The Deeply Rooted, Self-Deprecating Genius Of Scarface
Scarface doesn’t think he’s a big deal. Scarface.
It’s after five o’clock in the evening in Manhattan’s Midtown–that part of the day when everyone is either rushing to finish up those agonizing last bits of work to sprint and catch their homeward bound trains, or wallowing in regret that it’ll be a longer day than they anticipated. For me, that “end of day” feeling served as the precursor to the best hour I’d spend that Wednesday. Trying desperately to scour up every vivid memory I’d had of the last time I spoke with Brad “Scarface” Jordan, I raced up and down between the floors of my office building to ensure I didn’t miss his entrance. But when the rapper descended into our quarters, it was a bit anti-climactic. No entourage. No trumpets. Just a rap legend donning a patterned button-up shirt, slim-fit jeans, black dress shoes and prescription glasses. More formally dressed than our first meeting–where he rocked a t-shirt, fitted cap and sneakers–Scarface was also noticeably thinner. Neither warm nor cold, his greeting was in an unoffending monotone, a contrast to the forced, dramatic hellos of a guest who craves the full attention of the room.
Taking a seat at the head of our conference table for a chat with VIBE’s predominantly-female staff, the conversation quickly turned to the biggest hip-hop moment of the year: the release of director F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton. To an inquiry about whether or not he would consider having his life depicted on the silver screen, Scarface scoffed in disbelief.
“I don’t feel like I’m important enough to do a damn biopic, like who would want to see that? Brad Jordan? F**k him,” he said mockingly, rounding up a nearly-synchronized chorus of gasps.
Important enough? Just four months earlier, I was standing in the lobby of the Omni Berkshire Place hotel, thanking my lucky stars that Scarface was late for our sit-down. Pacing up and down, I had the worst case of pre-interview jitters. I desperately camped out in my editor-in-chief’s office an hour earlier with a copy of the rapper’s Diary of A Madman memoir to prepare as thoughtful of an arsenal of questions as I could. I didn’t think I was a good candidate for this particular interview; Scarface’s career began before I spoke my first word. I wasn’t as well-versed on his storied contributions to the game as the folks who could do a far better job at this assignment. I even tried passing it off to another writer–fail. He was on his way, and I scurried to get my shit together. Minutes later on that gloomy New York City afternoon, there he was, 20 minutes behind schedule and agitated.
I don’t feel like I’m important enough to do a damn biopic, like who would want to see that? Brad Jordan? F**k him.
This was the first time I would get a sense of the self-deprecating, tortured genius that is Scarface. He sat beside a lamp with his white adidas kicks reclined in the dramatically dim hotel room; the sun had no light to offer the tight space, as a blanket of rain clouds impeded its ability to peek into the window. I had come face-to-face with ‘Face, and he proceeded to shatter the ice with a simple assertion before we began our talk: “Let me tell you something, I ain’t s**t.” Offering me M&M’s from a freshly-opened bag, he admitted he was happy I declined because he was “starving like a runaway slave.” Clearly after this exchange, the nerves retreated.
I asked how the Madman book was conceived, and there Scarface was again, selling himself short. “It wasn’t a decision that was really left up to me. I was approached by somebody who said my life was interesting enough to write about,” he replied, as though he wasn’t in agreeance with former VIBE editor Benjamin Meadow-Ingram’s wild idea. A two hundred and twenty-three page read aside, he was already more than worthy; he is a member of the Geto Boys, a sharp Houston, Texas storyteller who ushered hip-hop from the country’s Southern region into the mainstream, a self-produced rapper who has shared tracks with the likes of Ice Cube, Tupac, Nas and Jay Z. He headed up Def Jam South and helped launch Ludacris’ rap career. Of his eleven solo projects, he boasts three platinum albums and three gold albums, and remains the best-selling hip-hop artist out of Texas. Further than that, ‘Face is the subject of a layered personal journey that included traumatic experiences from selling drugs, to witnessing the death of his friend, to suicide attempts. Relaying the morbid realities of his autobiographical lyrics in layman’s terms, the gruesome details of ‘Face’s darkest hours were finally laid bare within its pages:
“I don’t remember too much about that particular day, but I know I was ready for it to be done. I was ready to get up out this bitch. So I went in my mother’s medicine cabinet and took all of her blood-pressure medication. I woke up on the bathroom floor with the ambulance parked outside and the paramedics trying to get me up and out the door. They took me to the hospital and gave me this stuff, ipecac, to clean out my stomach. I spent the whole next day puking my guts out. It was disgusting. I thought that s**t was going to kill me! I was like, ‘Damn, you brought me all the way here to do me in like this?’ You could have just left me on the floor and saved everyone a hell of a lot of trouble.”
Circling back to memories like these obviously proved painful for Scarface, who worked with Meadows-Ingram on telling his now published-for-the-world-to-read life story. He described the experience as a knife in his back, heart and mind, still shaking his head and touching his temples at the harrowing process “There’s some parts to my life that I never wanted to look back at. I had brushed the hospital part our of my life and the trying to overdose part out of my life. I didn’t wanna relive that,” he said.
. . .
But now that it was all on the table, ‘Face could finally free himself. Liberation emitted from him in the office that day as he sat across from me for the second time, singing the praises of dropping the weight of harbored feelings. He was visibly refreshed, and charismatic and honest as ever as he admitted that he hadn’t yet watched Straight Outta Compton because, unlike anyone else in the room, he lived through the actual story of N.W.A.
I couldn’t get Scarface to believe that his life and career merited a biopic, but he did have a few requests for the future movie director who will surely take it on. If Scarface is not around to give production notes on his own tribute film, there is one thing that absolutely has to be portrayed correctly. Not the first time he picked up a mic. Not the formation of the Geto Boys. Not even the story of how James Prince signed him to Rap-A-Lot Records. It was his childhood that he wanted to be told accurately. “I wrote a lot of words down when I was younger. I wrote songs when I was young, I played the guitar when I was young. I took a lot of shit apart, like toys that my mom would buy, or TVs, or speakers. I could take shit apart and fix ‘em. I was one of those kind of kids. I had a lot of fights growing up. I want those people to know that I wasn’t your average ghetto boy.”
Who cares how much money you have? Does that benefit the village? Who cares about what kind of kush you smoking? Does that benefit the village?
Scarface is now set to direct his own on-wax film with his first album in seven years: Deeply Rooted. Injecting odes to codeine and lavish lifestyles with a vaccine of thought-provoking rhetoric, ‘Face takes his rightful place among the youngins as the wiser–albeit idiosyncratic–veteran. A tightly bookended 15-track opus, the album relies equally on ‘Face’s masterful penchant for gripping narratives and the lush musical stylings of producers N.O. Joe and Mike Dean, creating the kind of skip-no-songs cohesion every album should possess. Back at Omni Berkshire Place, I asked about his fascination with death, referencing a line from his memoir: “I’ve always been infatuated with death. I’m drawn to the permanence of it and the unknown.” Before I knew it would be released, Scarface responded with a few bars from his John Legend-assisted single, “God:” “Cause one day you’ll be standing on your feet and then the next/You’re underneath the sheet greeting death/I wonder when I sleep is he there sitting on my chest, stealing breath/Shortening my days even less.” He would later assure me that the album and the book represent two different men, but either way, Brad Jordan is consistently on another wavelength. One dedicated to bringing art of value to the community he refers to as his proverbial village. “There’s so much s**t going on in the world that could be talked about. Who cares how much money you have? Does that benefit the village? Who cares about what kind of kush you smoking? Does that benefit the village? It takes a village. And if one person in the village is sick, the whole village dies.” As for what Deeply Rooted–his 12th studio effort and the first to be released on his own label, Let’s Talk–brings to the village, “I’m bringing words. I’m bringing the beat. I’m bringing the beat back to the village. I wanna spark thought among the people in our village.” Naturally though, it took other people’s compliments to eventually convince ‘Face that Deeply Rooted–the first album he’s ever referred to one that belongs to him– is his best body of work.
Scarface’s arms aren’t flexible when it comes to patting himself on the back, but they extend far and wide to embrace the music of the past, present and Future (I witnessed him sing the chorus to ”Commas”). He spends an entire chapter of Madman detailing his relationship with Tupac Shakur, noting that the last time he saw the late, great rapper was the night they recorded his 1997 hit lead single from his The Untouchable album, “Smile.” He dedicates a paragraph to his idolization of Ice Cube, admittedly buying two cars just because Cube had them: a red Nissan 300ZX and a white BMW. With a contemplative face in the shadowy hotel room, ‘Face struggled to find the words to describe how he feels about Chuck D, before rattling off a shortlist of his influences. “Chuck D was a molder of the style that you hear in me. I feel like music should be recycled. You take what you get from whoever you get it from, and you put you in it. But I hear Chuck in it too. I hear [Big Daddy] Kane in it. I hear Rakim in it. I hear [Kool] G Rap in it. I hear Nas in me, I hear Jay Z in me. I hear ‘Pac and B.I.G. in me.” For ‘Face, Cube’s “Straight outta Compton/crazy motherf**ker named Ice Cube” spawned his line, “I started small time, dope game cocaine.’” Though inspired by the geniuses before and after him, Scarface’s own rap brilliance paints a vivid portrait of life, death, love, hate and everything in between, constantly forcing depth into the shallowest of hip-hop waters. Through signature inflections on his deep snarl, he created a lane of his own, down which other Southern spitters would tread, including Outkast, Young Jeezy and T.I., but his radar has never been fixed on any particular breed. He also pulls from Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne. He heralds the rap stylings of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake. And although he has not the slightest clue of what Young Thug is saying, he enjoys his gibberish as well. Scarface is watching and listening.
Nothing in this world is more precious or more special than a woman. That’s some real s**t coming from a real ass ni***a.
He is also paying attention to the buzz surrounding larger conversations. A writer to his core, Scarface offered interesting commentary to our discussion on the resurgence of controversy regarding ghostwriting in rap. During a studio session circa the year 2000, Scarface mentioned to Jay Z that he needed a radio single, and Hov–being Hov–hit the booth and churned one out. Not one to have anyone else hold his pen, the song would go unrecorded, save for Jay’s reference track. Why on Earth would you not use a song written by Jay Z, especially in 2000? ‘Face simply said he “felt uncomfortable.” But although hiring ghostwriters is not his style, he doesn’t knock the hustle. “It’s a lot of people who can perform, but they can’t write. And it’s a lot of people that can write that can’t perform. Like, I can write the fuck out of song for you, but can I sing it? Probably not. As a matter of fact, I know I couldn’t sing it. But you could.” Switching gears to a more sensitive topic (especially in a conference room full of women), Scarface discussed another hip-hop subject that has once again reared its ugly head: misogyny. Removing his glasses and grasping the bridge of his nose, the rapper explained that men–himself included–often take years to notice that “nothing in this world is more precious or more special than a woman. That’s some real s**t coming from a real ass ni***a.” He had to witness the birth of his son, Brad Jr., before he could conclude that “God came up with some cold shit when he came up with a woman.” Praise hand-inducing gospel if I’d ever heard it.
. . .
Racism and police brutality are other trending topics that Scarface was privy to long before Twitter. In one of his latest cinematic music videos for Deeply Rooted, “Steer,” the rapper turns thespian and assumes the role of a reluctant criminal who accidentally kills a street associate before an encounter with police. Running for his life, the four-and-a-half minute video concludes with an all-too-familiar tragedy, as his character is killed by the gun of an officer. In yet another new visual, “Mental Exorcism” Scarface wrestles with his frustrations as B-roll display real-life tragedies like the mass murder at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the abusive arrest of a teenage girl at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, and the shooting death of Walter Scott at the hands a of North Charleston, South Carolina police officer. For the rapper, current events have ignited a new sense of responsibility. Contrary to the fatigue and numbness some may experience, Scarface is motivated. “I find myself growing more active. My hate is sincere towards the oppressor.”
To say that Scarface is a man of very few self-given compliments is not to say that he isn’t aware of his lyrical prowess. He may not think his life is worth a book or biopic, but he certainly believes his knack for rap places him in a world class of greats, which he writes in Madman. “I know that I’m one of the best who’s ever done it because the people I look up to–Ice Cube, Jay Z, Nas, Dr. Dre, Whodini, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, all of the greats–have all told me that they f**k with what I’m doing and that they look up to me.” I think it may be less about Scarface believing in Scarface, and more about Scarface not believing in everyone else. To a man with an incredible one, legacy means nothing.
“I don’t give a fuck if my legacy was selling hot water bottles, a motherf**ker is gonna say what he wants to say about it anyway. Either you’re gonna respect it, or you’re not. I’ll leave that up to the person that calls it ‘the legacy,’ what my legacy was. ‘He left a legacy! He left a body of work that was unmatched by no motherf**kin’ body!’ It’s easy to say that, but how many people say that? As much as we feel like people are mentioning ‘Face, it’s like they forget. But every now and then, I’ll refresh their memory.”
It was nearly 7 o’clock that evening when Scarface walked out of our office building just as he’d come in. No entourage. No trumpets. Just a rap legend. – Iyana Robertson (@sincerely_iyana)