Picture Brooklyn, New York in the 1980s. A young Killah Priest, still Walter Reed, walks out of his home with a face that reads like he’s ready for war. He’s got a bop that hides fear, portraying confidence with each step. He walks by some friends, enemies and in-betweens, ready for combat. He’s walking into a battle.
“I was scared,” Priest admits today. “I was scared because I saw so many great emcees come up. I had to step my game up.”
That fear pushed Reed to enter cyphers with an axe to grind, ready to engage in battle. He knew he had to come correct or his name would be tossed aside. “My name won’t be my name no more,” he thought. Battling for your name is equivalent to battling for respect, your dignity as a rapper. This trained Priest for the industry.
Perhaps it was that fear or a similar hunger to win that has allowed Killah Priest to maintain in the game for so long. Since the ‘90s, the Wu-affiliated emcee has made a career of rocking beats with that yearning to prove himself. From his 1998 debut Heavy Mental to his latest, The Psychic World Of Walter Reed, Priest has been a solid contributor to the Wu legacy and the Hip Hop world itself. Though maybe not as touted as others in the camp, his work is still revered and longevity is proof that his sword has stayed sharp.
In this interview with HipHopDX, Priest explained his love for bringing elements of Hip Hop back, from double discs to the “raw” feel of analog recording. He also explained what his life was like growing up in Brooklyn, battling for his name and why he and Ghostface continue to be fans of Battle Rap today.
Killah Priest Explains Releasing “P.W.O.W.” As A Double Disc
HipHopDX: A double disc is something that, growing up in the ‘90s, there were emcees who were dropping double discs and they were dope to see. From Wu-Tang Forever to Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, you see a double disc and you love it. But for some reason, that’s died down over the years. What made you decide to bring that back?
Killah Priest: That’s exactly why I wanted to bring it back. It’s something that everybody forgot, but it’s a part of Hip Hop; I like that ‘90s feel. This is just music. This is something that we do. So, we can never make enough music. That’s what we do. It’s like a gift, and I’m just giving it to you. That’s what basically motivated me. It’s just that the music was sounding so good with the producers and everything that I can’t just hold back and give them one.
DX: You dropped basically two albums in one. A lot of artists are doing that but they do it differently. They do it through dropping an album and then a mixtape or two mixtapes. How have you seen the mixtape game change? Have mixtapes become more important than albums for some artists? How have you seen that?
Killah Priest: The mixtapes? Yeah, but you can just grab a whole bunch of cats’ beats and it’s not original. It’s something that you really don’t think of. If you really think about the mixtape game, it’s a bunch of freestyles. With a double album, you gotta sit back, think and put concepts together. And you’re making your songs from scratch right then and there, and then you got skits. It’s not a lot of mixtapes with skits. That’s one thing I put on my album. I made sure that skits was back to take you back to that ‘90s feel. That’s the difference between doing an ordinary [mixtape] like, “Let me just grab a whole bunch of peoples’ beats.” Everybody’s doing it. I just wanted to do something different.
DX: Thank you, man. That’s great because it brings a different perspective…really appreciate that. So when was the first time you performed?
Killah Priest: The first time I performed was probably with the GZA. Do you mean performing by myself or just period?
DX: Just period.
Killah Priest: Aw, man. From back in the days, going around with the GZA battling other emcees; that was it. Cats would start telling me, “You got some talent.” When we got on, I remember the first time we did a big crowd, it was in Europe and it was magic. I knew this was where I needed to be. I was on stage with the GZA doing the Liquid Swords album with him. That was the first time.
DX: That was the very first time you did it?
Killah Priest: I did shows before I was on and everything like that. This joint out in Manhattan back in the days, it was this joint called Sweet Waters. And I was just rhyming at block parties, you know what I mean? I was rhyming then and there, on the street. That was the first time I really got it.
DX: I’ve heard you talk about being a student that strived to become a teacher. What were some of those goals that you had growing up?
Killah Priest: All the great ones, man, just like Malcolm X. I had different types of teachers like Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Marvin Gaye—cats that made music that really touched me. That was the thing. I wanted to make music that touched people like they was touching me. They was leaders. I remember hearing the What’s Going On album by itself. I was working at the time. I was a messenger out in the city, and that’s what I played everyday, so Marvin Gaye became like my teacher…him and Bob Marley together. And then you’ve got Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee had a lot of dope knowledge with his fighting skills. I was always amazed by that.
How Religion & Prison Influenced Killah Priest’s Outlook
DX: Obviously with a name like Killah Priest, there seems to be some religious undertones there. What kind of religious upbringing did you have?
Killah Priest: Just regular, like everybody else…like most of the cats in the hood. I was raised around Pentecostal, just regular Christianity. But I didn’t understand none of that. I didn’t understand none of that because my moms doesn’t even go to church; just my aunt. My aunt would curse and then go to church. [Laughs] You know what I mean? So, I found it a little bit interesting. My friend first took me to church, and it was Pentecostal. I didn’t grasp onto it like that.
DX: And so, when did the Priest come into it?
Killah Priest: The Priest came into it when I started getting a little bit into life itself, when I started dialing into hanging out late and being on my own and coming into my own. After dealing with women and life itself, that’s when it started coming into like, “What are we here for?” I had got locked up. It makes you think of the seriousness of life.
Let me say this. I want to clear this [up]. Killah Priest, the name, started during the Gravediggaz period. I wanted to bring a different type of sound to it. I am the Killah Priest. I kill what’s negative and bring the positive type of sound to it. That’s how that name came out. It came from RZA and them. That’s when that Priest came in, when I started to dial into life.
DX: When I talked to Ghostface—this was years ago—he told me that prison really helped him learn a lot about himself and about life. You just talked about that prison now. What kind of lessons did you learn that you could now use?
Killah Priest: That that’s a place you don’t want to go. I didn’t do a lot of time, but what I’ve learned is that if you don’t have the basic foundation, which is knowledge, wisdom and understanding, you’re lost. You don’t want to be lost out there wondering. That’s why cats go to prison in five seconds. You have to learn what this whole thing is about. It’s a trap. That’s straight up what it is. It’s a trap. Only through mental awareness do we see ourselves. That’s what I’ve learned from it. The positive thing from being behind the other line—behind the bars—is that you can just see what life is really about. It’s just you. It’s just you. Some people need that. I don’t think everybody need that, but some people do need that to find themselves within they self. It taught me never to go back to that shit either. Word.
DX: Back in the day, people used to breakdance and bust out with graffiti art to participate in all of the elements of Hip Hop. But that’s not really always an option now. How do you feel fans can participate in Hip Hop in this Digital Age?
Killah Priest: Like my man Adrian Younge says, “You gotta keep it raw.” [Laugs] Yeah, you gotta keep it raw, man. The parts that I remember, I keep that with me. A lot of things is digital, it’s saturated but I just keep the raw part and bring it to my music that way. Everything’s digital now, but some things you gotta keep analog. You know? Analog is good because you can hear those frequencies that digital sometimes loses. If you keep it raw, it’s more pure. You got more elements that’s in it, but sometimes when you go real high pitched, you lose sound.
DX: Did you ever participate in other elements, graffiti, breakdancing or anything like that?
Killah Priest: Yeah. Definitely. I used to breakdance, and I used to pop-lock. I tried graffiti but I wasn’t too great at that. I tried mostly every element, man. Deejaying wasn’t my category. Dancing, I was kind of cool. I was alright with that.
DX: You still have some moves?
Killah Priest: Do I still got moves?
DX: Yeah, do you still break it down?
Killah Priest: [Laughs] Yeah, yo! Now and then, you’ll probably catch me in front of the mirror. You might catch me doing a little move right here and there. Word.
Killah Recalls His Battle Rap Days In Brooklyn
DX: You said you used to battle cats. Right?
Killah Priest: Yeah, that’s how I started. Growing up in Brooklyn, emcees back then used to come to your crib, come to your block and they used to battle. One of the biggest emcees that used to battle on my block was GZA. That’s how we grew up. You had to be good or your name was thrown to the side. I had a complex that I was scared of losing. I was scared because I saw so many great emcees come up that I had to step my game up. If you lose, you take my name, then that’s it. I was like, “My name won’t be my name no more.” So, I really said, “I gotta rhyme like it’s for something.” I knew Hip Hop would be great. I knew Hip Hop was going to be great. I just stuck to my sword.
DX: That was all freestyle?
Killah Priest: Yeah, it’s freestyle and some written. Most of it was written. But I was a better freestyler back then…a way better freestyler back then, because it was a young mind being loose. I didn’t contain it, so my freestyles were all over the place and scattered. As time went on, I quarantined it and put it in writing.
DX: Today, the Battle Rap world has really changed a lot. They get months to prepare and to battle on stage. How’ve you seen that culture grow?
Killah Priest: I think it’s coming 360, man. What they doing, I love it. It’s mental exercise and lyrical exorcism and exercise for words. There’s great emcees, funny emcees and they’re different. I enjoy it. I just watch that shit. Me and Ghostface watch that shit like it’s a story, like, “Who’s gonna battle next?” Big ups to all the battle emcees because I’m a fan. I like it. It’s a little more money now. When we was battling, we wasn’t battling for money. We just battled straight up for respect.
DX: So who’s your favorite battle emcee?
Killah Priest: My favorite emcee? It’s gotta be Loaded Lux, man. That last battle was incredible. Even though, what’s his name, the cat he battled?
Killah Priest: Calicoe. Calicoe’s a monster. Even though he’s a monster, yo, that was one of the best battles I ever seen. I think they need to do it again. I think that Calicoe and Lux should do it again and I think Murda Mook and Serius Jones need to do it again.