Offwhyte (Part 1)

Location: Ninkasi Kao, Lyon , France
Date: June 6th 2004

Hip-Hop Core: Galapagos 4 is clearly one of the strongest labels and crews coming out of Chicago now. Where do you think that the Galapagos 4 adventure fits in the Chicago hip-hop history?

Offwhyte: Well, I would still say Galapagos 4 is relatively new. Looking at the entire history of Chicago hip-hop, it goes all the way back into the 80's. We've been putting out records for about 5 years now and it's been strong and it's been good but I still think it's relatively new. But I do think we bring something new to the sound of the city. Before we really started putting out music, most of the Chicago groups were putting out real rugged sounding shit, like boom-bap type stuff. And we kinda still keep the same traditions, you know; we're rooted in the same rules of rap music. But I think we're a little more innovative with the sound and the styles. You could even say we do some experimental sound. So I think it's a new chapter in Chicago hip-hop history but I don't try to claim that we're part of the roots of our city.

HHC: What in your opinion is the most important thing that you're bringing to this town?

O: Personally, I think that in bringing this new sound, we've helped open up the scene for younger rappers to come and rhyme a little bit differently and for producers to make beats a little differently too. When we came out with our music in early 2000, with the first couple of releases, most of the people were doing really straight-forward type hip-hop and were rhyming like in battles, with punchlines and things like that. So when we came out with these crazy flows that were more elaborate, we sounded like a group of artists that were from another part of the country. A lot of kids tell me that we sounded like we're from California because we're taking styles to new levels and tweaking the hell out of rhyme patterns and beats. So, in doing that, I think that now the younger kids in Chicago that are coming up and putting out CD-R's and demo tapes, they have more confidence in doing that in Chicago because we've put the music out there first.

HHC: Every time I've spoken to artists from Chicago they were very proud of their town and of the Chicago hip-hop scene. What's so special about Chicago ?

O: They call Chicago the city of big shoulders. I think it's because the people there act proud even if they're just doing everyday things like going to work, taking the train and things like that… I think it's because Chicago has such cold weather in the winter and also hot weather in the summer. It's very extreme. Like right now, back home, I think it's pretty hot. And in the winter, it's terrible; it's like Moscow , really really cold and windy. If you live in an environment like this and in a large populated area, I think it makes you a little bit more tough and rugged… just closed-off and really believing in yourself. And I think the same thing translates into the hip-hop. Everyone is proud of Chicago hip-hop because in Chicago we don't have major record labels and corporations. Instead we try to create our own ways of getting our music out and performing it and selling it. That's why the underground is really strong in Chicago . There's a lot of artists, emcees and DJ's. The breakdancing scene has always been strong in Chicago … It's self-serving and self-sufficient and that's what makes it so strong. And we're very proud of it.

HHC: You recorded “Squints” in only 2 days in 1999. What was the recording like? Were you rushed or is it just a matter of inspiration?

O: That was the only time I've recorded an album that quickly. It was during a time when there was a lot going on. Before he started the label in Chicago , Jeff Kuglich was living in Seattle . When I was recording "Squints", he was still living there. It's not like he could be there at the recording sessions and handle everything that was going on. So he sent me a cheque and I had to take care of paying the people, scheduling and going to recording sessions. The cheapest and the best way that we could do it was to get 2 days. Really long days, like 12 hours of recording sessions. So it was my friend Griffin Rodriguez, who is our sound engineer, and myself and we took 2 days to record it, 2 days to mix it. It was in the summer, it was very hot. "Squints" was my first full-length album. I had all these songs that I had been writing, practicing and going through for so long that when it came time to record everything, everything was ready so… So, to answer your question, it's a little bit of that stressful situation that we had to get it done fast and also the fact that I wanted to get it done soon so we could keep everything going.

HHC: Were you surprised by the critical acclaim received by “Squints”?

O: Oh, yeah, definitely! When I first went out to California , meeting all these kids that were really into that one CD that we put out, it was really gratifying for me. Because I had always hoped that I would be well accepted with kids on the west coast. Because a lot of my styles and a lot of the rhyming styles that I do are from west coast emcees. So to go out there and find out that kids were listening to you as much as they were listening to someone else from that scene, that's very flattering. As far as the critics, I don't really pay attention to that. I always read my reviews and everything but I don't really take it too seriously. But so far most of the people that have reviewed my music have been very encouraging and positive so it's good.

HHC: Your lyrics are often very well written and literate. What's your writing process like?

O: Well, it's been different since I started rhyming. It used to take me a really long time to really get a song together the way I wanted to. I used to leave unfinished work for a long time and then come back to it later. Now, I try not to do that. I think it has a lot to do with coming to Europe . This is my 3 rd time in Europe and the other 2 times that I came here, I ended up recording something for someone that I met or whatever. In those situations, it was really important to finish the song before I left. That kinda got me started in writing a song from beginning to end in a day or in one seating, as quickly as possible. I think it's good because it keeps the energy just all concentrated, instead of these long drawn-out, really heartfelt shit that I was writing before. I have a new record out, it's called 'Crossing the Potomac '. It was put out by a label from Zurich , Switzerland . That's one of the songs that I recorded last time I was touring Europe and I think it's one of my best songs. It's something that I wrote really quickly.

HHC: Subject matters and lyrics seem to be very important to you, as much as delivery. You often have hand-written lyrics printed on the covers and booklets of your albums. Why don't you print them properly or publish them online for the fans to read and dissect them then?

O: Well, I think it's just a matter of not typing them (laughs). We'd like to be able to make more elaborate album covers but it gets expensive… But we're moving more towards that. We want to be able to put out the type of product that we want and not just the type of product that's easy to make. One time I'd like to be able to type my lyrics out but I haven't gotten around to it…

HHC: In an interview with urbansmarts, you said ‘Rap music has always been poetry to me'. Could you elaborate on that? Don't you think that sometimes viewing rap as poetry can distract you from getting your point across to the audience?

O: I come from a school of music where the style of emceeing is really the driving part of the music. In the past, I've written rhymes that were really trying to explore different styles and to do it as intensely as possible. It's not like the lyrics are secondary, because they're not but I think in the past I've always written more along the lines of trying to rip the track. For really interested fans of lyrics, I think there's a lot to get into. A lot of my rhymes may be a little bit poetic and a little crazy but, if you get to know the song and if you listen to it, you can find out as much as you want to about it. Because there's a lot to be said in the lyrics. And like I said I've kinda changed my style a little bit, as far as writing. Some of my newer stuff might be a little more direct. You know, I can rhyme this way or I can rhyme that way but either way I think it's important to do it well. I can understand why the message may be lost but, then again, I don't rhyme for people that aren't gonna listen to the lyrics…

HHC: You began your career through open-mic sessions. What do you think that this type of performances has brought you?

O: Chicago has got a really good scene for emceeing. I mean, if you're interested in getting out and rhyming for people at open mics, there's a lot of them. And there's also a very strong underground party scene where kids cipher on the streets and things like that. This is the type of environment that a lot of the emcees on Galapagos 4 were around when they first started rhyming… I know Qwel and Robust and Rift Napalm all used to hang around different hip-hop clubs and get on open mics such as Planet Mars which has been shut down. The most famous open mic in Chicago was that club called Subterranean and it's still going on. It's on Tuesday nights and it's been going on for 5 years. I used to go there and I think it really helped me with the confidence to rap in front of anyone. It's important that we have that in our background because it's something that you can't replace with anything. It's part of the true essence of what it is to rap. To just do it and freestyle and, if someone disses you, you have to deal with it. Or if it's cool and if the people there are feeling it then the whole room feels like warm. Chicago always had hungry emcees like that and there's always places for people that wanna get into it. I think that's good.

HHC: Your flow is very fluid and creative. You said that west coast emcees have influenced your style. What attracted you in the way that Project Blowed emcees and their contemporaries rhymed and how did you develop your own style?

O: I've been listening to rap music forever. The first hip-hop song I ever heard was "Grand Master Flash on the wheels of steel" and ever since then I was just interested in hearing as much as I could. As you're a fan, throughout the years, styles change. When I first started getting into west coast underground hip-hop around '96 or '97, it was artists like Freestyle Fellowship, Aceyalone or Saafir… Saafir is one of my favorite emcees stylistically and lyrically. It was a really intense movement in music because rap music in the eighties was really basic. You had like hard drum beats all hitting hard on the 4 and the emcees were like Run DMC or LL Cool J, attacking the beat straightforward. When all this California shit happened, people were kinda like water-skiing on the beat. It's interesting to see how far that can be taken. It's all the same language and the same music but there's so much more that you can explore. So it was interesting to hear people like Saafir not rhyming in that 4/4 time but still having the real rhythm to it. And one of the dopest emcees to me, stylistically, is Twista who is from Chicago . When you break it down with the way he rhymes, he's hitting so many syllables, it's like classical music, like symphony music where the strings are playing really fast… It's just fascinating. It makes you think of mathematics and patterns. I've always thought that the west coast sound had a real free, invigorating, liberating sound to it. I've always tried to pattern my style after that because I don't like to hear the same old styles and same old metaphors. So I've always tried to emulate the people that I admired.

HHC: What led you to use the underlying theme of the end of the world for “The Fifth Sun”?

O: At the time I was writing the album, I was reading some books about ancient Mayan philosophy. There was a lot of references to the architecture. These ancient civilisations that existed about 5 to 6000 years ago, they were supposedly not as advanced as we are today but they have religious architecture and cities plotted out to transcribe the paths of celestial bodies, like the Sun and the stars and different constellations. It was really fascinating. One of the most important books I read was "Fingerprints of the Gods" by Graham Hancock, an English author. I started reading out some other things, just trying to find out as much as I could about history and the development of mankind… So in making "The Fifth Sun", it's not like every song is about something like that or about the end of the world but it's just paying respect to the history of mankind's knowledge. A lot of these ancient buildings were marked as calendars and it's fascinating to me that they would have everything calculated that precisely.

HHC: On “The Fifth Sun”, one can tell that there's a real chemistry between Meaty Ogre's beats and your flow. Since this album, Meaty has been producing more and more tracks for G4. What do you think about his work?

O: Well, Meaty Ogre has always been one of my favorite producers in general. I remember the first time that I met him. It was after a concert that we did and I still didn't know who he was but we just went to his house. We were all chillin' and he asked me if I wanted to hear some beats. And everyone is into beats or rhyming or something so I didn't really take him seriously. He was like 17 at the time and I was like 19… But anyway, he goes in and throws on a beat and it's this beautiful beat. I remember looking at him twice like "you made this beat?". And that beat is 'Compliments & Novelties'! That was the first beat he ever played me and it ended up being on "The Fifth Sun". Ever since then, I've always been amazed by his work. He's a drummer and I think it's very important because he's so on point rhythmically. He's a real musical guy. Actually, he's a good reference for eighties music because for some reason he can sing every single song that was on the radio in the eighties… We were sleeping in St Etienne last night and we left the TV on. In the morning, I hear this song from Huey Lewis & The News 'The Power of Love'. I wake up and this song is stuck in my head all day. So we're going to the train station and I started singing the song "That's the power of love"… but I couldn't remember the lyrics. And then Meaty is standing all the way over on the other side of the platform 'cause we're such a big group. And he hears me singing and he starts to sing along with me but he knows the words so he's finishing the song for me! That's a perfect example of Meaty Ogre. He's always singing some stupid shit or beatboxing or tapping on the table, but it's all dope. He's got an excellent sense if rhythm and that plays into why his beats are so tight and make you nod your head. As far as the chemistry, I think he has good chemistry with everyone on Galapagos 4 and I think it's because we all chill together. Right up until this tour, Meaty was living with Robust and Mestizo, in the same apartment, so they were around each other a lot. I've known Meaty for years and we've always been close friends. I think the chemistry comes out of that. If you go to someone's house often enough and listen to their beats, you're gonna find something that you like and it's that much easier to just continue working on it… as opposed to just buying a beat to a producer you don't know. I think it's all natural, the way the chemistry goes.

HHC: Some years down the line, what do you think about your own albums? How do you think they compare to each other?

O: Well, they're very different and they came out at 2 different times in my life. I'm very proud of "The Fifth Sun" and very happy for what it has done. It was licensed through an English label called Peacefrog and that really helped to get it out in Europe and Japan. Also, Galapagos 4 has grown so much in the time that I put out my first album. I think for songwriting and the concept of making songs and relaying messages, "The Fifth Sun" is a very strong representation of what I can do. But "Squints" will always be unique in the way that it's got a really raw sound and it's got my younger voice. If I didn't record those songs then, it would be impossible to recreate them. As far as the songwriting, I don't think it's as high of a level as my second album but they're good songs in their own way. Also, I'm working on my third album now. I'm gonna call it "Mainstay" and it will probably be out next year. I'm really trying to come with something unexpected and to delve into deeper styles that haven't been done before. I'm performing a few songs tonight. I think it will be good. Meaty Ogre, Maker, Kip Kiligain from Arizona and myself will produce it.

HHC: You've always worked with several producers on each of your albums. Why don't you stick to one beat maker?

O: I'd like to but I'm really picky with beats. As much as I really respect my friends that are producers, I can't accept everything that they give me. Most of the time, I'm sitting there with them, listening to beat after beat after beat, and even if I like one, I ask them to change it a little or maybe drop everything except the drums for a little break. I get really into it. I've always enjoyed getting different beats from different people because there's only certain beats that catch my ear and that I want to do something with. But as far as sitting down with one producer and doing an album together, the only reason I haven't done that yet is because I haven't had the time. The time to meet a producer and work with him all through the course of making a project, which can take months. And I like to be really serious about my music and about the things I'm gonna put out and sell to people. But I'd like to. I think it's a great concept.

HHC: Open I and Anacron used to be some of the main producers on all the first G4 releases but we haven't seen them on G4 in a long time. Why is that?

O: Open I is still doing really strong beats and actually he's got a couple of beats on my new album too. With Anacron, he kinda separated from Galapagos 4 when he sold the Netherworlds album to this guy in LA who has a record store called the Basement. He sold them the rights to put out the Netherworlds and that's fine because he had to do what he had to do but that's why he hasn't been really working with us since (laughs). But I have a lot of love for Anacron, on a friendship level. I think he's an extremely talented beatmaker and breakdancer. He's a really nice guy and a really expressive person and he's got a lot of talent. He's got a lot of flair and he's helped me develop as an artist. It's not really about that regarding the whole Galapagos 4 thing… It's just that G4 is not gonna be putting out his records anymore. Unfortunately, because everyone on Galapagos is a fan of Anacron… Actually, I would really like to work with Anacron some more. I'm still in contact with him and he still lives in Chicago so… no bad blood…

HHC: To push the envelope while still being accessible isn't that your motto?

O: Yeah, I'd say it's a fair summary. But I don't really think of it like that. Everything that we do is just the most easiest natural way that we make music. With all the emcees that are on this tour and myself and all the producers that work on Galapagos, we are all around each other on a pretty consistent basis. For the most part, we still all live in the same city. So when we do get together and make music, it's not really anything that we're striving for. Although, it's interesting to see what people think and to go on tour like this and to see how different people react to performances. It's always good to hear that someone bought your album and that they were listening to it and they liked this song because of this or whatever… But that's really the end part of it. From the creation of it, our music is very personal. Like the Mestizo album. I think that our music is the most honest music that's being put out in the underground right now. We don't even try to have a certain angle. It's all things that we mean honestly. It's all things that we interpret around us.

Interview by Cobalt
June 2004

Note: Thanks to MellowP and Mathieu from Mektoub Communication.

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