Exclusive: Maino describes the changing landscape of Brooklyn, how he has "Tupac Problems" and why New York lost its signature sound.
New York was facing a bit of an identity problem long before November 2013, when Trinidad James told a packed house in Brooklyn, “Now we run y’all musically.” Neither Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, Big L or any of the Empire State’s late, great Hip Hop titans are going to be restoring the crown anytime soon. In the meantime, New Yorkers might want to either embrace the current crop of emcees drawing critical praise and or commercial success or at least come to some general consensus on what kind of artist is best equipped to wear the crown.
In 2013, Harlem’s A$AP Rocky brought home a #1 debut in Long.Live.A$AP, but he was criticized in some circles for carrying too much of a Southern influence. In 2011, one time Queens resident Nicki Minaj made history as the first female with a top three Billboard hit since Missy Elliott’s 2002 single, “Work.” Yet Minaj got called “not real Hip Hop” and “bullshit” by the same station that kept her hits in regular rotation.
“We have to adapt to change,” says Brooklyn’s Maino rather matter-of-factly. After toiling away in New York’s underground DVD and mixtape era during the early aughts, Maino saw his stock rise with the 2009 platinum single, “All The Above.” He’s since adapted to an independent business model that saw his latest project. K.O.B. both physically released through his website and in a free digital format via DatPiff.com. “It’s a fact that we lost the sound—whatever sound we had, and some people say it’s the boom-bap, or ‘real Hip Hop,’ whatever you want to call it. We don’t necessarily have that, because popular culture has taken over, and we kind of embraced the sound of the nation.”
The man who was once most infamous for duffing out rival rappers is damn-near Zen-like when talking about evolution and unity. As he reflects upon the drastically different landscape of his city and the music it creates, perhaps equally agitated fans would do well to take his lead.
Maino Talks Balancing Reflecting His Era & Embracing Change
HipHopDX: On “Great” you say, “Product of them corners and that crack era / Yeah, my superheroes they was five percenters / Born original, my idols they was criminals…” Can you kind of break down that line?
Maino: It’s important for me to always stay grounded, remember where I come from and the era I come from—the borough, the city and my hood. It’s always important for me to do that, because I’m a reflection of that struggle. I’m a reflection of that era.
I grew up at a time when things were different. Crack was crazy, and it was dudes in the hood named Justice and Supreme and I-God. It was just a different time before the Internet and all this social media. Sometimes, in my music, I’ll reflect back on that and bring it back up date. I reflect on my past, but I also ponder my future and my present.
DX: Along with all that change, what’s been the biggest adjustment as you pay homage to that era?
Maino: Only smart niggas keep up with the times. You’d be a fool not to embrace change. Only fools try to hold on to things that have ran their course. All great leaders and great men have always been able to adapt to the change in times, society, music and everything else. The music is a reflection of society. The culture is a reflection of what’s going on now. If you think about the music business, you think about the changes: a lot of it is online. It’s mostly on the Internet. You make music, press one button and thousands of people can hear your music at one time.
So we have to adapt to that and adapt our hustle to fit the times. For me, it’s kind of easy. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do that. I know a lot of dudes that haven’t been able to do that. I’m a dude that was in prison for most of the ‘90s, and I was still able to keep my mind fresh, come out here and figure it out. I’m still in tune with today.
DX: Before you went in for that stretch you mentioned, how were you interacting with the culture?
Maino: I was just a fan, period. I was a fan of Rap music, and I’m still a fan of great music. I’m not one of these artists that say, “Oh, I just listen to my own stuff. I don’t listen to niggas.” I’m not like that. If it’s dope, I fuck with it. It don’t make me less of a man to say another dude has some dope music.
Maino Calls “K.O.B.” His Most Successful Independent Project
DX: Speaking of fans, a few minutes before this interview, about 60,000 people viewed the project on DatPiff. Numbers aside, what’s been the reaction from fans in the streets?
Maino: [K.O.B.] is unanimously probably the hottest thing in the streets right now. And I feel good being able to deliver that without having the machine behind me…without having a big record behind me. And I come from that. I come from being able to put out big records, but a lot of that was mostly due to the marketing dollars being spent on those records. So, when people say, “Where Maino been at?” I was always working. I was always around. It was just that I went through what I went through with my record company, and I didn’t have the marketing dollars to propel the music.
I had to figure out a way to press the reset button on what I was doing and still speak to my fans. I needed to still get the music out and not worry so much about the system. I got caught up in the system for a while where I was out on these streets, but I was dependent on them to take the music and put it into the stratosphere. I was like, “Sometimes it’s not always about a homerun. Sometimes it’s about getting on base. Let’s work toward that.”
DX: With records like “All The Above” you proved you could work within that system. It went platinum, stayed on the charts for 20 weeks and…
Maino: Right…exactly. I proved that I could work in that system. I proved that I could make these records, but also understand a lot of marketing dollars was spent making “All The Above” what it was. It wasn’t a situation where I put out “All The Above” on my own. Had I put “All The Above” out on my own, it wouldn’t have lived up to what it was able to get to. That’s just the nature of the business.
A lot of these dudes… It’s not that these niggas better than me. Some of these niggas just in better positions. These niggas ain’t better than me. That’s all. But what don’t come out in the wash definitely comes out in the rinse. We gon’ get ‘em.
DX: Given that, what are your expectations for K.O.B.?
Maino: My expectation is just to get the street involved—just to feed them. That’s the groundswell, and that’s something no record company can give you. No record company can take that from you. It’s the best thing to be able to put your music out, and when it comes out on the streets, people are enjoying the music. There’s no greater feeling than that.
There’s no greater feeling than knowing people are out here bumping “Tupac Problems.” People are listening to “Great” riding in their cars and saying, “Yo Maino, you got the hottest shit out here.” It makes me feel good when other DJs from other markets are calling me and asking for clean versions of certain songs because they want to play them. This has to be my most successful mixtape already. Ever.
Out of everything that I’ve done on my own, this is the most successful project I’ve ever put out. So what does that tell me? That tells me that there’s room for me. I ain’t going nowhere.
Maino Praises Tupac & Says, “We Should Reflect On Our Heroes”
DX: You came up through the DVD circuit. Looking at yourself back then and before the initial deal with Universal, how do you compare this independent grind to those days?
Maino: Well, it was a different game back then. It’s sort of similar, but it was also different. The Internet is like the Wild, Wild West now. The fans want music everyday, so I had to develop the ability to make quality music at a fast pace and be able to get it to them.
The DVD era was a little bit slower. They would wait for that Smack DVD to drop every two or three months. They would wait for that. You do your street shit, you get on KaySlay or DJ Clue, and then [fans] would wait for the DVDs to drop. So you didn’t have to overwork yourself to the point where you were doing so much. You were competing at a higher level. It felt good. It was a different era, but I’m still here. Look at most of the dudes that came up with me in the DVD era. Most of them, if not all of them are not around.
DX: I want to revisit the “Tupac Problems” record you brought up. In other interviews, you talked about the importance of referencing Hip Hop’s greats. How do you relate to a young listener that might not have been born before Tupac died?
Maino: I think it’s important that we reflect on our heroes and our Rap gods. It’s always important to keep our legends alive. I think that’s very important, because that’s history. We wouldn’t be here without dudes like ‘Pac, B.I.G., Big L and Big Pun. They did so much to the game that you can still see reflections of what they did right now. You still see Tupac now in some of the formulas. He was a workaholic; he was probably the first known workaholic—songs non-stop. And rappers today have that. The whole thug [mentality] and the bandanas, ‘Pac was one of those dudes. Even with B.I.G., we still are feeling the remnants of those dudes today. So I think it’s important to keep that alive.
As far as “Tupac Problems,” I wanted to make a song that was honest. At the same time, I wanted to make a metaphor. Everybody knows Tupac was known for having a lot of drama…a lot of problems. I’m like, “I’m talking about my problems, but my problems are so crazy, I got Tupac problems. Bitch, leave me alone…I got Tupac problems. You callin’ me about another bitch? I got Tupac problems over here. It’s that crazy over here. Niggas outside with the AK looking for me, I got bills, I got baby mama drama, I got court cases. Niggas over here gettin’ high. Leave me alone.”
How Maino Dealt With Brooklyn’s Gentrification
DX: You began talking about change and adapting. Let’s circle back to that. In terms of representing Brooklyn, now that certain areas of the city have been gentrified and cleaned up, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen?
Maino: With the gentrification, it is what it is. Like I said, we gotta embrace the change. I like the fact that Brooklyn looks better. You don’t see these lots, abandoned buildings and crack zombies running around the streets no more. I feel good for my son to come to Brooklyn and not have to see those things. He doesn’t have to grow up with that and see a schoolyard with needles and crack vials out there. So I’m glad that they cleaned up the city, and my son doesn’t ever have to know what it feels like to go to school and see those things. It looked terrible when I was growing up. So I embrace it, man.
I actually wish they would fix my neighborhood up a lot better. Maybe I need to get out there and start speaking to some people, because my neighborhood looks horrible. My shit still looks like the ‘80s, man.
I think they’re gonna get to it when they get to it. In Brooklyn, we have the highest development rate than maybe anywhere else in the state…definitely the highest development rate in New York City. They’re building more in Brooklyn than they’re building anywhere else. So they’ll put up a new building on Nostrand Avenue and Gates, but it’s so messed up down there… The street is messed up, and it definitely needs work. I want to see it look better. I like the fact that we’ve got an arena. The whole downtown is almost unbelievable. My borough is actually a fuckin’ tourist attraction.
Why Maino Encourages Unity Over Bringing Back New York’s Sound
DX: One last Brooklyn/New York thing. It doesn’t seem like people got the point during your initial press rounds. Is it accurate to say it wasn’t so much about Trinidad James as it was questioning the whole infrastructure behind whose records get played…
Maino: Nah, they didn’t get it. When I jumped on that page, it was more about the city getting on the same page with each other. It wasn’t so much about, “Oh, we need to bring a certain type of sound back.” That wasn’t my fight. My fight is not necessarily the sound, because again, it’s about change. We have to adapt to change. It’s a fact that we lost the sound—whatever sound we had, and some people say it’s the boom-bap, or “real Hip Hop,” whatever you want to call it. We don’t necessarily have that, because popular culture has taken over, and we kind of embraced the sound of the nation. Maybe that’s derived from the South. OK, cool. So we lose a little bit on that. How hard is it to try to change that? I think that’s a harder fight, because you’ve got kids that are 17, 18-years-old, and they don’t relate to what Nas did in the ‘90s.
I’ve got a little brother who is 17. He doesn’t know what the boom-bap is, so I think that’s a harder fight. I think an easier fight is supporting each other more no matter what the sound is. It’s not so much about emphasizing the sound; we’re not gonna change that club life.
I’m one of the very few artists in New York City that you can see in nightclubs all the time. That’s me…whatever. Some people say it’s not a good thing to do, but it’s me. Some of these niggas don’t come out. You see these niggas, they make songs about clubs, they talk about shit and act like they’re everywhere, but you don’t see them. People know they see Maino. The Bentley is in front of the club, and I’m in there. I’m standing on them couches, and I’m having a good time. And I’ll tell you something: we’re not gonna be able to change that sound back to the way we want to. But what we can do is start to support each other and blend some of that sound with ours.
We can start to go more towards the future, because we can’t go backwards. We gotta move forward. They turnt up in them clubs, so we’re not gonna be able to snatch that sound back. But we can increase our presence in the clubs and in the streets by supporting each other a lot more. I’m not just talking about the radio DJs and artists being on the same page. I’m talking about promoters, DJs, club owners, fans, media, blogs—all of us. Be a lot more supportive of the homegrown artists instead of being so judgmental and critical of our own. That’s my point.
DX: There’s a lot of talk about Maino putting the hand of God on certain people. But these themes of honor, discipline and adhering to a code are a constant too. How has that discipline helped you on and off the mic?
Maino: I grew up that way with certain values and principles. It reflects in my music. I’m a stand up dude, I’m honest and I’m loyal to my people. And that’s helped me all my life…all my life. Just being a—I don’t want to say a real nigga—but just being honest with who I am. Being real doesn’t mean being tough or being in the middle of shootouts every Wednesday. It doesn’t mean that. It’s just being honest and real with who you are and loving yourself. I love myself, man. I’m honest, and I’m not into trying to please everybody.
If you don’t like me, I’m fine with not being liked. I’m cool. I don’t have to please everybody. I make music for the people that love me and appreciate a nigga coming with shit that’s on his heart. I’m talking about things in my life that you can relate to, and you can party to some of this shit. But I make my music for those people, and I live by that. And I will continue to do that.