Mr. CZARFACE Is Back: Reinventing Wu-Tang’s Inspectah Deck with 7L & Esoteric
A track-by-track breakdown of the trio’s new album “Every Hero Needs a Villain”
Longtime Boston rap duo 7L & Esoteric have been making music together for over twenty years with a small, dedicated fanbase backing them up. However like many acts that emerged from the independent hip-hop movement of the late 90s/early 00s, they’ve never broken outside of the subterraneous hip-hop world. That began to change in 2013 when they teamed with Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck to form CZARFACE, for a one-off super-group album based around a fictional comic book character of the same name.
Inspectah Deck had a rough go-round when it came time for his solo record during that first wave of late 90s Wu-Tang albums that included classics like Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx, GZA/Genius’ Liquid Swords and Ghostface’s Ironman. Over 100 beats for his debut album were destroyed in RZA’s infamous basement flood, leaving 1999's Uncontrolled Substance late and under-performing. Despite being one of the Wu’s most able lyricists, Deck was put at a bit of disadvantage and had a harder time carving out a career defining sound like some of his more popular peers.
2013's self-titled CZARFACE LP brought Deck together with DJ/producer 7L and emcee Esoteric, after first collaborating years earlier on the 2001 track “Speaking Real Words.” Building the album around the superhero concept was not a stretch for either act, as Inspectah Deck famously rapped “Swinging’ thru your town like your neighborhood Spider-Man” the first time we heard him on Wu-Tang’s 1992 debut single, “Protect Ya Neck.” 7L & Esoteric’s material has also been richly steeped in geek culture, as they made a name for themselves by sampling the Transformers theme on their breakthrough 1996 track “Be Alert.” The CZARFACE project has drawn comparisons to MF Doom’s Operation: Doomsday and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, thanks to its use of Power Records samples, raw lyrics, and dusty grooves.
“I read a lot and people say that CZARFACE is kind of ‘Doom-y’ or ‘Ironman-y,’ but I feel like our first record that we put out, around the time Doom was being Doom and when the Ironman record came out, we were making records using the Power Records samples. Our first 12" had a song called ‘Secret Wars’ on it, which was before the Last Emperor record of the same name and it was all comic book themed,” Esoteric tells Cuepoint. “So it’s something we’ve always done, and maybe something that we’ve suppressed at different points in our career. I think this has always been our lane, the chemistry with Deck makes it a bigger deal. When you package it with the artwork and the concept of CZARFACE, it lures more people in.”
The end result has been a pair of albums that have resurrected a lost sound in hip-hop, one unafraid to mine crate-dug samples and unapologetic, clever battle raps. With that, they have brought the best out in one another, finding a sound that belongs to both acts, with approval from both their peers and forefathers.
“The other Wu guys are on board — no business related moves — they just jumped on the record because they wanted to be part of it. They were a fan of what we were doing. Ghostface, Raekwon, and Cappadonna, they’ve all told Deck in different ways that they are proud of the project with us. They’ve been willing to get on the record and broaden its scope a little bit,” says Esoteric. “We’ve always thought that these amazing lyricists would sound great over some of these beats, as fans, as students, as artists since the 90s. We come up with a certain beat or something and think ‘Wow this guy or Deck would sound great over this. Let’s save this for the GZA or let’s get JuJu on this one.’”
That’s just what they did with the recently released second CZARFACE album, Every Hero Needs a Villain, which boasts collaborations from GZA, Juju of the Beatnuts, Large Professor, MF Doom, Method Man, and R.A. The Rugged Man. Produced in conjunction with vinyl purveyors Get On Down (where 7L spends his days), they pulled out all of the stops on fancy deluxe editions of the record. The double vinyl comes on translucent clear wax, while the now sold out deluxe CD edition came with an 84-page hardcover book of lyrics and liner notes. They’ve also produced a hilarious, full color 24-page comic book, illustrated in the style of Marvel Comics trailblazer Jack Kirby, complete with faux ads for karate lessons and x-ray vision. Also on deck is a 10" picture disc vinyl single for “Ka-Bang!” and in the works are action figures and CZARFACE 3, naturally.
“I was just on the phone with Deck talking about what we are going to do with the third album. In the comic book, there are characters we introduced, but incorporating them into the album is something that we are going to consider,” says Esoteric. “We have some action figures that are going to be dropping in the next week or two. It’s not just CZARFACE, but there’s a Dr. Yargo action figure too. So we’re building a small world of these fictional characters.”
Cuepoint spoke to 7L & Esoteric about the creation of Every Hero Needs a Villain, learning the stories behind each individual track.
Esoteric: “That was pretty much the lead off song on the album, just because of the way Deck started it. One of the funnier things about that, is how I start my verse, ‘7 load the beat…’ I thought that I was starting that song, until Deck did his verse, because that’s what he’s best at. I wanted to record my verse to show it to Deck and sell him on it. I liked my verse, I didn’t want to change it, so both of our opening lyrics could start the song off. ‘7 load the beat,’ when the beat’s been loaded for a minute and a half when Deck started rapping.”
7L: “That was initially a song that I thought would be a cool bonus song, which is weird, now hearing it as the perfect lead off song to the album. After it was recorded, I loved it, so it works in its placement on the record.”
7L: “That is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s just simple, to the point, in the way that they trade back and forth. It works perfectly. High octane shit.”
Esoteric: “7L sent that beat to me and I loved it immediately. He didn’t see the potential in it, but now he is saying it’s his favorite song (laughs). He thought it was too guitar driven or something. It was not a frontrunner, it was the opposite of a frontrunner, but I saw the potential because of that little switch up in the beat where we could trade off every eight bars. That little thing that comes in between each of our lines, I just knew that if we format it that way, it was going to be a nice way to jump off of each other’s verses. I felt that the beat had what it took to carry the song for three of four exchanges. There’s no chorus — we’re not crazy about choruses — which might be to our own detriment. We’re beats and verses type of guys. Even Deck, he doesn’t like doing these elaborate choruses, which can really help a lot of artists. If you take ‘2 Cups of Blood’ from The Gravediggaz, it’s just two minutes of raw raps and a crazy beats, and that’s kind of what I was trying to make.”
“Nightcrawler” (feat. Method Man)
Esoteric: “A lot of the songs that we have, they always come as a beat sent from 7L, and he’ll title it one thing or another. ‘Nightcrawler’ always reminds me of the guy from the X-Men. He originally named it ‘Nightcall.’ The singing in it, it sounds like she is saying ‘Nightcall,’ and I changed it to ‘Nightcrawler’ to kind of point it in that direction. All three of us touch on Kurt Wagner in the song, but it’s just a title. Meth and Deck did it together and we did our thing out here.”
“World Premier” (feat. Large Professor)
Esoteric: “We’ve obviously been fans of Large Professor since the 80s, but we’ve been in contact with him since around 2000–2001 about working on a record together. We’ve had a couple of records that we started but never finished for one reason or another. Having the opportunity to work with him at all is such a fortunate thing, because he is one of my favorite rappers of all time. We finally got a joint done for CZARFACE. 7L had that sample which immediately would make somebody like Large Professor think of Mr. Magic on the chorus. He just set the verse off like that and came up with one of those vintage Large Professor verses, rhyming ‘lyric’ with ‘earache.’ Ever since I saw the ‘Looking Out The Front Door’ video on TV, with his glasses and the afro, I was like ‘what the fuck? This guy?’ He speaks for himself, he’s just a real talented guy and I have the utmost respect for him.”
“The Great (Czar Guitar)”
7L: “That was done in the middle of the process of the record. I don’t want to say that we thought of it in ‘single’ terms, but it definitely was what we wanted to use to push the record. It’s simple, but it just works and it came together pretty quick.”
7L: “The French newscaster at the beginning is alerting the world that CZARFACE is looking for his nemesis Dr. Yorgo. The beat that comes in the middle, the drum loop, was what the beat was structured around initially. I think with us playing in the studio, [co-producer] Todd [Spadafore] had kind of got those almost submarine noises over that beat and then it kind of got more and more stripped down. We threw some drums on there and it just worked. In listening to the playback, half a minute though, that other beat just kind of fell in, and we were like ‘that sounds pretty solid too.’ So we found a way to incorporate it with what we were doing. Even though the vibe completely changed from what we started, it all worked out.”
Eso: “Lyrically, that was one of our more ‘loose’ performances. I’ve seen people write about that verse saying that it is very different. I didn’t think it was that different, but I guess it did to some people. It’s one of the curveballs on the album. ‘I’m kinda sick, so I took this verse off / But I’m kinda in charge of the fucking project / So they can’t take this verse off.’ I was definitely sick with allergies and I felt awful, and that was a freestyle. That came out how I said it, like ‘are we going to keep that shit?’ I think I added something to the end. I just kind of liked how it sounded so I kept it. It was just a little change of pace.”
“Junkyard Dogs” (feat. Juju of The Beatnuts)
Esoteric: “Juju is another one of our favorite rappers/producers ever. Large Professor and him have always been great guys and people that we look up to. It’s a little different than collaborating with someone who is just a spitter that just murders mics. Which is great, but when you have a chance to work with somebody who knows his way around the mic and the boards, the SP, the MPC, whatever, it’s much more nerve-racking and important to us as fans. When you’re sending beats to Large Professor and Juju, it’s a little different than sending beats to someone that just wants to hop on a track, who doesn’t give a shit if that beat is coming from someone in Poland or 7L.”
“The flow’s distinguished / But Rap Genius makes it look like I don’t speak English”
“The Rap Genius line is because they’ll misquote me. I can’t really fault everyone for that because my accent and my diction can be a little misleading in general. My issue with Rap Genius and lyric sites is that people will quote my lyrics and say how dope they are, but I’ll read what they are quoting and it’s not even close to what I said. I think, ‘why would you think that is dope?’ You’re telling me I took my panties off and tongue kissed a guy, when I didn’t say anything like that (laughs).”
“I laugh at them like I’m smashed of a glass of Gin / Or 10, drunk watchin’ Jim Gaffigan with the fattest win”
“One cool little anecdote about this song is that I make reference to Jim Gaffigan. I know a guy that works on some TV show where Jim Gaffigan was a guest. He told Jim Gaffigan that CZARFACE referenced him and he didn’t believe it. So he took the lyrics from the actual book that comes with the CD and showed him. I thought that was kind of surreal.”
Esoteric: “That was definitely one of our favorite beats on the album. That was the first thing we heard from Deck, as it was the first verse he recorded for it. I was kind of telling him the direction of the album and where we were going with it, and he just started that verse, making the references to Dr. Strange and he calls himself a sorcerer. I was like ‘this is perfect man, this is great.’ It really kicked off the direction for the album lyrically. That was the first verse he recorded for the album and the last verse I recorded for it. It was one of the songs that hung around for the recording process for the whole album.”
7L: “I think early on that one was solidified as being a keeper. Initially everybody loved it right off the bat. The album kind of formed around it.”
Esoteric: “The music itself reminded me of sounds we’ve been trying to capture for a lot of our career. The way the snares fall is completely different. It took us in a different direction, more updated or different routes. We really fell in love with the beat that 7L came up with.”
“When The Gods Go Mad” (feat. GZA/Genius)
Esoteric: “We wanted the classic GZA type theme and that’s what he delivered. 7L taking the drums out of the first twelve bars of the verse was very unorthodox for us. We’ve got this GZA verse, do we really want to strip it down for twelve bars, or do we want to bring some energy to it with the drums? 7L said ‘Nah, let’s keep it like this and have the drums come in later on.’ I think that really worked.”
“Now that’s a bold statement and it’s real / I find ‘em all in infuriating, kinda like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”
“It’s word play because the Agents of SHIELD work for Nick Fury. ‘in-Fury-aiding,’ helping Nick Fury. Some people have asked if it’s a line because I find that show ‘infuriating’ or it upsets me. No, it’s just a play on words.”
“Ka-Bang!” (feat. MF Doom)
Esoteric: “Doom was one of the easier guys to make happen. We had Doom on the record really before we had anyone else. It really came together. We were waiting on the artwork and we were like ‘Who would have thought we’d have Doom on the album before we had the artwork?’ (laughs) I thought it was going to come in the fourth quarter of the project like a Hail Mary pass. But obviously he liked the concept of the project and wanted to get on it. We were very thankful, having him on there adds a nice ‘metal’ touch to it, so to speak.”
“Deadly Class” (feat. Meyhem Lauren)
Esoteric: “That record came about through 7L because he did cuts on one of the Meyhem records or something.”
7L: “I met him through Frank The Butcher, who had a CD he put out. I added some cuts on it and did the release party. This was before we had the second CZARFACE album in progress. We were talking backstage and he was like ‘Yeah, I’m a big fan of the CZARFACE stuff.’ I was like ‘Yo, next time around I’ll hit you up and see if there’s a song you want to get on.’ When that beat was made and it was in the running to make the record, and I think I actually saw Meyhem somewhere and it came back into my head that way. I sent it over and it just worked perfectly and fit the record very well.”
“Escape From Czarkam Asylum”
Esoteric: “It started out with the first three minutes of that song and I don’t know what happened, but we just decided to tag on this other beat. We wanted it to have a part on the album, and I recorded something to it, and we got a little carried away and kept adding new beats for seven or eight minutes. Deck went crazy on his parts and I tired to keep up with him on mine. We had it at one point where it was closer to about eleven minutes, but the way we ended it with ‘Your beats are dead, I’m your dope beat restorer,’ we just thought that was a good way to end it, and not overkill it.”
7L: “That was done around the time of ‘Czar Guitar.’ We all loved it initially off the bat, once their was vocals to it, we really liked the beat, but we started doing new remixes and new versions of it. It just became something else in the recording process.”
Esoteric: “We remixed that song a handful of times. We liked the way the tradeoffs and the verses worked, so we really wanted to make the song work. That was the original version that we recorded it to, but we felt it was missing something. Deck called and was like ‘Yo, I played it for Rae, I played it for Ghost. Everybody thought it was crazy, that has to be the single. We have to push that one.’ Then I told George that and I think once Deck put this vision in our head of the entire Wu-Tang Clan on a tour bus listening to ‘Sinister,’ we decided ‘you know what? Maybe this is the beat,’ and we kept it. We didn’t use it as a single, but Deck really sold us on the original version.”
“Good Villains Go Last” (feat. RA The Rugged Man)
Esoteric: “We just thought RA The Rugged Man really took it home, so we let him have the last verse on the record. He was very interested in being part of the project and very involved with the final version of the song. He wanted to hear the different mix downs, the different drum drops. It’s always good to see a featured artist care like that. The way his verse went, we thought it would be a good way to end the album. George came up with the title and it just fit. Technically, my son has the last word on the album, so HE really goes last (laughs). He says ‘And what’s real…’ We just kind of echoed out the ‘real’ and pitched it down. Somebody that reviewed the record described that as an interesting way of ending the album, in kind of stepping out of the fantasy world of the album and bringing you back to the album. That’s not really necessarily what we were doing, but that’s a good way to look at it.”
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