It’s a rainy New York afternoon and Aasim the Dream is holed up in Daddy’s House, Bad Boy Records’ storied Manhattan studio. It’s here, in these hallowed confines, where the career’s of the Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, Black Rob and the LOX all started. This is also where Aasim has written some of his best material—for Sean Combs, that is. While the average hip-hop fan may not be familiar with the Jamaica, Queens native’s name, they’ve certainly heard his work as a ghostwriter for Diddy’s most recent album, Press Play.
Aasim got his start at the age of 17, signing a production deal with Loud Records in 1996 after freestyling for A&R Schott Free. Although a solo album never came to fruition, Aasim continued to record material and honed his skills under the tutelage of label mates like the late Big Pun and dead prez. Frustrated with his standing on the label, Aasim left Loud in 2000 and decided to take his music career into his own hands. Teaming up with former Loud A&R, Sean C, and producer LV, he signed on with a new production company, Grind Music Inc., in 2001. The trio began to hit the mixtape circuit, churning out freestyles and radio drops for the likes of Fat Man Scoop, DJ Clue and Kay Slay. By 2004, Aasim’s material landed in the lap of Diddy, who was so impressed that he signed the upstart MC to Bad Boy Records. Since then, Aasim has stayed busy, ghostwriting for Mr. Combs while keeping the streets buzzing with mixtapes like 2005’s Spell My Name Right with DJ Big Mike and The Departed with DJ Green Lantern earlier this year. XXLMag.com chops it up with Aasim about his humble beginnings, ghostwriting and carrying on the tradition of success in the house that Diddy built.
Your got your first deal when you were just a teen. How did you get your foot in the door so young?
I was in the studio with Akinyele—who’s like an uncle to me—and Dr. Butcher, Kool G Rap’s DJ. [Butcher] was like, “Yo, that’s an A&R right there.” He was talking about this dude, Schott Free [from Loud Records]. I didn’t know what the hell an A&R was ’cause I’m like 16-years-old at the time. So they threw a beat on and I just said every rhyme I had, non-stop. People came runnin’ into the room like, “Who’s that?” Schott Free was like, “Yo, you the illest nigga I heard since Nas.” So I signed to Loud and stayed there for a minute under a production deal. The label didn’t want the production company, but they wanted me. So they shelved me in hopes that the production company and me would fall out. But that didn’t happen [and] we stayed together. We figured if they wouldn’t put us out together, we were gonna leave. [Plus], we noticed the label was folding, so we got out [of our deal].
After you left Loud, you did your thing independently and then signed with Bad Boy. What’s it been like working with Diddy?
It’s great! Over the years, we’ve bonded. We got a different type of relationship than most. He doesn’t really give his friendship [out] ’cause you can imagine somebody with that status—everybody always got their hand out expecting certain things. We had a certain connection when we first met. He told me, “I don’t wanna be your friend; I don’t want you to be my friend.” I was like, “I don’t need no more friends.” We just kept it funky like that. If it happens organically, then cool. I’m a likable nigga. I’ll give you the shirt off my back. I’m a nigga that’s gonna tell you the real. I’m never gonna sugar coat it or lie to you. So he saw that and I think that’s when he was like, “I can fuck with that nigga. He’s a good dude.” When you actually spend time with him, you see all the rumors you hear about him ain’t true. He’s a businessman. So there’s certain shit he does as a businessman that you can’t put on a personal [level]. I have to be a businessman, too. I can’t get caught up in being a rapper. So it’s a mutual respect.
What songs have you written for Diddy?
I wasn’t necessarily a ghostwriter because I got credit for every joint I did off Press Play and Biggie’s Duets: The Final Chapter. I did the “Nasty Girl” verse and “It Has Been Said,” the joint he had with Eminem and Obie Trice off Duets. For Press Play, I did “Testimonial (Intro),” the Christina Aguilera song [“Tell Me,”] the Brandy song [“Thought You Said,”] the joint with Nas [“Everything I Love”] and “We Gon’ Make It,” the joint that sounds like Jay-Z.
What separates you from other artists in New York City?
I don’t do the type of music [that’s] poppin’. I go on websites and get a lot of great comments. Out of the 100 comments I might get, the worse thing they say is, “He sounds like he’s stuck in the 90’s. His flow is old-school.” They don’t understand that a lot of these rappers are trying to fill that void, but I’m not following the norm. When you play my records on [New York’s] Hot 97 FM against anybody else’s, they sound totally different. We’re not using no keyboards and all of that. We’ve been using gritty samples. Whatever I do is gonna be my way and have that Aasim sound. When Dr. Dre brought you The Chronic, with live instrumentation and all that, you felt like you were in L.A. When you hear my music, you gonna feel like you’re in South Jamaica, Queens.
Is there anything Diddy says you have to improve on?
Hooks—[he’s] always preaching about hooks. You gotta write million dollar hooks. Honestly, I’m not really good with hooks. I’m just like, have somebody do it ’cause I don’t care. R&B artists get songs written for them all the time and it’s not a big deal. I don’t care; have somebody write the hooks.
You’ve been in the game for a minute now. Are you finally working on your debut album?
Definitely. The album is called, The Dream…The Answer. The Dream [portion] is where I cater to the ladies. I’m real into women. It’s the easiest for me to do. It’s just been my steez forever. I never really had a problem talking to females or getting with a female, so The Dream is real easy. And The Answer… I guess that’s whatever’s going on in hip-hop. People [who are] starving for real hip-hop, I’m the answer for that.
Being that your boss is so much of a star, do you feel overshadowed by Diddy’s fame?
Not overshadowed [because] it is what it is. We went to Miami to work on Press Play and [Diddy] said to me, “I know what you want. I never noticed it before, but I seen this look in your eyes when Cool & Dre came up in the Bentley GT.” ’Cause Missy had the Lamborghini, Scott Storch had the Ferrari, and there were all these cars [outside the studio]. So Diddy was like, “The look in your eyes was like you were about to go crazy and just start shooting shit up. But I seen it in your eyes and I know what you want. I’m gonna help you get there and you’re gonna get there because you have the drive. That’s the same determination I had, but I was never in a position where I seen what you’re seeing.” And I’m like, hell yeah— private jets, Phantoms and Ferraris. It’s a transformation for me. I wanna be fly. I don’t wanna be no bum.