Originally Skelethon was to be produced by you and Blockhead, as previously – but it ended up being produced solely by you – do you think this is in part because you wanted to shatter what had gone before? Sometimes in times of personal struggle, you almost want to destroy the familiar in order to start anew, perhaps to challenge your own sense of being alive, I hope that make sense. What are your thoughts?
That makes sense but I don’t think it’s totally accurate in this scenario. I think us being on opposite ends of the country – New York, and San Francisco, played into it a lot. I also think me being a scattered person who was working on all these other projects simultaneously made it difficult for me to block out any chunk of time where me and Blockhead could really find a vibe together on this one. Perhaps once I decided it would be better for me to try to do the whole thing on my own, the project may have become something else – a bit of a mission to prove to myself I could do it. But I don’t think those intentions were there in the beginning. Ultimately I’m glad we’re close enough to be able to cop to it instead of forcing something out that just shouldn’t be. He is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and I feel confident that we will always work together in some capacity – even if not for every project.
The instrumentation evidences a kind of stuttering, confusing time – especially the percussion – was this intentional, or did that feeling infuse the work naturally?
I don’t really know – I just kinda went with what felt right at the time. I mean, I’m sure I’ve made hundreds, if not thousands of beats in the last bunch of years, and these fifteen pieces ended up as my solo record. Something excites you in the moment, and you follow it. I think across the board from drums, music, samples, instrumentation, I’ve just been slowly getting better at figuring out how to make it all work together in a way that really mirrors what I’m thinking. The ideas have always been there, but getting them out of you in the right way is the hard part – and I think some of that has come together for me more recently. I think I just spent a lot of time with it over the course of a bunch of non-solo projects, and it all reflects back to Skelethon.
There is an urgency to your record, not only cramming many ideas into the album, but there is a sense of wanting to say certain things before it is too late. What kind of hue has time taken on for you this last while? Even the artwork for the record suggests that sometimes when things fall away, a core, or a clarity remains.
Maybe, but I could also point out that it did take me five years, so…. [laughs], but I hear you. The word “urgency” is one I’ve used before as a goal for my sound overall. I want to write the songs that need to be written, not just anything. I feel like the best songs are the ones that feel like the artist really had no choice but to write the song – it needed to be out of them. Obviously nobody wants to write ’filler’, and for me that means finding the right subject matter and treating each song as delicately as the next. If it bores you, don’t write it. If you’re making a song to simply fill a hole in what you think is expected of you as an album-maker – don’t write it. I wait until something feels important and I work on it with everything in me. Sometimes you can’t think about time. I’m pretty old for this ‘game’, but I also feel like I’m making the best stuff of my life right now, and I can’t let any pre-conceived notion of what an artist or album is supposed to be fuck up my ride. Probably because this is in fact a personal mission as much if not more than it is a public one.
There are many things I have liked about your work over the years, but one of them is your vocal – the way you rap is beautiful, really – do you think your relationship to your voice has changed somewhat over the years?
Well thank you, that’s nice to say. I have a weird old muppet voice. I think that over the years you sort of figure out how your voice works, what it’s best for, what it’s good at, when it sounds terrible, but it takes a long time. There are periods I can look back on and think ‘holy shit what was I trying there?’ But it’s all just figuring out where your voice does its best work. Everything from what volume you sound best at, types of inflections, different rhyme patterns, you obviously learn things from the music you are a fan of, but then you have to take it in and process with the tools you have. Beyond actually writing a dope rhyme, the delivery is a priority. You can have two people kick the same rhyme and one can be dope and one can be terrible. I think it is an evolving relationship, and hopefully being able to pick out the good moments and expand on them in the future. But a lot of people find my voice severely irritating, so what do I know?
Def Jux, like Rawkus in its day, (and a few other interesting labels like Stones Throw) was a really interesting, vibrant label – mainly because it housed so many different styles and personalities – but I always felt there was a sense of Gotham City about the atmosphere of the label, that perhaps found its way on to people’s work – a darkness, perhaps – do you think that you found each other because you both possessed that, or that the label affected your work more directly in that way?
While obviously you’re affected by the people around you, I think there’s a relatively straight line from my pre-Jux releases up through now, post-Jux.
Labels are another thing that have become unstable, and the way people are listening to music. When artists, whoever they are, create – they want not only to create for an audience, in order to connect, but to leave some kind of legacy, or mark on this confusing world – two questions stem from this, why do you think you create?–and has the way the music industry has changed affected you greatly as an artist?
OK two parts – why do I create – I don’t really know, but I do know that creating, or more simply ‘making shit’ has always been the most important thing to me, since I was a kid. My main focus used to be visual arts, and from a pretty young age I felt very adamant about needing to draw – always. I don’t know why, and while some describe it as ‘therapy’, it doesn’t present itself in a way that I can directly associate with what I know ‘therapy’ to be – so that description always falls short for me. But for whatever reason, making shit always seemed way, way, way more important and interesting to me than just about anything else one could do. Eventually the creativity switched focus from visual arts to music, but the idea and drive is the same. It’s important for me to lock myself up, and emerge with something in my hands saying ‘I made this’.
To the second part of your question – the music industry is totally strange, but it also never wasn’t strange to me. Of course things now seem crazier than ever, things seem to come and go quicker than ever, but at the end of the day the strange part for me is that it is a ‘business’. I’m not a business man, so all of this buying and selling of things is just an abstract world to exist in. I just wanna make shit. Figuring out how to then sell it is its own monster, one I’ve stumbled through in no clear way for a lot of years now. I don’t understand how most of this works, so I do my best to find some people who are passionate about that side of things and then dump an album in their lap. I’d like to think that creativity will conquer all, so if I do my part then the rest will work itself out. I don’t actually believe that’s true, but that’s how I have to live because I don’t really know any other way.