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Will.I.Am Is Wrong About The State Of Hip-Hop

“It’s become the lowest-hanging fruit.”

That was Will.i.am’s assessment of hip-hop in an interview with Rolling Stone over the weekend (Dec. 1), and another troubling quote in the ongoing fallacy that rap is somehow a lower form of art. It’s the same trope many rappers – especially those who tend to steer towards white audiences – lean on when they want to “evolve” or “grow” as artists. Kanye West would rather design water bottles than dabble in the slums that are rapping. Tyler, The Creator wants to score movies because rap isn’t good enough. Miley Cyrus is going back to country because “Come sit on my d**k, suck on my c**k” and “Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c**k” music is just too vulgar for her.

Even if part of Will’s point, that the bar for entry into hip-hop is low is true, the situation is more nuanced than that. The bar for entry has historically been low, which is how you end up with “Ice Ice Baby” running the world in the same year Ice Cube told us about AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, or 69 Boyz’ “Tootsee Roll” doing the same while Nas gave us Illmatic and Biggie gave us Ready to Die.

If anything, the bar isn’t any lower, the net is just wider. Hip-hop has expanded so far beyond its Bronx house party origins that calling it worldwide feels like an understatement. If aliens are picking up Earth’s frequencies somewhere, there’s a good chance they’re hearing some hip-hop whenever they do. It’s that big.

In the ancient rap world Will speaks of, the one where he was part of a Los Angeles backpacker group that existed far, far away from the mainstream, rap was not a privilege, it was a necessity. Most of the black men and women who lunged towards rap did so as an escape and last resort. They did so from impoverished conditions, with few options and even less hope. Rap was a way out and, for some, the only way. It was truly life or death as their choices were either make it big by telling your story or return to your desolate conditions to live out the rest of that story. So they persevered.

This, of course, led to the golden era of rap, but plenty of sameness as well. Many of the stories were the same, even if the lexicons between regions were different. As rap continued to evolve, so too did the stories, and the perspectives that were introduced into the zeitgeist.

Eventually, we grew to a place where rap became a privilege and not a necessity. Now, after generations of rappers setting trends and generally being the coolest people in the room at all times, kids were aspiring to be rappers, not just resorting to that profession when they were out of options. Now, kids could study their favorites their whole lives and work towards being that. Suddenly, and perhaps unintentionally and with a ton of misinformation, rap was a desirable profession. Jay-Z rapped because he had to. It was that, or sell drugs and play that story out. J. Cole raps because he heard Jay-Z and wanted to follow in those footsteps. That’s growth of a genre of music and of a culture as a whole. That’s admirable, not scornful.

With that new influx of hopefuls came a whole new set of perspectives as well. If rappers in the ‘90s had to be the coolest and hardest mothaf**kers in the room, rappers in the 2000s changed that just a tad. Before then, rap only had Will’s perspective, the cool cousin who got all the girls and wore all the best clothes. When folks like Kanye started striking platinum, rappers could be Carlton as well.

In this era, the perspectives widened even more as the talent pool got exponentially bigger. As always, music and technology walk hand-in-hand as well. At the same time all those aspiring rappers began to come of age, technology advanced to a place that made it easier for them to try their hands at achieving their dreams. Computers made music easier to make, functionally not artistically, and the internet made it easier to spread it around. Before, if a young Chris Wallace wanted to make it rapping, he had to find a state of the art studio, pay large sums of money to record several songs, and then do the footwork towards getting attention from record labels himself. Now, Malcolm McCormick, a son of an architect and a photographer, only needed a computer, a microphone and an internet connection to rise to worldwide rapping fame.

In the world we live in now, we don’t get just Deebo’s story in rap–we get Craig’s, Smokey’s, Joi’s and Big Worm’s, too. Hell, we get Hector’s and the Pastor’s, too. And if we fall deep enough into a SoundCloud wormhole I bet we get Mr. Parker’s story, too. For all the complaints about Lil Yachty and the like, we still have Kendrick Lamar and his gravity. If you hate Lil Baby, you can find J.I.D. on the same playlist on your streaming service of choice. All of them exist, and none spite the other.

And this is all a good thing. Where hip-hop was once a specialty store, a Foot Locker of sorts where you could buy new sneakers and maybe even some socks and a shirt, now it’s a whole mall. You can get anything you need in hip-hop, as long as you’re willing to go find it. Foot Locker is still there, but you can go to Macy’s or PacSun, too.

With all of that comes plenty of music we don’t understand or value, but that doesn’t mean that music isn’t good or important. Mainstream has always gravitated towards a more accessible, or dumbed down sound when it comes to hip-hop. Some of the greatest rappers of all-time have capitalized on this trend and made careers out of that. That is why it’s called the music business. But that doesn’t mean the artistry isn’t there still. The current generation’s mastery of melody and cadence is just as impressive as the complexity and poignant lyricism of eras past. It’s just impressive in different ways. Jordan won one way, LeBron won one way, and now Steph Curry and his buddies are winning in another. But the game is still putting the ball in the hoop and preventing the other team from doing the same. The game is still telling our stories with an immaculate collection of sounds and organizing them into a song.

All of hip-hop comes from the same rebellious spirit that was encapsulated at those Bronx block parties in the ‘70s. All of it. Everything is about that youthful energy, and counter-culture. In taking the traditional, and changing it enough to invent something our own. Sure, we might not all enjoy the Lil Pumps and Tekashi 6ix9ines of the world, but somebody younger than us does, for sure. And sees it in the same light as we saw our heroes. Trend-setting, rebellious deities, speaking for us and telling our stories. They all come from the same place, even if they don’t sound the same. The bar is not lower, the net is wider, and the window into understanding the youth may be a little more opaque than it used to be. But that’s what age does to the eyes and the ears.

The constant degradation of hip-hop, its culture, its values and most importantly its sounds, is beyond problematic. The people who belittle the genre in an effort to hold it down, are the same ones who dabble in it every time they need a boost in popularity or the coolness factor. Hip-hop is the culture where they find their looks, their sounds, and everything else. We can’t let them work to depreciate the value of the culture they so often steal from.

It’s a classic case of gentrification, but this is a soil so pure it can’t be salted. This is a neighborhood so culturally rich, its natives can’t be run out of town even in the harshest of conditions, because we know once they buy up all this land they’re going to try to price us out. Don’t let them tell us hip-hop is the low hanging fruit when we know it’s the whole damn tree. If they can’t reach the sweetest of fruit at the top of the tree, that’s their fault. Not ours.

READ MORE: Stop Playing Into Female Rappers' Catty Feuds And Demand The Bars

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T-Pain Talks Upcoming Battle With Lil Jon

Instagram Live has been the place to be in recent weeks when it comes to the music world, and Swizz Beatz and Timbaland have coordinated a series of battles between some of the greatest producers and songwriters of all time. The next battle: T-Pain vs the king of crunk, Lil Jon. VIBE spoke to T-Pain about why he decided to participate, and what he expects from Lil Jon.

VIBE: I just spoke to Swizz and Timbo yesterday, and they were saying that some of these battles were difficult to set up, in part because some of the artists were scared to lose. What made you participate in this?

T-Pain: Well for one, I don’t see it as competition. I know the public sees it as competition, but I see it as a celebration of history. If all these people are going hits for hits, it’s not about who has the biggest hits. We had hits! There’s millions of millions of people who would pay to even be in these battles or be mentioned in the name of the people who are doing these battles. We all had hits. It’s not really a competition about who has the bigger song, it’s about two people getting together that actually had hits. That’s pretty difficult to do, to run for as long as anybody that’s been doing the competition is running. Like I said, I don’t see it as a competition; I see it as a celebration. Either way, the people win. Win or lose, it ain’t gon change my life tomorrow. (laughs) Even if they see it as me losing, I’m still T-Pain after that. Those hits still exist.

Have you watched all the other battles?

Oh of course. I’ve been tuned in crazy.


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Tomorrow who you got ???? @tpain vs @liljon ........... VERZUZ.... 9pm est

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Which have been the best to you?

The obvious one. (laughs) Fucking Dream and Sean Garrett is my favorite one, just cuz of how Sean was tripping for a while. (laughs) But it made for a good show, and we got to hear a lot of dope records that a lot of young people not only didn’t know about, but that even older people forgot about. Like I said, the people watching are the real winners. Nobody’s really going against each other. It’s a competitive industry as it is, and we proved our point by putting out the hits in the first place. Seeing Sean and Dream go against each other, two of the greatest hip-hop/R&B songwriters of our generation, it’s a great thing to see.

One element from these battles is that they’ll bring out songs that the audience didn’t know that they did. Do you think there are a lot of songs you’ve done that people don’t associate with you?

There’s a ton of those. People don’t even know that I produce my own sh*t. People don’t look at credits no more. It’s a bunch of country records I did that I’m not even trying to put out there that I did. It’s an honor to do it, I just don’t look for that kind of props. I know what I did, the check’s coming in, I’m fine if people don’t do that.

What kind of strategy are you looking at for this?

I don’t really have a strategy man. I’m just playing songs. If I saw it as a competition, I’d definitely have a strategy. But I’m just playing music. I’m not trying to beat out Lil Jon. Lil Jon is a f**king GOAT. He changed sh*t. He created party music, the crunk era, sh*t like that. Not only are we completely different –– obviously you want to make it entertaining, but if there’s nothing there, you don’t want to force it and make it silly.

At first, the matchup was going to be you and Scott Storch. Did you feel any way when they switched it?

Nah, not really. I understood. It made complete sense. They said they didn't want it to be a pure producer against a songwriter. Even Lil Jon is a songwriter, he's on a lot of the songs that he's going to play. It's not pure production against songwriting, you wouldn't have anything to compare. I like keeping it the way it makes sense. Give me someone who's written a verse before.

That’s all the questions I have for you. 

This was probably supposed to be way more controversial than this. (laughs)

(Laughs) I wasn't expecting controversy, you're not a controversial guy.

I'm not, man. I wish I could come in this b*tch like “I’ma kill this ni**a, ima murder that motherf***er.” But nah, the ni**a got slaps for real. (laughs) Ni**a got slaps. I can't wait to hear em. I know he's gonna have a DJ set up, he's gonna come in there screaming all over my goddamn phone. I'm more excited to have fun on live with Jon, I ain't seen Jon in a while. I'm more excited about that than the competition.

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Teddy Riley performs onstage during the 2018 Essence Festival presented by Coca-Cola - Day 3 at Louisiana Superdome on July 7, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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Teddy Riley Breaks Down Iconic Songs That Made Him The King Of New Jack Swing, Plans To Battle Babyface

Teddy Riley performed a medley of his greatest hits last night (April 2nd) in a well-promoted livestream mini-concert from his home studio on his teddyrileylive.com site. Flanked by his band: a drummer, a DJ on the wheels, a keyboard guy, his old Blackstreet crooning cohort Dave Hollister and two vocalists, Riley ran through his jam session like renditions of classic tunes from over 30 years of hit-making. After an hour and a half of giving the people that Riley rhythm, he closed out with an impromptu speech drumming up charity funds for the Coronavirus emergency, as well as shouting out his music industry colleagues and somehow squeezing in that he would be taking on the challenge in the popular social media music battle against another producing/writing legend in Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds this Sunday, April 5th on Instagram Live. The musical bout set up by producing wizards Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, scheduled for 6 pm EST, will consist of Riley and Edmonds playing 20 tracks a piece to not only see who has the stronger hit song catalogue, but more interestingly, also the better song selection counter skills. A day we are sure will live up to its high standards of anticipation.


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@teddyriley1 VS @babyface 🙌🏽 This is one of the iconic moments me & @timbaland have been working on! The Sunday will go down in the history books! Once again VERZUZ made it happen ! See you Sunday 6pm est on @teddyriley1 Live Zone Zone Zone !!!!!!!

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And just think, nearly a decade ago, Teddy Riley couldn’t stop talking. This is a paradox in itself considering that the groundbreaking producer and architect of the fast-paced synth-gospel-hip-hop hybrid dubbed New Jack Swing, is a soft-spoken man who is much more at ease with playing the background. But here we were, back in March of 2012 running down some of the Harlem native’s greatest musical moments in a wild and at times turbulent career that spans over 30 years for VIBE’s Full Clip series.

To understand Riley’s impact you have to meticulously connect the dots to a long list of producers and artists who have worshipped at the altar of the genius one-man-band. Without the Guy and Blackstreet leader’s blueprint, there would be no Mary J. Blige, Jermaine Dupri, Jodeci, Usher, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Dru Hill, the Neptunes, Chris Brown, The-Dream, or Bruno Mars. He was merging rap and soul before Roddy Ricch was literally conceived.

And so, after the glow of Riley’s live-streamed, multi-song set performance from his home studio to the masses, here is a look back at our Full Clip sit down with the celebrated man behind the keyboards whose reach extends beyond R&B to lace Lady Gaga and K-Pop with his golden touch. Here are the songs that made Teddy Riley an icon from Kool Moe Dee to Michael Jackson.

“The Show”—Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick & The Get Fresh Crew (1986)

“Before ‘The Show,’ I was playing in the church at age nine. My mother made me go up there to play the piano because the piano player was absent. When I was 11, I moved to another church, Universal Temple, where Red Alert was the DJ when we had certain gatherings. A few years later, as a kid growing up in Harlem, I was fortunate enough to have an uncle named Willie. He actually took me under his wing, performing in his nightclubs. He allowed me to make money and stay off the streets because I was getting in a lot of trouble. I got busted when I was 16-years-old for selling drugs. I got kicked out of Martin Luther King high school. This all changed my life.

I transferred to another school, and that’s where I met Doug E. Fresh. We would walk by each other because we didn’t know who each other was [Laughs]. Then we finally got introduced over the phone and we put two and two together and found out, ‘Hey, we go to the same school!’ So they were getting help fixing this one record called ‘The Show.’ And my friend told Doug E. and them, ‘Man, I have the perfect person to help fix this record.’ This was all in the same time span I was starting to produce for Classical Two and Kool Moe Dee.

We did everything at my house in the projects—225 West. 129th St. I lived on the first floor and Doug E. Fresh came over with Chill Will. Doug was asking me what I would do to the song? I told them to take out all of the commercials on the track because they had these mock commercials every 16 bars. I told them to make the commercial the bridge. I restructured the whole song and that’s how it came out. And then they came back with Slick Rick! The thing about it is I didn’t know anything about credits back then. I never knew anything about putting my name on a record. All I wanted was to hear something that I was a part of on the radio. I was proud of being involved with ‘The Show.’ It’s a classic song. We even got the chance to perform it at Doug’s graduation, and that’s how people knew I was a part of the song. That was a big moment for me.”

“How Ya Like Me Now”—Kool Moe Dee (1987)

“Yes, I knew ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ was a diss track. I was there. I was at Harlem World. I don’t think Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs ever went to Harlem World, which was on 116th St. on Lenox Ave, two blocks from where I used to hustle. I don’t think any of the rappers that call out Harlem World ever went to Harlem World. So this is where all the shows and battles were happening. You had Busy Bee, Lovebug Starski, Crash Crew, Fearless Four, and Kool Moe Dee all there performing.

I was there when Brooklyn used to come and shoot up the whole front door when Manhattan wasn’t taking it anymore. So I knew [there was beef between] Moe Dee and LL Cool J. That’s why Moe Dee recorded ‘How Ya Like Me Now.’ That record was so big. I felt like I was a part of history in the making. I mean, me and Moe Dee were kind of messing around when we were making ‘Do You Know What Time It Is’ and ‘Go See The Doctor’. But with ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ everything changed.

This is when our record company (Jive/RCA) started really backing our music. I got signed to Zomba publishing, and I was living in London for about six or seven months working on Moe Dee’s album and with other rappers. Between me and Marley Marl, we were the first to sample James Brown and really get away with it. The sample clearance laws were not in effect yet. I was even making James Brown sounds with my own voice [laughs]. That’s me saying, ‘Get on up!’ But James Brown and his team started to put a trademark on everything. Everything was changing. Hip-hop was changing.”

Make It Last Forever—Keith Sweat (1987)

“I was doing R&B with a band called Total Climax. We were competing with groups like Jamilah, which Keith Sweat was a part of. And that’s how we met. I didn’t realize what we were doing when we were making Make It Last Forever. So where did New Jack Swing come from? Church played a huge role. I actually played piano at Universal Temple and the organ player was my teacher. He took me to the next level of making different grooves and tempos and swinging. I learned pretty much everything about syncopation. My pastor was the most incredible piano player that I ever heard. He just blew me away…that’s when I started learning church chords. And that’s when I figured out that’s where R&B came from. I’m studying jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Reed. And I was a huge Kid Creole fan…all the different swing beats he did. At the same time, I was learning that soulful funk from George Clinton, Parliament, Sly Stone, Prince, and Roger Troutman. You combine all that with hip-hop and you get New Jack Swing.

Me and Keith were just going along with the game; going along with what was going to make us famous. I took a chance with a group called Kids At Work. We had a record that later turned into ‘Don’t You Know’ for Heavy D & The Boyz because our original version failed. So all I did was apply my skills and what I learned from being a part of two groups and from my mentor Royal Bayyan (cousin of Kool & The Gang leader Robert ‘Kool’ Bell). He took me to all the different Kool & The Gang sessions, and Kashif, Freddie Jackson, and Mtume. I was there when it was taking them eight hours just to tune the drums. Everything I had experienced can be heard on Sweat’s Make It Last Forever.

Me and Keith didn’t know we were making a classic album. That main hook you hear on ‘I Want Her’ is all me. That’s my voice. And that song was huge! But it didn’t start off that way. I remember when Frankie Crocker played ‘I Want Her’ on ‘Jam It Or Slam It’ on WBLS. And the people slammed it! Frankie would rarely play new school R&B…he would only play the older stuff until Keith Sweat came with ‘I Want Her.’ Frankie said, ‘I know y'all slammed this record, but I’m going to jam it.’ I wanted to meet Mr. Crocker after that because he was responsible for my first R&B produced record being played on the radio. He took the chance. He knew that record was a classic. People started requesting it like crazy. And the same thing happened with Guy.

Another thing that stood out for me is that I made most of the Make It Last Forever songs on an Akai 12-track. I had the first one. And I did all of those Keith Sweat songs as well as the whole Guy album on that 12-track! I was recording and engineering my own sessions. I had trouble re-producing that sound when I went to the professional studios. We had to take the music from the 12-track, take the 12-track to the studio and duplicate each track from stereo. And we had to put it all together and try to synch it. Then we had the slow jams like ‘Make It Last Forever’ and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’. We did not know we were making history with that music. We were taking a chance. This was the start of New Jack Swing. I think it was only a few years later when me and Keith realized how big of an album Make It Last Forever would become.”

Guy—GUY (1988)

“Guy recorded our first single ‘Groove Me’ in the bathroom. Aaron Hall (lead Guy vocalist) stayed over my house because we didn’t have the money to make the record at a professional studio. And Aaron did all his vocals in the bathroom. We put towels over the shower curtains so we didn’t have too much of an echo. That was a special time for Guy. Aaron would always sleep on my couch. I would get up out of the bed, come to the living room and he would still be there writing lyrics. In the beginning, it was me, Aaron and Timmy Gatling. This was before Timmy left the group and Aaron’s brother Damian Hall joined. Aaron is so underrated as a vocalist. There was some great singing on that first Guy album. ‘Groove Me’ took a year for people to really get Guy. The first show we did—a show we performed with Johnny Kemp—we got booed. And we only got booed because the crowd didn’t know what we looked like. All they knew is that the ‘Groove Me’ song was playing on 98.7 Kiss and KTU. People were requesting that song every day, but when Kemp introduced us after he just performed ‘Just Got Paid’—a huge song I produced that was supposed to be on Keith Sweat’s first album—people were like, ‘Get them off the stage!’ Next thing you know our record came on, ‘Groove me…baby…tonight!’ Everybody went ‘Oh, my God…that’s them!’

Let me tell you something. I was so scared to do ‘Teddy’s Jam.’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want no record with my name in the title.’ [Laughs.] But Aaron and them were pushing me to do it. If you look at the ‘Groove Me’ video you could tell I was shy. I would do my thing and you would see my head go right down to my keyboard. I didn’t even want to do the Guy record…and I definitely didn’t want to be a singer. It was Gene Griffin (late manager of Riley and Guy) who pushed me out there. He told me, ‘Teddy, in order for you to be visually seen you have to go out there and sing.’ Gene got me voice lessons. He got me with some great guys. I just kind of put myself in the category of George Clinton and Johnny Guitar Watson…not a traditional singer. I grabbed the Vocoder like I did for Keith Sweat and then I started using the talkbox. I studied Roger Troutman. That’s how ‘Teddy’s Jam’ came about.

Looking back, that first Guy album took a year and a half later to go platinum. I was just thinking, ‘Dag, it takes this long to get famous?’ But that’s how God works. It’s never on your time…it’s on his time. God made us a successful group. When you look at the [artists] that came after us—like Jodeci and Boyz II Men—they were coming to our shows wanting us to sign them. We didn’t have egos or anything. Gene would just take us away after every show and put us in a car to leave. And this is when Boys II Men were just trying to sing for us.  I remember Wanya (Boyz II Men member) crying and saying, ‘Man, they didn’t give us a chance.’ They later got their deal with Michael Bivins. And Jodeci signed with Andre Harrell (head of Uptown Records, which boasted such star acts as Marley Marl, Guy, Heavy D, and Mary J. Blige). He was like, ‘I don’t want to do this to Guy, but this is another hot group…so we are going to make them sound different.’ But how much more different can you make gospel trained singers sound? K-Ci and JoJo were the next level of singers. They all were influenced by Guy. We [were] the group that made it cool for street dudes to dance. Dudes were not afraid to dance with their gators on.”

"My Prerogative"—Bobby Brown (1988)

“A lot of people don’t know that ‘My Prerogative’ was originally written for Guy. We wrote it and gave it to Gene. We thought he would stop the Guy album and put it on there, but it was too late. The album was already mastered, so we decided to give it to Bobby. That song took Don’t Be Cruel to the next level. It made Bobby a superstar. I remember when I was working on the music for ‘My Prerogative’ and Bobby Brown actually came to my projects. And nobody would just walk up in our projects thinking they could get through the whole thing without being harassed. But Bobby did!

When they saw him there was a whole swamp of people around him asking for autographs. Bobby was telling them, ‘I’m looking for Teddy Riley.’ And they pointed right to my building. And he knocks on my door. How incredible is that? Me and Aaron were there writing songs. Aaron started singing that hook, ‘Everybody’s talking all this stuff about me, why don’t they just let me live?’ I was like, ‘This is it!’ That’s all Aaron’s words. Because he really was crazy just like the lyrics said (laughs). Him and Bobby! That’s why they are still cool til’ this day.”

“We Got Our Own Thang”—Heavy D & The Boyz (1989)

“We changed the speed of radio with ‘We Got Our Own Thang.’ Actually, it went back to those Keith Sweat records. I changed the tempo and everybody followed…even groups like Tony! Toni! Toné! You know I made ‘We Got Our Own Thang’ for Wrecks-N-Effect. I had a few songs for them, but I knew they were more harder than Heavy, even though Heavy could pull off being hard and still be a dancer. I was living up in Riverdale and Heavy came to my house. Heavy was like my big brother even though I was one year older than him.

So every time Heavy would come over he would be like, ‘Teddy, I gotta have [a] song.’ And ‘We Got Our Own Thang’ was one of the songs he picked. That song became a huge hit for them. And it was so different than what was going on in hip-hop. Heavy’s death hit me hard because we were really close. We basically came up together in this industry. We go so deep back that when I used to go to New Rochelle to see my kid’s mother, I used to roll through Heavy’s block in Mount Vernon to see him.”

The Future—Guy (1990)

“Going into The Future album, all three members of Guy were being pulled different ways. We all had too many people in our corners. But I thought it was best if I got everybody out of their contracts. And I suffered the consequences. I gave up a lot of money and I gave up my rights. But to me it was all about getting that freedom for Aaron Hall, Damian Hall, Tammy Lucas, Today, Wrecks-N-Effect…everybody. Most of the money I was making was through my production company, TR Productions, from the records I was doing with Boy George and Bobby Brown. So when all of my issues came about with wanting to leave Gene Griffin, that was pressure for all of us because we lost everything. I was down to $20 in the bank. I had a TR Productions credit card. And it was over the limit! I’m going back to Atlanta after I had a meeting with Aaron and everyone. And my card declined. We had called Gene, who came to the house and sat at my conference table. It was me, Gene and my mother. We knew Gene could do something wild, so I had my brothers upstairs just in case. So I tell Gene, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ That was part of the pressure of The Future album.

We were going through long litigation and lawsuits. Gene was suing us, so we told him we were going to strike. Gene was very hardcore. I can’t tell you everything I went through with him…that’s a conversation for you and me in a room. All I can tell you is that I basically feared for my life. There were things being left at my door. There were messages and threats being targeted towards me. I had my brothers and spiritual brothers with me all the time. Most of my guys who were security [were] staying with me. But after a little while, I stopped caring. I just thought, ‘You know what? If I go today it’s going to be God taking me home. So I’m not going to be afraid anymore.’ I had meetings with Quincy Jones, Clarence Avant, and LA Reid…they were all behind me. I was able to get my own deal. It was Lou Silas who helped me launch Future Records.

There was a lot of pressure doing that Future album. ‘I was singing lead again on ‘Wanna Get With U’. We thought that we had to start taking responsibility for ourselves and stop depending on people. We didn’t want anything taken from us; and we didn’t want our talents to be taken for granted. We knew we wanted to still do our love songs, but now we wanted to tell the truth about our lives. That’s when we did songs like ‘Let’s Chill,’ ‘D-O-G Me Out,’ and ‘Long Gone,’ which was about me losing my younger brother Brandon to violence.  I also lost my best friend to violence for what I call the first music industry beef. This happened during the New Edition/Guy tour. And it wasn’t a beef between us and New Edition. It was a beef amongst our backline and the people that worked for us. So I lost my friend. I can only remember doing our last show at Madison Square Garden announcing my leave of Guy. We did ‘Groove Me’ like it was our last day on earth. People in the audience was crying. I ran off the stage and got out of there really quick. There were issues in the group. We couldn’t even be in the same dressing room. I no longer wanted to be a part of Guy.”

“Don’t Wanna Fall In Love” (Remix)—Jane Child (1990)

“I was struggling. I had moved back to the projects. I was going from hotel to hotel. And you know what saved me on my way to working with Michael? It was doing the remix to Jane Child’s ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love.’ I can remember being in a hotel and Benny Medina (influential label executive whose life became the basis for the iconic Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) called me. He’s like, ‘I really want you to do this Jane Child remix because I want it to go urban…it’s too white.’ Now, I already loved ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love.’ It’s a record that I had wished I produced. And then Benny calls me! Funny how the universe works. I knew I was going to tear that remix up.  That song saved my life. I’m thinking $20,000 for that remix. I thought it would help me pay off my credit card because that’s all I had. I was on the outs with Zomba, so I wasn’t getting any money from publishing. They thought I was stocking songs away. But Benny got me $75,000! That money got my family back to New York. I was ready to move everyone to New Jersey to a three flat condo. But my mom told me she wasn’t going to move in with us until I brought her a house. And then my brother Brandon was shot. This was all in my mind going into [Michael Jackson’s] Dangerous album."

Dangerous—Michael Jackson (1991)

“I was the scariest person on earth when I met Michael Jackson (Laughs). He scared the crap out of me…literally. I was at his compound in a room that housed all his accomplishments. I saw his humanitarian awards…all of that stuff. And there was also a chessboard there in the middle of the room. So I’m touching it because it’s gold and platinum. And when I put my hand on the first piece Michael had his hand on my shoulder. And all I could do was fall to the ground. All I saw was Michael laughing. That put me at ease because usually when you are touching somebody’s stuff in their house they look at you funny, but Michael just laughed. My heart was calmed down until it was time for us to go into the studio to work on Dangerous. But I was going through a big transition in my life.

Like I said, I lost both my brother and best friend. So, right after that Guy show, I’m driving in my Ferrari. I had gone through so much and all I wanted to do was produce. So I get a call on my cell phone from Michael Jackson! He’s telling me that he wants to work with me! Michael was like, ‘Can you be here next week?’ That was the transition between Guy and me taking my career to the next level. Bringing back Michael to his R&B roots is something that I stood for. I didn’t just want to go the pop route because that’s not what he called me for. He called me for that New Jack Swing. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he got.  When I was working on ‘Remember The Time’ this was at the same time I was doing a remix for ‘D-O-G Me Out’ in one room, ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love’ in another room, and all of the other tracks I was presenting to Michael. I was at Sound Works studio in New York. I was using Q-Tip’s (legendary lead MC and producer of A Tribe Called Quest) little studio he was renting out. When I told him I needed a studio to work on Michael Jackson songs he was like, ‘Oh, hell yeah!’

Working with Michael was like going to college. He basically gave me the map. He navigated me on how to actually compose. He taught me all the different ways of working with Quincy Jones and Greg Phillinganes. When I played my demos for Michael he stopped me at the fifth song, which was ‘Remember The Time.’ He took me to the back room and I thought I was going to get fired. I thought I had done something wrong, but it was a chord that he couldn’t get around. He didn’t know the church chords. The first chord you hear on ‘Remember The Time’ started off that song in a very church way. He never started off his songs in that way, and that’s why he pulled me in the back because it was so unusual for him.

Michael was testing me to see what the chord really was and what it meant to me. And he wanted me to play it right in front of him on this piano he had in his room. He was used to the straight C majors. He wasn’t used to the C augmented chords. I could say I introduced the New Jack Swing chords to him. All of those songs were great to work on: ‘In The Closet;’ ‘Jam;’ ‘Can’t Let Her Get Away’…that’s history for me. It was a great feeling to be a part of a huge selling album like that…over 30 million records of Dangerous.”

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Nipsey Hussle and Eugene “BIG U” Henley attend A Craft Syndicate Music Collaboration Unveiling Event at Opera Atlanta on December 10, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Prince Williams/Wireimage

Big U Speaks On Nipsey Hussle's Impact, Developing Options Program And Crenshaw's Legacy

To hear passionate words from the man who first believed in the cultural phenom that we now have experienced as Ermias "Nipsey Hussle" Asghedom is fulfilling and heartbreaking at the same time. Eugene “Big U” Henley, the respected former gang leader, now community activist, speaks of the late artist like a brother, a son and a warrior in arms to better the area they both hold and held dear to their hearts...the Crenshaw and Slauson blocks of their neighborhood in Los Angeles.

A few days after Nipsey's murder, Big U helped organize one of the biggest gatherings of rival gangs from all over L.A. to show unity and oneness with a peaceful, non-violent march through the streets, ending at the famed The Marathon Store.

With a year of reflection on the untimely and senseless death of Nipsey, Big U linked up with noted interviewer, Jacky Jasper, and let VIBE in on his thoughts and feelings around the talent, heart and spirit of his former artist, as well as the social impact they both have had for the Crenshaw community.

This intimate conversation proves to be rare and revealing in the remembrance of Nipsey's life and a full-spectrum look at a Big U that we don't get to witness often. This is where the imprint of peace and power meets the driving force in "The Marathon Continues" movement.

VIBE: What is your ultimate goal for these kids through the Developing Options program?

Big U: The ultimate goal is to be for young African-American kids what the YMCA and these other places could’ve and should’ve been. They probably were a lot of good things to other people, they just weren’t to us because I never had one of them out here. The only thing we had was the park so I don’t really know what the experience was. I always hear them talk about the YMCA and the Boys’ Club. In the Crenshaw area we don’t have one.

So you decided to make one? Yeah, definitely. I wanted to be the pioneer, the first to do it. Growing up, because most neighborhoods in California are infested with gangs, so for us being at the area we were at, Crenshaw and Slauson, for us to play football—tackle football—we had to go to another area to play. We couldn’t play in our neighborhood. That was a thing I grew up with, that was a motivating factor as far as tackle football. We had Van Ness park so we could play baseball, basketball, but if you wanted to play tackle football you had to travel.

How long have you had the program going on for these inner-city kids? I started it in 2003, I came home in 2004. The name of it back then, and still is, is Ex-Offender’s Fellowship Network, which is our parent company, but we also do business as Developing Options. When I created it, I was actually still in prison. I knew I wanted to come home and do things that would move me in the right direction of helping my community and the kids in my community.


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@developingoptions toy drive recap

A post shared by Bigu1 (@bigu1) on Dec 27, 2019 at 5:37pm PST

Now from this program you’ve had going on for over 15 years, how many kids have gone on to achieve excellence in something like the NFL, because you’ve allowed them a safe place to play football? Through Robert Garret and our program at Crenshaw High School, we’ve had about eight or nine kids that have made it to the NFL that we’ve touched or influenced in some kind of way. I always want to give credit to Robert Garret and Crenshaw High School, because he took a chance on bringing Big U to the school. It's people like that who take chances on me or cared to. He was a coach and a teacher at Crenshaw High and he was the first one to allow me and Mark "Bear Claw" Martin to come on the school campus and to be mentors to the kids. A lot of kids grow up and they look up to us. Just things like paying for the banquets, being there to administrate the kids, helping kids get home, buying them clothes, whatever they need to succeed.

Any popular names that made it through that we might know of? Yes. DeAnthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs and he just went to the Baltimore Ravens. Greg DuCree, Marcus Martin, all of Crenshaw. Any kids that came out of California that have made it, they all came out of Crenshaw.

How do others get involved in the program that are outside of your unit? Is there any way of doing that? Or do you not allow that? No! Everyone’s involved. We get help and assistance from the likes of Chris Brown, Sean Kingston, Kurupt. My biggest supporter is Wiz Khalifa. Always want to shoutout Josh Smith...DeShawn Jackson is one of our strongest supporters. Anyone can reach out. But my next step is getting a building that can be a source to help kids educationally. We’ve always been strong reaching kids through our athletic programs, but I really want to reach kids educationally. Right now I’m looking for a school.

You want to get them strong on their academics. I do that already, right? But it’s more than just me. For about the last 10 years I’ve had about 30 kids that I’ve coached and mentored personally. I’m happy to say about 12 of them are in college right now. All Division 1 colleges right now. My son is at Reno; Darius is at Dixie State; David is in the U.S. Airforce; Nigel’s at UCLA. So I have kids all over the PAC-12.

That’s amazing. Where did you get this vision from? Was it from the lack of access to those types of healthy outlets, so you wanted to give to the next generation? I got the vision for it while in incarceration.


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Wow How Old was I ?? What Prison ?? I was on my Student Shit ?? I prepared for this Freedom Walk while i was incarcerated. Now i MANAGE over millions in state/GOVERNMENT accounts, have over 21 full time employees OVER 15 years doing what i studied for ( helping our people ) None of it dealing with ENTERTAINMENT OR MUSIC !! And yes im Not Finished. About to start this Youth Mentoring program !! 2 days a week two hours after school ..... we going to Keep UNEEKING THE WORLD #THEUNEEKWAY ALWAYS THANKFUL TO @snoopdogg for taking a chance on a HOODSTA... @syfl_snoopspecialstars #syfl #crenshawdistrict #uneekmusic #bigu1 ##developingoptions 👨🏿‍💻 📘📚 @pieces_0f_lee is RUNNING point on this Program Reach out to her our @dynastydoe

A post shared by Bigu1 (@bigu1) on Feb 5, 2020 at 2:22am PST

Got you. Now, were you Nipsey Hussle’s manager? No, Nipsey was actually signed to me. He was signed to me for production, but I was also doing a little management too, me and Steve Lobel. I brought Steve in to be our frontman because, you know how hard it was to be Big U, my reputation precedes me. I had to put a white face in front of a black situation. And because we were moving at that time, I was half and Steve was half. But no, he was signed to me at Uneek Music, my production company.



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Our hearts are broken 💔 there’s so much to say but for now my condolences to all his family , friends and fans around the world whoever knew when the 3 of us started this marathon 12 years ago it would end like this fuck fuck fuck ! We love u #nipseyhussle #ripnipseyhussle #bigu @bigu1 #ripthundercat #weworking 🙏❤️🏁🥃👑🎤

A post shared by Steve Lobel (@weworking) on Apr 1, 2019 at 7:42pm PDT

Since Nipsey’s death, how is the community taking it and what have you done for the community since then? How is the community supposed to take it now that the Marathon store is closing down? I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing. I do the community work. I’ve always done the community work. I did the community work and Nip did the entertainment.

I came home in 2004. I didn’t pick Nipsey up until 2006-2007. At that time, Me, Suge [Knight] and brother-in-law [Rick] were running together. Suge was giving me studio time. A lot of that early studio recording time with Nipsey was because of Suge. It was me coming home and trying to teach my whole community to love the community. To help them get an understanding of us and what Crenshaw was. People from the outside who didn’t understand us were coming in and filming in the ‘hood and writing books about the ‘hood and I said, “Y'all can’t come in here anymore.” Know what I mean? The homies didn’t understand that, but Nip did.

If you look at the last speech Nip gave, at my banquet, he said, “I remember when Draws [Big U] first came home, he was hard on everybody. But now I understand. You gotta have your own. You gotta be your own.” See! He got it. He was one of the very few people who truly understood that the message was, “We need to do this ourselves. We need to put our own value on our self.” People couldn’t understand that we were selling Crenshaw shirts for $100. Or $40 or $50. They didn’t understand where that came from.

Like I said, when I first came home, I made it my mission to put a value on “us.” To make the people appreciate Crenshaw and all it has to offer. So as soon as I came home I started pushing Crenshaw. Like my young guy, he never went to Crenshaw High School.

Understood. Nipsey didn’t go to Crenshaw, Sam [Nipsey's older brother] didn’t go to Crenshaw High School. I understood how big Crenshaw was. Crenshaw is a community that’s bigger than all of us. The success of Crenshaw is so far past what me and Nip was doing. I had to explain that to him and the rest of the young homies...how we got something, we need to brand this. And all of us need to get behind it. It doesn’t just belong to one person.

Is that where the first instance of trademarking came in? Actually, trademarking Crenshaw is almost impossible. You can’t trademark Crenshaw because it’s a city. It was a white guy who was the first one to use the Crenshaw logo on his shirt, if that’s what you’re referring to. He was a Mike Tyson fan. He paid me and Nip to wear the Crenshaw crewneck in the video. He was out of New York. He was a Mike Tyson and [former MLB super star] Darryl Strawberry fan. Darryl Strawberry is where the original motivation came from. Darryl Strawberry wore that Crenshaw Coca-Cola font for the Crenshaw High School baseball team. It was a baseball coach from back then that came up with the Crenshaw Coca-Cola logo. Then some 32 years later, we took it and took it to the next level, but I’ve never trademarked anything but "Uneek."

[You know what’s funny? Let me give you this good-hear tidbit that you can give to your people. You know when they were talking about somebody trademarking Marathon? Man, I don’t know anything about no Crips. I don’t deal with Crips like that, you know what I’m saying? If it doesn't say “Hoodstas” or “Sixties” I’m not doing sh*t with it.

And what’s funny to me is, how people listen to all this rhetoric on Instagram, on YouTube, all these bum ass lanes, everyone is running around “Like, subscribe and follow! Like, subscribe and follow!” and they take this bullsh*t and spin it to be something. People tell me all the time, “You should say something." Man, I shouldn't say nothing! I just look at these “journalists” like they’re asinine. They just don’t even make sense. Here goes another one: Nipsey was my brother! And my son! And my nephew! If I had any intentions of trademarking from him, who the f**k could say anything about it anyways?]

So, from you saying that he’s your son, that he’s your brother, the conspiracy theories of these people saying things about his death must’ve really pained you some? Not really. It didn’t bother me, but it only bothered me because of the people that are supposed to know me even entertaining the idea. It would bother me if you claim you’re someone who's supposed to know me and you’re even entertaining the bullsh*t. And the sh*t don’t make no sense, you know what I mean? It doesn't make any sense that they're trying to make me and him be enemies when clearly motherfu**er, I just was with him.

Got you. He came and got me and flew me out of town! But, you know, it’s the same way I tell people all the time, it’s the same sh*t. They say Suge set up Tupac, so who am I? I’m not no different than Suge. Ain’t no ni**a be fittin’ to be sitting in the car when motherfu**ers are shooting at him. For them to say that about Suge, you don’t think those same motherfu**ers aren’t going to say the same about me?

Yeah, but that must hurt though? I hear what you’re saying. It hurts when people close to you to even think— To entertain the idea. That’s the point. It ain’t even the fact that the lames do it, what hurts the most? My daughter. My daughter and my kids. You know me, it doesn't bother me, I’ve been disliked around this world for years. But to them, it bothers them. Then they have to deal with the bullsh*t of the world. That’s the only thing that makes me want to go knock one of these dudes heads off because it’s all lies. And my thing is, if you really love Nipsey, why are you going to sit around and let people say false sh*t about him?

Word. You know what I’m saying?  What does that lead to? What happens after the case is over? And Big U may not know when the case is over, but guess now what happens? Now I see them right now. I did the Kev Mac interview and showed them the text messages of me and Nip texting, the day before he died, and we were texting about some business. I showed that on the Kev Mac interview right? Right after I did that, and that sh*t came out, everybody started changing their tune. Now you’ve got a lot of these lames talking about, “Nobody ever accused you of killing him, you came out and said you didn’t.” Well, that’s because you lames were putting out a fake ass post saying the police was looking for me.

It was then that I learned fast, don’t address anything ever said on the Internet. That’s why I never address it.


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Eugene BigU Henley Sits down with Kev Mac and Discuss Nipsey HUSSLE passing Days leading up To it and After.

A post shared by Bigu1 (@bigu1) on Feb 6, 2020 at 11:19pm PST

Here’s the question I have to ask: there's people at home on their laptops that have the audacity to come up with conspiracy theories. Don’t they have the fear of writing this and then coming back into your town not knowing if there’ll be repercussions or not? Well let me just say this to you, I’m going to handle every one of them I catch. I don’t give a damn what nobody said. If you think I did something, you're going to know I did something. That’s not even a question, that’s an obligation. Because you hurt my family, your malicious attacks is an attack on my kids and on my family. So yes, I promise you that. You can write that down too. I don’t care. I’m not letting none of them go. I ain’t did nothing to nobody, I shouldn’t have been accused of doing nothing to nobody. It’s just click bait. Somebody’s making money lying on me or putting me into some bullsh*t I had nothing to do with, you know what I mean? I'm not the type to forgive and forget. I’m not Martin Luther King. I’m not going to let you slap me and turn the other cheek.

Switching gears to new and developing projects...

I did a deal for this documentary with FX before Nip died. I did a deal that I wrote, me and Jim-Bob wrote it, and FX picked it up right before—

Who’s Jim-Bob? That’s my guy, that’s one of my partners. He’s a Piru from Compton. He came up with the idea and we pitched it to FX. We pitched it to a couple of people and ran with it for about three-and-a-half years, then FX picked it up. It was crazy, Nip and I were excited. We were going over how we wanted to make it look. Nip was supposed to do a song. It’s a struggle with my group and then four months after we signed the deal he died. But Nip is the whole reason I got back into music.

It’s crazy, man. He called me and told me “look...” I already had talked to him while he was making the album. Now let me tell you something, Nip has about 100 songs, bangers that didn’t go on that album.

You’ve got unreleased material from Nip is what you’re saying? I don’t have it. I don’t know who has it. I’m assuming his brother has it.

Understood. I’m telling you, the music we were doing...the music he was playing before he died, when he was in the studio...he has some sh*t that’s going to come out if they ever put it out. I don’t know who’s running it, but he has some sh*t. I’m talking about the songs that didn't make the project that just came out.

I don’t know if this is the rumor mill or not but do you and LeBron James have the same connections with inner-city kid programs? I don’t have any connections at all. I have nothing going on with him, no.

What about T.I.? Because I see T.I. talking about you a lot. No, me and Tip...remember I did Tip’s show a long time ago when he had that Redemption show.

Yes. I did Tip’s show with him where I’d talk to the kids. I did some administering to the kids for him.

Because he really looks up to you, you know? Whenever he speaks about you, it’s always in a positive light.  Right. Me and Tip do community work together, always. We have to.

You’ve got a long hand in Atlanta helping people out as well? Yes, we’re trying to take Developing Options, my gang intervention program nationwide. With Developing Options, we got the gang violence down 70 to 80% in L.A. from where it used to be. There used to be murders every day. I would love to work with LeBron [James]. I’d love to work with anybody who's got the right mind. I like what LeBron is doing. We definitely need LeBron and a lot of brothers who have the money that I don’t, to be able to reach these kids. I know if I had access to the financing, I could put more kids in and graduate from college than I am right now.

How do you feel waking up and walking around as one of the most powerful men in L.A.? Does that take its toll on you? No, it’s not a toll on me because it isn’t true! I don’t know who the most powerful man in L.A. is, but it’s definitely not me because I’m one of the brokest ni**as in L.A. [Laughs]

I think you need money to be powerful or why else would they try to strut? Let me tell you something, I don’t know if you know who Poo Bear is? But this is what you’ve got to put in the article. Poo Bear gave me a very sizeable donation to help us with the organization and push. If you don’t acknowledge nobody in the world, you better acknowledge Poo Bear.

I have to raise just for my football program almost $21,000 a year so I don’t have to charge these kids out the roof. What people don’t understand is that now, here in L.A., they charge people to play and practice on the football fields, on the grass. You have to pay to rent that field.

Until this year I used to get a classroom for free. I have a mentoring program for young black men where two times a week, we get together and talk about whatever is bothering them. Now get this, I’ve had my store on Crenshaw for about 12 years. Every night, for 12 years, I’ve got kids walking the streets with nowhere to go. If they’ve got nowhere to go, that’s how they end up doing robberies, they’ll go to the liquor store...

What are your thoughts on saving our young men, our sons in the struggle?

You talk about gang violence...people think kids are getting forced to join gangs, for whatever reason. But no, it's because when they ain't got nowhere to go, they join a gang, they get somewhere to sleep, they can go to the homie house. Let's keep it one hundred. I don't have any plans for the 60s [gang]. I got a plan for young men, young Black/African men in our community. I got a plan for the Black community as a whole. Black, Mexican, Brown, or what have you. I did that years ago. Now, I'm trying to save...I'm trying to save people and if they was saved on the road to it, Alhamdulillah. But, I got one for the 60s, the Bloods, the Crips, the who all ever. Cuz right now, I don't have no choice on who walks in my door trying to get help. The only problem is, I can't help everybody.


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CRENSHAW RAMS/ DEVELOPING OPTIONS TEACHING STUDENTS 💪🏿S.T.E.M ⌨🎬📽💻🔌 #developingoptions #DevelopingOptionsAtl #TheUneekWay #crenshawdistrict #uneekmusic #bigu1

A post shared by Bigu1 (@bigu1) on Oct 23, 2019 at 2:33pm PDT


Any plans for honoring Nipsey in the future?

We’ve got a couple of things planned that we're going to do. My organization is going to do something. I’m going to always honor Nip. We put a trophy together with our banquet in honor of Nip. I know the city wants to do something, the city is sitting down with me to do some stuff too. So, we're trying to make it big man. Nip was our Young Prince.

I see him as legendary before anybody did. I saw him as legendary before the world did. I’m the one that invested in him first. When nobody else invested in him, Big U invested in him. I saw the legend in him first. I saw the legend when none of y'all saw it. And, let me tell you this: I brought the legend to VIBE in New York. I brought the legend, took him all over the country, I paid for all of them flights for us to go everywhere in the beginning, because I believed in the legend.


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