“Not the Rapper With the Zany Antics…”
Last year I recorded a college radio show that featured “underground” artists. All the mainstays were played – Dilated Peoples, DITC, Del, Kool Keith’s latest persona and since I live on the East Coast, anyone Premier ever worked with and numerous Wu Tang affiliates.
Out of the twenty or so songs I recorded, it was Yah Supreme’s “Full Circle” that caught my ear. Doing something that hasn’t been done in awhile, Yah chose to rhyme about life. Over a reflective piano / bass loop, he tells the story of an emotionally abusive woman who leaves only to make an attempt at reconciliation. Of seeing ones peers condemned to a fate their family and friends would not have wished for them, and describing the pressures of making your way as an adult in society.
Next time I was at the vinyl spot I saw his record. There was nothing flashy or catchy about the cover. No cover art, no photos, just a shrink-wrapped record in a black sleeve. It reminded me of what I heard in a KRS One song once, “Relying on talent instead of marketing and promotion.” So I bought it even though I had it on tape.
I kept his name in my head and when his next single, “Live at the Improv” came out, I headed to the store to buy it. Where I shop, records are listed individually by title, not alphabetically. I could see that it had been in but had been sold out. Cool, I thought at least someone bought it, if not myself.
The following is interview I conducted with Yah.
Damage: Let me get this tape rolling.
YS: Take your time. I’m just chilling. Listening to some instrumentals.
D: So where are you from?
YS: Brownsville, Brooklyn. I was born in Harlem and lived there until I was three and then my family moved to Brooklyn. So I consider myself a Brooklynite. That’s where all my formative years were spent. All my defining characteristics were formed or molded.
D: What do you think is unique about living in Brooklyn?
YS: The bugged out thing is Brooklyn as a name or a word rings bells and everyone thinks they have an image of what Brooklyn is. No matter where in the world you go, you say Brooklyn and it conjures up images. From stories you’ve heard from a friend or from records or from what you’ve seen in the movies. When you’re from Brooklyn and grow up it’s not completely different from it, but you have an insiders view on where that mystique is coming from.
Basically, you’ve got a meshing of every culture in the world in Brooklyn. I think more so than most places around the globe and more so than most cities in New York. You’ve got a Hasidic community. You’ve got bohemians here. You’ve got a West Indian community. You’ve got everything.
D: It’s safe to say you came across different musical styles there.
YS: Yeah, it was part of the landscape. It’s kind of a New York thing. But if you grew up in a certain part of Manhattan, you get things that you wouldn’t find in the other four boroughs. But Brooklyn, in particular, there is no embargo on noise. You can be as loud as you want and no one is complaining about the noise. So, basically, people are. You can hear different kinds of music in an apartment you grew up in and no one is complaining about the noise. No one is hitting the ceiling with a broom getting you to turn the sound down. You’re pretty much free to do whatever you want. It’s just like a blank slate that you can pretty much inscribe anything you want. You can go in so many different directions coming from here.
D: Any particular eras of hip hop influence you more than others in Brooklyn?
YS: Actually, a particular era of music and world history that influenced me was the seventies. I was born in seventy two. I grew up listening to the records that my parents and grandma and aunts and uncles passed down. A lot of Motown and Atlantic, lotta soul. And then in the era I was growing up in, I was listening to disco, rock and all kinds of things. Not too much funk growing up in New York. Some of the stuff we got. It was mostly a disco type city in the seventies. Soul, dance music. Roller skate type music. Just fun music, y’know. Five, six or seven minute long ballads by powerful vocalists. I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder. A lot of Jackson 5. Mostly I’m influenced by the Marvin Gaye’s and Donnie Hathaways. They appealed to the masses but were very distinct.
And then when hip hop came in, you could see how organic they came from so many different forms of music and the lifestyle that was taking place. So there wasn’t a particular MC or style of hip hop that was grabbing me. It could’ve been Run DMC. It could’ve been Melle Melle. It could’ve been the Fat Boys but it was everything. It was everybody and everything that was happening.
D: Didn’t I read that you moved to Saint Louis at some point?
YS: Yeah, I went to college there.
D: Notice any major differences?
YS: Yeah, man. Saint Louis is in the dead center of the country, or as about dead center as you can get, and people were influenced by the south, the west and the east. All sides. But mostly what was going on in the west. Because the city was very similar to a West Coast city compared to an eastern or northeastern city.
D: What do you mean by that?
YS: You don’t have a lot of high-rise apartment buildings that people are living in. People are growing up in homes and two family houses, versus a block where you have fifteen twenty story buildings. You might not ever meet all the people in your own building. That’s where I was growing up. Whereas there (Saint Louis), things were more spread out. A little bit more slowed down. They don’t have a subway because they are on a fault line. You have to have a car to get around. So it was more influenced by what was going on in the West especially from the late eighties to early nineties. I was surprised that they were up on the Fore Fathers and the old school legends but they really related to the slowed down more bass heavy tracks with rhymes that weren’t as intricately patterned but just dealing with reality in terms that everyone could understand.
Where in New York, you had KMD and 3rd Bass and the Native Tongues and a lot of MCs who were very lyrical, verbal, and intricate but they were rather cryptic. I still don’t know what Dan Stucky is. I know what Jennifer is. But I still don’t know what Dan Stucky is until this day. (laughs)
Out there people were like you need to listen to this Too Short. Or you need to listen to this Ghetto Boys. I heard about Master P and Mystikal six or seven years before they caught on in a New York market. They were open to music from all regions. The Miami bass. The Texas sound, the Ghetto Boys and the Fifth Ward Boys. They were getting it from all sides. Where as a New Yorker and being on a New York vibe, you have things centered around New York.
D: Do you think you picked up on that artistically?
YS: Couldn’t help it. I still listened to the artists I was listening to but I developed a respect for MCs that weren’t elaborate. That weren’t flipping my brain with these…these…coded messages and clever word play. When I first heard “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me” in ’90 or 91, or whatever, I was like Wow, It was just so simple that it was intricate. It said everything it needed to say and no more.
Also the people I was working with were from different backgrounds. So I would put people on to Nice N Smooth, Masta Ace, Gangstarr, and Kool G. Rap. People put me onto whatever area they were coming from. There were MCs and acts I had no exposure to and would not have had that exposure if I had not left New York.
D: Have you always been rhyming? Were you into any of the other elements of hip hop?
YS: Ummmmm, I spun records on college radio because I felt like I wanted people to be aware of hip hop as an art form and a form of music. I was never a turntablist or anything like that. When I was young, I used to breakdance just for fun. You kinda had to. It was kind of a staple. I never really thought that that was what I was going to do with my life.
When I was a freshman in college, my work-study job was as a custodian at the medical school of the university campus. So, y’know, I would have to take the shuttle over there and then for four hours a day, I’m cleaning floors and using vacuums in the lecture halls and auditoriums and windexing the glass doors of the library. I had all this physical labor and I was alone to collect my thoughts and I would start to think of rhymes and I was like someone needs to say these rhymes and no one was saying them and I was like, wait a minute. I should say them. So I started to write them down after a month and a half of thinking rhymes. It started off as a passion I indulged and hear we are ten years later, running an independent record label.
D: And what’s the background of SonDoo Records? What’s the history behind it?
YS: SonDoo was officially formed in 1998. Recognized by the State of New York as a corporation on January First of that year. But it was an idea that sprung up in ’96 when as a group, me and the producer, Cave Precise, had been shopping demos around through entertainment attorneys to no avail for a few years. We tried to get a production deal through another producer we knew from Saint Louis. We were trying to get in any way we could. But we really had no buzz. We started to worry that time was going by and nobody’s really jumping on our demos. Is it because we’re not good and we shouldn’t be in this game? Well, let’s find out. All the rock bands were doing it. They press up a 45 and go around and sell them at shows. Let’s go straight to the people and find out if we suck. Then if they encourage us we will keep going.
An A & R’s job is no longer to find and cultivate talent. It’s just to say, “Are you down with this rapper or that rapper?” Okay, let him do a cameo appearance and let him write some rhymes for you and then you’ll get your own thing. We just figured out how to start a corporation; which is very easy. How to get a membership at ASCAP. How to copyright material through the Library of Congress. Twenty bucks here. Forty bucks here.
D: Do you think that intimidates people initially?
YS: I think people think there’s a lot more involved in the administrative end then there is. To set up a corporation, you can do it in a week. You just have to get the forms and write the text out. That’s the only thing. Protecting your material once it gets out there. If it catches on, you have the rights to it. Someone can’t capitalize on something you worked on. That was really the only reasons we did it.
So we incorporated and recorded our material and put out a single called “Old and Wise”. That was in 1998. We put that single out and it caught on throughout the U.S. and Canada. About a week later we got offered a distribution deal through Fat Beats, which obviously we had to take. Everything was happening real fast. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We said we got a single out that seems to be doing well on the underground circuit. People are blowing up the phones. What do we do next? We made a video for it. We shot this really artistic aesthetic that ended up getting played on The Box but we sent it to MTV and BET but we didn’t realize at the time how much politics were involved.
D: They never played it at all?
YS: No. A video in this day and age is a commercial for a CD that you can get at Camelot and The Wiz or Tower immediately. We had like 1500 units of the single on vinyl in a few Mom and Pop stores around the country but were mostly used as promos at a few hundred radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. That’s what got us our buzz. We lost a little money and burned up a little time but one thing we learned was we needed to have product flow. So that’s why we started to recruit other acts based on the success we had attracted from our single. People saw we were serious.
It’s just something we learned as we went. People offered us helpful advice. Some people took us along for a ride. We were trying to deal with venture capitalists to record and do it right. That didn’t work out. So we work day jobs and we come home and make it happen. We work with our artists and critique each other’s work. Try to get out there and keep the buzz going.
D: Any releases coming out soon?
YS: We’re coming out with a compilation album called For Your Information. It contains previously released songs from everybody on SonDoo. Me, Oktober, Anom, Dee Surreal, Altered St8s of Consciousness. And it’s gonna have some bonus cuts and we will be releasing some singles that will only be available on the compilation.
D: And yourself? You got anything coming out?
YS: My solo album. It’s been in the works since like 97. That’s when I turned the corner and knew exactly what I wanted to get off my chest creatively. I’ve written some stuff over the past few years that still holds up, and I’ve scrapped songs but I’ve got enough of a catalogue that towards the end of this year, we’re going to put it out.
D: Reviews of your music always say you have “jazz influenced” beats and that you’re lyrics seem very personal. Do you feel that is accurate as to what you’re trying to make?
YS: It’s a motive. I try to deal with things that people deal with. A lot of times during the bling bling version of hip hop a lot of people my age feels like the art form lost them somewhere. It’s turned into something else other than what they grew to love. Some people grew to love it in any incarnation. But some people feel like they can’t listen to hip hop anymore and then they hear what we do they say, “Oh, if there was more hip hop like that, then I would listen to it again.”
I think the reason is the songs I write are very personal, like you said. People are experiencing the things I’m talking about. Not people in the ghetto. Not people in the drug game. Not people on the street. Just people. People have had a bad tryst with a woman. People have had a bad day at the office. People don’t know where their next meal is coming from. People don’t feel like going to work on Monday. I try to write songs that are about life or elements of life that people relate to. You don’t have to know about hip hop to understand what I’m saying. Hip hop is just a vehicle for that.
D: I talked to one group who said when they heard from people in Australia they realized they were reaching people. Have you heard from anywhere you didn’t expect to?
YS: We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from places like Iceland and Japan and Germany and Prague and Italy. All kinds of places. In terms of demographics, I knew that sonic landscape they’re jazzy and more groovy, that has more appeal. To that extent, I wasn’t surprised.
What I’m surprised about is certain songs we put out ends up on the certain radio stations here. Our single, “Old and Wise”, Premier spun it on Hot 97 It surprised the hell out of me because Premier was playing a lot of Group Home and a lot of Jeru. His Jay Z remixes. His Biggie remixes. All the stuff he did for the heavy hitters. Then all of a sudden, they do a station ID over the “Old and Wise” instrumental. Then all of a sudden he started juggling the vocal version of it.
As far as groups go, Gangstarr, if you want to talk about groups that stay in the hunt and stay in the trenches and do music their way. Even if it’s not receiving platinum status or super acclaim. They’re sticking to your guns. So when he played that, it was just amazing to me. My phone started ringing. Everyone’s calling me saying, “Are you listening to Hot 97 right now?” That to me was one of the best experiences and most shocking. To have it played on that station and to have had Primo spend enough time listening to the record to juggle it and ring it back to the beginning at certain phrases was extremely validating to me. It gave me enough gas in the tank to run on for a few years.
D: I did a search for music and your stuff comes up on some acid jazz.
D: Yeah. How do you like being heard outside of a hip hop format?
YS: I’m glad it turns up in any format. I’m glad it’s being played. I’ve heard from college radio guys who aren’t playing hip hop, but eclectic mixes. When I was doing a college show we really tried to find out who was out, who was up and coming and then put the listener on to it. So I really like to see these songs show up on those formats. That means someone put in the time and energy to say the listeners need to be aware of this material. I love that. I hope it turns up on a country music playlist.
D: You think that will happen?
YS: I hope so. (laughs) Maybe Nashville needs to turn onto hip hop. Actually, there was a guy at a college in Nashville who said the stuff is getting a lot of burn there. I want it to reach every crevice.
Thanks to Yah Supreme for his time. Check for the For Your Information compilation and Yah’s solo album on SonDoo Records.