Return of the Boom Bap
Miami hip-hop heads, you've been waitin' and debatin' for oh so long. Saturday it's finally here — the local stop of the Rock the Bells tour, a day-long festival of so much non-bling-blingin', non-booty-bass hip-hop, it hardly seems real. Okay, so the New York and California shows get the elusive, recently reunited Rage Against the Machine, and we don't, and that's disappointing. We don't get EPMD or Public Enemy either.
But what we do get, on the main stage, are Nas, UGK, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, David Banner, Immortal Technique, and Jedi Mind Tricks along with hometown heroes ¡Mayday! with the Fresh Air Fund. Oh, and all surviving members of the Wu-Tang Clan. And on the second stage, a long list of some of the finest homegrown talent, MCs and DJs alike. Here's a closer look at a few of our favorite acts on the bill. For a complete schedule, visit www.rockthebells.net.
RZA, born Robert Diggs, goes by many names: the Abbott, Bobby Digital, Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig, Allah, Bobby Steels, Rzarector, Prince Rakeem. According to The Wu-Tang Manual, Volume One (Riverhead Books), he's also the mastermind behind the legendary supergroup's revolutionary business plan. At Wu-Tang Clan's inception, RZA promised the members that if they followed his five-year plan, they would conquer the world of hip-hop. His prediction came true.
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Solo, RZA has appeared in movies (Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog) and in skits on Chappelle's Show, and has composed music for films such as Kill Bill and Afro-Samurai. On a recent Tuesday, this interview with him was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. RZA had just returned to New York from Europe, with the master copy of the new Wu-Tang album, 8 Diagrams, in his hands. RZA's assistant got on the phone at 4:10. "RZA is still talking to the lawyers. Can we push it back?" The album was born purely of creative hunger, with no label advance. The tracks were all done, but the man was still trying to broker a record deal. At 5:30 the phone rang.
RZA: Yo, what's up?
Thank you so much, RZA. Miami loves Wu-Tang.
Our area code is 305. Three plus zero plus five ...
That eight, baby.
The title of the new album is 8 Diagrams?
Yep. It is an ode to hip-hop. Hip-hop could use my services right now.
The name 8 Diagrams comes from a classic kung fu film. But I have also been studying the I Ching. It is an ancient way of predicting the future. I Ching is about change, and it contains eight diagrams. Each diagram represents the way the stars are, the way life is, the destiny of a person, the destiny of a nation, and the destiny of our planet. The ancient Chinese used it over 4000 years ago to predict and calculate harvests, good times, bad times. Each diagram represents a Wu-Tang member and our position.
It is time for a change in hip-hop. We look forward to ushering in a new change with this album. Nothing happens by chance or coincidence. Everything in the universe travels in a circle. The Earth goes in the same circle every year; you understand ... there are small circles and big circles.
There are eight points of the sun. In my lyrics I say, "I am the seven in the center of the eight-pointed sun." I see myself as the center of Wu-Tang. The eight points are the members that shine out. We are like each point of that sun, shining in all directions.
Well, I have to ask about Ol' Dirty Bastard.
His death was a wake-up call for a lot of people. How does his spirit or legacy affect Wu-Tang, now that there is one less member?
His presence in my life has been tremendous. He was such a unique individual. His ways, his vibe, his presence has rubbed off on each one of us Wu-Tang members. Everybody has a piece of ODB in them. ODB is not physically on the new album, but you will feel his energy and presence coming through the other Wu-Tang members. There is a lyric that Meth says on the album in a song about life changes: "Now that you're gone, ODB, in your honor I've grown a fetish for loose women and babies' mamas."
I've heard about ODB's son....
Yeah, he's 16 years old and I'm nurturing him right now. We're taking him out on tour with us. He's writing lyrics. He acts like his father, which is so crazy ... but he does it soberly. He is ODB's first son, and I helped raise him since ODB is my cousin. I am guiding him towards a better way. He calls himself "Young DB." We've recorded over 20 songs. He will be carrying on his father's legacy in his own way. I want him to be around his uncles. We all rub off on each other. When you rub metal against metal, it gets sharper, know what I mean?
— Jason Handelsman
Almost ten years on, Talib Kweli can hardly be mentioned without appending the phrase "formerly of Black Star." Well that's what he gets for being half of one of the most influential groups of the late-Nineties so-called "conscious" rap underground. On the duo's landmark 1998 self-titled debut (and only) album, Mos Def had the half-smiling, direct delivery, while Kweli was a stealth force. He punched out powerful, multisyllabic turns of phrase in a melodious, pure Brooklyn semi-rasp.
He would later prove himself as part of Reflection Eternal, with Hi-Tek, and as a solo artist with his lauded 2002 album, Quality. But 2004's The Beautiful Struggle was met with mixed reviews; many fans balked at the more club- and banger-style production. Haters and skeptics will shut up August 24, when Ear Drum is released on his own imprint for Warner Bros., Blacksmith. It's Kweli in rare form — all literate, lift-yourself-up lyrics over neck-breaking, head-nodding beats. And he's making sure it gets out there: The famous road warrior isn't resting while playing Rock the Bells. He's sandwiching in club gigs on the tour's nights off.
Why did you start your own imprint of a major label at a time when so many seem to be folding?
Well, I'm not putting it out with my own money. It's a distribution deal. But the business model I have is consistent, regardless of what's going on. It makes money regardless of the trends that have come up in the business. I'm still here, culturally relevant and socially relevant to what's going on in hip-hop. And if [the major labels] could get other artists that could do that, they wouldn't be in so much trouble.
Were you upset at all about the reception of The Beautiful Struggle?
Why would I be upset? That album enabled me to go on the road. Based on that album, I was able to do a song with Mary J. Blige, I was able to do a song with Faith Evans. I got to do tours with the Beastie Boys, Kanye West, and Black Eyed Peas. I significantly increased my fan base, and I added songs to my stage show. Also it was my biggest-selling album, so I got to make a little money too.
How have your lyrics developed or changed on the new album?
My lyrics remain focused on the community and on self-worth, self-esteem. Those are the issues affecting the community the most. I've got more experience and more maturity.
What about the production? How did your process change when choosing beats for this new album, versus how you chose them for the last one?
With The Beautiful Struggle, the problem a lot of people have had is that I picked music that works for performance. I do 200 to 250 shows a year. When I started, my music was a lot of head-nod hip-hop, headphone hip-hop. But if you're performing a song like that and people don't know it, it's hard for a show. So I started developing songs, like most artists on the road, that translate to a stage show. I perform more songs from The Beautiful Struggle than any other album; it's really my biggest-selling album, even though people complain. It's like I have two sets of fans.
So this album, I wanted to work with specific styles, influenced by Pete Rock or Diamond D. So I actually got Pete Rock, and the people influenced by that style — even Madlib and Kanye West [both producers on the album] are influenced by that style.
Do you really still do that many shows? At least five a week? It seems you'd be pretty established as an MC by now that you could lighten up on that a bit.
I'm established in terms of my respect — you're doing an interview with me — but I'm not established in a traditional industry sense. The reason why I'm able to remain relevant is because of my time on the road. You're not really hearing my music on the radio or on BET.
— Arielle Castillo
Queens rap veteran Pharoahe Monch came of age in the Nineties with duo Organized Konfusion. His 1999 Rawkus Records solo debut, Internal Affairs, spawned the hit "Simon Says." This past June, his long-awaited followup, Desire, was released on SRC/Motown to positive reviews but fairly weak sales.
Where are you right now?
I'm in a car coming into Manhattan from Queens. I'm driving actually. I love to drive. If I go 12 times platinum, I'll still be driving. It'll just be a Lamborghini.
Who are the main guys you're buddies with on Rock the Bells?
Mos [Def] and [Talib] Kweli and some of the Wu-Tang guys.
Expecting any crazy shenanigans?
All of these artists are so busy. I don't think there's going to be like a Rock the Bells after-party tour with all the groups getting together and doing cocaine.
Why do you think critics gravitate toward you?
You kind of don't know what you're going to get. I've been doing these record signings at these in-stores, and the DJs will play some old, old Pharoahe stuff, and I'll be like, "Wow, the intricacies of some of that stuff, technically, is just remarkable." But I totally didn't listen to [Internal Affairs] when I recorded my new one, and I totally didn't listen to the trends that are going on currently in music.
How do you feel about Desire's reception?
It has been overwhelming — overwhelmingly good. One thing people feel about it is the maturity and the growth. I took some chances on it, for example singing for my first verse on the "Push" record. I've done choruses before, but I've never tried to sing a verse. I just love recording. You never know what's going to come out of the process.
That's interesting, because a lot of rappers downplay their work in the studio.
I think I have a different mentality. A lot of rappers who say they prefer the stage over the studio, their shows still suck.
Why was the album twice delayed?
The first time I had a hand in pushing it back because I wanted to tweak some things and I wanted to shoot a video for "When the Gun Draws." The second time we pushed it back again to create more marketing funds. The record was prereleased earlier in the UK, and the response over there was so overwhelming that [Universal's UK division] actually funded the video.
Clipse became a critical darling — even playing at the Pitchfork festival — and had a hard time selling records. Do you worry about connecting with the public?
If the public really likes what's on the radio right now, then I don't have a problem with not connecting with them. If the public were exposed to my record, many of them would probably like it. Clipse's album was one of the best albums of last year, but their marketing wasn't up to par [to show] why that group is unique. When they talk the drug talk, they do it in a very entertaining way, in a very good way, a vivid way. You can't compare them to anybody else who does that, to Young Jeezy or Jay-Z.
How do you feel about playing shows in front of a bunch of white kids?
I mean, white kids have always supported hip-hop since the beginning. To me that's like a no-brainer. If you're influenced by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, a great deal of your audience is not just going to be urban kids from the hood.
Any chance of an Organized Konfusion reunion?
Who knows what the future holds?
— Ben Westhoff
Jedi Mind Tricks
Just minutes after a recent Democratic presidential debate, Vinnie Paz is nonplussed. As frontman of the rugged Philadelphia trio Jedi Mind Tricks, he has always been incendiary. On the 2006 track "Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story," he spit verses from the point of view of an American G.I. scared shitless in a foxhole. On "Silence & I," a track for his side project, Army of the Pharaohs, Paz got more direct: "I got a bomb in hand, and it's for George Walker/Meet your maker, motherfucker, meet your lost father."
Still, he doesn't relate to all of that mainstream political noise, he says by phone from a Philly recording studio, where he's wrapping up another AOTP disc. "I'm not really as motivated by a lot of the issues brought up by the average candidate," Paz says. "I'm more concerned with things like Mumia Abu-Jamal being in jail, and getting these kids out of Iraq, and things like that."
Jedi Mind Tricks is similarly difficult to pin down. The group was formed in 1996, with backbone DJ/producer Stoupe and, on the mike, Paz and Jus Allah. Then they downsized to a duo, with Jus Allah estranged. Then came the Army of the Pharoahs records, featuring Paz with a fluid roster of underground stars (not to be confused with the regular Jedi Mind Tricks records, which have also always boasted casts of thousands). Next, Jus Allah was rumored to be rejoining JMT, in time for the 2006 album Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell. But he remained absent from the final product. Now he's back, but only for a few Rock the Bells dates (Miami is not among them).
As for the group's songs, thematically they're full of concrete imagery, but are anchored in out-there abstract narrative. There are numerous spiritual references; the Italian-American Paz is a devoted student of Islam. He's a master of extended metaphors that sometimes last an entire verse; his imagery is often frighteningly violent but impressively erudite. And his violence isn't of the mundane block/trap variety; it takes place on a different, strange cosmic plane.
All of this can make his interview voice surprising at first. He speaks in carefully measured tones, his words almost halting. This contrasts sharply with his MC flow — a roiling, aggressive voice with textures as dark and viscous as crude oil.
In fact the Jedi Mind Tricks oeuvre is drenched with in-your-face attitude and sonic quality that is downright ... punk rock. Indeed on the group's MySpace page, Paz cites numerous early hardcore acts like Hatebreed, H20, and Judge as influences. "I was always drawn to anything that was sort of aggressive and anti-pop, you know? Or anti-pop-culture," he says. "I was drawn to Public Enemy, but also to a lot of bands like Bad Brains ... based on the aggressive and rebellious nature. I still try to emulate some of that in what we do."
The DIY ethos propels the group, which remains on the independent label Baby Grande, and on the road for the better part of the year. It also stops Paz from focusing on the hype surrounding Rock the Bells and the prospect of playing to fields of thousands. "[Performing] is what I do; it's what I've done for so many years," he says. "I don't think people get nervous every day when they get up to go to their job." — Arielle Castillo
Miami's own DJ Induce is something like the ultimate selector. You can catch him on any given night playing any given record for any given crowd. He spins at venues from the Shore Club and the Standard, to the Pawn Shop and Studio A. He's been known to rock a party by infusing the likes of Steely Dan, Louie Vega, A Tribe Called Quest, and Justin Timberlake into one seamless flow. How does he manage such an eclectic mix? "I have a lot of free time on my hands," says Induce.
A lot of free time and a lot of records as well. In fact "a lot" is an understatement. Induce's house is a virtual music library, where one can easily mistake a crate of records for a side table. "I have over 10,000 records," he notes. "I'm a bit obsessed."
Compared to the zillion other DJs, in personality and habits, Induce also stands out. He doesn't drink, smoke, or eat meat. While many South Beach club DJs are known to be arrogant drunks, Induce seems genuinely nice. He smiles a lot and always seems to be having a better time than anyone else.
Born and raised in Miami, Induce grew up listening to the likes of De La Soul, Faith No More, and the Cure. His participation in hip-hop ranged from freestyle MCing to gung-ho b-boying. He later stuck to DJing, a skill he has honed for nearly a decade.
His most recent mix compilation, titled More Iconic, Less Ironic, is a statement on how he appoaches his audio undertakings. The track list comprises everything from My Bloody Valentine to Ol' Dirty Bastard to Stereolab to the Last Poets; it's safe to say Induce's musical knowledge is wide-ranging.
But besides his turntable magic, Induce also gets dirty behind the boards, playing beat architect for his own label, Wondersound. His latest LP of original material, Cycle, sounds as if J Dilla met Boards of Canada, an aural universe of beauty, serenity, and the occasional club banger.
As for Miami's music scene, he remains guardedly optimistic. "It's been in its infant stages for about 15 years," Induce says. "Although it seems like people's ears are a bit more open these days, with hip-hop kids listening to indie rock and indie rock kids listening to house music. And by getting out of Miami, I've noticed how in some ways we have it a bit better than other cities, even New York and L.A."
Indeed Induce is proud to call Miami home and can't see himself doing anything else besides music. "If I wasn't doing this, I'd possibly be writing, but probably not. I would have found another way to do nothing and get paid for it." — Esther Park
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