ABOVE: CORMEGA. IMAGE COURTESY OF VSHOOTZ
It’s truly a strange time to be a hip-hop fan. The Roots perform nightly from an NBC soundstage as Jimmy Fallon‘s house band; Kanye West wears masks made of diamonds and is happily married to a reality star; Jay Z lands multimillion dollar deals with Samsung while rapping about how awesome his wife is; Common costars in a Western cable drama; the seventh-best-selling album of last year belongs to a former Degrassi star.
Enter Cormega: a rapper’s rapper who has, by all accounts, committed verses to record as long as many of his eclectic mainstream peers. A hero of the hip-hop underground, the Queensbridge, New York emcee has enjoyed rave reviews (Cormega’s sophomore effort, 2002’s The True Meaning, earned a rare four-and-a-half star rating from prestigious publication The Source) and worked with some of the genre’s most esteemed producers.
Cormega’s latest, Mega Philosophy, out today via Slimstyle Records, is his first album in five years. It’s a love letter to hip-hop’s golden era, imbued with dense lyricism and production that recalls classics such as Common’s Like Water For Chocolate or A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. In a time where hip-hop is largely driven by VitaminWater sponsorships and pushing headphones, Philosophy is a breath of fresh air.
Cormega answered our call from his home in Queens, where he paced around the family bathroom attempting improved cell phone reception. “I was upstairs, I was downstairs…” he said, gruffly narrating his movements. Following a brief pause to check on his daughter, who was in the living room watching television, Cormega let a faint chuckle slip: “I’m out of the projects, in other words.”
JOHN TAYLOR: I wanted to talk a little bit about the intersection of art and hip-hop. You’ve been recording since the early ’90s, so you’ve seen the conversation between art and hip-hop evolve in a way few have had the privilege to. For someone who’s been in the game as long as you have, what was it like hearing about Jay Z performing at the Pace Gallery? I mean, he was there rapping “Picasso Baby” for six hours.
CORMEGA: He did “Picasso Baby” for six hours? That’s crazy! I knew he did that, but I didn’t know he did the song for six hours.
TAYLOR: He did! Look up the video later, it’s amazing. But what do you think is going on here?
CORMEGA: There’s always been a consistency with art and hip-hop. I mean, graffiti is an art, but nowadays, now that hip-hop has crossed over and gone global, you have a different kind of people that respect it. People that are rich, or people coming from backgrounds that are familiar with certain types of art that many people in urban areas wouldn’t be familiar with. The thing I’m seeing with art and hip-hop right now might be a flash in the pan. It may not stay like that. It could be a fad, you know what I’m saying? Next year people might be off that, because we never asked for that other kind of culture to get down with us, we were just doing us with hip-hop. Back then, hip-hop was some urban shit, some street shit, it was conceived to stop gang fights and bring unity. We didn’t give a fuck about Shakespeare.
TAYLOR: Where do you see hip-hop going?
CORMEGA: I think hip-hop is going to go through a cultural revolution very soon; I think a lot of people are tired of the corporate control of hip-hop, and are tired of the artistic watering down. I think there’s going to be an artistic revolution where people are speaking out against the bullshit and people are going to start making the music that we want and need to make. That’s what I think is going to happen, I think it’s going to come full circle.
TAYLOR: You’re a father now. Tell me, when you hear shit on the radio, and your daughter is sitting in the backseat, do you change the dial?
CORMEGA: She doesn’t really listen to the radio, but sometimes with the kids, when she’s on her own she’ll discover some shit that she likes. My daughter’s favorite artist is Michael Jackson, and she’s only 11, you know what I’m saying? I don’t know what my daughter’s heard. She likes 50 Cent, so maybe she did hear some of that stuff, but the way 50 does it I don’t have a problem with. I’m actually going to get an autograph from him for her later. She likes Nicki Minaj, I don’t mind her liking Nicki Minaj, I don’t mind her liking certain 50 Cent songs, but I don’t want her listening to that shit on the radio where they’re talking about molly like it’s cool. I let her listen to certain Marvin Gaye songs, certain Michael Jackson songs, certain jazz. I want her to expand her mind. I don’t want my daughter to learn how to twerk before she learns how to do her homework, you know? We can’t expect artists or athletes to instill these values in our children. It’s got to start at home.
TAYLOR: I couldn’t agree more.
CORMEGA: Did you hear the album?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I really liked it.
CORMEGA: Then you know what it’s like. My thoughts are elevated.
TAYLOR: How so?
CORMEGA: My culture needs representation right now, because we have a lot of clowns representing it. It’s time to bring forth knowledge and respect of the culture. That’s what this is about. I haven’t made an album in five years, so I couldn’t just come up with any old album, or throw anything out there. It had to be something that was marking a strong comeback, because for me to take this long and come out with a bullshit album isn’t good for me or my fans or my legacy. I wanted this to be a work of art. I wanted to be an artist, not just a rapper. I didn’t want to become one of those artists you get tired of. I like a lot of artists like that, but there’s some artists that are dope as fuck, and then they make a song that’s fucking dope, but it’s the same shit. It’s the same, “I’m in the projects, I have a gun.” And that’s fine for people to talk about that, but I don’t wanna hear the same shit for 20 years. Tell a young dude from the hood how you got out of the hood, so they can follow that track.
CORMEGA: I’m not condoning or condemning the street life, I’m just saying, don’t get the young dudes to hustle in ways where they’re going to get arrested immediately. I want to play music where I can play it in the car and I’m not like “Oh my God, my daughter’s about to hear this shit.” I want her to hear stuff I wouldn’t have to worry about her hearing it. Some of my earlier stuff, I wouldn’t want her to hear; she could hear it when she’s 16, but not now.
TAYLOR: You went to Africa recently. How did that visit change the way you view life, fatherhood, recording?
CORMEGA: It’s like putting the phone back on the base, recharging. I started thinking about my origins, I smelled the air, I felt the land. I feel a lot of unspoken truths out there, there’s a lot of beautiful land in Africa. I’ve seen a lot of grace, I’ve seen a lot of contentment, I’ve seen a lot of beauty out there.
TAYLOR: Did it wake up something inside of you, going there?
CORMEGA: I started thinking about history. I started thinking: Where is my place in all of this? Where am I from? How would I have lived, if colonization and slavery never happened? I started thinking about purchasing land out there, I started thinking… Why don’t more people of African origin invest in Africa, invest in themselves? I started thinking how there are people who have nothing, and are happy, and there are people who invest in the stock market, lose money, and commit suicide. Since I’ve been back from Africa and Haiti, I barely wear jewelry anymore, and I have a lot of jewelry. I’m not interested in a lot of brands anymore. I have a lot of nice stuff I’ve accumulated over the years, but I don’t want to overdo it anymore. I want to live modest.
TAYLOR: Tracing one’s lineage really puts things in perspective. Tell me, you turned 44 in April. Where do you see all this…
CORMEGA: Hold up, that birthday shit is totally wrong.
TAYLOR: Oh, it is?
CORMEGA: Yeah, that’s what I hate about this shit. You could go back [to Wikipedia] and put in whatever you want; you could say I vote Republican and eat berries. Get your information from me. No one else.
TAYLOR: That reminds me of the time Interview writer David Shapiro accidentally unearthed Waka Flocka Flame’s real middle name.
CORMEGA: I don’t like the idea of Wikipedia because people can go in and put what they want about you. I’ve seen people say I was raised in Texas. [Taylor laughs] Anyways, I don’t want this about Wikipedia.
TAYLOR: I respect that. Bringing up your age, I was hoping to get at how you see things differently now.
CORMEGA: Life is different now because I’m more focused. I’ve got people trusting me; it’s definitely my responsibility to not let them down. It’s like being an athlete. The more points added up, it all adds up to what you’re leaving behind. I want to leave a great legacy behind.
MEGA PHILOSOPHY IS OUT NOW COURTESY OF SLIMSTYLE RECORDS. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.