In an age where people are doing music independently, you were one of the first. You even started your own label, Legal Hustle Records. How did you do that?
I did it out of necessity. I did what I needed to do. I used to be in the streets hustling which is something I did because I didn’t know any better. I was young and that was life for me. But during that part of life, I learned how to survive. I learned certain instincts and those same instincts apply anywhere in business as you can see with people like Jay-Z or Master P. It’s a mindset. I wanted to put out my music my way. I didn’t want to answer to A&Rs who don’t know my culture and don’t know my music and only want me to do stuff that they think is cool. They are not me. If it does well then they get the credit and if it goes bad then it all falls on me. I said I want to do music on my terms and I did it.
So many songs have biblical references and mention God. On “Say No More”, you rap, “No army formed against me shall prosper,” and on “Fast Livin” you say, “I stood on a mountain of sin and spoke to God about repentance.” You even have a song called “City of God”. With your music being so true to who you are, how has God and music perhaps intertwined for you?
When you listen to rap music, what do they talk about? They talk about materialism and things that people see as cool. They talk about drugs. I didn’t even know what molly was. I learned about molly from hearing it in songs. We glorify stuff that is detrimental and not beneficial to us so why not glorify God? I’m a spiritual man but it doesn’t matter to me what religion someone is because God is God. Say you go to a Latin country and you’re dying of thirst and someone says to you “agua” and you say “no, I want water,” that’s how people look when they argue about religion. People will argue with a muslim about Allah, but Allah translated just means God, just like agua translated means water. I respect God and I want people to see that. I want people to know who I am. When you’re an artist, you’re expressing yourself. God is something I think about everyday. I pray everyday. I let my music reflect that. In my music in the past, the streets were one of my highlights but now there’s more to me than that. I want people to see the other side. I want people to see that I believe in God and that God is real.
What are some things you know now that you wished you knew back in the day? What’s your advice to young artists who want to follow in your footsteps to be independent?
My advice to young artists is to stay true to yourself. Stay true to your vision. Be professional. Treat it like it’s a job. The problem is a lot of artists don’t respect it as a job. They see it as fun and they’re the person who is in charge and the world revolves around them. Just treat it as if it were a job. When you go to the job, you show up on time and you have a certain way that you conduct yourself to keep your job. It’s the same thing with music.
You have to know about publishing and your rights. See what’s going on with your publishing and your splits. Know about the money part, the business part and not just the standing in front of the camera, looking good and driving part. Focus on the long term money. Those were some of the things I wish I knew more back then but I was on point.
The songs flow so well that this album felt like a seven-part song. What goes through your mind when ordering songs?
Every project has to be different to me. I wanted to show people some diversity. The producer, Streetrunner, does a lot of stuff with Meek Mill and artists that are current right now. I wanted to see what I could do with this current production. Every beat is a different experience. It’s like going on vacation. If you go to Barbados, it’s going to be a different vibe than when you go to the Dominican Republic. Every song has its own feel to it. I go in the direction that the song takes me in. A lot of times when I go into the direction of a song, once I get halfway through I’ll see if this is the direction I want to take my project in then I’ll mold the songs to fit. That’s how it goes, as long as the beat is nice. I’m not the type of artist that just takes any beat and raps to it. I don’t want to be rap for hire. I only want to do great shit. Every song brought something different. When I made this album, I just wanted it to be a vibe.
As a veteran, you’ve collaborated, performed and befriended artists including DMX, Mobb Deep, Foxy Brown, Big Pun, I mean the list can go on. What have been some of your favorite collaborations or moments touring?
Some of my favorite collaborations have been with Prodigy from Mobb Deep. Working with Mobb Deep has been some of the most fun music collaborations. As far as being on tour, there’s never a dull moment when you’re on tour with DMX. One of the best experiences was going to Haiti to do relief after the earthquake. Kicking it with Styles P and Immortal Technique. Those guys are beautiful human beings. When it comes to touring, I love doing shows. I show appreciation everywhere I travel. For example, if I went to 100 cities I probably enjoyed 98 or 99 of them. It’s a beautiful experience that opens your mind to the world. It’s culturally reinvigorating.
You started out as a battle rapper. How has battle rap shaped you as a rapper? How has battle rap changed?
With battle rap you wanted to be heard. It was a New York thing. It wasn’t just battle rap. Life was a battle back then. Everything you did, there was a challenge and you wanted to show people you were good. If you played basketball in New York City and you were a legend in the Bronx, someone from Manhattan who was really good may come and play you. That’s how rap was. You were representing yourself. Battle rap and being a recording artist are two different things. As I’ve grown as an artist, I’ve seen that. There are people who can demolish you in a battle but they can’t make a record or a song that people will gravitate toward. But if they battle you then people will gravitate towards that.
One thing that’s evident about you is your love for hip hop. When did you fall in love with rap and what about the genre gets you so passionate?
I fell in love with hip hop immediately. One of the first songs I heard was Sugar Hill Gang even though I would later find out that they stole their rhymes. That rhythmic thing really caught my attention. But prior to them, Muhammad Ali was doing do it. He used to say little rhymes sometimes. “I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and something would rhyme with bee. I always thought that was cool and when it ended I was like “Wow, I wish he kept going.” So when I heard rap on a beat but an extended version, I thought it was cool. It just grew. A rapper that really caught my attention was MC Shan. His cadence, his delivery, his voice, and his presence was like wow. He was one of the first people I studied extensively. Rakim came out and he changed the game. I just have always loved hip hop. It was something that I embraced and could escape to. I love it and everything about it.
How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist?
Me as a human being has evolved. My evolution as a human has reflected in my music. For example, I don’t use the word “bitch” in my music and I haven’t used it in like ten years. It’s because I have a daughter and a lot of female friends. When you’re young or closed-minded you’re not being empathetic because you’re not putting yourself in their shoes or feeling how they would feel. If the word is offensive and I’m not trying to offend anybody then why would I use it? So I don’t use the word “bitch” in music. If you listen to my last few albums it has very little profanity to none.
I read that when you were in prison, you would do your own motions. Can you tell me more about that and how you beat your case?
I was 100 percent innocent. Somebody said that I robbed them. When the person got robbed, they said two tall men, clean shaven with no facial hair and I’m the one they picked up. How are you looking for two tall black guys and you grab me? I’m 5’7 with a moustache. There were inconsistencies in my case and it bothered me. I took it to trial and they found me guilty. The lawyers fought it vigorously and they still found me guilty. That’s when I knew the system was flawed. That’s when I knew it was systemic racism.
I ended up doing a little under four years. I fought that vigorously and got my appeal. I didn’t have a lawyer at first so I had to do my own motions. I had to file a motion for a habeas corpus and started sending all my data to the legal aid they sent me. 50 Cent has a show right now about a man that was innocent in jail. My friend asked me “Have you seen that show yet?” I told him that I lived that show.
I can’t get those years back but it gave me perspective. I wasn’t an angel. My crew was running the street. If you listen to Mobb Deep and Nas, they always shout out my crew. We were wild. A lot of people in my crew ended up getting a lot more time than I ended up doing. I fixed myself. When I was in jail, I was in solitary confinement. I was in a box. I couldn’t do anything. There’s no TV. You’re in a box all day. You get nothing but they gave me books. I read daily. I read the Autobiography of Malcom X and I saw similarities between me and him. He learned every word in the dictionary. He bettered himself. He went to jail a drop-out and walked out a more enlightened man. I went to jail and came home with college credits. I came home with a plan. I knew what I wanted out of life. I knew what I wanted to do. Being in jail was a double edged sword. It was a blessing and a curse. You have to go through adversity to learn about yourself.
On “Empty Promises”, you rap, “I’m free not another puppet on a string.” As an artist who went independent, when did you finally feel free?
When I was able to do what the hell I wanted. When I didn’t have any bougie A&R saying “This is cool but you need something hot.” When I was able to just tap into what I feel as an artist. That’s the beautiful thing about being an artist. You’re tapping into yourself and giving some of yourself to the world. Sometimes when dealing with labels, you’re not doing what you want but what they want. They want a hit record. They don’t care how dope your last album was. They want you to sell records. If your last album sold 10 million, they want you to sell ten million again. And if your album doesn’t sell ten million, then you’re viewed as a failure, even if your album was amazing. I felt free because I was able to express myself and do what the fans have come to expect. The rest is history.