Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with DMV rapper yU, who just released The Earn, a fantastic follow up to his acclaimed 2010 solo debut, Before Taxes. We got to chop it up about life, writing rhymes, his work with Diamond District, his push to earn his spot in Hip Hop and much more. Check it out!
Jeff Leon: Introduce yourself to those that aren’t familiar with you.
yU: My name is yU… I’m a third of the group Diamond District and half of another group called The 1978ers. I’m an artist signed to the independent label by the name of Mello Music Group.
Jeff Leon: Great. So your latest project The Earn, is a record [that] I really enjoyed. What were your goals for the record?
yU: For the most part, I wanted to put something out there to represent the place that I was in. For the past like three, four years, it’s been a rough road and I’m glad to say that I made it through all of the things I was going through and [the record] is a reflection of that. Musically I wanted to show a growth past Before Taxes and I wanted to step up a little bit. I wanted the quality to improve over time…I didn’t want to do a drastic, like, go-all-in [record] with a million-dollar studio and that would be the first thing you hear. I wanted to grow up to an elevated sound and I felt like it did that.
Jeff Leon: Listening to The Earn, it seems like you really are out to work hard, build yourself up, and earn your props and recognition. What’s your [work] ethic like when it comes to making music?
yU: It’s a permanent thing. It’s a part of my life. It’s the reason I have three kids now… it’s like a lifestyle, it’s something I can’t stop. If I was to stop that, then that would cut my expression off. Over time, I found out that this was the best way to express myself.
Jeff Leon: Definitely true. You have a track dedicated to writing rhymes and the power of making that perfect bar and feeling the inspiration. How important is that feel to you, and how do you approach putting rhymes together?
yU: It’s kinda like… it’s a ritual, man. It’s a very important moment when you’re putting your thoughts together to make a song that hopefully will be heard for years and years and years. It’s a special thing. For that kind of thing, you may want to light a candle or incense, and take it that serious. I had to dedicate something to that element, because it means a lot to us… the words we say means a whole lot.
Jeff Leon: That’s everything.
Jeff Leon: So you’re coming out of the DMV (The District, Maryland, and Virginia), a Hip Hop scene which has kinda struggled to get attention and it’s a scene that many sleep on, which is unfortunate because there’s a lot of talented artists out there. What are the challenges of being in that scene, if there are any, and what do you think DC brings to Hip Hop?
yU: I would say that it’s partially a challenge, and not to go against that, but also the challenge in itself is what makes us stand out. A lot of the light that has been given to the West Coast and New York and all that, and we’ve kind of struggled to have a voice. But that gives us motivation. We’re really hungry, so I hope when you’re listening to artists from the DMV, you hear that hunger more than anything. [To Hip Hop] we bring light of a different shade…we bring percussion. If I was in a room full of people, all of them are known voices, I’d really like to hear from the person who didn’t say much, and I would like to hear what was on that person’s mind… that’s kind of like the DMV to me. It’s like the cat that is quiet all this time, and just by the dress, you can see that he has something really interesting to say… there you have the DMV.
Jeff Leon: I got you. I was up in DC last year and was getting into the scene. There are so many artists up there and so much talent, which is really starting to shine and come out now.
yU: You’re right, people are coming out now. The reason why you’re seeing more and more folks from here…is that there’s always been talent here, and there has been for a long time, but I guess it’s been kind of separated. Dudes were really sparse, or on their own angles. But it’s good now because everybody’s interacting more, and the more you see us interacting the more good music you’re gonna hear. I’m glad people are starting to catch on.
Jeff Leon: My introduction to you was on Diamond District’s In The Ruff, an album I love and I still bump regularly. How is it working and touring with Oddisee and XO and are there any hints about what’s next to come from the group?
yU: It’s always great to tour with Oddisee, XO, DJ Quartermaine and my man Trek Life from the West Coast, just simply because they’re cool people, and I can relate to them. Even if we’re different and we all got different ways about us, when you put us together it all makes sense. Our album process is the simplest process I’ve ever seen because all I had to be was to be what I’ve been, and that’s what everybody else contributed too. When you put ‘em together, it just made sense. Touring was very cool because nobody is really extreme…too rough to be around. We’ve got respect for each other, so that’s how it works.
For what’s next, you can definitely expect March on Washington, [Diamond District]’s second album, along with other stuff, maybe some mixtapes. I know I’m doing an EP with Oddisee, I believe XO is too, so a whole lot from all of us. The difference between us and some other groups is that we work together and we work independently. Oddisee is finishing up his solo album. XO’s put out a few projects this year, and he’s working on a new one. Brothers like myself, Kev Brown, Slimkat78, and Soulful! — we’ve got a project for him that’ll be coming soon. In doing that, you’ll find that some of the same elements that is Diamond District. When we do our thing solo, we contribute to each other’s projects too.
Jeff Leon: Good stuff. Now I know that you work closely with Slimkat78 as the duo of the 1978ers. You two had the project G.I.R.L. earlier this year, and Slim is always contributing a beat or two to your projects. How is that chemistry that you two have? How does it work when you are in the studio creating music?
yU: I have like a triangle of mentors, Slimkat being the third angle of that triangle. Since I met him, he kinda showed me how to be an independent artist. He was the first one that allowed me to record myself. He put the beat on the machine and was like, “Man, I’m going to sleep, you can record. I’ll wake up in the morning and hear what you did,” and for a long time, like ten years now, we’ve been working together and everything I’m putting together, I keep him in the fold. And finally, the 1978ers will be finishing our first project, we’re gonna hand it in around the end of January, and it’s gonna be called People of Today. Slim is like, Before Taxes, The Earn… how we do it [is] we pass music around to each other or things that I have recorded, I send it down and he lets me know how he feels about it, and if he digs it then that means a lot to me, so most likely I’ll include that in the project. Ultimately, he’s like a sound party. I’ve included him for executive production on Before Taxes because most of the ideas were running through him. He’s my brother… I have a lot of respect for him.
Jeff Leon: I’m guessing he was there while you were coming up in your production too because of course, I pay attention to your productions, and on The Earn one of my favorite tracks is the last one, Highlights of Life, Part 2.
yU: Ah, that’s what’s up.
Jeff Leon: Yeah, I know you worked on that one, and I really enjoyed that track — the live feel, and the soul of it, so kudos on that listen.
yU: That’s what’s up man, I definitely appreciate that.
Jeff Leon: So what do you want to get out of Hip Hop and what kind of legacy do you want to leave?
yU: As far as in the long run, I try my best to make songs that would make sense to be listened to like twenty years on. Leave the power of the spoken word. It was kind of like a wakeup call when Gil Scott-Heron passed this year, and it made me realize that I wish people would put emphasis [on the message]. In this day and age, everybody is worried about the beat and it’s gotta be loud and booming and all that, and I mean that’s cool, but music from the past was the same thing, it had bass to it, it had loud elements, but you could never take away somebody having something to say. Music from the ‘70s will always be listened to because they had so many different topics; they had things to talk about. Anything you could be going through, there is a song that you could, right now, go and find that would capture that moment. Somebody’s going through something rough, or somebody’s feeling good, or somebody just met a girl they liked or something. There’s always a song that you could go to which would be the soundtrack to that.
More and more I want to pick up instruments, I want to build with the younger cats coming up. I wish older generations before me would have reached out to me, some of them have, some of them I wish would have. I’m trying to do that for the next generation and cats coming up. If they want feedback on what they are doing, anything I could possibly do, I ain’t nothing but a vessel. If you’re giving me props, then you’re giving the people who’ve inspired me props, and the people who inspired them, and on and on. Hip Hop, if you really look at it, is damn near the answer to slavery, where a race of people’s history was taken from them, and it wasn’t in the plans to let them know where they came from. When you think of Hip Hop, it’s the only form of music you see bringing back pieces of old records that came before us. In the music, you listen to it and it has a sample, which dated back to something else, the artist who put that out was saying something totally different [from the current record] and [the new artist] will reintroduce it with a new subject. The music has lineage, and I’m grateful to be part of that lineage, and hopefully I can make something that somebody else wants to sample, or inspires somebody else.
Jeff Leon: You’ve mentioned being topical, speaking about things today, which can be relevant tomorrow. On The Earn you have comments and moments where you speak about things like the recession, not being able to find a job, and so on. Even looking at the titles of your records, you had Before Taxes and now The Earn, you’re dealing with money, and you speak of how contentious it is. The commentary is intriguing.
yU: It’s a serious subject right now. Personally, I can even be honest and say that in the past couple of years I had a rise and fall. During the process of doing Before Taxes and In the Ruff, I was working a 9 to 5 and I actually found the best job I ever had. I went from making about eight dollars and hour to making 26 dollars an hour, so during that period, I was doing really good and bought a new car and we would ride to the shows in my truck and all of that. But for every rise you gotta be prepared for change, so I went from that to getting laid off which made me go from 90, almost 100 thousand that year to nothing, and a lot of people going through something really serious like that. You’ll have some that will commit suicide just because of the change… they can’t handle was going on, and I’m glad that I was able to turn that into something positive as far as the music, making something that’ll give people inspiration.
Jeff Leon: What’s next for you?
yU: 2012 is going to be a very busy year. The Earn comes out, then next year we are looking at about five projects solo-wise, then Diamond District’s March on Washington. Next year we also got the 1978ers project, an EP from myself and Oddisee, another project with the cat who produced [The Earn’s] “Write On,” his name is Usef Dinero from Pittsburgh. We got one project ready called Flying High which is a free download, and we’re gonna do something new also. Halloween of next year, I’m doing a project called Killer and recently I just put out a Garbage Beat Tape, the introduction for another instrumental album coming through Mello Music Group next year. So, a busy year.
Jeff Leon: Sounds like it! You mentioned the Garbage Beat Tape… I was checking that out and that’s an interesting story about that tape and what you were planning to do with it. Could you elaborate more on that one?
yU: Many people didn’t know I produced and part of the reason was I didn’t really put myself out there as a producer was because I pretty much made beats for myself. I’m around producer cats all the time, so I see all of the changes they go through and the different things people say. You’ll have some cat that’ll give somebody their most dope beat ever [which] doesn’t really need to be changed and you’ll have somebody come to them, like, “Yeah man, just put some crashes on it and I can hear some xylophones on that,” or something crazy. It’s kinda wild hearing those things… I always told myself, you know what, I don’t want to go through all that, I just wanna make it how I’m gonna make it, and it’s for me so I don’t have to go through that, besides XO or any other people who ask that are like family… it’s different. The Garbage Beat Tape is just letting people know that I do put joints together. Oddisee told me to do it a while ago, but I always was thinking to myself that to put together a beat tape, I wanted it to have a theme to it, and I wanted it to be something different, so I figured it out. People don’t know that there was an inside story to the tape. I was actually watching YouTube and I was seeing a whole lot of producers talking about making beats that I didn’t really feel that they were making, but I liked the fact that they were verbalizing all of what they thought was needed to make beats. Someone was talking about, “Yeah, I use the MPC 5000 and the XL 500,” and all this, but when you hear the beats, the beats are real small. I wanted to use them in between the songs. It’s kinda like an inside joke. [The producing] is something I want to grow with, I wanted it to have something to say, even though it’s just beats, you can still have something to say. I wanted to have more content in a beat tape than some emcees do.