From the opening bars of the Incomparable Shakespeare’s latest release By Any Dreams Necessary, it’s clear the MC’s not here to play. By Any Dreams Necessary is a great introduction to the Shakespearean era of hip-hop, from lyrical bangers like “Shaky Baby” to an updated retelling of Romeo and Juliet on “A Love Story.” The Brooklyn product takes some time out of his hectic schedule to let us know where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going. One thing you can count on is that with everything coming up, he’s gonna stayeth on that grind.
You’ve been gaining so much momentum in the past few months for your project By Any Dreams Necessary. Is that surprising you at all?
To be honest, I would say no. Without sounding egocentric or egotistical, it’s just that I’ve put a lot of work into this. I’m not new to rapping. It’s dope to see the fruits of my labor start to pay off, but if anything, I think I’m more excited about what is to come, because I kind of feel like when I think about my trajectory and moving forward and where I want to go, there’s still so much that I have to do. These are like the warm-up steps before preparing for the next steps.
You’ve had projects drop over the past few years, including Heavy Rotation in ‘09. Why do you think things are picking up now?
I would attribute a lot of that to having a great support system and a great team. I think they offset some of my shortcomings. I absolutely believe that. As an artist, you can get inside of your head. When you’re the person that creates the music, your head’s in so many other things that other things can suffer. In my case, I would have a spark and I would have momentum, but I wouldn’t be consistent with it. I think that’s changed with the people around me and good friends. They were like, ‘This is what needs to happen’ and now there’s a plan and we’re being very specific with the rollout. I think all that has contributed to building the momentum.
A lot of successful artists I talk to have a great team around them. How did you go about making sure you had the right pieces in place without having yes-men and hangers-on?
Loyalty and trust. I think that everyone has to kind of think along the same lines. I think luckily in my situation, I’m working with my boys. These are people that I’ve known for a long time. I’m talking about that with my managers and producers. The people that work with me on the management tip, those are my boys and we’re family. We’ve known each other for a very long time. We’ve experienced a lot as friends and real life and growing together. I really feel like that’s it. I can tell you that it’s very hard to find the right team. I know a lot of artists that have struggled with that for a long time but it takes everyone being on the same wavelength at the same time and wanting to get the same thing out of it. And I think that in my situation, as a collective, we all kind of got to the same point independently, and then it was just like, ‘Let’s just bring it together and figure out how we can facilitate each other’s dreams.’
One of my favorite lines you dropped was in your Showoff Radio freestyle, where you said, “I’m a product of the Golden Era’s new school.” Can you talk more about that?
That’s just the truth. I’m very much a byproduct of that. I was lucky enough to experience hip-hop at a very crucial crossroads where it was gaining mainstream success. I was still at a point where I was seeing the beginning of the careers of the Nas’s and Jay-Z’s as well as the underground hip-hop, which was beginning to blossom in New York like Stretch and Bobbito or The Underground Railroad with J-Smoothe. And that kind of gave birth to Common and Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch as a soloist. That was dope music. It wasn’t Underground versus Mainstream, because some of the biggest songs from the mid to late ‘90s were on college radio. It was dope to be able to digest that, and on top of that, I was affiliated with one of the most elite crews coming from New York’s underground, which was Natural Elements. Just having them around as mentors and Charlemagne as a mentor to shape me, it was just dope to take all of that in as a young teenager.
You shout Natural Elements out in your music and what’s great is how active A-Butta and Swigga, or L-Swift, are today. What did you pick up being around such talented artists?
It was so much! Most people don’t know this because it’s not something that I hold as a badge of honor, but I don’t write. I’m not saying I never write, but typically. That doesn’t mean I don’t think of my rhymes. It’s not all freestyle off the top or improv, but I typically don’t jot down my lyrics. That’s something that I got from A-Butta. He was the first person I knew that didn’t write and I remember the conversation I had with him and he might not even remember the conversation, but he told me I might benefit from not writing my rhymes because then I’m not going to focus so much on trying to fit as many schemes in as I would. When you establish that you understand the technical ends of rhyming and that you know how to rhyme, I think that’s helped me exponentially.
And just their work ethic, man. I would go to Fortress every weekend and literally, they were coming up with songs all the time. We would probably try to get to the studio and just seeing their output and how hard they worked. Charlemagne would be in the studio and everyone knows how Kanye made three beats a day for three summers, and Charlemagne was on the same thing. He would just turn beats out. There’d be four or five new beats right in front of you. Just understanding that work ethic and concentrating on your craft, those are definitely things that I got from them.
And now you’re freestyling right next to Scott Storch on Sway’s Wake-Up Show. What was that like?
Just his accolades as a producer, and I don’t say that to discredit him, but for me, personally, to be next to Scott Storch, I was like, ‘This is Scott Storch from The Roots!’ Black Thought is one of my favorite rappers. This is a guy that was instrumental on their first and second albums. When you read their credits, it’s Scott Storch on the keys. This is someone people don’t always know that he has that underground lineage. On one hand, he’s a super-producer who’s working with Rick Ross on Mastermind, but he was doing it with Black Thought and ?uestlove and it’s so crazy to me. Those are the moments that do it for me. I was like a little kid. I was just like, ‘Wow!’
It seems like By Any Dreams Necessary is getting a slow, steady burn. Is it doing what you wanted it to?
I think it’s on pace. It’s doing what we had planned. It’s a very solid body of work and we really wanted to push it over a long period of time. That’s not to say I’m not going to come out with complimentary content. I just put out a new remix. But I think By Any Dreams Necessary is not just a testament to me coming from that era and being a lyricist, but I make really dope music. I’m a songwriter as well. I don’t think that lyricism should be compromised by making great records that have commercial viability and vice versa. I don’t think that because you make a song that has the potential to be a hit record, you should dumb it down or kind of not spit your best verse. I think this project offers a balance of great lyricism with catchy music, and that was kind of the goal. I just wanted to establish something where people could see me as a songwriter and as a great lyricist that holds on to the aesthetics of good hip-hop.
It’s not necessarily underground and it’s not necessarily pop. It’s just great music that you can sing along to and live through vicariously. And the project’s doing well, man. I’m really grateful for everything, for every write-up to every mention by the fans to every interview. I don’t take it for granted. This is all I ever wanted. I’m just happy to see people respond to it as positively as they have up to this point. We’re going to keep pushing it too. I think even on first listen, you know, people might be like, ‘This is dope,’ but I want people to know that it’s not disposable because we live in an era where people put out content so often that it becomes overwhelming. Dope music can easily get lost in the cracks because you put out something dope in January and then here we are in February and we forget that some amazing music came out just a few weeks ago.
It’s becoming more and more disposable as well, which I didn’t think was possible. Are there any regrets with giving it out for free, despite the benefits that come with a free project?
Well, actually the music is available on iTunes and Google Play and Amazon’s MP3 store and all of that. I just think that starting out, and this is where being business savvy really comes into play, I think you don’t want there to be a hurdle or any types of obstacles with people learning who you are or learning about you as an artist. That’s one of the reasons why it’s available for free. But on the upside, not everyone is going to discover me through the blogs or interviews.
They may discover me from a music video or Shazam, and that’ll take them to the iTunes store. You want to be in as many places as possible at this stage. Not everyone is consuming music from a Complex or Pitchfork or a NahRight. You want to have it on as many platforms as possible and you want to reduce the hurdles people have to get the content. Someone might discover me on Spotify. I want to make it where if you want to get the music, you can get it for free. I’m not opposed to that, but there’s going to be someone who discovers the music through Shazam or through a music video. However you get it, get it. I just want the music to be in as many places as possible.
Every time I’ve seen you, you’re rocking a scarf. What’s your collection like?
I actually don’t have a huge scarf collection. It’s more me being a fan of Ralph Lauren and growing up in Brooklyn and what the Lo-Lifes did to popularize Ralph Lauren in urban culture. I would say that 90% of my wardrobe is Ralph Lauren. It’s all attributed to the cultural influence of the Lo-Lives and Ralph Lauren and how much I’m attached to that brand.
Meyhem Lauren’s got an amazing Polo collection. Do you save your pieces through the years and have a nice collection?
I have tons of stuff. Meyhem is the homie. That’s one of the few dudes that I’m really cool with outside of music. And I would say that’s how I kind of met Meyhem, just running in the circle of the same dudes who rock ‘Lo. But I definitely have tons of my old stuff. It’s at my sister’s crib! (laughs) But I have tons of things that people would be surprised by. I’ve got the bicycle t-neck, the Indian Head stuff, the Teddy Bear sweaters, all the stuff the collectors go crazy for on eBay. I try not to flash it too heavily because it’s not the type of stuff I wear today, but I got all types of goodies in the stash.
What’s your favorite spot to cop in New York?
Honestly, it’s always cool to go to The Mansion. That’s always an experience. And you’ll get everything there, from Blue Label and Purple Label and Black Label. I think on the regular retail side, Bloomingdale’s always gets dope stuff. I shouldn’t be giving all these trade secrets! At this point, I think all of the real ‘Lo heads have access to someone who works at Ralph Lauren. I got a friend who lets me know what’s going to drop before it drops. But I’ve copped a lot of pieces at Lord and Taylor’s on 38th and 5th. They have so many unadvertised sales that I’ve come up crazy in that store. You would go to the register and already be reduced and then it’s an extra 30% off! There’s definitely some dope stuff that I’ve got there super-cheap. And it’s funny because now, a lot of the stores, whoever the buyers are, every store doesn’t get everything, so it’s always interesting to find out who might get what pieces. For example, Macy’s got their own Teddy Bear that was a remake of the 2001 Teddy Bear, except it was navy blue, and no other store had that, so you could only get it there. You have to search and you have to scour!
You’ve said that if you weren’t an MC, you’d want to be a cartoonist. Do you still draw?
Listen, you give me a pencil and I’m not saying I draw every day anymore, but if I have a piece of paper for anything, it doesn’t matter what medium, give me some pastels, and I’ll start drawing. It’s definitely something that’s always been a part of me. Just being a kid and watching cartoons, I’ve always been enamored by the art styles, whether it was Hannah Barbara or whatever. I was always interested in seeing the differences in the techniques and the styles, because they had distinct styles between each cartoon. I also grew up reading comic books. All of that contributed to me wanting to be a cartoonist.
By Any Dreams Necessary is continuing to do well, you’ve had some great interviews, and the feedback’s been great. What’s next for you?
Being very realistic, I think in the next six to eight months, you’re going to hear me continue to scream By Any Dreams Necessary. I think you’re going to see me make the transition to television and more mainstream radio. I think in addition to that, though, I will continue to put out more new music. I think people can look forward to The Invincible Dream Series Part 2, where I rock over underground hip-hop, where it’s not so much song-focused but more me rhyming over my favorite things. There’s that coming down the pipeline and there’s a project I’m working on now that’s an extension of By Any Dreams Necessary. It’s dope. I think people will really be surprised and excited about it. And again, it’ll give By Any Dreams a jolt of energy and make it fresh all over again and I think people will go back and rediscover it. We’re working. But I definitely think the focal point will be making the transition to television and radio where you can put on your local radio station and hear Shakespeare or see me on MTV or wherever and see Shake on.