You’d blown up after the first record and I know there was a lot of expectations for Follow the Leader. Can you describe what that time was like between records? Was it difficult?
Nah because at that point, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what was going on. I like to stay humble, man. I love the accolades that I get and I love when people show me their appreciation for what I do, but I try not to let it get to me, nah mean? So I don’t care what was going on or what was being said to me. I know that I had to get better and that I could’ve done the first album better, nah mean? If anything, I was more eager to show them, Yo, y’all ain’t even heard nothing yet. Again, you young, eighteen, nineteen at that point, you don’t know that your first album then your second album is tougher, nah mean? Just feeding off that energy and just waiting to get back in the studio again, you know?
I know that I had to get better and that I could’ve done the first album better, nah mean? If anything, I was more eager to show them, “ Yo y’all ain’t even heard nothing yet,”
I think I saw you say in another interview that you saw your aunt Ruth Brown perform and be so good at what she does and was always regular and that kind of taught you that lesson.
Word up. She babysat me, man. I used to sit in her house and watch her before she would go to the Cotton Club or go to the Apollo or go anywhere. She was so laid back and natural at the crib. I realized that if you are confident in what you do and you love what you do, all the rest of that is just the way you take it. She was down to earth, man. She didn’t have to do the pre-show B.S. She sat at the crib, she had a box of Slim Jim’s on the table. I used to eat those with her. She would sit there and put glitter on her dress and other little things on it to make it stage presentable, nah mean? I saw her do all this before a show, man. It kind of let me know: Yo man listen, do what you do, get ready for the show, do the show and hope everybody like it when you get off stage.” I got that from her.
That balance is like the golden mean or something...being humble but having such grandiose, artistic endeavor, you know what I mean?
Yes sir, yes sir.
In my mind what Nas did, and what Jay Z is doing, is referencing the foundation you built with those first two two records. They seem like the blueprint for Wu-Tang. It’s the blueprint for Nas. Jay Z seems like he’s living out what you suggested on these first records. Do you ever look at what hip-hop has become? And how much credit do you take for setting the path?
Again, I’m a humble dude, you know what I mean? But at the end of the day, I’m aware of the styles and some of the wordplay and different ways that I came up with putting a rhyme together. I’m aware of that. And I hear it, you know what I mean? But I feel good because the same way that people used to ask me, “Why do you sample James Brown?” and I used to tell them, “Because I really love his music and I love what he do.” This is a little different, rap is a little different. But I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s like it rubs off on you if you keep listening to the way somebody do something you learn to do it that way, you know what I mean? Again, I felt a certain way sometimes when I felt like I don’t get the just-do for some of the things I started. But again at this time, you mentioned Jay Z, he mentioned me on his new album, you know what I mean? That’s homage, you know what I mean?
And it’s not the first time. He’s been mentioning you quite a bit for the last few albums. I don’t know if you saw this, but he was on Power 105 and he had the Five-percent Starburst on his chain. And then on one of his new records ["Heaven"] he opened with The Supreme Mathematics. ["Arm leg, leg, arm, head" acronymization of "Allah."] So I sense your influence on everything. Even the whole idea of Holy Grail is that he’s paid in full. That was the basis of all of it. But back to Follow the Leader, one of the ill things about that album was the cover. Do you remember that photo shoot and can you talk about what you were wearing and the concept behind the album cover?
Word up. For the album cover, we went to see Dapper Dan and he laced us up with that Gucci Gucci, baby! At that time, it was big ballers in the street who were wearing the Gucci Dapper Dan stuff. I got that from my people in Fort Greene. I did this little party for them in ’86 and when I got inside the party, it seemed like at least forty people in there had a Gucci suit, a Fendi suit, a MCM suit, a Louis Vuitton suit, and this is head-to-toe. And I seen my man, and I was like, "Dude!” He was like, “No problem. Tomorrow morning come through and I’ll take you straight through to see my man.”
We went to Harlem, and he took me to Dapper Dan’s spot. Introduced me to Dapper Dan, and I was like, “Dap, I seen what they were rocking last night.” And he was like, “Listen man, go back there and let my dudes tape you up, measure you up, and you tell me whatever you want and I got you.” My man Dap was putting it together, and when we started rocking it on the covers. Me and Dap, we speak to this day, and—Dap told me that people from Baltimore, people from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and before you know it there are people coming from overseas—to this day, he tells me, “Y’all don’t know what y’all did for my brand.” It was dope. It was like a new time of hip-hop coming in and Dap kinda catered and made us look like stars.
Before that, when I talked to Melle Mel, I always tell him, “Yo, I appreciate your vision.” Coming from the hood, they wanted to be stars. They had the leather on, the chains on, they made it look bigger than it was. Rick James was killing them back then. Rick James kept a leather suit on. So at that time, I guess to look like a star it was leather. But Melle Mel and Moe D, if you remember Moe D he had the leather suits on, but he made rappers look like stars.
After the leather era, it was jackets and hats. Run and them came out with the hats, so we were kinda looking for something. So Dap came through and made us look not just like Hollywood stars, but urban stars. Stars from the hood. It was a perfect match. So big ups to Dapper Dan, he played a big, gigantic part in hip-hop.
Who came up with the catching y’all from the back on the hood of the car? What kind of car was that?
That was a Rolls Royce. It was because the artwork Dapper Dan put on the back. The “Follow the Leader” joint, it was like, “Follow us.” So, everything kind of worked out.
How long did it take you to do the album?
I can’t even remember that far back. Everything was kind of organic. Like, I wrote everything in the studio. I would go to the studio, listen to the track. Most of the time, I would clear everybody out, sit at the console, write the rhymes, and then go in the booth and read it. It might of took us three, four months.
There's a lot of Quran influence on the album. You were obviously doing a lot of reading. I remember, “I’m ever lasting, I could go on for days and days/With rhyme displays that engrave as deep as X-rays.” When did you have the time to do all this reading?
[Laughs]. I don’t know man. I always had a real hunger to figure out the universe. It just intrigues me. Just learning as much as I can out of the Quran, which was real complicated at first to read. That made me mad too. I was like, “Why can’t I understand this. It’s supposed to be for me.” But I understood that it’s like that for a reason. Reading and learning how to read that, then figuring out certain things and reading the Bible, then learning how to read the Bible and crack codes in the Bible, it just made me feel good. I felt like that’s what I was supposed to be doing and then I felt that if I learned something good then I could share it and tell somebody something that the most high wanted us to know. But I love reading.
For the album cover, we went to see Dapper Dan and he laced us up with that Gucci Gucci baby! At that time, it was big ballers in the street who were wearing the Gucci Dapper Dan stuff. I got that from my people in Fort Greene.
It’s crazy, I just did this song the other day. I can’t mention who it is, it’s a big surprise, one of the artists I did the song for, but I had to read the Bible and the Quran and I might’ve took about two days, spending about four to five hours each day just making sure that I got the right information for him and putting it together right. Putting it in there so that when people hear it, they can go to the Bible or the Quran and see where I got it from and draw their own understanding from it. So, whenever I get a chance. Sometimes my son will come down, Jabar, and me and him will go in there and open the Quran or the Bible and read a couple chapters and see if it makes sense, you know what I mean?
Does your rhyme scheme come from those sources as well? You really moved hip-hop from one lines rhyming at the end of a line to having internal rhymes and rhymes referencing each other two, three lines later. Did you have that evolution in your rap style or did you always rhyme like that from the beginning?
Nah, that kind of came about as I was learning. I started learning different ways to write. I don’t know how to explain this, but I guess it’s evident now, when I tried to explain it to somebody before they were looking at me like I was crazy, but I write down the paper. Like I write the rhyme across the paper, but the next bar, I’m rhyming everything all the way down the paper till I get to the end. That’s where the internal rhyme scheme came from, trying to rhyme the words in between.
What I thought I was doing was just writing down the paper, if it makes sense. But it came out kinda crazy. I don’t know if you heard one of the joints from Lost and Found, but I did this joint “Love 4 Sale” and if you listen to that it’s so internal that it goes all the way through the verse. The inner rhymes. Just having fun and hoping that someone will pick it up later on and say, “Oh you see what he did! He rhymed from the top.” Matter fact, I think it was all three verses, the internal rhymes rhymed off the same word. It’s just having fun and hoping people pick up on it and see that I put extra time into what I do.