“Cunninlynguists might be here to stay. What do we want our legacy to be?” Deacon the Villain recalls he and his groupmates asking themselves that question during the creation of their landmark album A Piece of Strange. He and Kno had been working together for years, with their debut Will Rap for Food garnering critical acclaim and its 2003 follow-up, SouthernUnderground, doing the same. But the group was going through changes in the mid-2000s. Kno was becoming a sought-after producer after his The White Albulum stood out from a pack of remix projects of Jay Z’s The Black Album. Creative and personal issues with Mr. SOS, who had joined the group for SouthernUnderground, were reaching a head. And Natti, fresh out of a 27-month prison bid, was ready to step up as a member of Cunninlynguists after already being in a different rap group with Deacon.
After separating from Mr. SOS and adding Natti, the new trio abandoned their battle-ready rhymes to create the album that they all agree changed everything. A Piece of Strange is a dense concept record that explores the religion and racism that are staples of the south, and questions the space between right and wrong that will always resonate. The album stacked critical acclaim and helped them secure domestic and international tour dates with Depeche Mode, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West. A decade later, the album remains their magnum opus, and The Cunninlynguists are one of the last true Hip Hop groups around, touring around the world and releasing new music. For the ten-year anniversary of A Piece of Strange, the trio revisit the formation of the masterpiece that changed their lives, and the bigotry that remains the same.
HipHopDX: When did you guys first start on the album?
Kno: I’d say early 2005. We had a series of shows culminating in a show in in Minnesota with Unknown Prophets. I made the beat to “Caved In” literally before we flew up there doing the shows, and I brought it on a CD. I played it for Deacon and Mr. SOS, because this is when SOS was still in the group. I played it in the car, and in the moment, we discussed, “you know who would sound dope on this? Cee-Lo.” But we didn’t know Cee-Lo like that, we didn’t really have a contact. But yeah, and that was that. That was the cornerstone of the record, that’s the first record we started making for A Piece of Strange, that’s the first beat we had. Conceptually, “Hellfire” and “The Gates” came relatively early in the process, and we just built from that portion of the record….There were a couple rough versions of songs. “Hourglass” is one of the early ones, that SOS actually dropped a verse for. He was likely involved in the creation of that project in the first month that we started working on it, and then then he wasn’t.
Deacon The Villain: Then he said that our title sucks, it’s a horrible idea! Then Kno gave him a laser look and disintegrated him. [Laughs]
Kno: Yeah, pretty much. I think his reaction to the direction of that record, or where me and Deacon saw it going, didn’t fall in line with–he didn’t agree with it. He didn’t hate it, but he was like, ‘eh.’ And at that point we had already been having other problems within the group, so at that moment, it was solidifying for me and Deacon that creative energy was not on the same page either. You can get past personal issues if you’re creating on the same page, but that was kind of the last straw I suppose.
DX: This was was one or two years after The White Albulum, your remix of Jay Z’s The Black Album, right? Did the success of that impact your process for A Piece of Strange?
Kno: I remember at the time, feeling a little perturbed at the attention that the remix record got. It wasn’t my main emotion, but I remember distinctly telling Deacon, it’s funny that Rolling Stone and all these magazines are calling us, but they don’t really cover our music. We had been in The Source or whatever, but the interest level wasn’t on that level. Granted, this is before A Piece of Strange came out, so we only had two records under our belt. But I remember thinking, ‘I wish they paid attention to our music like this.’ But that’s what happens when you remix a megastar, multi-platinum artist’s album. That’s the point of it, you’re getting residual attention. I was a little hopeful that that residual attention would pay off, and it kind of did. It helped up my profile as a producer, so people paid attention when the album came out.
DX: What inspired the change of direction production-wise?
Kno: The subject matter lent itself to the production being a little more dark. A Piece of Strange was probably the first record where I was completely confident in my ability to make beats. Before, I just made stuff and if it was good, we would use it. If it wasn’t good, then we wouldn’t, and that was the end of it. This is when I started getting to a point where I could just be like, “I want this to go in a certain direction.” And add bass guitar, keys, electric guitar to do it, and feel confident enough to do it. But part of that is Club Dub – Willie Eames, being introduced to him and his band in Lexington, through Deacon. Just helped it be organic. If not for that, A Piece of Strange would’ve still been dark, but it would’ve been a lot less organic-sounding. A lot less guitars, a lot less live bass, stuff like that.
DX: How much work was it to get Natti into the group chemistry after SOS had left?
Deacon: Zero work. Natti slid right in. He instantly made the chemistry better than it ever was. It was like we were playing Sonic the Hedgehog and we leveled up. Natti had already been working with me in a group called Kinfolk, so it rolled right into Cunninlynguists.
I don’t mean to speak for Natti, but in the years since then, I’ve learned…He had just got out of prison, so Natti was just happy to be there. He’s like, “I just got out of prison, now I’m in a rap group that’s making dope music and is potentially going to tour.” That energy affected us. Not to diss SOS, but it was more of a down energy at that time, then Natti came in and lifted it back up.
DX: The album is really dense, with a lot of themes: right vs. wrong, forgiveness, religion, etc. Where did the concept come from?
Deacon: The south, and the fact that the first two albums didn’t have clear-cut concepts in a way that represented us as people. For the third album, we knew we wanted our music to start representing who we are and what we stood for as for as values and morals. For the first two albums, we were just kind of dicking around.
Natti: Coming in, I had joined this group, and immediately we were doing this album that was an awesome piece of work. Me being a movie guy and loving plots, twists and setting things up for later, I embraced that. But it took a while for me to get into the gear of, “OK, I’m going to rap from someone else’s shoes for this album–not really my own, but people around me that I’ve grown up with and lending themselves for making me write.” I had never tackled things from that perspective, of any group that I’ve been in.
DX: Were you guys going through spiritual journeys around that time?
Deacon: I’m always going through a spiritual journey, but that wasn’t really the focus. It was more about nailing the concept. It was the first time where we said to ourselves, “Cunninlynguists might be here to stay. What do we want our legacy to be?” When we did our first two albums, Kno was still loosely affiliated with a rap group, I was still loosely affiliated with a rap group. THis was the first time we were like, this might become the premier, dominant thing in our lives. We had never looked at it like that before. So it’s more than, what we were going through personally. More of just, what we wanted to transmit.
Kno: I will say for me, the record is a little informed by the fact that I had literally gotten out of a long-term interracial relationship the moment I moved to Kentucky from Georgia. So I know that some of the conversations me and Deacon had about the concept stemmed from that, probably. Not saying there’s anything dominant that sticks out, like, ‘hey, I want to talk about this thing.’ Just that at the time, that was probably on my mind a bit, having gone through some things living in Georgia and dealing with people’s assholery.
Deacon: The south’s racist, man. The 21-year-old me would probably make A Piece of Strange today, because it’s not like a lot has changed in ten years. If anything, it might have gotten worse, in some ways.
Natti: You get insulated from it a little bit in the major metro areas, but as soon as you slide outside those city limits it gets real 1927 out there in some places.
Kno: You’ll be driving, then all of a sudden, everything is in black and white. You’re like “what the fuck?”
DX: One thing that was interesting about that story arc, is how you don’t just portray that racist character as someone who does an evil deed. You show depict him at the gates of heaven, at his most vulnerable place. There’s a deliberate decision to capture his humanity without justifying what he did.
Kno: Tonedeff is one of our best friends, and you have to trust someone’s creative process and artisanship to inject them at the most important part of a concept record. He’s basically the only person who’s talking in first-person, pretty much. Immortal Technique’s verse is more of a personification of racism, it’s not meant to be the character. He’s rapping from a first-person perspective in the only moment of the album, aside from Deacon being Saint Peter. We had a long discussion about it. I basically wanted him to not make the dude utterly despicable. Everybody’s a human, and no matter how fucking ignorant and racist you are, there’s going to be some fiber of you that thinks you’re doing the right thing. You’re probably a dumb ass, and you are absolutely not doing the right thing. But unless you’re a sociopath, everybody who’s ignorant thinks they’re doing the right thing. I think the talk I had with Tone and Deacon, and the conversation we had prior to him recording, was, ‘make me be empathetic to him a little.’
Natti: Racism is something is learned. You don’t just come out predisposed to hating another race. At the bottom of it all, it’s something that’s learned. There are pieces of you that are able to disregard some of the things you were brought up to believe. It doesn’t change you at the core, but it gives you a little different perspective on other things.
Kno: I would also add, the point of that song is that if you allow the world to make you a shitty person. Basically, the character Tone is representing wasn’t always like that. What he’s explaining is that he had a child with someone who was mixed race already, that he changed because of what happened with that relationship. The idea is that if you let the world change you, that’s not an excuse. You’re still shitty. It’s up to each individual person to deal with life, and figure out how to not let it beat you down to the point that you become a horrendous person.
DX: There’s so much music that never actually arrives that far down the conversation. “Nothing To Give” says “late at night, the bad don’t seem so wrong,” and a lot of records would stop at train of thought. What made you guys decide to go that far?
Kno: I think that record was a turning point for us, which was us realizing that this was our job now. We had a platform. We had just started to do shows in Europe, and the world was getting smaller for us through rap. Us being who we are as people made a conscious decision to be like, making battle raps about bullshit is probably not going to get it anymore. That’s not a great representation of who we are as people. But we have to find a way to do it and not be preachy.
People mention the biblical stuff in the record, but I’m agnostic. I’m not even a Christian. Deacon is a Christian, and he puts some of that knowledge into it. But it’s really about the south and how prevalent about how religion is, and racism is. It’s not a Christian record, it’s not meant to be a reality play. I think that was the first record where we had to make the decision: are we going to make something that people are really going to fuck with going forward, or are we going to make stuff that’s good or disposable? That’s not to diss our first two records, but I never saw anybody with a Will Rap for Food tattoo until a couple years ago. But when A Piece of Strange came out, that solidified our fan base on some lifelong shit, like they’re going to be with us forever.
Natti: Plus, I think if you look at what music was doing at that time, there weren’t a lot of issues being tackled. It was a head in the sand feeling, not even just in the industry but in the underground as well. There were just things people weren’t talking about.
Deacon: That was a time where celebration in Hip Hop was at its highest, I think. Like Lil Jon, ratchet shit. Let’s go to the club and celebrate life. Which wasn’t a bad thing. But our album kind of served as a B-side to the entire music industry. It was a breath of fresh air, because the whole music industry was just a-side, a-side, single, banger, banger. We come with some depth that soothes the soul. Like Kno said, it wasn’t like we were coming out of bible study to the studio. Most of the time we were coming out of a strip club at that time of our lives. [Laughs] But we still knew right from wrong, and we had a keen sense of the times we were living in. Even if Hip Hop was in a celebration mode, we knew you couldn’t live your life like that 24 hours a day.
DX: Did you guys have the concept laid out and then you put the pieces together? Or did you have a couple pieces, and then you built the concept out of those pieces?
Kno: A combination of all of that. How our process works is, we’ll start out with a couple of songs that feel like the main support beam of building a house, that sort of give us the direction. Some things we write strictly to get the record conceptually where it needs to go. Sometimes, there will be songs that make the record that kind of fit the concept, but they’re so dope that we can’t not use them. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s not that preconceived. We didn’t necessarily sit down and write out a laundry list of things we needed to say or do, but we always have a skeleton. And whatever works, works. Whatever doesn’t, we don’t do that.
DX: Many would use the album’s spiritual aspect through gospel samples, but not necessarily through the lyrics. You guys had both. Kno, you said that you’re agnostic, and Deacon is the son of a preacher, right?
Natti: Well I’m a heathen. [Laughs] Deacon is the son of a preacher, and Kno is unaffiliated, but I’m a heathen.
Kno: I think that any other makeup of this group, and you wouldn’t get the music that we provide. I don’t know if you know this, but I’m white, and they aren’t. [Laughs] There are a lot of differences in us as people, from background to religious stuff. If we didn’t have those unique experiences, the music just wouldn’t be the same. We’re friends, so we’re all alike in different ways, but our experiences are very different, and those things combine to make a very specific kind of music that nobody else can really make. I can’t think of anybody else that could make that record. Little Brother, maybe at the time, is the closest to it. But 9th Wonder didn’t grow up in a household with a burnt out hippy dad with a bunch of psych rock records in his collection. That wasn’t his experience, so from a production standpoint, what you get from him is soul samples. The exact sound that we have, which is basically southern psych rock rap, I don’t know if anyone else could do it because of the differences.
Deacon: Then, Kno found the only two black people who didn’t think psych rock was only for white people. [Laughs] I’m not going to lie, I got my entire knowledge of psych rock and prog rock from Kno. But me and Natti are so open-minded, that from day one, we liked it. We just like good, great music. It didn’t matter that we weren’t exposed to it.
Natti: I remember being shocked at the groups from the 80s that Deacon did not know or hadn’t heard of.
Deacon: Even the 70s. Groups like Deep Purple. I didn’t know shit about no damn Deep Purple. At least I had heard of Journey, or Hall and Oates. I didn’t even know the groups that Kno was sampling.
Photo: Ineffable Music Group
“The south’s racist, man. The 21-year-old me would probably make A Piece of Strange today, because it’s not like a lot has changed in ten years. If anything, it might have gotten worse, in some ways.” – Deacon
DX: When I was listening to “America Loves Gangsters,” Donald Trump came to mind immediately.
Kno: We just said that a week ago. We were thinking about doing an acoustic version for the fun of it, and we were like yeah, we should dedicate it to Donald Trump.
Deacon: Not to toot our own horn, but we knew we were being prophetic. All things historical. America will love gangsters until it self-destructs, so that’ll always apply.
Natti: Plus, America will never let you down in the degree of changing, but not really changing at all. Shit comes back around so much in this country. We thought we were out of the past when we saw dogs getting sicked at black folks and police doing whatever they want, but look at us now. We’ve got cameras, and they’re still doing it. Back then, there were no cameras.
Kno: I just think that America was built on ‘fuck you, I’m awesome.’ That’s what America is all about. Who throws tea off of a ship? That’s “fuck you.” That’s gangster shit.
Deacon: That’s like the first act of terrorism, and we did it. [Laughs]
DX: As you said, the album is a dedication to the south. On “Since When,” you speak about the perception of the south. Do you think that perception has changed, or that it’s stayed the same?
Deacon: I think that people have learned that racism isn’t exclusive to the south. I think that’s been a long-standing deception. That if you escape the south, that you’re safe from racism. That could never be more false.
Natti: I think more and more left-wing people are starting to realize, “hey, I may be a little racist too.”
Kno: The advent of the Internet has made the world smaller to where, yes, stereotypes are still being reinforced in southern rap and southern sensibilities and culture. Some of those stereotypes are being emboldened, but the bigger picture is that with the Internet, and everybody having a camera on their phone, the world has gotten a lot smaller. The south is pretty bad, but everywhere can be bad. We just didn’t pay attention to it.
Deacon: Ferguson isn’t really the south, it’s the Midwest. Eric Garner, that’s New York. Shit happens everywhere.
DX: All of you guys agree that this is the album that changed everything. When did you realize you had something special?
Deacon: While recording it, two moments stuck out to me to let me know that we were really onto something. One was when Natti dropped his verse on “America Loves Gangsters.” And when we completed “Nothing to Give.” I think originally, that was a beat that Kno made for Kool G Rap or somebody. We had just got to the point where Kno was even receiving those type of requests, to submit beats for bigger artists. When we decided to make a song out of that ourselves, that’s when it was completed to me that this is unlike anything we’ve ever done before.
Good music wins, that’s our motto. I thought, “Man, people might hate this as soon it drops. But in three years, they’re going to love this shit.” When it dropped, people came to like it way faster than we imagined. We thought our fans were going to hate it at first. When Outkast dropped Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, it took a long time for me to like The Love Below as a fan. That’s how I felt about our record. Not that we’re going to go diamond and shit, but conceptually, it was such a swift change. But I believed in it, mainly because of those two moments.
Natti: For me, it was when we got to Europe, and I seen all these people. English isn’t even your first language, but you love and feel this album. It kind of shed light on things from our perspective, especially for me and Deacon, and even Kno. A lot of time, I felt like black people in America are painted to the rest of the world as being crazy for no reason. “What’s their problem? Why can’t they get it together?” When you start getting into the history and the general feelings of the south, and things that are encountered in a person’s life, that are so foreign to people in another country, and they still felt it. I thought, this must be a special album.
Photo: Ineffable Music Group