Men In the Zone: An Interview With Vic Spencer & Small Professor

Kevin Crandall speaks to Vic Spencer and Small Professor about Sean Price's influence, natural chemistry, picking through beat packs and more.
By    July 29, 2022

Image via Vic Spencer/Instagram

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Kevin Crandall loves waking up to a new Flo Milli album.

Load management, a phenomenon championed by Toronto Raptors’ ring bearer and current LA Clippers’ star Kawhi Leonard, is a common feature of the modern NBA. The practice consists of resting players for whole games to allow for better physical recovery, and has become an accepted aspect of some players’ game. Others, however, refuse to engage with it—LeBron famously responded to a question on the subject with “If I’m healthy, I play.” Hip-hop seems to have a similar dichotomy, with some artists having five-year hiatus between albums while others routinely drop multiple a year. Chicago’s Vic Spencer is decidedly anti-load management. The rapper dropped six albums in 2018 alone, and dropped four apiece in each of the last two years. He works fast. “It’s like a driving test,” he says; “if you know that shit by heart you’re gonna zoom through.”

A long-time staple in the Chicago underground scene, Vic Spencer has been spitting as a solo act for over a decade, going back to his days rhyming with then-unknowns Saba and Chance The Rapper. He studied his favorite rapper, Sean Price, the late Brooklyn emcee who established himself in the game as one half of Heltah Skeltah before becoming a solo underground force in the mid-2000s. Price was known for his grit and wit on the mic and in person, a blend that Spencer leans into with every rhyme he writes.

Philadelphia producer Small Professor, meanwhile, has been etching his own place in East Coast underground hip-hop. Blending unique sample chops with thumping drums, he has slowly built a clientele list that boasts New York abstract duo Armand Hammer, Detroit lyricist Quelle Chris, and Philly emcees Curly Castro and Zilla Rocca. It also includes Sean Price, who rapped over Small Pro beats on 86 Witness—a joint project full of orchestral strings, beatbox snares, and brazen punchlines.

Spencer and Small Pro, Price’s pupil and producer, now carry the late Brooklyn rapper with them through their work. This year, the two teamed up to release Mudslide. Their debut collaboration after years of mutual respect and praise, the project serves as a taste of the imprint that Price left on both of these artists. A mutual mentor, collaborator, and friend, Price is a critical player in the making of Mudslide, having told Spencer about Small Pro’s deft production work and inspiring him to pursue a musical relationship with the Philly producer. Outside of the logistics, Price’s sonic imprint can be heard throughout the album. “‘Pitfall Music,’ ‘Ew McNasty’s Revenge,’ I could hear Sean Price killin that,” Spencer told me. These tracks were molded with the Brooklyn rapper in mind, with Small Pro’s grimy production and Spencer’s lyrical mixture of bruising rhymes and shit that will leave you howling. Mudslide isn’t a tribute album, but the care with which these two artists emblazon their mentor and friend on the project is just as impactful.

This link-up expands on the self-described “prog-boom bap” sound that Small Pro has carefully curated with his previous collaborations at Coalmine Records with Sean Price and Detroit emcee Guilty Simpson. Small Pro kicks it off with radio static before the channel clears to a deep-bass voice introducing the duo and Spencer musing over saxophone trills. The soundscape on Mudslide is a rebooted 90s era New York style—an amalgamation of scattered horns, dirt-cased bass, beat-switches and Vic Spencer ad-libs. It blends soul, boom-bap, and Lil Jon; joints are hit throughout the tracklist. It’s smoke music, through and through.

Spencer views the rap conglomerate as a link chain: “When a rapper or a musician influences you, you gonna continue to carry the torch because you want someone to feel the same way how you felt about that specific artist.” He is the proud torch bearer of the Sean Price influence, and makes sure to live that in every rap he writes. I hopped on a call with both Vic Spencer and Small Professor following the release of Mudslide; we talked about their part in that link chain, beat curation, and carrying traditions through albums.

(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Did y’all meet through your love of and mutual respect of Sean Price?

Small Pro: Nah, I was just a fan. I just loved his music.

Vic Spencer: I met Small Pro through Sean Price, yeah.

You want to walk me through what that was like?

Vic Spencer: You go first.

Small Pro: When we first started talking it was just over Twitter, here and there. When we started on the album I already knew he was cool; the vibe was already there musically and on a friendship level, so there wasn’t really anything to tap into in that way. Just a cool brother.

Vic Spencer: Yeah, likewise. I feel like anybody Sean Price speaks highly of—because Sean Price don’t speak highly of nobody—it just made me feel like I needed to have a connection to him. I had such a connection with Sean Price and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. He was a guy that I studied, so anything that I could be hands on with, I just wanted to live it out. I feel like that’s what Sean Price would have wanted for me. If he was still alive I’d have been on his label and he would be having me on Small Pro beats. That’s how I really feel about that. Pro has always been a fan, but we really didn’t connect on doing the album until Sean Price. I’ve been listening to some vintage Small Pro; I bought a couple of joints off iTunes. I was one of those guys that were fishin’, y’know? You got a little Apple card, iTunes card and you’re just fishing on there; you just run across some things. I was like “hey, I like this guy.” It was in 2012, I believe, the first time I heard Small Professor. It was a song he had with this guy, Random, “Play It By Ear.” I’ve always been a big fan of Small Pro and his production, just had to wait for the right time to get it right.

When did the nascent stages in Mudslide start?

Vic Spencer: Small Pro was diggin’ in the crates, diggin’ in the files. I specifically asked for some old Small Pro beats I recall, and he sent me those first. Then, when that exhausted, he just started sending me new. When I get beats from one producer, I just compile them all at once before I start penning anything and I sit with them. Even after I pick all the beats I still sit with them for like a month before I start carving in the ball. I think it was quicker than a month when I started carving in the ball for this one. So, when I got ten, eleven beats, I was like “Aye!” Shit, just start scribing right there, and I work kind of fast. At that time I was going into the studio weekly and I would have four hour sessions on Sundays. I would just go and knock out three Small Pro songs real quick. Next thing you know, voilà! The album’s done.

Small Pro: The demos, you did all the demos in like two weekends bro. I was like “what?! He done?” We still had to wait on the guests or whatever, but my man Zilla Rocca, shoutout to him, he had already told me: bull work fast. But I still remember that, because that’s not normal. I’ve waited on rappers for years. I’ve waited on verses, songs for years sometimes from people. So for this guy to go in like that, man, this is some other stuff, for real.

Vic, when you’re going in, do you bounce between projects you’re working on?

Vic Spencer: Yeah, I would. I would work on like two or three projects at a time each studio session. So I was working on, at that time, Brainstem Factory when I was working on Mudslide, and Brainstem Factory ended up coming out last year. But two years ago I was sitting with both of those projects. Let me do one here, let me do one here. I would always write them individually. One day I’d sit and write joints for the Mudslide, and then the next day I’d write the same amount of joints for Brainstem Factory. That’s exactly how it went down. Then, when I’d go in the studio it’s just easy. I’m in there, I just push a button and then I’m locked in, unless I need to punch over something. But that’s exactly how it goes. If I’m really into it and I’m focused, I usually write it beforehand. Even if I’m feeling good, anytime I’m in the studio, even if I don’t have nothing, I always have the production that I want to record to, so it makes it easy to write right on the spot as well. Even if I write on the spot, I’m spending maybe fifteen minutes on a verse because I know typically what I want to write to. I feel like sometimes as a rapper that’s the hardest part—to go into the booth and have what you want to rap to: the production. Once you’ve got the production, I feel like everything is kind of easy as hell.

Do you owe that to how you sit with the production so much beforehand?

Vic Spencer: Yeah. Like I said, I always have the beats right before I go into the studio. Even if I have eleven Small Pro beats to rap to, three of those I know I’m gonna sit down and write to. Even if I’m in the studio, I got options to write to any of these because I already hand picked them. Once I hand picked them it’s pretty much a wrap, it’s pretty much done in my eyes. When I pick a beat I say the song is done, even if I ain’t recorded jack for it, because I’m a fast writer, and I’m dedicated to the focus of creating the project. I don’t wanna try to do it fast because I’m fast. I’m big on turnaround, but I also want it to be quality; I want it to be cohesive. I want it to show that I was focused; I want it to make people laugh. I knew that going in ’cause that’s what Sean Price did. Imma be focused on laughter throughout the album.

And then SP, for you, how nice is it to have a quick turnaround of rappers compared to the months or even years you’ve had before?

Small Pro: I should say, I don’t wait that long anymore. I’m past the point where, if it takes that long, I don’t want to do it. That’s a waste of my time. I could be doing something else with those joints. But, real quick, it looks like the first pack I sent was in July 2020. So that makes almost two years on the dot.

Vic Spencer: That’s crazy. Come on through with the Snapple facts bro!

Small Pro: [laughs] But yeah, it just makes my job even easier. I was inspired by that. When I heard what he did—he wasn’t showing off, that’s just how he is, but it made me want to show off. That’s when I went back and added some of those beat switches and some of the other things on there. I wanted to go back and fill it out because I wanted to match what he did.

Do y’all have a favorite beat? Given how much you sit with the beats before writing, Vic, and obviously SP, you made them.

Vic Spencer: Right now—it be changing, but right now it’s “Selfcare Welfare.” The post-production is very effective. I can hear the difference from when I first got it to now, and towards the end it starts gradually spraying these horns in the back. They’re touchy, emotional type horns man, and that shit affected me. I damn near shedded a tear to that when I was listening to the post production. That shit is crazy. I label all of the track sevens as my favorite songs while recording it, and sometimes it might change, but track seven is going to be forever the beginning of how I felt this was my favorite song when I’m sequencing the album. Track seven, those are the ones that affect me in a way when I initially record it.

Small Pro: For me, I’ve been getting a lot of love from my fellow producers which, that makes my heart smile man. People I look up to, for one, but fellow producers in general have been talking about “Cherry Red Elephant.” I like that jawn because, first of all, it makes me think of Chicago. The Chicago hip hop I was influenced by, you know the early Kanye, Freshmen Adjustment mixtape—my interpretation of that, with the layers. That’s my favorite for sure. But also the intro bro. Let’s talk about the intro! That might be tied, I ain’t gon’ hold you.

Vic Spencer: That was the last joint I recorded. I recorded it last on purpose because it was so good. I knew it was gonna be the intro. I get a lot of my guys hitting me up about the intro specifically and the first part of “WAVES, micro.” All my guys, they just real biased to me being on smooth ass shit. They love when I’m on them smooth samples to cruise, lakeshore drive to, smoke weed to—that’s what they envision. I don’t try to flood my albums with that, but I splash those in there because my guys love it. And that joint is perfect; the intro is perfect.

Small Pro: No doubt. “WAVES, micro” is another good one. When I listen back to that, I almost don’t remember doing that beat, I gotta be honest with you, ’cause this don’t really sound like no other beats I’ve done, but it came out great. A lot of what you hear on this album was inspired by a list Vic posted on Twitter that’s 25 favorite Vic Spencer beats. It was just a list though! I don’t remember if it was in response to something or if it was just random and you were just talking one day.

Vic Spencer: [laughing] It was mad random. I was listening to my old iPod and it was on shuffle. I was like, “every beat that they’re playing right now is fire.” That’s why all the songs on there were fairly aged, because it was on the iPod. It was like these beats are so fucking good bro, so I just compiled a list. It was basically my iPod on shuffle, and the first 25 songs that played were those. I remember the connection that I had with those songs when I initially heard them. I was blown away, so I made the list on some random shit.

Small Pro: He had the list on Twitter, so I just went on YouTube and made the playlist, because I wanted to hear everything. Some of them joints I was real familiar with: the first song on there is “Mass Appeal” by Gang Starr. Stuff like that I was already familiar with. But some other stuff, he had some Boogiemonsters on there. There was a crazy Black Spade jawn on there, ugh man. He had King T on there. He had Tracey Lee on there: “Stars In The East.” “Hot Fudge” by Busta Rhymes. Mind you, this is before we even started working. [laughs] This is just some shit that I did ’cause, like I said, I was a fan, so I was trying to get into his head. But the vibes on that playlist kind of made their way onto the album.

Vic Spencer:  I agree. I see what you did there, Pro.

Small Pro: Oh yeah. I’m sneaky like that.

You said it was just the first 25 that played on your iPod?

Vic Spencer:  Yup. I just charged up my iPod, put it on shuffle, and I was like “damn yo, every fuckin’ beat is crazy.” I don’t know if I just had sounds in my car at that time, but they was sounding good on twelves, just like “oh god” every song. This is my iPod on shuffle, and I just made a list of 25 of the best beats. Not typically the best songs, but the best beats. The best beats according to Vic Spencer type shit. I just put it out randomly and a lot of blogger homies and journalist homies retweeted it. It went across that realm. I remember David Drake retweeting it and being like, “yo this list is crazy.” And by him reposting it, people being like, “this guy likes a lot of songs about the dead people.” I ain’t even think about that. I went and looked at the list; there’s a lot of songs dedicated to people who passed. “Mourn You Till I Join You” by Naughty By Nature. “The Omen” by DMX. Dr. Dre and Mary J. Blige – “The Message.” It’s so many of those joints on this playlist. This dude got a point, yeah. If it touched my soul, then I’m rocking with it. The beat hits me and they talking about that crazy shit on there too? You gon’ win me every time.

Do you think there’s a connection there in terms of beats you fuck with heavily and songs being tributes or about death?

Vic Spencer:  I feel like every artist should do that, yeah. If you’ve got a message, you don’t want it to be drawn out. I feel like “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy was a message, but ain’t nobody bumpin’ that shit right now. I feel like somebody would turn on “The Message” real quick. The beat is incredible, the writing—I think Royce Da 5’9 wrote that for Dr. Dre? It’s incredible. It works well, and when you do it well, it hits my soul. I think it’s important to have one of those kind of retrospective joints on albums. I feel like every artist should do that. I totally agree with that. I feel like that’s where “Selfcare Welfare” comes from. Of course the whole album is mad funny and you crack jokes, hardcore, POW!, body bag, punch boss. But that “Selfcare Welfare”.. Imma calm down.

I’m still a family man. I’m still a good dude at heart and I want to spread gems. I’m kind of a reality rapper/gem-dropper; I be doing all of that and I want to incorporate that, but I still want to have a smooth, cool way of doing it, and I think “Selfcare Welfare” spoke to me like that. It wasn’t a filler, like “yeah man, I need to have a retrospective joint on there.” I feel like “Selfcare Welfare” did that to me itself. The beat itself just has a lot of emotion to it. That’s how I took it. Small might have a different perspective on it but, for me, I was touched in a way where I have to get realistic on the record. I try to implement that on all my albums, but specifically for Mudslide, “Selfcare Welfare” was carved for me to be very open about whatever it is. I feel like when you make rest in peace songs they fit under the retrospective umbrella.

With the features—Flee Lord, Stevie Crooks, DJ Revolution, Recognize Ali—how did those come about? Or what made you decide to go for them for this album?

Vic Spencer:  For me, I wanted to surprise Small Pro, for real. That was my intention. Making albums with one producer, you always want to impress them. At all times you want to keep that impression, and for me, “Pitfall Music” was one of the first songs I recorded. I wanted to come out swinging, having Flee Lord on there and sending it as a surprise ’cause Pro didn’t know. He didn’t know who I was going to get to feature on there. I already had Stevie Crooks in mind to work on a project, but I just didn’t know which project. So, I was like “aight, I got a project, now I just have to find something I know that he would kill.” And he did just that with “Cherry Red Elephant.” Those were my two features that I threw in the pot. Recognize Ali and DJ Revolution, those were good touches. Those came from Matt Diamond making that happen. Also shouts out to Recognize Ali, I also have other joints with him. He’s featured on one of my albums, I’m featured on a couple of his albums, so we already had a working relationship. It was easy to agree about that. And then of course you can’t go wrong with scratches, and why not from a legendary DJ like Mr. Revolution? So yeah, this is coming out fairly nice. It was all spontaneous for sure, but my intentions were to surprise Small Pro.

SP, what was your reaction to the features?

Small Pro:  So, I already knew Flee Lord and I was definitely surprised when I heard him have the first verse on that joint. I was like “yooooo, what the fuck?” Yeah, that was definitely surprising. Stevie Crooks, I hadn’t heard of I think, but I quickly did the knowledge man. That brother, definitely I’m a fan now, but he definitely was another pleasant surprise.

And then on “Lil Jon’s Weed Stash,” what was the process with flipping those adlibs?

Small Pro:  That was all Vic. [laughs] That was another surprise. I’m glad you asked that ’cause I want to give him his co-production credits on there. I had no idea he was gonna do that. I had no idea what the song was gonna be, so when I got that back, imagine my surprise when I hear the Lil Jon ad libs all in the joint. That’s something a producer would do. I don’t know if you ever did beats, but from your taste in beats, I feel like you would be ill at it. That kind of creativeness is definitely something I would’ve done, but he just flipped it like that. I had nothing to do with that.

Vic Spencer:  I was in the studio recording, and a lot of this stuff happens in the midst of recording. That song wasn’t initiated to be “Lil Jon’s Weed Stash” until I started writing it. It’s one of those songs I wrote on the spot, because I woulda never added in all that stuff if I didn’t create it on the spot. I would have those gaps filled with Lil Jon ad libs, I cued that in when I finished recording. I was like, “keep my shit low, we’re gonna use some of Lil Jon’s shit to be my ad libs. I think that would be dope,” and you know the name of the song definitely came after the song was done. You know right before the song gets bounced, “what’s the name of the song, Vic?” And I was sittin’ there thinking for like two minutes. Yeah,
“Lil Jon’s Weed Stash.” I always have a weed stash on all of my albums. I seen somebody make a playlist of all the weed stashes I made, it’s like eight so far. And I know I got at least seven in the stash right now on like seven different albums. [laughs]

Small Pro:  That’s very Redman-ish of you. Very hip hop – to have continuing sagas but it’s not on one album, it’s throughout your whole discography. That’s ill.

So with the music output that you have, do you think you go into every song that you’re making and every joint that you put out trying to body shit the way you think Sean Price would want you to body it?

Vic Spencer:  Hell yeah. Hell yeah. That’s all I be thinking about. When I be wanting to body shit, I’m saying “what would Sean Price do?” Yeah, you got to body that. Yeah, that’s a body right there, you know what I’m saying? I love that style of rap. Imma always be big on that. I feel like everybody that listens to Vic Spencer knows that and they accept that. They knew I was right there with Sean Price, four years until him dying. We built a great relationship/friendship during that time. But during that time he made me laugh more than anything. He was a true comedian at heart. I knew that was something I wanted to do. I had that mentality. When I started taking rap seriously, Sean Price was my favorite rapper. I remember that. Like man, this is my favorite rapper and I got the chance to sit down with him and have him play my record. Those kinds of things be staying in my head when I be bodying records, when I be wanting to do some body bag shit. That’s some next level shit. That’s some Spiderman shit right there. Just going in, blacking out, and it’s accepted. I guess that’s my plate, my forte. And to be able to do it on a level where Sean Price liked it? Sean Price? Really? You said Sean Price? When I say that name that’s some strong shit. Everything about Sean Price was some strong, tough, gritty shit. When you’re around him, you feel that energy. So I just want to try to keep that alive. I was already doing it when he was alive, so I just lean on it even more.

And then SP, with your production, you’ve said that you’re building on your sonic footprint with your Coalmine Record releases, which includes your Sean Price collaboration. How do you see this continuation with Vic versus him?

Small Pro:  First of all, I wanna say when we talk about making people laugh.. Sean P was one of the kings of rap comedic timing. Some rappers are actually comedians, they’re just good at rapping too. Vic is another person like that. He’ll be rapping, but as well as rhyming his ass off, he’s making you crack up. That was something that made me really want to work with him first and foremost. But, as far as the beats, this project was easy to make because this is right in my wheelhouse. It’s East Coast but it’s updated from the ‘90s. I’m not trying to recreate 1995, but I respect those records from that time period and I try to do it my own way. So, it was real easy to make these kinds of projects, with 86 Witness and Highway Robbery with Guilty Simpson. These are all boom bap, but the new version.

I really like your description of prog-boom bap.

Small Pro:  [laughs] Yeah. ‘Cause you know, I have my own weird tendencies. I do some weird stuff musically, or at least I try. So that’s where the prog comes in. I try to set myself apart from everyone who might be doing the same neo-boom-bap type joints, but everybody is going to approach it in different ways. You know, beat-switches, those are very important. The joint that Vic loves off of Gigantic, Vol. 1 with Random, that fed directly into this. I love beat-switches. I got—I don’t know if it’s ADHD or what but I got a short attention span. I like things that change. I give you a minute of this and then you’re gonna get something else. And it’s also about surprising people. You want to keep people guessing. That’s how “WAVES, micro” came about. That was actually not even a beat-switch I did; again, Vic Spencer with the co-production credit. He got both of them beats in the same pack, and he said “you know what? I wanna make a song out of both of these joints.” It came together. Again, I wouldn’t have put those together, but they fit perfectly. That just speaks to our chemistry right there. He knew what he wanted to do, he just needed the right pieces.

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