Filed under: Features,Interviews,Not Your Average,Philly Jawns,Video Clips
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Jedi Mind Tricks front man Vinnie Paz drops his second solo LP, God of the Serengeti, on 22 October, featuring production from DJ Premier, Marco Polo, Havoc, Psycho Les and more. I caught-up with him recently to discuss growing-up in Philly, his early days as an MC and his involvement in one of the best selling independent rap albums of all time.
Robbie: Is it true your brother used to work on Cool C’s car in Philly?
Vinnie Paz: Yeah, he used to detail his car. He was always real cool to my brother. My business partner to this day, Yan, worked at the sneaker store where all the Hilltop dudes would buy all their sneakers. He would tell me they would come through and each drop a couple of thousand in cash on Jordans and Air Max and shit like that.
What are some of your memories of growing-up in Philly?
Hilltop Hustlers and Tuff Crew – my perception of it – those guys were as big as it gets to me. Now that I’m grown, I realize how regional they were. They weren’t household names, but to me they were superstars. Maybe I should be more aware of it when it comes to the fans of mine today…
How important was it to have local crews to look up to when you were growing up?
It was Tuff Crew and Hilltop and Schoolly-D and they were repping where we were from. That was just refreshing and it made me feel like, ‘Maybe I can do this’. I remember thinking the New York stuff was so untouchable and unattainable, and it wasn’t those Philly artists came out that i was like, ‘Damn! You don’t have to be from New York to make a record!’ It seems like pure stupidity to think like that now, but I was so young, and culturally-speaking, hip-hop wasn’t that old yet. It was still in the early stages of being out on vinyl. I remember the New Jersey Flavor Unit people like Latee and The 45 King, and records like Lord Shafiq ‘My Mic Is On Fire’. Those records were so incredible and so distant, and the Philly stuff made me feel like maybe I could do it someday.
It was interesting when Three Times Dope fell out with their management and the rest of the Hilltop turned against them, it was similar to the situation with Cube and NWA. Years later everyone relises they were all getting ripped-off and patched things up.
Ha! Because they were all together in the early days with the ‘Crushin and Bussin’ remix. It was pretty indicative of the early days of hip-hop in general, in a microcosm in Philly. Just like you mentioned with Dre and Cube eventually realizing they were both being fucked by Jerry Heller. You had people beefing, but for the wrong reasons and mad at the wrong people. Lawrence Goodman – production-wise and management-wise – has contributed so much to Philly in terms of the hip-hop scene, as far as being Qu’Ran’s father from Da Youngstas, and LG doing a lot of the production on those Hilltop records.
Going twenty-five plus years ago, me and you don’t know what was true and what happened. A lot of times, just being a naive kid you might sign a bad deal, and who’s fault is that at the end of the day? Its stuff that’s happened to me! I may have been in bad situations, but at the end of the day I don’t have anyone to blame but myself. When you get someone who’s never had shit in their life, and you put some money in front of them, the nature of man is to jump at that, rather than say, ‘Well, maybe I’m worth more’, your nature is: ‘Whatever this person’s offering, I’m going to take’. Imagine when you’re a teenager – $5,000 sounds like a million! So you’re not thinking clearly.
There were stories about someone from the Hilltop throwing a dime at EST on a basketball court and a brawl broke out…
Philly was so crazy back then. It was all – perceived at least for the fans -as fueling good music. Who’s to say what really happened though.
Hilltop Hustlers was more than just a rap crew though, right?
Absolutely. They were street dudes, definitely. Unfortunately you got to see that was true years later when the whole situation with Cool C and Steady B and the bank robbery and the murder happened. LG is a legend as far as the street out here, but he’s older now nd real helpful to people, especially in the Islamic community. Those dudes were street legends on top of the music shit. The Junior Black Mafia was running shit in Philly back then. It was just a wild time – the mid to late 80’s in Philly in general, the climate here was crazy. The hip-hop that was being made kinda reflected that – real gritty shit. Those early Schoolly-D records were so hard.
Nothing’s ever come close to being as raw as that since.
Schoolly was at my last Philly show. It was an honor to have him there. Those Tuff Crew records were amazing too.
Remember Singing MC Breeze ‘Disconbobulator’?
Oh shit! [laughs] That’s crazy you remember that, a lot of Philly people don’t even remember that record.
When did you start getting into records?
I was young. I was always doing things that kids four or five years older were doing. It might sound crazy that I was six or seven years old, completely aware of these things. Even my mother will bring it up to this day – I was more interested in being allowed to go to the record store and buy twelve inches than I was in toys and stuff. I remember in ‘83 or ‘84, hearing the first Run-DMC record from my older brothers. I never hung-out with kids my age – ever. I day-dreamed about music while other kids day-dreamed about being a superhero!
What was the first show you went to?
The first that was really lucid in my memory was 3rd Bass opening up for Big Daddy Kane. I was like twelve years old. It was on a college campus – Irvine Auditorium. I remember I snuck a tape recorder in too.
At what stage did you try your hand at rapping?
Whatever year ‘This Cut’s Got Flavor’ was, by Latee. Lady B played that – she was Mr. Magic to us. I don’t know what it is specifically about that record that made me pick it – maybe it was how dope that beat was. I remember having that twelve inch and trying to play with rhymes with that instrumental. I was terrible, of course, ‘cos I was ten years old or something. Within a couple of years later I had another Italian kid, Joey, that could beatbox pretty well. We had a shitty little radio, and he would beatbox and I would rap and we would record it. By ‘91 I had friends who had a band, and I brought-up the idea of them replaying some Sam Cook loops or Bill Withers loops and having me rhyme over them.
What were you calling yourselves?
The group as a whole, we were calling ourselves Under The Influence. All my earliest rhyme names were all of my early graffiti names. I was using Crash, or MC Crash…I was using Aesop. The early Jedi stuff I was using Ikon, ‘cos that’s what I was writing in graffiti. Philly graffiti culture is just so deep and rich – it was just something we all did. I wouldn’t compare myself to some of the legends, but it was like drink 40’s, smoke blunts, run around the city, listen to hip-hop and write graffiti.
The daily operation. It’s a lot more segmented now.
It’s something that me and Ill Bill talk about. His history in the rap game goes back to being in the ‘Who Got The Props’ video with Black Moon twenty years ago, and being managed by Chuck Chillout.
Really? I didn’t know that. Plus he did those songs with Joe Fatal.
He actually just linked back up with Joe Fatal. They hadn’t talked in a bunch of years and Bill actually found him. But whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or these message boards, it allows a lot of these fuckin’ kids who would never have a voice say cowardly fuckin’ things from behind a computer, not knowing the history of people like me and Bill in this culture in each of our cities. We go back twenty plus years in this shit.
What was the next step after the band?
Meeting Stoupe. We were just working off two turntables and a mic, a four second sampler on the mixer and a little Tascam four track track mixer. New York had Fat Beats and Beat Street Records – there was a place called Lay-Up in Philly. Cosmo Baker and Kenny Meez, Rich Medina – a lotta Philly DJ’s were working and deejaying in there. People would be out front of there rhyming – Black Thought, Dice Raw, 100X [Posse]. Bad Newz from 100X will go down as one of the best rappers to ever live, to me. I feel like he never got his just due. I remember The Roots – when they were called The Square Roots – opening up for Ultramagnetic, and there being a cipher there. A lot of those early memories of being in those ciphers was people being like, ‘There’s no way this kid could be Italian! He’s gotta be Puerto-Rican or something’. There was no exposure to a white kid who could rap his ass off – you had the Beastie Boys and you had 3rd Bass – everyone else was a fuckin’ mockery.
Did you get any response from the labels when you eventually started sending out your demo?
A lot of rejection letters! Somehow they reviewed our demo in On The Go magazine, and that was the highlight of my life! I was sixteen and they wrote a little paragraph review of our shit. They were giving us love! I remember just staring at that review. It was a validation that we were onto something at least. Big shouts to ESPO and all those dudes. We were called Soul Craft back then. I named the group after a Bad Brains song. Then Ruffhouse Records got in contact with us and called for a meeting. They didn’t how young I was – I wasn’t even old enough to sign a contract. At one point they were interested in signing Stoupe to a production deal to have him do beats for Ruffhouse artists, but he was like, ‘Nah, I don’t wanna do it if it’s not with Vinnie’. We had a meeting with TVT/Blunt Records in New York too.
There was this radio show which was kinda our version of Stretch and Bobbito, called ‘Vibes and Vapors’. It was 1033 WPRB – that’s Princeton University. Their radio station had more watts, more power, more listeners, than a lot of huge east coast radio stations – people in Jersey heard it, people in New York heard it and people in Philly got it – so it was huge. My man G had a show called ‘Raw Deal’. He was integral in the beginning stages of Wu-Tang, he was the one who broke that first twelve inch. The ‘Vibes and Vapors’ show put together a compilation – in ‘94 we had a crew of graffiti writers, DJ’s and MC’s called Dubside – and were on this compilation. Stoupe did the beat, and nine of us rhymed on there on some Wu-Tang shit. The song was called ‘Souls From The Street’. They pressed that on vinyl and cassette. I remember how life-changing that was to be able to put the record on the turntable and hear my voice.
After that we did a whole Soul Craft EP which we pressed-up on cassette. I was selling it in high school and we were sending it out to labels, but we didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere. We started seeing all these records pop-up on these labels that we’d never heard of, and we’re like, ‘These people must be doing it by themselves. No ones gonna sign us – let’s try this!’ We found a pressing plant, and at this point we had changed our name from Soul Craft to Jedi Mind Tricks. Started sending them out, and DJ Stef from the Vinyl Exchange newsletter reviewed it. Peanut Butter Wolf was working at a distributor called THC out in Cali. He was the first person to take our records on the west coast. That’s when it all really started.
How many copies of the Amber Probe EP did you press originally?
We were recording at Stoupe’s parents house on shitty equipment and there were four us in the Superregular basement – shipping the records, doing the artwork, photocopying the bio’s. It was just fuckin’ chaos, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had so little money, I think we did 300 copies. The intent was ‘Let’s just send them all out. Forget making any of our money back’. And it actually worked. We took every magazine address that we could possibly find, every email address – this is the birth of when shit was popping with internet and hip-hop. The Vinyl Exchange, hiphopsite.com, sandbox automatic – we were just sending one or two copies for free and seeing what happened. From there, distributors like BUDS Distribution in New York, THC, Big Daddy started placing orders, and then thing started getting into the thousands fro the re-up.
Did you start working on the first album straight away?
Any little money we got back from The Amber Probe, we were just using it to buy anything we needed for the studio. We bought a beat machine and an ADAT for Stoupe’s crib. A lot of people don’t know – we weren’t even in a fuckin’ real studio until Visions of Ghandi in 2003.
Violent By Design was done in the crib?
We recorded and mixed that in the bedroom. We didn’t even have anything sound-proofed and we had no mic booth. We just had to be quiet! It would be a fuckin’ 100 degrees outside and Stoupe would fuckin’ shut all the windows and turn the fan off so the mic wouldn’t pick anything up. It was like a thousand degrees in there bro! And we were smoking and drinking 40’s! You look back at those times and you think, ‘We were fuckin’ idiots!’
I suppose that adds to the atmosphere though.
Yeah man, it does! A lot of that shit were contributing factors to the why certain things were the way they were. Good, bad or ugly your environment creates that shit.
How long did the first album take?
Maybe nine months, which sounds insanely long. We had to record when it was cool to record as far as his parents were concerned, so we were basically recording every Friday for three hours. Stoupe is, to this day, notoriously slow. There would go weeks at a time where nothing would get done. It took another three years to do Violent By Design, because we were taking it more seriously and elevating our craft. We did the first two records on strictly vinyl, so then Violent By Design comes out and gets distribution through Landspeed, so that’s available on CD and that shit takes off. The amount of records we must have sold off of that shit? I’d probably be rich if we actually got paid off of that. Landspeed were doing everybody dirty, and then in Europe – they were bootlegging it! But when you’re young and you’re getting into magazines and the internet is buzzing, you’re not even thinking about the business. I was just happy we were getting shine. If we had to get ripped-off to get exposure, then so be it.
There seemed to be a major change in your style on that album.
I might be the only MC of all time stupid enough to put out a concept album as their first record. The shit I was doing in the early 90’s is way more reminiscent of what I’m doing today. For the lack of a better description it was battle rap type shit. I didn’t realise that [‘Psycho-Social’] might give people the impression that this is all that I’m about. It was definitely jarring for certain people to hear us coming with braggadocio battle-rap type shit, after coming from the previous record, which was super spiritual and cerebral.
How did you the song with Tragedy come about?
It was such an honor, Trag is still a friend to this day. My man Matt was working at Gee Street, and was like, ‘I see Trag at the office all the time’. We got him on the phone and we actually went to Queens with our equipment and recorded Killa Sha’s verse, and Trag’s verse – Rest In Peace Killa Sha. Some girl we knew let us set-up our equipment in her bedroom in Queens, and they came through and spit a verse. Trag has been on a lot of my records since then – he’s on my new shit.
How many copies of that album do you think are out there?
I would say – via bootleg – 250,000 would have gotten their hands on that. Imagine if I wasn’t an idiot and I’d really had my business together. Then it was re-released through Babygrande, so it opened up to a whole other generation of kids. It’s still selling through them, and who knows what the fuck they’re doing with it.
So Babygrande weren’t much better than Landspeed?
What we were dealing with then, is basically like what America’s dealing with in the presidential election – what asshole is gonna fuck me up less? That’s the sad fact for any artist that’s dealing with a label.
Did you start touring heavily after that album?
I have something called ‘Depersonalization Disorder’. It was creating severe panic and separation anxiety with leaving Philadelphia. At one point I was like, ‘I’m never gonna tour’. This was before it was getting really bad with internet bootlegging, so some part of me thought I could make a living and still not touring. Obviously later on, I realized that wasn’t gonna happen. I remember going to LA, three weeks before 9/11 happened, and I was a wreck emotionally the whole time I was there. Really contemplating suicide and shit. It wasn’t until I saw the right people and realized that a lot of that shit is chemical imbalances in your brain. It’s still debilitating, but it’s something that I’m able to get through. I love performing, but I want to get back to my old bed that night. If I could perform in Greece and Switzerland and go home the same night to my bed? I would tour 200 days a year!
What’s next after this new solo LP? Another Heavy Metal Kings record?
Me and Bill have already started working on it. We probably have 30 beats we love, already. That’s the next move.
Dubside Collective – ‘Souls From The Streets’
Jedi Mind Tricks feat. RA The Rugged Man – ‘Uncommon Valor’
Vinnie Paz – ‘Cheese Steaks’
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