December 7, 2010

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There are only so many things one can say about a rap record in and of itself. It takes more than good rhymes, a whole persona or idea, to captivate fans these days. That’s why I leaped at the chance to speak with Celph Titled- one of the most prominent, animated, and true-to-form underground emcees since the onset of the modern independent hip-hop movement. Teaming up with legendary producer, Buckwild (and his coveted archive of authentic ‘90’s boom-bap), Celph’s official solo debut, Nineteen Ninety Now, is putting headphones and car speakers everywhere under siege. — Dom Pinelli

A lot of contemporary rappers pride themselves in ‘bringing the ‘90’s back’, but they’re not doing much more than just saying it. One of the things I like about Nineteen Ninety Now is it’s more cohesive than simply rapping over vintage (sounding) beats; it sounds like the scratches, arrangement, style of hooks, etc are all made to be consistent with the ‘90’s formula for hip-hop music…

Definitely… Being the first to do this concept, we had to basically pretend like this was the ‘90’s. Now, there are procedures on how to make songs and it’s mostly cookie-cutter: three 16’s and 8-bar hooks and that’s that. [Instead,] we got in the mindset of how dudes made records back then because so many things have been forgotten. Whether it’s cuts, not having a set amount of bars, using certain vocal samples as part of the hook or during the verse to answer a rhyme, or [in general] just being loose with it- all these details that are ignored anymore had to be paid very much attention to. So, our formula was about taking new lyrics and a new outlook, while staying within the frame of ‘How would they have made this record in 1994?’ and following that to a tee.

As a long-time fan of rap music, I feel like one of the main things that’s missing from songs these days- not just in the mainstream but now in the underground as well- is DJs doing scratch segments or sampling memorable punch lines from another emcee’s verse. It’s disappointing, because it’s one of my favorite parts of a good rap song.

Exactly, and who better to do [the scratches] than the world-famous champion, Mister Sinister? He did the cuts on Common Resurrection and all kinds of classic ‘90’s albums, so it was perfect that he was able to do it on my album. Going back to the ‘90’s thing, even the approach of rapping and DJ’ing is different nowadays. Everyone is really stiff. My style is more cartoonish and comical and it worked well since we all took a carefree approach and didn’t try to be so serious. A lot of fans get too superficial with their music. You have a lot of insecure people feeling like ‘I only need to listen to crime shit, hardcore, street rap’ and they’re scared to listen to something like this album because it’s actually fun… There are violent undertones, but it’s like an action movie. It’s like Die Hard, where Bruce Willis will blast somebody and then make a punch line about it- it’s fun.

In addition to Buckwild beats, we hear lyrical contributions from ‘90’s pioneers like Treach, Sadat X, various members of D.I.T.C. and more. Did you have preexisting relationships with these individuals or were they targeted contributors you contacted once the album’s wheels were in motion?

Half and half, I’d say. Some of the guys involved with the project are people I’ve had a rapport with over the years, but some of the more classic artists like D.I.T.C. and Brand Nubian came from the Buckwild connection… Treach doesn’t do features often, so it was a blessing to have him [on the album]. My man, Flav, who’s on the album at the beginning of “Wack Juice”, has been down with Naughty by Nature since the early ‘90’s, so it was no problem to make it happen once I explained the concept of the record. I asked him to come with the trademark ‘nasty-naughty’ style from back then and it was dope to hear him go off like that.

That’s cool because a lot of artists that were prominent during the ‘90’s and are still making music seem to get frustrated when fans favor their early songs or style over their new ones. I remember seeing one of my favorite underground emcees perform a few years back. He was doing only brand new stuff and got really annoyed with the fans because they kept requesting his classics, probably because the new stuff wasn’t what they were used to. With this in mind, was it initially a challenge to get Buckwild to use his archives as oppose to his fresh material?

Not at all, but it was a question in the back of my mind if Buck would be with it or not, because I know how people can be [with their music]. Especially for producers, you don’t want to put out a beat from 15 years ago when you’ve advanced so much and are still current like Buckwild; he makes new beats on new records to this day. He just thought the idea was great, plus the fact he had access to all those old [beat] discs- he saw the vision and I’m very blessed he was willing to dig them up because a lot of people wouldn’t be into it. The idea actually came from being at Pete Rock’s crib back in 2002, 2003 or so and seeing SP 1200 discs of old beats all over his floor that were labeled, like “The Militia Remix” and other things he did. He put a couple on CD for me and I think he’d be another person that wouldn’t have a problem doing a project like this. So, on the note of artists that don’t like to dwell on the past, I don’t understand that because every artist is a fan at one point in time. You know how it feels when certain classic things mean so much to you, so for an artist, I don’t know why they’d have a pompous attitude about performing old stuff for the fans. I think a lot of rappers are insecure about staying current and don’t want people to think they’ve run out of ideas- or they just don’t like something about their old stuff and feel like they’ve become a much better artist [since then]… You still have to progress your sound, though. I have some hardcore fans that love hearing me on production like the Army of the Pharaohs stuff, and they’re disappointed with the jazzy beats and ‘90’s sound. They’re more a fan of the epic/ classical sample/ big drums sound, but I couldn’t just do the same thing, so I do understand when some artists feel like they have to move forward…

Actually, to hear that about some of your fans surprises me a bit. I first became a fan of your music when I heard the “Chrome Depot Freestyle” with Apathy over DJ Premier beats, which was 10 years ago. So, for me, hearing Nineteen Ninety Now kind of brought things full-circle, and it was nice to basically hear the same Celph Titled I’ve been a fan of. I feel like a lot of other emcees that came up the same time in the late-90’s/ early-2000’s indie hip-hop movement, and gained notoriety as punch line/ battle rappers, have since abandoned that style in preference of alternative, genre-bending directions. Whatever the case, it seems doing a punch line song is taboo, or being regarded primarily as a battle rapper is now insulting for these artists. As someone who isn’t ashamed of that classification, what are your thoughts on all this?

A lot of that has to do with ego and fear of being irrelevant. When you start hearing backlash from people about punch line rap, like ‘there’s no substance’, this and that- an insecure artist who’s effected by that is going to question their shit and try to appeal to that [stigma]. They might convince themselves ‘This isn’t my natural growth. I need to go and make this a sad song with a story’, or just do all this weird stuff they didn’t do before. If you look at the long-standing, successful artists in hip-hop- even if they’re not critically acclaimed, guys like E-40 and Too Short never changed their formulas. They might have updated their production styles with the times, but they’ve always given their fans what they want and they’re still here, making plenty of money. I realize that I’ve created a brand through a certain vibe when you listen to me and I never want to let my fans down, especially because I enjoy doing it. I don’t care what other people think, like ‘oh it’s just backpack, rappity-rap’, because that’s what I like and I have enough fans… I’ve been disappointed by my favorite artists so many times, and what they could have done to have my support and everyone else’s was so simple. Trying to do something totally different makes fans mad a lot of times. It could be why a lot of the guys who came up with me and Apathy 10 years ago are gone, and I think the fact we’re still here doing this says a lot.

Since your original crew, Equilibrium, we’ve also seen you consistently involved with The Demigodz, AOTP, Fort Minor and a handful of others, but this album is your official solo debut. Were there ever other solo projects in the works that never came to fruition? Why did you wait until now to get something out?

With all the movements I’ve been involved in, so many things were happening, so I kept waiting for a bigger opportunity. I had thought maybe I’d get signed rolling with Fort Minor and wanted a formal situation before I put all that work into doing an album… I worked on different incarnations of a [debut] album over the years, but I’m glad nothing came out because I would probably hate it now {…laughing…}. Yeah, to have waited kind of sucks with all the illegal downloading, poor economy and low record sales these days, but it worked out for the best because I’ve become a much sharper, veteran emcee. I’m glad that I’m able to do my first album at this age and peak of my skill, being more mature and willing to branch out and do a couple different, personal things… Your time [in music] is limited based on what you’re doing and what you’re putting out there. I looked at it like ‘I’m either going to be that guy that just hops on everyone else’s songs and people wonder if I can hold down an album by myself, or stop waiting around for something to happen for me and take it into my own hands.’ Also, back in 2007 is when the industry was really shifting and we had to adapt to the new [emphasis on the] internet, blogs, free downloading- and the labels changed. It got to the point where I no longer wanted a major deal, because album sales were down and labels started signing artists to “360” deals to make up for the losses, where they get money from your merch and your live shows too. Once that became the standard is when I decided to stay independent. I already had enough fans and knew I could gain a lot more using the notoriety I established; it’s like free promotion that I don’t have to spend money to get a band or something. People already know me from Fort Minor, AOTP and everything, so I can take advantage of that independently and make sure nobody is in my pockets but me. I felt going about it this way is what I had to do if I really want to make a living out of this.

Backing up a step, Nineteen Ninety Now actually isn’t the first time you’ve done a concept, collaboration album. Several years ago, you dropped the Boss Hog Barbarians project with J-Zone, which can be considered another, yet more comical, homage to early ‘90’s rap music. How was this concept and working with J-Zone different than working with Buckwild on the new album?

In a way, that album is the west coast version of Nineteen Ninety Now. Zone and I are such fans of that era and we both wanted to do something different at the time. He was having some issues where people were pigeonholing him into one sound, like the accordion beats, talking about his infatuation with Lucy Lu and that’s all people wanted to hear. As a growing artist, that would make him mad, so we did ‘Barbarians’ in a kind of rebellious way, like ‘this is what we came up on, what we love, and we’re going to make a very funny, killer project out of it.’ I think it went over a lot of people’s heads; they might have thought it was all a joke. There was definitely a joke aspect to it. We’re not super-serious guys- we like to make people laugh and we know how to have fun, but it wasn’t a whole parody. We really felt that project and there were a lot of concepts on it. We shared the mic duties and I did a couple beats that were my tributes to classic [San Francisco] Bay Area stuff… It was different because J-Zone is a friend of mine, and was a friend prior to making that album. We did the album because of our friendship and our admiration for each other’s talent. We would come up with ideas on the spot while joking around, laughing and being loose. With Buckwild, I didn’t know him beforehand. We met each other in order to do the album and I had to get to know him. We’re friends and we joke too now that we understand each other’s sense of humor and stuff like that, but it’s different when you go into a project already having that kind of personal rapport versus building the rapport while you’re doing it…

After all the wide-ranging, influential movements and projects you’ve made your mark with in the last 10+ years, what’s the one thing you want fans to take away from listening to Nineteen Ninety Now?

I just want them to see how hip-hop can be. I’m not saying everybody has to revert back to making ‘90’s sounding music, but that type of mindset people were in when creating a hip-hop record has been forgotten. You need to take into consideration the approach that went into making these records. It’s a lost art form and doesn’t have to be lost. You can make current music with current-sounding, Wiz Khalifa production and all that stuff- if you come with the same passion they had in the ‘90’s, you can still make incredible music. There are a lot of young listeners out there and the ‘90’s [rap] is really old school to them. To kids in high school, 50 Cent is old school. His [Aftermath] debut came out in 2003, which was when they were in elementary. They’re not going back far, back to the ‘90’s and checking that stuff, so they’re influenced by whatever they come up on now. This album is to remind you this is how it was, and this is how it can be.

Download:
MP3: Celph Titled & Buckwild-“Wack Juice”
MP3: Celph Titled & Buckwild-“Miss Those Days”

MP3: Celph Titled & Buckwild ft. Rize (Left-Click)