Amaal
Sean Brown

Meet Amaal, The Socially Conscious Songstress Ready To Express Her Own Truths

Somali-Canadian singer Amaal is like no other. At close to a year old, she and her family—she is the middle sibling of seven sisters and two brothers—immigrated to Canada to flee the devastating war in Somalia. That experience, in addition to her strict upbringing, all played a defining role in the artistry she hangs her hat on today. Amaal has never shown herself to be the kind of artist whose lyrics are filled with fluff, sunflowers and daisies. Instead, each line in her music represents pivotal, significant moments in her life, whether they pertain to heartbreaking experiences with love, enlightening trips back to Somalia, or learning to embrace her true self. The Toronto native’s work has always possessed a sense of honesty, but it’s on her newly released EP Black Dove that her vulnerability becomes abundantly clear.

Raised by traditional Muslim parents, Amaal admits that she’s always had a certain type of image to portray and standards to live by. However, despite the parental pressures that she grew up with, Amaal was content—for the time being. She didn’t reveal the fullest extent of her personality to her parents for the longest time, but they did know pieces of her and Amaal was at peace with that. That is, until it started to affect her music making process.

“I felt very dishonest, to be honest,” the 29-year-old says about creating music that primarily fulfilled the impression her parents had of her. “I didn’t feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music.”

Once the former University of Toronto student was candid with herself, she became candid in her music about various aspects of her life, and that is how Black Dove was born. Amaal went from singing on afropop beats to leaning on R&B sounds much more heavily in her material. However, despite shedding the original soundscape that introduced her to the music world, Amaal plans to always have that element that traces back to her Somali roots.

“I absolutely love [afropop] and I still always want to incorporate that,” she says. “Everything I did before I would still want to incorporate.”

Prior to the release of Black Dove, Amaal would pen songs about her travels to Somalia, the period of time she lived there as a teenager, and while that theme may not be as overt in her new EP, it’s still an important piece of her heart and life. To this day, when she’s not busy in the booth preparing new tunes, she’s in Somalia aiding the community in more ways than one. And old, new and future fans of Amaal have October’s Very Own’s (OVO) Noah Shebib to thank for the arrival of the songstress on the music scene.

Full of tranquil energy, Amaal opened up about the various meanings Black Dove holds to her, navigating the music industry as a Somali-Canadian woman and staying true to herself no matter the cause.

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VIBE: You’ve described Black Dove as being an EP that represents the "you" that you’d previously kept hidden. Can you explain exactly what "you" was hidden?
Amaal: Yeah, that's a good question. I was raised in a very sort of strict, conservative upbringing household. There's just a lot of things that I felt like wasn't ever a possibility that I can do. I didn't imagine certain things to be possible for me. When I started doing music I really didn't express a lot of the things I was going through in my relationships, 'cause to even be in a relationship is not really looked at in a good way. I started doing music that always had this message of hope and resilience within the community of people I was raised with: immigrants, refugees. When I did that music, I felt like my mom, my parents were very proud of me. Although it was my story and what I wanted to do, I felt comfortable being in that space and that's what I kept doing. That's what I kept going at. Just one time I thought, There's so much in my life that I've been through, that I've kept hidden, almost living a double life. I felt very dishonest, to be honest, and I didn't feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music. I was disappointed and I thought, This has to change.

I just started talking about things that I had gone through in relationships, staying in a relationship longer when I should've left and the whole concept of struggle love. Just the black community, my community... I feel like we, as women, sometimes we feel like we have to endure pain in order to show that we love someone. From the outside looking in, people didn't assume that about me, but that is kind of what I was. I grew so much from that and I wanted to share that in my music. Black Dove to me represents freedom. I love birds, I love doves, I think they're so empowering and free and I'm a black woman, so it was like black dove.

It’s interesting that you felt like you were living a double life, even though it was in a space that you were comfortable. The way you are with your family, even though it is you, it's not the full extent of who you are.
Yes, absolutely. In your music it's very hard but if I was doing a 9-5 job, I could, 'cause I was mastering it, I would be able to still continue doing that. But now, I have to have those conversations. I'm actually really learning I didn't give [my parents] enough credit. They're actually really awesome people and I'm disappointed in myself that I could've opened up in more areas. But there's still some stuff that needs to be talked about.

 

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My loves, I’m so excited to share that my EP BLACK DOVE will officially be out July 12 🕊🙏🏾Black dove means to me freedom. Freedom of my own captivity. Freedom of the shackles society placed on me! It means no longer committing a disservice to myself and owning every part of me. It’s having the courage to show up and recognizing true strength is in being vulnerable. It’s Breaking down to rebuild and running to the other side of my fears. I feel so honoured to share these moments with you all! It’s only just the beginning! @applemusic presaves will be available next week ❤️ 📷 @byseanbrown Special thanks to @sidneigum for allowing me to wear this heavenly dress!! You’re beyond talented and im so thankful!

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Was it difficult for you to be so honest with this EP, having gone through the experiences that have led you to be completely honest with who you are?
Yeah, it was. I love how you worded that earlier. Although I was living a double life, I was comfortable in that area. It was working but I definitely had to face those things that I was pushing away. I just realized the definition of the strength that I thought I was and people perceived me to be was a front. There was a lot of ego-dropping and really being raw and vulnerable with myself. That's why for a lot of the tracks, I like the instruments to be very ambient and not that much going on. I like to build off of one or two instruments because I want to let my subconscious do the talking so that my ego's gone and I can be present. But I think that's the journey of getting there. It didn't happen overnight. There's some stories there that I never thought I would share but now I'm excited to talk about them.

Would you say that your need, or the feeling that you felt to hide yourself, came from just that specific place? From family?
Mostly family, religion. Religion is number one. That played a huge role. Something I really struggled with, even talking about it in interviews, I'll be honest with you, because I do have a very deep connection with Somalia. I do a lot of activism work. I went to school for that and I want to continue doing that line of work. Unfortunately, there still is some sense of safety that I have to think about so I have to censor some things. But religion was hugely a part of it.

When you were in school, were you still doing music?
I always did music. But even when I released my first body of music, the intent wasn't to be a frontrunner, to be a musician. It was out of pure expression. It was actually really innocent. Me and my cousin would write together, we'd be like "oh wow we have so many songs let's go to a studio and record." That was it, it was really to show my family and friends the clips and then it did really well. It pushed me into that setting. I actually had to take some time away from school, to go and focus on it and then I ended up getting signed to Noah Shebib. He's Drake's right hand. That was an amazing experience as well, but music was always the core.

You moved to Canada from Somalia at a young age. Do you feel as if the move didn’t have as much of an effect on you being so young?
I absolutely remember nothing of it. But the experience had an effect on me because of everyone. We ended up moving to an area in Toronto where it was mostly Somali people who were running from the world. We all came with our PTSD and mental health issues. So, you did sense that things were not okay. Because I mean the first few years, the war went on for a long time. It’s debilitated the country. Almost my entire life I've known instability to be there. Thankfully it's getting better, but it's deeply within us. Even though we were away from the problem, we weren't. 'Cause my mom was getting a phone call of her dad passing away, getting killed, her brother essentially losing his mind because he saw so much. Bad news coming constantly to us, so it did still feel like it was present and it did affect us for sure. In ways maybe I don't know, in ways that I think it inspired me more to work harder in this life because I owe it to them and their sacrifice.

Do you feel very connected to your Somali heritage?
Yeah, big time. We were very lucky because my dad made a big point that when were coming into the house, he'd say "Leave your English at the door" and "When you step in the house you speak Somali." People are very surprised to hear me speak. They're like "I would not have expected that." It's not amazing, it is good, but when I went to Somalia, I went woah, nevermind. I thought I was with it... yeah no. It's a poetic language. It's not like direct speaking, it's a lot of poetry. And you're like "oh my God, I don't know." I do the direct talking, my way of speaking is very different but it's very fascinating there.

When's the last time you went to Somalia? I saw on your Instagram page that you’ve been there a few times.
Yeah, I was there a lot. I believe 2017, I was there three to four times, and then I was there in 2006, I believe. I was there for a year [in 2006]. It was pretty interesting. But the last few times I went to do famine relief work. There was a really bad drought that happened and a humanitarian crisis. There were like six million people that were going to go without food. A guy named Jerome [Jarre] started this initiative—two million dollars were raised and then we went there, took multiple trips, giving food, water, whatever the necessities were that they needed. So I took, three or four trips back and forth. It was phenomenal. It was the most sad, beautiful, everything experience ever. I saw a lot there that I wasn't prepared for.

Do you feel like there are other life experiences that have shaped you into the woman and artist you are today?
Absolutely. That trip to Somalia—the one that I was there for a year—I say that trip. Even today what I'm doing, that's how much it domino affected my life. Because when I went there, I went a little bit spoiled, naive, ungrateful a little. I'm going to be honest. I was like "school's school, whatever," I just didn't care. And I went there and I saw how appreciative, how humble, how thirsty people were for knowledge, their education is huge. And how little they have but how content they are with what they have. I just remember thinking: "You've got to check yourself, you're kind of wack. You have all these opportunities." And these people are so inspiring and so everything. I learned there that although their world collapsed during the war, women were the backbone of that nation, they're the ones that kept it going. I admire them so much more, I really connected with my roots. I always say the girl who went there is gone. Left. I came back a completely different person. I couldn't connect with my friends, I immediately enrolled in school. I got my sh*t together. I did, I had to. Ever since then it's been my compass that's kind of guided me. It's so crucial to me.

Being described as socially conscious, not only in your music but outside of your music, why do you think being aware of our world and the issues that go on around us is so important?
I forget this quote somebody said it but, I believe our ticket to this Earth is to be paid in service. That's just the way that I feel because Earth is our home and it provides so much for us and it's our job to also provide for it as well. That means all of its living mammals, whatever it is. I think coming from a country that's experienced so much turmoil, a continent that's gone through hell and back, and has been exploited—and don't even get me into that—I don't even know where it comes from but I know I was born with it. Does that make sense? It's instilled in me, so to put it into words, it's hard for me. But I just know it's necessary for not just you but for our future generation and their kids, you gotta clean your home right?

So is the growth you experienced from that trip and in general over the years, and who you've shaped yourself to be and who you're still shaping yourself to be, is that the message you want your fans to get from Black Dove? Are there any other messages you hope your fans pick up from your EP?
I definitely hope that they can understand the journey that I've been on because of the style of music that I was doing for so long. But I think they will because I believe a lot of women from upbringings that I've had, there is that internal struggle that we all deal with where we want to please our parents but we also need to please ourselves. This project for me is... I'm pleasing myself. I feel there's this awakening happening, that women are starting to... essentially there's always been that message, but right now it's more powerful and we're really owning our voices. Feeling empowered in our sexuality and just who we are in our identity. If anything they could take is owning yourself and being okay with you are. You're enough. I'm writing that in my little cards to everyone, "You are enough."

The music you’re making now is a lot more R&B, and has a bit of a “vibey” energy to it, but not in the stereotypical sense. Being an artist, who would you say you idolized growing up?
I'll be honest, I never idolized any artist. I think that word, I've always had a hard time with. But if there's someone I absolutely loved and adored, it was Aaliyah, because she had an Arabic name, too. I connected with her and she was of my generation. I didn't have the opportunity to hear a lot of music in my household. I didn't start singing until I was in high school, I didn't even know I really had it, anything. I started to listen to music in high school and I'd go back and be like, "Oh my god, who's this?" Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and all these greats. Nina Simone I loved because she lived in an era of oppression and the history of America was happening. She used her music to talk about that. She found a way to do it that I think a lot of people still aren't able to. I would say people from that time. Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Toni Braxton, too. Love her voice. Of course Beyoncé, she's the obvious, the guidebook, right? Aaliyah was my number one top.

How'd you discover that you could sing?
I was singing Mario's "Let Me Love You," and a friend was like: "Oh, you sound good." I'm like "Really? Cool." And then I'd be singing on the bus and then somebody else said something, I was like "Okay, interesting." So I just started singing more. My sisters would say you sound pretty and I would mimic other artists. Not mimic them in that way, but practice tone and agility and the little runs.

With artists today, do you have anyone that you'd like to collaborate with?
Yeah. There's two artists that I love. Two female artists, I'm obsessed with them. It's Ari Lennox and NAO. I would love to. I think they're brilliant.

Ari Lennox definitely matches your sound.
Ah, I love her. She commented on my picture the other day, I damn near lost it. She's just so special. When I see her interviews she's just so real, very nice, and like awkward but in the most beautiful way. I love her. I'd love to work with those two. And then for producers, Pharrell would be a dream come true. There's a guy named Stint, he lives in L.A. I've worked with Noah [Shebib] before but to actually get back in and release a song together that would be dope. 'Cause we have stuff from the past. Yeah, I think that'd be a nice little full circle moment.

 

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Getting deeper into your music, what was the process for creating this EP? How long did it take for you to complete it as well?
The process for me was deprogramming myself, if that makes sense. Whatever cultural binds that were holding me back in my life, I had to first approach that before I even went into doing music. It was a lot of that type of work. And then when I went into the studio I really wanted space in my tracks, so I can express myself and let the subconscious tell the story and bring forth things that I've gone through in my life that I never would've shared. I felt like that's what I needed to do in that moment.

It was a little bit hard because one of the stories was about visiting someone that I loved that went away to jail for eight months. I visited him every single weekend and during that time, I'm telling you right now, very little people knew. Just my sisters because they know everything about me, a few girlfriends and that's it. I never thought I'd ever share this story, but going through it, it started off as a bit shameful, head down, getting on the bus, you just really don't want to say where you're going. And then by the end of it—because we would take this bus that was filled with women, who were going to see their loved ones as well—I remember falling in love with them. It was like a sisterhood that we formed, a support system. They had my back, I had theirs. In the end to feel shame would mean to be ashamed for them as well and I loved them. I just remember that whole feeling melting away and seeing them and myself in a light of admiration. I was very proud of myself. There was no shame. That's what the EP was for me. Telling those stories, telling those moments, I otherwise would've bottled up and it took a year and a half, I would say. I did start doing the EP and then I erased almost everything and I started all over again when I found this place that I was at. I was like, "No, I gotta be honest and open."

If you weren't as vocal before, do you feel like you had to be more vocal in the music industry? More assertive? How do you navigate it?
Aw, man. A lot of my failures was because I wasn't assertive. A lot of my setbacks was because I never spoke up for myself and that is a lot culture as well. I was taught to allow the other person to decide. It definitely held me back in a lot of opportunities, and taking me to where I needed to go. It's interesting because you want to be able to do that without being called a bi**h, which is really sad, or a diva, which I find really heartbreaking. It's really sad. I'm now finding my voice and I'm for the first time seeing the reaction. Before I just allowed it, so that's been a really interesting landscape to navigate because I'm like,"oh I was honest with you and you're offended, why are you offended? There's no reason to be, so, now I have to soothe you again." I'm still learning and finding the best way to do it but it's really hard being a woman in this industry because it is male-dominated. But, I'll take being a bi**h now, 'cause at least I won't look back and be like, "I should've said something," 'cause that's how I felt previously in my past things, relationships that I was in.

Listening to Black Dove it’s very vibey and seductive. How did you make sure your sound was distinct and unique to you?
For me, I feel I paid a lot of homage to my Somali background and we sing in a bit of a pentatonic scale. It's the Middle Eastern sound, it's just some of the runs. And I did it, in not what I thought, it was like a run that you wouldn't hear in the Western R&B style of music. I tried incorporating stuff like that. Picking drums that had a bit of an African feel, drum pattern to it. If the music was sounding not as unique, I would try to make sure at least the topic in which I'm singing about does. But honestly my go-to usually is very minimal. I gravitate towards that and I think that's been my unique thing because most production that I hear there's a lot happening. I know when I hear a lot happening, when they do that with some of my songs, I get a headache. Honestly, it's weird, I feel clustered. I feel like my message is being lost a little bit. Even in my graphics, some of the designs, I'm very minimalistic, very simple. I try to incorporate that into my music, I hope that's been able to set me apart.

On your song "Later" you sing, "if I hold us down you'll change your behavior." And from what could be understood from the song, it seems like a relationship that you give your all in, but the same isn't reciprocated and if it is, it's later. A lot of people can definitely relate to that feeling. Is this song from personal experience?
Oh this one's all personal, 100 percent. It's the story I was just sharing with you. I actually wrote this song on my bus ride to go see him. It's such a long story, but to sum it up, we were already in a bit of a weird place during all that time. I think that would put stress on any person or any relationship. But, going there to see him, I remember thinking "I want to be there for him, I want to be loyal, down to that ride or die." And it can be damaging sometimes but in my case I really felt it was worth it. But yeah those are my questions, "I'll hold us down, I'll do all this stuff for you but will it be worth it and will you see my efforts." It was definitely being inspired by those women because we all shared a similar story. That's the story that it came from, that's so cool that you picked it up the lyrics.

Moving forward in your music, what is one constant that you want your fans to take from you as an artist?
Some fans will take different things. Muslim-Somali women I think I want them to take that I'm a risk taker, I am resilient, I'm in a place where the judgment of others is no longer of importance to me and I really hope that that's something that is taken. Overall as a black woman, I hope that people can take the place that I'm in and feel comfortable with where they're at in life and feel empowered and powerful and comfortable in their skin and that they're very important and valid and that they're voice is to be heard. I think just that sense of independence, I really hope overall is what people take from this music.

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Teddy Riley Breaks Down The Songs That Made Him The King Of ‘New Jack Swing’ And Plans To Battle Babyface Hit For Hit

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make It Last Forever—Keith Sweat (1987)

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

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

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

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

Guy—GUY (1988)

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

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

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

"My Prerogative"—Bobby Brown (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

The Future—Guy (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous—Michael Jackson (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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@developingoptions toy drive recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Switching gears to new and developing projects...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Any plans for honoring Nipsey in the future?

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

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

 

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Alex 'Grizz' Loucas

Blacc Zacc Looks To Put South Carolina On The Map With 'Carolina Narco'

Many rap artists claim to be closely associated with the plug, but Blacc Zacc's hometown reputation makes those ties wholly believable. Hailing from South Carolina, the former street entrepreneur has spent the last few years on a mission to transcend the trap while legitimizing himself within the music industry and becoming one of the most buzz-worthy artists to ever emerge from his state. Building his audience with projects like High Class Trapper (2017), New Blacc City (2018), and Blacc Frost (2018), Zacc elevated his stock to unprecedented levels with his 2019 mixtape, Trappin Like Zacc, which saw the South Coast Music signee coming into his own. The project, which boasted the Key Glock-assisted heater "Hahaha," was strong enough to help garner the support of Interscope Records, with whom he inked a record deal with last year, a move he hopes will further increase his profile.

“It wasn't more so about the money," Zacc says of his decision to make the transition from an independent artist to one signed to a major label. "Of course everybody's dream is to get a deal when you're a rapper and you really wanna be for real with it, but it wasn't more so about the money with me, it was more so about having the connects. I feel like with me being independent and having to move on my own, I don't really have industry connects like Randy [Interscope publicist] to be able to have me in this office with you right now, it's only so much you can do to get where you wanna be when you're independent. Like you can't buy everything, [but] certain stuff you gotta have connections to."

With a machine like Interscope behind him, Blacc Zacc finds himself asserting his boss status with his 2020 debut. Carolina Narco is inspired by incarcerated drug kingpin El Chapo, who garnered headlines worldwide with his epic escape from prison in 2015. Accompanied by a short film that finds Blacc Zacc tapping into his skills as a thespian, Carolina Narco is the newcomer's biggest release to date and builds on the momentum of his previous offerings. Boasting guest appearances from DaBaby, Moneybagg Yo, Yo Gotti, and Stunna 4 Vegas, Carolina Narco captures Zacc displaying the breadth of his artistry across the project's eleven tracks, resulting in an LP that positions him as not only one of the more promising prospects out of the south, but a trailblazer within his home state. 

VIBE sat down with Zacc to get the scoop on the making of Carolina Narco, expanding his business portfolio, his plans to put South Carolina on the national radar and much more.

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VIBE: 2019 was a breakout year for your career, as you expanded your fan base while reaching multiple milestones. What's a moment from that year that made you realize that your hard work was paying off?

Blacc Zacc: When I started going to shows outside of my city and I started realizing people knowing who I am and recognizing the song and stuff like that. And of course, when I got my deal with Interscope, that's when I knew it was real. Like I really got a chance and an opportunity at this.

Musically, you've garnered comparisons to Gucci Mane, who you've also listed among your biggest influences. What are some things you picked up from watching and listening to Gucci and how has that benefited you as an artist?

Gucci Mane was just like one of my favorite personal rappers just from what he stands for. His delivery, the type of songs he made and I feel like he'll always be a trap legend. So it ain't necessarily that I'm trying to be like him, but I'm so influenced by him that it probably rubs off, like people will probably just get that vibe from me.

For those who may be unfamiliar with your backstory, how would you describe the man you are behind the music and your outlook on life?  

My outlook on life, I'm a thinker. I know in my music it may seem like, “Oh, he's one of those dudes that just talk about the trap or the hood,” or the bad that comes with the trap, but I got sense, too. I'm a deep thinker, I think a lot and I got kids so I gotta think for them and me. I'm the first from my family to really be on this type of level I'm on so I got a lot on my plate, but I don't really complain about it because this is what I signed up for.

You recently released your latest project, Carolina Narco, your most high-profile project to date. How did it feel to take this next leap in your career and what's the reception from the fans been like?

It's been a good one. This project might be one of my biggest I ever have done because I been getting so much feedback from it. Like from Twitter to everybody just calling and just having all positive stuff to say, and the feedback I was getting from everybody just really rocking with it. But this is what I set this out to. Because when I was planning it and I knew this was gonna be my first project from being with Interscope and having my situation, what I got going on, I wanted this to be one of my biggest projects to show people I really can rap. I'm an artist for real. 'Cause like I tell people all the time, a lot of people was respecting me from other stuff, so it never was from music. They wasn't respecting me for music, but now I'm transitioning over and making them respect me for being a rapper and an artist.

Speaking of that transition, was there a moment that really spurred you to use your musical talent?

Like I said, just being a thinker. You got to know, like, if you really in the streets and you're really doing your thing, you got to know that don't last forever. So you got to have your turning point, whether it's rapping or whether you're gonna hustle to start a legitimate business, but you gotta have some kinda way out of it. And I know I wasn't gonna get no job with nobody and I was getting good feedback from rapping. And then, I always knew I could rap, but I learned the hard part about rapping is not making a song, it's getting it out there and marketing. Once I realized that's what really matters, that's when it became like a real job to me, when it came to that, but I always knew you can't do that other stuff forever. So I knew it was gonna have to be a turning point someday, anyway.

How do you feel about rappers speaking about the trap life, but not living it?

I feel like... like if it's working for them, but it's gonna catch up 'cause when you come around somebody that really comes from that and they may ask you something and you don't know about it, or it might even be an interviewer, but some way it's gonna come out. Whether you're acting like a drug dealer, whether you're acting like a gangster or a shooter or whatever, and you walk outside on these New York streets or anywhere and somebody come snatch your chain or do something to you and you don't do nothing about it, it's gonna come out so it's not gonna last long. Either way, it don't matter how good it's lasting right now, it's not gonna last long because the universe is gonna make you stand on everything you're trying to be.

Last year, you released the song "Carolina Narco," which inspired you to build on that theme throughout an entire project. Tell me how that song came together and why you decided to run with that concept?

That song came together when I got in the studio with Youngkio, me and him locked in. I wouldn't even expect Kio to make that kind of beat because he made the "Old Town Road" beat, which is a banger, of course, but I didn't expect him to be on no trap shit like that and his vibe and he's such a cool person outside of the music. But once he came in there with that beat, it had like a Narcos feel and I just started freestyling and that's when I made that song and I was like, 'You know what, I like the song so much, my next album is gonna be like a Narcos feel.' I wanna do a movie with it; I want the front cover to look like when El Chapo got arrested; I wanted the actual song, "Carolina Narco," to be like how when he was getting out the plane and he escaped. Everybody knows El Chapo escaped, so I wanted it to be like him escaping and stuff like that. I just wanted everything to be on some Narco sh*t but in a Carolina way.

Other than El Chapo, who are some other gangsters or hustlers who you got inspiration from or just have a level of respect for?

Of course, like all of the popular people that everybody may know of, like Pablo [Escobar], El Chapo, Griselda Blanco, those types of people, but I mostly was influenced by a lot of people that I seen with my own eyes coming up in my neighborhood. Like Hot Boy, this guy named Boss G, those type of people was getting a lot of money on my side of town that I seen and I was kind of in tune with them, too, but I most definitely know all of the popular people. Pablo, Frank Matthews, Frank Lucas, all of those people. I knew all of them, but I was influenced by a lot of people that were from my neck of the woods, too.

Another song from the album that's been gaining traction is "Make A Sale," featuring Moneybagg Yo. What led you to reach out to him to hop on that song and what was it like recording the music video with him?

For that particular song, how it came about, we was on the Baby On Baby Tour or the Kirk Tour, one of 'em and he was backstage. And we was introduced and I was like, “I wanna do a song with you,” and he was like, “Send it to me.” So I sent him the song, I'm thinking like, 'He gonna take forever to get it done,' you know how these rappers be sometimes, but he sent it right back to me. And as far as the music video, we was both in Miami and I was like, 'Shit, let's shoot the video,' and he was with it. Moneybagg Yo, he been solid, anything I done ever asked of him to do, he's done it.

Over the years, you've collaborated with a number of artists from Memphis, Tennessee, including Yo Gotti, who appears on the Carolina Narco cut "Fucc Up A Check.” Is that a coincidence, and if not, what's the backstory behind your connection to the city?

I ain't never been to Memphis, crazy part about it, but I most definitely done worked with a lot of artists from Memphis, but they just be like my personal favorite artists at the time that I really can rock with and vibe with. When I got a feature from Dolph, I paid for that 'cause I was really rocking with that. I was rocking with that, and with Gotti and stuff like that, that just came later on down the line from just working. They just shot me the feature, that was on the love, that was on the house. Sh*t, it's just a coincidence, I guess, that I work with people [from Memphis]. I even worked with Key Glock from down there.

What are three songs from Carolina Narco that you're excited for the fans to hear and why?

"Cocky" stands out because I like the instruments in it. It got that Narco feel like I wanted and, of course, I put my brother on it because of some other stuff. Stunna, I put him on it 'cause of course, I know he's dope, but that cocky means something else different for him so I was like, “I'ma put him on that one.” And "Bang" came across like...  with DaBaby, I put a snippet up and he wanted to jump on it. I didn't even hear Baby on that song, to be honest, but I wasn't gonna tell him no. But he snapped on that and then it got that aggressive feel on that. And the "Murder For Hire," I feel I started the album off right with that one. I like how the sample in the background gives you that feel like, “This sh*t bout to be hard.”

North Carolina has produced stars like J.Cole, DaBaby, Little Brother, Rapsody, Petey Pablo and many others, but artists from South Carolina haven't been able to attain that same level of success. What would you attribute that to?

It's probably the opportunities, cause South Carolina is not as lit as North Carolina. North Carolina got the Panthers, they got baseball teams, they got all kinds of little stuff up there. Like their city's way more lit than South Carolina but you can't use that as no excuse, it's just that nobody from South Carolina hasn't made it yet because I guess they ain't working how they're supposed to be working. But that's why I'm here to open that door and break that curse.

Being one of the more popular artists to come out of South Carolina in recent years, how does it feel to have the opportunity to put your state on the map?

It feels real good because if you're that person that do that, you're forever a legend you're gonna forever be known for being that one that did that. And just being able to show people from South Carolina that it's possible to do 'cause at this point you ain't gotta act like you're from nowhere else but South Carolina. You can go somewhere and be like, 'I'm from South Carolina, I'm a rapper,' or North Carolina or Carolina, period. Back then, you couldn't really do it.

You launched your own record label, D.M.E., a few years ago, and have been vocal about your focus on being an entrepreneur. Where did that business sense stem from and are there any CEOs in particular that you've modeled your approach after?

To be all the way honest with you, I didn't even know what a CEO was when I was calling myself that, I just knew it was a high position [laughs]. But once I got knowledge of what was going on, people like JAY-Z, Diddy, and even Rick Ross, those type of people motivated me because I got more of a CEO lifestyle than a rapper, people. I had to mold myself into wanting to talk and stuff like that, you can't be anti-social, people will take it the wrong way and take it like you're being cocky. So you really got to be a certain way when you're a rapper versus being a CEO, you ain't gotta be in everybody face all the time, you can kinda play the background.

You signed with a deal with South Coast Music, home to Da Baby and Stunna 4 Vegas. What's the backstory behind that partnership?

I think I signed with South Coast in the end of 2018. I been knew them, like (Daud “King”) Carter and all of them, but just being part of that, it's good 'cause being in the same loop as the winning squad. It's a lot of people that probably just hate that, just not being in the mix of all that's going on, but that just came from everybody working

In what areas would you say you've grown as an artist over the years?

I got more confident on the track. I got more confident performing, I got more confident talking in interviews. It's just a growth, it was a learning experience. I learned the business more. The main thing I learned about it is my audience, I learning who I'm catering my music to. you gotta learn who you're rapping to. You gotta really realize what's your message and who you're trying to deliver your message to.

In 2017, you teamed up with Hoodrich Pablo Juan to release the collaborative mixtape, Dirty Money, Power, Respect. How did that project come about?

Really, I always knew Hoodrich Pablo, but I wasn't really no big fan of his music, my brother felt like it was a good move. So we was in L.A. and my brother brought him to the studio and we knocked out three or four songs. And they wanted to drop it like a little slick collab, so we just put it out there like that.

If you could paint a picture of what your life and career will look like in five years, what would the portrait look like?

One of the biggest in the game and South Carolina being known as a music capital. I want a lot more artists to come behind me, at least five to ten artists to come behind me within these five years and be like megastars including myself.

You've mentioned making a short film to accompany the album, what inspired you to do that and how did it feel to tap into your talents as an actor?

It was really good to see how I can really transform from rapping to acting. I feel like I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it, though, not on no cocky sh*t, but I feel like I can do anything. But it was some real good experience just from testing myself and putting myself in that lane where you have to get in character mode and be serious on the camera all the time and really get into that mode, but then I wanted to do something different. There's nobody I can think of or nobody that's done it in a while where they dropping a short-films with their project. Because a lot of people listen to music, but it's a lot of people that will go look at a movie, too.

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