Right About Now, the Funk Soul Brother
The funky technician Lord Finesse
by David Ma
I ran into Lord Finesse in a dimly lit Brooklyn bar about a year ago while he was spinning records for a young crowd. As the Funky Technician played funky breaks, I attempted to set up an interview with one of the most solid MC/producers ever. Although Finesse remains active while still admitting that “rap’s totally changed since I was young,” he continues to do his thing and does so with the swagger he projected on his records.
He eventually wrote his number down on a napkin, and weeks later we were discussing his record-buying habits and how specific albums have influenced him through the years. The following is my complete interview with D.I.T.C.’s founding member—a talk full of stories that I couldn’t squeeze all into Issue 35’s “Record Rundown.” From his decision to start rapping, to a high school battle with AG, to working with Big L and Biggie, Finesse profiles an era when hip-hop was young and his crew were neighborhood kings.
Did something make you decide to rap, or was it something that just happened?
See, my grandma didn’t have money to give me everything I wanted, so I didn’t have the flyest gear or anything. But then I found that rap was a way to get attention. And once you got attention, people weren’t worried about your gear, because their objective’s different; their objective’s changed. Earlier, you had to get the gear in order to be fly. But once you have a talent, once you have a gift, with that comes popularity and your gear doesn’t matter as much.
I mean, I also remember being thirteen and going to clubs and seeing LL Cool J, Busy Bee, DMC, and all these other legends doing their thing. There I was in this nightclub in the middle of the night, and I could see all these icons. They were drinking, chillin’, poppin’ bottles, makin’ money. That’s when I thought, “Man, that’s what I want to do!” [laughs]
Was there a specific moment when you felt hip-hop was your calling?
I would have to say that it was at the No Music Seminar in 1989. I defeated Mikey D, the defending champion from ’88. The seminar showed the world I was nice. DJ Premier and Masta Ace were there, and I remember meeting them. Premier was still fresh from Texas at that point! I showed everyone that I was the best, and everything started to blow up from there.
What are some of your fondest memories during that time, being young when block parties were the norm and hip-hop was young itself?
One of my favorite memories is about Jazzy Jay. It’s funny, ’cause Jay was messing with one of my friend’s sisters. [laughs] When he walked through the projects, people would whisper, “That’s Jazzy Jay.” When I was young, I didn’t know who he was; I just knew he was a respected dude. Now he’s one of the founders. But back then, he was just friends with my boy Carlos. Jay used to give Carlos passes to his shows, so we’d go all the time. We were like the youngest kids in there.
Those block parties were real fun too. I used to go to all the block parties in the hood. Mike Smooth used to throw block parties. So did Showbiz;, he threw a lot of parties and was playing clubs since he was fifteen or sixteen years old. Plus, Diamond D was like the neighborhood freelance DJ. If we went somewhere that was hot, Diamond would hop on and play some obscure breaks or some shit for like a half hour—just real quick, enough for people to catch him. Man, those times were special.
What about those times led to the formation of D.I.T.C.?
D.I.T.C. was something that just naturally happened. It started back in the late ’80s. We were all in the same neighborhood, a block apart, each of us. Diamond lived across the street from me, and [Fat] Joe was on the corner of my block. We kicked it with Joe before he even cared about rap; he was still hustling as the neighborhood drug dealer. And Show was a block away from the projects.
So we were all together. Lots of groups purposely form and then say, “Let’s all go solo,” but we were the reverse. We were all into finding dope records, so I said we should call ourselves the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew, or D.I.T.C. for short, ’cause that’s what we did. Plus, we had our own individual styles, so forming would just make us that much stronger.
How did D.I.T.C. initially spread, and how were you guys received by the neighborhood?
I used to go to different projects and battle people. That was a reason why D.I.T.C.’s rep spread. I battled in different hoods all the time. Actually, that’s when I met AG. One day, I rolled with my friend Omar who was friends with AG. He was telling AG how nice I was, and he was gonna bring me there to battle. I ended up battling half the school! I battled a lot cats, and AG stepped up. When we battled, I remember thinking I had never seen anyone rap like him before! I mean, I was a comedian through my raps and had a style like no other, but it came to a draw when we battled. So I respected his skill and his ability to hold his own. So, once me and AG teamed up, everyone had already knew him in different parts of the neighborhood, and people knew me through different parts too. That spread our rep and people seemed to like us both.
Talk about Big L a bit. How did you meet?
At the time, I used to do mixtapes and do house parties real often. That’s when I met a DJ by the name of Buckwild. Buckwild and I used to sell our tapes to a place in Harlem on 125th [Street] called Rockin’ Will’s.
One day, I was doing an autograph signing for Funky Technician and in comes Big L. He’s tellin’ me how nice he is, and I brushed him off. [laughs] I just gave him my manager’s number, and he said, “Look man, I wanna rhyme right now for you, and if you don’t like me, you’ll never hear from me again!” I thought that was a fair deal. Make a long story short: after he finished rhyming for me, I was getting his number!
You had a record out already and had been rapping for a while by then. As someone who was a bit more experienced, how did Big L strike you? What about him caught your ear? What nuances could you hear?
He reminds me of myself, but a younger version. I put him on the phone one day and let him rhyme to AG. After that, everything took off from there. We tried to get him on and get him a record deal. But it took a while. People were calling him “Finesse Son” or “Little Finesse.” I used to have to check people all the time. People didn’t understand the advancement I saw in this dude. It took a while, but he landed a deal with Sony with the Devil’s Son demo. That demo was bananas! Everyone was like, “Who is this kid?” Of course we already knew he was dope. I ended up doing five or six cuts on his debut album.
Big L was a very smart rapper and I don’t think people give him enough credit for that. His rhymes are amazing because he’s so serious, but he can be funny too. And it’s like he’s just talking to you.
Years later, you worked with Biggie, producing “Suicidal Thoughts” on his debut. How was that experience?
Working with Biggie was like going to a comedy session! I swear, he was a comedian who also happened to be an incredible lyricist. I knew a lot of jokes were gonna be cracked and that we’re just chillin’ and workin’ together. I mean, we ended up just laughing the whole time. It felt like we were kicking it and not even working. I had the most fun working with Biggie and Big L for sure.
Having seen a lot of history and making some of your own, what are your thoughts on rap when you hear it nowadays?
The current era lacks direction and education. A lot of rappers don’t know why they want to do this. They know what they want to do it for, which is money. They do things that have been done before, and they walk around acting like they invented it. There’s also too many gimmicks right now. Rap right now is missing lyrical content. It’s more about the image and character of an artist and not what he has to say.
Do you ever stop and compare your time to the differences of the current era?
Of course I do. What hurts me the most is that, during our era, as far as our production, we had so many limitations in terms of bit rate and sampling time. But the music we created is astounding. So it wasn’t the equipment, which was limiting; it was the artists. This era lacks creativity. They have all the equipment in the world, and their music is garbage. I’m not dissin’ the dope cats; you have your Dre, your Timbaland, your Pharrell, 9th Wonder—you know, cats with skill. But most people just grab anything and try to make club-bangers. It’s so saturated right now, because everybody’s acting like there’s no other occupation besides rap. It seems like it used to be more special back then.