2017 MTV Video Music Awards - Roaming Show
Kendrick Lamar (L) and Dave Free accept award during the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 27, 2017 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

TDE's Dave Free On Maintaining Authenticity, SZA's Stardom, and Kendrick's Pulitzer

The Top Dawg Entertainment president shares how TDE maintains its authenticity, keeps all of its stars on the same page, and ascended from the underground to the top.

If there was ever any doubt that Top Dawg Entertainment was the best crew in music, the past two years should dead any arguments. Kendrick Lamar was already considered one of the best rappers in the world with classics like good kid m.A.A.d city and DAMN., but his star shined even brighter after the latter album earned him a Pulitzer Prize. K. Dot also spearheaded the music for Black Panther: The Album for 2018’s record-breaking and cultural tentpole Marvel Comics film. R&B singer-songwriter SZA dropped a potential classic album with her debut LP Ctrl in 2017, and Jay Rock released a strong album of the year candidate, Redemption. The TDE squad celebrated their success as a team with the Championship Tour, which brought all of the label’s stars–Kendrick, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, SZA, and SiR–together under one roof for an international string of shows.

The artists are the stars of the show, but TDE’s executives deserve their just due. The triumvirate of founder/CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and co-presidents Dave Free and Terrence “Punch” Henderson have created an environment where creativity comes before the plaques and critical acclaim. And the squad keeps working: after Dave Free’s interview for this story, Kendrick Lamar landed a memorable role on Power and their new signee REASON dropped There You Have It, a stirring collection of West Coast gangsta rap musings. Dave Free spoke to VIBE about how TDE maintains its authenticity, keeps all of its stars on the same page, and ascended from the underground to the top of the food chain. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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VIBE: At one time TDE was the bubbling underground crew, but what has it been like to really work your way up to being a powerhouse?

Dave Free: In the middle of the process, it looks the same, just the resources changed. We get more resources to do bigger and better things but it feels and smells and looks the same because it's rooted off the same concept of repetition. So for us, we haven't even gotten to the celebration point yet, because there's still so much more to do. When I talk to friends and I talk to buddies, and even just hearing you say everything you're saying right now, that's when I get kind of pulled back into the perspective that “damn, it's been a long time. We were just that. We were that underground crew that was trying to figure out how to get our feet in the game and now it's the total opposite.” It's really hard to say in a few words ‘cause it feels exactly like when we were in Carson just grinding in the studio. It feels exactly the same.

How long do you think it took for you guys to really find your groove?

I would say about eight years 'til we figured out what not to do. The earlier stages when we were just really grinding through. It's not about what you do right, it's about what you're doing wrong. We were doing a lot of right, but the wrong stuff sets you back. You don't have to do everything perfectly, just don't do anything that [sets you] back.

What would you say you were doing wrong that you had to correct?

Not so much doing wrong, more like just the knowledge of not knowing things––not knowing who to talk to, not knowing the next steps in being in the game that's forever changing. This whole system of hip-hop is a forever changing system. You can't replicate the system, so as management we're working and trying to figure out how to get our artists out there more and how to get them more notoriety or how to maybe not go so broad with it at first. Start it off slow and build up a pace where we can sell consistency. Consistency is built into a career, just like Kobe practicing in a gym, Steph Curry working on his dribbling skills. [It’s the] same concept from a managing perspective, or a boss' perspective, and then the artist hops on to that same concept just through their artistry, depending on what type of music they want to make, depending on what type of beat, depending on what they wanna say, who they want to talk to. Both of those things are happening at the same time and then you meet up. It meets right in the middle, perfect timing where I'm perfectly ready and equipped to manage what this artist has right at the perfect time. It wasn't so much the wrong things, it was just the not-knowing part like, you know, growing in the business and having to learn how to go up in the business. Learn how to be nimble, don't have your mindset to one way of doing things. You have to have multiple ways of doing things.

It's a trip just how much the game can change in a certain amount of time. good kid, m.A.A.d city just came out in 2012 and it feels like that was a lifetime ago. What are the differences between breaking an artist like Kendrick back then and breaking an artist now?

Oh man, the approach is totally different. I was actually telling a buddy of mine because he just thinks we just have all the cheat codes, we just hit a button and they could just be famous the next day. None of the tactics we used back in the day to break Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock or ScHoolboy would work now, none of 'em. It's a whole new game. Blogs were very influential back then and I'd have to build a lot of relationships with blogs and now it's just more about streaming. You have to have the relationships with the streaming sites and it can't just be a fake relationship. It has to be a relationship of understanding. Back in the day, if a blog posted a bunch of stuff, it was no hurt no foul. For streaming, they centralize. They have to post what works for their system too, it's kind of back to a radio format a little bit in a sense.

And the single is back. The single wasn't as important when Kendrick was coming up, it was more about the quality of an album. Now, the single takes you back into to the album. When Kendrick was coming up it was more about... the album [would] take you into it and then hopefully you get a single in the middle of that. It's a totally different game, totally different system.  It's forever changing. We’re just trying to be nimble and change with it, pay attention to what's happening. I'm even back in the situation where I'm making business—I don't even go to the club and party, but I'll go to the club, go sit in there and pay attention to what's happening. I never get jaded and never get stuck in my ways.

One thing TDE has a really strong reputation for is authenticity. Very few moves come out of your camp that don't feel real. How do you maintain that despite being at the level you’re at? Many artists will seem authentic early on, but the bigger that they get—

It gets more watered down after time.

Exactly.

The biggest thing for that is our family structure. Everybody in the company has a voice. When albums come out we bring everybody in. We don't create yes men in our camp, and that plays a large part in why the artists can stay true to themselves. You're competing with your brother, you're competing with the guy next to you, and if he's rooted and grounded because he has a good support system, then you're more likely to be just as rooted and just as grounded. Two, we tend to sign really hard working artists. I've worked with artists that are so talented but didn't work hard, and that can mess up the authenticity because now you have to counteract that with bringing in people to help the equation. Then the artist gets further and further away from themselves. But we've been able to sign artists that understand that this is a blessing beyond belief. When you appreciate something that God doesn't have to bless you with and you are around people that treat it the same way, it tends to rub off and it becomes a situation where you value it. So you spend a crazy amount of time perfecting it, and that works with the music and even with the plan of just how you live your life and how your music dictates your life.

What you said about the family structure stands out. “Ab-Soul’s Outro” on Section.80 truly summarized the whole album, so it felt like Ab was a part of the process. And in the video where you guys played Jay-Z's verse on "B***h Don't Kill My Vibe" for Kendrick, that scene is preceded by the crew mobbing out to ScHoolboy Q’s "Yay Yay." How do you maintain that family structure when everyone is doing so many things?

It's hard, I won't act like it's not hard and it's different remnants of that in today's time now, too. For example, Jay Rock’s “Win” video. Getting all the artists in one place at one time was literally the hardest thing ever. If you look at the video, you won't see ScHoolboy Q in there because he just got there a little too late. It is a hard thing but when you care about what your brother is doing and what your team is doing, you'll make the time. You just try to figure it out. When SZA is touring, she's traveling all over the world; you know, if we can't get her right at this moment, we'll figure out the best way. She was traveling, we needed her on Jay Rock's album, she went and got in a studio and knocked out the feature. It was already people waiting for features at the time, but that's something she ain't gon' miss out on. We just support each other, man.

The Championship Tour was a long time coming, it took so long to get us to that point where we could take all the artists out on one tour together. When all of 'em got on tour, it was like a high school reunion––they see each other but they hadn't seen each other together in one space, from the guys that are artists and the guys that are just in the background as management and staff. The energy was so great on that road. Everybody is working but we all care, we all want to see each other win and grow. If I can be there, I’ma be there. Kendrick literally flew off his tour from Japan to South Korea. He only had four days off and he spent 2 of those days shooting videos–one for Jay Rock and one for Anderson .Paak. Anderson .Paak is not signed to TDE, he’s signed to Aftermath, but it's the same concept. It's still family, it's still people that we support and we love, and we’re gonna do whatever we have to do to support them.

How did you guys react when you heard that Kendrick was getting a Pulitzer Prize?

I got a call that morning and we have a group chat––me, Top, Kendrick, Sounwave, a few other homies. I got a call from my publicist and he was like, “Did you hear anything from the Pulitzer people? You’re winning a Pulitzer for DAMN.” I was like, “Man, stop playing.” I just thought it was a rumor going around. I dropped it in the group chat and I was like, “Word on the street is, your name is in the mix for the Pulitzer.” It was just shocking. You never think in a million years that they would understand the concepts enough to award a boy from Compton that honor. It still is a big moment. I wear the hat all the time, Kendrick changed his whole stage name to Pulitzer Kenny. It's showin' that we're breaking barriers. There were people that came before us that did this so we can get to this point, so we make them proud, and we showed another kid that's sitting in his f**kin' room wherever he is that these things are possible.

It’s less about the award and more about the concept of people that came before us and the people that's gonna come after us. That's what you do it for. It's about shaking up the system and showing people it doesn't have be the way it's supposed to, the way you think it's gon' be. Sometimes you might be shocked, you might see the guy that's not supposed to be the winner become the winner. That's very important for our youth to see that.

You guys already have a working relationship with Interscope Records, but for Black Panther: The Album, you also worked with Marvel. What was that process like?

It's different because you have to put yourself in a place where you have to understand their deliverables also. It was actually a great experience because it was an experience that we definitely wanna get more into. So for our first step to be Marvel, which is the cream of the crop in the film space, it was like that final quiz but it was a crash-course on the first day. They understood that Kendrick is a true artist and he had to stay true to his artistry and we understood that this is less about it being our thing and more about it being a [collaboration]. It worked out great, we were against time but everybody stepped up and it became something we're really proud of. We're very proud of the accomplishment and to just be right there, hand in hand with a movie, was so powerful. Ryan Coogler and all the cast, something that's so powerful for our kids to see and understand that we got our own superheroes we can look up to and be proud of. I don't wanna make it seem like it was easy, but it wasn't difficult either when you have people who want the same concepts.

This past year also saw SZA become a star––Ctrl may go on as a classic. Last year, she was calling out TDE execs on Twitter about the album not being out. What has it been like to see her rise to prominence, and how difficult is it to make sure that everyone on the roster feels valued at all times?

To answer your first question, every artist goes through that point where––when you make music you're creating a child, and it's hard for artists to put their child in someone else's hands. Business and artistry have to collide in order for greatness, and we just have a proven track record. Give me your child, and I’ma help raise him, nurture him, help him grow. And that concept developed into wanting to get her music out there. No, let's take our time and make sure it's perfect: let's get the videos done, get the concepts done, then look at her now. It's a testament to the artist pushing themselves to deliver a concept and management staying firm on how we do things as a brand and as a family.

I would say the first part [in making artists feel valued] is to keep them working, keep everyone moving. An idle mind is the devil's playground so we don't let the mind be idle because even though you're not dropping music, you're still working, you're still recording. I shoot videos a year in advance, literally. Some of the videos you see from Jay Rock’s album is a year in advance. That keeps the artist in the place where even though music is not coming out right away, they're busy, they're active, they got something to do and they're in the fold of the family vibe. The fans don't know our schedule and we try to update them as much as possible but we know our schedule and the artists know the schedule. For the most part, the artist knows, “after so and so, it's my time,” and we give everybody their time. When it's their time, you know because it's gonna be an onslaught of rollouts, materials, contents. So the artists are in a system where they know how it works, it's really just people on the outside that don't understand the process.

You guys just announced the signing of REASON. What expectations do new artists have after signing to TDE?

If you sign to TDE or if you want to sign to TDE, I think the expectation is just for [the] quality of work. That's why most people would wanna be with this label because it's definitely quality over quantity and it's a system of helping your brother, showing up for your brother. You have to have both of those characteristics if you really looking over this way. Most people that are trying to be with us have those characteristics: want to be a part of a family, want to be a part of a concept, not just out there creating by themselves. I think the biggest thing for new artists is the competition level. You’re coming into a fold of Kendrick, ScHoolboy, SZA, Jay Rock. There's less expectation about what the brand can do for you ‘cause the brand is proven, we've proven that if we develop time into our artists we can turn our artists into something. You got to compete with Kendrick Lamar, he's not gonna go easy on you on the track. He gon' tap that a** on the track for sure so you better come with it. The same thing with SZA, she gon' get on the track, she gon' serve it up so you better be ready. Same thing with Jay Rock. Jay Rock holds the crown for the most destroyed tracks from TDE, getting on with artists and destroying everybody on the track. He's the highest competitor in the camp when it comes to each other. He's gonna pull the best out of you. So I think the artists are focused more on that. “Sh*t, how do I come in and make an impression on the guys that are killing it already?"

That's what I noticed the most and that's probably the most pressured situation for them. SiR is like, "Man how do I even show these guys I'm tight, how do I even get them to pay attention to me?" The first time I brought SiR to the studio with Kendrick, Kendrick was like, "Go in the booth," and it literally reminded me of the time that Top told Kendrick to go in the booth. The first time Dot came, Top was like “go in the booth and rap.” Dot was in the booth for two hours. Dot did the same thing and I felt the energy that I felt when Top said that with Kendrick. I bring SiR in to [see] Kendrick and I'm in the same position I was in back then. It's like, “h sh*t, I hope he kill it in front of Dot. I hope Dot sees what I see."

What are you planning for this next year? What haven't you done yet?

'We’re getting heavy into the film game. I'm trying to get heavier into it. Kendrick’s trying to get heavier into it. A lot of the guys want to get more into the content creation game. We got a lot of new artists, we got REASON, we got other new things coming. To us, it's about replicating the success but also stretching our hands into as many fields as humanly possible. So all those big investors and all those big guys that wanna be with a winning team, come talk to TDE ‘cause we’re looking into a bunch of different fields. There's no label on what we can do now. Top literally just left my house and we were talking about everything else that we have to do. It can be real estate to just investments, we have to do more. Music is the driving force to create the opportunity, but we have to do more and we're inviting anybody that wants to do more to come speak with us.

READ MORE: TDE's REASON Hopes To Marry Real Rap With Community

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VICELAND

Meet John Henry, Host Of VICELAND's New Business Show 'Hustle'

John Henry is a hustler. The 26-year-old, born to Dominican parents and raised in Harlem, knows the right thing to say at the perfect time. His uncanny ability to maneuver in different settings paired with his innate business acumen has catapulted him from a doorman to a part-owner of Harlem Capital, a company designed to invest in businesses created by women and minorities.  

At 18, Henry’s entrepreneurial journey started when a resident of the Brooklyn building where he worked took notice of his intellect and vibrant personality. The tenant owned a dry-cleaning business and offered Henry a chance to make money if he contracted clients for his venture. Eventually, he would end up making the larger part of the profits. This small start led him to develop Mobile City, a dry-cleaning service that winded up catering to Hollywood’s most prominent television and film sets. His first big break in Tinsel Town was in the costume department for The Wolf of Wall Street. He ended up landing more contracts within entertainment, which led him to drop out of community college to solely focus on his company. Since then, he’s sold the business for an undisclosed hefty amount.

“I understood early on that the real money wasn’t the $14 an hour that I was making — the real currency was the people that were there,” Henry tells VIBE. “I had a very people focus approach very early on. When people see something in someone they want to help them out, so there was this one resident in particular, a Boricua guy, who told me, 'You’re too fu**ing smart to be behind the desk, you can have your own doorman. Don’t settle for being the doorman.'”

Now, with his new VICELAND show titled Hustle (executive produced by Alicia Keys and Marcus Samuelsson), Henry sounds like a seasoned vet who’s an owner of five Fortune 500 companies while mentoring the entrepreneurs featured on the eight-episode show. He uses terms like Riches n Niches, Brand Equity, and Biz Def to break down his strategy on helping these businesses go from unknown status to mainstream lucrative ubiquity.

On the first episode, viewers meet Ashley Rouse, the owner of Trade Street Jam, a company that sells $12 vegan jams made out of fruit with low sugar. During the episode, Henry persistently attempts to coax Ashley into quitting her 9 to 5 job to focus on her business. According to a recent interview with XO Necole, Rouse did leave her corporate job.

Amid hosting Hustle and being a part-owner of Harlem Capital, Henry also owns a real estate business and owns 17 apartments in two buildings in Allentown, Penn., Fortune reports. “The sky is the limit” is definitely an understatement when it comes to Henry’s work ethic and drive.

Here, VIBE chatted with him about how he hustled his way to Hustle.

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VIBE: How did you come up with the idea of a dry-cleaning business at 18, and then get Hollywood clients off it? John Henry: I didn’t come up with the idea for the dry cleaner. I didn’t come up with the idea for a lot of stuff that I’ve done, which is interesting because we’re made to feel like an entrepreneur is someone who has this brilliant idea — and sometimes that’s true, but, more often than not, it’s just a matter of making something out of what’s presented to you.

And here’s what I mean: this resident already owned a dry cleaner. That’s how he made his money. He said, “John, I own this dry-cleaning facility. I don’t have much in this world, but I have this. You go and make something out of it. Convince anyone, I don’t care who it is, go out there and hustle and convince someone to give you their clothes. And if you bring this to me, I’ll clean them for wholesale rate. You charge the market rate and you make the spread.”

So in other words, a suit would cost you $12 to dry clean, it would cost me $4 so I would make the $8 spread. So I was like "Ok.” Eight dollars a piece isn’t much money, but if you’re talking 100 pieces it’s looking much better or 1,000 pieces that’s even better than that. Immediately, I fell in love with the idea that in entrepreneurship the results are really in your hands because no matter how much I open that door, my income was capped as a doorman. Whereas being an entrepreneur it was all up to me.  

To answer your question on how I got started in Hollywood, that also wasn’t my idea. I started promoting my business, so one of the residents in the building told me “I’m in film/TV, we need someone to do our dry cleaning because we shoot at three in the morning and no dry cleaner is open at that time.”

Obviously, he’s like, “What time do you get out.” And I was like, “At 11.” He picked me up, took to me to set of what became my first film account, which was The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was fortunate they gave me a chance. I did well with it. And then he said, "There is a new account. I’m going to introduce you.” That new account was Boardwalk Empire, and Law & Order: A Person Of Interest. Then I went on to do White Collar and Ninja Turtle. I quit my job. I dropped out of college and I really went for this full time.

How did your parents take you dropping out of college? As immigrant parents, they came here and they always had this vision of us being a doctor or a lawyer. They were definitely not thrilled when I told them that I was going to leave school and that I was going to start a business. They were like, “Alright what business?” I said, “Dry cleaner.” They were like, “What?!” because my father was actually a presser growing up. They felt like, “Dude we didn’t come here so you can take a step back, we want you to take a step forward.” But they didn’t understand at the time that it wasn’t about the industry, it was about ownership. That’s the first time I ever really owned anything and now they are my biggest fans. They came around but it took them a little while.   

Did you handpick the contestants on Hustle? VICE gives me a lot of creative liberty. We have a casting company that spreads the word and gets hundreds of applications. Then they’ll do all that part for me and boil it down to like maybe five or 10 finalists per episode. And then I choose who I get most excited by. I drive what happens in the episodes. It’s my vision for how the entrepreneur should grow their business. I told them early on that it would be hard for me to work with a business that didn’t fascinate me. With Ashley, for instance, I hand chose her and I was really adamant about working with her. Every business in the whole season you’ll see was hand selected by me and I was very excited to work with each one of them.

Did you come up with the three business models presented on the show: Riches n Niches, Biz Def and Brand Equity? Do you use them in your own business approach? That section of the show we call Biz Pod. It’s something we came up with. I’m glad you asked because it was kind of a funny story of how that whole device came to be. We were shooting the pilot and I’m so engulfed in my own world that I’m not even noticing when I’m using business lingo. I keep saying we have to biz def or we have to build brand equity. Those are not terms that I made up, but those are terms that are used in business, that maybe are not commonly used outside of business. My director was like, “John what the hell is biz def?” Then Ashley was like, “What’s biz def?” That’s when we realized there is an opportunity here to actually educate the viewer.

We really fell in love with this idea of producing the show around showing an authentic look at entrepreneurship and along the way educate the viewer on some key terms that we think they should take away. That’s kind of how we came up with that little device that ended up being called biz pods. I choose all the terms as well. My director and I go back and forth on what we feel is the best biz pod for the episode and then we take it from there.

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Take 30 secs to watch this. ⠀ . ⠀ I’ll say say this ‘til im blue in the face... if it ‘clicks’ for even 1 person it was worth it. ⠀ . ⠀ It’s not the idea... it’s the bravery to act on that idea. ⠀ . ⠀ Now go and get it. 💪🏾 ⠀ . ⠀ #entrepreneur #IdeasAreEasy #ExecutionIsEverything #founderlife #startup #afrotech #one37pm

A post shared by John Henry (@johnhenrystyle) on Dec 11, 2018 at 5:19am PST

On the show, you speak with a lot of conviction about the decisions you think must be made in order to achieve success. Were you always this confident or was this a muscle you had to develop? Definitely a muscle I had to develop. The more time you spend in the arena, the more confident you become in your own abilities. But also, the more self-awareness you develop. I have no problem saying, “I’m being too stubborn,” or taking a step back and saying, “I think I’m wrong here.” But one thing I did learn over the years is when you’re in the driver’s seat you have to be careful because sometimes people come with interests that are not aligned with yours. That is a learned skill that comes with time.

What are some challenges that you’ve faced in your career? So many. For starters, I would say one of my biggest challenges was figuring out how the whole machine works. The reason why I’m really passionate about the show is because we get a chance to offer a glimpse to people about the fundamentals of building a business, like the basic building blocks because if you grow up in an affluent neighborhood you kind of have examples, role-models, support networks, all around you at any given time.

If you have a question about taxes you have an uncle that’s an accountant, or your auntie that’s a lawyer or something like that. Growing up in The Heights, in any underserved low-income community, that infrastructure does not exist so the hardest part that took me years to learn was how the whole game works. I’m talking about how the whole machinery works.

How does business affect a community? How does real estate affect a community? How does politics affect business? All these pieces that seem kind of separate are actually very closely interconnected. And it took me probably five or six years to really develop a macro perspective. Now that I have that framework I really feel like I can go on and do anything. So that’s the same understanding that I really want to impart on people both through my personal efforts like the content I create on Instagram and obviously something like the show.

Dominicans make good business people. In New York, many of the corner grocery stores are Dominican or Arab-owned. And Dominicans also own a lot of taxi car companies. Has your cultural background influenced your business sense? Absolutely, and you’re right Dominican people are good at business. In New York, we tend to be more merchants, but the skills that I learned from our culture are fu**ing invaluable. Even just my mom buying plantains on the corner. She would constantly negotiate. My dad trained me to be really resourceful. We had so little growing up that he would teach me to make the most out of it. All these ingrained lessons from our communities were instilled in me. Now that I’m in the corporate arena I’m a beast because a lot of these kids I’m with grew up in a different life path. Now that we’re in the same rooms I find myself consistently outwitting and outmaneuvering a lot of these people because maybe they don’t have some of that cultural edge.

If you can come from a disadvantaged position and make it, you end up having such a massive edge because then you have both; street smarts and book smarts. I think of Jay-Z, he maneuvered real danger and the streets. And now for him to sit in a boardroom there is no one else in that boardroom who’s had his life experience, which makes it even more valuable.

 

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Posting this again for #MondayMotivation cause it gets me so HYPE. 🔥🔥 ⠀ -⠀ HUSTLE premiers on @VICELAND February 10th. ⠀ -⠀ Tag a friend who should see this!👇🏾👇🏾 ⠀ -⠀ #hustlevice #entrepreneur #hustle #viceland #vice #xt4

A post shared by John Henry (@johnhenrystyle) on Jan 14, 2019 at 5:25am PST

What do you think is the biggest risk you can take in your career now? The biggest risk right now that you can take as a business person is to take no risk. If you default to just doing things the way you’ve done them you will go out of business because everything is changing so fast. The media is being consumed differently. Weed is being legalized, retail is going out of business. The mall that used to be so hot is now being replaced by Amazon. Lawmaking and policy-making are now being shifted by artificial intelligence, cars are going to be self-driven. Every industry is changing so much, so the most dangerous risk you can take is not doing anything different.

I love risks because with high risks comes high reward. And it doesn’t always work out and that’s the scary part about it. I’m just focusing on leveraging this opportunity. My biggest risks are all on the Harlem Capital side. I have a $25 million fund and we invest in women and minorities. I don’t just talk about this. We put our money where our mouth is and invest our money into companies owned by people that look like us, and that’s very risky business because a lot of businesses don’t make it.

What do you hope people in your community will take away from being on this show? I’m already starting to see the response. Dozens of people a day are reaching out to me saying, “I’m so proud just to see someone who looks like me that understands business and is on camera while helping other people.” The byproduct of this show is going to be good because people are going to have role models, they are going to see real stories of people who look like them striving to make it, and making it.

Hustle airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on VICELAND. 

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Tonia Calderon

Lupe Fiasco On New World Water, And Changing The World With His Bars Before Leaving Rap Behind

Artists use terms like “deeper than rap” and “more than music” all the time to boost their authenticity points, but for Lupe Fiasco, they’re more descriptive than self-congratulatory. With nearly 15 years under his belt, Lupe has built a legitimate case as one of the top MCs of all time: classic albums (Food & Liquor, The Cool), timeless mixtapes (the Fahrenheit 1/15 series), collaborations with legends like Jay-Z, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg, one Grammy Award and a dozen nominations. And he has the respect of all of his peers, with a creative, expressionist writing style that makes his storytelling, metaphors, and punchlines stand out from the pack as fans huddle together in message boards to decipher them. As he says on the 2011 bar-fest “SLR": “I ain’t doing numbers like Anbesol, but I’m here, and I’m revered.” His first two albums use fantastical authorship to weave the tale of Michael Young History a.k.a. The Cool, a fatherless child who becomes mentored by male and female characters named The Game and The Streets before meeting his demise and rising from the dead to roam a world that has transformed after him. His 2015 masterpiece Tetsuo & Youth marveled stalwarts in Reddit and TheColi with its format to be played forward and backward (two years before Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning DAMN got similar accolades). Drogas Wave, his most recent album and his second as an independent artist after fulfilling his tumultuous deal with Atlantic Records, tells the story of the Longchains, a group of slaves that live underwater and take down slave ships. On an episode of Joe Budden Podcast, Budden—who had just dismissed another GOAT candidate, Eminem, minutes earlier by saying “I’ve been better than you for a decade”—expressed his admiration for Carrera Lu’s pen game. “I’m appreciative that there are two percent of artists out there willing to (be this complex),” he said, describing Drogas Wave. “You’ve got to fear that mind.”

But for Lupe, it’s about more than impressing fans or his fellow rap luminaries: he wants to use his music to make the world a better place. Along with his dense, thought-provoking rhymes, he’s respected for his entrepreneurial and charitable efforts. Less than two weeks into 2019, he broadcasted his Instagram Live to show his keynote speech in a presentation from Zero Mass Water at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES)  in Las Vegas, Nevada. Zero Mass designed SOURCE, a hydro panel that uses only sunlight and air to make five liters of drinking water per day per home. Or, in Lupe’s words: “You never have to worry about where your water is coming from because it is coming from you.” It’s a creation just as futuristic and socially-minded as Lupe’s bars, and he’s actually helped install the panels himself in Jordan and the Philippines. He’s prepping music videos for DROGAS Wave after the album’s recent vinyl release, performing his album Food & Liquor in full at The Novo on Saturday, Feb. 23, and in recent weeks, dropping a since-deleted Instagram post with thoughtful, written out rhymes about Gucci’s controversial blackface sweater. But his investment in Zero Mass Water has him just as excited as other rappers would be about a platinum plaque. “It doesn't matter if I sell a million records. I'm cool selling five records,” Lupe insists. “But I’m going to sell five records to the five most powerful people in the world, and then we are gonna go out and partner, and change things."

In a detailed conversation with VIBE weeks before his 37th birthday, Lupe Fiasco speaks about providing new world water, music’s power to make social change, and his plans to retire from rap.

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VIBE: You said in your CES speech that Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, had a big role in how you learned that access to water was a real issue for people. Lupe Fiasco: I was in high school and I remember just getting Black On Both Sides, and that record was super pivotal for me because I was still practicing Islam, or at least trying to, to a certain degree. Mos is top 10 incredible emcee and he is able to put a really good album together. So that record, I lived with forever. That and Nas’ It Was Written were two albums that were like, this is what a rap album should sound like. It should have all these different kinds of things on it. He had the club record, the love record, the rap record, and then he had kind of the informational records, and that was the "New World Water" and "Mathematics." "New World Water" stood out because it was focused on this one subject, which I did not know too much about at that time. I was 17, 18, and it was so different from anything you hear on another rap album. It's water, but he went through all of it: politically, environmentally, socially, chemically. I think it's one of those things that only a rapper could do, or only a poet could do: take this subject and hit it in all these different areas and components. It just kind of got bookmarked in my mind: water is an issue, water's a problem, water's a right.

 

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Learn more & get your Source Hydropanel TODAY @ www.zeromasswater.com @zeromasswater 💧

A post shared by Lupe Fiasco (@lupefiasco) on Feb 1, 2019 at 7:09am PST

How did the opportunity to work with Zero Mass come up? Me and the CEO, Cody Frieson, a real good friend of mine, met through the Aspen Institute. I'm a Henry Crown Fellow and he is a Henry Crown Fellow but from a different class. The program is filled with CEOs, entrepreneurs, super successful individuals, activists, a few artists. You’re around all these different folks and different people from different walks of life. Cody came from the energy space––battery, solar and stuff like that––and I think he had sold his company and was starting a new company, which was Zero Mass. We were hosting these dinners around the country. Cody happened to be in Chicago and I just happened to be in Chicago, we connected and got to talking and it went into music real fast. His favorite rapper is Tech N9ne. So we’re sitting in this mansion with all these kind of illuminati types, with his phone playing his favorite Tech N9ne records. We just kind of connected and traded.

When he first told me about Zero Mass, it was kind of unbelievable. He created this device that pulls water out of thin air and only uses solar power to do so. It's like a solar panel that doesn't make energy, it makes water. That's fascinating, I'm in. At the time it was very early so he was looking for just friends and family investors. I invested, I wished I would have invested more. But I invested and it went further, he asked me to come on with a few other fellows to his advisory board to the company. I came in really to just articulate communication internally, what's the best way to frame the message, to talk about the product...just advise him on how to talk about it really simply. Our first advisory board meeting, the first thing I did was play "New World Water." I was just sitting there amidst all these luminaries from the water space, from the finance space, from the tech space, from the invention, 3D printing space, and I come in and play Mos Def. (Laughs)

What is it like to bump hip-hop in a board meeting like that? I've always looked at hip-hop and rap as bigger than just entertainment. Because of the music I make, I might not get invited to your barbeque, but I can get invited to the Aspen Institute, or get invited to a board meeting for a Fortune 500 company. People are super interested in storytelling and narratives, and that was one of the reasons we started SOSA, Society Of Spoken Art—to see where we could take rap beyond the entertainment space. For the past five years, we have been landing, been invited to, or been a part of so many crazy spots and initiatives. Cody Frieson, who is the CEO of Zero Mass, is this super smart material scientist, Ph.D. at MIT professor, tens and tens of patents under his belt, whose favorite rapper is Tech N9ne. He will sit there and bring his phone out in an Illuminati meeting, and we are sitting there bumping Tech N9ne when people are talking about the effects on Plato on the world or whatever. There is a core of respect for the ability to tell a story and take a lot of data and put in a very cogent way, in a very direct way. Rap, by nature, compresses data at a rate that a long book wouldn't be able to do. Rap gives you the gist of the story, and the emotion, and the feeling, and the directive, and probably the solution, all within three minutes. That is a value to a lot of different people, a lot of different projects, in these cases a lot of different companies. So for me now, it's not really a surprise. If you just look at it entertainment-wise, it's cool I get to play some rap for some white people, but if you looking at it deeper than that from a “let's build a business” or add value to a major social movement, that is more phenomenal.

Does Socially Conscious Music actually work?

— “DROGAS WAVE” NOW PLAYING (@LupeFiasco) January 10, 2019

You recently tweeted, "does socially conscious music actually work?" When you speak about social issues in your music, do you create with the intent to spark change, or are you just rapping about things that you’re passionate about? I think it is a little bit of both, and more. I want to take this subject that nobody is talking about and be recognized for that, so my ego is satisfied. I'm the first one to plant a flag on the moon. But those other two points, there is intentionality in it, whether you want it to be or not. I come into any subject knowing that no matter what I talk about is going to have some effect, in addition to whether I want to have that effect or not, positive or negative. It's just being careful about which issues you talk about. You know they are gonna have some type of reaction. Is it going to lead to a complete redefining or restructuring or retooling of that space that you are pointing at? Probably not. That is going to take a little bit more than music.

There is a whole broader kind of set of things that are going to occur, or need to occur, beyond just talking about something, to the point to where it achieves a certain level of, oh we did it based on this criterion. We got this dude or this woman to change their opinion, or we got this person thrown out of office, or we got this person to pay a fine, or we got this person put in jail. Or in some cases, we got this person assassinated. To be honest, some of those political movements and social movements in certain parts of the world, there is death at the end of it. Trying to get people locked up, go to jail, and get the death penalty type situations. If you take a place like Iraq, like Saddam Hussein, or Libya. For some of these things, was music a part of that process? Probably. It may not have been rap. It might have been the songs that the protectors or that the soldiers or the protestors sang at night. But it was definitely an impact, even if it was the glue to bind people together, to get them singing on the same tune, literally and figuratively. In my relationship to socially conscious music, because of the circles that I walk in, I am able to influence industrialists and social planners, people who plan society. All you need is a couple of people because those are the people who are writing the code for society or writing the narrative for the next 100 years.

When I asked that question, the response that I got was people's individual anecdotes about how specific songs had changed their point of view or informed their point of view. You got kids in high school listening to "Conflict Diamonds" (from Lupe Fiasco’s Fahrenheit 1/15 Part II: Revenge of the Nerds mixtape) who say they are never going to take part in the diamond industry because of that song. So maybe when they get married or get engaged, they are not going to give a diamond ring, they might give something else of value or even look beyond that. You want to change the world and you want to help in certain aspects, but at the same time too, no matter what you do, it's gonna have an effect on somebody, somewhere.

A lot of rappers who are from places like where you are from, if they’re involved in charitable issues or social issues, it's usually feeding the homeless, sending kids to college, and anti-violence initiatives. You’re providing water, you’re contributing to fledgling tech companies. Do you think that artists need to do more to see other areas that they can contribute? They are not donations first, it's not charity. I have a charitable piece that we do through MURAL, which is something that my sisters run, Magnifying Urban Realities And Lives is what she calls it, it used to be the Lupe Fiasco Foundation. We try to do it a little bit more of a structural way, an institutional way. We try and see how can we change the circumstances of the nutrition, or the food deserts in the hood so that we can have a solution that will last 100 years as opposed to something that’s just going to be last for Thanksgiving.

People just need to do what they are good at. If you are good at giving out turkeys, then do that. If you are good at giving haircuts to the homeless, do that. if you are good at giving out cell phones to people so that they have a contact number if they are going out to a job interview, then do that. If you are good at donating suits for business meetings, do that. If you're good at letting people sleep in your house until they get on their own two feet and get their opportunity started on their own two feet and get their opportunity started on their own and have a home base, then do that. If you can invest in tech companies which impact developing economies, then do that. It's what you are good at and everybody's good at something, so it doesn’t create this stigma where “if I am not doing this then this is not valuable, so I’m not gonna do anything until I am able to do that.” That’s not cool, and you’re actually hurting people who can actually benefit from that particular individual.

Challenge yourself if you have opportunities to do it bigger, be in a space where you can leverage more people or more dollars or more odds on a specific project. Challenge yourself to step up or level up. Do something like how Chance The Rapper, who is like “yo forget going to try and raise money for these schools, I am just gonna give the schools the money myself.” You would be surprised how active people in the hip-hop space are when it comes to whether it be a charitable thing or an impact investment type kind of portfolio. There are a lot of people doing a lot of stuff, but that does not necessarily mean that they are gonna talk about it. I am actually very quiet about the stuff I do. The reason that I am doing this interview––even though you are a cool guy––soon as you [reached out], I showed this the CEO of Zero Mass, I was like, “you want to do this?” He was like “yeah.” For me, it brings exposure to the things that help the world. Zero Mass is one of those things which could fundamentally change the world, as opposed to yeah, “I gave out seven coats last week on Skid Row last week and took a picture with a bunch of people.” That's not my style, you will see that there is a lot of people in this space that this isn't their style either. But they are doing massive amounts of what they can.

Right. And then to add on to that, everything is not about charity either, sometimes it's about giving somebody advice. Sometimes it’s showing out and speaking to a group of kids about your experiences. That may do more than paying people's tuition. You never know how much power is in the minute or two minutes of stopping and talking to somebody about something and changing their trajectory in life, because they respect your music or like your video or like how you dress.

Speaking of advice, I think that people see you as a leader in terms of making the world a better place with your artistry. Do other artists ever hit you up for advice about what they can get involved in? Not really. I am not like the good guy, I am not here to make friends. (Laughs) I think I said that in a rap: "We ain't start the revolution just to make friends." So I am not the uncle type, that’s “yeah, come and talk to me about whatever you got going.” There is a little bit of a challenge to be one of Lupe Fiasco's homies. (Laughs)

I’m the most blackballed rapper in the history of rap. 🤣

Lotta enemigas... https://t.co/yVCzs6sciT

— “DROGAS WAVE” NOW PLAYING (@LupeFiasco) February 11, 2019

It's hard being a Lupe fan. Yeah, it’s hard being a Lupe fan. I don't say that gesturally; that’s integral, that’s a real thing. I have an inner circle of people who are super influential, super focused and super keen on trying to change the world. As much as I can speak to them and rock with them, I never had that (in music). It seemed like some of the relationships in the music business can be superficial sometimes. Me being the black sheep and getting blackballed, and all this other stuff. When me and Obama had our situation, people stopped picking up the phone and kind of stepped back, which is cool––do that, because I don't know where this is going to go either. (Editor’s note: in an interview on CBS’ What’s Trending with Shira Lazar in 2011, Lupe called Obama “the biggest terrorist,” elaborating, “the foreign policies that we have in place in different countries inspire people to become terrorists.”) But you level up because that opens up a door. That door closes, but the door that opens up is something like the Aspen Institute or the CEO of Heineken, and now these are my friends. It's gonna affect change on a much much higher level in a much much more direct way with the folks who actually have their hands on the levers of social change, social direction, and social power.

But with that said, anybody can still walk up to me on the street at any given time and if they are brave enough to come up and approach me, I’ll have discourse with a stranger. I always preface it with, “I don’t know what I am talking about, but at the end of the day, it's you. You have to get out there and do it, but here is my two cents and my point of view.” I have given out many books on the low to folks, I have given many conversations to people you wouldn't expect me to be cool with, who we are sitting down and having jam sessions about the nature of the world and the future of black folks, or the future of humanity.

Right after your speech at CES, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver spoke. Did you get to speak to her much personally? Did you learn anything about the Flint water crisis that you didn’t know before you spoke to her? Yeah, we had a private thing later that night that Cody moderated and really got into some deep topics and some other thoughts and ideas. But my bass player Bubby was from Flint, and my old assistant was from Flint, so I've always had a relationship to Flint. I had already been to places Africa with my homie Kenna, and was in Tanzania, and seen issues with water that looked like chocolate milk. Going there and working with Proctor and Gamble at the time, they had like this tablet that would kill all the stuff that was in the water, and you had to strain out all of the parasites and the worms. I've already seen the water crisis in a place where there was no infrastructure, so when the thing with Flint happened I already had a ton of information about what that means. Even as a kid living in Chicago, we sometimes had to boil our water for whatever reason. I didn't know why but I knew my mom would be boiling water on the stove. My father is a survivalist and a special forces green beret with survival training and all that stuff, so we already had this relationship with water. Coming out of Africa and having the Flint crisis happen, you can just see and be like, “okay I know what that is.” But the extent of it is so crazy. You have this city-wide crisis, this state of emergency. [Weaver] wanted to declare a national disaster, but she couldn't because in order to claim a disaster it has to be natural. I think she just called it an emergency; they can't say a disaster because it was man-made.

She went though a history of what happened and what they were doing. What I didn't know was where they were, and that's why she came and cleared it up in her talk at CES. People are still saying, “Flint doesn’t have water,” but that is because they are replacing all the pipes. You still can't really drink the stuff yet because the pipes are not, we are still putting the stuff in. The EPA is still making them drink bottled water, simply because the whole thing isn’t set up and in place, but they will be done with that soon. She wanted to dispel some of the myths and misunderstanding about what the state of affairs is now. So I got a deeper insight into that, and just a deeper insight into her as a leader and the type of person that she is and her style of leadership and what her real goal is, and an understanding of through crisis, there is an opportunity for benefit. Flint’s been down for a while, even prior to the crisis, for various reasons.

People focus on Flint, but Flint is part of a small piece of a wider problem. There are cities all across this country that potentially can have the same issues, and are suffering from the same issues. These antiquated water systems and lead in the pipes and then privatization of the water supply. They used to get their water from Lake Huron because Michigan sits on the five Great Lakes. It's one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world, and you have Flint right there and they have to get their water from the Flint River for various reasons of politrickery and privatization. Flint actually used to sell water, and it turned around because they got their rights taken away, and they have to get their water from the Flint River. They wound up buying water from people they used to sell water to, for eight times the price. So it's kind of like all these interesting stats, these local stats that only a mayor of a town would be intimately aware of, that we as the laymen folk wouldn't really know. What came out of all of this was a partnership between Flint, Michigan and Zero Mass. Which is the core of the relationship and why we’re all there, was to make sure it never happens again. Zero Mass is the technology that can put that into effect and make that come true.

 

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🏴‍☠️

A post shared by Lupe Fiasco (@lupefiasco) on Dec 27, 2018 at 2:33pm PST

I worked in Flint from 2012-2016 and I am from Saginaw, Mich., which is about 45 minutes away, and the craziest thing to me was that when they made the switch to the Flint River, everyone saw the difference instantly and they were told that the water was fine. I don't want to be prejudicial about it, but even putting myself on as an example, I mean we really don't understand water. In terms of what the grid, the city, the municipal factors, the private forces that are behind us getting the water that comes out of our taps, what they are willing to subject us to. Like parts per billion and this additive versus that additive, and what the tolerances are, and what they are willing to accept as pullable water for the short term. You can see why people would retreat to bottled water and things like that because it is the safer alternative, but then that has its own set of hidden costs and consequences, that are an existential threat that with polluting the ocean. Our relationship to water is so fragile and so misunderstood, and we just let it be that. “Okay it's cool.” So people will say “yeah, the water is good to drink because the water won't kill you in a few years. It will take a couple decades, but as of right now you are good.”

Pipes are being replaced now, so what is the nature between the relationship between Flint and Zero Mass? They are going to announce in a couple weeks what the actual details of the partnership are, but it is definitely bringing Zero Mass technology to a place like Flint, similar to projects we do in Africa, projects we do in Mexico, projects we do now starting all over the world. We are in 15 countries and five continents, various climates and conditions. But bringing that as the solution to drinking water, specifically. So you never have to worry about where your water is coming from because it is coming from you. It’s something that a source panel is making on your roof every day so you don't have to worry about pipes and being connected to infrastructure and the fragility of the infrastructure and the quality of the water and privatization and this, that and all of the other conflicting parts that go along with it.

 

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“...And that mean they Down” The only “uncirculated” Manillas, meaning ones to the best of my knowledge that have not been traded for slaves, I’ve been able to find are those pulled from the Slave Ship Douro. The wreck sits about 30 meters below the surface off the isle of Scilly in the UK. It sank in 1843. Its crew and cargo of trade goods & manillas never made it to Africa to trade. I like to think that the water baptized and purified the Douro Manillas and reset their original purpose to one of freedom as opposed to captivity. I had one of the Douro Manillas in my collection cleaned and molded and created new ones off of that mold. At a couple of my shows I lead a “secret service” on stage for the Diaspora that were in the crowd. They know what happened 🤫😏...however it involved buying back ones past with the original Manilla then buying ones future with the newly minted Manilla. I like to think of it as OUR Diasporian crucifix. An instrument originally used for inflicting pain and suffering reframed to inspire hope and glory just by its presence. Reminding one of the pain but also the power. From limitation to liberation. 🌊

A post shared by Lupe Fiasco (@lupefiasco) on Oct 26, 2018 at 9:05am PDT

The concept behind your new album Drogas Wave is the story of the Longchains, former slaves who live under the ocean while sinking slave ships. Is the album connected with your work in the water space at all? Not directly. (Laughs) I think that because I am an Aquarius, water is apart of my whole deal, but no, not really. If you saw the talk I did at CES, I did this presentation of the manilla, which is on the cover of Drogas Wave. The manilla became for me this talisman for how I kind of view my life and how I approach things, and I always keep it with me and tell a story to people as much as I can. I've done it at MIT, and I've done it now at CES, and I've done it on stage. We need to be careful about the things that we invest in, and the cost and consequences of the things that we do. The manilla is kind of an example of that: the complicity, and endurance, and commandeering something negative and pulling it into something positive, etc. I want to be a part of things that make the world a better place, and here is physical motivation and a physical reminder of what the world's expectations were of my ancestors. And then how that reverberates through time because we don’t understand our place in the world.

We constantly let people tell us where our place in the world is. Whether it be this mythical history of Africa that informs us or this very racist segregational third class citizen mentality that exists in the U.S. We as the diaspora, when do we decide to map out our own futures and write our own destinations? That is what the manilla represents to me, this past, and then when you see the talk you see that I have a new one, a flashy new one that’s remolded off of the old one. You take this old one and we buy back our past, and with this new one, we buy back our future. We buy our future, we define who we are. Zero Mass is a part of that. Yeah, I am a rapper and I'll entertain and I'll come and play with you, but I also want to be a force in the industry and the space to change the world. I also want to be working with samurai swords, and I also want to play video games. I want to be a nerd, I don't want to be everybody's friend. I want to define what I am. It doesn’t matter if I sell a million records, I'm cool selling five records. But I am going to sell five records to the five most powerful people in the world and then we are gonna go out and partner and change things, and not wait for the Grammys to tell me that it was cool, or wait for VIBE to tell me it was nice. I am not interested in linearity anymore. As many points as I can hit, as many times, with as many different possibilities for success so be it. If people don't get it cool, on to the next.

At what point did you stop being concerned with linearity? It was probably Tetsuo & Youth, because we were right back to a point where Atlantic was not gonna put the album out unless you had these types of singles. “You got to have a ‘Show Goes On.' You gotta have an ‘Old School Love.’" I'm like all right, it's gonna ruin the album because it doesn’t fit. But then it became, oh wow they’re not gonna promote this album anyway. That was one of the guarantees Lyor Cohen gave me when I didn’t sign my 360 deal. “You know if you don't sign a 360 deal, we can't guarantee we are gonna promote your album.” Those were the meetings I was having at Atlantic. I was like holy sh*t, what world are we living in? So I just kind of knew, all right f**k it. You're not gonna promote it anyway, so I am just gonna make the album that I want to make, that people can't understand, because linearity is not gonna work. If I do all these records I am going to sacrifice my creative intentions. I’m 34, I don't know how many years more I can do this, being the guinea pig for your pop-crossover rap whatever and get no publishing from it. So nah, I'm just going to make this record. Then it became abandon that linearity, they are not going to put the album out, in walks Anonymous and threatens to hack the label. And it gets lauded as one best albums of that year. Didn't sell a bunch of records, didn't press up any vinyls, didn't promote it as promised, but it still established like “holy sh*t, this is one of the best albums that came out that year.” “Mural” is still looked at as one of the epitomes of just blacking out with bars. But it's completely nonlinear and then it was like its okay I'm comfortable doing that. Now I am completely comfortable as an artist putting out whatever the f**k I want to put out. Whoever gets it, they get it. Whoever don't, don't. But in the meantime, here is Zero Mass.

A while ago you said that you were planning to leave rap soon, after your next album Skulls. Are you looking forward to dedicating a lot more time to these sort of issues after you are done? I will always be fighting to make the world a better place so that will never stop, even if I decide to continue to make music and stuff like that. I’ll still make music, I just don't feel like I have a career in the way in the way that I did before. Me and my friend were having a conversation about it and we went through this whole plan of how to rebuild, where I needed to be and all this other stuff. Play nice with the press, and blah, blah, blah. When we got to the end of it, it was like, do I have genuine interest to do that? Now that we got everything on the table, the whole plan, and then the sub-plan and then Plan C, and all of that, do I want to do that? Because what's at the end of that? Is it another Ferrari? Is it another house? Do I need another Playstation? Do I need more shoes? Like what is at the end of it? Specifically with music, what is the promise of music at the end of it, exposing yourself to all of that madness? All that madness is what it takes to have a career. I just felt like my time is up, in terms of music in a commercial sense. But I still got whole albums, that are just kind of sitting, for me, that I sit and play or they’re half-recorded and I sit and have to rap it to myself that will probably never come out.

What I feel like I have done in the musical space, I have set my example. I’m good. Nobody can ever take that away, you can argue it as much as you want but it's there. I will never have the impact of this person or that person, but that’s for technical reasons. My manager has been in prison since my first album came out, I’ve never switched managers. So Chill's been in prison since '03, came out for a couple years to fight the case, and he got sentenced a couple days after The Cool came out. (Editor's note: Lupe shouts out his manager/mentor, Charles "Chilly" Patton, on "Free Chilly" from The Cool.) So since '08 to now, my management is in prison doing everything over the phone. So just imagine those limitations when you are trying to negotiate a deal from jail and they lock the prisons down for three weeks, versus having somebody that is free and can run around 24/7 and make all the calls and go here and go there. Chill has probably seen two or three of my concerts, ever. So those are the limitations that are happening in the Lupe space, and we still succeed. There is a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes, a lot of battles that I fight because of the views that I take. And you see it now, being a supporter of Palestine is a career death sentence, and I have been about that my whole career. Speaking truth to power and all that stuff that comes with consequence, it’s something that is not taken lightly. But with that said we still have great success. Great opportunities in music, still putting out great music at least from my point of view, still putting out impactful music. And as long as I feel like doing something, I can always do it. I own my own studio there is no limitations, I’m completely independent, so if I want to put out an album tomorrow I could. But am I rushing toward that lifestyle again? Not necessarily.

I had no idea Chill was still managing you man, that is crazy. I’m a loyal dude, man.Chill has done a lot for me so we are family from the streets to the music business, to the corporate business, everything planned. If it was not for him I would not have this entrepreneurial [spirit]. He made me become vice president when I was 19. I wanted to just be the artist rapping in the studio doing that. He was like nah you need to come to this meeting and sit down with Lyor, you need to come to this meeting and sit down with L.A Reid. L.A. Reid is like, “is this an audition?” Chill is like no, this is my business partner. “But he's 19,” and he's like “yeah, I know.” Without him, you probably would not see me on stage at Zero Mass because I wouldn't know how to navigate that space, I wouldn’t feel comfortable around men in power, women in power, CEOs, or executives and stuff like that because I had never been one, I had always been the artist. There is no way to pay that back, so my loyalty to him is kind of unquestioned, and whatever that means for monetary success is negligible.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

The Genie In Broadway's 'Aladdin' Is A Nod To Jazz Great Cab Calloway

It's like night and day.

Inside The New Amsterdam Theater, Major Attaway's presence is inescapable. Embodying the role of the beloved Genie in Disney's Aladdin, the Texas native sets the tone for the audience by dismantling the fourth wall and bringing them into the fictitious world of Agrabah. His voice booms, he's light on his feet and his high kick can strike lightning.

But when Attaway is off stage, his robust voice lowers to almost a whisper. His presence, still warm and welcoming, has an added layer of gentleness that's divorced from his performance. Attaway is a three-part entertainer: singer, dancer, and actor, but when it's just one-on-one, he's soft-spoken and tender often requiring you to lean in to fully hear him speak.

In Manhattan's Milk Studios, Attaway sat with Vibe and several other media outlets to discuss the Genie--who's equal parts Aladdin's best friend, moral compass, and ultimate wingman, as well as the true inspiration behind one of Disney's most enchanting figures.

As a little kid, you made a wish. What did you wish for that you’ve seen come true now into adulthood? Major Attaway: Oh that’s easy. Well, when I was 10 years old, I’m not sure of the actual age. I know I was sitting in the ninth row at the New Amsterdam Theater where I saw The Lion King on Broadway for the first time. I said to my mother as I was squealing from the edge of my seat 'This is what I want to do’ I knew I liked to sing and I knew I wanted to do something in this business but I wasn’t sure. Seeing The Lion King made it very clear to me, so now every day it’s a full circle moment because I work in the New Amsterdam Theater, and every performance I make sure to give a little love to whoever’s sitting in that chair just in case I see someone who looks a little like me.

Tell me the feeling you had when you saw The Lion King I knew that I wanted to perform. I had been in the Texas Boys Choir, started singing in church and I had been learning new languages because of the Texas Boys Choir. We learned to sing phonetically in German, Italian, and all these different things. But The Lion King was the closest thing to me that I saw. There was absolutely nothing like it because even on TV there was only so many shows I could watch. I was watching UPN or something like that, but The Lion King gave me all of it. It gave me singing. It gave me acting. It gave me a story that I already loved. A story that was reimagined and the puppets the majestic visual experience that I got, it just told me what I knew all the time that imagination--that was always hounding me--I can use it and I can funnel it into a way that I can make a living as well as help people at the same time. It gave me all of that, so much.

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Happy Birthday Aladdin on Broadway#4yearsandcounting

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And the importance of this role to you during Black History Month? Oh my! Well, the version of the Genie that I play is based on Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, because the original design of the genie character was this. When Robin Williams was given the part he changed their idea for the character. So, I get to be a song and dance man on one of the oldest stages in Broadway. Where Stepin-Fetchit may have graced the stage, but couldn’t come in the front door. And so every once in a while I meet a certain person at the stage door and they say thank you because I haven’t seen someone like me up there.

Not only that, I’m the first voice and the first face that anybody sees when they’re coming to see that show. So I have to represent, and I understand that not only am I giving someone their first Broadway memory, it’s their first live performance memory. You know, a lot of people see the film and say 'Who can do what Robin Williams does?’ I don’t do what Robin Williams does. He’s a stand-up comedian. I am full, three-part entertainer. So that’s what you’re getting when you come to see me and I’m showing you that a man of my size, and where I’ve come from, and how hard I’ve had to work that you can do it. It’s possible.

How do you keep that magic going? How do you keep that fire in your belly? Lots of things can attribute to it. You have to take care of yourself outside of the work because if its all that you are, then it’s gonna drain you. You have to know how to take mental breaks. In telling of the story in itself, I have a unique situation with the Genie because I am required to break the fourth wall. I am required to check-in to the energy of the audience because I am the narrator as well as one of the characters so I have to make sure that I set the tone of energy. So I feel like its easier for who’s ever playing the Genie because we don’t just have to check in with the actors around us we have to talk the audience. So if their energy is up and down I can affect that. I can push against it, I can pull back to let them catch up or something like

The Genie himself, I ask myself different questions daily to keep the characters fresh. You see me come out of the lamp and offer him three wishes. No one asks me who was my last master? How did I obtain my Genie powers in the first place? What was I doing right before I rubbed the lamp? What does it look like in the lamp? These are questions that I can ask myself to keep my reaction to Aladdin fresh. Different ways to add to the story so there’s depth in me answering his questions that I answer every day.

Will Smith is going to be playing the genie in the live-action remake. Oh, I’m so excited.

Have you spoken to him? And if you haven’t, do you have any pointers you could give to him? They’re two separate entities. Yes, they’re both under the Disney family but Disney theatricals and Disney films are living their own separate lives. Now, what I would say if I got to meet him, it wouldn’t be about things I could tell him because the grind I do is different. The way he put together the character he had a certain timeline and form these things and it was done. Mine is, I’m telling that same story every day so I have to find nuances that keep it new and fresh for me.

I would love to meet him and have him watch my performance. That would be awesome, but other than that I think that I’m just excited that you just mentioned mine and his name in the same breath. That’s the best part about that question to me. [Laughs]

After the show, there’s a standing ovation for you, clear as day. How does that make you feel? Grateful. I’m there to serve the moment and to tell the story. I’m just glad they enjoy it, to be honest. I understand how many people want to be here and the hunger is so real for so many people who want to do this job. Every moment I’m just grateful to be in this space and when they respond in that way and stand on their feet and clap. An ovation is not something that is expected and I don’t think its something that needs to be given every time just because I’ve completed a song or just because I’ve completed the number you enjoy. If I’ve moved you then you should move. If not, that’s okay and I respect that.

Talk a little bit about your hustle as a black person on Broadway. I will tell you something specific to my career that has to do with me being a black person in musical theater.  I realized at a young age, with all of the characters that were available to me for me to play, I’m telling history stories and I might have to be a slave. If I’m telling a fantasy story, I can be anything I want. If I want to tell someone’s story who has been black and lived a black life, there’s going to be some hardships at some point. There’s no question. There’s going to be something I have to tell or live through on stage.

I auditioned for everything but sometimes I would be more excited to receive the opportunity to play something that is based in fantasy because when you have to do that over and over again you have to do the work. One way or another you have to find your way to that emotional place, and so I spent one year of my life where I did Rag Time and Rent and then Rag Time again and I said ‘Oh that’s about six months of funerals where the black man I’m playing has to lose.'

Of course, there are lessons learned and things like that, but given the choice, in the long run, I love playing the Genie. Yes he may be in shackles in doing the work, but he’s the most powerful being in the place and he will always be. That is a plus for me as a black man.

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