“Hip-Hop is Truly My Passport”: An Interview With One Be Lo of Binary Star

An interview with the Binary Star co-founder about the history of the legendary Michigan crew, living in Cairo, the Flint water crisis, and his two new albums
By    September 18, 2018

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From the opening bars of 2000’s Masters of the Universe, the lightning-in-a-bottle Binary Star compilation which showcased a remarkable collective of hip hop talent from in and around Pontiac, Michigan, One Be Lo made his mark as an MC with convictions as fierce as his technique. The project’s unlikely origin story—initially recorded on a $500 budget by high school pals, two of whom coalesced as performers during mutual incarceration—created an indie phenomenon for the group’s commitment to ideals evidenced by a fully homespun masterpiece.

Standing of but slightly apart from the turn-of-the-century backpacker crowd, Binary Star supplied b-boy sentimentalism alongside a stone-faced devotion to craft, applying a Rust Belt pragmatism to contemplative, metaphoric discourses on scripture, ancient history, and imprisonment. The rappers’ approachable braininess and lockstep execution was thrilling and contagious, yet their interchangeable narratives and sparse production resulted in a principled aesthetic which seemed at once otherworldly and universal. They led with battle rhymes and closed with Maya Angelou tributes.

After breaking through as a solo artist with 2005’s triumphant S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. LP, Lo’s mystique only grew as he relocated to Cairo and embarked upon a series of increasingly conceptual projects highlighted by 2011’s LABOR. His catalog marries an industrial sonic distortion with just enough melodiousness to evoke the rich musical history of the city twenty-five miles south of his hometown. He begs of an elevated discourse without stooping to preachy lectures; his body of work is sufficiently insular and self-fulfilling. In spite of his original intent to remain an anonymous recording artist, his passion for education and community activism has granted him diplomatic status both at home and abroad.

Two new Binary Star records, titled LIGHTY and EARS APART, arrived on August 24 with the dense production and dazzling writing which has sustained Lo’s career of two full decades and counting. The albums are packaged with Lo’s first book, titled The Looma (The Legends of One Man Army). During a return to the States in mid-September, Lo broke down the new releases, the makings of an indie cult hero, and life as a Michigan expat in Egypt. –Pete Tosiello

I’m always fascinated by double releases. I’m curious if there’s an order you’d recommended listeners play LIGHTY and EARS APART, or any underlying structure we should be attuned to?

One Be Lo: People can just kind of piece ‘em together. It’s really simple, it’s LIGHTY and then it’s EARS APART, but as a double album it’s LIGHTYEARS APART. The whole concept behind it is, it’s just different layers of Binary Star. The two stars that revolve around each other, sometimes they appear as one. That’s why I released it as a double album. It really doesn’t matter what order you listen to it in, but the way I recorded it and the way that it’s supposed to be listened to is LIGHTY first. “Black Holes” is technically the middle of the album, then “Big Dipper” starts, so if you put ‘em back to back they should just run consecutively right into each other.

I remember hearing the LIGHTYEARS APART title thrown around back in 2012 or 2013. Did this project evolve from those sessions?

One Be Lo: Totally, it’s the same music. You know, there’s different processes that go into recording albums and mixing ‘em, features and all that, they happen at different stages. Back when I first came up with the concept LIGHTYEARS APART, I wasn’t thinking of a double album, but what I was thinking of, I was telling Ross [Senim Silla], yo, it’s kinda like these albums are lightyears apart, fifteen or however many years apart—but also implying the skills are lightyears apart, implying that we are lightyears apart from everybody else. Every star technically is lightyears apart. So initially I wanted to name all the songs after constellations, because I was thinking every sun is a star and every star in a constellation is lightyears apart from the other ones. A lot of the songs had titles like “Big Dipper,” but then I was like, I don’t gotta be that strict about it.

It’s the same project—only difference is, there’s things I didn’t know I was gonna add or subtract, but that happens in the editing process. For example, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna have a DJ or not—a turntablist—so I did a lot of things on my MPC pads. I was cool with that, and then I listened to that for a year like eh, nah, man, let me hit up [DJ] Virus to get these cuts, and it was just another layer. Some of those layers, some of those instruments, even some of the choruses I laid a couple months ago. But some of these songs were recorded five years ago.

I was under the impression that Decompoze had a hand in WaterWorld Too and Water World 3. Why are LIGHTY and EARS APART part of the Binary Star continuity rather than the One Be Lo discography?

One Be Lo: First we gotta back up a little. From the beginning of Binary Star, me and Decompoze made all of those beats, starting with Waterworld—Waterworld and Masters of the Universe are technically the same album. As far as WaterWorld Too, Decompoze didn’t really play a part in that project because he wasn’t really coming around in the beginning. I think Decompoze got one track on WaterWorld Too, it’s majority my production. I think he’s rapping on two or three songs. He did the beat on “Rivers Run Wild,” he’s on “Millipede,” “Splash,” and I think maybe another song. And that’s just because he kind of came in toward the end when a lot of the sessions were already recorded.

Before I get into all of that, let me explain this real quick. And I can only speak for myself, right? My original intention when I came up with an idea to put out a project called Waterworld—Waterworld was never supposed to be anybody’s album. Waterworld is Michigan. Waterworld was meant to be a compilation project featuring artists from Waterworld. That’s the original intention of what Waterworld always was. I don’t know what people think, or how they feel about it, that’s what it always was. The problem is, as Binary Star we kind of dissolved—me and Ross dissolved working together pretty early in the mix. We never really explained none of this, because after me and Ross went our separate ways, I didn’t feel that I had to use the term Binary Star. It’s not like we even had fans, it was like, aight man, you do your thing, I’ll do mine.

What happened next?

One Be Lo: Maybe a year later, I started going out west and people were like, Binary Star! I was like, Oh shit, that was some shit I did back in the day. WaterWorld Too, I got other cats from my crew, all these artists from Michigan—it’s the same concept as Waterworld. I’m not saying it sounds the same, I’m never trying to rap the same or make the same beats, that’s never been my intention. Once I do “Glen Close,” I’m never doing that again. Once I do “KGB,” I’m never doing that again. I’m not trying to be T-Pain with the same formula on every song.

I can only speak for myself. My original intention was, I’m gonna be The Anonymous. If I call myself The Anonymous, then everybody’s gonna call me Anonymous and I won’t be anonymous. So the way I remain anonymous, I’ll call myself different things: One Be Lo, The Anonymous, OneManArmy, Mr. Hyde, General Subliminal, that’s what I was doing since the beginning. And my original intention was to have different names on different songs, so people would be like, Who’s that guy, OneManArmy, One Be Lo? So that’s why I’m still sticking with the Binary Star concept, because in every sense of the word, every concept that was from the beginning is still here.

Somebody tried to tell me one time, “Yo, Lo, in my opinion there’s no Binary Star without Senim Silla.” My response was, “No true Binary Star fan would ever tell you that.” You know why? Because there’s “Freakin Flows” without Senim Silla, there’s “Indy 500” without Senim Silla, there’s “Glen Close” without Senim Silla, there’s “Evolution of Man” without Senim Silla, there’s “One Man Army” without Senim Silla, it’s all kind of Binary Star shit without Senim Silla. There’s Binary Star songs without One Be Lo. There’s Binary Star songs without Decompoze. Because that original project was meant to be a compilation of all of our songs. At the time, Ross only had like, one song. I had a couple of songs, Decompoze had a couple of songs. I didn’t have songs from Athletic Mic League, but I had songs with them on it. So I said, Let me place all these together so all our crew is properly represented.

How did you feel about the reception of that record?

One Be Lo: When that album came out, people was like, Yo, Binary Star is dope! Yeah, Binary Star is dope, but it was like, Senim Silla was on that album, Decompoze was on that album, everybody was calling it Binary Star. It was like, oh shit. When distribution companies started hitting me up to put out Waterworld, they were like, We love this album, we wanna put it out. In my head I was thinking, oh shit, they think this is a Binary Star album. We gotta make this more Binary! So that’s when I went back to the lab, I said, Yo, let’s take off “Freakin Flows,” let’s take off “Dat Fast Food Joint,” and let’s put “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” on there, let’s put “Solar Powered” and “Masters of the Universe” on there. So I was like, Let’s put these songs on there, because if you take “Freakin Flows” off and add “Solar Powered,” you have more Senim on the album. I didn’t feel like I was removing Decompoze because Decompoze was still making the beats. He’s still on that record. If I take “Freakin Flows” off and put on “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Decompoze made those beats, so he’s still on the record—I’m not taking Decompoze off, I’m just adding more Senim.

Fast forward to Water World 3, a couple years ago, here’s how that went down. I basically said, Decompoze, if you look at some of these other groups like Slum Village, Pharcyde, some of our favorite groups that broke up and had different members, or just lost members, right? Not even just hip hop—the Temptations, New Edition. I remember when Bobby Brown left New Edition. I didn’t like Johnny Gill, bro! I didnt wanna accept Johnny Gill as the replacement for Bobby Brown, but it ain’t my decision. They chose Johnny Gill. You feel where I’m going. When Grand Puba left Brand Nubian, c’mon bro, we was hurt. Grand Puba went solo but I still fucked with In God We Trust, “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down,” classics! Without Grand Puba!

I can’t make Ross rap. I can’t make Decompoze make beats. And it’s not about that—but I’m saying, I wanted to make sure when we came back together to record music, it was the real shit. It wasn’t like, Let’s do this for money, let’s do this for notoriety, because the first time we was a real crew, we was friends. People want you to be the same person you was twenty years ago, but it’s like, man, we don’t live in the same neighborhood, I haven’t seen this dude in years. So to make a long story short, with WaterWorld Too I said, Decompoze, we don’t gotta replace people in our crew or have them sing lyrics. If you play your beats and spit your rhymes, and I play my beats and spit my rhymes, what is it? It’s Binary Star. What’s Binary Star? Binary Star is two stars that revolve around each other. I’ve been revolving around Decompoze since I was in high school, since chemistry class. So what I’m saying is, if Binary Star is two stars that revolve around each other, if you motherfuckers love Masters of the Universe, Waterworld, S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M., Project F.E.T.U.S., all of that, then the actual Binary Star is actually me and Decompoze. On Masters of the Universe, me and Ross was Binary Star on the mic, but me and Decompoze is Binary Star on beats. So if you’re gonna say, Gang Starr, I love DJ Premier and Guru, if you’re gonna say, Blu and Exile, if you’re gonna say, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, then you gotta include Decompoze as part of that equation.

Now Decompoze don’t even have anything to do with LIGHTYEARS APART, he’s not even on it. So somebody might say, Well what the hell, Lo, why is it Binary Star still without Decompoze? You know why? Because a Binary Star is two stars that revolve around each other. The album in itself is two stars that revolve around each other. I’ll give you an example, my friend Blueprint just put out an album called Two-Headed Monster. He said he’s the two-headed monster because he makes beats and spits rhymes. I’m like, if he’s the two-headed monster, then I’m the two-headed dragon, you feel what I’m saying? I’m not doing anything different. If you read the book that I put out with the album, all I’m doing is writing and explaining with metaphors and similes like I’ve been doing. I’m just explaining all these concepts. What is a slang blade? What’s the two -headed dragon? Where is the rocket ship? Who is ET? Who is OneManArmy? And I’m doing it with art and fiction. So if people wanna know they can read the book. They can listen to the albums. If they want me to spit “Glen Close” on every song I’m not gonna do it. I’m gonna keep doin’ different stories and different patterns and different beats. I’m gonna keep introducing new artists—it’s new artists in Pontiac, new artists in Michigan—and I don’t feel ashamed of doing that because I think these people are talented.

What are you plans with that going forward?

One Be Lo: I got a whole ‘nother record, I got a solo record I’m ready to drop. This record got Royce on it, Devin the Dude, Freeway, Jean Grae, Guilty Simpson, Black Milk. I dont gotta be out here pretending I’m Binary Star ‘cause I have no career—I got my own shit. But that record is Binary Star, that’s why I put it out. When Senim retired—he kind of retired when we finished the [Masters of the Universe] record, he didn’t even say shit to us, we read it online. He said he can’t picture himself being a forty-year-old rapper or something like that. If he was to say he don’t like the album, I would be highly surprised, cause he would be tellin’ me, “Lo, people are gonna love this when we put it out.” But everybody ain’t here for the same things. For me, I had to make some decisions. I had to say, Lo, are you not gonna play basketball ‘cause nobody else wants to play basketball? I’m playing basketball, bro!

Everywhere I go for the last twenty years people wanna hear me spit “Reality Check,” “KGB,” they wanna hear “Honest Expression.” They don’t say, Oh, Ross ain’t here so don’t do it. Man, they’re still happy with that shit. And it’s my music, so you tellin’ me that I can’t play “Reality Check”? Whoever’s telling me that sounds like a major label that owns the copyright to the songs we produced. I’m not gonna fight over an album, I’m gonna keep showing these motherfuckers who I am. I’m the OneManArmy, General Subliminal. I dont gotta brag on it, I’m just gonna let my music, my beats and my rhymes, do the talking. If people get it, cool. If they don’t get it, cool. I’m just gonna keep making music.

The reason why I’m writing these books and putting these albums out is because I’ve been listening to motherfuckers lie for the last twenty years. It’s motherfuckers in our crew or who were down with our crew, they don’t say it to my face, but they go around telling other people, Yeah, I’m Binary Star’s producer, I’m this, I’m that. So I’m like, oh yeah? That’s why I’m puttin’ out projects saying, these are the records I sampled. I’m not trying to say I’m Binary Star, we all played a special part in the crew. But for these motherfuckers to know the role that I played and try to tell me that I can’t go out here and spit my rhymes, and go out here and share my ideas, it’s like, man, this is my shit, dog!

The people on our record are forever gonna go down in history, but I can’t spend another twenty years explaining why this dude ain’t on stage with me even though he was in the studio. I can’t spend another twenty years explaining why I’m trying to rap over instrumentals and I didn’t make the beats. I fuck with niggas because I want to, because I’m a team player. But I’m not out here rapping with people because I feel like I gotta rap with ‘em or be on their beats. I’m like, Yo, let’s make love, let’s make music. So when we’re doing that, you see what it is, man, it’s beautiful. And when that’s not happening, put me in a room by myself so I can get some work done, because I’m not here to appease nobody’s egos or pretend I’m something that I’m not.

That’s why I always wanted to make beats. When I hear people feeling this shit, it almost brings me to tears because we used to bump heads: “Why you wanna do it like that?” “Why you want the intro on ‘Reality Check’ to be so long?” “Why you want her on the album?” It’s like, yo, man, that’s what I hear, and I gotta identify all of my selves. I can’t just be OneManArmy and then when I try to do a love song people lookin’ at me all weird like I’m Canibus. I gotta show ‘em that I’m poetry, I’m battle rhymes, I’m story rhymes, I’m lyrics, I’m all of those. I gotta give ‘em a full balanced meal every single time.

I don’t get into it, but it’s funny when other people try to tell me what Binary Star is. I need interviews like this to explain this, because people gonna wanna know why that’s happening.

One of my favorite pieces of Binary Star lore is that Waterworld was recorded on a $500 budget. Do you feel like that DIY approach prepared you for today, when independent artists need to be their own businessmen and financiers?

One Be Lo: Man, totally, but it’s like this. Why could we record on a $500 budget? It’s not about the $500, it’s about, are you prepared, do you know your lyrics. Me and Ross didn’t meet on the internet and say let’s get together and do an album. We was in prison together. Me, him, and Decompoze literally played basketball together. We hung out together, we could finish each other’s sentences. Most importantly, we’re performance artists. Take, for example, “Masters of the Universe”:

The two-headed dragon breathe fire, blows flame
Veins pumping octane, blazing pain, same brain

I mean, we probably performed that song a thousand times, so when we got to the studio, we could do that in one take. Back then, we was doing songs in one take because we only had so much money, we only had so much time. I didn’t go to the studio smoking weed, I didn’t go to the studio and leave to go to Burger King. I went to the studio to record.

I think the reason why I take the studio a certain kind of way is because in high school, bro, the studio was fifty fuckin’ dollars an hour, bro. You ain’t fuckin around, we didn’t have money like that. We was tryin’ to make two beats and record in two hours. What that meant is, before I get to the studio, I’m sampling this, I’m putting these drums on there, I’m spitting this verse, I’m gonna have this, I’m gonna have that. I see cats now, they come to the studio, they got their girl with ‘em, they got other people with ‘em, they’re on the phone texting, smoking, leaving, coming back with food—and I’m not hatin’ on that. But I’m saying, I came in younger with less resources, so it was like, shit, I gotta make this count. When I recorded S.T.I.L.L.B.O.R.N., a mixtape with 27 tracks on it, I did that in five or six hours. I don’t go to the studio spitting verses that I don’t know.

When you don’t have as much money, you have to find other ways to be resourceful, and that’s the very essence of hip hop. That’s why homies who couldn’t afford new shoes, they’d buy new laces. Homies who couldn’t afford linoleum could afford cardboard on the ground. Maybe you didn’t have a P.A., you just had a boombox. You make it work with what you have. If you don’t got beats, you beatbox. You can’t afford Levis, you pull your pant leg up and flip your shit, or you airbrush that shit. You find a creative way.

I’ll tell you something man, what really fucked me up about this whole shit. In high school, I was the basketball player, captain of the basketball team. I used to rap, but my passion was basketball. The other homies, the ones that rapped, they were lyricists, man, they were spitters. I never looked at myself like that. So when we first started recording this Binary Star shit, I knew I couldn’t rap like these guys. Malachi [Decompoze], Senim, these dudes were on a whole different level than me. I honestly believed—not insecure, just out of respect—I honestly believed that when we put out that first Binary Star tape, people were gonna be like, Why the fuck is this dude rapping with these guys? In my head, my shit wasn’t really lyrical like that. I remember when we recorded “Reality Check,” I heard Senim’s verse:

Get a grip on yourself cause you ain’t grippin’ mine
Life and times, idolize rap guys outta line, careers I finalize

I was like, whoa, there’s no way! I’m like, what the fuck. I’m like, you know what, I can’t rap like this dude, I’m not even gonna try. So you know what I’m gonna do, I’m just gonna write:

This is how I represent, I rock the mic one hundred ten percent
It’s intimate, I keeps the party movin’ like an immigrant

When people tell me that’s one of their favorite verses, they don’t even know that I was sweatin’ bullets writing verses like that! I’m just trying to keep up and see if I can even hang with this dude. When that shit came out, people were coming up to us like, “‘Glen Close!’ ‘A wack MC is something I could never be!’” And it fucked me up because I was thinking people would hear “Slang Blade” and they don’t wanna hear shit else. It really fucked me up, and Ithink it fucked other guys up too, in a different way—I’m not gonna go there.

It took me by surprise, so the fact that I travel the world on my words, it’s really just me striving to stay humble and always striving to just impress myself. It really blew my mind, so I try to keep that mentality every time I write, trying to do some shit that I never heard before, and I’m cool with that. I don’t gotta get people’s approval, everybody’s not gonna like everything. Some people can take that the wrong way, they might think you’re an asshole, and some people think that’s pretty dope.

For someone who has so much pride and identifies so closely with Michigan, what has it been like watching the Flint crisis and Michigan’s role in the 2016 election from a distance?

One Be Lo: Well, here’s the thing. Our friends and our family live there, so it’s not like we’re disconnected. Talk to the high school students there and hear what they say. Talk to the business owners there. When you go to people’s homes and you see how much water they gotta use just to wash their hands, you’ll be like, damn. You bring over a case of bottled water and that shit could be gone in an hour.

I live in Cairo. Two of my neighbors in Cairo are from Flint. They have family in Flint, we’re not oblivious to it. When I talk to people, they tell me they’re paranoid. You’re itchy? It’s the water. Your hair fell out? It’s the water. You got a scar on your leg? It’s from the water. Your toenail’s blue? The water did it. It’s psychological, it’s fucked up. Couple years ago, people saw the governor come out, drink the fuckin’ water, say everything is cool, but it wasn’t. So now you can’t come out and drink the water and say it’s cool. People are gonna be like, No, we already believed that shit already. It’s layers and layers of ridiculousness.

Here’s what it really boils down to—this is my opinion. It’s gentrification, man, and it’s property. I’m not one of those people who say it’s a black thing, because white people drink water in Flint and get fucked up too. But I will say this, I know that there were property owners who owned businesses in Flint, and when this water thing happened, they couldn’t afford to stay in business with bottled water. I heard there was a lady who owned a restaurant for twenty or thirty years, a black woman, African-American business owner for twenty, thirty years. Imagine people coming into your restaurant and saying, Hold on, what type of water do you have? Oh, you got Flint water? Oh, I’m leaving. So you gotta wash dishes with bottled water, you gotta cook with bottled water, and if you can’t sustain that, and this lady goes out of business, somebody else comes in and buys her business. Now the pipes get fixed, and guess who’s there now? You’re not forcing people to leave, but it’s like, Ah, make it happen. And when people can’t make it happen, other people come in, buy the property real cheap, fix it up, and it’s like, now they got all the downtown property. Now they got new restaurants that used to be owned by people who were in the community for twenty years.

Water is life, so I’m not going to say it’s not the most important thing. But it’s deeper than just taking a bath and drinking water. It’s restaurants going out of business because they can’t stay in business with bottled water. You’d see restaurants across the street with signs saying, We use such-and-such water. And people would literally go across the street instead of going over here.

I’m not there now. People live there and see celebrities come in their city and do telethons, come with semi trucks of water and disappear and everything’s the same. You see people come in doing concerts, everybody taking pictures. When they leave, it’s like, what’s really happening? That’s what’s crazy when you talk to the kids, especially the high school kids. You got people cracking jokes, other kids saying you’re dirty, the girls are dirty over here, you can’t take showers at the school. It’s just a mindfuck on so many levels.

You’ve always spoken about hip hop as a positive force for community empowerment and organization. What type of potential does hip hop have as an organizing tool during a humanitarian crisis?

One Be Lo: There are many voices from Flint and outside of Flint using their voices to talk about it, bringing awareness to it. It’s always powerful when people tell their own stories. Having such a strong talent base in Flint—out of poverty and out of struggle, diamonds get forged. I’m not just talking about hip hop, I’m talking about talent in itself.

Hip hop has the ability to organize. Take b-boys, for example. Dancers are really athletes. Cardio and exercise. You’re organizing yourself to be more disciplined. But how do these things empower you? Man, some of my best friends go around the world wiggling their bodies, making noises with their lips. People like myself, who can’t even get a job at Foot Locker, but I can go represent America as a cultural diplomat in Tunisia and Algeria because I rap. Twenty years ago, they said I was a menace to society. Twenty years later, I’m doing workshops with elementary schools and business schools because hip hop has transformed me.

It’s not about lyrics, it’s about opportunities, inviting you to places that affect your personality and impact you as an individual—like living in Egypt around refugee communities. I see a great purpose for hip hop in a community like that, because you’re talking about people who can’t get jobs, they can’t really travel because of their status, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to be educated on a higher level.

When I was in the refugee school in Cairo, even in the second grade class, just having kids repeat after me—“I have a voice! I have a voice, my voice is loud!”—believe it or not, they’re learning English just with those simple phrases. I would do this exercise, I called it freestyling on training wheels:

Microphone check, one two, one two
My name is Nahshid, one two, one two
Microphone check, one two, one two
I’m talking on the Skype, one two, one two
And if you wanna go a little further than that
Then microphone two, you can take it right back

Kids who couldn’t even really speak English, the next year I’d walk into the school, and the whole school would be like, “Microphone check, one two, one two!” It empowers them to speak more words, to be more confident. I’m not saying it’s important to learn English, but a lot of people learn English watching movies and listening to hip hop. A lot of people like myself get to travel. I’m not getting invited out by the Queen of England, but there’s somebody in England, Ireland, Afghanistan, somebody in Cairo’s got a cypher somewhere.

Hip hop truly is my passport. I can go anywhere in the world and plug into somebody in the community. There’s the activist community, the Muslim community, the graffiti community, the dance community, all these little communities, and if you understand what hip hop is about—respect, community, understanding, building, and empowering—then it’s not about rap. Rap is my skill, somebody else’s skill is with the camera, somebody else’s skill, like my mother, she does hair. It’s not about who’s rapping, it’s about what are you doing in the community, what are you contributing to the room.


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