Rhymesayers MC I Self Devine, one of the most respected names in underground hip-hop, returns this May with The Sound of Low Class Amerika, his first album since Self Destruction (2005). We sat down with the man to discuss The Culture Series, his recent mixtape releases, his illustrious career as well as his forthcoming album.
Your new album, The Sound of Low Class Amerika, is set for release in May. However, it was recorded four years ago. What made now feel like the right time?
Several things. The musicians who worked on the album with me have even said it’s more relevant now than when we created it. We recorded it in 2008, all pre-recession, but listening to it now, these are the sounds of the 99%. I believe voting is the last part of democracy, and it’s also the easiest part. I’ve been getting inside in the community, trying to educate and steer them toward voting.
People have been asking what I’ve been doing, and I’ve been doing with the community what I’ve always tried to do musically. I’ve been wrestling with still doing music, but music’s always been a part of my life. Putting the albums together has always been my favorite part of the music and I knew if I didn’t put this album out now, it would be one of the things that I regret.
A big theme with your Culture Series mixtape releases has been the sense of community. How important is community?
Communities are all about supporting individuals. Restaurants exist to serve communities. It’s the small things that make a whole. Even with avant garde art and technologies, they need a shared vision. We’re often living in silos and don’t know that the people next door are having the same struggles. Without a community, one’s just a person with ideas. Communities give those ideas power.
I spoke to Slug for Complex last May and he credited you as the first to reach out beyond Minneapolis into Seattle to bring Vitamin D and Jake One into the fold. How did you first connect?
That started in Atlanta with their manager Jonathan Moore. We hung out for 2-3 days when he was in town and he offered to bring the Micranots to Seattle. There he introduced me to everyone and took me to everyone’s houses, making Seattle feel like a second home. I like to bring people together, so from that I got their group Source of Labor to record a single for Rhymesayers and Vitamin D to do some production for Musab and a remix.
With The Micranots, you put out Obelisk Movement in 2000 for Sub Verse, a New York label. How did working with them differ from Rhymesayers now?
The distance has nothing to do with it. The way they work is night and day. The first label we were on was 3-2-1- Records, which had Blackalicious and Ced Gee of the Ultramagnetic MCs. The first time we were at SXSW was with 3-2-1. Both DJ Kool Ak and myself got $15,000 a piece, but when the label folded they took his back. After 3-2-1 ended, Bigg Jus of Company Flow tried to keep the roster together and found funding through Peter Lupoff. From there, we were with Sub Verse from the ground up. It was a different time for the industry then, and we were working with people who knew the record business, but not necessarily hip-hop business. Everything in the building was new and cash was plentiful.
Rhymesayers, being from Minnesota, had to do everything by necessity. Everything in the industry they had to learn to do themselves, which became an asset. The label’s something of a co-op where everyone, to a degree, runs their own business. If I want to do something like, say, a cool cover, they break down what the cost of that would be. There’s creativity, but they’re also realistic. There’s also a level of accessibility. I feel I can actually call up the CEO.
Your name has become synonymous with a dynamic live show. When songwriting, do you have the live show in mind?
Sometimes. Unless the public really wants me to perform certain songs, I know which songs are headphone songs. I like beats that are hype, that move me. For the most part, no. I like to keep live, live. It’s important and the key to longevity. I’m from an era where everybody had to bring it. It’s one thing you can’t email.
What do you look for in a live show?
I like to see how groups mess-up and how they communicate and get back on the same page. I’ve seen hip-hop shows where the artists get shook and they can’t get back. I’ve also seen, with Souls of Mischief, something happened with their sound and they never stopped rhyming. The DJ fixed it and they never missed a step. I really enjoy seeing each individual work together.
In the mid-2000s, Rhymesayers re-released Return of the Travellahs and put out The Emperor and the Assassin, which was rumored to be originally called The Emperor and the Terrorist. What brought about the name change?
We didn’t want to cash in on the [9/11] disaster. When we were recording it, I felt Ak was the grand overlord of sound. I felt like I was a ninja, the selective assassin. We made an album about a smaller power going against a bigger power. But we talked about it and I didn’t want to do anything that would seem like we’re sensationalizing the attacks. That’s why I never did the “Occupy” stuff in my music. I didn’t was to be trendy.
Around that time you and DJ Abilities put out an album under the name Semi.Official. How did that experience differ from working in The Micranots?
The groundwork for that started before even Obelisk Movements. It started right as Fifth Element [Minneapolis record store that’s been homebase for Rhymesayers] was opening. Abilities was working there and living at Siddiq’s house. I’ve always been a crate digger and used to dump breaks I’d found on Ak. For Obelisk, he wasn’t taking any of my ideas and I amassed a surplus. I don’t know how to work the equipment, but I know sound. He was tired of being told what to use, so I took those ideas to Abilities and we made that album over a long period of time. The title came from the obsession with “authenticity” at the time. These artists wanted to be “credible.” We wanted our album seem like we co-opted that. We aren’t that official. We’re Semi.Official and so we made The Anti-Album. To this day, I don’t believe Kool Ak has even listened to this record. He took it as me trying to compete with ourselves as the Micranots.
In 2005 you put out your debut solo record Self Destruction. How different was it finally working on a solo project?
It was a matter of getting the beats I wanted. I took Vitamin and Jake’s beats. The ones I couldn’t use, I played for local beatmakers here to help instruct them on what to do. I connected them to Jake to help get some Minneapolis cross-pollination.
The Culture Series has a very diverse, albeit limited, line-up of producers and guest appearances. Was this the plan from the start?
I’m from a different school of thought and mind frame. If you look at all of my albums, there’s no more than three songs with guests. The reason being: whose album is it? Too many albums have become who’s who, relying on guest stars. I should be able to carry my new album. Even on this new one, there’s only Budah Tye and Brother Ali.
You’ve been prolific in how much you’ve helped up-and-coming artists over the years. Of all your guest appearances, what’s one you feel everybody should hear?
I like the verse I did on “Twentyfourseven” on the first Doomtree record. I also really enjoyed being on Atmosphere’s “Flesh” off God Loves Ugly. I had a lot of fun in that time signature.