by Alex Shtaerman
While some stubborn Hip-Hop fans may still be lamenting the breakup of Gang Starr, a union between two legends in Guru and DJ Premier that yielded arguably the most extensive catalog of hardcore east coast Hip-Hop ever put to wax, those who have kept their ear to the street are now abuzz over a partnership of an entirely different kind. After leaving Virgin Records and parting ways with Preeme, Guru would join forces with then up-and-coming producer Solar to launch a new label and release the much dissected 2005 album Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures. While many scoffed at the thought of an unproven beatsmith stepping into the shoes of a living legend, Solar remained resilient, brushing off criticisms as he sought to forge his own unique sound.
Since working with Guru on the fourth installment of the MC’s famed Jazzmatazz series, it appears that Solar has not only silenced his harshest critics but managed to over-impress perhaps even his biggest fans. Without a doubt, Jazzmatazz 4 was among the best Hip-Hop releases of 2007, and while the record couldn’t compete commercially with the likes of big budget releases from Jay-Z or Kanye West, for real Hip-Hop fans around the world the verdict has been crystal clear. Just so all of you know, I play this album almost every day in my car and if you love Hip-Hop you need to go out and buy Jazzmatazz 4, simple as that. Bump that shit in your whip, your iPod or whatever you got to play your music with these days. The record is pure fire. But in the interest of not straying too far from the matter at hand, we need to also mention that Guru and Solar are starting 2008 off in grand fashion with the release of a brand new mixtape titled The Timebomb: Back To The Future. So without any further ado, we’ll let the men behind the music speak fill you in on the latest.
RIOTSOUND.COM: I have to say, in my own personal opinion, Jazzmatazz 4 was easily and without a doubt one of the best albums of 2007. Now, with that said, do you feel like enough people got to hear the record and also, have you been happy with the reaction of the fans as well as the critics towards the project?
GURU: I would say a bit of both. I think that [as far as] the people who have heard it, we got a lot of love and a lot of people saying the same thing that you said, that it’s one of the best albums of the year, the most slept on, etc etc.. But at the same time I also feel that there should be much more exposure and much more people aware of the greatness and the genius that’s been put forth on this body of work.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Given the quality of the album, why do you think it didn’t reach as many fans as it should have? I can say that everyone I have played this album for loves it and a lot of people have come back to specifically reiterate that to me. Why are things so backwards these days where good music can’t get out to the people?
GURU: With that, it’s pretty much that we don’t have that kind of major label machine with that kind of money, simple as that.
SOLAR: Let’s use the analogy of great men in creative arts and creative ventures who have typically had to take the moral high ground or creative high ground because the corporations always funded things that were [generally] not creative. An example would be when Bruce Lee made his movies; he made three or four independent movies with Raymond Chow in China because the Hollywood machine turned against him.
Those movies came back to America as independents and the Black youth of America as well as the white youth followed quickly and found the beauty and strength in the moral meanings hidden in those movies and made [Bruce Lee] the superstar that he is, [after which point] Warner Brothers came into the picture for the making of Enter The Dragon. Using that same analogy, we can apply it to Guru and Solar with 7 Grand Records.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Now, February 2008 marks the release of a follow-up project to Jazzmatazz 4 called The Timebomb: Back To The Future Mixtape. What prompted this new release and also, what can fans expect when they go out and pick up the record?
GURU: In as much as we connect with the most well known Jazz cats and famous vocalists, in as much as we connect with them, we also connect with a lot of the underground cats and a lot of the up and coming talent. So we wanted to do a project that represented us connecting with them and bringing out something that is basically the raw companion album to Jazzmatazz 4. And I’ll let the God expound more on that.
SOLAR: Let’s look at [this project] as the first underground Jazzmatazz record. Jazzmatazz has always been known for its illustrious guests of the highest order and the highest caliber, but it was never associated with the underground. What we’re saying is that just as much as we see these great artists and who they are, we also see new greatness in the underground, with artists such as the Blue Scholars and the Zion Is and the Aceyalones. And in this day of non-sensical raps, these young underground rappers – and I just use the term “underground” because there is really no other good term to use, I just call them brilliant young rappers, the best of the new young heads – they are spitting top notch in-depth, articulate, beautifully written and crafted lyrics over beats that are outstanding and astronomical in nature, years ahead of it’s time.
And all the top producers that I’m associated with, Kanye, [Scott] Storch, Pharrell, will.i.am, none of them have [gone back to work with these types of artists]. Once they got to the point like [I have] with Gym Class Heroes – in case you don’t know I remixed their platinum selling single, and I received a platinum plaque for that, so now I’m a platinum producer, not to mention all the luminaries I’ve worked with – none of these other producers have ever turned and went back to the underground, they keep it moving, they stay on the pop level. So this is the first time we see someone of my stature as a producer go back and show and prove who I am and what I represent. And I am giving them top level tracks that easily could be charged tons of money for that they could not [otherwise] afford to be on.
RIOTSOUND.COM: This new record obviously has a lot of great collaborations on it with artists such as Tony Touch, Damian Marley, Lord Tariq, Zion I, Blue Scholars as well as many others. How would you say most of these collaborations usually materialize; do you get in contact with artists whose music you respect or do they reach out to you? I know each case is different, but generally speaking, how do things come together on that level?
GURU: In that respect it’s kind of similar to Jazzmatazz 4, some people we bump into in our travels, some people we connect with, some people we have long lasting relationships with, other people we hear about and we holler at them. But it’s always a natural coming together. It’s never something that’s forced. So it’s always [about] who fits the song, who fits the project, so that’s how we really do it. We discuss between ourselves, Solar and myself, as far as who fits what, and then we reach out. Everybody is always amped to get involved, so there’s never been a situation where somebody didn’t want to get involved or couldn’t get involved. The only thing is just scheduling, and we make it happen.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Now a question I have for Solar is: obviously you have shown yourself to be an incredibly talented and eclectic producer and I’ve been very impressed with your production of Guru and the work you put in on Jazzmatazz 4, I can honestly say the album exceeded my highest expectations. Again, having said that, how do you feel you have grown as a producer since you first started working with Guru? How is Solar the producer different today as opposed to say three years ago?
SOLAR: Well, first and foremost I’ve grown in the art of production. My first album, Guru’s Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures, was kinda me finding my confidence and my legs as a top notch producer. With Guru certainly having the track record of discovering some of the greatest producers in history and working with some of the greatest producers in history, when he [told me] that I had the talent, I believed that I did. Initially we put out some test singles that went to #1 on the underground charts or indy charts or what have you. But still, it’s not the same as when you sit down with B Real and you tell him about the project and Guru introduces me as his go-to producer now and I kick it with [B Real] for a while and give him a track and get one of my tracks over to Styles P and get a track over to Talib [Kweli] and Jean Grae.
You know, that was really the barometer of me starting to find my confidence in seeing that these rappers who I grew up with as legends to me – Cypress Hill and B Real, you know, that’s like one of my favorite groups in history, that’s a Hip-Hop super group – so to be able to have B Real say [to me] “yo, that’s a fly track” and put down one of the greatest verses that I’ve heard him spit on The Street Scriptures, and then to hear Talib and Jean Grae – I was actually the first to put the two of them together on a record along with Guru. So when The Street Scriptures came out I knew that, alright, this is me. Even though it brought out a whole bunch of hate and resentment that I didn’t quite anticipate, but at the same time I knew I had something that was going to shake up the world and then we also have a stage performance that goes with that. Once we went on the road and started bringing it to the crowds and they would hear the music and respond to it, that’s when I knew like, this is really gonna happen.
So that [first album] gave me the confidence and the platform to grow and be confident going into a project like Jazzmatazz 4, which is much more complex than dealing with The Street Scriptures, in the sense that there have already been three great editions of Jazzmatazz before this one. With The Street Scriptures, a lot of people compared me to Premier and Gang Starr, and my statement was and is, I’m not [Premier], and I didn’t try to make a Gang Starr record. So to tell me I didn’t do a good job [based on that] is idiotic. It just shows the stupidity of those people because I obviously was not trying to copy that sound, I was making my own sound. So that was a non-criticism. But with Jazzmatazz 4, I would not have that right if I ventured too far from the formula. If I [strayed too far] I was fucked. If I copied the formula too much I was also fucked. So really it took a real intense work ethic to do it. And I can honestly say it was the first thought on my mind when I woke up in the morning and the last thought on my mind when I went to rest at night for the whole duration of making that album.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Since the two of you started 7 Grand Records, what have been some of the greatest benefits of being independent, and also, have you experienced any downsides in running your own label? Has it been a challenge as far as being artists while at the same time having to manage things on the business end?
GURU: As far as wearing different hats and everything, we’re built like that, so it’s a challenge but it’s a warranted challenge and it’s a challenge that we handle very well. One of the rewards of it is the creative control, because obviously we have cutting edge intelligent creative ideas that would probably get stifled, and actually, not even probably, they would get stifled in another scenario. And we knew that and that’s what prompted us to start the label 7 Grand that has now become a movement. Maybe the downside is that we don’t get the recognition we should be getting in certain arenas. I’ll give you an example, right now they’re giving Grammys to cats who haven’t really done hardly anything as opposed to giving us some light.
SOLAR: I mean, they don’t have to give us a Grammy but I think that any person that’s reading this article that’s listened to Jazzmatazz 4 can say that this is an album worthy of a Grammy nomination. You can certainly nominate us for even a BS Grammy, and I really hope that you put this out there because, again, the fans are being shortchanged! They really are. And it’s not fair to them, it’s not fair to you and it’s a total [case] of falling asleep at the wheel of the people who run the Grammys. They got their heads stuffed so far up their ass that they can’t realize something brilliant of this caliber. How often does something like this happen, when you hear David Sanborn, a Grammy winner with Damian Marley [who is also] a Grammy winner? When are they going to hear this? Are they going to wait for somebody to steal it from us and then nominate it for a Grammy? Shame on them! Shame on these people!
GURU: See, that’s exactly what I was getting at too.
SOLAR: It’s the independent media and journalists like yourself that now have a chance to expose these charlatans and these snake oil salesmen. If you don’t understand music, don’t set yourself up to be a critic. People around the world come to see our concerts and have bought, or actually found our album, because Jazzmatazz wasn’t even in a good distribution situation, nowhere near the availability that it should have been, people went out of their way to find this album and to get this album. A lot of people did as you did with your people, they would get the album and let their friends hear it and they would go and cop it or they’d make a copy of it for themselves, depending on where their finances was at. And that’s how this album has gotten out there.
So it’s really a testament to the people that this album is successful. It’s a testament to them that the world is interested. It’s a testament to them that we’re doing sold out concert runs through Aspen, Colorado with the rich and famous and all throughout America. It’s because these people are coming out to see Guru and Solar, so obviously these other people [giving out all these awards] are not speaking for anybody besides their own bloated egos.
RIOTSOUND.COM: The music industry has been in decline for some time now and the Grammys have also largely gone in a similar direction; but how have we managed to deteriorate to such a low level?
GURU: There’s been hints of it in the past but it’s just been getting worse and worse and I would say that’s because of overall, like Solar spoke on, the bloated egos. And what happens then too is you got a lot of industry people who wish they could be creative people and they’re not. So they kinda have their own hang-ups and their own grudges that they hold against the real creative geniuses too. So it’s a combination of things. What would you say God?
SOLAR: I would say that it’s very hard for me to understand that type of thinking because I believe that at the end of the day somebody who works hard should be rewarded. I believe that at the end of the day somebody who didn’t do the work should have to repeat the course or go back and redo that job. So they’re operating on a frequency that I don’t understand. I don’t want to understand it.
GURU: [sighs] Yea, I have to agree… it’s pretty twisted.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Here’s a question that has been beaten to death lately but I am going to ask it anyway. What, in your opinion, is the state of New York Hip-Hop? Is New York Hip-Hop ever coming back to prominence or is it basically a dead issue at this point?
GURU: As Solar says, it was tied up in the basement and duck taped but we’re rescuing it now. 7 Grand is rescuing it, we got the GPS satellite on the cell phone and we’re going to rescue it and resuscitate it and put it back in motion.
SOLAR: You can’t kill something as important as history. You can try to change history ultimately, but, I would say this, many have tried and they all failed. You’re not going to be able to erase New York Hip-Hop, without it you have nothing. I would say if you erase New York Hip-Hop then there is no more Hip-Hop at all.
GURU: [laughs] Yea, I agree, that’s like taking the nucleus out of something. If you take the nucleus out of something it doesn’t exist.
SOLAR: So what we’re really talking about is an exchange of power to 7 Grand. But 7 Grand [are] reasonable generals. We’re not going for the abolishment of anybody or anything. All we’re saying is that you have to give us this position in the industry so that we can balance things out. You have to have balance. Without balance you can’t have a universe. You can’t walk this planet without being balanced, you’ll constantly fall over, your hat wouldn’t stay on you head.
GURU: Yup, there it is, so we’re talking about Hip-Hop gravity.
SOLAR: That’s right, and you have to remember that these bloated suit ego-maniacs, maniacal, diabolical individuals, and they know who they are, you can’t stop the will of the people! Hip-Hop was born out of goodness, fairness, Black people loving each other and building something that the world came to admire, and then the young white kids wanted to join in and the Puerto Ricans and Latinos joined in. And then we saw something that the whole world wanted to be a part of and we let them be a part of it. We opened ourselves to them and said – here, be a part of this. You can’t stop that, it’s too important.
GURU: You also have to remember, Hip-Hop started without any money involved.
SOLAR: So you can’t be mad at brother Guru and brother Solar for coming along and saying – listen, we understand you got your Lamborghinis and your girl’s butt tastes delicious, so go eat that and go drive that and leave the props to Guru and Solar.
GURU: [laughs] Exactly [laughing]… oh man!
RIOTSOUND.COM: You guys have been touring a lot lately with shows overseas as well as stateside. How would you describe a Guru and Solar concert?
SOLAR: The youth is loving it when they come to see our concerts. I ain’t calling these kids backpackers because they’re so much more than that. I call them the young innovative Hip-Hop heads. But these young cats who are 15, 16, with a little bit of change in their pocket, they come and drop that 30 bucks to come see us. They love it! They not coming because they seeing some bloated suit on MTV throwing up Roc-A-Fella or Mason signs or whatever this dude is these days. They coming because they love music! They don’t give a God danm fuck whether you’re Republican or Democrat, they just come to hear the music. And you know what, that’s all they’re going to get from us, good music. I’m not gonna sneak no sneaky signs on them and make them feel like they’re outpaced and outmaneuvered and that they could never have enough money to be anything. I say, come on in if you’re broke, I’ll give ‘em a free CD, I’ll take a picture with them and sign it because we truly truly care about them.
GURU: I’ve seen times when there’s been people outside the venue that said they couldn’t afford a ticket. We brought ‘em right in with us or put them on the list.
SOLAR: I never leave a kid standing outside. You wanna come see me, c’mon, c’mon in.
RIOTSOUND.COM: When it comes to actually performing, how would you characterize your stage show?
GURU: The catalog is so vast that you got classics after classics. From the new classics to the old classics back to the new and then back to the old. So it’s a musical journey and sonically I think it is probably the tightest Hip-Hop show on the planet; visually, sonically and energy wise.
RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as future projects, what else should fans be looking out for as far as Guru and Solar go?
GURU: 2008 is going to be a big year. After the Timebomb drops, of course we’ll be on tour and you can catch us on the road. Check us out on www.MySpace.com/Guru7Grand, www.MySpace.com/Solar7Grand as well as www.GurusJazzmatazz.net.
SOLAR: If you register as our friend on MySpace, you’ll automatically get notifications. And you can also join the 7 Grand movement on our MySpace pages and you’ll also get free gifts and other goodies and we also raffle off show tickets.