Anthony Cruz is a member of one of the most indefinable and amazing hip-hop groups of all time, Natural Elements. Also known as A-Butta, Anthony is 1/4th of this group, which also consists of L-Swift AKA Swigga, Mr. Voodoo and Charlemagne. Coming out of West Harlem, A-Butta began showing up on radio shows and open mics with some of the most vicious and intricate rhymes ever heard. The prolific 90’s era of NYC hip hop was a strange and unpredictable time for many artists. As hip-hop became more and more embraced by corporate interest, the genuine creation of original music thrived in nightclubs and on college radio. Tracing Anthony Cruz’s career involves a grasp of things like mix tape culture and 4am radio appearances. After slipping through the cracks of major label promotion and the materialization of new trends in music, A-Butta has continued on his path and has a new direction with his music. Read on to get a first person perspective…
Keir: Where did you grow up, what was your neighborhood like?
A-Butta: I grew up in West Harlem. Specifically, 125th street & Broadway. My neighborhood was, and still is, extremely diverse so I was exposed to many different cultures and customs at a young age. For example I hung out with kids who listened to the Ramones and at the same time I had friends who were bumping The Fearless Four. West 125th has a wild mix of African-American, Latino, Asian and straight American cultures. Pretty much the New York City prototype…
K: Do you remember how you were first exposed to hip hop?
A: I have a few early memories that stand out. I remember I had Ramones and UB40 records on heavy rotation at like 5 years old. Then I paid a visit to my next-door neighbor who was bit older than me, and he was DJ. His alias was DJ Kid Fresh. He was like “Yo man, forget that punk shit – listen to this!” and I think he threw on “Ladi Dadi” or “The Show” and I was blown away! From then on I was pretty much addicted to hip hop.
K: When you got older, how did calling up to radio stations work out?
A: I was always listening to college radio shows. I remember listening to heads call up and I would say to myself I could rock that if I called. One day I was with my girl and she was like you should call, so I did and I have been in and out the game since…
K: What kinds of things were going on in NYC at that time?
A: As far as NYC hip hop was concerned it was just a plethora of talent popping up out of the urban streets. I mean from like 95-98 NYC hip hop was nutty man! Some of the most important places were The Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe open mics and The Vinyl Nightclub. The whole scene is still somewhat surreal to me like it almost never really existed…
K: How did you get connected with Mr. Voodoo, Charlemagne and L-Swift?
A: My man DJ Mayhem introduced me to Swigga (aka L-Swift) and we instantly clicked. From there, it was pretty much this is Voo this is Charlemagne let’s get it poppin!
K: Who came up with the name Natural Elements, what is the story behind it?
A: I believe Charlemagne came up with the name in the early 90’s. There were a lot of early members before me for example KA, Raidermen, etc. But the ones who got the most attention were Mr. Voodoo and L-Swift. At the time the material they were coming with was groundbreaking. Heads were just not putting words together like them and their flow was unique and so immaculate. It literally was poetry in motion.
K: Can you explain how the label situation worked out with Natural Elements?
A: Initially, the plan was to get Fortress Records jumped off, but then the focus was switched to actually getting signed to a major label. We were approached several times and the labels just wanted Voodoo, L and myself. At the time Essence (former NE female mc) had some creative differences and eventually branched off to do her own projects. So me Voodoo and L along with Charlemagne put together a package and eventually got picked up by Tommy Boy. We were really hungry and ready to blow, but what we didn’t know or expect to encounter was the massive amount of red tape and politics that go behind the scenes in a record label. To make a long story short our creative process was pretty much taken out of our hands and the result was a half-ass album that never got put out anyway. There was so much talent and potential between me L-Swift and Mr. Voodoo it was a shame the hip hop world never really got to experience the sound of NE. We still got wild flavor but each of us is our handling our own projects. I’m remaining optimistic that some time in the near future we’ll reunite and drop the album that hip hop heads deserve to hear.
K: The freestyle sessions you took part in on shows like Stretch & Bobbito, The Underground Railroad and Halftime were some of the most amazing examples of lyrical mayhem on air. How did you and L-Swift happen to have such amazing chemistry that you could cut each other off and still keep the rhyme going?
A: We were young and hungry man. That creative energy was pulsating in us, our blood was pumping to the same beat so we fed off each other and I guess people felt it. I’m shocked that people still bring those sessions up, I never really realized so many people loved those rhyme sessions… I had fun doing them so I’m glad people appreciated the energy we brought to our live radio sessions.
K: I heard you don’t even write lyrics down, is this true?
A: Yeah, I just repeat them in my head. I can’t write the lyrics down cuz’ it interferes with my flow. I like to get the flow and words down packed at the same time so I just repeat the verses literally over and over…
K: Who is Kenny Diaz?
A: Kenny Diaz is a huge mentor and influence on me, creatively and personally. We’ve been working together on my solo stuff for like 8 years. We have like 10 different albums. We just keep material shut in the safe for no reason. It’s sounds idiotic, and it is, but we’re ready to release some huge bangers in the future. There are a lot of different vibes on each joint so I’m anxious to see how people react.
K: Tell me about Bullet Proof Junkies?
A: Bullet Proof Junkies is a recent project that I’ve started working on this summer. It’s me on lead vocals and 3 Japanese guys. Butch on guitar, Yoshi on Bass and Dai on drums. We play a hip hop/punk/rockabilly fusion… We’ve had a few gigs over the past few months in NYC and we’ve had a huge response so far. The music is wild, and I think that it should really jump off any minute. We’re on some worldwide Puerto Rico meets Japan rap/rock vibe.
K: What other projects can we expect from you in the future?
A: I have a bunch of group projects in the works. One is called Kourageous Katz. This will be Scaramanga Shallah, Godfather Don, Kenny Diaz and Anthony Cruz. Of course Bullet Proof Junkies, Puerto Rico vs. Japan, Free Energy Pioneers (blink 182ish) The Incredible Shrinking Men and the return of Natural Elements…
K: Closing words?
A: Much love to all supporters of creative minds. We’re all artists and deserve a chance to express ourselves. Peace.
Photos: Keir Johnson
A-Butta – Freestyle
A-Butta – Phone Freestyle
A-Butta & L-Swift – Tag Team Freestyle
Natural Elements – Bust Mine [Dolo Records, 1997]
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