[Part 1 of 2]
The second half of the interview will be published Wednesday.
Five years ago the underground hip-hop scene was booming. Artists such as Company Flow, Eminem, Black Star and the Last Emperor were bringing the underground to the forefront of hip-hop and getting fans excited again. None of the artists sounded anything alike, but they all shared the common thread of bringing new and innovative styles to music.
Fast-forward to today: Most of the aforementioned artists are some of the biggest names in hip-hop. The Last Emperor was not so fortunate. Despite telling some of the best stories that hip-hop had heard in years in tracks like “The Secret Wars” and “Charlie,” the Last Emperor went under the radar as he became entangled in record label issues. With those issues resolved, the Last Emperor’s full length, Music, Magic, Myth is finally available on Red Planet, an imprint of Raptivism Records.
Prefix Magazine‘s Steve Bittrand sat down with the Last Emperor to talk about the label issues that held up the album, Dr. Dre and, of course, superheroes.
What was it like growing up? What were your memories of growing up?
The Last Emperor:
I grew up in West Philly in a pretty closely knit neighborhood environment. Anyone that knows anything about Philly knows it’s a very neighborhood-oriented environment. So I pretty much spent all my time from day one in West Philly, going to West Philadelphia local schools. From Sister Muhammad to Sarah Junior High to Overbrook High.
So life was pretty much normal, as normal as life could be in West Philly because it is the inner-city, “the ghetto.” You see the ills of society, from the drugs and the poverty and things of that nature. Even in my family we struggled a lot — not really having a lot, not really having a lot economically — but I think I definitely had a fun childhood. A lot of time spent at local neighborhood parks and just interacting with a lot of kids around the time I started getting into hip-hop.
I was maybe like twelve years old around 1984, around the time Run D.M.C. was becoming really popular, and shortly thereafter L.L. Cool J. It just seemed like around the time I hit puberty, hip-hop was simultaneously getting attention and notoriety, and it was something that we didn’t even see as that spectacular or foreign.
Some days we’d just ride bikes. We’d be riding our bikes for a couple of hours in the same day. Whatever the newest bike was: a GT or a Haro or a Mogoose. We used to have the mag wheels, the pegs or whatever. We spent hours doing that. We spent other hours during the day looking for cardboard so we could break dance and get that thing on.
Rhyming was also a part of our daily routine. We would play a lot of rhyming games. Today what they consider ciphers before we even had that terminology we were doing it around the way. Freestyling. Passing it from one friend to another. Just having one with it. I would say around age 12, 13 was my introduction to hip-hop.
When it really became something I really kind of immersed my life in was about the time I went to junior high school. Back then I was in the eighth or ninth grade. Being in the lunch room and cats beatin’ on the table during the lunch. I was sort of a shy kid at a certain point when it came to in school stuff. I would always look at the older dudes and admire them for rhyming spontaneously at lunch time.
When I got to high school it was really the culmination of my introduction to rap and hip-hop. Where I went to high school, the Fresh Prince went to the same High School and he was a few years older than me. Steady B went to the same high school. This is like 1986 through 1989. Overbrook in Philly was considered the hip-hop high school. On any given day you could see Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince in front of the school. You could see Three Times Dope or Steady B or Cool C or Schooly D, who didn’t live too far away.
To see these individuals in my community be able to have national and international acclaim it made it seem tangible to me, to one day say “Wow, maybe I can follow in their footsteps.” I kept at it and I’ve kept a book of rhymes ever since. I think I wrote my first actual rhyme in 1984 when I was 12. So by the time I got to high school I had the confidence to do it and I had the role models that made me believe I could do it. That’s probably where my introduction was, from ’84 to ’89.
What was it that made you avoid the pitfalls that many inner city kids fall into? Was it your personality or your upbringing?
The Last Emperor:
Well, I did get in trouble a couple of times, but nothing serious. A few minor things around the way. A few minor run-ins with the police. Never anything serious. I tried to actually get out there and hustle for a bit. Peddling on the street level. But fortunately for me I came from a household where education was really key. No matter what else was going on I immersed myself in books and in literature. My best friend is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence at Ridgeview State Prison, which is in Western Pennsylvania. And growing up there was like eight of us that would do everything together, from break dancing to riding bikes to getting into some trouble here and there. What saved me was education. Literally what saved me was education, my love for education.
A lot people would even tease me about it at a certain point. I was the one out of the whole clique with a good attendance record, who had good grades in school and things of that nature. Earlier on you sometimes get teased about that, but when we got a little older — maybe like 17 or 18 — my friends would say, “It’s a good thing that out of all of us you’re the smart one by staying in school and doing school work.” So sometimes when they were doing illegal things they’d say, “No man, you really don’t need to come with us and do this. You’ve got something a little better going on for you. We see potential in you.”
So a lot of times those same friends that were getting in trouble actually steered me in the right direction. They didn’t want to see me get in the level of trouble they got in. So, clearly education, my love for reading and just realizing there was a life outside of our neighborhood. I think that for a lot of my friends the neighborhood that we lived in — that ten block radius — was all they were ever exposed to. And for some of them it was all they wanted to be exposed to. For me it didn’t limit me to just do the things that were the norm: getting into trouble, stealing, selling drugs and all that. I got into a little trouble, but I knew enough to know that what was going on in that immediate environment wasn’t all there was to know.
A lot of times it seems a lot of labels and even fans would rather hear someone who’s uneducated rapping than someone who’s well educated. Do you ever think that because you don’t talk about mowing people down and things of that nature that people might not buy your album?
The Last Emperor:
Yeah, to a certain extent, the way that industrialized rap is now. The current fad is to talk about the most horrific, horrible things in the neighborhoods we come from. So, it’s always a concern that my approach to hip-hop and the way I discuss it through the experiences I’ve had in my particular neighborhood won’t sell as much as those people who do talk about the more grimy stuff. It’s always there and always looms over the head of every artist who tries to talk of some things other than what’s the norm, but I don’t know.
There’s something within in me that says at the end of the day perhaps I can carve my own niche. Perhaps there’s a way to talk about these same things without doing it in the same fashion that some of the artists that do get the heavy radio spins and video play do. Maybe I can do what I do in a way that’s still effective to the masses, but still in my own way and still respectful of the culture and art form.
It is a concern. And to be perfectly honest I’ve sort of accepted the fact that the sort of artist I am may not be the type of artist that gets the same exposure or album sales as those aforementioned artists. But I just got to stick with what I’m doing and hopefully, while it might not blow up initially, the fans and people that support what I do will continue to do so over the course of a number of years as opposed to just a few years.
When did you realize you could make a career out of being a hip-hop artist and not have to work a 9 to 5, but become a full-fledged hip-hop artist?
The Last Emperor:
The point at which that became a reality was some time in 1998, the latter portion of 1998, when I made my first trip abroad. I had a chance to go to Scandinavia, Denmark, Norway and Amsterdam on a tour pretty much put together by Bobbito Garcia, who was really big at the time in underground radio. And when I went there it was the first time I realized that people who didn’t even come from my neighborhood, city, state or even continent were interested in what it was I had to say and in the sort of music I put together. They were very receptive and would pay to come to see me at shows and would pay to come and see me and to get their hands on my music. That was the first time that I thought I may actually have a stable career and a tangible career. So, my first tour in Europe was the first time I realized this was actually something I could do professionally.
What made you decide to sign with Raptivism as opposed to another label?
The Last Emperor:
I had a previous working relationship with Raptivism around 1998 — maybe early 1999 — when they put out the No More Prisons project. The gentlemen from Raptivism understood that I had a certain background in political science and international relations. They said, “Look, we’re putting together a project that’s going to discuss matters concerning the prison industrial complex and the level of unfairness the prison system has in this country. We want you to be a part of it.”
So they linked me up with a singer named Vinia Mojica for the No More Prisions project. That was my first introduction to Raptivism around late 1998, if my memory serves correct. They approached me earlier and this year said, “We understand that you’ve got 75 percent of an album done and you’re not signed to any label. You want to do a joint venture with us and put this album out?” They pretty much reached out to me, and at that time maybe three or four indie labels were approaching me about an album and I was kind of sure due to some of the things I had gone through before which direction I should take.
I’m the sort of person that just goes by feeling. I don’t know if I want to call it fate or what have you, but during the time I was trying to decide who I wanted to deal with I was in Manhattan and was shopping for comic books. I came out of Forbidden Planet, one of my favorite comic shops, and I came out and I literally bumped into Vince from Raptivism. He said, “We’re obviously interested in putting out your material and it’s good that we ran into each other face to face.” So, I took that as not just coincidence. I thought it was kind of like fate that I should run into this individual as I’m pondering who I should deal with on this next indie situation. So Vince and I had a real in-depth conversation that was stimulating. The vibe that I got from him was so genuine and so sincere that I said, “You know what? It was meant for me to run into him and for me to deal with him on a business and professional level.” So that’s pretty much how that happened.
With all the label issues you had — from Aftermath to Interscope to Rawkus — did that start bringing you down? Did you start doubting things would happen?
The Last Emperor:
After the Aftermath/Interscope situation I sort of walked away with a certain amount of music intact, and obviously I’d like to think my dignity in tact. I didn’t compromise my musical aspirations at all. Actually, when I parted ways with Interscope and with Dr. Dre it was on amicable terms. We weren’t bitter at one another. He said, “Your album may not come out for another two to three years. Is this something you can live with? If not, maybe Aftermath is not the place for you.” So, I respected him for leveling with me at a certain point, but I can’t really live with this. I need to be active, even if my album doesn’t come out in that period I want to be able to work freely with other artists, do side projects and things of that nature. At Aftermath that wasn’t really possible, so we had to part ways and again we did so with a firm handshake.
I stayed on Interscope for about a year and they just kind of didn’t know what to do with me at all. The way Interscope works is that they rely on the subsidiaries under the umbrella to deal with all the hip-hop. A lot of hip-hop artists on Interscope aren’t just directly signed to Interscope. It’s like one of their subsidiaries. At the time they didn’t know what to do with me so I pretty much ended up getting dropped — or downsized as I like to say — after about a year. When I went to Rawkus, that’s when my expectations were very high. I know myself and a lot of others in the hip-hop realm looked at Rawkus as the authentic hip-hop label that really had it together.
They’re weathering the storm in terms of whatever’s going on with the rest of this industry and they had a lot of artists putting out good quality music. And I looked at other groups like Blackstar, Pharoah Monch, Kool G. Rap, and Beatminerz who were already on Rawkus at the time, and it seemed like the ideal place for me to be.
When I got there, what I didn’t know — what I would come to find out after a while — was that Rawkus was a couple million dollars in debt. That began to change their judgment in terms of how they interacted with the artists and the sort of music they wanted the artists to put out. Contractually there was supposed to be a six- to eight-month period when my album was supposed o come out. From the time I signed to Rawkus and that time passed, deadlines weren’t being met. I would go and have meetings about when my album was supposed to come out and they wouldn’t give concrete answers.
Instead they were telling me, “Well, what we want you to do is get a personal trainer so that when the album comes out your body will be well-toned, your abs and pecs will be tight. So when you do promo pictures you can be what LL Cool J was for Def Jam in the early days. We want the Last Emperor to be that for Rawkus.” Literally. Verbatim. That’s what they told me.
So that hurt more than the situations I had on Interscope and Aftermath because that sort of rhetoric I would expect from large labels, but from an institution like Rawkus that was touted as being the ultimate hip-hop label, it just really broke my heart that they really couldn’t live up to those things. I had to part ways and I started to think, I don’t really know about this. I don’t know if I really want to do this music thing professionally anymore. I kind of got down and got in somewhat of a slump and was not really too comfortable about being a part of the industry anymore.