2017 MTV Video Music Awards - Roaming Show
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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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Brent Faiyaz Channels International Life Into New Musical Gems

Finishing up his summer in Europe, Brent Faiyaz (born Christopher Brent Wood) indulges in spiked mimosas and enticing conversations with his team after handling business for the day. Jet-setting overseas to add more memories to his life’s reel, the singer-songwriter and producer just celebrated his 24th birthday days before. “I think anytime you go places internationally you get a different perspective," he says. "I felt like creatively, it would bring out some more shit.” Many doors have opened for the DMV crooner since he first appeared in front of the public’s eye with his single “Natural Release” in 2014. Pulling pages out what seems to be his journal entries, Faiyaz shares his autobiography through the dynamics of string ballads, haloed hymns, and tinder timbre.

The Columbia, Maryland R&B talent has shared his soothing vocals with fans ever since. Studiously making beats from the age of 12 or 13, it wasn’t until after graduating high school and moving to Charlotte with his parents that he began to invest in music full time. His rhythmic resonance and gut-punching lyrics turned into his first five-track EP speaking to women, relationships, and sex in A.M. Paradox in 2016 with his hit single “Poison.” He formed a group called Sonder with fellow musicians Dpat and Atu, and released a group EP with them called Into before dropping another solo project, Sonder Son. The 12-track project delved into his childhood: he brought his fans right into his living room in “Home,” gave them a seat at the table in his classrooms in “Gang Over Luv,” and walked his newfound Los Angeles streets with them in “L.A.” He then unleashed his tightly knit six-track EP Lost with standouts “Trust,” and “Around Me.”

“I come from a very real place. I think that I can give a lot of people around me a lot of real perspectives. I’ve been seeing a lot of people in certain avenues gravitate towards a nigga,” the LA-based artist said.

The indie artist truly received a standing ovation after organically co-creating the 2018 Grammy-nominated single “Crew” with GoldLink and Shy Glizzy. “I’m going to be real; I didn’t go into music with the intention of being an independent artist, especially not this long. But then [I] hopped onto “Crew” and we fucked around a got a hit record without even being signed to a label. After that I started getting paid so I was like ‘Fuck it, we really don’t need that,’” he said.

His first 2019 summer single “Fuck the World (Summer in London)” opened a perspective of contronyms that approached both the literal and lustful world. What he calls “the woes and the woes.” “Meaning the shit that I hate. [What] is terrible about life right now that’s fucked up, fuck the world on the negative end, middle finger fuck the world,” he says. “And then it’s ‘Fuck the World’ where it’s like the girls and the money and the clothes and the bullshit.”

He later dropped his latest track a month later. “Rehab (Winter In Paris)” mirrors a story when the singer was balancing his personal time while being addicted to a person who is addicted to a substance. With “Rehab” already penned, Faiyaz went to producing the track alongside No ID, known for his work with rap greats like Jay-Z, Common and Kanye West. “He’s an OG. I soaked up a lot of game from him. I locked in with him for a whole week and cut a bunch of ideas.” Observing the producer's process, Faiyaz implemented some of No ID’s ways into his own. “I would take certain shit he said and put that in my own shit. Real talk, he is one of those niggas that will put you on game.”

With a uniqueness to his voice that is charming yet elusive, the singer has raised eyebrows by not resembling the stereotypical genetic makeup of a rhythm and blues artist. “I don’t really know how a sound is supposed to look. If somebody tells me how a sound is supposed to look, I will understand,” Faiyaz chuckled. “I don’t really connect the two. I can’t change how I look; I can’t change how I sound. I’m going to keep doing me.”

During what one could consider a hiatus, the vocalist used that time to focus on his craft, give back to his mom, jump on A$AP Ferg’s album Floor Seats, and walk in Pyer Moss’s New York Fashion Week Show. As he has geared up for a musical return that will unveil a different side, Faiyaz is under renovation. “I [don’t] want to give people the same sh*t that I’ve been giving them this whole time. I’m not about to put out a new project and it sounds the exact same as the last project. I want to keep reinventing myself as this sh*t goes on.”

“Right now, I am probably the most creative that I’ve ever been.”

Brent has successfully left his fans longing for more all while remaining authentic, not purposefully trying to create any kind of enigma around himself. “It’s not a goal of mine to be on the tip of everybody’s tongue all the time.”

With the year wrapping up, the 24-year-old is “pushing boundaries” as he prepares to release more original melodies. While he experiments with the production elements of his music and strengthening his vocals, the artist is effortlessly surprising himself in the studio. “I’m kind of saying whatever the fuck I want to say on the track and somehow it’s coming out pretty good. I know how to put it in a way where it comes off ill.”

Plotting his next moves, the creative has become enthralled with art all across the board in his performances as it translates to visual art. “I’m really learning how a bunch of different avenues go aside from just music. I’m on my young renaissance man shit.”

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Robert Glasper performs at Blue Note in New York City on Saturday, Oct. 5 during his residency.
Dennis Manuel

Robert Glasper Talks 'F**k Yo Feelings,' Yasiin Bey, And Lessons From Herbie Hancock

“This second set, bro...”

Robert Glasper mischievously smiled and widened his eyes as I began to turn off my recorder. We’re wrapping up an interview and sitting side by side near a soundboard at the historic Blue Note jazz club in New York City, where fans are packed downstairs for the third night of Glasper’s month-long residency. He had a previous residency at the Blue Note last year, and it was a hot ticket: acts such as Black Star, Anderson .Paak, and Lupe Fiasco shared the stage with him, while celebrities like Chris Rock, Cornel West, and Chadwick Boseman came to enjoy from the audience.

For the start of this year’s residency, the elusive, expressive Yasiin Bey joined him for four nights in a row, with two shows each night. On Saturday (Oct. 5), the Brooklyn renaissance man wore a black hoodie over a solid black tee, wielded his signature bright red retro mic, and went through fan favorites like “The Boogie Man Song,” “Auditorium” and “Casa Bey,” all over fresh, warmly layered interpretations by Glasper and his bandmates Derrick Hodge, Chris Dave and DJ Jahi Sundance. Bey is visibly impressed by the band, and at one point, dances and spins in place for 10 minutes while vibing to the music. But with Glasper’s reputation and relationships, other artists are prone to just show up, and that’s why Glasper was so excited about the second show: god-level MC Black Thought and soul singer Bilal both made surprise appearances, leaving members of the crowd hyperventilating. Thought exhibited his otherworldly lyricism and breath control, dropping sets of what felt like 100 bars at a time and trading rhymes with Yasiin while the band played a rendition of Madvillain’s “Meat Grinder.” Bilal performed his timeless 2001 single “Reminisce,” with Yasiin spitting his verse from the song. Main Source cofounder Large Professor slipped in the door before the show as well, though he didn’t take the stage. For much of the show, Glasper goofily joked with the crowd, often prompting Yasiin to flash his own bashful, dimpled smile. It's just one night of more to come: the rest of the residency will continue through the beginning of November with Esperanza Spaulding, Luke James for a Stevie Wonder tribute, T3 of Slum Village for a J Dilla tribute, and the original Robert Glasper Experiment, with more guests sure to pop up unannounced.

That same spirit of spontaneity fueled Glasper’s new mixtape, Fuck Yo Feelings. Glasper arranged a two-day jam session with his band and invited artists and friends to keep company. What began as a good time with loved ones resulted with a mixtape that features YBN Cordae, Buddy, Rapsody, Herbie Hancock, Bey, Muhsinah, and many more. It's the latest release in a career that has seen Glasper simultaneously carry on jazz traditions and buck its conventions. As a pianist, bandleader and musical director, he’s excelled with making jazz records for the iconic Blue Note Records that traditionalists can love; but he’s also earned two Grammys for his two Black Radio albums, which employ raps and vocals by Yasiin Bey, Lalah Hathaway, Erykah Badu, and more. He's consistently lent his talents to other musicians’ albums as well – most notably Kendrick Lamar, for his game-shifting 2014 LP To Pimp A Butterfly. Regardless of the platform, Glasper is always making jazz cool, and adding victories to his own belt in the process.

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VIBE: You’re back at Blue Note for your second residency here. How was last year, and what made you come back?

Robert Glasper: Last year was amazing, with all the guests that came through and the turnout. We sold out 44 of 48 shows. The shows, the people, the guests following out that were in New York. It was just epic shit. And Blue Note was like, “we definitely need to do this next year.” So I was like “cool, let’s do it.” I get to be home for a month, and I’m never home for five weeks straight. Gives me a chance to be home, hang out with my son every week, and the money ain’t bad either. (laughs) It’s kind of like being on tour without being on tour.

Last time we spoke, you were telling me that even though you live in NYC, that most of the creative energy is in LA because that’s where everyone records.

There’s more recording in LA, because everybody moved there. But the creative energy is still here. From my experience, you learn how to play and create in New York, you get all those skills. And then you move to LA to make money with it. (laughs) New York’s the place to go when you’re dope, kind of for most things. The competition is so crazy. In other places, it’s slim pickings of who’s dope, so it’s not something that’s going to push you hardcore. But when you’re here, everywhere you go, muhfuckas is dope. I went to college here, there’s motherfuckas here who made me scared to play piano. They would call my name, and I’d sit at the drums because I’d rather sound bad on drums than piano in front of these people. It really chiseled my shit to be dope as fuck.

LA is the place with a plethora of everything you need to make money. All the studios, the producers, all the film stuff. The opportunities are in LA. Before you used to go back and forth from New York to LA for opportunities because there were still a lot of artists and producers here. But it’s so expensive, everybody moved out to LA. It’s more stuff out here, you get more bang for your buck, get some sun. You might die in an earthquake, but you know, see where it takes you. (laughs)

You’re very intentional with how you label records: you have ArtScience, you have Black Radio and Black Radio 2. Why is Fuck Yo Feelings a separate mixtape, and not in one of those other series?

All my records start off one way, and end up another way. I always say the universe produces half of my albums. Originally this was going to be a jam session with my band, and we were just recording it. I ended up being like, let’s bring people to listen to the recording. Not even artists, just tastemakers, friends, VIPs, to come hang out and put a bar in there, 15-20 pairs of headphones so they can be in the room and be part of the experience. It wasn’t an album; it was just, let’s record for two days and see how it sounds. But people started falling through the studio, and it just became a thing. As we kept recording –- we were only there for two days – I had the amazing singer/songwriter SiR come through. He’s a super-fast writer so I said, “while we’re jamming, if you have any ideas, just write them down, and maybe they can become songs later.” One of the songs he had an idea for was “Fuck Yo Feelings.” That was early on the first day. The singer YEBBA was there, and I’m like, “let her sing that.” And that became the premise of the whole shit.

I feel like that’s a great mantra for today’s times. Where I’m coming from, Fuck Yo Feelings can mean so many different things. This is a time where everybody’s fighting for their place in the world to be who they are, whether you’re LGBTQ, whether it’s the females trying to get equal pay and equal rights, black people trying to finally be equal and end racism. Fuck Yo Feelings is a mantra saying, respect someone else’s plight that’s not your own. Take your feelings out of it and just respect their fight, understand what it is, and hell, fight with them. Just because it’s not your fight, it doesn’t mean they don’t need allies. Or, just get out of the way. Also, feelings can lie to you. You get in your feelings about shit, and a lot of times, feelings aren’t going to be what propels you to the next chapter. Sometimes, feelings can hold you back and give you a false sense of reality. Sometimes, you have to say “fuck how I feel, I need to do this.” There’s so many angles you can go with it, and this is something that so many people feel like saying, or say in their mind.

I hear that, but I can’t front: the cover has you sitting on a throne with your shirt off. So I thought the title was basically saying “fuck these artists who think they’re fucking with me.”

(laughs) Well, humbly speaking, I don’t think there are dudes that think they’re fucking with me. (laughs louder) In a real way, I don’t know the pianist that’s arguably in the top five in the jazz world, top five in the hip-hop world, is arguably the top five in the R&B world in terms of playing my instrument. I don’t know that guy, but me. You can have your little argument, “I’m better than you at jazz,” sure. If you want. But all three? And I have the Grammys to back each one of them up? I put in work out here. So it wasn’t that. It’s more like fuck your feelings when it comes to all the stuff I just said. But also, people have an issue with how I’m crossing all these genres and doing what I do. The average jazz musician doesn’t look the way I look, talk the way I talk, or behave the way I behave. Most jazz musicians are in a box, and it’s a box that people are comfortable with and a box you’ve seen before. People got some shit to say about my shit all the time, and I’m definitely saying fuck your feelings to that, too. Because I’ve done the box you like, I’ve proven I can do that. So what’s next? I don’t need nobody’s approval because Herbie [Hancock] loves me, so I’m good. (laughs) If Herbie’s down with me, I don’t need one other person’s approval in the world.

This mixtape also has a lot of younger rappers: Denzel Curry, YBN Cordae, Buddy. Was that intentional?

Yeah. I want to keep my hand in the young pot, too. I’m not getting any younger. I wanted this record to be something that everybody could love and like, even different generations. I felt it was important to have younger cats on here, and to put younger cats in situations they wouldn’t normally be in. YBN Cordae wouldn’t normally be on a track with Herbie Hancock, but he’s so dope. YBN Cordae is an old soul, and he respects the people that came before him, while he’s making new things. Terrace Martin hooked me and YBN up, and Terrace is all about that too. People always associate me with the backpack rappers, and they should, because that’s what I’m dwelling in all the time. But I like other shit, too.

I want to talk about your relationship with Yasiin. I know he was on the first Black Radio, and you’ve worked together before that too, right?

Live, all the time. He basically used my band for his live stuff all the time. I was his music director, starting in like 2006. Whenever he would do things with a live band, they’d be with my band. At first, something happened and his piano player couldn’t make one gig. So when I sub a gig… (laughs) I went in there and put the kitchen sink in that mufucka.

He got fired on his day off?

It was a wrap. So I start putting my guys in his band. “I see what you’re going for. You need Chris Dave. You need Derrick Hodge.” But I’d met him before because he was around Bilal all the time. He was on Bilal’s first record, and I was his music director the whole time till 2007. But I started doing my own thing and we’ve been rocking ever since. We just have one of those connections on stage, bro – he’s like another instrument. He’s always comfortable to the fact that we play shit that most rappers would not rap over because they don’t know how. It’s not your average four-bar chopped beat. He’s like, “I love that. It’s got 32 different changes in it, and I want to rap over the whole thing.” Or odd time signature shit that’s not normal, he’s comfortable. He can go anywhere on stage, and that’s why every show we do is different. It allows me to still be free and not have to worry about, “we have to stay in this box for him.”

He seems to be a recluse in a lot of ways, especially in the past five or six years. But he’s on your new project, he’s doing four nights in a row with you with two shows per night, and he did shows at the Kennedy Center with you recently. How do you get a hold of him?

I got the bat phone, my nigga! (laughs) Nah, we have mutual respect for each other. He tells me this: this is the highest musical level, I feel, you can possibly be in when it comes to rocking with a band. It may be different, but it ain’t gon get no higher. He has such a love for jazz and hip-hop and other styles of music, he knows we can go anywhere. We’ve done pop songs together. I’ve done Cyndi Lauper stuff with him, Neil Young, Radiohead, we go all over the place because he loves to sing too. He has a respect for what I do and respect for the musicians I have. And he wants to do it. It’s different when it’s a gig, versus, I want to do this, because it feeds him musically, too. Some gigs are just gigs; you show up and you might not, because you’ve done this before. We could do the same songs and it’s going to be totally different than last night. I think he feeds off that.

But he’s definitely a recluse, and sometimes he won’t show up every now and then. (laughs) He’s never stood me up. It was never, “where’s Mos?” He can do that to people, but he’s never done that to me. He may say, “ah, missed a flight,” so we have time to figure shit out. It’s a respect thing.

What are the chances you two make an EP, or a full album together?

We’ve been talking about that for years, and that’s super, super duper most likely going to happen. Without a doubt. He wants to, every time we talk, we talk about that. All these shows are being recorded every night, by the way. So it could be shit from here, live.

He was supposed to drop multiple albums over the past few years. He had the album with Mannie Fresh, and another solo, Negus In Natural Person. He dropped the album with Ferrari Sheppard, December 99th, on TIDAL in 2016, but that wasn’t my speed.

I give him shit about that every day. (laughs) I give him shit about most of his last albums. “Fuck that shit, my nigga. What are you doing?” That’s my dude, I can talk to him like that. “What are you doing, my nigga? You know what this is. This is magic! That shit ain’t magic!” He looks at me like (curls top lip and lowers voice to impersonate Yasiin Bey) “nah you right, you’re right, Ron.”

His second album, The Ecstatic, isn’t on streaming services anymore.

He doesn’t believe in all that. We talked about that last night. He’s not necessarily in with the new times like that. “I gotta give away my shit for free, just because you’ve got Wifi? Nigga, you know how hard I worked on this shit?” He ain’t even got a cell phone, so getting him to understand the new wave of shit is different. (Ed. note: at the beginning of both shows, Yasiin Bey requests the crowd not use their cell phones during his performance, and promises to “enforce” if they don’t get with the program. ) He’s very much anti all that shit. It’s going to be something to gradually get him to understand. We put “Treal” (from Fuck Yo Feelings) out and he’s like, “yo. I just saw a video of our song on YouTube. For free?!” Mos, no one buys music. That’s just not what it is. These days and times we’re in, you get out there and try to be popular as you can, and when you do shows, that’s where your money comes from. But no one is baking cake off of music anymore. That's not the day we’re in. Unless somebody like Taylor Swift. I know at one point she was like “fuck that shit” and it wasn’t on Spotify. But her fan base is millions of people; she puts something out, and they’re going to pay for it. Our people, eh, not so much. (laughs)

You also said a few years ago that you’d be forming a group with Terrace Martin and James Fauntleroy. Is that still going on?

We did like one or two songs, fucked around. This is one of those things where everybody got busy. I’ve had a few groups go like that. But it takes a while for a group to do a project. You do a song this month and then three months later you do another song, so the album may not come out until two years later sometimes. But that’s still something we want to do. It was hard to do August Greene, with Common [and Karriem Riggins]. That was hard to get done, and it’s not easy to tour that. We all have our respective things happening, so we’re looking in the cracks like “let’s try to do a show here.” Rashid’s doing movies and that kind of stuff.

What would you say you’ve learned from Herbie Hancock, and do you think you’ve given him any gems that he didn’t have before?

There’s two things I learned from Herbie. You’re a person first, and you’re a musician second. No matter what you do in life, you have to remember that you’re a human being first, and what you do is secondary. What you do can always be taken away from you, and then you’re just left with who you are. I was at his house doing chants with him, because he’s a Buddhist, and I just listened to him talk and that’s one of the things he said. The music is connected to the person and the music, person and spirit are all combined. If you’re a good person, that can come through the music. You just have to remember you’re a person first, and a musician second. That’s how he is, how his aura is.

Second thing I’m learning from Herbie, you can learn from anybody. No matter how high or great you think you are, you can learn from younger people. That’s something that he saw firsthand with Miles (Davis). Miles got Herbie in his band when he was like 19. And Miles trusted the young cats. When he saw these young people got something to say. All Miles’ bands were young people. Miles was a genius at knowing what situation to be a part of because he saw they were on the brink of something. Miles put himself in that and could help grow that, but he knew he could learn from young people. That’s why Herbie hangs out with us. Where we be at, he be pulling up. So I learned that from him: always have your ears open. Even if you’re a master at something, masters can learn.

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Lil Kim performs onstage at the BET Hip Hop Awards 2019 at Cobb Energy Center on October 5, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

BET Hip Hop Awards 2019: Watch All The Performances Here

There were awards given out at the 2019 BET Hip Hop Awards, but this year's festivities were all about the performances. Hip-hop's biggest up and comers (Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, YBN Cordae, Saweetie), more established names, (Rick Ross, Rapsody, Chance The Rapper), and flat out legends (Lil Kim) all blessed the stage.

This year also saw the return of the annual Cyphers and connected with URL to integrate battles into the show for the first time. Look below for the performances from the 2019 BET Hip Hop Awards.

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Lil Kim Performs Medley Of Hits with Junior M.A.F.I.A., O.T. Genasis, and Musiq Soulchild Megan Thee Stallion And DaBaby Perform "Hot Girl Summer" And "Cash Shit" Lil Duval, TOM. G, And KaMillion Team Up For City Boys Performance YBN Cordae And Anderson .Paak Perform "RPN" Saweetie Performs "My Type" With Lil Jon And Petey Pablo Rapsody Performs "Nina" And "Serena" Chance The Rapper Performs "Sun Come Down" DaBaby Performs "Intro" And "Baby Sitter" With Offset Rick Ross and T-Pain Perform Medley Lil Baby and DaBaby Perform "Baby" T-TOP Vs. Shotgun Suge – Battle DNA vs. Geechi Gotti – Battle
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