Songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Pat Van Dyke has dropped this mid-tempo simmer, “Waitin On You,” just in time for summer weather. Laying down the rhythm tracks on the classic Tascam 388 analog tape machine and bringing the the track to life with additional guitar, keys, and percussion, Van Dyke carries the weight of the whole band on his shoulders before bringing in friend and frequent collaborator, Matt Chertkoff, to put the finishing touches on the song with a fresh guitar solo. Mastered by the legendary K-Def, this breezy melody should get some serious spins this summer. Listen below and download it at Bandcamp.
The existential Brooklyn MC opens up about his physical, philosophical, and musical journey from self-doubting Ukrainian immigrant to self-confident writer, artist, and human.
Your Old Droog’s very name is a statement of identity, imbued with humor and hinting at the anachronism found in his work. Since droog is Russian for friend, the name honors YOD’s Ukrainian roots while playing off the chummy phrasing, “your old friend.” I interpret the “old” portion as alluding to the fact that Droog’s music sounds closer to what he grew up on than what is most commercially popular today. He roars intricate patterns through a commanding voice, building up to punchlines that can sound like Big L at an comedy club.
I initially thought I would be conducting this interview by phone, but when I shot YOD a text on a breezy May morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find out my interviewee was in town. Soon after, I was pulling up to a rustic bungalow in Topanga Canyon. A long walk up a spiral staircase led to a thick wooden door. I almost couldn’t hear Droog greeting me through the loudness of both the Coogi-robe-and-large-aviator-sunglasses combination Droog was wearing and the booming sounds of what I would eventually learn was “Poeme Electronique” by Edgard Varese blasting through a remarkable sound system. Making conversation, I asked if he was looking for effects to sample. Based on his response, I thought maybe instead of asking a basic music production question, I had just spat on his childhood pet’s grave. Thankfully, we were able to clear up the misunderstanding and proceed.
Throughout the course of an in-depth conversation, Droog and I discuss and dissect the personal context that colors his art more so than directly breaking down his latest album, It Wasn’t Even Close. He’s vulnerable and forthcoming describing his experiences emigrating from Ukraine as a child and how he now connects that with the long and circuitous journey towards discovering and embracing his own identity. Of course, we discuss rap music and the broader music industry, an environment YOD is now glad to distance himself from. We also talk about his more intentional relationship-building with select peers, in particular, his artistic relationship with Mach-Hommy, executive producer of his latest LP and Haitian sensation currently flipping the rap world on its head.
I came to see that though his musicmaking began in the rigid and narrow world of battle rap, Droog has grown to adapt that rigor and power to a more personal, cryptic, and layered style of MCing. I also realized that humor is serious biz with Droog. We began our interview with Droog making an uncomfortable amount of silent eye contact before proceeding like that was normal with a simple, “Bet.” He punctuated the end of my visit with a similar gesture. As I was departing through the thick wooden door, Droog gave me a vigorous dap and advised me to be safe. To punctuate the genuine nature of the gesture, he removed his large aviator as he was saying farewell, only to reveal a slightly smaller set of aviator sunglasses underneath.
Do you remember arriving to the U.S. for the first time?
Yeah I do. I remember a good amount of stuff before that too, but, yeah, I can vividly recall the trip here from Ukraine, arriving outside of the first apartment in which my family and I lived for the first couple years, in Brooklyn, standing on the steps and looking at all the snow on the street. It was the ’93 blizzard. I definitely remember how different and new everything felt when my family and I came over, but I didn’t grasp it completely yet. I remember not knowing a word of English aside from a mispronunciation of “bicycle,” “Milky Way,” and a few other basic words and phrases. I was too young for school at first, so I was just chilling enjoying that grace period, and then one day, boom, I was thrust right into kindergarten with the other little savages. The first day was your typical thing with kids crying. You really think your parents is leaving you there. I didn’t cry though.
I remember wanting a drink of water that first day, and I literally didn’t know the words to ask the teacher where the water fountain was. I had to motion towards my mouth with my fucking finger to let her know that I was thirsty. That first year, they put me in ESL [English as a Second Language] classes. Yo, that was embarrassing. It really made you feel like an outcast or an alien. Outside of school, though, I remember running the block a lot with the other younger kids quite freely. Maybe my parents were a bit naive at the time, because they weren’t too worried. The door would be open and I was free to run around.
Like they’d do back home?
Exactly. They got way more strict when I was thirteen and fourteen and starting to wild out. But when I was a kid? I’d be out there all day, growing pains, like Alan Thicke (RIP).
What are some of the early memories about being in this country that stick out for you?
[long pause] Getting my brolic black-and-white Power Ranger action figure stolen by a classmate. I left it in the closet of the kindergarten classroom, and that same day it was gone! That was a rude awakening. A few days later, this kid is just sitting there in plain sight with that shit in his hands. I’m like, “That’s mine!” He’s like, “Nah, my parents got me this.”
Nah, but for real, you want a real answer? When we initially got here, those first couple of years were rough. I remember the block of cheese. My mom was sewing wigs in this Jewish neighborhood, because that was the only work she could get at the time, and I remember her walking like forty blocks to and from the job to save money. I remember when my pops finally got a job at a hotel, and I thought we came up because every X-mas they’d have these Christmas banquets where employees would bring their kids, and I’d load up on the little buffets. Things got better.
Do you come from artists?
My pops is a musician; he plays a folk instrument, along with keys, guitar, and more. My moms is more…let’s say meticulous and detail-oriented. Combining his musical background and her attention to detail, I feel like that’s where I get the basis for my greatness from, no bullshit.
Do you have any recollection of how you saw yourself as an immigrant child growing up in Brooklyn?
It was hard to adapt at first. Whether it was insults, even though I fought and snapped back, I erroneously thought something was wrong with me as a result of all that verbal abuse. Now that I’m grown, I realize human beings are shitty, but when I was young I would just feel shitty about myself and not fully understand why.
This is random but related; you wanna know one arbitrary-ass thing that I hate about this rap shit? There’s a certain type of rap fan who happens to be White and only listens to rap from White guys. That shit is gross. I want nothing to do with that. I don’t even want Ukrainians standing behind me on that tip. “Oh, we fuck with him because he’s Ukrainian!” Nah, fuck that! I don’t mean fuck my culture, but if that’s the only reason why you like me, I don’t want your support. As a matter of fact, I don’t care about being liked. Put that in big quotes.
It sounds like participating in hip-hop in the long term has been part of your process in understanding your own identity. How did you gravitate to hip-hop?
It felt natural; it didn’t feel like it was something I had to go outside of myself to conquer, know what i’m saying? It’s in you. It was always around. All the time. I mean, always, everyday. Your friends was into it. It was on the airwaves. It was in everyday speech, clothing, it was in the air.
Early on, I didn’t dig that deep into it yet. I was just into the cursory kid-friendly shit like Fresh Prince, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” “Nightmare on My Street,” and all that. I mean, I was a baby, so I related to that. Then I had a little rock music phase. But in my teenage years, in the early 2000s, that’s when it got real, and I was listening intently to every rhyme every day. B.I.G., DMX, Jay, Nas, Pun, Nore, Kiss, Canibus, Beans, and so many more. From professionals to the amateurs. You still listened to the radio then, catching freestyles on Clue or Flex or whoever.
I had the Kazaa [peer-to-peer sharing app] popping too, where I would just type the word “freestyle” in there and download everything that came up. By download, I mean wait twelve hours to get one song overnight. That’s how I heard Big L for the first time and his famous “’98 Freestyle.” That single-handedly is what made me want to rhyme, specifically his Beavis and Butt-Head bar. I might be slow, because I didn’t even think about the writing aspect and how that related to the rhymes I was hearing and loving. I thought it was somehow separate. But no joke, and in all seriousness, before I even clicked play on that Big L ’98 freestyle, I had an odd feeling that shit would change my life.
What was your experience with education like in public schools?
In second grade, I wrote a little school essay about MLK Jr. and being positive or something, which I really just whipped up in the moment. The teacher liked it so much that she got me in some contest, which led to more interest in writing, and my pops ended up lying about our home address to get me in a junior high school with a creative writing magnet. I used to hate it, wishing I was in Phys Ed. The magnet teacher was a bozo, but I think the simple act of writing everyday helped my rhyming, and I didn’t even realize the correlation until a few years ago, because I was never rigidly academic in my approach to rapping. Rap was recreational and fun to me. To quote Sean Price, “It’s gym class, not science class.” Feel me?
But, yeah, it probably gave me an added edge to my natural niceness. When we had battles in junior high school and I was bodying everybody out of nowhere over the course of several months, people were like, what the fuck? I was ready though, I lived and breathed this shit, and I had a secret weapon: actually writing words on paper. Sitting down and writing was always an outlet for me. There’s profound solace in it, a quietness always came with it. It could be whatever, a school essay or anything, but ever since I learned the alphabet, it’s been a wrap for you bozos, on mommy.
So school was a big training ground for your craft.
Hell yeah, it’s where everything started. I started rhyming in the hallway at twelve, thirteen. Not in front of a fucking YouTube page or SoundCloud account. I got busy in the lunchroom, the lunch table, outside in recess, where they played baseball, where they played football, basketball. Everywhere. We started off reading insulting poetry off paper. Battle rap is just insulting poetry. Call it what it is, son.
It continued on, sans paper. Same in high school. I went to actual class for maybe about two weeks in ninth grade, maybe a month. Then I was not fucking with school at all after that point. I went to John Dewey High School, Spike Lee’s alma mater. That school was straight ass. They used to have these things things called free bands, like free periods where you could chill on campus, go to the cafeteria and whatnot. When I had a free band, I just wouldn’t go back to class after that. I would either go home on some, “I’m fucking out of here!” or go sell and/or smoke weed in the school. I was into getting high, getting money and girls, and I devoted all my time to that. I was just on some knucklehead shit at the time. Still though, in the midst of that, I was always rhyming.
I started recording around then too, even if it was just very amateur bullshit demos over industry beats in somebody’s bedroom in Harlem. I would go anywhere and get busy. Battling on the phone. It didn’t matter. As an adult, I don’t miss the ignorant aspects of that period, but I miss the fearless energy I had. I would just hop the train and go to any hood, dolo, and battle whoever. I didn’t care about anything. I kept various paraphernalia and a stockpiled arsenal of ignorant-ass mixtape rhymes on me at all times and got to develop those chops that I would really benefit from later on. I used to eat food, son, for real.
The battling thing stopped in 2006. It took a minute to uproot that out of my writing style. I hated writing where it sounded like I was always dissing somebody in the rhymes. You ever listen to a mixtape or album from somebody and it feels like the guy is dissing you on every record? That shit is mad corny. Also, the rap I was listening to around that time was very limited. I was confined to whatever was on the radio or on the low-quality mixtapes/DVDs that were available in the mom-and-pop spots or sold by bootleggers.
Did anything else motivate you to clean your act up?
I was a disgrace to myself and my family at the time. So I got my GED, stopped fucking with drugs. I cut off all my so-called friends. I realized the bozos I hung out with weren’t really friends at all, and there was a lot of them. I needed to get away from everybody and I did. I had to focus on other things. I was in a community college class where dude would play all different types of folk music from various countries and regions. Aside from Political Science and English, that was probably my favorite class, that and Music Theory. I took a little remedial music theory class and felt like I wanted to become a composer like Béla Bartók or something. I really thought I was about to transpose french horns and shit. But I had to fall back. I did the research and composers really don’t get no money till they dead—what am I going to do with these scores? I was trying to figure myself out and what I wanted to do. I even bought a peacoat and wore that shit damn near every day.
It sounds like you went through a learning curve in developing your craft.
There were millions of learning curves, but it’s not always just about the craft though. I’ve learned that a lot of this starts with who you are and the caliber of person you are and your overall life experience. I’m also of the belief that you can be the nicest motherfucker ever with the most wordplay and metaphors, but if you’re a lame, those skills don’t matter. You’re just a cornball that can rap. Whoopty-do, congrats! The act of rapping itself is not that impressive. It’s the perspectives you bring and the reference points you use, and then we can talk about technique and shit.
I was talking to a rapper the other day about musical knowledge and reflecting how before I took that community college theory course, I used to get stuck on certain bars sometimes while writing, on some, “How do I make this section right here work rhythmically?” After I got interested in the technical aspect of music, it became something as simple as rearranging, editing, taking a word out here, adding something there, or moving it to another beat of the bar or between beats. When I was approaching it as words only, with no musicality, it was a little more difficult. Writing rhymes is musical composition to me, it’s much more than just words being spoken. Composing a rhyme for an MC, or any other vocalist, is just as valid if not more valid than writing for a bassoon or a clarinet. Look at Young Thug, what he does melodically, all that can be transcribed.
You can play a Young Thug verse on the piano.
Exactly. We need an orchestra that just plays Young Thug arrangements. It goes back to someone like Slick Rick and animated flows and cadences; it’s all musical. I feel like rap really doesn’t get enough credit on that front. People are only now beginning to recognize it on the poetry side. It was just a year ago that Kendrick got the Pulitzer, just glossing over the first forty years of the genre and only catching up now.
It’s funny that people waited until just a few years ago to deem rap the leading genre of our times. Even the image of the rapper is something that has had a stigma for generations. The genre was born out of making the most of what we had. Cats didn’t have instruments so they used their voice, imagination, and music that was already recorded. But I feel like the caricature/ stereotype of what a rapper is might’ve deterred people from recognizing the true artistry and musicianship behind the shit.
When do you feel like your artistic identity started to materialize to the point that you found your voice and “became” Your Old Droog?
Sacha Jenkins from Ego Trip actually suggested that name. For me to take that name and wear it was big for me personally in terms of growing out of my old identity issues related to my ethnicity. It was like me giving the middle finger to my younger self who didn’t claim my heritage and background.
Sacha took me to meetings early on. He had Sha Money listening to my demo at Def Jam. I dealt with a lot of rejection. I never gave up though. Four years after that, I was sitting in Def Jam and No ID was trying to sign me. Everything helped me arrive where I’m at now, so I don’t even mind any of the trial-and-error type mistakes. I’m thankful for every learning experience. All that shit was informative.
What’s the best piece of practical rap advice you received so far?
I’ll never forget some of the things Puffy told me when he had me writing for him on No Way Out 2. He gave me a bunch of advice, which I obviously won’t share, but there’s only been three people who straight-up told me to rewrite a verse, aside from myself. Puffy was the first, then Edan, and then Rashad “Tumblin’ Dice” Smith. Puff, he was looking for a specific style of writing. He told me, “I need God-level shit, no pressure.” [laughing] Just the most grandiose descriptions I ever heard in life: “I need prime-Biggie-level shit.” “I need something I can say with God as my DJ.” In the meetings we had, he referred to himself as “the MC whisperer,” dead-ass, right to my face. The way it went down was we had a few meetings and then he flew me out to his crib in L.A., just going to the studio every day, working. He had other writers there, like Young Chris.
It seems like you tried to engage with the industry in the typical way early on. When did you start to feel a way about that world?
Man, my whole entry into the game was a sociological test on peoples’ listening abilities. People are dumb as hell and that conspiracy proved it. You can front like you’re this historian and expert because you’re doing fossil work. Okay, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, one of the best albums of all time. No shit, Sherlock, of course it’s one of the best albums of all time. You’re saying that because it’s indisputable public opinion at this point. It stood the test of time. But as a fan, executive, or as a critic, can you identify a Slick Rick happening today in real time?
Even some of the mufuckas bigging me up would get it totally wrong. Son put me in the New York Times “Top 10 Albums of 2014” and the little blurb was goofy as hell. So I’m not buying into that media shit on any level. I did a SPIN article and the headline in 2017 was, “Your Old Droog Is Not Nas.” I’m sure when this next album drops, someone will have that same headline in 2019. That’s why I don’t like doing press.
You saw behind the curtain on the whole industry.
I saw how a lot of people are just not very good at their jobs, period. There was a definite disillusionment seeing that reality after building it up in your head. It’s always evident energy-wise too, so, yeah, even when you’re talking to someone who is not on point or their motives are somewhere else, you might misinterpret it as something being wrong with you.
Right back to that childhood feeling you were talking about earlier.
It was an overwhelming time. I remember this awkward sense of “trying to win.” Patrice O’Neal touched on this feeling very poignantly in his Unmasked interview with Ron Bennington and a few other podcasts. I related to that so much, especially after going through my experience. I wore a fucking Elmo suit in a music video. I ain’t want to do that shit. I just want to be able to do what I want to do. I don’t want to try to win any other way. I want to win on Droog’s terms. This pervades sports too, with cats ring-chasing and whatnot. Then when they get the ring, they don’t feel as fulfilled as they would have been if they got it the right way.
Or if you never actually get the ring because you’re not playing the corny side of the game, but you were able to do your thing and do you on your own terms.
Exactly! That can be better than winning the ring the goofy way! I’ll take that every time. Subconsciously, I think I might’ve been sabotaging my career because I didn’t want to conform to anyone else’s ideas of what I had to do to win. I don’t want to go hobnob at rap shows. I’ve seen goofballs run around and chase other rappers. After witnessing that, I knew I never wanted to do that in my life. I don’t go to rap shows. I didn’t even go to rap shows back in the day.
I think I’m lucky. I never really played myself like that, even when I was trying to succeed by playing the game. Around the time Packs came out, I started moving different. I remember being asked to do so-and-so’s podcast and this interview and that thing. I was just like, “Nope, no, nah.” Plus, I never really thought I was that captivating of an interviewee. I’m pretty boring. Also I came upon the realization that I don’t even want to share what’s most dear to me because I feel like it’s not mine after I put it out there; now I have to share it with a bunch of people. Fuck y’all. I had to learn to embrace and heal myself. Why make myself uncomfortable again? In the name of what? Exposure? Getting my face out there? Nah.
It sounds like you’ve come a long way from not really having an understanding for how the industry works.
I’ve seen third-rate producers and rappers hop twelve-deep in the clown car, like, “Yo, J. Cole is at SOB’s!” “Let’s catch him, maybe he’ll collab with me!” Yet again, I remember thinking, “Is something wrong with me because none of this seems enticing to me?” “Is something wrong with me because I’m not a cornball?” When you’re on the outside, you’re a spectator and you don’t really know that much about the inner workings. When you’re a nobody, other nobodies may seem like somebodies.
You have to be very, very careful. People seem like they got a lot going on, to the person who is not in it. There are savvy people on the outside who can see that these mufuckas is lames. I envy those people that have that laser-sharp ability to see through the phoniness. It’s usually women, their intuition is on point. They see through all the B.S. Women are like Stevie Wonder with beads under the durag. [laughs]
Am I correct in that Tha God Fahim was who linked you with Mach?
Absolutely. We did the one joint, “Saga City,” and I was just getting hip to Mach around that time. Fahim introduced us. I don’t think I was ready to fully grasp what they were doing. They’re really ahead of people. It goes without saying what dudes did in the short time period since 2016, 2017. Mufuckas still trying to catch up.
Fahim is ill, man, I don’t give a fuck what nobody says. Plus he’s a stand-up dude as well. I’m not corny like that. If I like something, I let it be known. I learned that from Sean P embracing me. I don’t like it when cats peep what I’m doing and they go out of their way not to say shit. Then you bump into them in person and they’re like, “I’m your biggest fan!” Shut the fuck up.
Seeing what Mach and Fahim were doing, I wanted in on that shit. Which is weird because I don’t hit mufuckas up like that. I get paid for verses. I don’t really hit people up to build but in this case, I saw what they were doing and wanted in. I saw for myself early on that they were on some shit. For instance, I knew Fahim was special when I met him and he was just chilling, flicking through the basic channels on the TV in the little trap crib. Bruh was watching The Soupy Sales Show on some, “What the fuck is this shit?” But, yo, Soupy motherfucking Sales, you remember him? The old ass dude from the back in the day who Peewee Herman got his shtick from. Anyway, then we went to the studio and Fah proceeded to knock out like twelve songs right in front of us. The young lord got next.
Can you tell me about the artistic humility to have Mach executive-produce your new album?
If we come together, it’s like two brolic game-changing franchise players on the same team. Let’s win these rings. I’ve been on teams as the lone star player, I took Erick Dampier and Desagana Diop to the finals before, nahmean? wishing I could have some help to win these rings. I feel like I went to the finals and lost. I been trying to get back. I fuck with Mach. Even if we’re not doing records, I support whatever he’s doing. He’s a one of one. A true Haitian American original. I can’t put him in a box, and I wouldn’t want to. I’ll leave it to the corny media people and pseudo influencers to put rappers in boxes. They love seeing rappers in boxes. And obviously he went through similar shit. He’s dealt with clowns on his path. He’s a very complex and layered human being. Geniuses are often misunderstood. I’m glad he exists. This shit was really weak before Mach, son, I’m telling you!
All the shit we talked about, he came through and reaffirmed all the things I felt about how corny this game is. His business model is revolutionary. He’s almost like comeuppance for this incestuous, sick industry that has thrived for years. Karma in the form of a true artist who knows his worth. These goofs deserve what’s coming to them. These weirdos coming through, trying to do business but they’re not coming correct and they’re trying to use the guise of, “I’m one of you!” A lot of these so-called OGs, you meet them? Man…your favorite rappers and producers, “legendary” A&Rs are fucking losers. There were periods where I couldn’t even listen to certain rappers. Shit fucked me up for a while. Recently, I feel like I’ve been able to separate it a little bit more and see people as just good writers or beatmakers or whatever, and just enjoy their contributions.
Speaking of good writers, you mentioned Sean Price, God bless the dead. I hear a bit of him in your style, and from the outside it seems like you were able to form a real friendship before he passed. What does Sean mean to you as an MC and as a person?
I always admired Sean. Like I previously said, when he reemerged and had more of his personality in the music, that was inspiring. Because like I mentioned, I used to be under this false impression that you had to just be one thing, either you the street rapper like 50 or you Kanye with the pink polo or Lupe with the skateboard or Fab with the ice over the Vinnie Styles shirt or you a Smack DVD rapper or the actual super official cat who did mad time or busted his gun crazy who don’t rhyme that well. By 2006, I thought you had to either do mad jail time or be a crazy valid street thug in order to rhyme. That was stupid. When I heard Sean…bro…he was funny! He didn’t take himself seriously, he was self-deprecating but he was still nicer than you. And just ’cause it was jokes didn’t mean it was sweet or something; he would still smack earth, wind, fire (and ice) out you. Ruck is from the ’Ville, my dog: [Droog recites Sean Price rhymes from Bar-Barian] “The fifth spray shit, the piff stay lit, my bitch stay dipped with the Richard Bey tits!” You remember The Richard Bey Show?
To this day, when I write rhymes, I think of Sean as one of the main listeners, even though he’s no longer here in the physical. There’s a small cypher in my head sometimes, that I think of as the main audience when I’m writing. A couple of old friends, or it might be Sean, Edan, Puff, Mach, me in 2006, myself in 2008, and I in 2014. Pharaohe Monch too. I mean, I literally let Monch hear damn near every lyric on this album before I recorded ’em or shortly after.
Shit, my memory card is full. Let me switch it out…
Okay. Sorry about that. You were talking about your relationship with Sean P and what he meant to you.
Sean was the first rapper I was a longtime fan of who embraced me. He and Prodigy actually, but Prodigy definitely approached it from the angle of trying to sign me. Sean had no pretenses. He just thought I was great and that meant a lot.
Being backstage at the first show, when I met him, I was surrounded by tons of male groupies. It was disappointing. The clout-chasing was at an all-time high. When Sean came through, that whole energy got deaded quick. He just had that presence and we clicked right off the bat. He was exactly who you expected and wanted him to be. It was like talking to your mans who you already knew for dumb long.
We’ve been talking a lot about your background and your heritage. It sounds like you’re at a confident and secure place in who you are and letting that seep into the music on your own terms.
Yeah, I don’t care at all now. I am who I am. There was a time when I had an aversion to anything that was Russian in any way. It was sad. So logically, I didn’t like myself. That’s probably—well, actually scratch that—that’s definitely what led to drug use, getting involved in petty crime, and other destructive behaviour. No intentional self-harm or anything like that, but I feel like it was more subconscious sabotage than anything. I think I withstood a lot. My heritage is more and more important to me as I get older. What I went through makes me want to embrace it even more. I might become a Rabbi, my g. I just wrote my first rhyme in Russian a week ago. You already know who’s record it was. That shit was fun. I even called my pops to double check the grammar. I feel like I’m very much cognizant of who I am now.
What do your parents think of your work?
I never sought out their approval, but they been knew I was doing my thing. And by doing my thing, I mean wasting my life making no money for mad years. I got my first piece of bread from rap in 2013, 2014. So yeah, I was viewed as a screw-up for a long time. The first time they felt like I was making any type of moves with music is when I brought my pops the New York Times review of my first show. That kinda felt good because he used to ask me, “When am I gonna see you in this paper, son?” Bong!
What does success look like to you?
My reflection in the mirror. I am successful right now. Listen to Drizzy Drake’s last Grammy speech. There are people out there who want to hear YOD and pay me for it. There are people who know my weakest songs and committed them shits to memory. That right there is success. The fact that people anticipate material from me is a win. Everything that comes with that is just a bonus. I could give you the grandiose answer of wanting six cribs and all that. It’s cool to indulge in that fantasy a little but I know where I am. I remember the struggle of wondering how I’m going to get on and that unfolded naturally.
Beneath everything, I feel the same way I felt every year I been doing this: I’m the nicest I’ve ever been. This is just the 2019 version of that feeling. Sure, you can say I’ve made inroads with beat selection and song concepts, and confidence and blah blah blah, but I don’t think about it in those terms. Nobody stands over me and tells me to improve or rewrite anything. I do what I want, and it’s all fun. I didn’t think about anything too hard on this project; I just did the songs. Ask my engineer Dan the Man about my process. Then having Mach executive-produce with his unique approach to dumping, it made my job easier. He would just be like, “Dump!” So I feel like I can’t lose.
I had to go to the emergency room about two months ago because of food poisoning or some Shit, and my mind was playing tricks on me and jumped to a dark place immediately. I was buggin’ like, “If I die, I’m cool with this album being my last statement.” A hilarious thought but that’s my truth, son. If I look back in X amount of years and I feel like I was being delusional right now, that’s fine, I’ll eat that. I’m a realist. But you have to be a little delusional to do the shit that we do. Also, at the same time, who gives a fuck? Life is much more than this. I mean, this is just rap we’re talking about, right?
Side bar with Mach-Hommy
How did you come to executive-produce Your Old Droog’s latest album?
Mach-Hommy: I’m a dynamo, that’s my role in the village. I power thirty, forty huts at a time. I am giving in such a generous way that, in the past, it was easy to waste my time giving out these joules of energy to no specific, intentional end. I developed a sense that I could be doing so much more with that energy by channeling it in the right direction. Droog asked me for help. I’d already been helping, but it wasn’t concentrated. It was just informal, a friend asking a friend. Son, just say the word. That’s nothing. That’s easier than making a tape, and you know my work rate!
I told him to forget about everything he’s done up till now. This is not a cumulative experience. Use your experience, not as a guide, but as a chopping block. Don’t be too beholden to whatever experiences you’ve had before. It’s just the shit you’re standing on. It’s not really you and you don’t have to stand on it. You can choose to step to the side, or move forward, or leave it where it’s at. You don’t want the chopping block to be a stumbling block. Let it fuel you, whatever it is—sadness, anger, happiness, whatever. Whatever thoughts, emotions, or words come to mind, take that energy and convert it into something you can use in the present.
How do you feel about him formally asking you to have a credited role instead of keeping the informal nature of it?
To me, like I’ve told you before, I think gratitude goes a long way in this life, and if you believe in such a thing, definitely the next. Once he showed me that, it let me know that this person has been profoundly moved by my work, so much so that he’s willing to share that with the rest of the world. Unlike the majority of the time, where people want to slap you five and run off into the sunset with whomever else and go make the speech and thank everything under the sun besides the person who actually put the work in. Droog was a refreshing change of pace in every sense and on every level. He was able to reciprocate the love, in so many words. That’s easy for me. I’m not the type of person to complain, like, “Nobody does this! Nobody does that!” Then, when the first person that does do that thing that you’re pining for comes along, you look at them sideways. That’s dumb. Embrace that. Let it breathe. Edify it, magnify it, amplify it but don’t smother it. Droog’s on fire, what else can I say? I didn’t see it as work. It was more fun than anything. They finna get this work though, I know that much.
The second time she walked by Stevie Wonder, he remembered her perfume from earlier. One night, she hid with the Funk Brothers in the middle of the night so Barry Gordy’s spies wouldn’t see them recording outside of Motown. In Milwaukee, where she met James Brown, he rented an entire hotel floor to be—in her words—a “stupid show-off.”
Born Ruby Stackhouse, later known as Ruby Andrews, her voice propelled her into a heyday rich with ridiculous stories and towering figures; a time when the greatest of the greats, the Marvins and the Arethas, were either in full stride or about to be. Ruby knew them all during her ascendance, and they also knew her as a performer, a dexterous singer who’d flutter over delicate arrangements or belt over drums with bombast. Her run on Zodiac Records—sixteen singles and two LPs—is a glowing marriage of catchy hooks and soul stompers.
Ruby was just a teenager at the start of it all, cutting a few records with the Vondells before moving onto to her solo career. Her scope of work at first was unfairly huge; in addition to performing each night, she was essentially also a tour manager, dealing with venues, accommodations, bookings, handled the money—all of it. “I was just a bit underpaid for everything I did on those early tours,” she says, laughing.
At one point in her career, she was called the “Female James Brown” for her onstage energy, after all she was a nightclub dancer for many years in between. And later, like Brown, she dabbled in disco and kept the industry side close to her even when performance work was paltry. She now owns Genuine Ruby Records, a pleasant and fitting bookend after decades of work on both sides of the music business.
She doesn’t sound as forceful these days as she did on “Casonova (Your Playing Days Are Over).” Nor is she punchy as she was on “You Made a Believer (Out of Me),” an elating single Q-Tip subsequently sampled for “Won’t Trade.” But the business acumen and fire behind the little girl who orchestrated full-on tours never waned. Says Ruby: “I never saw a penny from anybody for using that song. Cool, Q-Tip, but where’s my money?”
Now, 72, Ruby punctuates her sentences with light, warm laughs. A lifetime in the music game, a career that began in her teens, she eventually learned legalities behind music licensing in order to collect past-due funds rightfully owed to her. Here, Ruby Andrews walks us through her history and recalls stories from her incredibly charmed life and career.
You originally debuted as your real name, Ruby Stackhouse. Why the name change?
It was just a professional thing. I was always teased about Stackhouse, and people would always get it wrong; Stuckhouse, Stickhouse, on and on. [laughs] I saw Julie Andrews on TV and really loved her and felt she had class and style. So I thought I’d take her last name.
Years later, I was in St. Louis and there was a journalist who came up to me and said, “Do you have an uncle named Houston Stackhouse from Mississippi?” I asked my mom and she said yeah. And his grandson years later met me at a music blues festival, and it was great. A simple name change can do so much.
How long had you been in Mississippi before moving to Chicago? How old were you then?
I guess, I was around four, because I think we got there before ’52. I was leading the senior choir at church at age three. My whole family sang except one sister; actually, she howls. [laughs] My mom sang in church; my brother joined the choir as soon as he left the air force.
You didn’t just sing but led the choir?
Yes. I must’ve been singing in the womb. It was ’61 or ’62, and I was singing in high school in a thing called “Senior Variety,” and I was in the choir with Minnie Riperton. People swam and did activities but we mostly sang. We were sort of the loners. [laughs]
Tell us about your relationship with Minnie.
I was the boisterous one, and she was the quiet one. There’s a place called the Southern Inn Lounge, and we used to sneak in there to see Curtis Mayfield and Redd Foxx. And we got to hang out with them too, which was very exciting for a couple of high school–aged girls.
Talk about your time working with the Vondells and how that all came about.
We were fantastic. A guy named Bill Cody took us on and taught us choreography, but I couldn’t sing and dance at the same time. [laughs] In fact, I talk to many members of the Vondells. But Bill was the one who introduced me to them.
Your first records were for the Kelmac label. What do you remember about “Please Tell Me,” and how old were you when you cut that record?
Oh you know how teenagers are. [laughs] I was actually dating the drummer! He came up with the music. I had a small band and doing things around Chicago to kind of get started.
Talk about your time at Zodiac, which probably produced your most popular material. How did that relationship start?
One of the DJs from WBON in Chicago was playing some of my records at a club called the Club De Lisa. They were still teaching me to be graceful onstage and showing me how to ballroom dance and stuff. My manager brought in a guy named Rick Williams, and it started there. Maybe a half a year later, we got with Jo Armstead. Jo also wrote for Ashford and Simpson. She sat down and wrote “Casanova” in about five minutes. From there, we went to Detroit and met Mike Terry, who was the arranger who got the Funk Brothers and the Brothers of Soul.
One of your biggest hits was “Casanova.” Talk a bit about that and what went into the recording.
I still have the same feeling when I hear it. I hear remakes of it and think they should leave it alone! It’s a classic! But around here in Chicago, you can still hear it on the radio, and that makes me very happy.
Your voice has been described as “powerful” and “aggressive,” but you can also be soft and subtle. How did you initially find your range?
I always tried to put emotion into the song. If it’s a smooth track, I’ll be smooth; if it’s rough, I’ll be rough. And if it’s jazz, I’ll be a bit jazzy on it. So it’s about matching the track. I wouldn’t be all rough on top of a smooth track. I think that’s a good thing to be able to switch up your vocals like that. Sometimes, I don’t even think I sound like myself. [laughs] I love ballads. Before I started R&B, I sang jazz. But there wasn’t any money in it. [laughs]
What’s your personal preference, belting out vocals or singing softly?
It’s all about the gig or the track. I love Wes Montgomery and Coltrane and all those cats, so I love to sing jazz, although I don’t as much anymore. I also love blues, and singing at blues festivals is always fun.
Other memorable Zodiac recordings were “Everybody Saw You” and “You Made a Believer Out of Me.” What do you remember about the making of those songs?
“Everybody Saw You” was written by Robert [Eaton and Rick Williams], and they all portrayed a time in my life. My boyfriend at the time thought he was a little pimp, [laughs] and people would tell me all the time that they had saw him with other girls. What I remember most about the song was that I was stuck in Detroit because the Funk Brothers couldn’t leave town. So a bunch of us artists just stayed around the spot where I also stayed at. Mike Terry was there. Don Davis was there. George Clinton was there. This was the 20 Grand Hotel where the Motown cats would hang out at. Joe Tex, the Supremes, all those people. We just hung there and didn’t have to go anywhere.
Talk about “You Made a Believer Out of Me.”
I was just too old to believe anyone at that point. [laughs] Just kidding. I had been with Robert [Eaton] for eight years by then. And at the end of this Palmolive dish detergent commercial, the lady would say, “You made a believer out of me,” and that’s where we got it from. I stayed in Detroit for a while because everyone was there, and we were having so much fun. Robert wrote that one for me while we hung around the piano.
It was later sampled, notably by Q-Tip. Have you heard his version?
Nobody told me, because when I was on MySpace, Q-Tip wrote “Thank You Ruby” on my page and I thought, “Who the hell is this?” His face wasn’t on MySpace, just a picture of his sampler. Then people started saying on MySpace that they wouldn’t have known about the song if it weren’t for Q-Tip. I haven’t seen a penny from anyone for using that song. When I saw it, I thought, “Okay, cool, Q-Tip, but where’s my money?”
Did you eventually get any royalties?
Nothing. As a matter of fact, I ran into this website called WhoSampled and it said the song has been sampled like twenty times in various genres. I guess Q-Tip had told some industry cats that he thought I was dead. But I thought, why didn’t he just check it out beforehand? Because if I was dead, maybe I had an estate? C’mon, guy!
Tell folks who the Funk Brothers were and your experience with them.
They played behind Marvin, the Supremes, everyone who was on Motown. They were the house band. But they would sneak out and do other things when Barry was asleep. [laughs] That’s why all of our sessions were at two in the morning! Barry didn’t want anyone taking his Motown sound, so a lot of the stuff I did with the Brothers was behind Barry’s back! Barry would send out spies to check on us, and the engineer would come to the door and tell them no one was there. We’d peak out the window and start up again as soon as he left. That was great. [laughs] I was about eighteen or nineteen at that time, and it was just so much fun.
Did you know how important what you were doing at the time was? Or were you just a kid having fun?
I was hanging with the guys all the time so I would sit there and listen to them speak about the industry, and I was the only girl. So I would sit and learn. I took all that in, and when I was on the road with the band, I worked with the booking agent and took care of all that business stuff on the road. It was hard work but it was also wonderful.
How was working for Zodiac? You made incredible recordings there that remain some of your most beloved stuff.
It was okay, but no one made any money. [laughs] They all brainwashed us and said, “You only made money on the road and not off the records,” and we believed them. Of course, that isn’t true. These labels all ran business like Barry, but no one really knew. Mel Collins was an owner who did the same thing with his Giant label. But Mel lost it all because he didn’t have the right licenses. And Rick Williams was the same way. We had hit records like Barry, but we didn’t make a single dime.
It’s like that when you’re young and don’t know better. And the people running it don’t even really know! We were just kids out of school who wanted to have fun. No one cared about cash from distributors or anything like that. I know all those things now. If you came out the womb knowing everything, that’d be great!
Talk about your LP Black Ruby and the track “Just Loving You,” which later became a “northern soul” favorite.
I trusted Robert Eaton on this record and ended up singing a lot of stuff I didn’t really like. I could relate to some of the music, just didn’t like it as much as the others. I think we did that record down in Memphis, and Jerry Butler was there. “Just Loving You” was a B-side, and I don’t even know what the record on the other side was! I was with Barbara Acklin there in Memphis, and the record was huge. I didn’t even have the lyrics memorized too well, and they put a mic in my hand and I just kind of sang it [live], and people went nuts! That was the first time I knew how big that record was.
Did you hear the dance version of “Casonova” by Coffee released in 1980 on De-Lite Records?
It’s an oversees group, if I remember correctly. I don’t know what I think of it. Lolita Halloway did a cover of it too. I think it was powerful, maybe too powerful for what the song stood for. The song is tailor-made for me, so you got to be careful what you’re covering. People don’t cover the Dells or Gene Chandler, so that just tells me, if you can’t cover it, and if you can’t do it better, don’t cover it. [laughs] These days, even I can’t do my old songs right, so I think it’s best if others leave ’em alone.
Talk about your post-Zodiac years and your brief stint with ABC Records.
Overall, ABC record was fine. It allowed me to work with Holland-Dozier-Holland again, so that was fun. It was great. I really found out through them what it was like to be a star again. They had a limo and a personal driver. I met the president and vice president of the company and was invited to all the ABC Records release parties. I also ended up working with Ronnie Dunbar, who wrote “Band of Gold” for Freda Payne.
You eventually married a member of the Chi-lites, is that correct?
When the industry crashed, I was still looking for a decent deal. This was between 1992 and 2003 and I had two deals then. And, yes, during this time I ran into my husband, who was part of the Chi-Lites. And he said, “I’ve been stalking you for forty years.” We married in 2003, and we were together until his death. He was the light-skinned good-looking one. [laughs]
Tell people about Genuine Ruby Records. How did that start and how it is running a label these days.
It’s something I got while I was with ABC. There was an LP called Genuine Ruby, and this stemmed from that. With Tommy Hunt, we got a first single, and I produced it. I’m still getting the project together. So I’m waiting on publishing, the barcode, and all that stuff. I’m glad I learned all this stuff when I was younger; that’s why I know what I do now about making records.
Through the years, were there any incidents that you would say stalled your career? Any setbacks you can recall?
Rick blackballed me. No one knows about this, but the distributor here was one of the biggest in the Midwest. And a lot of stuff came through Chicago. Then one day, the IRS came looking for me, and I said, “Do you see how I’m living?” I started pointing fingers and told them exactly who they should go after—not me. I was able to close down some of these distributors, but a lot of companies blackballed me as a result.
What would you say is the highpoint of your career?
When “Casonova” was released and I heard it on the radio for the first time. I was lying on the floor half asleep and it came on. And from there I started working right away at the Howard Theatre in Washington. There, I met so many other artists and friends—James Brown, Aretha [Franklin], Joe Tex, Marvin Gaye, Stevie [Wonder]. That was the very highest and happiest point of my life.
Ruby Andrews and Stevie Wonder
Share with us some stories of what else was going on around this time in your life.
There are so many! But I remember learning a lot from them. I would stand and watch. Aretha once said, “Are you watching?” and I said “Yep!” I worked with Stevie and Marvin too. The Madlads, Marvelletes, Gladys Knight, and Marvin was in the show with me too.
There was an afterparty one night in the hotel that the label put together. Some guys came down to me and said, “Stevie wants to meet you.” And I joked, “Have him come to me!” So I met him and he asked if I’m coming to the party; I said yeah. As I walked in, he was sitting at the bar, which was kind of by the door. I walked right pass and he said, “Ruby, come here!” I said, “How did you know?” And he said, “I smelled your perfume.” We always had banter. Those kinds of things is what I loved about that time—just great relationships.
I eventually went to California because I wanted to leave ABC and go to MCA. I found the lawyers and wanted to be released from my contract. I didn’t want to stay. Everyone, Bobby Bland, Chaka [Khan], and B.B. King went to MCA, and I didn’t want to be stuck there.
What do you remember most about James Brown? What were your interactions like?
We worked together in Milwaukee. Him being the stupid show-off he was, he rented the entire floor of the hotel! He sent his valet down to get me, and I remember being blown away that he did that. He said, “We gotta be comfortable while we workin’.” I learned a lot from James. I was actually called “The Female James Brown” by Billboard that year. I always liked to dance and was a dancer at one time. So when we met that day in Milwaukee, he said, “So you think you’re me, huh?” That’s how we communicated. Lots of jokes and banter. James was like a brother and mentor.
How do you think you compare to your peers? Who else were you a fan of?
I’ve been asked that before, and I don’t think anyone needs to be comparing anything. We all had our own styles. You just go up there and do what you do. No one had to emulate anyone. The only thing I ever directly took from another artist was Nancy Wilson. She taught me how to take a bow. I guess she saw me take bow after a show and I was awkward or something. [laughs] Stuff like that we’d take and learn from each other, but stylistically, vocally, performance-wise, we were all our own.
What’s the most important thing you would say you learned through your career?
Business. What I learned then I use now. My work was with EMI one day, with Sony the next, and you don’t know what’s going on half the time. But I eventually knew exactly what was going on because of all the stuff I went through. It’s because I was young and having so much fun that I never had to look much into it. I always figured that as long as I could record, travel, sing, and bring back a couple hundred bucks, I was straight. I always took care of my brothers and sisters, so I always had phone bills, rent, and real life to work for. I guess, learning to be independent in this life is what I learned most.
April 19, 1994, saw the release of one of what would go on to be recognized as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, Nas‘s seminal debut, Illmatic. Following much-talked-about appearances on Main Source‘s “Live at the Barbecue,” MC Serch‘s “Back to the Grill,” and the release of the now classic soundtrack cut “Halftime,” Illmatic delivered on the hype with a compact ten-track offering helmed by the cream of mid-’90s hip-hop production talent: DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and L.E.S.. Pairing crisp head-nod drums with an eclectic palate of jazz, funk, and soul samples, the all-star lineup of producers prepared a musical backdrop over which Nas delivers a no-holds-barred guided tour of life growing up in New York’s Queensbridge projects. Sampled cuts range from the timeless jazz of Ahmad Jamal and jazz-funk of Donald Byrd to the pop of Michael Jackson via well-sampled staples by the likes of Kool & the Gang.
Purchase Issue 17 Now
In celebration of the album’s twenty-fifth year, we’ve partnered once again with WhoSampled to present an exclusive mix of album cuts, remixes, interview snippets, and of course tracks sampled in the album’s making mixed by Chris Read. Listen below and check out the track listing with sample credits beneath: