The first time I heard Last Emperor was on ‘Lyricists Lounge Volume 1’ and he featured on a track called ‘C.I.A.’ with legends Zach de la Rocha and KRS1. This was the standout track on what was to become a classic album, with revolutionary lyrics. Following this rumours circulated the hip-hop community concerning the Last Emperor’s moves from label to label, and several tracks emerged from the internet. This included the incredible ‘Secret Wars’ in which he pit his favourite MCs against his favourite comic book heroes, doing uncanny impressions of the rappers mid-bout! Then nothing, not a peep. After being signed to Aftermath before Eminem’s success and despite being signed to the once mighty Rawkus records Last Emperor found himself without a record deal. Then, in keeping with his mysterious nature, he emerged from the shadows signed to Raptivism with a brand new album, ‘Palace of the Pretender. I spoke to Last Emperor about the trials and tribulations of trying to release a record.
It started with Aftermath, it was quite an achievement for an MC from Philadelphia to get signed to Dr Dre’s predominantly West Coast label. “A friend of mine that I went to college with told me he was going to California to work on videos with Dr Dre and he said, ‘look, I can’t promise you anything but I can take your demo out there and have Dre hear it because I think it’s something he’d really like.’ So shortly thereafter Dr Dre contacted me and brought me out to Los Angeles to stay for a little bit and signed me to Aftermath along with a few other artists I think at the time; Eve, who went on to be a part of the whole Ruff Ryder’s movement, and Eminem as well.” He makes it sound so easy, but that must have been one hell of a demo.
Last Emperor was on Aftermath for about three years. Dre signed a slew of artists but didn’t have the time that he had hoped to dedicate to each of them. Even in parting there was never any real conflict between the Last Emperor and Dr Dre. Dre let him know the score, his album would be delayed, and gave him an option of leave or stay. Last Emperor decided to leave. So what happened to the Dr Dre produced Last Emperor tracks?
“Interscope own a good portion of those recordings at Aftermath, Interscope being the parent company of Aftermath but I did have a few songs that I carried.” A line from Last Emperor’s new album almost playfully requests Dre throw him a couple of songs for his next album. But in reality things are more complicated than that. “It’s pretty much the administration at that particular label than anything, just a lot of paperwork involved, perhaps someday I could try to financially be in position to get the rights to certain things, but they do own a portion. After a year Rawkus reached out to me. Rawkus had experience of putting out artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Pharoah Monch. Once I got to Rawkus I was to record a certain portion of material, maybe five or six songs, and have the album be released in six months time. I met my obligations, I kept them to the tee,” he promises. Unfortunately Rawkus didn’t keep their word.
“I wasn’t being consulted as to how to get it out to the public in the proper fashion and then there was a lot of conflict with the Rawkus administration on image, and my appearance, and things of that nature.”
So they basically wanted to control you?
“Right, right, and it really hurt me because I myself viewed Rawkus as a place where artists were given obviously a certain amount of artistic freedom starting with their individual expression.” A lot of people viewed Rawkus this way. Last Emperor does not seem angry at the way he was treated, simply philosophical and reflective. “If you study the American economy during that period of time from about 1998 to ’99 and even now, there was a lot of turmoil on an economic level which hurt a lot companies and corporations here.” It is self-evident that hip-hop is considered a business and most people do not bother to address the situation, when it is so much easier to exploit the situation. Not Last Emperor. Rawkus, being a relatively small record label and clearly not as independent as we were led to believe, had to adapt to stay afloat. “Corporations start to downsize, lay people off or try to change to a more profitable format.”
But is it true that he was actually asked to dumb his lyrics down? “I really didn’t have that experience at Interscope. Ironically it was at Rawkus that I had those creative discrepancies, and conflicts. With Interscope it was pretty much in terms of the production that I chose. There seemed to be a lot of clashes. Different producers I wanted to use as opposed to the producers they wanted me to use. More actual music became the issue. Whereas with Rawkus that’s when I was told that sometimes my approach to writing was a little too complex and that the rhymes were a little bit over people’s heads and that I should try to simplify them.”
‘C.I.A.’ came out about the same time that he signed to Aftermath. So how did the track come about? “In 1997 a gentleman at Collage Projects, they are the company behind the whole Lyricist Lounge movement, made me aware of the fact that they were interested in putting out a song dealing with a political topic for the album. They came to me and asked if I was interested in just being involved in the song in general. I said, ‘of course’, I’ve had some experience of studying political science and international relations at Lincoln University. It was something that I was very, very, enthusiastic about being a part of.”
This was before they told him that KRS1 might also be on the song with Zach de la Rocha who at the time was the front man for the acclaimed political rock band Rage Against the Machine. “That’s even better, for the potential for all three of us to really work together, I mean these guys, what they’ve contributed to music is so incredible. I jumped at the chance. Collage Projects found a way to have the three of us come in contact with one another via phone initially and just talk about politics in America and various issues and things that we might want to tackle on a recording and this became ‘C.I.A.’”
Those must have been some interesting conversations, talking about politics with Zach and KRS? “Absolutely, those are two dynamic individuals in their own right and the music that they put out reflects that. Obviously with KRS1 and his vast amount of knowledge in terms of the politics concerning Hip-Hop and the culture of hip-hop and all that relates to it, as well as philosophy and world studies in general. And then Zach de la Rocha also dealing with a lot of the things that he tries to bring out in his music concerning some of the things taking place in South America, and Central America concerning the Zapatista movement, and some of the issues in Mexico concerning poor migrant workers. Just a brilliant man in his own right, and someone who studies a great deal about American politics and South American politics.”
“We literally talked about everything under the sun and we felt that the best thing to touch on and really zero in on was a finding, I believe in 1996, concerning some of the United States Government’s involvement in supplying the inner cities of America with cocaine. We thought that seeing the disparity that’s happened in all the communities that we come from - I, myself in West Philadelphia, KRS1 growing up in the South Bronx, Zach de la Rocha coming from the Los Angeles area and having gone down to Central Ameraica to visit the Zapatistas - due to some of the ills that are affected by drugs in America. We thought it would be relevant to those who listen to hip-hop. So that was the song that we chose to come with, and that’s the situation with ‘C.I.A.’”
So how did the hook up with Raptivism happen?
“They put out a project in 1998 or 1999 called the No More Prisons Project. They just wanted to put a body of work together relating to the prison industrial system here, which people coming from urban communities have to deal with alot. Particularly if they come from an impoverished community the penalties for even very, very, minor misdemeanours and crimes are given stiffer sentences merely because of the colour of a person’s skin, or their religious affiliation or just the fact that they’re poor. Again they caught wind of the fact that I had a certain experience with political science. They paired me with a singer called Vinia Mojica who has worked with Mos Def and De La Soul. So when I found myself in 2002 without a deal but yet with a lot of music in my hand they said ‘look man , we’d really like to facilitate putting this album out, you’re familiar with us, you know our position towards putting out quality music so we’ll leave the option open to you.’ "
"I was in Manhattan coming out of one of my favourite comic book shops called Forbidden Planet, I was pondering the whole Raptivism concept, and I ran into one of the guys from Raptivism. We just had a really good conversation for about two hours, it all seemed so sincere, it just seemed like it was meant to be and I just figured that was the force at work, it wasn’t just a coincidental meeting."
Synchronicity played its hand and we should all be grateful.
So what kept Last Emperor going and inspired him not to give up, sell out, or go mad he was going through all this with the industry?
“On the surface obviously a lot people look at it like, ‘wow, this guy’s album should have been out years ago, and perhaps he should be reaping some of the benefits that some of his contemporaries are’ but what’s been the driving force is the fact that I’ve been able to work with some of the people I’ve grown up being influenced by. How many artists can say that they’ve worked with KRS1? One of the greatest, respected B-boys and hip-hoppers of all time? Who can say they’ve had an opportunity to really sit down with Kool Herc, one of the founders of hip-hop period, viewed by many people as the person who invented the term hip-hop itself? Who can say they’ve interacted with these gentlemen? Really had them help guide their career? Who can say they’ve really had Prince Paul’s involvement in delivering an accurate depiction of what hip-hop is all about. From these gentlemen to again the Beatminerz and all these people, to the places I’ve been able to go.”
“Growing up I was in high school and I remember having to study a great deal of Shakespeare and thinking ‘when will any knowledge of Shakespeare ever benefit my life?’ Fifteen years later I had the opportunity to travel to Denmark and I’m sailing on a ferry from Denmark up to some to Norway and I sail past Hamlet’s castle and everyone on tour is engaged in a dialogue and it felt good to know that I knew the whole story, what it involved and what it embodied. Things like that continue to force me to not give up on this even when I’m not reaping some of the benefits that my contemporaries are. I’m awarded in a way that sometimes the general public doesn’t see but I see on a daily basis. Of course who wouldn’t want to have the entire world have the experience of listening to their music and being influenced by it, but I think there are certain rewards in life that just really can’t be measured in those terms and I’m constantly being granted those things.”
Inspirational words and if you want to hear more inspirational words I suggest you purchase his album Palace of the Pretender as soon as possible. (The international version of the album, the version available in the UK, is called 'Palace of the Pretender'. It was originally released in the US under the name 'Music, Magic, Myth.')