“I ask cause I’m not sure / Do anybody make real shit any more?” That couplet is of course from Kanye West’s worldwide 2007 hit “Stronger” , but the second half of that line is sampled, and subsequently reinterpreted, for the chorus of a track on Honors English’s State Of The Art called “Anybody Go Hard.” Kanye’s sentiment serves almost as a challenge of for Honors English, whose debut attempts to regain the chance he lost at a successful career several years ago.
Although State Of The Art is English’s debut, he is far from a rookie in the game. While working on three separate projects in the early 2000s, a bubbling career quickly hit the skids when every one seemed to fall through at the same time, forcing him to reconsider his choice to be an emcee altogether. English took it as a sign and went back to school (this choice was later inspiration for his mother to get a degree herself, which he highlights on his third verse of “Second Chances”) and he still hasn’t left – when not recording, he teaches at the same university where he received his graduate degree in History.
Kanye’s line informs quite a bit of what you can expect from State Of The Art. The former New Jersey native and current Tallahassee resident strives to make as impactful of a statement as possible on this release, a free offering that was a year-long labor of love constructed by both English and Grammy Award-winning producer (and longtime associate) Needlz. The album speaks to both meanings of its title, critiquing Hip Hop for slipping while doing everything it can to elevate the genre to its creative pinnacle. English and Needlz address both successfully by using a precise attention to detail: lean but potent storytelling coupled with wordplay that maintains its density from bar to bar and a soundtrack that’s engineered to pull out as much emotion as possible from every possible line. It’s that intensity and passion that drives an album that doesn’t target the underground or mainstream but instead tries something much more daring: appeal to both without sacrificing an ounce of what it takes to succeed in either market.
Make no mistake about it, State Of The Art is a potent statement several years in the making, and with Needlz expertly crafting a sound English himself has had a large part in constructing, the album is easily one of the most fully realized works of a young 2012. HipHopDX was fortunate enough to speak with Honors English a few days after State Of The Art dropped, and by phone English admitted that he believes labels are underselling the intelligence of their audience, detailed that he and Needlz had an equal say on every aspect of the album, and explained that a series of recurring dreams made him decide to return to Hip Hop.
HipHopDX: I’d seen in other interviews that you’ve basically been writing since you were about nine years old. What drew you to Hip Hop in the first place? Do you remember your first experience being exposed to Hip Hop and Hip Hop culture?
Honors English: Well, my parents first of all. My earliest memory of Hip Hop was my mom listening to Run-DMC on a long trip to Texas, and I learned the whole CD, or tape I guess it was at that time. I memorized the whole thing on the trip. Also, there was my pops. He bought [Boogie Down Productions’] album back in the day. Edutainment was the name of the album. He bought that for me when I was young. [He said]“Listen to this. This is Hip Hop with content,” so that kind of influenced just what I thought about music in general. It was like “Okay, my parents are listening to Hip Hop,” so it wasn’t something that’s like where Hip Hop is now, where parents are getting kids to not listen to it or whatever a lot of times. It was kind of different in that era. It’s like they basically put me on to it and it just went from there.
DX: One unique thing about State Of The Art is that, in addition to being a full audio release, there is also a visual portion that accompanies the whole album. When you first went into this project with Needlz, did you always envision it in that way, as both an audio and visual project?
Honors English: Absolutely not. That actually evolved over time. It’s kind of like the concept “state of the art,” which wasn’t the concept that we had when we first started recording. That kind of came midway. It kind of formed the second half of what we did and then after that we just kind of tried to do things to make it say “Okay, so we’re gonna make this art.” [The title] State Of The Art, first of all, is a commentary on music as is, but it’s also kind of like “Let’s do things to the next level.” We tried to do these videos that were kind of beyond what a typical Hip Hop artist would do. Most of the time [in] my videos, I’m not just standing there rapping. I’m trying to incorporate something with this orchestral thing or just [a] martial arts, magical type vibe or whatever. I’m trying to do something that’s interesting and kind of edgy in that way, artsy or whatever.
When it comes down to the visual thing, we actually felt that some of my lyrics are already complex and people may not get double entendres and some of the more intricate things, so we decided that for songs that don’t have a video, we’re gonna make a visual component so that people can look at it and just experience it altogether in one thing. They can just sit down and watch it if they don’t feel like listening to it. [It] might add a different dimension to it. We showed that for the first time in [New York City’s] Times Square at this place called Bryant Park Hotel and it was a really great response. There was a lot of industry people and taste makers there. I was worried because I had never seen it, but it was a really, really interesting experience and I appreciated it.
DX: One thing I saw a lot of people questioning on Twitter and Facebook was your choice to make it free. You have the deluxe version available, where you can get a t-shirt and a signed copy of the CD and everything, but why the choice to offer just the music for free?
Honors English: Well, there are a number of ideas and strategies, and we’ve gone over many of them. Today, we actually changed a number of things on the site. Now there’s an option to download for free [as well as] an option to donate whatever you like, and there’s an option to just buy the CD by itself for $10. And then there’s also the deluxe option.
We always felt that we want our music to be heard first, and if people get a chance to hear it, we believe that they will be impacted by it and that we will have a fan base, and then from there we can get money through shows, merchandise, and other things. We also want people to buy the CD, but we know that people can just download it, period. Just in general – I mean, it’s like why even pretend that they’re not gonna be able to download it, know what I’m saying? That’s a fact and we’re okay with that and we accept that, but if you want to support, we definitely welcome that support.
I’m a new artist. People have really never heard of me for the most part. Most people are going to hear about me by downloading my CD for free, and I’m completely okay with that. I think that for my next one, I may or may not offer it for free, but for this one, I just think that, to get the maximum exposure, it’s important for people to hear it first and believe in the brand and experience the product.
DX: The big thing that stands out for me on State Of The Art is the great attention to detail with regards to the album’s overall composition. To me, it sounds like you and Needlz really decided to use strings and live drums to add a musicality that you wouldn’t get out of just looping. How much of a part did those ideas play in the production process, because the way that “Burn” just builds from a piano, or the way that “Short Story Long” rises and falls with how you’re telling the story, every detail sounds like it was made to accentuate what you’re saying. Was that definitely a conscious decision by you and/or Needlz?
Honors English: Absolutely. I look for samples a lot of times and I study composition. I’ll sit there and study the composition of non Hip Hop records and try to import them into Hip Hop essentially. A lot of times, whether it be classical, whether it be alternative, or even sometimes some rap records that I really, really like, we’ll just look at why is it that, at this moment, this song becomes great. It’s like “What is the feeling? What is it?” and a lot of the time it’s subconscious, because over that moment, they let the music breathe for 30 seconds, or the guy doesn’t start rapping until a minute in. There’s these things that really make these songs feel so epic. In that way I’ve really been very much a student of different composers. In doing that, I think that our thing was really “Let’s let the music tell a story in and of itself.”
[With] “Burn,” as I’m telling the story, it’s almost like this very personal, intimate thing that towards the end almost feels eerie and planetary. I feel like, as I listen to it, it becomes almost like a spiritual experience in the way that it’s composed. Not so much in what I’m saying – I mean, there are some elements of what I’m saying that kind of deal with spiritual things, but it’s just the energy of it more so. We’re trying to highlight and accentuate the fact that music is alive, it has energy, and we want to push certain emotional buttons with our choice of sequencing.
There are certainly some synthesizers and stuff that we use, and it’s not all live, but we just wanted to have that element present, because I feel that element is the easiest to evoke emotion from what I’ve experienced. From songs where I get emotional when I listen to the song, it’s almost always a piano, a string – some sort of up and down with the music. That type of thing.
DX: Speaking a bit more on your approach to taking Hip Hop to its highest possible expression, I would hypothesize that if you tried to shop this to certain labels, a lot of execs would try and tell you to dumb it down because they would think that you’re going over people’s heads. Do you believe that’s just a case of perspective though, that people are simply underselling the intelligence of the popular audience? It seems like you don’t lighten what you’re trying to say one bit on State Of The Art. You throw it all out there, and hopefully everybody is right there with you.
Honors English: First, I do agree with that idea, that they’re underestimating the level of intelligence, and the potential level of intelligence, [of their audience] because I know people who search things – you know, something Jay-Z said, a brand name, something Jay Electronica said, something about some book or some foreign shrine. People love that a lot of times, and they love to learn from their music. It’s not that people don’t, so that’s one thing. That’s not necessarily what I try to do with my music. I teach – like, that’s actually my profession – but I don’t actually try to necessarily consciously encrypt lectures in my music. I just speak from where I’m at as a person genuinely, and if people can understand that, they can. If they can’t, they can’t, and I’m okay with that. I don’t think necessarily that I need to make my music for everybody. I need to make my music from a genuine place in myself that connects with that genuine place in everybody else, and if it doesn’t connect with people then that’s fine. It’s more like that.
To some extent now, there’s cases where me and Needlz kind of battle about how complex songs should be. In other words, there are cases when I do dumb it down basically, but I don’t dumb it down because I don’t think people are intelligent. I dumb it down because I think the integrity of the song is better if I make this part simpler, and so in some cases I think it’s more impactful to just say something straight rather than say something with some sort of clever wordplay or trickery. I don’t do that because I think the people won’t get it. I just do that because I think that it’s easier to understand.
DX: It sort of universalizes your message as well.
Honors English: Right right right, and [on] songs like “Second Chances,” I feel that the words are simpler but I feel like it cuts easier into an emotional place. When I listen to people like ‘Pac and stuff, they’re very direct, and I think there’s power in that too.
DX: Speaking on power, the most powerful sequence of the album for me is on “State Of The Art” when you speak at length about a specific experience you encountered as a teacher. You speak on having a 13-year old in class who was writing rhymes when you were subbing, right?
Honors English: Yes, right right.
DX: You told him “Well, if you’re gonna write a rhyme in class, speak it in front of the whole class,” and when he does, you notice this disconnect with him being a 13-year old kid who’s rhyming about Maybachs, because the first thing he says is “I got them guns bustin’ / I got them Maybachs.”
Honors English: Right, right. I’m with you.
DX: Do you think that Hip Hop has really gotten away from that legacy of speaking on what we know? With that song, I really thought about that disconnect in terms of how emcees may not keeping in mind just how much their lyrics trickle down to younger generations. It may seem like that’s exactly what a 13-year old thinks everyone wants to hear, but that’s only because it’s almost what they’re being told.
Honors English: Right right. I definitely don’t think that Hip Hop artists take responsibility for that. As an educator, I have to deal with that, so it’s something that I can’t neglect in real life, so that reflects in my music to some extent. For me, I told that story for a number of reasons. That was actually the last thing I did on my album. I was actually delirious and I was walking out [of the studio] [Laughs] about to leave to drive home, and my drive was for like 5 hours, so I was like “Okay, one take. I’m just doing this. Whatever.”
My thought and my reason for telling that story was primarily because I feel like there is a discussion about realness and it’s usually talking about whether or not you shoot people, or whether or not you’re like a gangster or something like that. I wanted to re-center that into whether or not you are authentically yourself, and I wanted to find a way to say that without just saying it simple, so I felt that [with that story] it’s like “Okay, so [here’s this] this little kid who nobody’s gonna say ‘He’s being real’ even though he’s saying the things that he thinks are real.”
I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, and they had this news stuff, it was like the BBC, and they showed these rappers. They were from Palestine and Egypt and they were speaking on behalf of their people and talking about what happened in their respective communities, and [the media] were taking them seriously. They were representatives actively commenting on the state of their world. I just couldn’t even see that happening here and people taking that seriously, and that’s kind of what I’m saying. Hip Hop started out as the voice of the people who didn’t have instruments. These are people who don’t necessarily have expression in the political world or whatever, and now it’s just turned into something else. It kind of performs a different function to some extent, and you see that with the little kids because they get it unfiltered. They can’t lie and say “No, this really is my life.” [Laughs] They don’t know the clever words to cover it up. And it just comes out like “Whoa, there it is.” It’s like “What, you shootin’ people? What are you talking about?” [Laughs] And then [there’s] the idea that people wouldn’t want to hear what you have to say, which cuts to the core of it.
I didn’t add this piece in, but I talked to the kid [and said] “What about Tupac? What about Kanye West or certain people who started out, or at least for much of their careers, spent time in autobiographical contexts talking about what they actually experienced?” And he was just like “Still man, people don’t want to hear that.” [At that point] it’s like “Okay, it’s up to you, man.”
DX: What you say on that track, that we’re already censoring ourselves instead of being censored by someone else, hit me pretty hard. It’s crazy thinking about how far we’ve come, to the point where we’re really afraid to speak out on who we really are because we think no one cares for the truth.
Honors English: Right right. And I think that that’s a human thing. I mean, it is Hip Hop, but I think that that’s real in media just period when we look at American media. Think how far the news has drifted and how far music has drifted. We’re almost in a fantasy and it’s like we don’t have to be ourselves. In fact, it’s better if we’re not. We’re kind of looked at as better [if we aren’t], and there’s just so many ways in which that expresses itself in pop culture. I kind of addressed a little bit of it in some other songs too. I try not to be anti anybody because the whole point is freedom of expression, but the whole point is you should be able to express who you really are. If it’s freedom of expression in every way except for who you really are, that’s kind of what my critique is.
DX: Hip Hop seems like it’s such a delicate case because at the end of the day, it is entertainment, but it’s so entrenched in trying to prove your authenticity, and that’s where I really commend you for speaking on that, because Hip Hop has morphed into trying to prove your authenticity in a certain manner. Like you said, it’s about trying prove you’re the hardest, but nobody cares about something statements like “I’m a sensitive person” because people think that that’s not Hip Hop.
Honors English: Right, until Drake does it and makes a million dollars and people go “Aw, that shit is dope.” That’s the point – your real self, if you really connect with it and you really go there, people have no choice but to go there [as well] because that’s a part of them, and I think that that’s what I’m really trying to say: be authentic. Be who you are, whatever that is. I’m not saying that it has to be “I’m real hard” or anything like that. Authenticity – to me, that’s the core of what music is.
When we listen to people who are great at music in any way – musicians, even actors to some extent – there is a reality to the artistic aspect of it that I don’t want to minimalize, because you have people who can shift characters – Nicki Minaj is a theater person, know what I’m saying? And my statement isn’t really centered on that in the creative aspect of that. It’s more centered on the fact that a person will refuse to make a song about what they really went through today. That’s really what it’s centered on.
DX: You’ve already touched upon this, but if you want to speak on it further, would you say your past as an educator really does inform how you compose and present your work?
Honors English: That as well as some spiritual experiences that I’ve had too. I like to think of my two different forms of education, three really. Life experience – growing up in a very impoverished neighborhood, that type of stuff from the start, and also having some experience with my dad, who made quite a bit of money and gave me some experience of kind of like a middle class life. And then on the other side, I went to school, and in about ’99, I started meditating and doing all that type of stuff, and that really changed my vision. Like literally – I was able to see auras and all this other shit and see music, so those things, they influence how I’m looking at colors, and it’s almost like I’m making a painting.
That’s why I say it’s art. It’s not so much like I’m just listening to music. I really experience it in a different way in terms of the senses. That, to some extent, is the reason why I’ll sit and listen to samples night in and night out and night in and night out for two weeks straight and nothing else – my connection to it is that deep. It’s not necessarily something that you can give to other people per se, but it’s something that I feel is the reason why I took a long time to make this album. I put a lot of dedication into it because I wanted it to represent how I really care about the art.
DX: I’ve heard Needlz say it took anywhere between three to five years to finish the project, but you two basically sat down and decided to actively pursue it about a year ago, right?
Honors English: Right right. Well, collectively it didn’t really take that long, but it’s just that we’re in separate cities, so a lot of times I have to drive up there five hours and then drive back five hours just to record, so there’s a lot of things that slowed it down. If we were in the same city, this thing would’ve been much shorter, but it does take a while [to record an album]. It’s not that it doesn’t, but it’s definitely been drawn out much more, and we stopped for like six months too at a certain point.
DX: Was “State Of The Art” the concept from the start or did you stumble upon it at some point?
Honors English: When I came up with that concept, we’d had a number of songs already done. “Flying High” was done. “Cymbals on the Sidewalk” was done. “Short Story Long” was done. “The Name Is . . .” was in an early form where just the first beat was there. None of the other beats were there [yet]. I think “Crazay” was done [and] that was about it.
I mentioned [the concept] to Needlz and he was like “I like it. Let’s go with it” so then I kind of started to frame the rest of the album around that. I got a chance to make certain statements in certain songs and certain verses that kind of started to tie it together – “Okay, I’m now going to rap about artists on this song – ‘You are now painting pictures with this Picasso / Taking photos with Plato’” – you know, that type of thing. And Plato’s a philosopher or whatever, but I’m just including people that are part of that idea of excellence in art. Then there’s other songs like “Anybody Go Hard” where I go off talking about one of my favorite emcees, Andre 3000, why he only drop a verse every 3,000 days. You know, that thing, so it’s like you know, on both sides I’m commenting. It’s the same thing but it’s placating to both sides of the meaning.
I liked that approach because, to some extent, that’s what I wanted anyway [but the concept] kind of made it organized. I could feel free to say in one song something about “The deejay girl wants to be Angie Martinez” – that kind of stuff that ties it into Hip Hop but still is a song that makes sense and is not all over the place.
DX: Getting back to your relationship with Needlz, you guys have worked together on and off for several years. Do you think that your closeness with one another helped your album ultimately succeed because you were both so intimately aware of how you both work, as an emcee and as a producer respectively?
Honors English: Absolutely. I don’t think I could have done this project with anybody else quite possibly in the world. You know, I stopped rapping for about six years, so when I first came back and started rapping, I wasn’t good. [Laughs] But he knew what I could do before and remembered what we recorded before and he just believed that I could get back there, so he kind of nursed me back to health in a lot of ways.
On the other side of things, the details that we put into it – I mean, literally every syllable now in this album, we edited. [Recording is] a very processed process. It’s not very natural. Even though it may seem natural once it’s finished, it’s very processed. We go in and I’ll spit a verse to him and he’ll be like “Man, I don’t really like this line” [so] I’ll rewrite it. He’ll make the beat and I’ll be like “I don’t like this kick right here” [and] he’ll redo the kick, so in that way it almost is pretty much like a group. Our publicist actually talked to us about considering presenting it like a group in a way, so we’re considering that as well, but it’s very, very much step by step. Each song, each part of it has to get okay’d on both sides, so [the album is] kind of like our collective tastes in a way.
DX: So you had just as much of a say on the album’s sound as he did, and likewise, Needlz had just as much of a say on how you delivered your lines?
Honors English: Absolutely. And the sound [of the album], that’s not something that I can really express in the same way because I mean I took every sample – every texture on this album is something that I brought to him, and then he [sampled it] for me. That’s not gonna come up on the credits, but that’s the reality of the situation. It’s definitely a situation where he’ll be like “Yo, I think you should flow this way on this beat,” and I’ll be like “Okay, I’ll try it.” and a lot of times it sticks. We both pass insight into each other’s world.
DX: Why the decision to give up Rap six years ago and then the decision to come back?
Honors English: Well, the decision to leave, there were a number of things happening. I was actually in a group with Needlz and another guy [called] 1st Ave, and there was also another group that I was a part of before but we had just starting to record again. I was working with the Heatmakerz too. They were signed to Roc-A-Fella [Records] back then. All of that just fell through at the same time. It was like three projects that I’m working on and everybody just stopped. It was like “Man, I’m going to school.” Big L died and I was like “I’m not gonna be no dead rapper that’s just not gonna make it and be dedicating their whole life [to Hip Hop].”
So many people dedicate their whole life to Hip Hop and never get anything monetarily from it, so I was like “I’m gonna be grounded,” you know, and go to school and make sure that I’m not 35 years old still talking about “I’m a rapper” with no plan B [or] C, know what I’m saying? That type of thing, so [it was] just variety. Even though I had confidence in my skill level, it was just like “It doesn’t matter.” That’s not what decides whether or not you get money in rap. A lot of times it’s luck. A lot of times it’s networking and other things.
I stopped for a long time and there’s a couple things that made me come back. Honestly, [one was] dreams. I used to have dreams. There must have been like 40 or 50 of them where people would just come up to me in my dream. Sometimes it would even be random rappers coming up to me in my dream, saying “You gotta rap, man” and I would be arguing with them [and say] “I don’t wanna rap.” [Laughs] And they would be like “You have to!” And I’d be like “Fuck, I can’t get away from this shit . . .”
DX: So it almost began to feel like destiny?
Honors English: Yeah, so it was like “Okay, I’ll do it, but whatever I’m doing, this shit better work man, because I didn’t ask for this shit.” [Laughs]
DX: Moving back to State Of The Art, I still can’t get over what you do on “The Name Is . . .” It just seems like you flip a line, and then on the next rhyme, you do the same. I don’t know how to describe it. There’s just such a density there that you don’t see from a lot of emcees, and you’re just like “I don’t care. I’m just gonna go all out.”
Honors English: Yeah, yeah, I mean because I’ve even had some artists comment on that kind of stuff and say “You know, what people used to do back in the day is too much. People aren’t ready for that any more” and I’m just like “Fuck that, man.” I don’t care about that. I’m gonna go as far as I can go and see what people think, and I’ll let the people tell me. That song has more views in a short period of time than any of my other songs, and it’s not even a real video. It’s crazy. It was like one day and it shot up, it was like 15,000 views in one day. That’s cool.
DX: And just the way the beat builds too. It never comes out of nowhere. You just get to the end of it and you don’t have any idea how you got there from the original beat, but somehow it still makes perfect sense. It’s a real journey.
Honors English: Yeah, that aspect of it now, that came over time because we didn’t plan [on the beat changing]. I had most of the lyrics before we had that, and we had to re-spit it and kind of re-structure it after we decided to do these beat changes because I just felt like “Okay, if I’m gonna be rapping for hella long, we have to make this exciting.” A lot of people do that, just rap for a thousand bars or whatever, however many bars – 500 or whatever people be having, but it’s like “I don’t actually want to rap that long but I want to make sure that as I’m doing these lines that it’s something that engages the people.”
DX: To close out, I wanted to go over two lines that really resonated with me. With one, you kind of explain the line after the line, but I still just wanted to kind of get your take on it. I think you know which one I’m talking about – “Like I’m Troy Davis until I’m Casey Anthony, meaning I am guilty till I have proven my humanity.”
Honors English: Well, you know, the Troy Davis situation and the Casey Anthony situation are two extremes in a number of ways. One is that they are modern political cases, and you know of course Davis was executed. A lot of friends who are very close to me were actually there when they said “There’s gonna be a stay!” and the people were cheering, and then [it changed to] “Oh, no it’s not” or whatever, so then he actually died that day. And the Casey Anthony thing, she got off and a lot of the people felt that she was guilty, and [some people] wanted to kill her, which I thought was bizarre. I mean, not necessarily that she was not guilty, but a lot of people, I’m talking about like in [my] class, I would bring up her name [and] people would be mad.
There’s a discussion, at least in history, about African Americans in the court system [and] that is more so what I’m addressing. I’m just using words to rhyme it, but in that instance, those cases are not that far away from each other. You have a situation essentially where – and there’s even a guy who got cut off from an execution like last month and it was just like “Wow.” That case was such a big case, and there’s so many different layers to that story, to the Troy Davis story. I’m not saying one is innocent or guilty in either case, but just that a lot of times in the court system, there’s this “African Americans tend to get harsher punishments” type deal, and I was just trying to find a clever way to say that type of thing. When you look at prison rates, particularly for non-violent drug offenses and stuff like, you see that type of thing.
DX: My personal favorite line of yours comes from “Crazay,” which is “I’m so ahead of my time that I write counter-clockwise.” I wanted to make sure I’m not misinterpreting this line. Are trying to draw the image that you’re giving back time so you aren’t ridiculously ahead of the curve? That’s how I look at it. I wasn’t sure if that’s how you were trying to spit it.
Honors English: Actually, there’s two meanings to that line. One is I’m saying I’m so ahead of my time so I’m kind of, I’m writing back. But then also, I wrote that line like 10 years ago. I brought that line back to be extra obnoxious, to say “Actually I was ahead of my time a long time ago and I’m gonna say this again.” So in that way it was kind of that boastful tradition to Hip Hop or whatever, just saying where I’m coming from with the thoughts and the wordplay and that type of stuff, people still aren’t quite there yet so I’ll just say it again.