CunninLynguists Look Back on ‘A Piece of Strange’ Album 10 Years Later
Some rap fans may have overlooked the group CunninLynguists due to, as group member Deacon the Villain calls it, their “wack ass name,” while others could have missed them because they don’t have the big marketing machine of a major label behind them. But since the early 2000s, CunninLynguists have made a lasting mark as one of the top independent hip-hop acts in the world. While their first two albums are well-regarded by fans, it was their third LP that truly changed the game.
A Piece of Strange was released a decade ago on Jan. 24, 2006, and stands up as one of the finest hip-hop albums created. While it’s now recognized as an underground classic and a solid concept record, the album was a major turning point for the group at the time. A Piece of Strange delivered a new sound as well as a sharp turn towards conceptual writing. Natti, a new member, was also introduced to the lineup on this LP. Deacon and Kno, the founding members of the group, decided to kick out Mr. SOS and bring the little known Natti into the fold. The move paid off big as CunninLynguists delivered their seminal work and assembled a trio that is still making moves together today.
Ten years after the release of A Piece of Strange, XXL caught up with the CunninLynguists to discuss the album in great deetail. Deacon, Kno and Natti give an unprecedented amount of insight into the making of the project in this exclusive interview. The southern rappers explain how Natti joined the group, recount the development of the concept, break down each track and discuss what life is like in the aftermath of A Piece of Strange.
XXL: How was the decision to bring Natti into the group made?
Deacon the Villain: Around the time that we did A Piece of Strange, right before that was when we made the decision to put [Mr.] SOS out of the group. Natti had already been around for a while because I had a side project going on called Kynfolk and Natti was a part of that. Kno had heard Natti rap on all that Kynfolk stuff and he just slowly started being featured on CunninLynguists stuff. At first, it was real casual. It wasn’t nothing official. But it grew and the fans demanded it.
Kno: Basically Natti was involved in the making of Sloppy Seconds 2, which kind of took place at the exact same time. We were finishing A Piece of Strange and working on Sloppy Seconds Two at basically the same time. He was on a bunch of tracks on that record. And between finishing that and finalizing A Piece of Strange, we went from him being on Sloppy Seconds Two to him officially being in the group. It was a rebound relationship [laughs]. But it worked. I honestly, personally was just enamored with how dope he was. So I was like, “Let me just ask him if he wants to be involved.” He had a great work ethic.
What was that like for you Natti?
Natti: I was being easy [laughs]. I was in a group! They were like, “Hey, wanna be in a group?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure!” I’ll be in all the groups! It was awesome 'cause I had never really entertained rap as being something I did. Even when I was doing the side project with Deacon, it took a while for me to be like, “Damn, I’m a rapper.” I was still in the phase of “Oh, I’m just rapping.” So when Kno was like, “You’re nice enough and I think this could be dope,” I was like, “Well shit, if you think so. Y’all are CunninLynguists! Y’all’ve done two albums before this.”
Kno: It was kind of like the universe pointing things in a certain direction. I feel like the sound for A Piece of Strange, how it was shaping up from a beat and concept perspective… SOS was around for it and didn’t like much or any of it. He didn’t even like the name. He didn’t want to call it A Piece of Strange. He was totally against it. I just remember that was right at the tail end where we were on the verge of him not being in the group. Me and Deacon were like, “Damn, he doesn’t like any of these ideas and we love them.” And it just so happened that he left the group and Natti just kind of fit. His vocal timbre and everything about his approach just fit the record perfectly. So, it really felt like the universe was pointing us in that direction.
When did you first start developing the concept for the album?
Deacon: Like Kno said, SOS was around when it started being developed. I kind of remember us on tour riding around in a car, maybe in Texas somewhere…
Kno: Minneapolis, Minn.
Deacon: Yeah, Minnesota. We were riding around and talking about local slang. I brought up “a piece of strange” and Kno instantly heard of it. I don’t think SOS had heard of it. I don’t think he knew what “a piece of strange” meant. And in Kentucky, “a piece of strange” just means a piece of side pussy. Like a one night stand, you know? I’m going out looking for a piece of strange. Instantly, Kno loved it and was like, “I wanna make an album!” And SOS was like, “Eh.”
Kno: “My girl will be mad about it” [laughs].
Deacon: Kno and I just looked at each other and instantly knew that’s what it is. We be having those synergy moments. That’s just what it is. There’s no turning back. And if you’re not with it, you’re not with us. And that’s kind of how it came to be.
Kno: And why I said Minnesota was I remember having that conversation 'cause Unknown Prophets, a group out of Minnesota, had brought us up there to do a show. And I had literally just made a beat about a day before we left for the show and that beat turned into “Caved In” featuring CeeLo. I remember listening to it in the car and having this discussion about a piece of strange, what it meant, slang and whatever. I remember saying, “You know what would be dope is to get CeeLo on this beat.” And of course at that moment, we had never met CeeLo. We had no connection to him, so we were like, “Nah, that’ll never happen. That’d be dope if it happened though.” So, that was kind of the inception. “Caved In” and we already had, conceptually, a couple ideas for the later part of the album.
Deacon: To piggyback on that, another moment where Kno and I both just knew was when Natti dropped his verse for “America Loves Gangsters.” At that moment, we were like, “You’re in the group. This is the fucking concept.” It was real. Like Kno said, the universe just let us know. It all fell together so quick.
Kno: That generally happens for our albums. Things just click. When they’re ready to click, they click.
Deacon: All of a sudden, you’ve got an album. We’re just not doing shit and suddenly we got 17 songs. How did that happen?
Listen to CunninLynguists' "Caved In" Featuring CeeLo Green
With things clicking like that, how easy or difficult was it finding the concepts for each song and shaping the entire album’s message to make it cohesive?
Deacon: We had just did SouthernUnderground, which was just a bunch of songs. They were cohesive from the standpoint that it was one producer and two rappers pretty much. For A Piece of Strange, we knew we wanted it to be a concept record. We wanted to show our southern roots and our storytelling ability. The songs still fell in line like they normally did. A lot of times it starts with Kno and a sample. Whatever the sample speaks to us, we try not to disrespect it. That’s always been our thing. We found a storyline and started telling the story to reflect the combination of all of us. We just let it progress naturally. We had a framework, which is how we still operate. But once we’ve got that framework and idea, we let the idea develop itself.
Kno: We were learning from SouthernUnderground that we couldn’t make records talking about nothing anymore. Our fan base and the listenership had grown so much that we decided we needed to make something that reflected our persons and abilities. We needed to do something that was more up to our standard. That’s not to say Will Rap for Food or SouthernUndeground are wack, that’s not it.
Deacon: Something that was working in our favor was we consciously said that we want to show people where we’re from. We want to make music that makes you think about the region that we’re from. With Will Rap for Food and SouthernUnderground, that wasn’t happening. People were thinking we were from New York, Jersey, Boston or California. They were guessing everywhere but the south. And I think what helped was for A Piece of Strange and Dirty Acres, Kno and I were roommates. And Natti only lived a mile away. At the time, I recorded people. That was how I supplemented my income. So, all the premier talent from our entire region was around us all the time. So, that highly influenced the sound of it too because every day were we immersed in our local sound. The rap patterns, the tones, the melodies, the chords, the everything… Those two records really sound like where we’re from, from our perspective.
Speaking to the group finally showing their southern sound and sensibilities, “Since When” has always been one of my favorite tracks because of just that. Can you talk about the statements made on that song? I think back to it as a declaration against everyone trying to box the South in as, at that time, the region that only makes songs like “Laffy Taffy.”
Natti: That popped in my head too just before you said it! “Laffy Taffy” was popping back then.
Kno: We made a conscious decision to make a record that we felt was lacking in that time period. A southern record that was soulful and reminded us of the Goodie Mob shit, the Suave House shit. The stuff that we grew up on that was regional to us.
Natti: We didn’t mind giving people something out of the South that wasn’t being given by the South and not necessarily a lot of people were clamoring for either. But sometimes people don’t know they want something until you give it to them.
This album was notable for Kno stepping back from rapping. Was that a purposeful decision on your part or just how it fell into place?
Deacon: Kno don’t really sound southern. So it didn’t really fit…. Nah I’m just fucking around [laughs]. If Kno’s drawl was deeper, he would’ve had more verses [laughs].
Kno: My southern drawl exists, but I’m no Bubba Sparxxx with it.
Natti: It only comes out when he says certain things [laughs].
Kno: I think that they did such a good job that I didn’t feel necessary vocally. I rapped on the one song that I felt like I really had something to give on, but I don’t know. The record was so complicated from a production standpoint. That was the first record that I got lost in.
Deacon: Like I’ve learned recently, 'cause I didn’t really understand it at the time, producing an entire record is an undertaking. A Piece of Strange was a monster. It was the first time we worked with live musicians. We were miking drums and Kno had to mix all of it. He was figuring out how to mix it cause we never did that before. That shit’s tough. And you have Natti who’s new, this dope ass rap animal that came out of nowhere. So, it made it easier for him to step back.
Production wise, this album is seen as a significant shift in your style. Kno, was there a particular moment that sparked this or was it just a natural evolution for you as a producer?
Kno: I think that meeting Willie Eames, the guitarist from Club Dub who was all over that record, precipitated the sound of that album in a way as far as my production’s concerned. I would say anyone who is familiar with my production would say that it’s just gotten more lush. I don’t know if A Piece of Strange was… it was a watershed moment for us and for me production wise, but I don’t think it really dictated where my production went from there. I think I’m varied in my sound, but that was the first record where I was like, “I don’t have to completely rely on samples to accomplish all the things I have in my brain.” And I had never been confident enough to do more or include musicians. I’m self-taught. I wasn’t under somebody’s wing. Everything I knew about producing and mixing and all this shit was just me fucking around on a computer.
Listen to CunninLynguists' "America Loves Gangsters"
You touched on it earlier, but I wanted to come back to “Caved In.” That’s a song that gives fans those Goodie Mob vibes from both the sound and obviously having CeeLo on it. How did CeeLo got involved in the record?
Deacon: We did a show in Cali with CeeLo and Little Brother. It was put together by some students at Pomona College. One of them was our now homie Tunji [Balogun]. They were some students not knowing what they were doing and they treated us, CeeLo and Little Brother all like we were the same. We flew out on the same flight, pulled up in the same limo, stayed up the same hotel and ate at Roscoe’s together. They gave us the star treatment because they were students. If they were local promoters, we never would’ve had the opportunity and never had the CeeLo record. But because of that occurrence, we were put in close proximity with CeeLo. And pretty much anytime we’re in close proximity with somebody, we get cool with them and work with them. That happens almost every time. We’re on an island at times because we’re so self-contained. But when we encounter people, they’re like, “Damn, y’all motherfuckers are kind of cool!” That’s how we end up fucking with CeeLo.
Kno: We kept his contact and got in touch with him after we got back from the show. We talked to him about laying the hook. And this was right before “Crazy” came out, so he was still doing his solo stuff. It’s really thanks to Tunji. Tunji has connected us with a lot of people over the years. Obviously, Tunji is the main A&R at RCA now. He’s the reason Bryson Tiller is signed. He’s had his hands in so many things and that includes us. But we’ve known him for 15 years. His fingerprints are on a lot of different things that we’ve done. BJ the Chicago Kid, he connected us with him. He’s the one the connected us and Kendrick Lamar with Anna Wise. It was Tunji who said, “Yo, check this out.” He sent us the same video he sent Kendrick. He’s the reason she ended up on both of our records.
I wanted to get into your mindset as far as storytelling goes. Two standouts in that early sequence of the album are “Hourglass” and “Beautiful Girl.” Can you talk about your writing on those tracks and how Kno’s beats guide you?
Deacon: With A Piece of Strange, as far as writing, I had never written third person like that.
Natti: Me neither.
Deacon: I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. But as far as writing third person though, that was new.
Natti: With “Beautiful Girl,” I brought a heavy weed influence into CunninLynguists. I think I got CunninLynguists addicted to marijuana [laughs].
Deacon: You probably did!
Natti: I think Kno was like, “We can’t have Natti in the group without him doing something reefer related.” It was just a fun process altogether. It was new to me. I had never written from certain perspectives that were being taken or even the subjects, but that was what was fun about it. As opposed to Kynfolk, which was also super fun, I looked at CunninLynguists as a way to get all the weird and crazy and artistic takes that I might wanna take on something out. I got to get those across through CunninLynguists.
Deacon: The things that I was focusing on, looking back now, was how to write in third person and be more poetic. I didn’t want to just be rappity-rap.
Kno: When I met Deacon, he was very punchline-based.
Deacon. Yeah. And that album, I was trying to show growth. Those were my points of emphasis. But I didn’t realize it until probably this conversation right now.
Kno: I feel like with “Hourglass,” that was the first time Deacon wrote a true stream of consciousness verse. We had a concept for how it would work, and he just let it come out of his pen instead of sitting there and really forcing ideas or forcing lines together. That was one of the first songs we had done. I know that cause it was so early in the process that SOS had dropped a verse for it. He only dropped two verses for that record.
“Brain Cell” was an interesting moment on the album where one of the big story arcs begins to play out. There’s a lot of theories on this song about whether this life cycle story actually happens or if it’s meant to be perceived as a dream. Is that something you can clarify?
Kno: I think the best art is one that can be left up for interpretation. We definitely left this record open-ended on purpose. There’s certain things that the fans figured out that are on point. But there are some of other things where I read a fan interpretation of it and I was like, “Damn, I didn’t even think about that.” But it works and it makes sense. I think that that’s the best kind of art. The shit that just hammers you over the head, that’s not how we intended that record. It can be whatever. It can just be a fantasy. I don’t think it was meant to be 100 percent literal. These events didn’t happen per se, but growing up in the south, all the situations brought up on A Piece of Strange were dealt with firsthand or seen firsthand. They might not be exactly how they were represented in the record, but all that shit in there -- the racism, judging people 'cause their daddy black and their momma white, etc. -- is all things we saw growing up. It’s true, but it’s open to interpretation.
Natti: Kno was just so dope in setting the stage for anything. When I was writing, I’m a cinephile. It felt to me like I was writing a movie. Just like a movie, actual events might inspire something in there. It’s like all the special effects are there, we just gotta bolster the twists and turns but not locked it into anything.
Kno: I think because Natti is a movie buff, his writing is very visual. That lent itself to this record. Our hardcore fans know this, but we were in the process of trying to make a movie. You know like when you get high and watch The Wizard of Oz with The Dark Side of the Moon playing? We wanted to do some shit like that. We wanted to make a movie with no dialogue where the album is just paced over the movie. But this was 10 years ago. This was before we had the means to pull off anything like that. So, it was just an idea instead of something that came to any fruition.
You spoke earlier about how “America Loves Gangsters” was a moment where you knew Natti was a perfect fit for the group. Natti, I want to get your insight into that record and the overall message of the song.
Natti: At that time, I was fresh out of the prison system. The visions in my mind of things I’d seen people do or the people I was locked up with were strong. Like you’re in here with me, but there’s some motherfucker in a suit and tie who’s done something way worse. You were just poor and got caught. I just wanted to convey that there’s a little gangster in everything cause we’re America. Everything we do has a little bit of gangster rap in it. Even the way our leaders react to foreign affairs and the things that we’ll go to war over. You just stepped on my toes and I’m gonna react like a gangster would. I’m gonna burn your whole house down. I’m not gonna go after who wronged me. I’m gonna go after all you motherfuckers! I just took that angle when I started writing.
Deacon: Ignorance and the love of gangster is the reason why Trump is leading so many polls! He’s gangster with it.
Kno: Ten years later and nothing’s changed! When Donald Trump’s up there talking about Mexico and China, he’s talking like he’s got rap beef. He’s just talking shit.
Can you tell me a little bit about getting Tim Means on that track and having a spoken word end to it?
Deacon: Tim is a homie of mine. I’ve known him since second grade. He’s always been a super introspective guy. He’s like the concept of the record: on a constant journey to find one’s self and being real about the world you live in. He’s just a deep dude.
Kno: And he’s unapologetically himself.
Deacon: Honestly, “America Loves Gangsters” was his poem. He had a weekly poetry thing on the scene and we heard the poem like, “We’re jacking that and we’ll put you on it!” It was like an eight-minute piece the way he did it, so we asked him to find a way to shorten it and make it a driving force behind our new record.
Kno: It fit perfectly. We were kind of deep in the process at that point and I remember going to one of his poetry slam sessions, whatever you call it, in Lexington. We were already a good eight to 10 songs deep in that record, but I was like, “That is amazing.” Conceptually, it fit the record. So, let’s talk to Tim about it. At first, I don’t think we were even gonna make it a track. We were just gonna have him do a shorter version of the poem. The more we talked about it and the more he was cool with it, we just decided to say fuck it and make a song about it. And the end of the album, “The Light,” that was a jacked idea as well. That was a Club Dub song without the rapping and singing. I remember Deacon and I, maybe Natti too, going to one of their shows and hearing that song. And we asked them if we could record it and make a rap song out of it. And they said sure 'cause we’re their friends.
Listen to CunninLynguists' "Never Know Why" Featuring Immortal Technique
For many listeners, the most memorable sequence of the album is “Never Know Why” all the way up to “Hellfire.” You spoke on this a bit earlier, but this section goes into the story of a man’s feelings with having a mixed race granddaughter. It’s sort of a rare topic in hip-hop as Juggaknots’ “Clear Blue Skies” was the one of the few that can recall addressing a similar subject. Tell us a little about the conception of “Never Know Why” and how Immortal Technique became involved.
Deacon: That section of the album, more than anything, is the most southern perspective. Just Bible Belt, racist, southern perspective. Immortal Technique was a great contrast because he was the militant that represented and fought against all the hate outside of the south. He was perfect to introduce that. Like you said, if you put that in a four-song block, he helped kick off that narrative and make it worldly. 'Cause we’re super southern and he’s Immortal Technique. He’s Che Guevera mixed with Huey P. Newton. He’s everything.
Kno: It’s funny because we asked him to write from the perspective of what he despises. And the thing is that he’s such a dope conceptual writer, it’s nothing to him. There’s two points on this that people don’t really know. The sequencing of this album is very based on a certain numerology. You have the song “Hellfire” at 13. That was done for a reason. There’s biblical numerology just in the tracklisting. So, this was the first record where Deacon was able to input… I’m not gonna say his knowledge of the Bible, but the bottom line is he’s Deacon the Villain. He was raised by a pastor. There were certain things that I wanted to involve that were in his brain that he didn’t get a chance to touch on the first two albums and that was one of them. That whole section, we basically have a song about getting cock-blocked at the gates of Heaven. Who else can do that or approach that besides a guy who is basically a preacher’s son?
Deacon: And to keep it all the way real, that was scary writing that record because I am Christian. I do believe in Heaven. So as I’m writing that, I’m being a judge.
Kno: And correct me if I’m wrong, but you sat down with your father and discussed that record?
Deacon: I didn’t sit down with him, but we were in New Mexico recording and I called my pops multiple times. I was having to call Tonedeff and I was checking in with my pops to be like, “If God is real, if I say something this way, I’m not gonna be struck by lightning, right?”
Kno: And it’s also a tightrope because it wasn’t our intention to make a Christian rap record. That’s not what it is.
Deacon: But we wanted it to be theologically correct.
Kno: Right. If we’re truly talking about the South then there’s gonna be biblical aspects to it. Just as much as there’s racism and poverty, there’s gonna be some theological elements.
It was important for you to be accurate while not being “Christian rappers.” You are presenting a fact of life in the South.
Natti: We live in the Bible Belt. People use that Bible for a multitude of good and bad reasons down here.
I wanted to touch more on “The Gates” and Tonedeff’s involvement. Obviously there’s the QN5 connection, but what made him the right guy for this song and that role?
Kno: When I first approached Tonedeff for this, I specifically did this because I knew he’d be dope for it. But, I wanted to see if he had it in him to tone it down. Because at that point, we’d already done two or three records with him. On all of them, he was the first one on the record rapping. And he was just going in, rapping his ass off! He was blowing everybody’s mind. Everyone hears the song and says, “Tonedeff’s amazing! He killed it!” And this was our first record where we were shifting gears and I remember Tone joking like, “I’m gonna be on this record right? I’ve been on your first two, so we gotta keep this chain going.” This song came along and I told Tone he’d work for it, but he’s gotta tone it down. This can’t be a battle rap with a concept. That’s not what we’re looking for here. It has to be approached differently. What’s funny is he came back and I still have somewhere on a hard drive like 40 extra bars for that song. He basically came back with all these bars and I was like, “This ain’t it.”
Deacon: Two things I wanna say to spin off what Kno just said. First, every time Tone turns in a verse there’s 40 extra bars left on the floor. And two, I didn’t know Kno and Tone had that conversation but it makes sense. Tone had to tap into the same thing me and Natti were tapping into, which was being more of a storyteller and more poetic. Tone, he’s a poet in the highest sense. He’s a writer. I think him knowing us has probably helped him foster that poeticism more than without knowing us.
Kno: He came up in the battle scene in New York, so his mentality was to attack.
Deacon: We helped tone him down as rapper and he helped liven us up as a live act on stage.
Kno: I think that’s definitely been a healthy tradeoff with Tone in our friendship.
Hitting on the “Damnation Interlude” that comes up next in that sequence, I wanted to get your thoughts on the album’s interludes. Sometimes it feels like interludes are there just for the sake of it, but they feel important on A Piece of Strange. Can you talk about their importance on this album?
Kno: I think because of how the record was sequenced, it was important to have a few gear changes because conceptually the record is sectioned off the way that it is. Some of the instrumental stuff and the interlude stuff was important to… to go back to what you said about the dream theory or the fantasy theory. Halfway through the record it’s like this guy gets really fucking high with his girlfriend and might have just had some dreams. Like the second half of the record might’ve just been a dream. So from that perspective, when you section the record off into sub-plots, those interludes were important to switch gears. If you take them out and listen to record without those in there, it’s a little more jarring in places. I think that’s why it was important. I definitely agree from the standpoint that sometimes or even most times interludes are just there for no reasons. And we wanted to even shy away from that because honestly, our first two records had interludes that didn’t have any fucking purpose. They were just there to have extra stuff. I think that’s when we started to learn that more isn’t necessarily better. It has to have a reason. And 12 songs with a purpose is more important than 18 and half of them have no purpose even if they’re dope.
Natti: I always looked at the interludes like Kno wasn’t rapping like he was in the past, so those were his solos to me. It was his time to shine and carry the album from this song to the next one. It was a great responsibility and Kno’s dope at it. He got to spread out and be him on those interludes.
Deacon: When Kno makes beats, he’s also just an artist. Sometimes he makes something dope and it doesn’t need to be rapped on. It might not even be to a melody or rhythm that is hip-hop.
Natti: I got few beats from Kno like that. Like damn, I don’t even wanna rap on that. I just wanna listen to it.
Deacon: Like “Remember Me (Abstract/Reality).” Nobody needs to rap on that.
Capping off that sequence is “Hellfire.” I can’t think of a better sample or vibe that encapsulates the story you’re telling of witnessing the fires of hell. Kno, could you speak on the production and how it stood out as a deviation from some of the other songs on this album?
Kno: From a production standpoint, “Hellfire” and “Nothing to Give” were two of the last songs we recorded for that record. “Hellfire” had the sample for a while, but it took a long time to tame it and really make it sound the way I want to sound. Again, I wasn’t really that skilled at mixing. I might have an idea in my head, but I wasn’t at the point where I was super proficient at making it sound the way I imagined it. Those two songs got finished later, but I remember being in the process of making the record and this was back when I worked part-time at Pop’s Resell in Lexington. It was basically a used record store. All I did was price records all day. So anything that was interesting, I would just throw on the PT01 portable turntable and listen to it for samples. I remember throwing it on, this Arthur Brown track “Fire” that was his only hit. I felt like I’d heard it before on Night Flight or some old school 80’s video show. As soon as I heard it though, I made that face and started skipping the needle across the record to certain sample points in a pattern of how I was thinking about sampling it. I remember chomping at the bit for the rest of my shift and went directly home to make the beat because it fit so perfectly conceptually with what we were trying to tie together.
So from a production standpoint, we were in need of something with an edge and something to tie the record together in that sequencing. It just happened to work perfectly because I didn’t feel like record had enough high energy moments. So, it killed two birds with one stone. But it’s that synergy again. When we make records, things just kind of happen. It fell into our lap. Sequencing wise, it’s three or four tracks in a row that are down tempo and mellow. You don’t want people falling asleep regardless of how dope it is. You wanna bring ‘em back.
Listen to CunninLynguists' "Beautiful Girl"
Deacon and Natti, can you tell me about creating the imagery for that song?
Deacon: On that song, I was just trying to keep up with Natti.
Natti: I pretended like I was rapping my verse and the stage was actually surrounded by fire. That was the image in my head the entire time. It’s high energy. You’re burning in hellfire, literally, but I thought it should have that anger to it. You’re mad that you’re there for eternity. But at the same time, you’ll never stop burning. It just had to fiery. When I heard that beat, I was like, “This shit is fucking bananas.” That might be one of the quickest verses that I did.
Kno: He had it done in like a day. I sent him the beat at 10 o’clock the night I made it and he came and recorded it the next day! And that’s why Deacon was saying he was just trying to keep up with him 'cause Natti laid down his verse quickly. He didn’t give Deacon any time to bounce ideas off or anything like that.
Deacon: And it was fire! I wasn’t even offended because it was so good. For me at that point, my verse was less about summing up the album conceptually. My verse was about bringing the intensity of the word fire and bringing it back full circle to “Since When.” Just southern n----s spitting. We got that fire. It was around when Dylan, that whole joke was big. So, I just wanted to spit fire. I wanted people to hear that song and be like, “These motherfuckers can rap.” I don’t always write like that, from that motivating space. But Natti killing it and wanting to bring it back to “Since When" was my motivating force.
“What’ll You Do” is one that hits home for anybody involved in some type of creative outlet or career. The line “for the love is hard reason to keep my life in suspension” always sticks out. What was your mindset at the time as you crafted this song?
Deacon: When we recorded SouthernUnderground and A Piece of Strange, it was still becoming real to us. Like Kno said though, we were still working jobs. Music and the dream was real in that we saw its possibilities cause we had rocked enough shows to pay some bills off it. But when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re self-taught, it sucks. There’s no guarantees. That was just a real moment. When you get a new job and you gotta wait for those first three weeks for your check, you know how hard that wait can be. But we were in the phase where we’d been working on this album for year, it don’t come out for three months, and then it when it comes out we won’t see any money for three more months! That’s like waiting on that first check.
Kno: Except that three week wait is stretched out over three years when you’re a fucking independent artist.
Deacon: So, that’s a hell of a sacrifice that you’re making. That was just that moment. That wasn’t in third person. This is the time on the album where I tell you what it’s really like. I don’t have a whole album telling you what’s going on with me, so I’m kicking all the way real with you right here. Cause a n---- really wants to quit half the time. I’m tired of barely making ends meet. I’m tired of ramen noodles.
Natti: If every person who loved a CunninLynguists songs paid a dollar for one, we could fund three more albums. We’re real people!
Deacon: That was a time in our life where we’ve got $10 in our pocket and it’s like, “Am I gonna eat? Am I gonna smoke cigarettes? Am I gonna put gas in my car?”
Kno: And from a numbers standpoint, that was sort of the conceptual ending to the record. The opening track is a question mark. It’s “Where Will You Be?” and the last track is “What’ll You Do?” And then the last track, “The Light,” is like a ride out or tie together to the record. But one through 15, that question mark is there for a reason. It was kind of like the yin to the “Where Will You Be?” yang. Just like how “Hellfire” was mirroring “Since When.” The record starts with high energy then it goes into a very specific vibe then brings it up and out.
So with “The Light,” you said it was originally a Club Dub song. Tell me how it evolved into your own track and ended up on A Piece of Strange.
Deacon: I’ll shout out EmTre. She’s been on a couple songs with us. She introduced us to Club Dub. When I first heard the song, it reminded me of the Aquemini intro. It had that vibe. It was so Dungeon Family and Parliament-Funkadelic, but new. And it was so Kentucky. Club Dub’s sound is so Kentucky. Willie [Eames] just took EmTre’s word. We weren’t household names or even local superstars yet, so she introduced Willie to our music the right way. Upon meeting him, he thought we were dope even though he didn’t know much about us. And we were just blown away cause we’d never really worked with a band before. If you play an instrument for real, you’re like a god. They laugh at how we’re just bowing to them all the time.
Kno: I envisioned recording it and maybe sampling the recording on some Portishead shit. But it just happened to work out that it made more sense have it all be live because it fit the end of the record. Club Dub’s title for the instrumental version of that song before we stole was called “Praise the Light.” And we just lopped off the praise and called it “The Light.”
Natti: I loved the track, the beat, the instrumentation and everything. It was hard doing my verse because I wanted to encapsulate what the album was, but there was so much to it. I had to take the approach that people from different walks of life could understand that this could be your reality. This could be going on around you or it could be happening directly to you. I wanted to dance on the instruments as well. It was a dope moment for me because if you’re gonna end the album with it, you gotta make it come out right.
Kno: It allowed Natti to get his double-time chopper on.
Natti: Yeah. When I first started rapping, I was a double time rapper. I didn’t really slow down until I started doing stuff with Kynfolk. It used to just be what I did.
Kno: I think another interesting fact about that record is Deacon’s mom sings on it. And I think Deacon was still at a point in his life where his family knew he was a rapper, but there was still a pull to not be a rapper. He still wasn’t in a 100% comfortable place with, “Hey y’all, I make rap music. And it’s about weed and shit!” I think there was still like a tightrope to walk there in my mind. Not Deacon so much, but I was like, “Is it cool if we get your mom on this track?” Cause then Natti comes in rapping about pimps. Is that cool? I don’t wanna offend because I love his family. You always have to think about that as a producer. Who’s gonna be cool with what? You can’t have somebody come in, lay a vocal track and the rapper comes in rapping about some egregious shit that person doesn’t want to be associate with. You have to be mindful of it.
Deacon: It was kind of that. My family definitely knew the crassness of my life, mainly off of Kynfolk. That shit was debauchery. My sister, who also sung on “The Light,” has always sung on my music no matter what it is. But this CunninLynguists album was the first time that there was something I felt comfortable putting my momma on. She’s the preacher’s wife. I just can’t have her on anything. Yeah, my father’s a preacher, but there’s just certain things y’all gotta accept. I smoke weed and I go to the strip club. It’s not gonna be anything worse than that. I’m not gonna be squeaky clean. But the preacher’s wife, she chose to be there. I didn’t choose to be the preacher’s kid. I was born into it. So, I respect the positions they have. I’m not gonna have my pops talk on any record.
Natti: That’s why I felt totally comfortable saying my verse with your mom on it because your family is not detached from the street. As much as God is involved, the street is very much there.
Deacon: My pop’s favorite record in our whole career is “Beautiful Girl” and he knows it’s about weed. He brings it up all the time.
Listen to CunninLynguists' "The Light" Featuring Club Dub
Wrapping things up, A Piece of Strange is so highly regarded now. It’s considered a classic and gets heavy praise from both fans and critics. It’s typically the album people recommend when someone’s never heard of CunninLynguists before. But what were your feelings both creatively and in your career after the album was released?
Deacon: We didn’t think it would be received well quickly. We knew it was dope, but figured it would be a slow burn. We expected a lot of, “This is not what we wanted to hear from them.”
Kno: We had that discussion.
Deacon: The backlash wasn’t as bad as we expected. We expected it to be received worse than it was.
Kno: I think that record taught us a lot of lessons, both good and bad. From a good standpoint, it was do whatever you want to do as long as you believe that it’s dope. The music will find other people that think it’s dope and it will be all good. I think we were worried that it was too much of a shift and direction change from SouthernUnderground stylistically.
Natti: I had the advantage of not being involved in the first two albums, so for me it was like what’s the debate about? This shit was dope!
Kno: Natti was kind of an excuse in that way. Here’s a new rapper and he fits this stylistically. So, it makes more sense to do this with him in the group. Not to say it was a cop out, but it made more sense when people heard and liked Natti. But there were a lot of question marks. We kicked somebody out of the group and replaced them. So, you’re getting rid of a person that people have grown accustomed to for a year and a half or two years. You’re removing an entire third of what people know to be this thing and replacing him with someone totally different. There’s that. And then there’s the sound, which is totally different. We learned if it’s dope, it’ll do what it needs to do. But there were people when the record first came out saying CunninLynguists made a pop record. How stupid is that? In retrospect, 10 years later, how bizarre is that statement? But back then, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. So if motherfuckers were talking shit, I wouldn’t argue with them per se, but I would definitely take a screenshot of what they said. I probably still have screenshots on some fucking CD-R or DVD somewhere with motherfuckers saying we went pop and this doesn’t sound nothing like their old shit.
And for the bad, we learned that you have to be careful who you do business with. I think that before that moment, we never had a problem because we dealt with the dude Gene at Freshchest Records. He helped guide us through the process of finding distributors and learning all the things we needed to know as independent artists. And then we basically shopped A Piece of Strange before it was completely finished to a few different labels. I think we sent it to Nature Sounds. We had a deal on the table with Rhymesayers, but they were not willing to do a one-off. They were basically like, “We need you for your career. We need you for three records.” At the time, that wasn’t appealing to us. We didn’t wanna force ourselves into a situation where we married ourselves to a company.
Natti: We knew what kind of dope music we had in the tank [laughs].
Kno: With the Rhymesayers thing, I think this was when they were on the verge of signing a major distribution deal and we knew that this record might get caught up in the sample clearance tidal wave. That was around the time they stopped using samples in their records cause they couldn’t anymore because they were being distributed by Warner Bros. Now granted, had we put the record out through Rhymesayers, we’d probably be rich by now [laughs]. But, we did learn you can’t just put a record out with anyone because we ended up putting it out through someone who fucked us. But that was the last time we ever made that mistake and I think we’re better for it. It just so happens that it’s our most popular record and like you said, it’s the record people suggest when they recommend our music. It hurts a little less when I see tattoos of the cover on people. It hurts less to have been fucked so royally over the money when I remember how much it means to people. It makes it hurt a little less that I’ve never seen a dime from it essentially because it means so much to so many people.
Natti: I was very proud because it was the first time I’d been a part of something with an actual barcode. Career-wise, since we dealt with a douchebag, I didn’t feel any different. I just had to do what I had to do to pay the bills [laughs]. But it was nice to have that feather in the cap. I was a part of this awesome thing we put out. And in such a short time on a shoestring budget, we came out with something special.
Kno: I think after A Piece of Strange, people were like, “Oh these guys are dope. We should actually take them seriously.” And there’s a lot of younger artists who tell me this is one of their favorite records of all-time. We see the praise the album gets and I agree with it. I don’t mean that from a place of ego either. Anybody heralding independent hip-hop from the 2000s, if they don’t include this record in the top 10 or top 20, they’re a fucking idiot. I look back at this record and realize what it was at the time. Anybody with talent could have made Will Rap for Food or SouthernUnderground. But you name one independent hip-hop group from that time period that could’ve made A Piece of Strange. You can’t. It’s like Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. That duo with El-P on the boards, nobody else could’ve made the record. And that’s why that record stands where it does in the time period. I feel that way about this record. Nobody but us could’ve made it. And when you can say that as an artist, that’s a proud moment.
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