Elucid “I never sang in a choir. I never did any of that. I just wanted to be around the equipment.”

Photo: David Evan McDowell

This is the third installment in a trilogy of features that began with my interview of Armand Hammer (billy woods & Elucid), following the 2014 release of their Furtive Movements EP, and continued with my interview of billy woods, following the release of 2015 LP Today, I Wrote Nothing. Elucid’s new album, Save Yourself, is out now on Backwoodz Studioz.

After a few back and forths via email, I’m finally driving the Jackie Robinson Parkway to Chaz “Elucid” Hall’s house in East New York. I get off at the last exit and find myself in what he’s called “the final frontier of gentrification.” There are no upscale whiskey bars or glossy high rises in this Brooklyn. Not yet.

My phone tells me I’ve arrived at Elucid’s place, and sure enough there’s an empty parking spot out front. The building is old, falling into disrepair. I wonder if Elucid is actually “squatting at the final frontier…” as that line goes. I try to buzz my way up — nothing. I knock, trying my best to make myself heard without sounding like the police — nothing. I try calling — number not in service.

Somebody walks over from across the street. “You looking for Chaz?” he asks. Yea, is he home? The guy looks up. “Yea, he’s probably making dinner.” He lets me in and leads me upstairs. Chaz’s roommate? “His brother.” The Brother Hall? He laughs. “The one and only.” Elucid’s in the kitchen frying plantains. He shows me the adjoined room where Save Yourself was recorded, four walls containing only an old electronic keyboard propped on its side. I hang out, drink a glass of Brita-filtered water.

We relocate to Elucid’s living area, two rooms: one containing a bed, a laptop, and music equipment; the other containing a couch, a heaping pile of neatly laid out clothes, and a stack of books. The space is massive but minimalist, almost cavernous. In just an hour-and-a-half, we exchange well over 10,000 words: about religion and spirituality, ghettos and gentrification, cults and conspiracies, free jazz and noise, Tragedy Khadafi and Future. Here are most of them.

Save Yourself is your Backwoodz solo debut, but you’ve been putting out solo material for the better part of the century. What sets this album apart from your past work? What makes it your “first miracle at 33,” to borrow a phrase from “A 1000 Faces?”

Ha! It’s the first official record with a bar code, just on that business shit. I’ve been putting out self-released mixtapes for the past — wow — over 10 years, and the Armand Hammer shit of course, which was official with the bar code, but I guess that’s really the only difference with this record versus the mixtapes. I make all my mixtapes the same way I made this album — mmm, that’s kind of a lie. With the mixtapes, I was [sometimes] taking other people’s beats and chopping them up a little bit, extending certain sections, but it wasn’t my beat originally. With Save Yourself, it was my production. I had people come in and be like, “I like this beat, let’s re-tweak it this way, that way,” but it’s all original production.

And it is the first miracle at 33. That’s the age I started working on this record, and uh, the life of Jesus [laughs]. You know, you have Jesus as a child then there’s blank years. You don’t know what happened from 12 until he was 30, the first miracle and then that last year, 33.

Going back to the early days of your career, I read that you were able to move 2,000 copies of an album called The Bible and the Gun and tour the East Coast on the strength of that all the way back in 2002. What can you tell me about that experience?

I was just rapping. Somebody had put me in contact with a little independent label in Flat Bush, DramaBoy Records, which is no longer. This guy was a teacher but loved rap music and was like, “I want to start an independent label.” He liked what I was doing and basically had the connects to make it happen. The producers had people that were doing shows, and it just kind of stacked up. We would meet people on the road, and they’d be like, “Yo, we like what you’re doing. Can you perform at the Spring Fling at Trinity College? Can you do Greek Fest?” And it just happened that way. This was a time when people were still buying CDs. The internet was popping, but it obviously wasn’t like what it is now. That was my first time actually hitting the road, doing shows and touring outside of New York state.

How long were you guys on tour?

It wasn’t even a real tour. It would be: this weekend we’re doing two colleges; next weekend we’re doing two more colleges. It was just weekend-warrior shit. Also, at the time, Stitches [Elucid’s uncle, a DJ/producer based in North Amityville] had some connects through his baby mother. Her brother was a promoter, and he would be booking shows for guys like The Lox, Fat Joe, Black Rob. [The promoter] liked Stitches, and I was working with Stitches, so they put me on and we just hit the road. We’d be doing like a fucking coliseum in Delaware, and it’d be this big-ass coliseum with all this sound, all this space, and maybe 100 [or] 125 people in a 5,000 [or] 10,000-seat arena.

That sounds odd.

It was dope, though. Some cities were better than others, but that specific one in Delaware, I remember Styles P in the corner, drinking Henny, just muttering, “Nobody’s fucking here, the promoter didn’t do his job, they better pay me.”

Were you getting paid for these shows?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, that night no. All I got was a free ride and a free hotel room for the night.

Well, that ain’t bad.

That’s not so bad.

You mentioned Stitches. What do you remember about The One in Man sessions? And is the similarity between that title and Save Yourself coincidental or intentional?

Totally coincidental, but it makes a lot of sense. I was talking to somebody the other day about how you can’t really run from your past. You can’t run from how you were raised. Those experiences are with you forever. Being how I was raised with parents who were involved in the Church, and just knowing that language, that’s where it came from. [When I made] The One in Man, I was 16 [or] 17 years old. It was my first time recording outside of my bedroom. I used to do little bullshit tapes or whatever, but [this] was in Stitches’ studio and, “We’re going to record these seven songs, and this is going to be an EP, and that’s that.” But still living in my parents’ home, still receiving all that Church shit, I was in it. Literally at the time, Sundays would be wake up at 6 a.m., first service at 8 a.m., second service at 11 a.m., go to dinner at Carle Place Diner or Harvest Diner or Old Country Buffet, fucking 5:30 p.m. service, and that was a routine for four or five years, so I was constantly in that world, and that’s where the title The One in Man comes from.

Did you have an irreverent attitude about that?

Yeah, because I wasn’t into it! I was more forced to be there. My parents were just on some like, “Well, if you don’t come to church, you can’t live here,” so I was like, “Alright, I’ll do that,” but the first chance I get to get out of here — when I graduated high school — I was gone, and I have not been back since. I didn’t enjoy my place there, but I found my place there. Church is where I learned how to record myself. The church had a soundboard, microphones, and I got involved with that, so after service, y’all would be out stuffing your faces at Old Country Buffet, and I brought instrumentals on cassette tape, and I’d record these raps that I wrote that week. In the back of the church, it was like, “No one is here. This is my personal studio.”

Nobody knew you were doing that?

Nobody knew, and that’s how The One in Man got duplicated. They had CD burners, they had cassette burners, and I’d buy the blank tapes wholesale and just burn them in the back of the church. That’s how it got out. I actually did a weird little search for myself [recently]. [In] ‘97 or ‘98, [I was on] old message boards with The One in Man, like, “Yo I got tapes,” selling them online. It was also my first time getting internet, using [it] in the church and seeing music being sold online.

Your relatives are musicians, right?

Yeah, my mom sang in the church, my dad played bass in the church. They had lives before they got into the church. My mom sang with Grace Jones. My dad played with funk bands, Afro-rock bands, a bluegrass band.

So what was your parents’ attitude toward your music at that time, knowing that you were working with your uncle?

Pretty indifferent and to this day, it’s whatever. I don’t know why. I’ve never actually discussed it with them. At that age, they were more concerned that I was not using profanity. They would listen to it and be like, “You rap so fast, I don’t understand what you’re saying, but you’re not cursing so it must be OK.” That was their whole thing. I guess people are indifferent to things until it starts to make sense, like actual cents and dollars, so that’s their attitude I think.

I’ve never read The Hero with a Thousand Faces but you reference it here, as well as on “Then He Rose.” What’s the significance of that book in your music and your life?

More Jesus talk, man. What I thought was ill about this book was that [author Joseph Campbell] talks about the myth of Jesus, how we attribute it to Christian culture, and that’s it, but no, the story of Jesus has been told by every culture on the planet by different names; but it’s always the same symbols, it’s always the same process, and that’s where “a thousand faces” comes from. It’s the same story over and over again, just with a new name.

How’d you get put onto that?

It was Professor Osei at Pace University, who taught black literature but was super-cosmic and super into spirituality and religion. She was like the dopest person there, a real fucking black weirdo in the midst of this business school. Everyone that goes to Pace was majoring in finance and business and computer science, and you have to take her course to graduate. I wasn’t majoring in any of that. I don’t know what the fuck I was doing there as an English major, but I’m there, and she just liked me probably because I showed a lot of interest in the class. Most people were apathetic about it.

Joseph Campbell is fucking legendary, man. Without him, there would be no Star Wars.

On “No Grand Agenda,” you say “They tried to box me out position while my spirit was broken/ Language was coded, I found they motive was soulless/ Freedom a neon delusion, it’s more than the music/ I’m a student tipping scales between agnostic and Buddhist.” Would you say your music is spiritually concerned at all, and do you see there being any spirituality to the act of making music?

Only in the sense that I’m interested in it. I’m not out here trying to preach or convert anyone to any kind of spirituality. It just happens that if you’re into those sorts of things, you may pick up on it or are drawn to certain things in the music. I don’t really align myself with any kind of particular system, but if there would be, I don’t know, Buddhism seems kind of cool. I like those ideas. I can fool with those. And the agnostic part just comes from growing up in that Christian system. There were always questions, and I kind of go back and forth if there is an existence of God or not.

What’s your attitude in general toward organized religion?

I don’t believe it’s real. It’s totally manufactured, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real to the people that follow it. People will get good things out of it, absolutely, but for me, I just think it’s a tool of control.

One of the things I’ve always admired about your writing is this ability you have to abruptly turn a phrase from physical everyday life to something that’s almost metaphysical. You usually just do it with a slip of a word here and there, so I wonder what inspires that, or if it’s something you’re even aware you’re doing as you’re writing?

That’s dope, because I’m not really aware of that. Sometimes I hear things in the playback and I’m like, “Oh, that was kind of cool,” but really I don’t know.

In “Blame the Devil” for example, it’s a pretty straightforward critique of organized religion along the lines of what you’re talking about now and then all of a sudden you say, “at war with heathen bones.

There’s so much biblical language in that song in particular, like in all of my music, but definitely in that song.

On “If You Say So,” you said, “Tiramisu-like layers of chaos and control,” and again it’s in a spot in the song where you wouldn’t necessarily predict something like that would come.

Right, the tiramisu thing was weird, but thinking about structures of inequality, racism, gender issues, sexuality, all that shit. You stack it up like tiramisu. I was working at a restaurant, so the food thing came through. It’s kind of random, but sometimes I’m aware of it. That one I was aware of and when I thought about it, it’s serious in a way, talking about structures of chaos and control, but it’s funny to me to compare it to things like a tiramisu, which is cute and delicious. The contrast is definitely interesting. That one made me laugh and, usually if it makes me laugh, I’m going to keep it.

What about “My chariot wheels within wheels within wheels” in “NY Blanks”?

That’s another Bible reference, Ezekiel’s Wheel, and it goes out even more, like further cosmic weird things before Jesus, but basically the wheel’s within a wheeled vehicle that comes down and sweeps away the oppressed people from the planet and takes you away into some far-away galaxy of liberation. The Babylonians were talking about it. The idea of a chariot or a train is a constantly recurring theme within black music, especially in this country, living under this system of racism, like get me the fuck out of here. Sun Ra’s music was all about that, a very cosmic idea of leaving here. It’s also dealing with Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, all of that.

There’s an ill dichotomy there, too. The album is called Save Yourself. It’s got this irreverent stance like much of your music has had toward organized religion, but then, like you said, your religious upbringing is totally infused into the lyrics.

Yeah, I can’t escape from it no matter what I do. I read some things about “Jealous God” being like a heretic poem. I thought that was really interesting. It is. I’m in it and I don’t fucking like this shit at all, but I can’t escape where I’m from. This is the language I know.

Changing gears a little bit, on “If You Say So,” you mention a “U-Haul parked under cover of night/ Marked for life on that reverse white flight.” You’ve seen gentrification and New York’s class divisions through a number of different lenses, having moved with your family from Jamaica, Queens, out to Deer Park, Long Island, and more recently from Fort Greene out to East New York. What can you tell me about these moves and how they’ve informed your perspective?

Well, the first one, moving from Jamaica to Deer Park, I was a kid, 12 years old, but what I remember most about it was being like, “Wow, Long Island’s really segregated.” In my previous school, there were only two white kids — Kelly Sullivan and Michael Schulte — in the entire school of 500 kids. I go to Deer Park and now I’m in the minority. It’s like 80/20.

There was a move before Fort Greene that was the first time I became aware of the idea of gentrification. I moved to Crown Heights. This was like 2003 [or] 2004, yeah, super fucking hood, cop raids every night, shooting, all typical narrative ghetto shit, but within about three, four or five years, oh, we have a command tower over here, the convenience store starts selling really good beer. Organic? What’s organic? Now it’s in the neighborhood. White folks move in, and slowly but surely, now looking at it, it’s completely gentrified.

And here we are in East New York at “the final frontier of gentrification.”

Right. When I moved with my girlfriend at the time to Fort Greene, in a way I kind of felt like a gentrifier there; not on my own. (You see where I’m at right now — it wasn’t my money.) She’s very successful at what she did, and I knew her before it all jumped off. She had an opportunity to buy a fucking apartment, she did it, we fell in love, and I was living in this fucking dream world with her for like seven-and-a-half years, and when we moved there, gentrification had started. It was happening, but then I move in and I’m kind of a gentrifier because it was a co-op within what used to be projects, and I look like the old community, but they know I’m not [a part of it], because everyone that’s left knows who’s who. And I’m an outsider completely. So that informed [my] writing; it just made me more conscious of what the fuck is happening, because now I’m kind of the intruder, not really, but I am. I can’t change that fact.

Splitting up with her, moving out here, now I’m aware of what happens to a community as it begins to develop and change. My current girl lives a few stops away on Rockaway Ave., which I would say, now that’s the demarcation line. Right there it’s first-generation gentrifying. It’s hood still, but there’s three waves. That first generation is usually fresh out of school, first job types, service industry kids and fucking hipsters, not like those Williamsburg cats, [but] real fucking dirty hipsters. Then the second generation may be like a young, yuppy couple, they’ve got that second job, they can’t afford that Williamsburg rent, but they can do a little something. Then the third wave, Park Slope level, families.

I would say give it five years before we get that first and second wave happening out here. [Mayor] de Blasio’s been in the news lately about rezoning East New York. There’s tons of factories back here, people getting blowjobs right now, but in like a year that shit’s going to be shut down and all the factories are going to be producing way more. There’s affordable housing plans, [with] millions and millions of dollars being sunk into this community right now, because East New York was originally built to be a Metropolis away from the Metropolis. That’s why you have all the transportation hubs out here. You can get here by any train that runs in Brooklyn: the A, the C, the L, the J, the Z, the 2, the 3, the 4, the 5. That’s how it was designed. This shit is a process. It’s a ghetto, but it wasn’t designed to be that way. Ghettos are made by design, and now it’s also made by design to gentrify your shit. I give it five years before it looks like what Bed Stuy looks like right now.

What’s your experience been like since moving here?

Everything’s been peace, man. My neighbors don’t really talk to me, just nod. Across the street, though, when it gets live, it’s usually coming from there. It’s a transitional housing homeless shelter, and in the summertime it’s loud as fuck. “Winter chill keeps the killers on ice.” It keeps the killers on ice, but it also keeps motherfuckers inside the house, and actually that “Who the fuck you think you talking to?” [sample on “Cold Again”], I recorded on my iPhone just out the window. There were two women fighting out there. It’s a lot of that, a lot of yelling, a lot of music, it’s lively out here, but my experience has been peace.

Does it feel odd not having any type of relationship with your neighbors?

It’s weird, it doesn’t feel very human to me, and this is a neighborhood sort of community, but again, I am the outsider. People know I am not from this community. People have been in this community forever and ever, and I am this new guy. Most people don’t really say much to me. Some of the older guys do. They maybe know the history of this building and what used to go down in this building. This building used to be, from what I’ve been told, the party house on this block, like all sorts of drugs and pussy were being sold out of this building.

[Laughs] Did you bring this couch here?

Nah man, I had to keep it. You see that white stain over there? [Laughs]

On “Shark Fin Soup,” you wrote “Home is a place inside of myself, not a physical domicile.” Where do you most feel most at home, geographically and emotionally?

I don’t know. I’ve lived in so many spaces. That’s how real that line is. I’m comfortable everywhere, literally. If I can sleep here, I’m comfortable. I don’t own anything, you know? Maybe when I own something, that’s when I’ll know a new sense of comfort and have a real sense of home, but I’m good anywhere.

That’s one of my problems. I’ve got too many records. Moving is such a hassle.

I don’t have a lot of shit. I’ve never held onto things. Growing up, I had a lot of music. A lot of shit got thrown out by my mom. I have a room full of books and shit in the back, with a bunch of vinyl and things in there, and that’s the [greatest] quantity of things I have. My girl was like, “I want to move into your place,” and maybe that’s when it’ll start looking like a home, starting with a closet, with a couple garment racks in the back. But that’s it. I don’t really need much.

What’s your relationship with your family like?

Uh, we’re alright. I wouldn’t say I’m actually close with my family. My brother lives upstairs. We’re family, we love each other, but like I said, with the music, they’re indifferent to it, and that’s a really big part of who I am, so I feel like that’s a wall. We’re alright, though.

There are a number of inebriated oddball New Yorkers on Save Yourself: the coked-out pimp writing diner Yelp reviews in hotel parking lots on “Obama Incense”—

[Laughing and clapping] Yes, East New York all day.

The basehead hocking pancake mix on Franklin Ave. on “No Such Thing” and the Republican rapper on crank on “If You Say So.”

Yeah, Bed Stuy shit.

That, to me, gave the album a bit of a Lou Reed feel, encountering these—

Nighttime creatures. He wrote a lot about them. That’s what I was really drawn to. It sounds so sweet, but when you listen to his lyrics, it’s really fucking seedy. It just dawned on me in the last couple of years that Lou Reed was writing about transsexuals and transgender folk in the ’60s when it was still super-outlaw.

Lou Reed has a similar background to you in a few ways. He’s from Freeport, he grew somewhat conservatively in the way that Long Island people tend to, and then he moved out here and made fucking crazy music.

That’s interesting, man. He’s dope. I’m a fan of Lou Reed. “Bleach Water” was a Lou Reed sample. I was definitely listening to a lot of [his music] during the making of this album: Transformer, Metal Machine Music, Animal. I’m [also] a fan of that woman he was with, Laurie Anderson. But yeah, he wrote about those nighttime creatures.

What draws you to write about those characters?

That’s just who I was around. When I first moved here, it was still summertime. I don’t know this neighborhood. I would just take a walk and over there in the factories, literally, there are women outside in little short skirts, titties overflowing, like 60 years old, out here selling pussy. You’re making a living, and I respect that, but you know, nighttime creatures, man. I ended up over there near the junction and Paphos Diner, the only diner out here. It’s 24 hours. If you got off the Long Island Railroad, the station’s right across from Paphos, so there’s immediate transport to the A and the C. It’s surrounded by little cheap hotels.

I approached that line thinking, “Who reviews a diner on Yelp? Who would actually be doing that? Probably somebody coked out, waiting for their prostitute to come out.”

That’s the second part of it, exactly. You see the pimps out there in their cars, on their cell phones, and I’d been thinking about that shit. One day I was like, “Who the fuck goes to Paphos Diner?” and I’m on Yelp, putting two and two together. That shit is real. Paphos Diner is terrible. Nobody fucks with Paphos.

What about the Republican rapper on crank?

That’s just me thinking about commercial rap in general.

The Saul Williams sense of a Republican rapper.

Right, that was a stretch of imagination there, poetic license if you will.

In my interview with billy woods, he mentioned that you were going through a lot of shit during the making of this album. Some of it was touched on in the album’s press release and Bandcamp description — the breakup, the move, the change of jobs — but I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak more candidly about these experiences and how they affected your creative process.

All that shit just put me in a physical isolation. Moving to East New York, I don’t know anybody out here. Asking people to come to East New York, nobody wants to even though it’s not far at all. If you pull out a map, we’re on the other side of Bushwick. We’re separated by a cemetery.

Also, [I went through] a little bit of depression after the breakup. At the time, I wasn’t really trying to work on music. It was like, music isn’t really happening, this isn’t for me. I started doing other things, but eventually once I got [back] into making music, the isolation helped. I was able to just lock in, in my tiny room up there and bang away all night. I had a shitty job. I was like, “I need to earn money, so how can I earn money and make a rap album at the same time? Cool, I’ll go work as a kitchen prep dude at a restaurant.” Come home at two o’clock in the morning. Bang shit out until seven a.m. You hear my brother playing music right now? That can go on for as long as we want. No one fucking cares. I’m out here just fucking doing it, in isolation, so that definitely influenced the album. Also, it was my first real breakup, and I’m thinking differently. I’m a grown-ass man moving out of his girlfriend’s house into some shitty place, from Fort Greene to East New York, seamless to crown-fried, you know what I mean? It’s a 180 degree shift. Just reassessing, “Who the fuck are you? What are you doing with your life?” There’s no one here to talk to about that. It gave me a lot of time to focus on myself.

So Save Yourself in that way is you talking to yourself.

Yeah, like, “What’s going on with you?” It’s so cliché to be like, “It’s my most personal album, it’s my most direct album,” but it really fucking is in the way that I’m expressing all these personal experiences: breaking up with my girl, losing 80 fucking pounds, quitting jobs I hated, getting a new job that I really like. It put me on a track to where I’m gonna be in six months to a year. But I don’t know. You can take that route and it can be really fucking corny, very preachy, and self-helpy. I’m not into that, but I had [some informative] experiences over this past year. You ever hear of this group Landmark? It’s this weird kind of self-help group therapy.

Sounds like a cult.

It absolutely is, man.

How’d you get linked up with that?

My ex-girlfriend went to it. After we broke up, she went through a whole bunch of other shit. She’s like a different person right now. Basically, AA and Landmark changed who she is. I can talk to her and be like, “I don’t know this person anymore.” Landmark is a group that’s [all about] self-help group therapy. It’s super intense. For weekend first sessions, you’re in there for 12 hours a day, you get an hour break, and you see grown men cry. You see people tell their deepest secrets that they’ve never told anyone in the world, but they’ll tell a room of 500 people. You’ll see a whole room in tears, and I’d be like, “I’m not crying. What’s wrong with me? I’m not feeling anything right now.”

But yeah, I’m pretty sure you’ll have somebody tell you within the next year, “Hey man, you want to change your life? Come to Landmark, I’ve got a free session for you,” and they’re going to bring you out to Midtown, they’re going to sit you down, and they’re going to try to sell you on this thing. The age range is pretty incredible. It’s people from all walks of life, like any good cult. Every race is represented. It’s 18-80 and everyone’s out there just fucking broken and not afraid to let everyone know. I was shocked at how many people from 18-40 are in there. It’s full of us. There’s some old people in there, and that shit is sad. I remember one lady. The instructor was like, “So why are you here? What do you want to get out of it?” And she’s like, “I’m 65 years old and I came here because I just want to know how to express myself.” That shit was so fucking sad to me. You’ve lived 65 years on this planet and you don’t know how to express yourself?

Does this organization have a doctrine?

They do. It’s not quite a doctrine. The thing that’s really slick about this, they call it a technology.

That’s super modern.

Diamond-cutting edge.

You have to pay for all this?

Yes, it’s really expensive, of course. It embraces all forms of religion, spiritual systems, new age shit, psychology, self-help and bundles it all into one, and it’s clean and fucking shiny and polished, and people suck it up. You know the Cult Favorite record? This is a modern cult taking over New York City. I’d mentioned to people at the old restaurant where I was working that I was going to Landmark one time, and they was like, “What!? You too?” They was really trying to come down on me, because their friends had done it and completely changed their lives. When my ex-girlfriend called me and introduced me to this shit, I was like, “What’s up with you? You don’t sound like the same person!” The way she was expressing her thoughts was different. The way she organized her thoughts was different. It was weird. Literally, a new person. Three days — Friday, Saturday and Sunday [snapping his fingers] — can literally change your life. It’s scary, man.

What’s ill to me about the title Save Yourself and the larger theme of the album is that on the one hand, it’s about self-therapy through self-expression, but on the other hand, you could read “save yourself” as the words of a guy screaming at people that something’s coming.

Like the street preacher guy, “Here comes doom.” You could definitely take that in there, thinking about gentrification, thinking about the rise of our next president Donald Trump, and in the middle of that we’ve seen the Flint water crisis, the fucking mass shootings. Pull any current event headline. All this shit was supposed to happen, and for whatever reason, it just seems like it’s happening more.

Or we’re hearing about it more.

Internet, social media blows and magnifies things up, but yeah man, it’s always been this way. Think about this election, how it’s the sleaziest, most trifling election in American history. It’s always been this way, but for some reason, the veil’s been lifted and now everyone sees all the bullshit that people have been talking about forever. I’ve noticed conspiracy theorists’ left-leaning ideas are now mainstream. How does this come to be?

At the close of our Armand Hammer interview, you said you didn’t really see yourself as a producer. How has that changed, or do you still feel that way?

Still don’t feel like a producer. I know how to hook up beats, but I don’t know chords, I don’t know melodies. I know what I think sounds good, I know when it feels good, but now I’m just in a position where if I need help I can ask someone. I met Psychic Twin in the restaurant I was working in, and she’s a crazy-talented musician. She plays synthesizer, she sings, she has a rack of gear that she’s tweaking as she’s singing; on “NY Blanks,” she did that. We didn’t do anything [post-production-wise]. That was just her in our rehearsal studio. I just brought my gear, and she did that shit. So now I have more resources to help me out when I need. Still not a producer, though, man. I’m cool with that.

I mean, you might not be a producer in the sense of say, Timbaland, but your beats are innovative and that can’t be taken away.

I appreciate that. It’s all about the ear though, man. Like that Lou Reed record, everyone has heard that, [but] I like a particular sound I’ll hear that maybe everyone else doesn’t like or skips over. That’s my ear.

Do you have the same reticence about calling yourself a singer? You’re singing more on these records now also. How do you feel about that?

Not a singer, either, definitely not, but it came to a point where — I was talking to L’Wren, who sings on a lot of billy woods records, about this — sometimes, the words aren’t enough to express what I be wanting to say, and sometimes I’ll just sing it, and sometimes I’ll record it, and sometimes it’ll sound alright and I’ll keep it. I do a little thing on “If You Say So.”

“Jealous God!”

The whole fucking song. That song almost didn’t make the album, because I was like, “This is cool for me, but I don’t know if I want to let everybody hear that shit.” But woods was like, “That shit is fire!” And people actually responded to it.

“Wake Up Dead Man” also has some singing, and when I saw you perform that, I noticed that you were kind of shy about singing in a live setting.

That’s what’s fun about performing in public, doing weird shit in public; sometimes it’ll go off and sometimes it doesn’t, but that show you saw me at, it didn’t go off that good. I did it again and it worked out. I actually hit those notes. It sounded like the record. Good days and bad days.

Another name I was surprised to see in the album credits is BKGD Audio. How’d you link up with him?

Formerly Oktopus of the group Dälek: They’re the originators of what we consider noise-rap. All that Death Grips shit, they were doing in like 2000 and were really successful with it, touring Europe for over 10 years nonstop, making a lot of fucking money, doing all these weird-ass festivals. They kind of split up. He’s not working with them anymore. When I met him, he was doing more club music, four on the floor. He heard the dubstep shit I was doing and reached out to me. That’s the vibe he was on at the time, and I went up to his studio a few times, and he played a bunch of shit. That one particular track always stood out to me, and I did that “Blame the Devil” joint, but yeah, he’s a super-talented dude.

You know Beans [from] Antipop [Consortium]? We teamed up for a short project. Right now we’re getting beats together, and I wish I had more news to tell. It’s ill connecting with those dudes, guys who were in the early 2000s at the top of this experimental rap shit, alternative hip-hop when it was still super profitable. Those motherfuckers toured with Radiohead, man! Like how? I can’t imagine any of my peers touring with whoever is the Radiohead equivalent of rock right now. But yeah, we did a bunch of demos, so it’s ill reconnecting with him or [BKGD Audio], just getting that kind of respect from those dudes.

I was also surprised to not see Brother Hall’s name anywhere in the credits. I was going to ask what he’s been up to lately, but obviously he lives here — he let me in — so was there any particular reason he didn’t produce anything on here?

Well, he did “Skinny Luther.” Brother Hall is me and him. We did a bunch of other songs that are more in the vein of “Skinny Luther,” and that doesn’t really fit the album. “Skinny Luther” is just a bonus track. “Wake Up Dead Man” closes the vinyl. He [also] did the drums on “Lest They Forget.” When I started really getting into the production on this record, I was just like, “I don’t need many hands in this, let me just do this.” But there is an EP coming, a Brother Hall EP all along the vibes of “Skinny Luther.”

I wanted to ask you about a few samples that I thought maybe I caught, but I don’t know. Is “If You Say So” a further slowed down version of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” which you rapped over on Smash & Grab?

Nah, that’s an old gospel record: The Rance Allen Group.

Alright, if I got that one wrong, there’s no way I got this other one right, but are the drums on “A 1000 Faces” from Robbie Robertson?

Mm-mm, another gospel record: Andraé Crouch. Gospel dudes have all the best musicians.

You used to record in the back of the church. Were you involved in gospel music as a child?

No, I was never a player. I never sang in a choir. I never did any of that. I just wanted to be around the equipment.

You once told me you mostly listen to music via mixes. What were you talking about?

You know, the internet, Soundcloud, YouTube, just shuffle culture. I’ll put on [for example] Leaders of the New School’s T.I.M.E. album, get through an hour of that, the next hour might be Boogiemonsters, then go to another weird rap album. It’s just constant. I’ll go on Soundcloud, follow some weird European Blackest Ever Black record label or the L.I.E.S. group, who makes some of the best techno in New York City right now, and they’ll just play a two-hour mix they did in Berlin [of] crazy techno shit, and I’ll have no idea what I just heard, but it was really fucking cool. That’s the kind of shit that I’m into. I don’t really care sometimes what I’m listening to, but rather what am I getting out of it? Do I feel this?

That’s cool too, because if you wanted to stretch the idea, it’s kind of like the way you’re living right now. You’re not taking possession of the music. You see what I’m saying?

Sure, it’s not mine. I like that feeling a lot. I’ve done mixes like Osage before.

Right, before For Madmen Only, you released The Kingdom. You’ve got the Bird Eat Snake / The Love Offering and were on The Underbelly with Concrete Sound System.

Yeah, and people act like it’s a new thing, but I’ve always done them. I haven’t played The Underbelly joint in a long time.

I hadn’t heard it until I was preparing for this interview.

Weird shit, but really cool. At that time, I’d never done anything like that. If I was working with anyone on stage, it’d be traditional like a DJ. Here’s a motherfucker with drum machines, computers, weird toys that they built in their fucking workshop — it was wild, yo — live dubbing, old vintage space echo machines.

What can you tell me about Osage, as well as these other mixes, specifically regarding your approach to writing and sequencing them vs. your albums?

It’s done quick and fast. That record was done during that fake blizzard we had when everything shut down for three or four days. I just woke up one morning: can’t go nowhere, train’s shut down, nothing’s happening in East New York, probably went and had a bodega sandwich for breakfast, came back, drank a bunch of coffee, made the beats first. Literally, how you hear Osage is how the beats were made, one after the other. When I sit down and make beats, I make a batch and string them to each other. And that’s what happened. Later on, I just sat down, had some raps and that was it, a real simple process. And once I had enough raps, it was like, “Let’s fill it out. Hmmm, woods would sound dope here.”

There’s also the poetry reading.

Funny enough, the poem we did was by Warsan Shire, who’s responsible for the Lemonade shit, but I was onto Warsan Shire way back. In the MySpace era, she hit me up like, “Yo, I love ‘Cut You Down.’” It was fucking weird. She was like 17 years old.

Are you serious?

I swear to you. If I could pull up my MySpace page right now, I would.

What about the equipment used for your mixes vs. the album? Is it the same stuff?

Same shit: I got a little mixing board, a bullshit drum machine, that synth you saw upstairs; it all goes into this motherfucker [the interface], this goes into here [the computer], it records everything, I listen to it here [the monitors].

What’s your sampler like?

It’s like an 80s sampler. I can only play with one sound at a time.

Five-second loops?

The thing maybe has only 20 seconds, but I have a bank of 10 different sounds that I toggle through, and everything really gets built in Garage Band, just one sound at a time. So [if] I’m doing drums, alright, here’s a kick drum: “dum … dum-dum … dum … dum-dum” for three minutes. Let’s go back: add a snare, add a hi-hat, add samples. It’s very textured. That’s why the album sounds the way it does. Nothing was quantized. Everything was off tempo, you know what I mean? Shit’s off but on, because it’s all just human.

Despite having done tracks like “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” and earlier, “Mozambique,” (by Steel Tipped Dove) and “B.E.T.,” I was really surprised by the post-punk vibes on Save Yourself. I guess Osage threw me a curveball, because I was expecting to hear more of this dubbed out sound and then it had faster tempos than I expected. What was your first exposure to punk like?

I [was] grown, in my early 20s. There was this Albanian kid from the Bronx, and he played in a band. They played a bunch of bullshit places, but they got a chance to play CBGBs right before it closed. That guy introduced me to punk, and we’d be in the back of a weird fucking bar in the Bronx. I’m the only black dude there in a bar full of Albanian hardcore and punk dudes, and it was fucking nuts! Beer everywhere, tattoos, the boots, some people had the hair, and loud fucking music, people fighting, moshpits: that was all new to me.

How did you come to the realization that it connected with the funk music you used to hear your father play?

Just listening to it more, getting into bands like Public Image Limited. It’s funny, when you mention the dub shit with the post-punk shit, all those dudes had reggae basses. I could hear the bass lines were so thick and heavy. Just having a record player — that’s another part [of my recording process] — you’ll slow everything down just because you have the option. It sounds very funky, and you could chop some things. The tone is already there.

When I played the album for a friend of mine, he was really feeling it, but then he was very disturbed by the noise at the beginning of “If You Say So.” I think he might’ve thought there was something wrong with the audio file, which reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw you perform live, with Concrete Sound System.

That’s where I got that shit from, man.

So what’s your attraction to noise and what was the significance of including that sound where you included it on the album?

I think it’s funny to fuck with people. You hear me kind of chuckling in the background. That happened by accident at first. It was a computer glitch. I was recording vocals, and then the vocals stopped recording, but it had this [noise] and sounded really ill. It reminded me of Atari Teenage Riot, digital hardcore, and I was like, “Hmmm I could use that.” Then one day I was going through the songs and thought this would sound cool opening the song just to kind of fuck with people, but it also goes back to something that I talk about with a lot of people: music fans today, in New York City or wherever, it’s passive. People will come to your show and [just stand there], and it’s so wack. People won’t even bob their heads.

I love when I’m doing my little stupid two-step at a show and somebody looks at me like, “Why are you bumping into me?”

Right, get involved, bob your head, do a two-step, shout, whatever, you know? Don’t fucking stand there like, “Entertain me.” I think maybe because it’s New York City and half the people at shows are artists [or are] trying to be artists, they think they’re better at what you do.

That shouldn’t preclude it. If anything, that should make people more supportive.

Yeah, you should understand what I’m trying to do up here. So it’s part of that, and it’s just like, it’s too comfortable in here. Let’s make it a little uncomfortable. I like those tones and those sounds, and they’ve been in my music. I owe [Cult Favorite producer] A.M. Breakups credit for that. He was one of the first people to hear me messing around and say I could make something out of it. Save Yourself displays it the most, but in the future you’ll definitely hear a lot more of that.

Were you thinking about the idea of comfort when you decided to place it at the start of a song that comes right after the Ta-Nehisi Coates sample?

It all just made perfect sense. In the sound of that Ta-Nehisi Coates piece, the music underneath is already kind of noisy itself. He’s talking about income inequality, wealth inequality, and it’s sliding into “If You Say So,” which is largely about gentrification. It’s just social tumult.

So, don’t get comfortable.

A lot of shit’s changing, you know what I mean? You can’t afford to be comfortable.

Talk a little bit, if you would, about the influence of free jazz on your music.

[Noise and free jazz are] so, so close, and people don’t really see that connection. It’s obvious to me though when I hear it. Politically, when you look at free jazz and look at the years when a lot of those [seminal] records came out, it’s the Civil Rights movement, post-Civil Rights movement. And think about the artists making those records: these are Afrocentric black folk in the ghettos. Bed Stuy was actually a recognized national center for one political movement in New York, and also for jazz music. Even today, spots like Weeksville Heritage Center [and] a place called The East that’s no longer there anymore; there were tons of free-jazz albums made there with political intentions, just reflecting the unrest that was happening in this country and this city, so free jazz and politics have always been linked up. In a way, when I’m talking about certain things like gentrification, or anytime I go into something a little political, it kind of matches the sound. In this record, the free jazz and the noise are definitely big influences. “Wake Up Dead Man” was some jazz shit.

And no he didn’t take a selfie” is one of my favorite lines on this album. That’s kind of the opposite effect of what I was saying about turning a phrase from physical to metaphysical. Here, you’re talking about a skeleton, a fucking pirate, I don’t know, some crazy shit and then, “no he didn’t take a selfie.”

I mean, that’s a story about the slave trade. Here’s another Beyonce connection: In Lemonade, there are repeated references to Oshun and this movie called Daughters of the Dust. It was done in 1991 by this woman, Julie Dash, and I was into that shit way back. There’s a Julie Dash interview we actually used for the song “Marooned” on Armand Hammer’s Half Measures. The story is a myth, but it’s a great fucking myth to me. She’s talking about these slaves who were so [of the mindset that] “You’re not going to do this to us,” that they jumped overboard the ships, and they sank to the bottom of the ocean and developed gills and learned to breathe underwater and were communing with Mermaids; this whole Afrofuturist sort of a thing. Drexciya, the Afrofuturist techno group from Detroit, based their whole shit around this mythology, just black folks that jumped off the ship and continued living, but underwater. We fucking mutated. Saying, “Slaveship suicide jumper with eight fingers / and no he didn’t take a selfie,” I’m thinking about old shit and new shit at the same time.

This morning I got the announcement about the new Lessondary album, so I was happy to see that you’re on several of the tracks. For someone such as myself who’s not familiar with the crew, which Lessondary projects would you include if you were to make a select discography?

You should definitely check out Tanya Morgan’s Sunlighting [and] Spec Boogie aka Rob Cave’s Introspective. It’s cool to see this actually happen. We’ve been recording over the past seven or eight years, probably even longer, and it’s just been compiled. We’re going to link up later this month in Philly and shoot three videos, take a bunch of photos. All these guys were on the internet early, and that’s how a lot of them met. I met Von Pea and was kind of put into this network of cats. [They] showed me how to put music online [and] actually make money online for real. Do you know Tanya Morgan’s story?

They met online through OkayPlayer, right?

Yeah, making records through file exchange on AIM and getting Questlove’s thumbs up and backing.

I wanted to ask about a couple other influences. I think it was before our Armand Hammer interview that you told me you had gone through a period of listening to a lot of Tragedy Khadafi. And then recently I saw you Tweet, “If yall can rap like Crunchy Black, I can rap like 60 Second Assassin.” So talk about those artists.

60 Second Assassin’s flow was so wild, you’d just be like, “What the fuck, that didn’t rhyme!” Cats want to talk about swag and personality-driven rhymes — that dude had it. Him and ODB had it. No one touched them. And that thing about Crunchy Black, everyone’s doing that triplet [flow]. I hated Three Six Mafia. I still don’t like those guys. I was always a Wu-Tang kid, but yeah, 60 Second Assassin’s the man.

Tragedy Khadafi? Forget it, man. “T.O.N.Y.” is a Capone-N-Noreaga song, but everyone knows Tragedy put those guys together. He’s the brains behind that. An original rap futurist, he might’ve been the first rapper I heard mention the internet and definitely the first rapper I heard talk about the Matrix.

Thug Matrix.

Straight up. Again, Hotep, There was always this conscious angle to it, which at the time was still conspiracy, but now it’s here. He and C-N-N were rapping about the Iran Contra crisis, and people wanted to deny it forever, but in the past two years the CIA’s been like, “Yeah, we did it.” He was on it.

So what were you listening to in terms of rap during the making of Save Yourself?

I don’t remember listening to a lot of rap. I remember To Pimp A Butterfly came out. I dug that for a little while. A Future record came out, Dirty Sprite 2. I was into that.

The people at Tiny Mix Tapes love them some Future.

I wrote “Wake Up Dead Man” the night I heard Dirty Spite 2.

Wow, I guess I’ve got to reevaluate Future.

Yo, I’m telling you, give it a go, man. Future’s great. He’s the saddest robot ever. It’s so interesting to me how he can be 1) so blatant with his drug use; 2) so honest about “I’m so sad, I hate where I’m at with life,” and have it be a pop song. How does that work? How does someone rap with such negativity and be the star of the show, and perform it with a smile?

Before we end this, I wanted to ask about a few of my favorite older songs of yours: “Mollywhop,” “Together,” “Biltmore,” “Don’t Drink the Water,” and the Armand Hammer track “Cloisters.” What can you share about any of those?

I haven’t heard all of them in a while. “Cloisters” is one of my favorite Armand Hammer songs. We’ve never performed it live, and it’s got a cool Pattie Smith vocal sample that I did. Messiah Musik did that beat. “Together” I really loved. That was my first time writing double-time, triple-time kind of bars. The “Biltmore” was a dancehall reggae club in Flatbush in the 80s and 90s. I remember that Small Pro gave me that beat and I just styled on it. “Don’t Drink the Water”: How relevant is that? Obama’s actually drinking the water in Flint, saying it’s safe if you’re over 6 years old. Why over 6 years old? I guess it’s because your body’s still developing. I don’t know. That one came from this movie Gasland. Again, the Gods were right: they been poisoning the fucking water and no one knew it. We think Flint, but that shit is so much more widespread than what’s reported.

Well, it also veers into nutso conspiracy shit, the whole fluoride thing. Fluoride is for your fucking teeth, man. They’re not killing you with fluoride. There are so many easier ways to kill you than with fluoride.

That’s the thing with these conspiracy theories. It starts making up these irrational answers.

And it’s much like religion in that same way, when you start to go down that path of, “OK, now I can connect this!”

Right, everything starts to connect. Sense from nonsense, I’m interested in.

What about “Mollywhop”?

No knock no knock, Mollywhop a nigga head again.” I kind of ran with a Gil Scott Heron thing from, “No knock on my brother’s head/ No knock on my sister’s head.” I’ve got to listen to that one again. I don’t really listen to my music once it’s out.

What about when you’re making records? Do you not go back and listen to your older records for reference, like “What did I do here?”

Uhn-uhn, I think it’s really weird for me to do that.

Do you listen to them a lot while you make them then?

That’s the reason why I can’t listen to it after. It’s constantly on loop. To write a song, a beat might be on a loop for three hours. It plays 200 fucking times and then I go in to record. I guess for the record, it was really a quick recording: one or two takes max, finished.

But it was written over a period of years, right?

In a sense. When I split from my girlfriend, months went by, not a song was written, nothing. Time accumulates. The record itself was actually put together really quickly. “Can’t Keep It To Myself,” “Blame the Devil,” “No Grand Agenda” and “Son Still Shine” were the only records done on Save Yourself before I moved that August. Everything else was done in the year’s time, and there were more tracks that we just didn’t put out, so it was put together pretty quickly. I think I recorded something like 25, 26 songs and we nailed it down to [18].

I heard a Charlie Parker quote; he was like, “If you’re doing it more than two times, you’re now doing a whole different song. You’ve lost whatever inspiration you had when you wrote it. You should just quit, just leave it.” That shit’s pretty powerful to me. There is something about going in, knowing what you want to do and just really fucking doing it, just being honest and trusting in that attempt that it was real, it was honest, and that was the feeling you were trying to connect with.

So far, is 2016 a year that asks questions or a year that gives answers?

2016 has been giving a lot of answers. 2016 has unveiled things that were thought about and questioned in 2015, and now it’s a reality. On the love angle, leaving my ex, meeting someone in September and just like, “We want to do this, we want to do that,” and it happened. We’re going to South Africa. We’re in love. I wasn’t looking for that, but it’s happened already. I quit a job I hated, [I landed a new job that’s more aligned with my long-term goals] and I love it. That shit was thought about, was meditated upon, and it’s happening right now, so that’s cool. Who knows what the rest of 2016 holds?

Anything else you want to share about Save Yourself that we haven’t touched on here?

I want people to enjoy the record in its fullness. Like I made Osage to be listened to in one sitting, I wish people devoted 43, 44 minutes to just sit down with Save Yourself, because it kind of loops up too, the arc of it. Just give it some attention. I’m really proud of this record.

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