MR. LEN - Interview
A few months ago, as part of our Indie Rap Series, we asked Bigg Jus to share with us his diagnosis about the independent rap wave of the late 90's, a wave where he played a critical part, with Company Flow. Two opinions being better than just one, we also asked another member of this movement's emblematic trio, Mr. Len, to deliver his own version of this key phase of hip-hop's history.
The "indie rap series" is a cycle of interviews organized with some key activists of the late 90's / early 2000's independent rap scene in North America or beyond. Some of them are almost famous, some others less known or forgotten artists. These interviews will help documenting a book, written in French and dedicated to the same scene, and published in 2014, in the same collection as Rap, Hip-Hop''.
What is your perception of the indie / underground rap scene which emerged in North America by the end of the 90's, with labels like Fondle'em, Rawkus, Stones Throw, Rhymesayers, or later Def Jux, and so many others?
The labels named were the best of the best. It was a fun but still somewhat hectic time. Back then was the height of Underground vs Mainstream. Yet everyone was scrambling for the same audience. The indies, like always, put a lot more emphasis on the music and growing a community of fans. It was a great creative time.
In fact, several scenes were part of this, one in New-York around Fondle'em and Rawkus, the West Coast Underground with the Living Legends or the Project Blowed guys, the Midwest with the Rhymesayers label, and some others in Canada. According to you, were those all different or just one single movement?
Totally different; Fondle 'Em and Rawkus were totally different. Bobbito wasn't going for airplay with the releases nor did he do a ton of promo. Rawkus had dreams for being a newer version of Tommy Boy or Def Jam. They had street teams and publicist. Bobbito had his radio show with a loyal following. Out West the labels that stuck out were ABB, Stones Throw and maybe Correct. Rhymesayers was definitely known but we heard Atmosphere before there was any mention of that label. That group deserves a lot of props for really getting attention for Minneapolis. Everyone had different goals and approaches but the only thing we had in common was that we knew what we were doing was too much for a major label to handle.
According to you, what is the story behind this movement? What did start it and why did it emerge at this time?
It started from people wanting to hear album cuts and songs that weren't necessarily dance tunes. Artists didn't want a label dictating what should be made, and when projects should be released. It started at this time because of college and community radio taking on more hip-hop shows. Some college DJ's had to bring their own equipment to their shows because the stations aren't equipped for how a hip-hop DJ spins.
Where would you put the limits of this movement, in time, place, or styles?
The only limit was money. The Internet was new and we had access to the world. Obviously there was enough talent back then... the only limitation was money. Videos were not up to par with what was being played, advertising in the magazines was close to impossible, and depending on when shows were people couldn't justify taking a day off of work to either come out to the show or perform with their crew.
According to me, one of the forces driving this movement was some people's refusal to see DJs progressively marginalized in hip-hop. As a DJ yourself, would you agree with this?
Yes and no... The role of the DJ diminished when rappers doing new songs rocked off their DATs and DAT machines. There was and will always be purists that see the DJ as an integral part of the show and scene. But, there were a lot of folks that felt like it was just an extra person to pay. Not every act had its own DJ. Some of it was the DJ's fault though. A lot of cats didn't feel like committing to the scene and the lack of money it generated.
The very meaning of "indie rap" changed over time. It turned from a radical and purist hip-hop movement by the late 90's, to some white rappers' rap for fans of indie rock, in the 00's, with labels such as Anticon. Do you perceive these as the same scene, or two different ones?
I see it as, the scene changed. Am I into it?... eh. They held onto the idea that they will not let anyone control their destiny and art. But all art ain't for everybody.
What is left of this movement today, according to you?
Most of the artists still make music which is awesome. The love of the culture is still there.
What is your personal story with underground rap?
Underground rap to me was just more of a reason to do what I love. I loved music and the genre of rap/hip hop before INDIE and UNDERGROUND were terms. People getting into underground rap made it that much more fun to play records out. I could now play a song off an album that wasn't a single and watch people bug out and bond over how much they all liked it and realize that we all had something in common.
Would you consider yourself as part of this movement? Or is this something you don't like to be pigeonholed into?
I don't really like to be pigeonholed into anything. But I know that I'm a part of this indie/underground movement. It's a part of my life that I'm proud of. I make music for more than profit. I'm friends with some of the greatest lyricists, writers (graf), DJ's, producers, and dancers to walk this planet; all because I'm part of this movement.
What would be your top underground rap artists, albums and singles? Who would you like everybody to remember about?
Company Flow (duh!!), Juggaknots, J-treds, What What, The Arsonists, Lord Sear, MF DOOM, Scienz of Life, InI, The Beat Junkies, Artifacts, Siah and Yeshua Da PoEd, Pumpkinhead, Apani B. Fly, The X-Men, Dilated Peoples, Living Legends, Kurious Jorge, The Beatnuts....
Overall, do you think that such a category, indie rap, was or is relevant?
No. It means that in order to play it you have to know the financial situation of the group. Was the record released independently? Who cares?? Play the music!!!
Apart from this indie rap subgenre, what would be your diagnosis on the state of hip-hop nowadays? What do you find appealing in today's rap music?
It's a lot harder to get into new music and artists now. I'm older and my taste has changed so what they're talking about now I've either done it or am just not into it. I dig that there are a lot of kids still testing the waters and themselves.
Coming back to you, what are you doing these days? What are your current projects and activities?
I have an instrumental EP out called The Marvels of Yestermorrow. Working on a collaboration with the watch company FLUD. In the studio now with Mela Machinko as well as PH and I DJ for Jean Grae... and from time to time Pharoahe Monch.
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