So how was it pitched to you to do this feature on the track “Distortion”?
My manager sent me the song. I listened to it, and I said, “I can mess with this.” I adjust to anything. I’m a person who feels out stuff and adjusts to creative ideas. That’s how it happened, just me being how I am.
What would you say it brought out in you? What was it about the music that inspired those lyrics?
[The lyrics] go with the elements of the music. So I put this futuristic jet-pack vibe along with the sound. Besides me doing all kinds of other things in my career, my niche is spacey, futuristic stuff. So it was a hand-in-glove type thing.
There’s also a larger message there about not losing your head in a time of chaos. It’s almost like a calming affirmation. That feels like a different flavor from you.
[Thinking it over] I guess you can say that. But most of the stuff I’ve done is distinctive in all kinds of ways. Whether it’s a house music record, a rap record, hip-hop, boom bap, trap, futuristic, dance—it’s going to be distinctive. That’s one of my things right now musically, is making unique records.
How much is all the stuff we’re hearing on the news filtering into your creativity these days? On “Distortion” it seems like that’s starting to happen.
I attack the music the way I feel it. My vision is what I see in the music, so sometimes I don’t let what happens on the outside bother me on the inside, because it’s just me feeling the beat [as its own thing] within its own time.
A lot of your work doesn’t actually reflect your background—the urine in the elevators, the junkies, the crime, the murder scenes. That’s all there, but a lot of your stuff is a departure from what goes on at the street level.
Most rappers write about that stuff, but I see that stuff every day. It’s become what people write about, but I get bored of it. We’ve all seen poverty, and we’ve all seen struggle. Music, for me, is escape because I see those things all the time. I mean, Ultramagnetic didn’t make Critical Beatdown over strawberry ice cream. You think we didn’t hear gunshots out the window when we were laying the vocals down on that album?
There were times I’d leave the studio at 3:00 in the morning after working on a track like “Funky”. I’m walking home, and I’m hearing gunshots, and I don’t even know what block they’re coming from. A lot of these guys rap about that stuff, but they don’t even live in those kinds of conditions. They’re just rapping from the outside looking in on those conditions.
Me, I’m always walking around cities walking straight into the grime. When you’re around it so much, it becomes everybody’s story, and you become numb to it. Doing projects like “Distortion” gives me a good feeling. With everybody writing about what the conditions are all the time, it gets boring. Sometimes I like to write about the un-condition. But now you’ve got a dumb audience. They like this shit because it’s so spoon-fed. You could come out as a rapper named One-Leg Lenny. [Mockingly:] “That nigga got one of his legs blown-off in the streets. He went out in a blaze like Rambo!” And they think that’s the life. But his whole life has been marketed and planned.
You went from being a dancer—somebody who didn’t even identify as an MC—but then you put out Dr. Octagon in 1996 and after that it’s like project after project after project. Now, it sounds like you’re working on various projects all the time. When did your creativity kick into high gear?
I think it happened after I moved to California. The openness and the sun made me feel [more open]. I got into buying keyboards and becoming a real musician, not just someone who samples. I became a musician who makes beats for himself, and that gave me the inspiration to become fully creative, to reach the height of music—to say, “I make music, and one day somebody’s going to sample my stuff. I’m not always going to be looking for someone else’s samples.” I felt like that was the height for me. I played the basslines on a good 70-80% of the Dr. Octagon album. [Producer Dan The] Automator [Nakumura] would probably never mention that, but we were just working together. I didn’t care about who pressed what on the keyboard or the drum machine.
Sometimes, my music is bassline-driven. When I make beats, sometimes the bassline is laid down first before the drums. That’s always been a thing: that a rapper isn’t supposed to be able to do beats. But I think that’s a stigma we don’t have to go by anymore. If you’re into music, you should be able to transition from anything: if you started out as a dancer, you can learn how to rap. If you started out as a rapper, you can learn how to make beats, and so on. You can learn how to mix, and you might switch to being an engineer.
One day I want to go down in history with people sampling from me. So when I rap on something, it’s usually because it’s got [an approach to sound] that I’ve never heard.