Cormega: “When It Comes to Art, What Kind of Artist Are You?”
We sat down with legendary rapper and New York icon Cormega to talk about his long career, battles with a brutal criminal justice system, the economics of the hip-hop industry, and why he decided to vote for Bernie Sanders.
- Interview by
- Sal Dali
Praised for his lyrical ability, Cormega might not have gotten the commercial success of some of his peers, but he’s more than made up for it in respect and acclaim.
Listeners might have first encountered him when he was shouted out on Nas’s “One Love” or for his brief spell as a member of The Firm supergroup. But he carved an impressive discography since then, releasing albums like The Realness and The True Meaning on his independent label, while decrying the role of big money in hip-hop.
A friend of Jacobin and Cincinnati native, producer Sal Dali has worked alongside hip-hop legends like Sean Combs, Black Thought, Killer Mike, Pusha T, Hi-Tek, ASAP Ferg, and Young Guru. Earlier this summer, he sat down with Cormega to discuss his long career, his early 1990s battles with a brutal criminal justice system, the state of hip-hop, and why he decided to vote for Bernie Sanders, despite thinking that “politics is a dirty game.”
All right, all right, let’s get into it. Many fans from outside of New York first heard your name on “One Love,” but a lot of people don’t know that prior to that, you made a pretty good name for yourself in New York, and you were doing a lot of work with the legendary Marley Marl. Can you talk about that phase of your career, and what was going on at that time?
That’s when the New York underground was really big, and a lot of the artists from New York got their start there. I heard about Redman before I heard Redman. I knew he was nice, just from how people talked. Same with Lord Finesse and things like that. So my name was circulating throughout the city.
Large Professor just told me a couple days ago, “We were hearing about ’Mega in Flushing, Queens.” That’s a whole different part of Queens. So my name was circulating, and I was still in the streets. I was getting in a little bit of trouble.
So that’s how Marley first got my demo. See, at that time, Marley was the Queensbridge ambassador. He was hearing people, but nothing was sticking, so a lot of us were discouraged. When he got my demo, I didn’t know what to expect, but then he reached out. He was like, “Yo, let’s work.” And I was very excited.
Unfortunately, at this time, I was also on trial for a crime I didn’t commit. That’s what I ended up going to jail for. And so at that time, I was just hoping for the best outcome with the trial, but meanwhile me and L.E.S. were going up to Marley Marl’s house, working on my album. So I would have had a record deal — I would have had an album out in 1992 or 1993.
What label would it have been on?
The Lords of the Underground got their deal, Marley Marl got a deal, I think it was Pendulum Records. Marley Marl had a deal for me and the Lords of the Underground. So I would have came out with a record. And then [Blaq] Poet came out with a project, and it was like, “Rappers are lucky that my man Cormega is up north.” And then Nas’s song on Illmatic, “One Love,” came out. When I got that shout-out on “One Love,” a lot of people didn’t know I was an actual person because the story was so good.
Anyway, when I went home I went to Marley Marl’s house for a while. I started working — I was rusty. I wasn’t used to being in the studio. And the rest is history. I started working on some demos, and I started jumping on mixtapes.
A lot of people think that ’Mega came home and had a fairy-tale rap career. They think I got a deal because I got a shout-out on an album. That’s total bullshit. I had no deal for over a year. Actually, one label declined signing me.
And another thing — you’re a hip-hop head so I have no need to remind you — but people assume “Affirmative Action” was the first thing I was on. That’s not the first big record I was even on when I came home! Remember —
— “On the Real”?
Yeah, “On the Real” with Nas and Kamakazee — it was on the radio and everything! And then you have got to remember, back then when you did mixtapes, that was everything. Back when you were doing mixtapes, one of the biggest Bad Boy mixtapes that ever came out was hosted by Puffy and Stretch Armstrong. And I was on that.
So it’s things like that that helped. And then that “Dead Man Walking” song came out — so the next year, in ’96, I got a deal. I took the deal with Def Jam. I had like twenty labels trying to sign me, but the reason I took the deal with Def Jam was because it was the most money. That was a rookie mistake of me, of anybody that comes from where we come from — you’re going to want the most money. But you’ve got to be in the best situation.
It’s like an athlete that joins the team that gives him the most money, but he’s not going to get playing time. I should’ve went with a team that would’ve had me start.
A label where you had the room to grow and build, and you’ve got support.
Yeah, I wasn’t a priority, so I sat on the shelf.
I want to talk a bit about your case. You mentioned that you were incarcerated for a crime you didn’t commit. Can you detail any of that situation, and how you feel like the justice system failed you?
Well, I’ll say this about my case. The justice system super-failed me. There was a crime, and when a crime happens, you call the police. That’s called a 911 sprint report, legally. So there was a crime that was committed, and they were looking for two people. When they asked for the description of the perpetrators, the perpetrators were clean-shaven — I always had a mustache, even back then, I had a light mustache, but it was a mustache — so I wasn’t clean-shaven. But that’s not the important part. Both of the perpetrators were tall. There’s no metrics in America where I would be considered tall! I’m 5’7”.
[Allen Iverson] is taller than me, and he’s — you know what I’m saying? So that police report went out, and the person went to the precinct, and they show you a photo array of people that fit that MO. So whatever crime it is, they’re going to show you people that fit that criteria. My picture was shown. My picture should have never been shown. And the officer that did it just had a case dismissed due to improper police activities.
What happened during the court proceedings?
I’m in court for a case that is getting dismissed. I’m leaving; I’m about to leave. And they say, “You fit the identification of somebody involved in an incident. Would you like to be in the lineup?” I knew it wasn’t me, so I went on my own. I went! To the lineup. I wasn’t arrested or anything.
I go to the lineup. Then they come — first they were nice, but that changed — I knew I was in trouble when they came in, and they threw my hands around my back and arrested me. I was like, “Wow!”
So now I’m in jail. I had to get bailed out. My friends bailed me out. During that time, I was home, fighting my case, and then I was found guilty. Identification is the most important thing in any case. My identification was not consistent with the police report or the 911 sprint report.
When I went to trial, that’s when I knew the system was fucked up. It was in Queens, Kew Gardens, Queens. The judge’s name was Judge Sherman. I will never forget his name. I will never forget his face, because he taught me about the system. My lawyer said, “Let’s throw this out.” Even the court officers were like — you know how they talk among themselves — they were like, “He didn’t do that.” Right?
My lawyer said, “I’m going to move to have this case dismissed. The identification was inconsistent. The witness changed their testimony about the description, et cetera.” I thought I was going home! The judge said, “Let’s see what happens.” I swear to God, I will never forget the words for the rest of my life. That’s when I knew that something was messed up, but I was so convinced that I was going home because I didn’t do it.
Even if one of my friends did a crime and I was taking a ride for it, I’d feel better. But this was just something so random. I was so convinced I was going home. The last day of court, when they were coming up with a decision, I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. That’s how sure I was that I was going home!
But then the verdict came in. Whenever there’s a trial, even if you see this on TV, the lawyers and the district attorney, they know who’s with them. You can tell who believes your story. Body language is the most honest language, so you could look at somebody’s face and see when they’re in favor of you or when they’re against you.
One of the jurists, who I knew was with me the whole time, she was red when she came back in; she looked like she was just crying. So I was like, “I’m screwed!”
I got found guilty, and then I got remanded. So I go to jail. Now I’m in jail, and I’m waiting for my sentence. While I’m getting sentenced, I’m in the law library, I’m seeing similar cases. So when I get sentenced — you get to say anything you want to say before you get sentenced — I’m telling the judge, “Your Honor, the identification is the most important, significant factor in any case. The identification in this case is inconsistent.” You know what I’m saying? “I’m not the height, I don’t fit the description. They changed it from clean-shaven to mustache.” I’m stating facts. But at that time, I didn’t know you’re supposed to state case law, like, “Davis versus State, 1980 — whatever.” I was just stating facts.
So the judge said to me, “You might have valid points, but unfortunately the jury has decided.” Well, if he thought the jury’s conclusions were unreasonable then he could overrule the jury, but he didn’t. He sentences me five to fifteen. Five to fifteen years for something I didn’t do. So I go to prison.
I knew I wasn’t going to do the whole five to fifteen because I was appealing it. I appealed it immediately. So now when I go to jail, I’m going to the law library, consistently. I’m not in the yard and doing all of that recreational stuff. So now I know case law. Now I’m writing my own motions, writing my own things to send to the appellate division, and I’m citing case law to them.
I send the motion to the appellate division. They grant me an appeal. Granting you an appeal, and you coming home are two different things. I send in a motion for a lawyer. So I was sending the lawyer all of the information that was going to help me. I was sending all the inconsistencies for my case, and I sent my police report, all that stuff, showing that this isn’t consistent. But then he found other stuff.
Like I said, I’ll never forget this, and I’ll remember the judge’s name. There were things that I didn’t know — the jury didn’t know how to decide, and the judge sent them an instruction, “Well, if you find such and such, then you must find him guilty.” In my mind, he told them that they must find me guilty — and that was the reason why I got appealed.
I ended up doing close to four years. My appeal was granted at three and a half. I found out about this stuff that the judge did after I got my appeal, once we were going back down to fight it. I was like, “Wow.” He forced their hand on that, and that’s when I knew that the system was flawed, and that it was like — while I’m in the law library and learning things, I’m learning, “Wow, it’s really corrupt, and it’s not favorable for people of color, especially.”
I really didn’t think like that back in the day. But I had to make the most of being in this terrible situation. When I got in, I got in trouble, so they put me in SHU [secure housing unit]. When I was in the box, all I could do was read. Somebody passed by one day and gave me a tray of books; and on that tray you choose the book, and I chose The Autobiography of Malcolm X. So once I read that book, I’m seeing — wow, he was a hustler, he went to jail, he educated himself while he was in jail and bettered his life.
So as soon as I got out of the box, I started going to the law library; I started going to school. I got my GED while I was in there. Then I got a grant to go to college. I went to college while I was in there, and I became a teacher’s aide. I was helping other inmates. That bettered me academically, and as a man, I learned to respect your blessings and your gifts, because when I was home, there was a time when I was in the streets more than I was in the studio.
While I’m in jail and I’m watching TV, I see Mobb Deep’s video on, and I see Nas’s video, and then other artists from Queensbridge, too. It was like, “Wow.” And it was crazy because all of these people were my friends! It’s one thing to see people out there that you’re cool with, but I’m talking about people that you know, or knew for many years, knew since they were little, and people from your own circle are on TV, even if they’re not rapping. They’re in a video! It’s like, “Oh, there goes my man — oh, wow!” That was really motivational.
So when I came home, when I got my appeal, once I came down on my appeal, I had the option to go back to trial. My lawyer was black. And he was like, “What do you think is in your best interest?” He’s like, “You’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of beating this, because I know you didn’t do this. This is bull crap. But you had a fifty-fifty chance of beating it before.” And he kept it a hundred percent real with me. I said, “Basically, I’ve been in jail for close to four years for a crime I didn’t commit. I was unjustly incarcerated.” So that’s a lawsuit! And I could win.
But he said, “What do you think is gonna be easier — them giving you that money, or them putting you back in jail?” I said, “Putting me back in jail.” So he said, “We could do this. I’m with you whatever you want to do. But at the end of the day you have a career ahead of you now, so the likelihood of you getting back in trouble is less. So whatever you want to do.” I thought about it, and I took bail.
Sal, when you first heard me on “On the Real” and all that, I wasn’t fully out. I was just on bail. I took what’s called the Alford plea. That’s like saying, “I did not do this crime. I’m not admitting my guilt to this crime. I’m just taking this plea because I want to stay home, and I don’t want to risk being incarcerated.” Especially at that time — numerous labels trying to sign me. I was sitting down with Puff Daddy. Not the assistant, not the agent, but Puff Daddy. You know what I’m saying? Marley Marl, Puff Daddy, Neil Levine from Penalty Recordings. Def Jam. You name it.
I was like, “Yo,” you know what I’m saying? I’m seeing too much. “I need to be home.” And I knew from then on how flawed the system was, and I felt solidarity for those who weren’t driven or able to fight the system like me. There are people that have taken a plea just because they can’t afford a decent lawyer, or some people that will take a plea just because it would be less time. I had to take the strange path of going to the law library every day. So I felt terrible for those people who couldn’t, and I was like, “Wow.” So that taught me a lot.
I want to say something else, too, because I love the work that you guys do [at Jacobin]. I love y’all’s movement fighting for people who don’t have a shot otherwise.
You were in Rikers and where else?
I was in Rikers. I was in Ulster. I was in Mohawk, and my last place, my last destination was Mid-State Correctional Facility.
How would you describe the conditions in the prison system in New York back in the early ’90s?
It depends. There’s two different kinds of prison systems, right? There’s [Rikers] Island and upstate. And then I’ve also noticed that there’s levels to incarceration. The younger people move differently than the adults. I was young, but they put me with the adults. Sometimes they put the young people with the adults. For example, on Rikers Island, you hear they cut people. A lot of people have scars on their faces. That’s a young thing. You know what I’m saying? A lot of the older guys, they don’t play that.
So when you get upstate, they move differently — if you’re an adult, you have different responsibilities, you have different stresses. You’re talking about grown men, some of them have families; some of them have kids at home. They’re upset about not being around their kids. They have wives. So they’re looking at it differently. Or they might have a bunch of time, and they don’t care. So they play differently. I wasn’t even out of the box for a week — when I got out of the box at Mid-State — that was my reality check. My first time in the yard, my very first time in the yard, I saw somebody get stabbed.
I was like, “Whoa, okay! This is real.” And I’m brand-new here. In my mind, I’m like, “I’ve got to deal with this for five years minimum!” Another thing about New York that was terrible back then — I don’t know if they changed the guidelines with the sentencing — when you got five to fifteen, that sucks. That means you’re going through five years minimum, and if you go to the board and they say, “Eh, do another two,” they can keep playing with you up to fifteen years.
In my mind, I was like, “I hope I don’t end up doing seven years, but at my minimum I’m doing five years,” which I didn’t want to do. That itself is a lot. That was my reality.
Back then, I learned up north, they play for keeps. They’re not about that cutting. They’ll kill you. I learned about the racial division between blacks and brown brothers. That bugged me out.
In the street, some of my best friends are Spanish-speaking brothers. Some of my best friends in the hood are Puerto Rican or half Puerto Rican, or a couple of Dominicans I’m close with. So it was like pandemonium. I’ve got people in my bloodline who are brown. So when I was in jail and I saw the blacks and the brown brothers having beef, that was weird for me. I was like, “Is this really happening?”
Those are the things I’ve seen then, and now I think people are starting to force some change. One thing I’m proud to say is that they’re going to be closing Rikers out.
Beautiful. Hopefully, it means real change.
I think correction facilities should live up to the word, because if I do a math problem and it’s wrong, you’re going to correct me; that means it’s going to be right from then on. But the prison system in New York wasn’t correcting things.
If anything, they were creating worse individuals, or recidivists. Even you if you think about how I “corrected myself” through education. They’re cutting those programs out of some prisons too, those really important school programs. After my experiences, I can’t help but agree with people who say that incarceration is modern slavery.
When you’re fighting all of this, and you’re seeing your peers blowing up on TV and all of that, and you come home to buzz around your name and the hope of an offer. Like a lot of talented artists, you get caught up in the industry politics and all of the bullshit.
What do you think about the hip-hop industry? I’ve seen it so often that artists sign to a major label, and it ends up causing all of these hiccups and money gets in the way of the art?
I wish there was some type of orientation, like the type you get when you’re drafted into the NBA and you join the players’ union. They tell you how it’s going to be, and they guide you. But in the industry, you just sign, and they just throw you to the lions, and there’s a whole bunch of games. It’s like, how many people were honest?
One thing I’ll say about [music executive] Chris Lighty — God bless his soul — he never jerked me. You can hear all these stories about Chris Lighty — you’ll never hear an artist say Chris Lighty screwed them. That’s a rarity!
So when I got a deal, I had all of my publishing, and I had a nice amount of points [royalties], too. One of the first things I bought was a book called How to Understand the Music Industry, something like that. I learned about points, et cetera, but the industry — it doesn’t benefit the artist, it benefits itself.
I thought the industry was like a pimp. They push the women out there, to look good and get all the attention and bring all the glory and money to them. You remember the name of the pimp, but you don’t remember the name of the women struggling and trying to survive.
When these people go platinum, they get their success, and they’re looking good, everybody wants to sign to that label, because it’s like, “Aw, man, what’s-his-name did that thing on that label.” So everybody wants to sign to their label, but at the end of the day it might have been what’s-his-name with the impact; the label might have just rode the wave and capitalized off of it. A lot of times, labels have nothing to offer, and they’re not helping guide your careers.
Especially now, it’s starting to change, because young artists realize, “We don’t need a label.” This young artist is turning down major deals. I learned a lot about how industry executives are shady. Can you name three broke executives?
I’d be hard-pressed!
Can you name three broke rappers?
[Laughter] See what I’m saying? It’s craziness going on.
What gave you the leverage? How did you negotiate to keep your publishing in a time like that, when everybody was still getting fucked over?
That’s why I gave Chris Lighty his props. When I signed, he just let me. There was some competition from other labels. My deal was for a quarter-million, which at the time was something of a record.
I was just out of prison, and they offered me that much plus publishing. How could I say no to that?
Actually, I was close to taking a deal with Penalty Recordings before that. They didn’t have that kind of money to offer, and their budget was a bit limited.
I remember that like it was yesterday. I even remember the man’s name, Neil Levine, because he said the realest shit. He said, “We might not have a big budget like the labels, but we’re going to give you the attention. We’re going to give you the attention.” And then those words definitely haunted me later on.
I took more money from Def Jam, but it wasn’t the best thing for me.
Do you feel like the majors have changed hip-hop for the worse?
Definitely, definitely. The majors ruined it.
Hip-hop was a culture at one point. You could dress like a bum, not be presentable, but bust a dope rhyme and be dope, and people would be like, “That dude is dope!” They didn’t care about what you were.
Now, you can be terrible but have high-end stuff in the video, and people will pay attention to you. That’s disgusting. So the industry did that.
They also took the variety out of it. At one point, you could be like, “I like listening to underground.” “I like listening to hardcore rap.” “I like listening to conscious rap.” Remember? There were people that only listened to Public Enemy or things like that, and then you got people who listened to Fresh Prince — “family rap,” we call it. It’s all flattened now. The power of money ruins any culture.
I’m going to ask you a crazy question right now. When was the last real R&B record you heard?
Not on a major label.
These executives, they destroyed our culture. I think about what labels glorify — and their sexism and ageism, especially.
They objectify women, as opposed to cultivating real ability. Instead of, “She can sing her ass off; let’s push her and try to exploit her talents. Let people hear what we hear,” now it’s like “she can sing alright, but can we make her look sexy enough for us to market her?” That’s how they do. They’ve done this to some of the extra female rappers.
And then, as far as ageism, this impacts women more, too. There are actually some male rappers in their sixties who get more prioritized than women rappers in their forties. Sometimes people ask about these artists. “What happened to them?” Like they lost their talents. No, the answer is simple: labels lost interest.
There’s no reason why we couldn’t keep hearing Toni Braxton. There’s no reason why we can’t hear Fantasia anymore — Fantasia can sing better than damn near everybody. There are a lot of female singers and rappers that are just dope, but the industry doesn’t want to “market” women once they get past a certain age.
But, of course, they can market songs about “molly” or “purple drank” or anything else. That’s not offensive, as long as you don’t use any racial slurs or whatever, companies are putting that out.
So it was like, they’re letting certain demoralizing things stay in the music that affect our culture and our people, and nothing bad happens because controversy sells. I never knew that until I experienced it. I learned then why labels —
— promote it.
Promote beef. There’s proof of it. As an artist, you have to have a choice — am I going to keep on this beef thing, or do I want to be an artist? Do you want to be a rapper? Do you want to be an artist? I didn’t continue with the beef thing because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed or looked at as just that. Sometimes when there’s that controversy, when the controversy is over, people don’t look at you the same. Like you’re boring.
I wasn’t about to let that happen to me. I learned that from the industry. They’ll give you all the ammunition — they’ll give you the guns and bullets — and when you die, they’ll mourn you, but they’ll market your next project while you’re dead! Because dead artists also make a lot of money.
Jadakiss said dead rappers get better promotion!
You know what I’m saying! That’s one of the ugly things I learned about the industry.
So when you went through all the blackball stuff. A lot of people give 50 Cent credit for changing the mixtape format, but I feel like you were the first one, when you were dealing with the industry politics and your album wasn’t getting released — I feel like when mixtapes were more like a random compilation of stuff, you were putting out original content to keep your name buzzing.
I’m never going to get enough credit for anything because there’s so many people in the industry — it’s like a fraternity. And if you’re part of the fraternity, it’s like, “Let’s mute him.” So it’s like, not only were you correct — I was the first person to do mixtapes, period. Some people give me my credit for it, though. Nobody did mixtapes before me. I was doing mixtapes like they were albums. You know what I’m saying? I was doing it so long that if I was celebrating them, I’d be past the twenty-year anniversary mark for a mixtape.
That format is commonplace today.
Exactly. Innovators are often met with resistance. When I was making mixtapes, people were like, “Yeah, but he ain’t got no album out.” A lot of times, when you’re making history or you’re doing something different, you don’t realize what you’re doing. I was just doing it because my album wasn’t getting released, and I was like, “If I put out some music, at least people will hear my music, and it’ll give me an indicator of how people feel about me.” That’s why I did it. It was a test. And it went like wildfire. So when I did the mixtape, I did another one after that, and then after that, when I was off of Def Jam, I came back and I went independent.
Yeah, I want to get into that next.
Independence was frowned upon. If you were independent, people were like [groans]. One prominent rapper — who I won’t mention, but I was definitely upset when he said it, because I expect more from him — he said, “independence is for people nobody wanted.” He said that to another artist, who asked me for my advice, and they were like, “Yeah, such and such said that.” And I was like, “Wow.” I was like, “Look at how I’m living, and compare that to some artists who are gold and platinum.”
I’m talking to you from a house right now. This is a house. I had my house for twenty years. Even my fans thought I was still living in the hood. When I went independent, it was frowned upon. Nobody wanted to do it, it didn’t look sexy, it wasn’t appealing. But to me, once I started receiving the fruits of my labor, I was like, “I don’t think I ever want to go on a major again.”
I was offered opportunities to go back to a major, and I — people from Interscope [Records] were reaching out, calling. I didn’t want to be in another situation where I’m on the shelf again. So I said, “There’s no need for me to even try.” I wanted control, I wanted to be an artist, and that’s when I ended up doing The True Meaning album.
That’s my favorite project of yours.
I appreciate that. The True Meaning changed the independent game. I got a Source Award for Independent Album of the Year, and that’s when the Source was the thing.
For readers who don’t know, can you explain the economics of the industry a bit better? Like as an independent, how much were you getting per sale versus what you would have gotten with Def Jam?
Okay, let me break it down to you. Records used to sell for ten dollars, wholesale. They’ll sell to whatever record store. The record store pays $10, and then they’ll put their price to it; they’ll sell the CD for $15 or whatever so they can make a profit, right? So the label gets ten dollars total, but if you got even a dollar as an artist you were a special person.
A dollar would put you in elite company.
I forgot what the royalty was — 40 cents or something maybe? As an independent artist, if I have a distributor that’s doing business with me, then he’s going to get $4 and I’ll get $6. But if I have no distribution, and it’s just me taking it straight to wholesale, I’m getting $10.
It’s a big difference. I could sell a hundred thousand records, and I’m going to make a million dollars minus expenses, whereas if you’re on a major label, you sell a hundred thousand records, you’re getting dropped by the label.
And you owe money, because your advance isn’t covered yet.
Crazy! And this is where you find out the industry ain’t shit. Hopefully they’ll change. This is coming from somebody that’s unbiased and doesn’t have animosity toward the industry, because if it wasn’t for the industry, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.
So, like I said earlier, “can you name three broke artists?” You said, “yeah.” But in reality, if we thought hard, we could probably name at least twenty people that we heard struggled or went through some financial ups and downs. Now, if an album sells platinum, that’s $10 million that the label was making during that time. Ten million dollars! So why do so many platinum artists struggle financially? Because the label made the ten million. The artists didn’t make the ten million.
So then you get your cut, but before you get your cut, they have to take — okay, we shot five videos, a video for $250,000 and this video for this and this — they have to recoup the money they spent for your marketing. So it depends on what the recoupment agreement is. If they’re getting 100 percent for recoupment, or sometimes they might take a little less — so your videos end up costing a million dollars — that’s a million dollars deducted from what you would have gotten. Then your studio time — you spent such and such, a hundred thousand on your album — they’re taking that back. Any money they spend on you, they’re taking that back. And then they’re taking their percentage, and then they give you your cut if it’s there. That’s why there’s a lot of artists who are in the red. There’s no way on God’s green earth that we should have heard about multiplatinum artists struggling.
You know what I’m saying? And there are so many artists who went through struggle. There’s no way in hell we should hear about some of these artists struggling, because the industry wasn’t made to benefit the artist; it was made to benefit the label. At the end of the day, when you see these artists doing good, it inspires you; it influences you.
“I’m going to that label. They did their thing!” Whereas sometimes the label doesn’t really do anything; they just piggyback off of somebody else. I’ll give you a perfect example: DMX. DMX changed rap. DMX was on Def Jam before I got to Def Jam. They didn’t know what to do with him at first because he was a street artist, and he was high-energy. It appeared they didn’t know how to market him initially until after he appeared on Mase’s “24 Hrs. to Live.”
And he was on another song — I forgot which other song. But those two albums were affiliated with Bad Boy.
He was on the Mase “Take What’s Yours” and the Lox “Money, Power & Respect,” too.
So being on those songs made people see his potential. And then after that they came out with “Get at Me Dog.” By the time that came out, DMX was a phenomenon. Of course, then they’re going to market him and get behind him because he’s a phenomenon. But he’s been dope.
You have Alicia Keys. Remember, she was on a label before, and she was on the shelf. They didn’t know what to do with her until somebody else took her. A lot of times with the industry, they don’t know what they’ve got. When they had me, it was a no-brainer at Def Jam, but apparently it wasn’t. So it was like, when you think about it, even though I was decorated by the Source magazine and five or six tracks from my shelved The Testament album was on their Fat Tape mixtape, I couldn’t get released.
I signed with Def Jam in ’96. I got off Def Jam in early 2000. I tried to get my album back. TVT Records was going to give them $250,000 so they could put it out. They fronted on me. They raised the price to $350,000. That’s when I knew that it was a dirty game, because five years after this material was recorded, the value should have been depreciating. The price shouldn’t have gone up.
You had so much success as an independent artist. How did you handle the marketing as an indie without the major label backing, before the internet and social media took off?
I tightened up my boots. I went to record stores and shook hands with people. I started in Massachusetts. That’s when I first found out that I had fans of different racial demographics. I didn’t think other people were listening to me. I thought it was just black people or Spanish-speaking brothers in the hood. Now I’m in Massachusetts, and there’s mad white people at my show. And they know every word! So that taught me something.
Long story short, we started in Massachusetts, and I went to Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Atlanta, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey. I put in the groundwork. We went to California. We went all over. So basically, summer of 2001, I was on the road promoting my album. And when it came out, I was the number one Heatseeker for two weeks in a row in Billboard, as the New Artist. Not rap artist — artist, period. I could have been a country singer. I was the top new artist in America.
Yeah! We went state to state. I went to record stores, I shook hands, I did a lot of promo radio. I did everything I had to do to get myself out there. It worked. I did interviews — it took a lot of marketing and strategy. Say there’s twenty magazines — there weren’t podcasts and all that stuff. Say there’s twenty magazines, or other local channels. We’d rent out a place and invite media there, there’s food and everything, and you just chill, and you get your turn. So somebody interviews me for twenty minutes, they’re done, and somebody else comes in and interviews me for twenty minutes. I worked my ass off.
How would you compare being an independent artist back then to the indie hustle with streaming and everything now?
I think there’s pros and there’s cons. The pros are visibility. You can reach smaller markets you couldn’t get to now. That’s a pro. One of the cons is that people’s attention spans are shorter now. You ever noticed how classic albums are always compared to soul food? It sticks to your ribs. I remember when I came home, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous album was out. I was like, “Wow!” That was the first time I heard the whole album, because when I was locked up, I didn’t.
So this was summertime. I came home in the late summertime in 1995. In Queens, Brooklyn, wherever I was, you’d hear car speakers still playing that album. But now you can come out with an amazing album on June 30 and by July 4, nobody’s going to be talking about it!
That’s true, even for the bigger artists.
The best thing for an artist to do now if you’re indie, you have to know who your audience is and build your audience. If you’ve got thirty fans, make those thirty people feel like they are your best friends and listen to them. If you’ve got fans DM-ing you or sending you messages, then you should always be gracious to your fans. If they tell you something, take heed of what they say.
I don’t try to make records for radio, because I’m most likely not going to be on the radio. I’m not going to get a trap beat and try to get some rappers singing on my song. I’m not going to do that because that’s not my demographic.
I’m busy trying to make a better Realness, or a better True Meaning, or a better version of my last thing, because there’s a growing audience of people that grew up loving hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s, and some of these people grow older and they mature.
A lot of them, especially female listeners, don’t want to listen to the same song about somebody shooting somebody, or this or that old thing, or this song derogatory toward women.
So it’s like, there is a growing, growing demographic of people that would love to still listen to hip-hop -— but they’re not given many options. That’s what I’m trying to do now. My audience grows with me. I’m not making songs about being in the hallway selling crack, or you know — that’s not me. I plant flowers and stuff now. I have a garden! [Laughter]
I try to be realistic, and I try to be an artist, not just a rapper. So with this digital age, that can benefit you, because when you stick to your own zone, your own lane, people gravitate toward you – as opposed to you being a grown man, writing a song trying to sound like a teenager.
One good thing about social media is that people have a better idea of who I am as a person, just from me having dialogue on there, or just from me posting certain things. They don’t look at me the same way they used to look at me. There’s, “Oh, ‘Mega’s mature,” or “‘Mega’s growing,” or “He’s brilliant.” All these things.
Sometimes I take it as a compliment. Sometimes I feel offended — like, I’ve always been growing. Despite my circumstance, I’ve always been interested in learning and had that nerd-level GPA. Despite my record, I never told you that I was a bad person. I never told you that I was a belligerent person. That was someone else’s perception.
You’ve said that Queensbridge, when it comes to hip-hop, is kind of like Rome before. Can you talk a bit about the neighborhood, one you moved into as a young man?
When you think of the Roman Empire at its height, Rome had the sophistication, the administration, the tenacity to take over the known world. But the thing that stopped Rome, the fall of Rome, wasn’t just external threats but inner bickering and civil war. That reminds me of Queensbridge, at least at the scale of hip-hop.
Culturally, Queensbridge is the most impactful hood in hip-hop history. It’s not even up for debate. In every aspect of hip-hop, we’ve shaped the genre. When you think about women and hip-hop, the first people who opened the door for rap in Queensbridge, it was two women. There was Dimples D. and Roxanne Shanté. And as far as production, Marley Marl changed the whole landscape of what production and sampling is.
Now you can talk about emceeing. The Juice Crew, well most of the Juice Crew artists, were from Queensbridge. MC Shan was ahead of his time. The first anthem ever in hip-hop was the song “The Bridge.” That came out before “Straight Outta Compton,” before “South Bronx,” before any neighborhood song. The “Bridge Wars” between KRS-One and Shan was one of the top hip-hop rivalries ever in history.
Chuck D used to actually live in Queensbridge, but I’ll let him tell you that story. Rakim, the quintessential emcees of all emcees, made his first songs in Queensbridge. Big Daddy Kane got on from who? Marley Marl. Same with Kool G Rap and Biz Markie. KRS-One got on making a song dissing Queensbridge.
That one housing project’s impact is so crazy, and that’s just that one generation, because what Rakim did to the 1980s with Paid in Full, Nas did to the 1990s with Illmatic. And then Mobb Deep came right after that with The Infamous. So Mobb Deep changed rap, too. Everybody wanted to do hooks and choruses like Mobb Deep, not to mention have similar production.
And we’re not even talking about all the artists from Queensbridge that came after that. And we’re not even talking about a part of Queens or whatever else. We’re talking about one housing project. That’s like the block you’re on right now — next door is MC Shan and Shanté down the block, and Poet and Craig G. All in your neighborhood.
There was something in the water. How different today is Queensbridge, just generally?
I try to be an honest person — so I can’t tell you what the day-to-day in 2020 is, since I’m not around that often.
I assume like the rest of Queens the area around Queensbridge is getting hit hard by gentrification.
Oh, yes, there’s super-gentrification going on! And I’m sure Queensbridge is in the sights, since it’s a prime location, right near the water with a view of Manhattan. And obviously Long Island City is in the middle of a housing market boom right now, and affordability is a big concern.
It’s all complicated, because obviously there were negative things going on in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s funny, think about Metta World Peace, Ron Artest, who’s from Queensbridge and ended up winning a championship with the Lakers. He would tell you that there were a couple people from there better than him. But he was focused, he wanted it more than the others, who were out there hustling and doing other things.
It was the same thing with rap. If you could get lots of money in the streets, it was easy to be less enticed by the rap thing. Prodigy said in his book that I was one of the best rappers in Queensbridge. But I didn’t really care about that, because I was getting money in the street. I was in my own world.
In the duration of this conversation we’ve been having, in the 1980s, I could’ve made a thousand dollars. It was crazy. But in the 1990s it got even more violent, with a lot of gun play. If you look at The Infamous album, Mobb Deep was a reflection of what Queensbridge was.
I know today there’s a better trend in Queensbridge. There are a lot of people striving and giving back to the community in positive ways, and I like the energy of a lot of the young people in Queensbridge now. A lot of them are focused, and they’re trying to do different things.
Earlier when we were talking, you mentioned visiting Prodigy when he was locked up. I think it was because of an encounter with the “hip-hop cops.” Did you ever have any run-ins? Can you explain to people what the “hip-hop cops” were?
I don’t think the hip-hop cops should be put in a sentence next to the word “were,” because that gives the assumption that they no longer exist. In a way, they remind me of when the Black Panthers and other radical groups were active in the 1960s and early ’70s and the government launched the COINTELPRO program.
Obviously, you can’t compare the politics, but it’s very much targeting a bunch of people of color for their influence and constant harassment, often without cause. They don’t follow rock and roll or other people around like that.
So the hip-hop police thing — it does exist. I don’t know how active they are now because a lot of these new rappers, they’re not as much with a background in street stuff. They are talking about getting high more than anything! I don’t know how much they’re following those guys around, but they do exist.
Police brutality and the need for police reform has been a big topic lately with all that’s been going on. As black men, it’s been a normal thing for us our whole lives, but people are starting to talk about it more. There’s more of a demand for music that has some substance or consciousness.
You being someone that has always made music of substance — how do you approach these old topics that we’ve been experiencing time and time again, with a new perspective?
That’s an excellent question. My whole thing is this: When it comes to art, what kind of artist are you? That’s a question every artist has to ask himself. Where are you coming from? Are you coming from your heart, are you coming from your gut, or are you coming from your pocket? Some artists only do things that are going to benefit themselves.
As for me, I put down a lot of my thoughts on Mega Philosophy back in 2014. I talked about police brutality, I talked about the industry, I talked about racism, I talked about culture. And that’s actually the album I got the most props on from other artists, from people like Chuck D and AZ, too.
You recently released an EP with a dope producer, Streetrunner. There’s been a resurgence lately in the sound that you helped build, with Griselda, Freddie Gibbs, and other acts like Roc Marciano. Does that inspire you to keep going harder and build onto your catalog?
I don’t know if it inspires me — it just — I’m inspired anyway! Sometimes, a lot of times, I put myself in this kind of zone where I don’t listen to anything, so I don’t know about any sound. It’s like I’m in a cave. I’m just focusing on my music. Keeping up with my last things is what pushes me and my fans, like the dialogue I have on Instagram — mostly the things people tell me are really inspiring, like my music helped them get through hard times, or you represent something in our culture that is missing. Things that they say to me are so humbling that I don’t want to disappoint them.
But I will say, for those artists like Griselda and some of those new artists — the thing that I love about them is that they’re humble. Conway [the Machine] has a confidence, the cockiness when he raps, and I told him he reminds me of Prodigy with that. But as a person, he’s humble. These dudes aren’t assholes as people.
You know, the thing that I’m really appreciative of is that a lot of these new artists respect me. They show it in more ways than one. Me being on Conway’s project, that was an honor for me, and he said it was an honor to have me on there. So it’s like — those types of artists, a lot of those artists say I influenced them or inspired them, and that makes me feel good because, as you already know from my career, there was a time when I was a black sheep, and a lot of rappers that are dope didn’t want to fuck with me because I had differences with certain powerful people and they didn’t want to fuck with me.
I had a chip on my shoulder. I never really got my props, and later in my career I started getting my props. I told somebody recently, “It’s crazy. I’m in my forties, I’m getting more love than I got in my thirties.”
I read somewhere that you were voting for Bernie Sanders in 2016? What made you choose him, and are you invested in the election this year at all?
What made me choose Bernie Sanders is that he had a proven track record. He was an advocate for people, for working people and for people’s dignity since the Civil Rights Movement, and he’s done things in Vermont and in Congress that I believe in.
He’s been doing it for a very long time.
And yeah, for the people. Plus, I liked his transparency.
That was one thing about Hillary Clinton that gave me the creeps. Her energy, her twisting of facts, it scared me. Obviously, I didn’t take Trump seriously enough. I didn’t even think he would go that far. It was a joke at first that he would never make it past the primaries or even make it to the first primary. He just kept going and going and building up steam.
I just knew Bernie was the safe bet to lead the country, but it was tough because in order to vote for Bernie in the general, he had to win the primaries; and voting for him in the primaries meant registering as a Democrat, and that’s wack. And it’s like, I feel like Democrats have gotten a free pass from our community for far too long. I think they feel a sense of entitlement like, “You’ve got to vote for us, because if you don’t vote for us, it’s just those terrible people over there.”
But we’ve voted for you guys before, and what have you done that benefits us working people in decades? Or black people. Racial inequality has been around for hundreds of years, and there’s been plenty of opportunities for Democrats to give more wealth and power to the people who don’t have it.
I mean, I actually want to change my voter registration again. I don’t want to be a Democrat. I was only a Democrat to support Bernie, and then they jerked him in 2016 and obviously they made it almost impossible for him to win.
None of the Democrats were going to stand behind him. They all agreed, “We’re gonna get behind Hillary,” just like this time they agreed, “We’re all gonna get behind Biden.”
Now, Biden scares me, too, because I know Biden’s one of the reasons millions of African-Americans and Spanish-speaking brothers were incarcerated during the late ’80s, early ’90s. He was a key proponent of the 1994 Clinton crime bill and before that had advocated those “tough-on-crime” policies that had such a negative impact.
There’s footage of him on the floor of Congress making a passionate plea about how the people Hillary would call “superpredators” were the main threat to our society. You can tell they’re from the same circle because they used the same sort of language. He was like, “We need to protect our wives and our children from these predators. I don’t care about their conditions.” That right there is saying, “Fuck it, I don’t have compassion.”
Bernie and other politicians at least have some compassion. They’re like “These people were in different situations, and that’s why they do these things, and we need to do what we can to change those situations.” That’s what I believe in, but politics is a dirty game.
A dirty game, for sure. I really appreciate your time, man.