fat joe missy elliott talib kweli

Old Times' Sake
If this year’s Freshmen are the students, meet the faculty, and take notes on their tips for survival.
Interviews Jesse Gissen & Benjamin Meadows-Ingram

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of XXL Magazine.

Imagine how drastically the number of failed rap careers would drop if novice MCs could enroll in a hip-hop academy. Unlike most professions, the job of recording artist requires no schooling, which, in turn, leaves the door wide open for mistakes. Just dig through the XXL Milk Carton archives for proof that, in the unforgiving music industry, it’s easier to fall than rise. We’re here to see that this year’s Freshmen all experience the latter. Bypassing tuition, SATs and other educational roadblocks, XXL has created a study guide comprising the words of 20 established rappers, each with his or her own unique, field-tested wisdom to offer. Whether in groups or as solo acts, or both, they’ve endured through first years and beyond. Say goodbye to miseducation.


Advice: Don’t let a fellow rapper’s co-sign go to your head.
Raekwon: When you can get somebody that paid their dues for so long to speak on you, hell yeah, you muthafuckin’ right that helps. But, at the same token, I think that it should be used as a medal, and not as a weapon. You can’t lean on somebody just because one muthafucka feel like you nice; you still got the world to please. So it’s still about working as hard as you can to show muthafuckas, Yo, this is why Dr. Dre believed in me, or Eminem, or whoever believed, because they see I believe in myself. So you can’t get too flabbergasted or open too quick. I seen many niggas come in and think that they the niggas ahead of time, based off what we telling them, and, at the end of the day, they lose focus. Don’t get too souped up and think you that nigga—that’s when you fall on your face.



Advice: Pay attention to all sides of the business.
Juvenile: I would tell new artists to stick to their craft and learn. Things don’t always work out the way you dream them, but that’s how life is. It ain’t perfect, but you have to take the good and the bad. Of course, I could tell you so much that I learned from [my] first situation. I learned everything from how much money it takes to make music, how much money it takes as an artist. The details of publishing and mechanicals and everything like that.



Advice: Know your history and pay attention to your surroundings.
XXL: What was your mentality coming into the industry in the beginning?
B-Real: We [Cypress Hill] came up on artists likeMelle Mel, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Run-DMC. So many classic artists, and we were students of the game, and we felt we had a responsibility to know where it came from, so we could know where we wanted it to go. Now it’s gotten to the point where labels are paying the average fans to be stars.

Do you see any other differences in today’s freshman rappers?
So much of the shit coming out today doesn’t really have staying power. Everybody’s making the same [music]. But to have longevity you’ve got to try to make timeless music, to where, no matter what year it came out, you can throw it on and it’s still a great record. MTV and radio perpetuate all that shit, because they’re not designed to cater to the music—they’re designed to attract the most eyes and ears on the ads, not the artists... This is one of the few jobs that you can get without any knowledge of what it’s supposed to be. But if you don’t pay attention, the game will pass you by.



Advice: Always be ready to spit.
Freeway: When I got signed to Roc-A-Fella, anybody that came up there that wanted to get signed had to battle. Even after I was on... I remember there was this group—I don’t remember their names, but it was, like, two dudes and a girl—and they came and rapped for [Jay Z]. I just happened to be in the office, and they started rapping. Jay looked at me and gave me the head nod, and I started going at it with them, [and] I trashed ’em... I used to send people packing all the time... [But, at the same time,] it was also dangerous, too, because somebody could have came in [and taken] my spot. Like...got at me and trashed me in front of Jay. So I just had to be on point, like, all the time. No matter where we were, I had to be ready to go.


Fat Joe

Advice: Record like Tupac.
XXL: How has hip-hop changed since your freshman year, 1993?
Fat Joe: It’s no longer about camaraderie. When I first came in the game, people were working with each other, no money involved. It was just about the music. Now it’s more separated. It was better before. Money and ego got involved, and people started thinking they bigger than life, they bigger than music. As long as you love music and you work hard, making great music, the money gonna come.

But it’s harder to make money these days.
Everything’s faster now. Lil Wayne... Tupac did it like that. We’re still hearing new ’Pac records. Wayne works like a slave, and he’s one of the richest niggas in the game. The whole industry falling down, and this nigga making money. Muthafuckas are living in that muthafuckin’ studio now. Now everyone knows, If I want to be more relevant, I gotta work like that. We was much lazier back in the days. Rakim was the hottest nigga out and would drop one album every three or four years, [and then] chill, relax in the sun. And that was normal!

fat joe

Sean Price

Advice: Be patient and understand the unspoken rules of the business.
Sean Price: [Buckshot, of Black Moon,] got the deal first. He brought in Smif-N-Wessun, and then Smif-N-Wessun brought us [Heltah Skeltah] in, so my dues was being paid on the road. I had no deal. I went from selling drugs to out of town, making a respectable amount of money a day, to going on the road with Buckshot and them. And I’d do, like, four or five shows with Buckshot, and he’d slap me with $100 and a pair of Timbs. I was used to getting money, but you can’t put a price on the experience and everything that I learned. I know that now, but back then I [wasn’t] trying to hear that, man. And some days, when they slapped me with $100, I was ready to get a bus ticket.

sean price

Lil Mama

Advice: Understand the role you inherit with increased visibility.
Lil Mama: Sex sells, and that’s easy, so I understand why some people go that route. But I consider myself the voice of the young people, and I take that really seriously. I can’t be the voice of the young people one minute and then the next I’m a sex symbol. What you see and get from me is who I am, and I’m comfortable in my own skin. Before I can be a voice or matter I have to start in my home, and I have two younger sisters that really look up to me. They’re always watching and listening, so I keep that in mind, because I can’t take back what I’ve done. There’s always something that someone’s picking up from me.

lil mama

Killer Mike

Advice: Being popular in the South and relatively unknown on the Coasts can be a challenge.
Killer Mike: My first album dropped in 2003. If you dropped an album in 2003 to 2005 from the South, you really were pioneering leadership. Never at a time had we been at the helm of hip-hop. Never at a time [were] so many Southern characters being accepted on a broad view— so I was a pioneer of sorts. You know the pioneers of Southern music. You know [8Ball & MJG], UGK, OutKast and, even before them, 2 Live Crew... But we were the commercial pioneers, the ones [for whom the] playing field was level enough for us to come in and become dominant... So, for me, I had to rock in New York when the crowds were hostile, period. Not just because you were OJ [Da Juiceman]; they were hostile, period. So you really had to go hard... When I was going out to L.A., they were even further removed from the South than New York was. So when I did [Sway and King Tech’s] The Wake Up Show out there, you had to rap. You had to rap your ass off.

killer mike

Shawty Lo

Advice: Be thankful for every day you have in hip-hop.
XXL: What dues did you have to pay as a freshman?
Shawty Lo: I paid my dues in the streets. I’m from the streets, for real. I don’t just consider myself a rapper. My music is [about] where I live, and my past, and things relevant to the streets, so I guess the dues I paid in the streets. I got 20 arrests. I got four convictions. You know, I could have been dead or in jail, but I’m here right now, and just giving y’all my story, and rapping about it.

What do you feel makes your come-up so unique?
I was forced to be an artist. It was nothing I tried to do. It was just, I did a mixtape with DJ Scream, and I did another one, and they was begging for the album. I was so shy... It was just something I tried, and God blessed me.

shawty lo


Advice: Be up on current musical styles and trends.
Kurupt: I was a real MC, and, in that time, that really mattered. Nowadays, you can say anything you want. Back then you had to be a bit more genuine. It’s hard for me to talk about a satellite on the roof of my car when all you got is basic cable. You had to be a certain kind of person. But now you get to have a little bit more fun. That’s a disadvantage to back then, because we had to be a certain kind of person to be a rapper.


Missy Elliott

Advice: There’s room for everything and everyone—if you’re creative.
XXL: Music videos did a lot for your early career. How has the importance of that medium changed?
Missy Elliott: Some people say that because the video channels don’t play a lot of videos then videos are less important now. I don’t agree. I’m always gonna make hot videos. You can do a lot of other things with them now—YouTube, play it on your phone. It’s still something people expect and talk about and share with their friends. They just might not be getting their videos the way they used to.

Would it be possible to break into today’s rap scene doing the kind of music you’ve been known for?
Yes. There’s room for every kind of rap—always has been. So if you’re a real hard rock, you’re gonna only want some gangsta shit. If you’re a backpacker dude, you’re gonna want some Common or Mos Def, Hieroglyphics, etc. All you can do is...do you.

Is it tougher for female MCs to break through today?
It’s always been harder for female MCs. It’s not so different from when I started, because, as a female, back then, most of the girls had a male camp they were affiliated with, and that got people talking. It’s still somewhat like that. Now you have to be even more creative than before to get the regular consumer’s attention. I’m excited, though, to see females coming back together—old and new—because it’s important to not see such a legacy go to waste.

missy elliott


Advice: Hip-hop is ever evolving and unpredictable.
XXL: How has hip-hop changed over the last 10 years?
Nelly: Almost anything is possible [now]. Listen to radio today. Of the Top 10, you can recognize half of them [if they were] in the room, and the other half you’d walk past them. I don’t want to say it’s easier to get on the radio, but there are a lot of different outlets now, and it was so much harder when I came out to get heard. It took years and years of rapping to make it work. Being a rapper now is more of a trend. Then, people studied the game. When guys want to rap now, they’ll hand you a CD and be like, “Man, I’ve been putting in work for a long time.” And you ask them how long, [and they say], “Two and a half years.” I was rapping for nine years before I even thought I might have a shot!

Does that mean that the game is being watered down?
I think it remains to be seen what it turns into. It’s like when a drug epidemic takes place. When crack came out, it was a party drug. Fifteen years down the line, it almost destroyed the entire Black community. It will be years before we know the ramifications of it. But it’s good, and it’s bad... Now, 12-, 14-year-olds are more into entrepreneurship. They try to channel their situations into something more positive.

That seems to promise a bright future, at least.
Hip-hop was created by the youth, for the youth. Sure, rappers that are 29-years-plus might not agree with it, but if you go ask a 14- or 15-year-old, they’re from that school. It’s different for 15-year-olds now, because when we [older rappers] was coming up, that was sort of the beginning [of hip-hop]. We saw it being created, so it might be easy for us to say, What y’all doing, this ain’t it.



Advice: The listeners are, and always have been, extremely important.
Rakim: The major difference [between 1987 and 2010] is the way we tried to be original. We didn’t want to sound close to anybody else. Today it’s more of a ‘majority rules’ thing. We tried to bring a lot of different ideas and styles, and it was a sin to bite off of somebody or to sound like them. The listeners were more conscious of that back in the day. These days, it’s so widespread, so usually the listeners are not as aware of the history of hip-hop as they were then. Listeners can’t tell when someone uses someone else’s line. In the beginning, it was the utmost respect that we gave to the listeners, but now artists expect the fans to have the utmost respect for them.



Advice: Don’t let the money blind you.
N.O.R.E.: I’m still doing free performances, free mixtapes here and there, free whatever... That’s the era I come from. If I have to fly my own self to a DJ’s party...’cause this is what he wants, then that’s what we gotta do. When, nowadays, you got labels doing that for people, and artists don’t really understand the business structure. They don’t understand how to go out there and hustle... They look at it like they’re making money without having to do nothing. But when they realize their manager and lawyer are best friends and, you know, in cahoots forever, and when it’s time for an artist to go on they own... You’re seeing it right now, seeing artists leave one label and immediately run to another.


Pusha T

Advice: Don’t be unhappy with underground or independent.
Pusha T: [Malice and I] got in the game at a time when the major labels was at an all-time high. Getting signed was a whole ordeal. The generation before me was the independent era—Suave House, Master P, Cash Money, and all that. But when we got signed, the independent hustle was dying down a little bit. They had made a lot of money, and major labels took it over. For the generation we were in, we didn’t have to do too much. Now it’s going back to that independent hustle, and there are other avenues to get yourself out there. Watching it go back to that, with Drake making his name on the mixtape and even a couple of our mixtapes, that whole way, with underground mixtapes and self-promotion, I think this is the way to learn to make it in music. Otherwise, you’ll put all your faith in the label that they’ll make it happen, and that’s not true.

Pusha T

Talib Kweli

Advice: Understand that it’s important to be a businessman, too.
XXL: How was hip-hop different back when you came out?
Talib Kweli: We came in the game ’cause the vinyl sound was missing. It was important for DJs and the culture to get records on vinyl, and Rawkus was putting records on vinyl. Nowadays, vinyl is a specialty item, if you’re really a culture geek, or have some sort of obsession, or you’re a real DJ. But now it’s more the amount of content and getting it out that’s more important than the quality of what you putting out.

How has the sound evolved?
When we came out, there was junk food. Our substance stood in opposition to the junk food you heard 10 years ago. I eat junk food; junk food is gonna be around forever... When we first came out, the music of substance was considered part of the culture. Now the culture has moved away from that, moved more toward a business, and we just have to become better businessmen as a result.

talib kweli

Bun B

Advice: Know your numbers.
Bun B: [One of the] key factors that has changed is the financial aspect. People generally talk about the fact that the cost of recording has gone down significantly over the past 10 years. A lot of people have got relationships with other artists, so you do an appearance here for an appearance there, and people are using more local producers, who are not charging a lot. You don’t have to sell gold or platinum to make money if you’re recording an album for $50,000. The cost of shooting a video is now the price of an HD video camera. All of these different things that used to make it difficult to recoup money on the back end have changed. And there are more ways for an artist to make money today. It used to be just a single, an EP or an album, but now you’ve got ringtones, liquor sponsorships, clothing companies, TV shows, movie trailers. There are people who can make five, six, $700,000 off of one song.

Bun B

Big Boi

Advice: Do it yourself, while also being yourself.
XXL: How has the music changed since your freshman year?
Big Boi: We’ve always wanted to create complete albums, not just songs. And when you focus on putting together bodies of work, you experiment more. It’s how you make an album. It’s how you make a real movie—not the way people are using it now. I’ve seen stuff on the Internet that says that [Andre 3000] writes all my raps. Nah. Never. We’ve always been two MCs that tried to have different sounds. Today, you have crews putting out records with the same cadence, or just punch lines where you could think that one person wrote the whole thing.

In what ways has the business itself evolved?
You don’t need labels. They’re just marketing banks these days anyway. That’s definitely where I’m headed, at the end of my contract. Free agency! I’m already spending my own money anyway, shooting my own videos, recording my album. I don’t need a record company. I just happen to be under contract. But I tell artists, “Don’t do it in this day and age. Find you some distribution, own your own masters, get out there on the road and promote your shit.” Touring is one of the best aspects of doing music. Not with a 360 deal, though; you can’t do that. That’s some pimp shit. Telling them, You look here, brother. We’re going to get a piece of everything—your touring, your T-shirt sales. We own your name; we own this.

big boi mannion

Photo Credit: Jonathan Mannion


Advice: The tides change with the times.
Havoc: One of the situations that [Mobb Deep] had, being young, that kind of stopped us from doing what we wanted to do [was when] we finally got the attention of people over at Def Jam. At the time, what I was told was that Russell Simmons liked our music but we were way too young [and] we cursed too much... It would just be too controversial. We probably had to be, like, 16 at the time, and now, when you think about it, that’s so funny. You got a 16-year-old kid and you wouldn’t want to sign them because of the profanity. It’s like everybody’s on it now. It’s nothing.



Advice: Sleep is the cousin of failure.
Treach: You gotta really make a brand for yourself, like us [Naughty by Nature]. We got the Web site, we got the merchandizing, and we tour year-round internationally, expanding our brand. But if you’re not grinding...it’s not going to work. You have to understand it’s a job. And it’s not a 9 to 5; it’s a 9 to 9—meaning that it’s a 24-hour job. So you have to really love it, because if you’re not here to work, you’re gonna be shut out. Nobody gets rich overnight. If you not in here for the full stretch, if you’re only playing for the season, and not playing for the playoffs or the championships, you’re not going to win. It used to be that the labels were the coaches and you were just a player. Now you’re part player, part coach, part owner—part of everything.