It’s been more than four years since Army Of The Pharaohs released their last full-length in 2010 with The Unholy Terror. In the meantime, most of the group’s rappers have upped their independent ante, releasing and self-promoting material as both solo artists and members of small groups. With their upcoming return, the 14-track In Death Reborn, the ever-in-flux cohorts find themselves still active in the middle of their second decade.
As many of the group-members admit themselves, AOTP material helps everyone, not only as organic promotion for their own solo careers—Vinnie Paz has just released a double-disc mixtape, Apathy has a new LP planned for June—but also as a consistently competitive practice ground.
“I think that’s the best part of it there,” Jedi Mind Tricks’ Vinnie Paz says. “Everybody gets on their A-game. You have no choice but to stay sharp, and it comes out in the music.”
Outside a collective penchant for the hardcore, the group’s relationship with fans is probably their most obvious calling card, this release is channeled through Paz’s own independent label Enemy Soil. Still, they rarely get to perform as a pack, a sold-out January show in Philadelphia and three planned dates in May as rare glimpses of the crew in full. For the rest of the fans (and those ones too), In Death Reborn is a long-time coming.
In an exclusive interview with HipHopDX, a handful of AOTP members break down their upcoming release, how the independent musician’s grind has changed in recent years, and why they hold each other’s opinion in such high regard. Before the interview Crypt The Warchild joked that he felt “like [he was] on some house of representative shit” with so many callers on the same line (“This oughta go easy and smoothly” Esoteric offered). Interview aside, they sound happy to be on the same call, an excuse for informal business chatter and friendly ribbing before and after the Q&A. In conversation as much as on wax, it’s hard to keep up at times, and that seems like another welcome detail in the group’s character.
AOTP Explain Drawing Inspiration From Healthy Competition
DX: I went back and read an interview that Esoteric and Planetary did with HipHopDX in 2006 before the The Torture Papers was released. Esoteric, you were talking about how the album was going to be received and you said, “I hope that it exceeds our expectations.” Eight years later, where do you think the group’s at now?
Esoteric: I think as a whole we’re more cohesive than we’ve ever been. Since the group’s fruition we’ve always had a good rapport with each other in terms of communication; however, I think with this particular record and the way technology allows everyone to communicate that much easier, we’re at our apex in terms of being completely in tune with one another and knowing what we want out of a record. I think it’ll show in the recordings when people hear it. Everyone’s feeding off each other’s energy. It’s just a really good thing.
Vinnie Paz: In ‘06, when [The Torture Papers] came out, we were all still earlier in our careers and doing what we do. We were still trying to figure out what we’re trying to do as individuals. To still be putting stuff together to this day and—making everything actually very simple—this last record, the way it was put together, it happened so fast. Everybody’s on their A-game.
DX: You said it happened fast. When did this latest album come together?
Celph Titled: The idea for this new album started back in 2011?
Vinnie Paz: I think once we put the foot on the pedal that’s what happened really quick. We all were doing our own records, so it’s easy to get sidetracked.
Esoteric: I think with everyone working on their solo records, when you have communication with everyone else in the crew and they’re contributing to the Pharaohs record, it’s easy to get swept up. Everything is so inspirational that you’re getting back. Say for instance when Vinnie sent his verse for “God Particle,” it kind of sent shock-waves through the crew, and everyone kind of had to up their game and get real excited. We kind of knew that was gonna be the single once we got that. You could work on your solo stuff, but when there’s so much good energy coming out of your camp—Celph and [Apathy] and [Planetary]—everyone is sending all these amazing verses, you just wanna be part of that and help feed into the project. You wind up making a hundred songs. We’ve got enough material for a couple albums.
DX: The friendly competition seems like a big part of the process. How do you put the songs together when most of you are in different cities?
Esoteric: Some of the records are done together. Some of the records are just sending rough versions of verses and then maybe like a couple retakes here and there, and some of it is done over e-mail. A lot of it was cohesively done as a unit.
Crypt The Warchild: As far as picking a lineup for each song, it’s basically done through everybody [being] like, “I like this beat,” [or] “This beat is banging, but it ain’t good for me.” We all have a knack for what we like to rap on. The lineup for each song is easy to do.
How AOTP Balance The Logistics Of Scheduling & Multiple Locations
DX: How do you balance the scheduling for the solo releases along with putting a group project like this together?
Celph Titled: Apathy, he’s got an album coming out around the same time but of course we make sure—I mean the AOTP stuff helps everybody. When there’s a new AOTP album it helps promote, push and create excitement for everyone in the group’s solo [work] as well. So you gotta be careful. Obviously you don’t wanna drop on the same day or the same week ‘cause the group project is so powerful that a lot of attention gets drawn to that. So you don’t wanna get lost in the shuffle of the group power. You gotta be strategic with it. I think with Apathy’s album it’s coming out June 3, so it’ll give it a good month of time and build the anticipation.
DX: Again, kind of driving at group dynamics, how does the beat selection get handled?
Vinnie Paz: I just think, I don’t know… I think we like what we like. It’s always been that way. It seems like we’ve always worked with younger kids or [people] on the come-up when it comes to AOTP records rather than these “big-name producers,” because we bring enough to the table on our own that we don’t need that. So I think we just look for quality in maybe some up-and-coming kids. For the most part we have the same taste, and there’s rarely something that one of us likes and another one hates. That doesn’t happen too often. Once it gets funneled through the crew…I think it’s a fairly easy process when it comes to us picking beats.
Planetary: I agree with that. Basically, I think we’re all pretty like- minded in that sense. If it’s a rugged, beat, it’s something that we can all kind of flip off of, it just kind of works out. Some tempos favor some people better—a particular vibe of a certain song people sound better on. So there is some thought behind it, but it’s all kind of very like-minded in terms of everyone’s perception of what beats we use and so forth.
Crypt The Warchild: I sometimes won’t like stuff ‘til I hear somebody else on it. At first I’ll hear a beat, and I’m like, “I don’t know if I like this jawn.” Then somebody will get on the verse, and it’s like, “I like this song now.” We all kind of know what the fans are looking for. Sometimes there’s a beat where I’m not crazy about it, or maybe none of us are crazy about it, but we all know the fans would love to hear [it].
DX: I guess when you’re putting together AOTP material it’s got to be full-force lyricism because like you said, the fans expect that.
Celph Titled: It makes everyone super strong and super sharp when it’s like this. I think it helps sharpen our stuff. If we weren’t inspired or we’re having trouble writing for our own projects, this is the type of the thing that’ll ignite fire in us and make us get on our A-game all around the board.
How Independence & Younger Audiences Help AOTP
DX: So you talk about being in tune with what your fans want. Given that a lot of you have experience on the independent scene specifically, how has the way you put your music out and make a career changed? Obviously now several of you have your own labels.
Celph Titled: As years have gone on, it’s less and less about making money off the sales of the music. Because of the downloading and now with the new format of streaming like Spotify and stuff like that, it’s not as lucrative to put out records as it was back when we were pressing 12-inches. You could actually make money off pressing 12-inch singles back in the late ‘90s [or] mid ‘90s. As time progressed, it’s just with all the downloading, it kills everything. So, it does change the dynamics. A lot of time you gotta focus on your touring. You gotta focus on merch. You gotta play a different game. It’s not like it used to be.
Apathy: The way that we put our music out is changing that. We have a lot more control obviously. We know our limitations, and we know what we can do. We know what our sales are. We make our own timelines, we make our own schedules, we figure out what we want to do, and we don’t feel as much as pressure. Also, we know that money-wise, which is the most important thing, we know where all the money is going. Back in the past, I can’t fault them for it, but a lot of companies we would deal with here and there, everyone wants to make their money, so you can hide costs in anything. And now we know where every penny is going. We know how much we’re making, and it just eliminates the problem completely.
DX: It seems like that type of approach really caters to the die-hard fans. I don’t want to be cold about it, but how do you deal with customer acquisition these days? How do you get younger fans or just new fans period listening to your stuff?
Vinnie Paz: It’s bizarre, because I just got back from Europe, and it seems like there was a lot of 16 and 17-year-old kids there, and they seem to be reacting better to some of the newer stuff. I do “Heavenly Divine” and forget that it’s 13 years old. Kids might have been three years old or something [laughs].
It’s something we have to be aware of. Somehow we’ve all managed, as an entire group, to continue to generate new fans. I don’t know how we’ve been able to do that. We haven’t done it by design, and I just think we’ve been lucky. I don’t know why us particularly connect with youth culture or whatever. I see how young kids are at the show; it’s done nothing but help us. To have those younger kids there you’re regenerating your fanbase.
Apathy: Vin is right, especially too because a lot of us, we got into Wu-Tang [Clan] when we were like 13, 14, 15. [Relative] to what he was saying, that would be like us still being fans of the Sugarhill Gang, ‘cause that came out when we were two or three or something like that. That is pretty crazy.
Celph Titled: We don’t necessarily do anything per se, it’s not like we set out and try, like, “What do we do to get young fans?” Like Vin said, it’s surprising sometimes, ‘cause we just kind of do us. We evolve with music, but we don’t ever like totally switch up our game plan. For some reason it still attracts young listeners whether it’s like older heads…maybe these dudes have an older brother or older cousin that puts them on to it, and they grow up loving it too. It’s weird, but we’re just blessed that something about our aesthetic, our music, still attracts new fans.
Planetary: That’s maybe one pro about the Internet. You can go back and find stuff a lot easier than when we were kids; you had to actually buy CD’s to figure stuff out. Now you do a search, and you could find the whole catalogue and go back to it.
Vinnie Paz On Hometown Love & Out-rocking 50 Cent In Europe
DX: Speaking on the fans more generally, Vinnie you were talking about being over in Europe recently. A lot of you have had success across seas. Is there a difference in reception other than just general support around the world as opposed to what you get stateside?
Vinnie Paz: Yeah, absolutely. Because I feel like stateside, they’re so spoiled as fans. So, overseas has so much more appreciation. You can go into a club in a major city in Europe at 3:00 am that’s packed, and they’ll be playing A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. It’s like bizarro world. There’s still an appreciation for a certain type of sound over there, whereas that’s long gone here, to a large degree at least. It’s definitely culture-shock as far as what they’re into and what they support. To go to cities all over the continent over there and sell it out in huge venues, we all do better over there than a lot of major label artists do.
DX: That said, I know you did just sell out that show here in Philly a couple months ago. That was the first show you did in Philly for a while. Obviously you don’t get together as the whole crew very often, but how did that feel to sell out a show in the hometown as well?
Vinnie Paz: For the people from Philly, I definitely think there was a connection. I know it was really special for all of us, because Union Transfer is a huge venue. To sell out and do it all together, I’ll remember that forever.
Celph Titled: That was an amazing show and an amazing feat to be able to sell out like that. You gotta think about it. It’s crazy with the type of music that we do, and it’s crazy if you think about it. There’s only like a handful of even major label artists from Philly that could even come close to selling out a place like that. It definitely makes you realize how powerful this stuff can be.
Apathy: I’d like to go back to one point Vin was talking about, where a lot of us [are] doing better than major label guys. There’s a video of Vin and them rockin’ in Europe, and they’re at the same festival as 50 Cent and those guys. 50 Cent stops his set ‘cause the Jedi Mind Tricks crowd a little bit over was making so much noise they could hear it on 50 Cent’s side. And 50 Cent addressed the crowd like, “Yo, why ain’t y’all making noise like they’re making noise?” That’s an absolute testament to that power that it has. Jedi Mind Tricks, that vibe that it has over there, it knocks out crowds harder than 50 Cent kills crowds.
How Vinnie Paz’s “God Particle” Verse Impacted “In Death Reborn”
DX: What can fans expect from In Death Reborn?
Esoteric: It’s basically gonna be rough, rugged, raw Hip Hop, man. I think the real draw to it is the fact that we’re all operating on the same wavelength [and] the same mindset and the communication is heavy between us all. That shows. If you’re with your best friends on the mic and you’re all engaged in some type of a dogfight, it’s gonna come out to be a nice, beautiful work of art. I feel like this album does that for 14 or so tracks. It’s a nice little package of violence on record.
Apathy: I honestly think that this album—I don’t know what got into us—but lyrically everybody just went fucking crazy. I don’t know about these guys. I can’t speak for [them], but it would stress me out writing ‘cause I mean, I’d write something like, “Alright, that’s cool.” Then Paz would send a verse, and I’m like “Fuck, man. Alright, I gotta go harder on the next shit.” Or Celph would send a verse, or [Esoteric] would send a verse and it just got to the point where we’re all like fucking trying to outdo each other. It created real healthy competition…brotherly competition.
Vinnie Paz: I think that’s the best part of it there. Everybody gets on their A-game. You have no choice but to stay sharp, and it comes out in the music. I was saying the same thing to my wife how this album lyrically is the craziest one. The beats are always gonna be hard and the beats are always gonna get you on that vibe, but everyone stepped their pen-game up. Every album, I think it gets stronger and stronger.
Celph Titled: A lot of times it’s not even so much about friendly competition whereas it is about if you come with some bullshit, we all know each other. We all know how good we all are, and we all know our potential. So if you came with some bullshit, everyone else would know, like, “Damn, that’s not cutting it.” So it’s not even just trying to be friendly and take each other’s heads off; we know what to expect from each other.
DX: On that note, any particular verse that had everybody rethinking their own stuff?
Vinnie Paz: I get mad at all these dudes, I get mad at all them every time I hear a verse.
Celph Titled: Yeah man, that happens a lot.
Esoteric: I said it earlier but Vinnie’s verse on “God Particle” is like a new chamber man. He just kind of went in and slaughtered, and I think that was inspirational to a lot of us.
Apathy: Absolutely. That verse, when he sent that, Celph and I did a different thing. And when I heard that, I was like, “Fuck, Paz fucking bodied this. Alright, this is his track.” Then I heard Planet and Eso did the flow too, then I was like, “Fuck, now I wanna redo my shit.” But it was too late at that point.
Celph Titled: It’s funny with that Vinnie verse how many heads turn with that. I did an interview…and they’re asking me about Vinnie’s verse. That’s the impact it had. [Laughs] Stuff like that, that’s what really hammers home these albums.
DX: So Vinnie what’s your take on that verse then?
Vinnie Paz: I’m just happy these guys think it was good…I feel most validated when these guys enjoy it. I’m not really concerned about the critique of a 14-year-old kid from Bulgaria. You know? These guys are who I’m trying to impress. If they think it was good, then I’m honored ‘cause I think these guys are the best.
Esoteric: Make sure that that’s the headline of the interview, alright?