So would you say there’s a very human aspect to all of it?
Blueprint: Oh definitely. I strive to write things that people can relate to. I don’t want to be a writer that writes simply for the duty of language, or strictly for purposes of being the most eloquent. That’s not what I try to do, in fact I take it the other direction where, to me, for something to be worthy of writing, I have to know that people can relate to it, at least in blog form. So in that sense, I filter it and always make sure that it has the human element in it. That it’s something that’s not above peoples’ heads.
So I blog about production sometimes, but very rarely, because I know that once you start getting into the technical details of production you lose people. So if I do talk about production, I’ll do it in a way that has a lesson that applies not only to production, but to the creation of any art form.
DX: And going right along with that, has blogging been a useful tool to attract readers that aren’t necessarily Hip Hop fans?
Blueprint: Yeah, definitely. There’s people that... the first time I really noticed that it was starting to pick up people was when I started blogging about quitting alcohol drinking. When I quit drinking I did like three blogs and they were my most popular blogs. But beyond the blogs being the most popular, they were the ones that when people would actually come see me at shows, they would come up and speak to me about it. So I had no idea when I wrote about that that it would be something that resonated beyond my records and made it about more than music to people. And when I did that, I saw it for the first time. I’ve met kids at shows who were in tears, and we talk about the struggles we had with alcoholism, or our family history, or our fathers being alcoholics, and how that affected us. And it’s something that I never thought would happen until I put it out there, and then putting it out there made me see that there’s something that’s in this writing and because we live in a society where everyone’s kind of guarded, there’s nothing wrong with sharing these things and creating a forum for other people to discuss them as well. Because once you put it out there in the public sphere, it’s not just about you anymore; it’s an interaction. So I try to put things that out there that make people think that define myself as human, and hopefully inspire them to interact and think about themselves as I tell my story.
DX: Definitely, and you’re doing that also with all your music videos, I noticed on the website you’ve got a bunch of videos up. Are you finding music videos to be a successful outlet for spreading your music?
Blueprint: Definitely. I got into the video thing kind of late, like two years ago when I got sober. Video production was something that I really started studying, and I had a lot of friends who were into it.
I never want to direct flashy videos, I always look at video, primarily for me, as a tool to be used to articulate my story or a story. Like, things to support narrative, whereas I’m attracted to any art form that allows me to put a narrative out there, so naturally, writing music was the first place where I kind of did that- and writing stories and writing songs. But then you look at blogging, it’s another way where if you embrace and understand narratives, it’s another vehicle and outlet for that.
Then when I started looking at the video thing- documentaries, specifically- I was like, “Man, I’d like to get into documentary work. I’d like to get into this, because it’s another outlet for telling stories and sharing truths with people,” and that’s what kind of led me down the path with creating videos as well. That kind of explains that, because I love that you can explain a story, and you can explain it completely differently than you would on the phone or in written form. I love the combination of all of those things coming into video form, because they use visual and audio as well. Plus you have to write to be able to tell a good story on video.
Blueprint Explains Rhymesayers Entertainment's Engagement With Fans
DX: And you said music videos are kind of a recent development [for you]. Because you’ve been in the game for over ten years and you’ve seen the technological breakthroughs that we’ve had, in your opinion, how big of an impact has social media had on you, as well as the up-and-coming, and underground emcees?
Blueprint: I think it’s huge. For some people it can be bad, people can be made or broken with social media if they don’t carry themselves right. But I think if you’re an artist who already values interacting with your fans, who already have a rapport with them- I think that’s when the social tools come along that allow you to do that even more. You could potentially become a star of social media simply by doing what you were doing before.
If you look at a label like Rhymesayers, we’re known for signing autographs, showing up early, touring relentlessly, having a personal relationship with our fans; that’s something that we always were into. So the social media, I view as it’s an extension of that ethic. Whereas some artists, their thing is being isolated and kind of a mystery. So if your thing is being a mystery and isolated and putting yourself to a place where people think, “Oh man, this guy. I could never be like him,” then social media might actually be your undoing: the increased access might be harmful to you. But for artists like us, where it’s like, “Hey, we are interacting with our fans. We love that, that’s what got us here,” social media actually becomes a more powerful tool to do what we were already doing.
DX: I don’t want to use the word easier, but do you think nowadays emcees are having a better time gaining exposure because of websites like YouTube and whatnot?
Blueprint: Yeah, definitely. I think blowing up- the process of “blowing up” has been sped up by social media. I think that’s undeniable because I’m sure, even yourself, you’re in the press. There’s got to be times where you’re like, “Wow, I turned away for three weeks and this guy just blew up.” You come back and somebody’s got five million views on Youtube and you’re like, “Three weeks ago nobody knew who this guy was.”
It’s the reality we live in. It’s definitely easier to some degree, but I do think you have to do something that’s more distinct now. Because people are bombarded with so much media, so many more artists, I think that puts the onus on the artist to be even more distinctive now. And another downside of that is when things blow up quickly, they can deflate just as quickly. That’s my biggest concern for the newer artist, is not necessarily how quickly they’re built, but how quickly those outlets abandon them. Because I think when things build up fast, people may not have that attachment to them. People may tend to look on them as like, novelty. And an artist can quickly overexpose themselves and you see it with guys like...I don’t want to say any names, but certain guys for a year, they were killing everything. Then something bad happened in social media, now they’re such an afterthought that people won’t even listen to their songs anymore, even if they’re making something great.
So those are the guys I’m curious about because I know that anything that blows up fast can deflate just as fast.
DX: Definitely. Listening to your music, I heard a couple references to Jimi Hendrix. Just wondering if you could speak to his role in your life and how his music has inspired yours?
Blueprint: I think I really started getting into [Jimi] Hendrix I want to say in 2004. And the funny thing is I had a couple of his records, but I had never met any Hendrix super-fans. I think the first Hendrix super-fan I met at that time was DJ Abilities, and we were on tour - the Playing on Wheels Tour with me, Eyedea & Abilities and Grayskul in 2004 I believe. He had DVDs, he was the first real Hendrix fan I really met. It made me go back and revisit everything, but like, dig really deep and be like, “Okay, well forget just the hits. Go with all the other stuff.” And that’s when I really kind of got into it.
As far as Hendrix’s role, I don’t know if there’s any greater example of an artist being able to take technicality and make it widely accessible. There’s people who are good songwriters, and then there are people who are amazing technically. By and large, the artists who are amazing technically are never the most popular. But Hendrix is one of the rare exceptions where his technical ability actually drew people to him. He was that much better than everybody else and he had great songs. He was able to combine the two worlds, whereas most technical people are unable to do that. And I view that as a powerful statement for any artist to say, “Look, you can be really technical and successful. But you have to be amazing technically and you still have to frame that technicality within the context of songwriting.” Hendrix was able to put all those things together, and I don’t know if we’ve seen anybody who has done that quite as well since.
DX: That’s what I was going to ask next: do you think it’s possible to see someone in the coming years who’s that versatile?
Blueprint: I think so. Definitely. I don’t know if it will be a guitar player though. I think we’re seeing kids now who- because I think of where the focus of music is now moving towards [an] electronic-deejay-production type thing. I think there are some young kids out there who are going to be technically superior to everybody because they’re starting earlier. I don’t necessarily know if they’ll be guitar players, but I do think it’s possible now, and definitely within the context of what’s popular today. As far as on guitar, I don’t know if we’ll ever see another Jimi Hendrix.
DX: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Last question: you’ve got the new album coming out soon, what’s next for you after that?
Blueprint: Actually, I hope to finish my next full length by the end of this month. I’ve got it all recorded and I’m just picking the songs right now, and really I’ve got like 90% of it ordered and mixed down and everything. So I’ve just got to decide between the opening track and the final track then it’s pretty much done. I want to finish that up and see what’s up for next year, try and get that released by early 2013. So I’m really trying to stay busy right now.
And this winter I’m going to release two Greenhouse Effect projects: Electric Purgatory Pt. 3 and then our full-length, Bend But Don’t Break.