Pharoahe Monch

card_pharoahemonchPharoahe Monch originally entered the game as one half of the seminal rap dup Organized Konfusion with his partner Prince Poetry. During the years with Organized, he quickly gained prominence and notoriety on the mic with his intricate rhyme schemes and inventive content with tracks like “Releasing Hypnotical Gasses,” “Stray Bullet” and “Invetro.” As he moved onto a solo path he has continued to elevate the craft, delivering material sparsely but at the highest quality.

Read on for more on his process, the impact Paul C had on his career, the potential of a new Organized Konfusion album and of course a bit on the upcoming album P.T.S.D.

Halftimeonline.net: I read that when you got into the game you got into all of the other elements before emceeing. How deep did you get into them before you decided to pick up the mic?

Pharoahe Monch: I went to art school and from a cultural standpoint as it was happening in my school, it had exploded before then but as it was evolving in my school, I was getting to see the dance, the graffiti, the fashion and all the different aspects and how it was empowering for a community as a form of expression. That energy in itself is why I gravitated [towards it]. I was asking myself from a passionate and honest perspective how can you lend to this thing that’s happening right now where people who didn’t otherwise have a voice can discuss whatever they want to discuss. I never seen a limit, especially on content, so I just wanted to be down with it and get involved. As an artist it’s working on art and trying your hand at different stuff. I discovered that my voice was in emceeing and that’s how I could lend what I had to offer the culture. For me it benefited because it allowed me to have a certain reverence for that voice and an understanding that it was about elevating the art, keeping it moving upwards instead of being stagnant. That was a good starting point for me as an emcee to try to improve constantly.

Halftimeonline: One of the things I’ve heard a lot about is when you and Prince Po recorded your first demo tape, with him rhyming and you beat boxing, you were like this isn’t working. What was it that you didn’t like that made you say I’m gonna do more than just that on the mic?

Pharoahe: I think what we were inspired by at the time were cats in the park like Grandmaster Vic and Boss Crew, which was a crew and a famous DJ out of 40 projects, and it simply wasn’t lengthy enough. It didn’t have the body or the musicality. I was beat boxing and he was rhyming and it let me know the level of thought that had to go into making routines. I talk about this with cats today. The ability to listen back to your own stuff and quickly feel if it is up to par or not is a very important thing. Not only up to your standards but marketing, commercial and underground standards. To be able to kick yourself in the ass and say it’s not good enough or it’s not better than or up to par. In my mind I was like we don’t deserve to be professional yet and it took a minute before I was like this shit is just as good as the stuff that inspires me because I’m inspired by it. Like I felt something when that happened. That’s all it was man. It was the ability [to say] this is not right just based on records and if what you are doing is evoking the proper emotion. That also comes from being an artist and having stuff in your head and painting it or drawing it. You’re up close on it and the teacher is like step away from your work and really get it a look at it. Then you’re like damn that anatomy is off. It’s the same thing.

Halftimeonline: I noticed you talked about this a little bit with jazz [in the past] but going from some type of instrumental like beat boxing to emceeing you have a little bit more thought about melody and things like before you started rhyming. How did that time when you were doing solely beat boxing and some of the elements impact your style of rhyme?

Pharoahe: It was more or less very, very grade school. It was just like cultures and people. You only know the knowledge that you’re given unless you have the innate ability to listen from within. We were just going off what we were inspired by at the time and trying a variety of stuff. [We were] exercising our ability to try and match what other cats were doing. It didn’t take us long to start finding our voice. We started asking what are we going to bring to the culture because biting was so taboo back then. It was cool to be influenced and give a nod to those groups that you were influenced by but if you weren’t bringing or adding it felt like you were stealing. Everybody wants money for selfish reasons but that’s one of the big things I see with the artists now. It’s kind of going back to that. It’s just evident that it has really become a corporate industry and you don’t feel the reverence. That’s okay but it’s just different.

Halftimeonline: You talk a lot about when you’re really adding something new to the culture and not just doing something for fun or exploration. When was it for you, whether you spit something or you read it, where you were like, “Yo I’m actually nice!” or “I’m really elevating something and being different?”

Pharoahe: We started working with looping our stuff, doing our own beats and buying equipment and we signed to an independent label that was working with a lot of live musicians. They wanted us to go into that direction, which was cool, but it really wasn’t where our hearts were. I think we had already imagined what kind of schemes or what we wanted to express. They were pretty much following what was popular. We didn’t know any better so we were like whatever we’ll do that. When we were given the opportunity to produce our own material it took a natural course of what we liked which was James [Brown], The Meters, Zeppelin and other rhythms that were inspiring us. We quickly took it that way and laid some demos. We went to the studio and met Paul C and started laying more demos and took them to a record store. Mr. Walt and Evil Dee worked at the record store in Queens and we were like, “Yo we got a tape!.” Mr. Walt was like I think I know y’all and we played this one joint and he was like, “Oh my god these kids are fucking bananas!” I believe it was Herbie Hancock bassline (hums bassline) and we decided to rhyme in the rhythm of the bass line. Before that I hadn’t heard anyone do that to my memory. They were just blown away by that and that’s when we were like, “Yo we might have some shit here.”

Halftimeonline: Was that when you guys were still Simply Too Positive?

Pharoahe: Yea, we were still Simply Too Positive.

Halftimeonline: What made you guys change the name, the end of the African medallion era?

Pharoahe: Actually, what happened was we had shopped the demo to Russell Simmons at Def Jam through Bobbitto Garcia and we were hype on the name. It was more or less STP but it was Simply Too Positive. We were doing all of this lyrical, harder south side Queens stuff on the demo and we had a couple of offers but of course we wanted to sign with Def Jam. He turned us down but he turned Nas down too so I didn’t feel that bad. About two weeks later we see Russell in the club and he revisits the idea and we exchange numbers. We’re on the phone with Russell Simmons and I’m like wow! We call him one time and he was like I’m considering signing the group but first and foremost y’all gotta change that wack ass fucking name! What the fuck is that?! So we went at it hard with names to come up with some new shit because if Russell said the shit is wack it’s wack. We were tossing names around and my man Carlos called me. He had pulled out the Organized Con Funk Shun record and he was like what y’all think about Organized Konfusion? I was like “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” That’s how the name came about.

Halftimeonline: A lot is made about how Paul C helped the group’s development before his passing. What were some of the things that he would do or say that would push you guys to go forward or develop during that early time?

Pharoahe: We were sort of making a name for ourselves already before Paul took notice and I was starting to feel myself a little bit at that time as an emcee in terms of dexterity and the things that I was reaching for and things that I could accomplish. When we went to the studio with Paul he was the first one to shoot me down in terms of arrangement, verse arrangement, structure, and rhyme arrangement. He was like [Greg] Popovich. He was like you have the potential to take it to some other shit but you have to understand the rules before you break them. I was in the booth like “This motherfucker!” It taught me something that people credit me with today. I was always humble because I’m a quiet dude but it taught me a lot about learning more and it really humbled me at a very early stage. So even though after Paul’s passing we went to finish the demos and records by ourselves, which contributed to a lot of the experimentation, we knew which rules we were breaking. Whether it was going past a bar structure or arrangement or leaving “Fudge Pudge” without a chorus we knew what we were doing when we did it. Paul was amazing.

Halftimeonline: If he was around during the recording of the first album what kind of things do you think would have been different?

Pharoahe: If he was still living I think Organized Konfusion would have been a contained animal. The experimentation of it all actually got us the notoriety back then and who’s to say if it were contained where it would have went. It’s difficult for me to look back on life in general. The forces, god and the universe have you exactly where you need to be. I’m really strong in that belief. I really feel like if Organized Konfusion would have gone platinum off the first album I would be under a bridge somewhere in a rusted Porsche under water. Who knows? It’s all a blessing still. I say that because it’s difficult to look back but I know that we missed and I still miss him. I miss his thought process. He loved music so much. It was beautiful being around another person who was that analytical about groups, bands, James, rock, funk, emcees. Everybody does that now because of social media but he was like our social media guy back then. He would talk for hours about hip hop.

Halftimeonline: You mentioned something that I wanted to talk about which is how you are analytical [as well]. The thing that fascinates me about your rhyme style is that it’s like a mix of a real analytical dude mixed with like [physical] issues like asthma which made you want to challenge yourself with more complex rhyme schemes. How do those two elements come together to give that uniqueness to your rhyme style?

Pharoahe: I realize I wouldn’t be able to be doing this interview or relevant if you’re not carving or finding a voice so I allowed myself to be. I understand that while the asthma was a deterrent and a problem it was something that could shape me being unique as well. Even back then I realized that. You realize that there are other people out there that can relate to anything, especially now. I kind of was like you gotta be what you are. That’s what’s fly about hip hop. I feel like as soon as someone is fronting a little bit you can detect that whether its thug, trap, conscious or whatever. When you feel that someone is rhyming for the sake of riddling, like Chuck D said, it’s just like where’s the passion? It’s so incredibly intricate. You can have passion for your flow or the intricacies of your flow but when the passion comes through it shines. That’s one of the main things I try to implement more than anything else. So just trying to push past the asthma I thought that was something that could cut through as well. Honesty and its not easy. This Post Traumatic Stress Disorder album talks about depression in those years dealing with asthma medication and things like that. It’s intricate — it’s not like the songs are like “I’m dealing with depression, I’m dealing with depression” — which would probably resonate. I think when people listen to the energy on these records it’s going to cut through. It took all these years. I was being honest with my passion for flow and lyrics and it occurred to me just from an introspective of self that there is room for artists to be more honest about the individual. You look at a lot of artists that have cut through like Pac, B.I.G. and Kanye. I remember Kanye saying something as simple as, not verbatim but I’m paraphrasing Through the Wire. He said, ‘My mom taught me better than this. I know better than to take this money and do the exact thing that I’ve been taught not to do with my first bit of money. But I’m still going to the store anyway and getting some jewelry because, although I have an understanding with Jesus, I still have an innate need because I’m a young black man to feel a certain way about myself and this might help me feel that way. You can still analyze that today and that’s what being that gut wrenching and endearing always brings even if you have a small audience. For Joe Budden, or anyone who’s that honest about the things that are not so fly, you are going to cut through and people can relate. You’re going to get a nicer look into who you really are.

Halftimeonline: I want to talk a bit about your process. It’s clear before you start flowing something you’ve given it a lot of thought even to where it needs to be in the rhyme. One of the things O.C. said was you might write a line and then not come back to it months, possibly years later before you find the perfect place for it.

Pharoahe: Sometimes years later.

Halftimeonline: What’s the longest time you’ve held a line?

Pharoahe: It may have been years but I don’t know how many years. You’ll sit down and you’ll write a rhythm or a lyric or a phrase and you’ll be in your headspace at the moment. In that headspace you could be heart broken. You could be disgusted with black people and their ignorance and the murders going on in Chicago and you could say some shit. Like I can’t even say this right now because people will take it the wrong way but I’m so mad at our people .. [you gotta put it down] and then it will just be that and you wont go anywhere else with it. You may not have the music for it and something will come along and you’ll be like it’s time now fuck it if you’re not ready. I try to hold onto to jewels. I guess this comes from emcees that are kinda smitten. I don’t put out a lot of work so when I write something that I feel is nice I care about it so I try to put it out with the right thing. As we grew into the emcee mixtape era and quantity started to become popular and beneficial [focusing on the] quality of the painting and taking the time on the painting hurt a lot of artists. So I understand why that’s wack in a sense and you should release a lot of stuff. I’m trying to find a happy medium as well. I’m not saying that I hold stuff because I can. I hold stuff because I don’t want to present it in the wrong way.

Halftimeonline: We interviewed Rakim a while back and he was the only other emcee I know of besides yourself to talk about using pauses and syncopation of jazz and how that influenced his rhyme scheme. You both mentioned Coltrane as well. So I wanted to know what particular Coltrane records were the biggest inspirations to your flow.

Pharoahe: No specific record its just ultimate passion, precision and every other metaphor you can use to describe an emcee in terms of flow, timing, pocket, notation, and content Coltrane had it and it was just instrumental. I’m crying and there are no words to this song. Why? Why does it resonate that way? Why do the harmonics resonate that way? What did that phrase do to me? I studied with my production partner Lee Stone. We studied the things that make your hair stand up. Its truth, its honest and its tone. Martin Luther King speeches. All these little things that bring up this goose bump effect. Coltrane is one of the artists for me that did that just in terms of his choice to go from here to this phrasing and this notation. As youngins I don’t know if that’s freedom because at first you’re like that’s being free [but then its like] is it art, is it studying and understanding exactly what you need to express in that? That’s why he’s an inspiration to artists who are not even in that lane. As an artist you want to evoke those same emotions. I don’t care whether you dance, paint or are a novelist you want to evoke those same emotions when you get to the point of your story or your book that’s gripping. You want them to close to book and cry and be like it’s going to take me a minute to finish this book. I think that’s what Coltrane brought to the table for emcees that were even into that. Still I go back to listen to his tone and harmonics. I don’t think people even have the wherewithal to listen to emcees like that for the most part anymore. My manager was telling me, “Your tone on this new album is insane.” You might hear it and not get it but some of them are really super laid back. I’m talking to you and being honest but it’s a comfortability that comes from doing this shit over a certain amount of years. It’s interesting because we’re mixing, I’m independent, there’s monetary issues but let’s book a whole two months out and mix the record. It takes time to do shit but I can’t wait to give it out and see what the reaction is going to be. W.A.R. and “Push” and “Still Standing” is kind of built in inspiration and triumph but this record is dark as fuck. I’m trying to express to you how I felt. Even if I’m talking about some rhyme shit I want it to feel like this is some maniacal shit. Out of context you could miss it but in the context of listening to it on an album people are going to get it.

Halftimeonline: You’ve talked a lot about evoking emotion and having your work have a cinematic feel. With that in mind what kind of director are you or who would you compare yourself too in terms of the emotions you are trying to evoke?

Pharoahe: That’s a good question. I haven’t given it thought like that in terms of directors. I’ll just give you some of my favorite movies: Cooley High, Enter the Dragon, Pulp Fiction, Aliens, Uptown Saturday Night.

Halftimeonline: So your approach is a mash up of all of those?

Pharoahe: Yea.

Halftimeonline: This last bit is questions from fans before we close out the interview. Was there actually a shelved Innervisions album on Rawkus and if so are any of those ever going to be released?

Pharoahe: Yea, it was. It was in the beginning process of that and I had this one record where I was talking to … I don’t want to even get into it. We started it and obviously reached out to Stevie Wonder about it and shit like that.

Halftimeonline: I heard there was an unreleased Organized Konfusion track called “Rack Em Up” that was a metaphor for racism. What ever happened to that record?

Pharoahe: How do people find out about shit!? Yea, it was. It was a really, really hardcore record. It’s funny because I forget the comedian’s name. I think it was Martin but I forget what movie it was and he was like the eight ball is like the black man and we were like yooooo! It wasn’t that simple but we really got into the colors.

Halftimeonline: But that ain’t coming out I’m guessing

Pharoahe: We probably demoed a verse.

Halftimeonline: Do you think Equinox opened up the door for other concept album’s like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, Maad City?

Pharoahe: No. We were fans of De La Soul and we were movie buffs. So in the tradition of Dre and the skits with De La we were trying to put a little film in between our album.

Halftimeonline: You touched on it earlier when you talked about how much the game has changed. Being in it as long as you have been it seems like an interesting dichotomy because it’s really flipped from your perspective. You started in a group and now your solo, was major now independent and of course the scene has completely changed. How do you look at today’s culture given where you started from?

Pharoahe: If I could jump to now I would say there is definitely a designed and organized attack on socially conscious and aware thought provoking music. Not even from the content but from the flow and all aspects of it. To dumb it down is the most important thing in terms of marketing. I don’t think these things are just happenstance. Because you’re not getting that in the forefront it has forced those cats to really embrace the term underground and really work to be noticed like it was back in the days when they weren’t playing hip hop on the radio and they’re not doing that now so to speak. If you’re a hip hop artist and a purist it forces you to be more inventive with your craft and to cut through and do things that differentiate you from the pack. Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing because when it comes to the surface it’s as phenomenal and as polished as a Kendrick.

Halftimeonline: When can people expect to get the P.T.S.D album, or hear some new material outside of this west coast tour?

Pharoahe: We’re looking to release the video for this “Scream” song. It’s obvious. It’s a loop chopped up and produced by Quelle Chris from Detroit. Its some maniacal shit that’s going on and we are trying to make it look the same. Not because it’s cool to but we have these phenomenal ass records that people are like this is incredible, this record is gonna change the planet! We have those records but we just want to posture and shoot from where we stand which is like some straight underground shit. Put this album out and get to those big ass songs as they come along naturally.

Halftimeonline: I love the multimedia approach you guys have. Everything is meaningful and well thought out. It’s not just a video, its cinema and the words and imagery actually mean something.

Pharoahe: That’s just where I’m at. That’s just where our click is at, Jean Grae, my manager. What we’re trying to do with the company is implement some things that aren’t there. Worldstar provides you with a dope service of one aspect of it. In our imagination it’s the other side of the spectrum for people who fucking read X-Men and other shit. I think that’s what’s fly about the country and about hip hop. I’m on Worldstar but when I’m ready to vomit from that shit where do you go to find the alternative to that? In terms of a media company we are just trying to put content out there that’s just like man I gotta go back and look at that again. It’s gonna take time but that’s what we hope for.

Halftimeonline: When’s the Organized Konfusion reunion happening?

Pharoahe: Me and Prince just shot a video together for the Marco Polo record

Halftimeonline: Oh for real!? I thought you were gonna say “Only time will tell.”

Pharoahe: Nah, nah that’s my fam. I just don’t see the album. That’s being totally honest. That’s the reverence I have for that group. It’s like what does it sound like? What is the purpose of it and where are we right now with it? My thing is like I tell him let’s make music. I’ve had Pharrell say “If y’all do another Organized Konfusion album I’ll….” Everyone from Madlib, etc. All that stuff sounds exciting but where do you go with it. I’m like let’s do records. I don’t believe people. Let’s do records and challenge ourselves like when we started. You’re not shit and nobody cares so prove yourself.

Halftimeonline: I wouldn’t believe people either.

Pharoahe: Prove it and when I say prove it I’m talking about me and him. Prove it. Is the love there? I was at this event with a relative of Miles [Davis] and Ron Carter and he was talking about how Miles would come out and play the known song all different every night and they would be like where is he going with this shit because he would get bored. My thing is kick ass. [Po] even was like the crowd would be like (makes face) …what? But that’s cool man that’s what it’s about. There’s room for that. Some of my favorite artists I’ve gone to see them and it’s like (sigh) and they know it. That gives them room to not cater but work on the craft. That shit is organic. It’s supposed to be like that. It’s a dying thing man. I was telling [my team] don’t let me forget to acknowledge how much of a blessing this shit is. I feel like I should acknowledge that just to be out here and rocking because of where we shoot from. It’s still dope to me. It’s not a money grab.

Halftimeonline: “Push” is my shit and you got a lot of tracks throughout your catalog that really do evoke emotion. It’s lasting. If you ain’t doing that I don’t know why you’d be in it either. I appreciate that you still care about the craft like that.

Pharoahe: Its weird man because I was talking to Nas and he was like yo when your catalog gets crazy, you see your catalog from totally different perspectives than in your earlier stages. I take so long with the solo shit I don’t even know what he is talking about. When I dropped Desire a lot of the Internal Affairs fans were like what’s with the soul shit man?! What the fuck is going on? I go online a year or two ago, after I dropped W.A.R., and I was like I got 3 solo albums – Internal Affairs, Desire and W.A.R. – which is your favorite if you have all 3. Desire was [way up there] and I’m like really who are these people? What we don’t account for is the motherfucker coming into the game for the first time and somebody is like you gotta check out this dude. When you get time listen to his shit. Those people who enter your career at that spot, you can’t tell them that “One Mic” is not their song. You can’t be like go listen to this because they are like but I like “One Mic.” That’s what he was essentially trying to say to me. He was like you’re gonna bug when you get to albums 4 and 5. People are yelling Ilmatic but when you see people crying when you do “One Mic” you’re like “nobody cries when I do Illmatic.” It’s crazy.

MC Lyte

card_mclyteTo this day MC Lyte is still “probably the dopest female that you heard thus far” and will go down in history as one of if not the best female emcee(s) to ever pick up a mic. Think of a landmark hip hop event and she was probably there on the front lines. Lyte came in the game at a very early age linking up with Audio Two (And unlike every bio states those are NOT her brothers) when they were seeking out a female MC to add to their fledgling label. Her career took off from there and she hasn’t looked back dropping classics like “I Cram to Understand,” “10% Dis,” “Poor Georgie,” and “Cha, Cha, Cha” and blazing trails on her way to becoming the first female rapper to ever receive a gold single, be nominated for a Grammy and the first solo female rapper to be honored/inducted into VH-1’s Hip Hop Honors Hall of fame.

Today, Lyte is far from the highschooler that came to the studio with just a rhyme book and a dream. She’s a CEO, author, actress, philanthropist, DJ, public speaker and all around nice person. Read on to learn more about this hip hop pioneer.

HalftimeOnline: How did you come up with your MC name and did you go by any others before settling on Lyte?

MC Lyte: At first it was Sparkle. Then Red because I used to keep my head red. Then I settled into Lyte. I was looking in the “Dictionary of Thoughts” and it was very positive things like “The truth is the light,” “the light is truth,” and “one of the first creations by God.” I thought that would be huge for me so I took Lyte but I didn’t actually choose MC.  When the first record that was pressed I wound up seeing the credits and it said MC Lyte and I was like what’s that? They said well we thought you needed a title and we didn’t want to make it Lady Lyte or Queen Lyte or any of that. And this was before Latifah but at that time they choose MC and I’m very thankful for that.

HalftimeOnline: One of my favorite songs is ‘Top Billin’ by your brothers, Audio Two. In that song Milk says”Mom and Dad they knew the time” which is really true because you guys were the first family in hip hop with you and your brothers MCing and DJing and your parents running the label. How did that situation come about?

MC Lyte: Actually Milk and Giz are totally like my brothers but they are not my blood brothers but I was basically raised within that family.

HalftimeOnline: Wow, I’m pretty sure everyone thinks they are your brothers!

MC Lyte: Their father Nat Robinson was pretty much like a dad to me but the only blood folks in the music family are actually those three, Milk, Giz and Nat Robinson. But in every way possible I felt like I was part of my family. How it turned out for the guys was they wanted to do a record and Nat Robinson had a whole lot of money due to being part of some really monumental moves in not only entertainment but the technology world so he was able to fund their mission. Within it they decided they wanted to start a label and a good friend of mine that I went to elementary and junior high school with called me up, because we used to rhyme together, and said they were looking for a female MC and did I want to come by the studio. He literally came and got me from Brooklyn and not in a car when I say came and got me he walked to my house! Then we walked to the train station and took it to the Staten Island ferry downtown. Then we took the ferry over to Staten Island and the Robinsons picked us up and took us to the studio and that’s where it all happened.

HalftimeOnline: During that early part of hip hop I’m not imagining a lot of folks encouraging their kids to get into rapping like that. In your household what kind of encouragement did you get, especially being so young and entering a male dominated genre, when you started your career?

MC Lyte: Prior to my career of choice my mom was very encouraging in the areas of art. She had me in art class, acting class, voice class, dance class, she took em to museums, she took me to art shows, exhibits and theater. I saw Dreamgirls on 42nd street with the original cast, Dracula and Cats. I was always given the opportunity to see much more than my neighborhood had to offer. As soon as I decided it was something I wanted to do like that she, in the best way she could, facilitated a platform that allowed me to do so. I’m very thankful to her for that. She used to write plays and act when she was in high school and I guess i was able to help her continue that mission through her daughter.

HalftimeOnline: We did an interview with O.C. and he said that artists feed off of each other and if there is no good art out there you don’t have anything to feed off of for you to be creative.

MC Lyte: Ha! That’s true.

HalftimeOnline: Now you came out at a time where it was probably the most fruitful with everything starting up and a lot of creativity out there. How did that help you create something unique and what got you to the point where you said my stuff can stand with the rest of the music out here?

MC Lyte: I didn’t give any of that thought. I just showed up to the studio with a book of rhymes and a book of poetry and matched lyrics that were written in ’82 to beats that were constructed in ’86. it was that simple for me. I didn’t try to be different I just was and I didn’t acknowledge it until well after it was done. Now I can actually look back and say wow I was different. Look at what I was talking about compared to what was being spoken about at that time. I did recognize that my voice was different. Well, maybe not even my voice but the way in which I delivered rhymes was very monotone and I was told that and not in a positive way. It was like “She’s too monotone!” or “is that it? Where’s the excitement”

HalftimeOnline: Haha

Mc Lyte: Get the excitement from the meaning. I don’t have to fake excitement for you to understand what I’m talking about. All in all that really wasn’t my mission. I wasn’t like listen to this and see how different I can be I just did what I did.

HalftimeOnline: That’s probably the best. A lot of criticism of some music today is that people are trying to be something else instead of just rhyming or singing about what you know and letting the authenticity come from that rather than mimic something.

Mc Lyte: You know what’s incredible is knowing that the for entire first album of mine I didn’t have music. I just wrote from an introspective point of view. When you think about it 2Pac at times wrote to music and sometimes he didn’t. When he didn’t that’s when we got the “Dear Mama’s.” Music influences, fortunately and unfortunately, the content. So there are times with songs like “Poor Georgie” that when I heard it, it made me feel like oh my god this is a story about a man who has some deep problems and deep issues. That allowed me to formulate “Poor Georgie” but there are other songs of mine which just say party. That’s cool too but i think what’s great is that I, and many others from my era and beyond, have a well balanced scenario. I’m not partying 24 hours a day so I should be able to give you some of me that exists in other realms. I think that’s what we’re missing. But back then I think I just went for it. I think many artists should try writing without music. It helps you get in touch with your deeper sense of self and be able to tell the truth.

HalftimeOnline: You were saying that the music influences your content. Even though you wrote the rhymes beforehand were there times you would hear the beat and want to change it  to really fit the music or do you feel so strong about the content once it’s on paper that the beat can only accentuate the lyrics?

MC Lyte: Later on yea but for the first time out with recording the first album I just showed up with my rhyme book. Literally, Milk & Giz were like “What you got?” and I would start rhyming and then they’d be like hold up a second we got something for that rhyme right there. With the first record, “I Cram to Understand You,” I said it to them and Milk put it together right there. It was only a four track. It was a TASCAM so it was only so much you could do. So he concocted that right there on the spot and I wasn’t going to be the one to say, “Oh this doesn’t sound right on that.” I didn’t know.

HalftimeOnline: How instrumental was King of Chill in your development as an MC?

MC Lyte: King of Chill wrote “Cha, Cha, Cha” but he wasn’t as involved in the development as Milk. Milk & Giz were the ones who sort of pushed me to go deeper as a writer and deliver more in the execution. With King of Chill and I it was a bit different than how Milk, Giz and I would work. What I mean by that is King of Chill wasn’t as hard on me as Milk and Giz to the degree that I don’t recall us having spats about how I would deliver a rhyme. I could be more free in my delivery with him than I could with the other guys.

HalftimeOnline: How did you link up with Prince Paul?

MC Lyte: I’m not sure if I met him through Daddy-O and Stetsasonic or if we knew him first but it all came way by First Priority Music. I do remember Prince Paul introducing us to De La Soul.

HalftimeOnline: One of the things I read was that your first tour was with Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and a bunch of others. What was that experience like just being on tour in general and also with so many other A-list acts?

MC Lyte: Oh man, I wish I could bottle it up and look at it in it’s entirety. Like with anything there are certain moments you just remember but it’s miniscule in comparison to the amount of things that actually happened. When I think about being on the road with all of those people I think about all of the dressing rooms that were lined up. You could literally go down the hall and see Fresh Prince in one room, Biz in another room, and Latifah with Treach because I believe he was out with her on the road at that point but Naughty by Nature hadn’t been born yet or if they had they hadn’t been released. I think he was doing “Hip Hop Hooray” or “O.P.P” during that time as part of his breakout of her show. Then you had A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School were the openers for that tour. I just remember the energy. Hip Hop was fresh! And the camaraderie that went into it. It was a sense of family. We all had security guards but they weren’t for the purposes of keeping us from people backstage.

HalftimeOnline: I’m just imagining how live that show was in general. With the energy and the level of artists and competition I would think that if one artist killed the set it would just raise the next performer’s game.

MC Lyte: Yea it does because everybody wants to succeed and do well, everyone wants the crowd to scream for them as much as they did for the act before but we had a certain understanding that the better everyone was the better the show would be in its entirety. If someone didn’t do well it did not just look bad on them but bad on all of us. There’s no way to separate yourself from it.

HalftimeOnline: To me when you came out you were already a complete MC. You had lyrics, you had stories, you were “Killin’ everybody in sight,” battle rhymes, etc right off the bat. When did you personally feel hip hop was something you could do as a career?

MC Lyte: I don’t think i realized that until it was. I didn’t say oh now I could make this a career. I think I was already in the midst of it and I was like, “Oh shit, what else do I do?” or “What else can I do?” I think it was at that point I started to look for other ways to be creative. That’s how I wound up doing voice over work, the acting and all of that other stuff.

HalftimeOnline: When You put out joints like “I Cram to Understand You” and “Poor Georgie” how much of that decision was based on your belief that these things needed to be covered and discussed in the public sphere.

MC Lyte: To a large degree I knew I needed to talk about drugs and the effect it had on people. In Brooklyn there were weed smokers, dope dealers and people dying. In Harlem, where I would spend my weekends, there was heroin and you’d see people nodding out in the middle of the damn street. You would see people with holes in their arms or their legs because they couldn’t find anymore veins to put something into. In Queens there was crack and in Harlem as well. I just knew my mission would be to try to educate my generation about the usage of drugs, selling it or being the drug dealer’s girlfriend and you wind up shot or in jail because of it. So I did make a conscious effort of that at a very young age. That’s why I made songs like “I Cram to Understand You,” where I’m in love with a man who is in love with crack, “Poor Georgie,” and “Not with A Dealer.”

HalftimeOnline: I saw you confirmed that you and LL co-wrote your verse for “Self Destruction.” How did that come about and why didn’t he just jump on the record?

MC Lyte: You know what that’s an interesting question. During the process of the recording of that song a lot of people were in the studio so you were getting a lot of input like, “Yea, that’s hot!” or “Let’s make that better [like this].” The rhyme I wrote myself had a lot of statistics like, “One out of every…” and I think they wanted it to be a little cooler. They were like nah Lyte you don’t want to hit them with statistics that may not be interesting enough for them. So I remember at the time Kris (KRS-ONE) and LL were in the studio with me and L came with a rhyme. By the way that wasn’t the first time “funky fresh” was used he used it in one of his records before. That kicked it all off. Once he said it both he and I went to work on what would turn out to be one of the prolific verses in the record. He didn’t write the verse it was me, LL and Kris. As we went through the rhymes it was more like how can we make this the hottest thing we can make it. Why LL wasn’t on the record I don’t know. Maybe he had made a conscious decision not to be. In the end he wound up being apart of it just not one of the people on the front lines.

HalftimeOnline: You’ve been apart of the Stop the Violence Movement, the tour we mentioned earlier, the last Arsenio Hall show, the final Yo MTV Raps and just a ton of landmark hip hop events that won’t happen again. How does hip hop culture as a whole get back to those monumental days.

MC Lyte:  I feel like what I experienced in those days is invaluable. To tell someone about it or to try to share the moments it seems so small in compared to what really was. I think in order to get back to the essence to what it really means to love hip hop is to avoid a hunger for money. It’s a hunger to be heard and it’s a hunger to tell a story. Two events just happened in the past quarter [the first was] the Hip Hop Gods tour, which I got to be apart of in Los Angeles at the Nokia. It was remarkable. It reminded me of days of building at the New Music Seminar and how it used to be a room full of people who wanted the education and wanted to be in the midst of the people trying to be heard. The other event was Hip Hop Sisters. We had three days of events. The first day was the search for the top female emcee, which gave those emcees an opportunity to be amongst other women who had a similar story and a similar mission. The second day was a panel where we talked about the business and what it means and how much further we’ve come in terms of information. We talked about what it means to be an artist. It doesn’t just mean you picked up a mic and started rapping. It means being able to protect yourself in all kinds of ways whether its your publishing or with management, record labels or promoters. It’s about knowing contracts and if you don’t having a team of lawyers and people who are trying to help you move from one phase of your career, which is your dream, to the actual fruition of performing and releasing music. Then we moved into the performance on Saturday. To hear the testimonies of the women who went through this three day process it was eye opening for me.  Yesterday, we had our monthly Grammy board meeting [L.A. Chapter], where I’m the president and chair, and people in the room talked about ways for new artists to become involved and putting them into a state where they want to participate and [understand] that the Grammies is not just a show. There are several prongs to the organization and if you are serious about your craft you really need to be apart of it. Its being able to reach out to the younger generation that really needs this information. It’s the Hip Hop Gods tour, the Hip Hop Sisters event and what needs to be in place today for artists to release music. Its a community that they can be apart of and that’s what’s missing from hip hop today.

We had that community back then. We had a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that existed within music. That’s what we need rather than singular moments of success for these artists. Sure sometimes artists have their camp but at times they are being eaten up by their camp and don’t even realize it. That or they’re too afraid to step out of their camp and ask, “What am I supposed to get for publishing?”, “What are my mechanical rates supposed to be?”, “What am I supposed to be getting a show?” or “Who am I supposed to be paying?” Then they are too afraid to ask questions within the camp because then they might be, “Oh you don’t trust us?” It’s so insidious how evil can run rampant even within one’s own organization or the organization they are apart of. I would say the camaraderie is missing. Then again maybe its not and I’m just not apart of it so I don’t know. Haha!

HalftimeOnline: I doubt that, Haha.

MC Lyte: My intuition tells me the same shit is happening today that was happening back then on the inside. Now we are in a position for this next round of hip hop folks to actually be leaders and not just a bunch of followers. We come from the days of leadership. For instance, if I asked you who is a leader in hip hop you would say?

Halftimeonline: Probably depends on how we are defining it as in a leader in terms of setting trends or someone I’m actually looking up to?

MC Lyte: I guess we could get specific like that but in general if someone was to say to me who is a leader throughout our time I’d say Martin Luther King. I wouldn’t have to say do you mean in hip hop or do you mean in trendsetting. Overall, I would look at him. When I think of leaders I think what are they leading people to. Automatically, when I think of leaders I think of positivity. I think you’re leading us out of something dark into something light that makes some sense and brings some clarity. However, the truth is someone can be a leader in trendsetting. That’s great but trendsetting to what degree? What’s hot in clothing or cars? At that point to me that’s just further confusion for the next generation because they think they need that to be somebody or to be heard or to have a voice. And that’s not the case. So when I think of leader I think of a different realm of leadership.

HalftimeOnline: Honestly, I think we have lowered our standards on leadership and are accepting leaders of a lesser quality.

MC Lyte: Ooh. Wow, you said that.

HalftimeOnline: I really think we have lowered our standards as a culture. You said Martin Luther King and if you look around there is nobody on that level. It’s not even close. I think people have expected less of their leaders and that is unfortunate.

MC Lyte: When I think of when a crime happens or who is going to show up in the face of all that can be defaming is Reverend Al Sharpton. He’s going to show up.

HalftimeOnline: That’s true. He’ll be there.

MC Lyte: First off if I’m pulled over on the side of the highway it’s a set up. There’s no reason. I don’t break any laws. I don’t have weed or a gun in my car or anything. So if for some reason I’m pulled over or I’m running through some complications or something unheard of happens. I know that he is a leader within the community that I could call to ramp up some sort of awareness campaign so people know that I’m innocent. He gives a voice to the voiceless. To me that’s leadership. So until in hip hop we have someone who is ready to go the stakes for someone else who doesn’t have a voice then they are leading some shit I don’t care about.

HalftimeOnline: Lastly, I really like what you are doing with the Hip Hop Sisters Network in providing a platform and putting on events like you discussed earlier. I think that’s a great way to give back. What does that mean to you to be able to support those trying to follow a similar path as yourself?

MC Lyte: It means everything. It makes it all worth it. To me the brighter my light shines the more I am able to do for the community. I work as hard as I do to garner attention so that I am able to help those less fortunate, those who for the moment don’t have the shine and are in a quest for the next level and finding it difficult to get there because at this point no one cares. It’s my mission to be able to create a platform to gain some attention from whoever at that point.

Mele Mel – Hip Hop Icons Interview

card_melemelThis interview was done a while back but as we always aim for in our interviews it is still relevant. Enjoy

Halftimeonline.net: I was thinking about the scene today and how it probably differed so much from the early Kool Herc parties. What was the scene like and what inspired you to get started in hip hop when it didn’t even have a name at the time?

Mele Mel: Well, basically we all started out as dancers. We were B-Boys. Not breakdancing like you see cats now. It was more of an uprock style. We would just go to different parties. Herc was a big DJ out at the time. Bam was also doing his thing in another part of the Bronx but not as big as Herc. We used to just go to Herc’s party because he was the most popular DJ at the time and had a good sound system. Herc was the blueprint for the whole style of what became real hip hop. He had the crowd, the good sound system, a good voice, and a nice set of b-boys with him. The only thing that we did different was put structure to what a person would say on the mic. That’s where the MC started. Before that everybody was djs and b-boys. There weren’t any emcees until we created that title.

Read on…