Historically, mass media’s power over people’s perception of reality, much less the reality of an artist, has been understated. Famous nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and father of public relations, Edward Bernays, once stated: “This practice of creating circumstances and of creating pictures in the minds of millions of people is now very common. Sometimes the effect on the public is created by a professional propagandist, sometimes by an amateur deputed for the job.”
In a media world where music journalists can fuel the tension between artists from opposing regions for subscriptions and then, ironically, plead for peace in the midst of the violence they undoubtedly played a hand in creating; when washed up actors can play a role in contributing to the folklore of a drug lord responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people worldwide and then have it be received positively—the once unlikely can seem entirely conceivable. This sentiment was something that consistently echoed throughout the spirited discussion I had outside of Apt 4B on Fairfax with my new acquaintance Hugh—better known to the rap world as Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire.
eXquire came into popular culture with his critically acclaimed second mixtape, Lost in Translation, in 2011. But the visuals that followed a popular posse cut remix of his local anthem “The Last Huzzah” soon placed him on a major label trajectory. He got signed to Universal Music Group, which marked the beginning of his artistic restructuring, and for eXquire, a period of inner turmoil and consistent misrepresentation from the press: “I felt like people should’ve moreso praised me for being different instead of trying to stuff me into being some other shit. But at the end of the day, I didn’t understand things like brand association. I didn’t even have a manager when I got a record deal.”
Frustrated with the lack of response to the creative strides he was making post-“Huzzah,” which clashed with the caricature that many in music media had pushed upon him, over the last two years eXquire has been quietly rebuilding—patiently and alone in Brooklyn, playing a long game of rounders that would put a young Matt Damon to shame. We got a chance to hear eXquire speak upon this in a candid conversation about the music industry, the media, his newest project Live Forever, and what it took to find himself.
SENAY KENFE: So when you come into LA, what’s the go-to spot that you eat at?
MR. MUTHAFUCKIN’ EXQUIRE: It used to be El Compadre. That was the first spot I ever went to when I was in LA. Now, it’s this Chinese spot Full House.
How long you been out here so far?
I just got here this morning.
You got a show out here?
Nah, I did NPR before I came here.
Oh! Okay, okay. Did [Ali] Shaheed [Muhammad] give you any gems to live by?
Nah, he didn’t even necessarily give me no gems. He just—he’s a really big fan of mine, but y’all didn’t even know.
I wouldn’t have known.
He said I was one of the best rappers he’d ever heard, so that shit kind of fucked my head up. I didn’t even know he knew who the fuck I was. I walked away from that feeling myself.
“EVEN IF PEOPLE AREN’T HEARING WHAT I’M DOING, THEY’RE HEARING WHAT I’M DOING.”
You recently put out Live Forever, how are you feeling about the fanfare and reception?
Critically, it’s going well. I didn’t really put it out for that though, I just put it out because I haven’t put out something in two years, so I wanted to do something. It was a more “for me” album in a sense, a little selfish. I just wanted to put out a record and feed the people. But it wasn’t like my big record, it’s only five songs. I’m happy with it. It went exactly how I thought it would.
I definitely wouldn’t call it a break—why have you been more behind the scenes in the last two years?
That’s a good way to put it, behind the scenes. I don’t know, I make music every day, but I just tend to create when I feel inspired to push something out. I try never to feel like—I don’t want to be part of the times as far as like, “Oh, let me keep up with the Joneses, let me follow behind everybody and run.” With me, I like to work at my own pace. It just so happens that it has coincidentally been two years. I didn’t feel it, it just happened that way.
In terms of life, what are you doing when you’re not rapping?
I’m always rapping. But my day to day life? Reading. Essentially, I’m just regular. I don’t do nothing too crazy, I’m not popping bottles, I’m just always working, recording, and making music. Even if people aren’t hearing what I’m doing, they’re hearing what I’m doing.
“Sweet Chick,” a freestyle produced by The Alchemist.
How would you describe your experience within hip-hop before getting signed and then post-[being signed to] Universal?
Pretty much the same. There wasn’t really no difference when I was signed. I really couldn’t tell you one thing that was different… I was a rapper before I was even known as a rapper. I don’t got nothing on that, seriously. I’m not even trying to be facetious.
I mean, for me, I feel like people never really understood me when I came. They tried to make me something that I wasn’t. That’s kind of why—you ask, “Why did you take time off and shit?” Because I got to the point where I was just tired of saying what I wasn’t. People just try to make you kind of what they want you to be, in a sense.
What did you feel like people were trying to make you at the time? Because we’re talking in retrospect, how did you feel people were trying to perceive you?
They were trying to make me an old school rapper and shit. Like ‘90s and, “Yo, baggie jeans and hoodies son.” I’m not really into that. It’s kind of corny to me. I think the disconnect with that shit is just two things. First of all, people never really seen a nigga like me. Because New York rappers are really prevalent—as you put it, “New York rappers”—so to see me, it kind of feels and looks as if I’m representing some old shit, when you just don’t see niggas like me no more. But it don’t mean that niggas like me don’t exist, you just don’t see me. So when you see a nigga like me, you’re like, “Oh, he’s on that ‘90s shit or some dumb shit.” But it’s like, nah, I’m a New York nigga. You just don’t see niggas with gold teeth no more because ya’ll don’t even look at us no more.
So when I came out, it looked like I was trying to revive something. But I’m totally anti-that, I’m anti-boom bap, fuck that shit. Fuck backpack rap, fuck that shit, I don’t like that shit. I mean, you know I respect it, but as far as me? Fuck that shit.
You’re not rooted in nostalgia is what you’re trying to say as a creative. Do you feel like that’s why, for you, you felt like you were having a backlash? I remember, I saw you saying, “I don’t fuck with gold teeth no more—“
Yeah, it kind of made me insecure because niggas is forcing me into being something I’m not. So what do you do? Do you either pretend to be something you aren’t to appease niggas and make money for the short term? Or do you stay true to who you are and what you are? Be who you are, stand on your own two. And that’s something that I was struggling with for a little while. Like, “Okay, now they think I’m something I aint.” Which if you listen to my first album, I ain’t rapping about that shit. Never been about that. I don’t rap about the streets, I don’t rap about shooting niggas, my music is not about no gangster shit, it’s just my look. Big, black nigga.
I felt like people should’ve moreso praised me for being different instead of trying to stuff me into being some other shit. But at the end of the day, I didn’t understand things like brand association. I didn’t even have a manager when I got a record deal… When I was signed, I never even took a meeting—I never did one song for my album, I just had a deal, I got some money, and that was it. I never even did shit for it. We didn’t understand that shit, we didn’t have no managers. This shit is all water under the bridge now. Learn from it and move forward.
I’ve seen some write-ups on you and I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of offensive to me.” Not to name-drop anyone in particular, but I saw one time you were asked, “What’s the craziest thing you ever did on the train?” I was like, what does that even mean? Ride it? What [did the media] expect from you? How did you feel at that time?
How would you feel?
I’d feel like they’re trying to humiliate me. Play me out for some clicks. But as an artist—even now, I’m sure Ali [Shaheed] came correct because he is who he is.
That’s why I’m very selective of shit like that. I know how to play it now, I know who to work with. I knew who you was before we came today… just speaking off the cuff, I already did the knowledge.
Thank you, man, I appreciate it.
If I didn’t think so, I would’ve gone, “Fuck that shit.”
“THE WHOLE TIME I WAS SIGNED I FELT THAT. THEY NAIL YOU TO A WALL AND TELL YOU, ‘THIS IS ALL YOU CAN BE… YOU CAN’T DO SHIT.'”
I’m an artist. So the biggest thing about me is my message. If I was like a nigga, “Turn up, turn up,” some shit like that, those niggas don’t got no message. And I’m not hating because I like that shit too. You like that shit, we like that shit. But I’m just saying, for me as a man and as an artist, I got a message. So you can’t take my shit and make it something it ain’t… basically you’re flipping my shit in a way where you’re giving my fans misinformation. It’s like propaganda. So that’s why they like that shit because that’s what I felt. The whole time I was signed, I felt that. They nail you to a wall and tell you, “This is all you can be. You can’t develop, you can’t mature, you can’t do shit.” If you really listen to my records, I was on mature shit, I was just saying it in a hood ass way because that’s where I’m from. So what should I be? Boring and shit? No, I’m going to be the nigga I am. I’m funny, I got personality, and that’s what we’re always going to be. So I don’t like that shit, you hit the nail on the head, bro.
It’s weird that you said that because I’ve never said that in an interview, this is the first time I’ve ever said it publicly. I hated that shit, that shit really turned me off from the game. You read shit like, “What the fuck is this nigga even talking about?” My mother would call me, “I didn’t like that interview, I saw it on your Facebook.” She knows, we know.
Do you plan on doing a tour with [Live Forever]?
No, I didn’t even push the shit. This is the first two interviews I even did for it. Even when we put the videos out, they didn’t get mad views and shit. I didn’t put it out for that, I knew what it was going to be because I knew I didn’t really put much into it. I was surprised it sold as well as it did, as far as like—“Damn, people buying it?” I didn’t know people was even getting it. But I didn’t put it out for that, I put it out more for myself. Because I’ve been in such a lull, personally, with the music game. So I was like, “You know what? Let me put something out there and let me pursue my dream. Let me continue on my path.” This is what God is pulling me to, I can’t fight that.
That’s why it was more for me, spiritually. My next record, I’m going to really go hard, that’s my record. But this one, this one I looked at as more of a bridge—just starting the engine, just getting my feet up.
What would you say was the album that got you thinking, “I’m going to be a rapper,” and why?
So many of them, but if I were to say, it’d be Biggie. Wait, no, I’d be lying to you if I said that. I would say the album that made me really want to rap is Cam’ron’s album, Confessions of Fire. His first album, people don’t really talk about that album.
Not at all.
That was before he really found himself.
He switched his rap style on the next album, that was when Big L was really trying to push him.
He found himself later, but when I heard that, I started writing rhymes. I don’t know why, I just wanted to.
Were you rapping when you were in high school?
Yeah, I was rapping. I didn’t go to high school, I only went to 9th grade, I dropped out. Got my GED.
What’d you do when you dropped out?
I knew I was gonna rap from the time I was 15. I knew I was going to be a rapper. You know what’s so funny? I said the first time, I said, “My dream in life”—I’m not juicing you, my dream in life was to see California. That was my dream in life when I was in Brooklyn and I was writing and shit, I said, “My marker for success is if I can go to Cali. Then I know I’m successful because that’s the other side of the fucking country.” I used to watch movies and see palm trees and shit, Tupac videos. “I gotta see Cali.” I don’t know why, it’s just something I always felt. So when I made it to Cali, I felt like I achieved it.
How did it feel to manifest your belief in yourself?
…Real talk, I can honestly say mostly everything that I ever envisioned happening, happened. Be it good or bad. Even my fears—I manifested my own fears and failures. All my success I manifested, my label I signed to I manifested, my relationships with women, everything. I’ll tell you something coincidental like this store is apartment 4B.
Shout out to them for letting us have the interview.
The crib that I did my video, my first video, it was apartment 4B. We all rock out of that. That’s something to all of us, we all talk about 4B. You had to be there. That was where we all found ourselves. So it’s just coincidental that even today, I’m doing it here even though I don’t live there no more.
It follows you here.