Exclusive: MaG speaks about his latest free project "freedom." and the advantages to paying for studio time when he wasn't using Converse's artist space.
New York City-based MaG last dropped a full-length project in 2009 with I Ain’t Going Back To Retail!. His follow-up, nearly four years later, freedom., was released last week. Speaking to HipHopDX recently, MaG spoke about the free project, his creative process, the advantages to paying for studio time and and what’s ahead in 2013.
HipHopDX: How’s your 2013 going so far? Congratulations on the release.
MaG: Thank you sir, thank you man. Honestly, 2013 has been going pretty damn well. For real, its been good, my birthday passed, [I’m] really just getting excited about the year and the project and just trying to make sure that I keep the momentum going, you know. Because, at this point, it just feels like the buzz has been somewhat decent so I’m just kinda hoping to continue that.
DX: Can you tell me a little bit about freedom.? Tell me how the project came about, when did you conceive of this whole record and when did you actually get to the recording process?
MaG: It started initially as a project I was going to call You’re Welcome immediately following my 2009 release I Ain’t Going Back To Retail! I had kind of already started creating ideas and “Paper Airplanes” was the first record I recorded for the project and [that] kind of set the tone and direction for what I wanted to do, because a lot of the times I don’t really have a mapped out vision of the project, I just kinda write, and then I write and I record and then I kind of go through the selection process after that to make sure everything fits [and] all the records are kind of cohesive. So, I recorded like maybe two records for freedom., “Paper Airplanes” and “You’re Welcome.” So that really kind of set the tone for me for what it is I wanted to do for the project and then I kind of just went through a spell where I was recording and shit just didn’t — it felt like to me it didn’t sound good. You know there was a couple records that I think are good records but they didn’t really fit, and, you know, it was just a weird phase for me as far as recording is concerned. And then Converse—the sneaker company—opened a studio in Brooklyn, Converse Rubber Tracks, so I had to put in an application and whatever, they selected me to record there. And that’s kind of when the ball started rolling again. So that was like literally maybe, I wanna say a year, a year and a half, close to two years where I was recording but it just didn’t feel like it was stuff that was gonna fit freedom. Once Converse Rubber Tracks happened I kind of started falling back into a groove again and the music kind of felt like it was more reflective of where I was at specifically, ‘cause that’s a really big deal to me, like, to record and make music based on where I’m at as opposed to what I think I should be or where the industry is, or whatever...
DX: So is your approach to basically record as much as possible and then go back and pick the ones that work most cohesively as a single statement?
MaG: Absolutely. ‘Cause you know I’m a struggling artist, I can’t front, I pay for my studio time, I pay for these things. So it's really important to me that when I go into the studio I’m using my time as best as possible. So it's frustrating to record stuff and then not feel like it was good you know? I hate that, I hate when I hear records, or even mixtapes, you can tell that someone just kind of lazily put this together. Like "The tracklist is like okay," "Yo, this song sounds hot," "This song sounds hot," and it's not necessarily about that. Like, I want all my songs to sound hot but they need to fit a certain mode, you know like, I wanna create an experience when people listen to the music, because that’s what I grew up on, that’s the stuff I like listening to now. You know, I keep going back to The Roots Undun album ‘cause to me that’s like one of the holy grails as far as continuity is concerned. You know, you take one track out and the album doesn’t feel—like its still good—but it doesn’t make as much sense. And that’s important to me. You can’t take one record out, its like taking a chapter out of a book. It’s really important to me to keep that tradition going. Like, I don’t wanna put out shit just for the sake of putting out shit because I need to get a buzz, like, it’ll come.
You can look at artists that have just kind of done what they’ve wanted to do as far as the artistry and the music is concerned and made a career out of it. So, like, if it takes longer it takes longer but I’d rather do that then subject myself to some bullshit because it felt like it was hot at the time or I needed to generate something that previously wasn’t there.
DX: Having said that, are we going to be able to expect something more from you before like 2016? I mean, you just mentioned, the last project you dropped was in 2009. So, I mean you gotta strike a balance somewhere, so, what’s the plan on that front—in terms of taking your time with it but not being relentless?
MaG: [Laughs] You know, that’s a good question. I mean, there’ll definitely be—I plan on having some stuff drop actually this year. There’s some projects in the works with, um, some folks, we’re playing it close to the vest, but, some people that I’ve wanted to work with in the past I could be working with this year. I may put out a B-sides project with some of the records that didn’t make freedom. that I think are still good records but just didn’t fit the sound and the direction I was going into but...I think I’m in my groove now man. [It] was kind of like I Ain’t Going Back To Retail! was almost like me graduating college and, [now] I’m not on a major but this definitely feels like, okay, I know what my voice is, I know what kind of music I want to make and I’m confident and assured in it. So now its just about generating more content. So there will definitely be a new—I can guarantee there will be at least two more projects.
HipHopDX: Alright well we gotta hold you to that. You said it.
MaG: [Laughs] Exactly, so that’s good. Like if I put it out there then I’m held accountable for it, it means I gotta do it.
DX: I was looking at the production credits and you have a few producers on here, can you talk a little bit about how you’ve navigated those relationships with the producers in order to really drive in a consistency in the sound you’re looking for?
MaG: Another good question. It’s been a process for me, because going down the line like—Ta-Ku—like all these producers I had been a fan of. I had either saw beat-tapes online or I had heard them do production for somebody else. Prime example is Astronote, he had put out a beat-tape and I heard it, and he was just crazy, I thought it was so dope. And then the record I used for “Black Excellence” was on there. And I had been trying to get a hold of him for a minute and, this is where I learned that relationships are so important and building and fostering relationships. Because the approach was very simple, it was like “This is what I’m trying to do with my project, this is what I’m looking for, I think this record would work, let me know if we can do this. And if not, understandable, but if so, let’s get the ball rolling.” And that’s kind of how each individual producer was approached. Because if I don’t have beats then I’m just a spoken-word artist, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you know there needs to be some sort of cohesion between the two. So I appreciate and respect what they do.
You know they didn’t [necessarily] make the beat for me, but they gave me permission to use the records. And my goal is like—and I understand that somebody else could jump on the beat--but my goal is to make sure that maybe--someone might come on there and kill the beat like lyrically—but my goal is to make sure I make the best song. That’s always my goal first and foremost, so, when I hear the beat, that’s my intention. Whatever is the most realistic and best way to approach the song is what I’m going to do, whether or not it suffers lyrically ‘cause of that, I’m okay with, as long as my message is coming across.
DX: Can you talk a little bit about a couple specific songs? My favorites are “Bestie” and “Americana,” can you talk a little bit about those two tracks or if you have a highlight you’d like to speak on?
MaG: It’s funny because “Americana” and “Vestie” were both beats produced by Jesse Futerman out of Toronto and “Bestie” was originally written to another beat by this [other] producer, a homie of mine out of Chicago. And I remember laying down the track and not really being sure about it. And my best friend, Tiffany Rose, was like, “It sounds like [you’re] forcing the beat.” And I was like okay and I was like upset and offended but she was right, and so I kind of revisited it and like maybe four or five weeks later that [Jesse Futerman] beat came along. Because I knew like lyrically the hook made sense and the song made sense so I was just like I need to find another sound that works with it. And then I heard that beat and I was like okay, all is a go. And playing around with it, like playing around with different cadences and different flows, making sure the hook falls in the right place. You know because that’s what I’m listening for as a fan, I wanna make sure that people get the same feeling you know.
And “Americana,” that actually had a hook written but I didn’t have any verses. And what happens a lot of time is like I’ll have a title of a song, so “americana” had a title, and then I had to make a hook surrounding that title, and then I did that and then I just needed a beat.
I’m trying to think if there’s one record in particular, actually yeah, my favorite record is “Beat Goes On...” because it’s kind of like an introduction, so people who don’t know me--the intro introduction is really like an intro—but, the “Beat Goes On...” is really just—well first of all shout out to Kuddie Fresh for that because I heard that beat and felt like I had to spaz in a very organic and emotional way—I was like, how quickly can I tell my story in three minutes and 45 seconds and people maybe get an understanding of who I am and kind of set the tone for the project. And that was actually the last record I recorded before I sent it off for mastering. Once I wrote it I was like this record needs to be on here and after I recorded it I was like okay this record needs to be on here and it needs to be immediately after the intro because it just felt right.
DX: You mentioned you show your work to one of your good friends, so is that who you bounce work off for a second opinion?
MaG: Yeah, absolutely, because to me its really important to have honest opinions of the music. Because its really easy to get attached, as with any artist, you get attached to songs, you get attached to lyrics. And so kind of being able to step aside and say I respect this person’s opinion, this person’s ear, and not necessarily cater to it but know what works and what doesn’t work. I’m at a better place now where in my gut I know what sounds good and what doesn’t, but I’m also able to kind of take that criticism and say okay so this record doesn’t sound maybe as good as I thought it would, so maybe to revisit it and figure out what’s next. My brother, Dwain also serves as a good "lyric-bouncer-offer," I don’t think that’s even a phrase, but my brother is who put me onto Hip Hop. You know and I play records for him but his ear is different, you know what I’m sayin, he’s like a real old-school Wu-Tang [Clan], Kool G Rap...it’s a good balance, to kind of figure that out because those are my two worlds. I’m very much a Hip Hop head, but I’m quick to play some Nirvana at a minute’s notice.
DX: You mentioned having to pay for studio time, other artists might have the freedom to go into the studio and hang out and chill but you really gotta be down to business right? Tell me a little about the recording process.
MaG: The engineer I work with a lot—Stephen Joseph—I worked with Stephen for about nine years I would say. So maintaining those relationships is important. But I caught a break with Converse Rubber Tracks because I was able to record for free for those periods of time that I went into the studio. But the process for me is I write pen and pad...so I’ll have an idea, like I was mentioning sometimes a title will come up. Sometimes I’ll have a melody without a beat. The majority of the time I’ll hear a beat and then I’ll kind of gather the melody from there. And then I’ll put the words together after that kind of like depending on what the beat makes me feel like doing. And then just going into the studio and knocking it out.
You know before I used to, when I used to record earlier, I would record the verse [and] hook and try to do it in one take, like no punch-in. And realizing that that was like the dumbest thing ever, you know, recognizing that there’s a process.
DX: There are only a few, but can you talk about the features on the project?
MaG: With the features I try to make it as organic as possible. You know Archie [Green]’s the homie, Tre Dejean is the homie, Arthur Lewis—who, I mean, one of the best singer-songwriters that not enough people know about, again, another homie. You know and its, I’m not gonna front, if there’s an opportunity for a major feature that would be attractive but it has to make sense. You know I’m not gonna just have anybody jump on a record because this is what’s going to garner the most spins on radio [or] the most blog postings because I don’t wanna sacrifice the music, that is the most important thing to me. So anything that is gonna hinder me from making the best possible product I’m not for. Whether that be a feature or—you know, its all part of the puzzle, from the beats, the features, the lyrics, the hooks, the verses, all those things and all those ideas, the artwork, needs to fit.
DX: One more question just because you mentioned that its only been a few days since the release, have you had the chance to perform any of these songs live?
MaG: It’s funny you say that because I’m part of this crew called the Melting Pot and we perform every second Wednesday at Pianos in New York City. And so I’ve been performing with the band, “Bestie” I performed a lot, “paper airplanes” I perform like almost every show. And I’ve been performing those songs, it seems like, maybe six months. [Laughs] Some of these songs I’ve been sitting on, and its been killing me because its like man I been really anxious, I’m not really sure people are gonna dig it. Like “Bestie” I’m so glad you liked it because that’s a real touch-and-go record, people are gonna dig it or people are gonna be offended by it because they’re not really sure what I’m saying [or] what I’m trying to get at. You know, I just want people to kind of hear my thoughts because these are like my diary entries, so if people hate them, you know. [Laughs] You know what I mean, but I definitely been performing them, “Bestie,” “Paper Airplanes,” I’m trying to think of what else I’ve been performing off the record. But I definitely plan on performing a couple more of the records now that the project is actually out. I’m looking forward to that too kind of just to see what people’s response is. But every time I perform [the other two] people dig it, it seems like anyways.