David Evans, Regal Radio
Earlier this month, I got the opportunity to sit down with Naledge, formerly one half of rap group Kidz in the Hall. A collaboration of Naledge and producer Double-O, KIDH met as students at the University of Pennsylvania.
Upon graduation, they signed with Rawkus Records and in 2006 they released their first album, College Was My Hustle. In 2008, they released their second album, The In Crowd, which was their first with Duck Down Records and included the popular single “Driving Down the Block,” and included a slew of guest appearances (Bun B, Camp Lo, Estelle, Chip tha Ripper, Masta Ace, Phonte). The duo since released two more albums — Land of Make Believe in 2010 and Occasion in 2011.
As a solo artist, Naledge has released several mixtapes dating back to when he was still working with Double-O, his latest, the Brain Power mixtape, came out in June of this year.
Sitting down with Naledge in his studio on the South Side of Chicago, I talked to the MC about Brain Power (produced by Good Boy Beats, which is the producing name of rapper Saint, who is a close collaborator with Naledge), his academic background and roots in Chicago, going back to school as a grad student, Chicago sports, the state of Chicago hip-hop and where he feels he fits in the scene, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Control” and how it reflects the state of contemporary hip-hop, and about turning thirty, which he was going to do soon after our talk.
WARR: I listen to Brain Power, it’s pretty laid back. It’s a got a calm tempo. Any reason for the transition?
N: Personally, I think I’ve come into this different sort of sound. I think, there’s a Kidz in the Hall sound we’ve honed over the years that I’ve got used to and I would try to recreate it even when I wasn’t with Double-O, and I’m not doing that anymore just because A. — I had a sound prior to working with Double-O, and B. — like, I’ve started working with different producers, and they’ve brought different things out of me. Living in Chicago again has brought different things out of me, and y’know, it’s 2013, and you’ve gotta change, you gotta change, everything changes, the landscape changed, my life has changed, who I am has changed, so I think that reflects, in the music.
I’m a laidback person in general. The music I’ve been trying to make, if you meet me in person, everything matches up with what you hear on the record, and I think, finally, we figured out a way to marry the two, and it’s the perfect blend of a little bit of ghetto, a little bit of bougie, a little bit of hood, a little bit of suburb, a little bit of Ivy League, a little bit of everything. It’s still thoughtful, but it’s a lot more aggressive. And it’s lyrical, but not overly lyrical. I feel like at this point a don’t have to prove myself as an MC. I’m trying to make good music a this point.
WARR: It’s does a have wide range– it does touch on the socially conscious things with “Chiraq,” and it does have the party thing or leisure.
N: I do all of that. I think that that’s all parts of me, so you can’t discredit, or leave those by the wayside. At the end of the day, I’m not a politician. I’m just somebody who’s socially aware. But at the same time, I go out and party and fuck hoes like everyone else. So you can’t negate that, it just has to be done in a tasteful way, musically. As long as it musically sounds good, we go for it right now, because motherfuckers have nothing to lose. I don’t have a contract, I don’t have someone over my shoulder telling me what not to make. So we do what we want to do.
WARR: It was executed very well. Um, couple of other things, who is Good Boy Beats?
N: Right here.
Naledge points to Saint.
WARR: Oh, Ok. Excellent production. Nice production. Very relaxed. It complements the rhymes very well.
N: Wait till you hear Brain Power 2. This shit is… it’ll make Brain Power 2 sound like kiddie games. Know what I’m saying? Like that’s the kiddie pool. Brain Power 2 is like some whole next level shit. And we hope Brain Power 3 can be like an album we sell. But Brain Power 2 is going to wake some motherfuckers up, man.
The first Brainpower installment features notable artists such as Mikkey Halsted and Add-2, each mainstays on the Chicago rap scene. Other collaborators include Junior and DJ Drama collaborator Willie Da Kid, who is preparing an EP with Naledge called Brainfly.
Naledge goes on to talk about going to high school with Add-2 and describes him as a guy who just “raps his ass off,” and someone he’s long wanted to do a record with. Naledge also speaks highlight of Halsted, who’s carried the flag for Chicago for a minute.
N: I don’t feel like I have to explain why he on (Brain Power). You know, like, Mikkey Halsted to me is a Chicago legend, a unsung hero. He fresh, he real fresh. Mikkey Halsted like a big brother to me. For him to want want to get on my record was a like a honor to me, because I’ve been listening to him when I was in high school.
Naledge attended high school at Luther South, which also counts rapper Common as an alum, he remembers first meeting the first rapper to break wide from the South Side in visits back to Luther South, including at celebrity basketball games.
N: He was real cool. He wasn’t obviously nearly as big then as he is now, but that meeting was one of the things that influenced me to keep rapping.
WARR: On the U Penn thing, how was your experience — not to deviate too much from the current– how was your experience going to an Ivy League school, especially being African American?
N: In all honesty, like, my experience was probably different than — I mean, my experience was cool. It wasn’t like — I think a lot of things factored into that. Like, people tend to forget that like, it’s not like I didn’t come from two parents that didn’t go to school, or educated, like, both of my parents have PhDs. My sister, I’m not even the first person in my family to go to an Ivy League school, my sister went to Brown. So me choosing Penn, like, wasn’t a big deal, you know what I’m saying.
WARR: I mean, not even as much from an academic context, but more like a social context.
N: I think a school like Penn is all what you make it. There were kids that immerse themselves only in black things. And I feel if you choose to do that, you can do that. But I feel like that’s stupid, that if you go to Penn and only immerse yourself in only black things, you should have went to Morehouse, Spellman or Howard, or Hampton, or something else. Because Penn has an upside. What is has an upside for is diversity, resources, and networking. If you limit yourself to only the black population, then you might as well have went to a black school.
For me it was the blend of the challenge of going to a Ivy League school. The fact that Penn was in a city, because I would have went to Howard if I didn’t go to Penn. It wasn’t like I was only looking at Ivy League schools, I looked at schools that fit me. Penn just happened to be Ivy League. I felt like the school fit me when I visited.
WARR: I caught your blog recently, I see that you’re currently a grad student working on your… are you working on your masters?
N: Masters in social work. I’m almost done actually. I’m in my second year. So finally, it’s been a long time.
WARR: What sparked your interest in going back?
N: My father’s a clinical social worker. That’s what I was interested in doing prior to any of this music shit. Me turning 30, I think, sparked me looking at what haven’t I done that I always wanted to do. Some of the things we were doing with Kidz in the Hall were slowing down. Me spending time with my son. A lot of things were in play that made sense for me to be here, it just made sense, it was good timing.
When we were touring and things were moving real fast it wasn’t good time for it. Now it’s good timing for it. I’m getting that out the way. I’m happy I did it. At the same time, right now, I’m getting this itch to do the music shit again real hard. It’s kind of hard to balance. I got kind of got senior-itis right now. I’ve held it real strong for like five semesters, and know I’m like ready to be done with it, but I’m maintaining. Everything that’s come from it has been good — starting the Brainiac Project, working with nonprofits Everything that I have envisioned it being has come to fruition.
So it was like taking two steps backward to take five steps forward. That’s what it’s really been. If I didn’t do what I’m doing now, I wouldn’t have met Saint, I wouldn’t have ran into the cats who run the studio. All of the things that happened to me leaving the situation I was in — everything is right is right, and the music is right, that’s the best thing about it.
WARR: Sports — have you been following it, how do you feel about the Bulls this year?
N: I’m all over it.
WARR: Are they looking better than last year in your opinion?
N: I don’t want to see them niggas in the club — and you can quote me on that — I be seeing them in the club right next to me. I be wanting to smack them and shit. What the fuck?! Why are you in the club? I think that’s the reality, all our teams party a little too much. Hopefully we can see a little more focus.
The only people that have the right to party this year is the Blackhawks, as far as I’m concerned. Everybody else should stay their ass in the house. I was seeing D. Rose out every other week when he was injured. I was like damn, this shit’s too much. But I’m very glad he’s back. I think the Bulls are going to be pretty dope this year. I don’t know if they have the firepower to beat the Heat, but they’re going to surprise some people. The Bears — I love the Bears — the Bears are like my sentimental favorite. They’re like, I don’t know, they have a lot of potential, we’ll see how they pull it together. Their offense is inconsistent, defense is getting old, we’ll see.
WARR: So you already said Brain Power 3 is upcoming?
N: Well Brain Power 2 is going to come up first. We haven’t even started on 3, we haven’t put out 2 yet. Three is going to be the album, that’s my vision. We trying to make sure 2 what it needs to be.
WARR: Any plans as far as guest appearances?
N: Outside of Bun B, I don’t know.
WARR: Oh. Bun is always good.
N: We’ll see who answers their phone.
Here, Naledge does some reminiscing on the days when Video Soul and Rap City reigned on BET, when artists weren’t judged by who they had guesting on their records — “if you were dope, you could hold your own with your crew.”
Naledge’s crew includes Saint, who he feels deserves more shine and that building of his and his people’s own thing instead of trying to ride popular waves of the moment pis informing his current work.
N: Dick riding season is over, man, work with motherfuckers you want to work with, and they should work with you for the same reason.You know, it shouldn’t be like, you’re hot right now, so I need to get you on my shit, and I got to pay you, that’s stupid. Business is business, and everybody’s independent, and if everybody’s on the same plane, I mean, OG’s don’t work like that, so why should these cats working like that? There’s cats that I’ve worked with have been in the game for real who’ve given me no hassle, and there’s guys that are new and up and coming that’s have given me all the hassle in the world, and shit’s like, ass backwards, man.
Whoever works with me is because they like my shit, and vice versa. And I reach out to people all the time. So we’ll see who answers their phone. People talk in the club like they want to work with you, but it doesn’t go down like that. They say hit my manager, hit my A&R. I’m like, “I’m straight, my nigga.”
WARR: The state of Chicago rap. It seems like there is two polar opposites and you fit somewhere in the middle — between the drill scene and then you have the outliers, the Lupe Fiascos –”
N: A little older cats, like the older guard, a little bit —
WARR: More of the older guard, but at the same time, it seems like your music on Brainpower encompass all, it doesn’t just focus on —
N: But that’s who I am, that’s what we’re trying to get people to see. I’m this dichotomy of bougie and hood, that’s hard to define on record. It’s hard to make it not be a gimmick. Because it’s not a gimmick it’s my real life. I grew up in South Shore, over east. I went to private school, but I wasn’t sheltered at all. I do want I want to do. I wasn’t sitting in the house. I might of got straight As, but I wasn’t sitting in the house. School was easy to me. That’s why my name is what my name is. That’s why I have the nickname Brain in the first place. School always came easy to me.
So my whole thing was you get school done so you could go out and do whatever the fuck you want and your parents don’t get on your case because you get straight As, you could do what you whatever the hell you want. How you encompass that into a record is hard because you have to be relate-able, you can’t be pompous, you can’t be arrogant in a way that turns people off. So we have to find a balance, and that’s what we found.
Naledge agrees that he fits in the middle in the spectrum of Chicago rap but says its hard to fit in the middle.
N: When you fit in the middle people don’t feel no kind of way about you, they feel like, he’s cool, he’s cool. I want motherfuckers to either love or hate my shit. cause that’s the best thing to have. When people think about the hottest people here, either they’re loved or their hated, and that’s what I need to get to. When you asked people about Naledge, they’ll say, “he’s dope. He’s not wack…” I want motherfuckers to love or hate my shit, because that’s the best thing to have. I want people to love my shit, or hate my shit. One or the other. I want people to fight for me, or fight for the fact I’m wack.
You know, because if you look at the greats, the Lupes the Kanyes, or even the newer guys — Chance or Rockie Fresh, whoever — there are people who really hate their stuff and people who really love it, but when you sit in that middle ground, it’s not a cool… it’s a cool place for a month or two, but not for three or four years. Where we’re trying to move is where we polarize people, we don’t want people to be indecisive about listening to the shit, either you want to or you don’t.”
WARR: It was interesting you said you want something polarizing, and I thought of Yeezus, from someone who is local (to Chicago), or was at one time local, and for me, that’s an extremely polarizing album.
N: But you know, he can take chances. I think it’s all a progression. Kanye has given us classics already, he’s given us albums that showcase a certain style and he’s done that. I think he deviated from that at 808s. After 808s it’s kind of like a free-for-all, but you have to look at his life situation too. His mom died. Things happen. And you start traveling more. You have to think about the females he was dealing with at the time. Everything.
Music is a snapshot of a person’s life at the time. It’s an exhibit. If you’re really an artist, then it’s art. So the exhibit is going to be something you’re doing, it is a snapshot for that moment. And you move on and you do another one. I think that Kanye is in a space, he’s so free, he can take chances, he can do whatever the fuck he wants at this point. Whereas like, where I’m at, I’m at this point trying to find a prototype where I can make a classic. And once I figure that out, you know, then I can start venturing and doing ideas I have that people aren’t ready for. You know.
WARR: The most polarizing thing in hip hop right now is Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Control.”
N: Well, I don’t know. To be honest, I think that shit was dope, but I think that people are giving it more credit than what it deserves. I feel like it shows how wack the landscape is, that that type of verse was the only type of verse that’s come out on the mainstream in a while. That’s not how it was like ten years ago. Ten years ago, It wouldn’t have stood up to some of the cats that was really rhyming on the radio like that. I don’t think so.
I spend most of my day listening to late 90’s rap, early 2000’s rap cause, that was my golden era. That was when I was in grammar school, in high school. So, it’s a dope verse — he named names. I’ll say it was more of ballsy verse, than anything. It was ballsy to say everybody’s name. Cause right now, hip-hop is in a space, all these young guys they put out hits, they’re making money, they’re touring. Everything love. We’re all friends, we’re all bros. And he’s like, no fuck that. I want to be better than you. And like, nobody said that out loud. When, in reality, every body’s thinking that. Everyone goes on their tour bus and they talk about how they can be better than the other person. They do tours with these guys and they talk about how their show can be better than the other guys. Kendrick just went there. Personally, he is a phenomenal rapper. But there was a point in time, when there was phenomenal rappers on the radio all the time.
WARR: I think that is the one thing as far as art goes, or as far as art, I mean, compared to professional sports, is that there is no standard bearing.
N: There is no barrier to entry. You can do a song in your bedroom, you can be on YouTube tomorrow. Case in point, Chief Keef blew up, he was in his grandma’s house the whole time. And that’ s not even a joke. That’s reality. He was in his grandmas house the whole fucking time. Shot videos in there, recorded in there. Five million dollar deal. What you wanna do? You know. Like, that’s where were at right now. And that’s cool. Have fun. But there’s still like, certain people, who care about the art. And I think it’s dope to see a cat like Kendrick, go platinum, and still want to tear off nigger’s necks off. That shits cool, man. It puts everyone on guard, like. Who cares who got more money. I’m doper than you. We care too much about Soundscan and shit like that now. Motherfuckers didn’t use to care about that shit.
WARR: It seems like the two ways to make it now, either put something out extremely provocative as an album or call out names.
N: It is what is it is. I don’t know. If I was Big Sean, I would have changed my verse, but that’s just me. Because it is my song, I wouldn’t have been one upped on my own song.
WARR: Last question, on turning thirty, how does it feel? I just passed my milestone, so —
N: Ask me at midnight. Right now it doesn’t feel like nothing, it just feels like I’m eating McDonalds and hanging with Saint. It’s what we always do. Ask me at midnight, or look at my tweets around midnight. Seeing how I feel.
WARR: Ok. I’ll save that for another interview.
N: I mean, you know I have fun, everybody’s knows that. It’s going to be a fun night, a real fun night. I’ll have to tell Manny to edit that shit to make it look decent. There’s some things that wont need to be seen. Motherfuckers going to be looking greasy on camera and shit. Sweaty and shit.
WARR: I’ll save that for another interview.
N: I’m just joking.
WARR: I appreciate your time.
N: No doubt, I’m chilling, man. It’s a good time to come in here. It’s quiet. Because in an hour, it’s going to be real different in about an hour.
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