Kool G Rap talks about Marley Marl and the Juice Crew, crime raps, and his extensive catalog
"I mentioned John Gotti because it was the topic of the times. Any part of the violence that I wrote about were things I saw, even if I didn’t directly participate in all of it."
by David Ma
Kool G Rap’s early career was a minefield of shifty fictions anchored in large by a dizzying cadence and attention to detail. And while these early years were fleeting, they, like any true pioneer’s work, set the framework for younger cats to explore. Wu-Tang, Jay Z, Nas, and Biggie were all spawned from G Rap, later citing his delivery and Mafioso street narratives as immensely impactful and of influence.
I spoke in depth with G Rap for Wax Poetics Issue 58, touching on ballyhooed history and other watershed moments during his immensely rich upstart. But there’s so much more to his story, so many colorful characters that came and went in an era where Biz Markie had entirely long beatboxing routines and Big Daddy Kane rapped while doing vigorous dance numbers—all of it under the guidance of rap’s first super producer, the venerable Marley Marl. It was a showcase of fun and well-roundedness that underscored the Juice Crew’s heyday.
To this day, the trajectory of his career and its catalog has been a point of reference for so many, and here’s the rest of our interview, bookended by opulent moments of his storied rise. Says G rap: “I just had crazy confidence in myself. I knew that skill-wise, especially back then, I was an elite. I was untouchable.”
Even though most fixate on those first early records of yours, you’ve had a lot of artistic output since. What are you up to these days?
I’m working on a screenplay. I’m transitioning from rapper back to just writer and am working on concepts for short films. Some of the themes are taken from my old albums. I’m gonna start shooting short films of all these song concepts I’ve had through the years. I can’t wait to get in the field and just put art out there again.
Perhaps one of your best-known songs is “Road to the Riches.” The video itself is remarkable. Talk about working with director Fab Five Freddy.
I was no older than twenty at that point even though I looked thirteen. [laughs] It was directed by Freddy, who I think did an excellent job. He’s from that element, he’s from the streets. He’s definitely a fan of hip-hop and captured what we were going for.
That song was taken from my real-life experiences. I wasn’t literally sweeping floors for dimes, but if you consider the minimum wage then, I was basically working for dimes. [laughs] It was just my life and things that were going on around me. I mentioned John Gotti because it was the topic of the times. Any part of the violence that I wrote about were things I saw, even if I didn’t directly participate in all of it. I mean, right before the video shoot, this Jamaican cat I knew shot this dude in my neighborhood. Later, the dude ended up killing the Jamaican cat. These were real-life things and experiences that I took in.
Let’s explore the history of the Juice Crew a bit. How was it working with Marley Marl? He was already known and you were actually the newcomer to the crew.
He’s that dude! Needless to say, he’s one of the first, most innovative producers in the game. Marley was the first one where people knew him equally as much as the vocalist. His name stood out as much as Kane or Biz. It was like he set the format without rapping on anything. Everything he did was behind the scenes. He was in a skit and a video, which was cool since he was already so big and should’ve made himself more identifiable. Then [Dr.] Dre and RZA kind of became what Marley laid out—he dude in the studio that made everything happen and known to the listener.
How close were you guys as a unit? Did Marley keep things tight or were you really more or less affiliates?
There were certain members who hung around with other members more for sure. Like Kane always ran with Biz, and they were boys. There was large group of us, so we all sectioned off. But when it came time to work together, [there weren’t] really like egos or nothing. Marley was really good at keeping us together and on the same page. He had so many ideas, and we just ran with them. We all just had so many ideas to put forth.
How was it being the rookie in a crew of so much talent?
I came way after Shan and Shante. Those cats lived right there with Marley, so naturally they knew him. I used to go to their hood a lot but never met Marley till later. I was simply proud to be spoken in the same sentence as these cats!
What stands out most about your time with everyone?
A lot of excitement. Being affiliated with some of the best artists in hip-hop ever is a privilege. It was an honor to be affiliated. The soil was fertile, and we were the seed for super crews and opened doors for cats like Wu-Tang. We made some of the best rap ever in a genre that ended up taking over the world.
What was the actual work process like with so many seemingly strong creatives all in the same room?
Let me tell you something; it was a great feeling just to be there. Mr. Magic was someone I was listening to when I was thirteen years old. Years prior to meeting Marley, I used to make pause tapes of Mr. Magic’s show. Kane was already around and Biz was well known. Being down was unbelievable.
How was it being on Mr. Magic’s show for the first time?
I couldn’t even believe I was there! I was just affiliated with Juice Crew at that point. I didn’t even feel officially part of the group yet. It’s not like niggas had a ceremony for me or anything. [laughs] I recorded my album at Marley’s place, and all of a sudden, I was just down with the crew. Fly Ty, who helped the crew and did a lot of behind the scenes stuff, was just getting used to me. Marley was just getting used to me too. And other members embraced me, but it was never formal. They never asked me if I was official or whatnot, you know? They just started mentioning my name everywhere, and I was getting calls for Juice Crew projects, asking me for verses and whatnot.
How was Kane in his prime? He was such a standout and broke out just right before you did.
He is undeniably a legendary rapper, one of the illest that ever did it. Regardless of what any dude says, it seems like real heads worldwide—not just in New York—regard him as one of the greatest. I was a fan of Kane, Shan, Roxanne, and Biz. We clicked and hung out all the time, whether New York or California.
You mentioned MC Shan. How did he strike you? He already had records out by then and was locally well known.
I was a fan of Shan. Me and Shan became real cool; we used to hang out and go to different states. I was still the new artist at that point, and Shan was already at a comfortable stage in his career already. We clicked and had a lot of mutual respect for each other. He was almost like a veteran to me. I thought the world of Shan then and still do now.
Talk about Biz. He was almost like a jester but obviously very serious about his work. What are your thoughts on him as an artist and performer?
I used to watch Biz perform and would be as entertained as anyone else in the crowd. I’ve seen him perform many, many, many times. And each time I was just like, “Wow!” Every single time, man. He’s great and an elite performer.
Masta Ace and Craig G were also known and had material out around that time. How did they strike you as a crewmember?
We ran into each other all the time. When I met Ace, I felt like he had crazy flavor. I remember the first time I heard him, Marley was playing some tracks, and I always thought he sounded real nice. I was happy to know Ace.
We never kicked it too hard or anything, and while he wasn’t one of the members that blew up or blew me away, but he eventually made his own mark on hip-hop by being a freestyle legend.
In a stable of all dudes, there was Roxanne Shante, who, by all accounts, was even more popular than some senior members. How did she strike you?
That’s my Juice Crew sister! I have nothing but love and respect for her, but I never really spoke to her deeply. She ran with Biz a lot, and her and I never really collaborated, but I got nothing but love for her, man. She was such a standout, I view her as being like a benchmark for all female rappers.
Grand Daddy IU is a member that gets a bit overshadowed. It seems like he was a friend to the entire crew though. What are your thoughts on IU?
He’s a homie for life. There’s always gonna be a love for Juice Crew, period. He was kinda like the glue behind the scenes that made us stick and held it down.
Tragedy was a youngster at the time as well, a freshmen in the crew if you will. But he was highly touted. What are your thoughts on him?
Whatever you want to call him, Intelligent Hoodlum or whatever, he was a real nice kid. I don’t remember him around Juice Crew stuff too much during my time; he was more the later class of members. Like when we’d go on tour, he wasn’t there like that. It was mainly me, Kane, Biz, Ace, IU, Shante, and even GZA.
GZA was around a lot? What are your thoughts on him. His themes, especially on Liquid Swords, seem to be taken directly from your early work.
He was called Genius at the time. He was our Cold Chillin’ label mate, even though he wasn’t part of Juice Crew. But we embraced him and his genius. It’s appreciated that GZA mentioned me as an idol if his. He is a solidified legend and planted his Wu-Tang flag. Wu was one of the best groups that ever did it, period. They’re like the Temptations of rap world—they’re just the best.
Earlier, you mentioned Eric B. was someone who you said greatly developed your career. Why wasn’t there any G Rap and Eric B. projects?
He wasn’t really producing like that. He was more of a DJ, like Polo. Not to say he didn’t have anything to do with production. I mean, I picked a lot of those records on the first album that became full beats and songs, but I wasn’t credited as producing it, you know? In the same way, Eric B. had a lot of influence on projects but he never officially “produced.” We were just really close fiends and I owe him a lot.
Let’s delve into your discography after Road to the Riches. Talk a bit about your mind state on your third album, 1992’s Live and Let Die, and what you were aiming for at that point.
One thing for sure, I went to Cali to do the album. I started producing myself at this point, and tracks like “On the Run” and “Edge of Sanity” are all great in my opinion. The tracks you hear on the album is straight-up me, and [Sir] Jinx did stuff over that. I never made a big deal out of it, Jinx did put in work, he wasn’t just throwing hi-hats over shit and getting credit. But I had a lot to do with everything about all those beats—a lot! I felt like I should’ve had a producing credit on this.
Break down your next album, 1995’s 4,5,6. You had some experience under your belt by then.
I felt like a complete artist at this point. I was doing things in song format and had more of a concept. It was the first album I had multiple producers. Usually my stuff was with one guy and I was in a comfort zone. Having Nas on it was an absolutely great feeling.
What’s your earliest memory of Nas?
I remember being in my studio when I was recording tracks, and Nas popped in to shop his demo. By the time 4,5,6 came out, he had already made a name for himself. I was so proud! It was in a sense, like the student coming back to surpass the teacher. He was the new hot kid when I first saw him years ago, but he’s now a solidified legend in the game.
Around this time is when you and DJ Polo went separate ways, correct? What was behind all that?
We did three albums in a total of seven or eight years. I just felt like two dudes can’t eat off the same plate forever. Plus, me and Polo was a group, but he was the DJ, meaning he didn’t really produce. For an album to get done, G Rap is the one doing the work. It’s not like Mobb Deep where we both spit rhymes, and Havoc makes the beats, and it’s both of us. It was a little unbalanced for me to keep doing that. I think after three albums and seven years, I think I thanked him enough.
What about your studio know-how at this point? You were understanding song construction and was producing now, right?
I had got the one-inch reel from Marley and an MPC60, and I was getting busy! I was just doing my own shit. I don’t think it helped me as an MC, but it allowed me to be more creative. I was able to express myself in another form other than a pen and pad. I always was kept beats and rhymes separate in my head. I’m the type of cat that even if a beat is just all right, I’m still going to give it my all. And a lot of cats say, “G Rap be making beats,” and I’m like, “G Rap be making beats work!” [laughs]
Talk about 1998’s Roots of Evil a bit and the concepts you were going for behind it.
I’ve always like the concept of making a project that is all about the writing, where the written essence is the most important aspect. I think I did that with Live and Let Die but I really wanted this one to be like a whole movie. I think it was received pretty well, and I was able to still be technical without being overdone.
By the time Giacanna Story came out, you had been in the game for over fifteen years. What was that like? I assume that had the biggest budget of all your albums.
Although it was 2002, this was my G Rap in the year 2000 album, the updated version of myself. I wanted to be myself, but an updated version. I remember capitalizing on the features because Rawkus gave me a $1.5 million budget! It was such a blast having different producers and having the freedom to do whatever I wanted. This was my second album with multiple producers and I think I did my best to make the most out of it.
Then came 2007’s Half a Klip. You kept pretty busy, even at that point.
Yeah, once again, I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything but rather just expressing myself as an artist. I think this was my first real solo album in a few years. I think it’s a credible album, and I’ve heard a lot of people coming up to me later, like years later, and bring this one up. I always really appreciate it when fans did that.
Your fifth solo album was Riches, Royalty, Respect, which came out on Fat Beats. What were you trying to do on that one?
This album was a reflection on my personal life and touched on topics that happened in my early stages in life. I felt like I was in the ’70s when I made this, and just wanted that whole ’70s vibe. But there are tracks on there that sound ’90s hip-hop too, I suppose.
When you look back at your creative process and many recordings, what is the most gleaming difference between nowadays and when you first came out?
It depends on which perspectives, I suppose. But back then we had to use big old reels that are now replaced by memory sticks! You can dump five albums on that shit! Back then, you could only travel with what you could carry; two-inch-track reels, and that shit was a hassle; some people bring it back and from the studio. It was a fucking hassle.
Now you can do features through email with some dude across the ocean. There isn’t delivery of tangible product. You don’t have to ship or fly reels out anymore. When I did a record with Ice Cube, I had to go to Cali and ship the reels. The pros, such as Pro Tools, have the capability to do everything on you laptop. You can do vocals in the hotel room and edit that shit on the tour bus.
Soon we’ll be doing everything from a phone. Laptops be big and clunky now. In another five years dudes will be doing shit on their phone, Pro Tools right on your phone! I guess you can say both the industry, technology, and myself have come a long way!
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