Around the turn of the last millennium, Mark Pitts, the man who managed the Notorious BIG, had a vision to take the Constant Deviants to super-stardom. Comprised of the rapper M.I. and the producer DJ Cutt, Constant Deviants had released a couple of independent rap songs in the late-’90s and were in the process of shopping their demo around. Working as an A&R at Arista and reporting to L.A. Reid, Pitts had ambitions for the group that would have seen them styled as prototype rappers with a rock-star attitude and allure–think Lil Wayne’s image, if not his Rebirth sound. Pitts’ plan for the group included snagging M.I. a role on the TV show OZ, sparking a rumor he and Pink were dating, and releasing a club-oriented song hooked around the sound of a motorbike revving up. But it was a facade M.I. and Cutt weren’t tuned in to. Ultimately, they chose to stay true to the path of their music rather than chase crossover riches on the back of a hired Harley-Davidson.
This week Constant Deviants released their new album Diamond on their own Six2Six label. The project solidifies their stance: It’s hip-hop that pitches from the underground and puts its faith in the unadulterated combination of one rapper and one DJ. We sat down with M.I. and Cutt at the 718 bar on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn and got their hidden industry story.
How did Constant Deviants almost sign to Arista?
M.I.: We were shopping our demo, five songs. We somehow tapped into these dudes that ran some sort of a management company and they sent it to Arista. This was right when Mark Pitts got to Arista, when L.A. Reid took over. This was probably on the cusp of 2000. The demo ended up on Mark’s desk the day he got there. He heard it, liked it, contacted the guy we were dealing with and told them he liked a song called “Clap” on there.
What did “Clap” sound like? Was it along the same lines as your indie stuff like “Can’t Stop” and “8th Wonder”?
M.I.: It was more keyboard sounds by this time. We were trying to keep up with what was going on.
DJ Cutt: It was sort of like Timbaland’s early stuff.
M.I.: At that time you’re weren’t gonna get a record deal using samples. The sampling thing had gotten crazy around that era. You want a deal? You better not use samples and better not scratch on your hook!
DJ Cutt: “Clap” was like a slow-tempo, bugged-out record.
Can you remember any lines from it?
M.I.: The hook was like [begins to rap] “Something something clap!” Then the beat would clap. It’s like what Ludacris did at the end of that Usher record. [Pauses] Mark did that record, actually! We’ve got a great relationship with Mark though. Even if he did that, he didn’t realize that.
DJ Cutt: He had Biggie. He’s a smart dude.
So what happened next?
M.I.: He calls the [management] guy back. It was one of them Brooklyn-Italian dudes, in his 50s, claiming to know this dude and that dude. So Mark speaks to them and then the dude said, “And I got news for you: Yo, the dude that’s rapping isn’t black, he’s Italian!” Mark was like, “Bring him up here so I can hear him rap, so I can make sure it’s not a Milli Vanilli thing going on!”
What happened when you got to Arista?
M.I.: So I rap for Mark, and this was around the time Oz was on TV. He was like, “You’re a big dude, you have the tattoos, I wanna get you on Oz.” He had a vision that I didn’t really have for myself. He wanted me to do something that I didn’t want to do as an artist. That’s where me and him couldn’t see eye-to-eye. This was before the rock star thing–like when the hip-hop and urban culture went there–and Mark kinda wanted me to dress up like a Harley-Davidson dude and play along with that. But the chemistry wasn’t there for me.
Did you try and record anything that went in that direction?
M.I.: Yeah, we tried to make some records that had that feel to them, like rock hip-hop but not really going there. Lyrically I was still where I was, but musically we tried. There’s a gang of music from the early-2000s that’s not even good music for us. But Mark was always like, “I had the biggest rapper of all time. Biggie was my artist. Anything I do is going to be bigger than Biggie–I’m not doing anything underground.” At the time, he was dealing with Usher, TLC, Whitney Houston.
We never heard back for a while after that. Then in came Uni–Universal from Brooklyn–who used to road manage Mark’s artists like Tracey Lee and Nature was on there, Shyne too. Mark’s company was ByStorm Entertainment. So he called Mark up. I was in Brooklyn one day with Uni and Mark says, “Let me speak to that dude!” He told me he’d been trying to get in touch with us but the manager dude wouldn’t let him get in touch with us. They tried to get us to sign a contract with them before we went into Arista, but we wouldn’t sign. At this point Mark was telling us if it worked out he wasn’t sure whether [the music] would be on Arista or a subsidiary label, ’cause he’d just signed a guy called Brett on Elektra, so he was like, “Maybe we’ll put it out over there.”
Who was Brett?
M.I.: He was a dude from Harlem, a rapper. He was real good. Mark never really had much success as a label dude, but he was great as a manager and an A&R. L.A. Reid really only wanted to put out rappers from Atlanta.
DJ Cutt: It was mostly r&b except Goodie Mob and OutKast and those guys. This was right before Puff [Daddy] left Arista.
M.I.: It was a weird time period for the music. It put a strain on us ’cause they brought in other producers like Dante Ross and Chad Elliot. He was gonna try and get Dallas Austin too. He said, “I always want Cutt to be involved in it, but let’s bring in someone else to help out.”
DJ Cutt: It became a different thing. The Arista stuff was more keyboards. We tried a few poppy and rock records.
M.I.: I hated all that stuff!
DJ Cutt: “Pop the Clutch.” We had a song called “Pop the Clutch!”
M.I.: It was like rock guitars with the motorcycle revving up sound.
What sort of lyrics were on “Pop the Clutch”?
M.I.: It was like, “Harleys, ninjas, choppers, pop that clutch!” Then you got the sound of the bike revving up in the hook! The guitar line was like that too! Ultimately no one ever thought it was terrible. You played it for people at the time and they liked it. There was also a song at the time we did called “Couldn’t It Be True” with this kid from the west coast who did the beat. I forget what his name was. It had live drums in it. A joint called “All The Way.” [Mimics more rowdy guitar riffs.]
DJ Cutt: I ended up playing all the instruments on the record live and I had no idea how to play any records! I tried to program it but it sounded cheesy. I ended up buying an electric guitar. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t us.
M.I.: Mark had the idea to do photos with Pink to go along with this. Pink was big at the time, and one of Arista’s artists. Mark was like, “What we can do is take some pictures of you and Pink and that will make people think you guys are dealing with each other. We can do it on Harley-Davidsons!” That was Mark’s vision.
DJ Cutt: This is around the time I started working heavy at NORE’s studio, the Hood Lab on Madison Avenue and 33rd Street. It was a loft someone had converted into a studio. Thugged Out Militainment: It was Capone, NORE, Mussolini and Maze–I did their first album too when they had a deal with Epic. NORE would come in to the meetings, right before he dropped the Melvin Flynt – Da Hustler album. Me and him would just bullshit for a while. We became friends.
M.I.: As things went on, Usher really exploded with the Confessions album. I was supposed to do a song with a dude named Citizen Cope. He does a lot of songs that TV shows pick up–he makes good money from that. We were supposed to do a record. He’s kinda like the bugged-out dude. But he heard what we were doing and I think he opted out of doing the record. If he’d have really heard our real sound I think it would have been a different outcome.
So this was later on into the 2000s?
M.I.: Yeah. And late-2005 we did a song called “Yup.” I remember I was working with ByStorm and Mark told me, “If you can get to point B I can get you to point Z. But you have to get to point B first.” Remember in “Hustlin'” Rick Ross says that line about knowing the real Noreaga? So I was like. “Let’s get NORE on the remix with Rick Ross and that’d be a cool thing.” Everyone was cool with it. NORE did his verse. I flew to Atlanta and did the verse with Rick Ross. Rick did his verse about Miami; NORE did his verse about Queens; I was in Baltimore so that’s what my verse was about. It was a cool record. Then we hired–and I’m not putting the name out there–one of those early email blast promotion companies and they put the song out as being by M1, Rick Ross and NORE! M1 is one of the dude’s from Dead Prez! It sabotaged the record! NORE told me he actually bumped into M1 once and had to explain it. We had a weird run.
Do you regret not signing up to Mark Pitts’ vision for the group more enthusiastically?
M.I.: Nah, ’cause you don’t know how that would have even panned out. We could be in the psycho-ward now, you know? To this day my relationship with Mark is beautiful. He’s told me he’ll always cosign anything for us.