The Bronx’s Diggin’ in the Crates crew towered over the early to mid-90s like an SP1200-strapped colossus, and continue to have a strong pull on the New York underground. At the center of DITC is Lord Finesse. Say what you like about Finesse – ultra-smooth MC, forward thinking producer, notorious ladies man – the guy is dedicated to hip-hop and talks in long, loving tones about rap music, particularly anything to do with DITC. I recently chatted to him on the eve of his latest tour to Australia — he was kickin’ it at home in front of the television, I was trying to stop my house from flooding. It was educational.– Matt Shea
American hip-hop artists seem a lot more prepared these days to make the trip to more far flung places about the world. Why do you think that is?
It could be a lot of things. You’ve gotta understand, for me, that trip is a long trip so I gotta get geared up to wanna do twenty hours. You gotta understand: you’ve got some rappers that don’t want to go five hours, so twenty hours is like four times the problem, you know? So you tend to look at it like that. And then economically: for me, I get a lot of money when I go to Japan; to go a little further to Australia, the money is actually less than what I get in Japan. There’s a debate right there, you know?
Does that equate to bigger venues in Japan?
No, I wouldn’t think so. I’m doin’ clubs and its packed – sold out. I’ll do everything from performing out there with a band in 2009, to a DJ tour last year to seven cities. The money is always great, but when you talk to some promoters in Australia and they talk the numbers and you’re like, ‘Nah, I’m good!’ And they’re like, ‘Huh?! Why don’t you wanna come out here?’ They don’t know, economically, it’s not adding up to what you’re used to getting.
You know, the fans have really got to appreciate some artists that come out there to do what they do, because some people take sacrifices – like me, I’m takin’ a hit this trip, you know? It’s gonna be decent, you know, but it ain’t what I get when I’m over there in Asia. But I do get a lot of emails on my Facebook, on different applications, from people wanting me to come back to the down under, so you know, you take that into account. It’s just gotta even out at the end of the day for both: for the promoter and the artist.
Going back a bit, you started off as an MC and then moved to production. What was it that prompted you initially to get behind the boards? Was that something you wanted to do from day one in your rap career?
At the start I didn’t want to be a rapper; I wanted to be a DJ. Rapping is something that I fell into, and got so much love and respect for it that I pursued it and really went into it, 100 per cent. And then later on it kinda evened back out by doing production. That took me back into the musical realm, which I always wanted to be in from the gate. I never really swayed from wanting to be a DJ or a producer. At the time, after the Funky Technician album and after, like, some of the breaks that I had, I had a chance to really sit down with the music.
Even now, between what I’m currently working on and the next three projects, they’re kinda long breaks and I think people are gonna hear what I’ve been doin’, you know? It’s still gonna be a Lord Finesse sound, but there’s just so much more to it now, and I look at music way different, and even the way I approach songs and approach music is different. And it’s better: when I say ‘different’ don’t think I’m goin’ leftfield or tryin’ to do radio songs, or pop – naaah! – I just learned a lot of different technical things that can help me do double the work in a quarter of the time, you know?
Talking Diggin’ in the Crates: There’s a lot of respect for you guys and what you bring to a project – you’ve often done remixes of whole albums for different artists. What it is it that you think makes a DITC production stand out?
We think outside the lines and we like funk, and we like soul, and we genuinely love great music. We love good music, and when we do what we do we don’t look at it as whether or not its going to rock in the clubs, or if the radio’s gonna play it; we think of good music overall before we go into the realm of what it’s going to do. It has to strike us. We want it – when it comes on, the first five to ten seconds – we want it to be, ‘Damn! What’s that?!’ That’s what makes Diggin’ in the Crates music extraordinary, and people have gotta understand: the greatest thing about living life is freedom of speech, right? Being able to say what you want to say. Music is the same thing, it’s just freedom of expression. You get to express yourself through music. So when you’re doing music, people want to hear your story, so if you’re gonna do somebody else’s story you shouldn’t even be doing music. If somebody gives you chance to tell your story and you tell somebody else’s story, you shouldn’t have that freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is about being different, about being who you are. And that about sums up Diggin’ in the Crates music: it’s who we are, you know?
Of the DITC crew, the man in the spotlight just last month was Buckwild with Nineteen Ninety Now. Have you considered doing the same thing and taking some archived beats and turning them into a new album?
Nah. Because I think that’s what made that music special at that time and generation, you know? It’s like, you don’t ask Stevie Wonder to do “Superstition” over and over, you know? I will take some of the ingredients and the technical things that we used to make the music dope and apply ‘em to the music I’m doing now. I do want that b-boy, hip-hop, head nod, great funk thing – that’s what I want – but I won’t go to the point of taking some old discs and doing a whole new album. I just can’t do that. I’ve learned so much between now and that generation, that decade, I’d just feel like I was putting limitations on myself by going backwards.
The other interesting thing I’ve heard rumour of is that you and Premier are working on a posthumous Big L album. Any word on that?
That’s dead, that’s dead. That’s dead. You know, because, um, when I looked at the Big L situation, I helped his mom, Pinky, run the estate, and, you know, that was a great thing, and I helped out doing a lot of different things at that time. You know, helpin’ out mold certain Big L things and, you know, it was great, and I did it really out of love because most of the time I ain’t getting’ paid to do what I did, so it wasn’t a money thing.
Now, the way they’re throwing these projects together and the way it’s looking, it’s not really putting Big L in his best light, that’s the thing. It was not a problem we had with The Big Picture, that still came out incredible, but a lot of things you have to really sit down and carefully plan out what you’re doin’ and why you’re doin’ it. I mean, if you don’t have a plan in this day and time you’re basically driving with a blanket on the windshield, you know? I look at me and Premier doing the Big L project, if we did do it, and it’s gonna be crazy, but from the business side, we’re not doing it for somebody else to financially benefit form what we’re doin’. We’re doin’ it for the Big L fans and his legacy, but if we’re doing all this hard work, blood, sweat and tears for the legacy and the fans, I don’t wanna see somebody else putting a check in their pocket. That’s not what it’s all about, so that’s why, from that standpoint, I say no, you know? I won’t say never; I’ll just say no.
It’s something you must want to do right, given the memories you’d have of working with Big L back in the day…
Yeah, I mean his legacy is just incredible, man. I say that because the things he did in the short period of time, you know, and some people look at him as this underground icon that’s bigger than the world, you know? And I would want that to continue on. I don’t want his vocals mashed up against just any beat, because you should be trying to do something better and carefully put it together, you know? Let’s go with the Terror Squad with “Bring ‘Em Back”, with Pun and Fat Joe and L: that song was originally just L and Sheek Louch from The LOX, but if you listen to the way L’s rhyming on that beat, you couldn’t tell us that he wasn’t wasn’t in the booth rhyming to that, it sounds like the perfect match. And that’s what it’s about with me – I’m a perfectionist.
It’s a long time since The Awakening. In the internet age, are you still a big believer in the hip-hop album?
I mean these days you’ve got your MySpace and your Twitter and your Facebook, and these are great outlets but people become complacent and lazy and they think this is all you have to do to promote yourself, when there’s a whole world our there, man. People wanna see you physically and feel you physically more than they want to see this internet stuff goin’ on. I mean, that’s a great marketing scheme, media-wise, and you’ve got Twitter and Facebook and MySpace – they’re great tools – but there’s so much more to promote yourself than that. That’s like just putting it on the net and waiting for somebody to knock on your door with a check – it’s just not gonna happen.
You really gotta go out there and do promo tours and do radio and do a lot of things and just put it out there. YouTube, you know: ‘Check me out on YouTube!’ Okay let’s take me for instance, Lord Finesse, I’m an underground artist and sometimes people look at YouTube and learn about my music and that’s great – and I’m underground – but if you are an artist coming up in this game and you’re underground but you don’t have a story like me – I’ve dropped, like, three albums, you probably dropped three mixtapes – people ain’t just gonna go to YouTube and dig you up like that. It’s not gonna work like that and people just think, you know, ‘All I gotta do is put it on YouTube, I got a Facebook, I got a MySpace, I got a Twitter. I’m good.’ It’s much more than that. There’s just so much more than that.
Looking at the last couple of decades, one of the big movements has been a lot of hip-hop producers really getting involved in R&B. Is that something you’ve ever considered doing more of?
I mean, I’ve done that in the past when you look at SWV, Jeff Redd, and that sort of thing. I’ve done that and always loved music, so I’ve always kept true to what I do. I mean if you listen to “The Message” on Dre’s album , that coulda been R&B. Would that make it any less dope? No. I mean I like a lot of R&B artists and I think there’s room for it [hip-hop producers working with R&B artists], because a lot of these R&B acts are dependent on synth sounds and dependent on all this Star Trek type music, and there ain’t enough of the funk. The funk is what made your James Brown and when you listen to James Brown and Stevie Wonder and Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass and Earth, Wind and Fire: all these people have different styles and sounds, but if you listen to a lot of this style of muysic now, everybody is copying what somebody else is doing. They’re copying what the leader is doing, and once again I’m a firm believer in having your own musical opinion, because if you’re gonna do what’s out there already then you’re preparing yourself to be number two, because number one is already out there. And then on top of that you’ve got a lot of older artists trying to do young stuff, man. You ain’t ever see Al Green worrying about what Michael Jackson was doing (laughs), you know? You didn’t have Marvin Gaye worrying about what Stevie was doing when he was a kid. You got a lot of older artists trying to be kids again. They don’t want to accept that these kids are not your demographic – you got a demographic and now you’re tryin’ to party with some teeny boppers, man. I’m with my fans, I’m happy with my demographic, I love great music, and that’s the demographic that I’m after, so you don’t have to worry about Finesse doin’ some pop thing on an electro-techno thing trying to get new sounds, you know?
The casual music fan would of course know you from Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank”? What did you think when you first heard the track? Was that cleared with you?
I was scammed and duped into that. You know, me being an advocate of hip-hop and believin’: somebody came to me and wanted a sample cleared. They said, ‘We got your voice on a hook.’ They never gave me a tape or a copy of a tape to listen to, for me to identify what this whole song was about. It was just like, ‘Yo, we’re using your voice for a hook in a song.’ When somebody comes along to you in the hip-hop format and with that state of mind you’re looking at it as, ‘Well they’re gonna scratch my voice in a hook. Somebody’s gonna do sixteen bars, scratch my voice and a hook/Sixteen bars, scratch my voice and a hook.’
Then I heard the song and it was mainly me: I would have had a different outlook [if I’d known that], and I think that was done on purpose. So, ‘We’re gonna ask him to clear it but we’re not gonna let him hear what we want him to clear,’ and me not wantin’ to be a dickhead, I said, ‘Well, let me clear this,’ because I’ve had samples that I went through hell to get cleared. I didn’t want to put somebody through the same thing. But you soon learn that you can’t be good to people because they will take advantage of you, so at the end of the day I haven’t gotten nowhere near what I should have deserved to do that, you know? But it’s all good: you learn you can’t really dwell in the past and you can’t look backwards so all you can do is take that experience and move on, you know?
Did you really sell your SP1200 on eBay?
That is correct. I’m lookin’ forward to meeting the person who bought it. I just thought my SP12 was sittin’ in the closet. I wasn’t using it, I wasn’t going back to use it, you know? The machine is one thing, and that is a classic piece and a historical item to have, but the actual disc with all the music on it – that’s where all the work lies at actually. So I looked at it like that, and I haven’t actually used the 1200 in over… wow, maybe ten years or so. So a lot of the music people have been hearing hasn’t been the 1200. So, you know, I know a lot of purists, hip-hop purists, who are saying, ‘Aw, he’s sellin’ his Twelve. What’s goin’ on? Is he broke?’ But I felt like instead of giving it to a thrift shop or a store, why not give it to an actual fan, you know?
Let’s say I take it to a store and say, ‘I wanna trade this is in for another machine.’ They don’t know who I am. They’re not gonna look at is as something of value, but a fan will look at it as whole different thing. I get the comments but people don’t understand. This hip-hop thing is weird, I tell you: you’ve got the purists who want you to do 1200 stuff for the rest of your life (laughs), then you got people that want to see if you’ve grown since the 1200 – What’s this new style? What is he doing now? Has he evolved? – you’ve got that group of people. And being a creator, a producer and an artist, it’s hard to please all sets of people – that’s just not gonna happen. You end up trying to fit into a little grey area, but somebody’s always gonna get mad, not everybody’s ever gonna be happy. So I look at people, I look at the comments, but at the end of the day as long as I’m happy, that’s what matters. If they feel a certain way, why don’t they get a 1200 and do that music that’s in their head?
That’s true – it’s only ever going to be as valuable to you as the music you can create on it…
I’ve been working on an MPC3000, MPC4000, an Akai S6000, you know? That 1200 ain’t been used since The Awakening. So it’s not doing me no good sittin’ there. What, am I gonna do? Put it in a case and put a light on it?
Looking ahead, what are the plans for the rest of 2011?
Well there’s a lot in store for 2011. Two albums will be dropping around the same time: that’s The Tru Origin album and the Funky Technician remix project – they’ll both be dropping round roughly the same time. The Tru Origin project will feature me, O.C. and a coupla other artists I’m not gonna let outta the bag. It’s a project, back to lyrics and hip-hop, you know? And then, you know, selected cities: I’ll be coming out with a band. I gotta mean band, man. If you want, YouTube ‘Lord Finesse and the Congregation’, or ‘Lord Finesse live in Tokyo’ and you’ll see my band – they’re bad boys, man. So I’ll be doing that – that’s gonna be a mean tour. And then you got middle of the year: me, Large Professor and O.C. working on an alumni album. There’s a lot of things goin’ on and a lot of production in between, so expect a lot of good things, but I promise my fans one thing: if it ain’t gonna be dope it ain’t comin’ out, man. Don’t look at me as doing an album because it seems the right thing to do, but look at me doin’ it because I believe I’m gonna make a difference and I’m gonna change the game.
MP3: Lord Finesse-“S.K.I.T.S.”
MP3: Lord Finesse-“Return of the Funky Man (Video Version)”