Plugging Away at the Railroad Spike: An Interview with ShrapKnel

Will Schube speaks to PremRock and Curly Castro about unspoken competition, the difference between New York and Philly's rap scenes, and their fantastic self-titled as ShrapKnel.
By    April 15, 2020

Please support the realest rap blog by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.

ShrapKnel loves that classic rap shit. The duo of PremRock and Curly Castro like bars, basketball players, and dusty beats. The rhymes are of the utmost important and if a line falls flat, it’s back to the drawing board. Though Curly is from Philly and Prem from New York, the duo have been running in similar circles for a minute.  But despite the long-time connection, ShrapKnel first came into being last year. The duo’s new self-titled album, betrays a connection spanning multiple lifetimes rather than a few late-night sessions in Prem’s Harlem studio. Curly would bus up from Philly after work on Friday and the two would record all through the night, before Curly would head back down on Saturday. Or, Curly would take a Monday off and the two would record all through the evening on a Sunday.

They did this just a handful of times, but the cohesion splattered across ShrapKnel suggests a deeper, metaphysical connection.

Between beats from ELUCID and Willie Green, plus quiet A&R work from billy woods, ShrapKnel is a Backwoodz family affair. The New York-based label has become an unimpeachable entity in the rap scene, with their co-sign essentially serving as a quality guarantee. ShrapKnel fits in just fine, more in line with Armand Hammer than anything else on the label. The way Castro and Prem build off each other is thrilling, with guests like woods, Henry Canyons, and POW’s own Zilla Rocca adding top-notch verses throughout the LP. We called the duo to discuss their new LP, the brilliance of Def Jux, and the perks of recording during witching hours. — Will Schube

How did this album come about?

Curly Castro: We’ve been friends for a long time. We actually met at kind of a rap battle, actually. It was different rounds, but we didn’t actually have to battle each other. But it was a rap battle, it was like a rap Olympics competition.

PremRock: It wasn’t really head-to-head competitive, but anyway, we tied, and we had a, “If you can’t beat them, join them” mentality, I think. Which is smart, as it turned out to pay dividends down the road. We were both big fans of Elucid as an artist, obviously as a rapper, but we were definitely really interested in hearing what he would do as a producer. And so, we both hit him up on separate terms to get some beats, and he was happy to oblige. And I knew that I personally had kind of hit a wall with what I wanted to do with my projects, and I knew Curly had his own cache. So, I hit Curly up and I was like, “What’s going on with your project?” And he was like, “I’ve kind of hit a wall, too.”.

Curly Castro: Yeah. We had actually set out to make these separate EPs, and when I heard the batch of beats that he had, mine were starting to lessen. So we put ‘em together, and began to work as a duo.

PremRock: I can say the same, actually. I heard yours, and I was like, “Oh, you have got the best. Okay.”

Curly Castro: So then we just came up with it. Not to be cliche, but it was like an “aha” moment. There were lightbulbs over our heads like, “Oh, we should do a whole project together.” At that point he had eight beats, I had eight beats, and we just needed to be inspiring each other with each other’s beat packs do a whole LP together. We told Elucid, and he was down.

Did you guys ever get in the room together, or was this mostly done digitally, over the internet?

PremRock: It was entirely done together, in parts. There were a lot of sessions. Curly would come up to Harlem, and I had a pretty good recording set-up, and he’d crash and we’d do this collaborative approach where he would have some stuff, and I would some stuff, and we would start work really late.

Curly Castro: Really late. We’d usually start around midnight.

PremRock: Midnight till like 6 AM, sometimes, and it was an approach where we’d take turns and build off each other. Sometimes someone says, ‘I have this concept,’ and there would be a super organic development.

Curly Castro: We also beat the circadian rhythm. So sometimes, Prem would write something and lay down a demo, and I would be sleeping, and then he’d wake me up. And while he’s taking a nap, I would wake up and write to what he came up with. We worked during some witching hours, midnight hours, pretty much 12 to 6, and 6 would be the cut-off because at that point, we would be goofy. But I only had so much time, because I came up for a day-and-a-half, so we had to use the middle-of-the-night hours, because as soon as we woke up and I recharged, at eight o’clock I would have to head back.

Do both of you have day jobs?

PremRock: I have a night job. I bartend, so I don’t start my shift until like 6 PM. These are the right hours for me.

Curly Castro: I was working a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. So I would come up on a Friday, record until Saturday morning, or I would take off a Monday and come up on Sunday, and then travel back Monday morning. I would do a lot of that. I had to use PTO to get this shit done.

How did Willie Green get involved?

PremRock: Everything that we had done were demos done at my house. We wanted to re-lay them down at Green’s studio. I’ve known Green now for a decade. He’s always been my go-to. And then especially working with Elucid, I don’t think there are very many engineers that have worked with Elucid other than Green at this capacity. So we knew he was the right guy for the job. Elucid was killing the production, but we knew we needed some other sonics to round it out. So once Green was on board, mixing, mastering and executive producing the record, naturally, we thought, “Oh great, can you produce a couple to fill out the record?” And so that’s how it all came full-circle, 360.

Did you two discuss themes and that sort of stuff pretty intensely beforehand, or did it flow out pretty naturally once you started rhyming together?

Curly Castro: It was very collaborative, but whoever would get the ball rolling, we would go with that. Because I think whenever I had these ideas independently, which were mostly about addiction and recovery, it wasn’t like me and Prem were talking about that and we had somebody personally going through that. It was the beat that was leading Prem to come up with a certain topic, and then I’d just follow suit. We would trust each other’s instincts, so when somebody came up with something prior, firsthand, we just followed up.

PremRock: I’ll actually find some demos every now and again when I’m going through my iTunes, of cutting room shit or alternate takes that I may have never shown him.

Curly Castro: We’ve had whole different versions of songs, different beats under new songs, so it definitely was a labor of love. It was like forging a sword.

Did you guys work with Billy Woods at all, in terms of getting the album ready, or was he pretty hands off?

PremRock: He’s an artist first, so he understands that people don’t want to be meddled in their craft, and he would never do anything like that. But throughout the whole process he’s been super accessible in terms of, “This is what I think is a good idea, this is what I think is not a good idea,” and “in my experience” this and “in my experience” that, so he was pretty instrumental in getting the tracklist and that stuff together. We trust and look up to the guy, he’s a friend too. Real friends can tell you when something’s not going to work and when something will work. It worked out for the best regarding the role he played. He was hands off in terms of what we did creatively but once all of that was done, he became pretty involved.

How does the way you guys approach rhyming on this album differ from your solo stuff? Is it noticeably different? Did it take some adjustment?

Curly Castro: There was some adjustment. We are dedicated to our audience, and it’s similar to the concept of having a girlfriend who stays over until five in the morning, and how that’s not the same as when y’all finally move in and are living together. It was a slight adjustment to be collaborative, but it was so natural because when you’re solo artists, all the weight falls on you. You come up with the hook, melody, all the verses, picking all the beats and stuff. It’s always nice to lean on a peer that you’re eye-to-eye with. He’s my other half. I’m only as good as him, to tell you the truth. It’s great having somebody there that’s your parallel, and can split some of the work.The ShrapKnel project was a great idea, even when it wasn’t said out loud yet. Because when we told people about it in its early formative stages, they would always be like, “Oh yeah, that’s a great idea.” And at this point we had performed together frequently and supported each other. It was always a natural kinship as far as artistry with it.

PremRock: When you have to write one verse, it can bring out the best in you, and us being good friends who have a lot in common, we have pretty sharp contrast to ourselves. I think it was, for me, liberating. I was able to do more in a more free way.

Curly Castro: We’re also very steeped in the tradition of freestyling, the original tradition. And usually, when we freestyle, we’ll challenge ourselves to go back and forth four bars and try to keep a constant topic. When it comes to us working together on ShrapKnel, when I come with something, I have the confidence to pass it off to Prem, and he has the strength to carry it on, do his part, and then pass it back on to me. Our freestyles exhibit a lot of our competition, when we want to hold up our part of the bargain and not drop the flow away, you know, drop the plate.

Is there a big difference in the indie rap scenes in New York versus Philly?

PremRock: It depends, right? New York is still a bit more inclusive. Philly tends to kind of pit people against each other. I think it varies depending on which circles you travel in. In New York City, underground we’re all sort of colleagues. We kick it outside of music. Mostly everyone on this album, I go out to eat with. It’s friendship, it’s kinship, it’s building, it’s family. That’s different, because I almost don’t necessarily consider this a rap scene. It’s just our umbrella.

Curly Castro: There are inherent differences. And now, in the current New York scene, there’s a lot more essence of collaboration. Because of the internet and people feeling a little closer, you can reach out to artists. Back when we first started doing it, you couldn’t really get to bigger guys. In Philly, I think the underground scene is more head down, nose to the grind, keep plugging away at that railroad spike and make your way, because you’re not looking to the left or right of you for any help. You’re just trying to really dig your own trench when it comes to the rap shit. A lot of the dudes out there are friends with me, but they’re in their own lanes and not necessarily collabing with somebody and making duo records.

How much did y’all push each other in recording? Was it competitive?

PremRock: I think we pushed each other, whether we admit it to each other or not. But in the process, there’s a degree of animation and charisma. Castro has it. Every time you look at your own work, sometimes you’re going to look and especially through indirect comparison of another artist, you’re going to see where the contrasts lie. At times, it would bring out better parts of me. You never want to get washed.

Curly Castro: Prem is a fucking heavyweight, so he’s not taking a line off, a chapter off, an intro off, an epilogue off. My job was to not have any lazy bars, any bars to drop the ball, because Prem writes full-on pieces. These things can be novellas. He doesn’t waste a word, waste a sentence, or waste an emotive moment. I had to be that consistent.

PremRock: I appreciate him saying all of that. But as a recording artist and a rapper, Castro is the most natural dude I’ve ever made music with. There’s a seven song stretch that you knocked out in one of Green’s booths before you left town, where Green wouldn’t let you leave. He’s like, “No, no, you just keep going. I don’t remember what songs they were, but there were seven songs in a row that made the album that did not get altered that you finished in about 45 minutes’ time without leaving the booth. That challenges you to become a better recording artist, which is an overlooked aspect of being a rapper. Or, as a rapper, sometimes people don’t consider that you’re also a recording artist, and you get better at that as time goes on.

What’s your favorite thing about your collaborator on this project as an MC?

PremRock: My favorite thing is that Curly grew up being a huge Def Jux fan.

Curly Castro: I was thinking the same thing.

PremRock: The people I became close with are also those fans. We’ve grown up and we’re making records now, so it’s like we are the artists that we looked up to. For someone like Alaska of Hangar 18 who was on Jux to say this sounds like the evolution of Def Jux actually means so much to me as an artist, as a person, because you carry those influences, no matter what you want to say or do. This felt like a direct homage to everything that I loved about rap coming up. It’s a record I always wanted to make, but didn’t know if I could make it. This ended up being the perfect alchemy. There was Elucid, Green, and Castro. That’s how it happened. I’m really proud of it.

Curly Castro: My favorite part of our record is holding up our part of the bargain with the company we keep. We keep company with some serious artists, Billy Woods, Elucid, when they come together, Armand Hammer, the production work of Willie Green, Henry Canyons, and Small Pro. The fact that we were able to hold up our part of the bargain and come with something classic is powerful. I’m really proud of that.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!