We’ve been having a great discussion with hip-hop artist, Witness this week on the blog. If you missed anything, go back at read it from the start, download the whole show for free, or stream it with the player below.
Now, let’s continue the interview transcript right where we left off.
Witness: “You still need people that are talking about the ugly things just as much as you need everyone else talking about all the beautiful things. The best MCs are the ones who are going to bring both to the plate.”
Chase: “Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I think MCs need to have a range. If you only rap about one thing all the time you’re one-dimensional. You’re not really human. It’s good to see a range there.
One of my favourite MCs of all time is 2Pac, simply because of the emotion he can put out. He can do a hard thug song, and then he can do a love song, and then he can talk about his mom and do a dedication to her. You can feel that passion coming through the mic in everything that he does.”
Witness: “And you never once doubt it either. I grew up on 2Pac. I hadn’t listened to him in a while, but a couple months ago I put on ‘Smile’ and I was shocked at the content. I’m like, ‘This is radio material?’ I mean, you look at the radio now and it’s not so great. But this was not only on the radio, but it was teh most popular stuff. And this dude had range.
How did 2Pac get away with all that? He wrote love songs and still had a hard gangsta edge. I think people had an understanding back then that artists had to be versatile.
It’s not that hip-hop has changed, it’s that entertainment changed. People will go to one artist for one song. That’s all they need. They just take that one song and it’s on their iPod and they go to the next artist and the next song. And then that guy is pigeon-holed into whatever that category is.
As we ground ourselves in the Internet era, I think things will start moving backward. I don’t think having all your songs on your iPod or MP3 era is going to die. But I also do think that there is going to be a return to an idea of – Here’s this artist. Here is this full spectrum of thoughts and sounds, and those will be the best.
Some of the best emcees will put out a new record and will talk about something they’ve never talked about before, and it’s almost kind of shocking. If they do it well, your respect for them goes up because they just went into a territory you didn’t think they’d go in to. You walk away from that album and you feel like you know them. I think that is the trick to the legendary emcees in life. You’ve never met them before but after that album is over, you feel like you know them a little bit.”
Chase: “That’s the one thing that is kind of lacking these days. It’s hard to know an artist when it seems to be moving towards this single-based, single-song industry where everyone just has this one song. Some people don’t listen to albums any more. I like albums and I like to see a whole project together. I still bump albums like crazy.”
Witness: “I hear ya. It’s a weird thing. Even my friends, some of my friends I’ve known since first grade, we’ll be out having drinks and I’ll find that they have something of mine on their iPod and they’ll have two songs. I mean, ‘I don’t expect you to have my full album on here but I just think that everyone has moved towards this single-oriented thing, to the point where it’s kind of crazy that people are making albums at all anymore. But I’m glad they are.
I’m glad that there are people still striving to make complete albums. For me, if you tie it to this whole weird commercial thing I just did, you’re guaranteed that I’ll probably never really be jumping in to the mainstream. My personal ambition is to make a good album before I ever make a song that would be your favourite song. I’d rather have people say I make a good album than have them say I make a really good song.”
Chase: “Speaking of that, we’ve been talking a long time. We gotta drop some more music. You told me in an email that you’d have some crazy stories to share during this interview. So, we’re going to play a song and then I want to hear one of your crazy stories.”
Witness: “I think I’ve got one or two for you.”
Chase: “All right, cool. I either want to play ’23’ or ‘Sunburn.’ Those are two of my favourite tracks.”
Witness: “Go ahead. Your choice.”
Chase: “Okay, let’s play ’23.’ Daddy J will drop that track. This is Chase March on the interview tip, and we will be back with a crazy story from Witness. Stay tuned.”
Chase: “All right, that was ’23’ by Witness. I love the chorus of that. Very catchy. But it also seems kind of sad, ya know, by 23 it’s all downhill?”
Witness: “It hasn’t been downhill at all for me. I’ll start by saying this, a good friend of mine said that being in your twenties is weird because it feels like every year is worth 5 in terms of experience. And I think there is a lot to be said for that.
I’m 26 now. When I look back now, when I was 21, I look back and think, ‘What was I doing? Why did I think that was the way I needed to handle my life?’ That’s crazy. You’re either naive or just kind of ridiculous.
By the time I hit 23, it was kind of a big, taking stock kind of moment. I looked back on everything that I had done up to that point and looked forward as well. I think it’s kind of an area where in your early twenties and late teens, you really do think you know everything. You think you have a general understanding.
I think it happens to different people at different times, but for me, when I was 23, it definitely dawned on me that I had no idea what I was talking about, about anything. And honestly, I think the sooner you accept that in life, the quicker you end up learning more. I think the person that thinks they’ve got it all figured out is the person that actually knows the least.
That’s happened too in hip-hop, for me, for sure. I’ve definitely grown a lot. I’m doing a lot more things I’d otherwise have been closed-minded to. It’s kind of a matter of trusting yourself.
But at twenty-three, a lot of crazy things were happening. That was also the time when I made the decision to move to Minneapolis. I’d lived in Philly my whole life and just dropped it and went. I decided to just let life kind of lead me the rest, not try to go after it.”
Chase: “Cool! You recently put out a short collection of instrumentals called ‘Hope Springs Eternal.’ Do you want to tell us a bit about that project?”
Witness: “That was my first ever release of just instrumentals. A couple of years ago, me and my friend, Emancipator, both ended up getting signed to Japanese labels. We were both initially signed to the same label, but he ended up on a different label. The label that I’m on is sort of the sister project of the same label. It’s kind of complicated bu basically that’s the easiest way to explain it.
Nujabes made a lot of music that inspired my own direction. With his passing, I wanted to do something to show respect. So I ended up making this album, ‘Hope Springs Eternal,’ which is a collection of instrumentals. They were actually beats that I’d made and I ended up putting them aside because I thought they were too much in the vein of something he would make.
I think that whether they want to admit it or not, ever rapper, every producer, sometimes if they listen a lot to one cat, it just somehow ends up in your work, to the point where you are like, ‘I can’t even release this because it is so similar to another artist.’ So I had a lot of stuff that kind of reminded me of his work.
I think a lot of dudes are nervous when it comes to saying, ‘This artist inspires me,’ especially if they are a new artist. That’s a weird thing in hip-hop. But Nujabes definitely inspired my instrumentals and my approach to music.
I think Nujabes single-handedly make it okay in hip-hop to make ‘pretty’ instrumentals. That dude took samples from records that huge, huge producers had touched before. But he would find that one part of the record that wasn’t taken, and that was a real good sample, but for whatever reason, that sample was never touched. And that guy found them. He definitely changed the way that I listen to albums when I am out digging. For the rest of my life, without question.
I wanted to pay tribute to that so I put together this instrumental record. It ended up going to a lot of great people too. There have been so labels that asked me to expand on it and make it an album. I turned them down because it is not something that I would want to make money off of. I felt terrible even promoting it. So, it’s sort of a lesser known thing that I have done, but you can get it on my site as a free download. It’s probably one of my most proudest projects, because it’s from a place of genuine respect.”
Chase: “You don’t see that very often, like here’s a tribute but it’s not just a DJ spinning someone else’s songs. It’s creating something new in a tribute and doing something really positive with it.”
Witness: “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, if someone who is contemporary influences you, there is a weird thing in hip-hop where you don’t even want to say that. You’re not going to get a lot of MCs saying, ‘I was inspired by Atmosphere or Brother Ali’ because those dudes are still new, but I don’t know a single emcee that wasn’t inspired by an Atmosphere record whether they are going to say it or not.
I think we’re kind of entering an era now, with a new generation of MCs, where we are being open and honest with who your inspirations are, even if they are very close to your sound. That isn’t a bad thing. People will hear you in something of your own. In a worse-case scenario, if they do think you are somewhat similar , they are going to have a respect for you for being real. I think that is a positive thing.”
Chase: “I just copped the new Atmosphere album and there is a song on there that is about domestic abuse. It’s really heavy. And Brother Ali, he’s one of my all-time favourites.”
Witness: “Definitely one of my favourites too.”
Chase: “We had a great interview with Brother Ali here at the station too. It was pretty amazing. He was so cool to talk to.”
Witness: “I actually caught that interview. It was very good. Very good.”
Chase: “Ah, thanks, man.”
Witness: “I like what you guys are doing. I think it is important that you are getting interviews and reaching out to dudes and they are getting documentation. Because at the end of the day, thirty years from now, if they’re in some hip-hop history book, or not, you’re at least out there documenting some of what is happening while it’s happening. And that definitely deserves respect.”
Chase: “I consider myself to be a hip-hop historian. I’ve been here on the station and on the blog, just letting people know what hip-hop is about. It’s a culture and it’s a lot more than just rap music and what people think. We’re celebrating it because that’s what we like to do here at DOPEfm – Daddy J, Gamma Krush, and myself. We’re holding that down.”
Witness: “Respect, respect!”
Chase: “So what can we expect next from Witness?”
Witness: “I’m kind of shifting all gears towards an official full-length, which sounds kind of confusing. I’m one of those emcees that has dig himself in a hole because you have no idea that the albums you have heard are not ‘official.’ But that just my own, kind of, lack of self-esteem in my own work.
There is a little bit of method behind the madness. There are a lot of songs about topics in particular that I’ve literally been holding on to for three of four years until I felt that I’d reached a point where I’ve reached a point in my own output where I could officially do them justice. They’re a lot more personal.
I want to finish this record, when it’s done, whether you like me or don’t like me, I want you to have some kind of opinion about who this guys is, as opposed to, ‘Here’s a presentation of some songs and some poems that I’ve made into songs with a couple of friends.’ I want you to have some kind of experience when you walk away from it.
It’s a bit of an undertaking. I’m going to be pulling out all the stops with the friends I’ve made along the way. It’ll probably be about next year for the album. They’ll probably be some mix tapes in the mean time to hold that over. I’m doing a little tour on the east coast in May. I’ll probably do a national tour with a five-piece band. That’s exciting to me right now. It’ll be a new format for live shows. I’ll definitely try to get up your way as well.”
Chase: “Try to get to Toronto if you can, at least. We’re just a hop, skip, and jump from there. It would be great to see you put it down live.”
Witness: “I’m not Brother Ali. I’m not Atmosphere. I can’t just roll into your town and get 500 people rolling through the door. So I like to mix it up and work with a lot of local cats on every bill. I try to contact them directly and get them involved. It makes it a bigger night. I want to see your scene too.”
Chase: “Let’s spin another track right now and then come back and wrap this up.”
Witness: “Let’s do it.”
Chase: “All right, this is ‘Sunburn’ from Witness off of the ‘Everafter LP.’ Daddy J is gonna drop that track and Chase March is gonna be back to wrap this up.”