Cormega’s taken his fair share of knocks over the years. The first and most notorious was his much-publicized dismissal from hip-hop super group, The Firm. Then, Def Jam shelved his solo debut, The Testament, for five years and one-time partner-in-rhyme Nas added insult to injury with mocking bars on Stillmatic‘s “Destroy and Rebuild.” Still, Mega wouldn’t be brought down.
Against the odds, Cormega showed resilience and carved out his own lane, by putting out music that spoke directly to the heart of his fans. Through his own Legal Hustle imprint, the Queens native launched several full-length albums, a compilation and a documentary DVD—nearly all of which sold well independently. Furthermore, he was embraced by the blogs and Internet communities, resulting in his own story of success.
Now, the often underrated MC returns with his first solo album in seven years, Born & Raised, which arrives in stores today. Boasting production from Buckwild, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Havoc, LES and Nottz and guest appearances from a host of living legends, the project has a distinctly reflective feel. In a candid interview with XXLMag.com, Mega touches on the importance of independence, why Obama needs to clean up his backyard and clears up those Drake comments.
XXLMag.com: Your independent grind is well documented and pretty remarkable. How were you able to find success outside of the major label system?
Cormega: I think dedication and knowing what the fans want. Being independent helped me. A lot of times the label, they want you to follow what their ideology of success is. They may have a different idea of what you should do as an artist. I was able to walk the streets or go to the clubs, like real hip-hop clubs, and understand what the fans want. It’s like customer relations, like how some stores allow you to provide feedback and give you a discount. It’s like, no matter how big or small you are, the fans are involved. So you’ll be here for a while, and your job security is based on performance. I know what my fans want, so that’s why I’ve been somewhat lucky with my career.
XXLMag.com: It’s been seven years since your last official solo album. Why was there such a delay between releases?
Cormega: My last solo album came out in 2002, but my daughter was born in November of 2002 also. So, I definitely wanted to see my daughter that first year. That’s why for a year, I didn’t do nothing. I wanted to be there for my kid—that was my first child. I wanted to be the father that’s there for his daughter. I fell back, but in 2004, I did the Legal Hustle compilation. We had Nate Dogg on there, Kurupt, Jayo Felony, M.O.P., Ghostface, Vybz Cartel… That was a successful project right there. And then ’05, [my unreleased Def Jam album] The Testament came out and in ’07, I did [my DVD soundtrack] Who Am I?
XXLMag.com: Being that you’re your own boss, why didn’t you just flood the streets with music?
Cormega: Being in the industry, you got to understand when you’re an indie artist like me, when you’re an artist who isn’t a superstar, you only get so much spin. Say I come out with an album early ’09 and I get press and I then come out with [another] project. When I’m ready to come out with a solo later that year, some of the magazines will front. That’s not a guess, this is fact. You can only market yourself for so much if you’re not a superstar.
XXLMag.com: One of the standout records on Born & Raised is “Mega Fresh X,” with Big Daddy Kane, Grand Puba, Parrish Smith and KRS-One. How did you get all those guys together on one track?
Cormega: I [wanted] to do a song that represents the Golden Era and let people see the people that was involved through the rise of hip-hop in the New York area. New York is five boroughs, then you got Long Island, upstate, and such and such. I decided to get one of my favorite rappers from each area. So, it’s funny how it happened, because I always had the person I really wanted and then I had a plan B in case I couldn’t get that person. That song is magical to me, so that’s just me paying my respect back to them. I’m proud to have them on my album.
XXLMag.com: You and Nas reunited on stage back in 2006. Is there any possibility of you two working together again?
Cormega: I don’t even think about it any more. It’s like, we are both MCs and when you respect an MC, you work with him regardless, that’s the bottom line, that’s what MCs do or you try to. So, it’s like, he doing his thing, I’m doing my thing. If it ever happens, it happens, but I’m not holding my breath. Ever since The Firm situation happened and they did an album and everybody went their separate ways, I’ve never been pressed to do songs with any of them. Like me and AZ were just together in Europe last week, and we had one of the best talks we ever had. We were just speaking on how things were or they could’ve been or should have been. At the end of the day, life goes on. I’m happy where I’m at.
XXLMag.com: There’ve been a couple stories recently where you didn’t seem happy about Drake and questioning his credibility. Care to speak on that and clear things up?
Cormega: That whole shit was bullshit. They only highlight the things that make me look like an asshole. That was for a radio interview and there were questions like, “What do you think about rappers like Drake rapping about the streets?” They told me some of the lyrics and I said I can’t respect that. I can’t respect [rappers] that had a good upbringing or are rich that rap about the streets or the struggle, it just doesn’t seem realistic to me. I’m just speaking what I feel.
XXLMag.com: So it wasn’t necessarily a problem with Drake personally but a bigger issue?
Cormega: I’m just saying what’s wrong with rap. Everybody is glorifying the stupidity, they’re glorifying the derogatory treatment of women, everything derogatory is being highlighted and used to market hip-hop. And that’s what I am against. If you’re an upstanding citizen or you come from privilege, rap about that shit, because that might help bring about change. Like, Will Smith. Nobody was mad at Will Smith, we loved him for what he did. He never rapped about gangsta shit. What I am saying is everybody doesn’t have to be a gangsta rapper.
XXLMag.com: Is that why you spoke out recently about teen violence, especially in the wake of the incident in Chicago that left an honor student dead?
Cormega: We do need to stop the violence. I haven’t really done enough research on the situation in Chicago with the child to really get into it, but it is a tragedy in itself. When it comes to Black people it’s always sterilized.
XXLMag.com: What do you mean?
Cormega: People always want the most civilized, the most clean Black people. It was a tragedy in itself that a kid was killed, but they play up the fact that he was a honor student. My thing is he if he’s a kid with failing grades, it’s still a tragedy…. Stuff like this happens everyday in the urban communities but it doesn’t get the media coverage or attention unless the minorities are extremely sterilized, like it’s the honor student, the ultimate churchgoer or the ultimate good guy. At the end of the day, a life is a life. That’s a reflection of Chicago and that’s something Obama should take in his own hands—that’s his backyard. He should feel responsible and take a self-stance on what’s going on in Chicago because that’s what put him on.
XXLMag.com: Hip-hop’s most successful artists’ content is violent, though. Isn’t there that paradox that if they tone it down it will affect sales?
Cormega: Of course. Why do you think artists are still able to rap about that? Because it sells. If it wasn’t selling, those artists wouldn’t get deals no more. Remember, there was a time when there was a bunch of pop or positive rappers, or rappers that was enlightening, those are the guys that have been pushed to the side. Not just rap, but America, period, was always fascinated with the bad guy, controversy, with money. That’s America for you. —Slav Kandyba