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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Freddie Gibbs Has Nothing To Hide With 'Bandana'

Talking with Freddie Gibbs, a Gary, Indiana native who came of age hustling during the ‘90s, can be a bit jarring at times. Discussing the Madlib beat that backs the song “Gat Damn” off his upcoming album, Bandana, the artist cheerfully details his desire to create a “dope a** melody and freak that motherf**ker” before quietly pondering one of the chaotic stories that make the track so impactful.

“Sometimes the violence feels good when you’re not on the other end of it, but when family members and children and women start getting killed, you know it’s a real serious thing,” he says. “So I don’t know, man, my whole purpose with this project was to let people know where I was at mentally and emotionally.”

A Los Angeles transplant, Gibbs is too busy raising his daughter, running a business and posting memes to worry about the streets. Almost three years after being discharged from Austrian prison for a crime he was ultimately acquitted of, he has more to celebrate now than ever, especially with Bandana dropping on June 28.

A follow-up to Piñata, Gibbs’ critically acclaimed 2014 venture with Madlib that paired the Midwestern rapper’s intricate, illustrative verses with the California-born producer’s jazzy, lo-fi beats, Bandana was teased for years before the artist started releasing information this February. The high-energy single “Flat Tummy Tea,” which touches on everything from the artists’ political disillusionment to his former drug habits, was inconspicuously teased on Instagram and then posted on YouTube shortly after, just a few weeks before the album’s biting, bass drum-heavy signature track was released to the public. Fast forward to the middle of June and Gibbs has unveiled the Quasimoto-inspired cover art, sent Zebra mascots to Hollywood and Times Square to publicize the release and dropped videos for “Crime Pays” and “Giannis,” his first collaboration with Anderson .Paak.

The album, which effortlessly moves between Gibbs’ speedy, hard bars and his softer R&B side, comes across like a meditation on his chaotic past. Talking to him, it’s clear that he’s “waxing, trying to get to a better spot in [his] career [and] as a father,” and that impression comes through in each track. Instead of focusing on the flashier aspects of his life, the artist forces people to examine his discomforting, long-winded path to success and the scars it left on his mind. Chock-full of beat changes that jolt the MC to switch styles midway through a song, Bandana is composed in a way that it feels like the listener is truly inside Gibbs’ head, following along as he jumps from one thought, or nightmare, to another. Sure, Gibbs may be enjoying his hard-wrought success now, but he never glorifies his past, choosing instead to highlight his sleepless nights and the masculine paranoia that permeated his days dealing.

“My sh*t is an open book,” he explains. “Artists now I feel like I don't even know who these ni**as are because everyone is just automatically rich when they come out, you know? That definitely wasn't my reality.”

More than just a long-awaited project, Bandana is Gibbs’ first release with a major label. After some career ups-and-downs that saw him sign with Interscope in 2006 before promptly being dropped a year later, he recently partnered with friend Tunji Balogun to release Bandana through Keep Cool, a subsidiary of RCA and Sony Music, in tandem with his own ESGN label and Madlib’s Invazion. Despite the corporate support and larger marketing budget, he insists he’s not doing anything differently.

"I kind of created my own lane, I got my own lane of things, so I'm not really pressured,” Gibbs says. “I'm dropping music to satisfy the people that rock with me, and if some new people rock with me, that's cool, but if not, I'm not tripping."

Gibbs’ lyrical skills helped him build a dedicated fanbase, but his business partner and manager Ben “Lambo” Lambert is an instrumental part of his success. A lifelong hip-hop fan who cut his teeth in the industry at 15 putting up stickers for Slum Village’s Fantastic Volume 2, Lambo first discovered 22-year-old Gibbs while working as a college intern at Interscope and has stuck by him ever since. If they’re not physically together, the partners speak on the phone daily, covering everything from merch design to beat selection, and they both agreed the time was right to utilize a larger platform.

“It's like we're on the AND1 tour,” Lambo said, referring to the traveling basketball competition. “We're on Venice Beach, killing it, but at a certain point, unless you put up some points in the NBA, there's always going to be a feeling of ‘what if?’”

As personal as creating Bandana was for Gibbs, it’s been equally emotional for Lambo. Since the team started working on the record five years ago, Lambo has had two kids, one of whom was born just weeks before its release. He said it’s difficult to even discuss the album’s early days, back before Gibbs’ trouble overseas threw a wrench in their plans, since everything is different now.

“We’re in a society where people need to see other people celebrating something and then everyone can celebrate it, so I'm excited to see that because we've literally put our lives into this,” Lambo explained. “I just feel like it's a culmination of a lot of years of stuff and I want to move onto the next phase, whatever that is. Which, resulting from this album, I think will be something really exciting and fun."

For a while, Gibbs hinted at Bandana being his final project, but he recently told Entertainment Weekly that he and Madlib are already working on a new record called Montana. According to Lambo, all three MadGibbs titles were conceived part-way into recording Piñata. While he’s hesitant to call the new albums sequels, he likens the unfinished trilogy to Quentin Tarantino’s filmography where disconnected movies share key elements in a way that makes audiences feel like they’re returning to a familiar world.

The reveal does come with one drawback though, as Gibbs, who said he was just in the studio working on three or four tracks for the album last week, insists “Montana is gonna be [his] last album.” For him, everything goes back to the strength and value of his catalog and he wants to cap things off with a few more “strong projects.”

“I feel like a lot of these ni**as just put out too much music, man. Every year it's like three mixtapes or a lot of sh*t that don't mean nothing. I want everything I give you to mean something.”

Music isn’t the only thing pushing this renaissance gangster forward. On top of writing rhymes and running ESGN with Lambo, Gibbs wants to break into filmmaking. The former dealer almost scored a role in the FX series Snowfall, a show about crack’s rise in Los Angeles during the ‘80s, but so far he hasn’t had too much luck with auditions.

“I’m not bitter about it,” he says. “I just look at it as God gonna give me the perfect role when I get it, so it is what it is."

Instead of sitting back and waiting for opportunities, Gibbs is hard at work writing his own scripts and tackling filmmaking with the same independent mindset he brought to music. With close associates like Nick Walker, the director on the “Pronto” and “Crime Pays” music videos, Gibbs wants to “develop [his] own kind of films.”

While he’s mum about the details for any future projects, a quick look at his past music videos, especially “Thuggin,’” shows that Gibbs strives for authenticity in the way he presents his stories.

“Everything I was doing in “Thuggin’” I was actually doing at that time. I was selling crack and all I did with that sh*t was take you throughout my day. I was in South Central selling crack and those are my real homies and everything was authentic, so it was like let's just walk everybody through a day in the life of what I'm doing, and I was doing a lot of bullsh*t that day.”

In his own words, the video sums up his life from 2010 until his daughter’s birth in 2015. Straddling the worlds of music and drug dealing, Gibbs made an artistic name for himself but couldn’t live solely on music. Comparing it to purgatory, the artist felt like he was too deep in both professions to give up but he had to deal with people pressuring him to choose between the streets and the booth.

 

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Timeless....

A post shared by Kane (@freddiegibbs) on Jun 14, 2019 at 8:57am PDT

“You know, I was on the cover of magazines and still selling like crack and heroin,” he says, "so it was kind of a tough thing to juggle, actually being out there for real and kind of being in the spotlight.”

Now comfortably living off his music, Gibbs is gunning for the respect and clout he thinks he deserves. For years he’s called himself the “most versatile rapper” in the game and believes he belongs in the “upper echelon of MCs,” but he’s well aware that a lot of talented people get overlooked in the industry. Now, with Keep Cool behind him, it’s time for Gibbs to find out if the public agrees with his self-evaluation.

“I always ask myself, if there was a rap hall of fame, would I go?” he says. “And yeah, once I finished this album I was like 'yeah, I think I'd be there.'”

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Rapper Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee and Chuck D of the rap group 'Public Enemy' film a video for their song 'Fight The Power' directed by Spike Lee in 1989 in New York, New York.
Michael Ochs

Music Sermon: How 'Fight The Power' Saved Public Enemy

It was “1989, the number, another summer,” and in New York City, the racial tension was thick as the season’s heat. For New York, it wasn’t just “another summer” - 1989 was a defining year for the city, and for its black and brown youth. The swift persecution of five black and brown boys for the Central Park Jogger attack, with little evidence, is in the national conversation today, but divided the city along racial and class lines that spring. The August murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins by a group of teens in Brooklyn’s Italian-American Bensonhurst neighborhood sparked protests across the city. In the middle of these two events, both of which are tightly woven into the fabric of New York, Spike Lee released one of his most provocative films: the prophetic Do the Right Thing.

At the time, Lee intentionally chose Public Enemy, the most radical group in rap, to set the movie’s tone. Their seminal anthem “Fight the Power” was not only one of hip-hop’s most monumental songs, but also Gen X’s first taste of movement music. The group’s 1987 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was unlike anything anyone had ever heard in music, let alone the still very new rap genre. Public Enemy’s sophomore album combined the tight flow of battle rappers, the spirit and energy of the Black Power movement, and the aesthetic presentation of the Black Panthers with their paramilitary backing group, Security of the First World (S1W), all packaged up with a logo featuring a black man in a sniper’s crosshairs (can you imagine all of that today? The “If a white group did that…” comments would be insufferable). PE didn’t just start the conscious rap movement, they sparked the gangsta rap movement – NWA’s Straight Outta Compton was directly influenced by Nation of Millions (Chuck sent an early copy of the album to the group, and you feel the inspiration in “F*ck the Police” especially. Along with the defiant social commentary in the lyrics, Dre channeled The Bomb Squad’s sonic chaos in the track. Cube went on to work with The Bomb Squad for his solo debut).

“When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “I wanted Public Enemy.”

But at the time of the movie’s release, PE had technically broken up; sidelined by controversy impacting their reputation not just domestically, but abroad. On June 29, one day before Do the Right Thing hit theaters, Russell Simmons announced: ''Public Enemy is disbanding for an indefinite period.”

THE STORM

Public Enemy was made up of distinctively different personalities: Chuck D, the leader, the voice, and the “adult” of the group; Flava Flav, the blueprint for hip-hop hype men and comedic levity to Chuck’s booming gravity; and Professor Griff, the “Minister of Information,” a black Muslim who didn’t actually observe any of the tenants of Islam but subscribed to the most incendiary rhetoric The Nation of Islam offered. As the Minister of Information, Griff sometimes spoke publicly on the group’s behalf and had been known to stir up controversy with comments that were just over the line, but not far enough to cause a mainstream firestorm. Then, on May 22, 1989, he sat down with reporter (and later writer for The Wire and Treme) David Mills for an interview with The Washington Times. Because he was talking to another black man, Griff got way into his bag, and sh*t went left, quickly.

“Griff opined that ‘the majority of them [i.e., Jews]’ are responsible for ‘the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe,” recounted LA Times rock critic Robert Cristgau in his summation of the controversy, properly titled “The Sh*t Storm.” “He… raved about how ‘the Jews finance these experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa,’ observed that ‘the Jews have their hands right around Bush's throat,’ and concluded that he must be speaking the truth because if he wasn't the Jew who owned CBS would long since have forced him, Griff, out of the group.” It was a mess, but it still flew largely under the radar until the story was picked up by The Village Voice (pours out liquor). You know how the timeline gets when there’s controversy? Imagine that in real life amongst the music community and media.

Even the most esteemed music critics had praised Nation of Millions, many even included the LP on their 1987 Album of the Year lists. Now they were being called on to defend or condemn the group they’d once praised.

Nelson George was one of the lone hip hop writers at the time aside from Harry Allen (which is why you will always find Nelson George references in my work), and as a black man in a space where we were still fighting for voice and position, he was careful to distinguish Griff’s comments from what the group stood for. "There's no question they say Farrakhan's a prophet," George told the LA Times at the time, "but Chuck D was very specific about what they like about Farrakhan. That Prof. Griff is a (jerk) doesn't invalidate the record. And Public Enemy was signed by Rick Rubin, who is Jewish, and one of their first managers is Jewish, as is the photographer that shot most of their album cover pictures, and (so is) their publicist Bill Adler."

Chuck was torn. He first backed Griff, then seperated the group’s stance from Griff’s personal stance, then banned Griff from speaking on behald of PE, before finally condemning Griff and apologizing for his comments, stating: “We’re not anti-Jewish or anti-anyone at all. We're pro-black. To use the same mechanism that you're fighting against definitely is wrong. We don't stand for hatred. We're not here to make enemies. We're apologizing to anyone who might be offended by Griff's remarks.” Griff was expelled from the group on June 21, 1989.

The continued pressure from the Jewish Defense Organization – including calls to boycott Do the Right Thing, Def Jam and Columbia/CBS, who distributed the group’s albums, and Rick Rubin even though he wasn’t involved with the group anymore – finally wore Chuck out. He told Kurt Loder during an MTV interview that the group was done. ''He (Griff) transferred misinformation, and it was just wrong. You can`t back it,” he explained. “But we got sandbagged, and being as I got sandbagged, the group is over as of today. We`re outta here. We`re stepping out of the music business as a boycott . . . against the music industry, management, record companies (and) the industry retailers.”

In Robert Cristgau’s earlier-referenced article, written shortly after that MTV interview, he opined of PE’s future: “…it's reasonable to hope that three or six or nine months down the road, after Spike Lee returns to the set and Chuck's label flops and Flavor Flav staggers under the weight of his own album, PE will regroup.”

Instead, it only took about a month. “Fight the Power” became a hit; The song and movie combined birthed one of the biggest cultural statements of the decade.

THE ANTHEM

Spike told Hank Shocklee (of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s famed production unit) and Chuck he wanted an anthem, but already had an idea in mind. “Spike originally proposed a rap version of a negro spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to be produced by someone else and with just Chuck D rapping,” Shocklee told the Guardian. “I was like: ‘No way.’” Hank found an example right out of Do the Right Thing’s world to make his point. “We were in Spike’s office on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, by a busy intersection. I pulled down his window, stuck his head out, and was like: ‘Yo man, you’ve got to think about this record as being something played out of these cars going by.’” Spike knew he wanted the power of Chuck’s voice, but Chuck and Shocklee knew that the moment called for something bigger, sonically. Gen X is now considered a generation without a social movement. Boomers were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, Millennials led Black Lives Matter, Gen X’ers were chillin’ - except we weren’t. Police brutality, the overcriminalization of black and brown people (hi, stop-and-frisk), the rise of the crack epidemic… these were our issues, and hip-hop was our movement: our way to give voice to the systemic injustices and bleak realities black people faced daily.

With “Fight the Power,” Chuck, Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad captured the energy of black resistance in a rare, perfect way – sonically and lyrically. It sounded aggressive, it sounded urgent, it sounded defiant, it sounded confident. It was the protest music of black Gen X’ers. “The song could have gone a lot softer, a lot neater, a lot tighter – but it would have lost the chaos,” Shocklee went on to explain. “When something is organized and aligned, it represents passivity. But any resistance, any struggle to overcome, is going to be chaotic. So the hardest part was making sure the track wasn’t monotonous. Lots of the samples appear only once, and a lot of stuff isn’t perfectly in time. I didn’t just want white noise and black noise – I wanted pink noise and brown noise!”

The title and thematic direction came from Ron Isley and his brothers’ 1975 song of the same name. The song struck a chord with 15-year-old Chuck D. Last year, Chuck and Ernie Isley (who, by the way, is the most criminally underrated guitar player in music history) compared notes on the two "Fight the Power's" for NPR: “I was 15 years old, so it was ingrained in me, but it was a record that I thought represented us. ‘I tried to play my music, they say my music's too loud’: That spoke loud to me,” Chuck shared with Ernie. “And I didn't even curse at the time, but that was the first time I ever heard a curse on a record.”

I can't play my music They say my music's too loud I kept talkin about it I got the big run around When I rolled with the punches I got knocked on the ground By all this bullsh*t goin’ down

Like the 1989 version, The Isleys’ joint catches you up in the undeniable bop of the track even while delivering power through the lyrics.

PE’s “Fight the Power” was also a big f*ck you to “American” pop culture, disparaging white icons Elvis and John Wayne, who in the late ‘80s were both damn near deified. It was a declaration that we black folks have our own history and culture.

'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps Sample a look back you look and find Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check

A song that feels and sounds like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” will never happen again, because the Bomb Squad’s trademark sampling methods would be a legal headache and financially crippling today thanks to changes in copyright laws spurred by the growing rap industry in 1991. “It was a totally different process from today, when cats listen to a finished track then put rhymes on top – that separates emotion and content,” Shocklee shared when discussing how the song came to be. “All the samples have to work with Chuck’s emotion. We’d have to find something from all our hundreds of records to fill a second, and it all had to be done by ear, without computers or visual aids.”

THE MOVIE

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song used as many times as “Fight the Power” is in Do the Right Thing. I can’t even tell you what other song is on the soundtrack without looking it up. Honestly, the entire soundtrack should have just been a “Fight the Power” maxi-single. Also, shout out to one of the most iconic opening title sequences ever. It’s like James Bond level. Better.

The song and the movie are inextricably linked. As mentioned earlier, Spike wanted “Fight the Power” playing whenever we saw Radio Raheem. Since Raheem is the movie’s pivotal character, PE underscored some of the movie’s most powerful moments.

Shocklee explained to Rolling Stone why using Radio Raheem as the vehicle for the song worked so well. “The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boombox playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.”

Even before they retreated into self-imposed career exile, Public Enemy weren’t radio artists. The film was their only real promotional vehicle for the single – but what a vehicle. “When I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh,” he shared with Rolling Stone. “We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver sh*t. We couldn’t rely on radio.” While the group laid low, “Fight the Power” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Rap chart and cracked the Top 20 on the Hip-Hop and R&B chart (Hammer would break down the barrier for rap on the Hot 100 and Pop charts about a year later). In August, PE came out of “retirement” to announce their renowned third album, Fear of a Black Planet.

THE VIDEO

The music video for “Fight the Power” goes down as one of the most satisfying visuals for a song, ever. In the history of music videos. It is the perfect accompaniment to the track’s energy and power. For the video, Spike created a modern-day version of the March on Washington in Brooklyn, which he called "The Young People's March on Brooklyn to End Racial Violence,” featuring Public Enemy. The march was Chuck’s idea, and Spike did the video as a favor, on the strength of them letting him use “Fight the Power” for free. If Chuck D wasn’t already firmly positioned as hip-hop’s political leader, watching him leading throngs of young people through Bed-Stuy did the trick. “It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn,” he later shared about the day. “It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.”

Flav added, “That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot… (W)e had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant…I would give anything to live that day one more time.”

Like the movie and the song, the video is on multiple “best of all time” lists.

While echoes of the controversy of 1989 followed PE through the early ‘90s, the sheer power of Fear of a Black Planet prevented it from slowing them down in any way. Nation of Millions blew the music community away, but Fear of a Black Planet surpassed it.

This has nothing to do with anything, really, except that I want y’all to peep how completely off the chain Flav is in this interview. Chuck and Fab 5 Freddie just gave up.

THE LEGACY

The legacy and impact of Do the Right Thing are perhaps immeasurable. The movie garnered two Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, was deemed one of the most important movies of the year, then later one of the most important of the decade, and is still largely considered to be Spike’s greatest and most complete work. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers, including John Singleton, who went home and wrote Boyz N The Hood after seeing the film. Radio Raheem’s boombox is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Fight the Power” is still one of the most important songs in hip-hop, has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is ranked by multiple lists as one of the greatest songs in music, period. Public Enemy went on to be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But as I said before, the power is in the two - movie and song - together. It’s hamburger and bun. Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cereal. Neither are as strong if they’d been presented to the world without the other.

In any other year, the movie and song just wouldn’t have hit the same. Do the Right Thing was one of the first “day-in-the-life” black movies that showcased the routine and connectivity of community - how we rely on each other, how we interact with each other, and the line between business owners integrating with the community and just making money from the community. “Fight the Power” came just as conscious rap was gaining a commercial foothold. Despite the group’s assumptions, the song did get radio play - lots of it. A year earlier, radio wouldn’t have been ready. A year later, the song wouldn’t have felt as special. Thirty years later, the movie and track aren’t just a snapshot of 1989, but they both still feel incredibly relevant and accurate. But without this partnership, the self-proclaimed Rolling Stones of hip-hop may have had an entirely different musical legacy - one smashed to bits the way Sal smashed Raheem’s boombox. Instead, they proved the galvanizing power hip-hop could have. 1989 was not just another summer; it sparked a hip-hop revolution.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Tobe Nwigwe wowed the crowd with a live musical performance at the McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden experience at BETX.
BET Expereience

Tobe Nwigwe's Southern Raps At The BET Experience Are Marinaded With Purpose

Thanks to Tobe Nwigwe, Houston’s presence could not be denied at this year’s batch of BET Experience events in Los Angeles. Sporting his signature sock/slippers combo and a mic in his hand, the Nigerian-American storyteller took the stage Friday (June 21) to perform some of his most revolutionary and captivating tracks.

There’s the lyrical strike that is “Ten Toes” and “Against the Grain” made popular from his #GetTwistedSundays series, a keen exploration of Houston. With a new batch of ears and hearts open to his music, the Nigerian-American rapper is at ease with his new purpose.

“I understand my purpose now. I understand that to do what I’m doing now is all of my life,” Nwigwe tells VIBE before taking the stage for McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden event which showcases music’s ability to continue the cultural narratives of the Black experience in America.

Before he was shining on BET Cyphers, performing at the Roots Picnic or delivering projects like Three Originals, Nwigwe had dreams of entering the NFL. Those plans were redirected after a physical injury during his senior year at the University of North Texas. The incident served as a catalyst for the rapper to transform his energy into purposeful rap for his hometown, Houston.

“That’s why I’m due diligent, persistent, and focused on what I’m doing because I understand the call of my life,” he added while speaking about his partnership with McDonald’s platform. “I just really like what the Black and Positively Golden theme is. Being bold, being brilliant, being resilient. I like the black community, I love it. I feel like black people are the most influential people in the world.”

 

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HISTORY WAS MADE AT THE @ROOTSPICNIC 🙏🏿 YASIIN BEY - - 📸: @tynie626

A post shared by Tobe Nwigwe (@tobenwigwe) on Jun 2, 2019 at 8:12am PDT

Houston’s re-emergence into mainstream hip hop culture, from a cultural enclave to an emergent regional capital in Southern rap lineage is evident acts like Megan Thee Stallion and Tobe Nwigwe. Draped in diasporic apparel and perched on a horse in the Texas countryside, Nwigwe is representative of the city’s rich ethnic demographic, and fusion of two Black sub-cultures into one told through the oral traditions of hip hop.

Nwigwe is currently dressed in all black, but it wouldn’t be without purpose. In small but noticeable text, his shirt says, “Mental Health is Crucial.” The fit speaks highly of intentions as an advocate for black youth. Nwigwe’s love for his community extends beyond the reaches of rap into the worlds of non-profit advocacy and mentorship. He’s the co-founder of TeamGINI, “Gini Bu Nkpa Gi?,” an Igbo saying meaning, “What’s Your Purpose?”

“I understand what people where I come from need,” he explains. “I feel that. I understand the void, so I do my best to play a role in being a part of the solution.”

His spiritual beliefs were highlighted in The Rap Map: Meet 5 Talented Artists From Houston featured on DJBooth. An ideology rooted in community-based upliftment drew motivational speaker Eric Thomas to sign Nwigwe for ETA Records, and establish a partnership focused on the implementation of solutions-focused rap for youth in neighborhoods across the United States, impacted by the terrors of community disinvestment, and high rates of violence.

Nwigwe recalled the outpouring of love experienced at one of his recent hometown shows. “I had the biggest crowd ever on my court at home," he proudly boasted in a Houston drawl. "I had over 3,000 people at a show with no openers, none of that. The mayor came out and gave me a dap, so it’s just a lot of love at home. There's like nothing better than being received well in your hometown, where you grew up and got all your influence from. It’s, wherever I go I wear Alief, I wear SWAT, I wear Houston on me like a badge of honor.”

His authenticity is felt throughout his setlist, a musical arrangement with a live band, background vocals from Beaumont-raised LHITNEY, and surprise guest performance from NELL, a frequent collaborator and producer on his music projects.

Nwigwe's purpose for the weekend was complete–he brought Houston to Los Angeles. “Make purpose popular,” Nwigwe’s mantra for his musicality sounds like a tagline from your local conscious rapper, but the intention in how the Houston rapper uses music as a space for community messaging is rooted in genuine Houston hospitality.

Stream Nwigwe’s latest release, “Searching” below.

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