Last month during my visit to New York City, I had the opportunity to sit down with an M.C. that had such a large buzz surrounding him in the 90’s. With landing the cover of a national magazine and his debut album dropping in 1996, Kwest kinda disappeared off the scene. I caught up with Kwest to find out what’s been going on with him as well as a little history behind his start as an M.C….Take us back to a young Kwest growing up in Queens and what led you to pick up the mic?
Kwest: I’ve always been into music bro. I grew up listening to rock,pop, soul,funk,jazz,R&B,gospel,…everything. So the music has always been there. ’78, yo “Rappers Delight” dropped and it was just…I knew I wanted to be an M.C., I didn’t know at what capacity whether I was gonna be a battle rapper or whatever but I knew I wanted to be an M.C. in some way,shape, or form so from that point forth I was buying records, going to record stores, watching T.V., watching videos, getting up with my boys. We’d start writing our little raps or whatever, I wouldn’t say they were wack (laughs) but it definitely wasn’t up to par. You know what I mean? We were trying to emulate all of the M.C.’s at the time like Run D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5, all of the pioneers…all of the dudes that got us to this point. I think in the 9th grade I decided to take it seriously. That was my first full fledged what we know now as bars, but back then my first verse started in the lunch room and it went on from there.
You mentioned earlier about being a battle rapper. So you started out as a battle rapper first,right?
Kwest: Technically yea, because that’s what got me to be the Kwest that you guys know, I hate sayin’ that too but, the Kwest that everybody knows. Uhm, I was in the New Music Seminar 1990 Battle for World Supremacy. I didn’t win but I made a decent enough showing that Dan Charnas who was working for Profile (Records) at the time, he saw me, he liked what he saw and he wanted to do demos. He didn’t want me to sign to Profile but he wanted to get a bunch of demos, get the word out there and start shopping or whatever. We did a bunch of songs, I was still doing talent shows and doing the battle thing at that point and he left and broke out and went to California to work for Def America with Rick Rubin at the time. That’s when I got really a little more serious into battle rapping thing. Anybody who wanted to battle, I’ll battle.
Anybody that you can think of that we may know that you may have took out on the battle scene?
Kwest: Nobody famous,I mean I’ve cyphered with a lot of famous dudes. Mos Def, Bush Babees, Stronghold, Poison Pen, Breez EvaFlowin, A.L. Skillz…I’ve cyphered with a lot of dudes that are making noise and who are amazing ,who I consider legends now. But battling, no..not back then. In that New Music Seminar if I had one, me & Treach (Naughty by Nature) would have bumped heads at some point….
He was in it?
Kwest: Mmmhmm, he took out an M.C. named L.A. Star (laughs) ….HE TOOK HER OUT. I was looking forward to battling him but it never got to that point.
Never happened? Man I would have loved to seen that. You were also a dancer at one point in time, is that correct?
Kwest: Yea, when I took up Hip-Hop, I didn’t know which direction I wanted to go in whether it was M.C.’ing…at one point I did damn near every element of it. I danced, I used to write Graffiti, I still catch my little tags every now and then. Uh, I can D.J. …most people don’t know that but I’m a decent D.J. and yea I was a dancer. I danced in…I’m gonna tell you this, a lot of people don’t know…. T.L.C. ‘s “Ain’t too proud to beg” video.
What? T.L.C.?! Look that up people…he’s in it. Ya’ll know who T.L.C. is so…(Kwest is laughing at this point)
Kwest:Rest in peace Left Eye.
So who are some of your earlier influences before….
Kwest: Before I started to do this serious? Of course Melle Mel, that record right there,”The Message” that was one of those things that really made me want to take this serious. To this day, you can’t listen to that record without getting that feeling. It takes me back to ’83,’84 when I first heard it. It was phenomenal then and it’s still phenomenal now. I liked all of the Kurtis Blow, of course Run D.M.C. being from Queens, those were our heroes. L.L., M.C. Shan, Treacherous 3, Fearless 4, Cold Crush…
I just hung out with Caz yesterday (during H.U.S.H. Tour)
Kwest: Big up to Caz man, they definitely the ones that influenced me. His styles incredible still to this day. They need to bring some of that element back, I’m glad those dudes were there to introduce it and and show us that more can be done with it than just rhyming about drugs, rhyming about guns, rhyming about money. It was about putting down about serious issues. It’s coming back to it but it’s spotty. Oh, The Juice Crew…definitely The Juice Crew. I love Kane, Kane came with the patterns and of course the God M.C. Rakim. He showed people you can be technical and still get your point across. I took a lot of influences from all them and tried to incorporate it into when I first started writing, but the biggest thing is and the funniest thing is people don’t know that one of my biggest influences was Biz. Because I always liked, Biz and Slick Rick basically, because I always liked the funny aspect of it. To be joking and not take it too serious, you know what I mean? I mean I like the serious aspect of it but you got to inject a little comedy into everything, if you can’t laugh at yourself than what are we here for, what’s the use of it?
Kwest: It wasn’t that I wanted to give up, I was in the studio basically doing…this was like ’93,’94…yea, around ’94,’95…they had already came out with Wu-Tang “Enter the 36 Chambers” , which was everything back then. I was in Firehouse Recording Studios doing more songs for the album.The album was supposed to come out in ’94, now I’m on the shelf for two years. So they wanted me to go back in and do more songs, I thought the album and way it came out when it was done I did my first whole album in 6 weeks to 2 months. Every song, the way you here it now. In Between ’94 and ’96 they wanted me to do more songs which is what “These are my Unreleased Recordings. “Basically these songs would be incorporated with the old album to make a whole new album. I was in the studio doing more songs and one of the head engineers came in and said somebody wants to speak to you outside. And I go out and it was the Rza and he said he had heard me, he had heard my reputation, he liked the music. He said,”you a nice M.C., keep doing your thing.” It did give me the inspiration I needed to keep on because at that point it wasn’t that I wanted to give up, I was frustrated at the label and all of the problems they were putting me through. I believe it’s all about the pressure. The stuff that I did in ’93 and ’94 didn’t sound like the stuff I was doing in ’96. The stuff I did in ’96 won’t sound like stuff you would hear from me later on. You supposed to get better as an M.C.
Correct me if I’m wrong, I mentioned earlier about the magazine. You being on the cover before you had an album out. Has that been done before, that you know of?
Kwest: Not that I know of bro. You know what’s funny, until you brought it up I didn’t even know….
Is that right?
Kwest:…. Yea, I didn’t even know that.
I’m glad we can learn something from each other today. (Kwest laughs) The magazine I’m talking about is this Rap Pages, something that we treated very close to our hearts and it gave The Source a run for its money at one point in time. So for this man to be on the cover of this magazine was definitely unheard of and it made us all take note of who this cat was before he had an album come out. So, you see this magazine at the bodega and magazine stores. What was your reaction?
Kwest: I still have a copy at home and I look at it every know and then, but I can’t believe it actually happened. I didn’t think I was going to get the cover. They contacted Dan and they contacted me about maybe doing just a story in the magazine. But when the editor called me at the time and said you’re getting the cover…dude it was dope. Really,really dope.
Did it create some type of….were you signed at the point in time?
Kwest: Yea I was still signed to American. I think they did it….basically not that I was trying to separate myself from what was on there but I was like I don’t want my album to go one direction. Eventhough back then they wanted me to focus on the sexual direction, if you listen to it front to back there’s stories of me loving my sneakers (Bludawnmeyesneekhuz) ,there’s battle rhymes like “Disk and Dat” there’s funny stuff like,”Blase Blah” hardcore stuff like “Damn”. I incorporated everything that was going on then to giving them a complete album.
Kwest: Being that I didn’t know the process of how to compose an album, I was just a kid from Queens that wanted to rhyme. So, just learning the process and seeing ok they gave me X amount of money to do all of the songs. Most of the songs,I’m not going to say everything, but majority of them were done off the top of the head… they were all freestyle. The choruses were inserted maybe later on but majority were off the top. That’s when I was smoking, I don’t smoke no more. That’s when I was smoking and indulging in the green so I’m pretty sure it helped a lot. But sitting down and deciding what songs were going on…there were songs that I liked that obviously you didn’t get to hear and probably will never get to hear that they thought were trash and vice versa. There were songs that they liked that I thought were trash…just coming together and making a complete cohesive album from beginning to end and just the way we sequenced it and constructed it and everything with the skits. Being a fan first and foremost, then you hear the album and go ok,”I wonder what made them put this song first?” After you go through the process you can kind sort of see why M.C.’s do what they do and the frustration behind some things. Like I’ve known dudes who’ve had albums out and I’ve seen the frustration and I’m like “dude the album was dope” but the label didn’t push it. Dudes that I know had potential to make albums and never got signed. Everything I learned back then I still carry with me now. Like I’m working on a new E.P. now and a album now. I know what stuff I want people to hear and stuff I don’t want people to hear. Back then I had to compromise, now I don’t feel I should have to. Because it’s a whole different market and a whole different direction of rap.
Kwest: Answering to people. I’ve always been a free spirit, I’m an independent artist. If something happened, if something went wrong I’ll take the blame for it. Let it fall on me. Ya know, so them telling me I had to have songs in by this and that, you can’t rush creative process. If it’s taking me, I might spit off the top of my head and it was cool the first time I said it…I may not like it tomorrow. I may have heard a track from one producer for this, ok I don’t like it anymore. “We want you to send it in”,I don’t want to do it. So it’s just a push and pull, a give and take. And the fact of “this is our money over here”. No it’s not your money because essentially I have to pay it back one day or you just take a tax write off. That’s all I am to them a tax write off. So I didn’t like the lollie gag, just mainly the fact that I didn’t have 100% freedom that I was promised that I was gonna have. Being signed to American, being that they weren’t a Def Jam, Profile, or one of the big Warner …they were an affiliate but the weren’t the parent company where you had to adhere to the super machine that is was back then. I figured that being on American they would give me freedom, these dudes signed Chino XL. Chino’s album is crazy and it was done his way. They signed The Nonce, The Nonce’s album was crazy…it was basically done their way. They had Sir Mix a Lot, he put out some of the craziest records back then you ever heard done his way. But once you see the processes, like damn I wonder how hard they had to fight to get these songs on the album too. So, I prefer being an independent artist that way you don’t have to answer to nobody. If I like something, I like it. If I don’t, I don’t. If I don’t want you to hear it, you’ll never hear it.
You were quoted as saying your first album you would change 90-95% of it. What made you go to the more humorous side instead of focusing on the skills?
Kwest: The whole first album was basically mad sexually. They wanted me to focus on that because “oh, he’s decent looking”,”everywhere he goes chicks like him”(busts into laughter) I’m not bragging, this is what was happening. So they wanted to focus on that. So I’m like that aspect is cool but…dude I can rhyme.You know what I mean, give me a topic. If I can’t rhyme right off the top of my head give me like a half hour and a pen and a pad, like a famous M.C. said I’ll bring it back to you. So once the album got shelved all those years, I wanted to change it because like I said I had changed and grown as an M.C. I was still funny, but it was more skill-based funny than just girls,girls,girls,weed,weed,weed, clothes, clothes,clothes. Hip-Hop got into the shiny suit era and I wasn’t with that. I’ve never gotten into it for the money, I wanted to focus more on the skills. I still wanted the funny stuff in there but they were opposed to me changing the album even though they let me do all these songs, the final result they didn’t want to change the album at all so I would have changed it to maybe half the stuff you heard on the first album and half of the stuff that I did for “Unreleased ” would have melted into one album.
Be on the lookout for Part 2 where we talk about what Kwest has been up to for the past 20 years since his debut album.