“Billy Woods said ‘say it like you mean it and the rest will follow.”’ Defcee blurts out with a smile at my dining room table. Just minutes before, the rapper confessed he hasn’t used a curse word in his songs in almost two years. “I’m trying to find different words to express similar emotions …still with a gut check moment.” It’s a personal challenge and a professional realization as Defcee balances being an educator and musician. “Chuck D taught Billy Woods that.” he says with a nod. To no surprise, Defcee teaches me a fact in hip-hop history within two minutes of me turning on the recorder. I first met Defcee about a decade ago in different youth arts spaces in Chicago. He always could fucking rap; a consistent skill Defcee’s held onto for more than ten years. At the top of this past December, Defcee released ‘A Mixtape as God Intended Vol 1.’ As animated as this tape is, it still holds the weight of sadness. The day before New Years Eve we were able to drink tea, eat snacks and chop it up in my home. He and I dove into emotional choices of his new project and his hip-hop legends, which included friends. We laughed about Defcee losing a rap battle ten years ago and the importance of sticking to the actual craft of hip-hop; his number two passion since being newly engaged.
Right out the gate the tape starts off with the interview of Sway and Sean Price. Sway starts, “It’s good to see people gravitate to something that is real.” Sean Price responds “I can rap. The basic caveman foundation of this whole shit is ‘can you rhyme’, and that I can do.” How does this snippet of the conversation act as a preview for your whole tape?
It’s kinda ironic. First of all my whole goal when I sat down and was writing the tape is what he said. ‘The basic caveman foundation of this whole shit is ‘can you rhyme’ and that I can do.’ I think in hip hop, as it’s understood in mainstream culture, the narrative had overtaken the craft to an extent. Sean Price is my favorite rapper ever, number one. He had a very short time span from 2004 to around when he passed away [ in 2015] of his of his life where he was able to develop a following based on the fact that he could rap. Once he got more successful he found more freedom in being able to say ‘Alright if I take an interview with you, you’re going to ask me about my raps. You’re not going to ask me about no other rappers. You’re not going to ask me about the state of hip-hop, you’re going to ask me about me and my music.’ That’s how people who were more successful than himself were treated. That’s how successful people in hip hop are treated. Sean Price is the intro because that was partially the thesis statement.
“The basic caveman foundation of this whole shit is ‘can you rhyme’ and that I can do.”
Sway responds “Do you feel-” Sean Price cuts him off and says “I don’t feel sir-” why end the clip there? Why is this the last sentence before the first song?
Him [Sean Price] saying ‘I don’t feel sir’, that’s how I feel I presented myself for so long. On Twitter or in music [apparently] all I do is battle rap and then there’s no emotion in it. Or when I put emotion in it feels fabricated. I felt like that was always the knock on me. The meaningful songs I couldn’t really make but battle rap is something I was really good at. I sequence the tape so that when I put that quote at the front and it sets a certain expectation. The expectation is: I’m just going to bar out for the entire mixtape. ‘I don’t feel sir’ but then the songs click through and as they click through and the momentum picks up the Goodie Mob joint hits. I show you that I do feel.
Clearly you are a Sean Price fan. What did Sean Price do that you wish to see in hip hop? Why’d you connect to his raps and his story so much?
[When Sean Price died in 2015] that’s the first time something like that hit me like when Pac or Biggie passed for a lot of other people. From 2004 until around he passed was a second act. He was in a group called Heltah Skeltah that made a lot of noise in the mid-90s. Then the other dude, Rock, got a record deal and went solo. They put out one more album and then Sean Price disappeared. He’d say it in his raps; he was selling pills and working construction gigs because he thought rap was over for him. [Sean Price] would pop up on people’s albums but was struggling a lot. Eventually he remerged and took on his real name as a career choice. That was where I picked up [on him]. I wasn’t familiar with Heltah Skeltah, the Nocturnal or Magnum Force albums. I wasn’t really familiar with Rock or Ruck. I heard the song Onion Head because it was produced by Khrysis. Anything produced by Khyrsis or 9th Wonder I was listening to. The Onion Head joint was crazy! It was punchline rap but it was punchline rap I wasn’t used to. He was saying such off-the-wall stuff. ‘Might smack off half ya smile go to court in a suit and smack the other half after trial’. The stuff he was saying was so off-the-wall, weird, funny but also technically perfect. His rhyme schemes, his flows and he was always in the pocket. [Sean Price] always surprised you every time you heard a verse of his. He’d say at least one to four bars (if not more than that) where you were along for the ride but he took you on so many twists and turns. That was something that was kind of a model for me as I got older. When he passed it hurt because I’ve grown as a fan with you. This is the music and the bedrock of what I’ve been listening to since I was 15 years old. From the time I was 15 to the time I was 25 I was super into [his] music. I was super inspired by it. When he passed away it hit and then stuck with me as the days went along. You can still impact people just by the presence that you hold in their lives.
There’s a section of your tape where the listener is hit with grief back to back, bar after bar. “I wonder if the sidewalk is poisoned by all this liquor” “Too many ‘I love you’s’ get saved for grave sides/ Too many shadow men taking people in daytime” How did you structure a project where the listeners intentionally grieve with you but by the end yell “Don’t like him? Bill him!”
My creative process will answer your question. I develop the sonic arc up front and then go back and fill it in. You’ll see this arc with all of my albums. The initial third sets it up where it’s a little bit more upbeat and smoother. It transitions into some of the deeper stuff and then brings you back out the other side. It’s that old movie arc. In the First Act you put the character in a tree. Second Act somebody comes up and starts throwing the rocks at the character in the tree trying to get them to fall out. In the Third Act you find a way to bring them back down. When processing grief I distance myself after that initial mourning period. I distance myself from what caused it in the first place. The way grief works is it never really truly leaves. There’ll be times when it hits you out of nowhere. You’ll see somebody on a train that looks like somebody who passed away or you have a dream. Like, damn, so much of it comes down random. I’ll think of somebody and damn I really can’t touch that person anymore. I can’t call you on the phone, shoot you a text or give you a hug no more. That’s how I wanted it to happen when structuring the tape. I wanted people to come and be able feel. That’s how grief impacts everybody.
“The way grief works is it never truly leaves.”
In the initial third you actually speak on a transition. “No mixtape is truly complete without a couple of verses from the some of the younger generations best MCs.” The next voices heard are your students. From teaching consistent hip-hop workshops to having your students feature on your own mixtape, you prove there’s a difference between “passenger seat mentoring” and actively mentoring. Why was putting your students on your tape so important to you?
I’m around so many talented kids so often. Looking back, I would have appreciated it if somebody I admired was like yo I like this I think you should write on here. [Rivals] had verses to the beat that people would have been blown away by if it made the tape. But they’re like ‘Nah we know we can do better.’ All of my Forties have been over Alchemist beats hence Forty Jr. So they came through, in the 11th hour and I was about it. I’m glad it worked out. I’ve had people reach out to me saying ‘if you’d like I’d do artwork for your students.’ That that was the whole point. They’re both really really talented. When I was a freshman in high school a couple of older kids saw something in me. I don’t know what they saw. I was garbage back then, actually trash but they had me around a lot. I learned how to record and how to use the equipment in the studio. I had mentorship from the people around me. You have to make a point of being around if you want someone to mentor you. If I can get into an all-ages spot I’m going to be rapping. If there’s a rapper encouraging me in the moment or asking me to step my s*** up, that’s what’s going to happen. I just wanted to be able to do that for somebody else and give somebody an opportunity I didn’t have.
A battle rapper but still good person.
I’m not even a battle rapper. The last rap battle I had dude was an actual battle rapper. The last battle that was an I-go-you-go was in 09. I battled this kid Celestial from LA. He was in Project Blowed or use to go to Project Blowed, which is a group of rappers in California. This kid had been trained by heavy weights. I hit him up on MySpace like ‘Yo I know you’re going to be at Brave New Voices in Chicago next summer.’ Him and I were already cool, we’d already ripped ciphers and shut sh** down on that end. I was like ‘Yo! Let’s just battle!’. I’d seen him do some Grind Time battles and he’d gotten smoked in them. So I’m thinking to myself ‘it’s cool.’ I wrote five rounds of material and remembered four bars. And it was painful, it was so painful. We had it in the basement of Clarendon Park’s Community Center. Greg, a coach interrupted our battle because there were a lot of kids running around. He was like ‘y’all need to take this outside y’all can’t be cussing around these kids man.’ And then Celestial was like ‘this would never happen on Grind Time!’ So we went outside and he continued to crush my dreams. Q [Solar Five] voted against me that’s how bad I got beat. My friends were judging and voted for the other guy. That was the last one. I’m undefeated in battles apart from that one L I took.
“…that’s how bad I got beat. My friends were judging and voted for the other guy.”
What a way to look at life.
The thing about battle rapping now it’s a professional and personal risk if I want to work in public education. If I get in a battle with a person who says something homophobic to me or sexist and I didn’t cut him off it looks like I’m permitting that language to be used in front of me. If I get hired in a district that I really want to work in that values safe space rules it’s going to look [bad]. If I battled the circumstances would have to be very specific and in my favor. [laugh]
You bring up a good point about not having ‘yes men in your circle. Q, is your ace still a decade later. Years ago he’s judging a battle he knew you could win but you didn’t prove it. Obviously you were pressed but ten years later what do you think of the decision now? Could he have voted for you?
YEAH! Q could have voted for me! Yeah, but then his integrity would be called into question. I needed that. I needed that to figure out that I wasn’t able to cruise through this. I was only 50% memorized. I thought I could write and spend one night rehearsing. I didn’t have that skill set. I still don’t have that skill set. I would get smoked. My students would say to me ‘You vs. X Battle Rapper. Who do you think would win?’ and I’d be like ‘Them absolutely. I would get killed’. My students respond ‘ but you rap just as good’. At a certain point in a battles that’s not enough. Are you prepared? Are you poised? Is your delivery cutting through? Is everything intentional?
Who are the friends in rap, your non-yes men?
Tomorrow Kings and Lamon are like my big brothers. Being around them and their creative process A: it’s inspiring because it’s crazy to see rap that good happening in front of you and B: I learned from their group dynamic. The different business things they go through and also different ways of how to communicate better in my professional and personal life. When you have seven people with egos sitting together trying to work on something, with different opinions and different agendas, often times they won’t know how to communicate. Being able to see what works and what doesn’t work was really helpful for me. Just in [learning] how to carry myself as an artist, as a person and as a professional. Skigh Mob too, those guys wouldn’t lie to me, at all. Speedy, Q, Sllime, Delron, Trell, Wally, Angel, Showbiz, Eazy, Toaster, all them. That’s a whole era of my career 2010 and SkighMob Sundays. Being in the studio with those guys was so much fun because we were around so much creativity. We were making so much stuff. Being able to chop it up about rapping, show each other videos and songs we were checking out and listen to each other’s unreleased music was just so inspiring. I think environments like that, where you have a designated space for creating and recording that you’re in and out of consistently, with a team of people is really cool, It’s the bedrock of how a lot of music is made.
THIS Saturday January 26th at 10pm be sure to check out Defcee in Chicago at Tonic Room with J Bambii, Crash Prez, Special Guest Clew Rock and DJ Na$im Williams BUY ADVANCED TICKETS HERE