“When me and Nas had beef, people had the perception that I was still in the projects broke and mad. Meanwhile, I was probably the richest rapper from Queensbridge.”

Harrowing street tales of life in the Queensbridge housing projects morphed Cormega from local rapper to underground cult hero in the ’90s. Debuting as a member of The Firm, a super-group comprised of Nas, AZ and Foxy Brown, Mega-Montana starred on the crew’s 1996 song “Affirmative Action” off Nas’ sophomore LP It Was Written. Shortly after, label politics forced ’Mega out of the group and put his Def Jam Records solo debut, The Testament, on permanent hold. After finally being released from his Def Jam contract in 2000, Cormega launched his own independent label, Legal Hustle, releasing his debut LP, The Realness, in 2001 and follow-up album, The True Meaning, in 2002. Since then, five years have passed since a true solo album. In 2004, ’Mega dropped a Legal Hustle compilation LP, followed by his long-awaited original debut, The Testament, in 2005, and finally, a collaborative release with Lake in 2006 entitled My Brother’s Keeper. Now, in 2007, ’Mega is prepping for the release of a new DVD, Who Am I?, and an instrumental album, Legal Hustle Presents: Got Beats, which features production by DJ Premier, The Alchemist and Buckwild. Cormega kicked it with XXLMag.com to talk about life as an independent artist, his new side projects and the status of his forthcoming solo album, The Inevitable.

Your career suffered a number of false starts in the ‘90s with both The Firm situation and your problems at Def Jam. What did you learn from those experiences?
From the Def Jam situation I learned that labels don’t care about artistry, they care about sales. You can have the wackest album on the whole label and your project can come out and get more promotion than an album from the most talented artist on the label, because labels base all of their decisions on what’s hot at a particular moment and what’s going to sell. So I learned that in the industry you really have no friends, because people will shake your hand, they’ll compliment you and tell you all kinds of different things, but then the next thing you know they’ll put you on the shelf and fuck-up your whole life. Everything ain’t always what it seems and you really can’t trust too many people in this industry. You really have to expect the worst when you get into the game and then if something good happens then that’s a blessing. From The Firm, I learned that everybody’s really out for self. After The Firm situation people really thought it was over for me and they counted me out, but I re-established myself. See, when The Firm situation was going down, I knew I wasn’t going to be in the group because it was all politics. But nobody in The Firm revolted and said, “Fuck that! ‘Mega gotta be down.” If they’d have stood up it would’ve never been an issue, but everyone was pacified by their check.

Last year you performed with Nas during his Hip Hop Is Dead tour. What’s your relationship with Nas like now?
I ain’t got no beef with Nas. That shit is old. He brought me out at his show last year and it was a good experience. It was incredible. See, a lot of new artists today think that beefing with someone is the only way to get in the game and get some attention. But what a lot of artists don’t realize is that when the beef’s over nobody cares about you no more. So you really have to concentrate on establishing yourself as an artist, because that’s what’s going to enable you to maintain your career, not trying to thrive off of beef. I mean, when Nas and me had beef, my record sales actually increased, so I could’ve benefited financially by keeping the beef going. I got more magazine interviews when I had beef with Nas than when I didn’t have beef with Nas. But I had to have the self-respect and dignity as an artist to step away from that. I’m not trying to be no gimmick. I actually got into an argument at the time with Vibe magazine because they were doing a story on Nas and they called me up for some input and wanted me to diss him and I didn’t want to. I’ve never spoken on that before, but fuck it. I’m proud of the fact that I left the beef alone because it means that people focus on my music first and foremost rather than what I have to say about someone else.

What’s your opinion on Foxy Brown’s current legal situation?
I can’t even comment on Foxy Brown. No comment.

Nowadays every artist is going independent. But you were one of the first MCs to embrace the indie formula. Were you always confident this was the direction hip-hop was going in?
When I first went independent I had other artists looking at me like I was crazy. But people need to understand that I did have major labels wanting to sign me after I left Def Jam. The main reason I put The Realness out independently in 2001 was because I was thirsty to have an album out as I’d been waiting since 1998 to drop something. So even though I had all these other labels looking to sign me at the time, they wouldn’t have been able to put my album out as quickly as I’d have liked. Then once I started going independent, I never turned back because I realized that I could put out an album that might sell 50,000 copies and make more money than from a gold album on a major. So when artists were looking at me a certain way back then, I was laughing at them because they really didn’t understand the benefits of an independent situation. Although a lot of these major label artists were getting more exposure than me, I was actually making more bread than them. What people fail to realize is that by the time a major label has recouped on the marketing and production costs that go into making an album, the average gold-selling artist is only just breaking even. The average artist on a major label makes their money from doing shows, not selling records. I’ve barely been doing shows over the past two years and I’m still able to keep up with the big boys. The funniest thing to me is that, when me and Nas had beef, people had the perception that I was still in the projects broke and mad. Meanwhile, I was probably the richest rapper from Queensbridge at that point. Everything that I wanted at that point in my life I could get. I was the one who was taking the kids from the projects to Great Adventures and paying for transportation and park admission. The independent game is the best thing in the world for an artist. You just have to get a good lawyer, study the game, and you can’t act like a diva because ain’t nobody gonna pamper you. If you can grind, then you can make money.

It’s been five years since your last solo album. Why the delay?

In 2001, I made The Realness, then in 2002, I made The True Meaning. After that, I wanted to take a little break because my daughter was born in 2002 and also I’d just won a Source Award, which was big for me back then. So I felt I deserved a break. Then in 2004, I put together the Legal Hustle compilation, and in 2005, I finally released my old album, The Testament, which should’ve come out on Def Jam. Then in 2006, I stopped what I was doing so I could work on the My Brother’s Keeper album with Lake. So that’s what held-up the new Cormega solo project. But from here on out I’m going to be consistently dropping material on people because I understand the nature of the business and I don’t wanna be outta-sight, outta-mind.

You’re about to drop an instrument album. That’s an unusual move for an MC.
A lot of people used to contact me on the Internet saying they wanted beats or they’d request certain instrumentals of mine. So I decided to get some fresh new beats from a bunch of producers, combine those with some of the beats that people have been asking me for and see what happens. I have people on the album like The Heatmakerz, Ski Beatz and J-Love.

What can people expect to see on your forthcoming DVD, Who Am I?
The DVD is three hours and fifty seconds long! It contains various videos from throughout my career—studio footage, you’ll see my regular everyday life. It follows me from 2001 to 2005, and it really answers a lot of questions people might have had about who I am as a person and certain controversies that have surrounded my career. The thing I’m most proud of about the DVD is that it’s not just me on there talking shit. It’s not like a lot of these typical street DVDs where you have the artist on there trying to act a particular way. Instead, you’ll see other people giving their insight on me. I have Marley Marl on there, Tragedy, Nature, ACD, Blaq Poet —a lot of people from Queensbridge. There’s a real mix of people who knew me from the street life and people who know me from the industry, and they all answer the question of what type of person they think I am. It’s real interesting.

You’re currently finishing your next solo album The Inevitable. What can fans expect?
Yo, I’m telling you, the next Cormega solo album is going to be a breath of life for hip-hop. I got production on there from Ayatollah, Emile, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DR Period, Lil’ Fame and Nottz. Plus, I got a song on the album called “Fresh” with KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Grand Puba, Parrish Smith and DJ Red Alert. I got another song with Tragedy and Havoc. It took a while to put the album together but I’m proud of it and it was definitely worth the wait. I never like to predict what I’m gonna sell, but I know I’m not gonna sell out. If the album doesn’t live up to what I say, I’ll quit. I gotta lot of tricks up my sleeve.