The year 1994 was a special year in Hip Hop. Whatever can be said about the twists and turns that have warped or embellished the best and worst of the music, the culture, and the money that came with it, 20 years ago a kid from Queensbridge dropped Illmatic, Bed Stuy gave us Ready To Die and Brownsville gave us M.O.P. The Mash Out Posse released To The Death that year amid stiff competition from within and outside of their borough, and through brashness and adrenaline, took their place in the culture.
But times change, and so do label deals, contracts and avenues of distribution. The Internet came out of nowhere to grab the reigns from labels, and everything took a backseat to the newly minted cults of personality that sprang up to fill the void. Through it all, M.O.P. has released, by at least a few accounts, two or three classic albums, all the while staying true to their signature depictions of dark, gritty street life. Andre 3000 has said sometimes creativity is “sticking to your guns,” and no group truly embodies that the way Billy Danze and Lil Flame have over the course of their collective careers.
“I don’t think the New York sound ever left,” said Billy Danze. “Hip Hop itself has never died. If there’s a new sound kids are doing—which I can’t do personally—it’s just what they’re doing. It’s not that Hip Hop died. Some of the deejays are not playing Hip Hop records on mainstream radio, but that’s okay, because even radio has expanded and gotten broader to where there’s Internet shows. You reach more people on the Internet than you do with [terrestrial] radio. We had our own radio show, which was We Build Hits Radio. We stopped running it last year, but we had like 350,000 listeners.
“But I think Hip Hop itself will never die. You got guys like M.O.P. making records. You’ve got guys like PharoaheMonch, KRS-One and Premier making records. The Beatminerz are still producing. You’ve got cats that really made a statement in the Hip Hop community still doing it, so there’s no way it can die.”
That adherence to a sound of their own making is what allowed M.O.P. to stand out from the crop then, and it’s what allows them to stand out now, striving to connect with a new audience and landscape while staying ever close to their roots. Billy Danze isn’t just playing artist, however, he’s got other fish to fry with his We Build Hits label group and a wellspring of up-and-coming talent to promote. In order to do so, he’s enlisted the help of crowdsource funding app Indiegogo, as he makes his push to dominate music for years to come. And, with their eponymous single “Street Certified,” which they released with Mobb Deep in Februrary, and the street single “187” that crept up at the end of July, you can expect their EP Street Certified to drop on Halloween. A perfect day for the duo reinstate their presence in the game.
Billy Danze Explains M.O.P.’s Chemistry With Mobb Deep & DJ Premier
HipHopDX: “Street Certified” with Mobb Deep and “187” have that DJ Premier imprint. Can you walk us through those records?
Billy Danze: The “Street Certified” beat was an amazing beat. I just wanted to get Mobb Deep on a record with M.O.P. because for 20 years people have been comparing Mobb Deep and M.O.P. Who’s got the better sound? Who’s lyrically better? Then you have the Brooklyn versus Queens dynamic, so a bunch of that stuff’s always been around. What a lot of people don’t know is M.O.P. and Mobb Deep started in this business together before “How About Some Hardcore.” M.O.P. and Mobb Deep were trying to struggle to get in the business, but we always knew each other. This was before “Shook Ones,” so it was just a matter of time before we got in there together.
Now we searched for a beat for Mobb Deep for years. We wanted to make sure we had something that fit into the mixture for both of us. A young producer who Fame is kind of overseeing came up with this track, and I immediately sent it over to Havoc and Prodigy. Those dudes thought it was amazing, because it’s something you can hear Mobb Deep on. We banged that one out, and P sent his verse over first. Those guys were touring, so we didn’t have an opportunity to actually get in the studio together. But when P sent that verse over, he set the tone for the entire record. Fame and I were so happy, and then we went in and laid down our vocals with Premier, who made sure everything was in place. That’s a record that’s history.
Now, the “187” record is a track that Fame produced. Fame’s got those B-Boy drums that keep you on your feet even if it’s a slow record. We just kind of felt like—no disrespect directly to anybody… We’re tired of what was happening at the award shows. You don’t actually see the dope, dope artists. You see some dope artists, but what about the other dope artists? What about the dope artists that aren’t being played on radio? We ain’t actually gonna kill nobody. It’s not that kind of 187, but it is a 187 on the industry trying to shut out artists trying and deserving to be on the radio. So we’re not assaulting anybody on this. There’s no direct disrespect intended, but all disrespect intended.
DX: And it’s a beautiful thing. That M.O.P. sound is so incredible. Where did you put down “Street Certified?”
Billy Danze: We went to Headquarterz, which is formerly known as D&D Studios. Just for the record so everybody understands, I will never get in another booth with a mic that sounds that way. I’ve been to studios around the world, and I could never get that sound or that feeling. When we did “Street Certified,” I think I did the verse in one take. Then I just did it again to make sure everything was in pocket, because I felt so comfortable there.
DX: There’s definitely something to be said for chemistry between an artist and a certain studio. What’s it like working with Premo again?
Billy Danze: It’s very easy, and the chemistry is always there. It’s like working by yourself. You don’t have the pressure of proving anything to anyone. Of course, I always want to impress Premier, because I value his opinion. Just him being in the studio… I know who he is, but I see him one way because he’s like family to me. So it’s easy to get in the studio with him, but I always want to impress him. He’s never the type that pressures me or makes me feel like what I’m doing isn’t good enough. But if it’s not, he’ll sure let me know. And he’s also not the dude that will say everything I make is incredible.
I’ll send a record, and sometimes he’ll say, “I like it. But I don’t like this, this or that.” Then some records, he’ll be like, “Nah, I can’t even…” It’s like, “Wow, you’re just shooting my shit down [laughs].” But he’s 100% real. He’s been giving us his opinion from the first day we walked into the studio with him, and he’s always been the same person. I actually love Premier like my family. He is my family. Come on, Prem is at the crib, he knows the kids, and he knows the wife. It’s not just some music relationship. We got a little more, so it’s easy to work with Premier.
Why Billy Danze Says, “The New York Sound Never Left.”
DX: You guys and Premier are identified with the “boom bap” New York sound. There’s been a lot of talk about that sound coming back. Did it ever leave, and if so, where do you think New York is right now in terms of Hip Hop culture?
Billy Danze: I don’t think the New York sound ever left. Hip Hop itself has never died. If there’s a new sound kids are doing—which I can’t do personally—it’s just what they’re doing. It’s not that Hip Hop died. Some of the deejays are not playing Hip Hop records on mainstream radio, but that’s okay, because even radio has expanded and gotten broader to where there’s Internet shows. You reach more people on the Internet than you do with [terrestrial] radio. We had our own radio show, which was We Build Hits Radio. We stopped running it last year, but we had like 350,000 listeners.
But I think Hip Hop itself will never die. You got guys like M.O.P. making records. You’ve got guys like Pharoahe Monch, KRS-One and Premier making records. The Beatminerz are still producing. You’ve got cats that really made a statement in the Hip Hop community still doing it, so there’s no way it can die. Sometimes you hear cats from my era say, “I’m tired of hearing this new music. Why won’t they play some real Hip Hop?” And I feel the same way, but I need them to play this new kind of music because I need it for this to expand. I’m happy when I get off a plane from another country, I see Kool Herc and I can say to him, “What you guys invented in the Bronx, we didn’t just borrow in Brooklyn. It didn’t just seep over to Queens. It’s actually all the way around the world. It’s taken different forms, shapes, and it’s sounding different.”
I don’t think that they meant for Hip Hop to stay in the Bronx and just sound one way. If they did, then we wouldn’t have what we have now. We have cats from the corner—their block, your block, my block—completely rich. They don’t have to be on the block risking their lives and hurting anyone. This is all because Hip Hop has expanded. Now we’re actually making money from it. We’re taking care of our families, traveling, paying mortgages and tuition. We couldn’t do that on the block selling nickels and dimes and shit.
So I take my hat off to anybody who tries to do something different in the business, go as hard as they can, and tries to open up some doors for other artists to come through. So Hip Hop will never die, and I don’t give a fuck what it sounds like. It’s all Hip Hop.
DX: Right. Chuck D and Hot 97 had that spat about not contributing to the culture by breaking artists. You mentioned that mainstream radio is growing in its scope. Do you think those two worlds need different platforms now, or do you think radio can still be a place that breaks new artists?
Billy Danze: Let me say this, and I hope nobody takes it the wrong way. People are so easy to brainwash that if you spend all your day looking at TV and listening to radio, whatever you see and hear is what you’re gonna believe. As a kid, there was some cleaning product where there was these bubbles. I don’t know if you remember what I’m talking about.
The Impact Of Mainstream Radio & Why Billy Danze Calls It Brainwashing
DX: Yeah, the ones with the scrubber, right?
Billy Danze: Yeah. I watched that commercial for so long as a kid that I got excited and asked my mother to buy it. She bought it so I could clean the bathroom. Do you know I poured that shit in the tub, and I waited for the bubbles to foam and run this cool shit that they did on the commercial? I waited for the bubbles to talk and all of this cool shit, and it never happened! So the point is, it was easy for me to be brainwashed.
If the radio continues to give you records you wouldn’t normally like, and if you keep hearing them, you’ll start believing that the record is good. You’ll start feeling that the record is good. I think everyone in this business or trying to get in this business deserves a shot. I believe everybody, regardless of their skill level or anything… I don’t wanna call no names. But it’s some people that we can’t even explain how they become celebrities in the music business, because their music isn’t that fucking good [laughs]. But it’s because people are so brainwashed and have the perception of, “This kid is incredible,” and you have nothing else to go off of. Radio will lock up and capture your mind. It will play five artists all day, and you have nothing else to go on.
I always thought Bow Wow was a good artist as a young kid. I didn’t like every record he had, but I thought some of them was cool. He did a record called “Fresh Azimiz,” which was the most incredible record that he’s done. He got no credit for it, because radio or his record company wasn’t behind him 100%. I don’t know what they were going through, but that record was incredible. So how do you get credit for the records that weren’t as good, and you become a star, but nobody knows about the best record that you put together? It’s because the radio didn’t play it.
Like I said, it’s that brainwash thing. I hate to say it. And I hope nobody takes offense, but told you about the whole Scrubbing Bubbles thing. Even the great Billy Danze can be brainwashed.
DX: It’s not a game.
Billy Danze: We all were brainwashed back in the day. It just so happens that fortunately, we were brainwashed to music that was dope. We had Kool G Rap, KRS-One, Rakim, Scarface, UGK, and dudes that were dope. It actually worked out better for us. We can’t be mad, because at some point, one of these guys we’re talking about this fucking person that’s super wack is actually a legend. He’s gonna feel the same way about one of these new cats that I feel about Rakim.
Billy Danze Apologizes To Funkmaster Flex & Hot 97
DX: That’s real. Hot 97 is paramount to Hip Hop culture. And it seems like radio has expanded, it’s kind of started to lose some of its dominance. Are those related in terms of the New York sound?
Billy Danze: I would like to use this HipHopDX platform to give a sincere apology to Funkmaster Flex and everyone at Hot 97. As I came up in the business, I would say things that weren’t so nice about the people at Hot 97 sometimes. I think people thought me and Flex had this beef or whatever going on. I’d like to apologize to them, because for one, I never made records that could be played on the radio. It was all violent music like, “Stab, shoot, kill. Get the fuck outta here.” But at the time, I was a kid, so I reacted wrong by being a little out of pocket and saying certain things that I shouldn’t have said. So I do apologize to Flex, Hot 97 and any deejays anywhere for saying something if they didn’t play an M.O.P. record. Now I understand that you couldn’t plan an M.O.P. record because your ass would get fired.
Realistically, I can’t say they don’t like M.O.P., because I’ve pulled up alongside them in cars, and they would be playing M.O.P…blasting it. They wanted to play it, but they couldn’t because of the content of the music. I think as a deejay, you want to be considered the hottest deejay. You want to be considered a party rocker, so you have to play what’s rocking the party. If what’s rocking the party is “A Bay Bay,” then that’s what you have to play. You have to play to the audience. I was really over the top as a young artist, and I think it was more about me being from Brownsville, being from the street, and just never having anybody on my side to help me along the way. I felt like the mainstream deejays were in the same category as everyone else who didn’t give me a fair shot or didn’t like me.
When I actually think about it, it’s like, “Come on, man. They’re doing their job.” They’ve gotta feed their families too. If they’re playing records nobody wants to hear or with a bunch of cursing, and that could get them fired, it’s wrong to ask them to do that. The way they take care of their families is by drawing an audience. The way that they draw an audience is by playing what the audience wants to hear.
How Jay Z Appeared On “4 Alarm Blaze” Weeks After Its Release
DX: Absolutely. You talk about M.O.P. records that couldn’t get played on the radio. “4 Alarm Blaze” is one of the most incredible, balls to the walls records I’ve ever heard. Could you walk through how that thing got made?
Billy Danze: For three years before [“4 Alarm Blaze”] record was made, there would be a young Dame Dash and a young Jay Z always coming to the M.O.P. sessions trying to get M.O.P. to get down with Roc-A-Fella. This was when the Roc was a pebble. They were doing okay, but we weren’t sure they knew how to handle what they were getting into. So this record was produced by Laze E Laze, and at that time of creating the album, it was like, “We’re still here fighting. Not just in the music, but in the neighborhood and life itself. We were still fighting to get ahead.” We felt that “Eye Of The Tiger,” that Rocky theme was perfect for a record.
So Laze looped the track up, and it sounded great. Myself, Fame and Teflon did it, and we leaked the record. A-week-and-a-half after we leaked the record, Jay Z and Dame Dash show up at the studio. We happened to be in the studio with Premier, and they kept calling it “The Rocky Record.” We played the song, and they’re going apeshit over it. I hope he doesn’t take this the wrong way or seem like I’m trying to play him, but the record was already out. Jay pretty much begged us to get on the record. I don’t wanna make it seem like he was going, “Please, please, I’ll do anything.” But he was really passionate about it like, “Come on, let’s get on this record. Let me get on this record.” So the record had already been out before we put him on it. So we opened it up, let him get his verse on it, and we re-serviced it and everything. It came out great, and people really loved the record. We did the whole Oz thing, and it was pretty cool. Jay knocked his verse out then bailed out.
From there, it was a different sound at the time for M.O.P. But if you know M.O.P., you know we kind of do everything. We do the Rock music. We do slow, emotional music that hits in the pit of your stomach. We do the upbeat, rah-rah, mosh pit music. We kind of do everything, and we don’t wanna leave anybody out. M.O.P. represents the part of society people try to forget about. Even though we do it for our people, we do it so people that aren’t from Brownsville don’t have to come to Brownsville for poverty-stricken areas to know how it is.
It’s more of a ghetto education. Everywhere you go around the world, there’s a Brownsville, a Newark, or a Compton. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea that every time you leave America you go into paradise. There’s nice places to hang out, but if you fuck around and get caught in the wrong part of Paris or the UK, and it could be a bad deal. The same applies with Switzerland, Africa and all over. But we represent that part that people try to forget about around the world. That’s why M.O.P. continues to move forward and people love what we do. I can walk around New York, and people will greet me all day. I can go to another country and get the same thing. I’ll play in New York for thousands of people, and I can play overseas for thousands of people. I’ve played for eight people. I’ve played for 800 people. I’ve played for 8,000 people. I’ve played for 80,000 people, and I do it the same way every time. If we’re in New York right now at SOB’s, and 1,000 people are in there, we’re gonna go hard as hell the same way we did in Germany two weeks ago when there was 27,000 people.
DX: No doubt. Your first record is 20 years old. How does that feel to not only have a record that’s considered classic, but to drop it when Illmatic and Ready To Die dropped and not be smothered by that competition?
Billy Danze: To The Death was really the byproduct of young, black men from the street that just wanted to do something different than being shot at, taken to prison or having our lives on the line. My very first record, “How About Some Hardcore” was the first time I’d ever been in a recording studio.
How D&D Studios Connected Nas, Premier, Notorious B.I.G. & Others
DX: You’re kidding me.
Billy Danze: The very first time. I’d never been in a recording studio in my life. That in itself was doing something different with my life. I didn’t know exactly what was gonna happen, but it just seemed like it was something different. We did this because it was all fun. Running around doing shows, creating these records… We created that record pretty much in a basement. We did the whole record in D.R. Period’s spot from our neighborhood. Every track was produced by D.R., except for “Guns ‘N Roses,” which was produced by Silver D.
To put this record together meant a lot to us, because it was something that we’d never done before. It was different, and we had an opportunity to stay alive and become something other than a statistic. To record the record was one thing, and that gave us a boost of energy and made us understand it was something more than what we was doing on the block. We already knew Biggie from back in the day before any of us even got in the business. With him, I would say it was more competition, but I would say it was really a friendly competition. If Biggie did a record and we heard it, we would go, “Goddamn, why didn’t I think of that?” So you want to come up with something just as dope or doper. It wasn’t to compete with him or try to push him down, but it gave you that momentum and that push to go harder.
DX: That healthy competition was part of the game that made Hip Hop so incredible. That’s why Kendrick’s “Control” verse was so…
Billy Danze: It was amazing.
DX: People were like, “It’s a social club out here!”
Billy Danze: If they’re making records that don’t make me say, “Damn, I should’ve thought of that,” then how good is the goddamn record? Nas was always a great lyricist at a time when it was only about lyrics. Any Nas record you heard was like, “Ah, I gotta get my shit right.”
DX: Had you guys met Nas by then?
Billy Danze: Yeah, just by working with Premier. Actually no. When we did the first album, I hadn’t met Nas, but Fame probably had already. But it was probably like, “Yo, what’s up? I like your shit,” and that’s it. By the time we started working with Premier, Nas was a regular. Everybody was a regular at D&D, so M.O.P., Jay Z, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Biggie. Everybody who made an impact in the business at that time was a regular at D&D. The shit was almost like our version of a country club. You’d kind of just be hanging around. I would show up at D&D when I didn’t have a session, [play pool?], get drunk as fuck and then leave later on. So we all mingled throughout the years, and it was just good, friendly competition. It was never no problem between M.O.P. and any other artists about records or any disrespect on records. It was always just a friendly competition, and we just wanted to make great music.
Even now, I think we still unconsciously have the friendly competition. But because they wanna poke their chest out in front of these little, stank-ass girls, they get a little too cocky. Not that this didn’t happen when we first came out. But now that I’m older and in a better position, I understand what it actually means to hurt somebody. You’re not just hurting that person, but you’re actually hurting their entire family—their kids, their wife, and everything. I hope at some point, the artists in the business can kind of turn that down. If they keep their nose clean, they’ll be fine.
Just because you’re from a certain neighborhood doesn’t mean you have to continue to act like the people in that neighborhood. I’m not saying to say fuck your neighborhood and go act like you’re different or better. But understand how to conduct your business. This is not a time to be starting wars and shit, because everybody’s got a crew, and everybody’s got a gun. One thing about wars is that there’s always casualties. We lost Biggie, ‘Pac, Scott La Rock, Jam Master Jay, Freaky Tah, and Big L. There’s always casualties, and you don’t always come out on top.