“Old Artists are Still Crafty:” An Interview With Lord Finesse

Zilla Rocca speaks to the legendary rapper and producer about the arts of battling and crate digging, as well as getting better with age.
By    August 12, 2020

Art by JonathanMena

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Lord Finesse is the connective tissue between Biggie, Dr. Dre, Fatboy Slim, Capone-N-Noreaga, and J-Zone. The Bronx born funky technician just celebrated his 30th year in the game with his officially sanctioned Motown remix project “Motown State of Mind”, now connecting him with the Jackson 5 and DeBarge.

It’s a incredible continuation from a career that featured a song placed on the Class Act soundtrack (“Set it off Troop” produced by the esteemed Showbiz) as well as U-God’s last solo album Venom (“Whole World Watchin”). As a member of D.I.T.C., a clique where there are apparently no days off, and an in-demand DJ and teacher, Finesse’s name is highly respected even while his solo output hasn’t progressed since The Awakening in 1996.

Enter Motown State of Mind. Much like Madlib’s turn with Blue Note Records, Finesse brings hallowed reverence to the crates of American’s most boisterous and time honored record house with his signature ear for arrangement, mood, and funk. Created as a way to keep 45’s going and rocking parties from here to Copenhagen, Finesse does more than add new tech to old classics. Motown State of Mind is the work of a humble student getting his chance to re-write curricula.

When I spoke with Finesse, he touched on everything from licensing samples, battling the nicest MC’s in any borough, his penchant for playing beats as album closers, and how he linked up with the reinvigorated drummer in demand J-Zone to play on the project. — Zilla Rocca

What keeps you excited now? After all the records, legendary moments, battles, and groups, why are you still going?

Lord Finesse: I think ultimately, it’s the music. I love music, and to be able to do it on several levels is a gift. I’m blessed. It’s all around music, and that’s what keeps me going because I still sort and dig through music. Just when you think you’ve got all the records, there’s some other stuff out there you’ve probably never heard. I think fresh music and discovering different things keeps music fresh; it keeps you motivated. When I do projects now, I want to do something different. I don’t want to do what’s out there, what everybody else is doing. It’s a lot of recycling, and the recycling goes back to our era; it doesn’t go deeper than our era. It’s like taking and recycling hip-hop records that are already out – recycling soul, recycling funk, recycling jazz that’s been untouched.
It’s a whole other dimension that keeps everything fresh, that keeps the music evolving, that keeps the game evolving, because you’re digging to touch something that hasn’t really been heard of like that. It’s rare, it might be out of print. To have a whole album of different things that’s just fresh, that’s what to me makes a great album.

Digging pushes you – whether it’s from a player’s standpoint, listening to different chords and listening to different instruments that they tuned and they played, that’s one concept of it alone. To listen to grooves and loops, another concept of it is to overall get something that makes you want to go into the lab. Assuming different ways of looking at music, most of all, you’ve got to make it fun. It should be fun. I don’t look at it as business; I look at it, at the end of the day, if it’s great, everything will fall in place. I look at doing something fresh and innovative.

One thing that jumped out at me when I watched the teaser video for the new Motown [State of Mind] record is that you talked about analog and how it was important for you to get that warmth. I’m assuming you got the master tapes from Motown, so were you still using reel- to-reels for this record on your end?

Lord Finesse: No, because the music was dumped. It was dumped from the reels so that I could do the things that I was able to do. Sonically, I look for sound. It’s a feel – it’s the difference between an 808 on a tape and an 808 being done digitally. You know the difference: it’s warm and the 808 will have a longer hum. On digital, it doesn’t stretch.

It’s like a stab.

Lord Finesse: Right. With analog, that’s why the music feels so good. With technology, you’re able to clean it a certain away; you’re able to get a lot of different things, from plugins to different things to somewhat recreate it, but nothing’s beating an analog tape. The only thing is that an analog tape takes up room, and to find a studio that has a 2-inch reel, that’s a job itself.

When you got J Zone on the record – I’ve been a huge J Zone fanatic since like 2000 and I’ve followed his whole career from him doing records by himself, to him taking a break, to him becoming a writer, and now being a drummer. How did J Zone get on your radar?

Lord Finesse: I was in a club one night and DJ Louie Lou, a friend of mine, was in the club. He was cutting these 45s, and he was cutting this incredible drum break. For a collector, when you hear some drums, it’s like, “Wait up, I don’t got that. What is that?” Louie Lou was cuttin’ it. It was funky as hell, and I’m like, “Damn.” I stepped to Louie Lou like, “You got me with that break. Now, what’s that break?” “Oh, something J Zone,” and I was like, “Nah, I know J Zone the rapper. I know him, but you was cuttin’ a break.” He kept telling me, “That is J Zone.” “Wait up, the rapper’s now on drums? Like that?” and he was like, “Yeah.” I just shook my head like, “Wow.” I called J Zone up, J Zone came to the crib, and we just chopped it up. This was way before the Motown project, and I told him, “In the future, I’m going to work with you on something. Just let me find the right thing to work with you on.”

When it was time to recreate “Now Is The Time,” with the drums and everything off the reel, it was cool but I needed more. The drums weren’t popping like that. The first thing I thought of, with technology, I could lock the whole reel up and put it to a click, and if I could put it to a click, I’m going to get J Zone to replay the whole drum set throughout the whole track. I wanted rolls, I wanted turnarounds, and he did it. He was like, “You’ve got to give me a break.” So he gave me a break, and at first he thought I was looking for one of those rock breaks where they’d keep hitting cymbals and crashes, but I was like, “Give me a funk break – a conventional funk break that you would hear in a rare record.”

When you’re approaching a rap record, as a solo rapper you’re thinking about concepts and skills and what you want to do this time, maybe stories, maybe guests you want to feature. When you’re approaching it from producing for someone else or just making beats, it’s what equipment do I want to feature this time, maybe what mode am I in with records I like right now. If you’re DJing a set, you might think about the audience, the vibe of the night, what records am I feeling. Is there something for you, because you can do all three, that connects all those processes to you, from all the rap records you’ve made to producing for yourself or others to DJing a live set? How do you figure all those things out? Is it something you separate, like, “When I make my own rap albums, it’s this way. When I produce for myself or others, it’s this way. When I DJ, it’s something different?”

Lord Finesse: There’s a couple of ways to go about it. For a DJ set, my approach is, “What am I going to do that night?” and it depends what they want me to do. If they bring me in for a certain type of set, then I’m going to focus on that set. If it’s an open set, meaning it’s an open format, then I try to give you a little bit of everything, and really, more likely focusing on the transitions. If I’m playing classics and then I need to transition to hip-hop, or however I have to transition, the transition has to be dope, where I can take you on the journey and use the transitions to take you to different genres without it sounding forced. It just sounds like, “He transitioned? Wait. Wait up, we in this.”

As far as from an artist’s standpoint, it’s way deeper now because, of course, I’ve made a ton of records. My approach as an artist is, “What do I expect this record to do? Why am I creating this record? Why this record? Is this a record that’s going to have you studying what I’m saying because I’m touching something that’s touching home? Is this record going to be an anthem,” meaning the energy when it comes up is such energy that it gets you amped? “Is it a call-response record? Is it a rap record with a scratch hook? Is it a combination of a scratch hook and a call-response record?” It has to have a direction and a vision. Fuck just rhyming over a beat, saying I got some dope rhymes over a dope beat.

At this point, my records have to have a vision to it. When I’m rhyming, I’m older now, so I can have the same style, but I should be talking about how I’ve matured and what life means to me now. I can’t be rapping about the stuff I was rapping about before; it shows no growth. The thing about me is showing growth. One of the most amazing things artists can do is to show growth and still do incredible records at an older age – that’s the genius of it. When an older artist can make a record that’ll make you go, “God damn. Wow,” it’s longevity. You can’t purchase that; that comes from passion, that comes from love. To do things that I’m doing at this age, it’s love. I’m blessed and I don’t take it for granted. I don’t just throw out a shitload of records, that’s never been my style. Never. It’s because I’m hands on and I want quality over quantity.

When you think of the way now of pumping out 2 to 3 records a year, that seems to be the way where you can have a good vinyl piece on your hand, you don’t have to tour a lot, but your name is out because every few months you have something new and it’s boosting your catalog. Do you pay attention to that? Do you think that’s a fool’s error?

Lord Finesse: If it’s quality, then great. If you’re just throwing out records to stay on the radar, that shit is trash to me. It’s trash because you should be putting out quality. I want top quality. For me, I haven’t been as consistent and that’s cool, I knock myself for that, but as long as it’s quality, I don’t care. I’m not just throwing records out, flooding the market; I’m not with that. I argue with people about that, “Why would you do that?” “Yo man, because they go through records 1-2-3.” Who? Not my base. My base, if I do something incredible, it’s lasting for a while. If you’re going for another type of base, and they’re going, eating through music, you go ahead with that hamster wheel. They’re going to keep you running and running and running because nothing is going to be satisfactory to them. “Okay, I went through that in a week. What’s next?” I’m not messing with no base like that.

How do you think you got that high standard? Was it always there from the beginning of your career, is it something you developed over time, maybe things you thought were going your way that didn’t? Was that something you always kept for yourself or learned from other people around you?

Lord Finesse: It’s within me. It’s within my grandmother teaching me how to put your best foot forward. If you put your best foot forward, you have no regrets because you did the best that you feel you could do. If you put something out there and you don’t feel it’s the best that you can do, it shows because people aren’t impressed with it. If I’m playing something for you, I want to put my best foot forward. I don’t like playing old music for nobody. You have to pull teeth with me for me to play older stuff, or you have to tell me, “This is what I specifically want to hear,” otherwise I’m not going to play older stuff because I’m always evolving. I want you to see the pie that I brought out of the oven; I don’t want you to see the pie that’s been there for a couple of months or a couple of years, because I know I’m evolving. I want to play you stuff as I’m evolving. If you go, “Look ‘Ness, I want this specific thing,” then I’ll go, and I’ll dig. That’s the genius of production, that’s when you sit with an artist and you go through a ton of shit. That’s producing. A lot of people are beat making – they put a bunch of beats together and play a bunch of beats. The magic is when you sit with the artist because sometimes a great artist will make you understand that some of the stuff you do, even if you don’t like it, is genius.

A great artist will say, “Play me everything,” and sometimes they’ll pick shit that you would’ve never put on or played for them. You’ll play something, and you might try and turn it off like, “Nah, you don’t need to hear that,” and they’ll go, “No no no no no, play that!” You’ll play it and they’ll go, “That’s it!” and you’ll be like, “You want that?” “That’s it. That’s the one.” Deep inside, you wouldn’t have played that for them. If you had to play 5 or 10 things, that wouldn’t have been on your list. That’s why you sit and you work with artists, because sometimes artists can bring genius out of you. Depending on how far you ask me to dig, I’ve got so much music in here, so much, but I’m constantly pushing forward. Just because I got it all here, doesn’t mean I want to throw it all out.

With The SP1200 Project, I’ve got tons of that. I’m about to do a part 2 to that, due to the response and people saying, “Man, this album was genius. You’ve got to do another one.” That’s what pushed me to do another to The SP1200 Project, and to do a project called Next level Nostalgia. Next Level Nostalgia is me bringing back that format, that hardware, the 1200 and 950, and using my mindset of today to create on hardware of yesteryear. To me, that’s fun.

What I’ve noticed about you, when I look at your outside production work – I don’t know if you ever noticed this with your placements from Dre to Capone-N-Noreaga to Terror Squad. I noticed your beats tend to be placed on the back half of people’s albums. Did you ever notice that?

Lord Finesse: Yeah, I noticed on all 3 of them. With “Suicidal Thoughts” with Notorious B.I.G., with Dr. Dre “The Message,” and with Capone-N-Noreaga “Don’t Know Nobody,” they were all the last songs on these projects.

Even “Jewelz,” the song for O.C. Even for him, that’s the album closer.

Lord Finesse: “Jewelz” was last too? Oh shit, you got me with that one.

I think, from a fan’s point of view of always reading the liner notes when you buy an album on release day and you comb through it when you’re on the train or the bus listening to the album, it would always be fun to me, where I’d be like, “Oh! There’s a Lord Finesse beat on this album. Wow, it’s track 9, or it’s track 14,” or even with Brand Nubian where you had a bunch sprinkled throughout, where the beginning, middle, and end is you. What do you think about your style that has people go to you? I feel like those records are more dramatic and more moody, rather than what you said about the anthem that’s going to be the big single with the crack-off. They’re more of the songs that stand out as an emotional piece. Is that something you’re aware of or is it something people just tend to pick?

Lord Finesse: That’s something that people tend to pick. I wish I had anthems; I wouldn’t know knock an anthem, but sometimes you have to accept what you’re doing. When you don’t accept what you’re doing, it’s not organic no more, because you’re doing it for a whole other reason than the organic reason for doing it, because you love what you do. Of course, if the artists do something and it becomes a single, incredible, great, but I don’t look in trying to do these things. I’m at festivals, I perform all over the world, so I know what the anthems are. I don’t look at it like, “I need an anthem.” I’ve seen M.O.P. perform “Ante Up” about 3 times, killed it. To me, it’s like, “I need a record with energy,” because that’s what it is, energy. I don’t need to try to copy what they’re doing, I need something where when that shit comes on, it’s got to have the energy. We’re talking from an ingredients standpoint, not like a copy standpoint.

The difference between our era is that if you put a blank portrait in front of us and tell us to paint, we’re gonna pick the right colors, it’s going to be vivid, it’s going to pop off the paper. Nowadays, if you ask somebody to paint a picture, they’ve got to look around and see what everybody else is painting. It’s good to look around and know what’s going on, but not to say that I have to paint something exactly like that. That’s why I see a lane. I see a lane because I still love digging, I still love music, and technically, I’m different, as far as my ear and how I hear things now as opposed to back then. And to be surrounded by so many geniuses, from my crew as far as Show[biz] and Buck[wild] and Rich Harrison and Tall Black Guy and Jake One and Theaux Elliot, these are geniuses, man. How can you not be motivated by being around such great individuals?

It’s a million-dollar question. I imagine the formation of D.I.T.C., maybe it started with that energy like, “I’m dope, he’s dope, your man’s dope, he’s great, he makes me better, I push him.”

Lord Finesse: Everybody’s great at what they do. I never looked at what Show was doing like, “I’m trying to do what Show is doing.” Show was Show. I’ve learned things from chopping with Show. Between Show and Large Professor, my programming game comes from those 2 individuals, seeing them just get on a 12 and do some phenomenal shit. Chopping up jazz comes from Show and [DJ] Premier, watching them chop up jazz, and you know what, I learnt jazz. It’s so many things. Buck will scour through a record – you’ll have a record sitting there and he’ll find a part on there like, “Where’d the fuck you get that from?” He’ll pull up the record, and you’ll be like, “Damn, I had that shit.” It doesn’t have to be a big piece; it can be little pieces.

What I’ve learned from so many geniuses, from Premier, I’ve learned a couple of things from Premier. I’ve learned “don’t price yourself out the market.” With Premier, if he wants to work with you, he’ll find a way to work with you. It’s not all about getting all the money you can, sometimes it’s about working with artists you want to work with. I also learned from Premier that he stayed true to his formula. Premier is by far the greatest hip-hop producer I know, and I can explain why. My reason is because I’ve seen him consistently create from the late-80s all the way to 2020. Consistently. What other producer can say they’ve consistently worked from the late-80s all the way until now? Premier has over 1200 pieces of work out there; what producer can say they have that much work out there? Premier has classics, beyond classics, from his crew to some of the greatest people, from Jay Z to Nas to Biggie. Premier damn near worked with everybody. Premier’s got plaques on top of plaques. When you look at everything I’m talking about, if you can tell me a producer that has all those things, then that’ll be a great debate. Otherwise, if they’ve only got one or two of those, then nah, we’re on two different planets; we don’t need to talk. I’ve learned from some great people.

In my group text, my buddies were like, “Yo, I know you’re talking to Lord Finesse today.” My one friend said, “Make sure you ask Lord Finesse about the battle with Percee P.” Can you tell me about that battle, and what your thoughts are on battling now versus then with Grind Time, and even the producer versus battles?

Lord Finesse: It was more raw and unfiltered, so it ain’t come with a thousand people online and a thousand people behind you while y’all are battling. It’s just two determined people that wanted to dominate in certain boroughs, such as the Bronx. I wanted to be the best, not the best within my neighborhood, but the best traveling to other neighborhoods. It’s one thing to have a crown in your projects, but to go all over and you top the best in all these different areas, and you’re crowned in all those areas because whoever was great there, you beat them. Your name is over there, your name is back home, your name is over here – that’s what it was about for me. Now it’s budgets and there’s money involved, and that’s great. I would’ve loved to see how I would’ve stood if that was happening in my era, because it would’ve been on. It would’ve been some great battles. You were verbal when you snapped on people, but now people just get too personal with it. I don’t know how that would’ve played out in our era, but they would’ve been some great battles in that time. Imagine if you had these battles with KRS-One and [Big Daddy] Kane and Kool G Rap and Rakim. All the artists from my era, the lyricists, battling each other; come on man, and the bar in that era was high.

It would’ve been something else to see. Especially if, like you said, they orchestrated it as now where it’s as a big event, like an MMA battle on pay-per-view, where you have these built up things instead of these neighborhood-to-neighborhood, something organic…

Lord Finesse: I won’t front, a lot of artists in this era have bars, but some of these dudes are just too cool for school – if you told them to get on stage and lay it on the line, a lot of dudes ain’t going to lay it on the line. They’re too scared to lay it on the line, they’ve got too much to lose if they lay it all on the line. Laying it on the line is when you have the ultimate confidence in yourself, and “I’ll lay it on the line against anybody out here.” That’s when I can respect artists out there, because they were willing to lay it all on the line. Ain’t no, “Let’s talk it,” let’s do it. A lot of people hide behind records and images and shit, it’s different. They don’t want to lay it on the line, and some of the greatest people laid it on the line – talk about Biggie, talk about Jay Z, DMX. Before these dudes made records, they were out there laying it all on the line; they wasn’t hiding, they was coming to your town. “You’re nice, what it is?” That’s when it’s real, y’know.

A lot of these dudes remind me of boxers, where they say, “There’s a great fight awaiting you, with you fighting so-and-so.” They know it’s going to be a tough fight, so “I’m going to talk to my agents, and my agents are going to look around to see if that’s the right thing.” They don’t say, “Fuck it. I’ll fight anybody. Fuck it, lay it on the line.” They’ll pick some opponent, and you’ll be like, “That’s a trash fight. I don’t want to see that; I want to see THAT.” They know if they lay it on the line, it might not be the best outcome. If you’re in your prime, you should be able to lay it on the line. Me and battling, it wasn’t interesting to me no more because you have to lay it on the line with someone that’s got just as much to lose as you. When I’m battling somebody brand new and they’re just getting in the game, they’ve got millions of rhymes you’ve never heard and you’ve been out there and people get a chance to look at the footage and study you, and it’s not really a fair battle. They understand your patterns, and they’ve got a lot of film on you. You have no film on them; they don’t have no film.

There’re so many different ways to look at battling, but if I’m battling a rapper from my generation that’s got just as much to lose as me, it’s a different excitement about it. Even if you had Rakim and Kane go at it now, however you look at it, it’s still a different excitement. If you put Kane against somebody of this era right now, it’s not a fair battle because that artist may be in their prime, but still again, don’t sleep. Sometimes that wild writer will take somebody out the ring – old artists are still crafty.

You’ve given me so many jewels, from the new Motown record to the industry itself to what your thought process is with what you’ve got coming next and how you’ve maneuvered in the past. This is really just incredible, and I want to thank you for making something new and fresh, even though with the Motown stuff, you’re bringing it back for some people that might have forgotten about those records, maybe never heard them, maybe haven’t thought about them in a long time.

Lord Finesse: A lot of those were favorites. To go in there and mess with your favorite records, that was a blessing itself. To sit there and listen to the vocals themselves with no music, or pulling out several instruments, or seeing adlib tracks that weren’t available on the original songs, that’s all a blessing.

I’m glad that you’re moving forward with everything you talked about, and having the high-quality control and surrounding yourself with inspiring, brilliant musicians, because it’s something…

Lord Finesse: I promise to do a lot more work, to be more consistent, to do different things. I’m really into doing different things now and doing different genres. You’re going to be hearing stuff out there like, “Damn, he did that?” I’m looking into filming, doing scores, and there’s so many different things I want to do that I’m in the mindset to do it. The biggest thing to creating is to have peace of mind. Peace of mind is the most incredible thing you can have. Like they say, health is wealth; to living, our peace of mind is just as detrimental to creating.

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