Let him do his thing
Joe Budden’s talking-on-the-phone voice is so different from his rapping voice that it’s almost scary. On record, his voice is a hoarse, heavy battering-ram grumble. On the phone, he’s got this rich, melodious TV-newscaster thing going. I didn’t live in New York during the brief period where he was a Hot 97 morning personality, but he must’ve been great. Budden has become something of a poster child for everything that’s wrong with rap; there’s no good reason why Def Jam, the label that just finally granted him his release, kept him on the shelf for as long as it did, especially considering that his first album sold respectably. So Budden vented his frustration on the pretty-great Mood Muzik mixtape series, the third installment of which hit mixhuts last month. (It gets an independent commercial release next month.) For me, Mood Muzik 3 wasn’t the invigorating blast of pent-up rage that Mood Muzik 2 was, but that has more to do with the tape’s beats and surprising lack of sonic fidelity than Budden’s rapping, which hasn’t lost a step. Still, it’s a nice showcase of a rapper with a gift for intricate narratives, surprising punchlines, and courageously candid self-disclosure. If anyone should get a chance at putting out a second album, it’s this guy.
The last couple of mixtapes, this one in particular, they cover a whole lot of subjects, but one of the main ones seems to be your frustration with the industry and specifically the way you were kept on the shelf for so long at Def Jam.
Yeah, I’ve got to get out of coming across so angry.
But one of the things that’s really been interesting about it to me is that you seem so much more fired up and committed when you’re being treated like shit, when your label’s dicking you around. That seems to light a fire up under you.
It does. And it has. I’ve always felt like, you know, I love music. I love to make music, and even when I’m not making music, I just enjoy music of all genres. And when I first got signed, the potential was spotted immediately. And I felt like due to certain circumstances, I was just unable to release music. So for an artist, someone who loves music as much as myself, it can become rather frustrating.
Well, yeah, with total justification. I can’t think of anybody who got kept on the shelf for as long as you did, and your first album wasn’t a flop, especially by today’s standards. The way albums are selling now, it did pretty well.
See, and that’s exactly the problem. Because in today’s society, image and perspective is everything. The first album, it’s not like “Pump It Up” just came out. “Focus” came out, “Pump It Up” came out, “Fire” came out. There were some great songs on that album. That album went gold. It won all sorts of awards and accolades. It was Grammy-nominated. However, when you don’t release another album for so long, it’s perceived as a flop, or it’s perceived as this guy couldn’t make another record. Just the perception is really bad when that happens, through no fault of my own.
Do you mind running through a little bit of what happened between the release of that first album and finally getting your release? I know you were on Roc-A-Fella for like ten minutes before that fell apart.
Maybe five minutes. You know, at that time, what happened was everyone that was in charge and held some type of rank at Def Jam left Def Jam. The people that signed me were no longer there. At the time of the Roc-A-Fella signing, I was trying to just run with the flow, to get in where I could fit in and get in any situation that would benefit me with the situation I was already in. So I knew that Dame knew how to speak to people and knew how to handle things over at Def Jam, so I wanted to fuck with him. But then him and Jay had their ongoing situation happening, and at the time Jay was rumored to be the president. It’s like I was in a situation already and then stepped into one that had more shit involved in it. So that’s why the time was so short there. And then it was like, all right, let’s just go back to doing the straight Def Jam shit. We don’t want Jay or anybody else to treat me differently because of any ill will they may have towards Dame. And it didn’t really seem to matter at that point. Nothing mattered. Nothing that I did, no music that I made seemed to be good enough to garner some attention. I tried to practice patience and open-mindedness, so I was willing to take suggestions, and I was willing to listen and take advice and apply some things that people who were more experienced had to say and had to offer. And even that didn’t work. So when you got to the four-year mark or even the three-year mark of consistently bringing music to the record label and constantly hearing bullshit excuses as to why the music was not being released, it makes for a sour relationship. Eventually, playing devil’s advocate, why keep him around? He’s disgruntled. We obviously have no intention of releasing music from the guy. Eventually, you’d have to sever ties. I just wish that it maybe would’ve happened a little sooner. I’m fortunate to still be somewhat relevant and still be young enough that I’m not too old or too out-of-shape lyrically to still pursue my dreams.
You’ve been keeping yourself sharp lyrically on your own with these mixtapes. At this point, you’re a vital part of this New York mixtape scene, to the extent that it still exists. How do you feel about going back underground?
On one hand, it was disappointing that that became my only outlet to release music. But on the other hand, prior to me having a record deal, prior to me having hit records, I was on the mixtapes and I was on the streets. That’s where I got my attention from. So to even be able to have that to fall back on, because a lot of artists don’t, it’s a blessing. I try to look for the blessing in everything. So to be able to not have released a commercial album in five years, damn near, and to still get love and to still get respect with my peers, I’m fortunate.
One of the things you talk about on the new tape, and I’m sure everybody’s already asking you about this, is you go pretty heavily but still sort of respectfully at Jay-Z. That seems to be a really difficult line to walk, saying that you don’t appreciate things that someone has done lately but that he’s still extremely important to the history of this music. Was that a tough thing to get across? Because it’s not a dis track, at least not in the strictest sense of the term.
That’s what I keep telling people. I mean, I’ve made it known in just about any interview that I’ve ever done that I have the utmost respect for Jay-Z and I admire him and everything that he’s done and his lyrical ability. But on Def Jam, I begin to feel like he was just the wrong person for the job, for the position that he held. And I start to feel like that affected not only myself but quite a few other artists that were on the label. So then it becomes to feel almost like the school bully that comes to school and knows that he can beat everybody up and takes full advantage of that. So it’s like, “OK, I’m the greatest rapper in the world, and now I’m going to position myself to where I can make more money and move onto bigger and better things, but while I’m doing that I’m still going to release music, and I’m still going to demand all the attention that I should be trying to give to some of these newer artists that are underneath me.” So that to me is blatant disrespect. So then it’s natural to be like, “Fuck this nigga,” lyrically anyway. It was like, great, you sell out the Garden whenever you feel like doing it, but even if the handful of the people that hear Mood Muzik 3 get to hear what I have to say to that, that’s great. So I get into the booth, and it’s more just venting, just getting it out. But not to say, “Fuck you when I see you in the street,” so forth and so on. That wasn’t the route that I wanted to go.
Venting, getting stuff out in the booth, that’s something that you do often and beautifully. Is it is therapeutic for you to talk about stuff that you’re going through in verse?
Definitely. The booth over the years, or prior to the booth, just the pen and the pad was a best friend for me and an outlet for me, and that in turn turned into the booth. Often at times, I can go into the booth and say things that I would never even talk about in the privacy of my own home, amongst family and friends. So, I mean, it’s pretty weird, the comfortability level I have in the booth, knowing that plenty of people will hear what I have to say. But when I’m in the booth, it’s just me, myself and I, just me and a microphone. It’s pretty weird.
On Mood Muzik 2, there’s that one track where you’re talking about all the people that you’re on the same level as, that long tangent: “Em before 8 Mile, Shyne before the jail shit.” It was so cool to hear, because you’re naming all these great periods in people’s artistic lives, and you’re doing it from a fan’s perspective, but at the same time, you’re saying, like, “I’m there. That’s me.” How did you come to write that?
At the time, I was going through the whole Def Jam situation, not getting any attention, and I just felt shunned for whatever reason. Like I said, perception is definitely… I’d been signed since 2002, and I put an album out so fast. I think some people don’t understand how fast I came out. So because I hadn’t had an album out in so long, people compare me, in my mind anyway, to people I have no business being compared to. They start to compare me to a lot of up-and-coming artists. And even though I’m up-and-coming, a lot of the people have never released an album, that don’t have one third of the discography that I have. Even with one album, I have a lot of music out there that I’ve put out over the years. So that’s just a slap in the face. People that are nowhere near my level, not even just lyrically but people that don’t think anywhere near the level that I think, I was being compared to. And it’s disrespectful at that point. So I just felt like, let me talk about some of the people that I felt were just beyond great and in their prime and at the top of their game. And if you’re going to compare me to anybody, compare me to these people, because that’s where I’m headed. Not the people that are at the bottom of the barrel.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your writing process. Mood Muzik 3 is a lot to digest. It’s a long tape, and you really just go off on it. You’ve got this really wide frame of reference, where even when you’re being personal and emotional, you’ve got these punchlines that are coming really fast, and sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about. And sometimes when I do, it’s a reference to something that’s so recent and so random. Like, “You ain’t Kid Rock, can’t box a Tommy with your hands,” did you come up with that right when you saw the MTV awards?
Immediately. As soon as I saw the Awards, it popped into my head. But you know, that happens just in living life. I’m really big into sports, and it probably comes through the music. I watch a lot of TV. I watch a lot of movies, and I read the newspaper everyday. All of that stuff, the minute I see or hear something, it turns into a bar.
Do you write them down?
No. They just get stored in the mental rolodex somewhere. And when I begin to write, depending on the song, different ones relate to what I’m talking about. It just kind of happens. And sometimes I forget one of them. Like the Kid Rock one, I totally forgot about it until I was writing the record, and I said, “Oh shit, that was the line.” So, I mean, I do realize it’s a lot to digest and that it can sometimes fly over a lot of listeners’ heads, which is why I say Mood Muzik 3, or any of the Mood Muziks for that matter, is totally not for the casual listener.
One thing you seem to like to do is the tragic narrative. These stories that you tell, are they fiction, or are they people that you knew?
“3 Sides to a Story,” three fourths of it was not fiction; it was something that happened. It was just the end that I made up myself. On “Secrets,” I made the entire thing up.
What attracts you toward this form?
I’m a big fan of drama. I love drama. So to try to think of one, like a story from top to bottom, start to finish, and to have it be graphic and detailed, it’s one of my favorite things in hip-hop. All the stories Nas ever told, all the stories Kool G Rap ever told, just all of the great storytellers: to be a great one, you would have to come up with some pretty wild shit, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. So sometimes I like to try to step into that realm.
Is that something that you’ve thought about doing outside of rap?
Yeah, definitely. You know, I enjoy writing, and the writing doesn’t necessarily have to come through in the form of rap. It could be R&B music, it could be a script. I just enjoy writing.
On your mixtapes, you’ve spent a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with rap, how everybody’s being sequestered into specific categories, how if you don’t fit into these categories companies don’t know what to do with you, stuff like that. But what do you think is good about it right now, if anything?
The attention that you receive is always good. And that really would be it right this very second. For an artist like Kanye West to come out with the record that he came out with and sell a million records is amazing to me. Even the whole Kanye-vs.-50 campaign, for something like that to garner so much attention is great for hip-hop as a whole. Young black artists being able to move up the corporate ladder is great. But the music aspect right now, I don’t think it’s so great because of the lack of balance. I’m not one of those artists that come out and bash Southern MCs or crunk MCs or the MCs that come out with the one jingle. Do whatever you have to do, to each his own. It’s just no balance. Back in my day, for every Rakim there was a Kid N Play. For every LL Cool J, there was a Kool Moe Dee. There was always the balance. For whatever your mood was, you had something to go to. For every Kool G Rap, there was a Redhead Kingpin. And it’s just that the game lacks balance now. That’s the only problem. It seems that the MCs that would be able to bring the balance, they get shitted on, or they don’t get the attention that the other artists get, Kanye being the exception of course.
But you also have Talib Kweli coming out in the top five last year, UGK…
He came out in the top five because absolutely no one came out with him. That’s why he came out in the top five. And the album, which was pretty good, came and went. I mean, every single album he did, something was wrong with it. We knew more about D4L’s album coming out that we did about Talib’s album, or Hurricane Chris’s album.
Do you see that balance ever being able to right itself?
Definitely. I think we’re on the cusp of it righting itself right now, with artists like Common and Talib and Lupe and Kanye doing what he’s doing. Even sometimes the commercial artists step into that lane. So I definitely see it as a problem that’ll be rectified in the near future. Just right this very second, it’s not there. For me, anyway.
Talib and Common and them, they’ve got their niches that they fit into, but you’re harder than those guys. Do you ever foresee that being a problem? It seems like the people who don’t want to hear the Southern rap gravitate toward the fluffy peaceful stuff, and you’re neither one.
I know, and this has normally been a problem for the people in charge of marketing. But no, I don’t foresee it being an issue. I pride myself on being versatile and being able to do different things. So whereas where I was brought up has me not being quote-unquote fluffy, I still like to think that I can make music that can cater to the different audiences.
Mood Muzik 3‘s coming out next month, and what’s going to happen after that? Do you have a label lined up or anything?
No, I’ve pretty much done all of my shopping, had all of my sit-down chit-chats with the labels to see what my worth was. After Mood Muzik 3 is released, I’ve got an album coming out digitally called The Padded Room, probably sometime in May. And hopefully before 2009 hits, I will have found a home by then and will release my sophomore major release, if all goes according to plan.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Joe Budden’s Joe Budden