A Conversation with Rhymefest

Andrew Barber

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Rhymefest; one of Hip Hop’s hardest working artists and most entertaining figures. Strong in his convictions and equally hilarious, what started off as just a short conversation, turned into, “a long ass interview.” We discuss everything from his hot-off-the-press Michael Jackson Dedication Album – Man in the Mirror (don’t call it a mixtape!), his sophomore album: El Che, his political debate with Lupe Fiasco, Barack Obama and the future of hip hop.

For all the Chicago readers, ‘Fest is playing the Metro, this Friday, January 18th. So come out and support one of Chicago’s brightest stars. (you can purchase tickets here)

Let’s start things off with discussing the Man in the Mirror Dedication Album you just released. It’s getting some rave reviews, not only for the music but also the hilarious content and originality. Who came up with the concept for Man in the Mirror and how did it come to fruition?

As far as the Dedication Album, me like everybody else, I’m a fan of Michael Jackson and of his work. I feel like wherever I went around the world on my world tour with DJ Jazzy Jeff, one thing I saw is that whenever he threw on Michael Jackson, people would just go crazy. No matter if you were old, young or where you’re from – everybody loves Michael Jackson. Rhymefest had to make a bounce and bounce back- what’s the best thing for people who don’t like hip hop, or people who may not be up on me? What’s the best way to make them say, “I’ll give it a listen” – It just so happens to be with one of the greatest musicians of our time, Michael Jackson. I also wanted to do something creative, and edgy and as an artist who appreciates other artists and music in general.

And you had a listening session/party for the Dedication Album last Thursday in NYC. That’s really big for a promo only release, how’d that turn out?

It was a listening session where friends and family, and you know, people I consider to be family – like the label, the personnel, got to come by and hear the record and hear me talk about it and receive copies of the CD.

Are you going to do one of these in Chicago?

Yes, I am doing one on Friday, January 18 at the Funky Buddha Lounge after my show at the Metro. Do you like the CD?

Absolutely, I was just about to get into that. The music is dope and the skits are hilarious – to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting that. Did you and Mark (Ronson) dig up those vocals and write the dialogue?

Mike was there.

What’s that?

Michael Jackson was there. We did it together.

(laughs) Oh really…Well, I know on one of the skits Mike told you he loved you, and you said that was bizarre

He’s crazy like that, man. Like it was hard to deal with Mike, because really you just turn on the mic and the material writes itself.

(Laughing) You guys really hit it off well

Ahh brother, we kinda like the same people – but minus the vitiligo.

So where did you guys record this material – at Neverland?

Nah man, come on, I don’t go to the Ranch, man – don’t be ridiculous. He came to the studio and we hit it off like two black men should – you know brotherly unity

That had to have been an honor for you

It think it was an honor for Mike as well – if you listen to him and Mark Ronson talking. He loves me. The Man in the Mirror album also shows that Rhymefest can make a cohesive project. I think it’s the best of me being an artist and who I am – Like Chuck D and Flavor Flav rolled into one.

I also like how you took other rap songs that sampled Michael or the Jackson 5 and gave them your own twist

Exactly. My thing is that in 2008, Hip Hop has to be progressive, it has to be edgy. I’m so glad that I didn’t come out in 2007 because that was the end of an era – and this is the beginning of a whole new era in Hip Hop.

What do you see changing? What’s this new era all about?

Well, we’re all coming into a new year with everyone having the perception that records aren’t selling. Period. But what that perception does – it levels the playing field. Everybody has the same chance, so let’s see who can hit the ball the farthest when steroids aren’t included.

Will any of the material from Man in the Mirror make El Che?

Maybe. I mean, we’re discussing it right now with the people at the label, like my A&R. I think the Talib record should make El Che. We’re working it out – but El Che already has so many great songs that now we gotta trim the fat.

So when can we expect El Che? On the mixtape you say “Spring or whenever J Records figures it out”

I think by Spring or June. April, May, June or July – how about that (laughs). I do want it to be out in time for the Grammy’s, I want another Grammy. I want it to be right on time. Hopefully, by the summer when it’s buzzin’ and the Rhymefest name is at its peak. My birthday is July 6th, so it would be wonderful if it came out around then.

So the album is done?

The album is done, we’re trimming the fat, picking the songs that we like. But as far as I feel, you’re album is never done until it’s released.

I saw you this past summer at Lollapalooza here in Chicago and you performed a few tracks that were scheduled for El Che. In particular, the joint with Just Blaze (where you had the kids breakdancing on stage with you), when are you going to leak that? Is it going to be a single?

At this point I’m not sure if that record is even gonna make the album…

Wow. So you have more heat than that?

Awwww man, HOT FIYAH as Dylan would say!

Okay, so let’s get into that, what can we expect from El Che production-wise and feature-wise?

Alright – well, on El Che, I use a lot of new producers. I don’t even have anything with Kanye yet. I wanted to go with some new, hungry producers and give them a chance. Also, producers who are underrated like myself [as a rapper] you got Emile, Scram Jones – these are people who have been in the game forever doing stuff for Obie Trice and Eminem, and making a name, but never getting the shine, so we’re gonna mobilize and all shine together.

As far a features, I got my man, my brother Phonte [from Little Brother] on there. But not too many features, because I don’t believe features are as effective as they used to be. It’s like, just because Jay-Z or Kanye is on your song, it doesn’t mean it’s about to blow up. So why would I waste $80,000 for that person to be on my song, if I could just do it myself and make it great. People are buying into who you are nowadays, more so than who you got with you. Now, it doesn’t hurt if people go out and cosign you, like they plugging their project and they’re like “By the way, Rhymefest is a great guy” (laughs) then that’s good exposure. Another thing I realized is that you have these guys [other rappers] on your joints and then when they do their shit, they never call you. So how are we helping each other? So now I’m just working with family. Like when Little Brother comes out, they mess with Rhymefest and I’ll be on their stuff – so guess what? They’ll be on my stuff. I think it’s more valuable to show a movement and mobilization than it is just to do some shit just to do it. If it ain’t your family, then why do it?

Speaking of family, what’s up with the DJ Jazzy Jeff and Rhymefest collaboration album? What’s the status with that?

Yeah, me and Jazzy Jeff have an EP that’s gonna come out after El Che and I’m looking forward to it, brother.

It’s called “He’s the DJ I’m the Rapper pt. 2”, right?

Nah instead of being “He’s the DJ” it’s “I’m the DJ and I’m the Rapper”. Hot Fiyah!

Will that be an independent or major label release?

I don’t know. It depends on if J Records wants to give me a million dollars for the record. If not, then it will be coming out independently.

Last week you had the internet ablaze and the blogs buzzing due to your political debate with Lupe Fiasco. It was refreshing to see two rappers have a peaceful and productive discussion – did you think it would escalate to that level?

Nah, I really didn’t care. My whole thing is to inform the public in a responsible, truthful way. There’s a new Intellectual Drop Squad in town and any time you say some dumb shit, we’re gonna call yo’ ass out. You know what I’m saying? Shout out to Phonte, No I.D. and Killer Mike. This is the new Intellectual Drop Squad, and in 2008, we’re not gonna let rappers – whoever they are, wherever they may be – get away with the same dumb shit you got away with last year. We’re calling your ass out – period. We’re not even saying “Fuck you as an artist”, we’re saying “tell the people the truth.” Don’t come out here and lie to the people and then have them going off some misinformation. So what I asked Mr. Fiasco was to just tell the people you don’t know what Barack O’Bama’s position is on Iran. Which we dealt with – now I’m satisfied. And this isn’t just chastisement, it’s correcting our brothers. It’s making rappers better. I’m not beating you down – I’m giving you a hand to help you up! I just don’t want people saying dumb shit that may effect other people who are 18 and ready to vote who may say: “I’m not voting for Barack because Lupe said that he wants to bomb Iran, and I’m Iranian.”

I totally respect the fact that you stood up and said something about it, and you notice how not many, if any, major news outlets picked up on the debate. The blogs were obviously discussing the situation, but…

Let me tell you something, brother…The blogs, bloggers and all of that, are the people. There’s a reason that Talib Kweli sold more records than Swizz. There’s a reason why Kanye sold more records than 50. There’s a reason with Common sold more records than Lil Boosie. The people are starting to speak and even though our records may not get played on the radio 50 million times a day, the people are saying: “We value art over bullshit.” Period. So I would much rather have a career than to live for the moment. I don’t care if MTV or whoever don’t talk about it as long as the people know it exists. Because the people are what’s gonna move them [the major news outlets].

My favorite comment was your claim that Lupe wasn’t going to call you because he doesn’t have your number. Did he ever make good on his promise and call?

Hell fuckin’ nah. Let me tell you something – rappers be frontin’, all the time. “Ah man let me get your number, I’m gonna call you , alright, alright.” What I did was, and I’m glad you picked up on that, was show the frontin’ that goes on in the industry. “Ah, I’m gonna call ‘Fest tomorrow.” N****, you don’t have my number! That’s another example – we’re not letting the bullshit stand in 2008 and people have to know this.

But yo, I just want to point out that this ain’t no an attack on Lupe.

I’ll make sure I print that

It’s a much bigger agenda, and my agenda is truth. Let’s see if that works this year.

In the wake up the debates, blogger Byron Crawford received a pretty ridiculous email, you’re familiar with him, right?

Yep.

Well Byron received an email from a Chicago reader, who was a bit misinformed, this reader claimed the debate was tied to gang activity in Chicago. He went on to name names and the various gangs these rappers represented. What’s your take on this?

I can’t even respond to that, it sounds too ignorant. Come on, man. Next question.

So do you think Obama will pull it off in ’08?

I don’t know, but I know I’m gonna support him. I know when Obama speaks about hope, I know I was born to a crackhead
alcoholic Father and my Mom was 15 when she had me. I understand that for me to be here right now, doin’ what I’m doin’, it’s all because I had an audacity of hope – so I personally relate to that message. I know that he’s qualified. I know that he wants to remove all lobbyists from public decision making. I know he doesn’t accept money from lobbyists – he accepts money from individual donators. So the people funded Barack – not the corporations. So he doesn’t belong to anyone but the people, so I know I support that. Will he win? I don’t know. Does he have a chance? I don’t know. But am I gonna give him a chance? Hell yeah.

So any final words for the readers, fans and followers who are coming to your show on Friday (January 18 in Chicago)?

Come out to the show and support. We will be doing some of the joints from the Man in the Mirror Album, we will be doing joints from Blue Collar, and we will be doing joints from the upcoming album, El Che. It’s gonna be a revolution of music, it represents change and it’s going to be beautiful. Thank you for whoever read this long ass interview (laughs), you must have a lot of time on your hands, but thank you very much. And hit me up on Myspace, I answer all my friends and fans and lets make something happen. We interested in a movement, not just rappin’.

Oh, and one more thing – you ready?

Shoot…

Since this Lupe thing, a lot of people say “I don’t believe in politics, I don’t believe in the system. Nothing will ever change and my vote doesn’t count”. Can I give you my answer to that?

Please do.

If nothing could change, we would still be in slavery. Imagine telling a slave: “One day you’re gonna be free and be making a lotta money in a lot of places!” That slave would be like: “you’re a damn fool, this shit ain’t never gonna change.” It took people with an audacity of hope to make change. Changes happen all throughout history – evolution is impossible to stop. Change is impossible to stop. So for the people who are cynics and don’t believe in change? I think they’ll die out. It’ll be natural selection. Because change is coming whether you like it, believe in it, or not. I’d rather be a part of it, than to be sitting down dyin’.

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