MVRemix: What was it that made you take the moniker "The Last Emperor"?
Last Emperor: I saw a film of the same title some years ago and was very intrigued by it. It led me to read the book shortly thereafter which chronicled the life of Pu Yi, who was the last Emperor of imperialist China. In Pu Yi's particular life, he had the task of upholding the traditional imperialist Chinese values of the culture so to speak. At the same time, he had the task of embracing or not embracing the influx of communism and Western expansion into his country. In looking at this gentleman's particular life, he was by many accounts unsuccessful in doing the two.
My approach to Hip Hop is such that, coming from West Philadelphia and wanting to take on a title that I would have to uphold and look at the culture of Hip Hop as such - I wanted to complete the task that Pu Yi of China couldn't. I wanted to uphold the traditional values of Hip Hop; the art form, the culture in its pure imperial form. And, simultaneously be able to weather the storm of the influx of political ideology's or changing times or technology. That also has an impact on Hip Hop.
MVRemix: What was it that made you decide to go into Hip Hop? I've read how you've earned a degree in Political Science. What was it about the culture or expression that appealed to you to want to get into it?
Last Emperor: Pretty much - it was just so common, and it was such an everyday experience in my environment. Again, I grew up in West Philadelphia that has given the world other Hip Hop greats, such as Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, DJ Cash Money, 3X Dope, Steady B, Schooly D... So many individuals that I saw in my community that went on to have national and international acclaim. It just seemed like "the norm." It was an everyday part of my existence. Some days I would ride bikes, some days I would break dance. Other days I would try my hand at rapping, other days it would be graffiti. Sometimes all of those things in one day.
Around about the time that I was in junior high school, I would say around 1984, 1985 - even a little before. I was able to hear tapes of Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Pretty much learning it in my environment led me to do it first hand.
MVRemix: How exactly did the deal with Dre & Aftermath rise and fall - were you first signed to Aftermath or were you signed to another label before? I know about your indy releases, but when/where did you first begin putting out material?
I first began putting out material - pretty much, just from the ground up. I put together a demo in 1996 with a friend of mine from South Jersey and we began letting people hear the demo throughout the Tri-State area; Pennsylvania, New Jersey, some parts of New York. From there I began to do a lot of talent shows; open mic contests. Just really getting my name known on a street level because artists that I'd really looked up to growing up had really developed themselves on a street level first. Then, a friend of mine whom I'd also gone to University with told me that he was moving out to Los Angeles to work on videos with a company that had some relationship with Dr. Dre. So he said "Listen, I can't promise you anything, but I can take your demo out to Los Angeles with me and I can see that Dr. Dre hears it." So I said "Cool," I gave him the demo and he moved out to LA.
Maybe about four or five months later, towards the end of '96, Dr. Dre contacted me and let me know that he was interested in my material and really would like to sign me on at Aftermath.
At about the beginning portion of 1997, I ended up moving out to Los Angeles and signed my first deal, with Aftermath. But even prior to that, individuals that I had certain relationships with saw fit to press up certain singles on me and put them out, even without signing to anyone. It was just a commitment that "Okay, you have a talent, and I have an ability to put music out." So they just saw fit to do that.
So yeah, I was signed to Aftermath in 1997, I got with Dr Dre, and pretty much what happened at Aftermath was that I was not allowed to record the way I had initially been promised to record. I was assigned an A&R who didn't share the same artistic vision that Dr Dre shared, so the A&R and I would clash a lot of times over creative issues - songs that I wanted to create, producers that I wanted to use. I let Dre be made aware of this - again, at this time Aftermath had just came about maybe a few months before I actually signed. So as with any company that's trying to get itself off the ground, it's a tumultuous time, and Dr Dre had a slew of artists so he couldn't be hands-on for any one artist he was trying to, you know he had a full plate where he had a bunch of artists but he couldn't really be as hands-on with each project as he initially promised.
Around the time of the latter portion of 1997 going into 1998, I again made Dr Dre aware of the fact that I wasn't pleased with the ratio or proportion fo work that i was being able to accomplish. And he explained to me that with the way Aftermath was at that time and being a company that really had to prove itself at a certain point, it may be two or three years before my album came out. He gave me the option of accepting that fact or perhaps going elsewhere and I opted to go elsewhere.
What do you think about the situation with Rakim recently leaving the label?
Last Emperor: Wow, you know I think that it's probably in some cases indicative to what I went through. I'm sure that creatively Rakim has a certain thing in mind that he's like to accomplish, and I think that, unfortunately, sometimes when you're in situations where you're dealing with A&Rs and people of that nature, they may not share that same artistic vision. I will say that when I first heard that Rakim was signing with Aftermath I thought that that would be the ideal situation because if there's one thing I can certainly say about Dr Dre is that he has an ear for lyricism. Anyone that he tends to deal with, dating back to the days of, in my opinion, when MC Ren was in NWA, to signing The DOC who was out of Texas at a certain point, to dealing with myself, to Eminem obviously, and agin with Rakim. I think Dre has an ear for lyrics and people that are very lyrical, and I think that with Rakim in particular they both come from pretty much the same era of the mid and late eighties where, you know Dr Dre more than anyone else would be able to understand how to make Rakim still be relevant to today's audience. So I was really heartbroken when I heard that Rakim left as well, but again I think that some of those problems may certainly still exist, and I just think it's unfortunate because I know myself and all my friends along with pretty much the rest of the hip-hop community really had high expectations for that coupling.
MVRemix: So from leaving Aftermath, how did you end up hooking up with Prince Paul?
Last Emperor: Well, pretty much when I initially signed with Aftermath, I was asked by the administration at Aftermath which producers aside from Dre I'd like to work with, and so I came with probably a short list and certainly at the top of that list was Prince Paul becuase I had, even prior to Aftermath I had already had a mental blueprint of the first album that I'd like to complete and in particular a trilogy of albums that I had in mind and I knew that the way that I'd like to approach the recording process and seeing it completed was that it would be very much like a journey and story-orientated, and I think that one of the best individuals to come along in terms of really helping people convey messages on the entirety of an album is someone like a Prince Paul, from his dealing with De La Soul to the Gravediggaz to some of the other projects that he's been involved with over the course of years, and I just pretty much reached out to people that I knew who knew him, mutual friends that we perhaps had, and I just gave him a call, I made him aware of the fact that I was interested in having his involvement in my material. I gave him some of my material, he listened to it and responded, said that he enjoyed it and he'd like to work, and that's pretty much how we started, around mid-1997.
So did you end up hooking up with RZA and Poetic as a result of your connection with Prince Paul?
Last Emperor: Yeah, pretty much yeah. Actually, I met Prince Paul first, he and I became close and started working on stuff and kicking around ideas and we realized that we had mutual friends in common. He actually introduced me to a young gentleman by the name of Set Free who had done some touring with Prince Paul and the Gravediggaz as well in those early years, and Set Free actually lives in my neighborhood, so he and I bumped into each other one day at a local restaurant in my community and we just started building it and we realized the fact that we knew Paul, and actually it was Set Free who said "well look man, I'm also really cool with Poetic from the Gravediggaz, and I have an idea for a song." He said "I don't know if you're aware of this but Poetic is currently dealing with a bout with cancer and that I really would like to produce a song upon which he describes his bout with cancer, and I want to have your involvement." He asked me what I thought about that and, I mean I was already a fan of Poetic since my early introduction into hip-hop, when Poetic had a song out called "God Made Me Funky" back in, I believe it was 1989, and even through the course of the Gravediggaz I'd always been a fan of his. So that's pretty much how we linked up, and then with the RZA, absolutely Prince Paul pretty much made that happen. He asked me what other emcees I would like to use on my album, and there weren't a lot because I really wanted my first album to be very personalized and not really barred down with a lot of collaborations, although I'm still a fan of a lot of people, and the RZA was one of those people specifically that I had liked to work with, because I had an idea for a song upon which, almost like a mad scientist created me in a lab using the DNA of all the world's great ancient leaders. So, I thought who better to do that than the RZA who played the role in the Gravediggaz of the RZArecta, so he has that ability, so that's pretty much how that went down.
MVRemix: I've got a couple of questions to follow on from that, one is, I frequently ask this when I'm interviewing artists, which is kinda to do with the track "One Life": could you die today saying that you've lived?
Last Emperor: Absolutely. Absolutely and I say that because I think that the experiences that I've had in even my short, perhaps three decades physically on this planet, have kinda even surpassed people that've lived to be like sixty and above because I've seen everything from the poverty that inner-city North America has to offer, I've seen a community crippled by drugs, and again poverty, homelessness, and gang violence and things of that nature; I've endured all of that and yet been able to travel abroad and go to other countries. I've gone from reading Hamlet in an eleventh grade English course to sailing past Hamlet's castle during my first hip-hop tour in Denmark and throughout Scandinavia. So I think that I've had so many broad experiences that I truly can say that if it were to all end today, I think I've lived a very well-rounded life.
MVRemix: Good to hear. And then also, kinda continuing on with the talk about RZA and the track, on my copy of Music, Magic and Myth, there was no sign of "He Lives," and I remember seeing that on another promo of The Great Pretender. Will the track surface at any point?
Last Emperor: It will absolutely surface at some point. The thing with, again unfortunately with a lot of the label situations that I've been through, certain labels may perhaps still own the rights to certain songs, that I wasn't able at this particular time to keep, but I'm fighting very hard every day, and at some point certainly between this album and the singles that surface and the ones shortly thereafter, that track will definitely resurface again.
MVRemix: What was the decision to change from The Great Pretender over to Music, Magic and Myth, and kind of reformulate your idea for an album?
Last Emperor: During the recording process and really bouncing from label to label, I kept a basic idea of the journey that I wanted to pretty much describe on my first album, but because certain songs I couldn't keep with me, it kinda took away from the fundamental theme that I wanted to use in terms of an actual title. So it's like the elements that encompass The Great Pretender, which is another moniker that I have for myself, some of those elements are certainly still on this album, but I just wanted to make everything cohesive in terms of, the new songs that I recorded I felt that The Great Pretender, while it applied on a certain level, the album actually morphed into something else, and to say that it was anything less or anything more, but just something a little bit different, and I think that the three things that the album as we have it today encompassed was pretty much myself and the three things that I think went into this album, which are music, magic and myth.
MVRemix: Who is your favorite comic book character?
I would certainly have to say Spiderman.
Have you seen... Well, I'd expect you've seen the movie.
Yeah, several times (laughs).
So I take it you're a fan of it.
Last Emperor: Absolutely, and you know I think, just like a lot of other people, before some of these films come out there's obviously high expectations: Spiderman, Daredevil, The Hulk in particular, and some people that are really hardcore fans of the genre are very, very picky in terms of hos some of these companies seem to execute some of these films. But I think that at the end of the day, I just have to approach the films with the same sense of imagination that I do the comics and that I give them a little leeway in terms of the animation and the graphics and things of that nature, or the CGI that they go into making the films. So I'm actually a little bit more lenient with viewing some of these films. But I love Spiderman and when it came out I realized that this is the first film, I pretty much had an idea that they would probably at least make two more, which I understand they're currently working on the second, and it's rumored that in this one there'll be like Dr Octopus involved and things of that nature. I think it's only gonna get better as time progresses.
MVRemix: Are movies a big influence on you?
Last Emperor: Absolutely. I think, you know popular culture in general, the interesting thing about the arts and entertainment, to a certain extent, is that they have the ability to allow the person who creates the medium to, not only just entertain and display their art but also display their innermost, whether it be philosophical ideology, their political ideology, their spiritual ideology or just their life's experiences, and really share these things with humanity in a sense. So it's like I would have to say my favorite set of films of all time is the Star Wars trilogy, and the whole Star Wars saga, and I heard George Lucas explain it in a very good way one time in that he felt the reason why people gravitated towards his films so much was because they sorta displayed a sense of modern-day mythology. It's like all of the greats that we've come to love and appreciate whether it be through film or whether it be from the book world, so many of those things are sprinkled into what George Lucas does, and it comes out in the Star Wars saga, that people who love any of those different mediums will come to, in a sense, appreciate his work, and that's just what I try to do with my music, in that I feel like I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of experiences, I've read several things, I've seen several movies and had a lot of diverse experiences, that the best way for me to reciprocate what I've gotten from so many other talented artists is to put it out through my music.
MVRemix: Could you see yourself writing a book or a script or something of that nature?
Last Emperor: Absolutely, I would like to, once my albums are complete, I would like to actually do something, hopefully if the albums are recorded and completed in the fashion I desire, to perhaps couple these albums with maybe a book of animation or something of that nature, which I think would be very exciting, and even do some other things, you know I have a few other ideas that perhaps even not through the medium of music I'd like to share with the world, so it's all definitely a possibility.
MVRemix: Aside from the album, what else have you recorded, such as guest appearances and such that we have yet to hear?
Last Emperor: I think everyone's pretty much heard everything that I've been involved with. I think the last guest appearance that I've done was maybe the Jazzy Jeff album that came out on DVD, maybe about six months ago. I did a song for that called "Mystery Man." And I also did a song for a group out of the UK called The Space Monkeys, who are down with Gorillaz. So that's pretty much it for now, I'm always keeping an eye open for work and any time somebody comes along that really requires me for a project, and it's somethin that I'm in accordance with, I'm always down for that. There'll be a lot more stuff coming.
MVRemix: Are there any last comments or words you'd like to put to your fans who're gonna be reading this?
Last Emperor: I would like to just thank everyone for supporting me thus far and I would like for all my supporters to realize that, although I take on the title of, what some would consider almost like an omnipotent ruler, the only reason that I'm in the position that I am in today and the only reason why my career is still here is because of the people who support me. So in a sense it is as a result of my constituents that I'm able to have the fortunate career that I have, and I thank them, and I hope to see them very soon.
Lâ€™Orange and Stik Figa â€“ The City Under The City album review
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