Hip Hop producer Small Professor, from Philadelphia, has a fascination for double meanings. A fan of both Dave Brubeck and Waka Flocka Flame, Small Professor’s alias is not only an ode to the highly respected Queens Hip Hop producer/rapper Large Professor, but the name also reflects his height. He is not ashamed to make fun of the fact that he is 5’4. He is also turned off by the on-going argument about what constitutes “real hip-hop”. For him, the argument is too subjective to arrive at a definitive conclusion.
His production credits include work with Rhymesayers Entertainment’s Blueprint and Von Pea (of the group Tanya Morgan). Now, he has released an entire collaborative project with Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson entitled Highway Robbery. My phone interview with him covered thoughts about fusing Boom Bap with Trap, keeping his sound current, as well as growing up in a family full of musicians.
Since your new project is mainly Boom Bap, would you say you’re interested in retro sounds or were you privileged to be a part of that scene?
That’s an interesting question. I’m actually not so into the idea of doing Boom Bap. It kind of just comes naturally. I’m more interested in fusing Boom Bap with more current sounds at the moment. Like, I’ve been trying to incorporate more Trap sounds into my beats.
Do you think there’s a resurgence of interest in Boom Bap?
Definitely. I don’t really know why. I guess we’re just in a decade of people who are trying to bring it back to the 90s. It’s the younger generation—younger than me—who are doing Boom Bap, more than the guys my age.
You said you were interested in blending Boom Bap with Trap. Do you think they tend to contradict each other?
They can. It’s not exactly half-and-half. It might be the kicks, for example, the 808s kick drum—I just love the way it sounds. It sounds good with Boom Bap drums.
When an artist works with a genre that already has a history, there’s the challenge of staying relevant. By incorporating Trap elements, are you attempting to conquer this challenge?
I don’t really think of it as trying to remain relevant. I really just like how it sounds. [laughs] That’s as simple as I can put it. I like the way the energy of those beats and the rhythm of those beats aren’t something that you find in 90s Hip Hop. What basically happened with me was when I started making beats I was inspired by—of course—Large Professor—that’s obvious. But, also RZA, DJ Premier. You know the greats of the New York Boom Bap era pretty much. Around 2008, I started listening to southern music. And it hadn’t really made its way into my music at that point. The point where I started to try to make those kinds of beats was I think 2010—or whenever Waka Flocka Flame put out Flockaveli. Lex Luger was a big influence on me. And through him I was able to go back and see who he was inspired by which just helped me do what I wanted. I think I always wanted to place southern beats with Boom Bap. That’s where my mind was. Actually, I don’t think I’m the only beat maker who’s doing it either. Illmind is one guy I can think of who actively tries to fuse the two styles.
Have you been mistaken for the rapper Large Professor? Is your name an ode to him in any way?
Yes, definitely. Generally speaking I like things that have a couple of different meanings. And that goes for my song titles, my album titles, and especially that goes for my name. It’s meant as an ode because I really looked up to the album [Large Professor] did with Main Source— Breaking Atoms. I was in love with that album. I really can’t put my finger on why I loved that album so much. But, when I was really getting into 90s Hip Hop, that album stood out to me. And also his later stuff. But that album…it wasn’t just the music. It was also the title. The album cover was fresh. And, also, me always being into science—you know, I was kind of nerdy. I always liked that part of it. The other thing about the name Small Professor is I’m a short guy so it’s also like I’m poking fun at myself with the name. Most people don’t get that part of it because not that many people have seen me in person. Like, I met Jerry Barrow of Nodfactor.com. And as soon as he met me he was like “Oh, okay, I understand why your name is Small Professor now.” [laughs] So, if people saw me in person they would get it. You know, I’ve been seeing a lot of negative comments about my name since the publicity campaign for the Guilty Simpson record started.
How long have you been actively making music as Small Professor?
I’m going to say since 2007. That was when I started getting music on blogs and websites. I made a remix album of Jay Z’s American Gangster. It was called Crooklyn Gangster. I think the first site I was on was KevinNottingham.com, and I was so proud of myself. I had been making beats for three years up until that point.
Are any of your family members musicians?
Both sides of my family are filled with musicians. My mother was a music teacher for twenty-plus years until she retired this year. My dad plays keyboard, saxophone, flute, guitar, and bass. And my younger brother is a drummer. He’s a Jazz drummer in Philadelphia.
My mother was in a quartet—a string quartet—called The Uptown String Quartet, which was founded by [the prominent Jazz percussionist] Max Roach. Max Roach was also a member of the group. So, I had a lot of musicians in my family, and I grew up around it definitely.
Do you have a lot of beats in your personal library that you go back to? Or do you always come-up with fresh ones for new projects?
I try to keep things as fluid as possible. That means sometimes I will go back and see if I made anything that fits into what I’m trying to do with a current project. For example, the Guilty Simpson album was a mix of older beats, and some stuff I made specifically for the album. I sent him beats—you know they may have been two years old or so. It was all stuff that I thought he might like, or he might sound good on. And then, I made some stuff specifically for that project. When he sent me what he picked out, I basically tried to make everything sound like it was made at the same time—to make it sound as cohesive as possible. I might do a project where it’s all older beats—you know something to that nature.
Do you buy into the tension between what’s real Hip Hop and what isn’t?
No. I hate that argument to the depths of my soul. [laughs] I always try to stay away from that because it pisses me off. Basically, what I think it boils down to is what people call the hip hop they don’t like—not real. Or what the hip hop they do like—real. Or what they consider to be from the Golden Era. I don’t want to say the “so-called Golden Era”—but, there is a “Golden Era” for everybody pretty much. But, yeah, that’s just a way for people to say this is the Hip Hop I do like and this is the Hip Hop I don’t like.
What do you look for when you choose vocal samples or audio clips from movies in your instrumentals?
When I am gathering—actually, it might just be watching a movie or hearing something on YouTube. It depends. It basically boils down to something that will make me laugh every time that I listen to it. No matter how old it is. For example, I sample something on my first album Slowbus from 2008. It’s in the intro, but it makes me laugh every single time I hear it. And I’ve listened to that album a million times by now. Even when I was making it, it was still cracking me up. You hear a sample from YouTube of a guy on one of my instrumental albums, but it’s the same thing—it makes me laugh every time I listen to it.
Would you explain what it is?
The clip in question is: one guy is asking another one, “Are you drunk?” And the guy is like, “No.” There is silence, and a couple seconds later he says, “Yes.” And the guy is like, “What happened?” And the other guy says, “I found a liquor store and I drank it.” It always makes me crack up. The concept for the beat was I made the drums sound like the drummer was drunk playing the drums. It was kind of me trying to—I’m not sure if I was trying to make fun of the un-quantified style of beats or do a tribute. But, it comes off as both.
Do you think all hip hop producers are big movie fans?
Maybe. I’m not sure, but I can imagine. I think that all art is related. You’ll find producers that also draw. So, I guess it’s not a stretch that most producers might like that medium of art or like photography.
What was the first piece of music you heard that stood out? You mentioned Large Professor earlier. Is there anything else?
My mother played a lot of Jazz growing up. And I remember—I don’t know how this fits in the timeline of my life—but Dave Brubeck. I can’t remember the name of it—maybe it was the Time Out album. I sampled it at some point. It was a tune by Dave Brubeck. This is going to drive me crazy! [laughs] “Take Five”!
How did you meet Guilty Simpson?
Guilty Simpson and I first worked together on my 2012 album Gigantic Vol. 1. I might have just met him randomly on Twitter. And I saw him just say, “Hey, if anybody is trying to work. I’m in the studio right now, so hit me up.” I contacted him. I was like, “I’m interested in having you on my album.” And he let me know what the conditions were, and I said, “You know that’s very reasonable.” I sent him the beat, and he sent me a finished song the next day. I will never forget that. And it was like the most surreal thing to have one of my favorite rappers on my beat. Not only that, but he knocked it out so effortlessly in such remarkable time. It usually doesn’t happen that quickly. So, from there—I guess it was only natural to do a project together. Out of all the rappers I had on my compilation album, I think he fit into my sound the best.
How did the name Highway Robbery come about?
Well, the name Highway Robbery came about as an extension of the concept of the album, which was loosely based on a story about a robber who is doing what he does, but eventually it catches up to him. And he decides to retire. When he retires there are—of course—people after him or stealing from him. The album wasn’t meant to be a concept album. The verse that Guilty [Simpson] sent me back was a loosely based story, and I kind of had to put it together as a story. But originally the album was called “Get That Pay”. It’s the name of one of the songs that’s on the album. I like that title, but I was looking for something more relevant to the concept of the album. A couple weeks before the album was turned in for mastering, I saw that Freeway is part of an album with The Jacka—I think he’s from the Bay. The name of that album is also called Highway Robbery. Because it’s such a good title, [laughs] I think—in my opinion, it kind of makes you wonder like “What’s the album about?”
Are there any music videos in the works?
We are looking into having probably some animated videos. But, I’ve actually never met Guilty [Simpson]. All of our work has been done via the internet. So, I’d love to do some kind of live video, but Guilty [Simpson] is like all over the place. He’s always on tour.
You’ve collaborated with a number of respected rappers. Who are some musicians you’d still like to collaborate with?
That’s a good question. I’d like to work with—you know I mentioned Freeway earlier in this conversation. He’s definitely somebody [I’d like to work with]. There’s Peedi Crakk [from State Property]. These are like my local guys. Somebody I’ve worked with already that I’d like to keep on working with is Reef the Lost Cauze. He was actually on a song with Guilty Simpson. Homeboy Sandman. I’d love to work with Homeboy Sandman.
Name three contemporary rappers whom you respect.
Oh, well, there’s Castle. He’s a guy I’ve started working with a little bit more now. But, I’ve known him for about that amount of time—five years. He just put out an album with Mello Music Group. And I just find him to be one of the most unique rappers and artists. I really like Kendrick Lamar. I think he’s the best rapper alive right now. My third rapper is Elucid—one half of Armand Hammer with Billy Woods, and he’s also part of The Lessondary collective with Tanya Morgan, Spec Boogie, etc.
Other than making music, what is another passion of yours?
I recently started doing visual art again. I was actually doing visual art before I was making music. I really like doing collages a lot. Anything artistic I like. Actually, I want to learn how to play the drums. Besides that—yeah—music is my only passion besides being a parent.