You once said, “Being humble doesn’t always equal the highest level of success.” You’re a humble guy—how did you attain your level of success?
I wasn’t afraid to take the slow road. I was never competing to keep up with anyone. I was always concerned with growing. I think over time success just occurred, versus me pursuing it. I mean, there were times when I did pursue it, to be honest. But I learned over time that that wasn’t my best work.
For a lot of us, when we entered this game—and we don’t have an education alongside our efforts—we’re just trying what someone told us or what we saw or thought we saw. I don’t think you can be successful at anything in life without an education, so it’s an on-the-job education. Some people don’t educate themselves. Some people get success and money and don’t think they need to learn.
I’ve just been humble enough to learn a lot and take my time and learn how to apply it. I always had an internal belief that most of the people I ever saw in the music industry ended up broke, dysfunctional, drug addicted, no steady family, or something wrong. I didn’t want to go there, and I knew that the spotlight wasn’t necessary for me to have a successful career.
What is it about the spotlight that destroys people?
'I Used To Love H.E.R.' from Resurrection is the perfect example. When we put it out, nobody jumped up and down and said, 'Classic!' They said, 'Oh man, that’s dope.' It didn’t sell, but over time it was the most important work I had did. I learned right then and there, that I don’t need the moment to gratify my efforts.
Fame is like a drug. It’s like liquor. The more you get, the higher you are, the more surreal and unreal your life becomes. Everyone smiles, everyone helps you, everyone gives you something. Then the pressure mounts and losing that high is the most fearful thing once you’ve had it too much.
Then it’s the fall. You want that high back, but you’re not really hot. So you go to something else to get the high. When you do drugs or you drink, you feel like everything is great, no matter what. You’re in the club and you’re drunk, and you don’t care what the response of the girl is when you’re talking to her. When you’re sober, there’s a little more thought, a little more fear, a little more challenge.
When you’re famous, you don’t care. That’s what it all boils down to. We think fame equals money, which it does, but it also comes at a price. I learned early on that I didn’t want to pay the price. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t have any desire to try to attain more money off of promoting myself, when I could just be good at what I do and get what I’m supposed to get.
How did you learn that?
I once had a record deal [as a rapper when I was called Immenslope], and when I realized they wanted me to say and do stuff I didn’t want to do, I realized at that point, “This is not for me to do.” The way I was raised and everything I studied told me, “You don’t have to do this to be successful in life and don’t gauge your success by the moment.”
“I Used To Love H.E.R.” from Resurrection is the perfect example. When we put it out, nobody jumped up and down and said, “Classic!” They said, “Oh man, that’s dope.” It didn’t sell, but over time it was the most important work I had did. I learned right then and there, that I don’t need the moment to gratify my efforts.
That’s another thing that people forget, you had a former life as a rapper. Why didn’t that work out for you?
I don’t know. I just quit. I saw that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’m a different person. I’m not going to do all those things to try and get the attention of pop culture. It’s not my lifestyle. I’m a fine culture guy, not a pop culture guy.
What were they trying to get you to do and say?
I started in the early ‘90s. Once Puff got popular, they were like, “Hey, you’ve got to be like Puff.” I was like, “Nah, that’s not me.” I’m more like, “Hey, I came to New York and met The Beatnuts and underground rap people. I like Pete Rock, Guru. I’m not about to do that.”
Even to this day, Kanye is a super competition-based guy. If I walk in with a really good beat, he’s not just going to say, 'Wow, thanks. That’s a really good beat.' He’s going to say, 'Oh yeah?' That kind of revived my career, being back around him.
So I said, “If this is where it’s going, I don’t have any intentions of being a part of this. Let me readjust.” When I got my record deal, I had no concept that I was really going to be a producer. There wasn’t money really involved in those early records that was anything of value. It was crumbs.
It was an independent deal—no advances. If there were advances, they were so small I called them no advances. With two beats right now, I could make everything I made off of the first three albums I worked on with Common.
It was purely for the love of the music and the art of trying to be the best and to get out there and be something. So today, I can look in people’s eyes and know what their intentions are and where it’s going to end up, because I know the difference.
Speaking of “I Used To Love H.E.R,” when we did “The Making of Common’s Resurrection” it revealed deep-seeded rivalries between you, Common, and Twilite Tone—guys who I assumed would be friends.
Yeah, but you know, steel sharpens steel. That’s why we’re still here and that’s why you’re talking about us, because the people that were also with us, the rivalries might not have fared in their favor. Meaning, that’s what made us good at what we do, that internal competition.
Even to this day, Kanye is a super competition-based guy. If I walk in with a really good beat, he’s not just going to say, “Wow, thanks. That’s a really good beat.” He’s going to say, “Oh yeah?” That kind of revived my career, being back around him.
I try to avoid the spotlight, so we weren’t around each other a lot after his career took off. I didn’t want to be around a lot of what was happening. But after his mother passed, I kind of went back around a little more.
That competition just sparks something in you. It made me excited about music again. It made me do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done if I was just sitting in my house.