MarQ Spekt “Sometimes a treasure’s better when you have to dig it up.”

On June 9, I interviewed MarQ Spekt one of my favorite hip-hop artists of the past 15 years. Spekt had a new cassette tape of previously recorded but unreleased material dropping on the 16th, so our conversation focused primarily on his past work – the artistic developments leading up to The Grilchy Era.

On Thursday, June 11, jazz great Ornette Coleman passed away at 85. Although jazz was mentioned several times in my discussion with Spekt, Coleman wasn’t. Still, in continually revisiting his music over the following days, I couldn’t help recalling several ideas Spekt and I had touched on, about ephemerality and permanence; how a work of art is often understood differently over time, not necessarily because the piece itself evolves but because tastes, perceptions, and cultural norms most definitely do.

I thought about how some art continues to shock and confuse audiences decades after its debut, while some becomes diluted by wider social acceptance. In one particularly harsh moment of reflection, I snapped a picture of Coleman’s Twins LP and Tweeted it with the caption, “NWA is less than 30 and basically a meme. This was recorded 59-61, released 71 and will still disturb your neighbors.” For some listeners — typically, though certainly not exclusively, those of us who collect items of ephemera like limited-edition vinyl and cassettes — the idea that we are among a select group that can enjoy and understand the work of a particular artist when most cannot is part of that work’s appeal to us. We like being in on it.

And though appealing to a wider audience further down the road can and should enrich the artists themselves, perhaps the most valuable works are those that over time gain broader appeal while maintaining the hard edge that made them so divisive in the first place. They establish precedents but precedents that can’t be obsoleted by corporate co-opting, bubblegum biters, or moronic meme-ification. If we can’t say that about “Fuck The Police,” we can probably say it about almost everything Ornette Coleman ever played or wrote, and I expect someday we’ll be able to say it about MarQ Spekt’s music too.

The coming release of The Grilchy Era provides a good opportunity to reflect back on your work up to this point. You’ve been making music for going on two decades now. Tell me about the tracks on The Grilchy Era cassette. When were these songs recorded?

The Grilchy Era goes back to like 06 or 07 maybe, all the way up until a joint I did with Clever 1 of Da Buze Bruvaz a couple months ago, [“Pockets Dug”], that’s a fresh one. “Murderface Splash” is the intro, that’s [over a beat by] some producers I had met in New Orleans that I’m actually going to do a project with, like a no-sample project. That’s kind of recent, but other than that, I put [The Grilchy Era] together as a tape [for] somebody [who’s] never heard of me. I call it an easy-listening Spekt tape, because it ain’t too, too, too deep and it’s still my whole essence and aura of grilch and rawness on the whole tape.

The intro is like you go to the movies, you’re going to see a dark film and that sets the tone, but it goes other places from there. I put a piece of one of my favorite joints, “Broken Halo,” which was on my man Vordul Mega’s tape. That joint was tough. Stuff where I say the word ‘grilchy’ is also in there, from the origins of even coming up with the word like 10 years ago. It’s that kind of vibe: new joints mixed with old joints mixed with unreleased joints that are neither new nor old but unheard.

You’re one of a growing number of independent hip-hop artists who have found a market for your unreleased materials using specialty labels releasing vinyl or cassettes. Are you making a conscious effort to appeal to collectors and listeners who appreciate physical media?

Well, I’ve always been focused on art, so when I write stuff or put stuff out or package it a certain way, it’s always meant to be kind of limited-edition, special-edition shit, because that’s what I was attracted to. I’ve never been into what everybody else was into. Since 95 or 96, I’ve always tried to write for people on my wavelength. I don’t really write for everybody.

When I was first really, really introduced to the game was in Atlanta. I had to move out of Philly. Battling people in Philly, Jersey, New York, and being up on the street level where everybody at that time was hungry, I wanted to battle Black Star; I wanted to battle Company Flow; whoever was on Rawkus, I wanted to battle at that time, because I was like, ‘Yo they not that nice.’ And then, I was peeping more and more because at that time I was of the mind frame of, ‘These are my peers,’ like I’m equal to the dudes. I’ve always felt that. Even back when Common dropped his first album, I was like, ‘It’s trash.’ You know what I’m saying? Because I had that East Coast attitude where it’s like, on some MC shit, you automatically are always gonna feel your artwork is better. And it’s funny because when I met Bigg Jus, he had moved to Atlanta in 98 or 99, my man had hooked me up with him, and the first thing I told him was, “Yo, I was looking to battle you and El-P,” because I like Funcrusher and when I heard that, that’s one of those albums where I was feeling, ‘Damn, these cats is really on what I’m on,’ because I was a little more esoteric back then. You know what I’m saying? I was doing songs with Ced Gee from Ultra.

Yeah, I was going to ask about him.

I won a contest actually.

Through 3-2-1 Records, right?

Yup, 3-2-1 Records had like a little contest at a record store back in the day, and I came through humble. I wasn’t really even planning to spit, but I was watching everybody go, and the host was trying to tell everybody about they rhymes and stuff. So, in my rhyme I was kind of dissing him and breaking him down.

Who was the host?

I don’t even remember. He’s not even important. He’s nobody right now. He doesn’t exist right now. He hasn’t existed in like 18 years. So, that’s how I won, and later Fiona Bloom [founder of 3-2-1 Records and later Sub Verse Music] hit me like, “Yo, this was a contest.” I didn’t even know … I was just doing what I do. So, she was like, “You won, we’re going to put out a single for you on 3-2-1, we’re going to have you work with Ced Gee.” They flew me to New York. I stayed in Harlem with him. It was probably like 1998. We knocked out a couple cuts, had one of my mans from Philly come up there. We recorded some music with Ced; we met Spaceman [presumably Spekt is referring to Billy “Spaceman” Patterson, a guitarist who recorded with Ultramagnetic MCs and Miles Davis, among others]; I met Daddy-O from Stetsasonic; Ced introduced me to Kool Keith—

Road trips, man? I was in fucking Thailand riding a elephant back up the side of a mountain, man.

Who’d you bring up from Philly?

It was my man, Z. We had a group called Charcoal at that time — 96. He was super nice with it too, like he was doing complicated schemes on some aggressive shit back then. He used to call himself The Number Z. He was really, really crazy with it. I’ve got tapes of us rhyming, freestyling, stuff like that. Z was super, super nice, but he was crazy.

Were the songs that you did at that time the ones that ended up on Ced Gee’s Underground Show release?

Yeah, I think we on like two songs on there.

Discogs lists three: “Duress,” “Rhyming Psycho” and “Meltdown.”

Yup, yup, that’s it. Crazy, you dug, man ‘cause those are like untapped joints. I have that CD somewhere around. I’ve gotta find it.

Is Z Zoran who was on “Meltdown” with you?

Yup, that song was crazy. That was probably my favorite one we did, I think. No, “Rhyming Psycho” was nuts.

I’d kill to hear that. Speaking of which, I’ve gotta ask you about Ghostmaker. I know you always say it’s coming out.

I’m actually putting it together to drop, I think, this year, but the thing is, I think a lot of people ask about it just for the fact that it was actually me from 99 to 02 or 03. It captured joints I did from 99 to 03, and I packaged them up and sold it basically on my own back then, hand-to-hand, but the people I sold it to hand-to-hand may not even have it anymore. I think maybe one person or two people I know still have the actual CD I gave them.

A lot of people were selling CDs hand-to-hand at shows in the late 90s/early 00s.

We used to go on the road with them. Broady [Spekt is referring to Broady Champs, his crew from the time, which ended up releasing one official album on Day By Day Entertainment in 2006; this and two of their mixtapes/street albums can be streamed or downloaded via member Buddy Leezle’s Bandcamp page] used to take joints to Scribble Jam and come back with rent money, man. Especially when we were really, really doing that, we were pressing up T-shirts, CDs, we’d rent a van, and we’d just be out there flipping them joints, like $15 or $20 gets you a CD and a T-Shirt. That’s just the heart of the grind.

Ghostmaker was joints I started doing in like late 98, early 99, all the way through roughly to about 2002 or 2003, and a couple of those were supposed to be on my official release through Sub Verse. You’ve gotta realize that at that time, Sub Verse was super, super underground, even for what was out at the time. Nobody cared about DOOM, nobody cared about C-Rayz Walz, Micranots, Scienz Of Life, Stahhr — nobody really cared. We all got a little bit of money, but when you think about the potential then, I mean DOOM at that time was going to do a lot of beats on my album. Between ID 4 Winds, DOOM and Bigg Jus, that was going to be the primary producers, and my man Tef the Practitioner would’ve probably done something, but all my production would’ve been in-house between those people. So, my album would’ve been a cult classic just off the strength of the production at that time, 2000/2001.

So, when we eventually do hear Ghostmaker, are we going to hear exclusive DOOM production?

Not on that. You’ll hear that on Bionic Jazz. On Ghostmaker, I’ve still gotta find somebody to help me clean up some things, because I’m putting out a special edition of it with some songs that I had on tape, and I’ve just gotta get somebody to rip ‘em and clean ‘em up a little bit… What you’ll hear is me exactly how I was at that time: a little scrappier, a little less refined, definitely more battle tested, just raw. Ghostmaker has some joints on it that are really timeless. It’s just the audio quality [that’s an issue]; it never really got mixed and mastered the way it should’ve, not every song. You heard what was on the single — “No Desert Till You Finish Ya Vegetables,” “The Shoplifter,” and “Liquid Smoke” — but you never heard “3 Meals A Day” [and] a bunch of joints that were just crazy. It’s that rawness.

People need to understand that I transverse a couple different eras. When people were really in the streets ciphering, I was in that era in the 90s. I breathed it, I lived it, I put it down. Then when you get to like Pretty Weapons, that was a little sloppier because it was just me by myself. I didn’t have Bigg Jus in the studio, I didn’t have ID in there, I just had beats and raps, and it was just me trying to figure out how to make an album, after doing Broady stuff.

In the sense that you started your recording career working with Ced Gee and from there started working with Bigg Jus, you bridged two eras just with your features. People always talk about the transition from Ultramagnetic MCs to Company Flow and the whole underground scene that blossoms from there, you know what I mean?

Yeah exactly, and I was getting props from people like KRS-One, Rakim, Kool Keith, DOOM, and RZA, just from rhyming like nothing else. I didn’t have any manager to be their people and hook us up; people would be at spots where I’d be rhyming and come up to me or ask me to rhyme. And this is legends, man. I remember one time: It was my birthday, and KRS-One was doing a show in Atlanta, [so] he was up [at] a radio station being interviewed, and I was like, “Man, it’d be dope to just go meet KRS-One on my birthday.” This was like 2002, maybe. I had my girl with me and we went up there. Yo, the host ended up getting me on the radio freestyling with him, and we were about to leave and he was like, “Don’t leave yet,” so we go in the other room and KRS [tells me], “Make sure you give my people your contact information.” So, I not only got to meet KRS, a dude I’ve been listening to since 88, but his people called me the next day and [said], “Yo, KRS wants you to open a show for him.”

Did you ever see yourself carrying on the tradition of Ultramagnetic?

Man, I’m a compilation of all of that. Ultra was obviously a big influence in certain ways, just as far as the fact that there were no rules, and I think that’s why people listened to them: [for] bar structure, or the way you rhyme or didn’t rhyme and put songs together. Four Horsemen really defined them to me, because it was like these dudes were making up their own rules with music. I remember reading an interview back in the day in the early 90s during Four Horsemen, where they were like, “Ced Gee recorded all his vocals with his back to the microphone.”

I’m a big collector myself, so I’ve got a lot of tapes that I got off the radio when I was living on the East Coast. I definitely always respected a certain caliber, and that was the influence I took on.

3-2-1 Records basically evolved into Sub Verse through Bigg Jus and Fiona Bloom, right?

Yup, exactly.

I’ve gotta ask you particularly about [Bigg Jus’s] “Orbital Mechanics,” because I think that’s the first verse I ever heard from you, and that’s what made me go back and check everything else out. To this day, it’s one of my favorite verses of all time. Can you tell me anything you remember about recording that?

Oh yeah, first of all I’ll tell you that verse was probably done a good three or four years before it got recorded. And a lot of verses I had from back then and different times, you know, I’ll have verses that I had in the book and it just wouldn’t be right yet. The beat wouldn’t be right or anything else wouldn’t be right. This was like 2003 or 2004 when Jus was working on his Poor People’s Day album. He already got a great response from “No Dessert” on Black Mamba Serums. I think they were playing that on Bobbito or something like that, and [Jus] scooped me and was like, “Yo, I’m not having many features, but I need you on it,” and he played me the beat, and I was like, “Ohhh wait a minute, I’ve got something ridiculous for this.” That was when I still wasn’t writing 16s. I was just writing the whole page. I might flip it over and write a couple lines on the back page. I was ignoring bars, so I just read him the whole joint, and he was like, “It’s crazy,” so he requested me to lay it on there. I never heard it until a month later or something… the producer played the final version of it, and I was like, “Wow, you got it sounding really crazy.” Then it came out and a bunch of people reached out to me. Even on an underground level, this was kind of big, and I was just like, “Wow.” That’s basically how it happened.

Jus took me under his wing, and I think had I stayed on Sub Verse, I would’ve put out something incredible at that time, like 2000/2001/2002. I wasn’t as polished, but definitely the energy was there.

Let me go back even further. Tell me about how you came up with the name MarQ Spekt, if you would. MarQ was your tag, is that right?

My tag was ExP, and that’s what I used to go by before that store Express started going by EXP, like early 90s. Mark was just something I used to tell chicks during the pager era, because I always been private, and it was kind of a play on my real name. Spekt comes from when I had dread[lock]s and all the dreads would be like, “respect, spekt” this and that, so my name really derived off of respect, but I always say Mark because I don’t feel like talking to people, so I’d be like, “Yeah, Mark,” and just keep it moving… I don’t know how I bridged it together, but it wasn’t always bridged together.

Possibly as a reference to Marc Spector?

Yeah, Moon Knight. It was loosely off of that too, because he was like a mercenary that was big in Egypt and, you know, always had the ox and all that and reflected off the night time, the moon and everything, so yeah, it was definitely a play off of that as well, loosely.

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