Substantial on Becoming a Lifelong Learner
I was able to sit down with Substantial via Facetime at the end of February in 2020. The Prince George County emcee was generous enough to give me an hour of his time in spite of some technical difficulties.
Substantial's career is impressive in its scope, ranging from working with Japanese producer Nujabes to collaborations with DJ Kool Herc and Oddisee. More recently, Substantial has released instrumental records featuring his production.
Some of my favorite moments from our conversation were:
-his friendship with hip-hop founding father DJ Kool Herc [0m]
-what makes a good emcee through the track "Dr. Thinkinreim" [5m]
-the difference between emceeing and poetry [10m]
-his creative process [15m-20m]
-learning how to produce after a lifelong practice of being in front of the mic [25m]
-how he thinks about production and emceeing as an artist who does both [35m]
-performing with a live band [40m]
-how he has continued to grow throughout his career [50m-end]
Note: All artist interviews are posted with explicit consent of the artist. None of this transcript has been edited for time or content, and I have added annotations when necessary to elaborate on the conversation. Edits, additions, or changes will always be made with the artist's request.
Tyler: All right, so we are recording. Are you okay with me recording?
Substantial: Yes sir.
Tyler: Great. All right, so my first question is more of a fun one. How did you get Herc on a record? Like, that’s absolutely insane.
I'm referring to the 2008 track "Sacrifice - Bonus Cut" from Sacrifice. DJ Kool Herc is lauded as the founding father of hip-hop after he DJed a party for his sister on 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx in 1973. On the track, Herc says that he is the "elusive one," which refers to his absence from contemporary hip-hop culture. Like many of the founding fathers, Herc never received his flowers, especially in the form of monetary compensation, for his artistic achievements. Herc is rightfully cagey about cosigning present artists or appearing on records, although he often invites new artists to pay their respects in person. Hearing him on a record is arrestingly beautiful because it is so rare, which is why I reacted the way that I did.
Substantial: Thank you. So, I met Kool Herc through my wife. Her professor at Pratt Institute, where we went to college in Brooklyn, New York, overheard us having problems with getting a DJ for our wedding, and she replies, “Oh, my boyfriend DJs,” right? So, naturally when anyone says that, you just kind of take it with a grain of salt, right? You don’t expect them to say, “Oh, my boyfriend’s Kool Herc.” So, she passed his business card, and my wife kind of recognizes the name, but it doesn’t fully click, and then when I see it, you know, my heart dropped to my socks, man. I’m like, “Yo, this is the godfather of hip-hop,” or the father, however you want to say it, you know what I mean? So yeah, it was just insane, man. So anyway, we got invited to his place, broke bread there and stuff, walked down a hall that has all these plaques and stuff kind of showcasing just his long history in the game, and then we just hung out in his back yard, just eating and chopping it up.
Tyler: Oh my God.
Substantial: And we told him about our wedding and how we would love him to DJ, told him about ourselves. And yeah, man, he was a… We don’t talk as much nowadays—like, we probably check in maybe once a year these days, because we no longer live in New York, but… And he was very much like an extended part of the family, you know what I mean? You know, checking in from time to time, see how our kid’s doing, and all of that. The funniest part was when he finally DJed the wedding, just people’s faces, because needless to say, with me being a hip-hop head, a good amount of our friends are hip-hop heads, so when they were like, “Dude, you understanding who’s DJing your wedding?” It’s like, “Uh, yeah, we’re paying him,” you know what I mean?
Tyler: Oh my God.
Substantial: Yeah, so, I mean, it just kind of elevated from there, man. It was wild, and just to kind of prove how close we became at one point, we went on our honeymoon, and when he… By this time, he had came to our place, you know, like we went to his place, he came to our place, we moved somewhere else, he came to our other place. You know, we were fam. And so anyway, while we were on our honeymoon, Dave Chappelle had his block party. And so, naturally, he invited Kool Herc, and so Herc, when he gets to the neighborhood, he recognizes the neighborhood because he’s been to our place before, and it literally happened a block away from where we were living at the time.
Tyler: Oh my God.
Substantial: So Herc calls us on our honeymoon just to be like, “Hey, Stan, y’all home? Oh, no, y’all still on your honeymoon.” He’s like, “I parked my car right in front of y’all crib, on your block, right in front of the crib.” He starts talking about Jill Scott, told Jill Scott, because he knew we were big fans, told her how he played her song last at our wedding, and how much it meant to us because we were huge fans of hers. Just insane, man. Like, you know, we forever got love for her, you know what I mean? Yeah. Yeah, for so many reasons.
Tyler: That’s crazy. And especially because he’s so hesitant to bless many records, you know, because he’s such a gatekeeper and a figure like that. When I heard his voice… You know, because I’ve seen all the interviews with him, but I don’t actually think I’ve ever heard his voice on a record before. I think that was maybe the first time I’d heard that, so that was crazy.
Substantial: Yeah, man. Eternally grateful.
Tyler: Yeah. But anyways, I want to jump in a little bit—one of my favorite tracks from your discography is “Dr. Thinkinreim.” It’s so good, I love it.
Substantial: [laughs] With my man Kareem, eah.
Tyler: And when you’re going through and you’re listing, like… Because if you think about it, you’re really kind of theorizing what a good MC is, right?
Tyler: Because you talk about, like, Chuck D’s brain or his consciousness, like, let’s see, like the voice with Lord Have Mercy, the flow with Eminem and Pharoahe Monch, Last Emperor with creativity, Busta [Rhymes] and M.O.P. with energy, Supernatural and his freestyle skills, KRS-One and his longevity, soul and Mos Def, and then Common and Ras Kass with lyrics, and Rakim’s presence.
Tyler: So, can you explain kind of maybe… I mean, obviously it’s just a creative… like, it’s an interesting, creative track, right? But why are those things—how did you break it down in that way? Because I don’t think I’ve heard someone… I mean, that’s so precise, of like, this is exactly what it means to be a good MC. Can you break that down a little bit?
Substantial: Right. Sure, yeah. [0:05:00] You know, I think there’s so much conversation about who’s the greatest, what makes an MC dope, and there’s so much conversation that kind of goes into status, right? Like, what’s their status in the game? And not enough conversation kind of goes into their actual skillset, right? Like, what are the things that this person does really well? And what’s the criteria, right? Do they have these things, do they have these things going? Because when I hear so many debates about it, about greats, there are certain people who are in the conversation for a minute, and then the second they go into, “Yeah, but they haven’t had a hit record in blah blah blah,” and then, all of a sudden, all of the things that would make this person a great athlete, right, if we were talking sports, and it’s almost like a ring conversation in basketball or football, right? Like Barry Sanders, most people would argue is the greatest running back of all time, right? But the one thing that’s forever over his head is the fact that he never won a Super Bowl. You know what I mean? Never mind the fact that he did what he did without having a great line, without having a great quarterback, right? And he still was able to perform at a high level. And so, how many MCs do we see, how many amazing MCs who are able to make amazing music without a huge budget, without access to whatever musician that they can tap into the business, really just being able to rely on their amazing skillset that they developed with very little resources? And that’s what I look at, man, so that’s why there’s a mixture of some indie legends with some industry legends. But I think all of these things matter greatly.
So, one of my boys challenged me about my rap name once, and just… you know, and how… Like, he’s like, “ ‘Substantial’ just means to be enough, like there’s nothing extra about it, or just kind of to be a…” He just made it seem like, “Okay, you’re good, but you’re not…” Like you’re basically saying, “You’re good enough, but you’re not necessarily great.” And I was like, “Right, but I would argue that in order for something to be substantial, it has to meet certain criteria, right? And if you don’t meet a few… Like, if there are a few boxes you can’t check, then is it substantial? Does it meet those standards to be even considered good enough?” And so, that’s… I mean, that’s how I view MCing. You can’t tell me somebody’s a great MC, but then their flow… Like, they got great voice, they can pick great beats, but their flow sucks. Right? For me, they’re gone, they’re out of there. I can’t even talk about them.
There’s certain MCs that have amazing everything, but their voice is like nails on a chalkboard, you know what I’m saying? I mean, yo, it doesn’t mean they’re not an amazing writer, but being a great MC includes that, because an MC has to get on that mic and be able to engage people in a way that the average person just cannot do. And every part of that, every one of those things that I mentioned, I think any great orator, any great MC, those things are essential.
And it’s crazy, because when you run the list back, I mean, obviously there’s so many artists that have come out since then. There are artists on that list where I’m like, “Ah, maybe I could think of a few people who do it better.” There was a sequel that I never did for that song. The concept is still “think about it today”; it was called “Bride of Thinkinreim.” And so, basically building the perfect female MC. But then I had some issues, I was like, “Or I could just do another MC, and then find female MCs along with male MCs,” right? Because there are some female MCs that do some of those things way better than some of the people on that list, right?
Tyler: Oh yeah, no doubt.
Substantial: So yeah. But yeah, man, thank you, I appreciate it. You and one other person I know consistently bring up that song to me and stuff…
Tyler: I loved it.
Substantial: Thank you, brother.
Tyler: Well, and that’s the kind of stuff, too, that for me, when I… Because people also challenge me when I’ll make claims about hip-hop. You know, in a fruitful, way, but like, “What’s unique about hip-hop that funk or jazz isn’t doing?” And this is one of the things where you in that song essentially… There’s not jazz artists all the time in a song that are breaking down for you exactly what they’re doing and why their craft is important and how it’s important, and I think hip-hop is very careful to tell you, like, “No, no, no, this is how I write, this is how I perform, this is why it’s significant, where it comes from,” all of that, you know?
Tyler: So, with that, I want to zoom in, because you said you can be a great writer and not have the qualities of a great MC. So, for you, do you see… Because I’ve heard all sorts of different explanations from artists about the difference between MCing and poetry, ranging from “they’re completely different” to “they’re the same, there’s no really point in breaking them apart at all,” to “they’re branches of the same tree.” How do you see the difference between what a poet does and what an MC does?
Substantial: I mean, one could argue that poetry itself still, you know, there’s a certain meter, right, a certain beat to it. But I feel like there’s a lot more music that goes into, a lot more musicality that comes along with MCing that is devoid of most… I mean, most poetry is devoid of that, is missing that, right? Where it’s not… There’s a Busta line that says, so he’s like, “My flow got so much rhythm it substitutes the drummer,” right? The first time I ever saw rap written as music, I mean, it looked like a drum pattern. It looked the same way as when someone writes out how the drum is going to go in a beat. It looked very similar. And it was crazy for me, because I’m not classically trained, so that’s something I kind of learned later in life, and so just to see it and how… Because the rapper himself had very much to listen to the beat and figured, “Okay, I’m going to work with this rhythm that the drummer’s giving right now, or that this programmed beat is doing, and I’m going to let that kind of guide me,” right? And there’s plenty of MCs who are slaves to that, right? They’re not… they kind of operate around it. Pharoahe Monch, who’s somebody who has an amazing flow, right, he’s very much somebody… Sorry about that, let me cut this ringer…
The Busta Rhymes line referenced can be found in verse two of "The Whole World Lookin' at Me" from his Sophomore album When Disaster Strikes... (1997).
Tyler: Oh, no, you’re good.
Substantial: But he’s very much somebody who, like, he can stay very much perfectly in sync with the rhythm, but then he’ll just kind of go all over the place when he wants to. But it’s kind of like Picasso, where it’s like, yeah, Picasso had a very unique style of art, and somebody who doesn’t know art might be like, “Yeah, why’s that good? He can’t draw a face.” Right? But then we have proof of his skillset prior to him developing that style that shows that, oh, he can do all of those things, but then, after he proved that he could do these things, then he started to explore and adventure a little bit more into unknown territory, so to speak.
I think music, the musicality, how melody can play a role in it, because there are very much rappers who aren’t necessarily singers; it’s very much connected to chanting. You know? And for me, I don’t feel like it’s this all or nothing thing, right? Because based on what you were saying before, a lot of people seem to say it’s either this or it’s that. And there’s almost nothing that exists nowadays that’s either this or that. We can find so many things that influenced it and connect it to so many different things outside of poetry. And yeah, I would definitely say that I just feel like music plays a huge… Because, depending on what music is playing at the time, the one MC might give you very different takes on how they approach things, based on what type of music you put in front of them, you know?
Tyler: Absolutely. When I think, especially with what you were saying about “it doesn’t have to be one thing,” that’s very… I think hip-hop especially refuses, and it always has been, it’s like, “Oh, what is it? Is it a street culture, is it a performance culture, is it poetry, is it coming from the griots?” And it’s like, hip-hoppers have kind of consistently throughout history been like, “It’s hip-hop.” It’s kind of the place where all of those things meld together, not necessarily one or the other, where it’s coming out of jazz, or coming out of funk, or coming out of blues. It’s kind of a synthesizing thing where everything’s kind of mixed together.
Substantial: Yeah. Yeah, hip-hop is like… What is it? It’s Jeet Kune Do, right? Like a Bruce Lee style of martial arts, the way of the intercepting fist. It’s a culmination of all of these things. You know, we take what works in the moment. [0:15:00] We borrow from all of these different influences and put it into our melting pot, and then hip-hop is what you get when we’re finished cooking, you know what I mean? It’s just some mixture.
Tyler: That’s crazy. Yeah, and that’s such a great metaphor, too. I want to talk a little bit about your process specifically. You talk a little bit, I think it’s in the “Love Song,” yeah, you talk about writing on a pen and pad, and that that’s part of your process.
Tyler: Do you always… In general, can you kind of give me a little bit of insight about… Are you listening to beats when you are writing? Do you write on your own? Do you do voice memos? Do you only write pen and paper, on your phone? What’s your process when you’re trying to create, or is it… Or just, I mean, it can be free-flowing too, but what kind of… Where are you coming from in that regard?
Substantial: So, my process these days, I would say probably 99% of the things I write nowadays are digital, it’s in the cloud, and that’s largely because of… When I was on tour in like 2009, I was in Amsterdam and I lost a book of rhymes, and I was literally… I was half done recording an album at the time, and I had just finished the last of the other half of the album while I was on tour in terms of writing. And so I literally had to rewrite like six or seven songs, and I lost some of those concepts. So after that, everything has been in the cloud, or almost everything.
As far as my process, early in my career, I would write even without a beat, just because I didn’t have access to production equipment or even access to instrumentals sometimes. Wasn’t until I started collecting cassette singles that had instrumentals on it, or when I collected jazz records and funk records that had tracks that didn’t have vocalists on it, where I started to write to music. My process these days, half the time… Almost every time, there’s music playing. The only time I write without music is just the concept. Like, if a lyric comes to mind or whatever, or a concept for a song, I’ll write that down without music. But when it’s time to make the song, I’m writing to music.
And so, one of the things that I picked up from my good friend Kokayi, who’s a legendary D.C. rapper, Grammy-nominated, just amazing dude, man, he’s like my big brother in this, he talked to me about how he scats, he records himself scatting, and then kind of goes back and then pieces everything together. So when he said that, I was like, “Huh, that’s crazy,” because I would find myself in the car sometimes, just like, ideas would come to mind, and sometimes I didn’t have all the words, but I had the flow. I even had the tone, like I knew the inflection I wanted on my voice when I did certain parts. And so, when he told me he did that, I was like, “Wow.” So I started doing voice memos, not necessarily me saying certain lyrics, but just me playing around with flow, patterns, different inflections and tones. And then, because I engineer most of my music, I would record myself just kind of scatting over minutes of the beat, and then literally, when I would go back to write, I would loop sections of it. I’d just loop the first four to eight bars, and I’m piecing words to every syllable. Like, if I really love how a certain part went, I mean, man, I’d make… Like, down to every syllable, I’d make it work, just to re-create that feeling I had when I was scatting.
And so that’s how I develop a good amount—not all, but a good amount of the songs I write nowadays, especially when I got time. And then occasionally, it’s just, you know, the beat’s on loop for an hour or two, and I’m just sitting there, writing, kind of… Well, not writing, typing, technically. And I think any artist who’s serious about what they do keeps certain tools around as well. Like, I sometimes get influenced by things that I read or things I’ve seen. There are times where I find myself about to use a word that I probably overused or used in a song multiple times already, so I keep a thesaurus on hand, and then occasionally or whatever will play around with a rhyming dictionary, just to… I think when you’ve written as much as I have, you sometimes find it’s easy to kind of just sink back into something that’s comfortable, and do something or say something that’s kind of similar to what you’ve said. [0:20:00] So, just to avoid those things a lot of times, and kind of keep my mind somewhat fresh when I feel like I’m getting a little stale, I’ll keep those tools around. I don’t necessarily need to use it, but I like to have it on hand if I find myself getting a little repetitive.
Tyler: So now, it sounds like your writing pattern starts with your voice, or with a sound, or you’re trying to… Like, maybe a sound or an affect, something like you’re trying to get a vibe out of something.
Tyler: And then you turn to trying to fill in that with a pattern, then out of the pattern comes the words, and then you kind of start to shift and tweak individual things after that? Is that kind of accurate?
Substantial: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Substantial: Because what I found, I mean… I’m not sure how familiar you are with James Brown, his work.
Substantial: But I’ll never forget when I watched the biopic with Chadwick Boseman, and the part where he talks about how something… The one guy, the Craig Robinson character tells him why something doesn’t work, and then he’s like, “I hear what you’re saying,” he’s like, “but how does it feel?” Does it feel like this… He’s like, “How’s it feel?” And then looking around like, “I kind of like it.” You know what I mean? And so, I kind of start with the feeling more than anything, right? Like, before sometimes I even got the topic, just how does my voice… Like, when I’m hearing it back, how does it feel to… Right? Do I like how it resonates, do I like… In terms of the flow, how’s it feel over the music? And letting that be my guide, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a shortage of lyrics, so I’m not worried about whether or not what I’m going to say is going to resonate, because there’s always an audience for something that you want to say. So I’m always kind of just… I start with how it feels first, and then I just kind of construct honest feelings or whatever with my lyrics, but let that initial feeling be the guide.
Substantial is referring to Get On Up, the 2014 biopic of James Brown's life. Chadwick Boseman played Brown, and Craig Robinson (yeah, Darrell from The Office) played Maceo Parker, one of the saxophonists in Brown's band and famous in his own right for his work with Parliament Funkadelic and Prince.
Tyler: Okay. So you very, from what it sounds like, you very rarely start with a concept and try to fit that concept into music; instead, you start with a feeling. Does that inspire topics for you, or are you like, “Oh, I want to write a song about…” I’m trying to think of a topic. But, you know, “I want to write a song about being a dad,” or something, and then do you start from there, or is it like, “Oh, this reminds me of a feeling I had while being a dad, and I fit it in”? Or is it not in any way?
Substantial: It varies, right, like if… So, for example, right now I’m working on my next solo album, and that album’s called Adulting. Right? And so, there’s very much certain topics that I already know that I want to cover on the record. However, I don’t necessarily have all the beats, I just have a couple… I got half the beats at this point, and then I have certain topics. And then, so, as I’m constructing the beats, I think, I’m like, “Does this kind of convey the feeling?” I jot it down over here. And then there are other moments where the beat will come first, and I don’t necessarily have a topic, but the flow, the tone, the overall vibe will kind of come through, and then I let that sometimes decide what the topic’s going to be.
I would say I’m not super rigid. You know, I think it’s kind of… I think it’s good, whether we’re talking being a creative, whether we’re talking being an athlete, or any person who kind of has a certain skillset, I think it’s good to have multiple ways to kind of reach a particular goal, and spend enough time doing it that, yeah, you can… I don’t like the idea that you can only master one thing, so I basically found multiple approaches to achieve whatever goal I’ve set out to achieve, and I feel like I’ve mastered a few. So, I can adjust based on what the setting is, if that makes a little more sense.
Tyler: That makes total sense. And I kind of actually want to turn also to talk about your production a little bit.
Tyler: I was finally actually getting to your beat CDs this morning, on the train in, which was a great setting to listen to that.
Substantial: Oh, wow, great.
Tyler: I’m really curious, because you’ve also been… I think, from what I’ve heard in interviews, you’ve been messing with production throughout your entire career.
Substantial: Sure, yeah.
Tyler: And that you’ve always been interested in it. [0:25:00] And I think it was, I forget which interview it was, but you said that now, you really feel like it’s coming together, like you’re now… Like you have some chops as a producer, like you hear things you didn’t hear before, that kind of thing.
Tyler: Which gave you the confidence to put out those beat CDs. I think that was the context of it.
Tyler: So with that, when you’re writing, because you describe it as like this fluid process, this kind of moving between the vibe and the music and the message, and there’s not really… it doesn’t start with one or the other, do you have to be in a different headspace to rhyme versus to produce? Like, does it feel different? Does the room feel different? Is there a difference between… I mean, it’s kind of a broad question, because it may not have an answer, but is there kind of an affective difference between those things?
Substantial: I feel like there are little differences, but overall, it’s very… Like, for me, it’s very similar. Right? Like, there’s a beat I’m working on right now for a song called “Salt and Pepper,” right?
Substantial: Yeah, you understand where it’s going [laughs and gestures toward his slightly graying beard]. And the beat is kind of experimental for what people are used to hearing from me. But it kind of came to me the same way a punchline from a song would come to me, or like I make an observation or maybe be having a conversation with someone about just life in general, and they just say something that resonate, and it kind of sparks an idea for a lyric. So the beat, I was just… I was literally, my wife and I were getting the kids ready for school, and I was playing with my daughter, and I just start this beatbox or whatever, right? Because I was trying to get her energized, so it was really upbeat, like a lot faster than the typical beat I would rhyme over, per se. But then I added a bassline to it, like I’m going through the whole motion, I got… I’m starting to sequence it. Like, it was really elaborate for something where I was just playing around. And then I was like, “Man, I think I should record this,” so before we walk out the door, I just make a note to myself, and I record myself going for like a minute or two, playing around with the concept I had.
"Sequencing" refers to the process of placing musical sounds within a time signature when making a beat. Sequencing is a step you take after you've composed some of the more basic elements and represents a new progression in the process of beat production. Thus to sequence an impromptu beat like this makes it more "official" than just playing around.
And it made me very much think about how, you know, I’m working on a song, and then a great chorus or melody or chorus will come to mind, or a certain run that I’m going to do on a track, and I’ll just stop what I’m doing at the moment and document that real quick, record it real quick. And so it was very similar, and then I found myself going back to the studio maybe a few days later when I had the time to really work, and it was very similar how I was kind of working through it. Now, granted, it’s me kind of programming and striking keys or whatever, or this beat machine, to go through that process, but it very much felt the same way as when I’m trying out different patterns and flows, trying to figure out what works and then bringing it all together.
I would say, I think most of the time, it doesn’t feel very different. Even the process when I get someone, like I’ll bring in one of my musician friends to play on a track, and I don’t tell my friends who rap or sing… Well, I won’t say the singer; most of my singer friends, I usually have an idea of what I want them to sing. But I don’t tell my friends how to rap, right? I just send them the track and be like, “Hey, man, here’s the track, this is the direction I’m going. I really don’t want to put you in a box. Surprise me, say something dope, that’s all I ask.” And I’m usually happy. And so it’s the same thing when I make a beat; they’re like, “Yo, so do you want me to just play over it?” I’m like, “Man, play whatever the hell you want. I just want as much as possible to work with, and just make sure it’s dope.”
So, that’s why I think the whole production has grown so quick in terms of me doing these instrumental projects, is because I’ve very much been approaching it in a similar way, and they’re both equally as fun. It’s funny, the writing is starting to get a little slower, and I think it’s mainly because I’ve been producing so much.
Tyler: Oh, interesting.
Substantial: Yeah, but it’s not like… I wouldn’t say there’s a shortage of ideas; there’s just a shortage of fresh ones. And so that’s why it’s a bit slower, because I think I’m being a bit more critical, where with the beats, I’m a little less critical now, and that’s why I’m sharing more of them.
Tyler: Got it, got it.
Substantial: Yeah, so…
Tyler: Does it feel like maybe that because you have beats and you’re trying to kind of flow between beats and rhymes, that the prolificness of coming up with rhymes, it doesn’t feel as urgent because you’re trying to match it to a singular thing, instead of just kind of put it out there? Like, you’re trying to fit it into a beat? Or are you saying more that just you’ve been rhyming for way longer, so the new material is just not coming as quickly as something that you’re doing more new, newer.
Substantial: Yeah, I think it’s the latter, and I think really, because I know that my hardcore fans, right, because I’m not necessarily writing with the intent to kind of impress strangers at this point, right? I feel like if… You know? I mean, I don’t know if millions of people have heard my music, but I know hundreds of thousands of people, for sure, have heard what I’ve done.
Substantial: And a small pocket of that vast number of people are like, “I’m riding with this dude, I want to consume everything he does,” blah blah blah. And so I feel like I owe it to them to not just kind of recycle the same things over and over again. It’s one thing when you’re kind of in production where there’s a certain vibe you’re creating, but I feel like in terms of subject matter, even if I’m going to talk about something that I’ve talked about before, I got to find, bare minimum, at least a fresh way to approach it, or a way to kind of present it that, bare minimum, you haven’t heard that, at least from me, before. Right?
Especially because, you know, now that I’m doing things like Patreon [here's his if you want to contribute] and other things where people have decided, “Yo, I’m going to dedicate a certain amount of my monthly budget to this dude,” like, yeah, the least I can do is not just kind of give you a bunch of generic songs for the sake of songs. So yeah, so it makes it a bit more difficult to write, you know what I mean? And sometimes, you know, I just want to talk about nothing, just talk about, like, “I’m done,” which is kind of the cliché thing for rappers to do, but… Yeah, I think I’ll do those things, but it’s few and far between, because I feel like I owe it…
[call cut out 31:55-34:00]
Tyler: Let’s see, so we were talking about… Oh, your writing process and how production and writing, how it feels to kind of do both of those things. And I have a question along that line, too, and it’s more theoretical and generalizable, but do you think that sound… Because when people are talking about poetry and hip-hop, a lot of times people just leave out production altogether, like they never touch… Maybe they’ll say, like, “Oh, there’s this sample, which means something in this track because it’s…” You know, if it’s a political track and it’s got “Impeach the President” on it, right, that they can draw this connection. But if it’s just like a funky Fela Kuti sample or something, it’s like, they don’t really touch that at all. So, for you, does sound convey… Does sound have a message? Can you interpret a beat like you could interpret a rhyme or something?
"Impeach the President" is a very popular hip-hop sample by the Honey Drippers.
It has been sampled 796 times according to WhoSampled.com including in tracks like:
Nas' "I Can" (2002)
Big's "Unbelievable" (1994)
and J. Cole's "Wet Dreamz" (2014)
Substantial: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, my wife, because we’re at our office right now, we have a business together, and so she’s sitting across from me now, but she… Many times, I’ll get a beat, and unless I instantly have an idea, because, you know, a lot of times I’m jaded in terms of, I just immediately hear certain beats and my mind kind of goes, “Okay, relationship track,” right? Or punchline, or blah blah blah, because of how the beat sounds. I’ll ask my wife, who isn’t a rapper but has listened to enough hip-hop to be meaningful for anybody, and just ask her, “Yo, what do you hear when you hear this?” That’s the question; I don’t know how many times I’ve… and now she’s shaking her head. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked her that, but it’s partly because I know she has a different outlook on things, and hears things maybe a bit differently than I do, even though we’ve been together for such a long time.
And so, sometimes that happens. There are other times that I’ll hear something in a beat, like the chorus of some of the beats that have samples in a lot of times will spark ideas, right? And there’s some people who don’t care what it says, they’ll just go wherever with it. It’s funny you bring up Fela, but there’s a song where we sample Fela. My homeboy made the beat, and the song is called “Expensive Shit,” right, is what the song is called. I don’t know if I can curse or not, but…
Tyler: No, no, it’s totally fine, yeah.
Substantial: But yeah, so the song, that’s the title, and it’s a Bop Alloy joint with me and Marcus D. And literally, with the song we came up with, the song talks about, it talks a lot about the holiday season, like Black Friday and all of that, right? Talks about consumerism and people putting that over their faith, you know what I mean? You know, like forgetting the message of what the holiday is and just really kind of getting caught up in just spending as much money as possible, and all of that. So that was a situation where not necessarily the vibe of the music inspired that, but because I knew what that song was about, it kind of led me to thinking, “Man, this would be an interesting take on it.”
However, there are other times where just what key a beat is in, right, like it’s in a minor key versus being major, sometimes having a darker feel will trigger you to do something a bit more melancholy or introspective, you know what I mean?
Tyler: Yeah, absolutely.
Substantial: Yeah, versus something with a lighter feel, like you sometimes just say, “Man, even though I got a lot of heavy stuff on my mind right now, this beat just kind of feels like a release from that, so I’m going to go this way with it.” So yeah, I think that’s a major thing that, in terms of what makes MCing or rapping or hip-hop in general very different from poetry. And the reason why I start with MCing in particular, because I think a lot of folks use the term “hip-hop” very loosely—they oftentimes use it to describe rap, but aren’t necessarily talking about the whole culture or subculture, so to speak, because MCing is just a small part of what hip-hop is, right? But yeah.
Tyler: Cool. I want to shift just a little bit to talk about performance, because I think, like sound and production, performance is also another thing that a lot of people leave out, because it’s really… I’m actually, I’m writing my current chapter of my dissertation on performance, and I’m really struggling with it, because I… Like, what really is performance, if you think about it, right? There are some performance artists who do things for six years, and their performance lasts over that whole period of time, right? Or others who it’s on a stage with an audience in a very traditional setting. So anyways, it’s a very difficult thing to pin down and talk about, and especially in hip-hop, where, for example, people talk about Tupac’s revolutionary consciousness, right, and how as he developed his persona, that his consciousness and his persona were often at odds with one another.
Tyler: So, with performance, because you also have a couple of live performance tracks where… Like, I know “Follow the Leader,” there’s a live version of it where you’re with a band and they start improvising at one point. Does it feel different for you when you’re an MC with a band around you and playing with a live band, versus when you’re with a DJ or a track or something like that?
I'm pretty sure I was actually thinking about his live version of "If I Was Your Mic..." from To This Union a Son is Born.
Substantial: Yeah, I mean, if it’s a prerecorded track, I know what’s going to happen, right? There’s very little surprises, because, I mean, the surprises will come more so from the audience and less from what the music’s doing, where with a live band, there may be… The drummer might add a little more swing to the drums than normal, which will literally change how I deliver the verse. Someone might, they might decide to go low on a certain part, just to kind of… And sometimes it's them following me, like I’m feeding off the energy of the crowd, and I know what I’m about to say is something that might really register with them, whether it’s something deep or it’s just kind of something to music. So I might signal them to change how they’re playing, just so what I’m saying can shine through a bit more. Right? And so, those things are things that oftentimes happen with a band more so than with you performing to a recorded track.
However, there are moments where a DJ might put drops in places I didn’t think to put drops or whatever, or like I just mentioned, the track fading lower. That’s something I do when I perform “Q.T.,” or when I go through this really quick part, like… A lot of times, hooks are very simple, easy to kind of catch, and when I wrote that song, I decided to kind of do a two-part hook, where the first part is very intricate and complicated, but it’s more kind of like shock value, right? Like, you don’t expect it to be that when it starts, and then when it just kind of goes, you’re like, “Oh, this is what we’re doing.” So, the first time I did that song on tour—well, not even the first time, but the second night we did it on tour, the DJ, because I was doing this quick flow, he decides to just fade the track as I’m going through that flow, because I don’t take a breath, and it just created this crazy effect with the voice and the audience just roared, like they just… Their response was so… I remember exactly, we were in Lyon, France, when that happened. And then literally, that was twelve or eleven years ago when I performed that track; to this day, I know it’s going to happen now, because that’s what we do every time we do the song.
But if the DJ hadn’t have did that then… So, sometimes playing with a DJ versus someone just hitting play on the track, you can kind of create a similar feeling to what the band does. But a band is always, like, you just never know, man. One of the dudes just might hear something that he didn’t hear in the five rehearsals you did, and that can change very much where the performance goes that night.
Tyler: Yeah. Do you think that… There are some people, I mean, there’s obviously hip-hop bands, like Stetsasonic and Roots, who have legendary, canonized, we all agree that these are very hip-hop people, right? But there is kind of this rub, I guess, that some people are like, “Oh, if you play with a band, it’s not as hip-hop as playing with a DJ or with some sort of sampled music.” What makes… Like, when you’re playing with a band, what makes it hip-hop? Does that make sense, what I’m asking?
Substantial: I got you, yeah. I think… I mean, I guess the easy answer is just like, a person rapping. You know what I’m saying? Because virtually any beat that someone plays, no matter what genre of music it is, any instrumental that someone plays can ultimately be hip-hop. You know, I’ve rapped over classical, I’ve rapped over jazz, I’ve rapped over tracks live that weren’t hip-hop tracks at all, and it didn’t become hip-hop until I opened my mouth and started rapping. Right? So, I think this idea that… To me, I understand… I wouldn’t say I understand. I’ve heard people say that, but I don’t think because someone’s with a band, that makes them any less hip-hop. Live music is ultimately… helped lay the foundation for hip-hop. The DJ’s wouldn’t have had anything to play for the MCs if they weren’t playing something that bands ultimately played. It’s just the DJ is very much a cornerstone of the culture, and how a lot of people got exposed to it. So, of course, I mean, that’s part of the reason why you see some, even when you see some hip-hop bands, they still have a DJ, because they understand the role that the DJ has played in hip-hop. But ultimately, I don’t see it as a dealbreaker, you know what I mean? [0:45:00] I think the second that… If we’re talking music, and we’re talking about the music of hip-hop, the second a person opens their mouth and starts rapping, they ultimately turn it into hip-hop.
And then, if we’re talking instrumental hip-hop, in terms of, I think, like sampling, even though it’s something that existed before hip-hop, sampling was made popular to the world by hip-hop, even though it existed before hip-hop. So, how samples are used, and sometimes how the drum feel, all of these things can kind of make you feel like this is hip-hop, and maybe that’s not. But again, I feel like it’s one of those things, it’s really hard to put it into a box, because every time someone puts it into a box, it outgrows the box. So, it’s just forever evolving.
Tyler: Yeah. Hold on one second. The place I’m staying in had a Roomba that just started, and it’s making a lot of noise.
Tyler: Damn robot vacuum cleaner. All right. Sorry about that.
Substantial: Yeah, no worries.
Tyler: Okay, so, last question about performance.
Tyler: And I’ve gotten mixed answers about this as well. Do you think that the audience in hip-hop, like, there’s a specific understanding of the role of the audience in hip-hop that is not necessarily the same in other genres? Does that makes sense? There’s kind of, not necessarily a responsibility, but… I mean, I think, and you, for “Follow the Leader,” you say, “If you don’t move a crowd, you’re not a master of ceremony or a microphone controller, you’re not an MC,” right? So, that moving the crowd is a fundamental part, whereas… And I think maybe that’s more of a black musical tradition thing; like, I’d say the same for funk. But at a pop concert, if you go, everybody’s just kind of, you know, folded arms, but still enjoying it or whatever. Does that make sense?
Substantial: Yeah, I think it’s partly because it’s a reciprocal… I mean, it’s a… Yeah, there’s an exchange that happens, right? I mean, when you think about some of the oral traditions that maybe lay early foundation for what we know as hip-hop, like when you think of things like call and response, even when you think of Negro spirituals and things like that, all of these different forms of black music where it’s like… That call and response part of it was always a certain part of it, like certain movement, right? Because even, I was just mentioning Negro spirituals, them working in the fields, and literally using their tools to create the beat. So them following certain movement, you all kind of having this exchange, this experience that ultimately becomes more than about the person on stage, right? It almost becomes a… It’s almost about what’s happening in the space, right, is what makes hip-hop hip-hop.
This kind of call and response phenomenon can be seen in this updated version of the old spiritual "Got On My Travelin' Shoes."
And so, I don’t think that it’s exclusive to hip-hop, because I think a lot of those things were kind of learned through other types of music before, and then hip-hop just kind of really was like, “Okay, yeah, we’re going to fully own that.” You know? But yeah, when you think of call and response, people who don’t necessarily like some of the new folks in hip-hop, who have super repetitive hooks, where it’s like the same word, right? They’re like—what’s that one?—"Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang…” The idea that you’ve given me something something that now I can say and now participate, so I can feel like I’m a part of what you’re doing. I think that feel is very important, you know what I mean? But that’s why, when people talk about the greats, who’s the greatest in hip-hop, whenever they do it on these larger platforms, they always talk about, like, “Well, this person hasn’t done this in a while. No one’s really talking about that.” Because it’s not just about, okay, that person being good by themselves. How do people feel when they experience that person’s music, both live and alone, right?
And so, this inclusivity type thing, it’s… Hip-hop’s the exclusive party that, if you’re lucky enough to get invited to, you got to feel like you’re a part of it. Right? And not just because you were invited there, but when you’re there, you got to very much feel like you’re in it. [0:50:00] But artists themselves even say, like, “Yo, come on, man, put your hands up,” basically like, “I know I’m giving you energy, but I don’t think you’re giving the energy I’m giving you, and I need you to…” Right. And I even say it in my shows, I was like, “Look, man, I’m up here, I’m having fun. I literally get paid for a living doing the thing that I’ve loved doing since I was like fourteen years old, on stage doing this. And I’m going to have fun regardless, but it’s a lot more fun if you guys are rocking with me.” And that’s a way of kind of disarming them out the gate, just helping them understand that, like, “Yo, I love this so much, it’s going to be fun for me regardless, but it’s way more fun when I’m doing it with y’all.” You know what I mean?
Substantial: And so, yeah.
Tyler: Cool. No, I think that’s… Yeah, that’s brilliant. I have one final question for you, and it’s kind of a career question, because your… Listening to all of your albums over the course of twenty-plus years was really interesting, because, I mean, if I played the last album and then played the first album right next to each other, I would think it’s almost different artists. That’s how… Like, you sound really different. And then you also try a lot of different conceptual things, like you’ve got some really interesting mixtapes that are full of all these remixes. It’s a really… You’ve got a wide career in terms of what you’re doing with your music, and that it always seems to be transforming. And you’re one of the few artists who I’ve listened through their whole catalog and it gets progressively better every time over twenty years, instead of hitting a point and then kind of being like, “All right, that’s the point.”
Substantial: Thanks a lot, thank you.
Tyler: Yeah, of course. How, as an artist… Thank you for making great music, but—
Substantial: Appreciate it.
Tyler: How do you keep your foot on the pedal and keep reflecting and keep growing, when that seems to be a hang-up for even people who are the greatest in the genre?
Substantial: Sure. I try not to ever take myself too seriously to the point where I can’t receive feedback, right? Like, you know, I listen to… I’m a reflection of the company I keep, man. I keep some great artists around me, or I should say I’m lucky enough that great artists let me be around them. And so, I’m just always trying to be better, man. A lot of people forget about Flo Brown, right? Flo Brown was an MC, a female MC from Jersey. She was on the The Hurricane soundtrack with the Roots, had a song with them.
So I knew her personally, and I remember there was a track that I did from Sacrificial Lambs, the song called “What I Love,” and that was one of the first… Well, it’s not the first time I played around with singing on a track, or doing a melody and stuff, because I’ve been doing it since my first album, but I think it was one of the better attempts at it, right? And it was one of the first songs she heard from me, and we were in studio at the time. Shoutout to my folks from Essential Entertainment, I was over at their studio, and she heard that track, and she said, when it went off, she was like, “Yo, you have a really nice voice, man. You’ve got to keep playing around with those melodies and stuff that you’re introducing in your music. Because of your rich voice, it sounds just so good, so just, yo, keep working at that.”
And I could’ve just been like, “Chick, I do what I want,” you know what I’m saying? “Okay, what you talking about?” You know? But I think she’s an amazing MC, so when she said that, yo, I recognized who it was coming from. I recognized that it was coming from a place of love, like a person who already thought I was dope but believed I could be doper. And that right there, that’s an amazing feeling, man, to be around elite artists, artists who are like… I mean, look, man, Tonedeff to this day is probably one of the most technically amazing rappers that has ever walked the face of the earth, right?
Tyler: Yeah, totally.
Substantial: Who does not get his due. And this dude loves my music, man, and is constantly trying to tell me things that he thinks could kind of enhance what I do. That’s been my whole career that I’ve known him—he’s always done that, but at the same time has let me know on multiple occasions that he’s a fan first. And so I think when you have people like that, people like Kokayi, like I mentioned, who’s like a mentor to me, and Asheru, brother who did the song from The Boondocks, right? My friend list is pretty solid, and all of them, as much as they love what I do, they’re constantly… Like, if they hear some room for improvement, they share it, and I’m lucky that I allowed a certain environment around me that people feel comfortable enough sharing it. And I listen, man. Like, I talk a lot, clearly, right? But I do a pretty good job of listening, especially when I know it’s coming from a place of love, and especially when it’s coming from a place of love where these are people who want to see you grow, want to see your growth and want to see you grow. And I pride myself on being a… I’m gonna try to say this right, but like a lifetime learner, just someone who will continually grow. I’m not done growing until I die, basically, so I’m going to just keep trying to figure out how I can get better at anything I’m doing.
Tyler: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much.