Q. As an emcee who grew up in New York and is based in Beijing, you might be a bit unknown to some of our UK readers — can you introduce yourself and your music? When and how did you first get connected with Hip Hop? When and how did you start making music?
I was born in Brooklyn. When I was young, I moved right across the river from NYC to a spot called Nyack. My moms stayed there. My pops moved back to the city, to Washington Heights. I was first introduced to hip-hop by my father. When I was 11, my pops gave me a Tribe Called Quest CD and told me to go home and listen. I didn’t really understand the music at that time. Later, I discovered groups like Wu Tang, Nas and Big Pun on my own and that whole 90’s New York sound had a big influence on me. I think at that age it was the rawness of the sound and the rebelliousness of the culture that attracted me. By the age of 15 or so I had become particularly attracted to the intricate lyricism of Hip-Hop.
I began to write, freestyle and perform around the age of 17. I collaborated with a friend from school who could produce (at that time he called himself Butterballs; he still deejays and produces today) and we made an EP. I was so young, I just distributed the EP on the street and used it as a business card to give to people. Around that time I participated in a few freestyle battles as well. The biggest one was held at the University of Buffalo, where I was going to school. I took home 2nd place and parts of the battle were aired on MTV.
I moved to China at the age of 20. I was getting into a lot of trouble back home and needed to get out of the US. I started to learn Chinese and travel around Asia. Later I found a decent job in Beijing and stayed. I got back into the music around 2009. There were a lot of dope underground emcees and deejays (both foreign and Chinese), and the live jazz scene was popping. I would go to the live shows and kick it and freestyle with the performers after the show. One night, I went to see this dope jazz‑R&B band and I met their producer—Jewell Fortenberry. This dude was an ill pianist and producer, and he could spit too. He had this band with the Chinese singer Tia-Ray and he would be killing the keys and rapping in between her vocals. He was the one who put me on. He introduced me to the key people in Beijing and helped me produce (along with the Chinese American producer Soulspeak) my first full-length album. Jewell’s an amazing musician and person and I’ve been blessed to be able to work with him again on my latest album.
Q. Your music has a very soulful sound. How did you develop this style? Who and what are your influences?
I think this has deep roots. In my elementary school we had a very passionate music teacher. Her name was Judy Thomas. She would teach us these old African American Gospel and civil rights songs. I’ve always been particularly moved by this kind of music, which I still love today. I mean, I’m not religious really, but that Gospel music can move me to tears, that’s how powerful it is. So as I grew older, I began to search out and listen to a lot of Soul music, which is the modern evolution of Gospel.
My music has been influenced by a whole range of people from Nas to Eminem, to Bob Marley and Sizzla, to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding. Even musicians far away from hip-hop, like Coltrane, Mingus, John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan; they’ve all influenced me in various ways. I listen to all kinds of music and am constantly trying to learn and incorporate new ideas from other genres into Hip-Hop. This is how Hip-Hop began and, to me, it’s the spirit of Hip-Hop.
Q. The message in a lot of your tracks has a strong anti-establishment, pro-revolutionary thread (in line with the kind of stuff we love to promote at IAMHIPHOP!). How did you develop your way of thinking? How important is it for you to incorporate these thoughts (and actions) into your music?
I would say my new album is more in the conscious Hip-Hop tradition of Tribe, Mos Def and Common. Cats looking to hear that hard-hitting political critique should check out my 2013 album “Long Time Coming”. I definitely am a politically minded person and I love political music. I don’t believe, however, that all art should be political. I think art and music should always have a message of some kind—a deeper meaning that goes beyond just the aesthetic. So some of my music is political, some of it is about love or emotion, but all of my music tries to convey a message.
I developed my political views partly because my parents are both very left-wing and partly do to my experiences growing up in New York. When I was young, my parents never talked about politics with me directly, but they definitely provided me with a perspective on life that championed the underdog. Later, when I was around 19, I started forming my own political views. These views developed out of the experiences I had and the shit that I saw growing up. As a teenager especially, I witnessed a lot of social injustice and racism. I saw kids I grew up with go to jail, people get harassed by the police and folks unable to get good jobs. I personally was arrested and expelled from high school over a rhyme I had written and this gave me a strong sense that the powerful will persecute people who they cannot control. I also witnessed a lot of violence growing up. When I was 18, I saw a kid get shot five times right in front of me. This had a deep impact on me. It pushed me to look for answers to some of the social problems we deal with in the US. Why were Black and Latino folks killing each other and going to jail in much larger proportions than white folks? Why did some folks get to go to college and get high-paying jobs and other folks forced to sell drugs on the street? These were the immediate questions I had that lead me down a socially conscious path.
I love to see how music can educate and inspire people down a similar path. In 2012, I went to South Africa to do some hip-hop workshops and perform in the townships (ghetto communities) there. I was invited by a group called Soundz of the South. Those kids are doing some really cool work with the community. They were using the music as a platform to educate people, something similar to what the Zulu Nation does. They later started the African Hip-Hop Caravan, where they took this same community-based performance model to something like seven African countries. That trip was an amazing experience for me and I would definitely be down to get involved in something like that again in the future.
Q. Is it these kinds of experiences and these ways of thinking that lead you to Beijing? Why did you decide to move to China?
My journey to Asia definitely developed out of me becoming socially aware. If you read a lot about history and politics, you learn how the world is interconnected. Of course, I wanted to travel to other countries that I was reading about and see how the people of those countries lived and thought.
I was always interested in Asian culture though. My grandfather lived in China and Japan when he was in the navy. My step-mother is Korean. And so, since an early age I had been exposed to aspects of Asian culture that I wanted to understand in more depth. I chose to come to China, in part because I felt like it was the fountain head of East Asian culture, and in part because of its history with Socialism. I was curious to see what Socialism was about.
Spending 12 years in China must have impacted your outlook. Do you feel that’s the case? Are there any particularly moments that have had a particularly significant impact on you?
China has influenced me in many ways that I can’t even explain. I’ve learned to be tolerant, humble and mature. I’ve learned to understand the world from a different perspective. A lot of the same issues that cats are dealing with back home, the Chinese are dealing with too. China has taught me a lot about my own country and to see the world more objectively.
Socialism in China is a difficult question. The Chinese have basically abandoned Socialism and embraced capitalism. This has brought a lot of wealth to the country as a whole, but the wealth is being distributed more and more unevenly. There have been a lot of improvements in the past 30 years in China, but also a lot of problems that they cannot easily fix. I think China needs to slow down the economic growth and focus on issues of society, education, and culture. If there is to be real socialism in China, it can’t be the welfare state and it can’t be authoritarian rule; it’s gotta come from the working people themselves.
Q. How much of an influence has Beijing and your travels in China influenced your music?
I would say my music comes out of my identity as an American. Most of what inspires me musically is my connection with New York and the experiences I’ve had living there. In fact, Hip-Hop helps me get back to those roots. China has influenced me in other ways, but musically not so much.
Q. How is your Chinese language skill? Can you understand Chinese emcees? Can you spit bars in Chinese?
My Chinese is pretty much fluent. I can understand Chinese emcees if I listen carefully and rewind and double check the shit they are spitting. Otherwise, I can communicate normally in Mandarin with no problem.
I can spit written bars in Chinese but I can’t really freestyle. I’ve got a few songs written in Chinese which I will drop at some point. I’m always concerned though that the songs I’ve written in Chinese are good for a non-native speaker, but that they will seem corny to a Chinese person because I can’t express myself poetically in the same way they can.
Q. What is the Hip Hop scene like in Beijing? How do you perceive it and what is your place and role within it? How does it compare to New York?
Hip-Hop culture in Beijing is strange because it is extremely divided between Chinese and foreign Hip-Hop. The Chinese Hip-Hop heads are either creating their own underground music and performing it at live shows or they are doing the club thing. The foreign Hip-Hop heads are mostly involved in deejing and hype-man shit in the big night clubs. There are some people in Beijing who are trying to break down these barriers and make music and do events that involve both sides. I have always viewed this as one of my goals of doing music in China, though I have not always succeeded.
The Chinese language Hip-Hop scene is interesting because it has maintained the old-school 90’s culture and for the most part has tried to stay loyal to that. I see this as both a good and a bad thing. It is good because it is preserving a tradition that is dying out. It can be a bad thing, however, when Hip-Hop identity becomes too rigidly focused on the golden age 90’s culture. Music is a creative art. I think the real challenge that Chinese Hip-Hop faces, as Hip-Hop faces everywhere, is how to balance the tendency to preserve with the tendency to innovate. If they can figure that out, I think we will see a lot of beautiful music in Beijing.
The other thing that is essential in order for Chinese Hip-Hop to flourish is to have financial support. Whether this means the direct support of record labels or indirect support of sponsors, fans, and independent organizations, the fact is that without serious support of the music there will be no future. From what I have noticed, there seems to be a much stronger support on the dancing side of Hip-Hop, and very little support for original Chinese language Hip-Hop music. This may be because break dancing isn’t perceived as a threat in the way that Chinese Rap music is.
Q. You’ve just dropped your second project ‘The Foundation’ EP. Tell us about the creative process you went through in creating this project.
‘The Foundation’ is a project which cuts to the heart of the music. To me, Hip-Hop music is about two things; the groove and the art of lyricism. Hip-Hop comes out of Soul and Funk music and originated as a kind of urban dance music. Today, a lot of what is considered Hip-Hop is barely danceable—there are no changes in the songs; things have been simplified and made monotonous. Real lyricism has incredibly complex rhythms and rhyme schemes; just like that of a drum. Today, the art of rapping has become almost a joke. Rapping has no message and is rhythmically flat and routine. ‘The Foundation’ tries to get back to the roots of the music and culture, while still being fresh and innovative.
Five songs made the final cut for the album. Each song is meant to display a different style that I am capable of as an artist, as well as the different styles that Hip-Hop is capable of as an art form. Themes on the album range from the philosophical, to the hardcore, to the party groove, to the romantic love song. In my mind, this range of sounds and themes form the foundation of Hip-Hop.
The title ‘The Foundation’, also comes from the name of the last song on the album. This song is about understanding love as the basis of humanity. To me, love is the spiritual force that unites human beings as a community. It is the force that creates new life; the force that heals and strengthens us. The album title, ‘The Foundation’, also carries with it this meaning because all the songs on the album are meant to be uplifting in some way.
For this project, I was blessed to collaborate with a variety of producers, mixers and featured artists. I was able to team back up with the immensely talented pianist and producer Jewell Fortenberry, who has worked with Chinese singers Tia-Ray and Fang Da Tong. And I also had the privilege to collaborate again with the main producer of my first album — Soulspeak. Other producers I worked with include the Norwegian producer DJ Peewee, African producers from the Triad Music Crew DJ Moss Da Boss and DJ Shaba, and the Azerbaijani producer Dojo Shaolin. On the EP, I have two featured artists. The first is the German singer Lisa Rowe, who’s 2012 single “United” with the Danish duo Nik & Jay did extremely well in Denmark. The second feature is from the French reggae artist General Huge, who is a member of the Ultimate Band Crew. Finally, the album was primarily mixed by the German mixer Michael Seifert, who did an outstanding job. I also gotta thank the Japanese illustrator Haku-Ryu and the Chilean graphic designer Jose Alvarez for the dope album cover artwork. In addition to writing the song lyrics, I acted as executive producer throughout, providing the overall vision and scope as well as coördinating, arranging, revising and funding all the music on the album.
Q. So this is an extremely international project. You have a lot of talent from all over the world contributing to your sound and imagery. Was that deliberate? Does this affect the nature of the project?
It was deliberate in the sense that I sought out people who had the sound or flavour that I was looking for. As I said I wanted an album that had a wide range of sounds. I thought the best way to achieve this was to work with a variety of different people. As rough drafts for the songs developed, I started to understand more clearly what was needed in each song and looked for people who could bring that specific flavour. The album is even more international when you include the session musicians I worked with (who were not formally credited on the songs). Artists like the Thai singer OMG, who did back-up vocals on two of the tracks; Detroit bass player Dan Zylinski; and the Chinese violinist Xu Mingmei all brought a unique feel to the project. Not only am I lucky to have worked with such diverse and talented people, but the album also benefits from this diversity. We were able to achieve both the musical range that I wanted and a strong continuity between the tracks. That’s not easy to do. So I feel very proud that we were able to pull it off.
Q. What are your goals for this project? How are you releasing it? Will you focus on Beijing, China, Asia, New York, the US? Are you planning any tours or international shows?
‘The Foundation’ EP is being released completely independently. For now I am focusing on the digital distribution and promotion and so haven’t printed any physical copies of the album yet. This may change in the future if it seems like I also need the physical distribution.
My plans for the album are to build more of an international fan base so that I can meet up, learn from and collaborate with people doing this all over the world. I will focus on Asia because that’s where I am closest in proximity too. But I will also devote a lot of attention to promotion in English speaking countries like the US, UK, Australia and South Africa. Germany, and Europe in general, will also be a focus. I plan to travel to Berlin in October to shoot a video with Lisa Rowe.
I am currently trying to work out tour plans for several countries including Japan, Korea and Germany. If anyone reading is interested in having me perform definitely get in touch.
Q. What are your plans beyond this EP?
I want to keep traveling and keep doing my music. I’d like to get more involved in organizing events and cross-cultural music collaborations. I’ve teamed up with a partner — Danny G. — and the two of us have started an organization called No Play Concepts. No Play is involved in recording and producing music in Beijing. We hope to not only help grow music in China, but also facilitate more collaboration between Chinese and international artists.
Q. Finally, do you have any advice for any Hip-Hop heads who might be inspired by you and want to travel to China, as fans or as artists?
Definitely come check out China. China is a beautiful country with amazing diversity. From the Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the West, to the Tibetan and Mongolians, to the Han Chinese themselves, music is alive in China. If you a straight Hip-Hop head come to Beijing and check out the Natural Flavor venue or deejay Wordy. If you into Reggae, check out deejay Raddam Ras. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Xi’an also all got dope underground Hip-Hop scenes. You can travel and eat great food here for real cheap.
Q. It’s been a pleasure building with you, we hope everything goes well with ‘The Foundation’ EP and with your future goals and ambitions. Before we finish, let everyone know where they can find your music.
You can order my new album ‘The Foundation’ EP on Itunes and on Amazon:
You can find my old album and music at: http://emceeheretic.bandcamp.com/music
Follow my facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/mcheretic
You can watch my vids on my Youtube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/user/emceeheretic
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