by MATT CONOVER
– Kendrick Lamar on “HiiPower”
The wind lashed rain against the car, cut visibility down to ten yards, and slowed interstate traffic to half its normal speed. I drove in this apocalyptic mess for about half an hour, en route from my home in Charlottesville to the venue in Richmond. The pandemonium that is Ab-Soul’s Control System played on the stereo, adding to the chaos around us. The rain slacked and then stopped, and my friend and I drove back into a partly-sunny Virginia afternoon.
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The first week of November 2011 was unusually good for Central Virginia based hip-hop fans. The whole spectrum of national acts rolled through in the space of five days: Immortal Technique’s underground fury was in Charlottesville on the first, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s hyper-indulgent luxury rap blew up DC on the third, and Kendrick Lamar and the rest of the rising Black Hippy crew came through Charlottesville for a tiny, student-booked show on the fifth. On Tuesday, I interviewed the underground icon before his stark but powerful set, which maybe 500 fans saw. On Thursday, I scrambled up to DC to catch a two-hour, radio-hit laden, laser-pyramid strewn, “how many times can we do Niggas in Paris” extravaganza with fourteen thousand other fans. The tickets I had blithely shelled out seventy bucks for were so close to ceiling and so immediately to the left of the stage that I couldn’t really ever make out anything on the screen behind the stage, and tragically could only take in Yeezy’s leather kilt from a bird’s eye perspective. By week’s end, I was exhausted and decided to skip the TDE show. The posters around town promoting it read, “put three fingers in the air,” and I had no idea what that meant at the time, as I was still sleeping on their music. I remember preparing to write about Tech as that week went out, and struggling to reconcile the dissonance between the two extremes of hip-hop I had just encountered. How can one like both Watch the Throne and The Martyr?
About a month later I downloaded Section.80 and soon after started experiencing extreme amounts of visceral remorse at missing Lamar in such an intimate setting.
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As I ate Thai drunken noodles, I cursed both my choice of “Thai Hot,” and my phone for not ringing. It was three hours until the show was supposed to start, and Kendrick Lamar’s Interscope representation had yet to acknowledge my frantic attempts to get in touch with them. We had been emailing back and forth about this interview with Lamar since the Music Matters Tour was announced in late July, but we had yet to work out the details and I only had the name and number of one PR dude at Interscope. As my leg bounced up and down nervously, I took another masochistic bite of noodles, and the swirling rain came down down on Richmond.
After emptying my water glass for a third time, I received a call from the 310 area code. The Interscope guy thought I’d gone to the show the night before in Norfolk, and had no intention of using his work phone until he happened to see five missed calls and three fresh emails from me. He graciously put me in touch with Ret, the TDE tour manager, who then agreed to meet me in an hour at the National, thirty minutes before the local opening acts would go on. My friend and I paid for our food and got soaked running to the car.
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–Ab-Soul on “Pineal Gland”
Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and some of the TDE road crew were sitting on the beige leather couches of the smoky dressing room, both emcees pensively looking down as they waited to go on stage. Ret introduced me.
I quickly learned that you don’t really direct the conversation with Soul; you just turn it on and watch it flow. He was characteristically wearing very dark sunglasses, and his shaded gaze constantly shifted from the floor, to his hands, to the opposite wall and back again. His untamed, roughly pony-tailed hair spilled out of a blue and white trucker hat emblazoned with a peace sign, and his thoughts filled the room and indifferently ran circles around my head.
How often do you collaborate with Kendrick—in writing, not just featuring on each other’s songs. Do you ever do that?
Soul: Well, these days, we’re real scattered around. All of us. We’re being pulled in different directions. But back in the day, coming up, we used to really just shack in the studio. I might be on the couch with my headphones on working on something, and Rock would be on the main computer working on something, and Kendrick would be working on something. It was all around, it was the same energy.
Speaking of that energy, I think of a song like “Terrorist Threats,” and it sounds almost like you guys are calling for some sort of uprising.
Soul: I can’t speak for everybody, but for me I just wanna raise some questions, you know. There’s a lot of things I can’t talk about with my homies. Cause they in the street, and there’s a lot more things that we’re stuck on in this plane. I just wanted to throw some new terms around, into the type of music that we listen to. That’s pretty much it. You know it’s all peace at the end of the day, it’s peace.
So you might say it’s more a revolution of the mind.
Soul: Definitely a revolution of the mind. I’ll take that. I’m not telling everyone to strap up and ride in the street behind me or something. Definitely put the guns down. Put the guns down all together. My main thing is I don’t have a message, I’m not trying to get anybody to follow my scripture, I’m just just trying to raise some questions. I wanna say something that will make somebody else say, “What made him say that? What was he thinking when he said that?” Some critical thinking, you know.
Do you ever worry that you’ll run into some friction, given the sort of revolutionary nature of your message, with you guys being on Interscope? I listen to your music, and the content of it… the only people it reminds me of in terms of how radical the message is, is people like Immortal Technique and other underground rappers who could never get picked up by the mainstream.
Do you worry about that friction with you guys?
Soul: I’m not worried about it. I’ve thought about it and maybe we’re taking a big risk or whatever but I’m just being me. I grew up listening to those guys too; I enjoy their message too. But, I like 2 Chains too man. I like the new wave. I listen to French Montana. I think there’s a universal frequency. You categorize music like that and it’s like racism, putting everything in a different box. Good is good, man.
I agree with you but Interscope…
Soul: [cuts me off with a bap… bap… bap… bap rhythm with his feet, snapping on the fourth beat] What genre is this? This is universally good. This will universally rock the party, know what I’m saying? I’m not trying to put all these categories on shit.
[Sefensively] Sure, I’m not trying to put categories on things.
Soul: I mean, people. I’m not talking about you.
But, to go back to Immortal Technique, I’ve heard him say that he would never go to a major label because they would try to take creative control away from him.
Soul: True. You don’t want to go to the labels, you want the labels to call you. So once the labels call you, you don’t do business with them unless they do what you say. So that’s the situation we’re in. Interscope contacted us, we didn’t contact them. Keep that in mind.
Word, fair enough.
Soul: It’s a big chess game. You wanna have good legal support and all that. It’s a big cat and mouse chess game.
The first time I listened to Kendrick’s album [Section.80], it shocked me that he gave you almost a whole song on there. I don’t know of too many other rappers who would do that. Why did he do that?
Soul: Me and Kendrick, man, me and K-Dot [Kendrick Lamar’s stage name from 2003 to 2009], we are like Ken and Ryu. He is literally my favorite rapper, period. From the jump, from before you all heard of him. I feel like he respects my craft in the same fashion. When it came around time for the album—the things that I spoke about on that outro was just the shit that I was talking about. A lot of our material is based off our conversations, know what I’m saying? All the shit we all talk about together, all the slang we use, all the different stories we done told, the shit that we’ve encountered together, shared together—it’s all intertwined. He felt that I could fill in that last piece, that conclusion. And that’s why we’re a machine, bro. It’s not about me. It’s not about Kendrick, It’s not about Jay Rock, it’s not about Schoolboy Q. It’s about TDE.
You feel what I’m saying?
Soul: We’re all family, we’re all fans of each other. I’d put the house up on any one of these guys against any rapper.
Soul: Ya feel me? It’s simple to me. I’m just trying to share. I’m not god you know.
We gotta do it in a way that the homies can feel. Use those [this voice] extra pills, extra pills. AK clips stay extra peeled, smoking’ on some of that extra kill. purple urkle… see all that shit then I… I put that on everything, if we could link up… You sprinkle it in, you know what I’m saying. OK-kay-kay / We mobbing’ like…
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The interview had been going on for almost fourteen minutes at this point, and I was supposed to only take ten minutes of Soul’s time. But he didn’t seem to mind talking, and the tour manager hadn’t come back in yet to cut things off, so I asked Soul the next thing that came to mind, having veered from my prepared script of questions ten minutes earlier.
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-Ab-Soul on “Terrorist Threats”
How did you come that perspective on some of the things you talk about on that Outro and elsewhere? You know, Obama as a puppet, fluoride toothpaste, all that shit, what was it for you?
Soul: I really don’t know man. I think that’s really where spirituality might kick in. You have, somehow, a feeling to it. It’s a… [pauses, looks across the room] lane. A way to… still, really be myself, the whole time, like talk about my things, but do it in a way that it could be played after Rick Ross. I’m kicking all the shit that Immortal Technique would, over Lex Luger. That’s the goal. Doing it in a way that I’m not preaching. I don’t know shit either.
[Soul holds his hand out and apart, open palmed]
It’s just the left and the right, righteous and wrongs–smashed together [bringing his hands together].
You mean you?
What’s the wrong?
Soul: Just the mayhem. You know what I’m saying, the extra, extra pills. Things like that. People are easily influenced. I tell ‘em the blunt truth, then I’m just blurtin’ some shit out. Cause real is relative. Anyone who really knows knows that. Just speak to them. It’s just about making those connections.
Soul: People wanna learn man, everybody wanna learn. And you can do it in a way that can still be put it in a playlist for the homies. Nothing weird. No disrespect to Immortal Technique, just using him because you said it. But his stuff, it’s fucking brilliant. I can’t wait to meet him. He not trying to compromise, that’s really him. He probably don’t listen to this shit, because he probably feels this is like brainwash shit—because it probably really is, to the weak minded. But I’m just trying’ to be a chameleon, know what I mean? Trying to get this shit on across the board. Harmonize humanity, harmonize humanity.
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Ret came back in as Jay Rock went on stage down stairs. He told us that they were running behind, so there would be almost no break between Rock and Soul’s sets, and that my interview with Lamar would have to wait until after the show. He showed me the door, and I rejoined my group of friends to watch the set.
There was nothing on stage besides the DJ table and a banner behind that, but about three quarters of the crowd seemed to know all of Control System and Section.80 by heart. Soul romped through a quick set, embracing the role of opener and agent provocateur for Lamar. He left the stage suddenly, and the excitement that had us bouncing settled into a buzz of voices, all waiting for the ringleader.
Lamar held the crowd’s attention rapt through a long set, and his every motion directed or responded to the energy of the room in some way. He took minutes at a time between songs to speak with individuals in the crowd—or family as he insisted on calling us all. He went back and forth once with a couple about whether or not they were faithful to each other, and, another time, he thanked and praised the creativity of someone else who held up a t-shirt with Lamar’s artfully rendered likeness on it. The family energy and music seemed almost to bubble near the stage, and Lamar handled the brew like an experienced showman, stoking it on songs like “A.D.H.D.,” before slowing the boil with the likes of “Tammy’s Song.”
After Lamar closed the encore out with “Cartoons and Cereal,” the BET hype man came on stage to announce that Lamar would be signing autographs at merch table.
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-Kendrick Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.”
After waiting thirty minutes for Lamar to finish interacting with everyone at the merch table and then barely getting backstage past the cranky National staff, I found myself waiting alone on a couch in a room separate from the dressing room, per the directions of a rather large security guy. I went over my questions again and again as the chaotic backstage party went on in the hallway and adjacent dressing room. Several people came in and out and talked to me briefly before realizing I wasn’t a part of the party and leaving. At one point Lamar came in and looked at me for a few seconds as one of the road crew guys explained I was waiting for an interview. He quickly walked out of the room. Then another road crew guy came up to me and explained: Lamar had to get on the bus to record a verse to send to Dr. Dre. “Well fuck,” I said. “I can wait for Dre.”
Almost two hours after the show ended, the tour manager took me outside, where I would wait another ten minutes to talk to Lamar. I stood next to a long-haired security guy who looked like he might have toured with the Dead back in the day, and he started telling me about a four cruiser police chase that had just blown down the street, straight past the tour bus. “Wild,” was the best response I could muster, as I rocked my weight from side to-side, fatigued but wired on nervous energy. Ret came back out and ushered me in.
After the long day’s chaos, the quiet and blue-tinged lighting made the massive tour bus feel like the temple of a Zen master. Ret took me through a curtain to the lounge of the bus where Jay Rock and a few other guys were relaxing in captain’s chairs, then through a door to the sleeping area, and then through a final, smaller door. It was a windowless bunk of a room with a couch wrapped around three walls, and Kendrick Lamar laid there on his side, looking exhausted. He had his head propped up with one hand, and the other messed with an iPhone that was still on a call. He thanked me for waiting as I sat down to his left.
Someone was just telling me that you were just recording a verse back here for Dre.
Is that for his album or something of yours?
Kendrick: It’s for Dre’s album.
It’s actually gonna come out?
Kendrick: Yeah, surprisingly. It don’t have a date, it’s just gonna come out. No date no nothing.
I’ve never seen somebody whose headlining the National come out like that after the set and just talk to the fans and sign autographs. What keeps you doing that? How do you have the energy to do that after a show when you know you’ve gotta come back here and do a verse for Dre.
Kendrick: Um, just knowing that they got me to where I’m at. I’m one who recognizes that. A lot of artists lose insight on that, on what got them there and then they scared to touch the people. That’s what it’s about at the end of the day.
That kind of got me thinking about your song, “Poe Man’s Dreams.” You talk about having an uncle who was institutionalized, and you talk about trying to remain sane yourself. Is it difficult for you to maintain a balance?
Kendrick: At first it was but I understood I had to keep humble people around me, to keep me sane. People like this guy [gestures to Ret], people like this person on the phone right now. Letting em listen to my interviews and stuff like that, you know. They feel free to critique and keep my in that place. That’s the balance I have, keeping real people around me.
You get compared to Tupac a lot for obvious reasons, your famous vision of seeing him where he told you to continue his work.
Kendrick: Yeah definitely.
What does it mean to you to be continuing Tupac’s work?
Kendrick: It means hip-hop. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than just the music. It’s about a whole community of people that’s leaning on music to make them feel a certain way, to make them feel good about themselves. It’s not to change the world, you know, that’s gonna take more than twenty decades to do that. It’s to release, to spark the idea of doing something better with yourself and with your community. So I’m going to continue that.
Do you think there’s important ways in which you’re different from Tupac? Maybe ways that you’re changing his message, that spark. Is there things you might consciously do different?
Kendrick: Nah. It’s nothing I’m consciously doing. Everything is really me. I’m sure his personality, his character, his work… we got a lot of similarities, but I’m Kendrick Lamar, I’ll never be Tupac. I think we just share the same characteristics, you know. I battle with things in my life and I put that on record. Because it makes me feel better at the end of the day to know I expressed that. People can actually relate to it. You battle things in this life and put them on record. He also shared the good times in his life and showed his personality, how much of a fun person he was and a great person. I do the same thing because we all human at the end of the day. I don’t really like to classify nothing that I do. Pac was just a human being on record. What we do at TDE is put human beings on record.
One thing that really blew me away about Section.80 is “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” that you gave pretty much a whole song to another rapper at the end of the album. Why did you do that?
Kendrick: I feel like he explained it more than I’d done on the album. I was at a standstill where I knew I didn’t want to give the conclusion of it. I said so much, I was drained out. It’s not about letting a person shine or not shine, it’s about making the best product. If I feel Ab-Soul can get that message out better than I can, it’s Ab-Soul’s outro, it’s gonna be your song. I just wanted to talk and say my piece. It’s not really about whose doing it or how I’m doing it, it’s about staying original and getting the message across.
He said a similar thing when I asked him that earlier.
What direction would you say generally that good kid, m.A.A.d. city is going in? Because it seems like it would be hard to maintain that sort of revolutionary energy across multiple albums.
Kendrick: Yeah. I think the energy of this record is more of the blunt, in your face truth, rather than just subliminals. A self-portrait about my life and where I was at and how I was going. Everybody know me for who I am, for who they see me as today, not knowing my past. There was some things I had to get through to get here. This album [good kid] was me releasing demons out on record to grow as a person. To finally get it out there and throw it away, let the world know, let myself be at peace with that. I think it’s that, but also, you know, it’s relatable to so many young, lost men out there, just trying to figure it out.
Is there anything that you do stylistically to make it more in your face?
Kendrick: Just really not holding back. Section.80 only gave so much of my evils, my thoughts. I was just pointing out everyone else’s faults. good kid, m.A.A.d city is more so my faults. When I said I was going to do that, I had to give all the truth, nothing but the truth. I can’t sugar coat nothing. The truth about living in Compton is, it’s brutal, brutal. You know I can say it’s not what the media perceives it to be, but it’s real, they had to get it from some place. You will hear it. It’s definitely on the edge of where hip-hop used to be. I think everything is real emo, real emotional now. This is that edge, that bridge, finding the defining lines.
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-Kendrick Lamar on “Ab-Soul’s Outro”
Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar could truly occupy that space between the apparently indifferent throne of hip-hop and its marginalized foot soldiers. TDE’s success so far has been largely thanks to their ability to make music that feels convincingly like “human beings on record,” as Lamar says. This achievement has ironically and inevitably lead to his becoming something more than a human being in the eyes of most—a star (or perhaps just a rising one for now), and more concretely, a major label rapper. Ab-Soul explained that they’re playing Interscope to achieve their ends, but the fact remains that in doing so they have chosen to get their message out by allowing someone to sell it.
This bothered me immensely, and it was one of the main issues I wanted to address going into the interviews. Like many other fans and critics that I’ve known, the music of the Black Hippy crew has taken on an almost therapeutic value in my life. Their music does not get old, and I continually find new layers of vitalizing meaning in their lyrics. But I worried that them being on Interscope might somehow corrupt that, change the equation such that “profit” would be at the bottom line instead of “human being.” Talking to them both and seeing them onstage and backstage has alleviated most of that concern for me; these men wear no masks. Their personas appear as honest in person as they do on record, and I hope that’s clear in these interviews.
Further, they see generic labels like “arena” and “underground” as the very masks that they reject in their music. There is only a gap between Tech and Hova if we acknowledge it; fundamentally it is all just music. By rejecting and stripping themselves of artificial titles, they put less of a barrier between the listener and the energy, feelings and the transcendent ideas that spurred them make the music in the first place. Their music feels real because it is just that.
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I was here with a friend who does a lot of dance choreography, and he was was very impressed by how emotionally directive your physical demeanor was. Is that conscious at all, or natural?
Kendrick: I think it just come natural. It’s comes about knowing that these people are looking at me, and I am the leader. On stage, I am a leader of a whole generation. I think that’s just a natural gift. You can’t teach that. You could teach an artist all day how to present himself on stage, but at the end it has to come from within. It’s really God’s gift. Just like it’s God’s gift to put these words together with concepts behind them. Anybody can rap, anybody can say cat in the hat, but only a true person is going to make you believe those stories. Do it, and find a way that no one else can do it.
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