Before it was acceptable for hip-hop artists to reject the title of “MC” in favor of “hustla” or “dope boy,” there were those who took the art of lyricism seriously. One such person is Long Island rapper Keith Murray. His wordy, brain bustin’ rhyme style was introduced to the world in 1993 on “Swing It Over Here,” an album cut off EPMD member Erick Sermon’s solo disc, No Pressure. As one-third of Sermon’s Def Squad (which also includes Redman), Murray signed a deal with Jive Records and released his critically acclaimed debut, The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World, in 1994. That was followed two years later by Enigma. Often overshadowing his music, though, was the New Yorker’s extensive criminal record. In 1995, he allegedly struck 16-year-old David Hughes with a stool during a bar fight in New Britain, Conn. Murray proclaimed his innocence but when his appeals failed, he went on the run, ducking court dates for nearly three years. He eventually turned himself in and was sentenced in December 1998 to five years in prison. The following year, Jive put out Murray’s third album, It’s A Beautiful Thing, despite the fact he was incarcerated. Serving 33 months of his sentence, Keith was released for good behavior in 2001 and signed with Def Jam. Despite a standout performance alongside label mates Ludacris and LL Cool J on “Fatty Girl,” off FUBU’s Good Life compilation (2001), his fourth album, He’s Keith Murray, didn’t come out until 2003. Murray was unceremoniously dropped from Def Jam that same year amidst allegations he threatened and choked label employees (accusations he vehemently denies). Recently signing with Koch Records, Mr. Enigmatic is looking to rekindle his career with his upcoming project Rap-Murr-Phobia. The Def Squad representative speaks frankly with XXLMag.com about his new album, why people are scared of real hip-hop and what went wrong at Def Jam.
What’s the meaning behind the title of your new album, Rap-Murr-Phobia?
The letters m-u-r-r are the first four letters of my last name, and phobia means to have a fear of something. People today fear real rap music coming from Murray. The world is touchy-feely now and everything is soft. People are sneaky and foul and they fear real muthafuckas coming through. They’re trying to stop real hip-hop and you can see that happening over and over. They don’t let real niggas shine; they just wanna let that shit that they shape and mold get through.
A lot’s changed since your heyday, have you done anything on different on this album to appeal to today’s listeners?
If you listen to any record I’ve ever put out, I’ve always been lyrical, but I’ve also been street. I’ve always used metaphors in my rhymes and been the type of MC who tells stories. I’ve always brought my own style to the game with my use of vocabulary, mixing that with humor and the everyday struggle. None of that has changed on this new album.
But do you feel like you have to reintroduce yourself?
That’s the fun part because it makes me feel like I’ma new artist. It means I can pull in new fans and put them up on things. All around the world, when people see the reaction of the fans that already know me, they feel like they’re missing out. But the key to all of that is the label making sure they push the music right, because if the fans don’t know it’s out there, then they’ll miss out and move onto something else.
Do you feel labels today aren’t putting as much effort into promoting artists as they used to?
The question is, are these labels being smart enough and promoting their artists to the right people? Like me, I have my own separate audience. Just throwin’ my album into every store and seeing if people pick it up isn’t going to work with me. Fuck [those] who don’t understand my music and who don’t care about it, I ain’t got time for that. Those people ain’t coming to my shows or bumpin’ my music, so why waste time tryin’ to change their minds? But luckily for Def Squad, we transcend categorization and we’re not just put into that “underground” box. We’ve been on daytime radio and have worked on some of the biggest R&B records in history. So if the music I’m coming with now gets accepted on the other side, that’s cool, but I’m not gonna worry [and let that] distract me from my goal. I’m not gonna beg for acceptance from someone who really doesn’t care about me or my music. That’s like a Black man asking the Ku Klux Klan if he can be down ¬—it doesn’t make any sense. I’m here to rock for my crowd and that includes people from all over the world—Black, White, Japanese, it don’t matter, man.
Over the years you’ve gained a reputation for being somewhat of a hothead. Has that changed at all?
Experience has helped me grow and become a wiser person. The best way to beat a nigga down is mentally, because otherwise these niggas will have your career in shambles. So all that tough guy shit is out the window. All that shit is dead because right now, I’m tryin’ to think my way through this shit and get my paper. The beef shit is dead because muthafuckas will have you locked up. I’m more mature now and I ain’t about to smack someone in the head just because they say something that’s bullshit.
What do you feel went wrong with your Def Jam deal?
The shit went sour. I made the mistake of being friends with everybody at the label and letting them get involved in my project every step of the way. Then, when it wasn’t working, it became a tug-of-war and blew up in everybody’s face. I had people at the label telling me I should try this [and then] I should try that. Def Jam wanted me to try new shit when I should’ve just stuck to the basics. They wanted my music to be poppier and I changed my formula. I’ve got that original formula back now, but it took me a minute to get my head straight.
Do you consider Rap-Murr-Phobia to be a make-or-break project for you as an artist?
My heart is totally in this new album, so it has to make it because there ain’t no other option. I ain’t tryin’ to hear all that first week sales shit, [though]. Record sales are down now so everybody’s basically in the same boat. So why am I going to be thinkin’ about whether or not this album’s gonna make or break me? I’ma strong believer in what you picture in your mind you can will into existence. So if you think something’s not gonna work before you’ve done it, then it’s not gonna work. But if you work hard, take care of your business, and be honest in what you do, then nothing can stop you. I have realistic goals for this album. Rap-Murr-Phobia is about persistence, overcoming obstacles, and putting shit down. There ain’t no room for doubts in 2007. I’ma bad muthafucka and nobody can do it like me. Rap-Murr-Phobia is going to be a cult classic.