My sense is that your approach is music first, and feeling first. How do you keep the commercial ends—the demands of music and time—from affecting how you make music?
For me, it’s just been a long haul. So I’ve been doing records forever-ever, and I always keep in mind of course whoever the person I’m playing the music to is. But on the flip-side, I also keep in mind, Do I like this or not?
During his writing process, Nas gives me a lot of ideas... He’ll be like, 'I want to do something like Bessie Smith.' So we’ll listen to some, and we’ll make some. 'Yo I want to do something like Miles Davis.' I’ll listen to Bitches Brew, “Alright, cool. Let’s do it.”
Yeah. If nobody likes this, right now... Would I spend my money on it? Would I do it? Would I go, “Oh, well, y’all crazy. I’m spending my own money on it?” Sometimes I have to. Sometimes I have a record, and it’s like, “Oh, y’all not feeling it, right now? Alright. I’m going to go do what I want to do with it. Y’all will be back.” Like, right now, I’m just instrumentally inspired. I’m actually scoring a movie now. I’m in the orchestra mode, since Rush Hour 3...
Yeah. I just heard you did the orchestra record with Nas.
Exactly. That was “Black James Bond.”
That was gorgeous.
It was just us doing what we do. Like I said, the music’s there, and it’ll start in a simple place, and then it’ll just keep going, but once again, it’s hip-hop for the love of just making music. It gives me an emotion. Somebody will never know where it came from, but they can appreciate it, at the end. That’s the way I look at it. Like, we’re just cooking at all times.
During his writing process, Nas gives me a lot of ideas... He’ll be like, “I want to do something like Bessie Smith.” So we’ll listen to some, and we’ll make some. “Yo I want to do something like Miles Davis.” I’ll listen to Bitches Brew, “Alright, cool. Let’s do it.”
He’ll just name something. “I was listening to this Billy Joel record. Listen to that. What you think?” There’s certain records, like “Suicide Bounce,” on Streets Disciple, where he’s like, “Yo I want to do this. I want to use this.” And I’m like, “Alright, here. Here you go. Let’s go. Let’s get it done.”
Are you of the mind that music was better in the '80s and '90s than it is now, or is it just different?
I can’t say that music was better, per se, because I can’t look at it that way and expect anything to come out of it that’s going to grow. What I will say is that it was more individual.
Like, you don’t have Slick Ricks coming out now, in that way.
Well, lyrically and then also musically, in the way they approach it. So in the ‘80s, we lived off the Break Beat volumes that Street Beat Lenny would put out. So when the Break Beat volumes would come out, everybody would be like, “Yo, you got the new Break Beat?”
So you had synthetic substitution of “Funky Drummer” or all these different records that were pretty much a beat or the same samples, but the way The Bomb Squad would attack it would be different than how E.T. would attack it. King Of Chill would be killing them with the MC Lyte records and all that.
Like, what in the world is “Paper Thin?” Am I just sitting here letting this song chop me up in my head? The way Lyte would flow on top of it. You’d be like, “Yo what’s really going on, right here? I don’t know, but I just want to wild out.” And then, that would be different from everything else. Like, everybody had their own way that they would approach it. You take it to the west coast, then they were telling their stories.
So it was all about the story. Bomb Squad was layering it. Like, who knew Marley was going to take it to another place and give it his swag? It wasn’t the same studio, the same board, the same keyboard, with the same conversation.
I think right now it’s good, because a lot of people are getting through it, but there’s a lot of the same, and then there’s people who are original within it, and those people are standing out. The people that aren’t original and are just copy-cats, you can’t even hear them.
There’s too much volume now.
There’s volume, yeah. The way I take it, from working on reggae—they’ll be 25 people on one beat, and the best song, the best voice is going to stand out.
That’s how I feel, when I’m in hip-hop mode. Like, if I’m going to do some hip-hop, I want it to be something that a mumble-mouth rapper can’t rap on. You better have something to say and be speaking up.
The cream rises to the top.
All the time. That’s how it works.
I think that’s what makes Jamaican music so cutting-edge, in a lot of ways, because everybody gets a chance on the riddim, and it fosters creativity. It just adds more to the pot.
And also, you ain’t got no time. “Yo, nobody waste no studio time. Go in the booth... We no like your voice. Come out of the studio. Who’s next?” Ain’t nobody playing this back and forth. It’s the whole idea of KRS going in the studio and recording a record in a few hours.
I’ve seen it. Record it in a few hours, and that’s it. “That’s it? Oh.” He did it, and if it’s on, it’s on. If it ain’t, “Oh well. What’s tomorrow?” That’s the whole idea: just keeping true to individuality and building. That’s what I feel like is missing from a lot of music, because you can see it coming.
Right. There’s no surprises. It’s almost like Mad Libs sometimes. You know what rhyme is coming next and how they’re going to cut up the record, or whatever it is.
But you reminded me of when I heard “Rebel Without A Pause” for the first time, I thought something was wrong with the radio, but it was sounding good!
Actually, before that, “Public Enemy No. 1” set you up. So “Rebel Without A Pause,” by then, it was already like, “Wow.” And it had those voices definitely louder than the noise, but on “Public Enemy No. 1” it definitely sounded like, “Yo there’s something wrong with my box. What’s happening with the radio? Fix the antenna.” Like, you were Fred Sanford slapping your radio when that music blows your head. And then you were like, “Yo, for real?”
Yeah, man. And that’s what you mean by like, the mystery of what would be next.
Yeah, because it wasn’t all so... It wasn’t all the people that we remember that were on top that made the community. The community was dope, because every block that you stopped on, what the Divine Force record meant to them, at that time... It was a dope record. Everybody knew “Holy War,” but then out of that crew came Melquan, Shabazz, RZA. It was an early Wu record, really.
That was them like, “Them my peoples, we got that record on. Now, let’s go back and do another one.” So it was all those different things that helped the community. There were so many records that came out that had everybody going. The Izzy Ice and DJ Majesty—big up Maj and Izadore, Da King & I—but they had that “Soul Man” record, and it was one record, but it made everybody swing.
Super Lover Cee and Casanova Rud had the “Romeo” record, “Do The James,” “Super Casanova.” Paul C contributed enormously to hip-hop, the Ultramagnetics contributed enormously. So that’s when music was in a particular place and they got it out, but like I said, that’s just one side of it.
I’ve gone to the other ends of the Earth and created stuff that had nothing to do with it, but when I go home, every once in a while, I’ve got to stop by the old-school favorites. I ate a White Castle not too long ago, just because I remember when I could barely afford it [Laughs.], just because.
You’ll forget it later, but you’re like, just because it reminds me of when I was... It’s just a little thing. It’s like going back home. So that’s how I feel, when I’m in hip-hop mode. Like, if I’m going to do some hip-hop, I want it to be something that a mumble-mouth rapper can’t rap on. You better have something to say and be speaking up.
Everything is written, and we’re just living it through. It’s a chemistry thing... With all the artists that I have bodies of work with—whether it was Nas or it was Amy or it was Jazmine Sullivan. Whoever it is, it’s effortless.
Right, right. So do you see it as a spiritual thing? Is it something beyond the material realm that connects you and Nas and all of you? Like, this idea that your fathers were almost linked and the music too...
You know what I say? I mean, of course all those things... everything is written, and we’re just living it through. But it’s a chemistry thing. It’s just simple down to that. With all the artists that I have chemistry with, I’ve had bodies of work with—whether it was Nas or it was Amy or it was Jazmine Sullivan. Whoever it is, it’s effortless. It’s still putting effort into it, but it still comes down to “that’s the record.” They just stand up, and that’s what y’all have heard. Now, the other 500 that y’all have never heard, it just keeps going. I’m like, “I want to do this.” He’s like, “Nah, I want to go this way.”
I’m like, “Come on, man. Put that out.” He’ll be like, “Nah.” Or I’ll be like, “Yo, go with that record.” He’ll be like, “I don’t like it.” I’ll be like, “Then go with that record.” He’ll be like, “I don’t like it.” We have that ongoing conversation forever-ever.
It’s just always the ability to create when necessary. It’s not hard to do. But that’s also me not being just a beatmaker, but being a full-fledged producer where somebody can actually say something to me in words and I can bring it back in music form not too long after.
Some cats are really stuck in their drum machines and whatever samples they found that week and how hard they can bob their heads, and they haven’t really gotten that far outside of it, but I can literally hear something and say, “OK. That’s what you want to do? Boom.” And still make it feel like that. So when I decide I want to make everybody in New York go, “Don, Don, Don.” Then, that’s what we get.
Nas is his hardest critic, in general. He normally has to write something, leave it
alone, and then come back to it. Most of the time, he’s not going to write it tonight and be like, 'Yes.'
Nas is a virtuoso.
Yeah. But Nas is his hardest critic, in general. He normally has to write something, leave it alone, and then come back to it. Most of the time, he’s not going to write it tonight and be like, “Yes.” But even right now, like, if you look at him, you can tell. Look at him now and look at a picture of him from seven or eight years ago. You can tell, like, “Alright, cool.” He’s conditioned to do what he’s on.
It’s so interesting to hear you talk about the ebb and flow of it.
Right. I mean, the reality is there’s so many layers to what Nas can be, creatively, that even most people working with him wouldn’t necessarily see what I see. But then also, we talk a lot. Dealing, over the last ten years, with whatever was going on—not even just records, just in general. Me and him have kept up a lot.
So by the time we got to make the record, I already had... I knew what they lay of the land was from the last set of records, but I also remember, “Oh yeah, remember such and such idea you had?” He’ll be like, “Oh yeah. That’s right.” I’ve got a mental catalog of things, but that’s good when you have that flow and you can do that. I’m happy that this Life Is Good project is feeling as good as it is, because it’s a good time to do it. There hasn’t been a summer album from Nas in a long time.
So did you work with No I.D. on this record, or was Nas doing kind of separate work with you, and then separate work with No I.D.?
It was separate. I mean, at one point, No I.D. came to the crib, so we were all hanging out, and then No I.D. has a spot here in L.A., so I go through there. So we were hanging out and seeing what’s what, but it’s always there. On this album, not so much, because I’ve been running around doing a lot of stuff, but on a lot of the early albums I would be around, a lot of times.
Even on God’s Son, basically what happened was, when he called me, he was like, “Yo come through.” I was in Miami with my feet up, chilling, and I hadn’t done anything that year except for Amy Winehouse. I had just moved to Miami. So I just drove up to Orlando, and then I was just riding, like, “What up? Another week? Alright, cool. Whatever.”
So that’s why our chemistry, just as far as being able to get stuff done, really just flowed. And then, I was always the person reaching out, whether it was other producers—like me and Alchemist in the studio, me and Large Professor. If something comes up, Buckwild sends me some stuff or whoever it is.
I be hitting Pete all the time. There’s this one beat I heard from Pete like 20 years ago. I’m like, “Come on, Pete. Find the disc” [Laughs] I’m that dude, as far as that situation. I was always just trying to keep the community flowing, like, “Whatever. Alright. Cool.” Put it in his face like, “Yo you like this? I like it. I think it’s crazy.” Straight up, however he wants to deal with it. Like, “I love that record. Play that again.”