You know that story you hear every now and then, the one about the ballplayer who grows up idolizing some superstar, then finds himself playing alongside his hero during his rookie year in the bigs?
Boston emcee Esoteric and DJ 7L—long joined together under the banner 7LES—can relate. Back in ’93, the pair were young hip-hop pups, bonding over Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Five years later, after dropping a few singles but still virtually unknown outside Beantown, they found themselves in the studio (thanks to some fortuitous industry connections) with Wu-Tang rapper Inspectah Deck, collaborating on the title track to their 1999 debut EP, Speaking Real Words.
“I was starstruck and honored to even be in the same booth with him,” Eso recalls. “That could have been enough, like, ‘I did a record with Deck—I quit!’ ” he says, laughing. “Though it’s not in my blood to quit.”
“Totally starstruck at the beginning,” 7L concurs, “but once we got past that feeling we just did our thing and you could tell we all had some real chemistry.”
The raw, throwback “Speaking Real Words” turned heads in a Def Jux–dominated underground. Eso and Deck kept in touch; the trio reunited a decade later for a track on the fifth 7LES LP, 2010’s 1212. Around that time, Eso also hit Deck with a rough idea for a comic-book-style rap concept album about a ruthless, armor-clad vigilante—neither superhero nor villain—who dominates the world and decimates sucka emcees. Now, three years later, Czarface has arrived.
“[Deck] was down, and I think we all went into it just to do it, without worrying how it would come out,” 7L says of the triad and their self-titled album. “And then it started shaping up and we knew we had something.”
“There’s a lot more communication,” Eso says of his relationship with Deck, “so we wanted to make a whole record that sounded like a lot of thought went into it. At this point, we’re more experienced and he’s been through a lot, too, so we all have that much more life experiences to draw from.”
“Basically, man, Esoteric is a dope lyricist, and I wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t,” says Deck.
Czarface is straight-up boom-bap battle-rap; pop-culture-dappled boasts sliced by 7L’s granite beats, frantic scratches and midnight loops that hearken back to Wu mastermind RZA’s gritty 36 Chambers soundscapes. Deck’s rhymes come correct, which you expect: For 20 years he’s been a scene-stealer on par with Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, regularly turning up unheralded amid Wu’s ensemble cast of rap superstars with his hard-spitting flow to drop the lines you remember the most (see: “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” “Take It Back,” and GZA’s “Duel of the Iron Mic,” for example). But Eso, with his nimble cadence and cunning rhymes, more than holds his own throughout and steals a few scenes himself, even alongside such esteemed Czarface guests as Ghostface Killah, Action Bronson, Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks, Roc Marciano, Cappadonna, and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire.
Proof comes often, maybe most exhilaratingly in the heist-flick-sounding “Word War 4”: Flutes loop and cymbals skitter like Bullitt‘s tearing through the speakers (you half-expect Steve McQueen to turn up, but a George Carlin “Take a fuckin’ chance!” sample does instead), while Deck and Eso go toe-to-toe trading verses, pummeling each other to the canvas while no clear victor emerges, other than the listener.
“I feel he’s up there on my level as far as being an emcee,” says Deck. “He made me step my game up. He’s hungry, he’s talented. It’s refreshing to hear somebody rhyming like that nowadays. He’s like my damn-near nemesis. He brought his A-game. He inspired me; it’s a perfect mesh.”
“He’s told me that I really held it down,” says Eso. “He’s played it for people and they’re like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ Hearing that’s enough for me. For me, when I was starting out and listening to Wu or Nas, I knew I wasn’t touching any of those dudes. There’s still a little voice inside saying I’m not on their level, so I’m still reaching, but hearing some of the positive reaction to this helps.”
Through Czarface, 7L shook off some old insecurities, too. “I’ve always been kind of a perfectionist and I worried about what other producers would say, and from the nerd angle, if I could rate with the best diggers. But this time I didn’t sweat it, so it was a lot more fun for me just making beats.”
For his part, Deck says Czarface helped him tap into the vibe of Wu days past. “I’m proud that I could go back to my younger self and channel that lyricist once again,” he says. “I’m rhyming about political corruption and life experiences, current affairs, God and devil. This album is cocaine lines on the table—it’s got nothing to do with guns or drugs, it’s a state of mind. I give it to Esoteric: A lot of this was his idea, and everything he ran by me was a go. [It’s] capturing ’90s nostalgia without trying to capture ’90s nostalgia, and I think we did it.”