INTERVIEW: What Still Surprises You About Hip-Hop?


Hip Hop is grown now. It is. It is absolutely grown now. There’s nothing nascent left. There’s no one not in the know. It’s no longer a secret. It is everywhere.

Roughly 40 years since Kool Herc’s storied Community Room parties inside 1520 Sedgwick Ave set it all off and Hip Hop has successfully tagged the entire planet. It has crippled social divisions, uniting people behind the shared values cultivated within the culture. Be fresh. Be original. Be yourself. It’s covenants are understood without translation; it’s visuals recognized in every nation. It’s made its major players billions of dollars while playing a hand in toppling dictatorships. Hip Hop, it would seem, has accomplished everything and then some. Are there any surprises left?

Over the past two years, I’ve asked every artist I’ve been privileged to interview the same Brown Sugary-question: What still surprises you about Hip Hop? The goal was simply an attempt to tap into each subject’s perspective – an ironic deficiency in the information age – and possibly garner an inkling of insight into what lies ahead. The following are a few favorites.

George Clinton:  I’m still surprised by which things work; which ones get through. Like Beyonce, I recorded her when she was 13-years-old in a choir. And then [Destiny’s Child] came out and I thought they were reminiscent of Motown. But she managed to do something fresh every fucking time. She’s at the top of the Pop sound. That’s when you usually run out. It’s good that her and Rihanna and Eminem got it together because to me they’re all the same thing in different directions. When Eminem and Rhianna came together, I thought that was good thing because I was a Rhianna fan when that first album [Music Of The Sun] came out. That was crazy. That was more than that. That was a movement and she’s been living up to it ever since. To see her, Eminem, and Beyonce together, that lets me know that I still got my ear on this. I’ve still got the pulse that lets me know what’s going to work. I predicted them to the point that I got on everybody’s nerves around my camp.

Knoc-Turn’Al: What always surprises me about Hip Hop is the songs that people listen to because you never expect that song to be a hit. But this is how it is in Hip Hop. You never know what’s going to be a hit until you put it out there. That’s what always surprises me. Like, who would think [DJ Webstar & Young B’s] “Chicken noodle soup with a soda on a side” [song] would’ve been at the top of the charts? If you’re eating chicken noodle soup you ain’t eating it with a soda. You’re drinking water. If times are that bad, you ain’t got no damn soda. You’re drinking water. Might be tap water, not even bottled water, you never know. Or tap water with some ice, nigga, with your chicken noodle soup. [Laughs] It never ceases to amaze me how you never know what’s going to end up being a hit. So for all those people that think that they can’t do it and people tell you that you’re song ain’t [hot], just think about how that song was a hit.

Papoose: When somebody that can’t rap becomes successful. It shocks me every time. I’m like, “What in the fuck?’’ I grew up being excited over a hot line or a metaphor. A dope concept was so valuable to me at that time. I valued it. I’d play it so much that it made my blood rush. It gave me goosebumps when I heard an emcee say something on the mic. That’s what I looked forward to – that, “Oh, did you hear what he said,” feeling. That shit was like a big deal at one time. That’s really what it’s about. But the people that lack talent, they like to blind the public and make you think that it’s about how much money you got; how many cars you got; how much jewelry you got; how many records you sold; what record label you on? Hip Hop is not about that. With Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Biggie – we didn’t care how many records they sold. Shit, their lyrics were hot! I ain’t gonna call these dudes names out, but I can point them out. [I can point out when they first started mentioning] Soundscans. That messed the game up because they took the audiences attention and focus off of what Hip Hop is really about and put it on something totally different. So when people started looking at Soundscan, people stopped looking at talent and lyricism and that’s when all the less talented motherfuckers snuck in with the bullshit. When people were looking the other way, they snuck in through the back door and flooded the gates with that shit. So, to answer your question, that’s what surprises me about that shit! Every time I see a motherfucker who can’t rap be successful, I’m shocked! It never fails.


David Banner: What still surprises me about Hip Hop is it’s ability to still touch people all over the world. When I came out, the album that sold the most copies in my career, that was my independent album [Grey Skiez by Crooked Lettaz]. I was gonna put that album out on the streets and sell it for ten dollars. I can say it now. I maybe recorded that album for $20,000 because I didn’t think I was gonna get no record deal. That wasn’t on our mind. They wasn’t fucking with the South like that at the time. To be able to come out of my truck and sleeping in my van and be able to touch people all over the world, that’s amazing. For my father to let me take over his front room and I produced all those beats with a turntable, MPC, and an ASR10 and to be more jamming than people that spent a million dollars on their record. Some of that record was done in my van. I set up a studio in my van. To be able to do that and for people to hear pain and be able to connect with that pain and that joy and that laughter and all that and be able to touch people’s soul, that’s amazing to me, dude. But on the flip side of that, it’s amazing what we choose to do with it.
Tech N9ne: What surprises me about Hip Hop is that it’s going on all over the world. I can go to Switzerland and see Slick Rick doing shows. I’ve seen EPMD in Canada. I’ve seen all these artists that were from back then still getting money; still going strong. I was able to see KRS-One. It just made me happy to know that it’s a forever thing. In the [United States], people just write it off like, “That’s old school. We don’t fuck with that no more. It’s all about whatever new thing.” There’s money out here for everybody. It surprises me to see that it’s so live everywhere overseas still. They’re still hungry for that Hip Hop.  Treach from Naughty By Nature going all the way to Japan and being the biggest thing. Me and Treach have been talking lately about going over to Europe together. It’s still going, man. We’re thinking it’s over over here. We’re thinking guys are washed up. Nah, nigga. It’s still going. I ain’t saying that about Treach or nobody. I’m just saying that’s how nigga’s talk. 50 Cent goes over there and is a God. It’s going on all over the world. Sizzilin’. It’s just so surprising.

Pharoahe Monch: …Those fans that we were in front of when we were in Brazil – when we went out to the after parties in the clubs – it was like shoes, girls, everything one would expect. And they were playing Gang Starr [and the crowd erupted]. They were playing Smif-N-Wessun [and the crowd erupted]. And we were just like, I don’t want to say time warp, but they were like, “We want shit that feels the way we need things to feel.” I know those people exist, but to just watch it and see how that stuff resonates, it makes me sometimes sad that there might be a generation of kids that miss out on Gang Starr and [A Tribe Called Quest] and Organized [Konfusion] and Brand Nubian just because they’re being told like, “This is that and this is this and this is the line that’s being drawn.” When I was coming up, I’m listening to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and music that’s much older but I’m embracing it because it’s good music. So it made me want to go and find out. There are a lot of kids that are doing that now. A kid will be in high school and tell me, ‘Yo, you’re Organized Konfusion shit was better than the shit you are doing now.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Wow! That’s crazy.’ Hip-Hop is so worldly, that some people can still detect the truth of it still amazes me.

The Grouch, Living Legends: What surprises me is how dope the youngsters are. There’s kids now that are like eight and nine and ten and 11 and 12 years old that are making incredible beats and sitting up in their rooms and making dope songs and making recordings. Learning shit I didn’t learn until I was like 18 and I thought I was young.
I equate it to like skateboarding. When I was young and I was coming up…people could only Ollie like six-inches off the ground. Then all of a sudden people could Ollie like twelve-inches off the ground. Then they started Ollying over little buckets and stuff. Then they moved up to like, you know, little ramps. It finally got to dumpsters and cars and crazy shit. I just feel like Hip Hop is like that. All this stuff has been done in the past and then the kids enter it at a high level. It’s just kind of impressive. It’s beautiful to me. But then at the same time, sometimes I look at it and say, “Why aren’t a lot of folks saying real shit? Why is eveybody trying to shock everybody with, ‘I’m crazy!’” There’s a lot of angles to it. Sometimes I feel like it’s beautiful. Sometimes I feel like Nas on Hip Hop’s Dead. And a lot of times I feel like, “Nah, that’s ridiculous.” There’s so many people out there doing good music. Period.

Zumbi, Zion I: The fact that [music] regenerates itself over and over. It’s just amazing to me when I discover a new crew. I don’t know why. It takes me back to when I was a kid and first fell in love with Hip Hop and I see young kids on the corner jerk dancing. When I hear a group like Odd Future, Fashawn, or Blu – the kids who are dope and are hella creative but they have their own unique style. It’s invigorating.

Siddiq, CEO of Rhymesayers Entertainment: I’d probably say its resilience. Man, for me, I’m really inspired to be able to be involved and doing this and taking it from a kid who was influenced by Hip Hop who then figured out a way to be involved in it, and then figure out a way to take that involvement and then turn it into a career that spans over 20 years. To look at what Hip Hop is today, to me, it bothers the fuck out of me when people say Hip Hop is dead, or shit is not as good as it was. I’m like, “Man, you’re just fucking old and bitter or something.” I don’t look or expect to connect with Hip Hop the same way I did in the 1980s. It would be a very rare circumstance where I’m going to connect to these kids the same way that  Rakim, KRS-One, Public Enemy, fucking A Tribe Called Quest, De La [Soul] – all these models of the golden era for me connected to me. Those groups will probably never connect with these kids today the same way they connected to us. But I’m fine with that. I don’t think it should. It wouldn’t make any sense if it did. So to me, I have a real appreciation for this younger generation of Hip Hop artists. They’re us in a lot of ways. When I’m looking at a fucking Wiz Khalifa; when I’m looking at Mac Miller; I look at  Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg [Entertainment] – to me, they’re no different than us. So when I look at that, I’m inspired by that shit. It’s great to be in it this long and relevant but still be inspired by other shit that’s new. That’s a beautiful thing.

J-Live: As an emcee, just the fact that there are so many cats out there that push the envelope musically. This whole battle culture as far as the cats that take it past how many fat mama and gear jokes in a span of 30 seconds and take it to really breaking you down. The emcee’s emcees. The respect amongst peers. Take an artist like HYPERLINK “” Masta Ace. Even if you weren’t familiar with his resume, and saw his show for the first time now, you’d be a fan. And there are relatively new artists like  TiRon, that long time Hip Hop heads can appreciate for his craftsmanship and approach to the art. There’s cats that, whether you know them or not are pushing the envelope of this music, lyrically, regardless of what you’re complaining about. That never surprises me and always surprises me at the same time.
Masta Ace:  It still surprises me that there are cats who don’t realize yet that this is not for them; that are 30 years old and 35 years old, still trying to chase that dream with no plan B, with no jobs, with no prospects. They might have two kids with two different chicks and don’t have any money to pay child support and they’re basically struggling and living hand-to-mouth and just existing barely for the sake of Hip Hop. It surprises me that there are still cats that haven’t grown up and realized that life is still life. You still have to live life. You still have to be a responsible adult and function that way. If you want to keep pursuing your dream, that’s cool. But be able to take care of yourself. Be able to pay what you need to pay. Pay your bills. Handle your business. Don’t be a bum because you’re trying to do Hip Hop. It’s got to be a way to do both.

Pep Love, Heiroglyphics: How Hip Hop still hasn’t fulfilled its full potential. It’s brought all kinds of people together. I feel Hip Hop still has the potential to be something that helps improve the community – the human community and the Black community. What surprises me about Hip Hop is that it’s still the most potent at its source, where it came from. All the millions that it’s made for people and all the places that it’s reached, it’s still most powerful at its source.
Talib Kweli: The unification of [Hip Hop]. The idea that Hip Hop was the first truly multicultural thing I’ve ever seen. Hip Hop is multicultural by its nature. Fred The Godson, he has a song called “Up To Us” where he names a bunch of artists from Wale to Jay Electronica to Trae Tha Truth to Asher Roth. And back when I came out, you would go to the Village and meet emcees from Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, wherever and there would be different styles in the city. But the idea that this new young emcee could name check emcee’s from all over the world is a great thing, and emcees from different backgrounds, different styles is a great thing. The boom in the music industry where everybody was making millions of dollars is gone but that spirit of Hip Hop is still there.

Immortal Technique:  The fact that this art form is a way that the children of decedent’s of slaves have the ability to speak to not only the children of the poorest of the poor, but of the richest of the rich and deliver an unfiltered message of independent music that you haven’t figured out how to turn the Internet off to prevent them from hearing, that’s as impressive as it is humbling. Be careful. Don’t turn that Internet off. That’s the biggest mistake [Egypt’s] [Honsi] Mubarak regime ever made. Because all those niggas sitting at home not doing shit – that are jerking off to porn, or that were blogging and doing what they did – when you shut that Internet off, you brought them all out into the street. Don’t shut the Internet off here homie or we’re coming to your fucking house. And dinner’s on you.
Mack 10:  Of course now, everything is different. With the Internet now, everything is different. It still keeps going. We find a way to pull it off. Hip Hop is contagious. Once you catch it, you’ve got to have it. It’s addictive. You’ve just got to figure out a way to play the game now.
French Montana: I don’t really think nothing, really. I think it’s exactly what I found out about it. I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that it took me however long to get on just to realize that the machine is what really controls this whole shit. It was no way that I missed out on a lot of shit that I missed out on last year or the year before that. It makes you think that you’re not good enough. But you are good enough. You’re just not with the right people. That’s what I think.
Roc Marciano:  I like the fact that it’s come to a point where it’s almost come full circle to the point where dudes are not using the labels like they used to. Dudes are getting their money without labels. I’m digging that.
Sway Calloway, MTV: That’s a good question. I’m real proud of what this culture has done for one, because it’s proved a lot of naysayers wrong. I remember when “Rappers Delight” was coming out and Run DMC and LL [Cool J]. I’m speaking out of sequence but – even prior to “Rappers Delight” – each era of rap was always met with a lot of resistance. Each component of the culture has always been viewed as renegade, you know. And every time, this culture has never ceased to prevail and overcome obstacles and prove people wrong. It consistently happens. Lil Wayne goes to jail for ten months or however long he went. I was at dinner last night with Susie Buffett, Warren Buffett’s daughter, and a guy by the name of Jim Steyer who’s the head of Common Sense Media Group which is an organization that deals directly with issues that affect young Americans. They have over 10,000 campuses that they facilitate. We did this conference and I moderated this discussion [with] over 700 educators, students and parents about cyber bullying and internet etiquette and all of the things going on online now and basically being a digital citizen. It went well. So Susie Buffett invited me to dinner and we were talking about Hip Hop. Man, I’m at a dinner table with Warren Buffett’s daughter talking about Hip Hop!  She knew what she was talking about. And she put together the panel in this movement. I respect her. Very hip. She told a story about going to Live 8 in 2006 I think it was, and riding in a van with Russell Simmons and meeting Will Smith and trying to do dealings with Jay-Z. She was very wise. Someone asked me “Well, what are you doing?” And I said “Well, for the past few days I’ve been following around Brian Williams AKA Birdman ‘Baby’ from Cash Money [Records] because I’m doing this series where I want to show people in a multidimensional light. Not just the imagery you see on TV that might give you the perception that this dude is just some street dude rapping and [acting] rowdy all over the country when really this dude has created a company that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He’s feeding families.  They were talking about Lil Wayne and I explained how he went to jail but I also explained how he’s a humanitarian. These guys give a lot of money to people in need in the community. They pay for funerals. They’re giving out food. They’re giving out turkeys. I had to tell her how the man went back to school and educated himself and did all of these things and they were surprised. Afterwards they saw Lil Wayne in a different light. They saw Baby in a different light and it just reminds me of how much this culture constantly impresses, surprises and finds a way to resonate with anybody from any demographic, from any ethnicity, from any age bracket, economic status, across the board more so than even religion. Hip Hop has become a universal language. Kids in Japan, kids in Korea, kids in China, kids in France – I’ve argued with kids in France about where Hip Hop started and they were so passionate about it that I almost just gave it to them even though I knew the truth. Kids in Scandinavian nations, kids in Alaska, adults – we all speak that Hip Hop language. After 20 years that’s what surprises me most, that Hip Hop is still able to bridge together the global community and people don’t even realize it.