Guru and Anthony Cruz in the studio working on Meek Mill's 'Championships' album.
Brian Ngo

Young Guru And Anthony Cruz Discuss Engineering Meek Mill's 'Championships' Album

Guru and Cruz dissect select tracks on Meek Mill's album and address the use of samples.

It all started at the 40/40 Club and Roc the Mic Studios.

For Anthony Cruz, working two jobs to fulfill his passion was a path he didn’t mind walking for a significant amount of time. While working as an audio/video technician at Jay-Z’s New York City-based sports bar’s 10-year anniversary in 2013, Cruz received a call from a studio manager named TT to collaborate with Meek Mill as an engineer that same night. The Break It Down Entertainment captain was eager to say yes to the opportunity and after receiving the go-ahead from Roc Nation’s COO Desiree Perez, Cruz dropped everything and headed to the studio still dressed in a suit and tie.

“I have all of these Philly cats looking at me like I’m a strange kid, like, ‘Who is this weird looking kid with the suit on in the studio?’” Cruz says. This was around the time when Meek was fine-tuning his Dreamchasers 3 project. Despite his prim and proper look, Cruz left a lasting impression that garnered moments of growth with Meek and in present time, moments of triumph.

Through Meek’s ups and downs, Cruz has witnessed how the “Trauma” artist manifested his life stories behind the mic. A most recent notice of the Philadelphia native’s new demeanor occurred during the recording process for Championships (Atlantic Records/Maybach Music Group). Nearly three weeks after Meek’s late April 2018 prison release (and after wrapping up a string of press events to amplify his mission to reform the criminal justice system), it was back to business behind the boards for Cruz.

But they needed another set of skilled hands to guide the album. Cruz decided to place a call to Young Guru, one of music’s most accomplished audio engineers. The Delaware native refined his aptitude over the years to introduce a new way of listening to music by working with Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Rapsody, Beyonce, De La Soul and more. Knowing his expertise first hand since working under his wing during his Roc the Mic days, Cruz told the famed record producer that he and Meek needed a veteran in the music industry to provide sonic direction. Guru excitedly entered the studio about a month before the album’s release date (Nov. 30), working with Meek and his team to whittle down the laundry list of songs in Meek’s arsenal. Then, it was time to make music magic and present what Guru and Cruz have referred to as Meek’s comeback album.

As the “frontline of the recording process,” Cruz, Guru, and a talented pack of engineers mixed and mastered Championships from Atlanta’s Astro Recording Studios to New York City’s Jungle City Studios. They toiled all the way up until the album’s arrival on streaming services. Production by Nikolas Papamitrou, Don Cannon, Tay Keith, Wheezy, Hit-Boy, Hitmaka, and many more added depth to Meek’s melodic canvas.

To discuss background on some of the album’s standout records like Jay-Z’s intricate verse on “What’s Free,” Meek’s return to form after the wrath of detractors, and the controversy on the use of samples, Cruz and Guru share their recollections in VIBE’s latest Views From The Studio.

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What was your experience like working with Guru?
Anthony Cruz: Guru and I met each other when I was this young intern at Roc the Mic Studios that would go make runs for him, grab his coffee, to being able to make a phone call and say “Hey we want you involved in this project that I’m working on.” It was such an amazing pay it forward moment for all the impact that he’s had on my career as an up and coming engineer. He’s got a lot of respect but he’s still relatively unappreciated overall in the game and doesn’t get the type of recognition he deserves. It was such a powerful moment for me to be able to call him, and the timing of him getting right off the tour with Hov and Beyonce. Initially, I reeled him in like, “Meek wants a beat that sounds like an old Shyne record.” He said, “I’m going to be home in a couple of days.” and Meek had conversations like, “we need that veteran energy.” Me, Meek and our A&R Dallas [Martin] were like, “if it’s cool with you guys let’s get Guru to mix the record.” They approved it and Guru came through immediately and was all the way onboard and excited about it.

In all of your years as an engineer, you've witnessed a lot throughout your career, but there seemed to be a different level of excitement behind Meek's album. How would you describe that feeling as compared to when you've worked with other prominent artists?
Young Guru: The feeling of excitement came from the fact that it’s one of the biggest comeback albums for him. Coming out of jail, getting back into the public eye with the social reform was great and people love that. At a certain point, people were saying, “Where’s the music?” For him to deliver, but not only just deliver but deliver at this level is an incredible thing to see. It’s the excitement of somebody that went through real trials and tribulations. The album is perfectly titled Championships.

On a few of the songs, like the "Intro," there's a lot of instrumentation that blares through. How'd you assist in making sure all of those elements were felt without drowning out Meek’s voice?
Cruz: In particular with the “Intro,” we have an in-house producer signed to Dreamchasers named Nikolas Papamitrou. Meek had this vision of flipping this Phil Collins sample. He always loved [“In The Air Tonight”] since he first heard the record in Paid In Full. It was something that was always near and dear to him. It was time for him to incorporate that record and we made it on the spot. Nik flipped the sample and Meek was able to tell him in terms of arrangements things that he was looking for with the build-up and the breakdown of the beat. Then we took it a step further and got Andrew Meoray involved on co-production to add live guitar, pads, and other live elements to make it even bigger. With the album in general, one of the things we were excited about was Meek’s willingness for us to do post-production. Normally we take the record as it is and just hand it in. It turns out amazing but there’s always in the back of your mind you want to take it to another level. For instance, when we got Guru involved, him and Dallas were adamant about if we were going to get any post-production involved. We got Rance of 1500 or Nothing from California to jump in and work on a few records to liven them up more like “Trauma” in particular. He worked on “Respect The Game,” “Championships” and “Cold Hearted II” and while that’s not a lot of the records because it is 19 songs, those songs that were touched in that way added to the overall body of work and made it bigger. That was amazing.

“Championships” stands out for a number of reasons. How'd you help make that song feel as if it's cutting through the speakers? The instrumental has a crisp sound overall from the horns…it reminds me of those ‘90s drama films like Juice, Lean On Me, that type of vibe. How’d you make sure the sound hit the listener more than the lyrics itself?
Cruz: This song, in particular, we did struggle in terms of trying to get it to a level of quality where it would cut through. It’s one of the main reasons we got Guru involved because the core of the album was a soulful, classic Roc-A-Fella feel. These are right up his alley. He went in and we got Rance of 1500 or Nothing to do some post-production stuff. Guru added his sauce and elevated the record. Me and him together getting the vocal to a certain level to be able to cut through a certain way and painting the sample to where it wouldn’t scream so much in certain parts and clash with Meek. That was one that we spent a lot of time on trying to perfect and get to a level that it would impact the way that I believe that it has.

Guru: The song was in one place when I came in and more than just mixing the song was trying to add on music. We’re making decisions on, “Do we need to get certain people to play on these songs to enhance them?” Doing overdubs and things of that nature, the drops and figuring out effects that would bring the album to another level. Sonically, it was just me trying to add on as much as I could to enhance the records. That’s what you hear the growth in and the difference. The sonics are going to get better because the tools have gotten so much better, and the amount of plugins we have available. I’m constantly studying new plugins and figuring out which ones I can apply to my process. I think Meek’s album is a culmination of the things I’ve been trying to implement for the past year or two.

Even though the lyrics help to convey a certain message, the samples have been discussed just as much. How do you think the samples help to promote Meek's messages on these albums?
Cruz: By the way, it didn’t happen on purpose, it wasn’t something we set out to do (Laughs). We weren’t like, “Let’s flip everybody’s classic and see how it will come out.” It just happened to naturally come across: [Don] Cannon gave us “Trauma,” Streetrunner came in and introduced the idea for “What’s Free,” Papamitrou was like, “I flipped this Hov ‘Dead Presidents’ sample" with Beat Menace, and we got “Respect The Game,” “24/7” came through and Amnija wrote this incredible hook. These were undeniable moments throughout the recording process and I believe it challenged Meek. In the back of his mind, he’s very smart. He didn’t have to communicate these things but you can tell his approach in terms of attacking these records elevated him lyrically. I remember when Guru first heard “Respect The Game.” He was floored. He couldn’t believe some of the things Meek was saying and getting across. That’s not an easy beat to tackle. I think while there is this controversy, he held his ground and showed you that he’s an elite lyricist in the game.

What made you stop in your tracks when you heard that song?
Guru: I liked the way he flipped it. It’s an original Lonnie Liston Smith sample, obviously something that’s been huge for Jay’s career, a staple in Jay’s career. The way that they updated it especially with the drums, just gives it a new flavor. I’m with that and I’m with his ideas of what he was saying on there in terms of respect the game. What he’s talking about is monumental. He’s trying to teach people that are actually in the game all of these life lessons he’s learned. I like to use the term Young OG. He’s getting to that point now where he’s still young but he’s got enough experience where he can talk OG status from putting out albums, from being locked up, dealing with street stuff, everything. He’s speaking from experience.

Some people felt there were too many familiar samples. I know you said that wasn’t a conscious decision, and even Guru tweeted about it. What’s your take on that sentiment?
Cruz: I believe what Guru said. This is hip-hop. People weren’t bashing Jay when he was flipping certain records or Nas or any other guys. I believe at the age that we are at, these particular records he sampled are 20-plus years old. Carrying on the tradition of hip-hop, why wouldn’t we introduce these classics? My most important thing is us having those records on there, if he was trash on the record or if he had weak lyrics I could understand people complaining, but he held his own and nobody has complained about lyrics or anything he’s said. It’s just the sonic piece, which is super confusing to me from so-called hip-hop fans.

Guru: I just don’t think we should ever get into a space where sampling is considered taboo in hip-hop. I’m of that era where people sampled. It’s good if you find a creative way to flip certain samples that have been used before. There are these rules that we used to have of not touching samples that had been done before, but if you do them in new creative ways, then I think you can re-introduce the music the same way that 70s music was re-introduced to us through hip-hop.

[The samples] gave him the right musical bed to talk about what he wanted to talk about. It also gave him the right field. He’s straddling both of those eras of being still relevant now but also coming from an era where you have to really spit. It gives him a perfect balance sonically.

Another record that utilizes a sample is “What’s Free.” Walk me through its process. That’s one of the most talked about songs on the album.
Cruz: It was recorded early on in the process. Streetrunner introduced this idea and Meek fell in love with it. It’s near and dear to his situation and things that he’s been through. I remember Rick Ross coming through to the session and falling in love with the record as well. They were going back and forth. Meek and Ross hadn’t vibed in a while with everything going on with Meek’s legal situation. He liked the record for Ross and initially was going to let him use it. As we were further along in the recording process, we realized on both ends, on the MMG side and in-house, it would fit way better on our project so Ross was like use this record and we put the play together for Jay.

Guru: Like he normally does in the 11th hour, Jay decided to get on the beat. I was supposed to be flying to South Africa the day that he called me to say he wanted to do it. I just pushed my flight back because I was going there for Global Citizens to do the show with him and Beyonce. Basically, we went in and did that verse. You get creative in terms of trying to do drops, trying to do interesting things with the beat and with the sample. And it’s being careful and being respectful. It’s one of the classic Biggie songs so you want to do it justice, but you also want to give it a new twist. I think it was a great verse, a great time, and the right placement of the verse for the topic of what Meek has been preaching and advocating with criminal justice reform. Just the title and concept of being free, I think all of them came at it from a different perspective but were very poignant in the way they expressed their vision of what’s free.

"One of the main reasons we got Guru involved because the core of the album was a soulful, classic Roc-A-Fella feel." ~ Anthony Cruz

Cruz: Meek and Jay had a private conversation and Jay was like, “This is the one.” He made it very clear, “I have a long verse for you” and Meek had zero problems with that. I think he held his own with his 24 bars. He got a lot across. Ross did an amazing job. With having Guru involved he was very adamant about once we figured out which record was for Jay, he wanted to do his part as well to nudge him like, “I’m going to be the one to pull up and record you whenever you’re ready.” It was Thanksgiving weekend when I got the call from Guru that he was ready to go. He gave me one bar of the verse, those first bars “In the land of the free where blacks enslaved,” and he left it at that. I was like, “C’mon is that all you’re going to give me?” He said, “Don’t tell Meek but I’m locking down this date to go record him.” He pushed back his trip to go to rehearsals to catch up with Jay in L.A, and he said as soon as he landed he was ready. He went straight from the airport to Jay’s crib to record the verse. This whole time he’s telling me to keep it low with Meek but I couldn’t help it. I was telling Meek everything as we go and I said, “Keep it low because Guru didn’t want me to tell you yet. He wanted to make sure everything was solid.” We were both equally excited because we’re very big Jay-Z fans. I remember us all hearing the record together. We were all on a conference call. Nobody breaks down a Hov verse better than Guru. He gave us bar for bar, he would pause it, break down what he was saying, keep going, pause it, break it down, so we were all on this conference call losing our mind dissecting this verse. It was an incredible process.

You've seen Jay-Z zone in for a lot of memorable verses. Where do you think this one came from, and what inspired such a verse like this?
Guru: Jay pulls from real life. Wherever his inspiration comes from, it’s whatever he’s living life. I’m just as amazed as everyone else. I get to hear it first, yes, but I’m just as amazed when I’m sitting there recording it like how does this person come up with this? Or, how does he continue to do this after so many years? I definitely rank this verse high in his list of guest verses. I don’t think he’s ever given someone 44 bars before.

It is a long verse in terms of what hip-hop fans are used to hearing nowadays.
Guru: Right, but it’s not that type of song where you have to worry about…we’re not making a formulaic club song or the girl song, this is obviously a song where everybody gets to rap. You don’t have to be trapped into doing 16 bar verses or 12 bar verses. That’s the freedom again, another way of expressing freedom.

I’m sure people weren’t expecting Jay-Z to take to Twitter to clear the confusion about a lyric on the album.
Guru: In my opinion, it wasn’t confusion, it was just people going for click bait because that line is very obvious with what he said. He reinforced that with his tweet. But you don’t want that line to get misinterpreted and I think the line itself, to me, I don’t see how there’s any way that it can be taken as a diss. It’s literally saying don’t separate us.

READ MORE: Jay-Z Disses Billboard, Not Kanye West, And Proves His Point With Ease

And another major collaboration on there is of course “Going Bad” with Drake. Walk me through that one.
Cruz: Meek and Drake, like he mentioned in his interviews, had been communicating and mending their situation organically and natural outside of music and just having this genuine relationship again. It just so happens that Meek was the one actively working on an album once they got to a place of being back comfortable with each other. They had ideas of having different records. I remember we sent him an idea and he was so tied up on tour. He said, “Let me just finish this tour. There’s so much on me right now. Once I’m done, I got you.” That’s where “Going Bad” came up. Meek played his idea and that’s when Drake went in and did the hook. It all came together really clutch right towards the end of the process.

Even thinking back on their history, it seemed as if people turned their backs on Meek when he and Drake had issues. Being that you've been in his corner during that period and even before, what was his mindset like at that time?
Cruz: Meek came up in a ruthless Philly environment where he had to constantly defend himself. Him coming up as a battle rapper I believe strengthened him to another level. At the time of all the naysayers and everybody dogging him, he was successful. He still had money, was still living the life. So for him coming from nothing and being from this lower income society, it’s like, “I’m still winning as far as I’m concerned.” We as a team never faltered, we never looked at it as dramatic as everybody was making it out to be. You can’t kill us with memes, you can’t kill us with fake spam accounts or whatever it was that were coming through. It was all confidence on our end and Meek rapped his way through it. He was determined to prove himself through his music. I think he stood his ground and he’s gotten to this level where I’m amazed at how everything came together and how he came to the idea to name this album, Championships. That’s how it feels for everybody involved. For Meek, especially, he’s a champion, a hood legend, he came from nothing, he’s overcome so much in this industry, in his personal life with his legal troubles. I really am proud of him for getting to this level and going through all the things that he’s been through.

You’ve been on the frontline to witness Jay-Z and Nas resolve their issues. Did you ever think Meek and Drake would resolve their rift?
Guru: Yeah, and again it’s rap, it’s sport. No one is physically attacking anyone else. In this sport of rap when you have a battle and the battle is over, the two people that were battling can respect each other. I never thought it was beyond the point that they couldn’t talk to each other again.

How has Meek’s previous imprisonment affected his music? Is there a different spirit in the booth?
Cruz: There was a frustration of still having a looming legal battle. I think there was him being extremely grateful for the support and everybody backing him up to get him out this situation to be able to get this message across and get this album out. There was a lot of mixed emotions but overall he’s so happy and grateful. He feels like a winner, a champion and it came across really well on this record.

He’s getting to that point now where he’s still young but he’s got enough experience where he can talk OG status. ~ Guru

Discuss the emotional songs on the album, like “Trauma.” What type of tone do you think Meek had while in the studio when he recorded songs like that?
Cruz: He got the beat from Cannon. That one, in particular, was introduced to him separately. He has a history with that Mobb Deep “Get Away” sample. He did that as a younger teen with a group named Bloodhoundz that he used to run with in Philly, so he had this history and memories of the record. But being able to channel the aggression and frustration that he was dealing with in his situation and so eloquently destroy that record, but at the same time get across a message, I thought was amazing. There was definitely an energy that he had where he’s adamant about getting his point across. He was very zoned out that day and that moment and trying to get this idea across the way that he did.

Looking at Meek’s intros specifically, the "Dreams and Nightmares" intro which feels as if it’s still new, do you think that intro stands supreme above the rest? What made it special?
Cruz: There are certain things in terms of hip-hop history that are undeniable and that are very hard to compare to others. With Meek’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” I believe that it’s such a moment in history that he doesn’t even make it a point to try to top it. That’s just a moment in history that he can never repeat. I had no involvement in “Dreams and Nightmares,” so shout out to Beat Bully and Finis “KY” White who engineered that record, but I do believe that’s still his strongest intro. It’s had an impact on sports culture and music history, but not to say he hasn’t had amazing intros like this Phil Collins intro we had for the Championships album.

The song "Uptown Vibes" has parts where the beat pulls down. It reminds me of a house party where all you can hear is the bass or the drums are that loud. Walk me through the engineering process for that song?
Cruz: It was Papamitrou that brought this idea to the table and Meek was really excited about it because he’s been on this Spanish wave. Even right before he went in, he was up on Bad Bunny and he’s been hanging around a lot of Spanish girls, so this was an exciting opportunity for him to flip that sample that had that feeling to it. Once we laid down the initial idea, Nik and I went in and worked on arrangements. Once we got Anuel AA on the record, we added that dembow area, that reggaeton breakdown to make it even more of that Spanish vibe.

Yeah, I was going to mention the reggaeton breakdown as well. What was it like working with these melodies? As listeners, we’re probably not used to hearing Meek Mill on those types of beats.
Cruz: As a Latino, I was excited for us to present this idea to Meek, for him to embrace it and say I’m willing to put this on my record because like you said, it’s so left from what we’re used to from him. For him to embrace it and say I’ll allow that to be on there because I do appreciate the culture and I love Spanish music, was amazing.

What was the greatest challenge engineering this album?
Guru: I don’t know if it was a huge challenge, I just think it was more about trying to find a good balance. That’s the big challenge for someone of Meek’s stature that comes from Philly, that comes from that era of being a spitter where we naturally watched him grow, and his whole maturation you can follow on YouTube. In terms of him having to find that balance of doing all types of records and servicing all types of people, I think that’s the biggest challenge.

Since Meek has promoted this balance beam of dreams and nightmares, have his dreams been realized on or through this project?
Cruz: He’s at an amazing place now. He’s endured a lot, and we’re really just getting started. He appreciates this moment but trust me when I tell you, once he settles down, he’s going to be ready to go right back in and continue to work and speak out on these issues that he’s passionate about—with justice reform and getting his voice heard on these platforms that we’re not used to seeing him on—which is amazing. I don’t think he’s going to get comfortable, per se, but I do think he’s in a dream state as of now.

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Courtesy of Biz 3 / FCF

Quavo Is Introducing 'Fan Controlled Football' To The Culture

From their penchant for popping tags and name-dropping designer brands in their rhymes to the obsession with diamond-encrusted neckwear, the Migos are the modern-day poster-children for decadence and opulence. But when it comes to balling, group member Quavo is a seasoned veteran, literally and figuratively. Notorious for his appearances in NBA all-star celebrity games, where he routinely dominates the competition, Huncho has built a rep as one of the athletically gifted hit-makers in music today.

Although he's known for his skills on the hardwood, football is definitely among his passions. His newest endeavor, an ownership stake in Fan Controlled Football (FCF), the first professional sports league to put the viewer in the coach's seat and the general manager's office, in live time, finds him putting his focus back on the gridiron. Having inked an exclusive, multi-year streaming broadcast partnership with Twitch, the FCF will be the first professional sports league to be fully integrated with the streaming platform with the potential to explode in the digital age, where user interest and participation is the main recipe for success.

Having tossed the pigskin around as a Georgia high school football star, to Quavo, it was a no-brainer to get involved with the innovative league on the ground level. “We are building a brand and something different in our league – with the fans. They are in control and get to pick the team names, colors, logos, and more,” said Quavo said in a press release. “I’m really excited because FCF is fast-paced, high-scoring 7v7 football and you are in control. You go from sitting on the couch watching TV and pressing buttons on the remote to actually pressing the buttons on the plays.”

Played on "a 35-yard x 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones,” the Fan Controlled Football league will kick off in February 2021, with a four-week regular season, one week of playoffs, and a Championship week. The league will consist of former elite D-1 athletes, the CFL, XFL, and the Indoor Football League. Broadcasted live from the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility in Atlanta, each game will be 60 minutes in length and will allow the viewers to play a hand in the final outcome on Twitch.

Aside from sports, Quavo has been relatively lowkey on the musical tip as of late, with two years having passed since a solo release or a Migos album. However, according to him, this delay can be considered the calm before the storm, as he assures him and his brethren are primed for one of their biggest years yet. VIBE hopped on the line with Quavo to talk Fan Controlled Football, what he's got cooking in the studio, and his foray into TV and film.

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You're the newest team owner at Fan Controlled Football (FCF). What about the league piqued your interest and made you wanna get involved?

It's just showing my interest in the game of football and just trying to put a twist to where it's fan-controlled, fan-involved. A lot of times we watch the game, you watch the game, you just have some concerns. Sometimes you feel you can make the plays or call the play, [with FCF], you can sit on the couch and make the play. I just think we came together to make something crazy like that. I feel like it's something hard, it's something new, it's something fresh. It's a new beginning to something, like giving ni**as a chance. Giving D-1 players who couldn't make it to the league a chance, giving ex-NFL ni**as a chance if they still got it, [and] to go with the fans. When we saw the Falcons lose the Superbowl LI, we [fans] just knew what plays to call, we knew to run the ball. We were up 28-3. All we had to do was hold the ball, but we wanted to air it out and we made a mistake and lost to Tom Brady. Just like when Marshawn could've won a Superbowl. If they'd have given him the ball on the two-yard line. We knew that Marshawn Lynch was supposed to get the ball, [but] they wanted Russell Wilson to win it and the New England Patriots caught an interception. So that's how we're trying to shape it, we're trying to make something new.

The FCF will be live-streamed exclusively on Twitch, which has become one of the leading platforms for eSports live-streaming and will kick off in February 2021. Do you feel the FCF has the opportunity to fill that NFL void during the spring, particularly given the fan engagement that FCF enables?

Most definitely, cause after the Super Bowl, it just feels like you just want another game. You feel like you want one more game. and coming from something [where it's] eleven on eleven players to seven on seven, I feel [there’s] still a difference. After coming from watching the game and the regular politics, the regular structure of the game, now you're getting to be involved in a game that you can control. You can pick the jersey, you can pick the helmets, you can pick the jerseys, you can pick the coaches, you can pick the plays. I just feel there are two different dynamics [between the NFL and FCF). You come from sitting on the couch and pressing the remote to actually pressing the button on the plays."

Speaking of fan engagement, the FCF is the only professional sports league that enables fans to call the plays in real-time and puts the viewer in control of a game’s outcome like never before. Have you ever had that experience, as far as fantasy football?

Nah, but I'm into Madden. You can sit at home and pick your plays [with FCF], it's just like the lifestyle of Madden. It's like a reality of Madden. You're playing with people at home, with these unique athletes, and it's seven-on-seven.

As an Atlanta native, how significant was the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility being in your hometown in your decision to come on board as an owner?

It's very important. We got top-tier talent here, so it's opening up opportunities for a lot of guys. We're just glad it's in the south, it's like a hub. Everybody loves Atlanta and everybody wanna be here. Everybody wanna play and the weather is good.

NFL Super Bowl Champions Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, boxing legend Mike Tyson, and YouTuber and podcaster empire Greg Miller are among the FCF's team owners. How does it feel to be competing against some of the most accomplished athletes and entertainers in the world? Have you had the opportunity to meet with any of them?

Most definitely. I have a good relationship with Mike Tyson. I've met Marshawn Lynch, it's a blessing. I feel like we're not competing right now, I feel like we're building a brand. I feel like we're building a league. I feel like we're trying to make the world understand what we're bringing to the table and what type of game we bring to the table, you feel me? I feel we're trying to create something different. Once we get the ball rolling, it's all together and moving into a real FCF league, then we'll get to compete. Of course, we all wanna win, but right now, we're just trying to get the foundation and the basics going and letting the strength of the owners and the relationships show on the field.

Being that you'll all be working with your respective fan bases in shaping your team’s personality and identity, any thoughts about what the team’s name will be? 

Man, I wish I did, but it's so straight strictly fans that you never know. Just like with music, can have an idea that is a smash, and then the fans don't think it is. You gotta strictly listen to the fans on this one. You gotta listen strictly to how they want it because it's the point of the game, that's the point of the league. We gotta let them control this game and then we the players and we the people that's listening to the people, the culture. FCF stands for culture, too, you feel what I'm saying? We listen to the culture, we're letting the culture run the field.

How involved will you be in the drafting and scouting process for your squad?

The fans make the draft, fans get to see everything. Open books, everything. It's an open thing, it ain't nothing to hide over here. The fans control it all.

In addition to sports, you've also been delving into acting, with cameos in shows like Atlanta, Star, Black-ish, and Ballers. Earlier this year, you appeared as yourself in Narcos: Mexico. How did that opportunity come about? 

Narcos reached out. We [Migos] had this song called “Narcos” on the [Culture II] album and we went and shot [the video] in Miami and everybody thought it was a Narcos movie scene and it ended up being Madonna's house. So we just shot that there and then they reached out to us. I think Offset had a performance somewhere and Takeoff had to do something and I just ended up being free that day and I went and shot it in New Mexico. I had fun, I loved it.

Do you have plans to pursue any supporting or leading roles in film or television?

Hell yeah, most definitely. I've been sitting down and having real great meetings with directors and people that got some movies in the works for 2021. I feel like I’ve got some good spots. I don't wanna tell it cause they’re gonna make some announcements. It's coming soon.

It's been two years since you've released a solo project or one with the Migos. Can fans expect any new music from you anytime soon and what are your next plans on that front?

Most definitely, hell yeah, we're shooting videos right now. We’re vaulting up a whole lot of videos so we can give you music and visuals at the same time. “Need It," the song came first and then the video. Right now, we wanna get a lot of videos and a lot records in the vault and smash [them] all at once 'cause it's been two years.

Pop Smoke's passing was one of the more tragic events in rap in recent memory, but his debut album, which you appeared on throughout, has been one of the most successful and acclaimed projects of 2020. How has it been seeing how the album’s been received, especially after you and him developed such a bond in a short time?

I'm happy. I'm proud of him, that was my partner. We did a lot of records, we spent a lot of time together and I feel like the album would've did even more with him being alive. A lot of people's album just go crazy when they die, I feel like his sh*t would've still went crazy. He had the momentum, he had the buzz. He was having fun. He was hot, he was fresh, he had everything ready.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Toots Hibbert performing at Hammersmith Palais, London in 1983.
Photo by David Corio/Redferns

Remembering Toots Hibbert

The best singers don’t need too many words to make their point. Otis Redding could let loose with a sad sad song like “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” and get you all in your feelings. Bob Marley got pulses pounding with his “Whoi-yoooo” rebel yell. Gregory Isaacs melted hearts with nothing more than a gentle sigh. Toots Hibbert, who died last Friday at the age of 77, could sing just about anything and make it sound good. One of the world's greatest vocalists in any genre, Toots paired his powerful voice with the understated harmonies of Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias to form The Maytals, a vocal trinity that never followed fashion and remained relevant throughout the evolution of Jamaican music—from the ska era to rock steady straight through to reggae, a genre named after The Maytals' 1968 classic “Do The Reggay.”

Whether they were singing a sufferer’s selection (“Time Tough”), a churchical chant (“Hallelujah”), or the tender tale of a country wedding (“Sweet and Dandy”), The Maytals blew like a tropical storm raining sweat and tears. The lyrics to Six and Seven Books,” one of The Maytals' earliest hits, are pretty much just Toots listing the books of the Bible. “You have Genesis and Exodus,” he declares over a Studio One ska beat, “Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges and Ruth...” Having grown up singing in his parents' Seventh Day Adventist Church in the rural Jamaican town of May Pen, Toots knew the Good Book well.

The Maytals broke out worldwide in 1966 thanks to the song “Bam Bam,” which won Jamaica's first-ever Independence Festival Song Competition, held during the first week of August as the island nation celebrated both independence from Great Britain in 1862 and emancipation in 1834. They would go on to win the coveted title two more times, but “Bam Bam” was a singular song with a message every bit as powerful as Toots' voice. “I want you to know that I am the man," Toots sang. He was young and strong, ready to "fight for the right, not for the wrong." The trajectory of "Bam Bam" would not only transform Toots' life but make waves throughout popular music worldwide.

"Festival in Jamaica is very important to all Jamaicans," the veteran singer stated in a video interview this past summer while promoting his latest entry into the annual competition. "I must tell you that I won three festivals in Jamaica already, which is “Bam Bam,” “Sweet & Dandy” and “Pomp & Pride.” Toots described that first festival competition as a joyous occasion. "Everybody just want to hear a good song that their children can sing," he recalled. "Is like every artist could be a star."

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of "Bam Bam" winning first place, Toots looked back over the legacy of the tune that made him a star. "I didn’t know what it means but it was a big deal," he told Boomshots. "You in the music business and you want to be on top and you write a good song and you go on this competition and if they like it then it becomes #1." After The Maytals won, the group was in demand not just all over the island, but all over the world. "We start fly out like a bird," he says with a laugh. "Fly over to London."

"Bam Bam" went on to inspire numerous cover versions, starting with Sister Nancy, Yellowman, and Pliers. It would also be sampled in numerous hip hop classics, and interpolated into Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones." But according to Toots, he did not benefit financially from these endless cover versions. "People keep on singing it over and over and over, and they don’t even pay me a compliment," he told Boomshots. "I haven’t been collecting no money from that song all now."

 

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“This man don’t trouble no one... but if you trouble this man it will bring a Bam Bam” Original Maytals Classic @tootsmaytalsofficial 🎶 All them a talk, them nuh bad like Niya Fiya Ball ☄️🔥💥 via @tonyspreadlove . 💥💣🔫#Boomshots

A post shared by Word Sound & Power (@boomshots) on Sep 12, 2020 at 8:19am PDT

When Toots began singing in his parents' church, music was not seen as a career prospect, and the profits were slim for Jamaican recording artists in the 1960s. "Those days we get 14 cents for the record to play on the radio," Toots said. "I get three shillings and five shillings for a number one record, which I had 31 number one record in Jamaica... It’s not about money for me. It’s about the quality that Jamaicans need to go back in the festival jamboree... You gotta talk to the children."

On the poignant “54-46 (Was My Number),” Toots recalls the dehumanization of his arrest and 18-month imprisonment at Jamaica's Richmond Farm Correctional Center for what he always insisted was a trumped-up ganja charge just as his music career was taking off. The song's crescendo comes two minutes in when Toots breaks into a scat solo that cannot be translated into any language known to man, delivered with palpable passion that made his message universal. During Toots' ecstatic stage performances he would follow this riff by commanding his band to “Give it to me... one time!” Then the 'd make 'em say Uh!  (Way before Master P!) “Give it to me... two times!” Uh! Uh! And so on and so forth until Toots worked the place into a frenzy.

The Maytals' live show was so explosive that Toots began touring all over the world, opening for rock megastars like The Rolling Stones and The Who. While Bob Marley richly deserved the title King of Reggae, his friend Toots was performing internationally before The Wailers, and remained a force to be reckoned with throughout his life, blazing a trail for generations of reggae artists to follow in his footsteps.

On his Grammy-winning 2004 album True Love, Toots recorded some of his greatest hits with a host of legendary artists, many of whom were also good friends, including Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton. His 2006 cover of Radiohead's "Let Down" was a favorite of the band's, who used to play it on their tour bus. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood called Toots’ version “truly astounding,” according to Easy Star Records Michael Goldwasser.

Toots supported himself and his family by touring all over the world. During a 2013 show in Richmond, Virginia he was singing John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" when a teenager in the crowd threw a vodka bottle at the stage and hit him on the head. He suffered a concussion and had to stop touring for several years. As his first album in a decade, Got To Be Tough was highly anticipated when it was released on Trojan Jamaica label August 28. On the cover the former boxer and lifelong fighter can be seen throwing a punch. Just a day after the album dropped, Toots came down with symptoms similar to COVID 19. Within a few days he was hospitalized where doctors placed him into a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. As his Tidal obituary pointed out, he passed away exactly 33 years after his old friend Peter Tosh died by gunfire.

Songs like "Just Brutal" from the hit different now, with Toots pleading for more love in a world gone wrong. "We were brought here," Toots sings. "Sold out. Victimized brutally. Every time I keep remembering what my grandfather said before he died."

“I’m feeling alright,” Toots said the last time we spoke, while he was still sidelined with stress issues due to the bottle-throwing incident. "I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling just cool because is Jah works. You seet?" I asked him if the song "Bam Bam," was about him—a peaceful man who should not be provoked—or else. "Nooo don't trouble him," Toots said with a laugh. "It’s gonna be double trouble, triple trouble. A lot of trouble."

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DJ Cassidy

DJ Cassidy Speaks On 'Pass The Mic Vol. 2' Ft. Hip-Hop Greats LL Cool J, Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte And 30+ More MCs

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc globally, 2020 has been a year filled with tragedy and uncertainty, as an innumerable amount of lives have been taken or affected as a result of the spread of the virus. The world of entertainment, which relies on ticket-holders and live spectators, is affected severely, with artists unable to tour, give live performances, interact with fans, or even create material by committee. This unprecedented blackout of sorts is a tough pill to swallow and threatens to forever alter the industry as we know it. However, as a culture and artform that built its history around making the best of times with minimal resources at its disposal, hip-hop is at the forefront of keeping the public entertained and butts moving, with various DJs, artists, and producers discovering new ways to stay in tune with the people.

While new, digital platforms like DJ D-Nice's "Club Quarantine" and Swizz Beatz and Timbaland's "Verzuz" battle series are ahead of the curve, the latest virtual experience to emerge is Pass The Mic, a live event created and hosted by legendary spinner DJ Cassidy. A native New Yorker, Cassidy, who made his name via the club circuit during the late '90s and early aughts, has a resume that rivals the most accomplished of DJs, having spun at high profile events such as the 2009 inauguration ball for Barack Obama, Obama's 50th birthday party, and the wedding of JAY-Z and Beyonce. Performing hundreds of shows on a yearly basis, Cassidy, whose touring schedule was halted due to the pandemic, was stuck at home when a conversation with legendary soul musician Verdine White of Earth, WInd & Fire gave him an epiphany.

 

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Thank you @revwon @kingdmc @llcoolj @mrchuckd_pe @therealdjchillwill @therealdougefresh @thegodrakim @mcshan1 @mcmilkdee @specialedmusic @emceeserch @mclyte @chipfu @erick_sermon @doitalldu @therealgrandpuba @djpremier @darealgregnice #smoothb @blacksheepdres @therealclsmooth @realpeterock darealmonielove @youngmc89 @chubblive @officialbigdaddykane @robbasemusic @kidfromkidnplay @the_playgroundz @darealpepa @saltnpepaofficial @speech__ @rasadon @eshe2xgrammy @treachtribe @unclevinrock ❤️ You are my heroes. And to all 122,000 people that tuned in, I am truly grateful. 🎙👑🎙#PassTheMic @rockthebells @behindtherhymetv @twitch

A post shared by DJ Cassidy (@djcassidy) on Aug 5, 2020 at 9:13pm PDT

Cassidy explains: "In the heat of the pandemic, in the middle of the quarantine, I was facetiming with my good friend and mentor Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Verdine has grown to be a close friend whom I truly admire, and he and I go to dinner every month or so and, obviously, we were not able to do that. So we were on a Facetime call catching up and while I was talking to him, his song, ‘That's The Way of the World,’ came on my speakers. And ‘That's The Way of The World’ is my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire song and on a regular day, it sends a chill down my spine. But being that the world was in flux and everyone was in their homes, separate from each other, [and] being that I was looking into his eyes as I heard the song, a kind of special feeling came over me. And I said, 'You know, I'm very lucky that I have so many relationships with all of my heroes of music and I can hear their music in their company.' And I said, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if I could find some way to give that special feeling to other people around the world during this crazy time. And I said, 'Well, if I can connect my musical heroes from home to home, perhaps I can give people this feeling that I'm feeling right now. And perhaps I can use that as a way to pay homage to the heroes around the world fighting for health.' So therein lies the foundation of the whole idea."

That spark ultimately evolved into Pass The Mic Vol. 1, which saw some of the biggest R&B stars of the late '70s and the '80s performing their greatest hits from the comfort of their homes, for the world to see. The event, which was streamed live on Twitch before being uploaded to Cassidy's Instagram page, was a big hit, amassing upwards of twenty thousand viewers, prompting the DJ to follow up with a second volume geared towards his first love: Hip-Hop. Airing this past Wednesday (Aug. 5), Pass The Mic Vol. 2 saw DJ Cassidy summoning a slew of his friends, who just happen to be among the greatest rap artists of all-time, to join him in a cipher of the most pivotal rap records of the '80s and early '90s. DJ Premier, of the legendary rap group Gang Starr, spoke on DJ Cassidy approaching him to be a part of the massive celebration. "When Cassidy texted me the links to VOLUME 1, I was blown away by the people he chose," Premier shares. "And it kept getting more and more exciting as the songs progressed to wonder who's next. Even the way he sequenced it..."

Beginning with Run of Run DMC performing "Sucker M.C.'s," the nearly forty minute set included appearances from the likes of LL Cool J, Chuck D, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Kid N' Play and Naughty By Nature, all of whom tear the house down, albeit virtually from the comfort of their own. The session includes many magical moments and is filled with a love for one another, as well as the culture that brings us all together.

With the second volume in the series having took place, with many more to come, VIBE spoke with DJ Cassidy via phone about the genesis of Pass The Mic, what the process entailed putting the first two volumes together, the healing and unification of music, and how Black music has had an indelible impact on his life and career.

VIBE: The first volume of Pass The Mic included appearances by Earth, Wind & Fire, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Kool & The Gang, Patrice Rushen, and other stars of the '70s '80s. What made you kick off the series celebrating that particular era?

DJ Cassidy: I think two main reasons come to mind. First of all, the Facetime call with Verdine White was really the genesis of the concept, so it was that call that inspired the whole idea. And it was that song, the first song on Vol. 1 that was playing, so to me, it was automatic that I should go to that era of music to set the project off. But the second reason is kind of a bigger picture, which is I really believe that that music is the most feel-good, uplifting music ever created. It is undeniably body-moving and for two-thirds of my life, I've traveled the world, making people dance and there is no music that uplifts, inspires people, makes people smile and makes people dance than the r&b music of the '70s and the '80s. So when the world is going through what it's going through and people wanna smile and people wanna be uplifted and people wanna unite, there really was no greater music to channel to try to do such a thing, to achieve such a mission.

How would you describe an episode of Pass The Mic and what are some unique wrinkles users can expect?

Pass The Mic is an interactive mixtape delivered in a way that you've never experienced before. As I drop each record, you experience that record with the artist who recorded that record and you connect with those artists from home to home. And through that personal experience, you're left with an emotional experience of music unlike any before. And I'd be lying if I said I thought that all the way through when I started, I didn't. A lightbulb went off for me, I saw the big picture and I went for it, but I didn't quite understand how emotional the response would be until I premiered it.

You've also mentioned how the times we're in, with the COVID-19 pandemic, was also a factor in you creating Pass The Mic. What are your thoughts on how other DJs and producers have been adapting to the climate we're in?

Well, I think the pandemic has been such a tough time for everyone around the world, yet it's also been a great time for DJs to be the best versions of themselves. At our core, we DJs unite people. At our foundation we bring people together through music and no one exemplified that better, bigger and faster than D-Nice. In the first week of the pandemic, he found a way to unite the world through DJing and it was truly beautiful to watch then and remains beautiful to watch now.

You've been spinning professionally for upwards of two decades and have an expansive list of high-profile artists and musicians at your disposal. What has the recruiting process for Pass The Mic entailed and how would you describe the artists' reception to the idea of it all?

Well, the process has certainly evolved, I would say that's the best word to use. The recruitment process for Vol. 1 was entirely different from Vol. 2 'cause while recruiting artists for Vol.1, I had nothing to show. All I had was a crazy idea that some people understood and some people didn't, but what they did exhibit was a unanimous trust in me and for that, I was not only grateful, but extremely honored. We're talking about some of the most legendary r&b artists of all time, they don't need to do my Pass The Mic idea. And they all took a leap of faith and they put their trust in me and I think they were all excited by the results and that really was the biggest reward. The recruiting process for Vol. 2 was entirely different because not only had many of the artists now seen Vol. 1, but for those who didn't I of course had Vol. 1 to show them. One of the greatest experiences was calling Big Daddy Kane, one of the greatest rappers of all-time.

Now, I haven't spoken to Kane on the phone in years. In fact, I might have never spoken to Kane on the phone before. I first developed a relationship when he performed at my birthday party in New York many years ago, over ten years ago. And every time we see him, it's all love and, of course, I admire, idolize and look up to him and I wasn't even sure if I had the right number I called, I got a voicemail, it wasn't his voice. I text him, I said 'Kane, it's Cassidy, is this still you?'  And he called me within five minutes and I picked up and go, 'Kane!' And his first words were, 'Look, if you're calling about something having to do with Pass The Mic, I'm in,' and that was one of the greatest phone calls I've ever had in my life. And I will never forget that one sentence. Big Daddy Kane, the great, the legend, the forefather, he not only saw it, but loved it, felt that's why I might be calling and was down to take part in whatever I was doing and there's really no words to describe that feeling. And that sentiment was common in many of my phone calls  that a lot of the artists I was calling had seen Vol. 1 and were really emotional in their response to it. So the recruiting process from Vol. 1 and 2 were very different, in that respect.

For the debut volume of Pass The Mic, you partnered with Twitch, a streaming platform that's been continuing to gain steam. What spurred you to use that particular platform and is that partnership official?

Firstly, what I was doing wasn't possible to present to people on Instagram. I love Instagram, it's the platform I use the most, it's how I share my life and times, but there was no way I could've presented Pass The Mic through Instagram. So I was looking for a platform that allowed for a live experience, one which I could treat as a live event and there were several: YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. And Twitch seemed like a great home for the launch, their platform, their technology, their fanbase. They're extremely forward thinking and it was a great place, but it was also a partnership with the Behind The Rhyme channel. Behind The Rhyme is a channel on Twitch that presents  lots of great content having to do with hip-hop and r&b, specifically classic hip-hop and r&b, but all kinds of hip-hop and r&b. So it was a great kind of home for Vol. 1 and it worked out well, so I've chosen to host a live event for Vol. 2 there as well. And I've also partnered with Rock The Bells on this edition, they represent all things classic hip-hop so it's self-explanatory. The partnership is a no-brainer. LL Cool J and his brand represent everything that Pass The Mic Vol. 2 strives to represent, the beauty and inspiration of classic hip-hop.

The second episode of Pass The Mic aired this past Wednesday (August 5), and saw you putting the focus on the golden era of hip-hop, with legends like LL Cool J, Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa all appearing on the show. How would you describe your relationship with that era of hip-hop and how the music inspired you as a DJ?  

Well, I grew up in that era of hip-hop. I grew up memorizing the words of the hip-hop records of the mid '80s, late '80s, and early '90s, that was my childhood.  Hip-Hop is my first love, hip-hop is why I became a DJ, hip-hop is why I asked my parents to buy me two turntables and a mixer for my birthday when I turned ten. And these artists, the artists who I've included in Pass The Mic Vol. 2 are my true heroes. They are the artists I looked up to as a child, they are the artists I idolized as a child and to this day, I hold them up on the highest of pedestal.  They define the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I danced, the way I dress, the way I fought, they gave me identity. Without these artists, I don't really know what my identity would be. I became who I am through this music, so this volume really meant a lot to me, the last twenty-one days have been surreal.

Yeah, for sure. The reason the past twenty-one days have been so surreal is not only because I got to Zoom with all of my heroes of hip-hop, but because after we knocked out what we had to do we stayed on for another half an hour or more talking. And sometimes I'd be on with some of these artists for an hour and I'd be asking them questions and they would tell me stories and I just heard the greatest anecdotes. And sometimes with those whom I had relationships with, we talked about stories that involved me and us and those were incredibly special, for obvious reasons, but all the stories were just, like, gems. They were just dropping gems on me. I have all that footage and I hope, at some point, there is another component of Pass The Mic where I share those stories.

What would you say are three records from that period that personally resonate with you?

"Sucker M.C.’s" is a very important song to me, as it is to hip-hop culture, as it is I believe, to pop culture. "Sucker MCs," in my opinion, is the archetype of a hip-hop record. It's so brilliantly simple and it's powerful because of its brilliant simplicity. All that's on there is a kick, a snare, a clap, and rhymes. There's no chorus, it's only four verses. And if you think about it, on paper, it's the simplest hip-hop record ever made and it's just so magical because if an alien came from out of space like, 'What is hip-hop?' I would play them “Sucker M.C.'s.” So, for me, it was really important for that reason, to set off this particular volume with that record.

Another record that's really important to me is Arrested Development "People Everyday." It's not only one of my favorite hip-hop records of all-time, it's one of my favorite records of all-time, it just simply exudes joy and celebration. And Speech is not only an incredible rapper, but an incredible singer and his voice is just simply something you can feel. He's uplifting, he's truly a unifying spirit and I'm so happy he was willing to get down 'cause he really brings the celebration to this.

"Hip Hop Hooray," which closes out Vol. 2, is really important to me. As a child, I worshipped the ground Treach walked on. I thought Treach was the coolest person to ever walk the face of this earth. And Treach and Vinnie are the sweetest guys, I've known them since I was a child and they've always been really supportive of me and my career and that song is special. No matter where you go in the world, no matter what music someone loves, no matter how old they are, no matter who they are, no matter where they are, everyone sings along to that chorus and knows exactly what to do with their hands. And there's something really beautiful about that so there's no better song to end this with.

The first two episodes of Pass The Mic have been geared towards celebrating Black icons in music, across various genres. In the age of Black Lives Matter and social injustice, what are your thoughts on how music and the performance of it can help bring forth unity and healing?

I think there is no greater unifying power than music and I think there is no greater healing force than soul music. And soul music doesn't just mean r&b music, it means hip-hop, too, hip-hop comes from soul. And I think we're living in a time of divisiveness, bigotry and of separation and I think we, as humanity, can look to any one thing to uplift people and unify, it would be music. And you mentioned Black music, my life wouldn't be what it is without the music of Black artists, hip-hop and R&B has defined my life in so many ways, and not only in my career. It's my source of inspiration, it's my source of culture, it's my source of style, it's really my source of happiness. And it's through the music of soul artists and hip-hop artists that I've been able to travel the world and make people dance and make people smile.

What do you see Pass The Mic evolving into moving forward and what do you hope viewers walk away with after viewing an episode of Pass The Mic?

I hope people walk away feeling uplifted, that's it. That's the goal, to uplift. And by sharing these records in a unique way, I've been able to uplift, then I've done my job. The magic is in the music and I'm just a messenger. What do I see for the future? Well, at this point, sky's the limit. I didn't anticipate quite an emotional response from people and it's been quite overwhelming. As I said, this was a little passion project to stay creative, to connect with my heroes and to put a smile on a few faces and it turned into something bigger than I could've ever imagined. There's certainly gonna be more volumes and what the future has in store, we shall see.

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