Pay your inspiration forward. The things that inspire you may inspire the next person, and ultimately come back to change your own life. Abstract Mindstate, a Chicago-born duo of Olskool Ice-Gre and Ebony Poetess (a.k.a. E.P. Da Hellcat) can attest to this. A cycle of inspiration started by their own work has them back in a rap game they had once left behind.
In early 2018, Ice-Gre was reprising his role as a G.O.O.D Music A&R after spending time apart from Kanye West, who he had helped evolve from a producer into a superstar solo artist in the early 2000s. E.P. was working full time, in school working on one of three degrees, and also taking care of her brother’s kids after his passing, as well as her ailing father. The two hadn’t rapped together in a decade because money woes derailed the indie artists’ careers. E.P. still journaled raps and Gre stayed connected to music as an A&R, but neither was thinking about restarting the group.
Still, E.P.’s cousin Deron texted Gre one day in 2018, asking him to listen to “Sacrifices” from their 2005 Chicago’s Hardest Working Vol. 2 mixtape. He was initially reticent, but eventually listened to the song, then the entire mixtape, and got re-inspired to rap. Gre then sent the mixtape to Kanye with the hopes that the project would help break the music icon out of a writer’s block he was experiencing while making music in Wyoming. But it did more than that: Kanye called him the next morning at 6:30 a.m. and said he wanted them to be the first artists on YZY SND (pronounced “Yeezy Sound”), a venture that Kanye is still working through the vision for. So far it seems to be part label and part creative agency, but whatever it is, Abstract Mindstate is the first big release.
After being talked into the idea by Kanye, Gre had to convince E.P. to immediately fly out to Wyoming and start on what became Dreams Still Inspire, a lyrically dense 14-track project culled from hundreds of beats that ’Ye specifically made for the duo during his 2018 bonanza of seven-track EPs. The project reflects that era with its raw sound, skillful chops, and soulful samples, which serve as a soundscape for Abstract Mindstate’s thought-provoking metaphysical rhymes and reflections.
Abstract Mindstate had recorded CHW Vol. 2 during a period when their career was in flux. E.P. says they were just trying to “hold on” at the time after their Still Payin album fell through in 2005. That project was set to feature Kanye, Common, and John Legend, but their investor backed out on them and they suddenly had no budget to release it. Gre admits they were “a little bit broken and a little bit angry” after the investor fell through, but the duo resolved to drop mixtapes to make something happen for their career.
“We were just trying to hold onto something and hold onto each other, because those were the last hoorahs,” E.P. tells Complex. “We knew someone had to hear them. We had to try something.”
“[Kanye said,] ‘If you do what you did for Abstract Mindstate for me, I’ll be the biggest thing in hip-hop.’” – Olskool Ice-Gre
They thought that was the last music they’d release. But it was that era of uncertainty, when they were fueled by nothing but passion for the craft, that inspired E.P.’s cousin Deron to contact him 10 years later and set off the chain of events that now has them releasing a Kanye-produced album that Gre is coining “adult contemporary hip-hop.”
“It still feels like a joke,” E.P. admits of the wild circumstances that led to their new chapter. But maybe the Chicago stalwarts, who were at one point on a completely indie grind for 18 years straight, were owed some divine timing.
The two Windy City natives first met in the early ‘90s as Jackson State University students on their way home for Christmas break. The two were on the same Amtrak train, enjoying themselves as college students do.
“We were kickin’ it, games are going on at the table, it’s crazy,” Gre remembers of the ride. “That whole Black college scene is going on in the ‘bar car,’ and of course, me being the MC—I was already known at the school as that guy—I would start kickin’ rhymes.”
So Gre started rhyming and E.P. followed up with a verse that “made the whole car go crazy,” as Gre remembers it. Upon introducing themselves to each other, both artists simultaneously realized that their friends had been telling them about each other. The two had finally met.
Gre got E.P. to join his rap crew The Peace Posse, and he later co-founded the Jackson State collective The Stewpot Stowaways (which featured David Banner and Kamikaze, who later became Crooked Lettaz). The Stowaways grew apart as members graduated from JSU and went their separate ways, but Abstract Mindstate stayed focused on rap upon returning to Chicago full time in 1998.
“When we left college, we went harder. We had torn college apart, but after college, that’s when Abstract Mindstate became Chicago’s hardest working rhyme duo,” Gre remembers.
The two weren’t as well-known as other acts at the time. But their live show was unforgettable. Gre says that when they opened shows, the headliners would often “get an attitude” because they “tore the show down so crazy.” E.P. adds, “Once we got off the stage, the energy would be gone. We gave you a show.”
“We made it a career because we never stopped performing,” E.P. says. “We never stopped doing project after project and winning contest after contest. It was crazy because we didn’t take any time off—not because we would have, but because we didn’t have time to. The demand was there. The momentum didn’t stop.”
And the crew took advantage of the demand independently. Ice Gre honed his industry experience working under the head of publicity at Loud Records in 1995, a year the label released classics like Mobb Deep’s The Infamous and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. The label’s success allowed him to build relationships with DJ coalitions all over the country, which he later used for Abstract Mindstate’s benefit.
“People couldn’t even understand, like, ‘Man, how are y’all so jumping everywhere?’ But they didn’t know I knew the head of the record pools in New York, New Jersey, and all over the place,” Gre says. “I would send them my records, they would circulate them to the DJs in their region, and now Abstract has a presence in different areas.”
Gre says the duo was on some “Master P, Cash Money” shit during a time when many acts were seeking to get signed by a label.
“From the outset, E.P. and I were on some independent shit. We’re going to do everything ourselves,” Gre says. “We’re going to print our records, we’re going to sell them ourselves, we’re going to put our albums in the stores. You would see a flyer, sticker, shirts, jackets… There was no way to be in Chicago and not have the presence of Abstract Mindstate. Your girl would go to use the bathroom and there was a flyer on the stall.”
That presence allowed them to make connections all over the city. Award winning film director Coodie Simmons did a comedic skit for the duo’s first album, and he asked for a CD. The duo was initially reticent, as every sale counted, but E.P. noted that “he got a The Source truck!” (Coodie was doing promotions for The Source, and brought a wrapped truck to the studio session.) So they gave him a copy, which he later played at a Source photo shoot for the Mecca fashion brand in the early 2000s.
A then-rising producer named Kanye West happened to be the photo subject for the day.
“Kanye was posing for his photo shoot and he kept saying, ‘Yo, who is this?’” Gre remembers. “And every other song, Coodie would be like, ‘That’s Abstract Mindstate.’”
Eventually, Coodie pointed Kanye across the street to Gre, who was also at the photo shoot that day.
“Kanye just walks across the street in the middle of the photo shoot and is like, ‘Hey man, how come y’all never worked with me?’” Gre says. “I literally said, ‘That’s because we know who you are, and you’re too expensive for us.’ And he was like, ‘Well, how do you know I won’t work it out for a dope nigga from the Chi?’” The two then exchanged information.
The props from Kanye were nice, but the duo was fine with the producers they were already getting beats from. “We were super cool with the producers we were using,” E.P. remembers. “It’s the Abstract sound that Gre and I had, and we weren’t trying to get away from that.” The two didn’t contact Kanye until they sought a beat for an opportunity to be on a soundtrack for HBO’s prison drama Oz. Their relationship began with the song “Pain,” which Kanye produced.
The song ended up on their debut studio album We Paid Let Us In! in 2001. It was to be the first of a trio of albums they already had planned out. The other two ideas were Still Paying and You Owe Us Change. The Bandcamp description of We Paid notes that “a sizable investment” for the album fell through, which caused them to go to an indie label that “grossly mishandled” their project. The group’s momentum slowed.
Kanye soon reached out to Gre for assistance of his own, as he sought to expand his career and become a rapper. ‘Ye met Gre and made him a characteristically blunt proposition.
“‘If you do what you did for Abstract Mindstate for me, I’ll be the biggest thing in hip-hop,’” Gre recalls him saying. “That was his opening line, and then he followed that with, ‘I’m trying to start a team, and I want you on it.’ That was his way of just saying, ‘Help me.’” For several years, Gre was his live-in assistant and also the head of business affairs for Kanye’s KanMan Productions.
The two also became very close friends. Kanye didn’t just enjoy Abstract Mindstate’s music, he respected their grind. “He found out that I was the one with the connect, and I brought that connect to him,” Gre says, noting that he helped Kanye develop his craft as a rapper during that period, but also “connected dots” for him in the industry, including circulating ‘Ye’s music through his bountiful DJ list. His work helped Kanye establish himself as a rapper and eventually drop his platinum College Dropout album.
Gre had helped Kanye ascend, but he soon had to get back to his own grind with Abstract Mindstate. E.P. was going through a rough time and sought a creative outlet.
“There was a lot of tragedy going on in my life at that time,” E.P. says. “I had lost my brother when we started working on Still Paying. After I lost my brother, I was lost so I convinced Gre to come back and that’s when Still Paying was birthed.”
The album was primed to be a major bounce back after their debut. The duo had always been adept at networking, and Gre had made some powerful links this time around. Still Paying had a feature from Kanye, who Gre had helped become arguably “the biggest thing in rap” as he had affirmed. The tracklist also boasted appearances from Common, John Legend, David Banner, and Consequence. It could have been the album that allowed the constantly grinding MCs to achieve a new level of comfort as independent artists—but it fell apart. Another investor had backed out at the last minute. The group had even sent copies of the album to the press.
“It was the worst shit that could have happened to a group in history,” Gre recalls. “All the hype was there. They knew about us coast to coast. Canada knew about us. Then Europe started getting up on us, and it was crazy because we didn’t have blogs then—the internet was just coming in and they used to have a few online magazines. A few of the ones in Canada and Europe started getting copies of our shit and it was crazy. We had overseas tours set up—all this shit—and it all fell apart.”
The two were demoralized. E.P. had been grieving the death of her brother before they started the project. She poured herself into the music as a refuge from grief—and it didn’t even get to come out. They tried their best to shake off the disappointment of the shelved album by releasing mixtapes.
“When Gre [told me], ‘Let’s do these mixtapes,’ he was trying to hold on,” E.P. recalls. “He had taken it so personally, he was trying to figure out what he had done wrong.”
The two continued performing, and started the Chicago’s Hardest Working mixtape series. The dignification was given to them by independent retailer George Daniels, who saw the duo perform in Chicago one night, and then saw them again in Atlanta the next morning. They were still performing heavily and releasing mixtapes, but the momentum they had been riding was sputtering to a stop.
“One day, after Kanye fell to his knees onstage and broke down and the world saw him, out of nowhere I get a call. ‘Yo, what’s up? I’m back again, I want you to A&R my new album.’” – Olskool Ice-Gre
Asked what made them fall back from the industry, they nearly simultaneously say, “Money.” Their last project was CHW Vol. 3: Celebration, which featured a slew of other artists in the Chicago scene. Soon after, E.P. went back to school.
“I decided to get into my career to do something for my brother’s kids,” E.P. says. “I had to get my degree, and that’s what I’ve been doing since this reconnection of Abstract Mindstate. I have three degrees. I have a master’s [and] I’m set to be a board certified behavior analyst. I’m taking care of my brother’s kids—they’re going to school. That was my thing, I lived for them after that.”
E.P. says she would occasionally still write rhymes, but just for herself. Meanwhile, Gre became an A&R after a conversation with Kanye, though he occasionally made tracks when receiving industry interest as a solo artist.
“I was hanging out with Kanye as he was just starting to record 808s & Heartbreak,” Gre says. “I was like, ‘Man, who is the A&R of GOOD Music?’ and I’ve always been a talent hound. He was like, ‘Shit, nobody. Consequence said he wanted to do that.’ My comment to him was, ‘Consequence? You mean your artist who’s about to come out with an album right now?’ And he just looked at me and started laughing because he knew what I was saying, like, how the hell is Consequence about to be an A&R and he’s about to drop an album?”
Gre oversaw several gold and platinum songs and albums on the label, noting that he chose the NO I.D. beat that ended up being Big Sean’s “My Last,” and helped convince the young Detroit rhymer to do the Chris Brown-featured track.
Then, at some point in the 2010s, he and Kanye lost contact. Gre doesn’t go into detail about what happened, but he nevertheless found himself trying to navigate the industry on his own. Gre was accomplished in all spheres of the music industry, but he expresses feeling like people didn’t fully know who he was.
“Kanye had already made 300 beats for the GOOD artists to choose from, and from that batch, he whittled down Abstract Mindstate’s 100 beats in 30 minutes.”
“Now we’re in this era of branding and people needing to see what you’re doing to respect you. I had such an incredible backstory and so much positive baggage, but it wasn’t making me any money,” he says. “So I was like, ‘OK, what do I do?’ I’m the most decorated unknown dude in the music industry. I’ve done so much shit. There were just all these things, and at the time I was fighting to get on Twitter and social media. I was avoiding getting on social media. And then I said: You know what, I’m going to get on this shit and start showing my work. It was my way to get my respect and create a check for myself.”
In 2018, Kanye gave him a call.
“Five years go by. And one day, after he fell to his knees onstage and broke down and the world saw him, out of nowhere I get a call,” Gre says. “‘Yo, what’s up? I’m back again, I want you to A&R my new album.’ That was ‘Ye, and I was back again.”
Gre went to Wyoming with Kanye and helped him with his music endeavors. Kanye told him that he wanted to do seven-song EPs for himself and several GOOD Music artists, including Pusha T, Teyana Taylor, and Kid Cudi. So the two went to record shops to dig for samples for the albums.
One day, in the midst of working on Pusha-T’s Daytona, Gre got a call from back home.
“E.P. has a cousin named Deron who’s a super supporter of the group and he never stopped listening to our music,” Gre says. “He’s the guy that would call every year and talk about our music. He was on my neck, telling me he’s still bumping that Abstract. And I’m in the studio with Kanye—we have this place called the Energy Center where we work. It’s a studio on one side and on the other side is Yeezy where he works on shoes and clothes and all of that. ‘Ye had stepped out of the room. Deron calls me and he’s stressing that I listen to our own music. I’m laughing at him because I’m not thinking about our music.”
But Deron pushed. He told Gre to listen to just one song from CHW: Vol. 2 (“Sacrifices”) and catch the vibe.
“Before I knew it, I had listened to our entire mixtape and played past that song,” Ice Gre recalls. “Then it started over and played from the top all the way back. That shit felt good, and for whatever strange reason, it made me want to pick up the pen.”
He figured the mixtape might have a similar effect on Kanye, who he says was dealing with writer’s block at the time. So Gre texted Kanye a link to the project. The text went unanswered at first, and Gre went about his day. Then he got a 6:30 a.m. phone call from Kanye, who didn’t even say hello before divulging his next plans:
“He was like, ‘I have an idea,’” Gre recalls. “‘I have two artists I want to represent YZY SND: Teyana Taylor and Abstract Mindstate.’”
The idea made Gre burst out laughing. But Kanye was serious, refusing to acknowledge Gre’s laughter and “Boy you crazy,” jokes.
According to Gre, Kanye told him, “‘I’m going to produce the whole album, y’all ain’t gonna have to play rapper. I won’t treat you how record labels treat us, like y’all got to look fresh and fancy and drive fancy cars and wear jewelry. We’re not doing that. We’re about to put some art out into the world. Two things are going to happen when we make this project. Either A, it’s going to do something for y’all career. Or B, we’re going to put some really good art out into the world. Some are going to catch it and they’ll love it and it’ll heal people and save lives.’”
Gre repeatedly asked Kanye if he was serious. Kanye repeatedly said he was. Then he asked Gre to tell E.P. to fly out “right now.”
E.P. then repeatedly asked Gre if he was serious upon hearing the news. Gre repeatedly said yes. “It might’ve took him 30 minutes to convince me [the offer was for real],” E.P. says, “I still wasn’t convinced.”
She flew out four days later to ask Kanye if he was for real in person. Her father was ailing and she didn’t have time to upend her life for a project that wouldn’t come to fruition.
“I was so tripped out, even when I got to LA four days later,” E.P. says. “I walked into the Energy Center, and I hadn’t seen ‘Ye in so long, but it was love. So I was like, ‘What’s up bro!’ We hugged and everything. He just smiled. He was like, ‘You’re here!’ And I was like, ‘Boy, don’t fuckin play with me.’ My exact words were, ‘No one could get me out here. Not even Dr. Dre. I’m out here for you. Are you committed? My father is passing away as we speak. I could be at his bedside, so don’t play with me.”
When Kanye convinced her that he was committed, the three commenced work on the album.
“A lot of the tracks on the album I actually went to the record store with him to find rare records for him to sample,” Gre says. “Kanye had already made 300 beats for the GOOD artists to choose from, and from that batch, he whittled down Abstract Mindstate’s 100 beats in 30 minutes.
“He had Noah Goldstein going through the tracks and he just had his head down,” Gre remembers. “I was looking at him and he would just be like, ‘Go to the next one. I like that one, put that one on there. Go to the next one.’ And before you know it, he had a file folder of, like, 100 beats out of those 300. Then he looks up at me and says, ‘Now I want you and E.P. to go through these beats and find your album.”
They got to work, quickly rekindling their old chemistry. “We really reconnected doing this,” E.P. says. “If nothing else comes from making this project, it will be our reconnection. It will be brothers and sisters back.” Eventually, they put together 10 tracks.
“We thought we were done,” E.P. says. “We were so happy and proud. He was like, ‘Yeah, these are nice. Do 10 more.’”
The two were befuddled. They had initially planned to make a 10-track project. Kanye asking for more was a shock to their creative process, as they never had the benefit of being able to record excess songs before.
“The way E.P. and I work, we would learn our songs before we go into the studio so we would be going in and not waste time,” Gre says. “There was a point in the studio where we were almost stressing ourselves out and we looked at each other and started laughing because we weren’t on the clock anymore. We’re in ‘Ye’s studio, we can just record and take our time.”
E.P. says Kanye gave them a further jolt by being the first producer to oversee their work to the extent he did.
“‘Ye actually produced us, and that has never happened with Abstract Mindstate,” she says. “We were having to change words and different stuff. He was like, ‘Nope, that’s not it. Tell E.P. to change her whole verse for [one of the songs]. That’s not it, or it’s going to be your solo song, Gre.”
“One time, there was one of my lines, and he said, ‘I want to play something for you,’” Gre recalls. “He’s playing my verse and says, ‘That line right there is so dope, now look at what you said after that line.’ Then he repeats the line, because ‘Ye will remember your shit in a second. He repeated my line and said, ‘Now, why would you say that after that. Would Nas say that?’ And that was his way of saying all of your rhymes need to be Nas-level bars. He said if they aren’t ‘Nas approved,’ rewrite them. We had a lot of fun, though, recording that record. E.P. and I had a lot of laughs.”
The two ultimately put together 27 tracks, choosing 14 for this album. They have another project’s worth of material that they could release if they want. But for now, the focus is on Dreams Still Inspire. They released their first single “A Wise Tale” last week.
Gre leads off the soulful track with a lyrically dense verse, before E.P. follows up with a story about a Black girl lost, where “love might be useful, but nothin’ to kill for.” The track is true to their legacy of storytelling infused with social commentary. Gre says that he wants the project to not just fight ageism (they’re both “almost 50”) but also help break the adult contemporary rap movement.
“ACH is a term I’m going to fight to get added to radio,” he says, temporarily switching from his artist to A&R cap. “Everybody falls into that, from Abstract Mindstate to Joey Badass or Cordae. They’re adult contemporary hip-hop. They’re just not doing trap or the same old shit. Adult contemporary hip-hop is just the alternative when it’s not the same old shit. ACH is just leaving room for you to have some soulful hip-hop and enjoy it at any age.”
Kanye didn’t just have a hand in helming the album—he suggested that the group make a documentary to promote the project and chronicle their rise. They called it WE PAID LET US IN! The Legend of Abstract Mindstate.
“He was just excited, throwing all kinds of ideas out,” Gre says. “’You know we have to do wax, man. Y’all are a group that always did wax.’ What I liked about him was he wanted to do things that we traditionally did when we were hot shit in the streets. He was like, ‘Y’all need to do a documentary, too.’ And I’m like, ‘Without a doubt.’”
The duo had previously put together another documentary called The Last Demo: The EP that offered a look into their background in Chicago. Gre says that doc used to run often on Chicago public access show Channel O, which helped their citywide notoriety.
Their new documentary will expose them to new people all over the world, cementing their legacy as one of Chicago’s most unheralded acts.
“When you see the documentary, it will take you from the conception of Abstract Mindstate to right now,” E.P. says. “If you never heard our music and you watch that, you’ll know what the music encompasses. It tells our story from beginning to end. Ups and downs, emotional, all truth. All facts.”
They’re currently having private screenings of the doc in major cities. It will also be shown at their alma mater Jackson State University, potentially inspiring the next hip-hop acts to follow in their path. Gre says they’re the only man and woman duo in rap history, noting that all the other well-known groupings of men and women were at least trios.
“Nothing like us has happened in hip-hop yet. Hip-hop is 48 years old and nothing has ever happened with a male-female duo. God started that space for us and then left it open until we came back to it.”
Even if one can think of another unheralded man-woman duo, much like them, it’s arguable that they’re still history makers with Dreams Still Inspires.
They tore down stages for almost two decades, and eventually the trials of the music business tore them from their passion. But now their momentum is once again rolling 10 years later, with the help of one of the biggest artists in the world. Gre helped Kanye become one of the world’s most beloved rappers, and ’Ye was able to pay him back in major fashion.
“There are key individuals in the music business that know who Abstract Mindstate is,” Gre says. “It’s people that are excited that we’re in this position because we actually have a fanbase. We jokingly call ourselves the biggest group you never knew, because we put in a lot of work but never really got our real shot. But this is our big break.
“That documentary is not only a fairytale or story of dreams, but even biblical sayings,” he adds. “My mother’s Christian and she always quotes a piece in the Bible that says, ‘The race isn’t given to the swift, but he who endures until the end.’ That’s a line that speaks directly to what this documentary shows you.”
It’s also exactly what Dreams Still Inspires demonstrates.