"Before I slide, I'ma leave you this jewel: even mechanics walk around with they tools." - Freddie Foxxx, "The Militia"
It was over a decade ago that Bumpy Knuckles gave fans that wisdom on Gang Starr's Moment of Truth posse cut. The veteran Long Island, New York emcee then (and forever) known as Freddie Foxxx went on to build upon a popular alias for himself, independently-release a critical and commercial cult classic in The Industry Shakedown and recharge a obstacle course career-path, known for both its patience and perseverance. Still, while we have all gotten to know Bumpy Knuckles, the wisdom of that one line is still unraveling.
Owning his own studio for much of the last 10 years, Bumpy Knuckles is a restless craftsman of the microphone. In his hide-away laboratory there are unheard full-projects with the likes of Pete Rock, DMC, and countless others. Surrounded by these tools, the microphone mechanic is setting an example on how to be a highly-respected emcee, steadily releasing music throughout four decades.
This week, O.G. Freddie Foxxx has teamed with longtime friend, mentor and collaborator KRS-One to release Royalty Check. The two Stop The Violence icons are as active as ever, and used a three-day recording session to build upon their legendary catalogs. Released by Canada's 682 Records, and coming to CD and vinyl shortly, the project produced entirely by Bumpy Knuckles finds these Hip Hop enforcers basking in traditional recording methods, rhyme book excavation and the tools of the trade to teach all of Rap's apprentices. Speaking with HipHopDX late last week, Bumpy Knuckles opened his workshop...
HipHopDX: You have been speaking about this project, Royalty Check, for over a year and a half. It's crazy that a song like "Stressed Out" can speak so much to what's happening in the world right now, and be a few years old...
Bumpy Knuckles: I had already started developing this new sound, called "block music." Me and DMC was workin' on it at first; I was building these boom-bap, Hip Hop tracks [with instrumentation]. It was almost a blessing in disguise, because when [KRS-One] showed up to my studio and said that he wanted to rap on something different, he was looking to do something [unlike what he's previously done]. So I started playin' beats for him. For every beat I played, he was like, "Yo, I got somethin' for that!" His whole energy was geared towards doing something different sonically, and not do the typical stuff that we always do - even though that stuff is dope, we wanted to come with something different. There's musicians in the room now.
"Stressed Out" took a lot of time for me to build. I had this weird kind of hi-hat, a triplet hi-hat sample looping under these drum samples. I was trying to figure out what to do over. So I picked up the guitar and called a buddy of mine. We were both in there, just whacking away at the guitar. Kris heard it and was like, "Yo, this is dope!" When Kris started talkin' about what he was talkin' about [on the record], I knew it was perfect. It was right after [Hurricane] Katrina happened. These storms, they were rearranging peoples' lives. We were hearing stories about how people were sleeping in stadiums. They must really be stressed out. Meanwhile, politicians were on TV, and it seemed almost like they were trying to use Katrina as a marketing tool for their campaign; George Bush didn't seem too concerned, 'cause it took him so long to get [aid]. To me, I was noticing the stress.
I was gonna put [the song] out when the tsunami happened, then the earthquakes, now Missouri - all these different storms going down. I said, "Wow, we need to put this out." I babysat the project.
DX: The record is politically-charged. It's interesting to me that people may look at your and KRS' career paths and come back to your work together on Boogie Down Productions' Sex & Violence in 1992, which was also an election season. Even though your contributions on that album in "Ruff Ruff" was more street-oriented, that album really spoke out against the ills of the nation and the world then. Do you see much similarity to today?
Bumpy Knuckles: Whenever I work with KRS-One, I always feel like he's so amazingly dope. His ability challenges me to be on my best skill level when I rock with him. But I notice a lot of rappers that when they rhyme with KRS-One, they try to out-rhyme him; that's not really how I work with him. I just do what Bumpy Knuckles does. The work on this project had to be a variation of talent. He was picking the beats of stuff I produced. I'd say, "You rhyme on this record, I'll do the chorus," or "You do a verse, and I'll do two verses." With "Stressed Out" particularly, he did three verses. At the end, he said, "Yo Foxxx, why don't you just pick a subject that's close to your heart, or something that you feel needs to be addressed." I picked the Sean Bell [murder]. That case was hurtful because I had met Sean Bell once in my studio with some buddies that came out to do a joint with me. To see the cops get [acquitted] on that was disturbing to me. His mother, his father, his kids, his fiance...everybody was in pain. It seemed like [the defendants] were celebrating - people were celebrating that the cops got off on that. So I chopped the beat in half; after KRS-One's rhyme finishes, I chopped the beat again. I didn't want to over-produce it, I just wanted it to be a rhythm that I rode over. I really wanted to be about the words and the context.
The beauty of this project is that we were in the studio together. There's video footage of us, in the studio, doing this album together.
DX: That's interesting. You are a methodical recorder. You wake up and record music nearly every day, and sit on projects like this and others for years, chipping away at them. From what I've heard from producers like Jesse West or even DJ Premier, KRS-One is more of an improvisational recorder - in and out. How was the chemistry of the studio, given that contrast in approach?
Bumpy Knuckles: Kris showed up to my studio with this backpack. He had a driver. He told the driver, "Come back later. I'll call you when I'm ready to leave." In my studio, I have this throne that was a gift. I sit in a throne when I write my rhymes. He sat in my throne. He had this big bag of rhyme-books. He dumped 'em on the floor and spread 'em all out. I was playin' beats, and he'd go, "Oh, I got somethin' for that!" Then he'd jump in the booth and lay his vocals [complete with the Dancehall-influenced ad-libs]. All of a sudden, my microphone wasn't workin'. This was [after] straight 40 minutes of bodyin' beats. He spit so crazy; he doesn't like air conditioning, nothing. So when the microphone blew, I was like, "Yo, you blew out my fuckin' mic out, man." He was like, "Oh, my bad." [Laughs] So I pulled out another mic, took that one and made him sign it. He signed it. I got all of that on camera; it's in the video. A get a present one day, in the mail, he bought me a mic, the same one. KRS-One actually sang on Royalty Check. Nobody ever got KRS-One to sing; I did. What mattered is that we recorded it together. That was the fun part. We recorded Royalty Check in three days and I baby-sat it for years.
DX: After the babysitting, what let you know that these were the times to release it?
Bumpy Knuckles: When that hospital got hit [by the tornado] in Missouri, man... you've got to give props to people. Outside of the tough exterior that we all have in this game, the we-don't-give-a-shit attitudes; we do give a shit. We take notice. We take notice to the fact that that could be us on any day. A storm could come and tear down our houses, our family's houses. The tsunami in Japan; I've toured Japan with Gang Starr and Pete Rock. I've been to [a number of cities and met the people]. Can you imagine not having the technology that Japan affords us because of their brilliance? All because of a storm.
DX: You have Krupt Mob Radio on UStream.TV. From being offline in the '90s and early '00s to this, what have you learned from having so much access to your fans?
Bumpy Knuckles: It helped to my find my zone. I can tell what people like and what they don't like by what I play. It helped me go back and find what people love, classic records that influenced us, breakbeats.
DX: Bun B recently accepted an adjunct professor's position at Rice University. I watched you lecture at Temple University in 2003. Would you be interested in veering towards teaching professionally?
Bumpy Knuckles: Yeah, I love to talk to people, man. But I have to do it with the freedom to say it how I say it. Sometimes people can't past how you say stuff. I love being in the classroom. When we did Temple University, we stayed for hours, talkin', and we didn't lose one person. We talked about publishing; I remember helping [some audience members learn how to] collect past royalties.
I always tell young artists, when you do a deal, attach a pension to your deal. In 10, 15 years, the chances of you, with 15 million mothafuckas that sound like you, you're probably not gonna be doin' it like Jay-Z is doin' it, or Lil Wayne or whatever. If you don't have a plan for yourself, you'll end up grindin'. Paine, I remember sayin' to you years ago, "Yo, I'm not rhymin' after 40." [Laughs] I remember saying that at a panel at the University of Wisconsin [too]. I said a rhyme recently, "Me rhyme after 40? No way / Now I'm here, and I got way more shit to say."
Dudes need to invest in themselves. They don't have studios, but there's dudes ridin' around in them old-ass [Mercedes] Benzes. [Laughs] [They still got] those old-ass, dusty-ass chains that they bought back in the day, but no studio. On [Gang Starr's] "The Militia," I said, "Even mechanics walk around with their tools." Everybody thought I was just talkin' about was a gun. What I was talkin' about was tools - whether it's Pro Tools, Logic, whatever it is. Everybody needs the tools to do what they call themselves doing. If you want to make music, you have to have the means to do so.
DX: Are you going to tour Royalty Check?
Bumpy Knuckles: I would like to think so. If I know Kris like I think I know him...this is the guy who...his son is my godson. He's been my friend the '80s. You know, we actually recorded an album together that he had, years ago. KRS-One produced all the beats, and I did all the rhymes. It was called Street Poison. This was right after Sex & Violence, when we did "The Original Way." That was a freestyle, where we recorded with the microphone plugged right into the board [as opposed to the vocal booth]. So we started working on an album. At the time, it was so raw and so hardcore that he couldn't sell it to nobody. He played it for a label and the lady [A&R] was like, "Yo, he scares me!" [Laughs] "Stressed Out" is actually called "Street Poison (Stressed Out)." So when you hear KRS-One say, "The real street poison is Freddie Foxxx," [he is referring to the album].
We've been doing songs together ever since he came and picked me up [in the alte 1980s]. Downtown Manhattan, I was in the streets being crazy. He came and got me and was like, "Yo man, you gotta get out of here." Him and Eric B. were two of the most instrumental people in my whole career. They were the ones who put a lot of energy into me. That was in the earlier years. Then the [DJ] Premier came, and Showbiz and Lord Finesse taught me how to sell my records. You gotta have friends like that. You've got to be a student of the game. Here I am, in my forties, and I'm still a student. I'm not ashamed to say it.
DX: From the cover of Freddie Foxxx Is Here to the Krupt Mob motorcycle club to tons of lyrical references, you love vehicles. What's your favorite car you've ever owned?
Bumpy Knuckles: My favorite car was my Vanden Plas Jaguar. I had a '90-something black Vanden Plas Jaguar.
DX: Is this the one that's in the video for "The Militia"?
Bumpy Knuckles: Nah, that wasn't my car - but I've had that car before. That was a two-seater V12. The one that I had was the Vanden Plas, which was the top of the line Jag at the time. I remember Wendy Williams one time, going on radio saying, "Hey, Bumpy Knuckles just came to the car wash-star wash in Jersey City and he was drivin' a Vander Plas Jag; rappers don't buy those kinda cars. And he had a shoestring around his money." It was funny, man. I loved that car, but it got old.
I grow out of those things. Now, I'm a simple dude. I can take an old truck and just jump it. [Laughs] I don't do nothin'; I go to the studio. When I come out, we do what we do. I'm an O.G. now, man. I got a nice vehicle that gets me where I got to go. Those years where I had those cars, I was into those cars, I still like nice cars, but my focus now is really getting my tools together and keeping my tools up to par. The difference between years recording in hard-wired studios that were rentals and all that, when you own your own tools, you have to maintain them. Computers need to be updated. The tools that I'm into now are different. I want to hear my music right.