Filed under: Features,Guest Drops,Interviews,Not Your Average,Steady Bootleggin',Strong Island
Written by: Phillip Mlynar
Photo: Alexander Richter
Here’s another sure-shot from Phillip ‘Half-A-Mil’ Mlynar, who has managed to track down someone so obscure that even Lace Da Booms was like, ‘Oh, snap!’.
Over a decade on from its 1998 release, Scaramanga‘s Seven Eyes, Seven Horns album now sounds like one of the purest statements from the mid-to-late-’90s indie rap scene. Poster boys Mos Def and Talib Kweli quickly came to drop the anti-commercial stance they wore as a badge in favor of attempting to become fixtures in the mainstream firmament themselves. El-P headed left-field with his Def Jux endeavor. A litany of random – and randomly-named – emcees chilled into obscurity after dropping one-off dope 12-inches. But listening to Scara spitting street scriptures over a batch of raw beats sounds like everything the movement was meant to be: Uncompromising and uncut hip-hop that didn’t once think to even cock a glance at the pop charts, let alone dream of becoming a household name.
A large part of the album’s success is down to the lesser-heralded Scholarwise, who provided the majority of beats on the project (at least on the preferable 12-track-long vinyl version), as well as the occasional chorus rap and guest verse. Intermingled with assists from Godfather Don, Goldfinghaz and D.I.T.C‘s Showbiz, Scholar’s production doesn’t just stand up to par – it defines the vibe of the album. His preference for sparse, gritty beats buoyed the Scaramanga persona, with the emcee in fine fettle reminiscing about pearl Fila suits and dropping references to Queens crack kingpins Fat Cat and Montana (all while avoiding any of the science-text-book references that blight Sir Menelik songs).
Currently at work on a new E.P. project that should see release before the summer’s out, here’s Scholar’s rap reminisce…
Phillip: When did you start making hip-hop music?
Scholarwise: Well my first crew was The Underground Brigade, back in the late-’80s. That was the crew of dudes I grew up around the way with. I was born in Brooklyn, I came up on Long Island, and pretty much lived in Hempstead, which is where Public Enemy are from. Hempstead is where 510 South Franklin [Studios] is, so being young and hungry at the time and reading the back of album and liner notes, we found out that Public Enemy’s business address was 510 South Franklin Avenue.
One day we just rolled up there and that’s how I met my mentor, Paul Shabazz. He was doing R&B at the time – and still does – and it’s crazy ‘cos the way 510 South Franklin is situated, the Bomb Squad was upstairs and Paul rented a studio from Eric ‘Vietnam’ Sadler. Paul had a band and that’s where they rehearsed. When we rolled up there Public Enemy was in full swing and 510 was a hub of activity. We posted outside, and there happened to be a Public Enemy tour bus outside. It was like dumb luck!
Did you approach anyone in Public Enemy?
I don’t know if we saw the S1W‘s, but I saw Paul, a light-skinned dude, and he was like, ‘Are you looking for somebody?’ Everyone was walking past us as we were kinda shook to talk to anyone but he asked us what we did and if we rapped or produced. He said to come back the next day, although he said he couldn’t promise anything. But the next day he sat us down and told us about the music business. What we were doing on a production level was so rag-tag, and this was the first time we were exposed to a professional board and things like that. He gave us a lot of guidance. That was the first time I saw an MPC-60 live. He was using it for programming, not sampling.
What did The Underground Brigade sound like?
To tell you the truth, we were heavily influenced by De La Soul. Ultramagnetic MC’s too, but mostly De La with the whole abstract rhyme pattern thing. We were primarily new to the whole sampling thing. The kid who was in the group with us who had the equipment had a sampling keyboard but he looked towards us i n terms of getting samples. My father had a massive record collection. He’s Guyanese. Most Guyanese men have large record collections. His ranged from calypso to soul to reggae to rock ‘n’ roll. We’d see these 45’s and we started to pick up on where people got samples from and so we started lugging them down to the studio.
What rap name were you going under at that time?
I had different names. Zimbabwe The Black Beat Poet was what I was rolling with! It was that whole Afro-centric consciousness thing. It was cool at the time. Scholarwise didn’t actually come about until a little bit before I met Scaramanga. I needed to change to something that reflects my personality.
Can you remember any Underground Brigade song titles?
It was so far-out left, things like ‘Please Don’t Eat My Script’! The titles were crazy.
Who did you see working at 510 Studios?
Sugar Bear and Son Of Bazerk were always hanging around and they were hilarious. They had a real old school hip-hop ethic in terms of keeping on pushing with their craft and they instilled that in us. They’d constantly battle us, asking to hear what we’re working on, so we’d pull out records… It was friendly, a competitive energy. But all they did if they weren’t cutting records was drinking and having snapping sessions.
Sugar Bear, he’s a hilarious dude. Bazerk had jokes for days, it was definitely a good energy, but Sugar Bear would come out on top most times.
Were Leaders Of The New School around during that era?
Yeah, you had Leaders upstairs working on their first album with Hank, Keith and Eric. Eric definitely played a big part in shaping them and giving them direction.
What about Busta Rhymes? Could you detect his star potential back then?
Yeah, you could tell that Busta would be a star. We [The Underground Brigade] did shows with them and Busta on his own had so much charisma on stage. Anywhere he went – and this was sometimes to the detriment of the group – he’d get the most attention. You’d see the competitive energy between him and Charlie Brown; Dinco D was always the neutral guy. But Busta knew he was the star of the show.
What sort of venues did you perform at with Leaders?
Local events. The biggest was a Knights of Columbus thing, a small hall, in Uniondale. That was actually our exposure to Leaders’ prowess as emcees and performers. They performed “Case Of The P.T.A.” for the first time – like the first time it had been mixed, mastered, and was coming out of the big speakers. It was like, ‘Wow, okay!’
So what happened to The Underground Brigade?
I was producing and my cousin at the time was one of the primary emcees, so by then it was whittled down to a two man thing. His name was Square Root. But as I started to get more into the production side, he got more into the business end of things. Hank Shocklee took him under his wing and he interned with Hank at S.O.U.L./MCA when Hank started it.
At that point I was kinda out of the door as far as the whole 510 thing. It was starting to get a little fractured and people were starting to chose sides, like Hank and Keith were doing their own thing and I guess Eric was on his way out. He set up a studio in the Village on Spring Street. I don’t remember the name off-hand but it was pretty dope: it had different little cubicles each with SP1200 keyboards. Each cubicle was assigned to someone and they’d be working on a separate beat. It was funny, one of the deejays who kinda mentored us there was a guy called Epitome Of Scratch actually produced Busta’s ‘Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See’. [Note: He’s credited as co-producer on the record’s credits.]
What sort of stuff were you working on there?
“Well around the time I was out the door of 510 was when Mobb Deep got signed to Island. My mentor, Paul Shabazz, just got signed too. Mobb Deep were running out of budget for Juvenile Hell after spending a lot of money on beats by Large Professor and Premier and that probably broke the bank, so the A&R asked as a favor: ‘We got some young guys looking to cut their first album – will you help them out?’ So Paul let them do a lot of pre-production at the studio called Strong Island Sounds. Another young guy working with me at the time doing engineering called Kerwin Young pretty much did that whole album with Havoc.”
Did you see Mobb Deep at work?
Yeah, I watched them do their whole first album. I actually did one or two joints with Prodigy.
What were they?
There were two songs, but one of the them is in the can. The producer at the time, Kerwin, he had a little side project, so on top of the Mobb Deep album he asked Prodigy to do a song for a mixtape he was working on. Prodigy agreed. But that never saw the light of day for various reasons. And I got busy on a co-production level, though I was never credited, on ‘Project Hallways’. At the time it was around-the-clock sessions in the studio and if Kerwin wasn’t doing any of the production he’d leave the machine on, go to sleep, and be like, ‘If you can add something on to the drums, do it.’
What were Prodigy and Havoc like in the studio?
You know, for all the hoopla and the gangsta-type image, they’re real cool dudes. They never came to the studio with guns blazing or anything. They were there to work and were really quiet. The worst fear was when they brought their peoples with them, whoever was rolling with them at the time. I noticed with Prodigy, he’s a serious writer. You’d give him a yellow legal pad and the beat would be playing and he’d bounce. I always thought he’d left the studio, but he’d be upstairs in the lobby just writing. He’d come back and have pages done already. You saw how intense he could be as an artist. Havoc took a little more time.
So moving on, how did you meet Scaramanga?
We went to high school together. We always had these loose freestyle sessions and our table was called Table 13, which was the one we always held down. I was always on the beatbox or banging out beats with a pen. He said, ‘You’re nice, you should do something.’ I’ve always been a humble warrior and downplayed what I do, but Scara always tried to get me to push myself. I mean I’ve always had straight-up jobs – the starving artist thing ain’t for me! So when I had my first serious job I moved from Long Island to Queens. I was constantly going to the city, just to vibe, hang around West 4th and the Village, and I ended up seeing Scara. He let me know that he’d just come off tour with Kool Keith. He was like, ‘Yo, I’m rolling with Kool Keith now.’ I’m like, ‘Kool Keith from Ultra?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I met him at this birthday party…’ He was telling me about the whole Lyricist Lounge thing and asked what I was working on. I told him I had my little set-up and he said he’d come through.”
He didn’t, but he’s a cat that’s true to his word. So maybe around ’97 I bumped into him again and he was like, ‘Yo. it’s really going to be on, just stay around. If you believe in what you’re doing I’m gonna come see you.’ This time he did.
And that’s when you started recording together?
Yeah. I had a four-track cassette at the time – ‘cos I was still in the process of switching from analogue to digital – and I was about to get rid of it and I had a beat left in there, kinda a throwaway beat. That’s what “Cash Flow” was. Scara was like, ‘Yo, this is dope, let me spit on it!’ I was like ‘Nah, I got something else…’ But he went in and laid two verses. He was like, ‘Cut me a copy.’ I said, ‘I’ll do it, but this isn’t really like the best work…’
Then a week or two later he comes back with a piece of green vinyl! I was like, ‘Yo, are you serious?!’ He goes, ‘Yeah, Tricky wants to work with me.’ I say, ‘Tricky, like the drum ‘n’ bass guy?’ Scara says, ‘Yeah, he wants to cut an album.’ I asked him how he got Tricky to cut the vinyl and he says that Tricky just got a deal with Virgin or whoever and so he told him that if he was serious about working with him he’d cut him the dub-plate. So Tricky went and cut it. Then two weeks after that he came back with the “Cash Flow” vinyl. Looking back on it, he was setting up a lot of things at that time. Scara’s a dude that doesn’t like to wait on things. He’s a real determined, serious dude.”
How did you put the bassline for ‘Cash Flow’ together?
It’s a sample. The technique… It’s not even something I can’t give up. I realized over a course of years that I’ve been producing the same way consistently, even before my MPC-60, back when I had a Yamaha sampling keyboard, and I’d take bits of basslines and pitch them up or down. A lot of times it’s not something sampled end-to-end – it’s something I took a snippet of and reversed it or stretched it out.
What about that weird glitchy-sounding bit after the first verse?
The glitch? Ha ha, it’s me and the four-track. Again, it wasn’t intended to be recorded, so I recorded over something. I was still new to punching at the time so I guess when Scara asked me to punch I didn’t have the record button all the way down so it added a little opening. See, these are things I’d constantly beat myself up about but he was like, ‘Nah, it’s good.’
So at what point did you decide to work on an album?
Well by now I got rid of the four-track, went to the Roland VS880, which was my first introduction to digital recording. You know, I sat and read through the whole manual that night. Scara was still trying to shop a deal. He had cut some records with Rawkus, things like ‘So Intelligent’, but he was really focusing on trying to get an album together. He didn’t have production yet in terms of having Goldfinghaz and Showbiz on stand, so we just went to knock some joints out. In mid-’97 we started working, just like when we could catch up to each other and put things in the can.”
What were the next songs you recorded together?
I was playing him some beats and he caught me by surprise ‘cos I thought he’d listen and then come back later. But I played three beats – ‘Alphabetic Hammer’, ‘Death Letter’ and I think ‘Seven Eyes, Seven Horns’ – and ‘Alphabetic Hammer’ was the one that really took him.
He had his knapsack with him. That was infamous. He kept his books there – we called them tablets! He had composition books full of rhymes. Not one page in them was blank, from the beginning to the end. He was like, ‘I got something for that. Is your mic good?’ I got my mic, just let him go, just tear into the beats. Everything I played he had something for.
Whose idea was it to have you doing the chorus on ‘Alphabetic Hammer’?
That was his idea. He’d say the verse, decide it needed a chorus and be like, ‘Scholar, say this.’ He’d write it how he’d hear it, mumble to himself, like ‘Partners in crime, 1999…’ It was the same as with ‘Death Letter’ – that one he was pushing me, saying, ‘I know you can produce but you can rap too, you’re nice with yours.’
Being honest, do you know what he’s rapping about on all the tracks? The songs are very densely-packed with words…
Yeah, I do, but that’s because we’ve had conversations about religion, government, politics, metaphysics… So I always knew where his head was at. You can have a conversation with him about anything, whether it’s quantum physics or the Jets game, ‘cos he’s a big football head, definitely a big sports head. We all came up from the same point of reference. But I was always amused at how other people understood it all.
I remember going to the DMC’s just after the album had dropped and he asked me to run with him there. It was at Irving Plaza and he performed ‘Holdin’ New Cards’ and either a bit of ‘Death Letter’ or ‘Alphabetic Hammer’. I was his hype man and Joe from Fat Beats was his deejay. I was surprised how people already knew the songs, were rapping along and calling out names of songs.
So what about the opening quote on the title track? Is that from the Bible?
Yeah, and that’s Scara again. Like I said, after him being just a real business man and an emcee, he has his religious and spiritual side. He’s really versed. He’ll quote something from the Kaballah or the Torah.
What’s the story behind the introduction to the album, ‘Sun Large Promo’?
That’s Scara in rare form! A lot of joints I had that I was ambivalent about I’d push to the side, so I had stacks of MPC-60 discs laying around in boxes. When Scara would come over for one of our impromptu sessions he’d ask what was in the boxes. So ‘Sun Large Promo’ was just drums at that point. The bassline is something from DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, from one of this albums. It’s this dub ragga thing. We lifted the bassline from it. I just did the drums and Scara came over with the Spooky record.
What’s the main sample on the ‘Seven Eyes, Seven Horns’ song?
Okay, I can give them up now: That’s from Lee Scratch Perry. He’s a big influence. My father had one or two of his 45s. I just added my little stab to it.’
What the story behind the sample on ‘Sugar 99’?
That’s from the Heath Brothers, ‘Smiling Billy Suite Pt. 2′, the same one used on the Nas record. I like when samples are slow enough and spaced out enough that you can take the little pieces and make them sound like anything. When Scara heard it he was like, ‘Oh, that’s the ‘One Love’ joint? Word, cool, I’m a run with that.’
The album credits mention it being recorded at Axiom Studios. Where was that?
Axiom Studios was when I moved to Jamaica, Queens to a studio apartment and I had my studio in there too. I was literally sleeping on records at that point!”
The drums on your productions on the album are always really heavy and hard-hitting. How do you go about getting that sound?
I picked up a technique from Paul C, rest in peace. With Ultramagnetic, Paul C, and even Mark The 45 King, there’s something they do with their samples that has to do with pushing the gain. If you listen to the original Marva Whitney song [‘Unwind Yourself’] that became ‘The 900 Number’, it doesn’t have the same strength so you know he did something to it, like boosting the gain. It’s the same thing with Paul C and Ced Gee – a lot of the samples on Critical Beatdown are common samples but you listen to them on the album and they sound crunchy, like they pushed the gain over. Sampling back then was 8-bit, 24-bit, the resolution wasn’t really clean, so if you pushed it two or three decibels over the gain you’re gonna get a whole different gain. That’s the sound I always want in my production, those hard drums that snap.
If you could go back, what would you change about your production on the album?
I’d re-do ‘Death Letter’. It’s so sparse. A lot of my production is sparse ‘cos sometimes when I produce I can’t hear past certain instruments – like I only want drums and bass. But when I heard Don’s remix, with the David McCallum sample [‘The Edge’], he’d really flipped it and I was like, ‘Ah, Don’s showed me up!’
Did you know that there was going to be a remix of ‘Death Letter’ on the album?
Nah, that came after the fact. And the other joint which is a dope joint and I heard it in Don’s studio and thought he was going to use it for himself was ‘Star Of The Empire’, which was on the CD version.
Did you record any tracks that never made the album?
There were a handful, a few. I may still have them in the stash. It’s really just a handful, but by that point Scara had already rounded out the situation with other cats like Goldfinghaz and Godfather Don being involved. He was running with Don really strong at the time.
Myself, I didn’t really know Don like that. But by the time we had finished and we’d started promoting the album, he brought me over to Don’s studio and I saw Don’s process. Those guys were like two juggernauts, always pushing each other. I’d be amazed at how long their bars would be – it wasn’t just like 16’s and then a chorus. Don’s the same way as Scara, with yellow legal pads and composition books full of rhymes.
Where was Don’s studio?
It was in Brooklyn. They lived not too far from each other. We could take like a dollar van cab to get to Don’s studio.
What was he like in the studio?
Don, he definitely goes in on the beats. He’s another cat with records everywhere; pulling out records that I don’t even know the artist, Brazilian records, soul records, whatever… He had a nice collection and knew where he was going sound wise. My process is like an adventure: when I sample something I never know where it’s going. Don is like more concrete: start with the drums, then add the horns and then the bassline, so it’s kinda linear in that respect; a pretty straight ahead process.
So did the Group War Committee that’s referenced on the album ever get close to happening?
Group War Committee was going to be like the triad: Scara, Godfather Don and myself, and then maybe one or two other dudes that Scara was running with at the time. It was just that everybody had different things going on at the time. Scara’s a dude that if it doesn’t happen he’s gonna ago straight ahead and move on to the next thing.
Did you record any songs as Group War Committee?
We didn’t get that far. If anything happened then those compositions are with Don.
Where did the name come from?
Group War Committee was really a take on Puffy‘s The Commission. Scara knew Biggie. And not in a casual sense, but he really knew BIG. He was living in Brooklyn around St. James Place at the time so Group War Commission was kinda like how they had The Commission, Puffy’s own squad.
How close were Scaramanga and Biggie?
He was cool with BIG. I remember meeting Big one time at the Who’s The Man premiere. Big had a song on that, ‘Party And Bullshit’, and Puffy and my cousin knew each other at the time ‘cos they were like young executives, and I can’t remember what cinema it was but Puffy was outside with Big. Puffy’s like, ‘I want you to meet my man, Big.’ Big’s standing there as nonchalant as can be, says, ‘ Yo, what’s up dude?’ We gave him a pound. They said they were doing a show later that night, but we didn’t make it.
So what happened to you after Seven Eyes, Seven Horns, music-wise? Did you record anything under a different name?
After that album I went through a little hiatus, made some life choices, got married, had a kid. At the time the album dropped, Scara was telling me about a situation where KRS-One, one of my biggest idols, had licensed two songs for the Temple Of Hip-Hop project. He said KRS was saying, ‘These songs are crazy, I need to fly y’all out here to cut a record with me.’ When Scara called me I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t do that, I’ve got my life.’ Scara would do something like that in a heart-beat, budget or no budget.
There are no hidden songs from me. The last thing I did under my own name was in ’03 called ‘Supply And Demand’. It was a single, my own joint, that was mostly spurred by wanting to just drop something. People would always hit me up on the strength of the Seven Eyes, Seven Horns album, asking what I was recording next.
What did it sound like?
It was in the same style as Seven Eyes, Seven Horns, all big, open drums and in-your-face production, and trying to keep the lyricism witty enough. It was released on Axiom Entertainment.
Finally, will you ever work with Scaramanga again?
Yeah, if he pops up. I haven’t seen him since late-’07. He’s like that – he goes away for a minute then comes back with something totally brand new. I remember seeing a van driving around Queens with Snake Eyes on it and was like, ‘Oh, that’s my man’s joint!’ He was running with a dude called [Big] Dibbs who we knew back in the days from the rap group Phase ‘N Rhythm. I think he was also running with some dudes uptown in Harlem at that point.
Scaramanga – ‘Death Letter’
Scaramanga – ‘Suga 99′
Scaramanga – ‘Seven Eyes Seven Horns’
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