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Travelling with The Last Emperor pt.1

After missing a flight in Copenhagen, The Last Emperor got on a train to Århus, where he sat down with hiphop.dk and started talking..
 
Yes sir, glad to be here. I absolutely enjoyed the trip over here. As we were talking about a little while ago, we had somewhat of a small mix-up at the Copenhagen airport, but it actually turned into a blessing. I had the opportunity to get on the train and really see a lot of the scenery in the country side from Copenhagen to Aarhus. So what started out as a small set-back turned into a blessing.
 
(Interviewet er lagt online på engelsk, men vil blive oversat til dansk på et senere tidspunkt - red.).

Some of your songs, like Karma, Away From The Sun and the verse from Claimin’ Respect deal with the travel-concept, do you see yourself as a traveler?

Absolutely, I know in my mind as a child growing up as a kid in West Philly in a very low-income situation, one of the things I was always able to do was escape what was going on, by reading and doing research. I just wondered about other places in the world that seemed exciting and adventurous, and I wanted to be able to travel to these places and interact with the different cultures there. I wanted to see how people in different lands lived and learn different languages, and fortunately I ended up doing hip-hop.

Does that translate to your rhyming, you think?

Of course, because I think as I go places, I try not only to be respectful for the culture in the country but learn about it too. The first time I came to Scandinavia I didn’t just want to say „okay now I’ve seen the scenery.“ I wanted to really get into the philosophies of the land and the richness of the culture of the indigenous people of Scandinavia. I already knew a bit about Norse mythology and the stories of Thor, Odin and Loke, and what Valhalla was all about, but to really be here and see the people whose ancestors helped bring all this to light, made me feel like I was close to something that dated back over a thousand years. I just try to interact when I travel and learn as much as I can, and I can’t help having that translate to my rap.

Do you think other MC’s could learn from that approach to rap, is it something you feel is lacking in hip-hop?

Yeah to some extent I think certain MC’s, they definitely should do it more, but someone like KRS-One has always promoted hip-hop as a great tool for learn, and encouraged people to travel and expose themselves to different cultures. And I think other hip-hop cats like Prince Paul and the RZA, whom I understand travels to places like Tibet, they use hip-hop for what it’s meant to be – a cultural exchange all over the planet. We all come under the planet of hip-hop and I want to take the cultural exchange further, to the forefront of hip-hop.

Speaking of what hip-hop is about, you were signed to Aftermath at one point, and I feel at that time, right after Dre did his goodbye-to-gangsta-rap track „Been There Done That,“ hip-hop could go in two directions, either to something new and more univer

One thing I can say about Dr Dre and his creative talent is that he acknowledges lyricism. Clearly there’s a difference between someone like myself and let’s say, MC Ren, in terms of our content, and the same goes for Ice Cube, but Dre prides himself in being aware of lyrics. Back in the day he worked with D.O.C. from Texas and brought him to L.A. and constructed an album around his work that was already good. So I think Dre’s initial idea when he signed me to Aftermath was that even though I’m different from what he’s used to working with, I still have been lyrical in common with the D.OC.’s and Ice Cubes. He’s saying „Let me build with him, and see which direction we can go in.“

That was his initial disire, but when I came to Aftermath there was a lot of label drama going on. He had put out an Aftermath compilation that didn’t sell what the people at Interscope felt Dr Dre should sell, so they said to him, that the next Aftermath should really sell astronomical figures. We  sat down and came up with some real good ideas and concepts for my album, so his heart may have been with me doing my album in the direction that I was going with it, but at the end of the day, we were all employees of Interscope and had to do what they felt. Me and Dre actually had conversations about getting away from the gangsta-type-lyrics, but I think he had to answer to who his bosses were.

When you were at Aftermath did you get beats from Dre personally or from outside producers?

Well when I first got there, the first couple of months, I had the opportunity to work fairly close with Dre, but then I began to notice that he put me in the company of producers that worked under him. Pretty much what that said was that we should work on it together and Dr Dre’d return later in the process and finish it up. Slowly but surely I began to feel neglected, and the passion he had for the prtoject in the beginning wasn’t there. I began to talk to other artists like Eve and RBX, and they expressed the same sentiment, that they couldn’t go in the studio with Dre either. Knowing that, after a year I left Aftermath, but stayed on Interscope for another six months. But the thing there is Interscope relies on subsidiary labels to put out rap and being directly signed to Interscope I had to deal with these A & R’s that knew nothing about hip-hop.

At that point you must have had a vast body of work, songs that you recorded during the period, what happened to that?

What me and Dre put together was only like a handful of songs, but what happened while I was there was that I said I wanted to work with Prince Paul and the Beatminerz, and the A & R said „Who are these guys, they haven’t sold any records the last couple of years.“ And I mean Prince Paul is a legend and Beatminerz did great music with Black Moon and Smif N Wessun, so I found out it wasn’t about finding music that complimented my style but about moving units. But I still went and worked with those producers regardless of what they said, and came out with some great music, that appeared via the internet and bootlegging and such. I think I can say that a strong body of work did come out of that situation.

How did you move from there to Rawkus records?

A good friend of mine named Set-Free had some business dealings with Rawkus in late 2000 and he introduced me to the people there. But it really went back to 1998 when I worked on Lyricist Lounge, I did a track called „CIA“ with KRS-One and Zack Dela Rocha from Rage Against The Machine. At the time I noticed that they had a strong machine and motivation for putting out what people concider progressive hip-hop that stretches the limets but still stays true to the foundation that hip-hop is all about. It seemed to be a label that allowed artists their artistic freedom and that was really important to me. So when I was introduced to them, they said they really wanted me to be part of that Rawkus team and put out the material that I had been recording. Mind you, the talent that Rawkus had with Cocoa Brothers, Kool G Rap, Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli was incredible and who would’t wanna be a part of that?

However, I found myself in a new situation with a label that was going through an identity crisis, as to what kinda label Rawkus wanted to be. By the time I got to Rawkus they didn’t wanna be that cool backpacker label, they wanted to compete with Universal and every other conglomerate and make records that could go platinum.
We began to clash a lot at that point, I’d come with six songs and they were like „Why don’t you record six new songs with these guys, that we want you to work with.“ I did all that, I never compromized my lyrical integrity but if they felt Last Emperor should work with what they believed were upcoming producers, I’d do that, but that wasn’t enough either. The next thing they said was, „We want to give you a personal trainer, so when you go to take promo-pictures, you can be to Rawkus what LL Cool J was to Def Jam.“ - It wasn’t about music but about imagery. I have no problem with that, but when it’s more about what I look like and what my image is, as opposed to what the music is. Unfortunately I saw myself in a new situation, where I wasn’t able to get my music out the way I wanted to.

Do you in hindsight think that there could have been a smarter way of breaking into the industry than going through all this label drama, or is it just something that comes with being a MC these days?

I think in my situation it’s just something that I had to go through. I had tried both sides of the spectrum, the extremely large label with all the resources and promises and that turned sour, and then on a small indie-label that promised to put my music out with no heartship, yet I still went through heartship with them. Looking back with hindsight, the situation with Rawkus hurt me more than Aftermath. Cause when it was time to leave Aftermath me and Dre sat down like two men, he said: „Look I don’t think your album will come out for another two years, so if you want to leave I respect that, but if you stay more power to you.“ I respect him for doing that, without all the paperwork. Rawkus was different, it took almost a year to clear myself from the Rawkus situation and I had such faith in Rawkus administration and the people working there seemed like such sincere people, that the way that it went down in the long run hurt me more.

The debut album is out on Raptivism. How’s it working out there?

One thing I can say about them, is that they kept their promise, they put out my album like they said they would. When August 27th rolled around my album was out. When I go to other parts of the world, people are aware that the album is out. That’s basically all I wanted, to have my product out, so people can listen to it, and it’s readily available. Now people can say, Last Emperor isn’t an Internet-MC and doesn’t just do guest appearences. So on that level the situation’s been very, very good, Kamal, Richi, Vincent and Neo who helped with distribution really kept their promise. Even though they may not have the resources for having adds, they still helped out with interviews and all, so it’s been a good experience.

How do you feel „Music, Magic, Myth“ turned out as an album?

I might feel like in one aspect some of the music is dated. Songs that have been circulating for six years or so, but what I want to do is, I want to at least come with a trilogy of albums: an introductory piece, a solid middle body and an ending. I’m not necessarily saying that’s all the albums I want to release, but at least that. Certain songs like „Animalistics,“ had to be on my first album nomatter how old they are, and certain other songs like „Secret Wars“ had to be there, cause they serve as an introduction to who I am. Looking back with hindsight I wish some of the songs could have been a little fresher, and more recent. But I hope the listening audience realise why I made this desition and rest assured that the second time I come around will be a lot liver and more adventurous.

I saw a taping of a spoken-word performance of „Meditation“ and the sentences became pictures in their own right. When you look at songs like „Secret Wars,“ „Animalistics“ and „Meditation“ they don’t necessarily have to be raps ´cause the words are so viv

Well, thank you for noticing that, ´cause that’s what I try to do. When I approach songs, I reflect on topics that are universal, and there for timeless. Meditation has been around for 6000 years dating back to certain Indian philosophies. Being around for so long, I’m sure it’ll be around for 6000 more years, and people will always relate to that and can look at the song as a hip-hop artist getting in tune with his innerself, interact with people that aren’t physically there and rhyming through meditation. I make records that aren’t just the flavour of the month, so that I have something that is long-lasting as opposed to having a hot single.

But do you think that taking deeper topics and not saying something that can easily be digested can be a hurdle in hip-hop?

To some extent, ´cause I haven’t had the career where I blow up and have this monetarily successful career. But I’ve had people that don’t live in my neighborhood, don’t live in my state, or country, or even continent enjoy my music, and that’s a reward in itself. Clearly when it’s time to pay bills I probably should say whatever the hip saying is now, but I feel more comfortable when I’ve done music that’s timeless.

To be continued..

27/08/2004 - Lagt online af PTA

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