“I’m an explorer,” proclaims N.O.R.E. of his fearless approach to creativity. “I’m Christopher Columbus in what I do.”
From co-signing Pharrell and The Neptunes before it was cool to helping pioneer the Reggaeton movement, the Hip Hop legend routinely finds himself ahead of the mainstream curve. He insists that he’s not focused on being a trendsetter; it’s just that he’s the rare rapper who’s never afraid to try to reinvent himself and try something new.
Despite all that’s changed in Hip Hop since he burst onto the scene as one half of CNN (Capone-N-Noreaga) with 1997’s “The War Report,” the Queens native is still as dedicated as ever to pushing the culture forward. His new album “Student Of The Game” (available on iTunes now) aims to bridge the gap between the classic New York sound that he came up on and the game’s modern vibe.
Below, Mechanical Dummy spoke with the man who now goes by P.A.P.I. to get his thoughts on being a gangsta, a genius and an innovator after over 15 years in the game.
Words by G. King
Mechanical Dummy: You were a G in the streets before becoming a Hip Hop legend. Is there a difference between a gangsta and a genius?
P.A.P.I.: I believe it’s different. Because you could be a gangster who avoided jail or was selling mad pies but that doesn’t necessary make you a genius. You could actually just be lucky. I think what makes you a genius is being smart in all your endeavors. Whether it be legal or illegal paths. I think what makes a person a genius is always being smart and thinking ten steps ahead of somebody. Thinking about Wednesday on Monday. Or thinking about Sunday on Friday. Just thinking in advance. That’s the meaning of genius.
MD: When did you recognize your own genius?
P.A.P.I.: I really only have a 7th grade education. I dropped out in the 7th grade. Unfortunately, my next step was jail. But in that time in jail I actually took a reading course. I found out I was on a fifth grade reading level. So, I was two grades behind. And within that year, my reading level went from a fifth grade reading level to a senior in high school level. I don’t know if I’m smarter than what you’d anticipate, but a lot of us are smarter than what we actually show. When people hear my music, they probably say, “Well, you know what, N.O.R.E. seems like a great guy to hang out with. He seems like my choice when it comes to a person to go to a club and get drunk.” But what you don’t know is I’m also the guy who’ll sit down and break down the industry to you and show you the do’s and don’ts and what’s permitted and what’s not. That’s what people don’t know about me.
MD: You mentioned thinking in advance. You’ve been ahead of a few trends in Hip Hop, how do you know what people are gonna love before they love it?
P.A.P.I.: I actually don’t know what they’re gonna love before they love it. And I think the part that works for me is I actually don’t care. God bless the God MC Jay-Z, but he once said, “We’re off that.” And he was naming all these things— he was like, “Timbs, we off that.” And I had to disagree with him. I had to be like, “You know what? Timberlands is gonna survive as long as winter is gonna survive. And it’s always gonna be that classic boot. It’s just like a lot of people might say Air Force Ones is dead. And I don’t really care. You might tell me Air Force Ones is dead, but if you go in my closet, whether my closet be in Jersey, whether my closet be in New York, or whether my closet be in my crib in Miami, I will always have a pair of Timberlands or Air Force Ones. Because I don’t really give a fuck what the masses is doin’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not gonna be running around here with size 44 jeans on looking crazy like it’s 1992. I will adapt to certain things, but there’s certain things I’m not gonna let go of and I’m not gonna really care.
MD: What about the Reggaeton trend that you helped set off for Hip Hop?
P.A.P.I.: I’m half Puerto Rican, and I love Puerto Rican women. I grew up my whole life dating Black women and in my later years, I started to not only just enjoy Puerto Rican women, but enjoy Puerto Rican culture. So when I was doing that, I just was doing the Reggaeton music because that’s what I loved. Even when you look at it, a lot of people credit me with being the first guy to work with Scott Storch. Or they credit me as the first guy to work with Swizz Beats. Or they credit me as the first guy to work with the Neptunes. I really didn’t work with (them) to brag about it or say I was in front of the league or I’m a trendsetter. I did it because that’s what my heart told me to do and I didn’t give a fuck what anybody else says.
MD: What did you see in those producers that let you know they were the future?
P.A.P.I.: I remember bringing Pharrell and the Neptunes (to Nas). Pharrell had made a record like, “Oh baby you want me?/Well you can get this lapdance here for free.” He ended up using it for N.E.R.D. But just think about 1999, 2000. This is when he was presenting this to Nas. Had Nas got on that record— I’m not saying Nas would be a bigger star than he already is, (but) he would have opened up his audience. I brung him to Nas and Nas told me, “Man, they shirts is too tight.” He didn’t even give Pharrell a chance until after me and Pharrell made “Superthug.” Then we made “Oh No.” Then Mystikal came along and did “Shake Ya Ass.” And then after that, Pharrell was undeniable and then Nas embraced him. And then Jay embraced him. But I remember trying to bring the Neptunes to Jay and Nas and I remember them saying flat out, “Man, them dudes is weird.” It was crazy because I had the foresight. I can’t sit here and lie to you like I knew these guys was gonna be the biggest thing in the world, but I felt it in my heart. And that’s just what I’m about. I’m about doing what my heart says. And whether the people follow me or not, it’s cool.
MD: When else have you followed your heart to find the next big thing?
P.A.P.I.: If you look at a performance I did with Jimmy Kimmel with MSTRKRFT, I was the first rapper to live tweet during a performance. And after that, Twitter blew up. I was just so addicted to Twitter, that even during my performance I couldn’t get away from it. And after that, you see everybody live tweeting. As they’re performing, they’re tweeting. A lot of people credit me with being the first. I don’t mind, I don’t deny it. But it’s just something that I go with my heart. That’s something about N.O.R.E. Like, you know what, “If you like what I’m doing. I appreciate it. If you hate what I’m doing, I still appreciate you just much as if you like it.” Because I’m doing what I think God wants me to do. Now when I get to heaven, God might be like, “Motherfucka, you were wrong!” But hey, I’m willing to take the chance because I know I’m doing it in God’s name.
MD: You mentioned three creative geniuses— Scott Storch, Swizz Beatz and Pharrell— how is it different working with them from other producers?
P.A.P.I.: I think the biggest thing with Scott Storch, Swizz Beatz and Pharrell is they don’t make beats; they are producers. (Most) producers can give me a beat, and that’s it. I like the beat, pretty much they can leave the studio at that time. Because they’re not giving any type of (direction). They’re not saying, “Yo, I want you to flow this way.” Or, “I want you to go back to go to back to your old style.” Or, “I want you to do a new style.” To me, a producer is that. That’s what Pharell is to me. That’s what Chad is to me. That’s what Swizz Beatz is to me. That’s what Scott Storch is to me. They’ll sit in the studio with me— I’ll love the beat, “Yeah, I love the beat, the beat is dope. But OK, what should I do with it?” Just me rhyming on the beat is just rhyming on the beat. Sometimes I enjoy sitting there with producers and watching ‘em create. It’s a wonderful thing when they give me beats. But the magic happens when we’re all together and I allow them to produce and they allow me as a writer to write my life. That to me is always magic.
MD: What do people misunderstand about your art?
P.A.P.I.: We spoke about being a genius earlier. I don’t think people actually recognize my genius. One of my genius things to do is to not give a fuck. If was to sit around say, “Yo, do people really know how I smart I am?” It probably wouldn’t be the smart thing to do. I think people years from now or maybe even decades from now, people will come back and be like, “Yo, N.O.R.E. was doing that shit years ago. You see N.O.R.E. was talking about that shit years ago. You see N.O.R.E. was involved with this project years ago.” And then I think people will recognize my genius. But as of right now, I get a kick out of people not recognizing it. Because it makes me work harder. And it makes me say, “You know what? I’ma make people a believer.”
MD: What should people know about the new album?
P.A.P.I.: I made a great body of work. And again, I did something that my heart possessed me to do. I didn’t do what Nas is doing because it’s popular, or what Jay is doing because it’s popular or what Chris Brown, for that matter, is doing because it’s popular. I did what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was bridge the gap between the old school, which is the people I grew up on— the Pete Rocks, the Large Professors, the Main Sources, The CL Smooths— and I wanted to mix them with the new generation; With the new producers like the Illa’s and the Jahlil Beats and the Hazardous Soundz. And I actually embarked on trying to bridge a gap.
MD: Why is it important to bridge that gap?
P.A.P.I.: When a lot of people hear “90’s Hip Hop,” they like to classify it as “real Hip Hop.” And I’m not against that statement. But I can’t say that what’s goin’ on nowadays isn’t real Hip Hop. I gotta say that what’s goin’ on nowadays reflects what’s happening nowadays. So nobody has ever really been able or even tried to bridge the gap. To say, “You know what? I’ma get 2 Chainz on a record.” But the very next record you hear on the album might be a record with me and Tragedy Khadafi and Havoc. You know Havoc is from Mobb Deep and you know Tagedy as the Intelligent Hoodlum. Then after you hear that record, you hear a record with me and Lil Wayne. I’m actually trying to bridge the gap.
MD : A lot of people, even young people, are trying to bring the 90’s back. Is that a good look?
P.A.P.I.: I’m 35 years old, I do not feel old at all, and I’m trying to bridge the gap from the music that I was raised on and came up on and mix it in with this new generation. Because I’m not opposed to this new generation. I think there’s a lot of great material out there. I think there’s a lot of great records and a lot of great albums that has been overlooked. And a lot of people are stuck on the 90’s era. And I got a message for them: The 90’s will never come back. Just like you ain’t gonna get back the 2000’s. And just like in this era, you won’t get the 20-and-teenage-numbers back. That’s what living in the future means. It’s about keep making progress and keep moving on.
MD: Why did you decide to change your name to P.A.P.I. on this one?
P.A.P.I.: This album is something that has never been done in Hip Hop, it’s done in Rock & Roll, it’s never been done in Heavy Metal, it’s never been done in Soul, it’s never been done in R&B, it’s never been done nowhere. That’s the reason I changed my name and I went under the name P.A.P.I. on this album. Because this album doesn’t sit next to any N.O.R.E. album. And for that matter, it doesn’t sit next to a Capone and Noreaga album. It sits on its own. And if you ask me if it’s the right thing to do, from my perspective it’s the right thing to do. But will all fans who rolled with me since the 90’s love it? I’m not sure. Will all fans who just got put on to me in the 2000’s love it? I’m not sure. But I’m willing to take the risk. Because I’m not gonna continue to make the same exact music and get the same exact results. I’d rather take a chance. And go out there with the greatest material and say, “You know what? If it doesn’t work, so be it. If it does work, then I knew it would work.” But I’m willing to take the chance.
MD: For all the creative risks you’ve taken, was there ever a moment when you were unsure of yourself?
P.A.P.I.: Absolutely, man. After the course of the Reggaeton thing, it was real hard for me because a lot of people thought that I was giving up on my Hip Hop roots or I was giving up on my Black roots. It’s something that I could never change, and it’s something that I could never take away. I could never stop being Black and I could never stop being Puerto Rican. I am who I am. And I love being both. If I had a chance to do it over, and God told me, “You can just pick one race. You can either be Black or Puerto Rican,” I wouldn’t know what to do. Because I enjoy being both. So I just wanna contine to embark on new things and continue to reinvent myself and continue to have fun. If you wake up every morning and you drink coffee, just black coffee nothing else, after a while you become bored. And after a while you gonna want to put more cream in your coffee. After a while, you’re gonna wanna have some sugar. And before you know it, instead of having black coffee, you’re gonna wind up having latte’s and frozen coffee.
MD: What’s next for you creatively?
P.A.P.I.: I already got my title for my next mixtape. That’s called “Masturbation.” And the reason I’m calling it “Masturbation” is because I’m working on myself. I’m working on loving myself. I’m announcing it right here on Mechanical Dummy for the first time. My next mixtape is gonna be called “Masturbation.” Now, will the masses like that? Will the media come to me and be like, “Isn’t that a nasty name?” Why is masturbation nasty? There’s nothing nasty about masturbation. Especially for a person who’s trying to be loyal to his girl, masturbation, that should be your project. If you’re tryna be loyal to our wife or loyal to your girl, hey man, ain’t nothin’ like that. You know what I’m sayin’? Once I get done with the “Masturbation” project, I’m coming right back with “Student of the Game” part two. Tentatively-titled something, I’m not ready to reveal that yet. But there you have it.
MD: What’s your goal for the rest of your career?
P.A.P.I.: I just wanna keep evolving and keep being creative and keep being the boss that I am on my own. And that’s why I’m still in the game and I’m still having so much fun with the thing. Because I believe I have the greatest job in the world, and I just want people to know that. And I want my fans to know that I appreciate them for riding with them. There’s not a lot of artists who’s first album came out in 1997 and is still relevant… I’m blessed, and I know I’m blessed. And I just wanna continue to show people how creative I am.