Flows Like Prose: An Interview with Rapper Libretto
Libretto's hip-hop is a ghettoblasting fusion of grinding funk, heavily strolling beats and club-noir rhymes delivered with cool clarity.
Poised to be the "it boy" of hip-hop in 2004, Libretto unfortunately hit a snag in the following years that would undermine his momentum. Reportedly brought up on charges involving a heist (the details are rather slim), the rapper disappeared for a few years from the public eye while he served time. But unlike so many who are hardened by their years of being incarcerated, Libretto found the experience transformative. Since his debut release, he has, in fact, been on a steady roll, hitting the studios regularly and churning out a series of singles and two of the most underrated hip-hop albums in these last three years.
Libretto's palatable style first bore the fruit Ill-Oet in 2004, a ghettoblasting fusion of Leon Haywood-grinding funk, heavily strolling hip-hop grooves and the wraparound blues of his smoky club-noir rhymes. The album was especially notable for showcasing the rapper's decidedly sui generis lyricism. His raps are molasses-thick, unhurried and delivered with cool clarity. He doesn't indulge in any fancy signatures or measures of rhythm, but relays his rhymes like the flowing prose of a novel's page.
Ill-Oet offered some clever redesign on the hip-hop blueprint, reworking the genre's stratagem to encompass some of the down-home influences sourced from Libretto's father's record collection. Soul-infused hip-hop is nothing new, but the rapper's material offered a direct and emotional line to his parentage, which offered a host of '70s funk references. The album may have even been enough to upstage Kanye West's then-burgeoning empire, had it only been received with the same amount of attention.
During his time in jail, Libretto would continue to hone his musical skills, trading bags of coffee grinds for music lessons on the piano with a fellow inmate. He would later channel these newfound skills into a follow-up work, the excellent Gangsta Jazz, Vol. 2, a chilled jazz-hop effort that takes its cues from the late great Guru's Jazzmatazz series. Steadily propelled by crisp, languid mid-tempo grooves, Gangsta Jazz, Vol 2. features sapid, too-cool-for-school cuts like "The Come Up" and "Saturday", numbers which showcase the rapper's growth as an artist helping to expand the perimeters of hip-hop. A clever nod to the genre's everlasting debt to the ghettoblaster, the album was issued as a limited release on cassette.
Mining the sounds of '70s soul-funk, Libretto presented his third proper effort Captain Crook Snatchin' Crumbs and All, a darker exploration of city life which presented the night to Gangsta Jazz's day. Still working laid-back grooves for the after hours set, Libretto's third release championed hip-hop of the sit-down-and-listen variety, eschewing party numbers in favour of more mind-expanding, soul-deep sounds. Here, Libretto edges closer to the kind of beat poetry introduced by proto-hip-hop masters The Last Poets. Exploring similar lexicons, the rapper dissects the issues of city life and both the working and personal relationships within black culture with a gentle but assured delivery. The grooves are butter-smoothed yet laced with a grit that comes from the first-hand knowledge of living through inner city pressures.
Libretto is in the midst of putting together material for yet another release and is still on a collaborative streak, meeting minds with many other hip-hop acts that are working the same funk-infused angles of urban music. His latest track, "Ain't That Funky", with Buscrates, follows his trajectory into the '70s soul which informs the heavy bulk of his work. His continuum in hip-hop is a sadly overlooked but notable development in a genre that will only expand as long as there are artists committed to the genre's growth as a sincere and positive culture. The rapper discusses with PopMatters his slow but steady rise as a songwriter of these last 25 years.
Can you give some background on what your life was like growing up as a child? How did you get introduced to hip-hop music/culture?
Growing up as a child I was very, very ill. My father, he basically raised me. My mother was an Evangelist; she used to tour and preach all over the United States, all over the world. My father was a track coach and he worked a job and he was also an activist. It was rough, we grew up poverty-stricken. But we always had something, stayed all over, were homeless, slept in cars, on floors. My father tried to do the best that he could. Busted his tail to make sure that we had something, whether it was going to Farrell's to get some ice cream, or going to the Dodger game, stuff like that. Los Angeles in the '80s was very rough. As a child, we just maintained.. .survived.
The first introduction [to hip-hop] had to be b-boying and graffiti. We were battling, dancing to Egyptian Lover, Toddy Tee, Ice-T, Uncle Jamm's Army, Spoonie Gee – all of that good stuff. It was a plethora of hip-hop in L.A., thanks to KDAY, the first and only 24 hour hip-hop station, which we were tuned into daily growing up in our youth. So it started with the dance. We all wanted to dance. We'd seen what was going on in New York, you know, Times Square. We already had a culture here in Los Angeles that was just brewing, so we were right behind them.
Because your father was an Olympic coach, you moved around (LA to Portland). What do you remember most about your life moving between these two places?
...We stayed all over L.A. I just remember the time growing up, just waking up in my dad's car, the station wagon, going into the colleges to take a shower, and then he would take us to school. That was his life. We had to do what we had to do. Mom and dad got a divorce when I was five, so my dad pretty much held it down, and since then my mom went and followed her heart, doing what she felt was right.
But what I remember most about my life, moving around in different spots, is going to different schools and waking up in different places. I remember waking up on some people's floor. I remember the different neighbourhoods and the different people you meet and have to fight just to get respected. Back then I was eight, nine, ten. It was just a part of life, growing up in California.
You met the Misfit Massive Crew in the mid '90s. Can you describe your work in that group? What were Misfit Massive Crew doing with hip-hop that you think was very different from what was going on in hip-hop at the time?
... I met [producer] Jumbo in about '94, '95, when I first came to Portland. I'm also a producer – I've had two 12 inches out, which featured my crew. My first album (Ill-Oet) was the first time that everybody from Misfit Massive was on one album. We all did work on it – either rhyming or had sung or had something on it. And me not being from Portland, that's kinda big because Misfit Massive was here before I got here.
With the music back then, they were just keeping it raw. In the projects, we were bumping all of the raw stuff, from Redman, Gravediggaz, Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Snoop, Dre, Dogpound, Outkast, and all the breakout albums that came out here. So when I came to Portland and on Jumbo's production, what he making at that time was very, very strong and we connected immediately with our taste in music before I even heard any of his music. Just all conversation. They [Misfit Massive] were making music that I was feeling. [They were] very talented, they didn't curse in their music. They were just sounding very different, dirty raw... nothing at all clean-sounding, which was pretty much the Bay area sound that was dominating the scene in Portland.
And no diss to any of that, it just wasn't what I was doing. I was doing the total opposite. If I was doing a type of sound, it would be L.A. West cCoast, Southern California style, 'cause that's what I grew up to, which is what you hear on "Alma Mater", my first 12 inch B-side record that Jumbo produced.
Your debut album was Ill-Oet, which was released in 2004. The album is noted for its mix of ruminative lyricism and dense, heavy beats that traded on a lot of the hip-hop aggression of the gangsta rap years. How would you describe the work that went into this album? What were you trying to express with this album in its sound and themes?
Ill-Oet was the album that was born out of a 12 inch, due to the fact that when the single "Volume" was released, it was a single deal or a one-off. It was a contract, a four-year contract. So we were going to drop a 12 inch. It was Steve Aoki's first 12 inch that was on his label, Dim Mak Records. "Volume" was Steve's baby. It wasn't like someone had brought him a record already done – we actually made this record for Steve. Steve had already heard "Dirty Thangs" [a track eventually released on Ill-Oet], which was released on One Drop Records and that's how he discovered me. And so, once we found out that he wanted to do business, we went into the lab and cooked up "Volume".
He liked "Volume" and we had the track "Slumfunk" and so we threw it on [the 12 inch] for the B-side joint. It did good, moved a lot of units, got a lot of licensing. So then, we were, like, "We should do an EP". Me and Jumbo started working and the EP turned into Ill-Oet. So we basically put together a mix of songs on a CD, sent it to Steve in the mail. He dug it and then we started working on Ill-Oet, added some more songs to it. And that's Ill-Oet.
The work that went into that album – I was going through a lot in 2004. I lost my father who raised me and I was in a contract, so I had to complete this project. Everything was from the heart, just pure emotion, circumstances in my life – things that I was doing, that I've done, that I saw, that sort of nature. The idea behind the album was just soul music, good music, just classic...just something timeless, something I could stamp my legacy on in the music business. I'm very proud of that record. That record has got a lot of special, special moments, energy and memories attached to it.
You had a very unfortunate stretch where you did some time in prison. If you are up for discussing it, what do you recall of that experience? As well, what new things did you learn from your time in prison that you would later funnel into your work as a music artist?
Yeah, I ended up taking a dive – federal sentence, five years, 60 months plus one month. Definitely an unfortunate time in my life. You get a true understanding of willpower that you didn't even know you had. I learned a lot in there and it was very, very hard in there. That time and that place made me into who I am today.
It was a minor setback for a major comeback. I've obtained the discipline and the obedience that prison has taught me: how to turn feelings on and off and move like a robot and be a soldier 24 hours a day. That was something I had to experience and wake up to in the day for a lot of calendars. There were things I learned in there. I learned how to maybe one day obtain being part of the one percent of black men out of the projects that made it to the one percent, which is the same goals that Puffy and Biggie and Russell Simmons and all of those good brothers have obtained themselves.
I learned how to do it and it doesn't have to be with music. I would love for music to be a part of it. I mean, it is my passion but there are other ways of actually getting into that bracket. So I learned a lot from a lot of dudes in there doing a lot of time. Good people, just greed led them into a situation and they taught me how to do the business the right way and not be greedy. It's the gift and the curse.
I wrote about 400 songs in prison. These songs are what will be coming out in the near future and what have already come out. Gangsta Jazz, Vol. 2, the album, was all lyrics that I wrote in prison. I taught myself how to play piano in prison, how to read music, and I studied music theory tediously. I taught myself, with the help of my good dude David out of DC. Paid that man a bag of coffee a month. He taught me how to play the piano every weekend. Saturdays and Sundays, I had my lessons for an hour and a half. So now I'm producing, creating music.
Once you learn theory and you learn scales and you know all of your notes and your time signatures, your melodies, your harmonies, your diminish of majors and minors, you can do a lot without even sampling. So, I'm going to definitely be stepping up into production. I've already been into production, but now it's more real, now that I understand this actual theory of music and how to write. And that's just something on one end that's got to do with music, not to mention the marketing, the branding, and all of that which comes with the business of actually running a music business or a record label or a production company or apparel, or what have you, which is what I plan on getting into.
After that stretch of time, you then released Gangsta Jazz, which was very different than your debut. It was less about the heavy beats and more about the texture and melodicism of jazz and relied on the fluidity and improvisation of jazz. You got pretty heavy into jazz around this time. Can you discuss this work and how it got to be what it was? Also, you released Gangsta Jazz as a physical on cassette but not in any other physical format. Why did you decide to release it on cassette?
Gangsta Jazz , Vol 2. is something that started with Gangsta Jazz Vol. 1, which was released while I was in prison. I recorded it before I went into prison. It was an EP that was released on Liquid Beat, digital only. I stayed in contact with [Liquid Beat founder] Matt Nelkin pretty much my whole time I was in the can and, when I was in exile, he was pretty much telling me at the end of my sentence that he wanted to start picking beats for Gangsta Jazz, Vol 2. When I got out, he started firing away with ideas, like the first two weeks I was out of prison. So we got right on it and I was more than happy to. I just had to find a way to get to the studio.
The people at the halfway house, they didn't deny my work. I'm a professional artist, so they have to give me some time to go and create if it will bring in some money that they're gonna tax 25 percent of in the long run anyway – while you're in Federal Bureau of Prison's custody, that is. Back then, you had to pay 25 percent of your income, which has to go to the halfway house. So yeah, a lot of those rhymes were my most recent work when I was about to get released from prison.
The whole theme of Gangsta Jazz came from Matt who likes the golden age era hip-hop and he's a fan of CMW (Compton's Most Wanted), and he was saying "It would be dope if you did a whole project just over those type of samples, those type of feels and grooves and just keep it raw – with no drums, no nothing, just using the record, just looping." So I tried it with Gangsta Jazz and it was a success. We did a lot of jazz, old jazz records mainly. No beat machines, just straight looping. Or should I say, no drums and no perks and no bass and no extra instruments – straight vinyl, sampled and looped. It worked beautifully. We had to do an album. So we hit them with Gangsta Jazz, Vol. 2, released on cassette because Matt thought that it would be dope to have that music on a cassette.
Now, he also puts out vinyl, and I'm actually thinking about releasing Gangsta Jazz, Vol. 2 on vinyl because I've been getting so many hits in my DM and in my messenger for vinyl for the record. People from overseas and all types of places, they would love to have that released on vinyl. The set is pretty much sold out, it was limited. It's still on Bandcamp for the download. So yeah, it was a pretty much a strategic move for Matt and just something that he felt in his heart because of the style and the sound of the music. And big up to my man Dan for letting me record in his practice room, his studio. I would just set up a mic in there and just got nuts for a block of time that the halfway house allowed me to go record. I recorded Gangsta Jazz, Vol. 2 in that room, which was no bigger than a cell in prison.
As with the change of style you made on Gangsta Jazz, you did the same on Captain Crook Snatchin' Crumbs and All. This time, you were mining the R&B and soul of a lot of '70s music. Can you go into detail about recording this album?
Captain Crook Snatchin' Crumbs and All was the album that was supposed to come out after Ill-Oet. But I went to federal prison. There was not a vehicle in place for Captain Crook yet. Liquid Beat wanted to put out Gangsta Jazz, Vol. 2. We moved on it. Captain Crook was already done in 2008, so it was sitting there the whole time. Then I got a vehicle for Captain Crook, it came out on Kiasu Records (in 2017).
Captain Crook was basically recorded with a lot of pain, with a lot of trials, a lot of experiences: people who are no longer with us that were a part of that record, people that are with us that, while working on that record, got shot and almost died. So it was a very personal record. I wouldn't really call it R&B-sounding, nowhere down the line. "Black Boy", I would say, is the only song that comes close to sounding like that. But the album is really my growth, my growth from Ill-Oet. I was working [Captain Crook] for four years. Ill-Oet was done in 2004.
I started working on Captain Crook that year, recording stuff, just always staying busy, writing back then. Those were the songs that made the cut. A lot of good people on that record – Barry Hampton, Mi$ Vicky, my man Dcokah. Captain Crook is basically self-explanatory. The lifestyle [described on the album] tells you what I was doing. I was in the streets real heavy, doing a lot of things that resulted in me going to federal prison.
What new projects are on the horizon?
I'm currently wrapping up two albums. The first release will be the Libretto and Buscrates project. Buscrates is a producer out of Pittsburgh. We've done a 45 called "Ain't That Funky", on Liquid Beat Records. And that 45 will be followed up with a full-length album. So that is what I'm working on right now, as well as an album with Vitamin D out of Washington. We've been working on an album that will be released on Kiasu Records. So that's my next move, as well as producing a compilation where I'm doing all the music production. I would even call it a compilation. Just creating art and trying to make sure that it's funky, make sure it's dope, fresh. So I've been looking for artists, MCs with talent and vocalists with talent, to give them music to create to, to see if we can create something beautiful and divine...
Still from Gangsta Jazz Vol 2 promo