Actually, my first question might wind up being almost an entire interview in itself, but I wanted to get into all the members of New Beginning… just who everybody is, what they did.
Ok. Well, New Beginning… I was trying to put together a group bigger than just your average hip-hop group where everybody had a simple place. So, the original members first… you had A-Sharp, who at the time was a singer. He was supposed to be the male singer in the group, and he also was a song writer. And he was also like a fashion guy. Him and I would be the ones running around trying to get a look for the group.
B-Flat was our original DJ. B-Flat was a cat I went to school with who I’ve known since fifth grade, so he just, through osmosis, wound up in the group. He was pretty much the only DJ I knew.
So, are there any songs where it’s him doing the scratching, as opposed to Tat Money?
The whole first album. Any cuts that’s on the first album, that was B-Flat. One song that comes to mind is “Pushthepanicbutton!!!”
Then we had C-Major. Everybody had the musical names. He was pretty much the only one that didn’t have too much to do in the group; he was just one of our boys from high school. We were just all good friends, so he came along and we gave him a title. But his role was very short-lived when it just wasn’t working out like that. It was like, “ok, I’m paying all these guys;” and I had to trim the fat.
And then B-Flat left the group. And he formed another group with his brother than had one record in the 90’s called “Party Line.” And the name of the group was Fifth Platoon.
The funny thing is, before my first album came out, outside of the crew that I was with – like Salt-N-Pepa, Kid ‘N’ Play, and Dana Dane and them – the first rapper I met was Steady B. So I got cool with Steady. And I got cool with Tat Money. I got real cool with Tat Money, and so him and Steady were having problems at the time. And me and B-Flat were having problems at the time. So I just thought it would be a good power move to get a DJ that hip-hoppers knew and put him in a crew that hip-hoppers knew. So that’s how Tat Money came about.
And were there ever any problems with The Hilltop over that?
It was never beef with The Hilltop. And it was weird because I’m surprised that it wasn’t. Because, at the time my best friend was EST, and he had problems with Hilltop, and Tat Money had problems with Hilltop, but I didn’t. I think I was just like the middle man. I said, look, this isn’t “Kwamé and a New Beginning’s beef.” The problems that you guys have are personal problems from when you guys were kids. And there were situations where we all sat down and were like, look, this doesn’t have anything to do with shows, this has nothing to do with records. We don’t talk about cha’ll on the record. You don’t talk about us on the record, so there should be no beef. If there’s a personal issue, handle it personally. And that was pretty much the difference between hip-hop then and now, when it comes to things like that.
Then, the last member was Tasha. Tasha joined us on the second album, but she originally was an artist in a female rap group, or rap/slash singing group that I was producing at the time. And that didn’t work out. So I was just like, “hey, why don’t you join my group?” And that’s how we came to be.
I remember with Tasha Lambert, there was a ton of buzz that she was gonna go solo for a while there…
Tasha had a deal with Elektra. The album was recorded and ready to go. And right before mastering, she called the record label and told them that she had found Jesus and could not sing that kind of music anymore.
And that was the beginning and the end of Tasha Lambert’s career.
Yeah, I remember her and the girl who sang for Candyman both had a lot of publicity going about solo careers coming that never happened.
Yup. And I did some great records on that album. But that never saw the light of day.
So I guess that’s just in Elektra’s vaults somewhere?
Yup. I was so jaded by that situation, I don’t even have copies of it!
So then, I guess that unreleased album would be a natural segue to my next question… apparently, you have a 1996 unreleased album?
Oh yeah; how’d you find out about that? That was a pretty good album, too. Very good album. I was sort of in between whether I wanted to just go forward as a producer or try to continue my work as an artist. And during that time, I recorded an album.
Was that for a label, or something you were doing on your own to shop, or…?
Well, at the time I was on this label called Ichiban, and I released an album called Incognito on that label. And the deal was to do just one album. And we were in talks to possibly do a second. But I think, where I was at the time, I didn’t want to deal with the whole ins and outs of being an artist for whatever reason, and I never continued with Ichiban. Ichiban folded anyway. I had a fully recorded album, but I just felt that my calling was more producing records than going on the circuit and falling into the powers of the record label. You know, you have good records, but you have but so much control as an artist.
And how much did either label - Ichiban or
Oh, very much so! I can honestly say that things rappers are doing today, I was fighting to do in 1989, 1990. Things as simple as singing over… like, you know how Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks sounds? I was making records like that, and it was a fight. Labels were saying: you’re a rapper; you have to stay a rapper. You can’t do things like that.
Or something as simple as “Ownlee Eue.” The “Ownlee Eue” record was a big fight. That record was originally written and produced for Vanessa Williams at the time. And I didn’t make the album’s deadline, so I put another verse on it and I said, look. At that time, rap records could not get played before 6pm. It’s like radio stations were doing this thing called a “no rap workday;” and radio stations were literally boycotting rap records. Because, at the time, NWA was coming out, and the rap records were getting a little bit too out of hand. So what I thought up was, “let me make a record that’s 50% rap and 50% R&B, push it as an R&B record with me pretty much as the feature, so we can get these records play at 6 in the morning as opposed to 6pm.” Oh my god, that was the biggest fight! That was the biggest fight... And even in the end, they just halfway pushed that one.
You know, another thing I had a fight with the label was I said, “for this album – the second album – let me make, instead a bunch of broken up videos, a full video-tape and sell the tape.” Make a movie, with four or five little videos within this movie. Sort of like Streets is Watching, and sell it like that. Because I’m known for my visuals, so let’s sell a separate video tape. “No, that’ll never work! You can never do that.” And that kinda just hardened me as an artist because everywhere that I turned, everything that I tried to do and every ground that I tried to break, was always a constant battle.
And I think the last straw was when groups like Naughty By Nature… You know, in the 90’s, when groups got grimier, and the label pitched it: “why don’t you start wearing Timberlands and Lumberjacks and braid your hair and come out looking like Treach.” I was like, this is the last straw; I’m not dealing with this.
So, was the posse cut on Nastee like a response to that?
That posse cut was a joke! Really. That was saying, “oh, you want a posse cut? Here we go.” We were all just joking around, acting like dumbasses in the studio.
So, those are fake names in the credits, right? Because some of those names are pretty goofy… [the liner notes read: “featuring the Boys from the Group Home: KBornGodAllahNegativeXtheHoe, Gasoline Alley, CJaneRunLikeAMutha, Grand Master Flex.”]
Oh yeah, definitely!
So who was really on that song?
If it wasn’t all just me, it was one of the guys in the group. You know, I’ve stayed with the fake names in the credits. And I think that was just from my idolization of what Prince used to do. Like Prince would always put it under a fake name, so it was just one of those things.
Well, let me get into this, then… these were either some other people who you worked with, or maybe they were just fake names. Let me ask you about these names from your credits. Like MAD Scratches?
Oh ok. (Laughs) Well, on the last album, you had an MC named GR81?
Oh, the GR81. She was an artist outta Philly that I was trying to develop. She was dope. I was working with this AIDS awareness repertoire group that I did some appearances with and music for. And she was one of the kids in the group. Well, she wasn’t a kid, but she was one of the people in the group. I thought she was kinda hot, so I said come on this album and let’s do a duet. That’s how that one happened.
Ok, how about DJ Blah Love?
That’s me! (Laughs)
Peek-A-Boo… I think was a dancer?
He was one of our dancers, yup.
[I was going to ask about somebody billed on the 4th album as Dave “The Leader” Locust, but I found out during the course of arranging this interview that he’s Kwamé’s manager.] And who was Nina Love? She gets a lot of credit on the third album and I think that’s even her on the cover?
Nina Love was a dancer that was in the group, but she also did a lot of background vocals, and just different party scenes and things like that.
And how about Domini the Freak?
Domini was a singer signed to John B, who was in a group called Jack Hererra. So he did a lot of the male singing vocals on the third album.
Ok, and who were The Brothers Grimm? I know you were one of them, but…
That was just our little writing crew. That was me, A-Sharp, Hurby Luvbug’s little brother Stevie-O and the other kid who was with us, C-Major. That was just our little clique that we had.
Ok, and I’ve heard – and as a matter of fact, I’ve even seen your video for D-Nice where you talk about producing most of the first album… but Hurby Luvbug and the Invincibles get full production credit on that.
How much did they do versus how much did you do?
That was a straight jack move. 100% jack move. That was a situation where I was 16 years old, my parents had divorce lawyers look over the contract, and it was just absolutely crazy. And so the record deal came with a production deal and a management contract. So Hurby was my manager, my producer and my publishing was signed under his production company, which is why he got the producing credit.
So, did they do any work on that album at all?
Not at all! Hurby was pretty much busy working on a Salt-N-Pepa album and my first album was pretty much done before I got the deal. So the most that Hurby would do would be like to come in the studio and say, “why don’t you rap that a little bit softer” or “I like that song! No, I don’t like that song.” And that was the gist of it.
Looking back, I understand what Hurby was doing. He was definitely letting me do my talent. And he would give some advice like on my cadence on the records. But music-wise, like actually making the music and production-wise, he didn’t have anything to do with that record.
And what about later on? Did he get more involved?
No. It was always me as far as the production goes. The only record that Hurby did was the only record I was involved with that I didn’t like! My second video, “U Gotz 2 Get Down!” He did the go-go remix that was in the video. And that was a push from the record label, ‘cause they were like, “we have your name all over these records and you have yet to do a record.” So they made him do that.
But that song, the go-go version, was never for sale or anything ['though it was included on the B-side to "The Rhythm" single]. And I hated that record. I never performed it, nothing. Because I was partial to the original. I was a very lyrical guy, pre-getting a deal. I was just very into lyrics, either telling crazy stories or just ill rhymes. And with Hurby being in that whole Kid ‘N Play, Salt-N-Pepa camp, there were things that were done to soften up the imagery that in ways ended up working, but in other ways, as a 16-17 year-old kid that was into people like Kool G Rap… sometimes it was a little bit of friction.
Yeah, I remember a friend at college (what up, Kareem!) had a tape of you freestyling on the radio, and it was a surprise in the 90’s to hear you be that lyrical after being so familiar with your image for so long.
Well, I kinda appreciated that situation. Because I never believed in showing everything that you’re about all at once. So I like to keep those little elements as like a surprise. Especially when I would do radio shows and I would ask to freestyle and spit some real stuff, and they’d be like “damn, we didn’t even know!”
Yeah, and I know you worked with Original Flavor a bit in the 90’s, who were of course on that tip.
Yeah, Original Flavor did a remix for me called “Can You Feel It?” And I requested that Ski do that remix because I just thought he was so dope, and I loved the stuff he was doing with Original Flavor. I was like, man, I’m not used to rhyming over other peoples’ records, but I would love to hear how Ski approaches it, remix-wise. And also, I felt like I always know where I’m gonna go. When I make records, I have lyrics first and then I make tracks around the lyrics. So I just wanted to get on top of another type of beat and just go in. And then, actually, Tat Money produced the title track “Incognito” on that album, so that was a good look also. ‘Cause Tat was getting heavy into production and then one day he played that beat and I was like, “oh, I need that! That’s dope.”
Oh, and speaking of Tat Money, I noticed on your second album he’s credited as DJ T.A.T., like Tat’s an acronym. Do you know what was that for?
Yeah. Terrence Allen Thomas. (Laughs) He’s gonna kill me for giving that one up. That’s ok, though. I call him Terrence on stage, so it don’t matter.
Oh, speaking of on stage, tell us about Rapmania.
Aw, Rapmania was the best! It was the best, but looking back on it, there’s certain things I wish I would’ve done different. Like, to me Rapmania was the best having all those rappers in one place at one time, but looking back at it, it felt like a circus. I went on stage with like every dancer I knew, and it was a big spectacle just to do a record like “The Rhythm.”
And the beat was different for “The Rhythm” you performed that night, right?
Yeah, and that was another thing. I wish I had performed just the regular version; but I was like, “nah, I’m gonna flip it up and do a live version” with live instruments and stuff like that.
And do you have stuff like that? That remix or the 1996 album? Is that something you could release yourself, like independently now?
Yeah! Because it wasn’t signed to any label. One thing about me, I always stayed recording. I always kept my studio with me. Like, for instance, if I’m on the road, I’m setting my hotel up like a studio. And during that time, I was just constantly recording and recording and recording. So I think when the time is right, or if the time is right, I will definitely release that untitled album, probably adjacent to something else.
Yeah, I think this is a good time, with the internet reconnecting audiences and all…
I was surprised you knew about that, because I rarely, if at all, talk about it.
What’s that album like, say compared to your others?
The album, I don’t know… it’s very lyrical. And I think it’s a very raw album. Raw as the artist Kwamé could get while still being believable. The stories are very modern. And there’s a lot of bass, and it’s engineered with the technologies that were just going around at the time. It’s the album that should’ve definitely come out. Like, if things were in place, it would’ve been a very good album.
And tell me about 4x4 Records who you did some stuff for…
No. What’s that?
Like the Justus League and Divine Beings.
Oh! Ok, you threw me off for a second. A good friend of mine named Rick Young had a group called The Justus League in Philly in the 90’s. It was a remix for a record they already had called “We Could Be Lovers.” And we may’ve did one more, but man, that was a while ago.
And Divine Beings… back to The GR81. The kid in that group, his name is Air Smooth, and he’s on a couple of Roots records. He’s actually Black Thought’s best friend. And so when I worked with the GR81, I produced a record for them, around ’93 or ’94. I was doing a lot of odds and ends production during those years – I call them the dark years.
Well, let’s get into the production stuff then. I know for a while you changed your name to K1 Mil…
I know it’s been speculated that it was at least partially in response to the Biggie Smalls quote, and maybe lines from Ultramagnetics, etc…
No, no, no. It was never in response to anybody’s quotes. What it was… one thing about me is I’ve always been experimental type of person when it comes to music. And I’m always doing these things to prove myself. One of the things was that… people had a preconceived notion of me, walking into a building after 1995-1996. And the first thing they thought, 9 times out of 10, is “oh, he’s coming here to try to get a record deal,” or “he’s here to play beats, but he’s gonna try to rap or do whatever.” It was always something. So at that point, I was like, you know what? It’s all about labeling, it’s all about packaging. So I’m gonna change my name, and let’s see what happens?
And at that time, it wasn’t me walking in. I had a friend named Rob Lawrence who was a producer and he was one of the Hitmen for Badboy. He did “Money, Power, Respect” and several other records. It was somebody that I grew up with and he understood what I was going through as an artist and as a producer at that time. So what he did was put me in his production company and start soliciting beats under the name K1 Millionaire. And as soon as he started selling this kid named K1 Million’s tracks, the tracks caught on. Immediately. As soon as he started taking meetings, he started selling beats. So one of the first things that I got was a Mary J Blige record called “L O V E” and a LL Cool J record called “Ten Million Stars.”
So, during the Mary session, I went in, laid the beat, and I didn’t do the session with Mary, because actually I had a show as the artist Kwamé, literally down the block. So I laid the track, went and did the show, came back, and Mary’s vocals were done already. So she didn’t see me.
So did she have any idea it was you?
No, she didn’t have no clue.
So the next day, I go to the LL session. And LL comes in and sees me and says, “yo, Kwam, what are you doing here?”
“I’m doing your record.”
So he got shocked, the A&R got shocked, and everybody was like, “oh shit!” And, actually, it wasn’t just “Ten Million Stars,” it was three records they bought off of me. So, I was three records in on his album – which was the Ten album - so they couldn’t do anything about it.
So, then it really started catching on: this new kid who’s doing tracks on your album? That’s really Kwamé. And so after a while, it was just like I proved this point, but what the Hell is the point? You can’t not be who you are. And it makes no sense. Because me not saying Kwamé produced this, Kwamé did this record, is almost like saying I’m ashamed of the legacy I built as an artist. And even just based on your question, the assumption, “oh because Biggie had a line.” That’d be pretty much like saying, oh, he won. And it shouldn’t even be that, so I Just went back to Kwamé. Even though the nickname K or K1 was a name people called me even before I was an artist – I don’t even know where the name came from – it was just like: let it ride.
It’s so crazy, because even to this day… of course the industry insiders know what I do, but to a person on the street. It’s funny; I’ll go somewhere and somebody will be like, “ah, man, you were my favorite artist! Why did you quit? You coulda made some money!” And I just look at ‘em like, “yeah, thanks. It’s cool. I sell comic books now. That’s my real passion.”
Going back to what you were saying about Hurby Lovebug taking credit… was that the same deal with the Joeski Love record?
You know, I never saw the credits for the “Joe Cool” record. I think I got my credits for that.
Well, on the 12”, it reads, “Produced By Hurby Azor (Hurby Luv Bug), Kwamé and the Invincibles.”
Well, Hurby didn’t do that at all. Matter of fact, I wasn’t supposed to produce that record. But Joe asked me to produce it and I did that record in between tour dates. I came home for a day, I did the record, and then I broke out. And then I came back for a day to shoot the video and broke out. I never really lent enough personal support to that record, and I think Joe could’ve used it. And I really think I should have lent more, but that was in the middle of me running around like crazy.
Ok, and this wouldn’t’ve occurred to me before, but I guess you were the connection between him working with the Fifth Platoon, right?
No! No, I never knew that he did, but in the event that he did work with them, it’s solely something different. When I did the “Joe Cool” record, B-Flat wasn’t even in A New Beginning anymore. We weren’t even speaking at the time. So that must’ve just happened. But that’s dope. I’m glad they got to do that.
And around that time, you also did that Larry Larr record.
Yeah. We did “My Ace, My Pal, My Partner,” if I’m not mistaken. That was pretty much just my Philly crew: me, EST and Larry Larr. We used to just all hang out. I was supposed to produce on that album, but I didn’t end up being able to produce, so I did a feature.
And the same thing with Redhead Kingpin. I did a feature on his album called “Dave and Kwamé.” When I was in the 11th grade, I moved to
How long did you live in
A year. If that. Because once I moved out to Jersey, that’s when I ended up getting my record contract, I moved back to
And do you still keep up with the Philly crew?
Well, I speak to EST often, because he’s a big writer. I know he wrote “Baby Boy” for Beyonce. He wrote a lot for Scott Storch, basically. A lot of records. So we’re actually working on records for artists together, and I speak to him all the time.
And do you guys think often about coming back as artists yourselves?
I know he thinks about it! I record… I can’t help but record. My problem is that there’s so much of a stigma on old school, or what people consider “old school” hip-hop artists coming back out. I’ve always been forward. I’ve always been futuristically thinking in my work, and I just can’t put myself in that spot. I just can’t consider myself an old school rapper, because my whole aura isn’t about that. I don’t wanna come back out and automatically have to deal with that crap. It would have to be a situation where I could bypass that whole look and just come out with a new record.
Because rock guys do it all the time. Why can’t rap guys do it? And I think it’s 50% the fault of the rapper, because 9 times out of 10 when he comes back out, all he does is beef about who he was and how people don’t recognize that fact. And that turns people off. And I think the other 50% is just labels not wanting to deal with it.
I think a lot of it, too, is a lot of rappers making comebacks aren’t coming back with all the same people that made their first efforts a success. Like, you take someone who used to work with Large Professor and Paul C, then have him comeback with some kid he found on myspace doing the beats…
Exactly! Yup. I will not name names, but I heard a rapper that had great records in the 90s, and I listened to one of his records on myspace, and this rapper is stuck on autotune. I’m like, “you’re killing me.” And if you’re gonna sing on autotune, sound good. Something hot with it or something! And then have the nerve to say “we’re bringing rap back.”
Well, there is kind of a sense that the auto tune is like the vocoder equivalent from the old school.
Yeah. I’m not mad at it. But if you’re gonna use a tool, use it for the purpose of the tool. Don’t use it just to say you have the tool.
But that would be the thing if you came back… it wouldn’t be like you the MC working with some newjack producers.
Yeah, yeah. And if I did work with some other producers, it’d be like-minded individuals like Kanye, Pharrell or Will I Am. You know, those guys came from pretty much the school that I came from. So I could deal with that. I wouldn’t be rapping over a Gucci Man beat!
Well, let’s turn that around a bit and look at some of the artists you’re producing and managing… or if not managing, at least developing.
Right now the artist I’m really working with is a rapper from Far Rockaway Queens. His name is Beyond Belief. And you know, he’s doing his thing on the internet slash underground circuit, just trying to build a name before we do anything mainstream. And that’s the artist I’ve really been focusing on for the last couple years. Him and developing a boutique label called Make Noise. And what I want to achieve with Make Noise is the actual development of artists, not just signing an artist with a good single on myspace and throwing him out there, then expecting him to achieve big numbers. I think a lot of record labels lost sight of what it took to be a label. And with technology nowadays, the cheapest thing you can do is put out a label and put out some good music.
And also I think you have an R&B singer? I heard a song you had of hers on your myspace, where she’s singing over a classic dancehall beat?
Oh! Now that artist is a singer named Jade Ewen. She was signed to Sony
So now she has a single that’s produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren that’s like more of a Broadway-type sounding song. But she now is in
And I saw on your myspace that you did a remake of “Dana Dane With Fame” with Dana Dane?
Yeah, man. Dana was celebrating the 20th anniversary of his album and was doing some records over. I used to look up to Dana when I was a kid. I’d follow him and Rick around. So for me it was an honor to re-do one of my favorite Dana Dane records.
And do you know what became of that?
He never did anything – or the powers that be that he was working with – they never did anything with it. And we also were working on a remake of “
Was that project tied to a record label?
No, not at all. It was just something that we were just working. Because, you know, with the internet, man, you don’t need a record label. Just put out a good song and let it float. Like the “Dana Dane With Fame,” we put that on myspace and got a lot of good reactions off of that.
And with Beyond Belief, do you have any dates set for his stuff?
Well, he has a single that’s out there on the internet, but that’s like a year old. So we’re working on a full album, but he actually this weekend is graduating from
And, in terms of Make Noise, how do you see distribution these days? Like, would you do CDs, all digital, or…?
I would do CDs and vinyl in limited runs. But basically everything would just be digital. I think everything should just be downloaded, or if it’s passed out like hand to hand, it should be transferred on jump drives. And you could have 3-4 gig jump drives with videos, screen art, liner notes, and the record. And behind the scenes videos. I think that’s how albums should be packaged, and that’s how I’ll be packaging my albums on Make Noise.
And do you plan to handle distribution yourself, or are you looking for a distributor?
Well, for now I’ll keep it independent, but never turning down a good deal. It has to be a situation where everything can work cohesively: the marketing, the packaging, the distribution. That is very, very important. That is more important than spending fifty thousand dollars on a name producer to make a record.
And you mentioned limited vinyl… I guess you’ve been seeing the stories about vinyl making a comeback and all?
I don’t know how or why, but I just love vinyl. Vinyl is like a piece of art. It sounds different, it’s good to look at the album cover and inside jacket and it’s just a whole different experience when you deal with vinyl. I heard on the rock side of things vinyl is making a comeback, and that’s funny because vinyl is more of a hip-hop staple. I wonder, what is that connection, between rock records and vinyl?
I think maybe that rock is more diverse in who it’s marketed to? Like there’s more rock being targeted towards adults, maybe; and rap is all being geared to young teens.
Yeah, I get you.
What do you think about putting out some limited edition, classic Kwamé stuff?
Definitely. In fact, because it was just the 20th anniversary of the first album, I’m thinking of rereleasing that album, plus adding songs that never made the album. There’s a lot of things in the works in regards to the anniversary, and we’re trying to play it up alongside Hip Hop Honors.
Well, without getting into the actual brand names, but there’s going to be cross-marketing between certain brands where there’s gonna be a “Back To the Old School” collection. There’s gonna be a fitted cap, varsity jacket, a sneaker that is based on the design of the first album and the old school Kwamé logo. And it’ll be packaged in a book bag. And also, I’m gonna be doing a gallery exhibit with old school footage and pictures of behind-the-scenes situations that took place in 1989, working on that first album, and also other artists and photographers showcasing their work based around that time. And there’s also gonna be performances in the gallery of me performing songs from the first album. We’re gonna do that in NY, LA,
And right now, as we speak, I’m currently working on Jah Legend and Estelle – their new album. That’s the next thing to look out for.
To keep up with what he's doing today, check out his myspace, where you can also download the latest MakeNoise mixtape by Beyond Belief, which features a new song with Kwamé on the mic!