Before meeting Nicholas Craven in the heart of the pandemic, Mike Shabb knew he had to make a change in his approach if he wanted to capitalize on his potential. Though his earlier music leaned heavily on what was trendy at the time, Shabb loved what Griselda was up to and realized he could make a career of it. He conducted research on the group’s producers, eventually learning that Nicholas Craven was behind the production of some of the most prevalent rappers in the drumless-loop scenes. Shabb sent Craven a collection of beats similar to what the latter had been cooking for years. Craven immediately saw his potential and took him in, effectively beginning their mentor-mentee relationship.
As time went by, Craven and Shabb became good friends. Craven would show Shabb some of his favourite shows like The Wire and Shabb would leave his mark on Craven by influencing him to incorporate skits on their long-awaited collaborative effort Shadow Moses.
“We’ve been friends for almost two years and a half,” Shabb said. “And we only dropped six tracks on our project. So we’re more than just artists working together.”
Shadow Moses had been in the works for some time, but after Shabb released a pair of albums in 2022, Craven saw the growth in his protege and knew that some of what they had already recorded felt dated.
“The oldest track on it is ‘Play for Keeps’ but we made maybe three times as many songs as those songs that ended up on the project,” Craven explained. “The first song we ever did was probably two years ago, in late March 2021. Shabb had just gotten to really focus on the sound.”
Since then, both artists have gone on to release fully fleshed-out projects, either for themselves or for other artists. Craven teamed up with Boldy James, Akhenaton, and Tha God Fahim for entire albums, while Shabb produced Chung’s See You,When I C U album and “Switches On Everything” for Westside Gunn.
Craven had already formed his sound and style, while Shabb was honing in on what made him special. 2022’s Sewaside II turned many heads, including Kevin Durant’s, who posted Shabb’s tracks on multiple occasions.
Shabb wasn’t the only one catching attention. In a recent trip to Los Angeles, Craven shared a photo he took with Mach-Hommy and Jay-Z. While he couldn’t specify what the trip was about, he was happy to learn that Jay was down to Earth.
Neither Shabb nor Craven is letting this get to their heads. Shadow Moses is only six tracks, but it exemplifies what makes the two special. Complex Canada met up with Craven and Shabb to discuss Metal Gear, sample snitching, Kevin Durant tweets, that Jay-Z photo, and Shadow Moses.
How did you guys first meet?
Mike Shabb: I was doing the whole trap shit, like 2-3 years ago. And then, I found out about Griselda and I was like, “Oh shit! So these guys are doing what I like to do.” And they can live off that and they’re like blowing up. I was like, “This is crazy.” When I did some research, I found out that one of the producers, Craven, worked with Fahim and worked with Mach-Hommy. And I heard those songs, you know? And then I was searching on Instagram and realized that Craven lived in Montreal. So I was like “Oh shit, we have a guy who produces for Griselda” and knew I had to meet him. So I just sent him a bunch of drumless beats that I’d made a week prior because I was going back to that and he took to it. And then we just went on from there basically. We’ve been just working since. He’s my mentor now. He’s teaching me a whole lot of stuff. He’s really like my big brother in this music shit.
What did Craven teach you that stuck with you the most?
MS: Everything business-related. Like the hip-hop drumless shit, the hip-hop Renaissance type shit, he showed me how to get money. I was basically chasing streams and show revenues and Craven taught me you could make money from selling vinyl records and having a pure fanbase. And artistically, he just wants me to work. “Just do your thing.”
Nicholas Craven: I was smoking so much weed in that era that I remember Shabb just popped up here one day and was like “Yeah for sure.”
And over the years that chemistry must’ve developed too.
MS: Yeah, but like at the same time, you see how we dropped like only 6 songs. We’ve been friends for almost 2 years and a half. And we only dropped 6 tracks on our project. So we’re more than just artists working together. I pull up on Craven and we’ll do zero music stuff. We’ll be listening to stuff or watching stuff. We got that connection, but all I’m saying is that it’s not a rushed process. We’re just chillin’ and making that happen, basically.
NC: And I finally got him to watch The Wire. Shit like that is what’s more important to me.
Have you finished The Wire yet, Shabb?
MS: I’m about to hop onto that second season.
Curious to know how you feel about it. I loved it, but I know lots of people have it ranked at the bottom.
NC: I was watching it as a kid. But later in life, I was like, “Let me go see this shit again” and then watched the second season again when I wasn’t a young fucking suburban voyeur. That second season is insane. So fire.
I’m glad you agree! I generally think the fourth season is the best season of TV ever made.
NC: I think that’s my opinion. I think it’s the greatest season of television ever. I watched it again recently. The Sopranos is my favourite show ever and season six is up there but it’s not as airtight as season four of The Wire.
Both your individual and collaborative music has a cinematic feel, so I was wondering how much movies have influenced the way you approach making your art.
MS: I grew up in the 1990s so I grew up on movies like Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society. That shaped my whole character movie-wise. The 90s gangster shit, that’s what I like to watch. I watch that shit every day. I don’t like to watch new movies. Like you see how Craven told you he got me to watch The Wire. I’ve just watched the same shit over and over all the time. That’s the same 10 movies also New Jersey Drive, all that good stuff.
NC: Menace II Society is a unique movie because there’s like no story, it’s just sad shit after sad shit.
MS: Menace II Society is a crazy movie. There’s no conclusion at all.
You can hear that ruggedness, especially in Shabb’s Bokleen World.
NC: You can absolutely hear it in Bokleen World. That’s what I was gonna say. Shabb isn’t even a big movie guy. Like if you wouldn’t know him, you’d think he is a big movie guy because of how important those few movies are in his life. So he’ll have like direct references to these classic movies in his raps.
MS: I made a line about The Wire and I hadn’t even watched it. I just know a couple of things here and there and I can fucking rap about it. So like Craven said, the films I know, I know them by heart.
It’s nice because a lot of times you don’t want to meet your heroes because you might get disappointed. It was the best confirmation of who I thought he was. Shoutout to Jay.
NC: Watching new movies will inspire new beats, like it’s nonstop. Give me a Kurosawa movie, give me a Fellini movie, whatever. I watched Eraserhead for the first time since I was a kid. I didn’t know what the fuck it was. And then I rewatched it the other day not knowing that it’s this weird thing that I saw when I was a kid. “This is what that fucking movie was!” Just the experience of watching that movie made me approach beats differently the week after. Let me go David Lynch with these fucking beats you know?
MS: That’s interesting, though. Most of the time, I’ll get inspired by like new music. Recently I heard the Larry June and the Alchemist tape and I was like, “Yo, these beats are so crazy.” And sometimes they don’t show until the week after in my beats. I don’t try to make Alchemist-sounding beats and I think that’s good. But I also think that’s not good at the same time. You’re getting inspired, but you’re not copying.
NC: You gotta be careful to not be biting.
MS: I try to listen to outside stuff the least possible, but sometimes I can’t help it because Alc is one of my favourite producers ever. I have to study what’s going on but I have to pay attention to not bite.
NC: It’s always fun to get inspiration from other art that’s not the medium you’re doing. So like that way, there’s nothing to bite.
MS: But it’s like when we came back from Detroit after working with Boldy James. The next few songs I made, I basically had the Boldy flow. I wasn’t trying but I heard him rap so much that week.
How did the Detroit trip go?
MS: I’d never really got out of Montreal like that. I went to New York a few times. I went to LA when I was like, 20-21 years old but that’s about it. When Craven brought me to Detroit, I saw the real ghetto for the first time in my life. I see the Montreal ghettos and I’ve been in that type of environment here but Detroit is. It’s the real deal. The people who think they’re real street here in Montreal would not understand how it is in Detroit. It’s not the same environment. Everybody’s cool over there. Nobody’s got to play that tough shit because everybody knows everybody. Everyone’s more genuine in their approach too. There’s not much fake energy, no one’s gotta prove themselves to anybody. It’s not touristy at all. There’s nothing there to see.
So Craven, speaking of trips. How did that LA trip go? More importantly, how did it feel to meet Jay-Z?
Pretty good. Very nice guy. Real hip-hop head. He’s a real lover of art and music. And just a real dude. He fucks with Mach-Hommy heavy. So we came through and he just showed us the same type of love and it was special. It’s nice because a lot of times you don’t want to meet your heroes because you might get disappointed. It was the best confirmation of who I thought he was. Shoutout to Jay.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you did on your trip there?
Had to try.
NC: All good, you’re just doing your job. Dump Gawd, that’s all I’m gonna tell you.
So I know how much you hate sample snitching and I’m wondering if that ever happened to you with your beats.
NC: No, I just heard DJ Premier, DJ Kool Herc, and Roc Marciano say it so I guess that’s the vibe.
MS: That’s just a basic rule in hip-hop since it started. You can’t reveal your stuff. Even producers back in the day would do what they could to hide their samples. They’d put stickers on the records to hide them.
NC: We’re literally out here spending years just looking for records. Why would we give up all the work? It doesn’t make sense to me to sample snitch. I get it if you’re a fan. I don’t blame anybody for doing it. Of course, the fan is gonna sample snitch. He doesn’t care. He’s not making it. But my job is to tell him not to do it. I’m not faulting anyone, I’m just laying down what was told to me. I think you shouldn’t and I’d prefer it if it didn’t happen.
I see a lot of debate between music journalists and how to approach writing about samples and the consensus seems to be that if the sample isn’t cleared and doesn’t show up on the credits, then leave it alone and just describe what you hear.
NC: I get that. There’s a big debate I hear in journalism, like, “Oh, should a journalist reveal what the sample is in the thing?” Why is this a question? We just told you what the rule is. Just follow it or don’t. This is the thing: if a journalist sample snitches and wants to be in hip-hop, then he’s going to have a hard time. If a journalist doesn’t sample snitch and wants to be hip-hop, then he’s already doing some good for the people. At the end of the day, even if you don’t agree with it, us over here, we all agree with it. We’re doing all the shit you like so you can’t find any good producer who thinks sample stitching is fun. But like you guys aren’t in our club. You guys aren’t doing this type of music.
MS: Craven, you see that Russ video where he grabs a sample from YouTube and he shows the process and then drops the song after?
NC: Exactly. That’s why Russ isn’t in the club. He goes out of his way to put people on his albums and shout out to Russ and makes great music. But people aren’t putting Russ on the list with Sadhugold, Nicholas Craven, Fahim, Mike Shabb etc. These guys were not sample snitching and I don’t want to speak for anybody. I’m just assuming but it’s just from what I can gather like, it doesn’t seem like something that’s very popular amongst this niche.
So what do you look for in a record when you want to sample it?
NC: Something that makes me physically react. I gotta feel it in my heart or something.
How did you land on the title Shadow Moses?
NC: It just sounds cool. You know that Isaac Hayes album Black Moses? So it’s like Shabb’s “Shadow Moses.” It’s like MetalGear Solid. I’ve always loved the name. I know there’s Bring Me the Horizon who have a fucking gigantic hit called “Shadow Moses” also. So any time I Google it now it’s the first thing that pops up and I’m like, “Huh.” But shout out to them because that name is crazy. It’s Shadow Moses, man. I mean, to me, it’s like when we talked about art influencing me for music like movies and shit. One thing that definitely influences me is video games. And Metal Gear Solid influenced the shit out of me. I got beats with tons of Metal Gear Solid shit and references. I’ve got an instrumental series based on the character of GTA IV.
Next thing I know I grab my phone and it says “easymoneysniper is now following you.” Then a month later, I see he posted “Blood Bath” which is crazy.
The burning question is if you were a fan of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain?
NC: Not that much. It’s really the only one that I wasn’t very pressed to play. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t touched it in two years probably. I like the stories. And that one story kind of sucked. Gameplay-wise, it’s like fucking a work of art. Kojima is a goddamn nut but they went to HAM with the gameplay. The gameplay has always been super complicated, but relax, you don’t have to make it 20 times more complicated.
Shabb, you got multiple shoutouts from Kevin Durant. How did that feel?
MS: It feels crazy. I used to be a fucking kid and watch Kevin Durant play ball. Him, LeBron, of course, Wade and Bosh. He’s in my top five. So seeing him post my shit several times is crazy. Shout out Craven for that. He’s the one who put KD on. People don’t know about that! KD’s been fucking with Craven, they talk to each other. So he basically put my name out there one day and KD just followed me. We had just got off the plane to Detroit and KD calls Craven and he just put my name out there. Next thing I know I grab my phone and it says “easymoneysniper is now following you.” Then a month later, I see he posted “Blood Bath” which is crazy. Then after that he tweeted that “Ketchup & Mustard” song on Twitter. That’s when I was like, “Okay, yeah, this guy fucks with me.”
Did you get a chance to speak with him one-on-one?
MS: I DM’d him, but we haven’t really had a one-on-one. We’ll react to each other’s stories, but I can’t wait to meet him.
So I know you guys had been working on this for a while, and obviously, you can’t rush great art, but what were some things that you had to tweak or retool along the way?
NC: The oldest track on it is “Play for Keeps” but we made maybe three times as many songs as those songs that ended up on the project. The first song we ever did was probably two years ago, in late March 2021. Shabb had just gotten to really focus on the sound. We were working on it but there was Sewaside II, so we were also working on that. We got “Island Boy” then we keep going and there’s Bokleen World, there’s the Chung tape. Take the Bokleen tape. I saw it from the first song he created for it until its completion. The focus had to switch. The priorities had to switch. Even the idea of making an EP is something we only thought of later. Because we were like, “Yo, we have to make it as airtight as possible.” It was just a long time to find what we want to do with this. What’s the kind of colour we want for this?
MS: The thing with me is I’m a producer too. I produce all my own shit so working on other beats feels like an extra effort I gotta put in. I was working on Sewaside II, then the Chung tape, then Bokleen, and I was still making music with Craven between all that. We got way more songs. We got at least seven or eight more. We kept the best songs with the same colours and decided to make an EP instead. It’s less filler.
NC: I personally think that there’s nobody who makes beats better for Shabb than Shabb. The same way I don’t think there’s anybody who makes better beats for Fahim than Fahim. The same way I don’t think there’s anybody who makes better beats for Marci than Marci. Even though I really like The Elephant Man’s Bones and it’s maybe my second favourite tape he has ever made, I’m still a Reloaded guy. And the Reloaded beats that he produced are my favourite joints. Because of that, I have to make an extra effort for a dude like Shabb. Something like “Save the Joker,” I made that beat for him. I didn’t send it to anybody else. Nobody else heard it. I made the beat and I said, “Here you go.” That’s maybe the only song that was made like that on the whole album. Because it’s very hard to find that. There was also a lot of triage. A lot of just going through everything I got and finding what’s Shabb in what I got.
I thought this was gonna be easier at first. I’d think, “Oh, he’s like, he doesn’t really do this sound so he’s just gonna take the beats he likes and we’re just gonna make a tape and boom, boom, boom, we’ll put this out in a few months.
But then I saw him drop Sewaside and I started hearing the beats and I’m like, “Oh fuck, this found his own sound.” The sound he has now in his beats is the same sound he had when he used to do other types of hip-hop. It carries over. All of that put together has made it so that every time we have something, we got to make something better. It was to a point where he was evolving so fast that by the time we were doing new songs eight months later, or a year later, he just got better at everything. Now Shabb is better at picking beats, he’s better at rapping, better at everything. He’s better at understanding what we’re doing. He’s making me understand shit that I didn’t even understand. So we make new songs because the other ones sound dated. I hear an evolution from Sewaside to Bokleen.
I wanted to ask you guys about your opinions on the use of AI in art and some of the implications that come with it.
NC: Have you heard of the shit that you rap a verse then put it into AI and you’ll get Kanye’s voice on it? That technology is pretty good. It’s pretty insane. Like Hit-Boy was like playing a song that he’s put through the algorithm and it’s Kanye rapping his song. And it’s like crazy, crazy, crazy. on point. You would have played me that in 2006 and I would have never argued that it’s Kanye. I’m not gonna use it, but I’m not gonna tell anyone how to do anything. You can’t draw a line, it’s gonna go past that line.
Do you think there’s a distinction between using AI tools to help and using solely to craft a whole artistic persona?
NC: I’ll buy the robot that goes to the record store and digs for me. A C3PO that’s really good at scanning album covers and he can look at the record and scan the grooves and know what the sample sounds like. I’ll get that one. But until then. I wouldn’t draw a line. You can use it for world domination if you want. Go ahead.