Memphis Bleek knows what you are thinking. The 31-year-old Brooklyn MC who was hand picked by longtime mentor Jay-Z to represent Roc-A-Fella as hip-hop’s next big MC back in the late ‘90s doesn’t just point at the elephant in the room. He boldly stares it in the eyes; mocks it even. Bleek never lived up to the promise of “Is That Yo Bitch.” Shawn Carter has carried Bleek for much of career. Bleek will never have a platinum album. Those are just some of the barbs that have been thrown at the veteran rhymer over the years. Which is why Jay’s newest anointed pupil and current Vibe.com cover boy J. Cole has a lot to learn from Bleek. Most recently, the Marcy Projects spitter garnered the respect of shocked rap fans and music industry insiders when he decided to go the independent route and not sign to Hova’s Roc Nation. As Bleek finishes up his fifth album The Process, the rhyme-survivor reveals to VIBE how he struggled to live up to his early hype and how he ultimately found redemption. —Keith Murphy
VIBE: Your upcoming album The Process has been in the making since 2005. What’s the hold up?
Memphis Bleek: After my time at Def Jam, I’m doubling back to make a whole new move for myself. That’s why I picked the title The Process for my album. It’s a very personal project. I’ve dropped four albums and this is my fifth one, so I wanted it to be presented in the right way, sound the right way and I wanted it to be handled all by me. If it wins or loses, I want to be able to blame myself. I wasn’t really searching for all-star guest appearances. I don’t want to make forced music like, “Yo, let me put Drake on this record.” Now of course, you want an artist like Drake on your record… you are trying to get hot. But I never want to do the obvious. So on this album, I’m trying to switch it up, get more personal with people. Because how many times can I tell you we are popping bottles at the club or I have the latest car? Come on… I can do that on my mixtape. To me it’s about letting people know about my struggles…the process of being my own man.
You have experienced the buzz and turbulence of being the next big New York MC after appearing on Reasonable Doubt and Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life. What advice would you give to someone like a J. Cole, who is experiencing similar buzz as the main hip-hop act on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation?
I would tell him that everybody can’t just say, “Yo, I want to be my own boss.” You have to learn the business, but more importantly you have to have the right team around you. That’s where it starts first. Before you even meet a manager or a producer or a label you have to start with your homies. Because it won’t work if you have a bunch of foul people around you who just want to see negativity. J. Cole has to go all the way in. He shouldn’t listen to someone telling him how to make his music. He should follow his heart. He’s new… he’s not from the NYC, he’s from Fayetteville, North Carolina, so he’s bringing a whole new movement with him. J. Cole has a lot on his shoulders. He can never second-guess what he’s doing.
"I tell J. Cole, Drake or any of the other new cats: Don’t ever let up. Because when you let up, there are new people coming for that spot."
Would you have done anything differently with the heavy buzz you were riding early on in your career?
After “Is That Yo Chick” I wouldn’t have had so many people around me. I wouldn’t have taken the vacation we took to Miami and the situation that happened to my brother [Ed Note: Bleek’s older brother was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in Miami on Memorial Day weekend in 2000], God willing, probably wouldn’t have never happen. That’s what took some of my motivation away to do music. It was like losing your mind. Everything in the outside world I really didn’t care about because I was in jeopardy of losing my brother. From that point, it seems I was always trying to re-capture something. I was chasing that buzz. That’s why I tell J. Cole, Drake or any of the other new cats: Don’t ever let up. Because when you let up, there are new people coming for that spot.
Were you happy with the direction of your first two solo albums?
Yeah. It was all me. When I did Coming of Age, at that time, I don’t even think Jay believed I could make an album by myself [laughs]. We went to a Lower East Side recording studio in Manhattan and we laid it down. We got Irv Gotti involved, Ja Rule, we did “Memphis Bleek Is” with Swizz Beatz. Jay was so shocked by that. And I’m like, “Damn, if you like that, imagine what you are going to say when you hear this…” But that goes back to when I said you never let anyone tell you how to do your music. When I came back to record M.A.D.E. if you listen, all the personal songs on there are the people’s favorite. But then I did a bunch of songs that were other people’s ideas like, “You should make a song for the girls,” or “This sound is hot right now.” That’s how I recorded songs like ”P.Y.T.” and “You Need Me In Your Life,” when those songs really weren’t in my heart. You have to do what’s in your heart. Because at the end of the day, you wear it. If it fails you have to wear that hat.
How much did your up and down experiences in the industry play in wanting to remain independent from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint? A lot of people were under the impression that you would sign with him because of the brotherly relationship you have with Hova.
Everybody felt like Jay was carrying me. That was the perception of the public. If you were standing on the outside looking in you would have said, “Yeah, Bleek don’t have to do nothing, Jay takes care of him.” But I wanted to be seen as my own man. That’s why you didn’t hear anything about me [going to Roc Nation]. This is the best time for me to do my own thing. When everything is over, I want to show you that I can come from the bottom and build it back up. Jay is always going to back me up. When I made my first record I didn’t think 10 people would like it. So now I’m back to that mode. I’m making this record for me. I rap for fun. I felt like after I came back from my brother’s accident it became all business. After 534 it was like come on, man… I don’t rap to get money. I can go in the streets to get money. I do this because this is my hobby. I have fun… I love to make records.
So what does Jay think about your recent moves?