With Evidence, it’s not so much a case of starting the story from the beginning, but figuring out which story you want to start with. The Venice Beach-based rapper and producer packs at least two separate career arcs. Most well known is his work with Dilated Peoples, the trio Evidence formed with Rakaa Iriscience and DJ Babu to record a slew of well-regarded records around the turn of the millennium. But now there’s Evidence’s solo career, which kicked off in 2006 with The Weatherman LP and recently culminated in Cats & Dogs – one of the stronger rap releases of 2011 and a record that’s helped cement his identity away from Dilated Peoples.
Before a recent visit to Australia I caught up with Evidence over phone to discuss everything from his past at the Troubadour’s infamous open mic nights in the early 1990s to the future of both Dilated Peoples and his solo career. The interview was originally conducted for a Scene Magazine feature story, but is reproduced in its entirety for Passion of the Weiss. – Matt Shea
Where are you talking to me from Ev? You could be anywhere between California and Arizona?
I’m in California at the moment. I have a show in Arizona tomorrow night
You’re still based in Venice, right?
Yeah, sure am.
I think over the last year in a lot of people’s minds you’ve finally stopped simply being seen as a part of Dilated Peoples and more as a solo artist in your own right. How’s life as a solo artist? Does the concept of being a solo artist sit well with you these days?
Yeah, I think so. I’m not a new artist. As a solo artist, some people think I’m a new artist, which is a real interesting dynamic in itself. But to those who know me, I’m an artist who’s been around. So there’s this weird duality where some people are only now reading up on me and learning about Dilated Peoples because of what I’ve been doing here, and other people know that stuff, and then everything in-between. But yeah, I think it would be real different if I’d just come out in 2000 as a solo artist, instead of 2006 or whenever it was that I did. I think all the experience and all the knowledge and all the ups and downs I’d been through prepared me much more for this.
Talking about those early days: Alchemist told Jeff Weiss a great story about meeting you at the Troubadour when you were 16. Apparently you were hungrily asking if it was open-mic and if you could get up and rock it. I’m thinking we’re talking ’93. Do you remember that?
Yeah, yeah, I think that would’ve been ’92, yeah.
Tell me a bit about what it was like back in those days?
I was just hungry, it was new to me, and I was probably a little over-zealous. Like you see some kid now, you know what I mean (laughs). That’s why I never put down on anybody trying to get on; I understand the concept of it. So I’d heard there was an open mic there and I was there really just to dance at that time – dancing was what everyone did – and the DJ threw on an instrumental and people could get up to rap. That was dope. This was early. It was before (pauses) – it was just early (laughs).
Was there a sense that something special was happening about town on the underground scene at that time?
I wasn’t really up on it, to be honest – professionally. I was kinda just in my own little world. I couldn’t even go out that much. I couldn’t even stay out that late, you know. I was 14 when that happened.
You’re coming down to Australia with Atmosphere in a Rhymesayers double team. So Rhymesayers don’t sign any old body, obviously – they’ve got a pretty specific purview when it comes to artists – what was it about you that you feel appealed to those guys?
The size of the gun I was holding to their heads (laughs). I dunno: I talked to them around the time of Weatherman and it wasn’t time then. And then I spoke around the time of The Layover [EP] and it wasn’t time then. But by the third record I had generated a enough buzz that I had offers from other independent labels and so I hit them back up and I’m like, “This is what I’ve got going,” and they came back saying, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So probably between Slug and Siddiq and maybe Ali and some other people they decided that it was something they wanted to do. So, I don’t know if they were aware of my full vision or not. Either way, I thank them for giving me a shot on it because it’s definitely been successful for me. At a time when things have been going down, I’ve been fortunate enough to have some things going back up, so it would be good to keep it going.
Flipping it around on that same question: what was the appeal for you to sign with those guys?
They’re self-contained; I like the way they work. Obviously, they’re successful. And then they don’t have much on there that sounds like me, which is great. It’s a place where you can have your own lane and I feel like a lot of us share the same ideals and the same thoughts and the same goals, but we all spit our rhymes differently and that’s great. Given the geographic locations – you’re from there, I’m from here – we’re always going to be different. At first when I signed up there I was considering making music leaning towards what some of their own artists were already doing. But after a conversation with certain people they were like, “Please don’t. We signed you for what you do.” And that was good to hear.
Going back to this idea of you as a solo artist. Cats & Dogs is your second LP after Weatherman, which was well-received and gave you a lot of exposure as a solo artist, and your first for Rhymesayers: did you feel much outside pressure or weight of expectation when making this album?
Definitely. Being that I’d gone through it before with [Dilated Peoples on] The Platform — there had been a lot of expectations for expansion on that record and it became our biggest record. So the sophomore jinx – I’d defeated it once, you know (laughs). And I was very determined for that to be the case this time, also. That took a lot of time of separating myself, jumping off the internet, spending time going away, coming back, going on the road, all those things I had to do – recording so much, [I had] to take time with those songs after months off to understand what I could whittle down, because after you make something it’s always your favourite, but as time sets in some things appear better than others and some will stand that test of time better than others. So it was just taking the time off to see what stood the test of time or not. That was really frustrating. But when it finally came out it was definitely very rewarding, people were liking it and it sold well. It was definitely a big payoff – not financially, just in terms of peace of mind (pauses) hopefully, as well as financially (laughs).
It’s interesting: you’re based in LA, your label’s based in the mid-West and the lead video for Cats & Dogs, “You”, was recorded in New York. Makes me wonder: Do you feel less tied down to a particular scene these days? Do you feel tied to California or do you have a larger vision?
I think California’s been really supportive and good for me. Sometimes, California (pauses) – it’s not that that we don’t support our own artists but you see it all here, you know. It’s hard to get star-struck when you’re seeing a lot of things every day. We’re less impressionable in a lot of ways. I think something’s what’s been really successful for me in terms of helping me grow and sustain is that I’m from Venice. It is LA, but at the same time it’s a section of Los Angeles in the same way that NWA were from Compton. It’s dope when you have your city that you represent within a bigger city, instead of just getting out there and saying, “LA, LA!” I’m Venice, but then that is LA also.
You know what I mean, I think Venice comes with a scene and I’ve been around the area for a long time and I know a lot of people in the neighbourhood for a long time. And not on no gang shit, which is great: being able to claim a city and not having to be attached to anything gang-related.
Would you ever live somewhere else?
If I had the money to do it right, probably, yeah. But it would only ever be in addition to [Venice]; I love Venice. I definitely love it.
The idea is that there’s a resurgence in Californian rap. What do you make of that? Are you enjoying some of the stuff that’s being produced at the moment?
You’d have to give me an example, man.
Take the Black Hippie guys, for example: ScHoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar.
I think that’s stuff dope, yeah. But then I would say that everyone gets their shot at being new, so right now they’re under that spotlight. There’ll be another spotlight next year and the year after that another spotlight. I’m not even talking about the Black Hippie guys. It’s just funny, because every year you hear that (laughs).
That there’s a resurgence?
Yeah, that there’s a new rapper (laughs). It’s like, “Wait a minute. Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q represent a resurgence?” I mean, those guys are ill, but they’re just two people. There are motherfuckers out here, all kinds of people. The light focuses on someone who is fortunate and hopefully they’ll capitalise on that and turn it into a successful career, which I think those Black Hippie guys will. All indicators certainly point to a “yes” on those two. But it’s funny shit to me: it’s like [the idea that] the east coast-west coast beef was two people (laughs).
Talking about you as producer: you have a lot of collaborators on Cats & Dogs. When you’re making a record, do you find it hard marshalling all those collaborators – organising it all and keeping it on point?
It’s not as hard as you’d think, because I like to do a lot of songs by myself and then get that out of the way. Or once I feel like I’ve done a bulk of work that I feel represents what I’m saying I like to get in there and have other voices come onto the record. It’s the same way I learned from Dr. Dre and Gang Starr and different people: it’s great to have different voices on records, if you do it right. And I think that’s something that I’ve done well – taking different producers and putting them together, but bringing them together for the purpose of the sound; not just going and getting a bunch of scattered shit. I look at an album as a band: you don’t just hire a new band for every song; it doesn’t make it cohesive. If that drummer’s kicking ass, why are you firing him? That’s how I feel. I come up with an idea of what I think the band should be playing – that kind of music – and then any producers who bring a sound that would sound like that ideal band, then they’ll fit in. A big compliment was from a writer over here when he said he couldn’t tell which track was Alchemist’s and which one was mine and which one was somebody else’s again. I thought that was cool, because it meant we all came together on a certain sound.
So, Australia: are you looking forward to getting down under?
Yeah, yeah. So long as there’s some weed, yeah.
What’s it like on a Rhymesayers tour? Is there something particular about it? Do you enjoy getting out on the road with those guys?
Yeah, it’s pro-game shit. You’ve gotta bring the A-game (laughs).
What are the plans for the rest of the year, Ev? Any more word on a new Dilated record?
We’ll finish this tour and then Soundset Festival in Minneapolis, which is gonna be big. And then I’ll be getting back in the lab with Rakaa and Babu to work on a new record. After that, another solo one and we’ll just keep it going.
Matt Shea (follow @mrmatches)
The Weather Underground – Evidence’s Cats & Dogs