Days before releasing God Of The Serengeti, Vinnie Paz stands under a brick structure on 2nd Street, between South and Lombard in Philadelphia. It's a makeshift shooting location for his interview with HipHopDX. It's a cold, rainy night in the City Of Brotherly love, perfect for listening to Jedi Mind Tricks, but potentially bad for speaking to their front-man and signature narrator. In a powerful discussion about the city, its Hip Hop past and Vinnie's rise to global independent stardom, the location eventually proves to be the ultimate talking-point in of itself.
"It's really weird that you guys chose this spot to [do the interview]," Vinnie Paz pointed out. "Over here there was a spot called Lay-Up. There were turntables in there so you could listen to the 12-inches that were droppin'; I remember that's the first [place] I heard 'Who Got Da Props?' [by Black Moon]. World famous deejay Cosmo Baker, he was workin' in there at the time. He would tell me the good tapes that would come down from New York [from deejays like] Double R, G-Bo The Pro, Tony Touch. Then Lay-Up moved from [behind us] over to Passyunk Avenue and South [Street]. And then on 3rd Street was also Funkadelphia."
The Lay-Up was part of a South Street that has been storied in Philadelphia's history, but also as part of its Hip Hop culture. "There was a time when South Street was emcees and stuff like that," says Vinnie. The Roots' early days are also associated with being a street band on the 14-block stop-and-go drive, east of the Broad Street avenue. Now it's more...much more of a tourist attraction. The [former Lay-Up] building that I'm speaking of isn't even here right now. So I haven't had a reason [to come here a lot]. This is like jerk-off, fuckin' blowjob, hipster bars and shit. It's been gentrified basically. It's not what it was when I came up." Vinnie also laughs and points to one social event on the re-modeled 2nd Street, "This area, it's behind you, you can't see it, but I'm watching people doing the fucking Waltz over here. It's real fuckin' bizarre."
In speaking about South Street, Vinnie was asked about his own sense of hometown heroes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the days leading up to J.M.T. "Tuff Crew were stars to me. Steady B, Cool C, Hilltop Hustlers, Three Times Dope...those guys were stars. I didn't learn until I grew up that they weren't stars. You know what I mean? They were in Philly, but internationally. My brother used to detail cars when he was younger, he used to clean Cool C's Chevy Blazer; I was blown away by that. [Enemy Soil Records manager] Yan used to sell sneakers to everybody; he worked at the sneaker store. Everybody who came through Philly would go through that spot 'cause it was next to the Tower Theater where everyone would play. Black Sheep would come through and buy sneakers."
Between the glory days and the rise to prominence of The Roots and Jedi Mind, there was a darker period of Philadelphia Hip Hop in the early 1990s. Vinnie remembers, "I guess there was that little gap in time between Steady B and Schoolly D, Cool C and all of them and then the unfortunate shit that happened with the bank robbery [that Cool C and Steady B were later convicted of]. I think whether it was [record] labels, or whether it was pressure from the media on the labels, you see that little gap in time when nobody was fuckin' with Philly, like at all - even though it wasn't any less vibrant as far as emcees and deejays and shit." Vin deduces, "They were like, 'Oh my God, shit's crazy. They be shootin' the cops there; we don't even want to send our A&Rs there.'" The major labels largely ignored the city for he rest of the decade, leading up artists like Eve, Dice Raw, Ram Squad and Philly's Most Wanted.
Another important landmark to Vinnie Paz's career is The Trocadero. The two-floor performing venue resides a walk away from the interview on Arch Street in Philly's Chinatown. It is a popular venue for Jedi Mind Tricks in recent years, often selling out shows with ensemble casts like Outerspace, Reef The Cauze and others.
Asked about the first time he headlined at the Troc, Vin notes with a smile, "I did everything backwards it seems, even to today. I'm sure the [typical Hip Hop] story is 'Aw man, we were doing shows for 10 years and then we got to the studio.' I was literally recording shit at like 12 - and not thinkin' about the live [show]; I did it the exact opposite." Vin furher revealed, "Before Stoupe [The Enemy Of Mankind], I had really good friends that had a Progressive Hardcore band - Post Punk/Progressive Hardcore. My buddy played drums, my buddy played guitar, my other buddy played bass, and I rhymed. We were basically doing [a similar approach to Hip Hop that] The Roots did - simultaneously, same years."
Further into the '90s, Vinnie found his most notable musical partner and formed a group that would change the legacy of Philadelphia Hip Hop and propel him to cultural stardom. "Within a year or something of that, I was with Stoupe, and we had shitty equipment. We had like a broken mic that you would rock at a party, two turntables and the sampling time we had was from the mixer."
He justfies his odd progression from studio to stage. "I said we did it backwards. Maybe somewhere in the back of my head was me saying, 'I'm not gonna do it unless I'm really good it.' I'm not gonna do mediocre shows...usually people are kinda shitty [live]."
He continued, "I remember, before performing, walking out on stage and the mic was there, and looking at an empty Trocadero - the place that I had seen Slayer, Danzig, M.O.P., O.C., Gang Starr, and it's like, 'Yo, I did it.' There's these things that happen in your life, if you're a real artist, where it's like, 'That's when I made it.' I've never been on a major label. I never had a #1 hit. But some of those people that have have never had that feeling of what I had. To do that, man, that full-circle shit, that's deep. I will always be like that when it comes to making music and performing. If it's not elevated shit and gives people all that this culture's given to me, it's time to give it up."
Stay tuned for more video interview segments with Vinnie Paz this month.
Video And Additional Reporting by Sean Ryon.