Exclusive: The former Death Row inmate tells DX about auditioning for
Guerilla Black, former No Limit soldier Krazy, an early-in-his career Shyne, and others have been accused at one time or another over the last decade of emulating the vocal tones and rhyme styles of fallen Rap legends Tupac or Biggie Smalls a little too closely for the comfort of die-hard ‘Pac and B.I.G. fans. But one emcee who has arguably incurred the most hate-filled critiques of his vocal similarities to the late great Tupac Shakur is former Death Row Records artist Tha Realest. Speaking exclusively to HipHopDX earlier this week, Tha Realest addressed the never-ceasing commentary regarding his rhyme style, revealed that even ‘Pac himself co-signed him (along with countless artist allies of the west coast legend), broke down why he left ‘Pac’s last recording home once its controversial CEO resumed the reigns of the label, and explained why his persistent detractors are actually helping to promote his recently released full-length debut, Witness Tha Realest.
Originally announced for release roughly 10 years ago, Witness Tha Realest took nearly a decade to reach store shelves due to his decision to leave Death Row, a scandalized second recording home (the founder of Realest’s post-Row label home, Tru ‘Dat’ Entertainment, was indicted in ’07 for accepting $8 million in forged tax returns), and the subsequent search for proper distribution for Realest’s long-delayed debut. But Realest’s post-Row struggles weren’t just a run of bad luck, but also his having been essentially blackballed from the major-label rap game, which forced him to have to sink or swim in the independent market.
“When I first left Death Row [in late 2001] there was a lot of negativity out there with labels kinda like scared to touch me,” Tha Realest explained to DX. “It wasn’t that they didn’t wanna fuck with me, they just didn’t wanna deal with the politics of the Death Row name anymore – all the negativity from the name. They loved me as an artist, but they just didn’t wanna deal with the negativity probably that was gonna come along with just the whole Suge [Knight] b.s.”
Tha Realest’s loyalty to his former label boss during Suge Knight’s five-year incarceration from 1996-2001 - refusing to jump ship from what had become the Titanic of Hip Hop record labels by the late ‘90’s - led to hundreds of recorded Realest songs but never an actual Realest album released. And so, just a few months after Suge Knight reassumed the reigns of his record label upon his release from prison, Tha Realest decided to finally take his career into in his own hands and escape from Death Row.
“One thing about Suge, niggas say bad shit about him, they say good shit about him,” began Realest, breaking down what led to his decision to leave Tha Row. “I went to go see Suge three days a week for every year he was in jail… Now through that time I was over there [at Death Row], I’m just tryin’ to hold the shit down ‘cause we didn’t think it was gonna end how it ended… Me and Crooked I [click to read], we was just tryin’ to keep that shit rollin’. The Swoop G’s, the Lil C-Style’s and everybody else who was over there that was fuckin’ wit’ us, we all believed in the same movement. That’s why we stuck around that shit so long. [But by late 2001] it was time for me to just get the fuck outta there. I’m sittin’ around and I’m seein’ the same shit. Ain’t shit movin’! You got a 150 songs on me, let’s go get some shit crackin’. And [Suge] was just like…his love for the shit, he just wasn’t fuckin’ with it at that time. So I gotta roll. I can’t sit around like this all day. I can do this on my own!”
While the end of his association with Death Row was less than thrilling, the beginning of that journey was as exciting as it gets for any hungry-for-a-shot new artist. According to Tha Realest, the Dallas, Texas native had an impromptu audition for Tupac in Las Vegas in March of 1996 prior to the Mike Tyson/Frank Bruno fight. The then rhyme rookie was apparently given the thumbs up from ‘Pac and his crew, and subsequently began an association with Death Row that led to Realest formally signing a contract with the label after ‘Pac’s passing.
Debuting on the Gang Related Soundtrack (then known as Tenkamenin) in 1997, the southern spitter originally recorded a solo project entitled Inside Out for his new label home. Those songs were inexplicably re-directed to the Death Row Chronic 2000 compilation in 1999, which served as Tha Realest’s official coming out party as an artist, and officially began the scorn from some for his uncanny vocal similarities to Tupac.
“That’s how I been gettin’ down,” Realest explained of the organic origins of his husky-voiced flow. “[Death Row] didn’t step to me and say, ‘Hey, sound like ‘Pac’… Nah, I already was doin’ how I was doin’ everything back down south when I came out [to the west coast]. I wouldn’t come to nobody [and] say I’m tryin’ to sound like this dude. That’s not my getdown. I’m not no copycat emcee.”
“And when a lot of people try to say, ‘Aww this nigga think he ‘Pac,’” continued Realest. “Man, please. Why I’ma try to be another nigga and I’m on the same label with these cats? The artists over there would look at me crazy! Or niggas wouldn’t even fuck with me. Suge wouldn’t fuck with me. Niggas wouldn’t fuck with me. I’m on songs with every nigga that ‘Pac was fuckin’ with. His niggas who fucked with him fuck with me. E.D.I. Mean [click to read] got shit on [Witness Tha Realest]… I fucks with [E-40], Richie Rich, B-Legit – these my niggas! The Yukmouth’s, the C-Bo’s… So [that criticism of my flow is] just Internet muthafuckas who just want somethin’ to talk about or don’t know… It’s some little kid sittin’ at the crib, some muthafucka who don’t really just know me. And I don’t really [feel like I should] have to answer all these [criticisms] from all these cats, ‘cause that shit was 13 years ago and I done moved on with my career.”
Moving on as best he can while enduring the constant critiques of his familiar flow, Tha Realest is going forward full-steam with not only his new solo album, but an in-the-works duo album with C-Bo, the long-awaited full-length retail release from his Regime crew (Yukmouth, Tech N9ne, etc), and a solo release under his original Rap moniker, Tenkamenin.
Tha Realest is also working with WIDEawake, the new owners of the Death Row catalog, so that some of his previously unreleased Row-recorded material will finally see the light of day in some form or fashion beginning next year.
And maybe his most noteworthy current undertaking is Tha Realest’s recent work with his Dallas Rap forefather, the legendary D.O.C. on a currently undetermined future project.
“Me and Doc, we rubbin’ a lot of ideas together right now,” Realest revealed. “He over in Hawaii, tightenin’ up that Detox. Y’all ain’t heard the last of Doc, homie. His pen is still the hardest pen I’ve witnessed in a long time. [And] the stuff that I’m hearing him do right now for that Detox is phenomenal. Believe me when I tell you man, when you hear that shit that they put out it’s gonna be some bomb, classic-ass shit.”
But before his work with The D.O.C., The Regime, and C-Bo reaches the masses, Tha Realest is firmly focused on seeing to it that his decade-in-the-making debut doesn’t disappear from the Hip Hop consciousness just two weeks after its release by Team Dime Entertainment - the label operated by the brother of Atlanta Hawks star Mike Bibby.
And Witness Tha Realest is definitely deserved of the attention of the Hip Hop nation. While some may balk at Realest’s rhyme style on the album, those who give his debut LP a chance will discover one of the most polished independent Hip Hop releases of ’09.
“The production [from Mel Man, The Underdogs, Blaqthoven, etc] is off-the-chain,” Realest noted. “The guest appearances are off-the-chain, from the Fat Joe’s, to the C-Bo’s, to Crooked I, Yukmouth, E.D.I. Mean, Sean Paul from the Youngbloodz is on it, Devin The Dude… [And] I’m a force to reckon wit’. All the negative shit you heard about me, I congratulate all the bustas who spread the word, now they really fin to see what type of cat I am.”
Witness Tha Realest is in stores now on Team Dime/RBC Records.