Cormega Charts His Growth After Industry Blacklisting Following The Firm Split
Exclusive: Cormega reflects on the joys of fatherhood, Mobb Deep's impact on his career and his hope to educate listeners and artists about the major label system.
Cormega isn’t typically mentioned amongst the top three in a list of Queensbridge’s greatest on the mic. And while Nas, Mobb Deep and others deserve the accolades they’ve attained, those who know, especially in New York, know the legacy of Queensbridge’s “original gangsta rapper.” That was the title given to Cormega by Queensbridge godfather Marley Marl.
“Mega was the first one to bring it to the streets… I gotta say Mega’s the original gangsta rapper of Queensbridge. Nobody was doing it,” Marley remarked on Cormega’s 2007 documentary, Who Am I? The majority from 41st Side and Vernon during the glory days, and those who do the knowledge, respect Mega and his contribution to Hip Hop even if his career never lifted off like those who preceded him. Those early days are easily learnable; look no further than the 2002 cut “The Legacy” from Cormega’s second album The True Meaning. On it, he recalls the tales of mid-80s Queensbridge and those who made a name for themselves in the streets. Two tracks later, “The Come Up” promotes Mega as the next up in Queensbridge. Large Professor makes a rare vocal appearance on the song and tells Cormega not to worry about his past, explaining that his time is now.
Ultimately, a batch of setbacks would stunt the growth of Queensbridge’s street pioneer. His first opportunity would come off the fame from his verses on DJ Hot Day’s tracks “Going Straight Up” and later on “Set It Off” via DHD and Blaq Poet’s 1991 album, Without Warning.
The Testament wouldn’t be released in its scheduled year; however, and with the looming Firm fiasco just a few years down the line, Cormega hit the skids once again. It wouldn’t be until 2001 that his debut album The Realness would be released and almost a decade before The Testament saw its drop.
Through it all, Cormega has released music, most of which to critical acclaim. In 2009, he moved from mostly street-based raw to a more reflective tone on Born And Raised and five years later, Mega is ready for another re-up. Large Professor—the same person praising him on “The Come Up”—rejoins his Queensbridge compadre over a decade later to fully produce Mega’s eighth studio album, Mega Philosophy. The project is perhaps a reflection on a reflection, a gospel to anyone wanting to know about the trials and tribulations the music industry can put one through.
Why Cormega Denounces Major Labels’ Business Models & 360 Deals
HipHopDX: What’s been up recently maybe non musically with you?
Cormega: Chillin’ wise, I’ve just been taking this father thing real seriously. I’m a custodial parent. I have custody of my daughter, so that’s what I’ve been dealing with. I see her to the bus, sitting in class and hearing her little presentation. So I’ve just been doing that.
DX: July 22 brings us Mega Philosophy. Last time we really heard a full conventional album from you was 2009 with Born And Raised. Are you planning on continuing that reflective direction?
Cormega: Yeah, this is definitely growth. People try to predict and think that artists are predictable. There is some know-it-all that may think they have it figured out, like, “I know what Mega’s going to say, and I know what kind of album this is.” This is not what anybody would have expected unless they’re thinking, “He’s going to grow from Born And Raised. If he’s trying to grow from Born And Raised that’s basically what this is.” The subject matter is not like anything that I’ve ever touched on previously, so you’ll see.
DX: On the song “Industry,” you say, “Rappers hate each other not the labels who got rich / They don’t care about culture they only want profit / If your album sells slow, bet you get dropped quick.” Do you think rappers for the most part accept what really is a lousy cut that they get from major labels after they drop albums?
Cormega: I think major deals have always not been in the artist’s best interest. Major deals—the record industry period, no matter what genre you’re in—record deals is the worst. Record deals are so much not in the artist’s favor that I’m surprised that they’re still legal. Think about it: any deal that you get, any time a large sum of money is allocated to you and you have to pay it back, it’s a loan pretty much. If you finance a house, you finance a car, anything that you owe, once you fulfill that obligation, once the money is recouped, then you own it. I feel like record deals, once an artist recoups a certain amount, then an artist should be given a favorable amount of the income, but that doesn’t happen.
Put it like this: every album that goes platinum makes $10 million straight up and down. So let’s be real, how many artists do we know, not personally but have read about or seen on the news that’s going through financial problems? And we talking about multi-platinum artists. So why is it that there are artists that have sold millions of records but they going through financial difficulties and some of them not even spending recklessly? It’s because they can’t live up to their means because they not getting the income that necessitates their sales. So if you sold three million records, you made somebody $30 million, but how much did you get? The artist gets 30 cents [per album sold] or something like that? That’s ridiculous.
Cormega Reveals Inspiring Peers Through Post-Prison Independence
DX: I remember when Prodigy told me that Loud Records took between 90 and 99 percent of what they were making during the time they were signed to them…
Cormega: Exactly. Me going independent was the best accident that ever happened to me [laughs]. When I was on a major, a lot of people will say, “I think Mega will go close to gold.” How much money would I have made if I sold gold? The record business definitely needs to be restructured, and that’s why I lost a lot of respect for some of our top moguls. If I was a mogul, and I was in a position to say, “We need to restructure the way deals are done because it’s not favorable to the artists. It’s not!”
Honestly, let’s be realistic. We both know one of the main things artists say is, “I make most of my money doing shows.” But the record companies are rich from their album, and they don’t care about the shows. Nowadays it gets worse with 360 deals; that is the worst thing ever. But then you have people that glamorize it, make it sound cool and the people that don’t know, they want to do what they think successful artists are doing, so they follow it.
The 360 deals are the worst thing ever. That’s like, “OK, you artists, we’ll exclude you for years and use you for shows and other stuff, and guess what? We want that money too.” On 360 deals, you make money on the shows, and they want the show money. You make money doing merchandise, and they want that. Everything you do, they want.
I just started seeing a lot of things in the industry, and it’s just like I never realized how many people were influenced by me going indie. I never knew that until I started speaking to some of my peers. Notable artists have told me, “You were one of the reasons I wanted to go indie.” And I’m talking about dope artists too.
DX: Like who?
Cormega: Like Sean Price. I was on the radio with Torae and Skyzoo, and they was telling me, “You blazed the path.” I didn’t expect that, and there’s a lot of newer artists. I feel like I have a responsibility to be sincere. With The Realness, I was sincere about the streets, and I told you my pitfalls of it or whatever, so that’s what I’m doing with “The Industry.” It’s basically Cormega, but it’s not me talking about being from the streets; it’s talking about me and the industry. To be honest with you, I respect the streets more than the industry, because it’s less fuckery, and you know what you’re dealing with. In the industry, you’ll have an executive straight rob you, steal from you and smile in your face. Then you get mad and approach him about it, and you’ll go to jail or worse than that. They’ll blacklist you just for speaking up for your money, so that’s my theory of the industry.
DX: “Honorable” is the other single you’ve dropped so far. I saw a quote from you that said, “I’m fighting for our culture” when referring to Mega Philosophy. What do you mean by that and what was your goal on “Honorable?”
Cormega: On “Honorable,” I was trying to grab street people and my listeners. I was basically trying to show growth, because I notice indoctrination is a key word. When people feel you, or they feel your movement, they want to move how you move, and I know a lot of people who respect me for different reasons. I know some people that might not even rock with my music that crazily, but they respect the hell out of me from the streets like, “Mega’s a real dude.” I know people that’s locked up, or people that were in the streets with us, and they respect that. My whole thing is, the people that respect me from the streets, they see that I can make change or I can make progress in different ways, and then they can use that as an example.
When I came home from jail and I got a record deal, that was very influential for a lot of people in jail. When you’re in jail, you’re at your lowest and feel that you don’t have anything or you can’t ascend to anything, and the C.O.’s will remind you of that. I’ve had a C.O. tell me, “You’re a convict. You’re nothing, and you’re never going to be nothing.” So when I got on, he was one of the first people I smiled about like, “Yeah look at me now.” So it’s people that [look up to me] that’s in that life. They look at me and they think, “I can do it. I seen Mega do it, and I knew Mega was where we was at, so I knew I could do it.” So that’s what I try to do, and as far as “Honorable,” I’m trying to drop jewels. I wasn’t just trying to make a record that sound good on the song. I was trying to drop jewels where people could grab some of the jewels I give and apply it to they life as well as music. That’s why the album’s called Mega Philosophy, because a lot of these songs have my utmost thoughts on how I feel on certain things, and it’s about me showing my strength and my place as a man at this present moment.
I’m not the same person I was before. I don’t rap about being on the corner and selling such and such drugs anymore because I’m not there. I don’t even know how to hustle anymore; I wouldn’t even know what to do. I’m just at a different place, so I want my listeners to be in that new place that I’m in.
How Large Pro & Mobb Deep Impacted Cormega’s Career
DX: Large Professor is producing this whole album, and you’ve been talking about him doing an album with you long before there was even a title for it. Why did you want to do the full project with him, and how much has he affected your career?
Cormega: Large Professor is like Larry Brown. Larry Brown creates one of those cultures where if you tolerate everything, if you go through the valleys and peaks, you’re going to learn a lot. Large Professor works at a pace that’s a little different than mine, so I had to get acclimated to it. One thing I’ve learned is like when you’re working with a genius, you’re supposed to be humble about it. Be glad you’re able to work with a genius. The fact that I’m able to work with him alone was a blessing. He taught me patience; patience is something I’ve seen a lot of recently. Patience is essential, and from this album on he’s the best coach I’ve ever had. I’ve never had somebody say, “Nah do that over.” He might say, “Nah, I like this line, but I want you to use this emotion, that emotion, or say it like this.” That’s the best coaching I’ve ever had. The album definitely took longer than I wanted it to, but the finished product is something I’m supremely proud of. Like if I wanted to retire—I never want to retire—but if I was definitely not making any more albums, this would be a hell of a way to go out.
DX: I want to talk about a few other people I know had a big influence on what you eventually became as a rapper. You once said the Mobb Deep song “Crime Connection,” almost made their Hell On Earth album. Was that one of the first tracks you were featured on post-jail?
Cormega: That was definitely one of the first tracks that I did...um, yeah. That was the first song I ever did with Mobb Deep actually. When I did the song “Angel Dust,” I was in the studio and they were in the studio at the same time…
DX: That was for The Testament…
Cormega: Yeah, and Havoc came in there and did the chorus for me. I think P was talking on it, so they always was there showing love. But that was the first song I ever did with Mobb Deep, and I was proud of that. Unfortunately it didn’t make that album, but yeah that was the first joint I did.
DX: But you did make the Murda Muzik album with “What’s Ya Poison.” How big of a role did Mobb Deep play in getting you recognized?
Cormega: Well, right out of prison I had an incredible buzz. If you really do the knowledge, almost every person from Queensbridge that was rapping shouted me out in their songs. Mobb Deep is extremely important when I was just coming out of jail. I owe a lot of my career to Mobb Deep. You have to understand, I came home and I had a buzz. Doing songs with them have been some of my greatest joys. I love working with them. I actually spoke to Havoc recently like a couple of days ago like, “We gotta work,” so it was good trying to vibe again.
Long story short, Mobb Deep’s the most important people to my career. Period. I’ll tell you why, because after The Firm situation didn’t go down, there was powers that be that shut me down. It was literally people about to sign me, and next thing you know, they get a phone call and they changed their mind about signing me last minute. I was blacklisted like a motherfucker. Actually, my publicist that was on the phone with you now, she was even told not to fuck with me and be my publicist. It was that bad. It was bad, so the significance of Mobb Deep is even when I was the villain, when I was blacklisted, they never turned they back on me. They could have said, “Fuck him” or avoided me, but they embraced me. They put me on Murda Muzik. Havoc did “Killaz Theme” for me.
So like you said, Queensbridge was a big movement and Mobb Deep was one of the biggest people in that movement. They had the biggest anthem out of Queensbridge, and they had their own cult following, so for them to put me on that album...it’s people that never heard of me that were introduced to me on that album. That was their best-selling album ever. That also was like, “Oh, Mega still doing his thing,” and then Prodigy had me on that song “Three” on H.N.I.C., so I could never front on Mobb Deep no matter what. I’m going to have to respect them always. They’re like family, and that’s how Queensbridge is—some dudes may argue over they shit, but at the end of the day it’s like family. With Mobb Deep, my career is indebted to them. I would never charge Mobb Deep for anything, and I would never say no because they’ve always helped me out a lot.
Cormega Revisits His Formative Rap Days In The Late ‘80s
DX: On the song “The Legacy,” you rap, “In ‘87 Hot Day mixtapes were bangin.” DJ Hot Day and Blaq Poet in particular helped you early in your career, because you were on Hot Day’s mixtapes. And this is way before the “One Love” shoutout. You were featured on “Going Straight Up” off of It’s My Turn…
Cormega: Yes, that was the first appearance as Cormega on an album. See that right there was symbolic. The real Hip Hop heads know about it, so the problem with that was, that right there. I could have had a career right there, but that was my fault because I was so entrenched in the streets. Like, when I went to do that verse, I probably had rocks in my pocket [laughs]. But that was my first appearance, I was happy to do that song and the feedback from that song was phenomenal.
I’ll never forget, we performed that at The Apollo [Theater] and I was with [Blaq] Poet. So after the Apollo, we were walking down the street and people were running up on us in a crowd. I’m thinking we’re about to have a fight, I was thinking we were about to get jumped, and you know Poet used to have beef with people back in the day because he was a radical rapper. So I’m thinking we got beef, and I’m like, “Ah God it’s about to go down.” These dudes run up on us, and it was a bunch of them, and they came up like, “Ah man, you was ill. You got any music coming out? What’s your name?” They were going crazy off that sound. Unfortunately, I caught a case after that, and the rest is history. I went to jail. If I didn’t go to jail—that verse and some freestyles I had stuck with me in Queensbridge, and they gave me enough buzz to get a deal. [It was like] I had a deal when I went to jail.
DX: So “Going Straight Up” was the first time you were ever on wax?
Cormega: Yes, that was the very first, and you can listen to it and tell. I sound squeaky. My cousin used to tease me and call me squeaky. That was definitely the first time, it was an honor and it was a privilege too. That was like me getting introduced to the professionalism, getting introduced to the studio as opposed to recording just in the house and stuff so yeah, that was a fun time.
DX: Tragedy Khadafi played a big part in the careers of Nas, Havoc, and later, Capone-N-Noreaga. There isn’t as much direct proof when it comes to your relationship with him, because the catalog of collaborations between you two is thin. But as a godfather of QB, how big of a role did he play in your development?
Cormega: I don’t think he influenced me artistic-wise. I think he pushed me because of competitiveness. Me and Trag was the battle that everyone wanted to see when we was coming up through the ranks, and we never battled. As far as creativity, nobody influenced my style. Like if you see my documentary, Marley [Marl]’s on there like, “Mega’s the godfather of that street Queensbridge Rap style.”
I was the first dude… Like listen to the words on “Set It Off,” I say, “My device has a long clip of infrared light.” Who was rapping like that at that time? And that was no made up shit. My crew had a MAC-11 with an infrared light on it, so I was rapping about my life.
“Mega is scientist, metaphor analyst / Predator, I set it off like a terrorist / I accelerate like a four wheeler / And Hot Day supplies the bass like a drug dealer / I’m a architect and I spark the set / Like the Jamaican Posse flipping and marked for death / You’re not ready for prime time, whenever I rhyme I’m superior deteriorating your brain area.” Like that sound, “My technology is like a microchip / Mega mic prototype / I kill static like Illmatic Ice.” Illmatic Ice is a person; that’s a street dude that I looked up to, so it’s like that song was my testimony to the streets.
So basically when I was rapping on DJ Hot Day’s joint, I was spitting straight gospel. Everything I was saying was straight happening. “I set it off like soldier in Fort Maine.” Fort Maine was a dorm in Rikers Island that was notorious for being wild. “Don’t front on me shorty, your man’s working for me”—so basically what I was saying was your man did this crack for me. Matter fact I said, “Cormega can never be imitated / Motivators fear the poetry I generated.” I was being sarcastic, that was a sarcastic jab at Tragedy because he had a song called “Live Motivator” back then, so that song is history.
Cormega Talks Def Jam Days & “Illmatic” Influence
DX: For sure. I think it’s kind of cliché to bring up Nas in a Cormega interview. And I hate watching or reading those interviews because you’re Cormega, not Nas. But since we’re talking about Queensbridge influencers, did Nas, aside from the shoutouts on “One Love” and “Represent,” impact your career heavily?
Cormega: Yes, he did. He definitely did. His influence wanted to make people sign me and associate with me. His influence was important, because once I was a part of that Firm situation, it was a big buzz, so I guess that made the stock go up. So he definitely was important. I can’t front on anybody. The It Was Written album was the biggest album I’ve ever been on. It was a multi-platinum album. I can’t front. I’m thankful for that.
DX: Do you feel if The Testament had dropped in 1995 or even 1998 and not in 2005 things would have turned out differently for you and your career?
Cormega: Hell yeah. If The Testament came out when it was supposed to come out… The Testament had one of the biggest buzzes period. It was one of the most anticipated albums, matter fact in history I’ve grown to find out. I’m not trying to toot my horn. Ego Trip wrote a Rap list for that being one of the most anticipated albums in history that never came out. It was on that list. It would have came out and made noise, ‘cause the subject matter, the quality of the songs… In 2005 ‘06, I got “Quotable of the Month” in The Source for “Love is Love,” which is a song from 1995 from The Testament. As you also know, around that time that’s when street Rap really started busting open crazy. It was when Rap really started to get back into the street like DMX, LOX and all that, so The Testament would have been perfect timing. I think Def Jam got scared. They didn’t know what to do, and then of course you had powers that be that didn’t want my shit to come out. Also they was trying to be like Puffy and do like “Hypnotize” and all this, and I was just trying to be street. I was just trying to do me. If they would have let me do me, I think The Testament would have went gold, it would have at least sold 400,000 or went gold.
Why Cormega Has Hopes For “American Beauty” Sequel & The Knicks
DX: Last time we spoke you said you were working on a sequel to “American Beauty.” Did you scrap that or is that still coming in the future?
Cormega: Oh no, that’s not scrapped. I wrote it. I just got to get the perfect beat, but now I’ve got a perfect idea. I’m going to do it, I’m going to record it to the original “American Beauty” beat and just give it to a producer to create the beat around the vocals. But that’s done.
DX: We spoke about Queensbridge earlier and as someone in the scene for over two decades to you, which was the biggest album in QB when it was released: Illmatic, The Infamous, The War Report, or something different?
Cormega: It’s kind of difficult to compare anything to Illmatic. Illmatic changed Rap. The Infamous was an incredible, glorious album too, man. I mean all three of those albums were pretty good but Illmatic is just a whole another level. Illmatic did for Hip Hop, what Paid In Full did in the ‘80s with Eric B and Rakim, Illmatic did in the ‘90s.
DX: Just to wrap things up, I know you’re a big Knicks fan. What do you think about Derek Fisher as the new head coach?
Cormega: I like it, because I think Phil Jackson’s going to control him. He’s going to guide him, and he knows the system. I think he’s going to be the voice of Phil Jackson, so I think we’re going to be in a good place. Even last season during the end of the season, the Knicks finally started gelling–Amar’e was playing like Amar’e again. We was on an incredible winning streak, but it was just too little too late for us to capitalize because we lost so many games prior to that. I think once they get together and have a full preseason and all of that stuff they need and gel together, I think they going to be pretty good.