True to the Self: A Conversation with Gangrene

Chopping it up with Alchemist and Oh No.

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When you talk about The Alchemist and Oh No, you’re not talking about newcomers to the music scene. These two have steadily built a legacy in hip­-hop over the years, whether it be their producing, rapping or DJing. It’s no surprise Oh No went into music as it seems to be in his blood; he’s the son of singer Otis Jackson and the brother of the prolific producer Madlib. As for The Alchemist, he got in with B­Real as a young teenager and he soon began to hone his production skills under the wing of DJ Muggs. After that, the rest is hip-­hop history.

When Alchemist and Oh No met they began a friendly competition, out of which their group Gangrene would eventually be born. They began to send each other bars and beats, attempting to one up each other. These rap sparring partners decided to team up as their styles, both in production and rapping, compliment each other well. However, their competitive nature still shines through in Gangrene’s music as it almost sounds as if they’re trying to outdo each other on the mic in a kind of verse for verse combat. Their flows and gutter raps meld together to create music that is unapologetically aggressive and grimy. Gangrene’s latest album, You Disgust Me, is some pure hip-­hop; you can be certain you won’t hear any auto­tune on a track and there sure as hell isn’t a gimmicky dance to go along with any of their music. Every track on the album fits this kind of relentless anti-­pop raps, clashing with the rap music you often hear hitting radio waves today.

Alchemist and Oh No’s music is reminiscent of an era in rap music when the beats definitely made your headnod but they didn’t completely outshine the lyrics. Hip­Hop music has changed a lot over the course of the years but the sounds of Alchemist and the artists he’s worked with, like Mobb Deep and Capone ­N ­Noreaga, will always sound like timeless hip-­hop to me. However, when I recently had the chance to stop by the studio and talk with Alchemist, Oh No and DJ Romes (another musical OG who did the cuts on the last Gangrene album), I soon found out that timelessness is more subjective in nature than I initially thought. We sat down amidst a cloud of weed smoke to discuss this notion of timeless music, being producer/rappers and working with the late Sean Price.

Can you talk a little bit about the “Driving Gloves” video you did with Action Bronson. How was that conceptualized?

Alchemist: We really did that. We just fuckin’ did it. It was pretty spontaneous so it was a good thing we had Jason Goldwatch there filming us.

So it wasn’t planned?

Al: It was spontaneous thought and we just finessed it and blurred the line between what really happened and didn’t and [we] just made it work, no permits, sheer thuggery. My only regret is that we didn’t keep the car. We trashed it.

Are there any challenges to being a producer/rapper?

Oh No: Of course you get judged as a producer/rapper and there’s different expectations. Most of the producer/rappers out there don’t give a shit though. I don’t give a shit. I don’t really care, I just focus on doing my thing.

Al: I think if anything, nobody expects nothing from you as a producer/rapper. They’re not expecting much so if you come through with something, you might surprise people. We just work with those advantages. We’re not really worried about it, we know who’s good and who isn’t. There’s really not any competition, fuck it.

Plus you kind of have the advantage because you’re controlling the track from start to finish, right?

Al: If you can make your own beats and be self contained I definitely think it’s an advantage. We don’t need to call anyone up and negotiate prices on beats or whatever, we’re self contained, so that’s a plus.

You both have collaborated with a lot of artists. What is it about working together that seemed to click for you guys?

Al: You kind of just go with the flow sometimes and see where it takes you. You do a lot of collaborations, some people you go further with and some people you just make one record with. With [me and Oh No] it was kind of just a sparring thing. It felt like it was something competitive and fun with each other and we tried to just keep droppin’ joints. He’d drop somethin’ and I’d be like, “oh okay,” and it just felt like something was being built.

So it was just a natural progression?

Al: Yeah, there was no master plan. We were like let’s do one album and then we did another one and now we’re doing a third.

That’s probably the best way to do it.

Al: Yeah you know, we’re older, we’re not kids. It would be different if we was like 18 and me and Oh just got out of high school and we were trying to plan for our future. I treat Gangrene like it’s our future, but it’s not all or nothing with it. We built it together and it’s something we have though.

And you already have that legacy.

Al: Yeah and we can take these different journeys whenever we want and that’s the beauty of it.

Having been in the game for a minute, how do you feel about the progression of hip­hop and where it stands today? I still listen to some of your guys’ older shit and it feels like the music you guys make is this kind of timeless hip­hop, while newer raps that come out don’t always have that feel.

DJ Romes: I think that depends on who’s listening, right? Because you grow up listening to certain songs.

Al: I think it’s probably relative to the times you grow up in. So for me when I think about music like that that’s timeless… it’s like I grew up at a certain age when I was so vulnerable and things really influenced me. You know what I mean? It hit me in that time so now I can say, “That’s timeless!” You might say, “The stuff right now, it ain’t really a classic, you know…” But the kids growing up right now, they’re listening to this stuff and in 20 or 30 years it’s going to change and they’re going to say what we say now, because it’s relevant to their life experience. They’ll be saying, “When I was 17 years old Earl Sweatshirt changed my life. They not rapping like Earl Sweatshirt in 2035 anymore.” They’re going to be saying shit like that. So it’s just relative, but I mean look, as artists we’re pretty fuckin’ stubborn. So some people are not as stubborn and they’re in it for different reasons. We do what we want and it’s for better or worse.

DJ: I want to be rockin’ on the turntables like the Rolling Stones’ drummer, still doin’ the shit when I’m old!

Even you guys saying it’s all relative, when I was thinking of that question I was thinking of me growing up and listening to that kind of hip­hop so maybe that’s why it’s timeless for me (laughs).

Al: Of course you were. I had to start realizing that, because I got to that point where I started feeling that way. I was like wait a minute, this happens in every generation. Music connects more when you’re young, I feel like it hits you harder. You don’t have bills to pay, you don’t got all this extra shit, music is the soundtrack to your younger days and it really influences you. As you grow up you get a family and kids, albums aren’t going to hit you the same way anymore because you’re living a different lifestyle. I just noticed that. The classics in my life are the ones I related to when I was younger. Now I’m like ain’t no classics now, but the kids right now, they’re listening to the classics to their life.

DJ: But what about when we pick records out from the ’70s? Like ‘71­’73, them shits are still tight! Somehow certain eras translate better than others.

Al: That’s true and I wonder what that’s going to be like for our generation. If you buy records from ‘72, ‘73 or ‘74, something was happening. I don’t care what genre of music you buy; rock, jazz, soul, blues. If you buy records ‘72­’74, chances are it’s really great music. I always said that, something was happening in the world during that time. I don’t know what that era wasfor our generation, maybe it was like ‘94, ‘95, ‘96 was like our ‘72, ‘73, ‘74, the golden era of rap. If you go back 20 or 30 years from now to those 8 years, give or take, anything you really hear, it’s like when rap was young and being more creative. It wasn’t as commercial.

From an outsider’s perspective it seems like you guys have managed to garner success creating the type of music you like, giving it that feel of authenticity. Has there ever been pressure to change your styles (producing or rapping) as hip­hop changed and became more mainstream?

Oh: I think in scoring they might ask you to step out of the box of doing a regular hip-hop joint. In hip-­hop, if they’re coming to get the beats then they usually know what they’re coming to get. They’re not approaching you for something you’re not known for.

Al: As far as Gangrene, definitely not. But being a producer over the years, hell yeah, people try to change you. Hell yeah… I’ve had people tell me, “Yo trip­hop… dubstep, electronic, why you not doing EDM? You would be ill if you did that.”

Oh: Yup. (laughs)

Al: They say, you can do it your way. And I’m hearing everybody what they’re saying, right? My response is I can only do what’s within me. I would have to be inspired by that in order to make it in a way that I would feel confident that I could put my name on it. I’m inspired to make beats, the type I make, and that’s why I’m confident to put my name on them. I could make an EDM beat but I’d just be swimming in waters that I don’t know and it wouldn’t be gratifying to me. I’m still not afraid to grow, but it’s like fuck that, I gotta do what seems right to me. If it doesn’t seem right, I’m not going to do it just for the bread. People telling me you gotta do this, there’s so much money in it… That’s not going to motivate me. But if I hear something that gets me excited, I wanna get down, I wanna compete. Then it’s a different story. That’s how I work, what I’m inspired by. It limits you sometimes but you gotta be you.

I’m curious, if you’re making a beat and you think it’s one of your best. Does that usually translate and do other people tend to think that as well?

Al: That’s a good fuckin’ question (laughs).

Oh: Nah not for me, but I got a very different thought process from other people. I might like the ones that someone would pick but they probably wouldn’t be my favorite.

Al: My favorite beats, when I get with artists, you know the ones I really want them to use, usually don’t get used. But when it does, I feel more confident and more in tune with what’s going on, because I know what I like, but it’s dope when what you like and what the world like intersects. You can’t fake that. That’s pop, naturally born pop. You make something that you like and millions of other people like it. Those are just the moments you can’t really predict. There’s a couple rappers that I got with and they picked the beats that I was like, “Word? Aight dope, because I only play these beats for producers, because I don’t even think a rapper is going to fuck with this.” Raekwon, when we did ‘Surgical Gloves’, that beat was like a fancy chop of a sample. I knew other producers would appreciate it but didn’t know if other people would even care about it. As producers we do shit like that sometimes. You might even flip something just to shit on another producer. Nobody is even going to like it but the producer will go yeah you’re sick for that.

Oh: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah.

Al: Other people won’t even understand it but sometimes you just do shit like that just to stunt. All producers know about that shit, the beats that you hook up and you play for other producers just so they see how you can flip somethin’.

Everyone else doesn’t get the subtleties of the beat?

Al: Or maybe they just don’t like the beat, but sometimes, Raekwon with ‘Surgical Gloves’ it was a fancy one and I was like, “Word?” He was like, “Yeah I wanna fuck wit this.” I was like, “Wow, you get it.” He was like, “What do you mean?” He didn’t know what I was talking about, he just liked the fuckin’ beat. Producers got their own language. Everybody else doesn’t even really know what’s going on.

On the last Gangrene album you worked with the late great Sean Price on the track “Sheet Music.” I was watching the video for that song earlier today and it gave me chills. What does the song/video mean to you guys now after his passing?

Al: I think I saw a Vince Staples song that got released, I thought it was the original video. They literally just posted a camera in Long Beach on the corner and ran it for like 4 minutes and there were cars driving by and the song was playing. I thought it was the real video but that was just what they put up while they were gettin’ the real video ready. To me, I was like, ah these guys did some shit! When I found out it wasn’t a video I was like that would be a dope idea. The basic just post something up and fuck it, let the camera roll. So we did a couple of those that day right before Sean had passed. After he passed it was crazy and we were like gettin’ ready to put it out at some point and we went back to look at it, and it was touchy at first, but it kind of made sense. It ended up being like a moment of silence thing. That’s why we decided to put it out. I didn’t want anyone to think that we were trying to capitalize on the timing or anything… we just happened to have an album out at the same time and then it happened. It’s so crazy, but I think the video works and I think people got it. Some people think that we maybe did it after and that’s okay. But it’s literally something we did just trying to be creative. We didn’t even get to show it to Sean. Eventually we were gonna let him see it and be like, “Yo what you think?” He was the type [of guy] to understand that kind of shit, you know what I mean? He used to hit us a couple times during our last campaign like, “I like yall interviews man.” Because we used to just do dumb fuckin’ interviews. He just had a knack for humor.

Words & Photography by Aaron Miller.

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