Rhymefest (Che Smith) is on a mission of liberation. Not just liberation of himself, but Hip-Hop as a whole. It’s been 4 years since the positive accolades he received for Blue Collar, but since then Rhymefest has had to contend with numerous album delays and struggling to keep his name afloat. To that end, he’s released 2 creative mixtapes in the Michael Jackson dedication Man in the Mirror and The Manual. Now, he’s ready to deliver his most ambitious project to date on June 8 with El Che, inspired byArgentinean revolutionary and his namesake Che Guevara.
But are Hip-Hop fans ready for his vision? Will they accept a more serious Rhymefest challenging them on social and political issues?
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Congratulations on finally getting the album done. There was an initial release date in May, so was the pushback more to do with you adding material or with the label?
Rhymefest: No, it was distribution. We’re getting the album distributed through EMI. EMI is going through a bit of a shakeup themselves, [I’m saying that] without trying to throw salt on anybody. But no matter what’s going on with the business, the fans will say its Rhymefest’s fault. So what I need to do is take a picture with a copy of the album and let people know it does exist.
Personally, if they preorder and it doesn’t come out June 8, I’m willing to go anywhere in the country and do whatever they want. Whether it’s cleaning their crib, going to work with them, going to club, and rapping for them! I’m willing to do whatever I got to do but I know it’s coming out June 8. It’s [just] a distribution issue from when they receive the CD’s to getting it out in the stores.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Before we get to the tracks, there’s a lot of imagery on the album cover alone. Let’s start with Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography you picked, My Bondage and My Freedom. A lot of people are familiar with the first one, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. What made you go with the selection you chose over his other writings?
Rhymefest: Well, what was important to me is it described the younger Frederick Douglass. It gets personal with his life story. Really what I’m doing through music is suggestive reading. Like, do you know how Frederick Douglass taught himself to read? That there were some white people that helped him? How much he helped Lincoln in constructing the case for the Civil War?
These things are very important to know. Before Barack Obama, before Martin Luther King, there was Frederick Douglass. That dude is pretty ill. So ill that I named my son Frederick Douglass’ father’s name, which was Bilal. My son’s middle name is after that.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: The other book up there is Invisible Man, which is very profound coming from an artist. We know in the book the protagonist felt invisible because no one saw the true him, just stereotypes. As a rapper, how do you use that to your advantage, since Hip-Hop culture is overrun with stereotypes and caricatures?
Rhymefest: Hundreds of people hit me up all the time and say, “I wish more people knew about you. You’re the most underrated rapper.” I get that all the time. If these people say this, but they know about me, if all y’all just went out and brought the album, who cares? I feel like me and my fans are part of a secret Hip-Hop society that the larger society may not understand. But we are making moves.
If I sell 15,000 records I won. I paid for this shit myself! If I get that $150 grand, I can use that and put out another album in 6 months. The hardest part was getting over the hump of getting it out, because of the whole shakeup with J Records. I just recently got off of J Records and Allido Records. And really this album is coming 7-8 months after I left the record label. So that I means all I had to do these past few years was just get off the fucking label! But I had been too much of a slave to understand that.
Now I feel like Frederick Douglass. When he became liberated, he was able to break free and become the orator we know now. J Records helped me to become known as Rhymefest, but after that they held me as a slave. Now I’m able to break free and be who I am. When I made the Man in the Mirror and The Manual mixtapes that was because the label wasn’t putting out singles and albums.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: How much did fear hold you back from initially taking that step? A lot of artists feel that can’t do it out their own, and that their creative side will be hampered if they try to handle too much business.
Rhymefest: Hmmm fear…no. Kanye taught me that the only limitations we have is ourselves. If you are successful or a failure, it’s dependent on you [and] no one else. What held me so long to the label was that they were giving me a stipend even though I wasn’t coming out with any records. They put me up in New York in the financial district, had me living in corporate housing. I didn’t realize that time was passing me by. I’m doing all this stuff, mixtapes, but not making any albums or selling any records.
There were people at the label getting kickbacks. I saw how the money thing works. Like we’re going to do a $450,000 video, but you can only use these 3 directors. But it’ll be directors they already got. So when they go into Clive Davis, they can be like look, we spent this much money, but it still didn’t do what we thought it would do. But they really didn’t spend that much money. They really got a kickback. But the artist sometimes doesn’t realize that.
I’m not blaming anyone. For the period I was there, J Records treated me very fairly. But I don’t think they knew what to do with me. They weren’t used to operating from the grass roots, which is the type of artist I am. They were used to paying their way through things. That doesn’t work with me because I’m the type of artist to say something. I don’t do politics very well, I do truth and justice. But I’m learning it better through being independent.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Last year you stated there was a general lack of respect in Hip-hop for tradition. Have you seen any improvement since then amongst your fellow artists and fans?
Rhymefest: I was wrong. One thing I didn’t realize is that Hip-Hop doesn’t exist anymore. C’mon, think about the 4 elements: graffiti, breaking, deejaying, and emceeing. Emcees don’t exist. That’s somebody who gets on the stage, doesn’t have to rap, but can hype up the crowd while the DJ is playing. He has all the chants, all that shit. Everybody now is “listen to me, listen to my raps.” No one can hype up a crowd no more like that. Emcees are dead.
Let’s look at graffiti. Ain’t nobody really tagging no more [laughs]. Like “look at this mural I made, and we’re competing over this shit.” People do it, but it’s not what it was. It used to be a phenomenon.
Let’s look at breaking. They have b-boy events, but it’s a very small circle. It’s not like Drake comes out, and people are breaking. Not saying it’s a bad thing, it just doesn’t happen no more.
Deejaying is all a political game now. DJs and rappers are against each other. Rappers don’t value a DJ on stage no more. It used to be Eric B and Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. There are no more DJs who precede the rapper’s name.
So Hip-Hop as we knew is like jazz at this point. I can’t really get mad. It exists on a scale so small you might as well call it dead. But even from Disco we got techno, Bass music. From Hip-Hop we got Soulja Boy, Drake; the hybrid singing rap. We got to call it something else because it ain’t Hip-Hop. It’s not bad; it’s evolved into something else.
When this is read people will have opinions, and some are not sophisticated enough to have this conversation and think about it on a plane that’s not black or white. “Oh you’re dissing it!” No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying Hip-Hop has evolved to a whole ‘nother culture. It’s very interesting that it’s mixed corporatism with music, cheap and easy. But the beats have gotten better, and there needs to be melody, not just lyrics. A lot of rappers used to not have that. More rhythm, you really have to be a dope singer and rapper these days.
Now I can’t do that, it’s not what I do. Now I could be mad like “these niggas is singing rapping!” But I think we have to call it something else, another genre like Hip-Pop. It’s important as we cross different thresholds in history that we mark and define them. Right now it’s time to define what we do as something else, not just Hip-Hop.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: This reminds me of what changes we heard in the 80s to popular music like New Wave and how synthetic sounds dominated. Do you hear that as well in music today?
Rhymefest: Yes! But I also hear a bit of 90s R&B. If you listen to Drake, you can hear it. I hear a little bit of Jodeci in his stuff being brought back. I also hear 90’s rap patterns on some of these tracks. I would update my respect comment for Hip-Hop and say we need music appreciation, respect for music.
If you’re going to rap, and you hear people say “man, you sound like A Tribe Called Quest.” Go back and listen to those albums. People used to say I sounded like Biz. So I got real familiar with Biz Markie. How can I update my style? Look at some of his patterns and update and make it hot!
Music is really for trained ears. When you listen to jazz, you can’t just sit there with no one explaining it to you, how the horn and piano talks. Hip-Hop is the same way! How you gonna just sit down and listen to KRS-One’s By All Means Necessary if no one puts it in context for you? Same with Criminal Minded; how can you appreciate it? You can still listen to it.
You can’t even appreciate Pac right row! Let’s move up for the readers who don’t know about KRS and don’t care. You can’t understand Tupac unless you have Tupac in context. You can listen to a few songs and say that’s dope, but you need the story that goes with it. When you listen “White Man’s World” or “Trapped,” you have to understand where he was in his career. Then you listen to it and it means another level to you.
Good music is truly like the Bible.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Being a true, original artist has always been in conflict with monetary gain, because normally what makes you the most money is the antithesis of true art. For yourself, do you continue to feel pressure with that? Because the acclaim can still come, but it’s normally years after the fact. You referenced jazz, and the Bebop movement comes to mind.
Rhymefest: You gotta realize this; who gave Dr. King the biggest obstacles to his goal for civil rights for all, Black or white people?
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: His own people.
Rhymefest: Who give Malcolm X the biggest obstacle? And we know that because of who they say killed him, his own people! When Clive Davis signed me I told him” I don’t know why you signed me, you made a mistake.” He said why, and I said because I can read [laughs].
He laughed and patted my on the shoulder, like “nigga you don’t understand I run the world! You’ll never get anywhere!” I know I will not be understood and heard until I’m out of here. I already prepared for that, bro. It doesn’t matter if I sell 3 million or 3000. Number one, I don’t rap for money, I have other ventures I do.
Number two, I’m really trying to do something. I’m with kids, walking them home with Safe Passage programs and all that. I can walk through my neighborhood. I see shorties fighting and I go out and say “I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but this is a little girl. That ain’t the way; we have to move like this…” I’m not scared of my people, but I realize these are the ones that are going to kill me. These are the ones that will talk about me like a dog while I’m here.
It’s all good. True love is unconditional. True heroism is to stand in the face of your obstacle and say “I love you even if you kill me.” You can’t have a true revolution without love.
Me and Rick Ross had a real deep discussion about this. I gained a lot of respect for Ross after we sat and talked. He asked me whether I wanted to be feared or loved. I said was Al Capone feared or loved? He said feared. I said was Dr. King feared or loved? He said loved. Ross said he rather be feared. I said man, Al Capone died by himself of syphilis, isolated. Dr. King loved so hard he was feared, and they had to assassinate him.
At the end of the day, true love makes motherfuckers scared. It inspires true fear, not the fear where motherfuckers laugh at you and lock you up. Every true revolution starts with love, whether it’s love of your block, love of your kids, or love of these people. You have to start with love. If you start with fear you just look crazy.
When motherfuckers stop fearing Mike Tyson, everybody started knocking him out. When everybody stopped being afraid of Suge Knight, everybody started talking shit. But Muhammad Ali loved so hard, that he scared the world! I love my people so much that I ain’t got time. They don’t love me though, but it’s all good.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: I wanted to ask you about the “Prosperity” track on the album, where you speak on the Black Church. It reminded me of what W.E.B. DuBois said in The Souls of Black Folk about the church being a cornerstone of black culture, a “safe place” so to speak in the early 20th century. These days it appears to be the exact opposite. What are your feelings on religion and the church in particular in today’s society?
Rhymefest: Yo man you’re very intelligent, very informed and you’re asking things if I’m not knowledgeable, I’ll make myself look like an asshole. I really admire you. You’re something I haven’t seen in awhile G; you’re a real fucking journalist! What the f**k?!
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: [Laughs] Thank you. That’s why any of us should be in this, to improve the culture.
Rhymefest: And that’s one of the reasons Hip-Hop is suffering. We’ll blame the artists, labels, but no one blames journalists, DJs. If someone really asked one of these ignorant ass rappers if they really feel they’re hurting the youth and didn’t let them deflect to another question, maybe artists would hold themselves to higher standards. Because artists do leave interviews sometimes like “what the fuck, what do we have to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
You’re holding me to a standard that I hope you wouldn’t just do with me because you know I can answer it. I hope you hold every artist to it. Because we as fans need to know what we’re getting and who we’re getting it from. Just wanted to say thank you man.
[Now] back to your question about “Prosperity.” I’m always going to do something about the church and God. My music always has a celestial spirit. I was trying to separate the business of church from what church is supposed to be doing for us. If you look in the Bible, Jesus walks in the the church and says “how dare you use my father’s house as a market?,” and starts knocking stuff over. That was some strong stuff to do back in the day, revolutionary! People don’t look at Jesus that way or violent, but I don’t think Jesus had a problem with violence. How can Jesus have a problem with violence knowing how radical his Father was? You think Jesus wouldn’t kill for God? God was just like they need to hear this. But Jesus knew love was the best way, but he still shook them up and scared them.
With “Prosperity” I was sitting at home watching BET and that guy Kerney Thomas, the one that screams “Gooooooooooooooood, will change your life!” What the fuck is this?! In Chicago they’ll have Sunday morning service. Then they’ll say go home and come back to church for an evening meal with a night service. For those who missed, you can come on Monday or Wednesday with 3 services; this shit is a business! It’s a God damn business!
Some places you have to fill out slips to join, where they’ll take your tax and wage information and automatically deduct your tithes to be a member. Or if you don’t have money, you can donate your time. But then they have you working the shit like a full time job! “You didn’t show up today, sister.” What the fuck?! Is this God?
I’ve studied different religions. If you look at the mosque, they’re like “come in, the bucket’s right here, you know what you’re supposed to do.” Nothing is passed around and people take care of their responsibilities. It’s between them and God and no one makes you feel bad and tries to sell you Heaven. So on “Prosperity” I felt I had to deal with that issue.
And that’s not to say Islam is better than Christianity as a religion. I’m talking about how religion deals with the business of tithing. Even in Jewish synagogues, they’re not making it a damn business. I don’t think that corporations should be in the churches. I don’t think there should be Coca Cola banners in church, TD Jakes. I say names.
Government should not be involved in church. I don’t believe in faith-based programs. The government can always say “whoever is bringing Dr. King to town, we shutting you’re church down.” And back in the day black ministers did that. That’s what happened when government gets involved in religion. And then you start to have extreme governments as well when the church influences, and then you have a problem because everybody ain’t Christian or Muslim.
I’m not for mega or corner store churches. There should be one or two community churches. [But] these damn mega churches? C’mon man that’s not Godly. That’s a scam! Those dudes and some of them mosques are doing the same thing the dudes on the street are doing, but they think they’re better because they’re doing it within the house of God which is truly more blasphemous. At least a street motherfucker is ignorant and that is an excuse.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: If Jesus were to come back now, it’s likely he’d tear down many things in these churches.
Rhymefest: If you think I’m wrong, all you have to do is ask yourself this one question. If Jesus came back, which church would he join?
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Profound, indeed. Let’s talk about 2 album tracks in “Say Whassup” and “Chocolate,” where you’re basically celebrating the beauty of women and black women in particular. Why is that so difficult for Hip-hop artists to do, even though the majority of us have been raised by women?
Rhymefest: Interesting that you bring that up because on “Truth OnYou” I’m saying something totally opposite. On my singles I give the commercial on how we’re going to act. I know sometimes we feel different and you hear that on the album, but the singles are what we want to put out there about ourselves because that’s important. “Say Whassup” I got Phonte on it, and it says we don’t have to have sex right now. Let’s just have a conversation and build something really sexy, have something build up between us.
I realized this from going through a lot of different relationships and having drama from one night stands and going after someone simply from sexual attraction, and having children that are unexpected and dealing with this person for the rest of your fucking life! [laughs] Sometimes I just want to chill out with a chick. Man, can I just get a chick with good conversation? I’ve had big asses; I’ve had long hair and pretty eyes.
The price and value of pussy has really plummeted. But the price of a good woman has skyrocketed because it’s rare! Good pussy is everywhere, like a diamond in Africa. Now the value of a good woman is like digging for oil. So when you hear “Chocolate” and “Say Whassup,” that’s me looking for a good woman. I’m out here looking for conversation, someone well-read.
I know this girl, and I told her the problem was she never had a God damn book in her hand. What’s the last book you read? Motherfuckers don’t read anymore. You got iPads; you don’t even have to flip the pages if you don’t want to. Your mind is like your body, if you don’t exercise it, it gets weak. It’s the same thing with your spirit. People are just lazy; what the hell are you living for if you can’t do the simple shit?
You already won the biggest battle. Out of millions of sperm one got to the egg and became who you are. You fought a million motherfuckers and won. So you get here and you don’t want to be shit? You’re a waste of everything!
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Your name is Che, but the album title of El Che and the content has a lot of allusions to the Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara. Once you get outside of Hip-Hop he’s pretty controversial due to his Marxist beliefs and some of his revolutionary activities. What made you comfortable using him?
Rhymefest: Those people [who don’t like Che] were taught wrong. The exiled Cubans who talk about Che murdered this person, what about the people George Bush murdered? I don’t see you moving out of America or calling him evil!
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, may God bless them both! They had an illiterate country [in Cuba]. They made the country literate; they educated the people. The greatest doctors in the world come from Cuba, [they have] a strong military. Guess what happens when you try to get a government right. The people that they killed were trying to kill them and take over. Let’s talk about the Bay of Pigs, you know about that? You know they were trying to assassinate the man through cigars, hairs, the CIA, Mafia, and the United Fruit Company? What do you know about that? What about the fact the white Cubans were some of the most racist people in the hemisphere, and Che Guevara said no, you have to open these universities to the brown and black people. If you don’t open them, then we’ll knock the doors down.
What about Malcolm X and Che Guevara having conversations about sending black men from America to Cuba to be trained for urban combat and guerilla warfare? When Castro came to America and the white hotels wouldn’t give him a room, he went to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem and the black people opened their doors to him. There is a history the white Cubans in Miami don’t talk about.
After Hurricane Katrina, Castro offered to send 500 doctors to America. What were the people criticizing Castro doing? People say Che was racist? He went to Africa to try and train the people in the Congo to get the French out of there. People don’t want to debate me on that. That was revolutionary love.
You want to do something, address this white racism that goes on in the Cuban community against black people in America and Afro-Cubans. If Elian Gonzalez was a black Cuban would it have been the same outrage? Cubans and Haitians in Miami should be working together. But everybody wants to be separate. This idea of supremacy because of color or a caste system is wrong.
So when I say El Che, I take everything that goes with that.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: You expect the US Cuba embargo to be lifted soon, maybe even this presidency?
Rhymefest: Yes, it’s already being worked on. As much as people talk about Cuba, they want to get over there and see their relatives, too. We will see it in our lifetimes. But we just can’t open up the doors and have the Mafia run back in and take over like they are in Florida. Cuba has to stay for the Cuban people, and not become a playground for decadence again.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: You raise an interesting point about the Mafia being involved, as people like Meyer Lansky had infiltrated the government and monopolized the country before the Cuban Revolution eliminated them. But even today we have artists adopting personas and names of Mafia members who despised people of color and help ravage their communities with narcotics. Why do Hip-Hop artists overlook these facts?
Rhymefest: Well Guevara wasn’t about corporatism and how much money I can get and floss. Guevara attracted woman and people to him because he was a warrior. Nobody wants to be that anymore, we want fast money and the life. All these ideas we rapped about are ideas that were planted in us.
It’s not cool to do a song about the effects of domestic violence. That’s what made Michael Jackson so dope. He could do a song like “Smooth Criminal” and make that shit party and make it dope with a message in it. He could do a song like “Billie Jean” with a message in it about a one night stand, or a “Human Nature” and make that shit a pop song. Nobody can do that now without making it fallaciously sexy.
So you think rappers can do that? Shit, those rappers have been run off a long time ago or isolated: me, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, and Dead Prez. They made people think we ain’t shit. They demagnetize us so fans will say “they ain’t shit, they ain’t hot, them niggas ain’t on BET or the radio!” We have to do for self. Instead of saying why don’t black people get Oscars, we have to say why the fuck do we want your Oscar? Let’s make the Source Awards better. Nominate them and have them lose to some shit we did. Have it lose to Why Did I Get Married 2 [laughs].
That’s why this independent thing is so important. It’s important to buy that Little Brother Leftback. I’m happy they sold before without promotion. It’s important to buy El Che because if people don’t buy it, I’m not making any more records for free. I’ve gave y’all music for free. If you don’t support it, it tells me you don’t want it.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: On the “Talk Yo’ Shit” track, you make reference to the decisions Wale made on his debut (“Even before Wale bricked/I tried to pull him to the side and say those white boys won’t sell your shit!”). Was that more so in reference to his label or the type of songs he chose to make?
Rhymefest: I think it goes hand and hand. They make you think you got to have a hit, this is all you got. So you start thinking about how to make a hit over a good song. Music listeners are very sophisticated and they can see through it. Wale has so much talent, and he has charisma. He’s a propagandist king. He knows how to get people to listen to him, how to garner a crowd, and get the right people in his corner. All he needs to do now is do something from the heart and show people he’s serious.
I can’t say I know everything he did [with the album]. But if you go out and try to fool people, they’ll step away quietly. You got to come from the heart. We can say whatever about Gucci Mane and Wocka Flocka, but they’re coming from the heart. No matter what you think about it [laughs]. So people feel it. I think smart people strategize themselves out of shit sometimes. Smart people are real quick to say f**k somebody [laughs]. I have a problem with that sometimes.
That’s what Malcolm X did. Elijah told him to be quiet about John Kennedy’s assassination and Malcolm X was like “fuck him!” That messed everything up [laughs].
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Your closing thoughts on El Che for those who may still be on the fence?
Rhymefest: June 8 is the decisive date for not only for Rhymefest, but for Che, [which is] who I am. I guarantee this will be out, and I hope everyone who supports real Hip-Hop will make a move to purchase and appreciate it. And thank you again for a wonderful interview.