New York, NY - 

Onstage at SOBs in Manhattan on Friday night (March 1), Dave East – Mass Appeal’s breakout star from Harlem – interrupted Fashawn’s set to honor someone special in the building.

Jungle, Nas’ younger brother, was there to celebrate his birthday. There’s no better way to show love than to present Jungle with a cake and a “happy birthday” sing-along led by East.

“Shout out to my muthafuckin’ big brother, Jungle,” East said, reminding fans this night wasn’t about him, but about Jungle. “He was the one that seen me in the projects, trying to get this rap shit going on.”

Jungle was happy to share the moment with Mass Appeal’s Starting Five, who all went on stage after their performances for a photo opp. Fashawn, who is the most veteran player on the Starting Five, was joined by Cantrell, 070 Phi, Ezri, and Stro to pose for pics before finishing out his performance with a cypher.

Over classic instrumentals like Mobb Deep’s “Quiet Storm,” each of his labelmates took a turn freestyling before opening the floor to the New York crowd. It’s what you come to expect from the birthplace of Hip Hop – everyone wanted to prove that they were the better MC than the last — and that included the headliners.

The night was a major win for the Starting Five, who were thankful they were performing in front of a much larger crowd than previous tour stops. As far as New York crowds go, typically the hardest to please, the energy in the room was supportive, with host Statik Selektah and Mass Appeal CEO Peter Bittenbender watching from afar. The acts that were the strongest – 070 Phi and Stro – were well-received while Cantrell and Ezri, newcomers who needed to impress with their live show, were applauded for their efforts. By the time Fashawn hit the stage, it was a full court press to end the night strong.

The team spirit of the Starting Five was best shown earlier in the afternoon at Mass Appeal’s in-house studio. They just came back from freestyling on Sway in the Morning, getting ready to wrap up another round of interviews before their show. They’re more than halfway completed on their 26-stop tour, and you can tell the time spent together on the road has created some new friendships.

Mass Appeal just released an eight-track compilation, titled Starting 5: Vol. 1 featuring Nas and Black Milk, to assist in introducing the label’s next generation. Some are working on solo material, too: Fashawn’s Millennia, Ezri’s Been a Minute, Cantrell’s Stardust 2 Angels follow-up, and Stro’s Back on Saratoga are all coming soon.

HipHopDX spoke with the players about tour life, their chemistry, competition against other rap labels, and advice for next year’s Starting Five class.

Can you introduce yourselves?

Ezri: My name is Ezri. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I’m the point guard of the Starting Five!

Fashawn: What’s up? This is Fashawn. I am from Fresno, California. I’ll be the assistant coach of the Starting Five. [Laughs]

Cantrell: What up? My name is Cantrell. I’m from a small city called Albany, Georgia and I am the small center of the Starting Five.

070 Phi: My name is 070 Phi. I’m from New Jersey, and I’m the coach of the Starting Five. [Laughs]

Stro: Yo, yo, what up man? This is Stro, the MC. I am from Brooklyn, New York. I am just a team player. I’m just here, chilling.

All of you are featured on Mass Appeal’s Starting Five: Vol. 1 compilation. What was it like working together to form this sonic identity for the label?

Fashawn: Well, I can’t tell you because a lot of us didn’t really work together, in the physical, like in person, you know what I am saying? I first met Cantrell, sonically, on the record. You know what I mean? We like sonically shook hands. I sent him a verse, and I was like, ‘Nice to meet you.’

Cantrell: Facts, yeah. Facts. And some of the records were cut. There were at least two people in the room on a lot of the records. Just sending them back and forth. But even then, I wouldn’t even say steel sharpening steel. It is more just like, for me, a familiar vibe between everybody. Like, ‘Oh, this feels good.’ I’m pretty sure when I did “6 Rings,” those two [points to Ezri and 070 Phi] were in the studio together.

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Jay Cloud

Who was all in the studio working together?

Ezri: Me and Phi, slightly. That’s about it as far as me.

070 Phi: Me and Stro were in the studio together. We actually did “I Had Enough” from scratch with iLL Wayno. Like he made the beat, and we actually made that song.

Stro: Me and ‘Trell were in the studio for that other one, “When the Morning Comes.”

070 Phi: Word, I heard that one and was like, ‘This is a vibe.’ I gotta be on it.

Cantrell: See? That’s the vibe I was talking about. When we heard something, you know, ‘I gotta touch that one.’

It’s crazy though, even when I was listening to it, it sounded like you guys were creating together.

070 Phi: I think it kind of shows everybody’s music ability to complement a record. It’s a vibe that you knew you could hop on. You felt it, you hopped on it, and you did what you had to do.

Stro: We have to give credit to the A&R too. Askia from Mass Appeal and iLL Wayno, who produced the majority of the project I believe.

070 Phi: Him and Askia sat down at the end of it as well.

Fashawn: Made it all cohesive.

Fashawn, you’ve been with Mass Appeal since 2014. How do these guys bring new energy to the label? You’ve been here the longest, but you’re also the most seasoned.

Fashawn: I feel like I get to relive what it feels like to be with Mass Appeal for the first time through watching them and it is exciting. Just being able to watch these guys evolve as well. I actually got to build with each one of these brothers – except for ‘Trell – before we left for tour. That’s how Ezzy got on the “Apostles” record. Shit like that. I get to kind of relieve my early days at Mass Appeal through them. It is pretty exciting.

What is one thing you like about everyone’s rapping style?

Fashawn: I be rhyming with these niggas all day, every day. [Laughs] Ezzy is one of the wittiest writers I have ever heard and seen. His lines might seem simple but he is a very sneaky writer. He’ll just sneak bars in every bar, you know what I mean? He’ll just have something crazy.

Ezri: Thank you!

Fashawn: And ‘Trell, he just has an amazing…he just sees the bigger picture. He is in the midst of creating a magnum opus. Amazing writer, very subject matter-driven. It’s not just all bars. He’s got that in his bag, but—

Ezri: He gives you visuals.

Fashawn: It’s like he doesn’t even write it with a pen, it’s like he uses a paintbrush. That’s his style.

Cantrell: Appreciate y’all man.

Fashawn: And Phi is just that raw. Raw, that street, but the intellect is there too. You can tell he has a message under all he is saying. And this boy Stro, I’ve been a fan of him before I probably had my album out. I’ve been watching this guy since he was young. It’s hard to go on after him. I have to follow him every night on stage. He is an amazing performer and a true MC.

I remember last night. You probably don’t remember this, but we was doing soundcheck. And he was like, ‘Man, where is the cordless mic?’ He was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ma just rock it with a wired mic like a real MC anyway. I need to do this anyway.’ I just saw that. He’s just a true MC. A purist. And he’s from the mecca, he is from New York. It don’t get no better than that.

Collectively, what do you guys like about Fashawn? You all have verses with him.

Fashawn: Ah shit, pass me the Hennessey. [All laugh]

Ezri: Real shit, he’s probably my favorite performer on the tour. I am able to learn a lot from his set. He’s mad polished up. He knows what to do to get the crowd to do what he wants them to do. And musically, he’s also like Cantrell, I see the picture, the story he paints in my head when he raps. The storytelling aspect is fire.

Cantrell: To build on top of that, for me, it is all that too. I guess to find something to add to it that he didn’t say already would be his pen game is mean too. It may be from experience. It may be from time and life. He’s got a total package I didn’t really see before. Being able to see everything else come together.

Like Ezri said, watching him perform every night. Just seeing how he processes things. And then putting it to the music and going back listening to the music again. I’m like, ‘OK, he really got a real-life total package.’ He’s one of my favorite rappers.

070 Phi: And definitely one of the greatest wordsmiths out there. Everybody here for real. They are all the greatest wordsmiths that I’ve come across.

Stro: I fuck with Fash for the passion man. Even in his stage show, when he is performing. He mentioned the other day taking performing arts classes. So he knows how to really move on stage. He is like very comfortable. And he makes it feel like home. Whether we on the bus or performing, at the end of the performance, it’s like when Fash go on, that’s when we all gather up and watch from the crowd as students. ‘Cause there’s a lot we can learn from him. He’s been at Mass Appeal longer than any of us. And he’s been in the game for a minute in a real way too.

From the mixtape era—everything.

070 Phi: He survived The Blog Era to the Social Media era.

Cantrell: Crazy!

Ezri: He’s on the best XXL Freshman cover.

Cantrell: Right?

Fashawn: Thanks guys, I appreciate it.

How did the idea come together for the next-generation to go on tour?

Ezri: I just opened my email and that shit just said I’m going on tour. [Laughs]

070 Phi: Basically. He said it.

Fashawn: Nah, I think it really stems from Nas wanting his own Motown. His own thing. To be able to have a real rap tour with just artists on the label, I think it has always been a dream that Nas has had. I think this is where this thing really stems from.

Cantrell: And to add to that, I think him and others can look at this roster and can see that, ‘OK, this is the time to do something like that.’ Everybody has got that thing. Whatever that thing is about them individually, everybody has got that thing where it is like, ‘Yeah, these are the ones. Let’s do this. Let’s kick it off. Let’s make history with this.’

070 Phi: 100 percent a rap tour to the fullest.

This year, we’ve seen Dreamville do their Revenge of the Dreamers sessions in Atlanta. Now we’ve seen Def Jam rollout their Undisputed roster. Do you guys feel the competition right now? You are going to have to stand out.

Ezri: Nah, shout out everybody doing their thing. I got homies on the Undisputed project from Cleveland. Shout out my boy YFL Kelvin, he’s on that project.

Fashawn: I got homies at TDE, Dreamville. All love. It’s exciting to watch. It’s more like friendly competition, you know what I mean? It’s all love. But definitely, the competition is there.

Ezri: It is based on a competitive nature for sure. It is also the only genre that is overly competitive but very competitive.

Fashawn: Definitely put the emphasis on competition.

Ezri: It’s something I appreciate, but at the same time, it don’t have to be like that all the time.

070 Phi: I like to look at more influence than competitiveness. When you see somebody do some dope shit, it is like, ‘Word bro, I need to do some dope shit.’ ‘Cause you’re an artist as well. It just inspires you to do more dope shit than before. It’s like playing basketball. If somebody do some crazy shit, you gonna want to come down and do some crazy shit. It just keeps everything going. This is what keeps the excitement in the entertainment business.

Cantrell: I think people lose sight of when people think of the words “competitive nature.” I think that is the essence of the competitive nature. Well, what all of them said together encompasses, to me, the competitive nature that people talk about. That’s a great analogy, going off court.

070 Phi: In a life aspect, it doesn’t matter. But musically, it doesn’t hurt. It’s the competitive nature. We are inspired off each other. When you are in the studio with people and it is like, you feel like you got to body that person and have the better verse, it is just inspiring you to do good.

Fashawn: It’s back on that b-boy shit. Who crew is the illest? It’s back to that.

Ezri: It drives you.

Fashawn: When you see b-boys get down and the niggas is just killing it, you got to go crazy after that. That’s a rule. It is an unwritten law. You gotta go nasty after that.

Cantrell: And a beautiful part about it, speaking as a b-boy, to build on to that is the best part about it you have to represent yourself when you do it. You’re not fabricating something else. What he was saying to the competition thing, you are not chasing something just because somebody did something raw. It’s like, ‘Aight, let me represent for what I represent. Let me dance my way and show these people how I get down.’

070 Phi: We all stand as kings when everybody steps up to the plate. You just gotta step up after that person. Do what they did.

Fashawn: You gotta express your royalty. Express what makes you royal and worthy of praise.

With seeing all these rap camps, is it going to inspire you guys to make music together as a whole?

Fashawn: Who knows, all I know is me and my niggas are in the studio tomorrow. We are in the studio right now. That’s not even a question. We just got busy for I don’t know how many hours at Sway In the Morning. Probably the longest cypher they ever seen. This is what we do. We still sharpening steel. Each one of these niggas, the blades are sharp.

You’re the first class for The Starting Five. Next year, Mass Appeal plans on doing a different roster for the tour. What advice would you give the next class?

Fashawn: Always be prepared to rhyme.

Stro: Word up, we raising the bar. When they hear that Starting Five name again, they gonna assume you gonna freestyle on Sway like the shit we did. Be ready to represent. And bring a coat.

Ezri: Bring a fucking coat!

070 Phi: Definitely be prepared to rhyme. Bring a coat. Drink lots of water. Extra socks.

Ezri: Do not drop weed out of your pocket at the border.

070 Phi: Don’t do that. Don’t do that!

Cantrell: [Laughs]

Fashawn: Don’t buy gloves off a crackhead in Chicago for $3.

Ezri: It will result in frostbite!

Fashawn: It will result in hypothermia.

Cantrell: Learn how to take considerable showers.

070 Phi: And get you a portable stove so you can cook on the bus and you can eat at all times. And when it gets cold, you can use it as a heater too because it will get cold.

What was your reason for signing with Mass Appeal and partnering with Nas? Fashawn, on “Apostles,” Nas shouts you out: “I ain’t sign Fash as an artist, I rock with Fash as a partner.”

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Jay Focus

Fashawn: I believed in his vision man. For the culture, not just for the label or for music, but for the culture as a whole. I want to help him bring that to reality man. And just to be apart of it. It’s an honor. He’s probably the only artist that I have of his lyrics tattooed on me. That’s been my favorite rapper as a kid. That’s probably mainly why I signed with him because he is my favorite MC.

Ezri: This is my first deal I have ever signed for real. Throughout the process of coming up, I was talking to different labels and had different opportunities and stuff, but I feel like Mass Appeal and Nas personally was persistent. That is something I really appreciated. When it was hard for me to make decisions, he kind of made it easier in that aspect as far as being personal with me. That is something I appreciated. It was that and on top of the fact that he is a G.O.A.T. and a legend in this rap shit. He is basically the reason that it is where it is today. The way niggas rap how they rap today.

Fashawn: May I add, this is the longest I ever had a deal too. This is the longest I ever been with a record label. They make it feel like family here.

Cantrell: For me, I try to let my spirit lead me, and it felt right in my spirit. It just felt right from the jump. No matter what else is on the table. They say don’t go for the first thing that comes for you, but it just felt right. And then, I saw why when I met everybody and cares about everybody else. Being a fan of the platform before and meeting everybody and seeing how each person can care about each other and knowing that they work hard, I don’t even know the sky is the limit when you add those two aspects working together. Like Fash said, you can tell it is a family oriented environment. It was just the right decision after I met them, but first it just felt right overall.

070 Phi: Like they said, it felt like a home. Not only with Nas being my favorite rapper and just the G.O.A.T. of rap overall. He changed music. Not only that, in a business aspect, it felt like it was home. It felt like a place where you could comfortably make music. Do what you gotta do and they are not in your pockets. They got the best interest for you. When you putting your stuff out there, they riding for you. It felt like home.

Stro: I think Mass Appeal gets it. They get it and from the jump you could see that. I was always coming around Mass Appeal for other events before I was signed and you could just feel off the energy. I just think how comfortable we are as artists should speak how smooth or just the level or way Mass Appeal works. We all comfortable, we all making music the way we want to make it, we all working together. You don’t see nobody disgruntled that’s because labels like Mass Appeal that allow them to be themselves and work with them. It really like a 50-50 in every aspect, in every way. Salute to Mass Appeal. And of course, Nas, the God.

Fashawn: PSA for all people out there. If you want to be on a record label where the CEO and executive producer ain’t all in the videos, all on the records, dancing, come to Mass Appeal. You bitch!

Stream Mass Appeal’s Starting 5: Vol. 1 down below and follow them on Instagram @fashawn, @strothemc, @ezri, @cantrell and @markjeanphilippe.

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