In June of 1999 Interscope Records released Sway & King Tech’s This Or That album, featuring DJ Revolution. The cover art to the project featured a hologram of the trio evolving from B-Boy garb to a mockery of the last days of the so-called “shiny suit era.” The contents of the compilation also were about evolution, with inclusions such as Main Source’s “Looking At The Front Door” and DJ Cash Money & Marvelous Marv’s “Ugly People Be Quiet” as well as new music ’90s underground Hip Hop luminaries such as Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples and Canibus.
Although the work would be the only major label effort for the iconic Wake Up Show pair of Sway & Tech, it can be looked at 11 years later as strongly responsible for delivering three of 2011 Hip Hop’s biggest stars to the masses. This Or That marked a pivotal career point for Eminem, who is greatly to thank for Interscope’s ’00s reign as he ascended from backpacker-to-top-selling superstar in that very same 1999 year.
While their journeys took a bit longer, This Or That was also a launching pad for Tech N9ne and Crooked I. Both emcees were vets to the Sway & Tech circle, gaining notoriety through Wake Up Show freestyles as they were trapped in idle record contracts and waiting to gain creative control of their careers. Today, Tech N9ne’s Strange Music empire has rewritten the industry blueprint for independent label success, as Crooked I is among the most listened to emcees online, recently aligning with the aforementioned Eminem.
This Or That was then, but it still rings true now. The choice. The message. The age-old Hip Hop question. HipHopDX spoke with King Tech recently to revisit what may very well be, Rap’s greatest compilation album and gain insight to three icons of the microphone years before their time.
HipHopDX: The late 1990s was a really wonderful time in Hip Hop. I loved when Interscope Records was really behind “underground Hip Hop,” having signed Planet Asia, Eminem and Jurassic 5. They were the label that you, Sway and DJ Revolution put out This Or That with. Tell me how that came to be…
King Tech: We had so much momentum going. What a lot of people don’t know is that when The Wake Up Show was really crackin’ and we had freestylers on like every weekend, it got to a point where people were starting to get deals on the show. It was the craziest thing, man. For example, there was a girl named Sonja Blade that just [rapped on our show] one night, the next weekend, she had got a deal [with Virgin Records]. We had different A&Rs just hangin’ around then. It was cool. Sway, me and even [DJ Revolution], we really love this Hip Hop thing. There’s a few cats that love it, but we really loved it.
The guy who [looked out for] us when we first moved to L.A. [in 1994] was [Eazy E]. [In the beginning,] we were on right after Eazy’s Ruthless Radio show [on 92.3 The Beat FM]. I just ran into [Tomica Wright-Woods] recently and we were having a cool conversation, and she said it. She said, “I never told you this, but I was with Eazy one night. We were drivin’, listenin’ to you and Eazy [was a big fan, so much so that he reached out].” He showed us a lot of love, drove us around L.A., took us to his house. He was a great dude.
Right out the gate, we were lookin’ for dope rappers to [come to the show]. “Anybody who raps, come to The Beat right now.” A lot of dope emcees showed up. Out of that, you had Mykill Miers, you had Ras Kass, you know what I mean? It was unheard of to do that. There were some wack dudes that came up too, but a lot of dudes were incredible. Our biggest dude, obviously, was Eminem. Because he came and busted… and normally, you come on The Wake Up Show once, maybe twice and that’s it. I remember talking to his manager Paul Rosenberg, and Paul was like, “Hey man, can we come back?” I was like, “Of course!” Dude was dope. Eminem’s first rhyme on The Wake Up Show was okay. His second and third rhyme, the dude came with that style that nobody had heard before. He was puttin’ comedy or some weird lil’ twist on everything in his raps. What made him stand out was not just ’cause he was white, it was the fact that at that time everybody was bustin’ super-hardcore. Everybody was tryin’ to battle. Juice and Craig G [were very recognized at the time for their battle raps]. This guy had an outside sense of humor that you hadn’t heard in Rap in a minute. Everybody was on some, “I’ll murder you, I’ll kill you,” and [Eminem rapped] “I’m doing drive-by’s in tinted Corvettes / On Vietnam vets…” What?
That’s the Eminem side of it, man. That opened the door. Once Interscope [Records] came and [signed] him, I think the word was out: all the talent is [at The Wake Up Show] to sign. We had Crooked I. Crooked I got way better with time, ’cause he was really young at the time. He was probably 18 or 19 when we first came to L.A. I didn’t know he was as dope until time started goin’ by, but I knew I wanted to get him on This Or That only because I thought the world needed to hear him.
All we did was reach out to people that we knew were dope, and were gonna last. Thank God for Interscope at the time – Tom Whalley, Jimmy Iovine and a cat named MoJo, who was a marketing person for [Loud Records founder] Steve Rifkind. He had just started workin’ at Interscope and he was the one tellin’ ’em, “Man, we gotta do something with [Sway & Tech], ’cause it’ll change the game.”
The album has been continuously selling over time; I think it just went gold. But it took a long time for it to get there. We were trying to make the most incredible compilation ever, by putting old school, new school, unsigned, newly-signed, remixes, freestyles. We were trying to do the most we could [with what we had]. 2Pac told me one time, “If you got eight bars, you’ve gotta kill ’em.” And look at his [appearance on Digital Underground’s] “Same Song.” That’s how I felt.
DX: In 1999, the packaging for This Or That was so amazing. Nothing shows somebody who was not there better what “the shiny suit era” looked like than that cover. The hologram was so tough. Did you guys catch any flack for that?
King Tech: We did, a little bit. Our biggest friend at Bad Boy [Records], believe it or not, was [Notorious B.I.G.] himself. I met Biggie before I even met [Diddy]. We were actually friends, man. A lot of people have been through the crib in L.A.: The Roots, Boot Camp Clik, Biggie, Doug E. Fresh, we were just good cats at the time. We were fans of this stuff, and dudes were like, “Nah, we’re fans of you.” After Big passed away and everything got so commercial, our thing was… we even had a warning at the [intro of This Or That]. The warning message was, “if you guys don’t see what’s happening, this is gonna change the game. ‘Cause once you let it get this commercial, ain’t no comin’ back.” We knew, in 1999, that the game was about to change for the worse. That’s what “Warning” was.
We didn’t treat Hip Hop like a business. Puffy treats it like a business, and God bless him; he made all the money he could. But that’s not what we got into it for.
DX: We can look at Hip Hop right now. Eminem is the best-selling artist. Crooked I is one of the biggest emcees online, and Tech N9ne is one of the top-selling independent artists. Tech N9ne and I cannot do an interview without him tracing his career and success back to “The Anthem”…
King Tech: [Tech N9ne] is the top independent artist. His success is worldwide at this point. Dude is shuttin’ down Switzerland. People are starting to realize.
That’s the type of dudes we were. If we could spark you, and get you goin’, we would – if you’re that dope. I don’t know if you can do that again, with all the de-programming. I don’t even know if you could have another Jay-Z pop up right now, to get to his level. Everybody we’re talkin’ about right now, that’s humongous, had something crackin’ in the ’90s.
DX: As we talk about “The Anthem,” that video was crazy. That technology, which may seem dated today to some, was right up there with “Triumph” by Wu-Tang Clan. That was wild. When you watch that video or hear that song today, what does it mean to you?
King Tech: It’s just wild, man. We fought so hard to go into the meetings and not take a short-cut on them tellin’ us who could be on the song. The song didn’t even have a hook really. Pharoahe Monch, Kool G Rap, KRS-One, Chino XL…the lineup is insane. I don’t think anybody could ever get that lineup together again. It can’t be done, honestly. I remember flyin’ to Florida to get Chino’s verse, flyin’ to Arizona to find G Rap; I don’t even remember where he was. I knew, as part of The Wake Up Show legacy that it had to be done correctly; the amount of time spent on it. These days, people just email [songs] back and forth, it ain’t got the personal feel to it. That’s kinda what’s missing.
DX: You guys put a mega-mix into the middle of This Or That. It’s funny, I’ve lived in Philadelphia for the last decade. I’m both proud and embarrassed to admit that your album’s mix was the first time I ever heard “Ugly People Be Quiet” by DJ Cash Money & Marvelous Marv…
King Tech: That was our homage to the way we grew up. It’s important that people acknowledge who inspired them. [DJ] Cash Money was a god to me and Rev.
DX: Some of the songs on This Or That were already 12″ singles, like Dilated Peoples’ “Rework The Angles” or Jurassic 5’s “Improvise.” Others, weren’t, like “Underground Tactics” with Heltah Skeltah, Planet Asia and Crooked I or “3 To The Dome” with Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane and Chino XL. Did you and Sway direct and have creative control to make those songs happen?
King Tech: All the way, man. Once Eminem blew up the way he did on Interscope, Tech N9ne [signed to Qwest Records], Planet Asia [signed with Interscope], they pretty much realized, “Yo, we cannot tell these dudes anything.” It’s funny that you bring up “3 To The Dome,” ’cause it’s a weird thing. I was using electronic sounds at that time that nobody was using. Right now the electronic sounds are being used in Hip Hop, 10 years later. Originally, “3 To The Dome” was a mix made off of Nas‘ “Halftime.” I let Camelita [Sanchez] hear it, she was like, “You’re using Techno sounds on a Hip Hop beat? This is dope!” It was weird. It was over some cats’ heads.
Full creative control.
DX: Was it an issue in 1999 to get Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane on a track together? UGK got a lot of recognition getting them together on Underground Kingz eight years later…
King Tech: Ah…we did ’em separately. I know there was some internal beef goin’ on with those guys, back in the day. I don’t know if it ever ended. I talked to Masta Ace about it one time, and Ace said they’ve only performed “The Symphony” once or twice together in 20 years. That’s crazy, man. It doesn’t make any sense; they could be on the road makin’ tons of money right now. So, I didn’t get any resistance, ’cause I’m not even sure they knew they were workin’ together really. We wanted to put new guys with the greats. I was just like, Chino XL was the new guy of that sound, so I think I sandwiched him between [Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane].
DX: That approach is so ill, putting new guys with these lyrical forefathers. It’s interesting too, ’cause as a big Gangsta Rap fan at the time, I knew Crooked I from his work on those 19th Street compilations. The Wake Up Show presented him as a lyricist. How did you hear the emcee potential in this guy who was over in Long Beach rapping with Big C-Style and Tray Deee?
King Tech: I didn’t grow up in Long Beach, I have no gang affiliation, I ain’t know too much about the dude besides that he could bust; Crooked doesn’t know us. When he came up and saw the caliber of dudes that were comin’ there, he realized that he wasn’t at his peak yet. How Crooked got his deal with Death Row [Records] was that Suge Knight saw the footage on BET of him bustin’ on The Wake Up Show.
DX: That in of itself is wild to me.
King Tech: Exactly. At that time, Crooked busted next to Chino XL; it was really hard to bust next to Chino XL. Dude was and still is one of them lyrical dudes that you can’t mess around with. It’s like going into the ring with Mike Tyson. By Crooked hangin’ with him, it’s like, “Wait a second, man, you’re tellin’ me that this Long Beach dude has got skills?” That really took Crooked, overnight, from “he’s aiight” to “uh oh.” I know he appreciated the opportunity. Crooked is a really, really smart dude. The conversations I have with dude…we talk about 2,000 year-old Assyrian dialects that no longer exist. That’s the dude that nobody knows. That dude is a genius; I’m not jokin’.
DX: Did you have any idea that “Get You Mad” was going to be a record that essentially pissed off dozens of people?
King Tech: I produced that record. What happened was…I don’t have much communication with Em these days, man, but at that time, I saw or talked to Eminem once, twice, sometimes three times a week. I really felt like that dude could’ve did somethin’, and he had the world against him. If you remember, man, in 1997…Vanilla Ice [just stepped down from rapping] in like ’93 or somethin’. To be a white rapper wasn’t a good thing at that time. Being who we were, and realizing dude was talented, we didn’t really care if dude was white, Chinese, Pakistani; it didn’t matter. I was workin’ on a beat for [This Or That], and I just wanted people to know that dude could bust. I just loved the way he rapped, man. He’s one of my all-time favorites.
When he hooked up with Dr. Dre, I think one of the things Dre did for him that I don’t think we coulda did was… we as Hip Hop fans wanted him to just keep bustin’. With Dre, Dre was like, “Dude, you can keep bustin’. But if you wanna make some money with me, you’ve gotta do ‘Hi, my name is!'” To be real with you, I really don’t know how comfortable Em was with that in the beginning. I don’t know. I remember seein’ him a lil’ while later, and I don’t think he was used to the fact that now he’s gotta make big hit records. It happens to everybody; at some point Crooked got a make a big-ass record.
Em, when we did “Get You Mad,” I loved it. He got on and he just started bustin’. I’m from an era where if the beat is bangin’, just let him roll. Let him do what he does. I remember him callin’ me, “Tech, you think I gotta change the hook? I might’ve been too crazy.” I was like, “Kid, I love that shit!” Em was a beast. Honestly, I think Slaughterhouse being around him is what made [Recovery] good. [Relapse] wasn’t that good to me. It was okay. Knowin’ Em, knowing him in the ’90s, I knew he wasn’t just gonna shut it down. I think that once he heard Slaughterhouse and the passion that was comin’ outta their microphones he was like, “I was this dude. What happened to me?” A lot of a sudden he makes another classic album. I’m really excited for Em and Crooked and Slaughterhouse right now. Thank God somebody is doin’ it!
DX: I could be dead wrong at this, pure assumption… I always thought that when Eminem found success with Dre, Suge saw it work. He saw Dre pull a lyricist into the mainstream. So for Suge, Crooked made sense, ’cause he was from the streets and from L.A. I always thought those two emcees would be pitted against each other, not in a beef way, but in a Rakim vs. Big Daddy Kane way. And here they are working together on an album…
King Tech: Mmm. Absolutely. That’s a good point, man. I never really thought about that. You’re right, if Suge would’ve blew up Crooked, I think you’re right. But the thing is…I don’t know. I don’t know what would’ve happened. The only thing that messed up Death Row to me is that Suge Knight started becoming an executive producer on things. From the stories I hear, he started inputting on the music. I think that’s what the downfall of Death Row is. Obviously he had the street connects; people respected him. He had the money to put anything out. But once you start being in the studio being, “That’s hot. This is not hot,” that’s a different skill. If Phil Jackson was like, “Fuck it. You know what, I’m playin’ tonight, just to show you.” What? [Laughs] That was the downside. Seeing all the battles, trials and tribulations that Crooked’s been through, I couldn’t be any prouder of one particular Wake Up Show dude, man.