For years, the hardcore sect of Hip Hop was at the forefront of the genre. The lyrics were filled with the anger, the beats matched in their intensity, and the general attitude of the 1990s served up artists like the Capone-N-Noreaga, Mobb Deep, Non Phixion, Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan. But as American culture began to wholeheartedly embrace Hip Hop, hardcore was left behind, becoming one of the dominant subgenres of Hip Hop’s underground scene.
As the last decade of the 20th century came to a close, emcees like Boston-bred Esoteric garnered a following by carrying on the tradition of hardcore Hip Hop; producers such as Stu Bangas who were able to keep the trademark heavy beats thumping also gained attention. Now, after becoming staples in a scene that rarely gets much mainstream attention, Esoteric and Stu Bangas have teamed up to create an album of their own: Machete Mode.
Before the project’s November 26 release date via Man Bites Dog Records, the duo spoke with HipHopDX on adapting to work with new artists, the state of hardcore Hip Hop, and the place of whites in Hip Hop.
Stu Bangas & Esoteric Describe Tempo Changes On “Machete Mode”
HipHopDX: Esoteric, this release comes fresh off the hells of your recent Czarface project with 7L and Inspectah Deck. What have you done differently on this project, and how does Stu Bangas influence your sound on this album?
Esoteric: I don’t know if my approach is really different, because I think a lot of the stuff I was doing on Czarface is very similar to the stuff I’m doing on Machete Mode in terms of focusing on wordplay and punchlines. I think what makes it a little bit different is me adapting my flow to Stu’s productions, because a lot of the tracks that we did for Machete Mode are downtempo, falling in the low 80 BPM area; I think my comfort zone is around 93 beats per minute.
So I think it was a challenge in that sense, and I believe it was equally challenging for Stu, because he wanted to come up with some tracks that were a little out of his comfort zone in the high 90 BPM area. We tried to make it work to each other’s strengths, which resulted in a bit of a different experience for the fans, because I think they might be used to me rapping at a certain tempo and Stu producing at a certain tempo. So we gave a little bit of a fast-paced approach and a downtempo approach on the record.
DX: Stu, what are some of the difference in making a faster beat? What do you have to do to adapt and bring the tempo up a few notches?
Stu Bangas: Basically, it’s just layering the drums is a bit different, because when you layer a drum sound, tempo is a big part of it. You want the sounds to carry to one another—the snare and the kick—you generally don’t want too much open space, typically, when you’re working with Hip Hop-type music. And then there’s also the types of samples. I don’t do many samples—on this record there aren’t any samples. So the type of samples you’re looking for, when you’re producing those, you can trick a sample, you can double it up, you can cut it in half or you can pitch it down. So there are certain samples or loops that go better with faster BPMs, and you know it when you hear it. I’ve been making beats for a while so it’s just a matter of finding the right music for it and altering the drums a little bit.
DX: Let’s talk about your upcoming project. The name of the album, Machete Mode, keeps reminding me of that Machete Kills movie. Can you explain the title a bit more so I don’t have to think of Danny Trejo?
Esoteric: It’s funny, because I was originally on the fence. I came up with the title Machete Mode because I liked using a little bit of alliteration to make a catchy title. But when we heard that the movie Machete was going to have a sequel, I was on the fence about actually titling the album that. Stu had told me not to worry about that, and said that people wouldn’t be drawing comparisons to that, but alas here we are.
But when you think of a machete, you think of hacking through a bush or the jungle, or you can take it as a Danny Trejo type of mayhem and physical violence. The approach on the record is me doing what I feel that I do best, and that’s a rapid fire approach with punchline lyrics that covers topics about destroying other rappers. To put it in the most simple terms, Machete Mode is really what we listen to when we get together. He’ll give me the hardcore beat, and I’ll give him the hardcore rhymes and that’s how it wraps up. We weren’t going to beat around the bush with the title; we want the fans to know what they’re going to get with this record because people know what Stu’s known for and what I’m known for, and we’re giving it to them.
How “Machete Mode” Got Its Title & Organic Mix Of Featured Emcees
DX: You guys have Celph Titled, Apathy, Joell Ortiz and a half-dozen others as featured guests. What’s the process behind choosing a certain artist to be featured in a specific song?
Esoteric: For the first single “The Danger,” that was a beat Stu had put out there and when Stu sends beats out, I’m not really sure exactly how he does it. But I know that I get the beat, Vinnie Paz gets the beat, people like Celph Titled and Apathy get the beat too, and he probably has his own method to his madness. But he must’ve thought that we would both sound good on that record. It was on the table for Army of the Pharaohs, but it just didn’t get done in time. Then once I was able to bring it to the Machete Mode project, Celph loved it, Ap loved it, Vinny loved it and we knew that everyone would sound good on it. It just kinda fell through the cracks of the Army of the Pharaohs record and popped up on our record, which we have no complaints about.
Stu Bangas: A lot of the other joints are really organic. Working with Ill Bill on the record, that’s both of our homies; that’s our home team. So Bill can just hit me up and reach out or vice versa. I think on the Madchild thing, Madchild hit up Esoteric to get on the Swollen Members [Beautiful Death Machine] album. It’s kind of just like he’ll scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Esoteric: In terms of who’s on the record, it’s both friends and fam, and that’s a real easy way to get things done. They know if they need anything from Stu or if they need anything from me they got it. You’ll hear Stu on the Army of the Pharoahs album, you’ll hear me on the Army of the Pharoahs album, or Vinnie Paz’s album or Celph Titled’s album; we’ll all pop up on each other’s albums. It’s kind of like networking in that way.
And then with the Madchild record, he had approached me about getting on his album, the Swollen Members album, and we banged that out and when we came to this album we thought it would be a good look to get him on this record. Everyone’s just looking out for each other in the underground Hip Hop community.
Esoteric & Stu Bangas Give Their Take On The State Of Hardcore Hip Hop
DX: Hip Hop seems to be unsure of whether mixtapes and albums should be more focused on the original artist who’s releasing the project or if they should be filled with guest artists. What’s your take on this?
Esoteric: Personally I think features are somewhat of a necessary evil today. And I use the word evil lightly, because the way they’re incorporated on the album can always heighten the experience for the listener, because you get so many different personalities on a record. When you’re putting out a record today, shamefully what a lot of people ask right away is, “OK cool, who was on it?” and you want to say, “Well I’m on it. It’s my record, and Stu’s on it—he does the beats.” But when you put it to retail and pitch it to magazines, they want to whet the listeners’ palette somehow by telling them, “Yo, this record features this so and so, and this guy and that guy, so you’re going to want to grab it.” Anything that comes out, people look at the tracklist, and it’s something that they want to see. It’s just something that’s grown into this seven-headed monster you just can’t control right now.
There was an era when there was nothing like that, you know? Rakim puts out records that don’t have anybody on them. It’s a trend that’s out of control. But on the same token, people love posse cuts. Going way back, you have the “Scenario” remix, originally being an A Tribe Called Quest record, but they talked about Busta Rhymes’ verse. So people have been trying to recreate that for a long time, and it’s fun. There’s a lot of good things and a lot of bad things about it.
DX: What do you think about the state of hardcore Hip Hop today?
Stu Bangas: I think Immortal Technique said it: There’s always going to be a market for that brand of Hip Hop. It’s definitely taking a back seat to some of this smoke weed, talk about food, trendy, these are my clothes type of Rap. And I’m not even talking about stuff that’s on the commercial level; even on the indie level a lot of that stuff is getting pushed to the forefront. And that’s cool, but you definitely need the balance.
For me, I’m a beat person, and I guess a lot of the dudes that are being pushed to the forefront, even of hardcore and underground Rap, just don’t really do it for me. I’m not sure if it’s because… It might be because they’re younger and I’m in my thirties, and I find some of the stuff they talk about laughable. It just sounds like little kids. Maybe I’m just getting old, but the hardcore underground stuff that’s coming out right now. I just think the beats kind of suck, and they’re not coming out with dope rhymes and good punchlines and metaphors. They’re just trying to shock you with these weird videos and someone saying stuff in a weird voice, and I’m just not feeling it.
Esoteric: I agree with Stu for the most part. With the new hardcore stuff—when I think of the way Stu described it, I picture kids that are following in people’s footsteps that have already done that and pale in comparison. When you’ve been around the block so many times, nothing’s really new. We’ve heard that before, and we’ve heard this punchline flipped in a different way 10 years ago; Big L said it 13 years ago. So I guess when you’re a veteran, it takes a little bit more to impress us than saying, “I rape a faggot and killed his grandmother,” and just shock words to catch a listener. But there are already so many people that have said off-the-wall stuff.
Esoteric Addresses Lord Jamar’s Recent Comments
DX: I’m not sure if either of you heard about the comments that Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar made recently about the place of white people in Hip Hop. He said that they’re “guests in the house of Hip Hop,” and I know that Esoteric already tackled this in the song “Touchy Subject,” and you’ve been praised by Inspectah Deck as one of the great white rappers. But how do both of you feel about this?
Esoteric: Are whites guests in the house of Hip Hop? Yeah, but I think in that era, when One For All came out—Brand Nubian’s first record—they were very hardcore about the Five Percent mindset, and that was a very common theme with several of the groups I listened to back then. His comments in 2013 don’t surprise me or engage me or really even raise my eyebrows, because I’ve been hearing that since going to shows in the very early ‘90s. I was the only white kid at these shows, or maybe one of three, and I would get heckled and called one of the Beastie Boys or whatever. So for the most part we weren’t “welcome” guests [laughs], but we were guests nonetheless. Hip Hop wasn’t safe back then, for whites, blacks, anyone really. Going to shows back then you’d always have your guard up, because shit could jump off at any second, but you wanted to take in that music because you loved it so much, and you wanted to be part of the culture and immerse yourself in it and learn about it. It was a dangerous, edgy form of music then...today it is a very safe way of expressing yourself...and somewhere along the line it became safe for everyone to play.
I think that as the years have gone by, the doors have opened because there have been so many talented white emcees out there; so many emcees that if you put the record on and you’ve got your eyes closed, you can’t tell what they are...it doesn't matter and it shouldn't matter, as long as you respect the forefathers of the culture. I think the skill speaks for the person and the color lines are erased. But as with anything else, for every five dope white rappers, there are 5,000 wack ones, who spam with the force 50,000. Eminem had really blown the doors wide open. His albums were huge, but when 8 Mile came out, I think it touched so many young white kids; so many of them wanted to grab the mic and be like Eminem. They didn't want to be Kane or Rakim, they wanted to be Eminem...and they only know of a Kane or Rakim because Eminem mentioned them in an interview. It’s a totally different era today...you’ve got Riff Raff and Dirt Nasty and nobody really bats an eyelash at what they do. You've got the frat rappers who rap about the party last night; it is all just comedy and nobody cares. That shit wouldn’t fly back in 1990. It just wouldn’t. You can’t compare the music that comes out today to the music that comes out back then; you can’t compare the participants.
DX: Before I let you guys go, each of you has to give me one up-and comer for our listeners to check out. Esoteric, who’s an emcee we should listen to? Stu, how about a producer?
Esoteric: I’d have to say Blacastan. He’s one of the emcees that has it all right now. People are about to get a heavy dose of Blacastan on the new Army of the Pharaohs album.
Stu Bangas: A dude you’ve never heard of? Check out one of my homies: Akt One.