This interview happened by accident. Funkmaster Flex was in Atlanta in Summer 2008 to help promote a new Scion vehicle. Primarily, he was answering questions about the car, and I could tell be his demeanor that he was as equally bored as I was. So when we switched gears to Hip-Hop (we both asked simultaneously “let’s do something Hip-Hop questions”), I ended having one of my best interviews to date.
Ironically, his comments about Method Man sparked off a brief feud which I’m not sure has been resolved. Even though Flex explicitly told me repeatedly I could print everything he said, he may have thought better of it later on, as he ignored my calls in regards to a part 2. Nonetheless, I thank Flex for his honesty in this piece. Enjoy, readers.
If you want to explore Hip-Hop history, ask a DJ. The chosen few with clout who man the ones and twos see the greats come and go, witness movements soar then crumble, and still provide a one a kind Hip-Hop soundtrack. In the case of Funkmaster Flex, sometimes a DJ can create trends and become great themselves.
Starting as an understudy of the legendary Chuck Chillout, Flex has gone on to redefine the power of the DJ over the last 20 years. And despite all of his success, the revered NY legend still holds a special place in his heart for the 90′s.
With his trademark zeal, Funk Flex breaks down why he ranks LL over Jay-Z, the hypocrisy of Nas critiques, Ross’ C.O. ghosts, and why a period like the 90′s will never be seen again.
Ismael AbduSalaam: As a DJ you lived through the many eras of Hip-Hop from the 80s until now, but you’ve always showed a strong affinity for Hip-Hop music from the 90′s. For example, you did a memorable five-hour set of 90′s Hip-Hop last year for Hot 97 on the Fourth of July. What about that decade appeals to you so much?
Funkmaster Flex: In 1991 [you had] Naughty By Nature, Cypress Hill, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Main Source, Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde, Onyx, Redman, Wu Tang Clan…and I stop at Wu Tang for a reason. [They] made records because they wanted to stand out in front of their house and be hot with their boys.
The records just happened to go national. They didn’t know at the time the East Coast was the best coast. To be fair, whose those guys that did “93 ‘Til Infinity?”
Ismael: Souls of Mischief.
Flex: Them, Snoop, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, NWA, Tupac, Dogg Pound, D.O.C. made records like that. Only a handful of rappers can make a single with a marketing plan and everything in mind. Like Jay-Z and 50 Cent. I’m not going to say Lil Wayne because we all know he doesn’t have [a] marketing plan in mind, [but] makes great music though.
Everybody’s not on that level. And the successes of the 50′s and Jay-Z’s of the world put pressure of the Tribe Called Quest’s and De La Soul’s to try to be more national and commercial. So if you’re a group looking up to them and they’re trying to be national, as a rookie you’re going to try that as well.
KRS-One never loses himself in his music. He may lose himself for one album, but who doesn’t?
I know I keep saying 50 and Jay, but that’s when I feel that 90′s sh*t, but in a current state. [But] LL Cool J is the Muhammad Ali and the Jordan. Not to take anything away from Jay or even 50, but they had a blueprint. LL never had a blueprint, and still doesn’t. LL Cool J is very important to the music. He’s 25 years deep. I love gangsta rap, [but] LL’s longevity [is untouched].
I was at an all-star game and people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Celine Dion, and Derek Jeter were there. I saw LL walk in. A 60-year-old lady said to me “I don’t know if you know but that’s LL Cool J.”
The fact that she knew he was a rapper and associated nothing negative with him is big. I don’t think he aimed for it, but it’s happened. That’s not to slight to gangsta rappers, but we need more of that.
Ismael: LL had that period where everyone hated him before Mama Said Knock You Out shut a lot of that down. 50 is kinda in that same position now. Do you think he can make a similar comeback?
Flex: Remember as a barometer, we’re using a dude who sold a million in a week. 50 Cent’s [problem] is the G-Unit [brand] had been diluted. The recent project had Young Buck on it. But think, when you have a Game album, that’s a G-Unit album. Same with Young Buck. It’s the same brand.
I don’t think it’s over for them, they’re approaching gold. When you read the blogs you’d think he’s dead.
I’m gonna tell you the slept on rapper for 2008…
Flex: David Banner. He has talent, is involved in issues, and has one of the top four albums of the year.
Going back, I like rappers like Soulja Boy and Lil Wayne. But I have a different respect for the Dr. Dre’s, LL Cool J’s, Puffy’s and 50 Cent’s because they made hot records while conducting business. Wayne may be that businessman, we’ll see.
Ismael: What’s your take on the Rick Ross situation that played out over the summer?
Flex: Let’s talk on that. I like Ross a lot. I don’t feel he’s ever talked erratically tough on his records. He’s not saying he’s out here shooting and killing. I know how hard it is to make a hit record. I don’t think it was tough street talk that sold his records.
Ismael: Much of the backlash from the fans seemed to come because they felt Ross was lying after the facts came out. Also, the original Freeway Ricky Ross condemned him as well.
Flex: There’s a part of my heart that feels for him. But why is it any different from the guy who says Jay-Z’s persona is him [Calvin Klein]? Same thing with 50 and the dude [original 50 Cent Kelvin Martin] that’s dead?
Ismael: Could it be the problem arose because there wasn’t a distinct separation between Ross’ persona and real life? When the lying came in about his past that’s when the big backlash started. He may have been clowned for a little bit if he had just admitted the truth initially. But adamantly playing the kingpin figure backed him into a corner.
Flex: That’s a good point, there is that space with Jay and 50. The lying seems to be giving people a bad rub across the board. If he was a C.O. in ’97, he still grinded on record and got himself a deal. He didn’t have a big backing, Khaled just believed in him.
Yes, I too wish if it is true that he would’ve broke it down for me to understand.
Ismael: Are you for or against the growing trend of dance music that is dominating Hip-Hop?
Flex: When people say enough of the dance records, as a DJ that means it’s the domain of people like Soulja Boy and Lil Jon. We don’t want any new artists coming into the mix with that.
Give it to me from SB, Jon, and Hurricane Chris. No more.
Ismael: What’s your take on Nas’ Untitled album?
Flex: My copy didn’t have a track-listing, but I liked those tracks more than the singles.
Ismael: People may recall at one point over the summer, Nas and Wayne had the 1 and 2 albums in the country. That was two drastically different albums from two MCs entrenched in different eras thriving in today’s market. Do you think that speaks well for the health of Hip-Hop?
Flex: Wow, you’re right and nobody even wrote about that. Nas doesn’t have to be Puff, doesn’t choose to. People are funny, I hear people say things about Nas that’s crazy. People get mad at Nas because if he wanted to be Puff, he could. But they get mad because he didn’t choose that lane. Who are we to judge?
I have no doubt in my mind that Nas could find talent, run a label, but he chooses not to. Are we going to continue to be mad about that? Me and 50 had that argument a couple of times. Nas doesn’t have to do that to be great.
Ismael: It appears with him there’s always someone who has a problem with his music post-Illmatic.
Flex: I never understood that myself. Nas gets critiqued too much for a rapper that doesn’t judge people! People really judge him. You know what, it’s because people know he won’t answer back. Not rappers, but the press.
[With that said] I don’t want gimmicks from Nas anymore. I didn’t like the Nigger promotion. I don’t know if it was the label. There was something gimmicky with the last album too, what was it?
Ismael: The Hip Hop is Dead theme.
Flex: Yeah! But people can’t use that to define him. It’s a small piece of what Nas is. People annoy me when they talk about him. What do you want? Do you want 4 million, 500k, street clothes, what do you want from him? He makes good records.
I don’t want to offend anyone, but Nas is the first real lyricist to sell a lot of records. Biggie would be the second. Snoop, maybe. Now let me know, has the last five years made us feel like Snoop isn’t as lyrical as we thought he was?
Nas is the first though. Who sold millions before him? And he was and is lyrical! LL too, but he didn’t have the competition for the first eight years of his career, so I looked at him more as a trailblazer.
Ismael: How about Kool Moe Dee and their feud?
Flex: I’m biased to L on that one. It’s like asking me about Fantastic Five and Cold Crush, I’m biased to Cold Crush. LL was Queens and Bronx, Moe Dee was Harlem. So me being from the Bronx, and there being a wedge with Harlem, there’s a territorial thing.
Moe Dee sold a couple of records. He might have went gold or platinum, but if you didn’t sell a lot sometimes you couldn’t compete against your last hit.
What’s Jay-Z’s first album?
Ismael: Reasonable Doubt.
Flex: That, Illmatic, and I’m going to tell you the most slept on the album from that era…the first Black Moon album! It’s in the same category as Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Straight Outta Compton, and Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. I felt a lot of those 90′s Too Short records, too.
Ismael: Even without the remixes Enta da Stage is still in that class.
Flex: You know they put that Tribe Called Quest boom-bap to sleep when they dropped. Buckshot had the crown for a summer.
You know who I was feeling? I can’t remember his name, he was on Jive. He never made it East but he was hard. Kinda like a Mystical, but real street…
Flex: Yeah! He never made it up this way. Do you remember the summer of ’95 when Raekwon and Biggie were neck and neck for the crown?
Ismael: Oh yeah, wasn’t that was before “Who Shot Ya” dropped?
Flex: That’s what separated them. I’ll tell you the talk before that dropped. “Yo Flex, don’t Biggie always be rhyming on R&B sh*t? Your man ain’t street he’s losing it. He can’t hit without the remixes. Why aren’t the remixes on the album?”
(Yells beginning of “Who Shot Ya”) As we proceed! That had niggas pumping their fists. I never seen a rapper respond to what niggas was whispering! That song was so gully and street, I didn’t even understand it.
“Incarcerated Scarfaces” was like that. The lines in it, the fact he shouted out Connecticut was real, as they’re harder than Brooklyn believe it or not. They’ll fight each other just to show New York dudes they ain’t soft.
I’ve lived every era of Hip-Hop. I went to the park to see Grandmaster Flash and Bambaataa. The separation back then was either you were in front of the rope or behind it. Back then either you were with the DJ or you weren’t.
Now we’re approaching 2010. But for some reason the 90′s were like free agency in major league baseball, anybody could pop. I’ve been dying to speak about a rapper that’s been overrated…
Ismael: Who’s that?
Flex: Method Man is the most overrated rapper I’ve experienced in my career.
Ismael: Hmmm Now are you using the Wu solo albums as the main criteria for that opinion?
Flex: Oh hell yeah. Let’s list them.
Ismael: Liquid Swords, Return to the 36 Chambers, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
Flex: Stop there. Rae’s joint wasn’t the first Wu album, but Ghost and Rae were like Batman and Batman. There was no Robin! “Verbal Intercourse,” “Ice Cream,” “Glaciers of Ice,” damn. But Rae don’t like me no more.
Ismael: What happened?
Flex: Rae feels I didn’t support his career all the way through. I see him [and] we talk, and I feel like he wants to talk about it with me. Me and him were the tightest because we were on the same label and traveled a bit together.
It’s not that he didn’t have decent records but he didn’t have records on Cuban Linx’s level. Meth, too. We came up around the same time in the club circuit.
Sidebar though, I wanna put The Infamous up there as well. Granted, it’s not Illmatic level but I wanna place it somewhere…
Ismael: Where do you stand on Hell On Earth? Many feel that it’s more cohesive and is superior lyrically and production-wise.
Flex: True, it made more sense. But most of that is due to very good A&R work. No slight to the Mobb on that.
Ismael: Now we’ve went through other rapper’s catalogues, let’s put the discerning eye on your own work. Which albums do you feel are the strongest and the weakest?
Flex: People say The Tunnel and [60 Minutes of Funk] Volumes 1 and 2 are my best albums. Volume 3 is the worst. I’m realistic, I’m not just here bashing rappers, I gotta get grilled too (laughs).
Ismael: Those records had a gang of artists on there. How did you manage to get all of them together?
Flex: I never told anyone this before but a lot of my album freestyles like Fugees, Fat, Joe, Pun, Mobb Deep, Rae, and Redman happened with all of them in the same room. People were doing their freestyles while the other rappers were looking through the glass. Kinda fucking bananas.
That why Volume 1 and 2 are my best because rappers were going in under a different kind of pressure.
Remember the Fugees had the best freestyle but when I put them on I had them in the waiting room for a couple of hours. At the time all they had out was their first album Blunted on Reality. Wyclef bring that up to this day about how he was waiting and they still came in and crushed all the big hitters.
Ismael: Speaking of Wyclef, I’m sure you recall when he interjected himself in the LL Cool J-Canibus beef with the diss “What’s Clef Got to Do With It.” An underrated diss people rarely mention is when LL came back with “Rasta Impasta”….
Flex: Over the EPMD “It’s My Thing” instrumental! [That was] fucking crazy. I felt I was the only one playing that record. What happened was they squashed it, so L was like, “Yo you gotta stop [playing it].” But I was like, “Yo, this shit is hard.”
Canibus went hard in that [battle], too.
Ismael: To close, you were the first DJ to put together a team to develop and push new people to the forefront. Did you use anyone as a blueprint for that? I know the first official team was the Flip Squad.
Flex: Flip Squad was first and really Jessica Rosenblum handled that. I picked a few. But the Pitbulls was more mine handpicked. I saw some great solo careers from Flash, Chuck Chillout, Red Alert, Marley Marl and Kid Capri. Still, I felt great DJs weren’t coming as fast as great rappers. Deep down I wanted to extend myself to good DJs. Instead of looking at me as an enemy, I wanted to say, “I can help you.”
From there I got Big Kap, Cypha Soundz, and Mister Cee. Chuck Chillout extended his hand to me so I wanted to do that for others. I didn’t know until I got older how much he really helped me.