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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Melyssa Ford

Melyssa Ford: 'My Mother Died During This Pandemic And I Have Nowhere To Put My Grief'

Editor's Note: In a heartwarming tribute, former model now TV/radio host, Melyssa Ford details the final days she shared with her beloved mother, Oksana Barbara Raisa Ford (10/12/1950 - 5/19/2020). Understanding that we have all been connected to COVID-19's tragic reach, this essay explains the plight of one person's experience that represents the pain so many are dealing with in these times around the world.

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COVID-effing-19. This pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for a great many of us. How many of you have been confronted with the hard truth that we took EVERYTHING about our lives and freedoms for granted? The freedom to call up a few friends and go for Happy Hour drinks after a long day at work? The freedom to start our day by going to the gym; the freedom to temporarily vacate our lives by getting on a plane and heading off to some tropical destination? Or the freedom to gather at a burial or memorial service to pay love and respect to a loved one who has passed, as a means of helping to process our own grief? 

My mother died last week. Not from COVID-19, but from colon cancer. But COVID-19 and its endless complications directly affected my family’s lives and, ultimately, my mother's death. 

It was less than a year from diagnosis to her last days. She lived in Toronto (my hometown) and I currently live in Los Angeles. Traveling during this pandemic presented some incredible challenges. Quarantine and shelter in place rules. Closed international borders. Fear and uncertainty. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get to her side in time, since Canada mandates that anyone getting off a plane has to self-quarantine for 14 days (threats of fines and jail time were there to incentivize you to adhere to the new rules). And I knew my mother had very little precious time. 

Months before, when there was still some hope that surgery and chemo would prolong her life, she decided to sell the house I grew up in. I was furious. I looked at this as her giving up; resigning herself to the control of this insidious disease called cancer. But my mother, the truest form of a pragmatist, was preparing for the inevitable and getting her affairs in order. She wanted to leave me with nothing to do except mourn her without the burden of packing up a home with all of her belongings in it after her death. She knows me so well, she knew I’d NEVER pack it up, that I’d have left everything the way it was as a shrine to her and, therefore, never really moving through my grief in a purposeful and healthy manner. 

Cancer ravaged my mother's body but left her brain fully intact. And it was with full cognition, pragmatism and a whole lot of gumption, that she decided to end things on her terms by scheduling her passing with a doctor's assistance via MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) — a legal policy in Canada that allows a terminally ill patient in palliative care to choose the days or weeks remaining in their lives. 

She didn’t want to spend her last months laying confined to a bed, immobile, unable to even take herself to the bathroom. The most basic form of human dignity had been stolen from her and replaced with a catheter and a colostomy bag that my aunt had to drain several times a day. I watched as her skin turned yellow from jaundice, signaling her liver was failing. I watched as her urine went from a dark yellow to crimson, a signal that her kidneys were no longer functional. My mother, the strongest person I had ever known, both physically and mentally, was now frail and seemingly melting into the bed, her skin sagging from her skeletal arms and legs. Her face was gaunt, her head bald, her breastplate visible and bony...in her last days, she was an empty shell of the 5’10” beautiful Viking she had been. With her long blond hair, green eyes, and imposing physical stature, I used to joke that if you gave her a hat with horns, a shield, and a sword, you could send her out to battle. 

The day I arrived in Toronto from L.A., I approached my mother’s bedside after going through a rigorous disinfectant routine. My mother had been discharged from the hospital as there was nothing left to do for her medically except keep her as comfortable as possible. She was sent home to my aunt’s house for the remainder of her days. My aunt’s home was a place of comfort and joy for me, as I’ve spent a great many holidays and family occasions here; this was the best place for my mother to be. With a mask and gloves on, I sat down next to her bedside and tried with all my might not to cry. My Mom had passed on that British “stiff upper lip” mentality to me; it’s rare you will see me expose my emotions. But as of late, I’ve been pretty transparent about it, in an attempt to sort through my competing feelings of grief and guilt. Guilt of not having been the perfect daughter. Grief of being her only child with no one to share the burden of immeasurable sadness with. Guilt of not working on our relationship or attempting to understand her as a person until it was close to the end. Guilt and grief kept coming in waves, threatening to drown me. 

On that first evening, I sat with her for a few hours and we talked more frankly than we ever had about things I had always been scared to ask. Topics such as her tumultuous marriage to my father and why she stayed in such misery. What was HER mother like, who died when my mother was only 15 years old? Was she proud of me and the choices I had made in my life, one of them being never having children?

Eventually, I had to let her sleep. I went upstairs to her bedroom (she was now in a bedroom on the main floor of my aunt’s house since she could no longer walk). Once in her room, I found a journal titled 2019 and began to read. What I read, in between all of the activities she enjoyed such as Aquafit and her book club, was her documenting her disease before she even knew she had it, describing the symptoms that began as uncomfortable that would soon become excruciatingly painful. 

It broke my heart to read this, being on the other side of understanding where this story would end. I found myself wanting to move through the dimension of time and yell, “Go to the hospital!” Reading this only made me wonder if she had caught it during the early days of symptoms, would the outcome be different? Excuse me as I add more guilt and more grief to the already unbearable weight upon my shoulders. 

Our final day was spent much like the last six days I had with my mother, laying beside each other in bed, massaging her, and either watching movies or talking. We would go from walking down memory lane as I showed her old pictures to discussing last-minute details about the Business of Death: the transfer of everything into my name, where certain sentimental pieces of jewelry could be found, who she wanted to receive small tokens of remembrance of her. As sad as I was for myself, my heart broke for my mother. She’s losing EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. She expressed to me that she was shocked at how quickly her cancer spread throughout her body. It didn’t give her a chance. No amount of holistic remedies or prayers would have changed this (thanks to all my friends who suggested a plant-based diet with sea moss, soursop, and bladderwrack but her colon, GI tract, and bowels had been decimated). 

The few days leading up to her doctor-assisted euthanasia, I found my heart racing in a panic as the end was creeping closer and closer. I don’t know what’s worse, a loved one's death being a surprise or knowing when it’s going to happen with the hours counting down. I know both intimately. My father went the first way, my mother the second. I still can’t tell you the answer.

With plans in place for the funeral home to come and take my mother's body in order to cremate her, I’m left with a feeling of such remorse and sadness. Because of COVID-19, my mother’s friends and I are being robbed of the opportunity to congregate at a memorial service to properly mourn and pay homage and respect to the woman we all loved and admired. My mother deserved that.

I’m so angry. I’m angry at cancer. I’m angry at, as a society, our collective circumstances. I’m angry at the thought that this pandemic could have been controlled if our government officials had reacted swiftly. I’m angry that there are so many people who are experiencing the same thing I am—the death of loved ones, and the inability to gather together for a ceremony that celebrates their lives and sends them off properly.

Trauma changes you. Less than two years ago, I almost died when a truck hit my jeep on a California highway. I spent almost a year recovering. I’m a different person than I was moments before the impact of that crash. And now I’ve got to sort out who I am without my mother on this earth. People report a feeling of disconnectedness after the death of their parent(s); like what kept you tethered to the earth is gone and you are now hurtling through time and space, searching for something to grab onto.

I lost my father many years ago and now my mom is gone. I’m praying that I find something soon to ground me; but for the time being, the search to make sense and meaning of my mother's life and, ultimately her death, shall continue for me, like a room with endless doors or a road that disappears into the horizon. 

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A native of Toronto, Canada and now residing in Beverly Hills, California, Melyssa Ford is a syndicated radio show host on Hollywood Unlocked via iHeart Media's stations nationwide and also hosts her own podcast, I'm Here For The Food (available on all streaming platforms).

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Beenie Man (L) and Bounty Killer (R) in 1995.
David Corio/Redferns

A Look At Beenie Man And Bounty Killer's 'Verzuz' Battle Scorecard

Why was this night different from all other Verzuz battles? Streamed live from Kingston, Jamaica, the Memorial Day “Soundclash Edition” of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s flagship IG Live series was easily the most exciting and entertaining yet, as well as the first to delve into dancehall reggae.

Considering the fact that Jamaican sound systems pioneered the sort of “beat battles” have made Verzuz a social media sensation well over half a century ago, the creative decision was more than fitting. By pitting two icons of the genre, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, in head-to-head competition, this Verzuz battle did not just showcase two of its most respected lyricists ever to hold a microphone, it also tapped into an epic rivalry that stretches back more than a quarter of a century.

At that time the youth born Moses Davis in the Waterhouse section of downtown Kingston was already on the second leg of his career -- having released his first album a decade earlier at the age of ten. Young Rodney Price, formerly known as Bounty Hunter, had just started to make noise under his new artist name Bounty Killer, recording hardcore hits for the legendary Waterhouse-based producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James.

Like all young aspiring artists, Killer had looked up to Beenie as an inspirational figure -- until he felt that the artist had borrowed his style. Beenie and Bounty’s face-to-face clashes, especially their Boxing Day battles at the storied Jamaican stage show Sting in 1993 and 1995, are the stuff of dancehall legend. Despite whatever differences may have existed between them, both artists channeled all that energy into great records -- many of which were played in the heat of the Verzuz battle.

Arguably the most exciting and spontaneous edition of Verzuz yet, the Beenie and Bounty battle was not a “clash” in the traditional Jamaican sense, but it was hardly a conventional beat battle either. Predictions that the island’s WiFi might not be able to handle the strain were soon dismissed -- in keeping with Jamaica’s long tradition of raising the bar when it comes to using technology to create next-level musical entertainment, this was the best-produced beat battle of them all. On the other hand, this was also the first time a Verzuz competitor has had to take a break in the action to negotiate with police officers.

This was surely also the first Verzuz battle to be live-tweeted by a prime minister: PM Andrew Holness took to his official Twitter to declare “Jamaica’s culture is global” and share a screenshot of the action. In keeping with the national pride, the battle opened with a rousing rendition of the Jamaican National Anthem.

When Beenie and Bounty came through VIBE’s IG Live one day before performance, they both declared that they would not be preparing for the battle as the art of war should be spontaneous. This has had people on tender hooks as no one really knows what would happen on the night. But of course all celebrities were out in full force for this highly anticipated battle, as everyone from Diddy to Swizz to Rihanna came through to catch the vibes. It was the only place to be if you were on IG, with more than 400K people checking in at the event's peak.

Here’s Billboard's tune-for-tune breakdown from the top to the very last drop.

ROUND 1: Beenie Man's “Matie” vs. Special Ed feat. Bounty Killer's “Just a Killa”

Beenie kicked things off with his first No. 1 hit (on the Jamaican charts) in honor of the late great Bobby Digital, the legendary producer of this song and countless more, who passed away May 21. Bounty opted to open on an international note, leading with his first hip hop collaboration, a 1995 single by Brooklyn rapper Special Ed featuring a guest verse from young Bounty.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 2: Beenie Man's “Memories” vs. Bounty Killer's “Suspense”

Sticking with the hardcore dancehall, Beenie reached for one of his fan favorites, a mid-’90s banger on the “Hot Wax” riddim that was recorded during the height of his great lyrical war with Bounty Killer (and sampled by Drake on the album version of “Controlla”). Killer responded in kind with a track on the same hard-hitting riddim, making this round feel like a flashback mid-'90s dancehall session.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 3: Beenie Man's “Slam” vs. Bounty Killer's “Living Dangerously”

Shifting into another gear, Beenie drew for his first Billboard hit, a tribute to the sexual prowess of “ghetto girls” recorded on Dave Kelly’s irresistible “Arab Attack” riddim. Bounty responded with one of his most popular songs for the ladies, a collaboration with reggae vocalist par excellence Barrington Levy. Counteracting a classic with another classic, this round was too close to call.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 4: Beenie Man feat. Chevelle Franklin's “Dancehall Queen” vs. Diana King feat. Bounty Killer's “Summer Breezin’”

Keeping the energy high, Beenie unleashed this soundtrack cut from the movie Dancehall Queen (in which he also appeared). Bounty responded with a relatively obscure guest verse on a record by Jamaican pop hitmaker Diana King.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 5: Beenie Man feat. Lil Kim's “Fresh From Yard” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Jeru the Damaja's “Suicide or Murder”

For his first international selection, Beenie chose a DJ Clue production featuring the Queen Bee in her best Brooklyn Jamaican patois mode. Killer kept it BK with a grimy Jeru collab produced by New York’s own Massive B productions.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 6: T.I. feat. Beenie Man's “I’m Serious” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Mobb Deep's “Deadly Zone”

Sticking with the hip hop collabs, Beenie dropped T.I.’s first major-label single featuring a hard-as-nails Neptunes beat and a street-certified Beenie Man hook. But he should have known that badman business is the Killer’s wheelhouse. Bounty clapped back with a grimy Mobb Deep collab off his My Xperience album and took the round.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 7: Guerilla Black feat. Beenie Man's “Compton” vs. Bounty Killer feat. The Fugees' "Hip-Hopera”

Beenie dropped his third straight hip hop crossover track, this one a guest verse for Biggie soundalike Guerilla Black over a bouncy Stalag Riddim. Bounty brought out the big guns, returning fire with a Fugees collab. As the Warlord would say, “People dead!”

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 8: Beenie Man's “Romie” vs. Bounty Killer's “Worthless Bwoy”

Returning to straight-up dancehall, Beenie served up one of his worldwide club classics, a song about a girl named “Romie” set to Shocking Vibes’s hard-driving version of the Punany Riddim. Killer replied with a Dave Kelly banger burning out the guys who lack the stamina to satisfy their significant others.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 9: Beenie Man “Old Dog” vs. Bounty Killer “Stucky”

Beenie Man has plenty of classic dancehall joints, and this Dave Kelly sure shot is one of the most ubiquitous. “Old Dog” recounts his exploits with the opposite sex, shouting out female dancehall stars Patra and Lady Saw along the way. Bounty replied in kind with his own kind of “gyal tune,” more rough than sweet, just the way Killer likes it.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 10: Beenie Man feat. Mya “Girls Them Sugar” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Nona Hendryx & Cocoa Brovaz “It’s a Party”

Beenie closed out the first half of the battle on a strong note with one of his most beautiful records, a Neptunes remake of one of his immortal dancehall classics adorned with a sweet hook sung by Mya. Bounty’s response was strong, but the Wyclef-produced party joint (with a hook by the former member of Labelle and bars from Boot Camp MCs) fell just short of Beenie’s selection.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 11: Beenie Man feat. Wyclef Jean's “Love Me Now” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Swizz Beatz' “Guilty”

Flipping catchy lyrics over Naughty By Nature's classic “O.P.P.” beat, Beenie sounded strong on this Wyclef collab, but Bounty countered with a hard-hitting Swizz Beatz track featuring a blazing guest verse from the Killer.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 12: Beenie Man feat. Barrington Levy's “Murderation” vs. Bounty Killer's “Look”

The vibes were sweet right up until the moment when officers of the Jamaican Constabulary Force interrupted the action. Beenie took care of the situation, informing the police that there were hundreds of thousands of people watching internationally. He then asked his DJ to run one of the hardest tracks in his catalog, a song about the abuse of authority in the ghetto streets. It was such a perfect segue the whole thing almost seemed planned. Killer had no choice but to counter with one of the most powerful songs in his catalogue, another Dave Kelly masterpiece, just barely winning what was arguably the strongest round of the entire battle.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 13: Beenie Man's [Showtime Juggling] vs. Bounty Killer's “Fed Up”

Still charged up by the unexpected visit from the police, Beenie felt a vibe and decided to perform his next song live. Starting out with “Hypocrite,” a blistering broadside against haters on Dave Kelly’s “Showtime” riddim, Beenie’s performance inspired Bounty to join in for what became a multi-song medley that included snippets of Killer’s “Eagle & The Hawk” and “Bullet Proof Skin” as well as Beenie Man’s “Done Have We Things,” “Badman Medley,” “Bury Yuh Dead,” and “Fire Burn.”

After they wrapped up their explosive tag-team performance, Beenie calmly stated “My song dat,” indicating that he wanted the whole extended set to count as one song. Bounty retaliated with “Fed Up,” one of his signature reality tunes that cemented his reputation as Jamaica’s “Poor People Governor.” Another close round, and highly unorthodox. Advantage Killa.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 14: Beenie Man's “World Dance” vs. Bounty Killer's “Gal” 

Beenie Man took it back with one of his biggest early hits, a “buss the dance” selection on Shocking Vibes’ Cordy Roy Riddim. Killer’s response was another hardcore tune for the girls, explosively energetic and lyrically intricate.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 15: Beenie Man's “Modeling” vs. Bounty Killer's “Model”

Taking it back to the early days of his career, Beenie served up a song designed to inspire all the “bashment girls” in the dance to show off their freshest outfits and dance moves. Killer responded in kind with a similar type of song, every bit as lyrically precise as Beenie’s was melodic, making this round a dead heat.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 16: Beenie Man's “Oyster & Conch” vs. Bounty Killer's “Benz & Bimma”

Sticking with the “gyal” segment, dancehall’s “Doctor” prescribed a musical aphrodisiac, stressing the importance of seafood in your diet. Killer responded with a dancehall smash likening his appreciation of the female physique to his fondness for expensive European automobiles.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 17: Beenie Man's “Dude” vs. Bounty Killer's “Greatest”

Beenie delivered yet another Dave Kelly sureshot, this time on the festive Fiesta Riddim. Killer responded with a little-known 2003 track on the “Hydro” radio, basically conceding this round.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 18: Beenie Man's “Mm-Hmm” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Cham's “Another Level”

As the battle neared its final rounds, Beenie played this hard-hitting Tony Kelly production and grabbed the mic to chat his lyrics live and direct, showing that dancehall artists of a certain age are still in top form lyrically. Bounty replied with a musical killshot on Dave Kelly’s Clone Riddim, joining forces with Cham to take things to “Another Level.” Feeling the spirit, Beenie grabbed the mic and spit a verse over Bounty’s record.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 19: Beenie Man “Nuff Gal” vs. Bounty Killer “Cry For Die For”

Beenie changed up the pace with a jazzy tune for the ladies featuring a swinging horn section. This 1996 Jamaican single could have been a bigger hit for Beenie if it had the right promotion, and still sounds great all these years later. Bounty Killer responded in similarly eclectic mode with a jaunty track on a Riddim based on The Champs' 1950s rock chart-topper “Tequila.”

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 20: Beenie Man's “I’m Drinkin’ (Rum and Red Bull)” vs. Bounty Killer's “Smoke the Herb”

Beenie closed out his regulation 20 rounds with one of his biggest crossover hits, a collaboration with Fambo that somebody at Red Bull should probably sign up for an endorsement deal. Bounty Killer responded with perhaps his greatest ganja anthems. This one was too close to call. Pick your poison.

WINNER: Tie

EXTRA TUNES

After running a couple of exclusive dubplate specials -- “War Uno Want” by Bounty Killer and a Buju Banton and Beenie Man collab on the M.P.L.A Riddim -- Beenie and Bounty served one final tune. ”Why Beenie saved one of his signature songs, 2004's "King of the Dancehall," for the 21st round is anybody’s guess. Bounty’s response ("Nuh Fren Fish") was something for the hardcore fans only.

Winner: Beenie

BONUS ROUNDS

Wider Catalogue: Beenie Man

While both artists did a good job displaying the breadth of their respective repertoires, blending hardcore dancehall hits with international collaborations, Beenie Man showed off his versatility with a mixture of old and new dancehall hits as well as mixing moods and tempos.

Biggest Snub: Beenie Man (Point to Bounty Killer)

Beenie Man opted not to play “Who Am I” (aka “Sim Simma,”) perhaps his best known international hit. Not to be outdone, Bounty Killer also neglected to play “Hey Baby,” his high-profile collaboration with No Doubt from their Grammy-winning 2001 album Rock Steady. Still Beenie’s oversight was the more inexplicable of the two.

Best Banter: Beenie Man

When police stopped by in the middle of the session and Beenie Man somehow kept his cool telling them “Officer, the whole world is watching… do we have to do this right now? Do you really wanna be that guy?”

Biggest KO: Bounty Killer

Not long after the police stopped by, Beenie and Bounty joined in on an eight song freestyle, venting their frustration at the police. But Bounty’s response, “Poor People Fed Up,” trumped an extended live performance, demonstrating just how much of a punch that song still packs.

People's Champ: Bounty Killer

While Beenie proved the more strategic selector, Bounty Killer’s off-the-cuff adlibs an manic energy -- especially when he noticed Rihanna in the IG audience -- kept the mood up. Even when he played unexpected selections, the Warlord’s respect levels were on 11.

FINAL SCORE: 13-10-3, Beenie Man

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This article originally appeared on Billboard.

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Jonathan Mannion

Iconic Photographer, Jonathan Mannion, Details Shooting Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers LP' 20 Years Later

This story, in its entirety, is posted on Billboard.com and is written by Carl Lamarre.

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Saturday (May 23) marks the 20th anniversary of Eminem's third album, The Marshall Mathers LP. His magnum opus not only shattered records on the Billboard 200 (debuted at No. 1 with a whopping 1.78 million copies its opening week) but highlighted his abilities as a raw and gifted storyteller. With Em looking to shed light on his real-life persona of Marshall Mathers, he hired famed photographer Jonathan Mannion to help capture his vision.

Mannion, who previously shot legendary album covers such as Jay-Z's 1996 Reasonable Doubt and DMX's 1998 Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, relished the task of teaming up with one of rap's polarizing acts because of their commonalities. Like Eminem, Mannion was a young, hungry creative from the Midwest, whose affinity for hip-hop ran deep, dating back to DJ Quik's debut single, "Born and Raised in Compton." 

Em and Mannion's tag-team expanded to over two continents. Not only did they shoot photos for MMLP in Amsterdam but also Detroit. From the pizza shop that Eminem used to work at to even his old childhood home where he sat on the steps for the album's classic cover art, nothing was off-limits.

READ MORE 20 Years of 'The Marshall Mathers LP': Ranking Every Song From Eminem's Third Album"

It was great," recalls Mannion of the shoot in from of Em's old house. "It was him in his element and delivering his journey. You know, the humble nature of him and his process of getting to be this megastar, which is rooted so clearly in talent. His talent and his relentless drive was it.

"Mannion spoke to Billboard about the 20th anniversary of The Marshall Mathers LP, where the album cover ranks in his collection and Em's dedication to delivering the best shots. 

What does the number 20 mean for you having been involved in the Marshall Mathers LP?

It's really hard to put into words how important this album is for the world, for Eminem (and) for me. There's an endless amount of stories. We shot in Amsterdam and Detroit. Originally, this album was meant to be called Amsterdam. I was like, "We have to go to Amsterdam. We have to all get on a plane and go there. That's the only way we're doing this album." He happened to be performing out there and said, "This is going to sync up perfectly.

"We did a phenomenal session out there -- really poured out hearts into it. Then, I think there was a realization that he wanted to present this trifecta of who he was: Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers and Eminem. This is how genius this guy is. He's thinking farther down the road to be able to craft these versions of himself. Slim Shady was the gimmick to get everyone's attention, which was still rooted in something phenomenal.

Then, he was like, "Let me tell you about my journey. Let me allow myself to be vulnerable within the space and deliver 'me' and how I really got here [with] my struggles, my pain," and I think that's when everybody really connected with him on a different level. It wasn't just this pop phenomenon that he was rooted in reverence for the culture. He obviously felt like he had to prove himself probably more than the next MC just because he was from Detroit and a white boy. He had something to prove and he was clinical on the album, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece.

READ MORE20 Years of 'Stan': How Eminem’s Epic 2000 Hit Relates to the Fan Culture It Inspired

When it was time to dig into who Marshall Mathers was, we had to do another session in Detroit. So we flew to Detroit to kind of continue [the shoot]. It kind of became this nice balance of Amsterdam and all of these lax drugs laws and all of these experimental moments that he was pursuing at that time to kind of ground himself. We shot outside the pizza shop that he used to work at with people that he still knew from there.

I remember you said in a past interview that you shot him in his boxers and trench coat in the freezing cold towards the end of the shoot.

It's dedication. I was with him entirely, pushing and wanting more, but he one-upped me in this session. We did that and I was like, "OK. He's going to be tired." He's in boxer shorts, combat boots and a trench coat being the fullness of the character that he was presenting as this Amsterdam version of Em. He pushed it and I was like, "Man, this is incredible. What we achieved out here was beyond comprehension. I can't wait for when we get back to see the session and go through it."He was like, "Man, I was thinking I want to do one more shot. Can we go back to the hotel? I want to be in my hotel room writing to my daughter." Usually, I'm the one begging rappers to go a little bit farther because I want to give them the world, but it flipped on me. It wasn't begrudgingly that I went there to that place. I was like, "I'm with this. Thank you." It made another really phenomenal image that we got to share with the world because of that effort.

Continue reading the original article by Carl Lamarre at Billboard here.

 

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THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP. Congratulations to @eminem on an absolutely brilliant project that celebrates 20 YEARS today. There were 2 sessions that yielded the campaign around this album, one in Detroit and the other in Amsterdam. It is one of my top 3 covers of all time. Art direction & Photography, @jonathanmannion. Designed with the masterful @morningbreathinc’s own Jason Noto.

A post shared by Jonathan Mannion (@jonathanmannion) on May 23, 2020 at 11:20am PDT

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To get a feel of Mannion's deep love of hip-hop, check out his Spotify playlist of the many legendary artists and their music from the album covers he's shot. "I did a playlist on Spotify based on a random sampling of 65 of my favorite album covers. Pulled 90 tunes that were bonafide bangers and complied a little vibe," Mannion details. Enjoy the vibes!

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