Natural Elements is practically a secret society in hip-hop circles in 2014. Back in the day, though, the crew of A-Butta (now known as Anthony Cruz), L-Swift (now known as Swigga), Mr. Voodoo, and producer Charlemagne were lighting it up, whether on classic college radio freestyles or touring overseas with a young Roots crew. They were killing it so much that Tommy Boy signed them, but the rest of the story plays like Industry Rule #4080. Since then, though, A-Butta’s life has been anything but boring, from singing in a Japanese punk rock band to quietly dropping a solo album under his government name. Anthony Cruz gives a rare interview where he speaks on the early Natural Elements days, how he became a member of the crew after Ka’s departure, how they perfected the three-man weave, his adventure in Japanese punk rock, how the Natural Elements crew came back together, why he only likes to write four bars a day, and a lot more in this exclusive interview.
Here are some quotes from the feature:
On the chemistry in Natural Elements after coming back together:
It felt like we never missed a day. Like, literally, it was like, yo, it was the weirdest thing, but it wasn’t that weird because I’m always talking with Swig. We all live in New York. We see each other and know how everybody’s doing. We link up, but not on some music stuff. We just kick it on a human level. But me and Swigga were always rocking together as 2Face. I had him on my songs. I’ve been on his songs for solo projects. Even Voo. He jumped on one of Swigga’s mixtapes. It wasn’t like it was that difficult to transition, but was way easier than I thought. Once Voo got there, I was like, ‘Wow!’ We wrote “All Hail N.E.” and that’s a joint that we were all writing line-for-line. And it was crazy in the studio because it was just coming so fast. I would just write a line and Voo would write one and we would just bang it out. That was kind of what we were known for, feeding off each other line-for-line type of thing. A lot of people done it since but we had to do the three man weave. So that was ill. Anything else is easy.
On Natural Elements perfecting the Three Man Weave rap technique:
They first did it when I wasn’t even in the group. They had did it with Ka. Ka’s making an ill comeback himself. He’s all over the place. For those who don’t know, he was an original Natural Elements memeber before me. He was down with Swigga and Voo. He had recorded with them back in the day when they were doing demo deals back in the day with Def Jam. That was the first time they ever did it. It was Ka, Swigga, who was L-Swift back then, and Mr. Voo. And I think the song was called “Triple Team.” That’s literally how it started. And I remember hearing it on the college radio and I was a fan. That blew me away. I didn’t even know them at the time. It was crazy! And then we all connected at college radio and we did it again in “Bust Mine.” And it was easy. We would be on the phone and I would tell Swig how I would end my rhyme and to find a word that goes with it and then keep going. And that was how we did it. It was real easy to do. We would just feed each other the last part of the rhyme and they could flip it and rhyme that way and take that and do what they want with it and that was how we did it, counting bars and everything. And the new stuff, that’s cool and everything but I’ve been talking to them about incorporating some other kinds of creative techniques where we really try to weave it out on another level. We try to do some extra shit now, like going word for word or counting each other’s syllables. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.
On his writing process:
Sometimes it will just come to me. I’ll come up with the choruses. Choruses come pretty fast. Once I have that, I’m good money. I don’t write my rhymes. I repeat them in my head all the time. It’s like very rare for me to write a rhyme. If I do it’s because I’m lazy and I type it in the computer. But most of the time, I’m repeating it in my head. When I write, once I get that first line, everything builds from there. If I finish the whole 16 bars, I usually come up with a few bars because I’m so picky and OCD, I’ll come up with a couple of bars and then nitpick it to death. Say it’s four bars on Monday. I don’t want to just finish the verse to finish the verse. The next day will come and I’ll build off those four bars and make the 16 bars. It might take the whole week. Just because I’m picky doesn’t mean I can’t write anything in day. But I’m picky and I have to make sure I like it. And then I’ll edit it, first draft, second draft, and I’m still memorizing it to perfection. By the time two weeks comes along, I got that. And that’s just a verse. There’s three verses in a song, or two, and you’re looking at a month until I get a song. But that’s me being super-OCD…I have to let go at some point or nothing else would get released.
On how the path to success in hip-hop has changed in the last 15 years:
It’s an interesting question because I think back then, you know, there wasn’t really the internet like that. We was on college radio and it wasn’t crazy like it is now. I think that in a sense, there was more mystery and us being oblivious to how it was. When people were talking about Natural Elements and they was in California, I had no idea. I was just relying on people telling me they knew who we were. I was like, ‘Oh word, that’s crazy.’ Right now it’s all accessible and the element and aura of mystery involved added to our legend. They didn’t even know what we look like, even to this day. It’s weird like that. Now everything’s accessible and attention spans, that’s another thing. There is no attention span. You can’t even let a record live. By the time I download one mixtape, there’s another one dropping. One artist is dropping 100 songs a day. Lil’ B had a hundred songs on his album. Let me digest Lil’ B’s 100 songs and in the blink of a night Gucci Mane drops five albums. How am I going to listen to five albums from Gucci Mane and 100 songs of Lil’ B and then your joint drops with The Freshness…I can’t keep up! I think a lot of that has to do with it, because back in the day you had a couple of different sources but you would let that marinate and you would attach to it. It was personal. Now the attachment is played out. It’s difficult, man. But that’s part of it. You have to adapt and adjust. And for me, if I put all my energy into that, I would lose my mind. All I can do is put my energy into what I’m doing and what I’m creating and hopefully people will appreciate it. You can’t get too caught up, man.