Saturday, January 29, 2011

Welcome To The Butcher Shop: An Interview With Kool G Rap

Popularity is not always an accurate way to gauge the impact an artist has had.  The record buying public sometimes overlooks an extraordinary talent because they are neither flamboyant nor easily accessible.  Often times such unsung heroes are revered among their peers.  They inspire them, and in some cases are mimicked by them outright.  While such reverence is not a substitute for monetary success, it usually denotes an artist who is clearly one of the best at his craft.  In hip-hop, such artists are regarded as a “rapper’s rapper.”

There are few rap artists who fit that designation as completely as Kool G Rap.  In the late 1980’s he was one of a quadrinity of MC’s who brought new levels of stylistic and thematic complexity.  As a member of the fabled Juice Crew, Kool G Rap’s gritty tales of street life and hustling offset the pimpish swagger of Big Daddy Kane and the comedic antics of Biz Markie.  His prowess on the mic is widely acknowledged and crosses all boundaries.  

He recently took some time off from preparing new material to talk to me about the inspirations behind his dynamic lyricism and pioneering crime tales.  He also expounded on how having a complex style can function as a form of copyright protection and as an initiation rite for aspiring rappers.  I now share with you the words and thoughts of hip-hop's very own Donald Goines, Kool G Rap.

Scott Tre: The world already knows who you are, but how a quick rundown for those that don’t know?

Kool G Rap: Well for those that don’t know Kool G Rap, I’m a cat that been in the game like twenty four years now.  I made my debut in '86 with my first single titled “It’s A Demo.” I followed it up another two years later with my first album called Road To The Riches.  Then it’s been consecutive albums after that like Wanted: Dead or Alive, then Live and Let Die.  Then my first solo album with just Kool G Rap, because when I first started it was Kool G Rap and DJ Polo.  By the time I did the 4,5,6 album it was my first solo album. 

Kool G Rap and DJ Polo

After that I did more albums that were far more underground than the previous ones, like Roots of Evil and then Giancana Story that didn’t get a whole lot of radio play but cats in the underground still know what it is and really appreciate the artistry that went into albums such as Roots of Evil and Giancana Story.  Then I dropped an EP Titled Half A Klip like in 2007, 2008 and I’m right here again man working on a new one.  The new one I’m pushing out to the people now is called Riches, Royalty & Respect

Scott Tre: What part of Queens are you from and how does it inspire your work?

Kool G Rap: Well, I’m from Corona, Queens.  That’s where I was pretty much raised at.  It had a lot of influence in my early work.  Even the work that would come after, because being born and raised in Queens in general it shaped and modeled me to a certain degree.  It didn’t shape and mold me entirely.  My mother and my step father who I was around is what shaped and molded my sense of morality and decency.   

The streets gave me street smarts, and they gave me basic principles that you have to have instilled in you when you're subjected to street life.  The influence it really had on me was like my first album.  Like “Road to the Riches,” “Rikers Island,” then later on with like “Streets of New York”, songs of that nature.  It gave G Rap what G Rap is credited for which is like bringing in the street life element into hip-hop music, in the fashion that I did.  Where I was born and raised had a whole lot to do with that.  

Scott Tre: How did you link up with Marley Marl and The Juice Crew?

Marley Marl

Kool G Rap: By meeting DJ Polo.  Polo and Marley, I believe, went to high school together, so they had a good relationship.  When I met DJ Polo through my man Eric B, he introduced me to DJ Polo.  Me and Polo already knew about each other 'cause we're from the same hood.  Eric B got us to formally meet each other, like face to face.  Not long after we met, he took me back to Marley's house.  We cut our first record, “It’s a Demo” with “I’m Fly” on the B-Side.  That’s pretty much how I linked up with Marley, all due to DJ Polo.

Scott Tre: You did an interview with Rap Pages magazine back in 1995.  You said that all of the artists in The Juice Crew basically told Marley Marl what they wanted musically and he provided that.

The September 1995 issue of Rap Pages magazine, which contains the interview "Still Smokin"

Kool G Rap: I don’t think I said all the artists.  I said, I believe, some of the artists.  I know, as myself, I did.  I was saying it was other artists like Biz Markie, like Kane.  Dudes knew what they wanted to rap over.  They were very much participating into their own production as well.  Kane wasn’t just a lyricist.  Kane, he was a person that searched for break beats, he searched for records.  He was into his artistry like 100 percent.  He didn’t just sit down and wait for somebody to put a beat together for him and then rap over it.  I believe Kane used to go record shopping.  I think I’m right with that assumption, because I think I have a great memory of Kane, like, bringing up records for me and putting the needle on the break part of the record and all that.  I do have somewhat of a vague memory of that, and I know I was doing that.  I was doing record shopping.  

In times that I wasn’t going record shopping I was telling polo “Yo, get this record” or “Get that record.”  Polo would get the record, and we would bring it to Marley and I would tell Marley “Yo, loop this over this break beat.  Put this guitar over these drums.”  I did that with “Men At Work.”  I did that with everything except for “It’s A Demo.”  There might’ve been one other record or something like that, but that’s about it.  “Road to the Riches,” I basically told Marley what I wanted.  “Men at Work,” ”Truly Yours,” I actually bought the record.  I used to bring all the records but “Truly Yours,” there’s another one.  “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” was another one.  “Cars” was another one.  “Trilogy of Terror” was another one.  “Rhymes I Express,” that was something that I put together.  Basically that was like the whole first album that I did with Marley.  

The only track that I didn’t put together was “It’s a Demo” and “I’m Fly.”  Marley kind of put those together.  Marley and Polo put “It’s a Demo” together and the “I’m Fly” track together, pretty much.  But every else I basically had the idea.  But not taking anything from Marley because it was Marley putting the little spices.  Like add a high-hat.  Marley’s the one that made it go “It’s a Demo, It’s A Demo, It’s a Demo,” echo all the way out.  So things like that he put his finishing touches on, whatever idea I would bring to him because he had that ear for production.  I mean, I did as well but he’s Marley Marl.  He was somebody who was doing it at the time.  He’d been doing it before I got with him.  So his finishing touches is what made the records exactly what they would become known to be to the public.  So it’s not taking nothing away from Marley Marl whatsoever.   

I was just a artist that was always fully into my craft.  Not just about writing the lyrics, I wanted to be a part of everything because my love for the hip-hop game in general was just more than just a writer, more than just a lyricist.  I put my own beats together on more than one occasion. 

Scott Tre: So basically those albums by you, Kane and Biz Markie, those were true collaborative efforts with Marley Marl.  Everyone including Marley Marl brought their talents to the table and that’s why the albums came out the way that they did.

Kool G Rap:  Absolutely.  I can’t say that everything that was on Kane's album was done that way or everything done on Biz's album was done that way because I wasn’t there for the whole recording process of those albums.  But as far as mines, yes.  I do know for sure that Biz used to play a creative part with his tracks and I believe Kane did as well.  That’s what I do know.  How much they did?  I couldn’t tell you that.                          
Scott Tre: What rappers did you listen growing up, and who were your musical influences?  
Kool G Rap: Aw man, I listen to Cold Crush Four, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Melle Mel by himself, Fearless Four.  L.L. Cool J, because L.L. Came out before I did.  My man Silver Fox from Fantasy Three, Treacherous Three.  Some of my favorites was like the Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee battle, Fantastic Romantic Five and The Cold Crush battle, Force MCs and the Cold Crush battle.  That’s great hip-hop right there, yo.

Silver Fox

Scott Tre: So you were a real student of hip-hop back in the day.

Kool G Rap: Absolutely.  I seen it from the infancy of it, to it becoming a toddler (laughs).  Then I seen it mature into a full grown adult.  Man I seen it grow from the first stages to where we at right now. 
Scott Tre: You were one of the first to include iambic pentameter and multi-syllabic raps into your work.  How did those innovations come about?  Were you trying to be a trendsetter or did it just come naturally to you?

Kool G Rap: Part of it was natural and part of it was influenced by artists like Moe Dee, Melle Mel and my man Silver Fox, and Grandmaster Caz as well.  Those was like some of the top rappers to me, that I was subjected to.  I was influenced by Caz.  I was influenced by Moe Dee.  I was influenced by Melle Mel.  I was influenced by my man Silver Fox.  Me being influenced by these great rappers and great artists of the time, I brought a piece of all of them with me and made it a combination.  It was Kool Moe Dee’s speed.  It was Melle Mel’s touch of reality, bringing reality to the music.  Songs like “The Message” and all that.  And then it was my man Silver Fox for the way he had off beat flow.  He wouldn’t just rhyme a line and end it with “cat” and then the next line and end it with “at.”  He was doing double like “True, Blue/I don’t know who/You feeding true to.” You know what I’m saying?  He was doing that back then.  I was like yo, this dude is like from the fucking future or something.   

I didn’t wanna be one of those “cat, sat, hat” rapper dudes.  I wanted my style to be more complex.  I wanted it to be challenging--challenging to me and challenging for anybody that wanted to do what I do.  You're not just gonna mimic G Rap easily.  I wanted to sound intelligent, because I do refer to myself as an intelligent individual so I wanted that to come across in my music as well.  So this is what made me come out the gate the way I came out.  “It’s a Demo” is a little brush of that, but one of the best examples of that as far as my early songs would be a “Men at Work.”  Just displaying all raw talent, all creativity, and showing the capacity of my skill as far as playing with words.  I would follow that up on my next album after that with “Kool is Back.”  But this is like free styling at its best. 
Scott Tre: You were like the inventor of the “mafioso style” that became so popular during the 1990’s, as far as talking about the drug game and dropping the names of well-known mafia figures and gangsters.  By 1995 or '96, much of New York was doing that, but you had been doing it since 1988 or '89.

Kool G Rap: '88.  Yup.  “Be like John Gotti, and drive a Maserati..."

Scott Tre: Every hip-hop head knows that.  What lead you to incorporate organized crime themes into your work?

Kool G Rap: Because it was so prevalent at that time.  This is right around the time when Paul Castellano got gunned down in front of Sparks Steak House and all that.  Every other year Gotti was in headlines.  He was on the front page of Time Magazine.  He was in the news all the time.  The mafia was still at the top of they game during these times.  It couldn’t have been avoided for me.  Me being a street cat, it couldn’t have been avoided for me to incorporate that whole thing into what I was doing.  If I’m a rapper that write about the streets and write about everything that’s street orientated, then I had to cover that.  I had to cover my experiences in the street, and then I had to cover everything else that was going on in the street that I wasn’t subjected to personally.  But these was things that was going on.  

Paul Castellano's bullet riddled body lying in front of Spark's Steak House.

The "Teflon Don" John Gotti on the cover of Time magazine.

Scott Tre: Some of the greatest rappers of all time (Big Pun, Black Thought, Scarface) have named you as a primary influence and have paid tribute to you over and over again.  How does it feel to be so revered?

Kool G Rap: I’m honored.  I’m honored because more than receiving financial success, that’s one of the things that G Rap always wanted, Just the credibility and the acknowledgment for my skill and for my time to be creative and just putting all my energy into that.  It’s good for people to acknowledge that I devote so much into what I do.  That it influenced other great artists.  That’s an honor to me.  All the money in the world couldn’t replace that right there.  Not saying that I’m just cool with that and that I never wanted the financial rewards either.  The financial rewards I never received to the level that a lot of cats think I deserved it.  But even if I had the financial success that I would have liked to obtained from this, If I was missing the respect and the admiration and appreciation for my talent and my time devoted into what I do.  There would be a big missing piece of my life if I didn’t have that.

An old school photo of Kool G Rap truck jeweled down and performing his duties as master of ceremonies.
This is why I believe that some artists that attain the financial status of it, it never sits right with them if they don’t get that respect for being a creative artist.  It never sits right with them.  So sometime they backlash with “Oh, lyrics is played out,” Because deep down they know it bothers them.  Yeah you got the riches and all that.  You might have got it because of a certain swag or whatever, but you’re not considered one of the great rappers or lyricists.  They know they don’t have enough creativity or enough patience to commit themselves 100 % into that so they attack being creative (laughs).  How can you attack being creative or being talented?  That’s like singers back in the days like “Nah, Aretha Franklin is too nice.  She sing too good.”  You know what I’m saying?  That’s the queen of soul right there.  She was soul at its best if you ask me.  Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight, these are like the epitome of what a Mary J Blige would become decades later. 

Hip-Hop started going in a direction to where a lot of cats in the game really didn’t possess those same lyrical skills of what we call a golden era.  It’s like they gotta push that image out there to they fan base like “yeah, that lyric shit is whack (laughs).”  They gotta convince them of that.  Nowadays it’s more than one artist saying that lyrics is whack.  I understand they saying, like, lyrics don’t sell records.  Yeah, granted.  But in some cases it did.  Like a Big Pun, like a Jay-Z, like a Nas.  Those guys sold and those dudes was lyrical.  But they saying for the majority, all lyricists don’t sell records.  So lyrics is whack to them. 

Like I said man, I feel good that I can hold my head up that I have influenced other great artists and they have that acknowledgment and that appreciation for me.  Nothing really compares to that.  Even like the financial gain and all that, that would be all well and fine but if I was missing that respect and that admiration and that acknowledgment of my work, blood, sweat and tears?  It would never sit right with me.

Scott Tre: You were featured on Rick Ross’s Albert Anastasia EP.  Rick Ross is clearly influenced by your style, especially if you’re talking about his subject matter and his image.  How did it feel to have one of today’s most prominent rappers not only pay tribute to you, but feature you on one of his projects?

Kool G Rap: It wasn’t like I never felt that before, because when Mobb Deep was like at the top of they game and in they prime, they had me featured on they album.  Game acknowledged me when he came out with G Unit and had that first crazy successful album that sold like six million copies or something.  The first record that come on the album, you heard my name.  When he came to New York to perform at club Exit, he actually brought me out.  He wanted me to come out on stage with him because that was the record he wanted to start his show with.  He wanted to bring out the artist he acknowledged in the record.  It wasn’t nothing new, but it’s always an honor and it’s always a pleasure.  Especially when it’s an artist that I respect as far as their pen game and their wit.  Especially when it’s an artist like that, it’s always an honor.  I’m not trying to devalue the effect of Rick Ross hitting me, but it wasn’t nothing I wasn’t used to, because it happened before on different occasions.  

Scott Tre:  What do you have coming up?  What can your fans expect and how will it differ from your past work if at all?

Kool G Rap in front of a backdrop as rugged as any of his raps.

Kool G Rap: Well that’s the thing.  This won’t be different from my past work.  For the cats that know G Rap and my body of work, this is gonna be that same G Rap, the essence of G Rap that everybody know, but it’s just done in a 2010/2011 way.  I’m not gonna sound dated.  My flow is not gonna sound dated.  I’m still gonna sound nice and fresh.  That’s one of my blessings that I happen to have, the longevity of sounding current.  Whenever I appear on anything, I’m not gonna sound dated.  I’m gonna sound current.  I’m not gonna sound old school (laughs).   

They can expect story, all the different things that G Rap is known for.  Story rhymes, just songs where I’m displaying lyrical skills, the topics I choose to use.  They can expect to hear interesting topics and things of that nature.  I got a song called “Pillow Talk.”  I got a song called “Sad,” but it’s not a sorrowful feeling record.  It don’t sound like some sorry shit, but the title of it is “Sad.”  I got another track on there called “Maggie,” that’s like some ill concept shit.  I don’t want to spoil the surprise for everybody, so I’ll just let everybody put that one together on they own, when they hear it.  It’s just a lot of concepts and shit.  Concepts, story rhymes, displaying skills, all the things that G Rap is known to do, they can expect on this album.   

Nothing that I did in the past gets done over, because I don’t like to recycle shit.  I like to keep it moving and do new things, discover new terrain.  I’m not doing a Road to the Riches 2 and 3 and 4.  

Scott Tre: That’s the trend right now, for everybody to drop sequel albums.  So you’re not getting into all of that?

Kool G Rap: I don’t follow nobody else lead.  I’m a leader, I’m not a follower.  If that’s what the trend is, they could do the trend thing, but I like to keep it fresh.  What I did on this album is the same type of stuff, same subject matter or what not, but I’m not doing none of my old stuff over and all that on this album.  It’s all brand new ideas.     
Scott Tre: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

Kool G Rap: Look out for the EP coming shortly, the EP is titled Offer You Can’t Refuse, that’s gonna be the first thing I drop before I drop the next album.  This is gonna be like a little eye opener, a little ear catcher, just something to feed to the streets.  Im’a hit em’ with the appetizer real quick.     



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