Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Incredible: Extended Interview with Cool Nutz


Last weekend, I interviewed Cool Nutz for a story about his new album for the cover of the How We Live section in today's Oregonian.

In the intro to the piece, I compared Cool Nutz's new album, Incredible, to Dr. Dre's The Chronic for having boastful titles and a simple cover with the artist's image. So I figured I'd put them here side by side as well provide the full text of our more than half-hour conversation.



You have a son due. Is he your first?
Biologically, yeah, my first one. I raised another--I raised her from the time she was four months old.

A new baby and a new album at the same time. Is that exciting or stressful?
Yeah the same span of time. I'm excited. It's a big thing. not everyday you get bring another life into the world, an extension of yourself. It's breathtaking.

Is there a moment on your album that you feel you couldn't have gotten away with were you based in another city?
That's one of the things about Portland. Cats don't call us out on stuff. It's different everywhere you go because some places you go where they're going to be into certain kinds of hip hop and not into others and you wouldn't be able to bring certain things into an arena or a certain scene. But in Portland, sometimes you can create your own scene. People are open to a white reggae hip hop band in Portland. People are open to a black rock hip hop band in Portland. It's a lot more open out here. Of course there's bias, but it's not as strong. It's not as separated. People don't enforce certain things in Portland as much. A classic example is how many people the police shoot. There hasn't been a riot or anything. People will go and throw a couple of bottles and get tackled by the police and that's it.

Is there a Portland hip hop sound?

Not so much because Portland has the luxury of sitting the middle of hip hop and perfecting our skills to the point where you're able to master your skills and craft, whether it be fast rapping or conscious hip hop, whether it be gangster rap. No one has really blown up to where there's a proverbial Portland sound. Like Nelly, everybody from St. Louis will come out sounding like Nelly. Everybody in Long Beach came out sounding like Snoop. If somebody in Portland came out...say Incredible was the album to blow up and that's what labels are looking for, the next Cool Nutz, then you would have a proverbial sound.

In "Monster Up" you talk about carrying Portland on your back. What do you mean by that?
For one, when we're out and about doing different things whether we be out here in Ohio or we be in Amsterdam or Norway or wherever, we're out carrying the flag and representing Portland in a real professional, classy way, and also not only worldwide, but even in the city, from everything from organizing POH-Hop to say, "Look what I have at my disposal." I'm also going to share it with the city when I have my radio show; I'm gonna spread the love with that. When I say I "carry Portland on my back," I don't just mean from a musical sense, I mean from a diplomatic standpoint. I'm also bridging the gap between different artists, spreading networking and opportunities, sharing those and continually trying to help educate other artists on how to increase your visibility, your business reach and everything of that nature. When I say "carrying Portland on my back" I guess mean doing stuff that other artists aren't willing to do for other people. When you're going abroad you're carrying that flag of Portland and representing it right and not only from a standpoint of what I can take from the game, but also what I can give back to the game.

But the language "carry on my back" would suggest that it's burden. Is Portland a burden to you?
Definitely, because people sometimes, especially in hip hop, perceive me as having a better hand than most or having a certain amount of power or influence and sometimes artists and people in the scene misunderstand that for me even to be to the point where I can have influence or have say so took a lot of work to get here. Sometimes I think being the more visible entity in the city--and you can go into something with the best of intentions--but because of people's feelings, sometimes they can sour the taste of the outcome.

Is Portland's hip hop scene building or was there a golden era that has passed?

I feel like it's still building in the sense that you've got a lot of talent. You've got a lot of people doing a lot of stuff. I think in terms of a golden era of Portland hip hop, I'd have to say it would be '95-2000. Hip hop hadn't grown as biased as it is now. We could do shows with a variety of artists and you'd have solid turnouts and you had people feeling like there was a certain amount of local hip hop pride. We would promote shows with local artists and get over a thousand people there. It was a good time. But I feel like talent-wise, production-wise, networking-wise, we have a lot of people that are working with bigger artists, working with different producers, touring and things of that nature.

What do you mean by "biased"?
I think because in those years that I mentioned, you could have Cool Nutz, Lifesavaz, Sand People and everything that people look at as underground hip hop, to the mainstream, to gangsta rap, and you would have people that would just come out and support hip hop. Not like, "Oh it's this kind of hip hop, so I'm not going. That's not real hip hop. I don't support that."

You're a pretty conscious rapper. Do you like to listen to party music as well?

I love every kind of hip hop. I think there are two kinds of hip hop. There's good hip hop and bad hip hop. People that don't like gangster rap, they can't say that 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Trying isn't an incredible album, you know what I'm saying? People that don't like so-called underground hip hop, they can't say that Aesop Rock's albums aren't good albums. People that aren't into Little Brother or that style of hip hop, they can't say that Little Brother's albums aren't dope records. Years ago, when I was first coming up in hip hop, I had to have Eazy-E's record, I had to have Ice-T's record and I had to have Public Enemy. Those were all dope records. You could listen to Eazy-E and be like, he's not the dopest rapper, but this is creative, something I haven't heard. This is a dope addition to hip hop music. There's a lot of things that people try to act like they just learned, like black militant music, you learned from hip hop, you learned that from Public Enemy. You learned that from Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers or the Coup, and a lot of people weren't socially conscious until they got into hip hop. A lot of people don't understand that Talib Kweli rallying against different things, being an activist for different causes. There are a lot of causes the average urban person may not be aware of until they go on somebody's twitter page or facebook page.

So you're saying that an atmosphere of good music is a good launching pad for causes?

Exactly. And create awareness in people. When you think about it, who was trying to fight the power before Public Enemy. Seriously, I don't know if you were into hip hop back then, and if you were, how many of your friends if they were into hip or were even entertaining fight the power or wearing black and green until they had heard Public Enemy or X-Clan or something like that.

It had almost gone out of style in the previous couple of decades.

Exactly. It motivated people to go see the Malcolm X documentary or go try out Marcus Garvey or something like that, because you were listening to the music. How many people even thought about they wanted to go to Compton until they heard Ice Cube or Dre. Compton is one of the smallest cities. Long beach is too and how many people were like, "I wanna go see long beach and Compton!"

If you were from, say, New York, you probably never heard of Compton.
Exactly. Hip hop created so much awareness in people that it opened people's minds. Now there's a lot of people out there that don't listen to Immortal Technique. They don't know he's fighting the powers that be, and if he was just really into hip hop, there wouldn't be guys who were like, "Oh that's some of that conscious stuff, that's hip hop with a message..."

How could it return to unity?
I think it would just take more understanding from people, like people understanding that it creates a better environment in hip hop, that it means more people at the shows, more financial revenues coming out of shows, more things circulating when you have more people interested. I did an interview with Oregon Music News and I was saying imagine if the same people who supported 50 Cent supported Aesop Rock. He already has a fruitful career, but think of much more fruitful his career would be.

And just effect it would have on culture.

Is there a spot in portland where you go if you just wanna dance or have fun?

I'm not even in that zone anymore. My life is based around my music so much that I'd probably get more pleasure out of just sitting at home listening to Marvin Gaye or putting on some classical music. There's a lot of clubs and a lot of good promoters, but I think it's more about the dj, like the O.G. Ones that are gonna play soul music. For me it's not so much about hearing hip hop, it's about hearing quality music and quality selections.

NE Portland is a big place that changes block by block. What part of NE Portland do you live in?
I relocated from NE. I was living in NW and now I live in SE, but I think NE now is not the NE that it was. You look at Alberta and you see the changes on that street. You see...what is it, last Friday, first Thursday, whenever it is that everybody comes out on Alberta, that's a drastic change by what was there before. NE has changed so much that you can't even compare it to what it used to be.

But you still call yourself "the voice of NE Portland."

Yeah because we represent what NE Portland used to be, and I still spend a lot of time in NE. My grandmother lives in NE. My whole life was spent growing up in NE.

So NE Portland is kind of a state of mind these days?

The thing with portland is you can live in SE but still be in NE a lot. My girl's mom stays there, my grandmother, my mom is right outside of NE, Bosko's mom, everybody, we're still rooted there.

What was important about what NE used to be?
For us, growing up in NE, we used to grow up with all of your friends. Went to the same elementary school, same middle school, same high school. Knew each other's parents. There was a certain amount of responsibility in the community. You knew your neighbors and there was that community involvement and culture in the neighborhood, growing up on a block that was predominantly black or being able to walk to the store and people were hanging out. Certain things that you saw that was our black community. That's not there anymore.

Is it totally gone or just less prevalent?
Less prevalent. Far less prevalent.

OK here's a weird one. If you were an animal, what animal would you be?Hm. I don't know, man, there's so many different things...I'd for a killer whale, an orca. because the thing is that they're powerful and graceful. They're predators, but you don't think of them like you think of a killer shark in terms of being a menacing figure. They react when need be and like I said they're beautiful, graceful and have a classy look about them, but they also are forceful.

Kind of the same paradox as your name, both cool and nuts.


You have a lot of guests on your new record. How much direction do you give them?
I want to create records that are me. There are a lot of people who I appreciate what they do. Liv Warfield is incredible. Pricy to me is probably one of the top three emcees in the city, if not in the entire region, but people aren't that familiar with him because he hasn't put out a record. So from the standpoint of rhyme in his voice and everything and then also with Kenny Mack and Maniac Lok, having them on a different type of song other than what people are going to normally expect from them about our mothers. I more wanted to take this in a pointed direction and have a different landscape for this record instead of what people naturally expect.

Yeah, a lot of the guests reveal a side of themselves you're not used to seeing.
I did the songs and I was like, "This is what I want you to do. I want to work with a lot of people but I want us all to work together in a capacity that represents me properly and also them as well. I've always respected Mic Crenshaw and that's why I was like, "I did the song and I want you to put your feel on it." And Mic is a very conscious person and does a lot of political stuff and things of that nature.

Are any of the songs off Incredible going over especially well live?
We've been introducing songs from it in the set and starting the show off with "Pushin", the song with Liv on it, that song always goes over really well. "Monster Up" goes over very well with people. "Black Top" goes over well and I'm actually working on learning a lot of the songs in terms of learning all the lyrics to perform them.

You mean from your old records?
From the new one too. People will think that you just get up there and you know the lyrics but that's not the case. When you're rapping, if you don't sit around and listen to your music all day every day, it's just like someone else's music. Sometimes it's hard. You'll know three lines but you don't remember the catch line to that fourth line and so it's a lot more intricate than what people think.

Do you usually record quickly after finishing a song?

Yeah pretty much. I try to write stuff and go into the studio soon after so I don't loose the excitement of when I wrote it. When I get beats, I write to those beats because I'm excited. All of the songs on the album...it's not just like I write the words and I find a beat. I hear the beat and the beat pulls the words out.

How much direction do you give Bosko?
We've worked together for so long he knows what I'm looking for. Like on "Love Iz" the hook and his verse, that was dope, i was very happy when he sent it back. One of the things we're aiming for is not just to be known as the rap guy from Portland, but we're making relevant music to what's going on nationally. I've been working on a more strategic approach to music. Not only conscious of the progression of my music but conscious in the effect of me being accountable for what I'm doing musically and having stuff to say and stuff that's thought provoking. I like throwing curve balls to make people say, Why's he saying that?" Like did you see that review of "Monster Up" Casey Jarman did where he talked about each individual line? That was great. I want people to not only look at me as a guy from Portland but respect the creative side and the work and effort we put into it. And that's the way I'm approaching this music, especially this incredible album and the next album after that is gonna be a progression and evolution too.

So is the next album already done?
It's kind of a work in progress. I've got enough songs to be done, but there's things I want to convey with the album, so I want to have a couple of more songs that I feel like will make it what I want it to be.

Is it going to be called Young Obama?
We were gonna do The Young Obama, but with all the stuff that's happening and people not being satisfied and different things I don't want people to not buy my record because I named it that. There are a lot of people who have their own political views and as a fan of music you don't want them to say, "Young Obama? I'm not supporting that because I'm a republican." I'll probably still release an album called Young Obama because that title has more meaning than just a tribute to Obama. What it meant was, coming from the Northwest, we're campaigning to establish our place in hip hop and do something we haven't done before. That of course, is not the magnitude of him being the first black president, but it's the magnitude of us doing what Mix-a-Lot did, what Snoop did and Outkast in Atlanta, being the face of that scene and being responsible for creating change in the music.

So it's kind of about how Obama wasn't always the president.
Exactly, and that's no different from me. When I grew up, I didn't think my hip hop would take me to Kenton, Ohio, doing a show or my music would take me overseas or to a lot of the places I've been so it's kind of like we've been on the campaign trail and right now we're campaigning for Portland for people to be aware. "Y'all from Portland?" They first thing say is, "Oh there ain't nothing but white people out there." We're not looked at as being a hotbed for hip hop which I'm trying to break that stereotype.

So what are you going to call the album instead?

It's gonna be called Bake the Donuts because if you think of the Dunkin' Donuts commercials where the guy used to get up at 4 in the morning and be hard at work, that just symbolizes to me so many times we're on the grind with this music and it's time to get up and bake the donuts whether you're tired, whether you don't wanna get up, whether the show turnout was that good, you still gotta do it. You still gotta get up and bake the donuts.

How'd you settle on such a modest title for your latest album?

I wanted to go with something that was one word that symbolized how people talk. "How was the show?" "Oh, the show was incredible: The drummer was sick, the singer was killing it. It was an incredible night, incredible show." The songs carry the weight of the title. From the artwork to everything, it's crisp and to the point, different from a lot of stuff we did. I felt like "incredible" was just one word that symbolized where I'm trying to take my music.

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