It must have been the dream of a lifetime last year when Fashawn’s idol, iconic Queens emcee Nas, brought him into the fold of recently launched record label arm of storied Hip Hop magazine Mass Appeal. Years prior, the 2010 XXL Freshman member spoke candidly to various publications of that life changing moment where his mother bought him a copy of Mr. Jones’ most coveted The Lost Tapes. He took things a step further later that same year when he dropped the extremely risky Ode To Illmatic project to well deserved praise.
However, it’s been a while since Fashawn dropped an album through acclaimed debut Boy Meets World. Now with the powerful label that gave the world Run The Jewels 2 behind him, his years in the making follow-up, The Ecology, should display a more mature and reflective project from the Fresno, California emcee.
HipHopDX takes time to speak with Fashawn about having Nas as a boss, his sophomore album The Ecology and almost giving up on music.
Fashawn Talks Life On Mass Appeal
DX: How’s everything going?
Fashawn: It’s a beautiful day, I’m just happy to be back in LaLa Land. Happy to be back in L.A. you know. I’ve been hibernating in the studio; getting the album ready. I recorded it all in Glendale, California but I wrote it in various places.
DX: Considering you being a huge Nas fan and the whole story of your mother giving you a copy of The Lost Tapes. Talk about that first initial conversation with him and what you took from it. You guys talked about The Lost Tapes 2 correct?
Fashawn: When you rewind back to that moment where I got The Lost Tapes from my mom and then you fast forward to that moment where I’m talking to Nas about The Lost Tapes 2, it’s a helluva jump. I felt just honored to be there with him, speaking about a project that’s not even out yet and I got to express to him how much he meant to me and Hip Hop. I got to tell him that my momma got me The Lost Tapes. It was an honor to get the chance to.
DX: Have you talked with him regarding any release date regarding The Lost Tapes 2?
Fashawn: No, not yet but we did talk about tracklistings and stuff like that. It’s a lot of unreleased songs that I’ve heard from him that I suggested should make The Lost Tapes 2 and we’ll see if they make the cut.
DX: You have to have friends who are jealous at the fact that you’ve heard unreleased Nas tracks right?
Fashawn: Yeah[Laughter]. All my rap nerd homies, they’re really jealous. Uber jealous.
DX: I really enjoyed the Time is Illmatic documentary. How did it feel to get a deal with Mass Appeal on the year of Illmatic’s 20th Anniversary?
Fashawn: The documentary? Of course. I actually got to see it on my birthday. We was in Oakland at The Fox Theater and Nas invited me out on my birthday. I got to watch that with Nas. It was just crazy watching the documentary and then going to hang out with Nas afterwards as my boss and influential guy that he is. It was a special moment and definitely a birthday that I’ll never forget. It’s crazy to think that I was six-years old when that album came out. I don’t know what to say about that, it was mind-blowing to me. If I can last twenty years in the game like that, thank God. Nas is the don.
DX: How exactly did you find out Nas was interested in signing you to Mass Appeal? Must have been pretty crazy to get the deal on the twentieth-year anniversary of Illmatic and see the doc on your birthday.
Fashawn: I don’t know man. It’s kind-of a high that hasn’t worn off yet. I feel like I still get bugged out from waking up to messages from Nas as a Hip Hop fan and volunteer to the culture. I feel like I’m at home and with a roster of elite emcees led by arguably the greatest rapper ever. I feel at home at Mass Appeal and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. We’re the winning team. As far as me finding out Nas was interested in signing me, it didn’t happen on Twitter I can tell you that much. I was in the midst of recording my project The Ecology and somehow, Nas caught wind of what I was doing in my music. Then he reached out to me and flew me out to SXSW just to meet in person. After we shook hands, the rest was history after that. Even before the actual contract was signed, I think when we shook hands that’s when it started and was official for me. Our camps were going back and forth for almost maybe nine months trying to get the paperwork right. Eventually we did and now I’m on Mass Appeal.
DX: Mass Appeal made a bunch of noise last year with Run The Jewels 2. Any opinions on the album?
Fashawn: Ah yeah, salute to El P and Killer Mike. Those are my guys. I loved the album. I’m glad Run The Jewels 2 was the first project off of Mass Appeal. I got love for both El P and Killer Mike. Those are guys I run into all the time and I thought the project was really cutting edge. It’s really an alternative to the rest of that stuff that’s going on in music right now. It’s a real breath of fresh air. I urge everyone to go get that project. If you’re a music lover and not just necessarily a Hip Hop lover, you need to have that in your collection.
DX: What makes being signed to Mass Appeal so special? Can you explain how involved Nas is with the label?
Fashawn: I would say we have a really unique approach to creativity and how we market our creatives. We have a roster of uniquely talented people as will; not just necessarily rap or art. It’s a really wide variety of things and I think that’s what makes our label so special. And, we’re just better than everybody else for lack of better words.
DX: Explain your familiarity with the Mass Appeal brand before Nas brought it back.
Fashawn: Not too familiar. I’d heard about it growing up and stuff like that but, it wasn’t too many places I could get it in Fresno, California. But I heard about it lightly just being in the Hip Hop community. Was it the easiest thing to attain while I was growing up? No. Was aware of it but didn’t have any idea of what it would eventually become. I didn’t think Nas was going to take it over and later become a record label and beyond.
Fashawn Talks Nas’ Involvement With ‘The Ecology’
DX: For someone who’s pretty much studied Illmatic. What did you take from that album specifically in terms of how you approach your own bodies of work?
Fashawn: I think a really strong appetite for words and thirst for knowledge, wisdom and understanding that I didn’t get from any other albums that I’ve ever listened to. A more analytical look into the streets. It made me want to examine my situation instead of complain about it. Instead of saying we’re broke, poor and in the ghetto, the man is stepping on our necks and blah, blah, blah, it made me want to examine it. Illmatic man, I say I got raptized, not baptized when I heard that album. I was reborn after hearing that album and his scriptures. Like J Cole said, Nas wrote the Bible. He have us an incredible novel in the form of music. That’s something I go back and hear new things when I listen to it.
DX: You start the process of creating The Ecology before you signed the deal. What did you situation with Mass Appeal allow you to do creatively that was an issue with previous projects?
Fashawn: It sent me back into the studio with like a different burst of energy man. A whole different hunger. I wanted to not let Nas down because I had already started the concept of the album for years but never really was executing it like I wanted to. After I got with Mass Appeal, I really just buried myself into the studio and tried to make the best work ever out of my catalogue. Something that could fit well in this culture of Hip Hop. That’s what I would say Mass Appeal brought to the table. It was a different energy. I think you can hear that in the album. Especially if you listen to The Ecology compared to something like Fashionably Late. It’s different.
DX: Exile handles a bulk of the production duties. You guys have essentially watched each other grow. Talk about that evolution for a bit.
Fashawn: Exile is more than just the guy who produces my music and murders the MPCs. He’s arguably the greatest but he’s a thought provoking and really funny guy. Me and him have a special chemistry when we work in opposed to when I work with other producers. When I work with other producers, it’s more like me versus their beats or production. When I work with Exile, that’s more of us trying to paint a portrait together. Give it to the people to weigh in the best way we can. That would be the difference between working with Exile and other producers. Exile is like my brother man, we have a personal relationship aside from the music that resonates in the music when you hear it. It’s a pleasure to watch that guy grow and I hope he has millions of plaques on the wall when it’s all done and he deserves it all. He’s definitely one of the most overlooked producers in the game and needs more respect and admiration for sure.
DX: Do you have a favorite track you’ve created with Exile?
Fashawn: With him? We made a lot of songs, even stuff you’ve never heard. The favorite song I’ve done with Exile is. Damn that’s a hard one. I’d say “Intro” from Boy Meets World. I think that was just the introduction to our sound right there. That’s the epitome of what me and him do together.
DX: The “Something To Believe In” track features the anticipated collaboration with Nas. Did you ever feel intimidated rhyming alongside someone you looked up to for so long?
Fashawn: I wouldn’t say I felt intimidated. I would say I felt definitely a bit nervous at first but, I think that’s only natural when you rap next to an incon of his stature. I don’t know, it made me want to rap harder and prove myself every chance I got on the mic. Whether he’s next to me or not. That thought is still on my head like yo Nas is watching. Yeah, I wasn’t intimidated because I felt like I earned my stay here in Hip Hop and I approached the mic with confidence; every time, every time man. I’ll probably get more confidence if Nas is on stage with me.
DX: Was he there with you for the making of that track or was it sent off?
Fashawn: The evolution of that song is incredible man. Aloe Blacc basically sent me an unreleased album of songs that he was demoing or messing around with and told me to pick whatever I wanted because he wasn’t going to be doing anything with those. He was like I’m shooting the James Brown movie so I’m not even worried about this; take whatever you want. We picked “Something To Believe In” and it was Aloe and his band but it didn’t feel like the rest of the album. It didn’t have that strong like Hip Hop presence to it and it sounded more like a Aloe Blacc record. So we kidnapped DJ Khalil and while I was out in Europe shooting the album cover for The Ecology, I get this email from the new version DJ Khalil put together and it was the craziest thing I ever heard. I’m scratching my head like this is what me and Nas are going to rap over?
I was like we’re about to kill the game and I couldn’t wait to get back to America to rewrite my verse or approach it. I had already written two verses to it so when Khalil sent it back, it had verses I knew I was going to trash anyway. While I was out in Europe, I started writing and scribbling more lyrics then came home to record my verse. While Nas was still in Europe, he was writing his verse as well. By the time I hit the road again to do something, I get another email and this time from Nas; it was his verse for “Something To Believe In.” Right after I heard that, I immediately crossed it off my bucket list. Song with Nas before I die crossed off. I was like I couldn’t believe it. I felt like it was the perfect canvas to paint on and epitomizes what we both stand for in rap. The kind-of music that we make is the perfect track for us. That’s how that song evolved and became what it is today.
DX: Throughout the creation of the project, what exact advice did he give you that helped The Ecology.
Fashawn: I guess he tried to or almost did. There was a time when I played him the whole album in its entirety and there was a verse that I don’t think sat too well with him at first listen. He was like I like the song but you might want to approach the second verse a little different. Everyone in the room stood back like uh oh. I asked him was he sure and he said I don’t know, play it one more time. I played it for him again and he was like this verse was flawless. That was the only moment where he almost said something to me. Other than that, he tells me I got it and that’s why he signed me. I think he enjoys watching me work right now.
Fashawn Talks Getting Approval From Nas and Relationship with Aloe Blacc
DX: Once the album was completed, he clearly heard it.
Fashawn: He had to OK it, the whole album is Nas approved.
DX: Being Nas approved, what did he say to you about what he got from the album?
Fashawn: He said it was something that he needed. It was something inspired him to rap again, inspired him to write again. That’s what he got from it. He told me he hasn’t seen an emcee spit like this in a while so I’m an emcee’s emcee. When I listen to Nas, that inspired me to write and now due to the laws of reciprocity, I get to do the same. Now, I can’t wait to hear his next album. It’s an honor to say it’s going to be released on the same record label.
DX: Considering everything you’ve been through to get to this point, how exactly did that feel for your inspiration to say that you inspired him?
Fashawn: It feels unbelievable. I’m ecstatic to pick up the pen again because it was a point to where I almost stopped and quit. Due to lack of inspiration or whatever so that feels incredible. That’s the battery in my back. I’m just going to continue to do this forever. It’s an honor man.
DX: When did you get to that point of giving up and what was the turning point that kept you going?
Fashawn: I felt like, I contributed something to rap or the culture that was something of substance and standing the test of time. I almost felt content with that but it just wasn’t enough. I had to remind people of who I am, what I do and why I consider myself one of the best. I had to remind myself so that’s what this album was for me. There was a point to where I didn’t care about rap. I didn’t care about interviews, about promoting myself and anything. I didn’t want it but I had to flip my on-and-off switch. I just flipped it back on and now we’re in full beast beast mode; full Fashawn mode, full rap mode. There was a time where things were completely different or opposite.
DX: What did you learn in that experience in tackling the industry?
Fashawn: I learned to tackle it head-on in opposed to getting trampled by it or getting into these weird situations. Now it’s coming at me slower now in opposed to just hitting me suddenly. That’s what I got from it. Now I can see the bullet coming and can dodge it, catch it and throw it back. That’s what I’ve learned in that period for sure.
DX: You have two features with Aloe Blacc, where did that relationship come from considering he was featured on the Boy Meets World track “Hey Young World.”
Fashawn: We go back. It’s incredible man. Aloe is from the same crew as me which is Dirty Science led by Exile, Blu and all those guys. He was just one of the homies. I didn’t know he was an incredible vocalist like that and such a quiet genius. I didn’t get hip to that until he came to the studio one day and he started singing like Frank Sinatra. Then he started rapping and I was like this dude is just too much for me. This guy is amazing. We’ve been tight ever since. We kept in contact since that session. That’s been my guy and he showed up to my album release at Fat Beats not to far from here, may that rest in peace. He came out and killed it and we performed the records that we recorded. Watching him ascend to the heights of where he’s at now was a pleasure. I enjoy watching all my fellow players win. I didn’t think he was ever going do what he was doing at a pop level. He went from backpacker type crew and he definitely stands out in more ways than one. He’s a classic artist and real nigga. We going to be making music together in our 50s still.
DX: Another favorite tracks is the “Out The Trunk” joint. Was that a sample or directly from Busta Rhymes? How does he feel about the track?
Fashawn: That’s not a sample, that’s Busta. The same time “Something To Believe In.” It was like a beautiful time man. I came back from with so much inspiration from Europe, I was out there shooting the cover with my mans out in France and doing festivals in Germany. Exile was back in America still banging out beats for the album. He’s in the lab going crazy. I’m telling them like yo the album’s done, I’m shooting he cover. Exile was like naw trust me I got this joint and he sent it over. I played it for Nas and he gives me this crazy look. He was like really? So long story short, Nas actually gives it to Busta because Busta doesn’t really know me. Nas puts Busta on to my music and Busta was thoroughly impressed. So impressed, that he decided to bless the record. Then that’s how “Out The Trunk” was born. I got to thank Nas for that and give him the credit. Shout out to Busta for killing that though. I never imagined having the cast that I have on this album. I never would have imagined it.
DX: Last year must have been mind blowing. How exactly did you keep everything under control without going wild?
Fashawn: I did go wild, just quietly. Only my manager saw it all. Only my mom saw. I’m not from Hollywood or anything. It’s non of this where I’m from. When I do wild out nobody knows. I probably be the press’ wet-dream if yall lived within my zone. I like to keep my life private and a certain mystique about myself. Shit was crazy.
DX: Is it possible to keep that mystique in the social media generation?
Fashawn: It’s hard. I think Drake said it’s recreation to pull all of your skeletons out your closet these days right. It’s hard but my story is so deep, even if I gave you just crumbs of it, you’d probably vomit. You’d probably wouldn’t be able to take that. It’s easy to control the amount of content that goes out because I’m product of this era right now. I just give yall some and keep what I need to keep for me. As far as my privacy.
DX: You mention Europe’s influence on you recently. How much did your time there impact you personally and creatively.
Fashawn: I didn’t tour Europe too heavy and I’ve been recording the last two years. I really wanted to go to Europe to hang out and get the inspiration. Just to go see the architecture in France or even building with graffiti artist in Germany. For those reasons alone from what I’ve gathered is turing. Places like Germany, Russia and Italy. It gave me a more appreciation for how the music impacts people outside of my environment. It gave me a deeper appreciation for that. Europe turned me into a real rap nerd because when I go over there, they flood me with Hip Hop. It’s different and you don’t get those type of experiences at home too often. I’m usually the ones giving it to the youth. When I’m over there, it’s different.
DX: Talk about the cover if you can. You shot it in Europe right?
Fashawn: I wanted it to look like Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album cover meets Erykah Badu’s New America. I wanted to marry those two covers and I expressed that to Feefo and that’s what he came up with. It was all about the album’s concept. I wanted it to look like what it sounded like. You see my body but all of these things are apart of my body like the earth, my city, the American flag, the streets of Fresno. Those things are just as much apart of me as I am apart of them. I really wanted to make the marriage visually because I could write and talk about it all day but I really wanted to personify what the concept of the album ment in a picture.